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Setting knowledge free

ASU celebrates the importance of making research accessible to the public.
October 19, 2016

Open Access Week at ASU recognizes need for publicly accessible research

Recent virus outbreaks, such as Ebola and Zika, have helped to highlight a growing global need: public access to scientific data.

Just last spring, ASU scientists were able to demonstrate how to quickly, cheaply and accurately diagnose the Zika virus in remote locations around the world through their research that was made available free online.

Open access, referring to peer-reviewed research that is made widely accessible to the public at no cost to the user, will be celebrated this week at ASU and around the world as part of Open Access Week, a global event entering its ninth year. 

In the same way that the music industry has had to adapt to online streaming, scholarly journals are in the process of adjusting to the needs of a digitally connected world in which information flows freely. Open access is now in the process of replacing what many argue is an outdated publishing model, dating back to the 17th century when journals were created.

“With the internet, people expect things to be accessible and available,” said Helene Ossipov, an associate professor of French in ASU’s School of International Letters and Cultures. “But a lot of what we do still, as academics, is not accessible, because you have to have a subscription to a journal.”

Ossipov is working to change that.

As chair of the Open Access Task Force at ASU, she is leading the charge in the University Senate to develop an institutional open access policy that would make it easier for ASU faculty and researchers to make their work as widely available as possible with few restrictions.

The policy would also give faculty the right to archive, at the very least, a pre-print version of their journal articles in the ASU Digital Repository, the online hub hosted by ASU Libraries for the university’s knowledge creation.

“This policy fits what ASU is all about,” Ossipov said. “If we are talking about access and inclusion, the policy we’re drafting is going to make a difference. It’s important for disseminating knowledge, and it’s important for ASU. If we put the work we do here in the ASU Digital Repository, you can bet it will be there in 50 years.”

Many also argue that making scholarly work openly accessible increases its reach and impact to researchers, students, educators and citizen scientists around the world, as open access articles are read and cited at a higher rate than those published in journals that charge a fee to access.

Open access also means better customer service, says Jim O’Donnell, university librarian.

“Our researchers are ambitious, and our readers are ravenous,” O’Donnell said. “Open access publishing strategies are an increasingly important tool for helping research reach its audiences and for helping our users get their hands on the information they need.” 

Faculty at many other institutions, including Harvard, Duke and the University of California system, have passed similar policies that grant a non-exclusive license to the university to archive and make available their scholarly articles, usually in an institutional repository such as the one at ASU.

“Our researchers are ambitious, and our readers are ravenous.”
— Jim O'Donnell, university librarian

Recognizing that the public (taxpayers) should have access to the results of the research for which they are paying, most federal funding agencies now have a public access policy in place as a condition of future funding, and many major private funders, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, require open access to the research they support. Recently, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called for the need for faster open sharing of research outputs as a major component of the National Cancer Moonshot to accelerate advances in cancer treatment.

Although most faculty at ASU likely support the idea of open access and what it stands for, Ossipov says her job now is to make open access easier for faculty to implement, which is in line with this year’s theme for Open Access Week — “Open in Action” — taking concrete steps to move open access forward.

As part of Open Access Week, ASU Libraries will be hosting a panel discussion Oct. 25 titled “Information, Innovation and People: Knowledge Mobilization as Open in Action,” which will discuss, in part, how open access will transform the way we prepare future scholars.

ASU’s open access policy is expected to go through the senate this academic year with a vote in the spring. For more information on open access, check out the university’s library guide and contact your university senator for details about the policy.

“This is the direction we’re moving,” Ossipov said. “Things change. It’s up to the publishers to adapt.”

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist , ASU Library

Popular Science lists Zika test among its Best of What’s New in 2016

Developed by ASU and Harvard researchers, test is low-cost and could revolutionize field testing

October 19, 2016

Popular Science named a low-cost Zika virus test developed by researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University in Boston and Arizona State University a 2016 Best of What’s New award winner in the health category.

Alexander Green, an ASU professor at the Biodesign Center for Molecular design and Biomimetics and the School of Molecular Sciences, helped develop the test, which costs $1 per use. Alexander Green holds a paper-based diagnostic test for the Zika virus ASU assistant professor Alexander Green speaks in the lab while holding one of the new paper-based diagnostic tests for the Zika virus. Download Full Image

“We’re really honored to have our work recognized by Popular Science,” Green said. “It’s been exciting to see the technology go from concept to a functioning diagnostic this year. Our team at ASU is working hard to perfect these tests and expand their capabilities so that they can help people in need around the world.”

The test uses a small strip of paper imprinted with a testing array, which holds potential for diagnosing a broad range of infectious diseases, including Zika. Existing tools for diagnosing the virus are often cumbersome and prohibitively expensive for widespread use in the field. Most recently, Green and the research team have successfully tested human samples with collaborators in Ecuador.

Each year, the editors of Popular Science review thousands of products in search of the top 100 tech innovations of the year — breakthrough products and technologies that represent a significant leap in their categories. The winners, the Best of What’s New, are included in the much-anticipated November/December issue of Popular Science, the most widely read issue of the year.

“The Best of What’s New awards honor the innovations that share the future,” said Kevin Gray, executive editor of Popular Science. From life-saving technology to incredible space engineering to gadgets that are breathtakingly cool, this is the best of what’s new.

Best of What’s New awards are presented to 100 new products and technologies in 11 categories: automotive, aviation, computing, engineering, gadgets, entertainment, security, software, home, health and recreation. 

Leslie Minton

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Should we worry about the 'dark web'?

Wonder what the dark web is? ASU prof explains for #CybersecurityAwarenessMonth
October 19, 2016

ASU professor discusses this mysterious part of the net for Cybersecurity Awareness Month

Hackers on the "dark web" claimed to be selling information stolen from the Office of Personnel Management. A recent study found that more than 80 percent of dark web activity was related to pedophila. And if you've heard of bitcoin, chances are the story had to do with a dark web transaction involving something illicit.

But what is the dark web? Is it really so dastardly? Paulo Shakarian, director of Arizona State University's Cyber-Socio Intelligent Systems Laboratory and a researcher with the Global Security Initiative, is a resident expert who helps track down viruses and malware for sale on the dark web. He talked to ASU Now as part of national Cybersecurity Awareness Month. 

Question: The internet is more than just what you can search for in Google. Can you provide a basic rundown of what the dark and deep webs are?

Answer: The “surface internet” — or “clearnet” — is the internet we all consult to read the news, check our email and communicate on social media. It's the most transparent network, and the number of sites surpassed the billion mark in 2014. Sites that are restricted either because they address a small subset of the world population, like your library’s internal catalogue, or is sensitive in nature, like medical records, are not indexed and hence not returned on commonly used search engines. This is generally referred to as the "deep web."

The dark web relies on specific protocols, of which the most commonly known is Tor. Sites hosted on these crypto-networks will not render in your traditional browser. The term “darknet” refers to an earlier, smaller version of the dark web comprised of crypto-networks in general or Tor specifically.

Q: Is all the activity on the dark web illegal? Does it have its own culture?

A: By no means. Tor is widely used by journalists, political dissidents and human rights activists in regions suffering under repressive regimes. Privacy conscious citizens worldwide enjoy anonymous browsing without being targeted by custom advertisements on each site. Some tech-savvy folks put up a website on Tor just to say they’ve done it. However, there are ghastly contents out there as well: child pornography, assassination services, marketplaces offering all kinds of illicit goods and social media populated by pedophiles, drugsters, financial fraudsters and others.

