PCAST Suggests Grand Challenges For Nanotechnology

In early October the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  The assessment of the program, established in 2000, is periodically required by law.

A major focus of this latest assessment is commercialization.  The report argues that the time is now for encouraging the utilization of the last decade of research in new products and services not presently available.  While the report calls for continued support for research in early stage nanotechnology, it also encourages the government to support this commercialization.  Agencies involved in the NNI will need to add to their current infrastructure plans and procedures for coordinating commercialization activity in addition to the basic and applied research efforts they support.  Part of this effort draws on a tool commonly used by the current Administration – the Grand Challenge.  In addition to finding the right areas for Grand Challenges, the report encourages the use of public-private partnerships and prize competitions to facilitate commercialization.  Presumably this means that the Feynman Grand Prize would soon have more company, should the government implement the recommendations of this report.

And here’s where there may be some trouble.  Part of the report outlines how the 2012 recommendations were implemented, and the record isn’t good.  In many cases, the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are not being funded, or administered, in ways that would fully support the goals of the NNI, which include maintaining and/or achieving American leadership in areas of nanotechnology.  With the current budget pressures and willful government dysfunction, it’s likely to take more than a biennial scold from outside advisers to make sure American nanotechnology can compete on the world stage.

In What Shouldn’t Be A Surprise, European CSA Will Soon Stand Down

Professor Anne Glover is the first Chief Scientific Adviser for the European Commission (it was not her first time as a first CSA, as she broke ground in the same position in Scotland).  Glover was appointed to the position back in 2011 by then-President Barroso.  With a new Commission President in place, it was an open question whether or not current President Juncker would retain the same Commission advisory structures as his predecessor.  We now have an answer

James Wilsdon reports at The Guardian that the CSA position will not continue.  In a message Professor Glover sent to European science bodies, she noted that her support organisation, the Board of European Policy Advisers, was ending.  As that entity goes, so went the CSA position.

As can happen in the science (and science policy) press, some reports on this decision framed it in terms of pro- and anti- science (in general or about specific fields).  I think there’s too little information, and too many other possible explanations, for the decision to be so clearly caused by a particular action that Glover took (or position that Juncker holds).  Yes, there were cases during Professor Glover’s tenure (which Wilsdon covers in his Guardian piece) where her positions conflicted with powerful lobbies.  Yes, there were arguments that a single scientific adviser was not the best way for Europe to handle scientific advice.  But right now, it’s hard to see anything more than a temporal correlation between these events. Continue reading

Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Releases New Report; Prompts Additional Investments

Formed in 2011, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) focuses on policies and other tools to secure American leadership in advanced manufacturing.  Earlier this week the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology adopted the AMP’s latest report, Accelerating U.S. Advanced Manufacturing.  This report builds on the AMP’s 2012 report and prompted several government investments, also announced earlier this week.

You can peruse the full list of recommendations on pages 17-18 of the report, but they are grouped in three categories (taken from the 2012 report): Enabling Innovation, Securing the Talent Pipeline, and Improving the Business Client.  Some of you may roll your eyes at the vagueness of these categories, so I would encourage you to focus on the portions of this report (Appendix A) that discuss the action plans and implementation to date on the various recommendations.

What is likely more broadly interesting are the technology areas identified as most promising targets for American leadership, as well as the Administration actions announced in connection with the report.  NASA, along with the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Energy, will invest $300 million in those technology areas:

  • advanced materials including composites and bio-based materials,
  • advanced sensors for manufacturing, and
  • digital manufacturing.

The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy will work to connect researchers with labs and research facilities for technology testbeds.  The Department of Labor will launch a $100 million dollar program to encourage apprenticeships (including new models of apprenticeship) with a focus on advanced manufacturing.  Finally, the Department of Commerce has announced an expansion of its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (a tool that doesn’t get enough attention and probably not enough use) with a focus on new technologies.

