Disasters.data.gov – One Year Later

Last December the government established the disasters.data.gov site as a repository for natural disaster data sets and as a portal for the community engaged in natural disasters to share information.

Currently there are 139 datasets and 23 tools available for first responders, citizen groups and others to review use and improve to help increase disaster readiness.  There remain the innovators challenges and calls to action to try from when the site was launched.

The White House blog post acknowledging the anniversary also noted the work of the Technology and Innovation for Disaster Preparedness Working Group, which is part of the National Science and Technology Committee.  While the kind of work it does in public is consistent with other groups seeking to leverage citizen interest and activity, I was particularly taken by the presentation from federal agencies at the recent Natinal Maker Faire.  I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised at the effort to nudge action in an area of interest to particular applications, but it was not one of the first things I thought of for the government to promote at a public event with a broad audience.

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Intel Getting Out Of The Science Fair Business

Back in September the Society for Science and the Public announced it would be seeing a new title sponsor for its Science Talent Search.  Started in 1942, it had been sponsored by Westinghouse from 1947 until 1998, when Intel became the title sponsor.  Intel’s last Search as title sponsor will end in March 2017.

In 2015 the Search awarded over $1.6 million in awards, so title sponsorship likely covers a significant portion of that amount.  And its not as though Intel is backing out of science promotion.  Back in October a collaboration between Intel and the TBS network in the United States was announced.  It is a television program focused on an Intel-supported competition around wearable technology.

With Google sponsoring its own science fair, it seems unlikely they would opt to seek title sponsorship.  Perhaps another technology company, or an organization committed to citizen science, making, or some similar grass roots research and/or crafting concern will commit the necessary funds.

There appears to be time left to find a replacement.  Intel remains the title sponsor for the current Search (semifinalists will be named in early January) and the following one.

More Forward Progress On That Ebola Epidemic We Forgot About

The U.S. moved on to other things long ago, but the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues.  The latest news is unambiguously good.

The World Health Organization has declared Guinea to be free of virus transmission.  This means that it has been 42 days since the last declared case of the disease in that country had its second negative test.  The WHO now starts a 90 day period of heightened surveillance to further restrict the spread of the disease.  Sierra Leone was placed under a similar period of surveillance last month.

If no further cases are reported in Liberia between now and January 16, that country will be placed under the same 90 day surveillance period.  The disease had re-emerged in the country back in the summer, so we are not out of the woods, as it were.  We can certainly see the edge.

The next challenge is to repair and strengthen the infrastructure damaged by this outbreak, which is in its 19th month.  Even developed nations would be challenged by the stress a months-long outbreak would place on public health systems, so the countries most affected by this outbreak stand much more susceptible to another outbreak.

And that’s something we don’t want.  But the thousands of miles and other things to fears that have captured the attention of this country and others suggests to me that we aren’t inclined to help when such help could be at least as meaningful as in the highest levels of the outbreak.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of December 28

We end the year with the usual collection of pre-emptions and reruns.  On Wednesday you can re-watch Alicia Vikander’s latest appearance on The Tonight Show.  However, that conversation is focused more on her current film, The Danish Girl, rather than her performance as an android in Ex Machina (now on the DVD).

There are no new programs of note.  However, there was a new episode of StarTalk yesterday, featuring astronomer Brian Cox.  That should be available as a podcast within a few weeks.  The show will end its season next Sunday with main guest Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Going Deep with David Rees continues premiering episodes of its second season.

There is also the MythBusters megamarathon, which started on Christmas Eve and will run through at least this Saturday.  It’s running on The Science Channel, and each episode that airs at 7pm Eastern this week will be part of a game through the channel’s Head Rush app.  I’m just glad I finally caught up on those rare episodes I’ve never seen (though with over 230 of them so far, it’s hard to be precisely sure).

The first new episode of the final season will premiere on the Discovery channel in the U.S. on January 9.  A behind-the-scenes/preview special is scheduled for January 2 (while the megamarathon is still running).  I believe each new episode of the season will air Saturdays on the Discovery channel, and again the following Wednesday on The Science Channel.

Now That Two Companies Can Land Rockets Post-Launch…

This past Monday SpaceX, no doubt pushed by the recent success of Blue Origin, successfully landed the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that had just helped lift its second stage (and 11 satellites) into orbit.  After two attempts at returning a Falcon 9 first stage to an upright position on a barge, SpaceX returned this stage to its landing zone at Cape Canaveral.  It marks the first success of any organization in landing upright a rocket stage that had helped place a payload in orbit.

