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Our World Transcript — 4 February 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Energy resources in President Bush's State of the Union speech ... the global challenge of birth defects ... and a U.N. prediction of our ecological future.

REID: "As long as we continue to treat ecosystem services as free and limitless, we will continue to use them in a way that does not make economic sense.

Those stories, African-American history on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

In his annual State of the Union speech Tuesday, President George W. Bush spent several minutes talking about energy, environmental, science and technology issues.

Mr. Bush called for America to wean itself from foreign oil — often imported, he noted, from unstable parts of the world.

It's an old refrain. The New York Times noted that as far back as 1971, presidents have called for energy self-sufficiency. This year, the stated goal is replacing 75 percent of oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

BUSH: "By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."

But critics such as Karen Wayland of the environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, said setting a goal isn't enough.

WAYLAND: "I think that the president has put out a few steps to getting there, but he hasn't laid out a comprehensive plan. What he really needs is a concrete oil savings target so that we can measure progress against those targets. We need incentives for getting more of those fuel-efficient vehicles out on the road. We need a government-led initiative to increase the fuel efficiency of our vehicles.

In his speech, President Bush also stressed the need to develop alternative energy sources for electric power, home heating and other non-transportation purposes.

BUSH: "To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy."

But environmentalists point out that coal-fired electric power plants will still emit greenhouse gases, and they say proposed increases in alternative fuels like wind and solar are not enough. As for nuclear power, there hasn't been a new plant ordered in this country since the 1970s, and Anna Aurilio of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group [PIRG] says there's a good reason.

AURILIO: "Nuclear power is the most expensive and the most far-term energy source that we could possibly be putting on the table. Plus, let's not forget that these plants provide a tempting target for terrorists and generate highly radioactive wastes. If we want to look to the future, and create a new energy future for Americans, we should look to quicker, cheaper, cleaner alternatives.

Also in the State of the Union speech this week, President Bush called for doubling basic research in the physical sciences over the next 10 years and providing a boost for math and science education. Details of these and other initiatives will be in the White House budget proposal, which is due to be released on Monday.

U.S. researchers have announced a new way to make an influenza vaccine that could protect people in case of pandemic flu.

Current flu vaccines are made by growing virus strains in chicken eggs. That takes six months or so, and requires millions of eggs that might not be available if the pandemic derives from avian, or bird flu. Also, the traditional flu vaccines are effective against only one strain of flu, so they have to be redesigned each year.

The new technique overcomes both those limitations. Suryaprakash Sambhara led the research team at the U.S. government Centers for Disease Control and at Purdue University. He said a new flu vaccine based on a genetically-engineered version of the virus that causes the common cold could be manufactured ahead of time.

SAMBHARA: "This vaccine can be stockpiled in the event of a potential pandemic. At the present time, the vaccine [that] we have is sufficient to immunize only 300,000 people."

Sambhara stressed that this new vaccine is being developed with an eye on pandemic flu — the sort that some fear could emerge from the current H5N1 strain of avian flu. But he didn't rule out the possibility that the new technique might be a model for more common flu varieties as well.

SAMBHARA: "We did not look into developing a vaccine for the seasonal influenza right now. But it could be a potential approach as well."

So far the new vaccine has been tested only in animals. But the results are encouraging.

A new international survey indicates that 7.9 million children are born each year with genetically-caused birth defects, and almost half of them — 3.3 million — die before age five.

The survey was conducted by the March of Dimes, an American group that aims to reduce infant mortality and birth defects.

Speaking this week on VOA's "Talk to America" program with host Doug Bernard and science correspondent David McAlary, The March of Dimes' vice president for global programs, Christopher Howson, said the new report underscores the magnitude of the problem of genetic birth defects.

HOWSON: "This March of Dimes report is the first to present a comprehensive set of data on serious birth defects of genetic or partly-genetic origin in 193 countries. And I think that there perhaps are several reasons why birth defects have not received the attention or the funding that they're due to date. Number one is the fact that there are several mis-perceptions about birth defects. The first is that birth defects are rare. The second is that birth defects are only amenable to expensive, high-tech interventions. And the third is [that] there's not much you can do about birth defects."

McALARY: "Socially or medically, why has it taken so long to give this kind of recognition to birth defects by having statistics on them? Were birth defects somehow stigmatized and therefore kept quiet? What has been the reason?"

HOWSON: "That's a good question. I think part of the reason is the fact of the misperceptions earlier, and one of those is the fear on the part of some people — and I think it is a legitimate fear given that health budgets are severely constrained — that if there were attention to interventions around care and prevention of birth defects, that that would draw needed and funding away from the unfinished agenda of poor countries around infectious diseases and maternal malnutrition."

BERNARD: "As a component of Dave's question, if indeed this is a survey of genetic or partially-genetic birth defects, why engage in the study? In other words, if somebody is to be born with a genetic defect, there really presumably isn't anything that could be done about it, I would guess."

