And the new semester begins….

I am back from a week of vacation in California. My native state is as beautiful as ever. However, on the plane flight back to DC, we flew directly over Yosemite where the smoke from the wildfires was clearly visible and concentrated in the Valley. It’s a reminder of how powerful nature can be and how it’s not a given that it’ll be aligned with human concerns. The image below is from my visit to Yosemite last summer. There were fires then also.

This coming week, the new semester begins. I’m looking forward….IMG_1165





Kelvin Droegemeier nominated to lead OSTP

The news posted in Science, here. To my mind, he is a superb choice. Kudos to the White House. Kelvin was Vice Chair of the National Science Board during the first two years of my tenure leading BIO at NSF and I was always struck by his thoughtful way of working through really big challenges, while at the same time pushing everybody forward. He is a  really fine atmospheric scientist and his credibility with the community will help him enormously.

If he is confirmed, the key question is whether he will have direct access to the President and further, what the quality of those interactions may be.

You’ve seen the iceberg that’s threatening the village in Greenland?

Here’s the story in Time Magazine. I took this photo of a similarly sized iceberg off Fogo in Newfoundland. The difference? The one in my photo is about 20 km from my camera. They are huge of course. As the ice breaks up in the Arctic, more of these will be moving south down the Chanel between Labrador and Greenland. How will that change the dynamics of the Atlantic Ocean? Well, there is this report by Rasmus Pedersen. Money quote:

These characteristics mean that sea ice loss initiates feedbacks that contribute directly to Arctic amplification of near-surface warming (Serreze et al. 2009; Screen and Simmonds 2010; Serreze and Barry 2011).

Spoofing AI

This an interesting new scientific meme. It made it into Science on the basis of a presentation at the International Conference on Machine Learning here. The idea is that hackers can easily defeat AI’s (think “social engineering” used on a machine).

Meanwhile there is the contrasting meme of us getting spoofed by AI, in the FT, here. In this case AI’s are able to make videos of people doing things that they did not do.

All of this gets to the cybersecurity aspects of AI that potentially put society at risk.


Basic human neuroscience studies should not be treated as clinical trials…

In the last year of my service at NSF, the NIH issued a new policy with regards to a particular kind of neuroscience that has become the bread and butter of psychology departments, especially those that focus on cognitive science. These experiments are the modern versions of 20thcentury social psychology experiments where the experimental subjects would be healthy college students (and definitely not patients). In the modern versions, students receive brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI; completely non-invasive) so that the investigator can actually visualize the functioning of the subject’s brains as they perform some task (or even play a game).

The new NIH policy will consider these studies to be “clinical trials”.

Clinical trials are a special animal from the standpoint of NIH’s regulations. In particular, the entire constellation of medical ethics: from informed consent all the way to how results are analyzed and revealed fall under the jurisdiction of a complex set of compliance requirements. That makes sense for patients because they are sick and on the vulnerable side of a power relationship with their caregivers (clinicians). The question is should this thicket of compliance rules apply to the above type of psychology experiments? I don’t think so. Yes, there should be rules but to my mind they should not rise to the levels seen in the medical trials context. These types of studies are qualitatively different. Let’s not force apples to be oranges. This piece in Science has the latest development in this story: NIH has agreed to postpone for one year putting this new policy in place.

Nitrogen: the chemical fertilizer connection

I’ve been thinking a lot about nitrogen lately. It plays a crucial role in the biosphere because all of the peptide bonds that make up proteins contain that element. And proteins are truly ubiquitous in living things from the very smallest bacteria up to giant redwoods. Because plants require nitrogen to grow, farmers must buy nitrogen containing chemical fertilizers to feed their crops. The run off from their fields pollutes by overloading our waters with nitrogen in the chemical form (called ‘fixed’) found in their fertilizers. The result of that artificial fertilization of lakes and streams (and even coastal estuaries) are algal blooms that crowd out the rest of the biosphere for resources. It’s not good.

Not all crops require fertilizer though. Some crops—legumes—have made a peace pact with the soil microbiome surrounding their roots. In the deal, the local microbes do the work of the farmer by fixing atmospheric nitrogen into the form that plants can use. In return the plants provide other nutrients to the bugs. One of the great challenges for the future of food is to figure out a way to make that peace pact work for our major commercial feed crops like wheat or corn. And that’s not only because it would be a good thing for our waterways. It turns out that chemical fertilizer is also very expensive and requires natural gas to synthesize urea. So if we figured out a way to replicate the microbial pact that legumes have, we could not only reduce pollution, we could save a whole lot of money.