Fear, Funding, Fallout

The business of science
Ever since the world wars were decided by the terrible power of scientifically honed destruction, governments have taken a keen interest in keeping their science ahead of the curve. So, while Darwin did experiments in a bathtub assisted by his butler, we modern scientists do research on million dollar machines at massive government research facilities. Low-dose radiation in particular is fueled by grants from NASA and the department of energy and, if you are particularly inquisitive, you might ask why. To answer your supposed question I introduce Tony Brooks, a slow-talking westerner and recently retired leader of the low-dose program, who informed us of the reasons for the government's particular interest in low-dose radiation with a calm recitation of an unembellished history.

Tony reminded us that radiation biology, like most science, gets its funding from fear, the fear caused by two atomic bombs in Japan and exasperated by accidental radioactive exposures in Chernobyl, outer space, and southern Utah, Tony's home. This funding has led to research detailing the health risks associated with radioactive exposure and led governments to compensate victims that were accidentally exposed, like Tony's neighbors exposed to fallout from nuclear tests conducted in Nevada. However, while science is confident of the deleterious effects of large doses of radiation, historically few studies have focused on low-dose exposures. Some evidence even suggests that low-doses might be good for a body. For instance, southern Utah, despite its fallout in the 50's, has a cancer incidence 1/2 that of the national average.

Figuring out the danger at the bottom of the radioactive curve and the recompense due to those victims of lower doses was the seed point for initiation of the now 15 year old, originally $15 million dollar Low Dose Radiation program. Currently, cancer sufferers in southern Utah are compensated by the government to the tune of 1/2 million dollars each despite their below average cancer rates. If you ask you why this funding paradox persists, I will direct you to follow a river of money that flows up the Potomac from a spot just 10 miles south of Bethesda. Tony explained it with an anecdote he heard from a policy maker, "You scientists think that reality affects perception. But in Washington, perception is reality." With this in mind, Tony encouraged us to take opportunities talk to policy makers and the media. After all, if science is in the business of describing reality we would do well to inform the perception that generates it.

In the end, Tony summarized the program's success in a historical light. Our work had managed to expose a lot of knew knowledge about the effects of low-dose radiation. We had defined adaptive responses, bystander effects, and are beginning to develop a systems approach with hopes of deriving a full organism model of the effects solicited by-low-dose radiation. In our annual checkup at Bethesda, the Department of Energy, our main funding agency, saw a myriad of presentations proving that we were producing good science. They left secure in the knowledge that the program was a continuing success, my PI left having secured another 5 seasons of grant funding, and I left with a brain stuffed with science and a pocket full of business cards.


Johnny said...

Interesting to know which kind of projects goverments are most likely to fund.

Johnny said...

So, when is the next one? I guess you've been busy lately.