UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Science on Wheels: Meeting a Scientist Right in Your Hometown

I moved to Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), five years ago, and I was impressed with the amount of science engagement activities available to the public. Any time of any day of the week there appeared to be something going on: Saturday Morning Science, Science Café on Monday nights, and Science on Tap on Tuesday evenings. An incredible variety of settings to pick and choose from, from auditoriums to cafés to breweries. Topics to satisfy all interests, from chemistry to astronomy to biology. Professors, grad students, undergrads—they were all involved in outreach. I couldn’t believe what a big role science played in the state.

Except, it isn’t in the state, it’s confined to the city. And you don’t have to go very far out of it to realize that it is a thin bubble. Drive 30 minutes south of Columbia to Hartsburg, population 101, home of the renowned Pumpkin Festival, and things look quite different. Science is a distant high school memory. There are no outreach programs readily available in town, and no one is going into Columbia to seek them out. Access is indeed a big challenge in science outreach.

As a land-grant university, the mission of the University of Missouri is to serve all the citizens of the state. Those living in college towns already have access to science, whereas those living in rural areas do not. Hence rural communities are the ones where science outreach could be more impactful. Hartsburg is not that far away from Columbia, but there are thousands of communities just like it that are over two hours away from the closest city. And after a long work day chances are you don’t feel like driving two hours to get to a science talk. So for a change I decided to be the one to drive those two hours, to bring the science to people—right where they are.

As humans we distrust things we don’t know, and often people don’t know science. In rural areas there are typically no opportunities to meet scientists. People living there don’t necessarily know what we actually look like or what we do. I set out to change that to show that science isn’t just something that happens in the Ivory Tower’s labs—it’s used in everyday life. I decided to focus my outreach program on the relevance of research rather than on the research itself. Every scientific pursuit has the potential to transform our lives, and we need to communicate that clearly.

Part of the problem is that after K-12 science disappears altogether from the picture. Ask most adults about the last time they thought about science—“What do you mean? Like in high school?” is the probable reaction. Adults are often left behind in the science outreach effort. Programs often focus on K-12 (the science pipeline!), but we forget about lifelong learning. That is a glaring omission given that over 3 in 4 US citizens are over the age of 18, and it motivated me to focus on this age group.

Science on Wheels members

Over the past summer I developed a program that would meet the needs I had identified. Science on Wheels travels to rural areas in any county of the state that requests it. Four to six graduate students give a five-minute overview of the relevance of their research to everyday life, and then mingle with the adult audience to chat more about science. So far we have reached seven counties, mainly in the central and southeastern parts of the State.

Our crowds are small: we have had audiences as little as one person, and only as big as 30 people. But we don’t consider that to be a failure. It takes more time and capacity than hosting an event in Columbia, but the people we are reaching in rural areas are exactly the ones we need to be reaching. They are the ones who are not typically engaged with science.

Here’s an example of our experience: it was 5:50 pm on a Thursday evening last spring. We had driven over an hour to hold an event, but no one had come in yet. 10 minutes from the official start, things weren’t looking up. There was a passerby, and we were quite forward in trying to convince him to join in. He wasn’t having it: science was not his thing, and besides his wife was expecting him for dinner. Finally, we somehow convinced him, and we ran the program with only him in the audience. It was transformative. Over the space of an evening, he relaxed, started asking questions, and eagerly discussed science. That night we changed someone’s perception of science, and that is most definitely worth our time and effort.

The relationship that adults have with science is often reflected in their voting choices. Therefore, nurturing that relationship is key to ensuring that research may thrive in our country. Someone who understands the value of science may be more likely to vote for legislators who do as well. The tangible outcome? Increased science funding, attention to issues such as climate change and conservation of endangered species, data-driven policy decisions—for the benefit of society at large.

Where to next? This summer I will work on expanding Science on Wheels at the state level. I plan to involve the other three University of Missouri campuses, in order to be able to cover a larger territory and hold more events. A few years down the road, I would like to see other institutions nationwide, especially land-grant universities, take the Science on Wheels model and tailor it to their needs. 90% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. My vision for Science on Wheels is for every resident of the state of Missouri—and one day of the U.S.—to have met with one.

 

Arianna is a Ph.D. Candidate in Volcanology at Mizzou. When she is not sampling molten lava in the field, she is making her own lava in the lab by melting rock samples. She is also passionate about science communication and outreach, and never misses an opportunity to chat about her life as a scientist. Find her on Twitter at @AriannaSoldati 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

A Graduate Researcher’s (Brief) Guide to: Creating a Student Science Policy Group

Panel of speakers at the Opioid Epidemic Forum.

Research, telescopes, and computer models may consume the thoughts of many STEM graduate students, but do you ever find yourself distracted by current events? Are you ever caught up in conversations about how to fix problems in society? Have you ever “geeked out” about research that influences laws or policy? If you’re a graduate student and this sounds familiar, you have options: 1) ignore your burning desire to do something or 2) start a science policy group.

Assuming you’re considering option 2, the first and most common question you will have to tackle personally and externally is “What is science policy?”

Defining science policy

In short, it refers to the rules and regulations that govern the scientific workforce or the use of science to inform rules and regulations. After starting a science policy group in graduate school, myself and other graduate student members began to realize the nebulousness of this definition. Meeting with many policy professionals, we realized saying “I want to be involved in science policy” is as specific as saying “I want to be involved in science”.

You should determine what ways and which topics you would like to focus on for your science policy engagement. There is advocacy (addressing legislators), diplomacy (international policy efforts), education (science communication & awareness initiatives), and of course policy (informing or crafting rules and regulations). Using these approaches, there are many challenges you could address (e.g. scientific workforce issues, specific issues such as climate change or infectious diseases, STEM education, etc). As federal agencies, scientific societies and not-for profit organizations commonly focus significant portions of their resources on science policy efforts, it signals the scale of the issues, and shows it may take more than one motivated person to make a significant impact (even within your community).

Gathering a team

SPADE team

Creating a science policy group with driven members will allow you to help more people, as well as share the credit (and workload) for grand initiatives. Seek out like-minded graduate students with an interest in creating change but also appreciate that promising students can and should be found across a variety of academic fields. This provides your group with expertise and awareness to explore a wide range of issues. For my group, we found holding introductory meetings and sending recruitment emails through our graduate student government and graduate program coordinators was an effective strategy. However, you can also rely on forming collaborations with other groups on or off campus to expand your reach for members.

When you have a core group of students, create an executive board with titles (e.g. President, Treasurer, Commander Pikachu, etc.). Not only do they sound “fancy”, but they also help in establishing an expectation of duties, which saves time when planning initiatives. Another important task is to find a faculty advisor that has experience or an academic focus within science policy. This serves to address club rules on certain campuses (which could allow your group access to funds). It also helps you tap into your advisor’s experience and network (which is particularly helpful when searching for a guest speaker for an event).

Now what do you do?

So you’ve got your group and an advisor, what do you all do now?

As many topics related to science policy are national matters, it can be difficult to figure out how your rag-tag group of students will fit into the science policy landscape. Fortunately, there are many ways to address science policy topics and your group may find some original ways to address them. Based on my experiences, these are some common approaches student groups use to address issues:

Guest speaker events—Inviting a policy expert or professional to an event your group is hosting or to a panel being held on campus is a good way to get your group’s feet wet and establish yourselves as “active”. If there is not a big presence on your campus for science policy, your initial speaking events may be more effective (and better attended) if they are geared towards a general or profiled Careers in Science Policy discussion.

Forums—Similar to guest speaker events, forums will allow your group to invite policy experts for one event to explain to the public or other experts about research, concerns, and proactive actions to address an issue. For example, the opioid epidemic is a pervasive problem within in our local community. To address this, our group planned an Opioid Epidemic Forum. We hosted a physician, a policy expert, a police officer and two New York state senators to inform and empower the Long Island community.

