Social science in action

By Nadine Lymn, director of public affairs Social scientists have been weathering repeated attacks lately from congressional leaders deriding  the value and validity of their work. The scientific community has responded.   The Ecological Society of America is one of several scientific societies serving as a collaborator to show support for social science and its contributions to other fields and to society. A new initiative of the National Academy’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Social and Behavioral Sciences in Action (SBSIA) aims to “raise awareness of the vitality, validity, and value of the social and behavioral sciences to the scientific enterprise, to public policy, and to the nation’s well-being…” Earlier this week, a symposium, held at the National Academy of Sciences, highlighted the key role social science plays in national security, medicine and engineering.  Biologist Rita Colwell, health policy analyst Lucian Leape, national security psychologist Robert Fein and mechanical engineer John Lee were among the speakers who highlighted how social science is integral to their work. Colwell said that without her social scientist colleagues, she would have had neither the access nor the success in reaching the 150,000 individuals in 50 villages in Bangladesh to tamp down the incidence of cholera.  This social-biological collaboration reduced cholera by 50 percent in three years.   The insights provided by a social scientists opened the way to reach these communities, said Colwell.  The social scientists developed the questionnaire with local mores in mind, knowing what questions would and would not be appropriate in the region.  They understood the cultural practices and environmental views of the local people and selected families to participate in the study. “It would have been a tragedy” said Colwell, if the scientists had missed the chance to help so many people who were suffering and dying from this disease.  Colwell has studied cholera for 40 years and she and colleagues knew that it can be dramatically curtailed by filtering water through sari cloths folded five times.  Cholera—which is often fatal—is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the environment and is associated with a tiny zooplankton called a copepod.  Filter out the copepod and you’ve also filtered out the cholera bacterium, along with a host of other water-borne bacteria and viruses. Women in the rural villages of Bangladesh are the ones who educate the family and are therefore key to addressing the problem—Colwell and her fellow researchers  in essence trained the women to be extension agents who learned how to filter the water and then shared this technique with others.  When Colwell and colleagues did a follow-up study five years later, they found that a significant proportion of women were...

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Health, ed, enviro, sci communities prep for fiscal cliff #NDDUnited

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Yesterday’s second town hall meeting of the Non Defense Discretionary (NDD) coalition, drew an audience of 400 and featured two representatives from the Obama Adminstration.  Jon Carson, who does public outreach for the White House and Robert Gordon, Acting Deputy Director of the White Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The two reviewed the Administration’s position on the upcoming fiscal cliff.  Many in Washington, DC refer to the pending expiration of the 2001 Bush tax cuts plus the planned federal budget cuts as the “fiscal cliff” and unless Congress takes action, it will occur on January 1, 2013. Carson’s overall message to the assembled group was to encourage them to continue to demonstrate the value of federal programs and their connection to local communities across the country. Gordon noted that the upcoming OMB transparency report related to the budget sequestration and scheduled to be released still this week, would be an enormous but not surprising document; it will not “change the fact that cuts will threaten national security and critical investments here at home.” Some in the large audience–which included represenatives from the public health, education, environmental and science communities, asked that the Obama Administration encourage federal agencies to supply more information about how they would be affected by the pending cuts. When asked if the President would veto a bill that would delay the sequester, Gordon declared that he would. While there are many scenarious, no one knows how Congress and the Administration will ultimately deal with the national debt crisis. All everyone seems to agree on is that it will not be dealt with until after the General Election. As anyone following the news is well aware, the two parties have been in gridlock and have starkly different visions of the best way to address the nation’s debt crisis.  The NDD Coalition continues to push for a “balanced” approach that would avoid further cuts to NDD programs, which have already taken large cuts; NDD funding is at historically low levels not seen since the 1950s. Yet even so, word on Capitol Hill is that Members of Congress and their staff continue to hear from the Defense community and from constituents encouraging them to continue to slash NDD programs.  They are still not hearing much from those of us in the NDD community. A few weeks ago, the Ecological Society of America, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Mathematical Society teamed up to craft an action alert to our respective members, urging them to make their voices heard to their congressional representatives.  To date, only about 1300...

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An Interconnection of Ecologists (#ESA2012)

Bruce Byers wrote up his impressions of the recent ESA Annual Meeting in a recent blog post: 12th of August, 2012. Old English is full of “terms of venery,” words for groups of animals: a pod of whales, a pack of wolves, a herd of deer, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, a pride of lions, a leap of leopards, a kettle of hawks, a parliament of owls. Most of these terms tried to say something about the behavior of the species they described. Many are quite poetic, most have fallen into disuse; but thanks to the wonderful book “An Exaltation of Larks,” by James Lipton, we have access to this old flock of words. For a week in early August, five thousand ecologists met in Portland, Oregon, and talked about how everything is interconnected. It was an interconnection of ecologists. Continue reading  “An Interconnection of Ecologists (#ESA2012) at Bruce’s blog Tales from the...

