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.