Accessibility links

Our World Transcript — 6 May 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" ... The H Prize for hydrogen fuel technology ... a landscape transformed by a hurricane ... And rethinking science education ...

WURTZEL: "We know that so many of these students start tuning out - particularly when they hit high school — and biology consists of learning a lot of terms, a lot of memorization, and dissecting an earthworm. There's got to be more to science than that."

Those stories, drug-resistant bacteria, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


The National Research Council, which advises Congress on science, said Thursday that the U.S. space agency, NASA, isn't getting enough money to do everything on its ambitious agenda. As a result, NASA is shortchanging critical science programs, according to the report.

Cutbacks in NASA's science budget affect pure research programs. But a member of the committee, Judy Curry of Georgia Tech, said other programs have real-world application — for example, satellites that help us understand severe storms.

CURRY: "We have scatterometers, which are giving us the wind speeds and the directions in the hurricanes. We have the microwave sea surface temperature. This is the only way we can see sea surface temperature in these big storms. Now, these are all NASA satellites, and when the current generation of these satellites dies out and falls out of the sky, we don't have the replacements and we're going to be going back to 1990 in terms of our ability to look at these storms and deal with these storms."

Curry referred to human space flight programs - the shuttle and space station — as "big gorillas" in the budget that dominate spending in NASA causing, in her words, "a lot of pain" for science programs that have to compete for funding that's left over. NASA's science budget for 2007 is actually $200 million less than the 2004 budget, according to the National Research Council committee.

A NASA spokesman was quoted in news reports as saying that the space agency was in an ongoing discussion at meetings this week with the science community on the budget challenges ahead. But NASA chief Michael Griffin told Congress in February that "NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like the agency to do."

With crude oil selling for around $70 a barrel, there's increasing interest in alternative energy sources. For motor vehicles, gas-electric hybrids are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Elsewhere, high-efficiency diesel engines get the nod. But many automotive engineers are looking ahead ... to vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The technology is still quite a way from mass production, but Congressman Bob Inglis hopes to change that. He's proposed legislation to establish an "H Prize" worth up to $100 million for innovations in hydrogen fuel technology. At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, the Republican congressman said a big-money award will encourage the country's best minds to tackle the issue.

INGLIS: "So the idea is to take the can-do American spirit, put it with a prize, the recognition of winning the prize, some financial incentives, and hopefully bring the best and the brightest to bear on these technological challenges."

Prizes have driven technological innovation for centuries. As long ago as the 1700s, a British prize spurred John Harrison to develop a clock accurate enough to allow sailors to determine their longitude. And as recently as 2004, $10 million posted by the X Prize Foundation spurred the first privately-developed space ship.

X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis says he was inspired by Raymond Orteig, who, a century ago, offered a cash prize to the first aviator to fly nonstop between New York and Paris.

DIAMANDIS: "This $25,000 prize sparked $400,000 in expenditures [by competitors]. And in fact the most unlikely winner, [Charles] Lindbergh — called the 'flying fool' the day before he took off — changed the course of history and ignited a multi-hundred billion dollar industry of aviation. The prize changed the way the public thought about aviation."

Diamandis says prizes work in ways that other incentives don't. For one thing, they attract risk-takers. For another, they encourage outside-the-box thinking, often from innovators in other fields.

Major obstacles remain to the development of hydrogen-powered motor vehicles, says David Greene of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the U.S. government's premier research facilities. In the long run, he says nothing would do more to solve America's energy problems than the development of clean, economical hydrogen-powered transportation.

But Greene focused on challenges in three areas: on-board storage of hydrogen takes up too much room in the vehicle; fuel cells are five times more expensive than existing engines, and they don't last as long; and the hydrogen fuel itself is three times as expensive as gasoline.

GREENE: "I would say [that] in each of these areas we are facing approximately order-of-magnitude challenges to changing the technology. Very difficult. And these technologies are not likely to be self-reinforcing. That is, we need essentially independent scientific breakthroughs in each of those three areas."

It's an open question whether those challenges would be solved faster with the incentive of an H Prize ...but the first challenge will be winning support for the multi-million dollar award on Capitol Hill.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was one for the record books: 28 tropical storms, 15 of which developed into hurricanes. Among them were the powerful Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf coast.

Last year's hurricane season also inflicted an estimated $270 million worth of damage to national wildlife refuges in eight states. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, these refuges - which have not yet recovered from last year's storms - are at risk of another big hit from the 2006 hurricane season that officially begins on June 1st:


SKIRBLE: All that is left of Carlton Delino's house in Holly Beach, Louisiana, is a cement slab. The 185-kilometer per-hour winds and three-meter high storm surge from Hurricane Rita erased Delano's 3-bedroom home, his fish market and much of the rest of this small tourist town. A commercial fisherman and 33-year resident of Holly Beach, Delino had the good sense to leave before the storm hit.

DELINO: "This time I knew it was going to be a good [big] one. I have been on the water for all of my life. I kind of figured it was going to be a bad one. So, I salvaged all my crab pots and all my boats, and I pointed back to Holly Beach and said, 'Look at it for the last time. It's gone. And I was right!'"

