In today’s Roundup: Spread of omicron variant may make for a gloomy winter; the ethics of exporting AI models; large study examines cardiovascular side effects from COVID, vaccines; abandoning traditional publishing for preprints; deciding authorship position with videogame duels; transparent jellyfish open window on neurobiology; ditching systematic reviews for something faster; Senate committee meets to consider Califf FDA nomination; more people skimping on medical care due to cost; much more:
- “While an electric eel discharge might not damage the MRI equipment, it could produce an artifact on the resulting image that renders the image useless. And nobody wants the handlers to be electrocuted. So the first step is figuring out a way to anesthetize the eel. The handlers must don latex gloves and nonconductive footwear for the process to interrupt any conductive circuit that might form.” How does one give an electric eel an MRI exam? Ars Technica’s Jennifer Ouellette has the shocking truth.
- It’s been another rough year, but Nature’s collection of 2021’s best science images may help restore some perspective, even as it sharpens focus.
AI, STATISTICS & DATA SCIENCE
- “Much important work focuses on unearthing and redressing the unethical operations that undergird the commodities we rely on — and the same applies to data systems. The apparent immateriality of data and its infrastructures however, add an unintuitive dimension to this project.” A guest post by Yung Au at the AI Now Institute’s Medium page examines the sometimes fraught complexities of exporting an AI model.
- “Images relating machine intelligence to human intelligence set unrealistic expectations and misstate the capabilities of AI. Images representing AI as sentient robots mask the accountability of the humans actually developing the technology, and can suggest the presence of robots where there are none. Such images potentially sow fear, and research shows they can be laden with historical assumptions about gender, ethnicity and religion.” We chanced upon a great new resource for images to complement stories and presentations about AI – ones that get away from misleading clichés, thanks to the Better Images of AI Project.
- “The impact of a cosmic ray also creates vibrational energy, which takes the form of something called phonons. These phonons can also group together to form quasiparticles, in which small collections of phonons group together and start behaving like a single particle with distinct properties. It’s these quasiparticles that cause havoc, since they can exchange energy with the quantum computing hardware.” Ars Technica’s John Timmer reports that vulnerability to random cosmic ray strikes may pose significant challenges for chips used in quantum computing.
BASIC SCIENCE, CLINICAL RESEARCH & PUBLIC HEALTH
- “…America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good—which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.” In a new article for The Atlantic, Ed Yong warns readers that the omicron variant of COVID poses a series of challenges that an already overstressed US health system is not ready for.
- “Vaccination for SARS-CoV-2 in adults was associated with a small increase in the risk of myocarditis within a week of receiving the first dose of both adenovirus and mRNA vaccines, and after the second dose of both mRNA vaccines. By contrast, SARS-CoV-2 infection was associated with a substantial increase in the risk of hospitalization or death from myocarditis, pericarditis and cardiac arrhythmia.” A research article published in Nature Medicine by Patone and colleagues examines rates of adverse cardiac events associated with either COVID infection or vaccination in self-controlled case series of English persons 16 years or older.
- “Now, researchers have a creature that they can observe under a microscope as it eats (a diet of mashed-up brine shrimp) and folds its body, while the neurons governing those behaviors glow. “You can do really high-resolution experiments, looking at every neuron’s activity over time while the animal is behaving,” says Weissbourd. They can essentially read its mind—and it’s a mind that’s very different from anything we’re familiar with.” Wired’s Amit Katwala examines the surprising insights into neurobiology that have been enabled by a transparent species of jellyfish.
- “…we show the operational feasibility of our diode by integrating it with a stretchable sensor, electrochromic display pixel and antenna to realize a stretchable wireless tag. This work is an important step towards enabling enhanced functionalities and capabilities for skin-like wearable electronics.” An article published in Nature by Matsuhisa and colleagues describes the development of “stretchable polymer diodes,” an engineering achievement with potentially important implications for medical monitoring devices and wearable technologies. (See also this explanatory video.)
- “Pfizer announced on Tuesday that its Covid pill was found to stave off severe disease in a key clinical trial and that it is likely to work against the highly mutated Omicron variant of the virus. The results underscore the promise of the treatment, which health officials and doctors are counting on, to ease the burden on hospitals as the United States braces for a mounting fourth wave of the pandemic.” Although peer-reviewed findings and full data are yet to come, the New York Times notes that Pfizer has reported that its new oral antiviral therapy (“Paxlovid”) appears to reduce risk of death or hospitalization from COVID by 89%.
- “Even if Omicron causes milder disease, as some scientists hope, the astronomical case projections mean the outlook is grim, warns Emma Hodcroft, a virologist at the University of Bern. ‘A lot of scientists thought Delta was already going to make this a really, really tough winter,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure the message has gotten across to the people who make decisions, how much tougher Omicron is going to make this.’” Science’s Kai Kupferschmidt speaks with public health and epidemiology experts about the somber prospects for a winter dominated by spread of the omicron variant of COVID.
- “The past two decades have brought intensive study of PFAS and their health effects which include immune disruption, damage to the livers, kidneys and thyroids – among other problems – of exposed people. But there’s still no comprehensive understanding of how they move through people and the environment.” North Carolina Health News correspondent Rose Hoban reports on a testing program designed to establish the extent to which some North Carolinians have been effected by the presence of an industrial substance known as PFAS in their local water supply.
