PCAST Meets To Take A Deep Dive

When I first posted about tomorrow’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it was without benefit of an agenda.  Now that I have seen it, my mildly informed speculation has been confirmed.

The meeting will start at 9:15 Eastern time tomorrow in Washington.  A webcast will be available, as usual.  Simply visit the PCAST meetings page tomorrow.  The morning starts with progress updates (and perhaps final approvals) on PCAST reports on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and antibiotic resistance.  The NNI report is required every other year by law, so PCAST will be returning to somewhat familiar territory.

The presentation part of the meeting concludes with a panel on oceans policy.  As I guessed, Beth Kertulla, Director of the National Ocean Council, will be part of the panel.  She will be joined by other leaders in the ocean science research community: Robert Gagosian, President of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and Anthony Knap, head of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

As usual, there is time set aside for public comment.  The public session is scheduled to end by lunchtime.

Missed Humor Opportunity – Thermal Hydrolysis In Washington

Even with a former comedy writer serving in the United States Senate, I would have expected someone to mine the humor potential in this energy project.

Washington D.C.’s water department is working on an enriched water (also known as wastewater) plant that uses thermal hydrolysis to generate, among other things, energy.  It’s the first effort of its kind in North America, and it will start operations this summer, with the goal of achieving full operation in January 2015.  Cambi, a company in Norway, developed the technology that is the heart of the new water treatment plant.  Here’s a time-lapse video of construction.

Thermal hydrolysis will take the solids generated in regular wastewater treatment and cook them so that microbes can digest them more effectively.  The resulting methane gas will power a turbine on site.  That turbine will generate steam that provides the heat to cook the solids.  A different take on the circle of life, but a cycle nonetheless.

The power generated in the effort will be consumed by other plant operations, but it certainly helps reduce the resource demands for water treatment.  An additional benefit of this process is that the biosolids produced by thermal hydrolysis are class A (the current output is class B).  Class A biosolids can be used for a lot more agricultural purposes as they are cleaner.  Producing Class A solids will reduce the transportation costs for the plant’s biosolids, further reducing the energy costs of the operation.

But, seriously, nobody has mined the comic vein of Washington producing something out of excrement?  Maybe that will change once operations start, but I’m just a little disappointed.

Should Science Have Run The Keystone Editorial?

In the latest (February 21) edition of Science, editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey under President Obama, has an editorial (free, with registration) on the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the U.S. government has not yet decided to pursue (or not).  McNutt, in a reversal of her previous position, believes it should be approved.  Her rationale hinges on the capability of the U.S. government to extract concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers to ensure better environmental safety than transporting the oil via rail and truck.

McNutt is more than entitled to her opinion on the matter, as well as her own criteria for choosing the way that she has.  But I’m not sure this had any business being aired in the pages of Science.

My recollection of Science editorials is hardly comprehensive (especially since I am not a subscriber).  But I find it difficult to see why the pipeline extension is worthy editorial fodder for Science, certainly with how this editorial is written.

Science editorials have certainly been political, and have certainly made policy recommendations in the past.  I’ve even supported a scientific journal making a recommendation for political office – provided it was open and transparent about what it was doing.

But in all of these matters (again, based on the editorials I have read), there was some connection to the specific interests of the journal, its publishers, its readers, or the relevant scientific communities.

I don’t see any such connection in this editorial.

McNutt’s editorial is written from her individual perspective (the number of times I is used in the piece stood out for me).  Nothing in the editorial reflects her position as editor-in-chief nor concerns specific to the journal or its publisher, AAAS.  Her reasons for supporting the extension are conditioned on successfully obtaining concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers – a policy process that may have very little to do with relevant science.

Certainly an editor is expected to have some influence on the perspective of the publication she edits.  But that perspective should be connected to the mission of the journal or the interests of its readers.  Many readers of Science may agree with McNutt.  But I doubt that has anything to do with their membership in AAAS or interests in science and technology.

UN Science Advisory Board Holds Inaugural Meeting

On January 30 and 31 the United Nations Science Advisory Board held its first meeting in Berlin.  Secretary General of the UN, Ban-Ki Moon, spoke to the group, emphasizing the need for science advise, and focusing on the organization’s development goal.  From his remarks:

“We need science to understand our environment, protect it and to use it wisely.  We need to understand the many economic and demographic forces are at play in our changing world.  And we need to tackle the big issues – hunger and food security, growing inequalities, disaster prevention, urbanization, sanitation” and sustainable energy for all.”

It’s been tough to find more details about what the board did during its first meeting.  For instance, it’s still not clear who is chairing the board.  Perhaps additional details, or even minutes, will be available at some future date.  It’s nice to see the United Nations with a scientific advisory board, but I do hope that more information is forthcoming.

Charles Monnett Settles Whistleblower Case; Should Interior Revise Scientific Integrity Policy?

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?

Presidential Science Councils Are Busy

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.

Physicist Senate Candidate Seeks Geek Supporters

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.

Eating Some Earthquake Crow?

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.

House Science Committee Discovers It Can’t Afford Another Subcommittee

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

A More, And Less, Powerful Crowdsourcing For Emissions Modeling

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.