Agriculture Notes: Wooden Skyscrapers, Industrial Ag Comedy and Borlaug Statue

Norman Borlaug, considered an important figure (arguably the father of it) in the Green Revolution for his work in tailoring crops to specific regions of the world, had a statue of him installed in Statuary Hall this past Tuesday.  Statuary Hall is in the Capitol, and holds two statues for each of the fifty states.  Borlaug’s statue represents Iowa, and is one of the few scientists or technologists represented in the Hall (though few of the statues represent figures from the last 75 years).  Borlaug’s work has been recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

In other agriculture news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is contributing $1 million into a program to train architects, engineers and builders in the possibilities of advanced wood building materials.  In addition to this program, the Department is investing $1 million into a competition around advanced wood structures.  More details on that program will be available later in the year.

The Department has a strategy to promote wood as a green building material.  And as this Gizmodo article describes, advanced wood building products are far more resilient and fire-resistant than they used to be.  But building codes are tied to the old wood, and they could pose a bigger challenge to utilizing wood in buildings than educating builders, architects and engineers on the benefits of modern wood.

On a lighter (?) note, there is a new comedy available via the online media site Hulu.  It’s called Farmed and Dangerous and is focused on industrial agriculture.  There are just four episodes.  However, what struck me as much as the content was the sponsor – Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant that markets itself as using fresh and organic ingredients.  How the show was developed might be a more interesting story than the four episodes you can watch online.

Update Corner – Science In The Primaries, UCS Declares

Physicist and diploma mill warrior George Gollin lost his primary race for the U.S. House of Representatives in Illinois.  He placed second in the three-person Democratic primary held on March 18th.  I would not expect Gollin to announce any future plans until after the 2014 elections.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) completed its Most Science-Friendly President competition about a month ago.  While I have mixed feelings on the value of the exercise, I think it’s worth noting how the competition unfolded.

There were eight presidents selected for the competition: Lincoln, Eisenhower, Jefferson, Carter, Theodore Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, Kennedy and Nixon.

In the first round, Lincoln defeated Eisenhower, Carter prevailed over Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt beat George H.W. Bush and Nixon won over Kennedy.

In the semi-finals, Carter beat Lincoln and Roosevelt defeated Nixon.

The early 20th century prevailed in the final (despite an admitted UCS bias towards those Presidents who dealt with matters connected to pressing issues of today), with Roosevelt selected as the winner.  Given the focus in most science policy circles on post-World War II activities, this result could be considered a useful reminder that science policy in the U.S. certainly predates the establishment of all the agencies we usually think of when talking about the subject.

Of course, as I noted last month, what makes a ‘science-friendly’ president is not terribly clear-cut (see the comments on this UCS blog post for examples).  Even if agreement was reached on a definition, attributing the relevant accomplishments to a president can also be simplistic, if not inaccurate.

An interesting footnote to the discussion is this blog post from one of staff at the Union of Concerned Scientists responsible for the competition.  She notes that when following up with Richard Norton Smith, one of the historians that she consulted for the competition, he had changed his mind and offered John Quincy Adams as a president for consideration.  He cited advocacy for a national observatory and support for the Smithsonian Institution (post-Presidency, when Adams was in Congress) among the reasons he should be considered.

Yes, this has been an interesting thought experiment.  And to the extent that experiment can help uncover our biases with respect to science policy and history of the same, it’s an experiment worth repeating every so often.

Canadian Ministerial Reshuffle Leads To New Science Minister

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shifted several ministerial responsibilities.  The current Minister of State for Science and Technology, MP Greg Rickford, is one of the ministers with new responsibilities.  Aside from his science and technology responsibilities, Rickford was the Minister of Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, a position he kept when he was appointed as science and technology minister last year.

Minister Rickford will retain his Northern Ontario responsibilities, and will now assume the portfolio of the Minister for Natural Resources.  Taking his responsibilities for science and technology will be MP Ed Holder from Ontario.  Holder represents parts of London, Ontario, and has stood in Parliament since 2008.  His background is in insurance, where he established a successful brokerage company, and contributed time and resources to several charitable causes.  In other words, the appointment reflects the second-tier status the science minister holds within the Canadian government.

(To be fair, science ministers who are elected politicians in many other nations hold a similar status.)

Given the abject frustration felt by many in Canada about the government’s approach to its scientific and technical employees and other resources, the bright side to Minister Holder’s appointment appears to be that he is not openly antagonistic (based on his record so far).  But that reflects a bar that has been set directly on the ground.

Major Science Advice Conference Scheduled For New Zealand

The International Council for Science (ICSU) recently announced a major conference on high-level science advice.  It will take place in Auckland, New Zealand August 28 and 29.  It will be hosted by the New Zealand Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

(If you’re not following Sir Peter’s work and writings on science advice and science policy, you’re missing out.)

The announced panelists and speakers include chief scientists and/or chief science advisers from several countries and the European Union.  It’s a very impressive roster.  The conference is organised around five challenges:

The most recent development is the inclusion of a pre-conference symposium on science and diplomacy.  The focus is improving the integration of science and diplomacy and foreign affairs.

The conference is small, intended (I’m inferring) for senior level science policy advisors and policymakers.  I hope, and would encourage the organizers, to archive the presentations and discussions for future viewing and re-viewing.


Another Drip Into The Confirmation Cup – NSF Director

Seven months after her initial nomination, Dr. France Córdova was confirmed Wednesday night by the U.S. Senate as the new Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).  An astrophysicist by training, Dr. Córdova comes to the job from the Smithsonian Institution, where she was the Chairman of the Board of Regents.  She is also a member of the National Science Board.

