Nominations Corner – Health And Human Services

The recent resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius prompts a revisit of the slow march from nominee to confirmation.  While the President acted quickly to nominate Sylvia Burwell (current Director of the Office of Management and Budget) to replace Sebelius, the continuing paralysis of the Senate may mean it will be several months before she takes the job.

Normally the Secretary is, oddly enough, distanced from many of the science and technology functions the Department deals with.  But with the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Public Health Service (headed by the Surgeon General), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues, and various research programs connected to Medicare and similar health programs, it would be tough for a Secretary to be completely detached from such actions.  In the case of Secretary Sebelius, perhaps her most controversial science and technology action is her decision to overrule the FDA in connection with the availability of emergency contraception.  While I doubt it will come up during the confirmation hearings, I think there will be an attempt to revisit the decision with a new person in charge of the Department.

(While we’re on the subject of Health and Human Services nominations, it’s worth noting that the latest attempt to nominate a Surgeon General has been blocked due – at least in part – on the refusal of some Senators to accept the nominee’s opinion that gun violence is a public health issue.)

The Web Catches Up With the BRAIN Initiative

The National Science Foundation finally put up a web presence for its part in the BRAIN initiative.  Announced a little over a year ago, the BRAIN initiative is a multi-agency program that is also a public-private partnership with various companies and foundations.  The focus of the initiative is to develop tools and foundational knowledge for researchers to get a better picture of the activities in the brain.

Until recently the only federal agency involved with the initiative with a website on it was the National Institutes of Health.  I have yet to find a similar portal for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), though there is this press release.  But the National Science Foundation has finally opened a web presence for its part of the initiative (H/T SSTI).   Arguably it’s website is the most public-facing of the three agencies, but the bar is set quite low in that regard.

What would be nice, but is not likely to come, is some government-wide site that provides a broad picture of the activities in this initiative.  Each agency can speak effectively to its particular function within the larger project.  But with three agencies dealing with $200 million (the President has asked for double that money for the next budget), and private entities also involved, looking at the NIH and NSF websites can’t help but present an incomplete picture of what’s going on.  And that makes the promotion of this initiative, and of whatever results emerge from it, all the harder to explain – to funders and to the public.

Agency Public Access Policies For Research – Still Working On It

In response to a statutory requirement, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren submitted a report on agency open access policies to the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate.  If you haven’t been following the efforts during this Administration to extend the National Institutes of Health public access policy to other federal agencies, the report is a reasonable start on understanding what the Executive Branch has been doing.

Agencies with over $100 million in annual research funding were required to submit open access plans to OSTP by August 22, 2013.  Per the report, all agencies subject to this requirement have submitted draft plans (see page 3 for the full list).  To the possible disappointment of those championing the private sector CHORUS initiative, agencies are pursuing a variety of options to comply with the requirements.  Some are looking to work with the existing NIH tools, while others are seeking to use existing agency infrastructure.  Still others are seeking to develop new tools, either on their own or in partnership with other groups.

At this point the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the OSTP have reviewed the agency draft plans and submitted their comments.  While no deadline is mentioned in the report, Holdren anticipates several interagency meetings over the next few months to facilitate opportunities to share best practices and pursue opportunities for collaboration.

While there was opportunity for public comment on the process that produced the OSTP memorandum that required agencies to act, I hope there will be additional chances for the public to provide feedback on the draft policies and help agencies refine them once they are implemented.

An (Im)Modest Proposal – The UK Evidence Information Service

Three U.K. universities are doing something I doubt their U.S. counterparts have the resources (or the willingness to risk) to duplicate.  They have started a process for establishing an Evidence Information Service (EIS) to, as they put it, help put scientists ‘on tap’ for policymakers.

As the organizers explain in The Guardian, this is not a lobbying or advocacy group.  The intent is to assist policymakers and politicians in accessing and interpreting evidence.  If you want a U.S. comparison, I would suggest the agricultural extension service, though that is targeted toward farmers and other agricultural workers in the field.

