NSF to CMU: Subra Suresh

Big news out of the National Science Foundation, the story from the Chronicle is here. These are extremely challenging times for US science agencies with the imminent threat of sequestration. The problem is that, as President of Carnegie Mellon, with its institutional emphasis on science and technology, those challenges are going to likely follow him north to Pittsburgh. We wish him luck though…

Happy New Year…Science not off the Hook

Happy 2013. The Fiscal Cliff compromise that was passed by Congress last night mainly addressed the tax (revenue) side of the fiscal debate between the Democrats and the GOP. The spending side of that debate was put of for a bit…as things stand science funding still will get axed across the board two months from now. With the tax leverage gone, the remaining hope is that somehow the NIH and NSF will get bundled into the debate over DOD such that they are all protected against across the board, mindless cuts. I’m not optimistic on that one, although historically NIH and NSF have enjoyed bipartisan support.

In the meantime, the notion of the need to prudently invest in science–as well as cut back generally–doesn’t seem to be out there as an argument.

Next up however is the second debt-ceiling debate. The House GOP members say they intend to use the debt limit as leverage to get more cuts. My economist colleagues tell me that is playing with fire.

Last thoughts on the fiscal cliff and science

What I wrote in July still stands:

None of this is good for NIH or NSF. Because the fiscal cliff cuts are across the board, they are mindless (remember, the cliff was supposed to be a deterrent) so the excellent will get thrown out with the merely good.

Even, if by some miracle, Congress manages to get something to the President’s desk in time, my guess is it’ll be some sort of agreement on the revenue side (i.e. taxes) that punts on the spending cuts. And I’m not exactly optimistic about any agreement before new years.

Expect some legislative movement encouraged by the markets early in the new year–it’ll be very telling to see if Speaker Boehner has any difficulty being reelected by his caucus–once again probably on the tax side but probably also dealing with DOD. I’m not expecting much good news for science.


Dress Rehearsal for NBIC2 final Workshop yesterday

The final workshop is today. Web site is here. I’m giving my talk in about an hour, just before lunch on the advent of the Cognitive Society.

What do I mean by that? Well, the simple present day version is what we’ve collectively done by giving society’s blessing to Big Data: social networking.

But in the future, the Cognitive Society might refer to the emergence of a new collective awareness from large groups of humans. Think of an ant colony with its complex behaviors becoming aware of its collective self.

Measuring federal science ROI….

Behind the pay-wall, but well worth it: from Paul Baskin, in the Chronicle, here.  Money quote:

And yet, after years of trying, the science community still cannot answer a simple question, one that has gained the growing attention of policy makers as the economy limps along: How much payback, in real dollars, does science spending actually provide?

Turns out the answer to this question is not exactly easy to get at. You can readily underestimate it by acting as if federal science R&D was just like building a highway (and that’s what NIH Director Francis Collins apparently does), but to get at the real value, you need to explore the provenance of just about every item made or sold–from iPhones to Boeing jets.

Is it worth doing? I think the answer is yes. Society needs to understand concretely what it’s buying in order to continue spending the big bucks (and yes, the US is still the giant when it comes to this kind of research investment).

So here’s a bleg: how might we turn this into a Fermi Problem?

The Dynamics of Social Wishes…

From the Korea Institute for Science and Technology at a Japan-US-Korea co-sponsored workshop on convergent technologies, an interesting idea has been put forward by Professor Tanaka from Japan that there is a dichotomy between scientists who observe (and test hypotheses) and those who design (and create new artifacts). Both types work together to answer the “social wishes” of society.

But how do we determine those social wishes? And crucially, aren’t those social wishes disperate across different societies?

Of course they are. Although there certainly commonalities: we all, I think, want a sustainable biosphere that can support life on the planet. We all want that brain-created thing we call “happiness” (although that means such different things to different individuals).

My plenary is coming up in about an hour. I will be focusing on how dynamics the social wishes of society actually are–two decades ago, the personal computer was a central social wish for those of us involved in data analysis. The emphasis then was autonomy and general purpose computation.

These days, a smart phone and the Net represent quite a different social wish–one that emphasizes mobility, connectivity, and knowledge dissemination. Interestingly, our smart phones are far “smarter” than those early PC’s–but we take the computation for granted and we don’t particularly care about either autonomy….but that connectivity, that’s really critical.

Not coming back: state support for higher ed

An excellent piece in the Chronicle about a recent NSF report, here. Most interesting to me what not the overall finding, but what the new President at CU Boulder has done in response:

He cited $8-million in savings by opting out of state procurement systems, $4-million in savings by adopting self-insurance, and $2.3-million from an insurance audit. The system also winnowed 209 procedural policies down to 89, making changes such as raising to $500 from $100 the threshold at which an event on a campus requires authorization paperwork.
“I just told everybody when I got here, All right, let’s get through this place, and let’s clean it out, and let’s get rid of the stuff that doesn’t make sense, let’s get lean and mean,” Mr. Benson said.

This is an approach which might usefully be employed elsewhere. Note that, in contrast to the usual austerity imposed on the academic units, at CU administrative processes were systematically streamlined.

What’s going to happen to NIH and NSF?

If the “fiscal cliff” scenario happens? My current guess is that if the Cliff does kick in on January 1, it’ll create complete havoc inside the Federal government and then will be quickly resolved (possibly at the cost of a credit downgrade) by a further kicking of the can down the road. This regardless who wins the election–I’m beginning to be convinced that either a re-elected or lame duck Obama administration may see the expiration of Bush tax cuts as a strategically good move no matter the chaos…and the GOP in a lame duck session wont be able to do a thing about it.

None of this is good for NIH or NSF. Because the fiscal cliff cuts are across the board, they are mindless (remember, the cliff was supposed to be a deterrent) so the excellent will get thrown out with the merely good.

The DOD contractors have been lobbying intensely about the Cliff for some time now. The problem though: avoiding the cliff requires something qualitatively different from the political paralysis that has become the norm on the Hill.

If aspects of the Cliff are removed in the new Congress: expect a trade on tax cuts for restoration of DOD funding. I have a hard time seeing NIH and NSF being part of that deal. So worst case: road kill on a bridge to nowhere.

NSF Panel Review Season

Not really a season, but actually the several weeks long crush before the actual panel review here at NSF Headquarters in Arlington. Extraordinarily intense because so much is on the line.

This year, for the second time running, I’m using a pdf annotation app on the iPad to keep things moving along. Saves a lot of trees.