Wednesday, February 8, 2012

NIH Proposes a New Institute

graphics from

NIH released today a new Request for Information (RFI): Input into the Scientific Strategic Plan for the proposed National Institute of Substance Use and Addiction Disorders. Based on  Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) recommendation from Dec 2010 (well, the NIH bureaucracy definitely is a problem...) NIH proposes a new Institute, which will replace and expand two other units: the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). They key information here is that finally NIH reorganizes its structure to potentially increase productivity and reduce costs of redundant administration. 
What we don’t know yet is the Strategic Scientific Plan, probably the most crucial document for the new Institute, which will frame it’s scientific goals and directions of development including not only research but also public health needs. 
In the context of emerging problems like widespread abuse of prescription drugs as well as completely futile and irrational “war on drugs” it will be very interesting to see, which directions of drug policy NIH will support.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Contradicting Stereotypes: Equal Opportunities For Women Do Not Harm Men


Stereotypes and preconceptions shape our sociopolitical reality maybe even to a bigger extent than facts and reason. The paper recently published in Science is contradicting one of such prejudices: the belief that affirmative actions, which are implemented to encourage women to enter competition, are not only unfair (discriminate male participants) but overall do more harm than good.
One of the biggest caveats of social sciences like economics or sociology is the fact that no control experiments are feasible to perform on general populations. Therefor any conclusions driven from data with no reference to controls have to be treated with particular caution. In recent years the laboratory controlled studies are gaining more and more attention from researchers in those fields and the study discussed here is an example of such approach.
In brief, the study performed on a group of undergraduate students shows that four different types of affirmative actions, equivalents of those implemented by some European countries in their policies, are not only effective and reach their goals in terms of increased participation of women, but also do not discriminate male competitors and don’t have any negative effects on post-competition group performance. The two latter arguments, which are not supported by any reliable research, are frequently risen to discredit gender equity policies. The study shows for example that women who enter the competition with extra points at the entry and win, are qualified enough and would have won with their male counterparts even without any preferential treatment (guys are not discriminated). Additionally, mixed gender teams in which women got some advantage perform not any worse then those where was no advantage. In other words: equal opportunities for females do not harm anyone.

More details here and here (subscription required).

Friday, January 27, 2012

Global View: Contraception Saves Lives, or One Infographics Worth More Than a Dozen of Scientific Reports

More from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Click HERE for better resolution

Global View: Bill Gates calls for a New Green Revolution

In his 2012 Annual Letter, Bill Gates summarizes major efforts taken by his foundation and emphasizes future goals in three areas where the Foundation is engaged. They include Innovation in Agriculture, Global Health and US Education. All of those efforts are probably equally important but I will focus here on the one that seems to be the most striking but at the same time the most neglected by the broad public of the West: the FOOD PROBLEM.
The world is facing a fast population growth and problems arising from this process together with the climate change issues are already affecting underdeveloped and developing countries to much larger extent than the developed world. And it will get worse (unless we do something about it...).
Couple of facts:
1) In poor countries agriculture is a major fraction of the economy;
2) Food prices are rising constantly and have already reached levels of mid 70's of the previous century, and show a trend towards further increase;
3) In underdeveloped and developing countries the proportion of farmers to entire population is high and very often exceeds 50% and families in those countries spend the highest proportion of their incomes on food (e.g. 45% in Kenya but only 9% in UK);
4) Rise in global temperature is predicted alone to decrease the productivity of main crops by over 25%;
5) Earth population is constantly growing with the highest growth rates observed in  underdeveloped countries, which implies the growth in food demand that will not meet the needs, especially of the poor.

Sources: World Bank, 2009; US Department of Agriculture, 2009; Euromonitor International
by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, click to enlarge

This situation reminds the one of 1960's when major global food crisis seemed to be unavoidable. Luckily, the solution came from the Green Revolution of 1970's and the disaster was prevented at a time. 
Today we are facing a similar problem, and according to Bill Gates words, the NEW Green Revolution is required. Unfortunately, the amount of fundings that go to agricultural research, which addresses the needs of the neglected portion of world's population, is absolutely insufficient. The development of crops resistant to different acute climate conditions, as well as to most spreader crop deceases can safe millions of human beings. In this regard a much bigger financial and technological engagement of western countries is inevitable.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Challenge of Getting Your First Grant Before You Retire ...

According to a new study recently published in PLoS ONE, US-based biomed researchers obtain their first NIH grants at the average age of 42 (sic!).  I don't need any other argument to keep away from this career path...

Age Comparison between NIH PIs and First-Time Recipients with Nobel Recipients, 1980- 2010, Matthews et al., PLoS ONE, 2011; click to enlarge

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Global View:The Number of Unsafe Abortions Rises

WHO in collaboration with New York based Guttmacher Institute published today a deeply disturbing report in The Lancet on abortions incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008. The study included data on induced pregnancy terminations from all world regions, combining  complex information from official sources, hospital records and surveys. The study shows that although the total number of abortions is in decline, the number of unsafe* abortions has risen from 44% in 1995 to 49% in 2008, putting more women at serious health risk and in life threatening situations (13% of maternal deaths attributes to unsafe abortions). Approximately 97% of all abortions in Africa and 95% in Latin America  were considered unsafe (with only 9% in Europe). What's substantial, in many african countries these numbers are extremely high even if abortion laws are liberal.
Additionally, data strongly indicate that abortion rates are lower in subregions were more women live under liberal abortion laws, and thus this study does not support the common pro-life justification for stringent abortion laws.
Association of abortion rate with prevalence of liberal abortion laws by subregion in 2008, The Lancet

Not surprisingly, the lowest abortion incidence was observed in western european countries, where abortion laws are either very liberal or liberally interpreted, and where's wide access to family planning and contraception.

