Archive for the ‘Hodge Podge’ Category

Science Fiction and Policy

May 22nd, 2009

Posted by: admin

From the front page (of the Style Section) of today’s Washington Post, there’s an article about the latest engagement between government and science fiction writers on the future.  This is an ongoing effort, currently with the Department of Homeland Security, to encourage different kinds of thinking that has some basis in science.  The costs are minimal, but light pieces like the one linked to here really don’t address the value of such programs.  As this is a flip side of the efforts to get better scientific advice for entertainment ventures, it’s disappointing to see relatively superficial coverage like this.

Open For Questions Model Spreads to States

April 13th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Washington State (or at least the Democrats in its Senate) is using an online tool similar to those used by the Obama transition and the Administration to take questions from the public.  The Evergreen State’s version of Open for Questions is focused on the state’s budget (H/T Internet Innovation Alliance), and works with Google Moderator.  If trends with these tools hold to past practice, expect some attempt to raise money through legalized marijuana to show up on the board (No, I am not making that up).

It would not surprise me if other states are at least trying similar online tools to engage with constituents.  The Washington example is the first one similar to national efforts that crossed my screen.  A useful policy question would be whether or not such efforts can comply with state public records laws.  Such concerns at the federal level have complicated the push (both now and before the Obama Administration made it a priority) to move more government information and activity online.

What’s Hiding in Old Data?

April 10th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The recent discovery of an exoplanet in Hubble Space Telescope footage (H/T 80beats) is not so dramatic, until you learn that it’s footage from 1998.  It wasn’t an oversight, but the application of a new technique for filtering starlight from images.  Now astronomers are giddy with the prospect of finding more objects that were previously hidden.

While this makes the astronomy minor in me happy, the policy analyst in me is wondering how much new stuff is hiding in old data, and how finding it can be encouraged.  On the face of it, digging through old stuff sounds like history, like archival research.  I can easily see some fields looking askance at such work as not cutting edge, not likely to produce results, and generally a waste of time.  Perhaps the robotic forms of research I posted about earlier could do some of this work, but I think there would be a certain amount of human judgment required.  Maybe that will change.

How Not to Embed Scientists in the Military?

April 6th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Wired’s Danger Room blog has the latest installment of the Army’s effort to embed social scientists with the troops serving in combat.  The Human Terrain Team participants have recently been told they will be shifted from contractors to government employees.  If they choose not to, they can leave the program.  The blog writer is expecting a mass exodus, and may well be right.  But the program has had a big list of problems, not the least of which are the casualties.  This paragraph has a nice summary, and you can search the Danger Room blog for Human Terrain to see the rest of the coverage of Human Terrain.

Three of the program’s social scientists have been killed on duty. One former employee has pleaded guilty to manslaughter, for a revenge slaying in Afghanistan. Another is awaiting trial on espionage charges. Most recently, a sexual harrassment investigation found that one of the Human Terrain groups in Afghanistan had become a “hostile environment” to female employees.

Now, there has been general criticism of this program, just like there has of the wars in which it has been deployed.  Those are all valid questions, but somewhat separate from the broader issue of what scientists can provide in terms of boots on the ground support.  Like their military counterparts – the Civil Affairs/Foreign Area Officers – the advisory role these scientists can play has value in working with the populations where military personnel are deployed.  It would behoove someone within the Department of Defense to do some kind of analysis of the Human Terrain program to try and see how the problems of that program can be avoided in the future.

A Different Kind of Automated Science

April 5th, 2009

Posted by: admin

In a sort-of related followup to yesterday’s post, there’s another recent item in Wired Science about how a computer program derived laws of motion in over a day without any knowledge of physics.  It’s an example of how computing capacity is reaching a point where large amounts of data can be crunched to determine underlying principles or rules.  In a reversal of traditional scientific practice, these rules would then require analysis and explanation.  While yesterday’s robot example has some significant human resource implications in terms of possibly putting bench scientists out of work, such displacement doesn’t seem to be the case here.  The influence of this development is more on the how of science than the who of science.  However, reaching consensus over why a particular phenomena follows specific rules could easily be as contentious as reaching consensus over whether specific observations prove certain rules are operative.

Big Blue Descendant May Be Future Nobel Winner

April 4th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Computers and robots have helped automate science dramatically over the last 70 years.  In most cases, this involved so-called ‘brute force’ applications, where the scope of calculations involved sucked up a lot of time and required a lot of people.  Computers helped displace the legions of human calculators – usually female -  employed to do astronomical or ballistic calculations by hand (read When Computers Were Human).  Computers and robotics helped make genome mapping something that can be done in months rather than decades.

