December 8, 2012

My DIY portable book scanner

While I'm in India next year, I plan on visiting several agricultural research libraries to find primary sources related to my research. And while there are several options for how I could record these documents, the fastest, easiest, and most useful seems to be using a digital camera to photograph pages from my documents. I am unsure whether these different libraries will let me use a camera and a tripod, but I am hoping they will.

I've been researching the best way to use a camera for scanning documents, and found an entire world of DIY book scanning. Unfortunately most of these scanners are not portable, and a bit above my ability level as a novice DIY-er. But after some research into camera tripods, I found this set up, pictured above, to be the most promising. I then came across this article and decided it was worth it to invest in the equipment (which all in all, cost me less than $100, not counting the camera). I also got a piece of plexiglass from the hardware store to flatten pages, but I think it will depend on what the libraries allow. Finally, hopefully I will be have good ambient light in the libraries, because I found that my camping lantern cast uneven shadows (but the overhead light caused glare in the plexiglass). If anyone has a suggestion for lighting, please let me know!

I am pretty happy with my results so far. The process goes pretty quickly, and I can do it sitting down. My files are large and as long as I get a good enough contrast between the page and the words, I can make readable files (not exactly OCR text readable, but readable to me). Processing the images is taking longer than taking them, and then I'm converting the files into pdfs (since so far I've been scanning from library books, it is pretty easy to keep them organized).

Here's a pretty good example of what I've collected. For this specific photo I used my lantern for lighting and the plexiglass sheet. I edited the photo in iPhoto to adjust the color/shadows, crop it, and make it black & white. As you can see, it is easily readable especially when zoomed in. The next scan I do, I will probably play around with the white balance and ISO settings on my camera.

Throughout my research in India I will be keeping all of my digital files on Dropbox and Google Drive so that if something happens to my computer, I won't lose my files.

Feel free to ask me any more detailed questions about my method, and I would of course appreciate any advice!

November 25, 2012

Countdown to India + semester accomplishments

(In Uttarakhand, India, this September, hiking down to visit some farmers)

While I've been neglecting this blog for a while, I'll be back blogging soon about a major project in my life-- my 6-month journey to India for my research. I'm leaving January 5th, 2013, bound for New Delhi. I'll use this blog to update my friends, family, and internet-friends from afar about my personal journey as well as my research-related insights and experiences.

In related updates, this semester has been full of ups and downs with stress/anxiety and progress/excitement over my research. And although I'm a somewhat modest person, I'd like to take a moment to recognize that I've accomplished a lot-- in fact looking at the list, more than I would expect anyone else to accomplish and still maintain sanity (which might explain some things...).
  1. Successfully defended my research prospectus and passed without edits! This makes me an official PhD candidate and also a very happy person.
  2. Went on a 75-mile victory bike ride!
  3. Spent 2 weeks travelling in northern India, meeting international scientists and my host organization in Delhi.
  4. Co-coordinated 400-ish volunteers for the Tempe Tour de Fat and raised around $72,000 for local bike-related non-profits. Also led the largest team of beer-pourers.
  5. Co-directed GISER, a interdisciplinary graduate student organization at ASU.
  6. Ran a 5K to support Arijit and the Poop Strong crew.
  7. Learned to edit articles for the Embryo Project.
  8. Started to learn हिन्दी
  9. Took a weekend vacation in Austin to visit my former roommate.
  10. Hosted my mom and explored Tempe for a week.
  11. Spent time with my lovely friends in Tempe.
  12. Stayed on top of the research and logistics details necessary for a 6-month trip to India (of course, I'll find out soon enough whether I am truly prepared...).
So right now I'm finishing up my semester and prepping for India. Moving out is going to be a pain, but packing shouldn't be too difficult since I know the essentials from my 3-months in Bangladesh several years ago. In India I'll wear mostly Indian-style clothes, which are long shirts called a kameez and scarfs with mostly Western-style pants. I hope to look professional, although fashion won't be a priority for me in the next few months. My goal is to look professional and to be respectful towards the culture.

Research note: In an effort to alert my non-academic followers to parts they can skip, I'll mark my research-related updates like this. So for those interested (academic or not) in what my research actually is, I'll be doing a mostly historical study of wheat research in northern India. I'm taking the time period of 1965 to present and I'm tracing the major themes in wheat research during this period. The mechanics of this will involve spending time in several agricultural research libraries around Delhi and the adjacent state of Haryana and interviewing key administrators, scientists, extension offices, and farmers. I'll also likely be doing a survey of plant breeders. The specific topics I'm interested in are the connections between wheat breeding, the adaptation of wheat varieties to different climates and agroecological conditions in India, and farmers' adoption of such varieties. Obviously I hope to connect all of this to climate change, and I have more than a few hunches that I'm on the right track to look at the history of climate/plant breeding connections. In particular, I'm wondering whether breeding crops for wide geographic areas makes them more or less likely to be adopted, and what role farmers play in the process of plant breeding. I'm also interested in what drives scientists towards certain paradigms of plant breeding for "wide" versus "specific" locations/climates, and how these themes are playing out in discussions of climate change.

October 29, 2012

Scientists on trial

Last week my newsfeed blew up with reactions to the conviction of seven scientists for manslaughter. As I wrote about last summer, these scientists failed to predict an earthquake in Italy. Many people, especially my scientist friends, see this as an attack on science and scientists who, it seems from this perspective, should be let alone to do their work without political interference or, worse yet, fear of conviction. But as you might expect, I argue that we need to look at the social side of science. Scientists don't operate in a political vacuum  and as we see here, there are very real consequences from the muddled interaction between scientists and policy-makers. To re-paraphrase Sheila Jasanoff, "Scientists have become arrogant, and have not explained to the people why they deserve support... The Enlightenment was not a historical event. It is a process, a mission, a continuous duty to explain yourself.”

For another interesting perspective, check out Dan Sarewitz writing for CSPO's new blog, "As We Now Think."

October 2, 2012

The Philosopher's Stone: musings on scientific ideas and breakthroughs

Back in the day, alchemists strived to turn lead into gold. Today, the modern equivalent might be engineering some kind of "bug that eats carbon dioxide and poops oil" (to paraphrase a lecturer I heard).

What are some examples of other "philosopher's stone" type quests in science-- where scientists are actively trying to produce something but it requires some fundamental leaps in either technology or scientific knowledge? I'm looking for either historical examples or current examples of projects that were either reached or are still elusive. I'm talking about pie-in-the-sky dreams of scientists; the sorts of things that shape research paradigms. But I think "rogue" ideas (like cold fusion?) might also be a good example.

