Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The nature of Nature

We published an essay on John Maddox last week, which many people have written to me to say they enjoyed. In researching this piece I spoke to a lot of my journalist colleagues about Maddox. It was a real privilege to be able to write this story. A couple of people mentioned something interesting about Maddox that got eliminated from my story by my editors.

Henry Gee a senior editor at Nature said that Maddox really admired The Economist. He said, "he wanted Nature to be like the Economist, he wanted Nature to be like a newspaper, to do for science what The Economist did for business, crsip tightly edited, utterly authoritative, he told me this several times."

This little aspect of Maddox's intentions didn't make it into print, I suppose because it would have seemed to much like boasting, and seem a little self-serving. But equally by editing it out, we did actually intentionally cover up a bit of the story.

Maddox's independence still runs strong through Nature, something that is helped by the fact that it doesn't have an editorial board as Science does. But during tough times, it is the commercial ventures like Nature that are usually faced with the most difficult decisions. So it will be interesting to see how Nature weathers the economic storms. (Related to this, I read that the owners of Nature, Macmillan, have decided to bring Scientific American closer into the Nature fold.)

So to read my essay about John Maddox, which is a sort of anti-obit, follow this link.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Whizzing around on an electric bike...

Since Friday, I've been testing out the A2B electric bicycle in London which was recently launched in this country. Its been a real joy to test out and everyone who has had a go with it has loved it. I managed to cycle 11 miles home from SW London to Wood Green without really breaking into a sweat. It took me about the same time it would take to commute on the train, but I reckon I could shave some time off if I discovered a few short cuts.

There is a thrilling sense of freedom being given a bike that you don't have to pedal. Hills are no sweat. Overtaking a bus, not an issue. A flick of the throttle and you are zipping quietly away at 15mph.

Cycling through the city on this little number certainly attracts a lot of attention. Everyone wants to know more. It isn't a bike and it isn't a scooter. When I returned to where it was parked in South Kensington the other day a crowd of people were admiring it. One of them wanted to take my photograph.

I've written a little piece on electric bikes for green.view, found here. I'm pretty taken with the whole idea though, and sad to say the bike is going home on Thursday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Breaking news on US export control

Let's face it, the subject of America's export control system is hardly the most gripping topic known to humankind. Nonetheless, behind a ten-year wall of byzantine government rules and regulation lies a story about how American jobs and ideas are being throttled in a wall of red tape. Now comes news of a successful legal challenge to the red tape within space export control. The first of its kind, and one that may be followed by others. The full story can be found on today, here.

Because the issue of export control is highly charged, those who speak publicly on this issue are liable to face political criticism. Opponents to the revision of export control legislation believe that the industry simply wants a wholesale shift of space technology back to the weaker controls of the Department of Commerce. However, many of those involved in export control take pains to emphasize that they are not opposed to export control, but are struggling with its implementation.

Sadly, the constraints of publishing in a tightly edited news magazine for busy people is that much of the detail is sliced away in order to assist in comprehension. This is particularly the case with a subject such as export control, which is long on technical detail. So, as I do from time to time, I'm going to be true to the title of this blog and publish some of the overmatter associated with this story for the small number of people who are really, really, really interested in this topic - nl

Marc Holzapfel, legal counsel for Virgin Galactic, via email:
"ITAR has had a broad impact on space companies. But since it is a big catch-all, and also covers non-military projects, it has held innovative companies (and arguably the US economy) back. Any improvement in ITAR that would allow the fledgling private space industry to grow is a helpful step forward.

Bigelow's Commodity Jurisdiction request is indeed such a step. It is basically the State Dept. saying that ITAR was meant to prevent the transfer of military technology -- and everyone agrees that that is an important and necessary goal. But now the State Department is also recognizing that certain companies, like Bigelow, (or Virgin Galactic), want to use space for tourism/commercial purposes, and these companies, or at least their passengers, should not get caught in the tentacles of ITAR. With this CJ, Bigelow will now be able to take non-US citizens, like people from the UK, France, (other than 126.1 countries like China, North Korea, Iran, etc.), into space without having to go through a complicated and time-consuming export approval process. Before, Bigelow would have had to get a separate export license for each non-US citizen it wished to fly.

This is a major development because if you apply Bigelow's CJ more broadly, it means that the ITAR rules are still in place for what they were meant to cover - the transfer of military technology, but it also means that the private space industry that was getting caught in the complex rules and regulations are able to operate for the first time without having to go through the complicated, expensive, and dilatory export approval process.

Everyone agrees that export control over military applications is necessary and the State Department has many able folks who work tirelessly on this issue, often understaffed and underappreciated. But some companies were stuck in the ITAR world just because they had a widget that was space related - and thus, under ITAR, that widget had to be treated as a weapon.

With Bigelow's CJ request, there is a positive glimmer that the private space industry may now not automatically be treated lump sum as military, and can provide its customers with a space experience unfettered by the most egregious aspects of ITAR.

Tim Hughes, chief counsel of SpaceX
"In quick response to your questions: At this point, it's really not clear whether this represents a significant shift in policy that foretells a shift on other parts of ITAR. However, the Bigelow CJ request approval is exciting because it appears to represent a common-sense approach to ITAR whereby hardware and design details remain ITAR-protected, but general engagement by would-be international participants will not be subject to burdensome ITAR-related filings, agreements, and monitoring plans. With respect to planned entrepreneurial space activities and manned missions, ITAR burdens are a bit of an unknown and potentially problematic, so this is quite encouraging. The Bigelow CJ would appear to bode well for commodity jurisdiction requests that may be made by other companies, such as SpaceX, to engage with foreign astronauts with respect to cargo or crewed missions to the International Space Station or private spacecraft."

