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The history of science is written by the “victors.” So find your own narrative.

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The chosen version of the history of science defines “science” and shapes the present culture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No one is in charge of defining science for all.

Very few graduate programs require even one class in the history of science: many do not even offer one. Individual labs or departments may tell their own history, and several books on the development of molecular biology are popular around labs, but the philosophical situating of science in society’s history or philosophy seldom is institutionally done.

Yet this history- in all of its various interpretations- shapes the day to day life of the present day scientist. Each individual’s choice of project, likelihood of getting funded, expectation of a job, and relationship to the larger culture, is entangled in and influenced by past events and present conceptions.

One way one can understand the forces that affect the 21st century scientist’s work is through an interpretation of the influences on the fields of molecular biology and biomedical research. One subjective list might be:

ïFrom amateur science to professionalism.

ïLand-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

ï(The revolution in physics after 1900).

ïPeer review grows in importance.

ïWorld War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

ïThe unraveling of the properties of DNA.

ïThe Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and the beginning of biotech.

ïThe cloning of the human genome.

ïChanges in trainees: an overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, people of color, and foreign trainees. 

  • From amateur science to professionalism.                                                             The first few centuries of science in the USA were done by amateur scientists, funded by family money or wealthy sponsors, occasionally by the government. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was a significant move for the definition and professionalism of science: The National Academy was founded in the mid 1863’s, furthering the interest in science. Around turn of the 20th century, professionalism was emphasized and the Bureau of Standards was founded to fit into the ongoing pattern of world commerce.

    Amateur science- performed by those without advanced science degrees- is still done in the U.S., but it wasn’t respected until the tech revolution, which revered the outsider.

– Land-grant universities and the Flexnerian revolution: improving academic education for all.

Science and other academic endeavors were generally available only to the wealthy, who could attend excellent private universities in the country, or abroad. Government commitment to higher education was boosted through the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln, this act granted federal land to states on the basis of the size of the states’ congressional delegation. These lands were then to be sold to provide an endowment for the establishment of at least one college or university.

…the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

The Morrill Act of 1862. Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. 2008. Education Encyclopedia,State


By 1873, there were twenty four land grant institutions, which together enrolled 2,600 students, about 13% of the total US collegiate population. Agriculture was the most popular course in these early days. Engineering overtook agriculture as the most popular course of study through the 20th century. Practical and useful and applied education, available to all, funded by the federal government, became an assumption. 11 of the twenty top institutions in total research-and-development spending for fiscal year 1998 were land grant universities. [Land-grant Colleges and Universities 2008].

Peer review grows in importance. 

Peer review, the process through which scientists evaluate each others grant applications and manuscript submissions, is one of the cornerstones of research and science in the USA, and one that has enabled scientists to feel that the profession is and should be self regulating. Its origins are in England’s Royal Society, where members sometimes asked scientists to read submitted papers submitted to its Philosophical Transactions, and this ad hoc approach took place in American scientific journals as well. With the formation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, ad hoc committees were formed to oversee the dispensation of funds received as private gifts.

The US Federal government, through the National Research Council, began supporting scientists after WWI, and committees oversaw the distribution of funds. By the end of World War II, peer review was routine.

      “Thus, by the post-World War II science boom, peer review had become accepted practice. “It came into full force after the war with the establishments of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health,” says Jonathan R. Cole, provost of Columbia and co-author of a number of works on the peer review system, including a 1981 National Academy of Sciences study on its ethical aspects. “That is where the principle of merit-based review was very clearly established and has been followed ever since.” Cole argues that, whatever its flaws, peer review has worked. “It’s been an essential part of the American science scene and one of the reasons why American science has done so well.”” Tom Abate. 1995. What’s the Verdict on Peer Review?

World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the start of huge government commitment to science.

Before WWII, science was funded by donors or industry. The Manhattan Project and the race for the atomic bomb was the first big government expenditure on research. Vannevar Bush, advisor to  President Roosevelt and leader of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, was responsible for the expectation of a government and science collaboration funded by the government after WWII. In 1950, the National Science Foundation was funded to promote science, advance health and prosperity, and secure the national defense.

The military continues to be very much involved with basic science, a collaboration that was protested in the 60’s and 70’s, but is now accepted passively….

“…in the first decade or two after 1945, the United States attempted to use its scientific and technological leadership, in conjunction with its economic, military, and industrial strength, to shape the research agendas, the institutions, and the allegiances of scientists in Western Europe in line with U.S. scientific, political, and ideological interests in the region.” P 3 American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. John krige. MIT Press, Cambridge.

The unraveling of the properties of DNA and regulation of recombinant DNA work.

Watson’s and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA was published in 1953, and started a revolution in biology and chemistry. The wild and heady times of the early work with DNA have perhaps more than anything else imprinted themselves on the research culture. Both in the lab and in interacting with the greater world, was a sense of discovery and also of activism, of that science could do well for the world.

“Chemistry was then a field with a strong conservative streak. Not only was there a fairly rigid view of what path one should take to be a chemist, but the social and political environment in chemistry departments was confining. The field seemed to have retained much of its authoritarian German roots. Biochemistry was more welcoming to me, although the origins of many of its practitioners in the field of chemistry made it only a slight improvement. It was during my graduate career that the emergence of the new field of molecular biology began to dramatically revolutionize sensibilities and the climate in the life sciences.

    “Molecular biology was anointed as a scientific discipline in the late 1950’s, formed from a gathering of scientists in the disparate fields of genetics, biochemistry, and biophysics. Its roots go back to the entry of a number of young physicists into biology in the 1940’s. These pioneers, convinced that the fundamental problems in physics had been solved, sought new scientific principles in the study of living organisms. “ [Beckwith 2002], p 16.

The first gene was spliced in 1971 and among themselves, scientists debated the implications of gene engineering. Soon the discussion moved to the public, however, and Congress heard testimony from scientists, for and against, the new technology. The Cambridge/Boston area was the center of the debate about recombinant DNA, and remains a center for molecular biology research.  The recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) was established by NIH in 1974 and still advises the NIH on issues involving basic and clinical research with recombinant DNA.

