Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for 2018|Yearly archive page

The woollybear boogie: a fall trek of Lilliputian proportions

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2018 at 2:00 pm
A fuzzy forager beating multiple feet across a little-used blacktop in Van Buren County. See you hanging around my yard light next spring, little fella.

A fuzzy forager beating multiple feet across an Iowa blacktop. See you flitting around my yard light next spring, little fella.

If you drive the little-traveled county blacktops of rural Iowa, as I do, you’re sure to notice a slow (and sometimes not-so-slow) march at this time of year.

They’re easy to spot in the distance: small smudges inching across the blue-gray pavement. The contrast of dark on light and the steady movement draws the eye, making the sojourns of woollybear caterpillars hard to miss, even though they’re relatively tiny.

I saw countless fuzzy travelers on my trips through southeast Iowa one recent weekend. There seemed to be one every few yards, crossing the pavement and, with luck, avoiding the many tires that would halt their travels (and their lives).

What’s going on here?

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Just the facts, ma’am (and sir): Website offers valid science to reporters and the public

In STEM on September 3, 2018 at 8:20 am
A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Musem.

A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Museum.

If you’re looking for it, there’s good science news reporting everywhere. There’s a long list of science blogs (this is only a few), many written by researchers themselves. There also are innumerable podcasts and videos – some authoritative, some not.

But unless you’re seeking such information, you probably won’t see it. Science coverage in general-interest publications, like newspapers, is almost nonexistent. (Exceptions include the USA Today section in Gannett papers around the country, which often has a science story anchoring its cover, and the New York Times Tuesday section.) Most media can no longer afford reporters who specialize in science.

So what’s a local newspaper or television station to do when science issues burst onto the scene? How can they answer readers’ questions about whether the latest flood or wildfire is related to climate change? How can they address the latest discovery at their local university and gauge its importance?

A nascent website, financed through donations grants from foundations, offers those local reporters quick, scientifically valid and understandable explanations on these issues, free of charge. Its organizers were in Iowa recently to promote the effort and attract both reporters and the scientists who can help them.

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Forget the big boar. Pin down some candidates on science at the Iowa State Fair

In Government, STEM on August 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm
Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register's political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes,The Des Moines Register

Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register’s political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register

When it comes to science, Iowa politicians are largely blank slates. Most have only made vague statements about supporting science, protecting natural resources or balancing agriculture and the environment. Few have laid out actual policies on science and issues in which knowledge and evidence play major roles.

The March for Science Iowa group, with which I volunteer, is changing that. We’ve emailed questionnaires to candidates for Congress, governor and secretaries of agriculture and state.

Yes, there are still nearly three months left before the election, but the response has been … nonexistent. A few have acknowledged receiving the email, but no one has provided answers. I’m hoping that within a few weeks we’ll get replies.

In the meantime, we each have opportunities to get answers on our own – while also enjoying a corndog or other food-on-a-stick.

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Candidates – a few – come clean on science views

In Government on May 29, 2018 at 7:52 am
A March for Science Iowa participant holds a stick with the sign "Stick to the facts" attached to it.

March for Science Iowa organizers hope to do this in gathering information from candidates in the June 5 primary election. The photo was taken at the 2017 March for Science Iowa in Des Moines.

Apparently, it’s difficult to get candidates to reveal their views on science, research and evidence-based policy.

Weeks after sending questionnaires to candidates for several statewide Iowa offices and for Congress, March for Science Iowa organizers (including me) have received few responses.

The idea was to gather this information in one place – the MFSI website – so voters can compare stances.

I don’t know if campaigns are too busy, too understaffed or just don’t care, but at the time of this posting, only three Democrats, two Libertarians and one Green Party candidate have responded. MFSI President Kaitlin Higgins has posted their responses on the site.

The questions were designed to be open-ended and without prejudgment. The March for Science Iowa volunteers put them on the site without comment.

Stepping outside my role as a march volunteer, however, I have some thoughts on what the few candidates wrote.

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Weather chills March for Science Iowa turnout but can’t freeze plans to hold politicians accountable

In Government, STEM on April 19, 2018 at 7:35 am
60 marchers line up for a photo on the Iowa Capitol steps before embarking on the second March for Science Iowa. Credit: Shari Hrdina, Bold Iowa.

Most of the hardy folks at the second March for Science Iowa at the Capitol. Credit: Shari Hrdina, Bold Iowa.

