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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Monday, January 24, 2011

Big Pharma Runs Out of Ideas?

Here is a nice followup to my January 6, 2011, post on patents as a measure of U.S. productivity and creativity.  Now Big Pharma is getting ready to throw their towel into the ring and call it quits of sorts.  It seems to me that they were pursuing a wrong paradigm in their research and their colossal blunder was called by the unforgiving Mother Nature.  The mistake they seem to have made is a simplistic belief that one or few unique genes are responsible for each major illness.  Identify the genes and, voila, appropriate therapy presents itself.  Well, hundreds of billions of dollars later, they seem to have discovered that gene expression is context-dependent, and the environmental influences (epigenetics) are stronger than genetics.  This may be the best example of a seriously misguided huge research effort that essentially broke a whole industry.  So now federal government is stepping in with another corporate bailout plan, this time an $1 billion/year government research lab.

 Is that it?  The Hubbert cycle fit of research spending by Big Pharma. The small peak also centered around 2007, seems to be even more good money thrown after the same bad old ideas.
If it continues, the cumulative spending from these two Hubbert cycles will be $900 billion by 2050.  Add to this 20-30 billion dollars per year of NIH research funding. One wonders what this astronomic amount of money might have done if it were spent on a different, humbler research program that includes the Earth environment instead of dismissing it in favor of design molecules.

Will we ever learn?  Now the so called "synthetic biology" is following a similar arrogant and false paradigm. Life is a bunch of building blocks and wires that can be put together like Lego blocks, according to one of the most prominent operators in this promising field.

P.S. On April 18, 2011, this article in the Guardian was brought to my attention.

Friday, January 21, 2011

GMO foods revisited

So, we had the WSJ raving about applying good science to evaluate the undeniable benefits of GMOs, and we also had little shreds of evidence to the contrary.

In India, for example, they found a couple of tiny, irrelevant problems with a GMO eggplant designed so marvelously  by Monsanto. Nonsense, I say!  But here is what those pesky Indians say. Oops!

And Monsanto's Roundup, what a God send it has been for our hard working farmers and consumers! Or is it?  Is it, really?!

I say, I am getting confused.  But my liver, and heart, and kidneys, and lungs, and hormones seem to know something.  And they all refuse to accept the GMO blessings.  They are wrong, I say! The science I don't like is junk science. And WSJ confirms.  What a relief...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Coal production rate peak revisited

On January 10, 2011 - 11:49am, the Oildrum posted an article by  Luis de Sousa 
Peak Coal: the Olduvai perspective.
It is an interesting article and we appreciate the author's arguments against the peak of global rate of coal production.  However, here are a few facts on the ground recorded by Greg Croft and me:
  1. Last year, China imported 150/690=22% of all seaborne steam coal traded worldwide in 2010, and projections are that China will try to import more this year.  China also has firm plans of of limiting energy use and shutting down 2,000 coal-intensive industrial facilities.  In short, it seems that China's coal production has peaked.  China produces roughly 1/2 of world's coal.
  2. The Oildrum article does not seem to address the ever-increasing mine depths that will ultimately curtail and stop coal production from these mines.
  3. Mozambique is going to become the second biggest exporter of metallurgical coal, which is not the same as the second largest coal exporter.
  4. Best of all, we have an economist's argument; many steam coal markets (Illinois Basin, Uinta Basin and Australia Newcastle) are up 50% over January 2008. Appalachian markets, which are a mix of steam and metallurgical coal, are up about 20%. Oil first hit $100 in January 2008, so oil is slightly down over the same time period. The coal price increase shows up nicely on the EIA graph, but is dwarfed by the mid-2008 price spike.
These facts do not point to coal as an abundant commodity that everyone wants to phase out.

Our coal paper that does not use linearization and does not claim that we can see the future is here

As a reminder, the Hubbert (Gaussian) peaks of production rate emerge not because we are running out of a resource, but because the physical availability of the resource continues to decline.  Economists have a difficult time dealing with geology and geophysics of a finite spherical Earth, when their preferred model is a flat and infinite planar Earth from which resources can be drawn at will if the price is right.

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    U.S. Patents to Non-Residents

    Recently, 1/2 of US patents was granted to foreign residents, whose numbers are at below 1/10 of the US population. This trend has been growing almost monotonically since 1947 and reflects the ever-increasing majority of graduate students in science and engineering, who are foreigners. Foreign graduate students are currently at 80% or so in math and petroleum engineering. The US Patent Office does not count naturalized American patent holders. Given that roughly 50% of engineering and science professors are foreign-born, patents given to foreigners in the US dominate.

    Fraction of all US patents granted to foreign residents. Note that the total foreign-born fraction of US population has hovered between 5 and 15% of the total population. Also note that since 1947 foreigners have received an almost monotonically growing share of US patents that is now at least 5 times their share of the US population. (I say at least, because I am adding naturalized citizens to the foreign fraction, and the patent fraction does not).  A steep decrease of patents granted to foreign residents between 1939 and 1946 reflects the WWII effort in which foreign scientists and engineers were quite involved.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Patents Measure U.S. Productivity

    Here is a decomposition into multiple Hubbert cycles of patents granted each year since 1790 by the U.S. Patent Office to 1 million US residents. Note that without a new cycle of inventions in something, the current cycles will expire by 2050.  In other words, the total number of U.S. inventions will decline dramatically in the next 20-30 years.  Some of this decline might be forced by a decline of support for R&D and fundamental research in the US.

