President-elect Barack Obama pledges to put a lot of emphasis not only on reinvigorating science, but on making decisions that are grounded in science. As promised, I’m going to seek answers from his environmental and science team to the questions that received the most reader recommendations. Here are the top 10 (actually, 11 because of a multiple tie):
1. Green Education? (James L. Elder, Boston, Mass., 98 recommendations).
President Obama has astutely recognized the linkages between climate change, economic stimulus, and energy security by declaring that the transition to a green economy is his top priority. He further recognizes the importance of investing in �green� job training as part of the solution. But he has been relatively silent on the related need to invest in �green� education to help make the green economy a reality.
It seems to me that green manufacturing workforce development programs are just one piece of what is needed; the green economy will not be driven by manufacturing workers alone. Transforming our nation�’s economic, energy, and environmental systems to move towards a green economy will require a level of expertise, innovation, and cooperative effort unseen since the 1940s to meet the challenges involved. Architects, engineers, planners, scientists, business managers, financial experts, lawyers, entrepreneurs, political leaders, resource managers and many others as well as workers will all be needed � not to mention environmentally literate consumers - to drive the green economy. In short, American workers, managers, and professionals at all levels and in all sectors must understand the fundamental dynamics and principles underpinning a green economy.Read more…
2. A Fusion Push? (Josh King, San Diego, Calif., 52 recommendations)
To Prof. John Holdren: I am a graduate student of U.C. Berkeley doing thesis research on magnetic fusion energy (MFE) at the DIII D tokamak in San Diego, CA. I have recently learned that you were a member of the MFE theory group at Lawrence Livermore National Lab during the 70’s and still remain a consultant. In light of this, I hope that the nature of my questions and comments are well received, and I apologize in advance if many of my comments are old hat.
Climate change is causing drought, inclement whether, and sea level rise. The results of these effects are famine, the rise of 19th century pestilent diseases in underdeveloped countries, and rates of species extinction comparable with astronomic events of millions of years past. Beyond climate change, the fossil sources of cheap energy on the planet are quickly becoming depleted. Adding moral complexity to this fact are the rising standards of living in developing countries, which are largely attributable to the availability and exploitation of cheap, CO2 emitting sources of power like coal. Finally, the synergistic combination of the aforementioned facts is even more damning, as combating climate change�s most devastating effects requires the use of additional energy. Case and point, the rise of energy intensive desalination plants in drought-ridden areas.
The only way I see of breaking this vicious feedback loop is through the development of an environmentally benign, cheap, reliable, and abundant energy source. None of the current alternatives (i.e. solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, and conventional fission) fit all four of these criteria, and the only possible source of energy that could, is fusion. Read more…
More questions below.
3. Can Science Get Respect? (Mr. Kit Wilkinson, Salt Lake City, Utah, 32 recommendations)
As a 7th grade science teacher I am confronted with the greatest problem with our scientific community. The problem is not global climate change or energy issues. It is the stigma that American students have with learning science, math, and technology. If the next generation has no innovative minds to scientifically, mathematically, and technologically tackle our greatest problems, then these problems remain. What do the science advisers plan to do about this? It is not a problem of education. It is a problem with the media incorrectly representing science, math, and technology and the people that work in these fields. Thank you all so much for your time.
4. What Price Carbon? (Charles Komanoff, New York, N.Y., 32 recommendations).
Question for Profs. Chu & Holdren — Prof. Chu recently and forthrightly stressed the imperative of full-cost pricing of gasoline (”Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2008.) Prof. Holdren’s commanding intelligence and integrity presumably dictate that he feels similarly concerning all fossil fuels. Will the two of you then insist that the Obama administration push aggressively for transparent carbon pricing, preferably via a revenue-neutral carbon tax, as the cornerstone of policies to preserve Earth’s climate?
5. Why Not Tax Instead of Cap? (jfb, Hampton Roads, Va., 21 reccomendations)
To Steve Chu or Carol Browner: Why do you prefer cap-and-trade to a carbon tax? Do you not think it possible to educate the public and Congress on the advantages of a carbon tax in simplicity and removal of opportunity for political horse-trading?
