Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Science Education and Science Literacy

A recent article in the Washington Post reports that the United States is stagnating in terms of Science education. Recent test scores that compared the United Stated with other countries showed that our 4th and 8th-graders were improving in math, but that our science scores were the same as a decade ago. For the 8th grade, the countries that scored higher than the United States were Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea, England, Hungary and Russia.

Why is this important? Educating our youth in science (and math), boys and girls, is going to be increasingly important for the US to remain competitive in a global economy, an economy that is driven by technology. Look at your own life, for example. We are positively drenched in various forms of technology. But, it goes even deeper than the economy of a nation and future employment opportunities for the individual.

An understanding of the basic principles of science, rooted in skills such as critical thinking, the ability to separate of fact from opinion, and problem solving is essential for decision-making. As adults, we are increasingly faced with decisions about how to live our lives, what kind of footprint we want to leave on this planet, and how we want to vote on policies that will affect that footprint for generations to come. We face issues such as meeting the world’s food and water demands, global warming, energy production, waste reduction, and homeland security. No matter what opinion you hold on these issues, they are, at their core, science-based. A science education will be essential for evaluating the options and making an informed decision at the polls.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

GMOs - Friend or Foe

There is a little spot at Dr. Think Science's Place of Employment (Think Science U) where people leave their excess food. You know, like if they had a party the night before and there is a lot of cake left, they'll bring it in to work and put it in this space. It is the repository of left-overs, the recipient of random acts of generosity (as someone is driving in to work and just thinks it might be nice to pick up a dozen bagels), and the destiny for gardens that overfloweth. Every place of employment has this spot, I suspect. Ours is on top of an innocuous microwave oven.

A while back, this space housed some two-dozen or so really lovely tomatoes. I commented to a colleague that someone's garden must be doing really well, and thought I would take some fresh, wholesome goodness home to Offspring and Mr. Dr. Think Science. He replied that he initially thought so too, but then learned that Employee X had a spouse that worked for Large Agribusiness Company, and reckoned these were just some GM tomatoes grown in some large industrial field. He voiced the term "GM" the way that people tend to whisper words like "cancer", or "drug dealer". I'm not sure he was right. They were the reddest tomatoes I have ever seen. Redder than any tomato I have ever seen in a grocery store. But, they were also remarkably blemish free.

But, his reaction to the GM potential got me wondering...I mean, I know there is hype out there. But, I did not think that most scientists were on that band-wagon. After all, GM is just a fancy way of doing what we have been doing with our food and meat stocks for a long time. Breeding them for bigger, faster growing, stronger stock. Now, we're just doing it a little more directly. And, for the most part I reckoned most of us really embraced all that genetics was providing us. GM foods potentially offer a number of potential outcomes that should thrill even the strictest environmentalist: reduced water use, reduced pesticide or fertilizer use, use as bioremediators (species bred to take up heavy metal pollutants from the environment, for example). There is of course the economic advantage: increased cold resistance, increased growth rates, increased shelf lives. Plus, there is the possibility of producing foods with increased nutritional value, or foods that can produce some of the medicines that we need. Seems pretty good.

So, the bad. Most of the bad stems from fear, two basic categories of fear. There is a fear that eating these GMO's can somehow harm us. And, there is the fear that the GMO's can harm the environment. I'll treat these in two paragraphs.

Risk to Humans: Eating GMO's should not cause you any direct harm by any means that I can think of as an -ologist. But, there is one study out there that looked at the digestive tracts of rats and found an effect. Of course, the GMO studied was modified to produce a toxin, and not intended for consumption, but that apparently was not considered a reasonable reason for the results observed. SWF is skeptical. The other worry is allergens. I suppose this one is possible, but I am not sure if it is any greater risk than any other food.

Risk to Environment: In SWF's mind there is a very real worry that GMOs could interbreed with other stocks and pass on traits such as chemical resistance to nuisance species such as weeds. GMO's could also harm the larger environment through examples such as a the monarch butterfly, which is apparently consuming pollen from b.t. corn, which is "insect-resistant", meaning it kills insects that try to eat it, much like a pesticide would (the pollen from the b.t. corn is landing on the milkweed and killing the insects that eat the milkweed). A third argument is that insects could develop resistance to GMOs defenses - this is the least valid argument in my mind as I figure the risk is the same with chemical methods such as pesticides.

