Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

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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March for Science: Iowans organizing rally for research

In STEM on January 30, 2017 at 7:08 am
A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

Jordan Shaw was a lab technician working in food safety a few years ago when one of his supervisors, a researcher working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a study comparing eggs from organic and free-range chickens to standard eggs.

Time published her results: there was little difference in terms of safety or quality between the different eggs.

When the magazine posted the story on line, Shaw was stunned. “The comments on that were just unreal, like ‘you can’t trust the USDA because they’re the idiots who made the food pyramid,’” said Shaw, now a food safety consultant living in West Des Moines.

That made Shaw consider how to help the general public better understand science. “What we’re seeing now, really badly, is that science is elite, it’s liberal, all this stuff, and the problem is our populace just doesn’t understand, honest and truly, what is peer-reviewed science.”

His alarm increased when he read reports that the Donald Trump administration was suspending research grants and communications from key government science offices, especially those associated with the environment.

So Shaw – and others across the state – are taking action. They’re planning an Iowa version of a national march in Washington, D.C., to support science and research.

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Those wild and crazy snails are back, with lessons about sex

In University research on April 27, 2016 at 11:50 am
 In a study involving multiple generations of a freshwater snail in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Iowa found that polyploidy doesn't appear to be an asset—nor is it a drawback—for females bearing offspring without the help of a male. Instead, it's the snails' sexuality that creates the advantage: Asexual females, the study found, grew twice as fast during the late juvenile phase and reached reproductive maturity 30 percent faster than female snails that mated with males. Photo by Justin Torner.

In their cups: University of Iowa researchers grew multiple generations of tiny freshwater snails in the lab to study whether having multiple genomes provides advantages. Photo by Justin Torner from the U of I news website.

The snails are back. Or more precisely, researchers using snails as a model to understand the biological benefits of sexual reproduction are back with results.

I wrote about the research about two years ago, when conservative news outlets began ridiculing an $876,000 National Science Foundation grant to study “snail sex.” Two University of Iowa researchers, Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon, were among those receiving the grant.

Although multiple conservative outlets had reported and commented on the grant, none had asked the researchers to explain its significance. I was the first writer to contact them for any more than a cursory question. To me it was an example of a gap in science reporting in Iowa and conservative bias against government spending.

The bottom line: The tiny New Zealand snails are good models to study the evolutionary benefits of sexual reproduction, the true purpose of the study. The snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, have two genetic lines, one that reproduces sexually and another asexually, allowing the scientists to compare their genes for signs of advantages or disadvantages to sex.

Now results are coming out of this and related snail research, and the results are surprising. Sex and its biology, it turns out, aren’t as simple as scientists thought. Read the rest of this entry »

NGSS moves forward in Iowa; skeptical review team member discusses why he voted no

In STEM on April 20, 2015 at 7:42 am

How to Read the Next Generation Science Standards from Achieve on Vimeo.

After months of work, an Iowa Department of Education (IDE) review team last week signed off on a recommendation that the state’s schools teach the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as an update to the current Iowa Core standards.

It’s a victory for science advocates over conservative opponents, who don’t like the NGSS’ focus on inquiry over rote learning and inclusion of lessons on evolution and human-caused climate change.

The team of science educators and business leaders will meet again next month to draft a report to the Iowa Board of Education, which has the final say. Opponents are likely to put up resistance again there. One press report indicates some board members may be leery of diving into the evolution and climate science controversies (which really are non-controversies among scientists). Conservatives may try to exploit that hesitation.

The team formally endorsed only a portion of the NGSS document and its decision wasn’t unanimous. Two members voted no.

In fact, one of those two consistently voted against the standards at the team’s March 24 meeting.

His objections and the review team’s choice to adopt only part of the standards, leaving the rest as “supporting material,” provide insights into how the NGSS are structured and what they’re designed to do.

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Why you shouldn’t fear the Next Generation Science Standards

In STEM on February 25, 2015 at 7:23 am
A man lights a cigarette. If local schools can dictate what science is taught, what's to stop a North Carolina school from teaching that cigarettes aren't unhealthy?

If local schools can dictate what science is taught, what’s to stop a North Carolina school from teaching that cigarettes are safe? Credit: Nightsongs via photopin (license)

This is the last week Iowans can provide comments to an Iowa Department of Education panel that is reviewing the state’s science teaching standards.

As I’ve written before, the panel reviewed several sets of standards before deciding to consider the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as a basis for Iowa’s revised guidelines. The panel had one open forum on February 11. The last two are this week: tonight in Dubuque and Thursday in Sioux City.

The panel also is collecting opinions via a survey. If you support the teaching of accurate, evidence-based information in Iowa schools, you must take it now, because opponents are arrayed against the NGSS.

Through all this, I’ve puzzled over one question: Why do people fear standards?

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ISU scandal a science failure? Not so much

In University research on December 31, 2013 at 1:38 pm

In this blog, I usually highlight Iowa science developments that don’t get a lot of attention. If something is splashed across the headlines, I’ll generally let it go or say little about it. I want to concentrate on things most of the press misses.

What happened at Iowa State University just before Christmas, however, is too big and unusual to let pass: A federal agency announced sanctions against a professor for falsifying research.

The nature of the case and what it gained the offender are unusual. Since the offiense was revealed, bloggers and commentators also have cited it to support their views on everything from vaccinations to climate change.

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