Biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century

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5760 Scientists at Vatican conference are searching for a solution to the man-made ‘major extinction event.’

One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken. That is the stark view of the world’s leading biologists, ecologists and economists who will gather on Monday to determine the social and economic changes needed to save the planet’s biosphere.

“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organizers of the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week.

Threatened creatures such as the tiger or rhino may make occasional headlines, but little attention is paid to the eradication of most other life forms, they argue. But as the conference will hear, these animals and plants provide us with our food and medicine. They purify our water and air while also absorbing carbon emissions from our cars and factories, regenerating soil, and providing us with aesthetic inspiration.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

un-sdgsMonday’s meeting is one of a series set up by the Vatican on ecological issues – which Pope Francis has deemed an urgent issue for the Catholic church. “We need to unravel the processes that led to the ills we are now facing,” said one of the conference’s organizers, the economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, of Cambridge University. “That is why the Vatican Symposium involve natural and social scientists, as well as scholars from the humanities. That the symposia are being held at the Pontifical Academy is also symbolic. It shows that the ancient hostility between science and the church, at least on the issue of preserving Earth’s services, has been quelled.”

But not everyone is happy about the meeting. The involvement of Ehrlich – who believes that wider use of birth control is needed to halt the world’s spiraling population – has been denounced by many conservative Catholics. They have set up a petition calling for the pope to withdraw the invitation for him to speak on Monday. “I believe they have about 11,000 signatures,” Ehrlich told the Observer. “The pope has not changed his mind, however.”

pope-pontifical-academy-of-sciencesPope Francis with members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

He remained uncompromising on population control: “If you value people, you want to have the maximum number you can support sustainability. You do not want almost 12 billion living sustainability on Earth by the end of the century – with the result that civilization will collapse and there are only a few hundred survivors.”

A world population of around a billion would have an overall pro-life effect, Ehrlich argued. This could be supported for many millennia and sustain many more human lives in the long-term compared with our current uncontrolled growth and prospect of sudden collapse.

This point was backed by another conference organizer, biologist Professor Peter H. Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife. Yet we rely on the living world to sustain ourselves. It is very frightening. The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilization than climate change – for the simple reason they are irreversible.”

UN statistics suggest that the global population will increase from the current 7.4 billion to 11.2 billion by 2100. And as Dasgupta noted, most of these extra billions will appear in Africa, where the fertility rate is still twice that of the rest of the world.

“Africa’s]population is likely to go from roughly one billion now to around 4 billion,” said Dasgupta. “Can you imagine what tensions there are going to be there, especially with climate change coming and hitting the continent more than anywhere else? What do you think is going to happen when the arid regions spread, and a hundred million Africans try to swim across the Mediterranean? It is terrifying.”

The crucial point is to put the problem of biological extinctions in a social context, he said. “That gives us a far better opportunity of working out what we need to in the near future. We have to act quickly, however.”

Ehrlich agreed: “If you look at the figures, it is clear that to support today’s world population sustainability – and I emphasize the word sustainability – you would require another half a planet to provide us with those resources. However, if everyone consumed resources at the US level – which is what the world aspires to – you will need another four or five Earths.

“We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. We have the capacity to stop that. The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Craig Venter Mapped The Genome. Now He’s Trying To Decode Death

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us-president-bill-clinton-applauds-dr-craig-venter– US President Bill Clinton applauds Dr. Craig Venter, President of the Celera Genomics Corporation (L) as they announce the completion of the initial sequencing of the human genome June 26 in the East Room of the White House.

THE WORLD’S MOST EXTREME physical exam starts in the world’s plushest exam room, complete with a couch, a private bathroom and a teeming fruit plate. It will be my home for an entire day. First come the blood tests, vial after vial. Then two 35-minute sessions in an MRI tube, where REM and U2 try to drown out the clanks as the machine takes pictures of my entire body. There’s an ultrasound of my heart. Salade Niçoise for lunch. A stool sample. A cognitive test in which letters flash on a computer screen at a dizzying pace. And a CT scan of my heart as well, which originally seemed so over-the-top for someone my age that I tried to get out of it.

“In Vietnam, I used to do autopsies on 18-to-22-year-olds, and a lot of them had cardiovascular disease,” J. Craig Venter, the architect of the process, says with a shrug, before adding, ominously, “We find things. The question is what you do with it.”

Yes, it’s that Craig Venter, the man in the late 1990s who, frustrated by the slow progress of the government-funded Human Genome Project, launched an effort that sequenced human DNA two years earlier than planned (he was subsequently the first human to have his complete DNA sequenced). He hasn’t slowed down since. He sailed around the world in a voyage inspired by Darwin’s journey on the Beagle, discovering thousands of new species along the way. He has created synthetic life and started three companies, and was almost a billionaire before being fired from one of the most promising, Celera Genomics.

Now he’s back with his most ambitious project since his historic breakthrough 17 years ago. He’s raised $300 million from investors including Celgene and GE Ventures for a new firm, Human Longevity, that’s trying to take the DNA information he helped unlock and figure out how to leverage it to cheat death for years, or even decades.

Core to the effort is the $25,000 executive physical, branded the Health Nucleus, that I’m taking (disclosure: I got tested for free). It’s certainly very thorough–and, to many doctors, precisely the wrong approach, owing to all the false positives. “Study after study of various kinds of screening measures has shown they do more harm than good,” says Steven Nissen, the chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. “You do a total body MRI and you’re lucky if you don’t find something. I don’t think it’s good medicine.”

Venter scoffs. “We’re screening healthy people, and a lot of physicians don’t like that,” he acknowledges. “My response is: How do you know they’re healthy? We use a definition of health out of the Middle Ages: If you look okay and you feel okay, you’re deemed healthy. We have a different way of looking at people.”

Now 70, Venter cites himself. Last year, he underwent his own physical and says he found prostate cancer, which was removed last November. The man he has called his “scientific muse,” Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, 85, found he had a deadly lymphoma in his lung. It has also been treated, and Smith says his prognosis is good.

The famously gruff Venter is entirely comfortable ticking off the establishment, no matter what that establishment is, and the feeling is mutual. His DNA breakthrough was one of the great scientific accomplishments of the 20th century, yet he never won a Nobel Prize. Academics view him as someone interested in profits over science. “He’s a very insecure person who compensates by coming across as very arrogant and aggressive,” says one former collaborator. Similarly, Venter’s discoveries have upended industries, yet his business track record, including a brief flirtation with billionairehood, is checkered, as connections to past backers and bosses have gone up in flames. “He has irritated a lot of people,” says Harvard genetics professor George Church, a Venter fan. “It’s a pity.”

Thus, Human Longevity offers Venter a last chance to square his legacy, awe the scientists and make billions in the process, all the while shaking the foundation of a topic that precisely 100% of homo sapiens have a keen interest in: how and when each of us will die.

VENTER HAS DISPLAYED POTENTIAL, BOTH achieved and unrealized, almost since birth. Growing up in Millbrae, California, near what was emerging as Silicon Valley, he had such bad grades that by high school his worried mother sometimes checked his arms for track marks. The first glimmer of his future success was in swimming. He was initially mediocre, but when a coach sent him home for the summer with tips, his competitive streak kicked in. He spent three months training furiously and never again lost a race. “Had things been different I would have been competing for the Olympics,” Venter says. “But Lyndon Johnson changed that for me with the draft.”

Swimming unlocked his potential, but Vietnam made him who he is. At age 20 he served as a Navy hospital corpsman, triaging troops who came back from battle, including the Tet Offensive. Deciding who would live and who would die was so traumatic that he says he considered suicide and swam far out to sea intending to drown. He says he had a change of heart a mile out after a shark prodded him. But he’d go through Vietnam again. “Knowing the outcome and what it did for my personal growth, I would force myself to do it again if I had the choice,” Venter says.

After he returned to the States, he went to community college, then the University of California, San Diego, where he initially wanted to be a doctor but discovered science. He eventually completed his Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology, became a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976 and, in 1984, joined the National Institutes of Health.

At the NIH the themes that would define his career locked into place: productivity, perceived greed, the conflicts between pure science and industry money. Using a new technology, he discovered thousands of human genes. The NIH made the unprecedented decision to patent them in his name, and colleagues blamed Venter, calling him greedy. Nobel laureate James Watson said he was “horrified.” Venter insists he was always against the patents but that the NIH did it anyway.

Frustrated, he started a nonprofit institute in 1992, with a unique model. He raised money from venture capitalists, on the condition that he share his data with a for-profit company, Human Genome Sciences, before he published it. The relationship ended unhappily in 1997 because of arguments over data disclosure, with Venter walking away from $40 million in research funding. “I paid a lot of money to get rid of [Human Genome Sciences],” Venter says.

But in 1995, Venter’s institute made a real breakthrough: the first genome, or map of the genetic code of an organism, in this case a type of bacterium. It was a suggestion from Ham Smith. They had met at a scientific conference in Spain in 1993 and gone out drinking, starting a two-decade-plus collaboration. Foreshadowing his later race with the Human Genome Project, Venter and Smith’s bacterial genome map beat similar projects in academia by many months.

That led a California unit of lab equipment maker Perkin-Elmer, which made DNA sequencers, to approach Venter. If he could sequence a bacterial genome, why not use the company’s newest machines to sequence a human genome?

Charles Darwin’s 1831 voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle helped lay the groundwork for his theory of evolution. In 2004, J. Craig Venter set off on his own circumnavigation of the globe aboard his 100-foot sailboat, Sorcerer II, to identify millions of previously undiscovered genes . Map: Jack Molloy for Forbes.Charles Darwin’s 1831 voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle helped lay the groundwork for his theory of evolution. In 2004, J. Craig Venter set off on his own circumnavigation of the globe aboard his 100-foot sailboat, Sorcerer II, to identify millions of previously undiscovered genes . Map: Jack Molloy for Forbes.Venter couldn’t say no, which led to Celera Genomics‘ founding in 1998. It not only succeeded in overtaking the $3 billion Human Genome Project, an international consortium funded largely by the U.S. government, but it also mapped the genomes of the fruit fly and the mouse, both important laboratory animals. In the process, Venter angered scientists globally, aghast that such research would be driven by profit rather than knowledge. At the time, James Watson reportedly became so enraged he compared Venter to Hitler, asking colleagues who they were going to be–Chamberlain or Churchill? But the pressure of private enterprise ultimately spurred results, both at Celera and the public group, which improved their methods and accelerated their research. As a result, the two groups jointly announced they had mapped the entire human genome–an achievement that our grand-kids will be reading about in their textbooks–at the White House on June 26, 2000.

In the age of the dot-com boom, Celera became a highflier, raising $855 million in a stock offering in February 2000 and peaking at a market capitalization of $14 billion just before the entire market started to collapse in March. Venter’s stake briefly surpassed $700 million. He says he gave half his shares to his nonprofit foundation, which then sold half of them, netting more than $150 million, which has funded his science ever since.

It was a necessary scientific nest egg. Celera struggled to invent drugs and diagnostic tests based on its pioneering research, and Venter bickered constantly with the board. They wanted Celera to become a pharma giant and invent medicines in-house. Venter simply wanted to be a scientist and sell other companies his data. He was fired in January 2002, days before a quarter of his stock options would vest. “Being fired in the way it was done was about as slimy as anybody could do it,” Venter says. Celera limped along until 2011, when it was sold to Quest Diagnostics for $344 million. ( Forbes estimates that Venter’s current net worth, based on his stakes in his two startups, is $300 million.) Venter’s baby had essentially been sold for parts.

WITH HUMAN LONGEVITY, VENTER HOPES TO solve the problem that ultimately limited the efficacy of Celera and the Human Genome Project. Those two groups produced an “average” DNA sequence. That’s incredibly important for a science textbook, but for individuals, it’s the differences–how one person’s genes are different from another’s, leading to different noses, eye colors and, yes, diseases–that matter.

Venter says that, thanks to new technology, he can generate the data that can determine those differences. At Celera, Venter loved to show off his 25,000-square-foot rooms of DNA sequencing machines. But just one modern desktop DNA sequencer is as powerful as a thousand of those rooms and can map a person’s genome in days for about $1,000. The original Human Genome Project took more than a decade and at least $500 million to do the same thing. (Illumina, the San Diego firm that makes the desktop sequencers, is a big investor in Human Longevity.)

san-diego-illumina-4-638Human Longevity initially sequenced DNA from 40,000 people who had participated in clinical trials for the pharmaceutical companies Roche and AstraZeneca. Venter says this work has led to the discovery of genetic variations that can be found in young people but not older ones–meaning the young folks had genes incompatible with surviving into old age. Figuring out what these genes do could be the kind of breakthrough that would turn the promise of genome sequencing into a lifesaver.

Venter decided that he also needed a study of people that could collect even more data than you can get from a clinical trial. Hence, the $25,000 physical. And because people pay, it’s not only a source of data but also a revenue generator. At the moment, close to 500 people have gone through the physical. Venter hopes to be able to serve 2,000 annually as early as this year, which would generate $50 million in revenue. This isn’t exactly covered by Medicare. The market, for the moment, will be the wealthy and the occasional company looking out for key executives–the promise of health as the ultimate luxury item.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-3-38-31-pmDoctors hate it. “I’m massively skeptical,” says Benjamin Davies, a urologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’ve been down this road of investigating healthy patients, and it’s been a sordid road.” He points to a recent study that used CT scans to screen for lung cancer: 60% of patients needed follow-up tests, but only 1.5% had cancer. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said Venter’s work sounded like “fascinating science,” so long as the people taking the physical understand that this is research, not medicine.

Venter believes the problem with earlier screening tests is that they give too little data, not too much. He is his own evidence. He was the first person to get his DNA sequenced, and the results made him think his risk for most types of cancer was low. When he got prostate cancer, he asked his researchers why. They found what he calls “the likely perpetrator.”

It’s a change in the way his body responds to the hormone testosterone. Testosterone works by tripping a cellular receptor (think of it as a switch). The gene for that receptor is more effective if it has fewer “repeats” (bits of repeated, garbled genetic code). v

“Basically, I have a supersensitive testosterone receptor,” Venter says. “Everybody thought I had balls of steel. In fact, I have only six repeats in my androgen receptor.”

But Venter’s constant search for more data about his own biology also made the problem worse, illustrating one of the true dangers of the $25,000 physical. Years before, Venter learned that his testosterone levels were low and decided to take testosterone supplements. (Most doctors don’t recommend doing this.) It almost certainly made his tumor grow faster.

cancer_cells_1200x675About 40% of Health Nucleus‘ patients have found out they have something serious. Some, like Ham Smith’s lung cancer, absolutely needed to be treated. Venter insists Smith’s tumor might have killed him had it been discovered a few weeks later. But for most of Human Longevity’s patients, the results are not so clear-cut. I’m lucky: My MRI results showed nothing save that my hippocampus, a part of the brain that forms memories, is of only average size. (My DNA sequence isn’t in yet.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would do if I’d learned about a tumor or an aneurysm, and whether this whole endeavor is a bad idea. But I also haven’t been able to get myself to regret going through it. Knowledge about yourself is a very seductive offer. It’s one that Venter hopes will give him the data to finally deliver on the genome’s promise.

SIDEBAR: ARTIFICIAL LIFE

The dream of understanding life well enough to create it from scratch sounds like something out of Frankenstein. But Craig Venter is getting there, partly using investor money to fund the work. “There’s no government funding to make a synthetic species,” he says.

In 2010, a team led by Venter that included his closest lieutenant, Hamilton Smith, and synthetic-biology wunderkind Daniel Gibson synthesized a genome for the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides but with slight changes: their names and a James Joyce quote, all translated into a DNA code. Then they inserted the synthetic DNA into a bacterium and its original genome was destroyed. The cell functioned with the new, man-made DNA.

They’ve since made another bacterium whose genome has been edited to lack any extraneous genes. Researchers thought bacteria needed only 250 genes to stay alive, but Venter’s team found its germ needed 473–and nobody knows what 149 of them do. The resulting minimal genome could be useful for understanding which genes are really important.

But there have already been commercial applications for this work. Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) was founded around them in 2005. In 2009 Exxon Mobil pledged up to $300 million to create algae that can produce a biofuel that is cheaper than gasoline.

Other projects involve drug manufacturing (including a project to rapidly prototype experimental vaccines), a partnership with Johnson & Johnson in drug research and an effort, with the biotechnology firm United Therapeutics, to create pigs whose organs can be safely transplanted into humans. SGI has also made a relatively inexpensive DNA printer that allows bench scientists to easily modify genetic material. It costs between $50,000 and $75,000. Fifty have been sold so far, but SGI chief executive Oliver Fetzer says the near-term addressable market could be worth $500 million. –M.H.

 

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Winston Churchill’s essay on alien life found

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winston-churchill– Photo: Winston Churchill at his desk in 1939: a prolific writer, he covered scientific topics as diverse as evolution and fusion power.

A newly unearthed article by the great politician reveals that he reasoned like a scientist about the likelihood of extraterrestrials.

Winston Churchill is best known as a wartime leader, one of the most influential politicians of the twentieth century, a clear-eyed historian and an eloquent orator. He was also passionate about science and technology.

Aged 22, while stationed with the British Army in India in 1896, he read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a primer on physics. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote popular-science essays on topics such as evolution and cells in newspapers and magazines. In a 1931 article in The Strand Magazine entitled ‘Fifty Years Hence1, he described fusion power: “If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousand-horsepower engine for a whole year.” His writing was likely to have been informed by conversations with his friend and later adviser, the physicist Frederick Lindemann.

winston-churchill1During the Second World War, Churchill supported the development of radar and Britain’s nuclear program. He met regularly with scientists such as Bernard Lovell, the father of radio astronomy. An exchange about the use of statistics to fight German U-boats captures his attitude. Air Chief Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris complained, “Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?” Churchill replied, “Let’s try the slide rule.”2

He was the first prime minister to employ a science adviser, hiring Lindemann in the early 1940s. The science-friendly environment that Churchill created in the United Kingdom through government funding of laboratories, telescopes and technology development spawned post-war discoveries and inventions in fields from molecular genetics to X-ray crystallography.

Despite all this, it was a great surprise last year, while I was on a visit to the US National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, when the director Timothy Riley thrust a typewritten essay by Churchill into my hands. In the 11-page article,Are We Alone in the Universe?,’ he muses presciently about the search for extraterrestrial life.

winston-churchill2He penned the first draft, perhaps for London’s News of the World Sunday newspaper, in 1939 — when Europe was on the brink of war. He revised it lightly in the late 1950s while staying in the south of France at the villa of his publisher, Emery Reves. For example, he changed the title from Are We Alone in Space? toAre We Alone in the Universe?‘ to reflect changes in scientific understanding and terminology. Wendy Reves, the publisher’s wife, passed the manuscript to the US National Churchill Museum archives in the 1980s.