Consider offering additional initiatives at your event to enhance your public service. For example, at the forum we also offered a Narcan training session for participants and an excess opioid drop off box (overseen by the Suffolk County Health Department and Suffolk County Police Department, respectively).

Advocacy—Your group could also go to Washington, DC, or local in-district meetings to discuss with legislators how an issue is affecting your community and/or how it may impact the scientific workforce. Contact your university’s government relations office and ask about opportunities to talk with local or federal legislators. They are a useful resource as they often have a line of contact to legislators. Additionally, your group could fundraise to subsidize fees for members in your community to participate or travel to local initiatives or marches related to science policy.

Science outreach events—Astound and inform your local community by hosting science events for the public, or joining events to discuss (in accessible ways) about the latest research you or fellow students and professors have been working on and how it may impact the public (or why it’s important to know). You could also work with local groups to create campaigns for important unspoken issues within your community that the public could help to address.

Moving forward

If you are still driven to do more after hosting a few events and being active within your community, there are several steps you can take. You can use these initiatives as a template during your journey into academia to help start initiatives to improve the lives of others alongside your research.

If you are driven to make this a career, there are fellowships that can help (and in some ways are integral) with your transition into the federal government or elsewhere as a science policy expert. Some fellowships such as the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and the President Management Fellowship are for recent (or soon-to-be) graduates. However, others including the Christine Mirzayan Fellowship are also open to students (domestic and international) who are currently in graduate school and provide them with unique experiences in the world of policy. However, there are many others—here is a full list of those offered.

Although this was only a brief summary, I hope this was helpful in informing your journey into the world of science policy.

 

Lyl Tomlinson is a Brooklyn, New York native who recently obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. As a post-doctoral researcher, his major investigative focus relates to the effects of aerobic exercise on important support-like brain cells (oligodendrocytes). He is also a science communication professional who often asks: “Would my grandma understand this?” Using this question as a guiding principle, he competed against roughly 100 scientists and won the 2014 National NASA FameLab science communication competition, which asks researchers to explain science topics accessibly in 3 minutes. He is also a longtime associate of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and has been recognized as an “Alda All-Star”. While in graduate school, he was a co-creator and acting president of a graduate student lead science policy group, Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education (SPADE). His work through this group gave rise to an action oriented local Opioid Epidemic Forum, an official graduate level Introduction to Science Policy course and several other initiatives. Lyl also meets with government representatives to advocate for science issues and regularly develops programs at Stony Brook to tackle problems related to scientific workforce matters. Find Lyl on Twitter at @LylT88

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Stories, Improv, and What Science Can Learn From Comedy

Can you name a scientist? If your response was no, you are not alone. Eighty one percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, according to a 2017 poll that was conducted by Research America. As scientists, it is our responsibility to reach out to the public and talk to people about what we do, why it is important, and how it connects to their lives. We are not trained to make those connections and do public outreach, but luckily there are increasingly more opportunities to learn.

We are graduate students and members of Science in Action, a science communication and policy advocacy group at Colorado State University. Our goal is to encourage other scientists on campus to learn about and practice sharing their science. With financial support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were able to take advantage of unique opportunities to do just that.

Acting for science: using improv techniques to communicate

Scientists are trained to methodically approach problems and rigorously analyze solutions, but not taught how to communicate the findings. We may be doing vitally important work that benefits humanity, but what if we cannot communicate its importance to the public?

Actors, on the other hand, are expert storytellers. They use specific techniques to connect with their audience—techniques that scientists can and should learn to use.

Members practicing “acting tools” with Sarah Zwick-Tapley.

To help aspiring scientists learn these tricks of the trade, we partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a science communication workshop. Sarah Zwick-Tapley, a local theater director and science communication consultant, introduced us to the “actor’s toolkit,” a set of physical and vocal techniques for audience engagement.

These tips were simple enough (land eye contact, change the tone, volume, and speed of your voice) but incorporating them all together while also describing the importance of your science? That is a challenge.

Another critical piece of the storytelling approach is using the “And, But, Therefore” sequence. We practiced this technique with an outlandish example. First, you start with what we know (“we know cancer is a deadly disease AND that it has many causes”). Next, you build suspense with what we have yet to discover (“BUT, we don’t know whether eating old books causes cancer”). Then, you finish with your contribution (“THEREFORE, I am eating Shakespeare’s entire body of work to see if I develop cancer”). Using this technique turns a simple list of facts into a powerful story.

The next step: put our new acting skills into action.

Why science matters for Colorado

Colorado is home to multiple national laboratories and major research universities.

Standing in front of the Colorado State Capitol after sharing our science with legislators and staffers.

Researchers at these organizations do important science and bring the best and brightest minds to the state. To help share these discoveries with our state legislators, we joined Project Bridge, from the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, for a poster day at the capitol. Speaking with non-scientists can be a challenge, but we used our new acting tools to tell a story, both in our poster design and our presentation.

We also took this opportunity to meet one-on-one with our state representatives. Because they represent a college town, they recognize the value of research for our city, state, and country. We were encouraged to hear that they regularly rely on experts at CSU for advice on pending legislation. This is science policy in action.

Communicating for the future

As a scientist, you may recognize that communicating science is important, but are unsure how to learn these skills. Luckily, there are numerous organizations across the country that are dedicated to training scientists to communicate clearly and effectively. Many scientific organizations (the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Society for Cell Biology, among others) hold science communication and science policy trainings and provide small grants for local groups. COMPASS is an international organization that hosts trainings and provides one-on-one coaching for aspiring science communicators. Many universities have also started in-house communication trainings and programs (Stony Brook University is home to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

These resources illustrate the fact that there are people and organizations dedicated to providing scientists with the tools they need to share their science with everyone.

 

Rod Lammers and Michael Somers are graduate students at Colorado State University. They are both officers in Science in Action, a science communication and policy group. Science in Action is a student-led organization at Colorado State University started in 2016 to engage campus scientists and provide opportunities for outreach to the public and policymakers. More information can be found on the organization’s website and Facebook page.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Empowering Early Career Scientists to Engage in Science Advocacy, Policy and Communication

Photo credit: Alina Chan, Future of Research

As a member of and an advocate for the early career scientist community, I strongly believe that we are the future of science. We need to engage in activities that allow us to use our voice for the greater good, and we must do this through multiple avenues. Adapting to the changing landscape of the scientific enterprise requires integrating professional development activities into the training of early career scientists, in order to create “whole scientists.” This culture shift will enable us to utilize valuable skills acquired during our training to benefit society.

Two important aspects of this training are developing the ability to explain science to various audiences, and to effectively advocate for the importance of science within our own institutions, to policy makers, and to the general public. In a sense, I believe it is the responsibility of our generation to be the change we want to see, and to lead by example in engaging others to participate in this change with us.

It is encouraging to see that many early career scientists today seek to engage in science advocacy. But in order to achieve our advocacy goals, it is imperative to receive proper training in this area. In 2016, three organizations (Future of Research, Academics for the Future of Science, and the MIT Graduate Student Council) organized a joint “Advocating for Science” symposium and workshop in Boston, MA, with the goal of sharing tools and skills necessary to train early career scientists in advocacy. The event highlighted the eagerness of participants to advocate for a particular cause, with the overall goal of improving specific aspects of the scientific enterprise. Overall, this event catalyzed the power of early career scientists to participate in culture change around science advocacy by preparing them for future engagement opportunities.