    The fundamental cycle of patented inventions in the US peaked in 1914, when expressed per 1 million of people living in the US. This was the classical science and engineering patent cycle. The first small peak in 1870, was related to the Civil War and the newly acquired technological sophistication in the U.S. The second small peak in 1885, was probably related to the innovators who were born post 1860, coming of age. The third small peak in 1930, was a boost to innovation during the roaring 1920s. Curiously, the next large patent cycle, mostly in engineering, peaked in 1971, the year in which US oil production peaked too. The latest and largest patent cycle, with an apparent peak in 2004, describes mostly biotechnology, medicine, materials science, and informatics. Note that this latest patent cycle is projected to decline at a 13%/year rate. This cycle has little to do with classical geosciences and engineering applied to hydrocarbon systems. In geological sciences and engineering, we are already at a point of significantly diminishing returns, and breakthroughs will not be realized by continuing business as usual. Radically new solutions must be found in our quest for cheap abundant energy. I am not talking here about solar photovoltaics, wind or biofuels.

     It seems that the U.S. society is slowly reaching its capacity for complexity.  Unless in near future there will be a new wave of patents, each 100 people in the U.S. will have to get by with a total of 6 patents accrued between 1790 and 2050.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    And the Wall Street Journal raved on...

    The December 27, 2010, WSJ Opinion piece, "Ag Department Uproots Science," is full of fantastically uninformed thinking so characteristic of medieval alchemists. The piece takes to task the Ag Secretary and the Obama administration for being insufficiently warm towards the genetically modified (GM) plants and insufficiently lax in regulating them.

    The nonsensical argument that a genetically modified plant is "substantially equivalent" to an unmodified one, because a few different genes weight almost nothing, flies in the face of the very science the opinionator invokes so often. These modified genes express themselves differently in different circumstances, and may cause significant changes in chemical reaction pathways at cellular level. In other words, the modified plant may, and often does, produce chemicals that disrupt the human endocrinal system or are downright poisonous. A good example are GM potatoes.

    What irks me more than anything is that this roar of the ignorant or cynical servants of Monsanto et al. does not generate a public outcry from the real scientists. I guess they are afraid of losing their industry grants, lucrative consulting fees, trips to ag conferences on the Amalfi Coast in Italy or in Hawaii, and risk rejection of their publications by the journals stuffed with the industry-sponsored enthusiasts of GMOs.

    Of course the American public does not know that a grand experiment is conducted on its health and well-being with almost no checks and balances. USDA's timid effort to introduce some rules has been met - again - with wrath of the true believers and bought-again GMO friends. Where are the equally thunderous voices of the rest of us?

    Here is the piece:

    If the Obama Administration is trying to lose its antibusiness reputation, you wouldn't know it from the latest shakedown at the Department of Agriculture. In a move that caused jaws to drop in the farm industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has invited activists and biotech critics to shape the agency's regulatory decision on a biotech product. If the precedent stands, it could permanently politicize a system that is supposed to be based on science.

    This tale began in 2006, when an activist group called the Center for Food Safety sued the Department of Agriculture to stop the distribution of a Monsanto alfalfa variety called Roundup Ready, which is designed to withstand a popular herbicide. In 2007, a federal judge in the Northern District of California issued an injunction to halt the sale of the product, pending a review and an environmental impact statement by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service branch of USDA.

    The review finally landed with a thud last week, but not because the product had been unmasked as a "plant pest" or had dangers for human or livestock. According to the Department's environmental review, the alfalfa was judged substantially equivalent to other varieties without red flags for regulators. But instead of taking the news as a green light to let the alfalfa on the market, the Agriculture chieftains are calling in biotech critics to suggest ways the product might be deregulated "with conditions."

    According to activists, the Roundup Ready crop menaces the purity of nearby organic fields, potentially cross-pollinating and threatening the livelihood of organic farmers. To mitigate the possible contamination, organic producers have suggested mandatory minimum planting distances and a USDA administered fund that would compensate organic farmers who were harmed by which way the wind was blowing. Some have also suggested a system whereby traditional farmers accept liability for any contamination of organic crops.

    If this sounds like vintage antibiotech activist fare with the imprimatur of the USDA, you're getting the picture. By suggesting that industry and activist groups negotiate compromises in advance of the final ruling on whether to deregulate, Mr. Vilsack is using the Department's regulatory authority as leverage against businesses whose products are overwhelmingly regulated by USDA.

    It gets worse. Mr. Vilsack's authority in the regulatory decision-making process is based on the assumption of sound scientific data. But according to people who attended the meeting last Monday, the USDA Secretary told the assembled groups that science itself is subjective, and that he could have three different groups bring him three different supposedly scientific opinions.

    Momentum for the new regulatory mischief is also coming from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, whose background helping develop the USDA's organic labelling guidelines gives her kinship with biotech critics who support minimum planting distances—a plan that would impose a heavy burden on farmers who use the products. As Idaho-based company Forage Genetics pointed out at the meeting on Monday, roughly 20% of the alfalfa hay acres in the country would fall into those "no plant zones," leaving those farmers "disenfranchised from the benefits of biotechnology and alfalfa because of the accident of where they happen to be farming."

    Even within the Administration, Mr. Vilsack may encounter some pushback from those who believe his position oversteps his legal authority to regulate under the Plant Protection Act. Among those with reason to be less than pleased with the USDA's antics are the folks at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who have seen similar antibiotech strains in trade disputes with the European Union.

    While it may not be one of the major biotech crops, alfalfa is a regulatory test that could open the gate for similarly politically driven negotiations on non-organic crops from sugar beets to soybeans. If nonscience criteria are introduced as considerations for allowing the sale of biotech crops, the effect would be disastrous for the USDA's regulatory reputation. We hope Secretary Vilsack makes his decision based on science, not politics