Archive for the ‘Technology Policy’ Category

U.K. Parliament Thinks Government Needs a Chief Engineer

April 3rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee of the U.K. Parliament recently released a report calling for a Chief Engineer (H/T Times Higher Education).  That is just one of the recommendations in the report Engineering: Turning Ideas into Reality, which is the output of a yearlong examination of engineering in the U.K. and how U.K. engineering is considered around the world.  The methodology:

We decided to take a case study approach, exploring key themes through the lenses of nuclear engineering, plastic electronics engineering, geo-engineering and engineering in Government.

The last case study grabbed my attention, as it is another opportunity to learn more about the scientific advisory structure in the U.K. government, which has more differences with the U.S. than the contrast of parliamentary and presidential systems.  The key conclusion in this area:

Our final case study went further and demonstrated that engineering advice and scientific advice offer different things, and that this should be recognised in the policy process.


Sisyphean Quest to Reform OTA Continues

March 31st, 2009

Posted by: admin

It what appears to have nothing to do with the Harold Varmus appearance I mentioned earlier this week, and seems coincidental with this essay by Gerald Epstein, there appears to be another push to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).  The OTA was an office within Congress that provided advise on science and technology issues to its members.  It was defunded (but not officially disbanded) in the mid-1990s.  There are plenty of Prometheus posts connected to the OTA, but a good refresher would include this post with comments from OTA staffers, and the last big push to reinstitute some kind of technology assessment capacity for Congress.  More on the last push (late 2007) can be found at Denialism.

The recent push appears to start from the remaining legislative champion of the OTA, Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey.  According to Science Cheerleader (H/T The Intersection), Rep. Holt will make a request for OTA funds this week, and argue his case before appropriators in May.  Since the OTA was just defunded, and not dissolved, technically the request for funds is sufficient to restart the agency.  Assuming Rep. Holt is successful, we shall see.  I wish this movement weren’t so focused on reconstituting the past, as I’m not sure that’s the easiest (or best) means of re-establishing science and technology advisory capacity in the Congress.  At a minimum, it’s not the only way, yet the advocates seem to act as though it is.  If there’s a compelling reason for this, I’d love to hear it.

A request – 100 MPG Cars?

March 23rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

I’m responding to an off-topic request from one of the comment threads on a recent post.  For the record (and others can ding me if I get this wrong), you can put those kinds of requests into writing after clicking on the Ask link in the right-hand column.

At any rate, the request, paraphrased, asked me about whether or not we would see a 100-mpg car with the same kinds of features that we see in cars today.

I was (and am still) reluctant to answer this for a few reasons.

Ultimately, my answer is I don’t know, but I doubt that’s satisfactory to some.

I’m nowhere near a gearhead/petrolhead, as I never mastered a standard shift, and the bulk of my automotive knowledge comes from a combination of Car Talk, Top Gear and Wired’s Autopia.  While I minimize my driving, and try and maximize fuel efficiency as best I can while driving, I know I have more car than I need.


Energy Department Ready to Issue Green Loan Guarantee

March 22nd, 2009

Posted by: admin

From the Bits Blog of The New York Times comes word of a Department of Energy loan guarantee. The Department has tentatively issued a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, Inc. for the company to ramp up production of its photovoltaic systems.   The loan guarantee is intended to cover 75 percent of the project expenses.  The company indicated the loan guarantee would be essential in achieving the economies of scale it needs to make production cost-effective.  Their systems are intended for commercial use and lie flat, rather than at an angle.

No, this isn’t part of the economic recovery plan, and Secretary Chu isn’t trying to usurp Secretary Geithner’s post at Treasury.  While Secretary Chu’s announcement highlights the prospective economic and environmental impacts of the guarantees in language consistent with the Administration, the program actually dates to 2005 – smack dab in the midst of the Bush Administration.  Apparently the Department has struggled for nearly four years to start issuing what might ultimately be $40 billion in loan guarantees.  Better late than never?

Innovation Bounties

March 3rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

Some time ago I posted about prizes as a possible augmentation for research funding.  What I encountered recently online, InnoCentive’s Innovation Marketplace (H/T Science Cheerleader), might remind you of prizes, but is a bit different.  Once you register, you scan the lists of challenges, with corresponding awards ranging from $5,000 to $1 million, and take on those you’re interested in.  The individual projects are a bit on the small side when compared those sponsored by the X Prize Foundation and other organizations, but the scale of the projects (at least in terms of necessary resources) seems appropriate to the awards.  There’s also a lot more opportunities in a lot more fields.  InnoCentive is headquartered in the United States, and has received some venture capital funding to seed its rewards (some of those rewards are supported by foundation money).  It provides other functions than the challenges, and is focused on serving as a clearinghouse for both seekers and providers of innovations.

