Fusion: Pro and con
The two articles in the Summer 1997 Issues on the future of the proposed International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) program–“The ITER Decision and U.S. Fusion R&D,” by Weston M. Stacey, and “Fusion Research with a Future,” by Robert L. Hirsch, Gerald Kulcinski, and Ramy Shanny–reflect the opposing arguments in a debate that we in Congress will have to join, beginning in 1998. Either we put all our eggs in the tokamak basket or we abandon the tokamak design to pursue alternatives. I don’t believe we have to make that stark choice.
I write as a strong supporter of DOE’s restructured fusion program. My bill, the Department of Energy Civilian Research and Development Act of 1997, increased the authorization for the fusion program by $15 million over the president’s request and included the $55 million requested for ITER-related activities in FY 1998. This bill passed the House Science Committee with strong bipartisan support.
Weston M. Stacey is right when he says that the arguments for federal support of fusion research are compelling. It’s also fair to say that the current program drastically cuts back on the vision of this program 10 and even 5 years ago. Although I and others in Congress support ITER, Stacey is unrealistic in advocating the commitment of billions of U.S. dollars for the construction phase of ITER at this time. It has been hard enough to maintain level funding for basic scientific research as we move toward a balanced budget. The fact is that the Clinton administration has consistently shortchanged basic science funding in order to increase funding for marketing development and promotional activities that are more politically attractive.
A massive increase in funding for ITER now would only crowd out other important science programs, such as the scientific user facilities at our national laboratories. For example, I recently had to fight to restore funding for user facilities at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which had been cut in the administration budget request.
The article by Robert L. Hirsch et al. makes the good point that, under the current budget climate, we would be foolish to ignore research on alternative fusion concepts that may lead to a cheaper, more practical use of fusion power. However, it would be wrong to abandon our ITER commitment at this time to pursue alternatives. At the $240-million authorized level for fusion in the House bill, there are adequate funds to pursue alternative concepts. We should also remember, however, that good science is being produced in tokamak experiments such as the DIII-D at General Atomics in San Diego. It would be just as foolish to throw away the fruits of those scientists’ work as it would be to ignore the alternative concepts.
Congress is committed to completing U.S. participation in the ITER design phase. In 1998, the administration, Congress, and, perhaps most important, Europe and Japan, will have to start making the hard decisions on where we go from here and how to pay for it. Until that happens, I believe that a broad-based policy of support for all these elements of the fusion program is the best way for U.S. taxpayers to get the most for their limited funds.
Weston M. Stacey’s article is an enthusiastic recapitulation of all the promises of the fusion concept and stresses the value of U.S. participation in the proposed ITER program. The article by Robert L. Hirsch, Gerald Kulcinski, and Ramy Shanny is a more realistic recognition of the uncertainty of fusion technology and a plea for more scientific creativity in developing alternatives to the ITER tokamak concept.
Unfortunately, Stacey’s premises for justifying federal support are factually misleading. (1) The fuel supply is not “virtually unlimited” because the availability of lithium, which is essential in the deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel cycle, is similar to the availability of uranium-ample now, but finite. (2) The contention that the tokamak concept might eventually compete with advanced nuclear fission and fossil plants is wishful thinking that ignores the reality of the tokamak’s complexity and size, arising from its plasma and engineering requirements, as compared with those of a fission or fossil plant. Today’s estimate by fusion enthusiasts of the capital cost of the ARIES tokamak plant is at least three times that of a nuclear fission plant, and experience suggests that it is likely to be much greater when the real costs of fabricating the complicated magnet, heat-transfer, containment, and maintenance systems are included. (3) Finally, the environmental benignity of fusion is a matter of degree, only slightly better than fission, and neither is as environmentally attractive as solar sources. The radioactive wastes from both need similar custodial attention during the initial century. Fusion does not produce fission products or plutonium, but it does produce tritium, and both are hazardous materials, although plutonium is of more concern in the weapons area.
It is unfortunate that the fusion community has perpetuated the myth that fusion is a foreseeably practical end-game for our energy resources. With the present concept, it certainly is not. It is, of course, a fascinating scientific experiment and should be evaluated and supported in that light. Stacey presents ITER as a test facility and thus a step toward the successful development of fusion. ITER might test some parts of the tokamak concept, but this will not be sufficient for a practical plant design. U.S. participation in such an international facility is a political as well as technical matter.
Hirsch, Kulcinski, and Shanny recognize the uncertainty of tokamak fusion as a national energy source. It is time for the fusion community to acknowledge this reality, so that the public is not further misled and the politicization of this area of science is not continued. The public and Congress have become increasingly cynical about the intellectual integrity of the physics community, and fusion is a case in point. In this regard, the Hirsch, Kulcinski, and Shanny article is a step toward reevaluating the appropriate role of fusion research in our national science programs.
Weston M. Stacey’s article defending the brilliance of and need for the ITER tokamak program can best be put into perspective by noting that its author has been the chairman of the ITER Steering Committee for the past seven years. No matter how unpromising and wasteful the ITER effort, it would be very surprising to find him critical of the program that has provided such a good living for so long!
Robert L. Hirsch, Gerald Kulcinski, and Ramy Shanny’s article is less self-serving . It is certainly correct in its recommendation that ITER be abandoned, but it exhibits a touching naiveté in its closing argument that the present budget should be retained to support a redirected research effort. The naiveté lies in their unstated assumption that such redirected budgets would be spent in intelligent ways; history provides no hope of this, I fear. None of the numerous past studies or workshops run by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Magnetic Fusion Office, ostensibly held to consider new “alternative” or “advanced” concepts for fusion, have ever resulted in new and hopeful directions. All have been used to shore up the fatally flawed big tokamak program by excluding any new ideas for small, quick, and simple fusion that might threaten the big budget base of the main program.
Because preservation of the budget base (not fusion success) is the program rationale, it is clear that a national fusion program can be saved only if the current budget is reduced to zero as swiftly as possible. Then the program can be restarted with wholly new directions (and new management at DOE headquarters and the DOE labs) toward concepts that really do offer small, quick, clean, and cheap fusion power systems-if they work. No other R&D should be allowed. If no such concepts can be identified within the DOE framework, there should be no DOE program in fusion. Rather, the national effort should solicit and support such concepts directly in private industry by using a combination of guarantees of future markets, cost-matching grants, and prizes for defined levels of technical and economic success. This apparently draconian approach simply reflects the fact that the present DOE fusion program management and the lab direction of R&D activities have shown repeatedly that they will not pursue new directions but will fight to continue more of the same big ugly tokamaks.
Once a Tokaturkey, always a Tokaturkey. The Gothic cathedral builders built to the glory of God; these technological cathedral builders build to the god of Mammon (as revealed through research and retirement, using science as pork). But members of Congress are not as stupid as DOE bureaucrats and fusion physicists (and their managers) think them to be, as evidenced by Congress’ continuing reduction of the program budget for the past 17-plus years. It is now at a level less than twice that (in real dollars) at which it started in 1972, when Drs. Hirsch, Alvin Trivelpiece, and Stephen Dean, and I sold its 20-fold escalation to a Congress driven by the Arab oil crisis.
Sic transit gloria mundi. Kill the present program and start over.
Weston M. Stacey and Robert L. Hirsch, Gerald Kulcinski, and Ramy Shanny express views for and against the construction of ITER. Stacey likes ITER because it “is . . . a major step toward a safe and inexhaustible energy supply for humanity: practical power from fusion.” On the contrary, say Hirsch et al., “D-T tokamaks, as we understand or envision them today, simply do not afford a workable approach to commercial fusion power.” I believe that both articles have elements of truth, but both have a limited perspective.
Stacey’s arguments for ITER are excellent but do not give proper recognition to the fact that the electricity generation marketplace is even more competitive today than in the past, and is becoming more competitive each day. The fusion community has not come up with a game plan that shows how they can compete in that marketplace with their current tokamak concepts. To expect the world’s governments to ante up $10 billion for ITER, in today’s fiscal and energy market environments, may be asking too much.
Hirsch et al. do not give proper recognition to the very large uncertainty about what the marketplace will actually look like in 20 to 50 years. Today’s market is dominated by cheap, available fossil fuels. But various environmental or political realities could deal a death blow to the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation at a moment’s notice. There are scenarios in which the tokamak doesn’t look so bad: for example, if neither fossil nor nuclear energy sources are socially acceptable. Further, Hirsch et al. offer no concrete alternative to the tokamak, though they urge that such an alternative be aggressively sought.
Over the past year, the U.S. fusion program has been shifting the funding balance in its portfolio to be more along the lines advocated by Hirsch et al., leaving to Japan and Europe the decision about whether ITER is affordable. My view is that if Japan and Europe decide to build ITER, the United States should seek a special appropriation and try to be an equal partner, because there is much good science and technology to be done by ITER, and participation would give the United States high leverage on its investment. Within its domestic budget, however, the United States should more aggressively pursue concept improvements that would allow fusion to be a winner in the U.S. marketplace.
Although the articles by Weston M. Stacey and by Robert L. Hirsch et al. present totally different views on the recommended future direction of fusion research, they do agree on two points. Both insist that fusion reactors will be of great future benefit to mankind. And both see this vision as justification for continued and generous funding of fusion R&D by the U.S. government. This logic is hardly new, having been used for decades to justify the fusion research program.
Stacey’s lengthy appeal is often repetitive and exaggerated. He bemoans the fact that funding for the U.S. fusion program has been steadily decreasing, and he wonders why. There are good reasons. A half-century of research effort has mostly revealed that the physics conditions for creating an energy producing plasma are extremely difficult to achieve, and the closer one comes to that goal, the more difficult it is to reach. Most devastating is the fact that it is now recognized that even if the physical conditions are achieved, engineering obstacles prevent the practical application of fusion to commercial electricity generation (Physics Today, March 1997, pp. 15, 101, and 102).
