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The 2004 Scientific American 50 Award: Policy Leaders

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POLICY LEADER OF THE YEAR
Douglas A. Melton
Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, Harvard University, and investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Advocated and enabled more extensive studies of embryonic stem cells.

Last year Douglas Melton made a discovery that both advanced the understanding of diabetes and cast doubt on an argument the Bush administration had used to defend its tight restrictions on federally funded research into embryonic stem cells. He has used this result to advance his strong opposition to the policy and to mobilize still more private resources to keep the field alive in this country.

Melton found evidence that the insulin-forming beta cells of the pancreas reproduce by simple division in the mature phase rather than descending from a progenitor, the adult stem cell. The finding was extraordinarily important for diabetes research, which is looking for sources of beta cells that will be accepted by the immune systems of patients with type 1 diabetes who lack such cells and must therefore inject insulin. Now it seems that workers in search of transplantable tissue will have to culture either fully mature cells or fully immature ones--that is, embryonic stem cells. The discovery therefore undermines the administration's argument that adult stem cells could readily fill in for the embryonic kind.

Melton's scientific eminence has made him a particularly effective opponent of the administration's near ban on funding embryo research. Not only has he argued against it in congressional testimony and other public forums, he has found ways to work around it. In March he announced the establishment of 17 new lines of embryonic cells, a feat that nearly doubled the number of usable lines available since the Bush policy took effect. He has since established five more lines. The work was onerous because it had to be done with private funds he helped to raise. It was performed in new laboratories that had never received any federal support. This spring the governing authority for these endeavors was unveiled under the name of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Melton will serve as its co-director. His own focus, however, will be diabetes, a field which he entered after his two children were diagnosed with the disease.

AEROSPACE
Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge
Head, President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy

Proposed NASA overhaul to prepare for sending humans to the moon and beyond.

To reach for the heavens, Pete Aldridge's commission wants to shake NASA to its foundations. The President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy has undertaken to investigate how best to make President George W. Bush's goal of human expeditions to the moon and Mars a reality. The commission's report, released in June, counseled gutsy overhauls to NASA bureaucracy. The most drastic change would lead private industry to assume the primary role in NASA space operations through competitively awarded contracts in the hope of making the agency more frugal and nimble. The committee further suggested that to meet the challenges ahead, NASA must streamline its byzantine organization to prune duplicated efforts and excessively diffuse mission support functions. NASA has begun the early stages of implementing the recommendations.

AGRICULTURE
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
Washington, D.C.

Serves as a neutral forum for debate on agricultural biotechnology.

The terms "Frankenfood" and "genetic pollution" are part of the heated rhetoric that surrounds agricultural biotechnology. What are the real dangers, and where lies the hype? Initiated in 2001, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology has continued to stage dispassionate forums and publish balanced reports on critical issues related to environmental and food safety of gene-altered crops. In 2003 the group held a workshop that discussed the prospects of gene flow from genetically engineered to wild plants. This year it came out with a report on the potential of genetically engineered insects to fight diseases such as malaria. A subsequent conference on biotech bugs--silkworms made to produce pharmaceutical and industrial proteins, for instance--was held in September. The group has also conducted polls on consumer awareness of genetically modified foods, held a policy dialogue on modified animals and examined the ability of U.S. regulatory review procedures to handle future agricultural biotechnology products.

AUTOMOTIVE
State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA)/Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (ALAPCO)
Washington, D.C.

Study pushed the EPA to limit emissions by off-road diesel engines.

On June 29 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rule regarding control of exhaust emissions from diesel engines, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxide, that power off-road equipment such as earthmovers, bulldozers and agricultural equipment. The new regulations stem originally from a STAPPA/ALAPCO report entitled "Regulating Air Pollution from Diesel Trucks." It stated that reducing allowable emissions from diesel-powered construction equipment could prevent 8,522 premature deaths in the U.S. every year and save $67 billion in related costs and lost income. Starting with model year 2008, off-road machines will be required to use advanced exhaust emission-control devices that are anticipated to lessen particulate output by 95 percent and that of nitrogen oxides by 90 percent. Meanwhile the sulfur content in fuel for diesel-powered construction equipment will be cut from 3,000 parts per million to 15 parts per million--a 99 percent reduction. The rules will be phased in beginning in 2007 and completed by 2010.

