Posts about politics

Open Source Seeds

I find the current status of government granted patents to be very flawed, including patenting life.

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.

Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, helped organize the campaign. It’s an attempt to restore the practice of open sharing that was the rule among plant breeders when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago.

Good for them. This needs to be supported. The crazy practices of seed companies shouldn’t be legal but they pay lots of cash to politicians and the corrupt politicians (which seems to be an awful lot of them) write bad policy and encourage bad regulation.

Even those administrators taking control of universities have subjugated the search for knowledge and improvement to seek monetary gain instead of what the universities used to prioritize. It is a shame and those that have distorted universities so much should be ashamed.

Initial efforts that lead to the bad place we find universities in now were to promote the adoption of university research. To do so they partnered with business in sensible ways. Then administrators saw money was being made and turned the priority into making money and if that meant restricting the benefits to society of university research so be it. This has created universities that have lost ethical foundations and have destroyed a big part of the value universities used to provide society.

Related: Open-Source Biotech (2006)Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Prevent Research (2009)The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in ScienceArduino: Open Source Programmable HardwareMoney Is Corrupting Our Political Process

Refusal to Follow Scientific Guidance Results in Worms Evolving to Eat Corn Designed to Kill The Worms

An understanding of natural selection and evolution is fundamental to understanding science, biology, human health and life. Scientists create wonderful products to improve our lives: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.; if we don’t use them or misuse them it is a great loss to society.

There is also great value in genetic enhanced seeds and thus plants (through natural human aided processes such as breeding and providing good genetic material over a wide area – distances that would not be covered naturally, at least not in a time that helps us much). Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) food, in which we tinker with the genes directly also holds great promise but has risks, especially if we forget basic scientific principles such as biodiversity.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

Using extremely powerful tools like GMO requires society to have much better scientific literacy among those making decisions than any societies have shown thus far. The failure of our governments to enforce sensible scientific constraints on such use of genetic engineering creates huge risks to society. It is due to this consistent failure of our government to act within sensible scientific constraints that causes me to support efforts (along with other reasons – economic understanding – the extremely poor state of patent system, risk reduction…) to resist the widespread adoption of GMO, patenting of life (including seeds and seeds produced by seeds).

Wonderful things are possible. If we grow up and show a long term track record of being guided by scientific principles when the risks of not doing so are huge then I will be more supportive of using tactics such as GMO more easily. But I don’t see us getting their anytime soon. If anything we are much less scietifically minded and guided than we were 50 years ago: even while we bask in the glorious wonders science has brought us on a daily basis.

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Silicon Valley Shows Power of Global Science and Technology Workforce

Even with the challenges created by the culture in Washington DC against non-European foreigners the last 15 years Silicon Valley continues to prosper due to the talents of a pool of global science and engineering talent. Other countries continue to fumble the opportunity provided by the USA’s policies (largely a combination of security theater thinking and a lack of scientific literacy); and the strength of Silicon Valley’s ecosystem has proven resilient.

Software Is Reorganizing the World

an incredible 64% of the Valley’s scientists and engineers hail from outside the U.S., with 43.9% of its technology companies founded by emigrants.

5 things to know about the Silicon Valley economy

64 percent of college-educated professionals working in Silicon Valley science and engineering positions were born outside the U.S. as of 2011. That’s compared to the national average of 26 percent.

The Kauffman foundation’s recent study America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Then and Now shows evidence the anti-global culture in Washington DC is negatively impacting the economy in the USA.

The drop is even more pronounced in Silicon Valley, where the percentage of immigrant-founded startups declined from 52.4 percent to 43.9 percent.

The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, draws on the research to show that the United States is in the midst of a historically unprecedented halt in high-growth, immigrant-founded startups.

… launched a website — ImmigrantExodus.com — as a resource for journalists and a voice for immigrant entrepreneurs.

As I have written for years, I expected the USA’s relative position to decline. The huge advantages we had were not sustainable. But the very bad policies of the last 15 years have negatively impacted the USA. The only thing not making the results much worse is no strong competitors have stepped into the void created by the policies of the last 2 USA administrations. It isn’t easy to create a strong alternative for technology startups but the economic value of doing so is huge.

The USA has created the opportunity for others to grow much faster, now some just have to step into the void. Will Brazil, Norway, Korea, Chile, Malaysia, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany, India… step up and create conditions for entrepreneurial scientists and engineers? Each country has been doing some good things but also continue to miss many opportunities. Some countries also have more challenges to overcome – it is much easier if the economy is already rich (say in top 20 in the world), speaks English, has a strong science and technology workforce… The innovation stiffing legal system in place in the USA is absolutely horrible and presents a huge opportunity to anyone willing to stand up to the USA’s continuing pressure to force countries to burden themselves with equally bad (or even worse) policies (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership). It is possible to succeed with numerous weaknesses it just requires even more offsetting benefits to attract technology entrepreneurs.

Some things are probably absolutely required: rule of law, strong technology infrastructure (internet, etc.), good transportation links internationally, stable politically, freedom of expression (technology entrepreneurs expect to be able to try and say crazy things if you want to control what people say and publish that is very counter to the technology entrepreneurial spirit – especially around internet technology)…

Related: The Future is EngineeringUSA Losing Scientists and Engineers Educated in the USAScience and Engineering in Politics

Anti-Science Politics in Australia, Canada and the UK

Age of Unreason by George Monbiot

The governments of Britain, Canada and Australia are trying to stamp out scientific dissent.

in Canada… scientists with government grants working on any issue that could affect industrial interests – tar sands, climate change, mining, sewage, salmon farms, water trading – are forbidden to speak freely to the public(17,18,19). They are shadowed by government minders and, when they must present their findings, given scripts to memorise and recite(20). Dozens of turbulent research programmes and institutes have either been cut to the bone or closed altogether(21).

In Australia, the new government has chosen not to appoint a science minister(22). Tony Abbott, who once described manmade climate change as “absolute crap”(23), has already shut down the government’s Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority(24).

Follow the link for sources. Sadly governments are fighting for the crown of how anti-science they can be. It isn’t a matter of the countries that are doing a good job and a better job of using scientific understanding to aid in policy decisions. It is a matter of how extreme the anti-science crowds are in each country.

Trashing the scientific method and the use of scientific knowledge to pursue a pre-determined political agenda is a foolhardy action putting political expediency above effectiveness. Making political judgement, considering the available scientific research is fine, and will result in some people being upset. But the extremely bad process behind ignoring and intentionally sabotaging the use of data and scientific thinking is extremely harmful to society.

Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.
– Bernard Baruch (Daniel Patrick Moynihan said something very similar later)

Related: The Politics of Anti-Science (USA focus)Science and Engineering in PoliticsStand with Science: Late is Better than NeverScience and Engineering in Global Economics

The Politics of Anti-Science

In the 1960’s the USA had an unrealistic view of how much studying and learning about science and engineering could do. Investing is science and engineering is an extremely wise economic (and cultural) endeavor but it isn’t going to solve all the problems that exist. Somehow today we find ourselves with a large number of politically powerful people we take strong anti-science positions. These tactics reduce funding and support for beneficial research and are short sited approaches to public administration. This is an unfortunate turn of events that is damaging the American economy and will have huge damages going forward.

Thankfully other countries have seen how wise investing in science and engineering is and have more than taken up the slack created by the anti-science community. Two favorite tactics of the anti-science leaders is to try and create confusion where there is none and to turn the focus away from serious matters and instead playing silly political games. The silly games will draw donors and voters so if they care about those things more than the country and the future of the country it is a sound tactic. The damage it causes the country however I would hope would limit the use of such tactics however that has not been the case recently.

