ASU researchers report on a range of topics at 2016 AAAS conference

February 18, 2016

From effective team science to drones on the range, Arizona State University faculty and students played a big role in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest science and technology society, and its annual meeting draws thousands of scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers and journalists from around the world.

This year’s meeting was held in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11–15. The theme was Global Science Engagement, and the topics discussed by ASU professors included a look at Germany’s efforts to transition its energy industry to renewables, the use of drones in monitoring natural resources, effective team science and the role of evidence-based science policy. In addition to formal presentations, ASU students made several poster presentations of their research, and there was a colloquium on the evolutionary medicine program at ASU. Arizona State University was well represented at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Enrique Vivoni (left) presented at the conference. He is joined by ASU students Ruby Upreti, Rhian Stotts, Charlotte Till, Danielle Chipman and Thuy Nguyen. Several of these students had poster presentations at the conference. Download Full Image

Drones on the range

Earth and environmental scientists have often had to rely on piloted aircraft and satellites to collect remote sensing data, platforms that have traditionally been controlled by large research organizations or regulatory agencies. Thanks to the increased affordability and dramatic technological advances of drones, however, scientists can now conduct their own long-term high-resolution experiments at a fraction of the cost of using aircraft or satellites.

Drones “are poised to revolutionize remote sensing in the earth and environmental sciences,” said Enrique Vivoni, hydrologist and professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “They let individual scientists obtain low-cost repeat imagery at high resolution and tailored to a research team’s specific interest area.”

Vivoni’s own research has focused on rangeland locations in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, which cover large expanses of northern Mexico and the Southwest U.S. Using drones in these areas has allowed for improved studies on land-atmosphere exchanges and vegetation-runoff interactions.

“The biggest challenge for earth and environmental scientists has been obtaining high-resolution [data for] characterizations and predictions,” said Vivoni. “We believe unmanned aerial vehicles can fundamentally change how ecological and hydrological science is conducted and offer ways to merge remote sensing, environmental sensor networks and numerical models.”

Team science

Finding solutions to technological and social challenges has become more complex, and making significant progress often demands collaboration by sizable teams of experts with diverse and highly specialized kinds of knowledge. Such “team science” has led to important advances that could never have been accomplished by lone researchers.

“But sometimes it doesn’t work all that well,” ASU professor and psychologist Nancy Cooke told AAAS.

The problem is recognized by the National Science Foundation, which asked the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to assemble a group of experts to seek ways to ensure and improve the effectiveness of research teams. The 13-member Committee on the Science of Team Science was led by Cooke. Her committee’s report, “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science,” was the third-most-downloaded article published last year by the National Academies Press.

Recruiting people with the most impressive records of accomplishment and using the best research facilities is no guarantee for a successful team project, said Cooke, who is a professor of human systems engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“You must attend to the development of teamwork, communication and team leadership,” she explained. Those skills are especially important when team members are geographically dispersed, come from different cultures and work in different disciplines that don’t always speak the same technical parlance.

For team chemistry to develop, “you need a sort of dating period,” she said, during which team members focus on how to initiate and manage their interactions, share knowledge, maintain communications and make certain that “everyone is on the same page” throughout the course of the project.

In their National Academies committee report, Cooke and her colleagues say public agencies and private organizations funding research should consider more than the capabilities of the engineers and scientists involved. Funders should give equal attention to researchers’ strategies for collaboration throughout the entire time period that grants are supporting the projects.

When politics and science mix

ASU professor Dan Sarewitz spoke at the AAAS conference on the complicated intermingling of science and politics. Looking at a very public disagreement between President Barack Obama’s senior science adviser, John Holdren, and University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., Sarewitz asked, “When experts disagree about contentious issues like climate change, is it possible to separate the science from the politics?”

At Senate hearings and other public forums, Holdren and Pielke advanced different views about the links between drought and climate change, a disagreement that was then amplified by other political players. With Holdren charging that Pielke was out of the scientific mainstream, and Pielke arguing that Holdren was using the cover of his political position to make attacks that were inaccurate and personal, the underlying scientific issues were concealed by the fog of debate.

Sarewitz drew on this particular episode because it offers a lens to see how politics and science become intermixed.

“Above all,” Sarewitz said, “I want to highlight that the idea of ‘evidence-based policy’ is itself inherently political, since everyone wants the science on their side. But to understand what’s going on in these sorts of disputes you have to look carefully at the positions of the experts and ask: ‘What policies are they supporting with the evidence that they choose?’ "

Sarewitz is a professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability and is co-director of the Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes.

Germany’s uneven energy transformation

Germany’s energy system has experienced fundamental changes in the past 25 years. Its renewable-energy share has increased exponentially over the past two decades, now accounting for almost a third of Germany’s gross electricity consumption. This is the direct result of a broad range of innovation policies, tools and arrangements generally known as the “Energiewende” (the energy turnaround), with the ultimate aim to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions existing in 1990 by 80 to 95 percent by 2050 (i.e. an absolute emission in 2050 from 62.5 million to 250 million tons CO2 equivalent).

