Sunday, September 6, 2020

The road to electric vehicles with lower sticker prices than gas cars – battery costs explained

Replacing carbon-emitting gas-powered cars with EVs requires whittling away EVs’ price premium, and that comes down to one thing: battery cost. Westend61 via Getty Images
Venkat Viswanathan, Carnegie Mellon University; Alexander Bills, Carnegie Mellon University, and Shashank Sripad, Carnegie Mellon University

Electric vehicle sales have grown exponentially in recent years, accompanied by dropping prices. However, adoption of EVs remains limited by their higher sticker price relative to comparable gas vehicles, even though overall cost of ownership for EVs is lower.

EVs and internal combustion engine vehicles are likely to reach sticker price parity sometime in the next decade. The timing hinges on one crucial factor: battery cost. An EV’s battery pack accounts for about a quarter of total vehicle cost, making it the most important factor in the sales price.

Battery pack prices have been falling fast. A typical EV battery pack stores 10-100 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. For example, the Mitsubishi i-MIEV has a battery capacity of 16 kWh and a range of 62 miles, and the Tesla model S has a battery capacity of 100 kWh and a range of 400 miles. In 2010, the price of an EV battery pack was over $1,000 per kWh. That fell to $150 per kWh in 2019. The challenge for the automotive industry is figuring out how to drive the cost down further.

The Department of Energy goal for the industry is to reduce the price of battery packs to less than $100/kWh and ultimately to about $80/kWh. At these battery price points, the sticker price of an EV is likely to be lower than that of a comparable combustion engine vehicle.

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Forecasting when that price crossover will occur requires models that account for the cost variables: design, materials, labor, manufacturing capacity and demand. These models also show where researchers and manufacturers are focusing their efforts to reduce battery costs. Our group at Carnegie Mellon University has developed a model of battery costs that accounts for all aspects of EV battery manufacturing.

From the bottom up

Models used for analyzing battery costs are classified either as “top down” or “bottom up.” Top-down models predict cost based primarily on demand and time. One popular top-down model that can forecast battery cost is Wright’s law, which predicts that costs go down as more units are produced. Economies of scale and the experience an industry acquires over time drive down costs.

Wright’s law is generic. It works across all technologies, which makes it possible to predict battery cost declines based on solar panel cost declines. However, Wright’s law - like other top-down models - doesn’t allow for the analysis of the sources of the cost declines. For that, a bottom-up model is required.

The battery pack, the large gray block filling the chassis in this diagram of an electric car, contributes the most of any component to the price of an EV. Sven Loeffler/iStock via Getty Images

To build a bottom-up cost model, it’s important to understand what goes into making a battery. Lithium-ion batteries consist of a positive electrode, the cathode, a negative electrode, the anode and an electrolyte, as well as auxiliary components such as terminals and casing.

Each component has a cost associated with its materials, manufacturing, assembly, expenses related to factory maintenance, and overhead costs. For EVs, batteries also need to be integrated into small groups of cells, or modules, which are then combined into packs.

Our open source, bottom-up battery cost model follows the same structure as the battery manufacturing process itself. The model uses inputs to the battery manufacturing process as inputs to the model, including battery design specifications, commodity and labor prices, capital investment requirements like manufacturing plants and equipment, overhead rates and manufacturing volume to account for economies of scale. It uses these inputs to calculate manufacturing costs, material costs and overhead costs, and those costs are summed to arrive at the final cost.

Cost-cutting opportunities

Using our bottom-up cost model, we can break down the contributions of each part of the battery to the total battery cost and use those insights to analyze the impact of battery innovations on EV cost. Materials make up the largest portion of the total battery cost, around 50%. The cathode accounts for around 43% of the materials cost, and other cell materials account for around 36%.

Improvements in cathode materials are the most important innovations, because the cathode is the largest component of battery cost. This drives strong interest in commodity prices.

