Accessibility links

Our World — 2 December 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Moving to combat science fraud ... a look at the Global Fund that's backing the war on AIDS ... and the challenge of invasive species...

GADEN: "These are crafty beasts. Even though they're primitive and they haven't evolved much since the time of the dinosaurs, they still will find ways in which to spread, and we always have to try our best to stay one step ahead of them."

Those stories, teenagers, smoking and drinking, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

An independent panel has recommended that one of America's leading scientific journals, Science, should require more information from authors, especially if their papers are likely to generate a lot of public attention.

The recommendation come from a group of experts who investigated how the editors of a top science publication were duped by fraudulent research on embryonic stem cells.

But as we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, the experts admit a foolproof system is probably not possible.

BERMAN: In 2005, the scientific community was outraged when it learned of one of the most high profile fraud cases in history: a group of researchers, led by South Korean biomedical scientist Hwang Woo Suk, claimed for the first time to have derived stem cells from the cloned embryos of 11 patients.

Stem cells can potentially be manipulated to develop into any tissue of the body, and the news suggested that scientists had jumped a major hurdle in customizing the growth of new organs to replace diseased ones.

The landmark research was published by Science. But there was one problem. Most, if not all, of the embryos turned out to be fake or never existed at all.

Donald Kennedy is editor in chief of Science.

KENNEDY: "The fraud was so convincing that peer reviewers didn't catch it, that many U.S. scientists who had heard the work described at small meetings in great detail by Hwang and his collaborators and U.S. scientists who had visited that laboratory in South Korea were surprised and even astonished when the work turned out to be fraudulent."

BERMAN: The magazine assembled an independent assessment committee to investigate the fraud.

The reviewers concluded that, with the pre-publication review process the magazine used, it was unlikely Science could have detected the deception.

The committee said the system Science has used is based on trust, in which editors merely look for flawed experiments and inconsistencies with other related research.

The committee is recommending that the editors of Science add a strong dose of skepticism when reviewing articles, particularly high-profile research, and that includes asking the authors for the source of their information and insisting that they provide complete data.

John Braumann is chair of the independent assessment committee.

Braumann says around 10 articles a year are submitted to Science for publication that probably should receive this kind of scrutiny, but even with stricter editorial oversight, he says the system is not perfect.

BRAUMANN: "We can ask for more detail when necessary. But none of us think that all fraud can be detected. But we do think it can be deterred."

BERMAN: Because of the high profile nature of some of the studies, Braumann says some scientists may try to gain personal recognition or financial gain by misrepresenting their work.

BRAUMANN: "And we're concerned that science continue to be viewed by the public as an enterprise in which truth is paramount."

BERMAN: Science editor Donald Kennedy says the magazine is now creating a screening process for high-profile research papers, including those dealing with stem cells and global warming, while it considers whether to adopt other measures. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington

Friday was World AIDS Day, an annual observance sponsored by the United Nations to measure progress in combating the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

Although there is still no cure, HIV/AIDS can be managed with knowledge, commitment, doctors, medicine ... and money.

That's were the Global Fund comes in. It's the largest single non-political source of money in the battle against the disease. VOA's Adam Phillips takes a closer look at the Global Fund, as seen through the eyes of a leading activist who is trying to make sure the Fund's resources are well spent:

PHILLIPS: The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is a multi-billion dollar project supported by a consortium of donor nations, non-governmental organizations, in-country health care providers, educators and others. While the workings of this Geneva-based agency are quite complex, the core idea underlying its work is quite simple: each of the 131 nations that seek AIDS funding is in the best position to know what its needs are, and how best to spend the money it receives. Bernard Rivers is the executive director of AIDSPAN, an independent organization that monitors the Global Fund and publishes the Global Fund Observer, a free, online newsletter about its activities.

RIVERS: "The Global Fund says to each country, in effect, What do you want to do to fight AIDS? And each country can design what kind of program it wants. One country might want to set up an anti-retroviral treatment program. That is, they may want to buy lots of the modern anti-retroviral drugs, which are used to treat AIDS. Another country might want to focus on prevention through education.

PHILLIPS: Here's how the Global Fund works. Donor nations contribute funds to a common reserve, which today totals about $6.3 billion. Nations who apply for funds submit very specific proposals. The proposals, says AIDSPAN's Bernard Rivers, are judged according to their merit and the results that are promised, never on political considerations. What's more, Rivers says, the decision to renew funding is based entirely on results achieved..

RIVERS: "This poses an interesting challenge. Because if the country sets ridiculously high targets by spending a very small amount of money it claims it will deliver phenomenal results, that may look good in the proposal. But then, if the grant is approved, the Fund says 'where are the results? Are you delivering those results?' If on the other hand, the country aims rather low and promises very modest results, the Global Fund may say 'well, we can get better results elsewhere by giving grants to other countries.'"

PHILLIPS: One example of this tough "bottom line" approach occurred early in 2006 when the Global Fund cut off $70 million in funding to Nigeria. Rivers says that Nigeria's proposal had promised that 14,000 of its AIDS-infected citizens would receive anti-retroviral drugs by the end of last year.

