Category for policy

Global warming on trial?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to put well established scientific evidence on trial:

Global WarmingEnvironmentalists say the chamber’s strategy is an attempt to sow political discord by challenging settled science — and note that in the famed 1925 Scopes trial, which pitted lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in a courtroom battle over a Tennessee science teacher accused of teaching evolution illegally, the scientists won in the end.

The chamber proposal “brings to mind for me the Salem witch trials, based on myth,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist for the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists. “In this case, it would be ignoring decades of publicly accessible evidence.” [ via slashdot]

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Texas School Board Set to Vote on Challenge to Evolution

Want another reason why science literacy is not just important but as essential as being able to read and write?

The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation. [wsj via slashdot]

Why is this problematic and very scary? Because publishing textbooks costs a lot of money and having multiple versions for different states would cost more… and since Texas has such a large share of the market, they are likely to get what they want. Why do research when you can just make it up as you go and legislate it! How about we vote on whether or not lead can be changed to gold?

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Obama ushers in new era of scientific integrity

And it’s about time!

“Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions,” Obama wrote in an official memorandum. [From]

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The “war on science” is over. Now what?

A nice piece at Slate about what’s next.

Scientists, with the support of the administration, should now be setting out to win over the hearts and minds of the American public, creating a stronger edifice of trust and understanding to help ensure that conflict doesn’t come raging back again. [slate]

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Melamine In Infant Formula

A recent article by Britt E. Erickson in C&EN news, discusses the issue of having Melamine in infant formula. Melamine is an organic compound created in the 1930’s and has various uses such as making plastics, laminates, and even fertilizer. It is also one of the main chemicals used to make dishwasher safe materials. Uunfortunately, the chemical is used by many food companies as a cheap and abundant filler substance for things such as livestock feed, pet food, and now, baby formula. In various tests used to determine the nutritional value of food, Melamine shows up as a protein due to its chemical makeup, so many food manufacturers utilize it as a way to make their products seem more nutritious. When inside the body, Melamine can result in kidney stones and renal failure.

In September, there was a controversy in China regarding Melamine in baby formula. Over 1,000 babies were found to have kidney stones after consuming infant formula containing Melamine. In late November, after the Melamine scare in China, the US FDA declared that it could not establish a safe level of Melamine for infant formula. However, recently, the FDA had a policy reversal, where it stated that levels of Melamine below 1ppm do not pose a threat to infants. The FDA says that these levels are so low that “they do not pose a risk to infants.” After testing infant formula samples in the US, the FDA found formulas manufactured by Nestle Nutrition, and Mead Johnson to contain Melamine.

After reading the article, I was simply appalled by what I learned. Letting the FDA allow trace amounts of Melamine to be used in baby formula is simply absurd. I was especially concerned because the issue arose in China in September, yet the FDA approved small amounts of Melamine only after doing a few months of research. It seems that the risks are too high, especially after what happened in China. I think our FDA should take more caution and do more testing before taking such a risk with infants.

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Physics the Next President Needs to Know has quick Q & A piece with Richard Muller, author of the book Physics for Future Presidents, and a physicist at UC Berkely and LBL. The questions focus on terrorism, space exploration, and global warming.

Physics may be the furthest thing from the minds of the presidential candidates right now, but a solid grasp of the science behind some of the latest headlines will be critical for the winner. []

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The Candidates on Science and Technology


Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) prepared fourteen questions on science and technology policy for the 2008 presidential candidates:

4. Education. A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

Take a look at McCain’s answers, Obamba’s answers, or a comparison of their answers. The side-by-side look at the candidates on science policy is also very interesting. Lastly, take a look at what national voters think about science and the elections. And then there’s the authority

[SEA via Sciencedebate 2008 via gizmodo]

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Environmental (and Human Health) Protection vs. Industry Interests – Who Will Prevail?

Last Thursday the EPA strengthened its standards on lead pollution, updating the law that was 30 years old. “The new standards set the limits for exposure at 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 1.5 micrograms, and well within the outer limit of 0.2 micrograms recommended by the advisers.” For me this was great news, as I am concerned about particulate pollution and industry standards for what they are allowed to dump, how much, and where. However, two days after this article was published, the NY Times printed another article stating that the Interior Department wants to relax the laws on mine waste dumping. Two government positions that are in complete conflict with each other, not a surprise.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states that in an average year, a coal plant burns 114 pounds of lead and other toxic heavy metals. If all of that goes into the air when the coal is burned, who knows how much drifts into nearby streams and valleys near the mountains where the coal is actually mined? The liquid waste generated by mountain top removal is dumped into a nearby valley, where the current law is that it must be at least 100 feet away from any stream (the new law states that this requirement can be skirted if “compliance is determined to be impossible” — how is that determined?). The solid waste is carted away into nearby valleys, usually in unlined and unmonitored landfills. How can the industries ask for a relaxation that would impede them from following the new, stricter lead concentration allowed in air? The qualification may be that the sources of pollution are different (water vs. air particulates), but once the waste has been dumped, some of it will be buried and some of the mine tailings can be kicked up into the air.

