Please Recycle Your Drones

One of the atmospheric touches early on in Interstellar (no spoilers, I promise) involves Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his kids chasing a rogue unmanned aerial vehicle until they are able to take control and land it.  They then cannibalize it for parts.

While there is not yet a flock of rogue drones wandering through the air, it’s reasonable to think that eventually some UAVs will crash in places where it won’t be so easy to recover them, in whole or in parts.  Absent some spy-level self-destruct magic, one method of dealing with this future debris is to make it biodegradable.

One group working on this for drones is competing at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (yeah, I didn’t know this was a thing either).  They have found a company that uses mushrooms to form the bulk of the drone body.  Using other natural materials, such as cellulose and proteins from wasp spit, the bodies of these drones are both biodegradable and water resistant.

Now, there are still several parts that are non-biodegradable, but work is proceeding on making biodegradable versions of sensors, rotors and other parts to make a completely biodegradable craft.  Besides minimizing the environmental impact of crashing electronics in the wilderness, these craft can also make it harder for technology to fall into the ‘wrong hands’ – unless they get to the craft really fast.

PCAST Suggests Grand Challenges For Nanotechnology

In early October the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  The assessment of the program, established in 2000, is periodically required by law.

A major focus of this latest assessment is commercialization.  The report argues that the time is now for encouraging the utilization of the last decade of research in new products and services not presently available.  While the report calls for continued support for research in early stage nanotechnology, it also encourages the government to support this commercialization.  Agencies involved in the NNI will need to add to their current infrastructure plans and procedures for coordinating commercialization activity in addition to the basic and applied research efforts they support.  Part of this effort draws on a tool commonly used by the current Administration – the Grand Challenge.  In addition to finding the right areas for Grand Challenges, the report encourages the use of public-private partnerships and prize competitions to facilitate commercialization.  Presumably this means that the Feynman Grand Prize would soon have more company, should the government implement the recommendations of this report.

And here’s where there may be some trouble.  Part of the report outlines how the 2012 recommendations were implemented, and the record isn’t good.  In many cases, the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are not being funded, or administered, in ways that would fully support the goals of the NNI, which include maintaining and/or achieving American leadership in areas of nanotechnology.  With the current budget pressures and willful government dysfunction, it’s likely to take more than a biennial scold from outside advisers to make sure American nanotechnology can compete on the world stage.

More Funny Pages On The Red Planet

Next Friday Uwingu will beam messages to Mars, in commemoration of the first mission to that planet on November 28, 1964.  As part of its Beam Me To Mars campaign, Uwingu is including comic strips.  The first one announced was Pearls Before Swine.  In the month since, at least three other comic strips have indicated they were headed to Mars.  Joining Pearls Before Swine are strips from The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, Red and Rover, The Pajama Diaries, and Prickly City.  (If I’ve missed any, please point me to them in the comments)

While Pearls Before Swine is not known for covering space in its panels, most of the other strips being broadcast next week have featured science, space and/or technology as themes in their strips.

With the beaming scheduled for next Friday, submissions are now closed.  But I’d take an extra close look at the funnies that day.  Maybe there will be some surprises to see.

The APA Continues To Handle Its Own Scientific Integrity Complaint

In October the American Psychological Association released a statement in response to allegations made by author James Risen.  In his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War Risen alleges that the Association colluded with the Bush Administration in developing ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that most would consider torture.

It’s a very serious allegation, and the APA has taken pains to rebut the allegation through describing Rosen’s very limited interaction with the Association during the writing of his book, as well as its official policy on torture.

Not satisfied with those efforts, the APA announced that it has hired counsel to conduct an independent review of Risen’s claim.  Three members of the APA Board of Directors will coordinate the review, but APA promises an independent review.

“The review will include but not be limited to the following three issues: 1) whether APA supported the development or implementation of “enhanced” interrogation techniques that constituted torture; 2) whether changes to Section 1.02 of the APA Code of Ethics in 2002 or the formation and/or report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Task Force) were the product of collusion with the government to support torture or intended to support torture; and 3) whether any APA action related to torture was improperly influenced by government-related financial or policy considerations, including government grants, contracts or adoption of government policy regarding prescription privileges for psychologists serving in the military.”

