What happens when you crowdsource peer review?

Chris Lee at arstecnica covers some academics who are trying it

When this approach was tested (with consent) on papers submitted to Synlett, it was discovered that review times went way down—from weeks to days. And authors reported getting more useful comments from their reviewers.

The forum is open, so as a reviewer, you can see comments accumulating, and you know the editor is going to close comments at some point soon. You are either going to do the job now or not do it at all—you can’t put the editor off for three weeks before deciding that you don’t have time.

Acquiring U.S. land if you’re a foreign multinational

The 2015 appropriations bill enacted by the U.S. federal government transferred 2,422 acres of National Forest land in Arizona from public ownership by the American people to private ownership by Resolution Mining, a foreign multinational mining corporation.  In exchange, Resolution Mining must transfer other land it owns to the government.

An important part of the story is that a part of the transfer, referred to as Oak Flat, is sacred land for several Native American groups in the region who, along with others, have been organized against the transfer since it was first proposed.  The transfer was long sought by Arizona legislators who were never successful in getting the transfer completed on its own. By attaching the transfer to the 2015 appropriations bill, the transfer became law.

The inclusion of the transfer as a rider on the appropriations act only further motivated resistance that had been organized since the initial proposal of the transfer. Two subsequent bills have been introduced to repeal the transfer. The following describes a bit about how this whole process has worked to date.

Each year, the United States Congress passes an appropriations bill outlining how money collected as taxes will be spent by the government. Put simply, when passed by both the Senate and the House and signed into law by the President, the appropriations bill becomes the law on how the government will spend its money.

The appropriations bill is seen as a “must pass bill”, meaning Senators in the Senate and Representatives in the House generally agree that such a bill must be enacted into law each year. There are exceptions, of course, but when an appropriations bill is not passed before the expiration of the previous appropriations bill, this causes a “government shutdown” that can have negative political consequences for one or both parties.

Because the appropriations bill is “must pass”, legislators often use it as a vehicle to pass laws addressing other issues than federal spending. These other laws are passed by “attaching” them to the appropriations bill as “riders”, bills that “ride” on the main bill being debated and that end up becoming law if the main bill becomes law.

In the 2015 appropriations bill, a rider (Section 3003) was attached that transferred the national forest land to Resolution Mining, a joint venture formed by two multinational mining companies seeking to mine copper ore located beneath the national forest land. Section 3003 is entitled, Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation. It is too long to quote in its entirety, but it begins with the Section’s purpose:

 PURPOSE.—The purpose of this section is to authorize, direct, facilitate,  and  expedite  the  exchange  of  land  between  Resolution
Copper and the United States.

Section 3003 describes the transfer as:

Subject to the provisions of this section, if Resolution Copper offers to convey to the United States all right, title, and interest of Resolution Copper in and to the non-Federal land, the Secretary is authorized and directed to convey to Resolution Copper, all right, title, and interest of the United States in and to the Federal land.

Alluding to the organized resistance by Native American and other groups, Section 3003 instructs the Secretary of the Interior to engage in “consultation” with Tribes:


Note how the instructions to the Secretary do not require mutually acceptable measures be agreed upon, but instead only that the Secretary engage in  consultation to “seek” such measures.

As noted above, Arizona’s political representatives have been seeking the transfer for some time. Since the transfer was first created as an idea, groups have been organized against the transfer. Those groups are still engaged, and two recent bills have been introduced seeking to repeal Section 3003, one bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 2811) and one in the Senate (S. 2242). Both bills are entitled “Save Oak Flat Act” in reference to the Oak Flat area at the heart of opposition to the transfer.

H.R. 2811 describes what the transfer does. Note that the bill seeks to repeal the transfer and thus presents the objectives and impacts in an ideologically-motivated way:

Section 3003 of the Carl Levin and Howard P. Buck McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (Public Law 113–291) authorizes approximately 2422 acres of Forest Service land known as Oak Flat in the Tonto National Forest in Southeastern Arizona that is sacred to Indian tribes in the region, including the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the Yavapai-Apache Nation, to be transferred to a mining company called Resolution Copper. That company plans to hold the Forest land privately for a mining project that will result in the physical destruction of tribal sacred areas and deprive American Indians from practicing their religions, ceremonies, and other traditional practices. The mining project will also create significant negative environmental impacts by destroying the area and depleting and contaminating precious water resources.

