First 2016 Golden Goose Award Recognizes Happy Accidents

Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Awards announced the first recipients of the award for 2016.  The Golden Goose Awards are intended as a counter to the long passed Golden Fleece Awards.  Where the latter targeted federal spending (including some scientific grants) the Golden Goose Awards are intended to point out seemingly obscure research that has significant impacts.

The first honorees this year are Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry.  They are being recognized for their work in a key piece of longitudinal research – The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (often called Add Health).  This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health in the early 1990s and continues to provide insight into human behavior.

The award citation is long, and details the political disagreements that led to delays and then the cancellation of a previously proposed study that more explicitly targeted adolescent sexual behavior.  It’s worth reading, but in my mind it distracts from the serendipity that is a common element in Golden Goose Award recipients. I can understand the reasons for pointing out that those who opposed the first study have since come around on its value, but if the goal of the award is to highlight the connections between research and impact that cannot be anticipated, this political debate over funding is off point.

The study benefited from choices made in the research design and early implementation.  One of these was botching the collection of medical data from the study participants in the second point in the time series.  While preventing the assessment of some relevant medical data, it allowed for the research to continue with a designated cohort for far longer than originally planned.  This means that the study initially focused on adolescent to adult health can now track from adolescence throughout the participants lives, should funding continue that long.

Another point of serendipity is the rise in obesity concurrent with this study.  The depth of available data allowed researchers to dive into connections between behaviors and obesity.  This helped support research pointing out how obesity can actually spread among social groups.

While the Golden Goose Award folks didn’t do it in the citation, I think this award simply reinforces the value of longitudinal studies and the difficulty in designing and implementing them.  Either way, the researchers involved in Add Health are worthy of recognition and will receive their award in Washington this September.

Last White House Science Fair Takes Place Next Month

Today the White House announced that April 13th will be the date of the last White House Science Fair for the Obama Administration.  These events bring some of the hundreds of students in primary and secondary grades doing interesting work in science and technology to the White House.  While no official listing is out for this year, past Science Fairs have had online coverage featuring segments with notable scientists, engineers and science communicators.

President Obama was the first President to host a White House Science Fair, and of all the science and technology education promotion this Administration has done, this is probably the most fun.  I wish there were more science and technology activities hosted by the government that had a sense of fun.  For better or for worse, I think all credit for this sense of fun goes to the President, and even if there is another White House Science Fair, it won’t be the same.

The administration’s sixth Science Fair will take place at the White House on April 13th, and the White House wants to hear from young scientists and engineers about their science fair projects.  If you’d like to share, visit this website and fill out the form by 5 p.m. Eastern time on April 5th.

NSF Nudging Researchers To Explore Science and Innovation Data

Recently the National Science Foundation released a Dear Colleague letter to researchers that may engage with the Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SCISIP) program in the Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.  These letters often try to draw interest in particular kinds of research within a program or directorate.  In this case the SCISIP program staff are looking to get more researchers submitting proposals connected with the use and/or generation of data on science and/or innovation policy.

Specifically, the letter is soliciting interest in EAGER grants for exploratory research.  Projects would be using administrative data on science and engineering research grants from federal agencies.  This could include, but not be limited to, STAR METRICS, Federal RePORTer and other institutional data from federal agencies, other research institutions, and other entities in the research enterprise that would track scientific and technological research.

While there are standing submission deadlines for the SCISIP program, this Dear Colleague for EAGER grants is seeking one-page summaries of research ideas by April 29.  There is also a joint NIH-NSF workshop scheduled for April 7 and 8 that will cover current best practices in research models, tools and data (among other issues in the study of science and innovation policy).

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.

Another Way Science Understanding Could Be Useful In The Courts

I didn’t post about Fisher v. Texas when arguments went before the Supreme Court in December (for the second time).  It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned.  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I think this point about science (which is applicable to many other aspects of life) is more important for judges (and Justices) to understand than specific facts generated by science.  A reductionist approach to science, as articulated by Chief Justice Roberts, serves no one well, whether they are practicing science, or judging on how diversity in science may or may not serve a compelling public interest.

(Readers may note that with the Supreme Court currently one Justice down, that the case may end up tied and therefore uphold the decision of the lower court – that the admissions policy is constitutional.  However, Justice Elena Kagan took part in the case as Solicitor General and recused herself the first time the Supreme Court heard it.  So there will only be 7 Justices voting on it.  Remember, I am not a lawyer.)


Cancer Moonshot Task Force Has An Executive Director

On Friday the Vice President appointed Greg Simon to serve as the Executive Director for the Cancer Moonshot Task Force.  Simon is currently CEO of Poliwogg, a financial services company focused on investments in the life sciences.  Before Poliwogg Simon worked at Merck, and also served as a policy advisor to Vice-President Gore from 1991-1997.

From 2003-2009 Simon was also involved in FasterCures, a self-described ‘action tank’ focused on cutting through roadblocks and otherwise accelerating the process of translating research data into cures.  In most cases this would be the critical piece that makes Simon quite suited to facilitating many of the same functions as the Executive Director of the Task Force.

But Simon is a cancer survivor.  Diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, he has recently completed one course of chemotherapy and is currently healthy.  The Task Force only has the rest of the Obama Administration to do its work, but Simon’s recent experience may add to that sense of urgency.

In related activity, the Vice President has continued his listening tour of various cancer research facilities.  On Monday he was in Seattle at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

European Commission Seeking Ideas On Possible European Innovation Council

The European Commission, led by the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas, continues to explore a possible European Innovation Council (EIC).  Last month the Commission released a Call for Ideas, a (relatively) informal survey where stakeholders can provide input on what they see as the challenges facing Europe with respect to supporting innovation.  Participants may simply answer the survey questions, or they can also upload a white paper or similar document outlining their ideas for what an EIC might resemble.

As Commissioner Moedas notes in this question and answer session at this year’s Science|Business Horizon 2020 Conference, the idea of an EIC has been circulating for some time.  I suspect the levels of risk involved in the kind of investment an EIC may support pose the biggest challenges in forming such a venture, but without a formalised conversation around what an EIC might be, identifying and articulating those risks won’t happen to the extent that would be required for a government to make a decision on how it would be involved.

Personally, while the language around the initial discussions of an EIC suggest parallels to the European Research Council, I think it unlikely that there will be much overlap between the two.  Commissioner Moedas has emphasized the need for collaboration and better coordination of existing support mechanisms in generating startups and market-creating kinds of innovation.  With fundamentally different kinds of output, different organizations seem likely.

Submissions to the Call for Ideas are being accepted until April 29.  Submissions may be posted on the call’s webpage, and the material submitted will generate a response from the Commissioner (or his staff) in June.