Scientific Openness vs. Litigation Secrecy
Frederick R. Anderson
Is our legal system limiting the ability of scientists to conduct research that alerts Americans to environmental hazards and other dangers? Litigation necessarily requires a measure of confidentiality, yet several recent cases have provoked scientists' concern:
After the Exxon Valdez accident, scientists initially were pleased that millions of dollars would be spent on research to study the oil spill. But some scientists working on the case were not permitted to publish findings, visit damaged beaches, or consult with scientists hired by the opposing parties.
Medical researchers documented that a link existed between a toxic chemical leak and a family's cancer and neurological disorders. The company responsible for the leak finally settled the case — after the judge agreed to order the settlement amount, the medical research, and court records sealed from public examination. Even local public health authorities were denied the data.
Another case involved a possible threat to the privacy of research subjects. A scientist was subpoenaed to testify about research he had published. He was asked to bring his laboratory notebooks, including the names of his research subjects.
At a workshop I chaired recently for the National Re-
search Council, several scientists expressed fear that the traditional openness and impartiality of their research is being impaired by trial tactics, confidential settlements, and sealed court records.
Scientists like to view themselves as pursuers of objective truth that is tested by peer review and freely accessible for the public good. They view courts as poor forums in which to pursue scientific truth because of the adversarial nature of trials and the technical complexity of the issues.
For their part, attorneys and judges often resent scientific aloofness. They are sure scientists understand that society requires mechanisms to resolve disputes and strong advocacy for differing interpretations of fact. They also may ask whether scientists are being disingenuous to accept handsome fees yet not feel bound to help win a case.
The problem is that law and science have fundamentally different purposes. Trials require applying legal rules of conduct, sorting out conflicting views of events, and determining fair compensation. Scientists may be needed to establish cause and measure harm, but the main purpose of a trial is not to expand scientific knowledge.
There are strong justifications for many legal practices that are resented by scientists. Coaching scientific experts before a trial, for example, can help shape testimony to meet legal standards of proof and responsibility. Confidentiality may be needed to protect trade secrets and other forms of ''information property,'' or to ensure that intensely personal information is not revealed improperly. Parties to a lawsuit may have to keep information confidential until they have established a strategy.
Judicial confidentiality orders also can have the beneficial, if seemingly converse, effect of promoting greater disclosure of facts during trial preparation and pre-trial hearings. Confidentiality also makes it much easier to settle cases without expensive trials. Settlement is the great fly-wheel that keeps the legal system going; more than 90 percent of cases end up in negotiated settlements that generally are quicker, less costly, and less contentious than full trials.
I know of many scientists who applaud mediation and other dispute-resolution techniques that keep science out of
the courts. Yet most litigants will agree to settlements only if some information is kept secret, simply because no court has made a final determination of cause or liability.
Still, adjustments in this time-honored system may be necessary. Trials that cause publicly funded scientific research to be covered up, sealed settlements that prevent environmental and public health officials from gaining access to information, and litigation that blocks scientists from consulting and performing research all point to a need for reform.
Open science and fair trials both are essential in a complex industrial society. If scientists join in a crusade for public access to data gathered for a trial settlement, the legal process could be significantly impaired. Correspondingly, if judges and lawyers stand pat on limiting access to environmental health data, damage may result to scientific inquiry, the environment and public health.
The conflict between these two vital professions hurts the rest of society and must be resolved. Scientists and lawyers each have a role to play, but they also should be able to craft a reasonable compromise on how to work together.
October 20, 1991
Frederick R. Anderson teaches law at American University and is counsel to the law firm of Cadwalder, Wickersham & Taft.
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DNA Typing and the Courts
Victor A. McKusick
In courtrooms across the country, lawyers have been battling over the acceptability of "DNA fingerprinting," or "typing." Some defense attorneys say the technology, which compares a suspect's genetic makeup with that in semen, blood or other samples left at a crime scene, is too unreliable to use in determining guilt. Proponents reply that it is the most stunning advance in forensic science since fingerprinting itself.
Although DNA forensic evidence has been introduced in hundreds of trials, courts have varied widely in assessing its reliability. Most courts find the evidence admissible, but others conclude the opposite. Both sides in a case provide technical experts to argue for or against DNA forensic evidence, leaving judges and juries wondering whom to believe. Vast sums are spent on pretrial admissibility hearings. Meanwhile, defendants, victims and others wait for justice.
