Author Archives: ,

Give Genetic Engineering Some Breathing Room


by

Government regulations are suffocating applications that promise much public benefit. Fixes are available, if society and policymakers would only pay heed to science.

New genetic engineering techniques that are more precise and versatile than ever offer promise for bringing improved crops, animals, and microorganisms to the public. But these technologies also raise critical questions about public policy. How will the various regulatory agencies approach them as a matter of law and regulation? Will they repeat the costly excesses of the oversight of recombinant DNA technology? What will be the regulatory costs, time, and energy required to capture the public benefits of the new technologies? And further out, how will regulatory agencies approach the emerging field of synthetic biology, which involves the design and construction of new biological components, devices, and systems, so that standardized biological parts can be mixed and assembled?

Based on current experience, answers to such questions are not comforting. The regulation of recombinant DNA technology has been less than a stunning success. Most of the federal agencies involved have ignored the consensus of the scientific community that the new molecular techniques for genetic modification are extensions, or refinements, of earlier, more primitive ones, and policymakers and agencies have crafted sui generis, or particular, regulatory mechanisms that have prevented the field from reaching anything approaching its potential.

The regulatory burden on the use of recombinant DNA technology is disproportionate to its risk, and the opportunity costs of regulatory delays and expenses are formidable. The public and private sectors have squandered billions of dollars on complying with superfluous, redundant regulatory requirements that have priced public sector and small company research and development (R&D) out of the marketplace.

These inflated development costs are the primary reason that more than 99% of genetically engineered crops that are being cultivated are large-scale commodity crops—corn, cotton, canola, soy, alfalfa and sugar beets. Hawaiian papaya is one of the few examples of genetically engineered “specialty crops” such as fruits, nuts, or vegetables. The once-promising sector of “biopharming,” which uses genetic engineering techniques to induce crops such as corn, tomatoes, and tobacco to produce high concentrations of high-value pharmaceuticals, is moribund. The once high hopes for genetically engineered “biorational” microbial pesticides and microorganisms to clean up toxic wastes are dead and gone. Not surprisingly, few companies or other funding groups are willing to invest in the development of badly needed genetically improved varieties of the subsistence crops grown in the developing world.

The seminal question about the basis for regulation of genetic engineering in the 1970s was whether there were unique risks associated with the use of recombinant DNA techniques. Numerous national and international scientific organizations have repeatedly addressed this question, and their conclusions have been congruent: There are no unique risks from the use of molecular techniques of genetic engineering.

As long ago as 1982, an analysis performed by the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe reminded regulators that “genetic modification is not new” and that “risks can be assessed and managed with current risk assessment strategies and control methods.” Similarly, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued a white paper in 1987 that found no evidence of the existence of unique hazards, either in the use of genetic engineering techniques or in the movement of genes between unrelated organisms.

In perhaps the most comprehensive and unequivocal analysis, the 1989 National Research Council report, “Field Testing of Genetically Modified Organisms,” on the risks of genetically engineered plants and microorganisms, concluded that “the same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods.” But this analysis went further, emphasizing that the more modern molecular techniques “are more precise, circumscribed, and predictable than other methods. They make it possible to introduce pieces of DNA, consisting of either single or multiple genes that can be defined in function and even in nucleotide sequence. With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the phenotype that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the phenotypic expression.”

In 2000, the National Research Council released another report weighing in on the scientific basis of federal regulation of genetically engineered plants. It concurred with earlier assessments by other groups that “the properties of a genetically modified organism should be the focus of risk assessments, not the process by which it was produced.”

Various distinguished panels have continued to make the same points about genetic engineering and “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). In September 2013, the United Kingdom’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment published “Report 2: Why a modern understanding of genomes demonstrates the need for a new regulatory system for GMOs.” The report addressed the European Union’s (EU) regulatory system as applied to new techniques of molecular breeding. This except from the Executive Summary is especially salient: “Our understanding of genomes does not support a process-based approach to regulation. The continuing adoption of this approach has led to, and will increasingly lead to, problems. This includes problems of consistency, i.e. regulating organisms produced by some techniques and not others irrespective or their capacity to cause environmental harm. Our conclusion, that the EU’s regulatory approach is not fit for purpose for organisms generated by new technologies, also applies to transgenic organisms produced by ‘traditional’ GM [genetic modification] technology. . . [T]he potential for inconsistency is inherent because they may be phenotypically identical to organisms that are not regulated.”

There is, then, a broad consensus that process-based regulatory approaches are not “fit for purpose.” Inevitably, they are unscientific, anti-innovative, fail to take into consideration actual risks, and contravene the basic principle that similar things should be regulated similarly. It follows that U.S. and EU systems must be reformed to become scientifically defensible and risk-based.

In theory, the U.S. government accepted the fundamental logic of these analyses as the basis for regulation. In 1986, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy published a policy statement on the regulation of biotechnology that focused oversight and regulatory triggers on the risk-related characteristics of products, such as plants’ weediness or toxicity. That approach specifically and unequivocally rejected regulation based on the particular process, or technique, used for genetic modification. In 1992, the federal government issued a second pivotal policy statement (sometimes known as the “scope document”) that reaffirmed the overarching principle for biotechnology regulation—that is, the degree and intrusiveness of oversight “should be based on the risk posed by the introduction and should not turn on the fact that an organism has been modified by a particular process or technique.”

Thus, there has been a broad consensus in the scientific community, reflected in statements of federal government policy going back more than 20 years, that the newest techniques of genetic modification are essentially an extension, or refinement, of older, less precise and less predictable ones, and that oversight should focus on the characteristics of products, not on the processes or technologies that produced them.

In spite of such guidance, however, regulatory agencies have generally chosen to exercise their discretion to identify and capture molecular genetic engineering—specifically, recombinant DNA technology—as the focus of regulations. Because the impacts of their decisions have drastically affected the progress of agricultural R&D, this cautionary tale is worth describing agency by agency.

A cautionary tale, repeated

The Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is responsible for the regulation of genetically engineered plants. APHIS had long regulated the importation and interstate movement of organisms (plants, bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc.) that are plant pests, which were defined by means of an inclusive list—essentially a binary “thumbs up or down” approach. A plant that an investigator might wish to introduce into the field is either on the prohibited list of plant pests, and therefore requires a permit, or it is exempt.

This straightforward approach is risk-based, in that the organisms required to undergo case-by-case governmental review are an enhanced-risk group (organisms that can injure or damage plants), unlike organisms not considered to be plant pests. But for more than a quarter-century, APHIS has applied a parallel regime (in addition to its basic risk-based regulation) that focuses exclusively on plants altered or produced with the most precise genetic engineering techniques. APHIS reworked the original concept of a plant pest (something known to be harmful) and crafted a new category—a “regulated article”—defined in a way that captures virtually every recombinant DNA-modified plant for case-by-case review, regardless of its potential risk, because it might be a plant pest.

In order to perform a field trial with a regulated article, a researcher must apply to APHIS and submit extensive paperwork before, during, and after the field trial. After conducting field trials for a number of years at many sites, the researcher must then submit a vast amount of data to APHIS and request “deregulation,” which is equivalent to approval for unconditional release and sale. These requirements make genetically engineered plants extraordinarily expensive to develop and test. The cost of discovery, development, and regulatory authorization of a new trait introduced between 2008 and 2012 averaged $136 million, according to Wendelyn Jones of DuPont Pioneer, a major corporation involved in crop genetics.

APHIS’s approach to recombinant DNA-modified plants is difficult to justify. Plants have long been selected by nature, as well as bred or otherwise manipulated by humans, for enhanced resistance or tolerance to external threats to their survival and productivity, such as insects, disease organisms, weeds, herbicides, and environmental stresses. Plants have also been modified for qualities attractive to consumers, such as seedless watermelons and grapes and the tangerine-grapefruit hybrid called a tangelo.

Along the way, plant breeders have learned from experience about the need for risk analysis, assessment, and management. New varieties of plants (whichever techniques are used to craft them) that normally harbor relatively high levels of various toxins are analyzed carefully to make sure that levels of those substances remain in the safe range. Celery, squash, and potatoes are among the crops in need of such attention.

The basic tenets of government regulation are that similar things should be regulated similarly, and the degree of oversight should be proportionate to the risk of the product or activity. For new varieties of plants, risk is a function of certain characteristics of the parental plant (such as weediness, toxicity, or ability to “outcross” with other plants) and of the introduced gene or genes. In other words, it is not the source or the method used to introduce a gene but its function that determines how it contributes to risk. Under USDA and APHIS, however, only plants made with the newest, most precise techniques have been subjected to more extensive and burdensome regulation, independent of the risk of the product.

Under its discriminatory and unscientific regulatory regime, APHIS has approved more than 90 genetically engineered traits, and farmers have widely and quickly adopted the crops incorporating them. After the cultivation worldwide of more than 3 billion acres of genetically engineered crops (by more than 17 million farmers in 30 countries) and the consumption of more than 3 trillion servings of food containing genetically engineered ingredients in North America alone, there has not been a single documented ecosystem disruption or a single confirmed tummy ache.

With this record of successful adoption and use, one might have thought that APHIS would reduce its regulatory burdens on genetically engineered crops, but there has been no hint of such a move. APHIS continues to push the costs for regulatory compliance into the stratosphere while its reviews of benign new crops become ever more dilatory: Evaluations that took an average of six months in the 1990s now take three-plus years. APHIS’s performance compares unfavorably with its counterparts abroad. Based on data gathered by the U.S. government and confirmed by industry groups, from January 2010 through June 2013, the average time from submission to decision was 372 days for Brazil and 771 days for Canada, versus 1,210 days for the United States.

APHIS has not shown any willingness to rationalize its regulatory approach—for example, by creating categorical exemptions for what are now known scientifically, and proven agronomically, to be negligible-risk genetically engineered crops. By creating such categorical exemptions, APHIS would simultaneously reduce its workload, lower R&D costs, spur innovation, and avoid the pitfalls of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires that agencies performing “major federal actions,” such as APHIS’s approvals, proceed through a succession of procedural hoops. Allegations from activists that regulators have failed to do so have tied up approvals in the federal courts, creating a litigation burden for regulators, scientists, and technology developers. (Regardless of their risk, the vast majority of plants “engineered” through more conventional genetic manipulation, such as crop breeding, do not require APHIS approval and, consequently, are not subject to NEPA or to the derivative lawsuits.)

The regulatory obstacles that discriminate against genetic engineering impede the development of crops with both commercial and humanitarian potential. Genetically engineered crops foreseen in the early days of the technology have literally withered on the vine as regulatory costs have made testing and commercial development economically unfeasible. In a 2010 letter to Nature Biotechnology, Jaime Miller and Kent Bradford of the University of California, Davis, described the impact of regulations on genetically engineered specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, nuts, turf, and ornamentals). They provided citations to 313 publications relating to 46 species and numerous traits beneficial to consumers, farmers, and the environment. However, they pointed out that only four of these crops had entered commercial cultivation in the United States, and none of them had reached the public outside of the United States (though the status of two in China was unclear). Of greater concern, they found that no genetically engineered specialty crop had been granted regulatory marketing approval anywhere since the year 2000. In supplementary data cited in their letter, Miller and Bradford provided information on 724 genetically engineered specialty plant lines that have been created but never commercialized.

Since the advent of recombinant DNA techniques in the 1970s, other newer, even more precise technologies for genetic engineering have been introduced to create organisms with new or enhanced traits. These approaches include, among others, RNA interference technology (RNAi) and the alteration of genes using so-called transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs). Initially, APHIS had issued letters indicating that many crops developed through these newer techniques fall outside of the definition of a “regulated article” under the Plant Protection Act. But under pressure from anti-biotechnology groups, APHIS has also floated the idea that these crops could be captured for oversight as “noxious weeds” if they are invasive (e.g., turf grass), or cross-pollinate readily (alfalfa). Although the impact of invoking “noxious weed” regulatory authority is not yet clear, designating plants crafted with modern molecular techniques as falling in this category appears to be another example of unscientific, opportunistic regulation that will inhibit innovation.

Tortured statutes

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), like the USDA, has tortured its enabling statutes to undesirable effect. The EPA has long regulated field tests and the commercial use of pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). In 2001, the agency issued final rules for the regulation of genetically engineered plants and created a new concept, “plant-incorporated protectants” (PIPs), defined as “pesticidal substances produced and used by living plants.” EPA regulation captures pest-resistant plants only if the “protectant” has been introduced or enhanced by the most precise and predictable techniques of genetic engineering.

The testing required for registration of these new “pesticides” is excessive. It includes gathering copious data on the parental plant, the genetic construction, and the behavior of the test plant and its interaction with various species, among other factors. (These requirements could not be met for any plant with enhanced pest-resistance modified with older, cruder techniques, which are exempt from the FIFRA rules.) It should be noted that FIFRA provides a 10-acre research exemption for pesticides, even for extremely toxic chemicals, which does not apply to PIPs.

The EPA then conducts repeated, redundant case-by-case reviews: before the initial trial, when trials are scaled up or tested on additional sites, and again if even minor changes have been made in the plant’s genetic construct. The agency repeats those reviews at commercial scale. The agency’s classification of living plants as pesticides, even though the regulatory term is “plant-incorporated protectants,” has been vigorously condemned by the scientific community. And for good reason, since EPA’s approach has discouraged the development of new pest-resistant crops, encouraged greater use of synthetic chemical pesticides, and limited the use of the newest genetic engineering technology mainly to larger, private-sector developers that can absorb the substantial regulatory costs.

The vast majority of the acreage of plants made with recombinant DNA technology has been limited to huge-scale commodity crops. Even so, and in spite of discriminatory, burdensome regulation, their success has been impressive. Worldwide, these new varieties have provided “very significant net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $18.8 billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion for the 17-year period” from 1996 to 2012, according to a report by PG Economics, Ltd, titled, “GM Crops: Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2012, released in May 2014. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the EPA regulates chemicals other than pesticides. Characteristically, in devising an approach to genetically engineered organisms, EPA chose to exercise its statutory discretion in a way that ignores scientific consensus but expands its regulatory scope. The agency focused on capturing for review any “new” organism, defined as one that contains combinations of DNA from sources that are not closely related phylogenetically. For the EPA, “newness” is synonymous with risk. As genetic engineering techniques can easily create new gene combinations with DNA from disparate sources, EPA concluded that these techniques therefore “have the greatest potential to pose risks to people or the environment,” according to the agency press release that accompanied the rule. Using TSCA, EPA decided that genetically modified microorganisms are “new chemicals” subject to pre-market approval for testing and commercial release.

But the EPA’s statement is a non sequitur. The particular genetic technique employed to construct new strains is irrelevant to risk, as is the origin of a snippet of DNA that may be moved from one organism to another. What matters is its function. Scientific principles and common sense dictate the questions that are central to risk analysis for any new organism. How hazardous is the original organism from which DNA was taken? Is it a harmless, ubiquitous organism found in garden soil, or one that causes illness in humans or animals? Does the added genetic material code for a potent toxin? Does the genetic change merely make the organism able to degrade oil more efficiently, or does it have other effects, such as making it more resistant to being killed by antibiotics or sunlight?

Like APHIS, the EPA ignored the scientific consensus holding that modern genetic engineering technology is essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier, cruder techniques of genetic modification. In fact, the National Research Council’s 1989 report observed that, on average, the use of the newest genetic engineering techniques actually lowers the already minimal risk associated with field testing. The reason is that the new technology makes it possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few well-characterized genes, while older genetic techniques transfer or modify a variable number of genes haphazardly. All of this means that users of the new techniques can be more certain about the traits they introduce into the organisms. The newer genetic engineering techniques allow even greater certainty about the traits being introduced and the precise location of those introduced traits in the genome of the recipient.

The bottom line is that organisms crafted with the newest, most sophisticated and precise genetic techniques are subject to discriminatory, excessive, burdensome, and costly regulation. Research proposals for field trials must be reviewed case by case, and companies face uncertainty about final commercial approvals of products down the road even if the products prove to be safe and effective.

The newest molecular breeding techniques have created anxiety at EPA, where there are internal pressures to declare that all forms of molecular modification create “new chemicals,” which would expand the agency’s regulatory reach still further under TSCA. If EPA were to adopt this “new chemicals” approach, there is legitimate concern that products from these new techniques could face the same fate as recombinant DNA-modified microorganisms: EPA has approved only one such microorganism since it declared them to be new chemicals in 1997.

Concurrently, EPA is considering an expansion of its FIFRA power, perhaps through the concept of “plant regulators,” to capture crops and products from the newest molecular modification techniques. In an EPA document published in May 2014, the agency received advice favoring the treatment of many uses of RNA interference technology as a pesticide, in spite of the testimony of Craig Mello—who discovered RNA interference, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2006—that the use of RNAi technology per se is inherently of very low risk and should elicit no incremental regulatory oversight. Similarly, James Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, testified to the “intrinsic non-hazardous properties of diverse RNA types,” stating that “there is no validated scientific evidence that [RNAi] causes or is even associated with ill effects. . . in humans, mammals, or any animals other than certain arthropods, nematodes, and certain microbes that consume or invade plants.”

Science suggests rational alternatives

There are far more rational—and proven—alternatives to the current unscientific regulation of genetic engineering. Indeed, science shows the way. For more than two decades, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had a scientific, risk-based approach toward “novel foods” made with any technology. Published in 1992, the statement of policy emphasized that the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition does not impose discriminatory regulation based on the use of one technique or another. The FDA concluded that greater scrutiny is needed only when certain safety issues arise. Those safety issues include the presence of a completely new substance in the food supply, changes in a macronutrient, an increase in a natural toxicant, or the presence of an allergen where a consumer would not expect it. In addition, FDA has properly resisted calls for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods as not materially relevant information under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and as not consistent with the statutory requirement that food labeling must be accurate and not misleading. (As discussed above, another scientific and risk-based approach to regulation is the USDA’s long-standing treatment of potential plant pests.)

However, FDA has been less successful with its oversight of genetically engineered animals. In 1993, developers of a faster-maturing genetically engineered salmon—an Atlantic salmon containing a particular Pacific Chinook salmon growth hormone gene—first approached FDA. After 15 years of indecision, in 2008 the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine decided that every genetically engineered animal intended for food would be evaluated as a veterinary drug and subjected to the same premarket approval procedures and regulations as drugs (such as pain relievers and anti-flea medicines) used to treat animals. The rationale offered was that a genetically engineered construct “that is in a [genetically engineered] animal and is intended to affect the animal’s structure or function meets the definition of an animal drug.” But this explanation conveniently ignores the science, the FDA’s own precedents, and the availability of other, more appropriate regulatory options.

Adoption of the FDA’s existing approach to foods (which is far less protracted and intensive than that for veterinary drugs) would have sufficed and should have been applied to genetically engineered animals intended for consumption. Instead, FDA interpreted its authority in a way that invokes a highly risk-averse, burdensome, and costly approach. The impact has been devastating: The FDA has not approved a single genetically engineered animal for food consumption. An entire, once-promising sector of genetic engineering has virtually disappeared.

Genetically engineered animals were first developed 30 years ago in land-grant university laboratories. Those animal science innovators have grown old without gaining a single approval for their work. Many academic researchers who have introduced promising traits into animals have moved their research to other nations, particularly Brazil. Many younger animal scientists have simply abandoned the field of genetically engineered animals. As for the faster-growing salmon, the FDA (and also, recently, the Obama White House) has kept it in regulatory limbo while imposing costs of more than $75 million on its developers. And there appears to be no regulatory resolution in sight for this safe, nutritious, environmentally beneficial alternative to the depletion of dwindling wild stocks of ocean fish.

The types of newer genetic engineering techniques emerging since the days of recombinant DNA technology that yielded the faster-growing salmon seem unlikely to fare any better at FDA. For example, a University of Minnesota animal scientist has used the TALENs technique to transfer an Angus beef cow gene for the hornless (polled) trait into the Holstein dairy cattle breed. This genetic modification provides greater animal welfare for dairy cattle (i.e., avoidance of dehorning) and greater safety for dairy farmers (i.e., avoidance of being gored). But FDA has refused to consider the genetically engineered Holsteins under the same approach it uses for genetically engineered foods. Rather, FDA has asserted that the genetically engineered Holstein cattle contain a “new animal drug” and that, therefore, the animals cannot be released or marketed until a new animal drug approval is granted.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) offers another example of anti-genetic engineering policies. Beginning in 2006, a nongovernmental health and environmental advocacy organization called the Center for Food Safety initiated a litigation campaign to force FWS to ban genetically engineered organisms from national wildlife refuges. The center argued that permitting the cultivation of genetically engineered crops constituted a “major federal action” that required environmental studies under the National Environmental Policy Act and compatibility studies under the National Wildlife Refuge Systems Act and the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act. FWS barely contested these allegations, and its own biologist testified inaccurately that genetically engineered agricultural crops posed significant environmental risks of biological contamination, weed resistance, and damage to soils. Not surprisingly, the courts ruled in the plaintiff’s favor.

Given FWS’s obvious lack of familiarity with genetic engineering and its officials’ apparent unwillingness to do the necessary homework, it is understandable that FWS did not respond appropriately to these court rulings. Instead of using its statutory authority to create categorical exemptions, which would have allowed modern farming practices on refuge lands, FWS banned genetically engineered crops for two years and convened a Leadership Team to determine whether such plants were “essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s).” On July 17, 2014, FWS answered in the negative. Consequently, beginning January 1, 2016, FWS will ban genetically engineered plants from its refuges. Thus, not only did FWS reject science, but it ignored the enhanced resilience and environmental benefits that genetic engineering can foster.

Epilogue

Is there any reason for optimism about the future? Will reasonableness emerge suddenly in agencies’ oversight of recombinant DNA technology? How will the various regulatory agencies approach the newest refinements of genetic engineering? How will they respond to synthetic biology?

The opportunity costs of unnecessary regulatory delays and inflated development expenses are formidable. As David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues have observed, “The foregone benefits from these otherwise feasible production technologies are irreversible, both in the sense that past harvests have been lower than they would have been if the technology had been introduced and in the sense that yield growth is a cumulative process of which the onset has been delayed.”

The nation has already foregone significant benefits because of the over-regulation and discriminatory treatment of recombinant DNA technology. If we are to avoid repeating those mistakes for newer genetic modification technologies and synthetic biology, we must have more scientifically defensible and risk-based approaches to oversight. We need and deserve better from governmental regulatory agencies and from their congressional overseers.


Henry I. Miller (henry.miller@stanford.edu), a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. Drew L. Kershen is the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus), University of Oklahoma College of Law, in Norman, OK.

Nuclear Power for the Developing World


by

Small modular reactors may be attractive in many developing nations. Here is a blueprint for how to build them efficiently and ensure maximum safety.

In the United States and much of the developed world, nuclear power raises deep misgivings among many decisionmakers and ordinary people. Concerns about safety have been rekindled by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. There are also long-standing worries over proliferation and spent fuel management. And the technology has proven expensive: its high capital costs, combined with restructured electricity markets that place heavy emphasis on short-term economic gains, cheap natural gas in the United States, and the absence of a serious commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, make nuclear power uncompetitive in many markets. The four new reactors being built in the United States today are in states that have vertically integrated power companies, where public utility commissions can approve the addition of the cost to the rate base.

But nuclear power is not dead. Seventy nuclear reactors are under construction worldwide. Twenty-seven of those are in China, ten are in Russia, and six are in India. With few exceptions, these new reactors are of the large light water type that dominate today’s commercial fleet, producing roughly 75% of the electricity in France, 20% in the United States, 18% in the United Kingdom, and 17% in Germany.

The same holds true when it comes to the development of new reactor designs. Some limited work continues in the United States, but efforts by its Department of Energy to rekindle interest among commercial players have seen limited success. Germany, once a leader in advanced reactor designs, closed its reactor development laboratories some years ago, ending all such research. Its labs now focus only on reactor safety for select advanced designs. However, China, India, Korea, and Russia continue to support vigorous development and demonstration programs.

As developed countries come to appreciate the magnitude of the effort needed to fully wean their energy systems off of carbon-emitting energy sources, there is a possibility that they will see a resurgence of support for nuclear power—presumably using safer and lower-cost technologies. In the meantime, the rest of the world will continue its present building boom and push on with the development of new designs.

Thinking small

Many proponents of nuclear power believe that the technology’s problems can be solved through innovation. Some have held up a vision of small modular reactors (SMRs), capable of producing 5 megawatts to 300 megawatts of electricity that would be manufactured on a factory production line and then shipped to the field as a complete module to be installed on a pre-prepared site. Proponents argue that factory manufacturing would not just reduce costs; it could also result in dramatic improvements in quality and reliability. Moreover, if these SMRs could then be returned—still fully fueled—to secure facilities at the end of their core life, the risk of proliferation could be better managed.

It is a lovely vision, but its realization lies decades in the future, if it is even possible. Estimates of the capital cost per megawatt of first-generation light water SMRs lie a factor of two or three above that of conventional reactors. Of course, since SMRs would be much smaller, the total cost would be much lower; hence, choosing an SMR would not be a “bet the company” decision. But few firms in the developed world are likely to be interested, absent a significant price on carbon emissions, or perhaps a new business model that incorporates other uses for a small-scale reactor (such as water desalination or hydrogen production) in tandem with electrical generation.

The same may not be the case across the developing world. If the cost of more advanced small modular reactor designs can be brought down, even to the range of conventional reactors, many nations may find SMRs an attractive way to meet their growing demands for electricity or process heat, and may find the smaller size more compatible with their smaller, less-developed electricity grids.

While the vendors involved in nuclear technology are responsible for innovating on the construction front to bring down SMR cost and construction duration, vendors and regulators share the burden of innovating on both the deployment and institutional fronts. A number of SMR mass deployment strategies have been proposed, ranging from business-as-usual to a build-own-operate-return (BOOR) strategy. Under business-as-usual, countries that choose to host SMRs would assume all responsibility for safety and the security of nuclear materials. Under a BOOR strategy, nuclear suppliers—perhaps backed by sovereign states and accredited through an internationally sanctioned framework—would provide, operate, and take custody of SMRs, thus assuming responsibility for the plant and all parts of the fuel cycle.

When questioned, even proponents of the BOOR strategy admit that, ultimately, nations that choose to deploy nuclear power plants must accept at least some of the responsibility associated with the technology. However, the strategy may be a way of reducing these responsibilities for customers who want clean energy, but cannot afford to fully build the technical and social institutions needed to responsibly manage nuclear power.

Regardless of deployment strategy, the institutional paradigm must change in a world with many SMRs. Host nations in the developing world could help, but, if this is to happen, delivering this change would mainly be the responsibility of national policymakers in nuclear supplier states, primarily China, France, Korea, Russia, and the United States, working within the framework of the international nuclear control regime. If coming decades do see a growth in SMRs across the developing world, three issues become critical: emergency response, liability, and proliferation.

Emergency response. Both light water SMRs and more advanced ones adopt a range of passive safety features. These are intended to reduce the probability of a major accident and, if abnormal conditions do develop, to increase the “coping time” available to operators to address the problem. Some designs eliminate on-site fuel handling; others rely on air-cooling instead of water-cooling, which reduces the need for elaborate plumbing and emergency power to cool the core after an accident. Some designs propose a fleet management approach where, as with many aircraft jet engines today, the reactor’s supplier can see everything an on-site control room operator sees. In an emergency, the supplier could provide advice to local operators, or even override local operators and take control. Nevertheless, the core of any SMR will contain highly hazardous materials. However remote the possibility, a major disaster could result in the release of significant quantities of these materials to the environment.

Few developing countries have, or are able to develop, the capacity to respond appropriately to a major accident. While commercial suppliers might adopt a BOOR approach, it seems most unlikely that they would include full-scale emergency response as part of the package. Suppliers backed by a capable sovereign nation, such as China or Russia, might supply a more credible capacity, but this does not solve the more general problem.

Liability. Efforts to develop a global liability regime, or to ensure that all reactors are covered by the arrangements that currently exist, must be accelerated. That said, if SMRs are to see mass deployment, alternative arrangements must be made for those smaller nations that cannot afford the liability caps that existing conventions prescribe. No global third-party nuclear liability regime exists. There are multiple conventions that states subscribe to, but given that some subscribe to none, substantial gaps exist in the current international framework. More than half of the world’s commercial nuclear fleet is not covered by any liability regime currently in effect. These reactors are in large countries such as Canada, China, and India that acknowledge that liability ultimately rests with the sovereign.

The main conventions at the moment are the Paris Convention, enacted in 1960, and the Vienna Convention, enacted in 1963. The Paris Convention, as updated under the Brussels Supplementary Convention of 1963, stipulates a liability amount of approximately $450 million. The Vienna Convention, as updated in 1997, specifies a liability limit of approximately $450 million. (The actual amounts under both conventions vary based on changes in currency valuations; the figures given reflect valuations as of mid-October 2014.) More recently, some efforts have been made to increase the liability amounts in acknowledgment of the potentially devastating effects of nuclear accidents. A revision to the Paris Convention was proposed in 2004 that would raise the liability amount to approximately $900 million (at current currency conversion rates), though this has yet to come in force. Also, the United States led an effort that in 1997 resulted in the establishment of a third convention, called the Convention on Supplementary Compensation that stipulates a liability of $900 million. In a major development, the Japanese Diet approved the ratification of this Convention in late November, which means it will enter into force three months after Japan deposits its instrument of ratification with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Only six countries have ratified the Convention on Supplementary Compensation thus far but, if it fulfills its promise of streamlining liability claims in the event of an accident, that will steer more countries towards signing and ratifying it.

Depending on the location of a potential accident—in other words, given the liability regime in effect—claims of damages can be filed against a reactor’s operator or its supplier, or against national authorities. Allegedly wronged parties in neighboring countries could file these claims as well, raising questions of which courts can exercise jurisdiction in which cases. Since these claims can involve thousands of cases and stretch into the tens of billions of dollars in the case of large nuclear accidents, commercial operators carefully investigate liability law in jurisdictions where they contemplate building plants. Suppliers and operators that choose to embark on plants in nations that neither subscribe to international conventions nor have well-developed national liability regimes are usually state-owned or state-affiliated enterprises in rich developed or developing nations. It is generally assumed that the lion’s share of the liability for an accident in such jurisdictions rests with the sovereign.

National nuclear liability laws vary greatly. For example, some countries do not hold nuclear operators strictly liable for nuclear incidents. The amount of money in different nuclear insurance pools differs, and some countries do not extend financial protection to cover grave natural disasters. Harmonizing liability law by convincing states to subscribe to a single convention eliminates some of the uncertainty that prevents nuclear operators from pursuing builds in certain countries, and precludes the sort of extended, high-level political discussions between governments that are currently necessary for exporter and host nations to commence a nuclear power plant project. They also increase liability amounts, cover a wider range of damages, and explicitly declare that “grave natural disasters” are no grounds for exoneration. Nuclear liability law has yet to be harmonized within the European Union, let alone globally, and movement toward this goal has been very slow. In all likelihood, it will remain so.

Some existing nuclear energy states have not ratified any of the conventions, including India, China, South Africa, and Canada. Most of the developing world has yet to ratify any. Efforts to modernize the nuclear liability regime have thus far involved steering countries toward ratification of a single convention. But even if this happens, some developing nations considering a nuclear program probably could not afford the liability amounts for which they would be responsible under any of the conventions, and especially the revised Paris Convention or the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. In the event of a major accident, these nations might well default. In addition to the sociopolitical and economic implications, such a default could place an even greater burden on institutions that provide development aid, diverting much-needed funds from investments in capacity building. Global conventions on nuclear liability must recognize that recovering from accidents involving SMRs will entail smaller sums of money than the hundreds of millions of dollars currently prescribed. Alternative liability arrangements must be made for developing nations that are seeking to deploy one or several SMRs, as opposed to multi-gigawatt conventional plants. We describe alternative arrangements later; regardless of the form they ultimately take, liability considerations should certainly be a part of any future SMR deployment agreements and should be codified in international energy policy.

Proliferation. If SMRs are to be fueled in the field, as will be required for virtually all designs now in advanced stages of development, there is a possibility that spent fuel could be diverted for use in weapons programs, or for the construction of “dirty bombs.” Also, the mass deployment of SMRs might open new pathways for proliferation that will need to be managed. For example, the potential growth of the nuclear-trained workforce will broaden the population of people who have a detailed understanding of this technology.

Some suppliers have dismissed this concern, arguing that proliferation is “a uniquely American preoccupation.” However, it would become an international concern overnight if diversion were ever to occur. In our view, it is far better to find a comprehensive way to address the problem now, than try to patch things up if a diversion occurs after many SMRs have been deployed under a business-as-usual scenario.

New tools and more resources are needed to assess and manage the risk of proliferation. This is true not only for SMRs, but also for the world nuclear enterprise writ large. A recent report by the National Research Council (Improving the Assessment of the Proliferation Risk of Nuclear Fuel Cycles) clearly articulates the serious limitations of all present assessment tools.

Until better tools are developed, there are three common-sense steps that could be taken to manage the risk of proliferation from the mass deployment of SMRs. First, the international community should urgently act to create a global control and accounting system for all civilian nuclear materials. This system must incorporate as many nuclear isotopes as possible, and it must be easy for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to access and query. Second, preference must be given to SMR designs that minimize the need for on-site fuel handling and storage—in general, the fewer times the fuel is handled, the better. And third, nations must recommit to tackling the waste question, by consolidating existing stockpiles or establishing permanent repositories. A global, internationally supervised approach to waste management, of the sort proposed years ago by Chauncey Starr and Wolf Häfele, is highly unlikely. The historic reluctance of the United States to cede any sovereignty in such matters, and the rapidly decaying relationship between Russia and the West, pose enormous challenges on this front. National or regional facilities may be possible, of course, though the danger always exists of rich neighbors coercing poorer ones into inappropriately hosting storage facilities.

Preparing for nuclear reality

Even given the challenges that remain, it is likely that many countries in the developing world may want to push forward with installing and operating SMRs. To better assist with and control such mass deployment of SMRs, new institutional arrangements are needed that would globalize standards regarding the type of SMRs that can be deployed and how to respond to potential accidents and reduce the probability of proliferation. We were able to explore alternative institutional arrangements at a workshop we organized in Switzerland with the International Risk Governance Council and the Paul Scherrer Institut. The workshop, which was supported by the MacArthur Foundation, brought together forty experts from eleven countries, nine SMR vendors, and all major nuclear supplier states.

As a first step toward this goal, a radical modification of the certification and licensing process must be developed and adopted. Many countries that could be interested in SMRs do not even have a nuclear regulatory authority. The movement in the United States toward certifying a design and then licensing site-specific modifications is welcome and provides a good starting point for streamlining the SMR deployment process. Unfortunately the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is currently unequipped to assess any designs, especially non-light water ones, in a timely way.

If the industry takes every new idea to mean a protracted, expensive struggle with the regulator, it will instead design-out these innovations. To be sure, vendors with novel ideas must be prepared to defend these ideas. At the same time, regulators must acknowledge the nuclear innovator’s dilemma, and be equipped to step out of their comfort zone when evaluating designs. While many officials in the United States keep referring to NRC certification as “the gold standard,” many of the nation’s allies and rivals disagree with that characterization. And, if the agency does not develop the capability to assess advanced designs, it runs the risk of becoming less and less relevant as China, Korea, and others certify and market their own designs across the world.

Ideally, designs should first be certified and built in their home country. Another nuclear supplier state should then certify the design. Certification from regulators in two reactor-supplying states would assure inexperienced customers of the design’s viability. What is radical about this idea is that the host nation’s regulator would not undertake the design certification process itself, saving both the supplier and the host nation time and money. The staff of a newly established national regulator should engage in an intensive education program with the regulators who certified the design. The details of this process should be stipulated in multilateral agreements involving the exporting nation, the host nation, and the IAEA. Material generated during the original design certification process would be shared with the host nation’s regulator. Therefore, the relatively inexperienced host nation regulator would only be responsible for approving site-specific changes to the standardized design. This plan requires not only collaboration among national regulators, but also a permanent forum to facilitate and support the process: the IAEA should assume this role.

It is highly unlikely that the IAEA would be granted the authority and resources needed to certify SMR designs, though some developing countries might consider that a more credible stamp of approval than what we suggest above. Regardless of who certifies the design, in a business-as-usual world, vendors would be responsible for paying the cost of design certification, as they do now. The same would hold in a BOOR world, although granting the IAEA an expanded mandate under this regime implies that suppliers would have to obtain certification of good design and operational practice from the agency, for which they would pay an annual fee.

We believe that streamlining the certification and licensing process is as effective a course of action as can be achieved in today’s multipolar world. It would enable developing nations, including those countries that do not have the capability to certify a nuclear reactor design, to exploit civilian nuclear power in a much safer way. The alternatives include business-as-usual at one end of the spectrum, which constitutes a high barrier to entry and confines nuclear power to existing nuclear energy states, and at the other end a fully internationalized regulatory regime, which is highly unlikely given current attitudes to national sovereignty.

As a second step, the development of a robust international crisis management infrastructure is essential if SMRs are to see wide deployment. Momentum for such evolution has been growing since the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident, which demonstrated that even developed nations need international support to respond to accidents. The need is exacerbated by the fact that SMRs might be deployed in countries that are challenged by human capital, organizational, and physical resource constraints.

The IAEA, or leading nuclear supplier states, must establish a far more effective accident evaluation and response team. This team should include a multidisciplinary group of experts in emergency management, diplomacy, nuclear power, risk assessment, and risk communication. The team would be responsible for a diverse range of tasks, including advising and assisting in the preparation of nuclear plants that lie in the path of anticipated natural disasters, coordinating the international response to nuclear accidents, and communicating with the public in real time in the event of such accidents. The latter requires the development of instruments that communicate the level of risk and the appropriate course of action depending on the emergency faced: the IAEA’s International Nuclear Event Scale is of little use in anything but a retrospective capacity.

The team would also need to maintain good relations with nuclear regulators and emergency managers throughout the world, which is why housing it within the IAEA, with its reach and influence, would be the preferred approach. And if it is not granted the power to requisition assets or deploy them from a purpose-built stock, it must dedicate staff to liaising with major powers’ armed forces, with leading providers of humanitarian relief, and with shipment and logistics companies. In the case of a nuclear emergency, the humanitarian response that would need to be mobilized is significant enough to overwhelm existing humanitarian aid organizations, and to divert substantial resources from other crises. The development of such purpose-built, fully funded international response teams would go some way to preventing this.

On the level of plant operators, it is imperative that the World Association of Nuclear Operators strives to achieve the level of information sharing, inspection technique development, and operator training that has been so successfully exhibited by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in the United States. The institute’s efforts have shown that safety and reliability can come before issues of propriety: information-sharing works in the interest of all plant operators, and thus of the nuclear industry and the public at large.

On the level of individual contracts, these should be preceded by multilateral agreements among SMR exporters, host nations, and the IAEA that explicitly address the need to create a level of emergency response capacity in the host nation commensurate with the level of risk created, through training in disaster risk management.

This proposed framework offers several benefits. It means that additional exports would require improved emergency response capacity, sustaining the relationship between exporter, host, and the IAEA. It would also facilitate both the standardizing of emergency response procedures and the updating of existing procedures as operational experience with SMRs increases. Moreover, the framework has the added advantage of working in both a business-as-usual world and a BOOR world. Finally, maintaining robust international and national emergency response measures would force the world to abandon the myth of absolute safety, and therefore complacency. As mentioned earlier, every nation wishing to purchase an SMR must accept some of the responsibility that comes with a nuclear power plant, and that includes developing a level of emergency response and crisis management infrastructure robust enough to cope with the effects of potential accidents, aided by the sort of international support that we have proposed.

Third, given the high liability amounts stipulated in existing conventions, the international community would be well advised to develop some form of shared international liability cap, specifically for SMRs, to address the smaller consequences of accidents involving these reactors and the enhanced level of safety they incorporate. It is worth noting, for example, that a reactor’s decommissioning funding allowance in the United States is based on the size bracket in which it falls (there are two). Although such an international approach is wise, we consider it unlikely to be adopted. Alternatively, national nuclear industries can force such efforts into being as each lobbies its government to share liability for their products with customer nations. Obviously, such lobbying efforts would be more successful if SMRs become competitive, and significant demand can be demonstrated from overseas customers.

As for funding these efforts, it is worth exploring the development of shared regional liability caps, or “endowments” to be managed by bodies set up specifically for this purpose, with their assets dedicated to responding to regional nuclear accidents. Many nations share grid infrastructure with their neighbors; regions are becoming electrically more interconnected. For example, since the United Arab Emirates plans to feed power from its reactors into a Gulf Cooperation Council grid, perhaps those nations that benefit from nuclear power while hosting no plants should contribute to mitigating the consequences of a nuclear accident in their region. The same might be possible in the East African Community or the Economic Community of West African States, should Kenya or Nigeria build an SMR. The level of each country’s contribution could reflect the share of the plant’s power output that it consumes. Alternatively, ex-ante bilateral agreements with powerful neighbors, or with the exporting nation, could take some of the financial burden off of the host nation, preventing financial ruin in the case of an accident.

Roadmap for institutional change

Three common threads interweave these issues. First, each of the above challenges requires a well-resourced and resolute IAEA. The agency currently lacks the resources and trained personnel to provide the level of supervision and oversight needed to sustain a safe and secure build-out of large or small reactors on the scale required to decarbonize the global grid. Many of the changes we propose will require vendors, operators, or sovereigns to pay a one-time or annual fee, either to support licensing and certification efforts or to support training of local responders, as well as a rapidly deployable international emergency response capability. In cases where the IAEA shoulders the burden of facilitating or supporting these efforts, it should receive appropriate compensation.

Second, smaller nations cannot afford the liability caps that existing conventions prescribe. Moreover, they are interested in smaller, safer reactors. Recovery from an accident involving an SMR will, in all likelihood, entail fewer resources than recovery from large reactor accidents. Any credible institutional arrangement will require the establishment and maintenance of either international or regional SMR liability pools, or perhaps both. This requires careful assessment of the willingness to pay of both host and exporter nations, and of the amount of liability that the private industry (through insurers and re-insurers) is willing to assume. Because that depends on many factors, ranging from the level of risk posed by an SMR (this differs depending on design, certification, and deployment strategy) to location, we suggest changing the focus from ultimately arbitrary “liability caps” to building and carefully managing endowments.

We recommend the establishment of an international SMR liability pool that must be paid into by host and exporter nations before an SMR is brought on-line. Deposits from intergovernmental and private entities would supplement these funds, as would annual deposits from SMR operators. The levels could differ depending on the risk posed by the SMR and deployment location and, if a region is organized enough to demand additional coverage, a similar regional endowment could be established to supplement the international one. Such collaboration is not unheard of. Sixteen Caribbean nations joined together in 2007 to form the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, which was developed and partially capitalized by the World Bank and the government of Japan. Other nations and organizations have also contributed to this trust fund, including Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean Development Bank, the European Union, France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. It is unclear if nuclear insurance policies would gain similar access to traditional and capital markets, and whether risk pooling would lower premiums to an extent that would justify the development of this facility, but it is an approach that should be explored.

Third, bilateral and multilateral initiatives are needed to improve regional and international collaboration, standardize procedures globally, and accelerate the development of infrastructure necessary to exploit nuclear power responsibly. It is easier to incorporate norms in overarching international conventions if a critical mass of countries already subscribes to them. SMRs perhaps represent the industry’s best chance of achieving this standardization. Building large reactors in emerging nuclear energy states requires decadal or multi-decadal collaboration between exporter and host nation on many fronts, from the political to the financial to the technical. For many emerging nuclear energy states, these acquisitions would be a once-in-a-generation undertaking, if at all possible. As such, the standardization process has been extremely slow. Smaller reactors that prove to be economically attractive, less complex, and shippable worldwide could alter this paradigm.

We have avoided proposing revisions that would require overarching international treaties, simply because we do not see the political will that would be needed to develop a new, comprehensive, and multilateral regime for the 21st century. Perhaps only a shock, such as another major nuclear accident or a serious proliferation incident, can generate that political will. For example, if there is a serious enough diversion of nuclear materials by a state or non-state actor, this might catalyze the development of a global, comprehensive nuclear material control and accounting system. Advocates of such a system have outlined its necessity for decades. If our assessment is correct, it is a poor reflection on the state of national and global affairs that only a nuclear disaster could galvanize such action.

Although it is not yet clear what multilateralism in a multipolar world will look like, it will probably be messier than today. Bottom-up approaches to harmonizing global standards and enhancing the control regime, despite their messiness, might hold the greatest likelihood of success. And, since it is highly unlikely that the United States, Europe, or Japan will become major SMR exporters, these players need to use what soft power they have to help craft as strong a nuclear control regime for SMRs as is possible. This is especially true now that relations between major nuclear supplier states are becoming increasingly frayed, especially those between Japan and China, Korea and China, France and Russia, and the United States and Russia.

There is an urgent need to raise living standards across the developing world. If SMRs cannot be part of a portfolio of future energy technologies, it is difficult to see how this can be achieved without a massive increase in future emissions of carbon dioxide. While the suite of energy sources needed to mitigate global emissions does not need to be identical everywhere, it does need to consist of low-carbon sources. It is highly unlikely that all but the richest nations of the developing world will seek to build and run large nuclear power plants. But with a few far-sighted and uniformly positive changes to the institutions that govern the technology, small modular reactors could prove to be a valuable part of the mix in some countries.


Ahmed Abdulla (aya1@cmu.edu) is a postdoctoral research fellow and M. Granger Morgan (granger.morgan@andre.cmu.edu) is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.


The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science


by

Annual scientific gatherings can be sleepy affairs, with their succession of jargon-laden PowerPoint presentations. But there was a nervous buzz at the start of the 2014 conference of the Western Society of Naturalists in mid-November, in Tacoma, Washington. The first morning would feature two titans of ecology squaring off over the future of conservation.

It wasn’t billed that way, and neither man wanted to cross swords in a public forum. But the expectant crowd knew that Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Michael Soulé, a founding father of conservation biology, had become unlikely adversaries in the past few years.

Their fight, which has divided the ecological community, centers on whether conservation should be for nature’s sake or equally for human benefit. Strong voices in both camps have joined the fray and triggered a war of words in journals and on op-ed pages. Some of it has turned ugly. A week before Soulé and Kareiva would face off in front of 600 young ecologists (many of them still in college) at the Tacoma conference, an article calling for unity was published in the journal Nature.

“Unfortunately, what began as a healthy debate, has, in our opinion, descended into vitriolic, personal battles in universities, academic conferences, research stations, conservation organizations, and even the media,” the piece lamented. “We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress.” The commentary was authored by Heather Tallis, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished marine ecologist and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the first term of the Obama presidency. More than 200 environmental scientists added their names as signatories.

Soulé and Kareiva did not fan the flames of this acrimonious debate during their appearances in Tacoma. They skirted the fault lines that were shaking the foundations of their field. But Kareiva at one point alluded to the controversy. “There’s a dialogue going on now,” he said, vaguely. It is about “how useful our science is and what we’ve been doing.”

Actually, that’s the dialogue Kareiva wants to have. He wants the discussion to be about how nature is getting reshuffled in our human-dominated era (what some refer to as the Anthropocene) with its global transformation of landscapes, oceans, and the climate, and how this requires new conservation tools and approaches. The old ways of protecting nature, which many of his colleagues still swear by, aim to keep nature separate from humans. This is misguided, Kareiva has argued, and also untenable on a planet of seven billion people. He challenged the audience of young ecologists to think outside the box of traditional conservation.

Soulé, however, wanted to keep them focused on a familiar model. “Ecologists like national parks because it’s the only place where large predators survive, and only where large predators survive is where biological diversity is rich,” he said.

If this is true (there is considerable disagreement on that assertion), then what of all the nature that exists outside the boundaries of a remote national park, protected wilderness area, or wildlife refuge? What of the nature in suburban backyards, urban green spaces, farms, and ranches? Is that less desirable and less meaningful to ecologists? Kareiva doesn’t think so, but Soulé’s preferred model—the dominant model in conservation—has boxed in ecologists. It has narrowed how they view nature and it has narrowed their options for protecting it.

These are issues that the future ecologists at the Tacoma conference were already wrestling with. They know their field is at a crossroads. Their leaders were wrangling over how best to preserve the last vestiges of the natural world on a domesticated planet. The future of conservation was up for grabs. Some of the key visionaries were on the stage, in the form of Kareiva and Soulé. But what future were they pointing to?

Conflicting science, conflicting values

Three decades ago, Michael Soulé was at the forefront of a battle to save nature from humanity. He and other ecologists had begun to articulate the concept of biodiversity as a focal point in conservation. In 1985, Soulé published a seminal essay, called “What is Conservation Biology?” The article helped define the then-emerging field of ecological research and application. It was an ethically imbued science with an underlying precept: plants, animals, and ecosystems had intrinsic value. This bio-centric ethic called for nature to be protected from human activities, which, as Soulé wrote, had unleashed a “frenzy of environmental destruction” that “threatened to eliminate millions of species in our lifetime.”

In the mid-1980s, as Soulé began laying the groundwork for a new professional organization—the Society for Conservation Biology—Peter Kareiva was immersed in fieldwork studying the dynamics of predator-prey insect populations. Kareiva had just joined the zoology department at the University of Washington and had started trekking out to Mount St. Helens, five years after its volcano erupted. He watched new ecological life slowly emerge on the denuded, lava-scorched landscape. This frontline view planted a nagging thought in Kareiva’s mind: perhaps nature, which green rhetoric often depicts as fragile, was more resilient than he and his colleagues realized.

Other environmental matters beckoned, however. Many of Kareiva’s fellow ecologists felt that nature was under siege—from unchecked mining, logging, fishing, and the whole sprawling footprint of human development—and they joined the fight to preserve biodiversity. Kareiva, too, was soon drawn to the battlefront. In the early 1990s, he testified as a lead witness for environmentalists who sued to curtail logging in large swaths of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. The media dubbed it the Spotted Owl War, because greens used the bird—and its nesting habitat—as a symbolic and legal lever. Kareiva’s testimony in the case helped protect the spotted owl from human encroachment—just as conservation biology’s ethic of intrinsic value had called for—but he was discomfited in the Seattle courtroom by all the loggers sitting quietly in the rear, many with their kids on their laps. The fathers held placards that read: “You care more about owls than my children.” That sight stayed with him.

Over the next two decades, Soulé and Kareiva—who has been TNC’s chief scientist since 2002—would be occupied by the same concern—the erosion of functional ecosystems that supported a diverse array of species.

Yet their journeys as defenders of nature have led them down different paths. At the outset of his talk during the Tacoma conference, Soulé, now in his mid-70s, seemed perplexed by this turn. “That’s the irony of this particular discussion,” he said. “We all want the same thing. We want a good life, we want to be happy, and we want to protect biodiversity.”

The problem, he went on to suggest, is that everyone wants a good life—meaning the rest of the world. “The more people there are, the wealthier they are, the more they consume and pollute, the less opportunity there is going to be for other life forms on the planet,” he said.

Soulé, it’s worth noting, got his Ph.D. at Stanford in the 1960s, where he studied population biology under Paul Ehrlich, an influential early voice in the contemporary environmental movement. Ehrlich’s best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, prophesied global eco-doom if the world’s population was not significantly reduced. Concerns about overpopulation framed the green discourse for a generation. When Soulé laid out his manifesto for conservation biologists in the 1980s, he portrayed humanity as the wrecking ball laying waste to earth—and what was left of wild nature.

He still feels that way. “This is not a great time to be a conservationist,” he said glumly to the future ecologists assembled in Tacoma.

Kareiva is neither pessimistic nor sunny about the state of the world. To him, it just is what it is. He doesn’t downplay threats to biodiversity, but he is tired of the unceasing gloom-and-doom narrative that environmentalism has advanced for the past quarter century.

He also believes that the eco-apocalyptic mindset has infected the field of conservation biology with an unhealthy bias. Sometimes, he says, science paints a different picture than that which conservation biologists want the public to see. “I have been an editor of major journals for thirty years, handling papers on migratory bird declines, salmon, marine fisheries, extinction crises, and so on,” he told me. “An article that confirms doom is never critiqued. Any article that reports things are not so bad gets hammered. It is very discouraging to me.”

He recalls one particular episode regarding a paper published twenty years ago in the journal Ecology. Its finding contradicted widely held assumptions that neotropical warblers were declining. “It was reviewed unprofessionally and viciously because folks worried it would undermine efforts to reduce tropical deforestation. I have seen this over and over again.” The conservation community, he says, “is plagued with an astonishing confirmation bias that does not allow questioning of anything.”

The field’s premier journal, Conservation Biology, was rocked in 2012 by similar charges of politicized interference when its editor was fired after she had tried “removing advocacy statements from research papers,” as an article in Science reported.

It was around this time that Kareiva and some of his colleagues began calling for new approaches to conservation. In an essay published in BioScience, he and Michelle Marvier, an ecologist at Santa Clara University, wrote: “Forward-looking conservation protects natural habitats where people live and extract resources and works with corporations to find mixes of economic and conservation activities that blend development with a concern for nature.”

Leading figures in the ecological community were aghast. The essay explicitly challenged Soulé’s founding precepts for conservation biology, which established the field as a distinctly nature-centric enterprise. It was not intended to accommodate human needs or corporate interests. In a rebuttal published in Conservation Biology, Soulé characterized Kareiva and Marvier’s view as “a radical departure from conservation.” We humans, he wrote, “already control more than our fair share of earth’s resources . . . . [T]he new conservation, if implemented, would hasten ecological collapse globally, eradicating thousands of kinds of plants and animals.”

Kareiva is a lightning rod for criticism because of his high profile position at The Nature Conservancy, which is the largest and richest environmental organization in the world. He is also outspoken. In one public talk, he marveled at nature’s ability to rebound from industrial disasters, such as oil spills. He wasn’t condoning such actions; he just thinks that in some cases his peers conveniently overlook an ecosystem’s resilience because it contradicts the fragile nature narrative that has shaped environmental discourse and politics. Additionally, Kareiva has come to believe it is better to work with industry than against it—so as to influence its practices. (This is what TNC has done of late, in partnering with Dow Chemical and other companies on environmental restoration projects). “Conservation is not going to succeed until we make business our friend,” he has said.

The more Kareiva talks like this, the angrier he makes some of his esteemed peers. They have already been on the warpath. In 2013, Soulé, along with Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and others, sent a letter to TNC President Mark Tercek, complaining about Kareiva. They slammed his views as “wrongheaded, counterproductive, and ethically dubious.”

The onslaught has not let up. Last year, an article in the journal Biological Conservation by Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm likened Kareiva to a prostitute doing the bidding of industry.

The recent commentary in Nature, with its 200-plus signatories from the ecological community, sought to cool passions and tamp down the debate’s derogatory tone. The authors pleaded for “a unified and diverse conservation ethic,” one that accepts all philosophies justifying nature protection, including those based on moral, aesthetic, and economic considerations. They asked for ecologists to look back to the historic roots of conservation for guidance.

The roots of biodiversity protection

In the early 1900s, when President Theodore Roosevelt was establishing national parks and wildlife refuges, ecology had not yet become a formalized science. People viewed the natural world from a largely aesthetic or utilitarian perspective.

John Muir, the Sierra Club founder who famously went camping with Roosevelt in California’s Yosemite National Park, worshipped nature. It was his church. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” he wrote in his journals. Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, venerated nature, too. But he also viewed it as a valuable “natural resource”—trees for timber, rivers for fishing, wildlife for hunting.

These two worldviews—valuing nature for itself and for human purposes—have long framed dual approaches to conservation.

By the 1930s, the chasm between the intrinsic and utilitarian perspectives was bridged by the forester Aldo Leopold. He advanced a more holistic perspective of the natural world, and believed that anyone who valued nature, irrespective of motive, should hold an ethic that “reflects an ecological conscience.” This was morally inscribed in his famous “land ethic,” which, for many, became a guiding maxim: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Two parallel developments at this time—one in the emerging science of ecology and the other in the U.S. wilderness preservation movement—combined with Leopold’s philosophy to shape attitudes toward nature and conservation for decades to come. Ecologists believed then that healthy ecosystems were closed, self-regulating, and in equilibrium. Disturbances, in the form of weather, fires, or migrating organisms, were not yet factored in, except when the disturbance was thought to be human-induced, in which case the prevailing belief was that the system was thrown off its normal balance.

This model of stable ecosystems that needed to be guarded against human disturbance (such logic, of course, meant that humans must exist outside nature), gave scientific impetus to the cause of wilderness preservation.

Most ecologists have since discarded the “balance of nature” paradigm. But as the environmental writer Emma Marris noted in her recent book Rambunctious Garden, “The notion of a stable, pristine wilderness as the ideal for every landscape is woven into the culture of ecology and conservation—especially in the United States.”

In a paper he is readying for publication, Kareiva writes that the balance-of-nature paradigm has been “at the core of most science-driven environmental policy for decades.” But the paradigm goes deeper than just the science. American attitudes towards nature have been strongly influenced by iconic authors, from Thoreau and Muir to Leopold and Edward Abby, the grizzled nature writer whose books celebrated the stark beauty and loneliness of Southwestern desert landscapes. Many people looking to commune with nature go in search of transcendent outdoor experiences; they venture into a human-free landscape—the wilderness—to experience what seems to be nature in its truest, purest state.

This mindset took on added ecological value when concerns about endangered species came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. Designated wilderness and national parks—be they forests, prairies, or wetlands—helped preserve habitat for imperiled species. The sanctuary model extended itself further when conservation biologists in the 1980s began identifying the significance of ecological processes and a wider community of plants and animals. This new strand of ecology-based conservation had one key tenet: genuine nature, the kind that contains biodiversity, is devoid of people.

These Western-style ideas of ecological conservation were exported by ecologists, environmentalists, and policymakers who pushed for the establishment of national parks and nature preserves in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was the wilderness model of nature protection gone global. Yet numerous studies have shown that even as more parcels of land have been set aside around the world (equaling 10 to 15 percent of the earth’s land mass) global biodiversity in the protected areas continues to decline. How could that be?

In his 2009 book, Conservation Refugees, the investigative journalist Mark Dowie, who had been covering environmental issues for decades, reported: “About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples.” Much as the loggers of the Pacific Northwest depended on the forests for their livelihoods, so had these local inhabitants depended on the now-protected lands to forage, hunt, or graze their livestock. The people were part of the ecosystem. Removing them had consequences.

In 2013, the International Journal of Biodiversity published a meta-review of national park case studies from Africa. It found that the creation of protected areas in African countries has resulted in the killing of wildlife “by local people as a way of protesting the approach.” There are other factors that have undermined the effectiveness of national parks in the developing world for protecting biodiversity, such as regional climate change and insufficient funding for oversight. But it is the “fortress conservation” aspect that has turned many people who had been living with nature into enemies of nature. As Dowie noted in his book, “some conservationists have learned from experience that national parks and protected areas surrounded by angry, hungry people…are generally doomed to fail.”

