Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Canada, What Were You Thinking?

Canada Sells Out Science

[T]he National Research Council—the Canadian scientific research and development agency—has now said that they will only perform research that has “social or economic gain”.

John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”.

I’m incredibly sad to read this. I worked at TRIUMF in Vancouver for about 2.5 years as a postdoc, and I did witness some bureaucratic beancounter nonsense, but nothing like this.

Phil’s take on this is spot-on. But beyond saying that research pays off, making this policy short-sighted, is the fact that in basic research, you don’t truly know what you’re going to find! That’s what this research is — an attempt at discovering the unknown. There is no way to guarantee some kind of specific commercial benefit from the undiscovered, but the point of funding discovery is that someone will eventually think of ways to exploit newly-found knowledge! Overall, there will be economic gain as a result — that’s the way it has been for a long time. There’s no reason to think this has suddenly stopped.

The Worst Idea in the Sad, Long History of Bad Ideas

This is even worse than thinking about taking dinosaurs off of Isla Sorna.

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

The new chairman of the House science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency.

Funding criteria chosen by the Republican congress, many of whom wouldn’t know good science if it bit them on the ass, and belittle any science they don’t understand or whose conclusions are disagreeable to their ideology. Which is most science.

Why is it Out of Reach?

Science outreach: the forgotten victim of the sequester

NASA’s decision to suspend its education and public outreach programs is questionable. However, what is most concerning about this move is what it could mean for the future of science in the United States. What if these cuts become blueprint for future budget cuts? What if other agencies follow suit?

One question is “why cut outreach?” An obvious answer is “because it’s there.” If the question is decided by people only looking at this year’s bottom line, it becomes like deferring maintenance: a quick fix to a budget cut, and one that has no obvious, immediate adverse impact. All the bad news happens much later. Think about changing the oil in your car — it almost never has to be done now, and not doing it keeps money in your pocket, but if you delay it long enough it will cost you. As long as there are people focused only on the near-term making the decisions, this is the kind of thing that will get cut. It leads to a nasty feedback loop if it continues.

However, as I have written before, it’s a better tactical decision than making cuts that are less visible, but equally damaging in the long run. Public outrage, properly aimed, can be helpful.

There’s one other thing that I thought of after reading about this. There were articles I read just after the Navy’s sequester announcements came out, where the authors called the decision to delay deployment of a carrier group a stunt. The thing is, you can’t really deploy only part of a battle group — it’s all or nothing. If you cut out a few ships, you put the whole group at risk, because they all have their jobs. Similarly, you can’t launch only part of a NASA mission, and cutting a mission is probably way too large of a cut, if we assume this is a short-term problem. I suspect that unlike delaying a deployment, temporarily delaying a mission that’s in development wouldn’t save much money — you still have to pay people, and if you cut off other purchases, you’ll be paying them to play games on their computer rather than work.

If you do cut a mission, you may never get the same opportunity for it. Once projects are canceled, people move on to other work and you might never again be able to assemble the team. Any subsequent attempt will invariably have to recreate some (much?) of the work, which is a waste.

As much as this hurts, I think that treating it as a very public event, and treating it initially as a one-time problem is the best position to take. If it makes you mad, good! It should make you mad. Write to your congresscritters and let them know.

Bad News on the Doorstep

Joe over at It’s Okay to be Smart, hates waking up to bad news, in this case the news that NASA is dialing back some of their outreach due to sequestration budget cuts. I have already noted that the GOP was shocked, shocked! that the White House was canceling tours so that they could deploy secret service agents, and that (IMO) the Smithsonian was making a tactical mistake by hiding the effect of their cuts and crippling their future.

While I hate to see it happen, I think it’s the proper course of action, so that the voters can see the effect of a dysfunctional congress.

Don’t Buy the Illusion

Canceled White House tours, not projected job losses, cause uproar

I’m not sure what’s going on in the head of a person who thinks that White House tours are more important than other duties of government personnel; in this case it’s secret service agents who would be used on other posts to cut back on overtime, or possibly fill in in more important duties if agents are furloughed.

I think that trying to hide the effects of the sequester is a mistake, as the Smithsonian is doing. By keeping normal hours and cutting other expenses, the public gets the impression that the sequester is no big deal. This is short-sighted, though. You can appear to save money by not changing the oil in your car, too, but eventually it costs you more than the savings. This is not business as usual, and I think it’s a mistake to present that facade.

“The Rich Survive and the Poor Get Devastated”

There Should Be Grandeur: Basic Science in the Shadow of the Sequester

So, add that up: sequester cuts will strike bluntly across the scientific community. The illustrious can move a bit of money around, but even in large labs, a predictable result will be a reduction in the number of graduate student and post – doc slots available — and as those junior and early-stage researchers do a whole lot of the at-the-bench level research, such cuts will have an immediate effect on research productivity.

