There’s a draft resolution at the United Nations General Assembly concerning space (reports indicate it may have been approved, but I cannot find a final version on the UN website as of this posting). This isn’t unusual, as the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been around almost as long as the U.N. itself. What a lot of writers picked up on is in paragraph 8:
“Welcomes with satisfaction the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and endorsed by the Committee at its fifty-sixth session;”
The recommendations by the committee were augmented by a recent presentation
at the Association of Space Explorers. Members of the B612 Foundation were out in force at the presentation, but it’s too early to say whether or not its Sentinel mission
will play a part in a U.N. effort to coordinate asteroid detection and deflection efforts.
Details on what these coordination efforts might look at can be found in the Scientific and Technical Committee’s latest report to COPOUS
, specifically Section X starting on page 29 and Annex III starting on page 45. The main recommendations are to develop two groups – an international warning network (which might have the components outlined in this presentation
from February) and a space mission planning group. The recommendations reflect the end of a six-year process by the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects
, but the United Nations has been active on the matter of near-Earth objects since 1995
In the November 8 edition of Science Dr. Takashi Kadowaki, Director of the University of Tokyo Hospital, writes about the efforts to establish a new medical science agency in Japan. Dr. Kadowaki is also Director of the Translational Research Initiative at the University.
The agency would model itself after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serve as a major component of Prime MInister Abe’s strategy for health and medical research. Even though this strategy reflects a concerted effort to increase health and medical research in Japan, the total budget for this new agency is less than one tenth of the U.S. NIH budget.
The overall research and development budget will not change, meaning that other areas of research will likely face budget cuts. Dr. Kadowaki is concerned that other fields of life science could suffer in this new budget environment, something he considers counterproductive to improving the ability of Japan to translate biomedical research to clinical and pharmaceutical applications.
Another aspect of this new agency is that its strategy arm will be headed by the Prime Minister. While this level of political ownership is unprecedented – certainly in the United States – I can identify at least two downsides. One is the possibility of political micromanagement. The strategy arm of the new agency is separate for an incorporated entity charged with disbursing research funds. Hopefully that can serve to mitigate the risks of micromanagement (and conflicts of interest). Another concern is that this reform effort may stand a decreased chance of surviving after the Prime Minister steps down. (No, he’s not likely to step down any time soon, but he won’t be in the office forever.) Initiatives strongly identified with a particular politician often fall out of favor once the politician falls out of power, and it’s tough to be more strongly identified with a reform effort if that person is in charge of one large part of it.
Dr. Kadowaki’s column suggests the conversation around what the Japanese version of NIH will be is just beginning. I wish Japan all the luck in what seems a daunting task of administrative renewal and reform.
Since the last round of science and technology nominations I noted in early August, there have been two new nominations. No confirmations, which suggest the new nominees will become old nominees before they become new confirmees.
One new nominee is for a position that has been unfilled for over 18 months: Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. Ellen Williams will remain on leave from the University of Maryland, where she is a University Distinguished Professor of Physics. Her work has been in materials science, and her Ph.D. is in Chemistry.
She’s already on leave because she has been the Chief Scientist for BP (yes, *that* BP) since 2010. (How long the University will allow her to remain on leave may influence the length of her tenure should she be confirmed.)
Also of note is the nomination of Rhea Suh as the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of Interior. I find it of note because I was not aware of this position, which coordinates policies between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service. Given what I’ve read about the current and previous occupants of the position (both of whom were involved in other tasks and/or held additional positions), it seems likely that the job is not meant to be too involved in day-to-day activities of either agency.
Again, confirmations remain a contentious issue for the current Congress and Administration. As other (higher) profile positions remain subject to holds and delaying tactics, I don’t expect these lower tier positions to be confirmed quickly.
Breaking with recent patterns, the next public meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) is scheduled for a Thursday. The Council will meet in Washington on November 21, in an even briefer than normal half-day session. As usual, there will be a live webcast, which will be archived shortly after the meeting. Visit the webcasts page on November 21 to catch the meeting starting at 9 a.m. Eastern.
If the current agenda (effective November 4) is suggestive, PCAST may have two reports to release very soon. The meeting will cover a letter report (typically fewer than 10 pages) on Education Information Technology, and a lengthier report on Cybersecurity.
