Tag Archives: science

Food security and the vegetable decathlon

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2014/03/food-security-and-the-vegetable-decathlon/

Scientists are tackling global food insecurity in a range of ways. They are researching crop narrowing, analysing hunger and health, connecting food risks to climate change, debating genetic engineering solutions and making a Doomsday Vault. As a scientist, I’m doing the heirloom vegetable decathlon.

Khoury et al’s recent paper on the “increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security” quantifies the global shift away from highly diverse food sources 50 years ago to a much smaller set of globally important, energy-dense foods now. The winners in the food supply race include wheat, rice, soybeans, palm and sunflower oil, potatoes and sugar and we rely ever more heavily on them. Wheat for example is now a key food in more than 97 % of countries. These narrow crop types have displaced coconut, cassava, sorghum, millet, rye and sweet potato and many more from traditional and national diets, being cheaper, easier to grow and quicker to prepare.

On the positive side, easy-to-grow, energy-dense foods have helped feed the world’s hungry people. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that total number of people who are not hungry increased from 4,370 million people in 1990-2 to 6,225 million in 2012.

Medical scientists are examining the risks. One risk is to our health. People who eat mainly energy-dense foods are at risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Crop diseases and their solutions have attracted scientific research. The southern corn leaf corn blight of 1972 and the Irish potato famine of 1846 show that crops with limited genetic variability can be highly susceptible to new disease outbreaks. Agricultural scientists are warning that with billions of people now relying on fewer food crops, new disease outbreaks could make us hungry. Crop heterogeneity is a possible solution and works by maintaining a rich gene pool through strategic interbreeding of common crops with wild cultivars. Genetic engineers are also quick to offer solutions, and transgenic plants are being developed with resistance to viruses, fungi, bacteria and nematodes. But few commercial GM cultivars are available in the short-term, and ecologists caution that over time they may bring new threats such as superweeds and toxic pesticides. GM crops they say, are at best a contentious solution to food insecurity.

But in addition to problems identified by food and health scientists, broader issues are at stake. Climate change is widely understood as an emerging, serious threat to food security. The European heatwave in 2003 and American heatwave in 2012 both reduced crop production by up to 30 % and sent prices soaring. Scientists have considered whether extra carbon dioxide and warmth could have positive food production consequences, but in 2013-4 the International Panel on Climate Change reported that negative impacts have been more common.

A Doomsday Vault in the Arctic Circle is an engineering solution to avert the risks of narrowing crop diversity. The vault now holds more than 800,000 seed samples as an “ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply”.

I’m doing my bit for crop diversity too. Gardening after all, is cheaper than the psychological interventions needed to cope with hunger, and you get tomatoes. And as well as tomatoes, potatoes, corn and the other common crops I grow rarer treats like medlars, mizuna, okra, kale, rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes. I save seeds too, and this has led me to favourheirloom plants to enjoy and maintain old cultivars that breed true.

And why is this the vegetable decathlon? Because I’m after the elusive first prize in the coveted “Group of Ten Vegetables” category at my local Braidwood Show. Second again this year.

How are you applying science in your kitchen and garden?

From the Sun to my Screens

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at: http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/12/from-the-sun-to-my-screens/

I recently completed a Massive On-Line Open Course (MOOC) called “Dynamic Earth” through the University of Toronto. And in case you are wondering whether science can be taught through MOOCs, consistent with the pedagogical analysis presented by MOOC providers, I’m giving you a glimpse into MOOC world here.

The course’s ‘peer reviewed assignment’ was a 300 word essay anonymously assessed by three other randomly selected students who have also received a marking rubric and examples of papers of varying quality that have already been graded by professors.

The topic for this assessment was to trace the likely path from the device on which we view MOOC study material, back to the original astronomical source of energy – ie some form of solar energy. Is this science? Is it science communication?

Here is my response to the assignment topic – from the Sun to my Screens

“Fossil fuels are an input to all of the devices that feed MOOC materials into my brain. Those devices include a computer at The Australian National University (ANU), a home computer, and iPad.

