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If We Can't Kill Cancer, Can We Control It?

the gnat Re:Can't or don't want? (140 comments)

If cancer was insta-kill instead of the slow-death-money-milking disease that it is

This ignores a basic fact about cancer treatment: standard chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery aren't very profitable for pharmaceutical companies, and for many cancers, that's all we have. They may be profitable for other sectors of the medical system, but these are also a huge drain on the economies of rich-world countries, who have a big incentive to keep costs down. If you get one of the cancers for which there isn't a $100,000/year drug, your only option is a quick course of debilitating treatment aimed at eliminating metastases, which will either work and leave you cancer free (if you're "lucky" and have one of the less aggressive types of cancer, and/or catch it early), or not work, and you'll die in a relatively short time. Or, if you're especially unlucky, the therapy itself will kill you. No pharma company is getting rich off these patients.

If you do get to take the $100,000/year drug, there's a good chance you'll only add a few years to your lifespan anyway. Which is part of the reason why these drugs are so expensive, of course. On the other hand, a drug that could either a) eliminate cancer outright, or b) suppress cancer permanently for as long as it's taken, would be worth an incredible amount of money, either up-front or over the course of decades. And insurance companies and governments would be much happier shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a treatment that might actually "cure" the patient in some meaningful sense (and enable him or her to keep paying taxes and/or insurance premiums!), rather than a treatment that probably isn't going to work over the long term.

about a week ago
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If We Can't Kill Cancer, Can We Control It?

the gnat Re:Of course we can (140 comments)

If a company finds a cure for all cancers (emphasis on the plural form, cancer is not just one disease) they could demand any price at all and people would pay it.

It's even bigger than that. The best statement I've ever seen on the subject came from a Slashdot poster, and since I can't remember the specific post (or user, sorry!), I'll just paraphrase:

"Curing cancer" implies an incredibly high level of technical competence, so advanced that anything you touch would turn to gold. You could start to treat aging as a chronic disease.

This should ring true to anyone who understands the biological basis for "cancer". To start with: it's not one disease, it's many, they just all happen to take the form of uncontrolled cell proliferation, which can have many different triggers. Attacking specific molecular mechanisms is difficult because there are so many to choose from (and the targets tend to further mutate over time within each patient anyway, decreasing the efficacy of drugs). Also difficult: killing cancer cells without killing the rest of the patient. To actually treat all cancers at once - without lethal side effects - would require extraordinarily advanced knowledge of human biology and most likely a degree of personalization beyond anything we've experienced. It's the stuff of science fiction.

The supposed "cures" that are being suppressed are either poorly tested experimental leads (pharma companies have more than enough of these already), or dodgy experimental therapies that haven't undergone real testing either, some of which may be outright scams.

about a week ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Easy solution (348 comments)

please drive past the Exxon station, and fill up at a more responsible company.

As long as it's not Shell (supported the Nigerian military junta), or Unocal (supported the Burmese military junta). I don't really expect moral purity from oil companies, but it can occasionally be difficult to find one that doesn't have blood on its hands.

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Easy solution (348 comments)

Thank the Republicans who hate science and don't want to fund pure research but would rather corporations subsidies

I can't believe I'm defending the Party of Torture, but I think this is unnecessarily harsh towards the GOP. When they took over Congress in 1994 and Gingrich rose to the speakership, my father (who, like me, worked in academic research) was terrified that they'd slash his program and he'd be out of a job. Ironically, he told me years later that what ended up happening was exactly the opposite: Gingrich loved basic research and that's when the funding really boomed (it didn't hurt that the economy was doing reasonably well). Arlen Spector was also a big proponent of NIH funding.

Now, that doesn't mean that Republican candidates like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry won't use this issue for their demagoguery, but it's less of a systematic problem than you might think. It especially doesn't hurt that private corporations like public funding for basic research too, because it takes some of the burden off them, and because most of their employees get their training working in labs funded by public grants. Every time the NIH or DOE needs to reassure Congress that they're still relevant, they get Big Pharma heavyweights to testify. (Which I realize means there's a corporate welfare aspect to this, but Big Pharma doesn't really have any interest in building a $1 billion X-ray generator when they can rent time on the DOE's equipment, which works out well for everyone.)

The current environment is a bit of a weird situation, but let's not forget that the sequester was a bipartisan deal.

about two weeks ago
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Researcher Fired At NSF After Government Questions Her Role As 1980s Activist

the gnat Re:McCarthy was right. (499 comments)

If McCarthy was right, it was mostly by accident. The caricature in "The Manchurian Candidate" isn't too far from the truth, except probably not booze-soaked enough.

