Disasters.data.gov – Not A Satire Site

Disasters.data.gov was launched in mid-December (H/T Executivegov.com).  The site is intended to serve as a repository of open data sets related to disasters (which can include severe winter weather along with the usual suspects).  There are several tools designed for emergency preparedness linked to at the site, and

There are two ways in which people can help build out the site:

Innovator Challenge – The site is looking for short descriptions of answers to this question: ‘How might we leverage real-time sensors, open data, social media, and other tools to help reduce the number of fatalities from flooding?’

Call To Action – The site wants to host open data sets for information that has, traditionally, not been made available to the public.  Most of the data sets currently on the site are federal in origin, so there is a bigger need for information at a more local scale.  This could include evacuation routes, information on what businesses remain open during disasters, or other disaster-related data.

If you are involved in disaster preparedness and response (and aren’t already familiar with the site), there are other ways you can get involved.

An Undersea Challenge Awaits

Earlier this month the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the Nutrient Sensor Challenge.  A collaboration between the Alliance for Coastal Technologies, and federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration, the challenge is focused on helping better understand where aquatic nutrients come from and how they move in waterways.

The requirements for meeting the challenge are sensors that meet the following criteria:

  • are accurate over concentration ranges commonly observed,
  • are easy to use in maintenance-free, autonomous,  remote deployments of three months,
  • cost less than $5,000 to purchase, and
  • can be commercially available by 2017.

Those interested in participating must register by March 16, 2015.

Late Confirmation Surge Fills A Few Science and Technology Jobs

Amidst its seemingly perennial budget fumbling, the Senate managed to confirm a few more people into positions that most were waiting months to hear about.  Last week I noted that one senior Department of Energy official was confirmed, and that another, Ellen Williams, was up for a vote.  She was confirmed to be the latest head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.

Also of note was another confirmation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In October the head of the Commission, Allison Macfarlane, resigned.  This was just a month after the Commission was finally back at its full strength of five Commissioners.  Acting relatively quickly, the Obama Administration opted to elevate one of the newly confirmed Commissioners, Jeffrey Baran, to lead the Commission (there appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether Baran is replacing Macfarlane or just had his term extended).  He was confirmed on December 8th.  I cannot find whomever has been nominated to fill the fifth spot on the Commission, likely not yet announced.  The Administration is likely waiting for the new Congress to start next month.

Administration Looks In The Ranks For Next NIST Leader

While he was nominated back in July, Dr. Willie May, the nominee for Director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), was placed on the Senate calendar for his confirmation vote just yesterday.  There remains a significant backlog of nominees awaiting confirmation, so it’s quite possible Dr. May might start over with the new Congress.  As he’s currently serving as acting head of NIST, it would make sense if May’s nomination is lower on the list.

(Besides removing the acting from his current title, if confirmed, May would also serve as Commerce Undersecretary for Standards and Technology.)

Like his predecessor, Patrick Gallagher, May has extensive experience as an employee of NIST.  He has been associate director for laboratory programs since 2011, and has worked for NIST since 1982, mainly in chemistry and biology measurement services.

The Materials Genome Initiative Now Has A Strategic Plan

In 2011 the Obama Administration announced the Materials Genome Initiative in connection with its Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.  The initiative, administered by a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council and involving seven federal agencies, is focused on coordinating public and private sector activity in developing and commercializing new materials.  Most of this effort would focus on developing the infrastructure necessary to support increased activity in developing new materials – whatever might be the next Kevlar, battery material or superconducting ceramic.

Last week the Initiative released its first Strategic Plan.  The plan describes four strategic goals for the initiative, how the initiative supports various national objectives, and grand challenges in materials science.  The Strategic Goals:

  • Enable a Paradigm Shift in Culture – In order to reduce the time for developing new materials and transferring them to market, there will have to be shifts in how communities conduct research and development as well as the commercial activities that would use the resulting materials.
  • Integrate Experiments, Computation and Theory – The integration described here is between research and development and commercial application.  Ideally this integration would make it easier to identify replacements for critical materials and facilitate introducing them into manufacturing processes.
  • Facilitate Access to Material Data – A suite of data repositories for materials data, with community-developed standards, can help identify gaps in data and areas of redundant research efforts.
  • Equip the Next Generation Materials Workforce – The incoming workforce needs to be trained in the new skills and process encouraged by the Initiative.

Within each of the strategic goals are a series of milestones that should guide Initiative activity until the next Strategic Plan.  It all reads quite well, but I’m still stuck on the use of genome in the initiative’s name.  Perhaps I’m suffering from metaphor lock.

The Next Secretary Of Defense Might Be A Physicist

Ashton Carter was nominated on December 5 to replace Chuck Hagel as the U.S. Secretary of Defense.  Carter has worked in the Defense Department before, in Clinton Administration as well as for President Obama.  Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Carter would bring to the Department both experience and a new set of skills to the top position.

Carter is a theoretical physicist, earning his Ph.D. in that field from Oxford.  He also worked in the Fermilab and Brookhaven National Laboratories.

Now, it remains to be seen how much attention Dr. Carter might provide to the Defense Departments research and development enterprise.  But in the modern history of the Defense Department (prior to World War II it was the War Department), it’s tough for me to see any other Defense Secretary being as knowledgeable about the science and technology capabilities of the American military – for good or for ill.  With the recent American conflicts sometimes engaged in low-tech fighting, having a scientist focused on cutting edge research leading the charge may not be as effective.

Psychologist Nominated To Head Traffic Safety Agency

Last week President Obama nominated psychologist Mark Rosekind to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) (H/T ScienceInsider).  The NHTSA has been without a confirmed leader since January, and has been challenged of late by both technological advances and safety failures in automobiles.

Rosekind has been a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB is an independent Federal agency, the NHTSA is part of the Transportation Department) since 2010.  Rosekind’s work prior to joining the NTSB has involved research on pilot fatigue (which helped inform current protocols on pilot naps for long-distance travel), and efforts to combat distracted and other forms of impaired driving.

In a crowded legislative schedule, confirmations seem likely to be a casualty of Congressional dithering.  Even though Rosekind had to be confirmed before joining the NTSB, I am not optimistic that he will be confirmed by the end of the current Congress.  This would require restarting the process in January.  If that happens to Rosekind, he will likely not want for company.