Showcasing science on Capitol Hill

By Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Last night was the 18th consecutive year that researchers and policymakers came together over finger food and beverages to talk about the science and education projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  “STEM Research and Education: Underpinning American Innovation” is sponsored by the Coalition for National Science Funding.  Its goal is to showcase the wide variety of projects made possible by NSF and facilitate some good conversations between the recipients of these federal grants and those who manage the purse strings—Congress. Nearly 40 exhibit booths showcased a wide range of topics to over a hundred congressional staff and Members of Congress, including Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA), Mike Simpson (R-ID), Hanson Clarke (D-MI), Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI). The Ecological Society of America (ESA) was among the exhibitors and featured ESA graduate student Sarah Roley’s work on mitigating nutrient pollution in the agricultural Midwest.  Roley, a freshwater ecologist who is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, spoke with numerous congressional staffers who were interested in how the two-stage ditch—the focus of her research—works and how it might be applied in other areas besides Indiana.  Among those interested were Kevin Warnke, Legislative Assistant for Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Robert Bonner, with the House Committee on Appropriations (pictured above, speaking with Roley).  Roley also told several senior NSF staff about her work, including Myron Gutmann, who heads the Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences Directorate at the agency. Roley is a GLOBES NSF Fellow.  Earlier in the day, she visited her Indiana delegation to express her appreciation for their past support of STEM research and education and to talk with them about how her work can help address a persistent problem in the Midwest and in areas downstream, particularly the Gulf of Mexico.  As Roley explained during her congressional meetings and the CNSF reception, fertilizers used to grow crops move from farm fields and can contaminate drinking water and harm fishing industries downstream by fueling algal blooms.  The two-stage ditch adds floodplains to incised channels, slowing the flow of water and allowing bacteria and plants to take Nitrogen out of the system.      Farmers with whom Roley has worked seem receptive to the two-stage ditch.  They usually don’t need to give up much land because many already have grassy buffers next to existing ditches and the addition of floodplains to these ditches keeps their fields from being flooded during high-water events.  According to Roley, nutrients travel half as far from two-stage ditches than from conventional ditches and remove at least twice as many nutrients during floods.  Another bonus,...

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The multifaceted benefits of effective water infrastructure management

On April 25, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) joined Discover Magazine, IEEE-USA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in hosting a briefing on how urban water infrastructure can be utilized to conserve energy and protect potable water resources. The briefing sought to promote the idea that better management of water resources serves to improve ecosystems, water quality and mitigate impacts of climate change. In his opening remarks, Senator Reid emphasized how climate change, energy and infrastructure are all interconnected. The Majority Leader noted the importance of such programs as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which he contended have seen funding shortfalls for much of the past 15 years. He also lamented how some of his colleagues in the Senate remain unwilling to address the issue of climate change. In July 2011, NSF announced a five-year, $18.5 million grant to fund a new Engineering Research Center to revolutionize the nation’s urban water infrastructure, the Engineering for Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt) at Stanford University. The new center includes 22 industry partners and researchers from a variety of fields related to ecology, urban studies and law that will work to foster innovative solutions to issues related to water infrastructure systems. Richard Luthy, Director at ReNUWIt, noted the many potential benefits reaped from advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Noting the increasingly important role they play in energy management, Luthy suggested that wastewater plants be looked at as “resource recovery centers.” He said that nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater can be effectively used as fertilizer. According to ReNuWIt, reusing municipal wastewater that would otherwise be discharged into an ocean or estuary for non-potable uses would significantly augment water availability, save on the energy that would be used to treat water to make it potable and curb the need to transport water supplies. Patricia Mulroy, General Manger of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in the Southern Nevada Water Authority, noted that 100 percent of the water from Lake Meade used by neighboring communities is treated and returned to the lake for reuse.  Mulroy stated that treated wastewater has helped to restore wetlands in the state of Nevada. She also noted that climate change will continue to diminish water resources, furthering the need to take advantage of new wastewater management technologies. The briefing was moderated by Tom Peterson, Assistant Director of the NSF Directorate for Engineering. He noted that while U.S. investment in water infrastructure research has flat-lined for decades, China has doubled its investment in water infrastructure research.   For additional information on NSF activities related to ReNUWIt, click...

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Solutions for a nitrogen-soaked world

Overabundance of an essential nutrient is not always a good thing. – by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. A tractor spreads manure. Excess fertilizer seeping out of fields has a host of consequences for ecological systems and human health. Credit, flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia, 2010.   NITROGEN is both an essential nutrient and a pollutant, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion and a fertilizer that feeds billions, a benefit and a hazard, depending on form, location, and quantity. Agriculture, industry and transportation have spread nitrogen liberally around the planet, say scientists in the latest edition of ESA’s Issues in Ecology series, with complex and interrelated consequences for ecological communities and our dependence upon the resources they provide, as well as for human health. Nitrogen is a basic component of life’s most famous molecules: proteins, RNA and DNA. Though nitrogen fills 78.1 percent of the air we breathe, energy is required to convert (or ‘’fix”) it into biologically accessible forms, a process that some species of bacteria can accomplish, but other organisms cannot. Consumers like humans, cows, birds and mosquitoes get nitrogen by eating other live things. For plants, lack of nitrogen in their immediate environment can be a serious limitation. In many ecosystems, the limit of available nitrogen is the limit of growth. We have removed that limit for our food crops by supplying them with fertilizer in the form of manure, nitrogen-“fixing” bacteria symbiotic with legumes like soybeans, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Pulling from a broad pool of expertise in air quality, agronomy, ecology, epidemiology and groundwater geochemistry, the sixteen authors track nitrogen through its different chemical forms and biological incarnations as it progresses across economic, environmental and regulatory bounds. They argue for a systematic, rather than piecemeal, approach to managing the resource and its consequences. “We’re really trying to identify solutions,” said lead author Eric Davidson, a soil ecologist and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center. “This is a paper about how much we <em>do</em> know, not about what we don’t know. We know about nitrogen cycles, and sources, and we know problems can be addressed in economically viable ways.” In the mid-twentieth century, widespread adoption of the Haber-Bosch industrial process for “fixing” nitrogen from the air using fossil fuels (natural gas, usually) changed agriculture in the US, and there is no going back. There are seven billion people on Earth. Without synthetic nitrogen, author Jim Galloway, a biogeochemist at the University of Virginia, estimates we could feed about four billion. “There are a variety of impacts due to the human use of nitrogen. The biggest is a positive one, in that it allows us to...

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