An Archive of Featured News Items From Our Past Front Pages

White House's Chief Technology Officer honored as US falls in global innovativeness ranking


Megan Smith

Megan Smith, the US Government's Chief Technology Officer, is among the 2015 recipients of the annual Luminary Awards presented to Exceptional Women in Business. The awards are conferred by the Committee of 200 ("C200"), an organization of women entrepreneurs and business leaders..

Four women were honored at this year's ceremony on October 23 at Washington DC's Fairmont Hotel: Margery Kraus, Founder of the public relations firm APCO, Sandra E Peterson, Chair of pharmaceutical and consumer goods manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that supports computer education for women, and Ms Smith, who was recognized for her support of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. President Obama appointed Ms Smith to her federal post (helping the White House to progress technology innovation) in September 2014. Previously she was a Vice President at the Internet products company Google.

Ms Smith is the US's third Chief Technology Officer, the position having been created by President Barack Obama in 2009 with Aneesh Chopra as the first incumbent, followed by Todd Park in 2015.

While the concept of a Chief Technology Officer of the US deserves sustained support, and while Ms Smith is to be heartily congratulated on her recognition, it's time to re-examine the mission, powers and meaningful achievements of her office in a time of serious concern about the real health of US technology innovation leadership. The Bloomberg business information group's 2015 Global Innovation Index (comparing fifty countries' per capita patent volume and research spending, high-technology business population, manufacturing-sector contribution to gross value, tertiary education, and research-worker population) ranks the US sixth in global innovative productivity, after, in descending order, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Finland and Israel. In 2014 it ranked third, but this year Bloomberg included national education performance in its measurements, which pulled America down, since we place thirty-third in tertiary education.

Large US companies retain an ability to put impressive marketing resources into hyping even relatively small advances in gadgetry, maintaining a spectacular publicity machine that tends to obscure a disturbing momentum of complacency and slippage in America's global innovative competitiveness. The historically established mass of the US's economy helps perpetuate an illusion that all is well in US technological innovation. For historical reasons going back generations, our national economic scale is enormous, generating numbers that inspire confidence. But there is a great difference between size and evolutionary fitness. Think dinosaurs. For that matter, think China. Because of China's immense population, it too generates numbers that convey an awesome sense of scale, yet when the figures are adjusted to compensate for scale, it falls way down to twenty-second position on Bloomberg's innovation index. (Although in some respects it too is outpacing America; see below.)

Another annual global innovation index is published jointly by New York's Cornell University, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations entity) and the international business university INSEAD (the name is derived from Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires, meaning European Institute of Business Administration). Using a methodology that differs from Bloomberg's, the Cornell-WIPO-INSEAD ranking places the US fifth after (in descending order) Switzerland, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Other sources have sounded similar alarms. Historical momentum and accumulated economic mass continue for now to show the US as the world's top nation in disease research, but its supremacy is eroding fast: a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has observed that the US's place as a contributor to global biomedical research funding has declined from fifty-seven percent to forty-four percent over the past decade, with waning US support for such research being met by climbing support in other countries. China's medical research funding has been rising at around seventeen percent annually as against America's one percent, and Chinese science and technology workers now outnumber the US's. The JAMA study warns that the US stands to lose its historical innovation lead within ten years if it doesn't reverse the current trend.

Perhaps the loudest wake-up calls arise from the state of our military innovation and America's sagging infrastructure. This summer the respected British publication The Economist asserted that the US was losing its technology-based military edge, investing in unimaginative older weapons systems to which career military leaders have become accustomed, while focusing its energies on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of the development of next-generation technology. At the same time, China has been massively investing in new sea power, air power and sophisticated computer technologies capable of disrupting the operating systems of American missiles, planes and ships. As for our infrastructural problems, the US Government has acknowledged that some 60 000 bridges in the country are structurally deficient and that the Highway Trust Fund, a federal account supporting national road works, was expected to fall below "safe levels" on November 20, 2015. It has also been reported that operating costs are not being covered by passenger fares in any US metro rail system.

This is admittedly a wide range of problems, but one way and another they all revolve around our nation's diminishing scientific and technological momentum. The US's Chief Technology Officer should be showing us an aggressive plan to lead the US out of its innovation decline in all these areas, as a matter of very great urgency.

Read more: Bloomberg's Global Innovation Index  | America's biomedical decline  | Asia overtaking US in innovation  | The loss of our military's technology edge | The infrastructure crisis  | Megan Smith's award 

2015 Nobel Prizes honor achievements in particle physics, DNA research, disease treatment, consumer studies, historical writing, human rights

stockholmThe Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded this year's Nobel Prizes in fields ranging from the ways livings cells repair DNA to research on the scientifically usable content of ancient Chinese medicine.

The physics prize has been shared by Takaaki Kajita, of the University of Tokyo, Japan, and Arthur B McDonald, of Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, for experiments that showing that the neutrino, an elusive and mysterious subatomic particle, has mass. This discovery has fundamentally fundamentally upset the prevailing theory of the universe which for over two decades had characterized the neutrino as massless.

The chemistry prize has gone to Tomas Lindahl of Britain's Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory, in Hertfordshire, and two North Carolina scientists: Paul Modrich of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, and Aziz Sancar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for their discoveries of how organic cells repair and protect DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, which contains the genetic code that determines how organisms develop). Their work sheds new light on how cells work and has practical implications for research in various important areas, like cancer

The physiology / medicine prize has been shared by William C Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura (for work leading to the development of the drug ivermectin, which combats river blindness, elephantiasis and other parasitic diseases), and Youyou Tu (or Tu Youyou, in the Chinese rather than western style, Tu being a surname), whose research itno ancient Chinese herbal remedies yielded knowledge that helped developa an anti-malaria drug, artemisinin. Professor Ōmura is associated with Kitasato University, Japan, and Wesleyan University, Connecticut, and Dr Campbell with Drew University, New Jersey. Professor Tu works under the auspices of the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.

