Diploma Mill Busting Scientist Running For Congress

The week before Representative (and physicist) Rush Holt hosted his online town hall George Gollin a physicist from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), announced his candidacy for the House of Representatives as a Democrat (H/T Mark Robinson and Michael Okuda).  The district is currently represented by a first-term Representative, Rodney Davis.

Gollin has taught at UIUC since the mid-1980s, and focuses his efforts on particle physics and teaching undergraduate students.  But his political experience (and interest) comes from his efforts to bust diploma mills (entities producing fake educational degrees).  WIRED magazine has chronicled his efforts to take down a ring of diploma mills in the early part of the last decade.  Federal legislation to crack down on diploma and accreditation mills has struggled to get passed by Congress for several years, and Gollin would likely make this a priority for him should he be elected.

Given Gollin’s persistence in his work and other public service, I like his chances.  At the moment there is only one other announced candidate for the Democratic nomination, and the Republican incumbent has one challenger.  Sure there are 435 House races every two years, but his may be one worth watching.

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NIH Wants To Harness Biomedical Big Data

Last week the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced (H/T NextGov) a four-year funding program that could invest up to $96 million over four years to wrangle the large datasets generated by biomedical research.  Called the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) program, the program would establish six to eight Centers of Excellence focused on “the development and distribution of innovative approaches, methods, software, and tools for data sharing, integration, analysis and management.”  The centers would also work on education and training for students and practitioners on the use of large datasets.

The BD2K initiative was launched last December and has four major themes, including the centers of excellence.  The other areas of emphasis are training, facilitating widespread use of data, and new analysis methods and software.  The program is hosting a series of workshops that will be open to the public via webcast (physical attendance/participation is by invitation only).

If you are interested in pursuing the funding opportunity, plan on participating in the September workshop/webinar on the program, and start work on your application, which is due November 20.  Successful applications will include a multidisciplinary team, and while they will focus on a particular research question, the resulting work product should be generalizable beyond the research question and the biomedical area of research.  Ideally the selected centers would be able to work together in extracting generalizable principles for use by all researchers dealing with big data.  The centers would be ready to go sometime in the second half of 2014.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of July 29

Things are picking up this week, if just a bit.  I think some of this activity can be traced to two things.  The Discovery Channel will roll out Shark Week next week, so there will likely be promotion this week and next.  For instance, Jeff Kurr, a filmmaker who has worked on Shark Week since 1991, will visit Craig Ferguson tonight (Monday).  There’s also the film Elysium, a science fiction movie that examines a world where the well-to-do have evacuated the planet to an orbiting station, leaving the rest of the planet to fend for themselves.  Its stars will likely make the rounds, if Matt Damon’s appearance on Wednesday with David Letterman (and with Kelly and Michael that morning) is any indication.

In other business, Eric McCormack visits Conan to talk up his returning show Perception.  He plays a neuroscientist who is also a paranoid scizophrenic.  Atul Gawande returns to The Colbert Report on Tuesday.  He’s a physician who has done notable work analyzing how to improve health care and medicine.  His latest New Yorker column examines why medical innovations sometimes move fast and sometimes move slow.

Another Nail In The Thiopental Coffin?

Last week The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a case involving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The FDA was subject to a lawsuit on the issue of whether or not the agency should allow the importation of drugs that it cannot (or will not) test for safety.

The drug at issue is sodium thiopental, a drug often used in a three drug combination to execute prisoners in the United States.  The drug is an anesthetic, which is why there is still a demand for the product outside of prisons.  As I have posted about in 2011 and 2012, supplies of the drug in the United States have dried up through a combination of factors.  Domestic manufacturing capacity has disappeared, foreign suppliers have started refusing to export to the United States, and the demand to execute has not diminished.

The appellate court decision affirms the lower court decision in part, that the FDA did not act in accordance with the law to allow the import of sodium thiopental – which it has not approved for use in executions – into the country.  The court argued that the agency has other means at its disposal to address such a drug shortage.  The appeals court did reverse part of the District court’s decision and will allow states to retain possession of their existing stocks of the drug.

The FDA may still appeal the decision.

