The Materials Genome Initiative Now Has A Strategic Plan

In 2011 the Obama Administration announced the Materials Genome Initiative in connection with its Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.  The initiative, administered by a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council and involving seven federal agencies, is focused on coordinating public and private sector activity in developing and commercializing new materials.  Most of this effort would focus on developing the infrastructure necessary to support increased activity in developing new materials – whatever might be the next Kevlar, battery material or superconducting ceramic.

Last week the Initiative released its first Strategic Plan.  The plan describes four strategic goals for the initiative, how the initiative supports various national objectives, and grand challenges in materials science.  The Strategic Goals:

  • Enable a Paradigm Shift in Culture – In order to reduce the time for developing new materials and transferring them to market, there will have to be shifts in how communities conduct research and development as well as the commercial activities that would use the resulting materials.
  • Integrate Experiments, Computation and Theory – The integration described here is between research and development and commercial application.  Ideally this integration would make it easier to identify replacements for critical materials and facilitate introducing them into manufacturing processes.
  • Facilitate Access to Material Data – A suite of data repositories for materials data, with community-developed standards, can help identify gaps in data and areas of redundant research efforts.
  • Equip the Next Generation Materials Workforce – The incoming workforce needs to be trained in the new skills and process encouraged by the Initiative.

Within each of the strategic goals are a series of milestones that should guide Initiative activity until the next Strategic Plan.  It all reads quite well, but I’m still stuck on the use of genome in the initiative’s name.  Perhaps I’m suffering from metaphor lock.

Advisory Board Seeks Clarification On Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’

Happy American Thanksgiving, everyone.

Back in October the U.S. government announced a ‘pause’ in gain-of-function (GOF) research.  GOF research works with existing viruses, exploring how they can become more virulent and/or transmissible.  Per the official announcement, the pause – limited to federal funding – covers the following:

“New USG funding will not be released for gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. The research funding pause would not apply to characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses, unless the tests are reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity.”
Even the layman writing this post can see there is some language – like ‘reasonably anticipated’ – that would be open to interpretation.  The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) met earlier this week about the pause (H/T ScienceInsider).  The meeting focused on a statement about the pause, which has not yet been finalized.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff have been working with researchers to clarify matters, according to Dr. Dixon, who spoke at the meeting.  Researchers expressed their concerns that the apparent breadth of the pause could have a chilling effect on the field, with possible impacts on public health.  As the NSABB has a year to develop its recommendations, it’s possible that the pause could be lengthy.  While a revised policy may not be ideal, I think greater communication about how NIH and other agencies are implementing the pause is necessary.  What’s in this new FAQ is nice, but it could benefit from follow-up documents from funding agencies with more specifics about how to have research reviewed, and (if needed) exceptions granted).

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.