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Obama And Romney Answer Top American Science Questions

4 Sep

In 2007, friends and I launched ScienceDebate - a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative to get presidential candidates to address science and technology issues along the campaign trail. This year we presented both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney with fourteen questions focusing on key science policy issues like energy, climate change, food security, and more. Today we have their answers!

Here’s an excerpt, but make sure to read all of their positions here:

6. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

Barack Obama:

Since taking office, I have supported an all-of-the-above energy approach that will allow us to take control of our energy future, one where we safely and responsibly develop America’s many energy resources – including natural gas, wind, solar, oil, clean coal, and biofuels – while investing in clean energy and increasing fuel efficiency standards to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

I know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the global economy in the 21st century. That’s why I have made the largest investment in clean energy and energy efficiency in American history and proposed an ambitious Clean Energy Standard to generate 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources like wind, solar, clean coal, and natural gas by 2035. Since taking office, electricity production from wind and solar sources has already more than doubled in the United States. We are boosting our use of cleaner fuels, including increasing the level of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline and implementing a new Renewable Fuel Standard that will save nearly 14 billion gallons of petroleum-based gasoline in 2022. America has regained its position as the world’s leading producer of natural gas. My administration is promoting the safe, responsible development of America’s near 100-year supply of natural gas that will help support more than 600,000 jobs. Because of these actions, we are positioning ourselves to have cleaner and cheaper sources of fuel that make us more energy secure and position the U.S. as a world leader in the clean energy economy.

Mitt Romney:

A crucial component of my plan for a stronger middle class is to dramatically increase domestic energy production and partner closely with Canada and Mexico to achieve North American energy independence by 2020. While President Obama has described his own energy policy as a “hodgepodge,” sent billions of taxpayer dollars to green energy projects run by political cronies, rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline as not in “the national interest,” and sought repeatedly to stall development of America’s domestic resources, my path forward would establish America as an energy superpower in the 21st century.

The goal of energy independence has long proved elusive, but analysts across the spectrum — energy experts, investment firms, even academics at Harvard University — now recognize that surging U.S. energy production, combined with the resources of America’s neighbors, can meet all of the continent’s energy needs within a decade. The key is to embrace these resources and open access to them.

A successful national energy strategy will have a fundamental influence on the well-being of the nation. An expansion in the affordable, reliable supply of domestically produced energy can bolster the competitiveness of virtually every industry within the country, creating millions of new jobs from coast to coast. With fewer energy imports and more exports of manufactured goods, America’s trade deficit will decline and the dollar will strengthen.

The benefits even extend beyond immediate economic growth. The lease payments, royalties, and taxes paid to the American people in return for the development of the nation’s resources can yield literally trillions of dollars in new government revenue. Lower energy prices can ease the burdens on household budgets. And all Americans can rest assured that the nation’s security is no longer beholden to unstable but oil-rich regions half way around the world.

I have put forward a six-part plan for achieving these goals. First, I will empower states to control onshore energy development, including on federal lands within their borders. Second, I will open offshore areas to development. Third, I will pursue a North American Energy Partnership so that America can benefit from the resources of its neighbors. Fourth, I will ensure accurate assessment of the nation’s energy resources by updating decades-old surveys that do not reflect modern technological capabilities. Fifth, I will restore transparency and fairness to permitting and regulation. And sixth, I will facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies.

Throughout this agenda, I remain committed to implementing and enforcing strong environmental protections that ensure all energy development activity is conducted in a safe and responsible manner. But whereas President Obama has used environmental regulation as an excuse to block the development of resources and the construction of infrastructure, I will pursue a course that designs regulation not to stifle energy production but instead to facilitate responsible use of all energy sources — from oil and coal and natural gas, to nuclear and hydropower and biofuels, to wind and solar. Energy development, economic growth, and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand if the government focuses on transparency and fairness instead of seeking to pick winners and repay political favors.

