Science <-> Democracy

Is science the foundation of democracy? DICK Taverne is a career politician, currently a member of the British House of Lords, and champion of science in public life (married, perhaps not incidentally, to a microbiologist for over fifty years).  In a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine in London last week, he explained why he believes “science has made us more democratic, more tolerant, and more compassionate.” The lecture is the capstone on his tenure as founding chair of the British charity Sense About Science. He organized the charity ten years ago to encourage scientists to participate in public discussions on science – discussions he felt were sadly impoverished – and “increase public awareness of the role of science in making us more civilized.” Taverne says that the spirit and methods of science are the foundation of democracy, not necessarily through direct application of scientific knowledge and facts, but in the rather egalitarian expectation of a shared reality, in which subjective opinion, taboos, and dogma may be challenged. He adds that democracy also supports science. In countries where authority cannot be challenged, good science in is short supply. Thus he thinks it very unfortunate that British politicians are so ignorant of how science works, and so uninterested in finding out. While the public and its political representatives appreciate the technological and heath advances that science brings, the philosophical application of science is a more esoteric, even uncomfortable, idea. The lecture itself is quite entertaining, but the extended question and answer session is also worth a listen. Here are a few out-takes: Roland Jackson, CEO of the British Science Association: The public is actually looking for scientists to show a little humility, to not actually give the impression that they know everything, can control everything, can sort of do things to society, but will engage with society’s values. I think that’s a really important message for scientists to understand, or they’ll lose public trust and confidence. Moderator replies: I’ve heard that comment about scientists so much. Sense about Science works with thousands of people, and I rarely meet the kind of person who thinks they know everything…[on the contrary] I get frustrated that scientists will say they know nothing, when they so clearly know something. Jackson replies: The point I’m making is about perception, it’s not about what scientists are really like…when they speak as humans…then the public is much more likely to engage and respond, and to trust. Taverne: In the end, the democratic process is not too bad…I wouldn’t denounce the whole democratic process as irrational, though it has many irrational elements. On the question of values:...

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ESA Policy News: April 20

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CJS BILLS SUPPORT SCIENCE, SENATE TRANSFERS SATELLITES TO NASA The week of April 16, both the House and Senate Commerce Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittees approved their respective funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. In total, the House CJS appropriations bill would provide $51.1 billion to all agencies under its jurisdiction, a reduction of $1.6 billion below FY 2012 and $731 below the president’s request. The Senate bill would fund all agencies under its jurisdiction at $51.862 billion, a $1 billion reduction from FY 2012.  While the House bill’s funding levels are overall less than the Senate, both chambers supported increases in key science agencies in comparison to the current fiscal year. The Senate CJS bill would also move funding for weather satellite procurement from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There has been bipartisan, bicameral criticism directed at NOAA’s costly satellites. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the move would save $117 million in FY 2013 and reduce duplicative federal activities. Enclosed are funding levels for key science bureaus outlined within the House and Senate bills: The National Science Foundation House: $7.333 billion, an increase of $299 over FY 2012. Senate: $7.273 billion, an increase of $240 million over FY 2012. NASA House: $17.6 billion, $226 million below FY 2012 Senate: $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over FY 2012. (*The increase is due to the bill’s provision transferring weather satellite procurement from NOAA to NASA. Absent these funds, the bill would mean a $41.5 million cut for NASA. NOAA House: $5 billion, $68 million above FY 2012 Senate: $3.4 billion, $1.47 billion below FY 2012 For additional information on the Senate CJS bill, click here. For additional information on the House CJS bill, click here.  APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE RELEASES FY 2013 ENERGY AND WATER BILL On April 17, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee released its funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. The bill, which funds federal programs for the Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water programs within the Department of Interior, would be funded at $32.1 billion, $965 million less than the president’s request, yet a slight increase from FY 2012. Department of Energy (DOE) – DOE would receive $26.3 billion, $365 million less than FY 2012. DOE environmental management activities would be funded at $5.5 billion, $166 million below FY 2012. The bill increases funding for nuclear security by $300 million from FY 2012 and would direct funding...