The most common cathode materials for electric vehicles are nickel cobalt aluminum oxide used in Tesla vehicles, nickel manganese cobalt oxide used in most other electric vehicles, and lithium iron phosphate used in most electric buses.

Nickel cobalt aluminum oxide has the lowest cost-per-energy-content and highest energy-per-unit-mass, or specific energy, of these three materials. A low cost per unit of energy results from a high specific energy because fewer cells are needed to build a battery pack. This results in a lower cost for other cell materials. Cobalt is the most expensive material within the cathode, so formulations of these materials with less cobalt typically lead to cheaper batteries.

Inactive cell materials such as tabs and containers account for roughly 36% of the total cell materials cost. These other cell materials do not add energy content to the battery. Therefore, reducing inactive materials reduces the weight and size of battery cells without reducing energy content. This drives interest in improving cell design with innovations such as tabless batteries like those being teased by Tesla.

The battery pack cost also decreases significantly with an increase in the number of cells manufacturers produce annually. As more EV battery factories come on-line, economies of scale and further improvement in battery manufacturing and design should lead to further cost declines.

Road to price-parity

Predicting a timeline for price parity with ICE vehicles requires forecasting a future trajectory of battery costs. We estimate that reduction in raw material costs, improvements in performance and learning by manufacturing together are likely to lead to batteries with pack costs below $80/kWh by 2025.

Assuming batteries represent a quarter of the EV cost, a 100 kWh battery pack at $75 per kilowatt hour yields a cost of about $30,000. This should result in EV sticker prices that are lower than the sticker prices for comparable models of gas-powered cars.

Abhinav Misalkar contributed to this article while he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.The Conversation

Venkat Viswanathan, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University; Alexander Bills, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, and Shashank Sripad, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The US has lots to lose and little to gain by banning TikTok and WeChat

Banning TikTok and WeChat would cut off many Americans from popular social media. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Jeremy Straub, North Dakota State University

The Trump administration’s recently announced bans on Chinese-owned social media platforms TikTok and WeChat could have unintended consequences. The orders bar the apps from doing business in the U.S. or with U.S. persons or businesses after Sept. 20 and require divestiture of TikTok by Nov. 12.

The executive orders are based on national security grounds, though the threats cited are to citizens rather than the government. Foreign policy analysts see the move as part of the administration’s ongoing wrestling match with the Chinese government for leverage in the global economy.

Whatever the motivation, as someone who researches both cybersecurity and technology policy, I am not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs. The bans threaten Americans’ freedom of speech, and may harm foreign investment in the U.S. and American companies’ ability to sell software abroad, while delivering minimal privacy and cybersecurity benefits.

National security threat?

The threats posed by TikTok and WeChat, according to the executive orders, include the potential for the platforms to be used for disinformation campaigns by the Chinese government and to give the Chinese government access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.

Video of two young women on smartphone screen
TikTok is an immensely popular social media platform that allows people to share short video clips. Aaron Yoo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The U.S. is not the only country concerned about Chinese apps. The Australian military accused WeChat, a messaging, social media and mobile payment app, of acting as spyware, saying the app was caught sending data to Chinese Intelligence servers.

Disinformation campaigns may be of particular concern, due to the upcoming election and the impact of the alleged “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in the 2016 elections. The potential for espionage is less pronounced, given that the apps access basic contact information and details about the videos Americans watch and the topics they search on, and not more sensitive data.

But banning the apps and requiring Chinese divestiture also has a national security downside. It damages the U.S.‘s moral authority to push for free speech and democracy abroad. Critics have frequently contended that America’s moral authority has been severely damaged during the Trump administration and this action could arguably add to the decline.

Protecting personal information

The administration’s principal argument against TikTok is that it collects Americans’ personal data and could provide it to the Chinese government. The executive order states that this could allow China to track the locations of federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail and conduct corporate espionage.

