Prism Magazine September 2001

 

 

Briefings

Saving Beaches, Studying Abroad, and Cracking Eggs

DESIGNER TREES BRANCH OUT

The world's $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 solution—perhaps the only one—is 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.

But Sederoff 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.

Opponents 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.

 

SAVING 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?

Well, now 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.

 

BRITAIN LAUNCHES NEW UNIVERSITY

England's 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.

The British 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 two-year colleges.

Moreover, 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
at home.

 

CRACKS IN EGG RESEARCH

Eggs break. 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.

Thomson 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.

The team 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.

 

STUDY ABROAD? NO THANKS

The notion 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.

What gives? 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.

Also, some 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.

StudentPOLL suggests several ways that American universities can help increase the number of students who want to internationalize their studies. Among them:

  • Review academic policies and requirements to see if any are barriers to students studying abroad.
  • Determine if financial aid packages discourage overseas study,and try to make aid awards as “portable” as possible.
  • Ensure that overseas study programs fit all budgets. Offer programs that are only a semester in length, as well as full-year ones.
  • Link language studies to overseas programs.

Hesel thinks 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.

 

EDUCATION ON THE CASUAL SIDE

SYDNEY– 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 overseas—mostly in Asia—to 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.

A recent 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.

 

NEW SCIENCE ADVISOR NAMED

Many people 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.

Marburger, 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.

Somewhat 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.

"I think 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."

 

WHO'S BEHIND THE FUNDING?

Is corporate 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.

Too frequently, 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.

That's true 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.

Moreover, 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."

 

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