Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Threat from Bird Flu

The Economist writes (February 23, 2006)
A research paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online on February 10th, shows that the H5N1 virus has persisted in its birthplace, southern China, for almost ten years and has been introduced into Vietnam on at least three occasions, and to Indonesia. The authors suggest that such transmissions are perpetuated mainly by the movement of poultry and poultry products, rather than by migrating birds.

This is significant because it strongly supports bird conservationists, who have been arguing that most outbreaks in South-East Asia can be linked to movements of poultry and poultry products, or infected material from poultry farms, such as mud on vehicles or people's shoes. Conservationists also argue that live animal markets have played an important role in the H5N1's spread. Such markets were the source of the first known outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997 when 20% of the chickens in live poultry markets were infected.

BirdLife International, a conservation group, reckons there are three likely transmission routes for H5N1: commercial trade and the movement of poultry; trade in wild birds; and the use of infected poultry manure as agricultural fertiliser. Bird conservationists add that although migratory birds can carry and transmit the virus, it is often not clear whether they picked up the infection from poultry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a website on Avian Influenze. Its factsheet informs us:
Historically, there have been three HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) outbreaks in poultry in this country--in 1924, 1983 and 2004. No significant human illness resulted from these outbreaks.

The 1924 H7 HPAI outbreak was detected in and eradicated in East Coast live bird markets.

The 1983-84 H5N2 HPAI bird outbreak resulted in the destruction of approximately 17 million chickens, turkeys, and guinea fowl in the northeastern United States to contain and eradicate the disease.

In 2004, USDA confirmed an H5N2 HPAI outbreak in chickens in the southern United States. The disease was quickly eradicated thanks to close coordination and cooperation between USDA, state, local, and industry leaders. Because of the quick response, the disease was limited to one flock.

USDA classifies avian Influenza as of high (HPAI) or low (LPAI) pathegenicity. It reports that "there are 144 different characterizations of the virus based on two groups of proteins found on the surface of the virus. One group is the hemagglutinin proteins (H), of which there are 16 different types (H1-H16); the other group is the neuraminidase proteins (N), of which there are 9 different types (N1-N9). The virus detected (in birds) in several Asian and European countries is an H5N1 type of highly pathogenic (HPAI) virus."

Note especially:
LPAI poses no known serious threat to human health, however some strains of HPAI viruses can be infectious to people. Since December 2003, a growing number of Asian countries have reported outbreaks of HPAI in chickens and ducks. Humans also have been affected, most of who had direct contact with infected birds. The rapid spread of HPAI in 2004 and 2005 is historically unprecedented and of growing concern for human health as well as for animal health.

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, in its excellent technical summary of the agricultural and wildlife threat from bird flu, provides information on international epidemics.
* In Mexico, an H5N2 strain transformed from LPAI to HPAI and caused an outbreak in 1994-95; the virus continued to circulate until 2003, and "nearly a billion birds have been affected."

* In the Netherlands a strain of H7N7 caused an epidemic in 2003. 30 million birds out of 100 million birds in country were killed; 255 flocks were infected. Disease spread to Belgium but was quite rapidly contained. Over 80 human cases were reported, and one veterinarian died.

* in British Columbia (Canada), an H7N3 strain broke out in 2004; over 19 million birds were culled.

CIDRAP reports that the H5N1 pandemic that started in 2003 and continues, having spread from Asia to Europe and Africa is "by far the most severe outbreak of avian influenza ever recognized. As of December 2005, over 140 million birds have died or been culled. WHO has officially recognized more than 170 human cases, with about half of them fatal, in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Turkey, and Iraq."

Some Implications for Food Security:

The poultry industry has been globalized and industrialized. I recall when I lived in Chile, 40 years ago, a friend was amazed that in Valparaiso he could buy frozen chicken from the United States cheaper than fresh chicken from Chile. U.S. producers had industrialized the production of poultry, increased productivity enormously, and changed chicken from a luxury food to a staple.

For example, this projection from the International Food Policy Research Institute:
Meat Prices, Production and Demand: 1997- 2020

* The price of poultry is expected to go down a slight 4%.
* Demand will rise by 9.4 million metric tons or 33.5% in the developed world and 38.2 million metric tons or 131.0% in the developing world by 2020.
* Developing countries will increase production by 122.8% and developed countries by 37.4%.
* Developed countries will increase net exports by 3.2 million metric tons.
* Total world production will equal 105.0 million metric tons in 2020.

Now one can find huge chicken houses all over the world, producing poultry in an industrialized process. The development of the industry has made meat and eggs more affordable for billions of people. It has also created conditions in which avian flu epidemics can reach pandemic proportions.

Nigeria imports more than a million chicks a year, and, as the Economist article indicates, there is some reason to believe that the international trade in poultry is more responsible for the spread of the disease than is the flight of wild birds.

Bird flu does not easily transmute into human flu, and no one knows whether the current bird pandemic flu will do so. As I have written, this situation seems to be one in which there is a small probability of a catastrophic event. We should certainly prepare, but we probably should not panic!

On the other hand, a pandemic of flu in poultry seems very likely. The costs of destroying poultry have already been in the billions of dollars in Asia, and the disease has spread to Africa and Europe. Fortunately agricultural experts are taking the disease very seriously.

I would point out that the disease may have nutritional effects on human populations. Of course, poor people eat less if their income goes down, and killing tens of millions of chickens will reduce income for many people. The eggs and meat produced by the poultry industry are important sources of protein, and if the supply goes down, protein nutrition will suffer somewhere.

As vegetarians demonstrate, people can get all the protein they need without meat and eggs. Perhaps one thing that should be done now is to develop nutrition education materials and train educators on how to substitute vegetable protein for poultry and eggs. We might also consider agricultural extension programs promoting legumes and other high protein crops. And we might consider other micro-livestock, such as rabbits to provide an alternative source of meat in the absence of foul.

Science versus the Bush Administration

Two stories caught my eye in yesterday's Washington Post (February 27, 2006). Both relate to prototypical examples of the war going on between the scientific community and the Bush Administration.

"In Fire's Wake, Logging Study Inflames Debate: University Study Challenges Cutting Of Burnt Timber" by Blaine Harden:
If fire ravages a national forest, as happened here in southwest Oregon when the Biscuit fire torched a half-million acres four years ago, the Bush administration believes loggers should move in quickly, cut marketable trees that remain and replant a healthy forest.

"We must quickly restore the areas that have been damaged by fire," President Bush said in Oregon four years ago after touring damage from the Biscuit fire. He called it "common sense."
An Oregon State University study of the fire in southwest Oregon found that logging after fire "has harmed forest recovery and increased fire risk". The study, published in Science, calls into question the scientific rationale behind a bill pending in Congress that would ease procedures for post-fire logging in federal forests.
A couple of weeks after the Science article appeared and infuriated the forest industry, the federal Bureau of Land Management, which footed the bill for the study of the Biscuit fire, cut off the final year of the three-year, $300,000 grant. BLM officials said the authors violated their funding contract by attempting to influence legislation pending in Congress.

After the cutoff, Democrats in the Northwest congressional delegation complained about government censorship, academic freedom and the politicization of science in the Bush administration. Within a week, the BLM backed down and restored the grant.
The article concludes:
One of the nation's best-known forest ecologists attempted to summarize the world's collective scientific knowledge on logging after fires. Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources, warned the hearing that Congress should be careful not to prescribe salvage logging as a cure-all for every forest fire.

Salvage logging and replanting can often succeed, Franklin said, if the intent is to turn a scorched landscape into a stand of trees for commercial harvest.

If, however, Congress wants to promote the ecologically sound recovery of burned federal forests, Franklin said, the overwhelming weight of scientific research suggests that "salvage logging is not going to be appropriate."

"Plan B Battles Embroil States: Proposals Mirror Red-Blue Divide" by Marc Kaufman.
Filling a void left by the Food and Drug Administration's inability to decide whether to make the "morning-after" pill available without a prescription, nearly every state is or soon will be wrestling with legislation that would expand or restrict access to the drug.

