Inside the Climate Conversation at Davos

The climate crisis and climate action were, finally, prominent themes at this week’s World Economic Forum. We hosted two Techonomy Climate sessions with leaders from Microsoft, Salesforce, Wipro, Carbon Capture, Heliogen, and Normative. Here’s what we learned.

The world faces simultaneous overlapping emergencies, but climate is central, urgent, existential. So it was gratifying that it was one of the top themes of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. The climate crisis, climate tech, and climate action were all prominent in the week’s discussions. The violent assault on Ukraine and its implications were much-discussed as well, as was the worsening global economy. But they’re all connected and made worse by global warming.

Josh Kampel and I were, as usual, wandering the streets and going to meetings. But we were there to host two Techonomy Climate sessions with our partners Idealab and its portfolio companies Heliogen and CarbonCapture. The sessions were a closely-connected continuation of our March Techonomy Climate conference in Mountain View, California. (You can watch those sessions here.)

Myriad climate-related announcements and discussions emerged during WEF. Perhaps most important was the First Movers Coalition, catalyzed last year by the Forum and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry. The group aims to decarbonize heavy industry and long-distance transportation. In Davos, Denmark, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom announced they had joined the U.S. in the effort. And more than 50 global companies are now involved.

But most concrete was a joint announcement by erstwhile competitors Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce that they would collectively invest $500 million in the urgent but nascent field of carbon dioxide removal. The Boston Consulting Group also announced a commitment to pay for technology to remove 100,000 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide by 2030. Separately, the WEF itself announced results showing how much digital tech can reduce emissions in the first place. AI, 5G, and other tools used together, it said, can reduce emissions by 20% in energy, industry, and transportation.

Idealab’s Bill Gross with Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick

On Tuesday at a Salesforce space, I moderated a rollicking room-wide Techonomy Climate dialogue with six speakers who didn’t all agree, except that we need action now. Bill Gross, founder of Idealab and CEO of Heliogen, gave a passionate and informed assessment of the power of tech for tackling the crisis. He says no resource is coming down in cost as much as Moore’s law-driven computational power, and so we must emphasize that key tool. Bill has seeded companies in three areas–clean energy, efficient energy storage, and carbon dioxide removal. Heliogen concentrates sunlight with computer-controlled mirrors to create temperatures of over 1,000 degrees for industrial processes like cement or steel-making. He’s partnering already with companies like ArcelorMittal. He spoke of the need to take “1,000 shots on goal” to attack emissions every way we can.

Tim Christophersen, who had joined Salesforce three weeks earlier from the United Nations Environment Program and now has the great title of VP, climate action, spoke out from the audience during the session. He echoed Gross, saying there will be no “silver bullet” for climate action. Instead we need “silver buckshot.”

Adrian Corless, a ten-year veteran of the carbon removal industry, is now CEO of another Idealab company, called, impressively CarbonCapture (how did it get that URL?). He explained how his company is moving quickly to be able to remove tons of CO2 with an innovative modular-systems approach and sequester it underground. Presumably he’ll be a beneficiary of the new commitment from Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce. But he cautioned that however successful CarbonCapture and other companies may be, it can only be one of numerous efforts to reduce emissions and remove what’s already in the atmosphere.

Wednesday we gathered again on Davos’ main street, this time hosted by Wipro. Its CTO Subha Tatavarti said the global software and consulting company’s customers are increasingly clamoring for help with both services and new products that remediate the emissions emergency.

Wednesday’s session formally included Salesforce’s Christophersen, along with Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa. Microsoft has taken dramatic steps to reduce its climate footprint, including promising eventually to be carbon negative for its entire corporate history since 1975. Joppa explained that every division of the company pays his group a “carbon tax” based on emissions it is calculated to be responsible for. Microsoft uses that revenue for projects like carbon removal. Christophersen and Joppa headed straight from the session to their joint carbon removal announcement.

Another panelist at the Wipro session was Kristian Romm, CEO of Stockholm-based carbon accounting firm Normative. Romm works with big companies to help calculate and remediate emissions. But he is particularly down on today’s carbon credits, the vogue-ish method too many use to salve consciences when we fly around the world to conferences. Romm notes that CO2, once emitted, stays in the atmosphere for about 310 years. Today’s carbon credits typically pay for forest creation or preservation, but studies have shown that such sequestration only lasts an average of about 5-10 years. So when we use most carbon “credits” we are not addressing the problem.

The World Economic Forum in Davos is a place of power. That alone leads many to dismiss and disparage it. And yes, there were plenty of banks and giant global companies still polluting their way to success. Not to mention the outsize presence of Saudi Arabia, which had a huge storefront celebrating its economy and its despot-leader, the murderous Mohammed bin-Salman. But many journalists there were so disgusted at the hypocrisy rampant in Davos that they questioned its value. (The most cynical ones are generally the ones who focus on politics.)

At Techonomy, however, we believe dialogue is positive, even with those you disagree with. Davos is where the powerful come together–to scheme and conspire, but also to brainstorm and problem-solve.

In Davos I met a rights activist from Sydney who told me it has basically been raining there nonstop since November. Over 2000 houses where he lives are underwater. And only shortly before the conference, the worst heatwave in over 100 years hit the Indian subcontinent. Temperatures in many places hovered around 115 fahrenheit. If you’ve read the daunting The Ministry for the Future, you know the scary images that evokes. We are genuinely in the midst of a climate emergency. Techonomy has pivoted our work towards climate. I hope the WEF continues to do that, too.

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Blocked By Paywalls: Subscriptions Make Us Stupid

One-size-fits all paywalls for publishers create societal problems. Time for new models to make sure our news needs are being met.

