Commission On Evidence-Based Policymaking Will Hold First Hearing This Week

On Friday, October 21, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking will hold its first public hearing in Washington, D.C.  It is the first of three planned hearings across the country to hear from stakeholders about the Commission’s work.  The goal of the Commission is to develop a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data to develop evidence about government programs.

The commission is accepting requests for oral statements through today, and welcomes written statements from stakeholders as well.  There is also an open Request for Comment from the Commission that closes on November 14.  As of the end of Saturday, October 15 a whopping 8 comments have been submitted to that request (none have been posted as yet).

Friday’s hearing is the third public meeting of the Commission, which intends to hold two more meetings by the end of this year.  The two additional stakeholder hearings are planned for early in 2017.  One will take place in the western U.S. and the other in the center of the country.  The Commission has an expiration date of September 2017, so it is interested in working quickly.  If you have information that should come before the Commission, you should work quickly as well.


Scientists And Engineers Part Of Latest MacArthur ‘Genius’ Class

The MacArthur Foundation announced its latest class of fellows.  The so-called ‘genius grants’ provide 5 years of no-strings-attached funding to encourage the fellows to pursue the creative work that attracted the Foundation’s attention in the first place.

There are 23 fellows in this year’s group and eight of them work in scientific and/or technical fields.  Those eight are:

  • Daryl Baldwin, a linguist and cultural preservationist working to restore the culture of the Maayami (Miami) people to their descendants.
  • Subhash Khot, a theoretical computer scientist working on problems of optimization and approximation in computational complexity
  • Dianne Newman, a microbiologist studying the metabolic processes of ancient microbes
  • Victoria Orphan, a geobiologist exploring the microbial communities in extreme environments and their influence on the oceans
  • Manu Prakash, a physical biologist exploring how organisms work from a physics perspective and an inventor of low cost research tools suitable for fieldwork
  • Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a bioengineer working on diagnostic technologies that can be used in low resource settings
  • Bill Thies, a computer scientist helping create communications and information technologies for use in low-income communities of the developing world.
  • JIn-Quan Yu, a synthetic chemist pioneering new techniques for breaking inert hydrogen-carbon bonds (a critical step in creating many complex compounds

Golden Goose Names Last 2016 Awardees In Advance Of Ceremony

The 2016 Golden Goose Awards ceremony will take place on Thursday, September 22 at the Library of Congress.  If you can’t make it there in person, the event will be streamed online starting at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday.  This year the organizers have been teasing a documentary that will be premiered at the ceremony.

Three sets of researchers are being recognized tomorrow for their work on research projects that led to applications that could not have been predicted from the beginning of those projects.  Earlier this year the organizers announced two of these research teams: Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland for their work on the sex lives of screwworm flies; and the team of Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry for their work on a longitudinal study of adolescents into adulthood call the Add Health study.

The final group recognized this year are John J. Bartholdi III, Sunil Nakrani, Thomas D. Seeley, Craig A. Tovey, and John Hagood Vande Vate.  They worked on a problem in computing and utilized work in biology to find a solution – the ‘honey bee’ algorithm.  Over the course of years these researchers determined how to apply lessons from how bees allocate foragers for optimum nectar collection to computer networks.  With support from the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, they developed equations to express how these foragers are allocated – without a central authority.  From there Nakrani joined the group to try and determine how computer servers can most efficiently address the ever changing nature of Internet traffic.

An important part of this story in the context of the Golden Goose Awards is that the web server application was not the first attempt to find a useful application for the honey bee algorithm.  After coming up short in applying the model to ant colonies and transportation networks, Nakrani and Tovey collaborated to demonstrate the applicability of the model to web servers.  Besides helping Nakrani earn his Ph.D., this work has been highly cited in a variety of other fields, including the Web hosting services that benefit tremendously from biologically inspired algorithms like theirs.

Nominations are now open for the 2017 Golden Goose Awards.  Consult the website for the complete list of requirements, but the top criteria are that the research has led to significant social and/or economic impacts and that research has received federal research funds that contributed to the discovery.  As the honey bee algorithm story demonstrates, non-U.S. research funds are not a disqualification.  Consideration will be given to nominated work that led to benefits that were unforeseen at the time of the work, seemed ‘odd’ or unusual (which might have prompted criticism at the time of the work), and/or demonstrated some level of serendipity.