Our lab is researching malicious hackers in particular. We do notice a distinct culture: The avatars they are choosing are oftentimes depicting popular underdogs and anti-heroes (e.g. the Joker of “Batman – Dark Knight,” and references to “Fight Club” abound). Furthermore, hackers use their very particular way of written communication and replace letters w1th num83r5 (referred to as “leet-speak”). They use their own slang: “leet” or “1337” refers to elite or highly skilled hackers whereas “noobs”/”n00bs” or “newbies” are new to the hacking world. The most derided are ScriptKiddies: hacker wannabes.

Q: Is government/law enforcement doing anything to ensure illegal things aren’t happening there?

A: Since I’m not in the government, I don’t think I can answer that question, but it's Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and every year the Department of Homeland Security brings awareness to the issue:

Q: What should regular people do to protect themselves from being victims of crime on the dark or deep web?

A: If you absolutely have to go and explore the dark web yourself, please install a virtual machine on a computer that has absolutely no data stored on it. The virtual machine is easily reimaged in case your browsing catches some malware. There is some very sophisticated malware “in the wild” that absolutely detects its environment and attempts to escape a Virtual Machine (VM) or Sandbox (commonly used for reverse engineering) and goes onto the computer itself — that’s why it's a good idea not to keep any data on that computer. Best, of course, is to stay away entirely.

As to the Clearnet:

• Practice password safety: choose a sAf3 P4ssW0rd adhering to recommended safety standards, choose a distinct password for each site, change it frequently — if you have to keep a list of passwords, try to keep it offline.

• Don’t be click-crazy.

• Keep backups of your data and/or work off an external hard drive, so you don’t have to pay and thus perpetuate ransomware attacks (disconnect your backup hard drive as often and as long as possible).

• Read up — you’d be amazed what’s out there! Over time you will gain situational awareness, which will enable you to protect yourself.

• Be critical of online services in how they are storing and dealing with your data.

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Solving the unsolvable problem

October 18, 2016

ASU Global Security Initiative director Nadya Bliss on applying innovation to the world's toughest security challenges

“Bound to fail.” “Impossible.” “Can’t be done.”

Nadya Bliss has been hearing these phrases since she was a 5-year-old trying out for ballet in the former Soviet Union. These same phrases are used to describe many of the current seemingly unsolvable “wicked” problems, ranging from information security to the spread of infectious disease.

As the director of Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative and professor of practice at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Bliss is not deterred by personal discouragement, or the claim that complex problems are impossible to solve. Instead, she embraces complexity and integrates expertise from a broad range of fields and disciplines.

Here, she speaks on solving the unsolvable problem, and how that's not as much of a contradiction as it might appear.


Bliss’ talk is part of the ASU KEDtalks series. Short for Knowledge Enterprise Development talks, KEDtalks aim to spark ideas, indulge curiosity, and inspire action by highlighting ASU scientists, humanists, social scientists and artists who are driven to find solutions to the universe’s grandest challenges. Tune in monthly to to discover why space is the next economic frontier, how the next educational revolution will come about, and more.


Iti Agnihotri

Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications , Learning Enterprise


Finding a balance: Sustainable energy vs. the natural landscape

October 18, 2016

Renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels are being tested around the world, but their acceptance has hardly been seamless. Many communities have resisted, saying installations such as wind farms intrude on natural landscapes.

In one case, a group of developers has been trying to build a series of offshore turbines near Cape Cod, but they've been stymied by local conservationsts who don't want the Atlantic horizon interrupted. Wind turbines and solar panel arrays near Palm Springs, CA These wind turbines and solar arrays are positioned to catch the wind funneled through San Gorgonio Pass just west of Palm Springs, California. Because the turbines do not require much land, solar arrays are an ideal accompaniment.

Despite such conflict, scientists say it remains important to develop a sustainable energy future. A cross-disciplinary team of researchers has come together to make this their goal.

The team consists of five veterans from different fields ranging from sustainability, to environmental planning to landscape architecture.

Mike Pasqualetti, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and his colleagues have co-authored and edited a book newly published by Routledge press, The Renewable Energy Landscape: Preserving Scenic Values in our Sustainable Future.

Wind turbine protest messages

Renewable energy developments globally have been met with concern. These protest messages are from Oaxaca, Mexico and western Virginia.

The book aims to address the tension between conservation efforts and the need to develop sustainable energy alternatives such as wind and solar. The main cause of this conflict, according to Pasqualetti, is the considerable change that the infrastructure brings to natural landscapes.

“For the most part, it is an aesthetic intrusion,” said Pasqualetti. “There are two main groups of opposition. The people living nearby, and the people who don’t want the vistas they’ve always enjoyed to be altered.”

These groups of people have proven their ability to slow development or halt it completely, through lobbying, environmental whistleblowing or other tactics. Their opposition has made developers pay attention to the possibility and cost of lawsuits. Those costs may deter them when deciding whether or not to invest in alternative energy.

The book however, is not intended to discredit the landscape quality concerns, but rather to offer a responsible compromise. If a sustainable energy future is a must, then perhaps the infrastructure could be built in manner where its disruptive effect on the landscape is minimized.

This is the line that Pasqualetti and his fellow researchers are trying to draw. While there is a basic level of intrusion that comes with a 300-foot wind turbine or a five acre solar field, there are ways to minimize the number of people who feel affected.

Strategic placement of new energy infrastructure is very possible, Pasqualetti said. Solar farms, for example, can be placed in many locations, as they have been in Arizona already. Wind farms can be hidden too, by placing them just far enough offshore so that their turbines cannot be heard and are barely visible. While there will undoubtedly still be some environmental issues concerning wildlife, a number of potential problems can be avoided through careful planning and placement.

“To be frank, I think the opposition is still minor, we just don’t want it to be major. Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the ‘good,’” Pasqualetti said.

The book’s researchers aren't alone in their vision of responsible alternative energy development. Experts from the private sector share their enthusiasm for a strategic transition into the next generation of energy infrastructure.

Paul Gipe, a wind energy industry analyst with over 40 years of experience and a published author on the topic, joined in the conversation.

“The word transition is a very important term in this. We must make the change to renewable energy. It will happen one way or the other, but it's better if we do it on our own terms rather than in panic,” Gipe said.  “If we don't do it in panic, we can do it right.”

In order to meet the energy demands of an increasingly industrialized world, renewable energy systems are going to require a lot of hardware. This hardware will inevitably become a part our landscapes.

Gipe encourages planners and developers to “do the projects in harmony with the landscape and with the people who live on the landscape.”

Researched and drafted by Gavin Maxwell, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning

ASU team uses interdisciplinary approach to examine society's food, energy, water challenges

October 17, 2016

Here in the desert, water is a big concern. For the average person living in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the prospect of future water shortages makes us think about fixing that dripping faucet, buying high-efficiency washing machines and xeriscaping our green lawns — things we can do as individuals to conserve water.

But to really understand our future as desert dwellers and create the appropriate policies for future generations, it’s necessary to look how water affects and is affected by other crucial resources we depend on: food and energy. An interdisciplinary team from ASU is collaborating to create a set of tools to help decision makers sustainably address the future of food, energy and water system policy in the Phoenix metropolitan area and beyond. An interdisciplinary team from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, School of Community Resources and Development and School of Sustainability are collaborating to create a set of tools to help decision makers sustainably address the future of food, energy and water system policy in the Phoenix metropolitan area and beyond (from left): Giuseppe Mascaro, Dave White, Hessam Sarjoughian, Rimjhim Aggarwal and Ross Maciejewski. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

Five Arizona State University faculty members from a range of disciplines recently received a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation award. As part of the NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program, the team conducts research to build decision support tools that look at the interdependence of these systems and help develop sustainable policies for the future.

