Archive for November, 2008

Why Are Women Dropping Out of Computer Science?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 17, 2008 3:24 pm

All in all, women are doing pretty well in science. Surveys from the National Science Foundation show that the percentage of women getting science and engineering B.A.s has gone from from 39 percent in 1984-85 to 51 percent in 2004-5 (though the number of them actually stay in the profession is still dwindling). In fact, only one field can truly call itself still entrenched in male domination: computer science. The stark gender divide was summed up beautifully in last week’s New York Times:

Ellen Spertus, a graduate student at M.I.T., wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female? She published a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.

Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field.

And the numbers are just as startling: “In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent.” And this year? “Many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.”

So why is this happening?

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MORE ABOUT: gender, women

Weekly News Roundup: The Military Hates Whales, Warming to Bloggers

By Melissa Lafsky | November 14, 2008 8:46 am

• Transition! Transition! (Insert music here). So here’s the question of the day: Will Obama create a National Energy Council?

• Just in time for winter: A complete history of the flu through the ages.

• The military fought the whales and won.

• What, “Global Warming Poobah” was already taken? Gore offered (but turned down) job as White House “Climate Czar.”

• We can’t decide if this is heartening (drivers are being safe!) or mortally depressing: California air pollution kills more people per year than car crashes.

• A soldier-blogger gets his moment in the spotlight—though the real question is, what does he think of Trooptube?

MORE ABOUT: flu, gore, military, obama, pollution

Should It Be a Crime to Spread HIV?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 13, 2008 6:04 pm

It’s inevitable that some laws meant to solve a problem will surprise us with unintended consequences that lead to new, potentially bigger problems. And other laws are just doomed from the start.

Case in point: A report from the International Planned Parenthood Federation finds that more and more countries are criminalizing the spreading of HIV, in a (hopelessly-misguided, destined-to-fail) effort to halt the disease. According to the AP:

Since 2005, seven countries in West Africa have passed HIV laws. In Benin, simply exposing others to HIV is a crime, even if transmission doesn’t occur. And in Tanzania, intentional transmission of the virus can lead to life imprisonment…

In the U.S., 32 states have laws criminalizing HIV transmission. Experts estimate that thousands of people have been charged across the country with spreading HIV.

Since 2001, 16 people in the United Kingdom have been prosecuted for spreading HIV.

Why is this such a bad idea? you may ask. Despite all the medical advances in treating and curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS, there are still an estimated 3 million new cases of HIV a year, and nearly all of them are the result of risky (and therefore preventable) behavior. Shouldn’t those who fail to take precautions be punished for endangering the lives of others?

Well no, not if it means driving said risky behavior underground to avoid criminal prosecution. Which is precisely what is likely to happen, and thereby make things even worse:

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Is War a Product of Evolution, Or Just a Flaw of Man?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 13, 2008 1:58 pm

Humans have been historically eager to kill each other. Throughout history, we’ve thought up all sorts of nutty reasons to slaughter our fellow man that had nothing to do with immediate survival of the fittest. We tend to chalk all these wars up to cultural differences fed by a species-wide need to be ideologically right (and impose that right-ness on others), along with a knack for weapons discovery culminating in a technology boom that’s constantly supplying bigger and better ways to off each other. Add governments to the mix, and you’ve got a big steaming pile of questionably necessary interspecies violence.

So it’s a little—but not a lot—surprising that the growing scientific consensus is that war not only dates back to the origins of humankind, but has also played “an integral role” in or species’ evolution. According to this theory, which emerged during a recent conference at the University of Oregon, the war “instinct” was present in our common ancestor with chimps, and has been a “significant selection pressure on the human species,” as evolutionary psychologist Mark Van Vugt put it.

His and his colleagues’ reasoning goes something like this: Evidence exists to show that war and humans have been friends since the beginning (fossils of early humans show wounds consistent with combat injuries). As such, we would have evolved “psychological adaptations to a warlike lifestyle.” To this end, researchers have presented “the strongest evidence yet that males—whose larger and more muscular bodies make them better suited for fighting—have evolved a tendency towards aggression outside the group but cooperation within it.”

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MORE ABOUT: human nature, war

Over a Year After YouTube Ban, Military Launches "TroopTube"

By Melissa Lafsky | November 12, 2008 3:58 pm

military TrooptubeRemember when the military announced it was cutting off troops’ access to YouTube, MySpace, and other video-uploading sites because of bandwidth and “security” problems—i.e. they were worried about videos like this getting uploaded and watched around the world? Well, now it seems they’ve reconsidered that decision—sort of.

Now, the military is launching its own user-generated site, called “TroopTube” (insert joke here). While registration is required, it allows members of the armed forces, along with their families, to gain a password and start uploading content. The site can also be accessed by civilian Defense Department employees and “supporters,” whatever that means.

So given the restricted access to the site, will troops be free to upload anything they like?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Dem Fight! Winner Gets Chairmanship of the House Energy Committee

By Melissa Lafsky | November 11, 2008 7:41 pm

The Democrats have retaken the White House for the first time in nearly a decade—and the happy afterglow is already fading. Gristmill reports that punches are being thrown between John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). The grand prize for this heavyweight bout is chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Dingell, the current chairman, tossed out a few left hooks at Waxman, his challenger, on the radio last week, calling Waxman an “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat” with a “serious lack of understanding of people in the auto industry and manufacturing generally.” Meanwhile, both men claim to have enough votes for the post.

This would all be yet another amusing example of political infighting, except that the committee at stake has principal responsibility for legislative oversight of things like public health, air quality, the environment, and the nation’s energy supply. Dingell, who is 82 and has been in Congress since 1955 (we won’t even get started on how different a place it was back then) is known for being significantly more moderate than Waxman, and for garnering the support of leaders in industries like autos and mining. Whether that’s a reason to support him or not remains to be seen.


Stem Cell Researchers Celebrate Obama Victory, With Caveats

By Melissa Lafsky | November 11, 2008 2:45 pm

As we mentioned yesterday, the Obama administration is getting a running start, already gearing up to reverse Bush on topics from oil drilling to abortion. And stem cell research, which has been straining under the bonds of various federal funding bans since 1994.

Earlier this year, Obama stated in his Science Debate 2008 response that he “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells,” and that:

“As president, I will lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.”

Skip forward to today, where democracy has spoken! Hooray for research! Scientists like George Daley, the former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, along with many of his colleagues, are understandably thrilled.

Granted, not everyone in the field is busting out the Kristal.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Stem Cells

Obama Blogs? President-Elect Launches Web Site, Embraces Internet

By Melissa Lafsky | November 10, 2008 5:47 pm

After running the most technology-dominated presidential campaign in history, it’s only logical that Obama would keep the trend going into his new administration. And by all accounts, he has every intention of doing so: The Washington Post reports that the president-elect and his transition team are gearing up (pun fully intended) to “create the first truly ‘wired’ presidency.”

So far the major cyber-moves include consolidating the list of over 10 million supporter e-mail addresses gathered during the campaign, planning the transition of Obama’s 95-person “new media” campaign staff into an expanded White House operation, and biggest and flashiest of all, the launch of the president-to-be’s official Web site, It’s self-billed as “your source for the latest news, events and announcements so that you can follow the setting up of the Obama administration,” and so far it contains a forum to share your election day stories, a newsfeed, and lo and behold, a blog! Take that, anti-blogites—if it’s good enough for Obama, it’s good enough for us.

So is this the era of the blogger-president? Can we expect Web cams in the Oval Office and Twitters from cabinet meetings?

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MORE ABOUT: blogs, obama, technology

Let's Get It Started! Obama Plans Reverse of Bush Science Policies

By Melissa Lafsky | November 10, 2008 2:51 pm

None too soon, the experts have begun weighing in on what President-Elect Obama should do regarding climate and energy policy. Even better, Obama’s transition team has put together a list of around 200 Bush policies to be kicked to the curb ASAP. They include gems like reversing the limit on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and ditching a rule that stops U.S. aid-receiving family planning groups from informing women about the availability of abortion.

The biggest slashes, so far anyway, have been saved for Bush’s environmental policies. As the Washington Post reports, Obama has announced his intention to “quickly reverse the Bush administration’s decision last December to deny California the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles.” There’s also the undoing of the executive order that opens public lands to oil drilling, as well as social/economic moves like closing Guantanamo and tossing a life preserver to GM (though whether that’s a good idea remains to be seen).

RB: Obama & McCain Answer DISCOVER’s Questions on the Environment
RB: What Must the Next President Do to Save Science? DISCOVER’s Science Policy Project 2008

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Climate Change, Energy, Stem Cells
MORE ABOUT: Bush, obama, sanity

Weekly News Roundup: The Election Is Over, the Real Work Begins

By Melissa Lafsky | November 7, 2008 12:59 pm

• A new administration, a new direction, and maybe—just maybe—a clean divorce between science and political ideology.

• And of course, the debate has already started: Who will Obama pick to head up the EPA?

• Meanwhile, we’re zooming straight into a “health care perfect storm.”

• Which makes it all the more admirable (or crazy, or excessively symbolic) that Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Steve Kagan has elected to go without health insurance as a gesture of solidarity towards his uninsured constituents. Stay healthy, Steve!

• China demands international action on climate change—let’s just hope they practice what they preach.

• And not to judge or anything, but videos like this one certainly don’t inspire confidence.

• The “net energy” debate gets serious. Is the whole thing a load of bull? We’ll leave it to the experts to decide.

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