GM foods should be safe if they are produced sensibly, like the strains are reproductively sterile, etc. I suppose this is the biggest issue, as most people just dont trust large corporations or the government to behave sensibly. For example, there was one case where GMOs were being used to produce antibiotic resistant crops, until doctors expressed a real concern about this given the worry about antibiotic resistance in humans.

So, should you eat GM foods? The reality is you probably already are. The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimate that 75% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain a GM ingredient, mostly in the form of the b.t. corn, and soybeans that are herbicide resistant.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Scientists as Hypocrites?

I cannot take credit for this piece about the conservation biologist's dilemma. It was sent to me by a grad student in our department. It is entitled "When Swordfish Conservation Biologists Eat Swordfish." You might enjoy it.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hip to Change?

I am afraid that when it comes to change, despite Obama's message and his momentum, people don't really give a rat's ass. At least, not when it comes to having to change yourself and your habits. I know this because I see it all around me. Cars are still big, and getting bigger. Gas is getting cheaper again (part of me is bummed about this). People are back to their same old habits.

My very wise friend suggested to me that it is because we have made people numb. We have hyped global warming and all of its possible outcomes to such an extent that people just cannot care anymore. If they think about it anymore, they will either 1) break down into tears, 2) become paralyzed with fear, or 3) go slowly crazy meticulously analyzing each of their actions and its complete carbon footprint, eventually ending up in the corner banging their head against the wall. It is actually hip to not care, in the way that it became PC to not be PC, in the way that I hear parents at my kid's [public] school say things like "it is so awesome we get to sing actual Christmas songs this year - it is about time they stopped letting a few people ruin it for the rest of us".

So, wise-friend said, we just need to make it hip for people to care. Hip in the way that carrying your own brand name water-in-a-bottle with you at all times, a bottle most wont even reuse even though tap water is just fine and costs like 99% less, is hip. Since 82% of those water bottles are not even recycled (according to the Sierra Club), we need to reach out somehow and get folks excited, not numb. Especially the folks who support a vice-presidential candidate that thinks that global warming is not a problem, it is all part of God's plan (just a little warning - God could be testing you, you know, to see if you are taking care of "His" earth. Given Noah's Flood and all, I am not so sure I would just blindy go through life thinking it will all be fine.). If you are bothering to read this, you probably already recycle. We need to hook the rest.

OK. Umm, how? Unfortunately, academics, especially scientists, are like the anti-hip. If there are ideas out there, I would love to know.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I'll take my fruit flies french, please...

Palin recently (Oct 24 speech, Pittsburgh, PA) condemned federal earmarks and in particular federally-funded fruit fly research that is being conducted in France, suggesting it was frivolous. Lots of you out there are aware of this. The scientific community was quick to respond (Science Magazine, 28 Oct), pointing out that those little fruit flies are an invasive species in California, and they cause a huge economic problem for the olive industry. The result is that the flies are controlled by insecticides, so the economic problem becomes the environment's problem. Research is being conducted in France because this is the fly's natural range - only here can researchers learn about what makes it thrive, or not, and what its natural enemies are. This was an unfortunate choice of examples on Palin's part because this research is vital to California's agriculture industry and overall economy. And, it demonstrated how little she understands about which she speaks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Packaging, packaging, everywhere

Science Mommy is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp.

I need my eldest child to eat healthy food during the day. School lunches frighten me. The menu is all brand names and most of them I recognize from the frozen food isle of the grocery store, like XX's "hot pockets". So, not just frozen. Fried, then frozen. What happened to good old mystery meat and Wednesday lasagna day? Ok, we hated it, but the lunch room ladies actually COOKED it! From raw ingredients.

Enter my dilemma. I feel l must send him with milk, fruit, a protein source, a grain (yes, I have been completely brainwashed by the concept of the food pyramid despite all those years of education!). All of these come in little packages. I tried getting small re-usable containers for a while and my ds kept throwing them out no matter how much I threatened him with corporal punishment and a world overflowing with parks turned into landfills.

