Add Another Element to that Precious Substance List

The recent shortage of medical radioisotopes that I’ve posted about has raised my feelers for similar things.  Steve Coll, writing in The New Yorker, relates a story of yet another important element that is running scarce that most people don’t give a first thought, much less a second.  The element in question is not nuclear, not strictly biological and not strictly energy-oriented.

It’s phosphorus.  As Coll notes, the scarcity of this element is exacerbated by the increasing use of fertilizer.  The 2008 rise in fertilizer prices give some indication of what might happen as demand for phosphorous increases.  It might take a few food price spikes to prompt appropriate responses.  While recycling of phosphorous makes sense, and is probably on the drawing board somewhere.

I take Coll and the researcher he cites, James Elser at Arizona State, at face value about the staggering lack of information on global supply and usage of phosphorous.  With scarcity becoming a factor with more and more elements, it seems prudent to try and measure and fill these information gaps as best as possible.  With the new attention given to research at the Department of Agriculture, perhaps they are a good place to start a campaign to better know our phosphorous.

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UK Scientists Get Another Shot to Vent at Science Ministers

The second of a series of cross-party science policy debates in the U.K. is scheduled for January 13.  The first one took place last November, and the debates are happening in advance of a Parliamentary election expected to take place sometime this spring.  I could only find limited coverage of the last debate, which seemed to cram in a lot of topics in a limited time.  Since there were three participants, it was even harder to get terribly in depth on any particular issue.  I suspect the same thing will happen next week.  Perhaps the poll I mentioned yesterday will come up.  I certainly expect that questions about impact criteria will be on the minds of the attendees, if not on the mind of the moderator, Roger Highfield from New Scientist.

I’d certainly encourage people to attend the debate.  I have no indication that it will be recorded, or whether it will receive significant attention in the press (outside of New Scientist).  I think these kind of events are good, but have limited impact or appeal.  They certainly seem to be much more substantive than any similar debate could in the United States, but science is not a high political priority, nor an issue that compels widespread attention, in either country.