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.

Private Email Use For Government Work Not Just A Classification Problem

Remember folks, I am not a lawyer.

On Tuesday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit (H/T G. William Thomas) involving the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).  The CEI had requested documents under FOIA, and as part of that request sought emails from an email account that OSTP Director John Holdren has from the Woods Hole Research Center (where he served as director prior to becoming OSTP Director).

At first blush you may consider this an overreach, but according to the ruling (page 3), the OSTP had previously shown in a separate FOIA lawsuit involving CEI that Director Holdren had used the Woods Hole account for work related purposes.  The proof was a Vaughn Index produced by OSTP, so the agency had to know that there would be work-related email on the Woods Hole account.  (I have not been able to find the Vaughn index in question, which was complicated immensely by the Court failing to cite the specific case.  The FOIA improvements signed into law earlier this week can’t come fast enough.)

Those who follow the news may find this annoyingly familiar.  While the case currently dominating the news is more involved, and has the extra wrinkle of involving classified material, public officials have been using private email for public business for a while.  Personally, I don’t think it should be permitted in any instance.  (And this kind of nonsense is not limited to federal officials.)

And this is where I might differ with those concerned about fishing expeditions conducted into personal email accounts.  If there had been no evidence to suggest Holdren was using a private account for government business, I would certainly consider it an overreach for CEI to want OSTP to search Holdren’s private email.  In that situation, CEI would need to demonstrate why it felt that documents relevant to its request could be expected on that account and the corresponding search would need to be very targeted.

The case will return to the district court that dismissed the case back in March 2015 for further proceedings.  The OSTP may have other grounds to contest the production of these emails, and there will certainly be a new OSTP Director (perhaps one with an Acting in front) by the time the case is resolved.

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.

ORIGINAL POST

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.