Monday, November 30, 2009

Leshner: U.S., Europe Share “an Obligation to Help Build Scientific Capacity in the Developing World”

With the world moving into a new era of discovery and challenge, the United States and Europe must join to support emerging science communities and to help lead in the development of a global network of scientific knowledge, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told an audience of high-level researchers and government officials. Read more!


The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.
--- Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., The Mythical Man-Month

Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them.
--- George Orwell

Intelligence is like a four-wheel drive. It allows you to get stuck in more remote places.
--- Garrison Keillor

Do one thing every day that scares you.
--- Eleanor Roosevelt

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
--- Albert Einstein

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.
--- Samuel Johnson

Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.
--- Samuel Johnson


In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
--- Eric Hoffer

We live in a time of change.
--- John Daly

"Why feedback can be just so much noise"

My friend Julianne also recommends this article by Tim Harford suggesting that feedback is not as great as many naive people assume. In theory we should be monitoring and evaluating our programs and projects, adjusting them to improve performance in accord with user feedback. In practice, M&E is often confusing and even misleading, in part because the questions asked of users are often based on poorly understood models of reality or because the questions are badly designed to measure what they are intended to reveal.

The article draws on Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making by Gary Klein. I haven't read the book, but the reviews look good! I quote from a review of the book:
Klein offers more realistic ideas about how to make decisions in real-life settings. He provides many examples—ranging from airline pilots and weather forecasters to sports announcers and Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander novels—to make his point. All these decision makers saw things that others didn't. They used their expertise to pick up cues and to discern patterns and trends. We can make better decisions, Klein tells us, if we are prepared for complexity and ambiguity and if we will stop expecting the data to tell us everything.
In researching this posting, I came across this great site from the Air War College on thinking and decision making, full of links to practical guides.

"Understanding Complexity"

My friend Julianne alerted me to this nine page brief by Olivier Serrat, published by the Asian Development Bank, which describes a history of failed attempts to explain development by single factor causal models, recognizing that social and economic development is indeed a complex process.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Visiting Gettysburg National Military Park

Yesterday we visited the Gettysburg battlefield. For non-U.S. readers, this was the site of the bloodiest battle in the American Civil War, with something like 50,000 casualties, commemorated in what is probably America's most famous presidential address. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia sought to bring the war to the North in the autumn of 1862 but was stopped at Antietam, and again in the summer of 1863 but was stopped at Gettysburg. These two tactical ties but strategic defeats may have sealed the fate of the Confederacy, even though the war continued until 1865.

The Park has fine facilities, but I was left profoundly moved by the sacrifices made by both sides, including nearly 8,000 killed in the battle itself.

Obviously the battle resulted from tactical decisions of many actors, from broad strategic decisions made by the Southern and by the Northern leadership, from geopolitical considerations of both sides (especially those related to the potential involvement of the European powers), and consequently I doubt any simple reasons that might be given for the battle. I understand. however, why the National Park Service has opted for a simple explanation for the battlefield tourists.

Difficulty Understanding the Past

Looking back on the Civil War from today, it seems not only obvious that slavery was morally wrong and economically a dead end, but that it was a doomed institution that would have soon been abolished even had the Civil War not lead to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment. European powers had outlawed the slave trade and slavery and the progress of history would surely have strengthened abolitionist sentiment in the United States until we too would have abolished slavery. Yet the South must not have seen that course as inevitable, and indeed Lincoln emancipated only the slaves held by secessionists in the Emancipation proclamation, leaving the end of slavery in the United States to the later Constitutional amendment.

The Civil War marked the change from treating the term "The United States" in the plural to treating it as singular: from "The United States are...." to "The United States is...." The unity of the union has been a given all my life. Indeed, for all of my adult life the United States has been the dominant economic and military power in the world. So how can I properly empathize with the leaders of the 19th century who properly feared that disunion to be followed by intervention of stronger European states in American affairs and a process of interstate conflict and war like that which plagued the European states through most of the history of the millennium.

I have been reading American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. Jackson too worried about secession and Civil War, and perhaps it is easier to understand the peril he faced in 1828 when the United States was even weaker and the union less of a historical fact than in Lincoln's time. Still the need and indeed the willingness of the unionist forces to embark on the Civil War remains unintuitive for me -- intellectually reasonable but emotionally hard to accept.

Human Versus Institutional Capital

The movie shown at the Park stated that the South had lost more than half of its capital stock in the Civil War, most of which was represented by the value of the slaves who were freed.

It some sense that seems profoundly unintuitive. The former slaves were still there, still in place with the skills and knowledge that they had always possessed. There was no loss of human capital as we now conceive of it. Of course those who owned slaves in the past could and did consider the market value of their slaves as capital, and indeed they could borrow using slaves as collateral and could sell slaves to monetize that capital.

(Hernando de Soto has powerfully made the point that poverty in poor countries has been maintained in part because poor people could not legally register their property and borrow against its value or monetize that property, and there have been projects which have contributed to local development by legalizing property rights of the poor over their homes, land and capital goods. Maybe we should look for processes by which people can obtain legal rights to their human capital, borrowing against it and monetizing it via contractual arrangements?)

