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Spring 2011 Vol. 11 Number 1

Table of Contents

Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt


National Academy of Sciences

In Service to Our
Nation and World

Last year's Deepwater Horizon accident and the recent nuclear plant disaster in northeastern Japan have raised disconcerting questions. Could better science and engineering have made a difference? Could more lives have been saved and the Gulf of Mexico and Japan been spared such extensive environmental damage? Most importantly, with better and deeper understanding, could these catastrophes have been prevented?

In this issue of In Focus, you'll read about the preliminary results of a National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council committee of experts who studied Deepwater Horizon. Those findings, published in time to inform the presidential commission that led the accident investigation, identified the lack of a suitable approach for managing the risks of deep-water drilling, including insufficient checks and balances for maintaining well safety. The panel's final report, due later this year, will recommend practices and systems to re-establish a "culture of safety" in oil-drilling operations.

The consequences of the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation accident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power facility are still unfolding. There is still much to learn including what occurred inside the reactors, which were designed in the 1960s when far less was known about plate tectonics, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Several National Research Council studies, including our 2006 report on the vulnerabilities of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds at nuclear power plants, have helped policymakers focus on the problem of spent nuclear fuel that needs to be stored onsite for many years. In addition, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, our joint effort with the Japanese government to study the effects on radiation exposure for the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has joined in monitoring effects of the Fukushima accident.

You'll also read here about two National Research Council studies commissioned to help leaders in very different fields: criminal forensics and education. The Federal Bureau of Investigation requested an independent assessment of the scientific methods used in their investigation of the "anthrax letters" sent to offices on Capitol Hill and in New York City in 2001. Our committee concluded that -- based on science alone -- it is not possible to conclude where the anthrax came from or who sent the letters. The other study looked at K-12 education reform, a pervasive issue throughout the country, including here in Washington, D.C. After the mayor took over control of the D.C. public schools in 2007, we were asked to help devise a framework by which to judge whether education was improving under planned reforms. Our panel's first report was cautionary: Although student test scores have risen since the reform began, at this early phase tests alone are not sufficient to judge success or failure.

From the Gulf of Mexico and Japan to our nation's capital, we continue to make substantive contributions of knowledge and expert analysis.

    National Academy of Sciences

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences