Noted Scientists Among 2009 Medal of Freedom Recipients

Those who’ve followed the White House Twitter feed (check out the lower left column of this blog) might have seen this already.  Thursday afternoon the White House announced the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.  The medal is the highest civilian honor of the United States, and this year’s recipients will be recognized on August 12.  Amongst the honorees are two scientists recognized for their scientific achievements: Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University and Dr. Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago.  The Presidential Medal of Freedom can be given to those in most any walk of life, so acknowledging scientists and engineers is not necessarily a given each year.  The last scientist or engineer to be so honored was Dr. Francis Collins, the nominee to head the National Institutes of Health, back in 2007.

Readers are probably aware of Dr. Hawking’s work in physics (or at least his appearances on The Simpsons and Futurama), but may not know of Dr. Rowley’s work in discovering the first consistent translocation of a human cancer.  Drs. Rowley and Hawking are in excellent company, with at least two Nobel laureates and one former head of state also being honored this year.  Congratulations to all honorees, past and present.  Those looking for Dr. Hawking to perform will likely be disappointed.

Is This What Unscientific America Has In Mind?

From what I understand, one of the themes of the book Unscientific America is that scientists need to do more connecting with the public about their work, and a better job with those connections.  I wonder if this group of guerilla scientists described by The Guardian would meet with their approval (I think so).  The group Guerilla Science is barnstorming British music festivals, sprinkling in science presentations linked to the music, food and stars found at outdoor festivals.  A great thing this approach embodies is that it doesn’t bring new topics into the discussion, but deepens what’s around the audience.  Nothing seems as forced as it might in other formats.

This would only be the first step in a process of recruiting more of the public to support research funding (which is perhaps an un(der)stated (and naïve) theme of Unscientific America - that if they only understood the value of science they would support us)  Understanding that science is not boring, and surrounds most human activity, will not automatically persuade people that the U.K. Research Councils, The U.S. National Science Foundation, or another science funding agency, needs more money.  But it’s a good start.  The next, and even harder step, is persuading people (and their representatives) that the funding priorities of science are more important than other equally valuable (and valued) policy goals.  That is the eternal struggle.

Obama PCAST Will Meet in August

The first meeting during the Obama Administration of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology will take place in Washington, D.C. on August 6 and 7.  You can access the agenda and Federal Register notice online.  The two main topics of the first day are health care and energy/environment.  On the second day there will be subcommittee reports, as well as a discussion of PCAST study strategy.  This will be the first opportunity to see how this PCAST might distinguish itself from its counterparts in other administrations.

If Anyone Complains About the NIH Budget Increase…

Both the House and Senate Appropriations committees have approved their bills covering the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for Fiscal 2010 (H/T The Scientist).  The increase approved by each chamber is relatively small, on the order of a few hundred million dollars.  Should you encounter anyone who complains, please remind them of $10.5 billion in funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus package).  That money is meant for spending over both the current fiscal year (ending September 30) and Fiscal 2010.

UK Minister Encourages Businesses to Reach Out to Universities

The new head of the British government department responsible for higher education, Lord Peter Mandelson recently made his first education address since taking over.  The new leadership reflects a reorganization of the government with respect to science and higher education, one which has raised concern in some quarters.  While this speech is not expected to diminish the disdain I’ve seen about for Lord Mandelson, his recent remarks (H/T Nature News) suggest a slightly more nuanced understanding of university-industry relations than usually attributed to him.

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Proper Science Procedures as Sit-Com Plot Point

Better Off Ted is a workplace comedy set at a high-tech company.  Think a live-action version of Dilbert, without the talking animals.  Ted is a vice-president with responsibilities over product development.  He supervises a few scientists.  The show airs on ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern.  Some episodes are available online through the show’s website

In last week’s episode, Ted wants to put a hair-growth formula on the fast track, and scientists Phil and Lem objected, as the product had only been tested on potatoes.  Ted did his own test, and slightly predictable hi-jinks ensued. Again, the native website isn’t fond of my attempts to embed in WordPress, so you can watch the full episode “Father, Can You Hair Me?” online for a while via ABC, or simply check out the results of the sneak test at the show’s website (look for the Fuzzy Moment clip).

Crowdsourced Peer Review

Chemistry World (H/T Nature News) notes an instance of peer review taking place via the internet.  An article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society contained an unusual result that prompted blogger (and Chemistry World columnist) Paul Docherty to repeat the experiments after commenters brought the article to his attention.  While it helps that the experiments were relatively simple to set up and test, this kind of crowdsourced (rather than liveblogged) activity might help open up the process of peer review to a wider audience.  Granted, non-chemists are unlikely to read about this instance, but its rare for the repeating of results to be publicized at any level of scale.  If this becomes more common, it might help reinforce in the minds of the lay public that scientific communities do indeed check each others work.  It’s long past time that any of the explanatory power of science and technology relied on mystery.

Augustine Committee Barnstorming the South

Today the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by Norm Augustine, begins a series of public meetings near various NASA facilities in the South.  Today they meet in the Houston area, tomorrow will find them in Huntsville, Alabama, and on Thursday the committee meets in Cocoa Beach, Florida.  This will be followed by two meetings in Washington, D.C. in early August.

The committee last held a public meeting in June, and if the schedule I linked to is any indication, they have been busy.  They are on a short timetable, obligated to report to the President next month.  While the meeting is supposed to be available on the Media Channel of NASA TV, shuttle mission coverage appears to dominate, which is not surprising.  Meeting footage may be available later today.  The committee has also embraced all kinds of social networking tools, feel free to use those to keep up with committee activities.

Social Science Research Soon to Gain Energy Department Support?

On Wednesday the House Science and Technology Committee will meet to review several pieces of legislation.  One of the bills scheduled for Wednesday’s session would, among other things, “establish a social and behavioral sciences research program at the Department of Energy.”  H.R. 3247 was introduced by Rep. Baird (D-Washington), a psychologist.  The research program will be more targeted than social and behavioral science research funded by other federal agencies.  The focus is:

“to identify and understand social and behavioral factors that influence energy consumption and acceptance and adoption rates of new energy technologies, and to promote the utilization of the results of social and behavioral research to improve the design, development, demonstration, and application of energy technologies.”

This language could include some reference to marketing or diffusing technologies (thus encouraging at least the examination of literature in innovation studies and business), but the basic idea is sound.  A significant portion of the policy challenge in encouraging new technologies relates to how consumers (both residential, commercial and others) engage (or refuse to engage) with those technologies.  Exploring what works, what doesn’t, and why, could help target investment – by public and private entities – more effectively.

Organizationally, this program would be headed by a Director and guided by an advisory board.  The program appears to be placed outside of the Office of Science, with the Director reporting to the Secretary.  I can see a concern that an organization focused on physical sciences research in a number of areas would not be the best place to locate a social and behavioral sciences program.  That said, I wonder how effective such a program can be when placed in isolation from the Office of Science, which will be doing a fair amount of work on the kinds of technologies the social and behavioral research program is interested in.  The required research plan for this program is obligated to cover research integration, but effective execution could be hindered by an organizational stovepiping.