So, I buy small cartons of milk that dont have to be kept cold (I love that these come in the organic variety), small containers of fruit in the healthiest varieties I can find (when we cannot get fruit in season), baggies or packages of crackers that the two of us can agree upon (precious few varieties), and usually a sandwich in another baggie. So much plastic, so little child!

I am a living contradiction. The scientist in me says there must be a better way! Surely I can reduce all the waste in this one little lunch box. The Mommy in me cannot seem to risk it. Ug, school lunches!

Styrofoam - Not All Its Puffed Up to Be

My City is considering a ban on styrofoam. They asked me for my opinion (someone appears to think I might know something - ha!). So, I did a little research...

So Styrofoam is a trade name, I think, and the real offender is polystyrene.

Yes, I personally think the stuff is really pretty bad, from a number of angles:

1) The production of "styrofoam" (= styrene) products produces by-products that are really very bad for the environment. The same is true of many (maybe most) plastics. To my mind, the most notable of these by-products, getting a lot of attention lately, are in a category called endocrine-disruptors. These are chemicals that mimic real hormones (the endocrine system), and cause it to go awry. The most well studied effects are those that mimic estrogen. This disrupts mating in many aquatic animals (aquatic ones because thats where the by-products eventually end up, in the water), because the natural hormonal cues are replaced by these synthetic ones. This has had the largest impacts on waterfowl, and reptiles (like gators). There is also the problem of fluorocarbons emitted during production, but those have already been slated for elimination by some year (2030? not sure on that date). To be fair, you will read styrofoam advocacy pieces that will, quite rightly, point out that on a pound-for-pound basis, styrofoam production is not nearly as bad as other plastics. This is because it is so light, so it takes a lot of styrofoam to have the same negative environmental impact as say, a PVC product (and PVC production is VERY bad in its by-products). Visualize a pound of styrofoam (enormous) and a pound of PVC (this is like irrigation pipe, so pretty small) and you'll get the gist of this. A little styrofoam can go a really long way. The pollution that each individual piece of styrofoam makes is quite small, as it is actually mostly air. So, to some, this makes it an ok choice for something like your "to-go" container at a restaurant. There is less plastic in the styrofoam container than a hard plastic one.

2) The litter! No other plastics seem to find their way into the environment post-production, as litter, in nearly the same way as styrofoam. It breaks down into those irritating little beads, and those persist for a really long time and find their way into positively everything. They collect on the ocean surface - there is a whole layer of them floating out in the tropical pacific. Is this bad? It is not clear. The environmentalists claim that fish and turtles eat the pellets, and die. To my knowledge, there is no real science indicating that this is true. It is true that we find lots of debris (plastic bags, styrofoam, etc.) in the stomachs of turtles that wash up dead, so they do appear to eat it. Is this what actually killed the turtle? We don't know. It is probably not a good thing, in any case, for this stuff to be floating out there. If any City is considering a ban on styrofoam this ought to be the underlying reason. If you ban it for health reasons, you really need to consider looking at all plastics.

3) It is difficult to recycle. Most places wont take it the way they'll take plastic bottles - so at least plastic bottles have the potential to be re-used Ok, there are lots of plastic bottles out there not being recycled (I read recently that 85% are not recycled!). But, the beads cannot even be picked up easily!. You can find places to take the packing peanuts and re-use them, if you to do the legwork yourself. But, a broken styrofoam cooler simply gets trashed - almost no one will turn that into a new product, because of the styrene.

4) Styrenes are downright bad for people. The styrene from your coffee cup or take-out container leeches into your food, particularly if the food is warm. If you re-heat the product in the microwave be especially wary. They've linked this to all kinds of health problems, largely similar to the endocrine-disruptor problem mentioned above. Lots of it is rather tenuous, but I reckon eating plastic just cannot be good for you either way. The same is true of other plastics in many cases - but the meltable nature of styrofoam seems to make it particularly problematic.

Keep in mind that there are good uses of styrene products. The EPS (something Polystyrene) "shock absorption system" in my children's car seats is none other than "styrofoam". It makes really good insulation for buildings and it is found in many homes (this is one of the re-use options for the stuff). So, I think you have to be careful how you word any sort of ban.

