It doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but now there’s data to prove it: Rises in unemployment similar to those in the current economic crisis increase homicide and suicide rates, according to researchers at the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In the upcoming edition of the Lancet, they published a paper titled “The Public Health Effect of Economic Crisis and Alternative Government Policy Responses in Europe: An Empirical Analysis.” Among their findings:
The authors looked at how economic changes have affected mortality rates in 26 European Union (EU) countries over the past three decades, and identified how governments might reduce adverse effects.
They found that for every 1% increase in unemployment, there was a 0.8% rise in suicide rates at ages younger than 65 years—or between 60 and 550 extra suicides per year across the EU. Murder rates also rose 0.8%. Both these effects were greatest at working ages…If unemployment rose by more than 3%, suicide rates for those aged under 65 rose by 4.5%, and deaths from alcohol abuse by 28%.
Of course, there was a little icing on the cake:
By contrast, road traffic accidents decreased by 1.4%.
Always a glass-half-full bunch, those researchers.
Over at Silicon Alley Insider’s Clusterstock blog, Joe Weisenthal has taken on the science establishment, slapping down the much-bandied conventional wisdom that the solution to society’s ills is to throw money at science education. In his trademark cavalier style, Joe slashes and burns his way through science-related sectors, arguing that more/better scientists are not what we need.
Is the underlying point fair? Absolutely—simply training more scientists in order to “solve” our economic and environmental problems is like ordaining more priests to “solve” the current marriage decline. But Joe’s details get sucked into the quagmire of poor logic, to the point where a few of them border on ludicrous. Take his stance on health care:
Given the spiraling cost of healthcare, and the fact that few people are satisfied with our system, this is obviously one of the most fertile industries for growth. But our problem isn’t a lack of science. Our problem isn’t that engineers haven’t created enough dubious miracle pills. It’s that our conception of the system is wrong. We have antiquated models for healthcare delivery on all kinds of fronts, from how it’s paid for to who patients see when they get ill.
We’ll be the last to say there’s no room for improvement in the health care system. There are countless opportunities for improving treatment effectiveness and efficiency that don’t involve just training more doctors (though we need those too, in a BIG way). Computerization of medical records, while not a simple task, will ultimately save time, money, and lives. But halting funding for drug research—particularly when we’re on the cusp of some pretty remarkable new stuff—is pretty absurd.
Then there’s his take on education (we’re assuming he means the larger education system, and not just scientific courses of study):
Our system is in shambles and has been dysfunctional for a long time. We have a huge problem of matching students up against the type of education that would suit them — more vocational training for many of them would be good — and for many students there’s no upside in being educated. It’s a gaping opportunity, but it’s not a science question. It’s more a matter policy and design than anything else.
Well, actually, there is an upside in properly educating our population: Not doing so leads to a disastrous, dogmatic mess that erodes the integrity of education—not to mention causes expensive and pointless ideology battles that take our attention away from problems like oh, say, the looming financial and environmental apocalypses.
But the main problem with Joe’s central argument is this:
The scientific community has spent plenty of time rejoicing the new pro-science era, and our spanking new president has continued to give every assurance (including a shout-out in his inauguration speech!) that he will make good on his promises to prioritize science and base policy decisions on actual scientific evidence.
But could all this pro-science fervor have secondary benefits besides, oh, say, putting big dents in global warming and the looming health care crisis? The New York Times takes on this question, asking whether the new administration will enable scientists to “tackle a chronic conundrum of their beloved enterprise: how to attract more women into the fold, and keep them once they are there.”
The general hypothesis behind the supposed Obama-boost for women is that the rise of science awareness and “geek chic” will be good for all scientists, and thus women will eventually get some trickle-down benefit—a somewhat weak line of reasoning, particularly when you consider how well it worked in Reaganomics. And critics of the argument point out—quite rightly—that what could really give women a boost is if a single female scientist was appointed to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
Of course, the real capacity for a pro-female boost, which the article eventually hits on, lies in the new president’s ability to grant additional family leave and parental benefits to the recipients of federal grants—a group that includes a ton of research scientists, many of them women. Though whether that’ll have any affect on the dearth of female physicists is anyone’s guess.
So it happened: Barack Obama has officially taken his place as the country’s 44th President (complete with a shout-out to science during the inaugural address!). And, with the country facing enough massive problems to sink a fleet of aircraft carriers, the word is he’ll waste no time getting to work. But what can a new president accomplish in his first few days in office? Plenty, if you count issuing executive orders that reverse policies from the previous administration (which should by all means be counted). And when it comes to science and medicine, there are miles to go before the new POTUS sleeps.
