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Our World Transcript — April 2-3, 2005


MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Results of a four-year study of earth's environment ... natural disaster hot spots... and NASA tries cash prizes as a way of spurring innovation.

KAREN WALSH: "Without the encouragement of a competition like this, I think probably very few of those students would move forward to create their invention, and to really try to carry it out"

NASA's Centennial Challenge, a survey on sleep, and getting Americans behind the fight against malaria. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

A new report warns that most of the world's ecosystems are in trouble, and we're in danger of using up our natural resources.

According to the four-year, $24 million Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, population growth and increased economic activity have done serious damage to farmlands, fisheries, water supply and other systems.

U.N. Undersecretary Hans van Ginkel said the assessment represents a consensus that the fragile nature of the planet's ecosystems requires urgent attention.

VAN GINKEL: "It's not yet extreme, it's not exactly immediately collapse, but we better act before the collapse is there. And that may be very much a scientists' type of approach. But we have to make clear that the future of humankind is not based on simplistic pictures."

The report comes from a group of United Nations agencies and other organizations. Some 1,300 researchers from almost 100 countries worked on the project, concluding that humans have changed earth's ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any other period.

The head of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, said degradation of ecosystems sounds a call for action.

DIOUF: "The problems that we are experiencing today — loss of biological diversity, water scarcity, degradation of arid lands due through desertification in particular, loss of forest resources, declining fish stocks, and increased climatic variability, to name a few — will continue and likely increase during the next 50 years if no corrective action is taken. We must not allow this to happen.

According to the U.N. report, the regions facing the greatest environmental degradation include sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and parts of Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia. Those areas are also home to some of the world's poorest people.

The death toll has topped 1,000 following a massive earthquake that struck the coast of Indonesia on Monday. Every year natural disasters such as earthquakes and severe storms take tens of thousands of lives, cause hundreds of thousands of injuries, and billions of dollars in economic loss around the world.

A new study released this week by the World Bank and the Earth Institute at Columbia University presents a country-by-county risk assessment of these events. As Rosanne Skirble reports, it provides a tool that can help nations better manage disaster prevention and mitigation.

SKIRBLE: Natural disasters exact an enormous human and economic toll especially on countries least able to afford it.

ARNOLD: "El Salvador, Costa Rica Philippines, Dominica."

SKIRBLE: Margaret Arnold, co-author of the report on what are called Natural Disaster Hotspots, says nations were ranked according to the threat they face from six major natural hazards - hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, drought, landslides and cyclones.

ARNOLD: "Some of the countries most exposed to multiple hazards, say three or more hazards based on land area, certainly Taiwan [and] Costa Rica [are hotspots]. Vanuatu. Philippines [also] is a top country [on the list]."

SKIRBLE: But even poor countries can take steps to minimize risk and save lives. Jeffrey Sachs, who heads Columbia University's Earth Institute and contributed to the report, says better communication is a good first step. He points to the 10,000 Hondurans who died when Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998.

SACHS: "They died mainly in their sleep, living at the riverbed when the massive flood came because of the hurricanes. They didn't die of the winds. They died of drowning. Yet if there had been a social action system it was know that the hurricane was there, the rains were intense and if the neighborhoods had been awakened and the people brought out to high ground, those lives would have been saved."

SKIRBLE: The report finds that in 35 countries, 1 out of every 20 residents lives in an area that is at high risk from three or more hazards.

Mr. Sachs says the people at the margins of society often live in areas most prone to natural dangers.

SACHS: "They're are landless. They are hungry. They come to the cities as migrants. Either they can live in terrible slum conditions in crowded, unhygienic places, or they might go to the hillside where they probably shouldn't live at all because the slope is so steep, but it's the only place they can squat. And then the terrible hurricane comes, and their hut is washed away, and they or their children are killed. And this is a repeated story."

SKIRBLE: And "Global Hotspots" co-author Margaret Arnold says those stories will continue to be repeated, unless communities and managers set priorities to break the cycle. She says the global risk analysis in the report can help decision makers set priorities.

