Science has an ever evolving role in our society. In many cases, once an institution or program comes into being, it is already on the verge of being obsolete. In the historical, or traditional roles of science, it played a role clearly distinct from popular culture. The popularity of both cable TV and the internet have changed that. On cable TV, channels like the Myth Busters do present a methodological epistemology that is representative of scientific method. Is it possible to light a match with a bullet? Can a corked bat hit a ball further than a solid bat? While not burning scientific questions, the length that Jamie and Adam must go through to test such hypothesis is in fact representative of scientific method. In fact, most scientific laboratories are rather specialized, and would have great difficulty rigging a pitching machine and bat swinging apparatus accurately enough to hit a baseball, or fire a gun accurately enough to brush against he head of a match. Most importantly, we introduce viewers to the concept of an epistemology supported by evidence of demonstration an calculation. Thanks to MythBusters, we will have a generation which will expect the conjecture we are confronted with in our everyday lives to stand up to the test of demonstration, and the possibility of being classified as, supported, plausible, or the ever popular, BUSTED!.
How well are our traditional institutions stand up to the challenge of a better educated, and more scientifically aware public? The judgment seems to vary. This week I took the opportunity to visit an institute which plays a pivotal role in the countries and the worlds climate and oceanographic science effort, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI), now part of Florida Atlantic University. Since this was going to be a day trip because of the traveled distance for me, and the desire to move through Miami during off traffic hours, I decided also visit the Miami Seaquarium next door to RSMAS on Virginia Key.
I was hoping that the Seaquarium would be more than a tourist oriented location, perhaps because of its proximity to RSMAS. The shows at the Seaquarium were great, but not from a science and society standpoint. In particular, there was no obvious interaction or cooperation between RSMAS and the Seaquarium. I considered this a missed opportunity.
So, as afternoon waned, I changed into a suit and moved on to Rosensteil. RSMAS is a gated facility, with all the outward warmth of a military base in Afghanistan. Because of the “special event” status of Dr. Pomponi’s seminar to RSMAS alumni, I briskly moved through the gate under the watchful scrutiny the guard and followed the “special event” signs to the Auditorium. I arrived a bit early, but unfortunately there is not much to see on the campus. Most doors carry the admonishment that the facility is being monitored on closed circuit security cameras. In the back of my mind, I seemed to recall that many people in government conspiracy theory circles regard RSMAS as a facility devoted to satellite intelligence gathering for the CIA and National Security Agency, not weather reporting. With that in mind, and the presumption that I was on closed circuit security camera, I went to the library and checked my email. The librarian was very helpful in getting me up and going.
After that I went over to the auditorium and was very graciously greeted by Shirley Pomponi! I met her previously at her presentation at Harbor Branch, and she remembered me! Her presentation was of course awesome and as such, there is a video of it online at YouTube. Her talk was on drugs derived from marine organisms. In particular, her specialty is sponges, and as such the title “Drugs from the Sea, Sponges as Chemical Factories”. Sponges face the same pathological biological hazards that all organisms face, yet these primitive animals do not have adaptive immune systems, that is antibodies that can be produced to attack specific targets. They defend themselves with a myriad of chemical defenses, and these provide a wonderful resource to those people looking for new drugs, such as Dr. Pomponi. She herself has discovered and brought to market a number of these products.
But in some sense, her program got stolen. During her presentation she mentioned the product of a marine snail, PRIALT, is a pain killer 100 to 1000 times more potent than morphine (from Dr. Pomponi’s slide). At the end of the lecture, during the question period, a youngster asked her if the drug was addictive. Dr. Pomponi seemed surprised, and responded that she would have to “get back to him on that one”.
At the reception after the lecture, the big question was who was the kid, and did someone in the audience put him up to ask his questions. (There were more). It turns out he was in the fourth grade, and as far as anyone could tell, he was a science buff. After satisfying myself that the mystery was resolved, I got a drink and stepped on to the porch to enjoy the evening weather. Since, technically I was crashing the event, I restrained myself and ate considerably less than my usual quantity of hors d’oeuvres. The graduate students who were there were very nice, and to a large extent they were curious, if not interested, in meeting new people and finding out who I was.
So I guess I should come up with some kind of point here. In case you didn’t pick up on it “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” is a funny response to make to a fourth grader. What I feel it signifies is that in today’s society relevant questions can come from anyone, and it makes to real sense for scientists to become to isolated. The actual answer to the question, it turns out, is slightly out of Dr. Pomponi’s field she specializes in sponges an anti-cancer drugs, and Prialt is a snail drug, and a pain killer. More specifically Prialt is non-opioid, which means if it is addictive, it is not in the same biochemical pathway as traditional opioid analgesics like morphine, Percocet and Vicidin. The opioids interact with a specific opioid receptor in the nervous system, while Prialt interacts with a calcium channel. Nerve cells signal by sequestering and releasing calcium from a cellular reticulum. Prialt has probably not been in use long enough to gather any significant long term addiction data. Great question though. In Florida, pain killer use and abuse is an issue that is as big as it gets because of Florida demographics, and the number of retired people who are fighting significant health conditions such as cancer.
I don’t want to completely minimize the importance of the work being done by RSMAS. If you were to Google “RSMAS IPCC” you would find that there many computer models, technical reports, posters and data sets that RSMAS scientists have done in conjunction with the IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was the IPCC that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Albert Gore. Technically speaking then, some of these guys are Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. I say technically, because I expect more from my Nobel laureates. It was largely, and almost single handedly Albert Gore that was left to stand behind the findings of the Panel, and it became his message to produce and present to society. If there was a downfall, it is that he was not completely prepared to back up all of the claims made in his production the level of MythBuster standards, which have now been integrated into the fabric of society. Al Gore’s partners, the IPCC, in the 2007 Peace Prize seem to have never left the confines of their gated facility. It’s not as though they couldn’t have found a place with great access to the public. They are next door to an amusement park devoted to the marine environment. It’s because they failed to make the last step, a step which is critical in today’s society, and that is to present their findings to the public and challenge the public to elevate themselves to the appropriate level of understanding of scientific and climatological principles.
I should finish up by saying that Dr. Pomponi’s own institution is unparalleled when it comes to interacting with society. They have long sponsored the “Marine Associates”, which at minimum allows members of the community to drop by on each Wednesday and hear a presentation by members of the HBOI team, including Dr. Pomponi. The lectures are given at 4:00, 7:00 and placed on YouTube. As far as interacting directly with the public, and as such providing a clear picture of their role in society, it doesn’t get much better than that. This is particularly significant to those in the science education field, because it is their job to not only properly prepare students, but to inspire them to move toward a career in science. Harbor Branch makes the job of the science educator easy, while there are other institutions which don’t even seem to be part of the education system, in that they are limiting themselves to rather narrow fields for research.