There is no reason for this uncertainty to continue. I recently chaired a committee of the National Research Council that carried out the most exhaustive study ever of DNA typing. We confirmed the technique's general reliability. When performed properly, it is capable of providing strong evidence for solving crimes.
Our widely anticipated findings were released several weeks ago and should have helped put an end to this dispute. Unfortunately, an initial article in The New York Times, which the paper later admitted was in error, caused a great deal of confusion among legal experts and the public alike. That account said our committee wanted a moratorium in using DNA evidence until laboratory standards have been tightened and the technique has been established on a stronger scientific basis.
That was simply wrong. Our report did emphasize the need for a high level of quality control in collecting, analyzing and interpreting data. Some degree of standardization is needed in laboratory procedures, and a mandatory accredita-
tion program should be established. But this does not mean courts should stop admitting this evidence. On the contrary, DNA forensic evidence is a powerful tool for criminal investigation and one that should continue to be used even as standards are strengthened.
Similarly, there is no reason for courts to throw out prior cases in which DNA evidence was admitted unless there is specific information that a laboratory error or other mistake was made in a given case. As a general matter, courts should accept the reliability of the technology and recognize that current laboratory techniques are fundamentally sound.
DNA typing is valuable not only for pointing to the perpetrator of a murder, rape or other crime. It also can clear an innocent suspect. In fact, about one-third of the tests so far have proved someone innocent, sparing the person any further ordeal.
Experts have differed on exactly how to apply and interpret the technology. Much of the scientific controversy has centered on questions involving population genetics. Should a suspect's DNA sample be compared only with those from people of similar ethnic backgrounds or with samples from the general population? The choice affects the statistical chance of a match between a suspect's sample and one from a crime scene being due to random chance.
We endorsed a conservative approach that gives a defendant every benefit of the doubt. When forensic experts compare a suspect's DNA with the sample from a crime scene, they should check at least five locations in the DNA where individual variations are common. In a recent study of several thousand DNA profiles, only a single pair matched over even three locations. No pairs matched when four or five locations were compared.
To protect further against a mistaken match, DNA profiles should be performed on major ethnic groups and the data used to generate probabilities of matches. Doing so would ensure that the stated odds of a random match are weighted in favor of the suspect. To avoid bias, those doing the analysis need never know the suspect's race.
Congress should create an independent expert committee to guide the forensic community in making the most of
rapid advances in DNA typing technology. But the courts, the FBI and others need not wait until the technology is further refined. It has advanced far enough for society to use with confidence in helping to identify who is guilty — and who is not.
June 7, 1992
Victor A. McKusick is University Professor of Medical Genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The Legal Barrier to Life-Saving Drugs
If you are pregnant and suffering morning sickness, there is little your physician can prescribe to help you. Similarly, no vaccines exist to protect people against many diseases, ranging from Rocky Mountain spotted fever to AIDS.
Drugs and vaccines like these are badly needed, but one reason they have not been developed is the chilling effect of product liability laws. Flip through the yellow pages and you'll find lawyers seeking clients who may have suffered drug-related damages. To protect themselves, manufacturers may pull drugs and medical devices off the market — even if nothing is wrong with them. The spirit of innovation that spurs new products is threatened.
The example of morning sickness illustrates what this means for consumers. Although usually minor and short-lived, the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy are never pleasant. Millions of women would welcome a drug to alleviate these symptoms safely.
The only prescription drug ever approved in the United States for this purpose was Bendectin, which enjoyed considerable success until assertions appeared in the scientific literature that it could produce congenital defects. A flood of lawsuits ensued from parents claiming Bendectin had harmed their babies. In 1983, the manufacturer voluntarily withdrew the product from the market.
Proving that a medicine causes physical defects is never easy, but it has been especially difficult with Bendectin. A handful of studies have supported the possibility that the drug really can cause defects, but many more have failed to do so. The question remains unresolved. But no matter. Pregnant women have been left to suffer morning sickness without relief, and other companies are reluctant to enter the market.
Thalidomide is a drug that has been even more maligned than Bendectin ever since it was found in 1961 to be associated with "seal limbs" and other congenital abnormalities. No one would dream of approving thalidomide for general use today. But recently, fascinating new uses for the drug have been discovered. Thalidomide has been reported to be effective in treating diseases ranging from leprosy to rheumatoid arthritis.
