While Coca-Cola isn’t the best drink for you from a health perspective, its distribution network is being used for healthier purposes. The documentary film The Cola Road describes how non-profits are using the Coca-Cola distribution network to make it easier for remote villages to obtain needed rehydration medicines (and no, the tasty beverage doesn’t count) (H/T Scientific American).
Dean Kamen has also turned to Coke for help getting his products to those who could most benefit from it. In this case, it’s his water purification system, the Slingshot. He explained the specifics back in 2008 on The Colbert Report. Last fall he partnered with Coca-Cola (and others) to produce the Slingshots at scale and test the machines in rural health centers in Latin America throughout 2013. Given Kamen’s past work with Coca-Cola (his company helped develop the Freestyle soda machine) this partnership is not surprising. Coke is committed to replenishing 100 percent of the water it uses in producing its beverages by 2020, and having purification machines like the Slingshot available should make that goal easier to achieve.
Next time you’re thinking about innovation, hopefully the example of Coca-Cola can remind you that getting the product to market is at least as important as developing it in the first place. Maybe if Coca-Cola had need for Kamen’s Segway scooter, they’d be a bit more commonplace than they are.
The recent passing of Baroness Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, prompted the usual reflections after any leader of note passes. While being the first female Prime Minister of her country, her science background was also a first for the U.K. First training as a chemist at Oxford, Thatcher worked as a research chemist prior to her legal training and political career.
A review of her political career suggests a couple of things regarding politicians with scientific backgrounds. They are politicians first. As Tom Wilkie relates in Research Fortnight, Thatcher’s noted 1988 address on climate change to The Royal Society was promoted with political reporters rather than the scientific press. (Tomorrow’s scheduled speech by President Obama at the National Academy of Sciences may prove an interesting point of comparison.) And the speech itself was targeted to that audience, rather than at those who had been informed by the science reporters covering the issue (the same could likely be said of her other major addresses on climate).
Additionally, when party priorities conflicted with what could be considered science-friendly policies, the Baroness did what should be expected of any political leader. The party interests won out. Arguably Thatcher broke the seal on the supposed promise of the Haldane Principle, which says that researchers are the ones who should determine what projects research funds should be spent on. Her government decided during the first years of the AIDS/HIV epidemic that the Medical Research Council could not conduct research on the sexual behavior of the country; research that would have helped inform a possible public health response (The Wellcome Trust stepped in to support the research). Basic research funding was strained, and while it was later boosted, the relationship between scientists, universities and the Thatcher government were never particularly cordial. David Edgerton has an analysis of the Thatcher scientific legacy that suggests not only that party ideology motivated most of the decisions, but that the consequences of those choices are a bit more complicated than many would suggest.
So would be the idea that getting more scientists into political positions makes scientist-friendly policies more likely.
Nature has taken steps to make it easier to try and reproduce the results it publishes in its pages (and online). Starting in May, the journal and associated publications will require more disclosures of data and methods from researchers submitting manuscripts.
There is now a checklist for prospective authors to complete with their manuscript(s), which explicitly connects portions of their articles with relevant methods (the page restriction on methods has been abolished, and Nature maintains a protocol exchange), statistics, reagents, animal models, human subjects protections and data depositories. Nature does not consider the checklist exhaustive, and may, depending on the input of editors and referees, take additional steps to assess methods and statistics for submitted papers.
This is just the first step of a long journey. Nature, and Science (based on Congressional testimony earlier this year from its then-Editor-in-Chief) are trying to make it easier for other researchers to do what it expected of them by the norms of most scientific communities – check the claims of their colleagues for accuracy and reproducibility. If the moves toward increased public access to scientific information continue, the expectations that this information can be verified will likely increased. It’s nice to see journals trying to be ready. Hopefully researchers will be able to keep up, and this collection of articles on reproducibility will have more positive additions in the future.
Last Month the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology released a report on research commercialization. Titled Bridging the valley of death: improving the commercialisation of research the report presupposes a familiarity with U.K. research and commercial practices far beyond my experience. For instance, the competitive environment for small and medium enterprises in the U.K. appears to be qualitatively different from the environment in the U.S. However, the recommendations and other portions of the report have lessons that I think can be learned from by those within and without the U.K.
First was another reminder of how old and outdated cognitive models still dominate policy thinking. From page 9:
“14. The Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, and Exeter Business School (EBS) expressed concern that the Government’s strategy for growth “still retains an implicit discredited linear model in many places” mentioning specifically the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). Others who criticised the idea that there was a single ‘valley of death’ tended to argue that the concept encouraged people to think that innovation was linear, and that financial obstacles were only found in one place.”
While other groups who provided testimony echoed the concerns of SPRU and EBS, testimony from others still in the sway of the linear model suggests David Edgerton is doing Sisyphean work.
Second was both the absence of and need for coherent strategies for innovation, as well as the need for broad thinking about the innovation ecosystem. In this report such a need manifests in a call for an innovation agency (or rather the adjustment of an existing agency to more fully embrace that mission).
An added bonus I found is the beta of Gateway to Research – a product of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) It appears to be a one-stop shop for the information each of the seven research councils has on the projects they fund. It currently goes back to 2006, and there are data issues (which you can examine at the website). RCUK is working to have the Gateway ready for alpha later in the year.
Four updates addressing recent developments in ongoing stories:
Several of the Obama Administration’s recent agency nominations have moved forward in the confirmation process. Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz testified at his confirmation hearing last week. In a nice contrast to recent Cabinet-level confirmation hearings, there was little drama. Gina McCarthy’s recent confirmation hearing to become the next head of the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) was not so genteel. Given that both McCarthy and Moniz come to their agency’s top jobs with prior agency experience, I believe the difference can be attributed to the relatively hostile reaction the EPA generates in many quarter. The Senate confirmed new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell last Wednesday. Still no official word on the next nominee to be Director of the National Science Foundation.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in the Myriad Genetics case. It will be limited to whether the genes at issue in the case would be patentable. I would not expect an opinion before the end of June.
