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Cosmic Science

Joe Biden jumps into science policy with 5 questions

Between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, science policy matters led President Joe Biden’s to-do list for his first day at the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has already taken more than 400,000 American lives and is killing thousands more daily, is clearly the biggest challenge, judging from Biden’s inaugural address.

“We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” he said today. “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”

But climate change also came in for a prominent mention: “A cry for survival comes from the planet itself — a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear,” Biden said.

Public health and environmental issues also led the list of executive actions that Biden approved on his first day. Among the highlights:

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Fiction Science Club

How technology can keep democracy from dying

Between the voting-machine failures, the cyberattacks and the social-media shenanigans, technology hasn’t had a great record when it comes to fostering and protecting democracy in the 21st century. But George Zarkadakis says the technology — and democracy — can be fixed.

In his new book, “Cyber Republic: Reinventing Democracy in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” the Greek-born tech expert, writer and management consultant offers a repair manual that takes advantage of innovations ranging from artificial intelligence and expert systems, to blockchain, to data trusts that are personalized and monetized.

According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.

“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”

He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreakerOvercastPocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Zarkadakis’ journey to the frontiers of governance began back in 2006, when he was a facilitator for the European Union’s Meeting of the Minds citizen assembly experiment. In the book, he describes the experience as his “Pauline conversion.”

The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.

One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.

Citizen assemblies have been called “the flavor of the month among political geeks,” but they’re not a simple panacea for what ails political systems. Zarkadakis acknowledged that the current information climate is rife with disinformation. Why? One big reason is that trumped-up polarization is so profitable, due to the algorithms used by Facebook and other social-media platforms.

“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”

Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.

Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.

In reply, Zarkadakis pointed to a $5.5 billion loan that American Airlines received from the federal government in June to weather the coronavirus crisis.

“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.

American Airlines valued its AAdvantage program at $19.5 billion to $31.5 billion. There may be some question about that valuation, but in any case, “that’s the kind of money we’re talking about around data,” Zarkadakis said.

To guarantee the veracity and the source of a given data stream, Zarkadakis suggests using the same kinds of blockchain-based software tools that are used for cryptocurrencies.

Cyber Republic book cover
“Cyber Republic” lays out a game plan for giving democracy an upgrade. (MIT Press / Shutterstock / chuckchee)

The data trust concept may sound way-out, but it’s already gaining some traction among pundits and researchers as well as science-fiction authors. In “The Ministry for the Future,” a newly published novel that anticipates the deepening of the world’s climate crisis, Kim Stanley Robinson works in references to a fictional data trust called YourLock. (Stay tuned for more in a future Fiction Science episode.)

Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.

“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”

Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.

I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”

George Zarkadakis
George Zarkadakis is the author of “Cyber Republic.” (Yannis Bournias Photo)

Are there lessons that political scientists can learn from science fiction? Or that science-fiction writers can learn from political scientists? Zarkadakis noted that there are ample parallels between “Star Wars” and the tale of the Roman Republic’s transition to the Roman Empire, or Germany’s transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

“I also find it interesting when science fiction is looking into the future, into different sorts of political systems,” he said.

Among his favorites are “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”

Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.

“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West  Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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Cosmic Science

When pandemics mix with politics, it’s unhealthy

For years, public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been playing out scenarios for dealing with pandemics, but the one scenario they didn’t count on was that they’d be hamstrung by their own political leaders.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought that that would happen,” said Maryn McKenna, a veteran reporter on infectious diseases. “And yet, seven months into the pandemic here in the United States, that’s pretty much where we are.”

McKenna and others involved in the response to the coronavirus outbreak discussed the role that politics has played in the pandemic, during a presentation organized by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Today’s session served as the kickoff for a free weekly series of online events focusing on COVID-19, offered for journalists as well as the public in conjunction with the annual ScienceWriters conference.

Panelists agreed that mixed messages from the nation’s leaders have hampered efforts to combat the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans. Just today, Cornell University researchers said their analysis pointed to President Donald Trump as “the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID.”

