The Why Files The Why Files --

Questioning authority: Will the candidates ever confront science? (!)

As the electoral marathon grinds on, who's best suited for the job? We hate to move beyond blathering platitudes -- "Change!" "Strength!" and "Experience!" -- but seriously: Shouldn't the candidates talk once in a while about critical scientific issues?

OK, it was just a thought...

But deadly avian flu is spreading. Humans are warming the globe, and energy is only getting more expensive. As American astronauts head back to the moon, are more efficient space projects getting gutted?

To kick-start the discussion, we present a Why Files backgrounder on 10 pressing scientific issues, together with sample questions for the candidates.

If you're a true believer in the idea that science matters in the real world, here's a petition calling for a science debate between the presidential wanna-bes...

1. The Food and Drug Administration is staggering under an avalanche of drug applications, a flood of imports, and a stream of drug recalls. How can this agency meet its obligations?

The Food and Drug Administration was once the world's premier food and drug regulator. But now, as former chief counsel Peter Barton Hutt told Congress last month, the agency is "barely hanging on by its fingertips." In recent years, the FDA's reputation has been besmirched by high-profile snafus like tainted seafood, drugs that kill ("I thought you were checking on that..."), and food infested with deadly bacteria.

Caught in culture wars over sexuality and abortion, pushed by pharmacos eager to earn billions on new drugs, stifled by a cult of deregulation, the food-and-drug regulator is cruising rocky shoals.

The FDA's scientific advisory board has complained about clay-tablet-era information technology, but the agency also needs scientists hip to new fields like genomics and nanotechnology. More fundamentally, its inspectors are overwhelmed by the explosion of imports. "At its current pace, the agency would take 13 years to inspect every foreign drug plant exporting to the United States, 27 years to check every foreign medical device plant and 1,900 years to inspect every foreign food plant," according to The New York Times (see #1 in the bibliography).

Throwing money at the problem would patch some of these holes, but an agency with such a broad range of social, cultural and economic effects also needs a leader who can defend the vital role of food and drug regulation and repair the system before the next Vioxx disaster.

Question: Do you believe the FDA is in crisis, and if so, how do you propose to help the agency cope with its many challenges?

FDA inspectors looking over spice imports in Port Newark, N.J., in 2007. The inspector in the foreground is matching information on shipping labels against invoices, while the other inspector packs samples to take back to the lab for analysis. Photo: Black Star/Michael Falco FDA
Men in dark navy uniforms roam warehouse full of cardboard boxes, taking notes on clipboards

2. Now that the human hand in global warming is practically unquestionable, how quickly should we respond?

Last year's international report confirmed that global warming is already changing the planet, and the primary cause is burning fossil fuels. Today's picture, and tomorrow's forecasts, are bleak:

little earth Droughts and fires will increase in dry regions, like Northeast Brazil, the Mediterranean, Southern Africa and the Western United States. Reductions in farm yield could bring starvation to hundreds of millions.

little earth Carbon dioxide is acidifying the ocean. Alterations to the largest ecosystem could destroy coral reefs and damage fish populations, intensifying the food crisis. Ongoing species extinctions and dislocations will accelerate as warm temperatures move poleward.

little earth Diseases will continue spreading from the tropics into temperate zones.

little earth The melting rate on Greenland's icecap has doubled in just 10 years; rising seas could drown coastal regions and low-lying nations.

A preponderance of climate scientists have long favored reducing greenhouse gas pollution, and some now say we have just 10 years left to turn the situation around. Both the climate and the fossil-fuel system have enormous momentum (see #2 in the bibliography), and so the results of changes are not evident for years:

little earth Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for up to a century.

little earth Greenland's icecap will continue melting for decades, even after the climate stabilizes, and there is also concern about the gigantic West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

little earth A new coal-fired electric generator may spew out millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year for another 50 years.

little earth After decades of discussion, there is no treaty to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. The Kyoto agreement was better than nothing, but it will soon expire, and it has not prevented the annual rate of carbon dioxide pollution from increasing over the past few years.

The internationally accepted predictions (calling for several degrees F of warming) are disturbing enough, but they exclude some possible feedback mechanisms. For example, if warming causes more wildfires, will they release enough carbon dioxide to further accelerate the warming? Will warming liberate billions of tons of the powerful greenhouse gas methane that is now frozen under the tundra and continental shelves?

These disaster scenarios could lead to runaway warming and leave us with a very different planet.

Distinguished climatologist Jim Hansen says that given the momentum in the energy and climate systems, now is the time to act. Climate can be a menacing beast, and the "Let George do it" posture proves that George is waiting for us, even as we wait for him.

It is up to the advanced societies, history's biggest polluters, to pave the way toward a greener, cooler Earth.

