A new interchange for scientific solutions to real world problems

25 December 2013 by Liz O´Connell, posted in AGU Fall Meeting, General

Beluga whales. / Photomanipulation by Sergio (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0) Images: Clouds by Andy Melton, Antarctic Landscape by cloudzilla, Belugas by Leon Mitchell

Beluga whales. / Photomanipulation by Sergio (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0) Images: Clouds by Andy Melton, Antarctic Landscape by cloudzilla, Belugas by Leon Mitchell

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

The American Geophysical Union, a nonprofit organization of geophysicists –Earth and space scientists– has launched a new initiative to help communities solve modern-day problems. The Thriving Earth Exchange gives normal people the chance to ask pressing questions and benefit from scientific research and expertise. Communities enhance their readiness to face hazards, better utilize natural resources, adapt to changing climate conditions, and work towards more sustainable futures.

"Even as we celebrate the growing understanding of our planet and our interaction with it, many of us are troubled by the gap between what scientists are learning and what society is using," notes Thriving Earth Exchange program director Raj Pandya. The Exchange promotes scientists working together with local leaders to face communities’ challenges and to share ideas, strategies and solutions in meaningful ways. The platform represents a proactive strategy for making a positive impact on our collective world, a place where communities can “Access the combined talents of thousands of scientists.” It’s true community-inspired science.

This image of Alaska's North Slope acquired August 15 2000 by NASA's Terra satellite shows a false color lake-dotted expanse of tundra, with the Beaufort Sea at the top and Lake Teshekpuk at the lower-left. The image covers an area of 36.5 by 55.8 miles [58.7 by 89.9 kilometers]. In 2006, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved oil and gas drilling on approximately 500,000 acres of land in and around Teshekpuk Lake. The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer image centered near 70.4 degrees North latitude, 153 degrees West longitude shows vegetation as green and water as blue. / Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

This false-color image of Alaska's North Slope acquired by NASA's Terra satellite shows a lake-dotted expanse of tundra, with the Beaufort Sea at the top and Lake Teshekpuk at the lower-left. The image covers an area of 36.5 by 55.8 miles [58.7 by 89.9 kilometers]. In 2006, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved oil and gas drilling on approximately 500,000 acres of land in and around Teshekpuk Lake. / Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

The website accepts submissions: scientific questions or dilemmas posed by non-scientists seeking help. "When communities help define science questions, they are more likely to use and benefit from the research around those questions." Submissions are open to any community of any size around the world. One of the questions asked during the submission process: ‘How does a solution to your problem benefit society or the Earth?’

The initiative taps into the very human wish to make a difference in the world. Scientists can get involved with challenges that interest them, contribute concise solutions, share their scientific expertise via proposing innovative ideas to solve the problem. Science becomes less obscure while scientists get a chance to apply their professional expertise to real community problems. It can fulfill wishes: raising community awareness of science, outlining the benefits of ongoing scientific research, communicating science, educating policy makers, serving society, and making a truly tangible difference. The Exchange also encourages interaction: not only are communities learning from scientists, but scientists are listening to the public and getting real experience and meaningful interaction.

Pilot challenges for the program included a local drought monitoring challenge utilizing free state weather data to identify when counties in Kentucky will experience drought. Another was a community-led initiative in Minnesota developing sensors to monitor water quality, wild rice habitat, and lake ecosystems. Future challenges include topics like urban environmental impacts on resident health.

Sunlight shining through sequoia trees in Muir Woods, California. / (public domain)

Sunlight shining through sequoia trees in Muir Woods, California. / (public domain)

At the Thriving Earth Exchange website, scientists and scientifically-inclined solvers can sign up, explore posted challenges and propose solutions. They can craft solutions alone or in groups, and the Exchange doesn’t conflict with scientists’ other current research efforts or positions. It allows professionals to collaborate with peers and get involved with colleagues they might otherwise never work alongside. Community challenges can cross the boundaries of traditional science disciplines.

Proposed solutions are reviewed by a panel of judges including representatives from the community which presented the challenges. They choose the best solution or set of plans to advance the community’s goals. Then the Thriving Earth Exchange seeks a network of sponsors (including foundations, agencies, and crowd-sourcing efforts). It’s a system of communities seeking solutions, solvers working to help them, and sponsors willing to invest in the winning solution, followed by a collaborative effort including all three working to implement the plan.

The Thriving Earth Exchange then shares the best solutions worldwide, hoping the solution to one community’s problem could have relevant uses in aiding other communities. The data crosses boundaries, solving local problems in one place, inspiring solutions elsewhere. By sharing successes, "You might end up creating a solution that is adapted by communities around the globe."

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond


  • ‘AGU's Thriving Earth Exchange: Five Reasons to Join In’ Pandya, R., J. Galkiewicz, B. Williams and H. Furukawa, Eos Transactinos American Geophysical Union (Nov 5 2013)


  • ‘Welcome to the Thriving Earth Exchange’ Thriving Earth Exchange website, American Geophysical Union (June 10, 2013)


2 Responses to “A new interchange for scientific solutions to real world problems”

  1. ELISA kit Reply | Permalink

    By Terry Collins, Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry and Director, Institute for Green Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.
    Imagine if water could be free from chemical pollutants. You could eat fish, drink a glass of water, or gaze upon the beauty of an ocean without fretting over toxic contaminants. Given the global dimensions of water pollution today, this might seem like an impossible dream. But through green chemistry, we are making progress toward cleaner water. Nevertheless, substantial barriers exist to creating a world with safer, sustainable chemicals.
    Industry sometimes follows the money more single-mindedly than the science. And our regulatory system is so anemic that even when toxicity to children has been scientifically certain for decades, it requires an act of Congress to get a potent neurotoxin, lead, out of children’s toys.
    dr. terry collins

    In the world today, environmental problems arise across all sectors of the chemical enterprise. Water contamination by persistent drugs is an example. Traces of ethinylestradiol, an active ingredient in most birth control pills, can devastate fish populations. So should we restrict or ban its use? If so, should we do the same with other eco-toxic drugs? My research group at Carnegie Mellon is working on another solution: a more effective, environmentally compatible technology for degrading not only drugs, but all persistent organic pollutants in water. In the real world, the idea is to clean waste streams in a green way before they are released to the environment.

    The pharmaceutical industry usually designs active pharmaceutical ingredients to resist degradation, which makes them effective at low doses. But the downside is that they are excreted by people and flushed into sewage systems. From there, they may escape destruction in water treatment plants and pass on to environmental waters. Some even boomerang back to us in drinking water.

    My research group’s work derives its inspiration from studies of biological catalysts called peroxidase enzymes. They activate hydrogen peroxide in living things to oxidize organic compounds in ways that are reminiscent of combustion. Our systems are miniature replicas of peroxidase enzymes. They cannot eliminate toxic elements like lead or mercury, but they can attack and destroy many if not most water contaminants. At miniscule concentrations, they accelerate peroxide chemistry to degrade a wide range of pervasive and recalcitrant chemicals in water, including ethinylestradiol and other estrogenic compounds. The list includes drugs, pesticides, dyes, aromatic gasoline components, organochlorines, organosulfur compounds, the colored and smelly contaminants associated with pulp and paper mill effluents, and more. They also rapidly kill bacterial spores, the hardiest of pathogens.

    The take-home scientific message is simple. Green chemistry holds real promise for improving our water quality. Now we are expanding our efforts to show that these technologies can be commercially successful. Because we are green chemists, we are focused on reducing hazardous chemicals. Clearly, we want to avoid introducing any of our own. Toxicity studies to date contain no bad news. Our approach looks to be more effective and environmentally friendly than current technologies.

    The modern chemical enterprise began 150 years ago. Experience since has taught us that we cannot have certainty that any chemical in use today will not elicit an unknown toxicity. Green chemistry seeks to develop real world solutions to the problems of hazardous substances through a new design approach based upon our considerable existing understanding of hazards. But the proclivity of industry trade associations to spin important matters of toxicity is a huge burden on our health and a giant obstacle to sustainability. Acknowledging rather than camouflaging the science of toxic chemicals is key to creating green chemistry solutions that will bring long-term financial stability to industry and sustainability to the chemical dimension of our civilization. As odd as it may seem, it is rare for professional chemists to have any training in toxicology. So there is a lot of catch-up needed to bring rigor to the field. Some of the worst chemical risks we face are large production volume chemicals that we now understand are endocrine disruptors. Dioxins (which arise from the burning of the ubiquitous vinyl or PVC), phthalates, bisphenol A, nonylphenols, and various pesticides disrupt cellular development to impair living things at ultra-low, environmentally relevant concentrations. Clear scientific evidence indicates humans are not immune. Endocrine disruptors put the welfare of our children on the chopping block, making them a top priority challenge for green chemistry.

    As a chemist, I know science can’t fix all pollution problems. Government has a major role, too. The federal government has been sweeping legitimate tensions between the human benefits and the environmental negatives of chemicals under the rug. Regulatory agencies may claim to be resolving conflicting economic, societal and environmental factors through risk analysis. But when commercial chemicals are discovered to have environmental problems, the U.S. regulatory record can be summarized simply enough: If a chemical delivers a desirable performance, is economically important, and has no proven link to human toxicity, it is staying on the market.

    In a world where industry unwittingly produces endocrine disruptors and other health threats from time to time, regulatory agencies need to be much more effective. Lead was first restricted in household paint in Austria, France and Belgium in 1909. Because of the work of the Lead Industries Association and support from a few compliant, imperious academics, the U.S. federal government took until 1977 to get most lead out of household paint. Those years of procrastination have meant the intellectual impairment of many Americans. We simply cannot play deadly spin games for decades before dealing with endocrine disruptors which, because of ultra-low dose effects, might be even more hazardous than lead. Our political leaders need to support the regulatory agencies financially, spiritually and intellectually. They need to permit the agencies to do top quality work by overcoming the temptations that lead to politics trumping science.

    In the United States, federal funding for green chemistry has been essentially nonexistent. Carnegie Mellon University is not alone in struggling to build an authentic green chemistry program. If the field is supported, America will assuredly contribute to building green chemistry solutions to some of society’s most urgent environmental problems.

    • scientific solutions Reply | Permalink

      Green chemistry it`s fundamental to provide quality of life to the future generations and to use the best that nature has to give us, respecting the environment at the same time.

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