News: AAAS News & Notes
27 May 2005
Edited by Edward W. Lempinen
Science and Policy
Deep Concerns Aired at AAAS's 30th S&T Policy Forum
When U.S. Representative Rush Holt took the stage at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, he offered a critical view of the state of the union between science and policy-makers: The federal government is underinvesting in "almost every sector" of S&T research. Energy policy remains focused on oil, despite high prices and the impact of global warming. Young students enter school open to the excitement of science, he said, but "we beat it out of them over the years."
Holt's view was sobering, but it captured the prevailing mood among scientists and science policy experts during the 2-day gathering in Washington, D.C. Despite the broad contributions of science to American well-being, many speakers said, it is finding diminished support from policy-makers and from much of the public on issues ranging from climate change to development of the S&T workforce.
The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy annually features some of the nation's most influential policy-makers and experts. More than 550 people attended the 30th annual Forum, held 21 to 22 April.
This year, no issue attracted more scrutiny than the federal budget.
John H. Marburger III, the White House science adviser, opened the Forum with a firm defense of President George W. Bush's record. The administration has proposed $132.3 billion for R&D spending in fiscal 2006, up 45% from 2001. That "very clearly shows a strong commitment to science and technology," Marburger concluded.
But Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said the 2006 plan would raise R&D spending only 0.1% over 2005; while many agencies will see their budgets cut, most will lose ground to inflation.
Paul Posner, managing director of federal budget issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said budget deficits, outstanding debt, and other liabilities total $150,000 for every U.S. resident. Without reforms in Social Security and health care or major increases in federal revenues, Posner said, federal deficits and debt will grow to levels unsustainable for the U.S. economy. Under one scenario where the administration's tax cuts are made permanent and discretionary spending grows with the economy, the deficit by 2040 would be so severe that the government would have only enough income to cover interest payments--but nothing for ongoing government programs.
Other speakers saw the conflicts over embryonic stem cell research and teaching evolution in public schools as evidence of stress between science and society.
John Gearhart, a professor in the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, has been a pioneer in embryonic stem cell research. Though his work someday might help tens of millions of people suffering from chronic disease and severe injury, he described in a subdued voice how he has been jostled, shoved, subjected to demonstrations, and called a Nazi. In one visit to Capitol Hill, Gearhart recalled, he was asked how it "felt to kill the littlest Americans."
Robert Klein, the guiding force behind the victorious California initiative to invest $3 billion in stem cell research, was pointedly critical of one new bill in Congress, saying it would subject parents who seek embryonic stem cell therapies for their children to arrest and imprisonment.
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, dissected the arguments of anti-evolution leaders, detailing their misconceptions. She recounted the experience of a physical anthropologist she knows who taught evolution to a group of religious students in a community college in the South. Several of the students approached their teacher after a few weeks of class and readily acknowledged that species change over time. "You mean that's what evolution is?" they asked. "We thought evolution meant you can't believe in God."
Scott and others urged respectful relations with opponents and a willingness to listen. Gearhart said he has visited churches, temples, and social clubs to talk about embryonic stem cell research. Likewise, physicist and author Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio said he has discussed evolution during visits to churches and religious schools.
"I am not under the illusion that I will ever be able to convince ardent opponents of evolution," Krauss said after the forum. "I am more interested in the vast middle--those people who haven't thought about the issue and are willing to listen openly, or to young people who have been propagandized, but who can learn from being exposed to honest and respectful assessments of reality."
NSF/AAAS Report Hails Inquiry-Based Learning
The engineering program at Itasca Community College doesn't generate the national buzz of MIT or Caltech; even in Minnesota and the Dakotas, it's probably not as well known as bigger state schools. But for Tom Calgaro, the decision to attend Itasca a few years ago was a crucial step in his early development.
Itasca has successfully followed a model of "inquiry-based learning," one of the programs cited in a new AAAS–National Science Foundation report on the most innovative new approaches to teaching science, engineering, and related fields. For Calgaro, inquiry-based learning is no mere pedagogical fashion--it was an immersion in learning that prepared him for a career in avionics, and for life, too.
Members of the Itasca engineering faculty "have a passion for their work, and they pass it along to their students," said Calgaro, who spent 2 years at the school in Grand Rapids, on the western edge of Minnesota's Iron Range. "They foster a team atmosphere by creating an environment and teaching style called a ‘learning community,' in which students become part of a group, with ties similar to those of family."
