Science Talk

The Cornucopia Conference: Roundtable on the AAAS Meeting

Podcast host Steve Mirsky talks with Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, news editor Anna Kuchment, feature editor Mark Fischetti and online news editor Robin Lloyd about various sessions at the recently completed annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC.

Podcast host Steve Mirsky talks with Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, news editor Anna Kuchment, feature editor Mark Fischetti and online news editor Robin Lloyd about various sessions at the recently completed annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. Web sites related to this episode and the conference include

"Chemical body burden" researchers and advocates raise questions about biomonitoring studies and hazards regulations

Why Are Americans So Ill-Informed about Climate Change?

Schools should teach kids more about how science is done

Just How Big a Deal Is Milk Drinking?

Malaria Parasite Infects People Thought Resistant

How Many People Can Earth Hold? Well...

Being Multilingual Helps with Multitasking

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Science Talk, the more of less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on February 24th, 2011. I'm Steve Mirsky. The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrapped up Monday, the 21st in Washington D.C. A bunch of us from Scientific American attended. We gathered together on Tuesday back in New York and talked to each other about what we learned. Let's go around the table and everybody introduce themselves.

Anna:         I'm Anna Kuchment. I edit the Advances section for Scientific American; that's the news section.

Steve:          For the actual magazine.

Kuchment:         For the actual magazine.

Steve:          And Mark?

Mark:                  I'm Mark Fischetti. I'm one of the editors at Scientific American magazine and I basically cover energy, environment and sustainability.

Steve:          And Robin?

Robin:         I'm Robin Lloyd. I'm the news editor for the Web site.

Steve:          And we're waiting on Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief. We hope that she'll pop in here at some point during our conversation. So we were all at the meeting over the weekend of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This gigantic smorgasbord-cornucopia-firehose-of-information meeting, and we all went to different sessions, so I thought it might be interesting for us to basically brief each other and talk about what we thought was really interesting. Anna, what were you most intrigued by that you learned about at the conference?

Anna:         I paid close attention to science education and scientific literacy, and there was a session that I was blown away by. The main speaker was Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University—he's an expert on scientific literacy and science ed—and he showed us a bunch of stats from his surveys. He surveys Americans about their knowledge of science over time. And he said that contrary to popular belief, scientific literacy is actually going up in the United States, although it's now at only 28 percent. (laughs) The United States actually ranks second in the world, in terms of scientific literacy, after Japan.

Steve:          What does that actually mean: 28 percent?

Anna:         Well it means that 28 percent of adults across the country have that, sort of, basic understanding of scientific facts, of facts related to science. He said it doesn't mean that Americans know a lot about the scientific method, the process of scientific inquiry, or really much all about how science is done, which a lot of other panelists explored as a problem, as a gap in our education. But the reason that scientific literacy is going up, he attributes that to the fact that American college students are required to take one year of science, all American college students, and that sets our country apart from others.

Robin:         It's interesting to me because I was at bunch of sessions where scientists and sometimes journalists were trying to figure out why the general public and policy makers in the United States have yet to really take any significant action to mitigate and pull back climate change. And, you know, one model for understanding that is that, well it's called the deficit model: that we ought to really point finger at scientific literacy in the United States. And so, and that was pretty much debunked. It was brought up, and then it was, "Well, you know, the reason no action's been taken, the reason why the public is skeptical, is because of this lack of information or the lack of the ability to understand the information that's out there." And, basically, Naomi Oreskes and Gavin Schmidt, I think, were at the panels—Gavin's at NASA GISS—and both of them basically said that they don't really think that explains it. And then to hear from you in addition that actually science literacy is on the rise again suggests that it's more complicated than that.

Anna:         Well, a lot of panelists talked about this problem that Americans aren't being taught really about what science is—what defines science and what separates it from ideology. They say that these debates about climate change and teaching evolution in schools, you know, really comes down, it really blurs the lines; it confuses the public about the kind of the boundaries between science and ideology.

Steve:          And the data don't tell you just because somebody is scientifically literate, it doesn't tell you what they're going to do with that information either. They might understand global warming enough to be counted as among the scientifically literate, but still not accept it.

