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World Science Day for Peace and Development is November 10

Peace day

Today, November 10, is World Science Day for Peace and Development!   What a great idea, United Nations!

After World War II, the United Nation adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27, the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, was declared to be one of those rights.

The 1999 World Conference on Science: Science for the for the Twenty-First Century was held in Budapest and committed itself to using science to benefit mankind. Since then, UNESCO (The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has affirmed that commitment to the role of science in bringing peace and safety to all on November 10 every year. In 2000, and in a  follow-up report in 2002, UNESCO has detailed what the issues are, and how peace and development can be furthered by science.

But why did the UN hedge on its description of peace? Can we meaningfully talk about quality of life for all people, the effects of climate change and poverty, the unforeseen effects, good and bad of technology to happiness of mankind- and not mention the effects of militarization and war? This is especial bizarre because of the role of science and technology in building and selling the weapons of war.

The main report put out by the 1999 conference is the “Declaration of Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge.”   The report itself acknowledges war, but doesnt come out to say that scientists could work towards ending it.

The Introduction  tiptoes around the issue of war:

“However, scientific and technological progress has also made possible the construction of sophisticated arms that have the potential to destroy life on the entire planet.” And so? There is no response in the report to its own statement.

The Introduction does quote Einstein. “Military applications of science have been of enormous consequence. Therefore, scientists can no longer claim today that their work has nothing to do with social issues. It is interesting to recall the plea made by Albert Einstein back in 1931: ‘concern for humankind itself and its fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours. . . . Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations’.”  But then, this quote hangs alone, with no connection to the rest of the Introduction.

The follow-up report in 2002  “Harnessing science to society,” makes NO mention of the effects of war and the incompatibility of war with peace.

There is more overt mention in the earlier (1988) resolutions adopted on the reports of the Special Political Committee of the General Assembly:

“43/61. Science and peace

The General Assembly,

Considering also the political and economic decisions have a decisive effect on the direction of scientific research and the use of the results obtained thereby,

Recalling that scientific and technological achievements must be used to advance socio-economic progress and the effective enjoyment of human rights throughout the world,

Considering further that the arms race absorbs a substantial proportion of the scientific talent and financial resources used in related research and development, which, in a more peaceful and secure world, could be used to solve other pressing problems facing mankind…”

But even this needs to be stronger. Neither scientists or politicians should be shy about being absolutely overt about the need to prevent war, and the political and scientific will that will be needed to do this.

It would help to have our leading organizations and journals and professional groups spell it out- we will not have peace without war, and scientists can help bring that peace.

 

 

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Running for office as scientist and socialist

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“My name is Jess Spear.

I am a member of Socialist Alternative.

I am a climate scientist.

And I was the organizing director for 15Now.”

So Jess Spear, who is running for the Washington State Legislature, began her debate on October 7 with the mainstream Democratic and  20 year incumbent, Frank Chopp.

15Now was a successful charter amendment for a $15.00 minimum wage in Seattle, a success that is galvanizing similar initiatives all over the country. For, although she is a scientist, environmental and economic justice are her motivations, and science is a tool to address that activism.

Not that Spear doesn’t love science- but from the beginning, she saw the problems science could address. She was first inspired by Carl Sagan as a teenager to want to do something about climate change, way before it became a common concept. Thrilled by a biology class, Spear switched from anthropology to biology, and applied to work on a climate change problems for her senior year project- only to be told by her project advisor that climate change wasn’t a surety. As a student, Spear listened and worked on red tide- but a belief that authority, scientific or political, was necessarily correct did not take, and she found her way back to climate change as soon as possible.

It was not an end to her disappointment with scientists. Not with her mentor: while not as activist as Spear, he was civic-minded and involved and supportive of Spear. But her fellow students, even those working on climate change, were not engaged beyond their own work. Graduate students often have a laser focus only on their areas of study, but Spear thinks, sadly, that it was cynicism about the future that prevented students from working with the bigger picture.

Few senior climate scientists were speaking out, as speaking publicly led to questions about the scientists’ integrity and objectivity. Then, perhaps more than now, scientists in general were schooled to believe that their role is not to be part of policy, but only to provide the data for the policy, seeming to still believe that the research they are doing isn’t already influenced and caused by policy. Michael Mann and Jim Hanson have strongly acted and spoken out, and have written about the need for scientists to speak out, and public involvement is no longer completely damning.

Spear’s personal discontent with the approach to climate change and injustice took a big change in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, public protest in Wisconsin against the budget and restrictions on collective bargaining, and the Occupy Movement. Though Occupy! Seattle, she heard speakers from Socialist Alternative, with whom she then learned the links between climate change and the economic system.

Science and research are integrated into economics, but are generally seen only through the lens of capitalism in US training. Spear recommends that scientists read Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) by John Bellamy Foster, who has written several books integrating ecology and economics, and who warns readers about the ineffectiveness of spiritual approaches to saving the environment. Frederick Engel’s The Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883  and published in 1939 with a forward by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, analyzes the revolutions of science and their parallels with revolutions in society, a larger perspective useful for the scientist and activist.

Socialism provides the philosophical and practical links between science and environmental activism, and economics and social policy. For example, while many scientists and organizations agree that we must decrease reliance on fossil fuels to limit climate change, socialists are also concerned with the resulting human needs and in finding job alternatives for those in industries that might be abolished though activism or government regulation. A major mistake of environmentalists, believes Spear, is that they are coming head to head against ordinary working people. Socialism and Marxism have been very helpful to her in framing the issues, in putting problems in a social context, and have made her more more effective on a range of environmental issues.  Spear says, “I now understand how ludicrous it was for me to rail against individuals for their lifestyle choices. People shouldn’t be asked to choose the environment over their families.”

As a member of Socialist Alternative, Spears is not working as an individual, but as the member of a collective. Decisions about policy and actions are made collaboratively. There is a non-hierarchical perspective. This may be difficult for the scientists who believe in themselves purely as individuals to understand. But even with the inspiration of individuals, it is the power of an organization that creates social change.

