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April 29 2013

White House Science Fair praises future scientists and makers

There are few ways to better judge a nation’s character than to look at how its children are educated. What values do their parents, teachers and mentors demonstrate? What accomplishments are celebrated? In a world where championship sports teams are idolized and superstar athletes are feted by the media, it was gratifying to see science, students and teachers get their moment in the sun at the White House last week.

“…one of the things that I’m concerned about is that, as a culture, we’re great consumers of technology, but we’re not always properly respecting the people who are in the labs and behind the scenes creating the stuff that we now take for granted,” said President Barack Obama, “and we’ve got to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people.”

President Obama at White House Science FairPresident Obama at White House Science Fair

President Barack Obama talks with Evan Jackson, 10, Alec Jackson, 8, and Caleb Robinson, 8, from McDonough, Ga., at the 2013 White House Science Fair in the State Dining Room. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

An increasingly fierce global competition for talent and natural resources has put a premium on developing scientists and engineers in the nation’s schools. (On that count, last week, the President announced a plan to promote careers in the sciences and expand federal and private-sector initiatives to encourage students to study STEM.

“America has always been about discovery, and invention, and engineering, and science and evidence,” said the President, last week. “That’s who we are. That’s in our DNA. That’s how this country became the greatest economic power in the history of the world. That’s how we’re able to provide so many contributions to people all around the world with our scientific and medical and technological discoveries.”

Unfortunately, the role models that far too much of the media hold up for young people are all too frequently pulled from the stage, screen and playing fields, as opposed to laboratories, universities and schools.

In recent years, the success of technology entrepreneurs has shifted that dynamic, but in the American academy, big time sports have been eating college life, with huge stadiums and rallies for stars and comparatively little notice given to National Merit awards or fellowship winners. When the President said in 2012 that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and young people’s scientific achievements don’t belong in the back pages of newspapers, his media criticism was quietly scathing: a culture of celebrity is not geared to the more quiet, sustained achievement required to attain a graduate degree or patent, though both may have more enduring value to society than a pop album.

This is a dynamic that clearly troubles President Obama, and one that he has used the bully pulpit and the platform of the White House to drawn national attention towards over the past five years.

“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House,” said the President, in 2009. “Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example.”

In the years since, the White House has tried to carry through on that pledge, hosting three science fairs and involving national leaders in science education, including Bill Nye,”The Science Guy,” Reading Rainbow host Levar Burton, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

neil tysonneil tyson

“The White House Science Fair is a way of showing everyone that science is cool,” said Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, in an interview. Engaging the public about the wonders of the universe and encouraging kids to be curious about how our world works has been a core part of his career, driven by his infectious good humor.

Making science and technology education more fun

As Greg Ferenstein noted at TechCrunch, there were some pretty awesome inventions at the White House science fair, from mind-controlled prosthetics to improved cancer detection methodologies to a bicycle-powered water purification system. You can see a list of the White House science fair projects at WhiteHouse.gov and watch President Obama tour the exhibits on YouTube.

One of the notable components of the science fairs has been the involvement of kids from the maker movement. In the summer of 2013, the Maker Education Initiative will host a season-long Maker Party where students can learn, design and create.

“We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow,” said President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair, recognizing the long-history of creative innovation in American garages, basements and barns.

In 2012, President Obama famously helped young maker Joey Hudy to fire his “extreme marshmallow cannon.” 14-year old Ben Hylack, the maker of a telepresence robot, said that Makerfaire changed his life. In 2013, “Super Awesome Sylvia” represented Maker Faire at the White House Science Fair, showing the President her watercolor drawbot.

Experimenting with more independent projects that let kids tinker are important but only part of a puzzle that includes parents, teachers and libraries.

neil-tysonneil-tyson

“We should be focused on getting kids ‘making’, yes, but that misses a tacit recognition that kids are by nature scientists,” said Tyson. “What we should be talking about is how to keep kids interested and get out of their way as they learn.”

For that to happen, we’ll need to encourage children to keep asking questions, teach them how to learn to answer them, and praise inquisitive students.

“Acts of curiosity are what make up acts of science,” he said. “Adult scientists are just kids who never grew up.”

February 22 2013

White House moves to increase public access to scientific research online

Today, the White House responded to a We The People e-petition that asked for free online access to taxpayer-funded research.

open-access-smallopen-access-smallAs part of the response, John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released a memorandum today directing agencies with “more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publically available free of charge within 12 months after original publication.”