Embracing the Anthropocene

Last spring, Kareiva emailed me an intriguing paper that had just been published in Science. Researchers had sought to quantify the decline of species diversity in 100 localized, ecological communities across the world. Globally, there was no question, as the authors were careful to point out, that biodiversity was being lost. They had thus assumed that the global trend would be mirrored at the local level. “Contrary to our expectations, we did not detect systematic [diversity] loss,” the scientists wrote. What they found, instead, was much evidence of ecological change that altered the composition of species, but not its richness or diversity.

It’s the kind of result that many conservation biologists would probably find maddening. Kareiva, though, was fascinated by the implication. “Think about it,” he said. “If you live to be 50, one out of two species you saw in your back woodlot will have been swapped out for a different species—but the number of species would not have declined.”

This, he believes, is the flip side of the Anthropocene that ecologists need to consider. Most talk about the future morosely; they expect a huge chunk of the Earth’s biological heritage to disappear, which may well turn out to happen, and on the scale of our own lives may feel to us like a terrible loss. But that’s only part of the story, Kareiva says, the one that everybody dwells on. Rather, he wonders, what if we thought of the Anthropocene “as a creative event? What would emerge from it?” This is a striking departure from the conventional view of the Anthropocene as an eco-catastrophe, a kind of mass extinction event. Kareiva is not wishing for or welcoming such an outcome, but he does note: “Every other mass extinction led to a burst of profound evolution afterwards.”

This is a provocative, unsettling perspective. But Kareiva is not the only scientist thinking this way. In a 2013 commentary for Nature, Chris Thomas, a conservation biologist at Britain’s University of York, discussed the Anthropocene as a potential boon for biodiversity. “Populations and species have begun to evolve, diverge, hybridize, and even speciate in new man-made surroundings,” he wrote. “Evolutionary divergence will eventually generate large numbers of sister species on the continents and islands to which single species have been introduced.”

Other scientists and writers, including Emma Marris, have been talking enthusiastically about the creation of “novel” ecosystems in the Anthropocene. This view involves the acceptance of some invasive species as beneficial to biodiversity. It also involves an active human hand in molding ecological communities. At the Tacoma conference, Kareiva told the ecology students to think about their possible role in terms of “promoting the creativity of nature.” Where Soulé gushed about “love for nature” as his core value, Kareiva talked about a “sense of wonder” as his inspiration.

For sure, Kareiva acknowledged, the future was going to be tumultuous, especially with climate change bearing down on the world. Conservation in the Anthropocene would be challenging. “We may have to move species around, work with novel ecosystems and take some delight” in new hybrid species, he said to the young ecologists.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for Soulé and his generation of traditional conservationists. Near the end of his talk, he admitted how hard it was for people—even scientists—to accept new ways of thinking. “Science is always moving ahead, science progresses,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean scientists do. Scientists like me have an idea when they are about 20 to 25 years old, and that idea dominates the rest of their life and they never change their minds.” This was an indirect way of acknowledging that science and personal beliefs are intertwined. Forty years ago, the culture of conservation—and the science that supported it—was decidedly eco-centric, a worldview deeply influenced by green politics and philosophy. Now that there’s some kind of shift underway in the values and in the science, Soulé finds himself clinging to the world that shaped him.

But what he said next to the young ecologists in the audience indicated that he knew change was coming, and could accept what such evolution might bring: “Fortunately, natural selection abides in the wild—and in universities, so they are constantly bringing in younger, more mentally flexible scientists and that’s what I hope many of you become.”


Keith Kloor (keith.kloor@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.



WAWWA 2006


by

IMG_0692

Andrew Carnie

UK-based artist and lecturer Andrew Carnie was born in 1957. He studied chemistry and painting at Warren Wilson College, North Carolina, then zoology and psychology at Durham University, before gaining a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College and an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art. This diverse educational background allows Carnie to bridge many seemingly diverse fields of investigation ranging from neurology and memory to hygiene and health care. His current work consists primarily of time-based installations.

Carnie has collaborated with scientists from around the world and has produced work exhibited at the Science Museum (London), the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Center for Developmental Neurology, Kings College (London), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (London), Mendel Museum, Abbey of St Thomas (Brno, Czech Republic), and many other institutions. Carnie has written that “The practice of science is not isolated from the world we live in. Science has its politics, its economics, its fashions even. And anecdotally at least, some of the scientists involved in ‘sci-art’ collaborations report an intellectual engagement in them that goes further than personal enjoyment. It’s not just that it allows them to get out of their labs a bit more; it also seems to offer a different way of looking at their own work as scientists. We have all experienced those moments of self-reflective insight brought on by the challenge of explaining to someone outside our natural sphere what it is we do and why.”

WAWWA PLAN FLAT

WAWWA_0054

WAWWA_0064

WAWWA_0071

WAWWA_0083

WAWWA_0096

WAWWA_0100

Andrew Carnie. All images from WAWWA, for the Space, Architecture, and the Mind conference March 2006, part of Art and Mind, www.artandmind.org.

The work, an examination of the architecture of the body, is projected by eight slide projectors onto a square of voile screens. The piece can be viewed from inside or outside the square. Through a sequence of slides, the various systems and component structures of the body come and go on a gigantic scale, and walking figures come and go through the body forms created.

Has NIH Lost Its Halo?


by

After decades of strong budget growth, the National Institutes of Health now faces an increasingly constrained funding environment and questions about the value of its research.

For six decades after World War II, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was the darling of Congress, a jewel in the crown of the federal government that basked in bipartisan splendor. It enjoyed an open authorization statute, giving it permanent authority to distribute funding without having to come back to Congress to regain that authority every few years. Appropriation hearings to decide the amount NIH would actually spend each year were usually love fests that lasted a week to a fortnight, with each institute and new initiative given its day in the sun. There were tensions and conflict, of course, and members of Congress and disease advocates were persistently disgruntled by NIH’s science-centric culture, perceived to lack urgency to cure cancer or confront the AIDS epidemic. But each year brought concrete accomplishments, examples of how federal dollars had advanced the conquest of disease. It was not just a Potemkin village, but stories of real progress against a common enemy of all humankind, be it cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or childhood leukemia. The stories were simple and easy to understand, and there was truly a line from NIH research to clinical advances. And plenty of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, on which all could agree something had to be done, and without research that something would never be clear.

A different disease might catch the congressional eye for a year or three, with boosts for that condition incorporated into a newly elevated budget baseline. Presidents routinely low-balled the NIH’s budget request to make room for their presidential priorities, knowing full well Congress would restore the NIH budget and throw in a bit more.

The result of NIH’s privileged status in Congress was nearly monotonic growth for six decades, punctuated by a few bad years, such as 1967-1969 when two NIH champions left Congress, as Lister Hill retired from the Senate and John Fogarty died, even as James Shannon turned over the reins as NIH director after 13 glorious years of expansion. It took a few years for Mary Lasker and other disease advocates to re-assemble their political coalition, but NIH resumed its expansion into and through the War on Cancer of the early 1970s. Even in the face of considerable controversy over how NIH should be structured and governed, agreement on budget increases was still possible. A few years of relative stagnation in the 1990s gave way to a budget doubling 1998-2003, spanning from the Clinton into the George W. Bush administrations. It mattered little which party controlled the White House or the houses of Congress; everyone is against disease and for research to rid the world of it.

Since that last doubling ended in 2003, however, NIH politics have changed. NIH received one more $10-billion dollop of stimulus funding in 2009-2010 as a swan song for Arlen Specter, honoring his long service, his battle with cancer, and his flip to the Democrats at a crucial moment as he fell off the rapidly eroding moderate edge of the Republican Party. But NIH’s stimulus funding was an anomalous blip in the past decade of budget stagnation. NIH’s purchasing power dropped by double digits after the 2003 peak, and even fear of disease does not seem to overcome the partisan gridlock that besets a Congress likely to be scored the most notoriously dysfunctional in American history. These days, the NIH appropriations hearings are a short and tiny shadow of their former grandeur. The appropriations process itself has largely been replaced by rolling continuing resolutions that extend the previous years’ policies with only incremental adjustments. The days of piling dollars onto NIH are long gone.

This relative neglect of NIH is despite having one of the most politically adept NIH directors in the agency’s history, Francis Collins, who has remarkable capacity for bridging the partisan chasm with folksy charm—buttressed by his guitar and motorcycle—a genuine passion for research and medical care, and talent for explicating biomedical science in human terms.

Are the changing politics a reflection of inattention specific to NIH—a diminution of its perceived importance to Congress or loss of public support—or is NIH merely suffering collateral damage from the larger and deeper paralysis of national government? Is the stagnation simply one among many consequences of polarization and political logjam? Are political undercurrents more permanently changing how federal support for all research will carry into the future? Or do the distinctive features of biomedical politics suggest that its future will be independent of the rest of the federal research and development (R&D) enterprise, as it was during the doubling era? And what might the answers to such questions mean for scientists and decision makers? One place to start is simply by noting that such questions are only now beginning to be asked by the NIH community, and very tentatively at that. The place to start is with an understanding of NIH’s political context, and the fact that the NIH budget rests on several tectonic plates, subject to different political pressures. Here I will explore the dynamics that seem most important for understanding what the future may hold.


Scale escalation

When the NIH budget was $700,000 going into World War II, it was easy to quadruple the budget to $3.4 million by the war’s end, and to boost it another tenfold by the early 1950s. Until the 1970s, the US economy was generally healthy, discretionary budgets floated on rising waters, and NIH got disproportionate increases, both relative to the government as a whole and in comparison to other research agencies (although defense R&D had spurts associated with the Korean War, post-Sputnik, and the War in Vietnam; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expanded rapidly in the 1960s to fulfill President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”). From 1970 through 2003, NIH’s research funding consistently and significantly outgrew other federal research accounts (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Obligations for basic and applied research, 1970–2009

7 agencies_final

Source: National Science Foundation.

The rise of molecular biology and the continued efforts of disease-research advocates help explain this growth. The promise and practical import of the powerful new molecular and cellular biology were palpable, and Congress fueled their growth through generous NIH budgets. Moreover, NIH was the research arm of a behemoth—the Department of Health and Human Services (or Health, Education and Welfare before President Carter created the Department of Education). NIH began as a relatively small research agency with an ambitious mission in a large department, although after the mid-1960s with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, most health expenditures through the department were entitlements, not from discretionary appropriations. NIH grew, but so did health expenditures. As a fraction of US health expenditures, the federal health research budget (of which NIH is by far the largest part) has hovered around 2% since 1980.

As NIH’s budget has grown to $30 billion annually—fully half of all civilian R&D expenditures—it has become harder to increase it without pinching other agencies. NIH is now larger than other Public Health Service budgets, so boosting its funding by 10 percent in an era of constrained spending overall would likely cause even larger percent cuts in other vital agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and service components and block grants that are funded by annual appropriations. Appropriations to the Departments of Labor and of Education come out of the same appropriation subcommittee allocation, so NIH also competes directly in the congressional appropriations process with other, non-health programs, including some that are of vital interest to universities (such as the Department of Education’s Pell grants). More broadly, rising entitlement spending puts increasing pressure on all discretionary accounts. Given how well-treated NIH was before the current era of constrained budgets, it is hard to argue that the agency is more deserving of increases than other key agencies.

The annual cures and research breakthroughs, the truly impressive parade of Nobel Prizes and Lasker Awards, and the profusion of research articles that flow from biomedical research excellence tell powerful stories. But the novelty wears off, the frame becomes formulaic, and the hype becomes tiresome, if not defensive. Happy tales do not a healthy dog make. We did not lose the War on Cancer—far from it. Progress has been slow and steady, with some remarkable achievements in drugs for this particular cancer subtype or that. But we have hardly won the war, especially as mortality from metastatic cancer remains largely unabated. After three decades and tens of billions of academic and industrial research dollars poured into the amyloid cascade, there is still no known way to prevent, or even do much to mitigate the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease that threaten to increase inexorably over coming decades. Every year for the better part of a century, members of Congress have heard that cures are “just over the horizon” and that science is poised as it has never been to combat disease. And each year has added to the science base, bringing new scientific opportunities and possibilities for clinical application. Some cures have come, and one after another new technology has opened up new prospects. Knowledge does accumulate. Enthusiasm and novelty, however, do not necessarily follow. New technologies have helped feed rising costs, and the chronic conditions of an aging population grow more intractable. The stories of progress can all be true, but the arguments for larger budgets and more political determination lose their oomph after decades of annual repetition and continued health challenges.


Fractured constituencies

Mary Lasker and Florence Mahoney discovered a political strategy for using private philanthropic capital to leverage biomedical research funding from Congress in the years after World War II. Lasker remained a major figure in the biomedical research lobby until her death in 1994. The AIDS community, meanwhile, had shown how patient groups could be extremely effective at garnering research support, but the political process was becoming more complex. Hundreds of disease groups were by then following the same script that Lasker used to boost cancer research, lobbying to create institutes for their own conditions. And NIH institutes proliferated to respond to these constituencies. Some were for stages of life (childhood and aging), some were for health research fields that were said to be neglected (nursing and biomedical engineering), some were for medical conditions (arthritis, eye disease, communication disorders), and some were responses to scientific opportunity (the Human Genome Project). The biomedical lobby became more factious, more specialized, and harder to harness into a coherent movement for biomedical research as a whole. What was once a War on Cancer became coalitions for particular forms of cancer (leukemia and lymphoma, breast cancer, prostate cancer, “neglected” cancers), and even those coalitions have become fractionated. Breast cancer alone has previvors (those at genetic risk), survivors, and metavivors (those contending with metastatic disease). The subgroups all argue for increased research, but their priorities are not fully in alignment, and some have grown frustrated with NIH’s focus on research rather than cures. The day when just a few activists dominated the political scene has given way to coalitions and sometimes cacophony among research advocates. The number of organizations and their disparate goals diffuse political focus. The politics are more factious, with many constituencies finding their own congressional champions and channels of communication and even, as with the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs at Department of Defense, alternative agencies.

As NIH grew, so did the institutions it funded to do research. NIH-funded research, is an industry that sustains academic health centers throughout the nation—and fuels ambitions among every research university to attract a bigger piece of the pie. That industry sometimes behaves as political scientists predict, as an interest group, building national organizations and crafting political strategies to influence elected and executive branch officials in Washington. Academic health centers have expanded remarkably over the decades, and entire careers are devoted to biomedical research lobbying. With such institutionalization comes sclerosis, especially as the system was built on the assumption of infinite growth, and includes no options for responding to resource constraints.

Thus, as Bruce Alberts, Shirley Tilghman, Harold Varmus and Mark Kirchner noted recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, biomedical research institutions have trained graduate students and postdocs for research careers that can only accommodate a sixth of their number. Hyper-competition and plummeting success rates are a result of a mismatch between research labor supply and demand. Although exacerbated by stagnant funding, these stresses were inevitable consequences of the system’s growth-dependent dynamics.

As Geoff Earle reported in The Hill, when NIH’s budget was up for discussion soon after its doubling, in March 2004, Senator Pete Domenici, a long-time supporter of NIH and passionate advocate for mental health, exclaimed in frustration:

    “I hate to say it, but the NIH is one of the best agencies in the world,” an angry Domenici said as he spoke in opposition to an amendment by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to boost NIH funding by $1.5 billion. “But they’ve turned into pigs. You know, pigs! They can’t keep their oinks closed. They send a Senator down there [to] argue as if they’re broke.”

After decades of disproportionate growth of the biomedical research sector, the debate after 2003 turned to restoring some balance among funding streams to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and the social and behavioral sciences.

Despite its name, NIH’s mission has not generally been current health per se, but rather research for tomorrow’s health, and progress against intractable diseases through better understanding. An agency devoted to current health would do well to focus on tobacco control, exercise, nutrition, sanitation, and more cost-effective delivery of health care—prevention and efficiency, rather than research on diseases currently not treatable. NIH does these things—some programs such as the National High Blood Pressure Education Program and the National Cancer Institute’s ASSIST program have been signal successes in achieving health gains—but health and health care are not NIH’s main show. NIH is primarily about addressing diseases currently refractory to treatment, in hopes of changing that fact. And that is surely an appropriate government mission, since it is inherently long-term, the main output is information and knowledge, and the financial benefits are hard for private firms to appropriate. These are all features of public goods that only collective action and patient, public capital can supply.

It is a completely fair and open question, however, how much research should focus on basic biological mechanisms, how much on clinically promising interventions, how much on understanding and improving the way health care and preventive services are delivered, and how much on patient-centered outcomes research. It is also fair to ask whether the different elements of the biomedical innovation ecosystem are working well together—and if they are not, what good it would do to continue to favor the biological research approaches. Such questions are especially pertinent in light of the nation’s continually mediocre public health outcomes, and their stark contrast to the sophistication and productivity of the biomedical research enterprise.

One report after another, dating back to the Shannon Era in the 1950s, has tried to address how to achieve the right balance in the research portfolio. The truth is that there is no overarching theory of biomedical innovation sufficient to specify a “right” balance with any precision. At the macro level, Congress appropriates to institutes and centers that map to diseases, health missions, or health constituencies—factors that weigh in the political assessment of social value. At the micro level, most project funding decisions are made by merit review—usually peer review—as a fair way to assess scientific opportunity. The contending factions arguing before Congress help set the macro goals, expert scientists (sometimes augmented by disease-research advocates) make the project-by-project funding decisions, and overall system priorities and institutional architectures evolve to reconcile these different scales. This is a political process solution to a wicked problem with no reliable predictive theory. It is probably not optimal; but the question of what would work better has no agreed-upon answer.

Everyone is against cancer, but not everyone favors human embryo research, or all forms of it. Although the advance of biomedical research is a nearly universal goal, a significant fraction of the polity does not believe in Darwinian evolution, and yet almost everyone who does biology or practices medicine does. This clash of epistemologies carries political risk. As American politics has polarized, some aspects of biomedical research have broken along roughly partisan lines. Stem cell research sharply distinguished the Republican and Democrat platforms in the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, for example, although the partisan differences amplified sometimes relatively small differences in the parties’ actual policy preferences. Embryonic cell research was an unusual intrusion of a biomedical research issue into presidential politics, but it exemplifies the risk. Partisanship over stem cell research did not spill over to affect the overall biomedical research budget, although it did affect the degree to which different administrations set constraints on embryo and stem cell research within the biomedical research budget.

The intensity of partisan discord was less prominent in the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles, and only time can tell if biomedical research becomes entangled in partisan bickering. If the intensity of partisanship further escalates, a partisan cleavage could emerge again, and it could affect support for biomedical research in general, not just specific research approaches.


Time for rethinking

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, wrote in Nature three years ago about how health research was unduly decoupled from health outcomes, and called for re-thinking how NIH and other components of biomedical research might more directly contribute to better health. I and others responded with concern. We were worried because in a blizzard, it is generally not good policy to shoot the lead dog. NIH is an effective agency, and it was no small feat to establish and sustain its excellence. But the “rethinking” part of Crow’s exhortation is well taken, and there are very large imbalances in the health research portfolio, with health services research and prevention the perennial stepchildren, and biomedical research the favored biological child.

If we turn explicit attention to fostering economic growth and to a focus on more tightly connecting research to its intended goal of improving health, then there is the possibility of not simply growing the crusty, large, and inertial system of health research but also more fully integrating it into the national economy as a matter of national policy.

The prospect is exciting but daunting. Current policies of regulating and paying for health goods and services reward introduction and overuse of expensive technologies that add incremental improvements in health, but with scant attention to cost or relative effectiveness. The trillion-dollar annual federal expenditures through Medicare, Medicaid, and other health programs (such as the Veterans Administration, military health programs, Indian Health Service, and federal employee health program) are not guided by a long-term strategy for improving health care. Instead, they have become open-ended entitlements with brainless purchasing policies. The Medicare statute, for example, explicitly denies authority to consider cost-effectiveness in medical practice, which sets up perverse incentives for cost-escalating innovation. Federal programs are not prudent buyers of the most effective health goods and services. The incentives favor expensive new drugs and devices that command high profit, and discourage low-cost innovation. To call this a “system” or a “market” is to stretch those words beyond coherence.

One obvious response to incoherence is better theory and more facts. It is, however, ultimately unsatisfying to merely call for more research on research. Some gaps are obvious: we need public funding to compare effectiveness of medical goods and services. Private firms’ interests will not drive the knowledge needed to make prudent purchasing decisions. Such information is a public good and the public will have to pay for it. The current laissez-faire approach merely invites perpetual cost escalation. More explicit attention to understanding the current “market” incentives, and to thinking through how to align such incentives for innovation with long-term cost-effectiveness, could contribute to a system that incrementally improves over time, based on evidence. And of course we need more research, both basic and clinical, on diseases we do not know how to control in hopes that someday we will be able to do something about them. In the end, however, how much to spend on research is a political choice, and it will be decided through our political processes.

The decade of stagnation in biomedical research may itself be turning into a political issue. Representatives Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) of the Energy and Commerce Committee (which authorizes NIH activities in the House) are co-leading a bipartisan focus on “21st Century Cures.” This initiative seems to be a traditional bipartisan response, and carries on the congressional legacy of focusing on the conquest of disease. Both features are welcome, but the question is whether they can thrive in the generally poisonous atmosphere in the Capitol.

The importance of research as a component of economic growth is another shared value that can command bipartisan consensus. Elizabeth Popp Berman clearly traces how Creating the Market University grafted a new mission onto the traditional academic goals of creating and disseminating knowledge. Although research universities have had strong and productive ties with industry since the late 19th century, only more recently have they explicitly taken on the mantle of fostering economic growth as key components in a national system of innovation. This analytical framework ripened into national policies, particularly between 1980 and 2000. Recent reports such as Restoring the Foundation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Research Council’s Rising Above the Gathering Storm and its sequels build on this theme.

The kernel of truth in such reports is that universities and research clearly are important sources of ideas, information, and technologies that matter immensely in the innovation ecosystem. One difficulty with the framework, however, is that it relies on open-ended arguments that support increased funding but offer less guidance about how to make investments in economic growth more effective. No coherent theories predict how best to spend public dollars—or tell us how many dollars are enough. The reports are persuasive in documenting stagnation, and about the danger of under-investment and trends pointing to the emergence of R&D-driven economic policies in Asia that could overtake US pre-eminence in research and knowledge-based economic growth. They are, however, also unconvincing in articulating research-system designs that can meet the challenges of today’s world.

The open question for NIH is whether these arguments about economic growth, when combined with the attractive logic of boosting support for research to address the burden of diseases for which current public health and medical care are inadequate, will build political momentum to reverse a decade of neglect. Has NIH lost its halo, or will it begin to shine again?

Robert Cook-Deegan (bob.cd@duke.edu) is a research professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.

Forum


by

Immigration reform

In “Streamlining the Visa Immigration Systems for Scientists and Engineers” (Issues, Fall 2014), Albert H. Teich articulates very well many of the arguments for making the U.S. visa system work better for visitors and the scientific enterprise, and then offers a sound plan of action to carry out this task. As the author points out, the country has benefitted tremendously in the past from its visitors and the immigration of foreign scientists. It is clearly in the national interest of the United States to keep a steady stream of foreign students and visitors coming to and working in this country.

A variety of intersecting factors adds urgency to dealing with this issue. First, as more and more countries invest in science and build their own science infrastructure, scientists around the world will have many more options for where they can conduct their research with first-class facilities and support. Unless the United States changes its visa system to lower the bureaucratic barriers to coming to this country, more of the top students and practicing scientists in other countries will simply choose to go to other places for high-quality training and facilities in which to do their work.

The likelihood of scientists going elsewhere is compounded by the overall reduction in research and development (R&D) funding in the United States that has occurred over the past decade. It has become much more difficult to have a productive research career in this country than it used to be. Funding for science, and then the likelihood of gaining research support, has decreased in the past decade, and this is occurring at the same time that funding in other countries is on the increase. Overall, U.S. R&D spending has fallen 16% in inflation-adjusted dollars from FY 2010 to the FY 2015 budget request. The federal government’s investment in science and technology now stands at roughly 0.78% of the economy, the lowest point in 50 years. Why would foreign scientists choose the United States when funding has become so constrained, and when it is both difficult and risky to try to settle there?

F14 cover small

U.S. visa policies also make it much more difficult for U.S. and foreign scientists to share ideas and to collaborate. As the scientific enterprise has become much more global in character over the past decades, multinational discussion forums and then actual collaborations are now the norm for most disciplines. As one data point, more than 50% of the papers published in Science include authors from more than one country. Importantly, in spite of the advent of effective electronic communication, face-to-face interactions still greatly benefit collaboration. The current prolonged and unreliable U.S. visa system makes it not only difficult, but extremely unattractive to even try to come to the United States for either purpose.

The issue of the U.S. visa and immigration system for science visitors, students, and researchers has been a discussion point for decades. It is in the United States’ interest to act now and make the system work much more reliably and efficiently. Let’s get to it!

Alan I. Leshner

Chief Executive Officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Executive Publisher, Science


Albert Teich does a masterful job of describing the human, political, and economic costs of the United States’ broken immigration and visa systems. He also reaffirms recommendations that have been advanced previously by NAFSA: Association of International Educators and other groups familiar with the nation’s schizophrenic immigration and visa systems. For many decades, the United States has derived many educational, economic, and social benefits from the mobility of global academic talent and immigrant entrepreneurs. NAFSA’s annual economic analysis shows that during the 2012-13 academic year, the presence of international students and their families has supported 313,000 jobs and contributed $24 billion to the U.S. economy. This means that for every seven international students enrolled, three U.S. jobs were created or supported. New data, disaggregated by state and congressional district, will be released during International Education Week and can be accessed at www.nafsa.org/econvalue.

In addition to the economic benefits of international education, the foreign- policy contributions of international students and scholars around the world should never be underestimated. U.S. policymakers have taken for granted this rich human and political capital: they erroneously assume that the best and brightest students, researchers, and entrepreneurs will continue to embrace the United States as the destination of choice for study, research, and business. Lost in the politicization of the issue is the fact that many countries recognize the value of international education and are upgrading their immigration policies to facilitate student and scholar mobility with the goal of attracting and retaining this global talent.

Indeed, the United States is not the sole country of “pull” for global talent. As the number of internationally mobile students has doubled, the U.S. share of this group has decreased by 10%. In making the decision to study or conduct research, students and scholars take into account the immigration policies of destination countries. The combination of an outdated U.S. immigration law (written in 1952) with post-9/11 regulations has had a chilling effect on this country’s ability to attract and retain much-needed human capital. Immigration laws have not kept pace with the emergence of new global economies. The failure of the immigration system poses a real threat to U.S. global economic competitiveness.

The United States cannot afford to lose in the global competition for talent. To remain competitive, it must remove unnecessary barriers and pass comprehensive immigration fit for a 21st century world. In doing so, the United States will send a strong message to international students, researchers, and entrepreneurs that it is a welcoming nation. Since it is impossible to accurately determine the sectors that will innovate and their demands for human capital in the United States, we need to consider comprehensive immigration reform for all international students and scholars, not just those in science and engineering.

The United States must remain true to its values and resist the politics of fear that undermine its economic competitiveness as well as weaken public-cultural diplomacy efforts.

Fanta Aw

President and Chair of the Board of Directors

NAFSA: Association of International Educators


Albert Teich’s thorough and thoughtful article lays out the very real obstacles that still remain for foreign scientists and engineers who wish to study and work in the United States. I say “still” because the U.S. government has, in fact, tried very hard to fix the many mistakes that were made in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—mistakes that led, as Teich notes, to serious problems for foreign students and visiting scientists and disrupted significant scientific research. In recent years, the State Department has made it a priority to process foreign student visa applications in a timely fashion; has significantly reduced the long wait times in embassies in places such as China, India, and Brazil; and has streamlined the security review process. Those efforts have produced results. The United States issued more than 9 million non-immigrant visas last year, a near doubling since 2003, and a record 820,000 international students are now studying in the United States.

The problems that remain are largely a result of two things: the inability of Congress to reform outdated U.S. immigration laws, and the tendency of any large government organization to treat its clients with a certain disregard. When those clients are top students and scientists who are increasingly sought out by many countries, the loss to the United States can be significant. One recent example of that disregard: the latest Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which runs U.S. visa operations around the world, stated flatly that the U.S. government “does not respond adequately to public inquiries about the status of visa cases.” If you’re a foreign scientist waiting in frustration for a visa to attend a scientific conference in Boston, for example, you have virtually no chance of learning when the U.S. government might make its decision. The OIG team discovered a queue of 50,000 emails awaiting a response, and when the team twice tried to call the service help line, the callers never reached a live human being.

Teich offers a sensible list of fixes to makes the visa process more friendly for foreign students and scientists. Unfortunately, President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, which asserts an expansive interpretation of executive authority to help undocumented immigrants, does too little for scientists and engineers coming to the United States through the proper legal channels. It promises some helpful changes to after-graduation work rules for foreign science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students, and opens new doors for immigrant entrepreneurs. But several of Teich’s recommendations are similarly administrative fixes that could be implemented without congressional action, yet they were not part of the president’s package. This was an unfortunate missed opportunity. If Congress continues to block more comprehensive immigration reform, the administration would be well advised to take a careful look at these proposals and include them in another round of executive-led reforms.

Edward Alden

Senior Fellow

Council on Foreign Relations


What education can’t do

In “21st Century Inequality: The Declining Significance of Discrimination” (Issues, Fall 2014), Roland Fryer seems to believe that he has disproved the necessity for “more education for teachers, increased funding, and smaller class size.” These are not solutions, he says, but the conventional wisdom that we have tried for decades without success. He offers as examples of success the charter schools of the Harlem Children’s Zone and his own work in Houston, which involves longer hours in schools and intensive tutoring by low-wage tutors.

I found this a contradictory assertion, because the charter schools of the Harlem Children’s Zone spend substantially more than the neighborhood public schools. One of the features of these two schools is small classes. In addition, they offer wraparound services, including one-on-one tutoring, after-school programs, medical and dental care, and access to social workers. According to a report on the Harlem Children’s Zone in the October 12, 2010, New York Times, “the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room.” We can only wonder how well the neighborhood public schools would do with similar resources.

Other scholars have questioned Fryer’s contention that school reform can be obtained with minimal additional costs. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University wrote in a January 26, 2012, blog post called “School of Finance” that each of Fryer’s studies “suffers from poorly documented and often ill-conceived comparisons of costs and/or marginal expenditures.” Baker briefly reviewed these studies and concluded: “setting aside the exceptionally poor documentation behind any of the marginal expenditure or cost estimates provided in each and every one of these studies, throughout his various attempts to downplay the importance of financial resources for improving student outcomes, Roland Fryer and colleagues have made a compelling case for spending between 20 and 60% more on public schooling in poor urban contexts, including New York City and Houston, TX.”

I am persuaded that Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, has a good model. It costs far more than our society is willing to pay, except in experimental situations. Children growing up in poverty need medical services, small classes, and extensive support services for themselves and their families. This is not cheap. But it is not enough.

Society has a far larger problem. Why is it that the United States has a larger proportion of children growing up in poverty than any other advanced nation? Why isn’t the federal government planning a massive infrastructure redevelopment program, as Bob Herbert proposes in his brilliant new book, Losing Our Way, which would lift millions of families out of poverty while rebuilding the nation’s crumbling bridges, tunnels, sewer lines, gas lines, levees, and other essential physical aspects? Expecting school programs to solve the extensive and deep problem of poverty, without massive federal intervention to create jobs and reduce poverty, is nonsensical.

Diane Ravitch

New York, NY


DOD’s role in energy innovation

Eugene Ghotz, a leading scholar of the innovation system within the Department of Defense (DOD), presents a cautionary tale in “Military Innovation and Prospects for Defense-Led Energy Innovation” (Issues, Fall 2014).

When cap-and-trade legislation to impose a price on carbon emissions failed to pass the U.S. Senate in 2010, a 15-year-old assumption about how the United States was going to transition to a lower carbon economy went down with it. Cap and trade had been the almost exclusive policy focus of the climate change community ever since such an approach for acid rain was first passed, and then successfully implemented as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. When cap and trade for carbon dioxide failed in the Senate, there was a policy vacuum—no substitute approach was readily at hand or thought-through.

One of the problems with cap and trade was that it was a pricing strategy, not a technology strategy, and it was hard to adopt a pricing strategy without more progress on a technology strategy. Although pricing can sometimes force technology, it assumes a degree of technology readiness that was still missing in a number of key energy innovation sectors. So if the pricing strategy was on political hold, why not pursue a technology-push strategy, which was needed anyway? And why not enlist the DOD innovation system, which, after all, played a critical role in most of the technology revolutions of the 20th century—aviation, nuclear power, space, computing, and the Internet? Unlike the Department of Energy, which can take a technology from research to development and perhaps to prototype and early-stage demonstration, DOD operates at all of the implementation stages, funding research, development, prototype, demonstration, testbed, and often initial market creation and initial production. Why not enlist this connected innovation system in the cause of energy technology?

Ghotz points out that the military, particularly in an era of budget cutbacks, will focus only on their system of critical defense priorities vital to warfighters. To ask the military to go outside their mission space, he demonstrates, will produce much friction in the system. It simply won’t work; it’s hard enough for DOD to deliver technology advances for its core missions without taking on external causes, he illustrates. So DOD, for example, is not going to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology—that’s not its problem. And it is not going to develop or support massive energy technology procurement programs.

But, realistically, is there is a range of energy technology challenges within its reach? Ghotz does a service by pointing toward that track. DOD does face tactical as well as strategic problems because of energy. Two Middle East wars made clear the vulnerability of its massive fuel supply lines and forced it into defending fixed points, jeopardizing its mobility and exposing its forces to relentless losses. The department needs to restore the operational flexibility of its mobile forces, and solar and storage technologies are important in this context. Recent events in the Middle East suggest that the United States will not walk away from this theater anytime soon. For forces laden with the electronics of network-centric warfare, long-lasting, lightweight batteries are critical. These are two examples of the role that DOD can pursue: certain critical niche technologies, modest initial niche market creation, and the application of its strong testbed capabilities. And DOD is doing exactly this, filling some important gaps in the energy innovation system.

There is another area where DOD can play a role. As the nation’s largest owner of buildings, it needs to improve the efficiency and cut the cost of its facilities. Its bases are also exposed to the insecurity of the grid, so it has a strong interest in off-grid technologies, including renewables and perhaps even small modular reactors. Where it cannot get off the grid, it has a major interest in grid security and efficiency. All this turns out to be an important menu of operational and facility energy technologies with some important dual-use opportunities. That’s why the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) at the Department of Energy are collaborating with DOD.

Ghotz brings us a splash of realism about DOD’s role. But some vital energy opportunities remain if, and only if, they fit the DOD mission.

William B. Bonvillian

Director of Government Relations

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Inspired design

The work of Arizona State University students on PHX 2050, described by Rider W. Foley, Darren Petrucci, and Arnim Wiek in “Imagining the Future City” (Issues, Fall 2014), is the perfect embodiment of the Albert Einstein quote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Indeed, the article provides provocative thinking, but it is the video cited that offers the real substance. For those who didn’t follow the link and are interested in the urban design aspects of the project, visit http://vimeo.com/88092568.

As a practicing professional in architecture and urban design, I believe that there are some issues that need more discussion as implementation of the project’s concepts are considered. The first is equity. The project does touch on the divide between the haves and have-nots. But as this is already a societal problem, it should not be propagated into the future—especially with technology becoming a segregating device. From an urban design perspective, think about the effects of the High Line in New York City for a moment. Although the park is a terrific amenity for the city, and surrounding real estate prices have increased, the ground-level issues of marginalized and shady streets still persist. The economics of technology will also need to be considered at the varied design scales: rural, suburban, and urban. Infrastructure investment is inevitably easier to justify in urban settings as the population served will be higher. However, is there greater opportunity to also incorporate solutions to sprawl retrofit rather than adding additional services to an already well-served urban population?

The concept of “placemaking” should be carefully folded into all design details. Walkability has been discussed but should be moved to the “public” street rather than the alley. Having eyes on the street instead of technology in the front yards would increase a perception of safety as well as provide more visual interest for pedestrians and cyclists. However, the use of canopies over rear alleys or mid-block service areas for rainwater collection and solar energy generation should definitely be explored further. The occupants of upper floors would never have to see parked cars, but would there be greater heat island effects due to reflectivity that may hamper green infrastructure?

The last, but should probably be the first, issue to consider is humanity. Humans will never be tidy machines that all serve the greater good that a fully technological society would need. People strive to be unique, and nowhere is this clearer than in the United States. Our culture of individual property rights is a hurdle to true, full collaboration, especially where public funding alone cannot pick up the tab. As the proposal acknowledges, public-private partnerships will need to be considered in greater depth and for more infrastructure than is currently the case. Creativity can be chaotic and change is difficult, so how do cultures adapt and what could be the method, beyond education, by which the change happens more quickly?

In summary, I’d like to share a quote from Donna Harris, the entrepreneur who started 1776, a Washington, DC-based incubator: “Our educational system has not historically been set up to teach the kinds of skills that make someone entrepreneurial—in fact, the opposite is true. We learn to follow directions, not to question the directions. But that’s exactly what you have to do if you are taking an entrepreneurial approach. You have to look at things and question them, be confident enough to assume that maybe you might have a better way. But we often punish people who think this way. I think it’s actually one of our biggest challenges as a nation as we think about the future global economy.”

By starting the debates in academia, design thinking can be encouraged throughout society. Just as we start to understand the new economy of reduced public funding, these conversations about systemic change are critical. Please keep up the good work.

Sarah A. Lewis

Associate, Urban Planning, Community Development

Fuss & O’Neill Inc.


Productive retirement

As a faculty colleague of Alan Porter at Georgia Tech, I was interested to read his article, “Retire to Boost Research Productivity” (Issues, Fall 2014), in which he provides an “N=1 Case Study” of how his research productivity has increased significantly since he retired in December 2001.

This case study is presented to address an important issue for research universities: with faculty members 60 years of age or older holding onto their positions, “shielded” by the lack of an age for mandatory retirement, younger people may be “kept off the academic ladder.” Porter uses his own “retirement career” to ask whether there might be “win-win” semi-retirement options that would free up opportunities for the recruitment of young faculty while at the same time enabling senior faculty to remain productive and engaged. His personal case study demonstrates one way to do this, focusing on his research and the enhanced publication rate he has had in his retirement years.

In my own case, I retired in 2010 and I am Institute Professor Emeritus in the School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. After being retired for a month, I was appointed to a half-time position with half of my salary coming from my research grants. This of course means that half of my salary is being paid by institutional funds. My research productivity has continued at my pre-retirement level, and there is no doubt that availability of facilities, including office space and a research laboratory, as well as the infrastructure and administrative support provided to me were essential to my continued productivity.

In my “N=1 Case Study,” I have not only continued to be involved in research, but there are other ways in which I have been engaged and contributed. These include the mentoring of young faculty, assistance in the preparation of proposals, outreach to the community, and national leadership activities. Whereas in the context of research there are quantifiable outputs such as the number of publications and grant dollars, the value of non-research activities are perhaps not so readily assessed, even though most of us would consider these as value added.

The basic issue, then, is how does an institution create these win-win situations and appointments? Are these truly important to an institution in the 21st century, where there is no mandatory retirement age and where 60 is the new 50, and 80 may be the new 70? How does an institution evaluate the activities of a retired faculty member in attempting to achieve win-win situations? In my own case, even though a significant amount of my pre-retirement salary has been freed up and can be used, it would be hoped, to pay the salary of a young academic, because of my other activities that are beyond simply doing research, how does an institution evaluate me and justify the use of institutional funds to pay part of my salary? The answers to these questions obviously are important to me personally; however, these are questions that every institution should address.

Robert Nerem

Georgia Institute of Technology


Casting light on fracking

In “Exposing Fracking to Sunlight” (Issues, Fall 2014), Andrew A. Rosenberg, Pallavi Phartiyal, Gretchen Goldman, and Lewis Branscomb note the rapid rise of unconventional oil and gas production in the United States, but not what sparked the innovations needed to develop these previously inaccessible reserves.

In the past decade, while U.S. shale gas production grew 10-fold, conventional natural gas production dropped 37%. Conventionals accounted for 16% of the nation’s natural gas production in 2012; by 2040, that share will shrink to 4%. This won’t be by choice. Conventional reserves are shrinking; in short, we’ve recovered all the easy stuff. Future fossil fuel extraction will take us deeper underground and below the ocean floor, to more remote corners of the globe, and into less permeable formations.

Whereas the focus of the “fracking debate” has centered on what’s different about unconventional production, the bigger story may be how little techniques have changed in these new, tougher extraction environments. Despite advances in directional drilling and cement chemistry, as well as impressive developments in other pertinent areas, the basic steps for well construction and production are much as they were decades ago. When applied to unconventional development, these steps demand more energy and industrial inputs. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have found that Marcellus shale gas wells require three times more steel, twice as much cement, and up to 47 times more water than a conventional natural gas well. The greater scale and intensity of unconventional development may be the key driver of risk to public health, the environment, and community character.

The authors are exactly right that the way to identify and respond to this risk is through data collection, scientific research, and public disclosure. The question is how to advance in this effort. The situation is somewhat more complex than the article implies, and thus it may be more hopeful than warranted for several reasons.

First, the article posits that “concerted actions by industry severely limit regulation and disclosure.” However, this sector is incredibly diverse, comprised of hundreds if not thousands of companies ranging from mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500 companies. The industry can’t even agree on a single trade group to represent its interests. The multiplicity of diverse actors poses a serious governance challenge but also affords an opportunity to find support for risk-based regulation. Companies may find that a greener position on regulation could win them social license, price premiums, or contracts with distribution companies sensitive to consumer environmental concerns.

Second, the article advocates federal regulation of unconventional oil and gas production. Under current law, federal agencies could regulate more aspects and outcomes of this activity. (Despite the exemptions noted, federal authority exists or could be triggered by agency action in each environmental statute listed.) However, in the past five years we’ve seen a more robust regulatory response from states. State agencies house much of the nation’s oil and gas regulatory expertise, and at least in some cases they boast strong sunshine and public participation laws (while sometimes exempting oil and gas).

Federal regulation is not a yes or no question. It can be used to lead, nudge, complement, or supplant state action, depending on the issue and the context. In data collection and research, federal agencies could set harmonized data collection standards, compile and share risk data, and fund research to change how we extract unconventionals and how we reduce our dependence on these fossil fuels.

Kate Konschnik

Director, Environmental Policy Initiative

Harvard Law School


Grand challenge for engineers

The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering posits a list of far-reaching technical problems that, if solved, will have a momentous impact on humanity’s future prosperity. In “The True Grand Challenge for Engineering: Self-Knowledge” (Issues, Fall 2014), Carl Mitcham proposes an additional challenge of educating engineers capable not only of attacking the technical challenges, but also of tackling the questions presupposed by the list: What does a prosperous human future entail? What kind of world should we strive for? What role should the engineer play in achieving such ends?

Mitcham argues that engineers need to learn to think critically about what it means to be human and calls for engineering education to embrace the humanities for their intrinsic value (rather than as a service provider for communications skills). So how grand a challenge is the author’s proposal? I believe there is good reason for pessimism, but also for optimism.

I’m pessimistic when I take a high-level view. Much has been written about the contemporary trend in higher education toward commoditization, with its economically instrumental view of academic programs, and even the specter of institutions outsourcing the humanities to online providers. None of that augurs well for a more reflective education for anyone, much less engineers. As for engineering, radically reformulating engineering education in any overarching way has proved difficult. For example, some years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers gamely advocated for a master’s degree as the first professional degree, in part to produce “more broadly trained engineers with an education that more closely parallels the liberal arts experience.” The society subsequently softened its stance due to inertia in the system, and a mandated liberal arts-like experience for engineers has certainly not materialized.

Yet, I’m optimistic when I take a grassroots view. Consider this recent Forbes headline: “Millennials Work for Purpose, Not Paycheck.” Seemingly against the instrumental trajectory of higher education, the current college generation appears to place a premium on meaningful work that contributes to the well-being of global society, suggesting a potential market for the type of education Mitcham champions. And if the educational system isn’t responsive to that demand from the top down, perhaps it can be from the bottom up. For example, Mitcham mentions humanitarian engineering programs, which his institution helped pioneer and which are increasingly popping up at schools across the United States, including my own.

Similarly, new programs in sustainable engineering or sustainable development engineering have recently arisen on many campuses. These types of programs didn’t exist just a few years ago. They have developed organically, rather than in response to any broad policy, and they tend to value engineers learning about the human condition. Another recent phenomenon has been the rise of 3-2 duel engineering programs involving liberal arts colleges, with students earning both B.A. and B.S. degrees. Granted, such paths still represent a small slice of the engineering education pie, but I’m hopeful they will grow and spread, perhaps nucleating Mitcham’s desired change from the inside out.

Byron Newberry

Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Baylor University


There is reason to believe that Carl Mitcham’s goal can be achieved. With the adoption by ABET (a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that accredits college and university programs in the disciplines of applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology) of Engineering Criteria 2000, engineers are expected to develop personal and professional responsibility and understand the broader effects of engineering projects, which provides a solid departure point for seeking “self-knowledge.” And although several emerging obstacles may prevent the chasm between the two cultures of the humanities and engineering from being easily bridged, they may also reveal creative opportunities.

The first obstacle is fragmentation of the university. Institutional separation of colleges and departments, necessary for many reasons, is made materially manifest in the creation of science and research parks formed in collaboration with commercial entities. Given the steep decline in public funding, private funding for research may seem like pure good fortune. Yet creation of such parks may introduce physical barriers that can prevent interdisciplinary work and collegiality among faculty and students in engineering and those in the humanities. Moreover, the proprietary nature of much research done in such collaborations is contrary to the goal of democratizing knowledge, an important justification for the public funding universities still receive.

The second obstacle is the exponential growth of technical knowledge that must be mastered to do engineering work. The “Raise the Bar” initiative, supported by the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, has responded to the increased demands on engineers by changing professional licensure to require either a master’s degree or equivalent in the near future. Andrew W. Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, characterized the changes as similar to what other “learned professions” had done to cope with increasing demands on their members and as a move that would raise the stature of the engineering profession.

Although an initial response may be to assign additional educational requirements to technical courses, more innovative departments should consider repositioning an engineering education to generate as many opportunities as possible for its students to interact with the humanities and social sciences. To do this will require financial support for engineering students who are interested in earning minors (or even second majors) in those areas, perhaps by devoting a small share of the resources dedicated to collaborative private/public research projects to this end. Such support may attract interest from underrepresented groups by showing that engineering education means development of the whole person, not just their technical skills. It would also provide tangible proof to the public that its financial support is more than subsidized job training for favored industries, while also demonstrating to ABET that an engineering department is committed to excellence for all learning outcomes, not just those related to engineering sciences.

Repositioning engineering education should also provide an opportunity for engineering departments to do their part in bridging the two-culture divide by promoting minors in engineering disciplines to humanities and social sciences majors. In a world in which technology is ubiquitous, increasing the quality and quantity of public knowledge about engineering should increase the quality of public discourse on technological projects.

Glen Miller

Department of Philosophy

Texas A&M University


I applaud Carl Mitcham’s call to recognize engineering education as one of the Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century. Engineers will continue to play a pivotal role in solving the enormous problems facing the world, but the education at most engineering schools is not preparing their students for the sociotechnical complexity or the global scale of the problems. The narrowness of engineering education has long been recognized, and although a few institutions have made serious efforts to change, engineering education remains narrow. The curriculum provides few opportunities for students to develop substantive nontechnical perspectives; few opportunities to see engineering in the broad social and political context in which it operates and has consequences; and few opportunities to develop the personal attributes and understanding that might lead to more socially responsive and responsible solutions.

Engineers are, in Mitcham’s words, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” insofar as they create technologies that order and regulate how we live. Of course, engineers are not alone in doing this. The organizations that employ them, regulatory agencies, markets, and media all have a role. If engineers are to play an effective role, they must understand their relationships with these other actors and they must understand the broader context of their work (not just the workplace). In short, they must understand engineering as a sociotechnical enterprise.

Engineering education is appropriately a Grand Challenge because it is not a small or easy problem. A dose of humanities—a few required humanities and social science courses—won’t do the job. In part, this is because many of the humanities and social sciences don’t address the technological character of the world we live in. They may allow students to consider the meaning of life, but without acknowledging the powerful role technology plays shaping our lives. So the Grand Challenge involves changing humanities and social science education as well as engineering education.

The Grand Challenge has another component that is rarely recognized. Understanding how technology and society are intertwined is not just important for engineers. Non-engineers need to understand how technology regulates everyone’s lives. Thus, part of the challenge of engineering education is to figure out what citizens need to know about technology and engineering. Again, it is not a small or easy problem. Citizens can’t become experts in engineering, so we need to figure out what kinds of information and skills they do need. Most colleges and universities require liberal arts students simply to take a certain number of science courses. This is woefully inadequate to prepare students for living in this science- and technology-dependent world.

In my own experience, bringing insights, theories, and concepts from the field of science, technology, and society studies has been enormously helpful in engaging engineering students in thinking more broadly about the implications of their work and seeing ways to design things that solve broader problems. For example, focusing on how Facebook and Google algorithms determine the information that users see, and the significance of this for democracy, may change the way engineering students think about writing computer code. Similarly, focusing on the politics of decisions about where to site bridges frames engineering as implicitly a sociotechnical enterprise. Notice that this approach might work as well for liberal arts students. Indeed, it might stimulate them to enroll in science and engineering fields.

Deborah G. Johnson

Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics Science

University of Virginia


Carl Mitcham proposes that because engineering fundamentally transforms the human condition, engineering schools have a duty to educate students who will be able to think reflectively and critically on the transformed world that they will help create. What should students learn and then reflect on as they move through their professional careers? Mitcham refers to the National Academy of Engineering’s Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century and Grand Challenges for Engineering as being insufficient in how they critically explore the achievements and challenges that have or will transform the world. Perhaps the National Academies should develop a follow-on project, Engineering: Transforming the Human Condition and Civilization.

The project could serve as source for curriculum across engineering education as well as for other fields and for continuing education. The overarching theme would be not only the triumphs, but also the tragedies in the transformation of civilization from the hunter-gather societies symbolized in cave paintings of over 30,000 years ago, to agrarian societies, to industrialization, and now to a techno-info-scientific society.

The challenge is to organize our knowledge so that the big picture—the fantastic story of human civilization; who we are and what we are becoming as beings on this watery planet—is coherent and accessible. One strategy would be to organize the knowledge as the evolution of technological systems and the increasing interactions of such systems. One thread through time is the nexus of food, water, and energy. One can learn how these systems changed over time, including the connections with transportation, materials, and the built environment, for example. From the moldboard plow pulled with horses planting open-pollinated crops to autonomous self-driving tractors and genetically engineered crops that are robotically harvested, how is one system better than the other—or is it? Then there is the issue of our increasing reliance on space systems for weather and climate information, and perhaps for attempting to engineer the climate in a way we desire.

These systems are not just technical, but sociotechnical, reflecting the interests, values, costs and benefits, winners and losers in the distribution of benefits and costs, the power to influence what happens, and the adjudication in some cases of what systems become realized in the world. It is messy. These are the details that matter and influence the evolution of sociotechnical systems and who we become.

Darryl Farber

Assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society

Penn State University


Addressing the Grand Challenge formulated by Carl Mitcham, when done well, could lead to revolutionary changes in the way society innovates. But who will initiate and execute self-reflection among engineers? Within universities, three groups can be identified: the administration, technical faculty, and liberal arts faculty. Change is most effective when it is driven both top-down and bottom-up, which means the involvement of administration and faculty.

But in reality, the administration is often loath to take on this role, in part because of financial reasons. Technical faculty are often wrapped up in their research and teaching, and as a result may not pay much attention to the broader impact of their work. That leaves the liberal arts faculty. But since at technical universities this group is often seen as providers of service courses, they alone may not have the clout to realize institution-wide change. So again the question: who will be the agent of change?

What is needed is a movement among faculty, students, and, preferably, individuals in the administration. This movement will be most effective when it includes technical faculty who are seen as role models. Inclusion of liberal arts faculty is essential because of their societal insight and critical thinking skills. Because of their complementary expertise, technical faculty and liberal arts faculty may need to educate each other. Faculty organizations, such as a faculty senate, research council, research centers, or individual departments, could play a key role. Other initiatives, such as reading groups, high-profile speakers, and thought-provoking contributions to campus publications, may also contribute.

Funding agencies also have an opportunity to be agents of change. The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, requires that the students and postdoctoral fellows it funds receive ethics training. Requiring that grant applicants address the Grand Challenge outlined by Mitcham would naturally fit under the Broader Impact criterion used by the NSF.

So members of the campus communities, stand up—and in the words of Gandhi, “be the change you want to see in the world!”

Roel Snieder

W.M. Keck Distinguished Professor of Basic Exploration Science

Colorado School of Mines


I cannot but wholeheartedly subscribe to Carl Mitcham’s wake-up call to all of us, but to engineers in particular, to face the “challenge of thinking about what we are doing as we turn the world into an artifact and the appropriate limitations of this engineering power.” Critical thinking is the pivotal notion of his wake-up call. But what are the tools of critical thinking, and where are engineers to turn for support in developing and applying these tools? Mitcham advises engineers to turn to the humanities.

But are the humanities up to this task? What kinds of tools for critical thinking have they to offer, and are they appropriate for the problems we are facing in our technological age? Take philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy has developed into a discipline of its own, with philosophers writing mainly for philosophers. There is no shortage of critical thinking going on in philosophy, but is it the kind of critical thinking that engineers need? I have serious doubts, given that reflection on science and technology plays only a marginal role in philosophy.

What is true of philosophy is also true, I fear, for many of the other humanities. Here lies a grand challenge for the humanities: to turn their analytical and critical powers to the single most characteristic feature of the modern human condition, technology, and to engage in a fruitful dialogue with engineers, who play a crucial role in developing this technology. If they face up to this challenge, they may be the appropriate place for engineers to turn for guidance in dealing with their quest for self-knowledge.

Peter Kroes

Professor of Philosophy of Technology

Delft University of Technology

The Netherlands



The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

Bieber_Bird-Chest

Lorna Bieber, Bird/Chest, Silver print, 2000–2001. Artwork and images courtesy of the artist. © Lorna Bieber.

Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines humanity’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary U.S. artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.

The exhibition, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., from October 31, 2014, through February 22, 2015, coincides with two significant environmental anniversaries—the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964—events that highlight mankind’s journey from conquest of the land to its conservation. Although human activity has affected many species, birds in particular embody these competing impulses. Inspired by the confluence of these events, the exhibition explores how artists working today use avian imagery to meaningfully connect with the natural world, among other themes.

Whereas artists have historically created images of birds for the purposes of scientific inquiry, taxonomy, or spiritual symbolism, the artists featured in The Singing and the Silence instead share a common interest in birds as allegories for our own earthbound existence. The 46 artworks on display consider themes such as contemporary culture’s evolving relationship with the natural world, the steady rise in environmental consciousness, and the rituals of birding. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the poem “The Bird at Dawn” by Harold Monro.

The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.

—Adapted from the exhibit website


Tomaselli_MigrantFruitThugs.tif

Fred Tomaselli, Migrant Fruit Thugs, Leaves, photo collage, gouache, acrylic and resin on wood panel, 2006 Image courtesy of Glenstone. © Fred Tomaselli.

Brennan_PeregrinFalcon.tif

Joann Brennan, Peregrine Falcon. Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Zoology Department (over 900 specimens in the collection), Denver, Colorado, Chromogenic print, 2006. Artwork and image courtesy of the artist, Denver, Colorado. © 2006, Joann Brennan.



Ford_FallingBough.tif

Walton Ford, Falling Bough, Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper, 2002. Image courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.


An Archeology of Knowledge


by

Mark Dion

7-01

In recent years, much thought and research has been devoted to the visualization of information and “big data.” This has fostered more interactions with artists in an attempt to uncover innovative and creative ways of presenting and interpreting complex information.

7-02

How meaning and knowledge are structured and how they are communicated through objects has long interested artist Mark Dion. In Dion’s installations, everyday objects and artifacts are elevated to an iconic status by association with other objects. Visual meaning is established in much the same way that a natural history collection might reveal information about the specimens it contains. Indeed, Dion’s work harks back to the 17th century “cabinet of curiosity,” where objects were collected to consider their meaning in relationship to other artifacts.

 

“An Archaeology of Knowledge”, a permanent art installation for the Brody Learning Commons, the Sheridan Libraries & University Museums, The Johns Hopkins University. Below is a selection of artifacts from the cases and drawers:

(a) “Big Road to Lake Ahmic,” 1921, etching on the underside of a tree fungus by Max Brödel (1870-1941), first director of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine; (b) Glaucoma demonstration model, ca. 1970s; (c) Nurse dolls, undated; (d) Medical field kit, 20th century; (e) Dog’s skull, undated; (f) Collection of miniature books, 16th–20th centuries. Photo by John Dean.

8
9-02

In 2011, Johns Hopkins University (JHU) commissioned Dion to create an installation for their Brody Learning Commons, Sheridan Libraries, and university museums in Baltimore that would convey the institution’s diverse and expansive history. The installation featured here, titled An Archeology of Knowledge, sought to document and communicate information regarding hundreds of historic artifacts, works of art, and scientific instruments from across the collections and units of JHU and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Elizabeth Rodini, director of the Program in Museums and Society at JHU, wrote that this work, “reveals the layers of meaning embedded in an academic culture….Although some of us…work regularly with objects, even we often fail to consider how these objects are accumulated and brought into meaningful assemblages.”

9-01

Left: Mark Dion Concept drawing for “An Archaeology of Knowledge”, 2011. Courtesy Mark Dion Studio, New York, NY.

 

Some of the artifacts were gathered from intentional collections and archives from across JHU’s disciplinary divisions. Other objects were gathered by an extensive search by the artist, curator Jackie O’Regan, and other collaborators through storage vaults, attics, broom closets, and basements as well as encounters with individuals on campus who collected and even hoarded the “stuff” of knowledge that make up the material fabric of JHU. Even the cabinets themselves were a part of JHU history, repurposed from the Roseman Laboratory.

Dion writes, “This artwork hearkens back to the infancy of our culture’s collaborations across the arts and sciences, as each artifact takes on a more poetic, subjective, and perhaps allegorical meaning, all the while maintaining its original status as a tool for learning…. An Archaeology of Knowledge provides us with an awesome, expansive visual impression that evokes wonder, stimulates curiosity, and produces knowledge through a direct and variegated encounter with the physical world.” Dion’s work reminds us of the power of objects to convey meaning and to preserve history.

Below is a selection of artifacts from the cases and drawers, including: an early X-ray tube, a 16th century Mesoamerican stone face plaque, a 1st century Roman pedestal with inscription, early 20th century lacrosse balls, an anesthesia kit, and assorted pressure gauges and light bulbs.

