Forge Friday Roundup - January 22, 2021

January 22, 2021

In today’s Roundup: climbing hills; calling a truce between AI factions; COVID infection rate falls, but long road still ahead; Biden pandemic response plan; the computing that powers scientific discovery; cluster randomized trials for school reopening; “catastrophic” leadership failures at health agencies; the dangers of the science hype machine; potential legal challenges for school vaccination mandates; fighting back against colonialism in science; pardons for healthcare fraud; getting a handle on unused COVID vaccine doses; much more:

  • “So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left./Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this/wounded world into a wondrous one.” —Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb.

Two brightly colored toy robots face off as if in a boxing match. Image credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Image credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • “The pandemic has engendered reflection and introspection, and a growing awareness of the role of science and technology in the public sphere. Scientists must respond with greater transparency and accountability on the potential applications of their methods and findings. Hold tight for another intense year.” The editors of Nature Machine Intelligence convened a group of experts to reflect on progress and problems in AI over the past year, and likely future directions for the field.
  • An uproar that began with Google’s decision to fire AI expert Timnit Gebru appears to be growing louder following reports of actions taken against Google AI ethics lead Margaret Mitchell – a strong supporter of Gebru - in the wake of Gebru’s departure from the company. Business Insider’s Hugh Langley has the story.
  • “From astronomy to zoology, behind every great scientific finding of the modern age, there is a computer….Enter the scientist-coder. A powerful computer is useless without software capable of tackling research questions — and researchers who know how to write it and use it.” At Nature, Jeffrey M. Perkel provides a neat retrospective encapsulating the fundamental but sometimes little-heralded contributions that computer programming has made to scientific discovery.
  • “There is, I believe, no silver bullet for AI. Neural networks and symbolic AI each succeed with different aspects of intelligent behavior. Tribalism and mindless dogma are not the way forward: We must consider each other’s ideas and learn from them. And to do this, we must first cast away the bitterness of ancient rivalries.” An essay by Michael Wooldridge at the Chronicle of Higher Education offers a bridge between two schools of thought in artificial intelligence research.
  • “During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged that his administration would address inequality and racism. Now that he’s been sworn in as US president, his appointment of a prominent sociologist to the nation’s top science office is raising hopes that the changes will extend to the scientific community.” Nature’s Nidhi Subbaraman reports that the Biden administration has announced the appointment of noted sociologist and author Alondra Nelson to the role of deputy director in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • Preliminary results from a Brazilian randomized trial of patients hospitalized with COVID who were taking a particular class of blood pressure medications (ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers) suggested that the widely used medications were safe to continue in these patients, despite some early theoretical concerns that they could pose added risk. Those preliminary findings have now been confirmed in a paper published in JAMA by Lopes and colleagues.
  • At In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe takes a look at the story so far on the durability of the immune response to the current round of COVID vaccines.
  • “A considerable proportion of premature deaths in European cities could be avoided annually by lowering air pollution concentrations, particularly below WHO guidelines. The mortality burden varied considerably between European cities, indicating where policy actions are more urgently needed to reduce air pollution and achieve sustainable, liveable, and healthy communities.” A study published in Lancet Planetary Health by Khomenko and colleagues provides an estimate of the health burden inflicted by air pollution in major European cities (H/T @califf001).
  • Has the latest COVID surge passed its peak in the US? NPR’s Rob Stein reports on the possibility that we’ve turned a corner as new infections are beginning to fall – although there’s a long road still ahead: “…community transmission remains high in most states. After seeing 200,000 or more confirmed cases a day on average for most of December and early January, the U.S. reached a peak seven-day average of just over 249,000 on Jan. 11, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. New cases have dropped steadily since then but are still close to 200,000 a day on average.”
  • “The researchers speculate that cat ancestors might have rubbed their bodies against the plants by chance, enjoyed the feeling, and kept doing it. It is not clear, though, whether it was the euphoric response—or the insect-repelling properties of the plant—that kept them rolling.” Finally, an age-old question gets the attention it deserves: why do cats go crazy for catnip, anyway? Science’s Sofia Moutinho looks at recent research findings that may shed some light on cats’ love affair with the herb.
    Tabby cat peeking out from underneath a rug or blanket with an alert expression. Image credit: Mikhail Vasilyev via Unsplash
    Image credit: Mikhail Vasilyev via Unsplash
  • “The list of some 200 Trump pardons or commutations…included at least seven doctors or health care entrepreneurs who ran discredited health care enterprises, from nursing homes to pain clinics. One is a former doctor and California hospital owner embroiled in a massive workers’ compensation kickback scheme that prosecutors alleged prompted more than 14,000 dubious spinal surgeries. Another was in prison after prosecutors accused him of ripping off more than $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid through nursing homes and other senior care facilities, among the largest frauds in U.S. history.” At Kaiser Health News, Fred Schulte provides some backstory for a set of last-minute presidential pardons by Donald Trump – pardons that were granted to persons convicted of high-profile, high-impact healthcare fraud.
  • “Given the impact of school closures on both education and the economy, schools cannot remain closed indefinitely. But when and how can they be reopened safely? We argue that a cluster randomized trial is a rigorous and ethical way to resolve these uncertainties.” A paper published in Clinical Trials by Weijer and colleagues presents a case for the use of cluster-randomized trials to clarify questions about when it’s safe for schools to reopen amid the ongoing COVID pandemic.
  • A bit of unalloyed good news on a Friday: according to a paper just published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by Seither and colleagues, vaccination coverage for kindergartners during the 2019-2020 school year remained high and the exemption rate remained low at 2.5%. North Carolina was among several states that succeeded in improving their own coverage rate for MMR vaccination to greater than 95%. Less good is the likelihood that rates will slip for the 2020-2021 school year due to the COVID pandemic (H/T @MoNscience).
  • In a paper published in Nature Medicine by Hall and colleagues, researchers report findings from a randomized crossover trial that compared energy intake (in other words, calories consumed) by participants assigned to a low-carb (ketogenic) diet vs. a low-fat plant-based diet, and the results wound up confounding expectations: “While our LF diet contained foods with high glycemic load that substantially increased postprandial glucose and insulin levels compared to the LC diet, the LF diet led to less energy intake compared to the LC diet, which contradicts the predictions of the carbohydrate–insulin model.”
  • “In every mass vaccination effort, some share of doses unavoidably goes into the trash rather than arms. However, data on wasted shots — especially in large quantities — is an essential tool for federal and state health agencies trying to spot problems in how the vaccine is being shipped, stored and given to the public.” ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Caroline Chen and Mollie Simon report on confusion about the fate of unused COVID vaccine doses – and the lack, in some cases, of state-reported data that would help sort things out (H/T @donaldhtaylorjr).
  • “Although it may seem intuitive that the optimal strategies against influenza and COVID-19 would be identical, vaccine optimization is not one size fits all, even for apparently similar pathogens. Quantitative changes in the epidemiological landscape can lead to qualitative shifts in optimization….The age-specific probability of infection is a key component of this landscape.” A perspective article published in Science by Fitzpatrick and Galvani describes a flexible approach to vaccination strategies for COVID-19, one that hinges on the risk of infection within a given age group (H/T @ChrisHendel).
  • At long last, there is a (federal-level) strategic plan for responding to the COVID pandemic.
  • “Among nonhospitalized patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 illness, treatment with bamlanivimab and etesevimab, compared with placebo, was associated with a statistically significant reduction in SARS-CoV-2 viral load at day 11; no significant difference in viral load reduction was observed for bamlanivimab monotherapy.” In a research article published in JAMA, Gottlieb and colleagues report on a randomized clinical trial that compared two neutralizing antibody therapies, alone or in combination versus placebo, reports that the combination therapy significantly reduced coronavirus viral load in patients receiving early treatment for mild-to-moderate COVID.

