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Science & the Public

Science & the Public

Obama worried about research funding

The president expressed concerns in an NAS birthday address

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Barack Obama offered yet another argument about why the current federal-budget stalemate is so risky: “[T]he sequester, as it’s known in Washington-speak — it’s hitting our scientific research.” As things now stand, “we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter, because of misguided priorities here in this town.”

That was the president’s warning to researchers and policymakers in an address, April 29, before the National Academy of Sciences. He was there to help celebrate that august body’s 150th birthday.

“America remains a world leader in patents and scientific discovery,” Obama told the attendees.  U.S. universities represent “the crown jewel of our economy as well as our civilization.” But much funding for new research comes from the federal coffers. And tightening the purse strings, he argued, risks slowing the pace of discovery and the protection of intellectual property that drives the U.S. economy.

Indeed, as an academic geneticist remarked to me just this past weekend, even before the sequester, grant money had become amazingly tight. That neighbor has lately been applying for National Science Foundation grants. Yet the programs where his type of research might qualify for funding now possesses only enough money to finance 7 percent of incoming proposals. Or it did. That was before the sequester. Moreover, the tenured scientist pointed out, it’s become increasingly hard for researchers under 45 — even those with a robust publication record — to get money to investigate new ideas. The government just persists in “funding more of the same,” he lamented.

The president also charged in his NAS address that direct political interference by Congress has been fettering the development of new knowledge. Said Obama: It’s imperative that “we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us.” The United States has “got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars . . . [And] make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process.”

Fine words. But Obama gave no explicit examples from his science & engineering soapbox. It’s fair to guess he was alluding to efforts by various elected officials to limit further investment in climate change studies, renewable energy technologies and proposals for outside-the-box basic research — the type of high-risk but also potentially high-payoff investigations from which transformative developments most often emerge.

One thing about which there can be little controversy: a need to encourage ever more K-12 students to embrace science and engineering. Some have and are already garnering a national reputation for it. Obama gave a shout-out to a few notable examples from among the 100 kids that his staff invited to take part, last week, in the third White House Science Fair. It wasn’t a competition. More of an exhibition really — sort of a national cross-section of amazing research by teens.

“I know you guys were smart when you were their age,” the president said to researchers at the NAS birthday celebration. But those kids at the White House, last week, “I might give them the edge. I mean, you had young people who were converting algae into sustainable biofuels — that was one of my favorites, because the young lady, she kept the algae under her bed.” Added the president, with a chuckle: “I pictured it bubbling out and starting to creep into the hallways.”

Obama was referring to Sara Volz. The 17-year-old senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., took home the $100,000 grand prize, last month, for that research at the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search (a competition established by Science News’ parent organization, 71 years ago, and still administered by us).

And then there were the kids who developed a way to purify water with bicycle-power-generated batteries, the president noted, and a boy who had already devised a faster, cheaper test for cancer. And “these are 15, 16-year-olds,” Obama observed.

Fourteen percent of the students at this year’s White House Science Fair were finalists or semifinalists in competitions that Society for Science & the Public runs. You can read more about these amazing teens in a story posted last week at Science News for Kids. And one measure of their contributions: A large share of such teen competitors now patent their developments. It’s something Science News for Kids explored in a story almost six weeks ago.

But we can only reasonably expect to keep kids in the pipeline to become professional researchers if there will be jobs at the other end. Drying up the grant money is one way to turn off the spigot. So is giving most of the money to the same small community of investigators. Research is a powerful investment that pays rich dividends — both in terms of our future and that of our kids. Shouldn't we try to divorce politics from it?

Technology,, Humans & Society,, Life & Evolution,, Genes & Cells,, Earth & Environment,, Ecology

Antarctic test of novel ice drill poised to begin

By Janet Raloff 12:37am, December 15, 2012
Any day now, a team of 40 scientists and support personnel expects to begin using a warm, high pressure jet of water to bore a 30 centimeter hole through 83 meters of ice. Once it breaks through to the sea below, they’ll have a few days to quickly sample life from water before the hole begins freezing up again. It's just a test. But if all goes well, in a few weeks the team will move 700 miles and bore an even deeper hole to sample for freshwater life that may have been living for eons outside even indirect contact with Earth’s atmosphere.
Humans & Society

This snowbird is really going SOUTH

By Janet Raloff 9:30am, December 6, 2012
Many people of a certain age (like my folks) enjoy flying south to warmer climes when winter weather threatens. I’m also flying south this December — but not to warm up. As a guest of the National Science Foundation, I’ll be checking out summer in the really deep South: Antarctica. Temps expected at certain sites I’m scheduled to visit, such as the South Pole, threaten to surpass the worst that my hometown will encounter in the dead of winter.
Animals,, Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

Epidemic of skin lesions reported in reef fish

By Janet Raloff 5:58pm, August 1, 2012
A British-Australian research team has just found coral trout living on the south side of the Great Barrier Reef sporting dark skin raised, scablike, brown-black growths. Although the authors believe they’ve stumbled onto an epidemic of melanoma — a type of skin cancer — other experts have their doubts. Strong ones.
Humans & Society

So long Weekly Reader . . .

By Janet Raloff 12:12am, July 26, 2012
I read with sadness this week that Weekly Reader is about to disappear. As much as I’ll miss the idea of the venerable Weekly Reader living on, I also have to admit to a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. This conflict developed shortly after I joined the staff here. As soon as I identified my affiliation, people frequently asked: “Science News — hmmm: Isn’t that the Weekly Reader of science?”
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Nutrition,, Earth & Environment

FDA bans BPA in baby bottles, cups

By Janet Raloff 5:51pm, July 17, 2012
From now on, U.S. manufacturers may no longer produce polycarbonate baby bottles and sippy cups (for toddlers) if the clear plastic had been manufactured from bisphenol A, a hormone-mimicking compound. Long-awaited, the announcement is anything but a bold gesture. The Obama administration decided to lock this barn door after the cow had died.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Chemistry,, Body & Brain

Putting BPA-based dental fillings in perspective

By Janet Raloff 6:29pm, July 16, 2012
A new study finds that children who have their cavities filled with a white composite resin known as bis-GMA appear to develop small but quantifiable drops in psychosocial function. To put it simply: Treated kids can become more moody, aggressive and generally less well adjusted.
Humans & Society,, Ecology,, Other

Warning to bats: Cuddle not

By Janet Raloff 4:57pm, July 5, 2012
Ecologist Kate Langwig of Boston University and her colleagues want Eastern bats to listen up: No more cuddling — at least during hibernation. Just keep those wings to yourselves.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Body & Brain

Ozone: Heart of the matter

By Janet Raloff 12:15pm, June 26, 2012
As reported this week, breathing elevated ozone levels can mess with the cardiovascular system, potentially putting vulnerable populations — such as the elderly and persons with diabetes or heart disease — at heightened risk of heart attack, stroke and sudden death from arrhythmias. Is this really new? Turns out it is.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

De-papering environmental summits

By Janet Raloff 11:38am, June 22, 2012
One token — but highly visible — gesture toward sustainability at the UN's 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio was a request for all attendees to shrink their paper footprints. Apparently, most complied.
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