Hirsch, Kulcinski, and Shanny argue for an entirely new approach. Having given up on the use of the D-T reaction, which is certainly the most favorable from both the physics and engineering standpoints, they talk vaguely of “advanced fuel cycles.” All fusion fuel cycles are known and each has its special problems and disadvantages. They imply that imaginative research will discover a new plasma confinement scheme that will finally lead to successful applications. And they suggest that greater hope lies with some other unspecified application based on the use of fusion-produced neutrons, protons, or alpha particles. It is hard to imagine any such application that cannot be served readily today by fission reactors and particle accelerators.
Fusion research should be regarded as a legitimate scientific endeavor and should receive funding appropriate to that objective. But the time has come to stop promoting a massive R&D program with the objective of providing a “limitless benign power source,” which fusion cannot offer, or doing so through some other application that remains unknown.
The two articles by Weston M. Stacey and Robert L. Hirsch, Gerald Kulcinski, and Ramy Shanny provide an informative overview of the serious concerns about fusion R&D as the momentous decision approaches on whether to proceed with construction of ITER. Stacey is an avid supporter of ITER; Hirsch and his colleagues believe it is a waste of time and money. In our view, Hirsch, Kulcinski, and Shanny’s article is the more reasonable of the two.
It is certainly true that DOE’s fusion R&D program has become narrowly and inappropriately fixated on tokamak reactors. From what is known to date, tokamaks are extremely expensive, scientifically unproved, technologically challenging, and would generate significant amounts of radioactive waste. After 40 years and $14 billion of taxpayer-funded research, DOE has no idea when or if commercial fusion power will be available.
Moreover, some scientists believe that the problems related to tokamak technology are virtually insurmountable. William Dorland and Michael Kotschenreuther of the Institute of Fusion Studies at Austin have developed a physics-based model that suggests that plasma turbulence will prevent ignition and the sustainable reaction needed to create fusion power. Indeed, DOE’s Fusion Energy Science Committee released an assessment in April 1997 acknowledging that the difficulty of confining plasma may prevent ITER from achieving its design goals.
Hirsch, Kulcinski, and Shanny are correct-the United States should not allocate any additional money for ITER. The project is losing support throughout Europe; and Japan, the only country interested in providing a site for ITER, is in a severe budget crisis that is forcing a delay in any large scientific project for the next three years. In addition, because the United States and other international partners are not willing to contribute sufficient resources to build the estimated $10-billion facility, Japan would have to provide the majority of the funding; an unlikely prospect.
The large amount of R&D money spent on magnetic fusion, primarily related to tokamaks, competes with funding for renewable energy resources that are more cost-effective and have a much greater chance of providing energy in the near term. Last year, Congress appropriated $232 million for magnetic fusion (primarily tokamak-oriented) and $240 million for initial confinement fusion for weapons stockpile stewardship activities; a total of $472 million for FY 1997. In contrast, the entire renewable energy budget (including solar, wind, hydrogen, geothermal, and biomass) for FY 1997 was $266 million.
The excessive funding for tokamak-based fusion is disproportionately high in comparison to the numerous and diverse renewable sources available and creates competition between the two programs for scarce federal dollars within the energy R&D budget. Magnetic fusion should be funded as a basic science program, not as energy-supply R&D. And Hirsch, Kulcinski, and Shanny are mistaken in their belief that fusion research, even if oriented toward alternative concepts and fuels, requires more than $200 million a year.
DOE should phase out its tokamak reactors and fund a modest alternative program oriented toward basic science research. It should abandon the ITER project to those countries, if any, that are willing to pay an exorbitant cost for a high-stakes gamble that may never pay off. The United States and its international partners should increase their commitment to sustainable energy resources, which can provide a greater proportion of the world’s energy needs. Lawrence Lidsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a former fusion researcher, expressed our conviction when he noted that “It is hard to make an economically based argument for fusion. You can’t justify it, especially as other sources of energy look better and better. The only fusion reactor we need is already working marvelously-it’s conveniently located a comfortable ninety-three million miles away.”
Investing in R&D
Let me begin by saying that I have the highest respect for Congressman George E. Brown, Jr. Over the years, he has demonstrated a tireless commitment to federal science and technology (S&T) activities, and those of us in Congress who care deeply about science and research owe him a debt of gratitude.
I disagree, however, with Brown’s views about the budget, taxes, and the economy as they relate to S&T (expressed in “An Investment Budget,” Issues, Summer 1997). Congress and the president recently reached agreement on a historic plan to balance the federal budget, eliminate the deficit, and provide much-needed and deserved tax relief to working Americans. In his article, Brown criticizes both the emphasis on eliminating the deficit and the role of tax cuts in this process. Most economists agree, however, that economic growth is stymied by deficits, in part because of higher interest rates associated with those deficits as well as with the burgeoning national debt. The United States currently spends hundreds of billions of dollars per year servicing the interest on the national debt. This is money that could be spent on research, education, and other discretionary programs. With respect to tax relief, aside from the obvious argument that Americans should be allowed to keep as much of their income from sliding into a black hole in Washington as possible, many economists believe that tax cuts stimulate investment, and investment stimulates job creation and economic growth.
