Last week the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the members of the newly formed National Commission on Forensic Science. The Commission will hold its first meeting next month in Washington, D.C.
Members were selected from a pool of over 300 applicants, and are intended to represent a diversity of perspectives in law enforcement, research, and forensic laboratories. The commission will focus on studies and recommendations to improve quality assurance in forensic science and forensic science laboratories. Its recommendations to the Justice Department will include how best to manage the interactions between forensic sciences and the judicial system. The Justice Department will coordinate Commission activities with NIST, and officials from both agencies will serve as co-chairs and co-vice chairs of the Commission.
At the moment there is no Commission website. Normally the FACA Database would be the place to look for advisory committee information when there is no dedicated website. However, I cannot access it as of this writing. Hopefully this will be resolved in advance of the Commission’s first meeting in early February.
From ScienceInsider, word that Suzette Kimball will be nominated to serve as the next Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Her background is in coastal geology, and she has been with the USGS since 1998.
In other science and technology nomination news, Janet McCabe has been nominated to replace Gina McCarthy as the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation at the Enivronmental Protection Agency (EPA). McCarthy was confirmed (back in July) to become the new Administrator of the EPA and McCabe became Acting Assistant Administrator. McCabe has been with the EPA since 2009, and has a long history of work with state environmental agencies before joining the agency. Thomas Burke of John Hopkins University has been nominated to serve the EPA as Assistant Administrator for Research and Development. Burke would be replacing Paul Anastas, who left the position over a year ago to return to his green chemistry center at Yale. Burke’s training is in public health.
Perhaps a sign of how underwater the administration is on nominations, Burke’s nomination was reported back in November, and Jo Handelsman’s nomination to serve as Associate Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy was announced back in August.. Both were on this list of nominees released on January 8, in part because the new session of Congress may require resending the nominations.
If junior leadership science and technology positions are going to be filled by long-time agency employees after months-long searches (something not unique to this administration, especially in a second term), some reflection may be in order. While I don’t expect Congress to idly sit by while the number of confirmation positions is reduced, at what point do the benefits of having a permanent official in job outweigh the benefits of a specific kind of Congressional oversight?
This week National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director met with institute directors. According to Nature News last month, he intended to pitch the institute directors with a proposal to fund more ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research proposals.
The idea could be implemented by expanding the NIH ‘Pioneer‘ research awards, given to individual researchers (as opposed to their research projects). Individual researchers receive roughly 5 percent of its annual budget, though private foundations like the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute do award grants to individual researchers.
Part of the motivation for shifting a little more money (it’s unclear how much) to individual researchers is based on research indicating that individually funded researchers tend to produce more highly-cited papers. That’s consistent with the traditional academic metrics and rewards of excellence. But it’s not so obvious that more highly cited papers is the best measure of the return on public investment in scientific research (especially research geared toward biomedical fields). For instance, this language from the Pioneer website hints at other desired outcomes for this public investment:
“To be considered pioneering, the proposed research must reflect ideas substantially different from those already being pursued in the investigator’s laboratory or elsewhere”
Taking a risk seems to be a major factor in the Pioneer program, and it should not be confused with producing highly-cited papers. Certainly there are times when the risks lead to such outcomes, but correlation does not mean causation.
A California legislator is looking to write a probate law bill with help from the crowd (H/T Open Policy Making UK/LinkedIn). Arguably (if a bit cynically) this is normally done with paid staff and lobbyists. But California Assemblyman Mike Gatto would like a little help from his constituents. On this Wiki page you can provide edits and suggestions for the bill. Not too many have contributed so far, and there is a February 21 deadline for submitting new legislation during the 2014 session.
While Gatto characterizes this as the first ‘Wiki-bill’ there were comparable efforts at the federal level organized by Representative Darrell Issa. The Congressman made no promises comparable to those of Assemblyman Gatto that the changes and suggestions would make any final legislation. (That there was no final legislation shouldn’t be blamed on the crowdsourcing, but the general lack of Congressional interest in passing bills.)
The We The People petition service continues to provide an opportunity for well-organized people to air their grievances to the Administration. Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about the responses, especially those that decline to comment on a specific case. But I think it better to have the communications channel than not.
Unfortunately, as with other high technology-enabled proposals made by this Administration, the implementation has not been ideal. NextGov has been tracking the responses across the site, and its latest report suggests that the January 2013 decision to raise the signature threshold (from 25,000 to 100,000 signatures) did reduce the response backlog. But it didn’t eliminate it.
According to the NextGov analysis, We The People has 30 unanswered petitions that have crossed the response threshold as of January 3 of this year. Of those 30, 11 were posted after the threshold was raised, meaning that average wait times for a response are 298 days. At least one petition – calling for the labeling of genetically modified foods – has been waiting for over two years (at the time it was filed, the signature threshold was 5,000). The average wait drops by nearly two-thirds if only those petitions that met the threshold since January 2013 are considered. But it’s hard to see 100 days as really that much better than 300, particularly when petitioners have 30 days to gather signatures.
