Internet was down yesterday so I wasn’t able to update things. Which is a shame cos yesterday and today were very full and so in order to stop anyone reading this falling asleep, I’m going to have to really condense them!
My first session was at the Center for Clean Products at University of Tennessee-Knoxville, hosted by the lovely Cat Wilt. We sat around and talked about the work of the group, which is an interdiciplinary research group focusing on how product design and materials can be made more environmentally sustainable. So things like cars, carpets, electronics. What was really refreshing was that for once I was faced with a group of people who felt that Europe was doing things “right”. We talked about how European environmental standards (REACH, electronics and so on) were driving global standards, because Europe was an important marketplace. They told me about a recent report on “Green-washing”, where companies overstate their green credentials (http://www.terrachoice.com/Home/Six%20Sins%20of%20Greenwashing/The%20Six%20Sins – the link thing isn’t working). Within the US there were certain states (California) and companies (Walmart!!!) that were driving things and were California goes, it’s hard for others not to follow. They do research, but less bench research than policy. They see an important role for themselves in driving change in universities. While Europe was seen as leading on many areas, the US was perhaps in the lead on green buildings.
I also talked to one of the people involved in the $70m Tennessee Biofuels Initiative. They are focusing on cellulosic (“Second generation”) biofuels, in an initiative supported by the state of Tennessee. They were researching the whole process from the crops used to the biochemical conversion. They are particularly focusing on the potential of switchgrass, motivated by the sustainability debate, as it is very hardy, uses much less fertiliser than other crops and can be grown on marginal land (ie will not take much land away from other crops, though may compete with livestock crops such as hay and pasture). Their research was showing that there were some carbon benefits. They’re also looking at the whole bio-economy issue. They are looking to 2012 as the timeline for commercialisation. Research challenges remain such as storage and logistics. Just as she was leaving she said she was going to the business incubator, which was a uni, state and federal effort to promote tech transfer, modelled to some extent on the Research Triangle I will be heading to after here (and someone else described as the best example of it in the country).
We had lunch there, and just chatted about media and communications issues in a really relaxed way – including British sitcoms! Then we had to leave to be sure to get to Oak Ridge in time. Cat drove me to the hotel and I checked in quickly as I reckoned I’d have trouble getting through security with my immense bag! Then I went to the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education, where I had a really interesting discussion on science education issues with their Director and his Deputy. We talked about the different programmes they have from school to post-doc and even senior scientists to address these issues. They are focusing strongly on under-represented groups (women and minorities). They work with a consortium of universities, which includes Imperial actually. We talked about the need for education to address the “pipeline” – the next generation of scientists. But also to ensure a level of science literacy in the general public so that issues that involve science can be debated in a proper context. There was also a discussion of the international student issue that had been raised in Washington – their take was similar to others: the brightest and best of the foreign students are heading home. The America Competes Act (seems to be equivalent to the Lisbon agenda) talks about this alot, but it hasn’t been backed up by money. Like in Europe, the system of science teaching needs to be turned upside down, but that’s not an easy ask.
There was much more in both visits, but that’s a few highlights anyway!