Science & the Public

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?

Humans & Society,, Chemistry,, Earth & Environment

What's in your wallet? Another 'estrogen'

By Janet Raloff 2:07pm, June 20, 2012
A chemical cousin of bisphenol A, a hormone mimic, has turned up on banknotes from around the world in addition to tainting 14 other types of papery products. Owing to the near ubiquity of BPS in paper, human exposure is likely also “ubiquitous,” conclude the study's authors. Oh, and a second new study shows that BPS behaves like an estrogen.
Science & Society

Measuring how well kids do science

By Janet Raloff 10:14am, June 19, 2012
On June 19, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released the first national report card gauging the performance in hand-on and research-oriented interactive computer tasks by U.S. children. And the overall grades: Well, they show lots of room for improvement.
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

Court ‘shares’ researchers’ e-mails, intellectual property

By Janet Raloff 11:28am, June 7, 2012
“A situation has arisen involving scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that should concern all those who value the principles of academic freedom and responsibility,” warns top WHOI officials. They were responding to a court order requiring that two WHOI scientists turn over 3,500 emails and other documents to BP. Included in the information was intellectual property that outsiders could exploit.
Humans & Society,, Psychology,, Earth & Environment,, Climate,, Other

Depolarizing climate science

By Janet Raloff 5:49pm, May 30, 2012
A study out this week attempts to probe why attitudes on climate risks by some segments of the public don’t track the science all that well. Along the way, it basically debunks one simplistic assumption: that climate skeptics, for want of a better term, just don’t understand the data — or perhaps even science. “I think this is sort of a weird, exceptional situation,” says decision scientist Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School, who led the new study. “Most science issues aren’t like this.” But a view is emerging, some scientists argue, that people tend to be unusually judgmental of facts or interpretations in science fields that threaten the status quo — or the prevailing attitudes of their cultural group, however that might be defined. And climate science is a poster child for these fields.
Animals,, Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Ecology

Bat killer hits endangered grays

By Janet Raloff 1:06pm, May 29, 2012
The news on white-nose syndrome just keeps spiraling downward. The fungal infection, which first emerged six years ago, has now been confirmed in a seventh species of North American bats — the largely cave-dwelling grays (Myotis grisecens). The latest victims were struck while hibernating this past winter in two Tennessee counties.

Rising CO2 promotes weedy rice

By Janet Raloff 10:46am, May 25, 2012
There has been a lot of research, recently, showing how global change — especially warming — can alter the habitat and preferred range of marine and terrestrial species. But rising levels of greenhouse gases can also, directly, do a number on agricultural ecosystems, a new study shows. At least for U.S.-grown rice, rising carbon dioxide levels give a preferential reproductive advantage to the weedy natural form — known colloquially as red rice (for the color of its seed coat).
Humans & Society,, Nutrition,, Body & Brain,, Biomedicine

Our increasingly not-so-little kids

By Janet Raloff 4:35pm, May 21, 2012
Little kids are meant to get big. Just not too quickly. When overfeeding spurs the girth of young children, youngsters find themselves propelled down the road towards diabetes and heart disease, a new study finds. In just the past decade, for instance, the share of kids with diabetes or pre-diabetes skyrocketed from 9 percent to a whopping 23 percent.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Body & Brain

Redefining ‘concern’ over lead

By Janet Raloff 3:58pm, May 17, 2012
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced May 16 that it would no longer designate any particular blood-lead value in children as representing a “level of concern.” Its justification: There is no threshold below which lead exposures are not a concern.

March: American heat vs. global temps

By Janet Raloff 1:29pm, April 16, 2012
Even as global temperatures have been climbing throughout much of the past century, atypical warm and cool spells have seesawed regionally around the planet. March 2012 exemplified such exaggerated trends. Although the month set some 15,000 daily warming records in the United States, globally this past March was the coolest since 1999. The National Climatic Data Center reported these trend data April 16.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Climate

Warming Marches in

By Janet Raloff 5:01pm, April 10, 2012
People may argue about why Earth is warming, how long its fever will last and whether any of this warrants immediate corrective action. But whether Earth is warming is no longer open to debate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just published domestic examples to reinforce what Americans witnessed last month — either on TV or in their own backyards.
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