Monthly Archives: October 2012

Congratulations awardees – shame on the system

At 1am this morning (has someone something to hide?) the recipients of Marsden grants were announced.

Congratulations to them all.

$54.6 million was distributed over 86 research projects.  Marsden funds “blue skies” research across a number of disciplines – humanities, science, technology etc. The list of topics reflect the diversity.  I think that they are worth celebrating so I have listed below the projects and awardees mentioned in the media pack (only 30 something, so there must be others).

The awards fall into two categories:  Standard grants of up to $330K per annum for three years (open to anyone) and Fast-start grants of $115K per annum for three years which go to early career researchers (within 7 years of getting PhD:  It used to be 7 years of post PhD research experience which enabled me to get such a grant 3 years ago despite having had a 15 yr hiatus between postdoc and next science position – they changed the rules the following year!).

Shame on the system

While 86 projects were funded, 1113 proposals were made.  This is a success rate of 7.7%.  I have posted before on just what such an appalling low success rate looks like when the Health Research Council funded just 7% of proposals.  This is a crisis.  Successive governments are responsible.  Fellow sciblog bloggers Grant Jacobs and Eric Campton pointed out to me Canadian research which showed the total cost to prepare grant proposals was greater than the amount awarded.  Eric blogged about this in 2009.  When is/was the cross-over point for HRC or Marsden funding?  Was it when the success rate fell below 20% (crisis point according to HRC chief executive Robin Olds).  Is it still viable at 7%.  Minister Steven Joyce needs to put some people onto answering that question straight away.

Colleagues of mine have talked about Marsden and HRC becoming a lottery.  They are not taking away from the tremendous work and great insights grant recipients have shown, only that many others have also shown those attributes without getting funding.  The problem is having to rank a large bunch or excellent applications.  This is not “taking the cream off the top”, rather it is attempting to pick out the tastiest tiny fraction of the cream – an impossible and meaningless task.  Perhaps this is why in announcing the new Explorer grants the Health Research Council have said that any proposals that meet the criteria will go into a pot and the grantees will be decided by lottery.  Quite possibly this may be just as fair as a ranking system.  Quite probably the HRC have been driven to this position because of the unwillingness of researchers to sit on committees and spend many hours shuffling paper making impossible ranking decisions knowing that such a small proportion of applicants will be funded.

(ps – please forget I mentioned the Explorer grants…I may apply for one myself, and I don’t want too many people knowing about it as this will reduce my chances).

The Projects

Ozone’s role in Southern Hemisphere climate change
Dr Olaf Morgenstern
Searching for the tell-tale signs of galaxy cluster formation.
Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt
Victoria University of Wellington
Earthquake hydrology gets a shake up
Dr Simon Cox
GNS Science
Clarity vs efficiency in speech
Dr Donald Derrick
University of Canterbury
Gesture, speech, and the lopsided brain. 
Professor Michael Corballis
University of Auckland
Dem bones, dem bones, dem … heavy bones. 
Professor Stephen Robertson
University of Otago
Young cancer researchers get funding boost 
Dr Anita Dunbier and Dr Zimei Wu
Dunbier: University of Otago, Wu: University of Auckland
Kauri and climate change. 
Dr Catriona MacInnis-Ng
University of Auckland
How do birds “tell the time” when migrating?
Dr Phil Battley
Massey University
Unravelling male reproductive responses to social cues. 
Dr Patrice Rosengrave
University of Otago
Pollen key to plant development  
Dr Lynette Brownfield
University of Otago
How does the heart grow?
 Professor Peter Hunter
The University of Auckland
Getting to the heart of heart failure
 Professor Martyn Nash
The University of Auckland
Could tidal power realistically help meet future energy needs?
Dr Ross Vennell
University of Otago
Making a controlled splash. 
Dr Geoff Willmott
Industrial Research Limited
Getting to the heart of dark matter 
Dr Brendon Brewer
The University of Auckland
Criminal minds – the science behind the science
Dr Heather Wolffram
University of Canterbury
Toi Te Mana: A history of indigenous art 
Dr Deidre Brown
The University of Auckland
Cloaked in invisible bending light
Dr Robert Thompson
University of Otago
Laughing gas not so funny on high
Dr Joseph Lane
The University of Waikato
New Zealand Agribusiness investing in rural China
Dr Jason Young
Victoria University of Wellington
Converting microwave photons to optical photons
Dr Jevon Longdell
University of Otago
Identity and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Associate Professor Helen Moewaka-Barnes
Massey University
Corporate community development: harnessing business power in the Pacific. 
Professor Regina Scheyvens
Massey University

