Understanding the Federal Budget

I am sure that you are as annoyed with the word “sequester” as I am, but here is a great article further explaining the complexities of the Federal Budget and the impacts of this “sequester”. Last week, each agency drafted a letter to Senator Mikulski explaining the impacts of the sequester specific to their agency.  In the letter to NASA the letter seemed to indicate that NASA was “picking winners and losers”, but that was in fact not the case. There is a much more fascinating (is that the right word?), maybe annoying nuance in the letter to Sen. Mikulski that Marcia Smith/Space Policy Online does a great job of explaining further. Please take a look at this blog post on Space Policy Online as it definitely sheds light on where all of these percentages and millions/billions in cuts come from (their starting point). At least for NASA. 


Chemistry and Space!

Just a quick note about a recent launch of suborbital rocket that was using lithium trails to help scientists observer events in space. Currently looking into what these scientists might be trying to see using lithium vapor. More to come!


article from Wallops that launched the rocket: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/news/west129.html

After a really, really long nap…Science and the State Department

One of the great things about being in DC now is that I really am in the heart of where public policy is made! But the downside is that I feel that I have left chemistry except for when I flip through C&EN and scroll through my twitter feed. #ChemCoach! Therefore, I feel like I am still trying to find where chemistry fits in to public policy.

Nonetheless, being in DC allows for me to attend a large number of talks and events centered around science policy. Early October, I attended a talk by Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. It was a great overview of where science fits into diplomacy at the State Department. For example, I did not realize that Wildlife Trafficking is not just a trade concern, but also a public health issue due to diseases being transmitted through unconventional pathways.  Dr. Jones mentioned a lab in Ashland, Oregon that is taking the basic science of understanding the baseline animal migration patterns to better distinguish where a pelt could have originated and the path it took as a result of humans.

The State Department also participates in partnerships that can help countries like Indonesia lower their greenhouse gas emissions.  Along the lines of environmental diplomacy, Dr. Jones spoke of talks within the UN to develop a Mercury Treaty to reduce the use of mercury globally. I wished that Dr. Jones would have talked more about the process for the development of a practical guide of non-mercury alternatives for the mining of artisanal gold. The mining of artisanal gold employs 12 to 15 million people in 70 countries. [1] How are the guides being distributed? Are these alternatives as economically viable? However, it was great to hear about policy solutions that science can help solve to ensure the safety and health of these miners and their economic livelihood.


Ammonia, you Toxic Chemical…

This blog post is written for Sciencegeist’s #ToxicCarnival

Ah Nitrogen (N2), thank you for helping me run my oxygen-sensitive reactions, you are 78% of the earth’s atmosphere, and when fixed you provide us with food. The last example that I am talking about is the Haber-Bosch process of taking inert N2 and converting it into reactive ammonia (NH3) that we put into fertilizer.

Fritz Haber and his synthetic process of fixing nitrogen is very relevant to our discussion of “toxic chemicals” because ultimately his process was discovered because Germany needed nitrates for making explosives during WWI.  Here is a great example of how a chemical and the ability to mass produce a chemical can be for good and bad. When asked about the duality of his discovery Haber said this:

“The interest of a wider circle has its source in the recognition that ammonia synthesis on a large scale represents a useful…way to satisfy an economic need. This practical usefulness was not the preconceived goal of my experiments. I was not in doubt that my laboratory work could furnish no more than a scientific statement of the foundations and a knowledge of the experimental equipment, and that much had to be added to this result in order to attain economic success on an industrial scale.”

Ammonia in fertilizer is one of the most important chemicals used today. The hydrogenation of nitrogen is catalyzed by a heterogeneous iron oxide catalyst at over 300 C and around 15 – 20 MPa.  This is a very energy intensive process using about 1.2% of the world’s energy. Yet, the massive production of ammonia through the Haber-Bosch process allows for the global food supply to keep up with the demands of human population growth. And in general, reactive forms of nitrogen not only provides the necessary nutrients for feeding the world, it is also responsible for providing us with the precursors for industrial goods such as cleaners, antiseptics, and nylon.

