Some Changes to Announce

June 15th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

There are some changes to announce.

Prometheus is going to be retired. It has been a while in coming, but the fact that our center website is due for a comprehensive overhaul, necessitating a significant redesign and likely extended downtime makes the timing appropriate. I would like to thank CU and CIRES for their support of the blog 100% and without reservation since its inception.

Center leadership has offered to invest what it takes to keep the blog going, but I have decided that it is time for a change. Our plan is to keep the Prometheus archive up and available. There will be no new posts after July 31.

For my part I will be blogging at my new site effective immediately. That site is

Please update your bookmarks accordingly, and I look forward to hearing from you at the new site.

Finally, many thanks to our readers, old and new.

Top 10 Things I liked about Prometheus

June 29th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

1. We could keep up with the latest in the “big” climate science (as in GCM, IPCC) world in minutes a day. This comes in handy at work “hasn’t the A2 emissions scenario been proven to be way underestimating current conditions?”. Cocktail parties- not so much.

2. We could have discussions only other science policy wonks are interested in.. My model estimates the density of science policy wonks in the US is about 1 per 100 square miles. So without a virtual meeting place, we are likely to never interact except in hubs such as D.C. Those of us who spent time in D.C. can fondly remember our time worshipping at the Temple of Science (the NAS building) through virtual wonkhood.

3. We could interact between science policy practitioners in the real world and academics. What if medical researchers never spoke to actual doctors or got feedback on their research and how it applies in the real world? Whoops, forgot, most sciences do operate that way. This is actually pretty rare, and immensely mutually beneficial.

4. People were civil and respectful and dialogue led to deeper understanding. People would call each other on questionable claims and assumptions without the called upon leaving in a huff. I have tried to comment on some natural resource issues in online newspapers and magazines; the dialogue there seldom has to do with the exchange of ideas but rather clobbering people with accusations about their motives. Our level of civility is darn rare, in my experience.

5. One of my personal pet peeves is a project I am working on at work that is consistently portrayed incorrectly in the press. I have a hypothesis that the more invalid claims, the less likely it is that a venue provides an opportunity to comment below the story.. I like Prometheus because any claims are subjected to discussion and validation.. always. Including stories where comments are not a part of the orginal site.

6. I could find kindred spirits about downscaling not being the essential approach to think about the future; how can downscaled climate models be essential when downscaled economic models are not? Where else could you talk about whether knowing you don’t know is better than thinking you know and really not knowing?

7. People from all disciplines engaged and brought their perspectives. One of the discussions I thought was great was when economist, chemists and other started talking about how they deal with modeling and testing the results of models in their fields.

8. We could talk about science policy being about more than how much money is in the NSF, NIH, DOE and DOD research budgets (who else is supremely tired of hearing about this?)

9. Roger calling people on how they can be purveyors of “objective science” and deal snarkily with those who disagree: where else could that happen?

10. My fellow Prometheites.. respectful, thoughtful , insightful, questioning and contributing to my knowledge and thought development.

Here’s a virtual glass of Golden City Brewery Legendary Red Ale against a virtual background of Einstein’s Statue to Roger and all you fellow Prometheites!

Beaming Out

June 22nd, 2009

Posted by: admin

As of today, my new blog is ready for visitors.  Besides the usual topics I’ve written about here, I’ll write on science, technology and society topics that didn’t seem quite right for Prometheus.  Find me at:

I’ve imported my Prometheus posts to the new site, though you should still be able to find them here.

I want to thank a few people.  Roger, for giving me the space to write.  Ami, for keeping things running online really smoothly, and handling the rare technical issue deftly.  Lisa and Kevin, for keeping me in the loop while Roger was on sabbatical, and Genevieve, who uploaded some of my earliest posts.

Last, and not least, thanks to all who read and all who commented.  Without your feedback (or pushback), my posts wouldn’t have been nearly as good, and probably focused on a narrow set of topics.  Please visit me at the new site and speak up.

Research Takes First Step on Tolerance of Nanoparticles

June 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Scientist has a capsule review of a 2007 research article on the ability of mice to purge themselves of nanoparticles.  The full article is available in Nature Biotechnology (subscription/purchase required).  The article also includes notes on some subsequent work in this area.

As nanotechnology matures, providing more and more products with particles measured in nanometers, the risk of exposure to these particles needs to be assessed and regulated.  Being able to determine what size of particles can be expelled by the body and what sizes accumulate in the body helps shape the questions for the regulatory landscape.  But it doesn’t close off exploration into potential risks.

While other regulatory models can provide useful examples, it’s important to remember that the scale of these particles may provide unique concerns.  I would hope that the hard lessons of chemical regulation – where accumulated exposure flew under the regulatory radar for years (see Krimsky’s Hormonal Chaos for a good overview), could be used to good effect here.  It may not be enough that the small particles can be expelled.  Enough transitory exposures over time could have unfortunate effects, much like enough small doses of certain chemicals have had dramatic effects on endocrine systems.