“To the consternation of the scientists and the confusion of policy-makers, recombinant DNA became a testing ground for emerging national concepts in public participation. In the early stages of the DNA debate (1973-975), policy-making was largely initiated and controlled by scientists and administrators involved in biological research, that is, by researchers with little experience or expertise in public participation. Their role was a reactive one, a succession of stopgaps, and finally a painful accommodation to increasingly “foreign” pieces of politics inserted in their normally private decision-making machinery.” [Goodell 1979], p 36.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, bringing business to academia, and the beginning of biotech.

The Biotech industry and the incursion of business interests into the academic laboratory were jump-started by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Named for its sponsors, Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole, the Bayh-Dole Act adjusted the U.S. patent and trademark law and transferred the title of all discoveries made with the help of federal research grants to the universities and small businesses (later, also to non-profits and large businesses) where they were made.

Now universities and other organizations could market inventions made there, and individual researchers could personally profit, and so both the organization and the researcher were encouraged to patent their discoveries. A wave of technology transfer offices were established in universities, and Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

In 1976, Genentech, the first biotech company, was founded by venture capitalist Robert Swanson and biochemist Dr. Herb Boyer. Genentech scientists produced the first human protein, somatostatin, in a microorganism in 1977, cloned human insulin in 1978, human growth hormone in 1979, and the company went public in 1980. The use of cells to make proteins and hormones which distinguished biotech companies from pharmaceutical companies could be done in small academic labs by individual scientists, and many patented their findings and formed companies.

The possibility of making money certainly brought a new wave of enthusiasm to the world of academic scientists, and biotech scientists gradually gained respectability. In the 80’s, scientists might refuse to attend a seminar given by an industrial or biotech scientist, but as patents and millionaire scientists and biotech products became more familiar, biotech gained respectability with scientists….that is, with some scientists.  Acceptance of the intrusion of patents and lawyers into basic research has been more difficult among the generations of pre-biotech scientists who don’t believe personal profit is valid motivation for a scientist.

“I’m troubled that many researchers are becoming less productive because they divert their skills away from the goals of producing quality science and technology. Too many people in the scientific community are now driven by motives aside from the desire to make practical or basic discoveries. The accoutrements of success-large laboratories, significant funding, travel to many meetings at home and abroad- have overshadowed the joy of discovery. And too many scientists feel tempted to cut corners due to competitive pressures and the rapid pace of contemporary science. Science advances most productively when we focus on scientific merit rather than on the potential for attracting fame or increased funding.”  Yalow 1993 p 3

The opening of entrepreneurship to the academic world brought another kind of excitement, that of individual achievement and profit. It brought other source of income to universities, and opened job choices for researchers. It also raised conflict of interest issues to both individual researchers and to institutions, and started the commercialization and privitization of universities.

      The collaboration between molecular biologists and industry and government also set molecular biology apart from other biological sciences. In the reductionist times of the molecular biology revolution, ecology, population genetics, community ecology, were slighted in funding, and “important science” was linked to profit.

Sequencing of the human genome and consideration of ethical issues.

The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 had a huge influence on how science is viewed, and ushered in a shift to systems thinking, the integration of the parts, the ecology of components. Reductivism became less prestigious. Technology was directed towards systems, although one could also argue that development of the technology influenced the philosophy.

This change in looking at systems rather than at isolated components is, interestingly, reflected in changes in the sociology of how science is done.  Science has become more collaborative, more interdisciplinary, almost as if communication styles have paralleled the philosophy of experimentation.

The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 by the NIH and the DOE, after several meetings and talks through the 80’s. Reportedly, the DOE interest in the project developed from its study of genetic damage to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Human Genome Project was extremely controversial among scientists, some of whom worried about the ethical implications of the research, and others who feared that other science would no longer be well funded as so many resources were put into the genome project. As well, the tradition of the independent investigator in a small lab was challenged, as the importance of collaborative science to the genome project became manifest, and industry and academic labs teamed up on different aspects of the project.

 In 1998, Ventor started Celera with the intention of competing with NIH to sequence the human genome. The two groups announced the completion of their sequencing in separate journals (Ventor in Science, NIH in Nature) in 2001.

The collaborations of the Human Genome Project, across multiple labs and with academia and industry, became a model to continue to follow: business provided the big machines, academia the ideas. Numerous institutes and centers based on this model were begun.

 – Changes in trainees and greater commitment to diversity : An overall increase in the numbers of science trainees, and changes in the make-up of the trainees to include more women, minorities, and foreign trainees. 

With money pouring into academic institutions, more trainees were accepted. The increase in the number of biomedical and other Ph.D.s is putting a severe strain on the resources of NIH and of other funding agencies and institutions, and fewer people get academic jobs.

There has been not only been an overall increase in the number of students entering graduate school in the biological sciences, but also in the make up of the trainees. There are now more women, minorities, and foreign trainees.

    This diversity of scientists has helped to bring new approaches and questions to science and perhaps new and hopefully better ways of collaboration and communication. The importance of mentoring has become clear. But mentoring such a large and varied group of scientists has been a challenge, and there are huge variations in the quality and quantity of training received.

The feminization of the research environment is said to be responsible for many of the rules that help all with work-life integration. Parental leave, the expectation of a 9-5 job, job-sharing, are all effects of women’s (mainly) desire to work and to have a family. Boundaries have softened- the work and home environments are not as tightly compartmentalized. New trainees tend to appreciate this more than many older scientists, who see a less-than-total dedication to research.

There are many interpretations of history, and the above story was told with an emphasis on the cultural changes causing and being affected by research in cell and molecular biology. It could be told with entirely different events:

Through the story of the development of a technology.

Through the personal stories of individuals.

Through the high points of a specific field.

Through medical discoveries.

