The National Institutes Of Health Has An (Im)Modest Grant Proposal

The National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued a Request for Information (RFI) last week on a new kind of research funding program (H/T Science magazine – $ for full version).  The deadline for comments is August 15.

The input NIGMS receives from the comments and other input from stakeholders will inform a funding opportunity announcement for a pilot of this program, which would link funding to a lab/principal investigator more than to a single project. As the RFI describes it (in part) (a link has been removed):

“An NIGMS MIRA would provide support for a lab’s research program, which represents a compilation of the investigator’s NIGMS research projects (research areas supported by NIGMS are outlined at our website). Researchers would have the freedom to explore new avenues of inquiry that arise during the course of their work as long as those avenues are relevant to the mission of the Institute and do not require additional review for regulatory compliance (e.g., new human subjects research).”

Now, I’m not a research scientist, but this program would represent a notable change in how research funding is normally disbursed in the U.S.  Grants are typically considered primarily on the basis of scientific merit and broader impacts and associated with discrete research projects.  By aggregating support to the level of a research lab (and the associated principal investigator), NIGMS will be, if only indirectly, putting more stock into the past work and future promise of the lead researcher than it has before.

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Congress Appears To Be Kicking The Merit Review Fight Down The Road

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has released a draft of its reauthorization bill for the COMPETES legislation that has determined the budget authorization for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy since the Bush Administration (H/T ScienceInsider).

The Senate’s approach to the bill is consistent with the initial 2007 legislation and the reauthorization bill from 2010.  However, the House took a different approach this time, opting to handle agency reauthorizations (and other provisions) in separate bills.  And while that difference in approach can be reconciled in the legislative process without a lot of additional effort, the differences in content between the House and Senate might not.

Besides breaking up the legislation, the House bill focusing on the National Science Foundation outlined a much more active oversight role for Congress.  Not only did the bill, acronymized as FIRST, set up funding levels for the individual research directorates, it added an additional level of review to the process of awarding research grants.  It also dramatically reduced the funding for social and behavioral science research, which several Republicans have indicated does not appear connected to the national interest and therefore does not deserve federal funding.

With a limited amount of time remaining in the legislative calendar (thanks to it being an election year), and a shakeup in senior House leadership (soon-to-be former Majority Leader Eric Cantor was particularly interested in this legislation), the prospects for legislation becoming law are smaller than normal.

But there’s always the next Congress. Continue reading

Safe Travels To Cora Marrett

Usually when I write about a science policy administrator or politician of note, they have passed.  Thankfully this is not the case with Cora Marrett, who most recently served as the Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

She has been with NSF off and on since 1992, joining the Foundation to work as the first assistant director (the top job) in the (then newly created) education and human resources directorate.  Marrett’s background is in sociology, and when not working at the NSF, she has held academic positions at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  In her most recent tenure with the Foundation, she has worked on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, and served as Acting Director of NSF during the searches for the last two NSF Directors.  If there was such a thing as being an institution at the National Science Foundation, Marrett would qualify for that status.

While I would have liked to see Dr. Marrett become Director, that was not something she was likely interested in, with her family back in Wisconsin.  My thanks to her for her service to the country through her work at the Foundation.  My best wishes to her in the future.

Latest Golden Goose Awardee Recognized For Auction Savvy

The 2014 Golden Goose Awards Ceremony will be held On September 18th in Washington, D.C.  Science journalist Miles O’Brien will host.

The Golden Goose Awards group recently announced the second award for 2014.  It recognizes the work of Preston McAfee, Paul Milgrom, and Robert Wilson in auction theory.  While marketplaces like eBay have made online auctions a common occurrence, the work of McAfee, Milgrom and Wilson was connected to a much more complicated kind of auction.

Their work was integral to the success of the first spectrum auctions organized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Starting in 1993 the FCC had the authority to auction rights to part of the electromagnetic spectrum (in the U.S.) in which sound, video and data are transmitted.  If done properly, the auctions had the potential to raise revenue for the government and prompt the expansion of commercial activity that needed spectrum to operate.  Unlike most auctions we are familiar with, the spectrum auction had to be a simultaneous auction of multiple items.

Milgrom, working with Wilson, and McAfee, independently proposed similar models for the auction, and the FCC asked the three to work together on the first spectrum auction.  Thanks to existing academic work (done by Milgrom, Wilson, McAfee and many others over the preceding years), the three were able to develop a model that was used effectively in the 1994 auction.  It was the first of 87 such auctions by the FCC, which have raised over $60 billion in government revenue.  The economic activity enabled by these auctions is much larger.

As connections go between initial research and application, this is arguably the most straightforward link in a Golden Goose award to date.  After all, relying on auction research to develop a complex auction mechanism for a government purpose doesn’t require the kind of imaginative thinking other Golden Goose Awards have shown.  But the application of the auction – to enable commercial activity in telecommunications – certainly might have.

The complexity of determining the value of research highlighted in this case serves as a reminder (at least to me) that linear models in this area are still incomplete descriptions of how science and technology activity contribute to the public good.

UK Minister Responsible For Science To Grow Hair

The UK cabinet just underwent a reshuffle, with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron replacing several ministers in advance of the 2015 Parliamentary elections.  Incoming ministers are, generally speaking, younger and more diverse than the people they are succeeding.  Since this is a coalition government, it should be noted that at the moment, cabinet ministers appointed by the Liberal Democrats remain in place.

