Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's a Fracking Conflict of Interest!

By Keith McDowell

To disclose or not to disclose! Such is the dilemma facing faculty members who pursue scholarly activity and scientific research and look to publish their findings in the public sector. And what exactly is it that they are supposed to disclose? Does private ownership of the stock in a company related to one’s area of research count? How about a mutual fund? And what about reimbursed travel expenses for service on a foundation board whose dictums and pronouncements affect public policy? Do cheap pencils, pens, calendars, knickknacks, trinkets, and T-shirts with logos given as gifts count? And why should anyone care about such activities?

No one in our modern society wants published research results to be biased, tainted, or manipulated, especially if such behavior is driven by monetary, political, or religious reasons. Otherwise, one’s own personal health could be at risk from faulty medical procedures or environmentally unsafe practices.

But how do we in the body politic know if such countervailing influences to the general welfare of society are present? How do we know if a researcher has a potential or a real “conflict of interest” between the general welfare and their private and professional gain? The rules of the game are simple. Faculty members must disclose such activities annually or when a change occurs.

Full and complete transparency at all times in the pursuit and publication of research is the mantra of our era and the only operational principle worthy of consideration. While the actual determination of a potential conflict of interest – known as COI to insiders –both before and after the fact can be tricky and couched in legal maneuvers and language, the perception of a conflict is a simple matter easily determined by the general public. If it looks like a conflict, it is as far as the public is concerned.

But all across the United States, too many university administrators and too many faculty members in particular still don’t get it. For them, privacy trumps transparency. For them, it’s a real bother and imposition to keep up with all those foundation visits, externally paid-for travel receipts, consultant checks, and board memberships – just to name a few items. And why should they have to take precious time to report them? Baloney! None of this is hard to do, takes little time, and we have to keep up with the paperwork in any case for our own private records and tax purposes. I know! I spent many years doing it.

Let’s be clear! ALL such activities by university personnel must be regularly reported in an open and transparent manner to the university and the disclosures processed by the university for a possible COI to be managed, including the curtailing of some activities. Even if determined not to be a COI, such activities should continue to be reported to satisfy the transparency principle.

But to be fair, balanced, and reasonable while hewing to the transparency principle, some have argued for and put into place thresholds for disclosing certain information. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2011 lowered “the monetary threshold at which significant financial interests require disclosure, generally from $10,000 to $5,000” according to their website.

So at NIH, you can be bought for $5,000 but not $4,999.99. What nonsense! Far too many people in modern society have no scruples and have a price tag. Setting an arbitrary threshold for disclosure of a potential conflict, no matter how small, is not viable in today’s society. There is only one threshold for disclosure that satisfies the transparency principle and that is anything above a value of zero. The public has a right to know and they demand that right, whether or not a managed COI has or will occur.

Just ask The University of Texas at Austin if you don’t believe COI is a sensitive issue. As reported in the press, Professor Charles G. Groat and his colleagues published in February of 2012 a report entitled Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development that many people consider supportive of fracking by oil and gas companies as regards any impact on the environment. At the time of release, the report was portrayed as an independent study. According to Groat, “What we’ve tried to do is separate fact from fiction.”

In due course, it was discovered and reported by the press that Professor Groat served on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company and received $413,000 in compensation for his service in 2011. Subsequent reports indicate that Groat did not fully disclose all of these activities or his compensation to the university.

Initially, UT Austin declared that no COI occurred, only a failure to disclose, and that the report was not biased and no further action would be taken. Cary Nelson, former leader of the American Association of University Professors, reputedly declared the incident to be “a huge conflict of interest.” So who is right? Stay tuned. UT Austin has changed their corporate mind. An independent panel of experts will review the case and report back to us.

Independent of the final denouement of the UT Austin fracking case – if there ever is finality, it is symptomatic of the continuing failure of some in Academe to come fully to grips with the transparency principle in scholarly activity and research. That principle requires full and complete disclosure at all times and for all activities with a reporting threshold of anything having a value greater than zero. Nothing else will work. Nothing else can be justified to the American public. And it must be practiced with ruthless efficiency. To do otherwise is to invite condemnation from the public and exposure by the press.