Now For Some Really BIG Science Logistics

On Friday movers finally finished bringing a very, very large magnet to its new home.  Researchers at Fermilab received a 15-kilometer wide superconducting magnet that will measure magnetic properties of the muon, an unstable subatomic particle that is similar to the electron.  As you might imagine, moving something like that is not easy.  And in this case that was an understatement.  At least the magnet would be inert during the journey (being a superconducting magnet, it has to be very cold to operate).

The move originated at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York.  The magnet was built there in the 1990s, but the Brookhaven lab no longer had a use for it.  Unfortunately the magnet could not be disassembled, and could not be bent more than a few millimeters without being irreparably damaged.  And while Long Island to the greater Chicago area is a long trip as the crow flies, the 15-ton ring magnet couldn’t travel there directly.  A special barge and truck were necessary to properly secure the ring.  Even so, the cost for the trip was one tenth the cost of making another magnet.

Traveling on land for nearly 8 miles from Brookhaven, the ring was put on a barge on the Atlantic coast in late June.  Weather prompted delays on both the initial land trek and the sea voyage.  But after a nearly four week journey down the Atlantic coast and up three rivers, the ring returned to land on July 20 in Lemont, Illinois, where the remaining miles (less than 30) were covered over three all-night sessions.

While the particles this magnet will help study are very small and short-lived, operating this equipment is on the opposite side of both scales.  It will take a year or so of testing to make sure the magnet weathered the journey.  Then the ring will be cooled down to proper temperature and data may be available sometime in 2016.  Patience, everyone.  If you’d like to hear more about the journey, there are two episodes of the How To Do Everything podcast you should listen to.  Episode 114 covered the beginning of the journey, and the most recent episode (117) has eye-witness (though you’ll not be able to see any of it) testimony from the last few miles of the journey.

On Counting R&D Spending As An Investment

While it likely won’t attract much popular attention, the United States is poised to do something potentially radical effective July 31st.  How it counts Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will change.

The revision in GDP calculation (which will also be retroactive to the creation of the metric in the 1920s) is part of a revision of the national income and product accounts – a major collection of national economic measures – that happens roughly every five years.  Though I can’t confirm it (since websites from a previous administration tend to disappear), this revision may have been influenced by a Bush Administration advisory committee on national measurements.  The committee was trying to get measures to better reflect 21st century economic activity.

The changes to GDP calculation are of a different kind than efforts to develop other measures like the Social Progress Index or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.  In those efforts the measures are intended to calculate the value of non-economic activities.  What the Bureau of Economic Analysis has done is change how two important areas are counted.  Research and development spending is no longer counted as an expense, but as an investment.  Similarly, original creation of works of literature, art and entertainment will be treated as fixed assets.  In both cases the revisions are an attempt to reflect the value associated with each item – value which has increased over recent years.

Regrettably, given the recent turn in political coverage, the changes are likely to be spun as an effort to shore up the President’s political standing.  This is because the changes in GDP calculation will lead to an increase.  What this manages to do besides make for lousy news coverage is to continue to demean the value of statistical and economic data in attempting to understand the state of the nation.  There are no winners in that pursuit.

Appointment Delays, OSTP Edition

While I’ve been harping on the lack of a nomination for National Science Foundation (NSF) Director, there are other senior science and technology positions that need people.  There are supposed to be four Associate Directors at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Like the NSF Director, and the OSTP Director, these positions require Senate confirmation.

Yesterday the White House announced a nominee to serve as the Associate Director for Energy and Environment at the OSTP.  Robert Simon, currently a consultant at OSTP, would take over for Shere Abbott, who left the position in 2011.  Simon brings a great deal of federal government experience in the energy field, splitting time between the Department of Energy and relevant Congressional committees.

Meanwhile, the Division of Technology and Innovation is now being run by OSTP Deputy Director Tom Kalil.  If OSTP blog posts are any indication, this switch was done sometime this year, after several months with no Associate Director for Technology.  After Aneesh Chopra left the position (and the job of Chief Technology Officer), it was decided that the next Chief Technology Officer would not also serve as the Associate Director for Technology.

Kalil was originally appointed as Deputy Director for Policy.  The Deputy Director position was created by OSTP Director Holdren, and does not require Senate confirmation.  It remains to be seen whether the Senate will object to Kalil serving as Director of the Technology and Innovation Division without Senate confirmation.  Given the long stretches with an acting director for one or more divisions at OSTP, I don’t think it’s a high priority for the Congress (and perhaps not for the Administration)