National Academies Encourage Expansion Of Science And Technology Advice At State Department

Tomorrow, June 17, the National Academies will host a press briefing on a new report, Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State. The report is available online, and you can access the report electronically for free (with a National Academies Press account, which is also free).

This report follows on the 1999 National Academies report The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy.  The 1999 report prompted the Department to re-establish a scientific advisory capacity in the form of a Science & Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (the acting adviser is Dr. Frances Colon).

The report calls for an expansion and elevation of this capacity throughout the Department.  The Science & Technology Adviser should be given the status equivalent of an Assistant Secretary (currently the Adviser reports to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, and most of the other positions reporting to this Under Secretary are Assistant Secretaries).  There should also be a Science and Technology Advisory Board of independent experts.  The Board would provide advice on science and technology issues (non-defense) that would affect the Department’s foreign policy agenda.

Additional report recommendations (Chapter Six details all of the report’s findings and recommendations) seek to further integrate science and technology expertise into the Department.  The report encourages (among other things) the inclusion of science and technology in foresight exercises (it considers the current use of science and technology advice to be focus on short-term questions and challenges); connecting with in-country American scientists, engineers and health professionals; reviewing and expanding (as appropriate) staff with scientific and technical expertise; and expand training opportunities to include the value of science and technology to the Department’s mission (whether or not the trainee is a science or technology specialist).

The full report is worth reviewing and digesting.  Whomever becomes the next Science & Technology Adviser to Secretary Kerry will likely be critical to the implementation of the recommendations in this report.  Hopefully that person has been identified, or will be soon, as the position has been vacant for nearly a year.

U.S. Government Ramping Up To Open Government National Action Plan Version 3.0

The White House posted this call for input on the third iteration of its National Action Plan for Open Government.  Version 1.0 came out in 2011, and version 2 was released in 2013.  Aside from supporting the Administration’s interests in making government data more available, the Plan is part of the U.S. commitment as a member of the Open Government Partnership.  At this point, the comment request is informal.  You can submit them via email, Twitter, or through a Hackpad collaborative tool.  (You’ll need to register on Hackpad to participate there.)

Comments can expand on existing initiatives in the National Action Plan or suggest new ones.  These plans emphasize transparency and increased public access to information (in usable formats).  Given the language in the current plan around citizen science, crowdsourcing, and whistleblower protections, I think it would be a good idea to suggest something about incorporating scientific integrity policies into the National Action Plan.

If you’re looking for guidance on suggestions, the Open Government Partnership has its own data portal, the Explorer.  There you can review submissions from all the participating countries.  You can also see the commitments governments have made and how well they have delivered (at least on some of them).

Thankfully Someone Is Thinking About The Tech Transition

We are still 20 months away from the next Presidential administration, but I don’t think it’s too early to consider how government technology will be handled over the transition.  Thankfully the Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, has been thinking about this as well.

At a recent technology conference in Washington D.C., Smith indicated that at least for the technology teams currently supporting federal agencies, she intends to have them continue for whomever the next President will be.  These teams, including the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, are focused on delivery of services for government agencies and to the public.  I think it would be valuable to ensure that the smooth delivery of government services can avoid any hiccups due to a change in administration.  Hopefully Smith and her staff can avoid any legal pitfalls in communicating with presidential campaigns (and eventually the transition team for whomever becomes the 45th President) about the needs for continuity of government at the level of services.

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.

NASA Needs To Print Its Shelters

During the Bay Area Maker Faire this weekend NASA and America Makes announced a new Centennial Challenge.  The 3D Printed Habitat Challenge asks competitors to develop 3D printing solutions that can help construct off-Earth habitat using materials either found at the site, reused from the mission, or some combination.  Put another way, NASA would like to build a habitat without having to haul the building materials from Earth.

There has been some 3D printing done in space, but this challenge would require printing on a much larger scale.  There are three phases to this challenge: Design, Structural Member and On-Site Habitat.  For now, the focus is on the Design phase.

