Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
New York Times on brain research:
President Barack Obama officially announced his new brain research initiative on Tuesday, with a pledge to put $100 million in his 2014 budget to support work at three federal agencies. It is a modest but welcome start for an effort that could transform our understanding of how the brain works and help researchers find new ways to treat and prevent brain disorders like epilepsy and Alzheimer's.
The ultimate aim is to learn how the brain generates thoughts, dreams, memories, perceptions and other mental images; how it stores and retrieves vast quantities of data; and how it learns from experience or education. More immediately, the aim is to generate new technologies in data processing, nanotechnology, optogenetics and other esoteric fields to study how billions of brain cells and complex neural circuits interact.
The $100 million will be split among the National Institutes of Health, the lead agency for biomedical research; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has a strong interest in treating soldiers with brain injuries; and the National Science Foundation, which supports a broad range of research in numerous fields. Federal officials say $100 million in the first year will be sufficient to convene expert groups to identify worthwhile projects and to collaborate with private donors who are also pouring millions into brain research.
Some researchers think a higher level of financing - perhaps $300 million in federal support annually - will be needed over the next decade to make substantial progress. For now, Obama's challenge to the nation's research community to get started is a big leap forward.
Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette on abstinence-only classes:
Two decades ago, conservatives in Congress undercut comprehensive sex education, which teaches teens how to avoid pregnancy and venereal diseases, and instead poured taxpayer money into abstinence-only classes that advocate shunning sex until marriage.
Well over $1 billion was spent to preach abstinence - and it didn't produce a dollar's worth of results. Study after study found that "just say no" teaching had no effect on adolescents - except to harm them by keeping them ignorant of ways to prevent pregnancy and V.D. Most U.S. medical groups called for a return to comprehensive courses that protect teens.
In 2010, under President Barack Obama, Congress ended two abstinence programs, saving taxpayers $112 million a year, but retained a third that grants up to $50 million annually to puritanical states wanting to keep teens sexless.
An obstetrician, Dr. Stephanie Sober, recently suggested that taxpayers should save the $50 million, rather than waste it on abstinence-only classes.
Southern West Virginia has a pathetic rate of teen pregnancy -- up to three times higher than the national average -- which often dooms both mothers and children to poverty and lost potential.
This state actually has good sex education laws, requiring schools to protect youths by giving them effective birth control instruction. But puritanical mountain taboos cause many rural schools to shun this obligation, like Dracula recoiling from a crucifix. In effect, some classes teach abstinence-only, even though state law requires comprehensive training.
All teenage girls deserve the best future possible. Helping them avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases should be a solemn commitment. America should stop pushing futile abstinence-only training and instead teach teens how to protect themselves.
Telegraph of Macon on not abandoning U.S. troops' allies:
When American troops went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they relied on local translators, drivers and guides to help them navigate incalculable risks. In exchange, the United States promised, beginning in 2006, to provide visas for those men and women whose work put them in danger. But nearly a decade later, it has yet to fulfill that commitment.
Washington must live up to its obligations. A good place to start would be for Congress and the White House to move swiftly to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is due to expire in the months ahead. Enacted by Congress in 2007, the program provides 6,500 new visas annually for Iraqis and Afghans to resettle in the United States. Yet it has been plagued with problems.
An unwieldy application process, coupled with enhanced security measures designed to weed out possible terrorists, has led to backlogs and long delays. As a result, only a fraction of the available visas have been issued. In fiscal year 2012, for example, fewer than 2,000 visas were granted, according to the U.S. Department of State's data. Overall, only 22 percent of the authorized Iraqi visas and 12 percent of the authorized Afghan visas have been issued since the program began.
The Obama administration has made some efforts to improve the program in Iraq, but it has yet to undertake similar reforms in Afghanistan. It ought to ensure that the application process is streamlined in Baghdad as well as Kabul, where some published reports indicate that as many as 5,000 applications are pending.
The delays in processing applications aren't simply an inconvenience. Many applicants have been waiting years for approval and have had to live in hiding during that period.
Clearly the Special Immigrant Visa program isn't working as Congress intended it to. But allowing it to sunset is not the answer.
Loveland (Colo.) Daily Reporter-Herald on U.S. rivers still needing help to be healthy:
American rivers are no longer treated as raw sewage and industrial waste dumping grounds. The Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire. Lake Erie has been resurrected (mostly) from the dead. All thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972.
But, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment, U.S. rivers aren't out of the woods just yet.
The report found that 55 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are in poor condition biologically and only 21 percent are in good health.
While the causes of poor river health can be many, the EPA report noted that the biggest culprits are nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus. Normal amounts of nutrients may be good for rivers and aquatic life, but too much of a good thing increases algae growth, which decreases oxygen needed by other aquatic life.
