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October 4, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 40

Foreign service, foreign science

I read with interest the article titled "Foreign Science" (C&EN, Aug. 2, page 45). This article describes efforts by the U.S. State Department to increase scientific literacy within the foreign service, the core of the State Department. This is extremely unlikely to happen, and the reason why is clearly stated in the article by Lisa P. Fox, director of the Economic & Commercial Studies Division at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Fox is quoted as saying: "The State Department is a flavor-of-the-week organization. We get involved in a particular science topic when there's a crisis or big issue, but our needs change all the time."

Unfortunately, this statement is entirely accurate and reflects the parochial, if not superficial, attitude of the State Department toward scientific and technological issues that impact foreign policy. One aspect of this superficial view is to appoint senior advisers from within the scientific community as internal experts, when in fact these are primarily prestige appointments that have no actual impact, scientific or otherwise, at the foreign service officer (FSO) level.

There is a pervasive parochial and arrogant attitude within the State Department that scientists have insufficient international experience to become FSOs, and thus the view that FSOs should instead be minimally trained in science. Exposing FSOs to basic scientific concepts will not make them competent science attachés, any more than will appointing tenured professors from science departments as science advisers.

Instead, the parochialism that infects the State Department can best be removed by emphasizing the international, linguistic, and educational training of potential FSOs, rather than emphasizing careerism and divisional territoriality within State. A U.S.-born chemist or physicist, for example, who spent most of his or her life growing up in India will almost certainly mature into a far more competent FSO (not to mention science attaché at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi) than a potential FSO with a fresh bachelor's degree (or even Ph.D.) in international affairs, but who has limited overseas and linguistic experience.

Despite claims to the contrary by State, having a degree in social science from a prestigious university (as well as meeting one of the various State Department demographic quota requirements) is far more likely to lead to employment as an FSO, in any of the five major career tracks, than actual overseas and linguistic experience. This is evinced by the decreasing overall language and area studies abilities of most FSOs, and the increasing emphasis (as correctly pointed out by Fox in the article) on specific utilitarian skills that follow current political trends rather than long-term foreign policy needs.

In fact, one might question whether the U.S. State Department truly represents the foreign-policy arm of the supposedly supreme scientific and technological nation on the planet: Every single member nation of the European Union, as well as many poorer developing nations, has science attachés in every single operating embassy overseas. The U.S. has a grand total of 12 science attachés (representing 12 embassies), reflecting approximately 6% of all active U.S. embassies overseas. In contrast, every U.K. embassy overseas has at least one science attaché on active duty, in some cases several.

Who then, indeed, is in the forefront of global science and technology? Perhaps before the U.S. government, and its peers in academia and industry, boasts about being at the forefront of the global economy, it should ponder the embarrassment of having only 12 science attachés stationed abroad when there are 194 active U.S. embassies overseas.

Peter Cohen
Austin, Texas

Science and stem cells

In reference to susan morrissey's article on "Stem Cell Research" (C&EN, July 19, page 16), Constance Kalbach Walker writes in her letter to the editor that "human life would seem to begin when the full genetic make-up of the individual is determined" (C&EN, Aug. 23, page 2). The intended implication seems to be that this occurs at conception, which would be incorrect--except (perhaps) for some people who lack immune systems. The somatic cell DNA rearrangements of our immunoglobulin genes that result in each of us becoming the person we do (allergies and all) occur relatively late in embryonic development.

The process is only just started in 12-day-old chick embryos [Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 89, 7615 (1992)], whose full gestational period is 21 days. Susumu Tonegawa's 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded in part based on his work comparing embryonic mouse genes to those from adult tumor tissues [Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 73, 3628 (1976)].

Though attainment of an individual's "full genetic makeup" may seem like an obvious way to define "humanness," it is not a very satisfactory one.

Bob Clark
St. Louis


Walker writes that there should be an ethical debate about stem cell research. Yes, there should be an ethical debate, but stem cell research is not the true subject. The real subject of an ethical debate is the ethics of the in vitro fertilization process. Eggs are not fertilized to be used in stem cell research; they are fertilized as part of the in vitro fertilization technique. More cells are fertilized than are actually planted in a woman's uterus. The cells that remain are either destroyed (yes, some are frozen, but that's a euphemism for destroyed) or used for stem cell research. Thus, the true ethical debate is not whether the fertilized cells should be simply destroyed or used for research--the true ethical debate is whether in vitro fertilization is ethical in and of itself or should be prohibited.

