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
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.
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.
As the case for reconsidering critical minerals policy has changed since 2009, many legislative and executive branch proposals have sought to establish and/or re-establish domestic means of obtaining more of the elements we need to produce high technology.
Regrettably, but perhaps understandably, the proposals don’t go very far. In most cases they simply try to alleviate regulatory burdens and/or increase what knowledge we have of our own supplies and manufacturing processes. Unfortunately, the lack of information can contribute to a lack of imagination. At least that’s something I took away from this Nature article outlining the needs for a more comprehensive strategy.
Andrew Bloodworth, director of waste and minerals at the British Geological Survey, makes a compelling argument that the markets for critical minerals are changing (and will change) in ways that make relying on recycling a strategy likely to disappoint. But because many policymakers have not had to deal with this matter for decades, and were prompted to be reactive to manufacturing challenges, more deliberative thinking is harder to come by.
Bloodworth is persuasive in arguing that shifting market demands will make other solutions, like mining lower-grade ore, feasible. Hopefully policymakers will listen, even if that can’t put his recommendations into law.
The Chang’e spacecraft landed on the moon early yesterday, and the Yutu rover (the English translation is ‘Jade Rabbit’) took a picture of it earlier today. China joins the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only two countries to have landed craft on our natural satellite.
Somewhere China has not joined other spacefaring countries is on the International Space Station. It could if all the participating nations agree to it, but the U.S. has been reluctant. As I’ve posted here, there are strict controls on scientific cooperation between the U.S. and China. Even appearing to cooperate too closely can lead to consequences, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy having its budget slashed for meeting with Chinese officials, and Chinese scientists barred (erroneously) from participating in a NASA-hosted conference.
An early indicator for how things may progress between the U.S. and China will be whether there is any Congressional reaction following the landing. Representatives Rohrabacher and Frank Wolf are two members who are interested both in space and in how China may steal our intellectual property through scientific cooperation. The House is in recess, but that may not stop them from speaking their minds. Personally, I suspect this will do little or nothing to change U.S. space policy, certainly with respect to China.
But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong (/DennisMiller).
There was a bit of a buzz when a Swiss lab suggested that Yassir Arafat, former head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was poisoned by the radioactive element polonium. There have been suppositions since Arafat’s death in 2004 that he had been assassinated, though the official cause of death was a stroke caused by a blood disorder. The claim of polonium poisoning was based on tests conducted in 2012 of Arafat’s clothing and personal effects; tests requested by the news service Al Jazeera. The Swiss lab confirmed the tests later in 2012, indicating that there were higher than expected levels of polonium, an element with a half-life (the time period of decay for half a given sample) measured in days.
The amount of polonium eight years later suggested there was more of the element present than would occur naturally. While the natural instinct may be to assume poisoning, the short half life of polonium means that anything ingested by Arafat in 2004 would have decayed significantly in the subsequent years.
While the Swiss lab did not claim that the polonium caused Arafat’s death, those looking for foul play certainly latched onto the possibility. Continue reading
As part of the 5th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), a group of dedicated science bloggers is launching a Canadian science blogging portal. Science Borealis will go public tomorrow afternoon (Friday) in connection with a panel on science blogging in Canada (the panel is scheduled to start at 1:30 Eastern. That the panel includes a member of the Canadian Parliament suggests there has been serious effort in developing this network.
The bloggers have partnered with Canadian Science Publishing and Genome Alberta to develop its web presence (which includes a Twitter feed – @ScienceBorealis). The website will aggregate (reblog rather than host) Canadian science blogging content and serve as a central location for information on Canadian science communication. Interested Canadian science bloggers can submit their blogs for inclusion, which will be determined by the Science Borealis editorial team. There are already over 30 blogs in the network, which should grow considerably over the next few months. Organizers would like to see 150 blogs on the network, which would equal or surpass blog networks affiliated with large science magazines.
With Canadian scientists increasingly concerned about their country’s science policy and scientific resources, a website like Science Borealis could serve needed roles in the community as both information source and meeting place for interested scientists, policymakers and the public. You need to register if you plan to comment on or submit a blog for consideration, but otherwise you should feel free to take Science Borealis out for a spin and see how you like it.
The fifth Canadian Science Policy Conference starts tomorrow in Toronto. I attended the first conference, also in Toronto, and a quick review of the website demonstrates that the event has grown quite a bit since 2009. I’ll leave it to those more intimately involved in the event (and the Canadian science policy community) to speak about how well that growth has been managed.
But observing U.S. events like this (which are too few for my liking), it is reasonable to ask if an event can grow so big that broader science policy issues get subsumed to more field-specific interests, or to interests more connected to the organizations sponsoring such activities. As Canada is still growing its national science policy capacity, to diversify too quickly could affect capacity building efforts.
But that’s just one interested Yank’s opinion.
There’s a draft resolution at the United Nations General Assembly concerning space (reports indicate it may have been approved, but I cannot find a final version on the UN website as of this posting). This isn’t unusual, as the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been around almost as long as the U.N. itself. What a lot of writers picked up on is in paragraph 8:
“Welcomes with satisfaction the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and endorsed by the Committee at its fifty-sixth session;”
The recommendations by the committee were augmented by a recent presentation
at the Association of Space Explorers. Members of the B612 Foundation were out in force at the presentation, but it’s too early to say whether or not its Sentinel mission
will play a part in a U.N. effort to coordinate asteroid detection and deflection efforts.
Details on what these coordination efforts might look at can be found in the Scientific and Technical Committee’s latest report to COPOUS
, specifically Section X starting on page 29 and Annex III starting on page 45. The main recommendations are to develop two groups – an international warning network (which might have the components outlined in this presentation
from February) and a space mission planning group. The recommendations reflect the end of a six-year process by the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects
, but the United Nations has been active on the matter of near-Earth objects since 1995
In the November 8 edition of Science Dr. Takashi Kadowaki, Director of the University of Tokyo Hospital, writes about the efforts to establish a new medical science agency in Japan. Dr. Kadowaki is also Director of the Translational Research Initiative at the University.
The agency would model itself after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serve as a major component of Prime MInister Abe’s strategy for health and medical research. Even though this strategy reflects a concerted effort to increase health and medical research in Japan, the total budget for this new agency is less than one tenth of the U.S. NIH budget.
The overall research and development budget will not change, meaning that other areas of research will likely face budget cuts. Dr. Kadowaki is concerned that other fields of life science could suffer in this new budget environment, something he considers counterproductive to improving the ability of Japan to translate biomedical research to clinical and pharmaceutical applications.
Another aspect of this new agency is that its strategy arm will be headed by the Prime Minister. While this level of political ownership is unprecedented – certainly in the United States – I can identify at least two downsides. One is the possibility of political micromanagement. The strategy arm of the new agency is separate for an incorporated entity charged with disbursing research funds. Hopefully that can serve to mitigate the risks of micromanagement (and conflicts of interest). Another concern is that this reform effort may stand a decreased chance of surviving after the Prime Minister steps down. (No, he’s not likely to step down any time soon, but he won’t be in the office forever.) Initiatives strongly identified with a particular politician often fall out of favor once the politician falls out of power, and it’s tough to be more strongly identified with a reform effort if that person is in charge of one large part of it.
Dr. Kadowaki’s column suggests the conversation around what the Japanese version of NIH will be is just beginning. I wish Japan all the luck in what seems a daunting task of administrative renewal and reform.