So There’s A Strategy For American Innovation

Back in September 2009 the Obama Administration released A Strategy for American Innovation, a policy roadmap for establishing a long-term, well, strategy, for providing a foundation for innovation in the country that would serve it better than reliance on technology waves that can become bubbles and burst.  The three major themes of the Strategy are: Invest in the Building Blocks of American Innovation, Promote Market-Based Innovation, and Catalyze Breakthroughs for National Priorities.  In short, provide infrastructure, a research base, and other tools to facilitate innovation, and try not to get in the way.

The Administration revised the strategy in 2011, and is working on another update.  To that end, The Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council issued a Request for Comment.  Submissions are due by September 23.  There are 25 specific questions in the request, though comments need not be restricted to answering those questions.  The questions are organized in the following categories:

  • Overarching Questions
  • Innovation Trends
  • Science, Technology, and R&D Priorities
  • Skilled Workforce Development
  • Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship
  • Regional Innovation Ecosystems
  • Intellectual Property/Antitrust
  • Novel Government Tools for Promoting Innovation
  • National Priorities

I’d like to call particular attention to the following questions, as they could get lost in a wide-ranging request like this.

  • (6) How has the nature of the innovation process itself changed in recent years and what new models for science and technology investment and innovation policy, if any, do these changes require?
  • (11) Given recent evidence of the irreproducibility of a surprising number of published scientific findings, how can the Federal Government leverage its role as a significant funder of scientific research to most effectively address the problem?
  • (18) What investments, strategies, or technological advancements, across both the public and private sectors, are needed to rebuild the U.S. “industrial commons” and ensure the latest technologies can be produced here?

Submissions can be sent in via email, regular mail, or fax.  Check the Request for further information.

At Least One Congressman Is Concerned About Future Robot Overlords

There is a Congressional Robotics Caucus, which was formed in 2007.  Its focus is on positive and peaceful uses of robotics technology.  It’s often difficult for advocacy groups to address the beneficial and dangerous aspects of their focus in equal measure.  So I’m not surprised that a Congressional briefing on killer robots was not sponsored by the Robotics Caucus.  Credit the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of NGOs concerned about autonomous weapons, for last month’s event.

What both groups have in common is Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern.  He served as emcee of the killer robots event and is a member of the Congressional Robotics Caucus.  The other speakers were there to discuss how autonomous weapons/killer robots could be controlled pre-emptively.  McGovern is persuaded that there is enough time before these technologies are mature enough that the proverbial cat is out of the bag.

These aren’t lone voices speaking on the subject.  The Department of Defense has its own policy on autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons systems.

Yes, McGovern and others are really concerned about Terminator-style fighting robots.  This is arguably a subset of the more familiar concern over artificial intelligence.  And Elon Musk recently weighed in on his concerns in that area, indicating that trying to avoid negative consequences of artificial intelligence has motivated some of his investment decisions.

Science Envoys Continue To Travel The World

The State Department started appointing Science Envoys back in 2009, and the men and women who have served to date have traveled to 22 different countries.  The latest Envoy to represent the U.S. abroad is Dr. Barbara Schaal, who is in Uruguay as I type.  Schaal traveled to Colombia in September 2013, and is the first Envoy to visit Latin America.  Schaal is a biology professor at Washington University and a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).

At least one of her colleagues has been active since I last posted on the program.  In September 2013 Dr. Bernard Amadei convened a workshop (the first Envoy to do so) in Pakistan on science, technology and engineering for development.  Amadei is an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the founding president of Engineers Without Borders.  I have not been able to find any trips for the third Science Envoy, MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield, since her May 2013 travel to Turkey.  Information on the Envoys is not widely publicized, so I may simply be missing something.

‘Secret’ Ebola Treatment And Other Stories

The outbreak of Ebola virus disease (formerly known as Ebola hermorrhagic fever) in western Africa is no laughing matter.  The way it’s been inserted into fights over immigration reinforces the need to fight misinformation.  (That one of the politicians concerned that Ebola will come into the U.S. via Central American immigrants is a retired doctor reinforces my belief that not all doctors are scientists.)

Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has to say (effective August 6).