As to Brown’s investment budget, there are some aspects with which I agree and some I cannot support. The investment budget pays for increases in spending with increased taxes and reductions in programs such as drug interdiction. At least one-half of the tax increases called for would fall on small businesses, private investment income, state and local governments, and companies exporting products made by U.S. workers. Additional taxes on small businesses and those that export goods will slow or perhaps halt economic growth, altering many of the economic assumptions on which Brown relies for his budget. In addition, at a time when drug use is increasing among our young people, I believe it would be very unwise to reduce spending on interdiction activities.
With the enactment of the bipartisan budget agreement, we are on a course toward deficit elimination, one that will better ensure long-term economic growth. Now we must decide, within the financial boundaries established by the budget agreement, where our priorities lie and define which programs must be funded by government and which should be funded by industry, through public/private consortia or international partnerships. Federal policymakers should work with the scientific community, universities, industry, and the states to define where we need to be in 25 to 30 years and from that determine each entity’s role in a specific program or priority. As part of this process, it would be useful to unify R&D policy through implementation of the Government Performance and Results Act. From this, we can better determine whether industry needs to play a more active role in funding research, which goals should be pursued through partnerships, and what kinds of nonbudget incentives, such as tax credits and regulatory changes, are needed to spur investment in specific areas.
I believe this to be a better approach to guaranteeing a more robust S&T enterprise and a thriving economy well into the next millennium.
Representative George E. Brown, Jr.’s investment budget is a far better plan for justifying reasonable growth in federal R&D support than other plans introduced in the current legislative session. A number of the new measures do not address the critical question: Where are the proposed increases in R&D going to come from? The Brown budget proposal has been certified by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as fitting within the FY 1998-2002 balanced budget plan. It would focus the debate about future R&D budget levels as it should be focused: on how R&D, along with infrastructure and education, can contribute to intellectual and economic growth and the well-being of the people over the long term. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the General Accounting Office, and CBO have all advocated moving to investment budgeting, and they generally agree on R&D, infrastructure, and education and training as investments (in contrast to current expenses). Brown’s figures are similar to OMB’s own illustrative investment budget numbers.
Changing to an investment budget would be a major step for the government and the affected parties, and it is an idea that deserves attention now more than ever. Historically, R&D expenditures have risen and fallen in close concert with the rise and fall of discretionary expenditures. The most important point Brown makes is that the juggernaut of rising entitlement and decreasing discretionary expenditures inevitably forces R&D (and other vital investments) on to short rations into the foreseeable future, especially after the baby boomers swell the entitlement rolls. Given the public aversion to new taxes, and the political aversion to real entitlement reform, R&D and other investment programs that are needed to ensure a strong future will be hostage to current consumption and the ever-growing entitlement elements of the budget. If an investment budget would truly move the nation beyond its current and undesirable underinvestment pattern in education, infrastructure, and R&D, it is worthy of adoption.
Pooling physical capital expenditures, R&D, and education and training in an investment category makes conceptual sense, but there are practical problems that must be debated and resolved. An investment budget, as defined by Brown and OMB, would be nearly half of the present discretionary budget. Growing these accounts would greatly increase pressures for reductions in other government services within the discretionary budget, including essential services such as weather forecasting, food inspection, and statistical services provided by several government departments. Lumping stakeholders such as scientists and engineers and their institutions, highway and aviation advocates, and general education together would create unaccustomed bedfellows. Would they pull together politically for an overall investment budget? Trade-offs and infighting could result.
One might want to be more selective about what constitutes investment. For example, 40 percent of total federal R&D funding supports production engineering, testing and evaluation, and upgrading of existing weapons systems-activities that are not investments in new knowledge and new technologies.
In the end, however, a change that breaks the present pattern of underinvestment in the nation’s future must be made. This change will take time: another political year or two (or more), as Brown recognizes. In democracies, things often get worse before they get better. Meanwhile, ways to move forward through the current stagnation in R&D budgets have been advanced, several in Issues. They include the Academies’ federal S&T budget, Lewis Branscomb’s proposal for a rapprochement in technology policy by forging a political consensus around federal investment in fundamental S&T, and our own R&D portfolio proposal.
Japan: A new relationship
There seems to be a resurgence of interest by Americans in Japan’s status as an R&D performer and in its place in the technological world. During a hiatus of a few years caused by the decline in the Japanese economy, fears among Americans about foreign competition in high-tech markets were redirected toward other nations, with China being mentioned most often. The economic decline had a direct impact on industrial R&D spending in Japan, with investment levels dropping for the first time in several decades. This led to even more complacency among Japan watchers. Now industrial R&D in Japan is turning upward again and is being augmented by large increases in government research spending.