H.R. 2811 also contains a summary of the legislative history that lead to the rider being attached to the appropriations act. Note this summary is ideologically motivated to portray the inclusion of the rider as counter to an idealized democractic process:

Section 3003 was included in the Carl Levin and Howard P. Buck McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 without proper legislative process and circumvented the will of the majority of Members of the House of Representatives. Section 3003 was originally introduced in the House of Representatives as H.R. 687 and in the Senate as S. 339 in the 113th Congress. H.R. 687 was brought to the floor of the House of Representatives for consideration twice and was pulled from consideration both times. S. 339 was never considered by the Senate or even considered for mark up by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Section 3003 was then included in the Carl Levin and Howard P. Buck McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 without majority support from either the House or Senate and an amendment to remove section 3003 was not allowed to be considered.

Unless these bills become law, the Resolution project will proceed, Resolution Mining will be given 2,422 acres of land containing copper deposits worth potentially billions of dollars, and the government will receive land deemed far less valuable from Resolution Mining. This appears to be a very good deal for Resolution Mining and suggests that long-term engagement with political elites can be highly profitable for business firms.

Oil reefs the only reefs

Recycling decommissioned offshore oil rigs into artificial reefs is becoming popular enough to warrant a supportive New York Times article. These rigs are part of the climate change machine causing ocean acidification. In a matter of decades all the world’s reefs might be dead.

Coral reefs have always been built on the skeletons of the dead, but the dead have been previous generations of coral. In the future, the skeletons might be of the industry that killed the coral for good.

Human global environmental impacts

The following reviews the scientific evidence of human impacts to demonstrate how humans are not only capable of global impact but have already transformed most Earth systems. The review draws on a recent (paywalled) article in Science.

One important point relates to timing: although the global geologic record contains evidence of some human activities like lead smelting and cement production since several thousand years ago, the presence of these and other human materials in the geologic record dramatically increases in the 1900s with the advent of organizational forms like the modern corporation and the adoption of industrial production processes.

The following types of evidence demonstrate how human activities have and continue to change Earth at a global level:

  • new human-made materials found in the archaeological record
  • altered processes of sedimentation
  • new chemicals in ice and soil
  • radioactive material in ice and soil
  • changes in CO2 and methane concentrations
  • climate change

New human-made materials

“Technofossils” are human-made materials that are found in the archaeological record. They include materials up to several thousand years old like pottery, glass, cement and metal alloys but also include recently created materials like plastics, highly-refined aluminum, and synthetic fibers.

The production of technofossils has accelerated in the 1900s, with growth rates becoming exponential around 1960 for some materials like concrete, plastics, aluminum, and synthetic fibers. For example, although concrete was invented centuries ago, half of the concrete humans have ever produced was produced since 1995.

Altered sedimentation processes

Sedimentation processes are the ways in which soil moves across the Earth. In order to create new human-made materials, humans have constructed resource extraction industries that have altered natural geologic processes and now reflect another aspect of human impact on Earth. By itself, the mining of minerals moves nearly 3 times as much sediment per year as all the rivers on Earth combined.

In addition to mining, human activities that alter sedimentation include landfills, the construction of cities, coastal reclamation projects, trawler fishing, deforestation, livestock grazing, and cropland development.

Of particular note is dam construction. Since about 1950, humans have built 1 large dam per day, each of which has a lifespan of 50 – 200 years. Dams interrupt the transport of sediment by rivers, changing the nature of river systems by depriving downstream environs of sediment. Deltas are sinking faster than in the past, and coastlines are retreating. Such processes threaten coastal settlements in delta regions like New Orleans, Cairo, and residents of Bangladesh.

Despite dams slowing the transport of sediment to lakes and oceans, chemical fertilizers used in agriculture flow through water. Delta regions thus face two major effects: loss of sediment and an overload of plant fertilizer. The former causes the loss of land while the latter causes the loss of species diversity in the water by creating “dead zones” where decomposing algae remove oxygen from enormous areas of lakes and oceans.

Chemicals in ice and soil

Chemicals that travel by air can be find everywhere on Earth’s surface, including places that are permanently covered with ice. Of particular note are polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls. These materials appear in the geologic record around 1945, immediately after their invention by materials scientists and chemists.