More than 60 bills have been filed in state legislatures already this year, and that follows an already busy 2005 session on emergency contraception. The resulting tug of war is creating an availability map for the pill that looks increasingly similar to the map of "red states" and "blue states" in the past two presidential elections -- with increased access in the blue states and greater restrictions in the red ones.
Recall that the FDA refused to make a decision on the approval of the over the counter sale of the drug without prescription, a policy recommended for approval by its advisory process, then a leading scientist quit the agency in protest, and its Administrator resigned having apparently reneged on promises made during his confirmation hearing.

The Battlefields

It is important to realize that the Bush Administration is supportive of most science, and indeed has proposed a major increase in funding for science based on recommendations from leaders of the scientific and industrial communities. There is no fundamental disagreement about development of nanoscience and technology, information science, space technology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, or many other fields of science.

So what are the contentious issues?

The role of science in environmental policy: The core of the problem seems to be where business profits would be reduced by government regulatory action based on scientific evidence. The Bush Administration seems skeptical about the validity of such evidence, seems to apply the cautionary principle less vigorously than many scientists would prefer, and unfortunately seems to introduce political style invective in what I would prefer to be reasoned discourse.

Reproductive biology: The Administration, and many of its backers, oppose abortion. Policies preventing funding of organizations providing abortion or abortion advice have been put into place, and evidence from the social sciences suggesting caution with such policies is challenged strongly. The Administration has regulated against government spending on embryonic stem cell research, using faulty information to justify its regulation, and in spite of the fact that many embryos that could be used to try to generate new stem cell lines are simply destroyed each year. It seems to be militating against any research that would produce chimeras -- either animals with some inserted genes from humans or humans with some inserted genes from animals. All of these policies seem to be based on religious concepts. Scientists hold that some of the prohibited research would be scientifically valuable, potentially contributing to development of useful medical technologies, and many hold that now prohibited studies would be ethically acceptable.

The teaching of evolution: Many who believe in literal interpretations of the bible seek that science teaching in the public schools be limited in any area that they see as challenging biblical teachings. The past conflict over the teaching of creationism, and the current one over teaching intelligent design as alternative theories to evolution are the hottest issues. Note, however, that there is a long history of these issues including cosmology and gradualism in geology.

International cooperation: This is a more complicated issue, but on a number of occasions the Administration has concerned or even angered scientists by actions that have restricted international travel. After 9/11 the slowdown in granting of visas for graduate education in the United States, and for scientific exchanges is of special concern. Members of the Administration have also sought to limit participation of U.S. scientists in international meetings and institutions, and indeed it is charged to substitute political criteria for scientific criteria in the appointment of advisors to the international scientific bodies.

Political versus scientific judgment: There is a line between where scientific judgment is considered to dominate and where political judgment leads. Basically, scientists should judge the evidence on matters of fact, political processes should dominate to balance the values involved. Thus the Congress allocates funds among the National Institutes of Health, but no research project is funded unless approved by a scientific review committee. The National Science Foundation is so named to symbolize the high importance of scientific to political judgment in its decision making. In two areas, the placement of this line has been especially of concern to the scientific community during this Administration: appointments and earmarking. The Administration clearly has the right and the authority to appoint its people to policy making positions in government agencies, but there is concern that in some cases the appointees have not had the appropriate professional qualifications. The number of projects with budgets earmarked by Congress, bypassing the normal scientific review process has increase markedly in recent years.

Other areas: Some have seen the scientific battles as a subset of battles in a larger "war on expertise". I suppose that one might focus more on the social sciences, and question whether the Administration is drawing appropriately on economic knowledge for its economic policies, or on knowledge from sociology, anthropology and political science for its prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its promotion of democracy. But I think the five general areas described above provide a potentially useful framework for discussion.

There is an important and useful place for ideology, and there are clearly limits to scientific knowledge and rational decision making. Not only don't we know enough to always base policy and decisions on evidence, but we don't seem to be able to handle very complex decision making very well, and of course, the economics of decision making often recommend routine or non-analytic processes.

Moreover, as Voltaire said, "the ideal is the enemy of the good". It is often more important to get a policy or program that is adequate, by a political process that is acceptable to all, than to insist on a program that is more fully based on evidence and scientific judgment.

But the United States has a history in its international negotiations of arguing for more rational decisions, and opposing approaches of other nations that we judged excessively ideological. In the aftermath of 9/11 this position seems especially imperative for security reasons, but I believe more rationality also to be critically important in international economic and social development. Poor countries and poor people simply need to make better decisions on how to use their scarce resources and how to confront their pressing problems. I hate to see the United States assuming a more ideological position and thus undermining its important role as an advocate of evidence based policy and decision making.

A New Global Disease Warning System Proposed

Reaxd the full story by Kim Zetter in Wired News:

"Google's newly appointed philanthropy chief is rallying industry support for an ambitious plan to create a global early-warning system to identify and prevent the spread of infectious diseases and other disasters."

Monday, February 27, 2006

India and the Knowledge Economy

I was asked by the The Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI) to fill out a questionnaire. I might as well share the responses, so they are below:

I regret that I am an expert on India, and that I an not an economist professionally prepared to respond to these questions. But the questions are interesting, and I suspect the answers shed light on my views of international development.

Questionnaire on India as a Knowledge Economy

1.India is fast growing as a knowledge economy. How do you view the current scenario and its growth potential?

I see India India's growth in knowledge-intensive fields continuing. and I see that growth yielding substantial long-term economic and social benefits to India.

2.What are the areas of the knowledge sector that are driving the growth of India as a knowledge economy?

Indian culture values knowledge highly, and that cultural value is the main driver of India as a knowledge economy. I would include cultural attitudes toward knowledge as within the “knowledge sector”.

Educational services, especially those in the elite secondary schools and the world class universities, have provided the human resources that enable progress so far in developing a knowledge economy. Surely the educational system is part of the “knowledge sector”.

There seemed to be little progress until government policies open the economy, encouraging a greater export orientation and resulting in increased investment. Thus, one has to include the enabling policy environment as part of the “knowledge sector”.

Clearly software and ICT enabled services are important industrial drivers. I expect to see areas such as pharmaceuticals increasingly important, and I hope to see India benefit economically from nanotechnology based industries.

3.How important do you think is the development of knowledge economy for the progress of a country as a whole?

I am not clear what you mean by this question.

In the sense of using improved knowledge as a driving force behind all aspects of Indian development, I think the development of the knowledge economy is central to development. I think the experience in Western nations is that improved technology and improved organization drive the productivity improvement that in turn drives long term growth. Thus, modern knowledge institutions are critical to improving agricultural productivity, providing good health services, etc.

In the narrower sense of the explosive growth of knowledge intensive economic activity in Bangalore and Mumbai, I think there is a significant opportunity and some threat. The growth of this sector provides resources, impetus and an example that would serve India’s national development well.

However, many have commented on the curse of mineral wealth, suggesting that countries that have relatively large mineral exports have often failed to utilize the income generated to educate their people, and have utilized the resources in ways to allow reforms to be postponed. Elites have benefited greatly, but their countries did not develop. I suppose something of the same kind could happen in India, based on the export of knowledge intensive goods and services, produced in an enclave productive environment. The best brains in India might do India more good focusing on India’s problems and India’s development, than being rented out to solve problems of rich countries.

4.Education being the fundamental enabler of the knowledge economy, what does the education system of the country needs to do in order to develop the skills of knowledge workers?

Interesting that there should be a gramatical error in the phrasing of the question.

The success to date has been based on elite schools and especially a capacity in science, engineering and other technology fields developed over decades. This of course has to be continued.

I would suggest that educational excellence must be spread much more widely if India as a whole is to enter the knowledge economy. I would hate to see a dual society institutionalized with an educated elite participating fully in globalization, and an uneducated majority left behind.

5.It is being said that while knowledge workers can further advance as entrepreneurs in a knowledge economy, the industrial worker or the layman is being left behind and thus creating a divide. Your comments on this.

I think that pay reflects the supply and demand for job skills. The development of India, driven by certain knowledge intensive industries, is increasing the demand for goods and services. But the increase in demand is not uniform, and the demand for some services is increasing faster than for others.

Development means, importantly, increasing productivity, and specifically increasing worker productivity. This too is proceeding unevenly.