In a significant confluence of events, the important article by George R. Heaton, Jr. (“Engaging an Independent Japan,” Issues, Summer 1997) appeared almost simultaneously with an in-depth report by the National Research Council (NRC) (Maximizing U.S. Interests in Science and Technology Relations with Japan), and both publications coincided with the Fifth International Conference on Japanese Information in Science, Technology, and Commerce, held in Washington, D.C., at which several papers addressed the relevance of Japanese science and technology (S&T) and how to facilitate the transfer of technical information from Japan.
Heaton discusses how the United States should comport itself in dealing with a Japan that has reached technological parity with the world. He points out that the United States can gain substantially from Japan’s technological prowess if it can change past ways of interacting with Japan, first by looking on Japan as an equal partner and then by relying more on cooperation at the level of the individual scientist or engineer rather than on agreements reached at high political levels.
The NRC report, while seeking the same objective of increased cooperation, claims that serious asymmetries between the United States and Japan in market access, personnel exchanges, licensing of patents and know-how, and other market forces have inhibited cooperation in S&T, and that government actions are required to overcome these trade barriers before full cooperation can be achieved. Both Heaton and the NRC report point out that previous U.S. government failings in enlisting R&D cooperation with Japan have led to deterioration in the bilateral technical relationship.
At the international conference, R. D. Shelton and Geoffrey M. Holdridge of the International Technology Research Institute at Loyola College in Maryland concluded that the economic recession in Japan did little to slow Japan’s progress in R&D or in expanding its markets for high-tech products abroad, and that the state of Japanese industrial S&T is at an all-time high and is improving. Their conclusions are based in part on a long high-quality series of evaluations of Japanese technology sponsored by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies, so at least some good has come from government intervention in the process of understanding and exploiting the Japanese R&D scene.
What will undoubtedly not be the last word on this subject has been written by Admiral (Ret.) James D. Watkins [Science, Vol. 277, 1 August 1997, p. 650], who places the blame for U.S. ineptitude in international S&T cooperation on the White House and the Department of State, where he found little understanding of or interest in working with other nations while he was Secretary of Energy (1989-1993). Unfortunately, there is plenty of blame to pass around. The Department of Energy, some other federal agencies, the Congress, and parts of industry warrant a share also. It would be nice to see one or more of these influential groups take the lead in setting the United States on a new course of enlightenment in international R&D cooperation.
In the past, the success of the Japanese economy rested on the adoption and often improvement of foreign technology. Most of the S&T effort was devoted to the assimilation and diffusion of foreign technology. This “pursuer” mode was so successful that Japan could use S&T resources more efficiently than any other country. However, as Japanese industries became stronger and more independent of the government and as the presence of the international arena grew, Japan began to move in a new direction in S&T around the beginning of the 1980s. Japan wished to shed its pursuer mode and shift to a pioneer mode.
Government policies and organizations were required to adapt to the changing economic and social environment. The goal was to become a center of excellence in the world scientific community and to make a significant international contribution. The government has been making efforts to reorganize S&T systems and renovate institutional frameworks. In spite of continuing budgetary deficits, the government has managed to increase S&T resources and secure allocations for more fundamental research. Internationally, the emphasis has been placed on efforts to open up national research and promote international cooperative projects. The pioneer mode has been successful in part, but it is not full-fledged because inertia from the past has been an obstacle.
The new Basic Law for Science and Technology aims to increase research funding and change the institutional frameworks of S&T systems. A systematic implementation plan encourages this aim and reviews and evaluates S&T policies. Changing the national S&T system depends on the balance of two elements: the above-mentioned national efforts and interaction with other countries. Globalization requires the national S&T system to be more interdependent and cooperative in the international arena. Moreover, recent research projects are clearly more expensive, whereas the life cycles of technologies have shortened. Collaborative activities with foreign research communities help both parties to pool and utilize collective resources more systematically. And pooling mutually unfamiliar practices and approaches may create opportunities to develop S&T in challenging directions. At the same time, these cooperations give Japan the stimuli to excel among scientific communities around the world.
Don C. Schmitz and Daniel Simberloff have done a fine job of summarizing the problems caused by biological invasions and suggesting solutions (“Biological Invasions: A Growing Threat,” Issues, Summer 1997). They bring to their analysis not just familiarity with current research but also firsthand experience in day-to-day pest management. We ignore their insights at our peril.
The kind of overview they provide requires reaching across the usual disciplinary boundaries. Yet there is a broader synthesis still to be done, which is one of the reasons why better national leadership is needed so urgently. So far, discussions of the effects of alien species have not fully incorporated threats to human health or the impacts of similar emerging diseases found among wildlife. At least 1465 Americans fell ill in 1996 from a Cyclospora parasite first identified in New Guinea in 1977. Likewise, reptile-associated Salmonella outbreaks are on the rise, prompting the Centers for Disease Control to issue cautions in 1995 about handling reptiles, many of which are exotic imports. The National Wildlife Health Research Center has documented a number of outbreaks of waterfowl diseases since 1975, each killing 25,000 to 100,000 birds. Some were caused by diseases not native to the United States; others by microorganisms spreading beyond their usual U.S. distribution.
