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Our World — 24 March 2007

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," Al Gore on the challenges of climate change ... bone disease and dental x-rays ... and the natural origin of drugs.

NEWMAN: "There are approximately 160 that have been approved for treatment of cancer. Of those, 65 percent come from or are based upon a natural product."

Those stories, figuring out a better way to burn coal, our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Al Gore — former vice president and Oscar winning star of the climate documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" — was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to tell Congress what it ought to do to address the challenge of global warming.

Gore is not a scientist, but he told members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee that the science on global warming is well-established, citing sources including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

GORE: "The IPCC, the most extensive and elaborate, in-depth, highest-quality, international scientific collaboration in all of history, has now four times in the last 15 years — as recently as six weeks ago — unanimously endorsed the consensus. Scientific American [magazine] had a special issue in September saying, 'the debate on global warming is over.' One of the leading experts said, it's a stronger consensus than on practically anything except, perhaps, gravity."

Gore urged Congress to change tax laws to encourage a reduction in greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; require more fuel-efficient cars and trucks; and impose a moratorium on new coal-fired electric power plants unless they capture carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas that would otherwise go up the chimney; among many other proposals. He urged Congress to act boldly, setting aside partisanship and special interests.

GORE: "I promise you a day will come when our children and grandchildren will look back, and they'll ask one of two questions. Either they will ask, what in God's name were they doing? Did they think it was perfectly all right to keep dumping 70 million tons every single day of global warming pollution into this Earth's atmosphere? What were they thinking? Or, they'll ask another question. They may look back and they'll say, how did they find the uncommon moral courage to rise above politics and redeem the promise of American democracy?"

Some of the Republican members of Congress were notably skeptical. Joe Barton, of the oil- and gas-producing state of Texas, voiced serious doubts about a carbon tax and other remedies that Gore proposed.

BARTON: "Your suggestion of a carbon tax is something that would harm our competitiveness, raise costs to American families, export jobs, and actually do very little to improve our environment. Likewise, a Kyoto-style cap-and-trade system for CO2 will mainly increase the price of electricity while providing few if any environmental benefits. These proposals, especially considering that neither of them includes large emitters of greenhouse gases such as China and India, fail the common-sense test that any legislation should meet. They provide little benefit at a huge cost."

Actually, former Vice President Gore did stress the importance of bringing fast-growing developing economies, particularly China and India, into the international system to regulate greenhouse gases, while recognizing that it will be difficult to do so. But he said that if the United States takes the lead in implementing policies to address the challenge of global warming, it will "improve the odds" that other countries will come along.

Al Gore's appearance on Wednesday wasn't the only time climate change caught the attention of Congress this week.

Two days earlier, members of the House Oversight Committee held a feisty hearing to probe political involvement in the work of government scientists studying climate change.

Government researchers charged political appointees in the Bush administration with editing scientific findings so as not to undermine White House policy. James Hanson is one of the world's most eminent climate scientists. He works for the U.S. space agency, NASA.

HANSEN: "When I testify to you as a government scientist, why does my testimony have to be reviewed, edited and changed by a bureaucrat in the White House before I can deliver it? Where does this requirement come from? Is not the public being cheated by this political control of scientific testimony?"

In recent years, government reports on global warming and its human causes have been edited — 'softened,' critics might say — despite an emerging consensus among climate scientists. Philip Cooney, a former White House aide who has also worked for the oil industry, said that editing was part of the normal review process. His former boss at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, James Connaughton, said government scientists can speak out when they stick to their research findings.

CONNAUGHTON: "It's when we get into expressions of government policy or the science-policy interface where you need some level of management. Otherwise, you can fall prey to lots of misinterpretation and misunderstanding about what represents official government policy."

Of course, it's possible that scientists and government officials might disagree as to where exactly to draw the line between science policy and science research.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology panel tried to bridge that gap with a new study examining how economic incentives and technology can allow the world to continue to use coal without worsening the global warming crisis. Coal-fired power plants are a major producer of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Coal is cheap and abundant, which makes it a popular fuel. It's also dirty. Many power plants burn low-sulfur coal and use other technologies to reduce soot, but as Rosanne Skirble reports, it's tougher to reduce the CO2 produced by combustion.

SKIRBLE: MIT chemistry professor John Deutch says carbon emissions can be controlled first with the adoption of a high carbon tax, to be paid by power plants that burn coal.

DEUTCH: "If such a tax, in the high [carbon] tax case, was put into place by mid-century there would be a stabilization of [carbon] emissions by mid-century."

SKIRBLE: According to Deutsch, who co-chaired the academic panel that produced the report, that tax would increase urgency for new carbon control strategies. One of the most promising to reduce emissions is carbon capture and sequestration. CCS technology is designed to keep pollutants from leaving a power plant by capturing and burying them underground or under water.

DEUTCH: "So from the point of view of coal use in a carbon constrained world, the demonstration of the effective ability to capture and sequester carbon is key to use of coal going forward."

