AI- Policies for the Next Administration

This piece considers the general state of policy on AI and also gives some numbers to the federal activity encouraging research and application in this field.

Growing interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes from a range of audiences including academia, commercial industry, the entertainment industry, and now the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). On October 12, 2016, OSTP released two new documents on AI. The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan is a high level framework for prioritizing and coordinating federal research and development (R&D) to advance AI. A companion piece, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, discusses the technologies that can be identified as AI and how these may be used to benefit society. A third document, to be authored by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and released later this year, will explore how AI might affect employment.

AI—along with related initiatives on topics ranging from precision medicine to the Internet of Things (IoT)—was also showcased at the White House Frontiers Conference. But the winds of change blow fiercely in election years. With the presidential election approaching, one key task for the incoming administration will be to take account of current OSTP policies and determine whether these will be bolstered or recast. The rest of this piece considers: How can the next administration advance current policies? And what can be done in and beyond the White House to ensure that AI R&D remains a national priority in the coming years?

There are many technologies that can be grouped under the designation of AI, from general techniques to specific applications.  One general technology is deep learning, which is a set of techniques for gradually structuring data by defining it in layers. A more specific application is machine translation, which powers the familiar service Google Translate. While many AI technologies were initially created in research laboratories, innovation in AI technology is increasingly driven by industry, thanks to (for example) market incentives for investing in digital personal assistants and autonomous driving.

Any administration that makes AI a priority will want to see the US emerge as a global leader. Unfortunately, as a relatively new area of broad public interest the exact levels of financial investment in AI research are not well-defined. Thus, determining where funding originates or how exactly it is spent is challenging. As one starting point, the National AI R&D strategy gives a number of $1.1 billion in unclassified, federally funded R&D for AI. [1] However, without more statistics for AI investment, it is difficult to compare US federal investments with funding in other countries. Some other approximations of productivity are possible, including comparing the number of relevant journal articles and patents in countries like China and the US (e.g., NSTC’s strategy in the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan), or comparing the number of computer science publications by country.[2] Continue reading “AI- Policies for the Next Administration”

Obama’s Legacy in Science, Technology, and Innovation

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

On Monday of this week, the White House Office of the Press Secretary released an Impact Report titled “100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.”  Upon entering office, Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and with less than 6 months left in his second term, the time has come to assess his commitment to that goal.  This list, catalogued by the affected field, serves as tangible evidence of his reinvestment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The role of science, technology, and innovation in society cannot be overstated; with a breadth of applications – from promoting economic expansion to combatting climate change – maintaining public interest in these three domains is essential.  A cornucopia of applications is on display in the report, with noted advancements and initiatives towards everything from breaking down gender stereotypes in toys and the media (#23) to safely integrating commercial drones into the national airspace (#35).

Barack Obama
Obama introduces the BRAIN Initiative (#45) to discover new methods of treating neurological disorders (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Roughly the first quarter of the list is devoted to detailing the broad brush strokes of the Administration, its goals for promoting STEM within the government, the education system, and the public.  And of particular note for us at the Commons Lab are the entries under the subheading “Promoting Innovation Nationwide”.  It’s there that items 14 and 15 laud the establishment of the prizes and challenges platforms and  The former relies on, and monetarily rewards, the input of citizens in an effort to solve issues facing an array of government agencies.  The latter comprises a catalogue, toolkit, and community page for anyone interested in joining the citizen science movement.  By highlighting these platforms, especially, which debuted in April of this year, the Administration is further fomenting its legacy of Open Innovation.

The legacy is also apparent in a host of other initiatives.  Obama and his team, namely staff within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and scholars on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), have worked tirelessly to foster participatory endeavors.  They’ve removed certain barriers-to-entry facing the prospective innovator: they’ve made the Research & Experimentation tax credit permanent (#10), increased research and development funding (#7), and opened up nearly 200,000 Federal datasets to the public (#12).  These strides, combined with those taken to cultivate future generations of STEM-savvy citizens (#16-25), have provided an optimistic trajectory for the years to come.  And by recognizing and appreciating the inextricable link between innovation and entrepreneurship, this Administration has aimed to pave the way for steady economic growth; it was in this vein that a network of nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes were established in 2012 (#30).  It’s also important to note efforts to catalyze advancements in fields as diverse as healthcare (#43-46) and space exploration (#84-87).  Of course, only the passage of time will allow for anyone to definitively measure the impact of the Obama White House on science, technology, and innovation, and their impacts on our nation in turn, but, according to the Office of the Press Secretary, we have at least 100 things to be thankful for.

4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science

Video: Google Hangout recording at the USA Science & Engineering Festival of citizen scientist experts from across the country discussing how mobile technology can assist the growth of citizen science

At the 4th USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education exposition in the United States, more than 1,000 STEM organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Department of State, presented interactive activities to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in the STEM field. Over the course of two days, tens of thousands of visitors of all ages came to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center located in Washington, D.C. to engage with STEM activities.

While the organizations covered a broad range of science and engineering areas, a common focal point was citizen science. Specifically, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Park Service, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Homeland Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and SciStarter aimed to further the general public’s participation in and understanding of citizen science, its success and significance today, and its potential applications for the future.

NOAA, for example, discussed the critical role citizen science plays with emerging technology and the numerous NOAA projects that could not have succeeded without the support of citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Continue reading “4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science”

Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable

This post is re-blogged from New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. You may find the original piece here, posted on April 21, 2016. 

The author of the article, Louise Lief, is a former Wilson Center fellow and current scholar-in-residence at the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Higher release of iron is evident in the Flint water glass reactor containing iron than that with Detroit water (Photo courtesy of

A couple of weeks ago, the task force Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed to investigate Flint’s now infamous water crisis issued its long-awaited report.

The findings detailed failures in multiple government agencies to address high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, in the city’s water. To cut costs, in the spring of 2014 Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager had switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the more polluted Flint River and kept it there, despite community protests, for 18 months.

Calling the crisis “a clear case of environmental injustice,” the task force issued 44 recommendations that will cost millions to implement. The long-term damage to many Flint children is irreversible.

The hidden success story in this disheartening tale of denial and indifference was the collaboration of an ad hoc coalition of journalists, citizens, and academics whose combined efforts finally compelled the state of Michigan to act. “Without their courage and persistence,” the report noted, “this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.”

As New Jersey and Ohio have discovered, lead’s story doesn’t end in Flint. There are an estimated 10 million lead service lines in the U.S., part of the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure that will require an estimated $1 trillion to rehabilitate.

As other communities wonder what perils they face, the Flint collaboration offers a road map on how to tackle environmental and other problems when government fails to act, especially for the most vulnerable communities.

Continue reading “Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable”

New Report: Identifying the Key Prerequisite for Citizen Science through Cell Spotting

Cell Spotting
Cell Spotting game

A few years ago, the term “citizen science” barely turned any heads. In the past few months, however, citizen science has been receiving increasing national recognition, culminating with the introduction of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act to Congress in September 2015 and the creation of the Citizen Science Association.

In response to this drastic growth, researchers now aim to determine what exactly incentivizes individuals to contribute to citizen science, despite the lack of formal recognition.

A recent paper by an international group of researchers finds a mutually beneficial payoff of incorporating citizen science in an academic curriculum. On the one hand, students are able to solidify their understanding of the theoretical knowledge they gain in the classroom by engaging directly with the project and researchers vis-à-vis citizen science projects, according to the paper published in the January issue of the Journal of Science Communication. On the other hand, researchers directing these projects would generally not be able to afford the comprehensive data sets citizen science can provide. The widespread engagement of citizen science taps an avenue that would otherwise pose as a logistical obstacle to researchers.

The study focused specifically on the educational and motivational outcomes of citizen science, looking at hundreds of high school students from Spain and Portugal who participated in Cell Spotting, a project that focuses on discovering new treatments for cancer. The students were asked to observe and subsequently report on thousands of images of cancer cells that have been subjected to various forms of potential drugs.

