TREES BRANCH OUT
$400 billion paper and pulp industry is growing like an unshaded
weed. Indeed, the demand for paper products is set to outpace
supply in less than a decade. To Ronald Sederoff, director of
the forest biotechnology group at North Carolina State University,
that means the earth's natural forests will come under increasing
risk, an environmental nightmare. And to him, the best solutionperhaps
the only oneis developing genetically altered (GA) trees
grown especially for the paper industry. Field tests of designer
trees with specific traits useful for mass timber production are
already underway. Some would grow more rapidly (and also more
quickly photosynthesize carbon dioxide, a major pollutant); some
would be naturally immune to diseases and insects; some could
be more easily turned to pulp without using the toxic chemicals
needed today. If twice as many trees can be grown on less land,
that will save millions of acres of natural forests, Sederoff
says. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the
tests, is expected to approve the first commercial plantations
of bioengineered trees by 2004.
says the process could be dragged out by environmental activists
opposed to GA trees. Some have taken direct action, and test sites
have been vandalized. Last March, for example, a group called
GenetiX Alert claimed responsibility for destroying 570 test trees
at Oregon State University. And other groups have used the federal
approval process to delay the commercial use of GA trees. Sederoff
is scathing in his response: There is tacit approval of
destroying test sites by many non-governmental organizations.
And the regulatory agencies view it as a political process and
are willing to compromise. That's an outrage,
he says, because it is a problem for science. Creating hybrid
trees is nothing new, Sederoff says, and the trees produced using
bioengineering are no different from those using traditional methods.
But the latter incites no protests. Genetic engineering can give
scientists quicker results. A GA tree can reach maturity in a
year, rather than in a human lifetime.
fear that any genetically engineered trait added to a tree could
be harmful if mixed with natural trees. Fast-growing trees are
not as sturdy and aren't built to last. Sterile trees may
rob wildlife of food sources. Pest- or herbicide-resistant trees
mixed with natural trees may create mutant super weeds that will
eventually push out natural weeds. Their arguments are largely
nonsense, Sederoff sniffs. Singer Joni Mitchell once predicted
in song the need for a tree museum. Sederoff says many trees may
face such a fate if science isn't used to ease the paper
industry's voracious appetite for pulp.
THE SANDY SHORES
With an economy
dependent on the bucket-and-shovel brigade, Florida certainly
knows the value of its famous beaches. But storms, waves and wind
can take their toll on sandy shores, which is why Florida spends
$90 million a year on beach renourishment projects. That's nearly
as much as the $100 million spent annually in the rest of the
United States. An average-sized project, renovating three miles
of beach, can total $15 million. The cost is usually divided among
local, state, and federal budgets. With so much money at stake,
officials want to know how well the restoration efforts will hold
up. There are two methods for projecting the performance of renourishment
projects. The question is, are they reliable?
we know the answer, at least for one of the methods, says Bob
Dean, a civil and coastal engineering professor at the University
of Florida, who conducted a study on the accuracy rates of renourishment
projections. A method he and a student devised a dozen years ago
offers predictions of "reasonable" accuracy, he says, after comparing
the predicted outcome with the actual outcome of eight projects,
some a decade old. They found the actual amount of sand remaining
after a year would be between 30 percent more or 30 percent less
than projected. Predictions of the size and shape of the beach
were about 50 percent accurate. That's not awfully high, he admits,
but it's a good first step. Dean's method also leaves no room
for disagreement, he notes. "It has the advantage that it requires
no judgment nor calibration, and thus two individuals applying
the method should obtain the same results." Dean says he learned
some new things doing the study and thinks he can fine-tune his
method and improve the accuracy of the forecasts. Sure beats counting
the beaches one grain of sand at a time.
LAUNCHES NEW UNIVERSITY
far west county, Cornwall, is certainly beautiful, but it's
not a place where educationally ambitious young people tend to
stay. Around 90 percent of young people in Cornwall who
take up higher education leave Cornwall, notes David Blunkett,
Britain's education secretary. That amounts to about 2,500
students a year. Also, Blunkett adds, many do not return.
A low proportion of the workforce has vocational, professional
or academic qualifications. A big part of the problem is
the lack of a four-year university in Cornwall. But that's
a problem soon to be remedied.
government is spending $76 million to establish the Combined Universities
of Cornwall in Falmouth, the first new university in Britain in
about 30 years. Actually, CUC will not start completely from scratch.
It will en-compass existing colleges of neighboring Exeter and
Plymouth universities, the Falmouth College of Arts and five local
since it wants to be a center of lifelong learning for adults,
offering courses over the Internet, it will establish a link with
the Open University, the U.K.'s pioneering distance-learning college.