RIVERS: "The actual number of people who were on treatment by the end of the first year was zero. Quite a number of people started to be put on treatment in the second year, but the grant was way behind schedule, and there was a serious lack of desire by the government of Nigeria to make those grants work efficiently.

PHILLIPS: So where do things stand in the fight against AIDS?

RIVERS: "What is the good news? There is more money available to fight AIDS. There is more willingness by governments to acknowledge that AIDS is a crisis which must be fought. There are more doctors and nurses trained. There are more anti-retroviral drugs available. Drugs are available at a lower price."

PHILLIPS: But, says Rivers, there is bad news as well.

RIVERS: "The bad news is that individual human beings still deny the possibility that they themselves might have HIV, they themselves might give HIV to someone else.

PHILLIPS: Bernard Rivers is founder and director of AIDSPAN, an independent watchdog agency that monitors the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week we visit the website of a popular Washington museum, which brings little bits of paper to life.

POPE: "The National Postal Museum is one of the Smithsonian Institution museums. The website reflects both exhibits and activities the museum does physically in the [museum's exhibition] space, as well as activities and exhibits that exist only on the website itself."

Nancy Pope is a curator at the National Postal Museum, online at postalmuseum.si.edu.

The physical museum, located in Washington's former main post office building, includes not just a world-class collection of stamps, but it also tells of the story of how the mail is moved and the impact it has on our lives. Many of the museum's exhibits are presented online, often enhanced with additional information, and there are web-only features, too.

As any collector will tell you, the stamps issued by a country are an important reflection of the nation's life and culture.

POPE: "Countries use stamps to basically serve as an icon of what the country believes itself to be: what is important at that time for that country. It's almost like advertising themselves."

And that changes over time. Pope points out that early U.S. stamps typically featured presidents. Later stamps highlighted historic events, national parks or institutions like the girl scouts. Fast-forward to 2007: next year's stamps will include tributes to jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, stained glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany and animated characters from Disney films.

The National Postal Museum website also focuses on the process of moving the mail, where technology has long played an important role. Today that can be seen in bar codes and in the scanners that read hand-written addresses. Early in the last century, it was the Post Office Department that created the basis for the American civil aviation industry.

POPE: "They set up beacons so you could fly at night, set up a system of telegraphs, of weather reports. It's an incredible creation of a transcontinental flyway that then establishes a standard that airlines can use when they start up."

Nancy Pope of the National Postal Museum, where they don't forget that the technology and the stamps are just ways of delivering messages, and you can read some of that mail — from immigrants writing home from America or soldiers writing home in wartime — at postalmuseum.si.edu, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Fats Waller – "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"

And you're listening to the airmail edition of VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Officials at the U.S. space agency NASA this week approved the launch of the space shuttle Discovery for December 7 on a mission to continue construction of the International Space Station. The eight-person crew includes two women and an astronaut from Sweden. They are expected to be in space for 13 days.

This will be the first nighttime shuttle flight since the accident that destroyed the shuttle Columbia, which investigators blamed on damage from a piece of insulation that came off the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch. After the Columbia accident, NASA limited the shuttle to daytime launches and added cameras and other sensors to detect any damage caused by loose insulation or other debris.

At a press conference on Wednesday, shuttle commander Mark Polansky expressed confidence in their ability to detect any damage, even while launching in the dark.

POLANSKY: "The main point is that launching in the daytime does not really do that much for the current mission in that we will have the radar to look at debris, we have a wing-leading edge sensor system to detect impacts, we will do a full-up flight day two inspection like all the previous three flights. So we feel that we will be able to assess the health of the vehicle before we de-orbit and come home. The one component that you really lose when you don't get daytime photography is you don't get a chance to see that maybe something came off [of the external fuel tank] and maybe just missed the vehicle, which is not that much of a concern for you but could be a concern for the next mission. So for us, we don't really view it as a really large change."

If there is any damage, astronauts are prepared to do repairs while they're docked at the space station. If it's something they can't handle, another shuttle could be sent on a rescue mission, but obviously NASA hopes that won't be necessary.

You see it at hip clubs around the world and in classic Hollywood movies. Stylish people with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. With those sorts of role models, it's not surprising that young people think alcohol and tobacco are natural partners. It's a partnership that has long concerned public health officials and researchers alike. Our health reporter, Rose Hoban, has the latest research on the danger.

HOBAN: Researchers have known for a long time that smokers tend to drink alcohol and drinkers tend to smoke cigarettes. Now new research indicates that adolescents who smoke are more likely to go on to abuse alcohol than their non-smoking peers.

Richard Grucza is an epidemiologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. He analyzed data from more than 73,000 interviews collected over three years in U.S. government surveys.

GRUCZA: We divided adolescents up according to how much they drink, so we put them in groups as light drinkers, moderate drinkers, heavy drinkers and we saw that regardless of how much they drank, the smokers always had substantially more problems with alcohol use and dependence than did the non-smokers.

HOBAN: The surveys asked adolescents about their risk behaviors in a way that insured complete anonymity, so Grucza believes the data is highly reliable. He says the survey can't prove that smoking leads to alcohol dependence, because it only looks at how the two are correlated. But he does think the two may be related.

