Week in Review: June 12

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Gordon Brown reshuffles science, Europe and the pursuit of guilt-free energy, reviving the chestnut to fight climate change, creating clonal crops, and letting the sun shine on government.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

UK’s Blue Skies Turn to Gray?

The mood in British science has been bleak of late. Two months ago came the announcement that, while their colleagues across the pond would be receiving a large stimulus package, scientists in the UK would have to do without. Then they found themselves fighting off an attempt by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to ban scientists who had a record of failing to get grant applications approved from even applying for grants at all. And now they find themselves dealing with the fallout from Gordon Brown’s reshuffling of the British government last Friday, when among other things, he abolished the Department of Universities, Innovation, and Skills—the umbrella organization that included the Ministry of Science and Innovation—and created a new Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills that would be home to a restructured Ministry of Science and Innovation that now includes a substantial military orientation.

The UK is not the only government in the world to think of science primarily as a driver of economic growth. But despite the real potential of science to help an economy create new and better products, the emphasis on innovation can come at the expense of the more fundamental exploratory functions of science—what is often known in more wonkish circles as “blue sky” research. The FAQ published by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is telling: “Scientific advance” takes a fairly unimposing place among “jobs,” “skills,” “new companies,” and the “knowledge economy.” Although the document goes on to assert that, of course, blue sky research is essential, advancing fundamental knowledge of the world is not enough to justify doing research. Indeed, according to the head of the Research Councils UK, it’s not even sufficient for a scientist to have a satisfying career!

I suppose it must just be an unfortunate side effect of science that it is more or less impossible to predict what the ultimate impact of much of it will be. Who would have predicted, for example, that what began with Charles Darwin would lead to such novel approaches to dealing with dengue fever and malaria as what two papers published this spring have proposed: Using evolution—through the action of the wonderfully manipulative bacterial genus Wolbachia in one proposal, or through manipulating selection pressures applied by pesticides on mosquitoes in the other—to defeat those diseases. At this late stage, of course, it would be easy to argue for the innovative impact of the studies. But how would it have been possible to know any of that when the first studies of Wolbachia were being published in the early 20th century? Much of the best science has been done with no end in mind. If the UK wishes to remain truly innovative, it must pay that idea less lip service and more heed.

On the Road to Copenhagen: Greening Europe by 2050

Olav Hohmeyer, a professor of the economics of energy at the University of Flensburg, came out with a report this week claiming that Europe will be able to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources—which excludes nuclear power—by 2050. The EU already has a goal of generating one-fifth of its electricity from such means by 2020; Europe is less than halfway there. To reach the EU goal for 2020, Europe will need to increase renewable capacity by about eight percent a year; to reach the 2050 projection, they will need to increase capacity by about six percent a year. Currently, renewable capacity is not growing that quickly, with the exception of photovoltaic sources. Unfortunately, there is so little photovoltaic capacity in Europe that practically any increase inevitably is a big one. (And, given Europe’s general ill-suitedness for generating electricity with photovoltaic arrays, it is not likely to become the European energy source of the future).

Hohmeyer notes in his report that Europe continues to build coal-fired plants despite its overall energy goal. And why not? It’s a cheap and well-understood means for electricity generation, after all. But just because the option is there doesn’t mean it should be taken. Building more coal plants relies on the same sort of logic a smoker might use when faced with choosing between a $3 pack of cigarettes and a $4 nicotine patch. And so it’s time that governments use the same sort of logic they applied to getting people off tobacco: raise the price. A tax on carbon-heavy energy like coal is never going to be popular. But much as cigarette taxes are meant to help pay for the damage that smokers do to themselves, a carbon tax will send all the right signals—chiefly, “you should stop!”—while generating revenue to deal with the harm carbon usage has already created, as well as to deal with the inevitable downsides of a large-scale switch to new means of energy production. We may never be able to escape death and taxes. But at least let’s use this year and the coming Copenhagen meeting to send the message that we can at least use one to forestall the other.

