Science Debate Once Again Imitating Sisyphus

A point of blog history worth noting – I’m no fan of ScienceDebate, so you can guess the emphasis of the writing to come.

Yesterday ScienceDebate released the questions it wants the Presidential candidates to answer.  While it still makes the motions toward an in-person debate, past experience suggests it won’t do any better than receiving answers from the campaigns.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the organizers actually engaged with the Presidential Commission on Debates, which sponsors the debates (for the general election) and sets everything up several months in advance.  While I doubt they would be immediately open to having a debate focused solely on science, they might be persuaded to make those questions a significant portion of a debate focused on domestic policy.

(As for science debates during the primaries, those are handled through the parties, and may be harder to persuade than the Commission)

The staff, board and organizers of ScienceDebate are experienced people.  They have been media savvy with the use of polls and friendly publications of their coalition to get their message out (though I think Ira Flatow should disclose his involvement with the organization whenever they are on Science Friday).  Yet there seems to be a consistent strategy of appealing directly to the campaigns and not engaging with the Commission.  It makes me wonder how serious ScienceDebate is about having a debate versus talking about one.  Is it just a matter of not being able to raise the money to host a debate?

I will at least acknowledge something good that ScienceDebate is doing.  It has sent their questions not just to the Trump and Clinton campaigns, but also to the campaigns of the Green and Libertarian parties.  I don’t expect either campaign to have particularly strong science platforms, as the Green candidate has expressed skepticism over vaccine oversight, and the Libertarian party objects to most government funding and most mandatory things, including vaccines.

Whatever happens, I expect that this will be forgotten by mid-December, only to be raised once again early in 2020.  Once again, this will be several months too late to mater.

So Secretary Clinton Believes In Science. So What?

While there was much to consider in Secretary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, one line struck the fancy of many.  Specifically, “I believe in science.”  I think Grist was closer to the mark than Popular Science in characterizing that line of the speech.  Grist considered it a major applause line, while Popular Science considered it the most controversial line of the speech.

Here’s the line in context:

“And I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.”

The passage is part of a larger section where Secretary Clinton describes four things she believes.  As with each of the other passages in this section (which deal with the middle class, taxes on corporations, and immigrants), Clinton is tying a particular idea to economic impact.  That paragraph says nothing about how the Secretary may treat science and technology in her administration aside from using such knowledge to improve the economy.  Will she seek increases in the research budget?  Will she continue to hold White House Science Fairs and support National Maker Faires?  Answers to those questions would be more responsive to what I think many consider when they hear that a top-level politician ‘believes’ in science.

The issue of Secretary Clinton’s belief in science in the context of this speech strikes me as more about believing in what science (and technology) can do for the economy.  It’s not all that different from how President Obama used science in his First Inaugural Address – as part of a larger argument about bold action necessary to boost the U.S. economy.

I don’t write this in order to claim that Secretary Clinton (or President Obama) do not support science as a way of understanding the world.  I wish to make the point that in the context of these political speeches, the invocation of science is intended to advance political goals.  Perhaps both of them sought to appeal to the scientists, engineers and others who want more scientific and technological thinking in political life.  But even if they did, it strikes me as unlikely that such a purpose was the primary reason for using that language.

Besides, if people are getting excited about a President (or a major candidate for that office) affirming that they believe in science, then perhaps their expectations are pathetically low.  And perhaps some efforts could be focused on how the scientific community and its allies allowed such a low bar to exist in the first place.

Non-Travel Zika Emergence In Florida Likely To Increase Your Cynicism

Yesterday the Florida Department of Health announced that there was a high likelihood that four cases of the Zika virus in the Miami-Dade County area were due to local transmission.  This marks the first time that non-travel related cases were found in the continental United States.  There are currently just under 400 cases of Zika confirmed in the state that are travel-related (contracted due to travel in areas outside of the continental United States).  The Health Department will continue to update its Zika virus information each weekday at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

At this time the area of transmission is quite small – roughly one square mile.  However, two of the infected individuals live in neighboring Broward County.  The Department has instituted a serious canvass effort in the transmission area to determine if there are additional cases that have not caught the attention of medical personnel (which was the situation for the four cases reported to date).  As the mosquito bites that transmitted the virus took place in early July, additional cases seem likely.  However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not anticipate widespread transmission at the present time.

As of July 27, there were 1,658 cases of Zika in the continental United States and Hawaii, all of which were travel related (thought some cases were spread via sex or in one case, a laboratory accident).  However, the situation in Puerto Rico is serious, with over 5,500 cases in the commonwealth as of July 7.  The CDC has been working with Puerto Rican health agencies for months, but its impact has been limited.

