Archive for June, 2005

Space Science and Nuclear Proliferation: An Opportunity for Reflection

June 30th, 2005

Posted by: admin

This past Tuesday, the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the future of NASA with its Administrator, Michael Griffin. In its hearing charter, the committee raised several issues that NASA will face in the coming months, and in so doing, voiced concern over the future of the International Space Station (ISS).

To complete construction and use the ISS, NASA needs the cooperation of the Russian space agency. According to the hearing charter, “the US is totally dependent on Russian Soyuz capsules for crew rescue, and without access to Soyuz capsules, Americans will not be able to stay on the space station for long duration missions.” Yet after April 2006, Russia’s obligation to participate expires, and we may no longer have their support. That is, unless we pay for it.

But this is not merely a matter of money. Section 6 of the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) “prohibits the US Government from making payments in connection with ISS to the Russian space agency, organizations or entities under its control, or any other element of the Russian government … unless the President makes a determination that Russia’s policy is to oppose proliferation to Iran, that Russia is demonstrating sustained commitment to seek out and prevent the transfer of WMD and missile systems to Iran, and that neither the Russian space agency nor any entity reporting to it has made such transfers for at least one year prior t such determination.” (From “The INA and ISS: Issues and Options” March 2005 CRS report). The President has almost no chance of making that call.

Thus, we must consider our options:


The Barton Letters

June 28th, 2005

Posted by: admin

As reported briefly yesterday, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has requested information from Michael Mann (and collaborators) and the heads of IPCC and NSF. The tone of the letters places House E&C essentially in ethics investigation mode. (That the committee has any staffers available to pursue this while armoring up for the energy bill conference is partially the subject of this post.)

The letters have been discussed a bit in the science policy blogoworld (link, link and link), but not yet picked up by any media outlets except for, curiously, the stalwart Electricity Daily. (Come on Rick W. and Andy R., this story is waiting for you!)

Here are my thoughts on why this inquiry is both reasonable and unreasonable:


Positive Feedback Gone Awry

June 28th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Last week, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a report entitled United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (available here). The report, authored by George Abbey, former director of the Johnson Space Center, and Neal Lane, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, identified four barriers to the future development of U.S. space science. According to the authors, the second of these barriers is a “projected shortfall in the U.S. science and engineering workforce.” The report utilizes data from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (here). and from the National Science Foundation to point to recent declines in the numbers of U.S. physics Ph.D.s, growth in science and engineering-related jobs, and increased competition for foreign scientists. The report characterizes the future prospects for science and engineering in America as a “looming shortage”, and a “crisis” because of the projected shortfalls in manpower. Roger has already written a couple posts (“Scientist Shortage”, and “Scientific Workforce, Supply Side”) on this subject that provide reason for skepticism in the face of claims of impending shortage.

Additionally, the authors of the report write in their recommendations for a healthy workforce, “Beyond all these, the most important requirement is probably a truly exciting national vision, laid out by the leaders of this country, that offers young people the opportunity for adventure that first inspired Americans to build a great nation. Space should play a large role in this national vision, just as it did during the Apollo days. If young people see exciting careers ahead in science and engineering, they are likely to pursue them with passion.”

This reasoning seems somewhat circular. The quoted paragraph posits the excitement of space science as a means for motivating young people to pursue careers in science and engineering. So, one barrier to healthy space science is the projected shortage of scientists, and the most significant means of increasing the number of scientists is to promote space science. In other words, we need more scientists and engineers for the future of our space enterprise, and we need an enhanced space enterprise for the future of our scientists and engineers. Apparently, this is a case of positive feedback gone awry.

Breaking-ish News

June 27th, 2005

Posted by: admin

The House Energy Committee, apparently not busy enough tweaking the details of the upcoming conference report on H.R. 6, has sent letters to various players in climate change studies requesting information on how their research was done. Link to the letters is here.

The letters were dated last Thursday but it’s unclear when they were posted to the House E&C webpage. Probably a classic Friday afternoon release.

I’ll comment more on this and other topics in a short while, but first one note: the four-page request to Mann seems to be entirely based upon (or least take off from) a February article in the WSJ written by Antonio Regaldo. I posted here about the Regaldo WSJ article. In the post I came down hard on Mann while essentially stating that Regaldo’s analysis was correct. But when this issue goes from public newsprint quibbling to Congressional hearing grandstanding (and this is obviously nothing more noble than that), we have big problems.

