They’re Deserts, but They’re Not Deserted

Iman Hamid shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

A friend of mine recently shared a 2014 Onion article titled “Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Technology Ready To Go Whenever.” It was funny, if a bit over-simplified. This jibe at the world’s slow embrace of renewable energy sparked a debate on my friend’s post. Someone noted that renewable energy technology is inefficient and still has negative environmental impacts. Two others immediately jumped on the offensive, stating that there are no negative impacts to building solar panels in deserts because they are empty. These comments gave me pause—though the desert may not seem livable from a human perspective, to call them “empty” in an attempt to prove that building solar panels in the desert will have no negative effects is as irresponsible as purporting that human dependence on fossil fuels does not impact climate change.

This online exchange (that quickly got heated—as online arguments typically do), sparked an internal debate of my own. A transition to primarily renewable sources will likely result in long-term benefits by providing economically sustainable energy to the human population. Utilization of renewable energy will also assist in the mitigation of anthropogenic impacts (climate change, habitat exploitation, etc.) which continue to cause drastic habitat and biodiversity loss. However, there are ethical concerns to consider when planning the development of renewable energy infrastructure. Ethical concerns usually dissolve to one deceptively simple question: what is the best for the greater good? I decided to address these considerations from an anthropocentric point of view, as well as three ethical extensionisms: zoocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism. I employed the construction of solar panels in the Mojave Desert as a specific case study to gain a realistic application of my ethical musings.

Recently, there have been plans to build solar energy facilities in the southwestern US (mostly desert habitat) which has a particularly high potential for solar energy. It is important to note that solar panel development, like all infrastructure, does have lasting environmental impacts. Additionally, desert habitats are particularly fragile, easily scarred, and heal slowly; therefore, small disturbances have large and long-lasting impacts in the desert. Moreover, desert habitats—contrary to their name—are not deserted. Deserts are biomes, and they boast plenty of biodiversity, just like other biomes. In the Mojave, there are over two thousand plant species—including the prominent endemic species, the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). The Mojave is also home to many reptiles, small and large mammals, arthropods, and even a few amphibian species. Included in these flora and fauna are multiple of state and federal concern (e.g. Gopherus agassizii, Uma inornata, Phrynosoma mcallii, to name a few). Establishing solar energy facilities in previously undisturbed desert habitats will have adverse effects on local species. There is not much peer-reviewed research on the environmental impacts of solar development in the US desert habitat and examining these impacts is vital to our evaluation of development proposals.

First, I considered the ethical question of developing solar power plants in the Mojave through an anthropocentric point of view. Anthropocentrism is the human-centered philosophy that places humans as the sole recipients of moral protection. From this point of view, it is our obligation to develop renewable energy resources for the sake of providing sustainable energy for the persistence of human progress. Therefore, because the desert has high potential for solar power, building solar plants in the Mojave would be the ethical choice. My cousin recently traveled to Lone Pine, CA (a desert locale), and the locals told her that they fought heartily for implementation of solar panels in their community. Lone Pine has higher than average electricity costs, and embracing solar energy would effectively lower long-term costs for that area. Here, the human benefits of solar energy are clear. From an anthropocentric point of view, building solar panels in desert communities is ethical.

That said, anthropocentrism caused the energy, climate, and environmental crisis in the first place. Exploitation of nature for its instrumental value is part of our checkered history as inhabitants of this planet. Anthropocentrism is a shallow viewpoint and is unsustainable; we cannot continue to make choices solely for the benefit of human advancement while ignoring the fact that we are outsiders parachuting into the habitats of other organisms. The “responsibility to protect” is a philosophy which holds that we, as creatures with intelligence, have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us. Usually, this philosophy is applied to our behavior towards fellow humans; however, we can extend this “responsibility to protect” to non-human entities. Then, it would be incumbent on humans towards the environment to protect the most vulnerable organisms to the best of our ability.

