Last night, in the third State of the Union Address of Obama’s presidency, he began by extolling the need for the country to compete with other rising nations for the jobs of the future (and using some version of his new catchphrase multiple times). The President hit many notes that have science and technology advocates smiling this morning, including his call to turn around yesterday’s sobering statistics about the lack of science proficiency of American students.
The world has changed, Obama told Congress, and the US will only retain its competitive edge over nations like China and India if it invests in a skilled workforce and cutting-edge science and technology: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” [New Scientist]
Obama went on to urge parents to get their kids’ priorities straight, and uttered the line that may have tickled science geeks the most:
We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.
The President also called for more funding for biomedical, renewable energy, and other research to launch a wave of innovation. Obama deemed this our “Sputnik moment,” comparing it to the moment in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite and the U.S. raced to catch up to and then surpass Soviet space science.
This evening, according to early reports, President Obama will spend part of his State of the Union Address addressing the United States’ “competitiveness.” But ahead of the national pep talk, the Department of Education brought the mood down a notch. The latest results from a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released today, and the “Nation’s Report Card” doles out some depressingly low grades for American students’ understanding of basic science.
A third of the nation’s fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above the proficient level in science…. Fourth-graders considered proficient are able to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, while advanced students can design an investigation comparing two types of bird food. Proficient 12th-graders are able to evaluate two methods to control an invasive animal species; advanced students can recognize a nuclear fission reaction. [Bloomberg]
At the other end of the spectrum, 28 percent of the 4th graders failed to show a basic understanding of science, and that number was up to 40 percent for high school seniors. That troubles Alan Friedman, a member of the board that oversees the test:
“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.” [AP]
Smoke is in the air again. Well, smoking, rather. The newest report by the Surgeon General (yes, they’re still doing those) came out this week, and the 30th installment of this institutional dispatch ratcheted up the message. It’s not just a lot of smoking that will kill you; the Surgeon General’s office is now pushing the idea that even one cigarette is one too many—serious damage can start immediately, says the report.
Thursday’s report says there’s no doubt that tobacco smoke begins poisoning immediately — as more than 7,000 chemicals in each puff rapidly spread through the body to cause cellular damage in nearly every organ. “That one puff on that cigarette could be the one that causes your heart attack,” said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. [AP]
It’s not exactly a revelation that smoking is risky and get riskier the more you do it. However, this is the first in the long line of these reports to really press the points that have turned up in recent research, like epigenetic changes or immediate risk to the cardiovascular system.
The root of the problem is that even small amounts of the chemicals in cigarette smoke cause rapid inflammation in the endothelium, or lining, of blood vessels and in the lungs. Inflammation is increasingly blamed by researchers as a key promoter of blood vessel plaques and clots and in obstructive lung diseases like emphysema. “The evidence on the mechanisms by which smoking causes disease indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke,” the report concludes. [WebMD Health News]
Finally, after spending much of 2010 sparring over the future direction of NASA, Congress approved the space agency’s reauthorization bill (pdf) last night. It was not a moment too soon, as the new fiscal year begins tomorrow.
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait documents the reactions of Congressional representatives, and that unsavory feeling of watching the sausage get made in Congress. Here are the basics of the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.
The measure covers the next three years, appropriating $19 billion to NASA for 2011 and slightly more over the next two years, adding up to about $58 billion through 2013.
Along with the reauthorization bill, the House also passed a continuing resolution to grant NASA the money to get moving. But Congress doesn’t reconvene from its current break until after the November elections, and that’s when they’ll have to pass appropriations to actually get NASA this money.
The program is still going away, and sooner rather than later. The Congressional compromise tacked on one additional shuttle flight to the last two that currently remain. But after that, it’s curtains.
With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, on Oct. 1 nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance – a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [Space.com]
UPDATE: In a terse statement (pdf) released today—Thursday, Sept. 9—the U.S. Court of Appeals has issued a stay on the ruling of District Court judge Royce Lamberth against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Earlier in the week, Lamberth refused to grant a stay on his own ruling; see below. This doesn’t mean the appeals court is siding with the Justice Department against Lamberth’s ruling; it simply means the three judges want adequate time to consider the ruling and its repercussions. And because the stay lasts until September 20 at least, the National Institutes of Health can re-up the $54 million in projects currently due for annual renewal.
The ruling stands, for now.
The Obama Administration asked U.S. District Court judge Royce Lamberth to grant a stay of his injunction against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, insisting that it could trigger job losses and research setbacks. But yesterday the judge issued an order in which he refused to lift the ban, and dismissed the Justice Department’s arguments that the ruling would cause chaos by immediately shutting down all research.
Lamberth indicated that his injunction was less restrictive than had been interpreted by the Obama administration. “Defendants are incorrect about much of their ‘parade of horribles’ that will supposedly result from this Court’s preliminary injunction,” Lamberth wrote. The ruling did not necessarily apply to research that had been funded under guidelines issued during the Bush administration or that had previously been “awarded and funded,” Lamberth wrote. [Washington Post]
The U.S. Department of Justice has now officially asked Royce Lamberth, the District Court judge who ruled that the Obama administration’s expansion of embryonic stem cell research violated federal law, to suspend the injunction he issued last week that prevents any more funds from going to stem cell projects. The DOJ is also taking the case to the Court of Appeals.
In a 23-page legal filing, Justice Department lawyers said the stay was needed to avoid terminating research projects midstream and negating years of scientific progress toward finding new treatments for devastating illnesses. The department said the ruling would cause irrevocable harm to “millions of extremely sick or injured people” who could benefit from stem-cell research, as well to scientists and taxpayers “who have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on such research through public funding of projects which will now be forced to shut down and, in many cases, scrapped altogether.” [Wall Street Journal]
Most ongoing projects had been allowed to continue for now, but only if they used National Institutes of Health money to research at their home universities. However, NIH head Francis Collins notes (pdf) the $54 million in projects due for renewal at the end of this month—without a change in the ruling, NIH is forbidden to renew them. Additionally, projects underway on the NIH campus itself have been ordered shut down.
DISCOVER will keep you posted on further updates.
80beats: Stem Cell Decision Fallout: What’s Next, and Who Were the Plaintiffs?
80beats: Judge: Obama’s Expansion of Stem Cell Research Violates Federal Law
80beats: The Trouble With Lab-Created Stem Cells—and Why They Won’t Displace Embryonic Ones
80beats: FDA Green-Lights First Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells (Again)
The city of New Orleans’ defenses are certainly better than they were five years ago, when Hurricane Katrina breached the levees and flooded the city. With the five-year anniversary of that disaster upon us, however, the question that hangs in the air is: Would those refurbished barriers stand up to another Katrina, or something worse?
In the last five years, the federal government has invested about $15 billion to revamp the New Orleans levee system.
This time, tougher foundation material like a mixture of construction clay and cement, is being used in the soil to hold structural sections of wall designed as an inverted T instead of their previous I-shape. The new design is considered stronger, allowing steel pillars to bracket each end into the ground. Total completion is expected in June 2011. [Christian Science Monitor]
The legal mess around embryonic stem cell research just got messier. Yesterday a U.S. district judge ruled that President Obama’s expansion of federal financing for the research, enacted last year when he lifted the Bush-era restrictions on creating new stem cell lines, was a violation of federal law.
Judge Lamberth ruled that the administration’s policy violated the clear language of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law passed annually by Congress that bans federal financing for any “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death” [The New York Times].
Here’s the gist of what happened: The Obama Administration said that its policy fit with Dickey-Wicker because no federal dollars financed the destruction of embryos. Under the new rules the few stem cell lines approved by the Bush administration were OK, and so were new ones from embryos that had already been discarded because they weren’t needed for fertility treatments anymore—if the donors had given their consent to the embryos being used for research purposes. In this compromise position, taxpayer money wouldn’t be used to create new stem cell lines from embryos, but federally funded researchers could work with new stem cell lines created by privately financed scientists.
Last year, when DISCOVER covered the FutureGen carbon capture and storage (CCS) project as one of our top 100 stories of 2009, we noted the nickname some opponents had bestowed on the big-budget experiment: “NeverGen.” That moniker feels even more appropriate now, as the Department of Energy has changed plans and now says it will overhaul the FutureGen idea and build it in a totally different way.
The FutureGen scheme called for building a new CCS demonstration coal plant in Mattoon, Illinois, about 180 miles south of Chicago. The Bush Administration quashed FutureGen because of its hefty budget, but President Obama revived the project with $1 billion in stimulus funding. Now, though, the government says it wants to retrofit an existing power plant across the state in a town called Meredosia rather than build a new one from scratch.
In the new design, the plant would be fed pure oxygen and burn coal, and the exhaust gas would consist of almost pure carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide would then be piped 170 miles east to Mattoon and injected underground, possibly along with contributions from an ethanol plant in Decatur, Ill., and other industrial plants along the way [The New York Times].