science policy

Geoengineering Scientists and Congress

(From Left to Right)
Dr. David Keith
Dr. Philip Rasch
Dr. Klaus Lackner
Dr. Robert Jackson

Geoengineering is a wonderful example of taboo science. Most people would fall within 2 camps. Camp 1 considers geoengineering with disdain as it mucks with the natural environment. Camp 2 probably wouldn’t want their government involved in planetary climate control. With those entrenched camps where do scientists fit in?

Scientists were called as witnesses before The House Subcommittee on Energy & Environment last week in regards to geoengineering. The witnesses invited were…

  • Klaus Lackner (Geophysics,
    Earth and Environmental Engineering): Covering CO2 sequestration
  • Robert Jackson (Biology): Covering Biological and Land Strategies to lower CO2
  • Philip Rasch(Atmospheric Science but a chemist by training): Calling for a Manhattan project type approach to researching geoengineering
  • David Keith (Chemical and Petroleum Engineering): Mainly advocating that some sort of global policy towards geoengineering needs to be developed. The most sane and coherent witness; scientists don’t usually fair well before politicians.

So why care about taboo science? The simple matter is that it would cost 1-2 billion a year to return the planet to pre-industrial levels of temperature, assuming they use cheap sulphates to do the job. This means any number of nations, frankly any wealthy cohort of industrialists, can take climate control into their own hands.

Since geoengineering is a delicate subject to broach to the public, transparency is crucial and wasn’t loss on the chairman Brian Baird (D-WA). Congressman Baird mentions how some citizens believe their government is placing psychotropic drugs in jet fuels, the so called chemtrails and remarked “…legitimate scientific research [in geoengineering] must not get tied up in these kind of things.”

However, all the scientists were taken aback by Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), my favorite exchange was the following.

Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)

Randy Neugebauer, “What percent of the atmosphere is CO2?”
Scientist, “390 parts per million”.
Randy Neugebauer, “Less than one tenth of one percent…This tiny minuscule amount…[can’t] be more important factor in our climate than solar activity”.

I’m not even sure where to begin to broach such a deep misunderstanding of climate change. I would have mentioned to Mr. Neugebauer that he would be dead if that minuscule amount of CO2 was removed from the atmosphere, as all plants would die followed by animals in short order. The concept of small amounts having huge impacts in large dynamic systems is an important lesson to teach, even more so to do it dexterously. These types of exchanges went on for some time. I’m left wondering why Randy Neugebauer is even on the Subcommittee on Energy & Environment in the first place.

The ranking Republican, Bob Inglis (R-SC), had this to say in his last remarks, “I believe in a basic role of government is to do basic research, its an important function that we do.” It is nice to know that basic science research is appreciated by both sides, even though there is always a rogue member in every committee.

Press Release: Subcommittee Examines Geoengineering Strategies and Hazards


By February 8, 2010 10 comments science policy

ARPA-E Gets a Congressional Hearing

(From L to R)
Dr. Arun Majumdar
Dr. Chuck Vest
Dr. Anthony Atti
Mr. John Denniston
Dr. John Pierce

ARPA-E is one of the newest funding programs at the Department of Energy. It was authorized in 2007 with the passage of the America COMPETES Act, but was only funded when The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was passed with an initial $400 million. ARPA-E is unique in that its first Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) was kept broad and only asked for 8-page proposals for high-risk but high-reward “transformational” technologies. Yesterday (Wednesday) in the House Committee on Science and Technology ARPA-E was examined, the chairman for the hearing was Bart Gordon (D-TN).

Arun Majumdar, the current director for ARPA-E, gave several examples why federal funding is necessary for energy research and used a graph on worldwide shipments of solar photovoltaic cells to make his point that America is losing its edge in energy technologies.

Arun also gave some metrics on the ARPA-E awards. 3,700 concept papers were received. Only 340 were invited to write a full proposal. 37 projects were selected and $151 million was pegged for those projects. 45% went to small business, 35% went to educational institutions, and 20% to large industries. Also mentioned was the start of their Fellows Program for recent PhD students interested in energy/policy.

John Pierce, the vice president of DuPont Applied BioSciences, gave a statement that called for “external advisory panels” to guide the perspective of the ARPA-E agenda. Which sounds like something industry would want.

