Thursday, May 31, 2007

Science & Technology Collaboration: Building Capacity in Developing Countries?

From the Introduction: Scientifically Advanced Countries (SACs) "spend a portion of their budgets on international collaboration. This ranges from 5 percent for the U.S., which is the lowest among advanced industrial economies, to perhaps as much as 25 percent in the case of smaller, advanced economies. These funds are allocated in a "bottom-up" peer-reviewed process, with funds granted to scientifically excellent research, regardless of the partnering arrangements made by national scientists. As such, these types of collaborations differ from spending dedicated to foreign research-for-aid programs, which tend to be "top-down" in their mission focus and allocation. Total spending on research-for-aid has been estimated by others to be approximately $865 million a year for a subset of the major donor countries. Funds dedicated to collaborative research between SACs and SPCs (Scientifically Proficient Countries) or SDCs (Scientifically Developing Countries) appears to be about $1.4 billion per year. Very little is spent on collaboration with scientifically lagging countries; most projects mentioning an SLC (Scientifically Lagging Countries) is research about, rather than with, the country." By: Caroline S. Wagner, Irene T. Brahmakulam, Brian A. Jackson, Anny Wong, Tatsuro Yoda, The Rand Corporation, March 2001. Prepared for the World Bank. (PDF, 102 pages)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Use IT or lose it: New calculations shed more light on Europe's productivity malaise"

Read the full article in The Economist, May 17th 2007.

The gist of the article:
It is now generally accepted that in around 1995, after 20 sluggish years, American productivity growth began a remarkable surge that only now seems to be subsiding. Yet the advances in information technology (IT) and the dramatic cheapening of computing power that lay behind that surge have had much less effect on Europe's productivity. In 2006, admittedly, Europe's output per hour grew faster than America's. But the cheer over that number merely points up the disappointment over the many years that came before.
Supporting readings:

ICT has revolutionized stock market transactions


The profitability of share-trading by large investors, which used to be at the heart of brokerage, has fallen steadily over the last quarter century, overtaken by electronic transactions in which shares are processed cheaply in vast shoals. "Share-cropping: Hard-hit equity traders are fighting back," The Economist, May 17th 2007.

Innovation


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Laureates hope for Nobel peace with Middle East fund - SciDev.Net

Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum

Laureates hope for Nobel peace with Middle East fund - SciDev.Net:

"Nobel laureates have created a US$10 million fund for sustainable science development in a bid to promote trust and scientific cooperation in the Middle East.

The new fund was announced last week (15 May) at the third conference of Nobel laureates held in Petra, Jordan.

Made up of donations from the private sector, the fund will support Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian scientists and will eventually be expanded to include other countries in the Middle East."

Read also "Foundation to narrow 'Arab knowledge gap'" by Wagdy Sawahel, SciDev.Net, 25 May 2007.

PLoS Medicine -- Decision Making in Health

Two articles suggest systems analysis as an alternative to reductionism for clinical decisions:

"The Limits of Reductionism in Medicine: Could Systems Biology Offer an Alternative?" (Ahn AC, Tewari M, Poon CS, Phillips RS (2006) The Limits of Reductionism in Medicine: Could Systems Biology Offer an Alternative? PLoS Med 3(6): e208)
Since Descartes and the Renaissance, science, including medicine, has taken a distinct path in its analytical evaluation of the natural world [1,2]. This approach can be described as one of “divide and conquer,” and it is rooted in the assumption that complex problems are solvable by dividing them into smaller, simpler, and thus more tractable units. Because the processes are “reduced” into more basic units, this approach has been termed “reductionism” and has been the predominant paradigm of science over the past two centuries. Reductionism pervades the medical sciences and affects the way we diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases. While it has been responsible for tremendous successes in modern medicine, there are limits to reductionism, and an alternative explanation must be sought to complement it.

The alternative explanation that has received much recent attention, due to systems biology, is the systems perspective (Table 1). Rather than dividing a complex problem into its component parts, the systems perspective appreciates the holistic and composite characteristics of a problem and evaluates the problem with the use of computational and mathematical tools. The systems perspective is rooted in the assumption that the forest cannot be explained by studying the trees individually.
"The Clinical Applications of a Systems Approach" (Ahn AC, Tewari M, Poon CS, Phillips RS (2006) The Clinical Applications of a Systems Approach. PLoS Med 3(7): e209)
In the first article in this series, we examined the reductionist approach that pervades medicine and explained how a systems approach (as advocated by systems biology) may complement it [1]. In order for a systems perspective to have any practical clinical significance, we must understand when a systems perspective is or is not helpful, and conversely when a reductionist approach is helpful. In addition, we must be able to envision how a systems perspective can be implemented to appreciate the potential benefits derived from its application. In this article, we address these issues and present a practical discussion of systems application to medicine.
The third article deals with a group decision process.

"Transparent Development of the WHO Rapid Advice Guidelines" (Schünemann HJ, Hill SR, Kakad M, Vist GE, Bellamy R, et al. (2007) Transparent Development of the WHO Rapid Advice Guidelines. PLoS Med 4(5): e119)
Emerging health problems require rapid advice. We describe the development and pilot testing of a systematic, transparent approach used by the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop rapid advice guidelines in response to requests from member states confronted with uncertainty about the pharmacological management of avian influenza A (H5N1) virus infection. We first searched for systematic reviews of randomized trials of treatment and prevention of seasonal influenza and for non-trial evidence on H5N1 infection, including case reports and animal and in vitro studies. A panel of clinical experts, clinicians with experience in treating patients with H5N1, influenza researchers, and methodologists was convened for a two-day meeting. Panel members reviewed the evidence prior to the meeting and agreed on the process. It took one month to put together a team to prepare the evidence profiles (i.e., summaries of the evidence on important clinical and policy questions), and it took the team only five weeks to prepare and revise the evidence profiles and to prepare draft guidelines prior to the panel meeting. A draft manuscript for publication was prepared within 10 days following the panel meeting. Strengths of the process include its transparency and the short amount of time used to prepare these WHO guidelines. The process could be improved by shortening the time required to commission evidence profiles. Further development is needed to facilitate stakeholder involvement, and evaluate and ensure the guideline's usefulness.

Improving Peer Review

Michael L. Callaham1 and John Tercier, "The Relationship of Previous Training and Experience of Journal Peer Reviewers to Subsequent Review Quality" PLoS.
Our study confirms that there are no easily identifiable types of formal training or experience that predict reviewer performance. Skill in scientific peer review may be as ill defined and hard to impart as is “common sense.” Without a better understanding of those skills, it seems unlikely journals and editors will be successful in systematically improving their selection of reviewers. This inability to predict performance makes it imperative that all but the smallest journals implement routine review ratings systems to routinely monitor the quality of their reviews (and thus the quality of the science they publish).
Landkroon AP, Euser AM, Veeken H, Hart W, Overbeke AJ. "Quality assessment of reviewers' reports using a simple instrument."
OBJECTIVE: To validate and test a simple instrument for assessing the quality of a review. METHODS: In this prospective observational study, the quality of 247 reviews of 119 original articles submitted to the Dutch Journal of Medicine was assessed using a 5-point scale that has been used for years by Obstetrics & Gynecology. Each review was assessed by three editors of the journal. Intraobserver variability, calculated as an intraclass correlation coefficient, was assessed by having the same editors rate 76 reviews for a second time. Validation of the scale was done in two ways. First, editors of three other medical journals were asked to rate the 247 reviews using the same 5-point scale. Second, all reviews were sent to the authors of the article with a questionnaire consisting of 12 yes-or-no questions and one question asking for an overall score for the review. RESULTS: The interobserver intraclass correlation coefficient for the three editors was 0.62 (95% confidence interval 0.50-0.71) for the first assessment of 247 reviews. For the second assessment of 76 reviews, the interobserver intraclass correlation coefficient was 0.62 (0.45-0.74). The intraobserver intraclass correlation coefficient for each of the internal editors ranged from 0.66 to 0.88. The interobserver intraclass correlation coefficient for the external editors was 0.60 (0.51-0.68). The interobserver intraclass correlation coefficient for all six editors was 0.62 (0.55-0.68). The authors' response rate to the questionnaires was 83%. A significant correlation was found between the mean total editorial quality assessment and the overall score of the authors (intraclass correlation coefficient 0.28, 0.14-0.41). CONCLUSION: This 5-point scale proved to be a simple, reliable, and valid instrument enabling editors to assess the quality of reviews. A significant correlation was found between mean editorial quality assessment and the quality as determined by authors. LEVEL OF EVIDENCE: III.