The Obama administration has been considering access to federally funded scientific research for years, including a report to Congress in March 2012. The relevant e-petition, which had gathered more than 65,000 signatures, had gone unanswered since May of last year.

As Hayley Tsukayama notes in the Washington Post, the White House acknowledged the open access policies of the National Institutes of Health as a successful model for sharing research.

“This is a big win for researchers, taxpayers, and everyone who depends on research for new medicines, useful technologies, or effective public policies,” said Peter Suber, Director of the Public Knowledge Open Access Project, in a release. “Assuring public access to non-classified publicly-funded research is a long-standing interest of Public Knowledge, and we thank the Obama Administration for taking this significant step.”

Every federal agency covered by this memomorandum will eventually need to “ensure that the public can read, download, and analyze in digital form final peer-reviewed manuscripts or final published documents within a timeframe that is appropriate for each type of research conducted or sponsored by the agency.”

An open government success story?

From the day they were announced, one of the biggest question marks about We The People e-petitions has always been whether the administration would make policy changes or take public stances it had not before on a given issue.

While the memorandum and the potential outcomes from its release come with caveats, from a $100 million threshold to national security or economic competition, this answer from the director of the White House Office of Science Policy accompanied by a memorandum directing agencies to make a plan for public access to research is a substantive outcome.

While there are many reasons to be critical of some open government initiatives, it certainly appears that today, We The People were heard in the halls of government.

An earlier version of this post appears on the Radar Tumblr, including tweets regarding the policy change. Photo Credit: ajc1 on Flickr.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

November 14 2012

An innovation agenda to help people win the race against the machines

If the country is going to have a serious conversation about innovation, unemployment and job creation, we must talk about our race against the machines. For centuries, we’ve been automating people out of jobs. Today’s combination of big data, automation and artificial intelligence, however, looks like something new, from self-driving cars to e-discovery software to “robojournalism” to financial advisors to medical diagnostics. Last year, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world.”

Computers and distributed systems are now demonstrating skills in the real world that we once thought would always be the domain of human beings. “That’s just not the case any more,” said MIT research professor Andrew McAfee, in an interview earlier this year at the Strata Conference in Santa Clara, Calif.:

McAfee and his research partner, MIT economics professor Erik Brynjolfsson, remain fundamentally optimistic about the effect of the digital revolution on the world economy. But the drivers of joblessness that they explore in their book, Race Against The Machine, deserved to have had more discussion in this year’s political campaign. Given the tepid labor market recovery in the United States and a rebound that has stayed flat, the Obama administration, given an opportunity for a second term, should pull some new policy levers.

What could — or should — the new administration do? On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of speaking at a panel at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute to talk about what a “First 100 Days Innovation Agenda” might look like for the new administration. (Full disclosure: earlier this year, I was paid to moderate a workshop that discussed this issue and contributed to the paper on building an innovation economy that was published this week.) The event was live streamed and should be available on-demand in the future.

In the meantime, below are recommendations from the paper and from professors McAfee and Brynjolfsson, followed by the suggestions I made during the forum, drawing from my conversations with people around the United States on this topic over the past two years.

Ideas from Brookings

Quoted below is the executive summary of the recommendations from the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation. The paper itself goes into more detail on each one.

  • We need better metrics for measuring worker productivity in the 21st century economy. Past approaches based on worker hours or total employees in relation to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ignore the transformational nature of digital technology.
  • We should encourage entrepreneurship by expanding Small Business Administration credit for start ups, adding entrepreneurial skills to school curricula, and making changes in immigration policy that encourage entrepreneurs to come to America.
  • We need governments that learn to innovate and collaborate, and develop new approaches to service delivery, transparency, and participation. This includes placing more data online and employing data analytical tools, social media, mobile technology, and search results that improve decision-making.
  • We should strengthen infrastructure by investing in broadband, data centers, and mobile cell towers, and improving access to spectrum for wireless applications.
  • We should protect vital digital assets by updating the Federal Information Security Management Act and developing procedures for monitoring threats to critical infrastructure.
  • We need to improve knowledge transmission through faster adoption of digital textbooks, more widespread use of creative commons licenses for instructional materials developed with taxpayer dollars, and policy changes that speed education innovation.
  • We need to increase technology transfer and the commercialization of knowledge from universities and federal laboratories so that public and private investments translate into jobs and economic activity as well as better health, security, and well-being.
  • We should harmonize cross-border laws to promote global innovation and freedom of expression.