Once the independent investigator completes the investigation Continue reading

Clinical Trials Data May Get More Transparent

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the parent department of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has issued proposed rules concerning the transparency of clinical trials data (H/T Nature News, ScienceInsider).  The proposed rules should be published in the Federal Register soon, and with the 90 day comment period, submissions will likely be due around February 19.  NIH also released a Draft Policy, and is asking for comments by February 19.

The proposed rules are quite lengthy (over 400 pages); so lengthy that it might be folly to consider the NIH Draft Policy as an effective summary.  The main purpose of both is to increase the amount of data that is reported and available to the public (through ClinicalTrials.gov).  Adverse effects and negative results would be disclosed under these proposed policies.

However, as NIH Director Collins explains in a blog post, the NIH policy goes further than the HHS proposed rules.  The policy would apply to all clinical intervention trials that NIH funds (not just drugs), while the HHS rules are focused on summary data of certain clinical trials for drugs and therapies.

While an intention behind both policies is to close reporting loopholes, it’s not clear how effective the new policies will be in addressing the significant under-reporting of clinical trials data.  Ideally more results will be submitted to ClinicalTrials.gov and more results will be made available faster than they currently are.  But reporting on these policies suggests that the amount of data still not reporting is quite large, and these new policies may make only a dent.

Something Possibly Worth Stealing: The First CSA Annual Report (UK Edition)

Early on November 19th the Institute for Government will host the U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser for the release of Innovation: Managing risk not avoiding it.  The report is described by the Institute as the “first ever Annual Report” by Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport.  I keyed on the ‘first ever’ language, and it would seem that this document is intended as something separate from the Government Office of Science Annual Reports.

Until the report is released, it’s hard to know exactly what’s in it, but there are some hints. The goals of the report are:

  • Stimulate broader discussion on risk, hazard, uncertainty and vulnerability (within the UK, Europe and the wider international community); and
  • Promote a regulatory culture surrounding risk in which robust scientific evidence is openly considered alongside political and other non-scientific issues in shaping policy.

So the key work in the report title is risk, rather than innovation.

I don’t know how many authors have contributed to the report.  Here are some of them:

  • Professor Andy Stirling of the STEPS Centre, a research center focused on development and science and technology.  His chapter focuses on debates and decision-making around new technologies/innovation.
  • Professor Lisa Jardine of University College London.  She’s an historian, and will be part of the public release event at the Institute of Government.
  • Professor Tim O’Riordan will also be at the release event.  He’s an emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia.
  • Doctor James Lyons, a Senior Lecturer in English at Lyons University, has contributed a case study on the communication of climate change risks.  He also served as an academic adviser for the report.

Once I have time to review the report, I’ll have more to say.  But I do wonder how a similar kind of report would be done (if it could be done) in the United States.  Would this resemble a report of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, or the National Science and Technology Council?  Or would it carry something of the imprimatur of the President’s Science Adviser?  If it’s the latter, maybe we could borrow from the British…again.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of November 17

This will be the last full week of new episodes before American Thanksgiving.  Buoyed by this month’s science-themed films, there are plenty of opportunities this week.

The Imitation Game is premiering at the end of next week, and lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch is making the rounds to promote.  He plays computer scientist Alan Turing in the film.  This morning (Monday) he was on with Kelly and Michael, and tonight he visits The Tonight Show.  Tuesday he sits down with Jon Stewart.  Keira Knightly plays a colleague of Turing’s in the movie.  She will be on with Kelly and Michael Tuesday morning, and with Seth Meyers on Wednesday evening.

The other science movies this month continue with promotion.  Earlier today Interstellar star Matthew McConaughey was on The Talk.  He will make his last visit with Craig Ferguson on Thursday.  His co-star Jessica Chastain will be on The Daily Show Wednesday night.  Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, will visit Seth on Tuesday and The Daily Show Thursday.

There are other science-related guests this week.  Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist who plays one on The Big Bang Theory, double dips on Thursday, starting on The View and ending on Late Night with Seth Meyers.  Her co-star Kunal Nayyar was on Ellen earlier today (Monday).  The show will bring on its science person, Steve Spangler, on Tuesday.  Finally, The Talk will have on its technology correspondent, Chi-Lan Lieu, on Friday.

On a related note, the new host of The Late Late Show, James Corden, will sit down with David Letterman on Friday.  Aside from a couple of Doctor Who episodes, this is probably the first time most people will have seen him.  I doubt it will be enough time to get a sense of how much science and technology stuff, but it should give some indication of whether you’ll like his show.