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Science Progressing: August 19

What the Patent Goldrush Means for Innovation, Missions to Mars and Other Stars, Climate Science Denial, and GM Corn for Ethanol

SOURCE: iStockphoto

Bullish Market for Tech Patents, and What it Means for Innovation
Google’s recent purchase of Motorola Mobility (and its 17,000 tech patents) for $12.5 billion has cocked a few eyebrows in the tech world. The deal certainly illustrates search giant’s gradual move from software-driven cyberspace to the hardware space, and perhaps signals an increasingly bullish market for technology patents indicative of a forthcoming wave of innovation in information technology. Or, the move to buy up all of Motorola Mobility’s patents could signal the continuing deterioration of the patent system in the information tech space. “‘Before, nobody really paid attention to patents. Now patents are emerging as a new currency,’ said Alexander I. Poltorak, chief executive of the General Patent Corporation, a patent licensing and enforcement firm.” Many experts believe that fear of costly litigation may be behind the rise in patent buying, rather than an actual need to utilize the knowledge contained in the patents, and that this may limit technology innovation.

NIH-Commissioned Study Identifies Gaps in NIH Funding Success Rates for Black Researchers
In a self-funded study, the NIH found that black researchers were less likely to receive NIH grants than their non-black peers, even when accounting for research records and affiliations, among many other factors. The study’s authors propose future research into whether racial bias or differences in mentoring programs for scientists may account for the gap. The NIH plans to take steps to remedy the disparities.

European Space Agency to Team Up with Russia for the First Manned Mission to Mars
The European Space Agency has announced that it will team up with Russia’s space agency to send the first manned flight to Mars. Russia’s Mars500 Project, which is a simulation of manned flight to Mars, has been a success and has spurred the Europeans into joining the Russians. The Russo-European alliance illustrates the changing diplomatic ties in the post-Cold War era.

Offering Funds, U.S. Agency Dreams of Sending Humans to Stars
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government agency responsible for inventing the Internet, has set its sights on the stars. Specifically, it wants to study what it would take to send a humans to another star. “The awarding of that grant, on Nov. 11 — 11/11/11 — is planned as the culmination of a yearlong Darpa-NASA effort called the 100-Year Starship Study, which started quietly last winter and will include a three-day public symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 30 on the whys and wherefores of interstellar travel.”

U.N. Body Wants Wider Nuclear Safety Checks
In response to the tragic nuclear accident in Japan, the U.N. atomic agency plans to review 10 percent of the world’s 440 nuclear reactors for adherence to international safety standards. The decision aims to prevent a recurrence of the Fukushima meltdown in other countries and also comes on the heels of Italy’s decision to ban nuclear reactors in the future and Germany’s push to close all of its reactors by 2022. Some countries, however, have expressed concern that the initiative to monitor safety may infringe on their national sovereignty, even as new risks to plants arise.

House Oversight Chairman Widens Probe into CAFE Standards Deal
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has called for a deeper investigation into the Obama administration’s recent negotiations with auto companies about new fuel efficiency standards. Skeptical of the new standards, Chairman Issa argues that the executive branch may have brushed aside the normal legislative process by hashing out a deal in secret, thereby overstepping its constitutional limits. The administration countered by noting “that the new standards will eventually go through a formal rulemaking process and that reaching out to and consulting with private industry before issuing regulations is exactly what government should be doing.”

New GM Corn Being Developed for Fuel Instead of Food
Farmers growing GM corn specifically for the purpose of ethanol production have come under criticism from groups outside and within the agriculture industry. The new strain of corn contains a special gene that causes the corn to produce an enzyme that hastens the conversion of starch into ethanol. Relief organizations argue that the new emphasis diverts grain from food production, raising prices and worsening the burgeoning global hunger crisis. On a local level, farmers fear cross-contamination from the new ethanol-oriented corn, as North American Millers’ Association data suggest even a tiny amount of the modified ethanol corn could damage food products. As a whole, such criticisms suggest that the struggle over the safety of GM crops will not end anytime soon.

Bringing Solar Light Bulbs to the World
Inventor Steve Katsaros has come up with a remarkably simple yet useful product: a solar light bulb that charges during the day and provides light at night. With his patent and production process in hand, he wants to market his product to the developing world. Using a for-profit business model, Katsaros hopes to establish a network of dealers and distributors who market the new light bulb throughout the world. Like many others, he believes that technological and financial innovation can alleviate some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Shell Oil Leak Continues, Could Be Worst in North Sea Since 2000
On August 10, one of Royal Dutch Shell’s pipelines burst off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, releasing an estimated 1,300 to 4,000 barrels of oil in what could be the worst oil spill in the North Sea since 2000. Although Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change and the oil company dispute the exact extent of the leaks, they both agree that the oil will not reach shores. Having reduced the flow to just a barrel a day, Shell continues to work to stop leak. Shell predicts that the damages will not be as significant as they could have been and are certainly minor in comparison with those of last year’s BP gulf oil spill.

TSA Rolling Out Less-Invasive “Gingerbread Man” Body Scanners to U.S. Airports
TSA will provide “gingerbread man” body scanners to 40 airports throughout the United States. These scanners, unlike the ones in use now, do not show the details of a traveler’s body underneath clothes. Instead, they find foreign objects on the person’s body and project the locations onto a less-detailed “gingerbread” figure. If suspicious objects appear on this figure, the traveler is then given the normal full body scan. TSA hopes that this move will eliminate some privacy concerns that have overtaken public discussion in recent months.

HEALTH INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY Using the Web to Track Deadly Diseases in Real Time
HealthMap is a new computer program from Children’s Hospital Boston that allows people to use the Internet to track disease outbreaks on a map as they occur and also help health officials use that information to eradicate the diseases before they spread. The program automatically follows news websites, eyewitness reports, social media, and government data to recognize disease patterns. The researchers working on the program understand that they still need to improve their data collection so that they track only real threats instead of mere “noise.” This is another example of ways in which innovation in information technology can improve public health.

“Boozer” the Electric Car Smashes Distance Record, 1,000 Miles on a Single Charge
A German research team recently developed a new electric car named the Schluckspecht E, or “heavy drinker” in German, that set a new world record traveling 1,000 miles on a single charge during a test run. The car has an odd shape, but it is very aerodynamic and has motors in its wheel hubs. The announcement, in addition to that of a Cadillac plug-in, tops a rather joyous week for cars that run on alternative fuels.

Rick Perry Calls Global Warming an Unproven, Costly Theory
After taking $11 million from the oil lobby, Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry recently claimed that global warming is a concept perpetuated by scientists who manipulate their data for money. These statements earned him four Pinocchios from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Five independent investigations conducted into potential climate science fraud have all resulted in the exoneration of every one of the handful of scientists investigated. According to his argument, simply not enough scientists support that climate change is anthropogenic, making it a merely unproven hypothesis, as some other politicians have incorrectly asserted.

Lasers that Flash in a Quintillionth of a Second Could ‘Film’ Electrons as They Interact
Researchers from across Europe, Australia, and North America have devised a blueprint for a laser system whose flashes last for one-quintillionth of a second, or 10-18 seconds. If successful, this new technology will allow researchers to “see” electrons as they engage in chemical reactions. This new capability may one day have broad applications from simple chemistry experiments to pharmaceutical research, among many others.

This weeks news compiled and summarized by Gaurav Dhiman.

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