After 2011, Spear spent more time on political campaigns, working first on the successful Seattle City Council election campaign of Kshama Sawant before leading the also successful 15Now minimum wage campaign. When she and Socialist Alternative decided that it made sense for her to run for Legislative office in 2014, she left behind for now her career as an oceanographer to focus on the election. She marches for political and environmental causes, has been arrested for stopping oil trains going through Seattle, gives interviews and talks, and leads a very different life, for now.

One of the biggest challenges for Spear has been learning a different way of public speaking than she had been trained in as a scientist. There was no effective formula for a political speech. It was usually not possible to use notes or other aids. Instead, Spear had to learn to make herself vulnerable, to listen and respond to the crowd, to improvise. Having let go of the notion of control that is drilled into science, she feels much better when giving a speech.

The election is November 4. Even without the corporate money poured into the campaign of the incumbent, Spear made a good showing in the primary, and well may win this election…if not this one, then the next. People may be shy about socialism, but are understanding that business-as-usual will not solve anything. As a person, scientist, and politician, Spear gives enormous hope that we have the capability to overcome fear and lassitude and make a better world.

The photograph used for the illustration found at the Vote Spear! website. http://www.votespear.org/jess_spear_arrested_protesting_oil_trains_in_seattle.

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Mission matters: DARPA’s inclusion in the BRAIN initiative is downright creepy.

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On April 2, 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative (BRAIN is actually an an acronym for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies- too cute),  a 100 million dollar investment (later increased) by 10 groups, with the 3 main US government groups being NSF, NIH, and DARPA. DARPA would be responsible for 50 million of the 100 million to be invested. Private sector partners, such as The Allen Institute for Brain Research, HHMI, Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, are also involved.

DARPA? That acronym stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research wing of the Department of Defense. This is their mission: Creating breakthrough technologies for national security. As it says on the DARPA website, you can read “Better Understanding of Human Brain Supports National Security: DARPA plans $50 million in 2014 investments to increase understanding of brain function and create new capabilities.”

New capabilities for what? It is pretty clear from DAPRA’s past exploits and present plans that its mission contradicts the mission of most

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scientific organizations- to do good science for mankind. Not for some, who happen to be americans. Not for war to protect US “interests.”

Jonathan Moreno has examined this intersection of neuroscience and DARPA in his 2006 book, Brain Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, and the 2012 update, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century.

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It is well worth reading for all scientists, but should be mandatory for neuroscientists, and certainly for the ones involved in this initiative. Moreno gives lists of DARPA research proposals that read like the CIA want ads. Brain control? Better warriors who can stay awake and fight without pain? Reading the minds of your enemy? Technology to predict the behavior of individuals and groups?  I don’t agree with Moreno’s pragmatic conclusion- that basic scientists and the military should work together in order to maintain openness and restrict the possible dastardly applications of DARPA’s brain research. I don’t agree that the trickle down benefits- that is, innovation for the public that may merge from a DARPA-funded discovery- are worth it. But Moreno does point out the ethical dangers of this kind of work, and encourages scientists to consider the end result of their research.

Nature Magazine blog reporter Vivien Marx, and the response of attendees at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience in San Diego to DARPA’s inclusion in the BRAIN initiative show a rather scary pragmatism. In an article reporting on a town hall meeting at the Neuroscience meeting, “Brain initiatives galore, smiles aplenty,” Marx describes with enthusiasm the different funding model of DARPA (DARPA uses contracts rather than grants, allowing it to be more nimble), and seems fine with quoting Colonel Geoffrey Ling of DARPA in saying, “Yes, we build guns and bombs, that is true.” Perhaps there was more disagreement with DARPA at the meeting than indicated.

But why would scientists think it is okay to be partners with an agency whose mission is contrary to peace and health?

Why is it okay for basic research funds to be channeled through DARPA instead of through NSF or NIH? Why on earth should the Department of Defense be dictating what research is done?

DARPA says it is committed to sharing results- does anyone really think that is going to happen?

People seem to be most enthusiastic about DARPA’s intent to “develop solutions to prevent, treat, or even reverse the harmful effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Traumatic Brain Injury in returning war veterans.” Ah, remember tobacco companies and their interest in health issues? Stop making cigarettes. Stop sending kids to wars. PTSD cannot be cured: it is a physiological response to trauma, and the trauma of killing is overwhelming.

Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University in a recent NY Times  op-ed, pointed out that there is little discussion of what we will/should do with the information collected from the BRAIN initiative. Yes, we hope results will go towards understanding the brain and helping those with mental illness and brain injury. Yes, it is complicated. But perhaps one of the reasons is that DARPA’s mission wouldn’t fit well in with what most people want from an initiative this expansive and expensive. Telling the public that their money will be put to the Department of Defense’s mind control experiments might not be as happily accepted as it is by the scientists who are part of the initiative.

The potential to understand ourselves better, to prevent and heal mental illness and brain injury for all people, is immense. The Department of Defense and DARPA do not belong in the BRAIN initiative.

Readings about DARPA and the brain-

John Horgan May 22, 2013. Crosscheck (Scientific American blog)   Why you should care about Pentagon funding of Obama’s BRAIN initiative.

Peter Freed, M.D. April 3, 2013. Eisenhower’s ghost and Obama’s brain.  Neuroself.

Peter Freed, M.D.  May 23, 2013.  Neuroself.   DARPA follow up: Where the scientific-military-industrial complex is headed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Speaking out on Gaza in the Lancet: Utilizing the power of a journal.

 

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When should a journal use the enormous power it has?

It can sometimes be hard to say. Scientists act as though science means a lack of subjectivity and freedom from politics. We expect our journals to be objective, publishing only data free from bias. Journals and readers ignore the implicit bias of accepting mainstream political explanations.