History is written by the victor, and the history of even modern science is the same, with the victor claiming objectivity. But there are many different interpretations of science that are shunted aside in business-as-usual science. These interpretations challenge the mainstream idea of the role scientists should play in society.

“Awareness of our subjectivity and context must be part of doing science because there is no way we can eliminate them. We come to the objects we study with our particular personal and social backgrounds and with inevitable interests. Once we acknowledge those, we can try to understand the world, so to speak, from inside instead of pretending to be objective outsiders looking in.”   “Science, Facts, and Feminism”, p 127, pp 119-131. Ruth Hubbard, in Feminism & Science.

The mainstream culture of science assumes  and partially defines itself as having an objective view of the world, and seems to many to be not amenable to other interpretations. But there are feminist interpretations as well that suggest the projects selected, the way problems are chosen, and the ways people communicate could be different. There are Marxist interpretations of science that most Americans would immediately dismiss not only because they are non-mainstream, but also because of the shadow of decades of anti-communist teachings in schools.

Still, there have been times when Marxist analyses of science have been tolerated. For example, with the strong Marxist political movements active in the 1930’s and 40’s in the USA, Britain, and France, there was a flurry of Marxist critiques of the history, philosophy, and politics of science, which faded with the collapse of the political movement in the 50’s. Again, Marxist criticism of science arose again in the 60’s and 70’s, and collapsed in the 80’s.  Gary Werskey, ‘The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements

The dark side of science, and how it may influence your communications.

      It is likely that most scientists believe they are working for the good of mankind. It is also likely that most non-scientists believe in the good of science- but many do not. Both scientists and non-scientists might mention the Tuskegee syphilis study in the USA as an example of the misuse of science, but there are many other stories that have alienated groups of people to science. For example:

-The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell.

-The deliberate infection of approximately 700 Guatamalans with syphilis by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1940’s.

Not all non-scientists believe science is inherently good, or even valueless, but is the force that creates wars, that helps some and not others. Not all workplaces are ethically run, not all personnel are ethical.

Establish your own history. In your own lab, group, or department, a shared sense of history will clarify and enrich the culture.

– Make a library to define culture of science. For yourself, your lab, your department, your colleagues, keep and circulate journals and books that will give thought and perspective to science as you practice it.

– 1 x month non-technical journal clubs.

– 1 x month journal clubs with the original papers that defined the field.

– Teach a mini-course in culture and history. Or politics.

In my untenured days, I did one supremely foolish thing. I developed and taught a “science for poets” course. (I haven’t the space here to explain why it was foolish.) The class read much of the original literature and commentary on The Double Helix–including original papers, meeting reports, Watson’s funny and irreverent book, Anne Sayer’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, and Crick’s later work, What Mad Pursuit. We did background reading on Mendelian genetics and examined what was known about DNA in 1954 to get a feel for what Watson and Crick had to work with. We read the later memoirs of some other central figures in the story. We watched the film The Race for the Double Helix, in which Jeff Goldblum cleverly plays Jim Watson. I even tried to have Anne Sayer speak to the class, but, regrettably, her health forbade it.     Gerald Harbison,  Guest comment: Genes, Girls, and Gender Politics. Science Insights 6:6.  National Association of Scholars.


A traditional view via slideshare of the history of science 

The American Eugenics movement and its influence on the eugenics policies of Nazi Germany. (See Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, Baltimore.

Harriet Washington. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present


Dealing with the neuroscience of unstable income- or not.

Whether you choose “Apps for Everything but Compassion” (print, 5/7) or “The Shaky Moral Compass of Silicon Valley” (web, 5/2) as your favorite title, the message is clear: the reputation that wealthy tech workers have little empathy for the poor is based in reality.

It may be lack of awareness, or it may be the sense of entitlement and self-interest that studies have shown are associated with access to money. See, it isn’t even their fault that they retreat from the poverty and homelessness of the Silicon Valley….but actually, as a nation, we ignore homeless folks, and it is only the shocking difference between poverty and google etc wealth  that makes the apparent lack of compassion in Silicon Valley so glaring.

Obviously, as stated in the article by Nick Bolton, there are rich techies who do reach out to help, but many are stymied by the lack of technical solutions. (There are economic ones, but no one wants consider higher taxes, or ceilings on wealth.)

But a very interesting Silicon Valley company actually does have a technical solution, an app that addresses income volatility.

Income volatility – income swings, with money coming in irregularly-  makes it very difficult for those living near the edge of survival and/or working at jobs that are seasonal or unpredictable to save money. While a person may make enough money over the year to cover costs, that money comes in a trickle or a flow, and there are often times when bills come due when the money isn’t there…bills such as rent and food purchases. Debt and penalties begins to accrue, hopelessness sets in.

Even, a for-profit company, floats its clients during hard times, and banks their surplus during good times with an app that smooths out the ups and downs of their earnings and enablles them to avoid debt. It is described in “Want a Steady Income? There’s an App for That,” by Anand Garidharadas in the April 29th, 2015 NY Times.

Even was conceived of by 28 year old techie Jon Schlossberg, who was influenced by a `2013 Science paper, “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,”  a collaboration between behavioral psychologists and economists to examine why those without money seemed to act in ways that would only compound poverty. According to Garidharadas, the Science paper rejected  “the left’s structural theories, the right’s theories about character- in favor of neuroscience,”  and explained that the complicated juggling that the poor must do to survive hampered the ability to focus.

Schlossberg partnered with entrepreneur Quinten Farmer, who brought in the idea of income volatility as a target to address poverty: Farmer recalled his own childhood, in which a divorce left he and his mother financially struggling. For a fee of $3 a week, those with volatile incomes are freed of the impossibility to pay debts with money that is not yet there, and hopefully, and that this can give them the psychological as well as physical space they need to solve problems.

