AAAS: What's on this year's agenda

February 15, 2002

This year's AAAS conference covers everything from geometry jokes to science on the box, the atrocities of September 11 and bioterrorism.

As with most conferences in the United States today, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's 2002 jamboree in Boston has been overshadowed by the events of September 11.

A major security operation will protect America's top scientists and those from other countries. It will include an increase in surveillance cameras, security guards and stringent registration badge checks as well as restrictions on late-night entry to hotels.

In addition, three extra sessions, a plenary and a lecture on the general theme of "understanding the threats (of September 11) and the role of science" have been added to an already heaving programme. They include a discussion of the diversity of Islamic societies, the future of Afghanistan and bioterrorism. The session on Afghanistan features experts on the country's population and ethnic distribution, rural development in the light of continuous civil war and the regional geopolitics of the Afghan war. It promises to look at "the postwar redevelopment of Afghanistan, utilising for the first time its rich natural resource base to provide the capital and jobs necessary to change the country away from smuggling out drugs, thugs, weapons and terrorism".

Bioterrorism is covered in two sessions: one on strategic issues to do with arms policy, the other looking at health organisations' readiness to respond to a bioterrorist attack.

Apart from September 11, the conference, which was launched on Thursday with a speech by AAAS president Peter Raven and continues until February 19, covers the usual array of subjects: everything from interdisciplinary research, climate change, the latest technology for predicting extreme weather conditions, nanotechnology and oceanography to the dangers of using oral histories in science, ethical and teaching issues, public literacy on behavioural genetics and science on television.

The juxtaposition of some sessions makes interesting reading: hot on the heels of the University of Chicago's Paul Sereno's talk on the evolution of dinosaurs is Virginia Valian, of City University New York, on "Why so slow? The advancement of women".

There is the usual gallery of stars, such as Craig Venter, who recently resigned from the presidency of Celera Genomics. For the second year running, he is participating in a seminar on the future for genomic studies. Other leading genomics experts include Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Eric Lander, while Toronto's Peter Singer is discussing related ethical issues in a seminar on genomics and public health equity. Other big hitters include Ismail Serageldin, director general of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and former vice-president of special programmes at the World Bank, who is giving a lecture on the challenges poverty presents for science.

Added to the mix are a raft of scientists presenting new research. Daniel Rosenfeld, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will show how aerosol pollution limits rainfall. And Nina Jablonski of the California Academy of Sciences is likely to get a lot of press coverage with her talk. She will talk on human skin colour is the product of "adaptation by natural selection in respect of ultraviolet radiation". Jablonski says the first humans probably had unpigmented or lightly pigmented skin covered with black hair, similar to that of chimpanzees. A darker pigmentation emerged to protect sweat glands and foetuses from ultraviolet-induced injury in tropical areas. But as man emerged from the tropics, varying degrees of depigmentation occurred for health reasons.

Exciting stuff. The only advice is don't forget your registration badge.

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