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Category → Editor’s blog

What Kind Of Nation?

What kind of nation do we want to live in? That’s really the fundamental question that underlies the epic debate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling and future budgets.

It’s not about freedom. The citizens of Germany, France, and the U.K.—all nations with social welfare systems that are more developed than that of the U.S.—are as free as U.S. citizens are. They are less free in some ways, more free in others. It balances out. They have better health care; we have more guns. It all depends on what matters to you.

Here is the kind of country we’re moving toward: On June 16, the Washington Post reported that, in order to reduce the deficit, the House of Representatives approved $750 million to fund a food safety law passed by the previous Congress, $205 million less than President Obama had requested and $87 million less than the Food & Drug Administration is currently receiving to guard the nation’s food supply. The House also voted to cut $35 million from the Department of Agriculture’s food safety inspection service.

The Post reported that Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said the cuts were justified because the nation’s food supply was “99.99 percent safe.”

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Water, Water

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of WaterIt’s become something of a truism that water scarcity will be as important an issue worldwide in the 21st century as finding alternatives to fossil fuels. A new book, “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” by Charles Fishman, convincingly drives that point home with a plethora of data on water use and interviews with people on the front lines of providing water for uses ranging from agriculture to advanced computer chip manufacturing to human consumption.

One of the central themes that Fishman develops and documents in “The Big Thirst” is that humans’ relationship to water is extraordinarily unrealistic. In developed nations, that’s largely because in everyone’s living memory water has always been abundant and cheap. The marketplace does not put any kind of realistic value on clean water, so people pay little or no attention to how they use it. Until it’s not there. Additionally, most people know almost nothing about the chemistry of water or water purification.

Fishman writes: “Although we don’t often notice it, every gallon of water we use has an economic value—the value of whatever we can actually do with that water. … In fact, we typically behave … as if the opposite were true: We act as if clean, on-demand water had zero economic value. Especially in the developed world, the economic value inherent in the water is hidden under a cloak of invisibility, because although the water has indispensable usefulness, it rarely has a price.”

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Celebrating IYC 2011

IYC LOGO

The International Year of Chemistry is already half over! And what a year it’s been so far. But there’s more to come. This week’s issue of C&EN is our major contribution to the IYC 2011 celebration. The issue contains five essays by prominent figures in the chemistry enterprise on some of the many ways chemistry is contributing to the welfare of humanity, as well as an essay on the life of Marie Curie, who received her Nobel Prize in Chemistry 100 years ago.

The issue also contains a Comment by ACS President Nancy B. Jackson that focuses on IYC 2011. Jackson outlines some of the challenges humans face, and writes, “Although no one knows exactly how to address these challenges, we all agree that collaboration and chemistry are crucial in our search for solutions.”

For Jackson, “collaboration” means working with chemists from around the world, from developed and developing countries. “Chemical scientists from developing and emerging countries have so much to offer the U.S. chemical community,” Jackson writes. She points, for example, to access to natural products and creative applications of green chemistry.

“But most striking,” Jackson writes, “is the personal and professional inspiration that I consistently find through knowing chemists from Africa and other developing regions of the world. Their dedication, enthusiasm, and vision convince me that chemistry really can make the world a better place.”

C&EN has been taking note of such chemists during IYC 2011 in a series of profiles of ACS members living and working in places where there are only a few such members. The profiles have appeared in the last issue of each month. So far this year, we have profiled members living in Cuba (where there are a total of six members), Fiji (1 member), Lebanon (13), Burkina Faso (2), and Moldova (1). These stories of chemists working as researchers and educators under difficult conditions and with meager resources are truly inspirational.

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The Value of R&D

As scientists, members of the American Chemical Society understand innately the value of R&D and the importance of government funding of R&D.

It’s not always obvious that nonscientists—a category that encompasses most politicians—share that understanding. Thus I was heartened to learn that the person who is perhaps America’s most influential economist, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, had given a major speech on “Promoting Research and Development: The Government’s Role” in mid-May.

