The Colbert Report Finale Sneaks In Some Scientist And Engineers

The Colbert Report aired its final episode last night in the United States.  While Stephen Colbert will return to the airwaves next September as the second host of The Late Show, the character of “Stephen Colbert” will not.

As one of the top three late night programs for science and technology content in the U.S., I was not surprised to see some scientists, engineers and other science-oriented folks in the final episode.  Several former guests returned for a song, and if you look carefully, you can find amongst them:

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson
Inventor Dean Kamen
Flame Challenge organizer Alan Alda
Astronaut Terry Virts (the treadmill he is on is named for Colbert)
Astronaut Garrett Reisman
Physicist Brian Greene
Scientist George Church
Science Writer Steven Pinker

If you need help (and I did) identifying people, Vulture compiled an annotated slideshow.

One of the other top three programs, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, ends this evening.  There is a similar musical number at the beginning of tonight’s show, but I’ve not had the chance to scour it for science and technology guests.  (I was at the taping for that segment, but some people appeared too briefly for me to recognize them.)

While Colbert won’t return to the air until September, Comedy Central will start The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on January 19.  Wilmore, like Colbert, has been a Daily Show correspondent.  Ferguson’s replacement as Late Late Show host, James Corden, starts in late March.  How both hosts will address science and technology is an open question.  Before Colbert and Ferguson started hosting their programs I would not have expected them to feature science and technology as they have.

What’s In A New Name – The National Center For Complementary And Integrative Health

One of the Centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) changed its name.  The newly christened National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health was formerly known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  The change was implemented as part of the massive budget bill just signed by President Obama.

The ‘alternative medicine’ in the Center’s (now) former name has raised my eyebrow on occasion.  Certainly the U.S. government doesn’t approach alternative therapies the same way as in the U.K. (where homeopathy can be espoused by Members of Parliament).  Here’s the official explanation for its absence:

Why does the new name include “Integrative Health” instead of “Alternative Medicine”?

Large population-based surveys have found that the use of “alternative medicine”—unproven practices used in place of conventional medicine—is actually rare. By contrast, integrative health care, which can be defined as combining complementary approaches into conventional treatment plans, has grown within care settings across the nation, including hospitals, hospices, and military health facilities. The goal of an integrative approach is to enhance overall health, prevent disease, and to alleviate debilitating symptoms such as pain and stress and anxiety management that often affects patients coping with complex and chronic disease, among others. However, the scientific foundation for many complementary approaches is still being built.

As the research mission of the center will not change, the name change may be strictly cosmetic.  But if my eyebrow-raising at the mention of ‘alternative medicine’ in the context of a federal research institute is common, a name change may make a lot of public relations sense.

Maybe OSTP Should Have Done Scientific Integrity The Canadian Way

It’s perhaps wishful thinking on my part, but I kind of envy how Canadian scientists are approaching the scientific integrity issue with the Canadian government.  You’ve probably heard about the concerns over what Canadian scientists are calling a muzzling by the government of scientists’ ability to communicate their work to the public. What has happened is that the public sector union representing scientists is including scientific integrity in its latest collective bargaining with the Canadian government (H/T umuzzledscience).  Yes, this is novel, and may not fit within the tradition of collective bargaining.  And it’s certainly true that U.S. government scientists are not as unionized as their Canadian colleagues (if they are at all).  But what I appreciate is that this process could – if the arguably resistant Harper government agrees to any kind of scientific integrity policy – provide for a truly national policy on scientific integrity.

What we see in the United States is a collection of agency policies with an inconsistent record of implementation.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy has effectively ceded any interest in overseeing or supervising the implementation of these policies.  Perhaps this is due to a lack of institutional power, a lack of interest, or some other cause(s).  But it leaves the promise of the initial effort toward U.S. scientific integrity policies a bit tarnished.

I should be more tempered at this news of Canadian negotiation over scientific integrity.  After all, it’s just starting, and it’s possible only one side is really interested in having something come out of the discussions.  But I’m a bit starved for any progress in this field.

More Confirmation News

In what passes for a breakthrough, the Senate managed to pass a controversial nominee for the position of Surgeon General.  Vivek Murthy was confirmed as the newest Surgeon General, roughly 13 months after he was nominated and nearly a year and a half after his predecessor stepped down.

While his age (37) may have given Senators cause to balk at confirming him, Murthy’s statements on guns – that gun violence should be considered a public health concern – brought strong opposition courtesy of the National Rifle Association.  The logjam on Murthy’s nomination (and the nominations of others) broke as a result of complicated procedural wrangling that the Senate seems to prefer to passing legislation.

Murthy has said in advance of his confirmation that he intends to focus on obesity while Surgeon General.  That will likely not dissuade those concerned about any effort to regulate guns, and if the NRA carries through on its threats, Senators that supported the confirmation will be targeted by the organization when they are next up for election.

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

The offerings this week are thin, and reruns are coming for most shows for the rest of the year.

I mentioned Ascension yesterday.  One of the stars of the show, Tricia Helfer, will be on with Carson Daly late tonight (Monday).  Helfer is perhaps the best known of the cast, having made a name for herself in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica.  On Tuesday one of the panelists on @midnight is Brooke Van Poppelen.  She will host a forthcoming show on lifehacks called Hack My Life.  Given the nature of @midnight, it’s unlikely much time will be spent on the upcoming show.

It should be noted that this is the last week of shows for two mainstays in these pages: The Colbert Report and The Late Late Show with Craig FergusonContinue reading

Ascension – Some #SciFiSciPol For the Exodus

Tomorrow night (Monday) the SyFy Channel in the U.S. will premiere a three-night miniseries called Ascension.  It’s a Canadian-American production about a murder mystery on a generation ship that launched from the United States 50 years ago.  Canadian readers will need to wait until January to see it on the CBC.

The show is set in an alternate present.  The generational craft started its mission in 1963, almost as a hedge against the threat of nuclear apocalypse.  So for me at least, the murder mystery will take a back seat to seeing a generational craft.  Unless we do manage to find some ‘Star Trek’ way of traveling faster than light, human colonization, if not exploration, of space will require sending out groups of people and expecting some kind of follow-through from their descendants.  The sociological challenges of this may well dwarf the technological ones.

Ascension also offers a retro conception of the future.  Much in the way that science and technology policy is often seen from a (limiting) ‘high-tech’ perspective, science fiction can often be seen from a single perspective – the future.  But more often than not we are really seeing extrapolations of our present.  Whether or not the folks producing Ascension will be able to pull off an extrapolation of the past into the present remains to be seen.  But the possibilities are enough to catch my interest.

Late Confirmation Surge Fills A Few Science and Technology Jobs

Amidst its seemingly perennial budget fumbling, the Senate managed to confirm a few more people into positions that most were waiting months to hear about.  Last week I noted that one senior Department of Energy official was confirmed, and that another, Ellen Williams, was up for a vote.  She was confirmed to be the latest head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.

Also of note was another confirmation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In October the head of the Commission, Allison Macfarlane, resigned.  This was just a month after the Commission was finally back at its full strength of five Commissioners.  Acting relatively quickly, the Obama Administration opted to elevate one of the newly confirmed Commissioners, Jeffrey Baran, to lead the Commission (there appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether Baran is replacing Macfarlane or just had his term extended).  He was confirmed on December 8th.  I cannot find whomever has been nominated to fill the fifth spot on the Commission, likely not yet announced.  The Administration is likely waiting for the new Congress to start next month.