Gordon Kelly, coordinator, says the goal is to make CUC a school
with an international reputation. Its doors will open in Fall
2003 with 4,000 students; eventually, it anticipates a student
body of 8,000 and a faculty of 300. Mining and arts will feature
prominently at the school.
One of its
colleges will be the Camborne School of Mines, now part of Exeter
University. The region already makes use of wind and geothermal
power. And in addition to the College of Arts, there is a thriving
artists' community in nearby St. Ives, home to an outpost of London's
Tate Museum. Perhaps in a few years Cornish students will discover
there's a good reason to remain
IN EGG RESEARCH
Well, that's hardly headline-making news. But two Scottish researchers
have begun a three-year study into why they break--other than
too often being handled by clumsy people. While acknowledging
that an eggshell is a pretty fine feat of natural design, Ronald
Thomson and Alan Birkbeck of the University of Glasgow's mechanical
engineering department want to improve the survival rate for eggs.
Each year, millions of eggs are broken before they reach consumers'
kitchens--an estimated $7 million worth in the U.K. alone. And
to the industry, that's no yolk.
and Birkbeck will use something called an impact rig that simulates
the types of jolts and bumps eggs receive once they've flown the
coop. They will then try to learn which forces are most likely
to prematurely scramble them. That could lead to new forms of
packaging, say the engineers, who will also study the various
packing materials now used.
will also receive research from Glasgow's veterinary school to
see if diet can affect the strength of an eggshell. It's thought
that free-range chickens, who eat a wider variety of foods, tend
to have stronger shells. It's not certain what's to happen to
the countless eggs that will undoubtedly be broken during the
study-- let's just hope that Thomson and Birkbeck like omelettes.
ABROAD? NO THANKS
of globalization has certainly sunk in among American students.
According to data collected by StudentPOLL, a market-intelligence
newsletter published by the Arts and Science Group of Baltimore,
a large number of students begin their college careers with a
keen international outlook. Nearly 60 percent expect to continue
studying a foreign language, and just under half want to study
abroad. Perhaps that's not too surprising when you look at the
backgrounds of college-bound students. Ninety-eight percent have
had language courses, and about half have traveled overseas. But
once they arrive on campus it's time for a reality check. Just
seven percent of college students actually take language courses,
and only three percent study overseas.
Richard A. Hesel, StudentPOLL publisher, says a big reason
may be --what else?--money. "I think universities, either deliberately
or unwillingly, often find it's not in their financial interest
to encourage kids to go away," he explains. In the past, if a
student spent a semester or more at a foreign university, he or
she paid the local tuition (usually lower) and their American
school received nada. That may be changing, however. Some American
universities are now charging overseas-bound students full tuition,
then paying the foreign schools themselves. That eases the financial
penalty on US schools when their students go abroad.
students, depending on their school, risk losing all or some of
their financial aid if they study overseas. A third reason is
particularly relevant to engineering students: the courses they
need for their curriculum requirements are not always available
from foreign schools, or if they are, they may not be accepted
by their home school. That's clearly a disincentive.
suggests several ways that American universities can help increase
the number of students who want to internationalize their studies.
academic policies and requirements to see if any are barriers
to students studying abroad.
if financial aid packages discourage overseas study,and try
to make aid awards as portable as possible.
that overseas study programs fit all budgets. Offer programs
that are only a semester in length, as well as full-year ones.
language studies to overseas programs.
that student interest in international education should be encouraged,
particularly among fledgling engineers. Engineering is becoming
a much more global profession, he explains. So in addition
to Palm Pilots and calculators, passports should be among the
items engineering students pack in their backpacks.
ON THE CASUAL SIDE
Cutbacks in government grants over the past decade have forced
Australian universities to boost income from other sources. For
instance, they have begun aggressively marketing education overseasmostly
in Asiato lure foreign students. However, they still face
budget shortfalls, which have resulted in reductions in staff
and spending (less in marketable courses such as business studies
and more on courses such as philosophy that don't attract
many students). Engineering tends to fall somewhat in the middle.
One way down-under
universities are saving money is by relying more on part-timers,
referred to in local parlance as casuals, who are
paid by the hour and don't have retirement benefits or vacation
and sick leave. Surveys suggest one in six university teachers
is now a casual, and statistics from the federal Department of
Education, Training and Youth Affairs show 78 percent of the new
teaching jobs in the past three years have fallen into the casual
category. Julie Wells, spokeswoman for the National Tertiary Education
Union, believes the actual number may be even higher. Making the
same arguments often heard in the United States regarding the
use of adjuncts, she says increased use of casual lecturers and
tutors means students don't always get the support they need.
