Biomedicine – Can’t Fund it Fast Enough

June 9th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Yesterday the National Institutes of Health issued a press release on the Challenge Grant program, which is designed to help spend some of the stimulus money awarded to the agency.  Approximately 20,000 applications were received (H/T The Scientist), which is equal to the number of applications the agency typically receives in a major review round.

How many grants will be rewarded?  According to the press release:

“NIH expects to devote at least $200 million in ARRA funding to Challenge Grants. In addition to the approximately 200 Challenge Grants that will be funded by the NIH Office of the Director, it is likely that more than 200 ARRA-related grants will be funded by NIH Institutes or Centers.”

So, 200 Challenge grants through the Office of the Director, and 200 or more stimulus related grants through other centers.  The acceptance rate is around 1-2 percent.  And this is after Senator Specter’s vote was purchased with a $6.5 billion boost to NIH funding.  It appears that the oversupply of biomedical research grants will keep acceptance rates low regardless of the money thrown at the situation.

A Plea From a Policy Maker

June 9th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark explains to the scientific community what he needs from them leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference later this year (PDF):

But understand me correctly; at the end of the day, here in Copenhagen, we have—as politicians—to make the final decision, and to decide on exact figures, I hope. And this is a reason why I would give you the piece of advice, not to provide us with too many moving targets, because it is already a very, very complicated process. And I need your assistance to push this process in the right direction, and in that respect, I need fixed targets and certain figures, and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.

The problem, of course, is not that a politician would offer such advice, rather it is that many scientists have decided to follow it.

ICAT Damage Estimator

June 9th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have not been this excited about a web app for a long time if ever. ICAT is an insurance company located here in Boulder, Colorado and I have been working with them over the past year to develop a new website called the ICAT Damage Estimator which builds upon our research on normalized hurricane losses. The website is now live in beta mode here.

You can view a brief tutorial below, and I encourage you to do so as it has a lot of interesting functionality. In the coming weeks we’ll be rolling out some additional functions that will be mightily impressive. Stay tuned for that. Meantime, please explore the site, share it around, and use the feedback options on the site to let us know what you think.

Revkin, Values, and Data

June 8th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Andy Revkin over at his New York Times blog posted last week about the role of values in debates over climate change.  While his ultimate point, that values play a factor even in debates over data, is nothing new here, the lead and title of the post support some old and inaccurate conceptions about the roles values can play in debates that involve scientific data.

Titling a post “Values vs. Data in Environmental Care” is misleading in that it suggests that data comes from a value-free position.  The choice of data, methodology and other factors of experimental design are made for reasons that – intentionally or not  – support particular values.  By asserting data to be value free, you allow the values to sneak in.

The linkage of the discussion to explicitly religious values, while allowing for a good hook to the story, also supports a common assumption that when speaking of values you are speaking of religious values.  That is unnecessarily narrow, and likely inflammatory, if the attempts at discussions over evolution might suggest.

I don’t think Revkin subscribes to these faulty premises.  But I see this kind of thinking all too often not to call it out in places I don’t expect to see it.

“A Con for Our Time”

June 8th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[UPDATED: See below]

Writing at the FT, London School of Economics economist William Buiter calls the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (otherwise known as Waxman-Markey) “a total con”:

[Under ACES] emissions will not be reduced. But that is inconsistent with the supposed desire to reduce emissions to 83 percent of their 2005 level by 2020 and to 17 percent of the 2005 level by 2050. Except that is it not inconsistent if there is no intention to reduce emissions at all, but instead every intention to permit them to be raised above their 2005 levels. And that is of course what is going on.

Here I go beyond Buiter’s cogent critique to add a few quantitative details to how offsets under the bill will allow emissions to rise essentially indefinitely.

First, lets start with some assumptions.

1. The scheme begins in 2012.
2. The scheme covers 85% of US emissions.
3. 85% of 2012 emissions are 6,078 million tonnes
4. The scheme has a goal of reducing emissions to 5,056 million tonnes by 2020 and 3,533 by 2030.
5. 2,000 tonnes of offset credits are available each year of the scheme
6. Unused offsets roll over and can be used in subsequent years

Under these assumptions we can reach a few interesting conclusions.

First, to achieve the 2020 emissions reduction goal under a scenario of 2.0% annual GDP growth requires decarbonization of the U.S. economy of about 4.0% per year. Under the faster rate of economic growth in the Obama Budget that rate of decarbonization needs to be 5.2% per year.

Second, to achieve the 2030 emissions reduction goal under a scenario of 2.0% annual GDP growth requires decarbonization of the US economy of about 5.0% per year. Under the faster rate of economic growth in the Obama Budget that rate of decarbonization needs to be 5.7% per year.