HOWSON: "Um-hum. Well that, I am afraid is one of the common misperceptions. There's actually a lot that can be done. And the second reason that the March of Dimes did this report was not only to amass the data, to bring the problem to the attention of governments and international health organizations and the public, but also to show that something can be done about it. We estimate in the report that if the recommendations we give were implemented, up to 70 percent of mortality and disability from birth defects could be prevented, treated or ameliorated."

BERNARD: "If a, say, country-to-country comparison is really not the function of this report, on a broader scale, what were the geographic patterns that you may have noticed that come out from this data that you collected?"

HOWSON: "I think what the database shows pretty clearly is that the highest rates of birth defects tend to be found in the low-income countries, and that the lowest rates tend to be found in the high-income countries."

McALARY: "And those rates, from your report are about eight percent in the poor countries and about half that, four percent, in the richer countries."

HOWSON: "That is correct. But I mean the reality of the situation is that at least over the short term, no matter what we do, there will still be babies born with birth defects. And that's why the title of this report is 'Care and Prevention of Birth Defects.' We emphasize the 'care' part of this. This is often forgotten in discussion of prevention. And as it's cited in the report, care is an absolute and prevention is the ideal."

Christopher Howson of the March of Dimes, speaking this week on VOA's "Talk to America."

A year ago, astronomers discovered a possible 10th planet, orbiting out past what has been till now the most distant planet, Pluto.

Like Pluto, the recently discovered object, known as 2003-UB-313, orbits in a distant part of the solar system known as the Kuyper Belt. Pluto's status as a planet has been questioned in recent years. Size is one issue here. Pluto is both the most distant planet, and the smallest — smaller even than the Moon.

Many astronomers expect Pluto to hold onto its status as a planet, if only because it's been classified that way since it was discovered in 1930. But if Pluto is considered a planet, it would be hard to not also call UB-313 a planet, since scientists this week reported it is actually considerably larger than Pluto.

BERTOLDI: "The result we have is significant. Our best estimate now is 3,000 kilometers. It could be lower, it could be higher, but it makes it definitely larger than Pluto, which has a diameter of 2,300 kilometers."

That's Frank Bertoldi of the University of Bonn in Germany. Because UB-313 is so far away, they couldn't measure it directly, so Bertoldi and his team inferred its size from infrared radiation detected by a telescope in Spain. They published their findings in the journal Nature.

If the International Astronomical Union decides it is a planet, they'll have to come up with a name. The astronomers who discovered it informally used the name Xena. That's not official, but it does sound like a Roman god or something. Actually, though, they were referring to a cult TV show called Xena: Warrior Princess.

Time again for our Website of the Week, and our choice features the work of one of the great names in African-American history as we begin our observance of Black History Month in the United States. At the same time, it highlights one way the web is changing the world of scholarship.

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. He went on to establish what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama, one of the most important African-American educational institutions of his time. Thousands of pages of his writings are now available online at historycooperative.org/btw.

REGIER: "He had a long life, a long career, and much of it was public, so his writings were significant. One reason that Booker T. Washington remains important is that he is a model for other people about how a person who sets a high goal can achieve it, and is thus not a model simply for African Americans but for any young person who feels that these odds are stacked against him."

Willis Regier is the director of the University of Illinois Press, which published the 14-volume set of the Booker T. Washington Papers beginning in 1972. To bring this important historical document to the web, each page had to be scanned, then processed through optical character recognition software and edited to produce a searchable text — a far more powerful tool than the set's extensive index.

Regier says putting this 14-volume work of scholarship online shows how the Internet supplements the traditional model of book publishing.

REGIER: "It was too expensive to put them back into print or to keep them in print because of the cost of print publication. And although it was plenty expensive to put this on the Web, we felt that for the importance of this text, the best thing to do was to make it freely accessible."

The 14-volume set sells for $495, but you can read it for free at historycooperative.org/btw, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld

MUSIC: "Booker's Boogie" by Booker T. Laury

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

A U.S. scientific panel warns that the world needs to protect itself better from bioterrorism and other misuses of biomedical technology. It calls on the global scientific community to be vigilant against such practices and recommends creation of a special advisory board to work with intelligence and security agencies to detect and prevent them. VOA's David McAlary reports.

INTRO: A U.S. scientific panel warns that the world needs to protect itself better from bioterrorism and other misuses of biomedical advances. It calls on the global scientific community to be vigilant against such practices and recommends creation of a special advisory board to work with intelligence and security agencies to detect and prevent them. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.


McALARY: A committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences says advances in the life sciences have made it possible to manipulate living organisms in useful ways, leading to improvements in public health, agriculture, and other areas.

But the panel points out the growing risk that biomedical advances will be used to make novel biological weapons or misused by careless groups and individuals.