Tax season always gives me a shock about where I spend my money. Egads! This year I spent an unholy amount on subscriptions– magazines, newspapers, newsletters, streaming media, music. Sadly, we’re talking thousands of dollars. But the problem is, in almost every case if I didn’t buy the full subscription, I couldn’t read that one crucial article I needed. Last night I met an editor from The Financial Times. I complimented him on his reporting but said I often couldn’t read it because the $40 a month subscription fee is a big hit for something I might read once a month.

On a larger level, It’s not just my pocketbook that hurts. It’s my knowledge of the world. As I winnow my subscriptions down to the affordable, the world becomes increasingly narrow, because publishers have put so much content behind paywalls.

Most of the news sites have a great introductory offer for a few months, hoping you’ll forget the expiration and just keep footing the bill. But after the low-cost trial period is over, it can really add up. Here’s what I have to pay for digital versions: New York Times ($5 weekly), New York Magazine ($24 a year), Washington Post ($40 a year), Wall Street Journal ($40 a month), Wired ($10 a month), The Atlantic ($60 a year), The New Yorker ($100 a year) VentureBeat ($9 monthly), and Bloomberg ($290 a year). Just those add up to over $1,000 a year.

Now, let’s say there’s suddenly an article I really need to read that’s not covered by any of my subscriptions — say, USA Today, Forbes or Forture, Business of Fashion, Vogue, Variety, or Hollywood Reporter. All of them publish great stuff that I enjoy on a more ad hoc basis.  While I’d be happy to pay something to read them, I’m faced with the binary decision of subscribing or not.  And then there are new media products like Substack – many journalists that I love write there, but they require a digital subscription as well. I’m not against paying for content I like, or for supporting good journalism, but I am against paying in an all-or-nothing fashion.

How many times a day are you stopped in your tracks by a notice like this one from Forbes?

Gaming the System

I have numerous workarounds and I’m sure you do, too. The easiest is to subscribe to a free trial (anywhere from 7 to 30 days) and put a “note to self” into my calendar to remind me to unsubscribe once the trial period is over. The second easiest is to simply use another email address to start another trial, once I’ve used my allotted free articles. Visiting a site from another browser often works, too, since the cookies there are fresh. Many, like Forbes and The Atlantic, will let you read 3 or so articles free each week or month. All of this requires a lot of planning and record keeping.

To evaluate your own subscription addictions, and find out how much you are actually already paying, you can use one of a number of apps that identify all your recurring subscriptions and make it easy to unsubscribe if you want.

Information Poor

Besides the costs, news subscriptions create a schism between those who can pay for online news and those cannot.  Will we start to see growing differences between the information-rich and the information-poor?  We already have. That’s partly why we have entered what some call a “post-truth” society. The information poor often get their news from less reliable sources like Twitter, Facebook, or worse.

When we won’t or can’t read past a paywall, we risk turning into a society of uninformed people and unequally informed people. For $39 a year you can read clever articles like this at Current Affairs: The Truth is Paywalled, But Lies Are Free.

VIa Visual Capitalist

Alternatives

Micropayments:

Doesn’t it seem like there ought to be a way to pay per view for news sites? Outlook, an Indian magazine launched an article-based micro-payment option in February. They claim to have witnessed 35 conversions through micropayments — which means out of 100 people who opened the story page and saw the paywall, 35 paid the small amount to read the story. Axate lets customers bypass the paywall and try an article for a small micropayment (set by the publisher). Dropp, is another company devoted to making small micropayments available – everything from your morning newspaper to your latte.

“Local news”, reports What’s in Media, “is another area where micropayments are sorely needed. “You’re not going to pay $1 to read the local sports team’s outcome, “it says. “Articles should be priced in dimes and quarters, not dollars. Ten or fifteen cents is almost free and is more likely to attract an impulse click than one dollar.” And some portion of those micropayment readers may convert to subscribers if they’re satisfied.

Aggregators:

Google News does a nice job of aggregating a list of stories you’d be interested in, based on your personal interests, but the article’s text is unavailable if you aren’t a subscriber. What’s New in Publishing posits the idea of a personalized, dynamic paywall to connect the right subscriber with the right content at the right time. One analyst quoted in the story says, “It’s amazing, (mind-boggling, actually) to think that in an era of increasing personalization we ever thought a one-size-fits-all paywall would work.”

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Report: Better Science Education Could Combat Misinformation

Researchers contend that training students to think like scientists will better equip people to judge the accuracy of scientific claims — and help address the growing threat of disinformation.

From climate change to genetically modified organisms to vaccine hesitancy, there has been no shortage of scientific topics in which people fall victim to conspiracy theories, or simply choose not to believe the scientific data.

But for many of us, the Covid pandemic has been a real eye-opener. In short order, it forced the general public to realize that science deniers weren’t just a rare fringe element — they’re our neighbors, our friends, our relatives. While most of us masked up, others drank bleach or dosed themselves with horse dewormer. While most of us rolled up our sleeves to get vaccinated, others believed that mRNA-based vaccines were the real health threat. No amount of data, it seemed, could change people’s minds.

For the past two years, a team of researchers has been brainstorming how to overcome the dangerously low trust in science that makes it easier for someone to believe a vaccine will make him magnetic than to believe the results of a clinical trial with thousands of participants. Now, nearly a dozen scientists have issued the report that emerged from those discussions.

Science Education in an Age of Misinformation” details the challenges we face today and recommends a series of steps that may help overcome these problems. The upshot is simple: a more educated public would be better-equipped to gauge the trustworthiness of scientific claims and to make well-informed decisions, even for areas of science that weren’t covered in class. “School science cannot anticipate what kind of scientific knowledge will be required to deal with the next science-related, humanitarian crisis,” the authors write.

Today’s scientific education focuses heavily on rote memorization: the parts of a plant, the elements of the periodic table. In their new report, scientists argue that training young students to evaluate scientific concepts is just as — perhaps even more — important. “Answering the key question of ‘Can this scientific claim be trusted?’ requires an understanding of the social structures of science,” the authors write. “Developing this understanding must be a fundamental core component of all science education, from cradle to grave—a feature of formal and informal science education and science communication.”

