Next European Research Commissioner Used To Be An Engineer

We have a new Commissioner (H/T ScienceInsider) for Research, Science and Innovation at the European Commission.  (There are separate Commissioners for climate change and energy and for the environment and marine affairs.)  Carlos Moedas, currently the secretary of state to the Portuguese Prime Minister, will take over the research portfolio from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.  Incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlined his expectations for the portfolio in a letter to Moedas.  The Commissioner-designate will have responsibility over the Horizon 2020 research programme as well as the following elements of Commission agencies:

  • Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (RTD)
  • The relevant parts of the European Research Council executive agency (ERCEA)
  • The relevant parts of the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME)
  • The relevant parts of the Innovation and Networks executive agency (INEA)
  • The relevant parts of the Research Executive Agency (REA)

(The European Parliament must approve the full slate of Commissioners, and is expected to vote on them later this year.)

Moedas was in investment banking prior to his government service in Portugal.  But his education was in civil engineering, and he worked for five years after school for a French engineering concern.  That was almost 20 years ago.  His relatively lack of experience in research is consistent with his predecessors in the position.

Also worth noting in the slate of designated Commissioners is that the Commission will be reorganized, with an eye toward encouraging more teamwork amongst the Commissioners.

Ebola Roadmap And U.S. Response Should Remind Us That It’s A Big Deal

By the best estimates of people at the World Health Organization (WHO), we are at least six months, and probably nine, away from successfully containing the current outbreak of Ebola (the largest outbreak ever recorded).

At least that’s the goal.

The agency released a roadmap in late August to outline the necessary response to the disease.  There have already been over 3,500 reported cases, and the death toll is approaching 2,000 (or has surpassed it, depending on your source), making this outbreak larger than any previous recorded outbreak combined).  The estimates within the roadmap are sobering, with the possibility of over 20,000 people suffering from the virus.  By the end of September the WHO will do all it can to establish full coverage of Ebola response activities in the affected countries.

The United States will contribute to the effort.  More than 100 experts, and $100 million, have been committed to the region, with more money and personnel expected.  The U.S. military will be involved, according to an interview with President Obama broadcast over the weekend.  This re-emphasizes the severity of the problem, in part because Doctors Without Borders typically eschews military involvement in outbreak responses.  But the organization is stretched too thin to turn down such help.  With much of the outbreak area emerging from civil war, infrastructure and institutions are either broken or strained close to breaking.  Perhaps this lack of capacity has contributed to the spread of the outbreak.  If this is true (and we simply don’t know), addition resources applied to the region in a systematic fashion should help contain and better understand this outbreak before the virus has an opportunity to mutate.

While I’m certain that the U.S. public health infrastructure is in better shape than it’s West African counterparts, this crisis has made me mindful that maintaining such infrastructure involves constant investment and participation.  Without the facilities, regular training, and meaningful information provided by patients using those facilities, it becomes much harder to track diseases and be in a better position to contain or anticipate outbreaks.  In other words, for the grace of preparation go us.

In Case You Couldn’t Make It To New Zealand

This past Thursday and Friday several senior science policy advisers and scholars in the field were in Auckland, New Zealand for what may well have been the first conference of its kind on science policy.  Between the time zone differences (your temporal displacement may vary) and the limitations of following a conference via Twitter it’s difficult to get a full sense of what was covered during the event.

Thankfully the organizers have been populating the conference website with papers and slides.  There’s also the blog, which can help you organize resources chronologically.  Not knowing a reader’s specific interests, I recommend starting with the blog to find those presentations and sessions that hit those interests.  I’d encourage everyone to review materials and presentations by European Chief Science Adviser Anne Glover, and Dr. Heather Douglas, a philosopher from the University of Waterloo.

Should a subsequent meeting or other non-paper outcome emerge from this activity, I’ll pass it along here.

DARPA Wants To Fight A Bug

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) often uses challenges to stimulate research in challenging areas.  At least some of the current work in self-driving cars can be traced back to several of DARPA’s Grand Challenges in autonomous ground vehicles.

