The Next Secretary Of Defense Might Be A Physicist

Ashton Carter was nominated on December 5 to replace Chuck Hagel as the U.S. Secretary of Defense.  Carter has worked in the Defense Department before, in Clinton Administration as well as for President Obama.  Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Carter would bring to the Department both experience and a new set of skills to the top position.

Carter is a theoretical physicist, earning his Ph.D. in that field from Oxford.  He also worked in the Fermilab and Brookhaven National Laboratories.

Now, it remains to be seen how much attention Dr. Carter might provide to the Defense Departments research and development enterprise.  But in the modern history of the Defense Department (prior to World War II it was the War Department), it’s tough for me to see any other Defense Secretary being as knowledgeable about the science and technology capabilities of the American military – for good or for ill.  With the recent American conflicts sometimes engaged in low-tech fighting, having a scientist focused on cutting edge research leading the charge may not be as effective.

More Science Position Shuffling – Could It Be Beneficial?

This time the apparent shuffling is in Canada.

This commentary in The Toronto Star notes a plan by the Canadian government to change the status of the country’s Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO).  Part of the current omnibus budget legislation before the Canadian Parliament, the Officer would no longer be the chief executive of the Public Health Agency (PHA), but simply an officer.  A President would be appointed to run the PHA.  Presumably this would mean that the President would become the public health face of the agency and the government, with the CPHO holding a strictly advisory role.

Not being a Canadian or engaged with public health, I don’t have the authors’ background with the circumstances that brought about the PHA and the CPHO in the first place.  I do note that this is a relatively new (about 10 years) position, and that it is rare to find appointed science advisory positions – certainly in the United States – that also have significant managerial and/or executive responsibilities.  Certainly the environment for scientists in Canada suffers from concerns (and not just the perception) about how the government (the Prime Minister mainly) uses them and their work.  It’s not surprising to see reactions to this move as yet another example of a government minimizing the role of science in policy and in dealings with the public.

But is it possible that the proposed new arrangement for the Public Health Agency could address the continued problems it faces?  If there’s good communications between the President and the CPHO (who would have institutional memory, at least as long as the current occupant remains), why couldn’t they work together to better serve the Canadian people?  Put another way, if they omnibus bill passes, as the authors expect it to, how could this arrangement work out for the best?

Advisory Board Seeks Clarification On Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’

Happy American Thanksgiving, everyone.

Back in October the U.S. government announced a ‘pause’ in gain-of-function (GOF) research.  GOF research works with existing viruses, exploring how they can become more virulent and/or transmissible.  Per the official announcement, the pause – limited to federal funding – covers the following:

“New USG funding will not be released for gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. The research funding pause would not apply to characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses, unless the tests are reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity.”
Even the layman writing this post can see there is some language – like ‘reasonably anticipated’ – that would be open to interpretation.  The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) met earlier this week about the pause (H/T ScienceInsider).  The meeting focused on a statement about the pause, which has not yet been finalized.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff have been working with researchers to clarify matters, according to Dr. Dixon, who spoke at the meeting.  Researchers expressed their concerns that the apparent breadth of the pause could have a chilling effect on the field, with possible impacts on public health.  As the NSABB has a year to develop its recommendations, it’s possible that the pause could be lengthy.  While a revised policy may not be ideal, I think greater communication about how NIH and other agencies are implementing the pause is necessary.  What’s in this new FAQ is nice, but it could benefit from follow-up documents from funding agencies with more specifics about how to have research reviewed, and (if needed) exceptions granted).

Canadian Bill Would Establish A Parliamentary Science Officer

I’m at least a year late to this party, but that may be a function of how little I know about the Canadian legislative process.  A recent release from Dr. Kennedy Stewart (H/T FrogHeart Daily), an MP in Canada’s Parliament, and the designated Opposition Critic of the New Democratic Party for Science and Technology, noted scientist support for his bill C-558.  The bill, introduced in December of last year, would establish a Parliamentary Science Officer.  As outlined in the bill, the position would be an independent officer of Parliament, meaning the person would be appointed with the approval of Parliament, and serve a term of seven years.  The position would appear to be on par with the Information Commissioner of Canada and other appointed positions.  (MP Stewart has referred to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, likely because that position is more advisory than the Information Commissioner.)

Per the legislation, the Science Officer would be responsible for the following:

  • Providing sound information and independent analysis to the Senate and House of Commons concerning:
    • Federal science and technology policy
    • Scientific integrity in Federal science and technology departments
    • The current scientific evidence, including uncertainties, on subjects under the jurisdiction of Parliament.
  • At the request of relevant Parliamentary committees, undertake research into federal science and technology policy and/or scientific integrity.
  • At the request of any Parliamentary committee or individual MP, assess the state of scientific and technical evidence relevant to any matter under which Parliament has jurisdiction
  • Communicate its research, reports and analyses to Parliament and the public in a clear and accessible manner

I’m never quite comfortable in handicapping American legislation, so I will avoid doing so here.  As the current Canadian government ended up discontinuing the National Science Adviser position, it may not be sympathetic to this bill.  That the position would be advising Parliament (rather than the government) may dent that kind of opposition.

I like the position as described in Stewart’s bill.  It does not reflect the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy as much as the long-dead (but frequently copied) U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), but with a bit more independence (The OTA was governed by a Congressional board, and the Parliamentary Science Officer could initiate research on its own).  I hope the bill gets passed, or at least prompts discussion in other places about doing something similar.

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