For example, the scientists say, students should be taught to evaluate someone’s expertise in the field. If someone is making a claim about the effectiveness of a vaccine, does that person have the right credentials to be trusted about that claim? Other key areas that could be helpful include understanding the peer-review process in the scientific literature, how to identify whether there’s a general consensus in the research community, and how to gauge the overall trustworthiness of a specific source of information.

“Most importantly, all this knowledge of how to engage critically with digital information needs to be explicitly taught and acquired as an ingrained habit from grade 2 upwards,” the scientists note. “Digital media and information literacy must be taught and practiced until it becomes as natural as riding a bicycle.”

These critical thinking skills would be helpful for evaluating any information, not just scientific claims. “The world as a result of the internet is different,” says Jonathan Osborne, a professor emeritus at Stanford and one of the authors of the new report. Bad actors have taken advantage of the internet and social media to spread disinformation, often adopting the language of science to add a veneer of credibility to their claims. “There are large numbers of people who are making arguments that don’t seem to attend to the evidence,” he adds. “It undermines trust in science and, at a broader level, it undermines trust in democracy.”

Unfortunately, even if the scientists’ recommendations for a better education process were implemented today, it would take decades before they had a meaningful impact. In the nearer term, Osborne hopes that scientists and science communicators do more to engage the public in conversations about how to weigh scientific claims. “Even if you don’t agree with what we’ve written in this report,” he says, “it should be read and it should be discussed.”

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AI Comes Out of the Closet

AI is being used to make all kinds of everyday digital tasks more efficient and easy. The software can do many things you used to have to do yourself–in video editing, dieting, fitness, and plenty of other activities.

Progress in tech products and services usually comes when a confluence of things happen at once. The invention of wearables came when sensors, the cloud, and bluetooth got combined in astounding permutations. The metaverse is being born of existing pillars: blockchain and decentralization, along with enabling technologies like NFTs, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.  Now AI is being added into a wide range of apps we used to do more manually. It’s a big deal.

A new generation of apps is being trained on vast amounts of data and learning to make intelligent decisions based on that data. The more we feed them, the more they know. Infusing AI into common tasks like writing, video-editing, healthcare, cooking, and finance is proving to be a subtle change for the end user, but ultimately will be a real game changer in how we get stuff done.  Yet this game changer will not be without its serious ethical issues, either.

Thanks to the cloud and a raft of specialized AI processing chips from companies like Nvidia and Google, AI is no longer only the privilege of the big and powerful. IBM Watson, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa were some of the first AI infused experiences we had as consumers. Today, nearly every new app claims to use artificial intelligence

The AI-ification of Everything

According to Statista, revenue from the artificial intelligence (AI) software market worldwide is expected to reach 126 billion dollars by 2025, and grow 54% year-on-year. As per Gartner, 37% of organizations have implemented AI in some form. The percentage of enterprises employing AI grew 270% over the past four years. And according to Servion Global Solutions, by 2025, 95% of customer interactions will be powered by AI.

Today, whether it’s a dieting app like Noom which uses real-life coaches combined with AI, or a financial app like Olivia.ai which learns your about spending habits and dishes out personalized money-saving advice, the world of apps has become super-charged with AI.  ELSA, short for English Language Speech Assistant, for example, uses artificial intelligence models that record users’ speech, analyze it for different benchmarks, and then come up with practice sentences to help users who want to reduce their accents.

This week I spent a lot of time looking at how AI powers a new generation of video creation tools. The problem was simple.  I had hours of video to pour through and chop up into relevant snippets. Happily, AI-based solutions were plentiful. Descript starts by uploading a video and creating a transcription of its content. You might not have the skills to edit video, but imagine that you can edit the words and the video will edit itself to match your changes. Tell it take out the ums and aws, remove long pauses, make a few edits to the text so spelling is correct and you’ve got short form, good looking videos ready to publish.

Designs.ai was even more fun. I wrote a little narrative about a recent trip to Italy, and based on key words in the text it generated a movie. The program draws on 10M video clips, 170M images, 500K audio files, and 50 voices to create a fully-edited creation.

I wrote a few lines of text about a recent vacation and Design.AI did all the rest.

Rephrase takes your text content and matches it with a human avatar to deliver your words. The company calls itself the “MailChimp of video” because it becomes trivally easy to send out a professional quality video.

While video was my immediate AI-enhanced need, you don’t need to look far to see a cloud based world filled with little AI helpers like these. Fyle uses AI to take your receipts and immediately categorize them in the proper expense account category.  Think Quickbooks but without the manual entry.  Youper claims it uses AI in its chat-bot app that’s designed to help users identify, track, and process their thoughts and feelings based on cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques. I’m a bit suspicious about this one, and the reviews are mixed.  FitnessAI (iOS only) claims to create its personalized fitness programs by applying AI to your past workouts–a personal trainer for a fraction of the cost. According to the company the software’s algorithm has been trained on 5.9 million exercises. Over three years, 10 million sets, repetitions, and weights were collected from over 30,000 expert weight lifters and gym visitors.

Rephrase.ai let’s you match your text to the narrator and music of your choice. (The demo is rough but the app works well.)

 Uncanny Valley Territory

Of course, things escalate to big-think questions and potential problems about the role of AI in our future– about privacy, making jobs obsolete or having algorithmic biases. Regulators and legistlators are already talking about labelling images that have been digitally altered, for example.

On the bleeding edge, companies like Article Forge, which comes out of research from Glimpse AI, generates articles on topics of your choosing in a few seconds.Your job is to enter your keyword, optional sub-keywords, article length, and other requirements into the Article Forge system. Not only will it write the article for you but it’ll do the SEO to make it relevant once you publish. There’s a 5 free trial and theoretically it could free you from ever having to blog on your website again. (I didn’t use it for this article, btw, but maybe we’ll give you a demo of it in coming weeks.)