The Science of Getting It Wrong: How to Deal with False Research Findings: Scientific American

The Science of Getting It Wrong: How to Deal with False Research Findings: Scientific American:

"Talk about making waves. Two years ago medical researcher John Ioannidis of the University of Ioannina in Greece offered mathematical 'proof' that most published research results are wrong. Now, statisticians using similar methods found—not surprisingly—that the more researchers reproduce a finding, the better chance it has of being true.

Another research team says researchers have to draw conclusions from imperfect information, but offers a way to draw the line between justified and unjustified risks."

Are Crack's Showing in American Democracy?

"Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel
the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense
with our peaceful methods and goals,
so that security and liberty may prosper together.
"
Dwight David Eisenhower's Farewell Address


Al Gore is arguing that democracy in the United States is in some peril due to the deterioration of public debate informing major policy decisions. He obviously has a point:
  • The United States went to war with Iraq based on arguments that that nation had weapons of mass destruction and was developing more and that it was supporting terrorist organizations that threatened the United States. Both points were wrong, and there were people who understood that both were wrong, but they did not come forth with that information, or if they did were not adequately heard.
  • The United States won the war against the Iraqi military, but managed the occupation badly. It didn't deploy enough troops and managed the Iraqi economy badly after the military engagement. There were people who understood the errors that were about to be made, and indeed the State Department had a set of plans for the post-invasion period, but the knowledge and plans were not utilized.
  • Global climate change is underway, driven importantly by greenhouse gas emisions, and it is but one of many aspects of the environmental degradation under way. Many know the reality of the situation, but the Bush administration can not be persuaded to move to correct the situation domestically, nor to negotiate ameliorating processes internatioally.
  • The U.S. government continues to have a large budget deficit and the United States a large foreign trade deficit. Economists recognize that the situation should be corrected, but nothing is being done to make the needed corrections.
  • Political leaders appear to be running for office permanently, and are more involved in spinning the message than in arguing the facts. Party discipline has increasingly come to suppress the willingness of politicians to speak out on the issues with new ideas.
  • Political campaigns have become so expensive that politicians need to be permanently engaged in fund raising, and can hardly afford to displease their major donors.
  • The media appears to be increasingly pandering to the tastes of a fragmented audience, as press rooms are melting away. Shock jocks, talking heads, and radio/TV evangelists are increasingly influential in the marketplace of ideas, rather than people who have made serious study of important issues.
Of course, part of this argument is specious. Looking back at a supposed golden age of democracy is to believe the myth rather than the reality of U.S. history. There have always been bad newspapers. Large parts of the U.S. electorate were uninformed in the past, voting the way the machines dictated rather than according to their reasoned opinions. Really bad policy decisions have been made in the past. On the other hand, the citizenry is more educated than ever before. The Internet has made information and knowledgeable opinion more available than ever before. Indeed, the amount of information for decision making and the available skills and tools for the application of reason are greater than ever before.

Still, I think Gore is right that there is a problem. In part, I think it is due to the way Congress has evolved. The vast majority of elected officials are reelected every election. Their districts elect people from the same party over and over, and the incumbents have better access to campaign finance due to their incumbency. Candidates respond to the party faithful in their districts and states rather than vying for the votes of those in the middle who can be swayed by argument and analysis. Parties enforce discipline as the best way to maintain power and office. Candidates market their candidacy rather than debate their interpretation of the facts and their implications, as the best way to gain and retain office.

Gore says, and I think he is right, that this can not be corrected simply by the election of the right president (although election of a president open to dissent who consciously uses the office to promote public debate on key issues would be a step in the right direction).

A more responsible media could help, were it to deepen the analysis of public issues and draw more on really knowledgeable commentators rather than on audience friendly news readers and "talking heads". It is hard to imagine the media making such changes in the absence of audience pressure to do so (although leadership of responsible journalists in the newsrooms and more civic minded publishers would be a step in the right direction).

Reform of our political systems would be an important step, to make elected officials more responsive to those in the electorate more concerned with the important issues of the day. It is hard to see politicians in power using that power to achieve the needed reforms (although Gore is himself showing that some politicians can and will speak out).

I suspect that we need an electorate that demands such reforms. How do we get one? Younger voters are less likely to read newspapers and news magazines than older ones, and the younger generations are those involved in multitasking -- whose short attention spans switch from subject to subject from moment to moment. Perhaps the key is to strengthen civics education for a generation or two, and develop a cadre of young citizens who will demand better of the media, the politicians, and the institutions of government.

But can our teachers train such students, and will our school systems allow them to? Perhaps the reforms have to start in teachers colleges and school boards.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Economist's View Reprints Krugman on Bush administration

Economist's View:

"Paul Krugman says it's time to start treating 'belligerent, uninformed posturing' on the war with the lack of respect it deserves:"

You can't read Krugman's op ed piece in the New York Times titled "Trust and Betrayal" ("Future historians will shake their heads over how easily America was misled into war.") without payment, but the Economist View blog gives you a free alternative.

"Slump in NIH Funding Is Taking Toll on Research"

Read the full article by Christopher Lee in The Washington Post, May 28, 2007.

NIH funding has been flat since 2003. The funding for Bush's wars is getting bigger, the tax cuts limit government revenues, and one of the things to suffer has been funding for biomedical research.

The number of applications for research grants has been going up. Thus there is an ever smaller portion of the applications that are funded by NIH. In part, I suppose, this is a viscous cycle; as the probability of any given proposal being funded goes down, each researcher needs to submit more proposals to assure some source of funding. Unfortunately, writing research proposals takes time away from actually doing research.

Apparently, however, a more important cause of the increase in proposals is that more laboratories have been built and put into operation and more people trained to do science, The rapid increase in funding for NIH in the decade before the Bush wars, due to the rapid increase in options available in biomedical and biological research, convinced institutions to invest in new capacity to do the research. The lag involved in building research capacity is long -- it takes a long time to design, finance, and build a laboratory, and longer still to train the scientific team to staff it well. Now, as the new capacity is coming online, the funds are not available to finance its utilization.

Some people are leaving the field of research science. More pernicious, those making funding decisions are apparently becoming more conservative, funding only those applications that appear to be "sure things". The most important research, however, is often that which is most exploratory, and therefore difficult to sell to conservative decision makers.

As my previous posting has indicated, with the huge health benefits that seem to be available from biomedical research, it is not the right time to be stingy with funding. (I will post on brain and cognitive research soon. I think it is "the next big thing". It too is largely funded out of NIH.) I suspect that U.S. leadership in biomedical technology will not only benefit the health of the people of the nation, but if it can be capitalized the economic health of our industry in a globalizing world.

Wow! Look what someone just did!

Read "More Genes Discovered That May Contribute to Breast Cancer Risk" by Rick Weiss in The Washington Post, May 28, 2007.

The article describes a study that compared the frequency of more than one million gene variants between a sample of 3,000 women who had breast cancer versus 3,000 women who had not been diagnosed with breast cancer. The study found several alleles that were correlated with increase risk of breast cancer.

The point I would make is the power of automated genetic analysis combined with automatic data processing. Combining the two may well offer amazing new insights into the causes of and susceptibility to cancer.

A recent Charlie Rose show was devoted to a panel discussion of scientific leaders about stem cell research. I was convinced that this research has exceptional promise. One of the panelists suggested that the scientific excitement created in the biomedical research community was comparable to that created by the new genetic research opportunities in the 1980's and 1990's. The panelists thought that for the first time, there were really promising approaches to learning about, doing research on, and finding treatments for degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer's disease. They also suggested the possibilities of far better treatments for autoimmune diseases such as Type I diabetes and organ loss, such as improved approaches to bone marrow transplants.

