Congress Is At Least Feinting At Science Legislation

Color me skeptical of any of these bills being passed, but Congress has at least three major bills in the offing related to science and technology research and development.  Two of them should seem familiar.

The Senate is working on a reauthorization of the COMPETES legislation initially passed in the Bush Administration (Chris Mooney is covering his eyes and pretending I’m not typing this right now).  The bill addresses research and development programs and investment at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  The Committee’s first hearing will take place on November 6 at 2:30 Eastern time.  If you check the website of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the 6th, you should be able to access a webcast of the hearing.

The House is also working on the next version of COMPETES legislation, but like so many things, they are taking a different approach from the Senate.  House Democrats have circulated a discussion draft of a reauthorization of the COMPETES legislation, while Republicans have opted to separate the bill into one focused on energy programs and another focused on the other agencies covered in COMPETES legislation.  This differs from the approach taken for the initial COMPETES bill and the 2010 reauthorization, and given the increasingly tense atmosphere in Congress, makes it harder for a final compromise bill to emerge from the House, much less the full Congress.  It also marks, in my opinion, the final nail in the coffin of House bipartisan comity with respect to science and technology legislation.  It has been teetering ever since Rep. Sherwood Boehlert retired in 2007, but the lack of committee unity on foundational legislation makes be think it has fallen away.  Combine this with the reactions earlier in the year to a draft bill from Science Committee Chairman Smith and the job for science and technology research advocates is now notably harder than it was even last year.

Another bill worth noting is the GRANT Act, recently reintroduced into the current Congress by Rep. Lankford of Oklahoma.  The act is focused on government grants in general, and is intended to improve the transparency of government grants as an additional means of reducing waste, fraud and abuse.  Scientific interests have been concerned with the legislation (last introduced in 2011) because they are worried the reporting processes would remove the anonymity of scientific peer and/or expert review.  There is also concern that the disclosure of information like the full research grant application would expose the intellectual property of the research without allowing the researcher(s) to gain from it.  Rep. Lankford is, according to ScienceInsider, working on language to address these concerns from the scientific community.  Lankford appear focused on other grant programs, and is making an effort to address how effectively science research programs already address his concerns.

Mileage-Based Taxes – Not Just For Oregon

A recent update on the Oregon pilot program for a mileage-based transportation tax ended up not being much of an update.  It simply noted that the American Civil Liberties Union was on board with the program, mainly because the program will ensure that drivers have a choice to monitor just the mileage or to include a GPS that will help track when drivers are out of state (an important matter, as other states would not assess mileage-based taxes, at least right now).

However, the press around this non-announcement has pointed me toward other pilot programs exploring alternatives to the gas tax that include some kind of automobile monitoring.  According to the Los Angeles Times, The Southern California Association of Governments is taking steps for having the mileage of all California drivers tracked by 2025.  Minnesota is testing a pay-by-mile system on 500 cars.  Illinois is working on a pilot for trucks.  Nevada has already completed a pilot and is looking at other alternative taxation plans.  Both New York City and a coalition of 17 state transportation departments along the Eastern Seaboard are determining how such a taxation scheme could be implemented.

Most programs are considering devices that collect a limited amount of information with an eye toward addressing drivers’ privacy concerns.  Insurance companies, like Progressive, may be pushing for more extensive data collection in order to reduce their exposure to risky driving behaviors.  And other jurisdictions may bet on more extensive data collection by selling the possible convenience to drivers from having the ability to handle other transportation services (like parking) and information (real-time traffic data) in the same device.

Of course, these schemes are all much more complicated than the current gas tax system.  But the financial shortfall emerging from the combination of a decrease in driving and an increase in passenger car mileage has to be dealt with.  The short-term fix appears to be levies on fuel-efficient vehicles, but I think such charges would be more amenable to the public if they were connected to the relevant power source.  For instance, tax the use of charging stations (for which some of the money could be used to improve charging times?).  Designate the home outlet used for the electric car as part of the current electricity meter arrangements.  Tax compressed natural gas and other alternative fuels.  Most, if not all of these arrangements are likely less complicated than attempting to implement mileage-based taxation plans for transportation that minimize the information collected from each driver.

Midazolam Facing Future Experimental Deaths

While propofol appears to be on the wane for use in executions by lethal injection, midazolam is on the upswing.  Florida will use the drug as part of its three-drug execution protocol on November 12 (assuming a court hearing on the 6th doesn’t delay things), and Ohio will follow suit on November 14.

The Buckeye state is turning to a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, due to a lack of pentobarbital.  The two-drug combination is Ohio’s designated backup protocol in the event of a shortage of pentobarbital.  The November 14 execution would be the first using that combination of drugs.

