February 25, 2012

Fights over electronic technologies: consumers vs. producers

This morning the New York Times online's technology section looks like a war zone. Most of the articles, both produced by the NYT and aggregated by their affiliated blogs, focused on conflicts over technology, either between consumers and producers, the government and producers or producers vs. each other.

Last year I co-wrote a technology assessment about credit cards, writing that the three biggest tradeoffs at the consumer frontier of electronic information are privacy, security, and efficiency. To differentiate between privacy and security, privacy is the idea that your electronic identity is not shared with third parties, whereas security is the idea that the transaction will not be compromised (why you trust Amazon.com more than a shady website with graphics from the 1990s). You can read some of project partner and my musings about credit cards here.

As electronic technologies advance, the trade-offs between these three concepts cause friction that can lead to lawsuits or federal regulation. So let's take a look at the headlines related to privacy, security, and efficiency of electronic technologies:
Someone over at "Federated Media Signal" had the same idea last week, and compiled a more comprehensive list of the how the rapid changes in technology produce both new opportunities and disputes. Because producers have an incentive to make money (despite Google's "Don't be evil" slogan), there are negative externalities in terms of consumer privacy and sometimes security, which is when the government should step in.

In addition to the half-dozen headlines related to battles over consumer privacy, security, and efficiency, there are the disputes between companies over intellectual property, copyrights, and trademarks.
So... maybe I should drop out of grad school and become a patent lawyer?

February 20, 2012

Time management skills in academics

In non-science policy related news, I've been working towards a better system of time management. I'm a fairly organized person, but lately I've been feeling  rather paralyzed about the projects I'm involved in or trying to start. I thought I'd share some of my renewed solutions, in case anyone else out there has similar struggles.

1) Make a decision to change. My decision was partly at the prompting of my advisor, but was also a personal acknowledgement that even though I'm a hard worker, I'm not being very productive and end up procrastinating and wasting time. So I bought this book, and am about half-way through. As the title suggests, it's main message is to "eat that frog," meaning tackle your hardest projects first.

2) Use free technology. I use this app to track how I actually spend my time. Depressingly, I spend about 5-6 hours a week on Facebook. Leading to this app: I can block Facebook for certain periods of time. RescueTime has also taught me that I'm most productive on weekday afternoons, which means that I should structure my days so that I can actually be working at a computer at those times.

3) The "inbox zero" rule and other email tips. I use Gmail, and filtering mail allows me to keep some things unread, but out of my inbox and into their appropriate categories. Unfortunately, my past method of "starring" important mail does nothing to remind me of it later, so what I do now is either keep in unread or add reminders in my to-do list and calendar to follow up with certain things. Here's a helpful website for more detail. Also, I know that it's more efficient to check email more sporadically, i.e. once an hour or two hours, but I have a had time doing this.

4) Use low-tech solutions as well. I have a to-do list document on my computer that's divided into daily, weekly, and monthly goals. But now I've started carrying around a mini-legal pad which has my daily goals broken into small, doable chunks. Seriously, these things got me through undergrad.

5) Take care of yourself and take breaks during work. When you're relaxing, don't feel guilty about not doing work. I struggle constantly with this, but I often need a good night's sleep to solve a difficult problem. Jorge Cham, the author of Piled High and Deeper, gives a talk about the "Power of Procrastination," and how our brain needs down time (and we sort of need social lives). So consider these little breaks and self-care as part of your work routine.

For more tips, check out the GradHacker blog by a group of graduate students at Michigan State University.

February 18, 2012

Science on stage: experts and diversity (or lack thereof)

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is considered one of the most (if not the) prestigious groups of scientists in the US. The National Research Council, their research arm, produces reports that are ostensibly the pinnacle of objectivity and scientific rigor. But Steve Hilgartner, in his book Science on Stage, aims to show that even the pinnacle of scientific objectivity is still dependent on social processes. While the NAS are considered knowledge experts, you don’t see behind the curtain. Hilgartner uses the metaphor of stage management, where the NAS staff, scientists, and report contributors carefully manage the end products. Deciding something like what nutritional standards to recommend is obviously not only value-laden, but is also under pressure from politically motivated food lobby groups, as Marion Nestle shows in her book, Food Politics.

