Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Iraq Will Take Decades to Recover

Read "A Dismal Picture of Life in Iraq: Nearly a Third of Population Needs Emergency Aid, Report Says" by Megan Greenwell, The Washington Post, July 31, 2007.

Accompanying this article in the print edition of the paper there is a set of charts that include the information that:
  • 40 percent of professionals in Iraq before the war have left the country, and
  • 92 percent of children in Iraq have "learning problems mostly due to the climate of fear."

"The Product Space Conditions the Development of Nations"

C. A. Hidalgo, B. Klinger, A.-L. Barabási, and R. Hausmann, Science 27 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5837, pp. 482 - 487. )Subscription required)

"Economies grow by upgrading the products they produce and export. The technology, capital, institutions, and skills needed to make newer products are more easily adapted from some products than from others. Here, we study this network of relatedness between products, or "product space," finding that more-sophisticated products are located in a densely connected core whereas less-sophisticated products occupy a less-connected periphery. Empirically, countries move through the product space by developing goods close to those they currently produce. Most countries can reach the core only by traversing empirically infrequent distances, which may help explain why poor countries have trouble developing more competitive exports and fail to converge to the income levels of rich countries."
I think this is an important article. The authors develop a tree structure for 775 industries based on a measure of the similarity of export patterns for the industries in international trade. The structure is shown in the illustration below. The areas in which each region of the world has a relative comparative advantage (RCA; exports of that product are greater than average exports) are shown in black.

The article goes on to suggest that the tree "appears to have a core-periphery structure . The core is formed by metal products, machinery, and chemicals, whereas the periphery is formed by the rest of the product classes. It also suggests that countries can develop economically by structural transformation, developing comparative advantages in new products with higher returns to resource inputs, but that they are constrained in doing so because they can not easily produce a comparative advantage in an industry far from those in which it already has such an advantage according to this tree structure. That is, the technology mastery and institutional and human capital to develop new industries is not easily transferred among products far from each other in this tree.

Not only does this argument imply a causal factor in the divergence of economies, it suggests that there may be very different innovation policies required for countries in different stages of economic development and for countries with differing growth asperations. (For example, a newly oil rich nation aspiring to leapfrog use its oil income to leapfrog into a post-industrial economic structure may embark on an innovation policy very different than a nation with a comparable industrial structure but more limited investment income.)
The article states:
The pattern of specialization for four regions in the product space is shown in Fig. 2 (21). Products exported by a region with RCA >1 are shown with black squares. Industrialized countries occupy the core, composed of machinery, metal products, and chemicals. They also participate in more peripheral products such as textiles, forest products, and animal agriculture. East Asian countries have developed RCA in the garments, electronics, and textile clusters, whereas Latin America and the Caribbean are further out in the periphery in mining, agriculture, and the garments sector. Lastly, sub-Saharan Africa exports few product types, all of which are in the far periphery of the product space. These results indicate that each region has a distinguishable pattern of specialization clearly visible in the product space. Links to the maps for the 132 countries included in the study can be found in the Supporting Online Material (SOM) text.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Three Tidbits from Today's Washington Post

"Bush and Counterfactual Confidence" By Shankar Vedantam, Monday, July 30, 2007
Bush said at a recent press briefing about the Iraq situation, where he faced a barrage of questions about flagging support for the war. "I firmly believe the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."

Bush's argument is based on something known as a counterfactual. In his mind, the president has run an alternate view of history -- one that imagines Saddam Hussein still in power -- and has come to the conclusion that deposing the Iraqi leader was better......

Bush is not alone in using counterfactual thinking. Coming up with what-if scenarios is how people make sense of the world. When we make a financial decision that turns out poorly, we imagine going back in time and not investing in that stock or buying that house. That scenario looks rosier -- it is an upward counterfactual. But let us say we make a good financial decision. When we imagine not buying that stock or that house, we contrast the money we have made with the money we might have lost had we not made the investment -- producing a downward counterfactual.

But what is dangerous about counterfactuals is that while they may seem reasonable, they easily become a way for us to confirm what we already feel.....

Philip Tetlock, a professor of organizational behavior and political science at the University of California, has found that the careless use of counterfactuals is one reason politicians and experts are often wrong in their predictions.
"Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling" By Shankar Vedantam, July 30, 2007
women who work full time and have never taken time off to have children earn about 11 percent less than men with equivalent education and experience.

In one early study, Babcock brought 74 volunteers into a laboratory to play a word game called Boggle. The volunteers were told they would be paid anywhere from $3 to $10 for their time. After playing the game, each student was given $3 and asked if the sum was okay. Eight times more men than women asked for more money.

Babcock then ran the experiment a different way. She told a new set of 153 volunteers that they would be paid $3 to $10 but explicitly added that the sum was negotiable. Many more now asked for more money, but the gender gap remained substantial: 58 percent of the women, but 83 percent of the men, asked for more.

Another study quizzed graduating master's degree students who had received job offers about whether they had simply accepted the offered starting salary or had tried to negotiate for more. Four times as many men -- 51 percent of the men vs. 12.5 percent of the women -- said they had pushed for a better deal. Not surprisingly, those who negotiated tended to be rewarded -- they got 7.4 percent more, on average -- compared with those who did not negotiate......

(A new set of experiments) found that men and women get very different responses when they initiate negotiations. Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women's reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice".

"What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not," Bowles said. "They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not."
"Science Notebook: First, Do the Math," Monday, July 30, 2007.
Researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia analyzed the grades of more than 8,000 undergraduates who took introductory biology, chemistry and physics at 63 colleges and universities. They also looked at how much preparation those students had in high school.

Students who took more high school biology tended to excel in college biology, but they did not do any better in chemistry or physics, the team reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Similarly, those who took more high school chemistry did better in college chemistry, but not biology or physics. The same pattern held true for physics.

The one thing that helped students do well in all college science was having taken an advanced high school math class. That undermines a commonly held belief that math training is not particularly important or helpful for the study of biology.
Comment: Of course, evaluation is all about counterfactual analysis. It always, implicitly or explicitly compares what actually happened with what might have happened. Sometimes the analysis can be pretty factual, as when one decides not to buy a stock on the stock market. The newspaper will tell you quickly what happened to that stock after your decision. On the other hand, who knows what would have happened had Bush decided not to invade Iraq.

The second example shows that apparent irrationality may actually prove rational with deeped understanding. The assumption that the outcomes of bargaining strategies will be the same for men and women seems pretty doubtful, once that assumption has been pointed out.

Finally, the third story suggests that math helps in all the sciences. Sometimes research adds confirmatory evidence to something we all probably suspected. In the old days, people thought learning math helped you to thing logically. JAD

Children hardest hit by humanitarian crisis in Iraq | Iraq | Guardian Unlimited

Children hardest hit by humanitarian crisis in Iraq | Iraq | Guardian Unlimited:

A mother and child sit in a tent at a camp for
internally displaced people in Diwaniyah,
80 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq.

Photograph: Alaa al-Marjani/AP

"The number of Iraqi children who are born underweight or suffer from malnutrition has increased sharply since the US-led invasion, according to a report by Oxfam and a network of about 80 aid agencies.

The report describes a nationwide catastrophe, with around 8 million Iraqis - almost a third of the population - in need of emergency aid. Many families have dropped out of the food rationing system because they have been displaced by fighting and sectarian conflict. Others suffer from the collapse in basic services caused by the exodus of doctors and hospital staff."