The economics prize has gone to Professor Angus Deaton, of Princeton University, New Jersey, for his research on how the saving and spending choices of individuals affect their society's economy and relate to the incidence of poverty. The literature prize has been awarded to Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich for her body work using interviews and monologues to document the emotional impacts of historic events. The peace prize was conferred on the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group promoting civil rights and democratic institutions.

Read more here.

Growing sea acid may start dissolving shells of crabs, snails, other animals in 15 years

noaaParts of the Arctic Ocean are becoming so acidic that crabs and other shelled life may no longer be able to live in them by the end of the next decade and a half, with part of the Pacific Ocean following. This finding, reported in the journal Oceanography, isn't alarming only to environmentalists who care about sea life: such an ecological disaster
would also be an economic catastrophe for the United States, because the health of these waters and of the animals we harvest from them is crucial to our fishing industry. Almost 60% of the US fishing harvest comes from Alaska.

Scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Alaska, and the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution made this calculation after studying the acid build-up during research expeditions aboard the United States Coast Guard cutter Healy. They studied two regions of the Arctic Ocean, the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia, and the Beaufort Sea, to the west of Canada's Arctic Islands. The scientific team, led by Dr Jeremy Mathis and Dr Jessica Cross, concluded that the same fate seemed to be in store for the Bering Sea -- part of the Pacific -- by 2044.

Read more at the NOAA.

Top math, science teachers honored ... but STEM Corps struggle goes on

Julie Harp James ShaferThe White House has announced the 108 winners of the 2015 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The award recognizes extraordinary K-12 teachers like throughout America. Maryland's honorees are Julie Harp, of Easton High School, and James Schafer, of Montgomery Blair High School, while the the District of Columbia's are Aris Pangilinan, of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, and Florentia Spires, of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. Each laureate is being invited to Washington,DC, for a ceremony to receive the award plus a $10 000 check from the National Science Foundation.

At the same time, President Obama's proposed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Master Teacher Corps still remains unachieved after three years. In July 2012 the Obama Administration announced the planned creation of a national (STEM) Master Teacher Corps which would include some of the US's best STEM educators, with a four-year timeline to create a corps of 10 000 Master Teachers who would make a multi-year commitment to the Corps for which they'd receive up to $20 000 over their base salary. It's a great idea, but legislative efforts to make a reality have yet to make their way through Congress. Will they ever?

Read more about the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching here, and about the Master Teacher Corps here, here, and here.

Feds' innovation leadership failing to inspire staff, study finds

Stars and StripesMost US Government staff don't feel their leaders support creativity and innovation, according to a joint study by a Washington, DC-based non-profit, the Partnership for Public Service, the Deloitte auditing and business control firm, and a management consultancy, the Hay Group. Noting that "the federal government’s reputation as an innovative employer is important in recruiting the next generation of government workers", the analysts say a Government-wide survey "suggests that much more needs to be done to foster innovation at many federal organizations." According to their report, just 32.7% of federal staff see their workplaces as rewarding creative, innovative workers, and government leaders should see the survey results as "a wake-up call". The analysts started surveying perceptions of federal workplace receptivity to innovativeness in 2010 and found that these declined over a four-year period. The job and workplace satisfaction of federal staff generally also declined over this same period. High respect for senior federal leaders was reported by only some 47% of federal staff.

The best staff perceptions of innovativeness were found in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Air Force, and the Federal Trade Commission. Read more here.

Science editor Marcia McNutt tapped to head NAS

McNuttThe National Academy of Sciences Council has endorsed Dr Marcia Kemper McNutt to succeed NAS president Ralph J Cicerone when his term ends in Mid-2016. A geophysicist, Dr McNutt is currently editor-in-chief of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Assuming that NAS members ratify her appointment when it is put to the vote at the end of this year, she will become the first woman president of the Academy, which was established under Abraham Lincoln to advise the American people and government on science. Dr McNutt was selected as proposed new president by a nominating Committee chaired by Professor Barbara A Schaal, the NAS's previous vice president. Prof Schaal, of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, was the first woman to be elected NAS vice president. The current vice president is Prof Diane E Griffin, of Johns Hopkins University.

Read more here.

White House Allocates $146 Billion for R&D

white-house-516052_640President Obama has announced his Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Budget. The Budget details the President’s spending plan for implementing the agenda he laid out in his State of the Union address to invest in America’s future.

This plan involves robust investments in research and development (R&D) to drive science, technology, and innovation that will serve all Americans. Such investments help create jobs; improve human health; enhance access to clean energy, water, and food; address global climate change; manage competing demands on environmental resources; and ensure the security of the Nation. Federal government funding for R&D is essential to address pressing needs in these and other crucial areas.

Stagnant US Funding for Energy R&D "a Major Failure"

energyEnergy technology innovation is critical for expanding U.S. economic growth, enhancing energy security, and protecting our environment. However, critical federal investments in energy innovation have remained unchanged since 2010, as detailed by the American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC) in its third report, Restoring American Energy Innovation Leadership: Report Card, Challenges, and Opportunities, released today. The report finds that Congress and the Administration have a mixed record on implementing AEIC recommendations to promote energy innovation and urges greater federal investments critical to achieving the country’s economic, security, and environmental goals.