There are a few sources I can give you that I believe to be reputable. There are millions of hits on Google, but I am being quite careful where I send you, so that the sources are not too environmentally extreme. "Environmentalist" is a bad word in my world as much as it is to many politicians, for many of the same reasons. Environmentalists are viewed as extremists who will go to any end to further their cause - including touting very bad science as fact. This makes us scientists really uncomfortable.

Anyway, I think these are trustworthy sites.




Carbon Credits - A Winning Concept?

Carbon Credits. A nice idea. You invest in something "green" and "sustainable" to offset those activities in your life that are not so green or sustainable. As a concept, it is not bad. If it gets more money into the hands of people researching and developing truly "green" energy sources, it has to be good, right?

Here's my first issue with carbon credits...from where I sit, it appears that it really just allows people to continue to behave badly in terms of their lifestyle and subsequent carbon footprint. Rather than change their lifestyle, they can simply throw money at the problem. Ah, how American!

Here is my other issue with carbon credits...what do the "credits" go towards? I've run into two options recently, as examples.

First example: when you book a flight on one of the major travel websites (which I am not going to mention), you have the option of purchasing carbon credits to offset the environmental impact of your air travel. Just what are those credits? Where is your money going? I actually could not find out. This is worrisome because lots of carbon "schemes" are not a good solution! One of them involves trapping and sinking carbon dioxide into the ocean - another example of out of sight, out of mind. The issue is that more CO2 boosts the acidity of the ocean, and it does not take a lot of the stuff to leave a measurable change. Changing the acidity of the water changes how organisms extract the oxygen they need, how they are able to form shells for support, among other things. Ocean acidification is a big concern with global climate change - so why would we want to put more carbon dioxide into the ocean?

Another example: my bank offers a credit card that gives you carbon credits for every dollar spent instead of airline miles, or the other usual rewards. I had to admit, this was downright attractive. I looked into the group that was buying these credits for me with the dollars that I "donated" through my purchases. The money now goes towards small farms for generating wind energy (notice I said small), and methane-based energy production (that would be cow flatulence). Six months ago, when I checked the site and rejected the card as an option, the money went towards building sustainable agriculture practices that in my opinion were not at all sustainable. Now, I am happy to say I am reconsidering this card!

So, if you are conscientious about your carbon footprint, and using carbon credits to boost your actions, good for you! I say, just make sure those credits are really "credits", and not a feel-good scam. If you are using them as an excuse to continue to behave badly, I say stop patting yourself on the back (though I will still gladly take the money you are providing for the needed research).

Two carbon offset companies I like (there are others I am sure, but I was able to feel pretty good about these two):

Terra Pass (http://www.terrapass.com)

Native Energy (http://www.nativeenergy.com)

So, Terra Pass does include large scale wind farms that are not my favorite. The rest is small scale wind farms and methane capture from farms and landfills. You can even purchase offsets for a conference or some other event you are attending or organizing. Very cool.

Wind Energy - Not as Friendly as You Thought

Wind Energy-

Everyone around here is raving about this as a real solution to our depending on oil (notice I did not say foreign oil). Is it a good alternative? You'll have to read my previous post (right before this one) on once-through cooling at energy generating plants about how you determine if something is "good". It is a matter of balance, and if the pros outweigh the cons.

Pros of wind energy:
Relatively "Clean", meaning not a lot of waste is produced, especially CO2 waste
Uses wind, which is out there, blowing around, for free

Cons of wind energy:
Besides the decrease in production efficiency...
Have you driven by a wind farm???

Ok, so here is my rant. They put these things out in the desert largely, just miles and miles of windmills. It is just the desert, right? It is not like it is bothering anyone? Ok, it may not be bothering anyONE. But, it is definitely bothering THINGS. Yes, shockingly, even though we people do not like the desert so much as our preferred habitat, lots of other organisms like it quite a lot, thank you very much. So, you plop miles and miles of windmills on top of something's home, it is going to have an impact. Then, there are the miles and miles of transmission lines for getting the power to the places the people really do live. The biggest losers here are birds. Migratory birds, particularly the big predatory ones, aka "Birds of Prey", migrate along these wind corridors. Look at the base of a windmill and you are likely to find a pile of dead birds. And, bats. People are studying this, and I am not trying to demonize the wind energy people, because they are trying to make improvements. I just want folks to realize that nothing comes for free in this world. I think the pros probably outweigh the cons, but the cons exist. Wind energy just doesn't seem so "clean" anymore, does it?

