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.

Congress Kicks Budget Can Down The Road, But Funds Zika Work

As is all too common, the Congress managed to avoid its responsibility to pass a budget prior to the start of the new fiscal year (which is October 1).  Earlier this week, after much wrangling, the House and Senate agreed on a continuing resolution to fund the government until December 9.

What a continuing resolution means is that unless otherwise provided for in the resolution, the government will be funded at the same levels as the previous fiscal year.  Any programs that would get different funding levels in the new year (or would were set to start or finish in the new year) are in bureaucratic limbo.  While this is a new normal in this century, these resolutions complicate government operation because they make it much harder for agencies to plan for and do their work.  There’s simply no confidence that there will be the money for intended programs.

The continuing resolution includes $1.1 billion for dealing with the Zika virus.  It’s slightly more than half what the Obama Administration requested back in February.  During the seven months in which there was no new funding, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention had to do their work by ‘borrowing’ from funding designated for fighting other diseases.  There is no provision in the continuing resolution to restore those funds.

One stumbling block (out of several) on the way to this continuing resolution involved funding for addressing the water problems in Flint, Michigan.  While not included in this legislation, a deal is in place to address water infrastructure in separate legislation.  We’ll see if it actually ahppens.

House Member Introduces Bill To Report Sexual Harassment To Research Funders

Representative Jackie Speier recently introduced legislation that would connect incidents of sexual harassment by university researchers to their federal research grant funds.  Called the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act, the bill was prompted in part by research indicating sexual harassment is a serious problem for researchers as well as a spate of high profile academics’ harassment coming to light.

The bill would require universities to report instances of of harassment cases involving principal investigators (including co-principal investigators and similarly senior staff) to all federal research funding agencies that have awarded funds to that university for the 10 years prior to the finding of harassment.  Universities would also be required to report complaints of harassment that have not yet been fully investigated within 6 months of the date of complaint.  Funding agencies will be required to consider these reports when making funding decisions, and note cases where a funding decision was granted to an individual who is the subject of such a complaint.

With just a few short weeks left in the Congressional calendar, this bill is not likely to pass this year.  Assuming Representative Speier is re-elected (incumbents usually are), I would expect to see the bill return in the new Congress.  In the meantime, at least two funding agencies, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, have expressed their interest in rooting out such bad activity, reminding grantees that the agencies are obligated to comply with civil rights laws, including Title IX which addresses sexual discrimination in education.  The NSF has noted a willingness to withhold grant money for non-compliance with Title IX, but has yet to do that.  This legislation might make it easier for NSF and other agencies to enforce the law, but I would hope that there are other tools that can help fight this problem.

White House Festival Sprinkles In Some Science And Tech

The Obama Administration will host a South by South Lawn festival at the White House on Monday, October 3.  Meant to evoke the South by Southwest festival (which the President attended this year), South by South Lawn will include the winners of the latest White House Film Festival, musical performances, art displays and other interactive exhibits.

But from the marquee discussion with Leonardo DiCaprio throughout the festival, science and technology are part of the event.  DiCaprio will speak with the President and climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe before the domestic premiere of Before the Flood, a climate change documentary produced by DiCaprio (among others), who also appears in the film.

Aside from the conversation and film premiere, there are several sessions in the afternoon that at least brush up against innovation, science and/or technology.  Along with the interactive exhibits, attendees can learn more about the Cancer Moonshot, design for everyone, addressing food (in)security and using technology and innovation to address societal problems.

The event will be streamed through Facebook and the websites of the White House and South by Southwest.

Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Seeks Input

Earlier this month the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking published a Request for Comment in the Federal Register.  The request is general in focus, seeking to gather information on a variety of topics that the Commission is obligated to examine under its mandate.  Submissions are due by November 14.

That mandate, and the Commission, was a creation of Congress. The fifteen-member commission has until September of 2017 to complete its work.  It will prepare a report for the President and the Congress providing its recommendations after conducting

“[A] comprehensive study of the data inventory, data infrastructure, data-base security, and statistical protocols related to Federal policy-making and the agencies responsible for maintaining that data.”

The bill is resource focused.  While there is a provision in the bill to include recommendations on particular evidence-based policymaking techniques such as randomized control trials, the focus in the bill is on optimizing existing data resources and making them more accessible for the purposes of program evaluation.

Back to the Request for Comment.  The questions are focused primarily on data, whether it’s data infrastructure and security or how survey and other statistical data can be integrated into program design, analysis and evaluation.

The Commission has met twice since its formation, with the first meeting focused on overall goals and work plan, and the second meeting focused on privacy.  Regrettably the Commission website appears to suffer from some link issues.

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.