In order to consider the ethics of solar panel production in the Mojave as it pertains to non-human entities, we would need to broaden the scope of our moral obligations. One of these ethical extensionisms is zoocentrism, which is an ethical philosophy that extends moral protection to animals. This point of view focuses mainly on animals which are perceived as being conscious—so within the Mojave desert, a zoocentric point of view would argue for the environmental protection of the Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), for example, but not the Badwater snail (Assiminea infima). Using zoocentrism, solar panel infrastructure in the Mojave would be ethically acceptable so long as it doesn’t disturb higher vertebrates. Mitigating solutions would include leaving migration corridors and relocating those vertebrates. However, in addition to ignoring “lower vertebrates,” a zoocentric point of view also ignores other organisms, including plant species of state and federal concern within the Mojave.

In order to extend moral consideration to all life, one would take a biocentric point of view. Biocentrism is a life-centered ethical philosophy, holding all life sacred—not just conscious life. Let’s consider the Joshua tree—it is endemic to and widespread in the Mojave, but its range is predicted to be heavily impacted by climate change. Therefore, switching to renewable resources like solar energy should theoretically be beneficial for the protection of the Joshua tree as it will help abate human-caused climate change and its impacts on the Joshua tree. However, building solar panel infrastructure in the Joshua tree’s only natural habitat will invariably affect the health of this species through habitat destruction, shifting sands, and potentially the blockage of sunlight available to the plant. There are other ways to implement solar energy without building solar panels in the desert, but we must consider what is best for the greater good; that is, we must do what is best for all life on this planet, not just the Joshua tree.

A final ethical extensionism is ecocentrism which values ecosystems as an integrated whole rather than a sum of individual parts; therefore an entire ecosystem deserves moral protection. From this perspective, disrupting any part of the fragile and easily-scarred desert ecosystem is an ethical transgression and must be considered carefully. Simply relocating endangered animals or building small migration corridors would not be enough to protect the integrity of the Mojave Desert ecosystems. This, however, raises the question: do we protect the ecosystems of the Mojave Desert because they each have value as wholes, or do we protect the Earth by any means possible because it has value as a whole?

Last year, I traveled to the Mojave Desert for a field herpetology project. One of the comments my professor made in passing was about recent proposals to build a solar power farm in the Mojave, right in the middle of prime reptile habitat. He pointed out that that in addition to the obvious negative impacts of solar development in reptile habitat (destruction, pollution, accidental fatalities, etc), there are also genetic impacts that result from habitat modification and fragmentation. Building the solar farm in these reptiles’ habitat disrupts migration and gene flow, leading to decreases in population health and long-term impacts on the evolution of those species, including extirpation or extinction. My professor then made an interesting point: building solar panels in the Mojave is a trade-off; you choose to lose a few species for the potential to save millions of species sometime down the line.

Biocentrism and ecocentrism present a similar ethical quandary: building solar panels in the Mojave desert can ultimately save millions of species and the integrity of many ecosystems but risks the relatively immediate loss of a few. Climate change and biodiversity loss are largely human-caused. Therefore, it is our responsibility to slow the effects with mitigating solutions. Is it more ethically sound to sacrifice a few species in the Mojave or entire Mojave ecosystems, for the ultimate protection of many more species and the Earth as a whole? Addressing this from the normative ethical theory of consequentialism (wherein we make ethical decisions based solely on the consequences), it is worse to not do enough to save those many species than it is to actively choose to risk a few.

This is not an easy question to answer, and there is no 100% correct solution. The potential benefits of renewable energy is unquestionable for human advancement as well as for the conservation of a large percentage of animals, all organisms, and entire ecosystems. However, traipsing around and implementing technological advancements without deep thought about the ethical issues is what led us to an environmental crisis, so thinking carefully and addressing the ethical considerations that apply to the development of solar panels in the Mojave desert (and extending this thought to all renewable energy facilities) is important so that we may plan the protection and preservation of our planet’s integrity while also avoiding a repeat of the anthropocentric mistakes of our past. At the very least, simply acknowledging the environmental impacts of whichever choice we make is better than stating irresponsibly that renewable energy technology has no negative effects on the environment and vulnerable species.

