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.

In Case You Couldn’t Make It To New Zealand

This past Thursday and Friday several senior science policy advisers and scholars in the field were in Auckland, New Zealand for what may well have been the first conference of its kind on science policy.  Between the time zone differences (your temporal displacement may vary) and the limitations of following a conference via Twitter it’s difficult to get a full sense of what was covered during the event.

Thankfully the organizers have been populating the conference website with papers and slides.  There’s also the blog, which can help you organize resources chronologically.  Not knowing a reader’s specific interests, I recommend starting with the blog to find those presentations and sessions that hit those interests.  I’d encourage everyone to review materials and presentations by European Chief Science Adviser Anne Glover, and Dr. Heather Douglas, a philosopher from the University of Waterloo.

Should a subsequent meeting or other non-paper outcome emerge from this activity, I’ll pass it along here.

Federal CTO Steps Down, But Not Out

Todd Park, the second-ever federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO), is leaving his position.  While he has been CTO since 2012, he has been part of the Administration since 2009, when he joined the Department of Health and Human Services as its CTO.

While the President will need to find a new CTO, Park will continue to work for the Administration.  Once he returns to California, he will serve as a technology adviser to the President.  To my knowledge, having a presidential appointee based outside of Washington is rare, if not unique.  But in Park’s case, it makes a lot of sense.

His main focus on the West Coast is to recruit technology-savvy people for work in Washington.  Personnel has been an interest of Park’s; he was instrumental in developing the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a program where technologically savvy professionals would serve short stints in federal agencies.  Those fellows were part of the technology overhaul of the health care website, and helped staff the General Services Adminstration technology team, called 18F.  They, and others who have worked with Park may well play a part in the newly formed U.S. Digital Service housed in the Office of Management and Budget.

Given how low on the priority list science and technology appointments are now in this Administration, I do not expect Park’s successor to be announced quickly.  (If a successor has been identified from within Park’s current staff, I may be proven wrong.)  And there is still the matter of an Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Continue reading