Considering the experience of the fall of Communism may help attain an intuitive understanding of the loss of institutional capital during the Civil War. The fall of the Soviet Union was followed by a reduction of GDP in all the formerly communist countries, yet there had not been violence nor destruction of property. What was destroyed was the institutional basis for economic production, and until a new institutional basis could be established the productivity of the societies was diminished. If we consider capital to by anything that contributes to productivity, then the institutional gap which led to the (temporary) loss of productivity must be seen as due to a loss of institutional capital; the institution building (adoption of capitalism, etc.) that led to increased productivity would then be seen as investment in institutional capital.

In the South, the institutions of slavery based production were destroyed, as well as those which attributed value to the human capital of the slaves themselves. What was lost was not the human capital, but the institutional arrangements which allowed the existing capital to be used productively. As in the case of the fall of Communism, the loss of institutional capital was temporary as the society developed new institutions that would ultimately prove more productive than an institutional system based on slavery.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Foreign Students in the United States

Source: "University students abroad: And is there honey still for tea?" The Economist, November 19th 2009

America leads the world in attracting foreign students to its campuses, Britain and Australia are not far behind. Almost 672,000 foreigners were enrolled in American universities in the autumn of 2008, compared with 183,000 in Australian universities and 342,000 in British ones in 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available).

Comment: The numbers for the United States look good until you realize that the limits placed on foreign students by the Bush administration greatly reduced the rate of growth of their population in the United States for eight years. If you compare the size of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States you will see that we are not as successful as the other Anglo nations in attracting students, even though the U.S. higher education seems to be considered as the global standard for excellence. JAD

R&D spending

"Worldwide R&D investment increased by 6.9% in 2008, having grown by 9% in 2007."
Lets compare these figures with those of some developing nations, based on a recent UNESCO Institute for Statistics survey:
  • Brazil in 2006 was estimated to spend $17.4 billion, more than Toyota and Microsoft combined, but less than the top three firms in the graph.
  • Colombia spent $532 thousand, less than one-tenth of that spent by Roche or General Motors.
  • Uganda spent $119 million in 2007,

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Terrorism

Knowledge depends on classification. Unless one can define terms accurately, how can one analyze situations or convey information? The horrible event at Fort Hood Texas seems to be raising a debate as to whether it was terrorism. Lets think a bit about that classification.

Terrorism is the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion. At present, there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for an ideological goal (as opposed to a lone attack), and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants.
Terror is defined as intense, overpowering fear. I suggest that terrorism must imply intent. A driver who loses control of his vehicle threatening other drivers might inspire terror in those drivers and their passengers, but without intent to cause terror would not be seen as a terrorist. So too, someone who was considered too mentally ill to properly evaluate the probable impact of his/her actions would not be seen as a terrorist even if those actions result in terror.

The definition implies not only that a terrorist must deliberately take action likely to cause terror, but must do for a purpose. Someone creating terror by actions taken under a compulsion would not be a terrorist.

Our response to terrorism should depend on the scale of the terrorist activity:
  • One presumes that a single person was responsible for the anthrax scare in the United States, and that is a limited threat
  • Al Qaeda is seen as a terrorist conspiracy responsible for 9/11 and was a greater threat than an isolated individual
  • Currently there seems to be a loosely associated network of individuals and groups, often inspired by Al Qaeda, which undertake independent terrorist acts
  • Nazi Germany illustrates the possibility of terrorism by a nation state in its repression of opposition parties domestically and in occupied territories.
I suggest that American response to an action inducing terror should be modulated according to these factors. The response to 9/11 by the Bush administration, in retrospect, seems clearly to have been excessive, overestimating the threat posed by Al Qaeda and misunderstanding the impact of the responses it made to the threat it perceived.

In considering the event at Fort Hood, I would first question whether the killer understood his actions and whether he was acting under some irresistible compulsion (impulse). If not, it would seem important to understand as far as possible his purposes for those actions. If his actions were indeed intended to create terror to further some objective, it would be useful to know what that purpose might be, and to identify the institutional structure that supported his terrorism.

Thinking about interest rates

Interest rates on credit cards seem very high, and apparently are increasing during this period of economic hardship. Other unregulated sources of short term credit, such as bank overdraft charges and streetfront check cashing services which provide advances on paychecks have even higher rates. It occurs to me to think a little in public about interest rates.

Interest has to cover:
  • Transaction costs, including the costs of obtaining the funds to loan out and the costs of making loans and collecting repayments
  • The cost of the money to be loaned, including the interest that the financial institution has to pay on money it borrows and the return it must provide to the investors providing its capital
  • The time value of money, since the amount repaid should be sufficient to buy the same market basket of goods and services as that loaned (and thus adjusted for inflation) and a premium to the lender for deferring consumption for the duration of the loan
  • The cost of loans that are not repaid
In hard times, as more borrowers default on their loan repayments and as collateral loses value, the risk increases. As risk increases not only must interest rates increase to cover more defaults but investors and depositors also demand higher returns to better cover their own increased risks. All of this suggests that interest rates may legitimately be increased in hard times.

On the other hand, it seems obvious that there is the potential for lenders to take unfair advantage of people in economic need by charging unfairly high interest rates. Developing nations are full of reports of people kept in debt by gouging lenders who enforce debt traps for the poor.

As a result there are many laws on the books that place limits on usary rates and require disclosure of information to borrowers. It appears however that the financial industry is opposing new regulation of the relatively new financial instruments that have come into much wider use in recent decades. What would be the impact of limits on interest rates or on hidden interest rates such as charges on overdrafts?

