The NY Times reported that American science is becoming increasingly funded by philanthropic donors, for better or for worse. Supporters of philanthropy cite accomplishments such as medical advances and meeting scientific funding needs in the face of government budget cuts. Others, such as the authors of a Nature editorial, note that philanthropic funding is skewed towards “fashionable” fields such as health, space, and the environment, and is disproportionately allocated to well-known universities.
Signaling a larger shift towards more applied research topics, philanthropists and the government alike are putting less money into basic science. Basic science, the mystery-solving that is fundamental to many scientific disciplines but lacks direct real world applications, may be underfunded because the benefits are often only realized in hindsight. In 2009, the government budget for basic science was $40 billion compared to $30 billion today. Similarly, 3.6% of philanthropic donations went to basic research in 1999, but the donors allocated only 2.9% in 2006. While the funding may be going to more relevant topics, the Nature editorial warns that cutting basic research may undermine long-term efforts and the foundational research needed for future advances.
As science is becoming more privatized, a separate movement has been taking shape to democratize science. While citizen science groups span the board from the government funded (e.g. Project BudBurst, a Chicago-based initiative that studies climate change by looking at the timing of seasonal changes in plants) to nonprofits (e.g. the Public Lab, an open-source platform that focuses on DIY techniques for research), both types seek volunteers to contribute to the collection of scientific data and to shape research questions. This volunteer effort allows scientists to collect large data sets that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive or difficult and to involve the public in the research process.
The research questions addressed by citizen scientists are somewhat different from those that philanthropists or the government pursue; citizen-driven research tends to employ non-traditional tools and grassroots research techniques, which inherently blend disciplines. It is unlikely that citizen scientists are executing the type of large-capital projects now funded by philanthropists such as space exploration or large particle reactors. And because the research questions in citizen science are often, though not always, generated by the citizens, these projects will inherently be informed by social conditions.
At a site like Freshkills Park, with a diverse set of ecological conditions over 2,200 acres, science research can be conducted at multiple levels and in partnership with different constituencies. In addition to institution-run projects, a new citizen science project is beginning to take shape under the direction of Nicholas Johnson, a member of the Public Lab and a recent graduate from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Find out more about this project in our upcoming Fresh Perspectives newsletter.
Last week several members of the Freshkills team assisted Dr. Mark Hauber, a professor of Psychology at Hunter College, in checking bird nestboxes in the park. Dr. Hauber is gathering data on the bird populations and breeding success at Freshkills Park, a site which has acted as a stopover for bird species along the Atlantic Migratory Flyway since the closure of the landfill. A migratory stop-over site provides safe and efficient foraging and resting opportunities between long-distance stretches of continuous migratory flights.
Dr. Hauber has been researching bird breeding at Freshkills since August of 2011, when the nest boxes were first installed in the park. He is currently monitoring two other active nestbox sites in New York City: a site in the Bronx near Hunters Point and Jamaica Bay’s National Gateway Park. By studying these sites, the aim is to assess of the ecological value of reclaimed sites with respect to migratory bird populations. The impact of a stop-over habitat on migrating birds is difficult to detect in adult birds, therefore Dr. Hauber has focused his research on birds hatched on the site, whose health directly reflects the local environment. Dr. Hauber ‘s work will help define the differences and similarities between newly restored brownfield landscapes and areas where nesting has been long established.
According to Dr. Hauber’s initial findings, Tree Swallows or House Wrens are the dominant species found in the nextboxes. The newly set-up nest boxes in the Bronx and Staten Island are only 30 percent occupied, whereas the long-standing nestbox colony in Jamaica Bay’s National Gateway Park has 75 percent occupancy. His team is also finding that more young Tree Swallow females, which have a distinctive brown coloring at the age of one, settle in boxes that are recently set-up, compared to the well-established sites. The age of nesting males is much more difficult to determine considering that all males have the same green coloring, irrespective of age. An analysis of abandoned eggshells and nestling down feathers is still underway.
On their recent trip, the team checked the 80+ bird nestboxes located in South Park and North Park. Corresponding with his initial findings, the nestboxes were found to be primarily inhabited by House Wrens and Tree Swallows. Upon inspection, it was discovered that several of the nests contained recently laid eggs, some with a single egg others contained up to seven. Dr. Hauber and the Freshkills team will be returning to the site to check on the nests and the soon to be hatched baby birds in the next few weeks.
An interesting experiment in water pollution management is taking place in the Bronx River estuary near Hunts Point in New York City. Scientists are testing the use of a ‘Mussel Raft’ for addressing nitrogen pollution from treated sewage that ends up in the water from a nearby treatment facility.
Mussels are known for their filtration properties and are being tied to lines on the raft to assist in water filtration. Non-edible ribbed mussels were chosen in the hope they would not be harvested to be eaten. The mussels filter about 1.6 liters of water (0.4 gallons) every hour. Find the full story in The New York Times.
Previous studies have shown that trees are associated with lower crime rates and a new study in Baltimore affirms this finding, showing the link goes beyond a correlation between the two factors. In other words, it’s not just a matter of wealthier neighborhoods having lower crime rates. The study controlled for socioeconomic factors and found a 10% increase in trees “roughly equaled” a 12% decrease in crime rates.