COMMUNICATIONS & DIGITAL SOCIETY
- “The researchers, graduate students Bokai Zhu and Yunhao Bai, played three games of Mario Kart’s Super Smash Bros.; the winner, Bai, was awarded top billing, and was permitted to list himself as the first author on his resume (called a curriculum vitae, or CV, in science circles). A footnote to the authorship list notes that Zhu and Bai contributed equally to the paper’s contents and can consider themselves co-first authors on their CVs.” A post by Krista Conger at Stanford Medicine’s SCOPE blog describes a new twist in the eternal battle of academic research: who gets to be first author on the manuscript?
- “The coronavirus was once “novel” because it was new. Now it feels both ancient and eternal. Having endured the emergence of two major strains even since the rollout of vaccines, a difficult thought is planted in my head: What if the pandemic never ends? The scientists tell me that “endemicity” is now the goal: COVID-19 will never go away, but eventually we will be able to control it. That sounds good, but we have just spent a year proving that we cannot control it, even when the tools for control appear to be at hand.” At The Atlantic, Ian Bogost takes an unflinching look at the dismaying developments that suggest yet another wave of COVID is gathering as the apparently highly transmissible omicron variant gathers momentum in populations.
- “Out-of-date systematic reviews are common any time there is a flood of new research. In the absence of up-to-date summaries of accumulating knowledge, decision makers’ attention often jumps from study to study. This muddles policymaking, fuels controversy and erodes trust in science. A better system would keep summaries of research evidence up to date.” Few facets of modern life have not been significantly reshaped by the demands imposed by the COVID pandemic, and scientific publishing is no exception. Now, in a commentary article at Nature, Elliot and colleagues propose a new approach to systematic reviews in medicine that will distill definitive data at a pace that can match the needs created by a global public health emergency.
- “…some of us came to the world of preprint publishing from a completely different perspective. It’s not because peer-review in a journal takes too long. It is not because a funding body is asking us to meet their OA requirements. It is not because posting preprints increases citation metrics down the line (read: once it is published in a journal). It’s because we do not want to participate in the publishing game and in the publishing system.” In a thought-provoking essay at The Wire, Stefano Davide Vianello makes a case for treating preprint publication of scholarly work as an end in itself – one that can exist entirely independently of traditional journal publication trajectories.
- “We find women researchers have lower chances of securing academic positions than men in every field; explicit references to women as research subjects are modestly rewarded in comparison to references to men; and more career opportunities are afforded to research knowledge associated with men. These results suggest that academia is slowly correcting the traditional and explicit bias of studying men at the exclusion of women. Still, there remains a stronger implicit bias against knowledge associated with women scholars.” In an article published in the journal Research Policy, Kim and colleagues use natural language processing to probe the question of whether women in academia are finding themselves incurring a professional penalty due to gendered expectations across multiple fields (H/T Stanford News).
- “Early research into the effects of the pandemic on scientific output is showing that new projects are down significantly over the past year; particularly among early-career researchers. It’s awful timing. The challenges posed by climate change require us to embolden every scientist, not dissuade or overlook them.” An editorial at Fast Company by Robert Downey, Jr. (yes, that Robert Downey, Jr.) and David Lang advocates for an accelerated program for climate science grant funding – one that takes its inspiration from similar programs aimed at tackling the COVID pandemic.
- “The surge in Americans who avoid medical care because of financial concerns comes as COVID-19 cases are flaring across much of the nation and after many people had put off seeking routine care during the initial phase of the pandemic. Now that more are catching up on doctors’ visits, they are facing often onerous costs. Some health expenses have increased in the past year, such as prescription medications, with drug prices outpacing inflation.” CBS News’ Aimee Picchi reports on a recent survey that finds more Americans are having to forego needed medical care due to rising costs.
- “…some things never change: Califf also made clear he still was as passionate as ever about helping the FDA and the industry develop better evidence to support regulatory decisions — a topic he called his ‘real professional love’ in 2015. All told, Califf mentioned the word evidence more than a dozen times during Tuesday’s hearing.” STAT News’ Nicholas Florko provides a wrap-up of Wednesday’s Senate HELP Committee hearing regarding the nomination of Duke cardiologist and clinical researcher Robert M. Califf to serve as Commissioner for the US Food and Drug Administration for a second time.
- “The early estimates of the efficacy of the mRNA vaccines to prevent infections — in the 95% range — created unrealistic expectations about what Covid vaccines would be able to do over the long-term in blocking all infections. As months pass from vaccination, we’ve seen declines in neutralizing antibody levels and an increase in breakthrough infections among the vaccinated — a phenomenon that seems to be accelerating with the spread of the Omicron variant….But make no mistake. The vaccines are working. In the vaccinated, hospitalizations and deaths triggered by Covid infections have plummeted.” At STAT News, Helen Branswell taps into the insights of virology experts to plumb the question that is being asked as variant after variant keep prolonging the COVID pandemic: will we need COVID boosters in perpetuity?
- “…all the talk and honors have barely moved the needle. In some respects, and despite the current national focus on diversity, the picture is worse today. The racial and ethnic diversity of orthopedics residency programs has consistently been the lowest of any specialty, and the number of orthopedics residents from groups underrepresented in medicine fell between 2002 and 2016 even as their percentages among medical students increased.” In an article at STAT News that features an interview with Erica Taylor, chief of surgery at Duke Raleigh Hospital, Usha Lee McFarling reports on growing frustrations with a persistent lack of diversity (and the consequences thereof) in the field of orthopedic surgery.