Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where are the science experts?

When you have questions about health and science, some people go to the internet while others, like my brother-in-law, call me.  I used to think he wanted to know the answers to the questions (what are stem cells and why are they important?) but, lately, I have been thinking that he wants to keep me from getting bored during the holidays.  Am I dull?  Really?  Save that thought…

What happens when the President or the Congress have questions about science?  I mean, surely they have must have questions.  Don’t get me wrong, President Obama (B.A. Columbia University, J.D. Harvard University) is pretty bright and a number congressmen and women have advanced degrees but do they know about the way the ozone hole works?  Or what the differences are between adult and embryonic stem cells.  What do they know about climate change, or greenhouse gases?  Do they know why CO2 is a greenhouse gas and why N2 is not?  Are they scared of bisphenol A?  Where do they go for help?  What about judges who are often asked to evaluate arguments of a scientific nature (do breast implants adversely affect human health?).

Established by President Lincoln in 1963, the U.S. National Academies today includes the National Academy of Sciences (or just NAS) the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the National Research Council (NRC).  The legislation introduced by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts set forth – in my opinion sensibly - the following principles:

[T]he Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art, the actual expense of such investigations, examinations, experiments, and reports to be paid from appropriations which may be made for the purpose, but the Academy shall receive no compensation whatever for any services to the Government of the United States.
An Act to Incorporate the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)  

Initially, the academy was stocked, kind of like a trout pond, with 50 members and, later, members (like Spencer Baird, American icthyologist) were added by a nomination and election of current members.  Today, about 2,000 scientists, doctors, and engineers are members of this elite institution.  How elite?  About 200 Nobel prizes have been awarded to Academy members.  Membership doesn’t pave the way for a Nobel Prize any more than winning a Screen Actors Guild award leads to an Oscar.  Both the Nobel committee and the Academy are looking for the brightest minds to help advise the World, the President and the Congress to help them solve the big problems of our time.  In 1916, when the National Research Council (NRC) was added, that “problem,” for which the nations needs were greater than the NAS and NAE (established in 1864) could accommodate, was the [first] World War.  

I love going to the National Academy of Science web site ( and looking at reports that address issues of research in biotechnology, medicine, education, and natural resources.  While somewhat longer than the brief snippets that get out to the popular press, many are written in very accessible language. There are 600 “projects” under investigation today, spanning Agriculture (Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels) to Biodiversity (A to B?).  In the area of nuclear security, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wanted to use new radiation detectors to screen cargo containers for nuclear/radiological material at US ports and border crossings, so Congress told DHS to ask the NRC to advise them on testing, analysis, costs, and benefits.  One neat side effect is that the results of all these Congressional “homework assignments” is a report that you can buy (for the bound copy) or download for… wait for it… free!

The NAS, NAE, and IOM also publishes (along with the University of Texas at Dallas) a monthly magazine Issues in Science and Technology that you can read online.

Don’t like reports?  Magazines?  The National Academies feel your pain.  They’ve also got lots of informative booklets (most of which can be downloaded for free) on a number of critically important topics like:

More information on publications of the National Academies can be found at

The legislature and the President had the wisdom to establish the National Academies.  They knew that the problems facing the nation were too big and complex for legislators to solve them alone, and in one sweeping step, they harnessed the energy of the best and brightest minds to study, explain, and help us to tackle them.  

UpdateThe FBI asked the NAS to evaluate their scientific investigation of the anthrax letters from 2001. In their report, which was peer-reviewed - a critical step in good science - before its release on February 15th, the NAS commended the FBI for drawing on the expertise of government and private-sector in building a novel Anthrax repository but suggested that recently-developed techniques could have increased the strength of their conclusions.  I have oversimplified the extensive investigation that the NAS conducted.  For more information on this, check out the report.