More and more evidence points to the significant return on investment from trees – citing cooling effects, air quality benefits and lower crime rates.
A recent analysis of wetland restoration efforts sheds new light on the success of a 100-year history of such work to reclaim these highly important ecosystems. Restoration has been a major undertaking in recent decades as development has damaged and otherwise claimed over half of the wetlands in areas like North America, Europe, Australia, and China.
The study looked at monitoring done at 621 restored or created wetlands around the world, comparing them with nearly the same amount of undisturbed natural wetlands. It revealed that the recovery of physical and biotic properties–the parts of a wetland that we can usually see and orient restoration toward–happened at a different timescale than the overall functioning of the ecosystem, which more closely followed the process of secondary succession after natural disturbances.
Promisingly, the study demonstrated that full recovery of human-damaged ecosystems is possible in most cases within one to two human generations, given time, a focus on recovering processes rather than single elements, and solid ecological understanding.
(via NYTimes Green Blog)
The WildLab is an iPhone app that allows bird-watching citizens and students to contribute to research about bird populations and distributions. The app helps institutions like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology develop mobile strategies for citizen science initiatives, engaging learners with curricula and projects that contribute to scientific research. Users record observations with the help of bird identification tools such as a menu of bird silhouettes, songs and colors. They can then track the number of a specific species in a particular area, calculated by the phone’s GPS. Data gathered is then shared with partner institutions.
Four new species of bees have been identified in New York State. Among them is Lasioglossum gotham, discovered at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, as small as a grain of rice. It burrows its home underground. The species was distinguished from other tiny look-alikes through DNA bar coding and digital imaging. The discovery, made in 2009, was part of an ongoing bee biology survey in New York City parks. Another bee, Lasioglossum katherinae, had been sitting unidentified in a drawer at the Museum of Natural History since 1903 until these new techniques helped to reveal its identity. Both species are ‘sweat bees,’ meaning they get some of their nourishment by lapping it off the skin of humans and other animals. But most of their sustenance is still acquired from the pollen and nectar of flowers.
New York City is home to more than 200 bee species, though the city’s bees are not immune to colony collapse. The identification of a new species is welcome news amidst this ongoing ecological crisis.
(via The New York Times)
A recent study by scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that urban parks are comparable stopover landscapes to non-urban sites in providing refueling grounds for migrating birds. Researchers examined migrant stopover biology in Prospect Park, Inwood Park and Bronx Park to better understand how birds use city parks during migration. The non-urban sites selected for the study were Marshlands Conservancy and Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Westchester County, which have similar forest stand composition to the urban parks but vast differences in nearby human population density. The study measured mass gain and triglyceride levels in surveyed birds and found these levels comparable across sites. Chad L. Seewagen, Ph.D, who prepared the Project’s report, has three ideas as to why urban stopovers are, contrary to expectation, as satisfactory as their non-urban counterparts:
- Though parks are fragmented and surrounded by heavy development in NYC, it is possible that they retain enough of the properties of larger, intact forests to offer migratory birds satisfactory refueling grounds.
- It might be that these birds are so flexible in their requirements during migration that they are able to exploit even the most unfamiliar habitats.
- Seewagen hypothesizes that the heat island effects of urban environments actually improve refueling conditions: warmer air in cities allows the birds’ terrestrial grub to thrive and survive further into the autumn season.
The report cautions against taking its findings to indicate that migratory habitat is not impacted by urbanization. It also notes that observing a dense presence of migratory birds in a certain area does not necessarily prove it to be a satisfactory refueling point, only an available one.
Scientists at the University of Liverpool are developing a new wind turbine dubbed the “Heat Waver” that uses solar photovoltaic rotors to generate energy even when the wind isn’t blowing. The team, headed by Dr. Joe King, has built a prototype and is currently determining an installation site on which to test it. There are still many technical issues to iron out, but Dr. King has hope that his team can “transform the world’s renewable energy needs,” citing locations such as Morocco, Italy, Spain, and Australia as areas where the technology could potentially be highly beneficial.
Kerb, a progressive landscape architecture publication produced by the RMIT University School of Architecture and Design in Melbourne, Australia, is looking for submissions for its next issue, Paradigms of Nature: Post Natural Futures.
Are we steering in an ‘un-natural’ direction, or taking the evolutionary leap necessary to establish a more integrated mode of co-existence?
We are entering a period of extreme technological escalation, where we can now synthesise technologies with living systems. It may soon be possible to create self-generating, manufactured landscapes that have the ability to grow, repair, decay and multiply, responding to a multitude of forces.
How will the development of these bio-technological possibilities shape the way we create landscapes where the city environment could transform into a dynamic, interactive organism of limitless potential?
In what ways will the urban landscape adapt and change with these neo-natural realities, where it becomes increasingly difficult to draw tangible lines between what we preserve as ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’?
But will all this current wild speculation about a future predicting synthetic biological ecologies, trans-natural robotic systems and post-natural organisms ever be realised, and how useful is it in meeting our collective ideals?
Submissions of experimental and innovative design projects, research, written, and photographic works, collages, digital animations or film are due to email@example.com by March 14, 2011.