Many of these conditions are debilitating, painful and recurrent. Treating them with thalidomide might well be worth the possible side effects, just as cancer patients accept the drawbacks of chemotherapy. Yet given thalidomide's litigious history, what company will be brave enough to try remarketing the drug, even for these specific purposes?
Liability laws have become a serious disincentive to research and development in the pharmaceutical industry. There are many reasons why companies decide which drugs to develop, from the likely size of the market to the duration of patent exclusivity. But a growing part of the equation is the threat of litigation. A 1990 study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences identified liability laws as a major hurdle to providing consumers with more contraceptive options. And the high legal costs associated with liability have been one factor leading companies to boost drug prices.
While the United States relies primarily on tort law to deal with compensation for drug-related damages, other nations have adopted different approaches. Sweden and Japan, for example, have "no-fault" systems of various kinds. The United States enacted a similar approach in 1986, but only for adverse reactions to mandated vaccines, such as those for children.
The current system serves us poorly. Patients who are harmed by drugs require full compensation, but not from a system that is so capricious, slow and inefficient. Some drug awards are too low while others are unpredictably high.
Some states are experimenting with ways of controlling current excesses. Seven states, for instance, have set outer limits on punitive damages, and five have decided that full compliance with Food and Drug Administration product approval regulations may be used by companies as a defense against punitive damages. Some courts have begun seeking independent expert assistance in sorting out the scientific questions that underlie such cases.
Product liability laws clearly are necessary. The public must be protected against negligence and other wrongdoing. But a system that discourages certain kinds of pharmaceutical research, development and marketing ends up harming the very public it is supposed to help. Until this changes, drugs and vaccines that could improve our lives immeasurably will remain undeveloped and unused.
August 11, 1991
Louis Lasagna is academic dean of the medical school at Tufts University. This article is adapted from a longer version in The Liability Maze, published by the Brookings Institution.
* * *
Science, Medicine and Animals
Kurt J. Isselbacher
Anyone who says experiments on laboratory animals are unnecessary should explain how physicians learned to treat President Bush's recent illness. The radioactive iodine he took so physicians could scan his thyroid gland was developed through research on rats and larger mammals. The anti-coagulation drug he received to prevent blood clots has been tested on rabbits, swine and other lab animals. Many other aspects of his treatment for Graves' disease also were developed with animal research.
The same is true of current studies of thyroid and heart problems. A research team at the University of North Carolina Medical School is using rats to learn about hypothyroidism. Researchers at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston are doing animal studies of other thyroid conditions. Studies with animals at Columbia University, Case Western Reserve University, Washington University and elsewhere may help physicians learn about atrial fibrillation, the irregular heartbeat that President Bush experienced.
The President's case is notable but not exceptional. At the age of 3, a much less publicized patient named Charlotte Evert had potentially fatal narrowing of the arteries. She underwent a new procedure called balloon angioplasty that widened her arteries and improved her blood flow. The procedure, developed by a physician using dogs and human cadavers, gave Charlotte a normal life.
Greg Maas, a father of two, underwent chemotherapy to overcome a form of cancer that once was invariably fatal. The drugs he took were tested on mice.
There are millions of examples like these. Anyone reading this article has benefitted from animal research that led to vaccines against deadly diseases, treatment for infections, and virtually every other medical advance in this century.
These stories need to be told because advocates of "animal rights" are threatening the efforts of scientists to develop better treatments not only for thyroid and heart prob-
lems, but also for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, AIDS and other afflictions. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, these advocates deny that animal research has improved human and animal health.
As a committee of scientists that I chaired for the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine concluded recently, however, animal research remains an irreplaceable cornerstone of efforts to improve human health. Abandoning it would deny new medicines and cures to future generations.
If humans had chosen a century ago to stop using animals in scientific and medical research, the world would be a very different place today. Many of us are alive — and our parents survived — because diseases were controlled through the knowledge gained from animal research.
This research remains essential, and it is much more limited than its critics portray. The number of vertebrate animals used each year in research, education and testing is a fraction of 1 percent of the number killed for food. Eighty-
five percent of the animals are rats and mice. Comparatively few dogs and cats are used, and they come mainly from animal shelters and pounds — which have so many unwanted dogs and cats that they kill approximately 100 for every one provided to scientists.
