Not every scientist has the comfort of a well-equipped lab. However, newly available open platforms for biomedical in silico discovery could soon spark the brains of millions of researchers forming a geographically-distributed work force across the globe. This no longer requires working in a high-tech lab to contribute to the discovery of new mechanisms in health and diseases. Meanwhile, new opportunities for trainees, scientists and patients to practice annotation of genetic databases, could push the boundaries of open science towards countries where it has not yet been possible to work on such projects. In the second part of a two-part series, Barend Mons from the Leiden University Medical Centre, The Netherlands, explains how it could work in practice, and how close we are to realising this initiative.
Public databases of the toxic effects of chemicals that have been registered under the REACH directive have been sitting idle for too long. In an opinion piece, Thomas Hartung explains how the development of software by his team at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, at Johns Hopkins University, USA, helps make sense of the large volume of chemical database content. Now that they made such data machine readable, expectations are that it will soon be possible to provide open access to such public database. Ultimately, this could substantially decrease the number of animal tests. Indeed, the database makes it possible to do so-called read-across, allowing to infer toxicity of heaps of untested chemicals from existing data on chemicals of similar structure, which have already been tested.
In this investigative piece of pan-European journalism, EuroScientist focuses on a case study showing how an evidence-based approach could inform policies that are better suited to protect EU citizens. In this article, we focus on the case of the steel industry. It appears to have managed to render ineffective in protecting the health of EU citizens a 2010 Directive regulating industrial emissions, due to come into force in 2016. The piece reveals how decision-making mechanisms have ultimately been dampened down by many lobbying and political compromises. As a result, industry has been left to decide which tests are to be implemented to control harmful emissions, without the obligation of implementing what available evidence considers the most effective technology.
To date, most toxicology tests have not been validated but they are still mandated by regulatory agencies. The question is to find suitable ways of modernising toxicology testing in the 21st century in a structured, consistent, transparent way. In this article, Thomas Hartung, Founder Evidence-Based Toxicology Collaboration (EBTC), at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, and colleagues, examine what remains to be done to address the mounting pressure exerted on industries and food and drug regulators worldwide to bring their decision-making process up-to-date with modern science. This calls for the use of a rigorous appraisal of the value of past studies under the umbrella of what has been dubbed evidence-based medicine (EBM), to be adapted in toxicology, to guarantee the safety of drug and consumer products.
Philosophical puzzles apply in public health too. In addiction, there is a subtle balance between the rights and responsibilities of the individual and the State. Particularly, when it comes to intervening in the lives of people addicted to substances such as tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs. Here, Julian Kinderlerer, professor of intellectual property law at Cape Town University, South Africa, who is also president of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), outlines all the facets of the ethical dilemma associated with State intervention towards addiction, and places the role of scientists and ethicists in informing a balanced debate.
A camel is a horse designed by a committee, a proverb says. Policy experts doubt whether a new high level group of eminent scientists will work as planned. It is part of a new scientific advice mechanism, announced on 13 May by the European Commission. In parallel, a completely new feature of the new science advice mechanism is its structured relationship with national science academies and learned societies. The real test will come when controversial issues such as GMOs, shale gas and stem-cells come back to public debates in the future.
An anti-vivisection citizen initiative has gathered over 1.2 milion signatures. Despite lengthy debates related to the Directive on the use of animal in research, anti-vivisection campaigner still oppose any use of animals in research. The initiators of the petition, who include some scientists, argue that animal studies cannot predict how humans respond to drugs or chemicals. The move has triggered a strong response from the science community. Yet, some anticipate there could be a better way of dealing with such issues involving greater citizen engagement.
Surveillance and security technologies do not exist in a vacuum. This is why it matters to study societal impacts and compliance with fundamental rights and values of citizens. Find out the perspective of Johann Čas, an economist from the Institute of Technology Assessment, at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in Vienna. In an opinion piece, he talks about the findings of one of his latest projects, SurPRISE, which consulted 2,000 European citizens on their views of different security technologies and surveillance measures. This lead to interesting finding on what is acceptable to them in terms of security versus privacy trade-off.
This opinion piece by Ann Cahill, president of the International Press Association Brussels, critiques the public’s ability to hold decision-makers to account via media. The assessment is that the system has broken down, the old world has disappeared giving rise to a deep and unbridgeable divide between the professionals and the citizens, with vested interests manipulating a political class fed on buzz-words, the latest fad, or their own greed for power or wealth.
Nanotechologies are the perfect case study to identify lobbying forces at work in the regulatory process in Brussels. Compulsory labelling or the implementation of a register for products containing nanotech components have been at the centre of the debate spreading over an inordinately long time. But such decisions will only come at the end of a protracted debate between the European Commission, industry, consumer representatives and environment protection organisations. In the end, evidence-base and the precautionary principle may not be the base for political decisions at the EU level.
Trust is one of those things that happen between people and between people and institutions that only gets noticed when it is in danger of being eroded. So what is the state of trust in science and scientists across Europe? There is little evidence of erosion of trust in science. One might even argue that the public’s relation to science and scientists is entering a new phase: no longer one of trust, but one of public confidence.
Was the recently scraped role of European chief scientific adviser (CSA) position, held by Anne Glover, doomed to fail from the outset? Clearly it was a role that was under resourced and not clearly defined, at no fault of Glover’s, who was clearly full of the right stuff coming from the post of chief scientist in Scotland. And what role did the lobbying by a coalition of NGOs—including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth—who called for the post to be scrapped? Without an easily identifiable and contactable figurehead, the exact mechanisms by which science policy-makers use evidence – or not – remain as mysterious and opaque as ever. The debate goes further than the question of whether Europe needs a single science advisor or a series of science advisors for every single discipline. It raises the question as to how in concrete terms the evidence-base can weave its way more systematically through the policy-making process.