The excess nitrogen and phosphorus, common ingredients in fertilizers, are coming from farms, livestock feeding operations, cities and sewers. The report also found that 9 percent of waterways contained bacteria levels high enough to be a threat to human health, and it reaffirmed the high levels of mercury in fish in thousands of miles of U.S. rivers.
Surely we can do better. The Clean Water Act brought us a long way, but there's more to be done.
Yes, it costs money to keep our rivers clean and healthy. But it would cost considerably more to let them degrade further.
Los Angeles Times on the Atlanta cheating scandal:
If a student cheats on an important test, such as a midterm, he is punished, and rightly so. His teacher doesn't merely brush aside the offense and blame it on all the stressful and unnecessary high-stakes tests that today's unfortunate students are required to take.
Yet every time an educator is caught in a test-cheating scandal, the teachers union response is as predictable as 2 plus 2: Of course cheating is wrong, but what else can we expect when policymakers stress achievement on standardized tests - and especially when, as in this case, there were financial bonuses attached to higher scores?
It happened again Tuesday, as Atlanta educators surrendered to authorities after being indicted in the nation's biggest and most blatant example of systemic cheating. Close to 200 teachers and principals in the Atlanta schools admitted to fixing students' incorrect answers and other wrongdoing; the indictment names 35 people, including the former superintendent of schools.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a joint statement with the head of the Georgia Federation of Teachers that condemned the misdeeds and declared that cheating could not be condoned under any circumstances. ...
By all means, policy makers should reexamine how extreme reliance on standards tests, which measure a limited portion of what students have learned, might harm education. But cheating isn't one of the issues they should consider. Holding pizza parties while tampering with student answer sheets, as some teachers in Atlanta did, isn't a natural reaction to academic or career pressure. It's dishonesty, plain and simple.
Chicago Sun-Times on universal background checks needed for gun control:
Don't look now, but the U.S. Senate might actually pass legislation that has a chance to significantly reduce gun violence.
Some advocates of stronger gun laws were discouraged recently when the Senate dropped provisions to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines from legislation that will be considered starting next week.
But what remains - a bill that would expand background checks when guns are purchased and stiffen penalties for straw purchases - is perhaps the single measure that could do most to tamp down the shootings in America's neighborhoods. Mass shootings with assault weapons are awful when they occur, but over the course of a year, as we in Chicago know too well, far more Americans are killed by handguns.
We need universal background checks, because we need to stop making it easy for criminals to buy guns. Virtually all firearms start out as legal, but gaps in our laws allow guns to flow from legal to illegal hands. Under the "gun show loophole," no record keeping is required in private gun sales, which now account for two out of every five firearms transactions. A "straw purchaser," someone with valid credentials who buys guns for those who can't legally purchase them, can easily operate in the nether region where no records exist.
That's a huge loophole, and truckloads of guns are driven right through it. ...
The NRA opposes universal background checks. It helped push through a measure that prohibits the FBI from hanging on for longer than 24 hours to records of those who pass the existing background check system. That makes it hard to spot a pattern of straw purchases. Lawmakers should not be swayed by the NRA on this issue.
Waiting for the U.S. Senate to act, though, is not enough. We need to act on the state level, too. Even if the U.S. Senate bill does pass, its prospects are uncertain in the U.S. House. Illinois, which already has closed the gun show loophole, would be wise to enact its own requirement for background checks for all other private transactions.
Prompted by a December ruling by a federal appeals court that invalidated Illinois' ban on the concealed carrying of weapons, both houses of the Illinois Legislature are debating gun bills. The legislation that emerges should include a universal background check and a requirement that gun owners report lost or stolen weapons, which would help close another loophole. ...
The Oklahoman on Postal Service plan:
In the range of treatment plans to stanch the hemorrhaging at the U.S. Postal Service, surely the curtailment of Saturday delivery is the least painful. But as with any proposal to change the way the USPS does business, supporters of six-day-a-week mail service are rallying to preserve the status quo.
What to do about a $16 billion deficit at USPS? The protesters don't care. It's not their problem. Every time the Postal Service proposes something other than rate increases to reduce losses, members of Congress and special-interest groups come out of the envelope and put a stop to it.
A more damaging "fix" for deficits is to close underused post offices in small towns and even in parts of big cities. Just as school consolidation raises fears of a loss of community identity, closure of a post office is seen as the final nail in the coffin of a town in decline. We sympathize with the people remaining in those places.
We have less sympathy for those who think ending Saturday mail delivery (saving the USPS $2 billion a year) represents a blow to humanity. Other than retail outlets, most businesses run on a Monday-Friday schedule. Always have. The Postal Service keeps its 20th-century mail delivery schedule in an era when "snail mail" is in serious decline.