There is an upside: the necessary innovations, such as solar and wind power, will profit the countries that invent and manufacture them. Non-fossil energy will reduce the enormous transfer of funds to oil exporters, and limit other drawbacks of fossil energy, like acid rain and the environmental after-effects of coal mining.

Question: How can the United States take the lead in slowing global warming? Specifically, how would you reduce the level of carbon dioxide pollution?

The Athabasca Glacier, in the Canadian Rockies, is one victim of global warming. In 125 years, the Glacier has lost half its volume and receded more than 1.5 kilometers. The glacier's front is already several meters behind its 1992 location. Photo: NASA As gray glacier recedes in background, small sign stuck among desolate rocks reads "1992".

Projected surface temperature changes for 2090 to 2099, relative to 1980 through 1999. How hot will it get? The answer depends partly on how much stuff we burn. Graphic: IPCC
On this map, all seven continents shown in red, the arctic in purple and oceans in oranges and yellows.

3. How important are solar and wind power, and how would you advance them?

Energy is handy stuff, but fossil fuels seem like the axle of the axis of evil right now, even if you ignore global warming for a moment. The United States imports 60 percent of its crude oil needs, which drained $355 billion from the economy in 2007, while enriching some unsavory regimes. Other "negatives" include the military costs of ensuring access to oil, mercury pollution from burning coal, and the obliteration of mountains and streams by coal-miners in Appalachia.

Sunlight and wind may be diffuse sources of energy, but they are astonishingly abundant. Wind could make the Dakotas the Abu Dhabi of the North, and Southwestern states are bathed in sunlight. One estimate says a sunny patch as big as Texas could supply the entire globe with photovoltaic (PV) electricity (see #3 in the bibliography).

To use more wind and solar energy, we'll need to address both the supply and demand sides of the equation. Here are some modest ideas:

tiny presidential seal Energy is all about physics and chemistry. Fund professorships and graduate students to research green energy.

tiny presidential seal Pay for research and development of cheaper PV cells. Could these cells be printed like a newspaper instead of being made one-by-one like computer chips?

tiny presidential seal Continue financial support for wind power, and create a guaranteed market for solar power.

tiny presidential seal Establish taxes or rigid caps on carbon-dioxide pollution.

tiny presidential seal Boost research on cheap energy storage, to compensate for the inherent downtime of wind and solar. Start with plug-in hybrid cars, and then explore ways to store energy as hydrogen or heat, in new types of batteries, or in some exotic type of biological storage.

Question: What are your plans to realize the potential of solar and wind energy?

Making electricity from the wind at the New Mexico Wind Energy Center. Photo: Sandia National Laboratories
Giant turbine with three long, thin blades amid a rocky landscape and under brilliant blue sky.

4. Seas are rising. How would you protect vulnerable cities and coastlines?

The ocean is warming, glaciers and icecaps are melting, and the sea is rising. This is already making life difficult for island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but giant coastal cities may be next. New York, London, Shanghai, most of Florida: this could get serious in a hurry.

Hurricane Katrina, remember, actually missed New Orleans, but the rising sea helped produce a moldering wreck: sea level + storm surge = prodigious flooding.

A reasonable response would include:

little earth Preserving (instead of destroying) barrier islands and coastal wetlands, which in places like New Orleans can slow storm-caused flooding;

little earth Building levee systems that don't a) fail, or b) make the problem worse, as they did in New Orleans;

little earth Planning for a future with higher seas, through a smarter insurance system, tighter regulation of building locations, and forward-looking building codes; and

little earthslowing or halting global warming, the ultimate driver of sea level rise.

According to some predictions, the climate could be 5 degrees F warmer by 2100. Three million years ago, the last time Earth reached that temperature, sea level was 80 feet above today's level. Sure, you say, the planet survived, but then half-a-billion people did not dwell in the flooding zone...

Some climatologists say global warming is spawning stronger hurricanes. If so, warming will make a two-pronged attack on some coasts, and Katrina II is only a matter of time...

Question: What are your plans to slow the rise in sea level, and help protect coastlines from the seas?

Rising seas are already a problem: Women in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, after the 2004 tsunami. The 1,190 islands of the Maldives are about 2,500 kilometers from the earthquake that triggered the tsunami, yet waves swept completely across many islands (average elevation: 1.5 meters). About a quarter of the nearly 200 inhabited islands were severely damaged, and 10 percent were uninhabitable. Photo: USGS.
Women wear bright scarves on their heads as they wade among shallow pools of water

5. Should evolution be taught in public schools?

Evolution through natural selection, the epochal insight of Charles Darwin, explains that organisms either adapt to new conditions or they die out. Over billions of years, evolution has produced millions of species, all related to each other through a complicated tree of life. The effects of evolution are evident in bones and flower structures, and in the molecules that make up DNA and proteins.