As of July 30, 1,330 Palestians have been killed in Gaza since Israel’s latest assault, at least 3/4 of them civilians, according to the UN, and 1/3 of them children, according to UNICEF. 1 in 8 people are homeless.

3 civilians (2 Israeli, 1 Thai) and 53 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

This is not only an attack and a war, but a huge humanitarian crisis that is targeting Gaza civilians. And a humanitarian crisis is the time for a medical journal to spend the capital it has earned, and to make its own political and philosophical links to societal issues.

The Lancet did so, publishing on July 23, 2014 “An open letter for the people in Gaza,” written by a group of physicians and scientists. The letter points out the asynchronous deaths and injuries of the current attacks, and the appalling circumstances that Gazans having been living in after 8 years of blockade by Israel and Egypt.

An Open Letter for the People of Gaza   http://www.thelancet.com/gaza-letter-2014

by Paola Manduca, Iain Chalmers, Derek Summerfield, Mads Gilbert, and Swee Ang on behalf of 24 signatories

We are doctors and scientists, who spend our lives developing means to care and protect health and lives. We are also informed people; we teach the ethics of our professions, together with the knowledge and practice of it. We all have worked in and known the situation of Gaza for years.

On the basis of our ethics and practice, we are denouncing what we witness in the aggression of Gaza by Israel.

We ask our colleagues, old and young professionals, to denounce this Israeli aggression. We challenge the perversity of a propaganda that justifies the creation of an emergency to masquerade a massacre, a so-called “defensive aggression”. In reality it is a ruthless assault of unlimited duration, extent, and intensity. We wish to report the facts as we see them and their implications on the lives of the people.

We are appalled by the military onslaught on civilians in Gaza under the guise of punishing terrorists. This is the third large scale military assault on Gaza since 2008. Each time the death toll is borne mainly by innocent people in Gaza, especially women and children under the unacceptable pretext of Israel eradicating political parties and resistance to the occupation and siege they impose.

This action also terrifies those who are not directly hit, and wounds the soul, mind, and resilience of the young generation. Our condemnation and disgust are further compounded by the denial and prohibition for Gaza to receive external help and supplies to alleviate the dire circumstances.

The blockade on Gaza has tightened further since last year and this has worsened the toll on Gaza’s population. In Gaza, people suffer from hunger, thirst, pollution, shortage of medicines, electricity, and any means to get an income, not only by being bombed and shelled. Power crisis, gasoline shortage, water and food scarcity, sewage outflow and ever decreasing resources are disasters caused directly and indirectly by the siege.1

People in Gaza are resisting this aggression because they want a better and normal life and, even while crying in sorrow, pain, and terror, they reject a temporary truce that does not provide a real chance for a better future. A voice under the attacks in Gaza is that of Um Al Ramlawi who speaks for all in Gaza: “They are killing us all anyway—either a slow death by the siege, or a fast one by military attacks. We have nothing left to lose—we must fight for our rights, or die trying.”2

Gaza has been blockaded by sea and land since 2006. Any individual of Gaza, including fishermen venturing beyond 3 nautical miles of the coast of Gaza, face being shot by the Israeli Navy. No one from Gaza can leave from the only two checkpoints, Erez or Rafah, without special permission from the Israelis and the Egyptians, which is hard to come by for many, if not impossible. People in Gaza are unable to go abroad to study, work, visit families, or do business. Wounded and sick people cannot leave easily to get specialised treatment outside Gaza. Entries of food and medicines into Gaza have been restricted and many essential items for survival are prohibited.3 Before the present assault, medical stock items in Gaza were already at an all time low because of the blockade.3 They have run out now. Likewise, Gaza is unable to export its produce. Agriculture has been severely impaired by the imposition of a buffer zone, and agricultural products cannot be exported due to the blockade. 80% of Gaza’s population is dependent on food rations from the UN.

Much of Gaza’s buildings and infrastructure had been destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, 2008—09, and building materials have been blockaded so that schools, homes, and institutions cannot be properly rebuilt. Factories destroyed by bombardment have rarely been rebuilt adding unemployment to destitution.

Despite the difficult conditions, the people of Gaza and their political leaders have recently moved to resolve their conflicts “without arms and harm” through the process of reconciliation between factions, their leadership renouncing titles and positions, so that a unity government can be formed abolishing the divisive factional politics operating since 2007. This reconciliation, although accepted by many in the international community, was rejected by Israel. The present Israeli attacks stop this chance of political unity between Gaza and the West Bank and single out a part of the Palestinian society by destroying the lives of people of Gaza. Under the pretext of eliminating terrorism, Israel is trying to destroy the growing Palestinian unity. Among other lies, it is stated that civilians in Gaza are hostages of Hamas whereas the truth is that the Gaza Strip is sealed by the Israelis and Egyptians.

Gaza has been bombed continuously for the past 14 days followed now by invasion on land by tanks and thousands of Israeli troops. More than 60 000 civilians from Northern Gaza were ordered to leave their homes. These internally displaced people have nowhere to go since Central and Southern Gaza are also subjected to heavy artillery bombardment. The whole of Gaza is under attack. The only shelters in Gaza are the schools of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), uncertain shelters already targeted during Cast Lead, killing many.

According to Gaza Ministry of Health and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),1 as of July 21, 149 of the 558 killed in Gaza and 1100 of the 3504 wounded are children. Those buried under the rubble are not counted yet. As we write, the BBC reports of the bombing of another hospital, hitting the intensive care unit and operating theatres, with deaths of patients and staff. There are now fears for the main hospital Al Shifa. Moreover, most people are psychologically traumatised in Gaza. Anyone older than 6 years has already lived through their third military assault by Israel.

The massacre in Gaza spares no one, and includes the disabled and sick in hospitals, children playing on the beach or on the roof top, with a large majority of non-combatants. Hospitals, clinics, ambulances, mosques, schools, and press buildings have all been attacked, with thousands of private homes bombed, clearly directing fire to target whole families killing them within their homes, depriving families of their homes by chasing them out a few minutes before destruction. An entire area was destroyed on July 20, leaving thousands of displaced people homeless, beside wounding hundreds and killing at least 70—this is way beyond the purpose of finding tunnels. None of these are military objectives. These attacks aim to terrorise, wound the soul and the body of the people, and make their life impossible in the future, as well as also demolishing their homes and prohibiting the means to rebuild.