Image from a 15th century illuminated manuscript on alchemy showing an ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its own tail. Via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons
  • “Crowder explains that the habit of sending researchers from wealthier countries to work in the global South often goes hand-in-hand with “parachute science,” where researchers drop in, do their research, and leave. And this attitude can be compounded by the traditionally Eurocentric focus of science…” An article by Ashley Yeager at The Scientist examines the ways that scientists across the globe are pushing back against the lingering effects of colonialism – including a set of often-unexamined attitudes and assumptions – in collaborative scientific projects (H/T @brossardd).
  • This article by Amrutha B. Nagella and Venkatesh S. Madhugiri appearing in Cureus investigates relationships between journal citation rates, publication volume, and retractions for several medical specialties, and also features the outstanding Scrabble word “ouroboric” in its title.
  • Long-awaited prophecies of violence and reprisal ran aground on the reefs of reality for adherents of the protean QAnon conspiracy theory on January 20th, leaving many adherents at sea. Ars Technica reprints an article by the Financial Times’ Hannah Murphy and Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan that looks at what’s likely to be next for disappointed Q devotees: “…some QAnon believers attempted to find ways to explain the situation or fell back on the cryptic messages that characterized many of QAnon’s posts…Experts warned that individual conspiracies within the wider ideology—such as anti-5G and anti-vaccine narratives—would likely live on, possibly morphing into something more menacing.” The possibility that such “menacing” groups are looking to recruit suddenly rudderless QAnon adherents is also explored in this Washington Post article by Drew Harwell.
  • “In science, new findings face intense scrutiny. That is, after all, how science is supposed to work, and it’s hardly surprising that some claims turn out to be wrong. But if claim after claim fails to live up to the hype that surrounds it, scientists worry that the public will feel let down, and may even question whether scientists can be trusted — and whether they deserve to be funded. In other words, hype has consequences, and public trust in the scientific enterprise is at stake.” At Undark, Dan Falk explores how the multifarious machinery of hype can distort scientific findings in the public eye – and although the specific examples are taken from astrophysics, they are equally applicable to other domains…
  • …such as biology, as in this recent Retraction Watch piece, which revisits a notorious example of scientific hype gone badly wrong: “An anniversary has prompted this reconsideration of the revolution in biochemistry that wasn’t: the ‘arsenic bacteria.’ Just over 10 years have passed since an infamous Dec. 2, 2010, NASA press conference, which promised the revelation of ‘an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.’ …Of course, nothing of the kind occurred.”
  • …And while we’re on this topic, we’ll also point out Benjamin Mazer’s article at the Journal of Clinical Microbiology that addresses some lessons specifically imparted during the COVID pandemic: “Increased public exposure offers opportunities to improve how laboratory professionals communicate our insights. We can emphasize what is new, unusual, or controversial about our knowledge, utilize social media effectively, and improve relationships with journalists by understanding their workflow and traditions. While public engagement has risks and must be considerate of institutional policies, it also validates our value to patients, policy-makers, and employers.”