The overall conclusion driven from this study indicates that restrictive abortion laws not only DO NOT PREVENT abortions, but rather contradict their goals and contribute to higher abortion rates and higher maternal mortality. 

* "(...)as in previous efforts to estimate abortion incidence and consistent with WHO practice, we used the operational definition of unsafe abortions, which is abortions done in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, and those that do not meet legal requirements in countries with less restrictive laws. Safe abortions were defined as those that meet legal requirements in countries with liberal laws, or where the laws are liberally interpreted such that safe abortions are generally available", Sedgh et al., The Lancet 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Must Read: The Global War Against Baby Girls

Big sex bias in populations of such countries as China and India have been observed for many years and isn't surprising any more. However,  social and cultural mechanisms accounting for this phenomenon are more complicated than one would assume. What's more it's not only restricted to these major asian countries but can be observed among all continents and many cultural traditions. Nicolas Eberstadt, the author of The Global War Against Baby Grils in The New Atlantis journal provides a very deep and elegant in terms of data presentation and analysis insight into this tremendous discrimination of females worldwide. Definitely, MUST READ.
Child sex ration (0-4 years of age) in China by county, click to enlarge

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sci-Fi becomes a reality?

Just a few days ago Qualcomm Foundation and X Prize Foundation announced a $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize Competition for innovative technology which is expected to revolutionize healthcare as we know it today. Inspired by the legendary Star Trek, where portable devices called Tricorders were used for bodily functions measurement and analysis,
the founders are seeking new solutions which will combine artificial intelligence, mobile technologies, wireless sensing, imaging diagnostics, lab-on-a-chip, and molecular biology to provide personalized hands-on medical assistance. 
Are our smartphones going to be our primary care physicians of the (nearest) future?

Friday, January 13, 2012

(Ir)rational approaches to decision-making...

I've recently attended a seminar where a highly enthusiastic young pediatrician was trying to convince the public that her research on environmental disruptors of the endocrine system during prenatal development is (1) interesting and important, and (2) can contribute to shaping policy in terms of child safety products regulations. What she is trying to figure out is whether certain types of chemicals, phtalens, which can be found in plastic products such as kitchen utensils and toys, as well as in foods rich in fat (cheeses, red meat), can cause developmental abnormalities in the reproductive system of boys. The reason to study this, according to her words, is to ask the question whether pregnant women should be advised to avoid such products and to eventually introduce regulations that will ban/set restrictions on phtalens content in products which are considered as safe for soon-to-be-born children and babies. At first sight, the idea does not seem unreasonable, but doubts start to rise when we pay more attention to the problem. Despite the concerns of methodological nature which I will not talk about, I don't see much sense in pursuing such studies. Let me explain why.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Public Opinion on Healthcare Costs Reduction, pt.3

Today a couple more insights from the Harvard School of Public Health report. Despite the overall differences in general public perception of healthcare systems and governments healthcare-related decisions among nationalities, the judgement of specific decisions is common for all of them. All investigated groups, but Britons, agree with the statement that many patients are given unnecessary high-cost prescription drugs and treatments, but at the same time, as a result of cost-reductions, such drugs and treatments are withhold from numerous patients which might benefit from them.

In (your country) today, how often do you think (the government or health insurance plans withhold/the national health service withholds) high-cost (prescription drugs/medical or surgical treatments) from some people who might benefit from them in order to save money?

People also strongly oppose any policies restricting access to high-cost prescription drugs and treatments, including situations when there's no evidence they bring better outcomes than available cheaper options, unless less expensive alternatives have been shown to be more effective. This suggests that in public opinion we just simply deserve more advanced treatments even if their costs don't account for their effectiveness. Does it mean we believe in higher prices= better value more than rational arguments?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Public Opinion on Healthcare Costs Reduction, pt.2

As shown in the previous post, US citizens are the most dissatisfied with their healthcare system among the four nations included in Harvard's study, with the prevalent number of almost 30% which are very dissatisfied (vs 3% in UK and 5% in Germany). Taking into account that US healthcare is the most innovative in the world, but at the same time the most expensive and the least cost-effective when compared with other top 18 developed nations, such data are not surprising and may indicate public awareness of the US healthcare system major problems. On the other hand, UK which has the best cost-effectiveness of the healthcare system, shows the highest proportion of those who are either fairly (44%) or very (24%) satisfied with the way it runs in their country. These numbers correspond to the level of confidence people have for the governments healthcare-related decisions (Americans don't trust them, whereas Britons rather do). The question is whether the two different degrees of credence attribute to the amount of satisfaction, or rather to the general social beliefs in central government decision-making and regulatory role (are Americans much more liberal, or even libertarian than Britons?).