Researchers would welcome the opportunity to use tissue cultures, microorganisms, computer models and other alternatives in place of animals, which are expensive and inconvenient. Replacements for animals have been developed for some kinds of experiments, and the search for alternatives is continuing. But, for about half of the biomedical investigations carried out in the United States, animals remain essential.
Researchers have an obligation to minimize the pain and distress of lab animals, and to see they are used only for productive goals. On the rare occasions when researchers violate this trust, they should be disciplined. Indeed, "animal welfare" proponents have performed a valuable role in helping ensure that research animals are treated humanely.
But animal rights advocates, who go much farther and argue that scientists should abandon these experiments entirely, owe an explanation to terminally ill children and millions of other Americans waiting for biomedical advances. They should go to the bedsides of these patients and tell them why they are less important than the animals.
May 26, 1991
Kurt J. Isselbacher is Mallinckrodt Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the cancer center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
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Preventing Fraud in Science
Howard E. Morgan
It's been tough lately to be a scientist. Incidents involving leading research institutions have given some Americans the impression that science is rife with fraud and other misconduct. That's hardly the case. But as one who led the investigation of a notorious case of scientific fraud several years ago, I am not surprised to see these problems recur.
Most scientists are people of deep integrity. They work long hours searching for cures for diseases, secrets inside atoms, and other mysteries. Although many outsiders regard scientists as a dull lot, researchers generally share a passion for their work. Single-minded in their own pursuit of truth and trusting of colleagues, they have not dealt effectively enough with the possibility of misconduct in their midst.
However, as I learned through my own experience, misconduct is inevitable in any profession. I led a committee formed by the National Institutes of Health to investigate a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School who fabricated data in nine published papers. The research fellow, John Darsee, was observed fabricating data by a technician. Yet because the institution's investigations lacked rigor and were carried out by persons insufficiently skeptical of Darsee's work, the extent of wrongdoing was not discovered until much later.
The Darsee case received wide publicity. To its credit, Harvard responded by enacting scientific conduct guidelines for its researchers. Other institutions have taken similar steps. But the scientific community needs to do more to fully restore its public credibility.
In doing so, it must maintain the critical distinction between error and fraud. Error is a normal part of science and should not be criticized if it is acknowledged freely. Fraud involves deliberate deception. It takes two forms — the substitution of falsehood for truth, or the selective withholding of truth.
Without clear records and the existence of primary data, this distinction can be blurred. Charges of fraud often hinge on whether published results reflect what really occurred in an experiment. The only satisfactory defense is the presence of a verifiable set of primary data. Sloppy records make for bad science — and for trouble.
When charges do arise, as they have recently, institutions must have effective procedures to deal with them. This need should be apparent to everyone. If an initial review determines that an allegation has merit, an independent committee should be appointed to carry out a prompt and thorough investigation. The members of the committee must be free of any conflict of interest, follow due process and pursue the truth — even if it causes discomfort. Otherwise, both the accuser and the accused remain vulnerable to hostile acts by co-workers, the institution, the news media and government officials.
Fraud is an especially serious problem, but it is not the only issue involving professional conduct among scientists that needs to be addressed. A less publicized problem is determining who gets listed as the author of technical papers. Too often, papers are padded with the names of colleagues who were only marginally involved. Anyone listed as an author should have made a significant intellectual or practical contribution. The submissions letter should define what each author did and certify that all have reviewed the manuscript.
Scientists are eager to be listed on papers because there has been a growing emphasis on quantity over quality of publication when it comes to evaluating people's careers and awarding research funds. One way to remedy this is for institutions to consider only a limited number of publications when reviewing a person's record.
Whatever the specific issue, clear standards of behavior are essential — and institutions must monitor compliance carefully. They need to inform their researchers explicitly about rules involving fraud, use of human and animal subjects, and other matters. And since rules are insufficient, they also should encourage their more experienced researchers to serve as mentors to newcomers, discussing with them
the ethical conduct of science. The subtle aspects of how to pursue science are learned not in class but from day-to-day interaction.
Rather than acting defensive about these latest incidents, the scientific community needs to move decisively to reduce the likelihood and severity of future occurrences. After all, if anyone can learn from a recurring phenomenon, it should be scientists.
May 12, 1991
Howard E. Morgan, director of research at the Geisinger Clinic in Danville, Pa., led the investigation of a publicized fraud case at Harvard Medical School in 1983.
