In Case The American Community Survey Disappears

Earlier this month members of the House voted to cut funds from the Census Bureau in order to support other projects in the same Appropriations bill.  Coupled with the persistent efforts to gut the American Community Survey and it seems likely we may need to prepare for a future where this resource may not be available.

That may seem like a daunting task, but I think it’s not impossible.  I say this because of the effort of Nathan Yau, who has created a 2015 version of the Statistical Atlas of the United States.  He wasn’t happy that the Census Bureau was not producing a new edition of the Atlas (or of the Census Atlas it released based on 2000 Census data).

It’s a lovely piece of work, and if he had some extra help (and/or more time), I think Yau, or other data scientists, could take the raw data and create updated versions of statistical resources providing need context to policy decisions and other important questions.  But without the data that the American Community Survey can provide, we all lose.

314 PAC Starts The 2016 Election Endorsement Cycle…For Science?

314 PAC, a political action committee (PAC) focused on finding and supporting Democratic candidates with science and/or engineering training and experience.  The PAC endorsed four candidates in the 2014 elections, and two of them went on to enter Congress in January.

Earlier today 314 PAC announced its first endorsement (donation page) of the 2016 cycle, Representative Bill Foster.  This is the second time the PAC has endorsed Foster, who is the only physicist currently serving in Congress.  I have no idea if 314 PAC is aware of Rep. Foster’s position on EPSCoR funding, or if that issue matters to them.  I think it unlikely that EPSCoR funding will be an issue in a Congressional election in a non-EPSCoR state, so this is likely neither a mountain nor a molehill in Congressman Foster’s re-election.

However, should the time come when there is traction for science and technology oriented PACs, perhaps specific funding issues will become a concern.  And that’s where it will get complicated.  Because the question of whether someone ‘supports science and technology’ is a bit easier to parse than what science and technology policies one supports.

Why We Still Need An EPSCoR

Jeffrey Mervis reports over at Science that a House amendment to prevent NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) from spending any money on the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was defeated 232-195.  The EPSCoR program provides funding to researchers in states that receive a very small percentage of an agency’s research budget.  In the case of the NSF, that’s currently 0.75 percent of its roughly $6 billion research budget.

The amendment was sponsored by Representative Bill Foster, (D-Illinois), which is extra notable not for his party, but for his profession.  Foster is currently the only physicist in Congress, and represents an Illinois district just south of the Fermilab facility.  Foster is quoted in the Science piece as interested in reducing the incidence of less-populated states getting more in federal dollars than they pay in taxes (a debate that covers a multitude of programs and much more than the $160 million covered by EPSCoR).

Foster complains about the specific formula that determines whether a state or jurisdiction (Puerto Rico qualifies for EPSCoR funds) can access the additional funding.  While I’m sympathetic to his argument here, I’m not willing to go as far as he appears to in scrapping the program. Continue reading

First Golden Goose of 2015 Announced

The folks behind the Golden Goose Award have announced the first award for 2015.  All of this year’s recipients will be recognized at the Library of Congress on September 17.  The award seeks to highlight federally funded research that led to surprising breakthroughs.  More specifically, the awards are trying to counter the criticism of scientific grants that appear silly or frivolous from cherry-picking the abstract.

This year’s first recipients are being recognized for work in psychology on delayed gratification.  Walter Mischel, Philip Peake and Yuichi Shoda have worked on psychology research supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation about the cognitive mechanisms behind self control.  A major part of this work is the marshmallow test, which is also the title of a book by Mischel on self control targeted for a general audience.  The test is to put a treat (typically a marshmallow) in front of a person, with the following proposition: if you wait for (insert time here) you can get two treats.

This is the first Golden Goose Award that had significant coverage on late night television.  The test was part of a program from Sesame Street, which in turn prompted coverage on The Colbert Report (where Mischel later promoted his book).  Colbert will be on his new program by the time of the Golden Goose ceremony, so I suppose there’s an outside chance he will comment on it (unless nothing must be said of his old program on his new one).

Not All Scientists Are Opposed To GMO Labeling

ScienceInsider reported yesterday that scientists in Germany are calling for labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO).  The petition (which should be online any time now) goes beyond labeling for GMOs in food, to include such organisms in feed, drugs, textiles, chemicals, and other products that have been produced using genetic engineering.  Should the petition receive enough signatures by a certain time, the German Bundestag would have to consider the proposal.

I remain skeptical that the no-label position regarding GMO’s is the right move, so I welcome this petition effort.  Opposing labeling makes it look like there’s something to hide, which feeds into GMO opponents’ argument that the development and use of GMO’s has been deceptive in some fashion.  It also strikes me as anti-democratic and anti-transparency.  And while those might not be value positions linked to science, they are important values in policy decisions (the current debates over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement suffer from a similar challenge since the text of the agreement is not widely available).

Arguably the pro-GMO side has won, given the prevalence of these organisms in many items.  But the effort to prevent labeling has the potential to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Maybe the German scientists are onto something.

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.

American Psychological Association Settles Lawsuit Over Lobby Fees

From today’s Washington Post is word that the American Psychological Association (APA) has settled a class-action lawsuit with its membership.  At issue was the contention that the association had required several of its members to pay a voluntary fee to the group’s lobbying arm, the APA Practice Organization.  The alleged deception dates back to 2001.  The total cash payments of the settlement will be nine million dollars.

The settlement process is ongoing, and the court will either approve or reject the settlement later this year.  As you might expect, the terms of the settlement agreement include language asserting that there is no admission of any claims levied in the suit or any acknowledgment of liability.  The agreement also means the association will be more explicit in communicating that fees paid to the APA Practice Organization are optional.

The way the APA has a separate lobbying arm brings up the matter of how scientific societies do or do not engage with advocacy.  The particular issue here is only tangentially related to the question, in that members can opt to provide support of association lobbying independent of their membership dues.  I don’t have any particular recommendation of the best way to handle this matter, but I think it highlights how agreement of a scientific association on the state of the field doesn’t necessarily translate into agreement on policy choices.  Nor do I think it should, but that’s a separate discussion.