If I may be permitted to offer an amendment

March 4, 2011

One of Kentucky’s senators, Rand Paul, recently offered a resolution hat would require a full reading of a bill.  As Paul’s web site states:

“Senator Rand Paul (Ky.) today introduced a resolution to change Senate rules to provide sufficient time for legislation to be read before being considered by the U.S. Senate. The waiting period point of order would require all bills, amendments, and conference reports to be filed for one day for every 20 pages before it can be considered.”

I would add an amendment to this.  The change would require that a senator or representative prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that (s)he actually understands what (s)he is talking about when it comes to proposed legislation.  For example, as a taxpayer (and, thus, Paul’s boss), I would ask that Paul actually understand what the National Institute of Food and Agriculture really is.

According to Paul (see, for example, this link):

National Institute of Food and Agriculture is the parent agency to the Agriculture Research Service. NIFA is essentially the communications arm to spread ARS information to the public.

I’m sorry, but that goes beyond wrong.  It’s actually embarrassing that a US Senator could be so badly misinformed.  I’ts even worse that he is willing to act on this foolish disinformation.

For those who are interested, NIFA is the USDA unit that funds extramural competitive grants that address issues of importance to food and agriculture.  It’s a granting agency, not a PR firm.

I propose that an elected official be required, in full public view, to take and pass tests that deal with subject matter in legislation that they are proposing.  To give the measure some power, I would further propose that legislators that fail said tests be required to forfeit some percentage of their own personal fortunes.  This would bring some personal accountability to the legislative process.

Just my own opinion.  From one who sometimes cannot believe the pranks being played on the public by the people in Washington.

Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009)

September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug passed away yesterday.  Dr. Borlaug was the key contributor to the so-called Green Revolution, that brought great food security to countries such as Mexico, Pakistan, and India.  He was a clever and innovative plant breeder and a great champion for the use of high-yielding crop varieties in agriculture.

He was also an outspoken proponent of biotechnology.  As he stated in this short interview:

“I have devoted my life to the global challenge of providing adequate food production for a growing world population.  Forty years ago, a Green Revolution was started using improved seed and fertilizer, helping dramatically increase the harvest while sparing forest and natural areas from the plow.  It took both the scientific advances and the changes in economic policies by leaders to allow for the adoption of the Green Revolution technologies by millions of hungry farmers.

Over the past decade, we have been witnessing the success of plant biotechnology.  This technology is helping farmers throughout the world produce higher yield, while reducing pesticide use and soil erosion.  The benefits and safety of biotechnology has been proven over the past decade in countries with more than half of the world’s population.  What we need is courage by the leaders of those countries where farmers still have no choice but to use older and less effective methods.  The Green Revolution and now plant biotechnology are helping meet the growing demand for food production, while preserving our environment for future generations.”

From his foreword to “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution” by Henry Miller and Greg Conko (Praeger Publishers, 2004):

“As a plant pathologist and breeder, I have seen how the skeptics and critics of the new biotechnology wish to postpone the release of improved crop varieties in the hope that another year’s, or another decade’s, worth of testing will offer more data, more familiarity, more comfort. But more than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.

I am reminded of our using the technology at hand to defeat the specter of famine in India and Pakistan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most “experts” thought that mass starvation was inevitable, and environmentalists like Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions would die in Africa and Asia within just a few years “in spite of any crash programs embarked upon.” The funders of our work were cautioned against wasting resources on a problem that was insoluble.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government formed the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT) and sent my team to South Asia to teach local farmers how to cultivate high-yield wheat varieties. As a result, Pakistan became self sufficient in wheat production by 1968 and India a few years later.

As we created what became known as the “Green Revolution,” we confronted bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions. We surmounted these difficult obstacles because something new had to be done. Who knows how many would have starved if we had delayed commercializing the new high-yielding cereal varieties and improved crop management practices until we could perform tests to rule out every hypothetical problem, and test for vulnerability to every conceivable type of disease and pest? How much land for nature and wildlife habitat, and topsoil would have been lost if the more traditional, lowyield practices had not been supplanted?