10

Below: pipet bulbs, diagnostic eyeglasses, an early 20th century X-ray tube, and a late 19th century egg collection.

Drawer photos by John Dean.

11-01
11-02

A selection of artifacts from the cases and drawers, including: Below: a late 18th century English linen press, an early 20th century practice clavier, and an 1832 portrait of “Mrs. Samuel Hopkins” by Alfred jab Miller that was commissioned by her son Johns Hopkins.

12

Below: various trophies and awards.

13-01
13-02

Mark Dion has exhibited his artwork internationally including at the Tate Gallery, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He is featured in the PBS series Art: 21. He teaches in the Visual Arts Department of Columbia University.

—JD Talasek

Images courtesy of the artist and Johns Hopkins University. Will Kirk/Homewood Photography, unless otherwise noted.

Archives


by
96
Ruben Nieto Thor Came Down to Help Mighty Mouse Against Magneto. Oil on canvas. 32 x 48 inches. 2013

Artist Ruben Nieto grew up in Veracruz, Mexico, reading U.S. comic books, a memory that plays an important role in his creative process today. His paintings recast the formal visual elements of comic books with a strong influence of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Using computer software to transform and alter the structure of the original comic book drawings, Nieto proceeds to make oil paintings based on the new decontextualized imagery. In his own words, “Forms and shapes coincide and drift on planes of varying depth, resulting in comic abstractions with a contemporary ‘pop’ look.”

Nieto received his Master of Fine Arts degree in Arts and Technology from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008 and has since exhibited throughout the United States and Mexico.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Profiteering or pragmatism?


by

Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

by McKenzie Funk. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014, 310 pp.

Jason Lloyd

In the epilogue of his book, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, McKenzie Funk finally outlines an argument that had thrummed away in the background of the preceding twelve chapters, present but muffled under globe-trotting reportage and profiles of men seeking profit on a warming planet. It’s not a groundbreaking argument, but it provides a sense of Funk’s framing. “The hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone,” he writes. “Some people—the rich, the northern—will find ways to thrive while others cannot … The imbalance between rich and north and poor and south—inherited from history and geography, accelerated by warming—is becoming even more entrenched.”

91

The phrasing here confuses an important distinction. Is it climate change that is exacerbating global inequities? Or is it our response to climate change? To varying degrees it is both, of course, but differentiating them is necessary because our response will have significantly greater consequences for vulnerable populations than climate change itself. Funk largely conflates the two because he views climate change and global inequalities as stemming from the same source: “The people most responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions are also the most likely to succeed in this new reality and the least likely to feel a mortal threat from continued warming.” This is as facile a perspective as the claim on the previous page that climate change is “essentially a problem of basic physics: Add carbon, get heat.”

The problem is not that these statements are untrue. It’s that they are so simplistic that they obscure any effective way to deal with the enormous complexity of climate change and inequality. To be fair, Funk notes elsewhere that how we respond to climate change may magnify existing power and economic imbalances. But he means the response that is the subject of Windfall: people in affluent countries discovering opportunities to profit off the impacts of climate change. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the conventional climate strategy—to mitigate rather than adapt, to minimize energy consumption rather than innovate, to inhibit fossil fuel use in even the poorest countries—may entrench global inequalities much more effectively than petroleum exploration in the Arctic or genetically modified mosquitos.

It is tempting to agree with Funk’s framing. There is “a more perfect moral clarity” in the idea that the rich world must cease carbon dioxide emissions for the good of all or risk an environmental disaster that will burden the poor the most, and that those seeking financial gain in this man-made catastrophe are simply profiteers. But it is a clarity premised on an unfounded faith in our current ability to radically cut carbon emissions, and it ignores some destabilizing questions: Where does China fall in this schema, for example? What about Greenland, which as Funk notes, stands to hugely gain from climate change without having contributed anything to the problem? Don’t drought-resistant crops with higher, more predictable yields provide benefit both seed companies and poor farmers?

Funk elides these questions and stresses that he is not identifying bad guys but illuminating “the landscape in which they live,” by which he means a global society consumed by “techno-lust and hyper-individualism, conflation of growth with progress, [and] unflagging faith in unfettered markets.” If this is what he sees when he looks out at the global landscape, he is using an extraordinarily narrow beam for illumination.

Fun as it is to watch Funk puncture the petty vanities of these men, mostly by simply quoting them, it is impossible to grasp the bigger picture from these chapters.

The people that Funk spotlights in this landscape are the hedge funders, entrepreneurs, and other businessmen (apparently no women are profiting from climate change) who are finding ways to thrive on the real, perceived, and anticipated effects of global warming. These effects are divided into three categories: melt, drought, and deluge. There are upsides—for some, at least—to all three. A melting Arctic means previously inaccessible mineral and petroleum deposits become exploitable, and newly ice-free shipping lanes benefit global trade. Drought offers opportunities for investing in water rights, water being a commodity that will likely increase in price as it becomes scarcer in places like the U.S. West and Australia. And rising sea levels allow Dutch engineers to sell their expertise in water management to low-lying communities worldwide.

The issues raised in the two best chapters, about private firefighting services in California and an investor’s purchase of thousands of acres of farmland in newly independent South Sudan, are not new and arguably have less to do with climate change than with social and economic dynamics. But these chapters stand out because of the men profiled in them. Funk has a terrific eye for the vanities of a certain type of person: the good old boy who believes himself a straight-talker, rejecting social niceties and political correctness to tell it how it is, but is mostly full of hot air, pettiness, and self-interest.

The wasabi-pea-munching Chief Sam DiGiovanna, for example, leads a team of for-profit firefighters employed by insurance giant AIG to protect homes from forest fires. He calls media outlets to see if they’d like to interview him on his way to fight fires in affluent neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. (Their protection efforts are mostly useless, as it turns out, because of a combination of incompetence on the part of his Oregon-based dispatchers and the effectiveness of public firefighters.) It is genuinely appalling to read that because Chief Sam’s team mimics public firefighters—uniforms, red fire-emblazoned SUVs with sirens, pump trucks—a neighbor of one of their clients mistakenly believes they are in the neighborhood to fight the blaze, not protect individual client homes. As she points out where the team can access the fire, Chief Sam lamely stands around and says that more resources are coming, unwilling to abandon the illusion that they are acting in the public interest.

Funk travels with investor Phil Heilberg to South Sudan to finalize Heilberg’s leasing of a million acres of the country’s farmland, a deal that would make him one of the largest private landholders in Africa. Attempting to acquire the signatures of Sudanese officials in order to legitimate his land deal and pacify investors in the scheme, Heilberg, who compares himself to Ayn Rand’s protagonists and witlessly psychoanalyzes the warlords who keep blowing him off, seems mostly out of his element. He leaves South Sudan amid the chaos of its fight for independence without getting his signatures. Other nations pursuing land deals seem to have had more luck; countries ranging from India to Qatar have leased or purchased vast tracts of farmland in poorer countries.

Fun as it is to watch Funk puncture the petty vanities of these men, mostly by simply quoting them, it is impossible to grasp the bigger picture from these chapters. At one point Funk compares public firefighting to mitigation, or “cutting emissions for the good of all,” and Chief Sam’s private firefighting to adaptation efforts in which “individual cities or countries endeavor to protect their own patches.” (The failure of a mitigation-dominated approach to cutting global emissions goes unmentioned.) A libertarian abandonment of public goods such as firefighting would indeed be calamitous, but we don’t seem to be in any danger of that occurring. If Chief Sam’s outfit is anything more than an apparently ineffectual experiment on the part of insurance companies, Funk does not say what it is.

The same is true of his Wall Street farmland investor. Heilberg appears feckless rather than indicative of some trend of colonizing climate profiteers. Funk illustrates why working with warlords is a bad idea from both a moral and business perspective, but he never articulates what the effect of Heilberg’s farming plan, if successful, would be. Funk ominously notes that private militias had ravaged South Sudan during the civil war of the 1990s, but he doesn’t make the connection to current foreign land purchases. Heilberg, for his part, planned to farm his land and sell crops in Sudan before selling the food abroad. Nor is it obvious what countries like China or Egypt plan to do with the land they have acquired in places such as Sudan and Ethiopia, or how leasing farmland is different from other forms of foreign direct investment.

Furthermore, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who, exactly, is profiting. Funk devotes half a chapter to Nigeria’s construction of a “Great Green Wall,” a line of trees intended to slow desertification in the country. But desertification results mostly from unsustainable agricultural methods. How climate change may impact the process is unknown, especially since climate models for sub-Saharan Africa are notably variable. Few people seem to think that the green wall will slow the Sahara’s expansion. The profit-generating capacity of a tree-planting scheme dominated by a Japanese spiritual group (one of the weirder details of the project) is left unexplained.

Geoengineering is another example. Although Intellectual Ventures (IV), an investment firm headed by Microsoft entrepreneur, cookbook writer, and alleged patent troll Nathan Myhrvold, may hold patents on speculative geoengineering technologies, how the company could profit from them is not clear. Distasteful as IV’s practices may be, is it necessarily a bad thing that some entities might profit from technologies that allow people to adapt and thrive in a climate-changed world, whether through solar radiation management, improved mosquito control, or better seawalls?

Funk clearly sees this idea and what he calls “techno-fixes” as opportunism and as relinquishing our duty to mitigate climate change through significantly cutting carbon emissions or consumption. Despite peevish asides such as the fact that the “Gates Foundation has notably spent not a penny on helping the world cut carbon emissions” (quite possibly because emissions reductions have little to do with helping poor people), Funk does not outline what radical emissions reductions would entail.

Presumably, though, an effective approach to lowering carbon emissions requires both the public and private sectors, and private sector involvement means that someone sees an opportunity to profit. The notion that corporations will respond to incentives that erode their bottom lines—or, for that matter, that governments will enact tax or energy policies to the detriment of their citizens—does not correspond to what we have learned from thirty years of failure to adequately address climate change and reduce carbon emissions. The task, then, is to rethink our strategy for transitioning to a low-carbon global society and, as importantly, equitably adapting to an unavoidably warming climate. Where are the opportunities for achieving these goals, and how do we design our strategies to benefit as many people as possible? Stuck in the conventional climate framework, Windfall does not provide any useful answers.

Funk adopts the position that he is unearthing some uncomfortable truths: “Environmental campaigners shy away from the fact that some people will see upsides to climate change.” Environmental campaigners who have chosen to ignore the blindingly obvious may indeed not want to acknowledge that climate change will produce winners and losers. But for everyone else, Funk provides a narrative of familiar villains—Royal Dutch Shell, Monsanto, Wall Street bankers, African war lords, genetically modified organisms. To those firmly entrenched in a particular view of the world, Windfall is the validating story of profit-seekers in the rich world that have brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe and will now find a way to make money off it. If only it was this straightforward.

It is not just the rapaciousness of corporations, the selfish behavior of billions of unthinking consumers, or even the resource-intensive economies of what neo-Marxists always optimistically call “late capitalism” that is ushering in the Anthropocene. Climate change results from the fact that every facet of modern life—the necessities and comforts the vast majority of us enjoy, demand, or aspire to—contributes to the emissions that are warming the planet. If we are going to manage this condition in a pragmatic and ethical way, it will take a great deal of imagination to find the opportunities that climate change presents, including financial opportunities, for making the world a more prosperous, more resilient, and more equitable place.

Jason Lloyd (jason.lloyd@asu.edu) is a project coordinator at Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes in Washington, DC.

Imagining the Future City


by

RIDER W. FOLEY
DARREN PETRUCCI
ARNIM WIEK

A rich blend of engaging narrative and rigorous analysis can provide decisionmakers with the various perspectives they need when making choices with long-range consequences for cities around the world.

An ashen sky gives way to streaks of magenta and lilac across the Phoenix cityscape in 2050. L’yan, one of millions of late-night Creators, walks slowly through the fields of grass growing in the elevated honeycomb transportation network on her way back from the late-night block party. L’yan has only a short trip to her pad in downtown Phoenix. She, along with 10,000,000 fellow Creators, has just beaten the challenge posted on the PATHWAY (Privileged Access-The Hacker WAY) challenge board. L’yan shivers, a cool breeze and the feeling of success washing over her. She had gained PATHWAY access during her ninth year in the online Academy of Critically Adaptive trans-Disciplinary Engineering, Mathematics, Informatics, & Arts (ACADEMIA). She dropped out after achieving Creator status. Who needs a doctorate if you have access to PATHWAY challenges? Research funds are no longer tied up in disciplinary colleges and universities. In Phoenix, as in many innovation centers around the world, social stratification is not any longer determined by race, gender, or family wealth; instead, it is based on each person’s skills in problem-solving and adaptive learning, their ability to construct and shape materials, and to write and decipher code. Phoenix embraces the ideals of individual freedom and creativity, and amended zoning in 2035 to allow pads (building sites) for Creators to build towers. Pads are the basis of innovation and are the foundation blocks for the complex network of interconnected corridors that hover above the aging city streets. Today, in 2050, the non-Creators, the squares, live in relics, detached houses, off-pad in the old (2010 era) suburbs at the periphery of the city center.

Science fiction uses personal narratives and vivid images to create immersive experiences for the audience. Scientific scenarios, on the other hand, most often rely on predictive models that capture the key variables of the system being projected into the future. These two forms of foresight—and the people who practice them—typically don’t engage with one another, but they should.

Scientific scenarios are typically illustrated by an array of lines on a graph representing a range of possible futures; for example, possible changes in greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric temperatures over the next several decades. Although such a spectrum of lines may reflect the results of sophisticated climate models, it is unlikely to communicate the information decisionmakers need for strategizing and planning for the future. Even the most sophisticated models are simplifications of the forces influencing future outcomes. They present abstract findings, disconnected from local cultural, economic, or environmental conditions. A limited number of continuous lines on a graph also communicate a sense of control and order, suggesting that today’s choices lead to predictable outcomes.

Science fiction stories, in contrast, can use rich and complex narratives to envision scenarios that are tangible and feel “real.” Yet science fiction also has its obvious limits as a foresight tool. To be effective, it must be driven by narrative, not by science or the concerns of policymakers. Scenarios constructed through collaborations that draw from the strengths of science and science fiction can help decisionmakers and citizens envision, reflect, and plan for the future. Such rich and embedded scenarios can reveal assumptions, insights, and questions about societal values. They can explore a society’s dependence on technology, its attitudes about the market, or its capacity to effect social change through policy choices. Scenarios can challenge linear cause-effect thinking or assumptions about rigid path dependencies. People are often ready for more complexity and have a greater appreciation of the intertwined forces shaping society after engaging with such scenarios. To illustrate this, we describe a recent project we directed aimed at helping decisionmakers think through the implications of emerging nanoscale science, technology, and innovation for cities.

Constructing scenarios

Sustainability science develops solution options for complex problems with social, economic, and environmental elements, reaching from local to global scales. Design thinking synthesizes information from disparate sources to arrive at design concepts that help solve such complex problems and advance human aspirations, from the scale of the body to the scale of the city. In this project we used both sustainability science and design thinking to map, model, and visualize alternative socio-technical futures that respond to the mounting sustainability challenges facing Phoenix, Arizona.

Currently, science policy in the United States and across the globe is justifying significant investments in nanotechnology by promising, for example, improved public health, water quality, food productivity, public safety, and transportation efficiency. In Phoenix, regional efforts are under way in each of these sectors. The nanotechnologies envisioned by researchers, investors, and entrepreneurs promise to reshape the buildings, infrastructures, and networks that affect the lives of the city’s residents. Furthermore, Phoenix, like many urban centers, is committed to diversifying the regional economy through investments in high-tech clusters and recruiting research-intensive companies. It is already home to companies such as Intel, Honeywell, Orbital Sciences, and Translational Genomics. These companies promise jobs, economic growth, and the benefits of novel technologies to make life easier, not only for Phoenix residents but for consumers everywhere.

We consulted with diverse stakeholders including “promoters” (such as entrepreneurs, funding agencies, staffers, and consultants), less enthusiastic “cautious optimists” (members of the media, city officials, and investors), and downright “skeptics” (staff at social justice organizations, regulatory agencies, and insurance companies). These urban stakeholders have rival objectives and values that highlight the interwoven and competing interests affecting the city’s social, technological, and environmental characteristics. Repeated interactions between the research team and stakeholders led to relationships that were maintained for the duration of the two-year study.

A mixed method to foresight

In collaboration with these diverse stakeholders, the scenarios explore the following questions: In Phoenix in 2050, who is doing what in nanotechnology innovation, why are they doing it, and with what outcomes (intended and unintended)? How conducive are different models of nanotechnology innovation to mitigating the sustainability challenges Phoenix faces in 2050? We used 2050 as the reference year because it is beyond the near-term planning horizon, yet still within the horizon of responsibility to today’s children.

In the initial stages of research, we collected elements for the scenarios directly from stakeholders through interviews, workshops, local media reports, and public events, and from documents published by academic, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations. That review process yielded a set of scenario elements (variables) in four relevant domains of models of innovation, societal drivers, nanotechnology applications, and sustainability challenges.

(1) Models of innovation represent distinctly different patterns of technological change: market-pull innovation is the conventional procedure of product development and commercialization; social entrepreneurship innovation aligns the interests of private entrepreneurs with the challenges facing society through diverse public-private partnerships; closed collaboration innovation is based on public-private partnerships restricted to a limited number of elite decisionmakers; and open-source innovation leverages the skills of individuals and collectives to generate intellectual property and yet not retain its rights exclusively.

(2) Societal drivers enable and constrain people’s actions in the innovation process: entrepreneurial attitudes; public (and private) funding; academic capacities; risk-mitigating regulations (public policy) and liability protection (private activity); and capacity for civic engagement.

(3) Nanotechnology applications result from the innovation process and range from “blue sky” (very early development) to “ubiquitously available.” The applications used in our study include multifunctional surface coatings; energy production, transmission, and storage systems; urban security applications; and nano-enhanced construction materials. All applications are profiled in an online database (http://nice.asu.edu).

(4) Sustainability challenges—mitigated or aggravated through innovation processes—include economic instabilities due to boom-bust cycles of land development and consumer behavior; emerging problems with the reliability of electricity and water systems due to population shifts, aging infrastructure, and future drought conditions; overinvestment in energy- and emission-intense automobile transportation infrastructure; increasing rates of childhood obesity and other behavioral diseases; social fragmentation along socioeconomic and nationality status; and limited investments and poor performance in public education. The Phoenix region faces each of these challenges today. How (or if) they are addressed will affect the city’s future.

We vetted this set of scenario elements through interviews and a workshop that included a total of 50 experts in high-risk insurance, venture capital, media, urban economic development, regulations, patent law and technology transfer, nanoscale science and engineering, and sustainability challenges. We analyzed the consistency among all scenario elements, and generated 226,748,160 computer-based combinations of the scenario elements. Inconsistent scenarios were eliminated and a cluster analysis yielded a final set of four scenarios (based on the four innovation models). Technical descriptions summarized the key features of each scenario. Finally, a narrative was written for each scenario (such as the one for the open-source innovation scenario at the beginning of this article). Each narrative starts at sunrise to depict a day in the life of a person in Phoenix in 2050.

The narratives were used as the basis for a graduate course that we taught at Arizona State University’s Design School. Students were asked to develop urban designs from the scenario narratives. The challenge for the students was that the narratives were neither architectural design specifications nor articulations of typical design problems. One student joked, “We are working with material too small to see, in a future that doesn’t exist, at a physical scale bigger than any other design studio project.” (In contrast, the graduate design studio next door was designing a 10-story law school for an existing site in downtown Phoenix.)

Students first converted the scenario narratives into visual storyboards, from which they developed initial urban design proposals. The proposals were reviewed by a panel of experts, including engineers, real estate developers, social scientists, and community advocates. Students formulated suppositions, for example, in the social entrepreneurship innovation scenario, that boundaries between public and private property are blurred, or, in the open-source innovation scenario, that restrictive building codes are eased exclusively for Creators in exchange for the benefits offered to the city. The suppositions served as a point of departure for the final urban design proposals. Ideas poured forth throughout the process, as students generated thousands of sketches, drawings, and illustrative boards to test their urban design proposals.

Each student dedicated 60 or more hours per week to the project. In turn, the Design School offered abundant technical and social resources to enable their productivity. Students were given a budget to build their lab and create an environment suitable for the project. Every Friday they participated in group coaching led by a clinical psychologist, a faculty member at the Design School. A filmmaker worked with the students on illustrating the final urban design proposals in short videos.

By the end of the semester, the students had created four videos—one for each scenario—offering a guided tour of a nano-enhanced Phoenix in 2050. The videos were reviewed by a panel of experts, including land developers, technology specialists, architects, sustainability scholars, urban designers, and social scientists. Over the summer, a group of six students incorporated feedback from the end-of-semester review and condensed the four scenarios into two. They produced three-dimensional models and polished the final video, entitled PHX 2050 (http://vimeo.com/88092568). The 15-minute video exposes audiences to distinctly different futures of nanotechnology in the city—from drivers to impacts. It has been used in high-school classrooms in Phoenix; science policy workshops in Washington, DC; and seminars, including one hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council with professionals from the construction sector. The video sparked new conversations and stimulated people to consider, simultaneously, the social and physical elements of the city, the role of technology, and divergent future outcomes.

The nano-enhanced city of the future: Phoenix in 2050

In addition to the movie and the four “day-in-the-life” vignettes, the students prepared graphic images that visually capture the essence of the scenarios and general descriptions of the key underlying elements. Samples of each of these are provided here.

Market-driven innovation: Suppositions

“Market pull” is the dominant mode of innovation and problem-solving to meet user demands. Market mechanisms efficiently meet the demand for low-cost goods, such as personal electronics, provided by private corporations and entrepreneurs alike. Product competition affords comfort and convenience-based products that ensure the “good life.”

Citizens hope to become wealthy and famous entrepreneurs. Government funding agencies focus on small business research grants, as a means to privatize and market technologies created in university and federal labs. Venture capitalists host regional and national conferences and invite researchers, budding entrepreneurs, and program managers. These forums offer critical feedback to technology developers and funding agencies on how to get technologies closer to market before private investments are made.

Advances in nanotechnology support legacy energy and transportation infrastructure, which gain just enough efficiency to stave off the collapse of aging infrastructure. Battery efficiency allows cars to run exclusively on electric motors, yet the existing electrical power supply remains fossil dependent. Nano-enabled materials coat the glass facade and are embedded in the electrical operations in buildings.

Society is divided between the rich and the minimum wage earner, with the middle class having disappeared decades ago. Pressing urban sustainability challenges amplify stress between people, the economy, and the environment.

85

Market-driven innovation: Will the sun rise in Arizona?

Rays of sunlight break across Nancy’s bed. The window’s tinting melts away as the night’s sky transforms into a grayish-purple aurora in anticipation of morning. Nancy awakens. Another day to fight for solar energy has begun and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee greets her. She sips her coffee and reviews her notes for the upcoming 2050 Arizona Town Hall. She scoffs. These meetings have been going on for more than a half-century, since before 2010.

And where are they today? No different than 2010, maybe a notch hotter at night and water restrictions are being imposed, but the real lack of change is in the energy sector, the lifeblood of any city. The market price of solar has never quite caught up with the marginally decreasing price of nuclear, coal, and natural gas. There are a hundred reasons, a thousand little incremental changes in technology and policy that have advantaged legacy energy providers and continuously crippled the solar industry. Many point to the little-known Arizona Corporation Commission—the decision-making body that sets Renewable Energy Standards for state-regulated electrical utilities in Arizona, a state with 360 days of full sun every year. A political action group has supported candidates who have undermined the solar industry and quietly propped up the legacy energy sources relied on by the centralized utilities.

86

Closed collaboration: A world under control

Ja’Qra awakes to the morning rays gently easing their way through the blinds. The “Desert Sunrise” is programmed into the Home Intelligence System, which syncs every second with the Community Health Management system. Those systems are responsible for Ja’Qra’s health and security. The systems update the Maricopa Sheriff’s office every two seconds, ensuring almost real-time security updates. Since the Arizonians for Citizen Transparency Act came into effect in 2024, all children have been encoded with their social security numbers embedded within eighty-one discrete codons using synthetic G-A-C-T sequences. Ja’Qra validates her status as awake. Her routine is soothing. She depresses her hands in a semi-solid gel that fills the bathroom sink monitoring station. It massages her hands, lightly scrubs the skin, and applies a novel daily nail polish pattern and painlessly extracts 10 to 20 dead skin cells to verify Ja’Qra’s identity. A fully integrated personalized medicine program in Arizona requires full participation by all residents to populate the database of genetic diseases. Full citizen participation also provides the baseline health information from which illnesses can be identified as anomalies and treated in a preventative manner. Ja’Qra dutifully reviews the prescribed daily health reports and consumes the breakfast MEAL’ Medically Effective And Lovable.

Closed collaboration innovation: Suppositions

Mission-oriented government agencies, like the Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health, collaborate with private contractors to create novel technological solutions to social problems. By concentrating power in large administrative units, solutions are implemented with controlled technologies to address infrastructure, security, and public health challenges.

Citizens demand economic stability, security and universal health care. Clean water and air also garner unquestioned public support. A few privileged decisionmakers direct public funding for nanotechnology innovation. This ensures that highly educated experts in the field design technological solutions that align with each federal agency’s mission.

Future success is expected to mirror historic feats of science and engineering, exemplified by the atomic bomb and penicillin. Federal agencies react swiftly to identified threats and challenges. This has led to the containment of threats and has mitigated many stressors of urban life, the economy, and environment. Urban challenges are addressed with the orderly deployment of nanotechnology, such as ensuring universal health care by monitoring everyone’s health with real-time analytics and precise pharmacological treatments.

The city is reminiscent of Singapore—all clean and shiny with buildings and infrastructure protected by integrated security systems. Federal programs provide energy, water, state security, and health care. Public schools rely on memorization-style curriculum, yet are seldom capable of producing adaptive learners.

However, the narrow perspective of the homogenous decisionmakers leads to unforeseen outcomes, including the collapse of the creative class. Societal hierarchies persist as privileged families remove their children from public schools in favor of elite education institutions that enhance a child’s problem-solving skills and thus enhance their future employment opportunities.

Social entrepreneurship: How communities solve problems

Dark clouds give way to the morning’s rays. Jermaine awakes to the pungent aroma of creosote oils mixed with ozone—a smell of rain and the promise wild flowers in the Southwest. The open window lets in light, fresh air, and the sounds of friends and neighbors. Jermaine has worked late at the CORE (Collective Of Researchers and Entrepreneurs) facility yesterday. CORE helps the City of Phoenix to address the contaminated groundwater just north of the Sky Harbor Airport. The plume had been contained in the 1990s and just left there. The effects of drought in the Salt, Verde, and Colorado Rivers have prompted the city to revisit this long abandoned water reserve. Jermaine’s formal education and leadership characteristics have made him an obvious choice to lead this project. CORE is comprised of financiers, lawyers, citizens, scientists, engineers, city water planners, and a rotating set of college professors and local high school teachers. CORE takes on challenges and enters into problem-oriented competitions formally organized by federal, tribal, state, county, and city governments. Jermaine is not going to “make it big.” Then again, Jermaine didn’t study hydrogeology to get rich. Back in 2010 Jermaine heard nZVI (nanoscale Zero Valent Iron) could solve the problem, but testing stalled and nZVI was abandoned. Today, in 2050, he aims to renew decontamination efforts in Phoenix.

87

Social entrepreneurship innovation: Suppositions

Social entrepreneurship innovation attempts to bring civil society together to solve challenges. City, state, federal, and international governments work to identify problems that demand technical and social change. This practice of collectively addressing societal challenges is enabled by large-scale and continuous collaboration between different sectors of society.

Citizens and civic organizations partner with researchers to discover the root causes of persistent challenges. Strategic plans are drafted to ameliorate the symptoms, while targeting the underlying causes. The science policy agenda is attuned to directly addressing societal challenges via funding priorities and awards. Risk mitigation relies on clear roles, which are transparent to everyone. For example, cities incentivize construction firms to cut down on urban heat island effects.

Coordinated efforts in tight-knit urban neighborhoods allow pedestrians, carbon fiber bicycles, ultra-lightweight cars, trains, and buses to move along segmented streets shaded with native vegetation and overhanging building facades. Concerted efforts by citizens, city leaders, and corporate partners slowly address historical groundwater contamination, aging highways, and underinvestment in public education. The pursuit of healthy, vibrant, just, and diverse communities unites the city and its citizens.

Yet the challenge of long-term collaboration creates burnout among stakeholders. Retaining citizen buy-in and maintaining the city infrastructure are not trivial. Cultural expectations for immediacy and simplicity confront a thorough process of problem analysis, solution evaluation, and program implementation that takes decades.

Open-source innovation: Suppositions

The scenario narrative at the beginning of this article and its corresponding image depicts Phoenix in 2050 with open-source innovation as the organizing force for urban life. Individuals are incentivized through competitions that rely on problem-solving and creative-thinking skills. Public organizations and private companies both derive valuable new ideas by rewarding people with those skills.

Children and adults of all ages learn from a personalized, skills-based education system. This education model supports a competitive, creative population attuned to individual rewards. Government agencies post small daily challenges and larger collective problems on challenge boards. Individuals advance based on their ability to solve more and more “wicked” problems. Reports on the accomplishments of top-tier “Creators” bombard social media with opportunities to reap the rewards offered by public challenges. Corporate R&D relies on collective open forums that reward success and offers smaller incentives for lesser contributions such as product feedback.

There are almost no rules or restrictions on innovation. Individuals are responsible for the objects they make and release into the world. The city is awash in nanotechnological applications, built atom-by-atom with 3D printers to specified tolerances at a moment’s notice. 3D Printers are widely available, allowing people to construct most of the products they desire at home, including bicycles, cars, small airplanes, weapons, and solar panels. Individuals just need the time, materials, and understanding to make what they want.

The electrical energy grid, once thought vulnerable to solar power’s variable loading rates, no longer relies on centralized distribution of electricity. Hyperlocalized solar and geothermal energy sources are ubiquitous across the city. The aging grid slowly rusts in the desert air. Yet the city continues to experience stress. Balancing water use and natural recharge rates is still an unrealized goal.

Open-source innovation is not without societal inequities, as preoccupation with individual achievement and meritocracy enforces social hierarchies. The urban footprint expands, covering the desert with single-story residences and perpetuating the reliance on personal automobiles and highways.

Shaping innovation Scenarios need to be treated as a bundle, not in isolation: the power of scenarios is in what can be learned by comparing them. The scenarios presented here differ significantly in the role of public participation, public funding, risk mitigation, and the distribution of goods and services for the development of cities worldwide.

Public participation shapes innovation. The role the public plays in technological innovation varies across the scenarios and affects the development of the city. In the market-pull scenario, citizens are viewed as consumers of innovative technologies; public participation is limited to the later stages of innovation. Social entrepreneurship innovation offers the public opportunities to engage at key points throughout the innovation process, from problem identification to testing and ultimately implementation of solutions. Closed collaboration innovation retains power within an elite decisionmaking body, typically a government-industry partnership. The public is subjected to its decisions. Open-source innovation provides skilled people (Creators) with opportunities to reshape the city; while people without the requisite skills or desire are bystanders. The scenarios show how the public is engaged in, or subjected to, innovation, and explores the implication for urban development.

Responsiveness to societal demands by public funding agencies informs outputs. Government funding is often analyzed in terms of return on investment and knowledge creation. Levels of public investments in science, technology, and innovation are supposed to correspond to the extent of resulting public benefit. Our scenarios highlight stark differences in the relationship between investments and how outputs from those investments serve the public interest. In the market pull scenario, there is little direct connection to the public interest; success is exclusively measured by market returns, with limited regard for externalities or negative consequences. Social entrepreneurship innovation demands that government funding be highly attuned to solving problems to serve the public interest. Closed collaboration innovation prioritizes large-scale national investments to satisfy the public interest in areas such as national defense, reliable and constant electricity, and affordable health care. Such a one-size-fits-all approach does not readily adapt to challenges unique to specific geographies, so subpopulations are often overlooked. Open-source innovation attempts to address legacy issues by incentivizing talented individuals with innovation awards offered by government agencies. These are four very different ways in which the public interest is served by public investments in science, technology, and innovation.

Anticipation and risk mitigation enables innovation. Vehicles can safely travel at higher speed if mechanisms are in place to stop them before collisions occur. Investors (public and private) in technological innovation should explore this metaphor. Proper brakes calibrated by advances in technology assessment and with the power to halt dangerous advances could revolutionize the speed at which problems are solved. The scenarios each address risk in different ways. Market-pull innovation addresses risks reactively. Negative effects on people and the environment are identified after the problems are observed and deemed unacceptable. This is like driving forward while looking in the rearview mirror. Social entrepreneurship innovation attempts to delineate clear and transparent roles for risk mitigation. Potential solutions are tested iteratively as a means to anticipate foreseeable risks and assess outcomes before full-scale implementation. This approach is slow and methodical. Closed collaboration innovation takes known hazards (such as terrorism or climate change) as the starting point and attempts to mitigate the risks through innovation, but seems to lack the adaptability to address future outcomes. Open-source innovation presupposes that the Creators are responsible for their own actions. This assumption links risk mitigation to the individual, and thus to each Creator’s capacity to foresee the outcomes of the technology she or he creates. These risk mitigation and adaption approaches are not the same as the four models of innovation, but the connections were strongly consistent throughout the scenario development process. Innovation policy needs to address risk mitigation not as slowing down progress, but as a means to allow faster development if proper brakes are in place to halt dangerous developments.

Distribution: Pathways to realize innovation benefits. The benefits of innovation vary from personal consumer products (well suited to market pull with high levels of competition) to universal goods such as water that are delivered through large-scale infrastructure (well suited to closed collaboration). Social entrepreneurship innovation delivers nanotechnologies to address societal challenges that lend themselves to a technological solution. Closed collaboration innovation is primarily organized to integrate nanotechnology into large systems, especially if the technology increases system control and efficiency. Thus, public infrastructures, such as traffic sensors, electricity monitoring and distribution networks, and large public health data systems would be amenable to a closed collaboration approach. Open-source innovation provides benefits personalized by the needs of the creator. Programmable machines that print 3D structures and functional objects could make nanotechnology ubiquitous for the creator class. The public interest is well served by a diversity of delivery mechanisms for different products and services. An overreliance on a single mechanism such as open-source innovation will prove ineffective in delivering goods and services to society.

Integrated foresight Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted aphorism, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” calls out the need for alternative innovation models. Each scenario depicts a range of outcomes that reflect a connection between the mode of innovation and society’s ability to address its urban sustainability challenges. The market-pull scenario explores the implications of focusing singularly on economic development. This seems to perpetuate negative externalities, including the continued segregation of socioeconomic classes and dependence on carbon-intensive transportation and energy systems. Social entrepreneurship innovation takes sustainability challenges as its starting point and solves problems collaboratively, albeit slowly. It relies on social and behavioral changes as well as technological solutions. Closed collaboration innovation addresses urban sustainability challenges through the centralized management of infrastructure. Open-source innovation addresses certain urban sustainability challenges through the collective efforts of skilled individuals, while other challenges remain unaddressed or worsen. As a set, the four scenarios allow decisionmakers to appreciate the benefits and challenges associated with each innovation approach—and the need for diverse strategies to apply emerging technologies to the design of our cities.

Our integrated approach to foresight, with its strong connections to places and people, suggests changes in science, technology, and innovation policy. Can the scenarios trigger any of those changes? We have presented them in a variety of settings from high school and university classrooms to academic conferences. The film has been used in deliberation among professionals and policymakers. To date, however, there is no evidence that the scenarios are leading to constructive strategy-building exercises that shape science, technology, and innovation policies toward a sustainable future for Phoenix. Nevertheless, our efforts have led to reflections among stakeholders and afforded them the opportunity to consider value-laden questions such as: What future does our society want to create? This project was not commissioned directly by policy or business stakeholders. Therefore, the primary outcomes may well rest in the newly developed capacities of the design students, stakeholder partners, and faculty to consider the complex yet often invisible interconnections between our technological future and the choices that we make at every level of society. Our hope is that such insights will influence the way the project participants pursue their professional efforts and careers, and with this contribute to innovation processes that yield sustainable outcomes for cities around the world.

Recommended readings

R. W. Foley and A. Wiek, “Patterns of Nanotechnology Innovation and Governance within a Metropolitan Area,” Technology in Society 35, no. 4 (2014): 233-247.

A. Wiek and R. W. Foley, “The Shiny City and Its Dark Secrets: Nanotechnology and Urban Development,” Curb Magazine 4, no. 3 (2013): 26–27.

A. Wiek, R. W. Foley, and D. H. Guston, “Nanotechnology for Sustainability: What Does Nanotechnology Offer to Address Complex Sustainability Problems?” Journal of Nanoparticle Research 14 (2012): 1093.

A. Wiek, D. H. Guston, S. van der Leeuw, C. Selin, and P. Shapira, “Nanotechnology in the City: Sustainability Challenges and Anticipatory Governance,” Journal of Urban Technology 20, no. 2 (2013): 45–62.

Rider W. Foley (rwf6v@virginia.edu) is an assistant professor in the Engineering and Society Department at School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia and affiliated with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. Darren Petrucci is a professor at the School of Design at Arizona State University. Arnim Wiek is an associate professor at the School of Sustainability and affiliated with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Exposing Fracking to Sunlight


by

ANDREW A. ROSENBERG
PALLAVI PHARTIYAL
GRETCHEN GOLDMAN
LEWIS M. BRANSCOMB

The public needs access to reliable information about the effects of unconventional oil and gas development in order for it to trust that local communities’ concerns won’t be ignored in favor of national and global interests.

The recent expansion of oil and natural gas extraction from shale and other tight geological formations—so-called unconventional oil and gas resources—has marked one of the most significant changes to the U.S. and global economy so far in the 21st century. In the past decade, U.S. production of natural gas from shale has increased more than 10-fold and production of “tight oil” from shale has grown 16-fold. As a result, natural gas wholesale prices have declined, making gas-fired power plants far more competitive than other fuel sources such as coal and nuclear power.

Oil and gas extraction enabled by hydraulic fracturing has contributed to a switch away from coal to natural gas in the U.S. power sector. Although that switch has been an important driver for reducing U.S. carbon emissions during combustion for electricity generation and industrial processes, carbon emissions from natural gas do contribute substantially to global warming. Thus, from a climate standpoint, natural gas is less attractive than lower- and zero-carbon alternatives, such as greater energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy. In addition, the drilling, extraction, and transportation through pipelines of oil and natural gas results in the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Domestic energy demand and supply changes are also beginning to shift U.S. geopolitical dynamics with large fossil fuel producers such as Russia and the Middle Eastern states. Although much of the rhetoric—including a significant industry advertising campaign by U.S. gas producers—focuses on the benefits to the nation of a domestic supply of energy, natural gas and oil produced in the United States are part of a global marketplace. For example, just a few years ago, terminals were being built both onshore and offshore in U.S. waters to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) for energy in the New England region. Now a major public policy debate is under way about whether the United States should export natural gas. As a consequence some of these same terminals are being dismantled and others may be redeveloped for the export of LNG.

Meanwhile, competing desires for less-expensive energy and associated chemical raw materials for plastics, iron, and steel products manufacturing in the United States has created political pushback against allowing exports. But with uncertainty about supply from Russia for major markets in Europe due to political turmoil, and rapidly growing energy needs in China and India, among others, upward price pressure on natural gas as well as oil is almost certain to follow, keeping the debate on the geopolitics of the issues alive in the days to come.

What is certain though is that a consistent supply of domestic energy, and derived chemicals that serve as raw materials feedstock for manufacturing, will support a 20th-century–style economy with fossil fuels as its base. But what does that mean for the development of renewable energy sources, or alternatives to plastics, industrial chemicals, or natural resources in the United States? What does large-scale investment in these resources mean for our mitigation of carbon emissions and adaptation to climate change impacts?

At the same time that much of the attention is focused on these national and global implications, it can be forgotten that considerable uncertainty persists about the local implications of fracking for communities and the environment. Whereas the larger-scale global questions may be harder to answer, the proper application of federal, state, and local laws and better public information can go a long way toward answering critical questions on the local level.

Examining production

Despite the rapid pace of development of unconventional oil and gas resources enabled by fracking across the United States, and its influence on domestic and international energy markets, there is remarkably little independent information available to the public on the effects, both positive and negative, of such an undertaking. And because fuller analysis to answer these questions is not available, the American people and their elected representatives have not had a chance to make informed choices about whether and how unconventional oil and gas development occurs.

This is, in part, due to the lack of comprehensive regulation of unconventional oil and gas development at the federal level. Because the oil and gas industry secured many exceptions to our major environmental laws, oversight of this new, fast-paced development has fallen primarily to the jurisdiction of the states, which often lack the resources to require and enforce data collection and sharing. So while discussion of risks and concerns associated with unconventional oil and gas development has taken place in the press, in academic literature, at federal agencies, and among various special interest and advocacy groups, such conversations have occurred largely outside of any clear, overarching policy framework.

At the same time, concerted actions by industry severely limit regulation and disclosure, which has left citizens, communities, and policymakers without access to information on the full range of consequences of shale resource development in order to make fact-based decisions. Compounding this problem is the fact that much of the scientific discourse on the technical dimensions of unconventional oil and gas development, including the engineering of fuel extraction, production, transportation, refining and waste disposal, not to mention the economic, environmental, and social impacts, has failed to adequately inform the public conversation.

In the absence of comprehensive and credible information, readily available to the public, conversations and decisions on unconventional oil and gas development in the United States have been marred by an extremely polarized debate over the risks, benefits, and costs of development. Development has expanded in many communities with little clear requirement for state and local jurisdictions to collect the information needed to inform the public, adequately regulate the industry, and ensure public health and safety. Worse still, most sites have been developed without baseline studies of environmental conditions before drilling and without any ongoing monitoring of changes to air and water quality during and after development, perpetuating the cycle of insufficient data collection.

Science needs to be part of the choices we make in a democratic society. In order to reach decisions with the direct involvement of the citizenry, scientific information that is independent, credible, and timely must be accessible to the public and play an important role in informing decisions.

Hydraulic fracturing involves risks that are both similar to and different from those of conventional oil and gas development (Table 1). Risks that are qualitatively different include the volume, composition, use, and disposal of water, sand, and chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing process; the size of well pads; and the scale of fracking-related development. Importantly, the advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has brought development to new and more-populated areas, increasing development’s intersection with communities. These factors can contribute to rapid social disruption as well as environmental damage, particularly to regions that have not previously been exposed to the oil and gas industry.

TABLE 1

76

Unfortunately, the social costs of unconventional oil and gas development have not been analyzed in nearly the same detail as the geopolitics of energy. These social costs include public health and environmental effects of fossil fuel production and the manufacturing of products enabled by this boom (Table 1). And these social costs range from local effects on communities to implications for global warming. In addition, environmental and socioeconomic concerns around oil and gas development can be different for different communities. For example, western states and localities tend to be more concerned about effects on water availability, whereas eastern states and localities tend to focus more on the impact on water quality. Communities with existing oil and gas facilities may worry about expanded development, whereas those that have not previously hosted the industry are often concerned about potential new environmental and socioeconomic effects, such as strain on public services, new pipelines, and heavy truck traffic.

Because the data on these effects are either lacking or incomplete, at least some states (e.g., Maryland, New York, and California) and localities have responded by enacting moratoriums or outright bans on development. Fixed-duration moratoriums are usually intended to allow time for either the assessment of environmental and public health impacts or for the formulation of an adequate regulatory structure for development. To mitigate many of the risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development, there is a fundamental need for comprehensive baseline analysis followed by monitoring of effects. The resultant information must be publicly available to the greatest extent practicable, so that citizens and elected officials have open access to the scientific information in order to decide if and how to regulate development in their communities.

The government role

Given the dramatic impact of unconventional oil and gas development on the U.S. economy, energy future, and industrialization of rural landscapes, it is more than a little surprising that there is no comprehensive governance system in place to safeguard the public trust and to facilitate information collection and sharing. As development has proceeded, there has been a concerted push by industry to reduce the federal government’s role in management and relegate any regulatory oversight to the state level. This push has resulted in a long list of special exemptions for the oil and gas industry from existing major environmental federal laws (Table 2).

TABLE 2

77

Importantly, public trust is not just a concern for politicians or affected communities but must also be earned by industry. Greater trust benefits companies by building a better relationship with the communities where they operate.

Despite this failure to manage the impacts of unconventional oil and gas production, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have in the past been effective at environmental regulation. Federal environmental laws and the accompanying regulatory systems for most types of industrial development are well articulated. They are largely implemented by the states with federal support and oversight, and most importantly have resulted in major improvements in the quality of air and water, toxic waste cleanups, and public health over the past half century. In addition to setting national standards for many industrial activities, the U.S. system of environmental laws provides extensive opportunity for informing the public and seeking their input to the policymaking process. This open process certainly requires time and effort and entails some cost, but citizens in a democratic society have a right to be informed and to voice their views. And the government, as well as industry, has an obligation to listen and be as responsive as possible.

Although states have environmental protection statutes that are often in parallel to the federal mandates, there is substantial inconsistency in their application and often a limited capability at the state level to assess, monitor, and enforce requirements. State regulation often relegates public input to notice and comment on permit applications. Public meetings may or may not be required. There is no clear requirement for alternatives to be considered, nor for a broader analysis of public health or environmental effects as there would be under federal authority. Therefore, exemptions from key federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and CERCLA (Superfund) for oil and gas development are a major concern. They also result in inconsistency in standards and management, lack of coordination with federal agencies, and the loss of basic protections for the public, including the opportunity to have greater levels of input. Together, all of these legal exemptions limit the gathering of critical scientific information on the effects of fracking on air and water quality, and consequently undermine public trust.

Earning public trust

In July 2013, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists held a forum in Los Angeles on Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking. The forum brought together a diverse collection of stakeholders, including scientists, policy specialists, industry, local government officials, and community groups. One of the oft-repeated points during the forum was the importance of communities developing trust in both industry and government. Community stakeholders who participated expressed the need to be included in the process, for their voices and concerns to be heard, and for their health and well-being to be considered a priority.

Open access to scientific information can help earn the public trust. Unfortunately, efforts to manipulate or otherwise impede the information flow to both the public and the scientific community have significantly undermined the public’s trust that risks are being minimized and competently managed. These efforts include the failure to fully disclose the chemicals used in fracking, the blocking of access to drilling sites for independent scientists, the lack of disclosure of industry involvement in academic studies of fracking, and legal settlements that prevent the release of industry-collected data. In fact, too many cases in which incidents of pollution or other problems have occurred have been met by concerted efforts by industry to quickly contain the information, block access to well sites, and impose legal confidentiality requirements as part of compensation for losses. The resulting lack of access to information makes it more difficult to document cases of air and water contamination and develop risk reduction strategies, further diminishing public trust in industry and government.

An integrated system of data collection, baseline testing, monitoring, and reporting is needed in order for scientists and decisionmakers to better understand and manage risks. The coordination and provisioning of such comprehensive data in a format that is easily available and accessible to health care and emergency workers as well as the affected communities are equally desirable.

Importantly, public trust is not just a concern for politicians or affected communities but must also be earned by industry. Greater trust benefits companies by building a better relationship with the communities where they operate. An open and responsive company has the potential to gain greater public support and mitigate future risks to business. Instead of pushing back against regulatory controls, the oil and gas industry can gain greater consistency and certainty by allowing the already well-developed system of federal laws to follow their charge of protecting public health and the environment. Part of the value of these laws is that they level the playing field so that all businesses work to the same standards. Working with, rather than against, the system of governance will result in greater sustainability of the industry itself and help mitigate against the fact that even a single accident or bad actor can cause a public and regulatory backlash against the entire industry.

To overcome the gridlock and suspicions in public conversations on fracking, decisionmakers should immediately enact federal policies that would require states to implement comprehensive baseline analysis and monitoring programs for air and water at all well sites. The collected information must be made publicly available and accessible to provide communities with trustworthy information about environmental quality and potential impacts on public health. This need is so fundamental that any delay will continue to add to the ill will toward and distrust of corporate actors. Plus, the costs of such programs are relatively modest as compared to either societal costs or industry profits.

In the important discussion of the national and global political, economic, and climate implications of fracking, we should not forget the need to understand and address its local impacts. Given the potential costs and benefits of unconventional oil and gas resources development on the world and the United States, debates over the proper course for energy development will certainly continue. But comprehensive and independent air and water quality data collection, before, during, and after fracking, made publicly accessible, along with a governance structure for monitoring, enforcement, and managing risks, will go a long way in informing the debate, building public trust, and securing better outcomes for industry and our democratic system.

Recommended reading

Energy Information Administration (EIA), Annual Energy Outlook 2013 with Projections to 2040 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy, 2013) available online at www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/pdf/0383%282013%29.pdf

IHS, America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the U.S. Economy, Vol. 3: A Manufacturing Renaissance—Executive Summary (Englewood, CO: IHS, 2013).

M. Levi, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Energy Future (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

R.V. Percival, C. H. Schroeder, A. S. Miller, and J. P. Leape, Environmental Regulation: Law, Science and Policy (New York, NY: Aspen Publishers, 2003).

Resources for the Future, State of State Shale Gas Regulation (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 2013); available online at www.rff.org/rff/documents/RFF-Rpt-StateofStateRegs_Report.pdf

Union of Concerned Scientists, Toward An Evidence-based Fracking Debate: Science, Democracy, and Community Right to Know in Unconventional Oil and Gas Development (Cambridge, MA: UCS, 2013); available online at www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/center-for-science-and-democracy/fracking-report-full.pdf

Union of Concerned Scientists, Gas Ceiling: Assessing the Climate Risks of An Overreliance on Natural Gas (Cambridge, MA: UCS, 2013); available online at www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/clean_energy/climate-risks-natural-gas.pdf

Andrew A. Rosenberg (arosenberg@ucsusa.org) is director, Pallavi Phartiyal is program manager and senior analyst, and Gretchen Goldman is lead analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA. Lewis M. Branscomb is professor emeritus of public policy and corporate management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego, in the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

Imagining Deep Time


by

An exhibit at the National Academy of Sciences Building, Washington, DC

“Geohistory is the immensely long and complex history of the earth, including the life on its surface (biohistory), as distinct from the extremely brief recent history that can be based on human records.”

—Martin J.S. Rudwick, science historian

From a human perspective, mountain ranges seem unchanging and permanent; yet, in the context of geological time, such landscapes are merely fleeting. Their change occurs on a scale far beyond human experience. Whereas we measure time in terms of years, days, and minutes, geological change occurs within the scale of deep time, the gradual movement of evolutionary change.

The concept of deep time was introduced in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that John McPhee coined the term “deep time” in his book Basin and Range. The Imagining Deep Time exhibition, which contains 18 works by 15 artists, looks at the human implications of deep time through the lens of artists who bring together rational and intuitive thinking. The featured artists use a wide range of styles and media, including sound, photography, painting, printmaking, and sculptures made of everyday materials such as mirrors, LED lights, motors, and gears. The exhibition explores the role of the artist in helping us imagine a concept outside the realm of human experience.

Artists featured are Chul Hyun Ahn, Alfredo Arreguín, Diane Burko, Alison Carey, Terry Falke, Arthur Ganson, Sharon Harper, Mark Klett, Rosalie Lang, David Maisel, the artistic team Semiconductor, Rachel Sussman, Jonathon Wells, and Byron Wolfe.

Imagining Deep Time is on exhibit at the National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, DC, August 28, 2014, through January 15, 2015.

—Alana Quinn and JD Talasek

65
Chul Hyun Ahn Void. Cast acrylic, LED lights, hardware, mirrors. 90 x 71½ x 12¼ inches. 2011

Baltimore-based artist Chul Hyun Ahn uses repetition to evoke infinite cycles. His work recalls that of minimalists such as Dan Flavin and Donald Judd who incorporated the use of everyday materials to create experiential spaces.

66
Terry Falke Cyclists Inspecting Ancient Petroglyphs, Utah. Digital chromogenic print. 30 x 40 inches. 1998

A cyclist points at marks left on the earth by humans–petroglyphs of human figures (whose heads resemble the helmets worn by the cyclists) and bullet holes. The line of the road suggests an added human-made stratum reminding us that, although humans’ presence in the continuum of deep time is small, we have left our mark.

67
Alfredo Arreguín The Age of Reptiles. Oil on canvas. 60 x 48 inches. 2012

The patterns in Alfredo Arreguín’s paintings are based on pre-Aztec images, Mexican tiles, and geometric patterns. His brilliantly colored canvas combines childhood memories of Mexican culture and landscapes with imagery inspired by animals that are only known to have existed through scientific research. Arreguín invites us to imagine how our environment has evolved and how we are influenced by cultural experience.

68
David Maisel Black Maps (Bingham Canyon, UT I). Archival pigment print. 29 x 29 inches. 1988

According to the artist, the title Black Maps, which comes from a poem by Mark Strand, refers to the notion that although these images document the facts of these sites, they are essentially unreadable, much as a map that is black would be. As Strand writes, “Nothing will tell you where you are/Each moment is a place you’ve never been.” David Maisel considers these images not only documents of blighted sites, but also poetic renderings that reflect the human psyche that made them.

69
Sharon Harper
Left: Sun/Moon (Trying to See through a Telescope) 2010 May 27 10:48:35 AM.2010 May 27 11:08:34 AM
Right: Sun/Moon (Trying to See through a Telescope) 2010 May 27 10:48:35 AM.2010 May 27 11:08:34 AM 2010 Jun 19 8:16:30 PM.2010 Jun 19 8:23:40 PM, No. 2 2010
Ultrachrome print on Canson Rag Photographique paper. 58⅛ x 17 inches each. 2010

One way we experience time is through cycles such as the phases of the sun and the moon or through the passing of seasons. Yet the act of representing these cycles is different than actually experiencing them. Sharon Harper’s Sun/Moon series considers the act of “seeing” as mediated through both a telescope and a digital camera.

70
Rosalie Lang Inner Life. Oil on canvas. 20 x 22 inches. 2009

Rosalie Lang’s paintings draw inspiration from the aesthetic of rocks photographed along the Pescadero, CA coast. She writes, “I don’t know a rock until I paint it,” underscoring the importance of mark-making in observation and learning. The realism of Lang’s paintings of rock surfaces, combined with the absence of horizon or other cues to scale, may cause viewers’ perception to oscillate between reality and abstraction.

71-01
Jonathon Wells Boston Basin. Digital inkjet print. 28½ x 78 inches. Photographed 2004, composited 2005

This work depicts a 16-mile-wide by four-and-a-half-mile-deep view of Boston Basin looking west toward downtown as if the viewer were positioned in the harbor. The large city seems miniscule in comparison to what lies beneath. The Geologic Map of Massachusetts (1983) by National Academy of Sciences member E-an Zen and others provided the basis for constructing the image.

71-02
Diane Burko Columbia Triptych II Vertical Aerial 1981–1999, A, B, C after Austin Post and Tad Pfeffer. Oil on canvas. 76 x 36 inches, each canvas. 2010

Diane Burko’s inspiration for these paintings is a montage of five aerial photographs of the lower reach of the Columbia Glacier, Alaska, taken on October 2, 1998. Superimposed on the montage are plots of selected terminus positions from 1981 to 1999. Combining the aesthetics of photography, scientific notations, and landscape painting, Burko asks us to consider the role of art in communicating about climate change.

72-01
Alison Carey Stethacanthus, Pennsylvanian Period, 280–310 mya. Silver gelatin on black glass. 9 x 23 inches. 2005
72-02
Criptolithus & Eumorphocystis, Ordovician Period, 440–500 mya. Silver gelatin on black glass. 9 x 23 inches. 2005
72-03
Crinoids, Mississippian Period, 310–350 mya. Silver gelatin on black glass. 9 x 23 inches. 2005

These photographs come from Alison Carey’s series Organic Remains of a Former World, representing ancient marine environments from each Paleozoic era. Carey built clay models of extinct vertebrates and invertebrates, submerged them in multiple aquariums, and photographed the constructed tableaus. She used scientific data and illustrations of fossils to inform her ideas.

73
Rachel Sussman Dead Huon Pine adjacent to living population segment #1211-3509 (10,500 years old, Mount Read, Tasmania) Archival pigment print. 44 x 54 inches. 2011

This photograph depicts Lagarostrobos franklinii, a conifer species native to Tasmania, killed by fire. This scene is bordered by living trees with an extraordinary legacy. The age of the stand was determined by dating pollen from Lake Johnston which matched the genetic make-up of the living trees and carbon-dates to 10,500 years old. The photograph is from Sussman’s series The Oldest Living Things in the World, the result of her collaboration with scientists to identify and photograph organisms that are at least 2,000 years old.

21st Century Inequality: The Declining Significance of Discrimination


by

ROLAND FRYER

Unconventional but effective strategies for public education can provide significant advances in student achievement nationwide.

TODAY I want to talk about inequality in the 21st century, in particular on the decline in the significance of discrimination and the increase in the significance of human capital.

Let me start with some basic facts about the achievement gap in America. If you listen to NPR or tune into 60 Minutes, you probably get a sense that the United States is lagging behind other countries in student achievement and that there is a disturbing difference in the performance of racial groups.

For example, on average 44% of all students, regardless of race, are proficient in math or reading in 8th grade. That’s disheartening, but far from the worst news. In Detroit, 3% of black 8th graders are considered proficient in math—that’s 3%. In some places, such as Cleveland, the achievement gap between white and black students is relatively small, but the reason is that the white students are not doing well either. In the District of Columbia, roughly 80% of white 8th graders, but only 8% of their black classmates, are proficient in math.

Many people will object that test scores do not measure the whole child. That’s true, but I will argue that they are important.

My early training and research in economics was not linked to education, but I was asked in 2003 to explore the reasons for the social inequality in the United States. I began by looking at the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, focusing on people who were then 40 years old. Compared to their white contemporaries, blacks earned 28% less, were 27% less likely to have attended college, were 190% more likely to be unemployed, and 141% more likely to have been on public assistance. These grim statistics are well known and are often used to illustrate the power of racial bias in U.S. society.

I decided to trace back through the lives of this cohort to try to identify the source of these disparities. One obvious place to look was educational achievement. I went back to the test scores of this cohort when they were in 8th grade and did some calculations. If one compared blacks and whites who had the same test scores in 8th grade, the picture at age 40 was dramatically different. The difference in wages was 0.6%, the difference in unemployment was 90%, the difference in public assistance was 33%, and blacks were actually 137% more likely to have attended college.

That was easy. In two weeks I reported back that achievement gaps that were evident at an early age correlated with many of the social disparities that appeared later in life. I thought I was done. But the logical follow-up question was how to explain the achievement gap that was apparent in 8th grade. I’ve been working on that question for the past 10 years.