Anna:         That's right, they say that our schools need to do a better job of teaching students to think critically and really assess the information that's given to them.

Steve:         So let's move around the table a little bit, Mark.

Mark:                  Well, I'll give you a segue, if you like, to literacy and what you do with it. One of the big topics now is coming back from the economy and so growth is the mantra and growth has been the mantra for a century, right? It's an accepted model for modern civilization that the economy has to grow. Well, from an environmentalist point of view, and basically from scientist's point of view, we're on a finite earth, so you can't grow forever, right. So, people are now talking about population and consumption, resource, maxing out resources. And so there's this standoff starting to occur where most people will say we have to grow our way out of recession, and we have to always have some level of growth for prosperity and progress. But science says you can't do that on a finite planet. So what can you do to further civilization in a model where growth isn't the reigning economic marching order, as it were? So there was a session about this very thing: Is there a way to get off the growth model into some other sustainable, as you could call it, zero growth or sustainable living model?

Steve:          I was at a session where somebody mentioned that one thing we should consider is changing from GDP—the gross domestic product—as the measure of the health of a society and replacing it with a happiness index.

Mark:                  Right exactly, right.

Steve:          How healthy are the people? How fulfilled are the people? How engaged are the people? And not necessarily just what's the average family income?

Mark:                  And this session—it was Robert Costanza who is at Portland State—presented that or he's proposing it as let's get rid of GDP and replace it with GPI, which is called the Genuine Progress Index. And there are a number of studies—William Rees who's at the University of British Columbia was in that session and he brought up some studies that showed that, right: Beyond a certain point of material income, happiness doesn't increase, satisfaction doesn't increase and in fact even utility, you know, to society or utility even to economic prosperity does not increase beyond a certain level of income and that's individual, corporate. So they're trying to get us off again off this model. So, the genuine progress index might be a level of happiness or might be a level of feeling satisfied and there's different ways to quantify that. So, of course I must say I expected this session to be poorly attended because everyone just assumes, forward growth, and these other people are, you know, they just want to live in the woods, (laughs) but it was packed. So by the time the session was getting close to the end, there was this feeling in the room of everybody kind of buying in, but okay how do we actually do this, right? So Herman Daly, who's at the University of Maryland, actually had 10 specific, concrete steps that could be taken to knock us off the growth model and onto the Genuine Progress Index model.

Steve:          You want to talk about a couple of those?

Mark:         Yes. One or two are familiar: a cap and trade, auction system for basic resources; not just for carbon emissions, but for basic resources. One of the basic ideas of getting us off growth onto a sort of common sustainable economic and, sort of, life pleasure index, is to narrow the gap between haves and have-nots, narrow the inequality gap. And so how do you do that?. Well one of the steps is to have this cap-and-trade system for basic resources, so that one country can't overuse resources given their people versus another country. Kind of a corollary to that was that there should be some sort of way to lower the inequities including the planet. And right now, so he would, so Herman Daly was suggesting that we actually reregulate international commerce. So it's been largely deregulated, but if you reregulate it, essentially, so you can't allow, you know, the United States to outsource all its polluting industry and then just buy the result of it, so that there's limits to that, which again closes this inequity gap in terms of how much damage we're doing to the planet. So it's step like those, and some financial steps too, that could make this transition.

Steve:          Isn't it also a problem that the real cost of doing things like agriculture, for example, is not market value because we don't value the filtration systems of wetlands as part of the economic equation?

Mark:                  Right, right. This, you know, life-cycle analysis or cradle-to-the-grave. But in agriculture and in resources too, you know, things just like oil. If you figure in all the so-called externalities, which don't get worked into price right now, like environmental damage, you know, labor inequalities and things, if you figure all those into the price then the price structure would be different. So he was also advocating, you know, we have taxes in the U.K. on oil and on energy that are much higher than U.S., and it forces change. And so subsidies in general are not part of this plan, so you can't end up favoring one sort of resource or one sort of production method over another.

Steve:          Now I know that there are people listening who are saying, sounds like a lot of pinko stuff to me.