More later.

This post also appears on Kevin’s blog here.

What would Moby Dick think?

June 24th, 2005

Posted by: admin

An article published yesterday in the BBC News states that “the International Whaling Commission has condemned Japan’s plan to increase the scale of its catches in the name of science”. The debate over what constitutes enough whales for scientific inquiry (look here for info about the IWC scientific permits) is another good example of what happens when science is used as a proxy for what is essentially a political, economic, gastronomic and values debate.

Since the moratorium on commercial whaling was established in 1986, countries have been allowed to “kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research” according to guidelines that are established by each member nation. For example, the current 2004 permit for Japan allows for “220 common minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei and 10 sperm whales” to be killed in the name of scientific research. This is in addition to another research program in which “it takes 440 minke whales from the southern ocean each year”. Japan is now proposing to introduce a new research plan that would boost the minke harvest up to 935, and fin whales and humpbacks up to 50 in Antarctic waters.

Again, according to the BBC News, 63 scientists working with the IWC condemned Japan’s proposal for two reasons. First, results from the first 18 years of research have not yet been evaluated. Second, with the new proposal, Japan’s catch would approach commercial levels that were in place before the 1986 moratorium was established. Still other critics are calling for non-lethal methods of research.

But this isn’t about scientific research done in the name of resource management.


Abstaining on evolution

June 22nd, 2005

Posted by: admin

Yesterday, a New York Times article entitled “Opting out in the debate on Evolution,” described the abstention of many in the scientific community from recent hearings by the Kansas State Board of Education. The article’s author, Cornelia Dean, quotes Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education, as saying, “We on the science side of things strong-armed the Kansas hearings because we realized this was not a scientific exchange, it was a political show trial.”

Many of those who refuse to participate argue that the debate is not won over scientific content, but instead pits the science-based theory of evolution versus the faith-based idea of intelligent design, which stipulates that the only way to explain the complexity we see on Earth lies in the existence of an intelligent agent. Although the advocates of intelligent design might disagree, I would find the arguments of evolution’s backers, which deny classification of intelligent design as a science, quite convincing. One example can be found in an article by Dr. Kenneth Miller, here.

What is laudable in this case is the recognition by scientists that the arena of debate in Kansas is not a scientific one, and the conclusion this leads to, which is that there is less reason for scientists to participate. While the outcome of the Kansas State Board of Education hearings will unfortunately play out in science classrooms, which are locales that are ostentatiously devoted to science, those scientists who refuse to participate have done well in avoiding the debate since it does not involve a scientifically pertinent question. Instead, the argument is one of those who value scientific explanations versus those who value explanations based on other ideologies and values. Since the debate did not center on the validity of the science (as defined by most of the scientific community, but not those who want to teach intelligent design), and since many people thought the hearing was a “show trial” with a foregone conclusion of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution (which is how it ended), scientists planning on arguing the merits of evolutionary theory did well to stay home. As Eugenie Scott says of the issue, “We are never going to solve it by throwing science at it.”

The lesson to be taken from this might be that some debates, even some with considerable scientific content, may not be on issues where more scientific evidence or better explanation of the science will help policy formulation. Scientists in other fields might do well to recognize cases where scientific debate is not being used to move an issue forward.

Taking the Initiative: Public/Private Weather Debate Continues…

June 21st, 2005

Posted by: admin

For those not familiar with the current (and past) debate between the private weather sector, academic meteorology community, and the public weather services (generally NOAA and the National Weather Service (NWS)), here’s a very brief overview.

The private meteorology community is worried about unfair competition from the academic and public sectors and the lack of a clear policy concerning how the sectors interact and how the sectors should solve disputes that arise. The private sector feels that the government’s weather services are stealing a piece of their pie and doing it unfairly, since the private sector contributes tax dollars which help to fund the government weather services that eventually compete against it. Further, the private sector feels that the nation as a whole could benefit from a more limited NWS/NOAA role. This more limited role would remove some services that are duplicated between the government and private sector which would release more government money and personnel to address the core functions of NWS/NOAA.