Since no one knows how to decarbonize an economy at rates of 4% or above per year over a period of decades, the authors of the ACES bill have provided the opportunity for the generous use of “offsets” — which means that credit can be claimed toward the ACES goals for reducing emissions (or more likely, reducing hypothetical future emissions) both inside and outside of the U.S. economy.

I was curious as to how many offsets would have to be used for the U.S. to maintain its historical rate of decarbonization of about 2% per year. So I have conducted the following exercise:

1. I projected US emissions at a 2% rate of decarbonization of the economy coupled with assumed economic growth of 2% per year.

2. I then compared this scenario with emissions reductions consistent with the targets in ACES for 2020 and beyond. [UPDATE: The first version of the graph I showed below used a rate of decarbonization faster than required by ACES to 2020, but consistent with a 2030 trajectory, the second graph shows a rate consistent with the 2020 trajectory.]

3. I assume that the difference between the 2% decarbonization scenario and the ACES scenario will be made up for entirely through use of offsets.

The question I want to answer is, what percentage of available offsets would be necessary to use to sustain a 2% rate of decarbonization? The answer surprised me and can be seen in the following graph.


What this graph shows is that only a small portion of available offsets would need to be used to sustain the historical rate of decarbonization of the U.S. economy [UPDATE] consistent with the ACES 2030 trajectory. Economic modelers like to call this “business as usual.” Whether the 2% rate results from business as usual, the effects of ACES, or a combination of both is irrelevant to this exercise.

[UPDATE} The graph below shows the rate consistent with the 2020 emissions reduction trajectory. The rates are different to 2020 and 2030 under ACES, which is why the graphs look different

(Methodological notes: I ignore the phase in of covered entities from 2012 to 2016 under ACES, making my exercise a bit conservative. Using a faster rate of growth, such as under the Obama Budget would increase the values for 2020 by about 3%.)

What this exercise shows is that it it would be possible under an offsetting scheme like that in ACES to avoid achieving decarbonization rates of 4% or greater by using only a small fraction of available offsets, and thus do absolutely nothing to change, much less transform, the U.S. energy system. William Buiter is correct — offsets are a “con for our time.”

‘Heritage diplomacy’: Obama’s new tactic in Science Diplomacy?

June 8th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yasmin Khan from the Science Museum, London, follows up her previous guest post in light of Obama’s speech in Cairo on 4th July 2009.

In my last blog entry I alluded to the prospect of utilizing science diplomacy to help promote world peace. Following President Barack Obama’s ground-breaking speech in Cairo, it now seems that dormant rhetoric will soon be put into imminent action. Intentions to support scientific initiatives in the Islamic world as part of Obama’s vision for promoting peaceful relations between the United States and countries with a Muslim majority were revealed, as highlighted in David Bruggeman’s recent blog entry on Science Diplomacy and the Cairo Address.

It seemed too good to be true a couple of months ago when Dr. Vaughan Turekian, Chief International Officer for AAAS and Director for the Center for Science Diplomacy, foretold in his talk at Harvard how a new era of science diplomacy might be afoot. Turekian had defined science diplomacy as:

the use of international science cooperation with the goal of building or establishing relationships between and among societies.

Just prior to that, The Times reported that Dr Harold Varmus, Noble Laureate and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology has asserted that American diplomacy had previously undervalued the role of medicine and science in fostering friendly relations with developing nations. Varmus argued that US investment in fighting tropical infections and chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes in poor countries would transform international perceptions of the US. Varmus also advocated the introduction of a “Global Science Corps” of scientists willing to spend at least a year working in a poor country, and a network of science attachés for every US embassy.

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, no one was sure how much of what she promised would really transpire when she claimed that the new vanguard of foreign policy rests in the deployment of diplomacy as encapsulated in the phrase she helped to coin: ‘smart power’.

Smart power is a balance of hard military power with the soft power of diplomacy, development, cultural exchanges, education and science. One of the most promising of the smart power tools is science diplomacy, the practice of supporting and promoting scientific exchanges, cooperation and research between the United States and other nations, sometimes nations that have no other diplomatic relations with the United States.

Productive initiatives have already begun to materialise. A U.S. delegation was recently sent to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, where the implementation of science diplomacy has successfully proved to yield agreements to Seek Collaboration in Water, Energy, Agriculture and other Fields.

This refreshing approach demonstrated by Obama to “use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible” sounds encouraging and brings with it a fresh wave of world-wide hope. But what is most unique is Obama’s shrewd tactic to reference historical contributions made by other civilizations in order to give the present full context. This approach is both courageous and eye opening:

it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

Obama has now given a new edge to science diplomacy – combining it with a sort of ‘heritage diplomacy’, he knows he can take things much further. Since then, John Esposito amongst others has also observed that by focusing on our interdependence, shared values and common interests, Obama has generated a new mindset and paradigm for U.S.-Muslim World relations. In the mean time, administration officials are working to elucidate the fuzzy spots in Obama’s science diplomacy as summarised in a recent State Department factsheet ‘A NEW BEGINNING: THE U.S. AND MUSLIM COMMUNITIES AROUND THE WORLD’.

