Appointments Roundup

A quick check to see how appointments to scientific and technical positions are proceeding:

OSTP: The full Senate vote on Dr. Holdren has not happened yet.  No particular reason outside of the budget focus of both houses of Congress.  As the House just passed the omnibus, and the continuing resolution expires on next Saturday, I don’t expect a confirmation until after this is resolved.  As the science adviser position does not require Senate confirmation, Dr. Holdren can work in that capacity while the OSTP confirmation is pending.

NOAA: No full Senate vote yet.  See above.

Organizations without an appointment for the top dog: NASA, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, NIH (and its parent Department, Health and Human Services), NIST.  The NIST and NIH openings have been there for a few months, but the NIH Director might be the most critical of the pending nominations.  You could make a case for most of the list, but with the NIH handling a huge amount of stimulus funding, it would be nice to have a Director in place who will be in the position for a while.

I also note the absence of a Chief Technology Officer, a new position President Obama promised to create.  The job also lacks a clear job description, which I would prefer to see prior to someone named to the post.  But action on this front of any kind is welcome, given the movements in many areas to increase the government’s use of technology in both functions and services.

Please Stop Giving Chris Mooney Low-Hanging Fruit

The stimulus legislation has provided fodder for that time honored tradition of targeting specific line items for their apparent ridiculousness.  While they can make for good sound bites and PR copy, frequently such items are actually of some use.

You’ve probably heard Governor Jindal, get roundly criticized on many points for his response to the President’s address earlier this week.  One of those was his criticism of the stimulus funding “volcano monitoring.”  Putting aside the fact that his cited figure for volcano monitoring was actually for all U.S. Geological Survey spending, there is the irony of the Governor of Louisiana arguing against a measure that would help mitigate a natural disaster.  But it also feeds the fire Mr. Mooney occasionally stokes about a Republican War on Science.  As his war downplays the notion that using science for political purposes is a universal trend – not a partisan one – such low-hanging fruit perpetuates an idea that causes more problems than it solves.

Unfortunately, Governor Jindal’s example is not an isolated incident in the last 12 months.  Other recent examples:

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Exploring the FY09 Omnibus

While it might be overshadowed by the Obama Administration’s proposed FY 2010 budget, the House recently passed an omnibus bill to cover the rest of the current fiscal year’s budget.  The funding for most agencies this year is set to end late next week under the terms of the current continuing resolution.  The American Institute of Physics has been releasing breakdowns of the omnibus for various science and technology agencies, you can read them online (start with number 19).  You may notice that the final FY 2009 numbers for some agencies, or some components of agencies, show a decline from the Bush Administration’s requested FY 2009 amounts.  While it would be easy to chalk this up to the ongoing epic fail of non-biomedical science advocates to successfully persuade appropriators for increases, there are points worth noting:

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Studies Suggest Open Access Leads to More Citations

The Scientist reports on a recent study (registration required) that suggests that open access journal articles will receive more citations than articles not available through open access.  Before you consign this to the dustbin of the obvious, not all studies have indicated such a correlation.  But the study at the focus of this article covered 26 million articles from 8 thousand journals over the course of seven years.  This comprehensive study noted an overall increase in citations of 8 percent, but significant variation across fields and countries.  Open access leads to much higher increases in citations in poorer countries, and fields with a culture of pre-print databases and personal archives did not show as high an increase in citations compared to fields like the biomedical sciences.  Expect this study to show up in future fights over the NIH open access requirements.

Conflicts of Interest – Not Just for Journal Writers

ScienceInsider writes about the encouragement of PLoS Medicine to require conflict of interest disclosures from its editors as well as its writers.  In an editorial, the journal describes possible sources of bias, which go beyond considerations of financial interest, to include things such as “publication bias, outcome reporting bias, financial and non-financial competing interests, sponsors’ control of study data and publication, and restrictions on access to data and materials.”  Not only are editors challenged with determine possible bias in the articles they deal with, but whether or not their own biases may influence the choices of the journal.  The ScienceInsider piece makes a great point in noting that PLoS Medicine hasn’t cornered the market on assertive conflict of interest policies, and other journals are dealing with the issue, or at least in discussions to do so.

Worth noting in the editorial is the inclusion of research from advocacy organizations.

“Robust journal policies regarding non-commercial competing interests…will at least require declaration of any interests that might influence reporting or review, and that would be influenced—negatively or positively—by publication. Such interests might include personal relationships or professional interactions with authors, editors, or reviewers, and strongly held political or religious views that relate to the work under consideration.”

The editors give an example about their death penalty views when dealing with an article about lethal injection.  While it’s important to investigate sources to ferret out possible bias, with journals this is not always that easy to do.  Policies that address biases beyond financial considerations help address this challenge.

Broadband and Measurement

In a sort-of follow-up to my post on the deficit, I offer this New York Times Bits blog post on a study indicating that contrary to the hue and cry about the United States falling behind in broadband deployment,  the U.S. is actually number one.  As you might expect, it’s because the measurement is not of connectivity speed, nor is it of the percentage of homes with broadband.  In these areas the U.S. does rank behind other countries.  But with the “Connectivity Scorecard” devised by the researcher behind the study, the U.S. ranks number one, as its consumers, businesses and government supposedly are more efficient in the use of its broadband.

While conflicting budget numbers are a problem mostly because they can hide the nature of the nation’s financial health, these conflicting broadband measures try and hide a values or policy discussion behind numbers.  If you find a study saying U.S. is number one in broadband, then you don’t worry about it and you certainly have little motivation to have a debate over what the nation should expect from broadband.  Use the numbers as part of that debate, not as replacements for it.

Comparative Treatment Research Program Part of Stimulus

Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog reports on a research program in the stimulus package that will compare how different medical treatments address various ailments.  The overall goal appears to be addressing rising health care costs, which explains why some of the opposition to this program comes from those concerned that it will lead to rationed care.  The project will be guided by a 15-member council and will coordinate its work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.  Other countries, including England, France and Denmark, conduct similar research, but how their research outcomes affect treatment or health care varies.

Science Agency Guidance on the Stimulus

While the National Science Foundation will wait until next week to release its guidance on the stimulus funding it is responsible for (in part because the National Science Board will meet on the subject early next week), the National Institutes of Health has released a letter (H/T DrugMonkey) outlining how it will handle its stimulus funding, at least where grants are concerned.  Acting Director Kington indicated that his organization will focus on the following items:

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Measuring the deficit

It is being reported that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will stop using some of the accounting measures that keep various federal expenses off the budget books.  That is, certain things, such as the costs for wars, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, relief of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), and disaster relief, have not been counted as part of budget deficit projections by the OMB.  As far as I can tell, however, this does not extend to other accounting measures, such as the treatment of the Social Secuirty trust fund, that also mask the nature of the federal budget.

Aside from a reminder that economics is, or at least seeks to be considered as, a science, these steps demonstrate the importance of measurement in policy.  How we measure, and what measurements we use, reflect what we value (and vice versa).  This is true whether we talk about how we project our financial future, or assess innovative activity, or make determinations about scientific research.

Space Collision Demonstrates Orbital Clutter

Last week a defunct Russian satellite collided with an Iridium telecommunications satellite.  While this is supposedly the first known (or at least publicized) collision between two intact satellites, the crash has raised concerns over the thousands of objects orbiting the Earth.  As the article linked to indicates, there is monitoring of so-called space ‘junk’, but with an increase in spacefaring nations, and ultimately private entities moving from suborbital to orbital trips, the amount of ‘junk’ will get to a point where collisions will no longer be so rare.  At that point, will monitoring be sufficient?  I don’t know.  But I do think it’s an issue worth discussing in appropriate fora.