The NAS doesn’t use overt political rhetoric. Like most scientists, they strive to be as objective as possible. But Hilgartner shows that making knowledge claims is political. The NAS uses certain rhetoric to reify their role as sanctioned experts, and to eliminate sources of controversy. In an anthropology class I once took, we referred to this as impression management. Like Hilgartner’s “stage management,” we often consciously and unconsciously say and do things to create a certain impression of ourselves in different situations. Scientists engage in the same social process.

So is the NAS’s stage management technique problematic? Among STS scholars, the answer is “yes.” In fact, James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis produced a booklet called “See-Through Science,” which calls of “upstream engagement” in science policy. As we discussed in class, this call for more transparent scientific processes and more space for public deliberation. Two topics we’ve discussed in class: community-based participatory research and Hispanic girls’ engagement in science and engineering, both seek to make science more open and transparent to diverse populations. And already, it’s obvious that the academy is slowly reacting to pressures to become more open.

In the recent past, most decisions about science policy have been made by a small group of people: mostly white, mostly male scientists. In 1975 at the recommendation of the NAS, eminent biochemist Paul Berg organized the well-known Asilomar conference to discuss the ethical implications of biotechnology. The conference was attended by almost entirely white male scientists. Wilsdon and Willis quote Sheila Jasanoff, writing, “Thirty years and several social upheavals later, the Berg committeeΚΌs composition looks astonishingly narrow: eleven male scientists of stellar credentials, all already active in rDNA experimentation” (p. 10). In other words, today we expect decisions about science policy to be made by not only experts, but also issue stakeholders of diverse interests and backgrounds.

Jasanoff’s words resonate with a current issue: the debate over insurance coverage of contraceptives. Many of my Facebook friends have posted responses to this photo, citing the injustice that not a single woman was able to testify to Congressional committee on this issue of contraceptive coverage and religion. The online commentary is very much along the lines of “what is this, 1950?” At a time where women do have expertise in areas such as law, science, and religion, they are still not allowed in front of the curtain.

Works referenced:
Stephen Hilgartner, Scienceon Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama (Stanford, 2000).

Kathy Wilson Peacock, GlobalIssues in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010).

February 16, 2012

Corporations and regulatory paradigms: organic foods

Just a few weeks after the chemical company BASF announced that it would move its headquarters from Europe to the US due to continued European public and political resistance against GM crops, it's announced that the US and EU have decided to recognize each others' organic standards, allowing free trade of organic foods between the two regions.

It's important to remember that not all organic food is grown in the US, and that we already recognize the organic standards of some other countries. In fact, many people have been critical that we import organic fruits and vegetables from New Zealand, since it seems to eliminate any environmental benefit intended from organic production.

In the NPR article, they write,
Samuel Fromartz, author of the book Organic, Inc. and editor of the Food and Environment Reporting Network, says the different parts of this international movement were talking to each other from the beginning, and they came up with very similar practices. 
"You were going to avoid pesticides; you were going to avoid chemical fertilizers; you were going to rely on natural means, enriching the soil through compost," he says. 
Eventually, though, groups of farmers realized that they needed rules and a system of certification to make sure that anybody using the label "organic" was actually following those rules.
This is certainly true. While "organic" started as a philosophy, it was eventually codified into USDA standards (which, interestingly, conflicted with existing international standards for organics). I've been interested in this issue for a while, since I've always been a bit skeptical about what "organic" really means. In undergrad I wrote my first real research paper on this topic, and I later worked in a lab where we tested organic pesticides.

After a study abroad trip to New Zealand, I researched the comparative evolution of organic standards between the US and New Zealand. In both cases, corporations were highly important in setting the standards, but with very different consequences. In the US, corporate involvement in setting organic standard spurred over half a million responses to proposed federal regulations in 2003, one of the biggest consumer responses ever.