Bernanke gave the keynote address at a two-day conference on “New Building Blocks for Jobs and Economic Growth” sponsored by the Conference Board. Bernanke noted that “the effective commercial application of new ideas involves much more than just pure research. Many other factors are relevant, including the extent of market competition, the intellectual property regime, and the availability of financing for innovative enterprises. That said, the tendency of the market to supply too little of certain types of R&D provides a rationale for government intervention; and no matter how good the policy environment, ultimately, big new ideas are often rooted in well-executed R&D.”

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Smart as a Whip; Dumb as a Post

Human beings are both amazingly clever and staggeringly stupid.

No other conclusion is possible given two stories on opposite pages of the May 26 Washington Post. The story on page 2 of that day’s paper carried the headline: “Groups sue FDA to try to limit antibiotics in animal feed.” The story on page 3 had the headline: “New NASA mission will ‘kiss’ asteroid in 2020.”

Let’s do clever first. On May 25, NASA announced that it would launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to obtain samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth in 2023. The mission is called OSIRIS-REx.

According to NASA’s website, OSIRIS-REx will travel through space for four years and approach the “primitive, near-Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft’s arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.”

That pricey space dust will be stored in a capsule that will land at Utah’s Test & Training Range in 2023. 1999 RQ36 is interesting for a couple of reasons, according to NASA. Asteroids are relics of the solar nebula from which the sun and planets formed. Their composition can tell us something about our origins. There’s also a one in 1,800 chance that 1999 RQ36 will clobber Earth in 2182. OSIRIS-REx probably can’t do anything about that.

But think of it: Humans can build a machine and launch it into space, guide it hundreds of millions of miles to rendezvous with a speck of an object, grab a little piece of that object, and return it to a precise location on Earth eight years later. That really takes brains.

It also takes brains to invent a whole range of molecular entities that we can ingest to kill many pathological bacteria without doing any damage to ourselves. They’re called antibiotics and, over the past 80 years, they’ve changed human existence.

Of course, the brilliant creatures who can build OSIRIS-REx and invent antibiotics would never do anything so stupid as to jeopardize the efficacy of those almost magical chemicals, would they?

Of course they would, if there were enough money to be made doing it. Between 70 and 80% of all the antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to healthy farm animals to promote faster growth and keep them healthy. Not to treat disease, mind you. To allow them to use food more efficiently and to prevent disease in the factory farms where most farm animals are raised in the U.S. today.

This, of course, is a prescription for promoting the development of antibiotic resistance. It’s exactly why you don’t dispense antibiotics willy nilly. It’s exactly why your doctor tells you to take every last one of the prescribed antibiotics even if you feel all better days before the bottle is empty.

Use of antibiotics useful to humans to promote farm animal growth was banned in the European Union in 1998; the use of all antibiotics for such purposes was banned in the EU in 2006. The FDA, in its inimitable fashion, has tiptoed around the issue, issuing a draft guidance last year urging “judicious use” of antibiotics in farm animals. Antibiotic manufacturers and U.S. farmers maintain that there’s not enough evidence to warrant a ban.

Look, this is a no-brainer. Antibiotic resistance among bacteria that threaten humans is rampant. There are a lot of reasons for that, all of them dumb. Using antibiotics to grow fatter hogs, cattle, and chickens is about the dumbest. There’s a bill in Congress (H.R. 1549) introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) that would ban nontherapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in farm animals. It ought to pass.

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Values Worth Defending

Serageldin addressing the National Academy of Sciences

Serageldin addressing the National Academy of Sciences on May 1. Credit: National Academy of Sciences

At the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences

early this month, Ismail Serageldin received the academy’s most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal, which honors “extraordinary use of science for the public good.” Serageldin is the founding director of Egypt’s New Library of Alexandria.

I did not know of Serageldin but became curious after someone raved about the speech he gave at the award presentation on May 1. When I found the speech on the NAS website, I understood why: Here is a citizen of the biggest country undergoing wrenching change during the “Arab Spring” calling on the youth of the Arab world to embrace the values of science.