Such misinformation has taken the form of conspiracy theories about the origins and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, plus the hype surrounding supposed “miracle” cures and efforts to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.

Marsha Jones — co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, a Texas-based reproductive justice organization — said she’s seen it all before, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

“I didn’t think that I would ever see a disease so politicized as HIV was ever again, because for some reason I thought we learned,” she said.

Like the HIV epidemic, the COVID-19 epidemic is dealing a particularly heavy blow to people “who get the least amount of funding, who get the least amount of recognition, who have the worst care,” Jones said.

And even as the outbreak is raging, disadvantaged communities are struggling with the repercussions of systemic racism and urban unrest. “We’re living in a dual epidemic,” Jones said.

Science is suffering along with society, said Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. His group became the focus of controversy early in the pandemic because it helped train Chinese virologists in Wuhan, which was the outbreak’s global epicenter.

The training effort was part of a federally funded program called PREDICT, which aimed to anticipate cross-species viral outbreaks. The Trump administration let the program expire last year, just before the first COVID-19 cases came to light — and EcoHealth Alliance faced heavy criticism largely because of unfounded accusations that the virus was unleashed from the Wuhan virology lab.

“It’s the right wing, it’s QAnon, it’s people spending hours in their basements doing ‘research’ on the internet to dig up stuff that sounds like a conspiracy,” Daszak said. “And of course, with so much online presence, the president not only allows that to happen, but also promotes it, and seems to believe it himself.”

Scientists tend to be uncomfortable about getting into the political fray, but Daszak said inaction may no longer be an option. “During the HIV pandemic, science got political, and scientists got political,” he said. “It’s no good keeping quiet. You’ve got to push back, and push back strong, and tell the truth about what’s going on. … If you keep quiet, you’ve just basically consigned science to the trash heap.”

So what is to be done? The panelists said the political outlook could brighten next year. There’s already an effort in the works to get a virus surveillance program called Stop Spillover funded, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to revive PREDICT.

McKenna said Biden could also reverse cutbacks in public health spending and shore up the CDC’s data-gathering operation.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can play a role in repairing public policy on pandemics, Daszak said.

“You’re journalists,” he told the online audience. “So get out there and speak the truth, and push back.”

McKenna said it’s crucial for all journalists to be trained to cover the different facets of coronavirus coverage, ranging from biology to business, from epidemiology to education.

“We should rethink the silos within which we exist as journalists … because it’s entirely possible that a science and public health story like the coronavirus pandemic will come in and cut across all those silos, and demonstrate the degree to which we have not trained each other in the mutual knowledge that we all need,” she said.

Daszak said truth-telling shouldn’t be confined to a newsroom setting.

“Go talk to your neighbors and friends,” he said. “And also, you know, the folks with the Trump sign outside their house. Go have a chat with them, see what they think about masks and school openings. Listen to them, and say a couple of things, a couple of facts, nothing heavy, and just let it settle and move away. … We need a societal change in our understanding of things like this pandemic.”

Jones stressed that you don’t need to be a politician — or a journalist, or a public health worker, for that matter — to parry the pandemic.

“The greatest changes don’t necessarily have to happen in the political arena. “There are changes that can happen outside of that, that will inevitably impact what’s happening in the political arena,” she said.

She advised starting with the place where you have the most influence, even if it’s outside the traditional halls of power.

“If that’s at your house, if that’s on your porch, in the park, in the gym — wherever it is that you have the most power, and you can have the most convincing conversation where you’re talking with somebody who can create change, that’s what you do,” Jones said.

From the CDC: How to protect yourself and others

The next presentation in the “COVID-19 Science and Coverage” series is scheduled for Oct. 7, starting at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT). The theme is “Reporting on the Pandemic.” Panelists include STAT senior writer Helen Branswell; Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American; Patrice Peck, creator of the newsletter Coronavirus News for Black Folks; and Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing writer at The Atlantic

Full disclosure: I’m the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, which is one of the organizers of the series. FiveThirtyEight senior science writer Maggie Koerth, a CASW board member, moderated today’s session. 