It looks as if there will be major advances in medical knowledge and technology in future decades that will allow people to live much healthier lives, especially as they get older. While there may be an extension of life, there is likely to be a more rapid extension of DALYs -- Disability Adjusted Life Years. During the 20th century, life expectancy in the United States increased by about four months per year. That was for the who century! We live on the average more than 30 years longer than people alive in 1900.

That gain was largely as a result of reducing the communicable disease burden that killed so many children. The new frontiers of medicine will be to improve life expectancy, not just in the sense of living longer but also living better, by combating the diseases of aging. Maybe, we can even convince people to eat right, exercise, give up smoking and other bad habits, and take care of themselves!

Of course, we will probably see the medical costs go up as expensive new therapies tailored to the individuals genes and cellular structures are created and applied to an expanding population of old and very old people. Us old folk have a lot of resources and a lot of time, and so we have a lot of political power. I suspect we will not want to go back to work, but will want society to pay for our medical treatment and for our life styles. I hope there will be enough younger workers coming into the workforce to make that burden not too excessive.

Morality might not only by in cultural but genetic

Read "If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural" by Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, May 28, 2007.

The article cites recent brain research indicating not only that morality might be hard wired into the human brain, but that other animals might have altruistic behavior hard wired into their brains. The suggestion is that our ability to empathize with the feelings of others might be involved, and that more complex moral problems involving choices among alternatives each with moral implications are harder and involve more and wider spread brain activity.

This is not a surprise. Homo sapiens is a social species and must have evolved behaviors that allow social interaction. There must be some recognition by the individual of behaviors that are allowed in the group and those that are not. We expect evolved behavior to be represented in the brain. The research is most important in illuminating just how that representation occurs.

We also know that cultures have developed in which learned behavior modifies instinctive behavior. So we understand that cultures also determine what is considered moral. Some morality that is common across all cultures is probably hard wired into the brain. Some moral judgments that differ from culture to culture are probably culturally determined in each.

The article notes:
In another experiment published in March, University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues showed that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.

When confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers. Damasio said the point was not that they reached immoral conclusions, but that when confronted by a difficult issue -- such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city -- these patients appear to reach decisions without the anguish that afflicts those with normally functioning brains.
Research which indicates that an injured brain behaves differently in making moral judgments than does an uninjured brain implies that our treatment of people with such brain injuries who make what we consider to be immoral choices should be modulated by the realization that it is not their "moral fault" but at least in part a symptom of their injury. We treat people with symptoms as "patients" while we treat people who commit criminally immoral behavior as "prisoners".

Of course, we don't understand very much yet about the workings of the brain. It seems to be that sociopaths have brains that work differently than those of the rest of us. Perhaps we should find ways of identifying the sociopathic brain early, and of treating sociopaths in a way that is both humane and that protects society from acts that they might commit due to that pathology.

I draw the conclusion that it is important to have philosophers debate ethics. We know that evolved behaviors are not always the most functional for organisms in new environments (e.g. turtles cross busy roads, moths are attracted by flames). Indeed, we can assume that moral codes that evolved culturally may also have failings (e.g. lots of cultures had slaves, killed the defenseless, and fought useless wars). We may well be able to reason about ethics, find better solutions to some genetically and old-culturally determined ethical norms, and train ourselves into a new, better cultural morality.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth - washingtonpost.com

An Inconvenient Truth - washingtonpost.com:

"Gore blames television for what he sees as an alarming decline in the quality of political discourse in America. When political news was communicated mostly through newspapers, he argues, there was a lively exchange of opinion and an opportunity for reason to win out in the marketplace of ideas. Once newspapers were replaced in this role by the 30-second televised campaign commercial, rational debate withered away.

He blames George W. Bush for just about everything else. Gore's attack on the Bush administration -- on the invasion of Iraq, the curtailment of civil liberties at home in response to global terrorism, and the refusal of the White House and federal agencies to take the dangers of climate change seriously -- is scathing....... Nevertheless, much that he writes seems to be on the mark. History, Gore writes, will judge the Iraq war -- a 'decision to invade and occupy a fragile nation that did not attack us and posed no threat to us' -- as 'not only tragic but absurd.' After four years and more than 3,000 American deaths, most of the American public is inclined to agree with him."

Knowledge Sharing: A Review of the Literature

Since 1996, when the World Bank made a commitment to become a global knowledge bank, it has taken numerous steps to improve its information systems, strengthen internally and externally focused knowledge-sharing activities, and foster broader global knowledge-sharing initiatives, all in support of enhancing the Bank's and its partners' and clients' access to and sharing of ideas (Wolfensohn, 1996). As background to an assessment of the Bank's knowledge-sharing activities, this paper presents an exploration of the literature on the factors that can affect knowledge sharing success. Jeffrey Cummings, World Bank Operations Evaluation Department, 2003. (PDF, 53 pages.)

Sharing Knowledge: Innovations and Remaining Challenges

The World Bank's commitment to a comprehensive knowledge initiative, according to this World Bank report, "was timely and appropriate. It has sparked much innovation that has provided staff, clients, and partners with faster and easier access to Bank knowledge. But the new knowledge sharing activities have not been tightly linked to the Bank's core lending and nonlending processes. As a result, their impact on clients has been limited. The Bank, now entering the seventh year of its knowledge initiative, needs to move deliberately to embed knowledge sharing in its core business processes and manage its knowledge services for results." Catherine Gwin, World Bank Operations Evaluation Department, 2003.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Freedom of Expression versus Responsible Journalism

UNESCO now as at its creation supports freedom of expression and especially freedom of the press and media. Since the publication of cartoons last year deemed to be blasphemous by many in the Muslim world it is struggling with demands that freedom of expression not be extended to blasphemy. The idea seems to be that theocratic governments can censor media content that they consider to be blasphemous. The verbal formula being used is "responsible journalism".

Not surprisingly, advocates of freedom of expression react to such proposals as they did in the past to proposals for a New World Information Order. You may recall that many countries felt that the international media, in the 70's even more than today dominated by organizations from the North (and West), was providing less than optimal service to development as a result of its focus on information of interest to high income peoples and groups. The proposal for efforts to rectify this perceived injustice involved a call for states in the South (and East) to step in to rectify the situation with state supported media. Those whose pocketbook would be affected reacted as you might expect, charging (not without some justification) that coercive governments would substitute propaganda for news. The controversy was one of the prime causes for the U.S. and Great Britain to withdraw from UNESCO.

I am a strong supporter of freedom of expression. Indeed, I think there is too much censorship even in the United States. But it also seems to me that governments often regulate expression:
  • Pornography is censored. Sometimes that is to prevent exploitation of the models, but sometimes it is to satisfy the religious convictions of the censors.
  • Privacy trumps freedom of the press in some situations, in which the press is not allowed to publish materials about a private individual without permission of that person.
  • Privacy trumps freedom of expression for many social relationships -- lawyer and client, priest and parishioner, doctor and patient.
  • There are now ideas of group privacy gaining currency, as when the Hopi requested return of all Hopi materials from U.S. museum collections on the grounds of maintaining the privacy of their religious beliefs.
  • Libel and slander laws protect people from publication of false claims.
  • Protection against fraudulent use of the media, such as the laws against mail fraud.
  • Political gifts, used to buy air time, are regulated by law in the United States.
  • Hate speech is regulated in Germany, as is certain kinds of historical revisionism in France.
  • The law can enforce certain kinds of agreements to prevent disclosure of information, as when records are sealed for certain civil cases, when records are sealed for convictions of minors, or when contracts are made to withhold information from the public.
  • Indeed, intellectual property rights law includes the concept of "trade secrets" and employees guilty of divulging such secrets can be brought to law.
  • Copyright law protects the way in which ideas are expressed. (Note the difference between the ideas of natural rights of authors versus utilitarian arguments that the state grants temporary rights to enhance the production and dissemination of cultural products.)
  • Governments restrict dissemination of information for security reasons, and one suspects some in government use security as a cover to withhold embarrassing information from the public.
  • Scientists withhold publication of data, even that obtained with public funding, on the basis that they have first right to the publication of their work, but also on the basis that scientific data may by improperly interpreted by others than those who gathered it (since the researchers themselves will best understand the meaning and limitations of the data that they have gathered.)
  • Anti-spam laws, such as the laws allowing people to opt out of receiving phone advertising, which limit commercial phone banks but not those of charities.
  • The Bush administration, even more than most administrations, has held communications within the White House to be confidential, not subject to exposure in the press. Indeed, anyone involved in negotiations is likely to hold that there is a need to hold confidential from the other negotiators information crucial to the negotiation.
The point of this long list is that there might be a right to freedom of expression, but it stops short of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater (if there is no fire). We do limit that which can be expressed in the press and other media in many ways. However, there is always an issue as to whether a specific limitation or the effect of the overall pattern of such limitations overly constrain freedom of speech and expression. Is the benefit real or imaginary, and if real does it justify the cost to freedom.

