Podcast Is Up

I was interviewed for a podcast at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in August, as one of the medal events. It’s just been posted, and can be heard here. Thanks to ACS outreach pro Doug Dollemore for the interview and narration.

Science communication in the age of Trump

Just got back from Colgate University in beautiful upstate New York, where I met with students and gave a talk on science communication. It was a valuable trip for me in two ways: First, it showed me what a first-class small liberal arts university can do for science education (innovative curriculum, small class size, talented faculty, and smart students). And second, it offered me the chance to bounce ideas off of, and learn from, undergrads. The invitation to visit came from Prof. Jason Keith, who uses The Alchemy of Air in his class “Molecules That Rock Your World” (love that title). Before my formal talk I had lunch and conversation with his class of very bright young students. Great fun. Thanks to everyone at Colgate!

And about that talk . . . It focused on accurately communicating science to the public, a difficult job at best, made more difficult by recent technological and political changes. The short version is that the rise of social media and the advent of the Age of Trump has hastened the breakdown of traditional media, raised the credibility of the most outlandish ideas about science, and generally devalued the work of the majority of mainstream scientists in areas of inquiry — especially those that disagree with the political/economic aims of the current administration. In other words, the only science that matters is science that the Administration agrees with. This political/economic/technological distortion is dangerous and a crucial issue not just to me, as a science writer, but to everyone in scientific research.

Grady-Stack medal

Me with the happy grin, and Jennifer MacLachlan from the ACS. Between us, the medal.

I’ve gotta say it’s great getting recognized for your work. As the picture above attests, I was beaming a couple of weeks ago when I received the Grady-Stack medal for science communication from the American Chemical Society.  I got to give a speech during my visit to Washington, DC, where I talked about how science communicators do their thing(s), and mentioned how important it is for this often underappreciated profession to get some love for what they do. So here’s to all science communicators. And thanks again to the ACS.


Next on the agenda . . .

Just signed a contract for a new book, a history of medicine told through the stories of ten blockbuster drugs, from opium to oxycontin, the smallpox vaccine to the Pill. I like the approach (can’t take credit for it, though — a smart editor proposed it to me), I like the structure, and I like the topic. Looking forward to it!

How to Make New Energy Happen

I just delivered a keynote speech and spent a few days soaking up new knowledge at the ARPA-E Energy Summit (ARPA-E is Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy).  It was great talking with some of the smartest, best-intentioned, most productive researchers I’ve ever met. The agency, set up by Obama seven years ago, seems like a brilliant concept: Put university researchers, entrepreneurs, corporate finance people, and government representatives in the same place at the same time, set them to work on a critical problem (creating cleaner, cheaper, more reliable, more resilient energy systems), and make it easy to form productive partnerships. Let starry-eyed dreamers learn a bit about the business world, and bring hard-nosed executives the latest developments in the nation’s labs. Find the best ideas and figure out how to fund them.

Too bad that, given the change in Administrations and Trump’s stubborn belief in “alternative facts”, this might be the last Summit. I really hope not.

The daily press

One of the schools I graduated from, the University of Oregon, ran a piece this morning about my ACS award. Getting interviewed by two student journalists reminded me about what it was like when I was studying journalism, carefully writing questions, screwing up my courage to do an interview, stumbling through the Q&A, piecing together a story.  Now, on the receiving end, I can better appreciate the shortfalls of short-form daily journalism, the bits and pieces selected and quotes shortened to fit, all the stuff that I’ve heard complaints about from just about anyone who’s had a news story written about them. The students here did a fine job; but my need to tell a fuller, more nuanced, more complete story was the main reason I was attracted to writing books rather than daily newspaper stories.

I’m Pumped . . .

new-energyVery cool. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so excited about being invited to a meeting. But this is a special meeting, the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, a chance to network with some of nation’s most innovative inventors and forward-looking business and government types, all dedicated to speeding our world toward better, cleaner, more efficient and sustainable energy systems. More about ARPA-E here. And check out my fellow speakers: summit-speakers-press-release-final-draft-11-28-2016. What a group! I’ll be talking about the lessons that old technology can teach us — Haber-Bosch and how a single breakthrough discovery can change the world — but spending most of my time checking out the stuff that might just usher in a new era.  And one of my friends and I have been working on a few ideas of our own that you might be hearing more about later.