As the title notes, SpaceX has company in the landable rocket stage business.  Blue Origin joined the company earlier this year when it landed one of its suborbital New Shepard rocket stages.  Both companies have work arrangements with NASA, and barring some notable from legacy contractors Boeing and Lockheed, continued success with these reusable rockets provide a possible transformation in access to orbit.

Should the Falcon 9 (and rockets like it) be reusable as much as SpaceX anticipates (around 40 times prior to some part replacements), both SpaceX and Blue Origin will be providing significant cost savings over conventional rockets in lifting cargo and people to orbit.

Once SpaceX (or Blue Origin) have made the technical demonstrations necessary to prove their dramatic cost savings, there might be a fight comparable to the one settled early in 2015 over Air Force launch contracts.  But any such fight might be shorter, given that SpaceX’s reusable orbital tests have been conducted as secondary goals of many of its orbital missions – for private parties or for NASA.

Whatever happens, the video certainly looks great.

Newest Medals Of Science And Technology Winners Include AAAS Head

Earlier this week the White House announced the latest recipients of the National Medal of Science and The National Medal of Technology and Innovation.  The National Medal of Science has been around since 1959 and is administered by the National Science Foundation.  The National Medal of Technology and Innovation was first awarded in 1980 and is administered for the White House by the Patent and Trademark Office.  The recipients will be recognized early next year in a White House ceremony.

As is often the case, most, if not all of those recognized are not household names.  The closest that come are still not recognizable by the general public.  Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and current member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and Dr. Geraldine Richmond, who is the current President of AAAS, a member of the National Science Board, and has served as a Science Envoy at the Department of State.

Here is the full list of this year’s recipients.  Congratulations.

National Medal of Science

  • Dr. Armand Paul Alivisatos, University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, CA
  • Dr. Michael Artin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
  • Dr. Albert Bandura, Stanford University, CA
  • Dr. Stanley Falkow, Stanford University School of Medicine, CA
  • Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, NY
  • Dr. Rakesh K. Jain, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, MA
  • Dr. Mary-Claire King, University of Washington, WA
  • Dr. Simon Levin, Princeton University, NJ
  • Dr. Geraldine Richmond, University of Oregon, OR

National Medal of Technology and Innovation

  • Dr. Joseph DeSimone, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and Carbon3D, CA
  • Dr. Robert Fischell, University of Maryland at College Park, MD
  • Dr. Arthur Gossard, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
  • Dr. Nancy Ho, Green Tech America, Inc. and Purdue University, IN
  • Dr. Chenming Hu, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • Dr. Mark Humayun, University of Southern California, CA
  • Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, University of Connecticut, CT
  • Dr. Jonathan Rothberg, 4catalyzer Corporation and Yale School of Medicine, CT

AAAS Considering Revisions To Fellows Selection Process

Earlier this month I noted the criticism levied at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about the selection of Dr. Patrick Harran as one of its new class of Fellows.  Dr. Harran’s lab was the site of a fatal lab accident in 2008, and both he and his university, UCLA, are complying with settlement agreements reached in the case.

AAAS Fellows are nominated either by existing fellows (as Harran was) or by the leadership of the relevant topical section (Chemistry, in Harran’s case).  Regardless of how a potential Fellow is nominated, the relevant topical section must review the nomination.  Then the elected members of the AAAS Council vote on the nomination.

On December 18 the steering group of the Chemistry topical section was granted approval to re-evaluate Harran’s nomination.  On the 22nd AAAS released this statement announcing that the Chemistry Section voted to not move Harran’s nomination forward and outlining the process used to come to that decision (H/T The Scientist).

For me, the troublesome language is at the end of the second paragraph.

“Members of the nomination reviewing committee recently became aware of a 2008 case involving the death of a technician in the UCLA laboratory of Dr. Harran.”

I understand that the selection criteria for a Fellow is work in advancing science and/or its applications.  But I think it prudent to note – in advance of final selection – where there are other factors that make the prospective honoree a problematic selection.  That the Chemistry section failed to note the accident the first time is the problem.  The process allows for the opportunity to discuss nominees and any information that

Also noted in the AAAS announcement was that the AAAS Council Subcommittee on Fellows will be considering changes to the review process for future selections.  The American Chemical Society (ACS) may well beat them to any official changes, based on this report from Chemical and Engineering News.  Its leadership started including safety questions in its award nominations in 2013, and it is considering adding safety criteria to ACS fellow nominations.