Carolyn Y. Johnson’s “Science in Mind” blog in the Globe, which is buried in the print version of the paper and difficult to find online. (Hover over “News” and it’s in the menu to the right.)
Science reporting is hard. Writers have to find a spot between jargon spewing and oversimplification. The “why should I care?” bar can be difficult to scale, especially for important but incremental developments. The tendency is to hype it up, follow the crowd or regurgitate journal findings because they are vetted – so they must be important.
They aren’t always, so we need sharp blogging like Johnson’s. She does a bit of reporting on journal articles herself. But, she puts the research in context. At a time when even papers like The Washington Post are printing press releases as stories, blogging like this is even more valuable. (For more on the need for good science reporting, see Sense about Science.)
Johnson’s latest post deals with the tendency of some to judge the value of science by the silly title or obscure topic of research articles. Here, she alerts to some pushback from a UMass researcher Patricia Brennan who studies reproduction in ducks.
Can’t resist the – Ha ha, duck dick – pun? Unless you’re handing out Ig Nobels, grow up and read on:
Her work became the butt of political jokes when a $385,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study duck penises attracted the attention of a conservative news website. Brennan found herself in the somewhat unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses, and saw a need for greater engagement with the public…
In an interview, Brennan said that examining sexual conflict between male and female ducks provides a fascinating insight into evolutionary biology and sexual competition. That information is interesting in its own right, but she also notes that duck penises, which have an external sperm channel, may ultimately lead to new molecular insights that could be deployed in medicine. Or they might not. But unless scientists learn, no one will ever know.
Brennan points to research into avian genitalia that may already have a medical impact. Colleagues are examining why chickens do not have penises and ducks do, which may provide clues to better understand hypospadias, a birth defect in which boys’ penises are malformed.
Other posts of note:
STEM CELLS Already, scientists in laboratories across the world have begun dipping mature cells in acid, hoping to
see whether this simple intervention really can trigger a transformation into stem cells, as reported by a team of Boston and Japanese researchers in January.
At the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a number of scientists have embarked on the experiment, which they’re informally calling “stem cell ceviche,” comparing it to the Latin American method of cooking seafood in lime and lemon juice.
RESEARCH DATA: For the past year, physicians, researchers, and ethicists have vigorously debated whether unexpected findings detected in people’s genomes should be reported back to patients or research subjects. In a provocative essay published Thursday, researchers from Harvard Medical School and King’s College London argue that an even more fundamental right has been totally absent from the conversation: research participants’ access to the raw data they provide.