Irregular Update Saturday

Some updates on recent posts.  Nutt’s advisory group meeting and the recent cross-party science debate deserve their own posts, which will be ready tomorrow.

The 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators volume is out.  Contrary to my expectations, there does not appear to be a short issue report to accompany this year’s big volume and digest.  While presentation slides are available, there does not appear to be an HTML version of the 2010 edition, unlike previous years.  Why?  I have no good idea.  This is a step backward when other agencies are moving forward.  Give the whiz-band taking place on the various government data sites, the National Science Foundation is no longer at the cutting edge of statistical presentation in the government.  They need to do better.  This is a disappointment.

Those following coverage of the relief efforts in Haiti (http://redcross.org for donations) may have seen the new head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Dr. Rajiv Shah.  While his USAID biography lists his work as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education and Economics as a past position, he’s still listed in that position at the Department of Agriculture (USDA).  While he seems to be managing well at USAID, and it’s more attuned to his previous work in development, I still regret his departure from USDA.  The Department seems to be in a position to really ramp up the use of science and technology in the support of agricultural production and safety, and lacking someone at the head of that effort (Shah was also Chief Scientist) is not going to help.

Finally, there has been an update on Dr. Zewail’s trip to the Middle East as U.S. Science Envoy.  This recent post at the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog reports on Dr. Zewail’s activities in Turkey.  The trip has already moved on to Jordan.  Also of note is that another Science Envoy, Science editor and former National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, is on his own trip, and is in Indonesia at the moment.  I’m looking forward to hearing what he’s up to as well.

U.K. Parliament Investigating Science Funding

From Nature (will eventually disappear behind a paywall) comes word that not only has the U.K. House of Commons launched an inquiry into spending cuts and their effect on scientific research, but the Parliament’s upper house launched its own inquiry into science funding back in September 2009.  Presumably the House of Lords inquiry will finish first, but it’s interesting to note that the Lords science and technology committee managed to get on this issue before its more active House of Commons counterpart.  The House of Commons effort is still seeking submissions until January 27, and will take testimony next month.

There are a couple of reasons (at least) why you would never see something quite like this in the U.S. Congress.  The corresponding science committees in the House and Senate are not nearly as active as their U.K. counterparts.  There is a clear similarity in that the U.S. Senate’s committee with most of the responsibility for science is as active on the issue as the U.K. House of Lords (in other words, not so much).  It doesn’t go much further than that.

Additionally, Congressional inquiries are usually more narrowly defined than either inquiry in the U.K.  Thoughtful, coordinating questions like (from the House of Commons inquiry):

the process for deciding where to make cuts in SET spending;

what evidence there is on the feasibility or effectiveness of estimating the economic impact of research, both from a historical perspective (for QR funding) and looking to the future (for Research Council grants);

are typically referred to experts, either outside or inside the government, to examine and then report back to the Committees.  Now that’s probably also happening in the U.K. (I’d be surprised if it wasn’t), but in the U.S. the questions legislators ask would be phrased differently, with a different kind of perspective.  Usually they would be how questions.  The goal is in mind, and how to get there is the issue.  In other words, the U.S. legislator would more likely ask what is the economic impact of research, rather than if it’s possible to measure it.  (I’m a bit disappointed the U.K. inquiry didn’t ask about broader notions of impact, as the granting councils are thinking that way)

And finally, while I doubt most U.K. legislators give science that high of a priority, U.S. legislators certainly don’t.  If they did, I think there would have been some Congressional level investigation of science funding in the United States besides this 1997 effort to ‘update’ Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier.