UK Minister Responsible For Science To Grow Hair

The UK cabinet just underwent a reshuffle, with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron replacing several ministers in advance of the 2015 Parliamentary elections.  Incoming ministers are, generally speaking, younger and more diverse than the people they are succeeding.  Since this is a coalition government, it should be noted that at the moment, cabinet ministers appointed by the Liberal Democrats remain in place.

Replacing MP David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science is MP Greg Clark.  He’s been a member of Parliament since 2005, and prior to his new ministerial position he held ministerial portfolios (some of them while in opposition) for cities and local government as well as for energy and climate change.  CIties will be part of Clark’s portfolio going forward, in addition to Universities and Science.

It’s too early to tell how Clark might address matters of science policy in his new position.  Unfortunately, he seems persuaded that homeopathy has some therapeutic value, based on his signature on this Early Day Motion in support of National Health Service homeopathic hospitals.  This may simply reflect an interest in protecting one such hospital in his constituency.  However that matter is explained, Clark may well be seen as a step down from his predecessor, simply based on his divided interests and the begrudging respect MP Willetts received from some quarters.

What might further complicate the change is another ministerial appointment.  MP George Freeman was announced as Minister for Life Sciences near the end of the reshuffle.  He has been in Parliament since 2010 and has 15 years experience before that in venture capital focused on biomedicine.  He had served the Government as Life Science Adviser since 2011.   The ministerial appointment is split between the Health Department and the Department on Business, Innovation and Skills.

As for science degrees in the bunch, Willetts and Clark have degrees in economics, and Freeman has one in geography.

European Parliamentary Research Committee Has New Chair(s)

The Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee of the European Parliament is the chamber’s third largest, with 67 members.  It recently announced a new chair, Jerzy Buzek.  Buzek served on the Committee from 2004-2009, before presiding over Parliament from 2009-2012.  He is also a former Prime Minister of Poland.  That someone with his background would take the position reflects its importance.

Buzek will serve as chair for half of the 5-year term of the current Parliament.  in January of 2017 he will be replaced by former European budget commissioner (and fellow Pole) Janusz Lewandowski.  It is expected that he would continue the ITRE Committee’s encouragement of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s latest research programme.

The shift in personnel reflects recent European Parliamentary elections.  The new European Commission President will be formally announced later this week (the sole nominee is former Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker).  Whomever will be the Commissioner responsible for research will be determined by the incoming President.

A Persistent Cloud In The Rise Of Chinese Research

Part of the arguments for increased scientific funding, regardless of country, focus on international competitiveness.  And the rise of China’s scientific enterprise is usually mentioned, especially in the countries already established in the research firmament.

However, what doesn’t get as much attention – perhaps because it undercuts the desired external threat – is the health of China’s research system.  The latest problems to come to light (it’s the third science-related incident reported by the Chinese antigraft committee this year) involve fraud in grants managed by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and awarded to Fudan University in Shanghai (H/T ScienceInsider).

The specific concerns should be familiar to anyone concerned with ethics.  Conflicts of interest, too many outside appointments, and in some cases outright skimming of funds.  The rapid increase of investment in research and development certainly invites attention from researchers and those seeking to exploit an opportunity.  Only now does the Chinese government appear to be catching up with the latter category.  Whether university oversight has remains to be seen.

Now the problems plaguing Chinese research are not unique.  Every country needs to be vigilant with the research investments it makes and in making sure its personnel conduct themselves and their work in ways consistent with accepted ethical practices – scientific and otherwise.  But until oversight and proper research controls are better institutionalized in China, the problem could affect the quality of research output from that country.  As that output becomes a larger share of global output, concerns over the quality of Chinese research should be a concern for anyone seeking to rely on it – regardless of where they reside.

New Music Will Premiere With This Year’s Gödel Prize

The Gödel Prize this year is shared by Ronald Fagin, Amnon Lotem, and Moni Naor for their work on a “threshold algorithm.”  It’s considered the top prize in theoretical computer science (and yes, the award is co-sponsored by a unit of my employer).  It will be awarded this week in Copenhagen and accompanied by a world premiere musical work commissioned for the occasion (H/T Nature News) performed by a top Danish music ensemble.

The work is called “Hilbert Heartbreak Hotel” and includes a soprano vocal written by Ursula Andkjær Olsen.  The title refers to a mathematical paradox articulated by But the video below focuses on the underlying music, composed by Niels Marthinson.  The music was made in part by transposing mathematical axioms – some of those developed Giuseppe Peano to try and put mathematical and number theory onto logical foundations.

State Department Is Encouraging Young Technology Entrepreneurs

The U.S. State Department has been working with CRDF Global, an international non-profit working on international science and technology collaboration, on the Global Innovation in Science and Technology (GIST) program.  GIST works to help young technology entrepreneurs in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is working to implement a GIST supported project, the Tech-I competition.  Submissions are due July 21st and the competition is open to young entrepreneurs in 86 countries (all of the GIST regions plus Latin America). Applicants, once they register, can upload their promotional video (under 90 seconds) and executive summary of their project (up to 750 words).  Review panels broken down by geography and subject area (information and communications technologies, agriculture, energy and health) will review the submissions and select semi-finalists.  Those selected will have their promotional videos voted on by the public, and 30 finalists will be invited to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Morocco.  Finalists will make final pitches at the Summit, where a total of $70,000 in grant funding will be awarded in several categories.

If you are interested, or know someone who is, have a look at the competition.

Coming Soon, A Snapshot Of Canadian Science Culture

What better way for a science policy blog to celebrate Canada Day than looking at what’s happening to the North that doesn’t involve metaphorical ‘muzzling.

In final review and revisions is a report on the state of Canada’s science culture.  Organized by the Council of Canadian Academies (comparable to the U.S. National Research Council) a working group has been examining the following questions related to science in Canadian culture:

  • What is the state of knowledge regarding the impacts of having a strong science culture?
  • What are the indicators of a strong science culture? How does Canada compare with other countries against these indicators? What is the relationship between output measures and major outcome measures?
  • What factors (e.g., cultural, economic, age, gender) influence interest in science, particularly among youth?
  • What are the critical components of the informal system that supports science culture (roles of players, activities, tools and programs run by science museums, science centres, academic and not-for-profit organizations and the private sector)? What strengths and weaknesses exist in Canada’s system?
  • What are the effective practices that support science culture in Canada and in key competitor countries?

The panel preparing the report represents a mix of academic disciplines and professional backgrounds.  They have completed their study meetings and expect to release the report sometime this year.  I’m interested in reading the final product, and hope to get a bit more into what science culture is.  The stats and polls found in the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators are at best a skin deep look at what the science community is most interested in.  This report looks to provide what I hope to be both a broader and deeper examination of science culture.

Space Continues To Be A Front In U.S.-Russian Tensions

First it was suspension of space cooperation between the U.S. and Russia  (the International Space Station is an exception, at least according to NASA).  Now the tension between the U.S. and Russia hits another part of space activity – but one that has definitive impact on the ground.

In May Russia threatened to shut down 11 GPS receivers based in Russia unless the United States installed similar receivers for the Russian global satellite positioning system – GLONASS.  Now, there have been negotiations to have the GLONASS receivers placed in the United States since before the recent crisis (though Congress is not likely to agree).  Much like the United States is doing with some of its actions, Russia is looking for opportunities to tweak the United States.  Each country is, perhaps, thinking that the cuts of a thousand nuisances will force the other to change their foreign policy objectives around Crimea.

Effective June 1st, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitri Rogozin, GPS stations in Russia can no longer be used for military purposes.  Perhaps that will mitigate the concerns of many scientists that they would have access to that GPS data cut off (initially Russian officials were considering turning the receivers off).  Per Rogozin, the U.S. has until September 1 to agree to place the GLONASS stations, or the country will shut the receivers down.


Norway Isn’t Satisfied With The Peace Prize

While the Nobel Prizes are mostly administered by Swedish entities, its Peace Prize is a Norwegian concern.  The Kavli Prizes are a distinct set of scientific prizes from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, with assistance from the Kavli Foundation (usually flogged in these posts for its video contest).  The awards acknowledge accomplishments in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

Awarded in even numbered years, the 2014 Kavli Laureates are the fourth class of scientists recognized for their work.  The Astrophysics Prize acknowledges the work of Alan H. Guth, Andrei D. Linde, and Alexei A. Starobinsky in the theory of cosmic inflation.  The Prize in Nanoscience acknowledges achievements in extending the resolution limits of optical microscopy and imaging.  This year’s laureates are Thomas W. Ebbesen, Stefan W. Hell, and Sir John B. Pendry.  The 2014 Neuroscience Prize was given to Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe, and Marcus E. Raichle.  Their accomplishment was determining the nature of specialized networks in the brain dedicated to memory and cognition.

Announced the same week as the new class of Kavli Laureats were the 2014 recipients of the Shaw Prizes, which have been awarded annually since 2004.  The Shaw Prizes are in Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences, and administered by a prize foundation established by Run Shaw, who endowed the awards.

This year’s Astronomy laureates are Daniel Eisenstein, Shaun Cole and John Peacock.  It acknowledges their work on measuring features in large-scale galaxies.  This work has helped refine the constraints on the cosmological constant.  The Shaw Prize for Life Science and Medicine was awarded to Kazutoshi Mori and Peter Walker for their discovery of the unfolded protein response in the endoplasmic reticulum.  This reticulum helps transfer molecules between the cell nucleus and the cytoplasm.  The Mathematical Sciences prize went to George Lusztig for contributions to algebra, algebraic geometry and representation theory.

Kavli and Shaw Laureates receive (or share) prizes of $1 million U.S.  Both awards (and similar science prizes not named Nobel) are comparatively young, so it will be some time before such prizes break through to a wider audience like the Nobels have.  While Craig Ferguson won’t be around much longer to do monologues on these prizes, perhaps they will eventually become proxies for national status in science and technology – just like the Nobels.

The Canadians Are Looking For A Few Good Science Policy Sessions

The Sixth Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) is scheduled for October 15-17 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  As I’ve said before, this event is unique in its focus and cross-section of attendees.  I can find no comparable U.S. event where researchers and practitioners participate as colleagues to discuss and define the important issues on national science, technology and innovation policy.

While the event is in October, the call for panel proposals is still open.  The organizers are looking to have several different kinds of panels.  Besides what may be considered the traditional conference panel of a moderated discussion amongst experts, you can submit panels organized around green papers or case studies.  You might also organize a session that is a series of quick individual presentations (like the TED conferences, though with more underlying rigor), or one focused on directly engaging the audience in a learning activity.

Selection criteria aren’t out of the ordinary.  Panels will be selected based on their alignment with conference objectives and specific themes:

  1. Canadian Science and Technology Strategy: Looking Towards 2020
  2. Advancing Canadian Economic Development with S&T
  3. Science and Risk in an International Context
  4. Innovation in Partnerships

In addition, diversity of representation and quality of the panel (both in content and organization) will also be considered when selecting panels.

Registration is required in order to submit a proposal, and submissions are due no later than June 6.  Even if you aren’t selected, consider attending the conference this October.  Good luck!

PCAST Ramps Up The Reports

Earlier today the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology held its second in-person meeting in 5 weeks.  It’s never shied away from meeting frequently, but if you include the conference call meeting on April 30, and another call scheduled for May 28, this is a marked increase in public activity.  The archived webcast is now available.

The morning meeting split the agenda between report updates and a panel discussion on science and technology investments in China.  The reports on microbial resistance and advanced manufacturing are also on the agenda for the May 28 call, so I do not expect the reports to be released before that date.  (I should note that the advanced manufacturing report appeared pretty far along, so it may be ready in advance of the May 28 call.)  The panel on China helped outline the shifts the country is trying to make in the orientation of its scientific and technical research enterprise.  The country is looking to develop more internal capacity for economic development connected to research and development.

I will try and keep on top of report releases from PCAST, but their staff have not been as diligent in updating the website (particularly the past meetings section).  I may well miss something.  But that’s not so unusual.