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    Californians Worry About Extreme Genetic Engineering
    By Hank Campbell | April 8th 2012 11:03 AM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

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    What happens when genomics and synthetic biology labs get together?  Anti-science people flip out.  Because, you know, anti-science hippies think scientists are inhuman crazies without families who only care about breaking the laws of nature (maniacal laugh).

    The Richmond Field Station, already owned by the University of California system, beat out other existing spots (around 20) who were excited about the chance to host the combined labs because Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore are national labs funded by the apparently inexhaustible coffers of the Department of Energy.  And they bring wealthy, educated jobs.

    Environmental watchdog groups flipped out, of course, claiming 'worker health' concerns.  Yes, they were worried about the health of the scientists they hate.  The coalition of environmental and bio-concerned groups wrote in their warning document
    The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the U. C. Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute must undertake the burden of proof as to whether their laboratory will be safe...
    Can anyone name a single medical or scientific advancement that has ever met or even could currently meet this requirement?  Aspirin does not meet this requirement. It has to make you chuckle that American liberal scientists at Berkeley are being portrayed as extremists by fringe anti-science groups on the left.


    Credit: shutterstock.com

    Don't think these groups are just the usual progressive shills against science, though. Their positions could also be copied and pasted from documents by the religious right.
     we oppose the utilization of human eggs and embryos for experimental manipulations and as items of commerce because of the potential for eugenic applications and health risks to women and their offspring.
    Well, there are two opposing ideas here.  Eugenics was a progressive effort of the early part of the 20th century and modern efforts to select children using genetics is a new flavor of that (so their concern about their own side is laudable) but objections to human embryonic stem cell research are considered a recent Republican one - President George W. Bush was concerned about the moral issues in hESC research and so compromised with science needs of the day by limiting federal funding to stem cell lines that had already been created, which made no one happy but progressive extremists in science called 'banning' and 'anti-science'.

    hESC was never debated because of eugenics so that is something new they just created.

    Jeremy Gruber, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics, was reported by Chemical&Engineering News as saying, “There is no comprehensive regulational approach for the oversight and governance of synthetic biology. Will LBNL be transparent?”

    Progressives love regulation, they love centralized government a la the 15th century and back, but they think federally funded national labs are not transparent?  They are incredibly transparent and overrun with bureaucracy and paperwork about everything except the top-secret applied aspects of their work.  They were pretty much created to work on atomic bombs and no one got public hearings about each step of those. Do these environmental groups think they get to snipe at basic research all throughout the process?  What will that do to transformative science?  Again, there would be no science at all done if some crazy-haired know-nothing got to call a halt to every project because they don't understand how science works.


    Please. Give them something to protest. Credit: shutterstock.com

    The coalition includes the usual anti-business conspiracy theorists too - since BP gives money to U.C. Berkeley, all the science produced at Berkeley is suspect.  Yes, that Berkeley of the famous protests is apparently a shill for the right wing if you are on the kooky left fringe. What about science done in all academia when George Bush was president?  Is that suspect?  And will right wing people think science done by Obama is tainted? The notion that people on any side feel scientists are unethical unless they get money from the side of the government they vote for is insulting and weirdly paranoid - even more confusing is the idea that there are no unethical, lying, cheating people in science if they get a grant during a Republican president but they are all that way if they work in the corporate world. BP has simply replaced Exxon as the company-to-hate because their spill is more recent.  The obvious solution to preventing tanker and oil rig spills is to instead build a pipeline but progressives invented paranoid, unscientific concerns to protest that too. About the only thing they liked in the last 20 years was ethanol, and we saw how that worked out. 

    Obviously there are always ethical and social concerns in any cutting-edge technology. George Bush limited hESC research and Obama outright bans somatic nuclear transfer despite more Americans being in favor of that than were in favor of hESC technology in 2000, when it was still new. They take those stances because we sometimes need time for the ethical and oversight issues to work themselves out - but demanding any science 'prove' it is 100% safe sets an artificial standard that no science can meet.  Home appliances cannot even meet that standard - 3,000 people die because of stuff in their kitchen catching fire each year.

    Comments

    I love reading these articles by Hank. I like to think of him as an "extreme Moderate". It's strange, in a good way, to read a piece with political overtones which doesn't actually endorse a side through some outrageous propaganda for whatever side that person happens to back.

    Hank Campbell is an extremist for science. As am I. We don't play for Team Blue or Team Red. We play for Team Science. And that's why we're writing a book together.

    vongehr
    As much as Hank is still able to tolerate more insightful views alongside his increasingly numerous right wing oversimplifications of issues, you dear Alex are playing squarely for team brown.
    Hank
    Hey, I escaped 50% unscathed in a Sascha comment.  I'll take it.  Sorry, Alex, it's every man for himself on this one.
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, actually both of you are quite political, regardless of your sentiments towards science.  The only time I see either Obama or Bush mentioned this frequently is in actual articles about either of them.