Unfortunately, the UT Austin fracking report is now tainted, no matter what the review process reveals and reports. Sadly, we will never know what impact full and complete disclosure by Professor Groat before the fact and in the publication itself would have had on this report and its acceptance. Perception is reality in most cases and facts are not just facts. It’s a lesson we must all learn in our modern, fast-paced, 24-hour news cycle.

And in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of fracking, but am not convinced either way that it is a problem. My dislike is based on the sure knowledge that perfection is an illusion and that fracking will never be practiced with perfect fidelity to the best engineering principles. Josh Fox and his Gasland film should remove any delusions we might have in that regard. And furthermore, should the practice of fracking really be a part of America’s solution vector for solving our demand for energy?

One thing I am sure of. The university community must practice full disclosure and complete transparency in order to reveal possible conflicts of interest and to protect the integrity of its research. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Bizarre World of Global Competition

By Keith McDowell

Don’t stare! Don’t gesture! Those were the terse warnings given to my son John and me on the morning of 27 September 2008 by our U.S. military escorts as we stood in line in the Joint Security Area next to Panmunjom waiting to cross over to the sky blue cinder block building that houses the meeting facilities for negotiations between North and South Korea since the 1953 armistice. Sitting astride the border between the two Koreas, the small, one-room building is dwarfed by the opposing ornate embassy buildings, each an expensive symbol of the never-ending competition to be the most imposing and impressive – or, figuratively speaking for the vulgar among us, flipping the biggest state-sponsored bird to each other.

As our party quietly descended some massive steps and walked toward the cinder building, specially trained Republic of Korea troops stood rock hard ready to respond to any incident. On embassy balconies across the border, North Korean soldiers dressed in greenish-brown uniforms with red trim glared and scowled down at us, further heightening our anxiety as we entered the building.

The meeting room itself was plain and dated – nothing special, but history filled the air as we surrounded the rectangular table used for negotiations. My son and I both made the step over the line on the floor in the middle of the room into North Korea. Later that morning, we viewed Kijong-dong or “Peace Village,” an unoccupied propaganda city, from an observation post and later tramped bent over through the famous “third tunnel of aggression,” a tunnel dug by North Korea to move troops into South Korea.

Any visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone is a sobering experience and mine was not any different. How ridiculous is it that such silly games are still being played by world powers after nearly sixty years? It is a monument to the stupidity of humankind!  But such is the stark reality of contrasting cultures and existence in the 21st century as creativity, innovation, and advanced technological societies coexist on Planet Earth with brutal dictators, terrorists, and religious fanatics. Like a Bizarro cartoon, it’s the modern version of the Dark Ages.

And especially poignant for me was the sharp contrast between my day visiting the darker side of humanity and the preceding weeklong tour of the technological advances and capabilities of the Gyeonggi Province of South Korea. As the invited international speaker and a guest at the tenth anniversary of the Gyeonggi TechnoPark as well as a representative of The University of Texas System, I was invited by Kim Moon-Soo, Governor of the province, to a formal lunch with him and his leadership team at the Governor’s Mansion on 24 September 2008.

Governor Kim gets it! Under his leadership, Gyeonggi Province is rapidly jumping over the industrial age and heading into the knowledge and high technology economy of the 21st century. The regional innovation ecosystem he is creating is truly impressive and includes a contract with The University of Texas in Austin to develop technology commercialization. During our meal and on the following day at the celebration, Governor Kim grilled me on how innovation is done in Texas, especially the role of universities. He wanted to know what I saw in South Korea. What were my impressions? He made sure that I visited every nook and cranny of the province.

For anyone who doesn’t believe the world is racing forward and likely to pass America, visit with Governor Kim or the Gyeonggi Province. See the incredible facilities and the dedicated innovators at the many universities and the TechnoPark. See the transformation from ox carts and plows to mountains being moved, truckload by truckload, to reclaim more land from the sea for industrial development. Tom Friedman is right. America must be on notice. As anyone with a passport knows, the world is no longer sitting still. Globalization is real.

But so are the contrasts and so are the demands of human beings. As China is now discovering with the inevitable slowdown in its economy, you can’t create a needed middle class of consumers without the requisite price tag in government reform and change that goes with it. That ultimately means a proper work experience, a clean and healthy environment, and all the other perquisites of advanced society. America should not fear China or the other emerging nations such as South Korea. They will eventually pay the piper as America has done and continues to do. Instead, we should simply do what we do best and innovate.

