Why Focus On One Committee Where Science Is Concerned?

In this blog I’ve only focused on the rosters and leadership of one Congressional committee – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Exactly how narrow-minded is that?

Well, pretty narrow-minded.  But my focus, at least where I type, does not appear that unique.  Review the blogs and websites that report on science policy, and the House Science Committee gets most of the attention.  Not without cause, certainly, but it’s not the only one worth considering.

For instance, there’s a new chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Senators Thune and Bill Nelson, respectively.  But the Senate Commerce Committee is not focused on science in the same way that it’s closest House counterpart is.  Perhaps that explains why the appointment of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to chair subcommittees on space (Cruz) and the oceans and atmosphere (Rubio) attracted some attention, but not nearly the attention focused on members of the House Science Committee whenever they make pronouncements that suggest things other than science motivate their thinking.

So, what other committees are worth attention and scrutiny?  Several.  The Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate are critical in determining agency funding, and this is where last minute restrictions like Senator Coburn’s amendment on political science research, get in.  Committees on technology get short shrift from a lot of science policy press, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I don’t know that it requires equal attention, but I think the committees dealing with new technologies can be just as influential as those determining how to support research and development in the United States.

There’s also the environmental committees.  Sure, there’s an Environment Subcommittee in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, but there’s also the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  (You’ll note the Democrat currently trying to find supposedly fraudulent climate researchers is on the House Natural Resources Committee.)  Health doesn’t have a dedicated committee in either chamber, but those topics are covered in other committees.

So, if you are really interested in science and technology issues in Congress, cast a wider net than I do.  A wider net than the science press does.

The Science Foundation Alliance – How Might It Help?

Recently the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a consortium of foundations that contribute to fundamental/basic research, announced that Marc Kastner, recently the Dean of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be it’s first President.

(Keen readers may remember that Kastner was nominated to lead the Office of Science at the Department of Energy in 2013, and never confirmed.  Clearly he will not be renominated, and there is speculation that the Obama Administration will not nominate someone else.)

The Alliance is interested in promoting private investment in what it calls fundamental research – discovery (of new knowledge) driven research.  Specifically, it aims to significantly increase the amount (by $1 billion) of discovery-driven research funding in five years, and to broaden the community of institutions funding such research.  This would be done through funding universities (the Alliance has identified several universities with dedicated funds for discovery-driven research).

It seems quite early to see what the collaboration encouraged by the Alliance might bring.  Kastner starts on March 15, and then we can see what nudging he and his staff might bring.

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

Leonard Nimoy, most known for his portrayal of the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer Spock, passed earlier today at the age of 83.  The death was a result of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which he acknowledged having last year.

So, why include an actor when my obituary posts have typically been men and women of science policy?  This Tweet helps explain:

Hadfield is the Canadian astronaut who arguably has done the most to drag the rest of us into space with his time on the International Space Station.  And while the passing of other Star Trek actors will certainly prompt similar expressions from Hadfield and other astronauts (particularly Nichelle Nichols, who helped recruit astronauts); Nimoy, and Spock, linked space exploration and the scientific perspective in a way the other characters do not.  Spock’s (usually) rational approach also appeals, as does the multicultural background he contributed to on the Enterprise.  He also was part of the two recent films (any more details are spoilers, sorry)

Hadfield was not alone amongst the space community in mourning Nimoy’s passing.

Nimoy’s connection to science was not limited to his role as Spock.  In the 1970s and 1980s he hosted a documentary program called In Search Of… that explored various myths, legends and other topics.  While the subjects can lend themselves to pseudoscientific ramblings, In Search Of… was an earnest effort to cover what was known and what evidence existed on these subjects.

If you visit the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, you can sit in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater.  It’s a small token of appreciation for Nimoy’s support of the Observatory’s renovation.

