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.

Chief Technology Officer Bill Back, Now With New Sponsor

When President Obama decided to have a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the position is not permanent.  At the moment, should his successor opt not to appoint one, the CTO position would cease to exist.

Since 2009, there have been two bills introduced to put the CTO position into law.  The bills, had either passed, would have put into law the specific requirements of the position, and establish a separate office for the CTO.  While this would make the position last longer than a single presidential administration, it would also remove a flexibility with the position that is reflected in the backgrounds and portfolios of the three CTO’s appointed by the Obama Administration.

The bills essentially make the CTO position into the head of information technology purchasing and implementation in the government.  That’s an important function, but there already is a federal chief information officer.  Ideally, at least from where I type, the CTO would be on par with the President’s chief science adviser.  Focusing the position on information technology runs the risk of making the job the government’s tech support, instead of a position focused on how to utilize all kinds of technology to support the government and serve the public.

There is now a third bill attempting to formalize the CTO position.  While the first two were sponsored by Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia), the latest bill is sponsored by Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia), and co-sponsored by members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, where Loudermilk serves as chair of the Oversight Subcommittee.  The House Science Committee was not involved with the previous bills, which were considered by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  The newest bill has been referred to both committees for consideration

The latest bill makes the CTO position optional, but would require any CTO appointment to also serve as the Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  (The first CTO in the Obama Administration, Aneesh Chopra, served in both positions.  His successors did not.)  The bill does focus the CTO position on information technology responsibilities, but it does think a bit more broadly than IT.  The CTO would also handle information exchange between the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the public; agency records transparency; and technological interoperability.

I appreciate the greater breadth of portfolio in this bill, but I’d rather not see the CTO subsumed by the OSTP.  An equal partner is more to my liking, but your mileage may vary.  I don’t expect this bill to have a better fate than its predecessors, but it’s certainly not to soon to see what President Obama’s successors might do about a CTO.  Where does your candidate stand on the issue?

White House Demo Day Announced

Earlier today the Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, announced the first White House Demo Day to take place later this year.

As described on the Demo Day website, the idea appears to be something like the White House Science Fair for entrepreneurs.  Put another way, successful entrepreneurs will come to talk about their ideas and how they managed their success.  The White House is particularly interested in hearing from entrepreneurs in underrepresented groups.  Nominees are being taken (scroll down) until this Friday, April 24.

(A 72-hour window for nominations may be a record short window of comment from this White House.  The cynical part of my analytical faculties makes me think that most of the entrepreneurs are already lined up, and this is just for show.  But I can’t prove that.)

The Demo Day announcement follows on last week’s Tech Meetup, an event where organizers of activities like maker fairs, coding camps, and other gatherings of local technology talent met at the White House to share best practices and discuss how to replicate their efforts in other places.

Oklahoma Acts To Innovate – In Executions

On Friday the Governor of Oklahoma signed into law a bill that would establish nitrogen-induced hypoxia as a means of executing prisoners, should circumstances prevent lethal injection from being used. The bill does not get into specifics, it simply modifies the existing law on the order of preference for methods of execution (Oklahoma now has four).  The law would take effect November 1, 2015.  Oklahoma does not currently have any executions scheduled, and the executions of three men are currently stayed pending a Supreme Court case.

While gas chambers have been used for executions in the United States (inmates in three states still have the option of death by gas), the active gas used to suffocate the condemned was never nitrogen.  The general principle is the same, a gas is pumped into a sealed chamber, and the condemned dies after breathing it.  Hydrogen cyanide was the most common gas used in the United States for executions, and it is considered a chemical warfare agent.  Using nitrogen for execution could be very different as it is not toxic, and could cause much less pain and suffering for the condemned.  It would likely be easier to use than hydrogen cyanide.

But it is an untested method.  Oklahoma has no experience with a gas chamber, and with its challenges in administering lethal injections, I can understand why some would doubt the state’s ability to effectively innovate in executions.  However, should the Supreme Court rule against the state’s lethal injection protocols later this year, Oklahoma may well set an example for other states seeking ways around the roadblocks to lethal injection.

Sidebar – While the Supreme Court case on Oklahoma’s methods may make this moot, the federal death penalty may force a more definitive legal stance on lethal injection.  The federal government’s preferred method of execution defers to the state in which the crime took place.  Should there be no death penalty in that state, the judge must choose a state with a death penalty to carry out the execution.  While this typically means lethal injection, it is plausible that the recent turmoil in the states may affect how the federal government conducts its executions.  However, no federal execution has been carried out since 2003, and none are scheduled at the time of this writing.