Two months ago, I participated in the Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day (SET-CVD) in Washington, DC.  It’s organized by a bunch of scientific organizations, and I learned about it through the American Geophysical Union.

Basically, it’s a day when ~200 scientists are on Capitol Hill, and this year, our goal was to ask Members of Congress not to cut basic science funding.  In the past, our “ask” was to increase spending on basic science, but given the economy and the political situation, it seemed more practical to ask for the level of funding to stay the same than to ask for more.

I ended up talking only with congressional staffers instead of the Members of Congress (which is pretty normal), and it was a great learning experience.  Here’s a quick overview of what I learned:

  • Every single day, there are hundreds of people on Capitol Hill all asking for something from Members of Congress. On the day I went, there were people in military uniforms, people with purple Alzheimer Disease banners, people with large cowboy hats and Southern accents (ranchers?  Texans?), and a lot more people in costumes/outfits I didn’t recognize.  Every day, Members of Congress (or more often, their staffers) have to meet with constituents all day who are asking for one thing or another.   If you want to get the attention of a Member of Congress, it helps to show up and ask in person.
  • There are a fair number of scientists working on Capitol Hill.  A number of scientific organizations (AAAS, AGU, SSSA, GSA, etc.) have science policy fellowships for folks with Ph.D.’s in science so there are some really smart people working on Capitol Hill, trying to solve problems.   The problem, according to some of the more experienced staffers, is a decrease in collegiality between Members of Congress in recent years.  More on that in the next bullet.
  • There’s a lot less socializing going on between members of different political parties.  Historically, members from both political parties would live in DC when congress was in session, usually in the same neighborhood.  Now, being a “Washington insider” is a bad thing so people tend to go back to their home states on the weekends or commute back during the evenings if they live in nearby states.  I suppose it’s easier to treat members of the other party as the enemy when you don’t have to worry about those awkward moments when you run into them at the local coffee shop or the gym.  There’s also the whole issue about compromise = you’re a traitor to the party (although that seems to be the case more in one party that another — I’ve heard of more discussions of RINOs than DINOs).  I’m sure there’s a lot more to the dysfunction going on in U.S. Congress than these two issues, but they seem to be relatively important contributors to the dysfunction.

I also talked to staffers from the Committee of Foreign Relations, and I was so happy to chat with them.  This committee works with other countries on issues like the Kyoto Protocol and other international policies.  We talked about strategies for how to deal with climate change and reframing the situation to be more about resilience: resilience to unpredictable weather, to problems with energy security, to changes in crop yields, to increased air pollution from smog, etc.  Politicians from all parties seem to be a lot more open to conversations about resilience than climate change so I would like to think that there’s hope.

If you’re a scientist, I highly recommend going to a CVD if you ever have the opportunity.

The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is currently holding their annual meeting at Vancouver, B.C., and their plenary talk definitely gave me a lot of food for thought.

The longer I’m in academia, the bigger the gap between the scientific community and the general public seems to be.  It’s frustrating that doing good science simply isn’t enough.  At the same time, the publish or perish culture of academia makes it really hard for scientists to find time to communicate with the general public and decision makers.  It’s one of the reasons why I’m not sure that academia is the right fit for me because for me, publishing peer-reviewed articles isn’t as invigorating as talking about science with non-scientists.

Today, I read something that reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 article, Welcome to Cancerland, which I also highly recommend.  It was an article on Komen for the Cure, and how its issues extend beyond just stepping out of their nonpartisan shoes.  One of the bigger problems is their ignorance concerning the latest science on breast cancer screening (screening tests actually do not decrease the risk of dying from cancer) and their placement of a disproportionate amount of responsibility for fighting cancer on the women themselves (“What’s the key to surviving cancer?” “You”).

It’s a bit unfair to pin all that responsibility on women when there’s a huge list of chemicals that are carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors being released into our environment by industrial and agricultural activity.  And yet, many companies (like ones that produce beauty products) that are releasing chemicals into the environment are the same ones with the pink ribbon, urging you to buy their products so they can donate your money to Komen.  It’s sort of like Paula Deen becoming the spokesperson for a diabetes drug after years of encouraging people to eat excessive amounts of fats and sugars.  It seems that they’re selling both the disease and the cure at the same time.   So why aren’t we pinning more of the responsibility of fighting cancer on companies that are releasing carcinogens or organizations that support companies that release carcinogens?

