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Do the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweigh the risks?

According to a seismologist investigating regional earthquakes, a northeast Ohio well used to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas drilling almost certainly caused a series of 11 minor quakes. Some environmentalists are already critical of the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which utilizes chemical-laced water and sand to blast deep into the ground and free shale gas. Critics fear that the drilling liquid contains carcinogens, and could contaminate water supplies. The industry-supported Ohio Oil and Gas Association, however, said the rash of quakes was "a rare and isolated event that should not cast doubt about the effectiveness" of injection wells, adding that the wells "have been used safely and reliably as a disposal method for wastewater from oil and gas operations in the U.S. since the 1930."

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Will a wider integration of robotic drone aircraft do more harm than good?

This week's Question: In January, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to outline new rules for the use of small drones, a first step in allowing police departments, farmers, and other agencies to employ the technology. The drones could be used for air support to spot criminals, monitor pipelines, or even spray crops, for example. The FAA has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone applications, but hasn't permitted wide-scale drone use in national airspace out of concern that the pilotless craft lack adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions. Other concerns include privacy and the ways that criminals and terrorists could use the devices. What do you think? Will a wider integration of robotic drone aircraft do more harm than good?

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Are geo-engineering efforts a promising way to address climate change?

This week's Question: A report released last week in London and addressed at the U.N. climate conference in South Africa said that reflecting a small amount of sunlight back into space before it strikes the Earth's surface would theoretically have an immediate effect on the planet's climate. This kind of geo-engineering and solar radiation management, some say, would be a more cost-effective and efficient way to combat global warming, and would be less disruptive of business activity. Geo-engineering the planet's climate, however, needs further research, and skeptics say that political concerns and unknown side effects, including changing weather patterns and rainfall, are too much of a risk. What do you think? Are geo-engineering efforts a promising way to address climate change?

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Will the rover reveal that Mars might once have been hospitable for microbial life — or might even still be conducive to life?

This week's Question: The Curiosity rover, NASA's biggest extraterrestrial explorer, was launched toward Mars last week. The mobile laboratory, 10 feet long by 9 feet wide, will search for evidence that the planet was once hospitable to microbrial life. The device's on-board instruments are designed to hunt for organic compounds. What do you think? Will the rover reveal that Mars might once have been hospitable for microbial life — or might even still be conducive to life?

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Will we be able to design an "operating system" for a living biological cell?

This week's Question: As part of a five-year, $1.58 million research project named AudACiOus, a group of University of Nottingham scientists will attempt to program the genetic components of a cell to perform any desired function, without requiring extensive modification to the cell. If successful, the team would develop a cell's equivalent of a computer operating system, which could be re-programmed with different "applications" and serve as an easier method for creating new life forms. Researchers say the project could lead to the creation of completely new cellular life forms that could do anything from cleaning up pollutants in the environment to detecting and treating viruses before they enter the human body. Although there have been successes in the bioengineering field, the manipulation of cell parts to run a reprogrammable "cellular operating system" remains a laborious and expensive endeavor. Additionally, it is difficult to predict the behavior of cells in a laboratory environment. What do you think? Will we be able to design an "operating system" for a living biological cell?

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Are you concerned that children are spending more time than ever in front of screens?

This week's Question: A new study from Common Sense Media shows that infants and toddlers spend twice as much time with screen media as they do with books. While television is still the dominant media device in most young children's lives, the study, based on responses of more than 1,300 parents, found that more than 38 percent of kids under 8 years old have used a smartphone, video iPod, or iPad. What do you think? Are you concerned that children are spending more time than ever in front of screens?

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Is the discovery of intelligent alien life unlikely?

This week's Question: Two recent ePetitions on a "We the People" petition site asked the government to acknowledge the presence of aliens. A reply from a research assistant from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy emphasized that the government was actively looking for aliens, through the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, the Kepler telescope and upcoming Mars science laboratory, but hadn't found any yet. "The odds of us making contact with any of them —especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved," he said. Do you agree? Given the distances involved, is the discovery of intelligent alien life unlikely?

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