Replacing MP David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science is MP Greg Clark.  He’s been a member of Parliament since 2005, and prior to his new ministerial position he held ministerial portfolios (some of them while in opposition) for cities and local government as well as for energy and climate change.  CIties will be part of Clark’s portfolio going forward, in addition to Universities and Science.

It’s too early to tell how Clark might address matters of science policy in his new position.  Unfortunately, he seems persuaded that homeopathy has some therapeutic value, based on his signature on this Early Day Motion in support of National Health Service homeopathic hospitals.  This may simply reflect an interest in protecting one such hospital in his constituency.  However that matter is explained, Clark may well be seen as a step down from his predecessor, simply based on his divided interests and the begrudging respect MP Willetts received from some quarters.

What might further complicate the change is another ministerial appointment.  MP George Freeman was announced as Minister for Life Sciences near the end of the reshuffle.  He has been in Parliament since 2010 and has 15 years experience before that in venture capital focused on biomedicine.  He had served the Government as Life Science Adviser since 2011.   The ministerial appointment is split between the Health Department and the Department on Business, Innovation and Skills.

As for science degrees in the bunch, Willetts and Clark have degrees in economics, and Freeman has one in geography.

European Parliamentary Research Committee Has New Chair(s)

The Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee of the European Parliament is the chamber’s third largest, with 67 members.  It recently announced a new chair, Jerzy Buzek.  Buzek served on the Committee from 2004-2009, before presiding over Parliament from 2009-2012.  He is also a former Prime Minister of Poland.  That someone with his background would take the position reflects its importance.

Buzek will serve as chair for half of the 5-year term of the current Parliament.  in January of 2017 he will be replaced by former European budget commissioner (and fellow Pole) Janusz Lewandowski.  It is expected that he would continue the ITRE Committee’s encouragement of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s latest research programme.

The shift in personnel reflects recent European Parliamentary elections.  The new European Commission President will be formally announced later this week (the sole nominee is former Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker).  Whomever will be the Commissioner responsible for research will be determined by the incoming President.

A Persistent Cloud In The Rise Of Chinese Research

Part of the arguments for increased scientific funding, regardless of country, focus on international competitiveness.  And the rise of China’s scientific enterprise is usually mentioned, especially in the countries already established in the research firmament.

However, what doesn’t get as much attention – perhaps because it undercuts the desired external threat – is the health of China’s research system.  The latest problems to come to light (it’s the third science-related incident reported by the Chinese antigraft committee this year) involve fraud in grants managed by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and awarded to Fudan University in Shanghai (H/T ScienceInsider).

The specific concerns should be familiar to anyone concerned with ethics.  Conflicts of interest, too many outside appointments, and in some cases outright skimming of funds.  The rapid increase of investment in research and development certainly invites attention from researchers and those seeking to exploit an opportunity.  Only now does the Chinese government appear to be catching up with the latter category.  Whether university oversight has remains to be seen.

Now the problems plaguing Chinese research are not unique.  Every country needs to be vigilant with the research investments it makes and in making sure its personnel conduct themselves and their work in ways consistent with accepted ethical practices – scientific and otherwise.  But until oversight and proper research controls are better institutionalized in China, the problem could affect the quality of research output from that country.  As that output becomes a larger share of global output, concerns over the quality of Chinese research should be a concern for anyone seeking to rely on it – regardless of where they reside.

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.

NIH Translational Center Scores Drug Development Deal

One of the goals of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences (NCATS) has been to facilitate the conversion of research output into clinical inputs (treatments, medicines, and other tools to help patients).  Today it announced its first success in this area where drug development is concerned (H/T ScienceInsider).

The development comes through the center’s Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases (TRND) program.  Resources in this program are to encourage collaborations between NIH researchers and outside researchers working on conditions that due to rarity or other circumstances don’t receive my attention through traditional drug development channels.  The drug at the heart of today’s announcement addresses the underlying molecular mechanism of sickle cell disease.  The company that collaborated with NCATS staff, AesRx, has been acquired by Baxter International.  Before working with TRND resources, AesRx was having difficulty obtaining private investment in early-stage development.

This is, of course, not the only translational research program NCATS supports.  It’s not even the first TRND program to be completed.  But it does appear to be the first to lead to commercial acquisition.  In an era where economic impacts of scientific research are given greater scrutiny (not necessarily with additional understanding), this is certainly a positive development.  It’s also a validation of the need to look at all aspects of the research process to facilitate innovation.  The ‘valley of death’ (the gap between initial development and commercialization) is not just a challenge in technology.

State Department Is Encouraging Young Technology Entrepreneurs

The U.S. State Department has been working with CRDF Global, an international non-profit working on international science and technology collaboration, on the Global Innovation in Science and Technology (GIST) program.  GIST works to help young technology entrepreneurs in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is working to implement a GIST supported project, the Tech-I competition.  Submissions are due July 21st and the competition is open to young entrepreneurs in 86 countries (all of the GIST regions plus Latin America). Applicants, once they register, can upload their promotional video (under 90 seconds) and executive summary of their project (up to 750 words).  Review panels broken down by geography and subject area (information and communications technologies, agriculture, energy and health) will review the submissions and select semi-finalists.  Those selected will have their promotional videos voted on by the public, and 30 finalists will be invited to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Morocco.  Finalists will make final pitches at the Summit, where a total of $70,000 in grant funding will be awarded in several categories.

If you are interested, or know someone who is, have a look at the competition.