Link to more information on the hearing: Program to Foster Innovation in Energy Technologies Is Off to a Promising Start

Link to ARPA-E: Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy


By January 28, 2010 1 comment science policy

Obama & Science Education

obama robot ball machine

Student science geeks will be going to the White House, that is what caught my attention from Obama’s remarks on his “Education To Innovate” campaign delivered Monday. Student winners in national competitions in science, technology, and robotics will be eligible to display their know-how to Obama at a White House science fair. The exact dates and times were not announced, but it is nice to know that White House visits will not be limited to athletes.

A list of some of his other initiatives is given below.

  • National Lab Day: Is an attempt to get scientists into local schools to help with demos and fieldtrips. I just signed up and would suggest you take a look at it too. [Link]
  • overview_potato_kid
  • Connect a Million Minds: Is a project running through Time Warner. The website is very vague and seems to mention robotics and has a sign up sheet, but detailed specifics on what they are planning is not forthcoming from their webdesign. The picture of a potato-grape molecule is interesting though. [Link, ie only apparently]
  • STEM Video Game Design Competitions: A competition to make the best STEM video game. [Link]


By November 23, 2009 3 comments science policy

Maz Goes Politician

Ever since the budget crisis began here in California, Mitch and I have debated how we would fix the problem if we were in positions of power. While we had some pretty great, and pretty terrible ideas, we soon stopped wondering what we would do in hypothetical situations and began to wonder how we could actually make a difference. Well, we decided to begin stepping into the world of politics; hoping to influence policy decisions that affect scientists and chemists for a start.

Enter ACR 88, a bill introduced by assembly members Torlakson (D-Martinez) and Furutani (D-Carson) in California.

The bill creates the California Task Force on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (Task Force) to promote the improvement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education across the state. The task force would generate discussion on policy that would improve the teaching of those subject areas for California’s K-12 students. It has no fiscal impact (the task force members are not paid).

You see, currently a full third of the 4th graders and a fifth of the 8th graders in the nation can’t preform basic computational math, and US high school seniors recently tested below the international average (out of 21 countries) in math and science.

Out of this poor group, take the fact that California ranked 46th (against other states) in math proficiency and 42nd in science proficiency on recent 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

And it still gets better. More than 50 percent of California 4th and 8th grade students scored below the basic level in science and 40% ranked below basic in math as determined by NAEP.

Given these statistics, it becomes obvious that California needs to drastically rethink it’s teaching methods and policies for K-12 math and science. As energy production, global warming, water purification and other scientific issues become more common to the 10 o’clock news, and therefore more salient in the public mind, we need to also focus on preparing the coming generations for the problems we are going to leave them. Also, the United States Department of Labor has recently shown that math or science preparation will be crucial to successfully competing for a job in 15/20 of the fastest growing occupations right now.

The President is also focusing national attention on scientific research, innovation, and math and science education. In a speech at the National Academies on April 27th, President Obama promised to make U.S. students the international benchmarks in the next decade by doubling budgets at certain science and technology agencies, policy change to enhance math and science education, and beginning to allot more than 3% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to research and development. Obama said he wants to involve everyone from governors to parents to students to help increase support for science and technology and the quality of teaching. Supposedly 5 billion dollars is available in federal funds to help states improve their math and science teaching.

This is well and good, but throwing money aimlessly at the issue won’t solve anything. Bills like ACR 88, creating task forces to investigate effective policy change and inform the legislators, are the correct first step to tackling science and math education reform.

If any of you readers live in California, I urge you to write to your assemblyperson telling them that you believe we need science and math education reform and that you want them to support ACR 88. For any of you that are ACS members, they made it supremely easy for you. Simply go to and enter the relevant information. They will automatically send it to the correct representative for your district depending on your address. In fact, they even wrote the letter for you too!

Comments PLEASE. As a California public school survivor for my entire academic life, I have been through (and seen the failings) of the system first hand. I have some ideas on how to fix the issue, but I want to hear from ppl not in California too. Leave your two cents on what needs to be done to improve K-12 science and math education. Move calculus to required at 10th grade? do away with optional general physical sciences and the like? make everybody take biology followed by chemistry and then physics? in that order? what about elementary school? when to start teaching the scientific method? If 5th graders get sex. ed., should they also get newton ed.?

Lets see your ideas.

By August 25, 2009 8 comments chemical education, science policy