06/07/2019

A Ban On Fetal Tissue Research

7:36 minutes

a grey sign stating the name of the national institutes of health outside washington dc
The National Institutes of Health sign, Bethesda, Maryland. Credit: Mark Van Scyoc, via Shutterstock.

This week, the Trump administration announced that a ban on the use of fetal tissue for government scientists working under the National Institutes of Health. University scientists looking for NIH funding for studies using fetal tissue will be reviewed on a case by case basis by an ethics advisory board.

Science journalist Annalee Newitz talks about discuss the effects of the ban on ongoing research, Bronze Age cereal, and the rise and decline of Angkor Wat in this week’s News Roundup.

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’re going to talk about how outdated stereotypes about women and men has corrupted science experiments in the lab for decades. But first, this week, the Trump administration announced a ban on NIH research that uses discarded fetal tissue, restricting these types of studies from government scientists. And any scientists looking for government funding for these types of studies will be subject to review by an ethical advisory board. Annalee Newitz is here to break down what that ban means, along with other short subjects in science. Annalee is a science journalist based out of San Francisco. Welcome back. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey. Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: So how will this ban affect scientists? 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So first of all, as you said, this is going to be affecting people who are receiving federal grants, so not from private industry but federal. And right now, it’s affecting a small but significant number of people who are receiving money from the National Institutes of Health. And it’s also going to cut off a rather sizable annual grant that’s being given to UC San Francisco, here where I live, to study HIV. 

And indeed, most of this research is medical research, looking at therapies for Alzheimer’s, and HIV, and other deadly conditions that we’d really love to get better medicine for. So this is going to affect how that research is done. It’s going to possibly set back the research a number of years. And medical doctors, as well as scientists, have already started protesting and saying that this is going to be a real setback. 

IRA FLATOW: What is the timing on this? Why is this ban happening now? 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Well, this is an issue that’s been a political football for a while. It’s a perfect example of how scientific research often gets tripped up by politics. So the Trump administration is not the first conservative administration to make a ban like this we had a similar ban back in the late 1980s under the first Bush administration. 

And the thing that’s ironic about this is that a lot of these conservative administrations look back to the 1950s as a kind of moral high point. And yet, fetal tissue research in the 1950s is what led to a polio vaccine, which saved millions of children’s lives. And at that time in the ’50s, this kind of research was viewed as almost kind of a godsend. And so it’s particularly ironic that we’re now seeing conservatives picking this issue up and turning it into something political, when, in fact, during their kind of golden age, it was considered to be vital research that was great for the country. 

IRA FLATOW: Irony abounds these days in this climate. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It does. 

[LAUGHTER] 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to a study that looks at the rise and decline of Angkor Wat, which I visited recently. Tell me about it. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is a new study that was conducted over a number of years by Cambodian and Western researchers. And what they did was conduct a new look at how people were living in and around Angkor Wat, which, as you know is a large temple complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia. And it was once the center of an extremely large city of about a million people that existed about 1,000 years ago. 

And there’s a very standard narrative about what happened to Angkor. And that is that around 1431, the city was invaded by Thai forces and basically collapsed, and everyone left. And this is kind of the story that we hear, that there’s these temples in the jungle. And the reason why they’re there is because there was this sudden collapse of the civilization. 

But what these researchers found was by going in and carefully digging and doing new carbon dating on charcoal from hundreds of years of habitation in these areas, that actually, the changes at Angkor don’t– the evidence doesn’t really fit that narrative. And what they actually found was that people seemed to be clearing out of Angkor in the 1300s, so about 100 years before this alleged collapse. And then during the supposed collapse, people came back and were living there at much greater numbers. 

And so this whole story of the city collapsing has really become quite complicated. And we see strong evidence that people were living there up through the 1800s. And so suddenly, we’re starting to realize, especially for people who are studying ancient cities, that maybe the narrative of collapse and abandonment isn’t really real. It doesn’t really hold up when you start doing research and ground truthing and looking at what people were really doing in the city. 

IRA FLATOW: Right. That is very interesting. That’s quite different from the narrative we’re used to hearing about it. Your next story looks at tracking movie star careers through the IMBD movie database. Why were researchers interested in this? 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So a group of mathematicians in the UK were really interested in whether they could use applied statistics to predict whether people would have successful careers. And so they tried to do it with scientists and with artists. And they just didn’t find any signal in the data. But then they got this idea, inspired by Joan Rivers of all people, to study show business. Because Joan Rivers is famous for saying it’s either feast or famine in showbiz. And they said, all right, let’s find out if that’s true. 

So they examined the careers of about 2.3 million actors and actresses in the Internet Movie Database and found that there were very clear signals about how their careers would work. One was that most movie stars and TV stars are what we call one hit wonders, which means according to these researchers, that means they have one year where they get decent work and then nothing after that. That’s 70% of actors and actresses– 

IRA FLATOW: Wow 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Will experience a career where they’re just really big for one year. And that’s it. The other signal they saw in the data that was really interesting is that as many actresses have been arguing, it’s much harder for actresses to succeed in Hollywood. So it’s statistically far more likely that an actress will be a one hit wonder. It’s also more likely that that will be early in her career. And statistically, it’s much more likely that actors will find work after a cold spell, where they haven’t had a lot of work, than it is for actresses. So at every point in their careers, it’s harder for actresses to get work. And ultimately, these mathematicians described this as a rich get richer phenomenon. The more you work, the more you work, in other words. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I wonder if there’s an IMDB for scientists where they could find out. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, they actually– so in a previous paper, they looked at scientists. And the way that they analyzed scientists’ careers was by looking at how many papers they’d published and how many people cited those papers. And they found like no pattern whatsoever. 

IRA FLATOW: Hooray for Hollywood. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: And I hope they named this study after Joan Rivers, so she gets a little– that’s the risk in it. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I know. She’s quoted in the paper. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, she is. That’s good. 

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yes. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s good. All right, Annalee, thank you for fascinating stuff. Annalee Newitz, science journalist and author in San Francisco.

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