Despite the trenchant opposition of some religions, "Darwinism" remains one of the best tested of all scientific theories. Although Darwin's theory has been refined (as you would expect after 150 years at the center of biological science), the principle remains. The concept that life can change to overcome threats and exploit opportunity is just common sense -- backed by virtually every systematic study of life past and present.

Evolution through natural selection should be taught in public schools because it

tiny presidential seal is the organizing principle of biology, able to explain both the changes and stability of the natural world;

tiny presidential seal is science. Creationism and intelligent design are religion, and public schools teach science, not religion;

tiny presidential seal illustrates how scientific theories arise, are tested, and may be changed if the evidence dictates; and

tiny presidential seal is the most powerful explanation -- indeed the only explanation -- for the diversity and survival of life. And so far as we know, life makes our planet unique in the universe.

Question: Do you plan to ensure that public schools teach evolution through natural selection?

Because gorillas and humans are so closely related, the same diseases can infect both species. In the zoo, infant gorillas get the same inoculations as human babies. Evidence for evolution appears in susceptibility to disease, and also in the structure of bones, proteins and genes. Photo: National Zoo
Gorilla sitting on haunches cradles baby in left arm, scratches chin with right hand.

6. How would you insulate science from political winds?

In the past few years, we've read about political appointees carving the meat from government reports on global warming, clouding issues related to embryonic stem cells, hyping an unworkable anti-missile defense, promoting abstinence at the expense of sex education, and delaying the approval of certain medicines that flout the agendas of particular political groups or religions.

Presidents, in accord with Congress, have the right to set research directions. But many observers think presidents also have an obligation to hear honest, realistic advice, and we therefore humbly suggest that the next president:

tiny presidential seal restore the unbiased "review committees" traditionally used to judge scientific issues;

tiny presidential seal stop asking potential members of scientific advisory councils about their voting history; and

tiny presidential seal remove appointed political "czars" who, with little or no scientific background, are running agencies or "editing" scientific reports.

Thought and belief are powerful, but so is reality...

Question: Reality has been very good to the United States, one of the richest and most powerful nations in history. How can you ensure that you get realistic and un-biased scientific advice?

Human embryonic stem cells have been at the center of disputes over the proper role of government in regulating science. Gabriela Cezar, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, removes vials of frozen human embryonic stem cells from liquid-nitrogen storage in her lab. Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison.
Woman wearing highly reflective safety glasses removes small tray from liquid nitrogen freezer

7. Pandemic avian flu is still a threat. What are your plans to deal with this?

Strains of the influenza virus can range from annoying to deadly: "Spanish flu" killed about 50 million people in 1918-19. Today's concern is over avian flu, first seen in birds, and particularly the strain carrying markers called "H5N1."

Why is H5N1 such a deadly threat? Because virtually nobody has immunity to it, and standard flu shots do nothing to prevent it. Despite deliberately killing off flocks of poultry infected with H5N1, the epidemic is spreading from its origin in China or Southeast Asia -- in both birds and people. H5N1

eye was deadly to about 60 percent of the 360 people it has infected;

eye is becoming more resistant to the few drugs that have any efficacy (no human vaccine exists);

eye is becoming more efficient at sickening animals; and

eye is spreading in migratory birds through Asia, Europe and Africa.

Epidemiologists and virologists both know that epidemics wax and wane in response to changes in the infectious agent, the host and the environment. If H5N1 changes genetically so it can spread directly from one person to another, rather than mainly through birds, a rampant epidemic could result. Lifted by jetliners across thousands of miles, the pandemic could kill millions in just weeks.

Question: What are your plans to confront avian flu before it reaches the deadly pandemic stage?

The deadly avian influenza A (H5N1) in animals is established in domestic poultry in some areas and is unlikely to diminish much in the short term in Asia, Europe, the Near East or Africa. Sporadic human infections resulting from direct contact with infected poultry and/or wild birds will continue, but the epidemic could get worse fast if we are unwise, unlucky or unprepared. Graphic: NIH
In this map, Asia, eastern Europe and parts of Northern Africa are swathed in mustard yellow, red dots pop up over major population centers.

8. Research costs are going up. Is basic science important enough to receive increased funding?

Research is the engine of the economy, source of advances in medicine, transportation, computing, energy and technology. Basic research is by definition risky, which usually scares off corporations, leaving the federal government as the dominant funder. The Bush budget proposals for 2009 would raise overall federal research and development (R&D) spending by 3.3 percent, to $145 billion, but allow support for the basic and applied end research to fall 0.5 percent to $57.1 billion. In R&D, development gets the big bucks...

