Today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released its report on incidental findings. This project started at the beginning of the year, and focuses on findings that were beyond the aims or scope of a particular test or procedure. The ethical consequences of such findings can be most keenly felt when they involves human subjects and/or medical patients (see this article on The Atlantic’s website for a specific medical case). Such findings may not be information that a subject/patient is seeking, which adds an additional wrinkle to determining how to best approach the person and respect their rights to choose and one’s obligations to provide appropriate and effective treatment.
But they can be found in many different places, which is why the report, called Anticipate and Communicate, has a subtitle of Ethical Management of Incidental Findings in the Clinical, Research and Direct-to-Consumer Contexts. It’s also why this isn’t the first Commission report to address incidental findings. It was mentioned in the Commission report on genome sequencing (and probably not heeded by anyone at 23andMe, based on FDA action taken against that company)
Not that brief blog posts are the most reliable source of deep insight, but in an instance of covering a report that deals a lot in context, I have to emphasize that you really should read the report and not simply this post. As the report notes (Executive Summary, page 2):
“Discovering an incidental finding can be lifesaving, but it also can lead to uncertainty and distress without any corresponding improvement in health or wellbeing. For incidental findings of unknown significance, conducting additional follow-up tests or procedures can be risky and costly.4 Moreover, there is tremendous variation among potential recipients about whether, when, and how they would choose to have incidental findings disclosed. Information that one recipient regards as an unnecessary cause of anxiety could lead another recipient to feel empowered in making health- related decisions.”
The tl;dr – I’m not comfortable just summarizing the report findings and leaving it at that. it’s a complex issue that cannot easily be generalized. The Commission takes a general approach in its report, outlining how an ethical analysis of incidental findings can be conducted, and encouraging those with expertise in the technology and scientific knowledge related to a particular context to do what they can to anticipate possible incidental findings (not all of them can) and communicate those possibilities to the people being tested, as well as the public that may be tested at some point in the future (or have something revealed about them through the testing of others).
Jeffrey Mervis at Science reports on announcements related to an internal review group established at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Acting Director Marrett (how’s that confirmation process going for Doctor Córdova?) established the group in response to pressure from Congress to approve research that it deems more supportive of the national interest. I can’t say whether or not the members of Congress pushing this are genuinely committed to improving what they see as problems in research funding. Questioning Congressional motives will not be an effective response for the Foundation or its supporters (as satisfying as it might be), so some effort to be more explicit and transparent in how NSF communicates its research decisions strikes me as a good political strategy. How it is implemented will show whether or not it makes for good policy.
Details are few and far between at the moment. Mervis references a community memo circulated by NSF, but it does not appear to be publicly available. The internal review panel will be led by the head of the social and behavioral sciences division (where much of the Congressional scrutiny has been focused) and a senior adviser to the (acting) director. The panel has yet to meet, and it will likely take several months to develop effective recommendations. I would be concerned about this timeframe if I felt that Congress was close to advancing legislation that would add new review criteria. But the House has been reluctant to advance bills with authorization funding numbers in the absence of a broader budget agreement.
What provides a bit more insight is this Important Notice dated today sent to heads of NSF grantee organizations. It mentions two areas of emphasis: communications and accountability. The agency wants to improve how it defines and communicates its research priorities. While the public is mentioned, if just in passing, it has yet to be revealed how much (or how little) audiences besides Congress and NSF grantees will be engaged as the Foundation conducts its review. I wasn’t keen on how little the public was involved the last time around, and I’ve adjusted my expectations downward for this cycle. While I’d love to be surprised, the NSF strikes me as being more in survival mode (understandably so) than in contemplating new approaches to connecting research to societal impacts.
The American Institute of Physics noted in the latest edition of FYI that another bill has been introduced concerning so-called critical minerals, elements that are important for the role they play in important technologies. Introduced by Senator Murkowski, S. 1600 currently has 16 co-sponsors, and is waiting a hearing in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Both the Chair and Ranking Member (Senator Murkowski) of the Committee have sponsored the bill, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t moved faster.
While I can appreciate the consistency of the effort, the latest bill introduced to help address the supply chain problems with critical minerals is another reminder of what Congress seems incapable of doing (at least most of the time) – making laws. This bill strongly resembles legislation introduced in 2011, and 2009. These bills went nowhere, which is now my default expectation for such legislation.
