House of Lords Has Recommendations for U.K. Chief Scientific Advisers; Any Wisdom for U.S.?

Today the U.K. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology issued a report on the roles and functions of Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) (H/T Nature News).  There is really no widespread U.S. equivalent to the CSAs, which are in every major U.K. Cabinet ministry.  While there are chief scientist positions, and the occasional chief technologist position in the U.S. government, they tend to be in lower level agencies with an explicit science and/or technology mission, such as the Air Force, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration.  The only exception appears to be the State Department.

The Lords Committee prepared its report with an eye toward how the system of CSAs could be improved.  Concerned about extended CSA vacancies in some ministries, as well as what it saw as an expansion of CSA responsibilities, the Lords took written and oral testimony from several dozen parties, including most of the CSAs currently serving.  For those unfamiliar with the avenues for science and technology advice in the U.K. government, I recommend you review Chapter 2 of the report.  It helps describe how different the U.S. and U.K. systems are.  One such example is the description of the Chief Governmental Scientific Adviser, who advises the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

“He is a civil servant and acts as the Head of GO Science, a semi-autonomous office of BIS, and is Head of the Science and Engineering Profession across government.” (Page 10)

While U.S. science advocates may think so, in no way is the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology the leader of all civil service scientists and engineers in the U.S.

Back to the report.  Its recommendation, which can be placed in three broad categories (resources, expertise, and independence), get at the heart of an essential, and perpetual, tension found in scientific advice for government.  In the report summary, CSAs are described as follows (page 5): Continue reading


This Year’s Anti-Open Access Bill is Dead; Though The Manner of Its Death is Interesting

The Research Works Act, H.R. 3699, was introduced in December with little fanfare.  The bill would roll back the National Institutes of Health public access policy.  When the bill grabbed attention beyond the usual suspects in January, that was novel, more novel than the introduction of bills to expand the NIH public access policy to other federal agencies.  I figured the Research Works Act would meet the fate of similar legislation (both for expanding federal access and for restricting it) over the last few years.  It would go nowhere.  News reports yesterday indicated that would be the bill’s fate.

The Research Works Act is indeed dead, based on this statement of the bill’s two main sponsors, who state they “will not be taking legislative action” on the bill.  Representatives Maloney and Issa indicate they plan to continue following the issue of open access and balancing the interests in public access to federally funded research with the intellectual property rights asserted over scientific publications.

What’s different this time is not that an anti-open access bill didn’t get anywhere.  Open access bills (both pro and con) have not advanced in Congress since the bill that codified the NIH public access policy.  But we now have members of Congress who supported the bill pointedly walking away from it.  Sure, they aren’t racing to support the latest bill to expand open access.  But it will likely be harder to find supporters for a different edition of the Research Works Act in the next Congress.

What’s next?  I still see little progress on the legislative front, as it remains much easier to oppose than to enact.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy finished a public comment period on open access, and the National Science and Technology Council may have something to say about this issue in the next few months.  While I don’t know what direction the Executive Branch may push this open access tussle, perhaps the effort won’t look so Sisyphean, at least for a while.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of February 27

Though there’s a lot to sift through, it’s a mixed bag this week, in part because there are a couple of folks from the sketchy categories of animal experts and medical doctors.  That is to say, they could have good content, but the odds are typically small.

However, in what might be a first in the time I’ve covered this stuff in detail, there are two, count ’em, two astronomers scheduled for late night appearances.  You shouldn’t have to guess who one of them will be.  Neil deGrasse Tyson will visit Jon Stewart tonight.  On Wednesday, Phil Plait will visit with Craig Ferguson.  Plait has two astronomy books to his credit, worked for years on the Hubble Telescope, and did a television program for Discovery called Bad Universe. As Plait is a fan of Craig, this could prove really interesting.  I’m surprised he hasn’t blogged about it this week, and would be gobsmacked if he didn’t after the fact.

Back to the rest of this week’s guests.  On Tuesday, Ross Eisenbrey comes to The Colbert Report to talk occupational health and safety.  Eisenbrey worked for both the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the body that reviews contested decisions of OSHA.  Also on Tuesday, Dr. Mehmet Oz will visit with Craig. Finally, Werner Herzog will be on Carson Daly’s program really late Tuesday/early Wednesday.  Herzog recently directed a film on the cave paintings in France, using 3-D film to arguably very useful effect.  Daly’s interviews can range a bit wider than most, so the film may come up.

Speaking of safety, BASE jumper Jeb Corliss will visit Conan on Wednesday, shortly after a pretty nasty accident.  If I read the news right, he’s just out of hospital .  Brady Barr, a snake expert with a program on the National Geographic Channel, will prompt Mr. Leno to make lame jokes on Thursday.

