Just One Ebola Grand Challenge Among Many

The current administration loves its open innovation platforms and competitions.  To help combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (not to be confused with the isolated cases in the United States), the Department of Defense, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have collaborated on the Ebola Grand Challenge.

They want your help for two aspects of the challenge.  First, submit your ideas for innovations or challenge grants online.  Second, participate in the online discussions around the topic (I’d recommend donning your online flame retardant outfit first).  The organizers have designated three missions (and a fourth category for any other ideas) of interest: strengthen health care capacities, promote care-seeking, and boost tracking and communication.  In each case, they are looking for both existing research and potential ideas that could apply to the current outbreak.  No formal expertise required.

Meanwhile, I’d encourage you to avoid U.S. media on this story, as it reminds me of that quote from Hamlet – “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

If You Only Have A Week, World Science University Can Help

World Science University launched earlier this year with an online resource portal and courses for those with and without mathematics skills.  The courses take a minimum of 2-3 weeks to complete, but World Science University now has something for those who just don’t have that kind of time. Master Classes start this week at the WSU.  You can learn about cosmic inflation from Alan Guth, the standard model of particle physics from Maria Spiropulu, and unification of forces from Robert Dijkgraaf.  For more on the Master Classes, which should only take a few hours of your time, watch this promotional video. Like most of the U’s offerings, formal training in mathematics and physics isn’t required.  (a brief registration, however, is.)

What Kinds Of Political Science Research Should Not Be Funded?

In the October 18th edition of The Washington Post is an opinion column from Ajit Pai, a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  In it he criticizes a National Science Foundation funded research program called “Truthy.”  The Post‘s online headline – “the government wants to study ‘social pollution’ on Twitter”  captures the challenges of Pai’s perspective.  In his inapt description of the situation – the government is funding the research, but university researchers are doing the work – Pai presents a wee bit of straw in his argument.  It’s compounded by his comparison with a proposed FCC study – which would have been conducted by agency personnel, and would pose a government intrusion into activities that typically enjoy First Amendment protections.

But his concerns over a potential application of the work – monitoring the dissemination of political speech – are not trivial.  If the government were monitoring Twitter in the way Pai thinks they will with the results of this research, then there are First Amendment concerns.  But that amendment concerns government actions.  The actions of private parties do not have such coverage (a point often forgotten in many of the clashes over the stupid stuff people say that can get them disciplined by their employers).

And there can be value in understanding how movements use social media, and how ideas spread through social media.  Would Pai be as upset with this kind of research (which I’m sure predates this particular research grant) if it was concerned with public perceptions of how to avoid Ebola (or the flu)?  I don’t know, but I think if there is any push back to his arguments, that’s the kind of point likely to come up.

Pai’s concerns represent a different kind of challenge to political science research Continue reading

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of October 20

Several late night programs are in repeats this week.  If you missed it the first time around, Terry Gilliam’s appearance on The Colbert Report re-airs Tuesday night.  Gilliam’s latest film, The Zero Theorem, follows a computer programmer trying to find the meaning of life through his work.  That same program also has a segment on the app Checky.  The same night on The Daily Show you can re-watch Stephen Johnson’s recent appearance.  His innovation series, How We Got To Now, is in its second week on your local PBS station.

“Science Bob” Pflugfelder leads off the list of new programs.  He’ll be on with Jimmy Kimmel tonight (Monday).  Krysten Ritter is scheduled to sit with Craig on Tuesday.  She is the lead of Mission Control, a freshly cancelled new comedy program set at a NASA launch facility in the 1960s.  Should she still appear with Mr. Ferguson, it might get really interesting.

On to the non-guest content.  On September 30, The Colbert Report documented Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s complicated relationship with science.  On the same night, the program poked fun at a study about the health benefits of pessimism.  As you might imagine, both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show have dealt with the Ebola situation in the U.S., and the coverage of same, for a few weeks.  There are really too many segments to include here.  Simply search for the show title plus Ebola in your search engine, and the shows websites will give you plenty to choose from.

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.