* * *
Some of the Toughest Jobs in the World
Norman R. Augustine
Imagine a newspaper ad that proclaims: ''Help Wanted. Undergraduate degree required. Graduate degree preferred. Workday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Six-day work week. Salary: 30 percent below competitors. Bonus plan: none. Retirement plan: none. Must be willing to move (at own expense). Opportunity to have work critiqued by numerous federal agencies and news media. Supervised by 535-member board of directors. Submit 25-page summary of life and detailed financial statement to White House. Confidentiality not assured.''
The description fits many high-level federal government jobs. Finding first-rate people to fill them is difficult enough but particularly so for science and engineering positions.
Some might think of these jobs as plums. In contrast, a
new volume published by the Council for Excellence in Government on the "60 Toughest Science and Technology Jobs in Washington" is titled The Prune Book. The Bush administration took an average of nine months to fill these jobs, 50 percent longer than the Reagan administration needed. The next president assuredly will have at least as much difficulty.
You can't run a good horse race without good horses. The same is true for running a government. We need the best scientific and engineering talent available to help repair the environment; provide clean, affordable energy; ensure pure food and drugs; maintain airline safety; research and control diseases; and develop hardware for national security and space exploration. All of these challenges depend mightily upon technological know-how for their resolution.
The government has not suffered a complete erosion of this capability. Yet we cannot assume the problem is not serious. That would be comparable to someone falling off the top of the Empire State Building and observing while passing the 10th floor, "So far, so good."
President Bush has said there is "no greater honor than to labor in government." This is small recompense when considering comparatively low salaries; vague yet harsh conflict-of-interest laws; a burdensome and overly intrusive confirmation process; and post-government employment restrictions that often penalize those who join public service.
Our country properly demands first-rate public employees yet does not pay them first-rate salaries. Sometimes not even second rate. Entry-level graduates earn several thousand dollars less per year than those hired by private industry. Scientists and engineers in mid-level government positions make about half as much as their counterparts in industry.
At higher levels this gap becomes a canyon. For every word he spoke in "Terminator 2," Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid more than $25,000. "Hasta la vista, baby" was more than a year's salary of a senior government scientist working on a cure for cancer. A professional baseball player makes up to $5 million a year — and fails more than two-thirds of the time at bat. An air traffic controller makes less than one percent of that in a year yet can never fail.
Financial gain should not be the reason for choosing government service. But neither should financial penalties be the reason talented people must elect not to serve. This happens — a lot. During my first tour in government in the 1960s, virtually no one from industry ever turned down a request to serve in a senior government position. Now we have reached the point where many outstanding candidates in the private sector simply are unwilling even to consider public service.
The current conflict-of-interest laws — well-meaning but vaguely written and with severe penalties — have proven to be a lethal combination. And unlike government positions that draw from the legal profession, these scientific and engineering equivalents do little to enhance one's career.
The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine recently joined to sponsor a panel chaired by Kenneth Dam, a vice president of IBM. The panel identified common-sense proposals that deserve widespread public support. These include revising conflict-of-interest restrictions; ensuring adequate compensation; and encouraging universities to permit faculty members to take a leave of absence rather than give up tenure.
Fewer than 100 senior positions, among them the "prunes of Washington," oversee the government's role in science and technology. These are the toughest jobs to fill in government. It's in the nation's interest that they be filled by the most talented and seasoned people. A prune truly is a plum — with experience.
April 26, 1992
Norman R. Augustine is chairman and chief executive officer of Martin Marietta Corp.
* * *
The Dilemma Behind the Dinosaur Exhibits
Robert M. West
Millions of Americans will visit natural history museums this summer and be dazzled by the exhibits of beautiful gems, mounted animals and ancient fossils. Beyond the dinosaur displays, however, unseen by the public, many of these museums face a dilemma that threatens their vital role in improving our country's appalling level of "science literacy."
Traditionally, most natural history museums considered their main mission to be gathering and studying collections of plants, animals and minerals. Preserving the butterflies came first, public education second.
No longer. With American students being trounced in international science exams, natural history museums are under growing pressure to promote popular interest in science, especially among young people. Many of them are doing exactly that. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has developed extensive hands-on discovery areas for children. The Cincinnati Museum of Natural History trains local youngsters to explain exhibits to visitors.
Efforts like these are helping many students to experience the wonders of science for themselves instead of just reading about them in a textbook. The National Research Council and other institutions have called for this kind of informal science education.