So what next? Obama’s speech was a watershed moment in history that raised expectations and has left us all in anticipation. We have yet to see his all pledges for action fully materialise but as Obama’s incisive words continue to reverberate, the future looks brighter.

Yasmin Khan is the Curator Team Manager at the Science Museum, London.

Mars Missions Fall Back to Earth?

June 7th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Nature reports that NASA robotic missions to Mars, arguably the most consistent overperformer of the agency over the last decade, will not receive most favored planet status in the next reviews for future projects.  The next decadal assessment will consider Mars missions on the same level as missions to other planets, as will the next program competition under Discovery, the overarching NASA program that handles unmanned exploration.

It seems that one of the challenges for Mars programs (and any NASA robotic mission) is retaining the “faster, better, cheaper” rubric that eventually led those missions to an impressive run.

“But the Mars community might have itself to blame for the tight budgets that have led to the current quandaries. The $2.3-billion Mars Science Laboratory — the super-sized rover scheduled for launch in 2011 — ended up being the mammoth, bells-and-whistles mission that a stepwise Mars programme was supposed to help avoid. The mission also ended up chewing through hundreds of millions of dollars in its budget overruns — more than enough to fund a Mars Scout.”

I don’t think anyone got greedy here.  It just shows how difficult planning space exploration is with limited resources.  Those who respond with calls for more money for NASA should understand that as useful as they might be, they aren’t coming.  The ingenuity that has forced NASA to improvise and to operate spacecraft and instruments long past expected lifespans is worth encouraging.  Perhaps this adjustment will be a useful reminder.

House Subcommittee Goes Below President’s Request for NASA

June 6th, 2009

Posted by: admin

In what is a rarity on many levels, the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee responsible for most science agency budgets has opted to appropriate less (H/T Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog) than the amount a President requested in a budget.  President Obama’s FY 2010 budget for human spaceflight operations at NASA is nearly $4 billion, and the subcommittee appropriated approximately $3.3 billion, which is less than the FY 2009 amount as well.  The agency’s budget as a whole received an increase of $421 million over the FY 2009 budget.

The subcommittee chairman’s remarks suggest that the Congress, or at least the House, will wait and see what the review committee announced earlier this year will suggest for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight operations.

“Rather, the deferral is taken without prejudice; it is a pause, a time-out, to allow the President to establish his vision for human space exploration and to commit to realistic future funding levels to realize this vision.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the Senate will follow suit and take this wait-and-see attitude.  I strongly doubt that many outside the House subcommittee will consider this decrease to be without prejudice, but I may be tired and jaded from the continuing arguments between those supporting human spaceflight and those active in other areas NASA is involved.

Shaky UK Government May Affect Science Policy

June 5th, 2009

Posted by: admin

UPDATE – 7 pm EDT, 6/5/09 – apparently the DIUS is no more, according to Nature.  It will be incorporated into a new department, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.  Whether Nature neglected a comma after Business or not is unclear.

UPDATE – 6/6/09 – Apparently Nature did neglect the comma, but given how it’s absent from the Department logo, but not the announcement, I can understand the confusion.

Original Post – I’d encourage any of our readers closer to this to provide additional details, but I found it interesting this speculation from Nature News that the troubles in the government of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown could affect the organization of science policy in that country.  The Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet in light of recent resignations, promoting the current head of the Department on Universities, Innovation and Skills (DIUS) to a Cabinet position.  DIUS was created by PM Brown in 2007 to put universities and innovation issues in the same place.  Previously innovation concerns were handled in a department focused on business interests.  The Nature report reflects concerns that things will return to where they were before.

Read the rest of this entry »

Science Diplomacy and the Cairo Address

June 4th, 2009

Posted by: admin

There’s a portion of today’s remarks by President Obama that focuses on scientific efforts in Africa and the Middle East (H/T ScienceInsider).  I think it qualifies as the science diplomacy that Nina Federoff and Sir David Beddington discussed earlier this week.

“On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs.  We’ll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops.  Today I’m announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio.  And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

All these things must be done in partnership.  Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.”

With luck this might set aright Dr. Federoff’s concerns about the science budget at the State Department.

“But Fedoroff said that science could be a casualty of a “tight budget” in the state department [sic], which helps to coordinate US scientific collaborations abroad. The US economic recovery package is predominantly focused on investment at home and “this could be a real stumbling block because we need to collaborate internationally”.”