The organizers are looking for interested citizens in the U.K. to talk with their elected representatives to get a sense of how they access evidence in their decision making and how they use this evidence.  They anticipate a 20 minute semi-structured interview would do the job.  Given the more localized nature of U.K. representation, this might be a bit harder to do in the U.S., with town halls and face-to-face meetings a bit harder to manage.

The organizers anticipate operating in two modes, reacting to requests from politicians, and preparing material in advance of parliamentary debates on particular topics.  Once an initial funding amount is raised, the organization would be set up as a U.K. charity – independent of parties and government agencies.  I like the plan, and hope that the consultation will demonstrate that there would be demand for such a service.

Add this to the list of science policy ideas the U.S. ought to steal.

Government Sends Its Annotations Into The Hip-Hop Universe

The General Services Administration is currently making arrangements with the social media site Rap Genius to host government documents.  That’s not as crazy as it seems.  The site encourages the annotation of song lyrics, and the government is looking to do something similar with documents.  Rap Genius has a News Genius site that works on the same mechanism.  The U.S. Geological Survey already has a Rap Genius account, but the GSA arrangement may end up spawning a portion of the website dedicated to government documents

Aside from calling documents songs, the site provides a useful function that the government doesn’t have to set up on its own (saving resources).  It allows for anyone to provide explanations or additional details to policy documents.  Consider it a translation tool of sorts.  If the USGS account doesn’t provide the best explanation of how this might work, check out the science rap folks on the site.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Senators Coburn, Grassley or McCain to poke fun (or what they would call government oversight).

Next PCAST Meeting Covers Policy Analytics

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet again next Friday, April 4, in Washington.  The public session is scheduled, per the current agenda, to run from 9:30 a.m. Eastern until noon.  As is customary the meeting will be webcast, and an archive will be available through the meetings page of the PCAST website.

This morning meeting will focus on two report and one panel that science policy stakeholders should find of particular interest.  As part of the President’s review of big data, privacy and the economy, PCAST was asked to conduct “a study to explore in-depth the technological dimensions of the intersection of big data and privacy.”  The subject was a theme in the January 2014 meeting, and the report will be discussed at this one.  Another report, focused on anitmicrobial resistance, will also be discussed.

The 10:45 panel is titled “Analytical Techniques to Improve Public Policy Decision Making.”  Panelists come from a variety of fields – sociology, computing, digital advertising and bioinformatics.  I don’t know if this panel is intended to inform the big data report or if it’s focused on a completely separate project.  Perhaps we can all find out on April 4.

Agriculture Notes: Wooden Skyscrapers, Industrial Ag Comedy and Borlaug Statue

Norman Borlaug, considered an important figure (arguably the father of it) in the Green Revolution for his work in tailoring crops to specific regions of the world, had a statue of him installed in Statuary Hall this past Tuesday.  Statuary Hall is in the Capitol, and holds two statues for each of the fifty states.  Borlaug’s statue represents Iowa, and is one of the few scientists or technologists represented in the Hall (though few of the statues represent figures from the last 75 years).  Borlaug’s work has been recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

In other agriculture news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is contributing $1 million into a program to train architects, engineers and builders in the possibilities of advanced wood building materials.  In addition to this program, the Department is investing $1 million into a competition around advanced wood structures.  More details on that program will be available later in the year.

The Department has a strategy to promote wood as a green building material.  And as this Gizmodo article describes, advanced wood building products are far more resilient and fire-resistant than they used to be.  But building codes are tied to the old wood, and they could pose a bigger challenge to utilizing wood in buildings than educating builders, architects and engineers on the benefits of modern wood.

On a lighter (?) note, there is a new comedy available via the online media site Hulu.  It’s called Farmed and Dangerous and is focused on industrial agriculture.  There are just four episodes.  However, what struck me as much as the content was the sponsor – Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant that markets itself as using fresh and organic ingredients.  How the show was developed might be a more interesting story than the four episodes you can watch online.