“The World Health Organization, in partnership with the Ministries of Health in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria announced a cumulative total of 1711 suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and 932 deaths, as of August 4, 2014. Of the 1711 clinical cases, 1070 cases have been laboratory confirmed for Ebola virus infection.”

Contrary to the concerns of several elected officials and media outlets, there is no significant risk of Ebola in the United States.  Two researchers with the disease were evacuated to the United States for treatment at Emory University in Atlanta.  As long as a hospital follows CDC infection control recommendations and can isolate the patient, it can contain the disease.

There is word of a ‘secret serum’ that the U.S. has, but is not currently going to send over to Africa.  This likely refers to the experimental treatment ZMapp, which has not undergone testing on humans.  While it was used in connection with one of the U.S. cases, neither the National Institutes of Health nor the CDC were involved in procuring the experimental treatment or getting it to the infected person in Africa. Continue reading

DOE Access Policy Suggests NIH May Remain King Of US Open Access

The Department of Energy (DOE) announced yesterday an expansion of access to research results funded by the Department.  The new policy will be effective October 1, 2014, and apply first to the Department’s Office of Science.  Other units of the Department of Energy will announce their data management plans over the next year.

The Department also announced the launch (in beta) of PAGES – Public Access Gateway for Energy and Science.  This is a portal, comparable to PubMed administered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that will connect searchers to research articles.  At the moment, there are 6,516 articles on PAGES, with nearly all of them available to read via PAGES.  That will change over time to where PAGES will be primarily citations of and links to the research.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a DOE equivalent of PubMed Central, which is a repository of public access articles kept by NIH.  Instead PAGES will rely in part on CHORUS, a publisher-led effort to ensure that traffic to open access articles will still need to go through publisher websites.

The CHORUS website does not seem to be developed with an article reader in mind, suggesting that journal publishers aren’t interested in them as customers.  It doesn’t fill me with hope that CHORUS will make it easier for people to access scientific research they already paid for with tax dollars.  Journals haven’t had to cater to the average person, and don’t seem interested in trying.  That the Office of Science and Technology Policy went along with them is disappointing, but not totally unexpected.

This also raises the question about access to research data Continue reading

NASA Reminds Us That All Mission Agencies Share An Economic Mission

News circulated last week (to the greater public) that NASA was going to be more particular about the level of foreign participation allowed on some of its missions.  This announcement was made in the context of the Discovery missions, which are focused on planetary exploration.

Foreign instrument participation on these missions will be limited to one-third of total instrument costs.  As Science assessed the decision, one of the outcomes will be to avoid the recurrence of NASA-launched missions that have no U.S.-developed scientific instruments.  Now, where the data collected on these missions is concerned, norms of the research community and negotiations with NASA can make sure that the agency can access information gathered by its missions.  But I can see where it would be counterproductive to have a U.S. agency investing hundreds of millions of dollars in non-U.S. instruments.  At a minimum I can see how it might irritate members of Congress interested more in ensuring that federal dollars are spent in their districts and possibly help employ people in their districts.

Not all restrictions on international partnerships in space can be traced to economics.  NASA is under restrictions in working with China, and as the situation in the Ukraine persists, it is possible that restrictions the agency has in working with Russia could increase.  But economics, whether it is budget restrictions or concerns over economic stimulus (though few would call it by that name), is a mission of all so-called mission agencies.  Sure, NASA may be there to explore space and observe the Earth, but ultimately if it doesn’t help contribute ‘enough’ to the American economy, it won’t get as much money for its other missions.

The National Institutes Of Health Has An (Im)Modest Grant Proposal

The National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued a Request for Information (RFI) last week on a new kind of research funding program (H/T Science magazine – $ for full version).  The deadline for comments is August 15.

The input NIGMS receives from the comments and other input from stakeholders will inform a funding opportunity announcement for a pilot of this program, which would link funding to a lab/principal investigator more than to a single project. As the RFI describes it (in part) (a link has been removed):

“An NIGMS MIRA would provide support for a lab’s research program, which represents a compilation of the investigator’s NIGMS research projects (research areas supported by NIGMS are outlined at our website). Researchers would have the freedom to explore new avenues of inquiry that arise during the course of their work as long as those avenues are relevant to the mission of the Institute and do not require additional review for regulatory compliance (e.g., new human subjects research).”