ARNOLD: "There's a culture of prevention that has to be built up. People have to take some responsibility for the risk they face. And the government is going to have to do the same. So there are some non-expensive things you can do, just buying a kind of cheap straps if you live in a hurricane zone, for example, to keep your roof on, things that don't cost a lot of money. More importantly there are lots of things you can do just in terms of public education and awareness and community preparedness and things that can really reduce the impacts on communities."

SKIRBLE: Margaret Arnold says "Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis" promotes a proactive approach to disaster relief and mitigation. It supports the view that awareness of disaster risk must be as part of a nations economic development plan, and not simply as a humanitarian effort, after the fact. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Some of the most feared natural disasters are earthquakes. Scientists and officials who need to know about earthquake activity can visit our Website of the Week for the latest data on seismic activity. It's the Earthquake Hazards Program — part of the U.S. Geological Survey — online at

WALD: "The main purpose of it is to get out current earthquake information, what's going on around the world, as quickly as possible. We also have information on historical earthquakes, a lot of general background information, so if you want to learn about earthquakes you can go here first."

Lisa Wald is a geophysicist and the webmaster for the Earthquake Hazards Program, which posts information about earthquakes as soon as possible.

WALD: "In the United States we have a dense network of seismometers and we are able to get the information quickly and we usually can get information up [online] between two and five minutes of the earthquake time in the U.S."

In other countries, because there are fewer sensors and because of the time it takes for the seismic waves to travel through the earth to the seismometers, it can take up to an hour before the latest data is online.

Users tend to throng to the Earthquake Hazards Program website when there's a big siesmic event. The normal traffic surged, for example, after last December's earthquake and tsunami, and the site had 119 million hits in the first week after the event.

The website has maps showing locations of recent earthquakes, and one thing that surprised me is how common earthquakes are. Southern California alone has some 10,000 quakes a year.

WALD: "Yes that's right. I have had some e-mails surprised that there are so many earthquakes all the time. It's amazing. The world, it's moving, it's dynamic, and we do have a lot of earthquakes every day."

The latest earthquake data is important for some users of this website. Others - particularly students - just want to learn about earthquakes, and there's plenty here for them, too.

WALD: "We have information for students who want to do a science fair project. We have ideas and links for them to go to. And we have a huge database of websites and web pages for learning about earthquakes."

So for background information on earthquakes, or up-to-the-minute information about the latest seismic event, point your browser to, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "Shake That Thing" (Preservation Hall Jazz Band)

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World." I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The U.S. space agency NASA has launched a series of competitions aimed at encouraging innovation to solve some tough problems it faces as it prepares to explore the planet Mars and some of the deeper recesses of space. NASA is hoping cash prizes will spur innovation. VOA's Maura Farrelly reports the idea behind NASA's "Centennial Challenge" is really very old, but some wonder if it's an idea whose time has passed.

FARRELLY: NASA was challenged to come up with something like the Centennial Challenge back in 1999, when the National Academy of Engineering published a report emphasizing the role prize contests have played throughout history in the development of vital technology. The so-called Longitude Problem, for example, was complicating trans-Atlantic navigation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was solved only after the British Parliament offered a staggering 20-thousand pounds to anyone who could develop a way to accurately measure longitude. And just last year, the first privately designed plane was flown into space after the Ansari X Prize Foundation offered 10 million dollars to anyone who could do it.

SPONBERG: "It's largely driven by the past success of prize competitions."

FARRELLY: Brant Sponberg is program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenge. He says the first set of competitions will focus on the development of two different innovations that NASA desperately needs. First, the agency is looking for a strong, light-weight material that can be used to make ropes and tethers. And second, it's looking for a wireless way to transmit energy from one point to another.

