mm079: A refreshing change of climate —

July 22, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Back to the political world, after a couple of weekend jaunts into my professional world, which is political in the corporate politics context only.

From MUDGE’s hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, comes this eye-opening report from its Sunday Perspectives section. The sidebar below it repeats a news story from earlier this week regarding congressional testimony from a former surgeon general in George III’s administration.



A refreshing change of climate

Having left U.S., stem cell researcher finds British view is music to his ears

By Jeremy Manier a Tribune staff reporter

July 22, 2007 CAMBRIDGE, England

To see Roger Pedersen relaxing at a favorite spot beside the River Cam, it’s hard to fathom that this unassuming scientist helped spark America’s fiery debate over embryonic stem cells.

Pedersen stirred fears of a mass emigration of stem cell researchers in 2001, when he left his prominent research post in California for the University of Cambridge, citing Britain’s looser stem cell laws. To this day, backers of stem cell research invoke the specter of a brain drain to Britain and other countries as one reason for rolling back the restrictions President Bush placed on stem cell funding.

Yet Bush’s policy never drove away much American research talent, thanks in part to state initiatives that have compensated for the federal funding limits. These days, what’s most striking to an American observer in Britain is the utter absence of the intensity and rancor that have charged the stem cell debate in the U.S.

The calm scene in Britain may offer a glimpse at the stem cell conversation in a post-Bush America. Many of the current Democratic and GOP presidential candidates have pledged to loosen or remove Bush’s restrictions.

Pedersen’s move to Britain has led him to research success, a new marriage and a new hobby: violin-making. He said his home country would do well to copy his adopted nation’s stem cell consensus.

“I’m very happy to be in a place where the first thing that comes to your mind when you say ‘stem cells’ isn’t politics,” said Pedersen, 62, co-director of the Cambridge Stem Cell Initiative.

No one knows how the U.S. research scene might have developed had Bush not limited funding for embryonic stem cells — microscopic blank slates that can grow into virtually any type of tissue. But Pedersen’s experience illustrates just how pivotal the 2001 policy shift was for many scientists.

For Pedersen, the first American researcher to apply for federal funding of work on embryonic stem cells, Bush’s moral qualms about the field spurred a personal and professional crisis.

The administration often states that Bush was the first president actually to fund embryonic stem cell research, but that’s a bit misleading. In reality, President Bill Clinton authorized such funding for the first time in 2000, under a relatively loose regulatory scheme.

After Clinton’s announcement, Pedersen immediately applied for a federal grant to support his stem cell work at the University of California at San Francisco. For Pedersen, who in 1997 had lost the race to be the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells (to James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin), the federal money offered a measure of protection from the vagaries of private biotech funding.

But a few months after Bush took office, Pedersen received a phone call on April 12, 2001, from the National Institutes of Health saying it had suspended consideration of his grant.

“It was very disappointing because in the previous four years I had ramped up my lab to do research on embryonic stem cells,” Pedersen said. “On the day I was told there would be no federal funding, I knew I would either have to change the direction of my lab or leave. And I happened to have an offer from Cambridge literally simultaneously.”

The departure of a major figure such as Pedersen from UCSF, a citadel of the American medical research community, helped launch stem cells to the top of the national agenda. Many experts warned that other scientists were poised to follow Pedersen’s lead and leave for friendlier shores.

Instead of ordering a total ban, Bush restricted stem cell funding to exclude cell colonies made after 2001. That may have prevented a stampede of scientists, but Pedersen said the limits fostered an “invisible brain drain.” Many young researchers have told him that the field appeared so uncertain after Bush’s decision that they simply chose a less controversial area of medical research.

Most American scientists would have found it difficult to follow Pedersen’s example in any event. He said he took a pay cut of about 50 percent when he left the U.S. — a reduction that he could partially offset with retirement savings. But he still makes “substantially less” than the $200,000 salary an institute director of his stature could command in the United States.

Pedersen said he tries to snatch all the good American talent he can for his center, but it’s more of a brain trickle than a brain drain. He often competes in recruiting with Harvard, which has a large, privately funded stem cell program, and universities in California, home to the nation’s largest state-supported stem cell initiative.

What Britain can promise young scientists is a political climate that Americans would find unrecognizable.

All three of the nation’s major parties substantially agree about the value of funding work on embryonic stem cells. The government has successfully portrayed its investment in stem cell research as having a practical basis in the potential long-term benefit to patients in the state-funded health care system.

“It’s a culture shock now for me to go back to the States and be reminded what a political football stem cells are,” Pedersen said. “Here it’s much more about patient care for its own sake.”

The untroubled approach to stem cells is possible because most Britons see the underlying abortion debate as essentially settled. Parliament decriminalized abortion in the late 1960s, and subsequent attempts to change that law have been “flatly unsuccessful,” said David Albert Jones, a Catholic bioethicist at St. Mary’s University College Twickenham in London.