However we are beginning to see the detrimental effects to our environment such as ozone depletion in our excessive use of these reactive nitrogen reagents in fertilizer and the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, it is slightly more complicated than making overarching regulatory decisions to decrease reactive nitrogen use.  For example nitrogen that has leached into the ecosystem has enhanced plant growth in wetlands and riparian restoration and in turn account for substantial carbon sequestration and slowing of global warming. Another compounding factor of nitrogen management is that N2O slows decomposition and the release of CH4, but itself also contributes to the breakdown of the ozone. (reference)

So how can we better manage the nitrogen cycle? Nitrogen played a significant role during Haber’s lifetime and it is again an important element to understanding how we have changed its ecosystem, and make better decisions on how to manage it and take advantage of its benefits.

Further reading:
Great plot of the production of ammonia over the last decade: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonia#Synthesis_and_production

What would happen to science if Mitt won the White House?

House Republican Press Conference on Health Care Reform
I definitely owe my readership this post from a few months back when I was doing a series on the Republican candidates and their viewpoints on scientific research.

My apologies for it being All Quiet on the Blog Front as I prepare to defend and apply for jobs. As a good friend reminded me earlier today: thinking about science policy does, on some strange level, make me happy.

Plus, Romney has pretty much snapped up the nomination and it’s about time we talked a bit about his science stance. Now also the reason that I hadn’t written about this earlier is that it’s pretty difficult to find his thoughts on funding scientific research. But then Paul Ryan and the House Republican Budget came out and this is what Romney said:

Romney: I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget plan. It’s a bold and exciting effort on his part and on the part of the Republicans and it’s very much consistent with what I put out earlier. I think it’s amazing that we have a president who three and a half years in still hasn’t put a proposal out that deals with entitlements. This President’s dealing with entitlement reform — excuse me — this budget deals with entitlement reform, tax policy, which as you know is very similar to the one that I put out and efforts to reign in excessive spending. I applaud it. It’s an excellent piece of work and very much needed.

There has been quite a bit discussed about the large slashes in corporate taxes and government programs that help the poor; but in addition to those detrimental cuts there are also many things in the budget that should be a concern to scientists and those involved in federally funded research.

The Obama Administration specifically listed the programs that involved in science, technology and innovation that the Ryan-Romney budget resolution would cut, with the House Republicans claiming massive duplications, bureaucratic barriers and red tape that are preventing job creation in these sectors.

The House Budget would cut programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science that provide the funding for future clean energy technology and advanced manufacturing initiatives. Specifically stating in the Path to Prosperity that renewable-energy interests are only for political gain.

The President has also stifled domestic energy production by blocking or delaying production both onshore and offshore, destroying jobs and idling American energy sources. The stimulus alone allocated $80 billion of taxpayers’ dollars specifically for politically favored renewable-energy interests.

But, in fact, this statement is not true at all, that currently domestic production is at its highest since 2003. This Budget Resolution will reduce the current efforts to develop a clean-energy economy at a time when our international competitors are ramping up their investments. China is the world’s top investor in renewable energy projects investing over $120 billion between 2007-2010.

The House Budget resolution would also be detrimental to agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) by cutting the budget of those agencies by almost 10% on average. Cuts to these programs would not only eliminate basic research but as well as education grants and fellowships that help graduate students and postdocs pursue careers in science. OSTP indicates that this would be $670 million below 2012 enacted levels equalling 2,000 fewer competitive grants. But, Path to Prosperity does state that:

This budget would continue funding essential government missions, including energy security and basic research and development, while paring back spending in areas of duplication or non-core functions, such as applied and commercial research or development projects best left to the private sector.

ok, so then my question is where are all of these overflowing private sector investments in research and development and why haven’t they hired me yet? I am a competitive candidate with extensive laboratory skills and I am excited to do cutting-edge research. But what am I doing? I am applying for postdocs. How are postdocs funded? Exactly.