A steadily escalating carbon tax, perhaps $20/tonne in FY11 escalating at $10/tonne/year to $150/tonne [in 2010 dollars], would provide a long term environment for private investment and be clearer to all participants than a cap-and-trade system with auctioned rights. Perhaps a third of the funds generated could be rebated evenly per capita with the rest used to reduce the national debt. The Clinton administration showed that there is a virtuous cycle in budget matters with benefits for running a surplus when not in recession. The G.W. Bush administration showed problems when a surplus is turned into unbalanced tax cuts and wars.
6. Will Population Be a Priority? (Steven Earl Salmony, Chapel Hill, N.C., 20 recommendations)
Dr. Holdren has been clear for many years about the threat that is potentially posed to the family of humanity and life as we know it by the huge scale and fully anticipated, unregulated increase of absolute global human population numbers in Century XXI. By contrast, Dr. Lubchenco and many too many top-rank scientists appear to have remained silent on the topic of the human overpopulation of Earth.
With human population projections indicating that the human community will have 9+ billion members by 2050, perhaps it is time to open discussions here and elsewhere about the profound implications of a 40% increase in the human population in the coming four decades.Read more…
7. Will You Make Science ‘Cool’? (Chris, New York, 19 recommendations)
Dr. Chu: I’d like to see a nationwide campaign that promotes “Science is cool.” In current culture, you get more fame from being a bad singer on American Idols than being a Nobel-prize winner.
8. Will You Bridge Economics and Science? (Wayne Hamilton, Springdale, Utah, 18 recommendations)
My request to the Obama transition team is to introduce the economy team to the science team. Economists like Daniel Tarullo would benefit from discussing the laws of thermodynamics with Steven Chu. I’m also sure that the science community would benefit from learning something of the complexity of economics theory and practice. New ideas might evolve!
I’m certain that physics has laws that must be obeyed at our peril, but I’m not convinced that economics has shown their ‘laws’ to be inviolate. In fact, just now to the contrary those principles are looking quite tarnished. And, I’d like to see a science-cum-economics dialogue continue and evolve throughout Obama’s tenure in the White House. It would greatly benefit our transition to a sustainable economy based on alternative energy, resource conservation, green jobs and creative partipation by all sectors of our society.
9. Boosting U.S. Brainpower (Phil Ph.D., Mensa, Virginia, 16 recommendations)
I’ve seen a chart that China and India each have been graduating five times the scientists and engineers than the U.S. since 2000. Currently, the majority of our R&D is being done overseas, much in India. At the current rate, by 2010, 80% of our R&D will be done overseas. If we think getting our energy from overseas is bad, imagine how bad it will be having our R&D and brains coming from overseas. How can we change this trend?
We are also currently turning away many brilliant foreign scientists and engineers because of a policy of only allowing in a limited number per year. That number is usually filled by February. This can easily be addressed by legislation to greatly expand the number allowed. Should we consider accelerating their citizenship? Should we consider accelerating the citizenship of foreign students graduating with honors in science and engineering?
10. Will Obama Respect Science? (IGeorge Mobus, Tacoma, Wash., 16 recommendations)
I am curious as to how much access and influence the scientists on Obama’s team will have. Will their voices weigh heavily in policy debates? We’ve seen so many examples of politics (and ideology) trumping science in the past. Sometimes the intentions have been good. That is, people believe that they have to acquiesce to the so-called “political reality” in order to get a foot in the door. This too often ends up as compromise where none should be given. (See Gus Speth’s book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability.”)
Mr. Obama will be facing some very powerful political forces as he goes against CO2 production. I’m sure he understands the importance of wining these battles, but will he bring the scientists (and not just the ones named to administration positions) perspectives into those battles as ammunition? Or will the lawyer side (the debaters) council political expediency? We will surely get ineffective policy if the latter.Read more…
11. Are Ethanol Mandates Defensible? (Sam Hurst, Rapid City, S.D., 16 recommendations)
How will President Obama reconcile the promise to give “science” a bigger voice, with his commitment to increase mandates for ethanol. What do Steven Chu and John Holdren have to say about the calculus of corn-based ethanol, and its impact on biodiversity in farm country? What do they have to say about the future potential (or not) of cellulosic ethanol? Ethanol may be the first clash between “science” and “politics”.