GRUCZA: I think the implications are that there may be a cause-and-effect relationship here and so we really need to look closer at that possibility. We've at least shown, kids who smoke are more likely to be on the road to addiction than kids who don't.

HOBAN: Grucza says this data does point to the need to prevent adolescents from both smoking and drinking.

GRUCZA: Kids shouldn't smoke, you know. At the very least, if they're going to smoke, the longer we can delay that behavior probably the better. We already know that, but it does add one potential risk to this battery of risks that we already know about, namely that is that it is possible that smoking directly paves the way to subsequent addiction to more serious substances, including alcohol.

HOBAN: Grucza adds that these results raise questions about whether early smoking does lead to addiction and the possibility that genetic predispositions to alcohol abuse may be triggered by smoking. Grucza's paper appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. For Health Briefs, I'm Rose Hoban

One of the most destructive invasive species in North America's Great Lakes was also the first one to arrive. The sea lamprey invaded the Lakes more than a hundred years ago, and in all that time, no one's been able to get rid of it. It's the only invader in the Lakes that managers have been able to control, but it takes millions of taxpayers' dollars every year to keep the blood-sucking parasite in check. And as Rebecca Williams reports, there's no end in sight:

WILLIAMS: There's a sea lamprey sucking on Marc Gaden's hand.

GADEN: "You can see he's really got my thumb now, I'll try and pull him off my thumb. This is a suction cup." (popping sound of lamprey being detached).

WILLIAMS: Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. It's a group that was created by the US and Canadian governments with one main purpose: to control the sea lamprey. Gaden isn't in any actual danger when a lamprey's hanging on him. They don't feed on warm-blooded creatures. But fish are another story.

GADEN: "The mouth is ringed with sharp teeth, row after row of these sharp teeth, and in the middle of the mouth there is a tongue that flicks out and it's sharp as a razor. What that tongue does is files its way through the side of the fish's scales and skin and then the sea lamprey has access to blood and body fluids of the fish and that's what it does, it feeds on them."

WILLIAMS: Sea lamprey get fat drinking fish blood and fluids. They leave bloody holes in the side of fish, wounds that often kill the fish.

Lamprey got into the lakes through manmade canals that connected to the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1940s, the exotic species had invaded every one of the Great Lakes. Marc Gaden says by the 1950s, lampreys had killed off most of the big predator fish in the Lakes.

GADEN: "There's literature around that time period that talked about gaping bloody wounds that commercial fishermen were finding on their catch, the commercial catch was beginning to go down the tubes, also because of overfishing, but sea lamprey was a major cause of that decline."

WILLIAMS: Paul Jensen's family used to fish for the popular lake trout before the lamprey wiped them out. Jensen now fishes for whitefish. He's one of a small pool of commercial fishers who still pull a living from the Lakes.

JENSEN: "Every port along southern Michigan had commercial fishermen. South Haven, St. Joseph, Ludington, Manistee. There aren't any, they're gone. And one of the main reasons they're gone, I think can be traced back to sea lamprey."

WILLIAMS: Jensen says most commercial fishers these days have to do more than catch fish. He also runs a marina and builds research boats. Jensen says commercial fishers either had to adapt to the changes the lampreys brought or get out of the business.

JENSEN: "The whole food chain has just been devastated and turned upside down by exotics, and it's been kind of a mystery; we have no clue as to where it's gonna go. We're glad with what we're getting but I don't know if we have much control of where it's going."

WILLIAMS: The people who manage fisheries have been wrestling for control over the sea lamprey. Marc Gaden says the lamprey control program has reduced the parasites' numbers by 90 percent over the past 50 years. But he says lampreys have recently rebounded above target levels in several areas of the Great Lakes.

GADEN: "It goes to show you these are crafty beasts. Even though they're primitive and haven't evolved much since the time of the dinosaurs, they still will find ways in which to spread and find new stream habitats and we always have to try our best to stay one step ahead of them."

WILLIAMS: Gaden says the fishery commission has been aggressively treating the areas where lamprey numbers are too high. The main method is a lampricide that kills lamprey when they spawn in streams. Researchers are also working on chemical attractants to lure lampreys into traps.

But all of this takes money. Since the 1950s, the US and Canada have spent about $300 million to keep lampreys in check. Marc Gaden says that sounds like a lot of money, until you look at the value of the fishery. It's valued at about $4 billion a year.

GADEN: "So the amount of money we spend, upwards of $20 million a year, to keep lampreys under control, is a tiny fraction of the value of that fishery. But nevertheless it's a cost we're going to have to endure in perpetuity because the lampreys are not going away."

WILLIAMS: But the Bush Administration's proposed budget cut some of the funding for lamprey control. The fishery commission is hopeful that Congress will restore the funding. Marc Gaden says if we want any sport fishing, any tribal fishing, any commercial fishing... lampreys have to be kept under control, and that takes steady funding from Congress.

For the Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams.

The Environment Report is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can find more information and subscribe to weekly podcasts at environmentreport.org.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

XS
SM
MD
LG