As some reader comments mentioned, there are plenty of fundraisers and good works among techies in Silicon Valley: one reader mentioned Rippleworks, a non-profit that connects entrepreneurs in developing countries with Silicon Valley workers who mentor and give technical advice. It was clear from the comments that many people want to help, and don’t know how. It was also clear that most people don’t consider the deeper economic and social forces behind poverty, or behind their own successes, and that the moral compasses of the commenters were pretty darn shaky. Still, techie activists might be changing the culture.








The House Armed Forces Services Committee debates blocks protection for ….the Sage Grouse.

The House Armed Forces Committee blocks protection for the Sage Grouse.


How is it that the military, through Congress, is deciding on the future of the Greater Sage Grouse, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act?

This is how.

Congress is currently hammering out the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. There is a provision recommended by the chair of the House Armed Services committee that prohibits the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from actually putting the Greater Sage Grouse, which suffers from loss of habitat, on the endangered list. This was a recommendation from the Army.

When Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass)  proposed to strip that provision, there was a contentious debate that ended in a vote to not protect the sage grouse. Democrats argued that the provision not only had no place in a defense bill, and that the provision was an attack on science and federal conservation areas.

Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah) (who actually heads the House Natural Resources Committee- isn’t that consoling?) was one of the Republican members who argued that the bird’s large population hampers military facilities throughout the USA.  The example he gave is that the Army at the Yakima Training Center in Washington spends around $1.5 million a year to manage (only) 250 birds.

Yakima is one of only 4 sage grouse populations in the state, but giving the Greater Sage Grouse protection under the Endangered Species Act (EPA) as an endangered species would restrict gunnery ranges part of the year.

Scientists have spoken out on the dangers of oil and gas projects to the Greater Sage Grouse breeding sites, as well.

The sage grouse has also become a pawn in the Republican move to reduce federal power: The U.S. House Armed Services Committee is considering a proposal to delay an Endangered Species Act listing for the Greater Sage Grouse for 10 years, as well as to transfer the management of millions of acres of federal lands to states in the west. Democrats countered that the provision has no place in the defense bill, seeing it as an attack on science and federal conservation efforts.

The militarization of science and nature marches on.



June 8, 2015  In an editorial, “G.O.P. Assault on Environmental Laws,” the New York Times blames republicans only for the disinterest in saving the habitat of the Great Sage Grouse. The editorial made no mention of the influence of the military, which (along with fossil fuel companies) rules both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.


Do the scientific data on fracking damage matter to policy makers? Sometimes!

Do the scientific data on fracking damage matter to policy makers?


Discussion on the health and environmental damage of fracking, initiated by scientists, journalists, and activists, is moving fast. Will it matter? It did in New York state, where scientists and activists working together convinced the governor to ban fracking. Scientists have not yet been as effective in Oklahoma in getting the message out about the dangers of fracking, and fracking continues although it has been linked to recent earthquakes. (See update at the end of this post.)

You wouldn’t think fracking was a problem from today’s New York Times. Energy and business correspondent Clifford Krauss’s article, “New Balance of Power,” gives cursory mention of the environment in his fracking-happy discussion.

The US is now responsible for 10% of global production of oil, and oil from the fracking of US shale fields since 2008 accounts for roughly half of the world’s oil production growth. The US is overtaking the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in oil production, weakening OPEC’s control (the goal of most US energy businesses and politicians) of the price of oil. But rather than reduce oil outout to keep demand (and price) high, OPEC has maintain production in order to retain market share- and the price of oil and gas has plummeted. Krauss sees the marginalization of OPEC and the lowered oil and gas prices as excellent outcomes. He also seems quite delighted that oil-producing “foreign foes” like Venezuela and Russia have been weakened by the drop in oil prices.

What about the environment?

Oh, well, there is some distant discussion of the environment. Krauss mentions that environmentalists believe the low oil and gas prices will drive consumption up. He says that “President Obama has applauded the drop in gasoline prices, but he still straddles the interests of environmentalists with those of the oil companies when it comes to hot-button issues like offshore drilling and expanding exports of United States oil and natural gas.”

And Krauss does say that hydraulic fracking is “still considered risky by many environmentalists because of the escape of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during exploration, production and transport, along with potential seepage of toxic fluids into water supplies.”

But this completely misrepresents the dangers of fracking. He writes off damage to people and to the fracking areas as an example of the “interests of environmentalists.”  He alludes to “potential” seepage of toxic fluids. He says nothing about the many scientific studies that have linked health and environmental damage to the technique of fracking. The article is an excellent description of what activists and scientists are facing when the health and environmental issues of oil and gas production are pitted against business and political issues.

Hydraulic fracking is the process of pumping large amounts of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure into a well and surrounding rock formations to extract deep reserves of gas or oil. Its use increased in use in 2003, and more so after 2004 (when the FDA found that fracking did not harm underwater drinking water and 2005 (when fracking was exempted from the Safe Water Drinking Act by the Bush Administration).

It is a messy, dirty process, and problems just keep coming.

Problems such as earthquakes, fires, contaminated water, and radon generation. Problems scientists have been documenting for years.

Scientists from Johns Hopkins recently found that fracking may cause the release of radon. Uranium occurs naturally in soil and bedrock and decays to radium-226, which then decays to radon, an inert, odorless, and carcinogenic gas. It is the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer worldwide. Indoor radon levels in Pennsylvania were correlated with fracking, as well as with well water (and with weather and a rural versus a town location).

NBC news reported flammable tap water in homes located near fracking sites in Portage County, Ohio. The injection sites themselves are dirty and dangerous. A few days ago, a fracking waste-water injection site in Greeley, Colorado exploded in flames, not far from the site of an injection well that had been linked to earthquakes  in 2014. The stored oil and gas wastewater that is used for injection contained hydrocarbons that can vaporize and it is thought that a lightening strike caused the the explosion.  On and on, in scientific publications and on the media, the problems of fracking are described and decried.

But it is the earthquakes associated with fracking that perhaps have been best documented and are drawing the most attention from the scientific and environmental world.

In November, 2011, several earthquakes- including one of 5.7 magnitude- struck Prague, Oklahoma, destroying more than a dozen homes. The quakes were located near wells where fracking has been ongoing for 20 years.

The mainstream press  reported on studies showing that a 2011 earthquake in central Oklahoma was linked to fracking. One of these was a March, 2013  paper in Geology by scientists at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the United States Geological Study (USGA),  examined the  correlation between wastewater injection and the 5.7 magnitude earthquake.

A more recent article in the NY Times, online titled as “As Quakes Rattle Oklahoma, Fingers point to Oil and Gas Industry,” gives a bleak and excellent description of the interplay between scientists, citizens, the oil industry, and local politicians.

It mentions some to the earthquakes seen associated with fracking in other states, such as Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Kansas. Nowhere though, have the earthquakes approached the number and scope of Oklahoma’s, and scientists believe this is because Oklahoma’s main waster disposal site is a bed of porous limestone thousands of feet underground that lies close to the hard and stressed rock that contains faults. The soaked limestone expands and gets heavier, and impacts these faults directly or indirectly, by nearby pressure.

Scientists are speaking out in Oklahoma and elsewhere, but many are unable to hear or deal with the implications of the dangers of fracking. The oil and gas wells bring money to Oklahoma, to corporate owners but also royalties to farmers and landholders and taxes to the state. The oil and gas industry gives millions to Oklahoma universities, a situation that may be an incredible conflict of interest for academic scientists and administrators. Another conflict of interest is that the oil and gas industries are major political contributors to Oklahoma legislators, and to all three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees many regulatory aspects of fracking. It is estimated that 1 out of 5 jobs in Oklahoma are dependent on the oil and gas industry. It is not a good atmosphere in which to examine and act on data.

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Governor Mary Fallin has named a council to “exchange information” about the tremors.

Activists have been working in Oklahoma to point out the dangers of fracking, but Oklahoma law enforcement has come down hard. In a widely publicized case, activists protested fracking at Devon Energy headquarters in Oklahoma City, and two were charged for enacting a terrorism hoax after hanging two banners with glitter (That’s right! Could have been bioterrorism!) and two were arrested for trespassing.

The state of New York is listening a bit better.

New York state and Governor Cuomo’s administrations’s decision to ban fracking at the end of 2014 are a blueprint for scientists and activists to modify for their own towns and areas. New York was the first state with significant natural gas resources to ban fracking.

New York state under Governor Paterson had a virtual ban on fracking for 6 years while the state studied the health effects of fracking that were being brought up again and again. But communities, worried the state would give in to pressure from energy companies, used zoning laws to ban fracking: this was upheld by the Court of appeals in June, 2014.

When the decision to ban fracking was announced, Dr. Howard A Zucker, the acting state health commissioner, not only said his department had found insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking (itself an unusual decision in a business in which health dangers have to be proven before a ban would be issued), but that he would not want his family to live in a community in which fracking was taking place. His words as a scientist and a community member were quoted widely.

But none of the science would have been acted upon without the many members of activist groups who have been researching, educating, and protesting for the past 6 years. Some see this as a bad thing, a dilution of the science. For example, as described in “Fracking Movement Wins as NY Bans Fracking  in Popular Resistance, Tom Wilber, who writes Shell Gas Review  said, “Science is part of the calculus. But despite what Cuomo would like us to believe, scientists don’t make these kind of decisions. The full equation is Science + politics + policy. Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was focused on him.”

Ecologist and activist Sandra Steingraber, speaking at a victory party after the inauguration of Governor Cuomo talked of the synergy between scientists and activists that was so effective. She described the 400+ peer reviewed scientific articles that documented the danger of fracking, and the citizen activism that brought the data to the public.

“First, you issued invitations to scientists to come into your communities—into your church basements, town halls, middle school gymnasiums, chambers of commerce, and Rotary Clubs. Thus, for a couple years running, some of us PhDs and MDs spent a lot of Friday nights and Sunday afternoons in one small town or another in upstate New York, giving Powerpoint presentations and laying out the data for audiences of common folks and town board members.

“Every church and town hall became a seminar. This cadre of traveling scientists and health professionals included Tony Ingraffea, Bob Howarth, Adam Law, Bill Podulka, Larysa Dyrszka, Kathy Nolan, Mary Menapace, Sheila Buskin, and Yuri Gorby, among many others.

The second way science was disseminated to and by the people was through the public comment process. Do you recall the 30 Days of Fracking “Regs? Remember those days? A few of us laid out the science like a trail of breadcrumbs, and you all followed. In these and other ways, we sent 204,000 well-informed, scientifically grounded comments to Albany. They spoke very loudly.

“Science alone is just a lot of black dots on white mathematical space. Like a musical score that sits on a shelf, it doesn’t become a song until someone picks up the score and sings it. And you sang it! You informed your friends and neighbors about the science and so pushed the needle on public opinion. You changed providence itself.”

Other states are trying to emulate the successful model of the New York State fracking ban. The model must be modified for each state- New York, for example, may not have the shale reserves of other states such as Oklahoma, and resistance by those who profit by the oil and gas industry might be more difficult in more oil-rich states. But it is a useful and inspiring model for scientist citizens.

A list of worldwide bans against fracking, as well as activist tools, can be found at “Keep Tap Water Safe.”  Not all countries are as hesitant as the US in acting on the dangers of fracking. France and Bulgaria have banned it,  as have Wales and Scotland , and Germany has signed off on a draft law to do so .

Of course, the bottom line is that fracking and conventional extraction methods must be sharply minimized, even if they weren’t immediate dangers. British scientists Christophe McGlade and Paul Elkins recently published paper in Nature early this year that strongly suggested that 1/3 of the world’s oil reserves, and half of its gas reserves (as well as over 80% of the coal) must be left in the ground until 2050 to prevent greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting earth warming of 2 degrees Celsius.