Hour One creates synthetic humans based combining real human faces with your words.  Record or type your narrative and then you can rent a face (in true creator-economy spirit these real people earn micropayments when their image is chosen).  The program combines your words with the face of your choice. The AI matches facial expressions to the text.

Hour One creates a synthetic person with a face of your choosing. It offers micropayments to those who rent their face. Image credit: Hour One

The promising future of AI applications becomes even more apparent when you look at the much hyped DALL-E 2 . (Yes, that’s a play on Dali and your favorite computer generated Disney character, Wall-e.)  DALL-E  been in the works for years but anyone who’s seen it has seen AI’s  terrifying and seductive future.

While it’s still in a very limited release to researchers and developers, you can watch videos like this one. You’ll see natural language being used to describe a scene and then that scene will be fully rendered in the artistic style of your choice. Say a “girl wearing a red dress walking up the stairs” or a “cat playing the piano” and those images magically appear. DALL-E 2 is purportedly trained on 650 million images and text captions. It’s based on the GPT3 language, one of the most advanced AI languages to date. According to the MIT Review, Meta is about to release it’s own AI language based on GPT3  speed to up the development of its platform.The language will be available to the public.

The world really is getting artificially intelligent.

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Two Southwest Tribes Raise Concerns Over Uranium Storage

Tribal communities in Arizona and Utah face environmental problems connected to the same radioactive resource: uranium.

In White Mesa, Utah, at America’s last uranium mill, a pool of toxic waste is emitting dangerous amounts of radon to the surrounding communities, among them the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. This isn’t news: In November 2021, High Country News reported on the improperly stored waste and its impacts on the community, and in December — thanks to EcoFlight’s aerial photography and a proactive tribal government — the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice to Energy Fuels Resources, ordering it to address the issue. Five months later, however, the improper storage practices persist.

In March, follow-up aerial shots from EcoFlight revealed a noticeable difference between the photograph taken in August 2021; the tailings cells, which consist of radioactive waste typically submerged in liquid from the uranium processing, have since decreased even further, increasing the amount of exposed toxic compounds. The visual evidence arrived two months after EPA representatives visited the site on Jan. 13. At the time, it was estimated that 60% of Cell 4B was uncovered. In a March letter from the EPA, the agency reported that Energy Fuels’ explanation of this decline is due to water conservation practices and extracting vanadium from the liquid, a rare earth mineral, for profit.

While efforts are currently underway to hold the mill accountable, Scott Clow, the Ute Mountain’s Environmental Programs director, says that the company wants to be in business until it is no longer profitable.

“There is a lot of uncertainty. We do know that when, eventually, the owners of that mill find it is no longer profitable to operate, and they will close it, they will be required to spend what they have set aside in a bond to do as much as they can for reclaiming it safely,” Clow said.  “And then it’ll be the responsibility of the Department of Energy under their legacy program — and our tax dollars — to pay for it.”

Complicating matters is the possibility that the Biden administration’s Department of Energy will establish a strategic uranium reserve, which would increase the domestic stockpile of uranium — but at a cost. Uranium mines would be able to begin operating and funnel ore to the White Mesa mill for processing. According to Amber Reimondo, the energy policy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, it doesn’t immediately pose problems for White Mesa residents, but might present long-term ecological and community health problems. Reimondo doesn’t believe it makes sense for uranium mines in the U.S. to begin extraction when the quality of the uranium here is lower, and it’s more expensive than it would be coming from countries like Australia or Canada.

“We did a lot of work at the beginning of the Biden administration trying to help decision-makers understand the implications of something like that,” Reimondo told HCN. “Especially because so (many) of the uranium deposits in the United States are either on or near tribal lands.”

This would further compound the concerns of local residents — concerns that are echoed throughout the Southwest. The Pinyon Plain Mine, located near the Havasupai Tribe and close to the Grand Canyon, is also owned by Energy Fuels. The Pinyon Mine recently received approval from Arizona for an aquifer permit. Carletta Tilousi, who served on the Havasupai Tribe’s council in Arizona, told HCN that if the strategic uranium reserve is established, the Pinyon Plain Mine would resume operations.

“If the uranium from Pinyon Plain mine goes (to White Mesa) and contaminates people, we feel responsible — Havasupai people feel responsible — because if we don’t stop it from our end, then it’s going to contaminate other human lives,” Tilousi said. “And that’s something that the Havasupai elders would always stress, that we can’t just sit back and not say anything on this end in the cycle of uranium process.”

Tilousi added that Havasupai communities have previously experienced negative impacts from the mine, including onsite water contamination and destruction of the nearby sacred mountain Red Butte.

In an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in late March, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., voiced his support for prioritizing domestic mineral supply chains to curb U.S. reliance on Russian minerals, including uranium. “They don’t understand that human life, water and animal life is so important here,” Tilousi said.

Meanwhile, Clow’s department has secured a small grant from the EPA that will enable the tribe to find a qualified candidate to design an epidemiological study of the direct and indirect health effects the White Mesa Mill has had on local residents, as well as its environmental impacts on the land. The study will look at the impacts of living in close proximity to the mine; for example, it will calculate the economic cost to community members who have to purchase bottled water because the local water supply is undrinkable. It will also examine how Native residents are affected when they are forced to cease traditional activities, such as picking plants for medicine.

Ultimately, the community will end up having to bear the costs of far-off industries, both nationally and globally, whether the nuclear waste comes from countries like Japan and Estonia or from nuclear power plants on the East Coast. “The initial mass and impact on the environment and public health are here,” in the West, Clow said. “And then the end impact is here” — also in the West.