At the time, Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, “Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won’t be able to get permission for more of these efforts.” Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later. As Henry Miller and Gregory Conko describe in this volume, the naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available.”

Dr. Borlaug had been suggested at times to be the greatest living American.  Given the scope of his accomplishments, it’s hard to argue with this.

There’s more to UK …

June 15, 2009

That would be UK as in the University of Kentucky.

We’ve been splayed all over the news for the past several months, embarrassingly so.  Seems like we stole the show during and shortly after the NCAA tournament, and our new coach deliberately or inadvertently has kept us on p1 for much of the past several months.  It wouldn’t surprise to think that, to the rest of the country (and world), the University of Kentucky was the name of some sports franchise.

Well, the president of UK has ’bout had enough of this.  His editorial in today’s Lexington newspaper was refreshing in many ways – a slap in the H-L’s face, a grasping of the readership by the collar and shaking some sense into them, a rather public display of annoyance and exasperation, and yes, an implicit plea to taxpayers to support his school.  UK is more than 12 (yup, JM isn’t coming back) athletes who ply their trade for five months of the year.  It’s good to see the president remind the Commonwealth of this.


March 28, 2009

On Friday (March 27), my department hosted Dr. Charles Rice, a professor and soil microbiologist at Kansas State University.  Dr. Rice is an alumnus of my department, and has had a very distinguished career.  His presentation, and much of his research, dealt with the roles that agricultural practice may mitigate against elevated carbon dioxide.  Among the things he has found (and that I learned of) is that agricultural practice (such as no-till farming) can increase the amount of carbon deposition in soils, enough so as to provide an economical and practical avenue to reducing atmospheric CO2 (without requiring lots of new investment or technology).  Impressively, he was member of a group and a co-author of a report that earned recognition by way of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.  This is an outstanding achievement, and certainly a feather in the caps of my department and of the University of Kentucky.

Big news, no?  Well, in Kentucky, this is really big news.

Oh well …

What about agricultural science?

March 8, 2009

From an op-ed by Allen Levine in today’s Washington Post:

Like most Americans I listened intently as President Obama delivered his first address to the nation and Congress.

He outlined the economic challenges facing our country, noting “the answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories.” And he heralded the “largest investment in basic research funding in American history.” The president could not be more right. Investing in basic research will improve our global competitiveness but these investments need to occur in every area of the federal research budget.

In the blizzard of new research funding created by the federal stimulus bill, an important science was omitted: agriculture. While $10 billion was included for the National Institutes of Health, $3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $2 billion for the Energy Department, not a penny was dedicated for competitive research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

That’s unfortunate. Agricultural science will help us find the answers to some of our greatest problems: food safety, scarcity and cost; water quality and availability; the need for healthy soil and plants to grow food; and sustainable energy. While some of the new federal funding will find its way to agriculture-related issues like climate change and genomics, designating federal dollars to agriculture would have sent an important message.

One can read many signals into this development.  Competitive basic research has always been an afterthought with the USDA, moreso now that its competitive grants program has become more and more targeted in recent years (excluding general and basic research in favor of targeted, pre-determined areas of interest).  When it comes to a basic understanding of how plants work, there is a great deal of work to be done, a treasure trove of fascinating biology, biochemistry, and genetics awaiting resourceful and inquisitive researchers.  What is missing is the large research community, a critical mass, that drives new scientific discovery.  In my field, for example (that would be mRNA 3′ end formation in plants), there must be at least ten times as many people working on the basics in animals and yeast as in plants.  The same is true for every other aspect of basic biology in plants.  And again, from my own experience, it is safe to say that there are unique aspects in plants that cannot be teased out of, or extrapolated from, knowledge gained from research in the usual model systems. We need more, many more, basic plant scientists.

One has to wonder – given the President’s seeming intent to trim spending in part through cuts in ag subsidies, is it possible that the administration is lumping all ag spending under the “subsidy” umbrella?  Does the administration think that other agencies (NSF, DOE) may pick up the slack when it comes to plant science research?  And where were/are the USDA operatives in all of this?  Did they not advocate for more basic research?

