Advisory Board Seeks Clarification On Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’

Happy American Thanksgiving, everyone.

Back in October the U.S. government announced a ‘pause’ in gain-of-function (GOF) research.  GOF research works with existing viruses, exploring how they can become more virulent and/or transmissible.  Per the official announcement, the pause – limited to federal funding – covers the following:

“New USG funding will not be released for gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. The research funding pause would not apply to characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses, unless the tests are reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity.”
Even the layman writing this post can see there is some language – like ‘reasonably anticipated’ – that would be open to interpretation.  The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) met earlier this week about the pause (H/T ScienceInsider).  The meeting focused on a statement about the pause, which has not yet been finalized.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff have been working with researchers to clarify matters, according to Dr. Dixon, who spoke at the meeting.  Researchers expressed their concerns that the apparent breadth of the pause could have a chilling effect on the field, with possible impacts on public health.  As the NSABB has a year to develop its recommendations, it’s possible that the pause could be lengthy.  While a revised policy may not be ideal, I think greater communication about how NIH and other agencies are implementing the pause is necessary.  What’s in this new FAQ is nice, but it could benefit from follow-up documents from funding agencies with more specifics about how to have research reviewed, and (if needed) exceptions granted).

Canadian Bill Would Establish A Parliamentary Science Officer

I’m at least a year late to this party, but that may be a function of how little I know about the Canadian legislative process.  A recent release from Dr. Kennedy Stewart (H/T FrogHeart Daily), an MP in Canada’s Parliament, and the designated Opposition Critic of the New Democratic Party for Science and Technology, noted scientist support for his bill C-558.  The bill, introduced in December of last year, would establish a Parliamentary Science Officer.  As outlined in the bill, the position would be an independent officer of Parliament, meaning the person would be appointed with the approval of Parliament, and serve a term of seven years.  The position would appear to be on par with the Information Commissioner of Canada and other appointed positions.  (MP Stewart has referred to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, likely because that position is more advisory than the Information Commissioner.)

Per the legislation, the Science Officer would be responsible for the following:

  • Providing sound information and independent analysis to the Senate and House of Commons concerning:
    • Federal science and technology policy
    • Scientific integrity in Federal science and technology departments
    • The current scientific evidence, including uncertainties, on subjects under the jurisdiction of Parliament.
  • At the request of relevant Parliamentary committees, undertake research into federal science and technology policy and/or scientific integrity.
  • At the request of any Parliamentary committee or individual MP, assess the state of scientific and technical evidence relevant to any matter under which Parliament has jurisdiction
  • Communicate its research, reports and analyses to Parliament and the public in a clear and accessible manner

I’m never quite comfortable in handicapping American legislation, so I will avoid doing so here.  As the current Canadian government ended up discontinuing the National Science Adviser position, it may not be sympathetic to this bill.  That the position would be advising Parliament (rather than the government) may dent that kind of opposition.

I like the position as described in Stewart’s bill.  It does not reflect the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy as much as the long-dead (but frequently copied) U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), but with a bit more independence (The OTA was governed by a Congressional board, and the Parliamentary Science Officer could initiate research on its own).  I hope the bill gets passed, or at least prompts discussion in other places about doing something similar.

Psychologist Nominated To Head Traffic Safety Agency

Last week President Obama nominated psychologist Mark Rosekind to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) (H/T ScienceInsider).  The NHTSA has been without a confirmed leader since January, and has been challenged of late by both technological advances and safety failures in automobiles.

Rosekind has been a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB is an independent Federal agency, the NHTSA is part of the Transportation Department) since 2010.  Rosekind’s work prior to joining the NTSB has involved research on pilot fatigue (which helped inform current protocols on pilot naps for long-distance travel), and efforts to combat distracted and other forms of impaired driving.

In a crowded legislative schedule, confirmations seem likely to be a casualty of Congressional dithering.  Even though Rosekind had to be confirmed before joining the NTSB, I am not optimistic that he will be confirmed by the end of the current Congress.  This would require restarting the process in January.  If that happens to Rosekind, he will likely not want for company.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of November 24

With Thanksgiving on Thursday, many programs are taking some or all of the week off.  In this week’s repeats, there aren’t any guests of particular interest to science and technology enthusiasts.