Her experience as a current member of the Board means that she is more familiar than most with the current challenges facing NSF as Congress has been increasingly adversarial in its relationship.  The recent markup of NSF authorization legislation suggests a Congress that is unwilling to trust the Foundation (or is looking for eliminating discretionary spending wherever they think they can find political cover).

Welcome and congratulations, Dr. Córdova.  Good luck, you’re going to need it.

The Legislative Cycle Is On Repeat – Science Laureate Edition

Last week Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California introduced a bill establishing a science laureate.  This marks the second attempt by Rep. Lofgren in as many years to set up a national science spokesman-at-large.  The last one was taken off the fast track in the House due to concerns that it would be used to advance climate change policy.  Like a Senate bill introduced around the same time, the House measure went nowhere.

The new bill is similar to the previous legislation.  The major differences are in who would appoint the science laureate and how many could be appointed.  This time the National Academy of Sciences would appoint the laureate, rather than reviewing candidates for the President to choose from.  While both bills indicate there would be one laureate at a time serving a one-year term (which could be renewed), the previous bill allowed the President to appoint up to three laureates.

As these appear to be the only changes from last year’s bill, I’m not sure that the fate of this legislation will be any different from its predecessors.  As science issues in Congress continue to be the stalking horse for other concerns (the recent NIH pediatric research bill is a classic example), bills that are focused first on the scientific and technological enterprise will continue to die from lack of interest.

No We Still Don’t Have An NSF Director

Today in science and technology position news, we have an Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Kathryn Sullivan was finally confirmed yesterday, seven months after she was formally nominated to the position.  Sullivan has served as acting administrator since Jane Lubchenco left the post in February 2013.

Still no word on the confirmation dates for those in the lengthy backlog of science and technology nominees.  As the nomination of France Cordova for National Science Foundation Director is now seven months old, perhaps this will be the next position confirmed.  But the Senate confirmations this year have been scarce and irregular.

Physicist Candidate In Home Stretch Of House Primary Campaign

George Gollin, physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is in the final two weeks of the primary campaign for the 13th Congressional District (though early voting started yesterday).  There are two other candidates in the Democratic primary, and the current Representative, Rodney Davis, is expected to win the three-candidate Republican primary.

Gollin announced last summer.  He has some policy experience, having worked hard to break up some diploma mills (which probably explains some of the stringent objections to Gollin you might stumble across online).  It led to him trying to get diploma mill legislation passed in Congress, so he has already been disillusioned.  While he does not have the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), he did receive the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune (H/T ScienceInsider).  I have not been able to find any polling information on the Democratic primary, but funding reports indicate that Gollin has about half as much cash on hand as the DCCC-supported candidate.

Good luck to George.

Should Science Have Run The Keystone Editorial?

In the latest (February 21) edition of Science, editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey under President Obama, has an editorial (free, with registration) on the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the U.S. government has not yet decided to pursue (or not).  McNutt, in a reversal of her previous position, believes it should be approved.  Her rationale hinges on the capability of the U.S. government to extract concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers to ensure better environmental safety than transporting the oil via rail and truck.

McNutt is more than entitled to her opinion on the matter, as well as her own criteria for choosing the way that she has.  But I’m not sure this had any business being aired in the pages of Science.

My recollection of Science editorials is hardly comprehensive (especially since I am not a subscriber).  But I find it difficult to see why the pipeline extension is worthy editorial fodder for Science, certainly with how this editorial is written.

Science editorials have certainly been political, and have certainly made policy recommendations in the past.  I’ve even supported a scientific journal making a recommendation for political office – provided it was open and transparent about what it was doing.

But in all of these matters (again, based on the editorials I have read), there was some connection to the specific interests of the journal, its publishers, its readers, or the relevant scientific communities.

I don’t see any such connection in this editorial.

McNutt’s editorial is written from her individual perspective (the number of times I is used in the piece stood out for me).  Nothing in the editorial reflects her position as editor-in-chief nor concerns specific to the journal or its publisher, AAAS.  Her reasons for supporting the extension are conditioned on successfully obtaining concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers – a policy process that may have very little to do with relevant science.

Certainly an editor is expected to have some influence on the perspective of the publication she edits.  But that perspective should be connected to the mission of the journal or the interests of its readers.  Many readers of Science may agree with McNutt.  But I doubt that has anything to do with their membership in AAAS or interests in science and technology.

First 2014 Golden Goose Award Connects Black Holes And Web Browsers

February 20 – Edited to Correct the deadline for award nominations)

During the recent meeting of the organization formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the organizers of the Golden Goose Award held a symposium.  As part of the event the first award recipient of the 2014 cycle was announced.  (Nominations remain open until April 28 18.)  He will be recognized in September at the 3rd Golden Goose Awards Ceremony.

Larry Smarr was recognized for his efforts in computing.  Presently a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, Smarr was trained as an astrophysicist.  Working on gravitational physics research, Smarr recognized that the United States was behind in the availability of computing resources for academic research.  Through a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF), Smarr led the formation of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (one of four centers started from that initial proposal.)  He served as its founding director, and while at NCSA, created a software development group focused on applications for researchers.  From this group came Mosaic, the precursor to many of today’s widely used web browsers.

While it’s this web browser connection that supports the Golden Goose recognition, the work of Smarr and his colleagues in the formation of the centers speaks to another critical, if under-recognized, part of the science and technology enterprise.  Research infrastructure is one of NSF’s goals, but it’s not, to use the vernacular, sexy.  Scientists and technologists gather what recognition they get from discoveries and breakthroughs, not keeping the sensors, laboratories and other tools of the trades in working order.  But without that effort, how could the scientists and engineers seek out those discoveries and breakthroughs?  We need that effort, and I hope that doesn’t get overshadowed by the recognition of unexpected connections that drives the Golden Goose Award.