Category: Science Goes to Washington

The Science of Detecting Torture

By Melissa Lafsky | January 8, 2009 3:30 pm

The torture debate in the U.S. has highlighted a key paradox in American ideology: We value human rights, but we also fear outside threats, enough that we’re willing to put the rights issue aside when we want to wring truth out of a suspected Al Qaeda operative.

But what about the medical side of torture? Search magazine has a fascinating article on how doctors are specializing in torture detection, and researching how torture affects the body and mind. Specifically, writer Jina Moore profiles Rajeev Bais and Lars Beattie, two doctors at the Libertas Human Rights Clinic in Queens who provide medical affidavits for U.S. asylum-seekers who claim they were tortured in their home countries.

These affidavits hold a ton of weight with judges, and play a key role in determining whether or not asylum is granted. The reason is that Bai and Beattie can tell with relative certainty if an applicant is telling the truth about being tortured, first by interviewing and observing him, and then doing a physical exam to look for corroborating evidence—in effect, using the patient’s body to check out his story.

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MORE ABOUT: torture, war

Bad Idea of the Day: Creating "Virtual Parents" for Kids of U.S. Troops

By Melissa Lafsky | January 7, 2009 12:24 pm

baby at computerThe Department of Defense has apparently grown a conscience. After nearly six years of deploying troops to Iraq, many of them parents, the DOD is acknowledging that kids are spending years without a mother or father around. And, given that mental health issues are already taking a severe toll on Iraq vets, putting stress on marriages and disrupting lives, it’s only logical that children are getting caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

So, rather than oh, say, ban repeated deployments or lift stop-loss orders, the government has decided to nip the absent-parent problem in the bud by creating… computerized parents. According to a proposal solicitation (via InformationWeek) on the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Web site, the DOD is looking for a “highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with ‘virtual’ renditions of deployed Service Members.”(Insert “Hello, DAD”—”Hello, Little Dave” joke here.)

The proposal outlines the idea as follows:

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MORE ABOUT: Iraq, military

Don't Mess With Guyana: President Sics Police on Facebook Impersonator

By Melissa Lafsky | January 5, 2009 6:33 pm

facebookRight now on Facebook, you can find around 20 Britney Spears’, at least 6 George Bushes, a Barack Obama (which is legit!) and a couple Elvises. But you won’t find a profile for Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana. Why not? Because after learning that an impersonator had created a profile claiming to be him, Jagdeo, the president of the South American nation since 1999, threw a veritable hissy fit, calling the Guyana police in to track down the page’s creator.

Considering that Jagdeo’s phony profile attracted around 170 supporters before it was pulled, and that the page contained no mocking comments, revealing personal information, or doctored photos (the tenets of celebrity impersonations on the Internet), Jagdeo might have even taken the impersonation as a compliment—imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all.

But not so.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Is Nothing Sacred? Nobel Prize Engulfed in Drug Company Scandal

By Melissa Lafsky | December 19, 2008 12:20 pm

Welcome to today’s heaping dose of cynicism, to start off the weekend right: Scandal has hit none other than the Nobel Prize, after it was revealed that a member of the Nobel selection committee also sat on the board of AstraZeneca, a pharmaceuticals juggernaut that will benefit from this year’s award for medicine.

The 2008 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine went to three people this year, Luc Montagnier and his (ahem, female) partner Françoise Barre-Sinoussi for discovering HIV, and Harald zur Hausen for his work on the human papilloma virus (HPV) and its link to cervical cancer.

Wouldn’t you know it, AstraZeneca just happens to have a big fat stake in two lucrative HPV vaccines.

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The Biotech Bailout: A Good Idea?

By Melissa Lafsky | December 18, 2008 6:10 pm

Car companies are doing it, banks are doing it, and magazines may (ahem) soon be doing it—bailouts are all the rage these days. Which makes it less surprising that the biotech industry is getting in on the action. Lobbyists for the biotech industry are pushing Washington to pass a law granting biotech companies that are currently hemorrhaging money (a.k.a. nearly all of them) a chance to get cash now in exchange for not taking tax credits in the future should they become profitable.

According to the New York Times, the proposed bill:

could enable the industry to receive potentially hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, on the condition that the money would be used for research and development.

The effort comes as many smaller biotechnology companies, particularly those trying to develop drugs, are facing a severe cash shortage that is forcing them to dismiss workers, curtail research and even file for bankruptcy protection or liquidation.

In fact, it’s so bad that BIO, the main lobbyist for the industry, is saying that a quarter of the 370 publicly traded U.S. biotech companies have less than six months of cash on hand.

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And Obama's Science Adviser Is…John Holdren

By Melissa Lafsky | December 18, 2008 2:36 pm

John HoldrenPhysicists, rejoice! (Even more!)