‘Shrimp On A Treadmill': The Politics Of ‘Silly’ Studies

Take the case of the “shrimp on a treadmill.” Burnett says the senator’s report linked that work to a half-million-dollar research grant. But that money actually went to a lot of different research that he and his colleagues did on this economically important seafood species.

The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnett says the first treadmill was built by a colleague from scraps and was basically free, and the second was fancier and cost about $1,000. The senator’s report was misleading, says Burnett, “and it suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context.”

John Hart, a Coburn spokesperson, said in an email that “our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill. The scientists doth protest too much. Receiving federal funds is a privilege, not a right. If they don’t want their funding scrutinized, don’t ask.”

What the politicians are doing is exactly what this spokesperson suggests – they are withdrawing from the anti-science culture created by some in Washington: they are moving their research to countries that support rather than attack science. That is a very bad thing for the USA. There are a number of very bad economic policies a government can take. Driving scientists and engineers into the arms of other countries is one of the worst.
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Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

The USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sun.

Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

I completely agree. People have the right to their opinions. But those opinions which are related to scientific knowledge (whether it is about evolution, the origin of the universe, cancer, the speed of light, polio vaccinations, multi-factorial designed experiments, magnetic fields, chemical catalysts, the effectiveness of antibiotics against viral infections, electricity, optics, bioaccumulation, etc.) are part of their scientific literacy. You can certainly believe antibiotics are affective against viral infections but that is an indication you are scientifically illiterate on that topic.

2006 NSF chapter that included the results
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Presidential Science Teaching and Mentoring Awards

Related: President Obama Speaks on Getting Students Excited About Science and EngineeringPresidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering MentoringFund Teacher’s Science Projects$12.5 Million from NSF For Educating High School Engineering Teachers

Remarks by President Obama on the “Educate to Innovate” Campaign and Science Teaching and Mentoring Awards, January 6, 2010

To all the teachers who are here, as President, I am just thrilled to welcome you, teachers and mentors, to the White House, because I believe so strongly in the work that you do. And as I mentioned to some of you, because I’ve got two girls upstairs with math tests coming up, I figure that a little extra help from the best of the best couldn’t hurt. So you’re going to have assignments after this. (Laughter.) These awards were not free. (Laughter.)

photo of President Obama with science teachers at the White HousePresident Barack Obama with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching winners in the State Dining of the White House January 6, 2010. (Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

We are here today to honor teachers and mentors like Barb who are upholding their responsibility not just to the young people who they teach but to our country by inspiring and educating a new generation in math and science. But we’re also here because this responsibility can’t be theirs alone. All of us have a role to play in building an education system that is worthy of our children and ready to help us seize the opportunities and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Whether it’s improving our health or harnessing clean energy, protecting our security or succeeding in the global economy, our future depends on reaffirming America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in math, science, technology, and engineering.

But despite the importance of education in these subjects, we have to admit we are right now being outpaced by our competitors. One assessment shows American 15-year-olds now ranked 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers around the world. Think about that — 21st and 25th. That’s not acceptable. And year after year the gap between the number of teachers we have and the number of teachers we need in these areas is widening. The shortfall is projected to climb past a quarter of a million teachers in the next five years — and that gap is most pronounced in predominately poor and minority schools.

And meanwhile, other nations are stepping up — a fact that was plain to see when I visited Asia at the end of last year. The President of South Korea and I were having lunch, and I asked him, what’s the biggest education challenge that you have? He told me his biggest challenge in education wasn’t budget holes, it wasn’t crumbling schools — it was that the parents were too demanding. (Laughter.) He’s had to import thousands of foreign teachers because parents insisted on English language training in elementary school. The mayor of Shanghai, China — a city of over 20 million people — told me that even in such a large city, they had no problem recruiting teachers in whatever subject, but particularly math and science, because teaching is revered and the pay scales are comparable to professions like doctors.
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Cuts for British Science

Cuts mark ‘sad day for British science’

Britain’s physics community is reeling from a “disastrous” day of funding cuts that will force scientists to withdraw from major research facilities and see PhD studentships fall by a quarter. Space missions and projects across astronomy, nuclear and particle physics are being cancelled to save at least £115m, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said today.

