Crowdsourced funding efforts, or crowdfunding, is not a new phenomenon. While it has been used to support science and/or technology projects, universities have not gotten in on the act. Until recently.
Per The Chronicle of Higher Education (H/T STEM Connector), the University of Virginia has opted to partner with Useed, a crowdfunding platform that has three other university partners. While the projects on the other university portals cover many different kinds of university activity, the University of Virginia intends to focus on getting the crowd to help support research projects. At the moment there are two projects on the University of Virginia portal, and ten are expected to be promoted during the six-month pilot.
The two projects currently on the portal suggest that the University may focus on projects that have already conducted their research, but need to cover some development or distribution costs for technologies that come out of the research. Perhaps there will be future projects that are the crowdfunded equivalent of a grant application, but I think crowdfunding will need to become more accepted in order for it to really become an alternative to competing for National Science Foundation funding.
Some programs will air repeats toward the end of the week, reflecting either the desire for a long Memorial Day Weekend, or the end of the May ratings sweeps period. It’s likely both. Friday’s rerun of The Late, Late Show rates a mention, with the Morgan Freeman segment focusing on science topics (related to Freeman’s role as host of Through the Wormhole). Freeman is schedule to be on The Daily Show this Thursday, but I expect it will be focused on his newest film, which is not science or technology oriented (it’s a bank heist film using magic).
In first-run programs, environmental journalist David Sasson spars with Stephen Colbert. Tuesday marks the return of the Piedmont Bird Callers to The Late Show. Also on Tuesday, Jeremy Wade, host of River Monsters, sits down with Jay Leno. On Friday, Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, will be on Ellen.
On a slightly related note, BBC America is running James May’s Man Lab, a cheeky do-it-yourself science and technology show that previously ran (and still does) on the BBC. As I type this the latest episode new to America is covering how to handle unexploded World War II ordnance you might find in your garden. The network also runs the television version of The Nerdist, a podcast empire of note. It’s May 12 episode focused on space, with Buzz Aldrin and Bobak Ferdowsi (one of the control room engineers - Mohawk Guy – for the Mars Curiosity rover).
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom dedicated to maintaining the presence of investigative journalism in modern media. It recently sent a team to participate in a ‘hackday’ with a theme of ‘newsgaming.’ While hackathons and similar dedicated coding days are not new, the notion of newsgaming – using games to better engage the reader with the story – is new to me.
ProPublica’s game – HeartSaver – focuses on New York City, where half a million people suffer from heart disease. The challenge – prevent as many heart attack deaths as possible by getting people to emergency rooms fast enough. It becomes complicated when considering the variations in quality of care. A patient may be very close to a sub-par emergency room, but the good emergency room is far enough away that the chances of survival decrease enough on the trip to offset the increased quality of care. The game uses Medicare, Google Directions, and mortality rate information to power its mechanics. Game play is simple – drag patients to the emergency room of your choice as they appear.
Go ahead, play the game. How does it help you understand the challenges of delivering effective health care for heart attack patients in New York City? Would you be more likely to read (or recommend) a story that comes with a news game?
Two recent items from The Scientist poke at a question that, unfortunately, needs to be asked more often – can someone who conducted research misconduct be rehabilitated? Certainly those who are found guilty, and have received bans from federal funding, can eventually re-apply for funds. (I would suspect that only the established researchers will be able to return to the granting fold after a forced absence.) But does the ban enough to make sure that a researcher won’t re-offend?
Duplicating efforts underway to rehabilitate misbehaving doctors and other professionals, the Restoring Professionalism and Integrity in Research (RePAIR) program is trying to help researchers make better professional decisions (H/T The Scientist). The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health (though it wouldn’t hurt for the National Science Foundation to get in on this action). And perhaps in acknowledgement that not everyone is willing or able to mend their ways, RePAIR only accepts those researchers who have the backing of their institutions. I’m one of those that is skeptical of those found guilty of misconduct, but I have to recognize that efforts to rehabilitate those researchers, and mitigate at least some of the damage caused by their conduct, is something worth exploring.