Preparing for a career that connects science and society

Similar to most early career scientists today, I now seek a non-academic career that fulfills a greater purpose. At the same time, I am part of a generation of early career scientists that is well aware of how our academic training is not preparing us for desired (non-academic) careers. This is a particularly important consideration given that academic careers are now becoming the minority, and more early career scientists are transitioning into occupations where their scientific skills can be applied towards broader societal impacts. In particular, as science advocacy, policy and communication careers are now becoming more popular with early career scientists, the manner in which they are trained for various career paths must drastically change.

At the core of Future of Research is our mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor.” To this end, we propose changes in the scientific training environment in order to enable a more effective level of engagement in activities that complement our scientific training at the bench. The ability to communicate our science to various audiences will only enrich this training and enable us to advocate for our cause. However, this shift requires a culture change around science communication and other skills, both within academia and beyond. While many barriers still exist to enacting this change, early career scientists in many cases have developed their own programs in universities, being able to also engage others in these types of activities.

Developing initiatives at the university level to enhance advocacy, policy and science communication skills for early career scientists, in which they learn to describe their science to various audiences, is a necessary and valuable skill. Some general examples of these types of efforts are storytelling strategies, podcasts, and groups in universities. Additionally, while I was a postdoc, I developed a career seminar series to expose graduate students and postdocs to different career options. I also organized symposia to create a sense of community among scientists at all levels in the Midwest within my area of research, and to give early career scientists a voice in this event and connect with other junior and senior scientists in the area working on similar research topics.

These efforts demonstrate the willingness of early career scientists themselves to change the culture around particular issues within their local communities. Nationally, many scientific societies and organizations seek to engage early career scientists in advocating for a cause of interest, providing a natural platform in which to advocate for particular issues in various settings and to various audiences. Taking advantage of these opportunities is vital to both our professional development as scientists and to maintaining the relevance of science in society.

Personally, my goal is to advocate for junior scientists. To this end, I have been a member of both local and national committees to benefit graduate students and postdocs (UofL Postdoctoral Studies Committee, ASCB COMPASS, National Postdoctoral Association), and more broadly advocating for this population through my role on the Future of Research Board of Directors. These leadership roles have allowed me to learn about the needs of early career scientists and devise ways to best engage them in changing the academic culture. These experiences have also enabled me to create and be part of a network of professionals who share these same goals, and these individuals were also instrumental in guiding my own career path towards researching and advocating for improved policies affecting early career scientists.

Find science advocacy, policy, and communication opportunities through Science Rising

There are many ways for early career scientists to demonstrate interest in these activities and to engage others in our cause. Joining organizations such as Future of Research and the Union of Concerned Scientists are positive ways to demonstrate commitment to particular advocacy causes that we feel passionate about. Participating in local policy meet-ups with groups such as Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy can also be a way to show interest in particular policy issues affecting scientists or the general practice of doing science, as well as broader issues related to the relationship between science and society. You can find out about more opportunities and resources related to advocacy, policy and science communication through Science Rising, a new effort designed to celebrate the connections between science and society, and showcase opportunities for science supporters around the country to get more involved in advocating for science within their community as well as nationally.

Future of Research recognizes the importance of engaging early career scientists in shaping the scientific enterprise in an evidence-based manner. At the same time, this population seeks to engage with various stakeholders in advancing and advocating for the importance of science in society. We are proud to support the Science Rising movement and encourage the involvement of early career scientists in such national efforts.

Early career scientists still face many barriers to moving ahead towards effecting change. For this reason, we need everyone to get involved. Whether it’s designing career development programs on your campus or exploring ways to engage in science advocacy as a constituent, there are many ways to make a broader societal impact with your science.

 

Adriana Bankston is a bench scientist turned science policy researcher. She is a member of the Board of Directors at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. Previously, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Louisville. Adriana obtained a B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from Clemson University and a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University. Find her on Twitter at @AdrianaBankston

Crop Diversity: A Nice Thing If You Can Get It (and You Can Get It If You Try)

Extended crop rotations, which often include small grains like oats, pictured here, can provide financial benefits to farmers while also providing broader environmental benefits, like reduced soil erosion and runoff. Nick Ohde/Practical Farmers of Iowa

Diversity is incredibly important for a productive and resilient agrifood system. Diverse cropping systems can lead to greater  productivity, profitability and environmental health. Diversity in the form of extended crop rotations can also reduce weed, insect, and disease pressure, which can help farmers cut the costs of their purchased inputs like herbicides and insecticides. Beyond these financial benefits, diversifying crop rotations also provides broader environmental benefits that can be experienced at both the field scale (e.g., reduced erosion) and landscape scale (e.g., reduced water quality impairment), as noted in the UCS report Rotating Crops, Turning Profits

Greater cropping systems diversity can also help mitigate risks associated with the impacts of global climate change, which will drive more extreme and variable weather events, not to mention sustained temperature and precipitation changes that will impact agricultural production. Sadly, much of the agricultural production in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is lacking in biological diversity (at the genetic, species, and community level).

If diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, good for the land and often for our bottom line, why then are so few farmers, particularly in the Midwest, implementing diverse crop rotations?

Corn is king

In collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, I attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published with Global Environmental Change, using information from Midwest Corn Belt farmers collected via surveys and in-depth interviews to examine the facilitators and barriers of more diversified crop rotations. Overall, we found that many farmers are interested in more diverse crop rotations. However, many of them feel constrained by the current corn-corn and corn-soybean rotation that is ubiquitous across much of the Midwest—as a Wisconsin farmer said in our study, “now, you live or die by two crops.” This farmer went on to note that he did not think this adherence to such a limited crop rotation was sustainable for the long-term health of the region’s agricultural system.

Our study also found that many farmers acknowledge the benefits of diversifying their crop rotation. Some also see diverse crop rotations as a way to take advantage of climate-related changes. Unfortunately, many farmers could not figure out what crops would be financially viable in their operation given that there are few regionally competitive markets for diverse crops. We did find that greater diversity at the watershed level (measured at the HUC6 level) facilitates farmers’ use of diverse crop rotations, likely due to the presence of alternative markets (e.g., small grains or feed) and associated technological and market infrastructure. It might also be that closer proximity with other farmers who have diverse rotations provides greater support to farmers considering adopting extended rotations. Our study also found that the loss of crop/livestock integration in the region had greatly reduced the need for more diverse rotations, with many farmers noting that they used to have more diverse rotations in the past, when they managed for an integrated crop and livestock system.

Overall, our study examined how path dependence, which limits the technological and economic options that farmers have within the corn-based cropping system in the US Corn Belt, restricts farmers’ options for changing their production systems to incorporate more diverse crop rotations.

An enabling environment for diversity

To enable greater diversity, it may be necessary to address both technology and informational barriers while also identifying incentives for more economically and environmentally resilient agricultural systems. Unfortunately, many farmers who are doing things differently from their neighbors can feel ostracized in their communities. Luckily organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa and Women Food and Agriculture Network can provide farmers with communities of practice that enable them to experiment with new cropping systems or different production/conservation practices that might not be commonplace. Organizations such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, have been critically important in funding agricultural research that investigates diverse alternatives to the corn-based cropping system, such as the Prairie STRIPS project (check out efforts to re-imagine a new Leopold Center given recent funding cuts).

In our study, we suggest two primary strategies for facilitating greater cropping systems diversity in the US Corn Belt:

1) Increasing financial incentives to assist farmers with up-front costs associated with investing in new cropping systems or alternative crops, while also putting in place disincentives for monoculture production (e.g., conservation compliance); and

2) Investing in programs that will enable the development of alternative markets (e.g., perennial biofuel feedstock sources).

Diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, yet there is much work to be done to cultivate more diverse cropping systems in the Corn Belt and other agricultural regions in the U.S. In an era of global climate change, it is more important than ever to invest in agricultural production systems that reduce vulnerability by embracing the merits of agroecological diversity.

