Asking Dr. H. – Probably Just As Meaningful This Time Around

On Thursday, the White House blog ran a post about Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren.  It announced the revival of ‘Ask Dr. H.’  Back in 2010 there was a series of posts from Dr. Holdren on science education and science policy topics.  The latest effort is targeted to climate change.

Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Vine, people can send their questions, tagged #AskDrH, about climate change.  Dr. Holdren will respond to questions via video.  Given the flood of requests, the challenge is not just to get your question in under whatever character limit applies.  You have to, somehow, craft the inquiry such that it will attract attention.

As for what will work, your guess is as good as mine.  If you search any of these services with the #AskDrH tag, you’ll likely find a lot of noise.  Even if you manage to get through, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have your question responded to in such a way that it will simply restate Administration policy.  It’s an excellent reminder that while Dr. Holdren is a scientist, he’s a political appointee obligated to represent the Administration.  Not scientists or science enthusiasts.

It’s Not Just The Science Laws That Can Affect Science

Over at Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn is understandably upset about the poor coverage of a Supreme Court case involving fish.  He’s complaining about how those covering the case appear more interested in puns than in the impacts of illegal fishing, and he’s got a point.  For proper coverage over the phenomenon that prompted the case, you need to check out David Shiffman’s article over at Southern Fried Science.

The case in question, Yates vs. United States, was heard before the Court last week.  It concerns whether certain provisions of the Sarbannes-Oxley Act apply in a matter involving illegal fishing.  The apparent dissonance (and source of the pescatory bon mots) is that the Act was written in connection with securities fraud and related crimes and the destruction of information connected to those crimes.  The relevant part of the law covers the destruction or falsification of any ‘record, document or tangible object’ with the intent to obstruct an investigation.  The government is claiming that the law covers the destruction of evidence irrespective of the kind of crime.

Frankly, I’m surprised (and remember, IANAL) that there was not a comprehensive federal law for destruction of evidence.  This article from the USA Today suggests that Sarbannes-Oxley has filled that gap on several occasions (apparently contrary to the intentions of former Representative Oxley), while this case appears to be the first to come to the Supreme Court.

As you might guess, the arguments in Court focused on the ‘tangible object’ part of the law, and the lack of language specifying that such objects must be involved in storing information (hard drives being one such item).  The lawyers and the justices discussed the finer points of English as it applies to the law.

The fishing violation alleged in the case Continue reading

Scientists Amongst Recent Freedom Medal Recipients

Usually some of the people recognized each year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom are scientists and/or engineers.  This year’s class continues that trend, recognizing the efforts of economist Robert Solow and physicist Mildred Dresselhaus.  They will be recognized during a White House ceremony on November 24.

Dresselhaus is currently a Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  She has spent the bulk of her research career at MIT, with service as Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  She has also served as President of both the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  The Medal of Freedom marks the latest of a long string of awards recognizing her work.

Solow is a Nobel Laureate in Economics, recognized for his work in economic growth theory.  He is largely credited for the exogenous model of economic growth – which considers external factors critical to economic growth.  Solow is also a distinguished professor at MIT.  Both he and Dresselhaus are Institute Professors Emerita at the Institute.

Congratulations to both of them.

EU Pairing Program Garners Plenty Of Interest

Introduced roughly a year ago, Teaming is a European Commission program that, well, teams research institutions (or consortia) from high performing and low performing members of the Commission.  It’s one of several programs geared toward broadening participation in European research as part of the Horizon 2020 program (including a Policy Support Facility).  According to ScienceInsider Teaming received 169 submissions, and even with a 20 percent increase in the program budget, it may only be able to fund sixteen percent of the submissions.

The ultimate outcome of the program is to build research infrastructure and networks in areas of Europe that could benefit.  In a way, Teaming is trying to do the same thing that the various EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) programs do in the United States.  The pairing is a distinct difference between the two programs, though EPSCoR programs also seek to leverage existing resources to assist grant recipients.  Teaming in the U.S. might look like researchers in the University of Washington system pairing with colleagues in Montana on projects, with the additional benefit of building up infrastructure in Montana.