So what are some top science priorities that President Obama can stick on his “ASAP” list? Here’s a few ideas, along with the likelihood that they’ll be addressed in the super/semi/not-so-near future:
In a little under a half hour, Barack Obama will officially take his place as the country’s next POTUS. And while the event will be brimming with historic firsts for the country, the coverage contains plenty of firsts for the integration of technology, politics, and major events.
Sure, there’ll be some people who actually attend the event in person—around 2 million brave souls have packed into the Mall in frigid temperatures, with questionable bathroom status (for comparison, around 400,000 showed up for Bush’s first inauguration). But for the rest of the world that didn’t make it to D.C. for the party, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of real-time coverage and information all over the airwaves. For those who still watch TV, you can see Obama take the reins on any cable or broadcast news station, or watch live feeds online from CNN, MSNBC, and just about every other news source. Then there are the liveblogs and Twitters, ot to mention Facebook statuses which, according to CNN (which has partnered with Facebook to offer simultaneous Web viewing and status-updating), are being updated at around 2,000 updates per minute, and 3,000 comments per minute. Not to mention the conversation rampaging among the 4 million fans on Obama’s official Facebook page.
Text messaging the event is rampant as well, to the point where the CEO of EzTexting.com Shane Neman issued a press release saying he believes millions of text messages will be lost, on the level of New Year’s Eve.
So there you have it—500 different ways to find out what’s going on in D.C. And if you miss all of it, not to worry—the replays will show up on YouTube momentarily.
• A ruckus brews over cookies at the White House—and we don’t mean the kind with sugar and sprinkles.
• Recession? What recession? Pass the console.
As if people-sniffing robots weren’t enough: A satellite system called the “Sea Horse,” which was built to monitor migrant vessels from the coast of North Africa, will be used to track the movements of illegal immigrants making their way from Africa to Europe, particularly the shores of Spain and Portugal.
Funded by the E.U. and developed in Spain, the Sea Horse will, according to Russia Today:
enable police forces in the partaking countries to distinguish any illegal activities, namely illegal immigration and drug trafficking, by a single high-speed communications and data network. A coordination centre has been set up in Gran Canaria’s capital Las Palmas where officials receive information about immigration flows and suspicious ships sent from the individual surveillance stations established in coastline cities such as Praia in Cape Verde and Dakar in Senegal. Police will then be able to plot charts and prepare the interception of illegal vessels.
With the economy tanking, it’s been easy to forget about that other little disaster lurking in America’s wings: the obesity epidemic. But it’s still raging on, popping up in places like Army recruitment offices and pediatric clinics at breakneck speed. Rather than let the problem run free and pray that it takes care of itself (a philosophy that worked oh so well for the economy) state and federal governments have been trying out various regulations aimed at curbing the rampant weight gain that’s sweeping the nation.
But is legislating how, where, and how much people eat a massive crimp in our civil liberties? Paul Hsieh at ABC News thinks so, and is tossing fire and brimstone at any and all food regulation lest it turn the U.S. into a fascist freedom-stomping regime:
We’ve covered (and covered, and covered) the teeming mass of nature-killing vileness that has been Bush’s environmental policy. But we’re more than happy to join the props-giving bandwagon when the outgoing president does something right. And this week, he really nailed it, announcing the establishment of three national monuments in the Pacific Ocean and thereby protecting a massive chunk of marine life from mining, oil exploration, and commercial fishing. Environmental activist George Grattan summed up the enormity of this move as follows:
At a time when the world’s oceans face the very real prospect of an apocalyptic collapse, this development is an unalloyed good for worldwide efforts to bring us back from the brink. The scientific research which will be able to take place in these protected ecosystems may produce the data and solutions we need to keep burgeoning world populations in a more sustainable balance with the oceans’ roles in climate, food supply, and biodiversity. And, as Roosevelt knew and Bush seems to have remembered, there’s an intrinsic value to protecting vast areas of wilderness even if most people never encounter them.
So, kudos, President Bush, truly.
Of course, there’s more to say:
The tech world is literally (and virtually) beside itself over Obama’s announcement that he plans to appoint the first ever chief technology officer to oversee the full-fledged technologization (not actually a word, but it should be) of his administration. Today, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and entrepreneur Andrea Weckerle took to CNN to extol the president-elect’s decision and offer their advice for the fledgling CTO. Among their more interesting suggestions:
Ruthlessly modernize: Examine the technology used within the federal system and determine what is outdated, redundant and inadequate, then keep what works and expel what doesn’t. Examine procurement polices and demand they are in line with best practices. The results of this endeavor alone will save the federal government massive amounts of money…
Create openness of information: This will serve two important functions, namely allowing people to see what the government is doing, thus fostering accountability born of transparency, and also providing access to data that will inevitably inspire and support innovation and collaboration within the private sector. In this realm, the old adage from the free software movement of “release early, release often” is quite helpful…