Psychologist Nominated To Head Traffic Safety Agency

Last week President Obama nominated psychologist Mark Rosekind to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) (H/T ScienceInsider).  The NHTSA has been without a confirmed leader since January, and has been challenged of late by both technological advances and safety failures in automobiles.

Rosekind has been a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB is an independent Federal agency, the NHTSA is part of the Transportation Department) since 2010.  Rosekind’s work prior to joining the NTSB has involved research on pilot fatigue (which helped inform current protocols on pilot naps for long-distance travel), and efforts to combat distracted and other forms of impaired driving.

In a crowded legislative schedule, confirmations seem likely to be a casualty of Congressional dithering.  Even though Rosekind had to be confirmed before joining the NTSB, I am not optimistic that he will be confirmed by the end of the current Congress.  This would require restarting the process in January.  If that happens to Rosekind, he will likely not want for company.

PCAST Suggests Grand Challenges For Nanotechnology

In early October the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  The assessment of the program, established in 2000, is periodically required by law.

A major focus of this latest assessment is commercialization.  The report argues that the time is now for encouraging the utilization of the last decade of research in new products and services not presently available.  While the report calls for continued support for research in early stage nanotechnology, it also encourages the government to support this commercialization.  Agencies involved in the NNI will need to add to their current infrastructure plans and procedures for coordinating commercialization activity in addition to the basic and applied research efforts they support.  Part of this effort draws on a tool commonly used by the current Administration – the Grand Challenge.  In addition to finding the right areas for Grand Challenges, the report encourages the use of public-private partnerships and prize competitions to facilitate commercialization.  Presumably this means that the Feynman Grand Prize would soon have more company, should the government implement the recommendations of this report.

And here’s where there may be some trouble.  Part of the report outlines how the 2012 recommendations were implemented, and the record isn’t good.  In many cases, the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are not being funded, or administered, in ways that would fully support the goals of the NNI, which include maintaining and/or achieving American leadership in areas of nanotechnology.  With the current budget pressures and willful government dysfunction, it’s likely to take more than a biennial scold from outside advisers to make sure American nanotechnology can compete on the world stage.

The APA Continues To Handle Its Own Scientific Integrity Complaint

In October the American Psychological Association released a statement in response to allegations made by author James Risen.  In his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War Risen alleges that the Association colluded with the Bush Administration in developing ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that most would consider torture.

It’s a very serious allegation, and the APA has taken pains to rebut the allegation through describing Rosen’s very limited interaction with the Association during the writing of his book, as well as its official policy on torture.

Not satisfied with those efforts, the APA announced that it has hired counsel to conduct an independent review of Risen’s claim.  Three members of the APA Board of Directors will coordinate the review, but APA promises an independent review.

“The review will include but not be limited to the following three issues: 1) whether APA supported the development or implementation of “enhanced” interrogation techniques that constituted torture; 2) whether changes to Section 1.02 of the APA Code of Ethics in 2002 or the formation and/or report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Task Force) were the product of collusion with the government to support torture or intended to support torture; and 3) whether any APA action related to torture was improperly influenced by government-related financial or policy considerations, including government grants, contracts or adoption of government policy regarding prescription privileges for psychologists serving in the military.”

Once the independent investigator completes the investigation Continue reading

Clinical Trials Data May Get More Transparent

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the parent department of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has issued proposed rules concerning the transparency of clinical trials data (H/T Nature News, ScienceInsider).  The proposed rules should be published in the Federal Register soon, and with the 90 day comment period, submissions will likely be due around February 19.  NIH also released a Draft Policy, and is asking for comments by February 19.

The proposed rules are quite lengthy (over 400 pages); so lengthy that it might be folly to consider the NIH Draft Policy as an effective summary.  The main purpose of both is to increase the amount of data that is reported and available to the public (through ClinicalTrials.gov).  Adverse effects and negative results would be disclosed under these proposed policies.

However, as NIH Director Collins explains in a blog post, the NIH policy goes further than the HHS proposed rules.  The policy would apply to all clinical intervention trials that NIH funds (not just drugs), while the HHS rules are focused on summary data of certain clinical trials for drugs and therapies.

