Thursday, April 29, 2010

Money for a science marathon -- April 29, 2010 column


The phrase “money well spent” is not one we automatically associate with the federal government these days. The national mood is sour, people are angry and there’s much to rue about how our tax dollars are spent.

Porky spending is news; money well spent isn’t.

Not surprisingly, the appearance by Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, before a House appropriations panel on Wednesday went largely unreported. Most congressional hearings lately have raised my blood pressure; Collins’ testimony renewed my optimism that government can do something right.

First, about Collins: The physician-geneticist grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and was home schooled until sixth grade. He received his B.S. degree from the University of Virginia, his Ph.D. from Yale and his M.D. from the University of North Carolina.

He led the government’s effort to map and sequence human DNA at the Human Genome Project, which finished in 2003, 18 months early and $300 million under budget. He’s a born-again Christian whose 2006 book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” was a New York Times bestseller. His new book, “The Language of Life,” is about DNA. President Obama named him NIH director last August.

Part of Collins’ job as NIH director is to make the case on Capitol Hill for money to run his agency. In a time of tight budgets, Obama has requested $32.2 billion – a $1 billion increase -- for NIH for the fiscal year that starts in October.

“Science is not a 100-yard dash. It is a marathon – a marathon run by a relay team that includes researchers, patients, industry experts, lawmakers and the public,” Collins said.

Collins took a long view, outlining the advancements made possible through NIH appropriations and talking about the challenges ahead. Both lists are impressive. I’m summarizing from Collins’ prepared remarks.

Life expectancy in the United States is up dramatically. A baby born today can expect to live 77.7 years, almost three decades longer than one born in 1900. People stay active longer. From 1982 through 2005, the proportion of elderly people with chronic disabilities dropped nearly a third to 19 percent.

The death rates from heart disease and strokes have dropped 60 percent and 70 percent respectively since the World War II era, thanks largely to the ongoing, NIH-funded Framingham Heart Study. It began in the 1940s and has identified disease risk factors and effective drugs.

NIH-funded research into osteoporosis has led to new medications that have reduced the hospitalization rate for hip fractures by 16 percent since 1993. New treatments for macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss in the elderly, have saved the sight of 750,000 people who would have gone blind over the next five years.

Since the cochlear implant was approved in 2000, more than 25,000 deaf children have received the electronic devices, and many have developed normal language skills.

Collins cited as “one of NIH’s greatest achievements over the past 30 years” its leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“Today, HIV-infected people in their 20s who receive combination therapy may expect to lie to age 70 or beyond,” he said.

Still ahead, however, are the enormous challenges of cancer, diabetes, obesity, autism and depression.

Collins acknowledged as justified some of criticism that NIH has been slow to convert scientific findings into real-life applications to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. That’s changing as scientists develop greater understanding of diseases, do more research and enter into public-private partnerships to develop drugs, he said.

One American every minute dies of cancer, Collins said. The encouraging news in that dreary statistic is that in the last 15 years cancer death rates have dropped 11 percent among women and 19 percent among men. This translates into some 650,000 lives saved.

Suicide claims the lives of twice as many Americans as homicide, he said, noting that 143 soldiers died by suicide in 2008, the highest rate since the Army began keeping records. NIH and the Army have joined for the largest study ever of suicide and mental health in the military.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of better uses for my tax dollars. Biomedical research at NIH meets my definition of money well spent.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A new battle in Saltville? -- April 22, 2010 column


As the federal government gears up for a battle over salt, it’s worth reviewing what happened the last time the government tried to cut off salt supplies.

In the 19th Century, salt wasn’t just for seasoning but also for preserving foods and tanning leather. Salt production for the South centered in the town of Saltville in Southwest Virginia. Saltville became a primary target of Union forces during the Civil War.

After a bloody clash in October 1864, Union troops led by Gen. George Stoneman besieged sparsely defended Saltville again two months later. Author William Marvel described “the orgy of destruction” at the salt works in his 1992 book, “Southwest Virginia in the Civil War: The Battles for Saltville”:

“Sledge hammers rang against salt kettles and masonry kilns; military shells and railroad iron rattled down the wooden well casings; soldiers broadcast sacks of salt like Romans at Carthage; everywhere sheds, stables, and offices crumbled in flames.”

You’d think all that would have ended salt for the South. Not so.

Within weeks, Saltville was again supplying the Confederacy, and the military faced no salt shortages in the remaining months of the war, according to geologist and author Robert C. Whisonant of Radford University.

That the Confederacy managed to keep Southerners in salt all the way to Appomattox is a cautionary tale for the Obama administration as it tries to engineer a national cut in salt consumption. Even the most forceful federal attack can fail to stop the flow of salt.

In the 21st Century, we Americans live in our own private Saltvilles, where our appetite for salty foods is stronger than ever.

We’ve had 40 years of health reports urging Americans to consume less. And yet, the American Medical Association reports that salt consumption has risen 50 percent, and blood pressure by nearly the same amount, since the 1970s.

Seventy-five percent of the salt Americans eat comes from processed foods, according to a new Institute of Medicine report. The costs are huge.

One in three adults – nearly 75 million Americans age 20 and older -- have hypertension or high blood pressure, and another 50 million suffer from pre-hypertension. We’re setting ourselves up for heart attacks, strokes and other conditions.

The institute, after a year-long study, called for federal regulations to reduce the sodium content of foods.

The Salt Institute fired back that the call for mandatory sodium reductions was “reckless and flawed.” Other food industry groups protested that they already offer lower-sodium products.

The Food and Drug Administration tried to quell the uproar with a statement saying it “is not currently working on regulations nor has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time.”

This is shaping up to be one of Washington’s false-choice debates. To reduce sodium, the choice need not be personal discipline or government regulation. Restaurants, food processors and food service companies can and should voluntarily provide healthier choices. Some, to their credit, are doing so, but we need more.

The potential benefits of a reduction in sodium are impressive. The United Kingdom began working with food manufacturers to cut sodium in 2003, and they’ve reduced sodium content in many foods, resulting in a 9.5 percent decrease in sodium intake.

Such collaboration in the United States, with a similar 9.5 percent decrease, could avert 518,885 strokes and 480,353 heart attacks over the lifetime of adults 40 to 85 years old, and that could save $32.1 billion in medical costs, the Institute of Medicine report said.

Its computer modeling also examined a salt tax, which is not used by any other countries. If a tax cut Americans’ salt intake by 6 percent, it would save $22.4 billion in medical costs, the report said.

Like most changes, cutting back on salt starts with the individual, but information and participation by good citizens in the food industry can help.

The New York City Health Department is coordinating a National Salt Reduction Initiative with the goal of a 20 percent reduction in salt intake in restaurant and packaged foods over five years. The coalition of cities, states and health groups works with food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium.

That’s a great first step, and the president and Michelle Obama should throw their support there. If the voluntary initiative fails, there will be time for Uncle Sam to send in the sledge hammers, military shells and soldiers. But we know how well that worked last time.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Immortal tweets and history -- April 15, 2010 column


My friends who have resisted Twitter, hoping it’s just a gnat in the face of communication, got bad news this week.

The decision by the Library of Congress to archive the entire digital collection of public tweets since 2006 means that Twitter no longer is as ephemeral as smoke rings. It’s the substance of scholarship.

The library is guaranteeing that American history will reflect life in the Twitterhood. Historians many generations from now will draw conclusions about our times by examining our tweets. Twitter is no passing fad we can safely ignore. We are writing history 140 characters at a time.

The very thought makes Twitter skeptics and non-tweeters break out in hives. What can they do? Their best hope is to join the conversation. Hop into the Twitterverse early and often and throw out their own snippets as a counterweight to such real tweets as:
“OMG :) i love you justin bieber :) when are u coming at minnesota ? please reply back :)”

Justin Bieber, in case you’ve not been in the presence of a 12-year-old lately, is a teenage singer who rules hearts and tweets.

It’s startling to think that the Library of Congress’ stamp of approval on Twitter, Justin Bieber and all, may be as significant in the 21st century as preserving the library of Thomas Jefferson was in the 19th . Jefferson gave his leather-bound volumes to rebuild the collection after British troops set fire to the Capitol.

Here’s Librarian of Congress James H. Billington: “The Twitter digital archive has extraordinary potential for research into our contemporary way of life." Tweets, he said, provide “detailed evidence about how technology-based social networks form and evolve over time. The collection also documents a remarkable range of social trends.”

Fred R. Shapiro, associate librarian and lecturer at the Yale Law School, told the New York Times, “This is an entirely new addition to the historical record, the second-by-second history of ordinary people.”

Whether tweets should be embraced as representative of ordinary people is an open question. One can argue, however, that 55 million tweets a day – Twitter says that many are sent worldwide – is a reasonable cross-section of opinion. The library expects future historians to study such momentous tweets as Barack Obama’s about winning the 2008 election and those by eyewitnesses in war zones and natural disasters.

But most tweets describe daily life: “Oatmeal for brkfst!”

It’s easy to dismiss these inane tidbits by self-selected chroniclers, but who can say whether a Samuel Pepys for our age inhabits the Twitterverse. Some people enjoy reading reports by the 17th century English diarist at Pepys (pronounced peeps) spares few quotidian details. He could never be confined to 140 characters. A brief excerpt from his diary on Sunday, April 14, 1667:

“(Lord’s day). Up, and to read a little in my new History of Turkey, and so with my wife to church, and then home…A good dinner of roast beef. After dinner I away to take water at the Tower, and thence to Westminster, where Mrs. Martin was not at home. So to White Hall, and there walked up and down, and among other things visited Sir G. Carteret, and much talk with him, who is discontented, as he hath reason, to see how things are like to come all to naught…”

Pepys had more to tell that day, but you get the idea. All he needed were a pen and paper and time.

To write history on Twitter, our scribes need a way to access the Internet. And, as the Library of Congress honors tweets with immortality, consider that roughly one-third of us never goes online, let alone to

About 32 percent of the people in this country don’t use the Internet at home or anywhere else, according to “Digital Nation,” a report issued in February by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration.

The two factors people cited most often for not using the Internet were cost and that they either had no computer or their computer was inadequate.

Congress and the Obama administration are struggling with how to extend universal broadband coverage. It can’t come soon enough.

Without the Internet, people miss out on educational and business opportunities, civic discussions, health and financial information, government services – and on writing for the ages on Twitter.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Civil War a battlefield 150 years later -- April 8, 2010 column


Let’s put aside the political fallout from Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s pivot on slavery and the Civil War and consider where we go from here.

First, the McDonnell debacle reminded many people that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us and will loom large through 2015. Second, even though the United States has its first African-American president, the country still struggles with racial and cultural issues borne of the Civil War. And, third, the sesquicentennial is not a cash cow.

The Republican governor’s excuse for failing to mention slavery in his proclamation naming April Confederate History Month was that he had his eye on tourism.

"There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia," McDonnell said.

It was bizarre for McDonnell, in his zeal for fatter sales tax revenues and his desire to please fans of the Confederacy, to overlook the key cause of the war and the historic significance of its observance. And, under fire, he quickly apologized.

My guess, though, is that McDonnell isn’t the only elected official who sees sesquicentennial dollar signs. North and South are united these days by a sluggish economy and tight municipal and state budgets. Additional revenues from Yanks and Rebs are welcome.

And yet, we should approach the anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in American history thoughtfully, soberly and with respect. This is an opportunity to share a learning experience. We deserve more than cheap T-shirts and misplaced nostalgia.

Historians have warned for years that we need to be careful of the narrative we create around the anniversary. Renowned Civil War historian James I. Robertson Jr. helped plan 100th anniversary events during the 1960s civil rights era. Fifty years later, Robertson is head of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studied at Virginia Tech and is guiding preparations for the sesquicentennial.

"This is a commemoration, not a celebration," Robertson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in September 2007. "There's nothing to celebrate in the deaths of between 700,000 and 1 million American people."

Historian Ted Maris-Wolf, who teaches at the Randolph-Macon College, wrote in an op-ed in the paper in January, “The history of the Civil War must now be told in Richmond as being inextricably tied to slavery -- slavery having been its primary cause, an important factor in its dynamics, and, in its demise at war's conclusion, central to its most significant result.”

