Remember Dolly the sheep? How in 1996 she made international news as the first cloned mammal? Now, imagine using those techniques to bring back extinct animals, such as the mammoth or the passenger pigeon. While the concept may no longer be science fiction, the costs and consequences of this research are still unknown. MacArthur Award recipient and evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro of UC Santa Cruz discusses the scientific and ethical questions raised by what’s known as Ancient DNA research in this fascinating talk presented by the new Institute for Practical Ethics at UC San Diego.
Endocrinologist Robert Lustig, Dentist Cristen Kearns and Health Policy Expert Laura Schmidt team up to explore how the US food system has led to higher rates in obesity and related metabolic diseases in the last 50 years.
Preventable disease rates keep going up, even while behaviors have improved: smoking rates are down, cholesterol and blood pressure are down, and physical activity is up. We should be reaping a health benefit, but we’re not. The primary reason: we’re eating too many refined carbohydrates and too much sugar.
How did the food system come to encourage this? Pharmaceutical companies benefit from long-term drug treatment of metabolic diseases. Organizations such as the Sugar Association and the Beverage Association fund questionable scientific studies to convince the public that obesity and sugar are not related. These efforts include funding aggressive marketing campaigns to influence public policy. According to Schmidt, they spent 31 million dollars in a single election to convince voters in San Francisco and Oakland not to support a soda tax.
But there is hope. Research into the effects of too much sugar is getting attention, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Lustig and others. There are many parallels between this issue and smoking. According to Schmidt, we’re about where we were in 1970. The tide is slowly shifting, but we have a long way to go. Policy-makers are just now beginning to recognize the negative consequences of an unhealthy populace on healthcare costs and future social security benefits. Lustig advises, “You want social security? Stop drinking soda and tell all your friends to do so, too.”
When Alfred Nobel stipulated the creation of the Nobel Prize in 1895, the inventor of dynamite could hardly have guessed that the award – considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious honor – would often come at the expense of the very careers and the disciplines Nobel sought to promote. Per Nobel’s will the Prize is ostensibly awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” but it has arguably fallen short of that commendable goal on several occasions.
In Losing the Nobel Prize, his provocative and incisive critique of the award, physicist and cosmologist Brian Keating addresses what he calls the Nobel’s “systematic biases,” noting that by its nature the Prize discourages communal efforts among scientists, and during its history has lauded such questionable pursuits as lobotomy and eugenics. Recipients have included Nazis and war criminals, but surprisingly few women. Upon reflection, perhaps not so surprising; Nobel’s will states that:
It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not. [Emphasis added]
Since its inception, only two women have been awarded the physics prize, and none in over fifty years.
Keating is uniquely equipped to offer a perspective on the Nobel Prize. He is the inventor of BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), the most powerful cosmological telescope ever made, and co-leader of the team that conducted the BICEP2 experiments that lead to discovery of “the spark that ignited the Big Bang.” After much drama and debate that discovery was subsequently proven to be a cosmic mirage, but in the interim Keating found himself drawn into the headlong pursuit of the Nobel medal, encountering competitiveness, intrigue, and naked ambition along the way. The lessons Keating learned in losing the Nobel Prize serve as a cautionary tale about abandoning the collaborative spirit in pursuit of a near-unobtainable prize, but also as a prescription for radical, much-needed reform of the world’s most coveted award.
Following his talk Keating chats with David Brin, noted science fiction author and futurist, in a lively conversation about the nature of scientific enquiry, the merit of awarding scientific prizes, the importance of collaboration, the need for transparency, and the urgent need to improve communication between scientists, policy makers, and the general public. Above all, both men stress that those lessons learned by Keating and outlined in his book may ultimately prove to be more valuable than the prize itself.