Carbon Dioxide as a Feedstock for Acrylic Acid Production

Fun with Dry Ice (4 of 9)One of the largest sources of carbon, CO2, is emitted as a pollutant and is attributing to the rising climate temperatures. So then why are we not using CO2 as a feedstock? Well, for one thing is it very very difficult. CO2 is incredibly stable as it is a thermodynamic sink. Therefore, It requires even more energy to convert it into something else, and where does all of energy come from? Fossil fuels. Thereby generating even more CO2 to convert CO2 into something useful. But if we can find a means for converting or reducing CO2 into a commodity through a less energy intensive pathway, then there is potential to generate revenue from “waste” and reduce emissions.

Currently, the US generates 5,500 million metric tons/yr of CO2. Industries are currently capturing and using CO2, approximately 200 million metric tons/yr in the food industry and oil and gas industry, but a majority of this is released back into the atmosphere. Only about 0.5% of the CO2 that is captured is sequestered and not released.

We can think about carbon/CO2 utilization in two categories, 1.) carbon sequestration (burying in deep geological formations) and 2.) carbon as a useful feedstock. I am focusing on the second categories because investigations into into using CO2 as a freely available and abundant feedstock to develop commercial chemicals, plastics, and building materials has the potential to be an economically viable industry. Additionally, carbon sequestration has its limitations, and although it is being heavily federally funded, it’s large scale deployment has estimates in the range of $30-70/ton attributed to the new CO2 transmission lines that will need to be built. There are instances where CO2 cannot be transported to sequestration sites.

One of my favorite examples being investigated for CO2 utilization to generate commercial chemicals is the oxidative coupling of CO2 with ethylene to generate acrylic acid with molybdenum catalysts.  This is work done at Brown University in the lab of Dr. Bernskoetter.

Acrylic Acid

Acrylic acid is used heavily as the raw material for polymers, coatings and adhesives. Global production of acrylic acid is 3.4 million metric tons/yr and with 60% by weight CO2, that is over 2 million metric tons/yr of CO2 that could be resold and prevented from entering the atmosphere. The production of acrylic acid through a more economically viable method would be advantageous, so much so that Dow has begun similar efforts to generate acrylic acid through the generation of 3-hydroxypropionic acid with the use of a biocatalyst.  They claim that their process is 25% cheaper and 75% less greenhouse gas intensive.

The current process for acrylic acid production is the oxidation of propene and is incredibly energy intensive because it not only requires reaction temperatures of 200 – 300 C but also multiple distillations to remove impurities. Dr. Bernskoetter’s catalysts can oxidatively add CO2 and ethylene slightly above, if not close to, room temperature.  However, at the moment, the biggest challenge is the reductive elimination of the hydroxide to release acrylic acid from the metal.  But once that can be done, unlike the use of catalytic microbes, organometallic catalysts can more easily (and usually cheaply) be modified to improve upon turnover rates and efficiency.  I am especially excited and looking forward to Dr. Bernskoetter’s next publication on this catalyst.

Will the prospect of a clean energy future get our budget passed?

In talking to many people, very few were as excited about the President’s budget rollout as I was. This is probably due to the dim prospects of it actually getting passed this year it being an election year. Well, without going into a debate about whether or not it will fly in Congress, I do want to write a post about it as I think that it clearly showcases the importance that President Obama places on a clean energy economy.  And because of this, I also think that congress should at least consider (at least the R&D side) the budget because if some of the clean energy investments are passed, the benefits will trickle down to their substituents and create more jobs and industries in their own states. The rest of the world is on board with investing in clean energy, why are we not? Although, according to Bloomberg, in 2011, we finally surpassed China in our investments in clean energy with 55.9 billion dollars when China invested 47.4 billion dollars in clean energy. Lets increase this!