Continue reading “New Report: Identifying the Key Prerequisite for Citizen Science through Cell Spotting”

Open Data in the President’s Budget for 2017

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The Obama administration seems serious about open data. The administration’s recently released budget for fiscal year 2017 highlights the federal government’s commitment to open data, not only for the science community but also for economic development. Specifically, the section titled “Economic Growth: Opening Government-Funded Data and Research to the Public to Spur Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Job Growth” focuses on how federal government investments in making federally funded research and development (R&D) projects accessible to the public will lead to technological innovation, job growth, and industry creation.

In the budget, the administration argues that granting the public access to intellectual property and scientific knowledge leads to innovation. With the open data from government-funded projects, citizens and businesses can build upon pre-existing research, resulting in technological development. The website, for example, offers more than 188,000 data sets on topics ranging from healthcare to agriculture. Using this information, external groups have created applications to improve accessibility for people with disabilities and help food truck vendors improve their sales. Currently, the government has already taken the first step in expanding the public’s access to datasets with initiatives like Project Open Data, but the additional investment proposed in the FY2017 budget could allow for further independent research and innovation.

Second, the increased availability and accessibility to open data will create new jobs and industries, according to the FY2017 budget. Moreover, federal R&D data is oftentimes successfully leveraged by academics and entrepreneurs. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long collaborated with the private sector to conduct experiments on the International Space Station. After NASA granted private researchers access to their findings, the researchers were able to create a whole new industry in small satellites.

Continue reading “Open Data in the President’s Budget for 2017”

EVENT: Legal Issues and Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science

Capitalizing on the momentum from the recent White House event — which appointed citizen science coordinators in Federal agencies, highlighted legislation introduced in Congress concerning funding mechanisms and clarifying legal and administrative issues to using citizen science, and launched a new Federal toolkit on citizen science and crowdsourcing — the Commons Lab is hosting a panel examining the legal issues affecting federal citizen science and the potential intellectual property rights that could arise from using citizen science.


This panel corresponds with the launch of two new Commons Lab Publications:

As a project manager or researcher conducting citizen science, either at the federal level or in partnership with governmental agencies, there are certain issues like the Information Quality Act that will impact citizen science and crowdsourcing project design. Being aware of these issues prior to initiating projects will save time and provide avenues for complying with or “lawfully evading” potential barriers. The Commons Lab web-enabled policy tool will also be demonstrated at the event. This tool helps users navigate the complicated laws discussed in Robert Gellman’s report on legal issues affecting citizen science.

Intellectual property rights in the age of open source, open data, open science and also, citizen science, are complicated and require significant forethought before embarking on a citizen science project. Please join us to hear from two experts on the legal barriers and intellectual property rights issues in citizen science and collect a hard copy of the reports.


Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
Haewon Chung, Doctoral Candidate in Law, University of Ottawa
Robert Gellman, Privacy and Information Policy Consultant in Washington, DC

Jay Benforado, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

New Report: Science Hack Day – Bridging the Hacking Community & Government

On May 16th & 17th of 2015 the Commons Lab hosted Washington, D.C.’s first-ever Science Hack Day in collaboration with ArtsEdge of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts. The event was attended by over 100 people and a handful of the hacks produced have continued on to form either a non-profit, limited liability company or submitted proposals to seek more funding.

The use of hackathon’s by the government, as a tool to engage top talent, apply new ways of thinking to seemingly intractable problems and increase public engagement and awareness has been growing over the past decade, especially in the past couple years. This exciting movement has incredible promise; however there are strategic research investments and best practices that could be made by the government to utilize this tool to its fullest potential. This case study analyzes the science hack day event itself, highlights some of the award winning hacks and explores some of the governments investments in concepts behind hackathon’s and offers suggestions for avoiding potential pitfalls of mass collaboration.

You can download the report here: