A Radio Program of Note: Rocketing Ahead

Running errands this afternoon I managed to hear bits and pieces of Rocketing Ahead, which may be running on your local public radio stations.  It focuses on the period of the 1950s and early 1960s in the United States, and how early space exploration efforts don’t meet common understandings of the period (amongst them the idea the Sputnik was not nearly the surprise it’s considered to be).  It also examines the increasingly closer interactions of scientists and politicians in the post-World War II period.  The piece makes the claim – and I think supports it well – that this period had significant impacts on the university in the United States, both for good and for ill.

Those in the Washington, D.C. area can check it out next Sunday morning at 6 (good luck with that).  The program is apparently cycling around various public radio stations, so if you’ve heard it already, please chime in.  Podcasts are supposed to be up at this website in mid-March.  I do recommend you come back then and give it a listen.

Keeping Commericalization Close to the Vest?

For some reason, there’s been very little released about the research commercialization conference held on February 24th at the National Academies.  Called “Catalyzing University Research for a Stronger Economy” it was hosted by the Department of Commerce and its Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  However, all I can spot of the event is a transcript of Commerce Secretary Locke’s prepared remarks.  Do not confuse this conference with a National Academies workshop on innovation clusters.  While Secretary Locke was at that event, as his remarks there indicate, it is a separate event.  At least for that event, you can review the Flickr stream to see who spoke.  We still don’t know that about the other event.

Cutting Infections by Cutting Antibiotics

This week in Popularly Counterintuitive comes from this report by Curious Cat.  Norway has, over the last couple of decades, has aggressively fought infections in its health facilities.  Part of its strategy has been a strict reduction in the prescription and use of antibiotics.  As a result of this and other measures, Norway is the most infection-free country in the world.  Since the U.S. now has seen signs of drug-resistant tuberculosis, in addition to the spread of drug-resistant staph (MRSA), it could use some help.

The plan is relatively straightforward, and there are signs it could be replicated quite effectively.

• Norwegian doctors prescribe fewer antibiotics than any other country, so people do not have a chance to develop resistance to them.

• Patients with MRSA are isolated and medical staff who test positive stay home.

• Doctors track each case of MRSA by its individual strain, interviewing patients about where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, testing anyone who has been in contact with them.

Veterans’ Administration hospitals saw a fifty percent reduction in MRSA infections after instituting a screening procedure.  The Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. have developed guidelines for infection reduction, but they lack the power to enforce them.  Hospitals are no doubt interested in reducing infections, but have to deal with demands from patients for antibiotics that make them feel better psychologically, even if it does nothing for them medically.  A little government regulation here might help.

So, How Do You Monitor For Tsunamis?

Appropriate to the devastating earthquake that struck off the Chilean cost (and the aftershocks in the area) it makes sense to highlight the tsunami monitoring network that was able to warn folks across the Pacific of the potential heavy waves coming their way.

For the U.S., the place to start is the tsunami section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website.  NOAA administers two tsunami warning centers, one in Alaska and one in Hawaii. The Hawaii facility also serves as an international tsunami warning center.  Detecting the waves falls to tsunami buoys, earthquake detection tools and tide tables.  The network of buoys was expanded following the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, with thirty-nine currently deployed in the Pacific.  Similar networks monitor the U.S. Caribbean and Atlantic coasts.

There is also a Chilean project for tsunami monitoring.  As you can imagine, trying to access those websites right now isn’t possible.

Italian Google Case May Open Warehouse of Unintended Consequences

Recently an Italian court convicted three senior Google officials for violations of Italian privacy laws.  The officials were given six-month suspended sentences for not acting fast enough to remove video of an Italian boy being harassed.  The ruling is subject to clarification and appeal, which Google will pursue.

Let me reiterate an important part of the case.  Google removed the actionable video, just not fast enough for the Italian authorities.  Now fast enough is subject to interpretation.  The video was up for two months until Italian police requested Google remove it.  The company did so within two hours of the request.  However, because the company gained financially through the use of that content to generate advertising revenue (something done with no direct human interaction) Italian prosecutors argued that the company benefited materially from the content and was responsible under Italian law.

This ruling effectively makes Google responsible for monitoring all of the content uploaded to its services in Italy.  As over 20 hours of video are uploaded every day, it will be a serious undertaking.  Should other countries follow this lead, the services provided by Google would be effectively crippled.  They may well be crippled in Italy.

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“The Poetry of Reality” From the Symphony of Science

The latest piece from The Symphony of Science came out yesterday (H/T Bad Astronomy).  I’ve noted some of their earlier work, which is been a bit trippier than this latest effort, “The Poetry of Reality” (but only a bit).

While even Kanye West would tell the Symphony to step away from the Auto-Tune, their work does try and communicate science-positive messages in their tunes.  Whether it has any influence on people who don’t know Carl Sagan from Carl Carlson of Simpsons fame is an open question.