Weaponry known to cause long-term damages on health of the whole population are used; particularly non fragmentation weaponry and hard-head bombs.45 We witnessed targeted weaponry used indiscriminately and on children and we constantly see that so-called intelligent weapons fail to be precise, unless they are deliberately used to destroy innocent lives.

We denounce the myth propagated by Israel that the aggression is done caring about saving civilian lives and children’s wellbeing.

Israel’s behaviour has insulted our humanity, intelligence, and dignity as well as our professional ethics and efforts. Even those of us who want to go and help are unable to reach Gaza due to the blockade.

This “defensive aggression” of unlimited duration, extent, and intensity must be stopped.

Additionally, should the use of gas be further confirmed, this is unequivocally a war crime for which, before anything else, high sanctions will have to be taken immediately on Israel with cessation of any trade and collaborative agreements with Europe.

As we write, other massacres and threats to the medical personnel in emergency services and denial of entry for international humanitarian convoys are reported.6 We as scientists and doctors cannot keep silent while this crime against humanity continues. We urge readers not to be silent too. Gaza trapped under siege, is being killed by one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated modern military machines. The land is poisoned by weapon debris, with consequences for future generations. If those of us capable of speaking up fail to do so and take a stand against this war crime, we are also complicit in the destruction of the lives and homes of 1·8 million people in Gaza.

We register with dismay that only 5% of our Israeli academic colleagues signed an appeal to their government to stop the military operation against Gaza. We are tempted to conclude that with the exception of this 5%, the rest of the Israeli academics are complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza. We also see the complicity of our countries in Europe and North America in this massacre and the impotence once again of the international institutions and organisations to stop this massacre.

Paola Manduca:  New Weapons Research Group and University of Genoa, Genoa, Italy

Iain Chalmers: James Lind Library, Oxford, UK

Derek Summerfield: Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, UK

Mads Gilbert: Clinic of Emergency Medicine, University Hospital of North Norway, Tromso, Norway

Swee Ang:  Barts and the Royal London Hospital, London, UK

On behalf of 24 signatories.

References

1 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Occupied Palestinian Territory: Gaza emergency situation report (as of 21 July 2014, 1500 hrs). http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_sitrep_22_07_2014.pdf. (accessed July 22, 2014).

2 Webb-Pullman J. Dignity or death—we cannot give up now. http://gaza.scoop.ps/2014/07/dignity-or-death-we-cannot-give-up-now/. (accessed July 22, 2014).

3 Gilbert M. Brief report to UNRWA: The Gaza Health Sector as of June 2014.http://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/final_report_-_gaza_health_sector_june-july_2014_-_mads_gilbert_2.pdf. (accessed July 22, 2014).

4 Naim A, Al Dalies H, El Balawi M, et al. Birth defects in Gaza: prevalence, types, familiarity and correlation with environmental factors. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2012; 9: 1732-1747. PubMed

5 Manduca P, Naim A, Signoriello S. Specific association of teratogen and toxicant metals in hair of newborns with congenital birth defects or developmentally premature birth in a cohort of couples with documented parental exposure to military attacks: observational study at Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza, Palestine. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2014; 11: 5208-5223. PubMed

6 Ma’an News Agency. 4 killed, over 50 injured as Israel targets al-Aqsa hospital.http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=715087. (accessed July 22, 2014).

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There has been outrage in response to the letter, with 2 examples being  The Lancet’s Latest Abuse of Medicine for Political Ends , and When Anti-Semitism Strikes Science and Medicine .

First author Paola Manduca, a geneticist at the University of Genoa who worked in Gaza in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, has gone further than the Lancet article in a follow-up interview. For example, she is forthright about the tunnels to Israel, pointing out that these are not just roads for weapons, but are the main way any food or medical supplies get into Gaza past Israeli blockade. Dismayed that so few Israeli academics signed an appeal to the Israeli government about Gaza, she mentions the Israeli group “Physicians for Human Rights” and what a small minority they are in Israel: even though academics know full well that Palestinians cannot even participate in research freely, they still act as though Palestianians have the same rights as Israelis in Israel.

This is not the first time the Lancet has published letters and articles about Palestine as a humanitarian crisis. For example, in 2009, The Lancet launched a series of articles on “Health in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” , written by a team of health scientists in Palestine, as well as by people in WHO, the UN, and academic institutions in the USA, UK, Norway, and France. There was a follow-up series in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

The Lancet editor Richard Horton wrote one of the opening articles of the series, “The occupied Palestinian territory: peace, justice, and health,” framing the healthcare issues as a direct consequence of the Israeli occupation.  He has visited Gaza, and has not only addressed the healthcare and humanitarian crisis by his own article authorship, and the editorial article choice in The Lancet, but by speaking out and writing in other forums. He is constantly attacked personally richardmillett.wordpress.com/tag/dr-richard-horton/ for his activism, with the charge of being anti-Semitic, and evangelical.

Horton speaks publicly on many other issues besides Palestine, for example, on GM food safety , the rationing of funds for science , and the need for scientists to engage with citizens .

Horton uses his power.

Here in the USA, which funds Israel weaponry, the carnage is still labeled as self-defense on the part of Israel.  Despite a growing lack of support for Israel government policy in Gaza, the US Senate voted unanimously to support Israel.

We need the Meducas and the Hortons of the scientific world to speak out, to realize that no scientist or health worker exists in a vacuum. There are avenues in which scientists as citizens can act to help in Gaza:

Resolutions in professional societies.

Letters to the editor.

Divestment and boycott campaigns.

Talking.