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ESA Policy News: March 23

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: FY 2013 BUDGET PROPOSAL CUTS INNOVATION, FEDERAL WORKFORCE On March 20, House Republicans unveiled their proposed budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the budget bill sets an overall discretionary spending limit of $1.028 trillion in FY 2013, $19 billion below the spending caps established in the Budget Control Act. Among its provisions, the House budget resolution includes significant cuts to Department of Energy programs while expanding oil and gas drilling. It also supports the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands identified in a 1997 Department of Interior report that were deemed suitable for sale or exchange to benefit the Everglades restoration effort in Florida. The White House released a statement asserting that the Ryan plan would cut clean energy programs by 19 percent and slash $100 billion from science, space and technology programs over the next decade. The budget also proposes to cut the federal government workforce by 10 percent, providing $368 billion in savings. Under the proposal, federal employee retirement contributions would also rise from 0.8 percent to 6.3 percent. The bill would also extend the current federal pay freeze to 2015. View the full FY 2013 House budget proposal here. The White House response to the House budget proposal can be viewed here. SENATE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS EPA MERCURY STANDARDS FOR POWER PLANTS On March 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety met for a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury rules for power plants. EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide on Dec. 16, 2011. “I believe it’s possible to have a clean environment and a strong economy. I think it’s a false choice to say that we have to have one or the other; we can have both. That is especially true for cleaning up our air pollution,” declared Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) in his opening statement. “In fact, as the EPA has implemented the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, our nation’s air has gotten cleaner, while electricity rates have stayed constant and our economy has grown by 60 percent. For every dollar we spend cleaning the air, we’ve seen $30 returned in reduced health care costs, better workplace productivity, and lives saved.” Subcommittee Ranking Member James...

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Fed seeks to inspire community-driven conservation

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced that it is seeking public input on a proposal to expand incentives for farmers, ranchers and other private landowners to help conserve wildlife. The proposal is part of the agency’s effort to seek innovative ways to improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The FWS request for public comment includes solicitation of ideas on how to make existing conservation collaboration tools more effective, such as Habitat Conservation Plans, Safe Harbor Agreements, and Candidate Conservation Agreements. The agency’s effort is intended to lead towards consensus approaches and towards encouraging conservation practices by landowners that help preserve species that are candidates for federal protection. One potential proposal before FWS includes the establishment of conservation “banks” for at-risk species. The conservation banks would sell credits that allow landowners to offset the impact of their activities on at-risk species as well as buy credits that reward landowners for making habitat improvements. Also under consideration is the development of a new agreement to provide landowners with assurances that conservation actions taken to benefit species prior to listing could be used to offset the adverse effects of activities carried out later, in the event the species is listed. FWS is also working on a similar effort with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service entitled the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative. The collaboration offers financial and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to restore and protect the habitats for seven at-risk species across the nation, including the  greater sage-grouse, New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. Interested producers can enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. Public comments on the Endangered Species Act reform proposal are due May 14, 2012 and can be submitted using the following methods: Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0099]; or U.S. mail or hand-delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: [FWS–R9–ES–2011–0099]; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042–PDM; Arlington, VA 22203. Photo Credit:...

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In Ecology News: Heartland leak, hydrofracking law, and conservation in pictures

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer A dead pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) on a back road of the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming. Coal, oil and gas development in the basin have brought more vehicles, and more conflicts with wildlife. Rob Mutch, 2004. FRESH water scientist (and MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Academy of Sciences) Peter Gleick was all over conservation news last week with the shocking revelation that he impersonated a board member of the libertarian Heartland Institute in a ruse to extract private documents concerning climate change strategy. The documents had been in the news for several days after arriving anonymously in the inboxes of environmental reporters and bloggers, with Heartland stating that the documents were fake and obtained fraudulently, and threatening bloggers with legal action for publicly posting them in connection with Heartland. The documents revealed the identities of anonymous Heartland supporters and included a memo outlining plans to develop materials for teaching climate change skepticism in schools. Gleick confessed in his Huffington Post column on Monday night, writing that he sought to confirm the provenance of documents that he had received anonymously. He asserted that he had not altered any of the documents that he got from Heartland. But Megan McArdle of The Atlantic has echoed bloggers’ suspicions about the credibility of the memo. Gleick has taken a leave of absence from the presidency of the Pacific Institute, which he co-founded in 1987, and resigned from the American Geophysical Union’s task force on science ethics. Institutions are hurrying to dissociate themselves from him, and the damage is widespread. Gleick has been a major figure in science policy. Public trust in scientists and scientific institutions requires unblemished reputations, conservation columnist Andy Revkin pointed out, in grief and in anger, in his New York Times Dot Earth blog last week. Talk show hosts and anonymous hackers can pull shenanigans without damage to their message, but scientists cannot, as was amply demonstrated by the 2009 theft of private emails and files from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Joyce, Christopher. “Climate Scientist Admits To Lying, Leaking Documents.” All Things Considered from NPR, 22 February 2012. McArdle, Megan. “The Most Surprising Heartland Fact: Not the Leaks, but the Leaker.” The Atlantic. 22 Feb 2012, 11:58 AM ET Revkin, Andrew. “More on Peter Gleick and the Heartland Files”. NYTimes Dot Earth blog, 22 February 2012, 12:42 pm. Gleick, Peter. “The Origin of the Heartland Documents.” The Huffington Post. Posted: 02/20/2012 7:45 pm. Justice Phillip R. Rumsey of the New York State Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state municipalities may ban oil and gas...