With such failures to control the movement of diseases and pests even before trade became “free,” the growth in global trade is worrisome. The first case directly related to a formal assessment of pest risks is now pending before the World Trade Organization (WTO). Australia bans certain salmon imports, it says, to protect native fish from nonindigenous diseases. The Australian government finished a risk assessment in December of 1996 detailing the situation. The United States complained about protectionism to the WTO. The WTO panel’s deliberations will be the first indication of how the need for science-based risk assessments regarding biological invasions will be interpreted. The case bears watching
Schmitz and Simberloff accurately cite the Office of Technology Assessment’s (OTA’s) estimate that biological invasions cost the United States hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars annually. We at OTA suspected that even these figures were low, and subsequent research has borne that out. But there are other significant costs that remain uncounted. One of the most insidious costs of biological invations is that they make one locale much like any other and rob us of our sense of place. A McDonald’s on every corner; Queen Anne’s lace along every roadside. Without major efforts at education, few of us will be able to tell what is ecologically real and what is not.
Florida is fortunate in having a mild climate, many types of soils, and a noteworthy diversity of fauna and flora. Our commercial agricultural and horticultural prosperity is great. Unfortunately, these very factors are extremely favorable to exotic pest and disease introduction and establishment. A recent analysis of numbers of arthropods establishing in Florida from 1987 to the present gives a dismal picture. In 1993, a record number of 15 exotic pest arthropods was detected to be established in Florida. Up to July of 1997, we discovered 14 new pest arthropods. This bodes no good for our agricultural and native plant heritage.
Over the past several decades, exotic plant pest and disease introduction has been an increasing problem in Florida, with over $160 million being spent on exotic plant pest and disease eradication since 1970. We are likely to spend over $20 million in eradication programs for the Mediterranean fruit fly alone and $7 million for Asian-strain citrus canker. Recent introductions of exotic pests that affect endangered native plants include a moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, that is damaging an endangered cactus species in the Florida Keys; and a weevil, Metamasius callizona, that attacks many of our bromeliads. Noxious weeds such as tropical soda apple and cogon grass are very invasive and displace native plants in their habitat, and the recent introduction of the tomato yellow-leaf curl geminivirus will have an as-yet-unknown impact on Florida’s tomato industry.
Plant pests, diseases, and noxious weeds spread to new areas through the movement of plants and plant products, primarily through the movements of cargo and the traveling public, who often carry illegal produce and other agricultural products in their baggage. Florida is a mecca for international trade and tourism, with 14 deep water ports and eight international airports. The U. S Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 10,000 interceptions of agricultural pests of economic significance occur annually at Florida ports. This is alarming because only two percent of all incoming foreign cargo and passengers are actually inspected by USDA. Also, there has been a surge of agricultural imports for many reasons, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The recent trend of increasing numbers of invasive pest organisms constitutes a crisis threatening the natural and agricultural interests of the state of Florida. It is extremely important that all parties with an interest in preserving our biotic heritage institute changes that will stem the tide of invasive hordes of pestiferous organisms. This can only be achieved on the bedrock of significant investment of resources in preventing, detecting, and eradicating exotic pests.
Better skills, better business
Kenan Jarboe and Joel Yudken’s article is a clarion call for public involvement in the evolution and dissemination of “high-performance work systems.” In general, we agree with the authors. However, at the risk of becoming the skunk at the company picnic, we think it is necessary to temper their enthusiasm in two respects.
First, we think it will be difficult to create general standards and incentives to promote modern work practices across the broad array of U.S. work institutions. As the authors point out, high-performance practices tend to come in idiosyncratic bundles that differ from company to company. Particular bundles of high-performance practices always work somewhere and sometime, but never everywhere or all the time. High-performance practices are organic and have to be home-grown one company at a time.
Second, the authors’ enthusiastic endorsement ignores the dark side of high-performance systems. At their core, these systems reduce risk and costs by combining flexible technology and flexible work systems in order to create flexible production and service networks made up of suppliers, contractors, and partners. But for many U.S. workers, flexible has become a fancy word for fired or reduced wages and benefits. High-performance systems tend to shift economic risk from institutions to individuals and from large to small institutions.
This dark side creates dilemmas for public policy. Understandably, the government supports such systems in order to encourage flexibility in response to the realities of global economic change. At the same time, the insecurity that results from our flexible new institutions suggests the need for a corresponding system of flexible and portable health care, pensions, training, and day care. Moreover, in a world where job security has gone out with gold watches at retirement, employees have more of a stake in economic change and a greater need for a voice in economic decisions. Public promotion of high-performance systems would have to combine the efficiency needs of employers with workers’ needs for economic security and a voice.
Public officials tend to overlook the detrimental effects that result from divergent employer and worker needs. This “happy workers and happy workplaces” view of high-performance work systems ignores the inherent conflict and necessary tradeoffs between employers and employees, and reduces the credibility of government policies among employers and workers. In addition, because high-performance systems and the economic returns from them are firm-specific, it is not clear that the government can or should support them in general.