The new AAAS/NSF report is called "Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education." It explores what schools can do to draw from the broadest and most diverse student body and to educate them in a way that imparts not just skills, but the deeper understanding, passion, and commitment that will help them thrive.
Itasca is a "wonderful example" of how schools are working to retain students in STEM fields, said Rosemary R. Haggett, director of the NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. "With U.S. enrollments in these fields declining, it's more important than ever to keep every student engaged in learning."
According to Ronald Ulseth, director of the Itasca engineering program, learning communities are especially effective at educating women in the field. Overall, Ulseth said, more than 90% of all graduates go on to obtain their bachelor's degrees in engineering.
As detailed in the new report, inquiry-based learning takes various forms, including "peer-led team teaching," which makes even large classes seem intimate as student-leaders direct workshops, creative faculty-development methods, case study–based learning, and virtual laboratories.
The report "is the first truly comprehensive volume on what's happening in terms of undergraduate educational reform efforts across all the STEM fields," said co-author Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.
"Invention and Impact" is based on an April 2004 conference at which some 400 participants exchanged data and experience about new teaching methods resulting from NSF's Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program. The program, established 5 years ago, has supported 1750 innovative teaching projects at 600 institutions, involving 1.4 million students and 25,000 faculty members.
Calgaro is a strong proponent. This month, he graduated with honors from North Dakota State University, earning a degree in electrical engineering. He already has logged substantial work experience in aviation engineering, and he has his pilot's license. He's accepted a post as a systems engineer at the aviation electronics firm Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "This is about as close to my dream job as I could have imagined," he said.
The new report is online at www.aaas.org/publications/books_reports/CCLI/. A limited supply of print copies are available for $19.95 by e-mailing email@example.com.
--Ginger Pinholster contributed to this report
Science and Society
Science, Religion Intersect at Neuroethics Forum
The idea of using technology to boost brain performance makes Christian moral theologian Brent Waters a little wary. The goal of technology is to improve the quality of human lives, and "better brains don't necessarily mean better people," he said at "Our Brains and Us: Neuroethics, Responsibility and the Self," a recent conference cosponsored by AAAS and held at MIT.
"Better brains don't necessarily mean worse people either," countered brain researcher Paul Gold of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Ultimately, Gold and Waters, a professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, agreed on many points, such as the idea that it is how performance-enhancing brain technologies are used--rather than the technologies themselves--that is good or bad. Throughout the conference, speakers from the scientific, ethics, and religious communities often shared common ground, but some differences did emerge.
"Neuroscientists have an obsession with pushing the forefront of knowledge, while religious practitioners have a deep commitment to understanding the nature of the self in the context of how to improve the human condition. So, both perspectives have important forward-looking points and drawbacks," said MIT neuroscientist Christopher Moore.
"The multidisciplinary and multireligious engagement of the participants at the intersection of science, ethics, and religion was a model for the kind of civil discourse needed as we make decisions that will shape the human future," said Jim Miller, senior program associate for AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.
A common question raised by speakers from the religious communities was how neuroscience might affect people's conceptions of the soul and the spirit, since, as Dr. Roger Pitman of Harvard Medical School said, most neuroscientists believe that "everything that happens in the mind happens in the brain."
The theologians, ethicists, and neuroscientists returned often to common questions. Will humans try to perfect themselves through neuroscience-based enhancements? How does a society draw the line between enhancement and therapy? How can society guard against the risk that new technologies could widen disparities among socioeconomic groups?
Much of the research that is provoking these questions is still in the early stages. The speakers discussed studies showing that certain chemicals can enhance memory and that we can influence each other's memories as well as our own experience of pain.
Others described the potential for using brain scanning in everything from criminal trials to soda marketing research. Researchers are also making progress with prosthetic devices controlled by the brain and in understanding how a specialized set of "mirror neurons" in the brain may form at least a partial basis for empathy.
The conference took place 17 to 19 April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was co-sponsored by AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion; MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT; and the Boston Theological Institute.
Two Selected for New Minority Internship
AAAS and Science have named two California students as the first recipients of the new Minority Science Writers Internship for undergraduates pursuing science journalism careers.
Genevra Ann Ornelas of California State University-Fresno and Cathy Tran of the University of California-Santa Barbara, both graduating seniors, will begin their 10-week internships in June at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Science. Tran majored in biopsychology, Ornelas in biology.
They will help reporters gather information for news stories, attend hearings and briefings, and work on their own stories for Science or Science Now, the journal’s daily online news service.