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Most Genome Data Comes from White Folks. Scientists Are Trying to Fix That.

With a new genome sequence, more diverse data sets, and population-specific projects, scientists are making progress in representing humanity’s real DNA diversity.

Precision medicine, which aims to tailor medicine to each individual for better outcomes, is fueled by genomic data. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the fuel. For the past couple of decades, genomic databases have been filled with information gathered from people of European descent — and precious little from other ancestries. That means white people have gotten the earliest benefits of precision medicine, while everyone else has to wait for genomic databases to catch up.

This was a predictable situation based on the early days of genomics, when some of the largest population studies were kicked off in European countries with little ethnic diversity. Since then, scientists have been working hard on programs designed to capture the full range of genetic diversity among humans, including the All of Us research project organized by the National Institutes of Health. Recently, several teams have reported progress in improving the diversity of genomic data.

A Whole New Genome

You probably know that the first human genome was sequenced during the Human Genome Project and declared complete in 2003. But unless you work in genomics, you probably didn’t know that the human genome was never really finished. If sequencing a genome is like reading a book, the book of the human genome is really old and badly neglected. Some sections are much harder to read than others. When the first human genome sequence was ‘complete,’ nearly 10% of it actually remained unread.

But now, all these years later, scientists deployed newer technologies to churn through the whole human genome, including those previously intractable regions. The final product, a “gap-free” sequence, is a critical new resource that will make it easier for other researchers to sequence population-specific genomes and quickly increase our understanding of genomic diversity.

“Truly finishing the human genome sequence was like putting on a new pair of glasses. Now that we can clearly see everything, we are one step closer to understanding what it all means,” said Adam Phillippy, an NIH scientist who helped lead the project, in a statement. He added, “In the future, when someone has their genome sequenced, we will be able to identify all of the variants in their DNA and use that information to better guide their healthcare.”

Screening in the City

For researchers looking to expand genomic data diversity, nothing beats a big city. In New York, a program called BioMe based at Mount Sinai’s medical school has been running to gather more diverse data and answer important questions about whether underrepresented communities are willing to participate in genomic research studies.

An update on this work was presented by Mount Sinai’s Noura Abul-Husn at the recent annual meeting of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics. In a BioMe-powered study that’s been running for the past two years, scientists have used genome screening to detect potentially dangerous genetic variants and then monitor patients for associated diseases. The idea is simple: rather than waiting for people to get sick and wind up in the emergency room where doctors have to figure out what’s wrong, why not use a genome-first approach to determine their biggest health risks and try to help them avoid getting sick in the first place?

The BioMe effort, which is broader than this particular program, represents the diversity of New York. In a typical genomic collection, some 70% of samples come from people of European descent; in BioMe, just 27% of samples fall into this category, Abul-Husn said at the conference.

The genomic screening program tests for genetic variants linked to five conditions, delivering results back to patients who have opted in to learn about their susceptibilities. Abul-Husn noted that across all ethnic groups, at least 90% of participants wanted to know their results, challenging assumptions that some groups — especially those historically mistreated by the medical community — would be reluctant to learn about their DNA.

The study is still underway, but the team is already learning from it. For example, one variant they’re testing for is related to a heart condition; the variant is more common in non-European populations. Among the patients found to have the variant, Abul-Husn said that not a single one had previously been diagnosed with the disease — not even those who had been treated for heart problems. A genome-first approach, then, has strong potential for helping to overcome existing disparities in healthcare.

Battling Cancer in Indigenous Populations

In the U.S., Native Americans suffer worse outcomes from cancer than any other ethnic group, in part due to poorer access to healthcare and to receiving fewer screening procedures for cancer. By working closely with tribal leaders and performing population-specific genome analysis, scientists are hoping to better understand cancer in these communities.

Cheryl Willman, who now runs the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center and previously led the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, reported on some of these efforts at the recent annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research. For some types of cancer, she said, “cancer screening rates in some tribal communities are as low as 4%.” That means cancers aren’t caught early on; when they are eventually found, they are more advanced and less likely to respond well to treatment.

Making matters worse is that these groups are not often included in large-scale projects to study cancer. In one major cancer genome project, Willman said, less than 0.5% of samples came from American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Hawaiian Pacific Islanders combined. To overcome this problem, she is part of a patient engagement project working with Native Americans in the southwest in which scientists will perform genome sequencing on cancer samples collected from tribal communities. The goal is to include as many as 1,000 cancer patients and cancer survivors, collecting several types of samples from each participant for a more comprehensive view of cancer and health in these communities. “It will be an extensive data set on each patient,” Willman said. Results will be returned to each participant.

In order to make this project successful, scientists are working closely with tribal leaders. Tribal representatives participate in an advisory council for the project, review its logistical details, and will have a say in how research results are reported to the public. Scientists must receive consent not just from each participant, but also from tribal leaders, in order to proceed with sample analysis. Willman said the team also hopes to generate a representative genome sequence for this population; this would improve their ability to benefit from precision medicine.

These are just a few examples of the many projects researchers have launched to address the lack of diversity in genomic databases. With rapidly falling prices for genomic technologies, the good news is that incorporating significant volumes of data from diverse populations now costs just a fraction of what it did when these genomic databases were first set up.

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We Need to Change the Abortion Rights Narrative

Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars. 

Looking at abortion as solely a women’s rights issue has not served women well.  It’s time to build a louder narrative around the larger economic issues, our country’s place in the world order, and overpopulation.

Typically I don’t overshare, but it’s time we all speak up. Eons ago, when I was a college student I had an abortion. I loved my partner very deeply but knew that I was not yet ready to raise myself, never mind a family. I had to do a lot of research and then travel to a different state to have the procedure, since Pennsylvania, where I lived, didn’t legalize abortion until 1982. I scraped together the money from friends. And I never told my parents.

