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Category → Guest Editorials

A Modest Proposal

This guest editorial is by Ronald Breslow, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University and a former president of the American Chemical Society.

During the “golden years” of academic chemistry, 1960 to 1990, funding for research was not the challenging problem it is today. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows readily received fellowships from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Research grants from federal funding agencies then mainly supported the costs of doing science, not the living costs of students. The fellowships were limited to U.S. students, so academic chemists tried to convince the best U.S. students to go into chemistry, and winning the fellowships helped convince them to do so. As a result, more of our chemistry students were U.S. citizens who wanted to stay in this country, rather than foreign students who might want to return to their native countries. The past fellowship system also enabled young faculty to get off to a running start, with plenty of self-funded graduate students and postdocs—who were not dependent on the faculty member’s grants—available to join their research teams.

We know we can’t return to that past system. The federal funding agencies are underfunded relative to the need, and diverting some of their funds to fellowships would not increase the total amount of money available. Instead, a new source of funds is needed.

I propose that this funding come from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), in a significant expansion of what it currently does. The best plan, and one that is easiest to start, would expand and somewhat change a program DOE currently operates called Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN). This program specifically supports graduate education in chemistry and other science and engineering fields, but it is not optimal. It sends funds to science and engineering departments, which then use them to support graduate students.

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Solar Energy for the Future

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

As the climate rapidly changes and fossil fuels become increasingly scarce, there is a growing demand in the world for new sources of energy to limit the damage to the environment.  From visiting multiple NGO booths on alternative solar energies, one can conclude that the damage currently being inflicted on Earth’s climate by burning fossil fuels almost guarantees the destruction of the livelihoods of millions, especially in developing countries. It will also disrupt ecosystems and speed up the extinction of multiple species.

We know that the sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface can supply enough energy to power civilization. Every year, more and more solar panels and other solar-powered energy sources have been installed around the world, decreasing emissions including greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change.  Greenpeace representatives told me that a prediction made by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA)  in 2001 about the solar energy market has already been surpassed.

EPIA and Greenpeace predict that one quarter of the world’s electricity needs will be satisfied through f solar panels by 2050.  Different companies have been furiously working to make these breakthroughs more affordable and more available.  With the price dropping rapidly, this type of energy is on its way to being able to compete with conventional electricity sources globally.

High Level Meeting Interview with Prime Minister of Ethiopia

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

At the talk “High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing” there were many points addressed.  At the start the Secretary-General’s Report was issued to all who attended.  It was then referred to as the “leg work” already completed and this meeting was just to provide an overview of what is being suggested and to give all in attendance a chance to voice their opinions.

After the question and answer session at the closing of the talk, Anthony and I were lucky enough to get a brief statement from the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to reach out to all youths.  We identified ourselves as students reporting from America and we got him on tape stating that our youth is going to play a large role in climate change policy.  He also stated that the use of new technologies will aid in preventing a cataclysmic disaster.

Hopes of Accomplishment

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

Everything began to take shape yesterday morning: 200 NGO booths were hosted while thousands of individuals from delegate parties, NGOs and press were all rushing to various locations on site, without stopping for anything. The intensity of the conference has become apparent and the urgency of accomplishment is lingering over the participant’s heads.

On my bus ride in, during the morning commute, I was able to overhear an incredible conversation from the individuals in front of me.  They were two persons from different UN divisions; one was from Panama, while the other was representing Kenya.  They were both discussing this conference and what they hope and expect as an outcome.  Later in the conversation, the individual representing Kenya stated, “We need a green revolution, and we need it to be more intelligent than before.”  I subsequently found out that this statement was a perfect description of the the initiatives taken by the delegates.

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Women Leaders And Climate Change

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

Christiana Figueres

I arrived a bit early for a session yesterday titled “Women Leaders and Climate Change” and was noticed by someone getting ready to speak, Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.  I must admit I did not know who she was at the time. We made eye contact, and then I walked up and introduced myself to her.  We were the only people in the room and had a casual conversation for a couple of minutes.

