314 PAC Founder Seeking Congressional Seat

314 PAC is a political action committee focused on supporting scientists and engineers running for political office.  The most active of the three political action committees focused on science, 314 PAC has endorsed only Democratic candidates to date.

In this cycle, 314 PAC has endorsed 5 candidates, four of whom are incumbents (Representatives Bill Foster of Illinois, Louise Slaughter of New York, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Jerry McNerney of California).  The non-incumbent candidate is Shaughnessy Naughton, a trained chemist running for an open seat in Pennsylvania.

Naughton is also the founder of 314 PAC, and this is her second campaign for the House.  Her experience running for this seat in 2014 (she narrowly lost in the Democratic primary) was part of the motivation for her forming 314 PAC.  There are a total of five candidates running for the seat, two Democrats and three Republicans.  The primary election (likely dwarfed by the ongoing Presidential campaign) is on Tuesday the 26th.

Science Goes To The Movies Knicks The Sociology Of Medical Research

The latest episode of Science Goes to the Movies (now debuting new episodes weekly) uses the Showtime series The Knick as a springboard to discuss the sociology of medicine.  Sure, the word sociology is never said, but when the program discusses race as a social construct in the first 5 minutes, it’s certainly a theme for this program.

(I will note that there is one picture involving the lack of a nose around    Host Faith Salie is not keen on the image, and you might not be either.  There are also spoilers for one of the main characters around the 20 minute mark.)

The Knick takes place in New York around the turn of the 20th century and covers the explosion of advances in medicine and medical technology.  But this episode does not dwell on this outside of making a comparison with the ways genetic information has affected medicine today.  Arguably more time is spent in the episode on how difficult it still is to get medical records online and to share it through up-to-date technology.

But the guest, Dr. Jill Bargonetti, Professor of Biological Sciences at Hunter College, guides the conversation (along with host Dr. Heather Berlin) through many of the ways that bias, ego, prejudice and other human feelings can affect how much research is communicated (or not) and how the outcomes of research can be affected by those sociological phenomena.  While you might find Salie’s questions a bit naïve, it can be useful to have a lay person asking questions about things that the two scientists may forget aren’t commonly understood.

Next week Science Goes to the Movies turns to Doctor Who.  Besides talking time travel, the episode will explore how a certain race in the show resonates with elements of quantum theory.

First 2016 Golden Goose Award Recognizes Happy Accidents

Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Awards announced the first recipients of the award for 2016.  The Golden Goose Awards are intended as a counter to the long passed Golden Fleece Awards.  Where the latter targeted federal spending (including some scientific grants) the Golden Goose Awards are intended to point out seemingly obscure research that has significant impacts.

The first honorees this year are Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry.  They are being recognized for their work in a key piece of longitudinal research – The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (often called Add Health).  This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health in the early 1990s and continues to provide insight into human behavior.

The award citation is long, and details the political disagreements that led to delays and then the cancellation of a previously proposed study that more explicitly targeted adolescent sexual behavior.  It’s worth reading, but in my mind it distracts from the serendipity that is a common element in Golden Goose Award recipients. I can understand the reasons for pointing out that those who opposed the first study have since come around on its value, but if the goal of the award is to highlight the connections between research and impact that cannot be anticipated, this political debate over funding is off point.

The study benefited from choices made in the research design and early implementation.  One of these was botching the collection of medical data from the study participants in the second point in the time series.  While preventing the assessment of some relevant medical data, it allowed for the research to continue with a designated cohort for far longer than originally planned.  This means that the study initially focused on adolescent to adult health can now track from adolescence throughout the participants lives, should funding continue that long.

Another point of serendipity is the rise in obesity concurrent with this study.  The depth of available data allowed researchers to dive into connections between behaviors and obesity.  This helped support research pointing out how obesity can actually spread among social groups.

While the Golden Goose Award folks didn’t do it in the citation, I think this award simply reinforces the value of longitudinal studies and the difficulty in designing and implementing them.  Either way, the researchers involved in Add Health are worthy of recognition and will receive their award in Washington this September.