David Eisenberg
Paradise Valley, Ariz.


Too clean for comfort?

Having spent my entire career in the research and development of man-made fibers, I read with interest the "Newscripts" item describing how researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are developing "a fabric that never needs washing" (C&EN, Aug. 9, page 48). They claim that a special coating of nanoparticles of the anatase form of titanium dioxide, when exposed to the ultraviolet rays of sunlight, "breaks down dirt and other organic materials into smaller particles such as carbon dioxide and water."

As an organic chemist (Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, 1956), I couldn't help but wonder about two potential problems with such an approach: One, why doesn't this coating also attack the fibers themselves, all of which are organic in fabrics used for clothing? Two, isn't there a likelihood that this "organic eating" coating will also attack the skin next to this clothing?

I also wondered why we don't already see this effect in many of the current man-made fibers that have used for many years a small amount of the anatase form of titanium dioxide as a delustrant or opacifier within the fibers, but perhaps it is necessary for this material to be on the surface to achieve the "self-cleaning" effect.

Jack G. Scruggs
Greer, S.C.


Costing climate change

In his well-reasoned letter "economics of climate change," Harvey Alter documents what most of us already believe: that the cost of controlling (or even moderating) climate change due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere simply by controlling CO2 emission rates is too high for the economy to bear (C&EN, Aug. 16, page 2). Now what, he asks; how do we bridge the gulf between climate science and economics?

Very easily. First, climate change is influenced by the level of CO2 in the air, an equilibrium between emissions and removals, not simply a function of emissions. We then install a system that removes CO2 from the air and keeps it out. If this is done to a sufficient degree, which can be calculated, CO2 levels in the atmosphere will be stabilized and climate change due to this factor will not occur.

What kind of a system will do this? One that is very effective, low in cost, and easily installed is growing biomass; sugarcane is now believed to be the best crop, as it is a very effective converter of atmospheric CO2 to biomass. Then what? Anaerobic digestion converts fresh sugarcane to as much as 80% digester gas plus a stabilized carbonaceous residue. Digestion using currently available microorganisms yields gas consisting of 70% methane and 30% CO2. Conventional sweetening gives pure methane and CO2 for segregation (as in the deep ocean).

How about the science? Basically, everything we need to get started is at hand, but when undertaking such a project at a world scale, science should have a field day dealing with issues of developing better crops, better anaerobic bugs, all the details of segregation, and so on. And economics? Updates of older economic studies show that breakeven cost for methane is about 50 cents per 106 BTU; this does not include segregation cost. As an energy source, this looks pretty good; full-scale installation would stabilize CO2 levels and supply about one-third of U.S. energy needs.

Other problems? The World Bank and the Union of Concerned Scientists have made lists of the world's 20 worst problems; this program impacts 16 of them favorably. The new Copenhagen Consensus will probably benefit similarly.

Finally, can such an approach actually work? We know that it will, courtesy of the astonishing plots of CO2 levels made at Mauna Loa Volcano, where CO2 levels drop every spring when Northern Hemisphere deciduous trees go into leaf and rise again when they fall in the autumn. This science provides a beautiful check on the values calculated above.

H. A. Hartung
Collingswood, N.J.


The letter regarding the economic considerations related to climate change reports that a distinguished panel of experts rejected as "bad" proposals for controlling that change. The author suggests that the economic arguments related to the cost of abating carbon dioxide emissions need to be more carefully considered in order to not consume resources that could be more productively used elsewhere.

It is difficult to argue against the utility of a solid cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately, the changes that can result from continued increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases are uncertain. What is certain is that there will be changes and that the costs of those changes are also uncertain. An analysis of the costs of moving populations from the low areas around the globe would require some plan for resettling each population. Would that plan include the cost of conflict between the relocated population and the existing population? There are many possible scenarios resulting from global climate change, but I know of none that will not involve substantial impacts on large populations.

Some say that global warming is a part of the normal cycle of warming and cooling. Regardless, the climate changes will have a large impact on large populations. To the extent that increases in average global temperature can be minimized by a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, the costs of those impacts can also be minimized. To calculate the cost-benefit ratio of reducing carbon emissions without including the possibility of severe adverse consequences is like calculating the cost of nuclear power without including the cost of events such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Harvey Paige
Yellow Springs, Ohio


Have you ever made a career change, reeducated yourself, or simply started over? Are you now working in a field other than chemistry? C&EN is looking for chemists midway through their careers who can tell their stories for an upcoming article. Please e-mail Nick Wafle at


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