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

It’s an odd week when the highlight is on the really really late program.  As much as Carson Daly gets a hard time for his half-hour interview program, Last Call, I have been mentioning him on these posts more frequently.  This week he’ll chat with science writer Jonah Lehrer on Wednesday, most likely about his recent book on creativity and imagination.  Since it might be hard to avoid, I have to mention that Dr. Drew Pinsky is scheduled for the same program.  He’s one of the high percentage of doctors on the late night programs that I simply don’t mention.  As is the case with my bans on most chefs and animal experts, they simply tend to have little meaningful science and/or technology content.

On other programs the pickings are slim.  The best to be found aside from Lehrer’s appearance is psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  He’ll be on with Stephen Colbert earlier on Wednesday (much earlier).  His latest book focuses on the moral psychology behind political and religious divisions.

And that’s it.  Seek out your cable, because the talky programs are not your friends this week.

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Canadian Thanksgiving Strongly Resembles American Thanksgiving

The latest video released by Baba Brinkman suggests holiday dinners can be lively and contentious even if you don’t talk politics.

This is the ninth video from Brinkman’s Wellcome Trust-supported Rap Guide to Evolution DVD.  From my count, three more remain, though I can’t say whether or not the DVD will be released before all of the videos are out.  Brinkman is, as he often is, busy touring North America.  (On a slightly related front, his performance of Rap Guide off-Broadway was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance.)

And let us all be respectful and still tell it straight.

S And T Policy Communities Seem to Ignore Agriculture

I’m back from the first day of the USA Science and Engineering Festival‘s Final Expo.  All signs suggest attendance will likely break the 500,000 estimated from the first festival back in 2010.  And I have found it, on balance, to be an improvement in terms of number and breadth of participants and topics.  The biggest plus for me over last year was a notable increase in the number of visitors building and doing things.  You could learn how to solder!  (That’s not just for high-tech stuff, thank you very much.)

(Seriously, if you’re going tomorrow, and want to see anything at the stages, showing up early can only help.  Both the MythBusters and Bill Nye filled their stage areas to more than overcapacity.)

One of those topics at the Festival that got me thinking was agriculture.  The ag-related exhibits I noticed where from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the 4-H (which is administered by NIFA).  They serve as excellent reminders of how science and technology at the federal level extend beyond the usual suspects of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Department of Defense.

What doesn’t appear to extend past those usual suspects (all of these big dogs of science funding are mid-to-late 20th-century creations) is support for research dollars (or agricultural research at all).  ScienceInsider recently noted, amongst its mixed messages about federal research funding, that research dollars are a pitiful amount of the total agriculture budget.  This would include not only research in improving agriculture (yield, sustainability, disease and/or insect resistance), but also in food safety.  Maybe the U.S. does this better than most other countries in the world, but the latest mad cow outbreak suggests we’re as much lucky as good at it.

The current farm bill addresses over $280 billion in spending over five years.  In that bill $348 million covers research over five years.  Put another way, research is roughly one to two-tenths of a percent of total federal agricultural spending.  The U.S. spends about 2.8 percent of its gross national product on research and development.

To say we’re doing this on the cheap seems an understatement.  And, outside of a few small advocacy groups in Washington, nobody seems to give a damn.  There is discussion about developing a foundation to help endow agricultural research, with matching funds of $100 million attached.  This isn’t unprecedented.  While the National Science Foundation is not a foundation in the same sense, the National Institutes of Health have a foundation.

So, to borrow from Bill Maher – new rule.  If you are talking about science and technology policy – who are you including?  Who are you leaving out?  At a minimum, don’t forget agriculture.  You’d be one of the few who haven’t.

Science and Technology Nominations and Recognitions

Two recent appointments of note:

The Environmental Protection Agency has found its new science adviser.  Glenn Paulson was recently announced to fill the spot, vacant since the previous occupant, Paul Anastas returned to his academic appointment earlier this year.  Paulson most recently worked as associate dean of research in the public health school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.  He also has years of experience in environmental cleanup, having helped craft the New Jersey Superfund law while working at that state’s Department of Environmental Protection.  Paulson will not need Senate confirmation, as he was not also nominated to serve as head of the agency’s Office of Research and Development, as Anastas was.  No word yet on a new appointment for that position.

As Phil Coyle had to leave the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) because his recess appointment came to an end, there has been no Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs.  (Coyle will not be renominated, in part because of likely continued opposition.)  President Obama announced in March Coyle’s intended replacement, Patricia Falcone.  Falcone currently serves as Assistant Director for National Security in OSTP, but worked for several years at Sandia Laboratory.  Much of her background is in nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

This will boost the number of Associate Directors at OSTP from two to three.  The full compliment is four, but new Chief Technology Officer Todd Park will not also serve as the Associate Director for Technology at OSTP, which his predecessor did.