My questions are:
  1. To what extent have concerted efforts towards fundamental breakthroughs been successful? (i.e. the Manhattan Project, or IRRI's "Miracle Rice")
  2. Is there a "shelf life" of projects of this type? (i.e. a typical time span when ideas are adopted and then either developed or abandoned)
  3. What causes a project like this to be abandoned?

I was thinking about this because the more I learn about the history of science, the more I see that ideas we use in modern conceptions of technological innovation have deep historical roots. For example, the modern quest for advances in evo-devo traces back to (at least) the early 18th century.

September 16, 2012

India! Fieldwork in Bihar.

Here I am on a 2-week exploratory research trip in India! I have begun collaborating with Bioversity International who will graciously host me at their office in New Delhi, and I spent the past week travelling with some of their researchers and staff. Bioversity is currently working with CCAFS and other groups to investigate how farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India are adapting to climate change. Here's an interesting article on CCAFS's work in Africa, which of course interests me due to the talk of farmer innovation, and also of using flood/drought/etc. tolerant crop varieties as an adaptation (two things my research will address). The particular interest of Bioversity is the conservation of plant genetic material, and how that might be an adaptation strategy for farmers. It's an interesting project, to be sure! But my own research will focus more on the science policy of agriculture in northwest India.

The past week has been a whirlwind of adventure across India. Just one day after I arrived in Delhi, we boarded a plane to Bihar, a poor, crowded state in northeastern India. We went there because Bioversity/CCAFS has a field site there, where farmers were given a selection of wheat and rice seeds to grow and compare. The idea is that farmers could more effectively manage climate change and risk if they have more options of plant varieties. The farmers that we talked to were all landholders, which is likely a bias of working through our local contacts. They told us that this year was an especially bad drought. Thus it will be difficult for them to judge the different varieties of rice being grown right now.

The photo above shows one of the field sites we visited, where the local research staff from Pusa works closely with farmers to monitor the progress of the crops (rice, in this season). We stayed at the Pusa agricultural research campus, which was actually the first agricultural research station in India, started over 100 years ago! For this reason, the agricultural center in New Delhi, where I'll be working, is named the "Pusa Institute."

Bihar itself was similar to what I experienced in Bangladesh. Very rural, and as Ed Carr would put it, on "globalization's shoreline." There were few cars on the road but plenty of people, motorcycles, and goats. It was quite difficult to find places to eat or stay during the day (and I miraculously managed to avoid using the latrine all day...), the power at our guest house went out regularly (and was likely lacking in most villages), and even in the intense heat, there is of course no A/C but plenty of insects. The roads seemed better than in Bangladesh, but the traffic comparable (and the general madness of it, though like I said less cars or buses in Bihar). There is a recent NYTimes piece about Bihar, and how it suffers from structural poverty.

Overall, I'm glad I had the experience of visiting Bihar, but I have realized that I'm really not cut out for this sort of intense field work. I'm much, much happier back in Delhi, where I can be more independent and have small luxuries such as coffee and a clean room.

September 4, 2012

Local food systems and greenhouse gases

I deeply apologize for the lack of updates on this blog, but you will (hopefully!) be pleased to know that I am now a PhD Candidate in Biology and Society and I am soon headed to India for some preliminary research!

In the meantime, I recently had a publication through Michigan State University Extension on local food systems and greenhouse gas emissions. Here's the link to the pdf. What's the connection, you ask? Well, read it to find out! It's aimed at consumers, so it will explain some of the basics behind each concept, and what are some of the main contributions of food and agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions. While some of the specifics are aimed at Michigan consumers, I hope that it applies to a broad audience to help understand the connections between food and the environment.

July 20, 2012

An exercise in social construction of technology vs. technological determinism

I felt like writing this instead of my prospectus today. Comments appreciated, as always.

Point 1: Agricultural technologies are shaped primarily by human interests.
The "best" technology doesn't always get picked in agriculture. Sure, farmers are innovative, perceptive, and incredibly economics-driven, but that doesn't mean that they end up making the right choices. Truth is, a ton of political and social decisions that get made at much higher levels often determine what farmers grow. In the early 20th century, people working for seed companies had to start convincing farmers that bigger ears of corn were the most desired trait. When hybrid corn was discovered, this was a boon for the seed industry. Hybrid has two different parent crops, making it's second generation offspring genetically unpredictable, and thus farmers have to keep buying the seed from the company, year after year. It didn't hurt that Henry A. Wallace, founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company, and on of the discoverers of hybrid corn, was Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, spearheading the USDA's campaign to get farmers to adopt hybrid corn. 

Hybrid crops are more responsive to fertilizers, so the more chemicals farmers can pump into the ground, the more corn they can grow in a small area. Today just about 100% of corn grown in the U.S. is hybrid. But what if hybrid corn wasn't adopted? Some people hypothesize that non-hybrid corn yields could be just as high as hybrids, if companies had invested the same amount of resources. Social scientists and historians also tell as similar story about the development of "miracle rice" at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in the 1960s. Apparently the director of IRRI had a very specific "model" of what type of rice the scientists at IRRI should be developing. Scientists at IRRI were told, "all we want are results, to get the yields up; be on the constant look out for it" (Oasa 1981, p. 174). Administrators at IRRI didn't want just any innovation coming from their research labs; they wanted something radical, highly visible, what they called the "big jump" (Oasa 1981 p. 177). And once they developed the so-called "miracle rice," they played it up all over Asia, even when the yields weren't so great certain locations.

So what does this mean for adapting crops to climate change? It means that we should pay really close attention to who sets the research agenda-- is it the president of the World Bank? Bill Gates? And whose best interest do they have in mind? From these two examples, we have seed companies looking out for their own profit, but we also have IRRI, and public research organization that just wanted to feed the world. But even people with good intentions can have, shall we say, complicated outcomes. Did you know that North Vietnam actually really liked the Miracle Rice, and are still one of the largest growers of it? The upshot is that people who we want to use the technology should be very involved in its development, so that we make sure new innovations benefit the public good rather than a small handful of corporate interests. It also means that we should keep our eyes open for new practices and technologies that will help with adaptation, because narrow visions of climate solutions can restrict the types of research that scientists undertake. We should keep the options open, with dialogue between farmers, scientists, and private companies who will commercialize the innovations.

Point 2: Technologies fill necessary gaps.
The market gets what it wants. Adam Smith's doctrine of the invisible hand doesn't just apply to economics-- it also applies to the development of new technologies. And in agriculture, when farmers and consumers demand high yields and cheap food, companies respond by innovating to meet their demands. American agriculture is particularly suited to large, mechanized farms of soy, wheat, and corn, and because farmers have grown these crops for so long now, it's difficult for them to switch. So companies keep innovating new ways to increase production: better pesticides, biotechnology (GMOs) that makes crops resistant to herbicides and produce their own insecticides, more efficient application of fertilizer and irrigation, etc. In fact, the proliferation of GPS and smartphone technology gives farmers an incredible management tool called "precision agriculture."