Read the full report :

Read the Oxfam America press release:

Open Access Wireless

When it comes down to a contest between Google (motto: Don't be evil) and the phone companies (motto: 'Big Is Beautiful'?) my loyalties are clear.

Read "FCC to Rule on Wireless Auction: Lobbying Intense As Google Seeks To Open Market" by Kim Hart, The Washington Post, July 30, 2007.

The article states:
"The Federal Communications Commission will set the rules tomorrow governing the auction of $15 billion of public airwaves, a decision with stakes so high that the major U.S. cellular carriers and Google have spent millions of dollars on a lobbying campaign in an attempt to influence the outcome. The decision could dramatically alter the nation's cellphone industry.

Google, the giant Internet search company, wants to extend its popular tools, which include e-mail and video, to the rapidly expanding mobile phone market. To do so, it may spend billions to build a new, open network it says will loosen the grip telecom operators have over how consumers use their cellphones.

Currently, the major U.S. wireless carriers, including AT&T and Verizon Wireless, largely decide which Web sites, music-download services and search engines their customers can access on their cellphones. This is accomplished by wireless companies determining which cellphones will receive their services: AT&T, for example, is the only carrier available to users of Apple's iPhone.

Google wants to end that restriction and has urged the FCC to require the winner of the auction to build a network that will be open to all cellphones and services, so any consumer can have access to Google's array of offerings."
Support Open Access Wireless!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Next Hurrah: Even CDC Not Immune from Political Minders

The Next Hurrah: Even CDC Not Immune from Political Minders:

"One of those unique challenges, according to Blount's eight-page memo, is the CDC must request special approval for every overseas assignment from the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs. This adds an additional two to three months of delay in hiring staff for foreign postings, according to the memo. 'Some positions have been delayed for so many months that our partners doubt our commitment and credibility,' Blount wrote.

William Steiger, director of HHS' Office of Global Health Affairs, was out of the country and unavailable for comment, said spokesman Bill Hall. Steiger has come under fire in the past for allegedly micromanaging the overseas work of the department's scientific divisions. Steiger, the godson of former President George H.W. Bush, is President George W. Bush's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Mozambique."

Still More Musing About Culture and Cultural Diversity

This I think will be the last posting occasioned by my reading of Michael Brown's book, Who Owns Native Culture? Orin Starn wrote in the American Ethnologist (Volume 32 Number 1 November 2004):
Brown'’s Who Owns Native Culture? is the best introduction yet to the global politics of heritage, authenticity, and indigenous rights. At the same time, his book is a gentle manifesto for flexible pragmatism and mutual respect. A well-respected anthropologist and author of earlier books about Peru and New Age spirituality, Brown sympathizes with the struggles of native peoples for dignity and justice. But he argues against the extremes of so-called Total Heritage Protection that would place native cultures completely off-limits to outsiders. Brown wants indigenous rights fully respected in ways that nonetheless avoid the embrace of legislated separatism and ethnic absolutism of any stripe.
Brown writes (page 247):
There is doubtlessly a place for legislation that confers limited rights in cultural information and community symbols especially to groups that can show how misuse of such resources by others would cause genuine harm.
The book focuses on the beliefs of some indigenous cultures that their rituals would be polluted by outsiders learning about them, or that images or symbols that they use would lose efficacy if viewed by outsiders or misused.

In some cases, as Brown points out, laws protect such information, procedures, images or symbols. Often people of good will, once they understand the importance of the material to members of native cultures, refrain voluntarily from impinging on their privacy. Editors, curators and others often use good judgment and good manners to limit the exposure of such cultural information and community symbols. Indeed, so do sometimes do visitors and tourists, and even social scientists have become better mannered in recent decades.

However, Brown does not really deal with the Internet. Now that more than a billion people have editorial rights to post things on the Internet, and given that once something is out in cyberspace it is very hard to withdraw it or limit its distribution, what might be termed "cultural privacy rights" are going to be much harder to maintain.

I would agree that it makes sense to give cultural groups such "cultural privacy rights" where there is no public policy reason not to. (E.g. I would not give the right to a suicide cult to plan and conduct its suicidal rituals in private.) Incidentally, the Europeans feel that intellectual property rights law recognizes natural rights, while the Americans tend to feel that the law establishes such rights for utilitarian reasons. I think the issue with cultural privacy rights would be more a matter of social agreement to recognize such rights, then followed by the institutionalization in the law as necessary.

But I wonder where to make the cut off. Brown seems to feel that such rights should be given to indigenous populations, and that these might be some four to eight percent of the world's population. I wonder how "indigenous" is defined. If that were to include African tribal peoples and villagers from India and China, I would guess that the total would reach much higher. It would seem that Brown would give such rights only to groups that are long established. It is not clear to me why relatively recently created groups such as Mormons and Scientologists, who I understand also have areas of information that they deny to outsiders, would be less worthy of "cultural privacy".

Cultural Diversity, Nationalism and Globalization

I wonder about the larger issues of integration of ethnic groups in nation states while integrating those states into regional unions and the global system of nations. The people of the United States think of this as the great melting pot, but it has had grave difficulty in integrating native Americans, blacks and Hispanics, and is facing new challenges in the 21st century with Latino immigrants. European nations too are experiencing difficulties in integrating increasing flows of immigrants. Globalization seems likely to increase such flows.

In a different scenario, the European Union seems to be seeing devolution of power to local authorities. Take for example the cases of Spain and the United Kingdom. Perhaps, as markets become multinational in a region, the economic incentives for local ethnic groups to accede to the demands of national majorities in order to participate in the national market (and for national majorities to insist on authority over local ethnic groups to incorporate them in the national market). Of course, regional markets with reduced trade barriers are developing all over the world as part of the more general trend towards globalization.

UNESCO's various cultural efforts attest to the global concern to maintain cultural diversity, rather than to let the riches of various cultures be lost in a vanilla global melting pot. Ethnic groups all over the world want to control their own cultural evolution in order to better maintain those cultural values and elements which they hold most dear.

Countervailing forces include the improving Global Information Infrastructure which makes contacts among culture ever more common, and economic globalization which shifts production to areas of comparative advantage and consumption to imports of other goods and services, with all of the attendant cultural impacts. Moreover, one can not achieve the universally desired benefits of improved health and nutrition and other comforts without adopting some cultural elements from other cultures. There are also incentives to be willing to avoid conflict and violence by negotiating cultural accommodations among ethnic groups coming into contact in the national and international contexts.

"Mugged by Reality"

Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions on CSPN's Book TV. It was very good, and I suggest that if you have the chance you tune in.

Agresto is a distinguished educator who has worked a great deal in Iraq since the invasion, trying to revive and strengthen the system for higher education in that country. He stresses that the invaders did not understand Iraqi culture and failed to predict the outcome of their actions. He notes, however, that even most Iraqis did not understand the depth of religious warfare that would be unleashed in the last four years.