COMPUTING
R. Michael Alvarez and Ted Selker
Alvarez, professor of political science, California Institute of Technology; and Selker, associate professor of media arts and sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Recommended sweeping changes to overhaul U.S. voting systems.

Soon after Florida's bungled vote for the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the heads of Caltech and M.I.T. chose Michael Alvarez and Ted Selker to co-direct a new initiative, the Caltech-M.I.T. Voting Technology Project. The team of computing and political science experts was to examine ways to reform U.S. voting systems. Eight months later they released their first report, which documented a wide variety of problems and proposed policy and technical solutions. Since then, the group has explained how best to implement changes, which in part has prompted 42 states to update voting machines. Technology is only a partial remedy, however, so in July, Alvarez and Selker recommended four major steps the Election Assistance Commission should take to minimize lost votes in the November 2004 elections. These include better voter registration processes, fixing certain ballot problems, requiring the reporting of more balloting statistics, and developing better voter complaint procedures. Alvarez and Selker estimate that four million to six million votes were lost nationally in the 2000 presidential election.

COMMUNICATIONS
Andrew Jay Schwartzman
President and CEO, Media Access Project, Washington, D.C.

Defended antimonopoly regulations against the onslaught of big media.

As media giants extend their empires, local news and a diversity of viewpoints can be lost or extinguished, depriving the public of important information and dialogue. Current regulations limit the market share controlled by a single corporation in broadcast and print media, but in 2003 the Federal Communications Commission proposed scaling back restrictions it deemed to be outdated. The Media Access Project, a nonprofit, public-interest telecommunications law firm led by Andrew Jay Schwartzman, fought to keep the new proposals from taking effect and secured a ruling from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in June invalidating many of the FCC's reasons for the changes. The court's decision upheld most of the current policies, agreeing with Schwartzman's arguments that increasing permissible market share would keep small, local organizations from entering the industry.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
M. S. Swaminathan
Chair, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India

Promoted community-based solutions to famine in India.

India produces more than enough food to feed its entire population, but poor infrastructure and local corruption keep that food from reaching the tables of roughly one fifth of its billion citizens. Through his research foundation, M. S. Swaminathan has helped alleviate Indian hunger. He has worked from the bottom up by providing farmers with access to current information on market prices, weather forecasts, farming techniques, medical treatments and alternative income options. In 2003 the foundation launched the National Virtual Academy for Food Security and Rural Prosperity, a Web site through which villagers can query scientists and obtain information in their local language. The Web site's multimedia format allows for access by the illiterate, and efforts to encourage female community members to act as local liaisons have helped increase the status of women who live in rural areas.

ENERGY
Walt Patterson
Associate Fellow for Energy, Sustainable Development Program, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London

Pioneered the concept of distributed micropower generation.

Walt Patterson has led the worldwide trend toward the development of distributed electric generation using micropower technology as a way to protect against the increasing instability of centralized electric power grids. More and more, people are purchasing various types of small electrical generators for their homes and businesses, including photovoltaic systems, small wind turbines, river dynamos, and combined systems that burn wood chips to generate both heat and power. This decentralized power production brings immunity to large-scale electrical grid failures. Patterson, a nuclear physicist by training, has written a dozen books on the subject and has served as an adviser to the British government. His current research focuses on how best to make the transition from centralized to distributed power generation without undue disruption.

ENVIRONMENT
James D. Watkins and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy
Chair of the commission

Recommended specific strategies to combat ocean pollution and overfishing.

Researchers have long known that the world's oceans are in danger. Pollution has crippled coral reefs and created "dead zones" where few living things can exist, and overfishing has depleted the stocks of cod, tuna and many other species. Now a government panel has recommended some solutions. Led by James Watkins, a former U.S. Navy admiral, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy released a preliminary report last spring calling for a new commitment to ocean research and a wholesale reform of fisheries management. The commission recommended that the nation's eight regional fishing councils rely strictly on scientific data when determining the levels of allowable catches. And in perhaps its boldest move, the commission advocated the creation of an Ocean Policy Trust Fund that would pay for research and cleanup efforts using royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.

MANUFACTURING
Social Accountability International
New York City

China feels pressure to adopt a voluntary labor standard.