The wild card (at least for me) is the session on Privacy and Technology with Nicole Wong. While her official title may be Deputy Chief Technology Officer, she is considered the first Chief Privacy Officer in the White House. I suspect this may be where PCAST members get engaged with surveillance matters, if they haven’t already done so in a more private setting. But that’s just a guess.
The Consortium of Social Science Associations held its Annual Colloquium on Social And Behavioral Sciences and Public Policy earlier this week. Amongst the speakers was Acting National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Cora Marrett.* As part of her remarks, she addressed how the Foundation was implementing the Coburn Amendment, which added additional criteria to funding political science research projects through NSF.
The first batch of reviews subject to these new requirements tookplace in early 2013. In addition to the usual criteria of intellectual merit and broader impacts, the reviewers looked at the ‘most meritorious’ proposals and examined how they contribute to economic development and/or national security. For the reviews scheduled for early 2014, all three ‘criteria’ will be reviewed at once.
Since researchers don’t like to be told what to do, they aren’t happy. But Marrett asserts through her remarks that this additional review will not really affect the outcomes of the program. From Jeffrey Mervis’ reporting in the Science piece, the research community doesn’t think so, and I suspect Senator Coburn (if he pays attention) wouldn’t be happy to see no change based on his new requirements.
I’ve been posting irregularly about shortages in the production of drugs and other critical elements. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of the drug shortages. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is starting to take steps required by a recent federal law to try and get a better handling on drug shortages as they appear (H/T Scientific American).
In Monday’s Federal Register there is a notice of a proposed rulemaking and request for comments from the FDA on changes in reporting on drug shortages. Prompted by the 2012 Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, companies will now be required to report six months in advance of discontinuing production or a shortage of production of certain drugs. The FDA will also maintain a list of drugs under shortage conditions.
Much of these actions are putting into law and regulation guidance advanced in a 2011 Executive Order. The rule would require a minimum of 6 months notice, with rare exception. Failure to provide notice would prompt a public noncompliance letter, and the rule would give specifics both to the letter and the notice that companies must provide to the FDA.
The agency is persuaded that better information exchange between manufacturers and the FDA could further mitigate shortages. From the notice:
“Working closely with manufacturers and other stakeholders, FDA was able to help prevent just under 200 drug and biological product shortages in 2011 and more than 280 such shortages in 2012, using tools such as:
“Working with manufacturers to resolve manufacturing and quality issues contributing to short supply.
- Expediting FDA inspections and reviews of submissions from manufacturers to prevent and/or alleviate shortages.
- Identifying and working with manufacturers willing to initiate or increase production to cover expected gaps in supply.
- Exercising enforcement discretion in appropriate circumstances, if this would not cause undue risk to patients.”
An important change is that the proposed rule would require notice for marketers of certain compounds regardless of whether they hold an approved application from the FDA. IANAL, but I wonder if this might be a means of exerting a bit more control over compounding pharmacies, which are not presently under FDA regulatory control. (It is arguably a big stretch to suggest it might allow control of these pharmacies over drugs made for execution purposes.)
Comments will be open for roughly 60 days, closing on January 4, 2014.
Color me skeptical of any of these bills being passed, but Congress has at least three major bills in the offing related to science and technology research and development. Two of them should seem familiar.
The Senate is working on a reauthorization of the COMPETES legislation initially passed in the Bush Administration (Chris Mooney is covering his eyes and pretending I’m not typing this right now). The bill addresses research and development programs and investment at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Committee’s first hearing will take place on November 6 at 2:30 Eastern time. If you check the website of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the 6th, you should be able to access a webcast of the hearing.
The House is also working on the next version of COMPETES legislation, but like so many things, they are taking a different approach from the Senate. House Democrats have circulated a discussion draft of a reauthorization of the COMPETES legislation, while Republicans have opted to separate the bill into one focused on energy programs and another focused on the other agencies covered in COMPETES legislation. This differs from the approach taken for the initial COMPETES bill and the 2010 reauthorization, and given the increasingly tense atmosphere in Congress, makes it harder for a final compromise bill to emerge from the House, much less the full Congress. It also marks, in my opinion, the final nail in the coffin of House bipartisan comity with respect to science and technology legislation. It has been teetering ever since Rep. Sherwood Boehlert retired in 2007, but the lack of committee unity on foundational legislation makes be think it has fallen away. Combine this with the reactions earlier in the year to a draft bill from Science Committee Chairman Smith and the job for science and technology research advocates is now notably harder than it was even last year.
Another bill worth noting is the GRANT Act, recently reintroduced into the current Congress by Rep. Lankford of Oklahoma. The act is focused on government grants in general, and is intended to improve the transparency of government grants as an additional means of reducing waste, fraud and abuse. Scientific interests have been concerned with the legislation (last introduced in 2011) because they are worried the reporting processes would remove the anonymity of scientific peer and/or expert review. There is also concern that the disclosure of information like the full research grant application would expose the intellectual property of the research without allowing the researcher(s) to gain from it. Rep. Lankford is, according to ScienceInsider, working on language to address these concerns from the scientific community. Lankford appear focused on other grant programs, and is making an effort to address how effectively science research programs already address his concerns.
While propofol appears to be on the wane for use in executions by lethal injection, midazolam is on the upswing. Florida will use the drug as part of its three-drug execution protocol on November 12 (assuming a court hearing on the 6th doesn’t delay things), and Ohio will follow suit on November 14.
The Buckeye state is turning to a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, due to a lack of pentobarbital. The two-drug combination is Ohio’s designated backup protocol in the event of a shortage of pentobarbital. The November 14 execution would be the first using that combination of drugs.
As usual, the concern over a new execution drug is about how effective the new sedative – midazolam – will be in sedating the prisoner. As this requires a deeper sedation than the typical use for the drug, it has not been clinically tested. There is speculation that midazolam is not as effective, based on the observations of a reporter who witnessed the latest Florida execution. He felt that it took longer for the inmate to lose consciousness compared to an execution involving pentobarbital. His execution did take twice as long as other executions, but the drugs may be only one possible explanation. One observation does not a scientific conclusion make, but the circumstances of executions make it difficult to conduct a meaningful experiment (and certainly not a large sample size).
For what it’s worth, not all recent lethal injections have received scrutiny for the drugs used. Arizona’s latest execution was appealed for traditional reasons connected to the handling of the case. It was carried out last week.
While shortages will continue, the increasing reliance of states on compounding pharmacies (which are not tightly regulated) to develop the drugs they need is likely a second front in stopping executions. It won’t stop states from innovating ways around these barriers, at least not for a while.
ScienceInsider is reporting that the next head of the European Research Council may be a French mathematician. The Council is currently led by sociologist Helga Novotny, who will be stepping down at the end of the year.
While the European Commission has not made the announcement, ScienceInsider is confident in its sourcing that Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, until earlier this year the long-time president of the Institutes of Advanced Scientific Studies in France, will become the next President of the Council. Bourguignon’s tenure at the institute was notable for, among other things, the growth of the institute in both size and scope of activities. Comments from Novotny in the ScienceInsider piece make me think that the European Commission is looking for someone with the kind of experience Bourguignon has. The European Research Council will expand in budget and obligations, without concurrent increases in human resources. They may well need someone who can grown and expand an agency.
Ending the beginning of a process that has been at least a year in the making, the United Nation named the first members of the Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board (H/T ScienceInsider). Of the 26 members named, three have U.S. ties. One member of the board is a national science adviser two others serve as president for their respective national science academies, and another serves on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology. No chair has been named, though that may take place at the first meeting, anticipated in the beginning of 2014.
Per the announcement, the Board:
“aims to ensure that up-to-date and rigorous science is appropriately reflected in high-level policy discussions within the UN system, offering recommendations on priorities related to science for sustainable development that should be supported or encouraged; providing advice on up-to-date scientific issues relevant to sustainable development; identifying knowledge gaps that could be addressed outside the UN system by either national or international research programs; identifying specific needs that could be addressed by on-going assessments (e.g., IPCC or the IPBES); and advising on issues related to the public visibility and understanding of science”
More is forthcoming, though it may take until 2014 for it to come.