Author Archive - admin

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.


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.”


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.

British Science Minister Uses Twitter for Conversation

June 14th, 2009

Posted by: admin

U.K. Science Minister Lord Drayson recently engaged critics of the U.K. government reshuffle in a civil, if not completely satisfying, conversation about whether the Minister could effectively represent both science and defence interests in the new Cabinet system.  As part of the reshuffle, Lord Drayson is both science minister and defence procurement minister.

The conversation took place over Twitter (H/T SciTechDaily).  While many conversations have no doubt taken place via the all-too-brief service, American politicians have typically opted to use the service for broadcasts rather than discussion.  U.S. government agencies use it as another way of communicating news and press releases.  U.S. polticians appear to prefer using the service to link to statements and other press documents, and/or broadcast their immediate thoughts, often derailing the careful conditioning of their communications staff.  Others are masquerading as streams from the politicians, when the tweets are posted by staffers.

Few U.S. politicians seem to engage in a back and forth like the one Lord Drayson did.  It’s not clear to me whether he is typical of Cabinet Ministers or other British politicians in this.  I’d like to think so, because finding sniping on Twitter is all too easy.  Twitter is proving of value in following breaking events, like the current situation in Iran.  Whether it succeeds in other forms of political engagement will depend as much on those tweeting as those reading them.

Canadian Science Minister Muddles in Peer Review

June 13th, 2009

Posted by: admin

From ScienceInsider comes this report that the Canadian science minister has taken an extraordinary step of asking the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to conduct a second peer review of an awarded workshop grant.  The topic of the workshop is “Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace.”  This is a topic that can attract controversy, and the issue has been the source of protest when combined with scientific events.  The minister’s stated objections are that:

“several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.”

Independent of the accuracy of these claims (the ScienceInsider article notes only two speakers have withdrawn over the issue, and neither are Israeli), there’s plenty wrong with why this would be a valid reason to re-do the peer review.   There doesn’t appear to be a claim that the possible bias of these speakers has influenced the work that would be presented (and supported).  In other words, no clear indication or suggestion of bad research that was missed by the review process.  This was a political request to change scientific procedures for non-scientific reasons.