117 In Praise of the Negative

On This Week’s Show

  • We have negative results
  • The war on science
  • Some yummy primordial soup
  • And it’s Nobel Prize week!

Science News with Chris MacAlister, and JD Goodwin

Highlight Negative Results to Improve Science

Chris MacAlister

  • Devang Mehta spent 4 years attempting to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to establish viral resistance in cassava, a tropical root crop and staple food for almost a billion people. What he ended up demonstrating was an increased level of viral resistance to CRISPR.
  • The methodology of this work was considered solid in peer review, but it soon became clear that there was precious little interest from potential publishers. 
  • Now, you may think that Mahta’s position is simply a case of sour grapes, and it may be, but regardless of motivations, he backs up his position with evidence.
  • Mehta cites a 2012 paper by Daniele Fanelli. This paper was a review of over 4000 published papers. It found that between 1990 and 2007 the proportion of papers that confirmed positive results to hypotheses increased by 22%, resulting in positive result rate of more than 85%. She concluded that scientific objectivity in published papers was declining.
  • Publication is the lifeblood of academic research science. Funding is very closely linked to the prestige of publishing. So how can we ensure that science remains honest and impartial when the very foundations that sustain it demonstrate hefty prejudice?
  • Aside from the dangers of feeding a positive feedback loop into theories and stifling contradictory evidence. There is also a more practical danger from this.
  • If no one is interested in sharing the knowledge of failure, then how many more people will have to waste their time and limited resources repeating the failed experiments of others? 


Trump Administration’s War On Science Hits ‘Crisis Point’

JD Goodwin

  • Nonpartisan taskforce of former government officials was formed at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, 
  • co-chaired by Christine Todd Whitman, former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who is a Republican, and former governor of New Jersey, and Preet Bahara, former United States Attorney
  • The group is called the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy.
  • They report “almost weekly violations” of previous criteria
  • According to Christine Todd Whitman: “Politics is driving decisions and has been for some time,“Right now, any finding that seems to be restricting business, especially the energy industry, appears to be destined for elimination.
  • The Hurricane/sharpie incident is not the only time
    • At the Department of Agriculture economists published research showing that Trump’s trade policies would be harmful to farmers. Those economists were relocated
    • A climate scientist published a science of the impact of global warming on communities in the Arctic, which earned that scientist a reassignment. 
  • According to the task force
    • Advisory boards at the EPA have been shuffled and stuffed with more industry representatives
    • EPA leadership ordered scientists reverse their scientific research which showed that protecting wetlands from pollution conferred an economic benefit
    • At the same time this EPA leadership quashed a study which showed a particular toxic chemical in water was a much greater threat than previously known
  • The task force states this problem has ballooned under the Trump administration due to the influence of special interests, and the appointment of unqualified cronies
  • What do we do about this?
    • The report recommends new scientific integrity standards
    • New rules to discourage suppression or manipulation of scientific research
    • Better public access to government research
  • Would that deter THIS administration? 
  • What we need is new leadership before we can even begin to think about crafting and implementing those changes.
  • And the best way to do that?
    • An overwhelming showing at the polls in November 2020

The Guardian

Lab-made primordial soup yields RNA bases

Chris MacAlister

  • RNA world theory supports the position that early genetics only existed in RNA, with DNA joining the party further into the future.
  • This theory has been provided a boost thanks to the work of Thomas Carell et. al., published in Science last week. Carell and his team have managed to synthesize all 4 of the RNA nucleobases in conditions that are feasibly consistent with each other.
  • Although, that’s not to say that these conditions are straightforward. But they are summarised quite nicely by Davide Castelvecchi writing about the study in Nature.
  • The process requires two ponds and some seasons. You start off with simple molecules in a nice hot pool of water, your classic primordial soup scenario. But then, you cool your soup and let it dry out, forming a residue of crystals. A rinse, or downpour of water washes away some soluble molecules and this paves the way for further reaction to occur. Follow this up with a final mix up and you start to see you nucleobases appear.
  • Of course, we can never know whether this is how nucleobases first formed but that isn’t really the point. By showing that this can be done makes the argument that it did occur spontaneously, and possibly even here on Earth, even more compelling.
  • dingly lucky event, but one that is likely to happen on many other planets


In Other Science News this Week

Nobel Prize week

Two Americans and a British scientist have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.”

William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard University, Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University, and Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain and Oxford University

They identified the molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying oxygen levels.

This morning the The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to James Peebles of Princeton University, and he gets “half” the award. 

The other half will be shared by Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and Didier Queloz who is at both the University of Geneva and the University of Cambridge

In particular, Peebles award was for “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology,” 

Mayor’s and Queloz’s was “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star,”

More Nobel Prizes coming all week long.

We’ll keep you posted on Twitter and in next week’s episode.

In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

If you have any suggestions or comments email us at podcast@bluestreakscience.com

You can subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast or any other podcast player of your choice.  

If you have an iOS device like an iPhone or an iPad you can get the Blue Streak Science app from the App Store. 

This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team.

Our hosts today were Chris MacAlister, and me

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us. 

And remember…follow the science!

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