But the main difference between the two countries is that while scholars like Julie Guthman argue that organics in the US have been corporate from the start, organic regulation evolved differently in New Zealand. New Zealand food corporations are very sensitive to their export market, so they implemented regulations that were in line with existing international standards. I explained this in  my research paper:

"Prior to standard certification of organic foods and corporate involvement, many consumers and farmers saw organic farming as a fringe movement, characterizing farmers as “sandal-wearing hippies” (Campbell & Fairweather, 1998, p. 35). These hippies, who were indeed radicals in their rejection of conventional agriculture, were inevitably affected by the shift of organic foods from a social movement to simply an alternative method of production. In the early stages of organic certification in New Zealand, these farmers were encouraged to preserve their alternative identity in order to sustain the social aspect of organic farming. The NZBPC [New Zealand NZ Biological Producers Council] held face-to-face interviews and evaluated farmers based on “Product, Place and Person,” but “Person,” or personality, was the most important criteria for early certification (Campbell & Liepins, 2001, p. 30). This ensured a preservation of the organic philosophy, rather than certification of producers just looking for a profit.

The 1990s signaled a shift in New Zealand’s organic agriculture production and serves as a functional model of interdependence between small-scale farmers and corporations. Several corporations became major factors in the growing trend towards organic agriculture in New Zealand... The global demand for frozen organic foods helped Watties to partner with small farmers, whose produce was frozen and shipped internationally. A parallel situation occurred with Zespri International Ltd. because of a global demand for fresh organic kiwifruit (Coombes & Campbell, 1998). These corporations benefited from the knowledge and production of organic farmers, and the farmers benefited by an increased market for their products. The economic incentives of the organic food market produced a unique, mutually beneficial partnership between parties of seemingly fundamentally opposing viewpoints."

In New Zealand, corporations did not attempt to "water down" organic standards like what happened in the US, partly because New Zealand exports are always under the global scrutiny of "green protectionism." Corporations were more willing to act as a catalyst to help smaller farmers become organic, rather than just subsume them into a massive corporate system that we have in the US (see this great infographic by my former professor on the corporate chain of US organics).


Campbell, H. & Fairweather, J. R. (1998, September). Development of Organic Horticulture Exports in New Zealand. Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit, Research Report No. 238.

Campbell, H. & Liepins, R. (2001). Naming Organics: Understanding Organic Standards in New Zealand as a Discursive Field. Sociologia Ruralis, 41(1), 21-39.

Coombes, B. & Cambell, H. (1998). Dependent reproduction of alternative modes of agriculture: Organic farming in New Zealand. Sociologia Ruralis, 38(2).

February 9, 2012

Climate change and national security, once again

Part of my research hypothesis is that actors use climate change to promote their own interests. I'm particularly interested in how agricultural research organizations, in addressing the real threat of climate change, also use it to further their own research agendas. For example, private companies like Monsanto are clearly interested in using biotechnology to address climate changes, because this gives them propriety over new crops (evidenced by the proliferation of patents on climate-related plant genes). As I described last week, based on Sally Brooks' study of the CGIAR network and iron-fortified rice, the CGIAR in many ways used iron-fortified rice as a tool to centralize their own power. My own research will take place at the national level—in India—but both of these other actors (private companies and international research organizations) will intersect with my project in hopefully interesting ways.

So it is no surprise to me that other actors, such as the military, also use climate change as a rhetorical device. In class a few weeks ago we discussed how it's peculiar that high-level military and defense communities almost universally accept climate change as a threat to national security (despite the political ambivalence that climate change even exists). But people believe things that are consistent with their own worldview, and in this case, that worldview is to promote national security through hegemony. Using climate change as justification for military or foreign policy actions can thus exaggerate the connection between climate change and national security. This recent article in the Journal of Peace Research explains that "framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy." A hat-tip to Dr. Clifford Bob, writing at the "Duck of Minerva," for sharing the article and his analysis. He writes,  
But I do worry about the threat inflation being used to justify actions against climate change – and about the strategic alliances, tacit or otherwise, environmentalists strike to achieve their goals. The Pentagon is no friend of the environment, as anyone who’s watched the grindingly slow clean-ups of numerous, highly-polluted military bases well knows. Lending activist legitimation to the defense establishment is likely to be a net-negative for environmental quality...

