NOAA Draft Scientific Integrity Memo Leaves Gaps to Fill

With less than 30 days left in the deadline established by the federal scientific integrity memo, I anticipate that the delays experienced at the federal level will be replicated at the agency level.  The Interior Department is the only agency to have released a policy since the federal memo was released in December.  (The Environmental Protection Agency developed something resembling the March 2009 Presidential memo nearly two years ago.)  Regular readers may remember this process had a long first act, so a long second act should be no surprise.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been circulating a draft scientific integrity memo since February, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has released a copy (H/T The Intersection).  PEER has been following these policies closely, having initiated a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit after the Office of Science and Technology Policy was less than forthcoming (in the opinion of PEER) in response to a FOIA request.  PEER has continued its criticism of scientific integrity policies in connection with the draft NOAA memo.

Keeping in mind that this is a draft memo, here is my summary and analysis:

Like the Department of Interior policy, the NOAA policy provides definitions of relevant terms, and give some outline of a process to handle allegations of scientific misconduct.  However, that process is not nearly as detailed in the NOAA policy, in part because a relevant procedural handbook is still under development.  The NOAA policy also lists codes of ethics for both scientists and science supervisors and managers (sections 5 and 6).  While the Interior Department policy also distinguishes the responsibilities of both researchers and their supervisors/managers, I find the clearer distinction in the NOAA policy a better idea.  It places the responsibilities of both parties on a more equal plane, though as PEER describes in its criticisms, there are still a lot of things supervisors could do to restrict scientific conduct that aren’t well defined (or at least well referenced).

Administrator Lubchenco seems committed to making the policy work, and is saying some of the right things:

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a key role of science is to inform policy. I use the word ‘inform’ judiciously: science should not dictate policy, it should inform it. Policies will and should be based on a number of factors, including values, politics, economics, etc., but science should be well represented at the table. And that science needs to be trustworthy.”

However, much like with the Interior Department, the real test of this commitment will be in implementation.  PEER has apparently had issues with NOAA’s prior conduct on pre-release screening of NOAA science research and withdrawing support from funded scientists over advocacy, so I understand their skepticism concerning this policy.  And of course, this is still a draft policy.  It may be far from perfect, but it is easier to improve a proposed policy than to craft a better one from scratch.  Either way, the unfinished procedural manual mentioned several times in the policy needs to be completed and released at the same time as the final policy.  Otherwise the can has been well and duly kicked further down the road.

P.S. I think the U.K. could well do with incorporating this language into their comparable policies on scientific conduct:

“Employees are free to present viewpoints within their area of professional expertise that extend beyond science to incorporate personal opinion but must make clear they are presenting their individual opinions – not the views of the department or agency – and clearly state their opinions be referenced as such.”

European Research Council Tangling With the Valley of Death

A common way of distinguishing innovation from invention is to describe innovation as a new product or service successfully commercialized or otherwise disseminated to the public.  One of the challenges in making inventions into innovations is that gap from bench to market.  In the U.S. this is typically, and almost ideologically, considered the proper responsibility of the private sector.  Even so, programs like the Advanced Technology Program or its current cousin, the Technology Innovation Program, were developed to help companies and researchers bridge this gap.  Note that the agency responsible for these programs in the U.S. has been the National Institute of Standards and Technology rather than any of the more traditional research agencies.  The U.S. is still stovepiped around the oversimplified linear model articulated by Vannevar Bush in the 1940s – handing off fundamental research to other parties for more applied research and/or development.

Europe is looking to try and bridge this gap – often called the Valley of Death, but with an important difference.  The European Research Council has announced Proof of Concept funding (H/T ScienceInsider).  The first deadline for proposals is June 15.  The grants would be for 150,000 Euros over one year, and researchers currently receiving an ERC grant, or who have finished one within the previous 12 months, would be eligible.  So we have a research funding agency which would help assist some of its grantees in commercializing their research.  As the U.S. has trouble supporting a similar program within its Commerce Department, I can’t see something similar lasting too long at the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health (though its emerging National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences might be able to get away with it).

