The Borna Disease Virus Tragedy

The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin (remember Koch’s Postulates?) earlier this year cancelled its research into Borna Disease Virus (BDV). That is really regrettable, because BDV, a neurotropic virus, may cause depression and bipolar disorder. BDV may be transmitted by blood transfusions; research on this is being carried out in Australia. There may even be an effective cure; an antiviral drug, amantadine sulfate, approved for use against the common flu.

Given the prevalence of depression and bipolar disorder, you should have thought that a decent randomized trial would have been carried out. A small trial would not cost more that a couple of hundred thousand dollars. But amantadine is a 30 year old drug, no longer covered by patents. There is practically no incentive for pharmaceutical firms to finance such a study. So far there has been none. Given the potential huge benefits and the low cost, that is a tragedy.

In the meantime, German and Austrian doctors are using amantadine and reportedly getting good results. However, we still need the solid evidence we would get from a well-designed randomized controlled trial.

For background, read this article in Discovery, a more recent paper here. See also Continue reading

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How to fight global poverty

Abhijit Banerjee of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab writes in an article, Making Aid Work,

Randomized trials like these—that is, trials in which the intervention is assigned randomly—are the simplest and best way of assessing the impact of a program. They mimic the procedures used in trials of new drugs, which is one situation in which, for obvious reasons, a lot of care has gone into making sure that only the interventions that really work get approved, though of course not with complete success. In many ways social programs are very much like drugs: they have the potential to transform the life prospects of people. It seems appropriate that they should be held to the same high standards.

Here are the responses to the article. In Banerjee’s response to the comments, he writes,

I should have said more about what is probably the best argument for the experimental approach: it spurs innovation by making it easy to see what works.

(With thanks for the reference to Tyler Cowan of Marginal Revolution)

Gloom & Doom, Inc.

If a doom-monger came up with a set of recommendations that would imply less money and power to the class of people to whom he or she belongs, I would at least listen with interest.

We shouldn’t listen to the latest “obey us, or face doom” message.

A recent commentary in Nature (subscription necessary) calls for an international body of biodiversity experts.

…it should have a formal link to, and be funded by, governments. This feature, which distinguishes it from previous biodiversity initiatives, would ensure that negotiations within international biodiversity conventions are based on validated scientific information and lead to action at national and global levels.

So, because governments would (use taxpayers’ money to) pay for this, that would ensure action “at national and global levels”? And this “action” would be effective? The authors of the proposal owe a payment for ecosystem services to the owners of the ecosystem that produced whatever they smoked.

The consultation process, supervised by an international steering committee, will last 18 months and proceed in two phases. During the first phase, a number of studies will define the need for, and goals of, an international panel on biodiversity. These studies will examine the global decision-making landscape concerned with biodiversity, analyse successes and failures of biodiversity conservation efforts at different scales, and assess existing international mechanisms that deliver scientific expertise. In a second phase, this information will be used to articulate a set of recommendations for an international panel, which will be presented at a set of regional meetings to seek input from all sectors of society and all regions of the world.

This is not about action, or doing science, this is about creating and getting money for a talking shop.

We urgently need a scientific body of knowledge on conservation. What works, what doesn’t work, what are the cost and the benefits? We can’t do systematic reviews before the field trials have been done. Diverting scientists away from science and getting funds for scientists to pontificate on the basis of weak science is a waste both of scientists and of money.

Where, oh where, are the studies we need?

Can we work to reduce poverty and conserve biodiversity at the same time? In a recent paper (Poverty, Development, And Biodiversity Conservation: Shooting in the Dark?) Arun Agrawal and Kent Redford write

the mass of scholarly work on the subject does not permit systematic and context-sensitive generalizations about the conditions under which it may be possible to achieve poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation simultaneously. The vast sums channeled toward joint achievement of poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation are all the more remarkable in light of the basic lack of evidence on the extent to which these goals can jointly be reached…

Better research design, based on careful specification of the relevant hypotheses, will likely require panel data from a suite of sites and households to allow systematic comparison across cases and regions…

…before and after studies are likely to prove invaluable in gaining a deeper understanding of the links between different measures of poverty and biodiversity.

For a relevant article, read also Jon Christensen’s Win-Win Illusions. I recommended it.

Lessons Learned

Today this blog is one month old. Let’s look back at some lessons learned and at some known unknowns.

There is a urgent need for evidence-based conservation. We should learn from the medical profession, and use randomized, controlled trials to validate interventions. Why not get experts in clinical trials involved in the design of conservation studies? Once we have a number of solid studies, we can carry out systematic reviews.

You can’t understand the pressures on protected areas, and the pro or contra-conservation activities outside protected areas, if you don’t calculate the cost and benefits to the people who live in the area. Such a calculation necessarily involves calculating land rents and opportunity costs.

In poor countries, benefits may largely accrue to foreign hotel and tour operators, or to the central government, leaving local people with scant incentive to conserve nature. What is the mechanism that maintains this system? Public choice theory is an analytic framework that could be useful in understanding the choices of governments and NGOs.

Protected areas work, but the Galapagos Effect is real. A low human population density is good for conservation. An attractive protected area might attract so many visitors, as well as people earning their living from visitors, that the protected area suffers (there is a second Galapagos Effect in biology; it refers to rapid evolutionary change in small isolated populations under strong selection pressure).

Direct payments for conservation is a very promising innovation. You get what you pay for, and if you don’t pay for conservation, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get it. Projects with multiple objectives and indirect payments are wasteful, but can be understood in terms of the incentive structures of NGO and government bureaucracies. Direct payments became common in disaster relief during the 1990s. Why not in conservation?

Conservationists and local people do not have common preferences, but cooperative bargaining can provide acceptable solutions to both parties.

ITQs, individual transferable quotas, have worked in fisheries, water supply, and pollution control. Can their use be extended? Are there cases where we can show that they can’t work?

Land trusts have grown very fast in the U.S.A. over the past half century. Can they be replicated outside the U.S.?

More on How do we know what works?

It is easy enough to say that we need randomized controlled trials in conservation, but how would you actually design such a study? Here is an example,

Ferraro, P.J., R. Godoy, D. Karlan, W. Leonard, and D. Wilkie. 2002. Field Experiment To Assess The Effects Of Performance Payments On Ecosystem Conservation, Quality Of Life, And Territorial Rights of Indigenous Populations: A Proposal.