I am certainly not going to tell you that discrimination has been purged from U.S. culture, but I do believe that these data suggest that differences in student achievement are a critical factor in explaining many of the black-white disparities in our society. It is no longer news that the United States is a lackluster performer on international comparisons of student achievement, ranking about 20th in the world. But the position of U.S. black students is truly alarming. If they were to be considered a country, they would rank just below Mexico in last place among all Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

How did it get this way? When do U.S. black students start falling behind? It turns out that development psychologists can begin assessing cognitive capacity of children when they are only nine months old with the Bayley Scale of Infant Development. We examined data that had been collected on a representative sample of 11,000 children and could find no difference in performance of racial groups. But by age two, one can detect a gap opening, which becomes larger with each passing year. By age five, black children trail their white peers by 8 months in cognitive performance, and by eighth grade the gap has widened to twelve months

Remember, Horace Mann told us that public education was going to be the great equalizer; it was going to compensate for the inequality caused by differences in income across zip codes. That was the dream.

Unfortunately, what happens is that the inequality that exists when children begin school becomes even greater during schooling. The gap grows not only across schools, but within the same school, even with the same teacher. This means that even for children from the same neighborhood, the same school, and the same teachers, academic performance diverges each year in school.

I spent two or three years trying to figure out what factors could explain this predicament. I looked at whether or not teachers were biased against some kids or groups. I looked at whether or not kids lost ground during the summer. I looked at various measures of school quality. I looked at the results of numerous different types of standardized test. None of these could explain why certain groups, blacks in particular, were losing ground to their peers.

TO REINFORCE HIGH EXPECTATIONS, WE AIMED TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT THAT REFLECTED SERIOUSNESS. WE ELIMINATED GRAFFITI AND REMOVED THE BARBED WIRE THAT SURROUNDED SOME OF THE SCHOOLS. WE REGULARLY REPEATED THE GOALS THAT WE EXPECTED STUDENTS TO ACHIEVE.

When I was presenting this finding at a meeting, a woman challenged me to stop focusing on our failures and to let audiences know what works. I said “OK, but what works?” She said more education for teachers, increased funding, smaller class size. I recognized this as the conventional wisdom, but I thought I better examine the data that demonstrate that these strategies are effective.

I discovered that we have actually implemented this approach for many decades. The percentage of teachers with a master’s degree increased from 23% in 1961 to 62% in 2006. The average class size has declined from 22 to 16 students since 1970. Per pupil annual spending grew from $5,000 in 1970 to $12,000 in 2008 in constant dollars. In spite of applying this apparently sound advice, overall student academic achievement has remained essentially flat. Clearly, we need to try something else.

As befits an arrogant economist, my first thought was that this will be easy: We just have to change the incentives. Let’s apply a rational agent model and examine the calculation we are asking students to make. Society is telling them that they will be rewarded for their efforts in school in 15 years when they enter the labor market. As an economist I know that no one has a discount rate that would justify waiting 15 years for a payoff. My solution was to propose that we pay them incentives now to reward good school performance.

Oh my gosh, I wish someone had warned me. No one told me this was going to be so incredibly unpopular. People were picketing me outside my house saying I would destroy students’ love of learning, that I was the worst thing for black people since the Tuskegee experiments. Really? Experimenting with incentives when nothing else seems to work is the equivalent of injecting people with syphilis without informing them?

We decided to try the experiment and raised about $10 million. We provided incentives in Dallas, Houston, Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago. We also, just for fun, added a large experiment with teacher incentives just to cover all our bases, to make sure that we had paid everybody for everything.

The question for us was, first of all, could incentives increase achievement? Second, what should we pay for and how should we structure the incentives? The conventional economic theory is that we should pay for outputs. It follows from that—don’t laugh—that kids should borrow money based on their expected future earnings to pay for tutors or make other investments in their learning to improve their performance. We took a more direct approach, conducting randomized trials that primarily paid for inputs.

In Dallas we paid kids $2 for each book they read. They had to take a test to verify that they actually did the reading. In Houston we paid kids to do their math homework. In Washington we paid kids to attend school, complete homework, score well on tests, and avoid activities such as fighting. We also tried incentives for outputs. In New York we paid kids for good test scores so that the emphasis was completely on outputs. In Chicago we paid ninth graders half the money for attendance and the second half for graduation. The amounts were generous for poor kids. A Washington middle schooler could earn as much as $2,000 per year. In New York, fourth grades could make up to $250 and seventh graders up to $500.

Throughout the experiment we were bombarded with complaints from adults, particularly those who did not have children in the experiment. We never had a kid complain. Well, once we did. I came to one Washington school to participate in a ceremony at which checks were distributed. Before the event started, one kid came up to me and said, “Professor, I don’t think we should be paid to come to school. I think we should pay to come to school because school is such a valuable resource. You should not pay us. We should pay you.”

I was blown away by this. I thought this kid really gets it. About 20 minutes later I was distributing checks in the cafeteria. Kids names were called, and they ran or danced to the front of the room. I called the kid’s name, and he came up. I put his check in my pocket. He said, “What are you doing?” I told him that just 20 minutes earlier he had told me that he should pay me for the privilege of coming to school. He looked at me in a way that only an 11-year-old can and said, “I never said that.”

We found that incentives, if designed correctly, can have a positive return on investment. However, they are not going to close the big gaps that exist between blacks and whites. We did learn that it is more effective to provide kids with incentives for inputs rather than outputs. This contradicts what I learned in my economics training, but it was very clear when I actually talked to the kids. I asked one kid in Chicago, where they were paid for outputs, Did you stay after school and ask your teacher for extra time? No. Did you borrow against your expected income and hire a tutor? No. What did you do? Basically, I came. I tried harder. School was still hard. At some point, I gave up.

The reality is that most of these kids do not know how to get from point A to point B. The assumption that economists make when designing incentives is that people know how to produce the desired output, that they know the “production function.” When they don’t know that, designing incentives is incredibly difficult.

What we learned through this $10 million and a lot of negative press and angry citizens is that kids will respond to incentives—and that incentives to teachers do not have a significant effect on student achievement. They will do exactly what you want them to do. By the way, they don’t do anything extra either. I had this idea that they were going to discover that school is great and to try harder in all of their subjects, even those that do not provide incentives. No. You offer $2 to read a book, and they read a book. They are going to do exactly what you want them to do. That showed me the power, and the limitations, of incentives for kids. I saw that if you really squinted and designed them perfectly, incentives would have a high return on investment because they are so cheap, but they were never going to close the gap.

Something new and different

At the same time I was writing up my incentives paper, I started doing the analysis of Geoffrey Canada’s work in the Harlem Children’s Zone. This changed my entire research trajectory.

With the help of large philanthropic contributions, Canada had developed a creative and ambitious approach to education. A group of Harlem students were randomly selected to attend Canada’s charter schools beginning in 6th grade. A couple of things are important here. One, the lottery winners and losers were, if anything, slightly below the New York City average. This is significant because the students that enroll in charter schools are often above-average achievers from the start.

The evidence of improvement can be seen in the first year, and the gains are even better in the second year. By year three, these students have essentially reached the level of the average white New York student.

Now, I haven’t controlled for anything. If I were to include factors such as eligibility for free lunch, the black students would be slightly outperforming the white students. Their performance in reading improved but not nearly as much as it did in math. I would summarize the results in these simple terms: After three years in Canada’s Promise Academy Charter Schools, the students were able to erase the achievement gap in math and to cut it by a third in reading.

I had never seen results that came close to this. When I first saw the numbers, I thought my research assistant had made a coding error. This was a reason to get excited about the possibility of make a big difference in children’s lives.

Further research into public charter schools enabled me to see that this not just about the Harlem Children’s Zone. Although the average charter school is statistically no better than the average regular public school, there are a number of charter schools achieving the type of results we found in the Harlem Children’s Zone. The research challenge is to identify what they are doing that works.

Let me stop for a story. My grandmother makes a fabulous coconut cake, so I asked her for the recipe. She told me what she does with a finger full of this and palm full of that. When I tried it, the result was a cement block, so I decided that the only way to learn the recipe was to watch her make it. When she grabbed a palm of coconut flakes, I made her put it in a measuring cup. For your future reference, a grandmother’s palm is equal to a quarter cup. It took a long time and annoyed my grandmother, but now I have a recipe I can use and pass down to my children.

If you ask Geoffrey Canada what’s in his secret education sauce, he will say a little bit of this, a little bit of that. You will be moved by his powerfully inspirational speeches, but you will not learn how to build a better school. You’ll just wish that you were also a genius.

To help the rest of us who are not geniuses, we assembled a research team that spent two years examining in detail what was happening at charter schools, some good and some not so good. We hung around. We used video cameras. We interviewed the kids. We interviewed the teachers. We interviewed the principals. We spent hours in these schools trying to figure out what the good ones did and what the not-so-good ones didn’t do.

We found a number of practices that were clearly correlated with better student performance. For teachers, it is important that they receive reliable feedback on their classroom performance and that they rigorously apply what they learn from assessments of their students to what they do in the curriculum and the classroom.

Even low-performing schools know that data are important. When I visited a middling school, they would be eager to show me their data room. What I typically found was wall charts with an array of green, yellow, and red stickers that represented high-, mid-, and low-performing students, respectively. And when I asked what has this led you to do for red kids, they would say that they hadn’t reached that step yet, but at least they knew how many there are.

When I asked the same question in the data rooms of high-performing schools, they would say that they have their teaching calibrated for the three blocks. They would not only identify which students were trailing behind, but would identify the pattern of specific deficiencies and then provide remediation for two or three days on the problem areas. They would also note the need to approach these areas more diligently in future editions of the course.

The third effective practice was what I call tutoring, but which those in the know call small learning communities. It is tutoring. Basically what they do is work with kids in groups of six or fewer at least four days per year.

The fourth ingredient was instructional time. Simple. Effective schools just spent more time on tasks. I think of it as the basic physics of education. If your students are falling behind, you have two choices: spend more time in school or convince the high-performing schools to give their kids four-day weekends. The key is to change the ratio.

The icing on the cake was that effective schools had very, very high expectations of achievement regardless of their social or economic background. My father went to prison when I was a kid. I didn’t meet my mother until I was in my twenties. Fortunately, I had a grandmother who didn’t know the meaning of the word excuse. A high school counselor who was aware of my situation tried to help me by saying that I could be part of a special program that would require only a half day of school and reduce my work load. I knew my grandmother wouldn’t buy that, so I refused.

The essential finding is that kids will live up or down to our expectations. Of course they are dealing with poverty. Of course 90% of the kids have single female head of households. They all have that. That wasn’t news. The question is how are we going to educate them?

We met incredible educators who not only understood the big picture but sweated all the details. One principal had developed a very clever and efficient method for distributing worksheets, exams, and other handouts in class. I’ve never worried about that, so I asked what was the point. She said that every teacher does this in every class many times a day. If we can save 30 seconds each time, we will add several days of productive class time over the course of a year, and these kids need every minute we can give them.

Testing the thesis

I believe there is real value in analyzing the data that provides the evidence that these five strategies work, but there is nothing very surprising or counterintuitive in the findings. The question is why so few schools are implementing these practices.

We set out to discover if there was any reason that public schools could not implement these practices and achieve the expected results. We approached a number of school districts to ask if we could conduct an experiment applying these techniques in some of their schools. I won’t belabor all the reasons we heard for why it was impossible, but suffice it to say that we were not welcomed with open arms. Apparently, it is not practical to increase time in school, provide tutoring, give teachers regular feedback and guidance, use data to inform instructional practice, and increase expectations.

We did eventually find a willing partner in the Houston school district, where the superintendent and the school board were willing to give it a try. We began to work in 20 schools, including four high schools, with a total of 16,000 students. These are traditional public schools. There is no waiting list. There is no sign up. There is no Superman. Nothing complicated. These are just ordinary neighborhood public schools.

All of the schools were performing below expectations and were in line to be taken over by the state. They qualified for the federal dollars for turning schools around. As part of that program, all of the principals and about half the teachers were replaced.

We increased the school day by one hour. We lengthened the school year by two weeks. We also cut down on some curious non-instructional activities. We discovered, for example, that 20 minutes is set aside each day for bathroom breaks. For no additional cost you can increase instructional time just by making kids pee more quickly. How cool is that?

I SAW THAT IF YOU REALLY SQUINTED AND DESIGNED THEM PERFECTLY, INCENTIVES WOULD HAVE A HIGH RETURN ON INVESTMENT BECAUSE THEY ARE SO CHEAP, BUT THEY WERE NEVER GOING TO CLOSE THE GAP.

Second, small group tutoring. We hired more than 400 full-time tutors. They worked with ten kids a day, two at a time during five of the day’s six periods. We offered a $20,000 salary even though we were told that no one would do the job for that amount. In five weeks, we had 1,200 applications. Some were young Teach for America types. Others were retirees from the Johnson Space Center. We decided to focus on math tutoring in what we had found were the critical fourth, sixth, and ninth grades.

For data-driven instruction, we worked with the existing requirements for the Houston schools. For example, Houston sets 212 objectives that fifth graders are expected to achieve. We designed a schedule that would make it possible to reach all the objectives while also including remediation for students and professional development for teachers. A feedback system was designed that resulted in teachers receiving ten times as much feedback as teachers in other Houston schools.

To reinforce high expectations, we aimed to create an environment that reflected seriousness. We eliminated graffiti and removed the barbed wire that surrounded some of the schools. We regularly repeated the goals that we expected students to achieve.

The experiment had a couple of potential fault lines. One, we were taking best practices out of charter schools and trying to implement them in traditional public schools. It could be that those best practices work only with a set of highly motivated teachers and parents. We weren’t sure about that. Second, we had to face all the political realities of a traditional public school. During the three-year experiment, I aged about 24 years. I will never be the same.

But the results made it worth the effort. When we began, the black/white achievement gap in the elementary schools was about 0.4 standard deviations, which is equivalent to about 5 months. Over the three years, our elementary schools essentially eliminated the gap in math and made some progress in reading. In secondary schools, math scores rose at a rate that would close the gap in in roughly four to five years, but there was no improvement in reading. One other significant result was that 100% of the high school graduates were accepted to a two- or four-year college.

Let me put it in context for you. The improvement in student achievement in the Houston schools where we worked was roughly equivalent to the results in the Harlem Children’s Zone and in the average KIPP charter school. But we did this with 16,000 kids in traditional public schools. We are now repeating the experiment in Denver, Colorado, and Springfield, Massachusetts. We actually do know what to do, especially for math. The question is whether or not we have the courage to do it.

The last thing I will show you is a return on investment calculation for a variety of interventions. We calculated what a given level of improvement in achievement would mean for a student’s lifetime earnings and what that would mean for government income tax revenue. Reducing class size costs about $3,500 per kid and results in an ROI of about 6.2%, which is better than the long-term stock market return of about 5%. Expanded early childhood education has an ROI of 7.6%, an even better investment.

“No excuses” charter schools cost about $2,500 per kid and have an ROI of 18.5%. Using the same methodology, we calculated that the investment in our Houston schools had an ROI of 13.4% in the secondary schools and 26.7% in the elementary schools. But that was based on the implementation cost, which I raised from private sources. Houston did not spend anything more per student, so its ROI was infinite.

My journey into education has been similar to that of many other people. I was frustrated with the data, frustrated that we didn’t know which of the scores of innovations were most effective. We took the simple approach of looking closely at the schools that were producing the results we all want to see.

We found five actions that explain roughly 50% of the variation among charter schools. We then conducted an experiment to see if those same five actions would have the same result in a typical urban public school system. The results are truly encouraging. In three years these public school students made remarkable progress in math achievement and some improvement in reading. That’s not everything, but it is far more than what was achieved in decades with the conventional wisdom of smaller classes, more teacher certification, and increased spending.

It is not rocket science. It is not magic. There is nothing special about it. When the film Waiting for Superman came out, people complained that the nation is undersupplied with supermen. But an ordinary nerd like me was able to uncover a simple and readily repeated recipe for progress. Anyone can do this stuff.

One last story. During the experiment in Houston, an education commissioner from another state came to tour Robinson elementary school, one of the toughest in the city. He knew Houston and was familiar with Robinson. At the end of the tour, he pulled me aside. He had one question: “Where did you move the kids who used to go to school here?” I said that these are all the same kids, but they behave a lot differently when we do our jobs properly. They are listening. They are learning. They will live up to the expectations that we have for them.

I was a kid who went to broken schools. Thanks to my grandmother and some good luck, I beat the odds. But one success story is not what we want. What we want are rigorously evaluated, replicable, systematic educational practices that will change the odds.

Roland Fryer is Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics and faculty director of the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University. This article is adapted from the Henry and Bryna David Lecture, which he delivered at the National Academy of Sciences on April 29, 2014.

Perspectives: Retire to Boost Research Productivity!


by

ALAN L. PORTER

University leaders confront multiple challenges with an aging faculty. Writing in Inside Higher Ed in 2011, longtime education reporter Dan Berrett spotlighted the “Gray Wave” of a growing number of faculty members 60 years of age or older (think baby boomers and increasing lifespans) holding tightly onto their positions, shielded by the lack of mandatory retirement. Many of them have the ability and desire to continue their scholarly work, and they fear multiple losses attendant to retirement. But as they hang on, younger people may be kept off the academic ladder. Might there be “win-win” semi-retirement options to enable faculty to remain productive and engaged, while opening opportunities for new generations?

The answer may be yes, based on one case study—my own. I retired as active faculty in December 2001, at the (rather young) age of 56. I had been jointly appointed as a professor in industrial and systems engineering and in public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Upon my retirement, Georgia Tech indicated that I needed to pick one school to reduce administrative overhead for an emeritus faculty member, so I’m now an emeritus professor, and part-time researcher, in public policy.

Since retirement, my research productivity has escalated. Amused colleagues have kidded that the secret to boosting research output is to retire and that I ought to share this tale. So, I offer this “N = 1 case study” to stimulate thinking about retiree research and to raise some intriguing faculty policy issues.

What retirement did to my research publication activity is captured in Table 1. It compares two five-year post-retirement periods with corresponding pre-retirement periods. The data resulted from searching in Web of Science, skipping my first year of retirement (2002) as ambiguous and leaving out one year in the middle of the overall period, just to facilitate comparison. I also left out four papers published after retirement that reflect research conducted at a small company I joined, to make this a tighter academic “before versus after.”

The data show a sharp increase in research publication. This same phenomenon appeared in examining only my journal articles (the table includes all publications). For this subgroup, there are 14 for 1991–2001 versus 42 for 20032013. Aha—retire and publication productivity triples!

One alternative hypothesis to explain this increased productivity is that I’m a slow learner and that my research has been trending upward throughout the pre- and post-retirement periods. The data don’t conflict with that. (So maybe the elixir is simply aging?)

Citations accrued by the papers (also gathered from Web of Science) provide an additional, if again imperfect, measure of research value. The tally of cites to the 1991–2001 papers is 254 versus 727 for the 2003–2013 papers: another tripling up. And cites per year, based on the average number of publications per year by period, shows a jump from 14 before retirement to 121 after.

Behind the numbers

We can argue over which statistics are most meaningful, but what they all show is that my research productivity has gone up. But why? And so what?

Several factors seem to have contributed to the rise. Although cute, and the stimulus for this reflection, “retire to boost productivity” does not convey enough information to account well for the gain. Let’s scan some additional factors worthy of consideration.

To begin, my teaching load before retirement was moderate, averaging two courses per semester, or four per year. Since shortly after retirement, and with the end of teaching, I’ve reduced my workday by roughly 20%. I now spend roughly half of my work time at Georgia Tech, with essentially no teaching duties and much-reduced administrative chores. But the other half of my work time is now devoted to my role as director of R&D for Search Technology Inc., based in Norcross, Georgia. So more time than before is devoted to my role in the business. My colleagues at the company provide invaluable technical support for the text analyses that underlie most of my research, in which I use VantagePoint software to analyze sets of R&D abstract records. Balancing it all out, I’d guesstimate that under the current arrangements, my weekly hours devoted to research increased post-retirement, but not drastically, from 15 before to 20 after.

TABLE 1

23

The disparity between detailed policies and procedures for the active faculty and the dearth thereof for retired faculty warrants protest and action.

How about university roles in supporting retiree research? Georgia Tech allows me to continue to conduct research and provides essential research infrastructure. Post-retirement, I continued to advise two Ph.D. students through graduation. I cannot advise new ones, although I do serve on Ph.D. dissertation committees and support research assistants from project funding.

I am a technology watcher. My research focuses on science, technology, and innovation intelligence, forecasting, and assessment, so I don’t need laboratory facilities. Shared workspace for graduate students and visiting researchers is a requisite, I’d say. I am usually on campus once weekly for meetings but don’t much use a shared workspace myself. Onsite and remote-access library resources (especially databases such as Web of Science) are essential for my bibliometric analyses.

Georgia Tech provides an institutional base for me to be principal investigator (PI) or participant on funded research (paid on an hourly basis up to a halftime threshold). It also provides regular administrative support for management of my funded research (and charges projects the regular overhead rates, but my fringe benefit rate is very low, as a retiree).

My research gains enormously from ongoing collaboration in Georgia Tech research activities, including through the Program for Science, Technology & Innovation Policy, where I participate in weekly meetings, and through ties with the Technology Policy & Assessment Center. Such access to intellectual stimulus, interchange of ideas, and energetic graduate students eager to do the heavy lifting are, in my view, the major drivers of my observed research productivity gains. (My 14 pre-retirement articles included in this analysis averaged 3.2 authors; the 42 post-retirement ones averaged 3.8.) These arrangements counter the potential isolation of retirement.

Tellingly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) accepts proposals from me as PI or participant, with Georgia Tech or Search Technology providing institutional bases. An NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society award to Arizona State University has supported Georgia Tech through a subcontract to generate and maintain a substantial “nano” publications and patents data set. This has provided key data resources for a series of analyses and resulting papers—at least 17 since 2008—and has been a major factor in my productivity.

NSF also made a Science of Science & Innovation Policy award to Georgia Tech, with me as PI. Ultimately, some of the work proposed under the award did not take place, but NSF allowed us to reallocate the funds to make small targeted sub-awards intended to generate project-related research in critical areas. I am convinced that this flexible support helped boost research collaboration.

There is also an international component to our work. Building on a 20-year collaboration with Donghua Zhu, a professor of management science and engineering at Beijing Institute of Technology, a string of Ph.D. students from his lab, with funding from China, have spent a year at Georgia Tech. I believe both sides gain as the students work on our projects and learn our approaches to science, technology, and innovation analyses to initiate research pointing toward their dissertations. In 2008–2009, two such students, Ying Guo and Lu Huang, became the model for productive research collaboration, deriving from their initiative, English skills, solid analytical background, and research interests that meshed very well with colleagues at our Program for Science, Technology & Innovation Policy. I have continued to collaborate with Ying and Lu since they returned to their Beijing institution and moved into faculty positions, and these efforts have resulted in nine coauthored papers published between 2011 and 2013—more than with any other colleagues in that period. Active collaboration also continues with their successors who visited Georgia Tech. This international exchange has thus been a huge post-retirement boost to my research collaboration and productivity.

Beyond N = 1

What about evidence beyond N = 1? A modest contingent of scholars studies retirees, devoting attention to many facets, such as work, leisure, health, university access, and research activity. I’ll borrow a bit from several of them—with great, if indirectly acknowledged, thanks—in considering the various factors that contribute to research productivity and policy issues.

How many retirees continue their scholarly research? I made a casual sampling of five retired faculty members from each of five organizations: the MIT Sloan School and Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Georgia Tech Departments of Chemical & BioEngineering and Physics, and the Stanford University School of Engineering. A search in the Web of Science for a recent 1.5-year period turned up publications by 20% of them. More broadly, estimates in the literature suggest that up to about half of recently retired faculty remain active in research, teaching, or both. Perhaps not surprisingly, retired faculty tend to be more engaged in academic activities for the first 10 years or so after retirement, tailing off after that.

Here are factors that I believe affect retiree research opportunities:

  • Retirement age, early retirement options, and phased retirement possibilities. Mandatory retirement in higher education has been banned in the United States since 1994, and retirement experiences vary widely across the nation’s campuses.
  • Availability of facilities, such as whether retired faculty are allowed to maintain office space or lab access.
  • Insurance coverage that enables retirees to continue lab work.
  • Infrastructure and administrative support, including computing and Internet access, software and licensed database access, remote library access, and grant administration services.
  • Allowability of pay for retiree research, and limits on such pay.
  • Direct encouragement of retiree research. This may take such forms as providing university grants to retirees for travel or student research assistantships, developing a website presence and recognition for emeritus faculty, and fostering retirees’ ongoing engagement by recruiting their participation in research center or departmental brown-bag seminar series. Help in this area may be available through cooperation with the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education, whose membership includes some 50 major U.S. universities.

Areas for exploration

So what policy options does my case of post-retirement research boosterism and a reading of the literature raise for university administrators? Here I identify five areas for further exploration:

1. The word “retirement” conveys the idea of ceasing one’s prior work activity. Should universities allow retirees to continue research? If so, how so? Can they advise Ph.D. students, serve as PIs on grants, maintain lab facilities? I think the answers should generally be “yes.” But some institutions still favor “clear out your desk” retirement.

2. University administrators should consider formally and clearly establishing policies for supporting retiree research. Appointing faculty committees to examine the issues may prove valuable here. Among the questions to be considered: Does the university provide an institutional base for ongoing retiree research? If so, what is provided across the university and what through individual units? With what conditions and restrictions, and for whom? And for how long?

3. Central administration and accounting units should address issues associated with the attendant costs and benefits of having retirees continue to conduct research. For example, who will pay for a retiree’s computer support, and who will accrue overhead on grants received? On the flip side, my case suggests that facilitating retiree research can provide highly favorable benefit/cost ratios. Universities would be well advised to crunch the numbers thoroughly and pay heed to the results.

4. There may be a critical divide between retired faculty who will need physical facilities, such as lab space and equipment, and those who don’t. But even as universities may find it easier to accommodate the needs of faculty who don’t need lots of infrastructure, at least as policies begin to unfold, they can continually look for ways to provide support elements—I prefer not to consider them “privileges”—to make it easier for both camps to remain engaged.

5. Whatever retirement research policies are determined, universities really need to communicate them to everyone, including those faculty considering retirement (early or otherwise).

A key mission of universities is to generate new knowledge. Enabling a great human capital resource—retired faculty and staff—to contribute to that mission seems wise. Not doing so strikes me as wrongheaded. And other faculty appear to agree, because surveys find a significant number of retired faculty lamenting restrictions on their access to university resources needed to continue their scholarship. Rising life expectancies may only amplify the interest and the payoffs for universities, for society, and fundamentally for retirees who still find great life fulfillment through continuing their scholarly pursuits.

Aiding “good luck”

Given the potential rewards from retiree research, what support should universities provide? Returning to my personal experiences, fostering ongoing collegial interaction seems paramount, especially staying connected with potential collaborators. My case touches on several means to enhance collaboration, including having international graduate students visit for a year during the course of their studies. Georgia Tech has been supportive of that by moving to establish policies on background and language proficiency checks and providing support in obtaining visas, among other helpful measures. Ongoing interaction with grad students can benefit both them and the retired professor.

Academic research relies on funding. In my case, NSF is the main supporter, so I’m very appreciative that competition for funding is open to retired faculty. Policy options span a gamut. One possibility to consider would be set-asides for retired faculty support, perhaps small grants within programs to support conference presentations, travel grants, or whatever. Or special funding could be designated to facilitate collaboration between retired and active faculty at different universities. A variant would be to support emeritus faculty who mentor or collaborate (or both) with junior faculty. Drawing on my experiences, the provision of modest support to encourage visiting Ph.D. students spending a year with a retired faculty member as mentor can pay off nicely for both. At the opposite extreme, funders could preclude retired faculty from acting as PIs (but I hope they don’t).

Beyond specific actions, an overarching message is that the future should not be left to chance. My tale contains a happy confluence of factors that has brought me much satisfaction, enabled active research, and returned value to my university (and to the taxpayers who ultimately provided the federal funding dollars). I lucked out; my choices (especially early retirement) were made pretty casually, without careful consideration of ongoing research means and ends. Better for universities to spell out options so that faculty can plan wisely, and I think those options should be weighted to encourage “active retirement.”

More attention should also be paid to faculty and staff retirement issues writ broadly, reaching beyond the research environment. Literature addressing faculty retirement finds a lamentable lack of information for, fairness toward, and sensibility about, faculty retirees who want to stay involved. Much could be offered to make retirement more attractive at modest cost. The disparity between detailed policies and procedures for the active faculty and the dearth thereof for retired faculty warrants protest and action.

A major concern for universities and the research enterprise more broadly is to expand opportunities for young Ph.D.s for research and full faculty positions. Although, as I’ve suggested, the issue certainly requires more exploration and discussion, one obvious way to create those opportunities is to make semi-retirement attractive and rewarding for the graying faculty. Encourage us to retire! Our productivity may even go up, as we take advantage of greater flexibility in pursuing not just our research but life satisfaction, while making more room for faculty positions for younger generations.

Alan L. Porter (alan.porter@isye.gatech.edu) is professor emeritus, industrial and systems engineering, and public policy, at Georgia Tech.

Perspectives: The True Grand Challenge for Engineering: Self-Knowledge


by

CARL MITCHAM

In 2003, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) published A Century of Innovation celebrating “20 engineering achievements that transformed our lives” across the 20th century, from automobiles to the Internet. Five years later, it followed up with 14 Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century, including making solar energy affordable, providing energy from fusion, securing cyberspace, and enhancing virtual reality. But only the most cursory mention was made of the greatest challenge of all: cultivating deeper and more critical thinking, among engineers and nonengineers alike, about the ways engineering is transforming how and why we live.

What Percy Bysshe Shelley said about poets two centuries ago applies even more to engineers today: They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. By designing and constructing new structures, processes, and products, they are influencing how we live as much as any laws enacted by politicians. Would we ever think it appropriate for legislators to pass laws that could transform our lives without critically reflecting on and assessing those laws? Yet neither engineers nor politicians deliberate seriously on the role of engineering in transforming our world. Instead, they limit themselves to celebratory clichés about economic benefit, national defense, and innovation.

Where might we begin to promote more critical reflection in our engineered lives? One natural site would be engineering education. In this respect, it is again revealing to note the role of the NAE Grand Challenges. Not just in the United States, but globally as well, the technical community is concerned about the image of engineering in the public sphere and its limited attractiveness to students. The 2010 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization study Engineering: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities for Development lamented that despite a “growing need for multi-talented engineers, the interest in engineering among young people is waning in so many countries.” The Grand Challenges have thus been deployed in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program as a way to attract more students to the innovative life. But to adapt the title of Vannevar Bush’s Science Is Not Enough, a cultivated enthusiasm for engineering is insufficient. More pointedly, to paraphrase Socrates, “The unexamined engineering life is not worth living.” More than once in dialogue with Greek fellow citizens who boasted of their prowess in meeting challenges, Socrates referenced the words inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself. It is a motto that engineers—and all of us whose lives are informed by engineering—could well apply to ourselves.

An axial age

In a critical reflection on world history, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers observed how in the first millennium BCE, human cultures in Asia and Europe independently underwent a profound transformation that he named the Axial Age. Thinkers as diverse as Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, Socrates, and the Hebrew prophets began to ask what it means to be human. Humans no longer simply accepted whatever ways of life they were born into; they began to subject their cultures to critical assessment. Today we are entering a new Axial Age, one in which we no longer simply accept the physical world into which we are born. But engineering makes almost no effort to give engineers—or any of the rest of us—the tools to reflect on themselves and their world-transforming enterprise.

Engineering programs like to promote innovation in product creation, and to some extent in pedagogy, yet almost never in critical thinking about what it means to be an engineer. Surely the time has come for engineering schools to become more than glorified trade schools whose graduates can make more money than the hapless English majors whom Garrison Keillor lampoons on A Prairie Home Companion. How about engineers who can think holistically and critically about their own role in making our world and assist their nonengineering fellow citizens as well in thinking that goes beyond superficial promotions of the new? And where might engineers acquire some tools with which to cultivate such abilities? One place to start would be through engagement with the traditions of thought and critical self-reflection that emerged from the original Axial Age: what we now call the humanities.

Two cultures recidivus

To mention engineering and the humanities in the same sentence immediately calls to mind C. P. Snow’s famous criticism of those “natural Luddites” who do not have the foggiest notion about such technical basics as the second law of thermodynamics. Do historians, literary scholars, and philosophers really know anything that can benefit engineers?

Snow’s “two cultures” argument, as well as many discussions since, conflates science and engineering. The powers often attributed to science, such as the ability to overcome poverty through increased production of goods and to send people to the Moon by spaceship construction, belong more to engineering. As a result, there are actually two two-culture issues. The tension between two forms of knowledge production (sciences and the humanities) is arguably less significant than another between designing and constructing the world versus reflecting on what it means (engineering and the humanities).

Indeed, although there is certainly room for improvement on the humanities side, I venture that a majority of humanities teachers in engineering schools today could pass the test Snow proposed to the literary intellectuals he skewered. Yet in my experience relatively few engineers, when invited to reflect on their professions, can do much more than echo libertarian appeals to the need for unfettered innovation to fuel endless growth. Even the more sophisticated commentators on engineering such as Samuel Florman (The Existential Pleasures of Engineering), Henry Petroski (To Engineer Is Human), and Billy Vaughn Koen (Discussion of the Method: Conducting the Engineer’s Approach to Problem Solving) are largely absent from engineering curricula.

The two-cultures problem in engineering schools is distinctive. It concerns how to infuse into engineering curricula the progressive humanities and qualitative social sciences, as pursued by literary intellectuals who strive to make common cause with that minority of engineers who are themselves critical of the cultural captivity of techno-education. There are, for instance, increasing efforts to develop programs in humanitarian engineering, service learning, and social justice. Nevertheless, having taught in three engineering schools, I—like many humanities scholars who teach engineering students—experience a continuing tension between engineering and the humanities. Such is especially the case today, in an increasingly corporatized environment at an institution oriented toward the efficient throughput of students who can serve as handmaids of an expanding energy industry.

On the one side, engineering faculty (administrators even more so) have a tendency to look on humanities courses as justified only insofar as they provide communication skills. They want to know the cash value of humanities courses for professional success. The engineering curriculum is so full that they feel compelled to limit humanities and social science requirements, commonly to little more than a semester’s worth, spread over an eight-semester degree program crammed with science and engineering.

Unlike professional degrees in medicine or law, which typically require a bachelor’s degree of some sort before professional focus, entry into engineering is via the B.S. degree alone. This has undoubtedly been one feature attracting many students who are the first members of their families to attend college. It is an upward-mobility degree, even if there is not quite the demand for engineers that the engineering community often proclaims.

Why humanities?

On the other side, humanities faculty (there are seldom humanities administrators with any influence in engineering schools) struggle to justify their courses. These justifications are of three unequal types, taking an instrumental, enhanced instrumental, and intrinsic-value approach.

The first, default appeal is to the instrumental value of communication skills. Engineers who cannot write or otherwise communicate their work are at a disadvantage, not only in abilities to garner respect from people outside the engineering community but even within technical work teams. The humanities role in teaching critical thinking is an expanded version of this appeal. All engineers need to be critical thinkers when analyzing and proposing design solutions to technical problems. But why no critical thinking about the continuous push for innovation itself? Too often, the humanities are simply marshalled to provide rhetorical skills for jumping aboard the more-is-better innovation bandwagon—or criticized for failing to do so.

A second, enhanced instrumental appeal stresses how humanities knowledge, broadly construed to include the qualitative social sciences, can help engineers manage alleged irrational resistance to technological innovation from the nonengineering world. This enhanced instrumental appeal argues that courses in history, political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and geography—perhaps even in literature, philosophy, and religion—can locate engineering work in its broader social context. Increasingly engineers recognize that their work takes place in diverse sociocultural situations that need to be negotiated if engineering projects are to succeed.

In similar ways, engineering practice can itself be conceived as a techno-culture all its own. The interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society (STS) studies receives special recognition here. Many interdisciplinary STS programs arose inside engineering schools, and even after their transformation to disciplinary science and technology studies, some departments have remained closely connected to engineering faculties.

The enhanced instrumental appeal further satisfies ABET (the new acronym name for what used to be the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) requirements. In order to be ABET-accredited, engineering programs must be structured around 11 student outcomes. Central to these outcomes are appropriate mastery of technical knowledge in mathematics and the sciences, including the engineering sciences, and the practices of engineering design, including abilities “to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems” and “to function on multidisciplinary teams.” Engineers further need to learn how to design products, processes, and systems “to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability” and possess “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context.” Finally, engineering students should be taught “an ability to communicate effectively” and “professional and ethical responsibility.” Clearly the humanities need to be enrolled in the process of delivering the more fuzzy of these outcomes.

The challenge of professional ethical responsibility deserves highlighting. It is remarkable how, although professional engineering codes of ethics identify the promotion of public safety, health, and welfare as primary obligations, the engineering curriculum shortchanges these key concepts. There exists a field termed safety engineering but none called health or welfare engineering. And even if there were, because the promotion of these values is an obligation for all engineers, their examination would need to be infused across the curriculum. Physicians, who also have a professional commitment to the promotion of health, have to deal with the meaning of this concept in virtually every course they take in medical school.

The 2004 NAE report on The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century emphasized that engineering education needs to cultivate not just analytic stills and technical creativity but communication skills, management leadership, and ethical professionalism. Meeting almost any of the subsequent NAE list of Grand Challenges, many engineers admit, will require extensive social context knowledge from the humanities and social sciences. The humanities are accepted as providing legitimate if subordinate service to engineering professionalism even as they are regularly shortchanged in engineering schools.

But it is a third, less instrumental justification for the humanities in engineering education that will be most important for successfully engaging the ultimate Grand Challenge of self-knowledge, that is, of thinking reflectively and critically about the kind of world we wish to design, construct, and inhabit in and through our technologies. The existential pleasures of engineering, not to mention its economic benefits, are limited. Human beings are not only geeks and consumers. They are also poets, artists, religious believers, citizens, friends, and lovers in various degrees all at the same time. The engineering curriculum should be more than an intensified vocational program that assumes students either are, or should become, one-dimensional in their lives. Engineers, like all of us, should be able to think about what it means to be human. Indeed, critical reflection on the meaning of life in a progressively engineered world is a new form of humanism appropriate to our time—a humanities activity in which engineers could lead the way.

Re-envisioning engineering

Primarily aware of requirements for graduation, engineering students are seldom allowed or encouraged to pursue in any depth the kind of humanities that could assist them, and all of us, in thinking about the relationship between engineering and the good life. They sign up for humanities classes on the basis of what fits their schedules, but then sometimes discover classes that not only provide relief from the forced march of technical work but that broaden their sense of themselves and stimulate reflection on what they really want to do with their lives. A few months ago a student in an introduction to philosophy class told me he was tired of engineering physics courses that always had to solve practical problems. He wanted to think about the nature of reality.

If he drops out of engineering, as some of my students have done, the humanities are likely to be blamed, rather than credited with expanding a sense of the world and life. The cost/benefit assessment model in colleges today is progressively coarsening the purpose of higher education. As Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Arnett argues, emerging adulthood is a period of self-discovery during which students can explore different paths in love and work. It took me seven years and three universities to earn my own B.A., years that were in no way cost/benefit-negative. Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, has been quoted (in the Chronicle of Higher Education) as telling students that their “time in college remains the single-best opportunity … to explore who you are and your purpose in life.” Engineering programs, because of their rigorous technical requirements, tend to be the worst offenders at cutting intellectual exploration short. This situation needs to be reversed, in the service of both engineering education and of our engineered world. If they really practiced what they preached about innovation, engineering schools would lead the way with expanded curricula and even B.A. degrees in engineering.

In physicist Mark Levinson’s insightful documentary film Particle Fever, the divide between experimentalists and theorists mirrors that between engineering and the humanities. But in the case of the Large Hadron Collider search for the Higgs’ boson chronicled in the film, the experimentalists and theorists work together, insofar as theorists provide the guidance for experimentation. Ultimately, something similar has to be the case for engineering. Engineering does not provide its own justification for transforming the world, except at the unthinking bottom-line level, or much guidance for what kind of world we should design and construct. We wouldn’t think of allowing our legislators to make laws without our involvement and consent; why are we so complacent about the arguably much more powerful process of technical legislation?

As mentioned, what Jaspers in the mid-20th century identified as an Axial Age in human history—one in which humans began to think about what it means to be human—exists today in a new form: thinking about what it means to live in an engineered world. In this second Axial Age, we are beginning to think about not just the human condition but what has aptly been called the techno-human condition: our responsibility for a world, including ourselves, in which the boundaries dissolve between the natural and the artificial, between the human and the technological. And just as a feature of the original Axial Age was learning to affirm limits to human action—not to murder, not to steal—so we can expect to learn not simply to affirm engineering prowess but to limit and steer our technological actions.

Amid the Grand Challenges articulated by the NAE there must thus be another: The challenge of thinking about what we are doing as we turn the world into an artifact and the appropriate limitations of this engineering power. Such reflection need not be feared; it would add to the nobility of engineering in ways that little else could. It is also an innovation within engineering in which others are leading the way. The Netherlands, for instance (not surprisingly, as the country that, given its dependence on the Deltawerken, comes closest to being an engineered artifact), has the strongest community of philosophers of engineering and technology in the world, based largely at the three technological universities of Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente and associated with the 3TU Centre for Ethics and Technology. China, which is undergoing the most rapid engineering transformation in world history, is also a pioneer in this field. The recent 20th-anniversary celebration of the Chinese Academy of Engineering included extended sessions on the philosophy of engineering and technology. Is it not time for the leaders of the engineering community in the United States, instead of fear-mongering about the production of engineers in China, to learn from China—and to insist on a deepening of our own reflections? The NAE Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society is a commendable start, but one too little appreciated in the U.S. engineering education world, and its mandate deserves broadening and deepening beyond ethical and social issues.

The true Grand Challenge of engineering is not simply to transform the world. It is to do so with critical reflection on what it means to be an engineer. In the words of the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in the first philosophical meditation on technology, to be an engineer and only an engineer is to be potentially everything and actually nothing. Our increasing engineering prowess calls upon us all, engineers and nonengineers alike, to reflect more deeply about who we are and what we really want to become.

Carl Mitcham (cmitcham@mines.edu) is professor of Liberal Arts and International Studies at the Colorado School of Mines and a member of the adjunct faculty at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

Editor’s Journal: Science: Too Big for Its Britches?


by

KEVIN FINNERAN

Science ain’t what it used to be, except perhaps in the systems we have for managing it. The changes taking place are widely recognized. The enterprise is becoming larger and more international, research projects are becoming more complex and research teams larger, university-industry collaboration is increasing, the number of scientific journals and research papers published is growing steadily, computer modeling and statistical analysis are playing a growing role in many fields, interdisciplinary teams are becoming more numerous and more heterogeneous, and the competition for finite resources and for prime research jobs is intensifying.

Many of these trends are the inevitable result of scientific progress, and many of them are actually very desirable. We want to see more research done around the world, larger and more challenging problems studied, more science-enabled innovation, more sharing of scientific knowledge, more interaction among disciplines, better use of computers, and enough competition to motivate scientists to work hard. But this growth and diversification of activities is straining the existing management systems and institutional mechanisms responsible for maintaining the quality and social responsiveness of the research enterprise. One undesirable trend has been the growth of attention in the popular press to falsified research results, abuse of human and animal research subjects, conflict of interest, the appearance of irresponsible journals, and complaints about overbuilt research infrastructure and unemployed PhDs. One factor that might link these diverse developments is the failure of the management system to keep pace with the changes and growth in the enterprise.

The pioneering open access journal PLOS ONE announced in June 2014 that after seven and a half years of operation it had published 100,000 articles. There are now tens of thousands scientific journals, and more than 1 million scientific papers will be published in 2014. Maintaining a rigorous review system and finding qualified scientists to serve as reviewers is an obvious challenge, particularly when senior researchers are spending more time writing proposals because constrained government spending has caused rates of successful funding to plummet in the United States.

Craig Mundie, the former chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft and a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), has voiced his concern that the current review system is not designed to meet the demands of today’s data-intensive science. Reviewers are selected on the basis of their disciplinary expertise in particle physics or molecular biology, when the quality of the research actually hinges on the design and use of the computer models. He says that we cannot expect scholars in those areas to have the requisite computer science and statistics expertise to judge the quality of the data analysis.

Data-intensive research introduces questions about transparency and the need to publish results of every experiment. Is it necessary to publish all the code of the software used to conduct a big data search and analysis? If a software program makes it possible to quickly conduct thousands of runs with different variables, is it necessary to make the results of each run available? Who is responsible for maintaining archives of all data generated in modeling experiments? Many scientists are aware of these issues and have been meeting to address them, but they are still playing catch-up with fast-moving developments.

In the past several decades the federal government’s share of total research funding fell from roughly 2/3 to 1/3, and industry now provides about 2/3. In this environment it is not surprising that university researchers seek industry support. It is well understood that researchers working in industry do not publish most of their work because it has proprietary value to the company, but the ethos of university researchers is based on openness. In working with industry funders, university researchers and administrators need the knowledge and capacity to negotiate agreements that preserve this principle.

About 1/3 of the articles being published by U.S. scientists have a coauthor from another country, which raises questions about inconsistencies in research and publishing procedures. Countries differ in their practices such as citing references on proposals, attributing paraphrases of text to its original source, listing lab directors as authors whether or not they participated in the research. Failure to understand these differences can lead to inadequate review and oversight. Similar differences in practice exist across disciplines, which can lead to problems in interdisciplinary research.

Globalization is also evident in the movement of students. The fastest growing segment of the postdoctoral population is comprised of people who earned their PhDs in other countries. Although they now comprise more than half of all postdocs, the National Science Foundation tracks the career progress only of people who earned their PhDs in the United States. We thus know little about the career trajectories of the majority of postdocs. It would be very useful to know why they come to the United States, how they evaluate their postdoctoral experience, and what role they ultimately play in research. This could help us answer the pressing question of the extent to which the postdoctoral is serving as a useful career-development step or whether its primary function is to provide low-cost research help to principal investigators.

The scientific community has fought long and hard to preserve the power to manage its own affairs. It wants scientists to decide which proposals deserve to be funded, what the rules for transparency and authorship should be in publishing, what behavior constitutes scientific misconduct and how it should be punished, and who should be hired and promoted. In general it has used this power wisely and effectively. Public trust is higher in science than in almost any other profession. Although science funding has suffered in the recent period of federal budget constraint, it has fared better than most areas of discretionary spending.

Still, there are signs of concern. The October 19, 2013, Economist carried a cover story on “How science goes wrong,” identifying a range of problems with the current scientific enterprise. Scientists themselves have published articles that question the reproducibility of much research and that note worrisome trends in the number of articles that are retracted. A much-discussed article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by scientific superstars Harold Varmus, Shirley Tilghman, Bruce Alberts, and Howard Kutcher highlighted serious problems in biomedical research and worried about overproduction of PhDs. Members of Congress are making a concerted effort to influence NSF funding of the social sciences, and climate change deniers would jump at the opportunity to influence that portfolio. And PCAST held a hearing at the National Academies to further explore problems of scientific reproducibility.

Because its management structure and systems have served science well for so long, the community is understandably reluctant to make dramatic changes. But we have to recognize that these systems were designed for a smaller, simpler, and less competitive research enterprise. We should not be surprised if they struggle to meet the demands of a very different and more challenging environment. For research to thrive, it requires public trust. Maintaining that trust will require that the scale and nature of management match the scale and nature of operations.

We all take pride in the increasingly prominent place that science holds in society, but that prominence also brings closer scrutiny and responsibility. The Internet has vastly expanded our capacity to disseminate scientific knowledge, and that has led many people to know more about how research is done and decisions are made. In rethinking how science is managed and preserving its quality, the goal is not to isolate science from society. We build trust by letting people see how rigorously the system operates and by listening to their ideas about what they want and expect from science. The challenge is to craft a management system that is adequate to deal with the complexities of the evolving research enterprise and also sufficiently transparent and responsive to build public trust.

Saturday Night Live once did a mock commercial for a product called Shimmer. The wife exclaimed, “It’s a floor wax.” The husband bristled, “No, it’s a dessert topping.” After a couple of rounds, the announcer interceded: “You’re both right. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping.” Fortunately, the combination of scientific rigor and social responsiveness is not such an unlikely merger.

From the Hill


by

Budget discussions inch forward

Congress returned to Washington in September to do a little business before heading home to campaign. As usual at this time of year, there’s still quite a bit of work to do to complete the budget process for fiscal year (FY) 2015, which begins October 1. Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) remains interested in a September omnibus bill that would package all or several bills into one, but the odds seem to favor the House Republicans’ preference for a continuing resolution until the new Congress takes office.

With all this uncertainty, it’s hard to say when appropriations will be finalized and what they will be. Nevertheless, enough discussion and preliminary action have taken place to provide a general picture of congressional preferences for R&D funding in FY 2015. The Senate committees have prepared budgets for the six largest R&D spending bills, which account for 97% of all federal R&D, but none of these budgets have cleared the full Senate. House committees have prepared budgets for all the major categories except the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education bill [including the National Institutes of Health (NIH)]. The full House has approved the Defense (DOD); Energy and Water; and Commerce, Justice, and Science [which includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), national Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] appropriations bills.

So far, according to AAAS estimates, current House R&D appropriations, which do not include NIH, would result in a 0.8% increase from FY 2014 in nominal dollars; current Senate appropriations for the same agencies would result in just a 0.1% increase. With the Labor-HHS bill included, the Senate appropriation would result in a 0.7% increase. All of these figures would be reductions in constant dollars.

Most R&D spending has followed essentially the same trajectory in recent years. After a sharp decline with sequestration in FY 2013, budgets experienced at least a partial recovery in FY 2014 and seem likely to have a small inflation-adjusted decline in FY 2015. There has been some notable variation. Funding for health, environmental, and education research has made less progress in returning to pre-sequester levels. Defense science and technology (S&T) spending neared pre-sequester levels in FY 2014 but seems likely to fall short of that mark in FY 2015. Downstream technology development funding at DOD would remain well below FY 2012 levels.

In the aggregate, FY 2015 R&D appropriations are not terribly far apart in the House and Senate. This is a departure from what happened in developing the FY 2014 budget, when the House and Senate differed on overall discretionary spending levels. This difference led to large discrepancies in R&D appropriations. The conflict over discretionary spending was resolved in last December’s Bipartisan Budget Act, and this agreement has led to the relatively similar R&D appropriations being produced by each chamber for FY 2015.

This is consistent with the idea that the primary determinant of the R&D budget is the size of the overall discretionary budget. However, it is also worth noting that the very modest nominal increase in aggregate R&D spending would still be larger than the 0.2% nominal growth projected for the total discretionary budget. Indeed, R&D in the five major nondefense bills listed above would generally beat this pace by a clear margin in both chambers, suggesting that appropriators with limited fiscal flexibility have prioritized science and innovation to some extent.

Under current appropriations, federal R&D would continue to stagnate as a share of the economy, as it would under the president’s original budget request (excluding the proposed but largely ignored Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative). Federal R&D, which represented 1.04% of gross domestic product (GDP) in FY 2003 at the end of the NIH budget doubling, is now below 0.8%. Both current appropriations and the president’s request would place it at about 0.75% of GDP in FY 2015. Research alone, excluding development, has declined from 0.47% of GDP in FY 2003 to 0.39% today, and current proposals would take it a bit lower, to about 0.37%.

Even though final decisions for FY 2015 appropriations are still some months away, agencies are already at work on their budget proposals for FY 2016. The administration released a set of memos outlining science and technology (S&T) priorities for the FY 2016 budget, due in February. Priorities include: advanced manufacturing; clean energy; earth observations; global climate change; information technology and high-performance computing; innovation in life sciences, biology, and neuroscience; national and homeland security; and R&D for informed policymaking and management.

Congress tackles administrative burden

In response to a March 2014 National Science Board (NSB) report on how some federal rules and regulations were placing an unnecessary burden on research institutions, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s oversight and research panels held a joint hearing on June 12 on Reducing Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research. The witnesses, including Arthur Bienenstock, the chairman of the NSB’s Task Force on Administrative Burdens; Susan Wyatt Sedwick, the president of the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) Foundation; Gina Lee-Glauser, the vice president of research at Syracuse University; and Allison Lerner, the inspector general of NSF, represented stakeholders affected by changes in the oversight of federally funded research.

Concern over investigators’ administrative burdens began in 2005 when an FDP report revealed that federally funded investigators spend an average of 42% of their time on administrative tasks, dealing with a panoply of regulations in areas such as conflict of interest, research integrity, human subjects protections, animal care and use, and disposal of hazardous wastes. Despite federal reform efforts, in 2012 the FDP found that the average time spent on “meeting requirements rather than conducting research” remained at 42%. In response, the NSB convened a task force charged with investigating this issue and developing recommendations for reform.

On March 29, 2013, the task force issued a request for information (RFI) in the Federal Register, inviting “principal investigators with Federal research funding … to identify Federal agency and university requirements that contribute most to their administrative workload and to offer recommendations for reducing that workload.” The task force used responses from the RFI and information collected at three roundtables with investigators and administrators to write its report.

During the June hearing, the witnesses discussed the report’s recommendations. The four main recommendations were for policymakers to focus on the science, eliminate or modify ineffective regulations, harmonize and streamline requirements, and increase university efficiency and effectiveness.

Bienenstock of the NSB spoke about the report’s tangible suggestions, which include changing NSF’s proposal guidelines to require in the initial submission only the information necessary to determine whether a research project merits funding, deferring ancillary materials not critical to merit review; adopting a system like the FDP’s pilot project in payroll certification to replace time-consuming and outdated effort reporting; and establishing a permanent high-level interagency committee to address obsolete regulations and discuss new ones.

Sedwick echoed the usefulness of the FDP’s payroll-certification pilot and noted that the FDP is a perfect forum for testing new reporting mechanisms that could lead to a more efficient research enterprise. In her testimony, Lee-Glauser addressed how the ever more competitive funding environment is taking investigators away from their research for increasing periods of time to write grants, and noted that the current framework for regulating research on human subjects is too stringent for the low-risk social and behavioral research being performed at Syracuse University. Inspector General Lerner, championing the auditing process, spoke about the importance of using labor-effort reports to prevent fraud and noted that the Office of Management and Budget is in the process of auditing the FDP’s payroll-certification pilot project to determine its effectiveness and scalability. She also mentioned that even though requiring receipts only for large purchases made with grant money would be less time-consuming, it would not prevent investigators from committing fraud by making many small purchases. Lerner closed by reminding the room that “acceptance of public money brings with it a responsibility to uphold the public’s trust.” In addition to the payroll-certification pilot, a few other changes are in the works that could implement some of the recommendations in the NSB report. Currently, the NSF Division of Integrative Organismal Systems and Division of Environmental Biology are piloting a pre-proposal program that requires only a one-page summary and five-page project description for review.

On July 8, the House addressed the issue with its passage of the Research and Development Efficiency Act (H.R. 5056), a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), which would establish a working group through the administration’s National Science and Technology Council to make recommendations on streamlining federal regulations affecting research.

- Keizra Mecklai

In brief

The House passed several S&T bills in July. These include the Department of Energy Laboratory Modernization and Technology Transfer Act (H.R. 5120), which would establish a pilot program for commercializing technology; a two-year reauthorization (H.R. 5035) for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which would authorize funding for NIST at $856 million for FY 2015; the International Science and Technology Cooperation Act (H.R. 5029), which would establish a body under the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate international science and technology cooperative research and training activities and partnerships; the STEM Education Act (H.R. 5031), which would support existing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs at NSF and define STEM to include computer science; and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act (H.R. 1786) to reauthorize the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program. The House rejected a modified version of the Securing Energy Critical Elements and American Jobs Act of 2014 (H.R. 1022), which would authorize $25 million annually from FY 2015 to FY 2019 to support a Department of Energy R&D program for energy-critical elements.

Members of the Senate, led by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, have released their own America COMPETES reauthorization bill. The bill would authorize significant multiyear funding increases for NSF and NIST, while avoiding the changes to NSF peer review and the cuts to social science funding proposed by the House Science Committee in the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. With the short legislative calendar, progress on the bill is unlikely in the near term.

On July 25, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act (H.R. 2996), which would establish a network of public/private institutes focusing on innovation in advanced manufacturing, involving both industry and academia. The creation of such a network has long been a goal of the administration, and a handful of pilot institutes have already been established. A companion bill (S. 1468) awaits action in the Senate.

On July 16, eight Senators, including Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY), introduced a companion bill (S. 2613) to the House Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 4012), which passed the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee along party lines on June 24. The bill would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments unless all underlying data were reproducible and made publicly available.

On June 26, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Daniel Coats (R-IN) introduced the Technology and Research Accelerating National Security and Future Economic Resiliency (TRANSFER) Act (S. 2551). The legislation, a companion to a House bill (H.R. 2981) originally introduced last year by Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), would create a funding program within the Small Business Technology Transfer program, “to accelerate the commercialization of federally-funded research.” The grants would support efforts such as proof of concept of translational research, prototype construction, and market research.

The Department of Energy Research and Development Act (H.R. 4869), introduced in the House by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) on June 13, would authorize a 5.1% budget increase over the FY 2014 level for the Office of Science and 14.3% cut in the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy budget. In the subcommittee’s summary, Section 115 “directs the Director to carry out a program on biological systems science prioritizing fundamental research on biological systems and genomics science and requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to identify duplicative climate science initiatives across the federal government. Section 115 limits the Director from approving new climate science-related initiatives unless the Director makes a determination that such work is unique and not duplicative of work by other federal agencies. This section also requires the Director to cease all climate science-related initiatives identified as duplicative in the GAO assessment unless the Director determines such work to be critical to achieving American energy independence.”

Executive actions support Obama’s science agenda

In an effort to circumvent a deadlocked Congress, President Obama has issued a number of executive actions to advance his science policy goals. After the DREAM Act immigration bill stalled in 2012, the President issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows undocumented individuals in the United States to become eligible for employment authorization (though not permanent residency) if they were under age 31 on June 15, 2012; arrived in the United States before turning 16 years of age; have lived in the United States since June 15, 2007; and are currently in school or hold a GED or higher degree, among other requirements. This step toward immigration reform may allow undocumented residents with STEM degrees or careers to stay in the country and continue to support the American STEM workforce. Then, in 2013, once again in response to failed legislation and the tragic shooting in Newtown, CT, Obama took action on gun control. Among other things, he lifted what amounted to a ban on federally funded research about the causes of gun violence.

Most recently, the EPA released a proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, as directed by the President’s executive actions contained in his Climate Action Plan. The rule would allow each state to implement a plan that works best for its economy and energy mix, and has been a source of controversy on Capitol Hill; members of Congress and other stakeholders are already engaged in a heated debate as to whether the EPA has authority (through the Clean Air Act) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Agency updates

On July 23, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the creation of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) to facilitate the support of agriculture research through both public and private funding. FFAR, authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, will be funded at $200 million and must receive matching funds from nonfederal sources when making awards for research.

