About the ‘rogue experiment’ that upset researchers

 

Yellow and brown show relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in August, after iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific Ocean as part of a controversial geoengineering scheme. Photograph: Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA

A story in The New York Times tells about a California businessman who decided to launch an ecological experiment without scientific supervision and dumped 100 tons of iron dust into the Pacific Ocean near western Canada.

Entrepreneur Russ George, according to the newspaper, said the “state-of-the-art study” was funded with $2.5 million from a native Canadian group. According to the ETC Group, which first disclosed the “experiment,” the Canadians believed that the iron dust would help grow plankton that would in turn eat carbon dioxide, allowing the group to sell carbon credits on the world market and raise money to save their salmon fishery. Or something like that.

This type of “ocean fertilization,” a bioengineering technique aimed at manipulating Earth systems, comes up most often in the context of climate change. Critics say that nutrients added to ocean waters do spawn plankton but that the effect on marine life is still unknown and the practice is dangerous.

The report quotes scientists who say the experiment was irresponsible and violated international agreements. But here’s what has really upset them, according to the article:

Though the environmental impact of the foray could well prove minimal, scientists said, it raises the specter of what they have long feared: rogue field experiments that might unintentionally put the environment at risk.

I couldn’t help thinking while reading this story about the parallels to school reform.

For years now, we’ve seen unscientific ideas being dumped on public schools around the country in the form of vouchers, charter schools and accountability by standardized test score. These experiments were done without really knowing their effects on children. We’ve seen “rogue field experiments” that, in fact, did, intentionally or otherwise, put the public school environment at risk.

The big difference: Government officials have been doing the educational experimentation. And the worst news of all: They aren’t finished.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 19, 2012