Riley, who became director of the museum in May 2016, has just rediscovered it. To the best of Riley’s knowledge, the essay remained in the Reves’s private collection and has never been published or subjected to scientific or academic scrutiny. Imagine my thrill that I may be the first scientist to examine this essay.

Here I outline Churchill’s thinking. At a time when a number of today’s politicians shun science, I find it moving to recall a leader who engaged with it so profoundly.

Modern thinking

copernican-principleChurchill’s reasoning mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology. In essence, he builds on the framework of the Copernican Principle — the idea that, given the vastness of the Universe, it is hard to believe that humans on Earth represent something unique. He starts by defining the most important characteristic of life — in his view, the ability to “breed and multiply.” After noting that some viruses can be crystallized, making them hard to categorize, he decides to concentrate on “comparatively highly-organised life,” presumably multicellular life.

His first point is that “all living things of the type we know require water”. Bodies and cells are largely composed of it, he notes. Other liquids cannot be ruled out but “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption”. The presence of water in liquid form still guides our searches for extraterrestrial life: on Mars, on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter or on Extrasolar Planets (beyond our Solar System). As well as being essential for the emergence of life on Earth, water is abundant in the cosmos. This wonderfully universal solvent — almost every substance can dissolve in it — can transport such chemicals as phosphates into and out of cells.

– NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona

An image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Martian surface, where the search for water is ongoing.

Churchill then defines what is known today as the habitable zone — that narrow ‘Goldilocks’ region around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot, so that liquid water may exist on the surface of a rocky planet. He writes that life can survive only in regions “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water.” He explains how Earth’s temperature is fixed by its distance from the Sun. Churchill also considers the ability of a planet to retain its atmosphere, explaining that the hotter a gas is, the faster its molecules are moving and the more easily they can escape. Consequently, stronger gravity is necessary to trap gas on a planet in the long term.

Taking all these elements together, he concludes that Mars and Venus are the only places in the Solar System other than Earth that could harbour life. He eliminates the outer planets (too cold); Mercury (too hot on the sunny side and too cold on the other); and the Moon and asteroids (their gravities are too weak to trap atmospheres).

the-martian-chroniclesChurchill began his essay not long after the 1938 US broadcast of the radio drama The “War of the Worlds” (an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1898 story) had generated ‘Mars fever’ in the media. Speculation over the existence of life on the red planet had been going on since the late nineteenth century. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described seeing linear marks on Mars (canali; mistranslated as canals) that were thought to be constructed by some civilization. These turned out to be optical illusions but the idea of Martians stuck. Science-fiction stories abounded, culminating with Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ (Doubleday, 1950), published in the United Kingdom as The Silver Locusts (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1951).

Cosmic outlook

Churchill’s essay next assesses the probability that other stars host planets. He reasons that “the sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others”. Churchill assumes that planets are formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it — a model suggested by astrophysicist James Jeans in 1917, which has since been ruled out. He infers that, because such close encounters are rare, “our sun may be indeed exceptional, and possibly unique.”

Now Churchill shines. With the healthy skepticism of a scientist, he writes: “But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed in this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they could be formed, why not planetary systems?”

Indeed, the present-day theory of planet formation — the build up of a rocky planet’s core by the accretion of many small bodies — is very different from Jeans’s. Churchill writes: “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.”

“Churchill sees great opportunity for exploration in the Solar System.”

Thus, he concludes, a large fraction of Extrasolar Planets “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort” and some will be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature”.

This was decades before the discoveries of thousands of extrasolar planets began in the 1990s, and years before astronomer Frank Drake presented his probabilistic argument for the rarity of communicating civilizations in the cosmos in 1961. Extrapolating data from the Kepler Space Observatory suggests that the Milky Way probably contains more than a billion Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of stars that are the size of the Sun or smaller3.

Reflecting on the enormous distances involved, Churchill concludes that we may never know whether such planets “house living creatures, or even plants.”

Bigger picture

Churchill sees great opportunity for exploration in the Solar System. “One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the moon, or even to Venus or Mars,” he writes. By contrast, he notes, interstellar travel and communication are intrinsically difficult. He points out that it would take light some five years to travel even to the nearest star and back, adding that the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way (Andromeda — one of the “spiral nebulae”, as he calls them) is more than several hundred thousand times as far away as the nearest stars.

The essay finishes eagerly: “with hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.” Here Churchill shows that he was familiar with the findings of astronomer Edwin Hubble in the late 1920s and early 1930s, who discovered that there are many galaxies beyond the Milky Way (about 2 trillion, according to a recent estimate4).

winston-churchill1Taking a bleaker turn that reflects his times, Churchill adds: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Almost 80 years later, the question that obsessed Churchill is one of the hottest topics of scientific research. Searches for signs of subsurface life on Mars are ongoing. Simulations of Venus’s climate hint that it may once have been habitable5. Astronomers believe that, in a few decades, we will discover some biological signatures of present or past life in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, or at least be able to constrain its rarity6.

Timely find

Churchill’s essay is testament to how he saw the fruits of science and technology as essential for society’s development. When he helped to establish Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1958, he wrote7: “It is only by leading mankind in the discovery of new worlds of science and engineering that we shall hold our position and continue to earn our livelihood.”

Yet he was also concerned that without understanding the humanities, scientists might operate in a moral vacuum. “We need scientists in the world but not a world of scientists,” he said.8 In order for science to be “the servant and not the master of man”, he felt that appropriate policies that drew on humanistic values must be in place. As he put it in a 1949 address to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) convocation: “If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame.”

Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.

 

 

 

 

References

  1. Churchill, W.Fifty Years HenceThe Strand Magazine (December 1931).Show context
  2. Jones, R. V. in Churchill (eds Blake, R. & Louis, W. R.) 437 (Clarendon Press, 1996).Show context
  3. Dressing, C. D. & Charbonneau, D. Astrophys. J. 767, 95 (2013).

    Show context

  4. Conselice, C. J., Wilkinson, A., Duncan, K. & Mortlock, A. Astrophys. J. 830, 83 (2016).

    Show context

  5. Way, M. J. et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 83768383 (2016).

    Show context

  6. Livio, M. & Silk, J. ‘Where Are They?’ Physics Today (in the press).Show context
  7. Churchill, W. ‘Churchill College’ The New Scientist 12 (15 May 1958).Show context
  8. Humes, J. C. Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman 82 (Regnery History, 2012).Show context

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and author. His upcoming book is WHY? What Makes Us Curious.

Corresponding author

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Putin’s Tough Choice: China Or The West

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putin1“With Tillerson’s confirmation, Exxon just annexed the United States,” –anonymous blogger.

‘Now the human drama watch begins; will Putin cave in to the demands of the West to renounce his allies in exchange for the improved relation and the dropping of sanctions?’

Eh, no! If you’re silly enough to ask that question, you’ve no idea what’s going on! Russia and China are forcing the US out of the Middle East altogether.

To many observers, the appointment of Rex Tillerson to the helm the State Dept signaled the Administration’s priority of supporting the oil industry, which in recent years has been under severe pressure from OPEC’s campaign of over-production that forced prices down to a post-recession low.

Seen from a different angle, the move also signals Exxon, the oil giant, establishing a strong connection with the Administration. As the former CEO of Exxon, and a member of the Board of Directors of the company that was the core of the original Rockefeller Family’s Standard Oil monopoly, Tillerson also brings direct contact with the Rockefeller Family, whose members remain on the Exxon Board.

Former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice,on the BoD, who also sits on the BoD, along with Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, both listed as an Exxon consultant, also were strong backers of Tillerson to Trump.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Henry Kissinger, for decades, the Rockefeller Family’s chief foreign policy advisor, with strong personal connections to Russian President Putin, has emerged as a chief foreign policy advisor to the Trump Administration.

rex-tillerson-and-putinNor is it surprising that published reports of Kissinger’s advice to Trump is to seek to normalize US/Russian relations, diametrically opposed to the Obama/Clinton policies of confrontation with Russia.

It is also part of a broader strategy to tempt Russia towards closer relations with the US/EU while sacrificing its growing close relations with China, viewed by Trump, as it was by Obama and Clinton, as the chief obstacle to the U.S. dominant global leadership. As a critical part of the deal, Russia is expected to accede to sacrifice its budding alliance with Iran.

Now the human drama watch begins; will Putin cave in to the demands of the West to renounce his allies in exchange for the improved relation and the dropping of sanctions?

The West has in hand some very powerful means of persuasion, including increased Russian access to the huge European energy market, restored western financial credit, access to Western technology, and a seat at the global decision-making table, all of which Russia badly needs and wants. Consider that three Russian proposed natural gas pipelines to Europe have been stalled since sanctions were imposed over Ukraine, leaving billions of dollars on the table.

Foreshadowing all of this was a news leak late last year in Germany’s Bild Zeitung, that Kissinger has drafted a plan to officially recognize Crimea as part of Russia and lift the Obama administration’s economic sanctions.

What this means for Russia, just now emerging from nearly two years of recession, is a possible return to prosperity, an offer that any national leader would find hard to resist. Related: Is Iran Planning On Breaking Its OPEC Pledge?

Putin’ supporters refuse to believe that the strong-minded autocrat will turn against his EurAsian friends, particularly China given the signed momentous multi-billion dollar energy deals with Russia, as well as Russia’s central position in the roll-out of the China’s enormous Silk Road project.

The problem for Russia is that the opportunities for participation in Chinese Silk Road ventures require heavy upfront investment with profits only linked to a distant future, while the Russian government budget is in dire need now. Instead, the Western promises, for example, such as pipelines, can be built in one year on already existing and ongoing projects with the EU, with guaranteed financing and payoffs.

Russia’s also understands that despite its emerging friendship with Iran, Iran is also the single strongest competitor to Russia for the European and Asian energy markets.

What are the signs that Putin may accede to the new deal? No doubt the signs will become clear first in Syria, where Trump has announced his intent to seek closer coordination with Russian military forces, as revealed in the recent Trump/Putin phone conversation.

According to depka.com, often referred to as the voice of Israeli intelligence, Putin has already reached an agreement with the US, Russia, and Turkey to develop separate safe haven zones in Syria that clearly exclude Iran and Hizbollah. Whether this report is wish-fulfillment or accurate is yet to be determined.

If this plan has really been approved by the US and Russia, as the Israeli site contends, then it’s clear that Iran and Hezbollah have been excluded, as per the strong demands of Israel and the Gulf Kingdoms, aimed at staunching the Iran crescent from extending through Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. It also would mean that the deal has been struck and Putin caved.

But that’s only one part of the Western plan, with much more to come. Unlike the more diplomatic Obama, Trump is on record stating that he believed that while the US military presence was at its height in Iraq, “we should have taken the oil,” and more critically, “…that we still can and should do it.” What the West wants is no less than a new deal that opens up Eurasia oil to US foreign investment. And that may be happening.

Consider that with the news of an improving energy market, due in large part to Saudi and Russian collaborative efforts, Russia announced a blockbuster deal for the sale of nearly 20% of state-owned Rosneft stock to a partnership of Glencore and Qatar’s sovereign fund.

Significantly, the deal shows Russia joining mid-eastern oil economies privatizing, or opening itself for world business, as the Saudis attempt another block-buster deal, privatizing some of their major assets in their government controlled oil company, Aramco, the largest oil company in the world.

This was closely followed by Kuwait announcement of its own major asset sale, Mexico’s announcement of its intentions to change its constitution to enable foreign investment in its energy industry that has been illegal since the 1930’s.

Most of these countries have very practical reasons for opening their energy assets to foreign investment, the most obvious is that a major enemy, ISIS, is at their gates, and they are in bad need of protection. This is happening at a time when the US President elect has recently announced to NATO allies that the price of US military protection is going up.

nato-expansionAt a time when Mid-Eastern oil producing countries feel most threatened, they may also expect a rise in costs of their NATO “insurance policy.” Only this time, the cost may be paid by allowing participation of Western producers in Mid-Eastern energy. On top of this, the BBC reports that the Saudi Minister of Energy just announced the prospect of increased financial investments in the US energy industry, where it already has billions invested in US refining and distribution.

It’s also important to note that the neither the Obama or Trump government have been eager to become the primary protectors of Middle Eastern governments. Western allies have complained bitterly about Obama’s reluctance to do more than “lead from behind.” If Trumps comments are to be believed, he also has little interest in raising US stakes in the region.

Instead, the Middle Eastern wars are being outsourced to the European members of NATO, where the absence of the US leaves a major strategic gap that some NATO members hope to plug with an alliance with Russia. To Europeans, a NATO military alliance with Russia against ISIS, and radical Islam, blessed by the new US Administration, automatically means that Russian sanctions must be eased, while the EU agrees to move the Crimea issue to the back burner.

There are also solid economic reasons for the Eurasian oil producing countries to open their energy markets to the world. For the last two and a half years, the oil markets been suffering from the Saudi engineered glut. The oil business is also threatened long term by climate change and the rising alternative energy competitors. For many of the Middle Eastern oil producers, it may be a good time to take some profit and share some of the risks.

What that means is that the starting gun has gone off. The oil market is once again open for business, with Exxon likely to be leading the way. The major difference though is that for the first time in many years, highly restricted regions, particularly in the Middle Eastern kingdoms, that have for decades been shut off to most of the world, are once more opening themselves for business, a reversal of historical dimensions.

How far they’re willing to open is unknown, but even Iraq and Iran, countries that been hard-nosed in negotiating with foreign oil industries, are suddenly being far more flexible in offering contracts much more favorable to oil companies. These new contracts include provisions that oil producers have long lobbied for, enabling producers to book oil as part of their reserves, a crucial element in determining their market share price.

As long as the threat from “jihadists” continues, the movement to cash out or at least share risk is likely to continue. In other words, they have little choice: it’s their money or their lives, a hold-up of biblical proportions.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments:

  • Charles on February 05 2017 said:
    Unbelievable. Everytime Obama turned around some conservative was crying about appeasement and invoking Neville Chamberlain. Now Trump is preparing to legitimize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that’s OK with the same crying conservatives. There is evil in this country and it’s time to root it out.
  • Risbo on February 06 2017 said:
    Wishful thinking
  • Dan on February 06 2017 said:
    When he is loved by all but the destroyed left, why choose? He is friends to all as he helps build the Eurasia economic system.
  • Dr Mamdouh G Salameh, International Oil Economist on February 07 2017 said:

    Robert Perk’s article titled:”Putin’s Tough Choice: Chine or the West” is a pipedream. Putin is a man of principle. He is also the greatest strategist on the international arena nowadays. He will never sacrifice his strategic partnership with China for the West. Both Russia and China rank their ties as the “peak” in mutual history. This can be judged by two analytical frameworks: their converging visions of the future world order and their harmonized national interests.

    The Chinese view on the world order at this historical juncture is shared and dovetailed by Putin’s Russia. Both sides hold the view that Washington’s alienation from both Beijing and Moscow is reflected by the deeply rooted fear of the US losing hegemonic status as the “only indispensable superpower”. The indications of the US fear are plenty. From Beijing’s point of view, the U.S. decision to restart a Cold War containment strategy with the pivot towards Asia was driven by misguided fear. From Moscow’s perspective, the Western alliance took advantage of post-Soviet chaos to push the Western sphere of influence towards the Russian border.

    In sharp contrast to mutual suspicion and deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing, the Chinese-Russian tie has proved to be a stable strategic partnership built on mutual understanding, respect and national interests.

    In view of the above, Putin will never sacrifice China for the West whom he doesn’t trust. He and China know that their strategic partnership is a healthy check on Washington’s “unipolar folly”.

  • Tony Papagallo on February 07 2017 said:
    thats a tough call for a man who has outwitted America at every turn.
    Trust China, or a barrel full of monkeys, like I said, its a tough call.
  • horace fase on February 07 2017 said:
    Why do you keep saying opec engineered the oil price fall. What about all the oil the US is pumping? The fact is that opec didnt act to prevent the oil price fall but they didnt cause it and you would have criticised it for protectionism if it tried to prevent the fall to $30. Now opec is acting, and the US is undermining their efforts by increasing production again. Isnt that great? Well no, because the oil market is inelastic, if there is no control the price will swing back and forth from glut to shortage. This is damaging to the global economy, destabilising to countries and painful for everyone. America first and screw everyone else? It doesnt work like that, America needs a healthy growing global economy.
  • Shahna on February 07 2017 said:

    How’;s that a tough choice?

    They go with the country that respects sovereignty and keeps promises and deals or…
    with the one that ignores sovereignty and breaks promises and deals quicker’n the drop of a hat?

    Uhm…. if you were the one doing the choosing – which would YOU choose?

  • Xing An on February 09 2017 said:
    Tough choice? Hahaha! That is an American delusion. The Americans have brought down the Soviet Union and Putin’s heart burns every time he thinks of it. He has been appointed by destiny to execute vengeance on the Americans. He shares a vision with China to build a Eurasian block that is independent of the West. Putin is a true statesman and a patriot. He will not cave in for a few carrots. He knows how depraved the Americans are. Americans are simply projecting their own image onto Putin to think that he is so cheap. They are like the devil who brought Jesus to a high mountain and told him, “I will give you the whole world if you bow down and worship me.”
  • Alex on February 09 2017 said:
    Putin would be very stupid to trust those who lied to Russia since 1990’s. Russia is out of recession while sanctions are enforced and is not desperate for any western “help” (better to say plunder).
  • RussianJew on February 09 2017 said:
    When people with no principles try to analyze people with ones the results are very funny – like that quite incoherent piece above. Those who know Russia are laughing.
  • Russ Ramey on February 11 2017 said:
    Russia and the West have much in common, both with an uneasy history dealing with the Middle Kingdom. The PRC and it’s predecessors have a well known desire for the massive amount of open land and resources in Siberia.
    The majority of the working people of the PRC have not benefited from Chairman Mao’s great experiment in Marxism. The system will never produce prosperity much less freedom for all her workers. It cannot.
    Putin is a pragmatist, a master chess player, an egotist of Tsarist proportions, and a proven survivor on the world stage. Russia has much to gain from good relations with the PRC AND the West. IMHO, it is time to stop requiring one or another alliance. As America achieves energy independence and gets her house in order securing our borders, our biggest challenge is to deal with militant violent sects of Islam who threaten us all. The PRC will eventually change somewhat to better fulfill the needs of her people, or collapse due to the failure inherent in the Marxist system. For the sake of our peoples, should we not work on common interests? A new cold war will have no true victors, only more wasted lives and national assets better used on improving the human condition, not worsening it.
  • Niall on February 14 2017 said:

    “Now the human drama watch begins; will Putin cave in to the demands of the West to renounce his allies in exchange for the improved relation and the dropping of sanctions?”

