Thursday, February 19, 2015

Intellectual Piecework: Platforms like Mechanical Turk Pose New Ethical Dilemmas

Nathan Schneider, Chronicle of Higher Education
February 16, 2015

Nowadays, Alfredo García studies graffiti. His dissertation in sociology at Princeton University is an ethnography of a changing Miami neighborhood, which means he spends his time chatting up strangers, arranging interviews, and climbing ladders with street artists. But during his second year at Princeton, in 2012, he tried something else. With a bit of out-of-pocket money, he surveyed 420 people about how looking at different kinds of fake Facebook profiles affected their views about Islam. He obtained clear statistical findings and produced a paper that is now under review at a respected journal. In the process he didn’t meet a single one of his subjects; not one of them was a Princeton undergraduate required to take surveys for a class.
Mr. García used Mechanical Turk, an Amazon.com-owned platform that describes itself as "artificial artificial intelligence." What it offers has been called crowd-work, or digital piecework, or crowdsourcing—thousands of people around the world sitting at their computers and doing discrete tasks for pay. Each of Mr. García’s subjects earned a quarter for filling out a survey less than 10 minutes long—$1.50 an hour, that is.  Read more



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

To Win Funds, Scientists Pursue Sweeping Solutions to Social Ills

Paul Voosen, Chronicle of Higher Education
February 9, 2015

When President Obama called for a $215-million "precision medicine initiative" in his State of the Union speech last month, he was behaving very much like a politician of his times. This was mission-driven research, squarely aimed at solving society’s ills—in this case, by tailoring cures to individuals. This was not science for the sake of discovery—the "endless frontier," as the architect of U.S. science policy after World War II, Vannevar Bush, termed it. This was utilitarian. There was a promise of applied results.

Over the past decade, these promises have repeatedly been made in the name of "grand challenges." Often invoking the Apollo program, philanthropies and governments have urged researchers to pursue scientific solutions to specific societal problems. The United States, Canada, India, and Brazil have all embraced grand challenges, and the European Union has made solving "societal challenges" a pillar of its research agenda. Challenges abound.  Even as such mission-driven research has grown in scale and ambition, its ends have become increasingly specific, several science-policy researchers and historians say. Basic science is still supported under the mantle of applied work—see the National Institutes of Health—but it feels like the idea of science for discovery’s sake has lost nearly all its gravity.  Read more

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

NSF FY2016 Budget Request Continues Commitment to Discovery, Innovation and Learning

National Science Foundation
February 2, 2015

Today, National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France A. Córdova outlined President Obama's fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget request to Congress for NSF. The FY16 request calls for $7.7 billion for NSF, an increase of $379 million over FY15, which is an increase of 5.2 percent.

The budget request includes support for new approaches to research on sustainability, global climate, the food-energy-water nexus, cognitive science and neurosciences, and risk and resilience. It promotes advanced manufacturing research and clean energy activities and sustains investments in cybersecurity research. It also supports a range of investments in developing the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, including new efforts to broaden participation in STEM fields.  Read more

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Steps to Enhance Transparency and Accountability at the National Science Foundation

National Science Foundation
January 13, 2015
 
Over the last year, the National Science Foundation has taken new steps to enhance transparency and accountability. This notice focuses on efforts to clarify NSF's award abstracts, which serve a different purpose than the project summary that is submitted as part of a proposal.

Effective December 26, 2014, NSF's updated Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) (NSF 15-1) includes the following statement about award abstracts: "Should a proposal be recommended for award, the PI (Principal Investigator) may be contacted by the NSF Program Officer for assistance in preparation of the public award abstract and its title. An NSF award abstract, with its title, is an NSF document that describes the project and justifies the expenditure of Federal funds."  Read more

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Big-Data Scientists Face Ethical Challenges After Facebook Study

Paul Vooson, Chronicle of Higher Education
December 15, 2014
 
Though it may not feel like it when you see the latest identity-affirming listicle shared by a friend on Facebook, we are a society moving toward evidence. Our world is ever more quantified, and with such data, flawed or not, the tools of science are more widely applied to our decisions. We can do more than observe our lives, the idea goes. We can experiment on them.

No group lives that ethos more than the life-hacking coders of Silicon Valley. Trading on Internet-wired products that allow continuous updates and monitoring, programmers test their software while we use it, comparing one algorithmic tweak against another—the A/B test, as it’s known. As we browse the web, we are exposed to endless manipulations. Many are banal—what font gets you to click more?—and some are not.

Last summer the technologists discovered how unaware everyone else was of this new world. After Facebook, in collaboration with two academics, published a study showing how positive or negative language spreads among its users, a viral storm erupted. Facebook "controls emotions," headlines yelled. Jeffrey T. Hancock, a Cornell University professor of communications and information science who collaborated with Facebook, drew harsh scrutiny. The study was the most shared scientific article of the year on social media. Some critics called for a government investigation.  Read more

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Two NSF Grants That Have Drawn Republican Scrutiny

Paul Baskin, Chronicle of Higher Education
December 8, 2014

The Republican leadership of the House science committee has repeatedly criticized the National Science Foundation’s research choices. In many cases, detailed examinations have shown that, while there may be partisan reasons underlying the complaints, the disputes are often marked by misunderstandings. Two examples concern projects involving the environment and mechanics.  Read more

What Do House Republicans Want From the NSF?

Paul Basken, Chronicle of Higher Education
December 8, 2014

Republicans leading the House science committee have spent much of the past two years ratcheting up the pressure on the National Science Foundation. They’ve sought information on several dozen grants awarded by the NSF. They’ve made increasingly strident attacks on some of its choices. And for several weeks now, committee representatives have been trekking out to NSF offices in Arlington, Va., to inspect grant paperwork.

The oversight campaign has left researchers worried that the committee is trying to impose partisan priorities on scientific processes. But a committee aide involved in the work said the panel’s escalating pressure could ease soon. All it would take, the aide said, is for the NSF to meet a demand made by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the committee’s chairman: that each new grant award include a brief summary explaining the project’s value.  "Immediately, it would change the nature of the dialogue," the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.  Read more