Farm subsidy cut won’t revive trade talks

In his address to the nation last night, President Obama said that his budget would “end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.” Such a change might be looked on favorably by other countries that have complained about U.S. farm subsidies, and by those who favor free trade in agriculture.

However, analysts quoted in this Reuters story say that these cuts in direct payments would have relatively little effect on world trade negotiations. The direct payments, which are made to farmers regardless of what they grow or what prices they get for their produce, actually have less effect on world trade than subsidies that fluctuate with commodity prices or which support farm revenue.

Little Bang Business Competition Winners

The “Little Bang” business plan competition wrapped up last week. Teams in the competition prepare a poster about their proposed startup company. Winners collect a cash prize and get a slot in the related Big Bang competition, where the teams go further in drawing up plans for launching their companies. Several regional startups have emerged from the competitions in past years — for example Q1 Nanosystems, now called Bloo Solar, which is working on solar power technology.

The winners of this year’s Little Bang were:

Clean Energy / Environmental Sciences

Winner – UltraV: Developing ultraviolet technology for disinfecting water supplies.

Hargadon on the decline of design in auto makers

Bob Lutz, vice-chairman for global product development at General Motors, has announced that he will retire at the end of the year, citing (among other things) the prospect of having to design cars within tighter government regulations.

UC Davis business professor Andrew Hargadon, who studies innovation in business, is not impressed, calling it “a lesson in how the mighty have fallen” that “reveals a lot about just how broken this industry is.”

The auto industry — like any established industry — has been dealing with government constraints since before today’s executives were born, he says.

Video: Rauchway on the New Deal

UC Davis historian Eric Rauchway talks with C-SPAN about the Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He also took phone-in questions and the whole item lasts about an hour. Before it starts, there are some short excerpts from FDR’s “fireside chat” from March, 1933. I am struck by how stern FDR’s tone seems; yet he was also gives the impression that he is being frank with the people, and telling them they have to help.

Symposium Honors Justice Stevens

The UC Davis School of Law is hosting a symposium March 6 on the career of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed to the high court in 1975 by President Ford.

The symposium will cover Stevens’ work in the broad areas of liberty, equality and security. Speakers will include David Levi, dean of the Duke University Law School; Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times; Cruz Reynoso, professor emeritus of law at UC Davis and former justice on the California Supreme Court; and Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Academic economists get a shock

At the Atlantic, UC Davis economist Greg Clark writes with some humor of the shock that academic economists have received in the past few months — going from pampered superstars no university could be without, to bemused bystanders in a national debate that doesn’t go beyond Econ 1.

The bailout debate has also been conducted in terms that would be quite familiar to economists in the 1920s and 1930s.  There has essentially been no advance in our knowledge in 80 years. …

Bizarrely, suddenly everyone is interested in economics, but most academic economists are ill-equipped to address these issues.

Upcoming events of interest

Friday, Feb. 20, noon, 107 Geidt Hall: Jennifer Field of Oregon State University will give a seminar on “Illicit Drugs in Municipal Wastewater: A New Tool for Community Drug Surveillance,” part of the Environmental Toxicology seminar series. Field made headlines a couple of years ago when she developed an automated system for looking for drug traces in wastewater, which she described as a “very dilute urine sample.” OSU’s news release is here.

Letters to Darwin mark bicentenary

To mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, we asked some UC Davis scientists who study evolution what they would say if they had the opportunity to write a letter to the naturalist. The results are featured on the campus home page today.

Mathematical geneticist Graham Coop regales Darwin with the tale of a gene that links stickleback fish directly to humans.

Geneticist David Begun confides that he and other modern-day scientists still share the sense of wonder that Darwin expressed when he wrote, “ … from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Darwin’s World

Science News has a special web section on the Darwin bicentenary, including this essay from editor-in-chief Tom Siegfried. I think his opening is particularly interesting — setting out the state of science, circa 1809.

Dalton had just recently articulated the modern theory of the chemical atom, but nobody had any idea what atoms were really like. Physicists had not yet heard of the conservation of energy or any other laws of thermodynamics. Faraday hadn’t yet shown how to make electricity from magnetism, and no one had a clue about light’s electromagnetic identity. Geology was trapped in an ante-diluvian paradigm, psychology hadn’t been invented yet and biology still seemed, in several key ways, to be infused with religion, resistant to the probes of experiment and reason.

Evolution stories from UC Davis

I was going to start a post here on “my favorite evolution stories I’ve covered from UC Davis.” But then I thought that that’s a bit like picking “my favorite chemistry story that is about atoms” or “my favorite astronomy story that involves stars.” All stories about biology are, in some way, stories about evolution.

After that disclaimer, here are a few favorites from the archives.

Biodiversity in prey begets biodiversity in predator

Babies, bacteria and breast milk: an evolutionary alliance

Evolution of cooperation, altruism and warfare in brainless bags of jelly

Deep flowers and pollinators