She told me a story of a time when she had a dialogue with her daughter as a small child, about five or six years old.  Her daughter asked if her father was miserable.  Figueres was baffled that her child would ask such a question, and asked her daughter why she would say this.  Her daughter replied, “Since he is a man, he can’t make all the decisions and does not have all the power anymore.”

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Cancun: We’re Here!

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

Greetings from Cancun, Mexico!  Today we traveled down from Baltimore, Maryland to Charlotte, North Carolina, to finally arrive in Cancun.  Slightly problematic events prevailed as we encountered issues during flights and troubles with our professors obtaining their UN press pass; nothing comes easy.

Anticipating cavernous lines, intense humidity, and the scorching sun, we set out Sunday night to obtain our NGO passes, hoping to avoid the weather hazards.  We headed to the Cancunmesse – main site of the conference – and to our surprise; we were able to avoid all long lines and were attended to very quickly.

After gathering our passes, we headed into the NGO booth area.  Standing in the empty hall gave us time to observe the setup and get an idea of what to expect and what we want to accomplish.  We hope to tell the “behind-the-scene” stories of the major events, all through our eyes as undergraduate chemistry majors.  Join us on this incredible journey though the last week of COP16/CMP6 and continue to leave your comments; they are greatly appreciated.

Twenty Years of Warming

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

Dr. Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT, is one of the most recognized names among climate-change skeptics.  I attended his recent lecture at York College on November 11.  Unfortunately, I found his presentation to be lacking in recent scientific data.  No relevant data was presented from the last ten to twenty years.  When confronted with this fact during the question and answer session, he became irritated and said that the data was statistically insignificant.

We hope that the discussion on our blog will be about what scientists know and don’t know about climate change based on scientific data.  Since recent climate change data was not presented during Dr. Lindzen’s lecture, I had to obtain this information from outside sources after his lecture.  The years 1998 and 2005 have been documented to be the warmest years on record.  And, even though 2008 was the coldest year of the decade, it has been shown through models and collecting data that each decade is on a continuous warming trend since the 1970s.  2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record.  This data contradicts what Dr. Lindzen responded to the audience member’s question about the last two decades.

During the lecture, Dr. Lindzen seemed to deliberately talk over the heads of the audience.  He barely mentioned rising carbon dioxide.  When one audience member questioned him about the missing Keeling curve in his lecture, he did not even allow the person to finish asking a question, interrupting and stating that it is so well known it didn’t need to be presented. The Keeling curve documents the steady rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1958.

Dr. Lindzen made clear that he believes the environment is changing by a degree or two, but that it cannot be linked to people causing this.  At the start of his lecture, he listed three main topics he would discuss. However, the only point he addressed was the “alarm” associated with the current issue. I emailed him to ask for a copy of his power point to ensure that I present the correct information from his lecture; however, he did not respond back to me.  He had stated at the end of his talk that he would be willing to share his power point with anyone who requested it.   He resembled a politician who did not want to directly answer specific questions.  He merely danced around the current topic, not mentioning what should have been relevant points.  Dr. Lindzen worried more about the wording of the information than the information itself, referring to the IPCC scientists as extremists.  Although Dr. Lindzen claims not to be a “skeptic”, there are no other words to describe him.

We are learning that climate change is a challenging topic.  As we report from COP16, we will try to include the most recent scientific data as far as we understand it.

Richard Lindzen: Skepticism and Unprofessional-ism

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

Small debates, frustrations, and sophisticated arguments, from both sides, are all expected when discussing the topic of climate change.  But did you think you would ever hear a speaker use the word “stupid” to criticize his audience?

Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT and a climate change skeptic, presented a seminar at York College of Pennsylvania and did just that.  Lindzen was asked about certain facts that were missing from his presentation and why they were not present.  As a questioner from the audience was giving background on his question, so that the speaker would fully understand, Lindzen proceeded to use the power of the microphone and talk over the audience member.  As an intense argument broke between the two individuals, the audience started to show frustration. One member shouted out, “Let him finish the question!”  At that point, both stopped shouting and the questioner was able to continue asking his question.  As the tension was rising in the room between Lindzen and the questioner, it was clear that the question being asked was not about to receive an answer.  The shouting match broke out again and in the end, it was answered by Lindzen saying, “This is a stupid question.”