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris has tried to look dispassionately/“scientifically” at the Israel-Palestine situation, seeing the present massacre as being a shame but a predicable and acceptable outcome. This is, in the face of the massacre that is occurring, is not acceptable.

Follow- up and activism- April 2015

There has continued to be enormous criticism of Richard Horton and The Lancet. A petition, initiated by British academics, scientists, and physicians, is currently requesting signatures. See http://handsoffthelancet.com/.

 

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Scientists spoke but no one listened: the Oso landslide

Scientists predicted the Oso landslide, but nothing was done. Over the years, they spoke out again and again, without effect on development in the area. And then, March 22 happened.

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And from the looks of the latest report by the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association (you can read about it in yesterday’s New York Times in “Washington Mudslide Report Cites Rain, but doesn’t Give Cause or Assign Blame,” there aren’t a lot of take-home lessons to prevent another catastrophe.  The report did say that heavy rain in the weeks before the landslide were a factor. It suggested that the destabilization of soil from a 2006 slide in the same place and logging.

“But the authors stopped short of naming a specific cause or assigning blame, saying that a slide of such devastating size and force was not predictable.”  How strange, and how useless…..isn’t there an awful lot of room between finding causes and prediction?

Not only in retrospect, the Oso, Washington landslide in the North Cascade foothills that killed 43 people on March 22, 2014 was a catastrophe-in-waiting. While scientists issued reports on the landslide dangers, the town continued to issue building permits and to minimize the chances of a landslide.

The Northern Cascades in Washington State, an area with a history of landslides, high annual rainfall, logging in the area, the fast-moving Stillaquamish River undercutting the hill….all of these factors were indicators of potential instability and were pointed out, documented, analyzed, and reported.

Engineering geologist Robert Thorson from the Univeristy of Connecticut studied in the Oso area, and has outlined some of the history of pessimistic scientists’ reports, local media often responsive to the scientists, and resultant action in denial of the scientific reports.

1932       Aerial photographs showed recent slides.

1949       Landslide destroyed nearly half a mile of the riverbank.

1950’s    Hillside named Slide Hill. Various geological reports predicted more landslides.

1951       Causes of mudflows from 1949 slide shown to be unstable glacial material, undercutting of the hill by the river, heavy rainfall that caused small landslides which then dammed the river and made it more powerful.

1960       By this time, berms, dikes, ditches, revetments, and walls had been built in  attempts to prevent slides. All were destroyed.

1969       Engineering geologists from the University of Washington and the State Department of Natural Resources wrote reports and  memos highlighting “a grave and unstoppable problem.”

1990’s     Investigations continued.

1997        Dan Miller, in a report to the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, warned of a looming disaster.

1999        Dan and Lynne Miller, in a report to the Army Corp of Engineers, warned to the potential for a large catastrophic failure.

2006        Massive landslide on hillside above Oso. Houses were being built, and building continued to 2013.

Still, as Thorson reported, 2 days after the 2014 Oso slide, John Pennington (the head of the Department of Emergency management for Snohomish County)  told the Seattle Times that “It was considered very safe….this was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

In August, 2004, the State Department of Nature Resources approved the plan of logging company Grandy Lake Forest to cut adjacent to the plateau above the known slide area. The cut appears to have gone beyond the permitted area. In 2009 and 2011, Grandy Lake were approved to take more logs in the area.

Snohomish County continued to allow houses and trailers to be located on Steelhead Drive after scientists pointed out the unstable hillside just across the Stillaquamish River.

That was the pattern: in spite of warnings by scientists and engineers, local government allowed logging and development to continue in the Oso area.

There were times when government agencies, developers, or loggers heeded scientists’ warnings. In 1988, for example, local company Summit Timber applied to log above the slope over Oso. Paul Kennard, a geologist for the Tulalip Tribes, Noel Wolff, a hydrologist who worked for the state, and Lee Benda, a geologist at the Univeristy of Washington, all spoke out of the danger to the hillside. The Department of Natural Resources stopped the logging. Summit persisted in seeking a permit, but stopped after finally appreciating the risk.

The popular Gold Basin Campground in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is 15 miles away from Oso and is under a hill (Gold Basin Hill) with geology similar to Oso. As for Oso, there have been documented landslides since the 1940’s and many requests and proposals to move the campground. Environmental engineer Tracy Drury, hired by the Stillaquamish Tribe, warned in 2001 of a catastrophic landslide that could cover the campground: Drury had also warned of the potential for a catastrophic landslide at Oso in 2000.

In the immediate wake of Oso, the U.S. Forest Service still refused to move the campground, a dependable source of revenue. But, by May, soon after concerns of a potential landslide at the Gold Basin Campground had made the national press, the Forest Service announced that it would delay the opening of Gold Basin Campground while they studies the landslide danger. The campground is still not open.

Also in May, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, who leads the Department of Natural Resources, announced  that logging could not take place without a review if the proposed site is even close to a potential landslide area. Formerly, state rules only required the logging companies  to submit their own report to the Department of Natural Resources. Goldmark also encouraged the use of more modern technology to map potential landslide areas.

If the pattern of the past 80 years persists, anxiety about landslides will fade, and rules will again grow lax. What can scientists do to get their information to the public, and to the agencies that can act on the information?

It is hard to take lessons from Oso. Scientists did speak out. The press and media did often respond. As for climate change, and antibiotic resistance, and a host of persistent problems that seem never to get addressed, there are small victories, and steps backwards, and sometimes, catastrophies.

-Use the catastrophies. That is often the only time you get press interested.

-Use the press. Write op-eds. Volunteer for a local radio show. Sign petitions. Be persistent.

-Get your message out to multiple agencies. It is clear that in Oso there are overlapping federal agencies, sometimes oblivious to the other, sometimes competing with each other, and it was all too easy for action to fall between the cracks. Try to find the one person who will listen and step beyond the usual timid boundaries of the job.

– Act locally. It is usually state or town agencies that can act on environmental and safety issues, not national ones. Local business folk might be more inclined to listened to neighbors about issues than a national company would.

-Carry on even when you are shocked by the greed that can make people oblivious to danger, and the tendency of  your own neighbors to believe that their situation will be the exception to your data.

– Not all scientists will be on your side.

 

 

 

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Science is not just about competition

Wordsalad

 

      All over the USA, there is a steady drumbeat that says:

Math and science scores are low for K-12 students in the USA.

USA universities are not keeping up with the rest of the world.

The USA will not be competitive any more.

THERE IS A GATHERING STORM!

We need to run science like a business to be competitive!

 

Here is a local (Seattle) take on this theme:

Guest: How Seattle is falling behind other 21st century cities
The region must take aggressive actions to close the existing skills gap, according to guest columnists Randy Hodgins and Maud Daudon.
By Randy Hodgins and Maud Daudon
Special to The Times
IN preparation for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run, quarterback Russell Wilson famously, and successfully, challenged his teammates with three words: “Why not us?”
Seattle business and civic leaders should be asking the same question, given what competing regions are doing to secure their positions in the rapidly changing, technologically driven global marketplace.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce recently took local leaders to New York City to study an ambitious initiative to strengthen the city’s offerings in applied sciences. Considering it a smart investment, city government offered publicly owned land and up to $100 million in capital to help attract a new $2 billion applied science and engineering campus to Roosevelt Island.
A unique partnership between Cornell University and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, this new campus has already spurred complementary efforts by Columbia University, New York University and Carnegie Mellon University.
This initiative drives home two critical points. First, in the 21st century, enhancing a region’s economic health and creating great job opportunities depends on having highly skilled workers to offer to employers. Second, other regions are working hard to enhance their ability to provide this talent. The New York example was eye-opening, but hardly unique. At the chamber’s annual Regional Leadership Conference last fall, attendees heard about economic development initiatives in leading cities across the country and around the globe.
Few cities are positioned as strongly as Seattle to succeed in a fast-paced, interconnected and technological world. Our local innovation sector is the envy of other cities. In addition to established and valuable industry clusters such as aerospace and software, our region enjoys a thriving biotechnology and global health sector and we are seeing an emerging clean-energy sector.
The success of these and other industries is directly tied to our highly skilled workforce — nearly half of all local workers over 25 have a postsecondary degree.
Unfortunately, many of these talented individuals are currently being imported from other regions because local companies can’t find the talent they need here. According to a 2013 Boston Consulting Group and Washington Roundtable study, there are 34,000 unfilled local jobs because employers can’t find qualified candidates — and that number is projected to increase to 50,000 over the next three years.
This skills gap means that too many of our own young people can’t take advantage of some of the most exciting career opportunities being created by local employers.
The bottom line: Our region is in a great position now, but we can’t take our current economic health for granted. The infamous billboard asking the last person leaving Seattle to turn out the lights reminds us that continued success isn’t guaranteed.
For Seattle to secure its place among leading centers of global commerce and innovation in the coming years, aggressive actions must be taken to close the existing skills gap, create great new job opportunities for local residents, and attract international investment, research and collaboration.
In a knowledge-based economy, higher-education institutions play a key role in creating and sustaining economic opportunities, particularly in the critical fields of applied sciences and engineering that serve as the foundation of so many new economic and job opportunities.
In addition to their traditional research and degree production roles, higher-education institutions also must work with employers and the broader community to find new and innovative ways to offer students and faculty the ability to tackle real-world problems in a creative, global setting.
Remaining globally competitive will require all of us to work together. We can begin by asking ourselves some challenging questions:
Why can’t we transform our education system to prepare all kids for the global economy?
Why can’t our region lead the country in math, science and engineering degrees?
Why can’t the Puget Sound find new ways to stimulate research and innovation?
Other regions are answering these questions with smart investments and innovative programs.
Why not us?
Randy Hodgins is vice president for external affairs at the University of Washington. Maud Daudon is president and chief executive of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

 

Here is my venting reply in a letter to the editor:

What makes Seattle attractive to many of us is that we don’t live by the beliefs that the authors of this article do.

We do not see that their are 34,000 unfilled positions: we see that tech and science jobs get hundreds of applicants per position, and we don’t believe that all of these applicants are unqualified. Those of us with feet on the ground- how many unfilled positions have you run into, lately?

We believe in public schools- not in the “I -believe -in-public-schools-except- for-my-child”- way, but that public schools are the basis of democracy and the foundation of citizenship. We do not believe schools exist to produce workers for business. We work in and for the schools, and see how successful they can be. We are pretty tired of business people saying that the schools don’t work and something must be done. They usually have a solution to sell.

We are disappointed in the University of Washington state system, whose tuition is unreachable for so many students.

We are shocked that UW in Seattle has chosen to privatize many of the most desired and useful (for the world, as well as for students) degrees. UW Professional & Continuing Education programs (PCE) in Biotechnology & Biomedical, etc must be self-supporting, not even getting indirect costs from UW (unlike the Athletics Department), and PCE tuition can cost $50,000 for a Masters degree!

We see that a minimum wage of 15.00 would allow people to better support themselves.

We see that the way to lead in research and innovation is not to emulate what NYC or other places are doing. We have unique strengths.

We see many researchers who have lost their grant money to other federal priorities (war takes over 50% of the discretionary budget), and who must depend on the whims of the 1% for help. We know that many researchers (and teachers, etc) do those jobs because they want to help the world, not to be part of the race for global competitiveness.

While we believe in the power of science and technology, we don’t believe that science and technology alone will help the world or the city of Seattle. We certainly don’t think business has the answer. We need thoughtful, engaged global citizens who make decisions that will benefit everyone, not just themselves. We need everyone.

This is a beautiful city, rich in natural beauty and intentional citizens. The fear-based push for “competitiveness” is a race few are running, and is no basis for a viable city.

