Commissioner Moedas Wants A Funding Council For Innovation

As part of a conference on the European Research Area (ERA), Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas gave a speech (H/T ScienceInsider).  As part of his remarks, he discussed starting a second era for The ERA and the ‘Innovation Union.’

Commissioner Moedas is concerned about how effectively European Union member states have been commercializing the results of their research.  It’s not a problem unique to Europe.  Finding sufficient funding to take research results and create commercially viable products is always a challenge in part because the perceived investment risks often dissuade potential investors.

Institutional support can help facilitate commercialization, and one means the Commissioner would like to have at the ready is a European Innovation Council (possibly) modeled after the existing European Research Council.

I include the (possibly) because while I understand the urge to duplicate a successful organization for a slightly different purpose, a funding organization for research is not necessarily going to be as effective for funding innovation.  If the goal is to make it easier for private companies to invest in promising research, regulatory changes may be more effective than a funding council geared toward supporting potential innovators and/or innovative companies.  Hopefully this kind of examination will take place (if it hasn’t already) between now and 2017, when this possible Council will be discussed during the mid-term review of the Horizon 2020 research programme.

There are other things worth following in the Commissioner’s speech.  Two things that I will be very interested in watching are his proposal for a European Research Integrity Initiative and the idea of developing a research data repository for the EU.  (I don’t think putting it in the cloud is necessarily the greatest idea, at least not without serious access control provisions.)

National Academies Encourage Expansion Of Science And Technology Advice At State Department

Tomorrow, June 17, the National Academies will host a press briefing on a new report, Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State. The report is available online, and you can access the report electronically for free (with a National Academies Press account, which is also free).

This report follows on the 1999 National Academies report The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy.  The 1999 report prompted the Department to re-establish a scientific advisory capacity in the form of a Science & Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (the acting adviser is Dr. Frances Colon).

The report calls for an expansion and elevation of this capacity throughout the Department.  The Science & Technology Adviser should be given the status equivalent of an Assistant Secretary (currently the Adviser reports to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, and most of the other positions reporting to this Under Secretary are Assistant Secretaries).  There should also be a Science and Technology Advisory Board of independent experts.  The Board would provide advice on science and technology issues (non-defense) that would affect the Department’s foreign policy agenda.

Additional report recommendations (Chapter Six details all of the report’s findings and recommendations) seek to further integrate science and technology expertise into the Department.  The report encourages (among other things) the inclusion of science and technology in foresight exercises (it considers the current use of science and technology advice to be focus on short-term questions and challenges); connecting with in-country American scientists, engineers and health professionals; reviewing and expanding (as appropriate) staff with scientific and technical expertise; and expand training opportunities to include the value of science and technology to the Department’s mission (whether or not the trainee is a science or technology specialist).

The full report is worth reviewing and digesting.  Whomever becomes the next Science & Technology Adviser to Secretary Kerry will likely be critical to the implementation of the recommendations in this report.  Hopefully that person has been identified, or will be soon, as the position has been vacant for nearly a year.

Research Integrity Reporting Apparently Depends On What Should Means

Back in 2012 Universities UK released The concordat to support research integrity.  The document was developed by representatives from UK research universities, funding institutions and government agencies.  Among other things, the concordat recommended that employers of researchers should submit annual statements to their governing body outlining activities done with research integrity and research misconduct.

The UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO, and I didn’t know about it either) decided to survey institutions about whether they were submitting these reports.  In a survey of 44 institutions that subscribe to UKIRO, 27 responded and 9 of them had submitted the annual reports.  Of another 44 institutions that did not subscribe to UKIRO, only 3 institutions submitted those reports.  (The survey will be published at a later date, so I do not know the response rate of the non-UKIRO subscribing institutioins.)

As described in this Nature article, there is a difference of opinion on the meaning of should in this context.  Not all institutions assumed that should means the reports are required.  (I wouldn’t automatically assume it did, but I’d advocate for submitting such reports regardless.)

The survey should provide additional insight once it’s released later this year.

European Commission Has Started Building Its Next Science Advice Mechanism

Earlier this week European Commission President Juncker met with several scientists along with Commission Vice President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Katainen and the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Moedas.  The meeting was to discuss methods for the Commission to handle scientific advice.  The current President opted not to continue with a chief scientific adviser position, and for now has endorsed a plan from Commissioner Moedas that is, as Roger Pielke suggests, open to future problems.

What details are publicly available are currently limited to this slide deck.  It lists two main mechanisms for science advice, a high-level group of eminent scientists (numbering seven), staffing and resource support from the Commission, and a structured relationship with the science academies of EU member states.  The deck gives a deadline of this fall for the high-level group to be identified and stood up.

At first glance, this would appear to be more of an effort to leverage existing expertise, both within the Commission and the member states, than an effort to build a new source of advice.  That is, absent serious resourcing from the Commission, this high-level group seems likely to be able to do little more than make use of connections with other groups to transmit relevant advice to Commissioner Moedas, who would then communicate things to other Commissioners.

