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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,, Earth & Environment,, Ecology

Bat killer is still spreading

By Janet Raloff 4:15pm, April 9, 2012
Since 2006, some 6 million to 7 million North American bats have succumbed to white-nose syndrome, a virulent fungal disease. That figure, issued in January by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, at least sextupled the former estimate that biologists had been touting. But the sharp jump in the cumulative death toll isn’t the only disturbing new development. On April 2, scientists confirmed that white-nose fungus has apparently struck bats hibernating in two small Missouri caves. The first signs of clinical disease have also just emerged in Europe.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Ecology,, Agriculture

Yet another study links insecticide to bee losses

By Janet Raloff 10:28pm, April 5, 2012
Since 2006, honeybee populations across North America have been hammered by catastrophic losses. Although this pandemic has a name — colony collapse disorder, or CCD — its cause has remained open to speculation. New experiments now strengthen the case for pesticide poisoning as a likely contributor.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Science & Society,, Climate

Weighing the costs of conferencing

By Janet Raloff 4:30pm, April 3, 2012
A provocative editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association questions the value of attending scientific conferences. It’s a theme that reemerges every few years. And in times of tight budgets, the idea seems worth revisiting.
Humans & Society,, Nutrition,, Earth & Environment,, Biomedicine,, Agriculture

Growth-promoting antibiotics: On the way out?

By Janet Raloff 1:30pm, March 23, 2012
Sixty-two years later — to the day — after Science News ran its first story on the growth-promoting effects of antibiotics, a federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration to resume efforts to outlaw such nonmedical use of antibiotics.
Humans & Society

Faulty comparisons

By Janet Raloff 10:05am, February 8, 2012
Is anyone else disturbed by the following description: Scientists are reporting development of a new form of buckypaper, which eliminates a major drawback of these sheets of carbon nanotubes — 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, 10 times lighter than steel, but up to 250 times stronger . . .
Humans & Society,, Nutrition,, Genes & Cells,, Earth & Environment,, Body & Brain

Bush meat can be a viral feast

By Janet Raloff 12:52pm, January 12, 2012
Monkeys and apes are considered edible game in many parts of Africa. As Africans have emigrated to other parts of the world, some have retained their love of this so-called bushmeat. A new study now finds that even when smoked, meat from nonhuman primates — from chimps to monkeys — can host potentially dangerous viruses. Smuggled imports confiscated at U.S. airports provided the samples tested in this investigation.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Climate

Insurance payouts point to climate change

By Janet Raloff 3:20pm, January 4, 2012
Natural disasters in 2011 exerted the costliest toll in history — a whopping $380 billion worth of losses from earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis and more. Only a third of those costs were covered by insurance. And the tally ignores completely any expenses associated with sickness or injuries triggered by the disasters. And except for quake-related events, climate change appears to have played a role in the growing cost of disasters, insurers said.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Plants,, Other,, Agriculture

Bt: The lesson not learned

By Janet Raloff 2:53pm, December 29, 2011
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as a Dec. 29 Associated Press report on genetically engineered corn notes. Like déjà vu, this news story on emerging resistance to Bt toxin — a fabulously effective and popular insecticide to protect corn — brings to mind articles I encountered over the weekend while flipping through historic issues of Science News. More than a half-century ago, our magazine chronicled, real time, the emergence of resistance to DDT, the golden child of pest controllers worldwide. Now much the same thing is happening again with Bt, its contemporary agricultural counterpart. Will we never learn?
Humans & Society,, Biomedicine

Researchers, journals asked to censor data

By Janet Raloff 4:26pm, December 21, 2011
Scientists undertake research to advance knowledge. Normally, one aspect of that advancement is to find as broad an audience for the newly acquired data as possible. But what happens if medically important data could be put to ruthless purposes? That question underlies the ruckus developing over two new bird flu papers.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Biomedicine,, Other

Germs’ persistence: Nothing to sneeze at

By Janet Raloff 3:09pm, November 29, 2011
Years ago, I read (probably in Science News) that viruses can’t survive long outside their hosts. That implied any surface onto which a sneezed-out germ found itself — such as the arm of a chair, kitchen counter or car-door handle — would effectively decontaminate itself within hours to a day. A pair of new flu papers now indicates that although many germs will die within hours, none of us should count on it. Given the right environment, viruses can remain infectious — potentially for many weeks, one of the studies finds.
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