Most of the talk was devoted to the political dimension of American intervention. He suggests that there are good and bad versions of majority government. Liberal democracy, as practiced in the United States and Western Europe (and other places) is the good version; the reign of terror in France after the French Revolution serves as an example of the bad version. Agresto reminds us that the founding fathers of American democracy had read their Latin and Greek sources, knew that they were trying to create a system that most of their contemporaries thought was doomed to failure, and worked very hard to create a set of institutions that would allow democracy to function well -- the famous checks and balances of the American Constitution, as well as the evolutionary process embodied in that Constitution. The people of the English colonies of North America had a strong civic culture and 200 years experience of relatively democratic local self government when the Constitution was written, and Agresto suggests that the way a people think is as important as the political institutions that they build in empowering a good democracy.
Agresto says the question is whether people want to be free is the wrong question. The right question is whether they want all their fellow citizens to be free.
The policy makers responsible for the Iraq invasion and post-invasion Coalition Authority apparently thought in terms of the myth of American (and English) democracy, not the historical reality. They apparently ignored the historical realities of the Civil Wars in the United States and England that demonstrated just how hard it had been to achieve their liberal democratic systems. They seem to have assumed that the relatively-strong, secular, middle class of Iraq would quickly achieve a workable democracy if relieved of the dictatorial weight of Saddam Hussein's government. They were clearly wrong.

I wonder about the processes that are unleashed by revolution in a country that has been under totalitarian government and that has not developed a national civic culture over generations. Are the communist takeovers in Russia and China or the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain not warning posts, like that of the French Revolution?

Agresto, as one would expect from the former president of St. Johns College in Santa Fe, thinks historically. He sees a couple of centuries of religious warfare in Europe, which resulted eventually in an exhausted willingness to allow people their own beliefs. Islam has not had a comparable experience in the last millenium. Agresto suggests that the 21st century will be again a century of religious wars.

I wonder whether he is right. Is the conflict in the Gulf really between Christianity and Islam or Shiite and Sunni? Or is it over the control of oil, and the people who live where the oil is found and the people whose economies depend on using that oil. It is a conflict over the division of the benefits from the oils between the producing and the consuming societies?

Given the rate of growth of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and their already energetic pursuit of resources to continue that growth, is not the 21st century likely to be most marked by economic conflict between the existing economic powers and the emerging ones? Let us hope that if so, that that conflict is conducted through peaceful negotiations rather than force of arms!

Steiger Said to Have Blocked Surgeon General's Global Health Report on Political Grounds

William R. Steiger has been identified as the
HHS official who blocked the report on global health.

Office of Global Health Affairs via the Washington Post

"Bush Aide Blocked Report: Global Health Draft In 2006 Rejected for Not Being Political," by Christopher Lee and Marc Kaufman, The Washington Post, July 29, 2007.

The article states:
A surgeon general's report in 2006 that called on Americans to help tackle global health problems has been kept from the public by a Bush political appointee without any background or expertise in medicine or public health, chiefly because the report did not promote the administration's policy accomplishments, according to current and former public health officials.....

Richard H. Carmona, who commissioned the "Call to Action on Global Health" while serving as surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, recently cited its suppression as an example of the Bush administration's frequent efforts during his tenure to give scientific documents a political twist.....

Three people directly involved in its preparation said its publication was blocked by William R. Steiger, a specialist in education and a scholar of Latin American history whose family has long ties to President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Since 2001, Steiger has run the Office of Global Health Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services.....

After a long struggle that pitted top scientific and medical experts inside and outside the government against Steiger and his political bosses, Carmona refused to make the requested changes, according to the officials......

In 65 pages, the report charts trends in infectious and chronic disease; reviews efforts to curb AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; calls for the careful monitoring of public health to safeguard against bioterrorism; and explains the importance of proper nutrition, childhood immunizations and clean air and water, among other topics. Its underlying message is that disease and suffering do not respect political boundaries in an era of globalization and mass population movements.

The report was compiled by government and private public-health experts from various organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the Catholic Medical Mission Board and several universities.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Africa must ignore GM 'bullying' from both sides

Check out my letter to the editor just published by SciDev.Net. It suggests that biotechnology, like any technology holds perils if misused. However, properly used, biotechnology holds great promise for developing nations. Asian and Latin American nations are well on the way to reaping benefits from biotechnology, but Africa trails.

Some NGOs, probably well intentioned, are discouraging African nations from using biotechnology out of fear of new technologies or of the corporations that are most expert. I note specifically, NGO antagonism to the Freedom to Innovate report of the African Union's High Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology. This is a reasoned effort by people who have Africa's interests at heart, and it should be taken seriously.

International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America's Future

International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America's Future
Committee to Review the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays International Education Programs, Mary Ellen O'Connell and Janet L. Norwood, editors, National Research Council, 2007.

From the press release:
The 14 U.S. Department of Education programs designed to strengthen education in foreign languages and in international and area studies -- known collectively as Title VI and Fulbright-Hays -- have made some progress but lack the resources necessary to keep pace with their mission, says a new report from the National Research Council. And the Education Department does not appear to have a master plan for these efforts, which may not bode well for the nation's security and competitiveness.

More support from all levels of the U.S. education system is needed to develop an integrated approach to improving foreign language skills and expertise on other cultures, beginning in the primary grades, the report says. Also, the Department of Education should consolidate oversight of its foreign language and international education programs under a high-ranking official who would provide strategic direction and coordinate its work with related activities at other federal agencies. To be most effective, that position should be a presidential appointment and require Senate confirmation.

"Rigorous Eyes on the Corps of Engineers' Work"

Rigorous Eyes on the Corps of Engineers' Work - washingtonpost.com:

"Congress must order independent peer reviews for all U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects -- regardless of their cost -- whenever their performance is critical to the public health, safety and welfare or when their reliability under emergency conditions is critical."

Comment: Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Independent peer review seems a good safeguard for public engineering work. I would suppose that small projects are seldom "critical to public health, safety and welfare. I am not sure what "critical under emergency conditions" means, unless it is already covered in the other criteria. The dikes in New Orleans that failed during Hurricane Katrina were surely critical to public health, safety and welfare. JAD

BBC NEWS | Technology | Game worlds show their human side

BBC NEWS | Technology | Game worlds show their human side:

"World of Warcraft and Second Life are proving a boon to social scientists who are using them as virtual laboratories.

Researchers are getting insights into real life by studying what people do in virtual worlds, reveals a review in the journal Science.

It suggests virtual worlds could help scientists studying ideas of government and even concepts of self."

Dr. Albert Ellis Tribute

Read the tribute to Dr. Albert Ellis from the Albert Ellis Institute website.

Dr. Ellis made the world realize not only that what you feel depends in part on what you think, but also that by changing thinking one could help people in psychological trouble to feel better.

The Guardian says:
Albert Ellis, one of the most provocative figures in modern psychology and the founder of a renowned psychotherapy institute, died Tuesday at age 93......

Ellis developed what is known as rational emotive behavior therapy, which stresses that patients can improve their lives by taking control of self-defeating thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Many consider his work to be part of the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy.....

A 1982 survey of clinical psychologists ranked Ellis as the second most influential in the field - ahead of Sigmund Freud and behind Carl Rogers, founder of humanistic psychology.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Iraq Displacement

Read the full 17 Jul 2007 ReliefWeb press release, which starts:
Iraq is experiencing the worst human displacement of its history, with almost 2.2 million persons displaced within its borders and an additional two million who have fled the country to the surrounding region. This mass displacement is fast becoming a regional and ultimately international crisis.

Iraq poll 2007: In graphics

"An opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and other major media groups has provided a revealing insight into the everyday lives, hopes and fears of people living in Iraq.

"It is the third Iraq poll conducted for the BBC since 2003 and now includes regional and ethnic breakdowns of responses with Sunnis and Shias holding diametrically opposing views on a large number of issues."