Mark:                  It's not communism, it's not socialism, it's not growth however. I mean so I don't know if there's a sociological or socioeconomic theory or body of work behind this yet; but it seems like if those are your choices and you don't like socialism, communism and you realize you can't continue growth, you need something different. And this audience was ready to hear by the end, you know, what is that different system? So I think we are at the beginning of seeing perhaps some of that being worked up.

Steve:          Or we could just let the market decide the value of gas masks and SPF 50s.

Mark:                  We could.

Steve:          Robin what do you have?

Robin:         I was just amazed to hear this story. I didn't realize anyone was even thinking about that. That's something like this could even be implemented, sort of, seems like beyond the scope of possible. But it's exciting that at least, you know, your session was overflowing, it's great. I just had to tell this story of this session that I was in basically talking about media coverage of climate change. And it was great because there were three journalists on the panel who talked about what they were doing these days and covering climate science, including Elizabeth Shogren from NPR. And then afterwards, you know, I think they had another journalist come up and make comments, but then they brought up the M.I.T. climate scientist Kerry Emanuel. And there was this great, it was my favorite moment of the weekend and it was this very dramatic moment, when basically Emanuel was complaining a little bit, very politely, and smiling about the fact that journalists still are doing stories about, you know, the debate around climate science, but there's not really, of course, there's not a debate, there's consensus that anthropogenic global warming is happening and that,  why are you still doing these stories, asking questions? And Elizabeth Shogren turned to Emanuel and said, "Because you guys haven't persuaded the public," and he immediately without pausing, smiled pointed back to her and said, "No, you haven't." And it really brought to a head, first of all the cultural clash between journalists and scientists, but also the bafflement that a lot of people who are following the science of climate change or are involved in generating it have around the fact that it hasn't really been responded to or really even accepted by a lot of the public. So, the session that I went to with those guys and then few other sessions tried to, sort of, tease this out a little bit more and come up with explanations for why this has happened. And I talked about the deficit model as one of them, and scientific literacy and maybe the media could be an explanation—that sort of is what Emanuel was pointing to. And then another session also talked about media contraction as being a problem and because there's fewer journalists at mainstream outlets or at outlets that have the budgets and the staff to do real investigative work, what you're getting is a lot of noise on the Internet and a lot of shallow and narrow reporting on the topic. And also there's a lot more room for low-budget coverage of science now, and low budget means a lot of, means commentary and debate and personalities, where you're not really talking about the science and the issues at hand. So as solutions, during both this session, where Tom Rosensteel from the Project for Excellence in Journalism was talking and then another session where Gavin Schmidt, as I said, from NASA GISS and Naomi Oreskes were talking, they had, you know, some real concrete solutions. And they included things like, well, when someone asks a question of you, scientist, that is very loaded, answer the question as if it weren't asked as a loaded question. So to answer things, to deescalate basically the emotion and the drama over the forced dichotomies or pitched feverism that might be, sort of, injected into the question. And then another solution was to do what politicians do, which is instead of answering a question directly, fill the answer turn space with information that addresses to some extent what has been asked but really conveys the information that you came to the interview to convey.

Steve:          Like that's an excellent question, and I'm not going to answer it (laughter), I'm going to talk about what I want to talk about instead, thank you very much.  

Robin:         Exactly.

Steve:          Just, you reminded me with the anecdote about "it's your fault; no, it's your fault." Just to let people know about this conference, when I first got there, I got on an elevator and guys standing next to the buttons is a noble laureate and he says, "What floor?" So I said, "nine", and he presses the button. I looked at him, I said, "Your a little over qualified to be an elevator operator." He just gave a smile and shrugged his shoulders. So it's that kind of conference. You walk around, there are noble laureates just wandering around. Some of them are literally wandering, because, you know, a lot of the physicists aren't that great at finding where they're trying to get, but it's really fascinating. I mean, thousands of scientists and hundreds of journalists, and, you know, everything is going on at the same time. Did anybody go to any hard science, any physics or chemistry or anything like that? Robin?

