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Briefings

 

THE POLITICS OF SCIENCE

Is the Bush White House churning out and relying on bad science to further its political policies? The Union of Concerned Scientists believes it is. Their statement—signed by more than 60 eminent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and 19 National Medal of Science winners—charges the Bush administration with disregarding the long-standing principle of ensuring that scientific input to government is objective and impartial. “When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions,” the statement reads. It charges the White House with, among other things: the censoring, suppression, and distortion of scientific reports; relying on the opinions of people who are either unqualified or have conflicts of interest; and disbanding advisory committees.

The report acknowledges that previous administrations have at times tinkered with scientific findings for political ends. But, it adds, the “scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented.” According to the report, the issues affected range from global warming, to pollution standards, to AIDS research, to some of the weapons of mass destruction evidence used to justify the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

White House science adviser John H. Marburger III dismisses the claims as sweeping generalizations and politically motivated. Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the group's board of directors and a retired professor of physics at Cornell University, notes that several of the signatories have worked for Republican administrations. “We feel the statement is well documented,” he says, adding that the group didn't have to “drum up” support among researchers.

 

SHARING THE SPOILS

AUSTRALIA—It’s your brainchild; does your university deserve a share?

The answer, in Australia, is yes. An Australian court has ruled that academics who commercialize the results of their research cannot retain all of the financial benefits. They must split them with the schools paying their salaries and providing them workspace.

The decision is an important precedent in Australia, where the sharing of such earnings has often been regarded as a gray area, even if most researchers do split the revenues and may be obliged by agreements to do so.

As schools become increasingly self-sufficient in the wake of declining government funding, they are looking at other ways to earn money. Marketing themselves to foreign students is their biggest moneymaker, but they also are seeking their share on earnings from commercialized research.

The Victoria University of Technology in Melbourne took two professors to court over earnings from their research. The case concerned computer software and programs the pair created. Legal action began after the academics signed an agreement with a foreign company to develop and patent the software. The university asked the court to decide whether the researchers retained intellectual property rights over their work or merely held such rights in trust for the university.

A Melbourne judge ruled that employment terms and university rules were such that the school should benefit from money made from the two researchers' work, but the proportion of earnings they must turn over was not disclosed.

 

ROBOT RACE RUNS AGROUND

Even though Las Vegas was less than a hundred miles away, odds makers probably paid little attention in March to one of the most unusual races ever: the Grand Challenge. That’s because the race organizer, participants, and fans knew in advance that it was highly unlikely to produce a winner. And, it didn’t. Still, the race—set in the high desert country near Barstow, Calif.—had a million-dollar purse and drew notice from around the world. The racers were fully autonomous robotic vehicles, and they were competing on a grueling landscape. To win, a robot had to complete the unfamiliar, 142-mile course in less than 10 hours. Before the race, such a feat was beyond the ken of any existing robotic technologies. That proved true afterwards, too. Most of the 15 competitors barely made it beyond the starting line. The pre-race favorite, Sandstorm, built by a team from Carnegie-Mellon University, did travel farther than the others. But, after hitting speeds of more than 20 mph, it collided with a fence just beyond the 7-mile mark and broke an axle. Sandstorm used a Hummer as its base vehicle. Other universities fielding teams included the California Institute of Technology, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State University.

The competition was devised by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to push the boundaries of robotic vehicles that could have battlefield applications. DARPA Director Anthony Tether called the winnerless race a success because “we learned a tremendous amount about autonomous ground vehicle technology.”

 

FIRST CLASS PROGRAM AT SMITH COLLEGE

Susan Strom didn’t think she would become an engineer when she enrolled at Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., in the fall of 2000. “I spent most of my high school time studying humanities, speech, debate, and dancing,” Strom says. “I took math and science classes because everyone did—but it wasn’t my area of interest.” In fact, Strom figured she would delve into fashion design or cosmetology, and chose Smith because of its strong liberal arts background.

But it wasn’t long before she heard about a new program on campus. Heavy on the liberal arts, with a sizable dose of discussions on social responsibility and sustainable development, it was the first engineering program ever off-ered at Smith—and the first bachelor’s of science degree. Four years later, Strom and her 19 classmates are making history: They will be the first engineering majors to graduate from a women’s college.