McCarthy was basically several years late to the game, and was taking advantage of a crises that had already dissipated for his own political ends. There was widespread Communist infiltration of the US government in the 1930s and 1940s - but they were largely purged during the Truman administration once the government realized how bad the problem was.

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Tax patents/royalties to fund basic research (348 comments)

No pharmaceutical company develops drugs that is not based on other research.

Thanks, Einstein, I never would have guessed this. So do you favor putting financial restrictions on the use of all research that comes out of public funding, no matter how trivial the connection?

More importantly there have been no break through drugs developed by the pharmaceutical industry that justifies their 15 year exclusive patents. All they have done is make allergy medications and penis drugs.

If you think these drugs are so irrelevant, then why get angry about the profits they're making or the lengthy patents? Besides, the pharmaceutical has made plenty of genuinely life-saving drugs; you just don't see ads for these in magazines.

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Doesn't surprise me (348 comments)

People are much more ignorant now then they were in the 60's and 70's. They have been lied to by media, they think that opinions based on nothing are just as valid as opinion based on facts, they believe a media personality before actual experts, the refuse to undertand the to have good schools again, they need to pay taxes, and so on.

And what makes you think any of these complaints didn't apply in the 60s or 70s? Do you really believe that the media lied less back when we had no internet and the Washington press was even more of an incestuous gentleman's club than it is now?

No, there are not too many PhD recipients. The scientific field is wide enough to handle all we have and many more.

You're right that there is more than enough science that needs to be done, but where is the money going to come from? NIH funding is much higher than it was 20 years ago, but universities been training PhDs on the assumption that it would continue to rise indefinitely. This is either incredibly irresponsible or incredibly cynical. Yes, I realize that if we were over-training investment bankers, the government would immediately cough up billions to keep them employed. That doesn't make it any less illogical.

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Doesn't surprise me (348 comments)

20 years ago, computer programming was all the rage for everyone -- and that's not exactly brainless work.

We must read different news sources then, because from what I can see it's becoming all the rage now, and people are starting to use phrases like "coding literacy" and discussing whether programming should be part of primary education.

Between the end of WW2 and about a decade after the moon landing, Americans were all about science -- promises of flying cars and robot housekeepers and who knows what else.

That's technology, or more specifically engineering, not necessarily the kind of science this article is talking about. It was heavily driven by the Cold War, when everyone was terrified that the Soviets would out-compete us economically (or reduce us to ashes with space nukes, or something). And I think our perspective may be warped by time and selective reading of sources - do you have any indication that the American public, in general, was more pro-science than today?

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Move To China (348 comments)

The space race of the 21st Century is over. China won, the US lost.

Won how? The US per-capita GDP is still about eight times higher than China's, the US share of Nobel laureates is vastly higher, and NASA is driving a dune buggy on Mars, not the Chinese.

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Tax patents/royalties to fund basic research (348 comments)

I heard this piece on NPR yesterday, and the thing that kept running through my mind is how the pharmaceutical industry is extorting huge profits based on fundamental research-- with much of that happening under NIH grants. Why not set a tax rate on drug patent royalties and use that to fund the NIH?

Because that's not really how basic research is supposed to work, and because the gap between NIH-funded research (which is indeed hugely important, but not the way you seem to think it is) and actual drugs is enormous. Knowing that specific mutations in "Protein X" are associated with certain forms of cancer does not magically tell you everything you need to design an anti-cancer drug. I forget the exact statistics, but only about 25% of new drugs are directly derived from public-funded research - and by all means let's tax these - but the remainder are developed wholly by pharma companies.

If anything, I would argue the opposite: the fact that the NIH allows the results of its grants to be patented is corrupting the field and holding back innovation. Either the results are free to all, without restriction, or they're locked up in patents and scaring off competition.

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Doesn't surprise me (348 comments)

-Politicians trying to control the results of what they do, to the point where the scientific integrity is at risk
-Govt's muzzling you because they don't want pesky things like facts to get in the way of their ideology

These issues honestly aren't that big of a problem for all but a handful of people; certainly not for anyone in the biomedical sciences.

-Idiot reporters who completely, constantly, and continually misrepresent your research (should it make the presses)

That's certainly true, but I would add that university PR departments are just as awful, and scientists willingly submit to that.

