Today in science and technology position news, we have an Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kathryn Sullivan was finally confirmed yesterday, seven months after she was formally nominated to the position. Sullivan has served as acting administrator since Jane Lubchenco left the post in February 2013.
Still no word on the confirmation dates for those in the lengthy backlog of science and technology nominees. As the nomination of France Cordova for National Science Foundation Director is now seven months old, perhaps this will be the next position confirmed. But the Senate confirmations this year have been scarce and irregular.
Earlier today, in partnership with the American Film Institute, the White House hosted a film festival. Announced last November, the festival theme was technology in schools. Over 2500 entries were submitted from students at the elementary, middle and high school levels. 16 Official Selections were screened at the White House, and over 100 other films received Honorable Mention. The President took the opportunity to promote his ConnectED initiative, which is intended to expand the number of schools with access to next-generation, high-speed Internet access.
As this photo suggests, there were some special guests in attendance. Actor (and occasional White House aide) Kal Penn joined Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Conan O’Brien had a video message for the filmmakers. You can watch all of the Official Selection and Honorable Mention films online.
It’s worth noting that one of the Official Selections was made by Kayla Briet, who was the Runner-Up in the recent Stand Up for Science contest organized by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. She also composed the music involved in her video submissions, so she’s probably more talented than you imagined.
While Arizona may be the focus of domestic attentions about legislation against homosexuals, Uganda recently signed into law a measure far more draconian. The punishments for various levels of homosexual activity range from 7 years to life in prison.
Part of the Ugandan president’s rationale for signing the bill is that an 11-member committee reviewed the medical research on homosexuality, and according to the president, found that the origins of same-sex orientation were behavioral and not genetic.
As you might expect, some members of the committee objected to how the president characterized the report, and two members have resigned in protest. ScienceInsider reports the first draft from the committee did not suggest that homosexuality had no genetic basis. To further clarify the committee’s position, a second draft has been released that also removes language on regulation the committee feels could be misinterpreted (or distorted).
So, in future debates on using science to cover a political agenda, Uganda stands an excellent chance of being the ultimate example used in lengthy online discussions. If you find yourself in such a discussion, I’d recommend you extricate yourself immediately should Uganda be mentioned. It’s not likely to end well
Here are some recent items of note.
Open Access: Both Science and The Royal Society have announced plans to establish open access journals. Science Advances will be financed through author charges, aim for rapid publication, and use an editorial model comparable to that of scientific societies. Royal Society Open Science will be the first broad-based journal from the Society, focusing on the full range of science and maths. It follows a similar financing model to Science Advances (gold open access), that some in the UK have criticized as not encouraging the development of institutional repositories.
Petitions: Two recent responses to petitions at the We The People website considered science-related topics. The Administration responded to a petition concerning net neutrality and another on access to clinical trials and compassionate use. While the net neutrality response was characterized as a reassertion of government policy, the White House demurred on making a statement on the second matter to avoid interfering in the determinations of an independent government agency.
Science Raps: Tom McFadden has been busy. His third rap video release this month focuses on metals, and comes from students at the Nueva School.
Physics Caucus: The Congressional Physics Caucus will likely have fewer members in the next Congress. Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey announced he will not seek re-election this fall. When he leaves in early January 2015, he will have served 16 years. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from New York University, and was assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory at the time he was elected to Congress. Representative Bill Foster is the other current member of the Physics Caucus. Best wishes to Representative Holt in his next endeavor, whatever that might be (I’d wager that Franklin’s List is planning to get him involved).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is going to study whether or not drug advertisements on television need to be changed. There are concerns that the current model, where all of the drug’s side effects are supposed to be listed, is giving a realistic picture of the benefits and harms of the advertised drug.
(FWIW, it certainly provides an easy, if sometimes lazy, vehicle for comedy.)
The Federal Register notice describes the possible study, and explains what the FDA hopes to accomplish. The idea is to examine the effects on consumer understanding of providing different levels of risk information in a direct-to-consumer advertisement (while the request is specific to television, I have to think any changes would influence other advertising).
“Our hypothesis is that, relative to inclusion of the full major statement, providing limited risk information along with the disclosure about additional risks will promote improved consumer perception and understanding of serious and actionable drug risks. We will also investigate other questions such as whether overall drug risk and benefit perceptions are affected by these changes.”
As the FDA is at the study phase of this particular regulatory process, it will be months before we have a different form of commercial for comedians to mock.
Today is Darwin Day, more notably commemorated in the U.K. than in the U.S., there are still some modest celebrations of Charles Darwin, born 205 years ago.
Representative Rush Holt introduced this year’s congressional resolution to designate February 12 as Darwin Day. It’s failure to advance in time is certainly consistent with the typical effort of Congress to avoid passing much of anything, even wind. That said, there are a couple of paragraphs that draw focus away from Darwin’s accomplishments.
On to the music. The Symphony of Science opted to mark the day by putting some of Bill Nye’s recent remarks during his recent ‘debate’ with a young earth creationist to music. It’s light on the auto-tune, and called “The Joy of Discovery.”
Going back to the beginning, at least for this part of his work, Baba Brinkman has a new rap honoring Charles Darwin. Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Evolution was developed to recognize Darwin’s birthday, and this new piece was as well.
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.
Yesterday the White House announced it will hold a Maker Faire later this year. No additional details of that event are available, but the White House has engaged with Makers since at least the 2012 White House Science Fair. At that event Joey Hudy attracted attention with his marshmallow cannon. Hudy sat with the First Lady at the recent State of the Union speech, and has been part of the Maker community for years. Makers were also part of the 2013 White House Science Fair, a White House Hangout and an interest by the Administration in making it easier for interested kids to get out and make something.
The Maker Education Initiative has been around since 2012, and the upcoming Maker Faire will be used to further interest in that program and other public-private partnerships meant to encourage making.
I noticed in the announcement fewer instances of the perennial science education acronym STEM than I expected. I think this is more a difference in strategy than in desired outcomes. Making is more informal education, but a Maker Faire is at least part science fair – boosting interest in science, technology, engineering and math is a goal. Paying more attention to how that’s done outside of the classroom is a good thing.
This week’s issue of ResearchResearch has a cover story (H/T Penny Sarchet) on how the government science advisory ecosystem may be changing under the leadership of the new Government Chief Science Adviser (GCSA), Sir Mark Walport. These changes won’t be accompanied by an increase in staff or budget
At a minimum, the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) will have to deal with Walport’s increased presence in the office. While his predecessors usually continued to spend time in their previous postings while serving as GCSA, Sir Mark is present five days a week.
However, an oft-discussed possibility of appointing a Chief Social Scientist may remain on the drawing board. Per Sarchet, the idea will be kept ‘under review.’ Given that the government spokesman she talked with cited the What Works centres and economists in science advisory positions suggests that any appointment is a long way off.
There are a couple of additional items in the article that grabbed my attention. One was an acknowledgement that the relationships between the GCSA and other government officials are at least as important as the science budget in determining the influence of science and scientific advice in policymaking. I think that informal influence is important to remember. It gets frustrating sometimes in observing the U.S. science advisory enterprise as it’s tough to assess those relationships without being inside the system. The U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) does not have a large budget, so the relationship between the OSTP Director and the agencies with major research activities is perhaps the critical determinant of whether cross-government initiatives (like the scientific integrity push) get anywhere.
The other item I found interesting is a stark difference between Sir Mark and his U.S. counterpart. While OSTP is right there with the other science agencies in arguing for the federal government’s science funding budget, Walport does not consider such advocacy as part of his job. In that sense, Walport recognizes that his first constituency is the Government, rather than the scientific community that sometimes sees a GCSA (or a Presidential science adviser) as their (un)elected representative.
I am looking forward to finding out more about the GO-Science reorganization, and wish Sir Mark and his colleagues all the best in what can be a frustrating job on the best of days.
Back in December, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) posted on its blog about the use of evidence and evaluation in policy. After reviewing a a July memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies on an evidence-based management agenda, this post focused on randomized controlled trials (RCTs). These are experiments where a policy is implemented on a particular group and the effects of that policy are measured against a comparable control group.
After highlighting the work of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and other groups looking to determine low-cost options for RCTs, OSTP staff announced that it will be partnering with the Coalition in a workshop next summer. The workshop is linked to the Coalition’s low-cost RCT competition. The deadline for applications (which must focus on evaluations of U.S. social policy) is February 14. Three grant recipients will be chosen to implement their applications as part of the first year of this three year initiative. (This press release suggests that 7-9 applications will be selected, presumably over the full three years)
The workshop will focus on “exploring wider government and philanthropic use of such studies with leading researchers, and officials of the White House and OMB, federal agencies, Congress, philanthropic foundations, state/local government, and other organizations that help shape social spending.”
This likely reflects my lack of experience with RCTs, but I would be interested to know if such evaluation measures could be used in science and technology policy. For instance, it would be interesting to use RCTs to evaluate things like the R&D tax credit to determine its effectiveness in prompting investment in R&D. Maybe this kind of thing will be addressed in the workshop later this year.