IgNobel Counterprogramming For The Golden Goose?

The 2014 Golden Goose Award ceremony was on September 18th in Washington.  It was the third ceremony for the awards, recognizing federally supported research that has applications in a totally unanticipated area.  Up the coast in Cambridge, the IgNobel Awards were holding their first award ceremony for the 24th time.  If you have to attend a scientific awards ceremony, I’d encourage you to check out the IgNobels.  It’s the rare event that prides itself on not taking itself, or at least its award winners, at all seriously.  Watch either video feed of this year’s ceremony to get a better idea.

There are 10 IgNobel Laureates announced each year.  You might recognize some of this year’s winners from the press-release/late night joke friendly quality of some of the projects.  For example, the Public Health Prize recognized a study about the health consequences of owning a cat.

Only one group failed to send a representative or otherwise acknowledge its award at the ceremony.  It was the Economics Prize recipients, recognized for their efforts to expand the Italian economy by including all of the illegal economic activity between willing participants (sorry, thieves.)

It strikes me as an interesting coincidence (though I could be wrong) that an award ceremony that seems rife for soundbite style criticism of research funding is happening at the same time as another award ceremony works to turn that tactic on its head.

Follow-up Saturday – NIH Cleared On Ethics Case, May Proceed On Common Rule

Earlier this year I wrote about a case where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was alleged to have acted improperly in a case involving a research study.  Public Citizen lodged a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Office of Inspector General claiming that senior officials from the NIH and HHS interfered with the decision process of the Office for Human Subjects Research Protection (OHRP).  The specific case involved a research study on premature infants and optimal oxygen levels.

Earlier this month the Office of Inspector General issued its report on the allegations (H/T ScienceInsider).  The main conclusions were that senior NIH and HHS officials did not interfere in the initial decision of the OHRP, and that the subsequent communications between those officials and the OHRP was permissible under the law.  The OIG issued a separate report on how OHRP conducted its evaluation of the research study.  Public Citizen is not happy with the decision, characterizing the investigation as a ‘whitewash.’

While the OIG report indicated that OHRP is not an independent organization, part of the Public Citizen complaint indicated (page 2) that moving OHRP out of the NIH was done in part to insulate the office from interference by NIH officials.  It seems worth revisiting whether or not OHRP and related ethics organizations within HHS and NIH should be independent from those entities.

In related news, the ScienceInsider article (and the behind a paywall, Chronicle of Higher Education reporting it references) suggests that OHRP may soon be ready to issue new proposed rules on human subjects research.  This would seem to be forward progress on the Common Rule, which was the subject of a public comment period back in 2011.  As it hasn’t be revised in decades, it’s long overdue.

U.S. Ebola Response Includes A CIO

Earlier this week the U.S. Government announced the steps it was taking to expand its assistance to African nations in responding to the Ebola outbreak.  The military, uniformed public health officers, the U.S. Administration for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the State Department all have personnel assisting in the efforts.

Joining them soon will be Steve VanRoekel, the Federal Chief Information Officer.  Except he won’t have that title when he gets there.  So not long after the Chief Technology Officer departs for another position in the Administration (and outside of Washington), the Chief Information Officer will do the same.

VanRoekel is not a stranger to the USAID, where he will be the Chief Innovation Officer.  Back in 2011 VanRoekel assisted USAID in digital communications during its famine response in the Horn of Africa.  Until a permanent replacement as CIO can be named, one of VanRoekel’s deputies will serve as acting Chief Information Officer.

Latest MacArthur Fellows Include Scientists And Engineers

This week the MacArthur Foundation introduced its latest class of Fellows.  Unofficially the Fellows receive the ‘genius’ grants – unrestricted five-year awards totalling $625,000.  The Fellows represent a variety of disciplines and fields, and most are unfamiliar to the general public.  Of the twenty-one Fellows this year, more than one-third are engaged in work involving science and/or technology.  Those eight Fellows are:

Danielle Bassett – physicist working on the brain.
Tami Bond – environmental engineer focused on black carbon and its interaction with the atmosphere.Jennifer Eberhardt – social psychologist examining associations and biases in race and crime.
Craig Gentry – computer scientist working on cryptography.
Mark Hersam – materials scientist researching nanomaterials.
Pamela Long – historian of science and technology describing how technology and craft are embedded in the larger social culture.
Jacob Lurie – mathematician working on the development of derived algebraic geometry.
Yitang Zhang – mathematician accomplished in analytic number theory.

Senate Displays Rare Speed In Confirmations

On Tuesday the Senate managed to confirm two nominations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that were announced less than two months ago.  Their confirmation hearing was just last week.  Unlike several other science and technology appointments, the vacancies that new Commissioners are filling have been open for just a few months.

Stephen Burns comes back to the NRC from work at the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  (One of the recently departed Commissioners left to head that agency.)  He has over three decades of experience with the Commission.  Jeffrey Baran is the other new Commissioner.  He has over a decade of experience as a Congressional staffer in both the Energy and Commerce and Oversight and Government Reform Committees.

The confirmations mean that the Commission is back at it’s full strength of five.

SpaceX Probably Won’t Be Suing NASA Anytime Soon

While SpaceX’s effort to get what a fair shake in competing for some space contracts continues, NASA has awarded the company with a contract for its next crew vehicle.  Along with Boeing, SpaceX will fly at least one crewed test flight of its integrated rocket and spacecraft system.  When each company demonstrates that their respective systems has met with NASA requirements, it would then fly two to six missions to the International Space Station.  The vessels would also serve as lifeboats for the Station.

Each company can also sell use of their systems to other parties.  And that is where the fun should begin.  The ability of non-governmental entities to send humans to low earth orbit – compared to the suborbital flights soon to be available through Virgin Galactic – should encourage cost reductions and hopefully spur more activity 100 kilometers up.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of September 15

This week the big night is Friday, and the big guest is Morgan Freeman.  He will be on three times, though his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live is a recent repeat.  He’s promoting his latest film, Dolphin Tale 2, in which he plays a prosthetics researcher.  On Thursday he will be on The Talk.  Friday night starts with Freeman’s recent appearance with Jimmy Kimmel.  Freeman’s other appearance that night is with Craig Ferguson, and it stands an excellent chance of veering into weirdness.

There are other guests of note this week.  On Tuesday, Conan O’Brien will be all kinds of awkward with urologist Dr. Jennifer Berman.  Terry Gilliam, director of the new dystopic science fiction film The Zero Theorem, makes two appearances this week.  The film tells the story of a computer program seeking the meaning of life through his work.  On Wednesday Gilliam will be on The Tonight Show, and on Thursday he will visit with Stephen Colbert.  Also on Thursday, one of the leads of Manhattan, John Benjamin Hickey, will be on Bravo’s late night talker, Watch What Happens Live.