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Science  28 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5982, pp. 1121-1122
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5982.1121

28 May 2010

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen

Science Policy

On Capitol Hill, Researchers Offer Data to Answer Climate Skeptics

The impact of warming. Muir and Riggs glaciers in southeastern Alaska receded dramatically from 1941 (top) to 2004 (bottom).

When a panel of influential scientists visited Capitol Hill this month to talk about climate change, they offered none of the barbed words or emotional confrontation that have been the lingua franca of recent political discourse.

Instead, at a briefing organized by AAAS, they answered climate change skeptics as they've been trained to do: with extensive data, and with a reminder that the scientific process, though imperfect, remains the best available tool for understanding the complex workings of the natural world.

“Skepticism is an integral part of the progress of science, and it helps keep the science on the correct path, ” said veteran climate researcher Warren Washington, former chairman of the U.S. National Science Board. “However, skepticism without specifics, alternate hypotheses, and facts is worthless. It does not advance the science. ”

But Washington and others acknowledged that the reputation of climate scientists has been tarnished by the perception that they are hostile to those who reject the scientific consensus. The panelists urged their colleagues to listen carefully to skeptics and to publish their research when it meets scientific standards.

The 11 May briefing attracted more than 100 staffers from congressional offices and foreign embassies, along with representatives of the U.S. State Department, the Congressional Budget Office, research universities, and nongovernmental organizations. It was sponsored by 13 mainstream American science organizations representing fields ranging from chemistry and meteorology to statistics and agriculture.

AAAS's Center for Science, Technology, and Congress was the lead organizer, with U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D—CO) serving as honorary host.

The briefing was the science community's latest effort to answer sustained attacks based on a handful of errors discovered in the massive 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by e-mails apparently hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. It came just a day before U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman (I—CT) and John Kerry (D—MA) introduced a broad energy and climate bill.

Such context made the event “tremendously important, ” said moderator Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS. “We all have come to believe that the issue of climate change and what we do about it—particularly as it relates to the issue of energy—is among the most pressing and important issues facing not only American society, but global society as well. ”

In addition to Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, and Washington, who formerly headed the Climate Change Research Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the panel included two extensively published climate researchers: Richard Alley, the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, and Richard Smith, the Mark L. Reed III Distinguished Professor in the departments of statistics and biostatistics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The 90-min session served as a short course on what is known, and not known, about the changing climate.

Washington listed arguments commonly offered by skeptics—there is no global warming, or humans are not causing it, or temperature records are inaccurate. Smith and Alley deconstructed those arguments, concluding that they are largely in error.

Warming, Alley said, is a matter of basic physics: Increase the concentration of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will hold in more heat.

Analysis of the atmospheric gases shows that steadily rising CO2 concentrations come not from volcanoes, he said, but from the burning of organic matter, especially fossil fuels. Thousands of scientists at research centers in many countries have taken thermometer readings on land, at sea, in the atmosphere, and by satellite, and others have documented shrinking glaciers. The inescapable conclusion: The world is getting warmer.

“A lot of what of what they [skeptics] say, at first sight it might appear that they're making reasonable points, ” Smith said. And yet, he added, “a lot of what they say doesn't stand up to scrutiny. ”

Said Alley: “The whole climate community has spent 30 years trying to find a way out of this. Could the Sun be doing it? Could the volcanoes be doing it?... [But] we can't explain what has happened recently without us—it has our fingerprints. ”

Even so, the panelists agreed, data alone won't build support for climate science.

“We have to continue to improve our methods and the accuracy of scientific information that's given to policy-makers, ” Washington said. “Skeptics must be encouraged and allowed to publish their research results in the scientific literature if the science is sound...because that would be better for science. ”

Communication

Screeners Needed for Journalism Awards

Volunteer scientists are needed to review entries in the prestigious AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards program. Scientists residing in the Washington, D.C., area, or who will be in the area in mid-August to mid-September, are invited to help screen print, online, radio, and television reports for scientific accuracy. If interested, please contact Angela Bradley (202-326-6408; abradley{at}aaas.org) in the AAAS Office of Public Programs.

International

AAAS Group Visits Myanmar for Talks on Health, Forestry, and Science

A hopeful visit. AAAS Board Chairman Peter Agre with young Buddhist nuns at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

[Credit: Vaughan Turekian]

A six-member delegation led by Nobel laureate Peter Agre, chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors, made a rare visit to Myanmar for high-level discussions on forestry, health, and other science-related issues with science and academic leaders in Naypyitaw and Yangon.

Though few Americans have visited the country in recent years, AAAS officials described the talks as cordial and constructive. They were impressed by Myanmar’s interest in protecting forests and animal habitats and cooperatively addressing malaria and other infectious diseases.

“Myanmar is making an effort to educate its young scientists, which is complicated by limited resources and equipment along with a lack of networks of peers, especially in the West, ” said Agre, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “This trip may be an important initial step towards connecting their scientific community with their American counterparts in a way that advances science. ”

Thet Win, a member of the U.S. delegation and founder of the U.S. Collection Humanitarian and Research Corps, said the visit sent an important message to the people of Myanmar.

“We are compelled by compassion to help those suffering from poverty, disease, and environmental and ecological destruction, ” he said. “Ultimately, only science and education can contribute to the solutions and remedies for these ills...My impression is that Myanmar scientists and educators are interested in engagement with AAAS and welcome the fact that a well-known U.S. organization is looking for mutually beneficial ways to interact. ”

The delegation was in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from 6 to 10 April. Among those who welcomed the Americans were the forestry minister, Brigadier-General Thein Aung; Dr. Mya Oo, the deputy health minister; Ko Ko Oo, director-general of the Ministry of Science and Technology; Mya Mya Oo, rector of Yangon Technological University and of Mandalay Technological University; and the pro-rectors of Yangon University.

The AAAS delegation also included Norman P. Neureiter, a former science adviser to the U.S. secretary of state and currently senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; Robert J. Swap, a research associate professor in environmental sciences at the University of Virginia; Tom Wang, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; and center Director Vaughan Turekian, who also serves as AAAS chief international officer.

Most people in Myanmar live at the subsistence level, and conditions declined further after Cyclone Nargis killed more than 130,000 people and caused an estimated $10 billion in damage in May 2008.

Ties between Myanmar and the United States and much of the West have been profoundly strained since a popular uprising in 1988 and subsequent suppression of democracy movements. Recent visits by U.S. officials have signaled possible interest in renewed engagement.

Since their return, delegation members have briefed members of Congress and the U.S. State Department. They also were featured in a public forum at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Science & Security

Researchers, Regulators Share Biosecurity Risks

A copy of Competing Responsibilities?: Addressing the Security Risks of Biological Research in Academia

Research institutions should take the lead in securing their labs against biological threats, but they would benefit from biosecurity guidelines coordinated across federal agencies, says a new report from AAAS.

More than 400 American laboratories work with biological agents that have the potential to cause serious harm in a bioterror attack or accidental dispersal, but the same laboratory materials are also used in valuable disease, agricultural, and energy research. Several bills pending in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would consolidate the list of dangerous pathogens, expand federal oversight of these labs, and establish new security standards for the agents that pose the greatest risk.

As Congress considers this wide-ranging legislation, the AAAS report urges better communication between scientists and security specialists to promote flexible security programs that will be effective as new risks evolve and new technologies emerge.

To achieve this goal, the report suggests that the federal government develop a common regulatory system for chemical, radiation, and biological agents. Academic institutions have limited administrative and financial resources with regard to regulation, it notes, and the current system of separate requirements often supports a “culture of compliance” rather than a culture of security.

At the same time, the report said, universities need to do a better job of explaining the role of their safety committees and institutional review boards to reassure regulators and the public that adequate programs are in place to address bio-security issues.

The report, “Competing Responsibilities?: Addressing the Security Risks of Biological Research in Academia,” summarizes a meeting sponsored earlier this year by AAAS, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. The 20 to 21 January event included university leaders, scientists, and representatives of the national security community.

The AAAS report is available at www.aaas.org/go/aaas_aau_2010/.

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