A new idea floating around out there is wave energy. Same idea, fields of propeller like things, in the water instead of in a wind corridor. Now, unlike the desert, people like to live near the sea. I have a hard time seeing this ever coming to fruition in any area visible from the milllion dollar coastal homes. However, if it did ever get built, I fear for things like migrating whales, turtles, seabirds, and fishes with this scenario.

So, do I hate wind or even wave energy. No. As always, I just want folks to be informed, and to realize that there are costs associated with everything we use from the environment, even wind and waves. Nothing is for free. We have to be conscientious of the price, often one that is paid by something or someone else on our behalf. So, better to find ways to reduce our energy needs, making us more efficient, than to find alternative energy sources, I say.

Energy Dependency and The Alternatives

One of the projects I work on is a contract with Big State Agency Whose Name I Cannot Mention Here to investigate the ecological impacts of once-through cooling. Once-through cooling, in this instance, is when coastal power plants draw water from the ocean into the plant to cool the turbines, it passes once by the condensers, and then exits again. When the water enters the plant, it passes through some screens, and biological life is either trapped on the screen, or it is so small it passes through the screen. Impingement can be fatal, entrainment almost surely is fatal (but it has not been studied in great detail).

These are largely older plants, 50 yrs or so. The plants were largely supposed to be shut down, but our State's energy demands stymied that plan. They still will be phased out eventually, the question is...when. And, no new ones will be built. This has led to a lot of attention from environmental groups. Mostly about the fact that these plants are not shut down, and even though most are running at very low capacity, if at all, they could be turned on at any time (in theory). So herein lies the problem. Lots of larvae, in particular, are getting turned into a lovely seafood stew. Is this a big deal? Politicians, environmental groups, policy makers, they want to know. The world is black and white - is this good or bad?

Well, the rest of what I write here is my opinion (insert your favorite disclosure statement here...):

It is neither black or white, but grey, and the shade of grey changes depending on the situation. To say that a certain technology is good or bad depends on a couple of things: 1) what are the costs and the benefits of that technology?, and 2) does the alternative provide a better ratio of those two things?

Once through cooling kills millions to billions of larvae. What does this loss mean to the ecological community? We dont know for sure. We've spent a lot of dollars trying to figure that out. My gut feeling is that it is not too big a deal for most (not all) species out there. It is probably a big problem for a couple of species. But, for most species, a single female fish can produce millions of larvae. Does this additional loss pose a problem? Again, dont know...

Environmentalists want the plants to close; they want the plants to retrofit immediately to dry cooling. This would, absolutely, save the larvae. No doubt about that. At what cost? Dry cooling is really inefficient compared with wet cooling. You need a lot more towers to do the job, and do it less efficiently. So, we are looking at a bigger footprint of the power plant, less efficient energy production, likely a bigger air pollution contribution (there are studies out there about this and I am not bothering to look them up specifically right now), and that is just what I can think of off the top of my head in three seconds or less. I may ask my colleague to weigh in on this.

Tearing down and rebuilding the plant comes at a cost too. I once read a study about the practicality of buying a new energy efficient car just to be driving a car that is "greener". They calculated all the costs that go into making a car in the first place, the steel, the factory, and so on...looking at the total carbon footprint of making a car. They ended up concluding that it was far better to hold on to your present car and run it into the ground. I dont know if that is still true if you redo the math with the newest hybrids - but the point is still thought-provoking. If you tear down and rebuild, what is the total carbon footprint?

So, what is my point? Just remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost, in dollars, to the environment, and so on. There is lots of talk now about switching to cleaner fuels, being greener, and so on. I am totally in favor of this, but you have to have your eyes open and make sure that you know the costs associated with your "greener" solution.

A rant for later -

Wind Energy, Not As Friendly as You Thought


Buying Carbon Credits, Does It Really Balance Out Your (Irresponsible) Actions?