    Eh, no! If you’re silly enough to ask that question, you’ve no idea what’s going on! Russia and China are forcing the US out of the Middle East altogether.

 

The ban that descended into chaos: What we know

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President Donald Trump issued an executive action banning travel from seven Muslim majority countries. The move has been met with street protests across America and legal challenges.

Here’s what we know:

The Executive Action / Executive orders

On Friday, Trump signed an order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days.

The countries affected are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, according to a White House official. It also caps the total number of refugees admitted into the United States during the 2017 fiscal year at 50,000, down more than half from the current level of 110,000.

“I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said during the signing at the Pentagon. “We don’t want them here.”

The order caused confusion at the nation’s airports Saturday as some people from those countries were detained as they arrived in the US. It also led to protests at a number of US airports in support of immigrants and against the order.

As of Saturday night, 109 people had not been allowed into the United States on the basis of the executive order, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It is unclear how many of those people are currently being detained and how many were sent away.

In the courts

A federal judge in New York granted an emergency stay Saturday night for citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries who have already arrived in the United States and for those who are in transit and who hold valid visas. The judge ruled they cannot be removed from the US — a decision that halts Trump’s executive order barring citizens from those countries from entering the US for the next 90 days.

“The petitioners have a strong likelihood of success in establishing that the removal of the petitioner and others similarly situated violates their due process and equal protection guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” US District Judge Ann Donnelly wrote in her decision.

“There is imminent danger that, absent the stay of removal, there will be substantial and irreparable injury to refugees, visa-holders, and other individuals from nations subject to the January 27, 2017, Executive Order,” the ruling said.

The ACLU argued Saturday evening in federal court in New York for a nationwide stay that would block the deportation of all people stranded in US airports under what the organization called “President Trump’s new Muslim Ban.”

The civil rights group is representing dozens of travelers held at JFK International Airport Friday and Saturday, including two Iraqis with ties to the US military who had been granted visas to enter the United States.

The ruling does not necessarily mean the people being held at airports across the US are going to be released, said Zachary Manfredi of Yale’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, who helped draft the emergency stay motion. “The judge’s order is that they (lawful visa/green card holders) not be removed from the US — it doesn’t immediately order that they be released from detention,” he told CNN.

In addition to Donnelly’s ruling in New York:

–A federal court in Washington state has issued a stay forbidding travelers being detained there from being sent back to their home country. Meanwhile a federal court in Virginia has issued a temporary restraining order saying a group of 50 to 60 permanent residents returning from trips abroad should have access to lawyers while they are being detained at Dulles International Airport and that these residents cannot be removed from the United States for seven days.

–Federal judges in Boston ruled early Sunday that officials may not detain a person on the basis of President Trump’s executive order. This ruling was made after the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit asking for the release of two associate professors at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, both Iranian nationals who are permanent residents of the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security said on Sunday it will comply with judicial orders not to deport detained travelers.

President Trump’s comments

Asked during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office Saturday afternoon about the rollout of the executive order, Trump said his government was “totally prepared.”

“It’s working out very nicely,” Trump told reporters. “You see it at the airports. You see it all over. It’s working out very nicely and we’re going to have a very, very strict ban, and we’re going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.”

The policy team at the White House developed the executive order on refugees and visas, largely avoiding the traditional inter-agency process that would have allowed the Justice Department and Homeland Security agencies to provide operational guidance, according to numerous officials who spoke to CNN on Saturday.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Department of Homeland Security leadership saw the final details shortly before the order was finalized, government officials said.

Airport protests

Protesters gathered at airports across the United States on Saturday to complain about President Trump’s immigration policies. More protests are expected on Sunday.

In New York City, a large crowd gathered at JFK International Airport to protest the detention of two Iraqis who were later released.

“Mr. President, look at us,” said US Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat. “This is America. What you have done is shameful. It’s un-American.” The protesters gathered in Terminal 4 at JFK and carried signs reading, “We are all immigrants!” and “No ban! No wall!”

Several New York officials showed support for the protests.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe joined protesters at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. “This Executive Order is antithetical to the values that make America great, and it will make our country less safe,” he said in a statement.

In Portland, Oregon, one demonstrator carried a sign that read, “Portland coffee comes from Yemen,” one of the seven Muslim-majority nations on the no-travel list.

A group of community activists, attorneys and others gathered at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Protests also took place at airports in Newark, NJ; Boston; San Francisco; Denver, Colorado and Dallas. Protests were scheduled for Sunday in Orlando, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, northern Virginia and Chicago.

Additionally, some US-bound travelers who were either refugees or from countries specified in Trump’s executive order have been turned back from Cairo International Airport, according to a Cairo airport official who is not authorized to speak to the media. The official said they were required to follow the instructions of the United States in the matter. He said “(Airport personnel) have no choice but to follow orders. I don’t want to blame anyone here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trump Signs Two Executive Actions and calls for “Extreme” Ideological Screening Test for New Immigrants

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immigration – New “extreme vetting” measures for people entering the US announced by Donald Trump on Friday will almost certainly test US law on religious discrimination and the constitutionality of bans on some Muslim migration.

At the Pentagon for a swearing-in ceremony for Defense Secretary Ret. Gen. James Mattis, Donald Trump signed two executive actions — one on rebuilding the military and one making major changes to America’s policies on refugees and immigration.

“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States,” the president told an audience at the Pentagon Friday.

Hours later the White House released details of the executive action titled “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States.” It indefinitely suspends the United States’ Syrian refugees program, which Trump had vowed to do on the campaign trail.

2017-01-27t220534z-2123139735-rc150d188390-rtrmadp-3-usa-trump-mattis.jpg

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order he said would impose tighter vetting to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the United States at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017.

Trump’s order directs the State Department to stop issuing visas to Syrian nationals and halts the processing of Syrian refugees. That will remain in effect until Trump determines that enough security changes have been made to ensure that would-be terrorists can’t exploit weaknesses in the current vetting system.

The president, during his signing of the order at the Department of Homeland Security, also called on the Pentagon and the State Department to create a plan for safe zones in and around Syria to offer protection for Syrians fleeing the war there.

But the signed action itself makes no mention of a plan for safe zones in Syria. A draft of the order had directed the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in the war-torn Mideast nation.

Several other points included in the action:

  • Trump ordered a 120-day suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which is America’s broader refugee program. The suspension is intended to provide time to review how refugees are vetted before they are allowed to resettle in the United States.
  • The executive action appears to be capping the number of refugees from other countries at 50,000 people in in fiscal year 2017, saying more than that “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
  • The action says that when U.S. Refugee Admissions Program admissions resume, the Secretary of State in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security is directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”
  • Trump’s order did not spell out specifically what additional steps he wants to see the Homeland Security and State departments to add to the country’s vetting system for refugees. Instead he directed officials to the review the refugee application and approval process to find any other security measures that can be added to prevent people who pose a threat from using the refugee program.
  • Trump’s executive order suspends all immigration from countries with terrorism concerns for 90 days. It was unclear from the law cited in the order which countries would be affected, though a draft of the order pointed to a legal provision that identified Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all majority-Muslim countries, for at least 30 days. The order also calls for Homeland Security and State Department officials, along with the director of national intelligence, to review what information the government needs to fully vet would-be visitors and come up with a list of countries that don’t provide it. The order says the government will give countries 60 days to start providing the information or citizens from those countries will be barred from traveling to the United States.

In a portion of an interview released Friday, Mr. Trump seemed to suggest that one group of refugees could look forward to some relief. He told the Christain Broadcasting Network that Christians in Syria find it “almost impossible to get into the United States.”

“The reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody — but more so the Christians,” Mr. Trump said. “And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”

Christians comprise about 10 percent of the Syrian population, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

Before the details of the action came to light, uncertainty surrounding President Trump’s plans to ban immigrants from certain countries from entering the U.S. caused stress among some already.

nuha.png

Nuha Alsakkaff fled her war-torn country of Yemen six years ago.

Nuha Alsakkaff, 26, fled her war-torn country of Yemen more than six years ago. Alsakkaff is now a U.S citizen and is trying to get the rest of her family here, too. But if immigrants from Yemen are banned, she says she’ll be devastated.

“I can’t save my people. I can’t save my family,” she told CBS News.

Mr. Trump also signed another executive action promising “a great rebuilding of the armed services of the United States.” There would be, Mr. Trump promised, new planes, new ships, resources and tools for the nation’s men and women in uniform. 

“As we prepare our budget request for Congress,” he said, “…our military strength will be questioned by no one,” but neither will the nation’s commitment to peace. “We will always have your back,” he vowed.

The president signed the actions following a ceremony for the swearing-in of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who he said, is “going to lead us so brilliantly.”

Mr. Trump campaigned on a proposal to put in place “extreme vetting” particularly for people coming to the U.S. from countries with terrorism ties.

“I would not allow people to come in from terrorist nations. I would do extreme vetting,” he said in July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Judge Blocks Trump Order on Refugees Amid Chaos and Outcry …

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Two new Trump executive actions

Trump’s immigration ban sends shockwaves – CNNPolitics.com

Trump Signs Order Suspending Admission of Syrian Refugees – NBC ..