Doing scientific research is hard enough as it is, without having to deal with the current environment of anti-intellectualism. I'm honestly surprised that scientists arn't yet being marched into concentration camps at gunpoint.

What makes you think the current environment is anything new? Do you think that Americans (or any other nationality) were somehow less ignorant and anti-intellectual 30 years ago, or 100? The only thing that's definitely worse is that electronic media have made it so much easier for us to read all the awful things that Joe Public says about us. At the same time, there are more people working in science than ever before, it's much more ethnically diverse (our imported Chinese laborers are treated very well compared to the men who built railroads in the late 1800s), and the opportunities for women keep getting better. We also have something resembling a real community of scientists that can advocate for common interests, instead of being merely a handful of aristocrats who could afford to tinker in labs.

I don't want to sound too idealistic, because I agree with the basic premise of the article, but I'm obsessed with the recurring theme of social decay and lamentations for some fantasy golden age that never really existed. The real problem isn't that society has turned against us, it's that policy makers, university bureaucrats, and senior scientists have deliberately generated an over-supply of PhD recipients, and we've simultaneously become utterly dependent on a pool of government funding that is not infinitely growable. I am not happy about any of this, since it is painfully obvious that I picked the wrong career 15 years ago, but I'm not going to blame Middle America for my shitty job prospects. (And I say this as someone who is not usually shy about expressing my elitist disdain for the ignorance of Middle America.)

about two weeks ago
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When Scientists Give Up

the gnat Re:Move To China (348 comments)

America is fast becoming a Design and Services Economy, best to leave the real innovation to China and others.

Except China hasn't done any particularly innovative research yet, at least in the biomedical sciences. Its biggest success story is BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute, although they rarely use the full name), which is sort of like the Foxconn of genomics. I don't mean that in a bad way, because they've been very productive (and their employees seem to be better-paid and less suicidal), but they're basically just a sequence factory. Ironically, all of the tech they're using was developed in the US and UK. Their approach to developing their own sequencing technology? Buy a US company (Complete Genomics).

Although you're partly right about "move to China" being the solution - they've been trying to repatriate leading expat scientists for years (with some success), but now they've started luring non-Chinese too. (Most of whom don't actually move to China, but maintain joint appointments, because you'd have to be absolutely insane to leave California for China if you weren't native Chinese.) Still, anyone in that position is usually going to be in the top tier of researchers already (one is a Nobel laureate), not the hypothetical junior faculty member worrying about tenure.

about two weeks ago
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Scientists Sequence Coffee Genome, Ponder Genetic Modification

the gnat Re:Yeah, because that's a good idea. (167 comments)

we're likely the hungriest among rich nations.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Monsanto or GMOs. It's basic economics and politics, and banning GMOs would have absolutely no effect.

about two weeks ago
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Is There a Creativity Deficit In Science?

the gnat Re:Is there a science deficit in creativity? (203 comments)

I really hate when there's some smug asshole in the movie who spends the first half of the film whining about playing God and 'toying with things you don't understand' and whatnot, and then gets vindicated when the monster inevitably attacks

I forget where I read this, but one writer pointed out that "Jurassic Park" was especially obnoxious in this regard. In the book, Ian Malcolm (the Jeff Goldblum character) keeps trying to explain that they've built a system that is far too complex and has far too many failure points to stay under their control - and of course he's right. In the movie, Malcolm is reduced to moralizing about the arrogance of scientists playing God.

(Ironically, if Michael Chricton had written the book 15 years later, it probably would have been closer to the movie.)

about two weeks ago
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Is There a Creativity Deficit In Science?

the gnat Re:One of countless problems (203 comments)

The reason: because bureaucrats do not understand science, they and their managers are being rewarded for successful science which they fund.

This isn't actually the way science funding works in the US. NIH has plenty of career bureaucrats, yes, but many of them came up the traditional scientific ladder, not the get-a-union-backed-government-job ladder. But in any case, the specific funding decisions that most academic scientists depend on are mostly up to peer review panels: professors (etc.) receiving NIH funding get to serve on committees that read through piles of grants and score them.