SPONBERG: we needed a way to reach out to the professor in another field who may have a solution to our problem but may not be thinking of NASA as he goes about his work, or the smart hobbyist who may have a neat way to do something, or the pioneer who normally doesn't like to do NASA kind of work, maybe doesn't like to work with the government, who would love to have his name go down in history as making a great achievement.

FARRELLY: But what is it about a competition that gets people thinking innovatively? Certainly the prize money is an incentive. But the $100,000 first place award in the Centennial Challenge pales in comparison to what the winning inventor will make later from the sales of his invention. He wouldn't have had to enter the contest to get that, so participating in the competition must be about more than just the money. Karen Walsh is an assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin's College of Engineering, which for the past eleven years has been holding the annual Schoofs Competition, which is similar to the Centennial Challenge. She says there's just something about the opportunity to compete that gets the creative juices flowing.

WALSH: It takes the student with the idea who's sitting around in his or her dorm room, and they're saying to themselves, 'I wonder if this could ever develop into anything?'… without the encouragement of a competition like this, the support of the educational seminars that we wrap around it, I think probably very few of those students would move forward to create their invention, and to really try to carry it out.

FARRELLY: That may be true, but some historians are skeptical that prize contests can really spur the sort of innovation that NASA is looking for. Robert Post is curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. He says success stories like that of John Harrison — who won Britain's 20,000-pound prize in 1773 for inventing an accurate marine chronometer — are really quite unusual.

POST: Particularly in this country, there's continual interest in fostering the notion that the sort of the lone, isolated, classical inventor still makes a difference, and it's really not true. Almost without exception, inventions of any significant merit come out of [research and development] labs, or military research, or out of big organizations, and they can't really be credited to one person.

FARRELLY: Not only that, but creating truly innovative technology can be very expensive - which is why most inventors choose to look for grants, rather than compete for prize money, says Arthur Molella, who heads the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the History of Invention.

MOLELLA: "You don't get the money until you win the prize, whereas the grant process, of course, gives young investigators money right up front to pursue certain kinds of technology."

FARRELLY: Still, Arthur Molella says competitions can't really hurt the innovation process - and it's possible… even if it isn't likely… that NASA just may find what it's looking for through the Centennial Challenge. Mr. Molella also notes that there's no shortage of prize contests designed to get people thinking of new ways to solve old problems. A cursory search on the Internet yields hundreds of private and government-sponsored websites that are chock full of information about cash awards for people who invent new technology. I'm Maura Farrelly.

Did you have a good night's sleep last night?

According to a new study of sleeping habits in the United States, only half of Americans are good sleepers, with the result — says Barbara Phillips of the University of Kentucky — that ...

PHILLIPS: "We are driving drowsy, we are late for work, and many of us are too sleepy for sex."

The figures come from an annual survey by the U. S. Sleep Foundation, which includes researchers, physicians and other experts. Their survey found that the number of people who sleep less than six hours a night is increasing dramatically. And Dr. Christopher Drake of the Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan told reporters that poor sleep habits can affect a person's overall health.

DRAKE: "Of those individuals sleeping less than six hours [a night], they're much more likely to have a medical condition. And these medical conditions that we assessed in our current poll included hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and othe types of medical problems."

The poll also found that individuals who are obese are much more likely to get less than six hours of sleep a night. That concerns sleep specialists because obesity is becoming increasingly common — not just in the United States, but in many countries throughout the world.

Next Thursday is World Health Day. The United Nations' World Health Organization organizes the annual observance, which has a different theme each year. Last year it was road safety. And for 2005 it is healthy mothers and children.

WHO official Joy Phumaphi of Botswana stresses that healthy mothers and children are the real wealth of a society.

PHUMAPHI: "A healthy mother will not only bring up her children with love and affection and guide them to become productive members of the community, a healthy mother herself is a human resource. She produces, she contributes toward the economic growth of the community, the family, and the country as a whole."