Given the choice between ridicule for a lack of timely response and ridicule for the quality of said response, I’d choose the latter. I would encourage the Administration to do the same.
I suppose it’s ending the year on a downer…or not, depending on how you look at it.
The Wire (fomerly The Atlantic Wire) notes that Ohio will finally implement its new pentobarbital-free execution protocol. It was supposed to happen last month, but the condemned man at that time had his execution stayed. Now there is an execution scheduled for January 16th. Ohio has not been able to avail itself of the compounding pharmacy option, and will go with its two-drug cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone.
In part, I think, due to challenges brought to the death penalty by limited drug supplies, executions in 2013 were amongst the lowest in the last 40 years.
On December 18 the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its final report of 2013, a letter report focused on massive open online courses (MOOCs). An infographic is available highlighting both the major (general) recommendations and some statistics explaining why PCAST finds MOOCs and similar innovations of interest – as means to increasing access to higher education. PCAST considers the issue important enough to make this report the first of a series on similar education innovations.
MOOCs are different in some ways from previous innovations in online education (like OpenCourseWare or Khan Academy). For one they provide much more than course material. The ability to assess student progress and learning through the length of the course is much greater than what was previously available through more conventional correspondence or online opportunities. The distance between the student and the classroom can be effectively shrunk in ways that weren’t previously available. That is beneficial regardless of how large or open the course might be.
There have only been sufficient number of courses and students in MOOCs to generate two years worth of data to analyse. Additionally, the cost recovery mechanisms (while cheaper, the courses are certainly not cost-free) have yet to be worked out. As a result, the major recommendations of the report are to effectively monitor the situation but to let current providers continue to experiment (and possibly innovate) with MOOCs. We don’t yet know enough to determine which courses are best suited to this kind of teaching (are labs a practical MOOC activity?), and at what point are the benefits of in-person education lost to the MOOC student.
PCAST recommends that the government be ready to support research on these courses and the demonstrated learning outcomes. It can also support communities of research and practice to facilitate the gathering and exchange of information that can help students and teachers achieve what they want (and need) from online education.
One of the rare breakthroughs in Congress during the last months of 2013 was to eliminate a 60 vote threshold for the Senate to move to vote on many nominees in the executive branch. Democratic Senate leadership broke with recent tradition to change the rules of the Senate to make a majority vote the requirement to consider such nominees. The confirmation votes required a simple majority, they had just been barred by the 60-vote (out of 100) requirement established by Senate rules.
While this has led to some nominees to executive branch and judicial posts being confirmed, the Senate failed to consider any of the pending science and technology nominees, including the nominee for Director of the National Science Foundation. Jeffrey Mervis has more details over at ScienceInsider, but it’s clear that support for science and technology in the government remains a lot more talk than action.
At this point many positions have been reported out by the relevant Senate committees, but they all wait for what would usually be a non-controversial floor vote for official confirmation. NSF Director nominee Cordova has been waiting since her nomination back in July, but others have been waiting much longer. All the while important work is still being done, but not without the long-term distraction of lacking official leadership. At least Kathryn Sullivan has been serving as the acting Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while waiting for the Senate to vote to remove the acting from her title.
(Merry Christmas, everybody!)
Over three years since I’ve posted it, this item on the (in)efficacy of hand sanitizer is among the top ten posts on this blog (by page views).
Turns out there could be similar concerns about so-called ‘antibacterial’ soap. On Monday the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would be taking a closer look at these soaps. Specifically, it has issued a proposed rule that would require manufacturers to provide additional safety data to the agency and demonstrate a clinical benefit of their product(s). Comments are accepted until June 16, 2014.
Why? Because there does not appear to be any evidence that ‘antibacterial’ soaps are any more effective at preventing illness than regular soap and water. Additionally, there are concerns that the use of antibacterial soaps could contribute to the ongoing emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
For the record, the CDC recommends regular soap and water for handwashing. If you don’t have immediate access to soap and water, and must use a hand sanitizer, use one with at least 60 percent alcohol. (Though, as I posted back in the day, some drug-resistant bacteria don’t mind the alcohol.)
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues meets in Washington tomorrow. Continuing a topic introduced in its last meeting, the Commission will spend all of the public portion of its meeting on the BRAIN initiative. The President officially requested that the Commission identify a core set of ethical standards to guide neuroscience research and address possible ethical implications of applications that emerge from those research findings.
The BRAIN initiative is a major public-private partnership announced this past April by the Obama Administration. Federal agencies involved are the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. There is an advisory group hosted at the NIH. While federal agencies were a focus of the previous Commission meeting on this topic, private sector and international neuroscience activities will be discussed at tomorrow’s meeting.