Globalization also means that the markets affecting the supply and demand for labor are expanding. As India gets richer, its low-wage labor force will be facing competition from other nations with still lower labor costs.

The industrial worker or agricultural worker with little education and few skills, producing in sectors where productivity is increasing faster than demand, is in real trouble. The balance between demand and supply for his labor is changing in the wrong direction.

The solution to the problem is in part mobility. It involves the willingness to move from geographic areas with poor job prospects to others with better prospects. It also involves the ability to move from occupations with poor prospects to others with better prospects. This in turn depends on a social and educational system that prepares people to move over, and to move up.

6.What are the key issues that India needs to address to spur growth and innovation in the knowledge sector? What does India need to do to create and sustain an effective knowledge economy?

The economists would probably say policies and institutions. I don’t think India will progress as much as it should without a policy environment that encourages investment and innovation. And I think it important to strengthen institutions including India’s participation in international markets, legal institutions, governance institutions, intellectual property rights institutions, etc.

The security specialist would probably emphasize stability. Certainly war with China or Pakistan would not enhance India’s development. (History suggests that the great wars usually were not predicted decades in advance, so today’s peace can not always be depended on tomorrow.)

The engineer would probably point to India’s infrastructure, which seems inadequate to the task before the country and fragile.

Anything that can be done to insure good fortune should be done. Pandemic diseases, climate change, and global competition for natural resources seem to have significant potential to emerge as threats in the next couple of decades.

7.How do you view India in the next two decades as a knowledge economy in the global scenario?

“Through a glass, darkly.”

The continuance of current trends seems more likely than any other scenario. India would grow rapidly, while China grows still more rapidly.

Globalization would continue, supported by continuing technological development, and by further expansion of a global trading system that encourages specialization in which countries increasingly exploit their comparative advantage. India would look increasingly outside its borders.

Environmental problems and resource shortages would be exacerbated, and India would struggle to make the institutional changes necessary to apply the increasing global understanding of these problems to their solution.

The world’s largest democracy, serving a huge nation with a hugely diverse population, will struggle to adapt politically and institutionally to an ever increasing rate of social, economic and environmental changes.

8.Any other comments?

Good luck!

Curious Cat Management Improvement: Manufacturing and the Economy

Curious Cat Management Improvement: Manufacturing and the Economy

Curious Cat cites data indicating that U.S. manufacturing value added increased by 39 percent from 1990 to 2001, as compared with 22 percent for world manufacturing value added.

I think that other countries were able to displace U.S. manufacturers in labor intensive industries, but that the United States was able to maintain a lead in knowledge intensive manufacturing.

This is good for the economy as a whole, but hard on the people, towns and regions in the United States that lived on labor intensive manufacturing, and didn't have the educational or skill resources to move from the labor intensive jobs that they had lost into the knowledge intensive jobs that were being created.

To prepare for a still more knowledge intensive economy of the future, we will have to do a better job educating our people, and we will have to be sure that the economy promotes and supports high levels of innovation. Unfortunately, that also implies that we will have to allow high rates of "creative destruction"; there will be short term losers.

I hope we can also maintain policies that keep those losses to the short term, and support people as they recover from the ill effects of the destruction (no matter how "creative").

Sunday, February 26, 2006

One Chance in 100 of Catastophe

During the 20th century, there was one pandemic of influenza that killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people, orders of magnitude more than any flu pandemic in human history.

Katrina hit New Orleans, a once-in-a-century event, and killed 2000 people and caused unprecedented damage.

There are estimates the magnitudes of events that will only be expected to be exceeded once per century -- floods, earthquakes, droughts, etc.

One question is how do we, as a society plan for catastrophic events that have low probabilities. We, as individuals, are affected by an "availability" falicy of memory -- we often function as if the things we recall most easily are the most likely, and as if things not available easily in our memory do not concern us. Not a good idea when facing a once-in-a-century probability of catastrophy.

As societies, we are scarcely better. We rebuild cities on the rubble left by hurricanes and earthquakes, and on the lava from previous eruptions of active volcanoes. We build in flood planes, and sites prone to mud slides, and rebuild buildings destroyed by wild fires.

But there is another issue, and that is our difficulty in perceiving and responding to emergencies that occur on a time scale measured in decades or centuries.

HIV/AIDS emerged as a new disease in the 20th century, I think the only really major new disease of the 20th century, and has killed tens of millions of people. It was painful to see the lack of global response in the early years to the epidemic that seemed so obviously likely to kill millions or tens of millions.

Jared Diamond, in his book, Collapse, points out how societies have been destroyed when they were unable to respond to climate changes or environmental problems that developed over decades or centuries. His analysis suggests that if the Greenland Norse had recognized their problems caused by the Little Ice Age and the environmental degredation that they were causing, and that the Inuit were handling things better, they might have become more like the Inuit and survived. His analysis suggests that if societies that were seeding their own destruction by deforesting their environment recognized what they were doing, their catastrophe could have been averted. But many past societies seem not to have recognized these problems that develop over a period of decades or centuries.

The predictions of global climate change suggest real problems by the end of the 21st century. By the end of the century trend analysis indicates that we will almost certainly have nearly twice the global population of 2000. Anyone who reads can see deforestation, desertification, loss of topsoil, depletion of oil and other fossil fuel reserves, salinization of prime farm land, depletion of water resources and reduction of biodiversity occuring at rates that make the prospects for the year 2100 quite dim.

Yet the social response to the situation seems slight and pales before the challenge. Perhaps it is because our political leaders are old enough that they will not see the end of the century, and they focus on the next election rather than the next generation! But the children born in this decade may, and their children will probably see the year 2100!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

"Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability"

Read the online book by the Board on Sustainable Development of the National Research Council (1999).

From the Executive Summary: "This study, conducted by the National Research Council's Board on Sustainable Development, is an attempt to reinvigorate the essential strategic connections between scientific research, technological development, and societies' efforts to achieve environmentally sustainable improvements in human well-being. To that end, the Board seeks to illuminate critical challenges and opportunities that might be encountered in serious efforts to pursue goals of sustainable development......in our judgment, it is over the next two generations that many of the stresses between human development and the environment will become acute. It is over this period that serious progress in a transition toward sustainability will need to take place if interactions between the earth's human population and life support systems are not to significantly damage both. Additionally, two generations is a realistic time frame for scientific and technological analysis that can provide direction, assess plausible futures, measure success—or the lack of it—along the way, and identify levers for changing course.....In the Board's judgment, the primary goals of a transition toward sustainability over the next two generations should be to meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population, to sustain the life support systems of the planet, and to substantially reduce hunger and poverty......Certain current trends of population and habitation, wealth and consumption, technology and work, connectedness and diversity, and environmental change are likely to persist well into the coming century and could significantly undermine the prospects for sustainability. If they do persist, many human needs will not be met, life support systems will be dangerously degraded, and the numbers of hungry and poor will increase.......based on our analysis of persistent trends and plausible futures, the Board believes that a successful transition toward sustainability is possible over the next two generations. This transition could be achieved without miraculous technologies or drastic transformations of human societies. What will be required, however, are significant advances in basic knowledge, in the social capacity and technological capabilities to utilize it, and in the political will to turn this knowledge and know-how into action......Priorities for action include the following: • Accelerate current trends in fertility reduction......• Accommodate an expected doubling to tripling of the urban system in a habitable, efficient, and environmentally friendly manner.......• Reverse declining trends in agricultural production in Africa; sustain historic trends elsewhere."

Friday, February 24, 2006

Sessions at Upcoming APS Meetings

Irving Lerch has organized sessions that are likely to be interesting at upcoming American Physical Society Meetings.

2006 APS March Meeting (Monday–Friday, March 13–17, 2006) in Baltimore, Maryland
* Scientists from Developing Countries: is There an Effective Way to Support Meaningful Research?