A complex nexus

Historically, policies for agriculture, energy and water have been made in isolation of one another. In reality, these systems are all interconnected. This interplay is called the food-energy-water nexus.

For example, Phoenix is the fourth-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, and every resident needs water for drinking and other daily uses. Additionally, water is used to irrigate crops, generate energy and cool power plants. When water levels decrease, issues arise not only for consumers, but also in agricultural and energy sectors.

Around the world, as demands on each sector of the nexus continue to grow, the siloed approach to policies involving limited natural resources impedes a sustainable future. Successful policy in all sectors takes into account the links, synergies and conflicts between them through anticipatory governance, or using data and models to predict how variations will affect our world and how we can proactively plan for the consequences through policy.

“We’re looking at where anything in this system could break and how that propagates to other parts of the system,” said Ross Maciejewski, computer science assistant professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Evaluating how these systems interact can be difficult, as each individual sector is highly complex. Together, their behavior becomes even more complex to predict.

“As you look further into the future, these problems become significantly more challenging,” said Hessam Sarjoughian, computer science associate professor and co-director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Modeling and Simulation. “Like a hurricane, it’s relatively easy to predict a few hours before one hits a city, but predicting this event three days in advance is very different. Similarly, knowing what the future will be in 10 to 20 years at the nexus of food, energy and water becomes exponentially more complex. Different kinds of interaction amongst food, energy and water parts are crucial to be correctly modeled, simulated and visualized at scale.

The NSF INFEWS program has assembled interdisciplinary teams to answer the call to this grand challenge. This $50 million program looks to study the interconnections and interdependencies of the food-energy-water nexus, bringing scientific and engineering experts from a wide range of fields together to develop innovative scientific and engineering pathways to produce new knowledge, techniques and a workforce capable of managing them.

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Food, energy and water systems are interconnected and are affected by climate, population, policies and the economy. Policy enacted in one area of this nexus can have unforeseen consequences in another.

Interdisciplinary teams solve wide-ranging problems

The team, led by principal investigator Maciejewski, includes co-principal investigators Sarjoughian, Giuseppe Mascaro, assistant professor from the Fulton Schools; Dave White, professor in ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development and director of the ASU Decision Center for a Desert Cityand Rimjhim Aggarwal, associate professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability.

Each team member brings his or her own area of expertise to define, analyze and visualize problems within the food-energy-water nexus.

“The areas are so broad you can’t just be an expert in one discipline,” Maciejewski said. “So we rely on others to bring their expertise.”

Maciejewski is an expert on data visualization, Sarjoughian in heterogeneous modeling methods, Mascaro in hydrology and water resource engineering, White in environmental policy and stakeholder engagement, and Aggarwal in economics and sustainable food systems.

Together they have a more complete understanding of the nexus and how individual sectors interact.

Modelers who are experts on a given domain, such as Mascaro in hydrology and Aggarwal in food systems, collaborate to analyze individual food, energy and water data models as well as their interactions — a difficult task due to the vast differences of how these systems behave and react to changes. With the help of these experts, computer scientists Maciejewski and Sarjoughian create visualization tools that display the model simulation data in a way that is accessible to individuals outside their domain of expertise.

“The ultimate societal objective of our food-energy-water nexus activities is to develop basic knowledge that will transform the planning, management and operation of interrelated food, energy and water systems to achieve long-term sustainability and security,” White said.

This requires White to facilitate additional collaboration with stakeholders in social, economic and political processes who will provide the necessary insight to ensure models are relevant and seen as legitimate by policymakers.

By creating a way for stakeholders to understand the feedback between the food-energy-water nexus biophysical systems and related economic systems, policies can avoid significant undesirable and unintended consequences, Aggarwal said.

Building on past collaboration

This isn’t the first time members of the team have collaborated. As part of ASU’s Global Security Initiative, Maciejewski and Mascaro have previously worked together with White to address potential conflicts in Africa due to climate change. White has also spent more than a decade on social science research in the Phoenix metro area with the Decision Center for a Desert City, and he has worked with Aggarwal on many water, agricultural and environmental sustainability research projects.

Their experiences together set them up for success for this year’s INFEWS project proposal.

When Maciejewski saw the project had a data visualization track he decided to collaborate with his former partners again to look at the food-energy-water nexus specifically in the Phoenix metropolitan area. They’re looking for potential failures in the local nexus system, and how to show the consequences those failures to local decision makers.

An example that informed the team's focus is the Navajo Generating Station on the northern edge of Arizona. Though outside the group’s area of study, changes to the coal-fired plant can send effects cascading down to the Phoenix metropolitan area. The plant is the primary source of energy for pumps that deliver Central Arizona Project canal water to the region. It’s also one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation, and has come under scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers in the Phoenix area are very concerned about environmental regulations designed to control emissions at the plant as they would likely increase their CAP water delivery costs. Aggarwal discovered in her previous research that as CAP water becomes more expensive, farmers in the Phoenix region with groundwater rights are likely to switch to groundwater pumping, increasing energy demand further and putting already shrinking groundwater resources at greater risk.

“This is a case where an enhanced understanding of the nexus could help us design better strategies and policies for the transition to sustainability,” Aggarwal said.

Arizona solutions to global solutions

Maciejewski’s team isn’t the only team out of Arizona to be selected for this NSF project. Led out of Northern Arizona University, a second Arizona team that includes four ASU faculty as project co-principal investigators is taking a data fusion approach to model and map food-energy-water nexus systems.

“It’s unusual [for a single university to be part of] two grants in this project at this level of funding,” Sarjoughian said.

ASU’s emphasis on interdisciplinary teams and research could be the driving factor behind its success in the NSF INFEWS project.

“ASU is well situated for these opportunities to work on these complex problems because we’ve worked to foster these collaborations and build these teams,” Maciejewski said.

Along with the university’s focus on interdisciplinary research, ASU is seen as a leader in researching areas affected by climate and water.

The university recently hosted United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who talked about food security in the face of climate change. He said the Obama administration has charged universities with doing more research on climate and water issues and specific agricultural solutions to those problems, and ASU’s School of Sustainability is already looking at every aspect of climate change and exploring how to get different stakeholders — farmers, city planners, water and energy utility managers and citizens — to work jointly on finding solutions. By providing a better understanding of the nexus and the tools to visualize and assess various future scenarios, this project could pave the way for meaningful and impactful dialogue among these stakeholders.

The state of Arizona is uniquely positioned to help solve food-energy-water nexus sustainability challenges. The desert state’s experiences may soon become the reality in more places globally as the natural and built worlds grow and change.

“Phoenix already has problems others are expected to face, so if we can find the solutions here we can apply them elsewhere,” Maciejewski said. “We’ve done a good job of solving a lot of these problems, like population growth and land use change, so we’re a good example of how to take on sustainability solutions, and a lot of that has been helped by ASU.”

Nurturing a new crop of interdisciplinary experts

As the nexus is a relatively recent research domain, the ASU team also faces the challenge of introducing a new generation of engineering students to the new territory.

When searching for graduate students and postdoctoral researcher to complete their research team, Mascaro noted that students were already working on water or energy or food, but not many worked on a combination of these sectors. They hope to find an innovative group of students to change that.

“We want to make this a five-year interdisciplinary research project for our students to build their doctoral topics on,” Maciejewski said. “We want to graduate world experts on the food-energy-water nexus.”





Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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How voters think about elections

How to get voters to pay more attention to issues than cat videos? Read on.
Civics expert at ASU talk: “Elections focus on issues where values diverge.”
October 17, 2016

At ASU lecture, political scientist Arthur Lupia explores why so few seem fully informed (and whether to be cynical about the process)

The old close-your-eyes-and-point gambit might be effective for picking your next vacation spot on a map, but it’s less than advisable when it comes to choosing a name on a ballot.

The temptation is understandable, though. The time and mental commitment it takes to understand the number and complexity of all the issues at hand can be overwhelming. But we needn’t fret.

“No voters are fully informed,” said Arthur LupiaArthur Lupia is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has been a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and is one of the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Fellows. His awards include the American Political Science Association’s Ithiel de Sola Pool Award, the American Association for Public Opinion Research's Mitovsky Innovator's Award, and the National Academy of Sciences' Initiatives in Research Award. on Monday night in Tempe.

The political scientist and University of Michigan professor brought a sense of humor and practicality when he spoke at Arizona State University’s Old Main Carson Ballroom as part of the School of Politics and Global Studies’ Kramer Lecture Series.

Lupia’s talk, titled “I’ll See It When I Believe It: How Voters Think and Learn About Elections,” was based on his extensive research on decision-making and learning, civic competence and legislative processes. His latest book, “Uninformed: Why People Know So Little About Politics and What We Can Do About It,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Assistant professor Mark Ramirez said the School of Politics and Global Studies saw an opportunity to meet a mounting student interest in the current election and wanted to provide a place where they and the community could learn more about how to become better informed in a nonpartisan format.

“Dr. Lupia’s new book provides concrete solutions to help improve voter competence,” he said. “People have genuine disagreements about core values and what they want from society. So in order to get them to learn more about certain issues, you have to motivate them and show them why they should care.”

Earlier in the day, Lupia met with the school’s Pi Sigma AlphaPi Sigma Alpha is a national honor society that recognizes scholarship and excellence for students in political science. members, where they discussed the Data Access and Research Transparency initiative, which he is spearheading.

“There has been a growing concern among political scientists about fraud and other issues related to the scientific process,” said Ramirez. “Professor Lupia is at the forefront of the movement to increase the transparency of what we do as scientists and promote data sharing, etc., so we wanted to introduce our students to this important aspect of academic research.”

At the evening lecture, Lupia set out to answer four questions: Why are so few voters fully informed? How much does a voter need to know? How do voters learn? Should I be cynical?

Again, the answer to the first question is simple: No voter is fully informed. But when you consider the answer to the second question, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Certain issues matter more to certain people based on what they’re trying to accomplish and what their situation is.

So how much does the average person need to know about every little political issue?

“The answer is different for different people,” said Lupia. “There’s no silver bullet.”

Of course, the more a person knows about an issue before they vote on it, the better. Which means it’s important to understand how people learn about those issues, and to cater to that. And in 2016, there’s plenty of competition for voters’ attention.

“If you want to get somebody’s attention over cat videos, you have to be able to tap into what they need at that moment,” said Lupia. The way to do that is to make the information you’re offering urgent, simple and direct.

An example of leaders getting that wrong is the Brexit decision earlier this year. As Lupia explained, those in power who wanted the UK to break with the European Union understood they needed to make the idea easily comprehensible. A catchy phrase that implied a simple consequence worked in their favor (Vote for Brexit and you’ll get cheaper health care!).

Whereas those in power who favored staying with the EU attempted to over-explain the consequences, losing people’s attention and, ultimately, their votes.

Knowing that leaders can and do manipulate voters might cause some to question the validity of the whole process. But Lupia pointed out one important truth: “Elections focus on issues where values diverge.”

“The current U.S. presidential nominees actually agree on a ton of issues,” he said. But, he added, just like no one wants to watch their favorite sports teams play catch, no one wants to watch a campaign that has no conflict; “it’s not TV-ready.”

According to Lupia, voters need to realize that media sensationalism takes away from the true purpose of the government: to enhance the quality of our lives.

“It’s so easy to be mesmerized by the national stage, but if that’s all you focus on, you miss the amazing work being done to better everyone’s quality of life,” he said. “And that’s what politics is about.”

Top photo: Arthur Lupia speaks about how voters think and learn about elections at Carson Ballroom in Old Main on the Tempe campus Monday evening. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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ASU chosen for team developing radiation-absorption test

ASU team creating radiation exposure test that could save thousands of lives.
October 17, 2016

Device could test thousands of people quickly in event of nuclear explosion

Arizona State University has been selected for a team that will complete development of a test that could save thousands of lives in the event of a nuclear explosion.

The test is one of the first to be able to determine how much radiation has been absorbed by a person exposed to a radiological event. It is capable of testing thousands of people quickly.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response will fund the project.

“It’s a major piece of technology,” said William Pavlicek, chair of the Division of Diagnostic Physics in the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at Mayo Clinic. “This is an extraordinarily important development.”

In a large-scale nuclear emergency, hundreds of thousands of people will need to be assessed for injuries and illness caused by high doses of radiation. Doctors would need to know how much radiation each person has absorbed to determine what type of treatment to provide. People with toxic levels of exposure can go for days without showing symptoms, according to Pavlicek.

“This is specifically about a nuclear event,” principal investigator Josh LaBaer said. “It’s the kind of test you hope will never, ever, be used.”

Existing tests are only skin-deep. They measure only how much radiation is on a person’s skin, not much has been absorbed by their organs. 

“There would be no way (with existing methods) to determine who had been exposed to radiation and how much they had (absorbed),” said LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics.

“This is specifically about a nuclear event. It’s the kind of test you hope will never, ever, be used.”
— principal investigator Josh LaBaer

The U.S. government is looking for a way to measure absorbed radiation in order to effectively treat acute radiation syndrome, he said. The ASU Radiation (ARad) Biodosimetry Test kits are configured to process 2,000 samples in 24 hours.

The ARad test could help save thousands of lives in the scenario it’s designed for, said Richard Besserman, operations executive for the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security (College of Public Service and Community Solutions). Besserman is a medical doctor with training from the United States Army Medical Research Institute for infectious Diseases and the Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. He worked on 9/11 in New York and was part of a team that deployed to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Resources are limited in a disaster, Besserman said.

“This has the potential of saving lives by enabling the medical community to advise people who are contaminated or exposed and to (screen) them so that can identify who needs treatment,” he said. “You can have radioactive dust on your body that can be easily washed off so that it doesn’t get into your tissues.”

Exposure and contamination are two different things, Besserman explained. If radiation doesn’t get into the body, chances are nothing will happen.

“A good shower can wash it away,” he said. “Knowing about how much radiation entered the body is important and can guide treatment including when to perform lifesaving surgery. The test will provide more helpful information than our current methods.”

“One of the biggest parts of disaster preparedness is triaging people — putting the right people in the right place,” said April Hill, an emergency room nurse practitioner who also teaches in the College of Nursing. The ARad test would be used after triage to confirm the triage result and provide measurement to support treatment.

BARDA team at Biodesign

The ASU BARDA team (from left): Joshua LaBaer, Garrick Wallstrom, Shodhan Manda, Ian Shoemaker, Mike Fiacco, Kristin Gillis, Xin Guan, Vel Murugan and Merica Vorachitti. Not pictured: Jin Park and Paul Maranian. Photo courtesy of Biodesign Institute

It has been a six-year effort to put LaBaer’s team where they are now. Eleven teams — most of them academic and private companies — competed for the contract. Reviews by experts periodically down-selected teams.

“ASU managed to stay in all the way through,” LaBaer said. “We were kind of the exception there.”

The contract to the prime, MRIGlobal of Kansas City, Missouri, is worth more than $21.3 million over the first four years and three months and could be extended for up to $100 million over 10 years. ASU is a subcontractor to support transfer of the ASU technology and FDA submission.

The latest round of funding is for product development. Questions in the next round will revolve around product validation, FDA submission and assay production.

“The agency feels that the technology we developed under ASU’s guidance works and thus has a superior chance of reaching the final product stage that will be useful to the country,” LaBaer described final approval.

The parameter requirements were stiff, involving estimating dose per person with high resolution, the need to take blood samples for anywhere from one to seven days after the event, and the ability to process several hundred thousand samples and return reports in a very short time.

“When we began, I wasn’t sure this was doable,” LaBaer said. “Biological systems do not act in linear ways. ... It epitomizes ASU’s direction towards transdisciplinary science, because it required several disciplines (radiation biology, statistics and software engineering, among others) to come together. The fact we were able to pull this off is quite exciting.”

The test comes from a call from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. After test kits go into production, they will be stored at the National Strategic Stockpile or similar facility.

“It’s certainly something that in the event such a horrible thing could happen, this would give certainty and immediate understanding of how much of the population had no or trivial amounts of exposure,” Pavlicek said. “That gives enormous alleviation of any concern. ... I totally applaud this effort.”

BARDA infographic

Top photo by Carol M. Highsmith


Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

image title

Bridging science and policy for better water strategies

ASU Decision Center for a Desert City giving policymakers research they can use.
Farms, cities, tribes, utilities all involved in complex water-usage debate.
Part of the challenge in water allocation: Who owns what?
October 6, 2016

Keeping an arid region supplied requires balancing many interests; ASU's experts are connecting research with decision makers

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series examining the work that ASU is doing in the realm of water as a resource in the arid West. Today's focus in on the intersection of law, policy and academia.

It's 118 at Lake Mead on a July afternoon, but the thermometer on the boat’s depth finder says the lake is a cool 67 degrees. Naturally, you jump in. It tastes earthy and mossy, if mossy can be a taste, and ultimately it’s what 30 million people survive on.

This is the stuff and place thousands of professionals are focused on. Law, economics, policy and science all underlie this bluish-green water. Some could argue that it begins with the river’s watershed in the Rockies of western Wyoming, but it’s here, where the water wizards of the Bureau of Reclamation determine their annual prognostication, that the West makes its stand.

Taking action

The Kyl Center for Water Policy, named after former Sen. Jon Kyl, a distinguished water lawyer, was created about a year and a half ago at Arizona State University to work on water-policy analysis and research. Sarah Porter, a Harvard-educated attorney and former state director of the Audubon Society, was hired as the inaugural director.

She became intrigued with water when she introduced an initiative to protect riparian habitat for bird migration.

“It got me more and more interested in water policy,” she said.

On a Friday morning in August, as the first meeting of the Governor’s Water Augmentation Council convenes down at the Arizona Capitol, a monsoon rain pounds outside.

“It’s raining outside; that’s awesome,” someone says.

Gov. Doug Ducey created the council last October. All of Arizona sits around the table: cattle growers, cotton farmers, cities, wine growers, utilities, tribal nations and communities, home builders, businessmen, attorneys and water professionals. Porter is there representing the Kyl Center.

Sarah Porter

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, moderates a panel discussion at the Southwestern Regional Water-Energy Nexus meeting on Sept. 8 at Old Main on the Tempe campus. The purpose of the meeting was to face challenges with innovative, ecologically wise technological solutions. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

They’ve been tasked with finding ways to augment water supplies. The state has been divvied into 22 areas. They are to look at each area, learn what the demand and supply imbalances are in each one, and come up with a solution to close that gap.

Today, they’re talking about the communications plan and what they want to do in the current fiscal year.

The message they want to get out is that Arizona is a “water success story” — in other words, we’re not California.

It’s a message with two competing goals: We need to conserve water, but we’re well-supplied. It’s safe to move here and do business.

“That bathtub ring (at Lake Mead) is not something only people in the Southwest pay attention to,” said Doug MacEachern, the state water department communications administrator.

They’re looking for a balance between rah-rah and everything’s awful.

“We need to tell people it’s going to cost more,” said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, the giant canal that shunts water from the Colorado River into central and southern Arizona. “It’s going to take more than new showerheads or toilets.”

“Their costs are going to go up, and that’s real,” said Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.

They create a subcommittee to look into funding for augmentation by using reclaimed and low-quality water. If there’s a shortage declaration on the Colorado in 2018, it’s likely that agriculture will need to make up the shortfall with reclaimed water. Porter volunteers to sit on the subcommittee. This is the rubber hitting the road.

They create another subcommittee to look into a partnership with Mexico on building a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez.

They know people are aware of the value of water. That message is going to be amped up now.

The most complex legal case in American history

The way Arizona water law works is called prior appropriation. The first person to take water out of a river and put it to beneficial use gets a priority date.

If you dig a ditch and divert water out of the river in 1890 and use 10 acre-feet to grow cotton, you have a right, dated 1890, to grow cotton using 10 acre-feet a year. Somebody comes along 10 years later, digs another ditch downstream of you to grow corn with 10 acre-feet — they have a 1900 date. If there’s only 2 acre-feet in the whole river, legally speaking, you, with the 1890 date, gets 2 acre-feet and the person downstream of you gets nothing. That’s the way water law works.

The Little Colorado River and the Gila River are the two rivers that basically make up all of the surface-water rights in the state that aren’t the Colorado. Who has claims on them? Every kind of water user you can think of: big cities, small towns, large utilities, Native American tribes, little farms, big farms, cattle ranches, mines.

And they’re all suing each other.

The sun rises at Lake Mead in late July. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Lake Mead at sunrise

It’s a giant court case that has been technically going on for 40 years, but actually goes back to territorial days. A class-action lawsuit usually involves thousands of people against a small group of defendants. This involves thousands of people fighting each other.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it’s the most complex case in American history,” said Rhett Larson, the water attorney with the Kyl Center for Water Policy. “Yeah, it’s a complete mess.”

A water market could improve Arizona’s water management. If a clearinghouse or escrow was set up, people could buy and sell water through that escrow for nature or cities or mining.

“Once we have effectively priced water in a market, then maybe we’re reaching efficient water allocation,” Larson said. “Right now, we can’t do that because nobody knows who owns what.”

Until the legal cases, collectively called the general stream adjudication, is resolved, Arizona can’t have an effective water market because people can’t buy and sell water until who owns what has been resolved. The Kyl Center works on the general stream adjudication every day. Ideally, the courts will ultimately make a decree. But not everyone is in a hurry to see the case cleared.

“So a lot of the work that’s happening behind the scenes is to find ways, if not necessarily to resolve it, to at least allow small people who want to settle out of it and don’t want to pay their lawyers for decades, just to be able to settle out, take some water and leave — and for the others to at least have a faster, smoother process,” Larson said. “But there’s a lot of skepticism of that too, because if you’re going to get ground up into hamburger in the end — do you really want it ground up faster?”

The center has a group of stakeholders who meet several times a month to negotiate. Larson said the work is promising. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 18 months,” he said. The Kyl Center acts as a mediator to avoid litigation.

Before worrying about conserving water, people need to worry about understanding water, Larson said.

“Imagine a resource as important as water, to not know who owns it,” he said. “A lot of these assured water-supply designations are based on assumptions on who owns what water that might not be true when the adjudication is decided.

“So people are like, ‘Oh yeah, we have a hundred years of assured water supply!’ And you always feel like going, ‘You don’t know for sure that you own that water until the court says you do.’ … But I don’t know, I still hope that there’s something that will sort of stoke the fire in people’s willingness to resolve the stream adjudication.”

Diamonds and water

When economist Adam Smith wrote "The Wealth of Nations," he wrote about the water-diamond paradox. Here’s a little tiny, shiny rock that people will pay out the nose for, but it does nothing. And over here is a substance that’s everything, but nobody wants to pay for.

It’s something Larson wonders about.

“I think it’s probably for a lot of reasons, partially because it falls for free out of the sky and people think, ‘Why should I pay for that?’ ” he said. “It’s partially because people think of water as a human right, as a fundamental right. I mean, how can you charge me for something that I absolutely need in order to live? And because, you know, in this country we tend to take it for granted. You turn on your taps and clean water comes out all the time, and you just assume this is a part of your life and it doesn’t cost much money.

“For some reason we will pay quadruple the amount of its price for movie popcorn, but the idea that you would pay full value for your water is just crazy!”

As the canal manager and the cattleman said at the water council meeting, pricing is on a lot of minds.

“We need to price water in a sane way to communicate to people this is a high-value commodity,” said Pat Gober, a research professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who studies water resources management, decision-making under uncertainty and urban climate adaptation.

Video by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Water is super-cheap in Arizona. SRP charges $90 a year for irrigation. If you look at a Phoenix water bill closely, most of it goes to sewage fees, garbage fees and some taxes. Very little of it is actually water.

The city of Phoenix Water Services Department spends $175 million annually on operations and management. Of that, $24 million is spent on actual water. The capital improvements budget is $130 million.

“The cost is in the infrastructure,” water services director Kathryn Sorensen said. A section of the redwood water pipes that used to supply the city in the 1920s sits in the lobby outside her office in City Hall, as if to underscore the point. Phoenix has 7,000 miles of water lines spread across 540 square miles. (Now multiply that around the West.)

“As those water lines age, they’re going to have to be replaced if we’re going to continue to have reliable water supplies,” she said. “The cost of that is enormous. We estimate, very roughly, that the replacement cost of the city of Phoenix utility — if you were just to go out and build it starting from scratch — is about $15 billion; $11 billion of that is in pipelines. It’s the cost of the infrastructure that’s going to matter in the future. It’s an enormous cost. And our infrastructure is aging.”

Sorensen is an economist by training.

“I’m intellectually fascinated with the idea and the questions around resource allocation: Who gets what? Of course the most valuable resource here in Arizona is water,” said the Phoenix native. “It’s a very natural fit for me. I knew at a very early age that this is exactly what I wanted to do. I’m one of those of people blessed to have their calling as a career.”

Phoenix has tiered water rates. The more you use, the more you pay. There is also seasonal pricing; water costs more in summer.

“That’s really one of the ways you’re going to get conservation,” Sorensen said.

She knows the cost of water will go up.

“Of course,” she said. “The cost of everything increases over time. When you talk about water, it absolutely will become more expensive, particularly Colorado River water.

“The impact of that in terms of the end customer will kind of vary. Different cities have different supply portfolios. A city that is more dependent on Colorado River water and a city that is more dependent on Salt and Verde water might expect a different mix on the impact of those costs.”

Agriculture, which uses 67 percent of the water in Arizona, according to the Department of Water Resources, began to pay more in the mid-1990s, when Grady Gammage Jr. served on the board of the Central Arizona Project.

“Historically, water has been free to farmers,” Gammage said. “What they pay for is the delivery cost. In California, the Imperial Irrigation District is still delivering water to farmers at something like $6 an acre-foot. When I was at CAP, we started charging $30 an acre-foot. The questions were could farmers afford it or not?

“The farmers’ view at that point was they had long-term rights to water; they owned the water. It was just getting delivered through the canal. But the contracts they had signed for that delivery required them to pay for the canal at the fully loaded cost of it, and they couldn’t afford that. So we re-cut a deal where they don’t have long-term rights to water anymore. Water is in a kind of limited spot market every year.”

He once sat with a bunch of farmers who told him, “We have to be assured we’ll have water every year, and that the price will never vary.”

“I said, ‘Are you ensured that the price of seed will never vary every year? Or that the price of insecticide will never vary every year? Or gasoline or diesel fuel?’ ‘Well, no, but that’s different. Water is different.’ No, it’s not. It’s a commodity, like those other commodities,” Gammage said.

“So what the CAP does now is it tries to price agricultural water at the cost of getting it here, but on a sort of rolling average so the farmers know three or four years in advance how much water there is going to be, and what it’s going to cost, and that can be adjusted. That was hugely revolutionary. They all thought that would destroy agriculture in Arizona, and it’s worked out pretty well. The price had gone up fairly dramatically over time.”

There’s a trade-off between how much you pay for water and how much you pay for food, said John Sabo, a professor in the ASU School of Life Sciences. We eat a lot of stuff because it’s cheap and available. We eat baby greens in the dead of summer because water is cheap.

“That’s what farms are sitting on: this resource that’s only going to go up in value over time,” Sabo said. “It’s going to force them to become more efficient.”

Farms may sell expensive water to cities and use that increased revenue to install things like drip irrigation or switch from low-value crops like alfalfa to high-value crops such as strawberries. We’re not going to get to the point where lettuce is $15 a head, though.

“No, because people won’t eat it if it’s that expensive,” Sabo said. “Remember when avocados were $4 each? We only had guacamole during the Super Bowl. … I think it’s more that we’ll be focused on eating seasonal things that are cheap, but not all year round.”

John Sabo

ASU ecologist John Sabo speaks at the Southwestern Regional Water-Energy Nexus meeting Sept. 8. He says there’s a trade-off between how much people pay for water and how much they pay for food. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

It’s not like farmers are acting like drunken sailors. In central Arizona, farmers are required by state law to use water-conservation practices like lining canals, laser-leveling fields and other best management practices. Farmers are legally required to be at least 80 percent efficient, according to the Department of Water Resources.

“Agriculture has become more efficient,” Porter said. “We can grow a lot more food with the same amount of water we used 30 years ago.”

Good news

“We really have a lot of water (in Phoenix),” Porter said.

Water usage in the city has fallen 30 percent in 20 years.

“We serve 400,000 more people than we did 20 years ago, with the same water,” Sorensen said. “Tremendously successful.”

Las Vegas pays residents to rip out lawns. Tucson has paid out $1.7 million on rebates for rain-harvesting systems. Not all those programs work. A lot of systems have been installed in Tucson, but there’s no decline in demand. In fact, they may be using twice the water they used before. Phoenix hasn’t paid for anything like that, but it’s hitting comparable demand reduction to cities in the region.

“I’m a big fan of the way the city of Phoenix has dealt with landscape issues, which is primarily about education, not about discouraging landscaping through rate adjustments or about paying people to tear out grass,” Gammage said.

What’s causing the drop in demand? Less turf, fewer pools being built, and more efficient appliances. One positive effect of the Great Recession Sabo pointed out was people couldn’t afford to buy new homes, so they remodeled. Remodels almost always involve kitchens and bathrooms, and new appliances are built to be water-efficient. Sorensen expects water use to continue to drop.

“We’re very proud of the way our residents have really embraced a desert lifestyle,” she said. “That’s what it is. Phoenix focuses on the long game when it comes to conservation. We’ve been doing it full-force since the mid-80s, decades before other communities figured out this was important.

“I know it sounds strange, but we don’t want our customers reacting to hydrologic events. We don’t want them reacting to the water levels in Lake Mead or the fact it’s been a 15-year drought, or any of those things. We want them to save water and use water efficiently because it will always be hot and dry here. That’s the mentality we need them to embrace. This is not a condition. This is not something to react to. This is how to live every day. That strategy has been successful in Phoenix.”

In-home efficiency is becoming about as good as it gets, Gammage thinks. And tearing out irrigated tall trees and lush lawns would be a terrible mistake.

“I think we need to be much more discriminating about the appropriate uses of water in the urban environment in the desert,” he said. “There are parts of metropolitan Phoenix where retaining the historic landscape — lush grass and trees — is important because it’s the heritage of Phoenix. … In the newer subdivisions we shouldn’t have grass in the front yards, where it isn’t used.”

But in making decisions like that, whether in Phoenix or in other arid cities, there’s a dilemma, Gammage said: “You wind up allowing the lush landscape to be preserved for the affluent people, and the lower-income people don’t get it.”

He’s a fan of Tempe Town Lake. It’s an amenity, a gathering place, and a place for recreation that is open to everyone.

“It’s a good use of water,” he said, adding that it “creates ambience and gathering space in the urban fabric.”

Rowers on Tempe Town Lake

Tempe Town Lake draws fans in such water experts as Grady Gammage Jr., who praises it as an amenity that offers activities to a wide segment of the population. Photo by ASU

Phoenix has a huge amount of give when it comes to water supplies, said Porter, the directorWhite is also a Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; director, Decision Center for a Desert City, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; professor, School of Community Resources and Development, College of Public Service and Community Solutions; affiliated faculty, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. of the Kyl Center. The Salt River reservoirs are at half capacity, and not every SRP city uses all their supplies. We’re far from living on a knife’s edge, she said.

“We talk about a supply gap, and we worry about where we’re going to get water, but we actually — if we stopped growing, and didn’t have any more demand, we wouldn’t have a water problem. Even with all the scary threats to our water supply out there, we wouldn’t be having conversations about a water-supply problem,” said Porter, who added that the issues are sustaining growth.

Bull in a china shop

One of the challenges is getting two of the main players — scientists and those making decisions in government — talking to each other.

“I think, for some reason, and I don’t think it’s either side’s fault, policymakers and scientists aren’t communicating at all,” Porter said. “In a lot of disciplines there’s an expectation when they publish a paper in a scholarly magazine, someone at the legislature is going to pick it up and read it and act on it. Of course it’s absurd to think that if you think about how busy elected officials are and the demands on their attention.”

There isn’t the beginning of the communication needed, she said, but “there are places at ASU where there are much more deliberate efforts to make those communications happen.”

That place is the Decision Center for a Desert City. A research unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, the center conducts climate, water and decision research, and develops tools to bridge the boundary between scientists and decision makers. The 12-year-old center has worked hard to become an example of how academia can work with policymakers.

Dave White is the director and principal investigator of the center. 

“This is a problem that we have faced and hopefully overcome to a large degree,” White said. “When university researchers conduct research independent of collaboration with policymakers, they often miss critical inputs or critical perspective into the research, that if they were aware of these perspectives they could vastly improve the relevance of the research.”

For example, if a scientist talked to a policymaker before embarking on a study, they could set a geographic scope to a political decision-making unit. A study about the Phoenix Active Management Area instead of “greater Phoenix” “could potentially increase the relevance of the study,” White said. (Active Management Areas are five places identified by the state as being heavily reliant on groundwater.)

Dave White

Dave White (speaking at the Southwestern Regional Water-Energy Nexus meeting on Sept. 8), director of the Decision Center for a Desert City, says the center involves its partners in designing the research. That helpls the results be relevent to policymakers. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Research also needs to meet the timing of policymaking. Agencies have deadlines and deliverables, just like the private sector does.

All of which raises the question: Exactly what do public water officials want to know from academia? Where does the rubber hit the road? These six titles are a random recent sampling of what policymakers want to know, from papers written for the Decision Center for a Desert City.

  • neighborhood microclimates and vulnerability to heat stress
  • regional relationships between surface temperature, vegetation and human settlement in a rapidly urbanizing ecosystem
  • determinants of small-area water consumption for the city of Phoenix
  • residents’ yard choices and rationales in a desert city: Social priorities, ecological impacts, and decision trade-offs
  • the impact of the Phoenix urban heat island on residential water use
  • analysis of drought determinants for the Colorado River Basin

'We listen'

Kelli Larson, an associate professorLarson is an associate professor, School of Sustainability; associate professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; center associate director and director of education and mentoring, Decision Center for a Desert City. in the School of Sustainability, said she saw some of the dread policymakers have of scientists early in the center’s history.

“There’s this new water center opening, and some of the language was to improve water resource decision-making, which, as a decision maker, you might be sitting there thinking, ‘We’ve been working on these issues for 10, 20, 30 years, and now there’s this new center, and they’re going to improve our decisions?’” Larson said. “It may burn relationships.”

The majority of the center’s “clients” tend to be technical staff at various agencies: water providers, planners, utility managers. Larson thinks about what they need and the policy implications. The center is proactive; it goes to decision makers, so they don’t have to navigate ASU to find the right people. Center staff — some of whom are former policymakers themselves — ask them what they’re working on, what their concerns are, what questions they have.

“It takes time to build those relationships, to build trust,” Larson said. “We’ve been quite successful with that. Part of why we’ve been successful at that is because we listen. I see the planners and the decision makers as experts in their own right. They’re not scientists per se, they’re not researchers, they’re not academics, but oftentimes they do do their own form of research, and they have their own knowledge base. There’s a lot they can offer to our understanding and insights, including informing our research agendas.

“When I first got here, I felt like we were outsiders trying to enter the water community, and now I feel like we’re a part of the water community,” she said. “That feels really good to see that unfold over 10 years.”

And people in government agree that it’s successful.

“They haven’t been (overbearing),” Sorenson said. “That’s exactly the reason we’ve been able to build such good relationships.”

Boundary organization

“One of the things we do really well that a lot of universities are getting into, but we’re on the leading edge of, I’d say, is integrating people into the decision-making process from the beginning,” Sabo said. “We’re very good at understanding the institutional context and the decision-making context of water resources and doing the planning and interface with the science that allows people to contribute to that process.”

The Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) calls itself a boundary organization. It is a link between scientists and water-resource practitioners. The goal is to have a space — both physical and intellectual — that creates an institutional connection between the university and its partners.

“We don’t operate in consultancy mode,” White said. “We involve the partners we work with in the design of the studies. The partners are involved in constructing the framing of the problem, they’re involved in constructing the research questions themselves, in designing and carrying out the research studies, and then interpreting and utilizing the results.”