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Time to Restore Balance

By Terence Houston, science policy analyst and Nadine Lymn, director of public affairs Yesterday afternoon, several hundred individuals from organizations representing education, science, and other communities that make up the non-defense discretionary (NDD) part of the federal budget held a rally on Capitol Hill.  Their objective: to raise awareness that unless Congress takes action, across-the-board federal spending cuts are slated to go into effect on January 2, 2013 as mandated by the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25). Speakers called for both political parties to come together and focus on a consensus bipartisan solution towards bringing down the national debt. Senator Tom Harkin (photo on right), who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, asserted that it is “time to restore balance to the conversation.” The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) projects that implementation of these cuts, also referred to as sequestration, could lead to the loss of over one million jobs in the United States between 2013 and 2014. In its report entitled “Indefensible: The Sequester’s Mechanics and Adverse Effects on National and Economic Security,” BPC notes that even if implemented, the sequester will ultimately prove ineffective in the long run, delaying by only two years the date when publicly- held United States debt surpasses 100 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. “Our unsustainable fiscal situation is driven by health care inflation, the retirement of the baby boomers, and an inefficient tax code that raises too little revenue,” the report notes. “Yet the sequester does nothing to address these problems, instead cutting almost exclusively from defense and non-defense discretionary spending, which are already projected to decline substantially as a percentage of the economy over the coming decade.” Consequently, instead of functioning as a meaningful debt reduction, the sequestration will take a machete to vital discretionary programs including cuts to scientific research ($1.1 billion), special education ($1.1 billion), air transportation security and traffic control ($1.6 billion), disaster relief ($0.7 billion) and disease control ($0.5 billion) with negligible long-term benefits and very significant immediate consequences for Americans. The BPC report reinforces the reality that meaningful deficit reduction must include a focus on revenue reforms and mandatory spending programs as initially suggested by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction effort. Additional speakers at the rally included House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA), City of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Knott Mechanical President  Martin G. Knott Jr., and Rita Ngabo, a social worker and single mother. The rally was...

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Easter Island’s quiet message

Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform on the island, features fifteen restored Moais. The Moai in the foreground was likely damaged in transit and never erected. Credit: Brian Wee. This post contributed by Brian Wee, chief of external affairs for NEON, Inc. The July 2012 edition of National Geographic features Easter Island – known also as Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui by the local population.  Rapa Nui is famous for the silent stone statues called Moais that are scattered around the island.  In late May of 2012, my partner and I spent four days exploring Rapa Nui.  A remote speck of land no larger than Washington, DC in the Pacific and accessible by a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, Rapa Nui is often referred to as one of the most isolated, inhabited areas.  One skillful (and probably lucky) Polynesian expedition discovered it sometime in the 8th century.  Given the Pacific’s expanse, you have to wonder about the probability of finding such a small island in the vast ocean, and accordingly, how many other expeditions did not quite make it. Most of the Moais are located along the island’s coast, although some are also found inland.  Moais are stood on ceremonial stone platforms called Ahus, and visitors are reminded not to clamber on top of the Ahus at the risk of heavy fines.  A guidebook advocated gently shooing horses off these platforms if you come across an animal browsing on an Ahu.  Yes, horses.  They roam freely on the island.  Like the two that were wandering around the parking lot of the Rapa Nui airport after our flight landed on Monday evening.  Our Bed &Breakfast host had picked us up at the airport, but I resisted the temptation to tap his shoulder and ask “Say…. did you see those HORSES walking around in the airport PARKING LOT?”  Given that he deftly maneuvered the vehicle around the animals and didn’t say anything about them, I figured that he must have seen them.  Oh well. One of Rapa Nui’s many horses and her foal at the Ahu Tepeu site. Credit: Brian Wee By some reports, the number of horses on the island is greater than that of the roughly 5000 full-time residents.  It wasn’t long before I thought of the effects of unchecked herbivory on the structure and function of the island’s plant community.  Trees are sparse on the island, and there is some evidence that Rapa Nui once supported more trees before the human population expanded to what is thought to be unsustainable levels.  The island’s last indigenous tree – the Sophora toromiro – died in the 1950s, but...

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