SKIRBLE: The report recommends large-scale CCS demonstration projects to build confidence in the technology and encourage its adoption. The industry, however, is skittish because CCS adds significantly to the cost of new power plants. But George Peridas, a climate expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says costs will come down as CCS is slowly phased in.

PERIDAS: "We're talking about doing it one or two plants at a time. Therefore with the right policies you could spread this cost over the entire industry and not penalize 'first-movers,' and you could also spread that across the rate base for electricity with very minimal [economic] impacts."

SKIRBLE: But ensuring minimal economic impact takes planning, according to Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for the coal-fired power industry. He says the industry must plan ahead if CCS or any other technology is to be required in all new coal-fired plants.

RIEDINGER: "We don't need the kind of certainty that forces us to retire a lot of capital stock prematurely, in other words to shut down a lot of coal-fired generation prematurely before the end of its useful lifespan. That's not the kind of certainty that we are looking for."

SKIRBLE: Riedinger says pressure to act too soon to meet near-term carbon reduction targets and timetables could hurt the economy and is not sustainable.

RIEDINGER: "There's no silver bullet, and one of the important things in the MIT study, which is points out, is that we shouldn't try to pick a winner now. We shouldn't try and pick one technology and put all of our eggs in one basket because that's not going to get us to be where we need to be in the long run and it is going to drive up prices for consumers in the interim. The last thing we want to do is to put in place a greenhouse gas policy that sends both U.S. jobs and U.S. emissions overseas."

SKIRBLE: The MIT report assumes that the largest emerging economies — principally India and China — will comply with the same carbon restraints as other countries. But MIT's John Deutch does not expect that to be easy.

DEUTCH: "The view that China has with considerable justification, that there should be a difference in future [CO2] emissions [reductions] for developing countries, which have not emitted much in the past, versus developed countries such as the United States, which have emitted a lot in the past, that equity difference is such that we believe it is going to be a very difficult matter — a very difficult matter — to get China and India and other large emerging economies to participate in a carbon constrained world.

SKIRBLE: Deutch says China and India are unlikely to adopt carbon constraints unless the U.S. does so and leads the way in CCS technology.

DEUTCH: "I might say there is no chance of making progress on this until the United States has a carbon control policy of its own."

SKIRBLE: With the shift in power following last November's elections, Democrats on Capitol Hill have put global warming policy on the political agenda. Several climate change bills are now before Congress with the expectation that legislation to rein in carbon emissions is not far behind. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Some of America's greatest scientists have been immigrants. Nikola Tesla. Wernher Von Braun. Albert Einstein. An Wang. As in so many other walks of life, the flow of immigrants has continuously refreshed the scientific enterprise here.

But the ability of the U.S. to attract many of the best and brightest has been hampered by tightened immigration policies adopted since the attacks on the United States in 2001. Some feel the post-9/11 balance has shifted too far toward security at the expense of science.

State Department official George Atkinson says America's traditional openness is one reason this country has maintained a leading role in science and technology.

ATKINSON: "First, we made a long-term, consistent commitment to education, particularly Research I universities, where research really blossomed. We also, secondly, had an environment which was extremely welcoming to the international community. The place to come was the U.S. Many examples in this room, I'm sure, reflect that type of welcoming environment. That is open for debate, apparently, today."

Atkinson also credited corporations, which have turned laboratory discoveries into useful products.

He was one of several leading figures who spoke at a symposium this week on varying aspects of the U.S. investment in research. It was sponsored by Research!America, a group that advocates for spending on medical research.

American graduate schools, hospitals and research labs are full of non-Americans, but visas have been harder to get since 9/11.

Many researchers have no problem getting a visa. But when moderator David Gergen asked about the issue, Chris Viehbacher, a German-Canadian senior executive with drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, answered from personal experience.

VIEHBACHER: "I'll only just speak to having gone through the process, and I can attest to the fact that it ain't easy and it is dissuasive -"
GERGEN: "It is what?"
VIEHBACHER: "It is dissuasive."
GERGEN: "Dissuasive."
VIEHBACHER: "Yes. And I think that's at a cost to the United States."

Moderator Gergen later wondered about U.S. funding of research abroad. Many companies are outsourcing work to labs where it's cheaper, and Washington is also funding some international research.

The head of the National Institutes of Health, Elias Zerhouni, himself an immigrant from Algeria, said he supports the funding of medical researchers abroad, describing it as "health diplomacy."

Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that Congress has funded an international network to study and monitor disease.

GERBERDING: "It's science diplomacy, in a sense. But you build relationships one person at a time or one project at a time. And that, in and of itself, can feed forward into a very different level of understanding and opportunity. But we have to be able to think globally, scientifically, in the same way that we think globally on a lot of other health issues."

Dr. Gerberding's Centers for Disease Control is where we've gone for our Website of the Week, where we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long been an authoritative resource for professionals like physicians and public health workers, and the CDC's Janice Nall says that's still an important part of the mission of

NALL: "There is a huge amount of original reporting of science data that results from studies: statistics, data, translating that data into practice for physicians and healthcare practitioners."