By Thursday of last week, it was becoming clear that the 2018 version of the March for Science Iowa would suffer from the state’s bizarre spring weather. Over the previous few days, the forecasts sank from 60 degrees and sunny to the low 40s and rainy.

Organizers (including your correspondent) hung onto hope that the situation would change, but by Saturday morning it appeared almost certain to be a miserable day.

It wasn’t the best outcome, yet march leaders had already decided that the event’s purpose would endure past a single annual event. They’re determined to give voters the information they might have gotten had the event gone as planned.

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Science marches on – with some conspicuous absences

In Government, STEM on April 9, 2018 at 7:42 am
Woman holds a sign saying "Empirical Data Trumps Imperial Alt-Facts" at the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

A pointed sign from the 2017 March for Science Iowa.

Plans are shaping up for the 2018 version of the March for Science Iowa, a more overtly political version of last year’s event, when more than 3,000 Iowans flooded the Capitol grounds.

With elections coming up, organizers (including your humble correspondent) have invited candidates to appear on Saturday (the event starts with the march at around 1:00, followed by candidate forums and speeches at 2:00) to detail their views on publicly supported research, science education and evidence-based policy.

The march is nonpartisan: We want to hear from politicians and candidates from both parties. But it is not nonpolitical: We demand that our elected officials and contenders uphold science.

We invited candidates for governor, the Third Congressional District, agriculture secretary and secretary of state. Most will attend.

But only from one party. Guess which.

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Cooler, wetter weather: Thanks, corn and beans … I think

In Government, University research on March 8, 2018 at 7:39 am
Cornfields might not understand it, but they're messing with our weather.

Corn might not get it, but it’s messing up our weather. Credit: ANBerlin A bed in the corn field? via photopin (license).

About now, farmers in Iowa and across the Corn Belt get itchy. As the weather warms, they start tuning plows and planters, preparing to put another crop of corn and soybeans in the ground.

Within months, the rural Midwest will largely be a sea of towering stalks filling out ears and squat bean plants putting on pods.

But this sea of biomass has unforeseen effects on Midwestern climate, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests – and, I would argue, contributes to global climate change.

When you’re driving past those carpeted fields this summer, you can thank them for countering higher temperatures driven by greenhouse gas emissions, but curse them for more frequent drenching, violent thunderstorms and tornadoes.

It stands to reason that agriculture – which has never been more intense or widespread in human history – is doing something to our weather. But there are bigger questions about its impact. Read the rest of this entry »

Famed climate change warrior and former Iowan headlines Darwin Day in Iowa City

In STEM on February 21, 2018 at 7:35 am
One of the better signs at last year's March for Science Iowa: A portrait of Darwin with the slogan, "Very gradual CHANGE we can believe in.". Credit: Paula Mohr.

One of the better signs at last year’s March for Science Iowa featured dear old Darwin. Credit: Paula Mohr.

Iowans have an opportunity to hear from a hero in the battle to halt or reverse climate change.

The event is the annual Iowa City Darwin Day, actually a two-day symposium to honor Charles Darwin, the naturalist whose book, “On the Origin of Species,” posited evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. The celebration is held every year on or around the great scientist’s February 12 birthday. This year it’s Friday and Saturday, February 23-24, on the University of Iowa campus.

Darwin Day celebrates science – particularly science that often is denigrated or attacked, such as evolution and human-caused climate change. Many of the sessions revolve around these two subjects and how to communicate about them with skeptics.

This year’s program includes a rare chance to see in person a former Iowan who has become a champion and a lightning rod on climate change.

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Iowa’s March for Science sets second event, looks to the future

In Government, STEM on February 14, 2018 at 7:16 am
Science backers listen to speakers during the March for Science Iowa on April 22, 2017 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Science backers listen to speakers during the March for Science Iowa on April 22, 2017 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Nearly a year ago, around 3,000 Iowans gathered on a sunny April day to support science – its role in public policy and improving the human condition – at one of dozens of marches around the world.

The March for Science Iowa, April 22 (Earth Day), united citizens, sent a message to government and provided insights into Iowa-based research. But its organizers say their dreams to continue advocating throughout the year haven’t panned out. Assembling the event left many of them exhausted. I was involved and, like others, the demands of work and family left me little time for activism. (Just look at the recent sparsity of posts to this site for evidence.)

Now, however, two of last year’s leaders are staging a revival, starting with a second event – to coincide, again, with a national March for Science. They’re also working to institute a formal structure that, with luck and hard work, could lead to a more enduring impact.

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