What academics call "induced innovation" can also help with climate change adaptation. Over time, improvements in plant breeding has allowed farmers to expand the growing range of crops such as soybeans and wheat in North America. Places where farmers would be crazy to grow wheat 50 or 100 years ago, it's now common! These same principles can be applied to climate adaptation. Scientists and policy-makers should understand what technologies have historically worked well in certain areas-- we know that rice farmers in Japan will never switch to large-scale, mechanical agriculture-- so stick with with farmers know. Make the transition between crops easy by encouraging farmers to adopt new varieties. But because farmers are discerning customers, they will likely drive the market demand anyway.

More technologies, such as integrating the use of regional climate forecasts so that farmers can adjust what they plant, when they plant it, and how they irrigate it, will help farmers. Because crops and soils often have predetermined biophysical and genetic limits, we should pay careful attention to how crops can be applied to areas predicted to have similar climates and conditions, but realize that they are not endlessly malleable.

It's also worth noting that private seed companies and public agricultural research (universities, non-profits) are complimentary, as private companies fulfill market demands and public research fulfills public goods. If farmers live in a place where agriculture is not very profitable, the public research is more likely to benefit them. If they are in a highly productive area, private research will have more impact for their income and be better for the overall economy. In either situation, the institutions are already in place to help farmers technologically adapt agriculture to climate change. It doesn't matter where the research comes from; what matters is that it is reaching farmers and meeting their demands.

Can you tell what side I'm on? :)

Oasa, E. (1981). The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research. University of Hawaii.

For further reading:
Cleveland, D. A. (2001). Is plant breeding science objective truth or social construction? The case of yield stability. Agriculture and Human Values, 18, 251-270.
Fitzgerald, Deborah (1990). The Business of Breeding.
Kloppenburg, J. R. J. (2004). First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000 (2nd ed.). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

July 9, 2012

Summer vegetable-themed link harvest

Perhaps you've been drawn in by my clever title, which does sound like a delicious salad, but I sadly have no recipe to share with you. Instead, here's a snapshot of my favorite science/food policy articles this week. Per usual, many thanks to Arijit for curating interesting links on his blog.

Food and agricultural news:
  • This column by Mark Bittman has gotten a lot of love from my friends. For years, the argument of junk food producers has been that in moderation, even sweets and fats can be part of a healthy diet. One recent study investigated whether diets of different fat/carbohydrate/protein amounts led to different weight loss results, showing that a Atkins-like diet is more successful. Mayor Bloomberg rejoices! But Marion Nestle digs deeper into the study and finds that the study was under highly controlled conditions, and the diet only lasted 4 weeks. So while I usually love Mark Bittman, I'm disappointed that his column relies on standard news-cycle hype of a single scientific article. [Update:] Here's a good rebuttal, showing that a calorie is a calorie, whether it's from fat or sugar or protein. I prefer Nestle's approach:
"--If you want to lose weight, eat less (it worked well for the subjects in this study).
--It may help to avoid excessive consumption of sugars and easily absorbed carbohydrates.
--Once you’ve lost weight, adjust your calorie intake to maintain the weight loss.
--And understand that science has no easy answers to the weight-loss problem."
  • A recent book on the history of tomato production, and a handful of recent scientific articles that explain how the flavor and sweetness of heirloom varieties have been bred out of modern varieties in favor of uniformity and efficiency. The tomato's been a lightening rod for controversy, from Jim Hightower's Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times in 1973, to the Flavr Savr GMO tomato debacle in the 1990s, to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers movement which protests against the low wages and terrible working conditions of farm workers in Florida. If you're feeling academic, this article will give you a good overview of the politics of agricultural research over the past 40 years. If you're feeling completely non-academic, enjoy some Stephen Colbert testifying about migrant farm workers and salad bars: "Apparently, even the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans." If you're feeling like you might want to make a dirty joke, go read about cucumber straighteners (and stay for a bit about the history of agricultural tools).
Science policy goings-ons:
Finally, please enjoy this article on how academic writing can be sexy, but usually isn't. 

June 20, 2012

Uncertainty, R&D vs. innovation, and Science literacy

Here are my favorite science policy links of the week:
  • Why policymakers and scholars ignore each other, and what should be done about it, by Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg. This longish article strikes so many chords with what I've learned about science policy advising, uncertainty, communication, scenario construction, and interdisciplinary. Long story short: academics, stop being so egotistical, start working with other fields, and stop promoting grand-unified-theories. History isn't on the side of grand-unified-theories, and there's sometimes more gained from "muddling through" and being a fox, rather than a hedgehog. Slog through the foreign policy bits and read the full essay!
"Enter technology. It can be absolutely liberating. It lets you juggle multiple commitments and not worry about certain things. You can watch the programs you care about without having to fiddle with the VCR. You don’t have to bother other people. For e-books, you suddenly don’t have to go to the bookstore. It will come to you. Some women describe this as a kind of guilty pleasure, like beating the system."
  • R&D is not Innovation by Roger Pielke, Jr. A good, clear example of why R&D (or "basic research") spending does not equal innovation or market success.
  • And for academic article of the week, here's Uncertainty: Climate models at their limit? by Mark Maslin and Patrick Austin (h/t Erik Conway). A short, readable piece that is very much related to scientific uncertainty and policy, and of special interest to you climate change folks. You'll need online access to Nature magazine, or email me and I can send you a copy.

June 5, 2012

Starbucks, Women in tech, Nanny states, and Green peacekeepers

This post is going to be a bit of a hodge-podge of topics, but I hope you will enjoy it!

Let's start with Starbucks. Starbucks is a great example of a highly innovative firm. Their innovation is not just an invention, but a system of processes that have fundamentally changed parts of the economy. It has given Americans a "third place" to work, relax, and socialize away from work and home. Their success at this model has backlashed however, to the point where every time I go to the Starbucks on Mill Ave. in Tempe I see people "hanging out" for really long periods of time. Last time I was there, I saw someone sleeping inside, and I was harassed by a Starbucks transient while sitting outside. So Starbucks is trying out a new "'let’s make it slightly uncomfortable' model" (Forbes). While fast food places like McDonalds are moving towards the coffeeshop model, I wonder how this will work out for Starbucks? On a related note, Roger Pielke Jr. explains why Hooters' business model is another good example of innovation-- and why we shouldn't always equate "innovation" with "technology."

