Science and Technology

Frances Kelsey: The Government Bureaucrat Who May Have Saved Your Life

Kelsey's crusade for tougher drug regulations remains a powerful symbol of good government. 

Rex Features via AP Images
Rex Features via AP Images Frances O. Kelsey during Senate testimony about corporate pressure to approve the drug in spite of her concerns about the drugs safety, August 1, 1962. I n our current culture, the phrase “government bureaucrat” is often used as an epithet, but Frances Kelsey—who died on August 7 at age 101—was a career government bureaucrat who was also a genuine American heroine. In the early 1960s, Kelsey, a doctor and research scientist with the federal Food and Drug Administration, almost singlehandedly took on the pharmaceutical industry. She stood up to the manufacturer of a dangerous medicine—thalidomide—and saved tens of thousands of babies from birth deformities. If you are in your 40s or 50s, Kelsey, working quietly in her FDA office, may have saved your life, by making sure that your doctor didn't prescribe thalidomide to your mother. Kelsey's battle with the makers of thalidomide is an inspiring tale of how one individual's expertise and courage protected the...

How to Live Happily with Robots

It takes extensive government intervention to assure that gains of automation are broadly shared.

(Photo: AP/Shizuo Kambayashi)
(Photo: AP/Shizuo Kambayashi) The Robot Will See You Now: (And she never goes on break.) Customeres at the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo watch an android receptionist, who greets customers as they walk in the store. This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here. M achines do indeed eliminate jobs. And on the whole, we should be grateful. In the biblical telling, humanity was condemned to hard labor following the expulsion from Eden: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.” Yet machines have offered us some respite, easing our burdens and raising living standards. The armies of robots and other smart machines now on the horizon can ease those burdens further, if we humans are smart enough to act so that the benefits of these technologies are widely shared. Market forces alone won’t do the job. Smart machines may raise productivity and output on average, but market forces will tend to concentrate the gains among a fraction...

The Three Climate Deniers in Congress Whose Districts Will Soon Be Underwater

The Republican representatives of three districts in Louisiana, Maryland, and Virginia that are vulnerable to rising sea level don't believe 97 percent of climate scientists.

(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP)
(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP) Republican Representative Steve Scalise speaks for the Coal Caucus during a news conference on greenhouse gas standards in September 2013. Scalise's congressional district in southeastern Louisiana is in particular danger of the effects of climate change, rising sea level, and hurricanes, and the state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s. O n July 17, the Democrats on the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a forum entitled “Climate Change at the Water’s Edge” to discuss the localized impacts of climate change. Headed by Ranking Member Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the forum included the mayor of Annapolis and a climate scientist from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who discussed the realities of climate change in their communities. But while the attendees seemed to understand the very real threats facing our country, so many others choose to ignore them. A staggering 97 percent of scientists agree that not only is...

Why Surveillance Won't Prevent Cyber Attacks

A new Senate bill would dramatically expand surveillance to prevent cyber attacks, but real security is about minimizing risk. 

Sipa via AP Images
Sipa via AP Images President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) in Arlington, Virginia on January 13, 2015. T he debate over cybersecurity legislation the Senate will soon consider suffers from a lack of truth in advertising, beginning with the bill’s name: the “Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act.” The legislation would do little to improve cybersecurity, conspicuously lacking the basic measures that security experts agree are necessary. Instead, it drives a hole through existing privacy laws, allowing the government to access private citizens’ personal information without their knowledge or consent—the kind of “information sharing” usually described as “surveillance.” Leveraging Threats to Expand Powers CISA is not the first legislation to leverage a security threat in service of intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ continual quest for more leeway. After 9/11, lawmakers and officials portrayed the USA...

Are Uber and Lyft Driving Recalled Cars?

While aggressively marketing their services as safe, the ride-sharing giants do not require drivers to repair recalled cars. 

Imaginechina via AP Images
Imaginechina via AP Images U ber and Lyft—two popular ride-sharing companies sweeping cities worldwide—work hard to market their transportation services as safe and secure. On Lyft’s website, the company boasts , “As pioneers in transportation, we’re changing the industry with safety front of mind.” Touting their mandatory inspection requirements, like driver criminal background checks, the company declares: “We designed safety into every part of Lyft.” Uber’s rhetoric is quite similar. “From the moment you request a ride to the moment you arrive, the Uber experience has been designed from the ground up with your safety in mind,” their website states . Phillip Cardenas, the Head of Global Safety at Uber says that while his company is committed to continually improving its policies, he believes Uber has “built the safest transportation option in 260 cities around the world.” Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the growing number of recalled but unrepaired vehicles...