Most of the time I read something in the news about climate change, I cringe a little (or a lot, see Ventilation: Freeman Dyson), but this article by Michael D. Lemonick is excellent.  It’s about Thailand, where my parents and a lot of my relatives live, and about the recent flooding that caused a LOT of damage so it was really fortunate that my parents and my relatives were okay.

The intro of the article does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events:

An obese, middle-aged man is running to catch a bus. Suddenly, he clutches his chest, falls to the ground and dies of a massive heart attack. It turns out that he’s a smoker and a diabetic, has high blood pressure, eats a diet high in saturated fat and low in leafy green vegetables, pours salt on everything, drinks too much beer, avoids exercise at all costs and has a father, grandfather and two uncles who also died young of heart attacks.

So what killed him? Most people are savvy enough about health risks to know this is a trick question. You can’t pick out a single cause. His choices and his genes all contributed to the heart attack — but you can say with confidence that the more risk factors that pile up, the more likely it is to end badly.

Somehow, though, people think that it makes sense to ask whether a given extreme weather event — a devastating heat wave or a punishing drought or a deadly torrential rainstorm — is caused by climate change.

That’s a trick question too. Scientists know that the increasing load of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere doesn’t “cause” extreme weather. But it does raise the odds, just as a diet of triple bacon cheeseburgers raises the odds of heart disease.

There was also a wonderful series of public service announcements about the flooding done by a non-profit group in Thailand.  It’s scientifically accurate, accessible, and it even includes cute whales:

There is hope for science journalism/communication!

Why does Indiana have to keep on shooting itself in the foot?  The Indiana Senate just passed a bill that would require the teaching of creationism in public schools, but the Indiana General Assembly killed a public transportation bill.

There are just so many things wrong with this picture that I don’t know where to start.  The legislature is unwilling to raise taxes to support public transportation, but they’re willing to risk getting into a lawsuit when they get sued for violating the U.S. Constitution, which will probably end up using tax dollars.  According to some of the comments, big government getting involved in public transportation is bad, but somehow it’s okay for the government to require teaching one particular religion in public schools.

Boo to that.  Boo to double standards and hypocritical thinking.

I find it really interesting that only 3% of China’s population are science literate compared to 28% of U.S.’s population (according to the same measure).  Perhaps this is because China has just recently started increasing its investment in science and technology while the U.S. has been investing in science and technology for decades so it may take a bit of time to catch up?  Or it is because most of the investment in China has been towards research and development at universities and national research centers and less at the primary and secondary school level?  Is it because science education in China is similar to science education in Thailand and Hong Kong where it’s mostly rote memorization of facts?  It would be very interesting to see how this number changes over time and if the rate of change in China is any different from the U.S.

A few weeks ago, I went to an interesting talk by Dr. Steve Hallett at Purdue’s Botany and Plant Pathology Department.  It was about how efficiency wasn’t going to save the planet, and he referred to the Jevons paradox/effect.  Basically, even though we would like to think that more efficient use always means decreased use, historically, increases in the efficiency of many technologies have actually increased consumption.

This has to do with something called the rebound effect: when new technologies allow us to use a resource more efficiently, it drives down prices and can lead to an increase in resource consumption.  Granted, I’m not an economist, so at first I was like, “Wow, the Jevons effect makes total sense!”  Then I read more about it and apparently things are a lot more complicated. (Aren’t they always?)

While the rebound effect is pretty uncontroversial and well-supported by theory, the Jevons effect is a specific case of the rebound effect where the decrease in resource use due to increased efficiency is smaller than the rebounding increase in resource consumption.  This may happen when demand is elastic or very responsive to price, but when demand is inelastic, then we might not see the Jevons effect.  So, there is still a lot of debate over the size of the rebound effect in real-world situations, and some people have been using the Jevons paradox to argue that there’s no point in improving energy efficiency.  (Gasp!)

