Here’s an example of how Internet tools pose a challenge for nefarious government officials who want to make inconvenient information from programs initiated by predecessors “go away.”
Low Dose Radiation Research Program Accomplishments
Several months ago, I wrote some articles describing how the Department of Energy’s Low Dose Radiation Research program was systematically defunded and submerged into a larger, less focused program.
Those funding decisions were made about the time when the researchers who had received grants under the program were developing experimental results that challenged the existing radiation regulation paradigm. Some of the experiments — often using sophisticated laboratory devices that enabled researchers to sense specific changes to DNA and other cellular structures — were directly measuring the effects of low dose radiation.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the research was the way that some of the investigations were designed to determine effects over time. They enabled the experimenters to see how repair mechanisms worked and allowed them to determine their dose dependent effectiveness. Here is how responsible people describe the importance of the research conducted under the auspices of the program.
Research from DOE’s Low Dose Program re-examines existing paradigms and provides the results that support the development of new, biological paradigms. One example that challenges an old assumption is the finding that exposure to a low vs. high dose of radiation results in both qualitatively as well as quantitatively different cellular and molecular responses, thus demonstrating non-linear response with respect to dose.
Another is the finding that in addition to high-dose biological damage that may lead to cancer, very low dose radiation exposure may participate in beneficial biological outcomes by stimulation of our natural tissue surveillance mechanisms.
These processes are shaped by physical exposure parameters that include dose, dose-rate and dose-distribution. The research has underscored the importance of the Low Dose Program’s effort to study intact-tissue biological response to a stressor such as radiation exposure, rather than studying only the initial events within an individual cell.
Low Dose investigators were responsible in 2006 for initiation of a highly valued series of International Systems Radiation Biology workshops. Finally, the Low Dose Program has taken a leading role on the world stage in arguing for the critical need for greater communication and coordination between the fields of radiation biology and epidemiology.
What was lost? Who gained?
The skills and techniques developed by participants in the program were quite specialized. When the funding was yanked, the country lost a significant and growing capability. The research teams were disbanded, the mentors had to find new employment, and there were no longer any projects for graduate students to work on.
This was a really harmful and dumb decision; there is no doubt that humans will continue to be exposed to low doses of radiation. There is also no doubt that vast sums of money — measured in billions of dollars per year — will be expended to limit our exposures.
It is cost-effective to spend a few tens of millions per year to add to the body of definitive, experimental evidence that enables us to know what radiation does to receiving individuals. Without that definitive evidence, we are forced by pressure groups to rely on an overly simplified and purposely scary assumption. The assumption, first imposed in June of 1956, asserts that every increment of radiation deposition into tissue adds a finite quantum of risk that is cumulative and never goes away.
The name of the assumption is the linear no-threshold (LNT) dose model. I prefer to call it the “no safe dose” model. I think opponents love to keep the discussion labeled LNT or linear no-threshold because it confuses both outsiders and insiders.
Even though the information from low dose radiation research could save billions of dollars in unnecessary expenditures, somewhere in the hierarchy within the Department of Energy, decisions were made that the program had completed its initially proposed 10-year term and was no longer needed. That’s the kinder interpretation.
Aside: During my undergraduate studies, I learned to recognize the weakness of the passive voice. During my nine years of service as a headquarters bureaucrat, however, I encountered many people who revered the value of passive language. They also loved the “way above my paygrade” shoulder shrug. It was part of the CYOA mentality common among certain spineless wonders. End Aside.
It’s more probable that people who understood the importance of the “no safe dose” assumption in maintaining excessive radiation fear stepped in to ensure that the interest-threatening program disappeared. Its experimental results were threatening their carefully erected radiation protection paradigm by showing that moderate doses of radiation are not harmful and probably provide a modest health benefit akin to regular exercise or balanced nutrition with plenty of vitamins and minerals.
Research documents available via Wayback Machine
A Twitter friend recently asked me what had happened to the Low Dose Radiation Research program web site at lowdose.energy.gov.
— Steve Darden (@stevedarden) February 14, 2016
I found the current DOE page discussing the program. Since the program no longer has its own budget line item, it is a subpage under the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) – Biological Systems Science Division (BSSD) – Radiobiology: Low Dose Radiation Research.
The motivation for this article came when I noticed this paragraph on the page.
As of March 2012, the Program has produced 737 peer-reviewed publications. Please visit the Program website for a list of publications and additional discussion of research findings and future directions.
On the DOE page, there is a hyperlink attached to the words “Program website.” Clicking there warns the visitor that they are leaving the Department of Energy and going to an external site.
Not only did the DOE kill the program, but it relegated the papers and summary information produced by ten years worth of government funded research in an important field of endeavor to the Internet’s Wayback Machine. It’s been about a decade since I was last in charge of government owned websites, but there were once rules against hosting government web sites on servers that were not controlled by a responsible agency.
The good news is that the information is available even though some people probably gave orders to make it disappear. They probably did not understand how the non-profit efforts of the people behind the Wayback Machine ensure that information that was once on the web isn’t lost forever.
The bad news is that this is a potentially fragile way to retain access to important information. No one is responsible for ensuring that the archive.org mirror of the the site is ever updated or protected.
Update: (February 19, 2016) I submitted a request for information about the Low Dose Radiation Research Program to the DOE Office of Science. Here is the response I received.
Dear Mr. Adams,
Thank you for your inquiry of February 15, 2016, which has been passed on to me for response.
The Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Congressional Appropriation for the DOE Office of Science includes $2 million for “orderly closeout of Radiological Sciences activities,” including the low-dose radiation research program. As the FY 2016 President’s Budget Request for the DOE Office of Science explained, “Activities within the Radiological Sciences continue to decrease as research within the Biological Systems Science activity is prioritized on bioenergy and environmental research within the Genomic Science activity. Funding levels are reduced as these activities are proposed to be closed out in FY 2016.”
The website for the low dose radiation research program, formerly maintained by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is now present in archived form on the DOE Office of Science website at https://web.archive.org/web/20150905100153/http:/lowdose.energy.gov/. If you have difficulty accessing that site, please let me know!
Director, Communications and Public Affairs
Office of Science SC-47
US Department of Energy
Visit us at http://science.energy.gov/