More On The BRAIN – First Funding Announcements And European Partnership Coming Soon

The President’s Fiscal Year 2015 (which starts on October 1, but likely won’t get funded until next February) budget rollout includes doubling support for the BRAIN (Brain Research though Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.  The $100 million multi-agency (National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and National Science Foundation) public-private effort will have some of its first funding awards later this year.

A compatible project in Europe, the Human Brain Project, recently announced a dramatic expansion of its consortium.  While not providing funding support at a comparable level, the HBP just added 32 research organizations from 13 countries.  It’s focus is on developing a model for brain function, while BRAIN is focused more on imaging and controlling brain activity.  As you might suspect, there are already informal collaborations between HBP and BRAIN supported institutions.  The two projects opted to make it official just recently.  But it’s not publicly official, as there are still some wrinkles to be worked out.  Chief among them are the differences in medical ethics and data sharing practices and regulations between the European Union and the U.S.

News and Notes: GoldieBlox Settles With Beasties, White House Seeks Public Tech Input

Late last year, GoldieBlox, a manufacturer of construction toys geared toward girls, reworked a song by The Beastie Boys for a commercial (no longer available online, for reasons that will become clear).  Trouble is, GoldieBlox didn’t ask first, and combined with the group’s strong aversion to having their music used in advertisements, legal action ensued.  A pre-emptive lawsuit by the toy company didn’t help matters.

A settlement was reached in the case.  Specifics were not forthcoming in the legal document, but GoldieBlox posted an apology to the main page of its website (a copy is available – H/T Rolling Stone – for future reference).

The White House has recently issued requests for comment on various data policies that the public should consider.  One is about the review of big data (really large sets of data collected on individuals) and privacy announced in January.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy is handling part of that project, for which it issued a request for information (responses are due by March 31).  But if you’d rather not go to that level of detail, the White House has a more informal input form on its website to get your thoughts on how various groups use big data.

The White House is also looking for feedback on some of its digital presence.  This includes an update to the website privacy policy (which will take effect on April 18).  You may want to review this before completing the big data form linked to above.  Also under review are the White House digital content practices.

Finally, in late February the White House posted on its blog about the progress of agency open government plans.  Building on the government’s second Open Government National Action Plan released last December, agencies will be working on revising agency plans.  Feedback is welcomed, and you can check agency plans by placing a /open after the agency website address.

Scientific Collections Memorandum May Hint At Future Scientific Data Policies

Yesterday Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren released a Policy Memorandum on scientific collections maintained by the federal government.  The memo defines scientific collections as:

“sets of physical objects, living or inanimate, and their supporting records and documentation, which are used in science and resource management and serve as long-term research assets that are preserved, cataloged, and managed by or supported by Federal agencies for research, resource management, education, and other uses.”

The memo was prompted by language in the 2010 reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act (the same law that nudged OSTP to start working on policies for expanding public access to federally funded research data and scientific publications).  It also continues work started in 2005 to institutionalize thinking about scientific collections across the government.

Per the memorandum, agencies that own, maintain, or otherwise financially supports scientific collections will have six months to develop policies on those collections consistent with the memo, relevant federal law and the following additional government directives:

  • The 2010 OSTP memo on scientific collections
  • The 2013 OSTP memo on access to federally funded scientific research
  • The 2013 Executive Order on making open and machine readable data the new default for government information

Per the guidelines described in the memo, agency policies will need to cover not only the management, accessibility and quality of the collections, but establish procedures for coordinating with the Smithsonian (a logical lead agency on such matters), developing appropriate standards for digital files associated with the collections, and handling de-accession, transfer and/or disposal of agency collections.

What attracted my attention in all of this was the heavy emphasis on making these physical collections have as much of a digital presence as practical.  I am left to wonder whether or not this will influence future policies and procedures for maintaining digital repositories that may not have tangible elements – namely research data.

OSTP has not been hard and fast in enforcing its deadlines.  And it has either been very lax in follow through once agency policies have been established, or kept their actions far from public view.  Neither is encouraging, and the latter, if true, undercuts much of the goodwill policies like this one could build amongst the public and scientific stakeholder that are interested in the outcomes and outputs of federally funded scientific activity.