Recommendations from McAfee and Brynjolfsson

“Everything I’ve learned during and after Race Against the Machine has left me incredibly optimistic in all important areas except one,” wrote McAfee in an email earlier this week.

“Digital technologies are increasing our productive capacity and ability to innovate, they’re bringing good things to our lives, and they will continue to do all of the above, probably at accelerating rates. As we wrote in the book, however, as technology races ahead, it is leaving a lot of workers behind. Computers and robots are acquiring human-like skills and abilities, which means that the ‘market share’ of people in the workforce — the areas where they are superior to machines — is going down, and will continue to do so. Dealing with this trend will be one of the main challenges, if not the greatest one, that we face over the next generation.”

What to do? “The cure-all to any economic woe is economic growth,” he said, in our previous interview at Strata. Even if that’s happening, McAfee emphasized, the cohort of mid- to lower-wage knowledge workers whose jobs stand to be automated is still going to be affected.

In response, he recommended that policy makers, schools and universities rethink current educational methods and system.

“We’re turning out industrial-era workers and industrial-era skills,” said McAfee. Instead of fact-based learning methods, he suggests focusing on developing the abilities of students to do problem definition, exploration and solving, working with machines.

“Reskilling and retraining are a big part of the answer,” he said. “We’re putting the wrong skills out there. Let’s rethink that. Let’s bring government, industry, and the educational institutions together and put together a curriculum that will actually deliver valuable skills out there.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee made a list of 19 recommendations from Race Against The Machine that are worth considering, including: measuring performance in education, extending school hours, encouraging the immigration and retention of skilled workers, teaching entrepreneurship, investing in the country’s communications and transportation infrastructure, reforming the patent system and revisiting a host of tax subsidy and regulatory policies. While not all of these recommendations could be addressed in the first 100 days, they are all worth adding to the discussion about the choices ahead of the new administration and Congress.

My suggestions

Where do I sit? To unlock more innovation in the economy, the administration should consider:

  • Making evidence-based investments in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and experiential learning programs, with measurements against which teaching methods are working and where. Continue to embrace the maker movement.
  • Focusing on skills matching between millions of open jobs and coordination with industry to determine the training needed to fill them and community colleges and grad programs to create curricula that are relevant.
  • Continuing to invest in basic research and development, particularly in biotechnology, nanotechnology, materials science and alternative energy.
  • Pushing through immigration reform that enables the best and brightest entrepreneurs and researchers to come to the United States to build businesses, study and to stay here after graduation. Make the political compromise to get that engine moving quickly. Simplify visa applications, in accordance with the digital government strategy, so that innovators can build better civic interfaces to provide expedited e-services.
  • Creating more access to early seed-stage capital for startups and small businesses. That means pushing the Security and Exchange Commission to finalize the crowdfunding rules from the JOBS Act.
  • Releasing more open government data from regulators and federal agencies, particularly high-value datasets that are in demand from startups. Catalyze the growing data economy by engaging entrepreneurs and venture capitalists — and respond to their feedback about quality, availability and standards. Collaborate with states and cities on creating open standards for urban data.
  • Putting more code, research and other intellectual property created with taxpayer dollars into the public domain.
  • Using the power of government procurement to encourage small business, once Project RFPEZ is completed.
  • Releasing more spectrum and creating incentives for “last mile” broadband access to enable more participants in the innovation economy.
  • Making libraries digital hubs for communities, enabling them to provide job training, broadband access, open data curation and even as maker spaces.

Your ideas?

When I asked for feedback online before the panel, Robert Bole, director of innovation for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, commented that the administration should make “block grants of digital services and open data to states.”

Additionally, suggested Bole, the administration should “expand Code for America and Presidential Innovation Fellows. Reform Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), adoption of RFP-EZ (and ilk). Reform of Universal Service fund for broadband infrastructure expansion. Improve libraries and schools to provide media literacy skills. Investment of career STEM at community colleges. Aggressive restructure & auction of spectrum (with smart public use requirements).”

After she commented during the Brookings forum, I asked Gwynne Kostin what the real issues are for innovation in the federal government. Kostin, who serves as the Director of the Digital Services Innovation Center in the Office of Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies at the U.S General Services Administration, responded by putting at least some of the onus on Congress:

Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama is up late in the White House in the next month and comes across this post when he’s reading his iPad.

What change(s), policy or other action would you recommend to him in these first 100 days? Would you support any of the items from the list above? Why? Or make other ones? If you have ideas, please add them below in the comments.

August 29 2012

President Obama participates in first Presidential AMA on Reddit

Starting around 4:30 PM ET today, President Barack Obama made history by going onto Reddit to answer questions about anything for an hour. Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet, has been hosting “Ask Me Anything” forums — or AMAs – for years, including sessions with prominent legislators like Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), but to host a sitting President of the United States will elevate Reddit’s prominence in the intersection of technology and politics. AllThingsD has the story of Reddit got the President onto the site. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Peter Kafka that “There are quite a few redditors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and at the campaign HQ — given the prominence of reddit, it’s an easy sell.”

President Obama made some news in the process, with respect to the Supreme Court decision that allowed super political action committees, or “Super PACs,” to become part of the campaign finance landscape.

“Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” commented President Obama. “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

President Obama announced that he’d be participating in the AMA in a tweet and provided photographic evidence that he was actually answering questions in an image posted to Reddit (above) and in a second tweet during the session.

The timing of the AMA was at least a little political, coming after a speech in Virginia and falling upon the third day of the Republic National Convention, but it is unequivocally a first, in terms of a president directly engaging with the vibrant Reddit community. Many people also tweeted that they were having trouble accessing the page during the AMA, as tens of thousands of users tried to access the forum. According to The Verge, President Obama’s AMA was the most popular post in Reddit’s history, with more than 200,000 visitors on the site concurrently. (Presidential Q&As apparently melts servers almost as much as being Biebered.)

Today’s AMA is only the latest example of presidents experimenting with online platforms, from President Clinton and President Bush posting text on WhiteHouse.gov to President Obama joining rebooting that platform on Drupal. More recently, President Obama has participated in a series of online ‘town halls’ using social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the first presidential Hangout on Google+.

His use of all them deserves to be analyzed critically, in terms of whether the platforms and events were being used to shine the credential of a tech-savvy chief executive in an election year or to genuinely answer the questions and concerns of the citizens he serves.

In analyzing the success of such experiment in digital democracy, it’s worth looking at whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted to see asked (on Reddit, counted by upvotes) and whether the answers given were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. On the first part of that rubric, President Obama scored high: he answered each of the top-voted questions in the AMA, along with a few personal ones.

 

On the rest of those counts, you can judge for yourself. The president’s answers are below:

“Hey everybody – this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover.”

On Internet freedom: “Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform.”

On space exploration: “Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.”

On helping small businesses and relevant bills: “We’ve really focused on this since I came into office – 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.”

Most difficult decision you had to make this term? ”The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban’s momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead – so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.”

On the influence of money in politics ”Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress – to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

On prospects for recent college grads – in this case, a law school grad: I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.”

First thing he’ll do on November 7th: “Win or lose, I’ll be thanking everybody who is working so hard – especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.”

How do you balance family life and hobbies with being POTUS? ”It’s hard – truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I’m spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store – so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I’m in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm – even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to Gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!”

On +The White House homebrew recipe ”It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”

A step forward for digital democracy?

The most interesting aspect of that Presidential Hangout was that it introduced the possibility of unscripted moments, where a citizen could ask an unexpected question, and the opportunity for followups, if an answer wasn’t specific enough.

Reddit doesn’t provide quite the same mechanism for accountability at a live Hangout, in terms of putting an elected official on the spot to answer. Unfortunately, the platform of Reddit itself falls short here: there’s no way to force a politician to circle back and give a better answer, in the way, say, Mike Wallace might have on “60 Minutes.”

Alexis Madrigal, one of the sharpest observers of technology and society currently gracing the pages of the Atlantic, is clear about the issues with a Reddit AMA: “it’s a terrible format for extracting information from a politician.”

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA. Reddit is not a mic accidentally left on during a private moment. The kind of intimacy and honesty that Redditors crave does not scale up to national politics, where no one ever lets down his or her guard. Instead of using the stiffness and formality of the MSM to drive his message home, Obama simply used the looseness and casual banter of Reddit to drive his message home. Here more than in almost anything else: Tech is not the answer to the problems of modern politics.

Today’s exchange, however, does hint at the tantalizing dynamic that makes it alluring: that the Internet is connecting you and your question to the most powerful man in the world, directly, and that your online community can push for him to answer it.

President Obama ended today’s AMA by thanking everyone on Reddit for participating and wrote that “this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.”

Well, it’s a start. Thank you for logging on today, Mr. President. Please come back online and answer some more follow up questions.

Reposted byRK RK
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