UK Science Advocates Prepping For 2015 Elections

The next UK Parliamentary elections will take place next year.  The Campaign for Science and Engineering has been getting ready, recently releasing a series of briefings on science matters.  They seek comment from each of the parties with representation in Parliament on how their respective party manifestos (platforms for us Yanks) reflect the issues noted in the briefs.

The briefings cover investment in scientific and technical research, education and skills, and science advice in government.  While they are – obviously – geared toward the UK situation, I think you’d find the general concerns applicable to other countries.  Maintaining, if not increasing, government investment in science and technology; ensuring sufficient numbers of people trained in science and engineering (both for the educational workforce and the workforce at large); and the presence and transparency of science and engineering knowledge in policymaking are all challenging topics.  They all suffer, to varying degrees, from a lack of priority attention from policymakers.  The reaction to these briefs (or lack thereof) should demonstrate that quite soon.

China’s Rising Scientific Enterprise Still Has A Big Quality Control Problem

Yes, China is increasing its scientific enterprise in terms of people and research output.  And while the relative quality of that research is likely improving to the level found in more established research systems, there appears to be at least one significant impediment to that improvement.

Nature News reports on another instance of corruption affecting Chinese scientific research.  This time its the misuse of over $4 million U.S. awarded to five research universities.  Seven scientists were named, and six are currently detained.  Two of those six have already started prison terms.

(For what it’s worth, even though it’s Chinese prison, I’m sympathetic to this level of punishment for the kinds of misconduct involved here.)

I suffer no illusion that other research systems are perfect.  But the kinds of scientific misconduct in other countries do not raise to the level I’ve seen reported in China.  Hopefully that will change, but in the meantime, I think it is something that should be part of any thorough analysis of the value in research, regardless of country.

Australia Shakes Up Its Top Science Advisory Council

The Abbott Government recently announced the formation of the Commonwealth Science Council as part of its new competitiveness agenda for Australia.  Chaired by Prime Minister Abbott, the Council membership is split evenly between industry and university appointments, with the appropriate government ministers participating as appropriate.  The Industry Minister will serve as Deputy Chair and the Minsters for Health and Education would be regular contributors.

Australian Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb noted his support for the new Council, which would take the place of the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC).  My own (limited) review of PMSEIC activities suggests that the Commonwealth Science Council, by dint of its membership and the focus of the Abbott Government, will be more focused on near-term activities and on connections between researchers and industry.  (However, it would seem that there has been a trend away from a foresight-heavy advisory council dating back several years before the newest government formed.)

While such links might be denounced in the States as ‘picking winners,’ smaller countries like Australia can’t afford to invest in as many areas of science and technology.  Such investment strategies are (hopefully) sound strategic tools for finding the most return on investment.

Open Government Project Holds First Annual Awards And Continues To Add Members

In connection with the recent session of the U.N. General Assembly, the Open Government Partnership announced the winners of its first annual awards.  The theme of this year’s awards was citizen engagement.  Thirty-three countries applied (out of the sixty-six governments in the Partnership), and ten were recognized for their efforts to actively encourage citizens to engage with their government.

The U.S. entry was ranked 9th, and focused on the country’s work in open innovation.  Specifically mentioned in the award recognitions were efforts in citizen science, crowdsourced data scanning, and competitions.  The U.K. entry (coming in at number 6) was Sciencewise, (no, not that ScienceWISE), a resource for policymakers to better understand how public engagement can help them with science and technology policy matters.  It can also support such engagement.  What might be the most interesting project of those recognized is in Montenegro.  The project, Be Responsible, is focused on shrinking the country’s grey economy through public reporting.  Half of the fines levied against those reported will be distributed to civic projects decided on by those who participated in the program.

The Awards will continue, and the announcement for the 2015 award applications should come early in the new year.

 

Ebola Comes To U.S. Shores; Will Panic Follow?

Earlier today the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States was reported.  Discovered in Dallas, the affected patient had been traveling in West Africa and was not exhibiting symptoms on return to the United States earlier this month.  The patient is presently in what the hospital describes as “strict isolation.”

As the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control have treated people in the United States who had been infected in Africa, this case is not the first connected to this outbreak that U.S. facilities have dealt with.  The key factor for containing the spread of the disease is not only isolation of the patient, but tracking and monitoring of those who have interacted with that patient since entering the country.

That said, I am concerned about panic.  The threat of Ebola was used in recent political squabbling over immigration, and others advocated for not transferring infected assistance workers to the United States.  I’d be really surprised if this diagnosis was not the source of some overreaction in some quarters.

The United States is in a much better position than the African nations currently suffering from the outbreak and the associated strains on its limited medical infrastructure.  The relevant federal agencies have been preparing to deal with Ebola, and can transfer methods used in Africa to a United States context with a very, very small fraction of the thousands of cases currently in Africa.

It won’t be easy, but the U.S. has the tools, the people, and the infrastructure to contain Ebola.

What’s Missing In Your Next Halifax Vacation – Science Policy

The 2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference will take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, next month.  The early bird registration period closes on Sunday, so I’d encourage you to register right now.  The conference isn’t cheap, but I challenge you to find anything similar to it in the English-speaking world of science and technology policy.

Amongst the keynote speakers is the new Minister of State for Science and Technology, Ed Holder.  There’s a whopping 14 different panels on various science and technology matters, focused on issues of particular interest to Canada.  If I were to pick just one to recommend, it would be the panel on auditing science and technology programs.  There will be a presenter from the Office of the Auditor General (comparable, I think, to the U.S. Government Accountability Office) there to discuss recent reports on topics related to science and technology.  The discussion, at least per the panel description, would cover the value in conducting similar programs in science and technology.

But that’s just my particular interest.  The Conference is now so big that I think most anyone could find at least one panel related to their particular interests.  If you want to go to Halifax (and there are certainly plenty of reasons to visit the city) and talk science policy, October 15-17 is the time to do it.  Register now, to avoid future disappointment.

Did India Borrow From NASA’s Goldin?

The Indian Mars craft (Mangalyaan in Hindi) entered Martian orbit yesterday.  The successful mission makes India the fourth spacefaring power, after the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency, to orbit another planet.  Congratulations!  India successfully landed a craft on the moon back in 2008, and this week’s accomplishments further the nation’s standing as a space power, perhaps on par with China.

It’s a remarkable achievement, even if you don’t factor in the rarity of such an accomplishment.  The mission was India’s first attempt at orbiting another planet.  It cost $74 million U.S.  By comparison, a NASA craft that entered Martian orbit earlier this week cost $671 million.  If you thought that India was trying to follow former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s philosophy of ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper,” I could certainly understand.  But India’s Cheaper seems to come from making it Simpler.  As the BBC noted, the Mangalyaan’s payload is small and more focused (methane detection is a major emphasis) compared to similar craft from the United States and Europe.  The country may also be more comfortable with the smaller margins for error that lower budgets often require.  As this is a robotic exploration, I think it’s a reasonable strategy.  Once India gets to having crew on its spacecraft, then I would expect it to adjust accordingly.

For me, having more countries (and private companies) participating in space travel brings us all closer to having such accomplishment’s as this week’s Martian orbits become more commonplace.  And that’s a good thing.