Why Secretary General Ban ki moon Deserves A Second Term

Sometime very soon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban ki moon, is set to announce his intention to run for a second five year term.  In this he is unlikely to face any serious opposition, although any good and proper election process should at the very least allow for serious reflection and debate. And in this it would do the Secretary General and the organisation he leads a serious disservice if there wasn’t that real debate about the role and purpose of the United Nations over the next five years.

Any large organisation actually needs some grit in the wheels, and the United Nations is no exception. Having been based there as a television correspondent a few years back, I have the utmost respect for those in the organisation and also those journalists who see their job as to test and to challenge. And many of the self same individuals are smart enough to spot the destructive forces that can be unleashed by those in the organisation who are motivated simply by self interest. A year ago, Ban ki moon was being assailed by some of these latter critics, finding it difficult to respond – quite rightly – in kind, and watching as some of the bigger Western media organisations reported all of this with such alacrity.

Doubtless some of this will be re-hashed in the days ahead. My hunch though is that it will have a tired and dated feel about it, because even some of Ban’s critics may acknowledge that the ground began shifting his way some months ago.

I interviewed him just before he assumed office and subsequently in the frenetic months that followed as he embarked on gruelling Middle East and African tours. Although English is not his first language, there is no doubt that the man has grown in stature in office and there is a confidence reflected in his refusal to simply be ‘biddable’.  He has retained that self effacing humility that to many is one of his major appeals, but which also was mistaken in the early years for ineffectiveness. The early Ban operated as do many East Asian diplomats, quietly and without fuss, behind the scenes.

The United Nations Ban inherited from Kofi Annan was a slightly dishevelled, down at heel organisation, battered by the ‘oil for food’ scandals and from constantly being a target for elements of the Bush Administration. Of course Ban was seen by some as a safe pair of hands, an individual who could be trusted to do the bidding of perhaps the most powerful member, the United States. But it soon became apparent that this former South Korean Foreign Minister was his own man. He powerfully advocated the International Criminal Court, and he forced Climate Change right up the international agenda. Doubtless this will remain the key priority of his second term. Beyond that he was highly visible – and highly angry – at the Israeli shelling of UN buildings in Gaza, just as he was highly effective in communicating the plight of ordinary Burmese as their homes were swept away in the floods. The point also about Ban is that he doesn’t appear to revel in the trappings of office. I recall him wandering through the filthy shanties of Kibera Township in Nairobi with barely any security, surrounded by hundreds of ordinary Kenyans who had never thought to see a World leader championing their lot.

Much of Ban’s slow but steady progress goes unreported because it is incremental and not exciting enough for 24 hour news. That said, Ban – and the United Nations – are often slow to trumpet their case. Modern media relations are not the United Nation’s strongest suites.

The World is desperately short of real leaders of moral stature. Somehow they seem to be finding it more difficult to emerge. The World is also increasingly short of popular leaders whose moral voice is certain.

Having watched Ban ki moon grow over the past five years in office, I believe that he does have real moral stature, and he also has staying power. The best may be yet to come.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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