UK Petition Pushes Linear Model to the Extreme

June 20th, 2009

Posted by: admin

There is a custom in the U.K. to submit petitions to the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street.  It can be done in person, by mail, or electronically.  Some of the petitions deal with science and technology issues.  One that I saw circulate on a listserv claims that the U.K. government is moving its research portfolio to support research where the results are already known.  As of today, about 1550 people have signed on to a petition pressuring the government to:

“request the reversal of a policy now being applied by the UK Research Councils. This policy directs funds to projects whose outcomes are specified in advance.”

This reads – at least to this American – that the U.K. is essentially supporting busy work – research that is pointless to conduct since the results are known in advance.  Looking further at the petition, there is this text:

“Where a specific outcome can be predicted with confidence, then there is no research.”

“The UK taxpayer should not support investigations with foregone conclusions, however beguiling. UK research must not be guided by wishful thinking, nor relegated to producing footnotes for ground-breaking discoveries made elsewhere.”

There is a bit of a shift in perspective as the text proceeds.

Read the rest of this entry »

UK Backs Away from a Bibliometric Research Assessment Exercise

June 19th, 2009

Posted by: admin

According to ScienceInsider (and Times Higher Education), the planned shift of the U.K. Research Assessment Exercise from peer review to bibliometric analysis may not happen.  Bibliometric analysis may still be used, but only to guide the extensive peer review process that has determined how the U.K. government distributes research money to its universities.  Part of the reason for the proposed shift had to deal with the significant costs involved.

Moving foward the Higher Education Funding Council will need to figure out how bibliometrics could be used in a meaningful way.  Otherwise there will be additional pressure to try and bump up citation counts and numbers of publications with little regard to the quality of either.  There are already ways to game the assessment in terms of who and what is selected by institutions to be assessed.  If bibliometric analysis isn’t crafted carefully, the ways to skew results will increase.

Bioethics Panel Dismissed; Obama Panel Will Be More Policy Oriented

June 18th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Per the New York Times, the President’s Council on Bioethics has been given its walking papers.  Although the Council’s authority was set to expire September 30, it has been asked to cancel its June meeting, and the members have been told their services are no longer needed.  I have found no indication that the naming of a new council is imminent, but it stands to reason that it should happen soon, at least prior to September 30.

The New York Times article notes that

“The council was disbanded because it was designed by the Bush administration to be “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus, said Reid Cherlin, a White House press officer.

“President Obama will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a new mandate and that “offers practical policy options,” Mr. Cherlin said.”

Aside from the stem cell decision made by President Bush early in his administration, there have been few, if any, policy judgments made that received recommendations from the council.  It has issued several reports on various biomedical issues, but they were often readers on the subject, essay collections, or other documents more suited for background information than policy advice.  This is, of course, the perogative of the President.

NASA Human Spaceflight Review Meets Today

June 17th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Technology Review reports in advance of today’s meeting of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, here in Washington.  The panel was announced last month by President Obama, in advance of his nominating Gen. Charles Bolden, Jr. to head NASA.  Points worth noting from the article:

  • “three key questions that the panel will examine: whether it’s possible to reduce the gap in launch capability, what the options are for extending the use of the ISS beyond 2016, and what a timetable for missions beyond low-earth orbit (LEO) might look like, given budget constraints.”

  • The panel will be advice-only.  Recommendations will be provided, but not binding.  That may have been necessary to get a NASA Administrator candidate on board
  • While the panel will address the balance of human and robotic missions, it will not address other priorities for NASA.  This is a mixed bag.  While it allows the panel to focus on a specific aspect of NASA, it does not allow for an examination of overall NASA priorities – something that arguably is as needed as a general assessment of the human spaceflight agenda.

The panel is supposed to provide recommendations in August.  I would expect more meetings in a relatively quick timeframe.  You might be able to watch these meetings on NASA TV, or via the NASA website.

Business Methods Patents to Receive Scrutiny

June 16th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case regarding the validity of business method patents (H/T Wall Street Journal).  Business method patents cover ways of doing business, and became a larger share of patents as electronic commerce and other computerized activities became widespread.  An example of such a patent is Amazon’s 1-Click method for expediting online orders.

As the petition for a writ of certiorari reads, the issue in this case is:

Whether the Federal Circuit erred by holding that a “process” must be tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or transform a particular article into a different state or thing (“machine-or-transformation” test), to be eligible for patenting under 35 U.S.C. § 101, despite this Court’s precedent declining to limit the broad statutory grant of patent eligibility for “any” new and useful process beyond excluding patents for “laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas.”

Read the rest of this entry »

FutureGen Clean Coal Plant May Get New Life

June 15th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Wired notes that the FutureGen clean coal plant, which had been shuttered in part due to perceived cost overruns (which were a result of bad math), may rise again. The plant is intended to demonstrate carbon capture and storage at levels and costs that would encourage other power plants to follow suit.

On Friday the Department of Energy issued a press release indicating it had reached an agreement with the FutureGen Alliance (the private part of this public-private partnership).  The agreement would allow the project to move forward with needed planning, research, and design activities, with a final decision on building the plant in early 2010.  Most of the DOE contribution will come from Recovery Act funds.

NOTE: FWIW, I will continue blogging after the pending retirement of this siteUnlike Roger, my shingle is not yet ready.  Once it is (and it should be soon), I’ll post the link here.