Asking Dr. H. – Probably Just As Meaningful This Time Around

On Thursday, the White House blog ran a post about Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren.  It announced the revival of ‘Ask Dr. H.’  Back in 2010 there was a series of posts from Dr. Holdren on science education and science policy topics.  The latest effort is targeted to climate change.

Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Vine, people can send their questions, tagged #AskDrH, about climate change.  Dr. Holdren will respond to questions via video.  Given the flood of requests, the challenge is not just to get your question in under whatever character limit applies.  You have to, somehow, craft the inquiry such that it will attract attention.

As for what will work, your guess is as good as mine.  If you search any of these services with the #AskDrH tag, you’ll likely find a lot of noise.  Even if you manage to get through, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have your question responded to in such a way that it will simply restate Administration policy.  It’s an excellent reminder that while Dr. Holdren is a scientist, he’s a political appointee obligated to represent the Administration.  Not scientists or science enthusiasts.

Dive Deep Into Mission Blue

Fresh off the festival circuit and available for your Netflix queue is Mission Blue, an documentary about marine sanctuaries and one of their champions, Sylvia Earle (H/T Science Friday).  Earle is a leading explorer in oceanography, having studied the oceans since the 1950s.  Her latest effort is the Mission Blue of the title, an organization focused on establishing and expanding protected marine spaces around the world.  By telling her story, the film documents how human impacts on the ocean have unfolded in her decades of ocean exploration.  Here’s the trailer:

As Earle notes in her Science Friday segment, the United States has taken steps to establish and expand quite large tracts of marine reserves over the last several years (starting with President George W. Bush).  Mission Blue has identified several dozen spots around the globe that should receive comparable protection (though some of them already have protection).

PCAST Meets To Take A Deep Dive

When I first posted about tomorrow’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it was without benefit of an agenda.  Now that I have seen it, my mildly informed speculation has been confirmed.

The meeting will start at 9:15 Eastern time tomorrow in Washington.  A webcast will be available, as usual.  Simply visit the PCAST meetings page tomorrow.  The morning starts with progress updates (and perhaps final approvals) on PCAST reports on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and antibiotic resistance.  The NNI report is required every other year by law, so PCAST will be returning to somewhat familiar territory.

The presentation part of the meeting concludes with a panel on oceans policy.  As I guessed, Beth Kertulla, Director of the National Ocean Council, will be part of the panel.  She will be joined by other leaders in the ocean science research community: Robert Gagosian, President of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and Anthony Knap, head of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

As usual, there is time set aside for public comment.  The public session is scheduled to end by lunchtime.

Missed Humor Opportunity – Thermal Hydrolysis In Washington

Even with a former comedy writer serving in the United States Senate, I would have expected someone to mine the humor potential in this energy project.

Washington D.C.’s water department is working on an enriched water (also known as wastewater) plant that uses thermal hydrolysis to generate, among other things, energy.  It’s the first effort of its kind in North America, and it will start operations this summer, with the goal of achieving full operation in January 2015.  Cambi, a company in Norway, developed the technology that is the heart of the new water treatment plant.  Here’s a time-lapse video of construction.

Thermal hydrolysis will take the solids generated in regular wastewater treatment and cook them so that microbes can digest them more effectively.  The resulting methane gas will power a turbine on site.  That turbine will generate steam that provides the heat to cook the solids.  A different take on the circle of life, but a cycle nonetheless.

The power generated in the effort will be consumed by other plant operations, but it certainly helps reduce the resource demands for water treatment.  An additional benefit of this process is that the biosolids produced by thermal hydrolysis are class A (the current output is class B).  Class A biosolids can be used for a lot more agricultural purposes as they are cleaner.  Producing Class A solids will reduce the transportation costs for the plant’s biosolids, further reducing the energy costs of the operation.

But, seriously, nobody has mined the comic vein of Washington producing something out of excrement?  Maybe that will change once operations start, but I’m just a little disappointed.

Should Science Have Run The Keystone Editorial?

In the latest (February 21) edition of Science, editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey under President Obama, has an editorial (free, with registration) on the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the U.S. government has not yet decided to pursue (or not).  McNutt, in a reversal of her previous position, believes it should be approved.  Her rationale hinges on the capability of the U.S. government to extract concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers to ensure better environmental safety than transporting the oil via rail and truck.

