Sunday, April 20, 2008

NASA loses its (science) head, Pfizer loses its case
[This is my Lab Report column for the May issue of Prospect.]

The resignation of NASA’s science chief Alan Stern in April is a symptom of all that’s wrong with the US space agency. Stern has given no official reason for his abrupt departure, which of course makes it seem all the more that the reason is one he’d rather not talk about. Many suspect his decision stems from a frustrating relationship with NASA’s leadership, specifically its head Mike Griffin, despite Stern’s assertion that Griffin is “the best administrator NASA has ever had”. Stern’s aim to keep projects on schedule and within budget – both persistent problems for NASA – is hard to fault, but it has sometimes caused a collision of priorities.

A highly respected planetary scientist, Stern has been seen as a true voice of science at NASA, favouring projects that actually teach us something about the universe. But increasingly, NASA seems compelled to support popular programmes that pander to the romanticised American vision of space exploration. Griffin has frozen the budget for fundamental science to fund a manned return mission to the moon – a political rather than scientific venture. Stern also tried to reduce the focus of planetary missions on Mars at the expense of the outer planets.

The crunch seems to have come over Stern’s decision in March to shut down Opportunity, one of the two Mars rovers currently exploring the planet’s surface. Griffin was not informed of that decision, and when he found out, he reversed it. Whatever the demands of etiquette, Stern’s decision made sense: the rovers have been an immensely successful testament to the power of robotic exploration, but they have long fulfilled their objectives. Opportunity and Spirit can still gather useful data, but the real problem was that the public loves them: the planned shutdown became headline news and provoked objections in Congress.

The rovers are now portrayed like pets: newspapers talked about Opportunity being ‘put to sleep’ rather than switched off. This pathetic fallacy is a projection of the longing to put humans on Mars. The irony is that a populist commitment to cripplingly expensive human spaceflight projects will ultimately give the taxpayer far less value for money than the kind of missions Stern supported. For now, that kind of absurd sentimentality has deprived NASA of a highly capable head of science.


When scientists submit papers for publication, they usually enter into an unwritten contract of confidentiality with the journal: the paper will not be disseminated outside of the peer review process, but the reviewers will not be disclosed to the authors.

The pharmaceutical company Pfizer has decided that this arrangement should be subordinate to its own interests. During a lawsuit last year over alleged side effects of its painkillers Celebrex and Bextra, it subpoenaed the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) to release the reviews and reviewers’ identities for papers published on the drugs, along with details of the journals’ internal editorial deliberations. The NEJM’s refusal has now been upheld by a federal court in Massachusetts.

Pfizer’s lawyers say that the information could help to exonerate the company in deciding to put the drugs on sale. Bextra was withdrawn in 2005 after claims that it could cause heart attacks and strokes; Celebrex remains on the market.

“The public has no interest in protecting the editorial process of a scientific journal”, the lawyers have say. But the public has every interest in knowing that scientific claims will be checked out by independent experts who not only are guaranteed anonymity but do not expose themselves to the danger of litigation. The best reviewers might otherwise decline the task rather than take that risk. A counter-argument is that information relevant to public health should not be kept confidential – but drug companies are after all under no obligation to disclose their own tests and trials.

Besides, Pfizer has not specified what it hoped to find in the documents. One interpretation is that the company is simply fishing for anything that might help its case, rather than acting on a belief that the NEJM holds some pivotal evidence. The court’s decision is the right one, but will it persuade drug companies that they cannot rewrite the rules by which science is conducted?


The new head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine, has certainly begun her role during ‘interesting times’. The impending vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill crystallizes several moral dilemmas about today’s research and practice in these areas, and threatens to heighten the polarization they induce. Whatever positions Jardine takes are sure to upset some vocal group or other.

Perhaps this is why the appointment of someone used to taking the long view, and accustomed also to the hard knocks of public life, makes sense. Certainly, Jardine’s popularizing instincts seem right for the HFEA just now: she considers public education about fertility issues (“something people need to know about”) as important as the regulatory responsibilities. The HFEA, while not exactly an opaque bureaucracy, has seldom previously shown an explicit commitment to inform.

And now is the time to do it. So far, it seems that the kind of misinformation about the bill spread by Catholic officials and other religious groups – talk of animal-human ‘cybrid’ embryos in research as ‘of Frankenstein proportion’ – has not significantly dented a public appreciation of the benefits such research could bring. (The ‘animal’ component here is a mere shell for human genes.) But it’s never a good idea to underestimate the determination of zealots.


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