    This topic could just as readily have been discussed solely on the issues without introducing a single political element, beyond the names of organizations involved.  I don't particularly care what political views anyone wants to express, but come on .... let's not pretend to be politically neutral and then invoke politics.  Neither of you guys is apolitical.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    I just try to get yelled at as much by the right as the left.  Mostly, I succeed. Science 2.0 overall is politically agnostic but we are the only one - other science sites, both online and print magazines, are an avalanche of partisan sentiment. And it's only one side. My tone has not changed since 2007, you can go back to the first day of the site and see me taking the contrarian stand against partisan whitewashing - I think back then I was the only one. Now there appear to be about 5 in science media.

    To your main point, I don't see how you can discuss Californians being anti-science without noting their cultural affiliation.  If I had cut that snippet out and not mentioned the groups doing the criticizing, it could easily have looked like religious conservatives attacking liberal scientists - and in hindsight, it would have been a lot funnier to hold their true affiliation - left-wing attacking left-wing - until the end.  But no one would have read to the end.

    I certainly sympathize with some caution on genetic engineering, just like I sympathize with the ACLU. While most of their positions may be silly, on occasion they are a needed balancing force and they get it right. But sweeping all goofiness under the rug because sometimes they do good work would be the same political relativism I criticize.
    We never claimed to be apolitical. How can you discuss science policy without discussing politics?

    What we do try to do, however, is promote what we feel represents the best science. And since neither of us has a sworn allegiance to a political party, we criticize anyone we want.

    Hank
    I'm all over the map in my writing - cultural but not overly political.  My last 8 articles are ridiculing a peer reviewed feminist sociology journal (culture), this piece (anti-science hijacking of policy, so basically political), an article about video game characters wearing Prada (culture), the long baseline neutrino experiment (science), Navy biofuels (policy), Gerhard's hat (culture), Raw milk (health) and trust in science among conservatives (politics).  So 25% of those, the hat and the Prada, are not science at all, but on the political stuff it is simply more likely that people simply notice takes they disagree with - I have one criticism of the left, one of the right and then one that has both, but is slightly more critical of the left because it is ridiculing the humanities.

    If anyone in the audience thinks 12.5% ridicule of their side is too much, I know how they vote.
    Gerhard Adam
    Whoa ... what do you mean the hat isn't science?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard's right. Hank, you owe him an apology.

    Hank
    Gerhard, I am sorry about that hat you wear. Ya redneck.
    Gerhard Adam
    That's better :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Again, there would be no science at all done if some crazy-haired know-nothing got to call a halt to every project because they don't understand how science works.

    Well at least for now, it's worked against nuclear power.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Except that nuclear power isn't about science, it's about business.  No one argues about the science surrounding nuclear energy.  The argument is whether or not it can be safely implemented or if we're going to hear some sad tale down the road about how cost-cutting measures or some other "problem" resulted in a local disaster.

    If this is going to be about science and not business, then all we have to do is make sure there's a scientist in charge of the facility instead of an MBA.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    So, scientists can run nuclear power plants, but businesses can't?

    Can you list some accidents that were caused by business malfeasance, that would have been prevented if run by scientists?
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I never alleged malfeasance.  I simply don't feel comfortable with technical decisions and choices being made by accountants or marketing people.

    You can't complain if people are suspicious of science when you attempt to use science and put non-scientists in charge of it.  In the same way, I don't want accountants building bridges or skyscrapers.  Nor do I want accountants building airplanes.  Why should they be in charge of nuclear power plants?
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    But accountants and marketing people aren't designing nuclear power stations, scientists and engineers are, and it doesn't take a scientist to operate the controls of a nuclear power station. Now I have no problem if you want a scientist along with the design engineers to write the operating instructions(which I believe is the normal case), and that anyone who is operating one be adequately trained by scientists and engineers to follow the directions. But from the quick look I did at accidents, I didn't see any that were caused by accountants and marketing.
    I did see a lot of human errors, some even on experimental reactors that I'd presume were being controlled by scientists.

    At issue is wind and solar are not going to supply the power needs for 7 billion people living in a modern society. We don't have enough fission reactors to supply the power, we don't know how to make fusion reactors, for now we have fossil fuels and fission, and while I don't think co2 from fossil fuels is a problem, it will however run out at some point.