 

Gabrielle Roesch McNally received her PhD in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She worked in the US Corn Belt for over four years conducting and analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews with large-scale corn producers as part of a multi-state effort to examine climate change impacts and resilience-building strategies for corn-based cropping systems. The results reported in this blog were published in a co-authored manuscript entitled, “Barriers to implementing climate resilient agricultural strategies: The case of crop diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt” in the journal Global Environmental Change. Gabrielle is a Fellow with the USDA Northwest Climate Hubs. Follow Gabrielle on Twitter @G_Roesch or on Research Gate.

Nick Ohde /Practical Farmers of Iowa

No Shortcuts for Dirty Diesel Engines

Over the past eight years, I have studied air pollution of the United States and other countries around the world. My career has been centered around using high-performance computer models to identify the biggest air pollution offenders. The air pollution research community is well aware that the U.S. diesel truck fleet has the potential to spew hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollutants each year, if left uncontrolled.

Thankfully, over the past few decades, the U.S. government has made excellent strides in regulating heavy-duty diesel pollution in the form of emissions standards. So, when I was informed by UCS advocates that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed last November to allow glider vehicles to be exempt from modern emission control standards, I was floored. To be completely honest, I was angry.

You’re probably wondering what a glider vehicle is and why this action made me so upset. Glider vehicles are heavy-duty trucks with new bodies and refurbished engines with old or non-existent emissions control technology. Engines in these trucks can date back to the 1990s. The proposal would exempt glider vehicles from the current emissions standards that are in place for new heavy-duty trucks. This loophole has been exploited by a few small manufacturers, and the industry has grown exponentially over the last 6-8 years.

Effective emissions testing

EPA’s proposal cited a glider manufacturer-funded study by Tennessee Technological University (TTU), which claimed that glider vehicle emissions were no worse or even better than those from modern engines. The study has since been renounced by TTU President Philip Oldham for its questionable methods and execution.

So, how should heavy-duty engine emissions be tested? This is no small task as testing requires expert operation of advanced equipment. The air pollution community has published several peer-reviewed studies about proper emissions testing practices. Effective emissions rate testing involves simulating cycles for many scenarios: cold start, congestion-related stop and go traffic (creeping), arterial road traffic (transient), and highway cruising. Emissions testing on glider vehicles should be held to these standards, and lawmakers should be wary of testing that shortcuts trusted practices. The now renounced TTU study did not use standard test cycles during their glider vehicle testing, they did not repeat their trials, and PM2.5 emissions were subjectively quantified by visual inspection. Subsequently, a proper study was conducted by an EPA staff member in Ann Arbor, and particulate emissions from the glider engines were so high that the testing equipment shut down. Clearly, the petition did not have a solid study to stand on.

University of California Riverside College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) heavy-duty engine emissions tester.

Diesel pollution has real effects on human health

Detailed studies have been published in well-respected journals by researchers in the air quality community to understand the links between diesel exhaust exposure and human health. I was fortunate to take part in a major collaboration between Georgia Tech and Emory University to investigate the links between air pollution and health in the southeastern United States. My colleagues at Emory University showed that the odds of preterm birth for expecting mothers increases with increased exposure to traffic-related air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and elemental carbon (component of soot). NO2 and soot are the glider vehicle pollutants of greatest concern.

Health effects from exposure to pollutants can be estimated with reactivity tests that measure oxidant production potential. Oxidant production within the body creates an imbalance with anti-oxidants, leading to the breakdown of cellular material and the disruption cell homeostasis. Inhaled pollution has been linked to oxidant-generation potential in the lungs, causing inflammation and decreased lung capacity. My colleagues at Georgia Tech found that in Atlanta, GA, heavy-duty diesel pollution was estimated to cause approximately 14% of oxidative potential. Allowing more glider vehicles into the heavy-duty truck fleet increases the risk of respiratory and gestational ailments for susceptible individuals living or working near highways.

Low-income neighborhoods hurt most

Further, allowing more dirty diesel vehicles on the road will reverse pollution reductions, especially near highways. Frankly, this is what makes the proposal so dangerous. The likelihood of living near a highway increases with decreasing median household income. Therefore, an increase in roadway pollution from poorly-regulated engines would disproportionately affect poorer neighborhoods with fewer healthcare resources. People of color who already have higher risks for ailments, such as asthma and heart disease, also tend to live closer to highways. So, while the proposal will save truck owners from paying for modern emission control technology, poor people and people of color will most likely bear the heaviest public health burden if the proposal goes into effect.

Stop dirty diesel

Simply put, the glider vehicle proposal should not go forward. The emissions study cited by the proposal was poorly conducted (and ultimately withdrawn), poor people and people of color will suffer from increased roadway pollution, and susceptible groups will have increased health risks. Please let science lead this cause. Slightly cheaper trucks are a terrible substitute for human health.

Dr. Cesunica E. Ivey is an incoming Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California Riverside. She is currently a visiting scientist in Princeton University’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department. Dr. Ivey studied environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her research expertise is in modeling regional air pollution from natural and anthropogenic sources.

Organizations: American Geophysical Union; American Association of Aerosol Research, 500 Women Scientists

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

CE-CERT

Taking Action for Public Science: Re-Imagining Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

On a snowy February morning at the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines, students, farmers, community members, scientists, food system employees, and advocates gathered for a press conference and advocacy day. Their efforts came almost one year to the day after the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center, for 30 years the state’s pre-eminent institution for research, learning and practice on sustainable agriculture. Constituents from across the state and beyond had responded with grassroots organizing to reframe discussions about public agricultural science in Iowa. And now they were calling for a re-imagined Leopold Center to lead a bold new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future:

“Supporting a socially just, environmentally sound agricultural system goes beyond simply providing food, fiber, and fuels—it means revitalizing rural communities, and turning Iowa into a shining example of how a resilient, locally focused agricultural system can make a large difference in individual communities and throughout the world.”

—Kristine Neu, Iowa State University graduate student

Lawmakers founded the Leopold Center at Iowa State University through Iowa’s 1987 Groundwater Protection Act and in so doing created an institution that benefited farmers, students and community members through research and educational programs. Yet, in the spring of 2017, the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center.

Sustainable agriculture scientists and advocates sprang to action immediately, writing a petition decrying the cuts, garnering national attention and more than 600 signatures over the first weekend it was available. Alumni and allies drafted memos and collected data for reports to share with legislators, wrote press releases and editorials, and organized turn-out to the state budget hearing.

This grassroots advocacy succeeded in securing a veto that saved the Leopold Center in name only—its funding was redirected to a research center created in 2014 dedicated to “nutrient management.” State legislators claimed the Leopold Center’s work was “accomplished.” The public mourned its loss, and stories in the press read as eulogies rather than rallies for its rebuilding. But we saw an opportunity to push forward a new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future—one of regeneration and healing (Carter, Chennault, and Kruzic 2018).

Iowa’s agricultural history is one of extraction. Iowa State University sits on land occupied by white settlers following the Black Hawk “Purchase” of 1833, a forceful removal of the Sauk and Meskwaki people following the Black Hawk War. The extractive economy continues today, with Iowa second only to California in the value of agricultural goods and boasting more hogs (22.4 million) and chickens (60 million) than people (3 million). This production system comes at a cost to the health of Iowa’s soil, water, and human communities as the state is literally washing away at the rate of 20 tons of soil per acre and more each year, and nitrate loading from agricultural landscapes pollutes the drinking water (Naidenko, Cox and Bruzelius 2012; Rundquist and Cox 2018). Clearly, the Leopold Center’s work is far from over.