Helmetless bike riders – a dying breed

A few weeks ago a member of Christchurch City Council and Canterbury District Health Board advocated the non-wearing of bike helmets.  I commented on the idiocy of this at the time. A source tells me that said person got a hard time from other CDHB board members-good.

Perhaps this recent research will put the anti-establishmet hair-brained non-conformists back in their box.  According to Canadian researchers those not-wearing helmets are three times more likely to die in a road accident than those wearing helmets. Their interpretation of the results is simple:

“Not wearing a helmet while cycling is associated with an increased risk of sustaining a fatal head injury.”

The Italian job

The pressure to find a scapegoat

A judge with the statistical acumen of a gnat

Six rather bewildered scientists

A travesty of justice.

It’s too absurd to make a movie, yet its is very real to those scientists and their families. If you have not caught up with the news, six scientists and a government official have been given jails sentences of six years for multiple manslaughter.  Their crime appears to be that they gave falsely reassuring statements to the people of who had been experiencing multiple small quakes.  The were accused of giving ” ‘inexact, incomplete and contradictory’ information about the danger of the tremors” felt before the L’Aquilla earthquake on 6 April 2009.

Living in Christchurch we have desperately wanted earthquakes to be predictable – so desperate that we gave airtime to a man with deranged ideas about the influence of the moon.  We have managed to avoid blaming the scientists, yet.

The Italian scientists have been convicted not so much for “failure to predict” but because they said that a powerful earthquake was unlikely but could not be ruled out. This appears to have been too upbeat (in retrospect) for some. Apparently this meant some people stayed inside on the night of the quake.

The most powerful force in action here appears to be the need to blame.  This has been around since Adam blamed Eve, and we all know it from our childhood.  We also know it from politics where every few years politicians blame the economy on other politicians, bankers, businessmen, unions, or immigrants (take your pick). Scientists are just another target – they are no unique.  What is unique is the perception that when scientists speak out they are speaking the infallible truth.  Whilst most scientists will deny this, their “disclaimers” or words of caution are often given scant coverage by the media. If their words are inexact or incomplete then they are unlikely to be reported.  If they are contradictory – we only get a you said/she said type story with no coverage of the science. Yet we can not just blame the media, the reader of the media who believes that  science is all about proof has somehow missed the boat.  Maybe this is due to a failure of education, maybe the spectacular success of technology has blinded them to the inherent uncertainties in science, or maybe they have been duped by some scientists who have taken a very high horse approach making proclamations with an air of infallibility.  Whatever  the  reason, we are still children in the playground pointing the finger.  Be not surprised when it points at you.

Faith justified? – a vital tale

Expensive pee or elixir of life?  The two extreme views of multivitamins.  I’ve been taking multivitamins for a number of years now.  I’ve taken them on faith backed by a little evidence.  This week, I think for the first time, a randomised controlled trial has provided high quality evidence that my faith is justified.  More on that in a minute.

Most trials of vitamin supplements to date have tested vitamins in isolation.  The trials were justified on the observation that people with certain diseases lacked specific vitamins and/or the scientists’ understanding of biochemical pathways that require the vitamin in question to work well.  This is well and good.  From what I understand most of these trials have failed to show a clinical difference (ie in health outcomes) (see, eg, my report on the Vitamin D trial in Christchurch).

Vitamins (and trace minerals), of course do not exist in us in isolation.  They work together with each other and along with all the other chemicals in us with names that only a biochemist could love.  The theory, which I’ve accepted largely by faith, is that vitamin supplementation works best when it is multiple vitamins together.  Studies of multivitamin supplementation have largely been short term or retrospective observational.  That is, scientists have surveyed people on vitamin use and drawn conclusions based on that.  One such study, the Iowa women’s study(1), caused me to pause and reassess last year when it seemed to indicate supplementation including copper increased mortality in post-menopausal women. Being neither a woman nor post-menopausal I did not panic.