It has issued a new report outlining the risks and recommending ways of identifying and avoiding them. Committee member Stephen Morse is with Columbia University's Millman School of Public Health in New York.

MORSE: "The purpose of this report is to look forward at what the future threats are going to be so that we can be better prepared for them. Even if they are unpredictable, there are many things we can do through these various measures to be prepared and to be able to deal with them."

McALARY: As a start, the panel says the global scientific community should broaden its awareness of what bioterrorism can do. Panelist Joshua Epstein, an economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, emphasizes the importance of looking ahead and considering not merely current biomedical threats.

EPSTEIN: "We are acutely aware that these technologies are developing at an unprecedented pace, that they are distributed globally, and that these trends — we only expect them to gain momentum."

McALARY: The group recommends creation of an independent advisory board to analyze and forecast these fast-changing scientific and technological trends to keep U.S. intelligence and national security officials informed of potential life sciences threats.

But the National Academy of Sciences experts say no single authority can police biotechnology, so they recommend promoting a shared sense of responsibility and ethical behavior among scientists around the world. They call on science and technology leaders to develop codes of conduct for life scientists. Additionally, they say scientists should collaboratively monitor the potential misuse of biomedical tools and intervene if necessary.

McALARY: At the same time, Epstein and his colleagues say biomedical advances are essential to thwarting bioterrorism. For example, only continuing research can develop antidotes to toxins terrorists might use.

Committee chairman Stanley Lemon of the University of Texas Medical Branch says this means biomedical research must remain unfettered, despite the potential for misuse.

LEMON: "We find that results of fundamental research should and must remain unrestricted, except in cases where national security requires classification."

McALARY: The committee says that, in the end, nothing can guarantee that biomedical advances will be used only for peaceful purposes. Therefore, it recommends strengthening the public health infrastructure to improve its ability to protect against bioterrorist attacks. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

What will the earth be like in 2050? The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment — a four-year global research initiative involving 1,300 scientists from 95 countries — offers some predictions. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the work explores the world's ecological future and the complex relationship between human well-being and the health of the planet.

SKIRBLE: First the bad news: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment finds sixty percent of the world's ecosystems degraded or used unsustainably, and between 10 and 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species threatened with extinction.

By 2050, the report predicts, the demand for water will have increased dramatically across the globe — between 30 and 85 percent, especially in Africa and Asia. Water will also be more plentiful in nearly all regions because of climate change, but growing human demands for that water will put the ecosystems that provide it under increasing pressure.

Food security is likely to remain out of reach for many people despite increasing global food supplies, but child malnutrition, while not eradicated, will likely drop over the coming decades.

Lead author Stephen Carpenter — professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin — says despite what looks like a steady global decline, the report offers some hope.

CARPENTER: "The good news is that we can make a very positive difference in ecosystem services by 2050. The caveat is those policies and practices are not widespread at the present time, and substantial changes in policies and practices would have to be made in order to implement the beneficial ones at the global scale."

SKIRBLE: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment presents scenarios for sustainable development based on changes in such factors as economic and population growth, climate change and trade.

CARPENTER: "These scenarios give us a powerful way of exploring different options and their logical consequences and making appropriate choices to improve ecosystem services."

SKIRBLE: Such appropriate choices, Carpenter says, would include making wise use of environmental technology, investing in education and health and reducing poverty to reduce pressure on ecosystems.

Those ecosystems, Carpenter says, have dramatically improved human health over the last centuries. People are better nourished, live longer and are healthier than ever before. But these gains, he says, have come at a growing cost to the environment.

The report suggests attaching monetary value to those ecological services that support life — from food, clean water, clean air and healthy soil to crop pollination and buffers against natural disaster. Assessment director Walter Reid says ecosystems today are grossly undervalued.

REID: "As long as we continue to treat ecosystem services as free and limitless, we will continue to use them in a way that does not make economic sense. We need to make sure that we start looking at the value of all ecosystem services, not just those bought and sold in the market, and take those into account in decision making, use markets where that is possible, use payments for ecosystem services where that is possible."

SKIRBLE: There have been some steps in this direction, says Prabhu Pingali with the Food and Agriculture Organization and a report author.

PINGALI: "We do see payment for carbon sequestration. Carbon markets are becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. We do see biodiversity conservation payments taking place, but in a very few countries, but that is something that could be expanded even further."

SKIRBLE: U.N. agencies, which commissioned the report, have already begun to make decisions based on its findings. But Walter Reid says getting governments to adopt its policy proposals may take more time, although he notes some countries have already begun the process.

SKIRBLE: Reid hopes that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment will inspire policy makers around the globe to more carefully map the world's ecosystems and more accurately measure their social and economic value — and to craft policies that, ultimately, will enhance both human health and the life of the planet. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We always like to hear from you. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address:

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

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