Read the full report of the poll.

Comment: This is interesting. People are more negative about the changes in the nation overall than they are about the changes in their own circumstances. It is clear that responses are getting more negative to both questions as time goes on. Still something like 45 percent of respondents thought their own lives were better now than before the war, and almost 40 percent think things overall are better. JAD

Conditions in Iraq

From a U.S. Department of Defense Report to the Congress in March 2007 titled

Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq

Iraq’s high rate of inflation is a serious obstacle to economic stability. Inflation in 2006 averaged 50%....

Estimates of unemployment vary from 13.4% to 60%. Underemployment may be a much more significant factor. For example, a January 2007 survey by Multi-National Division Baghdad indicated that only 16% of Baghdadis responded that their current income
meets their basic needs......

The Ministry of Agriculture and others associated with agriculture in Iraq have not made adequate progress in leveraging Iraq’s potential. Lack of modern seed and fertilizer, under-developed irrigation systems, and lack of pesticides have all contributed to underachievement of potential. This, in turn, has caused Iraq to continue to be overly dependent on imported food and to fail to achieve a marked increase in employment for the agricultural sector.
Comment: Again, why do the media not cover the situation of the average Iraqi? JAD

The Food Situation in Iraq

WFP - Where we work - Iraq:

"In May 2006, WFP (The World Food Program) released its food security survey for over 22,000 households. It found that 15 percent of the total Iraqi population (over four million people) is food insecure and in dire need of different types of humanitarian assistance, including food, despite the rations they are receiving from the Public Distribution System (PDS). This is an increase from the estimated 11 percent (2.6 million people) deemed to be extremely poor in WFP’s first survey in September 2004. The May 2006 survey also indicated that a further 8.3 million people would be rendered food insecure if they were not provided with a PDS ration, compared to 3.6 million people in the previous survey.

In 2007, WFP continues to be involved in the provision of assistance through an emergency operation targeting the most vulnerable groups in Iraq. The nearly three-year operation, costing US$60 million, is intended to provide food assistance to some 223,200 malnourished children and their family members (over 1.1 million), over 350,000 pregnant and lactating mothers and 6,400 tuberculosis patients."

Read the 2004 WFP Baseline Food Security Analysis in Iraq.

Comment: Why do the news media not cover the condition of the people of Iraq? JAD

UNESCO Major Studies on Education

I have just done three postings on the blog UNESCO In the Spotlight: Education and Culture with links to important online books on education.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dr. Nina Fedoroff Named S&T Adviser to the Secretary of State

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has named Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff to be her new Science and Technology Adviser. Dr. Fedoroff is the Willaman Professor of Life Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor in the Biology Department and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Pennsylvania State University.

Dr. Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist who has contributed to the development of modern techniques used to study and modify plants. She received her Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Rockefeller University in 1972. In 1978, she became a staff member at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a faculty member in the Biology Department at Johns Hopkins University. In 1995, Dr. Fedoroff joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania State University, where she served as the founding director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

Comment: Good luck to Dr. Federoff! Hers is a most important responsibility. JAD

Thought and Feeling

Michael Brown in his book, Who Owns Native Culture, mentions that any decent democracy is concerned about the feelings of its citizens. He also mentions that U.S. and other societies have become more concerned about the feelings of citizens than in the past. Both points seem self evident, once Brown has pointed them out.

This blog focuses on knowledge. The acquisition of information, learning to turn that information into knowledge, and extrapolation of knowledge are within what we generally consider to be the realm of the mind.

Emotions too are within what we consider to be the realm of the mind. We know whether we feel angry or peaceful, happy or sad, emotional or calm. There are geographic patterns to emotions, and indeed there is a map of the distribution happiness around the globe. There seem to be cultural patterns of emotion.
  • I remember a physician I knew who had practiced among the Navajos and then among Latin Americans. His description of the difference in behavior between birthing mothers from the two cultures suggested a very different emotional response to the experience.
  • It seems that in Andean countries it is commonly perceived that people in the highlands are more somber, and people on the coast are "alegre".
  • Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City seems to me to describe a mood which characterizes people's experience in Istanbul, which is similar to moods characteristic of other cities but different from those.
It seems to me that people learn how to respond emotionally to situations, and that emotions can be socially constructed. That is, there are similarities to the way the mind deals with feelings and the way it deals with thoughts.

The brain is the organ of the mind. Of course, that is a simplification and the way we think and feel can be affected by many other parts of the human organism. However, let it stand for the point I am about to make.

It may be semantically useful to separate thinking and feeling when talking about the mind, but the brain which actually does both seems likely to do both simultaneously with considerable overlap. The way we feel influences the way we think; what we think influences the way we feel. When we learn something, I suspect we internalize both the nominal lesson and the feelings associated with that lesson.

I believe as we educate people we should consciously plan to deal with feelings, limiting the negative feelings engendered by the process and encouraging positive feelings toward the subject and is pursuit.

So too, in the realm of public policy, perhaps we should broaden our topicl perhaps Knowledge and Emotion for Development. As the blog focuses on the role of the mind in development, perhaps it should focus not only on thought but on feelings.

Microsoft accelerates free access to journals - SciDev.Net

Microsoft accelerates free access to journals - SciDev.Net:

"Information technology company Microsoft will give technical assistance to enhance access to online research for scientists, policymakers and librarians in the developing world. This was announced at a meeting in Washington last week (10 July). Representatives from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Environmental Programme, and leading science and technology publishers, together with representatives from Cornell and Yale Universities met to officially extend their free access to peer-reviewed journals for many developing world scientists to 2015, in line with the UN's Millennium Development Goals."

Defense has more musicians than State has diplomats | FP Passport

Defense has more musicians than State has diplomats | FP Passport:

"At present, the U.S. defense budget accounts for approximately half of total global defense spending, while the U.S. armed forces employ about 1.68 million uniformed members. By comparison, the State Department employs about 6,000 foreign service officers, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has about 2,000. In other words, the Department of Defense is about 210 times larger than USAID and State combined—there are substantially more people employed as musicians in Defense bands than in the entire foreign service."

Without comment.

Foreign Policy: The List: The World’s Stupidest Fatwas

Foreign Policy: The List: The World’s Stupidest Fatwas:

Polio vaccine

Who: "Local mullahs in rural Pakistan"

What: "Pakistan’s largest Islamist umbrella group, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), issued a fatwa in January 2007 endorsing the provincial government’s efforts to immunize children from polio in the country’s Northwest Frontier Province. But even though health workers carried copies of the ruling with them as they trudged across the province, The Guardian reported in February 2007 that the parents of some 24,000 children had refused to allow the workers to administer polio drops. It turns out that influential antistate clerics had been issuing their own fatwas denouncing the campaign as a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. Although Pakistan only saw 39 cases of polio last year and most children have now been immunized, a similar religiously motivated firestorm against polio drops in Nigeria in 2003 allowed the eradicable disease to spread to 12 new countries in just 18 months."

Comment: This may be an example of a situation in which the factual basis of a belief promulgated by religious leaders should be argued in public. See my previous post on the general issue. JAD

"The Least Developed Countries Report 2007: Knowledge, Technological Learning and Innovation for Development"

"The Least Developed Countries Report 2007: Knowledge, Technological Learning and Innovation for Development"

UNCTAD has recently published this annual report. It and a series of press releases emphasize the alarming gape between rich and poor countries in terms of knowledge and innovation: The front cover of the 2007 Report shows two maps of the world in which countries are not shown according to their surface area (as usually done). Rather, in the top map countries are resized according to the commercial knowledge they generate, and in the bottom map they are resized according to the number of poor people living there.