NIH is teaming up with NSF to launch I-Corps at NIH, a pilot program based on NSF’s Innovation Corps. The program will allow researchers with Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Phase 1 awards, which establish feasibility or proof of concept for technologies that could be commercialized, to enroll in a training program that helps them explore potential markets for their innovations.

In response to the June 16 National Academies report on the National Children’s Study, a plan by NIH to study the health of 100,000 U.S. babies up to age 21, NIH Director Francis Collins decided to put the ambitious study, which has already faced more than a decade of costly delays, on hold. The Academies panel indicated that the study’s hypotheses should be more scientifically robust and that the study would benefit from more scientific expertise and management. It also recommended changes to the subject recruitment process.

“From the Hill” is adapted from the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress, published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

Military Innovation and the Prospects for Defense-Led Energy Innovation


by

EUGENE GHOLZ

Although the Department of Defense has long been the global innovation leader in military hardware, that capability is not easily applied to energy technology

Almost all plans to address climate change depend on innovation, because the alternatives by themselves—reducing greenhouse gas emissions via the more efficient use of current technologies or by simply consuming less of everything—are either insufficient, intolerable, or both. Americans are especially proud of their history of technology leadership, but in most sectors of the economy, they assume that private companies, often led by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, will furnish the new products and processes. Unfortunately, energy innovation poses exceptionally severe collective action problems that limit the private sector’s promise. Everyone contributes emissions, but no one contributes sufficient emissions that a conscious effort to reduce them will make a material difference in climate change, so few people try hard. Without a carbon tax or emissions cap, most companies have little or no economic incentive to reduce emissions except as a fortuitous byproduct of other investments. And the system of production, distribution, and use of energy creates interdependencies across companies and countries that limit the ability of any one actor to unilaterally make substantial changes.

In principle, governments can overcome these problems through policies to coordinate and coerce, but politicians are ever sensitive to imposing costs on their constituents. They avoid imposing taxes and costly regulations whenever possible. Innovation presents the great hope to solve problems at reduced cost. In the case of climate change, because of the collective action problems, government will have to lead the innovative investment.

Fortunately, the U.S. government has a track record of success with developing technologies to address another public good. Innovation is a hallmark of the U.S. military. The technology that U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen bring to war far outclasses adversaries’. Even as Americans complain about challenges of deploying new military equipment, always wishing that technical solutions could do more and would arrive faster to the field, they also take justifiable pride in the U.S. defense industry’s routine exploitation of technological opportunities. Perhaps that industry’s technology savvy could be harnessed to develop low-emissions technologies. And perhaps the Defense Department’s hefty purse could purchase enough to drive the innovations down the learning curve, so that they could then compete in commercial markets as low-cost solutions, too.

That potential has attracted considerable interest in defense-led energy innovation. In fact, in 2008, one of the first prominent proposals to use defense acquisition to reduce energy demand came from the Defense Science Board, a group of expert advisors to the Department of Defense (DOD) itself. The DSB reported, “By addressing its own fuel demand, DoD can serve as a stimulus for new energy efficiency technologies…. If DoD were to invest in technologies that improved efficiency at a level commensurate with the value of those technologies to its forces and warfighting capability, it would probably become a technology incubator and provide mature technologies to the market place for industry to adopt for commercial purposes.” Various think tanks took up the call from there, ranging from the CNA Corporation (which includes the Center for Naval Analyses) to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Project on National Security, Energy and Climate. Ultimately, the then–Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, Heather Zichal, proclaimed her hope for defense-led energy innovation on the White House blog in 2013.

These advocates hope not only to use the model of successful military innovation to stimulate innovation for green technologies but to actually use the machinery of defense acquisition to implement their plan. They particularly hope that the DOD will use its substantial procurement budget to pull the development of new energy technologies. Even when the defense budget faces cuts as the government tries to address its debt problem, other kinds of government discretionary investment are even more threatened, making defense ever more attractive to people who hope for new energy technologies.

The U.S. government has in part adopted this agenda. The DOD and Congress have created a series of high-profile positions that include an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs within the Pentagon’s acquisition component. No one in the DOD’s leadership wants to see DOD investment diverted from its primary purpose of providing for American national security, but the opportunity to address two important policy issues at the same time is very appealing.

The appeal of successful military innovation is seductive, but the military’s mixed experience with high-tech investment should restrain some of the exuberance about prospects for energy innovation. We know enough about why some large-scale military innovation has worked, while some has not, to predict which parts of the effort to encourage defense-led energy innovation are likely to be successful; enough to refine our expectations and target our investment strategies. This article carefully reviews the defense innovation process and its implications for major defense-led energy innovation.

Defense innovation works because of a particular relationship between the DOD and the defense industry that channels investment toward specific technology trajectories. Successes on “nice-to-have” trajectories, from DOD’s perspective, are rare, because the leadership’s real interest focuses on national security. Civilians are well aware of the national security and domestic political risks of even the appearance of distraction from core warfighting missions. When it is time to make hard choices, DOD leadership will emphasize performance parameters directly related to the military’s critical warfighting tasks, as essentially everyone agrees it should. Even in the relatively few cases in which investment to solve the challenges of the energy sector might directly contribute to the military component of the U.S. national security strategy, advocates will struggle to harness the defense acquisition apparatus. But a focused understanding of how that apparatus works will make their efforts more likely to succeed.

42
Jamey Stillings #26, 15 October 2010. Fine art archival print. Aerial view over the future site of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System prior to full commencement of construction, Mojave Desert, CA, USA.

Jamey Stillings

Photographer Jamey Stillings’ fascination with the human-altered landscape and his concerns for environmental sustainability led him to document the development of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility. Stillings took 18 helicopter flights to photograph the plant, from its groundbreaking in October 2010 through its official opening in February 2014. Located in the Mojave Desert of California, Ivanpah Solar is the world’s largest concentrated solar thermal power plant. It spans nearly 4,000 acres of public land and deploys 173,500 heliostats (347,000 mirrors) to focus the sun’s energy on three towers, creating 392 megawatts of electricity or enough to power 140,000 homes.

The photographs in this series formed the basis for Stillings’ current project, Changing Perspectives on Renewable Energy Development, an aerial and ground-based photographic examination of large-scale renewable energy initiatives in the American West and beyond.

Stillings’ three-decade career spans documentary, fine art, and commissioned projects. Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he holds an MFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. His work is in the collections of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, among others, and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, and fotoMagazin. His second monograph, The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar, will be published in 2015 by Steidl.

—Alana Quinn

43
Jamey Stillings #4546, 28 July 2011. Fine art archival print. Aerial overview of Solar Field 1 before heliostat construction, looking northeast toward Primm, NV.

How weapons innovation has succeeded

Defense acquisition is organized by programs, the largest and most important of which are almost always focused on developing a weapons system, although sometimes the key innovations that lead to improved weapons performance come in a particular component. For example, a new aircraft may depend on a better jet engine or avionics suite, but the investment is usually organized as a project to develop a fighter rather than one or more key components. Sometimes the DOD buys major items of infrastructure such as a constellation of navigation satellites, but those systems’ performance metrics are usually closely tied to weapons’ performance; for example, navigation improves missile accuracy, essential for modern warfare’s emphasis on precision strike. Similarly, a major improvement in radar can come as part of a weapons system program built around that new technology, as the Navy’s Aegis battle management system incorporated the SPY-1 phased array radar on a new class of ships. To incorporate energy innovation into defense acquisition, the DOD and the military services would similarly add energy-related performance parameters to their programs, most of which are weapons system programs. The military’s focus links technology to missions. Each project relies on a system of complex interactions of military judgment, congressional politics, and defense industry technical skill.

44
Jamey Stillings #8704, 27 October 2012. Fine art archival print. Aerial view showing delineation of future solar fields around an existing geologic formation.

Defense innovation has worked best when customers—DOD and the military services—understand the technology trajectory that they are hoping to pull and when progress along that technology trajectory is important to the customer organization’s core mission. Under those circumstances, the customer protects the research effort, provides useful feedback during the process, adequately (or generously) funds the development, and happily buys the end product, often helping the developer appeal to elected leaders for funding. The alliance between the military customer and private firms selling the innovation can overcome the tendency to free ride that plagues investment in public goods such as defense and energy security.

Demand pull to develop major weapons systems is not the only way in which the United States has innovated for defense, but it is the principal route to substantial change. At best, other innovation dynamics, especially technology-push efforts that range from measured investments to support manufacturing scale-up to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s drive for leap-ahead inventions, tend to yield small improvements in the performance of deployed systems in the military’s inventory. More often, because technological improvement itself is rarely sufficient to create demand, inventions derived from technology-push R&D struggle to find a home on a weapons system: Program offices, which actually buy products and thereby create the demand that justifies building production-scale factories, tend to feel that they would have funded the R&D themselves, if the invention were really needed to meet their performance requirements. Bolting on a new technology developed outside the program also can add technological risk—what if the integration does not work smoothly?—and program managers shun unnecessary risk. The partial exceptions are inventions such as stealth, where the military quickly connected the new technology to high-priority mission performance.

But most technology-push projects that succeed yield small-scale innovations that can matter a great deal at the level of local organizations but do not attract sufficient resources and political attention to change overall national capabilities. In energy innovation, an equivalent example would be a project to develop a small solar panel to contribute to electricity generation at a remote forward operating base, the sort of boon to warfighters that has attracted some attention during the Afghanistan War but that contributes to a relatively low-profile acquisition program (power generation as opposed to, say, a new expeditionary fighting vehicle) and will not even command the highest priority for that project’s program manager (who must remain focused on baseload power generation rather than solar augmentation).

In the more important cases of customer-driven military innovations, military customers are used to making investment decisions based on interests other than the pure profit motive. Defense acquisition requirements derive from leaders’ military judgment about the strategic situation, and the military gets the funding for needed research, development, and procurement from political leaders rather than profit-hungry investors. This process, along with the military’s relatively large purse as compared to even the biggest commercial customers, is precisely what attracts the interest of advocates of defense-led energy innovation: Because of the familiar externalities and collective action problems in the energy system, potential energy innovations often do not promise a rate of return sufficient to justify the financial risk of private R&D spending, but the people who make defense investments do not usually calculate financial rates of return anyway.

A few examples demonstrate the importance of customer preferences in military innovation. When the Navy first started its Fleet Ballistic Missile program, its Special Projects Office had concepts to give the Navy a role in the nuclear deterrence mission but not much money initially to develop and build the Polaris missiles. Lockheed understood that responsiveness was a key trait in the defense industry, so the company used its own funds initially to support development to the customer’s specifications. As a result, Lockheed won a franchise for the Navy’s strategic systems that continues today in Sunnyvale, California, more than 50 years later.

In contrast, at roughly the same time as Lockheed’s decision to emphasize responsiveness, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, then a huge military aircraft company, attempted to use political channels and promises of great performance to sell its preferred jet engine design. However, Air Force buyers preferred the products of companies that followed the customer’s lead, and Curtiss-Wright fell from the ranks of leading contractors even in a time of robust defense spending. Today, after great effort and years in the wilderness, the company has rebuilt to the stature of a mid-tier defense supplier with a name recognized by most (but not all) defense industry insiders.

When it is time to make hard choices, DOD leadership will emphasize performance parameters directly related to the military’s critical warfighting tasks, as essentially everyone agrees it should.

46
Jamey Stillings #9712, 21 March 2013. Fine art archival print. Aerial view of installed heliostats.

The contrasting experiences of Lockheed and Curtiss-Wright show the crucial importance of following the customer’s lead in the U.S. defense market. Entrepreneurs can bring what they think are great ideas to the DOD, including ideas for great new energy technologies, but the department tends to put its money where it wants to, based on its own military judgment.

Although the U.S. military can be a difficult customer if the acquisition executives lose faith in a supplier’s responsiveness, the military can also be a forgiving customer if firms’ good-faith efforts do not yield products that live up to all of the initial hype, at least for programs that are important to the Services’ core missions. A technology occasionally underperforms to such an extent that a program is cancelled (for example, the ill-fated Sergeant York self-propelled antiaircraft gun of the 1980s) but in many cases, the military accepts equipment that does not meet its contractual performance specifications. The Services then either nurture the technology through years of improvements and upgrades or discover that the system is actually terrific despite failing to meet the “required” specs. The B-52 bomber is perhaps the paradigm case: It did not meet its key performance specifications for range, speed, or payload, but it turned out to be such a successful aircraft that it is still in use 50 years after its introduction and is expected to stay in the force for decades to come. The Army similarly stuck with the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle through a difficult development history. Trying hard and staying friendly with the customer is the way to succeed as a defense supplier, and because the military is committed to seeking technological solutions to strategic problems, major defense contractors have many opportunities to innovate.

This pattern stands in marked contrast to private and municipal government investment in energy infrastructure, where underperformance in the short term can sour investors on an idea for decades. The investors may complete the pilot project, because municipal governments are not good at cutting their losses after the first phase of costs are sunk (though corporations may be more ruthless, for example in GM’s telling of the story of the EV-1 electric car). But almost no one else wants to risk repeating the experience, even if project managers can make a reasonable case that the follow-on project would perform better as a result of learning from the first effort.

And it’s the government—so politicians play a role

Of course, military desire for a new technology is not sufficient by itself to get a program funded in the United States. Strong political support from key legislators has also been a prerequisite for technological innovation. Over the years, the military and the defense contractors have learned to combine performance specifications with political logic. The best way to attract political support is to promise heroic feats of technological progress, because the new system should substantially outperform the equipment in the current American arsenal, even if that previous generation of equipment was only recently purchased at great expense. The political logic simply compounds the military’s tendency for technological optimism, creating tremendous technology pull.

In fact, Congress would not spend our tax dollars on the military without some political payoff, because national security poses a classic collective action problem. All citizens benefit from spending on national defense whether they help pay the cost or not, so the government spends tax dollars rather than inviting people to voluntarily contribute. But taxes are not popular, and raising money to provide public goods is a poor choice for a politician unless he can find a specific political benefit from the spending in addition to furthering the diffuse general interest.

Military innovations’ political appeal prevents the United States from underinvesting in technological opportunities. Sometimes that appeal comes from ideology, such as the “religion” that supports missile defense. Sometimes the appeal comes from an idiosyncratic vision: for example, a few politicians like Sen. John Warner contributed to keeping unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs alive before 9/11, before the War on Terror made drone strikes popular. And sometimes the appeal comes from the ability to feed defense dollars to companies in a legislator’s district. In the UAV case, Rep. Norm Dicks, who had many Boeing employees in his Washington State district, led political efforts to continue funding UAV programs after the end of the Cold War.

47
Jamey Stillings #7626, 4 June 2012. Fine art archival print. Workers install a heliostat on a pylon. Background shows assembled heliostats in “safe” or horizontal mode. Mirrors reflect the nearby mountains.

This need for political appeal presents a major challenge to advocates of defense-led energy innovation, because the political consensus for energy innovation is much weaker than the one for military innovation. Some prominent political leaders, notably Sen. John McCain, have very publicly questioned whether it is appropriate for the DOD to pay attention to energy innovation, which they view as a distraction from the DOD’s primary interest in improved warfighting performance. McCain wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, in July 2012, criticizing the Navy’s biofuels initiative by pointedly reminding Secretary Mabus, “You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy.” Moreover, although almost all Americans agree that the extreme performance of innovative weapons systems is a good thing (Americans expect to fight with the very best equipment), government support for energy innovation, especially energy innovation intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, faces strong political headwinds. In some quarters, ideological opposition to policies intended to reduce climate change is as strong as the historically important ideological support for military investment in areas like missile defense.

48
Jamey Stillings #10995, 4 September 2013. Fine art archival print. Solar flux testing, Solar Field 1.

The defense industry also provides a key link in assembling the political support for military innovation that may be hard to replicate for defense-led energy innovation. The prime contractors take charge of directly organizing district-level political support for the defense acquisition budget. To be funded, a major defense acquisition project needs to fit into a contractor-led political strategy. The prime contractors, as part of their standard responsiveness to their military customers, almost instantly develop a new set of briefing slides to tout how their products will play an essential role in executing whatever new strategic concept or buzzword comes from the Pentagon. And their lobbyists will make sure that all of the right congressional members and staffers see those slides. But those trusted relationships are built on understanding defense technology and on connections to politicians interested in defense rather than in energy. There may be limits to the defense lobbyists’ ability to redeploy as supporters of energy innovation.

49
Jamey Stillings #7738, 4 June 2012. Fine art archival print. View of construction of the dry cooling system of Solar Field 1.

Other unusual features of the defense market reinforce the especially strong and insular relationship between military customers and established suppliers. Their relationship is freighted with strategic jargon and security classification. Military suppliers are able to translate the language in which the military describes its vision of future combat into technical requirements for systems engineering, and the military trusts them to temper optimistic hopes with technological realism without undercutting the military’s key objectives. Military leaders feel relatively comfortable informally discussing their half-baked ideas about the future of warfare with established firms, ideas that can flower into viable innovations as the military officers go back and forth with company technologists and financial officers. That iterative process has given the U.S. military the best equipment in the world in the past, but it tends to limit the pool of companies to the usual prime contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and BAe Systems. Those companies’ core competency is in dealing with the unique features of the military customer.

Jargon and trust are not the only important features of that customer-supplier relationship. Acquisition regulations also specify high levels of domestic content in defense products, regardless of the cost; that a certain fraction of each product will be built by small businesses and minority- and women-owned companies, regardless of their ability to win subcontracts in fair and open competition; and that defense contractors will comply with an extremely intrusive and costly set of audit procedures to address the threat of perceived or very occasionally real malfeasance. These features of the defense market cannot be wished away by reformers intent on reducing costs: Each part of the acquisition system has its defenders, who think that the social goal or protection from scandal is worth the cost. The defense market differs from the broader commercial market in the United States on purpose, not by chance. Majorities think that the differences are driven by good reasons.

The implication is that the military has to work with companies that are comfortable with the terms and conditions of working for the government. That constraint limits the pool of potential defense-led energy innovators. It would also hamper the ability to transfer any defense-led energy innovations to the commercial market, because successful military innovations have special design features and extra costs built into their value chain.

In addition to their core competency in understanding the military customer, defense firms, like most other companies, also have technological core competencies. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was fashionable in some circles to call the prime contractors’ core competency “systems integration,” as if that task could be performed entirely independently from a particular domain of technological expertise. In one of the more extreme examples, Raytheon won the contract as systems integrator for the LPD-17 class of amphibious ships, despite its lack of experience as a shipbuilder. Although Raytheon had for years led programs to develop highly sophisticated shipboard electronics systems, the company’s efforts to lead the team building the entire ship contributed to an extremely troubled program. In this example, company and customer both got carried away with their technological optimism and their emphasis on contractor responsiveness. In reality, the customer-supplier relationship works best when it calls for the company to develop innovative products that follow an established trajectory of technological performance, where the supplier has experience and core technical capability. Defense companies are likely to struggle if they try to contribute to technological trajectories related to energy efficiency or reduced greenhouse gas emissions, trajectories that have not previously been important in defense acquisition.

50
Jamey Stillings #11060, 4 September 2013. Fine art archival print. View north of Solar Fields 2 and 3.

That is not to say that the military cannot introduce new technological trajectories into its acquisition plans. In fact, the military’s emphasis on its technological edge has explicitly called for disruptive innovation from time to time, and the defense industry has responded. For example, the electronics revolution involved huge changes in technology, shifting from mechanical to electrical devices and from analog to digital logic, requiring support from companies with very different technical core competencies. Startup companies defined by their intellectual property, though, had little insight (or desire) to figure out the complex world of defense contracting—the military jargon, the trusted relationships, the bureaucratic red tape, and the political byways—so they partnered with established prime contractors. Disruptive innovators became subcontractors, formed joint ventures, or sold themselves to the primes. The trick is for established primes to serve as interfaces and brokers to link the military’s demand pull with the right entrepreneurial companies with skills and processes for the new performance metrics. Recently, some traditional aerospace prime contractors, led by Boeing and Northrop Grumman, have used this approach to compete in the market for unmanned aerial vehicles. Perhaps they could do the same in the area of energy innovation.

What the military customer wants

Given the pattern of customer-driven innovation in defense, the task confronting advocates of defense-driven energy innovation seems relatively simple: Inject energy concerns into the military requirements process. If they succeed, then the military innovation route might directly address key barriers that hamper the normal commercial process of developing energy technologies. With the military’s interest, energy innovations might find markets that promise a high enough rate of return to justify the investment, and energy companies might convince financiers to stick with projects through many lean years and false starts before they reach technological maturity, commercial acceptance, and sufficient scale to earn profits.

The first step is to understand the customers’ priorities. From the perspective of firms that actually develop and sell new defense technologies, potential customers include the military services with their various components, each with a somewhat different level of interest in energy innovation.

Military organizations decide the emphasis in the acquisition budget. They make the case, ideally based on military professional judgment, for the kinds of equipment the military needs most. They also determine the systems’ more detailed requirements, such as the speed needed by a front-line fighter aircraft and the type(s) of fuel that aircraft should use. They may, of course, turn out to be wrong: Strategic threats may suddenly change, some technological advantages may not have the operational benefits that military leaders expected, or other problems could emerge in their forecasts or judgments. Nevertheless, these judgments are extremely influential in defining acquisition requirements. Admitting uncertainty about requirements often delays a program: Projects that address a “known” strategic need get higher priority from military leaders and justify congressional spending more easily.

Not surprisingly, military buyers almost always want a lot of things. When they set the initial requirements, before the budget and technological constraints of actual program execution, the list of specifications can grow very long. Even though the process in principle recognizes the need for tradeoffs, there is little to force hard choices early in the development of a new military technology. Adding an energy-related requirement would not dramatically change the length of the list. But when the real spending starts and programs come up for evaluation milestones, the Services inevitably need to drop some of the features that they genuinely desired. Relevance to the organizations’ critical tasks ultimately determines the emphasis placed on different performance standards during those difficult decisions. Even performance parameters that formally cannot be waived, like those specified in statute, may face informal pressure for weak enforcement. Programs can sometimes get a “Gentleman’s C” that allows them to proceed, subordinating a goal that the buying organization thinks is less important.

Energy technology policy advocates looking for a wealthy investor to transform the global economy probably ask too much of the DOD.

For example, concerns about affordability and interoperability with allies’ systems have traditionally received much more rhetorical emphasis early in programs’ lives than actual emphasis in program execution. When faced with the question of whether to put the marginal dollar into making the F-22 stealthy and fast or into giving the F-22 extensive capability to communicate, especially with allies, the program office not surprisingly emphasized the former key performance parameters rather than the latter nice feature.

Given that military leaders naturally emphasize performance that responds directly to strategic threats, and that they are simultaneously being encouraged by budget austerity to raise the relative importance of affordability in defense acquisition decisions, energy performance seems more likely to end up like interoperability than like stealth in the coming tradeoff deliberations. In a few cases, the energy-related improvements will directly improve combat performance or affordability, too, but those true “win-win” solutions are not very common. If they were, there would be no appeals for special priority for energy innovation.

The recent case of the ADVENT jet engine program shows the difficulty. As the military begins procurement of the F-35 fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well as for international sales, everyone agrees that having two options for the engine would be nice. If Pratt & Whitney’s F-135 engine runs into unexpected production or operational problems, a second engine would be available as a backup, and competition between the two engines would presumably help control costs and might stimulate further product improvement. However, the military decided that the fixed cost of paying GE to develop and manufacture a second engine would be too high to be justified even for a market as enormous as the F-35 program. The unofficial political compromise was to start a public-private partnership with GE and Rolls Royce called ADVENT, which would develop the next generation of fighter engine that might compete to get onto F-35 deliveries after 2020. ADVENT’s headline target for performance improvement is a 25% reduction in specific fuel consumption, which would reduce operating costs and, more important, would increase the F-35’s range and its ability to loiter over targets, directly contributing to its warfighting capabilities, especially in the Pacific theater, where distances between bases and potential targets are long. Although this increase in capability seems particularly sensible, given the announced U.S. strategy of “rebalancing” our military toward Asia, the Air Force has struggled to come up with its share of funding for the public/private partnership and has hesitated to prepare for a post-2020 competition between the new engine and the now-established F-135. The Air Force may have enough to worry about trying to get the first engine through test and evaluation, and paying the fixed costs of a future competitor still seems like a luxury in a time of budget constraint. Countless potential energy innovations have much weaker strategic logic than the ADVENT engine, and if ADVENT has trouble finding a receptive buyer, the others are likely to have much more trouble.

Of course, military culture also offers some hopeful points for the energy innovation agenda. For example, even if energy innovation adds complexity to military logistics in managing a mix of biofuels, or generating and storing distributed power rather than using standardized large-capacity diesel generators, the military is actually good at dealing with complexity. The Army has always moved tons of consumables and countless spare parts to the front to feed a vast organization of many different communities (infantry, armor, artillery, aviation, etc.). The Navy’s power projection capability is built on a combination of carefully planning what ships need to take with them with flexible purchasing overseas and underway replenishment. The old saw that the Army would rather plan than fight may be an exaggeration, but it holds more than a grain of truth, because the Army is genuinely good at planning. More than most organizations, the U.S. military is well prepared to deal with the complexity that energy innovation and field experimentation will inject into its routines. Even if the logistics system seems Byzantine and inefficient, the military’s organizational culture does not have antibodies against the complexity that energy innovation might bring.

52
Jamey Stillings #11590, 5 September 2013. Fine art archival print. Solar flux testing, Solar Field 3.

Who will support military-led innovation?

The potential for linking energy innovation to the DOD’s core mission seems especially important and exciting right now, because of the recent experience at war, and even more than that, because the recent wars happen to have involved a type of fighting with troops deployed to isolated outposts far from their home bases, in an extreme geography that stressed the logistics system. But as the U.S. effort in Afghanistan draws down, energy consumption in operations will account for less of total energy consumption, meaning that operational energy innovations will have less effect on energy security. More important, operational energy innovations will be of less interest to the military customers, who according to the 2012 Strategic Guidance are not planning for a repeat of such an extreme situation as the war in Afghanistan. Even if reality belies their expectations (after all, they did not expect to deploy to Afghanistan in 2001, either) acquisition investments follow the ex ante plans, not the ex post reality.

Specific military organizations that have an interest in preparing to fight with a light footprint in austere conditions may well continue the operational energy emphasis of the past few years. The good news for advocates of military demand pull for energy innovation is that special operations forces are viewed as the heroes of the recent wars, making them politically popular. They also have their own budget lines that are less likely to be swallowed by more prosaic needs such as paying for infrastructure at a time of declining defense budgets. While the conventional military’s attention moves to preparation against a rising near-peer competitor in China (a possible future, if not the only one, for U.S. strategic planning), special operations may still want lightweight powerful batteries and solar panels to bring power far off the grid. Even if a lot of special operations procurement buys custom jobs for highly unusual missions, the underlying research to make special operations equipment may also contribute to wider commercial uses such as electric cars and distributed electricity generation, if not to other challenges like infrastructure-scale energy storage and grid integration of small-scale generators.

53
Jamey Stillings #9395, 21 March 2013. Fine art archival print. Sunrise, view to the southeast of Solar Fields 3, 2, and1.

Working with industry for defense-led energy innovation requires treading a fine line. Advocates need to understand the critical tasks facing specific military organizations, meaning that they have to live in the world of military jargon, strategic thinking, and budget politics. At the same time, the advocates need to be able to reach nontraditional suppliers who have no interest in military culture but are developing technologies that follow performance trajectories totally different from those of the established military systems. More likely, it will not be the advocates who will develop the knowledge to bridge the two groups, their understandings of their critical tasks, and the ways they communicate and contract. It will be the DOD’s prime contractors, if their military customers want them to respond to a demand for energy innovation.

Defense really does need some new energy technologies, ranging from fuel-efficient jet engines to easily rechargeable lightweight batteries, and the DOD is likely to find some money for particular technologies. Those technologies may also make a difference for the broader energy economy. But energy technology policy advocates looking for a wealthy investor to transform the global economy probably ask too much of the DOD. Military innovations that turn out to have huge commercial implications—innovations such as the Internet and the Global Positioning System—do not come along very often, and it takes decades before their civilian relatives are well understood and widely available. The military develops these products because of its own internal needs, driven by military judgment, congressional budget politics, and the core competencies of defense-oriented industry.

In a 2014 report, the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate Change blithely discussed the need to “chang[e] the [military] culture surrounding how energy is generated and used….” Trying to change the way the military works drives into the teeth of military and political resistance to defense-led energy innovation. Changing the culture might also undermine the DOD’s ability to innovate; after all, one of the key reasons why Pew and others are interested in using the defense acquisition apparatus for energy innovation is that mission-focused technology development at the DOD has been so successful in the past. Better to focus defense-led energy innovation efforts on projects that actually align with military missions rather than stretching the boundaries of the concept and weakening the overall effort.

Recommended reading

Thomas P. Erhard, Air Force UAVs: The Secret History (Arlington, VA: Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, July 2010).

Eugene Gholz, “Eisenhower versus the Spinoff Story: Did the Rise of the Military-Industrial Complex Hurt or Help America’s Commercial Competitiveness?” Enterprise and Society 12, no. 1 (March 2011).

Dwight R. Lee, “Public Goods, Politics, and Two Cheers for the Military-Industrial Complex,” in Robert Higgs, ed., Arms, Politics, and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York, NY: Holmes & Meier, 1990), pp. 22–36.

Thomas L. McNaugher, New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989).

David C. Mowery, “Defense-related R&D as a model for ‘Grand Challenges’ technology policies,” Research Policy 41, no. 10 (December 2012).

Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on DoD Energy Strategy: “More Fight–Less Fuel” (Washington, DC: Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, February 2008).

Harvey M. Sapolsky, Eugene Gholz, and Caitlin Talmadge, US Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy (London, UK: Routledge, Revised and Expanded 2nd edition, 2013).

Eugene Gholz (egholz@alum.mit.edu) is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs of The University of Texas at Austin.

No Time for Pessimism about Electric Cars


by

JOHN D. GRAHAM
JOSHUA CISNEY
SANYA CARLEY
JOHN RUPP

The national push to adopt electric cars should be sustained until at least 2017, when a review of fed auto policies is scheduled.

A distinctive feature of U.S. energy and environmental policy is a strong push to commercialize electric vehicles (EVs). The push began in the 1990s with California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program, but in 2008 Congress took the push nationwide through the creation of a $7,500 consumer tax credit for qualified EVs. In 2009 the Obama administration transformed a presidential campaign pledge into an official national goal: putting one million plug-in electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

A variety of efforts has promoted commercialization of EVs. Through a joint rulemaking, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency are compelling automakers to surpass a fleet-wide average of 54 miles per gallon for new passenger cars and light trucks by model year 2025. Individual manufacturers, which are considered unlikely to meet the standards without EV offerings, are allowed to count each qualified EV as two vehicles instead of one in near-term compliance calculations.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is actively funding research, development, and demonstration programs to improve EV-related systems. Loan guarantees and grants are also being used to support the production of battery packs, electric drive-trains, chargers, and the start-up of new plug-in vehicle assembly plants. The absence of a viable business model has slowed the growth of recharging infrastructure, but governments and companies are subsidizing a growing number of public recharging stations in key urban locations and along some major interstate highways. Some states and cities have gone further by offering EV owners additional cash incentives, HOV-lane access, and low-cost city parking.

Private industry has responded to the national EV agenda. Automakers are offering a growing number of plug-in EV models (three in 2010; seventeen in 2014), some that are fueled entirely by electricity (battery-operated electric vehicles, or BEVs) and others that are fueled partly by electricity and partly by a back-up gasoline engine (plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs). Coalitions of automakers, car dealers, electric utilities, and local governments are working together in some cities to make it easy for consumers to purchase or lease an EV, to access recharging infrastructure at home, in their office or in their community, and to obtain proper service of their vehicle when problems occur. Government and corporate fleet purchasers are considering EVs while cities as diverse as Indianapolis and San Diego are looking into EV sharing programs for daily vehicle use. Among city planners and utilities, EVs are now seen as playing a central role in “smart” transportation and grid systems.

The recent push for EVs is hardly the market-oriented approach to innovation that would have thrilled Milton Friedman. It resembles somewhat the bold industrial policies in the post-World War II era that achieved some significant successes in South Korea, Japan, and China. Although the U.S. is a market-oriented economy, it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. successes in aerospace, information technology, nuclear power, or even shale gas would have occurred without a supportive hand from government. In this article, we make a pragmatic case for stability in federal EV policies until 2017, when a large body of real-world experience will have been generated and when a midterm review of federal auto policies is scheduled.

Laurence Gartel and Tesla Motors

Digital artist Laurence Gartel collaborated with Tesla Motors to transform the electric Tesla Roadster into a work of art by wrapping the car’s body panels in bold colorful vinyl designed by the artist. The Roadster was displayed and toured around Miami Beach during Miami’s annual Art Basel festival in 2010.

Gartel, an artist who has experimented with digital art since the 1970s, was a logical collaborator with Tesla given his creative uses of technology. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1977, and has pursued a graphic style of digital art ever since. His experiments with computers, starting in 1975, involved the use of some of the earliest special effects synthesizers and early video paint programs. Since then, his work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art; Long Beach Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum; MoMA PS 1, New York City; and the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

34
Image courtesy of the artist.

Governmental interest in EVs

The federal government’s interest in electric transportation technology is rooted in two key advantages that EVs have over the gasoline- or diesel-powered internal combustion engine. Since the advantages are backed by an extensive literature, we summarize them only briefly here.

First, electrification of transport enhances U.S. energy security by replacing dependence on petroleum with a flexible mixture of electricity sources that can be generated within the United States (e.g. natural gas, coal, nuclear power, and renewables). The U.S. is making rapid progress as an oil producer, which enhances security, but electrification can further advance energy security by curbing the nation’s high rate of consumption in the world oil market. The result: less global dependence on energy from OPEC producers, unstable regimes in the Middle East, and Russia.

Second, electrification of transport is more sustainable on a life-cycle basis because it causes a net reduction in local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, an advantage that is expected to grow over time as the U.S. electricity mix shifts toward more climate-friendly sources such as gas, nuclear, and renewables. Contrary to popular belief, an electric car that is powered by coal-fired electricity is still modestly cleaner from a greenhouse gas perspective than a typical gasoline-powered car. And EVs are much cleaner if the coal plant is equipped with modern pollution controls for localized pollutants and if carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is applied to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Since the EPA is already moving to require CCS and other environmental controls on coal-fired power plants, the environmental case for plug-in vehicles will only become stronger over time.

Although the national push to commercialize EVs is less than six years old, there have been widespread claims in the mainstream press, on drive-time radio, and on the Internet that the EV is a commercial failure. Some prominent commentators, including Charles Krauthammer, have suggested that the governmental push for EVs should be reconsidered.

It is true that many mainstream car buyers are unfamiliar with EVs and are not currently inclined to consider them for their next vehicle purchase. Sales of the impressive (and pricy) Tesla sports car (Model S) have been better than the industry expected, but ambitious early sales goals for the Nissan Leaf (a BEV) and the Chevrolet Volt (a PHEV) have not been met. General Electric Corporation backed off of an original pledge to purchase 25,000 EVs. Several companies with commercial stakes in batteries, EVs, or chargers have gone bankrupt, despite assistance from the federal government.

“Early adopters” of plug-in vehicles are generally quite enthusiastic about their experiences, but mainstream car buyers remain hesitant. There is much skepticism in the industry about whether EVs will penetrate the mainstream new-vehicle market or simply serve as “compliance cars” for California regulators or become niche products for taxi and urban delivery fleets.

One of the disadvantages of EVs is that they are currently more costly to produce than comparably sized gasoline and diesel powered vehicles. The cost premium today is about $10,000-$15,000 per vehicle, primarily due to the high price of lithium ion battery packs. The cost disadvantage has been declining over time due to cost-saving innovations in battery-pack design and production techniques but there is a disagreement among experts about how much and how fast production costs will decline in the future.

On the favorable side of the affordability equation, EVs have a large advantage in operating costs: electricity is about 65% cheaper than gasoline on an energy-equivalent basis, and most analysts project that the price of gasoline in the United States will rise more rapidly over time than the price of electricity. Additionally, repair and maintenance costs are projected to be significantly smaller for plug-in vehicles than gasoline vehicles. When all of the private financial factors are taken into account, the total cost of ownership throughout the lifetime of the EV is comparable—or even lower—than a gasoline vehicle, and that advantage can be expected to enlarge as EV technology matures.

Trends in EV sales

Despite the financial, environmental, and security advantages of the EV, early sales have not matched initial hopes. Nissan and General Motors led the high-volume manufacturers with EV offerings but have had difficulty generating sales, even though auto sales in the United States were steadily improving from 2010 through 2013, the period when the first EVs were offered. In 2013 EVs accounted for only about 0.2% of the 16 million new passenger vehicles sold in the U.S.

Nissan-Renault has been a leader. At the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan shocked the industry with a plan to leapfrog the gasoline-electric hybrid with a new mass-market BEV, called the Fluence in France and the Leaf in the U.S. Nissan’s business plan called for EV sales of 100,000 per year in the U.S. by 2012, and Nissan was awarded a $1.6 billion loan guarantee by DOE to build a new facility in Smyrna, Tennessee to produce batteries and assemble EVs. The company had plans to sell 1.5 million EVs on a global basis by 2016 but, as of late 2013, had sold only 120,000 and acknowledged that it will fall short of its 2016 global goal by more than 1 million vehicles.

General Motors was more cautious than Nissan, planning production in the US of 10,000 Volts in 2011 and 60,000 in 2012. However, neither target was met. GM did “re-launch” the Volt in early 2012 after addressing a fire-safety concern, obtaining HOV-lane access in California for Volt owners, cutting the base price, and offering a generous leasing arrangement of $350 per month for 36 months of use. Volt sales rose from 7,700 in 2011 to 23,461 in 2012 and 23,094 in 2013.

The most recent full-year U.S. sales data (2013) reveal that the Volt is now the top-selling plug-in vehicle in the U.S., followed by the Leaf (22,610), the Tesla Model S (18,000), and the Toyota Prius Plug-In (12,088). In the first six months of 2014, EV sales are up 33% over 2013, led by the Nissan Leaf and an impressive start from the Ford Fusion Energi PHEV. Although the sales at Tesla have slowed a bit, the company has announced plans for a new $5 billion plant in the southwest of the U.S. to produce up to 500,000 vehicles for distribution worldwide.

President Obama, in 2009 and again in his January 2011 State of the Union address, set the ambitious goal of putting one million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. Two years after the address, DOE and the administration dropped the national 2015 goal, recognizing that it was overly ambitious and would take longer to achieve. But does this refinement of a federal goal really prove that EVs are a commercial failure? We argue that it does not, pointing to two primary lines of evidence: a historical comparison of EV sales with conventional hybrid sales; and a cross-country comparison of U.S. EV sales with German EV sales.

Comparison with the conventional hybrid

A conventional hybrid, defined as a gasoline-electric vehicle such as the Toyota Prius, is different from a plug-in vehicle. Hybrids vary in their design, but they generally recharge their batteries during the process of braking (“regenerative braking”) or, if the brakes are not in use during highway cruising, from the power of the gasoline engine. Thus, a conventional hybrid cannot be plugged in for charging and does not draw electricity from the grid.

Cars with hybrid engines are also more expensive to produce than gasoline cars, primarily because they have two propulsion systems. For a comparably-sized vehicle, the full hybrid costs $4,000 to $7,500 more to produce than a gasoline version. But the hybrid buyer can expect 30% better fuel economy and fewer maintenance and repair costs than a gasoline-only engine. According to recent life-cycle and cost-benefit analyses, conventional hybrids compare favorably to the current generation of EVs.

Toyota is currently the top seller of hybrids, offering 22 models globally that feature the gasoline-electric combination. To date, the Prius has sold over 3 million vehicles worldwide, and has recently expanded to an entire family of models. In 2013, U.S. sales of the Prius were 234,228, of which 30% were registered in the State of California, where the Prius was the top-selling vehicle line in both 2012 and 2013.

The success of the Prius did not occur immediately after introduction. Toyota and Honda built on more than a decade of engineering research funded by DOE and industry. Honda was actually the first company to offer a conventional hybrid in the U.S.—the Insight Hybrid in 1999—but Toyota soon followed in 2000 with the more successful Prius. Ford followed with the Escape Hybrid SUV. The experience with conventional hybrids underscores the long lead times in the auto industry, the multiyear process of commercialization, and the conservative nature of the mainstream U.S. car purchaser.

Fifteen years ago, critics of conventional hybrids argued that the fuel savings would not be enough to justify the cost premium of two propulsion systems, that the batteries would deteriorate rapidly and require expensive replacement, that resale values for hybrids would be discounted, that the batteries might overheat and create safety problems, and that hybrids were practical only for small, light-weight cars. “Early adopters” of the Prius, which carried a hefty price premium for a small car, were often wealthy, highly educated buyers who were attracted to the latest technology or wanted to make a pro-environment statement with their purchase. The process of expanding hybrid sales from early adopters to mainstream consumers took many years to occur, and that process continues today, fifteen years later.

When the EV and the conventional hybrid are compared according to the pace of market penetration in the United States, the EV appears to be more successful (so far). Figure 1 illustrates this comparison by plotting the cumulative number of vehicles sold—conventional hybrids versus EVs—during the first 43 months of market introduction. At month 25, EV sales were about double the number of hybrid sales; at month 40 the ratio of cumulative EV sales to cumulative hybrid sales was about 2.2. The overall size of the new passenger-vehicle market was roughly equal in the two time periods.

When comparing the penetration rates of hybrids and EVs, it is useful to highlight some of the differences in the technologies, policies, and economic environments. The plug-in aspect of the EV calls for a much larger change in the routine behavior of motorists (e.g., nighttime and community charging) than does the conventional hybrid. The early installations of 220-volt home charging stations, which reduce recharging time from 12-18 hours to 3-4 hours, were overly expensive, time-consuming to set up with proper permits, and an irritation to early adopters of EVs. Moreover, the EV owner is more dependent on the decisions of other actors (e.g., whether employers or shopping malls supply charging stations and whether the local utility offers low electricity rates for nighttime charging) than is the hybrid owner.

The success of the conventional hybrid helped EVs get started by creating an identifiable population of potential early adopters that marketers of the EV have exploited. Now, one of the significant predictors of EV ownership is prior ownership of a conventional hybrid. Some of the early EV owners immediately gained HOV access in California, but Prius owners were not granted HOV lane access until 2004, several years after market introduction. California phased out HOV access for hybrids from 2007 to 2011 and now awards the privilege to qualified EV owners.

From a financial perspective, the purchase of the conventional hybrid and EV were not equally subsidized by the government. EV purchasers were enticed by a $7,500 federal tax credit; the tax deduction—and later credit—for conventional hybrid ownership was much smaller, at less than $3,200. Some states (e.g., California and Colorado) supplemented the $7,500 federal tax credit with $1,000 to $2,500 credits (or rebates) of their own for qualified EVs; few conventional hybrid purchasers were provided a state-level purchase incentive. Nominal fuel prices were around $2 per gallon but rising rapidly in 2000-2003, the period when the hybrid was introduced to the U.S. market; fuel prices were volatile and in the $3-$4 per gallon range from 2010-2013 when EVs were initially offered. The roughly $2,000 cost of a Level 2 (220-volt) home recharging station (equipment plus labor for installation) was for several years subsidized by some employers, utilities, government grants, or tax credits. Overall, financial inducements to purchase an EV from 2010 to 2013 were stronger than the inducements for a conventional hybrid from 2000 to 2003, possibly helping explain why the take-up of EVs has been faster.

Comparison with Germany

Another way to assess the success of EV sales in the United States since 2010 is to compare it to another country where EV policies are different. Germany is an interesting comparator because it is a prosperous country with a strong “pro-environment” tradition, a large and competitive car industry, and relatively high fuel prices of $6-$8 per gallon due to taxation. Electricity prices are also much higher in Germany than the U.S. due to an aggressive renewables policy.

Like President Barack Obama, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has set a goal of putting one million plug-in vehicles on the road, but the target date in Germany is 2020 rather than 2015. Germany has also made a large public investment in R&D to enhance battery technology and a more modest investment in community-based demonstrations of EV technology and recharging infrastructure.

On the other hand, Germany has decided against instituting a large consumer tax credit similar to the €10,000 “superbonus” for EVs that is available in France. Small breaks for EV purchasers in Germany are offered on vehicle sales taxes and registration fees. Nothing equivalent to HOV-lane access is offered to German EV users yet. Germany also offers few subsidies for production of batteries and electric drivetrains and no loan guarantees for new plants to assemble EVs.

Since the German car manufacturers are leaders in the diesel engine market, the incentive for German companies to explore radical alternatives to the internal combustion engine may be tempered. Also, German engineers appear to be more confident in the long-term promise of the hydrogen fuel cell than in cars powered by lithium ion battery packs. Even the conventional hybrid engine has been slow to penetrate the German market, though there is some recent interest in diesel-electric hybrid technology. Daimler and Volkswagen have recently begun to offer EVs in small volumes but the advanced EV technology in BMW’s “i” line is particularly impressive.

FIGURE 1

37

Another key difference between Germany and the U.S. is that Germany has no regulation similar to California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program. The latest version of the ZEV mandate requires each high-volume manufacturer doing business in California to offer at least 15% of their vehicles as EVs or fuel cells by 2025. Some other states (including New York), which account for almost a quarter of the auto market, have joined the ZEV program. The ZEV program is a key driver of EV offerings in the US. In fact, some global vehicle manufacturers have stated publicly that, were it not for the ZEV program, they might not be offering plug-in vehicles to consumers. Since the EU’s policies are less generous to EVs, some big global manufacturers are focusing their EV marketing on the West Coast of the U.S. and giving less emphasis to Europe.

Overall, from 2010 to 2013 Germany has experienced less than half of the market-share growth in EV sales than has occurred in the U.S. The difference is consistent with the view that the policy push in the U.S. has made a difference. The countries in Europe where EVs are spreading rapidly (Norway and the Netherlands) have enacted large financial incentives for consumers coupled with coordinated municipal and utility policies that favor EV purchase and use.

Addressing barriers to adoption of EVs

The EV is not a static technology but a rapidly evolving technological system that links cars with utilities and the electrical grid. Automakers and utilities are addressing many of the barriers to more widespread market diffusion, guided by the reactions of early adopters.

Acquisition cost. The price premium for an EV is declining due to savings in production costs and price competition within the industry. Starting in February 2013, Nissan dropped the base price of the Leaf from $35,200 to $28,800 with only modest decrements to base features (e.g., loss of the telematics system). Ford and General Motors responded by dropping the prices of the Focus Electric and Volt by $4,000 and $5,000, respectively. Toyota chipped in with a $4,620 price cut on the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius (now priced under $30,000), but it is eligible for only a $2,500 federal tax credit. And industry analysts report that the transaction prices for EVs are running even lower than the diminished list prices, in part due to dealer incentives and attractive financing deals.

Dealers now emphasize affordable leasing arrangements, with a majority of EVs in the U.S. acquired under leasing deals. Leasing allays consumer concerns that the batteries may not hold up to wear and tear, that resale values of EVs may plummet after purchase (a legitimate concern), and that the next generation of EVs may be vastly improved compared to current offerings. Leasing deals for under $200 per month are available for the Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500e, the Leaf, Daimler’s Smart For Two EV; lease rates for the Honda Fit EV, the Volt and the Ford Focus EV are between $200 and $300 per month. Some car dealers offer better deals than the nationwide leasing plans provided by vehicle manufacturers.

Driving range. Consumer concerns about limited driving range—80-100 miles for most EVs, though the Tesla achieves 200-300 miles per charge—are being addressed in a variety of ways. PHEVs typically have maximum driving ranges that are equal to (or better than) a comparable gasoline car, and a growing body of evidence suggests that PHEVs may attract more retail customers than BEVs. For consumers interested in BEVs, some dealers are also offering free short-term use of gasoline vehicles for long trips when the BEV has insufficient range. The upscale BMW i3 EV is offered with an optional gasoline engine for $3,850 that replenishes the battery as it runs low; the effective driving range of the i3 is thus extended from 80-100 miles to 160-180 miles.

Recharging time. Some consumers believe that the 3-4 hour recharging time with a Level 2 charger is too long. Use of super-fast Level 3 chargers can accomplish an 80% charge in about 30 minutes, although inappropriate use of Level 3 chargers can potentially damage the battery. In the crucial West Coast market, where consumer interest in EVs is the highest, Nissan is subsidizing dealers to make Level 3 chargers available for Leaf owners. BMW is also offering an affordable Level 3 charger. State agencies in California, Oregon, and Washington are expanding the number of Level 2 and Level 3 chargers available along interstate highways, especially Interstate 5, which runs from the Canadian to the Mexican borders.

As of 2013, a total of 6,500 Level 2 and 155 Level 3 charging stations were available to the U.S. public. Some station owners require users to be a member of a paid subscription plan. Tesla has installed 103 proprietary “superchargers” for its Model S that allow drivers to travel across the country or up and down both coasts with only modest recharging times. America’s recharging infrastructure is tiny compared to the 170,000 gasoline stations, but charging opportunities are concentrated in areas where EVs are more prevalent, such as southern California, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.

Advanced battery and grid systems. R&D efforts to find improved battery systems have intensified. DOE recently set a goal of reducing the costs of battery packs and electric drive systems by 75% by 2022, with an associated 50% reduction in the current size and weight of battery packs. Whether DOE’s goals are realistic is questionable. Toyota’s engineers believe that by 2025 improved solid-state and lithium air batteries will replace lithium ion batteries for EV applications. The result will be a three- to five-fold rise in power at a significantly lower cost of production due to use of fewer expensive rare earths. Lithium-sulfur batteries may also deliver more miles per charge and better longevity than lithium ion batteries.

Researchers are also exploring demand side management of the electrical grid with “vehicle-to-grid” (V2G) technology. This innovation could enable electric car owners to make money by storing power in their vehicles for later use by utilities on the grid. It might cost an extra $1,500 to fit a V2G-enabled battery and charging system to a vehicle but the owner might recoup $3,000 per year from a load-balancing contract with the electric utility. It is costly for utilities to add storage capacity; the motorist already needs the battery for times when the vehicle is in use, so a V2G contract might allow for optimal use of the battery.

Low-price electricity and EV sharing. Utilities and state regulators are also experimenting with innovative charging schemes that will favor EV owners who charge their vehicles at times when electricity demand is low. Mandatory time-of-use pricing has triggered adverse public reactions but utilities are making progress with more modest, incentive-based pricing schemes that favor nighttime and weekend charging. Atlanta is rapidly becoming the EV capital of the southern United States, in part because Georgia’s utilities offer ultra-low electricity prices to EV owners.

A French-based company has launched electric-car sharing programs in Paris and Indianapolis. Modeled after bicycle sharing, consumers can rent an e-car for several hours or an entire day if they need a vehicle for multiple short trips in the city. The vehicle can be accessed with your credit card and returned at any of multiple points in the city. The commercial success of EV sharing is not yet demonstrated, but sharing schemes may play an important role in raising public awareness of the advancing technology.

The EV’s competitors

The future of the EV would be easier to forecast if the only competitor were the current version of the gasoline engine. History suggests, however, that unexpected competitors can emerge that change the direction of consumer purchases.

The EV is certainly not a new idea. In the 1920s, the United States was the largest user of electric cars in the world, and more electric than gasoline-powered cars were sold. Actually, steam-powered cars were among the most popular offerings in that era.

EVs and steam-powered cars lost out to the internal combustion engine for a variety of reasons. Discovery of vast oil supplies made gasoline more affordable. Mass production techniques championed by Henry Ford dropped the price of a gasoline car more rapidly than the price of an electric car. Public investments in new highways connected cities, increased consumer demand for vehicles with long driving range, and therefore reduced the relative appeal of range-limited electric cars, whose value was highest for short trips inside cities. And car engineers devised more convenient ways to start a gasoline-powered vehicle, which caused them to be more appealing to female as well as male drivers. By the 1930s, the electric car lost its place in the market and did not return for many decades.

Looking to the future, it is apparent that EVs will confront intensified competition in the global automotive market. The vehicles described in Table 1 are simply an illustration of the competitive environment.

Vehicle manufacturers are already marketing cleaner gasoline engines (e.g., Ford’s “EcoBoost” engines with turbochargers and direct-fuel injection) that raise fuel economy significantly at a price premium that is much less than the price premium for a conventional hybrid or EV. Clean diesel-powered cars, which have already captured 50% of the new-car market in Europe, are beginning to penetrate the U.S. market for cars and pick-up trucks. Toyota argues that an unforeseen breakthrough in battery technology will be required to enable a plug-in vehicle to match the improving cost-effectiveness of a conventional hybrid.

Meanwhile, the significant reduction in natural gas prices due to the North American shale-gas revolution is causing some automakers to offer vehicles that can run on compressed natural gas or gasoline. Proponents of biofuels are also exploring alternatives to corn-based ethanol that can meet environmental goals at a lower cost than an EV. Making ethanol from natural gas is one of the options under consideration. And some automakers believe that hydrogen fuel cells are the most attractive long-term solution, as the cost of producing fuel cell vehicles is declining rapidly.

TABLE 1

39

As attractive as some of the EV’s competitors may be, it is unlikely that regulators in California and other states will lose interest in EVs. (In theory, the ZEV mandate also gives manufacturers credit for cars with hydrogen fuel cells but the refueling infrastructure for hydrogen is developing even more slowly than it is for EVs). A coalition of eight states, including California, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at putting 3.3 million EVs on the road by 2025. The states, which account for 23% of the national passenger vehicle market, have agreed to extend California’s ZEV mandate, hopefully in ways that will allow for compliance flexibility as to exactly where EVs are sold.

ZEV requirements do not necessarily reduce pollution or oil consumption in the near term, since they are not coordinated with national mileage and pollution caps. Thus, when more ZEVs are sold in California and other ZEV states, it frees automakers to sell more fuel-inefficient and polluting vehicles in non-ZEV states. Without better coordination between individual states and the federal policies, the laudable goals of the ZEV mandate could be frustrated.

All things considered, America’s push toward transport electrification is off to a modestly successful start, even though some of the early goals for market penetration were overly ambitious. Automakers were certainly losing money on their early EV models but that was true of conventional hybrids as well. The second generation of EVs now arriving in showrooms is likely to be more attractive to consumers, since they have been refined based on the experiences of early adopters. And as more recharging infrastructure is added, cautious consumers with “range anxiety” may become more likely to consider a BEV, or at least a PHEV.

Vehicle manufacturers and dealers are also beginning to focus on how to market the unique performance characteristics of an EV. Instead of touting primarily fuel savings or environmental virtue, marketers are beginning to echo a common sentiment of early adopters: EVs are enjoyable to drive because, with their relatively high torque and quiet yet powerful acceleration, they are a unique driving experience.

Now is not the right time to redo national EV policies. EVs and their charging infrastructure have not been available long enough to draw definitive conclusions. Vehicle manufacturers, suppliers, utilities, and local governments have made large EV investments with an understanding that federal auto-related policies will be stable until 2017, when a national mid-term policy review is scheduled.

It is not too early to frame some of the key issues that will need to be considered between now and 2017. First, are adequate public R&D investments being made in the behavioral as well as technological aspects of transport electrification? We believe that DOE needs to reaffirm the commitment to better battery technology while giving more priority to understanding the behavioral obstacles to all forms of green vehicles. Second, we question whether national policy should continue a primary focus on EVs. It may be advisable to stimulate a more diverse array of green vehicle technologies, including cars fueled by natural gas, hydrogen, advanced ethanol, and clean diesel fuel. Third, federal mileage and carbon standards may need to be refined to ensure cost-effectiveness and to provide a level playing field for the different propulsion systems. Fourth, highway-funding schemes need to shift from gasoline taxes to mileage-based road user fees in order to ensure that adequate funds are raised for road repairs and that owners of green vehicles pay their fair share. Fifth, California’s policies need to be better coordinated with federal policies in ways that accomplish environmental and security objectives and allow vehicle manufacturers some sensible compliance flexibility. Finally, on an international basis, policy makers in the European Union, Japan, Korea, China, California and the United States should work together to accomplish more regulatory cooperation in this field, since manufacturers of batteries, chargers, and vehicles are moving toward global platforms that can efficiently provide affordable technology to consumers around the world.

Coming to a policy consensus in 2017 will not be easy. In light of the fast pace of change and the many unresolved issues, we recommend that universities and think tanks begin to sponsor conferences, workshops, and white papers on these and related policy issues, with the goal of analyzing the available information to create well-grounded recommendations for action come 2017.

John D. Graham (grahamjd@indiana.edu) is dean, Joshua Cisney is a graduate student, Sanya Carley is an associate professor, and John Rupp is a senior research scientist at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

Streamlining the Visa and Immigration Systems for Scientists and Engineers


by

ALBERT H. TEICH

Current visa policies and regulations pose hurdles for the nation’s scientific and education enterprise. This set of proposals may offer an effective, achievable, and secure way forward.

Alena Shkumatava leads a research group at the Curie Institute in Paris studying how an unusual class of genetic material called noncoding RNA affects embryonic development, using zebrafish as a model system. She began this promising line of research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute. She might still be pursuing it there or at another institution in the United States had it not been for her desire to visit her family in Belarus in late 2008. What should have been a short and routine trip “turned into a three-month nightmare of bureaucratic snafus, lost documents and frustrating encounters with embassy employees,” she told the New York Times. Discouraged by the difficulties she encountered in leaving and reentering the United States, she left MIT at the end of her appointment to take a position at the Curie Institute.

Shkumatava’s experience, along with numerous variations, has become increasingly familiar—and troublesome for the nation. For the past 60 years, the United States has been a magnet for top science and engineering talent from every corner of the world. The contributions of hundreds of thousands of international students and immigrants have helped the country build a uniquely powerful, productive, and creative science and technology enterprise that leads the world in many fields and is responsible for much of the growth of the U.S. economy and the creation of millions of high-value jobs. A few statistics suggest just how important foreign-born talent is to U.S. science and technology:

  • More than 30% of all Nobel laureates who have won their prizes while working in the United States were foreign-born.
  • Between 1995 and 2005, a quarter of all U.S. high-tech startups included an immigrant among their founders.
  • Roughly 40% of Fortune 500 firms—Google, Intel, Yahoo, eBay, and Apple, among them—were started by immigrants or their children.
  • At the 10 U.S. universities that have produced the most patents, more than three out of every four of those patents involved at least one foreign-born inventor.
  • More than five out of six patents in information technology (IT) in the United States in 2010 listed a foreign national among the inventors.