Skeptics have argued that the government hasn’t presented clear evidence of privacy issues and that the service’s practices are standard in the industry. TikTok’s terms of service do say that it can share information with its China-based corporate parent, ByteDance.

smartphone screenshot showing the WeChat app
WeChat is a messaging, social media and mobile payment app that is nearly ubiquitous in China. Albert Hsieh/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The order against WeChat is similar. It also mentions that the app captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States. However, some of these visiting Chinese nationals have expressed concern that banning WeChat may limit their ability to communicate with friends and family in China.

While TikTok and WeChat do raise cybersecurity concerns, they are not significantly different from those raised by other smart phone apps. In my view, these concerns could be better addressed by enacting national privacy legislation, similar to Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA, to dictate how data is collected and used and where it is stored. Another remedy is to have Google, Apple and others review the apps for cybersecurity concerns before allowing new versions to be made available in their app stores.

Freedom of speech

Perhaps the greatest concern raised by the bans are their impact on people’s ability to communicate, and whether they violate the First Amendment. Both TikTok and WeChat are communications channels and TikTok publishes and hosts content.

While the courts have allowed some regulation of speech, to withstand a legal challenge the restrictions must advance a legitimate government interest and be “narrowly tailored” to do so. National security is a legitimate governmental interest. However, in my opinion it’s questionable whether a real national security concern exists with these specific apps.

In the case of TikTok, banning an app that is being used for political commentary and activism would raise pronounced constitutional claims and likely be overturned by the courts.

Whether the bans hold up in court, the executive orders instituting them put the U.S. in uncomfortable territory: the list of countries that have banned social media platforms. These include Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Iran, Belarus, Russia and China.

Though the U.S. bans may not be aimed at curtailing dissent, they echo actions that harm free speech and democracy globally. Social media gives freedom fighters, protesters and dissidents all over the world a voice. It enables citizens to voice concerns and organize protests about monarchies, sexual and other human rights abuses, discriminatory laws and civil rights violations. When authoritarian governments clamp down on dissent, they frequently target social media.

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Risk of retaliation

The bans could also harm the U.S. economy because other countries could ban U.S. companies in retaliation. China and the U.S. have already gone through a cycle of reciprocal company banning, in addition to reciprocal consulate closures.

The U.S. has placed Chinese telecom firm Huawei on the Bureau of Industry Security Entity List, preventing U.S. firms from conducting business with it. While this has prevented Huawei from selling wireless hardware in the U.S., it has also prevented U.S. software sales to the telecom giant and caused it to use its own chips instead of buying them from U.S. firms.

Over a dozen U.S. companies urged the White House not to ban WeChat because it would hurt their business in China.

Other countries might use the U.S. bans of Chinese firms as justification for banning U.S. companies, even though the U.S. has not taken action against them or their companies directly. These trade restrictions harm the U.S.‘s moral authority, harm the global economy and stifle innovation. They also cut U.S. firms off from the high-growth Chinese market.

TikTok is in negotiations with Microsoft and Walmart and an Oracle-led consortium about a possible acquisition that would leave the company with American ownership and negate the ban.

Oversight, not banishment

Though the TikTok and WeChat apps do raise some concerns, it is not apparent that cause exists to ban them. The issues could be solved through better oversight and the enactment of privacy laws that could otherwise benefit Americans.

Of course, the government could have other causes for concern that it hasn’t yet made public. Given the consequences of banning an avenue of expression, if other concerns exist the government should share them with the American public. If not, I’d argue less drastic action would be more appropriate and better serve the American people.The Conversation

Jeremy Straub, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, North Dakota State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

How fake accounts constantly manipulate what you see on social media – and what you can do about it

All is not as it appears on social media. filadendron/E+ via Getty Images
Jeanna Matthews, Clarkson University

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram started out as a way to connect with friends, family and people of interest. But anyone on social media these days knows it’s increasingly a divisive landscape.