Postal workers are naturally concerned about job losses - as many as 22,500 carrier jobs could go. What about the job losses in the private sector because of changing market conditions? Congress doesn't ride to the rescue of those. Thousands of people were once employed to deliver telegrams. Not anymore.
Given the resistance in Congress to doing something fiscally responsible, Saturday first-class mail delivery will likely continue beyond its scheduled expiration in August. Sooner or later, though, six-day mail service will go the way of the telegram.
The Star-Ledger, N.J., on Rutgers' Mike Rice had to go:
The evidence against Mike Rice was too damning, too vile, too extreme for him to spend one more day on the Rutgers University payroll.
That he remained employed this long - long after a line of Rutgers officials that winds all the way to the president's office had watched the now infamous video - is an embarrassment.
It is bad enough that Rice behaved like an unrestrained child having a temper tantrum. But what puts this over the top were the anti-gay slurs. Rutgers Athletic Director Mike Pernetti and President Robert Barchi need to ask themselves how they would have reacted if Rice used a racial slur. Our guess is he would have been fired, without all the outside pressure. Bigoted attacks on gays should be taken no less seriously.
Pernetti acknowledged yesterday that he knew the video - showing the head basketball coach assaulting his players, over and over, with heaved basketballs and hurled slurs - would go public. By last night, it was one of the nation's most talked-about stories. That makes the decision to handle Rice's behavior with a suspension and fines, all while planning to let him keep coaching college students, all the more bone-headed.
Rice had to go. ...
Can a lesson be learned from this? It's a lesson that should have been learned from the tragedy of Tyler Clementi's suicide. Clementi's story unfolded at Rutgers, right under Rice's nose. Yet the slurs continued. People who know the coach - including players who took his abuse - say it wasn't as bad as the video makes it look, that there's no video showing Rice's chest bumps and high-fives.
In the end, it was the verbal attacks, not the physical ones, that sealed Rice's fate. How should the rest of Rutgers - students and faculty, gay or otherwise - watch the video and see that intolerable behavior was to be tolerated at the university's highest levels?
Rice deserved to be fired. Now attention has to be turned to Pernetti and others who failed to see what was unmistakable to everyone else.
The Australian on business in Beijing:
Even before China's northern neighbors on the Korean peninsula became caught up in a dangerous game of war mongering, the trade, diplomatic and strategic agenda for the Prime Minister's visit was bulging. In keeping with the spirit of the Asian Century white paper, Ms Gillard will head Australia's largest official delegation to the country. As one of the first foreign leaders to visit Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang since they took office, Gillard has what she will doubtless regard as a welcome opportunity to escape her domestic political woes and seek to demonstrate her abilities on the international stage.
As a curtain raiser to deepening trade and economic ties, Gillard has made a good start. The proposed currency deal that will make the Australian dollar one of only three currencies able to be converted directly into Chinese yuan -- slashing costs for thousands of businesses involved in the $128 billion-a-year bilateral trade relationship -- will have a major impact.
But, as our China correspondent Scott Murdoch reports, other issues that go to the heart of the relationship remain, among them questions about Australia's reliability as a supply partner and mounting concern that, despite 19 rounds of talks, the much-anticipated free trade agreement remains far from finalized. It is not just on these that Gillard is likely to face questions. Beijing remains unhappy about our 2009 Defense white paper, believing it reflects undue suspicions about Chinese intentions. It has been annoyed, too, by Canberra's involvement in the Obama administration's "pivot" of US forces to Asia, including basing US marines in Australia.
On this, Gillard must remain unapologetic. On regional security she should turn the focus squarely and expeditiously on to the Korean threat and the need for China, as the sole power with leverage in Pyongyang, to compel its client state to back off. So far, China is manifestly doing no more than paying lip-service to its promise to pressure Pyongyang. It can and must do much more. Gillard must seize the opportunity to make a real difference to Australia's bilateral economic, trade and strategic interests. The need for a close working relationship with Beijing has never been of greater imperative.
The Japan Times, Tokyo, on the Mideast:
One of the sore spots in the foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama has been his relationship with Israel. The special relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv has been one of the cornerstones of U.S. diplomacy, a lodestar for U.S. presidents since the founding of the state of Israel.
The strength of that relationship reflects Israel's status as the first and strongest democracy in the Middle East, the alliance with the U.S. and, to the consternation of some, the power of the Israeli lobby in Washington.
Since taking office, Obama has been accused of ignoring Israel and showing favoritism toward the Palestinians. In one of his first overseas trips as president, he went to Egypt to deliver a speech that aimed to re-establish the U.S. relationship with the Arab and Islamic world.
Ever since, critics have charged that Obama is less than committed to the defense of Israel, pointing to his criticism of Israeli settlements and statements that endorsed returning to borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made common cause with those critics to increase his leverage in negotiations with Obama. The result has been considerable tension between the two men.
