What do you think?

I asked awhile back for some of your thoughts on improving science education, particularly in the U.S. In yesterday’s NY Times, there was a story about discussing one measure that might help in this area:

The measure, backed by the Bush administration and expected to pass the House when it returns next month, would provide $750 to $1,300 grants to low-income college freshmen and sophomores who have completed “a rigorous secondary school program of study” and larger amounts to juniors and seniors majoring in math, science and other critical fields.

Sounds good initially. The problem:

It leaves it to the secretary of education to define rigorous, giving her a new foothold in matters of high school curriculums.

The rest of the article grapples with those issues, so I’ll leave that to you to read (registration may be required).

After examining the pros and cons, what do you think of the idea? *Should* the national government set some standards for a “rigorous program of study” for the kids to meet to receive these grants? Is there a better way to dole them out? Should they be offered at all? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

(Cross-posted to Panda’s Thumb)

Influenza, “fear-mongering,” and conspiracy

See, it’s posts like this (and many of the comments that follow; hat tip to Mike) that make me worry about “bird flu.” I’m more concerned about the inaccurate information and attacks on those who work in the field (and the effect this may have on public acceptance of real public health advice) than I am about the actual virus at the moment. Too many people think avian influenza is either just “media hype” or a government conspiracy (one commenter even cited the oft-refuted notion that HIV was a man-made virus. Aargh). They downplay it because it’s killed relatively few people thus far, because we’ve known about it since 1997 and it’s not become easily human-to-human transmissible yet, because of the 1976 swine flu situation, because few Asian birds make it into America, because Americans aren’t in as close contact with farm animals, because predictions about other diseases have been wrong before. Thing is, we can’t always rely on history to predict the future. We’ve learned a lot from 1976, and as described at the link above, folks who deal with influenza today are well aware of the specter of the events that happened that year. That’s why we try to be careful to say that our predictions are just that–estimates based on the data available at the time. Those estimates might change as we get additional information, and we revise them accordingly. Bill Robinson seems to think this is a bad thing.
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AIDS in the news

Two new big stories regarding AIDS: some good, some bad. First, the good. It’s been reported that a single-pill, once-a-day AIDS treatment may be available by the end of the year. Though the drug regimen to treat AIDS is less oppressive than it was a decade ago, it’s still a difficult and confusing process. Combining drugs has been diffcult–mainly because no single company oned rights to all the drugs needed for an optimal combination. Now, Gilead Sciences (developers of Tamiflu) and Bristol-Myers Squibb have agreed to collaborate and combine 3 drugs into one pill (a New England Journal of Medicine study released yesterday examined the combined treatment and found it effective). Look for more of these combo drugs in the future if this one takes off.

In the bad news section, a study testing the effect of stopping AIDS drugs was stopped after serious complications were seen in those who volunteered to temporarily stop their drugs.

This might sound like a dumb study to carry out, but the rationale was to examine whether patients could skip their drugs for a few months without adverse health consequences. The drugs to treat AIDS aren’t pretty, and can have serious side effects themselves. (Leading HIV denialists to suggest that AIDS isn’t caused by the virus at all, but by these and other “toxic drugs” instead). This study certainly puts that notion to rest (not that they’ll stop pounding that drum…)

Investigators found that, in the group that stopped taking the medications, serious complications of AIDS and other adverse effects (such as cardiovascular, kidney, and liver disease) were more common than in the group that continued taking the drugs regularly. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) determined the risks ere “unacceptably high,” and ended the study–though another study is ongoing, looking at whether taking the drugs just 5 days a week instead of 7 is effective. If it is, it may not spare patients from some of the nastier side effects of the medications, but it could spare them some of the expense of the drugs, which cost $10,000+ every year.