Undoubtedly you’ve heard reports that hackers and even foreign governments are using social media to manipulate and attack you. You may wonder how that is possible. As a professor of computer science who researches social media and security, I can explain – and offer some ideas for what you can do about it.

Bots and sock puppets

Social media platforms don’t simply feed you the posts from the accounts you follow. They use algorithms to curate what you see based in part on “likes” or “votes.” A post is shown to some users, and the more those people react – positively or negatively – the more it will be highlighted to others. Sadly, lies and extreme content often garner more reactions and so spread quickly and widely.

A 2018 file photo showing a business center building in St. Petersburg, Russia, known as the ‘troll factory,’ one of a web of companies allegedly controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has reported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky

But who is doing this “voting”? Often it’s an army of accounts, called bots, that do not correspond to real people. In fact, they’re controlled by hackers, often on the other side of the world. For example, researchers have reported that more than half of the Twitter accounts discussing COVID-19 are bots.

As a social media researcher, I’ve seen thousands of accounts with the same profile picture “like” posts in unison. I’ve seen accounts post hundreds of times per day, far more than a human being could. I’ve seen an account claiming to be an “All-American patriotic army wife” from Florida post obsessively about immigrants in English, but whose account history showed it used to post in Ukranian.

Fake accounts like this are called “sock puppets” – suggesting a hidden hand speaking through another identity. In many cases, this deception can easily be revealed with a look at the account history. But in some cases, there is a big investment in making sock puppet accounts seem real.

Now defunct, the ‘Jenna Abrams’ account was created by hackers in Russia.

For example, Jenna Abrams, an account with 70,000 followers, was quoted by mainstream media outlets like The New York Times for her xenophobic and far-right opinions, but was actually an invention controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-funded troll farm and not a living, breathing person.

Sowing chaos

Trolls often don’t care about the issues as much as they care about creating division and distrust. For example, researchers in 2018 concluded that some of the most influential accounts on both sides of divisive issues, like Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, were controlled by troll farms.

More than just fanning disagreement, trolls want to encourage a belief that truth no longer exists. Divide and conquer. Distrust anyone who might serve as a leader or trusted voice. Cut off the head. Demoralize. Confuse. Each of these is a devastating attack strategy.

Even as a social media researcher, I underestimate the degree to which my opinion is shaped by these attacks. I think I am smart enough to read what I want, discard the rest and step away unscathed. Still, when I see a post that has millions of likes, part of me thinks it must reflect public opinion. The social media feeds I see are affected by it and, what’s more, I am affected by the opinions of my real friends, who are also influenced.

The entire society is being subtly manipulated to believe they are on opposite sides of many issues when legitimate common ground exists.

I have focused primarily on U.S.-based examples, but the same types of attacks are playing out around the world. By turning the voices of democracies against each other, authoritarian regimes may begin to look preferable to chaos.

Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg in Brussels, Feb. 17, 2020. Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Platforms have been slow to act. Sadly, misinformation and disinformation drives usage and is good for business. Failure to act has often been justified with concerns about freedom of speech. Does freedom of speech include the right to create 100,000 fake accounts with the express purpose of spreading lies, division and chaos?

Taking control

So what can you do about it? You probably already know to check the sources and dates of what you read and forward, but common-sense media literacy advice is not enough.

First, use social media more deliberately. Choose to catch up with someone in particular, rather than consuming only the default feed. You might be amazed to see what you’ve been missing. Help your friends and family find your posts by using features like pinning key messages to the top of your feed.

Second, pressure social media platforms to remove accounts with clear signs of automation. Ask for more controls to manage what you see and which posts are amplified. Ask for more transparency in how posts are promoted and who is placing ads. For example, complain directly about the Facebook news feed here or tell legislators about your concerns.