Why Civic Tech Can't Be Neutral

Harnessing the power of technology to make real social change. 

Rachel M. Cohen
Rachel M. Cohen Catherine Bracy speaking at the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. T echnology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power. PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said. “When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like...

The Cyber Conundrum: A Security Update

Recent events confirm that we need to rethink our approach to cybersecurity.

 

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File The National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Maryland. I n the wake of the debate over the renewal of the Patriot Act, Americans should consider a related problem with implications for their privacy and security: the assumptions behind cybersecurity policy. Several new developments bolster the argument in “ The Cyber Conundrum: Why the Current Policy for National Cyber Defense Leaves Us Open to Attack ” (published in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect ). These developments reinforce the view that U.S. cybersecurity policy is primarily based on the military’s framing of the security problem, at the expense of the online security of the private sector and ordinary citizens. During the Cold War our approach was to undermine Soviet security systems while bolstering our own, but the problem isn’t so simple in an age of shared global technology and online infrastructure. Today, the military’s Cyber Command continues to see...

The Cyber Conundrum

Why the current policy for national cyber defense leaves us open to attack. 

Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa / AP Images
Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa / AP Images President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson discussed efforts to improve government collaboration with industry to combat cyber threats at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Virginia, last January. This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . A follow-up to this article by Joshua A. Kroll will appear on June 4. Celebrate our 25th Anniversary with us by clicking here for a free download of this special issue . T he devastating cyberattacks against Sony Pictures in 2014 resulted in disabling of equipment, release of employees’ sensitive information, disclosure of company secrets and unreleased movies, and ultimately the departure of one of the studio’s top executives. The FBI blamed the Sony attacks on North Korea, and the attackers may have been operating in Sony’s systems undetected for more than a year. Many Americans were left...

The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

Bad economics, not automation, lies at the heart of persistent joblessness. 

Imaginechina via AP Images
Imaginechina via AP Images A Chinese worker controls a robot arm to weld components of elevators at an auto plant of XD Elevator in Lianyungang, China. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . A re robots destined to wipe out most human jobs? Is this round of automation somehow different from all previous ones? There has been a lot of commentary lately to that effect, including several books . Is there nothing to be done? Robots have indeed eliminated a great deal of factory work and are rapidly moving on to product design, medical diagnostics, research, teaching, accounting, translating, copy editing, and a great deal more. Once-secure professions are no longer safe. From that, many economists conclude that we may just have to adjust to a high plateau of unemployment. In the past, the story goes, as technology displaced some forms of work, the innovation eventually created new, mostly better jobs: fewer buggy-whip makers, more automobile assemblers; fewer telephone...

The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism

Do altruistic groups always beat selfish groups? A new book claims they do. 

Ciju Cherian / Solent News / Rex Features
Ciju Cherian / Solent News / Rex Features With a little teamwork, these ants turn themselves into a bridge for their friends to walk over in Kerala, India. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others By David Sloan Wilson 192 pp. Yale University/Templeton Press $27.50 D avid Sloan Wilson opens his new book, Does Altruism Exist? , with an old conundrum that has animated many late-night dormitory debates: If helping someone gives you pleasure, gains you points for an afterlife, and enhances your reputation, is it really altruism? Wilson wisely decides to put acts before motives: “When Ted benefits Martha at a cost to himself, that’s altruistic, regardless of how he thinks or feels about it.” Great. But what does “cost” mean in that sentence? Does it mean “cost” after considering all those benefits, or not? Wilson believes that to answer this question, we must turn to evolutionary theory, and especially to a theory known as group selection, which holds that better...

How Solar Is Lighting the Way for Recovery in Nepal

Renewable energy companies have formed a coalition to repower the country after its massive earthquake. 