George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation within the Federal Aviation Authority
"We have not yet seen the commodity jurisdiction ruling, nor was the FAA involved in the review, so I really can't be very specific about what it says or what it will mean for Bigelow Aerospace.

However, to the extent that the U.S. government may now be willing to revise some of its export control restrictions to enable U.S. firms to be more competitive in their efforts to sell aerospace products and services globally, that would be very good news indeed.

I'm sure Mike Gold has told you about the Entrepreneurial Export Control Conference, which is scheduled for April 29 in Washington, DC. I expect that many of the key issues surrounding ITAR will be discussed at that gathering. I know you are trying to file your story by Monday, but we will probably be in a much better position to talk about the impacts of the ruling after it has been released publicly.

Robert Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
"The ruling has the potential to be a major breakthrough for the personal spaceflight industry. To be successful, the travelers will have to come from around the world. If an explicit approval were required before any non-US traveler were allowed to interact with the flight hardware or participate in any training involving flight space systems, it could make the business unworkable. Even if requests were approved on a case-by-case basis, the time required could easily be so long as to make the process unacceptable to customers.

It remains to be seen whether the decision by Directorate of Defense Trade Controls represents a philosophical shift that will apply more broadly, but we are optimistic that will be the case. Many organizations, including AIAA, have advocated ITAR reform. Without exception, all parties agree that export controls are essential. The issue is what systems should be covered. The recent decision on the Bigelow Aerospace request appears to convey a new willingness to move away the from the very restrictive approach that has been in place for almost a decade.

On April 29, AIAA is hosting a forum with three of the major companies potentially involved in private human spaceflight, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and several senior government officials on ITAR reform. The forum will be at the Capitol Hill Hyatt at 1300, in the Thornton Room. The implications of the recent decision and ways to build on this important first step will be major points for discussion."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bees and bilinguals and big massive update

Its been such a busy few months since the Chagos story that I've not had time to update these pages.

At the start of March I published, a short item tracking the further inevitable rise in fish farming: Green.view Depths of bounty More people eating more fish means more farming Mar 2nd 2009 Web only

Then came this counter-intuitive piece suggesting there may be a glut of bees in California this spring. I was surprised to learn that a large chunk of the country's agricultural bees are shipped to California each year for the almond harvest, and there being lower demand for almonds this year and also less water there were too many bees. I was amazed to discover a category of job called a "pollination broker" who negotiates between almond growers and beekeepers. The whole story also shed light on the idea that trouble with these agricultural bees is actually indicative of a broader problem with pollinators at large. That isn't to say that there is no global pollination crisis, only that the highs and lows of the agricultural bee population isn's a meaningful indicator given the lack of data on wild pollinator populations.

The bees are back in town
The economic crisis has contributed to a glut of bees in California. That raises questions about whether a supposed global pollination crisis is real
Mar 5th 2009

A few days later, and I was taking a trip to the utterly amazing Santa Cruz island off the coast of California to give a presentation to scientists from The Nature Conservancy about how to communicate with journalists. A couple of days spent on this stunning and extremely pristine bit of nature was well worth the lurching, nausea inducing, two-hour ride over. The journey isn't that long if the boat goes direct, but sorry to say that there was the opportunity to do a bit of whale watching if one wasn't retching at the back of the boat.

I was transfixed by Santa Cruz island and wrote this little item:

Green.view Point, shoot and save
Like nature, conservation can be red in tooth and claw
Mar 16th 2009

Also, these days we are now all multi-media journalists. I took my trip to the island armed with a flashmic and instructions to collect "actuality", so I also recorded material that was mixed into a couple of podcasts by our inhouse audio team. I'm told it turned out well but I'm ashamed to say that I find the whole process of listening to my own voice rather too excruciating, so I've not listened to find out ]whether it was any good. Should you be inclined to listen to this sort of thing, I'll post a link here later when the economist's creaking website can be induced to cough one up.

Meanwhile, in April brought a couple more green stories. The green.view on environmental values published last Monday was one of the most well-read pieces today, according to our web poll. Thank you to the media people at the World Bank for making their webcast available to me so that I could cover their meeting on environmental valuation.

Farming biofuels produces nitrous oxide. This is bad for climate change
Apr 8th 2009

Green.view Environmental values
How to ensure the environment is properly accounted for
Apr 13th 2009

Finally, I wrote this nice little story, just a journal story from PNAS that I thought deserved a little attention.

Twice blessed
Bilingual babies are precocious decision-makers
Apr 16th 2009

This week I'm working on a story on John Maddox, which is a tough thing to do in the wake of all the amazing obituaries, and export control (which is far less dull and nerdy than it sounds).

Other news, although I'm not sure this is still news, is that I'm going to be the next chair of the Association of British Science Writers. The handover, from the current chair Ted Nield, will be at start of the World Conference of Science Journalists at the end of June.

Other science-journalism-related news is that Oliver Morton is leaving Nature, and rejoining The Economist as our energy and environment person. Welcome back Ollie!