Spring Buzz

Kathy Goodson

It’s springtime in DC, which means a time for new beginnings. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and the presidential candidates are beginning to unveil themselves. It’s a perfect time to talk about science communication. Public perception of science has been hit hard lately with recent episodes of misinformation, peer-review gangs, and overall confusion. With the fresh-faced candidates on the scene, we should hope to see new mediums to revitalize the presentation of how science affects society. Every facet of our life is permeated by science and I’m excited to see their takes on how science affects the world. What stance are they taking? How does that play into the bigger picture? What will that mean for the future of the United States?

As each candidate starts to release their platforms, we should evaluate what they are communicating, how they are communicating, and to whom they are communicating. In our modern world, political figures communicate science through the foothold of political context. We should expect our leaders to practice informed decision-making. Science communication at its best is a full conversation, which is both informative and educational. The more the public knows about science, the better we can understand how, why, and what policy decisions are being made.

As we fortify our country with new technologies, preserve our environment, and make literal leaps into deep space we all have a right to be a part of the conversation. Science communication is a science in of itself. It’s a necessary tool for successful communication between scientists and non-scientists alike. I hope our future leaders will help us to be a part of this conversation. In addition, since political leaders can shape this conversation, we should challenge them to use science communication to raise our standard of science public literacy.

This spring, we have the opportunity for a new beginning, a new President, a new type of leader that is not reactionary but rather bases decisions on a strategic plan for our future. Science communication is important and I can’t wait to start having this discussion with our new leaders.

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A Call For Science Representation

Charles Mueller and Jennifer Buss

The US Government spent over $300,000 taxpayer dollars to prove that hungry people are angrier than well-fed people. Of course, the government also invested taxpayer money into a research project that created a company valued at over $250 billion dollars, Google. Why are the government’s investments in science so varied in their outcomes? How does the government decide what to invest in? Do they turn to the people and ask them? The answer is no. The truth is that the government turns to a small group of experts and hopes that they make they right choices. These experts determine how to allocate taxpayer dollars in ways they deem fit. This model assumes that people are unqualified to weigh in on such decisions or simply that they don’t want to. This is hogwash. You do not `have to be a rocket scientist to understand that investing almost $1 million dollars in scientific research aimed at teaching a mountain lion to walk on a treadmill is not a good investment. People want to have a voice in science, but they do not have a vehicle to carry their voice. Let’s give people a voice by giving them a science state representative.

In a democracy, the people’s voice is supposed to be championed by an elected representative who will carry their voice to the places that matter. Science and technology (S&T) has never been more important and influential in Americans’ lives than they are today, yet our elected representatives cannot properly address important S&T policy issues because they are bogged down by other obligations; not to mention, most are not qualified to properly weigh in on S&T issues. Rather than expecting our traditional representatives to become experts on S&T policy, we should create a new voice for the people when it comes to science and elect a science representative from each state.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) mission is “to promote the progress of science”, amongst other things. This year, they received $6 billion dollars to do just that. Whose voices do they listen to when they decide the best way to use their $6 billion dollars to promote the progress of science? As of now, the only thing that is certain is that it is not the voice of the people. This is evident by the recent news that the NSF has been under scrutiny for funding research efforts that were not justified or in the ‘national interest’. Instead of allowing currently funded NSF researchers to peer-review grants at NSF, we could allow technically qualified elected officials to do the reviewing and make the national interest decisions. This would be giving the power back to the people.

It is time for us to decide who we want to represent our science standings to the government, rather than expect our current elected officials to have to do both. We (the people) should be choosing what science gets funded – not the scientists. It is our tax dollars at work. We should have a say, and we can elect people that will do that for us. Our current elected officials do not have the time or the expertise to address the many important science policy issues that exist today. Let’s choose people based on their credentials that will represent our wishes to allocate funds based on the state population. Let’s choose people who bring the science issues we think are important to the floor to be debated in Congress. Let’s take the first step in creating a people’s voice in science and establish a science representative from each state that would provide advising to the congress, the agencies, and create a national science agenda for the US.