In what could prompt another shift in scientific human resources, there are reports (H/T Wired Science) of a robot actually forming and testing hypotheses.  Working in the baker’s yeast genome, the robot Adam worked to fill in gaps in understanding of the yeast’s metabolism.  By scanning a database of similar genes and enzymes from other organisms, Adam utilized algorithms to determine possible genes in the yeast genome that would correspond to orphan enzymes – enzymes that had no known gene coding for them.  After forming an hypothesis, Adam would conduct the experiment, analyze the data, and refine the hypothesis.  The robot’s designers recently confirmed by hand Adam’s discovery of three genes that coded for an orphan enzyme.

At the moment, designing these robots will continue to be a specialized affair – one robot for a particular area of research will likely be different from a robot for a different area of research.  But if there is the potential of standardizing, or at least spreading, such robot development, how and where science can be conducted could change dramatically.


GAO Borrows Sting Tactics from Chief Wiggum to Bust For-Profit IRBs

March 27th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Nature’s The Great Beyond blog has an interesting, if annoying, entry on a recent Congressional investigation into for-profit Institutional Research Boards (IRBs).  For those readers who haven’t done research involving humans, IRBs sign off on research protocols in human subject research.  Universities and other non-profit research organizations have them, but there are also for-profit IRBs.  As the profit motive in such operations can skew toward generating approvals rather than fulfilling the expected research oversight, a Congressional investigation into these companies makes sense to me.

You can read the specifics – statement from witnesses and Representatives, supporting documents – about the hearing via the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s website.  The really short version – the committee had Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators set up fake companies with fake products seeking IRB approval.  So far, so good.  The tactics, however, suggest an interest in the eventual Congressional grandstanding had way too much influence over the investigation.   From the blog entry:


President Will Answer Questions about the Economy Online

March 24th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Tonight’s press conference is not the last stop in President Obama’s speaking tour on the economy.  On Thursday, according to a press release, the President will answer questions Thursday morning in an online town hall.  The project, called “Open for Questions,” is similar to the question solicitations handled online during the recent transition.  It looks like the Administration would like to continue these question periods beyond Thursday’s first effort.

To submit a question, you will need to go online, set up an account (agreeing to the terms of participation), and submit your question.  You may present a question without particpating in the system through an alternative process.

In the spirit of other collaborative web tools, participants may also vote up/vote down other questions submitted, or flag questions as inappropriate.  The only grounds for flagging are violating the terms of participation.  As outlined in that document, questions need to be civil and on topic.  If not, then they can be flagged.  How effective this will be in reducing the slag often found in online comments or the campaigns to win online votes is unclear.  Then again, even traditional press conferences have a few odd questions from professional question-askers.

Technology in the Courts

March 18th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Two items of recent note about how technology supports – or doesn’t – the judicial process in the United States.

Soon in San Diego there will be the first test of a functional MRI (fMRI) machine in a court case.  Defendant’s counsel in the proceeding will introduce evidence from an fMRI scan to indicate that the defendant was telling the truth.  Wired Science has the details.  In short, the idea is that lying is connected to particular activity in a part of the pre-frontal cortex.  This idea has received a share of skepticism from some researchers, and that may determine whether or not such evidence is ruled admissible.  For California law, such science-based evidence must be readily accepted in the scientific community before the courts will accept it.  At the moment it’s unclear whether the technology will make the move from House to CSI (in TV terms).

In other court related news, judges are now having to deal (H/T Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog) with jurors spreading news about their cases during trial via social networking sites like Twitter.  Arguably this is an old problem – jurors are supposed to keep their information to themselves, and are supposed to consider only what is admitted in court – augmented by recent technology.  Given the added expenses of sequestering a jury (and the challenge of prohibiting such broadcasting and research in any setting), its unclear how the jury system will react to this trend.

Maps of Science: Possible Policy Tool?

March 17th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Wired Science highlighted a new effort in “mapping” science – a map representing clickstreams of searches that shows connections between fields.  It’s an effort of a team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory that was recently published in PLoS ONE.  A main distinction of this work compared to others (examples can be found at Maps of Science and Places and Spaces), and is that it analyzes web searches, and other maps have tracked journal citations.  Both are useful, but there is an important difference.  The citation traffic highlights what scientific communities consider important in their specific fields, and the search traffic focuses more attention on connections between knowledge clumps.

Map of Science

I like this kind of work, and the other mapping exercises like those sampled in the Wired Science post, because I don’t think enough attention is paid to the interrelationships between clumps of knowledge.  And because often the research questions that spawn those clumps of knowledge aren’t the same questions as policy questions, maps showing possible connections have the potential to guide policymakers to more relevant knowledge, or to identifying gaps in knowledge, than through a traditional literature search.