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Spring/Summer 2009 Vol. 9 Number 1



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BRIEF TAKES


Supreme Court Decision Cites Academies Report

A U.S. Supreme Court decision issued in June, which ruled on the right of defendants to cross-examine forensic analysts in court, cited Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, a National Research Council report on forensic science that was released in February.

The case, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, concerned whether the defendant had a right to cross-examine forensic scientists who had submitted affidavits saying that a substance found in his car was cocaine. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of the accused in a criminal prosecution to confront any witnesses providing testimony against them, so the case turned on whether forensic science analysts are witnesses in the same way as, for example, eyewitnesses to a crime.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that there was no reason forensic analysis should be different from any other testimony given against a defendant, and that forensic analysts were therefore required to appear in court to take questions about their analysis. The court also disagreed with the notion that forensic science testimony is uniquely neutral or reliable, citing the Research Council’s findings that forensic labs — which are usually under the control of law-enforcement agencies — may feel pressured to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency and that the reliability of forensic methods varies widely.

Arguing that serious deficiencies have been found in the forensic evidence used in criminal trials, Scalia cited one of the report’s major conclusions: “The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country.”  — Sara Frueh


National Academies Build Playground in D.C.

Volunteers from the National Academies, KaBOOM!, and the D.C. Developing Families Center, which offers care to hundreds of women and their families during pregnancy and early childhood, worked together to build a playground at the center in Northeast Washington, D.C., in June. The project, called Science Swings, is part of the National Academies’ effort to connect with the local community.

Photo by Mark Laurent

The National Academies and their staff donated funds and time to build the playground, whose design is based on drawings provided by children. More than 200 volunteers participated, moving 170 cubic yards of mulch, assembling the purple, orange, and yellow playground equipment chosen by children who use the center, and grounding it with 15,000 pounds of concrete. Also constructed were 1,200 feet of iron fencing, eight benches, four planters, two arbors, and a peace pole inscribed with “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in eight languages.

Thrilled about getting a new play space, Linda Randolph, director of the Developing Families Center and a member of the Institute of Medicine, said, “Physical exercise is important. This playground provides a place for the children to exercise.”

The day included fun and entertainment as well as manual labor. Nearby, children who were watching the play equipment being erected cooled off under a 20-foot arc of water sprayed from a fire truck, and a DJ played a thumping music mix to keep volunteers moving. In just seven hours, there was a new playground.  — Maureen O’Leary

For more information on the DC Developing Families Center, visit <www.developingfamilies.org>. To learn more about KaBOOM! — a nonprofit organization that envisions a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America — visit <www.kaboom.org>.


Futures Conference Takes on Complex Systems

Jorge Luis Borges wrote of an imagined regime that had so mastered cartography, it could create giant, detailed maps, and its crowning achievement was a map of the empire that was the same scale as the empire itself.

“Less attentive to the study of cartography, succeeding generations came to judge a map of such magnitude cumbersome, and, not without irreverence, they abandoned it to the rigors of sun and rain.”

Photo by Paul KennedyThe challenge presented to the 2008 attendees of the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative conference on complex systems was to understand systems as complex as the world itself, with models that are necessarily nuanced to contain enough detail to be useful, yet not so complex as to render those models impossible to build or understand.

Nine task groups were formed to attack such complexities as achieving a sustainable future, acquiring and organizing the data needed to model human biology, using social networks to map the progression of diseases and ideologies across the Web, to name a few of the assignments. Each group included about a dozen experts from diverse fields: engineers, microbiologists, computer scientists, economists, mathematicians, paleontologists, and neurologists, among others. A graduate science writing student also was assigned to each group to capture the essence of the process and the possibilities that emerged in the discussions.

Taken as a whole, the challenges were mechanical, chemical, and philosophical, and the answers to the questions posed at the conference could greatly affect the way people fight disease, reverse environmental damage, model disease and biology, understand social groups, and examine their own effects on the planet. Additional information on the conference is available online at <www.keckfutures.org>.  — Noah Barron


E.O. Wilson Discusses Fate of Earth’s Species in NAS Lecture

Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, spoke at the National Academy of Sciences building in April about species extinction and natural habitat loss occurring around the world.

Wilson, who first coined the term “biodiversity” at an NAS workshop in 1988, spoke at length of the impact humans have had on specific habitats like the forests of the Philippines — slashed from 70 percent of the country’s landmass down to 22 percent during the 20th century — and the diminishing Brazilian rainforest. As habitats shrink, the number of species they can sustain drops as well, and Wilson spent a portion of his talk eulogizing specific species, many of which are thought to already be extinct, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker. A world-renowned conservationist, Wilson showed portraits of these endangered or extinct species because, he says, “you have to get to know them to want to save them.”

Despite the losses that have already occurred, Wilson spoke of an increasing global recognition of the importance of saving Earth’s remaining plant and animal species. Changes in the way humans value and interact with the natural world are needed quickly, however. It took 3.5 billion years to develop Earth’s current levels of biodiversity, but half of the known species could be lost by the end of the century. While a chilling prediction, Wilson reminds us that the biodiversity of the Earth is actually far larger than that which we know. In fact, it is thought that less than 10 percent of Earth’s species have been discovered. In many ways, he says, “we live in an unknown world.”

Wilson is a university research professor emeritus at Harvard University and honorary curator in entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He has written 25 books, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes, and is the recipient of more than 100 international medals and awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Science. He is also the creator of the Encyclopedia of Life, now housed at the Smithsonian Institution. Wilson was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1969.

Wilson’s talk, “Evolution and the Future of the Earth,” was the ninth annual Sackler lecture. The Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia and Lectures address scientific topics of broad and current interest and are made possible by a generous gift from Jill Sackler, in memory of her husband.  —  Rebecca Alvania



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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences