More On The UK Cabinet Reshuffle

Again, UK readers should feel free to move along, as there’s likely nothing you haven’t already read on the latest cabinet postings.

New UK Prime Minister Theresa May continues to appoint members of Parliament to her cabinet.  On Friday I noted the reorganization of the department formerly known as Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and the appointment of MP Greg Clark to head the new Department of Business, Energy, and Investment Strategy.  Now we know the fate of the two ministers with responsibilities for science in the previous cabinet of former Prime Minister Cameron.

Jo Johnson has been reappointed to serve as Minister for Universities and Science.  However, the universities portfolio has been shifted from the former BIS to the Department of Education.  So Johnson will answer to two departments.  That’s not unheard of for a junior minister, but apparently it is unusual.  MP George Freeman, who had served as a minister for life sciences, was responsible to ministers at both BIS and the Department of Health.  He is no longer, having been asked by the Prime Minister to head her policy board.  I think this is an entity separate from the Number 10 Policy Unit, but I may be wrong on this point.

It is also worth noting that MP Nicola Blackwood has been named a minister in the Department of Health.  As a result, she will have to step down as chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.  Hopefully that means at most a pause in the inquiry that committee is conducting on the impact of leaving the European Union on U.K. science and technology.

Party Balloon Industry Has Tanzania To Thank For The Future

Last month it was announced that a large helium reserve had been found in the African country of Tanzania.  Long time readers of the blog may recall that helium management used to be a frequent topic, as the U.S. had legislated itself into a manufactured shortage of the gas.  Helium is a critical element for its ability as a coolant, and the instability in prices and supply over the past several years have prompted some recycling and increased production.

The Tanzania fields were discovered through a new technique that may prove fruitful for further exploration.  Extraction might start as early as 2017, but the volcanoes and disputes over land leases may complicate matters.

No word yet on how the Tanzanian find may influence the operation of the U.S. helium reserve, which is currently slated to close in 2021.  It remains unclear, even with the dramatic rise in prices over the last 15 years, whether the market for helium has priced the gas at a value comparable to its scarcity.  How this new field is developed, and whether or not helium exploration expands, can help answer that question.

Appointment News: UK Cabinet Reshuffle + New Librarian

With Theresa May now officially the U.K. Prime Minister, there have been changes to the government’s cabinet.  This was certainly expected, but the part of this that I still haven’t gotten used to in parliamentary systems is how the departments can change along with whomever is appointed to head those departments.

Most notable of these changes is the reorganization (once again) of what was the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (where much of the science portfolio resided since 2009) to now include much of what was the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  The new name is Department of Business, Energy and Investment Strategy.  MP Greg Clark, who had served as Minister for Universities and Skills from 2014-2015, is the Minister in charge of the new department.  I have seen no word yet about junior ministers in the department, including the fates of Cameron life sciences minister George Freeman and universities minister Jo Johnson.  That information should come soon.

Here in the U.S. the Senate finally confirmed a new Librarian of Congress.  Nominated in February, Dr. Carla Hayden has been the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore since 1993.  She has also served as head of the American Library Association and is the first librarian to hold the job in decades.  Based on Hayden’s work in modernizing the Baltimore library system, I would expect her to focus, at least in part, on doing the same for the Library of Congress.  She will have a 10 year term (recently established in law) to work her magic.

Canadian Science Policy Conference Announces 2017 Date And Location

You may already have plans for the 2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), taking place November 8-10 in Ottawa.  Now you can plan for next year’s conference as well.  The organizers recently announced that the 2017 Conference, which will be the 9th such event, will take place November 1-3 in Ottawa.  This would mark the third consecutive year (and fourth overall) the event will take place in Ottawa, and it certainly makes sense that if the conference is to have a permanent home city that it would be the nation’s capital.

2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Dominion of Canada, and the CSPC organisers are encouraging those proposing themes and events to keep that in mind.  Themes should be suggested by August 29, and while there is no deadline for submitting events (which would apparently be coordinated with the 2017 CSPC), I would assume the sooner the better.

By point of comparison, here are the themes for the 2016 CSPC (explained in more detail on teh conference website).

  • A New Culture of Policy Making and Evidence-Based Decision-Making: Horizons and Challenges
  • A New Innovation Agenda for Canada: What are we building?
  • Science Funding Review: New Visions and New Directions
  • Clean Energy and Climate Change as Global Priorities: Implications for Canada?
  • Canada’s Return to the International Stage: How Can Science Help Foreign Policy?

Both this year’s and next year’s events should be worthwhile, especially for those interested in broadening their science policy expertise to include the Canadian experience.

Possible Zika Death In Utah; Still No Congressional Support

On Friday the Salt Lake County Health Department held a press conference on a recent death that may be linked to the Zika virus.  The person died in late June, and post-mortem tests confirmed that they were carrying the virus.  However, the person also had a separate health condition and it is unclear to what extent the Zika virus may have contributed to that death.

This would be the first Zika-related death in the continental United States, following a case in Puerto Rico were a man passed from a condition that resulted from antibodies to the Zika virus attacking his platelets.

As of July 6, there have been over 1100 cases of Zika virus infection in the continental United States reported to the Centers for Disease Control.  More than 2500 have been reported in U.S. territories.  By comparison, back in February there were all of 45 cases reported in the entire U.S.  Nearly all of the cases in U.S. territories are locally acquired, while none of the cases – including the person who passed in Utah – in the continental U.S. were locally acquired.  Congress remains unable to pass a funding bill for fighting the virus, which places additional demand on resources currently dedicated to fighting Ebola.  I’m skeptical that a possible fatality related to Zika would move members to act, but would be happy to be proven wrong.

Demonstration Mission For Space Junk Cleanup On Track For Next Year

RemoveDEBRIS is a mission organized by the Surrey Space Centre in the U.K. to conduct a demonstration of technologies that could remove some space junk.  In partnership with contractors and researchers across Europe, the mission would demonstrate what are called Active Debris Removal (ADR) techniques.

The mission involves launching a microsatellite that contains debris targets.  These targets would then be released by the satellite, recaptured and ultimately de-orbited.  The experiments include testing harpoon and net technologies for capture, as well as a drag sail for deorbiting.  Additionally there is an experiment for vision-based navigation with uncooperative objects like space debris.  You can see what the researchers have in mind with this video presented at the recent Summer Science Exhibition at the Royal Society.  Advance to roughly 1:37 to get to the mission-specific material.

The mission is expected to launch early next year, and should inform future debris recovery missions dealing on larger scales and native debris.

Brexit And UK Science And Technology: A Big Leap Into The Unknown And The Uncertain

I’ll concede that my U.K. readers are likely well aware of everything here and certainly better informed.  Feel free to move along.

The June 23 referendum in the U.K. that turned in favor of the nation leaving the E.U. prompted a great deal of uncertainty.  In a poll conducted by Nature pre-referendum, notable majorities of both U.K. researchers and E.U. researchers (not including the U.K.) preferred that the U.K. remain.  While the U.K. remains a member of the E.U. for now, the chance that it is leaving could give pause to a host of potential collaborations.  And perhaps that is the most significant impact of the so-called Brexit on both the U.K. and its European neighbors.

There are two main reasons for this.  First, and what has been most immediately felt (if just anecdotally), is the potential restrictions on the freedom of movement members of the European Union enjoy.  With minimal limitations, nationals of an E.U. state have the right to work in another E.U. state comparable to that of nationals of that country.  Once the U.K. leaves (should it leave), its researchers would be harder to hire in E.U. member states than they are at present, and vice versa.  Additionally, the ability of U.K. students to study in E.U. member states (and vice versa) will likely be affected, even though U.K. universities have been quick to assure students from E.U. member states that they still have a place in their institutions.  Secondly, there are several research programs supported in whole or in part by E.U. agencies that provide funds for researchers and institutes in E.U. member states.  Again, so far only anecdotally, there has been reluctance to include U.K. researchers in future applications for these programs, and their eligibility to participate in these programs once the country leaves the Union would be at best dramatically reduced.

Yes, the U.K. would have additional money post-exit that it could use to cover the shortages in funding for research.  However, according to MP Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons, the U.K. has won a greater share of E.U. research funds than its contribution.  Given the chaotic state of the country’s political leadership (which may not stabilize once a successor is found for Prime Minister Cameron) and the government’s recent penchant for austerity, I’m skeptical that U.K. research would receive the same amount of research funding that it would have benefited from through the E.U.  MP Blackwood may be as skeptical, as she has called a committee inquiry on the subject that starts on Tuesday.

There is the potential to mitigate the disruptions coming for U.K. research.  The extensive relationships forged between U.K. and E.U. researchers, as well as between U.K. and E.U. policymakers (such as former Scotland and E.U. Chief Scientific Adviser Dame Anne Glover) could help preserve existing relationships and provide avenues by which the U.K. can argue for continued scientific collaboration with the Continent.

The current state of U.K. political leadership is such that it will be some time before a coherent plan for U.K. science emerges.  The two ministers with science in their portfolio, MPs George Freeman (life sciences) and Jo Johnson (universities and science) both supported remaining in the E.U.  What remains to be seen is to what extent the next Prime Minister will retain current ministers.  Should this new Prime Minister be one who supported exiting the E.U., they may not want to retain anyone who supported remaining.  With Jo Johnson also being the brother of Boris Johnson, who just left the race for party leader, that next Prime Minister has an extra reason to not retain him.  (Of course, the race for party leader has been sufficiently Machiavellian that a future PM may wish to keep one Johnson on for some kind of connection to the other.)

With all of this speculation, I think it worth noting that however the consequences of this referendum unfold, science, technology and the funding for them are not likely to be high on the list of concerns for most of the parties involved.  Success or failure in ensuring a healthy research relationship for the E.U. and the U.K. could depend on how well those very concerned about science and technology keep that in mind when making their case to those who aren’t.