That Old Chestnut

Thanks to the chestnut blight, imported to the United States in the early 20th century, the American chestnut has gone all but extinct, surviving today only in a few stands far outside its historic range. Happy news for arborists, then, that Douglass Jacobs, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue University in Indiana, has bred the genes from the Chinese chestnut that enable it to resist the blight into the American chestnut lineage. On the most superficial level, this will return an American icon—immortalized in Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ “The Christmas Song”—to its native habitat. But, as Jacobs points out, it will also create a new tool for fighting climate change. Thanks to the speed with which the chestnut grows, as well as its overall size compared to other American hardwoods, the American chestnut is an excellent carbon sink, holding about three times as much carbon at any given age as the other hardwoods. Harvesting the mature trees and storing them—whether as a building material or just putting them underground—would make chestnuts a valuable addition to the arsenal for the fight against global warming.

Turning Meiosis into Mitosis in Plants

Finding the means to make plant traits breed true is the grail quest of agriculture. That goal is confounded by sexual reproduction, thanks to the mixing of genes and the independent assortment of chromosomes during the production of eggs and sperm. Some plants don’t rely on sexual reproduction, however—those dandelions sprouting in your front yard, for example, are clones of their parents—and agricultural scientists have dreamed of giving important crop plants the capacity to do the same. A paper published this week in PLoS Biology takes a huge step in that direction. Isabelle d’Erfuth, a postdoctoral researcher at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in Versailles, and her colleagues have identified three genes important to determining whether a plant undergoes all the typical steps of meiosis when producing the cells that give rise to gametes. Specific variants of those three genes, acting as a group, induce the plant to produce gametes through a process largely indistinguishable from mitosis, the normal process of cell division; d’Erfurth and colleagues refer to the complement as MiMe, for mitosis instead of meiosis. Much of the variation introduced by sex is thereby eliminated.

This is still not reproduction without sex. For one thing, in these modified plants, egg and sperm still must fuse to initiate development of a new plant, and both egg and sperm make genetic contributions to the offspring, so the new plants are not clones of either parent. Either finding a way to cause one parent’s chromosomes to be jettisoned or finding a way to induce the eggs to develop without sperm, would create a clonal lineage of plants, and that, undoubtedly, is where these researchers will turn their attention next.

The advantages of such a discovery for agriculture are clear—no need to worry if this year’s prize tomatoes will be just as sweet and juicy next year—but the gain would not be without risks. Most evolutionary theorists hold that asexual species can only survive for relatively short periods of time (dandelions, for instance, have only been asexual since the last ice age). One of the tenets of evolutionary biology is that sex exists to create variation to avoid an organism becoming an easy target of pathogens. Even human cultivation is not necessarily enough to keep clonal agricultural species, such as the banana, viable, even over short periods of evolutionary time; clonal varieties of bananas have been utterly ravaged by disease in the past century. So as great as the potential is for clonal agriculture, we must be careful not to turn our fields into the large-scale equivalent of a nutrient-laden petri dish, lest we find plant parasites running wild while the rest of us go hungry.

Where’s the Sunshine?

Data.gov was unveiled to some fanfare this spring, but even the most cursory investigation of it will reveal that 1) there’s not much there and 2) what is there, really isn’t. The site is essentially a redirect engine, sending users to agency websites where information can be retrieved, usually through clumsy, unfriendly interfaces. So this week, when US Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra posted on the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, asking for comments about data.gov, Week in Review was ready.

More information is the big one, but, seeing as how the campaign to release government data just began, it is unreasonable to expect everything from the beginning. What’s interesting, however, is how many data sets, already available, are not there; the National Science Foundation’s Fast Lane service, which allows fairly powerful searches of grants and projects, gets no link. Nor do the NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators reports. And many of the outputs are unusable, at least for people without sophisticated statistical packages and the experience to use them. What’s wrong with Excel spreadsheets? Data that are released in formats most people can’t access might as well not be released at all. And if not Excel, then the US government ought to initiate the development of a user-friendly, open-source statistical package—this means something with a graphical user interface and a good array of analytical tools—enabling users to investigate the data themselves, combining the surveys used as well as the results.

Other people have seen this shortcoming, too, and Sunlight Labs, a subsidiary of the Sunlight Foundation, has issued a call for “Apps for America”—tools that will enable the common citizen to engage with the information data.gov makes available. The only entrant to date is an app that lets users play the child’s game Concentration with photographs taken from the FBI’s database of fugitives. It’s a long way—as is data.gov—from open government. But maybe it’s a start.

Originally published June 12, 2009

Tags climate genetics policy scarcity technology

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