In this photo taken March 15, 2017, an AR-15 style rifle manufactured by Battle Rifle Co. is display in Webster, Texas.

Credit: Lisa Marie Pane/AP

Living Lab Radio: The Finding That Ended Gun Research; Mice With Alzheimer's Healed By Disco, And More

March 6, 2018
  • From Primordial Light To Healing Disco

 Two different forms of light have showed up in recent science headlines. Shamini Bundell, multimedia editor at Nature, explains:

  1. Light from first stars hints at dark matter: Astronomers have detected the fingerprint of light from a period known as the Cosmic Dawn, when the earliest stars were forming. If confirmed, it’s an exciting discovery, on its own. It may also hold more clues about the role of dark matter.
  2. Flashing lights and pink noise may help Alzheimer’s: The brain is an electrical organ, and different types of brainwaves are associated with various types of brain activity. New research is helping decipher what brainwaves do and mean, and finding that light and sound may be used to alter brainwaves and treat diseases. The research is being done on mice, which are put into little boxes with flashing lights, "like a little disco," says Bundell.
  • The Finding That Brought Down Gun Research

In the weeks since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the national debate about guns has begun to shift. One issue that has come to the fore is funding for research on gun violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a program focused on injury prevention and control, but gun safety research has not been part of their work for more than 20 years.

Mark Rosenberg was the founding director of the CDC’s Center for Injury Prevention and Control. He says the clampdown on gun research began with one key finding.

“We found that not only does having a gun in your home not protect you,” said Rosenberg. “It puts you at grave, grave risk of being killed with a gun.”

To some, that statement of evidence sounded unsettlingly like a policy recommendation — something Rosenberg says he and his colleagues never intended. In 1996, Congress responded by defunding the CDC’s gun research program and adding an amendment to the budget bill, the Dickey Amendment, that forbade CDC scientists from advocating for or against gun policies. Rosenberg lost his job, and gun research largely came to a halt.

According to Rosenberg, that has left those trying to address the issue of gun violence flying blind. There are no authoritative numbers on the prevalence of mass shootings, let alone hard data about the impacts of different gun policies. 

Rosenberg argues that the CDC can provide much-needed data without taking sides in policy debates. A growing chorus is calling for renewed funding to enable the CDC to do just that.

  • Infrastructure Overhaul As A Bridge Over Political Divides?

President Trump’s long-anticipated infrastructure plan now seems dead on arrival, but few would argue with the need for widespread infrastructure upgrades. Mark Stevenson, author of "An Optimist’s Tour of the Future" and "We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World," says many of our current systems are failing to meet the grand challenges of the 21st century — from climate change to income inequality, to food production for more than seven billion — and the choice we face is to let them crumble, or to overhaul them.

Stevenson says the energy sector is where we are likely to see the most rapid and dramatic shifts. But his vision for the future of infrastructure includes an education system that teaches through teamwork and experience, farms that work with nature and lift farming families out of poverty, a health care system that recognizes and supports the ability of patients to heal themselves and each other, and corporations who gauge their success based on principals rather than short-term profits. 

It is optimistic, if not utopian, but Stevenson is reluctant to call himself an optimist. These changes are possible, but not inevitable, he argues. And the money and power backing the status quo makes change hard. On the other hand, he says infrastructure can be a bridge over political divides.

“What you find is that people divided by politics are very soon brought together by projects,” Stevenson said. “You can get Donald Trump’s biggest fan and Hillary Clinton’s biggest fan in the same room and you ask them to build something, and their politics will disappear.”

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