It is vital that scientists who either investigate fracking, see the dangers of it through other’s data, or take part in citizen activism, do not accept the judgement of those who deem activism to be contrary to science. Scientists working as citizens with activists are powerful- and that is why criticism is so passionate.

Kathy Barker

April 23, 2015


Update April 24, 2015

Yesterday, the USGA released its first comprehensive analysis of the link between oil and gas operations and thousands of earthquakes in the U.S. ( ). 17 areas were identified in 9 states, and Oklahoma was determined to be the hardest hit. Interestingly, though fracking itself garners most of the press, it is the injection of water to dispose of the waste from drilling or production that is the greatest contributor to earthquakes.

2 days before the report was released to the public, the Oklahoma state government acknowledged the scientific data saying that wastewater disposal linked to oil and gas drilling was to blame for the hundreds-fold (!) increase in earthquakes there.

Update May 5, 2015

An analysis of drinking water from 3 homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, found  organic compounds used in shale gas development in wells. The PNAS paper, “Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident attributed to Marcellus Shale gas development,” was published on May 4 by scientists from Penn State University, the Leco Corporation, and the Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting, and used instrumentation not commonly available in commercial labs. This was not an anti-fracking paper: authors suggested that better analysis and management could prevent contamination of aquifers.







Running for office as scientist and socialist


“My name is Jess Spear.

I am a member of Socialist Alternative.

I am a climate scientist.

And I was the organizing director for 15Now.”

So Jess Spear, who is running for the Washington State Legislature, began her debate on October 7 with the mainstream Democratic and  20 year incumbent, Frank Chopp.

15Now was a successful charter amendment for a $15.00 minimum wage in Seattle, a success that is galvanizing similar initiatives all over the country. For, although she is a scientist, environmental and economic justice are her motivations, and science is a tool to address that activism.

Not that Spear doesn’t love science- but from the beginning, she saw the problems science could address. She was first inspired by Carl Sagan as a teenager to want to do something about climate change, way before it became a common concept. Thrilled by a biology class, Spear switched from anthropology to biology, and applied to work on a climate change problems for her senior year project- only to be told by her project advisor that climate change wasn’t a surety. As a student, Spear listened and worked on red tide- but a belief that authority, scientific or political, was necessarily correct did not take, and she found her way back to climate change as soon as possible.

It was not an end to her disappointment with scientists. Not with her mentor: while not as activist as Spear, he was civic-minded and involved and supportive of Spear. But her fellow students, even those working on climate change, were not engaged beyond their own work. Graduate students often have a laser focus only on their areas of study, but Spear thinks, sadly, that it was cynicism about the future that prevented students from working with the bigger picture.

Few senior climate scientists were speaking out, as speaking publicly led to questions about the scientists’ integrity and objectivity. Then, perhaps more than now, scientists in general were schooled to believe that their role is not to be part of policy, but only to provide the data for the policy, seeming to still believe that the research they are doing isn’t already influenced and caused by policy. Michael Mann and Jim Hanson have strongly acted and spoken out, and have written about the need for scientists to speak out, and public involvement is no longer completely damning.

Spear’s personal discontent with the approach to climate change and injustice took a big change in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, public protest in Wisconsin against the budget and restrictions on collective bargaining, and the Occupy Movement. Though Occupy! Seattle, she heard speakers from Socialist Alternative, with whom she then learned the links between climate change and the economic system.

Science and research are integrated into economics, but are generally seen only through the lens of capitalism in US training. Spear recommends that scientists read Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) by John Bellamy Foster, who has written several books integrating ecology and economics, and who warns readers about the ineffectiveness of spiritual approaches to saving the environment. Frederick Engel’s The Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883  and published in 1939 with a forward by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, analyzes the revolutions of science and their parallels with revolutions in society, a larger perspective useful for the scientist and activist.

Socialism provides the philosophical and practical links between science and environmental activism, and economics and social policy. For example, while many scientists and organizations agree that we must decrease reliance on fossil fuels to limit climate change, socialists are also concerned with the resulting human needs and in finding job alternatives for those in industries that might be abolished though activism or government regulation. A major mistake of environmentalists, believes Spear, is that they are coming head to head against ordinary working people. Socialism and Marxism have been very helpful to her in framing the issues, in putting problems in a social context, and have made her more more effective on a range of environmental issues.  Spear says, “I now understand how ludicrous it was for me to rail against individuals for their lifestyle choices. People shouldn’t be asked to choose the environment over their families.”

As a member of Socialist Alternative, Spears is not working as an individual, but as the member of a collective. Decisions about policy and actions are made collaboratively. There is a non-hierarchical perspective. This may be difficult for the scientists who believe in themselves purely as individuals to understand. But even with the inspiration of individuals, it is the power of an organization that creates social change.

After 2011, Spear spent more time on political campaigns, working first on the successful Seattle City Council election campaign of Kshama Sawant before leading the also successful 15Now minimum wage campaign. When she and Socialist Alternative decided that it made sense for her to run for Legislative office in 2014, she left behind for now her career as an oceanographer to focus on the election. She marches for political and environmental causes, has been arrested for stopping oil trains going through Seattle, gives interviews and talks, and leads a very different life, for now.

One of the biggest challenges for Spear has been learning a different way of public speaking than she had been trained in as a scientist. There was no effective formula for a political speech. It was usually not possible to use notes or other aids. Instead, Spear had to learn to make herself vulnerable, to listen and respond to the crowd, to improvise. Having let go of the notion of control that is drilled into science, she feels much better when giving a speech.

The election is November 4. Even without the corporate money poured into the campaign of the incumbent, Spear made a good showing in the primary, and well may win this election…if not this one, then the next. People may be shy about socialism, but are understanding that business-as-usual will not solve anything. As a person, scientist, and politician, Spear gives enormous hope that we have the capability to overcome fear and lassitude and make a better world.

The photograph used for the illustration found at the Vote Spear! website.


