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.

Before The Zika Panic Sets In

In tonight’s Republican candidate debate, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson both said they would consider a quarantine to help contain the spread of the Zika virus in the U.S.  As of February 3, there have been 45 cases reported in the U.S., with only 9 of them locally acquired.  All of the locally acquired cases have been limited (so far) to U.S. territories.

While there have been reports about transfer of the virus through sexual activity and about the presence of the virus in both urine and saliva, mosquito bites remain the predominant means of transmission.  Those infected with the virus that develop symptoms usually suffer from a mild flu-like illness, though there have been reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome.  More concerning is a possible link to microcephaly –  a serious birth defect causing small heads and brains.  This has prompted the calls in some Latin American countries for women to avoid pregnancy.  (Restrictions on birth control and/or abortion in many of the same countries complicate this recommendation.)

It seems to me that a quarantine for the Zika seems premature, if not ill-advised.  Focusing on the virus carriers – mosquitos – makes much more sense.  The CDC guidance is for pregnant women to avoid travel to areas affected by the virus, and take strict steps to avoid mosquito bites should they travel to those areas.

More attention is necessary on both diagnostic tests and vaccines for Zika.  Vaccines are currently unavailable and diagnostic tests are limited to the CDC and some state and local health departments.  The World Health Organization has declared the recent spread of Zika a Public Health Concern, primarily due to the cluster of Guillain-Barre and microcephaly in Brazil.  Part of the advice presented on dealing with the virus is to not ban travel to Zika-affected regions, but to provide travelers with up-to-date information on the virus and means of preventing transmission.  That probably won’t stop Governor Christie from instituting a quarantine in New Jersey if he thinks it necessary.  He overstepped with his quarantine on Ebola, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries it again.

More Tussles Over Science In Italy

I wouldn’t blame someone if they thought Italy was a scientifically contentious society, given the controversies involving scientists, earthquakes and olive trees.  The latest challenge involves papers on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  But when a paper is cited in a legislative body, I don’t think Italy has exclusivity on given that research additional scrutiny.

The facts, as Nature describes them, are as follows.  Three papers from a lab at the University of Naples were cited in a July 2015 hearing on GMOs in the Italian Senate.  The papers focused on experiments with goats kids whose mothers were fed genetically modified soya-bean meal.  The papers contend that fragments of the genetic material inserted in the soya can migrate into the mother’s milk and influence the development of the kids.

Following the hearing Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo, who is also a neuroscientist at the University of Milan (let that last part sink in for a bit), reviewed the papers and noted what appeared to problems with the data presented.  She commissioned a biomedical consultancy firm to conduct a forensic analysis of the research, which concluded that the papers contained images that were manipulated and/or reused.  The firm forwarded its results to the relevant journals (in September) and the University of Naples (in November).  The university launched its own investigation and Federico Infascelli, the head of the lab that produced the papers, is keeping quiet until the university investigation is concluded.

However, confidential details of the investigation were leaked to the press, and one journal, according to Retraction Watch, has retracted one of the papers.  That journal, Food and Nutrition Science, cited duplication of data from a previously published paper.  Plagiarism is not the same as data manipulation, but depending on what is copied and why, copying can certainly contribute to conclusions that don’t match the data.  Retraction Watch, in its analysis of relevant Italian news reports, notes that the retraction is connected to the investigation(s), and that .

The investigation continues, though the leaking of information may complicate matters.  Infascelli will likely have a response once the results of the investigation are out, and the use of his research in a government hearing may add to any penalties he faces from the university.

State Of STEM Takes Place Today

While lacking the promotion of previous years, this afternoon there will be the fourth State of STEM presentation from the White House.  Starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, the address will include the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, and some of the STEM (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) guests at yesterday’s State of the Union address.

As with previous years, I expect the video to be available on the White House’s YouTube channel soon after the event today.

As I noted yesterday there will be two sessions related to science and technology in the White House’s Big Block of Cheese Day presentations.  The 2 p.m. session on energy and the environment will likely overlap with the last part of the State of STEM address, but since John Holdren is part of the 3 p.m. panel, I doubt the State of STEM address will run too long.

Have Some Science With Your Cheese Tomorrow

The Obama Administration will hold its third “Big Block of Cheese Day” tomorrow.  While inspiration comes from the television program The West Wing, and the administration of Andrew Jackson, the questions come from online, allowing for a much more managed process.