Now, the issue with this is that a) it is susceptible to groupthink and other forms of academic politics, b) the criteria for grant acceptance (and, to some degree, inherent conservatism of peer reviewers) still tend to rule out wildly risky projects, and c) nobody at the NIH wants to be hauled before a Congressional panel to explain why they gave $2 million to a project they knew was risky. But it isn't simply an issue of career bureaucrats who don't understand science. The people who make the funding decisions actually understand science very well, they're just working under too many limitations (their own, and those imposed upon them).

about two weeks ago
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Is There a Creativity Deficit In Science?

the gnat Re:Well of course (203 comments)

The Apollo program was successful because it had a clear goal. . . and a hard deadline

And strategic significance (and potential dual-use technology) at a time when we were competing with another nuclear-armed superpower for global domination.

about two weeks ago
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Ask David Saltzberg About Being The Big Bang Theory's Science Advisor

the gnat propagating stereotypes (226 comments)

Does it ever bother you that you're contributing to a show that derives most of its jokes from the stereotype of scientists (especially male scientists) as pathologically awkward, abrasive, and antisocial? Do you ever worry that this risks marginalizing the profession and perpetuating the already-poor representation of women in science? How do you think a teenage girl will react to a sitcom where the one "normal" woman is a waitress, and the female scientists are mousy, nerdy, nearsighted, almost as awkward as their male companions, and, worst of all, dating complete dorks?

(From the perspective of the nerdy teenage guy, of course, the message is "you can be an abrasive, antisocial geek and still score a relatively attractive nerdy girl, or if you're slightly less antisocial, a total babe." So at least it's not scaring away future male scientists.)

about two weeks ago
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Taking the Ice Bucket Challenge With Liquid Nitrogen

the gnat Re:I'm starting to wonder... (182 comments)

But without the wish to go further and take risks we wouldn't have ever harnessed fire, let alone achieved civilisation.

Or expanded beyond our "natural" habitat to cover nearly every corner of the globe while we were still building tools out of rocks.

about two weeks ago
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No, a Stolen iPod Didn't Brick Ben Eberle's Prosthetic Hand

the gnat Re:Slashdot got a sensational story wrong? (122 comments)

Slate's columnists not only demand that we accept the most apocalyptic interpretation of the data as gospel (scientists are not used to using terms like 'believe' and 'denier', but okay, the Maoists take taken over the issue)

Again, you're painting with a broad brush, and you seem to have no idea what the people you're talking about actually believe in. I'm a scientist, I don't vote, I'm a libertarian on most issues, and I'm pessimistic about our ability to actually do anything about global warming, but I still think the so-called skeptics are lying sacks of shit. Most scientists I know feel the same way, not because we're committed to some utopian vision of. . . cap-and-trade legislation? - but because we hate seeing paid shills distort the evidence and accuse our entire community of bad faith. It's the same reason that creationism drives us batty.

but that we automatically reject every proposed solution. We're all going to die, because that's the just fate Gaia intends for us as punishment for being fat and eating meat. We can't go nuclear to eliminate carbon! We can't bioengineer better crops!

Okay, time to back that up: when has Slate published screeds against a) meat-eating, b) nuclear power, c) bioengineering? I know for certain that they've run multiple articles in support of bioengineering, and I can remember at least one or two making fun of vegetarians. And it's not like you need to look very far to find a "left" outlet supporting your favored policies; the New Yorker just ran a very critical article about an anti-GMO activist that basically ended with the statement that only bioengineering would save the world.

What I would really like to see is a leftist site that reclaims the spirit of Roosevelt. If we have problems like climate change, energy shortage, war and poverty, let's attack them by building the giant public infrastructure projects that Steinbeck waxed so lyrical about. An energy independence Apollo would address all of these problems at once.

Liberals have been talking about this idea for years, usually by analogy to the Manhattan Project rather than Apollo. You don't see it getting wider reporting because everyone with a brain realizes that it has a snowball's chance in hell of getting through Congress.

about three weeks ago
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No, a Stolen iPod Didn't Brick Ben Eberle's Prosthetic Hand

the gnat Re:Slashdot got a sensational story wrong? (122 comments)

yes, Slate's columnists seem to have sensed that the anti-vaxers have crossed a line in their Luddism

You're still grappling with a straw man. Slate writers have repeatedly denounced anti-vaxxers in fairly strong terms, and I have yet to see a single article taking the opposing view. More generally, they've been strongly anti-pseudoscience. You're assuming bad faith by making it sound like Slate has only grudgingly decide that there's a limit to their left-wing lunacy, rather than being firmly opposed to such nonsense on principle. If their "readership" really consisted of hardcore Luddites why would the editors consistently go out of their way to piss them off? Besides, you find find people saying stupid shit on virtually any Web forum - every Slashdot post about creationism inevitably attracts a slew of pissed-off religious fundamentalists, but I don't go around complaining that Slashdot's readership consists of superstitious morons.

about three weeks ago

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