Companies would perhaps cut transaction costs and profits, but they would also seek to avoid the higher risk lending that they have been doing. Less credit to high risk borrowers would create hardship for many of those most in need of loans, but given the high rates of debt in the United States might be useful for the economy as a whole.

International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women

In December 1999, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women would be celebrated on November 25th each year. The date was chosen to commemorate the lives of the Mirabal sisters. It originally marked the day that the three Mirabal sisters from the Dominican Republic were violently assassinated in 1960 during the Trujillo dictatorship (Rafael Trujillo 1930-1961). The day was used to pay tribute to the Mirabal sisters, as well as global recognition of gender violence.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Increase in R&D in Developing Nations

The number of researchers in developing countries jumped from 1.8 million to 2.7 million in five years (2002-2007), according to the new data release from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

The rise in numbers of researchers equates to a 45% increase, from 344 to 499 researchers per million inhabitants in developing countries. During the same period, the number of researchers in developed countries increased by only 8.6% to 4.4 million. In relative terms, this amounts to 3,592 researchers per million inhabitants, still far more than in developing countries.

The information was collected through the third UIS survey on statistics of science and technology (S&T), which is conducted every two years. It focuses on human resources devoted to research and development (R&D), as well as expenditure on R&D. Results of the survey reveal global and regional trends in the allocation of R&D resources.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Potential Future Impact as an Input to Selective Dissemination of Information

My friend Julianne brought this article to my attention:
Neylon C, Wu S (2009) Article-Level Metrics and the Evolution of Scientific Impact. PLoS Biol 7(11): e1000242. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000242
It is useful, but it seems to confound indices of impact with indices that would be useful for the selective dissemination of information.

An index of impact by definition seeks to measure the impact an article or journal has already had. Of course one might seek to construct an index of projected impact, and indeed that might be interesting. One might combine the reputation of the authors and the journal with data on readership, and link it to the "heat of the subject area" using counts such as the rate of change of publication of articles on the topic.

The selective dissemination of information seeks to supply people with information that they will find useful and/or interesting. While an article on surgical technique may be likely to have huge impact, it would not be likely to be of use to an electrical engineer or an astronomer. One has to take the specific interests of the reader into account to do a good job of recommending things for that reader to attend to. Amazon knows this!

The index for selective dissemination of information might however seek to combine an index of predicted future impact, such as described above, with an index of relevance to the reader.

I think scientists would be happy to help construct good tools to help them easily find the information that they will want. Whether they would be willing to participate in evaluation of new publications in terms of probable future impact is perhaps, as Neylon and Wu suggest, a matter of the incentives involved.

It seems to me that the folk at Google and Amazon, who are so good at constructing indices, might offer some help to the scientific community in preparing better tools for the selective dissemination of scientific information within the scientific community.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Total Factor Productivity is a Key Measurement, But How Do You Increase it?

"The OECD publishes figures for its rich-country members. These show that since 1990, average TFP growth has been remarkably similar in America, Japan, Germany, Britain and France, at around 1% a year. A recent report by Andrew Cates, an economist at UBS, attempts to estimate TFP growth in emerging economies over the past two decades (see chart). He calculates that China has had by far the fastest annual rate of TFP growth, at around 4%. Probably no other country in history has enjoyed such rapid efficiency gains. India and other Asian emerging economies have also enjoyed faster productivity growth than other developing or developed regions. In contrast, productivity in Brazil and Russia has risen more slowly than in rich economies."

Hans Rosling at the State Department in September

Energy Future Use

If you focus on the left hand side of this graph you can see how disproportionate is the use of energy by the less than 5 percent of people who live in the United States (who use most of the energy in North America). If you look at the right hand side of the graph you can see that the problem of greenhouse gas emissions is going to come primarily from other regions in the future. Climate change is not a major problem now, but if we in the United States are unwilling to economize on energy use now, how can we convince others we are serious in seeking a more energy efficient world in the future to prevent catastrophic climate change?

Skytopia Unravels the 3D Mandelbrot Fractile

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Source: The New York Times

I quote:
lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.

Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.

In an interview, Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said: “I regret that the language was the same. I did not know it was.” He said he got his statement from his staff and “did not know where they got the information from.”
Comment: Apparently Pascrell thinks it is OK to present the work of his staff as his own, without attribution to the true author, but is not happy with the discovery that he was in fact mouthing the words of lobbyists. I wonder whether he is more unhappy with his un-attributed words not his own or with the discovery and publication of the fact?

One also wonders about the quality of understanding of the issues of the health care bill among the Congressmen who will be voting on this important issue and of their devotion to the welfare of their constituents and the nation rather than the welfrare of their campaign coffers. JAD

300,000 birds

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Science helps overcome habits of mind

Elizabeth Culotta has an article titled "On the Origin of Religion" in a recent Science magazine (Science, 6 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5954, pp. 784 - 787). I quote extensively from one portion of the article:
According to the emerging cognitive model of religion, we are so keenly attuned to the designs and desires of other people that we are hypersensitive to signs of "agents": thinking minds like our own. In what anthropologist Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri has described as a "hypertrophy of social cognition," we tend to attribute random events or natural phenomena to the agency of another being.

When it comes to natural phenomena, "we may be intuitive theists," says cognitive psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University (BU). She has shown in a series of papers that young children prefer "teleological," or purpose-driven, explanations rather than mechanical ones for natural phenomena.