Public involvement in high-performance systems is inherently difficult, but we agree with the authors that it is worth trying. One way around the problems might be to work through intermediaries such as industry and trade associations, unions, and relevant educational organizations. The old rules still apply: The government should take on functions when private markets fail and public benefits justify investment, as is currently the case in education, health care, pensions, and R&D. Improvements in each of these areas where the government is already engaged would go a long way toward making the workplaces we have the high-performance workplaces we need.
The Council on Competitiveness is deeply involved in exploring ways to better prepare U.S. workers. In our recent membership survey, leaders from industry, labor, and academia told us that increasing the numbers of skilled workers is the United States’ most serious competitiveness hurdle in the next decade. Education and training are essential not only to increase productivity but to boost wages and improve the standard of living for all Americans.
This assessment is underscored by our current field work. For the past year, the council has taken a hands-on approach to determine how corporations of all sizes, workers, and schools (from vocational training institutions to four-year colleges) are responding to the national skills shortage. With the help of a task force made up of experts and practitioners, the council has conducted scores of meetings and interviews to explore some of the most pressing workforce issues confronting a wide variety of firms.. These issues include incumbent workers and continuous learning, basic skills training for entry-level workers, new learning technologies, and training challenges facing small and mid-sized businesses.
The issues are complex, but the underlying problem is simple: The demand for increased skills is rising a lot faster than the capacity of companies, workers, or the nation’s educational system to respond. Job requirements and skills are no longer static; employers in all industries are urgently looking for workers who can adapt quickly to new tasks and new market demands. Many companies are seeing vast portions of their existing skilled workforce retire, and they are scrambling to fill the void. In response, educators and trainers are frantically working to shorten and sharpen the learning cycle.
In this competitive environment, workers and employers are beginning to work together to improve productivity and customer satisfaction. As aptly pointed Kenan Patrick Jarboe and Joel Yudken, worker involvement is absolutely key to instituting high-performance work systems. Our findings show that this move toward worker empowerment leads to new demands for education and training. If we expect front-line workers to undertake new responsibilities, we must give them additional opportunities to learn on the job and increase their skills and knowledge base.
In fact, more and more companies are giving employees a say in designing learning systems. When management and workers collaborate to define the skill sets that will be needed down the road, the result is a better training system and workers who see the value of learning. Employees respond to training demands when they are convinced that they are partners in the process.
Employer and employee must share the responsibility for learning. The most inspired corporate leadership creates the conditions to help all workers meet their objectives. And employees with the best prospects quickly engage in the learning process and take responsibility for their own education and training. Only when both parties have a stake in the results can companies bank on improved performance and employees acquire the necessary skills to advance in the labor market.
Pregnancy planning and Prevention
In “Missing the Boat on Pregnancy Prevention” (Issues, Summer 1997), Carol J. Rowland Hogue provides a useful summary of the major issues attending unintended pregnancies. Some aspects of the problem merit further discussion.
Despite enormous public attention and disapprobation and the expenditure of untold millions of dollars, little progress has been made in reducing rates of teenage pregnancy. Few programs have proven effective. To intervene successfully, it is essential to recognize that young adolescents 12 to 17 years old have very different experiences, cognitive skills, and motivations than older adolescents. Many pregnancies of younger teenagers are intentional. Sex and parenthood have different meanings at different stages of development across the life span. Interventions to influence sexual behavior need to be developmentally sensitive and appropriate.
Reasoned and informative discussions about sexuality and sexual behavior are nearly absent from public discourse. They are, tragically, also infrequent within families, where many believe they rightly belong. Part of the reluctance to discuss sex, like other emotional topics, is the superstition that talking about something will increase the probability that it will happen. That myth has been used to keep sex education out of the public schools for decades. Two other circumstances prevent discussions that could reduce unintended pregnancies. First, many adults are uncomfortable talking about sexual topics. Often families have not established climates in which families’ values are explicit, yet communication, including disagreement, is open and encouraged. Such patterns of communication must be established well before such touchy topics as teenagers’ sexual behavior can be fully discussed. Second, many parents are not knowledgeable about sexual development and contraception. Uninformed parents sense that they cannot be effective teachers and so avoid the topics. As Hogue points out, the public needs to be educated, and the process should include if not start with adults.
Child advocacy groups have long called for every child to be wanted. A corollary is the need for preparation for pregnancy, and thus for family planning. The principal way to ensure that a baby will be born healthy and develop optimally is for women to prepare themselves physically, nutritionally, and, I suspect, psychologically before they conceive. Critical stages of fetal development, such as formation of the major organs (including the brain), occur before most women are sure they are pregnant.