Next up is the NYTimes article Lawsuit Shakes Foundation of a Man’s World of Tech. This article brings up some good points about how tech start-ups are very male-dominated-- to their own detriment, as I've heard before and the article mentions that these start-ups are less interested in female-centric innovations such as online shopping, fashion, etc.-- but there is a lot of unnecessary "mansplaining" about the sexual harassment suit. And of course, the author really unfortunately chose to start the article with the phrase, “MEN invented the internet.” Fortunately we have writers like Xeni Jardin to lay the smackdown and explain why phrases like this are not only patently false, but continue to perpetuate myths about women in technology. I also love the immediate response from the Twitter-sphere, which even further highlights our STS-y concept of co-production of knowledge and social order.

You probably know by now how much I admire Marion Nestle, her take on food politics, and why the debate over sugary beverage sizes in New York is like mental candy to me. So here's a few more links from her on anti-Bloomberg propaganda (see image above) and Weight of the Nation: the new “Hunger in America”?

This week I also enjoyed the NYTimes' 32 Innovations That Will Change Your Tomorrow, which has a great introduction despite the somewhat linear thinking of the content. Being a bike geek, I took issue with their bike-related innovations. Just because these ideas sound good doesn't mean they will catch on (anti-theft handlebars, grease-free chains, and one-piece frames-- by the way, 2/3 of those are already produced by Trek). See the end of this post by my favorite sarcastic bike blogger, Bike Snob NYC. And speaking of bikes, this article on Chicago's goal of zero traffic fatalities also has some interesting fodder for socio-technical systems theory.

Ok, just a few more quick links!

May 31, 2012

Social sciences and theory practice: a real divide?

It should be obvious to the readers of this blog that I am quite interested in bridging the divide between social science theory and policy. This leads to a lot of confusion about what I will do after graduate school, but for now I'm enjoying my time digging into socio/ecological/technical theories while maintaining focus on policy-relevant issues like climate change and agriculture. In the end, my research questions will likely be a combinations of theoretical and practical questions, though as I progress I will surely find some more interesting than others.

I just read three articles from some international relations blogs that address this issue-- and particularly the role of academics and graduate/early-career training. The field of political science has clearly grappled with this for a while, and it's no wonder why. I often think about how Science and Technology Studies has/will grapple with this, and I have some insights I could share offline should the chance arise. This also raises many normative questions about what academics should be doing, what do we owe society, should policy-makers listen to us, etc.

So here are the articles:
Also, for your daily LOLs, this.

May 28, 2012

Agroecological zones and climate

Much of my research on climate change and agriculture over the past year has focused on how innovation-- mostly biological, such as plant breeding, but also technological, such as irrigation-- has expanded the range of certain crops, such as wheat and soybeans in North America. Looking at these historical cases, we might be able to learn something about adaptation of crops to new climate zones due to climate change.

The Consultative Group for International Agriculture (CGIAR) has also picked up on this idea of climate adaptation through crop innovation. This makes perfect sense, given their historical roots in plant breeding, and their access to large repositories of plant genetic material around the world. They have lately focused on bridging gaps between climate modeling, plant breeding, and climate-tolerant crops. For example, if we can predict that the climate in Nepal is going to be similar to Bangladesh in 20 years, then Nepali farmers and plant breeders should be not only learning from their Bangladeshi counterparts, but also starting to grow Bangladeshi varieties of rice.

But Bangladesh alone has about 30 agroecological zones (see figure above). Agroecological zones are based on regional soil types and climate zones. This means that farmers in each zone are likely to differ, even if by just a little, in the type of irrigation they use, variety of crops they grow, and when they plant and harvest those crops. Agroecological zones are also useful in categorizing the maximum yield productivity of a region-- for example, rice just might grow better in certain zones.

Today many crops have mixed genetic heritages that span not just countries but continents, and we can even grow traditional Japanese rice in Australia. If we look back to the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug introduced a variety of wheat to India that was originally bred in Mexico. Borlaug also innovated a plant breeding technique called "shuttle breeding," which is where you test a new crop in two different climate locations. This would make the plant "hardier" and able to survive in a larger climate zone.

The problem lies in reducing agriculture to a simple equation of climate and genetics. The CGIAR is falling a bit too closely into a "Seeing Like a State" mentality. The drive to simplify and cross-apply broad agricultural knowledge across regions ignores many local factors, both biophysical (types of local insects, soil salinity, climate variability) and social (gender roles in farming, innovativeness, access to resources).

I've written about these generalizations of climate vulnerability before, and how such generalized information is likely limited in its use. Climate change is not the only challenge to farmers: in fact, short term climate variability may be more important. Miguel Altieri and other agroecologists argue that local networks of agrobiodiversity and seed sharing are more important than international efforts to improve yields through modernization of agriculture. On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, an author writes about the problems with using recent online climate-zone tools produced by the CGIAR and FAO.

So despite my skepticism about the usefulness of climate models and technological fixes, I'm extremely excited to work on this issue more in the upcoming year, and especially looking at farmer participation and innovation for climate adaptation in India.

May 27, 2012

Timothy B. Lee on Innovation

I can across this article on my Twitter feed and thought I would pass it along.

  • Two Views of Innovation. Timothy B. Lee gives a nice overview of Schumpeterian and Hayekian innovation. I might be oversimplifying here, but my understanding is that Schumpeter advocated for induced innovation, meaning that macroeconomic factors, such as the prices of core inputs (oil, steel, etc.) "induce" innovation in certain sectors. Hayek's view is much evolutionary; firms use trial-and-error to eventually specialize in something. Lee then goes into an example using intellectual property rights, Apple, and Microsoft.

Lee, writing a blog called "Disruptive Economics" for Forbes, has some interesting thoughts on innovation and technology, so here are a few recent pieces:

Finally, on the topic of adoption of innovations, this article on what technologies get adopted in pro cycling is pretty interesting: "If it's so good, why don't the pros use it?" And then read the comments for a whole bunch of bicycle-related technical arguments :)

May 22, 2012

Future Tense event re-cap

Yesterday I caught a bit of the Future Tense event, "How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise" which was a 5 1/2 hour seminar webcast from DC. Future Tense is a collaboration between Slate magazine, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University (more specifically, the Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes, who I'm loosely affiliated with).

I would recommend watching parts of the actual video, especially if there are topics of specific interest to you. From the parts I watched, the panel discussions and responses to questions were the most interesting. Much of the discussion was around what and how the government should fund science, which is obviously the essence of science policy. The panelists really grappled with contradictions over basic and applied research, funding long-shots vs. incremental improvements, and citizen participation/education/understanding in/of science. So since I can't think of much else to say right now, here are three related links.

May 21, 2012

Adoption of innovations and path dependence

A few articles recently came up that clearly demonstrate some of the basic concepts of technological innovation. So let's see what I can do...