Throughout their time at Smith, the students in the program have not only taken the full gamut of engineering requirements, but also a “Latin honors distribution,” which means required courses in literature, foreign languages, arts, history, and social sciences as well. “We’ve tried to turn out students that are broadly educated and see engineering as a way to enhance the human condition and the human spirit,” says Domenico Grasso, dean of the program.

Caitlyn Shea recalls one course in particular—a business ethics class in the religion department—that helped her appreciate the program’s interdisciplinary focus. “I don’t think I would have had that opportunity at a big school, and it very much applied to engineering,” she says. “We met in the professor’s class and had hot chocolate, and there were all of these different perspectives. There was an engineering major, a couple of econ majors, a couple of religion majors. An engineer would say, ‘Well, it’s most efficient to engineer projects this way,’ and the econ major would say, ‘well, that’s not economically feasible.’ ”

Graduating seniors at Smith also took part in the Engineering Design Clinic, a year-long capstone course that gives them a chance to work on real-world projects sponsored by industry and government. As part of her design clinic project, An-Chi Tsou has helped to design a more efficient lighting system for a General Electric plant. “Reducing your energy consumption can reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she explains. “So we’re figuring out, ‘OK, which system is going to be the most economic? And which is going to be the most efficient?’ Also, what’s the return on investment, the net cost—a lot of people don’t realize that economics is a big part of design as well.” Tsou is also interested in further work on improving the healing process for tendons and ligaments through gene or injection therapy. She notes that it could one day help rebuild or prevent torn ACL’s, a common injury among female athletes.

Grasso notes that this sense of social relevance is just what he was hoping to weave into the fabric of the program. “Engineering education in the past was one in which the material went from the notes of the instructor through the notes of the students, and through the minds of neither. That’s how it was done. There was no contextualization of engineering, and women, consequently, didn’t see any social relevance,” he says. “And I think that’s why women weren’t interested in engineering.”

For her part, Strom is still amazed to be part of this graduating class. “It has given me the sense of pioneering—kind of being on the frontier of something really big and new and special and exciting,” she says. “My whole time at Smith, I’ve felt this sense of purpose, and I think that’s going to propel us as young women in the field. We have something to contribute and we will for the rest of our lives.”

 

PERFORMANCE PAY

Paying teachers for improved student performance can lead to better schools. Cynics might have held that truth to be self-evident, but researchers at the Community Training and Assistance Center (CTAC) didn’t. And they conducted a four-year study in the Denver public school system to investigate. The results of their study, published in Catalyst for Change: Pay for Performance, could fundamentally change the way public schools operate and help fill the pipeline into engineering programs.

Implemented in 13 percent of Denver public schools, the study had teachers set two educational objectives, approved by their principals, for their students. Teachers received a bonus if students met them by year’s end. The result: The reading and writing test scores of middle and high school students in the study rose significantly compared with their peers.

In discussing the results, William J. Slotnik, executive director of CTAC and lead author of the study, maintained that any pay-for-performance program must be supportive of teachers and recognize that monetary bonuses are only part of teacher motivation. Failed teacher remuneration efforts in the past, he said, “were based on the belief that compensation is the primary incentive for teachers to perform at high levels...Others were designed to punish teachers who were labeled as underperforming.”

The Denver study was conducted within the context of districtwide reforms that offer hope for troubled schools around the country. “The Denver pilot has provided a wealth of learning that will shape practice nationally,” Slotnik said.

Although encouraging and poised to impact teaching across the country, pay for performance needs to be applied carefully. “Pay for Performance is neither a silver bullet nor a magic wand,” Slotnik cautions.