I am posting this to help think through the issue. Of course one has to support the idea of "responsible journalism". I see no problem in promoting dialog on the characteristics people want to see in journalism and call "responsible". Nor do I see any problem in training journalists in their ethical responsibility to their employers, the public, and the subjects of their journalism. I can also see the problem in censoring the media on the grounds that it offends religious sensibility.

The issue of blasphemy seems a crucial one in what Samual Huntington has termed The Clash of Civilizations. Theocratic states see the prevention of blasphemy as a high political purpose. The United States is a prototypical state built on philosophy of separation of state and church, with freedom of expression as a guarantor of the democratic processes it so values. How can the two cultures agree on what constitutes a suitably responsible journalism?

Perhaps the issue is less real than apparent. U.S. media publish relatively little that U.S. citizens deep blasphemous or anti-religious. Theocracies no doubt find lots of secular information to be of no concern to the censors. Cultures can agree to differ, allowing each to impose its own laws. There is no reason for the U.S. to insist that Germany repeal its laws against hate expression, nor that more liberal societies need demand that the U.S. liberalize its anti-pornographic legislation.

Anyone want to comment?

U.S. Rejects G-8 Climate Proposal

Read the full article by Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post, May 26, 2007.
John Coequyt, energy policy specialist for the advocacy group Greenpeace, said the administration is undermining progress on climate change by opposing Germany's proposed declaration.

"The Bush administration is clearly ignoring the global scientific consensus as well the groundswell of concern about climate change in the United States," Coequyt said. "The administration's attempts to hold up any meaningful agreement at the G-8 summit in June are criminal, but not unexpected."

More About Immigration

Read "Top Talent Could Lose Fast Track to U.S.: Under Bill, Foreign Luminaries Would No Longer Skip Immigration Line" by Anthony Faiola and Robin Shulman, The Washington Post, May 26, 2007.
In the name of attracting the world's greatest and brightest, authorities have granted these luminaries priority access to green cards under a little-known provision offered to "aliens of extraordinary abilities."

It has provided a way for a host of notable foreigners -- among them John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Venezuelan-born New York Yankee Bobby Abreu -- to make America their home.

But the bill now being debated in Congress would do away with the special "EB-1" preferred-status category, effectively forcing foreign VIPs to take a number and get in line with everyone else. They would be subject to a complex point system to determine their eligibility -- assessing education levels, English abilities, experience in the United States and other factors -- just as any engineer from India or farmworker from Mexico.
Comment: Bad idea legislators. Let in the people who will create most wealth for the rest of us. That probably would not include rock groupies nor stars of sports only played in the United States, but it would include managers who could better run our companies and innovators who could develop new processes and products. JAD

Qoutations from Thomas Jeffersion

Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.
considering three different explanations for why sea shells would be found at higher elevations than one should reasonably expect an ocean to have existed, in Notes on the State of Virginia

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.
First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

If M de Becourt's book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God's sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose.
letter to N G Dufief, Philadelphia bookseller, 1814, after being prosecuted for selling de Becourt's book, Sur la Création du Monde, un Systême d'Organisation Primitive, which Jefferson himself had purchased (see Positive Atheism's Historical section)

It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.
Notes on Virginia

Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blind-folded fear. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences.
to Peter Carr, 10 Aug. 1787. (original capitalization of the word god is retained per original)

Friday, May 25, 2007

More About the Immigration Bill

Read "Worker Visas Intensify Debate on Immigration: Skilled Foreigners Embraced, Envied" by Pamela Constable, The Washington Post, May 25, 2007.

The draft legislation would increase the ceiling on new H-1B professional visas, which allow one- to six-year stays, from 65,000 to 115,000 a year. New H-1B visa holders now account for only 0.07 percent of the total U.S. workforce and that 57 percent of them have advanced degrees. Foreign students are exempt from visa ceilings if they have a graduate degree from a U.S. institution.

Read "Point system is key to immigration overhaul: Debate centers on how much weight should be allocated to family ties, skills, languages" by Carolyn Lochhead, The Sand Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 2007.
A Canadian-style point system at the center of a controversial new immigration overhaul could transform the ethnic and social composition of the United States in decades to come, but such a change hinges on the details expected to emerge this week from intense closed-door negotiations between the White House and key senators in both parties.

In concept, a point system that awards visas on the basis of such factors as education, age, job skills and English proficiency could mark a radical change from the current system that awards the vast majority of the 1 million legal permanent residence visas, or green cards, on the basis of a foreigner's family ties to relatives already in the United States.

Depending on how a point system is constructed, a Ghanaian physician fluent in English could get priority to enter the country, for example, over a Spanish-speaking hotel maid from Guatemala whose brother is a U.S. citizen.
Comment: It is too bad that the legislation seeking to deal with illegal immigrants and to strengthen the borders against illegal immigration is considered in the same bill with the legislation on H-1B visas and the formula for legal immigration. Both are important pieces of legislation, but the hot button issue of the illegals distracts our attention from the critical issue of how the population of this nation is to grow in the future.

As readers of this blog know, I prefer we bring in people who can help this economy. I worry that as the baby boomers age, with a low birth rate, and as longevity increases, we will have a smaller portion of the population working to support the whole population. Indeed, the cost to the economy of the older population will continue to increase.

Globalization will continue, and we need knowledge workers to continue to provide a competitive advantage in an international knowledge economy. Thus, I hope that the Congress will pass and the President will sign legislation that helps build that force of knowledge workers. My smart, well educated friends from Ghana would be a great asset to the economy, as would my smart, well educated friends from Latin America.
JAD

Here is a negative study on high tech immigration by the Washington Center for Immigration Studies: "Low Wages for Low Skills: New Report Corrects Misconceptions About High-Tech Visa"

Here is a more positive National Foundation for American Policy Policy Brief: "H-1B Visas, Enforcement , Outsourcing and U.S. Workers: An H-1B Primer"

Check out the Reports and Studies from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Science Under Attack: An interview with NRDC's science watchdog Jennifer Sass


Read the full interview of Jennifer Sass.

Natural Resource Defense Council senior scientist Jennifer Sass has been investigating corporate influence over government environmental regulations and enforcement.

Question: "What have you found in your research into corporate influence over the regulatory process?"

Answer: "There have been two very significant themes. First, corporations have far too much influence on the policymaking and enforcement process affecting their own products. They're able to wield vast influence over the process by which their own pollution is or is not regulated, and over whether regulations are enforced. And they've become exceedingly thorough at how they do it -- by pressuring regulators, infiltrating the scientific advisory panels that make key recommendations to agencies, attacking studies that demonstrate the harms their products cause, and even creating their own distorted scientific studies to compete with independent ones.

"The second thing that is hard to miss is that while this has been an ongoing problem for many years, the Bush administration has made it much worse, by creating more opportunities for corporate mischief, and by highlighting fabricated, pseudo-science from corporate sources when it dovetails with their policy agenda."

