Tag Archives: Skeptics

Skeptics question if Biden’s new science agency is a breakthrough or more bureaucracy

If President Joe Biden’s last big science project was a moonshot, his new one has goals that are light years further.

The proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency would deliver breakthrough treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other diseases and reshape the government’s medical research efforts, by adding a nimble new agency modeled on the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which laid the groundwork for the internet.

But the way Biden would make “ARPA-H” and its $ 6.5 billion budget part of the sprawling National Institutes of Health is raising concern within the research community and in Congress about whether it will bring a new approach to old problems or become a duplicative bureaucracy with a lofty mandate.

“Most of us did not support putting this in NIH, for the simple reason that if NIH were capable of doing this, it would have done it,” said one person outside the government familiar with the planning who’s worried NIH’s staid culture and leadership will bog down the effort.

A half dozen individuals both inside and outside the administration who were involved in discussions about the plan told POLITICO there are alternative approaches being discussed, like putting ARPA-H well outside of Washington, to escape some of the Beltway’s inertia and turf battles. More autonomy could, in theory, speed up the way scientific discoveries are turned into drugs and diagnostic tests.

But the prevailing view is that making the new agency part of NIH’s infrastructure will give it a foundation to spring off — and foster communication to head off unnecessary duplication. As Congress prepares for hearings on the first budget proposal, administration officials are expressing confidence ARPA-H can carve out a distinct identity, wherever it is.

“[The established NIH culture is] a valid concern and we have to do everything to prevent that from being the default,” NIH Director Francis Collins told POLITICO. Referring to his agency’s many constituent parts, he added, “This is not going to be the 28th institute.”

Biden has long aspired to build a broad successor to the Cancer Moonshot, the $ 1 billion initiative he launched as vice president during the Obama administration in the hope of fostering a decade of cancer research in half the time, three people familiar with his vision said. He announced the Moonshot in the same emotional 2016 Rose Garden speech where he said he would not run for the presidency, citing the pain of losing his son Beau to brain cancer. Within a year, President Donald Trump was in office and White House focus on the massive research initiative dried up.

Making ARPA-H a federal agency would go a long way toward ensuring it could survive such political winds and power transitions. But the bar is high, especially with budget hawks in Congress and other skeptics who question what a new multibillion-dollar agency can do that others can’t.

“If it’s a vision of merely doing advanced translational research … we have the ability within NIH to do that already,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) told Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during a hearing on his department’s fiscal 2022 spending plan.

Discussions about a new federal agency to cut through research barriers originated with a plan dubbed ‘HARPA,’ first pitched by the pancreatic cancer group Suzanne Wright Foundation to President Donald Trump in 2017. But critics said the original vision was too narrow, and a proposal for the agency to track mentally ill consumers in a bid to head off mass shootings proved too controversial. Collins himself questioned the need for HARPA, two people familiar said. The NIH director told POLITICO that the Covid-19 pandemic and Biden’s support for ARPA-H helped change his thinking about what is possible.

The NIH already has a department, The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, that focuses on finding practical applications for scientific discoveries. Harris and other Republicans argue that type of work is better done by the private sector, while NIH’s mandate is basic science — like mapping genes — that can be a foundation for other studies.

Collins said ARPA-H could bridge an important gap between academic research and industry, and spark collaborations across multiple federal agencies. “There’s often this gap, this valley of death,” between basic science and practical use where “we could play a really important role,” he added.

Part of DARPA’s model — which critics argue is hard for NIH to duplicate — is an organizationally flat structure that gives project managers vast autonomy over their work and funding decisions. It is a model that lets scientists quickly succeed but also quicky fail and then move on to new work, said Ellen Sigal, chairperson of Friends of Cancer Research who sits on NIH’s council of public representatives. Sigal, who has been involved on talks about the new agency, said, “If we’re going to do something audacious like DARPA, we have to have the mentality of knowing that we’re going to fail.”

Collins acknowledged the benefits and limitations of the system he oversees. “Our NIH process for how we fund research is both the best in the world, because of the rigorous peer review system, but it’s also a little slow, maybe a little conservative, and it isn’t necessarily going to embrace the really big transformative projects that would result in somebody sending you a grant application.”

But many of those big decisions, from which disease areas to tackle to a focus on basic or practical research will land on the shoulders of ARPA’s first leader, setting up what could be a high-stakes search for its founding director.

