Science and the Media
Science and the media: 26 February - 4 March
June 15, 2011Published: June 15, 2011
- Research funding for 2011 as seen in some Sunday Washington Post opinions
- Emphatic alarm in a Post commentary about anthropogenic global warming
- The latest installment in the New York Times's Radiation Boom series
- The proposal to give the present geological epoch an anthropomorphic name
- A New York Times front-page report about disrespect for the teaching profession
- Raymond Orbach's trenchant Science magazine defense of 2011 research funding
Third, government should promote economic growth. That means maintaining ports, roads, rails, subways and airports; educating the next generation; and supporting science. But grandiose projects such as trips to Mars or high-speed rail to Las Vegas will have to wait.The Sunday Opinions page offers seven opinions, each in a blurb a bit less than half the length of a standard op-ed. Two will particularly interest scientists. General James L. Jones, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and formerly national security adviser to President Obama, focuses on "America's severe economic and national security vulnerability to dependence on foreign oil." Citing "the Defense Department's successful record developing transformative technologies through its DARPA program," and advocating "ARPA-E to advance high-risk, high-reward technologies that enhance our national security," Jones writes:
While new energy production technologies must ultimately be driven by the private sector and competitive markets, only the federal government has the rational incentive to make the early, up-front investments in the real technology breakthroughs—such as durable electricity storage, advanced modular nuclear reactors and the development of new transportation fuels.
ARPA-E enjoys several unusual but critical institutional attributes—independent hiring authority to bring in the best minds from academia and the private sector, autonomous decision-making ability, and the capacity to take risks. These attributes are vital to achieving success in our globalized, 21st-century economy and should become increasingly more commonplace throughout the rest of our government.Another of the opinion blurbs comes from Thomas Mason and Persis Drell, directors of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, respectively. They write:
Fully half of U.S. economic growth since 1945 can be attributed to investments in science and technology. Our colleagues Paul Alivisatos, Eric Isaacs, Sam Aronson and Michael Kluse—the other directors of the Department of Energy's Multi-program National Laboratories—agree that the competitive advantage the United States retains in technological innovation would be seriously jeopardized by extensive cuts to research proposed in House Resolution 1 for fiscal 2011. These reductions ignore the fact that innovation—not trade policies or labor costs—is the most important factor in global economic competitiveness and continued American prosperity.
The dramatic proposed cuts came just weeks after Congress extended the America Competes Act (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science). This bipartisan legislation was a statement that even in difficult times a priority should be placed on federally funded research tied to innovations that spawn new products and companies.
The United States still has the ability to compete successfully, but only if we invest in the scientific talent and infrastructure critical to fueling the private sector's need for new technologies. Whether it's a smartphone, a new drug or a battery that powers an electric car from Washington to Indianapolis, publicly supported research is almost always an essential contribution in the discovery chain.
Science will not be exempted from the sacrifices that have to be made across the entire federal budget. The challenge is to prioritize these reductions in a more thoughtful way that does not result in lasting damage to America's capacity for innovation.
Just as we cannot fix an overweight plane by removing an engine, we should not attempt to fix a deficit problem by removing America's ability to compete.Five-alarm climate change If the question of degree of alarm in climate discussion matters, then an article prominently placed on the front of the 27 February Washington Post Sunday Outlook section merits attention. Here's the teaser atop the print version: "The world is running out of time to stop climate change, says activist Mike Tidwell. So he's preparing for a future of food riots, freakish weather—and fending for himself." Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which calls itself "the first grassroots, non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to fighting global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C." He begins by reporting that he has partly supplemented and partly replaced his personal environmentalism with deadbolt locks on his doors, a generator in his garage, and a "starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows." He's "not a survivalist or an 'end times' enthusiast," he stipulates, but "just a realist" when it comes to climate change, because "we're running out of time." He vividly cites recent examples of extreme weather—and attributes every one of them to climate change. He borrows Winston Churchill's words from just before World War II: "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." Tidwell explains that those "consequences explain the generator in my garage and why I'm reinforcing my basement windows to protect emergency supplies," and adds: "This may seem like a stunt, or a sign that this frustrated environmentalist has finally lost it. But I'm not crazy. Just wait. The mega-storms and social disruptions on the horizon will be the best proof of that." Here's a typical passage:
On the security side, it was the global food riots of 2008 and 2010 that led me to replace the 50-year-old locks on all my doors last fall. I'm not normally the paranoid type, but when extreme weather alternately baked and flooded wheat fields in Australia and Russia, helping to jack up grain prices more than 40 percent worldwide and leading hungry people to protest from Mexico to Mozambique to Serbia, I took notice. After all, the many climate effects we're already seeing—massive wildfires, bigger hurricanes, astonishing Arctic ice melt—all result from just 1.2 degrees of planetary warming since 1900. Now scientists at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the planet could warm another five degrees by the end of this century.
