National Academy Of Science Getting Popular With Its Public Welfare Medal

On Sunday, during its 153rd Annual meeting, the National Academy of Sciences will present several awards.  Among them is the Public Welfare Medal, which honors ‘extraordinary use of science for the public good.’

This year the Academy is awarding the medal to Alan Alda.  The actor has a long history of working with science and scientists, dating back to at least his stint hosting Scientific American Frontiers from 1993-2005.  Besides hosting that program, which ran on PBS, he has hosted other science programs, and performed and wrote scientifically themed plays.  He is the face of The Flame Challenge, which tests the ability of scientists to communicate concepts to young kids.  In what spare time he has Alda is Visiting Professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at the Stony Brook University.

This marks the second year in a row the Public Welfare Medal has recognized the work of someone engaged in public science.  Last year Neil deGrasse Tyson was recognized for his work in science education and science entertainment.  That the award came the year after Tyson hosted the 2014 edition of COSMOS is not likely a coincidence.  Especially since Carl Sagan, who hosted the 1980 edition, also received the Public Welfare Medal (but not until 1994).

Two data points do not make a trend, and with only three recipients in 102 years having this kind of connection to popular culture, I don’t expect to see the MythBusters recognized with the Public Welfare Medal any time soon.  (Besides, such recognition would make more sense coming from the National Academy of Engineering, which doesn’t have a comparable medal.)

Congratulations to Alan Alda, who could make a lovely acceptance speech on Sunday.  Until *that* video becomes available, you can watch Tyson’s acceptance speech from 2015.

Bioethics Commission Looking Retrospectively In Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will be in Washington, D.C. on May 3.  There is one more Commission meeting scheduled after the May meeting, and that may be the last Commission meeting before it finishes its work (and President Obama leaves office).

I base that in part on this Federal Register notice the Commission released last month (which states the Commission has two more meetings) and on the agenda for the May 5th meeting.  That agenda is focused on the past, present and future influence of national bioethics advisory bodies.  The Commission will discuss the topic with several academics and the head of the Commission’s Mexican counterpart, CONBIOÉTICA.

The Commission is also interested in input from you.  The Federal Register notice the Commission released last month was a request for comments on:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of different models for national bioethics advisory bodies, e.g., standing or temporary, narrowly or broadly focused (examining one topic or issue or a variety of issues);
  • The lessons we can learn from national bodies in other countries to inform how U.S. bodies might work;
  • The influence of national bioethics bodies on bioethics as a field; other academic fields, such as science, medicine, and technology; and public policy;
  • The future of national bioethics advisory groups in the United States.

Comments must be received by July 1.

Presumably the Commission is consulting with the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA), I certainly think that INGSA would be interested in the comments and any reports or other documents to come from them and the meeting on May 5th.

At Least One Participant In The White House Science Fair Was Thinking Science Policy

The White House Science Fair is as much about science and technology policy as it is about celebrating how our young people explore science and technology.  For instance, at this year’s fair the President noted some developments in supporting computer science education, and there were other announcements from the White House on education in all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  They include new government initiatives, pledges from private companies, and reports on the progress of several initiatives in many different agencies (not just the Education Department) to encourage more STEM learning.  (Even more details on these announcements and progress reports are available from the White House.)

While the White House was thinking about science and technology policy when organizing the White House Science Fair, the participants weren’t necessarily so inclined.  Certainly if the project being presented related to specific problems like making vaccination easier, the people may be thinking about policy.  But that isn’t likely to be everyone participating in the fair.

Then there’s Jacob Leggette.  He’s a nine-year old boy in the Baltimore area who has been interested in programming and making for longer than he can remember.  At the Fair he presented several of the toys and items he has designed and built with the help of a 3-D printer.  (He negotiated a printer in exchange for product reviews, further demonstrating his drive and imagination.)

So, while describing his work to the President, Legette asked if he had a child science adviser.  The idea stuck with the President to the point that he brought it up during his remarks later in the fair.  He said that

“[W]e should have a kid’s advisory group that starts explaining to us what’s interesting to them and what’s working, and could help us shape advances in STEM education.  Anyway, that was Jacob’s idea.  So way to go, Jacob.  We’re going to follow up on that.”

This idea certainly has merit, and I hope it gets the follow up that the President promised.  It would be great if Jacob had an opportunity to participate in such a group, but even if he doesn’t, kudos to Jacob for always taking advantage of the opportunities he’s made for himself.