U.K. Research Politicisation or Rubbish Reporting? Possibly Both

This Tweet attracted my attention over the weekend, as regular readers might imagine:

(That looks nice, I must do that more often…)

What does this fellow mean?  He links to an Observer article on the Guardian’s website.  The article contains the quote mentioned in the Tweet.  In this article the author alleges that the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the U.K. (AHRC) is now required to research the ‘big society’ – a slogan/program fancied by the current Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition in the U.K. (though it may be more Prime Minister Cameron’s pet project than an official coalition thing).  Furthermore, the article alleges that the Haldane principle, the U.K. name for the practice of letting researchers (via review panels) determine what projects are funded rather than granting councils (like the AHRC) has been violated.

Putting aside the notion – well articulated by Edgerton – that the Haldane Principle is a bit of a fiction, this would seem to be a significant break from past practice of how the U.K. government interacts with the researchers it funds.

The problem – this article is full of claims and assertions, and too thin on facts or links to supporting documents to successfully make its case.

Continue reading

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of March 28

With just two three games left in the men’s college basketball tournament, all late night schedules have returned to what passes for normal.

The big night this week is Tuesday.  On The Daily Show, Dr. Miguel Nicolelas from Duke University will discuss his new book Beyond Boundaries.  Nicolelas works in neuroscience, and the book appears to focus on man-machine interfaces.  After that you can watch Stephen Colbert exhibit hypochondria over Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  If you are willing to stay up even later (or put your video recorder through its paces), Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who has been covering much of the goings-on in Japan for CNN, will visit with Craig Ferguson.

If there is a theme this week, it comes in short pants.  Tonight anthropologist/primatologist Mireya Mayor will appear on Chelsea Lately.  Also tonight, Jeff Musial will appear with Jimmy Fallon.  He’s a more traditional animal expert, associated with an animal education outfit in New York State.  (ETA) And “Jungle” Jack Hanna from the Columbus Zoo will make one of his many visits to see Dave Letterman.  On Thursday, Piers Gibbon visits Stephen Colbert to discuss his National Geographic special on headhunters.  Gibbon lists studies in human sciences in his National Geographic bio.

More Missed Science and Technology Content on Late Night

Yeah, I’m still behind on my Comedy Central shows.  I just finished with the February 28 edition of The Colbert Report.  What I couldn’t have known in my weekly post is that that night’s Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger segment would address some science.  Specifically the bill introduced in Montana that would find (assert, really) global warming to be beneficial to that state.  The relevant part of the segment (Stephen gives the bill a Tip) starts at roughly 0:45.  The bill, introduced by Representative Joe Read, appears to be dead.

You’ve Got 13 Months to Get Ready for USA Science and Engineering Festival 2012

I first noticed the USA Science and Engineering Festival roughly a year ago, several months in advance of its first edition.  That event, last October on the National Mall and elsewhere in D.C., was a strong success, with over 500,000 people attending over two days.  A next festival seemed likely, the question was when.

Put April 27-29, 2012 in your calendar for the next USA Science and Engineering Festival, again in Washington D.C.  As this is near the end of the academic year, rather than the beginning, expect to see some kind of student competition(s) to take place starting this fall in an effort to increase awareness of the festival and recognition of students’ efforts in science and engineering.

The festival organizers are looking for sponsors, exhibitors, volunteers, and performers. (I’m crossing my fingers Baba Brinkman can make it.  He’s game.)  They already have the jingle contest underway.  And if you are connected with a science festival and would like to be affiliated with this one, inquire about being an affiliate.

And, by all means, do come to the festival.  See you in 13 months.

Digging Into Data Is Back For More

…digging and data.

The Digging Into Data Challenge is now open for Round Two.  First run in 2009, the challenge is an international competition sponsored in the U.S. by the National Science Foundation.  The basic idea is to support efforts in using large data sets in social science and humanities contexts.  The main goals of the effort (per the request for proposals) are:

  • to promote the development and deployment of innovative research techniques in large-scale data analysis that focus on applications for the humanities and social sciences;
  • to foster interdisciplinary collaboration among researchers in the humanities, social sciences, computer sciences, library, archive, information sciences, and other fields, around questions of text and data analysis;
  • to promote international collaboration among both researchers and funders; and
  • to ensure efficient access to and sharing of the materials for research by working with data repositories that hold large digital collections.

The previous awardees are busy working on using computer technology and large data sets to make more robust research resources; diving deep into linguistic and musical information; and enriching historical understanding by conducting brute force calculations and comparisons not possible until recently.  They are also working on new tools for presenting research in a fundamentally different fashion.  Hopefully those seeking funding in this cycle will be at least as productive.  Final proposals are due June 16.

AAU Goes Tabloid To Counter Sound-bite Science Criticism

As part of its Societal Benefits of Research Illustrated project, the Association of American Universities has put out two issues of Scientific Enquirer (Vol. 1, Vol. 2), a tabloid that seeks to explain the value of those projects that are ripe for quick sound-bite ridicule.

The tabloids are interesting, and certainly eye-catching.  Comparing the first two issues suggests that the editors are still trying to find their voice.  And frankly, it strikes me as a tough thing to do.  Using satire, even as lightly as they do in these works, to try and make an advocacy case, strikes me as very tricky.  Most of this has to do with the nearly pathological lack of humor in most policymakers (for which I think I compensate with large doses of late night television programs).  I don’t expect them to get the point.  That’s why I think the front of the March issue is a much better, though less satirical, cover than that of the January issue.  With the March issue the fun is being poked with the pictures.  I’d be concerned that the January cover would be taken at face value, and be taken as supporting those advancing the quick sound bite ‘silliness’ of some scientific grants.

So, I’m encouraged with where this project is going, though I’d still prefer the more conventional success story presentations.  (I’ll put aside the need for numbers for the purposes of this post.)  Because I don’t expect those who are tweeting over what they consider to be stupid or wasteful grants to be receptive audiences for the reasons why those grants have broader impact.  I’d love to be proven wrong, or to see these tabloids succeed in making more people aware of all the little weird things science looks into from which they can benefit.

SciVal Strata – Fantasy Science Tool or Research Moneyball?

SciVal Strata, a product that allows research administrators to model scientific teams, was released by science publisher Elsevier last week (H/T David Croson at the Science of Science Policy listserv).  The product is intended as a research performance modeling tool at the team/individual researcher level (complementing another Elsevier product that promises to do this at the institutional level).  Unfortunately (but possibly unsurprising since it comes from a publisher), Strata seems focused on bibliometrics (click the How it Works tab about halfway down the page).

While the first article I read on Strata emphasized the parallel with fantasy sports teams, the limits of the tool make me think more about Moneyball, the book that chronicled how the Oakland A’s built a strong baseball team through statistical valuation.  A key point to the A’s plan was finding new statistical measures that addressed important qualities in baseball that weren’t valued by the (then) conventional wisdom.  So while Strata doesn’t seem poised to do that, some enterprising individuals (especially if they don’t want to pay the subscription fee) that can determine other measures to value and evaluate may find themselves managing their own pennant-winning research teams.

iPads In The Classroom – Mixed Results So Far

Given the amount of money involved in investing and supporting technology for use by students, it makes sense for there the be pilots and evaluations of how students actually use this technology.

What follows is a summary of an incredibly unscientific sample of two studies focused on how students use iPads in class, and what advantages and drawbacks are recognized by those students.  One study concerns Reed College (H/T @rogoway and @exprima) in Portland, Oregon and the other concerns Chatham College in Pittsburgh (H/T Chronicle of Higher Education, which also addresses Reed College).

Where reading and using texts is concerned, the advantages over paper that you might expect are certainly there.  Much less paper is printed, battery life makes an iPad (or Kindle) more convenient than a laptop, and the nature of a tablet device makes interaction easier. The authors of the Reed study are persuaded that new tablet devices coming out will help push this kind of e-reader into more hands, though they have some concerns about whether or when all students will have access to the devices.

There are two areas of concern.  As the Chronicle piece notes, written work on the touch screen is not as smooth or as effective for the students as a traditional keyboard.  The Reed study focused on the reading function of the iPad, though it listed the multi-functionality of the device as an advantage.  Annotating can be done with the help of certain programs and the availability of readings in PDF format.

Related to this is the issue of available electronic content.  While e-books in the non-text arena are more plentiful, they still focus on relatively popular titles, and there’s not a lot of back catalogs available at the moment.  This issue is currently more pronounced for texts, which are both more expensive and usually more obscure than books that spent some time on a bestseller list.  Arguably that gap will close after tablet devices become more affordable and more usable for students.

If there’s a clear lesson from any of this, it’s that hardware is rarely the only solution to a problem, or the only means of making something ‘easier.’  That and touchscreens have a ways to go to be useful for more than typing text messages and emails.  In the meantime, I would not be surprised to see styluses to play a role in some tablet devices (or an honest-to-goodness tablet computer)