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.

U.S. Ebola Response Includes A CIO

Earlier this week the U.S. Government announced the steps it was taking to expand its assistance to African nations in responding to the Ebola outbreak.  The military, uniformed public health officers, the U.S. Administration for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the State Department all have personnel assisting in the efforts.

Joining them soon will be Steve VanRoekel, the Federal Chief Information Officer.  Except he won’t have that title when he gets there.  So not long after the Chief Technology Officer departs for another position in the Administration (and outside of Washington), the Chief Information Officer will do the same.

VanRoekel is not a stranger to the USAID, where he will be the Chief Innovation Officer.  Back in 2011 VanRoekel assisted USAID in digital communications during its famine response in the Horn of Africa.  Until a permanent replacement as CIO can be named, one of VanRoekel’s deputies will serve as acting Chief Information Officer.

Senate Displays Rare Speed In Confirmations

On Tuesday the Senate managed to confirm two nominations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that were announced less than two months ago.  Their confirmation hearing was just last week.  Unlike several other science and technology appointments, the vacancies that new Commissioners are filling have been open for just a few months.

Stephen Burns comes back to the NRC from work at the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  (One of the recently departed Commissioners left to head that agency.)  He has over three decades of experience with the Commission.  Jeffrey Baran is the other new Commissioner.  He has over a decade of experience as a Congressional staffer in both the Energy and Commerce and Oversight and Government Reform Committees.

The confirmations mean that the Commission is back at it’s full strength of five.

Irregular Update Corner – Australia Still Differs From US Re Genetic Patents

This Nature editorial reminded me that Australia’s judicial system has approached the Myriad Genetics case about its patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2 differently than the United States.  The most recent decision in Australia affirms the 2013 decision by its Federal Court that the Myriad Genetics patents were valid. There remains an additional level of appeal, so this case ma not be fully resolved just yet.

As it happens, the patents have not been enforced in Australia by either Myriad or the company that licensed the patents in Australia.  Should that change, it is possible that another suit may arise to challenge this ruling, or the Australian Parliament may opt to revisit the underlying law.

Park’s CTO Successor Named; Job Duties Expected To Shift, Again

Yesterday on the White House Blog the President’s Science Adviser relayed President Obama’s announcement that Megan Smith will succeed Todd Park as federal Chief Technology Officer.  (That the White House statement is not easily found doesn’t look good, especially for this appointment.)  Smith has worked at Google and other Silicon Valley firms, and will be the first woman to hold the position.  I was quite wrong about the timing of this announcement, and happily so.

Both The Washington Post and The Atlantic have noted the fluctuating duties of the position over the course of its history.  The inability of Congress to pass a law to place this position into law (and their oversight) makes it easier for a federal CTO responsibilities to shift over time.  Given Smith’s engineering background and her work on next-generation projects at Google, I can see where The Washington Post thinks the position will become something closer to a technological equivalent of the President’s Science Adviser.  It would appear that Smith will, like Park, not hold a concurrent appointment in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as the first CTO (Aneesh Chopra) did.

However, there appear to be two related, but distinct, missions for which the Chief Technology Officer could lead.  Getting the government to incorporate more information technology into its mission and services has been, arguably, most of the focus of Smith’s two predecessors.  Getting out in front of the policy implications of new technologies and their consequences has not – in my opinion – been a major focus of the Chief Technology Officer.  For instance, the CTO was not a major force in the Administration’s Big Data Review.  Deputy CTO’s, including the newly appointed Alex Macgillivray, and technologists in Cabinet Departments, usually get to tangle with those matters.  I think it’s too early to know what the right mix is of people and duties in this area is, so there may be value in maintaining the flexibility of keeping these appointments exclusively under executive branch discretion.

Next PCAST Meeting Looking More Ahead Than Usual

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will have another meeting on September 19.  As is its custom, that’s a Friday, and the public session will run from 9-12 Eastern time.  Registration is now live on the meetings page, and the webcast will be available from the same page on the day of the event.

The agenda reflects some recent PCAST report activity.  Updates are expected on the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership and educational technology.  Following a break PCAST will continue its public session with two panels.  The first has the broad title of “Alternate Views of Where Science and Technology May Take Us.”  The panelists represent different frontiers of scientific and technological innovation.  One comes from a research center exploring the boundaries of physical science and computer science, another is involved with systems biology and the third works for a cloud computing service provider.  I don’t have a good sense of what this panel might talk about, but future trends are implied by the title.

The other panel is about STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  That it specifically mentions the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that PCAST has a particular article in mind for the panel to discuss.  This article on active learning (compared to lectures) seems a likely candidate.

As usual, the meeting will be webcast and available for later viewing.  Simply check the meetings section of the website for links.