Next European Research Commissioner Used To Be An Engineer

We have a new Commissioner (H/T ScienceInsider) for Research, Science and Innovation at the European Commission.  (There are separate Commissioners for climate change and energy and for the environment and marine affairs.)  Carlos Moedas, currently the secretary of state to the Portuguese Prime Minister, will take over the research portfolio from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.  Incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlined his expectations for the portfolio in a letter to Moedas.  The Commissioner-designate will have responsibility over the Horizon 2020 research programme as well as the following elements of Commission agencies:

  • Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (RTD)
  • The relevant parts of the European Research Council executive agency (ERCEA)
  • The relevant parts of the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME)
  • The relevant parts of the Innovation and Networks executive agency (INEA)
  • The relevant parts of the Research Executive Agency (REA)

(The European Parliament must approve the full slate of Commissioners, and is expected to vote on them later this year.)

Moedas was in investment banking prior to his government service in Portugal.  But his education was in civil engineering, and he worked for five years after school for a French engineering concern.  That was almost 20 years ago.  His relatively lack of experience in research is consistent with his predecessors in the position.

Also worth noting in the slate of designated Commissioners is that the Commission will be reorganized, with an eye toward encouraging more teamwork amongst the Commissioners.

Ebola Roadmap And U.S. Response Should Remind Us That It’s A Big Deal

By the best estimates of people at the World Health Organization (WHO), we are at least six months, and probably nine, away from successfully containing the current outbreak of Ebola (the largest outbreak ever recorded).

At least that’s the goal.

The agency released a roadmap in late August to outline the necessary response to the disease.  There have already been over 3,500 reported cases, and the death toll is approaching 2,000 (or has surpassed it, depending on your source), making this outbreak larger than any previous recorded outbreak combined).  The estimates within the roadmap are sobering, with the possibility of over 20,000 people suffering from the virus.  By the end of September the WHO will do all it can to establish full coverage of Ebola response activities in the affected countries.

The United States will contribute to the effort.  More than 100 experts, and $100 million, have been committed to the region, with more money and personnel expected.  The U.S. military will be involved, according to an interview with President Obama broadcast over the weekend.  This re-emphasizes the severity of the problem, in part because Doctors Without Borders typically eschews military involvement in outbreak responses.  But the organization is stretched too thin to turn down such help.  With much of the outbreak area emerging from civil war, infrastructure and institutions are either broken or strained close to breaking.  Perhaps this lack of capacity has contributed to the spread of the outbreak.  If this is true (and we simply don’t know), addition resources applied to the region in a systematic fashion should help contain and better understand this outbreak before the virus has an opportunity to mutate.

While I’m certain that the U.S. public health infrastructure is in better shape than it’s West African counterparts, this crisis has made me mindful that maintaining such infrastructure involves constant investment and participation.  Without the facilities, regular training, and meaningful information provided by patients using those facilities, it becomes much harder to track diseases and be in a better position to contain or anticipate outbreaks.  In other words, for the grace of preparation go us.

Park’s CTO Successor Named; Job Duties Expected To Shift, Again

Yesterday on the White House Blog the President’s Science Adviser relayed President Obama’s announcement that Megan Smith will succeed Todd Park as federal Chief Technology Officer.  (That the White House statement is not easily found doesn’t look good, especially for this appointment.)  Smith has worked at Google and other Silicon Valley firms, and will be the first woman to hold the position.  I was quite wrong about the timing of this announcement, and happily so.

Both The Washington Post and The Atlantic have noted the fluctuating duties of the position over the course of its history.  The inability of Congress to pass a law to place this position into law (and their oversight) makes it easier for a federal CTO responsibilities to shift over time.  Given Smith’s engineering background and her work on next-generation projects at Google, I can see where The Washington Post thinks the position will become something closer to a technological equivalent of the President’s Science Adviser.  It would appear that Smith will, like Park, not hold a concurrent appointment in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as the first CTO (Aneesh Chopra) did.

However, there appear to be two related, but distinct, missions for which the Chief Technology Officer could lead.  Getting the government to incorporate more information technology into its mission and services has been, arguably, most of the focus of Smith’s two predecessors.  Getting out in front of the policy implications of new technologies and their consequences has not – in my opinion – been a major focus of the Chief Technology Officer.  For instance, the CTO was not a major force in the Administration’s Big Data Review.  Deputy CTO’s, including the newly appointed Alex Macgillivray, and technologists in Cabinet Departments, usually get to tangle with those matters.  I think it’s too early to know what the right mix is of people and duties in this area is, so there may be value in maintaining the flexibility of keeping these appointments exclusively under executive branch discretion.