First stage winners will be selected in February 2015, with second stage recipients announced by 2016.  Given the significant interest in the program, there will be at least one more cycle of funding by 2018.

Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Releases New Report; Prompts Additional Investments

Formed in 2011, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) focuses on policies and other tools to secure American leadership in advanced manufacturing.  Earlier this week the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology adopted the AMP’s latest report, Accelerating U.S. Advanced Manufacturing.  This report builds on the AMP’s 2012 report and prompted several government investments, also announced earlier this week.

You can peruse the full list of recommendations on pages 17-18 of the report, but they are grouped in three categories (taken from the 2012 report): Enabling Innovation, Securing the Talent Pipeline, and Improving the Business Client.  Some of you may roll your eyes at the vagueness of these categories, so I would encourage you to focus on the portions of this report (Appendix A) that discuss the action plans and implementation to date on the various recommendations.

What is likely more broadly interesting are the technology areas identified as most promising targets for American leadership, as well as the Administration actions announced in connection with the report.  NASA, along with the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Energy, will invest $300 million in those technology areas:

  • advanced materials including composites and bio-based materials,
  • advanced sensors for manufacturing, and
  • digital manufacturing.

The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy will work to connect researchers with labs and research facilities for technology testbeds.  The Department of Labor will launch a $100 million dollar program to encourage apprenticeships (including new models of apprenticeship) with a focus on advanced manufacturing.  Finally, the Department of Commerce has announced an expansion of its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (a tool that doesn’t get enough attention and probably not enough use) with a focus on new technologies.

Study That Prompted Allegations Of NIH Interference Found Wanting

In March 2013 the Office for Human Subjects Research Protections (OHRP) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that some of the informed consent provisions associated with the a study at the University of Alabama, Birmingham were lacking.  In June OHRP sent a subsequent letter to the researchers indicating it would put its planned sanctions on hold.

In between March and June, HHS and National Institutes of Health officials interacted with OHRP staff, and that interaction prompted allegations of improper influence.  The HHS Office of the Inspector General found no evidence of wrongdoing in its investigation.

But that doesn’t end the story, since OHRP put its actions on hold.  That hold ended on Friday.  Rather than implement sanctions against the researchers, OHRP has issued a call for comments on proposed informed consent guidelines.  The proposed guidelines affect the application of human research protections to cases of ‘standard of care research.’  The major questions concern what risks could be considered ‘reasonably foreseeable’ and how those risks should be described to prospective subjects.

In the case of the SUPPORT study that prompted this whole process, there was disagreement over whether or not the study protocols put subjects at risks that warranted disclosure.  OHRP felt that since the risks were greater than what subjects would reasonably expect without treatment, notice was required.  Others argued that because the treatment under study was within the standard of care for the condition, that no disclosure was required.

OHRP is taking comments until December 24, and will issue final guidance sometime in early 2015.

When Is A Quarantine Not A Quarantine?

I think I’m raising questions more than offering perspective with this post, but there are some things about the latest developments in the Ebola cases diagnosed in the United States.

(That’s right, it’s not an outbreak.  The situation is West Africa certainly is.  Four cases in a country that sees a few thousand times that many deaths from the flu does not qualify as an outbreak.)

Based on the latest declared case, a doctor in New York City that had been working in West Africa, the governors of New York and New Jersey declared quarantines above and beyond the recommended Centers for Disease Control monitoring (though the CDC is considering changing those guidelines).  As the politicians have more than public health on their mind, I can understand why they might go above and beyond what is medically necessary.  After all, Americans are scaredy cats, happy to act on fear before thinking things through.  Why not placate their fear, and worry about the possible negative consequences (people simply traveling around the quarantine zone, fewer military and aid workers going to West Africa, reduced disclosures of exposure, etc.)

But the terms of the quarantine, or at least the pronouncements of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo about said quarantine, make me think that at least one of the politicians involved is either unclear on public health or simply doesn’t care. Continue reading