PBS Is Bringing Frankenstein To The Web

Next Month PBS Digital Studios will premiere its first scripted series online starting next month.  Frankenstein, M.D. is a co-production of PBS and Pemberly Digital.  This will be the fourth series Pemberton has produced that was the adaptation of a classic novel (the other three are Jane Austen works).  Biologist and PBS Digital host Joe Hanson serves as science adviser to the program.  The first three episodes will drop on August 19.

This Frankenstein is updated in both story and delivery system.  Victoria Frankenstein is an M.D./Ph.D. student working on her research and a YouTube science show.  She has been on Twitter since May.  The press release makes the expected vague warnings of danger facing Veronica, her friends and her mentor.

The 24 episodes in the first season are relatively short, and scheduled to build toward a Halloween finale.  If you’re going to watch, you may want to also follow Victoria and her friends online.  It might prove interesting.

Tomorrow, Los Alamos By Way Of The West Wing

Tomorrow in the United States is the premiere of WGN America’s new drama Manhattan: A Nuclear Family.  Here’s a trailer:

Early publicity for the film has focused on the tensions the scientists and their families face working at Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed America’s first nuclear weapons.  The production seems to have done an excellent job of trying to portray both the setting and the time – early 1940’s New Mexico.  What I have no idea about – and what I’m most interested in – is the interactions between the scientists and the administrators in Washington.  But I suspect, given the trends in dramatic storytelling, that they will not be a major focus of the program.  The exception would appear to be the perennial hook of secrets, and how they’re (not) kept.  I’d love to be shown wrong.

Thomas Schlamme directs the pilot and is one of the show’s executive producers.  He directed several episodes of The West Wing, and isn’t the only connection with that other political show.  Richard Schiff can be seen in some of the early publicity, though I suspect that he’ll be a guest star.  Hopefully the program will manage to have at least a few light moments interspersed amidst the drama.  Otherwise Manhattan might turn out a bit too serious for its own good.

Oso Landslide Analysis Leads To Competing Theories And Possible Adaptation

In March a landslide in Oso, Washington destroyed a neighborhood, killing 43.  This week two scientific analyses were issued (H/T ScienceInsider).  On Tuesday the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance team (GEER, sponsored by the National Science Foundation), released its report.  Earlier today Science reported on the unpublished analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers at the University of Washington.  A notable difference between the two reports deals with the how of the slide.

The GEER team, which is set up to do quick analyses of natural disasters, theorizes that the slide happened in two phases.  The first slide was augmented by the collapse of a portion of the mountain when underlying support gave way.  One of the USGS researchers explained their theory of the slide (which was significantly larger than the smaller slides that frequent the area) as more compressed.  They believe the second spike in the seismic data is not a major event, and that an upper portion of the mountain broke off much sooner.  It comes down to debates over the proper analysis of seismic data.

What the GEER report highlights is the absence of systematic assessment of potential for landslides when planning construction.  Given what has been achieved for building in areas prone to earthquakes, it’s a little surprising that similar efforts have not taken place for areas with higher potential for landslides.  The failure to use detection systems and take advantage of historical data are similarly surprising.  Presumably the USGS report, whenever it’s released, won’t be as far apart from the GEER team in terms of recommendations.  We’ll have to wait and see.

What you might not want to wait on is to see if you nearest slide area is taking advantage of new detection and monitoring systems.  To have the tools and not use them strikes me as tragic, especially given the catastrophic nature of most slide losses (losing one house is a catastrophe – to that family).

The National Institutes Of Health Has An (Im)Modest Grant Proposal

The National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued a Request for Information (RFI) last week on a new kind of research funding program (H/T Science magazine – $ for full version).  The deadline for comments is August 15.

The input NIGMS receives from the comments and other input from stakeholders will inform a funding opportunity announcement for a pilot of this program, which would link funding to a lab/principal investigator more than to a single project. As the RFI describes it (in part) (a link has been removed):

“An NIGMS MIRA would provide support for a lab’s research program, which represents a compilation of the investigator’s NIGMS research projects (research areas supported by NIGMS are outlined at our website). Researchers would have the freedom to explore new avenues of inquiry that arise during the course of their work as long as those avenues are relevant to the mission of the Institute and do not require additional review for regulatory compliance (e.g., new human subjects research).”

Now, I’m not a research scientist, but this program would represent a notable change in how research funding is normally disbursed in the U.S.  Grants are typically considered primarily on the basis of scientific merit and broader impacts and associated with discrete research projects.  By aggregating support to the level of a research lab (and the associated principal investigator), NIGMS will be, if only indirectly, putting more stock into the past work and future promise of the lead researcher than it has before.

Continue reading

Congress Appears To Be Kicking The Merit Review Fight Down The Road

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has released a draft of its reauthorization bill for the COMPETES legislation that has determined the budget authorization for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy since the Bush Administration (H/T ScienceInsider).

The Senate’s approach to the bill is consistent with the initial 2007 legislation and the reauthorization bill from 2010.  However, the House took a different approach this time, opting to handle agency reauthorizations (and other provisions) in separate bills.  And while that difference in approach can be reconciled in the legislative process without a lot of additional effort, the differences in content between the House and Senate might not.

Besides breaking up the legislation, the House bill focusing on the National Science Foundation outlined a much more active oversight role for Congress.  Not only did the bill, acronymized as FIRST, set up funding levels for the individual research directorates, it added an additional level of review to the process of awarding research grants.  It also dramatically reduced the funding for social and behavioral science research, which several Republicans have indicated does not appear connected to the national interest and therefore does not deserve federal funding.

With a limited amount of time remaining in the legislative calendar (thanks to it being an election year), and a shakeup in senior House leadership (soon-to-be former Majority Leader Eric Cantor was particularly interested in this legislation), the prospects for legislation becoming law are smaller than normal.

But there’s always the next Congress. Continue reading

Safe Travels To Cora Marrett

Usually when I write about a science policy administrator or politician of note, they have passed.  Thankfully this is not the case with Cora Marrett, who most recently served as the Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

She has been with NSF off and on since 1992, joining the Foundation to work as the first assistant director (the top job) in the (then newly created) education and human resources directorate.  Marrett’s background is in sociology, and when not working at the NSF, she has held academic positions at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  In her most recent tenure with the Foundation, she has worked on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, and served as Acting Director of NSF during the searches for the last two NSF Directors.  If there was such a thing as being an institution at the National Science Foundation, Marrett would qualify for that status.

While I would have liked to see Dr. Marrett become Director, that was not something she was likely interested in, with her family back in Wisconsin.  My thanks to her for her service to the country through her work at the Foundation.  My best wishes to her in the future.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of July 21

Most shows are back this week, but there is still plenty of catching up to do.

Before their recent break, there were some segments of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report that had science and technology content.  On June 24 The Daily Show expressed its frustration at the apparent mess of government record keeping.  While the specific case involves the Internal Revenue Service, I think the complaints can be applied government-wide.  On June 26, The Colbert Report covered the over-fortification of kids’ cereals in one of its semi-regular segments, Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger.

Then there were the scheduled guests that surprised me with talking about science or technology.  The same night The Daily Show complained about government record-keeping, actress Jennifer Esposito discussed her struggles with celiac disease.  On the July 14th edition of The Late Late Show, actor Zachary Levi talked a little bit with Craig Ferguson about how Levi is a science geek.

This week, the repeat of note is on Friday, when Late Night with Seth Meyers repeats last week’s episode that included motion capture innovator Andy Serkis.  In new programs, we start and stop with The Colbert Report.  On Wednesday the director of Underwater Dreams and one of the featured subjects visits.  The film is rolling out to theaters this month, and focuses on a team of students (who are the children of undocumented immigrants) developing underwater robots.  On Thursday, Elon Musk sits down with Stephen.  Whether it’s about spacecraft (SpaceX) or electric cars (Tesla) I don’t know.  Both are mentioned on The Colbert Report website.