And that means and requires investment in America. That lesson was brought home to my son and me in the strongest possible manner as we landed at LAX. Picking up our checked bags at a dirty and dingy facility, we were forced to hike through a poorly contrived construction area, exit the security area, find our way to the next terminal, recheck our bags, and re-enter security before boarding a flight to Houston. Tired and weary from our long flight, these misadventures after the beauty of the Seoul and Narita airports told the tale. Yes, LAX was being upgraded and the Houston and Austin airports were a positive experience, but the negative memory of that LAX experience still lingers as a harbinger of things to come. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

What Do We Value?

By Keith McDowell

The first few drops of rain pelted our sweat-soaked clothing and cooled down our exposed skin as my sons and I trudged along the Colorado Trail toward the Wagon Loop Trail junction that was visible just ahead of us. Having hiked nearly 8.5 miles up and down over a number of ridges at altitudes approaching 10,000 feet in a little less than three hours from the Angle of Shavano Trailhead had not been our first choice. The three of us were in great shape and looking to summit several of the Colorado fourteeners during our vacation, but the weather gods had dictated otherwise keeping the invisible peaks enshrouded in ugly black clouds from first light to darkness.

Reaching the trail junction, we turned right along the top of a ridgeline in a sparsely populated lodgepole forest and headed eastward for the 1.3-mile descent to the Brown’s Creek Trailhead where my wife would be waiting to pick us up. Ahead of schedule, we were in no hurry as the light drizzle continued and the distant rumble of thunder and occasional flash of lightning signaled a thunderstorm on the high peaks to our West. Veteran mountaineers, we took the weather conditions in stride and once again tuned out our surroundings as we walked along the relatively flat ridge.

Suddenly, it happened! There was a blinding flash of light coupled to an explosion of sound that nearly popped our eardrums. It was the dreaded “flash-bang” of a lightning strike right on top of us. Instinctively ducking down as a massive surge of adrenaline shot through my body, I watched as my son Andrew in front of me did the same, followed by a bent-over leap into the air and explosive sprint into a dead run as gravity took over and his boots made contact again with the trail. My reflexive move wasn’t quite so spectacular, but I was just as panicked by the seeming lack of trees in our immediate area.

For an old man like me, running at an altitude of 9,600 feet down a sandy horse trail filled with rocks and tree roots wasn’t the best thing to be doing. My sons quickly left me behind as several more lightning strikes occurred behind us providing additional incentive to keep up the pace. Mercifully, we rapidly came off the ridge into thicker woods and slowed to a dogtrot. We soon stopped to gather ourselves and our breaths and to ponder why the hairs on our body had not stood on end before the lightning strike.  A few unprintable curse words mixed with a sardonic laugh or two were also part of the menu.

In such moments as these – and I’ve had a few in my mountaineering career, it is easy to reflect on life and to appreciate the simple act of survival. Such moments also often lead me after the fact to a deeper consideration of the meaning of life and to puzzle over the following question: what do I value – other than life itself?

But life itself is no longer a simple concept as we accelerate the innovation race and move increasingly faster toward a new definition of human existence on Planet Earth. Take, for example, the recent news that a baby’s DNA can be constructed before birth leading to a “possible diagnosis for genetic disorders in certain circumstances.” Gads! We are only a step away from using genetic drugs and gene manipulation in a fetus to achieve “cures” for such disorders – a worthy endeavor.

But that means we are also only a step away from using chemical, physical, and biological means to manipulate a fetus to produce a human with enhanced performance characteristics. Steroids, doping, and blood transfusions will no longer be needed to produce the next great athletic performance in the Tour de France and the accompanying dollars and rewards that go with such success. Will parents succumb to such manipulation of a fetus? Of course they will!

And what about the world of wireless information technology? I envision a world in a decade or two where people shave their heads and cover them with a “hair piece” that looks like a scalp covered by hair but is actually a very sophisticated flexible device that monitors brain activity and interrogates our thoughts. We will literally be able to send commands to an electronic device by thinking about it. Surprisingly, we are already in the first stages of doing so as monkeys manipulate mechanical arms by merely thinking about it.