SKIRBLE: On this day, bulldozers flatten what is left of Holly Beach. Delino long ago tired of calls for evacuation. He built a second home about 45 minutes farther inland, north of where the hurricane had swept the debris from the Louisiana coast.

His new home is near the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, a 50,000-hectare wetland and habitat for waterfowl, migrating birds and marsh mammals, such as white tailed deer, otter and mink.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge spokeswoman Diane Bordon-Billiot says the wetland landscape was brutally transformed by Hurricane Rita.

BORDON-BILLIOT: "You had marsh lands that were ripped apart. You have open water areas. We have debris containing people's homes and lives and industry particles like big 1,000-gallon [3,785 liters] tanks from the oil industry and every conceivable household product from people's homes along the coast."

SKIRBLE: Debris was scattered across 13,000 hectares of marsh grass and open water. In spots debris is so thick and so high that the wetlands look more like a garbage dump. Grasses usually green in the spring were turned a dull, lifeless brown by saltwater intrusion. That saltwater would normally be flushed out by rain, but the region has been experiencing a drought.

Refuge biologist Roy Walter says hazardous materials are a serious threat to the ecosystem and wildlife. Thousands of containers of oil, gasoline, propane, chlorine and bleach are part of the toxic stew slowly sinking into the marsh.

WALTER: "As you know a lot of these areas are loaded with salt water and of course when you have a lot of metal containers, it mixes with salt and you throw in time and then those containers deteriorate that much faster. And so we want to get them out as quickly as we can so we can prevent a lot of these toxic materials going out into the habitat itself."

BORDON-BILLIOT: "The marsh land can handle everything else if we can handle those hazardous materials, get rid of those manmade materials from it. It will heal itself. It will recover. We will get the worst things out first, and as funds are available, we will get out as much of the other non-hazardous debris as possible while the funds last."

SKIRBLE: Sabine is a National Wildlife Refuge. Funds to restore it must come from the federal government. Cleanup cost estimates range from $10-50 million. A bill authorizing $132 million to restore 66 storm-damaged refuges in eight states is slowly moving through the U.S. Congress.

But with the 2006 hurricane season less than a month away, Bordon-Billiot worries about lost time. She says wetland repair is more critical than ever. Marshes nurture plants and wildlife and are natural barriers that can lessen the impact of the next storm. On Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, we point our browser to GovTrack.us, a non-government website that tracks the progress of legislation in the U.S. Congress.

TAUBERER: "GovTrack is a website that brings together data on the U.S. Congress and various sources that the government already provides, but GovTrack brings it together into a place that makes it easy for everyday citizens - like me - to track the issues in Congress that interest them."

Joshua Tauberer is the creator of GovTrack, which was launched at the end of 2004. It is pretty much a one-person, part-time operation, which - when you see how much information is assembled in one place - says a lot about the power of the Internet.

GovTrack.us gets its information from official government websites, and Tauberer has written software to automatically pick out the relevant data and present it on his site.

TAUBERER: "The voting records come from the individual websites of the House [of Representatives] and the Senate, so GovTrack has to go to those. It also goes to the website of the Congressional Budget Office and fetches their reports on legislation, so when you go to a bill you can go right to a report that's relevant to it."

Another important source is Thomas, the Library of Congress website for legislative information.

One particularly useful feature the site offers: e-mail or RSS alerts, if you want to follow particular legislation.

Tauberer isn't a politician or even a professional programmer. He's actually a graduate student in linguistics, of all things, who does GovTrack as a hobby. As such, he says he's glad if other people can build on what he's done.

TAUBERER: "I have no intention to make any money off of this at any point, so all the information that I bring in that I have to sort of have to process for the site's own purpose, I make it freely available for other people to take the data, and reuse and come up with their own presentation of the data that might make it more interesting or more useful in a different context."

GovTrack was nominated for this year's Webby Award in the politics category. The results are due to be announced on Tuesday. In the meantime, check it out at GovTrack.us, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Washington Post" (by John Philip Sousa, performed by Rhythm & Bluefield)

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

American universities are arguably the best in the world. But in our elementary and secondary schools, experts, educators, politicians and parents all agree that there are deep flaws in the system.

In recent years, the focus has been on mathematics and reading as benchmarks of both individual and school success. But other areas — including the sciences — have been getting less attention.

That worries a lot of scientists and educators, including a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, who says science education is important to future scientists .. and everyone else

ALBERTS: "Science education for everyone is really enormously important, and we've trivialized it so that it isn't important the way we teach it. But it should be. We need to enable all children to acquire the problem-solving, thinking and communication skills of scientists if they're going to be productive and we're going to remain the leading nation, competitive in industry and business."

Speaking at a recent Capitol Hill briefing organized by the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus, Alberts criticized what he called "science education as mentioning" - singling out textbooks that introduce young students to often-complex ideas without giving them any real understanding.

ALBERTS: "It's really no different from what the kids are doing in madrassas in Afghanistan. As you know, many of them are memorizing the Koran in a language they don't understand. And we're having them memorize science in a language they don't understand."

Kids don't start out bored by science. In fact, even very young children can be captivated when science is presented right. Judy Wurtzel, now at the Aspen Institute and formerly a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Education, uses her own nine-year-old daughter as an example.

