Tag Archives: science policy

Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity

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[Above: Rendering of DNA–aka “what most people think about when they hear ‘molecular identity'”–via ynse on Flickr & Creative Commons. 

Below: What scientists actually look at when they’re trying to sort out molecular identities. By Micah Baldwin via Flickr & Creative Commons]

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Two posts and two weeks later, I’ve only covered a fraction of the ideas presented at “The Molecularization of Identity” conference. Molecular identities factor into so many aspects of our lives that disentangling and summarizing them is pratically impossible. 

But maybe summary shouldn’t be the goal. 

After all, succinct summaries tend to create expectations--either for futures that promise to cure all our ills and end all suffering or for apocalyptic technology that robs us of our humanity.  However, reality is always a mixed bag. Science isn’t separate from the rest of society, and most corners of society have already been shaped by science. 

Maybe we’d be better off if we admitted that the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and cultural worlds are all entangled. 

The Blurred Boundaries of Bhopal

Three decades have passed since a pesticide-manufacturing Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India leaked 30 tons of a deadly gas called methyl isocyanate into the surrounding countryside. Over two thousand people died immediately, but the effects of the pesticide lingered and continued to kill.  Several thousands more died in the first two weeks after the leak, and many more were left disabled.

Continue reading “Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity” »

Oceans in the Anthropocene: Forever changed but still awesome [Recap of talk ft. Jeremy Jackson]

The Talk:

Uncharted Waters: Novel Ecosystems in the Marine Environment (part of the Ecological Systems in the Anthropocene series)

In Plain English:
Humans have messed up the ocean, so Harvard asks marine biologists, “What are you excited about?!”

The Speaker(s):
Mary O’Connor of University of British Columbia, Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute for Oceanography, Trevor Branch of University of Washington. & John Pandolfi of the University of Queensland Australia

The Sponsor:

Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE)

What it covered:

“Biologist work on systems dominated by the footprint of man,” Elizabeth Wolkovich, Harvard biology prof and the series organizer, declared in her opening remarks. Most biologists (and a fair number of geologists) will tell you that we are living in a new epoch, a period of time where the Earth’s biogeochemistry becomes so different from the last few million years that geologists have to declare it its own thing.

This particular new epoch is an outlier, because we started it. It’s called the Anthropocene. Wolkovich pointed out that if you look back at Victorian-era papers and essays on natural history (because obviously you’re Stephen J. Gould), you’ll see scientists talking about Nature, with a capital “N”, pristine and untouched by human boot-clomping.

Scientists don’t do that anymore.

Continue reading “Oceans in the Anthropocene: Forever changed but still awesome [Recap of talk ft. Jeremy Jackson]” »

Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea

This past Saturday, I got to listen in on an all-star panel sponsored by the Future of Life Institute on the potential risks and benefits of technologies like artificial intelligence, personal genetics, and automated factories.

We heard from George Church, one of the world’s best-known synthetic biologists, on the future of bioengineering; Ting Wu, director of the Personal Genetics Education Project, on how to convince laypeople to learn about genetics; Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Center for Digital Business on how automated factories will impact developing countries’ economies; Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek on the difficulties we’ll face ensuring that robots won’t decide to harm us; and Jaan Tallinn of Skype on the ethics of creating sentient AIs. Alan Alda, of M*A*S*H* and The Flame Challenge was the moderator.

The conclusion: There are definitely both benefits and risks to all of these technologies, and people need to continue discussing these issues because they cannot be resolved in a single two-hour panel discussion. Not even an MIT panel discussion. Continue reading “Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea” »

Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin

The Talk:

People’s Science: Bodies & Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier

In Plain English:

Sociologist investigates the tensions between the stem cell research community and racial minorities and/or low-income communities

The Speaker:

Ruha Benjamin of Boston University

The Sponsor:

BU Discoveries Lecture Series

What it covered:

Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist who studies scientists and the way they interact with marginalized communities, opened her talk with a story about a bench.

Not a lab bench. A park bench. In Berkeley.

It was a nice day, and she had a few minutes to spare after giving a talk at UC-Berkeley, so she decided to try and take a nap on the park bench. She found that she couldn’t. “Tell me why,” she said, clicking to a slide with a picture of a metal park bench with three sets of arm-rest-style dividers.

“…It has bars on it?” one audience member said tentatively.

“Right. But why do you think those bars are there?” Continue reading “Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin” »

Americans spend 3 times as much on Valentine’s Day gifts as they do on the entire NSF budget

I’m not the first science blogger to point this out, but it bears repeating: The billions we spend on funding federal scientific may sound extreme on paper, but once you realize we spend $17 billion a year on Valentine’s Day, suddenly a 5 billion dollar NASA budget doesn’t sound so crazy.

Case in point: Estimates for spending this past Valentine’s Day hover in the 17 billion to 20 billion dollar range.

The proposed 2014 budget for the National Science Foundation is 7.2 billion. Out of that 5.8 billion will go into scientific research projects, while the rest go toward building new research facilities, covering administrative costs, and funding educational outreach activities (like Bill Nye the Science Guy).

So yeah. Annual spending on the NSF is about 1/3 the amount we spend on Valentine’s Day every year. Continue reading “Americans spend 3 times as much on Valentine’s Day gifts as they do on the entire NSF budget” »

Basic Research: How asking weird questions about science builds the economy

“Scientists, they’re isolated. They’re out of touch with real world concerns, and that’s why they can’t get funding. What can we do get them interested in relevant projects so that they can get their funding?”

This was an audience question at a Nova-sponsored Science Cafe in Cambridge, MA. The speaker was Ari Daniel, an oceanographer-turned-radio-producer, and the audience member asking the question was a middle-aged man with brown hair and glasses and a plodding, pedantic tone of voice.

The audience member went on, “I mean, there was a forest that the scientists wanted to save, and there was no money for it, so they got some hikers in there, and then they were able to raise money for it. So how can we get scientists to do more things like that? How can we convey to them that they need make their work relevant to people?”

I don’t know if he realized it, but his question was comparable to “Climate change is a scam concocted by environmentalists” in terms of being offensive to scientists. Continue reading “Basic Research: How asking weird questions about science builds the economy” »