Science magazine is reporting that Obama has chosen to nominate physicist John Holdren as his science adviser. The well-credentialed and -bearded Holdren is currently a professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, as well as the director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A top adviser to Obama’s campaign and world renowned expert on climate change, energy policy, and nuclear proliferation, Holdren is the second physicist to join the president-elect’s team, following Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu’s appointment as Secretary of Energy.

Cosmic Variance: Steven Chu Nominated to be Secretary of Energy

Image: AAAS

Bush Interior Department Official to Endangered Species: $#% You!

By Melissa Lafsky | December 16, 2008 5:17 pm

January 20 can’t come soon enough, but first let the crimes of the Bush administration be released and judged. Today’s chopping block head is Julie MacDonald, a former high-ranking official in the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service. According to a newly-released report from Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, MacDonald successfully “tainted nearly every decision made on the protection of endangered species over five years” and even exceeded expectations by “exert[ing] improper political interference on many more rulings than previously thought.”

MacDonald’s priority, according to the report, was not so much the well-being of hurting species, but rather a particular political agenda (hmm, perhaps we see a pattern?) that led her to push through a host of rulings axing greater protection for endangered species. Seven of them were (thankfully) reversed by the department, but Devaney’s report found an additional 13 decisions that MacDonald skewed to fit her agenda, and two more that she “indirectly affected.”

MacDonald, a civil engineer with a master’s degree in management, resigned from her post in May of 2007 amid accusations that she’d “violated the Endangered Species Act, censored science and mistreated staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

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What, Me? Steal? The Psychology of Bernie Madoff

By Melissa Lafsky | December 15, 2008 4:32 pm

In case you haven’t picked up a newspaper in the past few days—or if you have, but the number of huge scandals has grown too big to digest in one sitting—a certain elite hedge fund manager by the name of Bernie Madoff has been accused of running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded hordes of the world’s most elite investors out of a possible $50 billion. The level and depth of fraud, as well as the amount of money involved, could make this the single biggest scandal in financial history.

So what path of psychology could possess someone to steal so much, so blithely and brazenly, for so long? How can white-collar criminals, who typically lack the sociopathic personality that accompanies more violent crimes, lie so much and so well to the point where reality (and astronomical sums of money) are lost?

Lauren Cox at ABC News spoke to one such (reformed) white-collar criminal to find out. Barry Minkow, who spent seven years in federal prison for a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme (which, by comparison, looks like pennies next to Madoff), had the following insight about the psychology that lies behind this level of ongoing criminal activity:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington
MORE ABOUT: criminals, greed, money, power

Fights Over Space! NASA Head Disses Obama's Transition Team

By Melissa Lafsky | December 11, 2008 2:05 pm

space fightYou’d think that NASA might have some heavy incentive to make nice with the new president-elect. But instead, it appears NASA administrator Mike Griffin is doing just about everything in his power to give Obama’s transition team the proverbial middle finger. Via the Orlando Sentinel, Griffin’s current acts of un-hospitality include obstructing efforts to obtain information, dictating what NASA employees and civilian contractors can tell the space transition team, and insulting the team’s leader to her face. Charming!

No bad deed comes without a motive, and Griffin’s is clear: to make darned well sure that his pet project, the absurdly over-delayed and over-budget Constellation program, escapes the ax in the new administration. And worry he should: Now that the Bush “go forth and conquer” agenda for space (an agenda accompanied by liberal check-writing) are leaving Washington, there’s a good chance Obama might scrap large parts of the program.

When Griffin got wind of this possibility, he started in with the gestapo tactics:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington
MORE ABOUT: NASA, obama, space

The Rape of the EPA: Bush Appointee Steven Johnson Called to Task

By Melissa Lafsky | December 10, 2008 1:24 pm

Mashing scientific evidence into a pulpy soup of agenda-laden misinformation seems to be a common theme for the modern GOP. The latest (and arguably most egregious) example is outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, whose reign has been dominated by a poverty of factual information, with hard science routinely twisted to suit political designs.

In a scathing profile in the Philadelphia Enquirer (via ThinkProgress), writers John Shiffman and John Sullivan delve into the cult of mediocrity that dominated Johnson’s time at the agency. The piece is filled with forehead-slappers like the following:

Perhaps one of the best insights into Johnson’s vision for EPA can be found in written testimony he submitted to a Senate committee this year. In the document, Johnson laid out his top 11 goals.

No. 1 was clean energy, particularly approving drilling for “thousands of new oil and gas wells” on tribal and federal lands. No. 2 was homeland security.

Environmental enforcement and sound science ranked ninth and 10th.

And that’s not even the worst of it:

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