On November 22, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology issued a letter report on cybersecurity. It is concerned with providing cybersecurity in a frequently changing threat environment. As the overarching recommendation reads:
Cybersecurity will not be achieved by a collection of static precautions that, if taken by Government and industry organizations, will make them secure. Rather, it requires a set of processes that continuously couple information about an evolving threat to defensive reactions and responses.
The other recommendations address government’s own information technology practices, information sharing across the private sector and the government, and auditing cybersecurity practices in the private sector. This report follows up on a Feburary 2013 classified briefing provided by PCAST, so the recommendations are perhaps more for public consumption at this point
Also of note are two new faces on PCAST. Ernest Moniz had to step down when he became Secretary of Energy, and David Shaw and Ahmed Zewail are no longer on the Council. The new members recently appointed by the President to replace them are Susan Graham, an emerita professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley; and Michale McQuade, vice president at United Technologies Corporation. McQuade has also worked for 3M and Eastman Kodak and has a physics background.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars recently conducted a survey as part of a report on the growing do-it-yourself (DIY) Biology movement. The newly released report (H/T ScienceInsider) from the Synthetic Biology Project is apparently the first of its kind to track what activities the community is involved with.
The report authors are interested in countering existing stories about the DIYBio community that don’t match with what their research (and survey data) have demonstrated. The brief takeaway, from their perspective – the threat posed by this research (and these researchers) has been overstated in the press.
While the authors are careful to note that their work is a current snapshot of the field, I am concerned that the press connected to this report may oversimplify what’s going on. In other words, the new stories will be about how the old stories oversold the magnitude of what is going on in the field and the possible threats of what could be taking place.
I think the most productive recommendations from the report will be those focused on how to grow, support and manage research in this area moving forward. As a DIY community is not necessarily connected to existing institutions, having the capacity to educate interested researchers and provide them spaces to work is not guaranteed. Such resources could also ease the burden of monitoring and guiding the research moving forward. A previous report from the Synthetic Biology Project suggests to me that at least some community self-regulation would be useful in the future, as federal action is coming slowly.
Either way, this survey needs to be the first of several, and not the end of a discussion.
Breaking with recent patterns, the next public meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) is scheduled for a Thursday. The Council will meet in Washington on November 21, in an even briefer than normal half-day session. As usual, there will be a live webcast, which will be archived shortly after the meeting. Visit the webcasts page on November 21 to catch the meeting starting at 9 a.m. Eastern.
If the current agenda (effective November 4) is suggestive, PCAST may have two reports to release very soon. The meeting will cover a letter report (typically fewer than 10 pages) on Education Information Technology, and a lengthier report on Cybersecurity.
The wild card (at least for me) is the session on Privacy and Technology with Nicole Wong. While her official title may be Deputy Chief Technology Officer, she is considered the first Chief Privacy Officer in the White House. I suspect this may be where PCAST members get engaged with surveillance matters, if they haven’t already done so in a more private setting. But that’s just a guess.
Ending the beginning of a process that has been at least a year in the making, the United Nation named the first members of the Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board (H/T ScienceInsider). Of the 26 members named, three have U.S. ties. One member of the board is a national science adviser two others serve as president for their respective national science academies, and another serves on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology. No chair has been named, though that may take place at the first meeting, anticipated in the beginning of 2014.
Per the announcement, the Board:
“aims to ensure that up-to-date and rigorous science is appropriately reflected in high-level policy discussions within the UN system, offering recommendations on priorities related to science for sustainable development that should be supported or encouraged; providing advice on up-to-date scientific issues relevant to sustainable development; identifying knowledge gaps that could be addressed outside the UN system by either national or international research programs; identifying specific needs that could be addressed by on-going assessments (e.g., IPCC or the IPBES); and advising on issues related to the public visibility and understanding of science”
More is forthcoming, though it may take until 2014 for it to come.
The Industrial Research Institute, along with the Institute for the Future, is hosting a 36 hour conversation/game about the future next week, and it needs as many people as possible to help make things happen.
It’s called Innovate 2038. On September 25 and 26 (starting at 9 am Pacific time, so in some time zones the days are actually the 26th and 27th), game participants will have a conversation about the future of research and development on the Foresight Engine. Here’s a not-so-detailed promotional video.
It appears to be an intensive crowdsourced discussion on new means of encouraging, supporting and performing research and development to address what are seen as the challenges facing society in the mid-to-long term (depending on how you think about 25 years in the future). This is part of the Industrial Research Institute’s project on 2038 Futures, which focuses on the art and science of research and development management. That project has involved possible future scenarios, retrospective examinations of research management, and scanning the current environment. The game engine was developed by the Institute for the Future, and is called the Foresight Engine. The basics of the engine encourage participants to contribute short ideas, with points going to those ideas that get approved and/or built on by other participants.
If you’re interested in participating, you need a good Internet connection and web browser. Advance registration is necessary.
Updates on two recent posts involving the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Yesterday the NIH released recommendations on the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative (H/T Nature News) NIH has asked for $110 million for Fiscal Year 2014 for the project (budget cuts and pending government shutdown aside). The Advisory Committee to the Director released an interim report outlining a strategy for NIH to follow in working toward the aggressive goals of the project. It encourages a focus on technology development, at least at first. It also outlines several research themes and areas of emphasis for the NIH portions of the BRAIN Initiative.