    We can build safe and effective fission reactors as a bridge until we can build fusion reactors, which will allow us to also reduce our output of co2, and we can use more solar and wind where it makes sense, but we can't eliminate fission and fossil fuels and maintain a modern society, unless it's only for a select few, like royality.
    Never is a long time.
    Gerhard Adam
    I fully agree with you regarding energy and nuclear power.  Like many others, I simply don't trust the economics.  Perhaps it's simply cynicism, but I see too many instances of where major problems occur in society [not necessarily technical, i.e. the financial meltdown] and at the core we invariably find greed as one of the active ingredients.  Similarly we've seen enough regarding pollution and toxic wastes to be suspicious that business interests may be in conflict with society's interests.

    So, this simply extends into other realms where there may be dangers [real or perceived].  Things like the BP oil spill could be more readily understood [or forgiven] if the story didn't always include some money-saving activity which may have been instrumental in the problem.  That's not to say that carelessness and human error aren't components as well.  I suspect that the distaste for these incidents occurs when people that already wildly successful [according to most people's standards] then turn around and show such utter disregard for the ramifications of their decisions.

    You may think that this is purely a perceptual issue and not a "real" one, however it only takes a few to spoil the image for the many and we've certainly had our share of the few.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Tony Fleming
    We can build safe and effective fission reactors as a bridge until we can build fusion reactors, which will allow us to also reduce our output of co2, and we can use more solar and wind where it makes sense, but we can't eliminate fission and fossil fuels and maintain a modern society, unless it's only for a select few, like royality. - Mi Cro
    Spot on Mi Cro, I agree too.

    Except that nuclear power isn't about science, it's about business.  No one argues about the science surrounding nuclear energy -Gerhard.  

    Gerhard nuclear power is only known to the limits of20th century science and technology. There are breakthroughs waiting to be discovered and very likely an entirely safe technology yet to be found in regard to nuclear power. And not in the distant future either, but maybe within a decade or so. I'm one who thinks the day will come when everyone will live away from the grid; that cities will cease to be such population centres with their pollution problems and overpopulation.  

    Agreed Gerhard about the financial melt-down, I'm thinking there may be better financial models yet to be discovered incorporating something like the 'new deal' that FDR used to overcome the depression. Maybe we need scientists WITH MBA's?

    cheers Tony

    Tony Fleming Biophotonics Research Institute tfleming@unifiedphysics.com
    MikeCrow
    There are breakthroughs waiting to be discovered and very likely an entirely safe technology yet to be found in regard to nuclear power. And not in the distant future either, but maybe within a decade or so. I'm one who thinks the day will come when everyone will live away from the grid;

    I keeping thinking of a multi-radioactive element construction, where you take say a long lived neutron source, and stack it with some other element that's neutron rich isotope quickly decays with beta radiation, and then you moderate the neutron rate to adjust the power output. Or some such combination, with the diversity of the drip-line, there has to be some kind of working combination.

    But, with the way the world is, even if you could make them, and they were 100% safe. You'd still have people collecting them to grind up and make dirty bombs out of them.
    Never is a long time.
    Tony Fleming
    Some very interesting ideas, Mi Cro, you may well be right

    So far in my opinion we're just scratching the surface of understanding the nuclear forces. Our history of nuclear so far has seen a trial, an ordeal, we've not yet been able to produce a benign source of power, SO FAR. We invented the Bomb in 1945 via a multinational effort having just worked out how the thing worked via Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch worked out what was happening in 1938. Uranium under neutron bombardment had split into barium and krypton. Thank God Werner Heisenberg messed up his sums about the critical mass by a couple of orders of magnitude or three!! This is a period of seven years to develop a working bomb from Meitner's insight. Pretty amazing stuff when you think about it.


    As a mathematical physicist I've been intrigued by how storm clouds form and 'break'. To me this combination of thunder, lightning, and wind corresponds to a combination of acoustic, electric, and magnetic fields. This fits what I think forms a nuclear reaction when the temperature drops in the atmosphere. Eventually we detect rain, lightning and wind.  This fits into the mathematics I have reason to believe is behind nuclear energy state changes, just like the quantum states of the atom but with another field involved, the acoustic field in addition to the EM field, three fields in total which fits the experimental evidence from particle physics. 


    In other words we have a similar process to the atoms of quantum mechanics thatl change states depending on the EM energy levels involved.  I see this as a way to explore, experiment before going the other way and trying to achieve higher energies to create fusion; rather than creating a bombardment mechanism followed by a chain reaction, we create a field environment using the magnetic field to induce a temperature drop (not just to confine, direct, or focus the plasma as in a tokamak). Such a putative research program would be supported by the mathematical developments, just like Los Alamos.


    AND I see no way that dirty bombs could be produced via such a field mechanism. In fact I see that by switching off the fields the nuclear process would immediately close down, no chain reaction involved.

    cheers Tony
    Tony Fleming Biophotonics Research Institute tfleming@unifiedphysics.com