Every woman who has a story about how abortion saved them from a very different life trajectory needs to speak up now.

I thought that the mostly bi-partisan war over the right to choose would last forever. It provided a clean, convenient wedge between party ideologies. Something we could disagree on in theory, while retaining our rights in perpetuity. I called that one wrong. I didn’t see SCOTUS, even the newly stacked one, as having the guts (polite word) to break the nearly five-decade old barricade of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Collectively we’ll do the obligatory handwringing about whistleblowing and document leaking.  Women will be deservedly incensed about the loss of hard-won freedom. But we all know how the story ends. SCOTUS decides that it’s beyond their scope to decide the fate of a woman’s right to choose. It will become a state by state issue where the state that you live in becomes more important to abortion rights than religion, education, gender or pretty much any other factor. Twenty states (representing 40% of the country) are poised to ban abortion immediately following the court’s decision, which as Trevor Noah pointed out “will make living in South Dakota harsher than living in Afghanistan under Sharia law.”

Logic, like the fact that most people in this country don’t want to do away with  Roe v. Wade, no longer seems to matter. Protests demanding the right to choose only seem to increase the zealousness of the opposition. It’s time to broaden the abortion rights story so that it hits lawmakers where it hurts — their pocketbooks and their egos. The story needs to shift from just being about rights to a larger one about economics, population control, family planning, health, and most importantly, America’s waning influence in the modern world.

Which Country Do You Want to Look Like

Banning abortion puts the U.S. in some very bad company. Abortions are completely banned in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Those are really poor countries with a multitude of problems. Others that ban abortions include  Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Suriname, Tonga, and the West Bank & Gaza Strip – generally not happy places with vital economies.

There are, by contrast, no restrictions on abortions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and even in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Ireland. It’s reasonably clear that if you overlay the map of where abortions are banned on top of a map that delineates quality of life and prosperity, you see a pattern.

Even some of the most authoritarian countries like Iran and Russia have no restrictions on abortions. And China, which we love to fault for its human rights violations, has no nationwide ban on abortion. Instead there are governmental agencies whose job it is to help with family planning. Most countries fall on a spectrum where abortion laws are conditional, focused on saving a woman’s life, maintaining her health, mental health issues, rape and incest, fetal impairments and sometimes even the socioeconomic situation of the mother. In Cyprus, Hong Kong, Finland and Barbados, for example, you can be granted an abortion if you are not financially able to raise a child. The map is varied and complex, but if the U.S. were to leave abortion rights up to the states, a large swath of the country would quickly fall into lockstep with some of the poorest, least healthy countries on earth.

We All Pick Up the Tab

Abortions are going to happen whether they’re legal or not. Illegal ones are just more dangerous. Maternal health in the United States is already at the pathetic line. We’re tied for 57th place, and studies show that banning abortions would increase the rate of maternal death by 20-30%.

In our choiceless future, we’ll see more hungry babies born to mothers who can’t feed or educate them properly. Women will be held back from entering the workforce and earning good salaries because of unwanted pregnancies. Seriously-disabled and impaired children will be born into families that cannot provide for their needs. There will be enormous mental health repercussions of unwanted pregnancies.

The list goes on and on, but at the end it’s the taxpayers who will pick up the burden of bringing unwanted children into the world. In some states — Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma — more than 80 percent of unplanned births are already paid for with public dollars. Unplanned pregnancies cost US taxpayers $21 billion each year, according to one analysis. And that’s what it’s been like while abortions have been legal.

A study by the Brookings Institution found that abortion access “profoundly affects women’s lives.” It explains that having that right helps determine “whether, when, and under what circumstances they become mothers, outcomes which then reverberate through their lives, affecting marriage patterns, educational attainment, labor force participation, and earnings.”  The bottom line, says the study, is that “Restricting, or outright eliminating, abortion access by overturning Roe v. Wade would diminish women’s personal and economic lives, as well as the lives of their families.”

I’m not a political scholar, but I understand how to tell stories.  When the “it’s the right thing to do” story stops resonating, turn up the volume on a new story. Banning abortion pushes the U.S. towards the path of becoming a third rate power, with uneducated, unemployable citizens whose lives will need to be subsidized by government dollars.

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Ukraine’s Nuclear Power Plants Caught in the Crossfire of War With Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered fears of another nuclear power disaster in the region, 36 years after the world’s largest nuclear accident.

It took less than a minute after an unexpected power surge for one of the nuclear reactors at Chornobyl (Chernobyl in the Russian spelling) to explode on April 26, 1986, ripping the roof off and spewing dangerous chemicals into the air.

The event, and emergency cleanup that followed, left 30 workers dead, thousands exposed to cancer-causing nuclear material, and a legacy of radiation. Now, 36 years later and with war raging, Ukraine is desperate to prevent another nuclear disaster.

Nuclear reactors generate more than half of the country’s power. Ukraine is the first country with such a large and established nuclear energy program to experience war, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The country’s 15 nuclear reactors, housed in four power plants, have layers of safeguards to prevent core meltdowns like the one that happened in 1986, when Chornobyl was part of the Soviet Union. But wartime is far from normal conditions, and experts warn that Russian military action poses numerous threats to these facilities.

Andrey Ozharovsky, a Russian engineer turned anti-nuclear activist, said Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure is “quite vulnerable” to the chaos surrounding military attacks.

Chornobyl, Again

Those attacks have already begun.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the 20-mile exclusion zone around it, set up to limit further spread of radioactive material following the 1986 disaster, were captured by Russian forces on Feb. 24. It was in their control until they withdrew from the site on March 31.

Although Chornobyl is not an active nuclear power plant, the massive cap covering the reactor that exploded decades ago still needs to be maintained to prevent further radiation leakage.

Sensors put in place by the Ukrainian Ecocentre in case of an accident reported a spike in radiation levels shortly after the capture, likely due to Russian military vehicles stirring up radiation in the environment.