For example, in several studies British and American children in first, second, and fourth grades were asked whether rocks are pointy because they are composed of small bits of material or in order to keep animals from sitting on them. The children preferred the teleological explanation. "They give an animistic quality to the rock; it's protecting itself," Kelemen explains. Further studies have confirmed this tendency. Even Kelemen's own son—who "gets mechanistic explanations of everything"—is not immune: At age 3, after hearing how flowers grow from seeds, his question was, "Who makes the seeds?"

The point of studying children is that they may better reflect innate rather than cultural biases, says Kelemen. But recent work suggests that it's not just children: Kelemen and Krista Casler of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, found the same tendency to ascribe purpose to phenomena like rocks, sand, and lakes in uneducated Romany adults. They also tested BU undergraduates who had taken an average of three college science classes. When the undergrads had to respond under time pressure, they were likely to agree with nonscientific statements such as "The sun radiates heat because warmth nurtures life."

"It's hard work to overcome these teleological explanations," says Kelemen, who adds that the data also suggest an uphill battle for scientific literacy. "When you speed people up, their hard work goes by the wayside." She's now investigating how professional scientists perform on her tests. Such purpose-driven beliefs are a step on the way to religion, she says. "Things exist for purposes, things are intentionally caused, things are intentionally caused for a purpose by some agent. ... You begin to see that a god is a likely thing for a human mind to construct."
I suggest that people seek patterns in what they perceive -- the appearance of order. This is not a novel observation, and indeed the survival value of recognizing patters is so obvious and large that I suggest it is common not only to man but to other species. How can an organism find food or avoid being eaten if it can not recognize patterns indicating where food is to be found and where predators are likely to lurk.

I also tend to agree that people impute intentionality to the things that they perceive. While usually it is assumed that there is an imputation of intentionality only when order is perceived, it is possible and I suggest likely that there is an imputation of intentionality when disorder is perceived. Thus when ones plans do not result in the order one expects, one may assume the intervention of forces with a malevolent intent. Indeed, when one sees lack of pattern, one may assume that an external force has intentionally randomized things or "messed things up". Thus the intuitive alternatives may be represented by the bottom row on the matrix.
The thrust of a couple of centuries of science has been to explore the explanation of natural and social phenomena as the result of natural processes and not planning. I suggest that modern science has shown how order may emerge without planning as the result of properties of statistics, of natural or market selection, or of feedback. As a result of centuries of scientific analysis it now is possible to understand order as unplanned.

Similarly, science has suggested in quantum mechanics, genetics and other areas that there are things in nature that are best understood as unordered and unplanned.

Perhaps even more important has been the willingness of science to treat all explanations as tentative, recognizing that (at least at the current state of knowledge) there are things we can not explain and that current explanations may be flawed or erroneous.

Implications for Decision Making

If we are genetically and culturally predisposed to search for patterns, then it seems likely that we are often going to see patterns where they do not in fact exist.

So too, if we are genetically and culturally predisposed to impute intentionality, then it seems likely that we are often going to see intent where none exists.

It may well be that we assign too much confidence to the patterns we observe and the intentions we impute. Decision making may well be improved by reducing the confidence we assign to such observations and making judgments more tentative, seeking further evidence to challenge such observations and imputations. Science has progressed by seeking observations specifically designed to challenge hypotheses, rather than to add evidence to support them.
When something goes wrong in an organization, some people first suspect malevolence, but I tend to suspect bureaucracy gone awry or incompetence.

"Development and Climate Change": Without Comment

Source: Rosina M. Bierbaum and Robert B. Zoellick, Science, 6 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5954, p. 771

"No country is immune to climate change, but the developing world will bear the brunt of the effects, including some 75 to 80% of the costs of anticipated damages.* Millions in densely populated coastal areas and in island nations will lose their homes as the sea level rises, while poor people will face crop failures, reduced agricultural productivity, and increased hunger, malnutrition, and disease. Extreme events such as droughts, floods, and forest fires will become more frequent, making it even harder for developing countries to attain the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals of 2015. A "climate-smart" world is possible in our time. But to ensure a safe and sustainable future, all nations must act now, act together, and act differently."

Comment: Many years ago I organized a panel at the National Academy of Sciences to discuss the health impact of global climate change. I was dismayed to see the lack of understanding of the problem among epidemiologists and scientists who were gathered for the meeting. They were looking at excess mortality during heat waves in developed countries as models, or at the changing distribution of the vectors of insect born diseases. Those of course should be considered.

The more important impacts, in my opinion, are likely to be indirect effects of massive changes in the way people live, such as the disruption caused by loss of seaside residences and changing patterns of agriculture, not to mention mass migration and conflict over newly scarce resources.

Now there are about 56,000,000 deaths per year worldwide and as the population increases that number may well increase even if there were to be some miraculous solution to global warming. If global warming increased the death rate by one percent, that would be more than half a million deaths per year. Is that a likely scenario? I doubt if anyone really knows. JAD

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What to do about the UNESCO science program

I was invited to sit in this week on a portion of the Board on International Scientific Organizations (BISO) meeting at the National Academy of Sciences during the BISO discussion of UNESCO. As I pointed out in a previous posting, the UNESCO natural science program is to receive only about $30 million per year from the regular budge for tthe next couple of years . There is another $15 million for the social and human sciences program, but this program includes things such as philosophy and sports which are not seen as science within the BISO concept. (There are much larger sums of "extrabudgetary resources" but these are voluntary contributions, usually tied to specific purposes by the donors .)