Science is not just about competition



      All over the USA, there is a steady drumbeat that says:

Math and science scores are low for K-12 students in the USA.

USA universities are not keeping up with the rest of the world.

The USA will not be competitive any more.


We need to run science like a business to be competitive!


Here is a local (Seattle) take on this theme:

Guest: How Seattle is falling behind other 21st century cities
The region must take aggressive actions to close the existing skills gap, according to guest columnists Randy Hodgins and Maud Daudon.
By Randy Hodgins and Maud Daudon
Special to The Times
IN preparation for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run, quarterback Russell Wilson famously, and successfully, challenged his teammates with three words: “Why not us?”
Seattle business and civic leaders should be asking the same question, given what competing regions are doing to secure their positions in the rapidly changing, technologically driven global marketplace.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce recently took local leaders to New York City to study an ambitious initiative to strengthen the city’s offerings in applied sciences. Considering it a smart investment, city government offered publicly owned land and up to $100 million in capital to help attract a new $2 billion applied science and engineering campus to Roosevelt Island.
A unique partnership between Cornell University and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, this new campus has already spurred complementary efforts by Columbia University, New York University and Carnegie Mellon University.
This initiative drives home two critical points. First, in the 21st century, enhancing a region’s economic health and creating great job opportunities depends on having highly skilled workers to offer to employers. Second, other regions are working hard to enhance their ability to provide this talent. The New York example was eye-opening, but hardly unique. At the chamber’s annual Regional Leadership Conference last fall, attendees heard about economic development initiatives in leading cities across the country and around the globe.
Few cities are positioned as strongly as Seattle to succeed in a fast-paced, interconnected and technological world. Our local innovation sector is the envy of other cities. In addition to established and valuable industry clusters such as aerospace and software, our region enjoys a thriving biotechnology and global health sector and we are seeing an emerging clean-energy sector.
The success of these and other industries is directly tied to our highly skilled workforce — nearly half of all local workers over 25 have a postsecondary degree.
Unfortunately, many of these talented individuals are currently being imported from other regions because local companies can’t find the talent they need here. According to a 2013 Boston Consulting Group and Washington Roundtable study, there are 34,000 unfilled local jobs because employers can’t find qualified candidates — and that number is projected to increase to 50,000 over the next three years.
This skills gap means that too many of our own young people can’t take advantage of some of the most exciting career opportunities being created by local employers.
The bottom line: Our region is in a great position now, but we can’t take our current economic health for granted. The infamous billboard asking the last person leaving Seattle to turn out the lights reminds us that continued success isn’t guaranteed.
For Seattle to secure its place among leading centers of global commerce and innovation in the coming years, aggressive actions must be taken to close the existing skills gap, create great new job opportunities for local residents, and attract international investment, research and collaboration.
In a knowledge-based economy, higher-education institutions play a key role in creating and sustaining economic opportunities, particularly in the critical fields of applied sciences and engineering that serve as the foundation of so many new economic and job opportunities.
In addition to their traditional research and degree production roles, higher-education institutions also must work with employers and the broader community to find new and innovative ways to offer students and faculty the ability to tackle real-world problems in a creative, global setting.
Remaining globally competitive will require all of us to work together. We can begin by asking ourselves some challenging questions:
Why can’t we transform our education system to prepare all kids for the global economy?
Why can’t our region lead the country in math, science and engineering degrees?
Why can’t the Puget Sound find new ways to stimulate research and innovation?
Other regions are answering these questions with smart investments and innovative programs.
Why not us?
Randy Hodgins is vice president for external affairs at the University of Washington. Maud Daudon is president and chief executive of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.


Here is my venting reply in a letter to the editor:

What makes Seattle attractive to many of us is that we don’t live by the beliefs that the authors of this article do.

We do not see that their are 34,000 unfilled positions: we see that tech and science jobs get hundreds of applicants per position, and we don’t believe that all of these applicants are unqualified. Those of us with feet on the ground- how many unfilled positions have you run into, lately?

We believe in public schools- not in the “I -believe -in-public-schools-except- for-my-child”- way, but that public schools are the basis of democracy and the foundation of citizenship. We do not believe schools exist to produce workers for business. We work in and for the schools, and see how successful they can be. We are pretty tired of business people saying that the schools don’t work and something must be done. They usually have a solution to sell.

We are disappointed in the University of Washington state system, whose tuition is unreachable for so many students.

We are shocked that UW in Seattle has chosen to privatize many of the most desired and useful (for the world, as well as for students) degrees. UW Professional & Continuing Education programs (PCE) in Biotechnology & Biomedical, etc must be self-supporting, not even getting indirect costs from UW (unlike the Athletics Department), and PCE tuition can cost $50,000 for a Masters degree!

We see that a minimum wage of 15.00 would allow people to better support themselves.

We see that the way to lead in research and innovation is not to emulate what NYC or other places are doing. We have unique strengths.

We see many researchers who have lost their grant money to other federal priorities (war takes over 50% of the discretionary budget), and who must depend on the whims of the 1% for help. We know that many researchers (and teachers, etc) do those jobs because they want to help the world, not to be part of the race for global competitiveness.

While we believe in the power of science and technology, we don’t believe that science and technology alone will help the world or the city of Seattle. We certainly don’t think business has the answer. We need thoughtful, engaged global citizens who make decisions that will benefit everyone, not just themselves. We need everyone.

This is a beautiful city, rich in natural beauty and intentional citizens. The fear-based push for “competitiveness” is a race few are running, and is no basis for a viable city.

Kathy Barker


The editor at the Seattle Times asked if I could revise the letter to 200 words, which I did (and it sounds much better, with the venting removed!) and resubmitted the following:

Many of us don’t see 34,000 unfilled positions: we see that tech and science jobs get hundreds of applicants per position, and we don’t believe that all of these applicants are unqualified.

We believe public schools are the basis of democracy and the foundation of citizenship. We do not believe schools exist to produce workers for business.

