Zombie Classes Can Be Serious

College courses that take advantage of pop culture are nothing new.  Nor are courses focused on zombies.  But it’s rare for the producer of the pop culture to get behind the courses in a significant fashion.

That has changed (and I’m late to the party).

But Not Simpler (over at Scientific American) reported that AMC, the network that airs The Walking Dead, collaborated with the Canvas Network and the University of California, Irvine on an online course.  Running last fall, Society, Science Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead was an eight-week course running in tandem with the fourth season of the zombie program.  It was also quite interdisciplinary, as the expected course outcomes describe:

  • Describe how infectious diseases—like a zombie epidemic—spread and are managed
  • Apply various models of society and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to existing and emerging societies as a means for understanding human behavior
  • Analyze existing social roles and stereotypes as they exist today and in an emerging world
  • Debate the role of public health organizations in society
  • Describe how mathematical equations for population dynamics can be used to study disease spread and interventions
  • Apply concepts of energy and momentum appropriately when analyzing collisions and other activities that either inflict or prevent damage
  • Summarize multiple methods for managing stress in disaster situations

Over 65,000 people signed up for the course last year.  Given that demand, I’m surprised that I cannot find an instance where this particular course has been repeated.  Especially since Instructure (the parent company of Canvas) conducted a survey of more than 12,000 course participants.


A New Innovation Research Network Worth Following

The University of Michigan has announced the formation of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS), to be housed in its Institute for Social Research.  Representing a national research network, IRIS is focused on helping understand the public value of research funding.

Development of a robust data infrastructure is high on the Institute’s list of projects.  This work is an outgrowth of the STAR METRICS program. Per a draft FAQ document, IRIS will focus on four major areas:

  • The contribution of science to economic growth;
  • The structure and aging of the STEM workforce;
  • The production of biomedical science; and
  • Develop theoretically grounded measures of the social networks that link investigators, topics, and organizations to one another

At the moment, the Institute appears focused primarily on the inputs into science and engineering research.  Of course, that’s just one part of the process(es) of producing science and engineering knowledge.  But a stronger data infrastructure can help in determining the links between those inputs and the corresponding outputs (and outcomes) of that research.


Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Releases New Report; Prompts Additional Investments

Formed in 2011, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) focuses on policies and other tools to secure American leadership in advanced manufacturing.  Earlier this week the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology adopted the AMP’s latest report, Accelerating U.S. Advanced Manufacturing.  This report builds on the AMP’s 2012 report and prompted several government investments, also announced earlier this week.

You can peruse the full list of recommendations on pages 17-18 of the report, but they are grouped in three categories (taken from the 2012 report): Enabling Innovation, Securing the Talent Pipeline, and Improving the Business Client.  Some of you may roll your eyes at the vagueness of these categories, so I would encourage you to focus on the portions of this report (Appendix A) that discuss the action plans and implementation to date on the various recommendations.

What is likely more broadly interesting are the technology areas identified as most promising targets for American leadership, as well as the Administration actions announced in connection with the report.  NASA, along with the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Energy, will invest $300 million in those technology areas:

  • advanced materials including composites and bio-based materials,
  • advanced sensors for manufacturing, and
  • digital manufacturing.

The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy will work to connect researchers with labs and research facilities for technology testbeds.  The Department of Labor will launch a $100 million dollar program to encourage apprenticeships (including new models of apprenticeship) with a focus on advanced manufacturing.  Finally, the Department of Commerce has announced an expansion of its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (a tool that doesn’t get enough attention and probably not enough use) with a focus on new technologies.

PCAST And Bioethics Commission Double Up On BRAIN

Both the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will meet next month.

The Bioethics Commission will meet November 5 and 6 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  As is customary, the meeting will be webcast and updates will be posted on the Commission’s blog.  The agenda is not yet available, but based on the Federal Register notice, the BRAIN Initiative will be one focus of the meeting, as will education and deliberation in bioethics.

The next PCAST meeting is on November 14th.  As has become custom, the public session will be from approximately 9 to noon on a Friday in Washington, D.C., and the meeting will be webcast.  No agenda, draft or otherwise, is presently available.  Per that meeting’s Federal Register notice the meeting should cover the BRAIN Initiative as well (though with an emphasis on the private sector investments).  Other topics will likely include Ebola, space sciences and science and technology related to national security.

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

While you can count on the Comedy Central shows to continue covering the Ebola cases in the United States (The Daily Show is coming from Austin, Texas this week, so it might hit that state’s efforts hard), there are few additional opportunities to catch science and technology content this week.

Michael Lewis is making the rounds this week, with appearances on The Colbert Report (Tuesday) and Late Night with Seth Meyers (Wednesday).  Lewis’s last book focuses on high frequency trading, though his appearances may focus on one of his earliest books, Liar’s Poker, which does not cover science or technology (unless you count the creation of markets as something like the building of technology).

Perhaps things will improve next week, with the U.S. premiere of Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan film involving the migration of the species to a new planet.  I would expect some (more) publicity for the film then.

Study That Prompted Allegations Of NIH Interference Found Wanting

In March 2013 the Office for Human Subjects Research Protections (OHRP) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that some of the informed consent provisions associated with the a study at the University of Alabama, Birmingham were lacking.  In June OHRP sent a subsequent letter to the researchers indicating it would put its planned sanctions on hold.

In between March and June, HHS and National Institutes of Health officials interacted with OHRP staff, and that interaction prompted allegations of improper influence.  The HHS Office of the Inspector General found no evidence of wrongdoing in its investigation.

But that doesn’t end the story, since OHRP put its actions on hold.  That hold ended on Friday.  Rather than implement sanctions against the researchers, OHRP has issued a call for comments on proposed informed consent guidelines.  The proposed guidelines affect the application of human research protections to cases of ‘standard of care research.’  The major questions concern what risks could be considered ‘reasonably foreseeable’ and how those risks should be described to prospective subjects.

In the case of the SUPPORT study that prompted this whole process, there was disagreement over whether or not the study protocols put subjects at risks that warranted disclosure.  OHRP felt that since the risks were greater than what subjects would reasonably expect without treatment, notice was required.  Others argued that because the treatment under study was within the standard of care for the condition, that no disclosure was required.

OHRP is taking comments until December 24, and will issue final guidance sometime in early 2015.

When Is A Quarantine Not A Quarantine?

I think I’m raising questions more than offering perspective with this post, but there are some things about the latest developments in the Ebola cases diagnosed in the United States.

(That’s right, it’s not an outbreak.  The situation is West Africa certainly is.  Four cases in a country that sees a few thousand times that many deaths from the flu does not qualify as an outbreak.)

Based on the latest declared case, a doctor in New York City that had been working in West Africa, the governors of New York and New Jersey declared quarantines above and beyond the recommended Centers for Disease Control monitoring (though the CDC is considering changing those guidelines).  As the politicians have more than public health on their mind, I can understand why they might go above and beyond what is medically necessary.  After all, Americans are scaredy cats, happy to act on fear before thinking things through.  Why not placate their fear, and worry about the possible negative consequences (people simply traveling around the quarantine zone, fewer military and aid workers going to West Africa, reduced disclosures of exposure, etc.)

But the terms of the quarantine, or at least the pronouncements of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo about said quarantine, make me think that at least one of the politicians involved is either unclear on public health or simply doesn’t care. Continue reading