Archive for the ‘International’ 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.

Canadian Science Minister Muddles in Peer Review

June 13th, 2009

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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.


Shaky UK Government May Affect Science Policy

June 5th, 2009

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UPDATE – 7 pm EDT, 6/5/09 – apparently the DIUS is no more, according to Nature.  It will be incorporated into a new department, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.  Whether Nature neglected a comma after Business or not is unclear.

UPDATE – 6/6/09 – Apparently Nature did neglect the comma, but given how it’s absent from the Department logo, but not the announcement, I can understand the confusion.

Original Post – I’d encourage any of our readers closer to this to provide additional details, but I found it interesting this speculation from Nature News that the troubles in the government of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown could affect the organization of science policy in that country.  The Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet in light of recent resignations, promoting the current head of the Department on Universities, Innovation and Skills (DIUS) to a Cabinet position.  DIUS was created by PM Brown in 2007 to put universities and innovation issues in the same place.  Previously innovation concerns were handled in a department focused on business interests.  The Nature report reflects concerns that things will return to where they were before.


Science Diplomacy and the Cairo Address

June 4th, 2009

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There’s a portion of today’s remarks by President Obama that focuses on scientific efforts in Africa and the Middle East (H/T ScienceInsider).  I think it qualifies as the science diplomacy that Nina Federoff and Sir David Beddington discussed earlier this week.

“On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs.  We’ll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops.  Today I’m announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio.  And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

All these things must be done in partnership.  Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.”

With luck this might set aright Dr. Federoff’s concerns about the science budget at the State Department.

“But Fedoroff said that science could be a casualty of a “tight budget” in the state department [sic], which helps to coordinate US scientific collaborations abroad. The US economic recovery package is predominantly focused on investment at home and “this could be a real stumbling block because we need to collaborate internationally”.”

Science Diplomats on Science Diplomacy

June 3rd, 2009

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Among the other interesting discussions at the science diplomacy event Yasmin Khan posted about was a set of remarks from the science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, Nina Federoff, and the chief science adviser of the U.K. government, Sir David Beddington.  Part of their discussion (H/T Nature News) outlined the challenges of avoiding the misuse of science to acheive political goals.  Another important distinction made was the difference of using science in diplomacy and science diplomacy.  While this may seem obvious to some, it’s an important reminder that the former – such as addressing international resource shortages – is distinct from the latter – using science to form partnerships.  It also seems like that the former will get more attention.

Science in the Service of Diplomacy

May 10th, 2009

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There’s an interesting call in Foreign Policy for a greater use of American scientists in foreign policy.  By the authors’ definition of science diplomacy – “scientific cooperation and engagement with the explicit intent of building positive relationships with foreign governments and societies” – the State Department is not nearly doing as much as it could.  The more specific recommendations are nothing particularly new, though it is worth noting that the article has a rare use of H-1B visas outside of an economic competitiveness context.

Unfortunately, the authors failed to address what steps the State Department has taken over the last ten years to improve its efforts in using science and scientists to support its policy objectives.  I think the authors’ criticisms are valid.  But to recommend the appoinment of a senior ambassador for science and technology cooperation without mentioning the existing science adviser to the Secretary of State is odd.  Do the authors think the position isn’t working?  Do they know it exists?  I would hope so, as one of the people who held the position, Dr. Norm Neuriter, currently works for the AAAS, as does one of the authors.  Do they have any comment on whether Senator Lugar’s bill creating science envoys would address their concerns?  Not in this article.  Clearly more debate and discussion on this issue would be worthwhile, just to see if everyone interested in the topic understands what’s currently going on.

Senator Lugar Wants to Create Science Envoys

April 22nd, 2009

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Update – the bill text is now available

Senator Richard Lugar, (R-Indiana) introduced a bill yesterday calling for the creation of “Science Envoys” through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (H/T ScienceInsider).  These envoys would receive grants for short-term stays abroad.  While abroad, the scientists would forge connections between their host institutions in the U.S. and those in the country where they are posted.  This would be distinct from the Consular Officers responsible for science that are posted to some State Department facilities around the world.

Unfortunately, Senator Lugar’s website is not as current as you might like, so the statement he issued on the program is not yet available online (though it appears to have been excerpted in full at a different site).  Likewise, the bill (S838), is not yet available via THOMAS, the legislative tracking site administered by the Library of Congress.  Once it is, you can read it here.

I like the idea, as it would be a welcome supplement to the international exchanges already happening with some universities establishing branch campuses overseas, and with scholars pursuing opportunities like the Fulbright program to pursue research and teaching in other countries.  The U.S. has succeeded with this kind of public diplomacy before, so why not try again?  Hopefully the legislation will allow for stays of sufficient duration, and will be funded with sufficient resources to encourage top scientists to pursue these opportunities.

State Department Adds a CTO

April 14th, 2009

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Alec Ross recently joined the State Department as a senior adviser on innovation.  He will work on leveraging new technologies to help fulfill the various missions of the State Department.  So he won’t necessarily be a Chief Technology Officer in the sense of how the Department will use technology internally, but he will guide the Department in how it uses technology.  In an important way this is a valuable next step in the modernization of the State Department.  It follows the effort, prompted by a 1999 National Academies report encouraging the development of a science adviser for the Secretary of State (currently Nina Federoff).

By no means will Ross hold a position that is the technology equivalent of Federoff’s, as some would like to see happen in the U.K. government, but the work he will do (and the work done by whoever will eventually coordinate the governments slide toward more open government) is valuable for helping fulfill political and policy objectives with the help of technology.

Twitter Actually Good for Something

April 11th, 2009

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While reviewing the Twitter streams of members of Congress typically does them no favors, there are politically oriented uses that have some traction and value.  Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog indicates that Twitter has joined texting (which is pretty much what Twitter based itself on) and other social networking sites as means for organizing political protest. This adds to the use of Twitter for early warning and the distractions of Twitter in the courts, among other (likely) unintended consequences of the service.

The specific example here relates to recent political protests in Moldova over parliamentary elections that some believe were fixed.  While this is reminiscent of other recent political movements in former Soviet republics and their use of technology to organize, there’s no reason to believe the use of these technologies would be limited to that part of the world.  For me the main question is whether or not the technology would remain viable long enough to become a target of oppression.  Some networking sites have a short shelf life, which might make it harder for groups to be found and caught.  It could also provide a leading indicator of unrest in societies – is the government blocking a particular service.  For instance, you can check on the various countries that have blocked YouTube at one time or another (some of these are due to intellectual property rights issues).  As you will read if you peruse the list, it can be difficult for countries to truly clamp down on internet sites, particularly those with global reach.  It doesn’t mean some nation won’t try.

UK Chief Scientist Argues for More Science Advice in the EU.

March 13th, 2009

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Professor John Beddington, The U.K. Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, recommended in remarks with BBC News (H/T Nature News) that the European Union needs stronger scientific advice.  He specifically recommended following the American model, oddly enough, pointing to President Obama’s “dream team” as a good example for Europe to follow.  Professor Beddington was positive about the research support provided to the Commission, but feels that more “brutal” policy advice was needed.

Perhaps he didn’t want to appear self-serving, but it appears to me that the American model is not nearly as well suited to what Professor Beddington wants as the U.K. model is.  Throughout the BBC News piece you’ll note descriptions of the British system (which includes scientific advisers in 17 different departments) as independent, proactive and sometimes irritating.  While that certainly describes science policy advocates in this country, American science advisers are not set up to be independent or proactive.  At least not those advisers with formal government positions.  So I am a bit perplexed as why the less independent system would be advanced as the example to follow.