What About The Privately Owned Research Chimps?

In 2015 The National Institutes of Health ended its support for invasive research on chimpanzees, continuing the retirement of federally owned research chimpanzees it started in 2013.  In 2015 the Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified research chimpanzees as endangered, further restricting chimpanzee research under a permitting system.

The research chimpanzees retired by the NIH (a process that has not gone well) have been guaranteed spots in a Louisiana sanctuary.  Research chimpanzees not held by the government do not have such a guarantee, but a reserve in Georgia has been redeveloped to fill that need.  It’s not the only option for those 300 or so chimps that need a home.  They could retire in place, or be transferred to other research centers or zoos.

Project Chimps spearheaded the effort, which should help address this need.  The sanctuary has taken its first group of chimps, and expects to host over 250 animals.

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.

Screwworm Sex Study Snares Second Golden Goose Of 2016

June 23 Update – The Golden Goose Award organizers reached out and pointed me to this press noting criticism of the screwworm fly study.  There are likely contemporaneous references in the Congressional Record, which to my knowledge has not been digitized that far back.


Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Award recognized the work of Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland on the sex life of the screwworm fly.  This is the second group of researchers recognized this year, and their work will be formally recognized at the Golden Goose Award ceremony held this September in Washington.

The Golden Goose Award is meant to recognize federally funded research that may be considered silly or foolish but is later found to have profound impact.  The work by Knipling and Bushland was funded by the Department of Agriculture starting in the 1930s, and led to techniques that were critical in eliminating the screwworm fly from North and Central America. Knipling’s work developed and tested a theory of reducing the screwworm fly population by introducing sterilized males and Bushland developed a means for growing the numbers of sterilized males necessary to be effective in eradicating the flies.

Research on the sex lives of flies (or any insect, really) could easily be derided as a waste of effort.  Unless those casting aspersions knew of farmers and/or ranchers affected by the spread of such insects.  The screwworm fly feeds on living (as opposed to dead) animals, posing a serious risk to livestock and wild animals.  I would have expected that the economic impact of eradicating a parasitic fly would have pushed down concerns over the perceived frivolity of fly sex research.  But even in the time before Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, the Golden Goose organizers claim that this research was a favorite target of elected officials and others seeking to shine a light on Washington waste.  Given what seems like the clear application of this work and its profound impact, I think the value of this particular award (but not the research) is blunted by the lack of direct evidence of the ridicule.

(In researching this post, I have found conflicting accounts as to whether or not Proxmire recognized this work.  My review of this Wisconsin history database of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece related press releases suggests he did not.)

Canadian Government Engaged In Fundamental Science Review

Part of the Canadian government’s 2016 budget stipulated a review of science funding government-wideThis review will be led by Science Minster Kirsty Duncan, and was launched earlier this week.  Minister Duncan expects the review to be completed by the end of 2016.

The review will be support by an independent panel of experience researchers.  Former president of the University of Toronto David Naylor will chair the panel.  The panelists are drawn from various public and private entities across Canada (Dr. Birgeneau preceded Naylor at the University of Toronto).  The men and women working with Naylor on the panel are:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will assess the current state of Canadian research institutions as well as examining the Canadian research ecosystem as a whole.  It will consult with members of the Canadian research community and solicit input from the public.  The panel will also review international best practices, particularly in areas that they identify as weaknesses in the Canadian system.


The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canadian Foundation for Innvoation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding.  However, with researchers on the panel   that are experienced in providing such advice to governments (such as Dr. Naylor), I think the panel’s recommendation stand a fair chance of being adopted by the government.

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail, the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.  Yes, Dr. Naylor recommended a streamlining of health care organisations in a review he conducted during the previous government.  But the focus in health care is more application focused than is usually expected of fundamental research.

There is a simple mechanism online to receive comments (attachments are accepted as well), and as the panel begins its work, I would expect to see announcements of future meetings/consultations with stakeholders and the public.  To keep informed, visit the website, and sign up for email updates.