PCAST May Be Close To Issuing Report On Big Data

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet via conference call tomorrow (Wednesday), April 30, from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Eastern time.  According to the agenda, the meeting will focus on the PCAST report about big data and privacy, which was also a topic of discussion at the April 4 PCAST meeting (not presently available in the meetings archive, but the webcast is online).  In that meeting the PCAST working group was still developing the report.  But it is expected that the larger big data group conducting its review will have a report soon, so PCAST may have worked quite hard this month to get things ready.

We’ll know more after tomorrow’s call.  If the report is not ready, the next PCAST in-person meeting is scheduled for May 9.  As this effort was given a timetable of 90 days since mid-January, there will be pressure to have things released soon.

This report will be part of a collection of products coming from the Administration’s Big Data Review, each reflecting a different perspective on how to engage with large sets of data and how that might affect individual privacy.  For instance, PCAST, with its focus on science and technology, will likely approach research on big data differently that the Council of Economic Advisers or the Department of Commerce, which are also part of the administration’s review.  Student learning was a topic of discussion when the working group presented at the April 4 meeting, something I don’t think was high on the list for the other groups.

I’m highly skeptical that the pending reports will signal the end for the Administration on the matter of big data.  I won’t be able to make informed speculation until the reports come out, but John Podesta indicated when announcing the review that he anticipates his group’s report would serve as “the foundation for a robust and forward-looking plan of action.”  Then we can try and guess what the Administration might do to implement such a plan.

STEM Premier – A LinkedIn For STEM?

I spent today at the USA Science and Engineering Festival focused more on the booths than the performance stages (though the main and Einstein performance stages still couldn’t deal with crowds).  My impression of this festival (compared to its predecessors) is that things have shifted a bit more towards a trade show atmosphere.  There weren’t as many hands-on activities in evidence compared to 2012 (or even 2010).  Without knowing why that seems to have happened, I can’t reasonably opine on whether it’s a problem or not.

One theme that I am glad to see more explicit in this edition of the festival is the permeation of STEM skills and needs beyond the narrow perspective that often dominates policy discussions on the topic.  Scientists and engineers can have a variety of different educational and training backgrounds, but for decades it’s been shorthand in Washington that a scientist has a Ph.D., and engineers often do as well.  It’s a point of view that may have had value in the middle of the last century, but today is just too narrow to effectively address all the applications of science and technology in the world.

One of the many things I saw and heard these last two days was STEM Premier.  The booth had the aura of a headhunter (in the employment recruiting sense) and that made sense once I visited the website.  While the closest comparison I could think of is to LinkedIn, STEM Premier is not a social network in the same way as LinkedIn.  STEM Premier is a clearinghouse for information on STEM education and training, and provides a means for students, recent graduates, universities and employers to learn about opportunites, and to make connections for jobs, education and training.

In short, the service gets at a pretty big communication problem that many people are tangling with.  Nearly all science and engineering Ph.D. holders end up in STEM, but those Ph.D. holders are a much smaller proportion of STEM workers.  The more people work to reinforce this message, I think it will get easier to find people interested in STEM work and connect them with schools and employers that can provide the right opportunities.  As that computer company used to say, we need to Think Differently.

News and Notes: GoldieBlox Settles With Beasties, White House Seeks Public Tech Input

Late last year, GoldieBlox, a manufacturer of construction toys geared toward girls, reworked a song by The Beastie Boys for a commercial (no longer available online, for reasons that will become clear).  Trouble is, GoldieBlox didn’t ask first, and combined with the group’s strong aversion to having their music used in advertisements, legal action ensued.  A pre-emptive lawsuit by the toy company didn’t help matters.

A settlement was reached in the case.  Specifics were not forthcoming in the legal document, but GoldieBlox posted an apology to the main page of its website (a copy is available – H/T Rolling Stone – for future reference).

The White House has recently issued requests for comment on various data policies that the public should consider.  One is about the review of big data (really large sets of data collected on individuals) and privacy announced in January.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy is handling part of that project, for which it issued a request for information (responses are due by March 31).  But if you’d rather not go to that level of detail, the White House has a more informal input form on its website to get your thoughts on how various groups use big data.

The White House is also looking for feedback on some of its digital presence.  This includes an update to the website privacy policy (which will take effect on April 18).  You may want to review this before completing the big data form linked to above.  Also under review are the White House digital content practices.

Finally, in late February the White House posted on its blog about the progress of agency open government plans.  Building on the government’s second Open Government National Action Plan released last December, agencies will be working on revising agency plans.  Feedback is welcomed, and you can check agency plans by placing a /open after the agency website address.

Scientific Collections Memorandum May Hint At Future Scientific Data Policies

Yesterday Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren released a Policy Memorandum on scientific collections maintained by the federal government.  The memo defines scientific collections as:

“sets of physical objects, living or inanimate, and their supporting records and documentation, which are used in science and resource management and serve as long-term research assets that are preserved, cataloged, and managed by or supported by Federal agencies for research, resource management, education, and other uses.”

