Week in Review: April 17

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

The EPA’s carbon dioxide mission, cutbacks in science funding in the UK and Ireland, thoughts on the AlloSphere, and John Maddox, RIP.

(Un)stimulated
British scientists have been keeping up a steady call for increased science funding along the lines of the stimulus dollars accorded to the NSF, NIH, and other institutions in the United States. That, according to the head of the Bank of England, is not going to happen — further stimulus spending, he argued, is a bad idea for the UK because of the risk of increased long-term debt; Martin Rees, the head of the Royal Society, rejoined in the Guardian that such arguments were shortsighted. This, combined with Ireland’s announced cuts to its universities last week, have made for a dispiriting week for the scientists of Albion and Eire.

In the US, Science reported this week that the NSF has decided to use its stimulus money to fund proposals already received but for which there had not been enough money. The NIH is pursuing a similar course with about 70 percent of its money, but is also reviewing new proposals, leading to ongoing problems with the government’s grants.gov website. A further problem will be how to keep the new work receiving funding now going if the science budget next year retreats from its stimulus levels. How either institution will account for the job-creation requirements of the stimulus money remains unclear.

Immersive modeling
First Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York and now University of California-Santa Barbara are pursuing massive visualizations of scientific data. As the UCSB presentation posted this week at the TED website makes abundantly clear, this is not your ordinary network graph or map of science — itself the subject of much ongoing work, including a paper just published in the arXiv by Mark Herrera of the University of Maryland and colleagues using maps of science to trace the evolution of the boundaries of scientific fields. No, what RPI and UCSB promise, at their EMPAC and AlloSphere facilities respectively, is the possibility of getting inside visualizations of working brains, of atomic lattices, and of genomes.

The presentations can be awe-inspiring, and could certainly do for much of science what Pink Floyd and planetariums have done for astronomy. But what will this mean for science? Supporters promise a new visual and sonic way for scientists to interact with data, but it is not immediately clear what the utility of it will be for researchers. Understanding something well enough to program such a model suggests that the model then might not add anything to the discussion; at any rate, one of science’s great accomplishments is demonstrating that we do not need to hear or see things on a human scale to understand what they are or how they work. But by all means, bring this to the science museums. It’s hard to think of any sales pitch more compelling than being able to say, this is what we know about the brain — don’t you want to come with us as we make this model better?

John Maddox, RIP
The late John Maddox, the fourth and longtime editor of the journal Nature, died this week. He told John Brockman in 1997 that, “it’s dangerous to rely on computer modeling when you are trying to make predictions about the real world.” He was raising doubts about models of climate change, but nevertheless they are words to keep in mind always. Even the best of data can be mangled in silico by inapt algorithms and analysis. It’s the quality of our understanding of the real world, and not the cleverness of our representations of it, that will determine whether we can do anything with the data we continue to accrue.

Regulating Carbon Dioxide
The announcement by the Obama Administration on April 17 that the Environmental Protection Agency is to begin regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act is sure to dominate Congress in the coming months. The conventional wisdom at this point is that this announcement is a ploy to get Congress to move ahead with a bill to regulate carbon dioxide, probably by introducing a cap-and-trade scheme of some kind. Given that the price set for carbon in present trading schemes — such as those in the northeastern US and Europe — has been inadequate to support the cost of the latest iterations of carbon-capture and sequestration technologies, it seems unlikely that in the short term a national US version will prompt major changes in either carbon usage or removal. Compounding that is the fact that Congressional Republicans have been busy writing bills explicitly rejecting any EPA authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act — and denying the government the authority to regulate the gas under the Endangered Species Act — and some Congressional Democrats are dragging their feet too. This EPA action will likely exacerbate the splits in a Democratic caucus already fractured over the issue, and will considerably raise the stakes for the 2010 midterm elections. Stay tuned.

Originally published April 17, 2009

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