Maybe Innovation Is Just Too Sexy For Good Policy

Early in my graduate education it was drilled into me (and I was quite receptive) that technology is not just high tech, and it’s not just new tech.  But it is hard to avoid those perspectives in science and technology policy.  There’s a hole category of innovation policy, and often one of the criteria for deciding what grants to fund is the novelty of the proposed research.

But it presents an incomplete picture of the science and technology ecosystem.  Today’s innovations become tomorrows commodity items, embedded infrastructure, or other things we take for granted.  Historians can help highlight the ‘routine’ aspects of technology, and the processes by which what was novel is now quite ordinary.

Some of them are looking for collaborators in such a project.  Called “The Maintainers,” Lee Vinsel at Stevens Institute of Technology is looking for a few good scholars to help push back on the narratives surrounding innovation.

“I am writing this blog post to find like-minded individuals who are interested in exploring this the history of maintenance, infrastructure, and mundane labor, broadly construed. We believe that such investigations could have practical upshots, and we are especially keen to involve practitioners, including standards engineers, forensic engineers and architectures, managers in charge of safety and maintenance, policymakers who focus on upkeep and infrastructure health, and others involved in such pursuits. Furthermore, this effort must have an international and transnational dimension, including work on “developing nations.” (Some of us, for example, are interested in the development economist, Albert O. Hirschmann’s insistence that, to survive, societies must develop a “maintenance habit.”)”

Vinsel acknowledges that the work he wants to do is not new or necessarily novel.  But when the dominant narratives focus on the leading edge of science and technology development, other valuable stories aren’t told.  And we can always use more stories.

New EU Policy Support Facility Will Focus On National Research and Innovation Systems

Earlier this week the European Commission announced that a Policy Support Facility will assist European Union member states in reviewing and reforming their national innovation and research systems (H/T ScienceInsider).  The Policy Support Facility is one of several programs intended to boost science and technology capacity in member states, all as part of Horizon 2020.  The Facility will have a budget endowment of up to 20 million Euros until 2020.

Bulgaria is the first member state to take advantage of the Policy Support Facility.  It will have several senior experts and researchers conduct a “Peer Review of Bulgaria” and provide advice in three areas: public funding of research, science careers, and knowledge transfer from academia to business.

Hungary has expressed interested in using the Policy Support Facility, and the Commission will support a country peer review for it later in the year.  Other countries have expressed interest in working with the Facility as well.

HHS Expands Open Access Beyond NIH

Last week the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the parent agency of the National Institutes of Health, The Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control (among others) announced its open access policies for research it funds (H/T The Scientist).  The policies are expected to come into effect by the end of this year.

As you might expect, the other HHS agencies subject to the open access policy (a minimum of $100 million in annual research funding) will follow the lead of the National Institutes of Health.  Articles resulting from federally funded research must be deposited in PubMed Central within 12 months of publication.  For digital data, it will have to be available at the time any articles are published.  Researchers must submit a digital management plan as part of their initial research grant application.  According to the HHS Secretary, the infrastructure for this part of the plan is still emerging.  Ultimately the Department wants to link an internal data management system to healthdata.gov.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of March 2

As the February ratings period just ended, some programs are in repeats this week.  Of this week’s repeats, you can catch Elizabeth Henstridge’s recent appearance with Jimmy Kimmel on Friday.  She plays a scientist on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, which returns in the U.S. on Tuesday night.

As is now the norm, I must report on The Nightly Show after the fact – it doesn’t announce guests or topics terribly far in advance.  On the February 25 program, the topic was the Mars One program.  This is the effort to send several volunteers on Mars by 2024 on a one-way trip.

In what is not the norm, the same night provided this little gem (NSFW) on vaccines from Jimmy Kimmel Live. 

Kimmel is, at least it seems to me, genuinely angry.  And my experience with Kimmel – that he’s usually putting something or somebody on – makes this bit hit a little harder with me.  Kimmel’s youngest child is less than a year old, which no doubt informs some of his feelings here.

This week’s new programs highlights the return of The Late, Late Show to a place of prominence.  Many of the same staff that worked with host Craig Ferguson have been working the show during the two months of guests hosts (so far).  That probably helps explains why some science guests that visited with Craig have returned to sit with this week’s guest host Drew Carey.  Tonight (Monday) Pauley Perrette, who plays a forensic technician on NCIS, stops by.  Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a guest on Wednesday, and everyone’s favorite Canadian bat expert Dan Riskin will be on Thursday’s program.

Finally, there is a potential wild card this week.  Conan O’Brien taped material in Cuba for an episode of his program that airs on Thursday.  What previews I have seen include a stop at a cigar factory.  While Conan remains a comedy program, it’s possible you might learn something about old-school manufacturing.

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.