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21.03.2000 · Research Group on the Global Future


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Research Group on the Global Future
Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP)
Munich, Germany


The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it ... bit the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.
-- Goethe, Essay on Experimentation

(1) Bioinformatics
(2) Eugenics Remembered
(3) Common Sense Globalization
(4) Noted in Passing


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(1) Bioinformatics

In a relatively short time, the map of the human genome will be complete. The event will make headlines around the world as a momentous achievement of science. The finer print of the articles will talk about the
competition between the consortium of public laboratories and the various private companies working with different methods on the genome sequence. Other points of debate will include the different statistical methods used and the lingering uncertainties about parts of the genome.

While this celebration will mark an important milestone, the human genome is really just the tip of the iceberg. Sequencing efforts are underway, or completed, on many different organisms, from rice to fruit flies to viruses to bacteria and onward through the several different kingdoms of life on earth.

The torrent of new data has brought a new specialty into life at the intersection of biology and computing: bioinformatics. Labs around the world are producing information about genes and gene sequences far faster than other scientists can put them to use.

Bioinformatics is, briefly, the science of extracting knowledge from the raw data of gene sequences. It combines statistics, chemistry, biology, and powerful computing to understand the links between certain DANN sequences and behavior in living organisms at the molecular, cellular, and macro levels. According to the Journal of Computational Biology, relevant topics for the field include sequence comparison; sequence analysis and search; DNA and protein sequence determination; DNA topological structure; protein structure; RNA secondary and tertiary structure; genetic mapping; physical mapping; molecular evolution, including phylogenetic reconstructions; parallel methods of computation; design and implementation of biological databases; biological expert system design and use; and application of artificial intelligence methods to biological systems.

European centers for bioinformatics include the European Bioinformatics Institute, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and the Theoretical Bioinformatics Division of the DKFZ (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum) at the University of Heidelberg.

As the link between DNA data and applications in the real world, bioinformatics is set for explosive growth over the next decade. It is a worldwide endeavor, and its degree of success will determine how much use we are able to make of the gene sequencing projects now engaging scientists around the globe.

Three gateways to bioinformatics:
http://www.ii.uib.no/~inge/list.html#intro
http://dir.yahoo.com/Science/Biology/
Molecular_Biology/Bioinformatic_Servers/

http://www.genet.sickkids.on.ca/bioinfo_resources/


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(2) EUGENICS REMEMBERED

Ever increasing knowledge about the genetic makeup of humans will bring with it an ever increasing amount of responsibility. One way of keeping that responsibility fresh in mind is by looking back at how limited knowledge - and the prevailing prejudices of the time - were used by the eugenics movement in America during the early decades of the 20th century.

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research and educational institution, focusing on cancer, neurobiology nd plant genetics, was also a center of American eugenic research. The Laboratory now presents items from its eugenics archives on the web, as a guide to how research was used to advance the prejudices of the day, and how accurate science, along with changing social views, displaced earlier conclusions.

From the introduction at http://vector.cshl.org/eugenics/ :

We now invite you to experience the unfiltered story of American eugenics ... In the Archive you will see numerous reports, articles, charts, and pedigrees that were considered scientific "facts" in their day. It is important to remind yourself that the vast majority of eugenics work has been completely discredited. In the final analysis, the eugenic description of human life reflected political and social prejudices, rather than scientific facts.

You may find some of the language and images in this Archive offensive. Even supposedly "scientific" terms used by eugenicists were often pervaded with prejudice against racial, ethnic, and disabled groups. Some terms have no scientific meaning today. For example, "feeblemindedness" was used as a catch-all for a number of real and supposed mental disabilities, and was a common "diagnosis" used to make members of ethnic and racial minority groups appear inferior. However, we have made no attempt to censor this documentary record - to do so would distort the past and diminish the significance of the lessons to be learned from this material.

During a two-year review process, involving a 14-member Advisory Panel, this site has developed an editorial policy to protect personal privacy and confidentiality. For this reason, names and places have been deleted from pedigrees, medical documents, and personal photographs.


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(3) COMMON SENSE GLOBALIZATION

Research from one of the USA's leading economic think tanks, the National Bureau for Economic Research confirms that countries which take on excessive short-term debt are more prone to financial crises than countries which rely on longer-term investment. Furthermore, crises which do arise are more severe in countries with short-term debt burdens than would otherwise be the case.

As the NBER's monthly digest relates:

Research Associates Dani Rodrik and Andrés Velasco argue that a country that "binged" on short-term investments in the 1990s often discovered that what seemed to be so effective at keeping the good times rolling quickly flipped into its opposite and became a major show-stopper.