The World Health Organization says that 10 million babies under age five die each year, more than one-third of them newborns. A half-million mothers die of complications from childbirth. The direct causes include hemmorage, infection, and unsafe abortion. But the WHO also stresses underlying causes, including poverty, lack of education, and infectious disease.

Malaria is one of the world's biggest health challenges. This week, representatives of organizations interested in combating the disease gathered at an informal meeting in Washington to try to organize a concerted effort to mobilize resources against malaria.

Judith Mandelbaum-Schmid of the World Health Organization told me how big a problem malaria is.

MANDELBAUM-SCHMID: "It kills about a million or maybe slightly over a million people a year. Most of those are children under the age of five living in Africa. But it also debilitates people areound the world, keeps children from going to school [and] succeeding at school. It basically ruins lives."

The obstacles are considerable. The malaria parasite has developed resistance to older, cheaper drugs. In many areas people can't get the medicine or even bed nets, the public health system is inadequate in many countries where malaria is endemic.

But unlike some other diseases — like HIV-AIDS — treatment for malaria is simple and relatively inexpensive. Even the newest malaria drug, artemisinin — which is 10 times more expensive than older drugs — is still much cheaper than AIDS therapy. And a key element in malaria prevention is the inexpensive bed net that keeps away the mosquitos that carry the malaria parasite.

MANDELBAUM-SCHMID: "We know how to prevent it. We know how to treat it. We could get rid of it like we did in the United States. Malaria was a huge problem in the United States certainly through the 1800s and really wasn't eradicated until about a half-a-century ago. It can go away. You just need the tools to do it. We know what those tools are. We just lack the resources to do it."

Experts say a credible fight against malaria could be mounted for a fraction of the cost needed for the fight against HIV-AIDS. That's one reason malaria is sometimes described as the 'low-hanging fruit" — meaning it should be an easy problem to conquor.

Oliver Sabot is with a group called "Friends of the Global Fight," a Washington-based group that is working to bolster support for the battle against malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. He says one thing that could help win American support for malaria funding is that it doesn't carry some of the social stigma attached to AIDS.

SABOT: "There's no sex, no needles in malaria. It's just young kids and pregnant mothers dying of a mosquito-borne disease, and I think you get that out into the churches, if you get it out into the community organizations, these are — as was being said in the meeting today — Americans are humanitarian, they're compassionate, and if they get the right message, if they get the right information, I think they would be wildly in support of greater US support of malaria. It's just a question of getting it out there and having the resources to get it out there."

Advocates are talking about a $3 billion-a-year campaign against malaria — a fraction of the money needed to control HIV-AIDS. Mr. Sabot says the managability of malaria also makes it an attractive target for politicians and voters looking for results.

SABOt: "People in America are very concerned about AIDS, but it's a probable that is going to be with us for decades. Malaria, I think, as we discussed today, we have the tools. And with the right opportunies, we can eliminate malaria in areas in a couple of years. And I think that's something that's really going to resonate both on and off Capitol Hill."

The conquest of disease has many benefits, not the least of which are economic. WHO's Judith Mandelbaum-Schmid offered an example.

MANDELBAUM-SCHMID: Let's take Nigeria, which has a ton of oil. Companies are very reluctant to send their employees to places where they may get sick, for example, and where the workers are sick with malaria. This is a real problem. If Africa could pull itself up, they would be better participants in the world economy, which is always good for a country like ours, which produces so much. So you can begin to think about that immediately. Not to mention the fact that malaria is a major cause of poverty . Top economists around the world have recognized that tackling malaria is one of the top four most efficient ways to tackle poverty.

Still, it's fair to say that malaria is far from the top the agenda for most lawmakers in Washington. There are some exceptions, and advocates for malaria funding are organizing to raise awareness of the issue in the coming months.

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That's our show for this week. We're always happy to hear from you. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited this week by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. Eva’s the one who makes Our World sound so good, and it’s her last show, at least for a while, as she starts a new work schedule, and that’s our loss. But we hope to have her working on Our World again later this year. Thanks, Eva. 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.