Robin:         Yeah, I went to this session on, basically, chemical body burden, where folks were talking about more and more researchers, for the EPA or other government agencies, are collecting population level information about the extent to which individuals are exposed to, you know, BPA, phthalates, arsenic, lead—some of them synthetic chemicals and some of them naturally occurring—that are starting to be linked at least in animal studies and some in human studies with negative health outcomes including, like, infertility and endocrine disruption. So, what was interesting though, is that the session really took a kind of a legal turn because not only are people participating more and more in these studies, they are now starting to request their data results at the end. They would like their individual numbers please. You know, now that more people are sensitized to the potential problems here, they would like to know, what are my numbers? So, now researchers are starting to wonder if they really should provide that information, and if they do are they then liable in some way. So Shaun Goho from Harvard Law was in the session, and he was sort going through the legal liabilities that researchers might be facing around this and it looks like not really a lot especially in a household situation. So, if the chemical exposure comes from a home, there's really not a lot of legal protection for individuals going after a researcher on this.

Anna:         I actually sat in at that same session which was sparsely attended probably because it started at eight in the morning. But one interesting thing about it is that the researchers are put in this position to give data to their subjects saying, you know, at the levels of this Phenol A or lead, or other chemicals that they found in their blood or their urine, but they don't yet know what to do with this information. In other words, just because you have high levels of one chemical or another, there's no conclusive evidence that that's harmful to your health. All they can really tell you is how you compare to the general population or to other study participants. So that's where the field is still.

Steve:          So the next step has to be to try to figure out if there's any correlation between these levels that you're seeing people have and any conditions that they have.

Robin:         Well, the correlations are there; the question is causation.

Steve:          Oh, okay.

Robin:         So, and I talked to Cheryl Patten after the session whose with Commonweal, which is a research institution and it sounds like they're also, kind of, an advocacy group out in California; and, you know, she was explaining to me and David Biello here, one of our editors, was explaining to me too that it's not usually like a one-to-one causation that is probably going to be occurring with bad health outcomes. What you're probably going to have is an additive effect or cumulative effect. In fact, it may be the gateway model for cancer is the good way to think about it; like, first of all, maybe you're born with a genetic predisposition, then you have exposure 1, then you have exposure 2, and then bam—exposure 3, the cancer starts, or the offspring are going to have a lower circumference of the skull and so on. That was helpful to me. So you know, lot of us are thinking, well I don't clean with bleach anymore or I don't use ammonia anymore and she was, sort of, explaining to me you can't entirely shop your way out of this problem. Industrial practices are probably also going to have to change even once we do find, you know, what the multivariant model is that explains these outcomes and the extent to which chemicals are involved.

Steve:          Because we're swimming in a sea of chemicals.

Robin:         Yeah, radiation, you know, and of course, you know, chemicals aren't all bad. It's just the hazardous ones that we're worried about.

Steve:          I myself am made out of chemicals. Hey! We've been joined by editor-in-chief of the magazine, Mariette DiChristina. Pull up a microphone and you were at the AAAS sessions. What did you go to that you found interesting?

Mariette:          Hi Steve. Two things I wanted to mention. One of them, I'd like to take a step back from the talk of science findings and talk for just a minute about scientific thinking. One of things I did at the event, was I was welcomed into the AAAS cadre of fellows, generally very accomplished scientists—I'm not, of course, one of them. My fellow group is in General Interest in Science and Technology and these are people who do public outreach and help try to bring science and technology, make it more accessible to people and the general public. So at that morning's breakfast meeting, we had Rush Holt, join us the representative from New Jersey, who happens to have a Ph.D. in physics, and he made a few remarks that I just wanted to touch on here because I think they are so telling. Those of us who listen to Scientific American podcasts, read the magazine online, watch the videos and so on probably fall into a science-interested category and are very familiar with what we'll call scientific thinking. This is thinking where you look at what the actual facts are and the actual evidence is. But as I think we all know, a lot of the population doesn't necessarily feel that way. They may have emotions associated with these decisions and not to take anything away from emotions, but maybe somethings are less clear to them than people who really follow the facts. And the thing I wanted to mention about this was a couple of things Rush Holt brought out in his talk. One of them was, he looked at the Sputnik moment. Now, those of you who listened to the Obama state of the union, he said, here we are again at another kind of Sputnik moment where science, he hopes and his administration hopes and I certainly hope, will help lift the U.S.'s performance in science education—STEM education as they call it: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math—will help make this country stay competitive and stay involved on the world scene. And we've often thought of the Sputnik moment as a place that the U.S. leapt forward in many ways, but Rush Holt said that it also was a place where the division between the so-called two cultures at C. P. Snow spoke of really started to happen in a way that he hadn't appreciated until now, and he suggested this to the audience. Because either you're a science person around Sputnik, and we were going to go to the moon, or you were not and you're kind of excluded. And so he pleaded with the group of very august scientists to remember that they had some ability to affect and influence people around them to show that, really, science is an open endeavor and that everybody is welcome to the party and to the discussion. I thought that was just such a pleasant thing to hear from a scientist because we're often, you know, in the science community accused of not reaching out or listening, and I have to tell you that he got a standing ovation from all the scientists there who felt, kind of, renewed vigor about their charge of reaching out to public.