First, as the folks at the Breakthrough Institute explain, one of the key factors for technological innovation is in bringing down prices of technologies and their inputs. This is extremely relevant for clean-tech innovation, because one could argue that there is no way people will buy clean energy en masse if its more expensive than fossil-fuel-based energy. Unless clean energy proponents can demonstrate a substantial improvement in the end product, consumers aren't willing to pay more. Traditional economics tells us that this means the government should subsidize clean energy or tax fossil fuels in order to account for the positive/negative externalities, but Breakthrough makes a more compelling argument that we should invest in new technologies and consider technology a cause, rather than effect, of economic growth.

So what happens when innovation creates new inputs (cheaper energy, new drugs, better crops)? People adopt them, of course. Not all innovations are adopted; I went to a talk last year where the speaker said something like, "people have a million reason not to adopt an innovation, and only a few reasons to adopt it." The context was why people don't adopt things that we consider universally good, such as medicines, etc., especially in developing countries. But in general, an innovation that gains traction follows a standard pattern of adoption, as explained here (h/t Arijit). Since the comments on that article complained of the academic language, here it is in the simplest terms: 1) more innovative/networked/wealthier people adopt new technologies first, 2) other people see how cool/useful the innovations are and start adopting it themselves, and 3) adoption of that innovation reaches a "tipping point" where you just can't live without it. For example, once all farmers started growing hybrid corn, its much more difficult to not grow it because they will outcompete you. Also think about cell phones- those few people holding out without a cell (or smartphone, to a lesser extent) have more and more problems functioning in a wireless world.

But what happens when, for some reason or other, the wrong technologies got adopted? For example, we find out that the chemical we've been putting in furniture as a flame-retardant is actually harmful to human health? Regardless of why we decided to use that chemical, by this point its passed the tipping point and has now achieved path dependence. Path dependence is where you're literally stuck producing things in a certain way. For example, we fill our cars with gasoline not just because its cheaper, but because there is a lack of alternative infrastructure for other fuels or types of engines/cars. So this flame retardant, although maybe it was initially more expensive, is now a cheap way for furniture producers to claim their products as "flame retardant," and the chemical companies are more than happy to keep producing the same cheap chemicals. This is a fundamental problem technologies, and is called technological lock-in. Because one technology dominates, it limits our scope of future options. This concept is incredibly important to many fields, including agriculture, health, and energy, yet remains poorly understood.

Perhaps this is for another day, but here's a great piece from Slate on the "myth of the lone inventor." Quite applicable to what's going on at an ASU conference in DC today.

May 18, 2012

Food policy and obesity links

There's been so much buzz about food policy and obesity lately that it's difficult for me to ignore. Here are some links that cover different aspects of the food policy landscape:

HBO's Weight of the Nation series. I've only watched Part 2, "Choices" so far, but I found it engaging. I loved the vignettes of people, and am very sympathetic to the struggle to lose weight. But, as Marion Nestle points out, the series was co-sponsored by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine, which means that the series could not take a political stance on the issue. Nestle suggests that we focus on actions that we can take as a society, rather than continue to play the individual blame-game, or put the onus on individual communities, especially children of all people! It's inspiring to see children step up where adults have failed, but piecemeal reforms to the nation's overall food environment are extremely challenging.

For a disturbing series of articles on childhood obesity and the failures of American food policy, see:
And finally, a piece in the NYT that challenges the heart of American food policy by using mathematical models of the causes of weight loss and gain. I know it's not my usual style to support something that reduces everything to math, but check out the article.

The upshot of all of this: losing weight is hard. Exercise is good, but you won't lose weight without cutting back on food intake. It will take years. And you will never be able to eat as much food as those lucky people with high metabolisms who have never been overweight. Thanks, science, for being such a bummer...

May 14, 2012

Shaping science policy summer break

Hello dear readers,

As you've probably noticed, I've been taking a break from blogging. I hope to get back in the swing of it soon enough. Honestly I haven't seen too many science policy-related articles to spark my interest lately, and I've been working on getting things together for my field work in India in January (due to a recent fellowship and institutional connection). In the meantime, read this.


April 18, 2012

Food politics: Marion Nestle's "Why Calories Count"

I haven't actually read Marion Nestle's Why Calories Count yet, but I am getting the gist of it through her great blog, Food Politics. Now I'm sure you already know about my fascination with the history of calories and food politics, as I previously wrote about. So I can't wait to get her book!

In a recent post, Nestle writes,
If you want to understand calories, you need to know the difference between calories measured and estimated. Most studies of diet, health, and calorie balance depend on self reports of dietary intake and physical activity or educated guesses about the number of calories involved. Most diet studies rely on estimates. When it comes to anything about calories in food or in the body, you have to get used to working with imprecise numbers. That is why it works better to eat smaller portions than to try to count calories in food. Even small differences in the weight of food will throw calorie estimations off. [emphasis added]
This struck a chord with a recent class discussion. We were discussing democratizing science, and our instructor referenced a concept developed by Donald Mackenzie in his book, Inventing Accuracy, which is the "certainty trough." People extremely close to an issue, likely scientists, perceive the exact uncertainties of the issue. A great analog here is climate scientists, who are very careful to not underestimate the uncertainty associated with climate change. But others involved in the climate regime, such as practitioners and activists, perceive a lower uncertainty- they are in the "certainty trough." To outsiders, uncertainty is perceived as even higher- for example, climate might be seen as an "act of God" or a random event like weather. Also, there are actors manufacturing and exploiting uncertainty, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway show in their book, Merchants of Doubt.

So as Nestle says, for food practitioners, i.e. anyone who eats, "you have to get used to working with imprecise numbers." No matter how much nutritional scientists narrow down the science of metabolism, it is still highly dependent on biological factors unique to our own bodies. Food and diet are a series of constant experiments where we must embrace uncertainty.

This concept of embracing uncertainty applies to more than just food consumption, but also to other parts of the food system. I've been working on publishing a factsheet on greenhouse gas emissions from food systems, and the truth is, there is a high degree of uncertainty within the system, making it very difficult to get an exact measurement of the "food miles" or "carbon footprint" of any one food. But this shouldn't paralyze us from making common sense changes, be it in our diet (eat less meat, buy less packaged/processed food, buy only what you will eat) or in our agricultural and commercial processes. As Nestle suggests, "get organized; get motivated... eat less, move more, eat better and get political."

April 14, 2012

Seed banking, 1979–1994

Seed banks, such as the so-called "Doomsday Seed Vault" have been in the news recently, and I think will play a big role in crop adaptation to climate change. As part of the Embryo Project at ASU, I've been researching the history of seed banks. I posted about Seed Collection, 1990–1979 last week.