Appointments Roundup

February 28th, 2009

Posted by: admin

A quick check to see how appointments to scientific and technical positions are proceeding:

OSTP: The full Senate vote on Dr. Holdren has not happened yet.  No particular reason outside of the budget focus of both houses of Congress.  As the House just passed the omnibus, and the continuing resolution expires on next Saturday, I don’t expect a confirmation until after this is resolved.  As the science adviser position does not require Senate confirmation, Dr. Holdren can work in that capacity while the OSTP confirmation is pending.

NOAA: No full Senate vote yet.  See above.

Organizations without an appointment for the top dog: NASA, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, NIH (and its parent Department, Health and Human Services), NIST.  The NIST and NIH openings have been there for a few months, but the NIH Director might be the most critical of the pending nominations.  You could make a case for most of the list, but with the NIH handling a huge amount of stimulus funding, it would be nice to have a Director in place who will be in the position for a while.

I also note the absence of a Chief Technology Officer, a new position President Obama promised to create.  The job also lacks a clear job description, which I would prefer to see prior to someone named to the post.  But action on this front of any kind is welcome, given the movements in many areas to increase the government’s use of technology in both functions and services.

Broadband and Measurement

February 23rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

In a sort-of follow-up to my post on the deficit, I offer this New York Times Bits blog post on a study indicating that contrary to the hue and cry about the United States falling behind in broadband deployment,  the U.S. is actually number one.  As you might expect, it’s because the measurement is not of connectivity speed, nor is it of the percentage of homes with broadband.  In these areas the U.S. does rank behind other countries.  But with the “Connectivity Scorecard” devised by the researcher behind the study, the U.S. ranks number one, as its consumers, businesses and government supposedly are more efficient in the use of its broadband.

While conflicting budget numbers are a problem mostly because they can hide the nature of the nation’s financial health, these conflicting broadband measures try and hide a values or policy discussion behind numbers.  If you find a study saying U.S. is number one in broadband, then you don’t worry about it and you certainly have little motivation to have a debate over what the nation should expect from broadband.  Use the numbers as part of that debate, not as replacements for it.

From Wired Campaign to Not-So-Wired White House

February 15th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Feburary issue of Wired has a good analysis of the difficulty the Obama Administration is facing in converting their very Internet-savvy presidential campaign into an Internet-savvy government.  Keep in mind that this article was written prior to the Inauguration, so there is no assessment of progress so far.  But that doesn’t prevent the article from noting the particular legal and structural challenges facing the administration, and the high bar set by some of the administration’s promises.  For instance, President Obama has pledged to place bills online for public comment for five days prior to signing them into law.  That has yet to happen, including the stimulus package, which was finalized yesterday, and is expected to be signed on Tuesday.

Besides discussing the challenges and wisdom behind enabling the government with Web 2.0 technologies (the huge campaign e-mail list must be used by an outside entity, how much staff time can be spared to read thousands of comments, how do you archive all of this, etc.), the article also covers the patchwork nature of government websites and the few successful efforts to incorporate Web 2.0 technology (not happy with the No Fly List?  Go to the Transportation Security Administration’s blog and let them know).  If you’ve ever wondered why certain things aren’t happening with government and the Internet, this article is a good starting point.

Congressional Research Service on OSTP

February 11th, 2009

Posted by: admin

An update of a report on the Office of Science and Technology Policy (H/T Science Cheerleader) can be found as part of the CRS data dump I mentioned earlier this week.  Even if you’re already familiar with the Office, the historical perspective and the traditional comprehensiveness of Congressional Research Service reports makes it worth a read.  It also addresses all aspects of the office, whereas recent debates have focused, almost obsessively, on whether or not the OSTP director must also be an Assistant to the President.  Perhaps fueling the interminable debate is this passage from page 19.


E-Records Remain an Archiving Challenge

February 7th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Today I listened with frustration and a lack of surprise to a piece on NPR’s On the Media about the lack of capacity in the National Archives to archive digital records.  For those who’d prefer a read, you can check out Fred Kaplan’s (interviewed by NPR) recent Slate article on the same subject for the details.  The big point – the National Archives, and because they follow its lead, other government agencies, are way behind the technology curve when it comes to archiving emails (especially with attachments), .pdf files, presentation software like PowerPoint, and other digital information.

As most business of the government has migrated from paper, the loss is for both history and transparency.  Like Kaplan, I do hope that the current administration’s efforts to make more information available online can be accompanied by increased archival capacity.  The challenge of making archiving practices uniform and consistent within government agencies is hard enough without adequate resources to maintain the fidelity of that information once it goes to the nation’s attic.