Third, be aware of the trolls’ favorite issues and be skeptical of them. They may be most interested in creating chaos, but they also show clear preferences on some issues. For example, trolls want to reopen economies quickly without real management to flatten the COVID-19 curve. They also clearly supported one of the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates over the other. It’s worth asking yourself how these positions might be good for Russian trolls, but bad for you and your family.

Perhaps most importantly, use social media sparingly, like any other addictive, toxic substance, and invest in more real-life community building conversations. Listen to real people, real stories and real opinions, and build from there.

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Jeanna Matthews, Full Professor, Computer Science, Clarkson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Scientists tap the world's most powerful computers in the race to understand and stop the coronavirus

It takes a tremendous amount of computing power to simulate all the components and behaviors of viruses and cells. Thomas Splettstoesser, CC BY-ND
Jeremy Smith, University of Tennessee
In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, the haughty supercomputer Deep Thought is asked whether he can find the answer to the ultimate question concerning life, the universe and everything. He replies that, yes, he can do it, but it’s tricky and he’ll have to think about it. When asked how long it will take him he replies, “Seven-and-a-half million years. I told you I’d have to think about it.”
Real-life supercomputers are being asked somewhat less expansive questions but tricky ones nonetheless: how to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re being used in many facets of responding to the disease, including to predict the spread of the virus, to optimize contact tracing, to allocate resources and provide decisions for physicians, to design vaccines and rapid testing tools and to understand sneezes. And the answers are needed in a rather shorter time frame than Deep Thought was proposing.
The largest number of COVID-19 supercomputing projects involves designing drugs. It’s likely to take several effective drugs to treat the disease. Supercomputers allow researchers to take a rational approach and aim to selectively muzzle proteins that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, needs for its life cycle.
The viral genome encodes proteins needed by the virus to infect humans and to replicate. Among these are the infamous spike protein that sniffs out and penetrates its human cellular target, but there are also enzymes and molecular machines that the virus forces its human subjects to produce for it. Finding drugs that can bind to these proteins and stop them from working is a logical way to go.

The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second – equivalent to about a million laptops. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, CC BY

I am a molecular biophysicist. My lab, at the Center for Molecular Biophysics at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, uses a supercomputer to discover drugs. We build three-dimensional virtual models of biological molecules like the proteins used by cells and viruses, and simulate how various chemical compounds interact with those proteins. We test thousands of compounds to find the ones that “dock” with a target protein. Those compounds that fit, lock-and-key style, with the protein are potential therapies.
The top-ranked candidates are then tested experimentally to see if they indeed do bind to their targets and, in the case of COVID-19, stop the virus from infecting human cells. The compounds are first tested in cells, then animals, and finally humans. Computational drug discovery with high-performance computing has been important in finding antiviral drugs in the past, such as the anti-HIV drugs that revolutionized AIDS treatment in the 1990s.

World’s most powerful computer

Since the 1990s the power of supercomputers has increased by a factor of a million or so. Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is presently the world’s most powerful supercomputer, and has the combined power of roughly a million laptops. A laptop today has roughly the same power as a supercomputer had 20-30 years ago.
However, in order to gin up speed, supercomputer architectures have become more complicated. They used to consist of single, very powerful chips on which programs would simply run faster. Now they consist of thousands of processors performing massively parallel processing in which many calculations, such as testing the potential of drugs to dock with a pathogen or cell’s proteins, are performed at the same time. Persuading those processors to work together harmoniously is a pain in the neck but means we can quickly try out a lot of chemicals virtually.
Further, researchers use supercomputers to figure out by simulation the different shapes formed by the target binding sites and then virtually dock compounds to each shape. In my lab, that procedure has produced experimentally validated hits – chemicals that work – for each of 16 protein targets that physician-scientists and biochemists have discovered over the past few years. These targets were selected because finding compounds that dock with them could result in drugs for treating different diseases, including chronic kidney disease, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, thrombosis and bacterial infections.