Steve:          Although, I mean, C. P. Snow is talking about science versus the humanities really, and very smart people being highly engaged in one or the other; whereas, what we are really talking about here is either being scientifically interested or nothing. You know, I mean he is from New Jersey; those kids on Jersey Shore they're not interested in Shakespeare or thermodynamics.

Mariette:          Well, but he's also at from the Princeton area where Einstein lived (laughs) so that there are two sides of anything, I suppose.

Robin:         Yeah. We're not going to use Jersey Shore as an indicator of the overall state's intelligence, are we?

Steve:          No, I didn't mean to castigate New Jersey specifically. I just meant that, you know, I don't think a lot of people—I am just basing it on what's on television, I guess because I watch TV, but I think, you know, a lot of people aren't particularly interested in science or the humanities. Anyway.

Mariette:         I think that's a fair thing to say.

Robin:         I think you're a pessimist. (laughter)

Steve:          Well, I am a pessimist.

Mark:                  I think you just don't like the beach, Steve.

Steve:          I also do not particularly care for the beach.

Mariette:         Wear your sunscreen.

Steve:          Exactly. And there was another…

Mariette:          I want to mention just one other thing. One of the things I love about meetings like the AAAS meeting, one of the things that's novel and very interesting about AAAS compared with other science society meetings is they do bring in many policy issues. But the thing I am going to talk about was for me a piece of candy at this meeting. I saw a press conference and there was, the talking sessions were yesterday about printing skin—bioprinting, it's called; or other tissue, you know, some of it is cartilage. And there were these two groups working on, one was working on trying to do bio-printing of skin, which is 3D printing also called stereolithography for those who've been following it over the years. And that's been known for a couple of decades now. But what's interesting and new there, is in recent years they've been adding skin cells to these gel-like inks and pressing them into what they hope will be a skin patch that you could then take and apply to burn victims on the battle fields. So right away excellent triage. And that's the big thing with burn victims is you need to cover that right away. And this would be just such an improved way of treating what is a very common injury, especially in battlefield conditions.

Steve:          So your equivalent to the printer cartridge would have this goop in it with some cells.

Mariette:          With skin cells….

Steve:          And then you press some buttons and out comes…

Mariette:          It will come out as a flat sheet in this case. Obviously they're starting with extremely simple tissue, so a flat sheet of skin. The other application that is very near term is working on bits of cartilage, such as for the meniscus in the knee. And on stage they had a demonstration—and they used silicon for the demonstration because it's easier to come by then the skin gel all that I have described—and they built an ear right on stage while we watched in 15 minutes; and I was just fascinated to see this happen and then I actually snapped a picture of it and uploaded it to my Twitter account, @SAeditorinchief, just because it was so neat to watch something like that emerge. And the thought that in the next several years we might be able to apply these to the sorts of injuries; again they are very simple for this sort of tissue engineering but have great promise for certain kinds of very common problems.

Steve:          So do you see the ear start to emerge from the printer?

Mariette:         It's actually if you can imagine, I'm trying to, you know, when you make silly sand sculptures, those sand sculptures where you have different colors of sand that you layer up? So the 3D printing is like that. You lay down one very thin layer and then you lay down another and then each one as you're building it, you know, it has a slightly different shape. So the ear takes shape from bottom to top, so to speak.

Robin:         Sounds like a dot matrix printer from the '80s.