I was excited to read that the Department of Energy’s proposed R&D budget for FY 2013 is 11.9 billion, an $884 million increase (8% of 2012 enacted). Within this budget request, specifically for R&D, there is (nearly a) 30% increase ($2.3 million) in the budget for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Programs, as well as (almost a) 30% increase ($350 million) in the budget for Advance Research Projects Agency in Energy (ARPA-e). I am proud of these increases because energy efficiency programs and efforts are some of the most important things that we can do now to reduce our emissions and save on energy. It it amazing how much economic sense improvements in efficiency can have and yet we consistently under invest in these types of efforts. But, there is a great piece by psychologist Brandon Hofmeister, that perhaps describes the cognitive barrier between knowing that something that makes economic sense and actually doing what makes economic sense. Nonetheless, more efforts to encourage consumers to be energy efficient and for utilities to reward their consumers when they are energy efficient is a very good thing.

Science Outlook – If Newt won the White House

What would science look like if Republicans won the White House in 2012? (Part 1 of 2)After hearing Former Speaker Gingrich’s promise that there will be colonies on the moon by 2020, and then the subsequent parodies by various comedians and Romney, I want to ask: what did you find yourself thinking?

Although I don’t believe that we should go back to the moon to settle colonies, Former Speaker Gingrich’s pandering to the space coast got me thinking about the foundation I had for the stress that with a republican in the White House we would lose all of the momentum in R&D we worked so hard to gain these last 3-4 years.  Where did I get this feeling? Because public debates rarely go into how candidates think about science and research and development.

Now a disclaimer: this post is all speculation based on limited research. I have merely looked into the past decisions, votes, and bills introduced by Gringrich (during the 104th Congress) and cherry picked the legislation that might hint at a passion and interest in science. This post is in no way guaranteeing that this will be the agenda that he will take.  I am only looking for patterns to help guide thinking about the candidates that are bombarding the news cycles.

And of course, the candidate will not be the only one who makes decisions on science, as if he does win the White House, it will also depend on who he will appoint to his cabinet positions and other key science positions. But again, this is just a small list to begin to think about the candidates from the viewpoint of what they can do for science, because R&D is not often talked about in national debates.

Gingrich perhaps was not just pandering to the space coast, but has always found an interest in space policy, since growing up during the space race. In an interview with The Space Review in 2006, he sees a lot of potential in large monetary prizes and tax incentives to encourage businesses and the private sector to be involved. Although many of these partnerships with the private sector are already happening and have been the efforts of the current (Obama) administration.

Energy and the Environment:
This is a bit difficult to tease out as there are instances where Newt has been a proponent of climate change going as far as doing a commercial with Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in support of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and even authoring A Contract with the Earth, a book on green conservatism. However in recent months in during his campaign for the presidency he is on the same side of nearly every other republican candidate, expressing that the commercial was the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years”.

In addition, his quote about changing the EPA to the Environmental Solutions Agency (ESA) is a bit convoluted as he expresses the need for this agency to work with industry to build incentives rather than punishments. One specific example to keep an eye on is his proposal to incentivize “flex-fuel” vehicles.  However, these types of vehicles would need to broaden beyond just ethanol to not be seen as choosing ethanol as the “winner”.

Former Speaker Gingrich has a very strong commitment to education. He knows that prosperity and national security are tied into education. Although he does rely heavily on the charter school system, but as does Secretary Duncan (interview with Meet the Press).

As an additional disclaimer, this post in no way endorses Newt Gingrich. I just wanted to have a discussion about the speculations on the consequence of science if republicans were to win the White House. Did you catch any other articles I should take a look at? Tomorrow: Mitt Romney, what is the outlook for science if he wins the White House?

Directing you to “Just Like Cooking” blog

During the State of the Union tonight, I began to notice that I was not getting as excited as I had been the year before, and for a while I could not quite put my finger on why. But then I realized that there was there was a significant decrease in the urgency to support science and innovation. Last year I remember agreeing with the President on many issues seemingly every other sentence about rallying up the nation like we did in the race to the moon, but in this decade it would be a race to be the top in science, in energy. But this year there was none or very little of that.

