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Science’s Worst Enemy: Corporate Funding

Jennifer Washburn, Discover Magazine
And you thought the Bush administration was bad.

In recent years there have been a number of highly visible attacks on American science, everything from the fundamentalist assault on evolution to the Bush administration’s strong-arming of government scientists. But for many people who pay close attention to research and development (R&D), the biggest threat to science has been quietly occurring under the radar, even though it may be changing the very foundation of American innovation. The threat is money-specifically, the decline of government support for science and the growing dominance of private spending over American research.

The trend is undeniable. In 1965, the federal government financed more than 60 percent of all R&D in the United States. By 2006, the balance had flipped, with 65 percent of R&D in this country being funded by private interests. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, several of the nation’s science-driven agencies-the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and NASA-have been losing funding, leading to more “outsourcing” of what were once governmental science functions. The EPA, for example, recently began conducting the first nationwide study on the air quality effects of large-scale animal production. Livestock producers, not taxpayers, are slated to pay for the study. “The government is clearly increasing its reliance on industry and forming ‘joint ventures’ to accomplish research that it is unable to afford on its own anymore,” says Merrill Goozner, a program director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

Research universities, too, are rapidly privatizing.

…Is all this truly harmful to science? Some experts argue that corporate support is actually beneficial because it provides enhanced funding for R&D, speeds the transfer of new knowledge to industry, and boosts economic growth. “It isn’t enough to create new knowledge,” says Richard Zare, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University. “You need to transfer that knowledge for the betterment of society. That’s why I don’t want to set up this conflict of interest problem to such a heightened level of hysteria whereby you can’t get universities cooperating with industry.”

Even many industry leaders worry that the current mix of private and public funding is out of balance, however.
(11 October 2007)
Monitoring the energy news, one can sees the results of the shift to corporate funding. The big research projects are all skewed to energy sources, particularly those which promise profits to politically powerful entities. Efficiency and conservation are virtually ignored, even though they are more cost-effective. The same trend holds true in science journals and conferences. During the energy crisis of the 70s, I don’t think the balance was as extreme. -BA

The Social Web Ain’t Rocket Science

Jon Lebkowsky, WorldChanging
It’s very cool to see so much activity. Even though much of it is overhyped, there are some real innovations in the air. The web is clearly evolving, and when I’m thinking like a futurist, I can go on about virtual worlds, ambient intelligence, ubiquitous computing, digital lifestyle aggregation, 3space, Identity 2.0, accelerated web application development and issues of software as a service, specialized devices, increased mobility, evolution of presence, etc. There’s a lot to think about, and we’re thinking about it every day.

But not every minute.

In fact, when thinking as a strategist and consultant, especially for organizations that might have monetary or other constraints, I’m far more conservative. I focus on technologies that are well-established, usable, and unlikely to go away (though they may be changing somewhat).

…Here are some examples of solid technologies that I tend to focus on in my consulting and activist work:

* Blogs are obviously important if you have something to say and you want to keep your site fresh with new content. Blog platforms are light content management systems (CMS) …

* Wikis are collaborative environments, originally quite open but increasingly requiring some level of security to suppress link spam and other forms of abuse. Wikipedia has boosted the understanding of wikis, if not their adoption. …

* Instant Messaging (IM) is increasingly used as an alternative to spam-ridden, dysfunctional email. …

* Email is still the killer app. In all my networks of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I haven’t seen anyone blow email off, at least not completely. …

* Social Networks are supposedly cutting edge, but they all have pretty much the same core functionality, which hasn’t changed much since the original social network site, Six Degrees, first appeared in the 1990’s…

These are just a few examples of fundamental technologies that you all already know; I list them here with a reminder that they’re still adequate for much of what you do. …

…Online technology today is far more advanced and mainstream, but the evolution of the web to date has tended where I always said it would go: increasingly more interactive, always about people connecting, establishing and sustaining relationships regardless of physical proximity. The technologies have always felt cutting edge because they’re evolving and changing so fast, but it’s important to remember that the fundamental social and business aspects of the web really aren’t changing so much. In fact there’s an age-old aspect to the social web: in making our social networks visible, we’re reminded that we’re still organizing as tribes.
(17 October 2007)

Calendar of environmental conferences and events

Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ)
A regularly updated listing for world-wide environmental events. The SEJ has hosts a daily round-up of environmental news that is open to the public.
(23 October 2007 – regularly updated)