“The first director of this organization is going to be an incredibly important decision because they are going to set the stage for the future,” said Tara Schwetz, assistant director for biomedical incentives in the White House’s science office, who is shaping a plan for the new agency along with the White House’s top science official Eric Lander. “Culture is really difficult to change; it’s really important to get all this stuff right from the beginning because it’s hard to fix down the road.”

If Congress goes along with Biden’s funding requests, ARPA-H will have an annual budget of $ 6.5 billion available to spend over three years. That timeframe gives the agency some runway to fill out its ranks and fund its first key projects. But Schwetz and others admit it will be important to rack up quick wins to gain momentum and build sustained congressional support. They agency will also have to set priorities as advocates for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and a range of other conditions clamor to shape its work.

“You get one shot at doing this and it really needs to have the necessary ingredients to succeed,” said a person familiar with talks between government groups and outside advocates. “ARPA-H needs to have an ambitious enough agenda that it is dealing with the most important problems we have in a way that allows people to take those and run with them.”

Author: Sarah Owermohle
Read more here >>> Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

Unswayed by Data, Vaccine Skeptics Often Prize Liberty and Purity

Author: Sabrina Tavernise
This post originally appeared on NYT > U.S. News

For years, scientists and doctors have treated vaccine skepticism as a knowledge problem. If patients were hesitant to get vaccinated, the thinking went, they simply needed more information.

But as public health officials now work to convince Americans to get Covid-19 vaccines as quickly as possible, new social science research suggests that a set of deeply held beliefs is at the heart of many people’s resistance, complicating efforts to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.

“The instinct from the medical community was, ‘If only we could educate them,’” said Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, who studies vaccine skepticism. “It was patronizing and, as it turns out, not true.”

About a third of American adults are still resisting vaccines. Polling shows that Republicans make up a substantial part of that group. Given how deeply the country is divided by politics, it is perhaps not surprising that they have dug in, particularly with a Democrat in the White House. But political polarization is only part of the story.

In recent years, epidemiologists have teamed up with social psychologists to look more deeply into the “why” behind vaccine hesitancy. They wanted to find out whether there was anything that vaccine skeptics had in common, in order to better understand how to persuade them.

They borrowed a concept from social psychology — the idea that a small set of moral intuitions form the foundations upon which complex moral worldviews are constructed — and applied it to their study of vaccine skepticism.

What they discovered was a clear set of psychological traits offering a new lens through which to understand skepticism — and potentially new tools for public health officials scrambling to try to persuade people to get vaccinated.

Dr. Omer and a team of scientists found that skeptics were much more likely than nonskeptics to have a highly developed sensitivity for liberty — the rights of individuals — and to have less deference to those in positions of power.

Skeptics were also twice as likely to care a lot about the “purity” of their bodies and their minds. They disapprove of things they consider disgusting, and the mind-set defies neat categorization: It could be religious — halal or kosher — or entirely secular, like people who care deeply about toxins in foods or in the environment.

Scientists have found similar patterns among skeptics in Australia and Israel, and in a broad sample of vaccine-hesitant people in 24 countries in 2018.

“At the root are these moral intuitions — these gut feelings — and they are very strong,” said Jeff Huntsinger, a social psychologist at Loyola University Chicago who studies emotion and decision-making and collaborated with Dr. Omer’s team. “It’s very hard to override them with facts and information. You can’t reason with them in that way.”

These qualities tend to predominate among conservatives but they are present among liberals too. They are also present among people with no politics at all.

Kasheem Delesbore, a warehouse worker in northeastern Pennsylvania, is neither conservative nor liberal. He does not consider himself political and has never voted. But he is skeptical of the vaccines — along with many institutions of American power.

Mr. Delesbore, 26, has seen information online that a vaccine might harm his body. He is not sure what to make of it. But his faith in God gives him confidence: Whatever happens is God’s will. There is little he can do to influence it. (Manufacturers of the three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they are safe.)

The vaccines have also raised a fundamental question of power. There are many things in Mr. Delesbore’s life that he does not control. Not the schedule at the warehouse where he works. Or the way he is treated by the customers at his other job, a Burger King. The decision about whether to get vaccinated, he believes, should be one of them.

“I have that choice to decide whether I put something in my own body,” Mr. Delesbore said. “Anybody should.”

Mr. Delesbore has had many jobs, most of them through temporary agencies — at a park concession stand, at an auto parts warehouse, at a FedEx warehouse, and at a frozen food warehouse. He is sometimes overcome by a sense that he will never be able to get beyond the stress of living paycheck to paycheck. He remembers once breaking down to his parents.

