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. However, few chemistry departments receive GAANN funds. The chemistry department at the University of Illinois has had such funding, for example, but the department chair says that it is far from a perfect substitute for support from grants. One major problem is that the students supported by GAANN funds must take the equivalent of an oath of poverty, which is not consistent with how graduate students are supported in the world at large or how they are supported on grants or on other fellowships. Also, the funding levels are too small to make much of a difference. Finally, the program is not even functioning in 2011; DOE says it will resume in 2012. I propose that chemists urge ACS, perhaps with other scientific societies, to meet with the...

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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...

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High Level Meeting Interview with Prime Minister of Ethiopia
Dec08

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...

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Hopes of Accomplishment
Dec08

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. In the afternoon, I attended the “COP16/CMP6 President’s Initiative on Stakeholder’s Engagement in Climate Action” forum.  This meeting was billed as a “special interaction of stakeholders with Parties” and included Mexican President Felipe Calderon and COP16/CMP6 President Patricia Espinosa, along with other influential delegates.  The brief lectures and updates given at this discussion were uplifting to the spirit of the conference.  All of the individuals involved expressed the need for accomplishment, but not the need to make a huge leap by the end.  “We cannot leave with just promises” stated Carlos Zarco, director of the Oxfam confederation.  “This is a very complex process but we need to take a step forward.” Other diplomats, such as Simon Anholt, who is an independent policy advisor, stressed that civil society and their opinion have the potential to be a major, contributing factor to the climate change debate.  The individual who encouraged this type of action most was President Calderon.  At the beginning of his presentation, President Calderon referenced COP15 – the 2009 Copenhagen conference – and how we all may have dismal memories, but noted that the conference did not dismiss without putting climate change on the top of the global agenda.  Furthermore, there is a need to mobilize society as a whole and not lose sight of the future.  With the suggestion to engage young minds, there is emphasis on creating more awareness about the issue, in hopes that with a larger society engaged, more appropriate action will come forth. Calderon, however, noted the...

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Women Leaders And Climate Change
Dec07

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. 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.” In one of the talks at the session, Ambassador Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs and president of COP16/CMP6, began with a quote: “If you want something said, ask a man.  If you want something done, ask a woman.”  The audience was mostly female and lightly laughed after this comment.  According to the woman leaders, generally, women suffer more in developing countries than any other group.  In these places, it is the woman’s job to walk hours to collect clean water or to travel great distances for firewood to cook food with. Cooking on an open fire produces black soot, which is extremely bad to inhale and can take years off a general lifespan. Because women are busy managing these tasks, they often forfeit their chance for an education. And the session speakers consider these women to be the most vulnerable population to suffer due to climate change. Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action, made the point that climate change needs to be more “people-centered” and that a greater communication outreach needs to be accomplished.  This outreach needs to be more tangible and known by the masses.  Other speakers commented that the vocabulary used needs to change and be more general and that the youth needs to become more involved and support their movement.  Being the youngest member in the audience, I felt a few stares directed my way. As young chemists, we should be interested in and questioning the chemical roles of climate change.  When presented with the...

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Cancun: We’re Here!
Dec06

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...

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