British Science Minister Uses Twitter for Conversation

June 14th, 2009

Posted by: admin

U.K. Science Minister Lord Drayson recently engaged critics of the U.K. government reshuffle in a civil, if not completely satisfying, conversation about whether the Minister could effectively represent both science and defence interests in the new Cabinet system.  As part of the reshuffle, Lord Drayson is both science minister and defence procurement minister.

The conversation took place over Twitter (H/T SciTechDaily).  While many conversations have no doubt taken place via the all-too-brief service, American politicians have typically opted to use the service for broadcasts rather than discussion.  U.S. government agencies use it as another way of communicating news and press releases.  U.S. polticians appear to prefer using the service to link to statements and other press documents, and/or broadcast their immediate thoughts, often derailing the careful conditioning of their communications staff.  Others are masquerading as streams from the politicians, when the tweets are posted by staffers.

Few U.S. politicians seem to engage in a back and forth like the one Lord Drayson did.  It’s not clear to me whether he is typical of Cabinet Ministers or other British politicians in this.  I’d like to think so, because finding sniping on Twitter is all too easy.  Twitter is proving of value in following breaking events, like the current situation in Iran.  Whether it succeeds in other forms of political engagement will depend as much on those tweeting as those reading them.

Canadian Science Minister Muddles in Peer Review

June 13th, 2009

Posted by: admin

From ScienceInsider comes this report that the Canadian science minister has taken an extraordinary step of asking the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to conduct a second peer review of an awarded workshop grant.  The topic of the workshop is “Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace.”  This is a topic that can attract controversy, and the issue has been the source of protest when combined with scientific events.  The minister’s stated objections are that:

“several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.”

Independent of the accuracy of these claims (the ScienceInsider article notes only two speakers have withdrawn over the issue, and neither are Israeli), there’s plenty wrong with why this would be a valid reason to re-do the peer review.   There doesn’t appear to be a claim that the possible bias of these speakers has influenced the work that would be presented (and supported).  In other words, no clear indication or suggestion of bad research that was missed by the review process.  This was a political request to change scientific procedures for non-scientific reasons.

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NSF Director Speaks on Stimulus Funds

June 12th, 2009

Posted by: admin

New Scientist runs an interview with National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement where he discusses what the Foundation will do with its share of the stimulus fund.  It appears the NSF will follow the same path of the National Institutes of Health and use the funding boost to clear the backlog of proposals.  After the interviewer asks about the hard landing sure to follow, Director Bement mentions that

If we plan and manage well, this will not be a major factor. The president has plans for a big increase in NSF funding in 2012. By integrating our usual budget increases with the stimulus money we will make this work.

This suggests that the increase Bement mentions will be above and beyond the planned increases from President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative and the COMPETES Act.  I’ll believe it when I see the President’s FY 2012 request, which will probably come around the same time President Obama will be looking for Director Bement’s replacement (his 6 year term expires sometime in 2010).

E-Books and Textbooks – Not Quite there Yet

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides this vignette of Northwest Missouri State University and it’s efforts to go all-electronic with its textbooks.  While the notion of providing or requiring incoming students to pick up an electronic book reader and load it with textbooks has its appeal (lower cost to the student over the course of their education, easier updates, less paper used), the technology isn’t quite ready for textbook reading.  The Chronicle piece describes several important points here (power demands over a long school day, funtionality within the text, lack of color display), but the main conclusion that things aren’t as easy with e-books as initially thought comes down to differences in reading.

Many people read differently on the Web, or in newspapers, compared to a novel, and the same is true for textbooks.  There’s a fair amount of skimming going on, flipping to the table of contents and/or index, and other fast motion that current e-book readers aren’t well-suited for (or online reading through something like Google Book Search).  E-book readers don’t appear to be able to handle sidebars, text boxes, and other graphic design elements common to many textbooks.  To force textbook migration to these devices right now would seem like taking a step back to take a step forward.

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Not What a Sensible Person Should Do

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

FEMA is attempting to do the impossible, and that is to predict future flood losses in a way that will allow changes to be made in the federal flood insurance program. E&E Daily reports:

Federal officials are struggling to calculate the fiscal impact that climate change could have on the nation’s troubled public flood insurance program, amid predictions of intensifying downpours and more potent hurricanes. The mission is proving extremely difficult, according to one researcher, who said the effort so far has failed to reveal even “squishy assumptions.”

The project’s lead researcher suggested that the entire effort was misguided (emphasis added):

Researchers are using data from the IPCC and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program to determine the climate risks to the insurance program. But there are glaring omissions in the overall knowledge needed to accurately depict the effects, says David Divoky, an expert with the consulting firm AECOM and the study’s lead researcher.