Which makes me incredibly sad, as I had written in my last post my anticipation for the 2013 budget and a question for what is in store for science in 2013? We did well in 2012…but can still do better, and we need to do better!

If feels like pushing science is not a good campaigning strategy.

Please take a look at a fellow chemistry blogger’s post here. She does a great and quick “by the numbers” of Winning the Future and America Built to Last. Although true that the two speeches need to be unique and memorable. But what is missing is that there was very few mentions of the success in energy that we made in 2011 to show that those investments made a difference! (yes, research takes time and in a year it is hard to list the successes only the failures – Solyndra – are at the forfront.) But still, I think to really show that we should be working on Winning the Future through innovation, and that we never should stop, there should not have been such a drastic drop off to support science.

FY 2012 Appropriations

2011 Federal Budget

True, wrong year, but a perfect picture listed under CC-BY-SA

It is definitely time, or well past the time, to do a (science) budget blog post. As you might have heard, just before the holiday break, Congress passed the Appropriations for 2012, and it is important to take a look at how science funding panned out.

Although, through this analysis and excitement as to how much Congress believes in basic research, I am keeping the following in the back of my mind: the deficit reduction talks will be fervent as ever for the 2013 budget.  And perhaps fuel for those that are asking for the evidence that science is an economic investment is the new publication by Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan, How Economics Shapes Science.  I can not say much about the book at the moment as I need to wait a few weeks for my library to get its hands on the publication. But this science career’s perspective on the publication was incredibly intriguing.

Most of what the public hears about the arrangements that govern research comes from reports by … top administrators at leading universities, eminent faculty members in major science and engineering departments, and high executives of large corporations — “not,” Stephan pointedly notes, “students and postdocs who could not find jobs.”

Are the funds that are appropriated by Congress to the funding agencies, that are then granted to universities and medical schools to carry out basic research and development giving us the results we want? I cannot answer that, but Stephan’s book perhaps attempts to and there will definitely be a discussion of that publication shortly.

But for now, lets not be dour and actually celebrate that at least for 2012, deficit reduction was only a platform for discussion and did not result in any actual significant budget cutting (at least in NIH and NSF’s budget). Overall, many agencies remained at or slightly above 2011 levels. However, these final appropriations were quite the loss for the Administration as they are are far below the original requests made last Feburary. Specifically, NIH’s budget remained at $30.2 billion, DOE received 4.9% increase ($209 million) from FY 2011 in the Office of Science and a 10.5% increase ($198 million) for energy programs and NSF gained a 2.5% increase for $7.0 billion.

Although the real question is, with the 2013 budget requests to be unvailed in the next month, in an election year, on the coat-tails of a year-long “deficit reduction or it’ll be Armageddon” fest, how will science R&D do?

First, Congress and the Administration seem to acknowledge that discretionary spending was neither the basic cause of the country’s deficit problem nor the principle source of savings to solve it. Second, science, especially basic science investments, remain popular with both parties, both branches of Congress and with the Obama Administration — and even more importantly with the American people. Just how popular remains to be seen.

The above is from a recent live chat attempting to shed light on the questions: “Can Science Spending Survive Partisan Politics?” The panelists outline some good points for scientists to push so that both sides of Congress can agree with. For example to present translatable research or to show that long term investments lead to information like monitoring weather systems can make the difference in evacuation efforts.

But overall the conversation was just speculation. Without knowing (yet) the Administration’s budget requests or (ever knowing) the motives of Congress, we cannot know for sure how science will do in 2013.

The answer to the concluding question is very poignant:

As long as the Federal Govt is going to spend in excess of $130 billion on research and development annually, and taxpayers will be the ultimate source of that money, politics will be an inherent part of the science funding enterprise.

Science will always be a part of politics. The goal is to find a system where both are able to most efficiently benefit each other.