From this another problem arises – how far ahead are the companies required to plan to keep the dumping sites safe from leaching? This article states that mining pollution and the waste at the dumping sites stick around for quite awhile, affecting wildlife in the are. This means once the companies have stripped all the mountains, they have no long-term abandonment plan and instead leave the mess for the communities to clean up. If we are at all concerned about the quality of our streams or our air, the government cannot have double standards and pander to industries like surface mining.

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Seeing Green…. Buildings

We have been hearing a lot about alternative energy sources, such as wind power, solar power, ethanol, and hydrogen fuel cells; however, there are tons of other green technologies out there.

One such technology, green roofing, has been growing in popularity over the past few decades. This environmentally friendly building technique takes advantage of normally wasted roof space to grow vegetation. The plants also have the added benefit of collecting rainwater and preventing it from washing human pollutants into nearby rivers and streams. A new movement gaining popularity is the green wall. A green wall can be as simple as vines and other fast growing plants held against the facade of a building by a metal scaffold. Newer techniques use small modular panels which are made of small polypropylene containers that the plants can grow from or a geotextile. The geotextile is a woven material formed into small pouches which contain soil or some other growing medium. These modular panels allow sections of the green wall to be easily replaced.

Besides from the obvious benefit the plants have in capturing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen; green walls have a host of other benefits. The plants act as insulation, reducing the heating and cooling costs of the building. In the summer, the plants have the added advantage of evaporative cooling as water transpires from the leaves of the plants. Irrigation systems collect rainwater and deliver it to the plants, preventing rainwater runoff from polluting water sources. These green walls and roofs can even be used to grow edible crops. Creating a more environmentally friendly future is going to take more than just alternative energy sources. Green roofs and walls are just one way to tap into, what is currently, a wasted resource.

For more information and images see this article on Verdant Surfaces.

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From Handle Bars to Energy Storage?

I’m all for wind and solar power, but the main obstacle to moving away from fossil fuels and toward these renewable energies is the ability to store the energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. There are two ways to store energy: rechargeable batteries and ultracapacitors. Research is being done at the University of Texas at Austin on the possibility of using graphene as an ultracapacitor. Graphene’s high surface area and high number of ions allow a very high level of charge to be stored.

The amount of electrical charge stored per weight of the graphene material has already rivaled the values available in existing ultracapacitors, and modeling suggests the possibility of doubling the capacity.

The pros of using ultracapacitors include longer life, higher energy storage, and lower maintenance. This new technology can be applied to the electrical grid of cities so that renewable technologies can begin to be installed nearby, as well as the powering of electric and hybrid cars.

The question, however, is which should be implemented or invested in first – the technology that will supply the clean power, or the ability of a city to incorporate the new flow of energy through its grid? The problem of energy transmission also arises, as wind farms are usually located far away from cities. It’s interesting how a string of molecules can have so many uses, from harmful gas sensors, to mountain bike handle bars, and now a way to store renewable energy.

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Irradiation With Your Salad, Ma’am?

For the past few years, intense debate has raged over a relatively new food safety technique-irradiation. An article in C&EN takes a look at new developments in the policy surrounding this controversial practice. Last month, the FDA approved irradiation on fresh lettuce and fresh spinach, adding to the growing list of “acceptably” irradiated foods. We all know from the relatively recent tomato/jalapeno pepper scare that foodborne pathogens are a problem and concern for general health and safety. Theoretically, irradiation seems like a great solution; any living bacteria or viruses would (hopefully) no longer be able to reproduce. Although irradiation may be the best and safest option in the future, right now it seems like an underhanded attempt to avoid dealing with the original sources of contamination, which tends to be (sorry for those who just ate) fecal matter. Animal waste is not adequately controlled, and not only does it get into the meat itself, it gets into the water that we spray on our crops. Personally, I would prefer not to eat animal waste, dead bacteria or not. I only hope that our government decides to address the real problems, not provide a quick and easy way out.

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Mercury 101

So you’re working on your Molecule of the Week assignment and you’re looking at your molecule in Mercury and thinking Wow this is hideous. How am I going to make this look presentable? If you’re not familiar with Mercury, the program seems a bit complicated with letters and buttons all over the place. Hopefully some of these tips will help clear things up, and you’ll get a pretty picture in the end.