PCAST And Bioethics Commission Double Up On BRAIN

Both the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will meet next month.

The Bioethics Commission will meet November 5 and 6 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  As is customary, the meeting will be webcast and updates will be posted on the Commission’s blog.  The agenda is not yet available, but based on the Federal Register notice, the BRAIN Initiative will be one focus of the meeting, as will education and deliberation in bioethics.

The next PCAST meeting is on November 14th.  As has become custom, the public session will be from approximately 9 to noon on a Friday in Washington, D.C., and the meeting will be webcast.  No agenda, draft or otherwise, is presently available.  Per that meeting’s Federal Register notice the meeting should cover the BRAIN Initiative as well (though with an emphasis on the private sector investments).  Other topics will likely include Ebola, space sciences and science and technology related to national security.

Australia Shakes Up Its Top Science Advisory Council

The Abbott Government recently announced the formation of the Commonwealth Science Council as part of its new competitiveness agenda for Australia.  Chaired by Prime Minister Abbott, the Council membership is split evenly between industry and university appointments, with the appropriate government ministers participating as appropriate.  The Industry Minister will serve as Deputy Chair and the Minsters for Health and Education would be regular contributors.

Australian Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb noted his support for the new Council, which would take the place of the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC).  My own (limited) review of PMSEIC activities suggests that the Commonwealth Science Council, by dint of its membership and the focus of the Abbott Government, will be more focused on near-term activities and on connections between researchers and industry.  (However, it would seem that there has been a trend away from a foresight-heavy advisory council dating back several years before the newest government formed.)

While such links might be denounced in the States as ‘picking winners,’ smaller countries like Australia can’t afford to invest in as many areas of science and technology.  Such investment strategies are (hopefully) sound strategic tools for finding the most return on investment.

PCAST Letter Report Encourages Educational Technology To Boost Access

On September 28th the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology released a letter report on education technology.  The focus in this letter report is on using education to boost access to higher education.  Costs are rising, which likely doesn’t help the notable gap based on income of the percentage of high school graduates that immediately enroll in college.  The report recommends that the federal government take steps to support the coordination of efforts to connect workers with training and jobs.  The jobs in question here are considered ‘middle skill’ jobs – needing a certification, license and/or two-year degree.  They comprise the bulk of the workforce.

The letter report has three recommendations:

Better coordination of federal efforts to support the connections between workers, trainers and jobs, specifically within the Departments of Labor, Education and Commerce.
Continue the support of information technology research that can help train workers, assess skills, and provide career guidance.
Lead the private sector by finding ways to use information technology to assess the skills and employment needs of the federal government and finding the people that meet those needs.

The third recommendation, as PCAST notes, is a break from the recommendations in its report on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  In that report, the Council was more confident in the private sector’s ability to drive growth in that area.

 

Latest PCAST Report Tied To Executive Actions

Earlier this month the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on antibiotic resistance.  President Obama asked for the report in 2013 to make practical recommendations for combating the rise of antibiotic resistance which has been keenly felt over the last decade.  The report offers three major recommendations for addressing the threat:

  • Increasing the surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 
  • Improving the longevity of current antibiotics.
  • Increasing the rate at which new antibiotics and other treatments are developed and implemented

The second and third recommendations are as much about using antibiotics as they are about addressing concerns over resistance.  You can refine existing antibiotics to increase their shelf life and effectiveness, but it’s as meaningful to be more judicious with the use of these drugs.  They are very effective tools, but they lose this effectiveness with overuse.  By increasing the use of other treatments and otherwise trying not to hit every bug with large doses of antibiotics, we can hopefully stave off the rise of resistant bacteria.

Like with many things the United States developed over the course of the 20th century, antibiotic use and infrastructure could benefit from new investments and research.  It’s hard to see this getting much positive attention in the current climate.  After all, Congress has been less than speedy in opening the purse for fighting Ebola.

The report was released in conjunction with other Executive Branch actions.

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