In the early twentieth century, scientists and agriculturalists collected plants in greenhouses, botanical gardens, and fields. When scientists became concerned over the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the expansion of a few agricultural crops around the mid-century, countries and organizations created seed banks for long-term seed storage. Beginning around 1979, environmental groups objected to the limited access to seed banks and questioned the propriety of the intellectual property of living organisms. Because many of the seed banks were located in the global North yet plants were collected largely from countries in the global South, this caused prolonged controversy over the uneven flow of genetic resources. This movement of the so-called “seed wars” and the movement for biodiversity conservation intersected in ways that shaped debates over plant genetic material and seed banking. Several significant shifts in governance occurred in 1994, leading to the creation of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute and a change in the governance of several important international seed banks. 

The International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), headquartered in Rome, Italy, oversaw many, but not all, seed banks around the world. Through the efforts of the IBPGR and different countries, plant germplasm collection exploded in the 1970s and 1980s around the world. Plant germplasm is the genetic material required for plants to reproduce, mainly seeds, but also including clones, or cuttings. As of 1993, the IBPGR had conducted more than 400 collecting missions in over 100 countries. Seed banks also proliferated during thus time. As of 1979, twenty-five seed banks for long-term storage existed in the world. By 1995, 129 countries held a total of 1061 germplasm collections.

A 1979 book by Pat Roy Mooney, Seeds of the Earth: Private or Public Resource?, set off a movement of protest against seed banking. Beginning at a 1979 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference, representatives from developing countries expressed discontent with the seed banking regime, citing Mooney’s arguments that genes discovered in the global South would be patented in the North, and consequently, that the plant genetic material would no longer be available to farmers in the South. Mooney and others have made the distinction between “gene rich” countries in the global South and “gene poor” countries in the global South, which nonetheless possess more resources for seed collection and storage. Erna Bennet, a scientist and FAO employee, sympathized with these concerns and advocated of farmers’ access to germplasm from her earlier work with the FAO. As a proposed solution, Bennet spearheaded a campaign for the FAO, rather than the IBPGR, to gain jurisdiction of the global seed banks. Bennet resigned from the FAO in 1983 because of unresolved conflicts.

By 1981 the issue of seed banking, and the connection between intellectual property rights and conservation, became a global issue. Developing countries feared that germplasm collected in their countries would be stored in developed countries, such as the US, and that they would be denied access to the genetic material, prompting the phrase germplasm embargo. These countries called for the principle of free exchange of plant germplasm. In 1983 the FAO held a meeting that established the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, a voluntary, non-binding agreement, as well as an FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources. The International Undertaking would establish standards for the international collection and storage of plant genetic resources. The FAO believed that jurisdiction of international seed banks should be in the hands of a publicly accountable intergovernmental organization. The FAO was accountable to the United Nations, but the IBPGR and their institutional host, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) were accountable to their donors, including the World Bank. Thus the FAO attempted to establish a Global System on Plant Genetic Resources for food and agriculture that would ostensibly replace the IBPGR. The Global System would include not just seed banks, but also on-farm conservation efforts.

The collaboration between the CGIAR and FAO revealed tensions between the organizations’ missions. Tensions between the FAO and IBPGR, both still located in Rome, Italy, continued into the early 1990s. In 1991, the IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), officially ratified by the Italian government in 1994, and part of the CGIAR network. Jurisdiction over the global system of seed banks was still unclear until the United Nations Convention for Biological Diversity in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1994, jurisdiction of the CGIAR’s twelve gene banks was transferred to the FAO.

The decisions of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 had consequences for plant genetic resource conservation. The CBD framework allowed legal rights over natural resources to their countries of origin. The CBD did not extend to existing seed banks, which were at the time under the auspices of the CGIAR network, but it set a precedent for international governance of genetic material, and left a gap for governance of seed banks. The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) in 1994 further established international standards for trade of plant genetic materials. Over the next decade, the FAO developed an International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, widely adopted in 2002.

Seed banking allows long-term storage of plant germplasm, usually used for plant breeding experiments. To preserve germplasm, seed banks are kept at low temperatures and low moisture, which keeps the seed dry and stops samples from growing quickly. For long-term storage, seeds are stored in airtight vials at temperatures around -20 degrees C, and around 0 to -5 degrees C for medium-term storage. Thousands of seeds are stored for each plant variety. Samples can degrade over time, and especially in developing countries, the facilities may not be equipped for long-term storage. Most plants are stored as seed, but asexual or polyploidy crops such as potato, cassava and banana require different techniques for reproduction and storage. In the 1980s, seed banks experimented with techniques for storing these plants as tissue cultures, or “artificial seeds.” These varieties can also be propagated in test tubes for shorter-term storage. Cryopreservation, freezing seed in liquid nitrogen at extremely low temperatures, is another technique for long-term storage of plant material, but is not as widely used as it is in animal breeding and conservation.

Scientists often use the terms seed bank, gene bank, and germplasm collection interchangeably, although there are different techniques associated with storage of different plants and types of storage. Germplasm is all plant genetic material, which is limited to more than just seeds. Scholars Pistorius and Wijk assert that, in the 1980s, scientists began conceptualizing plant genetic diversity in term of individual genes rather than particular plants. The dominance of the term “gene bank” in scientific literature reflects this shift.


Busch, Lawrence, William B. Lacy, Jeffrey Burkhardt, Douglas Hemken, Jubel Moraga-Rojel, Timothy Koponen, and Jose de Souza Silva. Making Nature Shaping Culture: Plant Biodiversity in Global Context. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

CGIAR. 1971-1996 Database: 25 Years of Food and Agriculture Improvement in Developing Countries. (Accessed February 11, 2012).

Damania, Abi D. “History, Achievements, and Current Status of Genetic Resources Conservation.” Agronomy Journal 100 (2008): 9–21.

Engels, J. M. M. and Hareya Fassil. “Plant and Animal Genebanks.” In The Role of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Human Nutrition, Vol. III., ed. Victor R. Squires, 144–174. Oxford, U.K.: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, 2009.

Fujii, Jo Ann, David Slade, Keith Redenbaugh, and Keith Walker. “Artificial seeds for plant propagation.” Tibtech 5 (1987): 335–339.

International Board for Plant Genetic Resources. Annual Report 1978. Rome, 1979.

Kloppenburg, Jack R., Jr. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000 (2nd Ed.). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Kloppenburg, Jack R., Jr., ed. Seeds and Sovereignty: Debate Over the Use and Control of Plant Genetic Resources. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988.

Moore, Gerald and Witold Tymowski. Explanatory Guide to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Cambridge, UK: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Environmental Policy and Law Paper No. 57 (2005).

National Research Council. Managing Global Genetic Resources. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 1993.