Detailed information about population growth is unknown, for example. So are the frequency, severity and location of future hurricanes, all of which can create large variations on the impacts on the flood insurance program. “There may be no solid projections. We’re not even coming up with squishy assumptions,” Divoky told an audience at the floodplain managers conference. “This whole thing is not what a sensible person should do.”

Once again I am reminded about a vignette from Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow (PDF):

As a weather forecaster in the Second World War, Arrow and his colleagues were told that their commanding officer needed a long-term forecast. The forecasters knew from experience that such forecasts had little scientific basis, and related this up the chain of command. The reply that came back was this: no matter, the general needs the forecast for planning purposes.

One prediction for the FEMA study seems spot on:

“The results could produce controversy regardless of the outcome”

Policing Carbon Corruption

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Imagine a cap and trade regime in place, and a company decides to shave off a few percentage points on its emissions accounting in order to generate a few tens of thousands more allowances. What happens then?

Australian Climate Change Minister Penny Wong explains the policing of carbon corruption via the Herald Sun (and for those like me needing some translation from Australian, here is the definition of “rort”):

Interpol has warned the carbon market will be irresistible to criminal gangs because of the vast amounts of cash to be made. Possible rorts include under-reporting of carbon emissions by firms and bogus carbon offset schemes.

“If someone is rorting it by even 1 per cent a year, we’re talking about many, many millions of dollars,” Mr Torr said.

Ms Wong’s office said AFP [Australian federal police] agents would be expected to enter premises and request paperwork to monitor firms’ emissions reductions. They would act on the 30-strong Australian Climate Change Regulatory Authority’s orders.

It said the authority could appoint staff members or police as inspectors.

She said the Department of Climate Change had spoken to the AFPA [Australian Federal Police Association] and the parties would talk again. Carbon trading involves carbon emissions rights buying and selling. Businesses can offset emissions by investing in climate-friendly projects, or carbon credits.

Ms Wong’s office said provisions had been made to ensure compliance. “Inspectors may enter premises and exercise other monitoring powers,” she said. “The inspectors may ask questions and seek the production of documents. There is provision for the issue of monitoring warrants by magistrates.”

The AFP’s 2855 sworn agents are involved in law enforcement in Australia and overseas, investigating terrorist threats, drug syndicates, people trafficking, fraud and threats against children.

Mr Torr said breaking carbon trading laws would be like breaking other laws. “These offences will constitute another federal crime type, along with narcotics importing, people smuggling and all the rest of it, that the AFP will be expected to police,” he said. “I can see very complex, covert investigations . . . a lot of scientific expertise required.”

Narcotics, human trafficking, carbon corruption. Wouldn’t a carbon tax be easier?

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Japan announced a target for emissions reductions, that by all accounts is based on what the Japanese government thinks is actually possible.

In reaction to this announcement, the Japanese government was criticized for not playing along with the charade that most every other country is playing:

Yvo de Boer, general secretary of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, said emission reduction plans submitted so far leave industrial countries “a long long way from the ambitious reduction scenarios” that scientists say are needed. He appeared taken aback by the limited scope of the Japanese announcement.

“For the first time in 2-1/2 years in this job, I don’t know what to say,” he said.

Why makes Japan’s proposal more responsible than that of Europe, the US, or any other country? Prime Minister Taro Aso explains:

Mr. Aso was quick to point out that unlike targets set under the Kyoto Protocol, which allowed countries to use emissions offsets and other methods, the 15 percent decrease would come from actual cuts. The government recently introduced subsidies that encourage the use of solar power in Japanese homes, as well as incentives on low-emission cars.

The 15 percent target, Mr. Aso stressed, was a compromise he had reached after consulting extensively with scientists and economists, as well as with members of the public.

To meet the target, Japan will pursue breakthroughs in environmental technology, as well as expand the use of nuclear energy. Mr. Aso has said Tokyo aimed to expand solar output by a factor of 20 and put more “green” cars on Japanese roads. He said he believed Japanese companies could increase efficiency even further.

In other words, Japan is focused on actually changing the carbon intensity of its economy, and not with playing accounting games with allowances, credits, and offsets. The Japanese economy is the second most carbon efficient large economy (after France) and thus additional progress comes at a correspondingly more costly price. Consider that if the world economy was as carbon efficient as Japan’s economy, then carbon dioxide emissions this year would be about 33% less.

Of course, Japan could have gone along with Europe and now the U.S. in making fictional commitments to fictional targets and timetables, and everyone would have praised their commitments. We have seen how well that approach has worked out in Australia.

Sincere efforts should be rewarded, and Japan is showing leadership on a difficult challenge. While it is true that Japan’s proposals do not represent a complete solution to the challenge of decarbonization — far from it — they do point toward a way forward, which is much more than can be said for other nations or the actions under the Framework Convention.

What does Japan get for its leadership? Criticism.

Such is the up is down world of climate policy where no good deed goes unpunished.

