Posted: 29 Dec 2010 02:10 PM PST
Despite coming under attack by congressional republicans, federal science funding has received a major and mostly overlooked boost.
The America Competes Act, passed by Congress shortly before Christmas, calls for $46 billion in science and technology research funding over the next three years.
Final approval awaits the signature of President Barack Obama, who in a recent speech framed the need for continued research support.
"Our generation's Sputnik moment is back," he said, referring to the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that catalyzed the U.S. space program and accelerated the development of American technology.
The act was overshadowed by the Democrats' other legislative victories after midterm election losses and the successful Republican defense of tax cuts for the wealthy.
Legislation on gays in the military, food safety, health care for 9/11 first responders and additional economic stimulus spending all had higher profiles than science funding, leaving the passage of America Competes remarked mostly by press releases and trade publications.
As Eli Kintisch noted for ScienceInsider, President Obama declined to mention the act during the week before Christmas. That omission may signal trouble, as passage of the act doesn't guarantee its funding.
In January and February, Congress will decide how much money will actually be spent on it. House Republicans have made the National Science Foundation a symbol of wasteful spending, so America Competes may still lose.
It fell to Presidential science advisor John Holdren to celebrate the act's passage on the White House blog.
"Full funding of the Competes Act is among the most important things that Congress can do to ensure America's continued leadership in the decades ahead," he wrote.
The act calls for a total of $7.4 billion above 2010 funding levels, directed towards a host of agencies including the Department of Energy, the National Institute for Science and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. It shifts funding away from basic research and towards applications, and calls for regular X-Prize-style competitions to solve engineering problems.
The act is rooted in a 2005 National Academies report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America," and its sequel released in September.
America's "vitality is derived in large part from the production of well-trained people and the steady stream of scientific and technical innovations they produce," concluded the first report. "Without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, we can expect to lose our privileged position," warned the latter.
During its crafting in congressional committee last spring, America Competes received bipartisan support. It was held up, however, by Representative Ralph Hall (R-Texas), formerly the ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
Hall's objections failed to stop the act, but he is now the science committee's incoming chair.
Image: Replica of Sputnik 1./Wikimedia Commons.
Posted: 29 Dec 2010 12:10 PM PST
As databases of information about people's lifestyles and medical ailments grow, ever-stranger omens of our health seem to emerge.
Today's computer-powered studies allow researchers to look beyond obvious health risks of the past. New analyses show, for example, that finger length, grip strength and even height may be reliable predictors of cancer, longevity and heart disease.
"It's easy to get results that look impressive by trying a whole bunch of things on large databases of information. Things pop out, but they can be completely spurious because of chance," Goldin said. "It's now a fairly common thing to see something published and have someone say that it's not true."
Although the ease of mining medical databases for results can outpace scientists' abilities to review them (clinical trial journals alone publish about 75 in-depth studies every day, yet only 11 reviews of these studies), some do stand up to statistical and cause-and-effect scrutiny.
We recap here some of the weirdest, yet credible, indicators of medical risks ever discovered.
At least two genes — HOXA and HOXD — control testicle development in the womb, and testicles in turn create testosterone. But these two genes also mandate hand development, especially the index and ring fingers.
Most of the proposals have fallen short of any meaningful significance, but an upcoming study in the British Journal of Cancer suggests there is a significant link to prostate cancer: If the index finger is longer than the ring finger, a man is less likely to develop the cancer.
"It seems strange, but this isn't guesswork," said Rosalind Eeles, cancer geneticist at the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR) in London and co-author of the study.
Eeles and her team compared more than 1,500 men with prostate cancer against more than 3,000 random men. Ignoring family history and other factors, men older than 60 years with a longer index finger were 33 percent less likely (on average) to develop prostate cancer. Younger men with a longer index finger fared even better, with an 87 percent average reduction in risk.
The association still needs to be tried against other populations to be a meaningful assessment of prostate cancer risk, but Goldin said "its speed and non-invasiveness does have something going for it."
"It's way too early to say how much hand screening could help," said Elizabeth Rapley, a molecular geneticist and spokesperson for ICR. "If anything, it gives us more of a handle on how prostate cancer starts, that testosterone may have big role in the development of the disease."
According to a 25-year study of more than 6,000 men aged 45 through 68, grip strength was the best predictor of how well they'd avoid being disabled later in life. The weakest-gripping men suffered twice the disabilities of strongest grippers. And in a separate study of older men and women, good grip strength was correlated with longer lifespan.
But correlation is not causation. The best bet to living a long life, according to a plethora of research, is eating well, exercising regularly and avoiding harmful habits like smoking.
The crud between your teeth may seem innocuous, but study after study has shown chronic infections of the mouth (also called periodontal diseases) increase the risk of circulatory woes, including coronary heart disease.
Mouth bacteria sneaking into the blood via the gums, the thinking goes, may lead to more heart-clogging arterial plaques. Inflammation caused by such a persistent infection may also prime the body for heart attacks.
If you're close to an airport and can fly cheap, you may get to see more of the world, but this could also increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
During a British economic rebound in the 1970s, Rapley said, people enjoyed the jump in their money's value by traveling abroad.
"Many of them went to the beaches of Spain and spent a lot of time in the sun," she said. "We now see an increase in the rate of melanoma in that population."
First-born boys may be more likely to develop testicular cancer later in life.
"Lots of series of studies suggest the first child is exposed to higher levels of estrogen, which gives greater risk of testicular cancer. But this has never been definitively proven," Rapley said.
Chemicals similar to estrogen are one major suspect for the doubling of testicular cancer in the past 40 years (an increase not from improved screening, she said). Estrogen analogs may get into food and water supplies, for example, from the pesticides they're found in.
Perhaps the strongest medical risk of early birth order is childhood leukemia. It develops more often in older siblings and seems to be tied to socioeconomic status. Rapley suspects immune-system training may also be part of the explanation.
"There are suggestions that it may have to do with exposure to viruses and colds and bacteria," she said. Siblings aren't around to give them as much exposure, she said, so "kids who go to child-care at an early age are less likely to develop leukemia than kids kept at home."
In assessing any database-powered medical study, Goldin said it's important to look for large sample sizes, proposed causes, accounting for chance and extraneous effects, and acknowledgment of other hypotheses. But putting a health risk into perspective is perhaps the most important thing of all.
"There's a lot of medicine where it's just not clear how helpful it is to know something," Goldin says. "If you're doubling your risk of one in a million, for example, that's still two in a million. Unless it's got some significant impact to way we evaluate treatment, it's hard to see any benefit."
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