“I told them, what am I supposed to do?” he said. “How are we supposed to make a living? Buy a house and start a family? How?”

Like many people interviewed for this article, Mr. Delesbore spends a lot of time online. He is hungry to make sense of the world, but it often seems rigged and it is hard to trust things. He is especially suspicious of how fast the vaccines were developed. He used to work at a factory of the drug company Sanofi, so he knows a bit about the process. He believes there is a lot that Americans are not being told. Vaccines are just one small piece of the picture.

Conspiratorial thinking is another predictor of vaccine hesitancy, according to the 2018 study. Conspiracy theories can be comforting, a way to get one’s bearings during rapid change in the culture or the economy, by providing narratives that bring order. They are finding fertile ground because of a decades-long decline in trust in government, and a sharp rise in inequality that has led to a sense, among many Americans, that the government is no longer working on their behalf.

“There’s a whole world of secrets and stuff that we don’t see in our everyday lives,” Mr. Delesbore said. “It’s politics, it’s entertainment, it’s history. Everything is a facade.”

The moral preference for liberty and individual rights that the social psychologists found to be common among skeptics has been strengthened by the country’s deepening political polarization. Branden Mirro, a Republican in Nazareth, Pa., has been skeptical of nearly everything concerning the pandemic. He believes that mask requirements impinge on his rights and does not plan to get vaccinated. In fact, he sees the very timing of the virus as suspicious.

“This whole thing was a sham,” he said. “They planned it to cause mass panic and get Trump out of office.”

Mr. Mirro, who is 30, grew up in a large Italian-American family in northeastern Pennsylvania. His father owned a landscaping business and later invested in real estate. His mother battled a yearslong addiction to methamphetamine. He said she died this year with fentanyl in her bloodstream.

From an early age, politics was an outlet that brought meaning and importance. He has volunteered for presidential campaigns, watched inaugurations, and gone to rallies for Donald J. Trump. He even went to Washington on Jan. 6, the day of the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

He said that he went because he wanted to stand up for his freedoms, and that he did not go inside the Capitol or support the violence that happened. He also said he believed that Democrats have been hypocritical in how they responded to that event, compared with the unrest in cities last summer following the murder of George Floyd.

Democrats, he said, used to fight for things that were good. He has a picture of John F. Kennedy up on his wall. But they have become dangerous, he said, “canceling” people and creating racial divisions by what he sees as a relentless emphasis on racial differences.

“This isn’t the country I grew up in,” he said. “I have a love for this country, but it’s turning into something ugly.”

Vaccine skeptics are sometimes just as wary of the medical establishment as they are about the government.

Brittany Richey, a tutor in Las Vegas, does not want to get one of the vaccines because she does not trust the drug companies that produced them. She pointed to studies that she said described pharmaceutical companies paying doctors to suppress unfavorable trial results. She keeps a folder on her computer of them.

Ms. Richey said that when she was 19, she was put into a line of girls waiting for the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical and other cancers, after a routine doctor’s appointment. She said she did not fully understand what the shot was and why she was being asked to get it.

“That’s not informed consent, that’s coercion,” said Ms. Richey, who is now 33.

Ms. Richey is also worried about the ingredients of the vaccines. She is trying to get pregnant, and she knows that pregnant women were excluded from vaccine trials. She does not want to risk it.

A portion of those who are hesitant will eventually get vaccinated. According to Drew Linzer, the director of the polling firm Civiqs, fewer people are unsure about the vaccines now than in the fall, but the percentage of hard noes has remained fairly constant. As of last week, about 7 percent say they are unsure, he said, and about 24 percent say they will never take it.

Mary Beth Sefton, a retired nurse in Wyoming, Mich., who is a moderate conservative, is not opposed to all vaccines: She usually gets a flu shot. But she worries that the Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly that there might be side effects that have not surfaced yet. So she has not gotten a vaccine yet despite being eligible for several months.

Ms. Sefton, who is 73 and describes herself as a person who “doesn’t like being told what to do,” says the politicization of the virus has made it hard to find information she trusts.

“The polarization makes it much harder to figure out what is real,” she said.

She thinks she might eventually get a vaccine. Her husband is bedridden and she is his primary caregiver. And she would be cut off from some in her family if she remains unvaccinated. But she is nervous.

“I still feel exceedingly cautious,” she said. “It is a basic gut feeling.”