Science for Public Good grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists helped us create an advocacy video communicating our collective’s new vision for the Leopold Center and agriculture in Iowa. In partnership with farmers, students, emeritus faculty, community leaders, and members of the Iowa Farmers Union, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Lutheran Services of Iowa, and Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, we brainstormed, debated, revised, and shared new visions. The collective vision shared from these efforts celebrates diversity and prioritizes care, which are necessary components of agrifood systems change in Iowa and beyond. We launched this vision through a series of op-eds at the Des Moines press conference in February 2018, and used it to rally supporters to attend the Leopold Center’s advisory board meeting in March 2018.

These are hard times for public science and scientists studying ecological and social changes. Our refusal to mourn and eulogize the Leopold Center’s loss—and our work to envision and work toward a boldly re-imagined agriculture in Iowa instead—reframed a debate while envisioning new paths forward. The Leopold Center’s future remains uncertain, yet we know the challenges our agrifood system faces will require the kind of collaboration, creativity, innovation, and transparency reflected in our collective vision. A re-imagined Leopold Center must transform what has become a monoculture of ideas with a polyculture of thought, experience, scientific approach, and innovative agricultural practices. A monoculture is weak and vulnerable; it fails to provide for the coming decades. We have adopted the prairie as our guide for the work ahead—deep roots, diverse, hardy through times of drought, and resilient through times of change.

Angie Carter is an environmental sociologist and assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. She earned her PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology at Iowa State University. Twitter: @angielcarter

Ahna Kruzic is a community organizer turned communicator from rural southern Iowa. Ahna is Pesticide Action Network North America’s Communications Director and is based out of Berkeley, CA. Ahna is also a Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy Fellow, and holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology from Iowa State University. Twitter: @ahnakruzic

Carrie Chennault is a doctoral candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and a graduate research assistant with the Local Foods and SNAP-Education programs at ISU Extension & Outreach.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

A Shout-Out to Government Scientists: Have You Completed the UCS Federal Scientists Survey?

“I can’t afford to make any wrong moves,” a PhD scientist and career federal worker recently confided to us, adding grimly, “they are watching us closely.” Normally cheerful and extroverted, she now often appears tired and frazzled. She is not alone—not by a long shot. As federal science and technology (S&T) budgets are being squeezed, and key programs and offices are being zeroed out altogether, federal government employees are becoming fearful of losing their jobs, which are becoming increasingly stressful.

The degree to which the White House has depended on S&T advice to form policy has varied widely from administration to administration, but not until now has a US President broadly cast aside science itself as irrelevant, even inconvenient, to public policymaking. The anti-science, pro-deregulation posture of the Trump Administration is creating an environment where federal scientists and engineers—especially those working in areas antithetical to White House ideologies—are having to endure a variety of insults to their professional integrity. Arbitrary transfers to undesired positions; overt censorship; gag orders; disappearing transparency; prohibitions on open communication with the public and the press; and politically-motivated micromanagement and hypercritical scrutiny: all of these send the clear message that the work they do as civil servants striving for the public good is no longer valued. Being a career scientist makes one persona non grata when science itself has a bad name in the White House, and science-based policymaking is being openly ignored across the entire Executive Branch.

Imagine devoting one’s career to better understanding Earth’s complex climate and weather systems, and to communicating climate change causes and risks to Congress and the public, only to be told that the use of the word ‘climate’ itself is taboo, and to reconfigure work products away from climate change, or else! The “else” could mean suffering reprisals or being canned altogether. Picture being a young, ambitious PhD scientist with a job at a research laboratory where a keen interest in understanding how climate change is affecting our bays and estuaries can be freely pursued. Then imagine accepting an invitation to present your research at a conference, only to suddenly be ordered to bow out. This actually happened last fall to three EPA research lab scientists studying the health of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island: each was to give a talk on the deleterious effects of climate change on the Bay, and each was abruptly forced to cancel. Investigative reporting quickly revealed that John Konkus, a political appointee in EPA’s public affairs office, had placed a Friday afternoon phone call to the Narragansett EPA lab director ordering him to prohibit the three scientists from speaking at Monday’s conference.

Federal S&T workers in other areas of focus are experiencing similar instances of suppression. Much of our evidence at the moment is anecdotal. That is why the Union of Concerned Scientists is currently surveying 63,000 government scientists on the status of scientific integrity—this will help the gaps in data and information. The survey will open until March 26.

Reactions in the federal workforce have been mixed. Many are leaving their posts in droves—most often quietly, even after years of service. Others are quitting in protest and choosing a “noisy exit”—by naming names, and publicly calling out wrongdoing they’ve witnessed. EPA Region 10 veteran Michael Cox was so put off by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that he took early retirement last year from his position as climate change advisor. In a scathing departure letter, Cox let Administrator Pruitt know that EPA staff were “becoming increasingly alarmed about the direction of EPA” and cited Pruitt’s blatant denial of established climate science, his frequent demonizing of the agency, his decision to bring in political appointees hostile to the EPA, and his failure to grasp the role of EPA’s ten regional offices.

A courageous few blow the whistle: they retain legal counsel specializing in whistleblower protection, and boldly speak truth to power by criticizing actions that are unethical, immoral, or illegal. A legal complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, accompanied by a hard-hitting Washington Post op-ed by federal whistleblower Joel Clement, offers a case in point. A top climate advisor at the Department of Interior publicly alarmed at the effect of climate change on Alaskan native populations, Clement was transferred by Secretary Zinke to an office that counts oil and gas royalties.

The vast majority of federal scientists choose to remain in their current positions, out of admirable dedication and economic necessity, and become “quiet copers” who play it safe, keep a low profile, and engage in self-censorship as a survival strategy. In the current environment, where the chilling effect has reached sub-zero temperatures, blowing the whistle can feel scary and futile. The sad fact is that most employees who witness workplace wrongdoing stay silent, out of fear of reprisal, fear that speaking out will fail to solve the problem, or both.

We believe becoming fully informed of one’s legal rights to report wrongdoing can be an effective antidote against these fears and encourage all federal employees to familiarize themselves with these rights. To this end, GAP has developed a new resource, Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, for federal employees reluctant to stay silent in the face of serious abuses of public trust.

Science-based policymaking is a hallmark of American tradition and a linchpin of good governance. We hope all 63,000 federal scientists who received UCS’s 2018 Federal Scientist Survey will respond by answering the questions carefully and candidly, so that we can better identify and address threats to scientific integrity.

 

Dana Gold is an attorney and currently serves as the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) Director of Education, implementing public education initiatives and partnering with diverse stakeholders in collaborative efforts to foster awareness of the essential role whistleblowers play in promoting government and corporate accountability. In addition to her work with GAP, where she focused for many years representing dozens of whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons complex, Dana co-founded and directed the Center on Corporations, Law & Society at Seattle University School of Law, and served as a Network Fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics focusing on whistleblowing and institutional corruption.

Anne Polansky, Senior Climate Policy Analyst for GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch program, has over 30 years of experience in science-based public policymaking in the areas of climate change, renewable energy, and sustainability. She has held management positions with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; and the Solar Energy Industries Association; and has provided specialized consulting services for a variety of non-profit organizations. Anne holds a MS degree in environmental chemistry and engineering from Clemson University and a BS degree from Vanderbilt University.

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Collaboration Between Ranchers and Scientists Leads to Rangeland Management Opportunities

Andrea Johnson, part of the research field crew, monitors water quality in a rangeland stream. Photo: Kris Hulvey

When I arrived in Utah four years ago to start my new research position, government agencies and ranchers were having a standoff about grazing rights and the use of public lands. Cattle grazing is common on many public lands, which also serve as key habitat for species of ecological and political interest like Greater Sage-Grouse. Increasingly, people also want western rangelands to supply a suite of other goods and services including clean water, fish habitat, and carbon sequestration.

My plan was to develop a research program focused on balancing some of these seemingly conflicting uses of Western landscapes. I was worried that the political climate would make any form of collaboration among ranchers, government managers, and scientists difficult. I was wrong.

How should we manage rangeland?

Flags set near a rangeland stream for assessment of stubble height and bare ground – two indicators of grazing use.

The U.S. has a history of managing the environment through a combination of top-down regulation (for example, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act), mixed more recently with creative programs that provide incentives to private citizens for management and conservation actions on their properties. Here in Utah, over the past decade, a constellation of factors aligned, leading to a unique opportunity for landscape management.

A key element was the possibility of the greater sage grouse being added to the list of US Endangered Species. This motivated local people—including ranchers, public lands managers, and scientists — to combine forces to prevent further sage-grouse population declines. They formed local working groups where they shared information, concerns, and got to know each other. This groundwork of relationship-building opened the door to solve other management conflicts on rangelands, including those I address in my work.

My research focuses on how grazing near rangeland streams affects water quality. Because violations of clean water regulations in rangeland streams can lead to demands for cattle to be removed from public lands, I collaborate closely with public lands managers, including those working in federal and state agencies. We have found that in our local rangelands, rotating cattle across the landscape so that they do not graze in the same spot for an entire season can lead to water quality that meets state standards. This research impacts ranchers, because in some cases improving water quality will mean changing current grazing practices.

Building relationships with stakeholders

This next part of my story is where I get really excited about the collaborative relationships between ranchers, managers at government agencies, and scientists in Utah. My agency partners invited me to share my findings with the ranchers affected by the results. Because some of these results highlighted current conflicts between grazing and water quality, I expected a stony reception.

Instead, the ranchers informed me of key details of their operations that could have led to my results. They peppered me with questions about my measurement techniques and about how the year’s wet conditions could have influenced my results. They proposed ideas of how to improve stream and water conditions in future years—including those that would require more time and effort on their part—and asked me if I would come collect data again so that we would know if the proposed solutions worked.

What had just happened? This exchange of ideas and community knowledge—from me to the ranchers and the ranchers to me—was vital. It allowed me to fully understand the results of my research, and for the ranchers and agency scientists to find solutions that would balance grazing use with clean water production in the area. I chalk this experience up to the trust that my agency partners and these ranchers had built after years of working together.

Hope for the future of natural resource management

So, how do we move forward, balancing natural resources in a political environment that can be confrontational? I draw some inspiration from my students. One of the classes I teach is a project-based capstone class for range majors. Our first assignment is to diagram on the white board what ‘range management’ is. Students grab dry erase markers and jot down all of the words they associate with their future profession. Terms like ‘livestock management,’ ‘water distribution,’ and ‘soil conservation’ are there. But so are ‘stakeholders,’ ‘communication,’ and ‘collaboration.’ The students then spend the bulk of the semester putting all of these ideas into practice. Ranchers and other professionals from the diversity of organizations managing rangeland come speak with my students about collaboration. A main message is always that differences will exist, but that if we focus on what we agree upon, we can move forward. I’m on board.

 

Kristin Hulvey is an Assistant Professor of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. She is focused on improving working lands management by collaborating with stakeholders and conducting research that leads to management solutions that work for nature and people. Her work broadly focuses on rangeland management, ecosystem restoration, and the links between biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and human well-being.   

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Kris Hulvey

Building Relationships to Promote Science-Based Decision Making

In an era when “fake news” has become a common phrase, it is more important than ever to make sure our policymakers are making decisions based on the best available information.

As graduate students associated with the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, we knew that there was a role for us to play. We all study issues related to climate change, but with no experience interacting with the policy side how could we connect our research with decision-makers? That’s where the Union of Concerned Scientists came in.

Training participants role-play meeting with their state legislators to discuss climate policy.

As graduate students, we study specific projects within narrow bands of climate science, but the general knowledge of climate that we have gained throughout the pursuit of our degrees puts us in a unique position. In the eyes of policymakers, we can serve as important resources.

With this perspective on our status as graduate students, we felt inspired and compelled to improve our understanding of the climate policy framework as well as to promote connections between graduate students and policymakers. We reached out to Emily Heffling, UCS western states campaign coordinator, to partner with us to create a UW workshop focused on training graduate students and postdocs studying climate in building these important relationships with the policy world. With resources from UCS, we facilitated an event that brought in multiple speakers to address these questions of how climate policy works in Washington State and how we as students can plug into this system.

Following the training, we arranged meetings with our local legislators: one State Senator and four members of the Washington House of Representatives, including the Speaker. It turns out it can be a little nerve-wracking to meet in person with a legislator! As part of the training, participants got to practice face-to-face interactions with policymakers through role-play scenarios. This training experience was easily translated into the actual meetings, helping students to feel more at ease. Students had clear expectations for the meeting and knew how to structure the encounter to use the legislators’ precious time most productively.

Representative Nicole Macri (left) meets with graduate students (left to right) Michael Diamond (Atmospheric Sciences), Megan Duffy (Oceanography), and Kaylie McTiernan (Mechanical Engineering and Marine and Environmental Affairs) and postdoctoral research associate Johanna Goldman.

Across the five meetings that came out of this event, we pushed past our comfort zones and connected with the people who are in positions to make impactful changes. We learned about the work our elected officials are already doing to pursue climate policy. We described how our climate research and affiliated resources are available to better inform their decisions. One graduate student, Kaylie McTiernan, who attended a meeting with Representative Nicole Macri (43rd Legislative District) reflected on her meeting saying, “the graduate student science advocacy training prepared us to meet with Representative Macri. We are grateful for her time and for learning about the newly formed Climate Caucus of the WA State Democrats, the work towards creating a carbon tax, and some of the most pressing current issues.” In another meeting, Senator Jamie Pedersen (43rd Legislative District) was curious to learn about how policy changes on the state level impact the global issue of climate change. We connected him to the resources at UW that specialize in such questions.

Students also brought up issues that were not on legislators’ radars, such as how global warming will change the timing and quantity of water availability as snow-dominated areas in the Cascades become rain-dominated. Water resources have been on the Washington State political agenda because of a court ruling affecting current water permitting practices, but the longer-term implications of climate change had been largely absent from the discussion.

Overall, the experience of working with UCS to facilitate this workshop, connect graduate students to the policy landscape, and build relationships with local legislators was incredibly rewarding. We learned a lot about how state climate policy is developed and implemented and gained a better understanding of how graduate students can leverage our unique position and resources to advocate for a more climate-progressive state shaped by well-informed policymakers.

 

Taryn Black is a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on documenting changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet and determining the processes driving these changes.

Michael Diamond is a PhD student in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. He studies how smoke particles from agricultural fires in southern Africa influence cloud properties over the southeast Atlantic Ocean to better understand the interactions between clouds and pollution, which is one of the largest sources of scientific uncertainty in how much human activities are altering Earth’s climate.

Emma Kahle is a PhD student in Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. She studies ice core records from Antarctica to learn about past temperature changes and to better understand interactions between different climate processes.

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Our Science for Public Good Project: Hosting a Holiday Air and Water Quality Party

Photo: Anna Scott

Nothing says ‘happy holidays’ like environmental justice, so the three of us co-hosted a holiday party in West Baltimore to talk about a recent lead water testing campaign and an upcoming air quality monitoring campaign called Baltimore Open Air. Anna is a graduate student studying climate science. Jennifer is an organizer with Clean Water Action, a grassroots environmental organization focused on water and air quality, climate change, and environmental justice. And Nabeehah works for a grassroots community organization called Communities United in West Baltimore which addresses trauma and building resiliency. We know each other from Baltimore’s People’s Climate Movement table, and were excited about receiving a grant from the Science for Public Good fund.