Scientists are using supercomputers to find ways to disable the various proteins – including the infamous spike protein (green protrusions) – produced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Thomas Splettstoesser, CC BY-ND

Billions of possibilities

So which chemicals are being tested for COVID-19? A first approach is trying out drugs that already exist for other indications and that we have a pretty good idea are reasonably safe. That’s called “repurposing,” and if it works, regulatory approval will be quick.
But repurposing isn’t necessarily being done in the most rational way. One idea researchers are considering is that drugs that work against protein targets of some other virus, such as the flu, hepatitis or Ebola, will automatically work against COVID-19, even when the SARS-CoV-2 protein targets don’t have the same shape.

ACE2 acts as the docking receptor for the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s spike protein and allows the virus to infect the cell. The Conversation, CC BY-SA

The best approach is to check if repurposed compounds will actually bind to their intended target. To that end, my lab published a preliminary report of a supercomputer-driven docking study of a repurposing compound database in mid-February. The study ranked 8,000 compounds in order of how well they bind to the viral spike protein. This paper triggered the establishment of a high-performance computing consortium against our viral enemy, announced by President Trump in March. Several of our top-ranked compounds are now in clinical trials.
Our own work has now expanded to about 10 targets on SARS-CoV-2, and we’re also looking at human protein targets for disrupting the virus’s attack on human cells. Top-ranked compounds from our calculations are being tested experimentally for activity against the live virus. Several of these have already been found to be active.
Also, we and others are venturing out into the wild world of new drug discovery for COVID-19 – looking for compounds that have never been tried as drugs before. Databases of billions of these compounds exist, all of which could probably be synthesized in principle but most of which have never been made. Billion-compound docking is a tailor-made task for massively parallel supercomputing.

Dawn of the exascale era

Work will be helped by the arrival of the next big machine at Oak Ridge, called Frontier, planned for next year. Frontier should be about 10 times more powerful than Summit. Frontier will herald the “exascale” supercomputing era, meaning machines capable of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.
Although some fear supercomputers will take over the world, for the time being, at least, they are humanity’s servants, which means that they do what we tell them to. Different scientists have different ideas about how to calculate which drugs work best – some prefer artificial intelligence, for example – so there’s quite a lot of arguing going on.
Hopefully, scientists armed with the most powerful computers in the world will, sooner rather than later, find the drugs needed to tackle COVID-19. If they do, then their answers will be of more immediate benefit, if less philosophically tantalizing, than the answer to the ultimate question provided by Deep Thought, which was, maddeningly, simply 42.
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Jeremy Smith, Governor's Chair, Biophysics, University of Tennessee
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Scientific fieldwork 'caught in the middle' of US-Mexico border tensions

The political border cuts in two a region rich in biological and cultural diversity. John Moore/Getty Images News via Getty Images
Taylor Edwards, University of Arizona

Imagine you’re a scientist, setting out camera traps to snap pictures of wildlife in a remote area of southern Arizona. You set out with your gear early in the morning, but it took longer than expected to find all the locations with your GPS. Now, on your hike back, it’s really starting to heat up.

You try to stick to the shaded, dry washes, and as you round a bend, you’re surprised to see several people huddled under a scraggly mesquite tree against the side of the steep ravine: Mexican immigrants crossing the border. They look dirty and afraid, but so do you.

“¿Tienes agua?” they timidly ask, and you see their empty plastic water containers.

This fictionalized scenario reflects a composite of real incidents experienced by U.S. and Mexican researchers, including me, on both sides of the border in the course of their fieldwork. While giving aid may be the moral thing to do, there can be consequences. Humanitarian aid workers in Arizona have been arrested for leaving food and water for migrants in similar situations, and such arrests have risen since 2017.

In the course of their fieldwork, researchers can encounter migrants, Border Control agents and drug traffickers. Loren Elliott/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S.-Mexico border is a region of significant biological and cultural diversity that draws researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, including geology, biology, environmental sciences, archaeology, hydrology, and cultural and social sciences. It is also an area of humanitarian crisis and contentious politics.