The IAEA said the rise wasn’t enough to pose a public health hazard.

Ozharovsky, who was one of the first to raise an alarm about the recent spike at Chornobyl, said he’s concerned that radioactive dust from the site could spread across the continent.

“The most dangerous thing is that they can bring radioactive particles in their hair, in their clothes and their boots,” he says.

Olga Kosharna, a member of the Ukraine Nuclear Society, urged experts to create an updated map of radioactive contamination in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and to restrict movement in the area.

Ukrainian officials released footage, recorded since Russia’s withdrawal, which appears to show that Russian troops had built trenches and other fortifications in parts of the exclusion zone. Those actions may have further disturbed radioactive material in the soil and plants.

On April 26 Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, and a team of agency experts arrived in Chornobyl “to conduct nuclear safety, security and radiological assessments, deliver vital equipment and repair the agency’s remote safeguards monitoring systems,” according to a statement from the agency.

Grossi says radioactivity levels at Chornobyl have returned to “normal” after the “very, very dangerous” Russian occupation of the site.

Nuclear Plant Captured

Chornobyl isn’t the only concern. Ukraine’s active nuclear-power facilities are also at risk.

On March 4, Russian forces captured Europe’s largest active nuclear-power plant, Zaporizhzhia, located in southeastern Ukraine. During intense fighting one of the site’s buildings caught fire, but didn’t harm the plant’s six reactors, and no radiation was released.

Ukrainian technicians continue to monitor Zaporizhzhia, but the country’s regulators have claimed that Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company, has engineers at the plant who are giving orders to staff. Further, Ukraine reports that plant management actions require approval from the Russian commander, according to the IAEA.

“Who is now in charge of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?” asks Ozharovsky. “The Russian army is around, but armies aren’t nuclear engineers.”

Rosatom released a statement on March 12 and denied that they’re managing the operation of Zaporizhzhia. They characterized their staff’s presence at the plant as “consultative assistance” that takes place “on a regular basis.”

Grossi expressed “deep concern” about the situation in a statement last month.

Further Threats

Since then, there’s been more reason for alarm.

On April 16, three missiles flew over the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Yuzhnoukrainsk, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company.

Then on April 26 Energoatom reported that two cruise missiles flew over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“The flight of missiles at low altitudes directly above the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant site, where 7 nuclear facilities with a huge amount of nuclear material are located, poses huge risks,” says Petro Kotin, Energoatom’s acting president, in a statement released on the company’s Telegram channel. “After all, missiles can hit one or more nuclear facilities, and this threatens a nuclear and radiation catastrophe around the world.”

The day before, Energoatom reported that Russia fired missiles over the cooling pond of the Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant in northwest Ukraine.

Russia hasn’t commented on Energoatom’s claims.

Kosharna wrote in an email that if a missile would’ve hit one of the plants the consequences would have been “catastrophic” for the world.

A stray missile damaging the plant could cause an explosion that would disrupt the power supply. Power is needed to ensure continuous cooling of the fuel rods to prevent a meltdown.

Typically nuclear plants use back-up generators to maintain power with a grid disruption and keep the cooling systems functioning normally. In wartime fuel shortages are common, and this risks the stability of the generators. Ukraine’s current shortage is only getting worse, according to the Gas Transmission Operator of Ukraine, a gas pipeline operator.

If the grid goes down and the generators are out of fuel and the cooling systems fail, there’s a last resort to prevent radiation from spreading. Containment structures around the reactors are designed to block any release of radiation, but they’re also vulnerable to missile attacks.

Reactor failure isn’t the only significant risk to the operation.

Staff operating facilities under extreme stress also poses a problem, Ozharovsky says, because any mistake they make on the job could be calamitous.

There are also other onsite dangers. Spent nuclear fuel storage pools that are a part of the waste-disposal system contain radioactive material. If they’re damaged the liquid could be released from containment, causing a massive spread of radiation. Japanese scientists considered this to be the “worst-case scenario” of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which had a series of meltdowns after a tsunami struck the plant in 2011.

Ozharovsky said he doesn’t believe the Russian military would deliberately sabotage one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants because it would threaten their interests. But he added that even the possibility that the nuclear power plants could be harmed accidentally should trigger worldwide alarm.

“For me it’s scary,” he says. “All the other nuclear power plants, like Khmelnytskyi, like Rivne, like South Ukraine (Yuzhnoukrainsk); they can be damaged during this war. And the international community needs to take care of that.”

Any attack on a nuclear plant is a breach of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Convention’s Article 56 considers attacking a nuclear power plant a war crime.

“I hope that many other countries who still have nuclear energy on their territory will rethink physical safety, military safety,” Ozharovsky says. “That’s a challenge no one country can solve.”

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It’s Time to Scale Up Regenerative Farming

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let’s find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.

A half-decade ago, Nick DiDomenico’s parents bought a small property north of Boulder, Colorado. They handed a dilapidated house and 14 acres over to him to help fulfill his dream of becoming an organic farmer. Nick gave the farm an appealing name, Elk Run. But in fact the prairie land was horribly degraded. Its topsoil had been eroded by wind and rain, and the property was essentially a parched wasteland. Advisors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised Nick that the land was unsuitable for growing crops.

Six years later, DiDomenico and a small group of allies—with help from funders—have done the seemingly impossible: They transformed a wasteland into a veritable Garden of Eden. DiDomenico, his partner, Melissa Pulaski, and a handful of others are raising pigs, sheep, chickens, and rabbits and producing organic vegetables and grains. The non-profit organization that DiDomenico and Pulaski established, Drylands Agroecology Research, explores regenerative agriculture techniques and provides consulting and land reclamation services for other property owners along Colorado’s Front Range.