But the world is changing. The United States today is in a worldwide competition for the best scientific and engineering talent. Countries that were minor players in science and technology a few years ago are rapidly entering the major leagues and actively pursuing scientific and technical talent in the global marketplace. The advent of rapid and inexpensive global communication and air travel that is within easy reach of researchers in many countries have fostered the growth of global networks of collaboration and are changing the way research is done. The U.S. visa and immigration systems need to change, too. Regulations and procedures have failed to keep pace with today’s increasingly globalized science and technology. Rather than facilitating international commerce in talent and ideas, they too often inhibit it, discouraging talented scientific visitors, students, and potential immigrants from coming to and remaining in the United States. They cost the nation the goodwill of friends and allies and the competitive advantage it could gain from their participation in the U.S. research system and from increased international collaboration in cutting-edge research efforts.

It is easy to blame the problems that foreign scientists, engineers, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students encounter in navigating the U.S. visa and immigration system or the more intense scrutiny imposed on visitors and immigrants in the aftermath of 9/11. Indeed, there is no question that the reaction to the attacks of 9/11 caused serious problems for foreign students and scientific visitors and major disruptions to many universities and other scientific institutions. But many of the security-related issues have been remedied in the past several years. Yet hurdles remain, derived from a more fundamental structural mismatch between current visa and immigration policies and procedures and today’s global patterns of science and engineering education, research, and collaboration. If the United States is going to fix the visa and immigration system for scientists, engineers, and STEM students, it must address these underlying issues as well as those left over from the enhanced security regime of the post-9/11 era.

Many elements of the system need attention. Some of them involve visa categories developed years ago that do not apply easily to today’s researchers. Others derive from obsolescent immigration policies aimed at determining the true intent of foreigners seeking to enter the United States. Still others are tied to concerns about security and terrorism, both pre- and post-9/11. And many arise from the pace at which bureaucracies and legislative bodies adapt to changing circumstances. Here I offer a set of proposals to address these issues. Implementing some of the proposals would necessitate legislative action. Others could be implemented administratively. Most would not require additional resources. All are achievable without compromising U.S. security. Major components of these proposals include:

Simplify complex J-1 exchange visitor visa regulations and remove impediments to bona fide exchange. The J-1 visa is the most widely used type for visitors coming temporarily to the United States to conduct research or teach at U.S. institutions. Their stays may be as brief as a few weeks or as long as five years. The regulations governing the J-1 visa and its various subcategories, however, are complex and often pose significant problems for universities, research laboratories, and the scientific community, as illustrated by the following examples.

Implementing some of the proposals would necessitate legislative action. Others could be implemented administratively. All are achievable without compromising U.S. security.

A young German researcher, having earned a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering in his home country, accepted an invitation to spend 17 months as a postdoctoral associate in J-1 Research Scholar status at a prestigious U.S. research university. He subsequently returned to Germany. A year later, he applied for and was awarded a two-year fellowship from the German government to further his research. Although he had a U.S. university eager to host him for the postdoctoral fellowship, a stipulation in the J-1 exchange visitor regulations that disallows returns within 24 months prevented the university from bringing him back in the Research Scholar category. There was no other visa for such a stay, and the researcher ultimately took his talent and his fellowship elsewhere.

A tenured professor in an Asian country was granted a nine-month sabbatical, which he spent at a U.S. university, facilitated by a J-1 visa in the Professor category. He subsequently returned to his country of residence, his family, and his position. An outstanding scholar, described by a colleague as a future Nobel laureate, he was appointed a permanent visiting professor at the U.S. university the following year. Because of the J-1 regulations, however, unless he comes for periods of six months or less when he visits, he cannot return on the J-1 exchange visitor visa. And if he does return for six months or less multiple times, he must seek a new J-1 program document, be assigned a new ID number in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), pay a $180 SEVIS fee, and seek a new entry visa at a U.S. consulate before each individual visit. The current J-1 regulations also stipulate that he must be entering the United States for a new “purpose” each time, which could pose additional problems.

The J-1 is one of three visa categories used by most STEM students and professional visitors in scientific and engineering fields coming to the United States: F-1 (nonimmigrant student), J-1 (cultural or educational exchange visitor), or H-1B (temporary worker in a specialty occupation). B1/ B2 visas (visits for business, including conferences, or pleasure or a combination of the two) are also used in some instances. Each of these categories applies to a broad range of applicants. The F-1 visa, for example, is required not just for STEM students but for full-time university and college students in all fields, elementary and secondary school students, seminary students, and students in a conservatory, as well as in a language school (but not a vocational school). Similarly, the J-1 covers exchange visitors ranging from au pairs, corporate trainees, student “interns,” and camp counselors to physicians and teachers as well as professors and research scholars. Another J-1 category is for college and university students who are financed by the United States or their own governments or those participating in true “exchange” programs. The J-1 exchange visitor visa for research scholars and professors is, however, entangled in a maze of rules and regulations that impede rather than facilitate exchange.

In 2006, the maximum period of participation for J-1 exchange visitors in the Professor and Researcher categories was raised from three years to five years. That regulatory change was welcomed by the research community, in which grant funding for a research project or a foreign fellowship might exceed three years, but there was formerly no way to extend the J-1 visa of the researcher.

However, the new regulations simultaneously instituted new prohibitions on repeat exchange visitor program participation. In particular, the regulations prohibit an exchange visitor student who came to the United States to do research toward a Ph.D. (and any member of his family who accompanied him) from going home and then returning to the United States for postdoctoral training or other teaching or research in the Professor or Research Scholar category until 12 months have passed since the end of the previous J program.

A 24-month bar prohibits a former Professor or Researcher (and any member of her family who accompanied her) from engaging in another program in the Professor or Researcher category until 24 months have passed since the end date of the J-1 program. The exception to the bars is for professors or researchers who are hosted by their J program sponsor in the Short-Term Scholar category. This category has a limit of six months with no possibility of extension. The regulations governing this category indicate that such a visitor cannot participate in another stay as a Short-Term Scholar unless it is for a different purpose than the previous visit.

There are valid reasons for rules and regulations intended to prevent exchange visitors from completing one program and immediately applying for another. In other words, the rules should ensure that exchanges are really exchanges and not just a mechanism for the recruitment of temporary or permanent workers. It appears that the regulation was initially conceived to count J-1 program participation toward the five-year maximum in the aggregate. However, as written, the current regulations have had the effect of imposing the 24-month bar on visitors in the Professor and Researcher categories who have spent any period of participation (one month, seven months, or two years), most far shorter than the five-year maximum. Unless such a visitor is brought in under the Short-Term Scholar category (the category exempt from the bars) for six months or less only, the 24-month bar applies. Similarly, spouses of former J-1 exchange visitors in the Professor or Researcher categories who are also researchers in their own right and have spent any period as a J-2 “dependent” while accompanying a J-1 spouse are also barred from returning to the United States to engage in their own J-1 program as a Professor or Researcher until 24 months have passed. This applies whether or not that person worked while in the United States as a J-2. In addition, spouses subject to the two-year home residency requirement (a different, statutory bar based on a reciprocal agreement between the United States and foreign governments) cannot change to J-1 status inside the United States or seek a future J-1 program on their own.

The concept of “exchange,” born in the shadow of the Cold War, must be expanded to include the contemporary realities of worldwide collaboration.

U.S. universities are increasingly engaging in longer-term international research projects with dedicated resources from foreign governments, private industry, and international consortia, and are helping to build capacity at foreign universities, innovation centers, and tech hubs around the world. International researchers travel to the United States to consult, conduct research, observe, and teach the next generation of STEM students. The concept of “exchange,” born in the shadow of the Cold War, must be expanded to include the contemporary realities of worldwide collaboration and facilitate rather than inhibit frequent and repeat stays for varying periods.

In practice, this means rationalizing and simplifying J-1 exchange visitor regulations. Although an immigration reform bill developed in the Senate (S.744) makes several changes in the J-1 program that are primarily aimed at reducing abuses by employers who bring in international students for summer jobs, it does not address issues affecting research scholars or professors.

It may be possible, however, to make the needed changes by administrative means. In December 2008, the Department of State released a draft of revised regulations governing the J-1 exchange visitor visa with a request for comment. Included in the draft rule were changes to program administration, insurance requirements, SEVIS reporting requirements, and other proposed modifications. Although many comments were submitted, until recently there did not appear to be any movement on the provisions of most concern to the research community. However, the department is reported to have taken up the issue again, and a new version of the regulations is anticipated. This may prove to be a particularly opportune time to craft a regulatory fix to the impediments inherent in the 12- and 24-month bars.

Reconsider the requirement that STEM students demonstrate intent to return home. Under current immigration law, all persons applying for a U.S. visa are presumed to be intending to immigrate. Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which has survived unchanged since the act was passed in 1952, states, “Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status…”

In practice, this provision means that a person being interviewed for a nonimmigrant visa, such as a student (F-1) visa, must persuade the consular officer that he or she does not intend to remain permanently in the United States. Simply stating the intent to return home after completion of one’s educational program is not enough. The applicant must present evidence to support that assertion, generally by showing strong ties to the home country. Such evidence may include connections to family members, a bank account, a job or other steady source of income, or a house or other property. For students, especially those from developing nations, this is often not a straightforward matter, and even though U.S. consular officers are instructed to take a realistic view of these young people’s future plans and ties, many visa applicants fail to meet this subjective standard. It is not surprising, therefore, that the vast majority of visa denials, including student visas, are due to 214(b), because of failure to overcome the presumption of immigrant intent.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act was written in an era when foreign students in the United States were relatively rare. In 1954–1955, for example, according to the Institute for International Education, there were about 34,000 foreign students studying in higher education institutions in the United States. In contrast, in 2012–2013 there were more than 819,000 international students in U.S. higher education institutions, nearly two-thirds of them at doctorate-granting universities. In the early post–World War II years, the presence of foreign students was regarded as a form of international cultural exchange. Today, especially in STEM fields, foreign graduate students and postdocs make up a large and increasingly essential element of U.S. higher education. According to recent (2010) data from the National Science Foundation, over 70% of full-time graduate students (master’s and Ph.D.) in electrical engineering and 63% in computer science in U.S. universities are international students. In addition, non-U.S. citizens (not including legal permanent residents) make up a majority of graduate students nationwide in chemical, materials, and mechanical engineering.

In the sense that it prevents prospective immigrants from using student visas as a “back door” for entering the United States (that is, if permanent immigrant status is the main, but unstated, purpose of seeking a student visa), it might be argued that 214(b) is serving its intended purpose. The problem, however, is the dilemma it creates for legitimate students who must demonstrate the intent to return home despite a real and understandable uncertainty about their future plans.

Interestingly, despite the obstacles that the U.S. immigration system poses, many students, especially those who complete a Ph.D. in a STEM field, do manage to remain in the country legally after finishing their degrees. This is possible because employment-based visa categories are often available to them and permanent residence, if they qualify, is also a viable option. The regulations allow F-1 visa holders a 60-day grace period after graduation. In addition, graduating students may receive a one-year extension for what is termed Optional Practical Training (OPT), so long as they obtain a job, which may be a paying position or an unpaid internship. Those who receive a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in a STEM field at a U.S. institution may be granted a one-time 17-month extension of their OPT status if they remain employed.

While on F-1 OPT status, an individual may change status to an H-1B (temporary worker) visa. Unlike the F-1 visa, the H-1B visa does allow for dual intent. This means that the holder of an H-1B visa may apply for permanent resident status—that is, a green card—if highly qualified. This path from student status to a green card, circuitous though it may be, is evidently a popular one, especially among those who receive doctorates, as is shown by the data on “stay rates” for foreign doctorate recipients from U.S. universities.

Michael G. Finn of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education has long tracked stay rates of foreign citizens who receive STEM doctorates in the United States. His 2009 report (the most recent available) indicates that of 9,223 foreign nationals who received science and engineering doctorates at U.S. universities in 1999, two-thirds were still in the United States 10 years later. Indeed, among those whose degrees were in physical and life sciences, the proportion remaining in the United States was about three-quarters.

Reform of 214(b) poses something of a dilemma. Although State Department officials understandably prefer not to discuss it in these terms, they evidently value the broad discretion it provides consular officers to exclude individuals who they suspect, based on their application or demeanor, pose a serious risk of absconding and/or overstaying their visa, but without having to provide specific reasons. One might argue that it is important to give consular officers such discretion, since they are, in most cases, the only officials from either the federal government or the relevant academic institution who actually meet the applicant face-to-face.

On the other hand, 214(b) may also serve to deter many otherwise well-qualified potential students from applying, especially those from developing nations, who could become valuable assets for the United States or their home countries with a U.S. STEM education.

What is needed is a more flexible policy that provides the opportunity for qualified international students who graduate with bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. STEM degrees to remain in the United States if they choose to do so without allowing the student visa to become an easy way to subvert regulations on permanent immigration. It makes no sense to try to make such distinctions by denying the fact that someone who is applying to study in the United States may be uncertain about their plans four (or more) years later.

Because 214(b) is part of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, this problem requires a legislative fix. The immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013 (S.744) contains a provision that would allow dual intent for nonimmigrant students seeking bachelor’s or graduate degrees. [The provision applies to students in all fields, not just STEM fields. A related bill under consideration in the House of Representatives (H.R.2131) provides dual intent only for STEM students. However, no action has been taken on it to date.] Some version of this approach, which provides for discretion on the part of the consular officer without forcing the student visa applicant to make a choice that he or she is not really capable of making, is a more rational way to deal with this difficult problem.

Speed up the Visas Mantis clearance process and make it more transparent. A major irritant in the visa and immigration system for scientists, engineers, and STEM students over the past decade has been the delays in visa processing for some applicants. A key reason for these delays is the security review process known as Visas Mantis, which the federal government put in place in 1998 and which applies to all categories of nonimmigrant visas. Although reforms over the past several years have eased the situation, additional reforms could further improve the process.

Initially intended to prevent transfers of sensitive technologies to hostile nations or groups, Visas Mantis was used at first in a relatively small number of cases. It gained new prominence, however, in the wake of 9/11 and the heightened concern over terrorism and homeland security that followed. The number of visa applicants in scientific and engineering fields subject to Mantis reviews took a sudden jump in 2002 and 2003, causing a logjam of applications and no end of headaches for the science, engineering, and higher education communities. The number of Mantis reviews leapt from 1,000 cases per year in 2000 to 14,000 in 2002 and an estimated 20,000 in 2003. The State Department and the other federal agencies involved were generally unprepared for the increased workload and were slow to expand their processing capacity. The result was a huge backlog of visa applications and lengthy delays for many foreign students and scientists and engineers seeking to come to the United States. The situation has improved since then, although there have been occasional slowdowns, most likely resulting from variations in workload or staffing issues.

The Mantis process is triggered when a consular officer believes that an applicant might not be eligible for a visa for reasons related to security. If the consular officer determines that security concerns exist, he or she then requests a “security advisory opinion” (SAO), a process coordinated through an office in the State Department in which a number of federal agencies review the application. (The federal government does not provide the names of the agencies involved in an SAO, but the MIT International Scholars Office lists the FBI, CIA, Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Commerce, Office of Foreign Assets Control, the State Department Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and others, which seems like a plausible list.) Consideration of the application is held up pending approval by all of the agencies. The applicant is not informed of the details of the process, only that the application is undergoing “administrative processing.”

In most cases, the decision to refer an application for an SAO is not mandatory but is a matter of judgment on the part of the consular officer. Because most consular officers do not have scientific or technical training, they generally refer to the State Department’s Technology Alert List (TAL) to determine whether an application raises security concerns. The current TAL is classified, but the 2002 version is believed to be similar and is widely available on the Internet (for example, at http://www.bu.edu/isso/forms/tal.pdf). It contains such obviously sensitive areas as nuclear technology and ballistic missile systems, as well as “dual-use” areas such as fermentation technology and pharmacology, the applications of which are generally regarded as benign but can also raise security concerns. According to the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, “Officers are not expected to be versed in all the fields on the list. Rather, [they] should shoot for familiarization and listen for key words or phrases from the list in applicants’ answers to interview questions.” It is also suggested that the officers consult with the Defense and Homeland Security attachés at their station. The manual notes that an SAO “is mandatory in all cases of applicants bearing passports of or employed by states designated as state sponsors of terrorism” (currently Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria) engaged in commercial or academic activities in one of the fields included in the TAL. As an aside, it is worth noting that although there are few if any students from Cuba, Sudan, and Syria in the United States, Iran is 15th among countries of origin of international students, ahead of such countries as France, Spain, and Indonesia, and a majority of Iranian students (55%) are majoring in engineering fields.

In the near-term aftermath of 9/11, there were months when the average time to clear a Mantis SAO reached nearly 80 days. Within a year, however, it had declined to less than 21 days, and more recently, despite the fact that the percentage of F-1, J-1, and H-1B applications subject to Mantis SAO processing reached 10% in 2010, according to State Department data, the average processing time is two to three weeks. Nevertheless, cases in which visas are reported to be in “administrative processing” for several months or even longer are not uncommon. In fact, the State Department tells applicants to wait at least 60 days from the date of their interview or submission of supplementary documents to inquire about the status of an application under administrative processing.

In most cases, Mantis clearances for students traveling under F visas are valid for the length of their educational programs up to four years, as long as they do not change programs. However, students from certain countries (e.g., Iran) require new clearances whenever they leave the United States and seek to reenter. Visas Mantis clearances for students and exchange visitors under J visas and temporary workers under H visas are valid for up to two years, unless the nature of their activity in the United States changes. And B visa clearances are good for a year with similar restrictions.

The lack of technical expertise among consular officers is a concern often expressed among scientists who deal with visa and immigration issues. The fact that most such officers are limited in their ability to make independent judgments (for example, on the need for a Mantis review of a researcher applying for a J-1 exchange visitor visa) may well increase the cost of processing the visa as well as lead to unnecessary delays. The National Academy of Sciences report Beyond Fortress America, released in 2009, suggested that the State Department “include expert vouching by qualified U.S. scientists in the non-immigrant visa process for well-known scholars and researchers.” This idea, attractive as it sounds to the science community, seems unlikely to be acceptable to the State Department. Although “qualified U.S. scientists” could attest to the scientific qualifications and reputations of the applicants, they would not be able to make informed judgments on potential security risks and therefore could not substitute for Mantis reviews.

An alternative that might be more acceptable would be to use scientifically trained staff within the State Department—for example, current and former American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellows or Jefferson Science Fellows sponsored by the National Academies—as advisers to consular officers. Since 1980, AAAS has placed over 250 Ph.D. scientists and engineers from a wide range of backgrounds in the State Department as S&T Policy Fellows. Over 100 are still working there. In the 2013–2014 fellowship year, there were 31. In addition, there were 13 Jefferson Science Fellows—tenured senior faculty in science, engineering, or medicine—at the State Department or the Agency for International Development, a number that has grown steadily each year since the program was started in 2004. These highly qualified individuals, a few of whom are already stationed at embassies and consulates, should be available on an occasional basis to augment consular officers’ resources. They, and other Foreign Service Officers with technical backgrounds, would be especially useful in countries that send large numbers of STEM students and visitors to the United States, such as China, India, and South Korea.

Measures that enhance the capacity of the State Department to make technical judgments could be implemented administratively, without the need for legislative action. A policy that would limit the time available for the agencies involved in an SAO to review an application could also be helpful. Improving the transparency of the Mantis process poses a dilemma. If a visa applicant poses a potential security risk, the government can hardly be expected to inform the applicant about the details of the review process. Nevertheless, since the vast majority of Mantis reviews result in clearing the applicant, it might be beneficial to both the applicant and the government to provide periodic updates on the status of the review without providing details, making the process at least seem a little less Kafkaesque.

Allow scientists and scholars to apply to renew their visas in the United States. Many students, scholars, and scientists are in the United States on long-term programs of study, research, or teaching that may keep them in the country beyond the period of validity of their visas. Although U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is able to extend immigration status as necessary to cover these programs, approval of status extension from USCIS is not the same thing as a valid visa that would enable international travel. Often, due to the need to attend international conferences, attend to personal business, or just visit family, students and scholars can find themselves in a situation where they have temporarily departed the United States but are unable to return without extensive delays for processing a visa renewal abroad. As consular sections may be uncomfortable positively adjudicating visa applications for those outside of their home country, it is not uncommon for applicants to be asked to travel from a third country back to their country of origin for visa processing, resulting in even greater expense and delay.

Until June 2004, the Department of State allowed many holders of E, H1-B, L, and O visas to apply for visa renewal by mail. This program was discontinued in the wake of 9/11 because of a mixture of concerns over security, resource availability, and the implementation of the then-new biometric visa program. Now, however, every nonimmigrant visa holder in the United States has already had electronic fingerprints collected as part of their visa record. Security screening measures have been greatly improved in the past decade. In addition, the Omnibus Spending Bill passed in early 2014 included language directing the State Department to implement a pilot program for the use of videoconferencing technology to conduct visa interviews. The time is right to not only reinstitute the practice of allowing applications for visa renewal inside the United States for those categories previously allowed, but also to expand the pool of those eligible for domestic renewal to include F-1 students and J-1 academic exchanges.

What is needed is a more flexible policy that provides the opportunity for qualified international students to remain in the United States without allowing the student visa to become an easy way to subvert regulations on permanent immigration.

Reform the H-1B visa to distinguish R&D scientists and engineers from IT outsourcers. Discussion of scientists, engineers, and STEM students has received relatively little attention in the current debate on immigration policy, with one significant exception: the H-1B visa category. This category covers temporary workers in specialty occupations, including scientists and engineers in R&D (as well as, interestingly enough, fashion models of “distinguished merit and ability”). An H-1B visa is valid for three years, extendable for another three. The program is capped at 65,000 each fiscal year, but an additional 20,000 foreign nationals with advanced degrees from U.S. universities are exempt from this ceiling, and all H-1B visa holders who work at universities and university- and government-affiliated nonprofits, including national laboratories are also exempt.

Controversy has swirled about the H-1B program for the past several years as advocates of the program, citing shortages of domestic talent in several fields, have sought to expand it, while critics, denying the existence of shortages, express concern instead about unemployment and underemployment among domestically trained technical personnel and have fought expansion. Moreover, although the H-1B visa is often discussed as if it were a means of strengthening U.S. innovation by bringing more scientists and engineers to the United States or retaining foreign scientists and engineers who have gained a degree in this country, the program increasingly seems to serve a rather different purpose. Currently, the overwhelming majority of H-1B recipients work in computer programming, software, and IT. In fact, the top H-1B visa job title submitted by U.S. employers in fiscal 2013 was programmer analyst, followed by software engineer, computer programmer, and systems analyst. At least 21 of the top 50 job titles were in the fields of computer programming, software development, and related areas. The top three company sponsors of H-1B visa recipients were IT firms (Infosys Limited, Wipro, and Tata Consultancy Services, all based in India) as were a majority of the top 25. Many of these firms provide outsourcing of IT capabilities to U.S. firms with foreign (mainly Indian) staff working under H-1Bs. This practice has come under increasing scrutiny recently as the largest H-1B sponsor, Infosys, paid a record $34 million to settle claims of visa abuse brought by the federal government. Visa abuse aside, it is difficult to see how these firms and the H-1B recipients they sponsor contribute to strengthening innovation in the United States.

Reform of the H-1B program has been proposed for years, and although little action has been taken so far, this may change soon as the program is under active discussion as part of the current immigration debate. Modifications included in the Senate bill (S.744) would affect several important provisions of the program. The annual cap on H-1B visas would be increased from 65,000 to a minimum of 115,000, which could be raised to 180,000. The exemption for advanced degree graduates would be increased from 20,000 to 25,000 and would be limited to STEM graduates only. Even more important, the bill would create a new merit-based point system for awarding permanent residency permits (green cards). Under it, applicants would receive points for education, the number increasing from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees. Although there would be a quota for these green cards, advanced degree recipients from U.S. universities would be exempt, provided the recipient received his or her degree from an institution with a Carnegie classification of “very high” or “high” research activity, has an employment offer from a U.S. employer, and received the degree no more than five years before applying. This would be tantamount to “stapling a green card to the diploma”—terminology suggested by some advocates—and would bypass the H-1B program entirely.

The Senate bill retains the exemption of visa holders who work at universities and university- and government-affiliated nonprofits from the H-1B cap. Expanding this exemption to include all Ph.D. scientists and engineers engaged in R&D is also worth considering, although it does not appear to be part of either the Senate or the House bills. This would put Ph.D. researchers and their employers in a separate class from the firms that use the program for outsourcing of IT personnel. It would remove the issues relating to H-1B scientists and engineers from the debate over outsourcing and allow them to be discussed on their own merits—namely, their contribution to strengthening R&D and innovation in the United States.

Expand the Visa Waiver Program to additional countries. The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of a limited number of countries (currently 37) to travel to the United States for certain purposes without visas. Although it does not apply to students and exchange visitors under F and J visas, it does include scientists and engineers attending conferences and conventions who would otherwise travel under a B visa, as well as individuals participating in short-term training (less than 90 days) and consulting with business associates.

There is little doubt that the ability to travel without going through the visa process—application, interview, security check—greatly facilitates a visit to the United States for those eligible. The eligible countries include mainly the European Union nations plus Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. Advocates of reforming visa policy make a convincing argument that expanding the program to other countries would increase U.S. security. Edward Alden and Liam Schwartz of the Council on Foreign Relation suggest just that in a 2012 paper on modernizing the U.S. visa system. They note that travelers under the VWP are still subject to the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), a security screening system that vets individuals planning to come to the United States with the same intelligence information that is used in visa screening. Security would be enhanced rather than diminished by expanding the VWP, they argue, because governments of the countries that participate in the program are required to share security and criminal intelligence information with the U.S. government.

Visa-free travel to conferences and for short-term professional visits by scientific and engineering researchers from the 37 countries in the VWP makes collaboration with U.S. colleagues much easier than it would otherwise be. And it would undoubtedly be welcomed by those in countries that are likely candidates for admission to the program. Complicating matters, however, is legislation that requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement a biometric exit system (i.e., one based on taking fingerprints of visitors as they leave the country and matching them with those taken on entry) before it can expand the VWP. The federal government currently has a “biographic” system that matches names on outbound manifests provided by the airlines with passport information obtained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on a person’s entry. A biometric exit system would provide enhanced security, but the several-billion-dollar cost and the logistics of implementing a control system pose formidable barriers. Congress and the Executive Branch have engaged in a tug of war over the planning and development of such a system for over a decade. (The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 called for DHS to develop plans for accelerating implementation of such a system, but the department has missed several deadlines and stated in mid-2013 that it was intending to incorporate these plans in its budget for fiscal year 2016.) Should DHS get to the point of actually implementing a biometric exit system, it could pave the way for expanding the VWP. In the meantime, a better solution would be to decouple the two initiatives. S.744 does just that by authorizing the Secretary of Homeland Security to designate any country as a member of the VWP so long as it meets certain conditions. Expansion of the VWP is also included in the House immigration reform bill known as the JOLT Act. These are hopeful signs, although the comprehensive immigration reform logjam continues to block further action.

Action in several other areas can also help to improve the visa process. The federal government, for example, can encourage consulates to use their recently expanded authority to waive personal interviews. In response to an executive order issued by President Obama in January 2012, the State Department initiated a two-year visa interview waiver pilot program. Under the program, visa-processing posts in 28 countries were authorized to waive interviews with certain visa applicants, especially repeat visitors in a number of visa classes. Brazil and China, which have large numbers of visa applicants, were among the initial countries involved in this experimental program. U.S. consulates in India joined the program a few months later. The initiative was welcomed in these countries and regarded as successful by the Departments of State and Homeland Security. The program was made permanent in January 2014. Currently, consular officers can waive interviews for applicants for renewal of any nonimmigrant visa as long as they are applying for a visa in the same classification within 12 months of the expiration of the initial visa (48 months in some visa classes).

Although the interview waiver program was not specifically aimed at scientists, and statistics regarding their participation in the program are not available, it seems likely that they were and will continue to be among the beneficiaries now that the program has been made permanent. The initiative employs a risk-based approach, focusing more attention on individuals who are judged to be high-risk travelers and less on low-risk persons. Since it allows for considerable discretion on the part of the consulate, its ultimate value to the scientific and educational communities will depend on how that discretion is used.

The government can also step up its efforts to increase visa-processing capacity. In response to the 2012 executive order, the State Department and DHS launched an initiative to increase visa-processing capacity in high-demand countries and reduce interview wait times. In a report issued in August 2012 on progress during the first 180 days of activity under the initiative, the two agencies projected that by the end of 2012, “State will have created 50 new visa adjudicator positions in China and 60 in Brazil.” Furthermore, the State Department deployed 220 consular officers to Brazil on temporary duty and 48 to China. The consulates also increased working hours, and in Brazil they remained open on occasional Saturdays and holidays. These moves resulted in sharp decreases in processing time.

These initiatives have been bright spots in an otherwise difficult budget environment for the State Department. That budget environment, exacerbated by sequestration, increases the difficulty of making these gains permanent and extending them to consular posts in other countries with high visa demand. This is a relatively easy area to neglect, but one in which modest investments, especially in personnel and training, could significantly improve the face that the United States presents to the world, including the global scientific, engineering, and educational communities.

Looking at U.S. universities and laboratories today, one might well ask whether there really is a problem with the nation’s visa and immigration policies. After all, the diversity of nationalities among scientists, engineers, and students in U.S. scientific institutions is striking. At the National Institutes of Health, over 60% of the approximately 4,000 postdocs are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents. They come from China, India, Korea, and Japan, as well as Europe and many other countries around the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had over 3,100 international students in 2013, about 85% of them graduate students, representing some 90 countries. The numbers are similar at Stanford, Berkeley, and other top research universities.

So how serious are the obstacles for international scientists and students who really want to come to the United States? Does the system really need to be streamlined? How urgent are the fixes that I have proposed here?

The answers to these questions lie not in the present and within the United States, but in the future and in the initiatives of the nations with which we compete and cooperate. Whereas the U.S. system creates barriers, other countries, many with R&D expenditures rising much more rapidly than in the United States, are creating incentives to attract talented scientists to their universities and laboratories. China, India, Korea, and other countries with substantial scientific diasporas have developed programs to encourage engagement with their expatriate scientists and potentially draw them back home.

In the long run, the reputations of U.S. institutions alone will not be sufficient to maintain the nation’s current advantage. The decline in enrollments among international students after 9/11 shows how visa delays and immigration restrictions can affect students and researchers. As long as the United States continues to make international travel difficult for promising young scholars such as Alena Shkumatava, it is handicapping the future of U.S. science and the participation of U.S. researchers in international collaborations. Streamlining visa and immigration policies can make a vital contribution to ensuring the continued preeminence of U.S. science and technology in a globalized world. We should not allow that preeminence to be held hostage to the nation’s inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Albert H. Teich (ateich@gwu.edu) is research professor of science, technology, and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington, DC. Notes and acknowledgements are available at http://alteich.com/visas/Notes.htm.

Forum


by

Climate deadlock

In “Breaking the Climate Deadlock” (Issues, Summer 2014), David Garman, Kerry Emanuel, and Bruce Phillips present a thoughtful proposal for greatly expanded public- and private-sector R&D aimed at reducing the costs, increasing the reliability, managing the risks, and expanding the potential to rapidly scale up deployment of a broad suite of low- and zero-carbon energy technologies, from renewables to advanced nuclear reactor technologies to carbon capture and storage. They also encourage dedicated funding of research into potential geoengineering technologies for forced cooling of the climate system. Such an “all-of-the-above” investment strategy, they say, might be accepted across the political spectrum as a pragmatic hedge against uncertain and potentially severe climate risks and hence be not only sensible but feasible to achieve in our nation’s highly polarized climate policy environment.

It is a strong proposal as far as it goes. Even as the costs of wind and solar photovoltaics are declining, and conservative states such as Texas and Kansas are embracing renewable energy technologies and policies, greater investment in research aimed at expanding the portfolio of commercially feasible and socially acceptable low-carbon electricity is needed to accelerate the transition to a fully decarbonized energy economy. And managing the risks of a warming planet requires contingency planning for climate emergencies. As challenging as it may be to contemplate the deployment of most currently proposed geoengineering schemes, our nation has a responsibility to better understand their technical and policy risks and prospects should they ultimately need to be considered.

But it does not go far enough. Garman et al.’s focus on R&D aimed primarily at driving down the “cost premium” of low-carbon energy technologies relative to fossil fuels neglects the practical need and opportunity to also incorporate into the political calculus the substantial economic risks and costs of unmitigated climate change. Yet these risks and costs are substantial and are becoming increasingly apparent to local civic and political leaders in red and blue states alike as they are faced with more extensive storm surges and coastal flooding, more frequent and severe episodes of extreme summer heat, and other climate-related damages.

The growing state and local experience of this “cost of inaction premium” for continued reliance on fossil fuels is now running in parallel with the experience of economic benefits resulting from renewable electricity standards and energy efficiency standards in several red states. Together, these state and local experiences may do as much as or more than expanding essential investments in low-carbon energy R&D to break the climate deadlock and rebuild bipartisan support for sensible federal climate policies.

PETER C. FRUMHOFF
Director of Science and Policy Union of Concerned Scientists Cambridge, Massachusetts
pfrumhoff@ucsusa.org

 

We need a new era of environmentalism to overcome the polarization surrounding climate change issues, one that takes conservative ideas and concerns seriously and ultimately engages ideological conservatives as full partners in efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Having recently founded a conservative animal and environmental advocacy group called Earth Stewardship Alliance (esalliance.org), I applaud “Breaking the Climate Deadlock.” The authors describe a compelling policy framework for expanding low-carbon technology options in a way that maintains flexibility to manage uncertainties.

5

The article also demonstrates the most effective approach to begin building conservative support for climate policies in general. The basic elements are to respect conservative concerns about climate science and to promote solutions that are consistent with conservative principles. Although many climate policy advocates see conservatives as a lost cause, relatively little effort has been made to try this approach.

Thoughtful conservatives generally agree that carbon emissions from human activities are increasing global carbon dioxide levels, but they question how serious the effects will be. These conservatives are often criticized for denying the science even though, as noted by “Breaking the Climate Deadlock,” there is considerable scientific uncertainty surrounding the potential effects. This article, however, addresses this legitimate conservative skepticism by describing how a proper risk assessment justifies action to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts even if there is significant uncertainty.

The major climate policies that have been advanced thus far in the United States are also contrary to conservative principles. All of the cap-and-trade bills that Congress seriously considered during the 2000s would have given away emissions allowances, making the legislation equivalent to a tax increase. The rise in prices caused by a cap-and-trade program’s requirement to obtain emissions allowances is comparable to a tax. Giving away the allowances foregoes revenue that could be used to reduce other taxes and thus offset the cap-and-trade tax. Many climate policy advocates wanted the allowances to be auctioned, but that approach could not gain traction in Congress, because the free allowances were needed to secure business support.

After the failure of cap-and-trade, efforts turned to issuing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA’s legal authority for the regulations is justified by some very general provisions of the Clean Air Act. Although the courts will probably uphold many of these regulations, the policy decisions involved are too big to be properly made by the administration without more explicit congressional authorization.

Despite the polarization surrounding climate change, there continues to be support in the conservative intelligentsia for carbon policies consistent with their principles: primarily ramping up investment in low-carbon technology research, development, and demonstration and a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax in which the increased revenues are offset by cutting other taxes.

Earth Stewardship Alliance believes the best way to build strong conservative support for these policies is by making the moral case for carbon emissions reductions, emphasizing our obligation to be good stewards. We are hopeful that conservatives will ultimately decide it is the right thing to do.

JIM PRESSWOOD
Executive Director Earth Stewardship Alliance Arlington, Virginia
info@esalliance.org

 

David Garman, Kerry Emanuel, and Bruce Phillips lay out a convincing case for the development of real low-carbon technology options. This is not just a theoretical strategy. There are some real opportunities before us right now to do this, ones that may well appeal across the political spectrum:

The newly formed National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative (a coalition of environmental groups, utilities, labor, oil companies, coal companies, and environmental and utility regulators) has proposed a way to bring carbon capture and storage projects to scale, spurring in-use innovation and driving costs down. Carbon dioxide captured from power plants has a value—as much as $40 per ton in the Gulf region—because it can be used to recover more oil from existing fields. Capturing carbon dioxide, however, costs about $80 per ton. A tax credit that would cover the difference gap could spur a substantial number of innovative projects. Although oil recovery is not the long-term plan for carbon capture, it will pay for much capital investment and the early innovation that follows in its wake. The initiative’s analysis suggests that the net impact on the U.S. Treasury is likely to be neutral, because tax revenue from domestic oil that displaces imports can equal or exceed the cost of the tax credit.

There are dozens of U.S.-originated designs for advanced nuclear power reactors that could dramatically improve safety, lower costs, and shrink wastes as well as making them less harmful. The cost of pushing these designs forward to demonstration are modest, likely in the range of $1 billion to $2 billion per year, or about half a percent of the nation’s electric bill. The United States remains the world’s center of nuclear innovation, but many companies, frustrated by the lack of U.S. government support, are looking to demonstrate their first-of-a-kind designs in Russia and China. This is a growth-generating industry that the United States can recapture.

The production tax credit for conventional wind power has expired, due in part to criticisms that the tax credit was simply subsidizing current technology that has reached the point of diminishing cost reductions. But we can replace that policy with a focused set of incentives for truly innovative wind energy designs that increase capacity and provide grid support, thus enhancing the value of wind energy and bringing it closer to market parity.

Gridlock over climate science needn’t prevent practical movement forward to hedge our risks. A time-limited set of policies such as those above would drive low-carbon technology closer to parity with conventional coal and gas, not subsidize above-market technologies indefinitely. Garman and his colleagues have offered an important bridge-building concept; it is time for policymakers to take notice and act.

ARMOND COHEN
Executive Director Clean Air Task Force Boston, Massachusetts
armond@catf.us

Archives


by

Twister

To create his self-portrait, Twister, Dan Collins, a professor of intermedia in the Herberger Institute School of Art at Arizona State University (ASU), spun on a turntable while being digitally scanned. The data were recorded in 1995, but he had to wait more than five years before he could find a computer with the ability to do what he wanted. He used a customized computer to generate a model based on the data. Collins initially produced a high-density foam prototype of the sculpture, and later created an edition of three bonded marble versions of the work, one of which is in the collection of ASU’s Art Museum.

96

DAN COLLINS, Twister, 3D laser-scanned figure, Castable bonded marble, 84′′ high, 1995–2012.

Natural Histories


by

400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library

In a time of the internet, social media networks, and smart phones, when miraculous devices demand our attention with beeps, buzzes, and spiffy animations, it’s hard to imagine a time when something as quiet and unassuming as a book illustration was considered cutting-edge technology. Yet, since the early 1500s, illustration has been essential to scientists for sharing their work with colleagues and with the public.

57-01

Young Hippo This image from the Zoological Society of London provides two views of a young hippo in Egypt before being transported to the London Zoo. Joseph Wolf (1820–1899) based the image on a sketch made by the British Consul on site in Cairo.

57-02

Rhino by Dürer This depiction of a rhino from Historia animalium, by German artist Albrecht Dürer, inaccurately features ornate armor, scaly skin, and odd protrusions.

58-01

Mandrill This mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx), with its delicate hands, cheerful expression, and almost upright posture, seems oddly human. While many images in Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber’s Mammals Illustrated (1774–1846) were quite accurate, those of primates generally were not.

58-02

Darwin’s Rhea John Gould drew this image of a Rhea pennata, a flightless bird native to South America, for The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839–1843), a five-volume work edited by Charles Darwin. The specimens Darwin collected during his travels on H.M.S. Beagle became a foundation for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

The nearly forgotten books stored away quietly in libraries contain the ancestral ideas of current practices and methodologies of illustration.

A variety of printing techniques, ranging from woodcuts to engraving to lithography, proved highly effective for spreading new knowledge about nature and human culture to a growing audience. Illustrated books allowed the lay public to share in the excitement of discoveries, from Antarctica to the Amazon, from the largest life forms to the microscopic.

59-01

Two-toed Sloth Albertus Seba’s (1665–1736) four-volume Thesaurus (after Thesaurus of animal specimens) illustrated the Dutch apothecary’s enormous collection of animal and plant specimens amassed over the years. Using preserved specimens, Seba’s artists could depict anatomy accurately—but not behavior. For example, this two-toed sloth is shown climbing upright, even though in nature, sloths hang upside down.

The early impact of illustration in research, education, and communication arguably formed the foundation for how current illustration and imaging techniques are utilized today. Now scientists have a vast number of imaging tools that are harnessed in a variety of ways: infrared photography, scanning electron microscopes, computed tomography scanners and more. But there is still a role for illustration in making the invisible visible. How else can we depict extinct species such as dinosaurs?

59-02

Egg Collection In his major encyclopedia of nature, Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände (A general natural history for everyone), German naturalist Lorenz Oken (1779–1851) grouped animals based not on science, but philosophy. Nevertheless, his encyclopedia proved to be a popular and enduring work. Here Oken is illustrating variation in egg color and markings found among water birds.

60

Paper Nautilus Italian naturalist Giuseppe Saverio Poli (1746–1825) is considered to be the father of malacology—the study of mollusks. In his landmark work Testacea utriusque Siciliae…(Shelled animals of the Two Sicilies…), Poli first categorized mollusks by their internal structure, and not just their shells, as seen in his detailed illustration of female paper nautilus (Argonauta argo).

61-01

Octopus From Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium (1551–1558), this octopus engraving is a remarkably good likeness—except for the depiction of round, rather than slit-shaped, pupils—indicating the artist clearly did not draw from a live specimen.

61-03

Siphonophores German biologist Ernst Haeckel illustrated and described thousands of deep-sea specimens collected during the 1873–1876 H.M.S. Challenger expedition, and used many of those images to create Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms of nature). Haeckel used a microscope to capture the intricate structure of these siphonophores—colonies of tiny, tightly packed and highly specialized organisms—that look (and sting!) like sea jellies.

61-02

Angry Puffer Fish and Others Louis Renard’s artists embellished their work to satisfy Europeans’ thirst for the unusual. Some illustrations in Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires…, like this one, include fish with imaginative colors and patterns and strange, un-fishlike expressions.

Illustration is also used to clearly represent complex structures, color graduations, and other essential details. The nearly forgotten books stored away quietly in libraries contain the ancestral ideas of current practices and methodologies of illustration.

In the days before photography and printing, original art was the only way to capture the likeness of organisms, people, and places, and therefore the only way to share this information with others,” said Tom Baione, the Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Department of Library Services at the American Museum of Natural History. “Printed reproductions of art about natural history enabled many who’d never seen an octopus, for example, to try to begin to understand what an octopus looked like and how its unusual features might function.”

62

Frog Dissection A female green frog (Pelophylax kl. esculentus) with egg masses is shown in dissection above a view of the frog’s skeleton in the book Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium…(Natural history of the native frogs…) from 1758. Shadows and dissecting pins add to the realism.

63-01

Pineapple with Caterpillar In Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium…(1719), German naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian documented the flora and fauna she encountered during her two-year trip to Surinam, in South America, with her daughter. Here she creatively depicts a pineapple hosting a butterfly and a red-winged insect, both shown in various stages of life.

The impact and appeal of printing technologies is at the heart of the 2012 book edited by Tom Baione, Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library. Inspired by the book, the current exhibit at the museum, Natural Histories: 400 Years of Scientific Illustration from the Museum’s Library, explores the integral role illustration has played in scientific discovery through 50 large-format reproductions from seminal holdings in the Museum Library’s Rare Book collection. The exhibition is on view through October 12, 2014 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. All images © AMNH\D. Finnin.

63-02

Tasmanian Tiger English ornithologist and taxidermist John Gould’s images and descriptions for the three-volume work The mammals of Australia (1863) remain an invaluable record of Australian animals that became increasingly rare with European settlement. The “Tasmanian tiger” pictured here was actually a thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), the world’s largest meat-eating marsupial until going extinct in 1936.

64

JUSTINE SEREBRIN, Gateway, Digital painting, 40 × 25 inches, 2013.

What Fish Oil Pills Are Hiding


by

DAVID SCHLEIFER

ALISON FAIRBROTHER

One Woman’s Quest to Save the Chesapeake Bay from the Dietary Supplement Industry

Julie Vanderslice thought fish were disgusting. She didn’t like to look at them. She didn’t like to smell them. Julie lived with her mother, Pat, on Cobb Island, a small Maryland community an hour south and a world away from Washington, D.C. Her neighbors practically lived on their boats in warm weather, fishing for stripers in the Chesa-peake Bay or gizzard shad in shallow creeks shaded by sycamores. Julie had grown up on five acres of woodland in Accokeek, Maryland, across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home. The Potomac River wetlands in Piscataway Park were a five-minute bike ride away, on land the federal government had kept wild to preserve the view from Washington’s estate. Her four brothers and three sisters kept chickens, guinea pigs, dogs, cats, and a tame raccoon. They went fishing in the Bay as often as they could. But Julie preferred interacting with the natural world from inside, on a comfortable couch in her living room, where she read with the windows open so she could catch the briny smell of the Bay. “No books about anything slimy or smelly, thank you!” she told her family at holidays.

So it was with some playfulness that Pat’s friend Ray showed up on Julie’s doorstep one afternoon in the summer of 2010 to present her with a book called The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Ray was an avid recreational fisherman, who lived ten miles up the coast on one of the countless tiny inlets of the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake Bay has 11,684 miles of shoreline—more than the entire west coast of the United States; the watershed comprises 64,000 square miles.

“It’s about menhaden, small forage fish that grow up in the Chesapeake and migrate along the Atlantic coast. You’ll love it,” he told her, chuckling as he handed over the book. “But seriously, maybe you’ll be moved by it,” he said, his tone changing. “It says that when John Smith came here in the seventeenth century, there were so many menhaden in the Bay that he could catch them with a frying pan.”

Julie shuddered at the image of so many slippery little fish.

“Now the menhaden are vanishing,” Ray said. “I want you to read this book. I want Delegate Murphy to read this book. And I want the two of you to do something about it.”

Julie was the district liaison for Delegate Peter Murphy, a Democrat representing Charles County in the Maryland House of Delegates. She had started working for Murphy in February 2009 as a photographic intern, tasked with documenting his speeches and meetings with constituents. In her early fifties, Julie was older than the average intern. For ten years, she had sold women’s cosmetics and men’s fragrances at a Washington, D.C. branch of Woodward & Lothrop, until the legendary southern department store chain liquidated in 1995. She had moved to Texas to take a job at another department store in Houston, but it hadn’t felt right. Julie was a Marylander. She needed to live by the Chesapeake Bay. Working in local politics reconnected her to her community, and it wasn’t long before Murphy asked her to join his staff full-time. Now, she worked in his office in La Plata, the county seat, and attended events in the delegate’s stead—like the dedication of a new volunteer firehouse on Cobb Island or the La Plata Warriors high school softball games.

Julie picked up the menhaden book one summer afternoon, pretty sure she wouldn’t make it past the first chapter. She examined the cover, which featured a photo of a small silvery fish with a wide, gaping mouth and a distinctive circular mark behind its eye. “This is the most important fish in the sea?” Julie muttered to herself. She settled back into her sofa and sighed. Her mother was out at a church event, probably chattering away with Ray. Connected to the main-land by a narrow steel-girder bridge, Cobb Island was a tiny spit of land less than a mile long where the Potomac River meets the Wicomico. The island’s population was barely over 1,100. What else was there to do? She turned to the first page and began to read.

For the next few days, The Most Important Fish in the Sea followed Julie wherever she went. She read it out on the porch while listening to the gently rolling waters of Neale Sound, which separated Cobb Island from the mainland. She read it in bed, struggling to keep her eyes open so she could fit in just one more chapter. She finished the book one afternoon just as Pat came through the screen door, arms laden with a bag full of groceries. Pat found Julie standing in the middle of the living room, angrily clutching the book. Pat was dumbfounded. “You don’t like to pick crab meat out of a crab!” she said. “You wear water-shoes at the beach! Here you are all worked up over menhaden!”

Menhaden are a critical link in the Atlantic food chain, and the Chesapeake Bay is critical to the fish’s lifecycle. Menhaden eggs hatch year round in the open ocean, and the young fish swim into the Chesa-peake to grow in the warm, brackish waters. Also known colloquially as bunker, pogies, or alewifes, they are the staple food for many commercially important predator fish, including striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish, which are harvested along the coast in a dozen different states, as well as for sharks, dolphins, and blue whales. Ospreys, loons, and seagulls scoop menhaden from the top of the water column, where the fish ball together in tight rust-colored schools. As schools of menhaden swim, they eat tiny plankton and algae. As a result of their diet, menhaden are full of nutrient-rich oils. They are so oily that when ravaged by a school of bluefish, for example, menhaden will leave a sheen of oil in their wake.

Wayne Levin

Imagine seeing what you think is a coral reef, only to realize that there is movement within the shape and that it is actually a massive school of fish. That is what happened to Wayne Levin as he swam in Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay on his way to photograph dolphins. The fish he encountered were akule, the Hawaiian name for big-eyed scad. In the years that followed he developed a fascination with the beauty and synchronicity of these schools of akule, and he spent a decade capturing them in thousands of photographs.

Akule have been bountiful in Hawaii for centuries. Easy to see when gathering in the shallows, the dense schools form patterns, like unfurling scrolls, then suddenly contract into a vortex before unfurling again and moving on. In his introduction to Akule (2010, Editions Limited), a collection of Levin’s photos, Thomas Farber describes a photo session: “What transpired was a dance, dialogue, or courtship of and with the akule….Sometimes, for instance, he faced away from them, then slowly turned, and instead of moving away the school would…come towards him. Or, as he advanced, the school would open, forming a tunnel for him. Entering, he’d be engulfed in thousands of fish.”

Wayne Levin has photographed numerous aspects of the underwater world: sea life, surfers, canoe paddlers, divers, swimmers, shipwrecks, seascapes, and aquariums. After a decade of photographing fish schools, he turned from sea to sky, and flocks of birds have been his recent subject. His photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; The Honolulu Museum of Art; the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, Honolulu; and the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia. His work has been published in Aperture, American Photographer, Camera Arts, Day in the Life of Hawaii, Photo Japan, and most recently LensWork. His books include Through a Liquid Mirror (1997, Editions Limited), and Other Oceans (2001, University of Hawaii Press). Visit his website at waynelevinimages.com.

Alana Quinn

25

WAYNE LEVIN, Column of Akule, 2000.

26

WAYNE LEVIN, Filming Akule, 2006.

For hundreds of years, people living along the Atlantic Coast caught menhaden for their oils. Some scholars say the word menhaden likely derives from an Algonquian word for fertilizer. Pre-colonial Native Americans buried whole menhaden in their cornfields to nourish their crops. They may have taught the Pilgrims to do so, too.

The colonists took things a step further. Beginning in the eighteenth century, factories along the East Coast specialized in cooking menhaden in giant vats to separate their nutrient-rich oil from their protein—the former for use as fertilizer and the latter for animal feed. Dozens of menhaden “reduction” factories once dotted the shoreline from Maine to Florida, belching a foul, fishy smell into the air.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, menhaden fishermen hauled thousands of pounds of net by hand from small boats, coordinating their movements with call-and-response songs derived from African-American spirituals. But everything changed in the 1950s with the introduction of hydraulic vacuum pumps, which enabled many millions of menhaden to be sucked out of the ocean each day—so many fish that companies had to purchase carrier ships with giant holds below deck to ferry the menhaden to shore. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records, in the past sixty years, the reduction industry has fished 47 billion pounds of menhaden out of the Atlantic and 70 billion pounds out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Reduction factories that couldn’t keep up went out of business, eliminating the factory noises and fishy smells, much to the relief of the growing number of wealthy home-owners purchasing seaside homes. By 2006, every last company had been bought out, consolidated, or pushed out of business—except for a single conglomerate called Omega Protein, which operates a factory in Reedville, a tiny Virginia town halfway up the length of the Chesapeake Bay. A former petroleum company headquartered in Houston and once owned by the Bush family, Omega Protein continues to sell protein-rich fishmeal for aquaculture, animal feed for factory farms, menhaden oil for fertilizer, and purified menhaden oil, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids, as a nutritional supplement. For the majority of the last thirty years, the Reedville port has landed more fish than any other port in the continental United States by volume.

The company also owns two factories on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, which grind up and process Gulf menhaden, the Atlantic menhaden’s faster-growing cousin. But Hurricane Katrina in 2005, followed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, forced Omega Protein to rely increasingly on Atlantic menhaden to make up for their damaged factories and shortened fishing seasons in the Gulf—much to the dismay of fishermen and residents along the Atlantic coast.

These days, on a normal morning in Reedville, Virginia, a spotter pilot climbs into his plane just after sunrise to scour the Chesapeake and Atlantic coastal waters, searching for reddish-brown splotches of menhaden. When he spots them, the pilot signals to ship captains, who surround the school with a net, draw it close, and vacuum the entire school into the ship’s hold.

Julie Vanderslice had never seen the menhaden boats or spotter planes, but she was horrified by the description of the ocean carnage documented in The Most Important Fish in the Sea. The author, H. Bruce Franklin, is an acclaimed scholar of American history and culture at Rutgers University, who has written treatises on everything from Herman Melville to the Vietnam War. But he is also a former deckhand who fishes several times a week in Raritan Bay, between New Jersey and Staten Island.

Julie was riveted by a passage in which Franklin describes going fishing one day for weakfish in his neighbor’s boat. Weakfish are long, floppy fish that feed lower in the water column than bluefish, which thrash about on top. Franklin’s neighbor angled his boat toward a chaotic flock of gulls screaming and pounding the air with their wings. The birds were diving into the water and fighting off muscular bluefish to be the first to reach a school of menhaden. The two men had a feeling that weakfish would be lurking below the school of menhaden, attempting to pick off fish from the bottom. But before Franklin and his neighbor could reach the school, one of Omega Protein’s ships sped past, set a purse seine around the menhaden, and used a vacuum pump to suck up hundreds of thousands of fish and all the bluefish and weakfish that had been feeding on them. For days afterward, Franklin observed, there were hardly any fish at all in Raritan Bay.

That moment compelled Franklin to uncover the damage Omega Protein was doing up and down the coast. The company’s annual harvest of between a quarter and a half billion pounds of menhaden had effects far beyond depleting the once-plentiful schools of little fish. Scientists and environmental advocates contended that by vacuuming up menhaden for fishmeal and fertilizer, Omega Protein was pulling the linchpin out of the Atlantic ecosystem: starving predator fish, marine mammals, and birds; suffocating sea plants on the ocean floor; and pushing an entire ocean to the brink of collapse. Despite being published by a small environmental press, The Most Important Fish in the Sea was lauded in the Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, and the journal Science. The New York Times discussed it on its opinion pages, citing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound where too few menhaden were left to filter algae out of the water.

After finishing the book, Julie couldn’t get menhaden out of her head. She had to get the book into Delegate Murphy’s hands. She bought a second copy, prepared a two-page summary, and plotted her strategy.

Julie didn’t see the delegate every day because she worked in his district office rather than in Annapolis, the country’s oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use. But that summer, Delegate Murphy was campaigning for re-election and was often closer to home. He was scheduled to make an appearance at a local farmer’s market in Waldorf a few weeks after Julie had finished the book. Waldorf was at the northern edge of Murphy’s district, close enough to Washington that the weekly farmers market would be crowded with an evening rush of commuters on their way home from D.C. But in the late afternoon, the delegate’s staff, decked out in yellow Peter Murphy T-shirts, nearly outnumbered the shoppers browsing for flowers and honey.

Delegate Murphy was at ease chatting with neighbors and shaking hands with constituents. He was tall and thin, with salt-and-pepper hair and lively eyes. Julie recognized his trademark campaign uniform: a blue polo shirt tucked neatly into slacks. He had been a science teacher before entering state politics, and he had a deep, calming voice. As a grandfather to two young children, he knew how to captivate a skeptical audience with a good story. Julie recalled the day she first met him, at a sparsely attended town hall meeting at Piccowaxen Middle School. He struck her immediately as a genuine, thoughtful man on the right side of the issues she cared about. Several months later, she heard that Delegate Murphy was speaking at the Democratic Club on Cobb Island and made a point to attend. Afterward, she waited for him in the receiving line. When it was her turn to speak, Julie asked if he was hiring.

28

WAYNE LEVIN, Ring of Akule, 2000.

Just a few short years later, Julie felt comfortable enough with Delegate Murphy to propose a mission. Mustering her courage as a band warmed up at the other end of the market, Julie seized her moment. “Delegate Murphy, you have to read this!” she said, pushing the book into his hands. “There’s this fish called menhaden that you’ve never heard of. One company in Virginia is vacuuming millions of them out of the Chesapeake Bay, taking menhaden out of the mouths of striped bass and osprey and bluefish and dolphins and all the other fish and animals that rely on them for nutrients. This is why recreational fishermen are always complaining about how hungry the striped bass are! This is why our Bay ecosystem is so unhinged! One company is taking away all our menhaden,” she declared. “We have to stop them.”

Delegate Murphy peered at her with a trace of a smile. “I’ll read it, Julie,” he said.

For months afterward, Julie stayed late at the office, reading everything she could find about menhaden. She learned that every state along the Atlantic Coast had banned menhaden fishing in state waters—except Virginia, where Omega Protein’s Reedville plant was based, and North Carolina, where a reduction factory had recently closed. (North Carolina would ban menhaden reduction fishing in 2012.) The largest slice of Omega Protein’s catch came from Virginia’s ocean waters and from the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, preventing those fish from swimming north into Maryland’s section of the Bay and south into the Atlantic to populate the shores of fourteen other states along the coast.

Beyond the Chesapeake, Omega Protein’s Virginia-based fleet could pull as many menhaden as they wanted from federal waters, designated as everything between three and two hundred miles offshore, from Maine to Florida. Virginia was a voting member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the agency that governs East Coast fisheries. But the ASMFC had never taken any steps to limit the amount of fish Omega Protein could lawfully catch along the Atlantic coast. Virginia’s legislators happened to be flush with campaign contributions from Omega Protein.

Julie clicked through articles on fisherman’s forums and coastal newspapers from every eastern state. She read testimony from citizens who described how the decimation of the menhaden population in the Chesapeake and in federal waters had affected the entire Atlantic seaboard. Bird watchers claimed that seabirds were suffering from lack of menhaden. Recreational fishermen cited scrawny bass and bluefish, and wondered whether they were lacking protein-packed menhaden meals. Biologists cut the stomachs of gamefish and found fewer and fewer menhaden inside. Whale watchers drove their boats farther out to sea in search of blue whales, which used to breach near the shore, surfacing open-mouthed upon oily schools of menhaden. The dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay grew larger, and some environmentalists connected the dots: menhaden were no longer plentiful enough to filter the water as they had in the past. In 2010, the ASMFC estimated that the menhaden population had declined to a record low, and was nearly 90 percent smaller than it had been twenty-five years ago.