It’s too bad, because it’s a well-thought out bit of legislative business (of course, the third time around, one would hope so). It outlines a program of efficient production, extraction and recycling of these materials. It provides flexibility in designation of critical minerals, providing the ability to adjust programs in light of changes in demand (and absent new legislation). It would modernize existing policies in this area, improve coordination across agencies, and has bipartisan support. It’s hard not to think that the lack of contention over the bill is a reason for it’s low chance of passage. But that’s just too depressing for me to dwell on it.
While all the programs are back from their Thanksgiving repeats, the week is pretty thin on science and technology content. Tonight David Keith stops by The Daily Show. He holds appointments in Applied Physics and Public Policy at Harvard, and runs a Canadian company focused on carbon capture technology. His latest book is A Case for Climate Engineering.
An item I missed last week, perhaps due to a last-minute schedule change, was Jim Parsons showing up on the December 5 edition of Conan. He plays a scientist on The Big Bang Theory, which shoots very close to where Conan is taped. That lends itself to easy last-minute guest substitutions.
Some math(s)-themed news items from the weekend.
Simon Singh’s book The Simpons and Their Mathematical Secrets was featured on the latest edition of Science Friday. Singh was joined by David Cohen, one of the writer-producers behind both The Simpsons and Futurama, two animated programs that have involved math and science jokes in their animation.
Coincidentally, there was a recent announcement in Variety about a film on a pair of mathematicians mentioned in the Science Friday piece (H/T Simon Singh). The Man Who Knew Infinity is a film about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Dev Patel will play Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons will play G. H. Hardy, who invited Ramanujan to study with him at Cambridge. Production is scheduled to start next year. This work is based on a biography of Ramanujan, and is distinct from the script A First Class Man, written by David Freeman and recognized in 2007 at the Tribeca Film Festival. While it apparently attracted the attention of at least one director, that project does not appear to be anywhere near filming.
Finally, Danica McKellar will be recognized by the Joint Policy Board of Mathematics with its 2014 Communications Award. The Joint Policy Board represents the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Society, the Mathematical Association of America and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and will present the award during the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore next month. McKellar is being recognized for her work in mathematics education, which is most visible in her series of four books on mathematics aimed at young kids (mainly at girls, but boys can certainly benefit from them as well). With any luck the Nerdist YouTube channel will start airing her math program sometime in 2014.
There was a bit of a buzz when a Swiss lab suggested that Yassir Arafat, former head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was poisoned by the radioactive element polonium. There have been suppositions since Arafat’s death in 2004 that he had been assassinated, though the official cause of death was a stroke caused by a blood disorder. The claim of polonium poisoning was based on tests conducted in 2012 of Arafat’s clothing and personal effects; tests requested by the news service Al Jazeera. The Swiss lab confirmed the tests later in 2012, indicating that there were higher than expected levels of polonium, an element with a half-life (the time period of decay for half a given sample) measured in days.
The amount of polonium eight years later suggested there was more of the element present than would occur naturally. While the natural instinct may be to assume poisoning, the short half life of polonium means that anything ingested by Arafat in 2004 would have decayed significantly in the subsequent years.
While the Swiss lab did not claim that the polonium caused Arafat’s death, those looking for foul play certainly latched onto the possibility. Continue reading
After some troubles during an earlier launch window, SpaceX took another step toward making private space launches commonplace. On Tuesday the company launched a Falcon 9 rocket and placed a satellite into geostationary transfer orbit – beneficial for telecommunications satellites. The mission required a restart of the Falcon 9′s second stage, a capability that widens the reach of the rocket and the scope of cargo it can carry. This was SpaceX’s first geostationary transfer orbit mission, and first mission from Florida. Perhaps more importantly, it was the second certification flight for the upgraded Falcon 9. One more flight and the rocket will be qualified to compete for all national security space missions. Between that opportunity and the private sector demand for geostationary orbit launch capacity, SpaceX stands to make a fair amount of money.
On the lunar front, one of the competitors in the Google Lunar X Prize unveiled plans for its rover, which it plans to launch in 2015. The MX-1 from Moon Express is a single-stage craft that would piggyback its way to geostationary transfer orbit (perhaps on a Falcon 9?). From there it would land on the moon, where the small craft could conduct a number of different tasks, depending on how it was configured pre-launch. Per the company’s announcement, such tasks could include microsatellite deployment, satellite service and repair, and tugboat work (which could include space debris removal). The company already has contracts with NASA for lunar data services and is marketing itself as a means of finally tapping into the mining possibilities theorized about the moon.