But now the CDC is using the Web to make itself a go-to place for ordinary people who want health information they can trust, so is making more material available in language that non-specialists can understand.

NALL: "Certainly not everything is translated [into lay language] yet, but it is a high priority to make sure that our materials do become translated for audiences that are not in the profession themselves. But we're just in the infancy in doing that and will continue to do so."

Much of the information on the site is available in Spanish as well as English, and they've recently introduced podcasts.

NALL: "We are very much trying to go in the direction of providing content in multiple formats, so be it mobile, be it video, audio — how people want it, so they can get the information how, when and where they want to receive it."

Other features worth checking out include email updates, the endlessly-fascinating Public Health Image Library, and a virtual encyclopedia ranging from AIDS to zoster.

There's a major update in the works planned for next month, with better organization and enhanced features. But don't wait til then to check out the Centers for Disease Control at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Tom Ball & David West — "Down With Disease"

You've made a healthy choice to listen to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The head of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, this week called water scarcity "the challenge of the 21st century." As population increases, so does the need for water, especially in agriculture, which uses 70 percent of fresh water. Diouf says farmers use as much as 2,000 liters of water to produce one kilo of wheat, and more than 13,000 liters to produce a kilo a grain-fed beef.

DIOUF: "By comparison, the amount of daily drinking water required by one person is estimated at a mere two to five liters. And yet, each day we eat an average of 2,000 liters of water."

Something to think about on the occasion of World Water Day, which was on Thursday.

Dentists may soon have the tools to screen their patients for bone loss. A new European study presented at the International Association for Dental Research meeting this week outlines how routine dental x-rays can identify patients at risk of osteoporosis. Rosanne Skirble prepared our report, which is read by Faith Lapidus.

LAPIDUS: Lead author Paul van der Stelt with Amsterdam's Academic Centre for Dentistry says an analysis of certain characteristics from dental x-rays of 550 women — whose average age was 55 — revealed signs of osteoporosis.

VAN DER STELT: "Things like the average thickness, the average bone amount.… And it turns out that using six or seven of those perimeters we can predict osteoporosis as accurate as the 'golden standard.'"

LAPIDUS: The so-called 'golden standard' is the bone mineral density test used to predict the thinning of bones. It assesses risk at the hip, wrist and spine, where most complications occur. However, The technique delivers more radiation than dental x-rays. Van der Stelt says using dental equipment offers patients other added diagnostic benefits as well.

VAN DER STELT: "Many people are seeing their dentists on a regular basis, which means we can do longitudinal measurements instead of just a single snapshot."

LAPIDUS: Van der Stelt is now working on dentist-friendly software that can calculate risk instantly during an office visit.

VAN DER STELT: "We have proven that it works."

LAPIDUS: Van der Stelt expects the tool to be available within a few years. The study will be published in the June issue of the journal Bone.

When drug company researchers go looking for new medicines, a new study indicates that, more often than not, they'll be successful if they start with chemicals found in nature.

NEWMAN: "There are approximately 160 small molecules that have been approved for treatment of cancer. Of those, 65 percent come from or are based upon a natural product."

David Newman heads the Natural Products Branch at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. In a new study, he and co-author Gordon Craig analyzed the origins of medicines that government regulators around the world have approved for cancer patients. A large majority of the drugs are chemical molecules that are either found in nature, or are combinations that include natural substances, or are synthetic imitations of the natural molecule.

That's for anti-cancer drugs. Other kinds of drugs — such as antibacterial and antiviral medicines — show a similar pattern.

Tropical rainforests have often been cited as sources of the biological material that might be the starting point for new medicines. But the oceans may be a better bet, in part because of their sheer size. But Newman says that raw material can come from almost anywhere.

NEWMAN: "It can be an extract from a plant. It can be a microbial broth. And now we're looking at materials that come from marine sources, both microbes and marine invertebrates."

The idea of looking to the sea for new medicines in the ocean may sound familiar. Last week on Our World we described how genetic scientist Craig Venter turned up six million previously unknown genes as he sampled seawater on a round the world cruise. But David Newman says Venter's expedition only scratched the surface — literally.

NEWMAN: "They're only taking a sample from basically the sea surface, maybe 20 meters down, every 200 nautical miles. And they are finding this at the surface."

Go deeper, says Newman, as some other researchers are starting to do, and the biodiversity increases exponentially.

Here's an example of what scientists are finding: U.S. officials recently approved a drug based on one component of a toxin used by a marine animal called the cone snail to paralyze its victims.

NEWMAN: "These toxins are cocktails of relatively small proteins — or peptides, really — and one of these was approved for use initially against phantom limb pain in December 2004. And though it's made in a lab, it [Ziconotide] is in fact chemically and biologically identical to one of the hundreds of little toxins that a particular cone snail uses."

David Newman's paper is in the current issue of the Journal of Natural Products.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always interested in your comments. Email us at Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Faith Lapidus edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.