Of course, real progress will ultimately occur when we learn how to send signals back into the brain to be interpreted by our brain as “thoughts.” Yep, that will happen sooner than later! Goodbye iPod, iBook, iPad, and iPhone and hello to iBrain!

And the good news is that our advanced iBrain device will be both wireless and powered by a sophisticated coupling to our body’s physical and chemical systems. It’s the wireless part that’s really cool, to use an old-fashioned “nerdy” term. We will be able to connect instantly to the Internet of the future and thereby to all facets of social media by merely thinking about it. My God! Talk about hacking or the ultimate in texting. But who really wants to know what an old man like me thinks about the babe in the revealing outfit? And was that last thought really mine?

“Reading people’s minds” and participating with them in the midst of all sorts of physical endeavors will become the ultimate experience for the couch potato. Jeez, I could hyperlink to someone climbing Mt. Everest and experience what they feel as they slowly approach their final moments in the “death zone.” We won’t mention the pornographic aspect to such technology.

And what about our educational system and the effect of instant access to all knowledge? How will we measure progress? Will it be done solely by one’s ability to use and access the new iBrain technology – a sort of IQ test of the future? Will manipulation of a fetus to achieve the best and brightest iBrain performers be considered cheating?

My 92-year old father has seen it all during his lifetime including his own personal participation in the Normandy invasion in 1944 as well as the invention of the radio, the television, the computer, air travel, and now wireless communication and the social media. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to text about their intimate or even their silly moments and Facebook exists on another planet for him. As he would say, it’s all about our values.

So what do we value as modern society heads for a real confrontation with itself in a world of interconnected and engineered human beings? And yes that will happen faster than anyone imagines. Just ask my father if you don’t believe me!

And even more disconcerting, will it matter what we value?

I don’t have a clear answer to such questions, but believe that we must consider them as a society. Unfortunately, I suspect that we will drift into this future connected world driven by the usual motives of selfishness, avarice, and greed serving as replacements or substitutes for the evolutionary mandate to adapt and survive. But do we really want to accelerate innovation to achieve that end, even if success in global competition requires that we do so? Some, and perhaps many, would answer with an emphatic NO!

I never made it to the summit of a fourteener during that summer vacation in Colorado. A painful bone bruise on my ankle caused by running away from the lightning kept me from joining my sons a week later as they ascended to the summit of Mt. Massive, the third tallest mountain in the 48 states. For them, it was a very long and exhausting day on a mountain worthy of its name. But I did talk to them using our portable radios as they slogged to the summit. My! Isn’t modern technology wonderful!

Friday, July 6, 2012

No Risk, No Gain

By Keith McDowell

His name: Antony Valentini; his crime: he’s a maverick physicist who works on a non-conventional research problem – cleaning up problems with the interpretation of quantum mechanics by returning to the old pilot wave approach originated by Schrödinger. Is this a smart move on his part? Nope. So far, Valentini has floated from one temporary position to another and currently is located at Imperial College London. No academic faculty position and no tenure for being a maverick outside the mainstream and outside the boundary of conventional wisdom.

Is Valentini an anomaly? Well yes, but not really. Most young scientists at the start of their career understand how to get their toast buttered and simply follow the path laid out by the scientific Establishment. In their hearts, they want to be risk takers and blaze new trails, but they wisely recognize that getting established is key to a paycheck and to obtaining those all important research grants. Should it be this way? Is this the best approach to creating transformative discoveries? Don’t we collectively have a responsibility to push young scientists toward independent, unfettered research instead of the “me too” drill of conventional wisdom?

Lee Smolin is my hero! Smolin, a theoretical physicist and excellent science writer, tackles this and related issues in the last part of his must-read book entitled The Trouble with Physics. I agree completely with Smolin and his introduction of craftsmen versus seers. Craftsmen are the whiz kids who are technically the best at the trade. No one can beat them on a quiz. No one can find the “conformal mapping” quicker or with more skill. No one can recite the fine points of a theory or an experiment with more erudition or clarity. They are the darlings. And if they toe the line and use those skills to push the mainstream agenda forward, they will be rewarded with plum academic positions, grants and tenure.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t this how it should be? In some measure, yes – but such behavior tends to produce only incremental advances with little impact on the overall innovation ecosystem. What’s missing are the “seers” – those who are obsessed with the foundational issues; those who question authority; and those who are never satisfied with conventional wisdom. They are the mavericks. And they are often the ones who produce disruptive advances. Amazingly, there have been periods of time when research journals would not publish their research. Some have even been told by senior faculty to drop what they are doing and join the mainstream.