A full white paper describing my plan for energy independence is available at


Breathtaking: NASA’s Pursuit of Light

7 May

Simply beautiful. Watch in full-screen.

NASA dreams big science. In this awesome new short, NASA presents the Earth, the planets, the Sun, and the endless universe beyond. Come for the cool, stay for the music, take away a sense of wonder to share. It’s six minutes from Earth to forever, and you can see it here!

You can download this spectacular video here.

A New Funding Model For Science?

3 May

This is a guest post by Andy Gersick.

One of the easy-to-spot problems in contemporary American science culture is the heavy hand that public pressure seems to wield in science policy. If you find yourself chewing over the federal government’s approach to energy, environmental regulation or reproductive health, it’s hard not to conclude that our national science agenda goes where public pressure tells it to go. And you might suspect that a scientist whose work falls within the golden circumference of public enthusiasm would have a good shot at all sorts of government money. But there you’d be wrong.

Or at least you’d be wrong where I’m concerned. I’m an animal behaviorist. I study spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya. A good workday is eight hours leaning out the window of my truck watching hyenas, taking field notes, or running experiments in which I test subjects’ responses to recorded calls, to investigate how hyenas use vocal signals to communicate and cooperate. My own research seems a little esoteric to me, but when I tell other people about it – parents at my son’s school, friends of friends – I’m amazed at how often they say they’d like to do what I do “in another life.” At dinner parties I have the strange problem of not being able to steer the conversation away from myself. Everyone seems to agree that I and my work are a perfect general-interest topic to fuel conversation. While I used to worry that my particular fascinations would lead me to labor in obscurity over arcane questions, data from other people suggests that what I do is – broadly speaking – neat.

That apparent neatness became the crux of a dilemma recently, when I unexpectedly got invited to participate in a new venture aimed at turning public enthusiasm for science into publicly sourced science funding. A New York-based entrepreneur named Matt Salzberg contacted a colleague of mine and asked him to recommend young scientists for the launch of a sort of Kickstarter for science. The new site is called The concept is a logical extension of the crowdfunding phenomenon, which offers enthusiasts in any domain the chance to become small-time patrons. So far that model has mostly been applied to technology and the arts, but patronage has a long history in the sciences as well: the Medicis – the archetypical Renaissance patrons – supported Michelangelo but also fostered Galileo’s career.

So the entrepreneur approached the colleague and the colleague approached me. Wasn’t I looking for funds to get back to my study site? Did I want to put my research online and see who might want to pitch in? I had reservations. Asking for money seems much less dignified when done outside the formalized confines of a grant proposal. And the site guidelines suggested offering small rewards at various donation levels; would someone actually want a signed copy of one of my publications? Besides my vain fear of putting myself up for auction and not getting any bidders, I worried about the implications that patronage, on any scale, could have for the way that people do research. But – a big but – I do need the money.

Here’s some unscientific reportage on the relationship between public curiosity about animal behavior and public-sector support for research to feed that curiosity. A scan of the Science homepage for the New York Times on April 16th showed seven out of forty-one articles pertaining to animal behavior and evolution. That’s about 17 percent. Discovery Channel, the third most widely distributed cable channel in the country, devotes about 20% of its current programming to shows focused on animal behavior. So from the alleged media-elitists at the Times to Discovery Network’s big-tent science-y populists (the channel has four different reality shows about survival-ers who survive their way out of remote wildernesses each week), purveyors of science-based news and entertainment think that their audience wants to spend about 20% of its attention learning about animal behavior and evolution.

By way of contrast, I looked at the National Science Foundation’s 2012 awards in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The program provides tuition support to graduate-level researchers across a wide range of disciplines (I should mention that I’m a GRFP fellow myself). It’s the government’s effort to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States.”  NSF offered 2,000 GRFP fellowships last year; three went to students researching “Animal Behavior”. Another 71 supported students in closely allied fields. Since the GRFP is the program through which NSF supports the next generation of researchers, it seems like a good (rough) index to the level of emphasis the agency is placing on different disciplines. So let’s say the NSF is devoting 74/2000ths of its funding – 4% — to the next generation of ethologists.

Mine is certainly not the only field that captures a large share of the public’s imagination while earning just a small allotment of public funds. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson – possibly America’s most winning contemporary ambassador for scientific research – has recently spoken and written eloquently of the gulf between government funding for NASA and the inspirational and intellectual value that space exploration has for our culture. And it would be silly to argue that the government should fund the kind of research I do at the same level it supports more applied fields that relate directly to infrastructure or human health. But the gap between public interest in “nature” and public funding for science about nature may be a space waiting to be filled by something like Petridish.

Furthermore, ethology may be especially well-suited to the scale and scope of crowdfunding. While my colleagues and I would love to work with the seven-figure budgets that are routine in high-profile applied fields, we can do some decent science with more modest sums of money. My own “research team” consists of myself and a part-time research assistant. My truck and my tent are indispensable facilities. I could not do the work I do if I didn’t weren’t piggy-backing on the field operation established by Dr. Kay Holekamp’s Mara Hyena Project, which has itself been supported by a rare long-term, large-scale federal grant. As a doctoral candidate I also draw critical support from a number of advisors and institutions. But the point is that dollar amounts in the thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions, are meaningful to my current work. And if there are animal-behavior enthusiasts out there who would honestly like to play a role in supporting research by people like me, and who would actually consider a copy of a journal article to be a reward for granting that support, then possibly this is something to cheer.

I honestly don’t know yet. Here’s my project page. There are twenty-two other projects on Petridish so far. A majority are in ethology, organismal biology and ecology, but there are projects in fields like astronomy and geology as well. I encourage readers to check out the site –not just my page but anything that looks exciting. If something arouses your curiosity and makes you feel like getting involved, then by all means do become a supporter. The great promise of a tool like Petridish is that it can convert the diffuse potential energy of public wonder about the natural world into directed, kinetic force to drive new scientific work. It can turn a spark of interest into a small donation, and a cluster of those donations into real funding for research. That’s the idea, anyway. If the whole thing doesn’t quite work for you – if you look around and think, “meh” – then please leave a comment and share your thoughts. As I said, I don’t yet know whether I think this is a good funding model. Your comments would be data to help figure it out. Like many things, this is an experiment.

Andy Gersick is a doctoral candidate in Animal Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies vocal communication, social behavior and cognition among spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara, Kenya.


Is There an Edge to the Heavens?

25 Apr

A required 20 minute break today thanks to the brilliant team at Radiolab:

Edward Dolnick tells an escape story involving God, humanity, and a huge rewrite of cosmic laws. It began in 1665. A plague hit Cambridge University. All of the students were sent home. One of them is a twenty-something Isaac Newton, who spent his forced summer vacation solving “the problem of the moon” and explaining why that heavenly rock will never be free.

Sucks for the moon. But Newton’s mental leap ultimately lead to humanity leaving the confines of planet Earth. And as producer Lynn Levy explains, we’re about to reach yet another new frontier. The Voyager probe (which we talked about in our Space episode) is about to become the first human-made object to leave the solar system. And the information it’s been sending us along the way has upended what we thought we knew about our little corner of the universe. Merav Opher is an astronomy professor at BU and a Voyager guest investigator. Ann Druyan is one of the creators of the 1977 Golden Album traveling on the Voyager probe. Together they describe how Voyager continues to surprise us.

Majority of Americans Support Keystone XL Pipeline

27 Feb

According to a new survey released by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans (who have heard at least a little about the Keystone XL pipeline) support it:

There has been recent controversy over the building of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast, but the public is not following this issue very closely. Just 24% say they have heard a lot about it while another 39% have heard a little; 37% have heard nothing at all about the pipeline.

Among those who have heard at least a little, there is strong public support for building the pipeline. About two-thirds (66%) think the government should approve the building of the pipeline, while 23% say it should not be approved.