Remember my social bookmarking site

I currently have more than 1,500 bookmarks in my site on del.icio.us. These deal with issues of science, technology and development, and are tagged to simplify access.

"The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet"

The National Academy of Sciences has created a new website, titled Metagenomics & Our Microbial Planet. In metagenomics, the power of genomic analysis (the analysis of all the DNA in an organism) is applied to entire communities of microbes, bypassing the need to isolate and culture individual microbial species.

A National Research Council report, titled The New Science of Metagenomics: Revealing the Secrets of Our Microbial Planet (2007), describes the promises and challenges of metagenomics.

Metagenomics is expected to vastly enhance our knowledge of microbial communities and could lead to practical applications in:

Human Health
Earth Science and Global Change
Environmental Remediation
...and more!

Understanding Our Microbial Planet, an educational booklet derived from that report, provides basic information on metagenomics for the general audience.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Map of Happyness

Source: "Polls, wealth and happiness: Where money seems to talk" The Economist, July 12th 2007.

Check out the Gallup World Poll.

Keeping the U.S. a World Leader in Science -- Gentile 317 (5835): 194b -- Science

Keeping the U.S. a World Leader in Science -- Gentile 317 (5835): 194b -- Science:

"John Marburger's recent, somewhat cranky statement that U.S. researchers need to rely more on private philanthropy and industry to expand the scientific enterprise ('U.S. science adviser tells researchers to look elsewhere,' J. Mervis, News of the Week, 11 May, p. 817) provides a sobering revelation that the United States has begun to stumble as a world leader in science and technology. Failure to correct this situation will result in incalculable losses in terms of future U.S. economic well-being.

We at Research Corporation, America's first foundation for science advancement (begun in 1912), would like to say we stand ready to heed Marburger's marching orders. We'd like to boldly step forward to fund U.S. scientific research, so that the administration could continue to cut taxes for the rich and focus taxpayer dollars elsewhere, including the reported $9 billion or so it spends every month in Iraq. Alas, we can't.

Our $170 million endowment, even when combined with those of our sister science advancement foundations, isn't likely to meet all the needs of U.S. researchers left high and dry by flat federal funding. In 2004, the top 50 private U.S. foundations awarding science and technology grants distributed just under $456 million (1). This sum pales in comparison to the impact and importance of federal dollars."

Mixed Messages About Climate -- Kennedy 317 (5835): 169 -- Science

Mixed Messages About Climate -- Kennedy 317 (5835): 169 -- Science:

"Every once in a while, something so unexpected emerges from the Administration in Washington, DC, that it just boggles the mind. On 1 June, I opened the front page of the New York Times to see two pictures of President Bush. Under the photo dated 2000, he says this about global warming: 'I don't think we know the solution to global warming yet, and I don't think we've got all the facts . . . ' But under the 2007 picture, he is calling for a multinational framework for reducing greenhouse gases. Although my environmental friends will hold their applause, this is sounding like progress.

I turn on National Public Radio--same day, same breakfast--and Steve Inskeep is interviewing Michael Griffin, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Now, Griffin has been challenged before about morale problems at NASA resulting from the scrapping of various robotic space missions and the fate of Earth-observation programs. So I am astonished to hear Griffin say, in answer to a question about whether NASA has cut anything to make room for the Moon-Mars project, 'we have not cut any major priorities.' That may have also stunned Inskeep, who turned quickly to a question about global warming.

Here is Griffin's verbatim answer: 'I am aware that global warming--I am aware that global warming exists. I understand that the bulk of scientific evidence accumulated supports the claim that we've had about a 1° centigrade rise in temperature over the last century to within an accuracy of about 20%.' He added: 'I have no doubt that global--that a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.'"

Arghhh! Even if Bush has finally moved to a program to control greenhouse gas emissions, we have lost not only the seven years since he was elected, but the time it will take to undue the damage done in seven years and get back to the where we were when he started. I have no explanation for Griffin's comments. JAD

Away from Truthiness towards Truth???

Let me start by saying that I am very happy that the people of the United States (and Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries) are not the bigots of the 19th century, and are more supportive of cultural diversity and the rights of indigenous groups and ethnic minorities. I am a great admirer of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
(As an aside, I wonder why that clause is often interpreted to mean that government should or should not give precedence to religious rather than other groups. When a national park has a multiple use policy, and is asked to allocate space to entertainment, recreation, culture or religious activities, does it not have to make a decision of the importance of the latter with respect to the former?)

But I wonder whether we have not become too politically correct when we refrain from arguing the credability of religious beliefs. We know some beliefs held by some religions are simply crackpot! Think about all the failed proficies of the end of the world that had true believers. Think about suicide cults. It seems to me that Jefferson was as concerned with freedom of speech as much as freedom of religion, and thought that people would argue theology and that good ideas would drive out bad in the marketplace of ideas.

I don't think it matters whether we let theologians argue in ivory towers about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I think that there are many examples of situations in which conflict arises out of differences in beliefs, and where it is relatively important to resolve the conflict.
  • The United Nations debate prior to the Iraq invasion focused on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links with terrorist organizations, and the United States ambassador argued positions which were proven false.
  • The creationism-evolution debate is between those who believe evolution was divinely guided and those who believe that the evidence of natural processes is convincing and the issue of divine guidance is untested.
  • The stem cell debate is between those who believe that embryos have souls and those who do not think the sacrifice of an embryo is at all comparable to the killing of a person.
  • Various debates between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples related to the exclusion of non-religious people and uses of areas with religious significance to the former.
In such debates, where matters of fact are fundamental, it seems to me that debate should focus on the truth of the matter, and not refrain from challenging religious (nor semi-religious) beliefs. At least one reason to do so is to keep people from faking religion for advantage in the resolution of conflicts. (Note that some religions in which outsiders are not permitted sacred knowledge lend themselves to claims that the outsider would understand the importance of an argument if only he could know the premises on which it was based, but that such knowledge is denied to the outsider. An argument that is difficult to counter with reason.)

One of the problems of such debates is that groups differ in their beliefs about what constitutes credible evidence. Scientists give priority to controlled observation while religious authorities give priority to texts describing revelation. Jews, Christians and Muslims differ in the degree of authority they give to different texts; so too do Sunni and Shia Islam. Within biblical scholars, there are similar disagreements as to the credibility of different texts of the bible.

So too do different groups disagree about the credibility of alternative processes for the derivation of conclusions from the same evidence. Thus Catholics give relatively more credibility to clerical interpretations and Protestants to the interpretation of the individual church member.

The differences cited are all between groups that are relatively similar culturally. One can expect that the cultural differences between Australian aboriginals and the descendants of Australian immigrants, or between indigenous tribes of South America and the westernized descendants of immigrants to carry still greater differences in the credibility assigned to different sources of information or processes of drawing conclusions from evidence.

Indeed, I am not sure that the concept of "credibility" is not itself a cultural construct that is not shared among cultures. I suspect human nature is such that all normal adults realize that some things are true and others not, that sometimes people tell the truth and sometimes they don't. Thus all cultures I suspect have means for distinguishing that which is more likely to be true than that which is less likely to be true. But Western culture has a tradition of philosophers debating epistemology that is not shared. Is the cultural view of Talmudic scholars of credibility the same as that of Christian theologians or the Islamic scholars who study the Hadiths?

