What’s the News: With Congress yet to pass a budget, the country is facing a government shutdown unless lawmakers reach an agreement by midnight tonight. In addition to shuttering many government offices, the shutdown would likely cause present serious difficulties for federal government-funded research.
Difficulties Such As…
Fresh off the President’s State of the Union call to extend high speed rail to 80 percent of Americans, the Obama administration trotted out its chief train enthusiast to propose a shot in the arm to rail development. From 30th Street Station in Philadelphia yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden proposed a $53 billion plan to build high-speed rail lines all around the country.
“In a global economy, we can’t forget that infrastructure is also the veins and the arteries of commerce,” Mr. Biden said. He frequently travels between his home state of Delaware and Washington on Amtrak trains. [Wall Street Journal]
Biden says $8 billion of that will be included in the President’s budget proposal set to go to Congress next week. The rest would be parceled out over the course of six years.
Advocates say U.S. investment in high-speed rail lags many other countries and point to China, which plans to invest $451 billion to $602 billion in its high-speed rail network between 2011 and 2015, according to the China Securities Journal. [Reuters]
Nevertheless, any large transportation spending will have a hard time getting through the newly installed Republican majority in the House. The federal government would also have to grapple with Republican governors in states where this rail infrastructure would be built, who often pride themselves on symbolic opposition to such spending. Wisconsin and Ohio’s governors recently refused federal rail money, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie canceled the ARC Tunnel project, which was intended to improve the overloaded connections used by people commuting from New Jersey to New York.
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]
Contrary to the erroneous early reports that U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was killed during the attack on her campaign event Saturday, the Congresswoman survived the attempt on her life. She’s considered lucky to be alive–gunman Jared Loughner shot her in the head at close range.
Now, as she enters the long, unpredictable journey back from serious brain injury, there are at least good signs.
The optimism expressed Sunday was based on Ms. Giffords’s ability to communicate by responding nonverbally to the doctors’ simple commands, like squeezing a hand, wiggling toes and holding up two fingers. The tests are part of a standard neurological examination after head injuries. In Ms. Giffords’s case, the doctors were encouraged because the simple tests showed that she could hear and respond appropriately, indicating that key brain circuits were working. [The New York Times]
This morning, the news remained positive—reportedly the swelling in Giffords’ brain is not getting any worse. That swelling is the real danger in the immediate aftermath of injury if the person survives the initial shock, as Giffords did. Fortunately, she found herself in the care of Dr. Peter Rhee, who was a Navy doctor for 24 years, tending to Marines and soldiers and learning emergency response to brain injury.
Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at the University Medical Center in Tucson, explains that a large piece of Giffords’ skull has been removed to prevent the swollen brain from pressing against the rigid skull, which would cause further damage.
“The key is making a wide opening in the skull so that the brain can relax into it. Decompression has allowed us to save soldiers with horrible blast injuries,” said Lemole, who removed a wedge from the left side of Giffords’ skull, above the area pierced by a bullet. After the swelling subsides, he said, the bone will be put back into place, closing the gap in her skull. [USA Today]
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]
Yesterday Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman rolled out their new climate bill, the American Power Act. The 987-page piece of text was driven by what we’ve come to expect in climate legislation: Concrete targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions a certain percentage by a certain year. But, an international group of economists and environmental scientists are saying, that approach is doomed to failure, and this is the time to change.
The Hartwell Paper, a product of 14 different authors working since February, came out this week to coincide with the release of the climate bill. The assessment is blunt: Reaching agreements like the Kyoto Protocols to reduce carbon emissions has been the primary means of addressing climate change since the mid-1980s, and it hasn’t worked. With the high-profile flop that was the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, the authors argue this is the chance to drive a new course on climate policy, one not singularly focused on CO2.
The Hartwell authors don’t downplay the importance of CO2 as a greenhouse gas; rather, they point to the silliness of being so fixated on that one compound; the Earth’s climate, after all, is a terribly complex system:
That is frustrating for politicians. So policy makers frequently respond to wicked problems by declaring ‘war’ on them, to beat them into submission and then move on. Indeed, almost any ‘declaration of war’ that is metaphorical rather than literal is a reliable sign that the subject in question is ‘wicked’. So, we have the war on cancer, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror and now the war on climate change.
The USA Patriot Act and the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, both enacted not long after the 9/11 attacks, contained measures to make it harder for anybody to get their hands on the kind of pathogens one might need to launch a bioterror attack. There was just one problem: The rules also slowed down and constrained our own scientists’ abilities to learn about those pathogens, according to a study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To be specific, lead researcher Elizabeth Casman found while there was a touch of good news—the laws didn’t appear to deter new scientists from entering the field—the major effect of those acts has been to make research on ebola virus and anthrax much more expensive, and much slower.
The researchers did find an increase in the total number of papers published. But before the laws, 17 anthrax papers appeared per million dollars of funding. With the restrictions, only three papers appeared per million dollars of funding. For ebola, the numbers dropped from 14 to six papers per million dollars. Figures for the control stayed the same [Scientific American].