Comment: Right on! JAD

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Constructing the Defenses of Peace

"Since wars begin in the minds of men,
it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."
From the preamble of UNESCO's Constitution

UNESCO was created in the aftermath of World War II by hard headed statesmen who agreed on this very idealistic sounding phrase -- a phrase that has be very influential during UNESCO's six decades of life. Is it in fact idealistic to assume that educational, scientific, cultural and communications and information development can help to build the defenses of peace?

Surely countries with high levels of educational, scientific, cultural, and communications achievements have gone to war, and not always justly. Indeed, the most advanced of nations were the primary combatants of World Wars I and II, which was why those wars were so terrible -- a fact clearly known to the founders of UNESCO. Of course, in part they were asking the world to further increase and disseminate knowledge and understanding, feeling that still more advanced nations would not again war among themselves. They must also have felt that it was not simply a question of more knowledge and understanding, but of the kinds of knowledge and understanding.

Is there a genetic predisposition to war in our species? Perhaps! Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom do seem to fight for territory, as to other territorial species. On the other hand different cultures seem to differ significantly in their willingness to wage war, so society can regulate the expression of any genetic predisposition towards war that may exist.

Certainly, it is people who make the decisions that lead to war. If we change the way people think, why should we not change the likelihood that they will make decisions leading to war. The problem, of course, is figuring out what changes in the way people think will decrease the likelihood of war-favoring decisions, and figuring out how to make those changes.

Perhaps there is a more fundamental way in which we can use the minds of men to safeguard the peace. Wars come from conflicts of interests and the ways in which institutions resolve those conflicts. If society can find better ways to reduce and/or resolve conflicts of interests, or better institutions and institutional processes to resolve conflicts, then peace will be more likely. But society will find such better ways only if individuals find them and communicate them to others. Here again, the defense of peace must begin in the minds of men.

UNESCO is a man-made institution, governed by the representatives of 192 nations. Indeed, we know that at least half the nations of the world are themselves under governments of less than average quality. Still, "the ideal is the enemy of the good". UNESCO remains an organization that is worth working for and with, so that it can better help to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men.

"Researchers Press DEA to Let Them Grow Marijuana"

Read the full article by Marc Kaufman in The Washington Post of May 24, 2007.

Kaufman writes:
Armed with a legal decision in their favor, scientists and advocates of medical research on marijuana pressed the Drug Enforcement Administration yesterday to allow them to grow their own, saying that pot supplied by the government is too hard to get and that its poor quality limits their research.

The proponents said a DEA administrative law judge's recent ruling that it would be in "the public interest" to have additional marijuana grown -- and to break the government's monopoly on growing it -- had put them closer to their goal than ever before......

The agency has opposed petitions that would end the government's marijuana monopoly, saying that the current system works well and that allowing other growers could lead to more diversion to illicit use. All the marijuana produced for research is grown at the University of Mississippi and distributed through the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But a petition filed in 2001 by University of Massachusetts agronomy professor Lyle E. Craker seeking to grow marijuana in his greenhouses has worked its way through the DEA appeal process and resulted in a ruling against the agency earlier this year.
Comment: It is hard to believe that the DEA objections to qualified researchers growing marijuana are legitimate, and indeed the judge did not find that to be true. One third of legitimate pharmaceutical products are based on natural products, and many more were synthesized as a result of efforts to improve upon or find a better path to production of a natural pharmaceutical product. In addition, the species of plants from which marijuana is produced has other uses, and still more might be found by research. Given the flood of marijuana that appears to be available in the United States from illegal sources, the added risk from theft of materials produced by researchers under controlled growing conditions seems minimal or non-existant. This again seems like an example of government officials restricting the freedom of scientific research in order to pander to the interests of a political constituency. JAD

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bioethics at UNESCO

The Program on Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO includes an important focus on bioethics. UNESCO supports both:
* The International Bioethics Committee (IBC)
a body of 36 independent experts that follows progress in the life sciences and its applications in order to ensure respect for human dignity and freedom, created in 1993.

* The Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC)
a body comprised of representatives of of 36 Member States whose representatives meet at least once every two years to examine the advice and recommendations of the IBC.
The rapid pace of development of the life sciences, and especially the biomedical sciences means that new ethical issues are arising more rapidly today than in the past. Genetic modification of plants and animals raises new possibilities to increase agricultural productivity, but also new threats to health and the environment, and the balance among these benefits and risks requires ethical analysis. The conduct of new kinds of research, especially on human subjects, itself raises new ethical issues, while unfortunately the systems needed to assure the ethical conduct of research are not adequate in many nations, especially those which are rapidly expanding their biomedical research activities. Stem cell research, research on contraceptive practices, genetic testing and cloning are perhaps the currently most controversial areas.

UNESCO has been the United Nations system's lead agency for ethics since its creation. Bioethics has been introduced as an important subfield for UNESCO. UNESCO's strong capabilities in the basic sciences provide an advantage, since many bioethics issues are first recognized by the research community in the context of new possibilities arising from science. Focusing on the ethical issues before technologies are developed for widespread use is a great advantage for public policy makers.

UNESCO provides a venue for the global community to discuss these issues, allowing people from different disciplines, nations, and cultures to collectively bring their views and backgrounds to bear on issues of global importance.

Read about:
* UNESCO’s new Global Ethics Observatory and

* The most recent Session of the International Bioethics Committee

The OpenNet Initiative

ONI’s mission is to identify and document Internet filtering and surveillance, and to promote and inform wider public dialogue about such practices. The OpenNet Initiative is a collaborative partnership of four leading academic institutions: the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Programme, University of Cambridge, and the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University. Note especially the open net filtering map, both because of its content describing the geography of efforts to censor the Internet, and its nifty display of the information.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

World Health Statistics 2007


World Health Statistics 2007 presents the most recent health statistics for WHO’s 193 Member States. This third edition includes a section with 10 highlights of global health statistics for the past year as well as an expanded set of 50 health statistics.

NATION IN BRIEF - washingtonpost.com

NATION IN BRIEF - washingtonpost.com:

"The top two leaders of the National Weather Service announced their resignations Friday, two days after the director of the National Hurricane Center blasted federal overseers for attempting to diminish both agencies' identity and absorb their budgets.

David L. Johnson, who has served as director of the National Weather Service since January 2004, said he will step down on June 30. John E. Jones Jr., the service's deputy director since 1998, will retire on the same day after 35 years in the government."
Comment: Is this another example of the Bush administration's impact on the science and technology community? Clearly the cutback on hurricane research is not in the nation's best interest! JAD

Debate Rises On World Bank Succession - washingtonpost.com

Debate Rises On World Bank Succession - washingtonpost.com:

"The departure of Paul D. Wolfowitz as World Bank president is prompting calls around the world to revoke the traditional right of the United States to select the institution's leader.

As the White House asserted its claim on picking Wolfowitz's successor, aid groups and former bank officials demanded that the next president be selected not in deference to the Bush administration, but on professional merits."
Comment: On the one hand, as an American, I would like to see the process continue by which the United States government picks the head of the World Bank. This would continue to avoid situations such as that where Zimbabwe is chosen by the United Nations body to head the Commission on Sustainable Development, even though its government obviously is currently not sustaining development. It also maintains the influence of the government of the country in which I am a citizen.

On the other hand, it is hard to argue against transparency and a search for quality for the job. How can the World Bank or other international organizations argue for democratic processes and transparency in government decision making, when not themselves practicing such virtues? Do they themselves not suffer from corruption and nepotism as a result?

The U.S. Constitution and U.S. law creates a set of checks and balances for senior appointments to high level posts in the U.S. government. The President nominates people for the jobs, but the Senate has to confirm the nominee. While the executive branch conducts the search for an appropriate nominee behind closed doors, the Senate will hold open hearings. There is an opportunity for the media to investigate the persons qualifications, and for people with information that militates against the appointment to come forward and be heard. I think the discipline of the process encourages the executive to take care in the nomination process to select an individual who can pass muster.