Mariette:          It's not dissimilar. Of course one of the problems with it is there's a bit of shear stress on the cells which they have to resolve. I think there are certain rates of failure they have to deal with; certain kinds of cells that can tolerate it better or not.

Steve:          Really fascinating. So hopefully none of us will need an ear…

Mariette:          Or skin.

Steve:          …or skin, one of these days, but if we did it's, sort of, like just-in-time manufacturing. Rather than keep a store house of ears or skin, just make it as you need it.

Mariette:          Yeah, they built this ear in 15 minutes on stage and it was just mesmerizing to watch it. I don't know exactly how long it takes to make a sheet of skin, but the idea is you would have the cells ready to go handy, and be able to do it very quickly. Now in the future they would love to be able to use the person's own cells—let's say scar repair later—but for the short-term applications these would be commercially available cells that are kept in cell culture ready to go.

Steve:          Mark, you have something else.

Mark:                  Well one of the cool things also about AAAS is that of you float between sessions, you see things that, insights or solutions in one branch of science that could, sort of, be applied to or are also being found in other areas of science. And you also find sometimes there are situations in one part of the world that could apply to another part of the world. There was a session about waste as an energy source or as a resource. You know, 55 percent of the power generated in the United States is wasted and wasted because it is dissipated as heat and other sorts of losses; 25 percent of the food generated in the country is wasted as waste in that case. So this session had to do with how can you maybe tap this as a source. And there was a gentleman David Scott from Abu Dhabi Basic Industries who oversees the huge desalination plants in Abu Dhabi. And, you know, their typical day is 115 degrees and humid, they've got no source of fresh water; so they desalinate volumes of water but that takes a lot of energy and a lot of the waste there is in terms of heat. So they have managed to create centralized power plants to create electricity and the heat waste from that process is used for desalinating water. And the, it's done in a way so that 20 percent of that original sea water is actually reclaimed as salt water. Because one of the other problems with desalination, if you're pulling water from the bay and you're putting fresh water back in, you change the salinity and that's environmentally tricky, and also purely from an industrial point of view, you're diluting your own source. So the chemistry has to be kept pretty tightly controlled. So they reclaim this seawater, which helps their own process. So while he was talking, there was someone from one of the Southern California utilities in the audience who then stood up and said, "You know this is a perfect solution for Southern California, 20 years from now." Southern California is hard-pressed for energy, right, their fresh water sources are really running out; desalination is done really in a minor way there right now. But this sort of cogeneration system, if you want to call it that, of using the power plant output and the waste heat from that to drive the desalination plants, he was saying, you know, in 20 years that probably could be a great model and an efficient model for water generation in Southern California. And the trick of this whole discussion, because the Abu Dhabi person jumped back in and said, "You know, we have a problem that during the day when we have a lot of power requirements, we've got a lot of waste heat, we can desalinate a lot of water. But at night the demand is much lower, but we still have this generation and this excess heat—what do we do with it? So they're starting to desalinate water at night and store it so that when in the daytime, the water demand is also higher they actually don't have to run the power plants so much to support the desalination plants because they have a water reserve. So there's this idea of peak demand for water, like we are familiar with peak demand for electricity at certain times and lower demand at certain times where we can level those things out to make the whole system more efficient. Same thing in Southern California. So, it's interesting that the lessons from Abu Dhabi could actually be implemented in Southern California to help sustain the whole agriculture and the rise in population.

Steve:          And that's why people go to this meeting, because there might be cross fertilization of ideas that actually lead to something concrete. And I went to a bunch of things but I am not going to talk about those because I am going to be making podcasts out of many of them. I went to a couple of history of science—I am very interested in history of science—there were some great sessions on Marie Curie and on the history of alchemy, and the hygiene hypothesis where you find that kids who are not exposed to enough of an immunological challenge when they are in the womb or very young can have higher rates of asthma and autoimmune conditions; and also some stuff on the Large Hadron Collider is going to be coming up.


Steve:          We will be back very soon—just a few hours, in fact. Meanwhile, get your science news where you can check out some articles on blog items related to the subjects we just talked about during the roundtable. And follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet about each new article posted to our Web site. Our Twitter handle is @sciam, S-C-I-A-M. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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