Archive for the ‘Democratization of Knowledge’ Category

British Science Minister Uses Twitter for Conversation

June 14th, 2009

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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.

Paging Captain Renault – Research Journal Out for Access Fees

June 10th, 2009

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The Scientist is the source of our Casablanca flashback, with its report that an open access journal published by Bentham was willing to publish a ‘nonsense’ paper that supposedly passed peer review.  A Ph.D. student in science communications and a staffer at The New England Journal of Medicine have been testing journals peer review practices by submitting papers generated by computer program.  They document this particular incident on their blog.  In short, the journal agreed to publish the article, if the authors paid the fee, and asserted it had passed peer review.

At a minimum the publisher Bentham is guilty of allowing journals to assert peer review when none had taken place.  The scamming conclusion is reasonable, given the reports.  I’m not in agreement that open access journals are necessarily more suspect of putting out supposedly peer-reviewed articles that weren’t so reviewed.  Yes, they do charge more fees than traditional journals (who could be scamming authors for photo and chart fees, amongst other things), but an open access journal is not more likely to skimp on peer review than any other journal.

What bothers me is that it has to take generating obviously lousy articles to ferret out derelict peer review.  Given the volume of scientific publishing, there’s an enormous amount of implicit trust in the processes behind these articles that people will continue to exploit.  I wish I had even the germ of a possible solution here.

Behavioralists and Public Policy

June 2nd, 2009

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This short SEED Magazine piece describes some of the efforts to incorporate behavioral science into the design of user interfaces.  The examples focus on government programs and websites.  One of the recent waves of popular science books has focused on such shaping of public action, including Nudge.  One of the co-authors of Nudge, Cass Sunstein, has been nominated to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget, so it’s possible this kind of behavioral thinking could further influence regulation.

While the science behind some of this design and thinking is new, it’s important to note that this is a more explicit treatment of the kind of behavior shaping that law and policy do all the time – limiting choice or designing systems to privilege particular outcomes or products.  What makes things different now is a greater ability to design things in advance with some notion of how people will react.  This makes discussion and debate over these issues more important before critical decisions were made, rather than trying to revisit them later.

NSF Slowly Catching Up to Web 2.0

June 1st, 2009

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With the proliferation of online votes on questions, blogs and video, the White House website is taking the lead in terms of a government online presence.  The National Science Foundation, which sponsored some of the critical research in the emergence of the Internet, has been slow to respond.  One step toward a stronger web presence is the development of Science Nation (H/T Framing Science), what promises to be a weekly online multimedia resource highlighting research.  The current ‘issue’ focuses on extremophile hunters.  While this may not seem cutting edge to some, it is an additional tool NSF can use to communicate news on the research it supports.  Perhaps for the next edition of Science and Engineering Indicators they can take their charts and graphs to the next level.

More Journals Should Learn from Failure

May 30th, 2009

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I’m not speaking about the ongoing sea changes in print journalism, but about the tendency of researchers to submit, and scientific publishers to print, successful research and ignore the failures.  While anyone in any field can learn from what went wrong, certain areas of research (medicine and engineering come to mind) are in stronger positions to make meaningful contributions to knowledge and to the use of that knowledge from reporting what failed.  The same is true of history, where learning why something didn’t happen can provide insight.  Understanding that something didn’t work in a field can shift choices in products purchased, treatments sought, or services offered.  Yet most published research excludes that kind of result.

One small step to addressing the ignorance of failure is starting with the journal Restoration EcologyAccording to Nature, the editors of Restoration Ecology will host a regular section in their journal for reports on experiments and projects in the field that did not meet expectations.  Understanding the baggage attached to the work failure, the section is titled “Set-Backs and Surprises.”  Perhaps this will catch on with other journals, especially if the setback or surprise is couple with some kind of analysis or discussion of lessons learned.  While policymakers are often focused more on the successes than what didn’t work, they do respond to lessons learned.  In that way, they may have a healthier attitude toward failure than the researchers they support. Now Live

May 21st, 2009

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Joining, and is, a website hosting government data sets from Executive Branch agencies (H/T Science Progress).  It is still somewhat thin, with only 47 data sets, but they are available in different formats. You can find other data sets through open government groups like the Sunlight Foundation, or hosted by Amazon.  Additionally, the website is taking suggestions for what datasets to add.

Aside from the potential of this website as a data tool, this provides another resources for third-party examination of government data.  With the increased availability of programs to crunch, collate, sort and analyze data, going back through “old data” like that available on could provide new insights and information we couldn’t get before.  I expect non-governmental organizations like the Sunlight Foundation to stay ahead of government efforts in this area.  What websites like provide is additional encouragement to make more government data available and/or easy to work with.  With a multitude of data formats used today, there is no guarantee that a Census data file will be easily matched with Bureau of Labor Statistics information.  Hopefully more disclosure will help address these formatting concerns.