  • “A catastrophic failure of leadership”: A truly extraordinary piece of reporting by Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban lays bare an almost unbelievable maelstrom of confusion, incompetence, intrigue, empire-building, and betrayal at the nation’s public health agencies throughout the response to the COVID pandemic: “…interviews with various insiders and those familiar with the FDA’s pandemic response reveal an agency stumbling through the pandemic, buffeted by mercurial demands from the White House, political sabotage from its parent agency, Health and Human Services, and an inexperienced commissioner unsure of whom to trust…”
    Desks and chairs in neat rows in a classroom with no students or teachers in it. Image credit: MChe Lee via Unsplash
    Image credit: MChe Lee via Unplash
  • “Vaccine requirements for school children are common, and many scholars believe that their underlying legal authority is near-unquestionable under the century-old precedent established by the Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. In Jacobson, the Court upheld a city ordinance requiring that all adults be vaccinated against smallpox, subject to a $5 fine. The ordinance was justified based on state ‘police powers,’ which grant the authority to enact reasonable regulations necessary to protect the public health….However, opinions in lawsuits related to COVID-19 suggest that Jacobson’s protections are under threat.” Talk about fraught subjects: at the blog for Harvard Law’s Petrie-Flom Center, Emily Caputo and Blake N. Shultz dissect the legal issues that may come into play if U.S. schools implement COVID-19 vaccination requirements for students.
  • A JAMA Viewpoint article by Westmoreland, Bloche, and Gostin provides a preview of likely health policy moves by the Biden Administration in its first days in office and proposes some additional measures for both executive action and the legislative agenda.
  • The Verge’s Nicole Wetsman reports that the federal response to the COVID pandemic under the Biden administration will include the invocation of the Defense Production Act, which will allow for accelerated vaccine manufacture, among other priorities: “The administration will also direct the act to target masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). Shortages of these products aren’t quite as dire as they were early on in the pandemic, but health care workers are still in need of more N95 masks, which protect the wearer in high-risk situations like when treating COVID-19 patients.”
  • “…here’s where things get tricky. Catalina’s experience is not an argument for a wholesale reopening. Evidence from numerous environments, including schools, has shown in abundance that social distancing, among other measures, helps keep the virus at bay. Chances are decent that Catalina succeeded in large part because more than half its student body opted not to return. Its roughly 400 virtual learners might end up having unwittingly sacrificed their own education for the betterment of their in-person peers.” A thought-provoking piece by Wired’s Sandra Upson captures some of the enormous difficulty of figuring out the balance of risks and discerning the best path forward for schools during the COVID pandemic – particularly in the absence of a national plan and beset by “information voids.”