The recent NRC Fair Weather Report and the very recent Santorum Senate Bill S.786 both address this issue, and numerous other academic papers and press releases by industry organizations also address the issue. The latest release by the National Council of Industrial Meteorologists is perhaps the most detailed release to-date, and outlines four goals that the NWS/NOAA should work toward while developing policies to solve the on-going debate. In part, these goals mention “…prohibiting uniformly within NOAA the development and dissemination of products and services that unfairly compete with the products and services of private sector meteorology…” and “Encourage positively NOAA’s interaction and collaboration with private sector meteorology through a variety of means and venues…”


Beware of Snake Oil Salesmen

June 20th, 2005

Posted by: admin

I recently received a letter from the Stem Cell Research Foundation which asked me to make a donation in order to support grants that, according to their website, support “innovative basic and clinical research”. I have several problems with the SCRF’s solicitation efforts, and in fact, find the letter to be rather … distasteful.

First, the SCRF plays fast and loose with the purpose of basic research, which is essentially curiosity-driven and free from consideration of use, with solutions, cures and remedies. While they get the notion of basic research right: “We can’t know what lies ahead and we must be realistic!” they unfortunately slip into sales-pitch-mode with allusions of future cures for stroke, heart disease “and for a huge array of other diseases and conditions”. Furthermore, they say, “…the only problem with stem cell therapy is that it isn’t progressing fast enough!” Aha! So if I donate money to support innovative basic research then stem cell therapies will be developed sooner. The problem is that there is no guaranteed connection between the basic research the foundation supports, and any future pay-off. And according to my layperson’s eye, most of the current research seems to be basic in nature. (I’m open to correction if I’ve read it wrong). But as the science community knows all too well, at least as far as Federal funding is concerned (see this posting), in order to compete for limited resources and get funded, promises of future pay-offs and benefits have to be made. Has the SCRF learned to play the game, and if so, is this even a game that is appropriate to play?

Second, the letter has a rather distasteful overtone that reminds one of snake-oil salesmanship. Note the following sentences which are obviously geared toward vulnerable populations: “Imagine the hope this research would bring to the cancer patient who wants to see a favorite grandchild graduate – the stroke sufferer who would give anything to hold someone’s hand – the burn victim desperately in need of new skin cells”, and even worse: “If you know someone suffering from a disease who feels life is leaking away along with all hope of aid, I urge you to pass on this exciting news to bolster their flagging spirits”. Step right up, Grandma. I know you’re on a fixed income and time is running out, but could you spare $50 to support some basic research?


Predicting and Positioning for Hurricanes

June 17th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Greetings! Since this is my first post to Prometheus I will introduce myself: I am a third-year graduate student of Roger Pielke Jr. working toward a MS in policy and meteorology and an MBA, both at the University of Colorado.

Following the recent Prometheus posts on Hurricanes (here and here), I want to bring up another issue that involves hurricane forecasting. In 1999, Roger Pielke Jr. wrote this article in Science which points out the differences between improving hurricane track forecasts and translating this improved forecast into measurable benefits for emergency managers and other decision makers and stakeholders. The gist of the 1999 article is that hurricane track forecasts since 1970 improved at the rate of about 1% per year while the length of coastline warned per storm increased from about 300 nautical miles (nm) in the late 60’s to about 400 nm during the 1990’s. Basically, the science of prediction improved, but the science and art of positioning government agencies and the public for hurricanes did not improve, at least by the metric of ‘miles of coastline warned’.

Fast-forward to 2005, and it seems like both the improved prediction and stagnant positioning trends are the same as they were in 1999. An article in the May 2005 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) points to the success of the U.S. Weather Research Program’s (USWRP) goal of “…tropical cyclone track forecast guidance products with an improvement in accuracy of 20%…” The author of this article points out that the 20% improvement goal was “challenging”, and as I write on page 26 of my undergraduate thesis, specific and challenging goals are proven to lead to more successful results than general, or “do our best” goals. In this vein, I applaud the research effort that lead to the successful completion of bettering hurricane track forecast models by 20%.



Summer Break

June 16th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I am going offline for a few weeks. I’ll be posting again July 5. Meantime, Genevieve, Bets, Kevin, Joel and maybe (if you are lucky) Lisa and Bobbie will be working hard to keep your minds provoked!