And then there’s his influence on me.  I doubt I’d be involved in science policy, or even in this Washington, were it not for Star Trek, and Nimoy and Spock were critical in getting me into that program.  I read his first autobiography when I was 9 or 10, and cajoled my father into driving me over 100 miles (each way) to see him when I was 12.  In the intervening time, I was trying to mold myself into Spock, at least in terms of rigor of thought and approach to the world.  I’m still trying.

Bioethics Commission Finds National Ebola Response Lacking

Earlier today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a brief (90 pages, so your mileage may vary), Ethics and Ebola.  The report is intended to provide an assessment of the current Ebola outbreak (particularly of the response to cases diagnosed in the U.S.) and recommendations for becoming better prepared for future outbreaks.

The report’s recommendations cover how to prepare for outbreaks, ethical reasons for intervention in outbreaks, guiding principles for deciding to use restrictive public health measures (such as quarantines), and how to conduct research (if warranted) in outrbeak situations.  The recommendations are summarized below: Continue reading

Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’ Continues, With Concerns

ScienceInsider has an update on the review of gain-of-function (GOF) research currently underway at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The moratorium was announced last October and is supposed to last for one year.  It covers federal funding for research that would make influenza, MERS or SARS viruses more virulent or easier to transmit.

Reportedly the agency is close to signing a contract with a private company for a risk-benefit analysis.  But, as you might expect with any restriction imposed on active scientific research, there is concern about what NIH has been doing.  Two researchers, Sir Richard Roberts and David Relman, sent the Chairman of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity a letter expressing their concerns over the process by which the pause and review have been conducted.  They would prefer a more open, Asilomar-style conference where scientists and other experts in the area of gain-of-function research would meet to discuss issues and develop a set of guidelines to influence research moving forward.  They are concerned about what appears to be a lack of transparency to the process, limited (if any) opportunities for public input, possible conflicts of interest (the NIH funds much GOF), a lack of risk assessment experience in the Board, and a very U.S.-centric focus.

So There Could Be A Moon Race…On The Moon

The Google Lunar X Prize will award $20 million to the team that lands a robot safely on the moon, has it travel 500 meters on, above or below the moon’s surface, and broadcast HD quality video for us back home.

And all by the end of next year.

While the race has been on for a while, it might actually come down to the wire.  Two of the teams announced that they have booked passage to the moon on a SpaceX rocket (H/T WIRED).

The same rocket.

In an interesting bout of cooperation, the HAKUTO team will piggyback its twin rovers on the Astrobotic team’s lander.  Once on the moon’s surface, the three rovers will attempt to meet the criteria to earn the $20 million prize.  Depending on their camera placements, we could have some video coverage to rival an Earthbound road race.  (The press release suggests that should the HAKUTO team win the prize, some of it will go to Astrobotic to pay for its ride to the moon.)

The launch of this mission will take place sometime in the second half of 2016.  Once the rovers land, the race to 500 meters will not be a sprint.  Most NASA rovers top out at several meters per hour, so while the press release compares this race to NASCAR, a 24-hour endurance race strikes me as the more apt comparison.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of February 23

The guest hosting on The Late Late Show continues for another month.  The host for Wednesday through Friday is Kunal Nayyar, who plays a scientist on The Big Bang Theory.  As you might expect, one of his castmates, Simon Helberg, stops by on Friday.  As Bob Newhart played a Mr. Wizard type science educator on the show, I’ll note his appearance with Kunal on Thursday.

Continuing this week’s trend of actors playing scientists and/or engineers on TV, Elizabeth Henstridge will be on with Jimmy Kimmel Wednesday night.  Her show, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, returns with new episodes on Tuesday.  She plays an agent with expertise in the life sciences.  Also on Wednesday night, Melissa Rauch will be on with Conan O’Brien.  She plays a scientist on The Big Bang Theory.

If you’re itching for proper scientists and/or engineers on the television, next week will help.  Until then watch computer pioneer Grace Hopper with David Letterman from 1986 – nearly 30 years ago.

FWIW, Letterman now is still younger than Hopper was then (80).  And she had just transitioned from military service to civilian employment.  Retirement was clearly not something she cared for.