If that happens, Iowa is done for. Corn and wheat will wither and die on a scale never before seen. That's because heat-triggered mega-droughts will intensify across much of America's "continental interior" regions, scientists say, as flooding increases elsewhere. Iowa and much of the Heartland will resemble a scrub desert. How will we feed ourselves adequately if our breadbasket is a desert? Answer: We won't, and there will be social unrest as a result.Tidwell also reports that he "even took [his] first-ever lesson in firearms use last December" and that he's "not planning to join the Earth Liberation Front or some such militia." However, he asks, "wouldn't even a level-headed person want to be ready to defend his family if climate chaos goes to the max?" If you consider his actions alarmist, he says, he "can't really blame you," for he'd "be confused about climate change, too, if [he] got most of [his] information from the half-asleep news media, much less the committed disinformers at Fox News and the Heritage Foundation." He offers a question for skeptics: "Why would private insurance companies lie about climate change? Already, Allstate has stopped selling new homeowners' policies in coastal Virginia and Maryland because the warming Atlantic Ocean is bringing larger hurricanes to the region." Tidwell predicts:
Our trees are going to keep falling in ways we've never seen before. Our streets are going to flood. Our neighborhood bridges will wash out. Our roofs will sag from freak snowstorms and bake from unimaginable heat. And our power will keep going out, no matter how many "service improvements" Pepco makes. We've waited too long to avoid all this.He ends by noting that ten years ago, he put solar panels on his roof "as an act of love for the planet." Now he's "making new changes, focused on [his] immediate loved ones. The era of consequences, at every conceivable level, has entered our world. Ready or not." Medical physics returns to New York Times front page The 28 February New York Times front page offers another very long article in the Times's Radiation Boom series examining "issues arising from the increasing use of medical radiation and the new technologies that deliver it." The online headline this time: "X-Rays and Unshielded Infants." "Radiation Boom" articles begin with horror stories. This time it's about "the discovery that the tiniest, most vulnerable of all patients—premature babies—had been over-radiated" at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. The articles also advocate increased regulation. Today's lengthy piece moves from the opening horror story to what it calls "broader questions about the competence, training and oversight of technologists who operate radiological equipment that is becoming increasingly complex and powerful." The Times asks, "If technologists could not properly take a simple chest X-ray, how can they be expected to safely operate CT scanners or linear accelerators?" The article continues:
With technologists in many states lightly regulated, or not at all, their own professional group is calling for greater oversight and standards. For 12 years, the American Society of Radiologic Technologists has lobbied Congress to pass a bill that would establish minimum educational and certification requirements, not only for technologists, but also for medical physicists and people in 10 other occupations in medical imaging and radiation therapy.
Yet even with broad bipartisan support, the association said, and the backing of 26 organizations representing more than 500,000 health professionals, Congress has yet to pass what has become known as the CARE bill because, supporters say, it lacks a powerful legislator to champion its cause.
In December 2006, the Senate passed the bill, but Congress adjourned before the House could vote. At the time, the House bill had 135 co-sponsors.
"I would think the public would be outraged that Congress was sitting on what could reduce their radiation exposure," said Dr. Fred Mettler, a radiologist who has investigated and written extensively about radiation accidents.
Individual states decide what standards, if any, radiological workers must meet. Radiation therapists are unregulated in 15 states, imaging technologists in 11 states and medical physicists in 18 states, according to the technologists association. "There are individuals," said Dr. Jerry Reid, executive director of a group that certifies technologists, "who are performing medical imaging and radiation therapy who are not qualified. It is happening right now."Under the subheading "Children Are Most at Risk," the article explains that because "their cells divide quickly, children are more vulnerable to radiation's effects" and that "as new ways are found to use radiation in diagnosing and treating injuries and disease, children face an ever-increasing number of radiological procedures." The Times cites a recent finding "that by the age of 18, the average child will have already received more than seven radiological exams." Moreover, it says, in "premature infants, minimizing radiation exposure is especially important because they may require multiple radiological exams for problems like underdeveloped respiratory systems." The article eventually notes that "[f]ull-body X-rays of babies are rarely done" and that "Dr. Donald Frush, chief of pediatric radiology at the Duke University School of Medicine, said that failing to properly cone, or collimate, the radiation was rare." Under the subheading "Push for Continuing Education," the article reports that supporters of the proposed CARE legislation emphasize its continuing-education requirement. The Times adds that a "continuing-education provision might have prevented the over-radiation of 76 patients at a hospital in Missouri—a state that does not regulate its radiological workers. The medical physicist there had selected the wrong calibration tool to set up a highly sophisticated linear accelerator." The article ends by quoting Dr. Steve Goetsch, a medical physicist in California who runs training programs: "In my profession, there is very little room for error and no room for unqualified personnel." The Anthropocene A 28 February New York Times editorial intrigues readers concerning a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: "The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?" The special issue offers 13 articles. Here's the abstract of the introductory piece:
Anthropogenic changes to the Earth's climate, land, oceans and biosphere are now so great and so rapid that the concept of a new geological epoch defined by the action of humans, the Anthropocene, is widely and seriously debated. Questions of the scale, magnitude and significance of this environmental change, particularly in the context of the Earth's geological history, provide the basis for this Theme Issue. The Anthropocene, on current evidence, seems to show global change consistent with the suggestion that an epoch-scale boundary has been crossed within the last two centuries.The Times editorial begins by setting context, first mentioning human-history eras like the Renaissance, then contrasting them with geological time scales. "Humans existed when the Pleistocene ended and the Holocene began, 11 500 years ago," the editors observe. "Among scientists, there is now serious talk that the Holocene has ended and a new era has begun." They note that it was Paul Crutzen, who shared a Nobel Prize for work on the chemical mechanisms that affect the ozone layer, who first used the term Anthropocene, in 2000. The editors argue that there's "a strong case that the Anthropocene begins with the Industrial Revolution, around 1800, when we began to exert our most profound impact on the world, especially by altering the carbon content of the atmosphere." Their ending may merit quoting:
Other species are embedded in the fossil record of the epochs they belong to. Some species, like ammonites and brachiopods, even serve as guides—or index fossils—to the age of the rocks they're embedded in. But we are the only species to have defined a geological period by our activity—something usually performed by major glaciations, mass extinction and the colossal impact of objects from outer space, like the one that defines the upper boundary of the Cretaceous.
Humans were inevitably going to be part of the fossil record. But the true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment—from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean.New York Times front page: scorning teachers Whatever may or may not need saying about teachers' unions, surely teachers' perceptions of their profession merit attention, possibly including the anecdotal kind that the question received in the 3 March New York Times. "One of the astounding things about the rhetoric sweeping through statehouses across the United States," says a letter to the editor, "is the notion that teachers, of all people, are overpaid and selfish. Teachers continue to be just as underpaid and committed as they were before this insidious discourse was introduced." The letter echoes some of what's in the front-page article "Teachers Wonder, Why the Heapings of Scorn?" The article begins by focusing on Erin Parker, a second-year high school science teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. She feels "punched in the stomach" when she encounters this comment: "Oh you pathetic teachers. . . . You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage." She earns $36 000. She owes $26 000 on student loans. She owns no car and can't begin to think of buying a house. She's going to head for Colorado, where she'll live with her parents so she can afford to keep teaching. Then the article states its main point:
Around the country, many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.
Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers—Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy—education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.The article reports extensively on the politics of education reform, but also reports the views of a math teacher and a science teacher. It quotes Lindsay Vlachakis, 25, a high school math teacher in Madison: "I put my heart and soul into teaching. When people attack teachers, they're attacking me." And finally it quotes Anthony Cody, who "taught middle-school science for 18 years and now mentors new teachers in the Oakland, California, school district":
"What we need in these schools is stability," said Mr. Cody, 52, who writes a blog about teaching. "We need to convince people that if they invest their career in working with these challenging students, then we will reward them and appreciate them. We will not subject them to arbitrary humiliation in the newspaper. We will not require they be evaluated and paid based on test scores that often fluctuate greatly beyond the teacher's control."Orbach in Science: Bill would "end America's legendary status" as world science leader Raymond L. Orbach, who served as undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy for President George W. Bush, asserts in a 4 March Science magazine commentary that a funding bill for the present fiscal year passed on 19 February in the House of Representatives "would effectively end America's legendary status as the leader of the worldwide scientific community, putting the United States at a distinct disadvantage when competing with other nations in the global marketplace." The signed opinion piece, called an editorial in Science's lexicon, first appeared online on 24 February. In it, Orbach asks legislators instead to sustain "the bipartisan commitment to double the science research budgets of the National Science Foundation, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Institute for Science and Technology over 10 years"—as "supported by both Presidents Bush and Obama" and as "affirmed as recently as last December in the America COMPETES Act." The bill's spending cuts, Orbach writes, "would have a devastating effect on an array of critical scientific research." He cites the Office of Science generally, as well as cuts at its Office of Biology and Environmental Research "that would all but eliminate . . . the hope for developing transportation fuels derived from plant cellulose." He also condemns cuts for Energy Frontier Research Centers that "support activities based at 28 universities and 16 national laboratories." He emphasizes, and elaborates on, the threats to the national laboratories generally. Orbach closes by granting that the "budget deficit is serious" but stipulates that "escaping from its clutches requires economic growth as well as budget reductions." He offers the reminder that well "over half of US economic growth in the past century can be traced to investments in science and technology." Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are collected each Friday for "Science and the Media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.