So we have environmentalists bedding down with the big boys with their big guns over global warming. And now we have human rights activists lusting after the big boys with their little drones, notwithstanding the weapons’ mounting toll in lives and liberties at home and abroad. The Pentagon, always eager for new conquests, similarly keeps its insatiable eye out for anyone hustling the cutting edge of terror, literally and figuratively.

February 6, 2012

Science and state power

"Harrowing a field with a diesel tractor, Seabrook Farm, Bridgeton, N.J." c. 1942, Library of Congress.

The connection between science and state power might seem tenuous to those who have not yet drank the Kool Aid. We know that science is used in political debates as the ultimate fact-checker. Is this new drug safe? Let’s do a risk assessment. What’s the trade-off of building this new dam? Let’s have an environmental impact assessment. But to anyone who’s studied the politics of environmental controversies, these scientific measures are hotly contested and imbued with political values.

James C. Scott’s fantastic book, Seeing Like a State, outlines how states have used scientific measurements and standardization to render social life and the environment visible, and thus, controllable. A city map can reflect necessary information like the location of businesses, and the layout of roads.  People are not trackable and taxable unless they have standardized and stable names, land tenure, locations, and ethnicities. But while these simplifications of social life are a necessary abstraction, they miss the nuances of societies, can have systematic flaws, and do not represent local resistance to top-down order (for example. Maps, censuses, and other technologies we use to make complex systems legible also shape how state power interacts with local autonomy. When wheat becomes a commodity to be measured, weighed, shipped, and sold, suddenly “agriculture” is not so much a social process as a means to an end. The mechanization of agriculture seen in the 20th century reflects the expansion of commodity chains due to railroads and steampower in the 19th century. See this post for an example of Scott's "high modernism" theory in China.

In Samer Alatout’s study of water politics in midcentury Israel, he shows how the social construction of water scarcity coincided with expansion of state power and centralization of water technologies. Instead of viewing science and politics as separate spheres, Alatout shows how “water scarcity and the strong centralized state were produced in the same technopolitical process" (p. 962). Focusing on estimates of water supplies in Israel, he writes that for the chief water engineer at the time, Aaron Wiener, “estimate reduction was a step in the right direction, towards a practical, empirical notion of the ‘scientification’ of water policymaking. He commented often on the fact that water policymaking during Blass's reign was anything but scientific” (p. 970).

Water estimates and their role in Israeli foreign policy are a good example of a “boundary object” that is used to negotiate between social and scientific spheres (although as I indicated earlier, the “boundary” itself is not so clear). And interestingly, people who seem the most capable of recognizing these boundary objects are STS scholars and conservatives. Throughout the article, I was thinking about a recent book I read, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. In this book, the authors show how from the end of WWII and up to today, a group of scientists have used their influence to cast uncertainty on health and environmental reform. These doubt-mongering scientists, some of them hawkish Cold War heroes, believe that liberal environmental politics reek a bit too much of Communism. Smoking bans, acid rain regulations, and climate taxes all represent an expansion of state power over industry, and thus must be attacked in the only legitimate way: through science. They exploit the uncertainty of boundary objects like climate models.

Although Oreskes and Conway’s book is a rich piece of the history of science in politics, there is some unpacking left to do about the role of science and the state. Reading Scott and Alatout, there might be good reason for conservatives to worry about environmental politics being used as a tool to expand state power. Or in the case of climate change, non-state power as well (think “disaster capitalism”).

"Cherry orchards, farm lands and irrigation ditch at Emmett, Idaho," 1941, Library of Congress

Guess what, this is my 50th blog post! Many, many thanks to those of you who read, follow, and share my blog. According to Blogger, I've had over 5000 pageviews.

Works cited:

Samer Alatout, “'States of Scarcity': Water, Space, and Identity Politics in Israel, 1948-1959,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26:959-982. 2008.