Migrants have always been a part of this area, but dangerous drug cartels and increasing militarization have added additional challenges for those who live and work here. U.S. and Mexican researchers are faced with ethical and logistical challenges in navigating this political landscape. To better understand these complex dynamics, my colleagues and I conducted an anonymous survey among researchers who work in the border region to learn how border politics affect collaboration and researchers’ ability to perform their jobs.

Camera traps meant to take photos of wildlife also capture images of the people traversing this landscape. Myles Traphagen, CC BY-ND

Border fieldwork comes with complications

Our binational, multidisciplinary group of concerned scientists distributed an anonymous, online survey to 807 members of the Next-Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers Network. From this group of academic professionals, college students and employees of nonprofit organizations and federal and state agencies who work in the U.S.-Mexico border region, we received 59 responses. While not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, a summary of our results can be found on the N-Gen website, and the original data is available online.

Researchers in our pre-pandemic study reported feeling safe for the most part while working in the U.S.-Mexico border region. However this may reflect the fact that they adjust their work to stay away from risky places.

Respondents noted the importance of knowing individuals and communities where they work. For instance, one U.S.-based researcher told us, “I feel safe in Mexico where I know landowners and they know me. I don’t feel safe in U.S. public lands due to Border Patrol’s extensive presence, their racial profiling ways and guns pulled on me.”

Many respondents reported having encountered situations during fieldwork when they felt their security was threatened, occurring relatively equally on both sides of the border. Participants did not express safety concerns due to migrants themselves, but instead pointed to the militarization and criminal activity associated with the region.

Safety concerns on the Mexico side were primarily due to drug cartels and other criminal activity. Concerns in the U.S. centered on direct intimidation or “uneasy” or threatening encounters with U.S. Border Patrol, private landowners or militias.

As a result of safety concerns, many researchers from both countries reported their organization or employer had placed restrictions on working in the border areas of Mexico. In most cases, this meant limiting access to specific areas or requiring additional paperwork or approval through their institution.

Respondents reported logistical issues “altered or disrupted” their ability to perform fieldwork. These problems ranged from trouble crossing the border to difficulty obtaining necessary paperwork and permissions.

One researcher reported that permit delays for shipping scientific equipment across the border had stalled their research for over a year. More than half of respondents said these issues had increased in frequency or caused greater disruption to their work within the last three years.

Caught in the middle

Unsurprisingly, most researchers surveyed (69%) said they’ve encountered undocumented migrants while conducting fieldwork in the border region, although infrequently.

In situations of contact, migrants asked for assistance, such as food, water or a ride, a little over half of the time. Researchers drew a clear distinction between their willingness to offer food or water versus providing transportation.

Despite concerns about recent prosecutions of humanitarian aid workers in the border region, the threat was not sufficient to stop most respondents from taking action they viewed as moral or ethical.

“I would have pause given legal ramifications,” one person told us, “But I do not think this would change how I would act.” Survey respondents commented that they felt “caught in the middle” of an “impossible situation,” where the fear of prosecution conflicts with their moral imperative to help people in need.

A volunteer collects data as part of an ongoing Borderlands Sister Parks project in Rancho San Bernardino, Sonora, Mexico. Sky Island Alliance, CC BY-ND

Overall our results suggest that research is affected by border policies in myriad ways: Restricted access to areas reduces scientists’ ability to collect comprehensive data, such as are necessary for conducting biodiversity inventories.

Restrictions directly affecting the ability of researchers to collaborate over international boundaries can limit creativity and discovery. That can have long-term impacts, such as further separating countries’ ability to understand each other and foster meaningful partnerships catalyzed by science, including industrial innovation or ecological sustainability.

Societies have the right to enjoy the benefits of science. This requires that scientists are able to collaborate internationally and to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression or prosecution.

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Taylor Edwards, Associate Staff Scientist, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.