Human smelting of lead has occurred for centuries, but the amount of lead present in soils dramatically increased in the middle of the 1900s with the global burning of leaded gasoline.

Increased fertilizer use has doubled the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in soils since 1900 and disrupted oxygen environments in lakes.

Industrial production and consumption of metals like cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, nickel, lead, and zinc have left traces of these metals in soils across the globe. The adoption of platinum-filled catalytic converters in automobiles as an air-pollution reduction solution has increased the presence of platinum, rhodium, and palladium in soils next to roads.

Radioactive material in ice and soil

Nuclear weapons testing in the mid-1900s disbursed radioactive plutonium across the Earth. This plutonium will be identifiable in the geologic record for the next 100,000 years, eventually decaying into uranium, which will in turn decay into lead.

Changes in CO2 and methane concentrations

Burning of fossil fuels has changed the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane in the Earth’s atmosphere. Increases in the amount of these gases in the atmosphere has increased the capacity of the atmosphere to capture heat energy from the sun, increasing global temperatures. Because CO2 from fossil fuels has a different chemical signature than CO2 produced through natural processes, there is high confidence that increased atmospheric CO2 is primarily from human burning of fossil fuels.

The most dramatic atmospheric change has been the increase in CO2 concentration since about 1850. Atmospheric CO2 has increased by approximately 30% in that time period.

Climate change

Increased atmospheric CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases have contributed to changes in the Earth’s climate. Geologic records show large changes in climate have happened in the past–such as ice ages–but climate change has never before been directly linked to human activity as it is today. Further, climate is changing more rapidly due to human processes than did past periods of natural climate change. By the year 2070 Earth’s climate will likely be hotter than at any time since the emergence of modern humans some 200,000 years ago, posing potentially intractable adaptation problems for our species.

Another major consequence of climate change is rising sea levels. Coastal ecosystems like the Everglades, cities like New Orleans, and countries like the Seychelles and Bangladesh face severe harm and possible extinction from rising sea level. It will be difficult for these places to successfully adapt to sea level change on the expected order of 3-5 feet in the next 80 years and even more in the next centuries.

Concluding note

The evidence presented above provides compelling evidence that human activity in the 1900s achieved a scale that had and continues to have global environmental impacts.





Explaining Wal-Mart’s Wages & Benefits Increase

An article out today by Anne D’Innocenzio of The Associated Press addresses Wal-Mart’s announcement it will increase wages and benefits for its workers. Two main explanations appear in the article, each of which is associated with a different political position.

First, Wal-Mart is increasing wages and benefits to attract and retain the best employees. This explanation locates firms and workers in a “labor market” in which workers are free to choose employers and employers are free to choose workers. The presumption regarding workers is that workers choose employers primarily based on compensation, including both wages and non-wage benefits. The presumption regarding employers is that employers cannot choose employees but can only attract employees, and the primary means of attracting employees is wages and benefits. This explanation is associated with a conservative political view that prioritizes “economic freedom” based on the pursuit of economic incentives.

Second, Wal-Mart is increasing wages and benefits to satisfy demands of workers organized into formal and informal unions. This explanation locates firms and workers not in a labor market but instead in a political process of opposition in an ongoing confrontation between “management” and “labor”. The presumption is that management represents and bargains for the interests of the firm, while labor represents and bargains for the interests of the workers. This explanation is associated with a liberal political view that prioritizes “interest group politics” based on the pursuit of collective benefits.

U.S. Automakers and U.S. Government Policy

United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has announced the Obama Administration’s intention to include $4 billion of funding for driverless cars in the next budget proposal. The President’s budget is merely guidance for Congress, which passes the final official appropriations bill, but inclusion of such a large sum in the President’s budget signals some degree of political support for automakers developing the technology.

“We are bullish on autonomous vehicles,” Mr. Foxx said.

Even more important than funding is how the Administration seems to be interpreting laws in favor of driverless cars. The Executive branch is responsible for enforcing laws created by Congress, and in doing so it often has freedom to interpret laws for new situations. So far, the Obama Administration has been pushing for states to develop regulatory frameworks allowing for autonomous cars and for the federal government to approve new designs as safe under safety regulations.

In addition, [Foxx] urged companies to seek interpretations of existing federal vehicle standards from regulators for new technologies under development.