World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency

Trump signs orders on rebuilding military and ‘extreme vetting’

Donald Trump calls for screening test for new immigrants

 

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CIA Claims Its Entire History Now Online

The Central Intelligence Agency has a long track record of holding itself apart from, and largely above, the Freedom of Information Act, consistently ignoring deadlines, refusing to work with requesters, and capriciously rejecting even routine requests for what should be clearly public information.
Recently the Central Intelligence Agency claimed it has released a bulk archive of 13 million pages of declassified documents online. These documents were previously only physically accessible from four computers at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland using the CIA Records Search Tool or CREST.
The documents date all the way back to as far as the Cold War

Back Country Voices

cia-leaks

The Central Intelligence Agency has a long track record of holding itself apart from, and largely above, the Freedom of Information Act, consistently ignoring deadlines, refusing to work with requesters, and capriciously rejecting even routine requests for what should be clearly public information.

Recently the Central Intelligence Agency claimed it has released a bulk archive of 13 million pages of declassified documents online. These documents were previously only physically accessible from four computers at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland using the CIA Records Search Tool or CREST.

The documents date all the way back to as far as the Cold War.

cia-leaksInformation about a number of controversial topics is included: from UFOs, to more information on the infamous CIA psychic experiments Project Stargate, to Henry Kissinger’s papers, other CIA research and development documents, scientific papers, photographic intelligence reports, news archives, and a whole lot more according to the official CIA

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Clinton Family Friend Threatens To Assassinate Trump, Claims He’s “Following Orders”

Clinton Family Friend Threatens To Assassinate Trump, Claims He’s “Following Orders”

Back Country Voices

Dominic Puopolo , a 51 year-old Florida resident, was arrested by Miami Beach police Tuesday for allegedly threatening to assassinate President-elect Donald Trump in a video he admitted to posting on Twitter.

Puopolo says, Yes, I’ll be at the review stand at the inauguration and I’m going to kill President-elect Trump. What are you going to do about it, Secret Service?”

Then he went on to say he has four children with three wives and that “my other name is the Lord, Jesus Christ. What are you going to do about it? I challenge you. This is not the way. I am following orders.”

Puopolo was arrested and charged with threatening to kill a public servant after leaving a Washington Avenue Subway sandwich shop on Tuesday afternoon.

But who is Puopolo?

Puopolo is a member of a prominent northeast family that is close to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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Chicago Police Routinely Trampled on Civil Rights

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14chicago-02-master768Justice Department report rips Chicago police for excessive force, lax discipline, bad training

A damning U.S. Department of Justice report released Friday morning excoriates the Chicago Police Department for failing to discipline officers who too often resort to force, including shootings.

The failure to effectively investigate officers’ use of force or discipline police “has helped create a culture in which officers expect to use force and not be questioned about the need for or propriety of that use,” the Justice Department said.

Although the vast majority of the report was critical of the police, it also suggested that officers were victims of a sort – desperate for change but poorly served by a lack of training that often put them

The 164-page report paints a picture of a broken department where officers have disproportionately used force against African-Americans and Hispanics. Officers have rarely faced consequences, as the city’s famously ineffective oversight authorities have done cursory investigations biased in favor of officers, the report states.

In response to the investigation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has agreed to enter a court-enforced pact with the Justice Department on reforms, federal authorities announced. The report lauds some of the changes Emanuel has made to policing in recent months but cautions that further reforms are needed and change is unlikely to last without outside monitoring.

The report is the product of a federal investigation launched more than a year ago amid the fallout over the shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a white officer. As expected, the Justice Department found that the department systematically violates the rights of citizens.

At a morning news conference at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Police Department’s pattern of excessive force “is in no small part the result of severely deficient training procedures and accountability systems.”

“CPD does not give its officers the training they need to do their jobs safely, effectively and lawfully,” Lynch said. “It fails to properly collect and analyze data, including data on misconduct complaints and training deficiencies, and it does not adequately review use-of-force incidents to determine whether force was appropriate or lawful or whether the use of force could’ve been avoided altogether.”

All of these issues have led to “low officer morale and erosion of officer accountability,” she said.

The report found that police routinely use poor practices that result in their resorting to unnecessary force. The Justice Department was particularly critical of foot pursuits by officers, saying they too often end with unarmed individuals being shot, and also found officers shoot at vehicles without justification.

“We found further that officers exhibit poor discipline when discharging their weapons and engage in tactics that endanger themselves and public safety, including failing to await backup when they safely could and should; using unsound tactics in approaching vehicles; and using their own vehicles in a manner that is dangerous,” the report said.

It called the city’s disciplinary process “deeply flawed.”

One of the report’s key findings echoes a contention that black and Hispanic Chicagoans have made for decades — that police unfairly target minorities. The report says DOJ investigators had “serious concerns about the prevalence of racially discriminatory conduct by some CPD officers.”

Ben Bradley

@BenBradleyTV

ATTORNEY GENERAL: Chicago police engaged in a “pattern or practice of use of excessive force.”

Statistics cited by the DOJ show that CPD has used force almost 10 times more often against blacks than against whites, and the report focuses particular attention on the department’s failure to responsibly investigate use of force.

The city’s investigators have failed to reconcile clashing accounts of shootings among officers, ignored evidence of misconduct and reached findings based on readings of the facts that were biased toward police.

The report cites a pervasive “code of silence” that leads officers to lie to protect themselves and their colleagues. Disciplinary authorities, in turn, have rarely pressed cases against officers who lied, even when their statements were contradicted by video.

Chicago police must show “communities racked with violence that their police force cares about them and has not abandoned them, regardless of where they live or the color of their skin,” the report states.

“That confidence is broken in many neighborhoods in Chicago,” the report says.

DOJ officials said that Chicago police have shot people who posed no threat and Tasered people who simply didn’t follow verbal commands. The report criticizes use-of-force training at the city’s academy, noting that DOJ investigators observed a training video that had been made decades before and “was inconsistent with both current law and CPD’s own policies.”

Further, when officials spoke to recent graduates from the academy, only one in six “came close to properly articulating the legal standard for use of force.”

The report’s release marks a landmark for the country’s second-largest local police department and one of the last acts of President Barack Obama‘s Justice Department.

Under Obama, the agency was unusually active in intervening in troubled police departments at a time when police shootings of African-Americans — some recorded on video and shared worldwide — spurred heated protests.

But the report also lands as serious questions loom about the future of police reform in Chicago and nationwide. President-elect Donald Trump has supported aggressive law enforcement, and his nominee for attorney general, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, has criticized consent decrees, a key federal tool for forcing compliance in troubled departments.

Local activists and lawyers have voiced fears that Emanuel’s resolve to change policing will wane if Trump’s Justice Department relaxes its stance, but the mayor has said he’s committed to improving the 12,000-strong police force. During the 13-month investigation, Emanuel pressed changes in line with reforms that federal authorities have tended to seek in other departments: tightening use-of-force policies and stepping up training and discipline.

The report’s release answered a key lingering question as to whether Emanuel would agree to formal court supervision of reforms. In her statement Friday morning, Lynch announced that the city had signed an agreement to work with federal officials on a consent decree, to be filed in federal court. An independent monitor also will be appointed to oversee the process.

Such an agreement is standard but critical in the process to reform police departments, according to policing experts. As recently as Thursday, Emanuel had avoided saying whether the city would enter a consent decree.

As he has started overhauling the department, the mayor has faced criticism from activists and civil rights attorneys, in part because his plans have left much control with City Hall. Emanuel’s reforms remain unfinished, and last week the top department official assigned to oversee departmental reforms quit after six months on the job to become police chief in Oakland, Calif.

The DOJ report includes criticisms of some of the changes Emanuel has made so far. Emanuel has widely expanded the department’s stock of Tasers — devices that deliver a debilitating electrical shock — but the report says the department cycled large numbers of officers through the training program too quickly, “without proper curriculum, staff or equipment.”

“This left many officers who completed the training uncomfortable with how to use Tasers effectively as a less-lethal force option — the very skill the training was supposed to teach,” the report says.

ct-justice-department-investigation-20170113 – Photo: U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, from left; Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Attorney General Loretta Lynch; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; and Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson hold a news conference Jan. 13, 2017, on the Justice Department’s findings from an investigation of the Chicago Police Department.

The mayor is also contending with rampant gun violence on the South and West sides, which some blame on police scaling back activity to avoid controversies. Chicago had 762 homicides in 2016, the most in two decades.

Fighting violent crime in the city’s most violent neighborhood, the report found, will depend on building trust between police and residents.

“Trust and effectiveness in combating violent crime are inextricably intertwined,” the report found.

The report also confirmed that the department’s police generally suffer low morale, and it states that many officers are hungry for change. Improving morale could lead to more “effective, ethical and active policing,” the report says.

The report closes one chapter of a saga that started with the release of police dashboard camera video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times in October 2014. The city fought for more than a year to avoid releasing the video — even as it agreed to pay $5 million to McDonald’s family before a lawsuit was even filed.

The video’s release in November 2015 sparked furious protests over its graphic images. The department’s handling of the case added to the controversy as several officers gave reports and accounts indicating McDonald had menaced or attacked Van Dyke with a knife. That clashed with the video showing McDonald moving away from officers. In addition, commanding officers promptly signed off on the reports and initially ruled the shooting justified.

Just after the video’s release, Emanuel fired then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her bid for re-election last year after criticism for failing to charge Van Dyke with murder until it became clear the video would become public.

McDonald’s death brought cries for policing reform to a head in Chicago, but discontent with the city’s police reaches back decades, particularly among African-Americans, many of whom have had run-ins with police they found to be disrespectful or aggressive.