Ryan Scott Ranks at State-wide Student Research Competition

Young Scientist Ryan Scott placed 2nd in the Graduate Division of Biological and Agricultural Sciences at the 31st Annual California State University (CSU) Student Research Competition, held April 28-29, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The event saw the participation of hundreds of graduate and undergraduates student researchers from all 23 CSU campuses, extending from San Diego State to Humboldt State. Ryan was there representing San José State University, as all the participants had been selected beforehand as winners in their own respective university student competitions. The judgement of winners at the statewide event was based upon an oral presentation, Q&A, plus a pre-submitted written summary. Ryan’s presentation was based upon the work he completed with Joshua S. Alwood at NASA Ames Research Center, funded by a NASA Space Biology Grant and supported by BMSIS. Ryan’s presentation was entitled, “Zoledronate Prevents Simulated Weightlessness-Induced Bone Loss in the Cancellous Compartment While Blunting the Efficacy of a Mechanical Loading Countermeasure.”

Congratulations to Ryan!

Authorship of Scientific Papers

Christina Cheung shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

For any aspiring scientist, authorship is crucial in many ways. In a scientific world where literature is one of the most trusted ways to share information, the people responsible for the work are given authorship of that particular paper. Potential publications often have stringent criteria and are put through the ringer by peer reviews to ensure quality control of the information. Nowadays, because science is increasingly specialized, reliance on other scientists’ publications are needed for research. Therefore, quality work and accurate information is essential not only for the authors but their peers as well. Authorship is also one of the primary ways for recognition in academia. Often, one of the qualifications that is emphasized heavily in a position in academia is the candidate’s quantity and quality of publications; which would entail looking at their authorship in scientific literature. For better or for worse, a person’s success is often influenced by authorship of publications, making it crucial that it is accurately portrayed.

With so much influence, one would assume that the rules for authorship should be black and white; instead, many times there tend to be gray areas that make it difficult to determine authorship. These gray areas can stem from the different ethical systems that apply to authorship rules. Of all the ethical systems, two of the normative ethical theories are most relevant: utilitarianism and virtue ethics. For a utilitarianism system, one can say that authorship should come from how much one has contributed by the end of the experiment. Therefore, in terms of authorship, if the success of the experiment is the ultimate end, then guidelines would shape around allowing a scientist to gain authorship if they can successfully replicate the experiment. This would then show their competency and merit in the context of the experiment. If a written manuscript is the ultimate end, then guidelines for authorship would shape around how much the scientist contributed to the final manuscript in terms of physical amounts like word count or even number of figures. This would then show literally how much a scientist has contributed to the final manuscript and therefore, if there is enough, should be granted authorship. In a virtue ethics system, guidelines would revolve around a system that emphasizes the role of one’s character to determine whether or not it was moral. Therefore, a person can be granted authorship simply because they were trying to be helpful. This could be seen in a situation where a mentor helps provide guidance to a project or a colleague that provided meaningful conversations that led to the success of the experiment. Because virtue can be seen as culturally defined, this could lead to inconsistent guidelines in publications and authorship in increasingly globally collaborative research environment.

A topic that comes up often in the discussion of the ethical systems that are pertinent to authorship, include the question of what is considered to be fair in the overall context of acknowledging those who contributed to the experiment that is being described in the paper. In any given experiment, there are many people who contribute to its success that deserve to be acknowledged one way or another. From the different ethical systems, there are many different criteria that allow many different people to become authors. However, is it fair to say that they all deserve to be an author? For example, there can be situations where ownership of the data is in question. A principle investigator with a lab has a post-doc that has a paper ready to be published; but is the post-doc obligated to include the PI’s name even if he or she didn’t contribute in any way except perhaps the laboratory space? What if for whatever reason there is a person helping to write parts of the paper, but this person did not take part in planning, designing, or executing the experiment. Do they get a chance of authorship by merely writing? Lastly and even simply, lab personnel change, or experiments take a different turn based on results and the influential people change. How does one take that into account? Essentially, these situations cause fairness to be put into question, and therefore, make defining authorship a gray area that is often not addressed until problems arise.