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State of the Science, 2012

Thoughts and twitterings around the ecosphere on President Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress, Tuesday, January 24th, 2012. In the Wednesday morning quarterbacking that followed this year’s State of the Union, pundits aired the perennial complaint that the President’s speech ran too long, heavily-laden with a Clinton-style laundry list of programs. But citizens like to hear their favorite programs mentioned, and we in the science community are no exception! Technical education and funding for basic research briefly made the list, but the majority of the attention went to energy. The President pitched “clean” energy from wind, sun and reduced waste, alongside a drill-baby-drill enthusiasm for oil and gas exploration, while sidestepping any awkward mention of nuclear energy. Here’s a replay of exciting moments in #SOTU, interleaved with a sampling of comments tweeted out of the eco-science bubbleverse. Enter POTUS, with entourage. Shaking hands as he moves down the aisle, he sweeps down upon Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz) for a rare moment of bipartisan good-feeling. Giffords will formally resign on the following day to continue her recovery from the terrible head wound she suffered in a shooting last year. Share “ Obama and Giffords hug and rock back and forth. WHAT, I HAVE SOMETHING IN MY EYE. #SOTU   daveweigel Wed, Jan 25 2012 20:11:41 ReplyRetweet Share “ Boehner invites pipeline pals to #SOTU: is.gd/VlmGQk   David Roberts Wed, Jan 25 2012 11:04:28 ReplyRetweet “As the camera pans around the Capitol chamber for President Obama’s State of the Union address, see if you can spot the representatives from the state of Oil: four avid supporters of the Keystone XL Pipeline who will attend the speech as the guests of House Speaker John Boehner.” Scott Rosenberg, reporting in real-time on Gristlist. Share Congress leaps before it looks at Keystone pipeline permit review efforts | EcoTone This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst H.R. 3630, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011,… Esa [*President Obama didn’t actually kill the Keystone XL Pipeline; he rejected a bid from TransCanada. The project is on hold pending a State Department environmental review. Tune in to EcoTone’s Policy News this Friday to learn more.] POTUS: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans: Share “ Climate is only mentioned as something that Congress can’t seem to agree on. #SOTU   Kate Sheppard Wed, Jan 25 2012 20:11:41 ReplyRetweet [Kate Sheppard is clearly reading ahead in the script, because POTUS is still talking about courage, selflessness and teamwork, and coming together to get the job done, like the military (and unlike some other...

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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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Recalibrating expectations for U.S. science

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Spoiler alert: this is not an upbeat post, although it does offer a few hopeful spots… As many in the ecological community already know, obtaining monetary support for conducting research is tough.  The number one federal agency that supports fundamental research in ecology is the National Science Foundation (NSF), funding about 65 percent of ecological research conducted at U.S. research institutions.  Many other agencies, from the Forest Service to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also play important roles in supporting ecological science, although mostly through their own agency scientists. At NSF, the Biology Directorate has long been one of the most competitive, with a grant proposal success rate that now hovers around only 10 percent.  Ecologists have enjoyed support from other federal agencies, but those budgets are also sloping downhill.  Foundations, which also have provided support to the ecological community, are themselves facing financially harder times.  Things have gotten to the point that some older ecologists are candidly saying that they can’t in good faith recommend to students to go into the field of ecology due to the bleak outlook for making a decent living.  The situation seems unlikely to get better anytime soon. As anyone following recent policy developments knows, a gloomy budget environment is clouding outlooks in Washington, DC.  Although many agencies, including NSF, have managed to keep their budgets fairly intact for the current fiscal year, the specter of cuts is getting closer—when the Budget Control Act kicks in to slash both defense and civilian budgets. Yesterday’s, ScienceLive featured a chat with two long-time Washington science policy insiders, Michael Stephens (Association of Schools of Public Health) and Joel Widder (The Oldaker Law Group), who shared their opinions of what might be in store and responded to online questions.  Both said that NSF and the National Institutes of Health, as agencies supporting basic research, enjoy support by both Congress and the Administration.  But Stephens and Widder acknowledged that a world in which flat or declining budgets become the norm will present federal agencies with serious challenges on how to allocate their limited resources. In response to a question about the role of politics in science, Widder stated that: “As long as the federal government is going to spend in excess of $130 billion on research and development annually, and taxpayers will be the ultimate source of that money, politics will be an inherent part of the science funding enterprise.”  Stephens pointed out that overall the amount of “political meddling” in science is minimal and that with a few exceptions, science remains well respected.  “And I...

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