However, the efforts to steer German’s transition towards low-carbon technologies and to design a better, more sustainable German society put an unprecedented strain on Germany’s utility industry. Inside the Energiewende, there is no other economic branch harder hit by the successive waves of induced changes than the utility sector. From its past position as the backbone of the entire German economy, the utility sector now teeters on the brink of dissolution, trying hard to redefine itself as a provider of smart services.

Even with all of the dramatic changes, Germany is likely to miss its goals of reducing GHGs set for 2050 by at least 100 percent (i.e. by 250 million tons CO2 equivalent of difference), if the carbonization rate that has been in place for the past 25 years continues unabated, said Christine Sturm, an ASU student who presented at AAAS.

“The lesson to be learned is that even if a public policy exactly mirrors the values of those who called for it, this does not necessarily mean that the policy is a successful one.”

Written by Adam Gabriele, Joe Kullman, Karin Valentine and Skip Derra.

Associate Director, Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Meteorites fall everywhere, but they’re tiny, says ASU meteorite curator.
Likelihood of being killed by rock from space is astronomically low.
February 18, 2016

ASU Center for Meteorite Studies curator sets record straight on space-rock odds, their characteristics — and the incident in India

Before we begin reporting on his talk, let’s get something out of the way that Laurence Garvie, research professor and curator for Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, has been hearing about for two weeks.

Whatever killed the Indian bus driver about two weeks ago was not a meteorite.

“We still don’t have a direct hit,” Garvie said at a reception before his lecture on “Asteroids, Meteorites, and Dangers to Life on Earth.”

Meteorites don’t create explosions, he explained. And the likelihood of someone being killed by a rock falling from space is still astronomically low.

In 1954, a woman in Sylacauga, Ala., was hit by a particle from a meteorite that fell through the roof of her house. “Even then, it didn’t hit her directly,” Garvie said. “It hit the fridge and bounced off her arm.”

“It all comes down to probability, doesn’t it?” he said. “From above, we’re about a foot wide. And there are 7 billion people on Earth ... we could do the numbers!”

A man speaks at a lectern.
A meteorite like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs (such as the ones on his tie) is likely to occur only once every 100 million years, said ASU research professor Laurence Garvie. This and photo below by Ben Moffat/ASU Now


Garvie presented several numbers during his lecture, all of them fascinating.

Some 78,000 tons of extraterrestrial material hits the Earth every year, most of it dust. Most meteorites come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid belt is not like what you see in the movies; it’s not that crowded. Meteorites also come from the moon or Mars. “We’ve sent rovers there, but we haven’t brought anything back,” Garvie said. “Nature has done that for us.”

“As these objects come into the atmosphere, they produce a massive spectacle,” he said.

Meteorites are not hot and glowing when they hit the ground. In space, heated by the sun, they might only reach 200 degrees. Even when they fall through the stratosphere, they only have about four seconds to get hot. Garvie compared them to Baked Alaska; the inside is still cool.

Meteorites fall everywhere, but they’re tiny.

“The vast majority of meteorites are about a centimeter or so,” he said.

 “Fortunately for us the very large events are rare,” Garvie said.  A fall like the one captured on many dashboard cameras three years ago in Chelyabinsk, Russia, happens about once a generation.

A man speaks in front of an audience.

A Tunguska-level eventThe Tunguska event was a large explosion that occurred near the Stony Tunguska River, in Yeniseysk Governorate, nowKrasnoyarsk Krai, Russian Empire, on the morning of 30 June 1908 (N.S.).[1][2] The explosion over the sparsely populated Eastern Siberian Taiga flattened 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) of forest and caused no known casualties. The cause of the explosion is generally thought to have been a meteor. It is classified as an impact event, even though no impact crater has been found; the meteor is thought to have burst in mid-air at an altitude of 5 to 10 kilometres (3 to 6 miles) rather than hit the surface of the Earth. — Wikipedia as happened in Russia in 1915 occurs about once every 100 years. Chicxulub, which slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, wiped out the dinosaurs and trashed the entire planet, is likely to occur only once every 100 million years.

A 100-foot-diameter asteroid is orbiting Earth in a wobble and will next pass by in March. Scientists estimate it has a one in 250 million chance of hitting Earth. If it does, it will create a crater only a few hundred meters wide.

“What I hope you go away with is that you’re safe, basically,” Garvie said. “Will there be another large impact? Yes. When will it happen? Hopefully not soon.”

The School of Earth and Space Exploration’s New Discoveries Lecture Series brings exciting scientific work to the general public in a series of informative evening lectures, each given by a member of the faculty once a month throughout the spring. The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now