While not a job announcement, two of the recently announced recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom have science and technology backgrounds.  While former Senator John Glenn is being recognized in part for his Congressional service, most readers who recognize the name remember him as the first American to orbit the Earth back in 1962.  William Foege is likely recognized by many fewer people, but his contributions are dramatically more significant.  Before serving as Director of the Centers for Disease Control in the Carter Administration, Foege was a leader in the campaign to eradicate smallpox.  He has continued to work on global health projects at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Carter Center.

Congratulations to all concerned.  To Dr. Falcone, apologies for the likely lengthy wait until you are confirmed.  At least she already works at OSTP.

The Egg Should Have Come Before The Goose

Yesterday I read about a new science award, aimed to recognize research breakthroughs that paid off long after the initial research funding.  The organizers/sponsors of the award include the organization formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of American Universities, the Progressive Policy Institute, and a collection of House members from both parties.  The first award(s) are intended to be announced this fall, after a selection process involving at least one Nobel laureate and one current editor of Science.

Sounds great.

But there’s this name – The Golden Goose Award.  It doesn’t sit right with me.

I know that this is trying to counter the “Golden Fleece” award, popularized by William Proxmire back before I could drive.  While sound bite criticism of silly-sounding science projects remains, the award is really only mentioned by those complaining about the recent criticism.  In short, this seems like a bit of preaching to the choir.

Then there’s the fable at the heart of the name.  Putting aside that Proxmire’s Golden Fleece was not intended – as far as I can tell – to evoke the object at the heart of Jason’s quest, the organizers of the Golden Goose Award are trying to evoke a fable (one of Aesop’s, for those keeping score).  From the announcement:

“The name of the award is based on the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg.  Its sponsors view America’s federally funded research enterprise as an extremely valuable goose whose golden eggs are the innovations and discoveries born from basic research that transform lives and fuel the economy.”

So, if the award is recognizing the innovations and discoveries, why are we calling it the Golden Goose?  It really should be called the Golden Egg.

Besides, the goose in this fable isn’t golden.  Those of you who read and/or remember their fables might recall the actual Golden Goose, a tale from the Grimms.  In this story, the goose has golden feathers.  Everyone, besides the protagonist, who tries to grab a feather or otherwise interfere with the goose gets stuck.  The fable ends with a huge conga line of people stuck to each other.  Funny, but not necessarily relevant to scientific research.

It’s not too early to change the name.  Let’s really honor the research results and call it the Golden Egg Award.

Either way, clearly the old literature is not being taught in our schools – or not that well.

OSTP Almost Gets Its Allowance Back

So, back when Congress was late with its fiscal year 2012 budget, Congressional appropriators got mad at the White House for scientific meetings with China.  There was disagreement over whether those activities violated legal bans against cooperation with China.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)  had its fiscal year 2012 budget cut by 32 percent (roughly $2.1 million dollars).

Apparently the fences have been mended.  ScienceInsider is reporting that Representative Frank Wolf will approve the full amount of the fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget for OSTP – an increase of 30 percent over 2012. In return, OSTP will give 30 days notice of any bilateral meetings with China and asserts it will protect U.S. interests in any sharing of information or technology (that phrase seems to cover a multitude of possibilities).

Those who remember their math(s) will recognize that a 30 percent increase will not completely undo a 30 percent cut, much less a 32 percent cut.  The FY 2013 request is $5.85 million, an increase of $1.35 million over the FY 2012 budget, but almost $800,000 less than the FY 2011 budget.  For a point of comparison, the total federal research and development request for FY 2013 is $142.2 billion.

Appeals Court Hears NIH Stem Cell Lawsuit – Again

On Monday there were oral arguments at the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the matter of the lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over its stem cell research (Sherley v. Seblius).  The suit was filed in late 2010, and the remaining plaintiffs are researchers in adult stem cells.  The Circuit Court is no stranger to the case, having ruled to throw out an injunction that would have blocked NIH funding while the case was working through the courts.

This phase of the case is an appeal of a District Court decision from July 2011 that ruled in favor of NIH.  The three-judge panel includes one judge that heard the case around the injunction (she dissented in the matter).  In the 35 minute session, it would be hard for me (remember, folks, I am not a lawyer) to discern how the judges might rule.  There were questions about how binding the court’s previous rulings would be (they did speak to the merits of the case when decided whether or not to throw out the injunction).

There were a few issues of the case discussed that were not previously addressed by the Circuit Court.  They included how NIH should have handled the comments submitted against the 2009 stem cell research guidelines, the intentions of Congress behind the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (which is the law that prevents funding of research that harms or destroys research), and a relatively nuanced (at least to this layperson) argument about to what extent NIH funding contributes to the derivation of new stem cell lines.

The current expectation is that a decision could come as early as late summer, though I think the fall is more likely (or I’m just doubling down on my prediction).  An appeal seems likely regardless of the outcome of the decision.  In the meantime, NIH can continue to support human embryonic stem cell research.