Bring Back OTA
Aug31

Bring Back OTA

I spent part of last week excavating my office desk in the wake of the ACS meeting in Washington, D.C., and a week’s vacation in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I came across a July 24, 2009, letter from Ralph Nader urging me to support an effort by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) to reinstate Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. I have never been a big fan of Nader’s, but here’s an issue on which I’m in wholehearted agreement with him. OTA was established in 1972 and, after a rocky first couple of years, grew into an organization whose reports on a wide range of science and technology topics—some 750 of them over 20-plus years—were highly respected and influential in shaping U.S. science and technology policy. I have more than a passing familiarity with OTA. After I started working for ACS in the mid-1970s, I took several courses in science and technology policy at George Washington University. OTA was one of the major topics in science and technology policy in those days, and I read a few of the office’s reports as part of my classwork. One of my classmates, who became one of my closest friends, joined the OTA staff after he received his master’s degree and worked there for several years. OTA reports were definitely not light reading. The methodology that went into producing a report was painstaking and thorough. Many experts were consulted. Reports always presented members of Congress with a range of policy options. The reports were, in short, the work of serious science and technology policy wonks. OTA also didn’t bend to prevailing political winds in the preparation of its reports. For instance, its 1985 report on “Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies”—President Ronald Reagan’s beloved “Star Wars”—said plainly that U.S. cities could not be protected against a Soviet nuclear attack. And its massive two-volume 1993 report “Preparing for an Uncertain Climate” stated: “Thus, unless the predictive [climate models] are seriously flawed, average global temperatures are expected to increase several degrees over the next century, even under the most optimistic emissions scenarios.” OTA regularly ran afoul of conservatives in Congress and in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations because they wanted conclusions different from what the evidence supported. Eventually, OTA was done in following the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections and the Republican “Contract With America.” Republicans argued that other agencies could fill OTA’s role, and funding for the office was eliminated in 1995, an action one representative called “an act of scientific self-lobotomy.” There have been periodic calls for the reestablishment of OTA in the intervening years. Holt, who is a...

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Poster Ingenuity
Aug28

Poster Ingenuity

In a sea of posters at a chemistry conference it is hard to stand out from the crowd. But graduate student Natalia Shustova of Colorado State University managed to do so at the combination 19th International Symposium on Fluorine Chemistry/3rd International Symposium on Fluorous Technologies this week with a 3-D presentation. Shustova’s research is on encapsulating metal atoms inside fullerenes that have fluorinated groups on the surface. She made a hemispheric fullerene model out of colored poster board, leaving the fullerene structure’s hexagons in place but cutting out the pentagons. In that way the scandium atoms trapped inside the fullerene, represented by balloons, were visible. She placed the details of her research on pieces of paper mounted on the hexagons. In the photo, Shustova chats with Konrad Seppelt of Free University of...

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Pictures from an Exposition
Aug28

Pictures from an Exposition

  Every exposition at a national ACS meeting is a wonder of magnitude, logistics, specialty knowledge, personalities, marketing and promotion innovations (and desperations), and business diversity. The microculture of the journals and book industry, for example, is so different from that of the lab automation industry. For me, though, the biggest draw at each Expo is the opportunity to browse the material culture of the laboratory. It’s a  menagerie of forms and textures and designs that I revel in the way I might be amazed and amused by the biological forms, textures and designs on display at a zoo. And I particularly like to snap a macro lens onto my camera. This accoutrement provides me with a sort of low-power-microscope perspective on the gala. With that point of view, it’s the details, the components, of the mass spectrometers, x-ray diffractometers, calorimetry systems, automated sample handlers, and other laboratory instruments and furnishings that come to the fore. This act of abstraction also reveals how the result of design and material choice so often brings with it, not so much on purpose as by consequence, arresting aesthetic appeal. This movie requires Flash Player...

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Time Out
Aug28

Time Out

Organizers of the fluorine conferences taking place in Grand Teton National Park this week did a lot of thinking ahead when planning the technical sessions. Fluorine meetings tend to be a bit relaxed, and fluorine chemists a bit verbose, with speakers running over their allotted time and ensuing discussions dragging things out even further. But with so many lectures on the schedule, the organizers knew they had to keep speakers on time. Typically a session chair at a conference will give a little warning to the speaker or stand up when their time is running out. At the fluorine conferences the organizers are trying a different approach: electronic timers. A clock is set by a conference staff member at the beginning of a talk, so that the speaker sees exactly how much time they have remaining. A beeper goes off with five minutes remaining, and again when time runs out. At the outset of the conference the organizers explained this protocol, with the threat that anyone not ceasing when time ran out would have the plug pulled on their PowerPoint presentation. The session chairs are supposed to be the enforcers, but so far none of them have seemed to have the heart to cut anyone off. But the speakers sure are talking fast with one eye on the clock and skipping slides to end on time. It doesn’t seem to impact the quality of the talks, but it is keeping everyone honest. In the photo, Viacheslav Petrov of DuPont, with his back to the camera, is trying to beat the clock, down to less than two minutes to go, as session chair Surya Prakash of the University of Southern California keeps a wary...

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Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again
Aug27

Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again

(Post updated at end.) The University of California, Los Angeles, is still under the microscope of state regulators. California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) officials paid the school’s chemistry & biochemistry department a surprise visit on Tuesday, Aug. 26. Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza says that the inspection marked the opening of a new investigation into laboratory health & safety at the university, although she refused to comment on the details of the investigation while it is ongoing, including what prompted it. California law gives Cal/OSHA six months to complete investigations, although the agency usually takes 3-4 months, Monterroza says. Rita Kern, a staff research associate in UCLA’s medical school, is a member of the University Professional and Technical Employees union‘s health & safety committee and accompanied the three Cal/OSHA inspectors. The inspectors did not reveal what prompted their visit, she says. The group had intended to inspect multiple labs in the chemistry & biochemistry department, Kern says, but because of time constraints looked only at the labs of Patrick Harran, a UCLA chemistry professor and the supervisor of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a staff research associate who died earlier this year from burns sustained in a fire in Harran’s lab. Harran was not present for the inspection, Kern says. The inspectors plan to return to look at the labs of other faculty members, Kern says. The inspectors scrutinized general housekeeping in the labs, whether people were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, and whether workers were informed about the hazards of the chemicals in the labs, Kern says. She says that the inspection was more educational than adversarial, with the Cal/OSHA personnel making it clear that they were there to look out for the well-being of the lab workers. At the exit conference, the inspectors highlighted the need to ensure proper labeling of chemicals and put away items that are not in use, as well as that lab workers should be better informed about what they’re working with and the hazards involved, Kern says. One of the inspectors noted that what they had seen that day was not significantly different from what they have generally observed at other universities, Kern says. “UCLA will review Cal/OSHA’s finding and, where appropriate and possible, address them immediately, consistent with UCLA’s commitment to ensuring the safest possible operation of all campus labs,” says UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton. It remains unclear what prompted the inspection. According to Cal/OSHA’s User’s Guide (pdf), a surprise inspection could be triggered by a formal complaint made by an employee or an employee representative such as an attorney or a union or health & safety professional. “Formal complaints are...

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