People who are paid by the hour are not always available
to students, she says. What's more, these positions
don't provide a suitable career path for teachers. The system
is also fraught with uncertainty.
newspaper report quoted a University of Sydney school of biological
sciences e-mail sent to casuals on its list at 9:30 a.m. for a
class beginning in a half hour: We need fill-ins for a shift
this morning and a shift this afternoon, both in lab 308. If you
can do either shift, please contact me ASAP. If you're
not sitting at your computer you miss out, one frustrated recipient
recently complained. While the system is universally unpopular,
no group predicts the trend to casuals will end, given its effectiveness
in containing costs.
SCIENCE ADVISOR NAMED
in the science and engineering community know that John H. Marburger
III, President Bush's nominee for science advisor, has led the
Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory since 1998.
Some know that the Princeton grad received a Ph.D. in applied
physics from Stanford University and was president of the State
University of New York at Stony Brook for fourteen years. What
most people don't know, however, is that Marburger taught engineering
at the University of Southern California in the 1970s.
60, was first a faculty member in physics and electrical engineering
at USC, and then became the chair of physics and later the dean
of sciences. He headed a very active research program in lasers
and in the nonlinear effects in materials using high-powered lasers.
Marburger did some of the original work in bi-stable photonic
devices, and these techniques are now used in photonic switches.
In addition, he was the lead investigator on some of the large
research programs that involved scientific issues of the early
ballistic missile defense system program.
ironically, the real role of the science advisor in the past has
not been to advise the president, but rather to communicate the
president's views to the scientific community. One of Marburger's
first tasks as science advisor will be to review the nation's
energy policy. He will face issues such as the human genome, nuclear
weapons, bioterrorism, space, endangered species, the Internet,
and the training of scientists. Marburger will also help President
Bush fill about 75 scientific jobs in the federal government.
Perhaps the most contentious issue he will deal with is whether
the federal government should fund biomedical research involving
embryonic stem cells.
it was clear to all when John came to USC from Stanford as a young
assistant professor that he was destined to become a leader in
science," William Steier, Hogue Professor of Electrical Engineering
at USC, says. "He has all of the credentials: an excellent scientific
background, a great sense of the important problems and how to
approach them, and an ability to lead people and gain their confidence
and support. I believe this is a great appointment by the president.
John has the support and respect of the scientific community."
BEHIND THE FUNDING?
funding of academic research corruptive? Potentially, yes, says
the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has launched
a web-based database, Integrity in Science ( http://www.integrityinscience.org
), that it says will "lift the veil of secrecy" that masks the
links between academics and corporations.
By the end
of the year, the database-- which can be searched using the name
of a researcher, university, corporation, or by topic--should
contain about 3,000 entries. Most involve research into nutrition,
the environment, toxicology and medicine. CSPI says it hopes that
journalists, activists, policy-makers and the public will use
the tool. Information used in the Web site was culled from a variety
of sources, including medical journals, newspapers, resumes and
congressional transcripts. "Corporations increasingly are funding
academic scientists to conduct research, speak at press conferences,
and provide advice.
neither the scientists nor the corporations disclose that funding,"
claims CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. The center
takes pains to insist that it is not accusing any of the listed
researchers of wrongdoing, and that inclusion in the database
does not imply "improper motives" or unethical acts. "Just because
a scientist receives industry funding does not necessarily mean
that he or she is biased or wrong. Rather, receipt of such funding
is one of many factors that need to be considered in evaluating
a scientist's statements," says Ronald Collins, project director.
That said, CSPI clearly feels that science and medical journals
have been haphazard in enforcing their own disclosure rules.
enough, says Paul Lachance, director of the Nutraceutical Science
Institute at Rutgers University, though he doesn't think anything
sinister is afoot. Lachance is listed as having gotten research
funds from several food companies. He says the list is accurate
enough, though it mentions some projects that are 20 years old.
"I don't feel bad about it," he says, noting that his institute
is training students who will most likely go into the food industry.
he says, with National Institute of Health grants becoming rarer,
researchers often don't have much choice but to accept corporate
help. And, Lachance notes, if industry is expected to keep abreast
of new research and health concerns, it needs to fund research.
The CSPI database "makes some sense," he admits, but he worries
that some of the included information may be taken out of context
and misunderstood. "It doesn't bother me," he says, "if it's accurate."