In truth, Obama's commitment to the defense of Israel has not wavered. ...
By almost all accounts, he succeeded. From the moment he landed in Israel, Obama told Israelis they are not alone and that their alliance with the U.S. remains strong. In a speech in Jerusalem on March 21, he planted himself firmly on the side of the Israeli people, and then made an impassioned plea to see the world from a Palestinian perspective. It was a masterful performance, the high point of the trip, and one that won over his audience.
Polls showed that he turned his image around among Israelis, convincing them that he was more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian. ...
At the U.S. president's urging, Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apologized for the deaths and promised to reach an agreement on compensation to their families. The two countries also agreed to restore normal relations. The move is especially important given the situation in Syria and the potential for wider instability.
It is vitally important that Tel Aviv and Ankara be communicating and able to work together if things deteriorate.
A final stop in Jordan, a long time U.S. supporter, demonstrated commitment to old friends in the Arab world, as well as support for peaceful democratization. ...
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to return to both Israel and Palestine to press for the resumption of peace talks. Deep engagement by Kerry will be one sign that Obama is now committed to substance rather than symbolism when approaching this intractable problem.
Ottawa (Ontario) Citizen on homegrown terrorists:
We have known for some time that Canadians were among the attackers of an Algerian gas plant back in January.
Now, CBC has reported the names of two of them: Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, two young men who grew up in London, Ontario.
The fact that this attack didn't happen on Canadian soil should be of little comfort to Canadians. We failed to prevent an international terrorist movement from recruiting our young men, and we failed to prevent them from taking human life, in a particularly cruel hostage-taking. Al-Qaeda-style terrorism is not a foreign entity we can keep out at the border. It's here, and the response must be here as well as overseas.
There's a difficult balance to strike between effective intelligence and surveillance on the one hand, and respect for fundamental civil liberties on the other. Intelligence agencies and police should ask questions, but at a certain frequency or level of aggression, asking questions becomes harassment. We must share information with other countries, but carefully, knowing that information has consequences and bad information can be fatal. After 2001, Canada made several egregious mistakes - cases such as Maher Arar's and Abdullah Almalki's come to mind. The answer to global terrorism is not to hand Canadians over to torture states because they happen to know someone who's fallen under suspicion, or because somebody has a hunch.
We have a responsibility to the rest of the world, though, to do our utmost to track the movements of cells within Canada while respecting the letter and spirit of constitutional rights. We have a responsibility to try to prevent Canadians from carrying out attacks in other countries - a moral responsibility, and also a self-interest, because destabilizing forces anywhere can become regional problems, which can become international problems, which can become wars in which Canadians fight and die. And, of course, there is domestic safety to consider, too; homegrown terrorists do not always plan their attacks overseas.
The Star, Toronto, on Harper government is right to engage with the Arab world:
Given the sheer length and scope of his Mideast tour, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird seems to have a thin agenda. So far he has upgraded our diplomatic presence in Iraq, thrown a bit of money Jordan's way to cope with Syrian refugees and smoothed over a spat with the United Arab Emirates over aircraft landing rights. He has also dodged questions about Canadians in a terror attack in Algeria.
Unless he springs some big surprise on the Israeli or Palestinian leg of his travels, even supporters of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government may be tempted to write off the trip as a yawn.
Still, considering Canada's frayed relations in much of the Middle East, where the Conservatives have been criticized for seeing the region through an obsessively Israel-focused prism, it's good to see Baird paying at least token attention to Arab issues to "expand our engagement" on his 12-day trip, even if Canadian commercial interests and Israel's security concerns remain uppermost in his mind.
The Arab Spring has transformed, and destabilized, entire countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Syria is in flames. ...
During Baird's unexpected visit to Iraq, he met Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and named Stephanie Duhaime to be our permanent chargÃ© d'affaires in Baghdad. That gives us diplomatic eyes on the ground in a key country with which we have had few dealings for the past decade, and should help Canadian firms win contracts as Iraq expands its oil industry. Iraq already is our major regional economic partner, with $4 billion in two-way trade.
In Jordan, Baird met King Abdullah and pledged $13 million more in aid to help the kingdom cope with 470,000 Syrians displaced by the two-year civil war. ...
Given Harper's vocal support for Israel, Baird can expect a warm welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early next week. But Arab eyes will be on Baird's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where Canada's $300-million aid package expires this week. The successful Palestinian push for more recognition at the UN, opposed by Israel, has irritated the Harper government and put a renewal of aid in doubt.
Yet nothing would more clearly signal Canada's genuine desire to reboot relations with the Arab world than a generous renewal of aid to Palestinians as U.S. President Barack Obama and others try to encourage new peace talks. Cutting back on aid would only reinforce the damaging perception that Canada makes policy exclusively with Israel's hawkish coalition government in mind. ...