The prospective randomised controlled trial (RCT) is regarded as a much higher level of evidence than retrospective observational studies.  Published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is an RCT of multivitamin supplementation in men (2).  Briefly, 14641 men aged 50+ were enrolled in a trial in 1997 and followed until 2011. Participants were randomly chosen to receive either a multivitamin or a placebo.  Neither the participants nor the people running the study knew which people received placebo and which received multivitamin.  This is known as “double-blind.”  Only a statistician knew and he or she did not reveal anything until all the data was in.  The primary outcome was to compare the rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease in both groups.  Secondary outcomes (ie ones that the statistics can not be so precise about because of the numbers) were the rates of some specific cancers (eg prostate cancer).  There was amongst the 14641 men a subgroup of about 1300 men with a pre-existing history of cancer.

The results:

Men taking multivitamins had a modest reduction in total cancer incidence (HR, 0.92; 95% CI, 0.86- 0.998; P = .04)

My interpretation:  Those taking multivitamins were about 8% less likely to get cancer.  The statistics show that they are 95% confident that the amongst all men with the same characteristics as the men in their sample the true reduction in probability of getting cancer over the 11 year follow up period is between 0.2 and 14%.

A little frighteningly whilst major cardiovascular events were mentioned as part of the primary outcomes they were not reported on!

The strengths of the study are its size, that it is an RCT and double-blind, that it has good length, that all participants who received the multivitamin received the same one and that the multivitamin manufacturer had no role in designing or running the study, or analysing the data.

The weaknesses are that it is all men, all over the age of 50, and all physicians.

S0, is my faith justified?  If by that do you think I mean “proven” then think again. Proof or proven are words that should never be used in the company of good scientists.  Rather, I think there is some more good quality evidence to support the taking of multivitamins – so I shall continue to do so.  I must, though, remain open to evidence of the opposite variety and be aware that like all studies there is a probability that the conclusions will not be backed up by future studies.

Of course not all multivitamins are created equal (beware of fillers), they have different compositions and some are less likely to be absorbed than others, so do some homework before you rush out an buy some.

(1)  Mursu J, Robien K, Harnack LJ, Park K, Jacobs DR. Dietary supplements and mortality rate in older women: the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Arch Intern Med 2011;171(18):1625–33.

(2) Gaziano JM. Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cancer in MenThe Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled TrialMultivitamins in the Prevention of Cancer in Men. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 2012;:1.

[Conflict of interest:  My wife’s business includes the selling of multivitamin supplements]

Note to self – eat more chocolate

Apparently the pinnacle of one’s scientific career is to win a Nobel Prize.  Having not won a Nobel yet I will just need to accept by faith that it would indeed be the pinnacle of my career.  Thanks to a brilliant article in the New England Journal of Medicine this week I now have a new strategy to gain that elusive medal – eat more chocolate.  Dr Franz Messerli has nicely illustrated that the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million of population is correlated well with the chocolate consumption of the country of origin of the laureates (Messerli FH. Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates. N Engl J Med 2012;).  The correlation is strong with an r=0.79* (p<0.0001**) increasing to 0.86 with the removal of one outlier (Sweden). As the author wrote:

“..since chocolate consumption has been documented to improve cognitive function, it seems most likely that in a dose-dependent way, chocolate intake provides the abundant fertile ground needed for the sprouting of Nobel laureates. Obviously, these findings are hypothesis-generating only and will have to be tested in a prospective, randomized trial.”

On the outlier he wrote:

“The only possible outlier seems to be Sweden. Given its per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg per year, we would predict that Sweden should have produced a total of about 14 Nobel laureates, yet we observe 32. Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.”

You may wonder why this was not published on 1 April .  Is this merely another example of “correlation doesn’t equal causation” and the tyranny of the p value (more on that in another post), or could there really be something in it? Have a read of the article and judge for yourself.

No good scientific report is worth its salt without a testimonial (here):

“I attribute essentially all my success to the very large amount of chocolate that I consume,” said Eric Cornell, an American physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 2001.

“Personally I feel that milk chocolate makes you stupid,” he added. “Now dark chocolate is the way to go. It’s one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, OK, but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate.”

