Maybe OSTP Should Have Done Scientific Integrity The Canadian Way

It’s perhaps wishful thinking on my part, but I kind of envy how Canadian scientists are approaching the scientific integrity issue with the Canadian government.  You’ve probably heard about the concerns over what Canadian scientists are calling a muzzling by the government of scientists’ ability to communicate their work to the public. What has happened is that the public sector union representing scientists is including scientific integrity in its latest collective bargaining with the Canadian government (H/T umuzzledscience).  Yes, this is novel, and may not fit within the tradition of collective bargaining.  And it’s certainly true that U.S. government scientists are not as unionized as their Canadian colleagues (if they are at all).  But what I appreciate is that this process could – if the arguably resistant Harper government agrees to any kind of scientific integrity policy – provide for a truly national policy on scientific integrity.

What we see in the United States is a collection of agency policies with an inconsistent record of implementation.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy has effectively ceded any interest in overseeing or supervising the implementation of these policies.  Perhaps this is due to a lack of institutional power, a lack of interest, or some other cause(s).  But it leaves the promise of the initial effort toward U.S. scientific integrity policies a bit tarnished.

I should be more tempered at this news of Canadian negotiation over scientific integrity.  After all, it’s just starting, and it’s possible only one side is really interested in having something come out of the discussions.  But I’m a bit starved for any progress in this field.

The Last Mile Isn’t Just About Broadband

Noting the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Nature analyzes the tsunami monitoring system that emerged following the devastation.

The short of it – there are still challenges at the end of the message chain.  The three regional centers were effective in communicating warnings and data to countries, but getting the message to the people away from the major cities was still a struggle.    Countries can be strategic in determining which areas may be more susceptible to tsunami effects, and focus their efforts on those areas.  But the investment in infrastructure is still significant, and the maintenance of these networks represents a non-trivial amount.  Much in the same way that the infrastructure in the U.S. made it easier to manage the Ebola cases diagnosed in that country compared to the areas hardest hit in Africa, the communications infrastructure in Hawaii and other more developed coastal areas make it easier for tsunami warnings to be heard.

What the people do with the message when (or if) they get it is a separate question.  Rational action in the face of natural disaster seems less correlated with level of development, but I’d love to see any studies that address this.

In Case You Couldn’t Get To Halifax

The organizers of the Canadian Science Policy Conference continue to grow the event.  Yesterday I received word that there are now conference proceedings available for the 2014 event, which took place in Halifax this past October.

Now, before you dig deep, I must note that this proceedings are not a lengthy tome covering all of the papers and/or speeches presented at the conference.  It is more of a high-level summary of the conference speeches, panels and sessions.  While some might find that dissatisfying, not having attended the event in Halifax, it’s nice to see more permanent reminders of these events.  Augment the proceedings with the audio recordings and slide decks, and while it might not be anything like spending time in Atlantic Canada, it couldn’t hurt.

The next edition of the Canadian Science Policy Conference will return to Ottawa next November.

More Science Position Shuffling – Could It Be Beneficial?

This time the apparent shuffling is in Canada.

This commentary in The Toronto Star notes a plan by the Canadian government to change the status of the country’s Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO).  Part of the current omnibus budget legislation before the Canadian Parliament, the Officer would no longer be the chief executive of the Public Health Agency (PHA), but simply an officer.  A President would be appointed to run the PHA.  Presumably this would mean that the President would become the public health face of the agency and the government, with the CPHO holding a strictly advisory role.

Not being a Canadian or engaged with public health, I don’t have the authors’ background with the circumstances that brought about the PHA and the CPHO in the first place.  I do note that this is a relatively new (about 10 years) position, and that it is rare to find appointed science advisory positions – certainly in the United States – that also have significant managerial and/or executive responsibilities.  Certainly the environment for scientists in Canada suffers from concerns (and not just the perception) about how the government (the Prime Minister mainly) uses them and their work.  It’s not surprising to see reactions to this move as yet another example of a government minimizing the role of science in policy and in dealings with the public.

But is it possible that the proposed new arrangement for the Public Health Agency could address the continued problems it faces?  If there’s good communications between the President and the CPHO (who would have institutional memory, at least as long as the current occupant remains), why couldn’t they work together to better serve the Canadian people?  Put another way, if they omnibus bill passes, as the authors expect it to, how could this arrangement work out for the best?

Canadian Bill Would Establish A Parliamentary Science Officer

I’m at least a year late to this party, but that may be a function of how little I know about the Canadian legislative process.  A recent release from Dr. Kennedy Stewart (H/T FrogHeart Daily), an MP in Canada’s Parliament, and the designated Opposition Critic of the New Democratic Party for Science and Technology, noted scientist support for his bill C-558.  The bill, introduced in December of last year, would establish a Parliamentary Science Officer.  As outlined in the bill, the position would be an independent officer of Parliament, meaning the person would be appointed with the approval of Parliament, and serve a term of seven years.  The position would appear to be on par with the Information Commissioner of Canada and other appointed positions.  (MP Stewart has referred to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, likely because that position is more advisory than the Information Commissioner.)

Per the legislation, the Science Officer would be responsible for the following:

  • Providing sound information and independent analysis to the Senate and House of Commons concerning:
    • Federal science and technology policy
    • Scientific integrity in Federal science and technology departments
    • The current scientific evidence, including uncertainties, on subjects under the jurisdiction of Parliament.
  • At the request of relevant Parliamentary committees, undertake research into federal science and technology policy and/or scientific integrity.
  • At the request of any Parliamentary committee or individual MP, assess the state of scientific and technical evidence relevant to any matter under which Parliament has jurisdiction
  • Communicate its research, reports and analyses to Parliament and the public in a clear and accessible manner

I’m never quite comfortable in handicapping American legislation, so I will avoid doing so here.  As the current Canadian government ended up discontinuing the National Science Adviser position, it may not be sympathetic to this bill.  That the position would be advising Parliament (rather than the government) may dent that kind of opposition.

I like the position as described in Stewart’s bill.  It does not reflect the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy as much as the long-dead (but frequently copied) U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), but with a bit more independence (The OTA was governed by a Congressional board, and the Parliamentary Science Officer could initiate research on its own).  I hope the bill gets passed, or at least prompts discussion in other places about doing something similar.

PCAST Suggests Grand Challenges For Nanotechnology

In early October the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  The assessment of the program, established in 2000, is periodically required by law.

A major focus of this latest assessment is commercialization.  The report argues that the time is now for encouraging the utilization of the last decade of research in new products and services not presently available.  While the report calls for continued support for research in early stage nanotechnology, it also encourages the government to support this commercialization.  Agencies involved in the NNI will need to add to their current infrastructure plans and procedures for coordinating commercialization activity in addition to the basic and applied research efforts they support.  Part of this effort draws on a tool commonly used by the current Administration – the Grand Challenge.  In addition to finding the right areas for Grand Challenges, the report encourages the use of public-private partnerships and prize competitions to facilitate commercialization.  Presumably this means that the Feynman Grand Prize would soon have more company, should the government implement the recommendations of this report.

And here’s where there may be some trouble.  Part of the report outlines how the 2012 recommendations were implemented, and the record isn’t good.  In many cases, the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are not being funded, or administered, in ways that would fully support the goals of the NNI, which include maintaining and/or achieving American leadership in areas of nanotechnology.  With the current budget pressures and willful government dysfunction, it’s likely to take more than a biennial scold from outside advisers to make sure American nanotechnology can compete on the world stage.

On The Brute Force Of Science Funding Numbers

In what might feed an installment of the Conan recurring segment “Why China is Kicking Our Ass” a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concludes that China may surpass the United States in R&D spending.  The 2014 edition of the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook predicts that with squeezed research and development budgets in other advanced economies, that China should be come tops around 2019.

While this likely won’t stop the nationalistic rending of garments by some in the U.S. Congress (who likely won’t loosen the purse strings to try and match Chinese gains), it’s worth taking a deep breath to think about what it means for the Chinese to be spending more on R&D than other countries.  Yes, the charts control for purchasing power, so it has controlled for differences in currency strength.  It is not the same measure as R&D intensity (research and development spending as a percentage of the gross national product).  On that front, South Korea, which spends 4.36 percent of its GNP on research and development, has much more intensive R&D than any OECD country, or China.

But all of this focuses on inputs.  We do not know how effective China (or any country, for that matter) will be in converting its research and development money into valued scientific outputs and/or societal outcomes.  I’ve written here about the corruption in the Chinese research enterprise.  Not that the United States is free from fraud, waste and/or abuse in scientific research, but the nature of Chinese cases suggests that the accepted norms of proper research conduct have not be as widely diffused in China as in other countries.

Ultimately, the closing of a research spending gap is a trend worth noting.  But to try and compare equal spending across countries as equivalent to quality of research across countries ignores the highly variable local contexts in which research happens.  If countries are to try and fight the closing of this gap, they ought to consider more variables than spending.

Using measures like R&D spending, particularly in isolation, strikes me as disconnected from the reality (and complexity) of creating scientific and technical knowledge.  After all, three years ago one could argue that Iran was on its way to being a science superpower based on its publication numbers.