“Ultimately you do have quite a lot of consensus here, because the lines of debate are drawn differently,” Jones said. “Anti-abortion views that are common in the U.S. command about 10 to 15 percent support here.”

Pedersen said he does not regret moving to Cambridge, which has a rich store of researchers doing work on stem cells. He found Britain too expensive to pursue his old hobby of flying single-engine airplanes, but he discovered a different pastime more appropriate to the town’s medieval feel when he decided to take up violin-making.

“The variation that your eye can detect in an instrument is on the order of the size of a human embryo,” Pedersen said. Working on stem cells, he said, is “very much linked to this experience of making a violin, in the sense that you have to be precise, patient and persistent to make it all come out.”

– – – SIDEBAR – – –

In testimony before Congress earlier this month, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona bemoaned the “partisanship and political manipulation” that greeted him in Washington after being appointed by President Bush. Carmona said White House officials sought to silence him on such issues as mental health, secondhand smoke, contraception and embryonic stem cell research. Following are excerpts from his testimony:


On being ignored
“The reality is that the nation’s doctor has been marginalized and relegated to a position with no independent budget and with supervisors who are political appointees with partisan agendas. Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried.”

On telling the truth
“I was often instructed what to say or what not to say. I did the best I could to speak out on issues. Honestly, I never lied, I never covered the truth, but it was a fine line that I walked all the time because often the particular issue already had a preconceived political solution. … I would see policy moving forward and I would scratch my head and think, shouldn’t the surgeon general have been involved in this discussion?”

On global warming
“The issue of global warming came up once … with senior officials, where they were heralding global warming to be nothing more than — you know, a liberal cause that had no merit, and they were kind of dismissing it. And then I — and I remember thinking — I said, ‘Well, I understand why they want me here now. They want me to discuss the science because obviously they don’t understand the science.’ And I had this scientific discussion for about a half an hour, and I was never invited back to the meeting.”

On speechwriting
“I was asked to say certain things at meetings, things were put into my speeches — in fact, I had two speechwriters who ultimately quit because they were so intimidated and browbeaten by appointed officials. … We’d play this game [of] taking things out, putting things in. And finally, I told the staff, ‘Let them put in whatever they want. I’m not going to say it anyway.’ ”

On public health
“The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds. The job of the surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party.”

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

A refreshing change of climate —

I have become aware lately that stem cell research may be able to lead to cures for such wide spread, potentially treatable but currently not curable diseases as Alzheimer’s and diabetes. It’s criminal that such research has been stymied in the U.S.; galling that Roger Pedersen needed to emigrate to find the funding and academic freedom to pursue his vital research.

And, the testimony of Dr. Carmona is positively chilling. And except in our fundamentalized, right-wing politicized and downright lunacized era, it shouldn’t have to be said, as quoted above, “The job of the surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party.”

Congress, wake up! Start please by impeaching Viceroy Cheney. Then …

It’s it for now. Thanks,



WcW002: Web Conferencing Week – On location

July 22, 2007


Web Conferencing Week

In our first venture in this direction, WcW001, I described the week just past as filled with unusualities (coined in this space tyvm; if I use it 500 more times, think that it gets added to anyone’s dictionary?), and described one. Here’s another.

Only a few times in the five years I have been plying my trade at the HCA, have I been asked to conduct business outside the friendly confines of the navel of the known universe, our dual expansive campuses and its outlying but nearby satellite sites.

But, Wednesday afternoon I received voicemail from one of my most frequent clients, the sales training functionary for one of our most important product families, asking that I assist Friday at an all-day session emanating from a hotel near the airport.

Sent off a memo to the contact that had been specified, detailing the logistical arrangements that I would require (broadband access, a phone connection for the web conference’s accompanying telephone conference call, a second phone line and phone for monitoring purposes, sufficient power connections, table/chair near the audio technician, etc), received a quick response including the name and contact information for the event handler at the hotel. A quick call to this person confirmed that all would be as required, and her smooth and professional demeanor actually filled me with confidence that it indeed it would.

So, Friday, instead of trundling out to the navel, etc., trundled instead to the vicinity of the airport, to a very nice and upscale hotel, the likes of which grunts such as yours truly work at, but surely can’t afford to stay at.

After the usual flurry of activity around finding the venue, and locating the key contacts among people with whom one has spoken but never before seen (and no one wears red carnations to identify themselves any more — why is that?), located the hotel employee audio technician who was handling the event and, after at my request he arranged the switching out of his equipment table for something large enough for the both of us, began setting up.

The main problem in the morning during the run-up to the start of the broadcast sessions was the speed of the internet connection I was furnished. It seemed that everyone in the hotel was competing for the same not-so-broadband connection, and I found this to be somewhat crippling as I dealt with last minute changes to the presentation.

And, by the way, wireless was not an option. Not only did my laptop not detect wireless access in the room (although others PCs did, so that was a limitation of my equipment), but it is my hard experience that, for a very network-centric application such as a web conference, the flaky nature of most wireless connections is toxic.