Interested parties have until July 15 to submit their registration package, which includes an architectural sketch of the proposed habitat and description of the construction approach.  Each submission will be evaluated by a jury and those selected to continue will have to send in a full architectural design concept.  Teams might as well have the full concept ready, as the deadline for those will be August 3, not long after the registration packages are due.  Judges will select 30 entries for final review and judging at the New York Maker Faire, held September 26-27.

For more details on the design phase of the challenge, including rules and registration requirements, consult the Challenge website.  Details on the other two phases of the challenge will not likely be available until the registration opens for those competitions in late September.  While top prize in the design phase is $50,000, top prize in the other phases is $1.1 million.

How Many Deputy Chief Technology Officers Do We Need?

On Monday the White House announced that Dr. Ed Felten, a computer scientist who has served as the Chief Technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, would rejoin the Obama Administration as a Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  He becomes the fourth Deputy CTO in the, along with Alex Macgillivray, Ryan Panchadsaram, and D.J. Patil.  Patil’s title is Deputy CTO for Data Policy and he also holds the title of Chief Data scientist.

(Disclosure – I have worked with Felten in our respective capacities at the Association for Computing Machinery, where he is a Fellow and a member of the Associations U.S. Public Policy Council.)

While Patil’s policy responsibilities are still emerging, he is the only one of the four Deputy CTOs for whom I can find specific responsibilities.  While I appreciate the need for flexibility when trying to support technology and innovation policy, I find the absence of specific portfolios a bit curious.  Each of the Deputy CTOs has different backgrounds and experiences, so it makes sense for each of them to focus on different areas.  It would be nice to know if that was the case or not.

The continued expansion of the CTO’s Office reminds me again of how it does (or does not) fit within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The CTO’s Office is separate from the Technology and Innovation Division (where the policy responsibilities are much more explicit).  But if the mission of the CTO is sufficiently distinct from that of the Technology and Innovation Division, and the Administration is not keen on having the CTO also lead the Technology and Innovation Division, perhaps it would be better for the Office to be separate from OSTP entirely?

Readers may remember my preference on this matter, and your answer may be different.  But with the current Administration in its last two years, it’s not too early to try and figure out whether to continue this experiment, and how it might be different for the next President (assuming that person decides to keep the job).  Knowing more about how the current position (and office) are intended to operate can help inform that discussion.

How The Archives Wants The Government To Manage Its Email

If you have an interest in records keeping, you should be keeping track of the National Archives, where the Chief Architect, David Ferriero, has his own blog.  The latest post concerns how government agencies should manage their email.  When government email has been in the news in recent years, it’s often due to the use of non-governmental addresses to conduct official business.  (I consider the practice to be anti-transparency and believe it should be barred.)

In his post, Ferriero highlights the challenge of determining what should be kept and what should not.  With an estimate of 40 billion emails generated annually by the federal government, it’s an important and daunting challenge.  Recognizing that sorting through these emails (in addition to their other regular duties) is perhaps too much to ask of federal employees, the Archives is looking to the software industry for help in developing automated tools to make this identification and sorting manageable.

In the meantime, the Archives is implementing a system called Capstone.  Under Capstone, an agency’s designated federal employees would save all of their email as permanent records and non-designated employees would save their email for a designated period of time.  (Presumably during this time the agency can determine whether or not certain emails should be designated as worth making permanent records.) The Archives is using the system presently, and all federal agencies are encouraged to use Capstone or some similar system by the end of 2016.  By that time all e-mail records are expected to be available in an accessible electronic format.  Yes, that’s right, some e-mail records are not presently stored in an electronic format (accessible or not).

All of this is a separate issue from what former Secretary of State Clinton did with her own government emails.  Her actions certainly raise concerns over a possible conflict of interest concerning her actions in that office.  To be fair, the same scrutiny is worth casting over other presidential candidates and how they have (or have not) managed their official email to conduct business.  Why that hasn’t been the case is something worth considering.