“The overarching goal is to create many more safe havens for healthy food and healthy lifestyles,” DiDomenico says. “We want to help people all over the region produce food locally and we want to promote good commercial ventures that strengthen our communities. We want to get away from the extractive economy.”

Their project illustrates a phenomenon that is underway across the United States and across the globe. People in small groups are reimagining and rebuilding the economy one experimental step at a time. Many of them share the belief that capitalism as it is being practiced today is unsustainable. It’s destroying the environment and contributing mightily to global warming. And capitalism is causing a breakdown in society because of the inequities it engenders. So, it’s time to pivot and adopt new approaches that will help make the planet and society more sustainable.

This phenomenon got its start with the social-enterprise movement in the early 2000s, but it seems to have accelerated since the COVID crisis woke people up and convinced them that now is the time to make bold changes in how we live.

I have been exploring the evolution of this phenomenon since the rise of COVID. It was then that I became involved in an initiative called Pivot Projects, a global, all-volunteer collaboration aimed at using collective intelligence, systems thinking, and AI-assisted research to help society and communities become more sustainable and resilient. I started off as a journalist embedded in Pivot Projects and later became a full participant. Late last year, Columbia University Press published my book about the group’s journey: The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action.

One of the 20+ workstreams within Pivot Projects took on the subject of building a sustainable and just economic system—an alternative to the present system, which is based on greed, maximizing profits, and exploiting workers and resources. Rather than thinking about a revolution, which hardly seemed likely, the group took aim at defining and encouraging a new way forward. Out of that quest came a concept called the Cellular Economy.

The “cells” are small groups of people dedicated to pioneering new approaches to serving people’s needs. They’re democratic, humanistic, science-based, diverse, collaborative, community-oriented, and experimental. Some are mission-driven businesses. Others are social enterprises or community organizations. “We need a fundamental shift in the very foundation of capitalism as it is practiced today,” says Damian Costello, an expert in disruptive innovation who coordinates Pivot Projects’ economics workstream. “The Cellular Economy model describes what we need to do to make this brighter, safer future a reality.”

Right now, most of these initiatives operate in isolation. The economics workstream participants believe that to fulfill their potential, the cells will have to form into networks that enable them to more readily share resources and knowledge. Nick and his colleagues have already begun reaching out to other farmers and landowners in and around Boulder whose visions and missions are aligned with theirs. He refers to this as a “mycelial network.” That’s a reference to the role that fungal mycelia play in maintaining healthy forests. The mycelia tap into tree roots, connecting individual plants together to transfer water, nitrogen, and other nutrients to where they are needed most. Essentially, these networks enable trees to collaborate with each other and live in harmony. It’s a good metaphor.

The knowledge about regenerative agriculture that DAR is sharing with others comes partly from research but mainly from experimentation on the farm. The Elk Run land is sloped, and, in the old days, water from infrequent rain and snow episodes tended to slide off it without being absorbed. Nick and his team cut ditches across the slopes to capture and store water. They planted trees in the ditches to create shade, produce fruit, and provide habitat for insects and birds. The pigs serve as roto-tillers for the degraded soil—breaking it up with their hooves and snouts and peppering it with manure. Then come the sheep and chickens and more manure. Over time, the soil is enriched to the point where it can support vegetable and grain crops.

Today, this approach produces 90% of the food that the small group needs to survive. In the future, Elk Run plans on selling produce to others. But the bigger goal is to help other landowners improve their land and produce healthy food at scale. Within 10 years, DiDomenico and friends hope to be managing 1000 acres or more using regenerative methods, to establish 10 regional hubs based on their model, and to have planted 100,000 trees. “As a Front Range community, we can build incredible resilience,” he says.

Regenerative agriculture emerged in the late 20th century as an alternative to industrial farming, with its focus on chemical inputs, monocultures, and processed food. The practice has come on strong in the past decade as farmers became more sensitive to environmental concerns and climate change. The focus is on strengthening the vitality of farm soil, increasing biodiversity, and improving the water cycle.

The COVID crisis has been a wakeup call. “People all over the world tell us they want clean air, more decentralized affordable energy, water and waste systems, and a regenerative economic model in which people live closer to nature,” says Peter Head, a leader in the sustainability field and co-founder of Pivot Projects. “Regenerative farming is a key part of recovery.”

Pivot Projects has launched regenerative agriculture projects aimed at aiding small farmers in partnership with local groups in Nepal and central Africa, in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Advances in technology are now available for farmers in remote areas, including solar for electricity and Starlink LEOS for telecommunications, but funding remains a challenge. Microfinance systems are of limited use for scaling up production, and small farmers have little access to larger grants and loans, says Colin Harrison, a former IBM executive and co-founder of Pivot Projects. The good news is that the African team has been awarded an initial $25,000 grant by the UN Food Systems organization to cover the costs of strategy development.

Back in the USA, DAR and other cellular outfits face funding challenges of their own. DAR has been fueled mainly by GoFundMe campaigns and small grants from foundations and individuals, but that’s not enough for it to scale up quickly and have a sizable impact. New funding sources and innovations are needed. We need impact investors to step up and do their part.

I asked Ian Abbott-Donnelly, one of my colleagues in Pivot Projects, to do some research into the matter using an AI-powered research tool made by SparkBeyond.

Quickly, he spotted some good news. Regenerative farming dramatically reduces the cost of inputs for farmers, reducing the amount of money they need to plant and sustain crops—and thus decreasing the need for financing and indebtedness. Details are available in this report from the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Ian unearthed an extensive analysis of the potential for funding sustainable agriculture enterprises and projects in this article published by the National Institutes of Health.

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. My challenge to impact investors is this: Find ways to fund them. Help make the global food system and the global economy more sustainable.

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Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let's find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.

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Regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform lives and diets. The Cellular Economy has the potential to transform society. Let's find ways to fund them to make the global food system and economy more sustainable.