Internet Providers Are Now ‘Common Carriers’: What Does That Mean For You?

Jennifer McArdle

On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet Service Providers (ISP) as ‘common carriers’ under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act by a 3 to 2 vote. So what does that mean for you?

Well, it depends on who the ‘you’ is, because that answer differs based on whether you are a regular consumer of Internet content, a provider of Internet content, or an ISP. However, essentially, this ruling is about net neutrality—the ability to access the Internet free of discrimination. So let’s break this down a bit.

Prior to the February 26 ruling, ISP’s were regulated under Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and classified as “information services.” The FCC also put in place specific anti-blocking and non-discrimination rules as part of their 2010 Open Internet Order. Basically, the FCC was attempting to ensure two things: one, that ISPs could not block or deny consumers access to an Internet site of their choosing, and two, that ISPs could not create a tiered access system, with higher paying users accessing the Internet on a ‘fast-lane’ while others are regulated to a ‘slow-lane.’

In January 2014, Verizon, one of the largest ISP’s, sued the government and challenged the FCC’s regulations designed to implement net neutrality. The US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit upheld the FCC authority to use section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to regulate the Internet; however, it struck down the specific anti-blocking and anti-discrimination measures, giving Verizon the leeway to disregard the FCC’s rules. Five months later, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on the Internet regulatory structure, which eventually received over 4 million public comments, the large majority of which were in favor of net neutrality. This set the stage for the FCC’s ruling last month.

By defining ISP’s as common carriers, the FCC is essentially defining broadband Internet service providers as a utility. They are mandated by government to provide the same service to everyone without discrimination—much like electricity and gas services.

So, what does that mean for you?

You, the content consumer

By classifying ISP’s as common carriers the FCC has banned ‘paid prioritization’—there will be no fast lanes and slow lanes of the Internet. And this is a good thing for the average consumer. Last June, John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight (which is well worth watching) noted that 96% of Americans have access to two or fewer cable companies. That means that even if your Internet was being delayed or distorted you may not have the option to change to another provider.

Moreover, privacy advocates have noted that in order for ISP’s to play bandwidth favorites, they need to monitor what you are doing online via deep packet inspection. While deep packet inspection is certainly important to protect against nefarious viruses or malware, it can, under certain circumstances, lead to invasions of privacy. Defining ISP’s as ‘common carriers’ helps prevent against that.

The FCC resolution is designed to ensure that you the average content consumer— regardless if you consume high- or low-bandwidth—has access to Internet content free of discrimination, much like your access to other facilities deemed essential for public life, such as canals, rails, and the telephone.

You, the content producer

Last year, Netflix consumers noticed that there was far more buffering of Netflix content. That is because broadband providers insisted that Netflix users were consuming much of the available Internet bandwidth and therefore the ISP’s slowed it down. Netflix reluctantly agreed to pay interconnection fees to broadband providers in order to ensure its content consumers could stream its videos. Netflix, not surprisingly, is for net neutrality.

However, it is not just the giant content producers that stand to benefit from this ruling. President Obama has noted that ‘paid prioritization’ stacks the deck against small content producing companies, which are unable to challenge the dominance of Internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix.

Defining ISP’s as ‘common carriers’ ensures that content producers are not held hostage to ‘last mile Internet gatekeepers’ and can ensure their content reaches consumers free from bias.

You, the ISP

Not surprisingly, this ruling was not the best for ISP’s who stand to make money from a tiered Internet access system. Moreover, opponents to net neutrality argue that if broadband ISPs cannot collect fees from companies who take up an outsized portion of bandwidth, they lose the incentive to invest in maintaining and upgrading their current infrastructure. This may indeed be true.

The Future?

While the February ruling seemed to settle the debate on net neutrality, it may really be just beginning. The Title II ruling is not set in stone yet and it is already beginning to be legally challenged on the Hill. What that means for ‘you’ may fundamentally change in the months to come.