JibJab always cram so much into their year reviews. Here are some of the things I picked out… there was the Egyptian uprising, the US shut-down, government spying (on the public and other governments/countries), YouTube’s most watched videoWhat Does the Fox Say? Toronto’s ‘unconventional’ mayor, the ISS got damaged (or maybe it was a reference to the film Gravity), there was a change of pope, the Philippines typhoon, gay marriage became accepted, there was a royal baby, Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, the release of the iPhone 5S, 5C and iOS 7, Miley Cyrus wrecking ball, Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post, famous deaths including Thatcher and Mandela, Blockbuster’s final shut down and the Harlem Shake craze.
I know I missed a few and there were some things the video didn’t feature, but I think it was a pretty good summary of 2013.
On Monday the US Government FDA forced the main home testing company 23andMe to stop selling its saliva genetics home testing kit. As this is their only product this means that they effectively shut down their operation.
Looking at Genes
The problem seems to be that the company is offering testing for gene mutations that may lead to rises in probability of contracting diseases. This is considered a medical test by the FDA, and so they require trials and results in order to see how well the tests work before they license them. 23AndMe have been unable or unwilling to provide such results, so cannot market their device unless they take away all of the medical arguments.
This is the technical reason, but there are serious ethical issues surrounding home genetic testing. The following are just a few of my own ideas:
Without serious research doubt must remain about the quality of the results. The samples are not second tested, and the quality of testing cannot be of the same level as other medical hight cost exams. There have been problems reported due to the small number of people involved in the test groups, as statistics require masses of data that are not yet available.
Are customers qualified to interpret the results? What does a statistical rise in probability actually mean to a person that has never studied statistics or probability? And the results are delivered without any counseling, so if there is bad news the customer is left to process the information alone.
Here just a few examples might demonstrate the difficulty. If I have a 1% chance of contracting problem A, but I have a gene variant that means that I am 70% more likely to contract it, I might be distraught. The reality is that I now have a 1.7% chance, very little difference, but I might try to change my lifestyle, treat my kids differently, get paranoid, have preemptive surgery, who knows how an individual will react without medical advice?
If on the other hand I am negative for a mutation for something I might adopt an equally problematic stance. I don’t have the gene mutation that leads to skin cancer so I can stop worrying and have another hour on the sun bed. Social factors are really the big ones in many cases.
And what about testing your children? How will parents react knowing that their child might be susceptible to certain problems later in life?
Oh and if I discover that I have something hideous, should I tell my brothers? They might carry it and pass it on to their children. How personal is this type of medicine? It is familial, not individual.
The 23andMe problem is a prime example of money ruling. They have operated for 6 years, without regulation and blatantly challenging the FDA and medical profession that they see as holding up progress. As far as I can see this is about as far away from the responsible innovation that I have spent my recent life trying to promote as I would like to see anyone go. I would add though that it is a systemic problem here in the USA, not a personal divisive choice, and it is very different to the European approach underscored by the precautionary principal (with all its critics).
Strangely enough I was in the USA last time there was a government shutdown. I was staying in New Orleans and listening to music all day every day.
At some point during the 6 week excursion I decided to go to Houston, to see the Space Station. That very room, seen by millions on TV as Niel Armstrong spoke from the Moon, those rows of presumably computerized desks, where history was made.
It is a long trip from New Orleans, I traveled by Greyhound bus. The land is swampy as you pass through Louisiana, and on to Texas. The road is raised above the water by just a few feet, on bridges that are miles long. It was a long ride, about 350 miles, on a bus, at 50 miles per hour, but it would be worth it, I was sure.
I got off the bus and made my way to the space center. There was a rocket lying on the grass outside, absolutely enormous, a real rocket! My pace quickened as did my heartbeat, I ran to the gate.
The Space Center Houston, doorway to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was closed until further notice due to the partial governmental closure.
17 years on it is once more closed. But closing a tourist attraction is one thing, what I hadn’t realized all those years ago was that NASA itself had shut down, and it’s closed today too.
18000 NASA employees, about 97% of the entire workforce, are sitting at home today, unpaid, and without any idea of when their work will resume. All communication from NASA to the public has stopped, Tweet accounts are closed, and they can no longer reply to emails.
Reassuringly though the few people left at work are continuing to monitor the skies for objects that may crash into the International Space Station killing all aboard, and larger objects that may pass close to Earth, Phew!
The astronauts working on the Space Station will continue their work, and mission control will be open to support them. They have plenty of food and water so they should be OK for some time.
Other NASA spacecraft, like the Curiosity Rover on Mars and the New Horizons craft hurtling toward Pluto, will be largely left to their own devices (literally) during the shutdown. I believe parking is cheap on Mars anyway, although maintenance is high.
Mars Rover on Holiday
All of this comes just a month after NASA announced that the Voyager space craft, launched in 1977, has left the solar system. It continues to send back data, (although I am not sure if it will now be piling up like emails after a holiday), and 6 days after the now dormant Mars rover vehicle discovered large amounts of water, meaning that pioneers could extract water from the ground to use for fuel and to drink.
This government shutdown is having a huge but largely unseen effect upon science and technology development, as the organizations that are effected are some of the largest and most advanced in the world, not to mention creating a few disappointed tourists.