Of course, Omega Protein had its own experts on staff, whose estimates better suited the company’s business interests. At a public hearing in Virginia about the menhaden fishery, Omega Protein spotter pilot Cecil Dameron said, “I’ve flown 42,000 miles looking at menhaden…. I’m here to tell you that the menhaden stock is in better shape than it was twenty years ago, thirty years ago. There’s more fish.”

One humid evening at the end of August, Delegate Murphy held a pre-election fundraiser and rally in his backyard, a grassy spot that sloped down toward the Potomac River. Former Senator Paul Sarbanes stopped by, and campaign staffers brought homemade noodle salads, cheeses, and a country ham. With the election less than two months away, the staff was working overtime, but they had hit their fundraising goal for the day. At the end of the event, as constituents headed to their cars, Delegate Murphy found Julie sitting at one of the collapsible tables littered with used napkins and glasses of melting ice. Julie was accustomed to standing for hours when she worked in the department store, but there was something about fundraising that made her feel like putting her feet up.

29

WAYNE LEVIN, Circling Akule, 2000.

30

WAYNE LEVIN, Rainbow Runners Hunting Akule, 2001.

“Great work tonight, Peter,” she said, wearily raising her glass to him. Julie always called him Delegate Murphy in public. But between the two of them, at the end of a long summer afternoon, it was just Peter.

He toasted and sat down beside her. Campaign staffers were clearing wilted chrysanthemums from the tables and stripping off plastic tablecloths. Peter and Julie looked across the lawn at the blue-gray Potomac as the sun began to dip in the sky.

“Listen,” he said. “I think I have an idea for a bill we could do.”

“On?”

“On menhaden.”

Julie put her drink down so quickly it sloshed onto the sticky tablecloth. She leaned forward in disbelief.

“We’ve got to try doing something about this,” Peter said.

Julie put her hand to her mouth and shook her head. “Menhaden reduction fishing has been banned in Maryland since 1931. Omega Protein is in Virginia. How could a bill in Maryland affect fishing there?”

“We don’t have any control over Virginia’s fishing industry, but we can control what’s sold in our state. I got to thinking: what if we introduced a bill that would stop the sale of products made with menhaden?”

“Do you think it would ever pass?” Julie asked.

“If we did a bill, it would first come before the Environmental Matters Committee. I think the chair of the committee would be amenable. At least we can put it out there and let people talk about it.”

Julie was overcome. He didn’t have to tell her how unusual this was. The impetus for new legislation didn’t often come from former interns—or from their fishermen neighbors.

“But I don’t know if we can win this on the environmental issues alone. What about the sport fishermen? Can we get them to come to the hearing?” Peter asked.

Julie began jotting notes on a napkin.

“Can you find out how many tourism dollars Maryland is losing because the striped bass are going hungry?”

“I’ll get in touch with the sport fishermen’s association and see if I can look up the numbers. And I’ll try to find out which companies are distributing products made from menhaden. It’s mostly fertilizer and animal feed. A little of it goes into fish oil pills, too.”

“The funny thing is, my own doctor told me to take fish oil pills a few years ago,” Peter said. He patted Julie’s shoulder and stood to wave to the last of his constituents as they disappeared down the driveway.

Doctors like Peter’s wouldn’t have recommended fish oil if a Danish doctor named Jörn Dyerberg hadn’t taken a trip across Greenland in 1970. Dyerberg and his colleagues, Hans Olaf Bang and Aase Brondum Nielsen, traveled from village to village by dogsled, poking inhabitants with syringes. They were trying to figure out why the Inuit had such a low incidence of heart disease despite eating mostly seal meat and fatty fish. Dyerberg and his team concluded that Inuit blood had a remarkably high concentration of certain types of polyunsaturated fatty acids, a finding that turned heads in the scientific community when it was published in The Lancet in 1971. The researchers argued that those polyunsaturated fatty acids originated in the fish that the Inuit ate and hypothesized that the fatty acids protected against cardiovascular disease. Those polyunsaturated fatty acids eventually came to be known as omega-3 fatty acids.

Other therapeutic properties of fish oil had been recognized long before Dyerberg’s expedition. During World War I, Edward and May Mellanby, a husband-and-wife team of nutrition scientists, found that it cured rickets, a crippling disease that had left generations of European and American children incapacitated, with soft bones, weak joints, and seizures. (The Mellanbys’ research was an improvement on the earlier work of Dr. Francis Glisson of Cambridge University, who, in 1650, advised that children with rickets should be tied up and hung from the ceiling to straighten their crooked limbs and improve their short statures.)

The Mellanbys tested their theories on animals instead of children. In their lab at King’s College for Women in London, in 1914, they raised a litter of puppies on nothing but oat porridge and watched each one come down with rickets. Several daily spoonfuls of cod liver oil reversed the rickets in a matter of weeks. Edward Mellanby was awarded a knighthood for their discovery. Although May had been an equal partner in the research, she wasn’t accorded the equivalent honor. A biochemist at the University of Wisconsin named Elmer McCollum read the Mellanbys’ research and isolated the anti-rachitic substance in the oil, which eventually came to be called vitamin D. McCollum had already isolated vitamin A in cod-liver oil, as well as vitamin B, which he later figured out was, in fact, a group of several substances. McCollum actually preferred the term “accessory food factor” rather than “vitamin.” He initially used letters instead of names because he hadn’t quite figured out the structures of the molecules he had isolated.

31

WAYNE LEVIN, School of Hellers Barracuda, 1999.

Soon, mothers were dosing their children daily with cod liver oil, a practice that continued for decades. Peter Murphy, who grew up in the 1950s, remembered being forced to swallow the stuff. The pale brown liquid stank like rotten fish, and he would struggle not to gag. Oil-filled capsules eventually supplanted the thick, foul liquid, and cheap menhaden replaced dwindling cod as the source of the oil. Meanwhile, following Dyerberg’s research into the Inuit diet, studies proliferated about the effects of omega-3 fatty acids—which originate in algae and travel up the food chain to forage fish like menhaden and on into the predator fish that eat them.

In 2002, the American Heart Association reviewed 119 of these studies and concluded that omega-3s could reduce the incidence of heart attack, stroke, and death in patients with heart disease. The AHA insisted omega-3s probably had no benefit for healthy people and suggested that eating fish, flax, walnuts, or other foods containing omega-3s was “preferable” to taking supplements. They warned that fish and fish oil pills could contain mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and other environmental contaminants. Nonetheless, they cautiously suggested that patients with heart disease “could consider supplements” in consultation with their doctors.

Americans did more than just “consider” supplements. In 2001, sales of fish oil pills were only $100 million. A 2009 Forbes story called fish oil “one supplement that works.” By 2011, sales topped $1.1 billion. Studies piled up suggesting that omega-3s and fish oil could do everything from reducing blood pressure and systemic inflammation to improving cognition, relieving depression, and even helping autistic children. Omega Protein was making most of its money turning menhaden into fertilizer and livestock feed for tasteless tilapia and factory-farmed chicken. But dietary supplements made for better public relations than animal feed. They put a friendlier, human face on the business, a face Peter and Julie were about to meet.

On a warm afternoon in March 2011, the twenty-four members of the Maryland House of Delegates Environmental Matters Committee filed into the legislature and took their seats. Delegate Murphy sat at the front of the room next to H. Bruce Franklin, author of The Most Important Fish in the Sea, who had traveled from New Jersey to testify at the hearing. Julie Vanderslice chose a spot in the packed gallery, with her neighbor Ray, who brought his copy of Franklin’s book in hopes of getting it signed. Julie brought her own copy, which she had bought already signed, but which she hoped Franklin would inscribe with a more personal message.

The Environmental Matters Committee was the first stop for Delegate Murphy’s legislation. The committee would either endorse the bill for review by the full House of Delegates, strike it down immediately, or send the bill limping back to Peter Murphy’s desk for further review—in which case, it might take years for menhaden to receive another audience with Maryland legislators. If the bill made it to the full House of Delegates, however, it might quickly be taken up for a vote before summer recess. If it passed the House, it was on to the Maryland Senate and, finally, to the Governor’s desk for signature before it became law. It could be voted down at any step along the way, and Julie knew there was a real chance the bill would never make it out of committee.

Julie had heard that Omega Protein’s lobbyists had been swarming the Capitol, taking dozens of meetings with delegates, and that the lobbyists had brought Omega Protein’s unionized fishermen with them. There was nothing like the threat of job loss to derail an environmental bill. Julie bit her thumb and surveyed the gallery.

To her right, rows of seats were filled with a few recreational anglers, conservationists, and scientists, whom Delegate Murphy’s legislative aide had invited to the hearing, but Julie didn’t see representatives from any of the region’s environmental organizations, like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation or the League of Conservation Voters. Delegate Murphy had called Julie on a Sunday to ask her to ask those organizations to submit letters in support of the bill. That type of outreach was not part of her job as district liaison, but she was happy to do it. While the organizations did support the bill in writing, none of them sent anyone to the hearing in person.

Instead, the seats were filled with fishermen from Omega Protein, who wore matching yellow shirts and sat quietly while the vice president of their local union, in a pinstripe suit, leaned over a row of chairs and spoke to them in a hushed voice. At the far side of the room, Candy Thomson, outdoors reporter at The Baltimore Sun, began jotting notes into her pad.

“We’re now going to move to House Bill 1142,” said Democratic Delegate Maggie McIntosh, chair of the Environmental Matters Committee.

As Delegate Murphy spoke, Julie shifted nervously in her seat. The legislators looked confused. She thought she saw one of them riffle through the stack of papers in front of her, as if to remind himself what a menhaden was. Julie wondered how many had even bothered to read the bill before the hearing. But Delegate Murphy knew the talking points backward and forward: the menhaden reduction industry had taken 47 billion pounds of menhaden out of the Atlantic Ocean since 1950. Omega Protein landed more fish, pound for pound, than any other operation in the continental United States. There had never been a limit on the amount of menhaden Omega Protein could legally fish using the pumps that vacuumed entire schools from the sea.

“This bill simply comes out and says that we as a state will no longer participate, regardless of the reason, in the decline of this fish,” he told the committee.

After Peter Murphy finished his opening statement, he and Bruce Franklin began taking questions. One of the delegates held up a letter from the Virginia State Senate. “It says that this industry goes back to the nineteenth century and that the plant this bill targets has been in operation for nearly a hundred years and that some employees are fourth-generation menhaden harvesters.” As she spoke, she paged through letters from the union that represented some of those harvesters and a list of products made from menhaden. “I don’t understand why we would interrupt an industry that has this kind of history, that will affect so many people. In this economy, I think this is the wrong time to take such a drastic approach to this issue.”

Delegate Murphy nodded. “We in Maryland, and particularly in Southern Maryland, grew tobacco for a lot longer than a hundred years,” he said, “but when we realized it was the wrong crop, and that it was killing people, we switched over to other alternatives. And we’re doing that to this day. What we’re saying with this is there are alternatives. You don’t have to fish this fish. This particular company, which happens to be in Virginia, does have alternatives to produce the same products.” He continued, “We have a company here in Maryland that produces the same omega-3 proteins and vitamins, and it uses algae. It grows and harvests algae. And that’s a sustainable resource.”

33

WAYNE LEVIN, Amberjacks Under a School of Akule, 2007.

34

WAYNE LEVIN, Great Barracuda Surrounded by Akule, 2002.

Another delegate, his hands clasped in front of him, addressed the chamber. “I’m sympathetic to saving this resource and to managing this resource appropriately,” he said. But, he explained, he been contacted by one of his constituents, a grandmother whose grandson Austin suffered from what she called “a rare life-threatening illness.” Glancing down at his laptop, he began reading a letter from this worried grandmother. “There is a bill due to be discussed regarding the menhaden fish. These fish supply the omega oils so vital to the Omegaven product that supplies children like Austin with necessary fats through their IV lines. Many children would have died due to liver failure from traditional soy-based fats had these omega-3s in these fish not been discovered. Can you please contact someone from the powers that be in the Maryland government and tell them not to put an end to the use of these fish and their life-sustaining oils.” The delegate closed his laptop. “This is a question from one of my constituents on a life-threatening issue. Can one of the experts address that issue?”

Bruce Franklin tried to explain that there are other sources of omega-3 besides menhaden. Delegate Murphy stepped in and offered to amend the bill to exempt pharmaceutical-grade products. But it was too late. Less than an hour after it had begun, the hearing was over. Delegate Murphy withdrew the bill for “summer study” rather than see it voted down—a likely indicator that the bill would not resurface before the legislature anytime soon, if ever. Delegate McIntosh turned to the next bill on the day’s schedule, and Omega Protein’s spokesperson and lead scientist left the gallery, smiling.

Julie turned to Ray, who was sitting beside her, angrily gripping his copy of The Most Important Fish in the Sea. She wanted to console him but felt uncertain how to begin. “Your fishermen buddies seem ready to riot in the streets,” Julie said uncertainly, gesturing at the anglers who were huddled together as they walked stiffly toward the foyer. “That story about the kid who’d die without his menhaden oil—that came out of nowhere.”

She looked again at the text of the bill. “A person may not manufacture, sell, or distribute a product or product component obtained from the reduction of an Atlantic menhaden.” It was exactly the kind of forward-thinking bill Maryland needed, and it would have sent a message to the other Atlantic states that menhaden were important enough to fight for. It had been her first real step toward making policy, but now she felt crushed by the legislature’s complete lack of will to preserve one of Maryland’s most significant natural resources. It seemed to her the delegates had acted without any attempt to understand the magnitude of the problem or the benefits of the proposed solution.

All Julie wanted to do was head back down to Cobb Island, stand on the dock, and feel the evening breeze on her face. Instead, she had to drive into the humid chaos of Washington, D.C., to spend two days sightseeing with her sister and her nephews. All weekend long, as her family traipsed from the Lincoln Memorial to the National Gallery to Ford’s Theater, she thought about what had gone wrong at the hearing. Had she and Delegate Murphy aimed too high with their bill? Did the committee members understand the complexity of the ecosystem that menhaden sustained? Even when the facts and figures are clear, sometimes a good story is too compelling. What politician could choose an oily fish over a sick child?

Barely a year after the Environmental Matters Committee hearing in Annapolis, the luster of fish oil pills began to fade. In 2010, environmental advocates Benson Chiles and Chris Manthey tested for toxic contaminants in fish oil supplements from a variety of manufacturers and found polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in many of the pills. PCBs, a group of compounds once widely used in coolant fluids and industrial lubricants, were banned in the 1970s because they decreased human liver function, caused skin ailments, and caused liver and bile duct cancers. PCBs don’t easily break down in the environment; they remain in waterways like those that empty into the Chesapeake Bay, where they get absorbed by the algae and plankton eaten by fish like menhaden.

35

WAYNE LEVIN, Pattern of Akule, 2002.

36

WAYNE LEVIN, Akule Tornado, 2000.

The test results led Chiles and Manthey to file a lawsuit, under California’s Proposition 65, that named supplement manufacturers Omega Protein and Solgar as well as retailers like CVS and GNC for failing to provide adequate warnings to consumers that the fish oil pills they were swallowing with their morning coffee contained unsafe levels of PCBs. In February 2012, Chiles and Manthey reached a settlement with some manufacturers and the trade association that represents them, called the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), which agreed on higher safety standards for contaminants in fish oil pills.

Meanwhile, in July 2012, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that assessed whether fish oil pills could help prevent cardiovascular disease in people with diabetes. Of the 6,281 diabetics in the study who took the pills, the same number had heart attacks and strokes as those in the placebo group. Nearly the same number died. Were all those fish-scented burps for naught? A Forbes story asked: “Fish oil or snake oil?”

In September 2012, The Journal of the American Medical Association published even worse news. A team of Greek researchers had analyzed every previous study of omega-3 supplements and cardiovascular disease, and found that omega-3 supplementation did not save lives, prevent heart attacks, or prevent strokes. GOED, the fish oil trade association, was predictably displeased. Its executive director told a supplement industry trade journal, “Given the flawed design of this meta-analysis…, GOED disputes the findings and urges consumers to continue taking omega-3 products.” But the scientific evidence was mounting: not only were fish oil pills full of dangerous chemicals, but they probably weren’t doing much to prevent heart disease, either.

Why did these pills look so promising in 2001 and not great by 2012? The American Heart Association had always favored dietary sources of omega-3s, like fish and nuts, over pills. Jackie Bosch, a scientist at McMaster University and an author of The New England Journal of Medicine study, speculated that now that people with diabetes and heart disease take so many other medicines—statins, diuretics, ACE-inhibitors, and handfuls of other pills—the effect of fish oil may be too marginal to show any measurable benefit.

Julie wasn’t surprised when she heard about the lawsuit. She knew menhaden could soak up chemical contaminants in the waterways. She read news reports about the recent studies on fish oil pills with interest and wondered whether they would give her and Delegate Murphy any ammunition for future efforts to limit the sale of menhaden products in their state. Neither had forgotten about the lowly menhaden.

Delegate Murphy had developed the habit of searching the dietary supplements aisle each time he went to the drug-store, turning the heavy bottles of fish oil capsules in his hands and reading the ingredients. None of the bottles ever listed menhaden. Despite the settlement in the California lawsuit, fish oil manufacturers were not required—and are still not required—to label the types of fish included in supplements, making it difficult for consumers to know whether they contained menhaden oil or not. But Delegate Murphy had made it clear he wasn’t ready to take up the menhaden issue again without a reasonable chance of success. Julie didn’t press him on his decision.

Then in December 2012, increasing public pressure about the decline of menhaden finally led to a change. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to reduce the harvest of menhaden by 20 percent from previous levels, a regulation that would go into effect during the 2013 fishing season. It was the first time any restriction had been placed on the menhaden industry’s operations in the Atlantic, although the cut was far less severe than independent scientists had recommended. To safeguard the menhaden’s ability to spawn without undue pressure from the industry’s pumps and nets, scientists had advised reducing the harvest by 50 to 75 percent of current catch levels. Delegate Murphy and Julie knew 20 percent wasn’t nearly enough to bring the menhaden stocks back up to support the health of the Bay. But it was a start. They liked to think their bill had moved the conversation forward a little bit.

That Christmas, down on Cobb Island, Julie was putting stamps on envelopes for her family’s annual holiday recipe exchange. She addressed one to her brother Jerry in Arkansas. He didn’t usually come back east for the holidays, preferring to fly home in the summer when his sons could fish for croakers off the dock that ran out into the Wicomico River behind Julie’s house. Jerry worked for Tyson Foods, selling chicken to restaurant chains. Julie had asked him once if Tyson fed their chickens with menhaden meal, and Jerry had admitted he wasn’t sure. Whatever the factory-farmed chickens ate, Julie wasn’t taking any chances. After the hearing on the menhaden bill, she became a vegetarian. For Christmas, she was sending her family recipes for eggless egg salad and an easy bean soup.

When she finished sealing the last envelope, Julie pulled on a turtleneck sweater and grabbed her winter coat for the short walk up to the post office. The sky was a pale, dull gray, and it smelled of snow. She had recently read Omega Protein’s latest report to its investors, and as she trudged slowly toward Cobb Island Road, a word from the text popped into her mind. Company executives had repeatedly made the point that Omega Protein was “diversifying.” They had purchased a California-based dietary supplement supplier that sourced pills that didn’t use fish products. They had begun talking about proteins that could be extracted from dairy and turned into nutritional capsules. Could it be that Omega Protein had begun to see the writing on the wall? Maybe they were starting to realize that the menhaden supply was not unlimited—and that advocates like Julie wouldn’t let them take every last one.

As she passed the Cobb Island pier, a few seagulls were circling mesh crab traps that had been abandoned on the dock—traps that brimmed with blue crabs in the summer-time. Julie pulled her coat closer around her against the chill. She thought ahead to the summer months, when the traps would be baited with menhaden and checked every few hours by local families, and the ice cream parlor would open to serve the seasonal tourists. By the end of summer, Omega Protein would be winding down its fishing season, and the company would likely have 20 percent less fish in their industrial-sized cookers than they did the year before. Would that be enough to help the striped bass and the osprey and the humpback whales? Julie wondered. And the thousands of fishermen whose livelihoods depended upon pulling healthy fish from the Chesapeake Bay? And the families up and down the coast who brought those fish home to eat?

Julie had done a lot of waiting in her time. She had waited her whole life to find a job like the one she had with Delegate Murphy. She had waited for the delegate to get excited about the menhaden. When their bill failed, she had waited for the ASMFC to pass regulations protecting the menhaden. Now she would have to wait a little longer to find out whether the ASMFC’s first effort at limiting the fishery would enable the menhaden population to recover. But there are two kinds of waiting, Julie thought. There’s the kind where you have no agency, and then there’s the kind where you are at the edge of your seat, ready to act at a moment’s notice. Julie felt she could act. And so could Ray, Delegate Murphy, Bruce Franklin, and the sport fishermen, who now cared even more about the oily little menhaden. For now, at least until the end of the fishing season, that had to be enough. They would just have to wait and see.

David Schleifer (david.schleifer@gmail.com) is a senior research associate at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and engagement organization. Alison Fairbrother (alison@publictrustproject.org) is the executive director of the Public Trust Project.

Editor’s Journal: Telling Stories


by

KEVIN FINNERAN

“The universe is composed of stories, not of atoms” Muriel Rukeyser wrote in her poem “The Speed of Darkness.” Good stories are not merely the collection of individual events; they are a means of expressing ideas in concrete terms at human scale. They have the ability to accomplish the apparently simple but rarely achieved task of seamlessly linking the general with the specific, of giving ideas flesh and blood.

This edition of Issues includes three articles that use narrative structure to address important science and technology policy topics. They are the product of a program at Arizona State University that was directed by writer and teacher Lee Gutkind and funded by the National Science Foundation. Begun in 2010, the Think, Write, Publish program began by assembling two dozen young writers and scientists/engineers to work in teams to prepare articles that use a narrative approach to engage readers in an S&T topic. Lee organized a training program that included several workshops and opportunities to meet with editors from major magazines and book publishers. Several of the writer/expert teams prepared articles that were published in Issues: Mary Lee Sethi and Adam Briggle on the federal Bioethics Commission, Jennifer Liu and Deborah Gardner on the global dimension of medicine and ethics, Gwen Ottinger and Rachel Zurer on environmental monitoring, and Ross Carper and Sonja Schmid on small modular nuclear reactors.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm for the initial experiment, they decided to do it again. A second cohort, again composed of 12 scholars and 12 writers, was selected in 2013. They participated in two week-long workshops. At the first meeting teams were formed, guest editors and writers offered advice, Lee and his team provided training, and the teams began their work. Six months later the teams returned for a second week-long workshop during which they worked intensively revising and refining the drafts they had prepared. They also received advice from some of the participants from the first cohort.

They learned that policy debates do not lend themselves easily to narrative treatments, that collaborative writing is difficult, that professional writers and scholars approach the task of writing very differently and have sometimes conflicting criteria for good writing. But they persisted, and now we are proud to present three of the articles that emerged from the effort. Additional articles written by the teams can be found at http://thinkwritepublish.org/.

These young authors are trailblazers in the quest to find a way to make the public more informed and more engaged participants in science, technology, and health policy debates. They recognize narrative as a way to ground and humanize discussions that are too often conducted in abstract and erudite terms. We know that the outcomes of these debates have results that are anything but abstract, and that it is essential that people from all corners and levels of society participate. Effective stories that inform and engage readers can be a valuable means of expanding participation in science policy development. If you want to see how, you can begin reading on the next page.

From the Hill


by

Details of administration’s proposed FY2015 budget

Officially released March 4, President Obama’s FY2015 budget makes clear the challenges for R&D support currently posed by the Budget Control Act spending caps. With hardly any additional room available in the discretionary budget above FY 2014 levels, and with three-quarters of the post-sequester spending reductions still in place overall, many agency R&D budgets remain essentially constant. Some R&D areas such as climate research and support for fundamental science that have been featured in past budgets did not make much fiscal headway in this year’s request. Nevertheless, the administration has managed to shift some additional funding to select programs such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, advanced manufacturing, and technology for infrastructure and transportation.

An added twist, however, is the inclusion of $5.3 billion in additional R&D spending above and beyond the current discretionary caps that is part of what the administration calls the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI). This extra funding would make a significant difference for science and innovation funding throughout government. Congress, however, has shown little interest in embracing it.

Without the OGSI the president’s proposed FY2015 budget includes a small reduction in R&D funding in constant dollars. Current AAAS estimates place R&D in the president’s request at $136.5 billion (see Table 1). This represents a 0.7% increase above FY 2014 levels but is actually a slight decrease when the 1.7% inflation rate is considered. It also represents a 3.8% increase above FY 2013 post-sequester funding levels, but with inflation the total R&D budget is almost unchanged from FY 2013.

The Department of Defense (DOD) R&D is proposed at $70.8 billion or 0.3% above FY 2014 levels. This is due to boosts in R&D at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that offsets cuts in other DOD R&D programs. Nondefense R&D is proposed at $65.7 billion, a 1.2% increase above FY 2014 levels.

Total research funding, which includes basic and applied research, would fall to $65.9 billion, a cut of $1.1 billion or 1.7% below FY 2014 levels, and only about 1.1% above FY 2013 post-sequester levels after inflation. This is in large part due to cuts in defense and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research activities, though some NASA research has also been reclassified as development, which pushes the number lower without necessarily reflecting a change in the actual work.

Conversely, development activities would increase by $2.1 billion or 3.2%, due to increases in these activities at DOD, NASA, and the Department of Energy (DOE).

The $56-billion OGSI initiative would include $6.3 billion for R&D, which would mean a 4.6% increase from FY2014.

R&D spending should be understood in the larger context of the federal budget. The discretionary spending (everything except Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) share of the budget has shrunk to 30.4% and is projected to reach 24.6% in 2019. R&D outlays as a share of the budget would drop to 3.4%, a 50-year low.

Under the president’s proposal only a few agency R&D budgets, including those at DOE, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Transportation (DOT), stay ahead of inflation, but many will be above sequester levels, and total R&D requests increased more than the average for discretionary spending.

“From the Hill” is adapted from the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress, published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

TABLE 1

R&D in the FY 2015 budget by agency (budget authority in millions of dollars)

20

Source: OMB R&D data, agency budget justifications, and agency budget documents. Does not include Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative funding (see Table II-20). Note: The projected GDP inflation rate between FY 2014 and FY 2015 is 1.7 percent. All figures are rounded to the nearest million. Changes calculated from unrounded figures.

At DOE, the energy efficiency, renewable energy, and grid technology programs are marked for significant increases, as is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E); the Office of Science is essentially the same; and nuclear and fossil energy technology programs are reduced.

The proposed budget includes an increase of more than 20% for NASA’s Space Technology Directorate, which seeks rapid public-private technology development. Cuts are proposed in development funding for the next-generation crew vehicle and launch system.

Department of Agriculture extramural research would receive a large increase even as the agency’s intramural research funding is trimmed, though significantly more funding for both is contained within the OGSI.

The DOD science & technology budget, which includes basic and applied research, advanced technology development, and medical research funded through the Defense Health Program, would be cut by $1.4 billion or 10.3% below FY 2014 levels. A 57.8% cut in medical research is proposed, but Congress is likely to restore much of this funding, as it has in the past. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is slated for a small increase.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) would continue on a downward course. The president’s request would leave the NIH budget about $4.1 billion in constant dollars or 12.5% below the FY 2004 peak. Some of the few areas seeing increased funding at NIH would include translational science, neuroscience and the BRAIN Initiative, and mental health. The additional OGSI funding would nearly, but not quite, return the NIH budget to pre-sequestration levels.

The apparently large cut in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) R&D funding is primarily explained by the reduction in funding for construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a Biosafety Level 4 facility in Kansas. Other DHS R&D activities would be cut a little, and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office would receive a funding increase.

One bright note in this constrained fiscal environment is that R&D spending fared better than average in the discretionary budget, Looking ahead, there is much more cause for concern. Unless Congress takes action, the overall discretionary budget will return to sequester levels in FY2016 and remain there for the rest of the decade.

In brief

  • On April 24, the National Science Board issued a statement articulating concerns over some portions of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST Act; H.R. 4186) which would reauthorize funding for NSF, among other things. The board expressed its “greatest” concern that “the bill’s specification of budget allocations to each NSF Directorate would significantly impede NSF’s flexibility to deploy its funds to support the best ideas in fulfillment of its mission.”
  • On April 28, the House passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (S. 994; also known as the DATA Act), sending the bill to President Obama for signature. The bill seeks to improve the “availability, accuracy, and usefulness” of federal spending information by setting standards for reporting government spending on contracts, grants, etc. The legislation would also require that the Office of Management and Budget develop a two-year pilot program to evaluate reporting by recipients of federal grants and contracts and to reduce duplicative reporting requirements.
  • On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to uphold the state of Michigan’s ban on using race as a factor in admissions for higher education institutions. In a 6-2 ruling, the Court determined that it is not in violation of the U.S. Constitution for states to prohibit public colleges and universities from using forms of racial preferences in admissions. In his opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy stated: “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”
  • On March 27, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced legislation on forensic science. The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S. 2177) “promotes national accreditation and certification standards and stronger oversight for forensic labs and practitioners, as well as the development of best practices and a national forensic science research strategy.” The bill would create an Office of Forensic Science within the Office of the Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice and would also require that the office coordinate with NIST. It would require that forensic science personnel who work in laboratories that receive federal funding be certified in their fields and that all forensic science labs that receive federal funding be accredited according to standards set by a Forensic Science Board.

How Hurricane Sandy Tamed the Bureaucracy


by

ADAM PARRIS

A practical story of making science useful for society, with lessons destined to grow in importance.

Remember Hurricane Irene? It pushed across New England in August 2011, leaving a trail of at least 45 deaths and $7 million in damages. But just over a year later, even before the last rural bridge had been rebuilt, Hurricane Sandy plowed into the New Jersey–New York coast, grabbing the national spotlight with its even greater toll of death and destruction. And once again, the region—and the nation—swung into rebuild mode.

Certainly, some rebuilding after such storms will always be necessary. However, this one-two punch underscored a pervasive and corrosive aspect of our society: We have rarely taken the time to reflect on how best to rebuild developed areas before the next crisis occurs, instead committing to a disaster-by-disaster approach to rebuilding.

Yet Sandy seems to have been enough of a shock to stimulate some creative thinking at both the federal and regional levels about how to break the cycle of response and recovery that developed communities have adopted as their default survival strategy. I have witnessed this firsthand as part of a team that designed a decision tool called the Sea Level Rise Tool for Sandy Recovery, to support not just recovery from Sandy but preparedness for future events. The story that has emerged from this experience may contain some useful lessons about how science and research can best support important social decisions about our built environment. Such lessons are likely to be of increasing importance as predicted climate change brings the inevitability of extreme weather events.

A story of cooperation

In the wake of Sandy, pressure mounted at all levels, from local to federal, to address one question: How would we rebuild? This question obviously has many dimensions, but one policy context cuts across them all. The National Flood Insurance Program provides information on flood risk that developers, property owners, and city and state governments are required to use in determining how to build and rebuild. Run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the program provides information on the height of floodwaters, known as flood elevations, that can be used to delineate on a map where it is more or less risky to build. Flood elevations are calculated based on analysis of how water moves over land during storms of varying intensity, essentially comparing the expected elevation of the water surface to that of dry land. FEMA then uses this information to create flood insurance rate maps, and insurers use the maps to determine the cost of insurance in flood-prone areas. The cost of insurance and the risk of flooding are major factors for individuals and communities in determining how high to build structures and where to locate them to avoid serious damage during floods.

But here’s the challenge that our team faced after Sandy. The flood insurance program provided information on flood risk based only on conditions in past events, and not on conditions that may occur tomorrow. Yet coastlines are dynamic. Beaches, wetlands, and barrier islands all change in response to waves and tides. These natural features shift, even as the seawalls and levees that society builds to keep communities safe are designed to stay in place. In fact, seawalls and levees add to the complexity of the coastal environment and lead to new and different changes in coastal features. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implements major capital works, including flood protection and beach nourishment, to manage these dynamic features. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) helps communities manage the coastal zone to preserve the amenities we have come to value on the coast: commerce, transportation, recreation, and healthy ecosystems, among others. And both agencies have long been doing research on another major factor of change for coastlines around the world: sea-level rise.

Any amount of sea-level rise, even an inch or two, increases the elevation of floodwaters for a given storm. Estimates of future sea-level rise are therefore a critical area of research. As Sandy approached, experts from NOAA and the Army Corps, other federal agencies, and several universities were completing a report synthesizing the state of the science on historic and future sea-level rise. The report, produced as part of a periodic updating of the National Climate Assessment, identified scenarios (plausible estimates) of global sea-level rise by the end of this century. Coupled with the best available flood elevations, the sea-level rise scenarios could help those responsible for planning and developing in coastal communities factor future risks into their decisions. This scenario-planning approach underscores a very practical element of risk management: If there’s a strong possibility of additional risk in the future, factor that into decisions today.

Few people would argue with taking steps to avoid future risk. But making this happen is not as easy as it sounds. FEMA has to gradually incorporate future flood risk information into the regulatory program even as the agency modernizes existing flood elevations and maps. The program dates back to 1968, and much of the information on flood elevations is well over 10 years old. We now have newer information on past events, more precise measurements on the elevation of land surfaces, and better understanding of how to model and map the behavior of floodwaters. We also have new technologies for providing the information via the Internet in a more visually compelling and user-specific manner. Flood elevations and flood insurance rate maps have to be updated for thousands of communities across the nation. When events like Sandy happen, FEMA issues “advisory” flood elevations to provide updated and improved information to the affected areas even if the regulatory maps are not finalized. However, neither the updated maps nor the advisory elevations have traditionally incorporated sea-level rise.

Only in 2012 did Congress pass legislation—the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act—authorizing FEMA to factor sea-level rise into flood elevations provided by the flood insurance program, so the agency has had little opportunity to accomplish this for most of the nation. Right now, people could be rebuilding structures with substantially more near-term risk of coastal flooding because they are using flood elevations that do not account for sea-level rise.

Of course, reacting to any additional flood risk resulting from higher sea levels might entail the immediate costs of building higher, stronger, or in a different location altogether. But such short-term costs are counterbalanced by the long-term benefits of health and safety and a smaller investment in maintenance, repair, and rebuilding in the wake of a disaster. So how does the federal government provide legitimate science—science that is seen by decisionmakers as reliable and legitimate—regarding future flood risk to affected communities? And how might it create incentives, financial and otherwise, for adopting additional risk factors that may mean up-front costs in return for major long-term gains?

After Sandy, leaders of government locally and nationally were quick to recognize these challenges. President Barack Obama established a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York established several expert committees to help develop statewide plans for recovery and rebuilding. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was quick to encourage higher minimum standards for rebuilding by adding 1 foot to FEMA’s advisory flood elevations. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg created the Special Initiative on Risk and Resilience, connected directly to the city’s long-term planning efforts and to an expert panel on climate change, to build the scientific foundation for local recovery strategies.

Right now, people could be rebuilding structures with substantially more near-term risk of coastal flooding because they are using flood elevations that do not account for sea-level rise.

The leadership and composition of the groups established by the president and the mayor were particularly notable and distinct from conventional efforts. They brought expertise and emphasis that focused as strongly on preparedness for a future that is likely to look different from the present, as on responding to the disaster itself. For example, the president’s choice of Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to chair the federal task force implicitly signaled a new focus on ensuring that urban systems will be resilient in the face of future risks.

New York City’s efforts have been exemplary in this regard. The organizational details are complex, but there is one especially crucial part of the story that I want to tell. When Mayor Bloomberg created the initiative on risk and resilience, he also reconvened the New York City Panel on Climate Change (known locally as the NPCC), which had been begun in 2008 to support the formulation of a long-term comprehensive development and sustainability plan, called PlaNYC. All of these efforts, which were connected directly to the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, were meant to be forward-looking and to integrate contributions from experts in planning, science, management, and response.

Tying the response to Sandy to the city’s varied efforts signaled a new approach to post-disaster development that embraced long-term resilience: the capacity to be prepared for an uncertain future. In particular, the NPCC’s role was to ensure that the evolving vulnerabilities presented by climate change would play an integral part in thinking about New York in the post-Sandy era. To this end, in September 2012, the City Council of New York codified the operations of the NPCC into the city’s charter, calling for periodic updates of the climate science information. Of course, science-based groups such as the climate panel should be valuable for communities and decisionmakers thinking about resilience and preparedness, but often they are ignored. Thus, another essential aspect of New York’s approach was that the climate panel was not just a bunch of experts speaking from a pulpit of scientific authority, but it also had members representing local and state government working as full partners.

Within NOAA, there are programs designed to improve decisions on how to build resilience into society, given the complex and uncertain interactions of a changing society and a changing environment. These programs routinely encourage engagement among different scales and sectors of government and resource management. For example, NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program provides funding for experts to participate in New York’s climate panel to develop risk information that informs both the response to Sandy and the conceptual framework for adaptively managing long-term risk within PlaNYC. Through its Coastal Services Center, NOAA also provides scientific tools and planning support for coastal communities facing real-time challenges. When Sandy occurred, the center offered staff support to FEMA’s field offices that were the local hubs among emergency management and disaster relief. Such collaboration and interactions between the RISA experts, the center staff, and the FEMA field offices fostered social relations that allowed for coordination in developing the Sea Level Rise Tool for Sandy Recovery.

In still other efforts, representatives of the president’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the Council on Environmental Quality were working with state and local leaders, including staff from the New York City’s risk and resilience initiative. The leaders of the New York initiative were working with representatives of NOAA’s RISA program, as well as with experts on the NPCC who had participated in producing the latest sea-level rise scenarios for the National Climate Assessment. The Army Corps participated in the president’s Task Force and also contributed to the sea-level rise scenarios report. This complex organizational ecology also helped create a social network among professionals in science, policy, and management charged with building a tool that can identify the best available science on sea-level rise and coastal flooding to support recovery for the region.

We have to reconcile what we learn from science with the practical realities we face in an increasingly populated and stressed environment.

Before moving on to the sea-level rise tool itself, I want to point out important dimensions of this social network and the context that facilitated such complex organizational coordination. Sandy presented a problem that motivated people in various communities of practice to work with each other. We all knew each other, wanted to help recovery efforts, and understood the limitations of the flood insurance program. In the absence of events such as Sandy, it is difficult to find such motivating factors; everyone is busy with his or her day-to-day responsibilities. Disaster drew people out of their daily routines with a common and urgent purpose. Moreover, programs such as RISA have been doing research not just to provide information on current and future risks associated with climate, but also to understand and improve the processes by which scientific research can generate knowledge that is both useful and actually used. Research on integrated problems and management across institutions and sectors is undervalued; how best to organize and manage such research is poorly understood in the federal government. Those working on this problem themselves constitute a growing community of practice.

Communities need to be able to develop long-term planning initiatives, such as New York’s PlaNYC, that are supported by bodies such as the city’s climate change panel. In order to do so, they have to establish networks of experts with whom they can develop, discuss, and jointly produce knowledge that draws on relevant and usable scientific information. But not all communities have the resources of New York City or the political capacity to embrace climate hazards. If the federal government wishes to support other communities in better preparing people for future disasters, it will have to support the appropriate organizational arrangements—especially those that can bridge boundaries between science, planning, and management.

Rising to the challenges

For more than two decades, the scientific evidence has been strong enough to enable estimates of sea-level rise to be factored into planning and management decisions. For example, NOAA maintains water-level stations (often referred to as tide gages) that document sea-level change, and over the past 30 years, 88% of the 128 stations in operation have recorded a rise in sea level. Based on such information, the National Research Council published a report in 1987 estimating that sea level would rise between 0.5 and 1.5 meters by 2100. More recent estimates suggest it could be even higher.

Of course, many coastal communities have long been acutely aware of the gradual encroachment of the sea on beaches and estuaries, and the ways in which hurricanes and tropical storms can remake the coastal landscape. So, why is it so hard to decide on a scientific basis for incorporating future flood risk into coastal management and development?

For one thing, sea-level rise is different from coastal flooding, and the science pertaining to each is evolving somewhat independently. Researchers worldwide are analyzing the different processes that contribute to sea-level rise. They are thinking about, among other things, how the oceans will expand as they absorb heat from the atmosphere; about how quickly ice sheets will melt and disintegrate in response to increasing global temperature, thereby adding volume to the oceans; and about regional and local processes that cause changes in the elevation of the land surface independent of changes in ocean volume. Scientists are experimenting, and they cannot always experiment together. They have to isolate questions about the different components of the Earth system to be able to test different assumptions, and it is not an easy task to put the information back together again. This task of synthesizing knowledge from various disciplines and even within closely related disciplines requires interdisciplinary assessments.

The sea-level rise scenarios that our team used in designing the Sandy tool, which derived from the National Climate Assessment prepared for Congress every four years to help synthesize and summarize the state of the climate and its impacts on society, varied greatly. The scenarios were based on expert judgments from the scientific literature by a diverse team drawn from the fields of climate science, oceanography, geology, engineering, political science, and coastal management, and representing six federal agencies, four universities, and one local resource management organization. The scenarios report provided a definitive range of 8 inches to 6.6 feet by the end of the century. (One main reason for such different projections is the current inadequate understanding of the rate at which the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting and disintegrating in response to increasing air temperature.) The scenarios were aimed at two audiences: regional and local experts who are charged with addressing variations in sea-level change at specific locations, and national policymakers who are reconsidering potential impacts beyond any individual community, city, or even state.

But wasn’t the choice of the experts who prepared the scenarios to present such a broad range of sea-level rise estimates simply adding to policymakers’ uncertainty about the future? The authors addressed this possible concern by associating risk tolerance—the amount of risk one would be willing to accept for a particular decision—with each scenario. For example, they said that anyone choosing to use the lowest scenario is accepting a lot of risk, because there is a wealth of evidence and agreement among experts that sea-level rise will exceed this estimate by the end of the century unless (and possibly even if) aggressive global emissions reduction measures are taken immediately. On the other hand, they said that anyone choosing to use the highest scenario is using great caution, because there is currently less evidence to support sea-level rise of this magnitude by the end of the century (although it may rise to such levels in the more distant future).

Thus, urban planners may want to consider higher scenarios of sea-level rise, even if they are less likely, because this approach will enable them to analyze and prepare for risks in an uncertain future. High sea-level rise scenarios may even provide additional factors of safety, particularly where the consequences of coastal flood events threaten human health, human safety, or critical infrastructure—or perhaps all three. The most likely answer might not always be the best answer for minimizing, preparing for, or avoiding risk. Framing the scenarios in this fashion helps avoid any misperceptions about exaggerating risk. But more importantly, it supports deliberation in planning and making policy about the basis for setting standards and policies and for designing new projects in the coastal zone. The emphasis shifts to choices about how much or how little risk to accept.

In contrast to the scenarios developed for the National Climate Assessment, the estimates made by the New York City climate panel addressed regional and local variations in sea-level rise and are customized to support design and rebuilding decisions in the city that respond to risks over the next 25 to 45 years. They were developed after Sandy by integrating scientific findings published just the previous year—after the national scenarios report was released. The estimates were created using a combination of 24 state-of-the-art global climate models, observed local data, and expert judgment. Each climate model can be thought of as an experiment that includes different assumptions about global-scale processes in the Earth system (such as changes in the atmosphere). As with the national scenarios report, then, the collection of models provides a range of estimates of sea-level rise that in total convey a sense of the uncertainties. The New York City climate panel held numerous meetings throughout the spring of 2013 to discuss the model projections and to frame its own statements about the implications of the results for future risks to the city arising from sea-level rise (e.g., changes in the frequency of coastal flooding due to sea-level rise). These meetings were attended by not only physical and social scientists but also by decisionmakers facing choices at all stages of the Sandy rebuilding process, from planning to design to engineering and construction.

As our team developed the sea-level rise tool, we found minimal difference between the models used by the New York climate panel and the nationally produced scenarios. At most, the extreme national scenarios and the high-end New York projections were separated by 3 inches, and the intermediate scenarios and the mean model values were separated by 2 inches. This discrepancy is well within the limits of accuracy reflected in current knowledge of future sea-level rise. But small discrepancies can make a big difference in planning and policymaking.

New York State regulators evaluating projects proposed by organizations that manage critical infrastructure, such as power plants and wastewater treatment facilities, look to science vetted by the federal government as a basis for approving new or rebuilt infrastructure. Might the discrepancies between the scenarios produced for the National Climate Assessment and the projections made by the NPCC, however small, cause regulators to question the scientific and engineering basis for including future sea-level rise in their project evaluations? Concerned about this prospect, the New York City Mayor’s Office wanted the tool to use only the projections of its own climate panel.

The complications didn’t stop there. In April 2013, HUD Secretary Donovan announced a Federal Flood Risk Reduction Standard, developed by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, for federal agencies to use in their rebuilding and recovery efforts in the regions affected by Sandy. The standard added 1 foot to the advisory flood elevations provided by the flood insurance program. Up to that point, our development team had been working in fairly confidential settings, but now we had to consider additional questions. Would the tool be used to address regulatory requirements of the flood insurance program? Why use the tool instead of the advisory elevations or the Federal Flood Risk Reduction Standard? How should decisionmakers deal with any differences between the 1-foot advisory elevation and the information conveyed by the tool? We spent the next two months addressing these questions and potential confusion over different sets of information about current and future flood risk.

Our team—drawn from NOAA, the Army Corps, FEMA, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program—released the tool in June 2013. It provides both interactive maps depicting flood-prone areas and calculators for estimating future flood elevations, all under different scenarios of sea-level rise. Between the time of Secretary Donovan’s announcement and the release of the tool, the team worked extensively with representatives from FEMA field offices, the New York City climate panel, the New York City Mayor’s Office, and the New York and New Jersey governors’ offices to ensure that the choices about the underlying scientific information were well understood and clearly communicated. The social connections were again critical in convening the right people from the various levels of government and the scientific and practitioner communities.

During this period, the team made key changes in how the tool presented information. For example, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force approved the integration of sea-level rise estimates from the New York climate panel into the tool, providing a federal seal of approval that could give state regulators confidence in the science. This decision also helped address the minimal discrepancies between the long-term scenarios of sea-level rise made for the National Climate Assessment and the shorter-term estimates made by the New York climate panel. The President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy also approved expanding access to the tool via a page on the Global Change Research Program’s Web site [http://www.globalchange.gov/what-we-do/assessment/coastal-resilience-resources]. This access point helped distinguish the tool as an interagency product separate from the National Flood Insurance Program, thus making clear that its use was advisory, not mandated by regulation. Supporting materials on the Web site (including frequently asked questions, metadata, planning context, and disclaimers, among others) provided background detail for various user communities and also helped to make clear that the New York climate panel sea-level rise estimates were developed through a legitimate and transparent scientific process.

The process of making the tool useful for decisionmakers involved diverse players in the Sandy recovery story discussing different ideas about how people and organizations were considering risk in their rebuilding decisions. For example, our development team briefed a diverse set of decisionmakers in the New York and New Jersey governments to facilitate deliberations about current and future risk. Our decision to use the New York City climate panel estimates in the tool helped to change the recovery and rebuilding process from past- to future-oriented, not only because the science was of good quality but because integration of the panel’s numbers into the tool brought federal, state, and city experts and decisionmakers together, while alleviating the concerns of state regulators about small discrepancies between different sea-level rise estimates.

In 2013, New York City testified in a rate case (the process by which public utilities set rates for consumers) and called for Con Edison (the city’s electric utility) and the Public Service Commission to ensure that near-term investments are made to fortify utility infrastructure assets. Con Edison has planned for $1 billion in resiliency investments that address future risk posed by climate change. As part of this effort, the utility has adopted a design criteria that uses FEMA’s flood insurance rate maps that are based on 100-year flood elevations, plus 3 feet to account for a high-end estimate of sea-level rise by mid-century. This marked the first time in the country that a rate case explicitly incorporated consideration of climate change.

New York City also passed 16 local laws in 2013 to improve building codes in the floodplain, to protect against future risk of flooding, high winds, and prolonged power outages. For example, Local Law 96/2013 adopted FEMA’s updated flood insurance rate maps with additional safety standards for some single-family homes, based on sea-level rise as projected by the NPCC.

Our development team would never have known about New York City’s need to develop a rate case with federally vetted information on future risk, if we had not worked with officials from the city’s planning department. Engaging city and state government officials was useful not just for improving the clarity and purpose of the information in the tool. It was also useful for choosing what information would be included in the tool to enable a comprehensive and implementable strategy.

The key difference in the development of the Sandy recovery tool was the intensive and protracted social process of discussing what information went into it and how it could be used.

Different scales of government—local, state, and federal—have to be able to lead processes for bringing appropriate knowledge and standards into planning, design, and engineering. Conversely, all scales of government need to validate the standards revealed by these processes, because they all play a role in implementation.

Building resilience capacity

This complex story has a particularly important yet unfamiliar lesson: Planning departments are key partners in helping break the cycle of recovery and response, and in helping people adopt lessons learned from science into practice. Planners at different levels of government convene different communities of practice and disciplinary expertise around shared challenges. Coincidentally, scientific organizations that cross the boundaries between these different communities—such as the New York City climate panel and the team that developed the sea-level rise tool—can also encourage those interactions. As I’ve tried to illustrate, planning departments convene scientists and decisionmakers alike to work across organizational boundaries that under normal circumstances help to define their identities. These are important ingredients for preparing for future natural disasters and increasing our resilience to them over the long term, and yet this type of science capacity is barely supported by the federal government. How might the lessons from the Sandy Sea Level Rise Recovery Tool and Hurricane Sandy be more broadly adopted to help the nation move away from disaster-by-disaster policy and planning? Here are two ideas to consider in the context of coastal resilience.

First, re-envision the development of resilient flood standards as planning processes, not just numbers or codes.

Planning is a comprehensive and iterative function in government and community development. Planners are connected to or leading the development of everything from capital public works projects to regional plans for ecosystem restoration. City waterfronts, wildlife refuges and restored areas, and transportation networks all draw the attention of planning departments.

In their efforts, planners seek to keep development goals rooted in public values, and they are trained, formally and informally, in the process of civic engagement, in which citizens have a voice in shaping the development of their community. Development choices include how much risk to accept and whether or how the federal government regulates those choices. For this reason, planners maintain practical connections to existing regulations and laws and to the management of existing resources. Their position in the process of community development and resource management requires planners to also be trained in applying the results of research (such as sea-level rise scenarios) to design and engineering. Over the past decade, many city, state, and local governments have either explicitly created sustainability planner positions in high levels (such as mayors’ or governors’ offices) or reframed their planning departments to emphasize sustainability, as in the case of New York City. The planners in these positions are incredibly important for building resilience into urban environments; not because they see the future, but because they provide a nucleus for convening the diverse constituencies from which visions of, and pathways to, the future are imagined and implemented.

If society is to be more resilient, planners must be critical actors in government. We cannot expect policymakers and the public to simply trust or comprehend or even find useful what we learn from science. We have to reconcile what we learn from science with the practical realities we face in an increasingly populated and stressed environment. And yet, despite their critical role in achieving resilience, many local planning departments across the country have been eliminated during the economic downturn.

Second, configure part of our research and service networks to be flexible in response to emergent risk.

The federal government likes to build new programs, sometimes at the expense of working through existing ones, because new initiatives can be political instruments for demonstrating responsiveness to public needs. But recovery from disasters and preparation to better respond to future disasters can be supported through existing networks. Across the span of lands under federal authority, FEMA has regional offices that work with emergency managers, and NOAA supports over 50 Sea Grant colleges that engage communities in science-based discussions on issues related to coastal management. Digital Coast, a partnership between NOAA and six national, regional, and state planning and management organizations, provides timely information on coastal hazards and communities. These organizations work together to develop knowledge and solutions for planners and managers in coastal zones, in part by funding university-based science-and-assessment teams. The interdisciplinary expertise and localized focus of such teams help scientists situate climate and weather information in the context of ongoing risks such as sea-level rise and coastal flooding. All of these efforts contributed directly and indirectly to the Sea Level Rise Tool before, during, and after Hurricane Sandy.

The foundational efforts of these programs exemplify how science networks can leverage their relationships and expertise to get timely and credible scientific information into the hands of people who can benefit from it. Rather than creating new networks or programs, the nation could support efforts explicitly designed to connect and leverage existing networks for risk response and preparation. The story I’ve told here illustrates how existing relationships within and between vibrant communities of practice are an important part of the process of productively bringing science and decisionmaking together. New programs are much less effective in capitalizing on those relationships.

One way to support capacities that already exist would be to anticipate the need to distribute relief funds to existing networks. This idea could be loosely based on the Rapid Response Research Grants administered by the National Science Foundation, with a couple of important variations from its usual focus on supporting basic research. Agencies could come together to identify a range of planning processes supported by experts who work across communities of practice to ensure a direct connection to preparedness for future natural disasters of the same kind. These priority-setting exercises might build on the interagency discussions that occur as part of the federal Global Change Research Program. Also, since any such effort would require engagement between decisionmakers and scientists, recipients of this funding would be asked to report on the nature of additional, future engagement. What further engagement is required? Who are the critical actors, and are they adequately supported to play a role in resilience efforts? How are those networks increasing resilience over time? Gathering information about questions such as these is critical for the federal government to make science policy decisions that support a sustainable society.

Working toward a collective vision

The shift from reaction and response to preparedness seems like common sense, but as this story illustrates, it is complicated to achieve. One reaction to this story might be to replicate the technology in the sea-level rise tool or to apply the same or similar information sets elsewhere. The federal government has already begun such efforts, and this approach will supply people with better information.

Yet across the country, there are probably hundreds of similar decision tools developed by universities, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses that depict coastal flooding resulting from sea-level rise. The key difference in the development of the Sandy recovery tool was the intensive and protracted social process of discussing what information went into it and how it could be used. By connecting those discussions to existing planning processes, we reached different scales of government with different responsibilities and authority for reaching the overarching goal of developing more sustainable urban and coastal communities.

This story suggests that the role of science in helping society to better manage persistent environmental problems such as sea-level rise is not going to emerge from research programs isolated from the complex social and institutional settings of decisionmaking. Science policies aimed at achieving a more sustainable future must increasingly emphasize the complex and time-consuming social aspects of bringing scientific advance and decisionmaking into closer alignment.

Adam Parris is program manager of Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Breaking the Climate Deadlock


by

DAVID GARMAN

KERRY EMANUEL

BRUCE PHILLIPS

Developing a broad and effective portfolio of technology options could provide the common ground on which conservatives and liberals agree.

The public debate over climate policy has become increasingly polarized, with both sides embracing fairly inflexible public positions. At first glance, there appears little hope of common ground, much less bipartisan accord. But policy toward climate change need not be polarizing. Here we offer a policy framework that could appeal to U.S. conservatives and progressives alike. Of particular importance to conservatives, we believe, is the idea embodied in our framework of preserving and expanding, rather than narrowing, societal and economic options in light of an uncertain future.

This article reviews the state of climate science and carbon-free technologies and outlines a practical response to climate deadlock. Although it may be difficult to envision the climate issue becoming depoliticized to the point where political leaders can find common ground, even the harshest positions at the polar extremes of the current debate need not preclude the possibility.

We believe that a close look at what is known about climate science and the economic competitiveness of low-carbon/carbon-free technologies—which include renewable energy, advanced energy efficiency technologies, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and sequestration systems (CCS) for fossil fuels—may provide a framework that could even be embraced by climate skeptics willing to invest in technology innovation as a hedge against bad climate outcomes and on behalf of future economic vitality.

Most atmospheric scientists agree that humans are contributing to climate change. Yet it is important to also recognize that there is significant uncertainty regarding the pace, severity, and consequences of the climate change attributable to human activities; plausible impacts range from the relatively benign to globally catastrophic. There is also tremendous uncertainty regarding short-term and regional impacts, because the available climate models lack the accuracy and resolution to account for the complexities of the climate system.

Although this uncertainty complicates policymaking, many other important policy decisions are made in conditions of uncertainty, such as those involving national defense, preparation for natural disasters, or threats to public health. We may lack a perfect understanding of the plans and capabilities of a future adversary or the severity and location of the next flood or the causes of a new disease epidemic, but we nevertheless invest public resources to develop constructive, prudent policies and manage the risks surrounding each.

Reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) would require widespread deployment of carbon-free energy technologies and changes in land-use practices. Under extreme circumstances, addressing climate risks could also require the deployment of climate remediation technologies such as atmospheric carbon removal and solar radiation management. Unfortunately, leading carbon-free electric technologies are currently about 30 to 290% more expensive on an unsubsidized basis than conventional fossil fuel alternatives, and technologies that could remove atmospheric carbon from the atmosphere or mitigate climate impacts are mostly unproven and some may have dangerous consequences. At the same time, the pace of technological change in the energy sector is slow; any significant decarbonization will unfold over the course of decades. These are fundamental hurdles.

It is also reasonably clear, particularly after taking into account the political concerns about economic costs, that widespread deployment of carbon-free technologies will not take place until diverse technologies are fully demonstrated at commercial scale and the cost premium has been reduced to a point where the public views the short-term political and economic costs as being reasonably in balance with plausible longer-term benefits.

Given these twin assessments, we propose a practical approach to move beyond climate deadlock. The large cost premium and unproven status of many technologies point to a need to focus on innovation, cost reduction, and successfully demonstrating multiple strategically important technologies at full commercial scale. At the same time, the uncertainty of long-term climate projections, together with the 1000+ year lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, argues for a measured and flexible response, but one that can be ramped up quickly.

This can be done by broadening and intensifying efforts to develop, fully demonstrate, and reduce the cost of a variety of carbon-free energy and climate remediation technologies, including carbon capture and sequestration and advanced nuclear, renewable, and energy efficiency technologies. In addition, atmospheric carbon removal and solar radiation management technologies should be carefully researched.

Conservatives have typically been strong supporters of fundamental government research, as well as technology development and demonstration in areas that the private sector does not support, such as national security and health. Also, even the most avowed climate skeptic will often concede that there are risks of inaction, and that it is prudent for national and global leaders to hedge against those risks, just as a prudent corporate board of directors will hedge against future risks to corporate profitability and solvency. Moreover, increasing concern about climate change abroad suggests potentially large foreign markets for innovative energy technologies, thus adding an economic competitiveness rationale for investment that does not depend on one’s assessment of climate risk.

Some renewed attention is being devoted to innovation, but funding is limited and the scope of technologies is overly constrained. Our suggested policy approach, in contrast, would involve a three- to fivefold increase in R&D and demonstration spending in both the public and private sectors, including possible new approaches that involve more than simply providing the funding through traditional channels such as the Department of Energy (DOE) and the national labs.

Investing in the development of technology options is a measured, flexible approach that could also shorten the time needed to decarbonize the economy. It would give future policymakers more opportunities to deploy proven, lowercost technologies, without the commitment to deploy them if they turn out to be unnecessary, ineffective, or uneconomic. And with greater emphasis on innovation, it would allow technologies to be deployed more quickly, broadly, and cost-effectively, which would be particularly important if impacts are expected to be rapid and severe.