The informal system by which the United States gets to appoint people to key posts in intergovernmental programs (the World Bank president, the Deputy Director General of the Pan American Health Organization, the head of the World Food Program) does not seem to include any such system of checks and balances.

The result is that an administration that disdains intergovernmental organizations, or one that lacks the ability to identify and appoint the best people, can make very bad choices and there is no appeal to those choices.

The informal system dates back to the creation of the United Nations system, when the United States dominated the world economy and provided most of the resources for the system. It was also a time in which bipartisanship in foreign policy had been required to prosecute World War II. Now that economic power is more evenly spread and the United States is but one of many important donors, and when the Congressional majority is of a different party from the White House and distrusts Bush administration foreign policy, perhaps it is time to revise those old agreements and put in some checks and balances.

It would be possible for the Congress to pass a law requiring Congressional confirmation of U.S. nominations to intergovernmental leadership posts. Alternatively, and perhaps more appropriately, it would be possible to allow various countries to nominate people for these posts and empower their governing bodies to make the selections.
JAD

Friday, May 18, 2007

Wolfowitz Resigns From World Bank

Read the Washington Post coverage of the resolution of the Wolfowitz affair.

I am glad that the process was allowed to run to the conclusion, which appears to be a reasonable compromise.

I do note the following from the WP lead story:
In a statement released last night, the board conceded that "a number of mistakes were made by a number of individuals in handling the matter under consideration," and the bank would need to improve its ethical procedures. The board declared that Wolfowitz "assured us that he acted ethically and in good faith in what he believed were the best interests of the institution, and we accept that."......

A bank official briefed by board members said the board would today issue a second statement asserting that Wolfowitz is immediately barred from making personnel and policy decisions, assuaging the fears of some that he might otherwise fire those who have rallied against him.
Another WP article states:
In his statement to the bank board on the Riza deal earlier this month, Wolfowitz seemed to recognize that "what this is really about" was "my leadership and management style." He said that "there are some significant things that I need to change in order to regain the trust of the staff." He had "relied too long on advisers who came in with me from the outside."

Wolfowitz acknowledged the need for "more direct and frequent engagement with staff on substance," he said, adding: "I truly believe I can do much better."
A third WP article states that thousands of World Bank staff members here in Washington had taken to wearing blue ribbons on their jackets to express their opinion that Wolfowitz should go.

Comment: It rather looks like Mr. Wolfowitz would have done considerable damage to th Bank had he continued in his job for the rest of this term of office, and perhaps more had he survived for a second term. JAD

Support the Comporomise Immigration Bill

There is a ton of coverage of the compromise reached between a bipartisan coalition in the Senate and the White House on the immigration bill. I suspect that it is, as described, the last, best hope for a law that will improve the situation. Let us not lose good legislation in a futile search for perfect legislation. Let us not put 12 million people through more uncertainty and mental anguish than we must for political opportunism.

The key issues are that:
  • we must have a means of bringing the 12,000,000 illegal immigrants now in the United States under the laws of the nation,
  • we must have a better system for regulating our borders and the flow of people into the United States.
In terms of knowledge for development, I think switching the criteria for legal entry to admit more of those who bring us the skills and knowledge this nation and its current people will benefit from is to the good. I am sorry that that means that it will be harder for people who are here to bring family members from abroad to live with them. I know it was difficult for my parents to be separated from their families when they immigrated to this country, but if the trauma is too great, people can always return to the countries from which they came to be reunited with their families. And of course, the reunification is not to be unlawful, but merely more difficult to arrange under the new law.

The Times of India says:
According to reports, a new US Senate proposal would allow limitless H1-B visas and green cards for foreigners with master’s degrees or higher in any field from an American university — or anyone with such credentials in the science, technology, engineering or math fields from abroad.
I think this may well be an overstatement, but I think there is to be an increase in the numbers of H1-B visas given to people in occupational categories in which there are deemed to be labor shortages in the United States. This too is an advantage to the economy of the nation, and while it may in the short term reduce the wage increases to those already here in those occupational categories, it will benefit the rest of us immediately, and the U.S. labor force in the long run. It will also help deal with the problem of an aging population, and the baby-boom generation retiring from the workforce and looking for the workers to support their social security.

Lets contact our Representatives in the House and ask for support of the compromise!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Peer Review Quality Must Be Improved

Read "Peer-review quality must be raised, says report" in Research Information. (26 April 2007).

"A number of options are available to raise the quality of peer review, according to a new report from the European Science Foundation (ESF). The report ‘Peer review: its present and future states’ draws on ideas from an international conference in Prague in October 2006.

:A central theme of the report is that the current peer-review system might not adequately assess the most pioneering research proposals, as they may be viewed as too risky. John O’Reilly, former chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), now vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, said that traditional peer review might be too risk averse. He suggested the need to encourage pioneering research that is high risk in the proposal, but high impact if successful."

Comment: Reviewing of proposals is difficult to manage well. The word "peer" in "peer review" is difficult to define, as it is in the term "jury of ones peers". What one wants to do in the peer review process is:
  • recruit people who have the requisite expertise (as a group) to review a project well,
  • organize them so that they can bring that expertise to bear on the proposal effectively, and
  • provide them with incentives to do so.
Many projects require people in two or more disciplines to provide a good review. Projects involved in technology development require not only experts in the technology per se, but also people who can judge the market for the technology if developed. JAD

Stem Cell Research

The fifth episode of the Science Series on the Charlie Rose interview show on public television is an exploration of stem cell research. Five distinguished scientists, including Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, discuss the potential of this field of research for advancing science and developing treatment for a variety of health problems. Mouse stem cells were first reported in 1981, and human stem cells in 1998. This is really a new field of science.

The scientists were bemused about the success of opponents of stem cell research in characterizing a ball of 100 to 200 cells as a human being, especially given that tens of thousands of these balls of cells are discarded every year in the United States.

There seemed consensus that the Bush administration policy on stem cell research is misguided. Researchers are barred from utilizing hundreds of good cell lines in their research if they chose to accept federal funding. As a result, the research is progressing less rapidly than it might otherwise do. The limitations are militating against good young scientists entering stem cell research careers, as well as against many projects being undertaken, and against the reputation of U.S. science.

It will probably take years for stem cell research programs to yield medical benefits. The longer we wait to start the research programs, the later we will obtain those benefits. The delay will be measured in the suffering and deaths of people from heart and blood disease, diabetes, Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, and cancer.

The World Bank as a Knowledge Bank

James Wolfensohn, in 1996, created a process to improve knowledge sharing within the World Bank and between the Bank and its clients. He suggested that increasingly in a knowledge economy, the Bank should function as a "knowledge bank" (and not just as a financial institution). Of course, others in the Bank already had similar ideas, but Wolfensohn used his authority as President of the World Bank more forcefully than his subordinates could have done alone. I think that effort has made a difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of the Bank, and has made the knowledge accumulated by Bank staff more accessible to developing nations (and to the industry of development experts and consultants that has grown to serve the donor community).

Here are a couple of related sources:
* Knowledge Bank (a 2004 streaming video and text from the Bank)

* "The evolution of the knowledge bank" InsideKnowledge, 29 Feb 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 6

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The NSA Program Reauthorization Decision Process

Two articles in The Washington Post today describe an effort by Andrew Card, then White House Chief of Staff, and Alberto Gonzales, then White House Counsel, to bypass the Acting Attorney General and obtain a signature from John Ashcroft who was in an intensive care unit recovering from emergency surgery. Ashcroft who held the title of Attorney General had temporarily relinquished to the post to his deputy because of his illness. The two articles are:
* "Gonzales Hospital Episode Detailed: Ailing Ashcroft Pressured on Spy Program, Former Deputy Says" by Dan Eggen and Paul Kane, and

* "Ashcroft and the Night Visitors" by Dana Milbank
There is also a story in today's New York Times:
* "President Intervened in Dispute Over Eavesdropping" by DAVID JOHNSTON
Let me bypass the dramatic bits, which are widely covered.

The Story as I Understand it

The Justice Department staff found a National Security Agency surveillance program might not be legal. The program had to be reauthorized every 45 days. The Acting Attorney General refused to sign off on the authorization memo, causing White House staffers to seek Ashcroft's signature. Ashcroft refused. The reauthorization was then submitted to the President without Department of Justice clearance, and signed. The the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Chief of Staff of the Justice Department, and the head of the FBI all started to prepare their resignations. The President met privately with the Acting Attorney General and the Director of the FBI, and then agreed to modify the program. The nature of the modifications has never been disclosed.

Comment: Note that the process and the human factors can have major influence on the decision that is made. The clearance process is designed to raise any important issues for the President's attention, and appeared ultimately to do so in this case. However, it appears that Card and Gonzalez sought first to get a dangerously ill man to sign off on the document from his sick bed, and then when that effort failed, submitted the memo for signature without DoJ clearance. The threat of mass resignations must have changed the political balance, bringing what was a secret process and outcome inevitably to public attention. That threat evidently resulted in a new process, and a change in the decision.

Emotions must have run high! Senior political officials do not resign in protest casually. I suspect it was that emotional energy that fueled the process needed to revise the bad initial decision.

"Knowledge for Development" as a title suggests that knowledge plays a key role in the decision making of government (and other) officials, and so it should. But good decision making also depends on good processes for making those decisions -- processes that identify the important alternatives, raise issues, and alert the decision makers to the pros and cons of each alternative.

Ultimately, however, people make the decisions. It is very hard to tell policy makers things that they don't enjoy hearing, and people have to obtain the emotional resources to do so.

My hat is off to James B. Comey, Robert S. Mueller III, John D. Ashcroft, David Ayres and their colleagues who found the strength to do the right thing in that difficult moment in March 2004.
JAD

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Myths get in the way of valid knowledge

Read "Mrs. Trollope's America" by Kipling Buis, winner of Vanity Fair's 2007 essay contest, and published in the June 2007 issue of the magazine. The contest "asked young Americans to define our national reality. To be more specific: In a country defined by video games, reality TV, and virtual friendships, with a White House that has perfected the art of politics as public relations, what is reality to Americans today? And did we ever have a grasp of it?"

Mr Buis writes:
Mrs. Trollope rather cruelly poked us in both of our sore spots by invoking the two thoroughly repugnant crimes of our early history—namely, the enslavement of Africans and the massacre of the native population. (She would not have been surprised to learn that the U.S. government eventually violated nearly all of the innumerable "most solemn treaties" signed with various tribes.) Yet her criticism was (and is) easily dismissed with a version of the handy old saw about not being able to fry an omelet without breaking a few eggs. So today, nearly 200 years later, America continues to boast about its "exceptionalism" while Europe continues to resent hearing lectures about freedom and justice from a country founded on slavery and genocide.
Comment: U.S. schools teach the myth of American exceptionalism and U.S. media reinforce that teaching. They make it hard to recognize that the United States is full of people much like the people of other countries, and some of them do bad things when given the chance. It also distracts attention from the historical fact that sometimes our leaders do not live up to the myths of a nation that stands for freedom against tyranny, for democracy against totalitarianism, for the downtrodden against poverty, for the planet against environmental degradation. Not when doing so would be bad for business, or detract from some other interest of those politicians.

In the context of this blog, however, I would point out a critical problem for knowledge for development. National myths would seem to play a key role in building a sense of national identity, and thus in building nations. There are all sorts of reasons why nations are good for social and economic development. But when myths get in the way of accurate knowledge and understanding, the result can be very harmful. The people who got the United States into occupying Iraq believed some myths that turned out to be false, and the result is grave damage to this country and catastrophe for Iraq.
JAD

The same slice. The share of U.S. discretionary spending going to research hasn't changed much since the days of the Apollo program.
SOURCE: AAAS, FROM 2008 U.S. BUDGET REQUEST via Science magazine. 11 May 2007 > Mervis , pp. 817 - 818

Comment: While other nations spend more of GDP on research and development, the United States does not. Since those other nations are also growing their GDP's, they will eventually produce much more science and technology. JAD

WB Panel Report Tars Wolfowitz

Read "Bank Rebukes Wolfowitz On Ethics: Rules Were Broken, Committee Says" by Peter S. Goodman, The Washington Post, May 15, 2007.

I have worked for years as a consultant to the World Bank, and have not posted on the Wolfowitz controversy both because I didn't feel I could add anything to the discussion. The situation now seems clear enough, and perhaps comments in the blogosphere will help the Executive Board make the right decision.

Paul Wolfowitz apparently was told by the Bank's ethics committee that he had to resolve a potential conflict of interest caused by the fact that he had a romantic relationship with someone who would be his subordinate when he assumed the position as President of the World Bank. He asked the ethics committee to resolve the problem, and they (rightly) responded that it was not their job to do so. Wolfowitz could have recused himself from the matter, instructing one of the Bank Vice Presidents to resolve the issue. He did not do so. He excluded the World Bank general counsel from the negotiations. He ordered an excessive salary increase for his friend as she was detailed from the Bank to work for the U.S. government. Mr. Wolfowitz does not appear to have shown the quality of judgment in this affair that one needs in the chief executive of an organization such as the World Bank. The Bank is deeply involved in fighting corruption in its client states and, at the very least, Wolfowitz' behavior in this matter creates an appearance of an ethical lapse. (I suspect -- with no evidence at all -- that in fact, he was simply a very busy guy who wanted the problem to go away, and chose what appeared to be a fast solution. Of course, the problem has not gone away!)

Now the Executive Board has the responsibility of deciding the appropriate action to take in response to the report. It is too bad that the Bush administration is now overtly seeking to influence that decision by public statements, rather than holding by its earlier position of expressing support in the processes of the Executive Board of the Bank. I suspect that the process is highly politicized, and that it is the worst possible process except for all the others I can think of. Let the Board do its job, and hope that the Bank reputation and effectiveness does not suffer too much in the process.

The World Bank has a mission that is crucially important -- to fight poverty. It has a half century of experience in fighting poverty, and the world has learned a great deal in the course of that half century. Indeed, there has been great progress in increasing incomes, improving health, improving education, and improving the wellbeing of people. The world will be a worse place if the Bank is not as effective as possible in continuing its work to fight poverty!

Read the report of the ad hoc group of the Executive Board of the World Bank.

"Scientists Protest Plan to End Wolves' Safeguards"


According to the Washington Post's "Washington in Brief" column today:
More than 230 scientists have signed a letter opposing plans to remove wolves in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho from Endangered Species Act protection. The scientists said wolves still face threats there because their numbers remain relatively small and because the wolf populations in the Yellowstone National Park area, in central Idaho and in northwest Montana do not intermingle......The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that figure is more than four times the number of wolves needed to consider removing a species from federal protections.
Comment: It used to be that I had faith that the scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service did a good job, and that the agency reported their conclusions fairly. Now I wonder whether the Bush administration is overriding scientific judgments in order to please a conservative constituency in the West. JAD

Monday, May 14, 2007

Washington Whistleblower Week

The Government Accountability Project and 45 other national public interest groups, and hundreds of whistleblowers from across the country, are observing Washington Whistleblower Week, running from May 10 to May 18.


Note especially the Luncheon Panel on Scientific Integrity. I watched on CSPAN 3, and found it interesting and alarming.

What Doctors Don't Know

What Doctors Don't Know - The New York Review of Books:
Lewis Thomas 1987 review in the New York Review of Books of Becoming a Doctor: A Journey of Initiation in Medical School by Melvin Konner MD. (Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books)


"Early on in this year, Konner began to encounter the aphorisms on which the practice of medicine has long been based. Unlike aphorisms in general, these nuggets of perceived wisdom are made up anew by each generation, but a few of them have old histories. The best of these, which Konner recognizes for its immense importance, is a short sequence of prescriptions given to him by one of his teachers:

'If it's working, keep doing it.'

'If it's not working, stop doing it.'

'If you don't know what to do, don't do anything.'