NIH has also approved the first research projects involving the HeLa cell line following the establishment of a working group to review requests to access the genome. Four requests were approved and for two others the working group requested additional information. As conditions of access, the researchers must acknowledge the contributions of Henrietta Lacks (the HeLa of the cell line name) and must disclose any plans for commercial products or other intellectual property developed from their work.
Back in May the National Institute on Aging (NIA) convened a workshop with eminent scientists in behavioral economics and psychology. The Institute was working with the Council on Economic Advisers (CEA), the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the Association for Psychological Science (APS) to set up the workshop on how social and behavioral research could be used in better service to public policy. The NIA page for the event specifically mentions the U.K. Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team. I posted about that unit in 2012 about the possibility of conducting randomized trials for public policies. You can read a meeting summary and review the biographies of the speakers.
The NIA was prompted to convene the workshop with a specific issue in mind – the health disadvantage in developed countries. But my read of the meeting summary suggests the discussions were held in a way to be more generalizable than that particular policy issue. The APS has a blog post on the May meeting, and writes there that the administration is indeed looking to establish some capacity for better linking behavioral science with policy initiatives.
“Federal authorities want to assemble a team of experts in behavioral science and experimental design to work in various agencies testing interventions and policies that can help the government work better and save taxpayer dollars — and perhaps even help people achieve individual goals, ranging from losing weight to securing employment.”
Digging through the report, it would seem that there are efforts already underway to build that capacity (Epilogue, digital page 53). Continue reading
The President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will meet in Philadelphia on August 19 and 20th, the fourteenth meeting in its current form. While there is no agenda on the Commission website right now, the Federal Register notice linked to mentions two major items.
The Commission will continue its work on incidental findings – research results derived from human subjects research on unrelated matters (which poses ethical issues given standard practices regarding consent for research). I would anticipate hearing during the meeting when the Commission may release a report related to incidental findings.
It will also engage with the BRAIN Initiative. While that was only a well-educated guess when the initiative was rolled out in April, the President made it official in July. Per the President’s request the Commission will not limit itself to considerations of proper ethical research practices in neuroscience, but also to consider relevant applications of this research and the possible ethical consequences.
While it likely won’t attract much popular attention, the United States is poised to do something potentially radical effective July 31st. How it counts Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will change.
The revision in GDP calculation (which will also be retroactive to the creation of the metric in the 1920s) is part of a revision of the national income and product accounts – a major collection of national economic measures – that happens roughly every five years. Though I can’t confirm it (since websites from a previous administration tend to disappear), this revision may have been influenced by a Bush Administration advisory committee on national measurements. The committee was trying to get measures to better reflect 21st century economic activity.
The changes to GDP calculation are of a different kind than efforts to develop other measures like the Social Progress Index or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. In those efforts the measures are intended to calculate the value of non-economic activities. What the Bureau of Economic Analysis has done is change how two important areas are counted. Research and development spending is no longer counted as an expense, but as an investment. Similarly, original creation of works of literature, art and entertainment will be treated as fixed assets. In both cases the revisions are an attempt to reflect the value associated with each item – value which has increased over recent years.
Regrettably, given the recent turn in political coverage, the changes are likely to be spun as an effort to shore up the President’s political standing. This is because the changes in GDP calculation will lead to an increase. What this manages to do besides make for lousy news coverage is to continue to demean the value of statistical and economic data in attempting to understand the state of the nation. There are no winners in that pursuit.
Professor David Nutt has a few reasonable points now and then. Recently he has criticized restrictions on research involving controlled substances such as opioids and hallucinogenics. While he’s not persuaded of the harms of these drugs (and managed to undercut the UK drug advisory body in the process), restrictions on the ability to measure the impacts of these substances do nothing to assist the capacity to help those addicted to or otherwise affected by them.
Regrettably, Nutt comes across as a much better publicist than advocate. Fond of big gestures and dramatic actions, he can make for good copy. But in his exhortations to drop bans on drugs research (and frankly, on the drugs as well), Nutt manages to diminish his own cause by elevating it (and by extension himself) into a martyrdom both unappealing an unearned.
Nutt continues to stoke cognitive dissonance in articles about relative harms, but lately the professor has been comparing research restrictions to religious persecution. Nutt fashions himself as following the footsteps of Galileo, claiming in many places that the research restrictions on controlled substances are equivalent to the persecution of Galileo. (Alice Bell picks up on this and similar Galilean comparisons to ask how useful it can be to evoke a 17th century figure in scientific discussions.)
While Professor Nutt did lose a government advisory position over his remarks on drugs policy, he brought a fair amount of that scrutiny on himself. But not only does he continue to draw breath, Nutt remains gainfully employed as a researcher and has no problems expressing the kind of opinions that got him into ‘trouble’ in the first place. While research restrictions are not without harms, it requires yogi-level contortions to see the case as comparable to research that shatters conventional wisdom about the Earth’s place in the world.
But Nutt has persisted with the comparison and a martyr complex to the point where he has made a factual error in his latest piece decrying the research ban. In The Scientist, Nutt claims that the Catholic Church banned the telescope. While that sounds plausible, given what happened to the man, did it actually take place?