In addition to research, development, and demonstration (RD&D), new policy options to support technology deployment should be explored. Current deployment programs principally using the tax code have not, at least to date, successfully commercialized technologies in a widespread and cost-effective manner or provided strong incentives for continued innovation. New approaches are necessary.

Climate knowledge

Although new research constantly adds to the state of scientific knowledge, the basic science of climate change and the role of human-generated emissions have been reasonably well understood for at least several decades. Today, most climate scientists agree that human-caused warming is underway. Some of the major areas of agreement include the following:

  • GHGs, which include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and other gases, trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the earth by allowing solar radiation to pass largely unimpeded to the surface of the earth and re-radiating a portion of the thermal radiation received from the earth back toward the surface. This is the “greenhouse effect.”
  • Paleoclimatology, which is the study of past climate conditions based on the geologic record, shows that changing levels of GHGs in the atmosphere have been associated with climatic change as far back as the geological record extends.
  • The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in preindustrial times to about 400 ppm today, an increase of 43%. Ice core records suggest that the current level is higher than at any time over at least the past 650,000 years, whereas analysis of marine sediments suggests that CO2 levels have not been this high in at least 2.1 million years.
  • Human-made (anthropogenic) CO2 emissions, primarily resulting from the consumption of fossil fuels, are probably responsible for much of the warming observed in recent decades. Climate scientists attempting to replicate climate patterns over the past 30 years have not been able to do so without accounting for anthropogenic GHGs and sulfate aerosols.
  • CO2 emissions are also contributing to increases in surface ocean acidity, which degrades ocean habitats, including important commercial fisheries.
  • Given the current rate of global emissions, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 could reach twice the preindustrial level within the next 50 years, concentration levels our planet has not experienced in literally millions of years.
  • The global climate system has tremendous inertia. Due to the persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere and the oceans, many of the effects of climate change will not diminish naturally for hundreds of years if not longer.

About these basic points there is little debate, even from those who believe that the risks are not likely to be severe. Indeed, it is also true that long-term climate projections are subject to considerable uncertainty and legitimate scientific debate. The fundamental complexity of the climate system, in particular the feedback effects of clouds and water vapor, is the most important contributor to uncertainty. Consequently, long-term projections reflect considerable uncertainty in how rapidly, and to what extent, temperatures will increase over time. It is possible that the climate will be relatively slow to warm and that the effects of warming may be relatively mild for some time. But there is also a worrisome likelihood that the climate will warm too quickly for society to adapt and prosper—with severe or perhaps even catastrophic consequences.

Unfortunately, we should not expect the range of climate projections to narrow in a meaningful way soon; policymakers may hope for the best but must prepare for the worst.

Technology readiness

Under the best of circumstances, the risks associated with climate uncertainties could be managed, at least in part, with a mix of today’s carbon-free energy and climate remediation technologies. Carbon-free energy generation, as used in this paper, includes renewable, nuclear, and carbon capture and sequestration systems for fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. Climate remediation technologies (often grouped together under the term “geoengineering”) include methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (such as air capture), as well as processes that might mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change (such as solar radiation management). We note that energy efficiency or the pursuit of greater energy productivity is prudent even in the absence of climate risk, so it is particularly important in the face of it. Although this discussion focuses on electric generation, any effective decarbonization policy will also need to address emissions from the transportation sector; the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors; and land use. Similar frameworks, focused on expanding sensible options and hedging against a worst-case future, could be developed for each.

To be effective, carbon-free and climate remediation technologies and processes need to be economically viable, fully demonstrated at scale (if they have not yet been), and be capable of global deployment in a reasonably timely manner. Moreover, they would also need to be sufficiently diverse and economical to be deployed in varied regional economies across the world, ranging from the relatively low-growth developed world to the rapidly growing developing nations, particularly those with expanding urban centers such as China and India.

The list of strategically essential climate technologies is not long, yet each of these technologies, in its current state of development, is limited in important ways. Although their status and prospects vary in different regions of the world, they are either not yet fully demonstrated, not capable of rapid widespread global deployment, or unacceptably expensive relative to conventional energy technologies. These limitations are well documented, if not widely recognized or acknowledged. The limitations of current technologies can be illustrated by quickly reviewing the status of a number of major electricity-generating technologies.

On-shore wind and some other renewable technologies such as solar photovoltaic (PV) have experienced dramatic cost reductions over the past three decades. These cost reductions, along with deployment subsidies, have clearly had an impact. Between 2009 and 2013, U.S. wind output more than doubled, and U.S. solar output increased by a factor of 10. However, because ground-level winds are typically intermittent, wind turbines cannot be relied on to generate electricity whenever there is electrical demand, and the amount of generating output cannot be directly controlled in response to moment-by-moment changes in electric demand and the availability of other generating resources. As a consequence, wind turbines do not produce electrical output of comparable economic value to the output of conventional generating resources such as natural gas–fired power plants that are, in energy industry parlance, both “firm” and “dispatchable.” Furthermore, the cost of a typical or average onshore wind project in the United States, without federal and state subsidies, although now less than that of new pulverized coal plants, is still substantially more than a new gas-fired combined-cycle plant, which is generally considered the lowest-cost conventional resource in most U.S. power markets. Solar PV also suffers from its intermittency and variability, and significant penetration of solar PV can test grid reliability and complicate distribution system operation, as we are now seeing in Germany. Some of these challenges can be overcome with careful planning and coordinated execution, but the scale-up potential and economics of these resources could be improved substantially by innovations in energy storage, as well as technological improvements to increase renewables’ power yield and capacity factor.

Current light-water nuclear power technology is also more expensive than conventional natural gas generation in the United States, and suffers from safety concerns, waste disposal challenges, and proliferation risks in some overseas markets. Further, given the capital intensity and large scale of today’s commercial nuclear plants (which are commonly planned as two 1,000–megawatt (MW) generating units), the total cost of a new nuclear plant exceeds the market capitalization of many U.S. electric utilities, making sole-ownership investments a “bet-the-company” financial decision for corporate management and shareholders. Yet recent improvements in costs have been demonstrated in overseas markets through standardized manufacturing processes and economies of scale; and many new innovative designs promise further cost reductions, improved safety, a smaller waste footprint, and less proliferation risk.

CCS technology is also limited. Although all major elements of the technology have been demonstrated successfully, and the process is used commercially in some industrial settings and for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), it is only now on track to being fully demonstrated at two commercial-scale electric generation facilities under construction, one in the United States and one in Canada. And deploying CCS on existing electric power plants would reduce generation efficiency and increase production costs to the point where such CCS retrofits would be uneconomic today without large government incentives or a carbon price higher than envisioned in recent policy proposals.

The cost premium of these carbon-free technologies relative to that of conventional natural gas–fired combined cycle technology in the United States is illustrated in the next chart.

As shown, the total levelized cost of new natural gas combined-cycle generation over its expected operating life is roughly $67/MWh (MWh, megawatt-hour). In contrast, typical onshore wind projects (without federal and state subsidies and without considering the cost of backup power and other grid integration requirements) cost about $87/MWh. New gas-fired combined-cycle plants with CCS cost approximately $93/MWh and nuclear projects about $108/MWh. New coal plants with CCS, solar PV, and offshore wind projects are yet more costly. Taken together, these estimates generally point to a cost premium of $20 to $194/MWh, or 29 to 290%, for low carbon generation.

Some may argue that this cost premium is overstated because it does not reflect the cost of the carbon externality. This would be accurate from a conceptual economic perspective, but from a commercial or customer perspective, it is understated because it doesn’t account for the substantial costs of providing backup or stored power to overcome intermittency problems. The practical effect of this cost difference remains: However the cost premium might be reduced over time (whether through carbon pricing, other forms of regulation, higher fossil fuel prices, or technological innovation), the gap today is large enough to constitute a fundamental impediment to developing effective deployment policies.

This is evidenced in the United States by the wind industry’s continued dependence on federal tax incentives, the difficulty of securing federal or state funding for proposed utility-scale CCS projects, the slow pace of developing new nuclear plants, and the recent controversies in several states proposing to develop new offshore wind and coal gasification projects. The inability to pass federal climate legislation can also be seen as an indication of widespread concern about the cost of emissions reductions using existing technologies, the effectiveness of the legislation in the global long-term context, or both.

FIGURE 1

79

Source: EIA LCOE in AEO 2013

Cost considerations are even more fundamental in the developing world, where countries’ overriding economic goal is to raise their population’s standard of living. This usually requires inexpensive sources of electricity, and technologies that are only available at a large cost premium are unlikely to be rapidly or widely adopted.

Although there is little doubt that there are opportunities to reduce the cost and improve the performance of today’s technologies, the history of technological transformation in the energy sector is typically slow, unpredictable, and incremental because it widely employs long-lived capital-intensive production and infrastructure assets tied together through complex global industries—characteristics contributing to tremendous inertia. Engineering breakthroughs are rare, and new technologies typically take many decades to reach maturity at scale, sometimes requiring the development of new business models. As described by Arnulf Grübler and Nebojsa Nakicenovic, scholars at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the world has only made two “grand” energy transitions: one from biomass to coal between 1850 and 1920, and a second from coal to oil and gas between 1920 and today. The first transition lasted roughly 70 years; the second has now lasted approximately 90 years.

A similar theme is seen in the electric generating industry. In the 130 years or so since central generating stations and the electric lightbulb were first established, only a handful of basic electric generating technologies have become commercially widespread. By far the most common of these is the thermal power station, which uses energy from either the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) or a nuclear reactor to operate a steam turbine, which in turn powers an electric generator.

The conditions that made energy system transitions slow in the past still exist today. Even without political gridlock, it could well take many decades to decarbonize the global energy sector, a period of time that would produce much higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and ever-growing greater risks to society. This points to the importance of beginning the long transition to decarbonize the economy as soon as possible.

Policy implications

Given the uncertainties in climate projection, innovation, and technology deployment, developing a broad range of technology options can be a hedge against climate risk.

Technology “options” (as the term is used here) include carbon-free technologies that are relatively costly or not fully demonstrated but with innovation through fundamental and applied RD&D might become sufficiently reliable, affordable, and scalable to be widely deployed if and when policymakers determine they are needed. (They are not to be confused with other technologies, such as controls for non-CO2 GHGs such as methane and niche EOR applications of fossil CCS, which have already been commercialized.)

A technology option is analogous to a financial option. The investment to create the technology is akin to the cost of buying the financial option; it gives the owner the right but not the obligation to engage in a later transaction.

Examples of carbon-free generation options include small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) or advanced Generation IV nuclear reactor technologies such as sodium or gas-cooled fast reactors; advanced CCS technologies for both coal and natural gas plants; underground coal gasification with CCS (UCG/CCS); and advanced renewable technologies. Developing options on such technologies (assuming innovation success) would reduce the cost premium of decarbonization, the time required to decarbonize the global economy, and the risks and costs of quickly scaling up technologies that are not yet fully proven.

In contrast to carbon-free generation, climate remediation options could directly remove carbon from the atmosphere or mitigate some of its worst effects. Examples include atmospheric carbon removal technologies (such as air capture and sequestration, regional or continental afforestation, and ocean iron fertilization) and solar radiation management technologies (such as stratospheric aerosol injection and cloud-whitening systems.) Because these technologies have the potential to reduce atmospheric concentrations or global average temperatures, they could (if proven) reduce, reverse, or prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change if atmospheric concentrations rise to unacceptably high levels. The challenge with this category of technologies will be to reduce the cost and increase the scale of application while avoiding unintended environmental and ecosystem harms that would offset the benefits they create.

Again, investing now in the development of such technology options would not create an obligation to deploy them, but it would yield reliable performance and cost data for future policymakers to consider in determining how to most effectively and efficiently address the climate issue. That is the essence of an iterative risk management process. Such a portfolio approach would also position the country to benefit economically from the growing overseas markets for carbon-free generation and other low-carbon technologies. It also addresses the political and economic polarization around various energy options, with some ideologies and interests focused on renewables, others on nuclear energy, and still others on CCS. A portfolio approach not only hedges against future climate uncertainties but also offers expanded opportunities for political inclusiveness and economic benefit. Over a period of time, investments in new and expanded RD&D programs would lead to new intellectual property that could help grow investments, design, manufacturing, employment, sales, and exports to serve overseas and perhaps domestic markets.

Although new attention is being devoted to energy innovation, including DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the scope of technologies is far too constrained.

This portfolio approach would be a significant departure from current innovation and deployment policies. Although new attention is being devoted to energy innovation, including DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), the scope of technologies is far too constrained. For instance, despite its importance, a fully funded program to demonstrate multiple commercial-scale post-combustion CCS systems for both coal and natural gas generating technologies has yet to be established. Similarly, efforts to develop advanced nuclear reactor designs are limited, and there is almost no government support for climate remediation technologies. Renewable energy can make a large contribution, but numerous studies have demonstrated that it will probably be much more difficult and costly to decarbonize our electricity system within the next half century without CCS and nuclear power.

Our approach, in contrast, would involve a broader mix of technologies and innovation programs including the fossil, advanced nuclear, advanced renewable, and climate remediation technologies to maximize our chances of creating proven, scalable, and economic technologies for deployment.

The specific deployment policies needed would depend in part on the choice of technologies and the status of their development, but they would probably encompass an expanded suite of programs across the RD&D-to-commercialization continuum, including fundamental and applied R&D programs, incentives, and other means to support pilot and demonstration programs, government procurement programs, and joint international technology development and transfer efforts.

The innovation processes used by the federal government also warrant assessment and possible reform. A number of important recent studies and reports have critiqued past and current policies and put forward recommendations to accelerate innovation. Of particular note are recommendations to provide greater support for demonstration projects, expand ARPA-E, create new institutions (such as a Clean Energy Deployment Administration, a Green Bank, an Energy Technology Corporation, Public-Private Partnerships, or Regional Innovation Investment Boards), and promote competition between government agencies such as DOE and the Department of Defense. All of these deserve further attention.

Of course there will never be enough money to do everything. That’s why a strategic approach is essential. The portfolio should focus on strategically important technologies with the potential to make a material difference, based on analytical criteria such as:

  • The likelihood of becoming “proven.” Many if not most of the technologies that are likely to be considered options have not yet been proven to be reliable technologies at reasonable cost. Consequently, assessing this prospect, along with a time frame for full development and deployment, would obviously be an important decision criterion. This would not preclude “long-shot” technologies; rather it would ensure that their prospects for success be weighed with other criteria.
  • Ability to reach multi-terawatt scale. Some projections of energy demand suggest that complete decarbonization of the energy system could require 30 terawatts of carbon-free power by mid-century, given current growth patterns.
  • Relevance to Asia and the developing world. Because most of the growth in the developing world will be concentrated in large dense cities, distributed energy sources or those requiring large amounts of land area may have less relevance.
  • Ability to generate firm and dispatchable power. Electrical demands vary widely over time, often fluctuating by a factor of 2 over the course of a single day. Because electricity needs to be generated in a reliable fashion in response to demand, intermittent resources could have less relevance under conditions of deep decarbonization, unless their electrical output can be converted into a firm resource through grid-scale energy storage systems.
  • Potential to reduce costs within a reasonable range of conventional technologies. The less expensive a zero-carbon energy source is and the closer it can be managed down to cost parity with conventional resources such as gas and coal, the more likely it is that it will be rapidly adopted at scale.
  • Private-sector investment. If the private sector is adequately investing in the development or demonstration of a given technology, there would be no need for duplicative government support.
  • Potential to advance U.S. competitiveness. Investments should be sensitive to areas of energy innovation where the United States is well positioned to be a global leader.

To illustrate this further, programs might include the following.

  1. A program to demonstrate multiple CCS technologies, including post-combustion coal, pre-combustion coal, and natural gas combined-cycle technologies at full commercial scale.
  2. A program to develop advanced nuclear reactor designs, including a federal RD&D program capable of addressing each of the fundamental concerns about nuclear power. Particular attention should be given to the potential for small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced, non–light-water reactors. A key complement to such a program would be the review and, if necessary, reform of Nuclear Regulatory Commission expertise and capabilities to review and license advanced reactor designs.
  3. Augmentation of the Department of Defense’s capabilities to sponsor development, demonstration, and scale-up of advanced energy technology projects that contribute to the military’s national security mission, such as energy security for permanent bases and energy independence for forward bases in war zones.
  4. Continued expansion of international technology innovation programs and transfer of insights from overseas manufacturing processes that have resulted in large capital cost reductions for the United States. In recent years, a number of government-to-government and business–to–nongovernmental organization partnerships have been established to facilitate such technology innovation and transfer efforts.
  5. Consideration of the use of a competitive procurement model, in which government provides funding opportunities for private-sector partners to demonstrate and deploy selective technologies that lack a current market rationale to be commercialized.

Note that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the efforts that could be considered, but there should be consideration of new models of public-private cooperation in technology development.

The technology options approach outlined in this paper, with its emphasis on research, development, demonstration, and innovation, serves a different albeit overlapping purpose from deployment programs such as technology portfolio standards, carbon-pricing policies, and feed-in tariffs. The options approach focuses primarily on developing improved and new technologies, whereas deployment programs focus primarily on commercializing proven technologies.

RD&D and deployment policies are generally recognized as being complementary; both would be needed to fully decarbonize the economy unless carbon mitigation was in some way highly valued in the marketplace. In practice, at least to date, technology deployment programs have not successfully commercialized carbon-free technologies in a widespread, cost-effective manner, or offered incentives to continue to innovate and improve the technology. New approaches including the use of market-based pricing mechanisms such as reverse auctions and other competitive procurement methods are likely to be more flexible, economically efficient, and programmatically effective.

Yet deploying new carbon-free technologies on a wide-spread basis over an extended period of time will be a policy challenge until the cost premium has been reduced to a level at which the tradeoffs between short-term certain costs, and long-term uncertain benefits are acceptable to the public. Until then, new deployment programs will be difficult to establish, and if they are established, they are likely to have little material impact (because efforts to constrain program costs would lead these programs to have very limited scopes) or be quickly terminated (due to high program costs), as we have seen with, for example, the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation. Therefore, substantially reducing the cost premium for carbon-free energy must be a priority for both innovation and deployment programs. It is likely to be the fastest and most practical path to create a realistic opportunity to rapidly decarbonize the economy.

Although we are not proposing a specific or complete set of programs in this paper, it is fair to say that our policy approach would involve a substantial increase in energy RD&D spending—an effort that could cost between $15 billion and $25 billion per year, a three- to fivefold increase over recent energy RD&D spending levels.

This is a significant increase over historic levels but modest compared to current funding for medical research (approximately $30 billion per year) and military research (approximately $80 billion per year), in line with previous R&D initiatives over the years (such as the War on Terror, the NIH buildup in the early 2000s, and the Apollo space program), and similar to other recent energy innovation proposals.

The increase in funding would need to be paid for, requiring redirection of existing subsidies, funding a clean energy trust from federal revenues accruing from expanded oil and gas production, a modest “wires charge” on electricity rate payers, or reallocations as part of a larger tax reform effort. We are not suggesting that this would necessarily be easy, only that such investments are necessary and are not out of line with other innovation investment strategies that the nation has adopted, usually with bipartisan support. In this light, we emphasize again the political virtues of a portfolio approach that keeps technological options open and offers additional possible benefits from the potential for enhanced economic competitiveness.

In light of the uncertain but clear risk of severe climate impacts, prudence calls for undertaking some form of risk management. The minimum 50-year time period that will be required to decarbonize the global economy and the effectively irreversible nature of any climate impacts argue for undertaking that effort as soon as reasonably possible. Yet pragmatism requires us to recognize that most of the technologies needed to manage this risk are either substantially more expensive than conventional alternatives or are as yet unproven.

These uncertainties and challenges need not be confounding obstacles to action. Instead, they can be addressed in a sensible way by adopting the broad “portfolio of technology options” approach outlined in this paper; that is, by developing a diverse array of proven technologies (including carbon capture, advanced nuclear, advanced renewable, atmospheric carbon removal, and solar radiation management) and deploying the most successful ones if and when policymakers determine they are needed.

This approach would provide policymakers with greater flexibility to establish policies deploying proven, scalable, and economical technologies. And by placing greater emphasis on reducing the cost of scalable carbon-free technologies, it would allow these technologies to be deployed more quickly, broadly, and cost-effectively than would otherwise be possible. At the same time, it would not be a commitment to deploy them if they turn out to be unnecessary, ineffective, or uneconomical.

We believe that this pragmatic portfolio approach should appeal to thoughtful people across the political spectrum, but most notably to conservatives who have been skeptical of an “all-in” approach to climate that fails to acknowledge the uncertainties of both policymaking and climate change. It is at least worth testing whether such an approach might be able to break our current counterproductive deadlock.

David Garman, a principal and managing partner at Decker Garman Sullivan LLC, served as undersecretary in the Department of Energy in the George W. Bush administration. Kerry Emanuel is the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and codirector of MIT’s Lorenz Center, a climate think tank devoted to basic curiosity-driven climate research. Bruce Phillips is a director of The NorthBridge Group, an economic and strategic consulting firm.

Books


by

What’s My (Cell) Line?

Cloning Wildlife: Zoos, Captivity, and the Future of Endangered Animals

by Carrie Friese. New York: New York University Press, 2013, 258 pp.

Stewart Brand

What a strange and useful book this is!

It looks like much ado about not much—just three experiments conducted at zoos on cross-species cloning (in banteng, gaur, and African wild-cat). Yet the much-ado is warranted, given the rapid arrival of biotech tools and techniques that may revolutionize conservation with the prospect of precisely targeted genetic rescue for endangered and even extinct species. Carrie Friese’s research was completed before “de-extinction” was declared plausible in 2013, but her analysis applies directly.

First, a note: readers of this review should be aware of two perspectives at work. Friese writes as a sociologist, so expect occasional sentences such as, “Cloned animals are not objects here…. They are ‘figures’ in [Donna] Haraway’s sense of the word, in that they embody ‘material-semiotic nodes or knots in which diverse bodies and meanings coshape one another.’” I write as a proponent of high-tech genetic rescue, being a co-founder of Revive & Restore, a small nonprofit pushing ahead with de-extinction for woolly mammoths and passenger pigeons and with genetic assistance for potentially inbred black-footed ferrets. I’m also the author of a book on ecopragmatism, called Whole Earth Discipline, that Friese quotes approvingly.

Friese is a sharp-eyed researcher. She begins by noting with interest that “in direct contradiction to public enthusiasm surrounding endangered animal cloning, many people in zoos have been rather ambivalent about such technological developments.” Dissecting ambivalence is her joy, I think, because she detects in it revealing indicators of deep debate and the hidden processes by which professions change their mind fundamentally, driven by technological innovation.

The innovation in this case concerns the ability, new in this century, of going beyond same-species cloning (such as with Dolly the sheep) to cross-species cloning. An egg from one species, such as a domestic cow, has its nucleus removed and replaced with the nucleus and nuclear DNA of an endangered species, such as the Javan banteng, a type of wild cow found in Southeast Asia. The egg is grown in vitro to an early-stage embryo and then implanted in the uterus of a cow. When all goes well (it sometimes doesn’t), the pregnancy goes to term, and a new Javan banteng is born. In the case of the banteng, its DNA was drawn from tissue cryopreserved 25 years earlier by San Diego’s Frozen Zoo, in the hope that it could help restore genetic variability to the remaining population of bantengs assumed to be suffering from progressive inbreeding. (At Revive & Restore we are doing something similar with black-footed ferret DNA from the Frozen Zoo.)

Now comes the ambivalence. The cloned “banteng” may have the nuclear DNA of a banteng, but its mitochondrial DNA (a lesser but still critical genetic component found outside of the nucleus and passed on only maternally) comes from the egg of a cow. Does that matter? It sure does to zoos, which see their task as maintaining genetically pure species. Zoos treat cloned males, which can pass along only nuclear DNA to future generations, as valuable “bridges” of pure banteng DNA to the banteng gene pool. But cloned female bantengs, with their baggage of cow mitochondrial DNA ready to be passed to their offspring, are deemed valueless hybrids.

Friese describes this view as “genetic essentialism.” It is a byproduct of the “conservation turn” that zoos took in the 1970s. In this shift, zoos replaced their old cages with immersion displays of a variety of animals looking somewhat as if they were in the wild, and they also took on a newly assumed role as repositories of wildlife gene pools to supplant or enrich, if necessary, populations that are threatened in the wild. (The conservation turn not only saved zoos; it pushed them to new levels of popularity. In the United States, 100 million people a year now visit zoos, wildlife parks, and aquariums.)

But in the 1980s some conservation biologists began moving away from focusing just on species to an expanded concern about whole ecosystems and thus about ecological function. They became somewhat relaxed about species purity. When peregrine falcons died out along the East Coast of the United States, conservationists replaced them with hybrid falcons from elsewhere, and the birds thrived. Inbred Florida panthers were saved with an infusion of DNA from Texas cougars. Coyotes, on their travels from west to east, have been picking up wolf genes, and the wolves have been hybridizing with dogs.

As the costs of DNA sequencing keep coming down, field biologists have been discovering that hybridization is rampant in nature and indeed may be one of the principle mechanisms of evolution, which is said to be speeding up in these turbulent decades. Friese notes that “as an institution, the zoo is particularly concerned with patrolling the boundaries between nature and culture.” Defending against cloned hybridization, they think, is defending nature from culture. But if hybridization is common in nature, then what?

Soon enough, zoos will be confronting the temptation of de-extincted woolly mammoths (and passenger pigeons, great auks, and Carolina parakeets, among others). Those thrilling animals could be huge draws, deeply educational, exemplars of new possibilities for conservation. They will also be, to a varying extent, genomic hybrids—mammoths that are partly Asian elephant, passenger pigeons that are partly band-tailed pigeon, great auks that are partly razorbill, Carolina parakeets that are partly sun parakeet. Should we applaud or turn away in dismay? I think that conservation biologists will look for one primary measure of success: Can the revived animals take up their old ecological role and manage on their own in the wild? If not, they are freaks. If they succeed, welcome back.

Friese has written a valuable chronicle of the interaction of wildlife conservation, zoos, and biotech in the first decade of this century. It is a story whose developments are likely to keep surprising us for at least the rest of this century, and she loves that. Her book ends: “Humans should learn to respond well to the surprises that cloned animals create.”

Stewart Brand (sb@longnow.org) is the president of the Long Now Foundation in Sausalito, California.


Climate perceptions

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future

by Dale Jamieson. Oxford University Press, New York, 260 pp.

Elizabeth L. Malone

Did climate change cause Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy? Does a cold, snowy winter disprove climate change? As Dale Jamieson says in Reason in a Dark Time, “These are bad questions and no answer can be given that is not misleading. It is like asking whether when a baseball player gets a base hit, it is caused by his .350 batting average. One cannot say ‘yes,’ but saying ‘no’ falsely suggests that there is no relationship between his batting average and the base hit.” Analogies such as this are a major strength of this book, which both distills and extends the thoughtful analysis that Jamieson has been providing for well over two decades.

I’ve been following Jamieson’s work since the early 1990s, when a group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory began to assess the social science literature relevant to climate change. Few scholars outside the physical sciences had addressed climate change explicitly; Jamieson, a philosopher, had. His publications on ethics, moral issues, uncertainty, and public policy laid down important arguments captured in Human Choice and Climate Change, which I co-edited with Steve Rayner in 1998. And the arguments are still current and vitally important as society contemplates the failure of all first-best solutions regarding climate change: an effective global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, vigorous national policies, adequate transfers of technology and other resources from industrialized to less-industrialized countries, and economic efficiency, among others.

In Reason in a Dark Time, Jamieson works steadfastly through the issues. He lays out the larger picture with energy and clarity. He takes us back to the beginning, with the history of scientific discoveries about the greenhouse effect and its emergence as a policy concern through the 1992 Earth Summit’s spirit of high hopefulness and the gradual unraveling of those high hopes by the time of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. He discusses obstacles to action, from scientific ignorance to organized denial to the limitations of our perceptions and abilities in responding to “the hardest problem.” He details two prominent but inadequate approaches to both characterizing the problem of climate change and prescribing solutions: economics and ethics. And finally, he discusses doable and appropriate responses in this “dark world” that has so far failed to agree on and implement effective actions that adequately reflect the scope of the problem.

Well, you may say, we’ve seen this book before. There are lots of books (and articles, both scholarly and mainstream) that give the history, discuss obstacles, criticize the ways the world has been trying to deal with climate change, and give recommendations. And indeed, Jamieson himself draws on his own lengthy publication record.

But you should read this book for its insights. If you are already knowledgeable about the history of climate science and international negotiations, you might skim this discussion. (It’s a good history, though.) All readers will gain from examining the useful and clear distinctions that Jamieson draws regarding climate skepticism, contrarianism, and denialism. Put simply, he sees that “healthy skepticism” questions evidence and views while not denying them; contrarianism may assert outlandish views but is skeptical of all views, including its own outlandish assertions; and denialism quite simply rejects a widely believed and well-supported claim and tries to explain away the evidence for the claim on the basis of conspiracy, deceit, or some rhetorical appeal to “junk science.” And take a look at the table and related text that depict a useful typology of eight frames of science-related issues that relate to climate change: social progress, economic development and competitiveness, morality and ethics, scientific and technical uncertainty, Pandora’s box/ Frankenstein’s monster/runaway science, public accountability and governance, middle way/alternative path, and conflict and strategy.

Jamieson’s discussions of the “limits of economics” and the “frontiers of ethics” are also useful. Though they tread much-traveled ground, they take a slightly different slant, starting not with the forecast but the reality of climate change. For instance, the discount rate (how economics values costs in the future) has been the subject of endless critiques, but typically with the goal of coming up with the “right” rate. But Jamieson points out that this is a fruitless endeavor, as social values underlie arguments for almost any discount rate. Thus, the discount rate (and other economic tools) is simply inadequate and, moreover, a mere standin for the real discussion about how society should plan for the future.

Similarly, his discussion of ethics points out that “commonsense morality” cannot “provide ethical guidance with some important aspects of climate-changing behavior”—so it’s not surprising that society has failed to act on climate change. The basis for action is not a matter of choosing appropriate values from some eternal ethical and moral menu, but of evolving values that will be relevant to a climate-changed world in which we make choices about how to adapt to climate change and whether to prevent further climate change—oh, and about whether or not to dabble in planet-altering geoengineering. Ethical and moral revolutions have occurred (e.g., capitalism’s elevation of selfishness), and climate ethicists are breaking new ground in connecting and moralizing about emissions-producing activities and climate change.

Although Jamieson’s explorations do not provide an antidote to the gloom of our dark time, readers will find much to think about here.

He clearly rebuts the argument, for example, that individual actions do not matter, asserting that “What we do matters because of its effects on the world, but what we do also matters because of its effects on ourselves.” Expanding on this thought, he says: “In my view we find meaning in our lives in the context of our relationships to humans, other animals, the rest of nature, and the world generally. This involves balancing such goods as self-expression, responsibility to others, joyfulness, commitment, attunement to reality and openness to new (often revelatory) experiences. What this comes to in the conduct of daily life is the priority of process over product, the journey over the destination, and the doing over what is done.” To my mind, this sounds like the good life that includes respect for nature, temperance, mindfulness, and cooperativeness.

Ultimately, Jamieson turns to politics and policy. As the terms prevention, mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering have become fuzzy at best, he proposes a new classification of responses to climate change: adaptation (to reduce the negative effects of climate change), abatement (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), mitigation (to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), and solar radiation management (to alter the Earth’s energy balance). I agree with Jamieson that we need all of the first three and also that we need to be very cautious about “the category formerly known as geoengineering.”

Most of all, we need to live in the world as is, with all its diversity of motives and potential actions, not the dream world imagined at the Earth Summit held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Jamieson gives us seven practical priorities for action (yes, they’ve been said before, but not often in the real-world context that he sketches). And he offers three guiding principles (my favorite is “stop arguing about what is optimal and instead focus on doing what is good,” with “good” encompassing both practical and ethical elements).

I do have some quarrels with the book, starting with the title. In its fullest form, it is unnecessarily wordy and gloomy. And as Jamieson does not talk much of “reason” in the book (nor is there even a definition of the contested term that I could find), why is it displayed so prominently?

More substantively, the gloom that Jamieson portrays is sometimes reinforced by statements that seem almost apocalyptic, such as, “While once particular human societies had the power to upset the natural processes that made their lives and cultures possible, now people have the power to alter the fundamental global conditions that permitted human life to evolve and that continue to sustain it. There is little reason to suppose that our systems of governance are up to the tasks of managing such threats.” But people have historically faced threats (war, disease, overpopulation, the Little Ice Age, among others) that likely seemed to them just as serious, so statements such as Jamieson’s invite the backlash that asserts, well, here we still are and better off, too.

Then there is the question of the intended audience, which Jamieson specifies as “my fellow citizens and…those with whom I have discussed these topics over the years.” But the literature reviews and the heavy use of citations seem to target a narrower academic audience. I would hope that people involved in policymaking and other decisionmaking would not be put off by the academic trappings, but I have my doubts.

If the book finds a wide audience, our global conversation about climate change could become more fruitful. Those who do read it will be rewarded with much to think about in the insights, analogies, and accessible discussions of productive pathways into the climate-changed future.

Elizabeth L. Malone is a staff scientist at the Joint Climate Change Research Institute, a project sponsored by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland.

Final Frontier vs. Fruitful Frontier: The Case for Increasing Ocean Exploration


by

AMITAI ETZIONI

Possible solutions to the world’s energy, food, environmental, and other problems are far more likely to be found in nearby oceans than in distant space.

Every year, the federal budget process begins with a White House-issued budget request, which lays out spending priorities for federal programs. From this moment forward, President Obama and his successors should use this opportunity to correct a longstanding misalignment of federal research priorities: excessive spending on space exploration and neglect of ocean studies. The nation should begin transforming the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into a greatly reconstructed, independent, and effective federal agency. In the present fiscal climate of zero-sum budgeting, the additional funding necessary for this agency should be taken from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The basic reason is that deep space—NASA’s favorite turf—is a distant, hostile, and barren place, the study of which yields few major discoveries and an abundance of overhyped claims. By contrast, the oceans are nearby, and their study is a potential source of discoveries that could prove helpful for addressing a wide range of national concerns from climate change to disease; for reducing energy, mineral, and potable water shortages; for strengthening industry, security, and defenses against natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis; for increasing our knowledge about geological history; and much more. Nevertheless, the funding allocated for NASA in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for FY 2013 was 3.5 times higher than that allocated for NOAA. Whatever can be said on behalf of a trip to Mars or recent aspirations to revisit the Moon, the same holds many times over for exploring the oceans; some illustrative examples follow. (I stand by my record: In The Moondoggle, published in 1964, I predicted that there was less to be gained in deep space than in near space—the sphere in which communication, navigations, weather, and reconnaissance satellites orbit—and argued for unmanned exploration vehicles and for investment on our planet instead of the Moon.)

Climate

There is wide consensus in the international scientific community that the Earth is warming; that the net effects of this warming are highly negative; and that the main cause of this warming is human actions, among which carbon dioxide emissions play a key role. Hence, curbing these CO2 emissions or mitigating their effects is a major way to avert climate change.

Space exploration advocates are quick to claim that space might solve such problems on Earth. In some ways, they are correct; NASA does make helpful contributions to climate science by way of its monitoring programs, which measure the atmospheric concentrations and emissions of greenhouse gases and a variety of other key variables on the Earth and in the atmosphere. However, there seem to be no viable solutions to climate change that involve space.

By contrast, it is already clear that the oceans offer a plethora of viable solutions to the Earth’s most pressing troubles. For example, scientists have already demonstrated that the oceans serve as a “carbon sink.” The oceans have absorbed almost one-third of anthropogenic CO2 emitted since the advent of the industrial revolution and have the potential to continue absorbing a large share of the CO2 released into the atmosphere. Researchers are exploring a variety of chemical, biological, and physical geoengineering projects to increase the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon. Additional federal funds should be allotted to determine the feasibility and safety of these projects and then to develop and implement any that are found acceptable.

Iron fertilization or “seeding” of the oceans is perhaps the most well-known of these projects. Just as CO2 is used by plants during photosynthesis, CO2 dissolved in the oceans is absorbed and similarly used by autotrophic algae and other phytoplankton. The process “traps” the carbon in the phytoplankton; when the organism dies, it sinks to the sea floor, sequestering the carbon in the biogenic “ooze” that covers large swaths of the seafloor. However, many areas of the ocean high in the nutrients and sunlight necessary for phytoplankton to thrive lack a mineral vital to the phytoplankton’s survival: iron. Adding iron to the ocean has been shown to trigger phytoplankton blooms, and thus iron fertilization might increase the CO2 that phytoplankton will absorb. Studies note that the location and species of phytoplankton are poorly understood variables that affect the efficiency with which iron fertilization leads to the sequestration of CO2. In other words, the efficiency of iron fertilization could be improved with additional research. Proponents of exploring this option estimate that it could enable us to sequester CO2 at a cost of between $2 and $30/ton—far less than the cost of scrubbing CO2 directly from the air or from power plant smokestacks—$1,000/ton and $50-100/ton, respectively, according to one Stanford study.

Justine Serebrin

Growing up on the Southern California coast, Justine Serebrin spent countless hours snorkeling. From an early age she sensed that the ocean was in trouble as she noticed debris, trash, and decaying marine life consuming the shore. She credits her childhood experiences with influencing her artistic imagination and giving her a feeling of connectedness and lifelong love of the ocean.

Serebrin’s close observations of underwater landscapes inform her paintings, which are based upon what she describes as the “deep power” of the ocean. She has traveled to the beaches of Spain, Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the western and eastern coasts of the United States. The variety of creatures, cleanliness, temperature and emotion evoked from each location greatly influence her artwork. She creates the paintings above water, but is exploring the possibility of painting underwater in the future. Her goal with this project is to promote ocean awareness and stewardship.

Serebrin is currently working on The Illuminated Water Project which will enable her to increase the scope and impact of her work. Her paintings have been exhibited at the Masur Museum of Art, Monroe, Louisiana; the New Orleans Museum of Art, Lousiana; and the McNay Museum of Art, San Antonio, Texas. She is a member of the Surfrider Foundation and the Ocean Artists Society. She is the co-founder of The Upper Six Hundreds Artist Collective, comprised of artists, designers, musicians, writers, and many others who are working together to redefine the conventions of the traditional art gallery through an integration of creative practice and community engagement. She holds a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles. Visit her website at http://www.justineserebrin.com/

Alana Quinn

67

JUSTINE SEREBRIN, Soul of The Sea, Oil on translucent paper, 25 × 40 inches, 2013.

Despite these promising findings, there are a number of challenges that prevent us from using the oceans as a major means of combating climate change. First, ocean “sinks” have already absorbed an enormous amount of CO2. It is not known how much more the oceans can actually absorb, because ocean warming seems to be altering the absorptive capacity of the oceans in unpredictable ways. It is further largely unknown how the oceans interact with the nitrogen cycle and other relevant processes.

Second, the impact of CO2 sequestration on marine ecosystems remains underexplored. The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, which noted in a 2013 report that absorption of CO2 is “acidifying” the oceans, recommended that “the administration and Congress should take actions to measure and assess the emerging threat of ocean acidification, better understand the complex dynamics causing and exacerbating it, work to determine its impact, and develop mechanisms to address the problem.” The Department of Energy specifically calls for greater “understanding of ocean biogeochemistry” and of the likely impact of carbon injection on ocean acidification. Since the mid-18th century, the acidity of the surface of the ocean, measured by the water’s concentration of hydrogen ions, has increased by 30% on average, with negative consequences for mollusks, other calcifying organisms, and the ecosystems they support, according to the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Different ecosystems have also been found to exhibit different levels of pH variance, with certain areas such as the California coastline experiencing higher levels of pH variability than elsewhere. The cost worldwide of mollusk-production losses alone could reach $100 billion if acidification is not countered, says Monica Contestabile, an environmental economist and editor of Nature Climate Change. Much remains to be learned about whether and how carbon sequestration methods like iron fertilization could contribute to ocean acidification; it is, however, clearly a crucial subject of study given the dangers of climate change.

Food

Ocean products, particularly fish, are a major source of food for major parts of the world. People now eat four times as much fish, on average, as they did in 1950. The world’s catch of wild fish reached an all-time high of 86.4 million tons in 1996; although it has since declined, the world’s wild marine catch remained 78.9 million tons in 2011. Fish and mollusks provide an “important source of protein for a billion of the poorest people on Earth, and about three billion people get 15 percent or more of their annual protein from the sea,” says Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist affiliated with the ocean conservation organization Oceana. Fish can be of enormous value to malnourished people because of its high levels of micronutrients such as Vitamin A, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, and healthy fats.

However, many scientists have raised concerns about the ability of wild fish stocks to survive such exploitation. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 28% of fish stocks were overexploited worldwide and a further 3% were depleted in 2008. Other sources estimate that 30% of global fisheries are overexploited or worse. There have been at least four severe documented fishery collapses—in which an entire region’s population of a fish species is overfished to the point of being incapable of replenishing itself, leading to the species’ virtual disappearance from the area—worldwide since 1960, a report from the International Risk Governance Council found. Moreover, many present methods of fishing cause severe environmental damage; for example, the Economist reported that bottom trawling causes up to 15,400 square miles of “dead zone” daily through hypoxia caused by stirring up phosphorus and other sediments.

There are several potential approaches to dealing with overfishing. One is aquaculture. Marine fish cultivated through aquaculture is reported to cost less than other animal proteins and does not consume limited freshwater sources. Furthermore, aquaculture has been a stable source of food from 1970 to 2006; that is, it consistently expanded and was very rarely subject to unexpected shocks. From 1992 to 2006 alone, aquaculture expanded from 21.2 to 66.8 million tons of product.

68

JUSTINE SEREBRIN, Sanctuary, Oil and watercolor on translucent paper, 25 × 40 inches, 2013.

Although aquaculture is rapidly expanding—more than 60% from 2000 to 2008—and represented more than 40% of global fisheries production in 2006, a number of challenges require attention if aquaculture is to significantly improve worldwide supplies of food. First, scientists have yet to understand the impact of climate change on aquaculture and fishing. Ocean acidification is likely to damage entire ecosystems, and rising temperatures cause marine organisms to migrate away from their original territory or die off entirely. It is important to study the ways that these processes will likely play out and how their effects might be mitigated. Second, there are concerns that aquaculture may harm wild stocks of fish or the ecosystems in which they are raised through overcrowding, excess waste, or disease. This is particularly true where aquaculture is devoted to growing species alien to the region in which they are produced. Third, there are few industry standard operating practices (SOPs) for aquaculture; additional research is needed for developing these SOPs, including types and sources of feed for species cultivated through aquaculture. Finally, in order to produce a stable source of food, researchers must better understand how biodiversity plays a role in preventing the sudden collapse of fisheries and develop best practices for fishing, aquaculture, and reducing bycatch.

On the issue of food, NASA is atypically mum. It does not claim it will feed the world with whatever it finds or plans to grow on Mars, Jupiter, or any other place light years away. The oceans are likely to be of great help.

Energy

NASA and its supporters have long held that its work can help address the Earth’s energy crises. One NASA project calls for developing low-energy nuclear reactors (LENRs) that use weak nuclear force to create energy, but even NASA admits that “we’re still many years away” from large-scale commercial production. Another project envisioned orbiting space-based solar power (SBSP) that would transfer energy wirelessly to Earth. The idea was proposed in the 1960s by then-NASA scientist Peter Glaser and has since been revisited by NASA; from 1995 to 2000, NASA actively investigated the viability of SBSP. Today, the project is no longer actively funded by NASA, and SBSP remains commercially unviable due to the high cost of launching and maintaining satellites and the challenges of wirelessly transmitting energy to Earth.

69

JUSTINE SEREBRIN, Metamorphosis, Oil on translucent paper, 23.5 × 18 inches, 2013.

Marine sources of renewable energy, by contrast, rely on technology that is generally advanced; these technologies deserve additional research to make them fully commercially viable. One possible ocean renewable energy source is wave energy conversion, which uses the up-and-down motion of waves to generate electrical energy. Potentially-useable global wave power is estimated to be two terawatts, the equivalent of about 200 large power stations or about 10% of the entire world’s predicted energy demand for 2020 according to the World Ocean Review. In the United States alone, wave energy is estimated to be capable of supplying fully one-third of the country’s energy needs.

A modern wave energy conversion device was made in the 1970s and was known as the Salter’s Duck; it produced electricity at a whopping cost of almost $1/kWh. Since then, wave energy conversion has become vastly more commercially viable. A report from the Department of Energy in 2009 listed nine different designs in pre-commercial development or already installed as pilot projects around the world. As of 2013, as many as 180 companies are reported to be developing wave or tidal energy technologies; one device, the Anaconda, produces electricity at a cost of $0.24/kWh. The United States Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory jointly maintain a website that tracks the average cost/kWh of various energy sources; on average, ocean energy overall must cost about $0.23/kWh to be profitable. Some projects have been more successful; the prototype LIMPET wave energy conversion technology currently operating on the coast of Scotland produces wave energy at the price of $0.07/kWh. For comparison, the average consumer in the United States paid $0.12/kWh in 2011. Additional research could further reduce the costs.

Other options in earlier stages of development include using turbines to capture the energy of ocean currents. The technology is similar to that used by wind energy; water moving through a stationary turbine turns the blades, generating electricity. However, because water is so much denser than air, “for the same surface area, water moving 12 miles per hour exerts the same amount of force as a constant 110 mph wind,” says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), a division of the Department of the Interior. (Another estimate from a separate BOEM report holds that a 3.5 mph current “has the kinetic energy of winds in excess of [100 mph].”) BOEM further estimates that total worldwide power potential from currents is five terawatts—about a quarter of predicted global energy demand for 2020—and that “capturing just 1/1,000th of the available energy from the Gulf Stream…would supply Florida with 35% of its electrical needs.”

Although these technologies are promising, additional research is needed not only for further development but also to adapt them to regional differences. For instance, ocean wave conversion technology is suitable only in locations in which the waves are of the same sort for which existing technologies were developed and in locations where the waves also generate enough energy to make the endeavor profitable. One study shows that thermohaline circulation—ocean circulation driven by variations in temperature and salinity—varies from area to area, and climate change is likely to alter thermohaline circulation in the future in ways that could affect the use of energy generators that rely on ocean currents. Additional research would help scientists understand how to adapt energy technologies for use in specific environments and how to avoid the potential environmental consequences of their use.

Renewable energy resources are the ocean’s particularly attractive energy product; they contribute much less than coal or natural gas to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is worth noting that the oceans do hold vast reserves of untapped hydrocarbon fuels. Deep-sea drilling technologies remain immature; although it is possible to use oil rigs in waters of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, greater depths require the use of specially-designed drilling ships that still face significant challenges. Deep-water drilling that takes place in depths of more than 500 feet is the next big frontier for oil and natural-gas production, projected to expand offshore oil production by 18% by 2020. One should expect the development of new technologies that would enable drilling petroleum and natural gas at even greater depths than presently possible and under layers of salt and other barriers.

In addition to developing these technologies, entire other lines of research are needed to either mitigate the side effects of large-scale usage of these technologies or to guarantee that these effects are small. Although it has recently become possible to drill beneath Arctic ice, the technologies are largely untested. Environmentalists fear that ocean turbines could harm fish or marine mammals, and it is feared that wave conversion technologies would disturb ocean floor sediments, impede migration of ocean animals, prevent waves from clearing debris, or harm animals. Demand has pushed countries to develop technologies to drill for oil beneath ice or in the deep sea without much regard for the safety or environmental concerns associated with oil spills. At present, there is no developed method for cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic, a serious problem that requires additional research if Arctic drilling is to commence on a larger scale.

More ocean potential

When large quantities of public funds are invested in a particular research and development project, particularly when the payoff is far from assured, it is common for those responsible for the project to draw attention to the additional benefits—“spinoffs”—generated by the project as a means of adding to its allure. This is particularly true if the project can be shown to improve human health. Thus, NASA has claimed that its space exploration “benefit[ted] pharmaceutical drug development” and assisted in developing a new type of sensor “that provides real-time image recognition capabilities,” that it developed an optics technology in the 1970s that now is used to screen children for vision problems, and that a type of software developed for vibration analysis on the Space Shuttle is now used to “diagnose medical issues.” Similarly, opportunities to identify the “components of the organisms that facilitate increased virulence in space” could in theory—NASA claims—be used on Earth to “pinpoint targets for anti-microbial therapeutics.”

Ocean research, as modest as it is, has already yielded several medical “spinoffs.” The discovery of one species of Japanese black sponge, which produces a substance that successfully blocks division of tumorous cells, led researchers to develop a late-stage breast cancer drug. An expedition near the Bahamas led to the discovery of a bacterium that produces substances that are in the process of being synthesized as antibiotics and anticancer compounds. In addition to the aforementioned cancer fighting compounds, chemicals that combat neuropathic pain, treat asthma and inflammation, and reduce skin irritation have been isolated from marine organisms. One Arctic Sea organism alone produced three antibiotics. Although none of the three ultimately proved pharmaceutically significant, current concerns that strains of bacteria are developing resistance to the “antibiotics of last resort” is a strong reason to increase funding for bioprospecting. Additionally, the blood cells of horseshoe crabs contain a chemical—which is found nowhere else in nature and so far has yet to be synthesized—that can detect bacterial contamination in pharmaceuticals and on the surfaces of surgical implants. Some research indicates that between 10 and 30 percent of horseshoe crabs that have been bled die, and that those that survive are less likely to mate. It would serve for research to indicate the ways these creatures can be better protected. Up to two-thirds of all marine life remains unidentified, with 226,000 eukaryotic species already identified and more than 2,000 species discovered every year, according to Ward Appeltans, a marine biologist at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

Contrast these discoveries of new species in the oceans with the frequent claims that space exploration will lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. For example, in 2010 NASA announced that it had made discoveries on Mars “that [would] impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” but ultimately admitted that they had “no definitive detection of Martian organics.” The discovery that prompted the initial press release—that NASA had discovered a possible arsenic pathway in metabolism and that thus life was theoretically possible under conditions different than those on Earth—was then thoroughly rebutted by a panel of NASA-selected experts. The comparison with ocean science is especially stark when one considers that oceanographers have already discovered real organisms that rely on chemosyn-thesis—the process of making glucose from water and carbon dioxide by using the energy stored in chemical bonds of inorganic compounds—living near deep sea vents at the bottom of the oceans.

The same is true of the search for mineral resources. NASA talks about the potential for asteroid mining, but it will be far easier to find and recover minerals suspended in ocean waters or beneath the ocean floor. Indeed, resources beneath the ocean floor are already being commercially exploited, whereas there is not a near-term likelihood of commercial asteroid mining.

71

JUSTINE SEREBRIN, Jellyfish Love, Oil on translucent paper, 11 × 14 inches, 2013.

72

JUSTINE SEREBRIN, Scarab, Digital painting, 40 × 25 inches, 2013.

Another major justification cited by advocates for the pricey missions to Mars and beyond is that “we don’t know” enough about the other planets and the universe in which we live. However, the same can be said of the deep oceans. Actually, we know much more about the Moon and even about Mars than we know about the oceans. Maps of the Moon are already strikingly accurate, and even amateur hobbyists have crafted highly detailed pictures of the Moon—minus the “dark side”—as one set of documents from University College London’s archives seems to demonstrate. By 1967, maps and globes depicting the complete lunar surface were produced. By contrast, about 90% of the world’s oceans had not yet been mapped as of 2005. Furthermore, for years scientists have been fascinated by noises originating at the bottom of the ocean, known creatively as “the Bloop” and “Julia,” among others. And the world’s largest known “waterfall” can be found entirely underwater between Greenland and Iceland, where cold, dense Arctic water from the Greenland Sea drops more than 11,500 feet before reaching the seafloor of the Denmark Strait. Much remains poorly understood about these phenomena, their relevance to the surrounding ecosystem, and the ways in which climate change will affect their continued existence.

In short, there is much that humans have yet to understand about the depths of the oceans, further research into which could yield important insights about Earth’s geological history and the evolution of humans and society. Addressing these questions surpasses the importance of another Mars rover or a space observatory designed to answer highly specific questions of importance mainly to a few dedicated astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and select colleagues.

Leave the people at home

NASA has long favored human exploration, despite the fact that robots have become much more technologically advanced and that their (one-way) travel poses much lower costs and next to no risks compared to human missions. Still, the promotion of human missions continues; in December 2013, NASA announced that it would grow basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis on the Moon to “show that crop plants that ultimately will feed astronauts and moon colonists and all, are also able to grow on the moon.” However, Martin Rees, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University and a former president of the Royal Society, calls human spaceflight a “waste of money,” pointing out that “the practical case [for human spaceflight] gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation.” Another observer notes that “it is in fact a universal principle of space science—a ‘prime directive,’ as it were—that anything a human being does up there could be done by unmanned machinery for one-thousandth the cost.” The cost of sending humans to Mars is estimated at more than $150 billion. The preference for human missions persists nonetheless, primarily because NASA believes that human spaceflight is more impressive and will garner more public support and taxpayer dollars, despite the fact that most of NASA’s scientific yield to date, Rees shows, has come from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Kepler space observatory, space rovers, and other missions. NASA relentlessly hypes the bravery of the astronauts and the pioneering aspirations of all humanity despite a lack of evidence that these missions engender any more than a brief high for some.

Ocean exploration faces similar temptations. There have been some calls for “aquanauts,” who would explore the ocean much as astronauts explore space, and for the prioritization of human exploration missions. However, relying largely robots and remote-controlled submersibles seems much more economical, nearly as effective at investigating the oceans’ biodiversity, chemistry, and seafloor topography, and endlessly safer than human agents. In short, it is no more reasonable to send aquanauts to explore the seafloor than it is to send astronauts to explore the surface of Mars.

Several space enthusiasts are seriously talking about creating human colonies on the Moon or, eventually, on Mars. In the 1970s, for example, NASA’s Ames Research Center spent tax dollars to design several models of space colonies meant to hold 10,000 people each. Other advocates have suggested that it might be possible to “terra-form” the surface of Mars or other planets to resemble that of Earth by altering the atmospheric conditions, warming the planet, and activating a water cycle. Other space advocates envision using space elevators to ferry large numbers of people and supplies into space in the event of a catastrophic asteroid hitting the Earth. Ocean enthusiasts dream of underwater cities to deal with overpopulation and “natural or man-made disasters that render land-based human life impossible.” The Seasteading Institute, Crescent Hydropolis Resorts, and the League of New Worlds have developed pilot projects to explore the prospect of housing people and scientists under the surface of the ocean. However, these projects are prohibitively expensive and “you can never sever [the surface-water connection] completely,” says Dennis Chamberland, director of one of the groups. NOAA also invested funding in a habitat called Aquarius built in 1986 by the Navy, although it has since abandoned this project.

If anyone wants to use their private funds for such outlier projects, they surely should be free to proceed. However, for public funds, priorities must be set. Much greater emphasis must be placed on preventing global calamities rather than on developing improbable means of housing and saving a few hundred or thousand people by sending them far into space or deep beneath the waves.

Reimagining NOAA

These select illustrative examples should suffice to demonstrate the great promise of intensified ocean research, a heretofore unrealized promise. However, it is far from enough to inject additional funding, which can be taken from NASA if the total federal R&D budget cannot be increased, into ocean science. There must also be an agency with a mandate to envision and lead federal efforts to bolster ocean research and exploration the way that President Kennedy and NASA once led space research and “captured” the Moon.

For those who are interested in elaborate reports on the deficiencies of existing federal agencies’ attempts to coordinate this research, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI)—the foremost ocean policy group in the United States and the product of the Pew Oceans Commission and the United States Commission on Ocean Policy—provides excellent overviews. These studies and others reflect the tug-of-war that exists among various interest groups and social values. Environmentalists and those concerned about global climate change, the destruction of ocean ecosystems, declines in biodiversity, overfishing, and oil spills clash with commercial groups and states more interested in extracting natural resources from the oceans, in harvesting fish, and utilizing the oceans for tourism. (One observer noted that only 1% of the 139.5 million square miles of the ocean is conserved through formal protections, whereas billons use the oceans “as a ‘supermarket and a sewer.’”) And although these reports illuminate some of the challenges that must be surmounted if the government is to institute a broad, well-funded set of ocean research goals, none of these groups have added significant funds to ocean research, nor have they taken steps to provide NASA-like agency to take the lead in federally-supported ocean science.

NOAA is the obvious candidate, but it has been hampered by a lack of central authority and by the existence of many disparate programs, each of which has its own small group of congressional supporters with parochial interests. The result is that NOAA has many supporters of its distinct little segments but too few supporters of its broad mission. Furthermore, Congress micromanages NOAA’s budget, leaving too little flexibility for the agency to coordinate activities and act on its own priorities.

It is hard to imagine the difficulty of pulling these pieces together—let alone consolidating the bewildering number of projects—under the best of circumstances. Several administrators of NOAA have made significant strides in this regard and should be recognized for their work. However, Congress has saddled the agency with more than 100 ocean-related laws that require the agency to promote what are often narrow and competing interests. Moreover, NOAA is buried in the Department of Commerce, which itself is considered to be one of the weaker cabinet agencies. For this reason, some have suggested that it would be prudent to move NOAA into the Department of the Interior—which already includes the United States Geological Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement—to give NOAA more of a backbone.

Moreover, NOAA is not the only federal agency that deals with the oceans. There are presently ocean-relevant programs in more than 20 federal agencies—including NASA. For instance, the ocean exploration program that investigates deep ocean currents by using satellite technology to measure minute differences in elevation on the surface of the ocean is currently controlled by NASA, and much basic ocean science research has historically been supported by the Navy, which lost much of its interest in the subject since the end of the Cold War. (The Navy does continue to fund some ocean research, but at levels much lower than earlier.) Many of these programs should be consolidated into a Department of Ocean Research and Exploration that would have the authority to do what NOAA has been prevented from doing: namely, direct a well-planned and coordinated ocean research program. Although the National Ocean Council’s interagency coordinating structure is a step in the right direction, it would be much more effective to consolidate authority for managing ocean science research under a new independent agency or a reimagined and strengthened NOAA.

Setting priorities for research and exploration is always needed, but this is especially true in the present age of tight budgets. It is clear that oceans are a little-studied but very promising area for much enhanced exploration. By contrast, NASA’s projects, especially those dedicated to further exploring deep space and to manned missions and stellar colonies, can readily be cut. More than moving a few billion dollars from the faraway planets to the nearby oceans is called for, however. The United States needs an agency that can spearhead a major drive to explore the oceans—an agency that has yet to be envisioned and created.

Amitai Etzioni (etzioni@gwu.edu) is University Professor and professor of International Affairs and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.