With budgets tight, however, many natural history museums now wonder how to maintain their traditional activities while launching public education initiatives. Their research programs are less visible but more important than ever before. With many university departments giving up their collections of "whole organisms," museums are becoming the sole places where scientists can study collections of birds, reptiles and other creatures.
Museum scientists also are carrying out important stud-
ies of ecological systems, environmental change, biological extinction and other urgent scientific questions.
So the research responsibilities of museums are expanding right along with the calls for more public education. What is not expanding at the same rate is the public funding so critical to many museums. Few private foundations have filled this breach. Changes in tax law have discouraged significant contributions from would-be philanthropists.
The result in many cases has been internal conflict. Museum scientists complain that they are being slighted in favor of watered-down public science. Those who create the exhibits and programs say they cannot provide the public with adequate educational activities. The administration feels besieged to provide more of everything.
Museums cannot sit back and wait for someone to give them more money. They must become more entrepreneurial and businesslike if they are to serve both the scientific community and the public.
While it is difficult to raise funds through science activities, some museums are becoming more problem-oriented in their research and are competing for contracts to do scientific studies. Such efforts can help keep the museums on the cutting edge of research. Yet they also may cause programs to be evaluated according to profitability rather than scientific excellence. Collections and curators might be sacrificed to help balance budgets. This already has occurred in some museums.
Another way museums are coping is by trying to make a profit from their public activities, using television commercials, billboards, contests and other marketing tools. They also have undertaken blockbuster exhibits to pull in huge crowds. A traveling exhibit of bellowing robotic dinosaurs helped several museums to more than double their attendance figures while earning extra money from museum sales shops and cafeterias. Recent exhibits on the Christopher Columbus quincentenerary also have been very popular.
Many natural history museums also are replacing older exhibits with splashy new galleries on topical themes, such as global warming. Museums are developing these exhibits with extensive input from the science, education, exhibits,
and marketing and development staffs. They also are expanding their relationships with local schools, providing additional learning experiences for students while gaining extra revenue and good will from government officials.
All of these changes on both the scientific and public fronts are welcome. Natural history museums cannot remain sleepy repositories of insects and minerals. Change won't come easily but museums have no choice. Unless they find a new equilibrium, one that supports their scientific mission while helping ordinary Americans learn more about the natural world, they may become as extinct as the dinosaurs in their exhibit halls.
August 9, 1992
Robert M. West, a museum consultant, was curator of geology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. He directed The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, and the Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
* * *
Too Noisy to Hear the Universe
R. Marcus Price
The electronic din from cellular telephones, garage door openers, remote baby monitors and other devices that use radio waves is making it increasingly difficult for scientists like myself to hear the sounds of the universe. We risk losing the signals from exploding galaxies or even from alien life forms — signals that reach Earth after traveling vast distances.
For decades, our skies have been filled with radio waves used in television and radio broadcasts, aircraft radar, and two-way radios. But in recent years the demand for radio
spectrum space has exploded as the miniaturization of equipment has brought us car phones, wireless microphones and many other communications conveniences. Radio signals even are produced, although not used, by computers. All of this technology increases the amount of radio noise in the environment.
That's bad news for radio astronomers, who depend on undisturbed radio waves, much as astronomers who use optical telescopes need light that has not been obscured by urban haze. The radio waves we receive from distant stars and exotic quasars, and even from the very edge of the universe, are extremely weak. Although once very powerful, these signals faded as they expanded into the void of space and traveled millions, or even billions, of years. As they arrive at Earth, they are fainter than a gentle breeze on a tropical isle. It is easy to lose them in the whirlwind of locally generated radio signals.
To hear these faint signals and measure the pulse of the universe, radio astronomers turn their ears to the skies — their radio ears, that is. Giant radio telescopes, some with more than ten thousand times the collecting area of the satellite dishes people have in their backyards, are powerful enough to hear and measure the energy from exploding galaxies near the edge of the universe. They can pinpoint the position of flaring stars more than a hundred times more accurately than an optical photograph, and record the faint radio echo of the enormous Big Bang that heralded the beginning of our universe.
This and other information from radio telescopes translates into more knowledge of our universe and its processes. And the drive to improve radio equipment and techniques helps fuel the explosion of radio technology for consumers. Techniques developed by radio astronomers also are being applied in a wide range of useful technologies, such as devices that detect breast cancer, spot forest fires, guide spacecraft or monitor global environmental changes.
