Steve Connor: My kind of town, San Diego is

Science Notebook
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The Independent Online

It is the biggest and best general science meeting in the world.

The annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which ended last week in San Diego, brings together some of the leading researchers in a wide variety of disciplines and never fails to provide a rich assortment of media-friendly stories, such as how dolphins could shed light on type II diabetes and whether Aids might be eradicated with antiretroviral drugs.

America benefits of course in being the global centre of science. It "does" more science than any other country, although China is fast catching up. It also benefits from having scientists who appear to be trained from early in their careers to engage with the public through the professional media, which is no bad thing.

One interesting difference with Britain, though, is the idea of politically appointed science advisers. Here, science advisers are not strictly political appointees but, in the US, the heads of the leading science institutions are appointed by the incoming President.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, were two such Obama appointments in enthusiastic attendance at the conference. The two form part of a formidable line-up of American scientists, notably John Holdren and Steven Chu, at the heart of the Obama administration, which has put a stronger emphasis on science than the previous US administration.

Break from the past

Jane Lubchenco is the first woman and first marine ecologist to head NOAA, America's lead agency when it comes to climate, the oceans and the atmosphere. She presents a refreshing change from her predecessor who was somewhat reticent about making any statements on climate change and such things as whether global warming is affecting the intensity of hurricanes.

Lubchenco's view on the influence of climate change is more clear-cut. There is little doubt that much of the warming observed in recent decades is influenced by human activity, she said. She also appeared to lament the wasted opportunity of the Bush years in not addressing climate change. "I think there is a significant mismatch between the urgency of the climate challenge and the rate at which society is addressing it," she told journalists in San Diego. "It is clear that there has been an insufficient job of communicating the climate information to the public."

Beyond borders

One development in the media coverage of the AAAS meeting is how many European countries are now sending journalists. Perhaps it is helped by the EU having a permanent presence at the event – a sign of the international nature of science.