The question was asked as to whether UNESCO could carry out its charter duties with such a small amount of money. The response during the meeting was that the current program was attempting to do too much with too little, and that it should be more focused on a few priority areas.

That might be true, but the governance of UNESCO is vested in the General Conference with 193 member states, a body that meets only once every two years, and in the Executive Board with 58 members, a body which meets only three times per year. These legislative bodies apparently are as subject to pork barrel politics as is the U.S. Congress. A budget is passed by including funding for all activities desired by any of the members of the governing bodies. Each of the elements of each of the science programs has its supporters.

Assume that the governing bodies did want to cut some activities and emphasize others. Which of the natural science programs would one cut?
  • The Freshwater Program is seen as the strongest of UNESCO's science programs, meeting an increasing need for understanding of freshwater systems. The World Water Assessment is fundamental for building understanding of the global water crisis and for establishing an agreed upon base of information for policy makers. The training programs in UNESCO's water centers are helping to prepare the cadre of water scientists and managers that the world needs, especially the arid portions of the developing world.
  • The People, Biodiversity and Ecology Program with its global network of bioreserves is not only helping develop global understanding of the crisis of anthropogenic loss of biological diversity, but is helping to create an information base for landscape management that can help to ameliorate the human impacts on the environment and especially species loss.
  • The Oceanography Program provides a legitimate intergovernmental umbrella for international scientific cooperation on ocean science at a time when ocean resources are being threatened and when the Law of the Seas Convention is opening new economic possibilities for ocean resource exploitation. Moreover, the program includes a hugely important and successful effort to establish a global tsunami warnint system.
  • The Earth Science Program provides support for governments, especially needed by those in developing nations, to understand their own underground resources. If governments are the protectors of public interest against unfair exploitation of water, petroleum and mineral resources, then UNESCO's earth science program is a trustworthy vehicle for support of governments.
  • The Basic Science Program deals with the sciences that underlie applied sciences in fields from engineering to medicine and public health to agriculture. It is globally accepted that the basic sciences must be supported by governments, but developing nation governments need help in providing that support, and look to UNESCO for that help. Moreover, some of the great successes of UNESCO, such as the Third World Academy of Sciences and CERN, have resulted from UNESCO's efforts to catalyze international cooperation in the basic sciences. The creation of the SESAME center in Jordan is a recent example, in which countries with little else in common have agreed to cooperate in the operation of this scientific facility.
  • The Science Policy and Sustainable Development Program seeks to help meet the need of developing nations to allocate their scarce resources to those scientific activities that meet their most basic needs, and to develop policies that support the successful management of their scientific efforts. Ideally science policy is worked out through discussion and negotiation among government, the scientific community and industry; it is UNESCO that is best placed to help developing country governments to meet their responsibilities in the negotiation of science policies.
An Alternative

If UNESCO doesn't get enough money to adequately carry out all of the needed scientific functions an obvious alternative is to provide more money for the regular budget of the science program.

Donors appear unwilling to do so. In part this appears to be because the major donors seem not to trust UNESCO governance and bureaucracy to efficiently utilize those financial resources to effectively carry out the scientific mission of the Organization. Thus the voluntary contributions to the natural science program are more than three times the regular budget of that program, and many of those resources are under the control of bodies such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the International Hydrological Program Intergovernmental Council and only indirectly under the Control of UNESCO's overall governing bodies.

Over the past 18 years, under the leadership of two Directors General of UNESCO, efforts have been made to reform the Organization and to make it more efficient and more effective. There is general agreement that great progress has been made, but also that more needs to be done if the Organization is to obtain the full confidence of its major donors. Irina Bokova, the new Director General taking office next week, and her senior staff will have to address that problem and I wish them the greatest success.

The 800 Pound Gorilla Hidden Off Stage

One could take the "S" out of UNESCO and create an new intergovernmental system for science. During World War II UNESCO was conceived as an organization focusing on schools and cultural facilities such as museums; science was added almost as an afterthought, largely as a result of lobbying by a few key science policy makers. At the time there were few intergovernmental organizations. Perhaps more importantly, the global scientific system was far smaller than it is today, and its importance was much less recognized so there would have been little recognition of the importance of intergovernmental organizations to promote science. The green revolution in agriculture, the revolution in medicine and public health, and the information revolution have all been science based and have convinced most if not all governments of the importance of science in the modern world.

Perhaps it is now time to rebuild an intergovernmental scientific edifice outside UNESCO, one that could be governed more by scientists and less by diplomats, that could be more efficiently and effectively managed, and as such more worthy of funding consonant with the importance of science in the modern world.

John Daly
The opinions expressed in this posting are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO nor of BISO nor the National Academies.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Interesting graph from Global Higher Education

The applications for graduate study in the United States were way down after 9/11, and apparently did not recover during the Bush administration. Since there had been a long term trend of increasing applications and increasing enrollments, the Bush administration succeeded in creating an inflection point.

The foreign graduate students play an important role in improving appreciation for the United States in their home countries, opening up markets for American exports, and supporting technological innovation in the United States. They pay for their educations, and have helped to train other students at an affordable cost. They also help to reduce global problems, including the problems of global poverty while contributing to better governance.

Perhaps the Obama administration can return the United States education system to its decades long role as the world's most attractive source of international graduate education.