McDonnell chose to revive Confederate History Month, which had been started by then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican, in 1997 but dropped by McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors. He could have included the anti-slavery language used by Jim Gilmore, the last Republican governor who issued such a proclamation, but McDonnell chose to reach all the way back to Allen’s 1997 proclamation, which was silent on slavery.

This was surprising in a state that has taken the national lead on anniversary events. The legislature created a state Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for the anniversary, and the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded about $1 million to “An American Turning Point ” activities, which include a traveling exhibition, permanent online exhibition as well as educational programs.

With increased scrutiny on the message, it won’t be easy to strike the right tone for anniversary events. McDonnell, after first ignoring slavery, then said in his apology: “The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”

About 28 states claim Civil War ties, and nearly every town and city of any size has a sesquicentennial planning committee. Some are building new visitors’ and interpretative centers. In their enthusiasm, some communities haven’t yet gotten the message that the anniversary should be more than a celebration cum economic stimulus package.

This week, Clarksville, Tenn., launched its 150th Civil War anniversary activities with Confederate re-enactors firing a replica of an 1841 cannon. News reports quoted local people eager to see more tourists, and the town’s Web site reported, “It is said time heals all wounds and indeed and we are looking at the approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2011 with a air of celebration…”

After nearly 150 years, we’ve got nearly five years to get it right.

©Marsha Mercer 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pipe dream of energy independence--April 1, 2010


On Nov. 7, 1973, amid gas lines and fear that winter heating oil would be scarce, President Richard Nixon declared Project Independence 1980.

“Let us set as our national goal -- in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project -- that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source,” Nixon urged the nation in a televised address from the Oval Office.

Lofty rhetoric, like oil crises, may come and go, but energy independence eludes us always.

The latest president to promote energy independence stood before an F-18 Navy jet fighter called the Green Hornet -- it runs on a biomass fuel mixture -- and challenged the country to “break out of the old ways of thinking, to think and act anew…so we are no longer tethered to the whims of what happens somewhere in the Middle East or with other major oil-producing nations.”

President Barack Obama approved, as part of his energy independence strategy, greening the federal vehicle fleet, expanding nuclear power and drilling for oil and gas 50 miles off the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico.

His announcement on Wednesday managed to please almost no one.

Environmentalists predicted dire consequences for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, green jobs and white-sand beaches. Some on the left charged that Obama had reneged on a campaign promise to protect coastal areas. In truth, that promise had been short-lived.

In June 2008, with gas above $4 a gallon, candidate Obama, on the banks of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., told reporters that offshore drilling, proposed by rival John McCain, would not lower gas prices and would “worsen our addiction to oil.” Obama pledged to keep in place the moratorium against offshore oil and gas exploration and to protect coastlines.

Two months later, though, the candidate said he was open to the idea of drilling as part of a larger energy package. And, in the State of the Union address in January, he mentioned the need for offshore drilling.

If some on the left felt betrayed, some on the right were bothered that Obama now might gain support from undecided senators for the climate-change bill.

Congressional GOP leaders grumbled that the drilling plan was too limited. Obama is protecting the West Coast, where drilling is unpopular, and Bristol Bay in Alaska. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described Bristol Bay as “simply too special to drill.”

“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling,” Obama said. “But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

And to those who complain the plan is too small: “We have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves; we consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil. And what that means is that drilling alone can’t come close to meeting our long-term energy needs.”

One place where the announcement met with jubilation was Virginia. Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, trumpeted the move, saying it will help make Virginia the “energy capital of the East Coast” and create a job boom. The state’s Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, Democrats, also support offshore drilling.

As for that pesky matter of changing the law to ensure that Virginia gets a cut of the revenues, the state’s members of Congress are on the case.

In North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, sounded miffed that she learned only the night before that Obama was proceeding with offshore drilling. Perdue said she would be “aggressively engaged” in the process, and she too mentioned wanting a share of any revenues for her state.

It’s now Obama’s time to turn his fine words into deeds and make progress where every president since Nixon has not. In his speech before the Green Hornet, Obama sounded undeterred by the decades of failure and by the recent history of fierce partisanship.

“I think that we can break out of the broken politics of the past when it comes to our energy policy. I know that we can come together to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation that's going to foster new energy -- new industries, create millions of new jobs, protect our planet, and help us become more energy independent,” the president said.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.