In some cases, I can kind of see their point.   For example, I really don’t think a whole fleet of energy efficient cars is going to solve the world’s energy problems because of the potentially large rebound effect from people driving more.  But weatherproofing a house seems like a pretty good idea, and the rebound effect is probably pretty small because I don’t see how that would make someone turn up their thermostat or air conditioner to heat/cool their home.

So in my non-economic opinion, I don’t think we should totally throw improvements in efficiency out the window, but Dr. Hallett does make a good point that we should stop and think about whether efficiency improvements are always the best solution because there are many ways to address large, global problems that don’t involve improvements in efficiency.  Like better public transportation, for example, would probably help reduce the number of cars on the road and reduce energy consumption.  Or policies that directly incentivize energy conservation.  Or dare I say it, addressing the mother of all problems: population growth.

An article came out a few months ago, and I really like a lot of the points it raises.  It’s a review of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and research on sex/gender differences in general.  Basically, the article challenges the idea that innate sex differences are linked to real-world accomplishments, which has been raised by many scientists and a certain ex-Harvard University president.  This idea is often used to explain why there are disproportionately fewer women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields than men.

That idea seems to ignore all the literature that’s out there on stereotype threat and other cultural and sociological factors that could contribute to observed differences in cognition between the sexes.  According to a neuroscience major and third year med student (a.k.a. my sister), it’s really hard to tease apart whether differences in cognition are innate or a result of environmental factors.  In fact, it’s probably both.

Through my conversations with Filipino friends who happen to be female and scientists, I also learned that there is no gender gap in the sciences in the Philippines.  There are an equal number of men and women at every level of the pipeline, and my friends didn’t hear about the “leaky pipeline”* until they came to the U.S. for graduate school.  This blew my mind because I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 so I’m only familiar with the scientific community in the U.S.  I’m pretty sure that humans from the Philippines aren’t all that physiologically different from humans in the U.S.  It also makes me wonder if there are other countries with equal numbers of men and women at top positions in the STEM fields.

Also, isn’t there a leaky pipeline in business and finance, in politics, and in showbiz (more women in front of the camera than behind the camera or producing movies)?  My money is on the larger systemic issues in our society.

*“Leaky pipeline is a metaphor that denotes the success of women in getting credentials for a career but not advancing in it. For example, the pipeline may be full of women receiving the Ph.D., yet the pipeline at several junctures seems to be leaking as few of these women get a tenure track position and even fewer get promoted to associate professor; the fewest of all are promoted to full professor.” – Iowa State University’s Women’s/Gender Studies Program

1) Dogs are awesome.

I’ve always wanted to own a dog: play frisbee with it, go hiking in the woods with it, snuggle up next to it while I’m watching David Attenborough documentaries, and all that good stuff.  Now there’s a study that found that dogs can detect early and late-stage lung and breast cancer so I can add “have it sniff my breasts if I develop cancer” to the list.  Yay, dogs!

2) Walking > Crossword puzzles in terms of brain functioning and memory (!)

I know that longevity has a lot to do with genetics, but I wonder if part of the reason why my 88-year-old grandfather is still pretty alert and healthy is because he lives in Hong Kong (which is a very walkable city with a great transportation system) and walks with my grandmother (who’s 77 and also very alert) every day to have dim sum and tea.

Also, I know I should be careful not to extrapolate too far from the original study, but I am going to make sure that I go on a walk every single day of my life so that my mind doesn’t turn into mush and I unthinkingly elect a person who thinks that it is important to use valuable taxpayer resources to declare that climate change is awesome for the economy.  (It’s not about completely ignoring hundred of scientific and economic studies of climate change impacts or anything.  It’s just that I personally think that crisp autumn days are awesome, but do we really need a bill to declare how mindblowingly wonderful they are?)

I’ve just discovered my new favorite astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.  He’s a great communicator who makes science accessible , he’s funny, and he knows his stuff!  Here he is talking about the beginning of the universe, Pluto, and things that want to kill us.  And here he is explaining how the tides work (and poking a moon-shaped hole in Bill O’Reilly’s proof of God’s existence).

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