The Ventus Project is looking to get the public’s help in improving its information on power plant emissions. Apparently, the body of knowledge on existing power plants is not as well-developed as I would have expected. The public’s help is requested to provide locations of power plants, and if they have access, other information on the production and emissions of these plants.
The task involves adding the location of power plants (along with whatever additional information one has) to a Google Maps document. Not that other crowdsourcing projects are very technical in what they ask of participants, but adding virtual pins to a map strikes me as relatively simple.
If someone opts to register with the project when they provide information, they will be able to compete with other registered participants for a trophy and author credit on the paper the project members intend to publish on their work.
The resulting data will be combined with a NASA project involving atmospheric carbon dioxide data to refine both a high-resolution model of the global carbon cycle and associated tracking methods. There is certainly some risk in using crowdsourced information, especially anonymously submitted information. With the recent history of heightened scrutiny over greenhouse emissions data, models and research, it would seem nearly a certainty that those who do not wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will question the credibility of the submitted information.
How the Ventus project will test or demonstrate the reliability of submitted information is not obvious from the information linked to in this blog post. It is possible that such information cannot be effectively confirmed, and may not be usable in the project. Hopefully the Ventus team will be as open about that part of the project as it is in its interest in gathering public assistance.
Yesterday President Obama announced two nominees for recently open science and technology positions. Given the current Senate backlog on nearly everything, expect these two to be sworn in sometime this summer at the earliest.
Ernest Moniz has been nominated to replace Steven Chu as Energy Secretary. Moniz has been on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 40 years, and currently directs the Institute’s Energy Program. This will not be his first time at the Department, having served as Undersecretary of Energy from 1997 to 2001. He worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy for two years prior to his first stint at the Department of Energy.
Gina McCarthy, currently running the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Air and Radiation, was picked to serve as the new EPA Administrator. McCarthy came to the EPA in 2009 after decades of work in state environmental agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
It is likely that any opposition to the two nominees will focus on disagreement’s with the President’s strategies for energy independence and environmental protection. With the possible exception of new Secretary of State John Kerry, there have been hurdles for each major Obama Administration nominee this term. I don’t expect either Moniz or McCarthy to be an exception.
The recent pattern for nominees for Secretary of the Interior has been to select politicians from Western states. The nominee President Obama has named to replace current Secretary Ken Salazar (formerly a Senator from Colorado) does come from the West, but she is currently a CEO.
Earlier today the President announced he will nominate Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of the Interior. Ms. Jewell is currently CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., commonly known as REI. She has also worked in the oil industry as an engineer, and as a banking executive with an emphasis on energy use. She also enjoys climbing mountains, including one in Antarctica.
While the novelty and variety of her background is intriguing, given the Department’s issues with scientific integrity, I am interested in seeing how she might approach the issue. If she does at all.
Since the Senate still hasn’t figured out whether to confirm the President’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, I suspect this nominee will have to wait a while before a confirmation hearing.
The Department of Justice recently announced its plea agreement with Transocean Deepwater Inc. (Transocean), the contractor that operated the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on behalf of BP (H/T ScienceInsider). Deepwater Horizon failed spectacularly in a 2010 spill, and will be paying $1.4 billion in fines and penalties for violations of the Clean Water Act. Nearly three-quarters of the money in the agreement for BP were designated for various research and restoration efforts. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Academies received the bulk of this money.
The money Transocean must pay will also have set-asides for research, and the same entities are getting additional money. You can read the full agreement here. Transocean will pay the National Academies $150 million as part of the Academies’ 30-year program on health and environmental protection in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will also receive $150 million to support restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana.
The plea agreement is specific to the criminal violations. The civil settlement relates to fines under the Clean Water Act, and per legislation passed last year, eighty percent of the fine money will be committed to the five states of the Gulf region. (Ordinarily such fines would be pooled in a nationwide fund.) Those fines total $1 billion dollars.
The investigation into the spill continues, so there may be more agreements and settlements forthcoming. Whether research and restoration gets more of any additional money will depend on what the investigation finds.