Now, I’m not a research scientist, but this program would represent a notable change in how research funding is normally disbursed in the U.S.  Grants are typically considered primarily on the basis of scientific merit and broader impacts and associated with discrete research projects.  By aggregating support to the level of a research lab (and the associated principal investigator), NIGMS will be, if only indirectly, putting more stock into the past work and future promise of the lead researcher than it has before.

Continue reading

Congress Appears To Be Kicking The Merit Review Fight Down The Road

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has released a draft of its reauthorization bill for the COMPETES legislation that has determined the budget authorization for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy since the Bush Administration (H/T ScienceInsider).

The Senate’s approach to the bill is consistent with the initial 2007 legislation and the reauthorization bill from 2010.  However, the House took a different approach this time, opting to handle agency reauthorizations (and other provisions) in separate bills.  And while that difference in approach can be reconciled in the legislative process without a lot of additional effort, the differences in content between the House and Senate might not.

Besides breaking up the legislation, the House bill focusing on the National Science Foundation outlined a much more active oversight role for Congress.  Not only did the bill, acronymized as FIRST, set up funding levels for the individual research directorates, it added an additional level of review to the process of awarding research grants.  It also dramatically reduced the funding for social and behavioral science research, which several Republicans have indicated does not appear connected to the national interest and therefore does not deserve federal funding.

With a limited amount of time remaining in the legislative calendar (thanks to it being an election year), and a shakeup in senior House leadership (soon-to-be former Majority Leader Eric Cantor was particularly interested in this legislation), the prospects for legislation becoming law are smaller than normal.

But there’s always the next Congress. Continue reading

Safe Travels To Cora Marrett

Usually when I write about a science policy administrator or politician of note, they have passed.  Thankfully this is not the case with Cora Marrett, who most recently served as the Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

She has been with NSF off and on since 1992, joining the Foundation to work as the first assistant director (the top job) in the (then newly created) education and human resources directorate.  Marrett’s background is in sociology, and when not working at the NSF, she has held academic positions at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  In her most recent tenure with the Foundation, she has worked on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, and served as Acting Director of NSF during the searches for the last two NSF Directors.  If there was such a thing as being an institution at the National Science Foundation, Marrett would qualify for that status.

While I would have liked to see Dr. Marrett become Director, that was not something she was likely interested in, with her family back in Wisconsin.  My thanks to her for her service to the country through her work at the Foundation.  My best wishes to her in the future.

Latest Golden Goose Awardee Recognized For Auction Savvy

The 2014 Golden Goose Awards Ceremony will be held On September 18th in Washington, D.C.  Science journalist Miles O’Brien will host.

The Golden Goose Awards group recently announced the second award for 2014.  It recognizes the work of Preston McAfee, Paul Milgrom, and Robert Wilson in auction theory.  While marketplaces like eBay have made online auctions a common occurrence, the work of McAfee, Milgrom and Wilson was connected to a much more complicated kind of auction.

Their work was integral to the success of the first spectrum auctions organized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Starting in 1993 the FCC had the authority to auction rights to part of the electromagnetic spectrum (in the U.S.) in which sound, video and data are transmitted.  If done properly, the auctions had the potential to raise revenue for the government and prompt the expansion of commercial activity that needed spectrum to operate.  Unlike most auctions we are familiar with, the spectrum auction had to be a simultaneous auction of multiple items.

Milgrom, working with Wilson, and McAfee, independently proposed similar models for the auction, and the FCC asked the three to work together on the first spectrum auction.  Thanks to existing academic work (done by Milgrom, Wilson, McAfee and many others over the preceding years), the three were able to develop a model that was used effectively in the 1994 auction.  It was the first of 87 such auctions by the FCC, which have raised over $60 billion in government revenue.  The economic activity enabled by these auctions is much larger.

As connections go between initial research and application, this is arguably the most straightforward link in a Golden Goose award to date.  After all, relying on auction research to develop a complex auction mechanism for a government purpose doesn’t require the kind of imaginative thinking other Golden Goose Awards have shown.  But the application of the auction – to enable commercial activity in telecommunications – certainly might have.

The complexity of determining the value of research highlighted in this case serves as a reminder (at least to me) that linear models in this area are still incomplete descriptions of how science and technology activity contribute to the public good.