(Photo: Milap Dwa)
(Photo: Milap Dwa) Milap Dwa and Chij Kumar​, technicians from Gham Power​, installing a 120-watt solar PV system kit on top of one of the few houses in Barpak, Gorkha, that are still standing. I n the days following Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25, as massive power outages complicated relief efforts, Sandeep Giri and his coworkers were shaken but determined to help. Giri, who was born and raised in Nepal, is the CEO of Gham Power , a solar company that’s been operating in Nepal for the last five years. After the earthquake, Gham Power’s employees sprung into action to deploy solar power systems that could power lights and mobile charging stations for relief workers and the displaced. Besides basic needs like medical attention, food, water, and shelter, electricity is a major issue in the wake of a disaster, says Giri. “First, you don't want to be in the dark, as it's scary, you don't feel safe, and it is also very cumbersome to get or administer relief without light...

Little Magazine, Big Ideas: The American Prospect at 25

Reflecting on a quarter century of politics and change.

T he American Prospect began 25 years ago with a small circulation, a limited budget, and great ambitions. Our aim was to rethink ideas about public policy and politics and thereby to restore plausibility and persuasiveness to American liberalism. The first issue appeared in spring 1990, a moment when Democrats had lost three successive presidential elections, conservatives were pushing schemes for privatization, and liberals were in disarray. But in 1990, Congress was still in Democratic hands, the Cold War was coming to an end with the Soviet collapse, and the focus of politics was turning from foreign to domestic policy. Rising economic anxieties, it seemed, might spur political change just as a “peace dividend” could finance new initiatives. By historic good fortune, the Prospect had arrived at a time not only of global change but also of “liberal opportunity,” as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called it in the first issue, which carried a cover image of an old world cracking open to...

A New Approach to Policing Focuses on Strengthening Communities

Without progressive solutions to the tension between law enforcement and people of color, every city is one incident away from being the next Baltimore.

(AP Photo/Al Behrman)
A s police officers and members of the communities they’re charged with protecting continue to go head-to-head in the streets, one thing is clear: Policing needs to change. At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s fifth annual America Healing conference, transforming American policing is exactly what attendees are trying to do. The conference in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, attracts hundreds of activists, lawyers, and, academics from across the country. In the nine months since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police departments nationwide are under intense scrutiny—in particular the departments within cities and communities of color. Thanks to social media and smartphones, we’ve been able to document the unjustified police killings of black people in New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, North Charleston, and more. At the America Healing event, civil rights and justice take center stage, as exemplified by the Tuesday morning panel titled “Healing Relationships...

Why California's Drought Is the Nation's Problem

Rising food prices, unsafe drinking water—climate change will only make things worse unless stronger measures are taken.

(Photo: Governor's Press Office, California)
View image | gettyimages.com I t was the worst kind of photo op. California Governor Jerry Brown and other state employees assembled in the Sierra Nevada mountain community of Phillips Station two weeks ago for the annual snow survey. Every year since 1941, April 1 has been the day of reckoning—a time to take stock of the winter’s accumulation and plan for how much spring runoff may help fill the state’s reservoirs, feed its rivers and streams, and be available for irrigated agriculture. This year was grim. The area, at nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, usually has about five feet or more of snow at this time of year. But this year, there was no snow on the ground. Brown launched a press conference in the middle of a field of brown grass and announced mandatory drought restrictions for the state as part of an executive order that aims to restrict urban water use by 25 percent in the next year, spur the replacement of lawns with drought tolerant plants, and increase efficiency and...

How Schumer's Iran Gamble Threatens Democrats' Chances in 2016

If enough senators in the minority party follow the lead of their next likely leader, the minority may be where they stay.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images) Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, left, has pledged support to Republican Senator Bob Corker, right, for a bill designed to scuttle the Obama administration's agreement with Iran over the development of nuclear technology. Here, the two are pictured in the House chamber before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to a joint meeting of Congress, March 3, 2015. A week and a half ago, Chuck Schumer, currently third in the leadership of the minority party in the U.S. Senate, moved quickly to solidify his position as the next leader of Democrats, securing the support of his caucus. This week he endorsed Republican Senator Bob Corker’s bill, which, on paper, gives Congress the right to approve the nuclear agreement hammered out with Iran by the U.S. and its allies (collectively known as the P5+1). In reality, this bill is yet another carefully crafted attempt to thwart a negotiated end to this nuclear...

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