PCAST To End Summer With A Report Doubleheader

While the next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) is September 19, there are some items that cannot wait.  Namely the release of two reports.

On August 28 PCAST will hold a public conference call in connection with the release of two new reports.  One will be a review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (periodically required by law) and the other focuses on educational information technology.

The call runs from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Eastern.  Registration is required, and closes at noon Eastern on the 26th..

 

PCAST Meets To Take A Deep Dive

When I first posted about tomorrow’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it was without benefit of an agenda.  Now that I have seen it, my mildly informed speculation has been confirmed.

The meeting will start at 9:15 Eastern time tomorrow in Washington.  A webcast will be available, as usual.  Simply visit the PCAST meetings page tomorrow.  The morning starts with progress updates (and perhaps final approvals) on PCAST reports on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and antibiotic resistance.  The NNI report is required every other year by law, so PCAST will be returning to somewhat familiar territory.

The presentation part of the meeting concludes with a panel on oceans policy.  As I guessed, Beth Kertulla, Director of the National Ocean Council, will be part of the panel.  She will be joined by other leaders in the ocean science research community: Robert Gagosian, President of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and Anthony Knap, head of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

As usual, there is time set aside for public comment.  The public session is scheduled to end by lunchtime.

Coming Soon, A Snapshot Of Canadian Science Culture

What better way for a science policy blog to celebrate Canada Day than looking at what’s happening to the North that doesn’t involve metaphorical ‘muzzling.

In final review and revisions is a report on the state of Canada’s science culture.  Organized by the Council of Canadian Academies (comparable to the U.S. National Research Council) a working group has been examining the following questions related to science in Canadian culture:

  • What is the state of knowledge regarding the impacts of having a strong science culture?
  • What are the indicators of a strong science culture? How does Canada compare with other countries against these indicators? What is the relationship between output measures and major outcome measures?
  • What factors (e.g., cultural, economic, age, gender) influence interest in science, particularly among youth?
  • What are the critical components of the informal system that supports science culture (roles of players, activities, tools and programs run by science museums, science centres, academic and not-for-profit organizations and the private sector)? What strengths and weaknesses exist in Canada’s system?
  • What are the effective practices that support science culture in Canada and in key competitor countries?

The panel preparing the report represents a mix of academic disciplines and professional backgrounds.  They have completed their study meetings and expect to release the report sometime this year.  I’m interested in reading the final product, and hope to get a bit more into what science culture is.  The stats and polls found in the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators are at best a skin deep look at what the science community is most interested in.  This report looks to provide what I hope to be both a broader and deeper examination of science culture.

PCAST Mixes Oceans, Nanotech and Microbial Resistance In Next Meeting

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will hold its next public meeting on July 11 in Washington.  (For whatever reason, it seems lately that the Federal Register is a more reliable source on meeting information than the PCAST website.)  The meeting will take place between 9 and noon Eastern time, and will be webcast.  Those seeking to attend in person need to register.

While no agenda is presently available, the Federal Register notice indicates that the Council will discuss two reports in progress and hear from one panel of experts.  The reports in progress involve nanotechnology (likely the latest evaluation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative) and antibiotic resistance.  PCAST will hear from speakers on the topic of oceans policy.  Perhaps Beth Kertulla, the new director of ocean policy for the White House, will be one of the speakers.  While the Administration was recently in the news for expanding several ocean sanctuaries, I suspect the panel may be more focused on how the Implementation Plan for the National Ocean Policy (the Obama Administration is the first to establish a National Ocean Policy) is proceeding.  But that’s just mildly informed speculation.

The National Science Board Gets Some New Faces

The 24 member National Science Board has members with staggered terms.  Every two years 8 positions are up for appointment (Senate confirmation used to be required for all members).  Earlier this week the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced who six of the new members will be.  I’ve listed them below with their academic training.  More information on each new member is available via the NSF announcement.

John L. Anderson – chemical engineering
Roger N. Beachy - agriculture
Vicki L. Chandler – plant biology
Robert M. Groves – sociology
James S. Jackson – social psychology
Sethuraman Panchanathan – computer science

Based on the list of desired experience circulated last year, I know that at least Dr. Beachy (who helped found the National Institute of Food and Agriculture) and Dr. Panchanathan address specific areas on the list.  How well the other members address that long list may be easier to determine once the new members attend their first Board meeting in August.

NIH Advisory Group Outlines Long-Term Plan For BRAIN Initiative

While budget pressures may turn it into a wish list, the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has outlined a long-term plan for the NIH portion of the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).  NIH is one of three federal agencies involved, along with several private sector entities and foundations.  The NIH intends, per its press release, to “map the circuits of the brain, measure the fluctuating patterns of electrical and chemical activity flowing within those circuits, and understand how their interplay creates our unique cognitive and behavioral capabilities.”

The estimated necessary investment is significantly larger than the $140 million expected between the current fiscal year and fiscal year 2015.  The Advisory Committee sees a 12-year investment of $4.5 billion as important toward achieving its vision, which would include doing the following (again, from the press release):

  • Pursu[ing] human studies and non-human models in parallel
  • Cross[ing] boundaries in interdisciplinary collaborations
  • Integrat[ing] spatial and temporal scales
  • Establish[ing] platforms for preserving and sharing data
  • Validat[ing] and disseminat[ing] technology
  • Consider[ing] ethical implications of neuroscience research
  • Creat[ing] mechanisms to ensure accountability to the NIH, the taxpayer, and the community of basic, translational, and clinical neuroscientists

The Advisory Committee describes its plan in a report released last week.  BRAIN 2025 is pretty thorough, certainly for a policy document (rather than a research paper).  It covers why the Initiative is needed, a scientific review intended to justify the choices for high-priority research areas, and a detailed implementation plan that includes deliverables, milestones, and cost estimates.  It’s worth taking the time to review and digest.

