Charles Monnett, who was temporarily suspended in 2011 after accusations of scientific misconduct, recently settled a whistleblower complaint with the Department of the Interior (H/T Roger Pielke, Jr.). Monnett has officially retired from the Department received a cash settlement, and had a letter of reprimand removed from his file (placed there for supposedly leaking agency documents). The Department does not acknowledge any liability in the matter, and states that the agreement was entered into on their part to avoid the costs of litigation (which may well have influenced Monnett’s decision to accept).
As background and refresher, Monnett worked for the Deparment’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. In 2010 a scientific integrity complaint was lodged against him, but the department did not find evidence to suggest scientific misconduct, but reprimanded him for leaking internal government documents. Monnett alleged actions by the Bureau and the Department’s Office of Inspector General constituted misconduct and harmed the integrity of his scientific efforts. The department found (cases 290 and 295) that the actions of both parties were consistent with the nature of such investigations and did not violate the scientific integrity policy.
Arguably the first test case for scientific integrity policies following the big push from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Monnett’s case involved both the scientific integrity policy (which he was accused of violating) and general policies and laws concerning whistleblowing activity (which is mentioned in the scientific integrity policy). While there would appear to be resolution in terms of a partial restoration of Monnett’s status and name following charges that could not be substantiated, I think there’s a reasonable set of questions to ask about what such restoration means in the context of scientific misconduct.
Could scientific integrity policies benefit from stronger language concerning whistleblowing and retaliation? Ultimately these policies will rise and fall based on the people, processes and culture in place to implement them, but the language provides a starting point. Do accusations of scientific misconduct (which are not all the possible violations of scientific integrity policies) warrant the additional scrutiny and protection intended for those trying to reveal other kinds of inappropriate conduct?
I think it’s worth considering how the additional consequences to the accused of claiming scientific misconduct can be handled in a way that’s as fair as possible to all concerned. But since the Office of Science and Technology Policy seems to think they’ve done all they need to do in this area, the consideration will have to come from other interested and/or aggrieved parties. Any takers?
Tomorrow is another meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) in Washington. The public portion of the meeting will from nine to noon Eastern time. As usual, there will be a webcast (access via the PCAST website), which will be archived following the meeting.
Per the current agenda, this meeting will have three briefings and a public comment period. It’s a rare PCAST meeting where there are no updates on pending reports, but that may not be covered in the formal agenda. All of the scheduled speakers are government officials. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Chief Information Officer Steve Van Roekel will discuss the President’s Management Agenda (perhaps connected to the recently announced open data policy). The head of the Centers for Disease Control will speak on anti-microbial resistance, and several federal staffers will discuss the preservation of environmental capital. The last item was the subject of a July 2011 PCAST report, so this briefing may be a follow-up discussion about the report recommendations.
But this is not the only Presidential Council of scientific advisers busy of late. Check out this Tweet from the Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Union’s President:
The President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council is the EU edition of the U.S. PCAST. Formed earlier this year, it has met twice, primarily focused on organisational matters. There is a mention in the agenda for the second meeting about position papers for the Council as well as the ‘current debate on public acceptance of science.’ Let’s see if that is the focus of the report Dr. Glover suggested is coming soon.
Representative Rush Holt (Democrat) is the senior member of the House Physics Caucus. Prior to representing the citizens of his Princeton-area district, Holt was the Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Holt, while not a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is on record (paywall, summary available online) as favoring more ‘scientific thinking’ in Congress.
He is also running for the U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey that is open due to the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg. The spot will be filled by special election, with the primary election scheduled for next month and the general election in October. Holt has been touting his scientific and environmental credentials (he serves on the House Natural Resources Committee) in his campaign materials and public statements, including gathering the endorsements of Nobel laureates, including former Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
He has likely drawn (or will draw) the ire of Roger Pielke, Jr. by claiming in an online ad ‘millions’ of casualties as a result of climate change without getting into the details or any evidence to back up his claims. This has prompted a side squabble between Holt and one of the Republican Senate candidates who isn’t persuaded on the issue of climate change. It can also be considered dubious for a physicist to consider himself an ‘energy scientist’ as Holt does in the ad.
Holt is pressing ahead, and is hosting a live “Geek Out” on July 30 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. It will be a live discussion with the Congressman and ‘several world experts’ on issues of the day. None of these experts are named on the Geek Out site. As part of the event, and related campaign activities, Holt is running a contest for supporters to join him at an (I don’t think there’s only one) Einstein Dinner on August 9. The dinner is described as a more intimate opportunity for the kinds of discussions Holt wants to have at the Geek Out. While donors and more active supporters of the Congressman have dedicated drawings, it appears that those that simply register for the event will also have an opportunity to win.
The Democratic field has four candidates, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker is running far ahead of Holt and the other two challengers, Representative Frank Pallone and State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. As this election will be to complete a term that would ordinarily expire next year, Holt’s performance next month may influence whether he decides to try again in 2014.
Given how much I’ve written about what I consider the questionable pursuit of earthquake prediction, some of the latest news in Science magazine reminds me that I am not an expert. In the latest issue (July 12) there’s an article making the claim that certain areas are susceptible to earthquakes under certain conditions.
According to the researchers, in areas where there has been seismic activity following human activity, there is an increased likelihood of further quakes. Much like the initial activity, the subsequent activity would be the result of some triggering event. In this case that would be seismic waves from large, remote earthquakes.
Researchers found that increased sensitivity to subsequent seismic activity occurred more often in areas where a long time passed between the human impetus and the induced seismic activity. Areas that showed moderate magnitude earthquakes within 6 to 20 months of the induced activity (usually hydraulic injection) also had a higher incidence of seismic sensitivity.
I suppose it is still a bit of a stretch to suggest these findings indicate predictive power for earthquakes. But it seems reasonable to be more alert following human-induced quakes in the event of large distant quakes. And I would not have expected that to be possible not that long ago.
In January, when the House Science, Space and Technology Committee organized for the 113th Congress, Chair Lamar Smith announced six subcommittees, an increase of one from prior Congresses. The Energy and Environment Subcommittees were cleaved in twain, joining longstanding subcommittees on Technology, Space and Research, as well as the relatively new subcommittee on Oversight (added in 2007).
Earlier today, prior to a hearing on Department of Energy priorities, the Committee held a business meeting. As part of the meeting the Committee approved a reorganization (subscription required) that returns the number of subcommittees to five. Apparently there were committee budget reductions that prompted the Chair to propose this action. (That he couldn’t or didn’t envision such a possibility 5 months ago suggests a number of less than flattering things, given the persistence of budgetary constraints.)
The reduction is not a reversal of the January decision to create separate Energy and Environment Subcommittees. Instead the Technology and Research Subcommittees, which also address matters dealing with innovation and science education, will merge. The resulting committee will have every member of the formerly separate subcommittees, suggesting the only reduction is in staff. As committee staff often retain the subject matter expertise that informs committee hearings (which could decrease under a reduced budget), this doesn’t bode well for informed activities.
(Of course, this is probably happening in other committees as well; I’m singling out the House Science, Space and Technology Committee given its subject matter jurisdiction.) Continue reading
The Ventus Project is looking to get the public’s help in improving its information on power plant emissions. Apparently, the body of knowledge on existing power plants is not as well-developed as I would have expected. The public’s help is requested to provide locations of power plants, and if they have access, other information on the production and emissions of these plants.
The task involves adding the location of power plants (along with whatever additional information one has) to a Google Maps document. Not that other crowdsourcing projects are very technical in what they ask of participants, but adding virtual pins to a map strikes me as relatively simple.
If someone opts to register with the project when they provide information, they will be able to compete with other registered participants for a trophy and author credit on the paper the project members intend to publish on their work.
The resulting data will be combined with a NASA project involving atmospheric carbon dioxide data to refine both a high-resolution model of the global carbon cycle and associated tracking methods. There is certainly some risk in using crowdsourced information, especially anonymously submitted information. With the recent history of heightened scrutiny over greenhouse emissions data, models and research, it would seem nearly a certainty that those who do not wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will question the credibility of the submitted information.
How the Ventus project will test or demonstrate the reliability of submitted information is not obvious from the information linked to in this blog post. It is possible that such information cannot be effectively confirmed, and may not be usable in the project. Hopefully the Ventus team will be as open about that part of the project as it is in its interest in gathering public assistance.
Yesterday President Obama announced two nominees for recently open science and technology positions. Given the current Senate backlog on nearly everything, expect these two to be sworn in sometime this summer at the earliest.
Ernest Moniz has been nominated to replace Steven Chu as Energy Secretary. Moniz has been on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 40 years, and currently directs the Institute’s Energy Program. This will not be his first time at the Department, having served as Undersecretary of Energy from 1997 to 2001. He worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy for two years prior to his first stint at the Department of Energy.
Gina McCarthy, currently running the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Air and Radiation, was picked to serve as the new EPA Administrator. McCarthy came to the EPA in 2009 after decades of work in state environmental agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
It is likely that any opposition to the two nominees will focus on disagreement’s with the President’s strategies for energy independence and environmental protection. With the possible exception of new Secretary of State John Kerry, there have been hurdles for each major Obama Administration nominee this term. I don’t expect either Moniz or McCarthy to be an exception.
The recent pattern for nominees for Secretary of the Interior has been to select politicians from Western states. The nominee President Obama has named to replace current Secretary Ken Salazar (formerly a Senator from Colorado) does come from the West, but she is currently a CEO.
Earlier today the President announced he will nominate Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of the Interior. Ms. Jewell is currently CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., commonly known as REI. She has also worked in the oil industry as an engineer, and as a banking executive with an emphasis on energy use. She also enjoys climbing mountains, including one in Antarctica.
While the novelty and variety of her background is intriguing, given the Department’s issues with scientific integrity, I am interested in seeing how she might approach the issue. If she does at all.
Since the Senate still hasn’t figured out whether to confirm the President’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, I suspect this nominee will have to wait a while before a confirmation hearing.
The Department of Justice recently announced its plea agreement with Transocean Deepwater Inc. (Transocean), the contractor that operated the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on behalf of BP (H/T ScienceInsider). Deepwater Horizon failed spectacularly in a 2010 spill, and will be paying $1.4 billion in fines and penalties for violations of the Clean Water Act. Nearly three-quarters of the money in the agreement for BP were designated for various research and restoration efforts. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Academies received the bulk of this money.
The money Transocean must pay will also have set-asides for research, and the same entities are getting additional money. You can read the full agreement here. Transocean will pay the National Academies $150 million as part of the Academies’ 30-year program on health and environmental protection in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will also receive $150 million to support restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana.
The plea agreement is specific to the criminal violations. The civil settlement relates to fines under the Clean Water Act, and per legislation passed last year, eighty percent of the fine money will be committed to the five states of the Gulf region. (Ordinarily such fines would be pooled in a nationwide fund.) Those fines total $1 billion dollars.
The investigation into the spill continues, so there may be more agreements and settlements forthcoming. Whether research and restoration gets more of any additional money will depend on what the investigation finds.
As I suggested last week, now is traditionally the time (between the re-election of a President and the second inauguration) where many senior officials leave. Attention has been focused on two Cabinet secretaries, but the list of science and technology positions to replace has grown by one.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced earlier today that she will depart her post after the President’s State of the Union address early next year. Jackson and the EPA have often caught flack from all sides, which suggests to me that the Obama Administration will have a tough time finding a replacement. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jackson’s deputy, Robert Perciasepe, was eventually nominated after some indeterminate time as Acting Administrator.
I expect more senior science and technology appointees to announce departures over the next several weeks. I’d rather not guess who the departing will be. However, I am expecting it to take time for their replacements to be named. It seems as though the Administration had a good list to work from when they started, and weren’t able to keep it stocked as openings emerge. It’s too bad, given all the praise of a ‘scientific dream team’ to see it fall back to earth.