Space Isn’t Special When It Comes To Russia

Noted here last week was the chilling of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in space operations.  It was not the only instance where scientific exchange and cooperation has been stalled due to tensions between the two countries over military actions in the Ukraine.  As noted during this Science Friday segment on April 4, just because the NASA action was the only one made public at the time does not mean it was the only action of its kind taken concerning scientific cooperation.

Russian media (sure, consider the source, but still) are reporting that the Department of Energy has suspended visits of Russia citizens to Department facilities.  The report appears to be based on the leak of a letter sent to Energy Department scientists, and no official communication has been released to the public or received by the Russian government.  Much like the exceptions to the NASA restrictions, activities connected to nuclear security, weapons of mass destruction, or otherwise in the U.S. national interest.  Brookhaven National Lab comes up in these reports in part due to significant Russian involvement with Lab scientists, but Russian reports suggest other facilities received similar letters.

It seems reasonable to think that other agencies have been, or will be, affected by restrictions similar to those affecting NASA and the Energy Department.  The effectiveness of such measures can be debated, but there are some possible actions that could be coming.  One is retaliatory measures by the Russian government (for instance, not even allowing cooperation on those activities excepted by U.S. policies).  The other would be Congressional involvement in international science activities.  Remember how incensed a member of Congress got over cooperation with China?

There’s Some Edge To The Open Access Bite

While funding entities that have open access requirements have seen decent compliance rates, enforcement of such policies has usually been with a light hand.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced nearly 18 months ago that it would start withholding money from those grantees that fail to comply.

While the agency isn’t giving details, Nature indicates it has followed through.  It is reporting that both NIH and The Wellcome Trust have delayed grant payments to parties that have not complied with their open access requirements.  While NIH could not give numbers (and would not name parties), Wellcome indicated that 63 parties had payments withheld in the last year.

Policy compliance rates have improved since enforcement was instituted.  But any single action seems unlikely to lead to 100 percent compliance.  Grantees’ home institutions can help by boosting enforcement of their own open access policies (assuming they have them).  Four U.K. higher education funders have announced that they will only count open access compliant papers in their assessment exercises starting in 2016.  That would likely boost compliance, at least in the U.K.  With some in the U.S. Congress still seeking to roll back the NIH public access policy, I’m not expecting U.S. government agencies to follow suit, at least right away.

An (Im)Modest Proposal – The UK Evidence Information Service

Three U.K. universities are doing something I doubt their U.S. counterparts have the resources (or the willingness to risk) to duplicate.  They have started a process for establishing an Evidence Information Service (EIS) to, as they put it, help put scientists ‘on tap’ for policymakers.

As the organizers explain in The Guardian, this is not a lobbying or advocacy group.  The intent is to assist policymakers and politicians in accessing and interpreting evidence.  If you want a U.S. comparison, I would suggest the agricultural extension service, though that is targeted toward farmers and other agricultural workers in the field.

The organizers are looking for interested citizens in the U.K. to talk with their elected representatives to get a sense of how they access evidence in their decision making and how they use this evidence.  They anticipate a 20 minute semi-structured interview would do the job.  Given the more localized nature of U.K. representation, this might be a bit harder to do in the U.S., with town halls and face-to-face meetings a bit harder to manage.

The organizers anticipate operating in two modes, reacting to requests from politicians, and preparing material in advance of parliamentary debates on particular topics.  Once an initial funding amount is raised, the organization would be set up as a U.K. charity – independent of parties and government agencies.  I like the plan, and hope that the consultation will demonstrate that there would be demand for such a service.

Add this to the list of science policy ideas the U.S. ought to steal.

Now It’s Extra Awkward….In Spaaace!

Dependence on Russian access to space has always been a bit of a problem in the United States, at least from a geopolitical perspective.  You might credit the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Space Race for some of this, but I suggest that were we dependent on any other country to gain entry to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA would find it frustrating.  And it wouldn’t be alone.

While NASA Administrator Bolden has been pushing Congress to fund NASA at a level to allow for independent access to the ISS, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.  To remove any doubt that activities in space are often driven by foreign policy, the United States has suspended space cooperation with Russia due to its activities in the Ukraine (H/T The Wire and The Verge).  The only exceptions are activities involving the ISS or multilateral activities outside of Russia that involve Russian officials.  That’s not quite the empty gesture it seems, as NASA categorized this action as affecting the majority of its activities with Russia.  Will this faceoff prompt a change in NASA’s funding?  Doubtful.  But I would expect a lot more speechifying on that front.

Should things get (more?) heated between Russia and the United States, we could have a real-world imitating art moment.  The 1984 film 2010, based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke (both of which were sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey) had a similar conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union while both countries had space personnel in close quarters.  At one point war is threatened, requiring the two nations to retreat to their respective spacecraft.  There is no discernible chance that the resolution of the conflict in the film will happen in this case.  But if it does, we’ll all notice pretty quickly.

More On The BRAIN – First Funding Announcements And European Partnership Coming Soon

The President’s Fiscal Year 2015 (which starts on October 1, but likely won’t get funded until next February) budget rollout includes doubling support for the BRAIN (Brain Research though Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.  The $100 million multi-agency (National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and National Science Foundation) public-private effort will have some of its first funding awards later this year.

A compatible project in Europe, the Human Brain Project, recently announced a dramatic expansion of its consortium.  While not providing funding support at a comparable level, the HBP just added 32 research organizations from 13 countries.  It’s focus is on developing a model for brain function, while BRAIN is focused more on imaging and controlling brain activity.  As you might suspect, there are already informal collaborations between HBP and BRAIN supported institutions.  The two projects opted to make it official just recently.  But it’s not publicly official, as there are still some wrinkles to be worked out.  Chief among them are the differences in medical ethics and data sharing practices and regulations between the European Union and the U.S.

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.

Major Science Advice Conference Scheduled For New Zealand

The International Council for Science (ICSU) recently announced a major conference on high-level science advice.  It will take place in Auckland, New Zealand August 28 and 29.  It will be hosted by the New Zealand Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

(If you’re not following Sir Peter’s work and writings on science advice and science policy, you’re missing out.)

The announced panelists and speakers include chief scientists and/or chief science advisers from several countries and the European Union.  It’s a very impressive roster.  The conference is organised around five challenges:

The most recent development is the inclusion of a pre-conference symposium on science and diplomacy.  The focus is improving the integration of science and diplomacy and foreign affairs.

The conference is small, intended (I’m inferring) for senior level science policy advisors and policymakers.  I hope, and would encourage the organizers, to archive the presentations and discussions for future viewing and re-viewing.


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

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.

Tweaks Ahead For UK Science Advisory Enterprise

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.