2006 APS April Meeting (Saturday–Tuesday, April 22–25, 2006) in Dallax, Texas
* Public and Private Funding for International Research

* Science and Development: Innovation Systems for Fighting Poverty

* Scholars at Risk

Two Stories Related to Wrongheaded Federal Policies

Two stories in the Washington Post's Metro section today illustrate policies that seem to me antithetical to the position I take in this blog:

"Duncan Sues FDA Over Canadian Drugs" by Tim Craig

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to protect the citizens of this country against dangers from pharmaceutical products. But I don't think there is any danger to the public from drugs approved for sale in Canada! Indeed many of the drugs that would be imported are in fact produced in the United States. I hope that the FDA is not suggesting that the pharmaceutical industry is, with its permission, producing drugs for the Canadian market that would not be acceptable for U.S. citizens to use. I suspect doublespeak, and the health being protected is that of industrial balance sheets rather than patients.

"Compromise Predicted in Md. On Stem Cell Research Funds: Amended Legislation Similar to Approach by Ehrlich" by John Wagner

Legislation is pending before the Maryland state legislature to "authorize state money not only for embryonic stem cell research, which many conservative lawmakers oppose, but also for less controversial work on adult cells."

Stem cell research not only offers important scientific information, but eventually important medical advances. The research community has been hindered in the United States from vigorous exploration of this field by an irrational ruling by the Federal Government.

There are currently 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, many of which are destroyed every year when their donors decide they are no longer needed for their own fertility enhancement treatment. It would not be at all unethical to divert some of these into biomedical research rather than simply destroying them, especially if by so doing we could eventually improve lives and avert unnecessary deaths.

Maryland could do well while doing good if the legislature were to pass this bill. Maryland is fortunate to be a world leader in biomedical research, in large part due to hosting Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health. Basic biomedical research requires seed money, and this legislation could provide it to local researchers while the misguided Federal policy denies such funding to others. Given a head start, Maryland researchers will soon reap commercial advantage for the State from their stem cell research!

California and other countries have seen the opportunity and have grasped it!

Olympic Hights of Ineptitude

Read the full story by Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post. (February 24, 2006.)

The U.S. government first denied and then granted a visa to Goverdhan Mehta, the president of the International Council for Science. "In a statement, the International Council for Science expressed 'grave concern at the hostile treatment' of Mehta at the U.S. Consulate in Madras. 'It clearly illustrates that, despite some progress, all is far from well with regards to the visa policies and associated practices for scientists wishing to enter the USA,' the organization said."

"Mehta and another Indian scientist, P.C. Kesavan, a Madras geneticist specializing in radiation biology who was also refused a visa unless he provided detailed information about his background and the potential applications of his work, said senior scientists have better things to do with their time."

In another news story (this time from the Wall Street Journal), Kevin Warsh's nomination has been confirmed by the Senate Banking Committee to fill a vacancy on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. He has been working as a White House Special Assistant, and previously worked at Morgan Stanley's investment banking department. His appointment was apparently intended to put someone with a business perspective on the Board.

But is this another crony appointment?

Kevin Drum writes in his column Political Animal (echoing Noam Scheiber in the New Republic):
If you were nominating someone for a seat on the Federal Reserve, what would you look for? At a guess, you'd want someone with a PhD in economics and a good background in monetary policy, right?

Instead, how about a law degree, a few years of experience in the M&A trenches at Morgan Stanley, a well honed loyalty to the White House, and a father who donates a lot of money to Republican causes? Because that's what we just got in 35-year-old Kevin Warsh.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"A Phony Science Gap?"

Read the opinion piece by Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post, Wednesday, February 22, 2006.

Samuelson notes that U.S. universities graduate eleven percent of science and engineering undergraduate degrees, and there has been a significant increase in the number of such degrees since 1990. Graduate S&E enrollments have increased 22 percent since their low in 1998. He cites Duke University results suggesting that the numbers of s&E graduates in China and India have been exagerated. He takes comfort in the United States being able to attract S&E personnel from abroad.

He points out, reasonably, that if we want more S&E trained people, we ought to offer them more money. He sees reason to believe that S&E salaries are indeed increasing relative to other professions. (I had a conversation the other day with an engineering executive who pointed out that many high level executives in corporate America are engineering graduates, but their salaries are not included in the calculations because -- although their engineering education was important to their career development -- they are no longer doing engineering work.)

Some excerpts:

"Ever since Sputnik (1957) and the "missile gap" (1960), we've been warned that we're being overtaken technologically. Up to a point, that's inevitable. As countries modernize, they need more scientists and engineers. Technological competence expands."

"But a country's capacity for scientific and commercial innovation does not correlate directly with its number of scientists and engineers. Hard work, imagination and business practices also matter. Here the United States has some significant strengths: widespread ambition; an openness to new ideas, especially from the young; an acceptance of skilled immigrants; strong connections between universities and businesses; and well-funded venture capitalists."

"In some ways the worldwide "knowledge economy" is unthreatening. Good ideas and products spread quickly. Knowledge is stateless. Two Americans invented the computer chip; now it's used everywhere. Still, we need to maintain a world-class science and engineering workforce. We want to keep high-value economic activity here, and we need to ensure superior military technology.

"Only about 4 percent of the U.S. workforce consists of scientists and engineers."

Let me make a modest proposal.

The United States faces a significant demographic shift now that the "baby boom" generation is about to reach retirement age. Unless we do something about it, the demographic shift is going to cause big problems paying pensions and health care costs. We have a huge country, with lots of areas of low population density. So lets encourage immigration! Lets attract lots of S&E trained people, and lots of people with the other skills and with the education needed to run a knowledge economy. Lets create the economic conditions so that these folk can continue to innovate and increase productivity. Lets offer them the fruits of their labor, but let them pay for the costs of public services to our aging population.

The Fundamental Role of Science and Technology in International Development: An Imperative for the U.S. Agency for International Development

Read the report online at the National Academy Press.

This report by a distinguished panel reviews the role of science and technology in international development and considers the way in which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) promotes and uses science and technology in its programs.

The report is organized to emphasize five topics or issues:
* Improving child health and child survival;
* Expanding access to drinking water and sanitation;
* Supporting agricultural research to help reduce hunger and poverty;
* Promoting microeconomic reform to stimulate private sector growth and technological innovation; and
* Preventing and responding to natural disasters.

The report makes three recommendations:
* First, that USAID should reverse the decline in its support for building science and technology capacity in developing countries.

* Second, that the agency should strengthen the capacity of its leadership and program managers to effectively integrate science and technology into its programs.

* Third, that USAID should promote and coordinate the science and technology-related activities that other US government departments and agencies undertake in developing countries.

David Dickson has written a news article in SciDev.Net noting the publication of the book .

By the Committee on Science and Technology in Foreign Assistance, National Research Council, 2006. (175 pages)


Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind--
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts.....they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; But there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
from Part Six,
"Huntsman, What Quarry?" 1939

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System

Description: "In the international effort to advance human health, welfare, and development while better managing and conserving the environment and natural resources, there is a clear and growing recognition of the role of scientific and technical knowledge in global governance. This has created an urgent need for the United Nations to equip itself with the capability to bring scientific knowledge to inform international decision making. Given the complexity and diversity of United Nations programs, organs, and mandates, this report focuses on the main functions of the United Nations that affect international governance in the fields related to sustainable development, with reference to the taxonomy of the key United Nations organs in which these functions are undertaken. Efforts have been made to ensure that the major categories of United Nations organs have been covered and therefore the results of the review are representative of the functioning of the United Nations system."

Committee for Survey and Analysis of Science Advice on Sustainable Development to International Organizations, Development, Security, and Cooperation, National Research Council, 120 pages, 2002.

The chapters titled "Elements of Science Advice", "UN Sustainable Development Activities and Their Science Advisory Processes" and "Structure of Science Advice in the United Nations System Today" should be useful in a wide variety of circumstances.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

UPI has an article by SHAUN WATERMAN, its Homeland and National Security Editor, about a Congressman's effort to pressure the Congressional Research Service. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Permanent Select on Intelligence,
"blasted the Congressional Research Service for bias in two reports it produced on the National Security Agency's program of warrantless counter-terrorist surveillance.......The reports questioned the legal reasoning the administration has employed to justify both the program and the way that only a handful of senior lawmakers from both parties were briefed on it..... 'The plain message people were getting was that The president broke the law, he said. 'That is wrong. It requires a strong answer.'"