SciDev.Net has a doeier on remote sensing and disasters

Number of victims of natural disasters per 100,000 inhabitants
1976-2005 Source: EM-DAT via SciDev.Net

Just last year (2008), natural disasters affected 214 million people, killed more than 235,000 and cost more than US$190 billion.

Rajiv Shah named Administrator of USAID

President Obama on Tuesday named Rajiv Shah, a 36-year-old doctor and agriculture expert, to head the U.S. Agency for International Development, filling what lawmakers and aid experts had called a glaring vacancy on a key foreign-policy front.

Read more:

The Obama administration has laid out an ambitious agenda on foreign assistance: pledging to double it to $50 billion a year, make economic development a pillar of his strategy in Afghanistan and push for a $20 billion program in conjunction with other countries to fight hunger.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday, November 09, 2009

More wired people are more connected!

Zunia pointed me to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The key conclusions:
Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. We find that the extent of social isolation has hardly changed since 1985, contrary to concerns that the prevalence of severe isolation has tripled since then. Only 6% of the adult population has no one with whom they can discuss important matters or who they consider to be “especially significant” in their life.

We confirm that Americans’ discussion networks have shrunk by about a third since 1985 and have become less diverse because they contain fewer non‐family members. However, contrary to the considerable concern that people’s use of the internet and cell phones could be tied to the trend towards smaller networks, we find that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks. (Discussion networks are a key measure of people’s most important social ties.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Global Soil Map Could Transform Agriculture

Image source: Soil Maps of Africa

CIAT last August published this article, which began:
An ambitious new project to digitally map soils all over the world could transform agriculture. An article in the journal Science, describes how the (GSM) initiative could help tackle pressing problems such as food insecurity, climate change and environmental degradation worldwide.

The initiative follows the launch of African Soil Information Service (AfSIS) earlier this year, which will use the latest satellite technology to produce high quality maps of Africa’s soils in order to fine-tune farming practices. GSM will use the AfSIS methodology to produce similar maps for the whole world.
Comment: Some 40 years ago, when I was working in a pattern recognition lab, we started trying to get people to recognize that computer processing of satellite remote sensing data would have important applications in agriculture.

We were of course right, but we were also naive as to the time and effort it would take to achieve those benefits. The state of the art has apparently advanced to the point that the technology can be applied even in the poor countries of Africa.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

More on Net Neutrality

From Media Reform Daily:
Net Neutrality Required to Spur Innovation

The Internet's amazing success has been based on its openness, ubiquity and nondiscrimination. The fact that no one ever had to ask permission from the network to innovate has led to one of the greatest periods of economic growth in history. So, when the global communications network grows by leaps and bounds and spurs tremendous innovation, why change its traditional rules?

Nicholas Economides, Financial Times
Net Neutrality Red Herrings, and How to Combat Them

There will be a tremendous astroturfing campaign against both the current Net Neutrality legislation in Congress and the comment period of the FCC's Net Neutrality rulemaking process. There are a couple of things the Netroots community needs to do in response.

Daily Kos
EU Ready to Guarantee Internet Access and Neutrality

A compromise between European Union negotiators and 27 member states has cleared the way to approve telecom reforms that include Internet access protection. The EU's Viviane Reding said the telecom bill will protect consumer rights and guarantee Net Neutrality. In particular, the U.K.'s "three strikes" rule would be blocked in the EU.

The Story of Math Part I

Check out the website for the series.

Comment: The trick is to find math that corresponds (as closely as possible) to reality, and the trap is to assume that reality must correspond to what you perceive as mathematical beauty. JAD

Science Envoys to the Middle East

Former NAS President Bruce Alberts, former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, and Nobel prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail have been appointed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to serve as science envoys to Muslim majority countries. The envoys will travel to North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia "to fulfill President Obama’s mandate to foster scientific and technological collaboration," Clinton said, speaking at a forum in Morocco.

The envoys would be well advised to read this article in SEED by Sheila Jasanoff as they prepare for their duties. They are all experienced science diplomats, but the reminder is important.

Worrisome news about the international copyright regime

My son pointed out this article from the blog of The American Prospect, dealing with the negotiations in South Korea for a new Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The draft agreement
would do away with an understanding we have in the U.S. about the Internet: that, generally speaking, the networks and platforms that make up the online world (whether that's TimeWarner Cable or YouTube) have some protections against being held liable for what people post onto their services, like swapping songs they don't have the rights to......

The agreement that seems to be on the table in Seoul would give Internet services a safe harbor that protects them against what's called intermediary liability. That's arguably a positive step -- only to get there, the Internet services would be required to enact a mandatory zero-tolerance policy against copyright infringement. They have to agree to filter copyrighted material and strip infringing content from their networks. And more than that, Internet service providers would have to set up their services in a way that allows them to cut off copyright-infringing customers, a step they've fought against. (That tactic even goes by the name "three strikes and you're out.") That's a drastic, speech-limiting step that even Congress has shied away from.
Comment: In the United States, legislation to accomplish such purposes would be conducted in the legislature and there would undoubtedly be a chance for civil society to weigh in on the options. It is not clear that there is comparable opportunity for civil society to protect our (those of us who use the Internet) interests in the international negotiation.