Let’s Start with a before picture:

This was my Molecule of the Week before any editing

This picture is chaotic and extremely confusing. So now what…

  1. You can hide all of the hydrogens on your molecule in one simple click. In the bottom right hand corner (directly below the picture) under options uncheck “Show Hydrogens.”
  2. You can change how the atoms/bonds look. In the upper left hand corner next to “Style” there’s a drop down menu giving you 4 different options. If you have nothing highlighted the entire molecule’s style will change when you select any of these. However, you can change atoms individually or as groups. Just click the center of the atom(s) and then choose which style you like. There’s no need to hold down any keys when selecting multiple atoms, and you may have to rotate the molecule slightly to be able to select the atoms. Don’t worry, your previously selected atoms will not be deselected by this action, rotate away.
  3. You can hide atoms. Select the atoms you don’t want to see. Go to Display > Show/Hide > Atoms > Select Hide > Okay. The atoms magically disappear, it’s fantastic, and gets rid of “floaters” in your image instantly clearing things up. If you made a mistake, you can go to Edit > Undo, or you can go to Display > Show All and start over.
  4. You can rotate the image without having to click and move the cursor. Up at the top right above the actual image there is a set of buttons “a b c a* b* c*” These are comparable to the x,y,z axes and when you click them your molecule is aligned accordingly. To the right of these commands are x- x+ y- etc… These nudge your molecule slightly in either the positive/negative x y or z direction. The last commands rotate the molecule 90 degrees with respect to the axes. You can also translate your molecule to the left, right, up, or down by clicking on the arrows.
  5. You’ll probably want to zoom in to make your molecule as clear as possible. Just click the zoom buttons on the upper right.

After these 5 steps you’ll end up with a beautiful molecule:

These are just a few simple little tricks that should help you create a professional looking picture. Clearly there are many other things Mercury has to offer, however I am not familiar with the program entirely. Therefore, I would like to ask all of you to comment here when you discover new tricks. Good luck, and don’t be afraid to click things. I discovered a lot of tricks simply by trial and error.

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More BPA stuff… and a bonus!

While it is likely that the studies used were funded by those with a vested interest in the outcome (shock and awe), I’m not sure exactly which study is in question. I’m assuming (a bad habit to pick up) it is the NTP report I posted about previously.

But critics questioned why the FDA based that ruling on three studies funded by the chemical industry, all of which found BPA to be safe at current exposure levels. Hundreds of independent studies in animals and cells suggest the estrogen-like chemical poses serious risks. [via usatoday]

What really chaps me here is symptomatic of the mass media in general, no link or actual reference to the original work. I know that 90+% of their readers wouldn’t do anything with the report, but it would be nice, and responsible, if they linked or made specific reference to the work (or study) being reported. It’s not that difficult! They go on to mention a study in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, connecting BPA to heart disease and diabetes, but again fail to link to the original source. Only by following a link to another story do I find a link to the original work, for which I give them props! Go ahead, see how long it takes you to find it.

Maybe I’m not as patient as I once may have been (possibly) or perhaps I’ve been jaded a bit (highly likely), but I’d really like to see responsible and accurate reporting of significant and insignificant science stories in the mass media rather than the marketing of ‘news’ through fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). Maybe it’s just too much to ask…

OK, I feel better now…

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NTP report on bisphenol A


The NTP (National Toxicology Program) has released its report on Bisphenol A. Of the four conclusions presented, one reflects some concern, one minimal concern, and the other two negligible concern. Note that the possible levels of concern, from lowest to highest, are negligible concern, minimal concern, some concern, concern, and serious concern.

The NTP has some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.

[via usnews ]

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Canada may designate BPA a toxic substance

Bisphenol A is prevalent in consumer products and persistent in the environment. The draft of the NTP (National Toxicology Program) report on Bisphenol A can be found here.

Canadian health authorities announced today that they’re formally proposing to designate bisphenol A (BPA) as a toxic substance, a first step in their consideration of a ban on the sale of products with BPA. The chemical is widely used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics such as clear, hard, reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and food storage containers. Numerous studies have associated BPA with a range of negative developmental and reproductive effects in laboratory animals and humans.

[via consumerreports]

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Bush’s greenhouse gas emissions goal is embarassing

Wow! With an 18% reduction in the growth of emissions, this whole “global warming” thing should be licked in no time!

“It is now time for the U.S. to look beyond 2012 and take the next step,” Mr. Bush said, a reference to his previously stated national goal, announced in 2002, of an 18 percent reduction in the growth of emissions of heat-trapping gases relative to economic growth by 2012. Mr. Bush said the nation was on track to meeting that target.

[via nytimes]

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