What role do scientists should have in the political process. Do they have a responsibility to advocate and champion their research to the public by becoming involved in the political process? What impact would this have on their research being viewed as impartial and objective?
The Theater of Public Policy seeks to explore these issues with an in-depth interview with representatives from Broad Impacts, a U of M Science Policy group. After discussing these ideas, an improvisational comedy team will breathe life into these ideas; bringing to life the ideas, concepts and memes from the conversation. Through thought provoking conversation and inspired humor, the policy issue will be illuminated.
The show takes place at 6:30pm on Thursday, Oct. 6th at Huge Theater, 3037 South Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis and costs $5. The Theater of Public Policy is supported by InCommons and the Citizens League.
You might be aware of phosphorus, P, as a key ingredient in your lawn fertilizer. Or, perhaps you’ve seen “Does not contain phosphates” labels on your household detergents. If you haven’t seen these labels yet, chances are high you’ll see them soon. Why??
Phosphorus is Useful as Fertilizer and Detergent...
Courtesy Malawi MV project work
Phosphorus is a life-supporting mineral, which is why so many fertilizers contain it. Phosphates, the naturally occurring form of phosphorus, help soften water, form soap suds, and suspend particles making them choice detergents. Supporting life and keeping clean would normally be good things, but phosphorus has a dark side too.
... But, Phosphorus Causes Smelly, Dead Eutrophication
Because phosphorus is so good at growing stuff, it is actually harmful to the environment when it becomes dissolved and concentrated in bodies of water. Phosphorus-rich lakes cause algae blooms – huge increases of algae in a short period of time (kind of like the post-World War II Baby Boom, but for algae). Besides being smelly and turning water green, algae “breathe” the oxygen right out of the lake! Stealing dissolved oxygen even in death, algae create hypoxia – low oxygen, which prevents most other living things from surviving in the surrounding area. This whole process, from phosphorus-loading to algae bloom to hypoxia, is called eutrophication. There are other environmental and health risks to phosphorus, but eutrophication is what politicians are talking about around the water cooler these days.
Courtesy Felix Andrews
Seventeen States Banned Phosphorus in Automatic Dishwashing Detergents
Deciding that euthrophication was yucky, in July, 17 states, including the entire Great Lakes Commission of which Minnesota is a member, passed laws banning phosphates from automatic dishwasher detergent. That might not seem like a big deal, but automatic dishwasher detergent is said to comprise between 7-12% of all the phosphorus making it into our sewage system (source). Previous legislation has limited or banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents.
Consumers Asked to Cope
According to a recent New York Times article, some consumers are getting their feathers ruffled as detergent manufacturers re-do their formulas to comply with state laws. The primary complaint is that the phosphate-free detergents don’t clean as well as traditional formulas. Consumer Reports concurred: of 24 low- or no-phosphate detergents tested, none matched the cleaning capabilities of detergents with phosphates. It may be uncomfortable at first, but learning to cope in a low-phosphorus world is already having environmental and human health benefits.
Courtesy Becoming Green
Rest assured, industry officials still want your business and are continually improving their formulations. Indeed, the same Consumer Reports article mentioned above rated seven low- or no-phosphate detergents as “very good.” For the curious, there is a multitude of other websites reviewing phosphate-free detergents online. Pre-rinsing and/or post-rinsing have also been cited as ways to deal with phosphate-free dishwashing detergents.
Peak Phosphorus: Another Consideration
If you still aren’t convinced of the switch, consider this: we’re running out of phosphorus like we’re running out of oil. Phosphorus is a mineral, mined from naturally occurring phosphates, and we’re mining it faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. One Scientific American article cites the depletion of U.S. supplies in a few decades (world supplies may last for roughly another 100 years) given current consumption rates. Without phosphorus, world food production will plummet and with a global population soaring towards 9 billion people, that would be a very sorry state of affairs. If we succeed in limiting our phosphorus consumption, say, through eliminating it from household detergents, we may be able to continue using it in fertilizers and thus keep the human population fed well into the future.
What do you think? Is the phosphate-ban worth it?
President Obama shared his personal smoking story during the bill signing ceremony that toughens up regulations on cigarette production and distribution. However, he doesn't quite tell us if he's an ex-smoker yet.
Science blogger at the New York Times, Andrew C. Revkin, has some great questions that he is going to ask Barack Obama's science and environmental policy team. Obama has promised to keep governmental politics out of research and increase funding for scientific study as well. Revkin's questions, accumulated from the community of Times readers, put's the new president's science team on the spot about how they will actually do this. Check out the list of questions. What science questions would you ask Obama?
Courtesy timsamoffOn January 21, 2009, there’s going to be a brand new administration in the White house. Defining the energy policy of the United States is going to be a big issue, and one that’s likely to get tackled early on.
The members of the Obama Administration are going to have their own ideas about how our country should get its energy, but what do you think?
Is green energy your one and only? Are you a coal man? A nuclear gal? Or do you fall asleep murmuring “drill, baby, drill”?
Some options are going to be more expensive than others, each will affect the environment differently, and some are going to take more time before they’re ready. So what’s it going to be?
Voice your opinion in Science Buzz’s new poll: Energy and the Obama Administration.
You might not have been able to vote on November 4, but you can vote now, and you can let everyone know why you think what you think.
Science blogger Alan Boyle has some thoughts on what science policy might look like in the Obama administration.
For once I agree with Michael Crichton. Allowing companies to hold patents on parts of the human genome is a very bad idea. Crichton wrote a great editorial in Feb. 13th's New York Times illustrating why human gene patents are such poppycock. It is a short read but it really got my blood boiling.