Pistorius, Robin. Scientists, Plants and Politics—A History of the Plant Genetic Resources Movement. Rome: International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, 1997.

Pistorius, Robin and Jeroen van Wijk. The Exploitation of Plant Genetic Information: Political Strategies in Crop Development. New York: CABI Publishing, 1999.

Plucknett, Donald, Nigel Smith, J. T. Williams, and N. Murthi Anishetty. Gene Banks and the World’s Food. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Powledge, Fred. “The food supply’s safety net.” BioScience 45 (1995): 235–243.

Raustiala, Kal and David G. Victor. “The Regime Complex for Plant Genetic Resources.” International Organziation 58 (2004): 277–309.

Scarascia-Mugnozza, G.T. and P. Perrino. “The History of ex situ Conservation and Use of Plant Genetic Resources.” In Managing Plant Genetic Diversity, eds. Johannes M.M. Engels, Ramanatha Rao, and Anthony Brown, 1–22. New York: CABI Publishing, 2001.

April 9, 2012

Seed collection and plant genetic diversity, 1900–1979

"Frank Meyer in Chinese Turkestan, ca. 1910," Meyer was an early plant explorer, and Meyer lemons are named after him. Photo from the National Archives

Seed banks, such as the so-called "Doomsday Seed Vault" have been in the news recently, and I think will play a big role in crop adaptation to climate change. As part of the Embryo Project at ASU, I've been researching the history of seed banks this is Part I: from 1990–1979. See my new post for Part II: Seed Banks, 1979–1994.

Although scientists lacked formal theories about genetics until the early 1900s, agriculturalists have long relied on genetic diversity to breed new crops. In the early 1900s, scientists began to recognize the importance of plant genetic diversity for agriculture. Scientists realized that crops could be systematically bred with their wild relatives to incorporate specific genetic traits or produce hybrids. In 1967, plant scientists led an international movement for conservation of plant genetic resources through the Food and Agricultural Organization, and later the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. Necessary to the conservation of plant genetic resources are the collection and storage of plant germplasm—the genetic material required to propagate a plant—usually in the form of a seed.

Throughout history, farmers, scientists, explorers, botanists, and agriculturalists collected exotic plants and tested the seeds in new environments, hoping to find new agriculturally important crops. Agricultural experimenters and collectors such as Thomas Jefferson stored germplasm in fields, greenhouses, and botanical gardens. The US government became involved in 1819 the US Patent Office and Navy began the official collection of germplasm from foreign consuls. This continued until the Civil War and the formation of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1862. The USDA distributed foreign seeds to farmers and agricultural experiment stations for testing, and created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, located in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1898.

The rise of genetic theories and the professionalization of plant breeding in the early 20th century contributed to early understandings of plant genetic diversity. Scientists such as Liberty Hyde Bailey, Rowland Harry Biffen, Hugo de Vries, and William Bateson popularized Darwinian and Mendelian concepts of natural selection and genetic laws, and their application to plant breeding. Based on de Vries’ mutation theory, scientists realized the importance of genetic variation to plant breeding. Bailey in particular strove to break the conceptual divide between crops in the field and plants in the wild, a theme that would influence plant breeding and seed storage throughout the century.

Governments in the US, Europe, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand supported early efforts at plant germplasm collection. In the early 1900s, the US commissioned famous plant explorer Frank N. Meyer, who the Meyer lemon is named after, to collect plant germplasm from exotic locations in Asia, Russia, and Europe. A Soviet botanist and plant explorer, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943), is considered a founder of theories of plant diversity, origin, and evolution. Vavilov studied plant genetics under Biffen and later Bateson in England. In the 1920s and 1930s, Vavilov raised awareness of the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the dominance of a small number of genetically similar crops, an argument that would form the basis of the movement for the conservation of plant genetic resources.

Vavilov proposed the influential theory of Centers of Origin, which were nine areas of the world where food crops originated from, such as the potato’s origin in Latin America. These areas were thought to contain the most diverse wild relatives of the crops due to evolution and genetic variation. Despite repression of Vavilov’s Darwinian ideas under Soviet Lysenckoism and Stalin, his theories spread throughout the world. Vavilov’s work inspired the botanists, plant breeders, and explorers who led the movement for conservation of plant genetic resources, including Erna Bennett (1925–2012), Otto H. Frankel (1900–1998), Jack R. Harlan (1917–1998), and John G. Hawkes (1915–2007) . The discovery of Centers of Origin increased the importance of crop wild relatives for plant germplasm collection and plant breeding. His Centers of Origin theory is now thought of as centers of diversity, because there is not always a clear genetic origin of plant varieties.

Beginning a movement for international development of seed collections, the Rockefeller Foundation [contributedTo] funded an effort to collect plant germplasm in Mexico in the 1940s. The Rockefeller Foundation launched the Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP) in 1943, which many consider the start of the Green Revolution. The MAP signaled the beginning of an era of systematic collection, evaluation, and storage of plant germplasm, in this case, maize, wheat, and potato germplasm. The MAP preceded formation of the first long-term seed storage facility, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1958. Prior to existing germplasm collections only provided short-term storage. After World War II, many countries, including India, Brazil, and Japan, had established “seed banks” for long-term storage of plant germplasm.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), an international organization located in Rome, Italy, became concerned about the loss of plant genetic diversity in the 1960s. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns over the loss of plant genetic resources, which include everything from wild to domesticated relatives of food crops, became a high priority for the FAO. The FAO acted as a “clearing house” for plant exploration since 1948 by cataloging plant varieties and participating plant breeders and countries. The FAO also oversaw plant germplasm collections in countries around the world. In 1967 the FAO created a department of Crop Ecology and Genetic Resources, led by Bennett and R. J. Pichel.

In 1967 the Food and Agricultural Organization and International Biological Programme, of England, organized the 1967 Technical Conference on the Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources in Rome, Italy. This was a turning point in the movement for conservation of plant diversity. The conference popularized the term “genetic resources” and established a set of standards and plans for storage of plant genetic material outside of natural habitats and in seed banks. Two key scientists involved in the conferences, Bennett and Frankel, differed over this decision. Bennett advocated for farmer’s participation through conservation in the field, while Frankel advocated the seed banking approach. Frankel and the FAO favored the seed banking approach to conservation because it allowed plant breeders to selectively draw from stored genetic material.

Participants at the 1967 FAO conference also coined the term “genetic erosion,” meaning the loss of plant genetic diversity due to agricultural expansion. Genetic erosion became a pressing international concern after a major corn blight in 1970 in the US and the spread of coffee rust in Brazil. Echoing Vavilov, scientists highlighted the downfalls of a genetically homogenous crop population. In 1972 the US National Research Council authored an influential report, Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops, stating a similar case.