My computer at The Australian National University (ANU) and my home electricity system are connected to the Eastern Australian electricity grid (EAEG), which sources mostly coal-fired electricity. The coal is burned to release heat which boils water to turn turbines and generate electricity, which is then transported through the grid to my computer. The coal issourced from plants that grew 200-300 million years ago and used solar energy for photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide to cellulose. They then compressed into coal due to overlying sedimentation in a process fuelled by solar driven wind and water systems. Burning coal for electricity is inefficient and releases terrestrial carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, unbalancing the earth’s dynamic atmospheric system and causing dangerous global warming.

My devices are also powered by a small amount of hydroelectricity and wind energy with fewer damaging impacts. The wind occurs because the sun warms the Earth’s surface, particularly at the equator. The Earth’s rotation and Coriolis Effect drive a pattern of wind across the world. Rain captured in the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme falls there because low pressure systems are blown across Australia by Southern Hemisphere Westerlies. Water evaporates from the Southern and Pacific oceans and is uplifted in the low pressure systems, cooling and causing precipitation as the lows spiral clockwise across the Snowy Mountain Range. The rain is stored in dams high in the landscape, and then released under gravitational pressure to turn turbines that generate hydroelectricity. The Westerly winds also power turbines within the EAEG, generating electricity from wind.

At home I use a desktop computer, and charge my iPad to access this MOOC. Most of that energy comes from a solar array on my roof. Solar electricity is a more sustainable alternative to coal-fired power because it uses solar radiation directly from the sun, and there is no additional atmospheric pollution once the systems are installed.

I also use by brain to access this MOOC. The final energy pathway is the food I eat to power my brain and body. I grow about a quarter of my own food, mostly using the glycogen and glucose produced in my body by my digestion of that same food as the power source. The other half of my food is shop-bought, and I try to keep the food miles and other fossil fuel energy inputs down by buying fresh and local, with minimal packaging. The plants that I eat use photosynthesis to transform sunlight, nutrients and water into delicious cellulose. My brain is digesting the course material, and instructing me to work at home, using my solar energy systems.”

I received 26 out of 27 from my peer reviewers – so I was pretty happy with that. I also received the comment “You’re not a student, are you? That is the best and most extraordinary answer I have read so far. Thank you and God bless!” which I found rather enchanting.

I was however, somewhat disturbed when it came to my training in how to mark others’ assignments. I was given three assignments to mark as a test run – to calibrate my marks with those of the professors. The first one received 8/9 from me, but only 3/9 from the professors. The MOOC program instructed me to review the rubric. The second was better. I gave it 3, and they gave it 2 but I was still asked to review the rubric. I thought the third example was logically flawed and gave it 2, while the professors gave it 9. The next screen congratulated me on completing my training and started directing me to mark others’ work.

I enjoyed the marking process although I was nervous about the quality of my marking. I marked one from a remote area of Russia, and was fascinated to read about the landscape, isolation and its impacts on energy opportunities, with nuclear and coal seeming the only realistic options. It reinforced the message that those of us with green-energy leanings in Australia parrot out all the time – there’s so much energy here that we have no real excuse to burn all of this coal.

What energy are you using to access this blog, and what are the alternative pathways from the sun to your screen?energy-transformations1-300x174

Science and the MOOC

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/12/science-and-the-mooc/

Have you heard of the new Massive On-line Open Courses that are both exciting and terrifying universities around the world? Heralded as a fundamental challenge to the university education system, these courses are being offered free by some of the world’s best teachers from leading universities.

Yes that’s right – you can get a certificate from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford and hundreds of other universities without paying a cent or leaving your desk.

MOOCs are available to anyone with an email address and password. Some courses offer a verification option with a small fee and an identity check each time you submit work. I took a verified ‘Signature Track’ course with Coursera, registering by using my computer’s camera to photograph my driver’s licence, my face, and by typing a short phrase. Then each time I submitted work, I again photographed my face and typed the same phrase to verify it was still me. The programming was excellent, so this was all very simple and quick.

Coursera is the world’s biggest MOOC provider. EdX is another big, high-profile MOOC with many prestigious partner universities. Udacity is also noteworthy, since it first popularised MOOCs. The graphs here show the recent growth for these three. Other MOOC providers are also on the rise, including CourseSites, Open2Study, Stanford Online, and Allversity.

I’m interested in this pedagogical revolution, and so I completed four MOOCs from four universities and three providers during the last three months. These included:

  • Networked Life, University of Pennsylvania, Coursera.
  • What a Plant Knows, Tel Aviv University, Signature Track, Coursera.
  • Our Energetic Earth, University of Toronto, EdEx.
  • Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia, Charles Darwin University, CourseSites.

Overall I learned that studying MOOCs is fun. They are berries of education. Exciting, enticing and moreish with quick rewards and no calories.

Most course structures are simple, and forums suggest we like it that way. A generic pattern is three 10-minute lectures, 10-question tests, and readings, each week over the 4-12 week life of the course. Sometimes there are ‘peer reviewed’ assignments, where you mark others’ work and they mark yours. Sometimes there are final exams, and some MOOCs have webinars.

Classes are obviously much bigger, but drop-outs also proportionally higher than in traditional courses. About 10% of the 32,000 enrolled in one I took received a final certificate, and 2% met the 95% distinction level.

Can you learn science this way? The big MOOC providers quote research showing that on-line learning methods are about as good as face-to-face. I’ve been impressed with the quality of science teaching which has covered research methods, failed and successful experiments, flawed and quality hypotheses, and truly significant discoveries. We were asked to do simple, safe experiments and students discussed their results in the forums. I’d say yes – science can be learned through MOOCs.

Many students take MOOCs for the lifelong learning. I also like the certificate even though on the non-verified option the disclaimer is longer than the acknowledgement. They don’t affirm that I was enrolled, confer a grade, credit or degree, and don’t claim to know who I am. The verified version is far more confident that I am who I claim to be.

And finally, what do MOOCs mean for traditional university education? I think MOOCs can be powerful advertisements for universities, showcasing great teachers and courses. I think they can have a role in filtering students into the degrees that best match their interests. And MOOCs simply don’t offer small-class interactions that for many alumni seem to lead to life-long friendships and close professional networks. But MOOCs do seem like a threat to boring lectures and restrictive pedagogical options. And as MOOC providers continue expanding, and begin offering degrees, universities will need to move quickly and creatively or they may well lose their dominance in higher education.

Curious? Check out the offerings and have a go. It turns out I love MOOCs and I continue to enrol. Tell me what you are taking and I’ll look for you in the forums.

Comparing Providers

Between the detail and the deep blue sea: Optimising formal and informal science education

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/09/between-the-detail-and-the-deep-blue-sea-optimising-formal-and-informal-science-education-2/

Five percent of our lives are spent in classrooms. Most of our science is learned in the real world. What are the implications for best practice science education?

Australia’s formal science education system is the subject of much current debate. Gonski famously reported recent declines in Australia’s educational outcomes, and after much capitulation, the incoming Coalition Government has committed to continuing the Gonski reforms. The new government also seeks world’s best practice teaching, and particularimprovements to the science taught in primary schools. But they also controversially lack a science ministry, and won’t be extending NAPLAN to science.

My daughter recently started high school and I wonder how much of the detail under the science education microscope will make it through to her beakers and Bunsen burners. I suspect not much. So I’m glad to know that informal science education (ISE) will have at least as much influence as her class time.

ISE is the learning you get from everyday settings and family activities as well as museums, zoos, aquariums, parks and structured activities outside of schools. There is a growing and vibrant body of evidence showing that ISE cultivates interest and understanding in science, and other disciplines that are losing ground in universities.

Perhaps the real question is not how to improve classroom teaching, but how to optimise its relationship with ISE.

It seems to me that ISE is ideal for stimulating the desire to learn, for generating questions and creating excitement. So when my daughter asks “why is the sea blue” she likes to hear that “its mostly water, which is blue in large quantities”. Then she’ll ask “why?” So I need to be ready with “water filters out the red light from the sky”. Being curious, she’ll ask why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell her that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than red light. All of this will lead to questions about the nature of light and molecules and so on.

This is where the benefits of a formal scientific education are clear. My ability to answer children’s questions, and indeed, my experience of the real world are vastly enhanced by the science I learned at school. The periodic table, photosynthesis, genetics and geomorphology all rank with the most exciting concepts I’ve ever learned, and I see them in action in the world all the time. Classroom teaching helped me to grasp the basic building blocks that became interesting through ISE. The combination of informal and formal learning ideally synchronises natural curiosity with substantive knowledge.

The costs of scientific illiteracy are also obvious. Scientists know that our method investigates phenomena empirically and acquires new knowledge by extending, correcting and integrating previous conclusions. So for instance, an IPCC report that anthropogenic climate change is increasingly certain, even while atmospheric warming is slower than was previously thought is the embodiment of good science as well as a reinforcement of the call for emission mitigation. But lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method, denialists mistakenly see such reports as proof that global warming is a lot of hot air, and fuel for their business-as-usual fire.

How do your curiosity and knowledge work together?

Killing whales is bad science

By Gillfoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Su Wild-River

This blog was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2014/04/killing-whales-is-bad-science-lessons-from-the-international-court-of-justice-ruling-against-jarpaii/

I love whales. So I was thrilled when the ICJ ruled against Japan’s controversial whaling program in the Southern Pacific Ocean. But what are this case’s lessons for scientists?

Catching whales for food and other products is traditional in many cultures, including Japan. But over the last century, human population growth and modern fishing methods loaded the odds against the cetaceans. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to prevent overhunting, provide for conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry.

To achieve its objectives, the IWC sets catch limits for whaling, and in 1985/86, it established a moratorium on whaling that is still in place today. Since the moratorium, 22,721 whales have been caught commercially by countries objecting to the moratorium, 9,393 have been caught for Aboriginal subsistence harvest and 15,563 have been caught under special scientific permits. Of the latter 14,643 were caught by Japan under scientific programs called JARPA and JARPAII. 10,476, or 22% of the total whale catch, have been Southern Pacific. This whaling was the focus of the recent court case.

Australia claimed that Japan’s annual Southern Pacific hunt was not “for the purposes of scientific research”. It argued that scientific research needs defined and achievable objectives, to use appropriate methods, be properly peer reviewed and avoid adverse impacts on the stocks being studied. Lets have a look at some of these claims.

The research objectives, clearly and reasonably stated in the latest JARPAII Research Planare monitoring of:

  • the Antarctic ecosystem,
  • krill abundance and the feeding ecology of whales,
  • the effects of contaminants on cetaceans, and
  • cetacean habitat.

With regard to the methods, these take up most of the JARPAII Plan, but just two short paragraphs justify the killing of 14,643 whales for science. The reasoning is that age and stomach content surveys are essential for meeting the objectives because “meal size, blubber thickness and age at physical and sexual maturity strongly suggested inter and intra species competitions” (p.20). Therefore lethal sampling is necessary. This makes little sense to me, and I note that other cetacean research projects use alternative, non-lethal methods to gain research results consistent with the JARPAII objectives.

JARPAII researchers have ticked the box of peer reviewed publications based on their lethal research. One example is a paper reporting a 30% decline in Antarctic minke whale stomach contents by weight over 20 years, and suggesting that reduced krill abundance may be to blame. This longitudinal study would indeed have been difficult using the more common non-lethal method of post-mortems on beached whales. But to me it seems unnecessary to kill whales to learn about krill decline when this phenomenon and its implications are well established by other research.

Perhaps the lesson here for scientists is that if you do controversial research, you had better do it well, or risk international outrage and potential legal action.

But the IWC was not convinced by Australia’s case for JARPAII being unscientific on the basis of its objectives, methods and publications. And Japan for its part, argued that the court had no authority to decide what was and wasn’t science. Instead, the court focused on the lack of feasibility studies into a smaller lethal intake and an increase in non-lethal sampling to achieve its objectives. And indeed, this is a significant gap in the JARPAII research plan, since the potential for stock loss is not addressed in its discussion of sample sizes.

A big lesson for scientists is that ecological ethics are implicit in this ruling. It recognises that scientists have duties and obligations to ecosystems as well as to science and the public welfare. And interestingly, although human ethics, and biological ethics are relatively well established, ecological ethics are not. Ecological ethicists drawing on the precautionary principle have suggested that ecologists could take an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oathand vow to “first do no harm” in their research practices. JARPAII would clearly fail this test.

The ICJ has not insisted on strong ecological ethics in its ruling, just that non-harm be clearly considered. And just one day after the ruling, Japan has flagged that it may devise a more persuasive research program requiring whale killing. But let’s at least note the wake-up call for scientists to fully justify ecological research with dubious ethics.

What did you learn from this case?