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GeekWire

White House CFO becomes Pentagon’s top techie

White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios ⁠— who enlisted Amazon, Microsoft and other key players in artificial intelligence and cloud computing to fight COVID-19 ⁠— has himself been recruited for another role as the Defense Department’s top official for technology.

President Donald Trump is designating Kratsios to serve as the acting under secretary of defense for research and engineering — in effect, the Pentagon’s CTO. Kratsios will also keep his CTO role in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The previous under secretary in charge of defense tech, Mike Griffin, stepped down last week to pursue “a private-sector opportunity” along with his deputy.

Kratsios will be in the prime position to help the Pentagon pursue opportunities in emerging technologies such as AI, automation, quantum computing, robotics and 5G wireless services — frontiers that have drawn increasing attention under Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

How will protests affect the pandemic?

Protesters in Seattle
Activists Malcolm Frankson (speaking) and Jack Eppard Barajas (right) discuss police reforms with a crowd of protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Social distancing, masks and gloves are among measures being taken to avoid spreading coronavirus. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Epidemiologists say the crowding conditions associated with mass protests over police violence seem likely to add dozens of people, or perhaps even hundreds, to the daily death toll from coronavirus infections.

But they acknowledge that that these sorts of assessments involve a tradeoff between public health and social justice.

“Racism and state-sponsored violence are critical public health issues,” Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote in a weekend string of tweets. “We should also acknowledge that the specific action of large-scale public protest at this moment during the COVID-19 pandemic may result in perhaps more than 10 but less than 100 deaths per day.”

In response to feedback, Bedford later revised his estimate to “a highly speculative” guess of more than 50 but less than 500 extra deaths for each day of protest.

Bedford and other coronavirus trackers pointed out that the protests are coming amid widespread relaxation of strict rules on social distancing and business activities. That will make it all the more difficult to tease out the specific causes behind what’s likely to be an upswing in infections.

“The protests and potential to transmit virus are on a background of general societal opening,” Bedford said. “It feels as though we’ve largely given up on controlling the epidemic and have resigned ourselves to living alongside it.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Trump campaign pulls ad featuring SpaceX launch

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken say farewell to their families before heading to the launch pad for a SpaceX launch to the International Space Station on May 30. (NASA via YouTube)

An online advertisement that plays off last weekend’s historic crewed SpaceX launch to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign drew a protest from the wife of one of the astronauts today — and soon afterward, the campaign deleted its version of the ad.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Trump hails SpaceX launch after seeing it firsthand

Donald Trump in VAB
President Donald Trump delivers remarks in Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building with a mockup of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

President Donald Trump held up America’s space effort as a unifying endeavor for a divided nation after becoming only the third sitting president to witness the launch of American astronauts in person.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Trump says he’s taking pills to dodge COVID-19

President Donald Trump said today that he’s taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that’s being tested as a COVID-19 treatment at the University of Washington and  dozens of other sites across the country.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

 

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GeekWire

Tech CEOs advise White House on virus impact

Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (Space Foundation / Microsoft Photos)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and President Donald Trump aren’t exactly the best of friends, but that didn’t stop the White House from including the world’s richest individual on a list of industry leaders working with Trump to bring about a “Great American Economic Revival.”

Bezos, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson are among the members of industry groups that were created this week to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, the White House said in an April 14 statement.

Nadella and Bezos are on the tech group, alongside the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Salesforce and other leading companies. Johnson is listed with a different group, focusing on the food and beverage industry.

There are more than 200 representatives in all on sector-specific teams, ranging from health care industry executives to sports executives and “thought leaders” including trickle-down economist Art Laffer.

“These bipartisan groups of American leaders will work together with the White House to chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity,” the White House said.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

White House science chief will lead NSF, too

Kelvin Droegemeier
White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier speaks during a Seattle town hall session at February’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (AAAS via YouTube)

President Donald Trump has named White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier to serve as acting director of the National Science Foundation.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.