The Scientists Behind the Headline

Obama Promises Major Investment in Science” – AP News story (April 27, 2009)

“The bottom line is that if you’re a fan of new technologies being developed on US soil, you should be pretty damned excited.”Alex Koppelman, writing in Salon.com

President Obama announced today an effort to increase the nation’s investment in research and development spending for the sciences and new technologies.  As Alex Koppelman points out:

One particularly striking point to note about this: That level of funding [an increase to ‘more than three percent of GDP’] would almost meet the amount of money spent on defense. To some extent, that may simply represent a shift in where on the budget certain funds are accounted for, as defense spending has always been a key driver of American scientific research, but it’s still a sharp difference from the normal state of affairs.

I’ve written before (“How to Find Research“) about the need for increased R&D spending, and about the role of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy in its main role: advising the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.

OSTP does the hard work – but it is guided in part by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST.  This group can be a quiet backwater – as it has been on and off for years – or it has the potential to be a dynamic leading voice in advising the Administration on S&T policies, particularly in investments in scientific research and tech innovation.

It looks like we’re on the dynamic upswing, given that President Obama also used today’s high-profile announcement to name his appointments to an all-new PCAST. 

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Inventing the Software that Invents the Future

Worried about today’s stock market activity? Retreat with me into the security of the bright future that awaits.

Microsoft’s Craig Mundie (pater familias of the Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments), is on a college tour across the nation.  The trip is something of a reprise of jaunts Bill Gates famously made over the years, when he would string together visits to campuses partly to evangelize, partly to recruit, and mostly to get new ideas from bright young (and contrarian) minds.  The Seattle paper today labels these tours as filling the role of Microsoft’s “chief inspiration officer” (“Mundie gives campuses peek at tech’s future”).

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Is It Even Possible to Connect the Dots?

FACT: Among the inspired ideas of polymath Danny Hillis (pioneer of parallel computing) was establishing the Long Now Foundation, whose projects include the millennial Long-Now Clock (“the world’s slowest computer”) and the notion of “Long Bets.”  A Long Bet is an “accountable prediction,” meaning one that has a specified end-date and a testable, wagerable, proposition.  One of the early Long Bets posted wagers $2,000 that “By 2020, no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.”  That particular bet is one of many signs of scientific skepticism about string theory.

ANALYSIS: Even without the ease of hyperlinks, old-fashioned newspapers foster serendipitous connections between articles, particularly if you’re reading a Sunday morning paper with lots of sections. Sunday the Washington Post did me a service by placing in different sections a couple of articles which I connected, about intelligence “failures” and about stock-market prediction, leading me to some web-surfing about the questionable validity of string theory and some related observations about the difficulty of predicting human behavior.

In the Outlook section, the Post has an opinionated and thought-provoking op-ed piece by Mark Lowenthal, one of the most “intelligent” individuals in the recent history of the U.S. intelligence community (after all, he was the 1988 Jeopardy grand champion, as well as a former assistant director of CIA).

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