I’ll jump right to the big name.  John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is making his third (and final) appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman on Wednesday.  Holdren first appeared with Letterman back in 2008, prior to joining the Obama Administration.  He hasn’t been on the show since 2009.  Based on his last appearance, I expect next to no publicity for the appearance.  Of course, at least some of that is due to it being the day before Thanksgiving.  The discussion will likely focus on climate change, as it has in the past.

There are other guests of note this week.  While Almost Human was cancelled, Michael Ealy, who played the lead android, will visit with Craig Ferguson Tuesday night.  As Ferguson is assisted by a robot sidekick, I’m crossing my fingers that robots might be a topic of conversation.  The only chef I include in these listings, Alton Brown, will be on with Meredith Viera on Wednesday.  Thanksgiving cookery is certainly the focus.

If you find these offerings wanting, and have access to The Science Channel, I recommend the marathons of MythBusters episodes on Thursday and Saturday.  Of course, there are likely many other programs on that channel you will enjoy, including the annual-ish pumpkin launching special on Saturday night.  Former MythBusters Kari Byron and Tory Belleci host.

Please Recycle Your Drones

One of the atmospheric touches early on in Interstellar (no spoilers, I promise) involves Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his kids chasing a rogue unmanned aerial vehicle until they are able to take control and land it.  They then cannibalize it for parts.

While there is not yet a flock of rogue drones wandering through the air, it’s reasonable to think that eventually some UAVs will crash in places where it won’t be so easy to recover them, in whole or in parts.  Absent some spy-level self-destruct magic, one method of dealing with this future debris is to make it biodegradable.

One group working on this for drones is competing at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (yeah, I didn’t know this was a thing either).  They have found a company that uses mushrooms to form the bulk of the drone body.  Using other natural materials, such as cellulose and proteins from wasp spit, the bodies of these drones are both biodegradable and water resistant.

Now, there are still several parts that are non-biodegradable, but work is proceeding on making biodegradable versions of sensors, rotors and other parts to make a completely biodegradable craft.  Besides minimizing the environmental impact of crashing electronics in the wilderness, these craft can also make it harder for technology to fall into the ‘wrong hands’ – unless they get to the craft really fast.

PCAST Suggests Grand Challenges For Nanotechnology

In early October the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  The assessment of the program, established in 2000, is periodically required by law.

A major focus of this latest assessment is commercialization.  The report argues that the time is now for encouraging the utilization of the last decade of research in new products and services not presently available.  While the report calls for continued support for research in early stage nanotechnology, it also encourages the government to support this commercialization.  Agencies involved in the NNI will need to add to their current infrastructure plans and procedures for coordinating commercialization activity in addition to the basic and applied research efforts they support.  Part of this effort draws on a tool commonly used by the current Administration – the Grand Challenge.  In addition to finding the right areas for Grand Challenges, the report encourages the use of public-private partnerships and prize competitions to facilitate commercialization.  Presumably this means that the Feynman Grand Prize would soon have more company, should the government implement the recommendations of this report.

And here’s where there may be some trouble.  Part of the report outlines how the 2012 recommendations were implemented, and the record isn’t good.  In many cases, the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are not being funded, or administered, in ways that would fully support the goals of the NNI, which include maintaining and/or achieving American leadership in areas of nanotechnology.  With the current budget pressures and willful government dysfunction, it’s likely to take more than a biennial scold from outside advisers to make sure American nanotechnology can compete on the world stage.

More Funny Pages On The Red Planet

Next Friday Uwingu will beam messages to Mars, in commemoration of the first mission to that planet on November 28, 1964.  As part of its Beam Me To Mars campaign, Uwingu is including comic strips.  The first one announced was Pearls Before Swine.  In the month since, at least three other comic strips have indicated they were headed to Mars.  Joining Pearls Before Swine are strips from The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, Red and Rover, The Pajama Diaries, and Prickly City.  (If I’ve missed any, please point me to them in the comments)

While Pearls Before Swine is not known for covering space in its panels, most of the other strips being broadcast next week have featured science, space and/or technology as themes in their strips.

With the beaming scheduled for next Friday, submissions are now closed.  But I’d take an extra close look at the funnies that day.  Maybe there will be some surprises to see.