That there is a need for rehabilitative programs suggests, as discussed in this other piece from The Scientist, that ethics training is not as successful as one might expect. But, as James Hicks discusses in the piece, the issue of success depends on what the program is supposed to be successful in doing. On the face of it, the primary goal would be a decline in research misconduct. As the trend has been in the opposite direction, there has not been success. But it is plausible that the ethics training, and the associated research infrastructure to address ethical concerns, has helped make it easier to call out such bad actions. It’s like an increase in incidence of a disease because the tests to diagnose it have become much more effective.
Then there is the matter of the increasingly competitive and administrative research environment. With attention from the bench competing with the need to get ahead and the need to keep up with the running of a lab, there is room for error to creep in. And while research infrastructure has grown to address ethical concerns pre-research, there has not been a corresponding growth in people and institutions focused on correcting the research record. In this tight budgetary environment, addressing this need will be challenging. But it may be even more necessary, as a trend noted by Hicks suggests that as success rates for grant applications goes down (likely in a flat or declining budgetary environment), retractions increase.
The Ventus Project is looking to get the public’s help in improving its information on power plant emissions. Apparently, the body of knowledge on existing power plants is not as well-developed as I would have expected. The public’s help is requested to provide locations of power plants, and if they have access, other information on the production and emissions of these plants.
The task involves adding the location of power plants (along with whatever additional information one has) to a Google Maps document. Not that other crowdsourcing projects are very technical in what they ask of participants, but adding virtual pins to a map strikes me as relatively simple.
If someone opts to register with the project when they provide information, they will be able to compete with other registered participants for a trophy and author credit on the paper the project members intend to publish on their work.
The resulting data will be combined with a NASA project involving atmospheric carbon dioxide data to refine both a high-resolution model of the global carbon cycle and associated tracking methods. There is certainly some risk in using crowdsourced information, especially anonymously submitted information. With the recent history of heightened scrutiny over greenhouse emissions data, models and research, it would seem nearly a certainty that those who do not wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will question the credibility of the submitted information.
How the Ventus project will test or demonstrate the reliability of submitted information is not obvious from the information linked to in this blog post. It is possible that such information cannot be effectively confirmed, and may not be usable in the project. Hopefully the Ventus team will be as open about that part of the project as it is in its interest in gathering public assistance.
The Senate finally got around to confirming Ernest Moniz as the next Secretary of Energy. Moniz is the second physicist to hold the job, following his predecessor, Steven Chu. The vote 97 to zero in favor of the nomination. It took two months from nomination to confirmation in part due to a hold by a Senator. At least this one was connected to Department of Energy activity, as Senator Graham objected to a study requested in the President’s 2014 budget.
At this point, it appears that once (or if) EPA Administrator nominee Gina McCarthy is confirmed, the last gap in the President’s science and technology team is the Director of the National Science Foundation. If the potential struggle between the Foundation and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee escalates, it may take a while for the Administration to find someone willing to take the job.
As should be noted for all court case analysis, I am not a lawyer.
On Monday the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bowman v. Monsanto, a case involving a farmer (Bowman) attempting to use seeds that were descended from Monsanto-engineered seeds. Monsanto believes that its intellectual property covers not only the original seeds and any of their descendants. Bowman argued that the patents do not cover seeds replicated from the patented seeds. The doctrine of patent exhaustion typically means that the intellectual property rights cover only the first sale of a product (this preserves the possibility of used markets in a variety of goods).
The Court ruled unanimously in favor of Monsanto. Instead of considering what Bowman did as resale, the Court considered the replanting and harvesting of Monsanto-engineered seeds as copying, which does not fall under the protection of patent exhaustion. When Monsanto sells the seeds originally, the licensing agreement that must be signed permits selling the resulting seeds as a commodity, and while Bowman purchased the seeds from a grain elevator, he used them for a different purpose, thus violating the license.
The Court makes a point of stating it is limiting its ruling to this particular kind of ‘self-replicating product’
“Our holding today is limited — addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product. We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse. In another case, the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose.”
While the opinion specifically mentions software programs, I can see the possibility that gene patents could be considered as self-replicating products. How that argument might fare legally is unclear to me. I can see it being interpreted as like making copies, but since the associated uses of the gene patents like the Myriad case is not in discrete products like seeds, I’d resist making such a clear parallel. We should see how the Court looks at this very soon.