Digest: 5 November 2013




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In Wise Old Whooping Cranes Teach Young How to Migrate, (for National Geographic) discusses the roles of genetics and learning in the migratory behaviors of whooping cranes. Whooping cranes were all but extinct until a large scale international captive breeding effort brought them back from the brink. Since being released to the wild they have had to relearn their migratory routes with a little help from ultralight aircraft, but once shown where to go they must find their way back on their own. Researchers monitoring the birds have been able to track the flight paths of birds of different ages. From these paths they have noticed the extent to which the birds veer off course depending on their age. The older birds with more migratory experience fly more direct routes than those with less experience unguided by older birds. From this pattern, researchers believe that a combination of genetics and learned behavior provide the basis for the flight paths the birds travel – the need to migrate is instinctual, but the journey must be learned.



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 In Factory Farming, Susanne Amann, Michael Fröhlingsdorf and Udo Ludwig (for Der Spiegel) discuss factory farming of pork in Germany and its health and environmental repercussions. The article looks in detail at the process of rearing and slaughtering pigs to feed a growing international market in meat consumption but points out that this growth comes with costs.  Germany is second only to the US for pork exports – its growth is largely a result of the highly efficient systems that rate in terms of pigs processed per hour.  The costs come in several forms. Aside from moral costs resulting from the processing of the pigs, which are treated as products rather than as living animals, the pigs produce more sewage waste than can be easily processed, resulting in the poisoning of groundwater and a negative influence on neighboring property values.  In addition there are human health issues that result from the widespread preventative use of antibiotics, which causes resistant strains of bacteria to develop undermining the usefulness of existing antibiotics in treating human illness.

In Stimulus v Austerity: Sovereign Doubts, The Economist discusses the role of stimulus and austerity policies in the context of recovery from the financial crisis.  Prior to the crisis, most economists were satisfied that monetary policy was sufficient to subdue the excessive vagaries of the business cycle. In the aftermath of the crisis it quickly became apparent that lowering interest rates was not going to cut it.  Some countries chose stimulus, others austerity. Stimulus seems to have worked better. But this is not to deny the value of austerity in its proper place, or rather time – saving during booms provides something to fall back on during busts.



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In Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies, Justin Gillis (for The New York Times) discusses the findings contained in a leaked draft of a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.  The report considers evidence of food supply problems as a result of climate change, particularly the sensitivity of crops to heat waves. The findings suggest that while climate change can be expected to increase the growth of crops in some regions, the overall result could be a decrease of about 2% per decade for the rest of the century.  This is potentially a significant problem as demand for food is expected to increase by as much as 14% per decade during that same period.  The shortfall will hit the poor and developing countries the hardest.

In Break Gridlock on Global Challenges or Risk an Unstable Future, the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations discusses its research and debate findings on the successes and failures of efforts to address global challenges.  The Commission argues for major political and business shake-up in how we approach issues such as climate change, economic inequality, corporate practices, and disease. The Commission makes a number of specific recommendations to address problems related to climate change, tax avoidance, international institutions, cyber-security, subsidies, diseases, discrimination, global statistics, and investments in the young.



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In National Flood Insurance Program: Continued Attention Need to Address Challenges, the GAO discusses how structural problems have caused underfunding at the NFIP of $24 billion.  The main issue has been the NFIP’s rate structure which does not allow sufficient income to cover basic requirements such as operating costs, claim payments, and principal and interest payments due to the Treasury. As a result of the shortfall, much of the flooding risk is transferred from policyholders to the federal government and ultimately to taxpayers. GAO recommends bringing rates up to reflect the actual risk carried by policyholders. This will largely be accomplished by ending subsidies.



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In Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab, The Economist discusses several recent studies that demonstrate the unreliability of much published scientific research.  These studies have attempted to reproduce the results of many major research findings, and have failed. There are several underlying factors that give rise to the unreliability; these include a failure to understand statistical significance, a failure to carefully think through or execute research, a failure on the part of the peer review process to critically analyze the papers they publish, and the failure on the part of the science establishment to incentivize replication studies to second-guess the findings we rely on. One example of why this is an issue is that governments spent approximately $59 billion on academic biomedical research in 2012.  This research is relied upon by companies; if they cannot rely on the research, then the funding for that research may rightly be undermined. A better solution is to fix the problem.

In Universities: Where You Go to Learn – And Be Monitored, Nico Perrino (for The Guardian) discusses that while we are busy being shocked by the extent of NSA surveillance, we might do well to also look at other sources, such as our colleges and universities. These institutions have been increasingly monitoring students and professors as a means of protecting their public image.  In many cases this has meant undermining free speech in precisely the institutions where free speech is most important.

In Free Exchange: The Next Frontier, Jeffrey Sachs (for The Economist) discusses the disconnect between mainstream economics and the policies required for sustainable development.  Sustainable development requires long term consideration and the establishment of policies that provide environmentally sound growth across the income scale. Mainstream economics and politics, by contrast, are incentivized to look at the short term and to devise policies that bolster the interests of a narrower range of constituents. Big problems loom on the horizon such as climate change, food scarcity, demographic shifts and poorly trained young people.  To counter these problems will require a different approach from that which has been employed so far. It will require attention to be paid to three elements: backcasting, road-mapping, and global cooperation. Sachs discusses these factors and points out that they will be accomplished not by one leader, but by the efforts of many.