Fellowships and student grants for PhD projects will be cut by 25% from next year. The announcement has appalled senior physicists who warn the cuts threaten Britain’s future as a leading player in science.

In February, Gordon Brown delivered his first speech on science in Oxford and stated: “The downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.”

Politicians like to talk about funding science investment. And they do so to some extent. However, they are more reluctant to actually spend money than to talk about the wonders of science. Several countries in Asia are not just talking, they continue to invest, large amounts of money. The USA seems to be willing to put some money (not the kind of funds paid to protect bankers bonuses but significant amounts). Still the amounts the USA is investing is, I believe, falling as a percentage of global investment.

Related: posts on funding investments in scienceBritain’s Doctors of InnovationEconomic Strength Through Technology LeadershipScience and Engineering in Global EconomicsScience and Engineering Workforce IndicatorsThe value of investing in science and engineeringSaving FermilabNanotechnology Investment as Strategic National Economic Policy

Unless We Take Decisive Action, Climate Change Will Ravage Our Planet

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park photo by John Hunterphoto by John Hunter at Glacier National Park.

Tomorrow 56 newspapers, in 45 countries, are taking the unprecedented step of publishing the same editorial. The editorial will appear in 20 languages, as the United Nations Climate Change Conference is set to begin in Copenhagen.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

Most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page. Even with the overwhelming evidence and tremendous consequences I don’t expect politicians to make the right decisions. We know full well what the choices are. We just choice to avoid the unpleasant choices. To bad so many that don’t get to choose are going to suffer. The politicians will be weak. They will play to those that pay them money. They will delay taking important steps now. We have chosen to elect non-leaders for quite some time. We can’t really expect them to act with courage, vision, wisdom and leadership given who we elect. The politicians are responsible for their failing but we are more responsible for electing them. Some politicians, even now, do possess fine qualities but not nearly enough. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it.

Related: What’s Up With the Weather?Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free StateScientists Denounce Global Warming Report EditsDeforestation and Global WarmingMIT’s Energy ‘Manhattan Project’Global Installed Wind Power Now Over 1.5% of Global Electricity DemandBigger Impact: 15 to 18 mpg or 50 to 100 mpg?Solar Thermal in Desert, to Beat Coal by 202076 Nobel Laureates in Science Endorse Obama

Neil Degrasse Tyson: Scientifically Literate See a Different World

From the interview of Neil Degrasse Tyson from 3 July 2009.

“If you are scientifically literate the world looks very different to you. Its not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There is a lot we understand out there. And that understanding empowers you to, first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second there are issues that confront society that have science as their foundation. If you are scientifically illiterate, in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process, and you don’t even know it.”

I agree, and, as I have said before, when a society allows a scientific illiteracy to continue then the potential for abuse by those that manipulate those that are scientifically illiterate leaves the society vulnerable to making very bad choices.

Related: Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sunposts on scientific literacyEvolution, Methane, Jobs, Food and MoreAstronaut self portraitCosmology Questions AnsweredSarah, aged 3, Learns About Soap

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Today, during remarks at the National Academy of Sciences, President Barack Obama announced the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

PCAST is an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who will advise the President and Vice President and formulate policy in the many areas where understanding of science, technology, and innovation is key to strengthening our economy and forming policy that works for the American people.

President Barack Obama said, “This council represents leaders from many scientific disciplines who will bring a diversity of experience and views. I will charge PCAST with advising me about national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation.”

PCAST will be co-chaired by John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, President and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, former head of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel laureate.

Members of the council include: Shirley Ann Jackson, Craig Mundie, Eric Schmidt and Ahmed Zewail.

Related: Science and Engineering in PoliticsScientists and Engineers in CongressJohn Conyers Against Open ScienceChina’s Technology Savvy Leadership

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