Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

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 »

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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Documentary draws lines in GMO debate

In Government, Industry Research, University research on November 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm
The "Food Evolution" movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

The “Food Evolution” movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Given Iowa’s reputation as an agricultural state, it would be no surprise to find we’re in the middle of a debate about the use and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Odds are, the corn and soybeans you see farmers picking as you drive down a highway or country road (or that you’re harvesting yourself if you farm) this fall are GMOs. Most probably were genetically altered to tolerate herbicides, resist insects, or both. In many cases, these tweaks have let farmers grow more grain with less cost, often with lower environmental impact.

These products have been in the field for decades. (And one could argue that virtually every plant we eat has been genetically modified through cross breeding.) We’ve all eaten them with no ill effects. Yet arguments continue over their safety, whether their presence should be disclosed in food labeling and whether they’re tools of money-grubbing corporations.

All these issues come up in “Food Evolution,” a documentary making the rounds and presented last week at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames. It asks important questions: How do we make the most informed decisions about what we eat? And what if, in rejecting GMOs, we get it wrong?

Iowa makes several cameo appearances, with scenes shot in Ames and Des Moines and in the credentials of activists and bystanders on screen.

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Stepping up in Iowa to support science, facts and evidence

In Government, STEM on March 15, 2017 at 7:13 am
A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

A postcard to President Trump from Deborah Bunka, via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page.

I authored this post, which first appeared on the Iowa Starting Line blog. – TRO

Even before he was elected, commentators and experts noted a strong anti-science streak in Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Now that he’s been inaugurated, they’re calling him the most anti-science president ever. Trump is enacting an agenda that, at best, selectively supports scientific evidence and research.

With the appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s clear that climate change will be downplayed or dismissed in the Trump administration. Pruitt took a moderate stance in his nomination hearings, but now is proudly revealing his anti-science views. Earlier this month he said he disagrees with the overwhelming evidence that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global climate change.

Trump and Pruitt are putting their words into actions. The administration has offered a plan to cut the budget for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development by 40 percent. The EPA as a whole would get a 24 percent cut. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a major climate research agency, also would get a severe reduction. Other proposals under consideration would roll back Department of Energy financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy and for research on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Trump’s disdain for sound science goes beyond climate, however, and spans political parties. He’s given credence to the disproven notion that vaccinations cause autism and met with noted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (of the famed Democratic family).

It’s easy to pick on Trump, but in truth his election and views are just the culmination of years of attacks on science, evidence and research – attacks that aren’t solely from conservatives. Now, scientists and those who value research and evidence as a foundation for sound public policy are fighting back.

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Mucking about the Des Moines River with Project AWARE – and getting some science to boot

In Government, STEM on July 17, 2016 at 6:16 pm
One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River during Project AWARE July 11-15.

One of at least two nearly complete car frames volunteers wrestled from the lower Des Moines River on Project AWARE.

I was waist-deep in chocolate-brown water, my feet sunk ankle-deep in gooey Des Moines River mud, and I was gripping the waterlogged backrest of an overstuffed recliner, helping wrestle it onto the floor of a green fiberglass canoe.

It was my first day on Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) on the Des Moines River through Van Buren County in southeast Iowa. My wife and I had paddled for only an about hour before finding ourselves drenched and grimy as part of a canoe and kayak armada helping clear the river of an amazing assortment of garbage, big and small.

And this was our vacation. We were among hundreds of volunteers who took time off work for the event’s 14th annual edition, July 11-15, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with help from numerous sponsors.

It’s dirty, smelly work, but paddling the river also can be serene and picturesque, and it’s a terrific chance to meet like-minded, outdoorsy and friendly people. It’s no wonder volunteers return year after year, each time on a different river segment. It’s like RAGBRAI on the river, without the crowds and mass partying.

A healthy dose of Iowa science – and history – also is imparted over the four nights that volunteers camp along the route. During our time on the project, we learned more about the natural history of the area where we now live part-time. Read the rest of this entry »

Moniz: Mother Nature could persuade climate change deniers; will it be in time?

In Government, University research on May 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

For a while now, I’ve puzzled over something: Why does a segment of the population – and an even larger portion of Congress – disavow the evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change?

Weather records show temperatures are increasing, with each year seeming to set a new record. Oceans are rising. Violent storms, droughts, wildfires and other weather-driven phenomena are happening more often and with greater force. Scientists who study the climate overwhelmingly agree we’re changing the atmosphere for the worse.

So why do so many people deny the evidence? And, more importantly, how do we change people’s minds and get them to take action before it’s too late?

I don’t have many answers and my small forum can’t do much to correct the situation, but last week I talked to someone who does have answers – and the power to do something about it.

When U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came to Iowa, I got a moment to ask him about this. While his answer was reasonable, it was a bit disappointing. Read the rest of this entry »

Ernest Moniz is coming to Iowa next month. Here’s why you should care.

In Government on April 25, 2016 at 7:10 am
Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz greeting friends on his first day on the job, May 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz greeting friends on his first day on the job, May 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.

I’m not a fan of Bill Nye. I certainly endorse his science advocacy and education efforts, but he’s of my sons’ generation, not mine, and his lack of deep academic credentials leaves him open to the kind of challenge Sarah Palin recently made. (I’m not saying Bill Nye isn’t a scientist, as Palin did. I’m saying there are other science spokespeople with stronger resumes and greater accomplishments.) So I didn’t make a big deal out of Nye lecturing at Drake University April 14.

But I am excited about the pending visit of a real science superstar: U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He’s coming to Ames on Friday, May 6 to speak at the dedication of the Ames Laboratory’s Sensitive Instrument Facility. (I wrote about the SIF and the high-tech tools it houses earlier this year.) He’ll stay overnight and deliver the undergraduate commencement address at 1:30 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, May 7.

It’s exciting because, as I’ll explain, Moniz is probably the most consequential energy secretary in history – a big influence on world peace and climate stability. Read the rest of this entry »

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