With permission from Serageldin, here are extended excerpts:

“Today there are those who fear that the Arab Spring will give way to the Islamist winter. … Yes, Islamist sentiment is rising, and zealotry is expanding in parts of the public realm. But the defense against extremism is not by censorship or autocracy; it is by embracing pluralism and defeating ideas with ideas.

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Nuclear Reactor Emergency Explained

Here is a concise (<9 min) video primer on nuclear reactors, what’s gone wrong with the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, and why potassium iodide pills are dispensed to people exposed to fallout. The irrepressible Martyn Poliakoff, a chemistry professor at the University of Nottingham, in the U.K., and the creator of the Periodic Table of Videos, uses plain English, simple props, and his inimitable delivery to explain nuclear fission, chain reactions, how boron absorbs neutrons to control the chain reaction, why hydrogen is being generated in the reactors, and more.

Nuclear Power R.I.P.?

What is it about the word “radioactivity” that drives otherwise rational people to utter panic?

As I write this on a Wednesday morning, Japan continues to reel in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—shaken by the 9.0 earthquake and slammed by the tsunami—remains fluid and precarious. There have been three explosions at the station, one at each of three reactors. The cores of the reactors appear to have at least partially melted, and one seems to be on the verge of a major meltdown. The other three reactors at the plant are experiencing difficulties.

This is a serious situation. People living within a 20-km radius of the power plant have been evacuated; people living within a 30-km radius have been advised to remain indoors with their homes sealed and ventilation turned off. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the station, has evacuated all but 50 of the 1,400 people who work at the plant. At one point today, even those 50 brave individuals were withdrawn from the plant because radiation levels had spiked.

Around the world, politicians and commentators are pointing at Fukushima and insisting that the events there prove that nuclear energy can never be safe and that the world should snuff out the nascent embrace of nuclear energy as one answer to global climate change. In yesterday’s Washington Post, the normally level-headed Anne Applebaum has an op-ed piece entitled “Slow the Nuclear Rush.” She concludes that she hopes the Fukushima disaster “prompts people around the world to think twice about the ‘price’ of nuclear energy, and that it stops the nuclear renaissance dead in its tracks.”

On the same op-ed page, reliably liberal columnist Eugene Robinson writes: “Nuclear power was beginning to look like a panacea—a way to lessen our dependence on oil, make our energy supply more self sufficient and significantly mitigate global warming, all at the same time. Now it looks more like a bargain with the devil.”

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal continues the paper’s excellent coverage of the earthquake and its aftermath. It includes a story entitled “Potassium Iodide Runs Low As Americans Seek It Out” that describes a run on potassium iodide supplies by people worried that radioactive fallout from Fukushima could reach the U.S. Anbex Inc., which manufactures Iosat potassium iodide pills, quickly sold out its stock of more than 10,000 14-tablet packages on Saturday, the paper reported. Anbex President Alan Morris told the Journal, “Those who don’t get it are crying. They’re terrified.”

In Europe, legislators are calling for a referendum on the future of nuclear power. German elections a couple of weeks from now could be affected by the nuclear power issue. President Obama feels the need to reiterate his support for renewed construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Could everyone please get a grip? Thousands if not tens of thousands of Japanese are dead as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. A vast swath of northeastern Japan has been demolished; it is estimated that rebuilding will cost $35 billion or more. Japan’s economy has been dealt a devastating blow that will take months to years to recover from.

The fate of the Fukushima nuclear reactors is important. If one or more of the reactors experiences a full-scale meltdown, it will be a true disaster that will affect many people’s lives, in Japan and likely around the world. If that happens, what went wrong will have to be investigated thoroughly and understood to help prevent it from happening again.

But it will not be the end of the world, and it should not be the death knell for nuclear power. We live with risk. The risk of exposure to radiation from any one of a number of sources, including the partial or complete meltdown of the core of a nuclear reactor, is one such risk, quantitatively no different from any other. Nuclear power must be a component of the mix of energy sources for the world in the 21st century, the situation in Japan notwithstanding.

Thanks for reading.