Having a physically healthy infant is an important start to family life, but successful child-rearing takes more. Being an effective parent is perhaps the most important and difficult job individuals take on, yet it gets much less public scrutiny and validation than many other social roles. Somewhere in our society’s deeply held belief in the sanctity of the family is the ill-founded assumption that the ability to procreate is equivalent to the ability to successfully raise a child. That assumption is a formidable barrier to encouraging and assisting men and women not only to plan their pregnancies but to plan for managing the responsibilities that accompany having a child. As a society, we must heighten our awareness of the obligations that accompany parenthood-the obligations of parents to their children and our obligations to support them in that role.
Carol J. Rowland Hogue makes a very persuasive case regarding the problems stemming from unintended pregnancies among adults. This is clearly a major national problem, and her solutions, including increased access to contraception, are important. But it seems impossible that she could discuss unintended pregnancy without discussing the impact of our current welfare system.
Ever since Charles Murray raised it in Losing Ground, perhaps no issue has been as hotly debated as the link between out-of-wedlock births and welfare. However, the overwhelming weight of evidence now appears to show a clear correlation between the availability of welfare benefits and the growth in out-of-wedlock births. There have now been 16 major studies of this link, with 13 finding a statistically significant correlation.
Of course, women do not get pregnant just to get welfare benefits. It is also true that a wide array of other social factors has contributed to the increase in out-of-wedlock births. But by removing the economic consequences of such births, welfare has removed a major incentive to avoid them. Until individuals, particularly those living in relative poverty, can be made to see the very real consequences of unintended pregnancies, it will be impossible to gain control over the problem of out-of-wedlock births. By disguising those consequences, welfare makes it easier for women to make the decisions that will ultimately lead to unwed motherhood. As Murray has explained, “The evil of the modern welfare state is not that it bribes women to have babies-wanting to have babies is natural-but that it enables women to bear children without the natural social restraints.”
Any attempt to address the problem of unintended pregnancy must also address the incentives of the modern welfare state. Only through the elimination of welfare subsidies for out-of-wedlock births can we hope to begin to instill the values that are required to significantly reduce unintended pregnancies. Without welfare reform, all of Hogue’s proposals would be in vain.
Making emergency contraception more widely available is one of the most important steps we can take to reduce the unacceptably large number of unintended pregnancies and the consequent need for abortion in the United States. Unfortunately, most women do not know that ordinary birth control pills containing the hormones estrogen and progestin can be used to prevent pregnancy up to 72 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse.
Emergency contraceptives available in the United States include emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs), minipills, and the copper-T intrauterine device (IUD). None can be obtained without a prescription and none is marketed as an emergency contraceptive. Even though some doctors have been prescribing emergency contraceptives since the 1970s, no company has applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market birth control pills or IUDs for emergency contraception. Although considerable international research attests to the safety and efficacy of emergency contraceptives, manufacturers cannot market or advertise these products for postcoital use until they seek and gain formal FDA approval for this specific purpose. Without commercial promotion, it is not surprising that physicians prescribe emergency contraceptives infrequently and fail to provide information about emergency contraception to women during routine visits; as a consequence, very few women know that emergency contraception is available, effective, and safe.
Half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended: 3.2 million in 1994 alone, the last year for which data are available. Unintended pregnancy is a major public health problem that affects not only the individuals directly involved but also the wider society.5 Insurers in both the public and private sectors generally cover the medical costs of unintended pregnancy, with coverage for abortion showing the most variation. Public payers generally provide broader contraceptive coverage than private payers, although payment levels often are low, perhaps low enough to limit access. Extending explicit coverage to emergency contraception would result in cost savings by reducing the incidence of unintended pregnancy.
Several innovations in service delivery would also enhance the potential for emergency contraception to significantly reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. Perhaps the greatest impact would result from changing provider practices so that women seen by primary and reproductive health care clinicians would be routinely informed about emergency contraception before the need arises; the recent clinical practice pattern issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists should further this goal. Information could be provided during counseling or by brochures, audio or video cassettes, or wallet cards. A more proactive step would be to prescribe or dispense emergency contraceptive pills in advance so the therapy would be immediately accessible if the need arises. Availability would also be enhanced if manufacturers sought FDA approval for and then actively promoted emergency contraceptives; the recent FDA notice in the Federal Register declaring ECPs to be safe and effective will make gaining approval far easier in addition to giving explicit official sanction to ECP use. Until clinicians, manufacturers, or insurers make these changes, the only way to improve access is to inform women directly about the availability of emergency contraception so that they themselves can demand better clinical care.
To help educate women about this important option, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP) in Washington and the Office of Population Research at Princeton University sponsor the Emergency Contraception Hotline (1-888-NOT-2-LATE) and the Emergency Contraception Web site ). Since it was launched on February 14, 1996, the hotline has received more than 58,000 calls. More detailed information is available on the Emergency Contraception Web site, which has received more than 135,000 hits since it was launched in October 1994. RHTP has received funding from several foundations to work with the Elgin DDB agency to develop public service announcements for print, radio, television, and outdoor venues. This summer, a public education campaign was launched in four test cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle) in partnership with a coalition of local organizations and clinicians in each area.