PCAST Meeting Covers Indicators, Health And Cancer

Earlier today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held a public meeting in Washington.  As is the recent custom, it was a half-day morning meeting on a Friday.  Also as custom, a webcast was made and the archive will be available within a few days.

The meeting began with a presentation on the latest edition of Science and Engineering Indicators, published every other year by the National Science Board.  The Board has continued to update the way the Indicators are presented, with the website for the 2016 edition demonstrating additional means of diving into report data, including state indicators and a digest.

The later presentations were about health.  The first of those focused on the One Health program, supported in the U.S. out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  It is a global effort focused on disease processes in both animal health and human health and how they both relate to the health of the environment.  The other health presentation in the meeting concerned the frontiers of cancer research.  This was certainly influenced by the recent effort by the Obama Administration to address roadblocks in cancer research.

While no official announcement or Federal Register notice is out, I would expect the next PCAST meeting to take place in May, possibly early June.

Defense Department Building An Innovation Advisory Board

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has named Alphabet (the new parent company for all Google businesses) executive chairman Eric Schmidt as the chair of the newly constituted Defense Department Innovation Advisory Board (H/T WIRED).  Aside from Schmidt’s work at Alphabet, he serves on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).

The board will have up to 12 members, and be selected by both Schmidt and Secretary Carter.  The mission of the board, according to the Department’s press release, is to:

“provide department leaders independent advice on innovative and adaptive means to address future organizational and cultural challenges, including the use of technology alternatives, streamlined project management processes and approaches – all with the goal of identifying quick solutions to DoD problems.”

Members are expected to be leaders of (or have led) major public and/or private organizations and have experience with identifying advanced technology concepts.  The Department sees this board as comparable to the Defense Business Board, and would likely meet quarterly.

No first meeting date has been announced yet, but that is not likely to happen until the full slate of board members have been selected by Carter and Schmidt.  How much this board will be able to do before the Presidential transition is unclear.  Absent a statutory basis for the board fixing terms independent of whomever is President, this process will be restarted (or possibly not) under the next administration.

Changes At The Top Of Several Science Organizations

Over the last month there have been changes at the top of a few national science organizations.

The National Academy of Sciences made it official earlier this month and elected Marcia McNutt to be its first female president.  She was nominated last July and will take office on July 1st of this year.  It marks the third time she will be the first female in a particular science position.  McNutt is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine and was the head of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Also of note is that McNutt is the second consecutive geological scientist to become president of the National Academy of Sciences.  It is apparently tradition that the officeholders alternate between the physical and geological sciences.  She will take office from Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist and former Chancellor of the University of California at Irvine.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its annual presidential transition, and Barbara Schaal is the new President of the organization.  She will serve for one year while continuing in her position as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington at St. Louis.  Schaal has also served as a science envoy at the State Department and as a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) under President Obama.

(The election process for the AAAS also has a long lead time.  The new President-elect of the organization, Susan Hockland, was selected in late 2015 and will take over from Schaal next February.  Once a AAAS President completes their one-year term, they become Chair of the Board for the following year.)

There is also a new head for the Italian National Research Council (CNR).  Massimo Inguscio, an optical physicist at the University of Florence, has experience in running scientific organizations, but the CNR is a much larger and more multi-disciplinary institute.  He takes over at a time when Italian scientists are initiating a national discussion over research funding.

InterAcademy Partnership Releases Responsible Research Guide

Earlier this month the InterAcademy Partnership, a coalition of world science academies, released a guidebook on conducting responsible research.  This report follows the IAP’s 2012 report (released with the InterAcademy Council) on responsible research and was written by the same committee.

(In March, the InterAcademy Partnership will be relaunched as a combination of the InterAcademy Council, the present InterAcademy Partnership, and two other international science advisory bodies.  It’s likely to happen during the InterAcademy Partnership international conference going on now in South Africa.)

This new report builds on the general principles for responsible research outlined in the 2012 report, as well as that report’s recommendations on how scientists, students, funders, policymakers and other stakeholders can provide the foundation for responsible research.  This new report is more of a practice-oriented, day-to-day guidebook on how to conduct responsible research (including public engagement) in ways consistent with the principles outlined in the 2012 report.  It is not intended to be *the* resource on conducting responsible research, but a resource, especially for training and educational purposes.

Policy-oriented readers may wish to give additional attention to Chapter 10, which covers communicating with policymakers and the public.  It takes care to note the different kinds of advice that scientists may be called to provide policymakers, noting the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the L’Aquila earthquake in explaining the different and sometimes competing pressures scientists face when presenting work in the public sphere.