*  if r=1 then correlation is perfect, if r=0 then there is nor correlation at all.  0.79 is impressive.

** this means that there is a .01% chance that the correlation observed was due to random chance.

Should governments fund science?

Just heard Julia Lane – an expat Kiwi and science economist speaking on Radio NZ about science and the economy.  She’s in Christchurch for a debate “Is Science Good for the Economy?” which can be heard tomorrow night as part of the ice fest – see here.

A few nice points she made (my paraphrasing).

  1. There is a challenge for governments in that returns from basic research are long, complex, and often in unexpected directions.  This is often different from government priorities which are focused on short term benefits.
  2. The principle reason for governments to invest in science is for the public good.  If there are high returns expected, then this is a place for the private sector not the government.  So called “failure” or “dry holes” as she called them are examples of public good.  If a private company invests in science that does not work as they hoped, they have no reason to tell the world.  Government funded science will tell the world, thereby enabling all businesses to make better decisions about where not to invest $.
  3. The reasons for government investment should be (in this order) 1) Formation of more science knowledge, 2) social gains (eg cleaner streams), 3) work force effect (trained in science people entering businesses etc), and 4) economic
  4. A current concern is that there is too much emphasis on bean counting (eg science judged on number of publications, patents etc – Take note HRC, Marsden, PBRF (my comment)).
  5. Better funding models seem to be ones that fund individuals and groups rather than projects.  She mentioned the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which has done this very successfully and talked of ANU and Uni Melb who have upped their game doing this.
  6. Nice phrase was that “Science involves creation, transmission and adoption of knowledge through networks of human beings.”  She thinks science funding should emphasise the people and networks.  An example is TNF alpha which was discovered in the 70’s by Dr Lloyd Olds at Sloan Kettering.  A trace study (no reference, sorry) showed that whilst Dr Olds never produced a drug based on TNF alpha, his networks using the knowledge he gained developed billions of dollars worth which have helped millions of people.

The Hunting of the SNARF

Some of you may know Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem “The hunting of the Snark”.  Eight men set off with a blank map to find the mythical Snark.

 And the Banker, inspired with a courage so new
          It was matter for general remark,
     Rushed madly ahead and was lost to their view
          In his zeal to discover the Snark

Snarks were dangerous creatures, however

 “For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,
          Yet, I feel it my duty to say,
     Some are Boojums—”

I dwell in a world where inspired by the new many have rushed on ahead to discover the SNARF (SigNals of Acute Renal Failure).  The hunting of the SNARF has followed contours familiarly trodden and graphically illustrated by a Hype cycle(1).

The Hunting of the SNARF

The Hunting of the SNARF: A Hype Cycle of the hunt for the perfect biomarker of Acute Kidney Injury

It was kickstarted by new technologies called proteomics and genomics which gave the hope that soon would be discovered a rapid, accurate, and, most importantly, early biomarker of Acute Renal Failure (later renamed Acute Kidney Injury, AKI).  This was the beginning of the hype that was driven in no small part by some fantastic early results.  A paper published in the Lancet in 2005 was an important driver in the hype that followed(2).  As with many early studies this involved children and cardiac surgery.  Importantly the biomarker involved almost perfectly distinguished between those who had the disease and those who didn’t (ie not false negatives or false positives).  As the field progressed and more and more studies were investigated across a more diverse range of patient groups and potential AKI causes the ability to discriminate between those with and without the disease became much more modest.  It became apparent that one biomarker to rule them all was not going to be the solution – rather a panel of biomarkers whereby the clinician would choose which biomarkers, if any, to use according to the timing and suspected etiology of the renal injury, the baseline renal function and specific illness of the patient.  We do not yet have such a panel, nor have we conducted sufficient investigations to find if an AKI biomarker(s) adds value to what the clinician can already deduce.  That is partly my job and these are the greater challenges that must drive us up the slope of enlightenment to reach the plateau of productivity where finally we may capture the SNARF.

(1)    Jackie Fenn, “When to Leap on the Hype Cycle,” Gartner Group, January 1, 1995

(2)   Mishra J, Dent CL, Tarabishi R, et al. Neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL) as a biomarker for acute renal injury after cardiac surgery. Lancet 2005;365(9466):1231–8.