From the President: The State of OUR Union

Author: 
Bob Howarth CERF President 2007-2009, rwh2@cornell.edu

I write this early in 2009, and I hope the new year finds you well. The economy is in shambles, and most if not all of us are feeling unprecedented pressures. CERF is financially sound, but needs the continued support of the membership. To many of us, CERF is a very important community, and in times of stress, it becomes all the more important to participate in the community. Please let me know if there is anything I or CERF can do to help you as individuals, and please do continue to be active in CERF.  

The fall brought tragedy to Joy Bartholomew, our Executive Director. Her husband, Bill Haile, passed away. Joy is doing well and continues to diligently serve CERF. Many members of the CERF Governing Board made contributions in Bill’s memory to the American Chestnut Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural and cultural resources of Calvert County, MD. Bill was a sustaining member and dedicated volunteer. For those interested, the organization can be reached at PO Box 2363, Prince Frederick, MD 20678.  

Outstanding Appointments

The new year brings some reason to celebrate: the new administration brings a new attitude towards the environment and towards scientific research. Particularly exciting to those of us interested in estuaries and coasts is the appointment of Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University as Director of NOAA. Jane is a coastal marine ecologist with a tremendous history of advocating for environmental protection and for policy based on rigorous scientific research. Also exciting is the appointment of John Holdren of Harvard and the Woods Hole Research Center as the President’s Science Advisor. John is an environmental scientist deeply dedicated to addressing global climate change, and is also a long-standing advocate for quality research. The new administration has called for a doubling of the federal research budget as part of the proposed economic recovery plan for the nation, with a significant amount of this tied to research to meet environmental challenges. The House of Representatives has responded by proposing an increase of $10 billion for research, with the largest increase being for NSF. See http://www.change.gov for details.  

Science Policy Interface

CERF is developing procedures for becoming more active in the science policy interface, under the guidance of Susan Williams, CERF President-elect and chair of the Policy Committee. As a step into the policy arena, in November the Governing Board unanimously passed two resolutions. Both resolutions, which are presented in full on the CERF website, stress the importance of using objective scientific analysis before proceeding with major projects and policies that may adversely affect coastal marine ecosystems. The specific examples highlighted in the resolutions are fertilization of coastal seas with urea as a proposed mechanism to sequester carbon dioxide, and the rapid increase in the production of ethanol from corn, which is likely to aggravate nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River basin and make it more difficult to reach the national goal of reducing the size of the Gulf’s dead zone. I took these resolutions to the December meeting of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP), an umbrella group for some 60 societies (including CERF) that have a combined membership of 1.4 million scientists and educators. While the CSSP delayed action on any possible endorsement, presidents from several societies – including ASLO and NABS – said they would take our resolutions to their organizations for possible endorsement. At the end of the meeting, both NABS president, Nick Aumen, and I were elected to the Board of Directors of the CSSP, so we are well positioned to continue to push this message on the need for a strong science basis for policy.  

Biofuels Report Available

Much of my activity for the past year has been spent as chair of the International SCOPE Biofuels Project, an effort charged by the International Council of Science with a rigorous scientific analysis of the environmental consequences of biofuels. By the time this newsletter is published, I hope our report from the Biofuels Project will be as well! Please check it out: Howarth & Bringezu (editors), Biofuels: Environmental Consequences and Interactions with Changing Land Use, available online at http://cip.cornell.edu/biofuels/. We discuss many environmental issues, including coastal nutrient pollution and dead zones. The report is particularly critical of corn-ethanol, but also questions the wisdom of second-generation ethanol from cellulose. A better approach to using biomass for energy is direct combustion for heat and electricity, if the goal is to obtain energy in a sustainable manner with minimal harm to the environment.  

100 Years of Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizer

I end this column on an historical note: the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the process for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In the third week of March, 1909, Fritz Haber combined nitrogen and hydrogen gases under high pressure to make ammonia. Only 6% of the gases reacted, and only 1 ml of liquid ammonia was made. But it set the stage for the tremendous revolution in agriculture that occurred later in the 20th Century, and for the resulting degradation that has occurred in coastal marine ecosystems. I am hopeful that the coming years and decade will lead to substantial progress towards reducing these harmful effects of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer while also allowing a hungry world to be fed. For those interested in the fascinating story of Fritz Haber and his discovery, I highly recommend Daniel Charles’ book, Mastermind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare (2005, Harper-Collins).