New EU Policy Support Facility Will Focus On National Research and Innovation Systems

Earlier this week the European Commission announced that a Policy Support Facility will assist European Union member states in reviewing and reforming their national innovation and research systems (H/T ScienceInsider).  The Policy Support Facility is one of several programs intended to boost science and technology capacity in member states, all as part of Horizon 2020.  The Facility will have a budget endowment of up to 20 million Euros until 2020.

Bulgaria is the first member state to take advantage of the Policy Support Facility.  It will have several senior experts and researchers conduct a “Peer Review of Bulgaria” and provide advice in three areas: public funding of research, science careers, and knowledge transfer from academia to business.

Hungary has expressed interested in using the Policy Support Facility, and the Commission will support a country peer review for it later in the year.  Other countries have expressed interest in working with the Facility as well.

International Network For Government Science Advice Ready To Work

Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has been at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, California.  Following his activities there, I found out about the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA).  The network can be traced back to the international science advice conference held last August in Auckland, New Zealand.

The focus of the INGSA is to serve as a forum for sharing and discussing research and experience in providing science advice to governments.  It is part of the International Council of Science, and the secretariat is presently hosted with Sir Peter in Auckland.  The INGSA’s Network Development Group reflects a diversity of countries and a mix of academic and practitioner experience.

Expect INGSA to leverage other international meetings for opportunities to convene side gatherings.  It would also develop its own events as it sees fit, with a follow up to the 2014 conference presumably on a list of future activities.

So, About Those Scientists On Trial In Italy…

Important disclaimers – I am not a lawyer, either in this country or Italy.  I also don’t speak the language, so I am relying on secondary sources.

ScienceInsider has reported on the decision to acquit six of the seven people convicted of manslaughter in connection with the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.  The people had been convicted due to the poor way they communicated the risk of possible earthquakes leading up to the 6.2 quake that killed 309 people.

It is not, and never was, about the prediction of earthquakes or a misunderstanding of the underlying science.  But that was the easy message, and the one that got through, at least outside of Italy.  I could have been more effective in communicating that in the many posts I made on the topic, and I apologize for that.

Back to the latest developments.  The appellate court which acquitted six of the seven defendants (all of the scientists were acquitted, while the public official remains sentenced to 6 years) ruled that only the public official could be faulted for the reassurances that caused some people to remain indoors.  The scientists, according to the appellate court, should not have been judged by any regulatory responsibilities they had, but by how well they complied with the accepted science of the time.  And because, according to the court, the notion that a cluster of earthquakes can indicate a larger one was not a commonly accepted scientific theory until after the L’Aquila quake.

That last statement seems like it could be subject to debate for years to come.  Perhaps that debate might play out – at least in part – in the next level of appeals.  The chief prosecutor can appeal this latest decision to the top Italian appeals court.  So this may still not be over.

New Year Brings New Science Envoys

Last month the State Department announced the fourth cohort of Science Envoys.  First started in 2009, the Envoys are notable senior scientists (often with science administration experience) who represent the United States overseas with governments and citizens to support scientific exchange and cooperation.  This cohort of four brings the total number of Science Envoys to 13 (while I won’t rule out previous Science Envoys returning to service on special occasions, there seems to be a term of service attached to the position).

Two of the new cohort served in senior scientific positions in the Obama Administration.  The four new Envoys are:

  • Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D. – several appointments at Baylor and Rice Universities, including Dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine.  Dr. Hotez will focus on global health and vaccines in his service.
  • Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. – University Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University.  Dr. Lubchenco served as Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2009-2013.  The ocean will be a focus of her service.
  • Arun Majumdar, Ph.D. – Appointments at Stanford’s Precourt Institute and its Mechanical Engineering Department.  Dr. Majumdar served as head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy and as Acting Undersecretary of Energy during President Obama’s first term.  His service will focus on energy and innovation.
  • Geraldine Richmond, Ph.D. – Chair and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon.  Richmond will become the next president of AAAS at its annual meeting next month.  Her service will focus in part on women in science.

How Changes In Cuba Policy Could Help Research

The recent thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations may be chilled by the incoming Congress, but researchers are encouraged.

Since 2009 the Treasury Department has allowed U.S. scientists to conduct research visits to Cuba.  But the changes announced by the Obama Administration should make it easier to conduct research in Cuba and collaborate with Cuban scientists.  Once the country is removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, it will no longer be necessary to obtain an export license to bring scientific equipment to Cuba.  Travel licenses for scientists should become easier to obtain, meaning it should be easier for American scientists to attend scientific meetings in Cuba and vice versa.  AAAS is quite pleased with the development, in part due to its efforts over the last several years to strengthen collaborative opportunities between the two countries.

Perhaps the most widespread scientific impact of this thaw in relations could come from infectious disease research.  With Cuba’s proximity to Florida, tracking infectious tropical disease is of great interest to both countries, especially with the recent spread of dengue and chikungunya to both the U.S. and Cuba.

Maybe OSTP Should Have Done Scientific Integrity The Canadian Way

It’s perhaps wishful thinking on my part, but I kind of envy how Canadian scientists are approaching the scientific integrity issue with the Canadian government.  You’ve probably heard about the concerns over what Canadian scientists are calling a muzzling by the government of scientists’ ability to communicate their work to the public. What has happened is that the public sector union representing scientists is including scientific integrity in its latest collective bargaining with the Canadian government (H/T umuzzledscience).  Yes, this is novel, and may not fit within the tradition of collective bargaining.  And it’s certainly true that U.S. government scientists are not as unionized as their Canadian colleagues (if they are at all).  But what I appreciate is that this process could – if the arguably resistant Harper government agrees to any kind of scientific integrity policy – provide for a truly national policy on scientific integrity.

What we see in the United States is a collection of agency policies with an inconsistent record of implementation.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy has effectively ceded any interest in overseeing or supervising the implementation of these policies.  Perhaps this is due to a lack of institutional power, a lack of interest, or some other cause(s).  But it leaves the promise of the initial effort toward U.S. scientific integrity policies a bit tarnished.

I should be more tempered at this news of Canadian negotiation over scientific integrity.  After all, it’s just starting, and it’s possible only one side is really interested in having something come out of the discussions.  But I’m a bit starved for any progress in this field.

The Last Mile Isn’t Just About Broadband

Noting the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Nature analyzes the tsunami monitoring system that emerged following the devastation.

The short of it – there are still challenges at the end of the message chain.  The three regional centers were effective in communicating warnings and data to countries, but getting the message to the people away from the major cities was still a struggle.    Countries can be strategic in determining which areas may be more susceptible to tsunami effects, and focus their efforts on those areas.  But the investment in infrastructure is still significant, and the maintenance of these networks represents a non-trivial amount.  Much in the same way that the infrastructure in the U.S. made it easier to manage the Ebola cases diagnosed in that country compared to the areas hardest hit in Africa, the communications infrastructure in Hawaii and other more developed coastal areas make it easier for tsunami warnings to be heard.

What the people do with the message when (or if) they get it is a separate question.  Rational action in the face of natural disaster seems less correlated with level of development, but I’d love to see any studies that address this.