Republicans overwhelmingly support the building of the pipeline. Fully 84% say the government should approve the Keystone XL pipeline, including 88% of conservative Republicans.

Even among Democrats who have heard about the issue, a 49% plurality support the government approving the pipeline while 33% say it should not be approved. But there is a strong ideological division among Democrats; 63% of conservative and moderate Democrats support the building of the pipeline, compared with just 30% of liberal Democrats. A plurality of liberal Democrats (49%) say the pipeline should not be approved.

By a 66% to 27% margin, far more independents who have heard about the issue think the government should approve the building of the Keystone XL pipeline than say it should not be approved. Independents who lean to the Republican Party overwhelmingly support the building of the pipeline (89% say it should be approved). But Democratic-leaning independents are far more divided; 46% say it should be approved, while 45% say it should not be approved.

Do you think the government should approve the Keystone XL pipeline?

Innovation: A Video Interview By Springbox

17 Feb

For the third chapter in Springbox’s Innovation in Austin series, they invited me in to chat about science, sustainability, and innovation.

More from Springbox’s Innovation in Austin series here →

Video: My Interview With CNN

14 Feb

Iowa Nice

7 Feb

A few days before I’ll be visiting Iowa, The Des Moines Register has published an interview with me about The Science of Kissing..

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, kissing may be a hot topic for many. For the curious, Sheril Kirshenbaum, the 31-year-old author of “The Science of Kissing,” will visit the Science Center of Iowa on Saturday to talk about her book, which explores the properties of puckering up. We spoke to her and got the scoop on the anatomy of a kiss.

Q. What got you interested in the subject of kissing?

Well, I was trained in marine biology and worked in science policy on Capitol Hill. Four years ago, I wrote a short article on the science of kissing — why our species evolved to kiss each other and the hormones that go into it — for a magazine called New Scientist. There was a lot of interest and there wasn’t a book on the topic. … I started getting emails from readers and neuroscientists interested about the brain’s response to kissing. In 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science invited me to organize a symposium about the science of kissing — they thought it would be a great topic, and the press coverage was great. I never imagined I’d be writing a book about kissing.

Q. What is the brain’s reaction to a kiss?

There’s a lot that can happen, depending on if it’s a positive experience or not. Assuming it’s a good exchange, there’s a rise in dopamine, which is the same neurotransmitter that makes you want to do more — a similar effect occurs when people use cocaine. Serotonin is a hormone that increases obsessive-compulsive thoughts and is also present in kissing. Oxytocin, a chemical and hormone that promotes bonding, not just in romantic relationships, but also between mothers and babies, is also flowing.

There’s a real scientific reason behind the feelings people describe when kissing, like, “I’m walking on air.” There’s a real chemical basis to falling in love.

Read the full interview here..

(The title of this post is a reference to this)

From A Distance

6 Feb

Rémi Boucher and Guillaume Poulin at ASTROLab in southern Quebec put together this extraordinary time lapse using photographs from the International Space Station:

Vol nocturne de la station spatiale internationale au-dessus de la côte Est de l’Amérique. from ASTROLab on Vimeo.

H/T Phil

About Those 16 “Scientists” In The Wall Street Journal…

30 Jan

Many readers have emailed me about the inaccurate and irresponsible opinion piece in the The Wall Street Journal. As Peter Gleick describes in Forbes:

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has long been understood to be not only antagonistic to the facts of climate science, but hostile. But in a remarkable example of their unabashed bias, on Friday they published an opinion piece that not only repeats many of the flawed and misleading arguments about climate science, but purports to be of special significance because it was signed by 16 “scientists.”

Foremost, the “scientists” in question are not climate experts and their argument is deeply flawed. But the most telling aspect of this entire fiasco is that WSJ published that particular piece after turning down this letter signed by 255 National Academy of Sciences members about climate change science. (Fortunately, it’s now available in Science magazine – the nation’s top scientific journal).

What’s my response? I think, if anything, this poor decision by WSJ makes my job of communicating science and energy issues more relevant than ever.