The latest challenge appears to be the first that DARPA has issued outside of engineering and/or information technology.  Last week it announced the CHIKV Challenge for teams to develop methods to track and predict the emergence of a virus (H/T ScienceInsider).  The competition is interested in the Chikungunya virus, which has appeared in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in decades.  It’s mosquito borne, and any challenge solutions proven successful could be used for other viruses, especially those carried by mosquitoes.

The competition starts on September 1, and run through February 1 of next year.  The contest involves predictions of disease spread over the Western Hemisphere.  Entrants must submit the methodology, along with an indication of data sources and related models, by September 1.  Over the next several months, teams will submit accuracy reports indicating how well (or badly) their predictions match the spread of the virus, and describing their prediction for the balance of the competition period.

The top six teams will receive cash prizes (unless they are part of a federally funded research and development center).  DARPA hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Centers for Disease Control, which held a comparable competition on predicting the timing, peak and intensity of influenza during the 2013-2014 season.

Dive Deep Into Mission Blue

Fresh off the festival circuit and available for your Netflix queue is Mission Blue, an documentary about marine sanctuaries and one of their champions, Sylvia Earle (H/T Science Friday).  Earle is a leading explorer in oceanography, having studied the oceans since the 1950s.  Her latest effort is the Mission Blue of the title, an organization focused on establishing and expanding protected marine spaces around the world.  By telling her story, the film documents how human impacts on the ocean have unfolded in her decades of ocean exploration.  Here’s the trailer:

As Earle notes in her Science Friday segment, the United States has taken steps to establish and expand quite large tracts of marine reserves over the last several years (starting with President George W. Bush).  Mission Blue has identified several dozen spots around the globe that should receive comparable protection (though some of them already have protection).

Science Envoys Continue To Travel The World

The State Department started appointing Science Envoys back in 2009, and the men and women who have served to date have traveled to 22 different countries.  The latest Envoy to represent the U.S. abroad is Dr. Barbara Schaal, who is in Uruguay as I type.  Schaal traveled to Colombia in September 2013, and is the first Envoy to visit Latin America.  Schaal is a biology professor at Washington University and a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).

At least one of her colleagues has been active since I last posted on the program.  In September 2013 Dr. Bernard Amadei convened a workshop (the first Envoy to do so) in Pakistan on science, technology and engineering for development.  Amadei is an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the founding president of Engineers Without Borders.  I have not been able to find any trips for the third Science Envoy, MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield, since her May 2013 travel to Turkey.  Information on the Envoys is not widely publicized, so I may simply be missing something.

‘Secret’ Ebola Treatment And Other Stories

The outbreak of Ebola virus disease (formerly known as Ebola hermorrhagic fever) in western Africa is no laughing matter.  The way it’s been inserted into fights over immigration reinforces the need to fight misinformation.  (That one of the politicians concerned that Ebola will come into the U.S. via Central American immigrants is a retired doctor reinforces my belief that not all doctors are scientists.)

Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has to say (effective August 6).

“The World Health Organization, in partnership with the Ministries of Health in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria announced a cumulative total of 1711 suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and 932 deaths, as of August 4, 2014. Of the 1711 clinical cases, 1070 cases have been laboratory confirmed for Ebola virus infection.”

Contrary to the concerns of several elected officials and media outlets, there is no significant risk of Ebola in the United States.  Two researchers with the disease were evacuated to the United States for treatment at Emory University in Atlanta.  As long as a hospital follows CDC infection control recommendations and can isolate the patient, it can contain the disease.

There is word of a ‘secret serum’ that the U.S. has, but is not currently going to send over to Africa.  This likely refers to the experimental treatment ZMapp, which has not undergone testing on humans.  While it was used in connection with one of the U.S. cases, neither the National Institutes of Health nor the CDC were involved in procuring the experimental treatment or getting it to the infected person in Africa. Continue reading