The Non-Technical Challenges Facing The Truckbed Reactor

Lockheed Martin made some noise on Wednesday with its announcement that it had made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion reactors.  Specifically, it claimed advances in developing a compact reactor.  Based on size reductions achieved through new magnetic confinement techniques, the company will be able to develop a prototype reactor within five years that could power about 80,000 homes and fit in the back of a truck.

The announced advancements are relatively thin on details, suggesting that the promised advancements are currently theoretical.  Even if those gains can be demonstrated, a radical shrinkage in the size of fusion reactors could upend the regulation of nuclear reactors.  Smaller reactors will make it easier for non-governmental parties to build and use them (though deep pockets may well be required).  While the matters of waste, radioactivity, and weapons proliferation are different for fusion reactors than their fission cousins, they still need to be managed.  If there’s the slightest chance that Lockheed is not overstating its case, I think it’s worth having a conversation about how to regulate smaller fusion reactors.  Better to have rules before the technology is mature than after.

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.


Last Week Showed A Flurry Of BRAIN Activity

On September 30th the White House hosted a conference on the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). A multi-agency public-private initiative started in 2013, BRAIN started with a $100 million commitment between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

One of the announcements from the September 30th event was that more agencies are joining the effort.  The Food and Drug Administration and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity make five agencies involved in BRAIN, to the tune of $200 million in research and development funding for fiscal year 2015.  NIH announced the first round of its funding, $46 million, at the Conference.  While not a funding agency, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues presented at the event.  The second volume of their neuroscience report should be ready in the spring of 2015.

Private sector activity was also highlighted at the event, noting the $30 million commitment of the National Photonics Initiative, as well as new efforts from Google, GE, GlaxoSmithKline and Inscopix.  Several universities and foundations announced their new commitments as well, including the University of Texas System, the Simons Foundation, and original foundation partners the Kavli Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  The list of participating groups is quite lengthy, you should check out the event’s fact sheet for a complete list and additional details.

An event like this may draw more attention for the governmental activities, but the number of non-governmental parties to the BRAIN Initiative is significant, and worth keeping in mind as time moves forward, and a subsequent Presidential administration may not be as supportive of the governmental end of this project as the current administration is.

Say Hello To The New National Science and Technology Medal Laureates

Perhaps to get ahead of next week’s Nobel announcements, the White House released the list of the latest crop of laureates for the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.  The official ceremony recognizing these men and women comes later this year.

The medals recognize national contributions to science and engineering (for the Medal of Science) and national competitiveness (for the Medal of Technology and Innovation).  The men and women recognized often do not have household names, unless your household is connected to the fields in which they worked.  Bruce Alberts, former President of the National Academy of Sciences, former Science Envoy, and former publisher of Science, might be the most well-known to readers of this blog (of course, your mileage may vary).  Here is the full list of honorees:

National Medal of Science

  • Bruce Alberts, University of California, San Francisco, CA
  • Robert Axelrod, University of Michigan, MI
  • May Berenbaum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
  • Alexandre J. Chorin, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • Thomas Kailath, Stanford University, CA
  • Judith P. Klinman, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • Jerrold Meinwald, Cornell University, NY
  • Burton Richter, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University, CA
  • Sean C. Solomon, Columbia University, NY
  • David Blackwell, University of California, Berkeley, CA (posthumous)

National Medal of Technology and Innovation

  • Charles W. Bachman, MA
  • Edith M. Flanigen, UOP, LLC., a Honeywell Company, NY
  • Eli Harari, SanDisk Corporation, CA
  • Thomas Fogarty, Fogarty Institute for Innovation, CA
  • Arthur D. Levinson, Calico, CA
  • Cherry A. Murray, Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, MA
  • Mary Shaw, Carnegie Mellon University, PA
  • Douglas Lowy and John Schiller, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, MD

Congratulations to all involved.

PCAST Letter Report Encourages Educational Technology To Boost Access

On September 28th the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology released a letter report on education technology.  The focus in this letter report is on using education to boost access to higher education.  Costs are rising, which likely doesn’t help the notable gap based on income of the percentage of high school graduates that immediately enroll in college.  The report recommends that the federal government take steps to support the coordination of efforts to connect workers with training and jobs.  The jobs in question here are considered ‘middle skill’ jobs – needing a certification, license and/or two-year degree.  They comprise the bulk of the workforce.

The letter report has three recommendations:

Better coordination of federal efforts to support the connections between workers, trainers and jobs, specifically within the Departments of Labor, Education and Commerce.
Continue the support of information technology research that can help train workers, assess skills, and provide career guidance.
Lead the private sector by finding ways to use information technology to assess the skills and employment needs of the federal government and finding the people that meet those needs.

The third recommendation, as PCAST notes, is a break from the recommendations in its report on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  In that report, the Council was more confident in the private sector’s ability to drive growth in that area.


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.