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Science Meeting Highlights Policy

Annual meeting brings convergence of science, policy, and media coverage

March 8, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 10


Science policy was high on the agenda of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting on Feb. 12-16 in Seattle. Increasingly, this meeting is about celebrating and publicizing the most recent advances from a broad range of disciplines with the general public as a key audience.


Nearly every hot topic from the realm of science and society over the course of the past year made it onto AAAS's comprehensive meeting program: nanotechnology, stem cell research, cloning, global warming, homeland security, and research metrics, to name just a few.

These topics and many more fit under the meeting's major theme: the ability of science to engage with the public. In that vein, AAAS announced the opening of a new Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology, and it released the results of a survey conducted for it by public relations firm Porter Novelli. The survey found that only 34% of Americans say they trust scientists "to put society's interests above their personal goals."

The center, AAAS says, was founded to forge a better understanding between researchers and the general public on the increasingly complex scientific issues that affect daily life. It also will serve to improve the public's input into scientific research agendas by creating opportunities for dialogue among policymakers, the public, and the scientific community, the association says.

Intense media coverage of the meeting helped highlight these topics, and AAAS pulled out the stops in arranging press conferences, photo opportunities, and other events that were a magnet for the folks toting cameras and tape recorders. Three cloned mules from Iowa were one surefire draw, for example.

The first press conference hit on a subject of enduring public interest: Researchers from South Korea have succeeded in extracting stem cells from a cloned human embryo. As with past stem cell developments, this advance received widespread international press coverage. The researchers made at least two formal presentations of their work. And one speaker pointed out that the gaggle of television cameras and international press trailing the Koreans wherever they went was treating them like rock-star Madonna.

FOR THE FOURTH year in a row, AAAS presented a day-and-a-half seminar on another popular topic, nanotechnology. "What is nano?" asked Mildred S. Dresselhaus, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in her seminar introduction. "It's sort of the end of the line for materials science," she answered.

Dresselhaus went on to say that President George W. Bush's proposal for a hydrogen economy--to meet energy demands and reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions--presents big opportunities for nano scientists.

"The hydrogen economy is difficult," she said. "We don't know how to do production and storage, and we don't know how to make the fuel cells to reduce costs."

Self-assembly at all scales was the topic for Harvard University professor of chemistry and chemical biology George M. Whitesides. He stressed the need to deal with the realities of nano today, rather than speculate on what this technological revolution might mean for tomorrow.

"Is nanotechnology a big deal?" Whitesides asked. In its current state, he said, there is a clear pipeline of technology and products and an evolution of nano. "It's going to happen." Is there a revolutionary nanotechnology? he asked. "Will this lead to something that changes the way science and technology work? Only time will tell."

Global warming and the imperative for action that stems from climate-change science was the topic of a plenary lecture by Sir David King, chief scientific adviser and head of the U.K.'s Office of Science & Technology. "What is the evidence that we are seeing global warming?" he asked, and cited examples, such as the melting of a permanent ice cap atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. "It's not a singularity. This is true around the world. We have got global warming."

King pointed out that carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at any time in at least the past 420,000 years, and it is now too late to stop further warming from occurring. "The effects are real," he said. "Over 160,000 people die worldwide every year from climate change," he continued, giving a detailed reminder of the past summer's heat wave in Europe that contributed to thousands of deaths of mostly elderly people in a matter of weeks.

"The risk to the U.K. is massive," King said. He presented a study of the Thames River that indicates increasing frequency and severity of flooding but for the presence of flood-control gates. If the gates ever broke, he said, damage exceeding $30 billion could result in the London region. "Money is considerably better spent on mitigation."

"We must actively reduce the production of greenhouse gases," King continued, saying that the policy of the U.K. government is to cut its greenhouse gas production by 60% by 2050.

In a statement, King added: "The international community must now make a concerted effort to limit global warming and adapt to those changes in climate which are already unavoidable. We will need to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and explore other possible alternatives, such as fusion, hydrogen, and renewables. Doing nothing and allowing market forces to work through the challenges at hand is not an option. That is not to say market forces should not play an active part, but rather [they should] work within a framework. Effective action demands international agreement on a process which engages the world community in tackling this global problem. Leadership is required from the strong economies in the developed countries in order to achieve such agreement."

On another conference subject--public investment in research--a panel of experts funded by the Department of Energy argued for a variety of methods to measure, track, and capture the value of basic research. However, the highly technical session left many in the audience perplexed and many more in disagreement with the panel's conclusions.

