The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Fellowships program is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and AAAS is marking the event with this video documentary. As a past AAAS Fellow at the State Department, I would say it provides an excellent overview of this little-known program that brings scientific expertise to Washington and opens up the careers of hundreds of scientists every year.
Given the complexities of the problems facing world leaders, one might ask, as John Allen Paulos does in a recent NYT editorial, why do so few scientists and engineers participate in US government? Despite their analytical abilities, subject matter expertise, and the positive example scientists and engineers could bring, less than 8% of the House of Representatives have technical backgrounds. Paulos offers the following reasons:
an abstract, scientific approach may lead to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs – compounded by the tendency of scientists to be tone-deaf to their audience,
American pop culture leads ambitious politicians to use rhetorical tricks rather than reason,
Media’s need to perpetuate a controversy – and our cultural tendency toward egalitarianism – gives fringe views and anecdotal evidence equal air time,
Scientist’s inability or reluctance to present their findings clearly or be involved in politics, and
The sense that, since a determined attitude is often necessary, that it is sufficient without aptitude.
Others would call it simply another instance of the dumbing of America – our national tendency toward anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.
On January 6, unremarked by any except the local press, engineer Roger Boisjoly passed away at age 73 from cancer. He was best known for objecting to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger before it exploded shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986, when the O-rings manufactured by his company failed in the cold. After blowing the whistle on the failure of his managers to abort the launch, he found himself shunned by colleagues and eventually resigned, spending the remainder of his career lecturing on workplace ethics. In 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science presented him with its Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
In 1988, Boisjoly noted that he was sustained by a single gesture of support: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, hugged him after his appearance at the Presidential commission investigating the disaster.
IBM has created Many Bills, an interactive visualization of legislators and legislation in the US Senate and House. IBM says Many Bills is:
…a web based visualization that aims to make congressional legislation easier to digest. It presents bills from the House and Senate organized into collections and split into sections which are color coded and labelled to indicate what topic each section is about. It also provides a set of features designed to make it easier to find interesting or unusual parts of bills and communicate your findings to others.
This struck me not just as a useful tool for exploring legislation, but also as a great example of what is possible with current Web technology: highly interactive, user-customizable, and allows drilling down into each link. It also employs crowdsourcing, in that users can help assess misfits – sections of bills that seem to be a mismatch for the bill they are in. The design is cleanly done, with a minimum of chartjunk and a maximum of information for each element on the page. Oh, and it runs best in GoogleChrome (sorry IE fans…both of you).
P.S. My thanks to my fellow Fellow, Meadow Anderson, for the tip!
Five years ago, the National Academies prepared Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a book that cautioned: “Without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, we can expect to lose our privileged position.” So where does America stand now in comparison to five years ago when the Gathering Storm book was prepared? Worse, according to the authors of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, who further assert that addressing America’s competitiveness challenge could require decades. The book reviews actions taken to date and discusses the state of science and innovation in America.
My Sunday routine used to include drinking coffee and reading the comics, often aloud and in goofy voices to one or more of the kids cuddled on my lap. I have loved the Sunday Funnies since I was a kid, and my kids have learned not to steal that section before Dad finds out what has happened to Prince Valiant or nods his head in agreement with Dilbert. Today, I note with regret and amusement that during my AAAS Fellowship, the Sunday Funnies have been replaced by much wonkier fare. The half-dozen or so tabs in my browser window this morning include:
One of the perks of being a AAAS Fellow is that one gets invitations to do some unusual and interesting things. One such invitation was to tour the USNS Comfort, the floating hospital of the Navy. This came in by way of AAAS S&T Fellow (2010-2011) Sammantha Finstad, whose cousin, Josh, is Merchant Marine and crewman on the Comfort.
My thanks to Josh, who took us all over the ship, from the bridge to the operating rooms to the engine room. Dave Litwack (another AAAS Fellow) posted additional photos on Picasa.
My alma mater, Colorado State University, invited me to come give the keynote speech for their World Water Day celebration this March 22, in Ft. Collins, Colorado. It felt a bit odd to be the headliner for the event, but I was flattered and was told afterward that I gave an inspirational talk. Regardless, I enjoyed the opportunity to sit with my Ph.D. advisor, Jim Loftis, and chat over a beer after the talk.
Note: other entries regarding this Fellowship can be found here
My AAAS Fellowship assignment was originally at the India Desk of the US State Department, so one might well ask how I wound up in the Offices of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am still not quite sure how that happened…but when the position was described, it occurred to me that I have relevant expertise in many of the issues associated with this region: water resources infrastructure and management, energy, flood recovery, irrigation and hydropower systems, mining, … planned or not, the Offices of Afghanistan and Pakistan are a good Fellowship posting for me.
The World Bank’s Water Sector is hosting a writing contest – write the best water article on wikipedia and win a week-long trip to World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC. This is an effort by the World Bank to engage with Universities for its Wikipedia Pilot Project. The competition is open to students currently enrolled at participating universities worldwide. Prizes will be offered in three catagories, and first place contestants in each category will be offered invitations for a week-long paid visit to the World Bank Water Days in Washington D.C. You can’t win if you don’t enter by Friday December 31st, 2010.