While an intention behind both policies is to close reporting loopholes, it’s not clear how effective the new policies will be in addressing the significant under-reporting of clinical trials data.  Ideally more results will be submitted to ClinicalTrials.gov and more results will be made available faster than they currently are.  But reporting on these policies suggests that the amount of data still not reporting is quite large, and these new policies may make only a dent.

Something Possibly Worth Stealing: The First CSA Annual Report (UK Edition)

Early on November 19th the Institute for Government will host the U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser for the release of Innovation: Managing risk not avoiding it.  The report is described by the Institute as the “first ever Annual Report” by Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport.  I keyed on the ‘first ever’ language, and it would seem that this document is intended as something separate from the Government Office of Science Annual Reports.

Until the report is released, it’s hard to know exactly what’s in it, but there are some hints. The goals of the report are:

  • Stimulate broader discussion on risk, hazard, uncertainty and vulnerability (within the UK, Europe and the wider international community); and
  • Promote a regulatory culture surrounding risk in which robust scientific evidence is openly considered alongside political and other non-scientific issues in shaping policy.

So the key work in the report title is risk, rather than innovation.

I don’t know how many authors have contributed to the report.  Here are some of them:

  • Professor Andy Stirling of the STEPS Centre, a research center focused on development and science and technology.  His chapter focuses on debates and decision-making around new technologies/innovation.
  • Professor Lisa Jardine of University College London.  She’s an historian, and will be part of the public release event at the Institute of Government.
  • Professor Tim O’Riordan will also be at the release event.  He’s an emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia.
  • Doctor James Lyons, a Senior Lecturer in English at Lyons University, has contributed a case study on the communication of climate change risks.  He also served as an academic adviser for the report.

Once I have time to review the report, I’ll have more to say.  But I do wonder how a similar kind of report would be done (if it could be done) in the United States.  Would this resemble a report of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, or the National Science and Technology Council?  Or would it carry something of the imprimatur of the President’s Science Adviser?  If it’s the latter, maybe we could borrow from the British…again.

Asking Dr. H. – Probably Just As Meaningful This Time Around

On Thursday, the White House blog ran a post about Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren.  It announced the revival of ‘Ask Dr. H.’  Back in 2010 there was a series of posts from Dr. Holdren on science education and science policy topics.  The latest effort is targeted to climate change.

Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Vine, people can send their questions, tagged #AskDrH, about climate change.  Dr. Holdren will respond to questions via video.  Given the flood of requests, the challenge is not just to get your question in under whatever character limit applies.  You have to, somehow, craft the inquiry such that it will attract attention.

As for what will work, your guess is as good as mine.  If you search any of these services with the #AskDrH tag, you’ll likely find a lot of noise.  Even if you manage to get through, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have your question responded to in such a way that it will simply restate Administration policy.  It’s an excellent reminder that while Dr. Holdren is a scientist, he’s a political appointee obligated to represent the Administration.  Not scientists or science enthusiasts.

It’s Not Just The Science Laws That Can Affect Science

Over at Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn is understandably upset about the poor coverage of a Supreme Court case involving fish.  He’s complaining about how those covering the case appear more interested in puns than in the impacts of illegal fishing, and he’s got a point.  For proper coverage over the phenomenon that prompted the case, you need to check out David Shiffman’s article over at Southern Fried Science.

The case in question, Yates vs. United States, was heard before the Court last week.  It concerns whether certain provisions of the Sarbannes-Oxley Act apply in a matter involving illegal fishing.  The apparent dissonance (and source of the pescatory bon mots) is that the Act was written in connection with securities fraud and related crimes and the destruction of information connected to those crimes.  The relevant part of the law covers the destruction or falsification of any ‘record, document or tangible object’ with the intent to obstruct an investigation.  The government is claiming that the law covers the destruction of evidence irrespective of the kind of crime.

Frankly, I’m surprised (and remember, IANAL) that there was not a comprehensive federal law for destruction of evidence.  This article from the USA Today suggests that Sarbannes-Oxley has filled that gap on several occasions (apparently contrary to the intentions of former Representative Oxley), while this case appears to be the first to come to the Supreme Court.

As you might guess, the arguments in Court focused on the ‘tangible object’ part of the law, and the lack of language specifying that such objects must be involved in storing information (hard drives being one such item).  The lawyers and the justices discussed the finer points of English as it applies to the law.

The fishing violation alleged in the case Continue reading