Next PCAST Meeting Looking More Ahead Than Usual

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will have another meeting on September 19.  As is its custom, that’s a Friday, and the public session will run from 9-12 Eastern time.  Registration is now live on the meetings page, and the webcast will be available from the same page on the day of the event.

The agenda reflects some recent PCAST report activity.  Updates are expected on the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership and educational technology.  Following a break PCAST will continue its public session with two panels.  The first has the broad title of “Alternate Views of Where Science and Technology May Take Us.”  The panelists represent different frontiers of scientific and technological innovation.  One comes from a research center exploring the boundaries of physical science and computer science, another is involved with systems biology and the third works for a cloud computing service provider.  I don’t have a good sense of what this panel might talk about, but future trends are implied by the title.

The other panel is about STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  That it specifically mentions the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that PCAST has a particular article in mind for the panel to discuss.  This article on active learning (compared to lectures) seems a likely candidate.

As usual, the meeting will be webcast and available for later viewing.  Simply check the meetings section of the website for links.

Federal CTO Steps Down, But Not Out

Todd Park, the second-ever federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO), is leaving his position.  While he has been CTO since 2012, he has been part of the Administration since 2009, when he joined the Department of Health and Human Services as its CTO.

While the President will need to find a new CTO, Park will continue to work for the Administration.  Once he returns to California, he will serve as a technology adviser to the President.  To my knowledge, having a presidential appointee based outside of Washington is rare, if not unique.  But in Park’s case, it makes a lot of sense.

His main focus on the West Coast is to recruit technology-savvy people for work in Washington.  Personnel has been an interest of Park’s; he was instrumental in developing the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a program where technologically savvy professionals would serve short stints in federal agencies.  Those fellows were part of the technology overhaul of the health care website, and helped staff the General Services Adminstration technology team, called 18F.  They, and others who have worked with Park may well play a part in the newly formed U.S. Digital Service housed in the Office of Management and Budget.

Given how low on the priority list science and technology appointments are now in this Administration, I do not expect Park’s successor to be announced quickly.  (If a successor has been identified from within Park’s current staff, I may be proven wrong.)  And there is still the matter of an Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Continue reading

U.S. Government Checking How Wide Open The Pathogenic Barn Door Is

Earlier this summer there were a series of incidents involving pathogens (anthrax, H5N1 influenza, and smallpox) in both Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilities (the Food and Drug Administration was responsible for the NIH lab where the smallpox was found).  Perhaps overshadowed by the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the lapses in security were notable and prompted institutional reviews, at least one congressional hearing and increased calls for oversight.  So far those efforts have been focused on the agencies directly affected by the lapses.  The CDC has issued a report on the anthrax incident, and the Government Accountability Office has been asked to assess how well federal agencies manage the pathogens under their control.

The Executive Branch joined the fray last week.  Posting to the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog, OSTP Director John Holdren and Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco described the August 18 memo distributed to several federal agencies (any agencies operating facilities that may use, transport, or possess biomedical toxins or infectious agents; a longer list than you might expect).  Amongst the recommendations:

  • Conduct a ‘Safety Stand-Down’ – a review of biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols – within 30 days of the issuance of the memo.  This should happen for both federal facilities and non-federal facilities that use federal funding.  Documentation of these activities should be submitted by October 15.
  • Interagency reviews of federal practices and protocols in biosecurity will run in parallel with a non-federal review (presumably the one initiated by the Department of Health and Human Services described on the bottom of page 3.

More information should be available as the reviews called for in the memo take shape.


Delaware Sets Law To Deal With Digital Records Post-Mortem

The state of Delaware recently passed a law that could provide a boost to the services that help maintain digital assets after death.  It follows on suggested text approved by the Uniform Commission on Laws.

The need for this wasn’t obvious to me in earlier posts on the subject, as I figured directives to relatives and/or representatives could address the matter of accessing online accounts, blogs, etc.  But access is just one part of the matter.  The extent of one’s digital collection is usually larger than expected – even to the decedent.  And many of the items in that collection are more than information.  Being able to transfer, download or otherwise take hold of the photos, recordings, and other content can be just as meaningful to the family as the financial accounts that might be more top of mind.

Delaware is but one state of 50, so for now most of us will need to take our own steps, through powers of attorney or similar directives, to make sure digital assets and accounts are addressed.  And then tell your relatives.

Government Still Muddling Through Updating Critical Materials Policy

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) recently reported on the latest activities by the government related to critical materials.  As I might have expected, progress has been halting and modest.  The House did manage to consider a critical minerals bill (H.R. 1022) before its latest recess, but failed to pass it, perhaps due to members of the House who considered the bill harmful to the mining industry.  Read the full AIP report for additional details.  With this being an election year, what few Congressional working days remain will likely be filled with other bills, and maybe a budget.

Things are slightly better in the Executive Branch.  There is an open comment period on a recent request by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  It closes on August 31.  There is a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (which is coordinated by OSTP) focused on the strategic and critical minerals supply chain.  They are seeking input from the public to help the subcommittee develop a methodology for identifying critical materials and monitoring their status.  Ideally it would make it easier to predict shortfalls in these materials so that proper measures could be taken.  The specific questions in the request focus on all aspects of the supply chain for critical minerals and the associated demand.

Comments can be sent electronically, but must be received by August 31.

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.