Canadian Ministerial Reshuffle Leads To New Science Minister

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shifted several ministerial responsibilities.  The current Minister of State for Science and Technology, MP Greg Rickford, is one of the ministers with new responsibilities.  Aside from his science and technology responsibilities, Rickford was the Minister of Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, a position he kept when he was appointed as science and technology minister last year.

Minister Rickford will retain his Northern Ontario responsibilities, and will now assume the portfolio of the Minister for Natural Resources.  Taking his responsibilities for science and technology will be MP Ed Holder from Ontario.  Holder represents parts of London, Ontario, and has stood in Parliament since 2008.  His background is in insurance, where he established a successful brokerage company, and contributed time and resources to several charitable causes.  In other words, the appointment reflects the second-tier status the science minister holds within the Canadian government.

(To be fair, science ministers who are elected politicians in many other nations hold a similar status.)

Given the abject frustration felt by many in Canada about the government’s approach to its scientific and technical employees and other resources, the bright side to Minister Holder’s appointment appears to be that he is not openly antagonistic (based on his record so far).  But that reflects a bar that has been set directly on the ground.

Another Drip Into The Confirmation Cup – NSF Director

Seven months after her initial nomination, Dr. France Córdova was confirmed Wednesday night by the U.S. Senate as the new Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).  An astrophysicist by training, Dr. Córdova comes to the job from the Smithsonian Institution, where she was the Chairman of the Board of Regents.  She is also a member of the National Science Board.

Her experience as a current member of the Board means that she is more familiar than most with the current challenges facing NSF as Congress has been increasingly adversarial in its relationship.  The recent markup of NSF authorization legislation suggests a Congress that is unwilling to trust the Foundation (or is looking for eliminating discretionary spending wherever they think they can find political cover).

Welcome and congratulations, Dr. Córdova.  Good luck, you’re going to need it.

The Legislative Cycle Is On Repeat – Science Laureate Edition

Last week Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California introduced a bill establishing a science laureate.  This marks the second attempt by Rep. Lofgren in as many years to set up a national science spokesman-at-large.  The last one was taken off the fast track in the House due to concerns that it would be used to advance climate change policy.  Like a Senate bill introduced around the same time, the House measure went nowhere.

The new bill is similar to the previous legislation.  The major differences are in who would appoint the science laureate and how many could be appointed.  This time the National Academy of Sciences would appoint the laureate, rather than reviewing candidates for the President to choose from.  While both bills indicate there would be one laureate at a time serving a one-year term (which could be renewed), the previous bill allowed the President to appoint up to three laureates.

As these appear to be the only changes from last year’s bill, I’m not sure that the fate of this legislation will be any different from its predecessors.  As science issues in Congress continue to be the stalking horse for other concerns (the recent NIH pediatric research bill is a classic example), bills that are focused first on the scientific and technological enterprise will continue to die from lack of interest.

No We Still Don’t Have An NSF Director

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.

White House Film Festival Promotes Educational Technology

Earlier today, in partnership with the American Film Institute, the White House hosted a film festivalAnnounced 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.

In Uganda, The “Godwin’s Law” For Stealth Advocacy?

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

Updates A Plenty – Open Access, Petitions, Science Raps, Physics Caucus Loss

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).

This Is Your TV On Drug (Advertisements)

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.

This Is Our Salute (To Darwin)

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.


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.