SA8000, a set of voluntary measures created in 1998 by Social Accountability International, helps to guarantee adequate working conditions. It stipulates that a firm should not hire underage children, not use forced labor and not engage in corporal punishment. Workers should not have to labor more than 48 hours for a regular workweek, and wages should be sufficient to meet the basic needs of families, among other requirements. European and U.S. customers have told manufacturers in the booming Chinese economy that they must meet this standard to do business. Although some Chinese firms have viewed the standard as a new form of trade barrier, many have begun to take a keen interest in learning how to adhere to the guidelines. Toys "R" Us and Avon Products, for instance, ask their suppliers to conform to the standard.

MEDICAL TREATMENT
Nancy Reagan
Former First Lady

Campaigned for stem cell research.

By last spring, political debate over embryonic stem cell research had grown polarized and repetitive, with battle lines largely drawn along party lines. But on May 9 former First Lady Nancy Reagan revitalized the discussion by calling on President George W. Bush to lift restrictions on research so that science could proceed. As a staunch supporter of Bush and the wife of an iconic Republican president whose death from Alzheimer's disease would come just a few weeks later, Mrs. Reagan's plea resonated across political boundaries. For several years, the former First Lady has lobbied and raised millions of dollars in support of stem cell research while remaining out of the spotlight. Her decision this year to take a public stand, along with her son Ron, Jr., was applauded by the scientific community.

NANOTECHNOLOGY
Mihail "Mike" Roco
National Science Foundation and National Nanotechnology Initiative

Led the nearly $1-billion-a-year U.S. government effort in nanotechnology.

As the leader of the NSF's National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), Mike Roco has demonstrated a balanced approach, taking account of both the technical challenges and the concerns regarding potential societal impacts of the new technology. Under Roco's leadership, the NNI has sponsored extensive public outreach, K-12 educational programs, regular workshops and publications on the societal impacts of nanotechnology. Roco has thereby succeeded in building a solid consensus in the scientific and nontechnical communities that nanotechnology is important for future scientific and economic development, and he has furthered public acceptance of nanotechnology. This consensus has been critical for securing federal funding for nanotechnology research and development, which has increased eightfold, from $116 million in 1997 to an estimated $961 million in 2004. These policy methods are strongly influencing those in a number of other countries, such as the European Union's Sixth Framework Program.

PUBLIC HEALTH
Polly F. Harrison
Director, Alliance for Microbicide Development, Silver Spring, Md.

Promoted the use of a compound to prevent the spread of HIV.

Short of a vaccine against HIV, the most promising (and more easily realized) prevention technology would be a microbicide that women could apply topically before sexual intercourse to prevent transmission of the virus. Such a product would allow a woman to control her own protection. This is often not the case with condom use, particularly in the developing world, where male resistance to condoms is widespread. Polly Harrison has played a leading role in organizing legislative and policy initiatives to involve pharmaceutical and biotech companies, the U.S. government and academic research organizations in the development of a microbicide. This year her efforts and those of others began to pay off. In July the U.S. House of Representatives provided $30 million for microbicide research at the U.S. Agency for International Development, an $8-million increase over the previous year. More than 60 candidate microbicides are in the pipeline; 18 are already in clinical testing. With an increase in funding and cooperation, a microbicide could be available within five years. Even a partially effective product could prevent almost a million infections a year.

ROBOTICS
Anthony J. Tether
Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

Organized the Grand Challenge Robot Race.

Of the 15 vehicles that started the Grand Challenge race this past March, not one completed the 227-kilometer course. One crashed into a fence, another went into reverse after encountering some sagebrush, and some moved not an inch. The best performer, the Carnegie Mellon entry, got 12 kilometers before taking a hairpin turn a little too fast. The $1-million prize went unclaimed. In short, the race was a resounding success. The task that the Pentagon's most forward-thinking research branch under Anthony J. Tether set out was breathtakingly demanding. Most bots can barely get across a lab floor, but DARPA wanted them to navigate an off-road trail at high speed with complete autonomy. The agency had expected maybe half a dozen teams, but more than 100, ranging from high school students to veteran roboticists, gave it a try. The race, the first in a series of congressionally mandated technology prizes, has concentrated the minds of researchers, blown open the technological envelope and trained a whole generation of roboticists. They will be out there again next October.

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