An Early Favorite For the Oil Cleanup X Challenge

The researchers at the Senseable City lab at MIT have developed a new kind of oil cleanup technology that looks promising.  They presented their work today at Venice’s Biennale.  The project is called Sea Swarm and combines autonomous navigation of multiple robots with nanotechnology material that skims the water for oil (or other chemicals).  Because the material, a mesh of nanowires, can gather many times its own weight, there’s the potential to be much more effective than current mechanical skimmer technology.  And since the devices are smaller than conventional skimmers, they can access places current technology cannot.

The MIT team will enter Sea Swarm in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge.  Even if they don’t win, demonstrating effectiveness of the technology could persuade sufficient investment in the product for it to be commercialized.  Better late than never.


Suit to Stop the LHC Tossed Out of Court – Again

Hopefully Walter Wagner will now stop wasting everyone’s time.

Mr. Wagner filed suit in early 2008 in an attempt to shut down the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  Concerned about what he considers the likely destruction of the earth if the facility were turned on, Wagner sued CERN, Fermilab, and others to delay their work for a safety assessment.  As the LHC is located on the French-Swiss border, and the U.S. is at best a minor partner in the proceedings, the issue of standing was a concern (much like in the stem cell injunction issued earlier this week).  The District Court dismissed the lawsuit based on an inability of Wagner to demonstrate standing.  Wagner appealed.  He lost his appeal this week (H/T Alex Madrigal).

The LHC has had its problems.  But the likelihood of the destruction of the earth is much smaller than Wagner believes.  He claims to be a science teacher.  From this segment of The Daily Show, I hope he’s lying (skip to 2:45 if you’re impatient).  If he isn’t, I recommend you never hire any of his students, especially for jobs involving science or numbers.

An additional concern from the segment – why did Wagner get any attention from anyone?  Were the media outlets as clueless about probability as Wagner?  Sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.  Since this isn’t the first time The Daily Show has examined the fears of micro-black holes, I’m guessing nobody in the media is paying attention.

Kick Off Your Labor Day Weekend With a PCAST Meeting

Those in the U.S. can get an early start to their holiday weekend by checking out the next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).  It’s scheduled for September 2 in Washington.  The agenda is available, and you can expect the meeting to be webcast.  Just check the PCAST website the day of the meeting to access it.

By comparison to previous meetings, the current agenda is a bit light.  The long period for lunch suggests that there may be other non-public sessions PCAST will have (as I suspect has been the case throughout its current incarnation.  Jeanette Wing. former NSF Assistant Director of the Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering Directorate will speak on computer science issues.  It’s a fair guess that she will at least mention computational thinking in her presentation.  It’s her shorthand for how principles and approaches in computer science can be utilized in other fields.  This is not to mean use of computer science applications in these fields, but something more fundamental.

Aside from the usual public comments, you can expect to hear about three ongoing PCAST studies: K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) Education, Energy Technology Innovation System; and Advanced Manufacturing.

If you plan to attend the meeting in person, make sure to register.

Third PCAST Report Advises on Next Pandemic

The first report by the current incarnation of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) focused on preparations for the recent H1N1 virus.  It makes sense that PCAST would revisit the topic for a post-epidemic analysis.  The report was released last week, in connection with a medical countermeasures report from the Department of Health and Human Services.  You can watch the release event for that report online.

The process of producing enough vaccine for potential need during the pandemic was months slower than it needed to be.  In an effort to cut that gap, PCAST makes several recommendations for the U.S. to improve its vaccine production and distribution system.  They include the following:


  • Surveillance: Accelerate identification of newly emerging pandemic viruses, so vaccine production can start sooner.
  • Seed viruses: Develop a collection of stock viral “backbones” to allow faster production of specific vaccine strains.
  • Sterility tests: Develop better and faster tests to ensure sterility during vaccines production.
  • Potency-test reagents: Develop faster and more reliable tests to document vaccine potency.
  • Fill-and-finish: Enlarge capacity and modernize machinery used in final stages of vaccine production, including vial-filling.