If the negotiation achieves an international agreement it would not have the force of law in the United States without Congressional ratification (assuming that the administration would not sign an agreement with which it did not accept as the best that could be achieved). However, the alternatives of passing something that is not very good versus leaving the United States outside a global agreement are not those I would choose.

How, I wonder, can we open up the international negotiation process more fully to the participation of civil society? The problem is not simple. It is increasingly important and always difficult to get international agreements negotiated. Opening the process might make it more difficult to get needed treaties in force without resulting in better content. Not to mention the problem that most governments would appear to prefer to negotiate in secret rather than in public view.

An interesting metaphor

Two waterspouts
Image source: Weatherblog

Stephen Johnson begins his book, The Invention of Air, with a description of Joseph Priestly's voyage to the United States in 1794 which included the simultaneous sighting of four waterspouts. Later he uses the waterspout as a metaphor for the conservative riot in Birmingham that destroyed Unitarian meeting houses and the home of the Priestly family.

It occurred to me that the metaphor might be extended. The ocean and the atmosphere exhibit changes at different time scales. Ocean temperatures change slowly while atmospheric temperatures change rapidly; ocean currents move huge masses but do so slowly while atmospheric currents move gases much more rapidly. We can feel and see the atmospheric changes, at least locally, and we can see changes at the surface of the sea, but the deeper changes of the ocean are "beneath the surface". If you want to understand weather and climate you have to understand the oceans and the oceanic-atmospheric interactions.

Can this system be used as a metaphor for history, in which there are often unseen undercurrents that have long term effects, visible and invisible atmospheric changes, all of which result in the weather of day to day events including showers, storms and even hurricanes? If so, perhaps historians too often attend to the tempest and not to the climate.

A thought revised

Doesn't history show that almost everyone has almost always been wrong about almost everything important?

Would it be progress if now most people were usually wrong about most things?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Human Development Report 2009

Migration, both within and beyond borders, has become an increasingly prominent theme in domestic and international debates, and is the topic of the 2009 Human Development Report (HDR09).

The report investigates migration in the context of demographic changes and trends in both growth and inequality. It also presents more detailed and nuanced individual, family and village experiences, and explores less visible movements typically pursued by disadvantaged groups such as short term and seasonal migration.

There is a range of evidence about the positive impacts of migration on human development, through such avenues as increased household incomes and improved access to education and health services. There is further evidence that migration can empower traditionally disadvantaged groups, in particular women. At the same time, risks to human development are also present where migration is a reaction to threats and denial of choice, and where regular opportunities for movement are constrained.

Joseph Priestly

Have you ever heard of Joseph Priestly (1733-1804)? A world famous scientist/philosopher/educator/religious leader who moved to the United States in 1791 and lived here for the rest of his life?

As a scientist he did crucial experiments that illuminated the nature of gases, identifying a number including oxygen and providing data critical to the development of chemistry. He also identified that plants are critical to the production of gases in the atmosphere necessary for animal life. He also was important in the development of electricity and optics, and his book on the history of the development of the physics of electricity was a best seller in use for a century.

His book on grammar was so influential that he is seen as one of the great grammarians of the English language.

He is listed as one of the 100 most important people in history in the development of education.

He was one of the key leaders in the creation of the Unitarian religion. Jefferson found Priestly to be the most important influences in his own religious belief, and one can assume that through Jefferson Priestly had a profound influence on American religious freedom.

As a philosopher, Priestly is credited with strongly influencing the development of utilitarianism.

As a political philosopher he was an advisor to a key statesman of Great Britain, and so strongly in support of the revolutions in the United States and France that he was forced to leave England.

Truly a man of The Enlightenment!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Judson on how science works

Science — as the physicist Richard Feynman once wrote — creates an “expanding frontier of ignorance,” where most discoveries lead to more questions.......Moreover, insofar as science is a body of knowledge, that body is provisional: much of what we thought we knew in the past has turned out to be incomplete, or plain wrong.

While some scientific work does involve the plodding, brick-by-brick accumulation of evidence, much of it requires leaps of imagination and daring speculation.

Crystallographic photo of Sodium Thymonucleate, Type B. "Photo 51." May 1952.
Rosalind Franklin, Raymond G. Gosling

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Market Shares for Major Browsers

Source: CNET News
I am writing this on Google's Chrome browser, which has a small market share that is growing. I find it is minimally obtrusive.

I also use Mozilla Firefox, which is also quite good. I used it as my primary browser for some years but an update several months ago resulted in huge toolbars and print. Before I learned about the correction for the problem (which affected my old Microsoft Windows but not my Microsoft Vista operating systems) I started using Chrome.

I used Opera at one time, but dropped it for reasons I don't now recall.

I figure both are less subject to virus invasion than Internet Explorer, and I got sick of the IE updates screwing up my computers.

I just thought someone might be interested.

Monday, November 02, 2009

U.S. Health Care Costs Are High Per Unit Care

There is a good article by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post showing how U.S. prices per unit health care are much higher than other developed nations. Data from the International Federation of Health Plans seems to indicate that the private health care industry in the United States charges much more per service than do their counterparts in other nations.

Here is the package of graphs and data on which his article was based.

While the current legislative process may result in insurance for most of those uncovered now, I doubt that the Congress will have the guts (gumption?) to limit health care costs/

The current system of course is the reason our costs are high. In other countries governments bargain to keep costs down. Here the health care providers have incentives to increase charges as do the insurers, and the patient has little bargaining power when he/she needs a health service. Employers who are facing increasing difficulty competing due to high health care costs also have little chance to bargain for lower cost services.