Lawsuit Filed Over Gene Patents

May 16th, 2009

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Picking up on a post from last month, ScienceInsider and others have reported on a lawsuit that may test the validity of gene patents.  The Public Patent Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed suit against Myriad Genetics, which is the company owning the patents, and controlling the genetic tests, for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that show a predisposition to breast cancer.  Among the allegations is that the monopoly on these genes and the associated diagnostic tests prevents patients from obtaining a second opinion.  Apparently any examination of these genes requires permission from Myriad Genetics, which seems like an overreach of the traditional conception of the protection afforded patent holders.  The consequences to individuals include the inability to have other scientists assess the results of the tests and the influence of these genes on the potential for cancer.  General effects include a chill on research into these genes, and other consequences addressed by Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine Sir John Sulston.

It’s unfortunate that the validity of gene patents is going to be tested in this fashion, as I don’t expect this validity to be shaken.  Perhaps it’s a consequence of the deep pockets necessary to participate in a patent infringement case (on either side), but I think some kind of fair use or research exemption arrived at through an infringment action is a stronger legal claim than infringement of free speech.  Since the state of genetic understanding over the last several years has typically exposed more about what we don’t know that what we do know, to restrict access to genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 appears to cause more harm than good.

AAAS Forum Addresses – Why No Full Transcripts?

May 6th, 2009

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Topping off a strong public week for American science and technology policy, last week the AAAS Forum presented addresses by both Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.  Usually the Forum does well to get one political appointee at that level, to have two should prompt a little bit of P.R. bragging.  What it apparently doesn’t include is full text of their respective remarks.  Sure, you can find excerpts of those remarks at the AAAS website, with video clops.  Good luck finding any amount of those remarks on the OSTP or Energy Department websites.

I think I understand what’s going on (for the record, I did not attend the Forum, so I don’t know the full content of the addresses).  AAAS typically provides (and sells to those who didn’t attend) copies of their Yearbooks, which are essentially conference proceedings of their Forums.  So they may be holding onto the good stuff until the next Yearbook is ready.  If this is accurate, I think it’s unfortunate.  Why not use the big addresses to sell the rest of the content from the Forum?  AAAS already puts up a lot of Forum content online (look here for last year’s material, including an address from then OSTP Director John Marburger), why not prime the pump by pushing the Chu and Holdren addresses in their entirety?  It sounds like AAAS could take a couple more steps toward embracing new media strategies.

Whitehouse Joins Twitter; Social Networking Sites No Longer Cool

May 1st, 2009

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You can now ‘poke’ the White House.  Earlier today the White House officially joined Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (H/T The Atlantic Politics Channel).  This follows a trend of introducing blogs to various government agencies, as well as Twitter feeds.  For full benefit, you would need to have accounts with Facebook and MySpace (I do not), but you can follow Twitter without one, and syndicate Twitter updates with a regular RSS feed tool.  If early trends hold, the Obama Administration will use Twitter to feed news releases to the public.  It will also ReTweet, or repost, Twitter messages from other federal agencies.

The Obama campaign utilized social networking tools effectively during the campaign.  It’s unclear to what extent they will repeat this pattern, in part because the organizing and campaigning functions from those websites have shifted to an organization called Organizing for America.  I have no idea if this will be earth-shattering.  Many of the changes brought about by using this media have been shown through the campaign, and won’t necessarily seem new in a governing context.  An interesting side issue will be what happens if any of these social networking services handle some consumer issue badly.  Would the White House have felt the obligation to weigh in on the recent changes in Facebook’s terms of service (and the associated privacy concerns) if it had its page then?

Swine Flu, Technology and Policy

April 27th, 2009

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This is not the first time flu and technology have intersected.  While Google Flu Trends is currently mum on the swine flu, you can track CDC notices via Twitter or its official Swine Flu pageGlobal tweets are also available (H/T Marc Ambinder).

A couple of policy points worth making here.  We currently have an acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, no doubt at least in part due to the continuing absence of a confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services.  While that might also explain why Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been the highest profile government face on this issue, it’s a good argument to try and make sure the transition process can happen more smoothly and more quickly to allow for staff to take positions sooner after January 20 than is currently the case.  Secondly, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the public health response in the U.S. to this flu (especially if it gets worse), and see what changes, if any, need to be made.  $420 million in funds for pandemic flu were removed from the recent funding bills, and it would be nice to know whether that was a good call.

A final point.  It’s relatively early in the process here.  While the cases in the United States have not been as widespread, nor as lethal, as those in Mexico, we simply don’t know enough yet to be sure.  This item from the New York Times explains some of the yet unanswered questions that will help map this particular outbreak.  This post from Effect Measure helps explain what the numbers mean (and don’t mean) and what makes an epidemic, pandemic, and outbreak.