February 26, 2008

Researchers play role in world’s largest science forum

Posted: February 26, 2008

Arizona State University researchers converged at the world’s largest interdisciplinary science forum, the 2008 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The theme of this year’s Boston meeting, “Science and Technology from a Global Perspective,” was well-aligned with several ASU presentations concerning climate change, science and democracy, nanotechnology, and public health, to name a few.

Among the ASU highlights from the conference:

• Recipient of the AAAS 2007 Mentor Award, Carlos Castillo-Chavez, an ASU Regents’ Professor and mathematical epidemiologist in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, concluded in his presentation that in an era of “superbugs,” such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas, and increasing concern over bacterial infections, mathematical modeling, if used to develop policies and treatment protocols, may reduce drug-resistant infections in hospitals.

• ASU Regents’ Professor and Biodesign Institute scientist Charles Arntzen summarized the use of plants as pharmaceutical factories to tackle global health issues, where infectious disease is the leading cause of death. Arntzen pointed out that since the dawn of biotechnology in the 1970s, there are now more than 400 biotech drugs on the market, yet all of them are quite costly to produce.

“This is where plants can be of benefit,” says Arntzen, “by lowering the facility cost of manufacturing therapeutics for the pharmaceutical industry.” Arntzen’s research group focuses on developing plant-based vaccines that require no refrigeration and can be delivered needle-free, creating a significant asset for global health.

• Biology is crucial to understanding mental health, “but there is more to psychosis than mere biology,” says Jason Robert, an ASU bioethicist and philosopher of science.

“My claim is that gene maps and brain scans will likely not be able to offer universal, culture-free representations of the essence of mental illness. That is, mental illness is subject to biological and socio-cultural factors, such that isolating any of these as core elements will almost always miss the mark at the expense of patient care,” he says.

• Striking the proper balance on the oversight of publicly funded science is an essential question for Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at ASU. Sarewitz’s AAAS presentation focuses on the effect of too much voter involvement in funding science.

“While increased democratization in the sciences is certainly desirable, direct democracy – putting it to the public to decide which programs are worthy of funding and which are not – is an absurd way to fund science,” Sarewitz says.

• Scientists and the general public tend to agree that the promise of nanotechnology is great, but there are risks to it and they should be governed accordingly.

The risk of nanotechnology is seen differently among scientists than the public. But in broad categories of risk versus reward both groups seem to agree on going slow and being cautious of the technology’s deleterious effects. These were among the findings of a recent survey presented by Elizabeth Corley, an ASU assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs.

• Perhaps no other question looms as large in the public mind these days as the balance of nature. Climate change, the depletion of natural resources, and globally declining fish stocks are but a few of the issues that remind us that ours is a fragile world. Or is it?

According to Ann Kinzig, an ASU associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, ideas about nature’s balance widely diverge across lines of culture, livelihood and political ideology. “Some view nature as fragile, easily upset by human activity and in need of protection, while others view nature as extremely robust and nearly endless in its capacity to continue to supply needed resources in the face of heavy human exploitation,” Kinzig says.

• “Think globally, act locally” makes for a nice bumper sticker – but is it effective for coping with global climate change? Can local actions make a difference in a process principally driven by worldwide trends?

The short answer is “no,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but there is more to the story, says Charles Perrings, a professor of environmental economics at ASU. Understanding the value of ecosystem change is one more tile in the global climate change mosaic, one that scientists and policy-makers must understand if they are to accurately assess costs and benefits of proposed actions, track ecological assets and develop means of remedying the problem.

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Biodesign Institute

Skip Derra, skip.derra@asu.edu
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Carol Hughes, carol.hughes@asu.edu
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Global Institute of Sustainability | School of Sustainability