Hot stories from North America’s top science conference (and why you should care about them)

NIKI WILSON – On Science, Jasper Fitzhugh
March 01, 2012

I spent last weekend at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver, one of the largest science schmoozefests in the world. You could not swing a laser pointer without hitting a PhD. For a science lover like me, it was nerd paradise.

The range of topics was vast, but some continually captured the buzz. Here are a few of the most talked about stories from the conference, and why you should care about them.


The anti-science lobby and muzzling of government scientists

How free are Canadian government scientists to speak publicly about their work? This question kicked off the conference with a standing-room-only session, where a panel discussed the trend that has seen the Canadian Government tighten control over how and when federal government scientists interact with the media.

The session about muzzling was timed with a letter released to the Prime Minister’s Office by several organizations representing science journalists and communicators across Canada and around the world. It called for a more transparent policy that would allow scientists to respond in a timely manner to journalist requests. It cited some very public examples where the federal government has restricted scientist’s communication: “Last fall, Environment Canada prevented Dr. David Tarasick from speaking to journalists about his ozone layer research, work which had been published in the journal Nature. And earlier, the Privy Council Office stopped Kristina Miller, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, from granting interviews about her findings on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in British Columbia.” These findings have been published in the journal Science.

Although the session and the letter focused on Canadian government scientists, it was part of a larger theme conference presenters touched on throughout. AAAS president Dr. Nina Federoff said she was now “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the U.S. and the rest of the western world.

“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”


Why Should You Care?

Government scientists do publicly funded work that shapes policy and informs debate. Restriction of this information violates the very tenents of science and democracy. AAAS Panelist Francesca Grifo, of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts, summed it up for the Huffington Post Canada: “This is about important information that has critical repercussions for our health, our safety, our environment, our world, our future, our children’s future.”


What the heck is a Higgs boson?

Scientists may have found the holy grail of particle physics. Researchers at CERN, the laboratory associated with the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located near the border of France and Switzerland, produced data shortly before the AAAS meeting suggesting they may have found evidence of the Higgs boson, a hypothesized elementary particle of the atom.

A boson is a subatomic particle, like a photon or electron. You will remember electrons from high school chemistry: they are found in all atoms and give them their charge.

Over the past several decades, scientists have discovered more subatomic particles, like quarks.

The Higgs boson is the last to be confirmed in what physicists call “The Standard Model” of the atom, a theory that describes the behaviour of all fundamental particles that exist in nature, and the forces that act between them.

The Higgs boson is important because it gives each fundamental particle of an atom its own mass. Its existence is needed to explain many features of the standard model, such as why some particles have very large masses while others are quite light.


The silicon strip tracker of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) nears completion. Shown here are three concentric cylinders, each comprised of many silicon strip detetectors (the bronze-coloured rectangular devices, similar to the CCDs used in digital cameras). These surround the region where the protons collide. The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment is one of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the proton-proton Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland and France.

Why Should You Care?

A comprehensive understanding of particle physics can help us figure out the universe and how it works. It’s our best shot at answering the most fundamental questions that humans can have. Where did the universe come from? How did we get here? What are we made of?


Solving the shortage of medical isotopes

Canadian scientists have developed a method of producing an important medical imaging isotope without a nuclear reactor. This could mean an end to medical testing delays faced by many Canadians with life-threatening illnesses.

Medical isotopes are radioactive substances used to image and treat disease in the human body. Once injected, they spread to the body’s tissues, and special equipment detects their energy signal. This enables doctors to learn more about the diseased tissues than a diagnostic procedure that just takes a picture from the outside (like a CT scan).

The problem is, there aren’t enough medical isotopes. They are produced in only a handful of nuclear reactors worldwide, including one in Ontario. Isotope shortages have become more frequent as the reactors age.

Canadian researchers are working to produce these vital isotopes through the use of particle accelerator called a cyclotron, stabilizing the supply and eliminating the production of nuclear waste. The development means shortages may no longer be a problem in the future.


Why Should You Care?

New technologies enable medical isotopes to be used not only in imaging, but to be delivered directly to the site of diseased cells, allowing them to be used to fight cancer and cardiovascular disease.

As you can imagine at a conference of 8,000 people, these stories are just a few among the many that emerged over the five-day meeting. Other hot topics included the environmental impacts of fracking (breaking shale beneath the earth’s surface to allow natural gas to flow out), concern over ocean acidification, and water security.

But underlying it all was the murmur among scientists and media alike that science is simply no longer enough to change people’s behavior around important issues. More and more, social studies show us that people make decisions based on their values, and less on facts. How the science is communicated, and the relationship people have to the subject matter, will determine whether or not they choose to incorporate it into their decision making.