We scientists enjoy cellular telephones, too, and no one suggests that society should stop using new radio communication devices. But the number of radio bands is fixed by nature. It is impossible to manufacture new ones. So we
need to protect the bands we have and prevent the rising tide of modern electronic radio noise from threatening scientific research or even telecommunications quality itself. This means using the frequencies we have more carefully. Otherwise, precious information from space will be lost. Astronomers will be forced to spend even more time and effort ensuring that the cosmic data they measure contains no false signals from man-made sources.
I chair a National Research Council committee that has been studying this problem, and we suggest two relatively straightforward ways of easing it. The first is to continue to reserve certain radio bands for scientific purposes. These frequencies should be guarded from commercial applications in the same way that national parks are protected.
The other need is to improve the engineering quality of consumer devices so that their radio waves remain only within designated frequencies. Their radiated power levels should be no higher than required for the devices to work successfully. To keep costs down, many consumer devices now use simple engineering and have inadequate shielding. Their signals spill over into other bands. A major effort should be made to upgrade engineering standards and produce devices of higher quality.
Scientific research and communication technologies can co-exist; the skies are big enough. But as radio electronic devices proliferate, their radio waves must not be allowed to wash away the sounds of the heavens. It is essential that we protect scientific radio frequencies and keep our ears open to hear the answers to some of nature's greatest mysteries.
April 7, 1991
R. Marcus Price is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Mexico.
* * *
The Blocked Road to Tomorrow's Cures
Anyone who wants cures for AIDS, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other afflictions depends on biomedical researchers like me. As a new professor at a leading medical school, I am lucky to be among many young scientists who hope to make the great discoveries of the future.
That is becoming agonizingly difficult for us to accomplish. As we try to open our own labs after a decade of advanced training, my friends and I are having unprecedented problems carrying out our research.
The primary source of support for basic biomedical researchers is the National Institutes of Health. Several years ago, NIH began awarding grants for longer time periods. This enabled scientists with proven records to spend more time on research and less time applying for grants. That was a good idea, but the longer grants have soaked up money that used to go to new researchers. The total number of worthy project proposals and the cost of doing research also have increased, further straining the NIH budget.
As a result of these and other factors, the number of grants available to young researchers has fallen substantially since 1988. According to some estimates, as few as one out of 10 new investigators is being funded by NIH. Imagine the effect on your community if most new police officers, or teachers or any other group essential to society suddenly had its primary source of support cut off. That is what is happening to us.
My own situation illustrates the problem. I studied genetics and molecular biology for five years in graduate school, then spent four postdoctoral years doing cell biology research. I landed a job at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and sent my first grant proposal to NIH. It was rated in the top quarter of those submitted and deemed "likely to yield new and important information."
Nevertheless, the proposal was unfunded. When four of
my fellow "new investigators" at Hopkins also were turned down, I began to realize the full extent of the problem. Basic biomedical researchers throughout the country are being affected. A recent conference held by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine attracted Nobel Prize winners and other leading scientists, all of whom expressed deep concern about what this trend means for the future of biomedical research.
My situation was eased recently when the American Cancer Society provided me with limited funding for two to three years, so I do not write out of personal desperation. Nor do I believe that researchers have a birthright to public funds. I have no specific remedy to propose other than giving NIH more money — and I know that the federal deficit is severe. However, private funding sources cannot fill the gap at NIH. Neither can private industry, which appropriately focuses on applied research.
Meanwhile, my colleagues can hang on for only so long. They have the training and the desire to do excellent biomedical research. What a waste of talent if they are forced out! They are full of ideas and ready to pay off society's investment in their training. Many of the young independent scientists are women, a group still underrepresented in science.
The current situation has sent shock waves through the "scientific pipeline," with some undergraduates getting the message that a career in basic research is too risky. We should be sending students a better message about this fascinating and important career.
My friends and I could earn more in private industry than at the university, yet we prefer to unravel the basic mysteries of life and human disease. We would like to continue our work. The basic research we do leads to new knowledge, new vaccines, new drugs and improved medical diagnoses. It provides the foundation for an American export industry — pharmaceuticals — and for our emerging biotechnology industry. Indeed, basic biomedical research is one of the few fields in the world in which the United States still reigns supreme. It is a superb investment of tax dollars.