Lindzen’s presentation criticized scientists around the world.  Global warming models, data, and scientific phrasing were the main criticisms. He stated in the beginning of the seminar that the global warming debate is about three questions: How much warming is present? How dangerous is the warming? What is dangerous about the warming?

In the end, Lindzen only addressed “How dangerous is the warming?” The present “alarm,” he said,  is due to the scientific phrasing, not the data; the justification for this argument was hypocritical.  Lindzen stated that scientists specifically phrase statements so that society believes what the scientists want them to believe.  But in turn, Lindzen did the same thing by re-arranging the words to make the statement seem less of a concern, and prove his point.

This argument was the basis of Lindzen’s presentation.  The climate change debate is more about scientific phrasing than it is about data.  In the one instance when it was about the data, Lindzen described how climate models are wrong because they are all based on positive feedback.  His argument was that we need to create negative feedback models to show the truth behind the argument.  When describing why such a model has not been created, he said that no one could create the model for him and then moved on to the next topic.

Lindzen’s presentation frustrated the audience, and in the end, it seemed as though audience opinions were not changed on the issue.  Upon leaving, comments of disgust, moans, and groans filled the atmosphere and a sign was held up stating, “So let’s just be energy pigs.”  Needless to say, this presentation was condemned more than it was admired.

Think about these things; Chemistry happens.

Climate Change Through The Eyes of Undergraduate Chemistry Majors

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block, senior chemistry students attending the COP16 conference in Cancun under the sponsorship of the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement.

From the sixth floor of the American Chemistry Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., we are undergraduate reporters posting our first blog from the home of C&EN.  Our names are Anthony Tomaine and Leah Block and we are honored to receive such significant credentials–UN accreditation to attend an international climate conference as well as press credentials from C&EN.  We are both senior chemistry majors at York College of Pennsylvania (YCP) and we will be reporting about the issues and events leading up to and at the UN COP16 climate conference in Cancun, Mexico.

Block and Tomaine

Block (left) and Tomaine on a visit to Washington, D.C.

As undergraduate reporters, the journey to receive UN accreditation has already been an incredible experience, one that we treasure greatly.  Being from a moderate-sized college in the small city of York, we never dreamed that this opportunity would be presented with such vital and unique potential.  In essence, the purpose of our blog will be to assist our readers in understanding what is being presented at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 16th Conference of Parties (COP16), through the eyes of an undergraduate chemistry major.  We will be reporting on the events that occur at the conference, as well as interviewing scientists, official delegates, policy makers, climate change activists, and perhaps even climate change skeptics on their inputs and concerns related to the environment and sustainability.  We also plan to observe civil society and other NGO’s who are not officially accredited by the UN.  In attending this conference, our main efforts will be to explore the facts and stated interpretations from scientists, policy makers, and others in order to present them to you, the readers.

We invite you to join us on this journey and encourage you to participate by posting your comments on this blog.  Think on these things; chemistry happens.

It’s Not The Money, Stupid!

This guest editorial is by Allen J. Bard, a chemistry professor and director of the Center for Electrochemistry at the University of Texas, Austin.

The culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity, and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money (often now called “resources”) raised. A number of factors have played a role in this change: the “business model” for universities, an increased willingness to accept greed as a virtue in our society and as a measure of success, and a desire for an easy “objective” measure of something that is otherwise difficult to quantify.

As a result, we have reached the point where faculty members are judged more by the amount of research funds they have raised, primarily from government agencies, than by the accomplishments that flow from the funding. Obtaining high levels of funding is considered not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, and I’ve been party to tenure discussions that have centered on this (for example, on the need for “scoring two major grants”) rather than on the quality of work.

It is possible to rationalize this attitude by saying that funds raised are a measure of how one is evaluated by one’s peers. The fact is, however, that the final decision to fund really comes from project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the month. It is also true that the best grant-swingers are those who are willing shamelessly to hype their research and their field—truth and modesty be damned.

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