Long-term Continue reading

The July PCAST Meeting – Science With an International Flavor

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held its sixth meeting of the last 12 months in July.  Attendance continues to be high, with only one member unable to attend this meeting.  As usual, the agenda and webcast of the meeting are available online.  PCAST has been busy, with six meetings of the full Council and several meetings of the 10 working groups.  It works out to an average of several meetings a month.

Continuing the trend of having heads of Cabinet departments and other federal agencies brief the group, Patrick Gallagher, Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, appeared.  After reviewing the status of his agency, Gallagher described NIST’s ongoing reorganization.  During the question period, Gallagher was pressed on whether or not NIST should take on a forensic science facility (he deferred to the Department of Justice).  The other major theme of his discussion was advanced manufacturing.

I’ve written several times about the science envoys, senior scientists who have traveled abroad representing the United States.  Each of the three envoys I’ve posted about – Bruce Alberts, Elias Zerhouni, and Ahmed Zewail, spoke before PCAST (Zewail is also a member).  I’ll refer you to previous posts about their trips and emphasize some of the recommendations they had.  They noted that other governments are active in international collaborations and partnerships with the same areas of the world they visited (Indonesia, the Middle East and North Africa).  Unfortunately, there are still cultural challenges in the U.S. foreign service that do not make science and technology an integral part of their work.

The public comments were notable for the heavy emphasis on space policy, as I noted the day of the meeting.  PCAST committee reports suggest that at least one, if not two reports, will be released by the end of the year (a separate one was released last week, so that number is probably low).  A Health Information Technology report is nearly ready for release, and a science, education, mathematics and technology education report should be reviewed by the full Council at the September meeting.

Nature Publishing Group and the University of California Call a Cease-Fire

Earlier this summer the California Digital Library (CDL) (responsible for the University of California library system) was faced with a serious increase in its subscription costs for journals from the Nature Publishing Group (NPG).  Given the difficult budget environment for the university system and the state, the CDL opted to propose a boycott.  The response of the NPG was to hold firm.

It would appear that while there’s not a resolution, there appears to be a pause in tensions.  The two sides met last week and issued a statement.  At the moment, it’s only available on the Nature News blog.  The key paragraph:

“Representatives from the University of California and Nature Publishing Group met on August 17, 2010 to discuss our organizations’ current licensing challenges and the larger issues of scholarly communication sustainability. The discussion was positive, with a full exchange of views and mutual recognition of the value that each of us contributes to the scholarly communication enterprise. Our two organizations have agreed to work together in the coming months to address our mutual short- and long-term challenges, including an exploration of potential new approaches and evolving publishing models. We look forward to a successful planning and experimentation process that results in mutual agreement that serves all stakeholder groups-NPG, the UC libraries, and the scholar community, thus avoiding the need for the boycott that had been discussed at an earlier stage.”

While the results of these discussions/negotiations will no doubt have impacts beyond NPG and the CDL, they are the only ones at the table right now.  Note that the statement says the boycott will not happen at the present time, but it remains on the table.  With no deadline connected to the initial boycott letter, it seems the smart play for now.

What’s Next After the Stem Cell Injunction

Here are some updates on the fallout from Monday’s injuction against the new stem cell guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The Department of Justice will appeal the ruling, most likely this week (H/T Nature News).  The same article notes that Senator Tom Harkin stated that he would look into legislation on the matter after the current Congressional recess ends.

As a reminder that federal policy is targeted at funding for this research, rather than the research directly (something which gets lost in this coverage), NIH Director Collins outlined the immediate consequences for those grants that have been issued under the guidelines.  Money that has already been released will not be affected.  Pending applications are suspended, and renewals or subsequent payments are on hold for the immediate future.  This affects 82 grants that are either in review or pending review.

Adding to the information Jonathan Moreno gathered on adult stem cell research funding, juniorprof has some additional information (scroll to Update II) that suggests the competitive threat posed by embryonic stem cell research is dubious.

The New York Times (via juniorprof) has additional information on the two scientists who were granted standing to contest the matter.  It would seem that their personal objections to the policy seem to be the driving force behind their objections, more than the thin claims of increased competition.  Now they’re entitled to their objections, but it appears that their claims of standing could be decent targets for an appeal.  I’m not saying they’d be successful with respect to this suit, but I’m concerned about a potential precedent for other researchers to sue because agencies decide to start new funding programs (or close others).