The article goes on to cite several others who feel the Congressional Research Service is careful to guarantee neutrality of its reports, and left me with the impression that Hoekstra wanted to silence potential critics more than to set the record straight.

I was especially interested in the following:
"Citing recent reports about efforts to silence government scientists on the subject of global warming, Beth Daley, of the watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, said Hoekstra's letters were part of a Republican "campaign against expertise."

"'These complaints,' she told UPI, 'are part of their campaign against accurate information, against science.'

"She accused CRS management of allowing a 'culture of fear and intimidation' to develop at the service.......veterans of the service say that taking positions -- which may be unpopular with one side or the other in any debate -- is essential to their work."

The Project on Government Oversight is an interesting NGO, using its resources to keep the government honest and its operations transparent. If their Communications Director states publicly that there is a Republican campaign against expertise, the comment is worthy of attention.

Daley's comment is cited by Kevin Drum in his column in the Washington Monthly yesterday. Drum goes on to describe the case of Louis Fisher of the CRS, who is trying to survive the fallout from his statement that the 1989 Wistleblower Act has not proven very effective in rooting out government problems. Drum concludes:
Newspaper reporters might well take note of this: objectivity is not neutrality. The fact that there are two sides to a story does not make both sides equally valid. Louis Fisher appears to recognize this, and the only question left is whether he'll be fired for saying so. Stay tuned.

Drum cites Chris Mooney's great "Requiem for an Office", written on the tenth anniversary of the closing of the Office of Technology Assessment by the Newt Gingrich led Congress. Money writes:
following the "Gingrich revolution" of 1994, incoming congressional Republicans dismantled their authoritative scientific advisory office in a stunning act of self-lobotomy. Obsessed with shrinking government, Gingrich's acolytes denounced OTA for being too slow in its assessments and (some added) suspect in its political orientation. The late Cong. George Brown of California, leading the Democratic minority on the House Science Committee at the time, memorably countered that the agency had served as Congress's "defense against the dumb," and continued, "it is shameful that OTA was defenseless against a very dumb decision by Congress."

Mooney gives the last word to Jack Gibbons, the former Director of OTA, and I can do no less:
A signatory to a prominent 2004 statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists denouncing the Bush administration's scientific stewardship, Gibbons told me that while science has always been politicized to some extent, "It's never been this blatant or this bad. We almost wistfully think back to the Reagan years." But he also explained how OTA, had it remained in existence, could have served as a partial check on rampant science politicization and misrepresentations of scientific information. The office might have prepared an independent assessment of the number of available embryonic stem cell lines, for instance, so that Congress wouldn't have had to trust President Bush's woefully incorrect claim that "more than 60" such lines were in existence as of August 2001. OTA might also have helped set the record straight on the science of climate change--a task it could have accomplished in congressionally endorsed studies that would have been hard to ignore.

OTA, Gibbons added, defused politicized science disputes by providing an authoritative, baseline body of information that all sides could accept. Characteristically, Gibbons reached into his grab bag of quotations in order to accentuate the point. He invoked the words of Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic senator from New York: "We can each have our own opinions, but we cannot each have our own facts." That's a lesson whose value, we can only hope, will ultimately prevail upon Congress--whether Republican-controlled or otherwise.

Thinking About Policy in Time

The Perception of Time

I suppose we all remember how, as children, our perception of time stretched or tightened according to the circumstances. In anticipation of an exciting event, time could stretch endlessly. Bored, time could hang heavy. Yet in an exciting game, time could pass in the blinking of an eye. Summer vacation could stretch like an eternity in prospect, and seem to have flashed by in retrospect. All of these are examples of perception of duration – if you will the length of the period between events, or between the present moment and some event. Einstein said it best:
"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity."

We do have internal clocks. There is a famous story of Galileo measuring the swing of a pendulum using his pulse as a timing device. Many people report feeling hungry or waking up at the same time every day, without use of a clock; some report being able to set an “internal alarm” to alert them to wake at a given moment. But our perceptual clocks seem to be variable speed. Thus when emerges from the state of “flow,” more time will have passed than seems possible. “Bullet time” or the experience of slow motion is reported, usually in emergency situations, where events seem to slow down (or time speeds up).

We think about time, Einstein notwithstanding, as a continuum divided by “now” into “future” and “past”. Things are “early” or “late” according to their position with regard to a “now” point on the time continuum. One event is “before” or “after” another depending on whether it is earlier or later than the “now” of the other event. But the scale of the continuum varies. “Now” can be this instant, this minute, today, this year, or even this epoch according to the context. “A long time ago” in the context of a child’s life, may be “a short time” in the context of his grandfather’s life, and “now” in the context of “geological time”.

As we locate ourselves in space, we locate ourselves in time. It is daytime or nighttime. It is winter, spring, fall or summer. When I owned a sailboat, I was usually aware of whether the tide was ebbing or flowing, even when I was not on the water. We know the day of the week, and the month of the year, and I suspect that in ancient times people knew offhand the phase of the moon. Devote Moslems, I am sure, know which of their five daily occasions for prayer was last and which is next, as medieval Christians knew where they were in terms of the daily liturgy of the hours, or sailors knew their place in the tolling of the watch bells.

Closely linked to the perception of duration are perceptions of the speed with which events occur. Thus many people report that as they get older, “time seems to fly;” that is that the perceived duration between events diminishes. Many people report that the pace of modern life is increasing, again that the perceived duration between events is decreasing with modernization. (This is indeed, the theme addressed in this posting.)

John Bolton has recently pushed for a daily briefing at the UN that would start “on time”. His perception of “on time” is likely to differ from that of representatives to the UN from other countries, since that perception seems to vary widely from culture to culture. My experience with U.N. meetings was that they started hours after their announced times, in part because everyone knew that they would, but I presume in part because many participants came from cultures were “on time” is a very flexible concept. We expect trains and airplanes to be on time, and indeed the effects of two trains or two planes occupying the same space at the same time makes timekeeping critically important. But there is a different perception in my world of whether one is “on time” depending on whether it is for work, for a social occasion, or for an airplane.

There is a closely related question of when two events are sufficiently close in time to be treated as simultaneous. We believe that a causal event must precede the caused event, so perhaps a definition of simultaneity is when two events occur such that neither could be the cause of the other. But again, our perception of when two events happen at the same time is quite flexible. We might consider two events happening in the distant past as happening at the same time if they were in the same century, while we might be very concerned with microseconds in the ordering of signals in a computer.

Perceptions of the “appropriate times” or “appropriate durations” seem very cultural. I find it difficult to realize that an invitation to come by at 7:00 requires more precision if it applies to dinner and less if it applies to a party; arriving at precisely the time indicated is a very bad idea if one is attending a UN event, as one will be alone.

Technological Revolutions

The history of society-changing technological innovations is well known:
· Energy technologies, moving from muscle, water and wind power, and wood burning, to fossil fuels, steam engines, internal combustion engines, jets, electricity, and nuclear power;
· Transportation technologies moving from foot and animal power, to railroads, automotive transportation, from sailing ships to steamboats, to ships powered by internal combustion engines, to nuclear ships;
· Communication technologies moving from telegraph, to telephone, radio (including wireless and television), microwave, fiber optics, satellite, and the Internet.
· Information technologies, with printing bringing us books, magazines and newspapers, photography, and computers.
· Mechanization, bringing the automated factory, robots, etc.

Perhaps less commonly underlined is the evolution of instrumentation, including time pieces, telescopes, microscopes, chemical instrumentation, etc. As the instrumentation changes the range of our perceptions, it also induces changes in our perception of metrics, and specifically of the metrics for the measurement of time.

Clearly we can communicate faster over longer distances than ever before, we can move faster over longer distances than ever before, and we can carry more over greater distances than ever before. These changes affect our perceptions of scale, and in an Einsteinian parallel, our perceptions of time.

A Couple of Examples of the Temporal Effects of Technology

The mobile or personal phone has changed perceptions of time. In the past, with land lines, there were office and home phones. We used each at specific times. You could communicate with a colleague at the office during only those hours in which he/she was actually in the office. (The answering machine, which made asynchronous communication possible, made one way communication possible at any time.) The personal phone blurs the distinction between “office time” and “home time”, allowing colleagues to communicate about work at any time, (or for family members to communicate any time). The technology had dramatically changed our perception of acceptable delays in communication.

