October 20, 2005

Scientists, or shameless peanut-butter thieves?

Look, I think it's as funny as the next guy when we fund Studies into the Ridiculously Obvious. A recent Canadian study determined that teenagers exposed to absurd levels of personal violence might experience slightly elevated blood pressure. That was funded with Canadian, not US, tax dollars, so I chuckled right along. But when you start fucking with funding dear to my heart, that's when I get mad.

What set me off? A news blurb, posted on the Advocate website courtesy of AP, divulging the shocking findings of a new study that suggests that gay men who use party drugs and engage in unprotected sex at circuit parties may be courting HIV infection. Actually, not shocking at all. Actually, the AP reporter who wrote up the blurb couldn't even get it up to sound surprised; the very first line of the article reads, "A new study of circuit parties has found evidence for what many have suspected."

I quibble with the word "suspected." And "many," actually. This "study" tells us exactly what "everyone" already fucking "knew." And by "everyone," I certainly mean the researchers behind the 2000 San Francisco Department of Public Health study that came to the exact same conclusion, or even the med students at UCSD who figured the same thing out in 1997, or I'm sure plenty of people who've merely meditated on the classic Zen brainteaser: If you go to the White Party, do a lot of crystal and then bareback a bunch of strangers, are you more or less likely to come home HIV-positive than if you didn't do any of that?

Why am I so fucking bent out of shape about this? Here's why. I have managed to carve out one day of my hideously impacted, miserably busy grad-student week to spend working for no pay at a local nonprofit AIDS organization, because I care a lot about it and the real actual people there, and because/although it has lately, along with all the others in the state, lost a shitload of funds and therefore is hemorrhaging employees and fun and volunteers. Things we have a lot less of these days: food in the food pantry; condoms; outreach workers. We have no lube and are down to one box of one size of one kind of condoms. We have a 14-pound can of menudo that some store very meanly "donated" to us, but no peanut butter or tuna or bread or things that people might be able to keep their weight up by eating. But on the plus side, the one thing we rarely have fewer of is clients, and we do have two dozen jars of bacon bits.

I have long thought that by law we should legally require any publication which publishes any article citing any study of any kind to include, at the end of the article, all the information on who conducted the study, exactly how much it cost, and precisely where the funding came from. My horrible suspicion about "research" like this, which I was unable to prove or disprove in my angry Googling, is that it's being funded with money earmarked for - and better spent on - qualitative clinical or sociological research into HIV education, prevention and treatment. Clinical trials? Needle exchange? Testing? Or maybe money that could have gone, god forbid, to any number of embattled nonprofits trying to do actual work with actual people living with actual HIV/AIDS. Doesn't it seem like a ridiculous waste of time and money to send some charlatans with steno pads to a bunch of circuit parties to "interview" crystal queens to verify what we already know about dangerous stupid behaviors -- with funds that could have even gone to agencies that might now be working with some of the people who might have been infected at the very parties that the "researchers" attended?

Posted by katie at October 20, 2005 11:26 PM

What was the acronym you came up with the last time you were talking about something very similar to this? FIBWSFKB, or something like that? It was a good one, as I recall.

I'm trying to remember something that Jacob tried to explain to me a couple of years ago about AIDS research funding and the facile abuse of same. I can't quite remember what it was -- Jacob, any help? -- but it seems like there's a problem of technicalities if something is specifically earmarked for research and nobody's proposing any worthwhile research for it, so it's open to any dumbass with a clipboard but not available for purchase of condoms and peanut butter and paying SCAP staff because that's not research.

I can't remember which organization's billboard I was reading when I came across the stated purpose of their fundraising as "to keep people alive until there's a cure". It seems like a useful thing to specify in the let-us-buy-our-motherfucking-peanut-butter department.

Posted by: Dianna at October 21, 2005 09:19 AM

Fourteen POUNDS of menudo? There's that much menudo in the world?

Posted by: Dianna at October 21, 2005 09:20 AM

The problem is this:

Certain causes (AIDS and Alzheimer's research are two that pop to mind) tend to get a LOT of money. This is arguably a good thing. However, after allocation for research, that money can't go to anything else. The bureaucracy set it aside for research, and by golly, it's going to go to research. This is often a product of VIPs deciding that they want to be able to boast that $X of their charity (more than that other charity down the road) went to this exciting super-cool thing called research.

Now it's definitely true that some of these causes do need a LOT of money. Research with human materials or subjects requires tons of extra resources, and adding deadly and/or contagious things into the mix sends costs skyrocketing (for a BL3+ facility, extra training, etc.).

However, there is also some cruft. Some researchers go into these fields because there's a lot of money, and not for the science. The bad apples are in the minority, but they are definitely there. I don't think there's much we can do about it, though. Getting rid of the deadwood would require massive oversight of funds, which would cripple the 99-out-of-100 great labs that are doing good science.

Posted by: Jacob at October 21, 2005 09:53 AM

i agree this study was stupid. but surely there have been past research studies into things everyone already knew which proved that what everyone knew was wrong? obviously this isn't one of them, but it seems like you have to keep checking those things out or else the world is flat and germs are actually demons which can be expelled using incense and chanting.

*but* in this case, totally stupid, i am with you. so keep on with the rant i say.

Posted by: didofoot at October 21, 2005 10:18 AM

Wow. Pargraph tags have unfortunate side-effects in your comment section.

Posted by: Jacob at October 21, 2005 10:53 AM

I'm picturing ways that the "this money is only for research" thing could have gotten started. Perhaps funds were once set aside "for AIDS", but after the 30th proposal asking for a grant to fund hookers and crystal, someone got fed up and decided to specify what the funds were for doing to AIDS.

There's a legitimate problem with semantics in charity funds-allocation, I think. If you say this is for treatment, the people with the untested breakthrough vaccine and the people with the tell kids about condoms campaign have to sit on their hands and wait for someone else to give them some money. If you say it's for prevention, the condom truck will be tooling around merrily but the clinics will be turning people away. And if you say it's for research, well, then you have the above rant. But you kind of have to say it's for something.

Posted by: Dianna at October 21, 2005 11:14 AM

Hmmm. I hadn't thought about the non-portability of funds like that; that's interesting to know.

I think in my head there's a fairly simple triage process that applies in a crisis situation like this:
1. Immediate problems: meds, food, legal/medical assistance;
2. Treatment: Drug development, clinical trials, whatnot;
3. Social factors: behavior, outreach, prevention.

Two things strike me as wrong with this, now I think about it. One is that I didn't think about funds being marked for "research" as such and needing to be used strictly there -- that there isn't actually some oversight board that says, "My god, this study is total bullshit - let's penalize them by taking their funding and reallocating it to outreach until they get their act together!"

The other problem with my assumption is that it is totally a crisis model - it assumes that crisis management is the most important thing you can do, and that the next most valuable is anything that happens in a clinical setting, and that research into social factors is the least important of all. This is probably precisely wrong, in terms of long-term strategies.

That said, my major problem with the specific study in hand is still that it's stupid bullshit, because it's only confirming what plenty of other research (and common sense, for free) has already told us. I do totally agree about the periodic need to retest the waters and see if conditions or your assumptions have changed, but I also have to say, yeah, here it's just dumb.

Except that studies like this are an efficient way of using up extra research funds, I guess.

Jacob, do you know if there's a general difference between the way federal and private funding is parceled out/used for stuff like this? And what the heck is a BL3+ lab? It sounds cool, if only because I automatically believe in the inherent worth of anything done by people in white coats in a room with both letters and numbers on the door.

Posted by: katie at October 21, 2005 08:58 PM

Whoa, something is no good indeed with my paragraph thingies. Too bad I don't know how to change anything!