We are disappointed in the University of Washington state system, whose tuition is unreachable for so many students.

We are shocked that UW Professional & Continuing Education programs (PCE) can cost $50,000 for a Masters degree.

We see that the way to lead in research and innovation is not to emulate what NYC or other places are doing. We have unique strengths.

We see many scientists who have lost their grant money to other federal priorities (war takes over 50% of the discretionary budget).

We know that many researchers (and teachers, etc) do their jobs because they want to help the world, not to be part of the race for global competitiveness.

This is a beautiful city, rich in natural beauty and intentional citizens. The fear-based push for “competitiveness” is a race few are running, and is no basis for a viable city.

Several lessons here for me:

-Check the word count before you send.

-Don’t vent.

– Don’t bring in issues or details not in the article you are responding to, unless your letter is solely about those details.




Military funding and the discretionary budget- the bigger picture in science funding.


Discretionary desk

Today is tax day.

We know little money is going to NIH and NSF (or social support programs), but who is getting it?

A peek at the discretionary budget, compiled by the National Priorities Project, will tell.

The USA Federal budget is divided into 3 main categories:

Mandatory funding (approximately 64%), entitlement programs such as Social Security with eligibility rules.

Discretionary spending (approximately 30%), determined by appropriations process in Congress yearly.

Interest on federal debt  (approximately 6%).

Science gets 2.5% of the discretionary budget. Food and agriculture- and this, with loud pronouncement by scientists and the White House on the effects of climate change- is 1.1%

The military gets 55.2 %. That’s about 640 billion dollars.

It’s really unclear exactly how much money is where. Below is another chart, from the War Resisters League which shows the total federal budget for 2015. Contributions to science are sprinkled about, and military money is embedded within other categories in some cases. The web site will give a great deal more information on the budget, and explain how high a priority military spending is.


FY2015 pie chart front  web


So, when wanting more money for NSF and NIH, considered from what other source it might be coming from… Food stamps? Education?

How about from the military?

And yes, this is an issue scientists can be involved with. The War Resisters League has terrific suggestions on whom you can contact to express your opinion about federal spending.



Why science is telling us all to revolt…


Mention “capitalism” in a group of scientists, and most will grow uncomfortable. Scientists do not learn about the history of science and its relationship to economics in graduate school, and many scientists believe their profession to be untouched by the policies that affect the rest of the world. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine,” herself an environmental activist, wonderfully sees that environmental scientists are moving beyond the bench and ivory tower to broadcast and exhort action on climate change as well as the economic underpinnings of that change.

It won’t be polite and pretty, but Klein argues that change cannot happen without activist scientists who connect personal and policy decisions to the pure science of climate change.

As Klein points out in her article, there have always been scientists who have gone beyond academic avenues to protest policies and urge change. But this has generally been in reaction to a particular event. In her article, “Why Science is Telling All of Us to Revolt and Change Our Lives Before We Destroy the Planet,” Klein highlights geophysicist Brad Werner of the University of California, San Diego and climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K. as scientists who speaking out not only on the effects of climate change, but on the underlying politics that must be changed if the world is to be saved.

Bows-Larkin and Anderson believe we have lost the chance for gradually cutting CO2 emissions, and must drastically reduce energy consumption now by at least 10% a year to even have a 50-50 chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius (an increase of 2 percent Celsius has been predicted to be the threshold for climate catastrophe). A 10 % reduction a year has not occurred since the 1929 Depression: After the 2008 crash of Wall Street, emissions were reduced by 7% and only for 2 years before rebounding. The impact of such cuts on the developing world  could destroy communities, and finding ways to handle the inequities of the impact of needed CO2 emission cuts must also be considered. These drastic cuts cannot occur with capitalism as it is now structured.

They fault other climate scientists for not speaking strongly and realistically enough to get across either the scientific predictions of climate change, or the economic and political steps that will be needed to reduce CO2 emissions.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” Anderson and Bows-Larkin further document what a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature would look like- the loss of sea corals, an increase in flooding and droughts. But they also point out that the continued increase in emissions is on target to cause not a 2, but a 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature, and that a 4 degree increase would result in a 30% reduction in wheat and rice yields at low latitudes, and 80 cm sea rise that would be devastating for coastal communities. Swings of temperatures would bring even more temperatures, so we are looking at temperatures approximately 10 degrees warmer in New York and Chicago, which would wreck havoc with area ecosystems.

To even hope to reduce emissions, we cannot wait for low carbon energy supplies such as wind and solar to be in place. We are out of time. We must, Bows-Larkin and Anderson say, reduce consumption immediately, and scientists must speak out and be absolutely clear about climate predictions, and what it takes to mitigate them. They must communicate with the public, with politicians, in traditional and non-tradtitional ways, no matter what it takes.

Furthermore, scientists must also realize they they, too, must cut back with their own consumption. One example Anderson gives for scientists is to cut down on their work plane flights: Anderson himself traveled to China from the U.K. to do a lecture tour in Manchester by train. As he points out, it is not just the train emissions versus plane emissions, but the constant lifestyle choices of flying around the world, taking taxis instead of public transport, doing and spending to  save time and add comfort.

“We do not have to keep flying around the world in a sort of old-fashioned, colonial style. You know, here’s the great white hope, the great white males from the rich parts of the world, flying around to the poor parts of the world, telling them how they should be living their lives, “ said Anderson.

No one wants to hear or believe that is isn’t enough to advocate that others cut down on travel, or to rationalize that we are doing our part because of the work we do. Scientists are not entitled to be exempted from the hard work of reducing energy consumption. None of us can wait until policies change, but we all need to make individual lifestyle changes to reduce damage to the world.

“How Science Is Telling Us All to Revolt.” Naomi Klein. The New Statesman, October 29, 2013.

“We Have To Consume Less”: Scientists Call for Radical Economic Overhaul to Avert Climate Crisis. Amy Goodman. Democracy Now! December 9, 2013.