Just wondering …

Inauguration aftermath

January 24, 2009

Part 1.  A brief reflection.

The near coincidence of Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration was for me, as for most Americans, an occasion for reflection.  Many, many commentators have noted how the latter event was a culmination of the efforts of an earlier generation. It’s also plain that the recent election energized the newest generation of voters in a most remarkable way.  What strikes me in all of this is how connected these two generations are by the election.   This is a refreshing contrast with recent American history, which is among other things a matter of clashes of generations.  Given the sad state we’re in, I’ve gotta hope that two generations working together may be a part of the path out of this wilderness.

Part 2.  Not all fun and games.

Amy says it better than I can.

Part 3.  That hard work paid off.

Back in October, older daughter Heather was one of the volunteers at a Biden rally in Wooster, one of the newest generation of voters working to bring about a sea change.  This photo was taken with a candidate.


But today he’s the Vice President.  How cool is that.  Good job, kids!

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

January 19, 2009

PZ Myers does the subject much better justice than I can.

An excerpt from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

The James Merediths, the “old, oppressed, battered Negro women”, the”young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders”, these “disinherited children of God”,  the fruits of their labors are now ours.  I think we all owe them a great debt of gratitude.

HT to PZ.

Reasons for optimism

November 9, 2008

A favorite blogger of mine comments on Millennials, the recent election, and the future.  Needless to say, one can see reasons for optimism.  Enjoy.

My ballot

October 31, 2008

I haven’t voted early, but I’ve pretty much made up my mind.  I’ll be voting for Obama/Biden on Tuesday.

Why, you may ask?  First, let me say it’s not because of the ads that have flooded the airways.  My rule of thumb when it comes to political ads is simple – when one candidate says something about his/her opponent(s), it’s a misrepresentation or outright lie.  That’s politics, they all do it, and I ignore it.

So, what is the difference maker?  How do the two candidates distinguish themselves?  For me, it’s simple.  From the get-go, I’ve felt that the war in Iraq was wrong.  It’s been an unpardonable drain on our economy, it’s done immeasurable damage to relations with our allies, it’s hurt the true war on terror, it’s brought on very frightening collateral damage (a stronger and emboldened Iran, a crumbling Pakistan, an irate Russia, a betrayed Turkey, to name a few), it has been probably the single worst adventure any president has ever embarked upon. One candidate stands up and says the war in Iraq was wrong, the other avoids the question studiously.

Now, I am not saying that I would be against any of the (majority of) politicians who supported the war in 2003.  But I expect that a presidential candidate today who supported the war in 2003 would have the intelligence and courage to admit the error, and pledge to learn from the mistake and avoid similar debacles.  Indeed, before the unfortunate choice of Palin, McCain could have earned my vote by doing just this.  (Don’t get me started on Palin – she’s a disastrous choice for VP, for too many reasons.)

But that’s water under the bridge.  We have a clear choice, and for me there can be only one correct one on Tuesday.

About that VP debate …

October 6, 2008

For present and future students who may have indulged in the Biden-Palin debate last week, a few bits of advice:

On exams, when I ask a question, do not expect anything other than a zero for an answer that takes the form “I don’t like the question, let me answer a different one”.  (Well, negative credit is possible, if you go ahead and give me an incorrect answer to the question you foisted on me.)

On qualifying exams, a similar tactic will be penalized most severely (it is not advisable to try and school your committee, and especially to try and distract your committee from the obvious fact that you haven’t a clue).  If you don’t know the answer, “I don’t know” is the best response.  Short, sweet, and mercifully to the point.

If you have passed these hurdles, again, at the time of your thesis defense, “let me answer a different question” is a perilous route to try.  You may be able to pull off an interesting change-of-pace and come across as provocative and informed.  More likely, you’ll seem like someone who is trying to bluff his/her way around a difficult question.  Bad move.

I’m just sayin’ ….