Posted by: katie at October 21, 2005 08:59 PM

Leave Jacob's paragraphs to their own devices and fix your banner image! It's cut off in Firefox (but not Internet Explorer) so your genius is not properly displayed.

That reminds me, I owe you Photoshop.

Posted by: Dianna at October 21, 2005 09:19 PM

Hey... hey! Stop that, paragraph! Line breaks weren't showing up in the comment preview, so I added some HTML line breaks and now see. I can't be allowed to play with formatting unsupervised.

Posted by: Dianna at October 21, 2005 09:20 PM

Line breaks weren't showing up in my comment preview either so I added more carriage returns on the theory that it wouldn't do anything but would be fun.

Now look. Unfortunately, see earlier posts about my technological ass-backwardness. And I have no idea how to fix my banner, except to tinker randomly. Why does only half of it show up in some browsers? What does it meeeeean?

Katie, can you readjust the left side of your car? I can't drive it from here.

Posted by: katie at October 22, 2005 01:08 PM

Hey Di, can you remind me of exactly what the stupid banner is or is not doing?

Posted by: katie at October 22, 2005 01:11 PM

The CDC has an explanation of all the Biosafety Levels here:

HIV is not aerosol-transmitted, so it's BL3.

Posted by: Jacob at October 22, 2005 01:12 PM

I can only see the top half of the banner -- it's cut off juuust above the bottom of the Batsign. Below that it goes straight to the white field with your latest blog entry in it.

In Internet Explorer World Domination Edition, of course, it's fine.

Posted by: Dianna at October 22, 2005 01:16 PM

Is there a place in your template or stylesheet that expresses the allowable space for banner images (or the distance-from-top-of-screen at which to start your blog entries) in either pixels or percentage of the screen? It might be that, for instance, IE looks for a percentage and arranges everything accordingly, while Firefox looks for a number of pixels. Or vice versa. Maybe?

Posted by: Dianna at October 22, 2005 01:19 PM

Ahhhh, sheeeot. I managed to change a bunch of stuff, but not the stuff I was really trying to change. I made my blog title disappear and I can't get rid of the purple box around the image. Did I happen to change anything that allows you to see the whole picture?

Posted by: katie at October 22, 2005 02:01 PM

Nope, it's still cropped.

To make the banner taller (which is what you want), go to the Stylesheet template.
Look for a section called "#banner". Inside that entry, look for "width: Xpx;" and "height: Ypx;". Increase the number of Y pixels so that it's just a bit taller than your image. If you don't know how tall your image is, just try a few values until you home in on the right one.

To remove the blue border, go to the Main Index template. Look for a section starting with <div id="banner"> and ending with </div>. Inbetween those tags is the reference to image <img src="....">. Change that image tag so that it now reads <img style="border:none;" src="....">.

Posted by: Jacob at October 22, 2005 02:18 PM

Jacob, you rock. I think it worked! Hooray!

I'm not even going to mess with the line breaks/para. tags right now, because I don't want to push my luck and I'd rather have breakfast.

Posted by: katie at October 22, 2005 02:36 PM

Good job, dude! It looks excellent, and a very nice banner you've got there as well.

Did you really have breakfast at 2:30 pm?

Posted by: Dianna at October 23, 2005 10:50 AM

CFF (Call for Funding):

The newly inaugurated HIECE,SASGS (Hume Institute for Establishing Cause and Effect, Specifically Anent Specific Graduate Students) is seeking a variety of funding (differing amounts; cash, check, money order) for a variety of CEIIs (Cause and Effect Investigation Initiatives):

1. SASGS Grocery Store:Brain Function CEII
With proper funding, SASGS will take funding to grocery store. With the food there purchased, SASGS will cook it, and consume it. Variables: Katie will likely end up doing most the cooking. This experiment will investigate the causal relationships among being hungry, eating, and feeling full.

2. SASGS Money:VisaCard
With proper funding, SASGS will apply a given sum to outstanding VisaCard balance to determine the cause and effect relationship between amount owed, amount paid, and new outstanding balance.