As with most web conferencing applications, Lotus Sametime uses two major modes to display information to those connecting to it: screen sharing and its whiteboard. Screen sharing is the simplest mode: whatever the person sharing is doing on her desktop shows up within the screen sharing window in the instance of all participants’ internet browser connected to the meeting.

The meeting room whiteboard is not as simple to use; it requires prior setup to load (or, in Sametime nomenclature, attach) whatever presentation files to be shown. The value add for this setup requirement is that most presentations transmit throughout the network much more efficiently, since the information to be transmitted is cached on the server (i.e., while the current slide is shown, the next one is being loaded into memory, and the previous one remains available).

However, on the dead slow connection I experienced mid-morning at the hotel, the revised version of the presentation file I received could not load into the meeting — the process timed out. This was frustrating.

I persisted, and eventually, late in the morning, and perilously close to the noon start time of the first of the two events taking place in that room, the revision finally got loaded (I’m thinking that the contention for bandwidth on the hotel’s connection eased closer to lunchtime), and I was finally good to go. We connected the audio tech’s phone (running the interface from the room’s sound system so that all those using microphones would be heard on the phone) to the telephone conference operator, and at the proper time the event began.

Meanwhile, in this large conference room, an earlier event not requiring my participation had begun, and I had a chance to observe the participants from the tech table at the front side of the room. Well more than 100 young (everybody in corporate life is younger than yours truly these days!), attractive field sales people were in the midst of a several days long training conference. This day’s meetings were devoted to product knowledge.

Our field sales people have to know well a great deal of technical data, as well as all of the nuts and bolts of technical selling (a topic I’m certain was handled, or reinforced at least, on other days of this conference).

For most applications of web conferencing, usage is quite straightforward. The leader of the meeting connects to the Sametime server, connects his laptop PC to a projector, and uses the screen sharing mode to simultaneously project his presentation in the meeting room while making it available to remote attendees. In smaller meetings, whatever overhead is added for the web conference is minor, and whatever distraction that the electronic meeting may cause usually is minor.

However, for large meetings, that overhead and potential distraction is not acceptable. Early in my web conference facilitation experience I learned that for these types of large-scale events the best approach is to split the function of running the web conference away from the in-room presentation function.

And this is what we did for the meetings in the hotel conference center. This way, there was no spillover from the electronic conference into the meeting room itself; so had there been technical problems, or even communication from the remote participants relevant to the web conference, it would have been invisible to those in the room, and especially to the speakers, whose demonstrated technical expertise might not have extended to the web conferencing arena and whom in any event would not have welcomed such interruptions.

So, the idea is that two copies of the presentation are required: one, for the laptop PC connected to the projector in the conference room. The other, for the PC connected to and leading (“moderating” in Sametime nomenclature) the web conference.

After the energetic activities of preparation described above (and there’s always something in large meetings) things in the first, 50-minute session went quite smoothly, as did most of the second one until the last 90 minutes or so of that four-hour(!) presentation.

The last 90 minutes? Well, the second speaker neglected to mention the existence of, much less share his umpteenth and latest presentation revision with me. Turned out he had about 85 slides; I had only 67. Ouch. So I vamped as best I could (at one point I used my text annotation tool to announce that there were some new slides showing that were unavailable to the web conference).

Well, afterwards, my contact in field sales training consoled me by saying, “how many people do you think were actually paying attention in that last hour?”

And separately, the speaker apologized to me (after all, even those present in the room did not have those slides in their printed handouts) by saying, “they usually only allot me two hours.” Sigh.

But, in the larger context of the day this was minor (the organizers certainly reported so) although that could have been 5 o’clock Friday of a hugely busy week manifesting itself. But, if my customers are happy, so am I (especially if the issue in question was totally outside my ability to rectify).

Could I have anticipated a new version of the presentation? Of course, there almost always is. Could, under the constraints of time (just about 10 minutes from the end of the first meeting to the start of the second) and a suspect broadband connection (remember it took about 90 minutes elapsed time to upload the smaller revision to the first presentation) I have actually accomplished the successful update in time? Perhaps not. Sigh.

While it doesn’t really apply totally to this context, since the speaker was guilty with an excuse (had to fill a lot more time than usual — and by the way, his extended topics were interesting, to this amateur scientist, and relevant). Often, though, the last-minute tweaks that cause this practitioner of meetings so much gut-churning distress are mostly gilding the lily. So, it gives me the opportunity to roll out:


But, overall, a good and an interesting day. Can I apply the science I was exposed to during five-plus hours of presentations to my job, or my everyday life? Absolutely not. Was it interesting, in the context of learning for learning’s sake? Absolutely. Forty-eight hours later as I write this, can I remember any of it? Please don’t ask me that!

All told, an interesting end to a more unusual than usual week in the world of web conferencing.

It’s it for now. Thanks,