Massaging A Rat Gets Researchers A Goose

With two weeks to go before this year’s awards ceremony, the last Golden Goose Award of 2014 was announced today.  Tiffany Field of the University of Miami, Gary Evoniuk of GlaxoSmithKline, and Cynthia Kuhn, and Saul Schanberg of Duke are recognized for their work with rats and its application to the care of premature infants.

The work started back in 1979, with Kuhn, Schanberg and Evoniuk working at Duke on the factors influencing growth in rat pups.  Through their experiments, the group came to realize the impact grooming had on rat pup growth.  The tactile stimulation from researchers prompted increases in enzymes and growth hormone.  That same year Drs. Field and Schanberg met at a conference.  Field’s work is in pediatrics and her research was on stimulating growth in prematurely born infants.  She partnered with Schanberg and his colleagues to better understand their work.  She later applied their work to premature infants and was able to demonstrate greater growth rates, increased alertness and shorter hospital stays for premature infants who received tactile stimulation (infant massage).  Her work and that of her colleagues at Duke were sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.  Dr. Field’s infant massage techniques have led to significant cost savings

Dr. Schanberg has passed, but the rest of the team will be at the awards ceremony on October 18, along with the two other groups recognized for their research that had successful, but quite unanticipated, applications.

Next PCAST Meeting Looking More Ahead Than Usual

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will have another meeting on September 19.  As is its custom, that’s a Friday, and the public session will run from 9-12 Eastern time.  Registration is now live on the meetings page, and the webcast will be available from the same page on the day of the event.

The agenda reflects some recent PCAST report activity.  Updates are expected on the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership and educational technology.  Following a break PCAST will continue its public session with two panels.  The first has the broad title of “Alternate Views of Where Science and Technology May Take Us.”  The panelists represent different frontiers of scientific and technological innovation.  One comes from a research center exploring the boundaries of physical science and computer science, another is involved with systems biology and the third works for a cloud computing service provider.  I don’t have a good sense of what this panel might talk about, but future trends are implied by the title.

The other panel is about STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  That it specifically mentions the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that PCAST has a particular article in mind for the panel to discuss.  This article on active learning (compared to lectures) seems a likely candidate.

As usual, the meeting will be webcast and available for later viewing.  Simply check the meetings section of the website for links.

Federal CTO Steps Down, But Not Out

Todd Park, the second-ever federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO), is leaving his position.  While he has been CTO since 2012, he has been part of the Administration since 2009, when he joined the Department of Health and Human Services as its CTO.

While the President will need to find a new CTO, Park will continue to work for the Administration.  Once he returns to California, he will serve as a technology adviser to the President.  To my knowledge, having a presidential appointee based outside of Washington is rare, if not unique.  But in Park’s case, it makes a lot of sense.

His main focus on the West Coast is to recruit technology-savvy people for work in Washington.  Personnel has been an interest of Park’s; he was instrumental in developing the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a program where technologically savvy professionals would serve short stints in federal agencies.  Those fellows were part of the technology overhaul of the health care website, and helped staff the General Services Adminstration technology team, called 18F.  They, and others who have worked with Park may well play a part in the newly formed U.S. Digital Service housed in the Office of Management and Budget.

Given how low on the priority list science and technology appointments are now in this Administration, I do not expect Park’s successor to be announced quickly.  (If a successor has been identified from within Park’s current staff, I may be proven wrong.)  And there is still the matter of an Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Continue reading

U.S. Government Checking How Wide Open The Pathogenic Barn Door Is

Earlier this summer there were a series of incidents involving pathogens (anthrax, H5N1 influenza, and smallpox) in both Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilities (the Food and Drug Administration was responsible for the NIH lab where the smallpox was found).  Perhaps overshadowed by the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the lapses in security were notable and prompted institutional reviews, at least one congressional hearing and increased calls for oversight.  So far those efforts have been focused on the agencies directly affected by the lapses.  The CDC has issued a report on the anthrax incident, and the Government Accountability Office has been asked to assess how well federal agencies manage the pathogens under their control.

The Executive Branch joined the fray last week.  Posting to the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog, OSTP Director John Holdren and Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco described the August 18 memo distributed to several federal agencies (any agencies operating facilities that may use, transport, or possess biomedical toxins or infectious agents; a longer list than you might expect).  Amongst the recommendations:

  • Conduct a ‘Safety Stand-Down’ – a review of biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols – within 30 days of the issuance of the memo.  This should happen for both federal facilities and non-federal facilities that use federal funding.  Documentation of these activities should be submitted by October 15.
  • Interagency reviews of federal practices and protocols in biosecurity will run in parallel with a non-federal review (presumably the one initiated by the Department of Health and Human Services described on the bottom of page 3.

More information should be available as the reviews called for in the memo take shape.