Lynch announced the investigation into the department in December 2015, but Emanuel jumped ahead of her agency by commissioning his own report from his hand-picked panel, the Police Accountability Task Force. In April that panel released a report accusing the department of racial bias that has hurt African-Americans and calling for reforms in police discipline, among other areas.

Ongoing Department of Justice investigations and enforcement

doj-mapNote: There are two ongoing investigations in Orange County, Calif. The DOJ is enforcing two agreements on Maricopa County, Ariz., a consent decree and a post-judgment order. Sources: Department of Justice and Tribune reporting.

Before the McDonald scandal broke, the city had almost never ruled a shooting by an officer unjustified, and Tribune investigations have shown that the city agency responsible for looking into uses of force and alleged police misconduct, the Independent Police Review Authority, has been slow and prone to clearing officers, even in cases in which evidence suggested wrongdoing.

Emanuel moved to abolish the agency, which will be replaced later this year by an office slated to have a bigger staff and a broader mandate to conduct investigations.

The Police Department previously provided little training to officers beyond the academy, but the agency has recently rolled out new instruction on defusing tense situations and dealing with the mentally ill.

Meanwhile, the department is finalizing new use-of-force rules that could limit situations in which officers can shoot people, among other changes. The city plans to equip officers citywide with body cameras by the end of 2017.

The Police Department’s history has been marked by frequent uses of force that stirred public outrage, and the Justice Department’s report cites specific cases, including last summer’s fatal shooting of African-American 18-year-old Paul O’Neal.

Image result for Paul O'Neal crashed into multiple police vehicles in a stolen Jaguar convertible in July in the South Shore neighborhood

O’Neal crashed into multiple police vehicles in a stolen Jaguar convertible in July in the South Shore neighborhood, and harrowing police video shot by dashboard and body cameras showed a chaotic police response rife with apparent tactical blunders. Officers fired repeatedly at the Jaguar as it sped away from them; department policy specifically bans shooting at a car when it is the lone threat, and officers shooting into cars have been a recurring problem for the department.

O’Neal ran from the Jaguar into a backyard, where an officer shot him to death. The officer who fired in the backyard said he thought O’Neal might have been shooting at him from the speeding car, when it was in fact his police colleagues who had been shooting. The officer said he shot at O’Neal despite not knowing whether he was armed or not. O’Neal was unarmed.

Three officers who fired their guns were stripped of their police powers shortly after the shooting, and the city’s investigation is ongoing.

The report also confirms as true a story often told about Chicago police — that they take gang members into rival territory to threaten them into cooperating.

In finding that officers generally use unlawful means to get information, the report found:

“CPD will take a young person to a rival gang neighborhood, and either leave the person there, or display the youth to rival members, immediately putting the life of that young person in jeopardy by suggesting he has provided information to the police. Our investigation indicates that these practices in fact exist and significantly jeopardize CPD’s relationship with the community.”

Read the Department of Justice report on Chicago police:

Department of Justice findings on Chicago Police Department

An investigation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice in the wake of the fatal Shooting of Laquan McDonald has found the Chicago Police Department abuses citizens, uses excessive force and treats minorities unfairly.

Read more about the report here.

A two-page “fact sheet” summary of the DOJ’s findings can be read here.

 

 

 

 

 

Related:

 

  1. Former CPD Supt McCarthy on not being interview for DOJ report: “With all the resources of their investigation, they can’t find me?”

 

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Will Trump Negate Obama’s Science Legacy?

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obama-quote-brain-initiative-eyewireWill Obama’s science policy accomplishments survive? A Q&A with outgoing science adviser John Holdren

In the eight years that John P. Holdren has been White House science adviser—longer than anyone else has held the job—the U.S. signed a climate accord 20 years in the making, began regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and embarked on an ambitious research effort to understand how the human brain works.

Will these and other accomplishments survive the administration of Donald J. Trump, who will become the 45th president of the United States on January 20?

To find out, Holdren was interviewed at the White House on December 14. As director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Holdren has been involved in just about every major decision the Obama administration has made regarding science and energy policy. Although he would not speculate on what the incoming Trump administration might do or comment on the transition, he talked about the future of U.S. science policy and the Obama administration’s record of the past eight years.

ostpHoldren is optimistic that progress on climate will not be undone—even if the U.S. winds up ceding leadership on the issue to China. We also discussed the prospects for continued progress on brain science, a Mars mission, carbon-capture-and-storage technology and the administration’s mixed record on transparency, among other topics. Here are excerpts:

Transcript of the interview follows:

Let’s talk about climate. Before the election you told Nature magazine, our sister publication, that you were optimistic that regulations put in place by the Obama administration would stay in place. Are you still optimistic?

What I’m most optimistic about is that progress is being driven by fundamental forces that are independent of government policy. One is the growing evidence of damage from climate change that people are experiencing all around the world. People are getting it.

The cost of dealing with [climate] is also declining. Renewables have gotten extraordinarily cheap, which is one of the reasons we have 30 times more electricity generation from photovoltaics today than we did in 2008, the reason we have almost three and a half times wind generation than we did in 2008, the reason natural gas has replaced a substantial amount of our coal-fired electricity generation. It’s not regulation. These alternatives are attractive economically. They’re being embraced.

We’re going to see continued action all around the world, and this is not just understood in the United States. It’s understood in China. You may have noticed that the Chinese deputy foreign minister said at [recent climate talks in] Marrakesh, “China’s not doing this because somebody asked us to. We’re doing it because we want to, because we know we need to.” I’ve been going to China since 1984, meeting with Chinese leaders the whole time. I have seen the transformation in the understanding of Chinese leaders about the reality of climate change, the damage it’s already doing in China. Absolutely no question that they are sincere in their efforts, in their desire to address climate change

brain-initiative_partnersIf the United States were to step back from its leadership position in climate change, China would happily assume the mantle. We should want to stay in the leadership of the global battle against climate change.

What would it look like to have China take the lead on climate?

China has obviously been increasingly trying to position itself as a leader in everything. This would be one more domain. They’re ramping up their efforts in trade agreements in the region. They are ramping up their efforts in industrial technology and innovation. They want to become leaders in innovation. They want to become leaders in science. They’ll take the leadership in everything that they can get, and you can’t blame them. China is a great nation. They want to be a greater nation. We’re a great nation. We want to be a greater nation. We should not be voluntarily surrendering leadership in the matter of major global challenges.

brain_whitehouse-meeting_april2013Why would this matter for most people in the United States?
I don’t think it matters to most people. It does matter to people who follow international affairs and people who make decisions on behalf of government because alignments change, allegiances change—ultimately, maybe alliances change with leadership on major global issues.

From the standpoint of climate change, coal is the last fuel we should turn to. The president-elect promised during the campaign to bring coal back. How do you reconcile this?
Coal is certainly the worst of the conventional fossil fuels in the amount of carbon dioxide it releases per unit of energy that it provides. What we’ve seen is a decline in coal not just because people are worried about CO2. We’ve seen a decline in coal because coal-fired power plants are more expensive than [natural] gas–fired power plants and, increasingly, even economically uncompetitive versus the renewables. So you’re seeing renewables and natural gas cut into coal, and you get a side benefit because coal’s conventional pollutants are quite nasty—particulate pollution, oxides of sulfur, mercury and so on.

Wouldn’t coal plants be more economical if regulations were loosened?
They would be less expensive if you didn’t have to control the particulate matter, and the sulfur oxide and so on. No question about it. But they would still be more expensive than natural gas plants because it is just more complicated to burn coal. It’s just a nasty, difficult fuel.

But of course, the cost of containing the conventional pollution from coal-fired power plants adds to the total cost, and I don’t think anyone who has ever breathed the air in Beijing would recommend backing off of those regulations in the United States. Americans do value clean air. I don’t think anybody would want to walk that back.

For the long-term future of coal, the prospects rest in development of technology to capture and sequester away from the atmosphere the carbon dioxide that coal-burning power plants would otherwise release.

What is the status of “carbon-capture-and-storage” technology. Is it viable?
It’s not economic today. Again, coal-fired power plants are already not competitive in many parts of the country. That’s why you see states like Texas building lots of windmills. If you had to capture and sequester the carbon, they’d be even less competitive. Right now, the technologies that have been demonstrated for doing that would probably increase the cost of generation at the power plant in the range of 30 to 60 percent.

We should be interested ultimately in carbon capture and sequestration for natural gas plants as well. Although [natural gas] is much less polluting than coal, it’s still too polluting for the low-carbon future that we need to bring the consequences of climate change under some degree of control.

carbon-capture-and-storageHave we been investing enough in research on carbon-capture-and-storage technology?
We should be spending three to four times as much on energy research and development overall as we’ve been spending. Every major study of energy R&D in relation to the magnitude of the challenges, the size of the opportunities, the important possibilities that we’re not pursuing for lack of money, concludes that we should be spending much more. That’s part of the motivation behind the Mission Innovation initiative that Pres. Obama, with 19 other leaders, launched at the beginning of the Paris conference, in which these 20 countries committed to double their investments in clean energy R&D over the next five years.

You also told Nature back in July that the Obama administration had been scaling back on human spaceflight to revitalize planetary science, robotic missions and the like.
Well, that’s not quite what I said. When we came into office, we were confronted with a situation where the cost of a particular human space exploration program, the Constellation program that our predecessors had put into place, was basically siphoning money out of all of the other missions that NASA has responsibility for. Earth observations were suffering, robotic missions were suffering, space telescopes were suffering, aeronautics was suffering.

