Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of October 31

Happy Halloween dear readers…

It’s a strange week when I mention Carson Daly in these posts.  But he will have noted hacker MafiaBoy on his show Tuesday night (check those local listings for how late he runs in your area, if at all).

The week belongs to Colbert, however.  Neil MacGregor visits this evening (10/31) to discuss his latest book, A History of the World in 100 Objects.  It’s likely based on the radio series he presented of the same name.  Michael Pollan visits on Wednesday, with a new book that appears to distill some of the rules from his earlier work on food.  Colbert closes the week with Nathan Wolfe, a Stanford biologist who has a new book out on viruses.

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Another Reason for A Government-Wide Scientific Integrity Policy

As I’ve complained elsewhere, one of the problems with the Obama Administration’s scientific integrity effort is that there appears to be no government-wide policy.  That is, individual agencies are the sole authorities on how to manage issues involving scientific integrity of their employees (scientists and non-scientists alike).  Even the policy from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (should they manage to finish it) will focus on that agency’s work, and not how the government as a whole would administer things.  Granted, the Executive Order that started everything off does not fill that void.

This story, of a letter sent from Congressional Republicans to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (H/T NEWSciencePolicy), suffers from a couple of issues.  There is a habeas corpus issue – most reporting of the letter fails to provide a link or any text.   There is also a lack of reporting from other sources.  Perhaps that’s a result of the first issue, or it could be a general lack of interest in science issues.

However, the issues presented – concerns over how the Administration is using (or not using) scientific and technical information – are smack in the middle of what could be considered scientific integrity problems.  Now, these claims may be overblown, and the reporting suggests this is another exercise in the rhetoric of “sound science.”  But they should at least go through a process to be officially received, and then considered and/or rejected on the merits.  No such process exists, especially when the cited issues are from different agencies.

On a different front, the lack of publicity on this letter strikes me as similar to the lack of follow-through from Republican leadership on other science fronts.  The YouCut targeting of NSF and Senator Coburn’s sloppy analysis of NSF work.  Dr. Holdren will get some stern questioning the next time he appears before Congress, but that will probably be it.  But the silence on this – from both sides of the partisan aisle (no, Mooney hasn’t said a thing about it) – reminds me that scientific issues continue to be a political afterthought.

Science Culture – Evolution Rap Wraps, Two Movies, Biophilia and a Comic

A few more odds and ends from the intersections of science, technology and culture.

From Baba Brinkman, some news on the in-person edition of Rap Guide to Evolution:

By the time this posts, that number is down to seven.  Brinkman will remain in New York City for a while, as he has a six-week run in the same theater for his interpretation of The Canterbury Tales.  Brinkman came to science from the classics, so expect the same high-quality production from him and Mr. Simmonds, his DJ on Rap Guide to Evolution.  Brinkman will still perform Rap Guide, but specific plans for other North America stops aren’t clear yet.  (I hope the next USA Science and Engineering Festival is on the list.)

On the movie front, two films with science or technology content are making the rounds.  I mentioned Connected before, when the director made a late night television appearance.  The film focuses on the relationship between people and their technological devices.  Another film that U.K. readers may already know is Perfect Sense.  It’s appearing at a few festivals in the U.S.  The movie stars Ewen McGregor, Eva Green and focuses on a scientist and a chef who fall in love amidst a global epidemic that affects sensory perception.

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This Private Space Stuff Might Just Work

While Congress (even the Republicans) is still struggling with the idea of having private companies take more of a role in space infrastructure, progress marches on.

Space X continues its remarkable run by setting its sights on what NASA has given up – reusable vehicles.  While the company has been working in this area with its Dragon vehicle, it recently made noise that it could adapt its Falcon 9 rocket to become fully reusable (H/T Knight Science Journalism Tracker).  They would attempt to land the rocket stages vertically, something other small spacefaring companies are trying, but NASA has never attempted.  So it may not prove feasible.  But it’s lovely to see them try.

In other spacefaring news, another small company has launched a vehicle into orbit.  But this craft bears more resemblance to the weather balloon featured in a credit card commercial than a full-fledged space vehicle.  As Alan Boyle reports, JP Aerospace, a company that resembles a labor of love more than a commercial venture right now, has launched a small balloon craft to 95,685 feet (H/T Knight Science Journalism Tracker).  The Tandem craft was piloted by remote control, and if demonstrated as reliable, could be used as a launch platform for small rockets and other craft that could use a boost to orbit.

For better or worse, a major part of the next phase of human operations in space is going to be making it regular.  The big flashy stuff has its place, and may return should Chinese actions in space prompt Apollo-era nationalism to boost NASA.  But for now the way forward will likely involve making what is still extraordinary much more ordinary.

Congratulate the X Prize Oil Spill Winners From Illinois

Given the stuff I’ve missed during my recent trip, like what I’m covering here, I certainly needed the vacation…

One of the handful of X Prizes focuses on cleaning up oil spills.  The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge recently announced its winners (H/T Office of Science and Technology Policy blog).  The competition, announced following the BP Oil Spill in 2010, tested its 10 finalists in May.  Over 350 teams pre-registered for the competition, but only two of the three available cash prizes were awarded.

