Last Week Showed A Flurry Of BRAIN Activity

On September 30th the White House hosted a conference on the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). A multi-agency public-private initiative started in 2013, BRAIN started with a $100 million commitment between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

One of the announcements from the September 30th event was that more agencies are joining the effort.  The Food and Drug Administration and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity make five agencies involved in BRAIN, to the tune of $200 million in research and development funding for fiscal year 2015.  NIH announced the first round of its funding, $46 million, at the Conference.  While not a funding agency, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues presented at the event.  The second volume of their neuroscience report should be ready in the spring of 2015.

Private sector activity was also highlighted at the event, noting the $30 million commitment of the National Photonics Initiative, as well as new efforts from Google, GE, GlaxoSmithKline and Inscopix.  Several universities and foundations announced their new commitments as well, including the University of Texas System, the Simons Foundation, and original foundation partners the Kavli Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  The list of participating groups is quite lengthy, you should check out the event’s fact sheet for a complete list and additional details.

An event like this may draw more attention for the governmental activities, but the number of non-governmental parties to the BRAIN Initiative is significant, and worth keeping in mind as time moves forward, and a subsequent Presidential administration may not be as supportive of the governmental end of this project as the current administration is.

Apparently Peter Sagal Has Stuff On Energy Secretaries

On this weekend’s edition of the NPR quiz show, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” (hosted by Peter Sagal) Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz appeared to play the game “Not My Job.”  He’s not the first Obama Administration official to visit the program, and not the first Energy Secretary to do so.  In previous editions of the program we’ve heard from the head of the Centers for Disease Control and the Director of the National Institutes of Health.

The conceit of the game is that experienced people are asked about things that are far removed from their areas of expertise.  That said, sometimes the topics are connected to the guests, though not in ways that would (necessarily) make it easier.  The URL linked to above gives away the topic for Secretary Moniz’s effort, so I’ll just let you figure out the connection.

And whether or not he won.

 

Say Hello To The New National Science and Technology Medal Laureates

Perhaps to get ahead of next week’s Nobel announcements, the White House released the list of the latest crop of laureates for the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.  The official ceremony recognizing these men and women comes later this year.

The medals recognize national contributions to science and engineering (for the Medal of Science) and national competitiveness (for the Medal of Technology and Innovation).  The men and women recognized often do not have household names, unless your household is connected to the fields in which they worked.  Bruce Alberts, former President of the National Academy of Sciences, former Science Envoy, and former publisher of Science, might be the most well-known to readers of this blog (of course, your mileage may vary).  Here is the full list of honorees:

National Medal of Science

  • Bruce Alberts, University of California, San Francisco, CA
  • Robert Axelrod, University of Michigan, MI
  • May Berenbaum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
  • Alexandre J. Chorin, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • Thomas Kailath, Stanford University, CA
  • Judith P. Klinman, University of California, Berkeley, CA
  • Jerrold Meinwald, Cornell University, NY
  • Burton Richter, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University, CA
  • Sean C. Solomon, Columbia University, NY
  • David Blackwell, University of California, Berkeley, CA (posthumous)

National Medal of Technology and Innovation

  • Charles W. Bachman, MA
  • Edith M. Flanigen, UOP, LLC., a Honeywell Company, NY
  • Eli Harari, SanDisk Corporation, CA
  • Thomas Fogarty, Fogarty Institute for Innovation, CA
  • Arthur D. Levinson, Calico, CA
  • Cherry A. Murray, Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, MA
  • Mary Shaw, Carnegie Mellon University, PA
  • Douglas Lowy and John Schiller, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, MD

Congratulations to all involved.

PCAST Letter Report Encourages Educational Technology To Boost Access

On September 28th the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology released a letter report on education technology.  The focus in this letter report is on using education to boost access to higher education.  Costs are rising, which likely doesn’t help the notable gap based on income of the percentage of high school graduates that immediately enroll in college.  The report recommends that the federal government take steps to support the coordination of efforts to connect workers with training and jobs.  The jobs in question here are considered ‘middle skill’ jobs – needing a certification, license and/or two-year degree.  They comprise the bulk of the workforce.

The letter report has three recommendations:

Better coordination of federal efforts to support the connections between workers, trainers and jobs, specifically within the Departments of Labor, Education and Commerce.
Continue the support of information technology research that can help train workers, assess skills, and provide career guidance.
Lead the private sector by finding ways to use information technology to assess the skills and employment needs of the federal government and finding the people that meet those needs.

The third recommendation, as PCAST notes, is a break from the recommendations in its report on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  In that report, the Council was more confident in the private sector’s ability to drive growth in that area.

 

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.