The third of these, Konner says he later realized, is 'the most difficult one by far, the one least adhered to in common medical practice, and beyond a doubt the most important.'"

An Approach to Improving Reading

Live Ink®: Brain-Based Text Formatting Raises Standardized Reading Test ScoresOver 60 percent of US jobs require proficient reading skills.
Most US information workers need to read for several hours a day, (and increasingly from computer displays). (Derouzos, 1997) The economic value of wages for workers to spend time reading is therefore over $2 trillion a year. Moreover, over the past 30 years, the difficulty of reading material in US jobs has increased by several grade levels, but the reading proficiency of US students has not changed over this period. The US Department of Labor estimates that poor reading in the workplace costs US businesses over $225 billion a year, in waste, accidents, lost opportunities, and injuries. (Sum, 1999; Sum, Kirsch, & Taggart, 2002).

Although the reading material for the top 70 percent of US jobs is at a 9th grade level, 70 percent of today’s high school seniors cannot read above a 7th grade reading level -- and 30 percent still read no better than a targeted 4th grade reading proficiency level. (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003) Recently, new Federal programs have emphasized phonemic awareness in the early grades, as a keystone for building reading proficiency. However, as students move through the middle and high school years, the gap between targeted and actual reading proficiency gets wider -- suggesting that additional kinds of reading development are needed.

The widening gap between actual and targeted reading proficiency during middle and high school years also creates a dual dilemma for students and educators: (i) the curriculum must cover increasing amounts of specific content, leaving less time for targeted reading intervention; and (ii) the content itself is presented in larger and more complex texts to be read.
Read:
* Visual-Syntactic Text Formatting: A New Method to Enhance Online Reading

* Live Ink offers better way to read text online (describing the business side of the firm marketing the Live Link software)

Borzou Daragahi

Borzou Daragahi is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has been covering Iraq and Iran for the last several years. He was up for a Pulitzer as an individual for 2005, and as part of his bureau in 2006. Check out:
* An really informative interview with him on CSPAN Q&A that gives a feel for Iraq

* A column he published April 10, 2007 which he describes as that which got most attention of those he has written.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Value of Cell Phones to Kerala's Fisherman

Read "Economics focus: To do with the price of fish" From The Economist print edition, May 10th 2007.

Robert Jensen, a development economist at Harvard University, has completed a study of the economic benefits obtained by fisherman in this region of India from the adoption of mobile phones in 1997. The study is to be published as:
“The Digital Provide: Information (technology), market performance and welfare in the South Indian fisheries sector”, by Robert Jensen. To be published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2007.
Excerpts:
As phone coverage spread between 1997 and 2000, fishermen started to buy phones and use them to call coastal markets while still at sea. (The area of coverage reaches 20-25km off the coast.)....the proportion of fishermen who ventured beyond their home markets to sell their catches jumped from zero to around 35% as soon as coverage became available in each region. At that point, no fish were wasted and the variation in prices fell dramatically.

This more efficient market benefited everyone. Fishermen's profits rose by 8% on average and consumer prices fell by 4% on average. Higher profits meant the phones typically paid for themselves within two months. And the benefits are enduring, rather than one-off.....

Furthermore, says Mr Jensen, phones do this without the need for government intervention. Mobile-phone networks are built by private companies, not governments or charities, and are economically self-sustaining. Mobile operators build and run them because they make a profit doing so, and fishermen, carpenters and porters are willing to pay for the service because it increases their profits. The resulting welfare gains are indicated by the profitability of both the operators and their customers, he suggests. All governments have to do is issue licences to operators, establish a clear and transparent regulatory framework and then wait for the phones to work their economic magic.
Read "Cellphones bridge the digital divide" by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, The Times of India, Jan 29, 2006.
This article also describes the research of Robert Jensen on the economic benefits of introduction of cell phones to the fisherman of Kerala.
The Economist's article also mentions:
The Impact of Telecoms on Economic Growth in Developing Countries
Leonard Waverman, Meloria Meschi and Melvyn Fuss1
Waverman found
that an extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country leads to an additional 0.59 percentage points of growth in GDP per person. (He recently repeated this earlier study using a more elaborate model and found that an extra 10 percentage points in mobile-phone penetration led to an extra 0.44 percentage points of growth, a difference he says is not statistically significant.)

Business Schools are Changing Curricula

Source: The Economist

Read "Business schools: New graduation skills" in The Economist, May 10th 2007.

The article notes:
Instead of the well-worn method of teaching functional subjects, such as marketing, strategy, accounting and so forth, students who are now completing their first year at Yale are taught with eight courses that each address different themes, such as the customer, the employee, the investor, competitors, business and society, and innovation.....

Today the mood in business schools is a lot happier, and not just in America but also in other countries, which now boast more business schools and many more MBAs than ever before......

But a recent survey by Egon Zehnder, a recruitment firm, found that only one in five of the international corporate executives it polled thought that an MBA prepares people for real-life management. When Yale's Mr Podolny became dean in July 2005 he found “a growing disconnect between how business is taught and how careers are developing”......

Although (Harvard Business School) HBS, which invented the MBA, is continuing its familiar case-study method of teaching, it has introduced a popular new course in “leadership and accountability”. Post-Enron, most business schools have introduced or have beefed up their teaching of ethics, often under the banner of leadership. However, a lively debate now rages about whether this is best done separately or as a part of every subject......

Many schools are trying to increase the practical side by giving a greater role to business, including inviting business people to speak to students.
Comment: There is a lot to be said for changing curriculum -- especially that the novelty energizes faculty and involves students. JAD

I was especially interested in this comment:
As Rakesh Khurana of HBS points out, many schools saw their founding mission to professionalize the management of business, much as medical and law schools had institutionalized their disciplines. According to Mr Khurana, whose book on the history of HBS is about to be published to mark its centenary next year, professions have at least four elements: an accepted body of knowledge; a system for certifying mastery of that knowledge before it can be practiced; a commitment to the public good; and an enforceable code of ethics.
Comment: I think that one might expand that very useful comment from "a body of knowledge" to "a body of skills, knowledge and understanding" but I agree that professionals should have a certified mastery, a commitment to the public good, and a code of ethics. I also believe that we need professionals to administer government agencies, corporations, and civil society organizations. JAD

Chess machines illustrate the value of computer aided intelligence

British chess grand master Michael Adams interviewed after losing a match to the 32-processor hardware-enhanced Hydra chess machine. In six games at regular time controls, Adams was able to tie only once, losing the other five to the machine.
Source: ChessBase News.


Read "We've Made Our Match" by William Saletan, The Washington Post, May 13, 2007.

The article by the Slate science and technology reporter says that chess programs have become sufficiently powerful that the best of them regularly win matches against human grand masters. The humans for a while were able to retain superiority by using anti-machine strategies developed to exploit weaknesses in the programs. However, programmers devised anti-anti-machine strategies to again surpass the humans.

Essentially, the software has been developed to include more and more sophisticated heuristics. The speed and power of the computer processing enables the computer to explore more alternatives and to explore them more fully than the human can do. Human experts apparently discard lines of play from consideration, judging that they do not look promising, that the computers exploit. Of course, these are very powerful computers, with very powerful software.

In the distant past, computer chess was fun for programmers, and served to explore the application of heuristic programming to complex tasks, as well as to demonstrate that "human problem solving behavior" did not necessarily require humans.

Saletin is making the point that humans can develop computers and computer programs that can solve difficult analytic challenges under time constraints better than the best human analysts. He states:
In the big picture, whether the computer beats us isn't important. Either way, it's a human triumph. In fact, it's a greater human triumph when the computer wins. As a player, you can conceive a brilliant move without understanding where it came from. As a programmer, you have to do something much harder: articulate rules that will generate such brilliance.
Comment: I agree with Saletin. Now we have to start developing computers and software that will help with really difficult policy issues. Would it not be great for future leaders to have the help of powerful machines as they try to avoid messes like that which has been created in Iraq, or which is being created in the global environment! How far fetched is that? Well, 50 years ago I don't think anyone really believed that the best chess player in the world would be a machine. JAD