 

ENGINEERING MAESTRO

“If I want to do something badly, it usually ends up getting done,” says Alia Sabur, who recently celebrated her 15th birthday. Such words coming from most teens would come across as snotty or as an exercise in false bravado. But Alia is not bragging. Her comment is an accurate assessment of her undeniable skills. Though she is in many ways a typical American teenager, Alia possesses mental capabilities beyond those of most people, regardless of their age. Alia is working on a Ph.D. in mechanical and electrical engineering at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. She is specializing in nanophotonics, the use of fiber optics to study and create electronic devices at the nanoscale. Last year, she completed an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, where she graduated summa cum laude with a 3.96 GPA. Moving from fourth grade to her freshman year of college, Alia started out a physics major but veered into applied math “because I liked the application aspect of it more.” She’s pursuing an engineering doctorate because she prefers engineering’s interdisciplinary approach. Her specialty, for which she’s seeking a patent, is a 3D-imaging process that makes the trapping of atoms “easier, simpler, and cheaper.” Eventual practical applications could include microsurgical techniques for cancer patients or armies of tiny robots that cleanse clogged blood vessels.

Alia is the daughter of a retired electrical engineer and a former TV reporter. Her mother says Alia was reading and talking at 8 months. At 2, she was reading Charlotte’s Web aloud. Alia took to college life from the start. Professors were not inclined to patronize her, something she clearly loathes. And college at the doctoral level is even better, she says.

But if research is her avocation, music is her passion. At 10, Alia heard for the first time Mozart’s clarinet concerto and fell in love with it. “I said I wanted to play that piece.” By 11, she performed it with a full orchestra. Today, she continues to study clarinet. Once her doctorate is finished, Alia expects to continue work as a researcher and perform as a professional musician. She’s sure she can do both because of her talent for light-speed thinking. As she points out: “That’s what makes me special.” And coming from a child who can read and absorb books at a rate of 100 pages an hour, that’s not a boast.

 

SIMPLE SOLUTION

“I work where people are drinking sewage,” says Susan Murcott, a civil engineer and expert in water filtration systems. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor regularly visits developing countries where drinking water supplies are often filthy and dangerous. There’s no shortage of places for her to work: A billion people worldwide are at risk from polluted water.

In 1998, Murcott attended a conference on women and water in Nepal, which has a major problem with sewage-contaminated water. Arsenic is a ground-water issue there, too, as it is in many third-world countries. Long-term exposure to arsenic is causing epidemics of cancers and other fatal diseases, according to the World Health Organization. When she got back to MIT, she and her students began working on devising a cheap, effective filtration system that villagers could operate easily.

After five years, they came up with the ABF, or arsenic-biosand filter. It’s a container the size of a small, two-drawer filing cabinet, and can be manufactured either in plastic or concrete. The bin is filled with gravel, coarse sand, fine sand, and iron nails. Its total cost is $20 to $25. Murcott says it can work indefinitely with only minor maintenance. The sand and gravel work to remove physical pollutants; the iron nails attract and capture the arsenic. The resulting water is so potable it won’t upset delicate Western stomachs. And it processes 15 to 30 liters of water an hour, much more than other rudimentary filters.

Twenty-five ABFs will be installed in Nepalese villages this year, paid for by a $115,000 grant from the World Bank Development Global Competition. And Murcott is working with business students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management to devise a plan to scale up production globally. In a world where so many are at risk from contaminated water supplies, the ABF offers some hope.

 

NEW FACES IN HIGH PLACES

The number of women in engineering remains small, but that hasn’t stopped them from advancing to high-profile positions within the profession. Currently, two leading engineering societies have women presidents, the immediate past presidents of two more are women, and a woman is president-elect of another. Teresa H. Helmlinger is president of the National Society of Professional Engineers. Helmlinger is the assistant vice chancellor for extension and engagement at North Carolina State University. At the American Society of Civil Engineers, the president is Patricia D. Galloway. She’s also the CEO of the Nielsen-Wurster Group, which does construction consulting. Susan A. Skemp is the immediate past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Skemp is a manager at the aerospace firm, Pratt & Whitney. The immediate past president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers is Dianne Doreland. She’s the dean of engineering at Rowan University in New Jersey. The president-elect of the American Society for Engineering Education is Sherra Kerns, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, and also its vice president for innovation and research.

That five engineering societies have so recently been helmed by women could help make engineering more attractive to young females.

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