February 1, 2012

Foreign policy, food security, and climate change

President Johnson visiting the International Rice Research Institute in 1966. Related video here.

I recently submitted a fellowship proposal where I framed my research in terms of National Security. This is part of my proposal.

Foreign policy between the U.S. and India has evolved around Indian food security since 1946, beginning with an era of grain exports from the fertile U.S. Midwest to famine-stricken India [1]. The twin problems of overpopulation and Communism in India provoked U.S. responses, foremost President Johnson’s Food for Peace program in 1959. From 1965-1966, President Johnson and his national security advisers used the Food for Peace program as a bargaining tool with India to promote a transition from food aid to self-sufficient Indian grain production [2]. This coincided with efforts by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and private foundations to overhaul India’s agricultural research infrastructure and the transfer of new agricultural technologies [1]

The confluence of foreign policy and scientific advances led to the highly productive agricultural system of northwestern India from the 1970s to present; this is known as the Green Revolution. Today, the yield gains of last century’s Green Revolution have now stagnated. A convergence of demographic, ecological, and climate factors threaten India’s agricultural yields and food security. By 2030, northwest India may once again become food insecure, threatening the political stability of this region [3]. My research will focus on how climate change is impacting food security in northwest India, and the capacity of agricultural research to address climate change adaptation.

Northwest India is historically important for international agricultural science, and today faces the new threat of climate change. My research will examine both the institutional and technological dimensions of climate adaptation in agriculture. Technologies such as climate-tolerant crop varieties are invoked as future solutions to counter new climate constraints on crop yields [4]. Yet in an agricultural research system that is diverse and has inevitable time lags for crop variety development, it is uncertain whether the existing research system has the capacity to address new, highly uncertain global challenges like climate change. My research will critically assess the capacity of agricultural research to address climate change adaptation in northwest India, particularly in the state of Haryana.

Regardless of current climate change mitigation efforts, agriculture must adapt to an uncertain climate future. India’s ability to adapt to climate change is crucial to U.S. national security. The U.S. military calls climate change a “threat multiplier” to existing foreign policy tensions: exacerbating food insecurity and political instability especially when food prices rise sharply [5,6]. India itself faces several national security threats due to climate change and food insecurity, from Bangladeshi climate refugees to water resource-based conflict along the Pakistan border [7]. Indian agriculture is especially vulnerable to climate change, and scholars warn that the Green Revolution style of agriculture lacks resilience to climate pressures and shocks [3,4].

My research is particularly focused on sustainable development, and how agricultural innovation can support resilient local economies, gender equity, and local democracy. Sustainable development is increasingly intertwined with “climate smart” development: development that is sensitive to both climate mitigation and adaptation goals. Indian agriculture is tied to rural livelihoods, and climate change can compound existing gender and income disparities [8]. Leichenko and O’Brien call this the “double exposure” model [9]. I experienced these overlapping factors during a three-month internship in Bangladesh in 2008. While working for a non-governmental organization, I studied farmers’ adoption of a new hybrid rice variety. I interviewed male and female farmers and found that many scientists and policy-makers (wrongly) assumed that women did not farm rice; thus excluding women from education about hybrid rice and access to agricultural inputs. My research will examine the how agricultural research systems address sustainable development goals through climate change adaptation.

[1] J.H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997).
[2] K. Ahlberg, Diplomatic History 31, 4 (2007).
[3] N. Chhetri, P. Chaudhary, Journal of Disaster Research 6, 5 (2011).
[4] S.J. Vermeulen et al., Environmental Science & Policy 15, 1 (2012).
[5] F. Morring, Aviation Week & Space Technology 166, 16 (2007).
[6] R. Naylor, W. Falcon, Population and Development Review 36, 4 (2010).
[7] N. Pai, The Indian National Interest Policy Brief no. 1 (2008).
[8] K.L. O’Brien, et al. Global Environmental Change 14, 4 (2004).
[9] R.M. Leichenko, K.L. O’Brien, Environmental Change and Globalization: Double Exposures. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008).