The FAO advocated long-term conservation as a solution to genetic erosion. Yet the FAO was not a research organization, and lacked flexible funding and the ability to enact conservation methods. The FAO could not overlook the rise of international agricultural research centers in the 1960s, such as the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, the Philippines. These international agricultural research centers formally joined in 1971 as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), under direction of the World Bank. The CGIAR proved fertile ground for the FAO’s goal of long-term germplasm conservation.

The FAO’s Panel of Experts approached the CGIAR in 1971 with the idea of integrating conservation of plant genetic resources into their existing agenda of international agricultural research. A meeting in 1972 between the CGIAR and FAO in Beltsville, Maryland, began talks about a global system for plant genetic conservation. The CGIAR relied on plant genetic resources for plant breeding, and already had some collections of germplasm. In 1974 the CGIAR and FAO formed the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR).

Under the direction of the FAO’s Pichel, the IBPGR, based in Rome, Italy, coordinated the collection, experimentation, and information dissemination of plant genetic conservation projects around the world. The IBPGR partnered with the CGIAR’s other international centers and national agricultural research centers to fund and create seed banks. These seed banks had multiple goals: long-term conservation, medium-term experimentation and propagation of germplasm for agricultural research, and short-term field experiments leading to new crop varieties.

In 1975, only eight seed banks existed in the world. This number would drastically increase under direction of the CGIAR and FAO, but not without controversy both within and outside of the IBPGR. The IBPRG changed leadership in 1979, when Trevor Williams replaced R. J. Pichel as executive secretary of the IBPGR. Publication of Pat Roy Mooney’s Seeds of the Earth: Private or Public Resource? sparked public controversy over access to seed banks.


Busch, Lawrence, William B. Lacy, Jeffrey Burkhardt, Douglas Hemken, Jubel Moraga-Rojel, Timothy Koponen, and Jose de Souza Silva. Making Nature Shaping Culture: Plant Biodiversity in Global Context. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

CGIAR. 1971-1996 Database: 25 Years of Food and Agriculture Improvement in Developing Countries. (Accessed February 11, 2012).

Damania, Abi D. “History, Achievements, and Current Status of Genetic Resources Conservation.” Agronomy Journal 100 (2008): 9–21.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Hawkes, Jack. “N. I. Vavilov—the man and his work.” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39 (1990): 3–6.

Hidalgo, Rigoberto, Benjamin Pineda, Daniel Debouck, and Mariano Mejia. “Module 1: Basic concepts of conservation for plant genetic resources” in Multi-Institutional Distance Learning Course on the Ex Situ Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources, eds. Benjamin Pineda and Rigoberto Hidalgo, 1–22. Cali, Columbia: Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), 2007. (Accessed February 25, 2012).

Kingsland, Sharon. “The Battling Botanist: Daniel Trembly MacDougal, Mutation Theory, and the Rise of Experimental Evolutionary Biology in America, 1900–1912.” Isis 82 (1991): 479–509.

Kloppenburg, Jack R., Jr. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000 (2nd Ed.). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Palladino, Paolo. “Wizards and devotees: on the Mendelian theory of inheritance and the professionalization of agricultural science in Great Britain and the United States, 1880–1930.” History of Science 32 (1994): 409–444.

Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Pistorius, Robin. Scientists, Plants and Politics—A History of the Plant Genetic Resources Movement. Rome: International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, 1997.

Pistorius, Robin and Jeroen van Wijk. The Exploitation of Plant Genetic Information: Political Strategies in Crop Development. New York: CABI Publishing, 1999.

Scarascia-Mugnozza, G.T. and P. Perrino. “The History of ex situ Conservation and Use of Plant Genetic Resources.” In Managing Plant Genetic Diversity, eds. Johannes M.M. Engels, Ramanatha Rao, and Anthony Brown, 1–22. New York: CABI Publishing, 2001.

April 4, 2012

Innovation in America: Debate between Kakaes and Sarewitz

As I mentioned earlier this week, Slate is hosting a conversation between Konstantin Kakaes and Dan Sarewitz on science and innovation. While I should be doing about 10 other things for school right now, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to commentate.

Kakaes, who is a journalist and a fellow at the New America Foundation, begins by questioning the pace of current innovation; claims that innovation is happening faster than ever and that the need for innovation is greater than ever. Second, he deconstructs the idea of measuring innovation, through patents and publications, as both of these metrics can't actually tell us the usefulness of their affiliated innovations. Finally, he ties this into an argument that because we can't measure innovation, we can't guide scientists to work towards positive societal outcomes. Kakaes refers to some of Sarewitz's previous popular publications, calling him out on perceived inconsistencies on his call for innovation for social goods.

Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes [full disclosure: he is also on my PhD committee], responds to Kakaes by summarizing his argument and pointing out that Kakaes is following the "serendipitous discovery" rhetoric. A closer examination of the history of technology shows that this narrative only plays well in political advocacy, as the strength of industry innovation during the 19th and 20th centuries show. Sarewitz argues that while allowing scientists a space for intellectual curiosity is important, the institutional structure of innovation can help shape the outcomes. Just giving money to brilliant scientists isn't enough. His favorite comparison is the Department of Defense, which invests in high-risk high-payout projects but also procures from multiple contractors and is ultimately the end-user of the technologies, and the NIH (or Department of Energy), which  invests in incremental basic research in biomedicine and has largely disappointed the advocates of diseases such as cancer.

Kakaes next responds stating that, "Talking about the 'pace of technological change' is only the tip of the spear of MBA-speak that is stabbing the academy." He argues that the attempt to quantify technological outcomes buries deeper truths about their social context. He argues that the constant need to justify science to politicians actually causes the rat-race of incremental advances. Kakaes dwells on the gap between scientific research and social prescriptions for this research, from biomedicine to cigarettes to climate change, citing that Francis Collins' "Translational Medicine" concept for the NIH also falls short of reconciling this gap. He ultimately argues that politics, rather than science is the "limiting factor" in delivering public goods.

Sarewitz carefully takes down every point Kakaes brought up, both turning the examples of the DoD, earthquake research, the NIH, and mouse models against each other. He again argues that the institutional context of research matters; that scientists aren't pursuing mouse models because of political pressure, but because that is the way field of biomedicine has institutionalized.

I'm looking forward to subsequent posts, and it's difficult for me to take an unbiased view on this, but I mostly agree with Sarewitz. Kakaes is championing a "Republic of Science" vision of unfettered scientific research; i.e. the golden age of physics. In response, Sarewitz writes, "the lessons of real-world, everyday science are quite clear: scientific creativity and real-world problem-solving are both at their best when they can feed off of each other." This is a statement I thoroughly support.