As ambitious, and arguably as valuable, as the BRAIN Initiative is, the recent budget fights suggest to me that there is no stomach in Congress for major scientific investments.  There’s barely enough interest in maintaining a status quo that doesn’t consider inflation.  I strongly suspect that a large chunk of the $4.5 billion (again, this would be spread out over 12 years) will come – if it comes at all – from non-governmental sources.  That may not be a problem, depending on what expectations come with the additional outside funding.

The White House intends to hold an event later this year to discuss further efforts supporting the BRAIN Initiative.  No date has been announced as yet.

Bioethics Commission Continues Assessment Of Neuroscience Research

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will hold its next meeting on Monday and Tuesday, June 9 and 10, in Atlanta.  Per the draft agenda, it will continue the work it started last summer on the ethics of neuroscience research and its applications.  As is customary, the meeting will be webcast, simply visit the Commission website during the meeting.

On the first day the Commission will hear from experts on data sharing in neuroscience research, the potential in the field, and the differences in neuroscience research for various stages of life.  On the second day the focus shifts slightly to the ethical and social implications of neuroscience research.  The material on the second day will likely inform the second volume of the Commission’s report, Gray Matters.  The first volume was released in May and focuses more on how to better integrate ethical principles into neuroscience research.  During this meeting, the Commission may give some idea of when that report might be available.

Gene Therapy May Have Revised Oversight

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will stop requiring special review of gene therapy trials (H/T ScienceInsider) currently conducted by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC).  NIH Director Francis Collins justified the decision, which is based on recommendations from a study it requested of the Institute of Medicine, by noting the progress in the field since the formation of the RAC over 40 years ago, as well as the additional regulatory reviews in place for this kind of research.  The RAC would remain to review special kinds of gene therapy trials, provided they meet the following requirements:

  1. The protocol review could not be adequately performed by other regulatory and oversight processes (for example, the institutional review boards, institutional biosafety committees, and the FDA).
  2. One or more of the following criteria are satisfied:
    • Protocol uses a new vector, genetic material, or delivery method that represents a first-in-human experience, thus representing unknown risk.
    • Protocol relies on preclinical safety data that were obtained using a new preclinical model system of unknown and unconfirmed value.
    • Proposed vector, gene construct, or method of delivery is associated with possible toxicities that are not widely known and that may render it difficult for local and federal regulatory bodies to evaluate the protocol rigorously.

I understand the idea that the RAC likely conducts a certain amount of review that is redundant.  Given the challenges facing other bodies with NIH-relevant ethics responsibilities, I would certainly understand if anyone took pause in response to the decision.  Especially since the NIH has yet to decide whether to follow another IOM recommendation – to replace the RAC with another body focused on gene therapy and other kinds of risky research.

Bioethics Commission Isn’t Waiting For Next Meeting To Issue BRAIN Report

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has a lot to say about the BRAIN Initiative.  So much that the Commission report will take at least two volumes.  The Commission released Volume One of Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society today.  It’s the seventh report of the Commission since it was formed in late 2009.

The report was prompted by a request from President Obama to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.”  The recommendations in Volume One of the report are focused on achieving a more explicit integration of ethics into neuroscience research throughout the life of a research program.  There are four main recommendations:

  1. Integrate ethics early and explicitly throughout research
  2. Evaluate existing and innovative approaches to ethics integration
  3. Integrate ethics and science through education at all levels
  4. Explicitly include ethical perspectives on advisory and review bodies

Of specific application to the BRAIN Initiative is the need to include professionals with expertise in ethics in advisory boards and similar entities conducting research in this area.

Volume Two will focus more on the social and ethical implications of neuroscience research, topics likely to appear on the agenda of the Commission’s next meeting.  As a hint of what may be in that report, the Commission notes four examples that demonstrate the need to better integrate ethics throughout the course of neuroscience research:

  1. Neuroimaging and brain privacy;
  2. Dementia, personality, and changed preferences;
  3. Cognitive enhancement and justice; and
  4. Deep brain stimulation research and the ethically difficult history of psychosurgery.

The Commission did not give a deadline for when Volume 2 would be ready, but it may provide some insight on that front during the June meeting in Atlanta.

Next Bioethic Commission Will Keep BRAIN on the Brain

Continuing from its last meeting (in February 2014), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will continue working on the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative in its June 9-10 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.  An agenda is still forthcoming, but the Federal Register notice confirms that the Commission will have BRAIN as the main focus of the meeting, also covering relevant work in neuroscience.  The event will be webcast, so check the Commission’s website on June 9 and 10 for the relevant link.

I speculated recently that the successful in vivo replication of synthetic DNA with artificial base pairs would attract the Commission’s attention.  Without an agenda, it’s harder to be sure, but it seems that this development may have to wait for the next next meeting of the Commission.

In other developments, Commission staff are apparently going to examine some efforts to engage bioethical issues through plays.  Continue reading