The longer term risk is obvious too: fewer students and post-docs mean on an ongoing drop from baseline in the amount of work to be done year over year, and given that industry has reduced its demand for research-trained Ph.Ds, a plausible consequence is that some, many perhaps, those with capacity to do leading edge science — no dummies they — will simply never enter the pipeline, shifting instead to some other career that does not demand six years and more of poorly paid training to find that there are no jobs.

From my perspective as a government scientist I have not been able to delve into this discussion in this way for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t write as well as Tom Levenson, for which I not embarrassed, but also because I get incredibly pissed off at the stupidity, and repeatedly cursing at that isn’t very productive. Or eloquent. The thing is, the sequester isn’t a good situation suddenly gone bad. The dis-functionality of my government has been an impediment, to varying degrees, for a number of years now.

From a personal perspective it sucks: I’ve not had a cost-of-living adjustment in three years now, and now I am facing a furlough plan of 20% — not working one day a week. Plans are sketchy at this point, so it’s not clear what the details are on that; it’s possible that a poorly thought-out plan would have workers in a group taking different days off, with the intention of still having an “office presence” (one rumored scenario) but meaning that collaborations are hindered far beyond a 20% reduction in productivity, since there are at least 2 days a week a pair can’t work together. Too early to tell if things will be made even worse in this way. Murphy, however, is always lurking.

From a lab perspective, not having defined spending plans have hurt for quite some time — even operating under a continuing resolution has hampered things. Uncertain and uneven funding is a problem — you really want that new Thingerdoodle™ for the lab, and while it’s expensive — let’s say it costs 10% of your budget — you could afford it if you were given your promised allocation. However, you can’t when the money is portioned out over a shorter time scale. If you get a monthly release of your money, you never have enough to make the purchase. If you get a larger chunk but still only part of the budget, you risk running out of money for your day-to-day needs. And if you try and save it up, someone might see that you have not been spending as fast as you claimed you would, and you run the risk of someone taking it away from you. meanwhile, progress in the lab is limited from lack of a Thingerdoodle™.

The time compression of getting the full budget is also a problem. Let’s say you spend a few months on a CR, or in sequester mode, and then everything is resolved. But then, even if you have more money, you have to spend it before the end of the fiscal year or some other deadline, and spending money wisely takes time. Meaning you aren’t in the lab because you’re on the web or the phone, figuring out the right widgets to buy. Not being in the lab means the experiments are on hold, and that’s not the most efficient way to run things.

Basically, both feast and famine slow you down.

Biodiesel, Ahoy!

My Heart-Stopping Ride Aboard the Navy’s Great Green Fleet

The navy is pushing toward green fuels and energy efficiency, but not always with the agreement of Congress.

Four times in history it has overhauled old transportation paradigms—from sail to coal to gasoline to diesel to nuclear—carrying commercial shipping with it in the process. “We are a better Navy and a better Marine Corps for innovation,” Mabus says. “We have led the world in the adoption of new energy strategies in the past. This is our legacy.”

It goes beyond supply lines. Rising sea levels lapping at naval bases? A melting and increasingly militarized Arctic? The Navy is tackling problems that freeze Congress solid. What it learns, what it implements, and how it adapts and innovates will drive market changes that could alter the course of the world.

But not without a fight.

Scientific Illiteracy

Scientific Illiteracy

There is certainly a problem, but when it reaches the level of elected officials it has gone beyond a problem of literacy. I’d venture to say that Paul Broun being Chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is not so much illiteracy as bordering on the abdication of responsibility on the part of the GOP. That someone like this could be elected is surely a symptom of the illiteracy in the US, but brings with it a whole new level of problems.

When elected officials, the very people we ask to lead our country, are ignorant of how the world works, how can our country be expected to survive much longer?

Also, I can’t help but think that if meteor impacts had been brought up as a point of discussion a few weeks ago, there would have been a backlash of anti-science opposition, attacking the science and scientists involved and accusations of fear-mongoring. (Now, of course, there’s a possibility of an overreaction and advocation of programs that will be nothing but safety theater.) There seems to be a tendency to deny there is any problem until it has reached a crisis level.

It’s All in the Way You Spin It

How Etsy Grew their Number of Female Engineers by Almost 500% in One Year

I think it’s great the Etsy found a new way to think about things and realized that the old ways were depriving them of quality people. I hope that others adopt newer ways of thinking as well. (I’m looking at you, my physics brethren, and by the numbers, physicists are more than likely brethren.)

But way down in the story (not quite paragraph 19, but it’s close)

At the time of the talk, Etsy’s had twenty women on its 110-person engineering team, which is a roughly eighteen percent (or a four and half times) increase from the previous year. It’s not quite hockey stick growth, but it’s a huge step forward.

