The Latest Tooting of the Horn

Once again the fine folks at Science and Public Policy saw fit to publish a book review I wrote.  It’s in the October 2011 issue, and focuses on A Science of Science Policy: A Handbook.  The journal recently changed hands, but I don’t think that should affect any individual or library subscription.  The review is available online.  Those who have no subscription and are interested in reading the review, please let me know.

While the review does focus on the book, it manages to express my general opinions on the science of science policy research program, and the notion of academic ‘handbooks’.

I would like to take a moment and acknowledge Bill Page, the previous publisher of Science and Public Policy, who has stepped away from the scholarly journal business.  He was one of a few who took a chance on me, and I appreciate his continued kindness.


Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of January 30

Well, none of the big programs are on repeats this week.  That said, there are few guests of note, unless Thursday’s not-yet-announced Daily Show guest fits the bill.

Stan Musial, animal expert, returns to visit with Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday.  The following night, Mark Moffett, aka “Dr. Bugs

It’s possible that Björk’s Tuesday night apparance on The Colbert Report will address her science-inspired collection Biophilia.  As I noted last year, the collection is also put together in a very different way, making this a possibly entry tonight on both science and technology counts.

In Russia, It’s Far From All About the Money

I recommend this recent Washington Post piece on the research enterprise in Russia, or as the author suggests, what’s left of it.  While research spending has been tripled since 2001, the paper output of Russian researchers has remained steady.  The article describes a system of competing scientific institutions, bureaucratic restrictions, and limited funding that has led to a diaspora of many Russian researchers.  As one of its key scientific institutes was once fair game for developers, and its mighty space apparatus stumbling, it does not look good.

While making parallels with other countries in this case is a bit of a stretch, I think it worth noting that the neglect of scientific infrastructure, along with the resistance of long-standing institutions to change, are phenomena not unique to Russia.  This reaction of a nation to a radical shift in circumstances might serve as an object lesson to us.

“A Dangerous Method” And The Scientific Method

A Dangerous Method is a film inspired by the relationships between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Sabina Spielrein.  The first two are the developers of psychoanalysis, and the third was a patient, and then psychiatrist, that both men worked with.  It has been in limited release since the fall of 2011, but may not be available in your area.  As the promotional materials had emphasized Spielrein’s case and later collaboration with the men, I was not expecting there to be a significant emphasis on the emergence of psychoanalysis.

Declan Fahy, posting at Age of Engagement, suggests I was wrong.  He considers the film to effectively counter the contention that the scientific method is antithetical to storytelling.  He recounts scenes of the ‘talking cure’ of psychoanalysis and theoretical discussions between Jung and Freud as evidence that making science can make for good stories.

I have not seen the film, so I may not agree with Fahy’s argument.  And Fahy does not address, at least directly, any artistic evaluation of the film.  But those seeking an extra reason to see the film may want to go and see how it portrays scientists at work.

First Federal CTO Chopra Steps Down; OSTP Down Another Associate Director

Earlier today it was announced that Aneesh Chopra, the first federal Chief Technology Officer, will be leaving his post.  Chopra served in a similar capacity in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and The Washington Post is running with speculation that Chopra will run for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia in 2013.  I have seen no official date of departure, but Politico is reporting that it will be February 8.

Chopra joined the Obama Administration in May 2009, and was one of three individuals (including the Chief Information Officer and Chief Performance Officer) starting in new government positions focused on improving the function and performance of government.  The Chief Technology Officer position is not required by law, despite efforts to codify the position.  All three who started in the new positions have either left government or moved to other positions within government.

The Chief Technology Officer is officially an “Assistant to the President” and Chopra also holds the position of Associate Director for Technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  (OSTP Director Holdren didn’t mention this in his post on Chopra’s departure.)  I do not know if Chopra’s eventual successor will continue this relationship, as it seems that Chopra’s focus was more on the use of technology in the functions of governments rather than on the more traditional OSTP focus on supporting and encouraging the development of technology.  The Technology Division at OSTP did have staff focused on digital and open government initiatives, but they have left.

Personally, I think the different missions of the Technology Division and the Chief Technology Officer could be held within OSTP, and encourage its Science and Technology Divisions to focus as much on function as the Environmental and Energy, and National Security and International Affairs Divisions.  But that will take time, and a commitment from both Dr. Holdren and whomever succeeds Mr. Chopra to make it happen.

On the Luna-cy of Newt Gingrich

The current Presidential nomination contest for the Republican party has not really dealt much with science (I suppose ScienceDebate opted not to bother this time around).  Sure, there have been incidents over climate change and evolution, but those strike me as more about the ‘culture wars’ and the proper role of government in the context of a campaign.  There were concerns that the Republican Party was doubling down on ‘anti-science,’ most of them linked to the now-finished campaign of former Ambassador Jon Huntsman.

Some have tried to assess where the Republican candidates (usually just those still in the race since Iowa) stand on science and technology (mostly the latter), and you can dig through those laundry lists.  In my eyes, the candidates with the most egregious ‘science’ statements I’m particularly annoyed by a recent utterance from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (quote at roughly 0:32).

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.”

So, by January 2021, a scant nine years from now, the U.S. will have managed to:

  • develop the base plan
  • obtain Congressional approval
  • find the money – either for NASA or for the still-nascent private space sector
  • develop (or in some cases, redevelop) the launch and living technologies needed to establish a permanent settlement.

In constant dollars, the NASA budget from 1963 to 1969 was larger than the current NASA budget.  Sometimes the budget was nearly twice as much.  However, the budget in the 1960s was also a much larger share of the federal budget (between 2 and 4 percent, comparable to toal R&D spending today).

How does Mr. Gingrich think this will be financed?  Per The Washington Post:

“Gingrich proposed doing this without increasing NASA’s budget. Instead, he’d transform the agency’s culture, rely heavily on private industry and leverage American ingenuity. He said he’d use 10 percent of the NASA budget — which would amount to nearly $2 billion a year — to create prizes, incentives for entrepreneurs to achieve spaceflight milestones.”

The ridicule sent Mr. Gingrich’s way by his fellow candidates at tonight’s debate and the late night programs is well deserved.  If he is actually sincere with his plan, it stands a much better chance to land with the failures of both Bush Administrations to develop grand exploration plans and fail to effectively fund them (the jury is still out for the current Administration).  This self-proclaimed ideas man seems to have no thought for execution.

This is, arguably, an attempt to accelerate the gradual shifting of space exploration from public to private sectors.  As Congress resisted the Obama Administration’s effort in part because it felt that the private sector wasn’t quite ready (whether they are really just protecting local jobs is another matter), I would expect the same resistance to a President Gingrich.

NOAA Chief Scientist Nomination Withdrawn Due to Continued Oil Drilling Hold

Today the White House officially withdrew the nomination of Scott Doney to be the Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (H/T ScienceInsider).  Of the three major confirmations pending related to science and technology policy, Doney’s is the only one with nobody in the position, and his nomination has been in process for just shy of one year.

There does not appear to be a Doney-specific reason for the hold placed on his nomination by Senator Vitter.  He’s still incensed by what he sees as a de facto drilling moratorium in the Gulf due to backlogs in permit issuance.  I would expect the position to go unfilled, as Vitter seems likely to place a hold on whomever would be nominated to the position next.  As for the Senator’s listing of scientific integrity concerns as a reason for placing a hold on a Chief Scientist’s confirmation, make of that what you will.