As usual, the concern over a new execution drug is about how effective the new sedative – midazolam – will be in sedating the prisoner.  As this requires a deeper sedation than the typical use for the drug, it has not been clinically tested.  There is speculation that midazolam is not as effective, based on the observations of a reporter who witnessed the latest Florida execution.  He felt that it took longer for the inmate to lose consciousness compared to an execution involving pentobarbital.  His execution did take twice as long as other executions, but the drugs may be only one possible explanation.  One observation does not a scientific conclusion make, but the circumstances of executions make it difficult to conduct a meaningful experiment (and certainly not a large sample size).

For what it’s worth, not all recent lethal injections have received scrutiny for the drugs used.  Arizona’s latest execution was appealed for traditional reasons connected to the handling of the case.  It was carried out last week.

While shortages will continue, the increasing reliance of states on compounding pharmacies (which are not tightly regulated) to develop the drugs they need is likely a second front in stopping executions.  It won’t stop states from innovating ways around these barriers, at least not for a while.

Hill Tech Happenings, Week of October 28

Another week, another new late night program in the United States.  Pete Holmes starts his show this week, following Conan O’Brien on TBS.  Like @Midnight, The Pete Holmes Show is a half-hour in length.  But it is much closer to a traditional talk show than @Midnight, which is a quiz show comparable to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.

No significant repeats this week.  Appearances to note, as is often the case, focus on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  Wednesday on The Colbert Report, Jack Andraka stops by.  He’s the young scientific investigator seeking to find new and cheaper ways to detect diseases.  On Thursday Mark Fainaru-Wada, one of the co-authors of the recent book on the NFL and concussions, talks with Jon Stewart.  Writer Bill Bryson comes to see Stephen that night, and his latest book focuses on the summer 1927 in America, which included a fair share of technological achievements (including the first solo flight across the Atlantic and the first talking motion picture).

In other program news, a recent episode of Elementary, the U.S. modern-day retelling of Sherlock Holmes, had a mathematics problem as a plot point (the episode was called “Solve for X”).  A solution to the proof of P=NP, which would have significant applications in areas requiring heavy information security (and could net you a million dollars prize money), was a motivation for murder.  U.S. viewers (and perhaps those abroad) can look forward to the return of a special MythBusters episode, this time focused on myths associated with fear and Hallowe’en inspired tales.

A Critical Element Success Story – Re-Establishing Beryllium Production

The Armed With Science blog rightly crows about the resuscitation of U.S. domestic beryllium production.  In an era where nuclear isotopes, light gases and other elements have all undergone bouts of scarcity, it’s nice to see a case where the corner has turned.

Beryllium has thermal conductivity properties that make it ideal for shedding a lot of heat.  This has clear applicability for defense applications.  A major U.S. production facility closed in 2000.  But thanks to federal legislation focused on defense production, the Defense Department in connection with industry was able to establish a reliable domestic supplier of beryllium.

Perhaps such production assistance could be legislated for other critical elements, but that presupposes an interest in passing legislation that seems absent in Washington of late.  Or legislators could become more savvy in terms of linking other elements to defense uses.  While the situation with helium is different – the country is attempting to get out of the business of maintaining a reservoir – it does serve as an example that, eventually, domestic critical element production can be better managed to mitigate hiccups in other parts of the supply chain.

The Use Of Fake Data – Can We Use A Different Word?

Eugenie Reich has an article in Nature News about the use of mock, simulated or fake data in astronomy research on dark matter.  The terms are used interchangeably in the piece, but I would choose simulated over the other two.  It simply minimizes the chances of misinterpretation by the public.  I’m reminded of the mini-firestorm initiated by opponents of climate change policy to references in scientific discussions about using ‘tricks’ to present climate data.

I’m not sure of any opposition (organized or otherwise) to research involving dark matter or dark energy.  But I think it could well strike the public as odd, or perhaps counterintuitive, to hear references to fake data in scientific research without reference to fraud or other bad activities.  In the instances cited by Reich, the simulated data are used to test algorithms and related methods for identifying galaxies from large data sets gathered by scientific instruments.  It would be comparable to using a test weight or other object to calibrate an instrument.  I don’t think such calibration or refinement tests are well served by referring to fake or mock data.  But I may be overthinking this.

European Research Council May Be Looking For A Growth Manager

ScienceInsider is reporting that the next head of the European Research Council may be a French mathematician.  The Council is currently led by sociologist Helga Novotny, who will be stepping down at the end of the year.

While the European Commission has not made the announcement, ScienceInsider is confident in its sourcing that Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, until earlier this year the long-time president of the Institutes of Advanced Scientific Studies in France, will become the next President of the Council.  Bourguignon’s tenure at the institute was notable for, among other things, the growth of the institute in both size and scope of activities.  Comments from Novotny in the ScienceInsider piece make me think that the European Commission is looking for someone with the kind of experience Bourguignon has.  The European Research Council will expand in budget and obligations, without concurrent increases in human resources.  They may well need someone who can grown and expand an agency.