Highlights from the World Science Summit- "We've turned maize into a corn sex machine!"
Mayor Bloomberg opening the World Science Festival Summit
SATC . . . Science in the City? The contributors to the World Science Festival (WSF)--a 5 day whirlwind affair with dance performances, lectures, and street fairs—aimed to put the sexiness back into science.
The WSF started with the World Science Summit--an event closed to the public, where world class scientists and policy players met to discuss some pressing issues. Mayor Bloomberg gave the opening remarks, stressing that there are still important gaps between what we know and what we don't know in areas such as global warming. He said that scientists are often at the forefront of drawing attention to public problems, but that it can then take years for politicians and the public to truly take notice. For example, in the 1950's scientists had already linked smoking to cancer--and in the 1970's scientists predicted greenhouses gases would lead to global warming. (Amazingly, there was even a NYT article on the subject in 1890!) Yet it took decades for political action to follow.
"Radical Science for a Warming Planet," was an exploration by Dr. Steven Chu, Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, along with Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University, and Peter Head of Arup into new ways of bolstering energy sustainability through the creation of: synthetic plants designed to transform light into energy, vertical farms on skyscrapers, and aquatic carbon-neutral cities. Alexander "Andy" Karsner, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) rounded off the panel.
Peter Head of Arup and Professor Dickson Despommier from Columbia University gave perhaps the most inspirational talks; Mr. Head gave a stimulating presentation about his work in Dongtan, China, while Professor Despommier spoke about the vertical farm projects his students are envisioning (TH readers have been reading about Dongtan and vertical farms for years).
The 1st phase of Arup's mixed use development, eco-city project in Dongtan will be finished by 2010 and will house ~7,000 people. The Dongtan project uses re-cycled water and a rice-powered power plant, and the city will have no PM emissions from cars, as transportation would be fueled by hydrogen fuel cells or electricity and would be water based transit. This would result not only in quieter public spaces, but the buildings along these public spaces could also be designed for natural aeration.
Mr. Head was very optimistic about new energy and sustainability research in general. He also spoke about the solar boat project in Bangladesh. The boats serve as educational centers and also power lamps in the village which formerly used kerosene. The project is creating a small solar economy. In a scenario like this, Head told us, technology can transform people's lives, even for those living in poor conditions.
Dr. Despommier works on reconnecting food and cities. His vertical farm project began eight years ago to address the problem of food security and is now a global project. These farm towers, which are still a couple of years from being built, will address the need to grow food closer to where we eat it, and to reduce our food miles. Climate change means we'll need to be less dependent on petroleum based sources to deliver food to cities. And there is a space constraint: the amount of land currently dedicated to farming is the size of South America. 80% of the arable land in existence is already being farmed. With another 3 billion people coming, we will need to find arable land the size of Brazil. Vertical farming could be a way out of this problem.
The 1st iteration of the vertical farm project, in the design phase, was created for the Gowanus Canal. Incheon, Korea may be the first to get a vertical farm built. Of course, new energy and sustainability research suffers from a lack of funding. If Professor Despommier had 2% of the funding that the farm bill has, he could build an actual, instead of a virtual, vertical farm.
Some interesting, and controversial questions came up during the Q and A period:
One audience member asked, "Are we going to see the same old plants in these vertical farms?" Professor Despommier replied that his team has studied the four major world cuisines, analyzing them to determine what the common foods are that we can grow indoors. In his ideal world, Despommier told us, he would have free run of a sunny space--like the 5th Avenue Apple store --to use alternative energy and grow plants throughout the building. Mr. Head added that the key will be getting the mineral cycling right. Right now there is a problem of depletion of the minerals needed for arable soils.
Things got controversial when questions were asked about bioengineering plants. Panelist Dr. Chu of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab argued that we have been bioengineering food for centuries, turning maize into "a sex machine". He said he understands that people are nervous about genetic engineering, but, he believes that if done carefully genetic engineering will lead to good things. We could even have genetically designed plants created as indicator plants to show when the surrounding plants have become unhealthy—e.g. the plant would turn yellow if a problem was recognized.
Another questioner asked, "Will the price of oil drive the solution?" Mr. Head replied that he does think the higher the price of oil goes, the faster solutions will happen. But Dr. Chu remarked that he doesn't think the price of oil alone will solve this. Mr. Karsner questioned why we need to be reactive (respond to price signals) to fix a problem. We didn't, he pointed out, need to be reactive to get a man to the moon. He said we will need to be proactive with solutions for global warming, because the cost of being reactive will be too high.
The session on energy closed with New York Times reporter Andy Revkin asking Andy Karsner if he had he witnessed anything in the last eight years which might move towards restoring science to the place it needs to hold in the U.S. Andy said that the science budget has doubled under his watch, but it needs to be ramped up much more. We need, he said, to incorporate global warming science as an externality. Yes, it should have happened earlier, but we need to get past "the blame game" and make it happen. And the next administration will need to set the bar higher.
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