Panel moderator Bill Valdez of DOE's Office of Science argued that, ultimately, a value will be placed on the flow of knowledge. What's more, he predicted that the person who defines a unit of knowledge will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

BY CONTRAST, Jane A. Alexander, who is the deputy director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), described a very mission-oriented agency: "We're all about delivering technology." Metrics for HSARPA, she said, include protecting the U.S. and the lives of its citizens.

With about $300 million in its fiscal 2004 R&D budget, the agency will fund projects directed toward the technology needs of DHS agencies. HSARPA's R&D priorities, she said, include preventing the trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials and weapons, detecting chemical and biological weapons before they are released, preventing suicide bombers, and strengthening cybersecurity.

In many cases, Alexander said, a key criterion will be affordability. "In general, we need to find things that will cost $5,000, $10,000, or $20,000, so they can be used by the local fire department."

Speaking to an audience of independent researchers and businesses who no doubt want to do business with DHS, Alexander pledged that the agency would minimize bureaucracy and move quickly on good proposals. At press time, the agency was set to make R&D project awards to some 30 groups as a result of its first solicitation to develop sensors to detect biological and chemical terrorism agents.

"We want to work with you; we want your good ideas," she said.

The realities of homeland security were brought to life in a session titled "Science and Engineering: The Leading Edge of Security Technologies." Capt. Tom Richardson of the Seattle Fire Department opened the session with a chilling account of the city's participation in Topoff 2, a DHS security drill conducted last year. Topoff stands for top officials, and the Seattle drill was held simultaneously with a mock attack in Chicago.

In the drill, Seattle was the target of a dirty bomb in which a device containing curium, americium, and plutonium was detonated in a public place. According to the exercise, the debris was scattered over a 13-mile area.

Richardson gave a harrowing account of the mock attack and the response on multiple fronts required of Seattle fire department personnel and other local first responders. Lessons learned, he said, included the need for coordinated standards among agencies for radiation and radiation-detecting equipment, along with many other technologies. He said that decontamination of people is possible following such an attack, but decontaminating city blocks is another story altogether.

"The economic impact is going to be huge," he said. Advances, such as development of polymers that could coat an area and then be removed in order to lift radiation from buildings and sidewalks, might be all that would save a city or region from ruin.

One line of defense to prevent attacks is the use of biometrics, said Joseph J. Atick, president and chief executive officer of Identix Inc. A biometric is a physical characteristic that is unique to each person. Facial configuration, fingerprints, and blood-vessel patterns in the back of the eye are all biometrics. Atick gave an update on the field, including biometric systems engineering, connectivity, facial recognition technology, and fingerprint identification.

"It's about human identity," Atick said. He pointed out that 95% of Earth's population lives outside of the U.S. "This is not just about the U.S.," he said. "It's about the world."

There is great pressure to develop reliable biometrics, such as facial recognition, Atick said. For example, by international agreement, the U.S. must eventually put a biometric on a smart chip on its passports.

Another speaker, Daryll Fogal, vice president of Honeywell Building & Controls, spoke of the terrorism risk for chemical and petrochemical facilities around the nation.

"Petroleum refineries are massively exothermic, and I don't think I can overstate that," he said. Among common security weaknesses are so-called distributed computer control systems that can be hacked into at facilities as diverse as airports and chemical refineries.

For example, "a 12-year-old got control of [Arizona's] Roosevelt Dam," Fogal said. "People could [seize the operations of] this kind of infrastructure."

The last speaker at the session was Ernest T. Takafuji, director of the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs at the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases. His NIAID responsibilities include coordinating extramural research efforts related to biodefense/bioterrorism.

"We see bioterror as part of the emerging infectious disease problem," he said, adding that potentially, "we're dealing with disease states we've never dealt with before."

Because of today's environment in which an organism like the poliovirus can be manufactured whole cloth or pathogens can be reengineered to evade treatments, Takafuji said, "the answer will not be to make a vaccine against every disease."

What's more, he says, the current slate of weapons of mass destruction threats dealt with by the NIAID program includes infectious agents, toxins, chemicals, radiation, and explosives.

Meeting these challenges will require all the creativity and resources scientists can muster. And they can only succeed in a society that understands and supports their efforts--reinforcing the value of AAAS's goal of connecting science and the public.


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