McNutt is more than entitled to her opinion on the matter, as well as her own criteria for choosing the way that she has.  But I’m not sure this had any business being aired in the pages of Science.

My recollection of Science editorials is hardly comprehensive (especially since I am not a subscriber).  But I find it difficult to see why the pipeline extension is worthy editorial fodder for Science, certainly with how this editorial is written.

Science editorials have certainly been political, and have certainly made policy recommendations in the past.  I’ve even supported a scientific journal making a recommendation for political office – provided it was open and transparent about what it was doing.

But in all of these matters (again, based on the editorials I have read), there was some connection to the specific interests of the journal, its publishers, its readers, or the relevant scientific communities.

I don’t see any such connection in this editorial.

McNutt’s editorial is written from her individual perspective (the number of times I is used in the piece stood out for me).  Nothing in the editorial reflects her position as editor-in-chief nor concerns specific to the journal or its publisher, AAAS.  Her reasons for supporting the extension are conditioned on successfully obtaining concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers – a policy process that may have very little to do with relevant science.

Certainly an editor is expected to have some influence on the perspective of the publication she edits.  But that perspective should be connected to the mission of the journal or the interests of its readers.  Many readers of Science may agree with McNutt.  But I doubt that has anything to do with their membership in AAAS or interests in science and technology.

UN Science Advisory Board Holds Inaugural Meeting

On January 30 and 31 the United Nations Science Advisory Board held its first meeting in Berlin.  Secretary General of the UN, Ban-Ki Moon, spoke to the group, emphasizing the need for science advise, and focusing on the organization’s development goal.  From his remarks:

“We need science to understand our environment, protect it and to use it wisely.  We need to understand the many economic and demographic forces are at play in our changing world.  And we need to tackle the big issues – hunger and food security, growing inequalities, disaster prevention, urbanization, sanitation” and sustainable energy for all.”

It’s been tough to find more details about what the board did during its first meeting.  For instance, it’s still not clear who is chairing the board.  Perhaps additional details, or even minutes, will be available at some future date.  It’s nice to see the United Nations with a scientific advisory board, but I do hope that more information is forthcoming.

Charles Monnett Settles Whistleblower Case; Should Interior Revise Scientific Integrity Policy?

Charles Monnett, who was temporarily suspended in 2011 after accusations of scientific misconduct, recently settled a whistleblower complaint with the Department of the Interior (H/T Roger Pielke, Jr.).  Monnett has officially retired from the Department received a cash settlement, and had a letter of reprimand removed from his file (placed there for supposedly leaking agency documents).  The Department does not acknowledge any liability in the matter, and states that the agreement was entered into on their part to avoid the costs of litigation (which may well have influenced Monnett’s decision to accept).

As background and refresher, Monnett worked for the Deparment’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.  In 2010 a scientific integrity complaint was lodged against him, but the department did not find evidence to suggest scientific misconduct, but reprimanded him for leaking internal government documents.  Monnett alleged actions by the Bureau and the Department’s Office of Inspector General constituted misconduct and harmed the integrity of his scientific efforts.  The department found (cases 290 and 295) that the actions of both parties were consistent with the nature of such investigations and did not violate the scientific integrity policy.

Arguably the first test case for scientific integrity policies following the big push from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Monnett’s case involved both the scientific integrity policy (which he was accused of violating) and general policies and laws concerning whistleblowing activity (which is mentioned in the scientific integrity policy).  While there would appear to be resolution in terms of a partial restoration of Monnett’s status and name following charges that could not be substantiated, I think there’s a reasonable set of questions to ask about what such restoration means in the context of scientific misconduct.

Could scientific integrity policies benefit from stronger language concerning whistleblowing and retaliation?  Ultimately these policies will rise and fall based on the people, processes and culture in place to implement them, but the language provides a starting point.  Do accusations of scientific misconduct (which are not all the possible violations of scientific integrity policies) warrant the additional scrutiny and protection intended for those trying to reveal other kinds of inappropriate conduct?

I think it’s worth considering how the additional consequences to the accused of claiming scientific misconduct can be handled in a way that’s as fair as possible to all concerned.  But since the Office of Science and Technology Policy seems to think they’ve done all they need to do in this area, the consideration will have to come from other interested and/or aggrieved parties.  Any takers?