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Science  31 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5842, pp. 1145
DOI: 10.1126/science.1148943

Every once in a while, it's good to look back at events—old ones and more recent—and see what has happened to them. Have things gotten better? Were there surprises? Did certain issues shrink and disappear, or others blossom because of an intervening event? Here, an informal checklist:

Science fraud. As far as we (Science) can tell, the incidence of research misconduct is neither up, nor down. The concerns raised by an advisory group that examined our handling of the Hwang case warned of an increase in competitiveness and incentive to overclaim or even cheat. Accusations may be more common, but we don't see enough serious incidents to convince us that competitive pressure has made the environment distinctly more inviting to fraud.


Animal activism. Last year, I said that animal activism was out of control (Science, 15 September 2006, p. 1541). It still is, at least here in the United States: Faculty members at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for example, are still being harassed, most recently by arson and other forms of intimidation. UCLA's acting chancellor called the fire-bombers of last fall “terrorists.” I thought that was a righteous term and used it myself. For some reason, a Nature editorial (24 May 2007) called use of the term “unwise branding,” identifying it as a “value judgment.” Well, it strikes me that folks who leave firebombs on professors' porches might be entitled to a fairly adverse value judgment.

Secrecy and concealment. I've complained about policy-makers in the U.S. administration who suppress scientific results if they don't support a particular political objective. Although most attention went to the case of Jim Hanson at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a few others, a rich lode of new material is opening up. Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks at the Department of the Interior, may be the champion science-buster of them all. The department's inspector general revealed that MacDonald interfered regularly by bullying staff to change recommendations on endangered species habitat, exposing the department to litigation. She resigned abruptly, shortly before being called to testify before Congress. And in a different space, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) learned that some of the agency's trailers occupied by Hurricane Katrina victims had formaldehyde concentrations 75 times the maximum recommended dose. What did the general counsel do? He advised employees not to initiate testing because it might “imply FEMA's ownership of the issue” and invite litigation. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), on learning this, pronounced it “sickening…an official policy of premeditated ignorance.”

Energy and climate change. Nothing much is new on climate change (i.e., no palpable move toward emission controls). But on energy, as Congress breaks for the August dog days, troublesome issues will still need settlement when it reconvenes in September (Waxman remarked that he wanted “August never to end”). Of special concern is the energy bill the House passed on 4 August. Much about it is good: 15% of private electricity production must come from renewables, and there are incentives for energy efficiency and developing biofuels refining capacity. What's missing is a tough fuel economy standard. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hopes that won't matter, because the Senate bill does have one. Hmm. After the recess the bill goes to a conference, and on the House side, one expects John Dingell (D-MI), who hates fuel economy standards. Enjoy the show.

Biofuels. Something interesting has happened that I didn't quite realize when last visiting this subject (Science, 27 April 2007, p. 515). A major economic shift has arisen through the fusion of the agriculture and energy sectors by the biofuels craze. That's troubling. As incomes rise, the marginal demand for food falls off, but the demand for energy tracks income growth. So the inhabitants of rich countries, who don't spend much for food but like cars, are happy to turn corn into petroleum substitutes. That will raise world corn prices, adversely impacting the food-dependent poor in developing countries. My agricultural economics colleagues say that this could endanger the steady, decades-long drop in world food prices, exacerbating the already harsh inequity between North and South.

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