With the knowledge of how authorship can be a rather sensitive subject with many gray areas, perhaps the best way to avoid this is having a mutual understanding before the start of any experiment as well as the beginning of any major pivotal points. Therefore, it entails that this be a more regularly discussed topic at the start rather than something that is avoided until problems arise. A more open discussion early on, between all parties, allows everyone to have clear cut expectations and less questions later on. An end-all strict set of rules for authorship may not be the best solution. Every institution should have their own guidelines and regulations catered towards their own needs and situations. However, it is important for open communication to all parties to have a mutual understanding at the start of an experiment and at the start of any major experiment direction change. This can help to mitigate issues that may arise later and determine authorship to the deserving individuals.

Bringing a Taste of NASA to Marjorie H. Tobias Elementary School

BMSIS Young Scientist Christina Cheung led an outreach event at Marjorie H. Tobias Elementary School in Daly City, California.

Christina’s engagement was part of her Communications requirements for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. Our Young Scientist Program continues this tradition by engaging local communities around the world.

Read Christina’s impressions below:

Being a part of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, I was given a unique opportunity to take part in a community outreach event. I was approached by a friend, who was a parent helper in their school’s read-a-thon committee, looking to find someone to speak at their school as a special guest to talk about NASA and science as a career. What started off as somewhat of an unlikely event to pull off, turned into a school-wide event with two assemblies and 400 students.

Before having to present, I was already faced with challenges as I prepared for my presentation to these students. First, the grades that I was presenting were K to 2nd and 3rd to 5th, all of which have drastically different levels of understanding and engagement. I knew very early on in my preparations that I would have to prepare different presentations for each assembly and find ways to keep them all engaged. Second, I was also tasked with finding a way to incorporate the importance of reading. After all, I was speaking for a read-a-thon event that encouraged students to read. I decided to choose two of my favorite books growing up, which were The BFG by Roald Dahl and The Giver by Louis Lowry and even went home to find my childhood paperback copies of those treasured books to show to the students. I made it a point to emphasize the importance of reading for a scientist and also how it has shaped my life. Most importantly, I also wanted to use this platform as a way to inspire the young students to take part in STEM.

The days before the presentation, I was definitely nervous. However, with the help of some colleagues and friends, I was able to practice and put together the two presentations for the school event. When I first arrived at the school, I was greeted by the rest of the read-a-thon committee. They were very helpful in coordinating the event and answering all the questions I had throughout the process. We got set up and situated and soon enough the first set of students, the K to 2nd graders, started to come in. My first impressions of them were that they were so young, but so enthusiastic to learn. As I spoke to them with excitement I got the same feelings from them. Even through the lab safety activity I did with a few participants that included nitrile gloves and shaving cream, they were all very attentive and well behaved. With a few extra minutes, I took the risk of having a Q&A session with them. Some of the questions were intuitive; others were less so, but all in all it was enjoyable to engage with them. For the next assembly of 3rd to 5th graders, I knew these students would be more interested in the science and details. They asked great questions and even asked some that stumped me. I appreciated their genuine curiosity to learn more.

All in all, the students in both assemblies were very intrigued about NASA and space exploration. I enjoyed the Q&A portions of each assembly the most just because it allowed me to interact with each student. It allowed me to not only give an answer to their question, but also the validate and encourage their curiosity to learn. I also wanted to be an example to the young girls in the audience, knowing that the statistics for their involvement in STEM is low. I don’t know the thoughts that went through their young minds, but I know I have done my job if I have inspired at least one student to know that they can definitely pursue science as a career.