So how does society resolve conflicting interests between groups that differ in culture? There are examples of successes. When science and the church clashed on the question of whether the sun or the earth was the center of the solar system, the church eventually came to the position that it had perhaps misinterpreted biblical sources. That is, it came to the conclusion that when its analysis came up with conclusions that differed from observable fact, since it would not question the original evidence, the analytic interpretation of that evidence must be suspect.

The discussion above has been adduced to suggest, however, that often neither negotiation nor arbitration will be successful. In such circumstances, the dominant culture tends to impose its institutions for conflict resolution on the problem -- it is settled in the courts or the legislature. Both have been relatively successful in preventing the escalation of conflict to violence. Both prove useful from the viewpoint of the powerful (or merely influential) of often favoring their views.

However, I think neither the courts' nor the legislatures' procedures for arriving at truth are very effective (as compared with for example science or humanities). Nor are these institutions especially good at promoting negotiations nor arbitration between differing cultures. Indeed, both tend to more fully understand the culture of the power elite than of ethnic minorities;

I note with interest that in Australia, disputes between the majority and the aboriginal groups can be referred to task forces. Sometimes anthropologists are employed because they are supposed to be especially skilled in understanding the cultural bases of each side's arguments. Indeed, sometime each competing interest group hires its own anthropologist, and one can find debates among social science advocates of the different positions.

I wonder, however, if it would not be best to institutionalize a process for the argument of fact and epistemology in such cases, rather than simply a process "respecting" the cultural beliefs of each cultural group. Such a process would inherently recognize that cultures change, but would seek change in ways the improved the epistemological processes accepted by the culture. Most likely, institutionalization of such processes would involve some imposition by the more powerful over the less powerful culture. Still, if done in a generic way rather than in the heat of dispute over specific conflicts, such institutions might be negotiated.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"How to Get Fewer Scientists"

Because everyone should know this, I quote at unusual length from Gene Sperling's op-ed piece in today's Washington Post.
(The Bush) administration's stingy NIH budgets over the past five years and its threat last week to veto the appropriations bill giving the NIH a small funding boost sound more like components of a Discourage Future Scientists Act.

The NIH budget doubled from $8.9 billion in 1992 to $20.5 billion in 2001 and then grew to $27 billion by 2003. Adjusting for inflation, however, the NIH has not gotten even a penny increase over the past four years. The administration's fiscal 2008 budget would cut NIH funding by $250 million. The proposed budget in the House has only a small increase above inflation -- yet the veto threat puts even this modest gesture at risk.

There is simply no policy that will inspire a new generation of scientists if current NIH funding trends are continued. The American Association for the Advancement of Science predicts that the percentage of NIH proposals receiving funds will be cut nearly in half by the end of 2007, compared with 2001 levels. The demoralization resulting from these cuts is already trickling down to our future scientists.
I encourage you to read the full article.

Comment: I suppose that the reduction in funding for biomedical research is due to the policy choice of going to war rather than help save lives, and the consequent budget disaster that has been one result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Bush administration has an abysmal record in terms of its limitations on stem cell research and contraceptive approvals, and a very backward view of bioethics, it does not seem actually opposed to research to cure cancer or heart disease or other problems faced by the U.S. population. Still, the result is that more of us will die earlier than we would have otherwise, and more of use will be ill (and ill longer) and disabled than would have been possible with continuations of the Clinton administration policies on biomedical research. JAD

"Diplomats Received Political Briefings: Bush Aides Listed Election Targets"

Read the full article by Paul Kane, The Washington Post, July 24, 2007

The White House conducted political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats, including a "presentation for ambassadors with senior adviser Karl Rove that named Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008 and a "general political briefing" at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 midterm elections......In one instance, State Department aides attended a White House meeting at which political officials examined the 55 most critical House races for 2002 and the media markets most critical to battleground states for President Bush's reelection fight in 2004." In one briefing "Rove explained the White House views on the electoral disaster while Sara M. Taylor, then the director of White House political affairs, showed a PowerPoint presentation that pinned most of the electoral blame on "corrupt" GOP lawmakers and "complacent incumbents." One chart in Taylor's presentation highlighted the GOP's top 36 targets among House Democrats for the 2008 election." The Hatch Act has for many years kept virtually all federal workers from partisan politics from participation in national politics. It protects them from political pressures and bars the use of federal resources -- including office buildings, phones and computers -- for partisan purposes. Senator "Biden plans to raise the matter at a confirmation hearing today for Henrietta Holsman Fore to be administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose political appointees received at least two White House briefings in the past 10 months, as well as at an oversight hearing tomorrow on the Peace Corps. Several months ago, White House aides said that about 20 private briefings were held in 15 agencies before the 2006 midterms and that other briefings were held irregularly throughout Bush's first term."

Comment: Did the Bush administration get caught with its hand in the cookie jar? Using foreign policy for domestic political purposes rather than for the larger interests of the United States is a big No No! JAD

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ethnobotany, Drug Development and IPR

I have just read Chapter 4, "Ethnobotany Blues" of Michael Brown's book, Who Owns Native Culture?. The book is interesting, and is telling me a lot I had not known about the interaction of intellectual property rights and the movement to protect the cultures of indigenous peoples. There is an accompanying website which is now serving as a clearinghouse for information about the struggles over control of these cultures.

Much of the chapter is about the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) program that was started in early 1990's by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The program provided grant funding for such groups and is still continuing.

I was involved in the creation of the program from USAID, and want to take this opportunity to respond to the chapter. In general, I think Brown, an anthropologist, did a good job in the chapter and in the book as a whole, and in fact the chapter provided me information that I had not had because I lost contact with the program when I retired from USAID in 1996.

The ICBG did screen plant species for candidate chemicals for development of new pharmaceuticals. Each funded group included a partner capable of carrying out such screening, and this purpose was a justification for NIH's central role in its management. (The commercial firms participated on their own dime, and did not receive grant funds from the government.) Indeed, part of the justification for the program was that it took advantage of new screening techniques developed by industry that made the screening process more efficient that such processes had been in the past by allowing simultaneous screening for several kinds of activity. The public subsidy to the program as a whole was in part justified by the hope that there would be an emphasis on screening for drugs against the diseases of the poor in developing countries, which is of relatively little interest to commercial firms due to limited markets for such products.

The ICBG also did systematic botany (and one project I recall systematic studies of insect species), identifying species present in ecosystems and their distribution, and seeking to collect examples as well as to discover new species. This aspect was the interest of the NSF. Brown's two case studies (Peruvian Amazon and Chiapas Mexico) both involved the collection of plant species from under-collected areas, and their deposit in appropriate collections where they would be described and maintained. Indeed, one of the features that interested me in the science of the effort was the likely expansion of knowledge about the way evolution had distributed useful compounds across species.

The program focused on developing nations since that is where one will find more diverse plant species, and species less likely to have been studied in universities and corporate labs. We, the organizers and our consultants, of course understood that traditional uses of such plants by indigenous cultures for medical purposes could provide indications that the species involved would be chemically active. However, collection and screening was not to be limited to or even focused primarily on species used in traditional medical practice. We also assumed, correctly I still believe, that very large investments would be required to find any pharmaceutical of commercial value after appropriate leads had been developed through screening of plants.

USAID was interested in the program first to assure that funds were available to make it possible for scientists from the countries where the collections would be made to be fully involved and for those collections to be deposited in appropriate institutions in their home country. It was recognized that such involvement was imperative to leave added scientific capacity in the country, and that such investments were not likely to be made by industrial firms, nor by U.S. universities nor U.S. government domestic science agencies. USAID was also involved because of the belief that showing the potential economic value of the biodiverity in developing countries would encourage their conservation. The potential to develop new drugs against malaria and other tropical diseases was also an inducement.

The program sought to find innovative solutions to recognizing the moral rights of those from which collections were made to benefit from things found in those collections. We prepared the field by consulting experts, asked each group seeking a grant to make an appropriate arrangement and describe it in the grant proposal, and had those arrangements carefully reviewed in the proposal review process and incorporated in grant documents. Of course, we didn't know what we were doing, as this appeared to be breaking new ground. Unfortunately, Porter's chapter suggests we didn't do a good enough job in dealing with IPR, and that problems have arisen in some of the groups. On the other hand, his chapter suggests that ethnobotanists are better at dealing with IPR now than they were 15 years ago, and I hope that that is in part the result of the interest we created and the experience that was gained from the ICBG program.

As I said, the book is useful, as is this chapter. However, I have some problems with it. One is that the chapter did not describe the nature of the ICBG fully, focusing unduly on the degree to which it would lead to commercial exploitation of traditional knowledge.

Especially of concern is the fact that the author did not speak for the potential beneficiaries of the drugs that might be developed from the ICBG research. He describes later in the chapter the development of anticancer drugs as a result of materials found in plant sources. Do the tens of millions of people who might benefit from such a discovery have no right to health and longevity if the tribe living where the plant was first used object?

The chapter failed to deal with the history of granting intellectual property rights for pharmaceutical development. That is not historically an old phenomenon, but it has grown rapidly in the 20th century. I think that there is more than a correlation between the development of the intellectual property rights domain, the growth of research pharma, the rapid development of pharmaceutical technology, and the reduction of some kinds of disease burdens. Surely intellectual property rights law can be improved and will need to be modified to meet changing needs, but Brown should at least consider the possibility that it is better at encouraging the development of new and important drugs that alternatives before us, including the alternative of protecting the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples.

I happen to believe that the basis of U.S. patent law is appropriate. Knowledge should be in the public domain. Patents are granted in part to prevent knowledge being guarded as a trade secret. They grant only a temporary exclusion of others from certain, commercial applications of new knowledge. They do so in order to stimulate innovation.

I personally see little utility in giving people a perpetual right to exclude others from the exploitation of knowledge developed by their ancestors, which is apparently what some people want for the pharmaco-medical knowledge of indigenous peoples.

This approach, if taken to its logical conclusion, would exclude all such indigenous peoples from the use of knowledge developed not only in advanced Western societies but also by other indigenous peoples. Obviously, the balance would be negative for the very people we seek most to help and protect. (Check out my recent posting on the Nine Wonders of Intangible Heritage.)

The chapter does make an interesting and probably valid point that the institutions of indigenous societies are different than ours. As a consequence, not only is it sometimes difficult for scientists and businessmen from the United States to identify appropriate representatives of indigenous communities, sometimes the very effort to do so is doomed to fail because the communities have not institutionalized such representation and will not properly understand the questions as to who is to represent them. Equally, NGO's seeking to take up the cause of the indigenous population against the outside scientists and businessmen may find it impossible to find an appropriate authorizing agency (although they seem less sensitive to the problem than did the scientists we funded.) The worst scenario is when the scientists and business people feel that they have been authorized by one group who legitimately represents the community, the NGO feels that it is authorized to speak for a different group which it feels legitimately represents the community, and the two groups are rivals and disagree!

The chapter deals with Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a firm that pioneered the use of ethnobotany in its research to develop new pharmaceutical products and which sought to feedback some funding to the communities from which it got its leads. The chapter recognizes that far from making huge profits, the company lost lots of its investors money. It has since failed entirely. The business of bioprospecting is a hard one, and one not likely to reward unwary investors. It is not the profit bonanza pictured by the press and NGO.s.

I must admit the discussion of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) made me angry. This NGO was apparently very active in opposing bioprospecting by commercial firms in areas in which indigenous peoples lived, on the basis that they considered such efforts exploitive. Of course, I am all for people expressing their views and advocating for the weak. However, I disagree fundamentally with RAFI (which apparently has since changed its name to the ETCGroup but continues to "address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable." RAFI is now apparently advocating against a range of technologies from biotech to nanotech which offer real hope to help indigenous peoples.

I feel that the media tends to pay undue attention to NGO's that oppose technologies. Years ago Douglas and Wildavsky suggested that in our modern age NGO's could survive and thrive by making loud charges against "pollution", thereby gaining lots of small donations from people slightly interested in their charges. I fear the media finds the controversy generated by such NGO's worthy of broadcast, since it interests audience and draws attention, which in turn draws advertisers and revenues. We need a media that gives more weight to expert scientific judgment and less weight to populist alamists.

"Walter Reed's Cold Shoulder"

Read the full opinion piece by Tamara Belden in The Washington Post, July 22, 2007.

Ms. Belden reports almost total failure in her attempts as a neighbor to Walter Reed hospital to volunteer at that institution to help out the wounded soldiers. Walter Reed is apparently the main hospital serving the seriously wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is regularly in the news when politicians and entertainers visit, since they seem regularly to have photo ops with the recuperating soldiers. It has also been the subject of repeated stories of inadequate services and dilapidated facilities. Ms. Belden was told that
only clerical or administrative work opportunities were offered. I was not to think I would have any contact with patients or their families. Absolutely not.
Americans are famous for their willingness to volunteer. Fortunately, as opposition to the war in Iraq is increasing, so too is support for the American troops who are doing their governments will and following orders in that difficult campaign. The Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area with its millions of residents could willingly provide thousands of person years per year of volunteer service to those who have been seriously wounded in the service of their country. All that is needed is that they be asked, accepted and put to work.

One of the first things that people should be asked to do is to improve and manage the volunteer service. How about asking for volunteers to put the physical facilities in better shape -- there are lots of people who could do that work.

I understand that there is a distance between soldiers who have served in war zones and us civilians, but there is a huge medical community in this city who would be willing to donate services, and a huge military community with lots of people who could and would understand the trauma of the returned wounded veterans. I find it hard to believe that Walter Reed is overstaffed, and still the staff is too busy to do a better job than they seem to have been doing to date.

Ms Belden says:
Others in the neighborhood have offered home-cooked meals, transportation to shopping, free art classes, or anything else the soldiers or their families might need. But Walter Reed is a closed world.
A little home cooking might help a recuperating soldier!

Finally, Ms. Belden reports:
A group of my neighbors tried a while ago to offer help, but they were rebuffed. They were told by a high-ranking officer at Walter Reed that there was a "cultural" gap between them and the soldiers. "This is the NASCAR crowd," he said.
I am not sure that he meant the soldiers or the neighbors were the NASCAR crowd, but I agree with Ms. Welden that in this rich geographic area we have residents who match with every cultural and ethnic identity of our American military; the same citizens who volunteer to serve in our citizen army will also volunteer to serve the soldiers wounded in our service, albeit at different times of our lives.
Read "Hill, Aid Groups: One Opaque System Replaced Another," Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, July 22, 2007.

"The fight over U.S. foreign aid has been largely hidden from the public, but it is likely to emerge Tuesday, when the Senate holds confirmation hearings for Henrietta H. Fore, the undersecretary of state for management and the nominee to replace Tobias as the deputy secretary of state for foreign assistance.

The bulk of the $23 billion in annual U.S. foreign aid goes to a handful of key countries, leaving about 120 nations to battle over $3 billion of the pie. India, for example, is one of the big losers in Rice's foreign aid revolution. All U.S. aid to assist India in education, women's rights, democracy and sanitation is terminated under the new system. Overall aid to India -- where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day -- would be cut 35 percent in 2008, to $81 million, on the theory that India has one of the best-performing economies in the world."
Comment: Let us work to bring attention of the public to the perversion of foreign aid that has occurred under the Bush administration as a result of its war oriented foreign policy, and its lack of humanitarian and environmental concerns, not to mention its lack of a reasonable long term strategy in the international arena. JAD

U.S. Thinking About Islam

I have been struck by the amount of press that the U.S. focuses on Islam, as if we will understand people in the Islamic countries if we understand their religion. Certainly Americans need to understand people in these countries better, and certainly Americans need to understand Islam better. First, what little I have observed, people in the Middle East vary considerably not only in their religious beliefs and practices, but in what might be termed their religiosity -- the degree to which religion guides their lives and actions. I suspect that, like Americans, there is not only variation in religiosity among people in the Middle East, but in the impact of religiosity on various aspects of their lives. Second, I suspect that we could learn a lot about Islam, and still remain abysmally ignorant about the societies, cultures, economies, and political systems of these countries.

Certainly, history suggests that Americans have not understood foreign peoples very well in the 20th century. Our mistakes in the Caribbean, Central America, Viet Nam, Iran and Iraq, etc. can not be simply due to the lack of a long term perspective and desire for short term gains.

I think Americans, far too often, say: "Lets talk about the Middle East. Why don't they like us?" Perhaps that is part of the problem. Another approach too often taken here is: "Tell us about the effect that the West is having on the Middle East (but not stuff like the suffering we are causing people in Iraq and Palestine -- we don't want to hear that)." If we were to ask, what do they want, and how do they want to get it, it might be better for us and for the countries we can not fail to impact (because of our economic and cultural influence in the world, not to mention our political and military presence).

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Do Abortions Harm Women?

I understand that there are 1.3 million abortions per year in the United States and there must be many times that many performed per year worldwide. I would bet dollars to donuts (a large amount against a very small amount) that there are abortions performed badly in some places, and it there are it is a sure thing that they injure some women; that was the experience in the United States before abortions were legalized and thus moved to medical facilities where they could be attended by trained physicians.

The question might alternatively be asked, do properly performed abortions harm some women? My guess is that they must. If people do anything a million times a year, some people will almost surely be harmed. However, we don't ban driving simply because tens of thousands of people are killed every year in auto accidents. We conclude that the benefits of driving outweigh even the heavy toll of auto accidents.

Incidentally, no one seems to object to the state regulating abortions to the degree that the patient can be assured that the practitioner is adequately trained and experienced to perform the procedure safely, and that the facility is appropriately staffed and equipped. The partial birth abortion controversy is about the limits of state regulation of the procedure.

So perhaps the question is, do the benefits to women from properly performed abortions outweigh the risks. Our current policy is to leave the decision to each women who is contemplating an abortion: do the benefits to her outweigh the risks to her. Of course, for such a system to work well, we have to assume that the women can make informed judgments on the issue. That is why it makes sense that physicians explain the medical and psychological risks to women contemplating having an abortion, and why people not considered able to make informed judgments themselves have the decision made by appropriate surrogates.

However, there is a movement now to have the state declare that the risks to women are so large (and unrecognized?) that more regulation of abortion is required as a public policy (as we deny driving licenses to some people on the basis that they constitute too great a risk to themselves and others). There seems to be some controversy over the actual level of risks to women who have abortions, especially risks of adverse psychological affects in the years following the procedure. It should be noted that the psychological and psychiatric professional organizations deny that there is an adequate scientific basis for such a claim, but apparently it is made, and apparently such a claim was cited by a Justice of the Supreme Court in a recent decision.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that it would be devilishly difficult to do an adequate scientific study of such an issue. First, simply asking women who had had abortions in the past might affect their feelings negatively. Indeed, I think there may be some real abuses created by anti-abortion activists using group dynamics to induce painful "pseudo-memories" in women who had had abortions. Not only may the data be suspect, but the ethics of the research could be questionable.

Second, how do you assure that reports of benefits from abortions were truthful reported, or if truthful that they were real. After all, one is asking the respondent to report on what was gained by avoiding a life as a mother. How accurate are we in predicting future happiness? How truthful are we with ourselves much less outsiders with clipboards about the outcome of important personal decisions.

But how do you compare women who decided that the benefits of an abortion outweighed the negatives with women who made the opposite decision? If there are negative post-abortion results, how would you ever ascribe them to the abortion, rather than to some preconditions that caused the woman to seek an abortion, of for that matter to subsequent events which are (inaccurately) ascribed to the abortion.

And of course, women are not the only people involved in abortions, and if the state is to make such a decision it would seem to me that it should weigh all the costs and all the benefits.

Perhaps the right question is whether we rely too much on abortion to avoid the birth of unwanted babies. I think the answer to that one is obvious. Other means of contraception seem to be preferable, and the more choices and the more informed people are as to those choices, the more likely they will chose better approaches.

U.S. Agency May Reverse 8 Decisions on Wildlife - New York Times

Spencer Weiner/The Los Angeles Times via the New York Times
The arroyo toad may benefit when the Interior Department reviews a former official’s decisions.

U.S. Agency May Reverse 8 Decisions on Wildlife - New York Times:

"The Interior Department said Friday that it would review and probably overturn eight decisions on wildlife and land-use issues made by a senior political appointee who has been found to have improperly favored industry and landowners over agency scientists.

"The appointee, Julie A. MacDonald, resigned on May 1 as a deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, after an internal review found that she had violated federal rules by giving government documents to lobbyists for industry. The agency’s inspector general also found several instances in which Ms. MacDonald browbeat department biologists and habitat specialists and overruled their recommendations to protect a variety of rare and threatened species."

Comment: Better late than never, but this is another example of how the Bush administration went wrong so many times on environmental and other issues. JAD

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Free Haleh Esfandiari

Read "My Mother's Interrogators: In an Iranian Propaganda Broadcast, the Real Guilty Party Is Clear" by Haleh Bakhash, The Washington Post, July 19, 2007.

Haleh Esfandiari writes:
Yesterday marked 6 1/2 months since masked agents of Iran's Intelligence Ministry robbed my mother, Haleh Esfandiari, of her belongings and passports at knife-point. It had been more than 70 days since her incarceration in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison before I finally saw her this week -- not as a free woman, but in footage of a KGB-style television "confession" broadcast by Iran's state-run television.
Haleh Esfandiari is head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. That should be enough to tell any reader that she is not a spy nor an agent. However, she is also a friend of someone I trust implicitly, who assures me Esfendiari is not guilty of anything.

Clearly, this 69 year old grandmother is no threat to the Iranian government, and should be released immediately.