The End of Evidence-Based Medicine?

stains-cover-webA recent debate about statins in the British medical press — Lancet vs. BMJ! Cage fight! — has me wondering about a bigger question: the limits to what physicians and others in the health industry call “evidence-based medicine.” Let’s shorten that to EBM, and see what the problem is.

EBM is usually defined as “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.” Hard to argue with that. Of course doctors should weigh what the current evidence says about a treatment before subjecting their patients to it. There may be questions about what is accepted as “evidence” and who defines what’s “best,” But that shouldn’t be too hard, either. Most physicians that I’ve talked to (and most people in general) would think that evidence means carefully conducted scientific studies, and best means most reproducible and consistent. As a science writer, I’m all in favor of basing things like medical treatment on scientific evidence. So yay EBM.

If there’s any place EBM should work, it’s in the arena of statins, the biggest-selling, most widely prescribed prescription medicines of our time. They are also the most studied, with hundreds of scientific papers assessing their risks and benefits.

So why are we still debating their proper use? It might come down to something that the admirable Ben Goldacre wrote a couple of years ago, “If there is any uncertainty at all about the risks and benefits of statins – and there is – then we have failed to competently implement the most basic principles of evidence based medicine.”  In other words, the cure for this problem is more and better EBM.

But I don’t think it’s quite that. At least not only that. I encourage interested readers to read both sides of the statin debate summarized in the first link, as well as the bits that it links to. You’ll soon find yourself immersed — as I have been for the past few months — in a morass of evidence, a range of opinions about what that evidence means, and what appears to me to be a wall circumscribing EBM, a hard limit on what we can expect from basing medical practice on science. More studies — more EBM — won’t solve the problem.

Because the problem is rooted in places that EBM can’t go. In human greed and fallability, in our proclivity to adopt hard positions and defend them, in our personal ideas of what’s good for our society, and the ways in which these ideas conflict with others. EBM is misused by those who might profit from a particular angle, and when the stakes are high enough, will rarely lead to a consensus accepted by all. The same factors are at play in even bigger questions, like climate change. No amount of “evidence” is going to convince “skeptics.”

I spent several months going over the evidence about statins, and published my own reading of the issue here. (Spoiler alert: They are good for some people, bad for others; ; cause a bunch of side effects that range from annoying to life-threatening; can save many lives in high-risk groups but are relatively useless in populations who are at low-to-moderate risk of heart disease. There are equally effective, less risky alternatives for many patients. Bottom line: Statins are way, way, way overprescribed.)

That’s my opinion. It conflicts with the opinion of others. And as much as I hate to say it, I have little faith that the answer to that conflict will come from EBM.


Well, This Is Nice

This is not me. It's Alan Alda, who, oddly enough, also won this award.

This is not me. It’s Alan Alda, who, oddly enough, also won this award for his work in science communication..

Just found out some very good news: the American Chemical Society has announced its 2017 national award winners, and I’m among them. They’re giving me the Grady-Stack Award for interpreting chemistry for the public, the organization’s highest communications prize.

I’m really happy for a couple of reasons. First, because some of the science writers I admire most in this world — like the talented and tireless Deborah Blum, nobelist/poet Roald Hoffman, the brilliant Isaac Asimov, the dean of all science journalists Victor Cohn, and the man who originally inspired me to enter this field, Boyce Rensberger — are among the past recipients. It’s an incredible honor to be ranked in their number.

And second, because this is a seal of approval from those I write about, the scientists whose labors and insights are explored in my books. It’s a mark that my writing is true to its subjects as well as its readers. And that gets to the heart of what we all try to do in this science writing game: To bring to life, as accurately and completely as possible, the excitement and drama of science, and its value to our society.

Like I said, I’m really happy about this.