Kathy Barker
Seattle

————-

The editor at the Seattle Times asked if I could revise the letter to 200 words, which I did (and it sounds much better, with the venting removed!) and resubmitted the following:

Many of us don’t see 34,000 unfilled positions: we see that tech and science jobs get hundreds of applicants per position, and we don’t believe that all of these applicants are unqualified.

We believe public schools are the basis of democracy and the foundation of citizenship. We do not believe schools exist to produce workers for business.

We are disappointed in the University of Washington state system, whose tuition is unreachable for so many students.

We are shocked that UW Professional & Continuing Education programs (PCE) can cost $50,000 for a Masters degree.

We see that the way to lead in research and innovation is not to emulate what NYC or other places are doing. We have unique strengths.

We see many scientists who have lost their grant money to other federal priorities (war takes over 50% of the discretionary budget).

We know that many researchers (and teachers, etc) do their jobs because they want to help the world, not to be part of the race for global competitiveness.

This is a beautiful city, rich in natural beauty and intentional citizens. The fear-based push for “competitiveness” is a race few are running, and is no basis for a viable city.

Several lessons here for me:

-Check the word count before you send.

-Don’t vent.

– Don’t bring in issues or details not in the article you are responding to, unless your letter is solely about those details.

 

 

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Obituary: Arnold Relman and the medical industrial complex

 

4 Dr. Arnold Relman, 91, died on June 17, 2014.

Perhaps best known as the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine from 1977 to 2000, Arnold Relman was also an editor for the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a researcher on kidney function, a professor at Boston University, The University of Pennsylvania, Oxford, and Harvard. He contributed frequently to the New York Review of Books.

Relman was outspoken early in his position as editor at The New England Journal of Medicine. On October 23, 1980, he wrote an essay in the Journal in which he targeted profit-driven hospitals and other medical  industries. He was very clear that the desire for profit was adversely affecting patient treatment, and that investor-run companies could never have a primary goal other than profit. It was not a popular stance, and he had many critics who dismissed him as a conspiracy theorist or naive medical Don Quixote.

Aalg relman quote

Relman continued urging a reform of the American health care system, and suggested that a single-taxpayer-supported insurance system replace the private insurance companies. He considered the 2010 USA health care law to be only a partial reform, and said so.

The New England Journal  of Medicine, under Relman’s direction, was the first journal that required authors to disclose any financial arrangements that might affect their judgement of their research and publication. Many journals would follow this disclosure of conflicts of interest, and though there are those who still protest that the source of funding is irrelevant and that trying for such integrity was unrealistic, Relman’s stance was crucial in moving the medical and research culture to the expectation of accountability. (In 2002, under editor-in-chief Dr. Jefrey Drazen, The New England Journal of Medicine reversed the rule for authors for financial disclosure as so few authors had no industry financial ties.)

Relman was fortunate in having a work- and later, life-partner who agreed politically and philosophically with him, Dr. Marcia Angell. They worked together at The New England Journal of Medicine, lived together since 1994, and married in 2009. Together they won the George Polk Award for a 2002 article in The New Republic that documented how drug companies invested much more in advertising and lobbying than in research and development. Angell is now investigating the the influence of drug company money on the prescribing habits of physicians.

The New York Times obituary for Dr. Relman  and a New York Times 2012 interview with Relman and his wife, Dr. Marcia Zuger  are the source of the information of this short posting.

 

 

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Margaret Palmer: Actionable Science

Palmer1

Stream bed restoration and watershed preservation, testimony in a federal court on the harm done by mountain top removal of coal, an appearance on the Colbert Report in January, 2010: in a fantastic article by Erik Stokstad in Science (Science 343: 592-595, February 7, 2014), you can read about the career and life of Margaret Palmer. Save the article to read again for inspiration. 

That article brought me to interview Margaret, with a focus on her activism and advice for other scientists. But Erik’s Stokstad’s article, with its coverage of the reasons for and complexities of Margaret’s activism, reads as a primer for the ups and downs of a scientific life entwined with politics and policy.

Margaret Palmer received her Ph.D. in coastal oceanography, but soon shifted her work to streams and now runs a laboratory on stream bed restoration at the University of Maryland. This work led her to documenting the effect of the mountain top removal of coal upon streams, and into the political mire of competing interests in the environment. She is now also the director of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis.

In an institute named the “National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center,” (SESYNC) you might assume that activism is an important component of work and research. You would be right. But the balancing act between maintaining scientific credibility in stream bed research while being involved with political and legal protection of the environment is a constant personal challenge, even with institutional credibility.

SESYNC and Margaret’s science are run separately, funded separately, and have different purposes that must be transparent in order for all participants to retain integrity.

Around 1995, NSF first put out an RFP for restoration studies: rather than observation, which had been the core of ecology, NSF would now fund experimentation on ecological solutions. This itself was controversial, as how ecology even defined natural systems was not seen as a social construct open to interpretation. Timing was crucial, though, and as the changing environment was noted more and more by scientists an citizens, the wall between science and public action was lowered.

 Collaborators Margaret, John Cramer, and Jim Boyd recognized the role of social dynamics in environmental outcomes, and convinced NSF to fund an experimental program that would integrate public input with scientific results. SESYNC is a unique core program, funded by NSF (National Science Foundation)  to help the external community do actionable science. They would fund actionable science.

Note the use of the word “actionable.” “Activism” and “advocacy” are still seen as subjective and therefore, unscientific. “Applied” is palatable, but while it includes the public in outcome, it does not consider the public to be part of application.  Every proposal at SESYNC must include and describe consideration of the end user. Yet the federal government, and government organizations such as NSF, do not fund activism, so language must be considered. And boundaries made.

The center does not prohibit advocacy. But Margaret feels she must be careful about activism beyond the actionable science. Though her heart might be there, she does not go to rallies or fundraisers that promote causes she believes in. Participation in overt advocacy or activism could be used against what she sees as her place of highest effectiveness- testifying for science. And with her eyes on the outcomes she wants, she must be effective.