On The Horizon: HEICE,SASGS is developing further CEII that will address 1) getting laid, hating life less, 2) going on vacation, hating life less, 3) going to gym, fitting in pants.

Long Term: The HEICE,SASGS is strenuously excited about our largest long-term investigation, CEII between 1) SASGS finishing dissertation and SASGS getting an academic job. However, much more funding will be required.

- Delightful Housemate

Posted by: delightful housemate at October 26, 2005 07:45 PM

Decisions rendered on HEICE,SASGS CFFs listed above:

1. Grocery. Predetermined outcome: SGS will continue to consume maximum possible percentage of meals outside house, regardless of current at-home food holdings; one-quarter of foods consumed will be Thai, one-quarter unsatisfactory on-campus options, remaining one-half miscellaneously distributed among Saturn, Vallarta, Dharma. Outcome probability: 98%. Funds approved.

2. Visa. Predetermined outcome: New Visa balance will consist of Thai food, unsatisfactory on-campus food, and others according to results of previous study. Outcome probability: 99%. Funds approved.

On-the-horizon projects suspended due to low probability of actual data collection on any of these.

Long-term project: Funds status still TBD. Variables (including maximum required funds, dissertation completion time, dissertation quality, dissertation topic, dissertation committee, and others) exceed computational capacity of HIECE BBTCMG (Billiard-Ball Tangent Causality Model Generator). Next CFF requests funds to repair HIECE BBTCMG.

Posted by: katie at October 26, 2005 09:54 PM

This paper presents preliminary findings on a number of proposed CEIIs from the HIECE,SASGS. As all sources of promised funding have been evaluated and found unlikely to be offering sponsorship in good faith, the HIECE,SASGS has been unable to pursue its intended research strategies with regard to these investigation initiatives; however, this should not be taken to indicate that these lines of inquiry are inactive. The action of the HIECE,SASGS in proposing research on the subjects in question has prompted significant reaction from the academic community, and it is such reaction which this paper, as a work of social rather than theoretical science, seeks to examine.

A prominent member of the anthropological community, Dr. Dianna Woolsey of the University of California at Berkeley, responded first to the prediction of research outcomes from the BBTCMG Outcome Evaluation Committee (OEC). "It is irresponsible of the OEC to venture a prediction of the outcome of the HIECE,SASGS's research questions at this juncture, when delicate and nuanced issues such as who will do the cooking and where dinner will be purchased are within the scope of the study. To assert that the behavior of all of the variables encompassed by this study can already be known is poor science, as it both ignores the agency of the actors involved and invites deliberate refutation of the BBTCMG's predictions; if Katie does not do most of the cooking it will be difficult if not impossible to determine whether this occurred independently of the outcome-predictions or whether, indeed, she heard that she was expected to do most of the cooking and told the researcher to cook his own fucking dinner, she's going to the pub, don't wait up." Dr. Woolsey also added that, "It is in keeping with the reputation, if not the charter, of the HIECE,SASGS to approve project funding which it is not apparently able to deliver, particularly with regard to the VisaCard CEII."

Dr. Jacob Corn, also of the University of California at Berkeley, remarked upon the several on-the-horizon CEIIs that have been denied funding by the BBTCMG OEC on the grounds of their improbability. In comments at the third annual Conference on Hating Life Less(CHLL), Dr. Corn stated, "Oh, snap." This was proceeded by -- (continued on page 134)

Posted by: Dianna at October 28, 2005 09:54 AM

Dr. Jacob Corn? CORN?! I never knew! That almost approaches/trumps Dr. Christian Blood (aka delightful housemate).

Corn? Wow!

Posted by: delightful housemate at October 30, 2005 01:28 AM

Oh, I hardly think so. Likely names for death metal bands definitely trump vegetable references. But lest you should be tempted to rest on your laurels, remember that someone's still got you beat.

Posted by: Dianna at October 30, 2005 11:11 AM