Paging Captain Renault – Research Journal Out for Access Fees

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Scientist is the source of our Casablanca flashback, with its report that an open access journal published by Bentham was willing to publish a ‘nonsense’ paper that supposedly passed peer review.  A Ph.D. student in science communications and a staffer at The New England Journal of Medicine have been testing journals peer review practices by submitting papers generated by computer program.  They document this particular incident on their blog.  In short, the journal agreed to publish the article, if the authors paid the fee, and asserted it had passed peer review.

At a minimum the publisher Bentham is guilty of allowing journals to assert peer review when none had taken place.  The scamming conclusion is reasonable, given the reports.  I’m not in agreement that open access journals are necessarily more suspect of putting out supposedly peer-reviewed articles that weren’t so reviewed.  Yes, they do charge more fees than traditional journals (who could be scamming authors for photo and chart fees, amongst other things), but an open access journal is not more likely to skimp on peer review than any other journal.

What bothers me is that it has to take generating obviously lousy articles to ferret out derelict peer review.  Given the volume of scientific publishing, there’s an enormous amount of implicit trust in the processes behind these articles that people will continue to exploit.  I wish I had even the germ of a possible solution here.

Climate Rorshach Test as News

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Apparently an AP news article out today on how we don’t know if global warming is making the winds blow with less gusto is not a parody, despite all indications to the contrary. For benefit of readers I have condensed it as below:

Not so windy: Research suggests winds dying down

By SETH BORENSTEIN – 6 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — The wind, a favorite power source of the green energy movement, seems to be dying down across the United States. And the cause, ironically, may be global warming — the very problem wind power seeks to address.

The idea that winds may be slowing is still a speculative one, and scientists disagree whether that is happening. . .

Still, the study, which will be published in August in the peer-reviewed Journal of Geophysical Research, is preliminary. There are enough questions that even the authors say it’s too early to know if this is a real trend or not. But it raises a new side effect of global warming that hasn’t been looked into before. . .

Even so, that information doesn’t provide the definitive proof that science requires to connect reduced wind speeds to global warming, the authors said. In climate change science, there is a rigorous and specific method — which looks at all possible causes and charts their specific effects — to attribute an effect to global warming. That should be done eventually with wind, scientists say. . .

One of the problems Pryor acknowledges with her study is that over many years, changing conditions near wind-measuring devices can skew data. If trees grow or buildings are erected near wind gauges, that could reduce speed measurements.

Several outside experts mostly agree that there are signs that wind speed is decreasing and that global warming is the likely culprit.

The new study “demonstrates, rather conclusively in my mind, that average and peak wind speeds have decreased over the U.S. in recent decades,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

A naysayer is Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist in New York who said the results conflict with climate models that show no effect from global warming. He also doubts that any decline in the winds that might be occurring has much of an effect on wind power.

Has global warming reduced windspeeds with potentious implictaions for wind power?

Well obviously we don’t know, but if you’d like to believe that it does, you can justify that belief by citing Michael Mann. And if you’d like to believe that it does not, you can justify that belief by citing Gavin Schmidt.

Climate science as Rorschach test, film at 11.

Collateral Damage from the Death of Stationarity

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In recent years climate scientists have come to understand that the climate system may not be stationary – meaning that the fundamental statistics of climate vary and change over timescales of relevance to people. For those who consider that the phrase “climate change” is redundant, this will be no surprise. However, decision makers in a wide range of settings, including flood mitigation, reinsurance and insurance, and even aspects of carbon policy, operate from a framework where climate is perceived to be a stationary process.

In a new essay in the GEWEX Newsletter I argue that if indeed stationarity is dead then collateral damage of the new philosophy of climate necessarily must be the notion that we can ever evaluate the skill of climate predictions using empirical methods. That leaves us relying on a few remaining methods of forecast evaluation, among them political expediency and simple faith.

Here is an excerpt from my essay:

Here I suggest a far more consequential implication of the death of stationarity for the role of science in water management decision making than a need for better models and observations. Rather than basing decision-making on a predict (probabilistically of course) then act model, we may have to face up to the fact that skillful prediction of variables of interest to decision makers may simply not be possible. And even if it were possible, we would not be able to identify skill on the same time scales as decisions need to be made. The consequence of this line of argument is that if stationarity is indeed dead, then it has likely taken along with it fanciful notions of foreseeing the future as the basis for optimal actions. Instead, it may be time to rethink how we make decisions in the face of not simply uncertainty, but fundamental and irreducible ignorance. Rather than focus on optimal decisions guided by prediction, we may need instead to focus on robust decisions guided by recognition of the limits of what can be known.

You can read the entire essay, which includes an excursion into how the “guaranteed win scam” conspires with the “hot hand fallacy” to defeat efforts to judge predictive skill in the context of nonstationarity, at the link below.

Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2009. Collateral Damage from the Death of Stationarity, GEWEX Newsletter, May, pp. 5-7. (PDF)