Perhaps that’s all the Commission (or at least the Commission under the current President) needs.  In the deck the need for this new advice mechanism is described as something to “provide timely, independent, high level scientific advice to meet needs across all policy areas.”  It will augment existing entities like the Joint Research Centre, the Research 2020 programme, and other advisory groups and outside experts.  The Commission may use this high-level group more as a conduit than a source for policy advice.  A reasonable question to ask is whether or not the high-level group can meet the Commission’s expectations, and those of the scientific community with which it is expected to work.  I don’t have enough details to make even an uneducated guess on that.

UK Election Jiggles Science And Technology Ministers

Last week the U.K. held Parliamentary elections, seating a new Parliament but returning David Cameron as Prime Minister.  His Conservative party, which came to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, won enough seats to hold a majority on its own.  You can find plenty of analysis about the impact of the election in many sources, including discussion of how the polls so badly connected to the final outcome.

And, of course, I’m just a Yank speculating from across the ocean about all of this.

Following the election, there has been a reshuffling of Cabinet portfolios.  This reflects both the change from a coalition to single party rule and the normal turnover expected between elections.  The last reshuffling put MP Greg Clark in charge of Universities and Science (along with Cities), replacing now former MP David Willetts.  Clark was returned to Parliament in this election, but his portfolio has returned to focus on cities.  Clark is now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  The BBC has characterized this as a promotion, which implies the relative importance of the universities and science portfolio for aspiring MPs.

The new Minister for Universities and Science is MP Jo Johnson.  Johnson was elected in 2010 and in his first term served in Cabinet Office.  He was made head of the Number 10 Policy Unit in 2013, and it’s unclear as of this writing whether he will remain in that position or not.  Johnson’s educational background is in history and business, and after a short time as an investment banker he has been a financial journalist for several years.

It’s early to know what Jo Johnson will do in the position.  With the UK looking at a referendum concerning EU membership, I think the higher education portion of his portfolio may command most of his attention.  Based on Johnson’s work on the Conservative Party manifesto for this election, he may well see this posting as a stepping stone to other possibilities.  With Johnson’s brother Boris returning to Parliament after several years as Mayor of London, both Johnsons may strive to become larger players in UK politics.

The Universities and Science Minister is part of the Department on Business, Innovation and Skills.  The new Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is MP Sajid Javid.  Prior to the election he served in several positions, most recently as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  Like Johnson, Javid worked in finance, but did not move into journalism before entering politics.  His educational background is in economics and politics.  I kind of expect both Javid and Johnson to move on to higher positions within this new Cameron government, should the opportunities present themselves.

Finally, MP Greg Freeman remains as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences.  His post remains split between the Health Department and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Japan’s Medical Research Agency Underway

At the beginning of April, the Japanese government launched the Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) (H/T ScienceInsider (subscription required for full article)).  This is following through on plans discussed in 2013 (and earlier) and legislation passed last year.

The agency will function as a central manager for government medical research in Japan.  Prior to AMED’s launch, medical research was supported through institutes located in three separate ministries.  Now AMED is coordinating the effort through 300 staff and a budget of 140 billion yen (roughly $1.2 billion).

Based on reports and a review of the English translation of the website, practical applications of AMED supported (and conducted) research will be practical application.  Agency performance indicators for 2015 and 2020 (slide 4 in this 2014 presentation) strike me as aggressive and possibly too output focused (rather than outcomes focused).  Should these goals be accomplished, the relative efficiency of the government investment (its annual budget is roughly 4 percent of the National Institutes of Health budget), would be remarkable.


Nature Still Not Keen On U.S. Open Access Policies

Nature recently ran this editorial describing how U.K efforts in open access policies are doing three years after its government announced a push for so-called ‘gold’ open access for research results funded by the U.K. government.  This kind of open access would make a research article available for free immediately on publication.  The U.S. system is better characterized as a ‘green’ system, where free access is usually provided after an embargo and to a version of the article deposited in a repository.

The U.K. effort, like the U.S. effort, has had bumps along the road.  The first 16 months of the U.K. policy are covered in this review from the Research Councils U.K.  Released in late March, the report discusses the needs for effective evidence gathering in order to effectively measure compliance with and the impact of the policy.  This would allow for future discussion of how licences, embargos and other access considerations should affect the policy.  Additionally, there needs to be continued communication with stakeholders about the policy.  Confusion persists about what is expected in terms of compliance, data collection, and how to handle circumstances like collaborative work.

The Nature editorial staff is not keen on how the U.S. effort has unfolding, describing it as:

“[L]oitering with little intent, and mandating only delayed access to an author’s version of a peer-reviewed manuscript — a ‘green’ form of open access that ultimately benefits science less (see Nature 494, 401; 2013).”

Truly, the persistence of an embargo rankles many in the open access community.  The publisher-led CHORUS system is also not gold-friendly, and, at least to me, does not strike me as helpful in complying with the research data aspect of the U.S. Public Access Policy.  I would have liked to see the government push for a more uniform open access policy, one that does not maintain dependence on journal publishers that still resist opening access to research that they did not fund.  But I can’t deny that several agencies now have open access policies that didn’t before, and some of these policies follow the National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy and strike out on their own or intend to share the NIH repository.

But, as some in the U.K. remind me, open access is a journey, not a destination.