Email has been the first “killer app” of the Internet, and it has introduced a new sense of time to asynchronous point-to-point communication. In the past snail mail may have been faster than it is today, but it was still very slow compared to email. In the 18th century, weeks or months might pass between a major event, and its news reaching world capitals. With the railroad and steam ships, mail moved faster, and with the telegraph it could move very fast indeed. But today, with much broader channel capacity, we can watch the Olympics in real time, or indeed view a thousand landscapes in real time using online webcams. Internet technology has again changed what we consider to be happening now, and what we consider to be an acceptable delay in communication.

Institutional Responses

Institutions change in response to the technological changes. Thus large organizations were created to manage the railroads and factories, and eventually to manage other social systems. There seems to be evidence now that the largest organizations are utilizing the Internet to outsource functions, enabling them to downsize.

Markets have expanded. Once the image that the word “market” created was that of a town market, with venders hawking their wares in the town or market square. With the advent railroads and the telegraph, organizations could and did market to regions. Advertising was institutionalized to enable large organizations to reach large numbers of consumers in these regional markets. During the first period of globalization (before World War I) and the current period (since World War II) some markets reach worldwide. Today our prototypical image might well be the global stock market, with trades happening in milliseconds, and happening somewhere on the globe any hour of the day or night.

I would suggest the proliferation of international and multinational organizations like the United Nations or the World Bank is another symptom of institutional response to the growth that technology enabled of the global infrastructure and of global traffic over that infrastructure. There are now thousands of international and multilateral organizations, forming an institutionalized global web that simply did not exist before the 20th century.

People seem to have migrated as long as we have history, and before. Migration has increased with the change in technology. Emigration from Ireland was so great in the 18th century that Irish culture evolved specialized forms, including departure wakes for departing family members who presumably would never be seen again, (and whose letters might cease to arrive at any time). The departing were literally mourned as dead. Kinship institutions again changed in the 20th century, as visits home became more affordable in both time and money, enabled by the ongoing technological revolutions. I have heard the Irish say that the typical Irish family is a father, a mother, two children, and a visiting American cousin! Kinship institutions are again changing in the Internet era.

World religions, once widely decentralized, have seen the center reach out more to interact with the periphery was travel and communications have improved. The death of Pope John Paul II triggered not only a global television event, but the travel of hundreds of thousand of people to Rome to participate directly in the ceremonies – something that would not have been possible in earlier times. Moreover, the Pope’s travel and global visibility would not have been possible in earlier times; the technological revolutions allowed him to play a symbolic role in the church never before possible, and thus to touch the lives and hearts of huge numbers of people to an unprecedented extent.

Institutional Time

I would suggest that different institutions institutionalize the ideas of time differently. Thus we may think of “organizational time”, “market time”, “kinship time” or “religious time”.

Large organizations are the natural habitat of the time clock. “On time” in large organizations tends to mean precise adherence to announced schedules. Indeed, the assembly line introduces a regimentation of time unknown to previous generations. But organizational time also depends on the size of the organization, with small organizations often much less focused on timekeeping. It also depends on organizational culture.

I was involved for many years in a program bring post-doctoral scientists for a year or two each into a government bureaucracy. It was interesting that the scientists worked long hours, but not necessarily the bureaucratic hours of the colleagues in their new setting. A difference I think between the academic scientific setting in which they had learned the rules of work time, and the bureaucratic setting which determined the rules for the rest of us.

Different markets work on different times. I have gone to markets (in developing countries) where one bargained over the price of each item. To accept a first offer would have been foolish, and indeed a rude rejection of the sellers expectations. In the United States, one buys at a fixed price, and the transactions are much faster (albeit, less fun). On the other hand, in the computerized trading on international financial markets, transactions occur in a tiny fraction of a second, making the fixed-price transactions described above seem extremely long.

In the Catholic Church, the time scale of greatest concern is probably millennial. A papal encyclical is issued every few years, and there is a Vatican Council every few decades. Other religions have quite different views of time and the critical cycles of time.

Some Examples

Once, I would suggest, people didn’t pay much attention to time. Even in the Middle Ages, people had few clocks. People probably worked pretty much when they pleased during the day. Days changed in length with the seasons, and so too did the daily chores. People counted time in days, weeks, months and years.

Farm time probably hasn’t changed much. Crops still take a season from planting to harvest. Livestock still take years to mature, and are governed by an age old reproductive cycle.

As we think of global warming, we consider the history of climate over millennia. We project changes out a century in the future. We think of changes in the rates of production of greenhouse gasses in terms of decades. I don’t think our ancestors tried to understand things on this scale, nor to change things over such periods of time.

I have a scientist acquaintance who studies chemical reaction times, using supercomputers to simulate reactions, and doing experiments that seek to measure changes in tiny fractions of a second. His clock runs fast!

Other scientists seek to understand the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang, and think in terms of tens of billions of years.

We now use a much wider variety of time scales in our thinking.

Economic Time

Once we thought that a job in a big corporation gave lifetime security. That no longer seems to be true. Giant firms do change, and firms in the automotive and airline businesses that have had stabile workforces for decades now find they are downsizing in a big way. The time scale for change in these organizations has become shorter than the time scale for the careers of skilled and unskilled workers.

So too, it was once assumed that building heavy industry assured the economic success of the nation. Now too, that idea is being adjusted or discarded.

I was impressed by an Israeli agricultural viewpoint. We think of farmers as having a very long time frame. You plant an orchard, and your children are still selling the fruit when they inherit the farm. Israeli farmers export into the European market. They have advantages of a Mediterranean climate and relatively good supply routes to that market. At one time they had a strong position in citrus exports, and more recently in ornamentals and cut flowers. But they face strong competition from high tech (greenhouse) agriculture in some European countries, and from other Mediterranean countries with even shorter supply lines and cheaper labor. So Israel competes for export markets on the basis of innovation. If it develops a new agricultural product, and a market for that product in Europe, it can expect only a few years of domination of that market until competitors seek to use their competitive advantages to muscle in.

A friend told me recently that he was advising low income countries interested in entering the ICT export industries not to bother with fabrication plants, since if they were successful their advantages of low wages would melt away, and the plants would move to countries with still lower labor prices. I think the suggestion may have been wrong.

In today’s global economy, poor countries are going to have to develop industries based on their low cost labor. A plant that provides jobs for people for a few years or a decade is an asset, and after all those people are probably doing (much) better economically than they would otherwise. But such a plant is more, it offers a basis for development of a follow-on enterprise that can provide more employment and more economic growth later. That basis may be in the skills developed by workers, in the development of an industrial cluster of mutually supportive enterprises, or in the development of financial, managerial, educational or physical infrastructure that can be used for other purposes.

Some Policy Implications of Thinking in Economic Time

One policy implication would seem to be for poor countries to grab the opportunities that they can, and to utilize the competitive advantages that they possess as best they can.

A second it that such countries should recognize that their small companies and their new industries have little inertia in the international markets. Consequently, rapid change is likely to be a fact of life. The country should always be on the lookout for the next opportunity, always on the lookout for the next threat from competitors.

I think a policy domain is needed that allows firms that have lost their edge to fold, and that encourages entrepreneurs who sense a new opportunity to venture. Legal and administrative structures should be built to allow this.

I think the workforce should be educated with a breadth of knowledge and skills that allows workers to change jobs, to change employers, and to change fields of work when it becomes necessary (or advantageous) to do so.

Churning of the economy will produce a lot of short term losses as well as gains. Educating people so that they can seize more of the opportunities, and cultural adaptation to change are only part of the answer. The social safety net has to be strong and universal, assuring that the losers don’t lose too much.

Managers should be trained to manage change, and to develop organizations with the flexibility to adapt and grow, but also to close down organizations and start new ones when such becomes appropriate.

Technology policy is called upon to promote innovation and to enhance productivity. Maintenance of productivity in a developing country involves not only changing technology to adapt to changing factor costs (as wages increase, capital becomes more or less scarce, etc.), but deepening technology mastery for those technologies in place.

Environmental Time

It is, I think, only with the development of satellite remote sensing, computer models, and technology capable of organizing and analyzing huge data bases that scientists have had the ability to perceive environmental changes on a global scale. In the past, such change would have been too diffuse and too slow to notice. The signal of anthropogenic change would have been too hard to detect in the noise of natural environmental variation.

The human population of the earth has grown on the average at a few percent per year for a couple of centuries, but over that time period it has increased several fold. Similarly, per capita income of the world’s population has increased on the average at a few percent per year for a couple of centuries, but over that time the total economic activity of mankind has grown several fold. Our technologies have enabled mankind, during this period of growth, to increase its footprint on the earth greatly.

It is fortunate that we now have the technology to perceive and begin to measure global environmental change, because mankind is now in the process of screwing up the global environment big time. The global environment involves huge systems with enormous inertia. They take huge inputs to change, and react over centuries. It seems clear that anthropogenic inputs made over a couple of centuries are changing these systems in the current century. Undoing the damage can be expected to take a comparable period, and in some cases the changes may not be possible to undo.

The atmosphere is of the earth is big, and although mankind has been putting gaseous waste into the atmosphere in increasing amounts for centuries, it has taken a long time to put enough into the air to make a difference. Technological change, population growth, and economic change have resulted in much more waste pouring into the atmosphere. Some of it is taken up by the oceans, and indeed some by plants, and some washes out in the rain (resulting in some cases in acid rain, with its own problems). We now see a strong likelihood that we will dump enough pollution into the atmosphere to raise temperatures globally significantly by the end of the century.

The results of that happening will be melting of glaciers and polar ice, rising sea level and inundation of coastal zones, changes in ocean circulation patterns, changes in weather patterns, more violent storms (and perhaps more hurricanes, at least in some areas), and changes in the availability of surface water. Some heavily populated places will become uninhabitable. Mankind will be faced by emergence of new diseases and diseases in new places as a result. Agricultural patterns will have to change and crops migrated with the changing weather patterns.

We see deserts advancing, in part due to the effects of human use of the desert margins. We see forests disappearing, largely due to people cutting them down. Coral reefs are threatened in many places. Fisheries are being depleted. Huge amounts of soil are eroding, blowing away, or being polluted by salts or other dangerous contaminants, with a long term negative effect on agriculture. In many cases we don’t have either the science or the technology to reverse the effects, even if we think in century long time scales.

It has been estimated that some 40 percent of the photosynthetic activity taking place on the surface of the continents is being utilized in the service of mankind. If the population keeps growing at the projected rate, and incomes grow at rates that are acceptable politically, there soon won’t be enough photosynthetic activity to satisfy all the demands that the larger, more affluent population will place upon it – we will have to change something. Some of the changes will, of course, be good. People in rich countries, for example, will probably eat less meat (it takes a lot of grass to produce a pound of steak), and go to a healthier diet; many people in Africa and Asia will begin to escape from chronic malnutrition. But, eventually there would seem to be a limit.

Similarly, a significant portion of the surface fresh water of the earth is already being used by mankind, and underground fresh water is being depleted much faster than the aquifers can be recharged. Population increase and increasing affluence both increase demand for water. Again, there won’t be enough, and adjustments will have to be made. Some will, again, be good, as people should learn to use less water. But I grew up in California, where people still remember the Owens Valley war, as Los Angeles and the farming community in the valley fought over water rights. I fully expect to see countries in the Middle East and South Asia fighting over water before the end of the century.

Biological diversity is diminishing. There are some encouraging counterexamples, such as the possibility that the bald eagle can be removed from the endangered species list in the (lower 48) United States. But critical habitats are disappearing all over the globe. Once a species has been reduced past a critical point, the loss it irretrievable. I value the idea of an earth teaming with life, involved in an enormously complex web, as a good in itself. But the loss of biodiversity has cultural and economic implications as well. Thus, we are surely losing species that would have great economic value in the future, were they to remain long enough that we could learn how to exploit them. Probably a greater loss is in the genetic riches that those species contain, which we will lose before we can use biotechnology to transfer into places where it will do us most good.

Policy Implications of Environmental Time

Policy makers must adhere to the “Precautionary Principle”. That is, they must take precautions that present policies, created under conditions of uncertainty, don’t result in irreparable or very difficult to repair environmental damage.

National policy makers, especially in the United States and other countries with large environmental footprints, must stop thinking about the environment nationally, and start instead to think of global environment and its problems. They must be willing to give up short term economic benefits to avert long term environmental costs.

Policy and institutions must make businesses internalize not only the local environmental costs of their actions, but the externalities that those actions contribute to internationally. We need, generally, environmentally sensitive economic policies/

Technology policy will be critical. Thus we need to develop more efficient, less polluting energy technologies. Agricultural technologies will have to be developed, disseminated, and used to protect soils and preserve water. We will need to find alternatives to wood, Recycling technologies must be improved. Transportation efficiency must be improved.

Education policy should help people to understand environmental concerns, and to think about the long term environmental implications of human activity, and the policies that influence the activities. It should prepare people to manage organizations, governments, and technology to preserve, protect and restore the environment.

Policy Makers Must Simultaneously Facilitate Rapid Economic Change and Inhibit Rapid Environmental Degradation

The U.S. House of Representatives faces election every two years, the President every four years. Of course, incumbents have an advantage, and most are reelected, but our politicians often think in terms of the next election. Executives of large corporations, who tend to be politically influential as well, tend to think about the next quarterly profit statement. Their remuneration is often tied to the current year’s stock price increase, and that must influence their orientation to time.

It will be harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for politicians and business leaders to act in the ways necessary for continuing success in the evolving economic time or in the ways needed to avoid real problems in our evolving environmental time.

I think therefore we need civil society and the voters to step up to the plate!

Monday, February 13, 2006

"How Countries Get Rich"

Read the whole paper by Peter Timmer on the Center for Global Development website. (02/13/2006)

Summary: "In an address to the Economic History Association in 1980, Richard Easterlin famously asked "Why isn’t the whole world developed?" Frustrated with economic theorists and their models of perfect markets, Easterlin focused on differences in educational levels across countries and the importance to the development process of institutions and historical path dependency.

"In this CGD Brief, How Countries Get Rich, C. Peter Timmer revisits this question, beginning with the contention by Adam Smith that peace, low taxes, and good government will lead a nation to prosperity. Timmer updates this view by analyzing the role that investments in education, technology and trade have made in the rapid progress of countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Brunei. He concludes that the "miracle" of getting rich lies in creating a durable set of institutions--some public, some private--that encourage the "Smithian conditions" as well as economic openness for long periods of time."

About the Digital Divides

Abstract: The term "digital divide", which started as a catch phrase has been adopted by so many people that there is now a "digital divide" literature. Most of this literature deals with the divide in access to ICT infrastructure that is found between and among nations and between and among income groups. This blog posting points out that there are many other digital divides, including affordability and availability, facility in using the technology, content, language, and cultural. A major divide, albeit one difficult to measure, is the divide in the benefits received from ICT. The world's richest man, for example, has gotten more economic benefit from the ICT revolution not because he is more connected or more adept at using the technology, but because he has commanded the means to appropriate more of the economic benefits of the revolution than have others. Key digital divides are those among the effectiveness of nations in appropriating the technology to build economic, social or military advantages.

Jeffrey James just got me thinking about a couple of topics relating to the "digital divide". More of a slogan than a scientific term, "digital divide" is now the topic of a large body of literature. The ICT4D community page of the Development Gateway links to more than 350 items labled "digital divide". I think there are several digital divides, and that people often don't recognize their variety. Here is a short essay on the topic:

About mobile versus land lines:

The market for mobile telephones has expanded rapidly in poor countries, and in many countries there are now more mobile phones than land lines. Some people have suggested that this revolution has reduced the telephone access divide. In contrast, I think the main effect of the mobile revolution may be to increase the telephony divide. I suspect that the affluent are adding personal phones to their home and office phones, more than the poor in developing nations are getting a mobile phone to substitute for an unavailable land line. The difference between one who is fully networked at all times by a variety of media and the totally disconnected is greater than the former difference between those who had land lines and those who didn't!