Scientific Integrity Memo – Still Missing

Last fall I asked what was going on with the scientific integrity recommendations that President Obama requested from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  This was the lesser known executive action on science early in the Obama Administration.  Everyone was talking about the stem cell directive.  As of my post last November, the recommendations were overdue by at least two months.

Apparently they’re still not ready, as was revealed in a Congressional hearing by OSTP Director John Holdren (H/T ScienceInsider).  I can’t disagree with Holdren’s claim that preparing the recommendations has been difficult, especially trying to get those recommendations acceptable and applicable across all federal agencies.  (I’ve been on the sidelines of an interagency review for a minor data sharing agreement, and that was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.)  I’d rather see a well-developed document/law/regulation come late than something not well thought out due to deadline pressure.

What I can fault Dr. Holdren for is not being out in front of this.  When other government initiatives in this Administration were delayed, there was an effort to acknowledge the delay, apologize for it, and move on until the document was ready.  These efforts served as a reminder that while things weren’t coming through on time, they were still being worked on and taken seriously.  Given the absence of communication on the scientific integrity recommendations, it’s not hard to see why people would think the initiative wasn’t being taken seriously.  It’s also not hard to see why members of Congress would take advantage of the messaging failure to make all sorts of claims that look all the better for OSTP being unprepared.

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Rush Holt Plays Sisyphus…Again

About a month earlier than last year, Representative Rush Holt appeared before the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to make the case for re-funding the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).  Joining him to make the case is Dr. Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has gathered the endorsement of several disparate organizations on a letter it will submit to the Committee.  They have additional material on their OTA efforts at their website, including Dr. Grifo’s testimony.  For more on the history of the OTA revival efforts (and the office), check out the links on this post I made the last time Rep. Holt pushed the rock up the hill.

While I was a bit less certain of what might become of his request last year, I don’t expect much to happen this time around.  While the arguments for reinstating the OTA will include cost savings from the sound technical advice provided by the group, that argument assumes that sound technical arguments will always trump other political interests.  I’m in favor of providing excellent technical advice to lawmakers, but I suspect there is too much baggage attached (rightly or wrongly) to the OTA for it to be the best vehicle for reestablishing this capacity.  Suggest some changes to OTA, or a new office that addresses the criticisms of the old.  That way some of the current Congressional members who need to support it can have some ownership of the idea (now almost 15 years dead) and therefore some incentive to move things along.

What Bloom May Need to Bloom

You may have heard of the Bloom Energy Server (possibly in a 60 Minutes profile), a type of fuel cell that sounds particularly promising.  If this delivers as promised, there is a significant potential for radically different energy distribution, as this Discovery News article suggests.  The company is even pushing this potential for the product.  Municipalities or other bodies could conceivable buy Bloom devices to power their neighborhoods, houses, or businesses and reduce their reliance on the electrical grid.  Let that idea roll around in your head a bit.

Lets say things succeed for Bloom technically.  There could be a significant hurdle in making wide adoption of their servers difficult, at least in areas that have been electrified for a while.  Sure, the local utilities may not care for the idea (unless you could sell them some power they can make a profit on elsewhere), but there may also be regulatory hurdles.  Do you remember the Segway, the personal transportation device that isn’t seen all that much outside of Adam Savage using it on Mythbusters?  Part of the reason they didn’t caught on was that local jurisdictions were a bit flummoxed about where they could go.  Were they too fast for sidewalks?  Too slow for roads?  With no clear decision on this point, it limited the mobility of the device, and its appeal.

I don’t know enough to be sure this could happen with Bloom.  But with electric utilities being relatively regulated in the U.S., it would not surprise me to see interpretations of existing regulations that aren’t friendly to neighborhood generation and distribution of power.  Yes, some utilities are trying their own generated distribution projects, and I hope they succeed.  Maybe utilities can help prove the concept of the Bloom Energy Server by buying them in bulk for testing extension of service.

NIH and FDA Want to Tighten Regulatory and Translational Science

CLARIFICATION – 10:27 p.m. – the $6.75 million mentioned below is NIH money, which would augment $25 million in FDA regulatory science money (H/T ScienceInsider).

ORIGINAL POST – Great news coming from The Scientist.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced a plan to strengthen the bridge between the biomedical breakthroughs of the NIH and the regulatory efforts of the FDA.  With luck, the effort should both make it easier for biomedical research to be commercialized, and for the outputs of that commercialization to be better regulated.

Sounds like an oxymoron, I know.  But an important part of this effort is the additional support for regulatory science research – exploring better and more efficient means for testing and evaluating products and services for their safety and other impacts on users and consumers.

The main thrust of the new initiative is to solidify ties between the two agencies on this issue, through a joint Leadership Council that will work together on public health questions.  So this body could be in a position to see where promising biomedical research is going with respect to new treatments and get a jump on preparing the proper testing procedures to make sure the resulting services or devices are tested well, and sooner than they would be if there were no coordination between agencies.  Great idea, and while the amount of money for regulatory science research is small ($6.75 million) compared to biomedical research spending, it’s a good start.