Another Way Science Understanding Could Be Useful In The Courts

I didn’t post about Fisher v. Texas when arguments went before the Supreme Court in December (for the second time).  It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned.  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I think this point about science (which is applicable to many other aspects of life) is more important for judges (and Justices) to understand than specific facts generated by science.  A reductionist approach to science, as articulated by Chief Justice Roberts, serves no one well, whether they are practicing science, or judging on how diversity in science may or may not serve a compelling public interest.

(Readers may note that with the Supreme Court currently one Justice down, that the case may end up tied and therefore uphold the decision of the lower court – that the admissions policy is constitutional.  However, Justice Elena Kagan took part in the case as Solicitor General and recused herself the first time the Supreme Court heard it.  So there will only be 7 Justices voting on it.  Remember, I am not a lawyer.)


Cancer Moonshot Task Force Has An Executive Director

On Friday the Vice President appointed Greg Simon to serve as the Executive Director for the Cancer Moonshot Task Force.  Simon is currently CEO of Poliwogg, a financial services company focused on investments in the life sciences.  Before Poliwogg Simon worked at Merck, and also served as a policy advisor to Vice-President Gore from 1991-1997.

From 2003-2009 Simon was also involved in FasterCures, a self-described ‘action tank’ focused on cutting through roadblocks and otherwise accelerating the process of translating research data into cures.  In most cases this would be the critical piece that makes Simon quite suited to facilitating many of the same functions as the Executive Director of the Task Force.

But Simon is a cancer survivor.  Diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, he has recently completed one course of chemotherapy and is currently healthy.  The Task Force only has the rest of the Obama Administration to do its work, but Simon’s recent experience may add to that sense of urgency.

In related activity, the Vice President has continued his listening tour of various cancer research facilities.  On Monday he was in Seattle at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Changes At The Top Of Several Science Organizations

Over the last month there have been changes at the top of a few national science organizations.

The National Academy of Sciences made it official earlier this month and elected Marcia McNutt to be its first female president.  She was nominated last July and will take office on July 1st of this year.  It marks the third time she will be the first female in a particular science position.  McNutt is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine and was the head of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Also of note is that McNutt is the second consecutive geological scientist to become president of the National Academy of Sciences.  It is apparently tradition that the officeholders alternate between the physical and geological sciences.  She will take office from Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist and former Chancellor of the University of California at Irvine.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its annual presidential transition, and Barbara Schaal is the new President of the organization.  She will serve for one year while continuing in her position as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington at St. Louis.  Schaal has also served as a science envoy at the State Department and as a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) under President Obama.

(The election process for the AAAS also has a long lead time.  The new President-elect of the organization, Susan Hockland, was selected in late 2015 and will take over from Schaal next February.  Once a AAAS President completes their one-year term, they become Chair of the Board for the following year.)

There is also a new head for the Italian National Research Council (CNR).  Massimo Inguscio, an optical physicist at the University of Florence, has experience in running scientific organizations, but the CNR is a much larger and more multi-disciplinary institute.  He takes over at a time when Italian scientists are initiating a national discussion over research funding.

Evaluating Broader Impacts Workshop

Earlier this week, thanks to Britt Holbrook at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I attended this workshop on evaluating broader impacts held in Washington, D.C.  The workshop is part of a larger project on impact supported by the National Science Foundation, but the discussions and opinions tangled with on Thursday were strictly those of the speakers and other attendees.

While there is no video of the workshop, you can catch some of the flavor of the event through the Twitter hashtag #broaderimpact16.  One of the speakers, Stacy Konkiel of Altmetrics, gathered Tweets and other web resources into this Storify archive.  I was the designated workshop Tweeter, my outsize presence in the archive simply reflects that role.

Participants came from the U.S. and several countries, so we had a variety of experiences with impact studies and evaluation exercises.  I don’t live with this topic in the same ways as most of the workshop participants, but it seemed to me that the more time spent examining impact studies and evaluation exercises, the more important it is to keep in mind that those subject to the studies will likely value and define impacts in different ways than those seeking the studies.

As research outputs connected to this workshop are released (articles in journals, mostly), I’ll make note of them in Twitter and probably here as well.  My thanks to Britt and the other organizers for giving me a seat in the room.