Saturday at the AAAS

Saturday (and Sunday) held many more interesting symposia at the 2011 AAAS conference. Here are a few brief thoughts on the ones I attended.

The University of the Future. The increasing role of technology in undergraduate and graduate education was a common thread in this symposium led by four public university presidents and chancellors. The modes by which teaching is accomplished are already changing (pod casts, YouTube, Twitter, etc) and we can expect accelerated changes in the future that are significantly different than the traditional lecture-style teaching. Another theme was the financial challenges facing universities, specifically the decreasing role of state funding for public universities — most of the universities discussed received ~5% of their funding from the state, yet the states have much more than 5% of the power in university decision making. Several presidents indicated that the state is in unreliable partner and expressed desire for a federally-supported public university system. The US constitution does not directly address public education, so by default the power falls to the states. However, President James Duderstadt of U. Michigan in Ann Arbor said that in an increasingly globalized world where people are free to move from state to state, the nation benefits more from an educated citizenry than do individual states. The university system provides many public goods beyond education– much of US innovation stems from university based research. Financial struggles are forcing many public universities to turn to private investors and to enroll more out-of-state students (who pay the full price of tuition) to meet costs. While this is good for diversity of the student body, it heightens competition for in-state students, who may rely on lower in-state-tuition. There are a lot of issues at play (I’ve only touched on a few that were discussed), but one thing is certain–bold changes are soon coming to the US university system.

If a Culture of Growth is Unsustainable, What Should Change? Unfortunately I could only catch the first 2 hours of this symposium (meaning I heard the part describing the problem and missed the part about solutions). Peter Raven began the talks with a discussion of biodiversity–its importance to humans and to the ecosystem, as well as the shocking rate of extinction occurring in more recent times. Raven emphasized that biodiversity of crop plants is a source of disease/pest resistance and the ability to grow in diverse (or changing) environments–an essential characteristic for adaption to climate change. Although 1.9 million species have been identified, greater than 12 million eukaryotic species are expected to live on earth. However, in the last few hundred years the extinction rate of species on earth has been scarily fast (100 species per 1million per year by some conservative estimates), as a direct consequence of a growing human population and consumption. The growth of humans (especially those of us who live in countries with high standards of living i.e. high consumption like the USA) is unsustainable. Ward Chesworth followed up on some compelling facts about soil and water consumption (70% of fresh water on earth goes to farms). Robert Constanza spoke of creating a culture where economic growth is not the goal, but rather sustainable communities operating at sustainable levels, citing studies that show once a certain level of standard of living is met, “happiness” as measured by the Genuine Progress Indicators does not continue to rise with GDP. Constanza emphasized that there have been great cultural shifts in the past, so it’s not impossible to think that the world could have a dramatic cultural shift from growth to sustainability. After the first depressing, yet realistic, introduction to this symposium, I was ready for a little optimism, despite the incredible hurdles the world faces over long term sustainability. Chesworth quoted Aldo Leopold on this very topic: ” the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”

Waste Not Want Not: Waste as the World’s Most Abundant Renewable Resource. Energy expert, Michael Webber of the University of Texas at Austin (see FOSEP’s 2010 event listings) organized this symposium on Sunday morning about all the ways in which “waste”–garbage, food waste, heat, spent nuclear fuel, etc.) can be used to extract further energy. Here’s a scary fact–8 to 10% of energy consumption in the US goes into making food, and then American’s throw out 25-30% of it all! What would your grandmother say about that? Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis spoke about his work extracting energy from the food waste, green clippings, organically based trash, and animal waste created on campus. Through anaerobic digestion of the waste, they gather methane and hydrogen which is burned to heat water and to create electricity. He spoke of an inspirational project in his home town in Germany in which a town of 1000 residents used this technology to heat every home. Amazingly, this system pays for itself in only 6 to 7 years in electricity savings (at the rate charged in Germany). Dale Klein, also of the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about extracting further energy from spent nuclear fuel, which is already being done in France. Sadly, I had to leave early to catch my flight and missed the rest of this symposium.

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