Most of the increases in the Bush R&D budget are associated with defense and security. Only about $1 billion is available for other areas, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Even if Congress deep-sixes this lame-duck budget, few observers expect a significant hike in R&D spending, since the budget is also coping with war, recession and a tidal wave of red ink.

Some large-item requests did well in the Bush budget. An international fusion reactor is slated for $493 million, manned space flight gets $3 billion, up 23 percent; and coal research got a cool 26 percent raise. Funding for smaller, investigator initiated projects did not fare as well, and the National Institutes of Health continues the gradual decline (in inflation-adjusted dollars) that began in 2004.

That has health researchers worried about tomorrow, as Robert Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told Science magazine. "This is a real deterrent for any young investigators who were holding out hope that biomedical research was a viable career path" (see #4 in the bibliography).

Question: Do you favor an increase or decrease in R&D spending?

The 2009 Bush research budget: Total federal support of basic and applied research would fall 0.5 percent to $57.1 billion, even after large proposed increases for physical sciences. Research funding at the National Institute of Health would stay flat, while most other agencies would see gains in non-earmarked research funding. In real dollars, the federal research portfolio would be down 9.4 percent from 2004. Graphic: AAAS
Graph shows overall decrease of funds for the sciences, in two-year increments since 1978.

9. Will you pursue Pres. Bush's support for a manned mission to the moon and Mars, or would you shift the savings to other space projects?

In 2004, President Bush announced expensive plans to send astronauts to the moon and then Mars. Those plans are now in disarray. Several initiatives, like landing robots on the moon, are already off the table, the new rocket and crew capsule are off-schedule and over budget, and NASA is several billion dollars short, even after pirating billions from space science to pay for hardware like the International Space Station.

The result is what Science magazine called a "civil war" among space scientists about the next best thing in space (see #5 in the bibliography). Cutbacks in Earth-observing systems, for example, could undermine efforts to monitor a changing climate, and other basic space science projects are under attack. To cut costs, some suggest sending astronauts to asteroids, not Mars; others suggest more emphasis on international cooperation in space.

Question: Do you support manned space flight, and if so, to what destination? Do the inspirational and propaganda benefits of sending people into space justify the huge cost, or would it make more sense to redeploy resources toward robotic science like the Mars rovers and space telescopes?

As it finished its second Martian year on Mars, the Rover Spirit examined these angular rocks. if the United States races China to the moon, such projects could run short of cash. Photo: NASA
Black-and-white image taken from first-person perspective of the rover, its wheels seen near both sides and long mechanical arm extending forward.

10. Do you support research into basic physical forces?

It's ironic: To answer the biggest questions in physics -- "Why do particles have mass? How are the basic forces of physics related? How did the universe come into being?" -- you need to study the smallest particles. And to do that, you need the biggest machines on Earth -- the giant particle accelerators. The largest of these atom smashers, the Large Hadron Collider, is now coming on line in Europe.

Despite their hefty price tags, these machines won't cure the common cold or produce immediate breakthroughs in, say, green energy. And the hefty Hadron will leave some questions for new machines like the proposed International Linear Collider -- a monster-masher that will also cost double-digit gigabucks.

Why bother? The payoff is hard to predict, but it should extend beyond basic physics: Inventions based on particle accelerators have been applied to cancer treatment and materials science, to name two areas. And CERN invented a computer network called the World Wide Web so researchers could share data.

Research at the Hadron and the linear collider could have a much bigger payoff if it helps build a "grand unified theory" that unites gravity with the other three physical forces, a task that eluded Albert Einstein and similar megabrains. Understanding the relationship of forces can be useful, say promoters of the linear collider: electric motors and countless other electromagnetic inventions followed the 19th century discovery that electricity and magnetism are two manifestations of a single force, electromagnetism.

It's helpful to remember that physics is still in the dark about some enormous enigmas: About 96 percent of all matter and energy is called "dark matter" and "dark energy," meaning we can barely detect them, let alone understand them.

Figuring out the true nature of dark energy and dark matter could be a practical and theoretical watershed, but only if we have the money, the will-power and the curiosity.

Question: Do you support basic research in the physical sciences, and if so, how would you plan to change funding priorities?

One giant measuring stick: The last chunk of a particle detector drops to its home, a cavern in the world's largest atom smasher. The Large Hadron Collider will accelerate subatomic particles to near light speed in the effort to answer fundamental questions about the nature of our universe. The Collider is run by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which has made itself the world's particle physics HQ. Photo: CERN
Large cylinder of wires, detector plates and computer chips drops into place in a concrete cavern.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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