I was surprised to find out that one-fifth of the the human genome has already been patented by companies in the US. But a couple smart politicians, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from California, and Dave Weldon, a Republican from Florida (yes Gene, I do think science and politics should mix) are introducing legislation that will stop this.
“We seek simply to fix a regulatory mistake,” Rep. Becerra said. “Genes are a product of nature; they were not created by man, but instead are the very blueprint that creates man, and thus, are not patentable. Gene patenting would be the analogous equivalent to patenting water, air, birds or diamonds.
Some people think that patents cause competition between companies that results in more active research. While others think that human gene patents actually inhibit research and are morally wrong. Tell us what you think below or vote in our poll, Should companies be able to patent human genes?
On Tuesday, the US Senate passed three bills regarding stem cell research.
Two were pretty uncontroversial: one encouraged stem-cell research using cells from sources other than embryos—adult bone marrow or hair follicles, or umbilical cord/placental blood. (The National Institutes of Health is already spending $571 million this fiscal year on this kind of stem cell research.) And one prohibited “fetal farming”—gestating fetuses for the purpose of providing tissue and other material for research.
The House of Representatives passed the bill about fetal farming, but voted down the bill promoting alternative stem cell sources. President Bush signed the ban on the commercial production of human fetal tissue into law today.
The third bill—which President Bush has just vetoed—would have expanded federal support of medical research using embryonic stem cells. Right now, researchers using federal funds can only study a handful of embryonic stem cell lines that existed before August 2001. The failed bill would have allowed federal funding for research on stem cells from thousands of unneeded embryos created in fertility clinics. (Couples with extra embryos resulting from fertility treatments would have had the option of donating them to research instead of having them destroyed by the clinic.) An override of the veto is unlikely.
What ARE stem cells?
Stem cells are simply cells that can develop into other types of cells. They can make copies of themselves indefinitely, and can become specialized for various body tissues. They are produced by embryos and also found in limited numbers in adults, but embryonic stem cells are pluripotent--they can become almost any kind of cell in the body--while adult stem cells are more limited. Scientists think they might be able to grow replacements for damaged tissues if they can coax stem cells to become the specific types of cells needed. Stem cells could someday provide treatments or cures for cancer, spinal cord injuries, burns, strokes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes, and other ailments.
Why not use the pre-2001 stem cell lines?
In August 2001, the Bush administration and National Institutes of Health said that 60 stem cell lines had already been developed. Federal funds would be limited to research on those lines, and could not be used to create any more. But further investigation showed that less than 22 lines were actually available, and all of them had been maintained in culture dishes with blood products from rodents--scientists say the cells can’t ethically be used to treat people because of the danger of animal viruses and other contamination. Many of the lines aren’t aging well; if they don’t keep growing and dividing, they die, and some lines are accumulating mutations and other defects. Most research is limited to six of the stem cell lines. And they aren’t a very genetically diverse lot.
But the White House says,
"The use of mouse cells is standard scientific practice. ... As the Food and Drug Administration has indicated, the resulting stem cell lines can be carefully screened to ensure they are safe for use in any future clinical trials. Drug and biological products are routinely co-cultured with animal cells with no adverse consequences for the millions of people who have benefited from them."
Why not use private money?
Some labs have produced additional stem cell lines using private money, but researchers have to be scrupulous about segregating work on the newer cells from work done with federal money. The University of California, San Francisco, for example, is spending $5 million to set up a separate stem cell research lab where scientists can work without the federal restrictions. All the lab equipment they need already exists elsewhere on campus, but it can't be used for new stem cell work.
Some states see an opportunity in the federal restrictions. California announced that state money--$3 billion over 10 years--would be available for research into embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. But the initiative is being fought in court. Connecticut has an 10-year, $100 million initiative. Illinois spent $10 million last year. New Jersey spent about $25 million in the last two years. And Maryland has approved a $15 million budget. But scientists in other countries are doing far more work with embryonic stem cells than scientists in the US. And losing out now means that the US could lose the eventual commercial applications developed through such research to the countries with looser regulations.
What's the issue with using embryonic stem cells?
Harvesting stem cells destroys a developing embryo. That's the crux of the whole issue. Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research say that the potential cures promised by stem cell research supporters offer false hope to some suffering Americans while encouraging the destruction of embryos to provide the cells. Members of the US Senate, debating earlier this week, expressed the gamut of opinions:
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said,
"I do not question that an embryo is a living cell. But I do not believe that a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic freezer constitutes human life."
Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader and a transplant surgeon, said,
"I believe that the progress of science and a pro-life position demand that Congress can send a message. I hope that we can redeem this loss of life in part by using these embryos to seed research that will save lives in the future."
Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) said,
"...I firmly believe that [neither] Congress, independent researchers nor any human being should be allowed, in effect, to play God by determining that one life is more valuable than another."
Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), who is also a physician, said,
"The fact is, there is not one cure in this country today from embryonic stem cells."
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said,
"So the choice is this ... throw [the embryos] away or use them to ease suffering and, hopefully, cure diseases."
Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said,
"We do not need to treat humans as raw material."
"It is immoral to destroy the youngest of human lives for research purposes. We don't need to do it."
Public opinion polls show that 70% of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. What do YOU think? Should the US government help fund it?
On April 6, officials from Minnesota and Wisconsin signed an agreement designed to reduce levels of phosphorus in the St. Croix River by 20% by the year 2020.
For more information about phosphorus in the St. Croix visit the Buzz kiosk in the Mississippi River Gallery on level 5, or check out our on-line feature.