Omega-3 Good, Omega-6 Not So Good!

According to the Economist:
The problem of dubious nutrition and health claims for foodstuffs is now being addressed on both sides of the Atlantic. America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on October 20th that it would overhaul the regulation of such claims on food labels and issue new standards early next year. In the European Union, meanwhile, a legislative process that began in 2006 is grinding towards its conclusion.
It goes on to note:
It is not every day that an international consortium of concerned lipid scientists gets upset, but just such a group, rallied by Jack Winkler of the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University, is on the warpath. The group says the regulation of omega-3s that has been adopted so far has no foundation in science, will legalise the deception of consumers and will make public health worse. The problem, in the group’s view, is that companies are now allowed to claim that a product is rich in omega-3s irrespective of whether these are long-chain or short-chain molecules.
Clearly people in the United States (and in many other rich countries) are eating too much, and eating the wrong things. Our evolved responses to food don't protect us from our own affluence, not to mention the blandishments of the food and fast food industries. Government regulation is a help, but we have to learn to control our consumption with reason and knowledge. Unfortunately, scientific knowledge about nutrition is difficult to create, and worse hard for most of us to understand!

THE best ways to get enough “good” (ie, long-chain) omega-3 oils are either to eat lots of oily fish or to take, every day, supplements that contain at least 500mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), or both (though some studies have suggested as much as 1,100mg a day is better). Products that contain short-chain omega-3s, such as alpha-linolenic acid from plant oils like flax-seed oil, have not been linked with the strong health benefits shown by fish oils.

Having got enough long-chain oils, though, it is important to let them do their work. That means reducing consumption of omega-6 oils—those found in maize, sunflower, olive and most other seed oils. Many people have turned to these seed oils as a way of reducing their intake of saturated fats, but omega-6 fatty acids compete in the body with omega-3s, since the two have similar chemical properties. The best dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is reckoned to be less than 4:1. In Western diets, it is typically more like 10:1. The message, then, is: eat less fat and get more of it from fish. And those who buy omega-3 supplements that also contain omega-6s are probably wasting their money.

Two new books that might be worth reading

The Economist this week recommends two new books on government policies to promote entrepreneurship:
Israel has succeeded where other nations have failed in getting lots of (high tech) startups created and in operation. Of course, Israel has had the advantage of open European and American markets and huge amounts of foreign assistance, plus the immigration of lots of smart, enterpreneurial people. Still, it has also managed to develop policies that didn't get in the way.

Good news from the demographers!

Source: "Fertility and living standards: Go forth and multiply a lot less," The Economist, October 29th 2009.

In developing countries:
SOMETIME in the next few years (if it hasn’t happened already) the world will reach a milestone: half of humanity will be having only enough children to replace itself. That is, the fertility rate of half the world will be 2.1 or below. This is the “replacement level of fertility”, the magic number that causes a country’s population to slow down and eventually to stabilise. According to the United Nations population division, 2.9 billion people out of a total of 6.5 billion were living in countries at or below this point in 2000-05. The number will rise to 3.4 billion out of 7 billion in the early 2010s and to over 50% in the middle of the next decade. The countries include not only Russia and Japan but Brazil, Indonesia, China and even south India.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

My 2 year old niece on Holoween

The Arab Knowledge Report 2009

Zunia has posted a link to the new Arab Knowledge Report:

The Arab Knowledge Report 2009: Towards productive intercommunication for knowledge, emphasises two central and mutually dependent premises. The first is the connection between knowledge, development and freedom. The second is the close relationship between the demands of development and the building of the knowledge society.The Report addresses the factors that impede the establishment of a knowledge society in the Arab world and assesses the state of education, information and communication technologies, research and innovation in the region.

According to University World News, this is the first publication from a partnership between the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and the United Nations Development Program.
Knowledge is a tool and a goal that influences all levels of society equally and involves all fields. It is a primary avenue for renaissance and human development in the region.
Adel Abdellatif, Chief of the Regional Programme Division at UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States

A Thought on Journalism

I saw a PBS program late last night honoring a few of those journalists who hold a mirror to our societies, reporting on the misuses of power we entrust to national leaders. Some of these risk death to get the stories.

The program featured some of the few American reporters who got the story right about the Bush administration's charges against Iraq and Saddam Husein prior to our invasion of that country. Even these reporters do their job in the face of sanctions, but at least they are not in peril of their lives, as are reporters in Russia and other countries who expose the abuse of power.

In the case of the Bush administration, the reporters cited the success of the administration in setting the agenda. The other side of that coin is the failure of the editors of so many American papers to set their own agenda and to do so in ways that hold those in power to public responsibility for their actions and the effects of those actions.

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper came off very well on the program due to their coverage of the impact of Israeli policies on the Palestinians. It was stated that the circulation of Haaretz has been reduced as readers unwilling to face the hard truth about Palestinian suffering desert the paper.

Which brings me to the moral of this posting. If reporters are willing to put their lives on the line, and editors and publishers are willing to risk circulation and even the lives of their papers to put the facts before us, we the people have the responsibility to read the truth that they provide, no matter how painful.

Information literacy, the ability to judge the quality of information we receive from various sources, should be accompanied by information responsibility -- the duty to attend to the important credible information no matter how distasteful or disturbing and to act upon that information.