Sunday, November 20, 2011

Educating Scientists and Engineers About Social and Ethical Implications of their Research

The Congress on Teaching the Social and Ethical Implications of Research was held in Tempe, AZ on November 10-11, 2011. Approximately 120 educators from universities and science museums met on the campus of Arizona State University to share innovative ideas for educating scientists and engineers to think critically about the social impacts of their research. About half the group were involved in nanoscience education, as the conference was scheduled immediately following the annual meeting of S.Net: the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies.

Presenters discussed the benefits and challenges of various approaches to science ethics training, in formats such as traditional classrooms, online training programs, virtual worlds, service projects in developing countries, and international engineering contests.

Several young scientists also discussed student-led efforts to promote ethics training and action through organizations such as Student Pugwash and the Graduation Pledge Alliance. Museum-based informal science educators from the NISE Network (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) were on hand to discuss Nano Days and showed several videos and hands-on exercises used to engage the public in

What became clear from the two days of discussions was the difficulty of integrating ethics education modules into highly structured science and engineering programs, particularly at the graduate level. In an environment where productivity is measured by number of publications and patents, having students take time away from their lab work to think about the societal impacts of their work can be seen as something that is at best a nuisance, at worst an impediment to achieving their own and their lab's goals. Even those faculty and students who are enthusiastic about participating in societal impacts education programs can face difficulties justifying their participation to peers and superiors in the University. So one takeaway from the conference is that if universities care about producing ethically responsible nanocience graduates, they need to restructure their incentive systems to recognize and encourage the importance of this training.

Another takeaway from the meeting was the point made by several speakers that language counts. Talking about "ethics" or "ELSI"(ethical, legal, and social implications) education sounds abstract to science students and their faculty mentors, and can be a turnoff. Some conference participants noted that framing these issues as being "policy"-related was a more effective way of getting attention. As much university-based research is government-funded, scientists and engineers are attuned to the importance of understanding the policy process and are willing to learn more about it.

Overall, the Congress was a stimulating two days spent in the company of people who care passionately about the roles played by science and technology in bettering social relations and the quality of life. Their dedication to helping the next generation of researchers use their knowledge and skills to advance the societal welfare was inspiring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Long-Term Energy Generation Costs: Calculating Risk

The multiple-reactor accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following its catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 12, which may turn out to be one of the most damaging nuclear plant accidents in history once again tragically highlights the hidden (that is, uncalculated) costs of differing energy technologies. The difficulty of calculating certain ancillary costs of power production, such as potential risk and long-term environmental cleanup and recovery leaves both government and industry partially in the dark when making important decisions regarding power generation investment and policy.

The simplified formulas used to calculate total lifetime cost of power plants, because they generally leave out longer-term and risk-based costs, dis proportionally effect perception of solar and wind energy solutions. These technologies are generally more expensive than coal, oil, and natural gas to install initially, but contain far fewer long-term environmental costs. However, because these costs are precisely the ones omitted from projections, the result is a skewed picture of solar costs via-a-vis other technologies.

Coal plant costs are perhaps the easiest to calculate because their design is relatively stable and standardized, and coal supply is domestic in the U.S. and also relatively stable; however, such calculations rarely (if ever) include the potentially massive costs of future environmental cleanup or mitigation. Though we know that these costs (coal is a significant contributor to global climate change) are enormous, they are notoriously difficult to quantify, and thus official projections of long term cost rarely contain a numerical indication of costs beyond construction, materials, and regulatory fees. Oil, natural gas, and nuclear power plants all pose similar potential environmental costs that aren’t included in cost projections—due not only to the direct difficulty of quantification, but also to the difficulty of projecting risk probabilities of accidents. The 2010 Gulf Oil spill will cost at least $30 billion in the long run, but none of these costs were figured into the development of BP’s fleet of wells and oil rigs in the Gulf Coast. Neither were the costs of containment and environmental cleanup factored into the construction of the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima Daiichi power plants. Such accidents are extremely rare, but their costs can exceed the lifetime construction and operating costs of a plant by many orders of magnitude, and clearly should be factored in to overall projections of lifetime costs.

Researchers are the Argonne National Laboratory, run by the U.S. Department of Energy, have begun to address this problem with the formulation of a new model for calculating solar’s Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE). Their formula is essentially an extension of one developed by industry that utilizes a Monte Carlo simulation to statistically select from probability distributions to account for uncertainty in a number of variables. These are precisely the variables that would otherwise drop out of the equation or be replaced by arbitrary constants. Thus this work provides a concrete methodology to extend LCOE calculations to complex, uncertain features of long-term energy cost. While this is enormously helpful for anyone calculating costs of solar energy generation, similar models need to be developed for other industries for an accurate comparison of costs to be possible. Still, a publicly-funded (and thus not serving any particular segment of industry) effort of this sort in an enormous step in the right direction: by highlighting the problem with previous formulas and blazing a trail toward more accurate models that account for uncertainty, the Argonne researchers are helping to institutionalize a new, more accurate and complete form of energy cost calculation.

Their full paper was published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Evolution and Desire

Watch the full episode. See more Botany of Desire.

"The Botany of Desire," a PBS documentary, directed by Michael Schwarz and based upon journalist Michael Pollan’s 2001 book of the same title, explores human-plant symbiosis and coevolution “from the plants’ point of view.” The documentary closely follows Pollan’s book, heavily featuring the author as he attempts to represent the history of four plants that have evolved to maximally appeal to humans: the apple (playing on the human desire for sweetness), the tulip (desire for beauty), cannabis (intoxication), and the potato (control). The film’s extensive macro cinematography and high production value perhaps tends to fetishize these plants as much as it anthropomorphizes them, yet is nonetheless curiously effective in its exploration of symbiosis as desire for the same reason. The history of each of these plants is indeed fascinating, and the film fully embraces their hybrid nature: as products of evolution within a “natural” environment, as social constructs, as the outcome of human genetic experimentation (breeding and genetic engineering) as economic entities (goods, services, objects of speculative bubbles) and as political objects.

Ultimately, it’s a story about innovation. Some plants come out winners (the virus-infected Semper Augustus tulip in 1630s Holland, “sexually frustrated” marijuana plants), others losers (sour apples after the temperance movement took root in America). Essentially, each of the plants explored here is the nexis of an innovation ecology that involves social, political, and biological actors. Structural effects, such as the vulnerability introduced by monocultures, are treated extensively. The Irish Potato famine stands in as the primary lesson here: it was the result of an extensive monoculture of “Lumpers.” Schwarz and Pollan are quick to note that “monocultures on the plate lead to monocultures on the land.” That is, innovation and cultivation cannot be considered outside of their social contexts. Ultimately, the film figures innovation as diversification and notes that most of our attempts at agricultural innovation currently consist of inventing ever more elaborate technological methods of protecting increasingly vulnerable monocultures, a losing game and evolutionary dead end.