As Congress is not in session (and won’t be until September), the anemic federal response (mainly redirecting unspent money for the Ebola virus) will continue.  Members of Congress from Florida have been diligent in advocating for funding, and the Obama Administration had provided $8 million before the President informed Governor Scott that another $5.6 million was on the way.  It’s a lot less than what share Florida would receive under the various Zika aid packages that Congress tried and failed to pass earlier this year.

That said, I would expect the newly reported cases would spur some action, even if it’s only campaign rhetoric in connection with the upcoming elections.  Florida is once again expected to be a major battleground in the presidential race, and it would not surprise me to see one or both of the major party candidates to try and wring some advantage from the situation.  Whether it will be well informed remains to be seen, but the campaign to date leaves me skeptical.

The change in action following the Florida cases, however slight, will also point out the dramatic difference in attention that our outlying territories receive compared to the states.  Congressional representation matters, especially in situations like this.

Congressional Inaction Doesn’t Stop FDA, NIAID And CDC From Dealing With Zika

Congress managed once again to do nothing when something was necessary, this time with a funding bill to deal with the Zika virus.  The executive branch, however, does not have the luxury of inaction, especially with a lack of resources.  And once Congress returns, the combination of a chronically broken appropriations process and the November elections makes it nearly certain that instead of a new budget there will be a continuing resolution.  Such a resolution would continue spending at the prior year’s levels, which typically means new proposals like Zika funding are shut out.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been active in the vacuum of Congressional leadership.  The FDA has taken steps on protecting the blood supply, supporting potential diagnostic tests, dealing with potential Zika-related fraudulent devices and addressing the mosquitoes that carry the virus.  But as of this writing there are no FDA-approved diagnostic tests, vaccines or treatments in the advanced stages of development.

The CDC has been active in developing resources for state and local health agencies, as well as various stakeholders.  They are assisting the Utah Department of Health in a case of virus transmission, and may assist other states as the number of U.S. cases grows.  The NIAID has been active in researching the virus since before the current outbreak, but started expanding that work in the beginning of 2016.

However, without additional resources (using Ebola funds that have not yet been spent could be counterproductive), the impact of this work will be necessarily limited.  With almost 800 pregnant women with Zika in the United States, perhaps the microcephaly associated with Zika births will motivate Congressional action.  But I’m not optimistic.



So I Guess There Was Some Technology Content At The Republican Convention

Science and technology matters are not top campaign issues, so to have very little discussion of them at the major party conventions is not a big surprise.

However, there was (as I mentioned on Monday) the appearance of retired astronaut Eileen Collins on Wednesday.   She spoke about American space exploration, and reiterated her disagreement with the current U.S. approach to returning humans to space (a view not universally held) without endorsing Mr. Trump.  That Trump has not committed to more space exploration in his public remarks seems beside the point, given how the convention was focused on painting a picture of a country in long decline.

On Thursday there was another speaker who had some connection to technology.  eBay co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel.  Coverage of his remarks focused on Thiel’s comments about being gay, but his background in technology did come through.  He noted the prosperity of Silicon Valley and mentioned problems the government had with some of its technology.  But he offered no proposals.  Again, this strikes me as consistent with a convention more focused on painting a bleak picture of America than providing details about how it would address those problems.

Next week the Democrats will have their turn with the multi-night staged presentation of political theater.  I don’t expect them to be that different from the Republicans in the amount of attention paid to science and technology matters (outside of climate change), but I do hope to hear some policy proposals.  Check in next Friday to see if how cynical I get about it.

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.

Aerospace Engineer Running For Congress

314 PAC recently endorsed John Plumb, a Democrat running for Congress in New York’s 23rd District, located in the southwestern part of the state.  Plumb holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado, and served on submarines in the U.S. Navy (he is currently in the Reserves).  Following his military service Plumb worked on Capitol Hill (thanks in part due to a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship from AAAS) and in senior positions in the Department of Defense.

Consistent with 314 PAC’s orientation, Plumb is a Democrat, and is running against incumbent Representative Tom Reed.  Neither candidate had opposition in their respective party primaries, and Plumb has emphasized his military experience and local roots in the campaign.  To be fair, none of the incumbents 314 PAC has endorsed have emphasized their scientific backgrounds in their campaigns, but perhaps if Plumb is elected he might bring that background to bear as a legislator.