One of the ways Margaret tries to maintain actionability versus advocacy to is deliver the results of analysis without suggesting a particular action- that is, to say “if x is done, y is likely to occur, ” rather than “you need to do/not do x.” But In spite of the care to keep the activism out of actionable science, there are risks, especially to funding from NGO and non-profit organizations, who may see implied criticism of their policies in data. Because of her actionable science, and the perception that she must then be biased, Margaret has been disqualified from being on professional teams such as EPA panels, exclusions that can hurt a scientist’s career.

Staying professional publicly can mean masking personal views. Only once, on a panel at Brigham Young University, did Margaret give her truest answer to the question, “Why do you do what you do?” She answered simply, “I really care about the earth and about our future.” Being in nature, Margaret feels, is deep need not only for herself, but for many humans, and she does not want to see that destroyed.

Advice for activists:

You may not be able to be an activist early in your career. It takes a great deal of time, and will take time away from your science. Academics and academia are conservative, and there is generally no reward system for scientists doing activism or even actionable science. So, in order to be an effective science-activist, be sure you are an effective scientist.

Keep up your science. This is what gives you credibility in the activist world as well as in the scientific arena.

 Consider where you can be most effective! This is outstandingly important advice. What is the outcome you want? Choose the path and tools you need for that outcome.

Make the most of your opportunities. The 6 or so minutes on the Colbert show  brought notice (negative and positive) and funders. Many scientists are worried about saying something wrong, but any activism will involve communication, and you can find, for any medium, advice and suggestion for effectiveness. Even negative notoriety can be leveraged into positive interpretations.

Have a thick skin and look for resources to protect yourself. Any involvement with politics can bring very personal attacks, as opponents try to discredit you to reduce your effectiveness. Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOYA), lawyers for the mining industry requested not only Margaret’s emails, but documents such as reviews written  by in response to Margaret’s journal submissions. You do need advice and protection.

(All of your emails, even your personal accounts, can be requested. So telling the truth in all communications is good both morally and strategically!)

The University of Maryland seemed proud of Margaret’s activism, but they did not protect her against the attacks by the coal mining industries during court testimony days- they protected themselves. This is what universities do, so don’t take that personally, either. Margaret found support through PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) (http://www.peer.org), an alliance of state and federal legal and communication experts who protect employees who work on environmental issues.

Look for non-profits to work with also in non-crisis mode as collaborators. Non-profits want scientists to work with them, but don’t know how to find them. Don’t wait for an invitation, but contact organizations who share a mindset or mission with you.

I would add that working with or within an organization such as SESYNC can greatly give a mantle of actionable science (an thus, trust for some agencies) that advocacy/activism does not. Scientists working in traditional environments have no way to fund and publicize actionable science, and so all efforts will be activism to the world. It is very difficult to be a lone and effective activist, and it might be impossible.

April 2, 2014 interview.

 

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The CIA and the museum.

 

cia1
      Maybe it really is innocuous for the Pacific Science Center in Seattle to host “SPY: The Secret World of Espionage.” (http://www.pacificsciencecenter.org/Exhibits/spy)
       The exhibit hasn’t opened yet, so I could only check on line to see if I was being paranoid. 
        The collector of the most of the historic instruments in the exhibit, H. Keith Morton, is known for his many books on spying, the CIA, and military and intelligence history. There is a lovely picture of him in front of his 12, 000 square foot house in Boca Raton, Florida- CIA cheerleading pays better than cancer research, it seems. Clearly, he is pro-espionage, pro-CIA- but how pro CIA can be seen in these quotes from reader Cee Martinez (July 3-25, goodreads.com, http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/181624989) about Melton’s  “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception”:

     “Many interesting details about the CIA during the MKULTRA years are discussed, including strange ones, such as the CIA use of prostitutes to lure Johns into motel rooms under surveillence so agents could record the Johns’ reaction to various mind altering drugs like LSD. The introduction alone is a must-read for any spy, CIA, or conspiracy geek. Although, a short internet search on the subject of MKULTRA would reveal a far more sinister, and disturbing look into the CIA than this book would ever hint at.

“That’s the main trouble with this book. I didn’t think it could be at all possible to sanitize and neuter the very idea of the MKULTRA project, which included disturbing studies of brainwashing on unwilling and unwitting subjects, some experimented on in mental hospitals, and taken from their own families. This book has done just that.”

      Still, the political beliefs of the collecter might not be embedded in the exhibit: the exhibit might really be only technological wonders of deception, unconnected to a philosophy or even to the CIA. Ah, but there are “educational resources” that accompany the exhibit, two educator guides, one for grades 4-8, another for grades 9-12.
      Both open with a large font quote from former USA President Ronald Reagan:
     “You are the trip-wire across which the forces of repression and tyranny must stumble in their quest for global domination. You, the men and women of the CIA, are the eyes and ears of the free world.”
       And from there we are in experiments, narratives, and timelines that laud the CIA. Neither curriculum makes the whisper of a suggestion that not all the CIA has done has been honorable, quite in contradiction of history and present day newspapers. It is a true trip to the past in the post WWII Cold War rhetoric.

       I dashed off a quick letter to members of the Pacific Science Center leadership, but there haven’t yet been any replies.

 

 

March 20, 2014
Dear Pacific Science Center folks,
I was appalled to see that you will be running an exhibition called SPY: The Secret World of Espionage. Running this exhibit is a tacit approval of the techniques and strategies of the CIA.
Melton’s books gloss over the ethics of the CIA, and your glorification of the his instruments of the CIA will do the same. Would you display instruments of torture? Or a knife used in a rape? How about land-mines and other instruments of war? How is this “science?”
If you want to stretch and call it technology, still it is not appropriate to host that exhibition at the Pacific Science Center. Science and technology (and the information in museums) are not value-free. People will internalize your message. All of us must think ahead to the world we want- and your vision of the world ahead and what you see in science, is grim.
It might bring you money, but it also brings ethical deficit.
Sincerely,
Kathy Barker

 

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