The Augustine Committee report found the Constellation program per se—not human exploration but the Constellation program—to be unexecutable. It could not do what it was supposed to do in terms of delivering capabilities on any reasonable timescale. It was many years behind schedule. It was three to four times over budget.

We extended the International Space Station program, which is an extremely important test bed for both science and technology related to human space exploration. Under the previous plan the International Space Station would have been crashed into the ocean in 2016, this year, in order to pay for a rocket whose principal mission was to take astronauts to the International Space Station.

We didn’t step back from the goal of human space exploration but we said we’re not going to get there on this path because it’s unaffordable. That led to a big negotiation with Congress in which we ended up putting more money into big rockets and multipurpose crew capsules than we had wanted at the time—less money than Congress wanted, but [we put] more money into Earth observation advanced technology.

Why did we abandon the goal of building a moon base?
It was the Augustine Commission’s vision and our vision that the next important goal is Mars and not going back to the surface of the moon. This was very controversial with many members of Congress who think we have to go back to the surface of the moon. The Chinese are going to get there. Indians are going to get there. To which my answer was, “When the Chinese get there, I’ll congratulate them for getting them 50 years after we did.”

The other thing is, going back to the surface of the moon and setting up a base there, which some people in Congress want to do, would cost between $60 billion and $80 billion.

But wouldn’t the moon have been a stepping-stone to Mars?
No. You have to pay to get out of the moon’s gravity if you’re on the surface of the moon, and that makes it much harder to send a lot of stuff to Mars than sending it from one of the Lagrangian points, for example. So [the Augustine Commission] recommended that we set up operations in the vicinity of the moon, and that’s what we have proposed to do. [We’re doing that] as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, where we set up operation in a stable orbit in the vicinity to the moon and we bring a big chunk of an asteroid there for astronauts to examine and manipulate. And in the process, by the way, we learn some things about how to affect the trajectories of asteroids that might be helpful someday when we need to prove we’re smarter than the dinosaurs because a big asteroid is on a collision course.

That’s not going to be easy.
It’s not going to be easy, but it is a much more important thing to do than going back 50 years later and doing something we did before. It’s a new capability.

Why not outsource NASA’s Mars program to Elon Musk?
We are outsourcing to Elon Musk and other private operators that transport our cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit. If Elon Musk develops capabilities that are attractive in respect to going to Mars, we’ll partner with Elon Musk. Mars is much too big a project for individual countries to be competing with each other to do it—and similarly, it’s too big a project for the government and the private sector to be competing to do it. Going to Mars is going to be a partnership.

We’ve had a great run of solar system probes—Cassini, New Horizons, etcetera—but they are getting long in the tooth and there aren’t a lot of new probes coming up behind them.
There are a few more. They’re not the biggest flagship missions coming along, because the money’s not there. The way I described NASA when I came into office is that NASA is 20 pounds of programs in a 10-pound budget, and fundamentally what we are asking NASA to do is a lot. Again, they’ve got aeronautics, for heaven’s sake—it’s still in their name, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

How do we fix that?
We have been fiscally too conservative. This country could afford a bigger NASA budget to meet our aspirations. We should have had it, but we couldn’t get it out of the Congress. The Augustine Commission said that the human space exploration program we need would require about a $3-billion-a-year increase in the NASA budget—not to continue Constellation but to do a sensible set of things. It wasn’t forthcoming. So we crafted the best program we could craft for a billion extra a year, which is what we had reason to believe we could get out of the Congress. We haven’t in the end even gotten that, so NASA is squeezed.

augustine-commissionThere are folks who are now saying, “Well, NASA should give up the Earth observation mission.” That’s crazy. NASA’s mission has always included looking down as well as looking up. There’s nobody in the government that can do what NASA can do in terms of Earth observation. Part of the problem is there are some folks who confuse Earth observation with endorsement of a particular set of climate policies that they don’t like.

But climate is a political issue.
There are climate change policies that we could embrace that would be all about the market: put a tax on carbon, do a cap-and-trade system…. It is just wrong to suppose that understanding what’s happening dictates a particular approach to dealing with it.

We need those Earth observations even if climate were not changing.             We need them to understand tsunamis. We need them to understand volcano explosions. We need them to understand earthquakes. We need them to understand what we’re doing to groundwater. We need them to understand how agriculture is working and we need them, of course, to forecast weather and to predict hurricanes. Even if you didn’t think climate was changing, you should want those Earth observations. They’re immensely valuable to the economy, to public health and safety, to disaster response.

Why isn’t climate a bipartisan issue? How did it become so politicized?
There are fundamentally two reasons. One is that in the run-up to 2000 the Republicans understood that Al Gore was going to be the Democratic candidate and climate was his signature issue. So they thought if climate is going to be the signature issue of our opponent, we’re going to be against it for political reasons.

A second thing is this phenomenon of convincing oneself that if the public ever accepts the reality of what climate change is about and what it’s doing to us, they will embrace a regulatory regime which Republicans would find offensive. That’s a misperception. There are a lot of ways to skin the cat in terms of climate policy. The idea that the solution is to keep the public from understanding what’s really happening or from simply denying what’s really happening as part of such a project, it’s just misguided.

At the beginning of his first term, Pres. Obama promised “unprecedented openness in government.” By many accounts, that promise is unmet. The government has been better about releasing data but not in giving journalists access to experts. Also, we investigated the FDA and found systematic efforts to manipulate the press.
I would say that’s a glass that is both half empty and half full.

It has turned out to be a big challenge. The president—very early in his administration, first couple of months—issued a couple of executive orders and presidential memorandum about openness and transparency, and I got tasked and OSTP got tasked with making them real—and we have worked very hard on that. We now have scientific integrity policies and openness policies all across the departments and agencies. You have to ask how well are they following those policies. In some cases it’s like pulling teeth because there always is a tension between the way a department or agency wants to present itself to the world and total transparency.

So Obama essentially ran into reality?
Sure. Where we’ve succeeded, first, we have all of those policies in place and they’re now available and they’re public. So among other things, civil society and journalists can look and say, “Here’s your policy, and it’s not what you’re doing. Let’s talk about this.” So you’ve got something to work with because there is a policy.

Second, the policies are in substantial measure being observed, certainly more than those kinds of things were even considered in the way agencies conducted themselves previously.

Third, in terms of data, it’s been extraordinary. There have now been hundreds of thousands of data sets made available that were never available before.

I wouldn’t argue that we have gotten as much done as we wish, but we have gotten a lot done. So the glass is half full but it’s also half empty—I agree.

The Obama administration has championed initiatives to create a genomic database of one million people and digitize information on energy use from individual citizens. In light of cybersecurity threats, is this a good idea?
Our view continues to be that there are benefits from big data that justify taking some risks.

There are always, of course, risks with anything you do. The question is always: What’s the balance between potential benefits and potential downsides? We think a lot of attention needs to be paid to minimizing the downsides. There has been, at this point, I would say eight years of effort has gone into this particular question in working on and thinking about the rules just relating to patient data.

How do you define the appropriate set of restrictions on the uses of patient data? What kind of consent do you need? Is there such a thing as broad consent where a patient can say, “You can use my data for anything you want forever without checking with me again,” as opposed to specific consent to do a particular thing at a particular time with your data. And there are questions as genomic technology gets better and cheaper, there are questions about the identifiability of information. You may say, “Oh, this is all anonymized,” but advancing technologies can de-anonymize it, and so we’re struggling with all of that.

We think this can revolutionize medicine. The amount that we can learn about that is extraordinary and there’s already such great evidence of benefit. Just through understanding a relatively small number of genes that produce very high propensity for certain kinds of cancers has saved a lot of lives by enabling people to look for those cancers early enough to get them out.

Obama’s BRAIN Initiative has by most accounts been successful so far. What would you like to see happen going forward? Have you set it up so it will survive the next administration?
The theme of partnerships has been enormously important for this administration: partnerships across agencies, partnerships across sectors—public sector, private sector, academic sector, civil society sector. Our STEM education initiatives have exploited that. Our advanced manufacturing initiatives, our clean-energy initiatives and our biomedical initiatives. Combatting antibiotic resistance is another important one, Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN Initiative.

ostp-brain-initiativeWhen we set [the BRAIN Initiative] up, we basically did a lot of groundwork. My colleague, Tom Kalil, the deputy director of OSTP, was a major force in doing this reaching out across the biomedical community and talking to folks in industry, talking to the folks in engineering developing the sensors, talking to folks in academia, talking across the government agency. We got DARPA. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], we got NSF [National Science Foundation], we got NIH [National Institutes of Health], we got DoE [Department of Energy], with their incredible computing capabilities better than anybody’s, all working together on this.

You’ve got a tremendous community of folks who are seeing this progress. They’re seeing it in the biomedical community, in the computing community, in all the pieces of this that come together. People are seeing progress and the hope of more, and so you talked about constituencies before. There’s going to be very strong constituency for keeping this going.

And if anything is a bipartisan issue, it’s health. I’ve had some contentious hearings in my service for the last eight years. One hearing that was not contentious was the hearing before the House commerce, justice and science Appropriations Subcommittee on the BRAIN Initiative. That hearing was a love fest.

What was the most contentious hearing you’ve had?
Some of the climate hearings, such as the Q&A of my September 2014 testimony before the House Science Committee. Jon Stewart found it so entertaining he made a 10-minute segment about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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