Yes, it’s a provocative title. But I’ll show in a few lines that it’s not without precedent.
Representative Frank Wolf has written a letter to NASA (H/T ScienceInsider) over the planned attendance of Chinese officials at a conference held at a NASA facility. The problem is that the participation of Chinese officials in the conference needs to be cleared by Congress. This is due to a federal law Wolf wrote barring Chinese citizens from visiting NASA facilities. While there is a provision allowing for a waiver, that process had to be completed two weeks prior to the event. That deadline was last week.
No word yet as to what NASA’s official response will be. Representative Wolf has requested a thorough review of all NASA facility visits since the law went into effect. This suggests that even if this pending visit is resolved to his satisfaction, he may find other objectionable activity.
This is not the first time Representative Wolf has objected to Chinese participation in activities with federal agencies. In 2011 Rep. Wolf objected to Chinese participation in meetings with Office of Science and Technology Policy personnel. This led to a dramatic reduction in the office’s budget. While Wolf may try to trim the NASA budget if he finds more apparent violations of the law, the agency does have some Congressional allies. It may not suffer in the same way OSTP did (those budget cuts were nearly restored in subsequent years).
Two tidbits related to two national science foundations.
ScienceInsider has an interview with the new head of China’s National Natural Science Foundation (NSFC). Yang Wei started in the job last month, and holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Brown. With a budget roughly 40 percent that of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and a staff roughly 10 percent the size of NSF, Yang has some serious organizational challenges to deal with in an environment where government research funding is on a dramatic upward trend. Something new for me was the discussion of access to agency databases as a means for scientific misconduct.
Those interested in the numbers and mechanics of the Chinese research enterprise need to read the piece. Try and reconcile the Chinese resource profile for scientific research with the concerns about China’s research surpassing that of the U.S.
On the domestic front, Dr. Cora Marrett has been designated to serve (as expected) as Acting NSF Director once Director Subra Suresh steps down. She currently serves as Deputy Director of NSF, and has worked in the Foundation’s directorates for education and social and behavioral sceinces. The first day of her second stint as Acting NSF Director is March 22.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has created a Science and Technology Advisory Council (H/T ScienceInsider). Its members were appointed by President Barroso in consultation with his Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Anne Glover. According to ScienceInsider, Glover will chair the council.
There are 15 scientists, all but one from Europe, in the Council, which will report directly to the President. It’s characterized as an independent and informal advisory body, suggesting it will function in a way similar to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in the United States. But that’s highly speculative prior to any meeting outcomes (the Council did meet in Brussels earlier today). The intention for the group is:
“to provide advice directly to the President on how to create the proper environment for innovation by shaping a European society that embraces science, technology and engineering. In particular, the Council will advise on the opportunities and risks stemming from scientific and technological progress. It will also advise on how to communicate these in order to foster an informed societal debate and ensure that Europe does not “miss the boat” and remains a global leader in cutting-edge technologies.”
A list of the Advisory Council members is at the end of this Commission press release. While I don’t know the background of all the members (aside from their respective countries), there is one Nobel laureate and one Fields Medal recipient among them.
Today the Research Councils of the U.K. (RCUK) released an update to its Policy and Guidance for Good Research Conduct (H/T Steven Hill). It replaces the 2009 version. The goals of the policy are:
- Sets standards of good research practice, with associated guidelines
- Specifies and describes unacceptable research conduct
- Provides guidelines for reporting and investigating allegations of research misconduct
- Clarifies the respective responsibilities of the Research Councils and Research Organisations in fostering and safeguarding the highest possible standards of research conduct
The document is intended for the research institutions that receive funding from any council in RCUK.
A quick comparison between the 2009 and 2013 editions suggests there have been some refinements. The sanctions for research misconduct that were ‘forthcoming’ in the 2009 edition are spelled out in the 2013 edition. Proper research conduct includes peer review practices in the 2013 edition. Overall, it seems fair to say that the 2009 edition was more focused on establishing a good system for ensuring proper research conduct, and the 2013 edition is more concerned with providing more detail on what it means to have good research conduct.
A collaboration of the fellow who got the rats out of Hamlin and the fellow credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland might resemble what the U.S. government is going to do in Guam. (OK, both of these examples are legends, but bear with me.)
There are nearly no native birds on Guam, a small island territory. Much of this can be traced to the brown tree snake population, which arrived on the small island with planes following World War II. In the six decades since, they have dined on the local birds and grown in numbers to approximately 2 million. The scenario could unfold in other Pacific islands, so the Department of Agriculture is looking to try something dramatic.
They will parachute dead mice over the island. The mice will carry acetaminophen, the active ingredient in many painkillers, which is toxic to the snakes. The parachutes are necessary to get the mice into the trees, where the snakes reside. The drop is expected to take place in April or May. Given the bizarre visuals that I can imagine from such an enterprise, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t publicized.
(And yes, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is not pleased.)
As it happens, animal paratroopers are not quite as rare as you might expect. There is a story of cats being dropped into Borneo in the 1950s following an increase in the local rat population (H/T Seattle Post-Intelligencer). It was an effort involving the World Health Organization and the Royal Air Force of Singapore. However, there are conflicting details of why the cats were dropped. Regardless of the specifics, it was another instance of dramatic responses to long-term destabilization of the local ecosystem.