Taking home a cool million dollars is the team from Elastec/American Marine out of Illinois.  This team achieved an oil recovery rate (ORR) of 4670 gallons per minute (an average of rates in calm and wind), and an average oil recovery efficiency (ORE) (the percentage of oil to water collected) of 89.5 percent.  The competition required successful teams to reach at least 2500 gallons per minute ORR and at least 70 percent ORE.

Only one other team met the prize-winning threshold – NOFI from Norway.  They reached an average ORR of 2712 gallons per minute and an average ORE of 83 percent.  That earned the team $300,000.

You might note that many teams, like NOFI, had significant differences in their results in calm conditions compared to wave conditions.  Elastec/American Marine had a relative small difference, but also dramatically outperformed all competitors.

This is really good news, and there are now at least ten teams with technologies that could be effectively applied to oil spill cleanup in the future.  Hopefully these technologies can be refined and commercialized sooner rather than later.

Innovation Prizes Aren’t Effective If Nobody Tries to Win Them

It’s a tricky think, finding the right incentive to encourage risk-taking.  If the challenge is too easy, then the prize is just icing on the cake of regular effort.  If the challenge is too hard, there’s no new innovation and everyone twiddles their thumbs.

Such was the case with the Genomics X Prize.  Originally the Prize would go to whomever managed to sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days for under $10,000 per genome.  While price has plummeted to under $10,000 per genome, the time requirement and disagreements over how to judge performance led to no one claiming the prize.

As of today, the rules have changed.  In January 2013, the new prize competition will take place.  Competitors will have one month to sequence the genomes of 100 centenarians.  They must meet a per genome price of $1000 and be accurate to within 1 error per million bases.  The sequencing must also be at least 98 percent complete to take home the $10 million.  The X Prize folks are describing the outcome of this effort as a ‘medical grade’ genome – reaching a critical level of detail allowing genomic information to be medically useful.  This distinction strikes me as both interesting and troubling, as I suspect most of the public would consider genomic information to be medically useful.  From the Prize FAQ (all boldface is theirs):

“Currently, genome sequencing produces, at best, research-grade genomes for study. Through the Archon Genomics X PRIZE presented by Medco, each set of the 100 human genomes will be sequenced by a competing Team. Depending on the number of Registered Teams, each genome could be sequenced independently up to 10 or more times! At the end of the competition in February 2013, all of the genomes will be examined for missing sequences. Where one Team misses a sequence, another Team will fill in the missing information. By comparing and combining the results from each Team, each of the 100 genomes will be more “complete” than any other genome, These composite redundant sequences will, for the first time in human history, provide scientists around the world with 100 whole genome sequences of unmatched medical-grade fidelity.”

So this seems to be an issue of completeness…and tells me nothing of how more useful/effective/whatever this medical-grade genome would be.

Also from the FAQ:

“What Is The Difference Between Whole Human Genome Sequencing And Direct To Consumer (DTC) Genetic Testing?

“Whole Human Genome Sequencing is the process of determining the exact order of the three billion bases that make up the DNA within the 23 chromosomes in each human cell.

“The sequencing completed by scientists to date has helped reveal the estimated 25,000 human genes within our DNA as well as the regions controlling them.

“Direct To Consumer (DTC) Testing

“Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing is a service provided by private companies to individuals wanting to know their predisposition to known disease markers or their ancestry. You can purchase this type of genetic test without going through your insurance provider or primary care physician.

“The DTC Tests do not reveal the entire human genome, rather portions of the genome where mutations can be detected for predispositions to various diseases. For well-informed consumers, DTC tests may provide another perspective to guide their healthcare and satisfy curiosity about their ancestry. The risk of DTC testing is that the test results may not be clinically validated and are not yet regulated by the FDA, which could lead to consumers making important decisions on their healthcare based on inaccurate information.

“NOTE: At this time, there is no government agency regulating or validating claims of accuracy for whole genome sequencing or DTC testing.”

In essence, the genome test you can get now may not tell you much, or provide you with just enough information to think you can make a conclusive decision.  To be fair, all a medical-grade genome will be able to tell you is predispositions to various things that are genetically determined or influenced.  That’s not enough information on which to base medical decisions.  Which is why I still think regulation of genetic tests (while preserving the right of people to have access to their own genetic information) makes sense.  Maybe I’ll reconsider if there’s a Genetics X Prize on how to deliver effective genetic counseling to people buying genomic tests online or at their local pharmacy.

We Weren’t Always So Technologically Optimistic

We were more optimistic.

A couple of dramatic technological proposals from transportation in decades past.

First, an item from Modern Mechanics in September 1930 that I spied via Twitter:

The title is simple, the project not so much.

North Sea Modern Mechanics

From Modern Mechanics, September 1930

This immodest proposal would radically alter the landscape of Europe, with apparently little thought to the literal land grab likely to occur.  But then, as the Mail notes, Modern Mechanics was a quite speculative publication.  But it also wasn’t Amazing Stories or any other pulp of the era that might run Hugo-award winning science fiction.

A less modest, though still breathtaking, proposal apparently got some serious consideration a few decades before draining the North Sea sounded like a good idea to somebody.  Continue reading