Hoover Dam

The "bathtub ring" is visible above Lake Mead at Hoover Dam. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Sorensen and Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources — the state’s two most influential water leaders — sit on DCDC’s advisory board. They, along with the National Science Foundation, which has invested $18 million in the center, evaluate the center every two years. White sits on the mayor’s water advisory board.

Science should fill in the gaps and provide evidence for alternatives. It’s a fine line to walk, White said.

“If you just throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘This is ridiculous!’ that’s not going to get you very far,” he said. “If you want to have policy-relevant work, then you need to understand how did the system converge this way. ... It’s not up to us to make those decisions. It’s up to us to help to diagnose what the consequences of different decisions are.”

Water Sim and the Decision Theater

Because water problems tend to be extremely complex, that makes it difficult for non-water professionals and elected officials to understand them. DCDC has created two opportunities to make them visual.

Water Sim is a software program that models system dynamics. You can fiddle around with various scenarios to see how an El Nino or a thin snowpack will affect water. It’s a systems model; it takes a lot of data usually collected separately — like water supply, demand, climate, population and policy data — and puts it together. Users can change one variable and see how it affects the rest.

ASU’s Decision Theater provides meeting rooms with large-format ultra-high-definition displays and on-site computer systems, tools and personnel that can provide specialized geographic information systems, systems modeling, business intelligence, and 3-D spatial modeling and simulation, among other capabilities.

With water problems, the importance of visualization really ratchets up.

“A picture is worth 1,000 words, right?” Sorensen said. “One of the things that’s been really constructive is to work with DCDC on the Decision Theater. You can bring in policymakers and elected officials and instead of having to sit there and lecture them for three hours on the background of a problem and why it matters and why they should care about it, the Decision Theater helps them visualize it. You can tell the story much easier in a way that makes sense and in a way that’s compelling to them.”

What policymakers say

Water is immensely complex, even if it’s your field, even if you have a PhD. If you really take a look at water problems, what you’ll find is they’re wicked problems. They’re extremely complex. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

 “The solutions that are left to us to face the challenges of a changing climate and global uncertainty are few and far between, difficult to achieve, and they tend to be incremental in nature,” Sorensen said. “And yet ahead of us are enormous risks. As a policymaker, someone who has to actually make sure 1.5 million people in the middle of the desert have water, finding your way through that path is extremely difficult. You have to make decisions at different times with relatively little information and huge amounts of uncertainty.

“That’s kind of ASU’s focus: How do you make good decisions in such an uncertain world with such wicked problems ahead of you? It has been a really useful and collaborative partnership. We’ve been thrilled to have been involved with it. … Water wonks are always a little bit nervous when academics forge their way into policy arenas, but I would say for the most part it’s been tremendously successful. It’s been a benefit to us, and hopefully to ASU as well.”

And many people across many fields at ASU are working to make that happen.

“A place like the Global Institute of Sustainability and DCDC help to serve as a glue for all of us, so that our efforts are bigger than just one professor’s efforts,” said hydrologist Enrique VivoniVivoni is an associate professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; affiliated faculty, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. said. “I think we’re starting to make inroads in increasing our reputation, and attracting great students and doing interesting projects and generating a niche that we can become world leaders in.”

The water series

Part 1: The current situation and how we got here.

Part 2: Science and research.

Part 3: Law, policy, challenges — and some good news.

Top photo: The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on U.S. 93 soars above the Colorado River spillway from Hoover Dam. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

image title

Destination: Optimization

Fall Break is Oct. 8-11. Plan a better trip with ASU prof's optimization solver.
Got an optimization problem? ASU prof Hans Mittelmann can help with that.
October 6, 2016

ASU professor makes problem-solving software available to all; use it to plan a Fall Break road trip or an efficient diet

Everyone’s got a morning routine; certain steps we take to get cleaned, dressed, fed and out the door on time. The order of those steps is very important. Switch it up and you could be late.

The same goes for building microchips, or performing surgery, or baking a pie — one misstep and the whole thing falls apart.

“Optimization is everywhere,” says Hans Mittelmann, professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at ASU. “It is the single most pervasive thing. Optimization needs to be applied to basically everything you do.”

ASU math prof Hans Mittelmann

ASU professor Hans Mittelmann

Acting out of what he describes as a sort of altruistic sense of duty, for the past 20-plus years Mittelmann has maintained a set of optimization problem “solvers,” many of which are available through the online web server NEOS.

The solvers, which are free and accessible to the public, can provide solutions to sudoku puzzles, supply chain production issues, and even “the diet problem” — how to select foods that will satisfy a set of daily nutritional requirements at a minimum cost.

Recently, a couple of road-trip enthusiasts used a solver Mittelmann made available through NEOS to find the most efficient route through 412 National Park Service sites in commemoration of its 100-year anniversary. Called Concorde, the solver provides a solution to what is known as the traveling-salesman problem: how to find the shortest route between many points in a closed loop.

In a blog post, one of the road trippers, Adam Larsen, called Concorde “one of the best traveling-salesman problem solvers out there,” and Mittelmann “a brilliant mathematician.”

The Concorde solver has also been used for Pokemon Go, to help players hit as many PokeStops as possible in various metropolitan areas.

“A lot of people have these kind of problems, but they have no way of implementing the commercial software needed to solve them,” said Mittelmann. “So I make it available to them through my solvers.”

Every solver he offers has sample submissions people can look at to see how they work. For the traveling-salesman problem, all one has to do is upload a list of the GPS coordinates of the map points they wish to visit, and the solver gives them an output of indexed legs of the journey that can be downloaded.

“The solver at NEOS is incredibly fast,” said Larsen. “The problem was solved in a mere matter of seconds.”

Though Concorde and solvers like it take only seconds to produce a solution, the software behind them is “very sophisticated.”

“Most of the programs I have installed have had a development period of some 10 or 15 years, and a number of people involved,” said Mittelmann. “They are so complex.”

group shot of students and professor

Mittelmann (front row, center) with the class he taught on numerical optimization software at the University of Freiburg in Germany this summer. Photo courtesy of Hans Mittelmann

Because of that, the solvers need constant updating. Mittelmann estimates he spends a few hours a week doing just that, in addition to his teaching and research duties. But, he says, “It’s a service which I’m happy to provide,” adding that he’s always willing to give time to people who have questions about his solvers, which he did for one man who had been using the Concorde solver to help his 16-year-old son with geocachingGeocaching is an outdoor recreational activity in which participants use a Global Positioning System device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches,” at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world..

Mittelmann has also used the Concorde solver to impress crowds at ASU’s Night of the Open Door. His exhibit, “A Picture Worth 100,000 Dots,” uses math to convert an image into 100,000 dots, and then draws a line as close as possible to the shortest length required to connect all the dots. If it were to be drawn by hand, it would take only one single stroke without lifting the pencil.

The exhibit has grown in popularity each year.

“I’m happy that it shows math to the broader public,” said Mittelmann.

His solvers are well-known around the world by experts and are often used by researchers and classes at universities and high schools. And the attention they’ve garnered has brought Mittelmann some exciting opportunities: This past summer he was invited to teach for two months at a summer school on numerical optimization software in Germany, and he was recently invited by the Department of Energy to participate in a study to better compute electricity distribution across the United States.

“I’m not an electricity expert at all, but they picked me because the key [to better electricity distribution] is optimization.

“So these are the rewards I get for my service activity, and I’m really happy that I can do that. I sit on the computer basically all day anyhow,” Mittelmann said with a laugh.