We decided to highlight key environmental justice challenges that Baltimore neighborhoods face.  Rates of lead poisoning are high, especially among children. Much of the risk is from lead paint, still present in many homes throughout the city. Water is a concern too: more than ten years ago, water fountains in all Baltimore Public Schools were shut off after water repeatedly failed to meet safe lead standards. They still haven’t been turned back on.  Air pollution is likewise a major health threat: in 2013, the asthma hospitalization rate in Baltimore City was 2.3 times higher than the average rate for Maryland, driven by nearby coal plants, trash incinerators, and highways. We’re each involved in monitoring and advocacy campaigns to clean up Baltimore’s water and air, and wanted to share information and ways for people to get involved.

Coalition partners in West Baltimore were invited to attend, and to share the event with their members. Nabeehah went door-to-door in the surrounding community to tell residents about water testing and air quality monitoring, and invited residents to come to our event to learn more. Anna researched answers to questions about the health impacts of lead, water contaminants, and air pollution, and prepared information on her study of local air quality using citizen science and affordable monitors. Jennifer found a local caterer to serve food, and shared information local campaigns against big polluters and her organization’s study of lead drinking water pipes in Baltimore. (You can see the presentation we put together here.) And we all worked together to write questions and answers for a fun game of Environmental Justice Jeopardy. About 50 people from West Baltimore attended the party and learned more about what local organizations are doing to fight for clean air and water in the community.

Does this sound like something you’re interested in doing, but don’t know where to start?

First off, it’s critical to partner with a local group working in the community. What community members in West Baltimore tell Nabeehah and her colleagues is that they have been “surveyed to death.” They have been offered help that never came. Residents see that their community is receiving grants and funding, but they can’t account for what it was spent on. These experiences have led people to be wary of even well-intentioned organizers, psychologists, scientists, and others who start working in their community—particularly when it hits the news due to a traumatic event—without building relationships first.

Seeing this happen over and over makes communities feel used and taken advantage of. The best way to bring science to communities is to start with building relationships and trust by finding organizations that are already working there.

To find those organizations, start being present in the community. Is there a community association meeting coming up? See if you can attend just to listen and learn about what’s happening in the neighborhood. Have you heard about a campaign to address problems that residents face? Follow the news, see who is leading those efforts, and get in touch. Finally, if you are connected with any fellow scientists working on Community-Based Participatory Research or other community efforts, ask them how they got started.

This collaboration was an excellent experience because it helped us develop an understanding of how these core principles directly correlate to science: just as scientists must maintain an open mind, exhaust every possibility, and follow data where it leads, organizers and others pursuing social change must work to invite and involve everyone in a community, practice the skills of listening before leaping to conclusions, attack all angles of injustice, and commit to continuous self-transformation as we change both our society and ourselves.

Anna Scott is a graduate student studying climate science. Jennifer Kunze is an organizer with Clean Water Action, a grassroots environmental organization focused on water and air quality, climate change, and environmental justice. Nabeehah Azeez works for a grassroots community organization called Communities United in West Baltimore, which addresses trauma and building resiliency.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

Cyanobacteria-Based Biofuel: an Innovative Platform for Clean Energy Production

Photo: Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc./CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia)

Burning fossil fuels is a major driver of climate change with more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide released annually, leading to increased frequency of natural disasters and health concerns. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources is a key strategy to mitigate this harm.

Biological approaches to generate clean, green energy from renewable sources offer great promise for sustainable fuel production, but first- and second-generation biofuel crops compete for farmland, which limits their potential. By contrast, photosynthetic microorganisms, including algae and cyanobacteria, offer great promise as third-generation biofuel agents without the drawbacks of today’s biofuels.

We are excited to announce that the Sitther Biofuel Research Group at Morgan State University has developed a technology to generate a cost-effective biofuel using a model cyanobacterium. The team, consisting of graduate students Dr. Behnam Tabatabai and Ms. Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad, led by Dr. Viji Sitther, has developed strategies to reduce fossil fuel overuse. With a short life cycle, greenhouse gas fixation ability, and high lipid production capacity, we use cyanobacteria as an efficient biofuel platform. Carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuel and industrial emissions can be captured and used by these organisms efficiently. As with other algae-based fuels, we expect a 68% reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions as these organisms absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Our research group has engineered salt tolerance in a cyanobacterium (Fremyella diplosiphon) which produces oil (lipids) in its cells. The team’s innovation has been successful and the technology is now patented. With limited precious fresh water for agriculture and human needs, we will make use of naturally abundant sea water for biofuel production. The organism is now able to grow in 35 g/L salt, the salinity of sea water. With sea water containing 70 different nutrients to support its growth and using the sun’s energy, the technology will be cost-effective while minimizing fresh water input into the cultivation system.

Targeting large-scale commercialization, the team is now progressing to make the biofuel even more cost-effective. Our goal is to enhance cellular oil content using a novel technique based on cDNA overexpression, in addition to salt tolerance. Fuel produced using this technology will be environment-friendly and will make full use of Maryland’s location, with its access to the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Seaboard.

For background information about cyanobacteria as a biofuel technology, please visit David Babson’s blog on algae.

Viji Sitther is an Associate Professor at the department of Biology at Morgan State University. She was a graduate research faculty at the Fort Valley State University prior to joining Morgan. Behnam Tabatabai is a recent PhD graduate and Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad is a doctoral candidate in the Bio-environmental Sciences.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Building Momentum After the Tax Bill: A Call for Scientists to Remain Engaged

Photo: Brandon Mejia, AZPM

The recent process of moving proposed tax changes into law was a demonstration of graduate students’ power to influence change. While many may feel that the time to speak out is over – it’s not. Due to the projected $1.4 trillion increase in the federal deficit resulting from dramatic reductions in tax rates for corporations and wealthiest of individuals, the government will likely be unable to support current and future tax funded programs at current levels. Without tax revenue flowing into the government, it is inevitable that discussions will begin where cuts to entitlement and discretionary funding are put on the table.

The scientific community must voice their objections to discretionary funding cuts that would reduce research funding at the NIH and NSF, as well as cuts to entitlement spending that funds non-defense discretionary spending for agencies such as the EPA and FDA. To accomplish this we must harness the collective power of graduate students and others to protect the research enterprise and graduate education. We learned during the latest tax legislation process that concerned students needed advice and resources related to proposed legislation and the potential downstream effects if passed into law.

While many concerned individuals turned to their universities for guidance, administrators and staff were not always prepared to provide the necessary information, as this is not their normal role. It’s important for individuals and institutions to understand where they can turn to for guidance related to policy. As a community, we are fortunate to be supported by a number of policy groups, including the Coalition for the Life Sciences, Research America, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Additionally, advocacy (Future of Research, Rescuing Biomedical Research, March for Science) and professional organizations (American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society for Cell Biology, Genetics Society of America, and National Postdoc Association) are also resources for information or to actively engage in advocacy efforts. All stakeholders in the community should provide resources as well as understand those resources. This will enable rapid response to proposed policy changes in the future.

We urge the entire scientific community to remain vigilant and policy-engaged, reaching out to congressional representatives to voice concerns and priorities. Connect with local graduate school personnel, inquire about institutional legislative interactions, and learn about how institutional efforts ensure understanding and inform action for legislation that affects students and science policy. Discuss policy concerns with directors of graduate studies, graduate office support staff, students, and faculty. Engage with professional societies and science policy groups to better understand community resources and collaborate on solutions. Openly and regularly explore issues that impact graduate education and the scientific enterprise. Practice science advocacy and communication so that when the next threat occurs, we are ready to mobilize.

Future of Research wants to empower early career scientists to speak up and advocate for policies that support the research enterprise and higher education. This requires that, as a community, we have a unified voice of the value of graduate education and its positive impact on the economy and medical advancements. Please share useful resources and suggestions with us.