Various Cabinet officials and other senior members of the White House Staff and Executive Branch will be answering questions during the day tomorrow, from 10 a.m. Eastern until 6:30 p.m.  (Never mind the two Senators ending the festivities).

There are two sessions focused on science and technology matters.  From 2-3 p.m. you can listen to various energy and environmental officials, including the Secretary of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and staff from the Department of the Interior.  From 3-4 p.m. the focus is on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  The participants will include the President’s science adviser, the Chief Technology Officer and Bobak FederowskiFerdowsi from NASA.  He was a flight engineer on the last Mars rover mission and is currently involved on a Europa mission.

Another post-State of the Union event has been the State of STEM, which started the year before the Big Block of Cheese Day.  However, I cannot find any mention of this event – where many more science and technology agency personnel and related White House staff answer questions – taking place tomorrow.  As it, like the Big Block of Cheese Day, follows the State of the Union, it’s absence is striking.  But they may simply be postponing the event rather than cancelling it.  As some of the same officials participating in the State of STEM events participated in past Big Block of Cheese Day discussions, it may simply be an issue of scheduling.

Scientists Under Investigation In Italian Xylella Outbreak

Scientific American has reported that a formal investigation is underway concerning nine scientists and one public official concerning an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa in and around Puglia, Italy.  The outbreak (first noted in 2013) has affected olive trees in the area, and efforts to contain the outbreak have prompted both protests from activists and investigation from the European Union.

The case involving Italian seismologists and the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 was long and complicated, so I already expected that the investigation into these scientists – suspected of introducing and/or allowing the spread of the Xylella strain – would be a challenge to follow.  Now that the EU is involved, I think a long, complicated legal case is assured.

The scientists are under suspicion for introducing the strain because of a 2010 training course where a strain of Xylella was used.  That claim is being refuted because the strain considered the cause of the outbreak is distinct from the Californian variety used at the course.

Some of the criticism is prompted in part due to the measures the scientists are calling for in order to combat the strain.  Several parties object to the destruction of trees (many of them quite old) and the use of pesticides in the area.  The prosecutors in the case have called for a halt to such measures when they announced the formal investigation.  Aside from placing the scientists under suspicion of causing the outbreak (either intentionally or through neglect), it has been contended that the actual cause of the outbreak is not the Xylella, but a fungus.

The European Union is involved because of concerns over the possible spread of the pathogen to other countries.  As part of EU rules, Italy is obligated to develop and implement a containment plan.  However, some of the measures have been blocked by the courts, and it is possible that the contentions against the scientists are another means of fighting against the EU rules.

I am concerned that the length of any Italian court proceeding may make it difficult to effectively address the outbreak.  With the final appeals of the L’Aquila case stretching things out to at least six years following the 2009 quake, there may be at least another three years before the Italian courts adjudicate the matter (regardless of how the EU enforcement and judicial mechanisms may act).  Perhaps the outbreak can be contained in time, but it’s tough to see this case as helping.

Technology And The Presidential Election

Since we are now in the same calendar year as the next U.S. Presidential election, I’m finally motivated to say something about it that isn’t another harangue against the fruitless quest for a Presidential science debate.  I’m pretty sure the best that group will be able to get is a questionnaire completed by the two major party candidates.

What I think is true for this election, as it was likely true for at least the last two Presidential elections, is that the technology issues that matter to the campaigns are not about how their candidates might govern, but about how they might get their support more efficiently.  This list of issues highlighted by New Scientist magazine helps demonstrate my point.  I’m not as persuaded about the campaign salience of either climate change or drug prices (the first is too entrenched to see much engagement between the parties, and the second is arguably dwarfed by the entire health care system as a topic of concern).  But the other three topics – the reliability of polling, technology tools for mobilizing voters, and demographic changes – all highlight how technologies (and the associated science) are more important to the success of a campaign.

What does this mean for those interested in getting candidates interested in science and technology policy issues?  I don’t know if this means anything new.  For me the value of science and/or technology issues for campaigns has rarely been for their own sake, but in how they can play into other campaign issues that matter more to the candidates.  While the anti-science cudgel has been wielded strenuously over the last 12 years or more, I don’t think it carries the impact that its wielders believe it does.  Now more than ever it seems more likely to mobilize those that already had reasons to support a particular candidate and not useful in engaging either the mythical undecided voter or those who would otherwise support a candidate if not for a particular science or technology issue.