About the dimensions of the digital divide:

James suggested, and I think he is right, that there are various dimensions of the digital divide. The divide most discussed is the access divide, and it of course differs according to the technology. Thus there is still a radio access divide, a television access divide, several telephone access divides, a computer access divide, an Internet access divide, etc.

I sometimes distinguish physical access, availability, and affordability. Thus there may be a public phone in a village, but it may be locked up most of the time. Or phone calls may be priced so high as to be out of the reach of the poor for all but the most urgent communication. So there are differences among these divides as well.

Eszter Hargittai did some work a while back on an ICT skill gap. That too that is form of a "digital divide". Long ago I looked at some heavy Internet users, and discovered that they were not only on the Internet a lot, but they used many other programs -- word processors, spreadsheets, presentation managers, etc. Two people can have equal access to the Internet, but have totally different experiences if they differ greatly in their facility in using the technology.

I remember back -- in ancient times -- to when I was a teaching assistant in an electronics lab at the University of California. Each semester, the first day of class showed a radical difference in behavior of the foreign students and the students from the United States as the entered the lab for the first time. The former would clump in the middle of the isles, as far as possible from the equipment; the latter would be all over the equipment, playing with it! I suggest this illustrates a cultural divide. Those who come from homes, communities, and societies full of digital devices (as the Americans did) may find spill-over from skills and attitudes that they have developed beneficial as they find new technologies or new applications. Those who come from digitally deprived environments (as did the majority of the foreign students) will not be so lucky.

There is a networking gap. We know that there are networking economies, and the more people are on a communications network, the greater the benefits are for each member. What good is a telephone if you don't know anyone who has a phone? Two people with equal access to telephones, don't have equal access to people to call if one is in a sparsely networked society and the other in a richly networked society.

Similarly, there is a content divide. In rich countries, the stock of content on the Internet has been building for more than a decade. Some of this content is useful in all of cyberspace, but a lot of its value decays with distance. I went looking on the Internet for a print shop yesterday, for example. I found a dozen locally. Indeed, Google local mapped them for me. I didn't want to find one in another country. In much of Africa, even if you got access to the Internet, I don't think you could expect to find many of your local businesses in cyberspace, and the websites you did find might well be sparsely furnished (and perhaps poorly designed).

There is also a language divide. We are lucky to speak the major language of the Internet. UNESCO recently published some work on the languages on the Internet that indicated that the domination of English content is diminishing. But if one is limited to one of most of the world's 6,000 spoken languages, cyberspace is pretty barren. Similarly, there is work going on to produce office software suites in many languages, but there are huge numbers of languages with no available software.

There are divides in terms of what you can do even if you are connected, speak the language, and know how to use the technology. One can shop by phone or Internet only if there is a payment system and a delivery mechanism you can trust. You can conduct business with the government electronically only when the government in question provides the e-government service you need. You can use accounting software or tax preparation software only if such software exists tailored to the accounting or tax laws that apply to you. (And it the market for such software is small, the cost is going to be high.)

James mentioned, and he is right, that there is also a divide in the benefits people receive from the digital. Bill Gates gets more economic benefit from the information revolution than anyone else, not because he is the most connected and most adept, but because he has property rights over a bigger portion of the profits from the industry than anyone else.

Many digital divide studies miss the most important divides!

Rich countries spend more per capita on ICT than do poor countries, in part because they have more money to spend. Some developing countries spend a larger portion of GDP on ICT than do some rich countries, but there is a tendency for rich countries to spend a larger portion of their GDP on ICT than do poor countries.

I suggest that the demand for some ICT saturates, and as spending on ICT increases, the pattern of spending changes. The rich don't simply buy more phones, radios, televisions, computers, etc. They do buy more, but they also buy differently.

One thing that rich countries do with their greater ICT buying power is to buy technology that creates comparative advantages in international commerce. They buy the ICT that goes into building their competitive advantage in high-tech fields, including manufacturing of microchips, aircraft, and pharmaceuticals, as well as ICT-intensive services that are increasingly traded in international commerce.

So there is a economic digital divide in the competitive advantages that different countries are creating with ICT!

There is comparably a social digital divide as some nations are much better able to take advantage of the technology to educate and inform their peoples. These same countries are more able to wire their social and political institutions. Knowledge and understanding have intrinsic value. They also have instrumental value, and the countries on the right side of the social digital divide will probably be better governed. If we are lucky, they will be more humane, but don't count on it!

And I will not even mention the military digital divides, like that which made the Iraqi military sitting ducks when attacked by the coalition.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Institutions in Development

The June 2003 issue of Finance & Development, highlighting this topic, contained the following thought provoking articles:

"Root Causes: A historical approach to assessing the role of institutions in economic development"
Daron Acemoglu
A look at the impact the different types of institutions established by Europeans in their colonies had on subsequent economic development, and the implications for development today. (88 kb, pdf file)

"The Primacy of Institutions (and what this does and does not mean)"
Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian
The authors come up with some striking results about the importance of institutions that have broad implications for development and lending conditionality. (87 kb, pdf file)

"Testing the Links: How strong are the links between institutional quality and economic performance?"
Hali Edison
A study of the links between institutional quality and economic performance analyzes the degree to which sound institutions affect development, growth, and the volatility of growth. (57 kb, pdf file)

"Institutions Matter, but Not for Everything: The role of geography and resource endowments in development shouldn’t be underestimated"
Jeffrey D. Sachs
The role of geography and resources in development shouldn’t be underestimated; poor countries need special help to overcome development obstacles, says the UN Secretary-General's special advisor on the UN Millennium Development Goals. (107 kb, pdf file)

"Institutions Needed for More than Growth: By facilitating the management of environmental and social assets, institutions underpin sustainable development"
Christian Eigen-Zucchi, Gunnar S. Eskeland, and Zmarak Shalizi

Quotations from Albert Einstein

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. (Sign reported in his office.)

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

What does it mean when senior advisors quit and go public?

Yesterday's news, as in the Christian Science Monitor, reported:
Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, wrote that the Bush administration did not use intelligence to inform their decision about going to war in Iraq, but instead "cherry-picked" data that justified a decision that it had already reached.
In January and in October I posted on Larry Wilkerson's comments on decision making in the White House. Wilkerson was Chief of Staff in the Department of State, and he severly criticized the Bush Administration's approach to making decisions with regard to the Iraq war.

Richard A. Clark, according to Sourcewatch, "was the counter-terrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security Council when the September 11 attacks occurred. He resigned in January 2003 as 'anti-terrorism czar.' after serving in the White House under three presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). In 2004, he published a book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror--What Really Happened, which was highly critical of the Bush administration's handling of counterterrorism both before and after September 11."

According to same Sourcewatch entry, "Rand Beers, the official who succeeded Clarke after he left the White House, resigned in protest just one month later--five days before the Iraqi war started--for precisely the same reason that Clarke quit." Beers joined the Kerry campaign staff. Beers is quoted in the Washington Post in 2003 speaking out on the Bush Administration:
"The administration wasn't matching its deeds to its words in the war on terrorism. They're making us less secure, not more secure," said Beers, who until now has remained largely silent about leaving his National Security Council job as special assistant to the president for combating terrorism. "As an insider, I saw the things that weren't being done. And the longer I sat and watched, the more concerned I became, until I got up and walked out."
Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit left his job and wrote Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror which was stongly critical of Bush Administration decision making about the war in Iraq.

A Comment:

I was just thinking how very unusual it has for senior civil servants in our government to resign in protest and go public with their concerns about the Administration. That so many have done so in response to the Bush Administration's decision making about Iraq is exceptional. I am not sure that the media and the public understand the weight of this criticism.

Senior civil servants of this rank are, in my opinion, much more knowledgable that the political officers to whom they report. They rise to such positions after decades of effort, and in competition with the cream of the civil service. As a group, they adhere strongly to an ethic of presenting as complete and unbiased an analysis as they can, and leaving the decision making to the elected officials. As a group, recognizing that going public with disagreement with those decisions will tend to weaken the influence of the analytic professionals on the politicians, they only quit and go public rarely and under extreme circumstances.

One resignation in protest of such a person could be a fluke. A series of such resignations is grounds for serious concern!