JuriSnippet: Recent Developments in US Patent Law

The magazine Physics Today published my article on the impact of the new US patent laws on scientists.  It can be found here, and the magazine has made it available free.

JuriSnippet: Why is it Always the Cows’ Fault?

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in the global-warming case American Electric Power v. Connecticut.  I previously commented on American Power here, noting the unique logic applied by the Second Circuit in holding that the rather inventive nuisance theory relied on by the plaintiffs is not barred by the political-question doctrine.  I will be stunned if the Supreme Court ultimately allows the case to proceed, especially after considering the issues raised during oral argument. 

One difficulty with the case is the arbitrary way it singles out certain power companies that contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions by relying on a theory of contribution.  Justice Scalia amusingly highlighted the point by suggesting a different arbitrary grouping: 

[Y]ou’re lumping them [the power companies] all together.  Suppose you lump together all the cows in the country.  Would … that allow you to sue all those farmers?  I mean, don’t you have to do it defendant by defendant?  … Cow by cow, or at least farm by farm? 

Cows are potential culprits because they release methane as a byproduct of their digestive processes. 

More seriously, the more likely fatal concern for the case — one that was raised by several justices in different ways — is whether a single district-court judge has the power to usurp the regulatory activity of the entire Environmental Protection Agency.  To my mind, litigation is a bizarre way to address the complex issue of climate change where we are all both offenders and victims.  Regulatory processes, which better allow for the contributions of many minds in figuring out how to balance the need to reduce hydrocarbon emissions within the structure of national and global economies, are much better suited to the issue. 

But I still can’t help but wonder:  whatever happened to blaming ducks for acid rain? 

A transcript of the entire oral argument can be found here.

JuriSnippet: Sleepy Teenagers

It is by now well known that human beings are biologically programmed to have shifts in their circadian rhythms during the teen years, resulting in teenagers being most alert during the evenings.  Yet we persist in forcing them to conform to a more adult daily pattern.  Suggestions to start school classes later in the day for that age group have often been ignored, even though the scientific evidence is clear that it would result in improved learning by better accommodating their natural biological patterns.  A study published last week in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine that can be found here (subscription required) now shows that teenaged drivers have higher accident rates earlier in the morning, also attributed to forcing them to adopt a daily pattern that is biologically unnatural.  It is worth highlighting this research yet again:  sleep deprivation in teens has been linked not only to moodiness, irritability, and learning disadvantages but also to behavioral problems that are a consequence of attempting to deal with the deprivation, notably the excessive use of stimulants to stay awake during the day and the use of alcohol to fall asleep at night.  Moving school start times later in at least Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Kentucky have resulted in identifiable improvements in student punctuality and efficiency as well as a reduction in behavioral problems.

JuriSnippet: To Breathe or not to Breathe

In Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, a copy of which can be found here, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases are “pollutants” that may be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act.  As a result, the EPA has been issuing regulatory actions to control greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, prompting some legislators to voice concern that their economic impacts have not been adequately considered.  Information about those initiatives can be found here

It is important not to lose sight of just how significant a component these initiatives are in the disagreement that may lead to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government.  Earlier this week, the House of Representatives voted to restrict regulation of greenhouse gases by the EPA, but the effort was defeated in the Senate.  The fallback plan — to include riders to the spending bill that would block funding for EPA regulations limiting greenhouse-gas emissions — appears also to be failing.  But things continue to change by the minute in these very fluid negotiations.  One thing is certain:  no matter what the specific parameters of a compromise on the spending bill, this debate is not going away.

JuriSnippet: Climate Change Hearing

Those who have been following the debate over global climate change are undoubtedly familiar with the dendroclimatology “hockey stick” plot, perhaps made most famous by Al Gore when he showed one version of it in his film An Inconvenient Truth.  The scientific criticism of the plot has mostly been led by Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, who engaged in a persistent effort to establish their credibility in what was for them a new field.  They received a significant boost when physicist Richard Muller expressed agreement with their criticisms in 2004, and it has forced re-examination of one result that has perhaps become too iconically associated with climate-change research. 

Muller was one of several who testified at a Congressional hearing on climate change last week that had been called by Republican leaders of the Science & Technology Committee who are skeptical about the reliability of climate research.  The comments of the six witnesses can be read here and include many observations that have previously been made.  What is attracting most interest, though, was the report by Muller showing that preliminary results of his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project show warming trends that are similar to those found by other groups. 

Some of those attempting to politicize climate research have hinted that Muller has somehow betrayed them.  But what he has really done is his job as a physicist:  criticizing work when it deserves it, adding his own piece to the collective puzzle, and accepting the scientific results whatever they happen to be.