Taking it Slowly

It’s summer now, and as air conditioners hum and fans turn while the electric meter spins, energy is a hot topic. This is especially true in my home state of Ohio, which recently made renewable energy history by rolling back support for renewable energy standards (making history is not always a good thing). Ohio is not only home to a large burst in hydraulic fracturing, but also a spate of renewable energy technologies and companies, so it should be no surprise to see these two competing interests butting heads in the state.

Meanwhile, Ohio also is home to an increasing number of invasive species, probably the most prominent right now is the Asian carp as Ohio and other states fight to keep this voracious fish out of the Great Lakes. Besides Asian carp, Ohio’s important invasive species include zebra mussels, a number of honeysuckles, garlic mustard, and emerald ash borer, just to name a few. The long list of introduced organisms have led to major changes in Ohio’s landscape, and in the larger world, invasive species are thought to be one of the major drivers in biodiversity loss.

So what exactly do these two introductory topics have to do with each other? Well, it turns out that they could have quite a lot. One of the renewable energies that receives its fair share of research and funding is biomass energy, or using organic matter to power electrical generation. This could be through methane digestion, or burning of charcoal, or cellulosic ethanol, among other routes. You might think of this as using “pre-fossil” fuel, as fossil fuels are organic matter that has gone through a few millions of years of processing before being used for energy. One of the important benefits from biomass is that we keep carbon dioxide in circulation, instead of adding old carbon into today’s atmosphere and shifting the carbon balance.

Here’s the rub- the qualities that make for efficient biomass crops are some of the same traits that make plants invasive. Fast growth, low nutrient requirement, ease of cultivation, high fertility, few predators or competitors, and formation of monotypic areas are all good things from a biomass perspective, but they also happen to be characteristics that make many invasive plants so difficult to eradicate. In fact, Miscanthus x giganteus (hybrid of M. sinensis and M. saccharifloris) is a popular biomass crop, while its close relative M. sinensis is currently of concern as an up-and-coming invasive species in Ohio and other states. These two challenges to conservation- fossil fuel consumption and introduced species- come to loggerheads in the matter of biomass fuel.

And this is one of the points of difficulty for many people outside of science when they look at science and its functioning. We have a couple of choices when faced with a complex problem, we can either go forward with a solution as quickly as possible, or wait for more data. If we rush in, we have the chance to stop the problem from becoming too large, and we are all familiar with the benefits of early intervention in many aspects of our lives, from health concerns, to children’s developmental delays. By moving quickly, we also risk making the wrong choice based on incomplete data. On the other hand, if we wait for more data we lessen the risk of a hasty decision leading to a wrong answer, but the delay can mean that the problem becomes larger and more difficult to address than it would have been otherwise.

Obviously, these are concerns in life outside of science as well, but considering the importance of science to our daily life, the risks and benefits of these choices become weighty issues for large numbers of people. Make the wrong choice, and many people are potentially impacted by the lack of a new drug treatment or by having a new food additive on the market before it is ready. The importance of having information in a timely manner highlights the importance of funding for research. If funding levels are constantly in question, and cuts being threatened, or if the funding process is slowed down, then the time until we have the information we need (like the invasive potential of Miscanthus cultivars) is longer and there is additional pressure to come to a decision quickly.

Just as importantly, making the wrong decision wastes social trust as well, as incorrect choices today are often seen as an indictment of science; look at all of the confusion when recommendations on eating eggs changed for one example. Even with Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson’s reinvigoration of “Cosmos,” science needs all the social trust it can get.