“This is the right way to drive innovation,” said Mr. Foxx, adding that federal regulators were also working with various states to create a consistent national policy for driverless cars.

The partnership is being presented to the public as focused on safety, unsurprising given that American corporate rhetoric often focuses on either safety or health. The partnership is being presented to business observers as about resolving regulatory or policy uncertainty, which has become one of the most-used justifications for government policy.

But without guidance from regulators, companies have been uncertain about the legal environment that awaits their new vehicles. “The industry is anxious to have a framework, particularly in terms of safety,” Mr. Reuss said.

The language about uncertainty in the legal environment is much more palatable than simply saying that the firms need regulatory approval to develop their products. Claiming the issue is about uncertainty shifts the emphasis from the power dynamic between government and business to instead place the burden of innovation on government. This is not unusual in American business rhetoric, which sometimes portrays business as the victim of government regulation. For example, observers sometimes argue government needs to reduce regulation to “unleash” innovation or economic growth. In the case of the autos, though, the companies very clearly need help from government, primarily because driverless cars will not work with the current traffic behavior in the U.S. Instead, these firms need government to create new regulations affecting how people drive and how cars are regulated that help solve some of the innovation problems of driverless cars. For example, we might see regulations banning driven cars from some parts of cities in order to make those areas feasible for driverless cars.

Foxx made the announcement at the Detroit Auto Show, which makes sense. It also makes sense that he was surrounded by automaker executives when making the announcement. What is a bit surprising is that executives from Google, Inc., were also there. Traditional automakers are trying to become technology companies while technology companies are trying to become automakers. For now, they all seem to have an effective relationship with the Obama Administration that is producing favorable regulatory shifts toward allowing unproven autonomous car technology.

At the announcement, Mr. Foxx was flanked by executives of several carmakers and tech companies, including Google, which has been testing its autonomous vehicles on California roads since last year.


“It takes real collaboration with our regulators so this is done right and done safely,” said Mark Reuss, head of global product development at General Motors, the nation’s largest auto manufacturer.

Given that the federal government saved several automakers from possibly collapsing during the financial crisis, it is impressive the companies have been able to maintain such influence over government regulation of the industry. Example: last year was a record number of safety recalls for vehicles in the United States. This year, the government is meeting with automakers to develop voluntary safety measures related to the recalls.



Business trends worth following

Two interesting trends will affect economic growth and decline in northern states and southern Canada.

First, a few Minnesota doctors have attracted attention for recommending schools eliminate tackle football programs. The doctors reject the Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that schools preserve tackle football while encouraging other options, like touch or flag football. The doctors disagree with the Academy that tackle football can be made safe with training exercises, as the Academy suggests. This trend is important for the long-term economic health of the sporting goods industry, especially the football industry. Football at the collegiate and professional levels is profitable for, among others, team owners, coaches, professional players, broadcasters, hotels, restaurants, and fantasy football websites. (Collegiate players earn nothing, and many don’t even receive scholarships for their athletic labor).  Whether the sport of tackle football will be able to sustain itself in the face of evidence that the sport damages players’ brains remains to be seen. Also, it is unclear whether substitute sports like soccer or flag football will rise to the current level of economic activity of tackle football.  Many possible substitute sports–hockey, soccer, lacrosse–suffer their own problems with concussion and brain injuries, potentially limiting their appeal to parents and players concerned about health.

The second trend worth following is the effects of climate change on economic activity in Minnesota. As winters warm, growing seasons are extended while ice season contracts. The contraction of ice season implies that industries based on hockey, ice fishing, and other outdoor activities will decline. It is an unwise time to invest in starting an ice fishing gear company, for example. However, the lengthening growing season suggests new opportunities for agriculture to expand in the northern states and southern Canada. Minnesota is home to a research initiative breeding new grape varieties that can withstand the temperature fluctuations coincident with climate change.

In addition to business trends, cultural trends will emerge in response to changing climate. Already, fall sports like tackle football and soccer are enjoying longer pleasant-weather playing seasons. Halloween is becoming milder, and Thanksgiving will increasingly be seen as a late summer rather than fall holiday. As forest composition changes in response to the influx of new insects and diseases, it is possible that the fall colors associated with some regions will fade or disappear, threatening fall traditions and billions in tourism dollars for some regions.