Latest PCAST Report Tied To Executive Actions

Earlier this month the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on antibiotic resistance.  President Obama asked for the report in 2013 to make practical recommendations for combating the rise of antibiotic resistance which has been keenly felt over the last decade.  The report offers three major recommendations for addressing the threat:

  • Increasing the surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 
  • Improving the longevity of current antibiotics.
  • Increasing the rate at which new antibiotics and other treatments are developed and implemented

The second and third recommendations are as much about using antibiotics as they are about addressing concerns over resistance.  You can refine existing antibiotics to increase their shelf life and effectiveness, but it’s as meaningful to be more judicious with the use of these drugs.  They are very effective tools, but they lose this effectiveness with overuse.  By increasing the use of other treatments and otherwise trying not to hit every bug with large doses of antibiotics, we can hopefully stave off the rise of resistant bacteria.

Like with many things the United States developed over the course of the 20th century, antibiotic use and infrastructure could benefit from new investments and research.  It’s hard to see this getting much positive attention in the current climate.  After all, Congress has been less than speedy in opening the purse for fighting Ebola.

The report was released in conjunction with other Executive Branch actions.

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What’s Missing In Your Next Halifax Vacation – Science Policy

The 2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference will take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, next month.  The early bird registration period closes on Sunday, so I’d encourage you to register right now.  The conference isn’t cheap, but I challenge you to find anything similar to it in the English-speaking world of science and technology policy.

Amongst the keynote speakers is the new Minister of State for Science and Technology, Ed Holder.  There’s a whopping 14 different panels on various science and technology matters, focused on issues of particular interest to Canada.  If I were to pick just one to recommend, it would be the panel on auditing science and technology programs.  There will be a presenter from the Office of the Auditor General (comparable, I think, to the U.S. Government Accountability Office) there to discuss recent reports on topics related to science and technology.  The discussion, at least per the panel description, would cover the value in conducting similar programs in science and technology.

But that’s just my particular interest.  The Conference is now so big that I think most anyone could find at least one panel related to their particular interests.  If you want to go to Halifax (and there are certainly plenty of reasons to visit the city) and talk science policy, October 15-17 is the time to do it.  Register now, to avoid future disappointment.

Follow-up Saturday – NIH Cleared On Ethics Case, May Proceed On Common Rule

Earlier this year I wrote about a case where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was alleged to have acted improperly in a case involving a research study.  Public Citizen lodged a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Office of Inspector General claiming that senior officials from the NIH and HHS interfered with the decision process of the Office for Human Subjects Research Protection (OHRP).  The specific case involved a research study on premature infants and optimal oxygen levels.

Earlier this month the Office of Inspector General issued its report on the allegations (H/T ScienceInsider).  The main conclusions were that senior NIH and HHS officials did not interfere in the initial decision of the OHRP, and that the subsequent communications between those officials and the OHRP was permissible under the law.  The OIG issued a separate report on how OHRP conducted its evaluation of the research study.  Public Citizen is not happy with the decision, characterizing the investigation as a ‘whitewash.’

While the OIG report indicated that OHRP is not an independent organization, part of the Public Citizen complaint indicated (page 2) that moving OHRP out of the NIH was done in part to insulate the office from interference by NIH officials.  It seems worth revisiting whether or not OHRP and related ethics organizations within HHS and NIH should be independent from those entities.

In related news, the ScienceInsider article (and the behind a paywall, Chronicle of Higher Education reporting it references) suggests that OHRP may soon be ready to issue new proposed rules on human subjects research.  This would seem to be forward progress on the Common Rule, which was the subject of a public comment period back in 2011.  As it hasn’t be revised in decades, it’s long overdue.

U.S. Ebola Response Includes A CIO

Earlier this week the U.S. Government announced the steps it was taking to expand its assistance to African nations in responding to the Ebola outbreak.  The military, uniformed public health officers, the U.S. Administration for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the State Department all have personnel assisting in the efforts.

Joining them soon will be Steve VanRoekel, the Federal Chief Information Officer.  Except he won’t have that title when he gets there.  So not long after the Chief Technology Officer departs for another position in the Administration (and outside of Washington), the Chief Information Officer will do the same.

VanRoekel is not a stranger to the USAID, where he will be the Chief Innovation Officer.  Back in 2011 VanRoekel assisted USAID in digital communications during its famine response in the Horn of Africa.  Until a permanent replacement as CIO can be named, one of VanRoekel’s deputies will serve as acting Chief Information Officer.

Senate Displays Rare Speed In Confirmations

On Tuesday the Senate managed to confirm two nominations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that were announced less than two months ago.  Their confirmation hearing was just last week.  Unlike several other science and technology appointments, the vacancies that new Commissioners are filling have been open for just a few months.

Stephen Burns comes back to the NRC from work at the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  (One of the recently departed Commissioners left to head that agency.)  He has over three decades of experience with the Commission.  Jeffrey Baran is the other new Commissioner.  He has over a decade of experience as a Congressional staffer in both the Energy and Commerce and Oversight and Government Reform Committees.

The confirmations mean that the Commission is back at it’s full strength of five.

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.