A MATTER of Long-form Science and Technology Journalism

Friday I mentioned MATTER, a longform journalism project focusing on science and technology (H/T Jack Stilgoe).  It’s currently four days into a 30-day Kickstarter push, and has already raised over $76,000 (U.S.).  The two minds behind the project are Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles, two reporters with a fair amount of ink spilled on issues involved with science and technology.  They see MATTER this way:

We’ve developed a way to support independent, global, in-depth reporting about science and technology, two subjects that are close to our hearts. We’re going to use it to build MATTER, the new home for the best journalism about the future. And we need you to help us make it happen.

The donations are intended to commission the first few pieces (the early success of the fundraising drive means that supporters will get more back in terms of stories and collections published by MATTER).  The plan is to have one long-form piece published each week for a variety of online viewing platforms.  The model for MATTER is subscription-based, with an eye toward 99 cents per story.  The editorial board – populated primarily by donors to the Kickstarter campaign – will conduct its business via online collaboration space.

The Kickstarter page has some information, but if you’re still not sure, check them out on Twitter.  As with Mr. Brinkman, I put my money where my mouth is.  There are no guarantees with this effort.  Even if it becomes sustainable, there’s always the challenge of properly managing the sensationalism that frequently drowns out much of the stories of science and technology (or in any kind of journalism).  But I don’t see anyone else making a go of this.  It would be lovely to have the problem of being too sensationalist in science and technology reporting.

A New Approach For Those Scarce Medical Isotopes?

Back in 2010, scientists in Vancouver announced an effort to develop a new approach for manufacturing needed medical isotopes.  Currently produced in nuclear reactors, the supplies of these drugs (which have a short shelf life) were critical for much of the last 2.5 years due to problems at one of the few reactors that produced them.  With that Canadian reactor being shut down in 2016, and supplies of the highly enriched uranium decreasing shortly thereafter, exploring an alternative is necessary.

Earlier this month at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver, some of the scientists involved in that work reported good progress in developing an alternative production method based on a cyclotron – a kind of particle accelerator.  Several major hospitals in Canada have the device, so production need not depend on the health of a single reactor in the country (and only a handful of reactors worldwide).

Of course, the U.S. Congress has tried, and failed, to address the lack of domestic production of these isotopes for a while.  Perhaps this country can take advantage of the work of Canada’s nuclear physicists and make some progress to address our needs for these isotopes.  I suspect many researchers at our universities would be interested in replicating the results.

Shh, Don’t Tell Congress; Kickstarter May Outgrant NEA

In what can be seen as both a good and a bad sign, the U.S. based Kickstarter, a crowdsourcing hub for supporting projects in a variety of fields (including art, music, technology and publishing) announced some incredible numbers recently.

Per the TPM Idea Lab:

“One of the company’s three co-founders, Yancey Strickler, said that Kickstarter is on track to distribue over $150 million dollars to its users’ projects in 2012, or more than [the] entire fiscal year 2012 budget for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), which was $146 million.”

Kickstarter takes a five percent cut of successfully funded projects to finance its operations.  A comparable U.K. organization, Crowdfunder, may be familiar to readers as it hosted Baba Brinkman’s successful effort to augment the videos for his Rap Guide to Evolution.  I’ll likely post soon about Matter, a Kickstarter project on science journalism that has garnered over $63,000 in support in a touch over two days, which is 126 percent of the project goal.  With 28 days to go, who knows how high the total may get.

Back to the U.S. funding.  While I expect someone will make the claim that Kickstarter will make the NEA redundant (if they haven’t already), a casual survey of the websites of both organziations should indicated that they focus on different kinds of art.  While I won’t discount the possibility that a future Public Broadcasting System program might mention Kickstarter (or Crowdfunder, or any comparable entity) as an underwriter, I don’t expect it to happen soon.

However, if it might get rid of those pledge breaks, I’ll think seriously about sending some money to more crowdsourced projects.

EPA Releases Its Official Scientific Integrity Policy

Via the Twitter (H/T @opengavin):

The Environmental Protection Agency appears to have released its official scientific integrity policy.  I say this because I cannot find a press release to confirm the Tweet, and the URL for the August 2011 draft is currently broken.  Similarly, the policy states it will take effect on approval, but there is no mention of an approval date, and no date on the document (though the URL suggests January 15 of this year).  There also is no indication of who the Scientific Integrity Officer is or who are members of the Scientific Integrity Committee.  So while it may be official, it’s far from implemented.

Working from my post on the draft policy (since the link to the draft is currently broken), it would appear that the official policy does a better job than the draft of emphasizing that non-scientific agency staff are governed by the policy as much as scientific agency staff.  It doesn’t go as far as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s policy does, but I expect that policy, with its relative freedom for agency scientists to communicate with the media, to be an outlier for the U.S. and for other countries.  (However, other Commerce Department agencies may follow suit.)

The existence of these policies is a necessary, but far from sufficient, requirement to help allow for the kinds of problems lumped under scientific integrity to be addressed.  Having the people and resources in place to implement the policy and revise as appropriate will matter at least as much.  Evidence addressing this last point may come once the Interior Department works through its two complaints working through its system.