To his credit, Smolin does a great job of revealing these sociological dimensions of physics and, in fact, all of STEM. I will not attempt to summarize all of Smolin’s analysis, but simply say that these dimensions must be taken into account if we as a society are going to accelerate innovation.

So what does the science Establishment say about this problem? Dr. Raynard S. Kington, acting Director of NIH in 2009, was quoted by Gina Kolata in a New York Times article as saying “We have a system that works over all pretty well, and is very good at ruling out bad things – we don’t fund bad research. But given that, we also recognize that the system probably provides disincentives to funding really transformational research.” I don’t want to fund “bad research” either; but who decides what constitutes bad research? Is Antony Valentini doing bad research? Exactly what is bad research? If you are out of the mainstream, is that bad?

I remember one day as a graduate student four decades ago when Professor Dudley Hershbach, a Nobel Laureate, came into Prince House and gathered up some theoretical graduate students. He had just come up with a new idea and wanted to try it out. In the end, the initial idea turned out to be a bad idea, but it led to a better idea from Hershbach. While I no longer remember the specific details of the discussion, I do recall him saying that it is important to churn through lots of wrong and even bad ideas in order to make real progress. His message stuck with me and I think it is a correct one. So why has the Establishment become so risk averse? Of course, truly bad research should not be funded, but we’ve also thrown out maverick and unconventional research! Even worse, we’ve thrown out the young researchers with the bathwater.

Dr. Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences made the following comments in a speech to that body on April 2003:

Briefly, we have developed an incentive system for young scientists that is much too risk averse. In many ways, we are our own worst enemies. The study sections that we establish to review requests for grant funds are composed of peers who claim that they admire scientific risk taking, but who generally invest in safe science when allocating resources. The damping effect on innovation is enormous, because our research universities look for assistant professors who can be assured of grant funding when they select new faculty appointments. This helps to explain why so many of our best young people are doing “me too” science, working in areas where they compete head-to-head with other scientists who have gone before them – often their mentors or those who have trained in the same laboratory.

Dr. Alberts further stated that:

Even the most talented of our young people seem to be forced to endure several years of rejected grant applications before they finally acquire enough “preliminary data” to assure the reviewers that they are likely to accomplish their stated goals.

Quoting from Tom Kalil and John Irons from November 2007, “More generally, researchers joke that they ‘have to do the experiments before they write the grant.’”
And at NIH, the current average age to be funded with a RO1 grant is 42 years old!

Gads! What have we done to ourselves? We’ve turned the NASA slogan of “failure is not an option” into a funding creed. We’ve become accountants with eye shades and sharp pencils making sure every tax dollar is certifiably spent on approved programmatic progress, blessed by the Establishment, no matter how incremental.

To the credit of our national science leadership and federal agencies, the issues of sufficient funding for young investigators, and transformative science have been discussed and actions taken. The National Science Board produced a report entitled Enhancing Support of Transformative Research at the National Science Foundation in 2007. NSF CAREER awards for young investigators are available. NIH has MERIT long-term funding awards, Pioneer and EUREKA awards for innovative, transformational research and New Innovator awards for promising new investigators. The Department of Defense National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship (NSSEFF) provides strings-free grants for up to $3M for 5 years. Using stimulus (ARRA) funding, DOE set aside $85 million to support at least 50 early career researchers for five years at $150,000 per year. There are other such programs.

Have we done enough to encourage independent research by young scientists along unconventional lines? Have we brought the seers back into play? I think not. We’ve only played at the margins with the game of creativity and innovation while sticking too closely to the established norms. Personally, I would like to see a granting system based on performance rather than proposals as I’ve advocated for elsewhere. My Independent Investigator Grant System would free up universities to hire the seers and the mavericks knowing full well that funding would follow should they continue to perform. Whatever we do as a Nation, we must break up or at a minimum modify the hegemony of our present risk-averse science Establishment. As any competent entrepreneur knows, without taking risks, there will be no substantial gains.