UK Science Advocates Prepping For 2015 Elections

The next UK Parliamentary elections will take place next year.  The Campaign for Science and Engineering has been getting ready, recently releasing a series of briefings on science matters.  They seek comment from each of the parties with representation in Parliament on how their respective party manifestos (platforms for us Yanks) reflect the issues noted in the briefs.

The briefings cover investment in scientific and technical research, education and skills, and science advice in government.  While they are – obviously – geared toward the UK situation, I think you’d find the general concerns applicable to other countries.  Maintaining, if not increasing, government investment in science and technology; ensuring sufficient numbers of people trained in science and engineering (both for the educational workforce and the workforce at large); and the presence and transparency of science and engineering knowledge in policymaking are all challenging topics.  They all suffer, to varying degrees, from a lack of priority attention from policymakers.  The reaction to these briefs (or lack thereof) should demonstrate that quite soon.

China’s Rising Scientific Enterprise Still Has A Big Quality Control Problem

Yes, China is increasing its scientific enterprise in terms of people and research output.  And while the relative quality of that research is likely improving to the level found in more established research systems, there appears to be at least one significant impediment to that improvement.

Nature News reports on another instance of corruption affecting Chinese scientific research.  This time its the misuse of over $4 million U.S. awarded to five research universities.  Seven scientists were named, and six are currently detained.  Two of those six have already started prison terms.

(For what it’s worth, even though it’s Chinese prison, I’m sympathetic to this level of punishment for the kinds of misconduct involved here.)

I suffer no illusion that other research systems are perfect.  But the kinds of scientific misconduct in other countries do not raise to the level I’ve seen reported in China.  Hopefully that will change, but in the meantime, I think it is something that should be part of any thorough analysis of the value in research, regardless of country.

U.S. Asking For Pause In Gain Of Function Research

Ebola is not the only virus on the government’s mind these days.  Earlier today (H/T ScienceInsider) the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services announced a pause in new funding for gain-of-function research on influenza, SARS and MERS.  Gain-of-function research tries to make existing viruses more pathogenetic or transmissible.  Additionally, the government will encourage those involved in current gain-of-function research to pause said research.

The government has also initiated a deliberation process it intends to complete in the next year.  Both the National Research Council and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will work on recommendations that would inform a federal policy on gain-of-function research.

This is not the first time the government has tried to address the matter of gain-of-function research.  However, the current focus on Ebola and the recent problems with lab security of viruses could (and perhaps should) boost the scrutiny of this process.  As ScienceInsider has reported that many groups have been advocating for some kind of pause or deliberative process to think through gain-of-function studies.  But there could be resistance, if the incredulous Tweet included at the end of the piece is any indication.  It is a Tweet, but it mischaracterizes the nature of the pause.  It does not call for a moratorium on deadly pathogen research, but a pause on research that would increase the lethality or ease of spread of certain pathogens.  Unfortunately, the current perceptions of viruses and efforts to stop them make me think that most will not try to properly parse the nature of the proposed pause.

The Non-Technical Challenges Facing The Truckbed Reactor

Lockheed Martin made some noise on Wednesday with its announcement that it had made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion reactors.  Specifically, it claimed advances in developing a compact reactor.  Based on size reductions achieved through new magnetic confinement techniques, the company will be able to develop a prototype reactor within five years that could power about 80,000 homes and fit in the back of a truck.

The announced advancements are relatively thin on details, suggesting that the promised advancements are currently theoretical.  Even if those gains can be demonstrated, a radical shrinkage in the size of fusion reactors could upend the regulation of nuclear reactors.  Smaller reactors will make it easier for non-governmental parties to build and use them (though deep pockets may well be required).  While the matters of waste, radioactivity, and weapons proliferation are different for fusion reactors than their fission cousins, they still need to be managed.  If there’s the slightest chance that Lockheed is not overstating its case, I think it’s worth having a conversation about how to regulate smaller fusion reactors.  Better to have rules before the technology is mature than after.

A Means To Sift Through The Ebola Noise – Ebola Deeply

Given the difficulty this country is having in following protocol with Ebola cases, having tools to provide context and to sift through the sensationalism is pretty important.  Thanks to Alexis Madrigal and his Five Intriguing Things list, I found out about Ebola Deeply.

The site is part of a larger digital journalism effort called News Deeply.  The focus is providing digitally curated collections of news, background information and other context.  For instance, with Ebola Deeply you can see a case map (hey, Americans, we currently have less than 0.05 percent of the total cases in this outbreak), glossary, collections of medical reports, stories of survivors, a history of the virus (and attempts to eradicate it), and basics about the virus (which likely need to be repeated…daily).

A side note – actor Jeffrey Wright is one of the advisors for Ebola Deeply.  His other connections with the virus include producing a video on people affected by Ebola as well as his work in Africa connected to his nonprofit.  He is particularly interested in filling in gaps in Western media coverage of the virus, so I’m not surprised to see him involved here.

Australia Shakes Up Its Top Science Advisory Council

The Abbott Government recently announced the formation of the Commonwealth Science Council as part of its new competitiveness agenda for Australia.  Chaired by Prime Minister Abbott, the Council membership is split evenly between industry and university appointments, with the appropriate government ministers participating as appropriate.  The Industry Minister will serve as Deputy Chair and the Minsters for Health and Education would be regular contributors.

Australian Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb noted his support for the new Council, which would take the place of the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC).  My own (limited) review of PMSEIC activities suggests that the Commonwealth Science Council, by dint of its membership and the focus of the Abbott Government, will be more focused on near-term activities and on connections between researchers and industry.  (However, it would seem that there has been a trend away from a foresight-heavy advisory council dating back several years before the newest government formed.)

While such links might be denounced in the States as ‘picking winners,’ smaller countries like Australia can’t afford to invest in as many areas of science and technology.  Such investment strategies are (hopefully) sound strategic tools for finding the most return on investment.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of October 13

Before I dive into this week’s list, I want to note that last Wednesday, October 8, was thick with science and technology content late at night.  On The Late Show, the musical guest was computer generated and computer performed.  Well, at least the lead singer was.  Hatsune Miku is called a virtual pop star, and video is perhaps the best explanation as to why.

@midnight made a rare appearance here because there was a segment prompted by some 1997 video of a how-to cybersex video.  As you might expect, the segment and the video that spawned it are NSFW.

Jimmy Kimmel aired one of his street interview segments that night (Kimmel’s Pedestrian Questions are not breaking new ground, Jay Leno called his street interview segments Jaywalking, and he was at least the third Tonight Show host to do something like it), with GMOs as the theme.  Kimmel had his interviewers ask people if they knew what GMOs were, and since this was a comedy piece and not a poll, the results cannot be considered representative.  Stories on this segment that suggest otherwise are not to be trusted.  Kimmel has done this on science-related topics before, such as this one on gluten from May.

On to this week’s interviews to watch:

Tonight Walter Isaacson is on The Colbert Report, promoting his book The Innovators, which is a history of the people who, over the course of decades, developed the pieces that contributed to the digital revolution.  On Wednesday, Nicholas Hoult sits down with Conan O’Brien.  His newest film, Young Ones, is set on an Earth where water is much more scarce than it is today.  On Thursday, Egyptologist Kara Cooney returns to see Craig Ferguson.  The week closes with Jessica Chastain’s appearance on The Late Show.  While she does have a film premiering this month, she is in the upcoming science fiction film Interstellar, which revolves around an attempt to use a wormhole to find a new planet for humans to live.  Dave may bring that up.