As I suggested last week, now is traditionally the time (between the re-election of a President and the second inauguration) where many senior officials leave. Attention has been focused on two Cabinet secretaries, but the list of science and technology positions to replace has grown by one.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced earlier today that she will depart her post after the President’s State of the Union address early next year. Jackson and the EPA have often caught flack from all sides, which suggests to me that the Obama Administration will have a tough time finding a replacement. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jackson’s deputy, Robert Perciasepe, was eventually nominated after some indeterminate time as Acting Administrator.
I expect more senior science and technology appointees to announce departures over the next several weeks. I’d rather not guess who the departing will be. However, I am expecting it to take time for their replacements to be named. It seems as though the Administration had a good list to work from when they started, and weren’t able to keep it stocked as openings emerge. It’s too bad, given all the praise of a ‘scientific dream team’ to see it fall back to earth.
Photographer James Balog appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman last night. I should have included him in this week’s Late Night listings, but didn’t quite make the connection between Balog’s photography and his work on the Extreme Ice Survey. Balog also has a documentary, Chasing Ice, making the rounds.
The appearance spent a lot of time on climate change, arguably Letterman’s favorite scientific topic (and I’d say of far more interest to him than to the leaders in late night science and technology, Colbert, Stewart and Ferguson). The CBS website has video of the full episode and a clip from the Balog interview. (They won’t be up for too long, and may be restricted to those viewers from within the U.S.) I’ve embedded the YouTube edition (uploaded by CBS) below.
This clip is not the full segment, so you may wish to seek out the full episode. Balog is the second guest, following Billy Crystal.
Letterman has been concerned with climate change for a long time, which is likely why Dr. John Holdren has been on his program twice (once before becoming presidential science adviser, once after). He’s pretty sure we’re screwed, and his doubts about the efficacy of solutions suggested by Balog made for more back and forth than one might expect after midnight on the television.
Over the last few years, I’ve posted about the attempts to address shortages in both rare earth elements and medical isotopes. In each case shifts in policies and markets have placed the United States in a position where it must rely on foreign sources for both the nuclear isotopes critical to many medical tests and several elements critical to electronic components. In an era of competing priorities and decreasing legislative output, bills addressing each problem never got to the President’s desk.
That may change, due to a time-honored tactic – sticking the language into a vital piece of legislation. In this case we are talking about the Defense Authorization bill, which has passed both houses and is now in the hands of a conference committee. This committee was created to resolve differences in language between the House and Senate versions of the legislation. It may go to the President’s desk within a week.
The American Institute of Physics has the details on language introduced by both houses on both issues. For rare earth elements, there is language directing the Defense Department to prepare a report on dealing with how to recover fluorescent lighting waste. If this happens, perhaps a next generation of home light bulbs can benefit from the outcome. The Senate edition has an amendment directing the executive branch to better coordinate its efforts in finding new techniques and sources for such elements. For medical isotopes, the Senate version of the bill directs the Secretary of Energy to evaluate and support efforts to establish domestic production capacity in medical isotopes. The House version does not appear to have medical isotope legislation.
Once the bill is approved by the conference committee, and signed by the President, we can see what nudge for these materials survives to become law.
The recent judgment announced in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill has some research-related set-asides, as ScienceInsider notes. Specifically, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation expects to receive nearly $2.4 billion of the $4 billion fine, which they intend to use in various ecological restoration projects. The Foundation was created by Congress in the 1980s for this kind of work, but the part of the settlement they expect to receive dwarfs the roughly $23 million the Foundation spent on Gulf restoration projects since the 2010 spill, and the $128 million spent on Gulf restoration projects since the early 1990s. Those wishing to dive into the specifics of the plea agreement relevant to the Foundation’s share of the settlement can read them here. The funds are designated for projects in those states most affected by the spill.
Another chunk of the $4 billion settlement is directed to the National Academies in order to establish a long-term research program focused on human health and environmental protection in the Gulf of Mexico. The Academies will administer a $350 million fund to conduct studies, programs and other activities
“to advance scientific and technical understanding to enhance the protection of human health and environmental resources in the Gulf Coast region including issues concerning the safety of offshore oil drilling and hydrocarbon production and transportation in the Gulf of Mexico and on the United States’ outer continental shelf. The program will also aim to contribute to the development of advanced environmental monitoring systems.”
While not explicitly stated in the press release, it seems likely that the program activities will be conducted by relevant units of the Academies, building on the five reports the Academies have released to date on various aspects of the oil spill. The plan is for these activities to take place over a 30 year period. This the four-year length of the National Institutes of Health long term study on the spill seem positively speedy.
This is not the extent of the research and restoration that BP funds are supporting. The Gulf of Mexico Research Institute has been promised $500 million, and civil fines due to violations of the Clean Water Act should funnel several billion dollars to research and restoration projects. This is above and beyond the $4 billion recently announced.
Of course, there was an incredible cost – in lives, property and other losses – that prompted this research money. It would seem that’s the most effective motivator for long-term study of drastic changes to ecosystems. Of course, it helps to have a culpable party to foot the bill. Don’t expect similar things to come from the aftermath of storms like Katrina or Sandy.
Baba Brinkman’s latest Off-Broadway production, Ingenious Nature, is in previews at the Soho Playhouse. It is scheduled to run Wednesday-Sunday each week until early in January. Schedules are subject to change, so make sure to check with the theater before heading to Manhattan.
It may tread some of the material from Rap Guide to Evolution, but this isn’t a retread. While still a ‘theatrical mixtape’ the show is described on the theater website as something a bit closer to a play than a performance.
“Everyone’s looking for love, or sex, occasionally even both. The science of evolutionary psychology claims to explain why, and how, this state of affairs came about. But can it help us find the right one? A young man decides to take the “science of mating” seriously in his personal quest for true romance. Will the theory work in practice? It turns out, ovulation studies can make for awkward first-date conversation. Ingenious Nature is a new theatrical mix-tape from Baba Brinkman, creator of The Canterbury Tales Remixed (“Delightful!” The New York Times) and The Rap Guide to Evolution (2011 Drama Desk Award Nominee).”
Brinkman has a few additional details on his website:
“In the show I go on a series of dates with women I meet through OK Cupid (a dating website), while using evolutionary psychology as a roadmap to help understand the conflicts of interest and personality-clashes that ensue. Will I find a match worthy of parental investment? I date a creationist and explore the “behavioural immune system” theory of social conservatism, and a new-age yoga instructor teaches me about the seven chakras, which turn out to have a loose correlate in the psych lit as well. Putting theory into practice is wild ride when it comes to the science of mating.”
Via Brinkman’s Twitter feed, it seems the show is set up to display Tweets and texts during the performance. I have no idea how that fits into the show, but it might be interesting to see.
So, if this interests you, act fast. The show is scheduled to close in early January, meaning you have about six weeks, including holidays, to plan your trip.
There’s a proposition on the California ballot (37 for those keeping score) that would require the labeling of food from plants or animals that contain genetic material changed in specified ways (two kinds of method are listed in the measure – cell fusion and in vitro nucleic acid techniques). Many countries require labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, so for once California will not be legislating new science-oriented public policy if the measure passes (not a likely outcome at the moment, but there’s still a week until the election).
The Board of Directors for AAAS has weighed in with a statement (H/T The Scientist) that emphasizes the advocacy in its mission and I think downplays the scientific ethos it claims to support. It starts with how the Board characterizes the initiative, and similar labeling efforts – as a means of demonstrating foods with genetically modified organisms to be unsafe or untested. This notion is strenuously rebuffed in the statement, and I’m not interested in debating the point. Personally, I don’t object to eating genetically modified food.
But I would love to know when I’m eating it and when I’m not.
Much in the same way that I’d like to avoid certain nuts, flavors, or other ingredients that have little or no connection to the potential health impacts. Come on, I want to know when I’m having the donuts fried in lard rather than those fried in canola oil (it matters, seriously).
The notion of other, reasonable justifications for labeling the constituent parts of food is not considered or addressed by AAAS. To their narrow point of view, labeling is only done for purposes of safety, and since safety has been definitively proven, genetically modified food doesn’t need to be labelled.
Frankly, I think a lot of agitation over this issue could be effectively quelled by being in favor of transparency, and open information. I was under the impression this was a good scientific practice. Continue reading