We’ve been BoingBoinged

Is that even a verb? I know it’s appropriate to say “Slashdotted” and “Farked” and stuff, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the appropriate term for having a link on boing boing. Anyway, thanks to them for mentioning the Scienceblogs collective on their site, and welcome to folks following their link. Nice to be in the company of sleeved blankets and papercraft sushi. 😀

(Permalink here–thanks redboat)

Come to the Midwest—we’re cheap

Well, the cost of living, anyway. Apparently, enough so to draw away even those coast-y people…

With East and West Coast residents struggling to cope with high real estate prices and other costs, some are now moving to far less “exciting areas” like that of the Midwest.

“Less exciting?” Bah. I hear excitement’s over-rated anyway.

It does sometimes irk my friends back in DC, and Boston, and New Haven, and San Francisco, etc. when I remind them that I pay $650/month for my 2200-SF house with more yard than anyone could possibly use, while they’re paying 2-3 times that for their little apartments. Guess the price I pay is hearing, “you live where? By choice?” anytime I mention to someone where I reside…

“Greatest experiment” in microbiology/infectious disease

I’m late to the party, but Chad over at Uncertain Principles put out a call for great experiments/observations in our fields. Like others have said, that’s a tough one, so I thought I’d first run through some of the highlights and big breakthroughs in the fields of microbiology and infectious disease epidemiology that have made the field what it is today, and then end with the one I think is most important. Feel free to disagree.
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Barbara Forrest on tonight’s InfidelGuy

Check out tonight’s InfidelGuy radio program (airs at 8PM EST) featuring Barbara Forrest.

Dr. Barbara Forrest, author of “Creationism’s Trojan Horse” reappears on the program to discuss her thoughts about design, evolution, and the recent court case heard in Dover, Pennsylvania. Dr. Forrest provided key testimony at the trial herself, and we’ll hear first hand how it all unfolded!

(Hat tip to ELGS over at Internet Infidels Discussion Board).

Microscopic body-snatchers

Carl Zimmer over at The Loom has post discussing Toxoplasma, and how it can affect behavior–and may play a role in the development of schizophrenia. (Check out his post for the details).

As Zimmer mentions, this is a controversial hypothesis. Though support is growing for acceptance of the idea that infectious agents can cause all kinds of diseases that have traditionally been deemed “genetic” or “lifestyle” diseases, it is a slow and uphill battle. It also happens to be an interest of mine. I discussed another putative cause of schizophrenia, Chlamydia species, here. These type of links are very difficult to confirm using traditional Koch’s postulates, however. For example, Zimmer notes that estimates suggest approximately 50% of the world’s population is infected with Toxoplasma–yet a very small number of us develop schizophrenia. Therefore, it’s likely that development of schizophrenia (and many other diseases) result from a combination of human genetics and other factors, such as infection. For example, multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, thought to result from a combination of host genetics and an infectious agent.

Really, it’s even messier than that, because the genetics of the pathogen–what proteins it expresses, for example–can also play a role in the development of specific diseases. Add in a possible time lag of up to 50 years or so between initial exposure to the microbe and development of the disease, and you can see why this field is such a mess–and why there’s so much skepticism in the first place regarding the role of infectious agents when they’re so far removed from the final outcome.
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Sometimes simple is best

You just never know where the next insight is going to come from. An observation that surfers with cystic fibrosis (a genetic disease that results in mucus build-up in the lungs leading to an increased susceptibility to infection) reported breathing easier after spending time out on the water led researchers to test salt water as a treatment for the disease. A new study inThe New England Journal of Medicine shows that it worked in their pilot studies.
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The virus hunters

Radio Open Source, after a number of requests, has done a program on avian influenza. You can listen to the broadcast here. The guests on the program include:

William Karesh
Head of the Field Veterinary Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society

David Swayne
Director of the USDA Southeast Poultry Research Lab

Edward Dubovi
Director of the Viral Section of the Diagnostic Lab at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Rubin Donis
Chief of Molecular Genetics at the Influenza Branch of the CDC

They also have a A Complete Guide to Hunting the Bird Flu Online page, which includes mentions of this website, The Flu Wiki, and Effect Measure, among others.

And while you’re at it, check out the other programs on the left sidebar. Past shows have discussed intelligent design (with Ken Miller); A Christian America; and Juan Cole on the war in Iraq, among others.