In Short Term Capital Flows, they look at financial crises of the past few years and find that in almost every situation-particularly the East Asia meltdowns -- countries set themselves up for trouble because they had far more short-term debt than they did the resources or "reserves" to rapidly repay skittish creditors. "Countries with short-term liabilities to foreign banks that exceed reserves are three times more likely to experience a sudden and massive reversal in capital flows," state Rodrik and Velasco. "Furthermore, greater short-term exposure is associated with more severe crises when capital flows reverse."

The authors note that in the international lending boom of the 1990s, debt extended to emerging countries more than doubled, rising, at one point, from $1 trillion in 1988 to $2 trillion in 1997, with short-term debt rising "particularly rapidly." This left those countries vulnerable to what Rodrik and Velasco refer to as a "self-fulfilling confidence crisis." The imbalance itself made investors nervous and more likely to call in their debts, resulting in the so-called "capital flight" that saw once-booming economies suddenly starved for cash.

These economic horror stories aside, the authors do not intend to convey that short-term debt is a bad thing. They note that in many instances, it's a prudent form of investment. But they believe that "one has to keep an alert eye on the ratio of short-term liabilities to available liquid assets." Interestingly, it's countries that are currently doing relatively well that might want to watch this particular meter. Rodrik and Velasco point out that "as economies get richer and financial markets become deeper...the external debt profile gets tilted towards short-term liabilities." In other words, corrective action to bring things into balance is required when countries are booming, a time when they may be least inclined to do something that might be perceived as slowing growth.

But is that perception equal to the reality? Must growth be sacrificed to achieve some equilibrium in the debt portfolio? Turning to this issue, Rodrik and Velasco examine the controversial area of capital controls -- policies intended to discourage wild swings in investment flows but with restrictions that frequently prove irritable to both international and domestic entrepreneurs.

The authors contend that an effort in the 1990s by Chile to discourage high-levels of short-term investment -- for which it was roundly criticized in some quarters -- was a success in reducing dependence on short-term capital. They note that, by 1997, the country's short- term debt was only 7.6 percent of total debt.

They also assert that while Malaysia's brief attempt in 1994 to limit short-term investments from abroad "did not prevent Malaysia from getting into trouble a few years later," at the time the policy was "remarkably effective," reducing short-term debts in 1994 to 26 percent of total debt compared to 37 percent in 1993. (The authors believe one possible explanation for why 1994 policy did not protect Malaysia from having problems in 1997 is that "the controls were lifted too soon.")

Perhaps most importantly, according to Rodrik and Velasco, these proactive efforts to discourage short- term debt did not appear to affect economic growth. In fact, they may have been responsible for good fiscal health. "Chile is a success case of the 1990s, in no small part because it has managed to avoid the destabilizing influence of short-term capital flows," the authors conclude. "Even in Malaysia, where the imposition of restrictions in January of 1994 resulted in a massive turnaround in capital flows, growth was unaffected. In fact, the Malaysian economy grew faster in 1994 and 1995 than in 1993." (Matthew Davis)


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(4) NOTED IN PASSING

1. Stephen King's newest book is only available on the internet, and it has already been downloaded 400,000 times in the first two days of being offered. Riding the Bullet, the equivalent of a 66-page novella by the popular horror author, will not be published on paper. The flash crowd overwhelmed Amazon.com's ability to deliver the book; on Friday afternoon, prospective customers were asked to wait for an e-mail from the company telling them when the story would again be available.

2. The Washington Post reports increasing internet usage among older Americans. More than 14 million Americans older than 50 are online, and the number is growing rapidly. This is currently the fastest growing segment of the online population, and older users tend to spend more time and money on the web than younger cohorts. The Post notes, "communicating with far-flung relatives is one of the main reasons many older adults are warming up to home computers. Susan Domenichini has tapped into the Internet and e-mail to keep in touch with her six grandchildren, three of whom live in England."


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FEEDBACK

global_futures also offers an interactive forum. Recommendations,letters, and tips are welcomed by the editors, particularly on the topics of the digital future, biotechnology, sustainability and the new economy. Send all feedback to mailto:fgz@lrz.uni-muenchen.de.


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global_futures

Sascha Meinert, Douglas Merrill, Patrick Meyer, Juergen Turek

Research Group on the Global Future
Center for Applied Policy Research
Geschwister Scholl Institute
Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich
Maria-Theresia-Strasse 21
D-81675 Munich, Germany
mailto:fgz@lrz.uni-muenchen.de.



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