- Charting the Winners and Losers in Obama’s Science Budget
- The Lost Turkeys of the New World
- Obama Gives NASA More Money, Cuts Manned Trip to Moon
Posted: 01 Feb 2010 12:32 PM PST
PresidentObama's administration revealed its new budget Monday, and it increases funding for nearly all areas of science.
The largestraise went to the National Institutes of Health, which added $1 billion dollars toan already hefty budget. With the boost, the NIH would receive $32.1 billion in total funding. Only the Centers for Disease Control would receive less money thanlast year, although the cut is small. NASA, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Science Foundation, as well as smaller research efforts at the National Institute for Standards and Technology and Department of Agriculture, would also get bumps.
Of course, Obama's current budget is just a proposal. It still has to make it through Congress and some of his moves — like scrapping the Constellation program mission to the moon — could face heavy opposition.
If approved, the increases would come in addition to thefunding for science handed out by the stimulus package, which the Obama administration has often referred to as the "largest single boost in scientific research in history."
Posted: 01 Feb 2010 12:00 PM PST
Modern dinner-table turkeys are descended from birds domesticated 3,000 years ago by the Aztecs. But they weren't the only turkey tamers: Indigenous inhabitants of what became the southwestern United States had their own prize breeds, now lost to posterity.
Until now, it was assumed that all domesticated turkeys could be traced to the Aztec-bred lineage. However, a genetic analysis of bones and droppings at 38 archaeological sites in the southwestern U.S. shows that the birds there belonged to a distinctly different subspecies.
According to the findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that single turkey breed prevailed for more than a millennia among the southwest's natives. But even as turkey husbandry reached its height among the Anasazi and Mogollon and Salado, the local birds' doom had already begun.
In the 15th century, Spanish Conquistadors took Aztec turkeys back to Europe. The birds proved popular, and were bred with local subspecies before being reintroduced to North America by colonial settlers in the 17th century. The settlers' birds were carried westward as part of the same historical wave that obliterated native southwestern culture.
The colonial turkeys ultimately became, in highly modified form, the industrial gargantuans of Thanksgiving fame. As for native southwestern turkeys, a handful of genes from a few escapees linger in existing wild birds, but the originals are gone.
"We have no genetic evidence that these breeds survived into the present day," said study co-author Dongya Yang, a Simon Fraser University archaeologist. But historically-inclined foodies may have better luck finding pure-blooded descendants of the Aztec birds. "It is quite likely that the indigenous Mesoamerican turkey breeds still survive in rural Mexico," said Yang.
Images: 1. Detail from Mimbres pottery bowl, circa AD 1000-1200, from Eric Kaldahl/Amerind Foundation 2. A network representation of the genetic relationships between North American wild and domestic turkeys/PNAS. Southwestern turkeys are the gray circles; modern commercial turkeys occupy the tiny, mostly-white mHap1 circle on the left.
Citation: "Ancient mitochondrial DNAanalysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication." By Camilla F. Speller, Brian M. Kemp, Scott D. Wyatt, Cara Monroe, William D. Lipe, Ursula M. Arndt, and Dongya Y. Yanga. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 5, February 2, 2010.
Posted: 01 Feb 2010 11:02 AM PST
The Obama administrationhas officially decided toend the Constellation mission back to the moon, although the replacement plan faces a tough route through Congress.
The new plan, which had been rumored for months, was announced today with the release of the Obama administration's NASA budget request, which despite the axing of the moon plan delivers a $6 billion funding increase over the next five years.
"NASA's Constellation program — based largely on existing technologies — was begun to realize a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," the budget summary concluded. "Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA's program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives."
As anticipated, the independent Augustine Panel's work was used as the basis for the new NASA direction. Though the blue-ribbon panel did not officially take a position on which future plan made the most sense for NASA, statements made by members and the tone of their report made it clear that a continuation of the Constellation mission was not the group's favored choice.
Constellation had been heavily criticized since it was unveiled in 2005 by President George W. Bush. Even before the plan was announced, some scientists pointed out that manned exploration has drawbacks, such as high costs, extreme safety requirements, and humans' biological sensitivity to radiation. Scientists such as Ronald Arkin of the Mobile Robot Laboratory asked whether robots could do exploration better. The high-profile success of the Mars Rovers, Cassini, and Mars Phoenix mission suggested that robotic exploration was viable, at the very least.
Even among those who supported blasting humans out of the atmosphere, the details of the Constellation program were subject to attack. Many criticized the Bush administration for not providing enough money to back its grand Vision for Space Exploration.
In commenting on the Augustine report, David Mindell, a science and technology historian at MIT, called it, approvingly, "an utter rejection of the Bush plan because it's unfundable, unbuildable and dangerous. "
NASA administrator Charles Bolden made measured statements, ultimately noting that regardless of Constellation's merits, it was not going to put humans back on the moon as envisioned.
"We were not on a sustainable path back to the moon's surface," Bolden said.
The Obama administration's budget also knocked the Constellation program for siphoning money "away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations."
While Bolden painted a sweeping portrait of positive change, several key congressional representatives are spoiling for a fight over the loss of programs in their districts.
Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, whose district includes the Marshall Space Flight Center, lashed out against the administration plan.
"The President's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight. The cancellation of the Constellation program and the end of human space flight does represent change — but it is certainly not the change I believe in," Shelby wrote in a statement. "Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight program."
Shelby harped on the need for safety in manned missions and held that commercial companies could not provide the low levels of risk that NASA could. Bolden, though, in his statements to the press, provided a personal guarantee that he'd protect astronaut lives.
"I flew on the space shuttle four times," he said. "I lost friends in two space shuttle tragedies, so I give you my word that these vehicles will be safe."
Predictably, commercial spaceflight companies were ecstatic at the news.
"Working with NASA, the industry can develop the capabilities to safely launch U.S. astronauts just as commercial spaceflight providers are already trusted by the U.S. government right now to launch multi-billion dollar military satellites, upon which the security of our nation and lives of our troops overseas depend," wrote Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a prepared statement. "Investing $6 billion will fund a full program of multiple winners for commercial crew, so that robust competition in the marketplace can reduce costs and generate innovation."
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