18%/4.5 is 4%, and since we need a whole number, my guess is that there were 3 women out of ~75 the previous year (I assume they were expanding), unless they fired a bunch of engineers as well as hiring new ones, and had 4 out of ~100. The fantastic growth trumpeted by the headline obscures the reality that their starting numbers were craptacularly low and have been improved to merely poor.

Aye, There’s the Rub(io)

Why Doesn’t Florida Senator Marco Rubio Know How Old the Earth Is?

Rubio’s statement sounds to me to be standard politico-speak — trying not to say anything that might offend his base. It’s possible he knew the answer (bucking the trend, as it were); to state it would be troubling to those who think the answer can be expressed in five digits or fewer. But probably not, given the general state of things and his disconnect between science and the economy:

I got a chill when I read Rubio’s statements, “I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.”

Perhaps Senator Rubio is unaware that science—and its sisters engineering and technology— are actually the very foundation of our country’s economy? All of our industry, all of our technology, everything that keeps our country functioning at all can be traced back to scientific research and a scientific understanding of the Universe.

Building a Better Soccer Ball

Better in terms of durability.

Joy That Lasts, on the Poorest of Playgrounds

The children, he learned, used trash because the balls donated by relief agencies and sporting goods companies quickly ripped or deflated on the rocky dirt that doubled as soccer fields. Kicking a ball around provided such joy in otherwise stressful and trying conditions that the children would play with practically anything that approximated a ball.

“The only thing that sustained these kids is play,” said Mr. Jahnigen of Berkeley, Calif. “Yet the millions of balls that are donated go flat within 24 hours.”

The solution was a foam similar to what is used in Crocs.

[H]e happened to be having breakfast with Sting, a friend from his days in the music business. Mr. Jahnigen told him how soccer helped the children in Darfur cope with their troubles and his efforts to find an indestructible ball. Sting urged Mr. Jahnigen to drop everything and make the ball. Mr. Jahnigen said that developing the ball might cost as much as $300,000. Sting said he would pay for it.

An interesting logistical issue is also brought up: the balls are more difficult to ship than traditional balls, because they can’t be deflated (the reverse of a certain balloon issue I’ve run into)

If you are so inclined, you can go to the website and buy a ball for about $40, in which case one will also be donated, or you can donate one for $25.

Silver for the Gold

Silver Medal
Subtitle: Obama’s big win does not mean Nate Silver is a towering electoral genius.

It’s well after midnight on the East Coast, and the results are in: Nate Silver has won the 2012 presidential election by a landslide. His magic formula for predictions, much maligned in some corners in recent weeks, appears to have hit the mark in every state—a perfect 50 green M&Ms for accuracy. Now my Twitter feed is blowing up with announcements of his coronation as the Emperor of Math and the ruler of the punditocracy. Wait—it was even more than that, they say: a victory for blogging, and also one for rational thought. He proved the haters wrong! He proved science right! Is this guy getting lucky tonight or what?
But all these stats triumphalists have it wrong. Nate Silver didn’t nail it; the pollsters did. The vaunted Silver “picks”—the ones that scored a perfect record on Election Day—were derived from averaged state-wide data. According to the final tallies from FiveThirtyEight, Obama led by 1.3 points in Virginia, 3.6 in Ohio, 3.6 in Nevada, and 1.9 in Colorado. He won all those states, just like he won every other state in which he’d led in averaged, state-wide polls. That doesn’t mean that Silver’s magic model works. It means that polling works, assuming that its methodology is sound, and that it’s done repeatedly.

Two things: 1) yes, it does mean — to some degree of certainty — that Silver’s model works, and 2) you’re missing the point of the triumph. This wasn’t Nate Silver vs the pollsters, it was Nate Silver vs the pundits. And most of the pundits botched almost everything having to do with statistics beyond a trivial interpretation, and said that the predictions from the 538 blog were bogus. This was a triumph of statistics done right over the people who abuse, or are clueless about, statistics.

Put another way, the pundits had the same access to the polling data. And they were all over the place in their predictions, because they went with their gut instead of the data. That’s the underlying lesson.

The article points out, quite fairly, that other people use statistics properly, and had similar success in their predictions. Which raises the question — why all the other pundits weren’t doing this? The message here, if you hadn’t already figured it out, is that punditry is not about prediction, it’s about rabble-rousing and guesswork. Claiming that doing the electoral math is easy is a bit disingenuous when almost nobody who had a big platform (i.e. television) was doing it. It’s easy to see in hindsight, and apparently it’s easy to continue to try and marginalize the effort and the results.

Further, when you insist that predicting the result of the presidential race doesn’t prove he was right — with which I agree — you can’t then turn around and look at other individual races to say he was wrong.

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