 

McKenzie Carlisle is a social and health psychologist trained in conducting translational and transdisciplinary science. She has been an advocate for early career scientists at both the institutional and national levels and is currently working for a Salt Lake City-based biotechnology company supporting cross-disciplinary projects.

Dr. Sonia Hall commits her career to building engagement in the spirit of developing innovative programs to enhance the training experience of graduate students and postdocs. Sonia received her PhD in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Kansas and invested two years in postdoctoral training at the University of Massachusetts Medical School – one-year in a research laboratory followed by a year training in academic administration at the Center for Biomedical Career Development with Cynthia Fuhrmann. Sonia has led the development of multiple educational outreach initiatives, including building the DNA Day Network in collaboration with UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall

When it comes to President Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (never mind the fact that many such physical barriers already exist), many people have focused on two questions: Shouldn’t there be comprehensive immigration reform instead? And who’s going to pay for it?

But there’s another question we should ask. Who is going to build it?

I’m referring to the engineering companies that will actually design and construct “the wall.” Whatever form it takes (a monolith or a mishmash), hundreds of companies are lining up to build it—and that reflects the willingness of many companies to profit from divisive politics. Unfortunately, engineering education, practice, and ethical codes provide engineers almost no guidance on the broad political implications of their work.

The presidential administration has only just begun the lengthy process of building the wall. First, on Feb. 24, the Customs and Border Protection office issued a pre-solicitation to gauge interest from companies. (The response was overwhelming, with more than 600 companies submitting proposals, of which, according to a CNBC analysis, “[a]t least 133 companies were listed as owned by minorities—including 39 by Hispanics.”) Then, on March 17, CBP issued two detailed solicitations—one for designing and building a concrete wall and another using other structures. These solicitations will really set in motion the engineering process.

Before any concrete is poured, within companies, there will be spirited discussion and debate among engineers and managers about design and costs. Memos will be written, and company leaders will be briefed. The administrative work of contracting will take shape. If a company doesn’t have the expertise or skills to do a particular task, it may join forces with another company or group of engineers who do. In short, the wall will be a product of engineering decision-making.

But how much of the decision-making process will discuss the ethics of being involved with building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?

When big contracts are on the table, there can be very little incentive for a company to refrain from doing the work in the name of good moral behavior or the public welfare. For instance, leading engineering companies are involved in designing and building pipelines to bring more tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., in spite of the negative social and ecological impacts.

Social justice advocates see the wall within a broader discussion about immigration, and engineers should, too. Engineers have a moral responsibility to understand the context of their work. The federal judge who recently blocked the Trump administration’s second immigration-related executive order put it in the context of language used by the president over the past several months. Similarly, engineers cannot and should not view the wall as a singular engineering project. Instead, they should think of the social and political implications of the barriers that already exist between the U.S. and Mexico, and they should evaluate the social, political, and humanitarian implications in the context of another wall born of divisive politics—the one between Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Among a host of humanitarian and human rights issues, the wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has created incredible animosity. The wall has become a symbol of conflict for so long that both Israeli and Palestinian children “grow up feeling that they are destined for conflict with their neighbors,” according to Laurel Holliday, author of Children of Israel, Children of Palestine. But for companies bidding on the U.S.-Mexico wall, the politics of the project have been stripped away and translated into technical specifications.

In today’s political climate, engineers cannot remain passive and allow legislators and politicians to decide what the “public good” is. All members of a community must be engaged and responsible in deciding what the public good is and how to create it—and that goes especially for engineers and the companies they work for, because they can have a disproportionate and lasting impact on a community.

But the engineering community’s response thus far has been divorced from these important issues. Here’s what representatives of three bidding companies have said:

  • “We’re not into politics. We’re not left or right. We’re a construction company and that’s how we survive. … We don’t see it as politics. We just see it as work,” Jorge Diaz, who manages De la Fuente Construction Inc. in California, told the Guardian.
  • “We’re focused on the work, we’re not a political body, left or right or what have you. We go after the job and provide high-paying jobs for our workforce and great opportunities for our company,” Ralph Hicks, vice president of governmental affairs for R.E. Staite Engineering in California, said to KPBS.
  • “There could be a political backlash, but we are in business to make money and put people to work and provide a good service, whether it’s a wall or substation or airport or prison. We don’t want to approach it from a political standpoint, only from a business standpoint,” George Ishee, national sales manager for Cast Lighting, based in Hawthorne, New Jersey, told a local newspaper.

Another engineering company owner, Patrick Balcazar, who owns San Diego Project Management in Puerto Rico, went even further, suggesting that building a wall will provide a future economic opportunity to employ engineers to tear it down: “My goal is to build a wall so I can make enough money so we can turn this thing around and tear down the wall again.”

Not every company bidding for the wall will share these points of view, but they highlight a particular problem with how many engineers and companies see their role in the world and how their work is valued. As it stands, much of engineering is focused more on financial incentives than social impact and human welfare.

Further, the reality is that engineers and companies always work with or for someone with particular political motives, and so their work is always political. By saying building a wall is “just work,” engineers and companies shift the moral burden from themselves—those who actually design and build these projects—to those who order and pay for them. But people, politicians, and governments can talk all they want about doing something; they do not have the skills to actually do it.

The fundamental canon of the Code of Ethics by the National Society of Professional Engineers states, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Unfortunately, there is only vague guidance given to engineers on how to implement this canon, with emphasis more on client relationships rather than social good. The American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics does a better job here. It says: “Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes and devices,” thus pointing to the political implications of engineering work.

For engineers working on politically charged projects, there can be friction between their professional obligations and their moral obligations, dilemmas they are untrained to grapple with. While an engineer may raise concerns about the safety of a project (to make sure, for example, the wall won’t collapse and hurt a border patrol officer), there tends to be little to no support for engineers who question the morality of the project they work on.

But just because a project is politically and professionally justified and economically feasible does not make it ethically or morally justified. That’s why it’s frustrating that most engineering education programs across the country provide only scant ethical training, particularly in the context of social good; there are few resources, examples, and role models for ethically conflicted engineers to turn to. Engineers have incredible power, but if they aren’t managers or company leaders, it can be difficult to speak up about the ethics of particular projects. Historically, engineers have been routinely ostracized and silenced when questioning leadership decisions. For example, engineers predicted the failure of the O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters yet NASA proceeded with launch. We all know what happened next.

Look through most engineering programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. and you’ll see very few courses dedicated to ethical training. Frequently, those that are offered aren’t required, or ethics forms a two- or three-week component of other classes, either at the beginning or the tail end of an undergraduate career. Efforts to infuse ethical training deeply in engineering education struggle against already packed course schedules, and ethical issues are rarely discussed at engineering conferences. So those of us who are engineers have to take it upon ourselves to deeply engage with the ethical challenges and dilemmas we face. Engineers should constantly ask themselves (adapted from the founding document of Science for the People): Why are we engineers? Who do we work for? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?

If engineering is only about making money, then let’s not call it engineering; profiteering would be a more appropriate description. But if engineering is “rooted in a goal to improve our societies by producing structures that render them more just, more equitable, and more beautiful,” as the Architecture Lobby writes, we—engineers—need to do a better job at thinking about who and what is affected by the choices we make. If engineering is about working on technical projects that “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” then a thoughtful, compassionate, and contextual reading of this fundamental canon cannot justify engineers giving their expertise, time, and resources to a border wall that will embolden and embody divisive politics.

“We’re just doing our job” just does not cut it with morally challenging, hot-button issues. It never has, and it never should.

Originally appeared on Slate.com.

Darshan Karwat is an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a former AAAS fellow in Washington.