WURTZEL: "What's really turned her on about school this year is science, because it's hands-on, they do some things in depth. They only cover three topics in fourth grade, so they get to spend a lot of time on them. And she's actually learning something about the science. And to be, I think, thinking about how we're changing high school science makes me optimistic that she can stay excited about science over the long term, because we know that so many of these students start tuning out — particularly when they hit high school, and biology consists of learning a lot of terms, a lot of memorization, and dissecting an earthworm. There's got to be more to science than that."

It sounds obvious, but maybe the best way to figure out how to teach science is to use scientific methods. Bruce Alberts, who is now a biochemistry professor at the University of California – San Francisco, says there are ways of determining what methods of science education are most successful.

ALBERTS: "To make a system that will really work, we need to have knowledge of what works, so we need research that really is applied to school needs and relevant to classrooms in America."

Along those lines, the National Science Foundation this week announced a grant to the non-profit College Board to redesign some of the leading science courses in American high schools. The so-called Advanced Placement classes attract the best students, who can often get university credit for their AP courses.

The grant follows a 2002 report from the U.S. National Research Council, "Learning and Understanding," which criticized advanced high school science and math courses.

Despite that critical report, and whatever comes out of the redesign of the AP courses, high school teacher Dave Ely of Hinesburg, Vermont, admits it will be tough to get teachers to adopt new ways of teaching.

ELY: "You're apt to teach in the way that you were taught to [teach]. And so it's going to take a lot of effort to change. A lot of AP teachers are very successful doing what they do, which is, you know, the 'sage on the stage.' [laughter] Let the teachers- let the teachers learn with the students in a very different kind of way. And it has to come to that if we want to change science."

The contract is to produce new outlines for teaching AP courses in chemistry, physics, biology and environmental sciences by the end of next year.

Anti-microbial resistance — the ability germs acquire to survive the drugs meant to kill them - is part of the natural history of infectious disease. No medicine can kill every harmful microbe, and a few inside a sick person always survive drug treatment. Over time, these resistant microbes may come to predominate, rendering formerly effective medicine useless. Carolyn Weaver has more from Uganda, where the fight against disease is a race against drug resistance.

TEXT: Sister Florence Nawanga is an herbalist at a convent near Entebbe. For the past few years, she has been cultivating a plant that is native to China, but that might hold the key to defeating malaria in Africa, too.

NAWANGA: "This is the plant."

It is called "sweet wormwood," or Artemesia annua.

NAWANGA: "It is not so sour now, because it is young."

The drug derived from it, artemisinin, is the key ingredient of what is currently the most effective anti-malarial medicine. Artemisinin came into use as older anti-malarials such as chloroquine and quinine began to fail. Malaria, caused by a mosquito-borne parasite, kills more than one-million Africans each year, most of them young children.

Almost everyone in Uganda has had malaria at one time or another, especially those who cannot afford an insecticide-treated mosquito net, a category that includes most Ugandans. In one Kampala slum, a grandmother cares for 11 children without a single mosquito net — administering the older, less effective anti-malaria drugs to the baby. Last week, the medicine failed to save the youngest child in her care.

Malaria, AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis and poverty reinforce each other in Africa, making each more deadly. Malarial fever in an HIV-infected person is apt to bring on full-blown AIDS, and most African AIDS patients actually die of tuberculosis, doctors say.

They note that poor people are less likely to complete drug therapies - a major cause of drug resistance:

OKOT-NWANG: "Because the patient is interrupted in taking the drugs, the bug [virus] recovers. And when it recovers, it is definitely not going to be the same bug."

Dr. Martin Okot-Nwang is in charge of tuberculosis treatment at Mulago Hospital in Kampala.

OKOT-NWANG: "Hello, how are you? Are you the patient?"

He says perhaps the most important way to prevent an even deadlier variant, multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis, is using community-based volunteers to make sure that patients complete their drug regimen, even after they feel better.

OKOT-NWANG: "This means someone in the neighborhood is the one who is trained locally to give the patient TB drugs, and is the one who records on the TB cards as the patient swallows the drugs."

Community-based workers are also being used to fight malaria. Richard is a social worker who distributes free anti-malaria drugs from Mulago Hospital to his fellow slum-dwellers. They are not as powerful as artemisinin, but they are still better than nothing.

RICHARD: "This one, the green pack, is working for two years to five years."
REPORTER: "For children that age?"
RICHARD: "Yes, children, [and] this one is for two months to two years, for children."

Ugandan doctors say that increased funding from the rest of the world for combating HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria is making a real difference in Uganda.

There is other good news. Recently, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley announced they have grown a purer form of artemisinin in the laboratory, using yeast cells. This synthetic form could be the basis for a low-cost combination treatment, lifting the burden of malaria from African peoples and economies.

But scientists warn that if artemisinin is not used correctly as part of a drug-combination cocktail, the malaria parasite will quickly become resistant to it as well. Carolyn Weaver, VOA News, Kampala, Uganda.


MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always happy to hear from you. The email is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use our postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

The 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.

XS
SM
MD
LG