The memo was prompted by language in the 2010 reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act (the same law that nudged OSTP to start working on policies for expanding public access to federally funded research data and scientific publications).  It also continues work started in 2005 to institutionalize thinking about scientific collections across the government.

Per the memorandum, agencies that own, maintain, or otherwise financially supports scientific collections will have six months to develop policies on those collections consistent with the memo, relevant federal law and the following additional government directives:

  • The 2010 OSTP memo on scientific collections
  • The 2013 OSTP memo on access to federally funded scientific research
  • The 2013 Executive Order on making open and machine readable data the new default for government information

Per the guidelines described in the memo, agency policies will need to cover not only the management, accessibility and quality of the collections, but establish procedures for coordinating with the Smithsonian (a logical lead agency on such matters), developing appropriate standards for digital files associated with the collections, and handling de-accession, transfer and/or disposal of agency collections.

What attracted my attention in all of this was the heavy emphasis on making these physical collections have as much of a digital presence as practical.  I am left to wonder whether or not this will influence future policies and procedures for maintaining digital repositories that may not have tangible elements – namely research data.

OSTP has not been hard and fast in enforcing its deadlines.  And it has either been very lax in follow through once agency policies have been established, or kept their actions far from public view.  Neither is encouraging, and the latter, if true, undercuts much of the goodwill policies like this one could build amongst the public and scientific stakeholder that are interested in the outcomes and outputs of federally funded scientific activity.

First 2014 Golden Goose Award Connects Black Holes And Web Browsers

February 20 – Edited to Correct the deadline for award nominations)

During the recent meeting of the organization formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the organizers of the Golden Goose Award held a symposium.  As part of the event the first award recipient of the 2014 cycle was announced.  (Nominations remain open until April 28 18.)  He will be recognized in September at the 3rd Golden Goose Awards Ceremony.

Larry Smarr was recognized for his efforts in computing.  Presently a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, Smarr was trained as an astrophysicist.  Working on gravitational physics research, Smarr recognized that the United States was behind in the availability of computing resources for academic research.  Through a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF), Smarr led the formation of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (one of four centers started from that initial proposal.)  He served as its founding director, and while at NCSA, created a software development group focused on applications for researchers.  From this group came Mosaic, the precursor to many of today’s widely used web browsers.

While it’s this web browser connection that supports the Golden Goose recognition, the work of Smarr and his colleagues in the formation of the centers speaks to another critical, if under-recognized, part of the science and technology enterprise.  Research infrastructure is one of NSF’s goals, but it’s not, to use the vernacular, sexy.  Scientists and technologists gather what recognition they get from discoveries and breakthroughs, not keeping the sensors, laboratories and other tools of the trades in working order.  But without that effort, how could the scientists and engineers seek out those discoveries and breakthroughs?  We need that effort, and I hope that doesn’t get overshadowed by the recognition of unexpected connections that drives the Golden Goose Award.

Whether Stem Cells Can Be Patentable May Be The Least Of Commercial Challenges

Two recent actions involving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggest to me that the matter of whether stem cell patents are valid may not be so critical.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the FDA has jurisdiction over stem cells cultured for therapeutic use (H/T The Scientist).  This decision upheld a lower court ruling that considered the act of culturing the cells more than ‘minimal manipulation,’ and therefore subject to FDA drug oversight regulations.

(IANAL, but I think this decision could be used to strengthen the case that stem cell patents – at least for cultures of said cells – would be valid.  After all, if there was more than minimal manipulation, wouldn’t that be sufficiently transformative to make the cultures no longer products of nature?  Again – I Am Not A Lawyer.)

Aside from the legal matters, there appears to be a big regulatory mismatch that will hinder commercialization of stem cell treatments.  In the February 6 edition of Cell Stem Cell researchers note (H/T The Scientist) that differing regulations between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the FDA may reduce the number of stem cell lines that could be used in clinical practice.

FDA regulations require that stem cell donors be screened for various diseases (so that treatments derived from those cells cannot infect others).  NIH regulations – not focused on commercial applications of stem cell research – do not have this requirement.  Now it is possible, as the article from The Scientist notes, for the FDA to allow some treatments to be approved without such a screening, but some alternative measure will likely be needed to mitigate the risk of infection.

Stem Cell Patents Getting Additional Scrutiny Post-Myriad

While recent Supreme Court activity (like the Myriad case) focused on the validity of gene patents, other biotechnology patents have been the object of scrutiny.

Consumer Watchdog asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to review the patent it granted the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006 related to in vitro cultures of human embryonic stem cell lines.  The USPTO agreed to review the patent, but ultimately upheld the patent after several reviews and appeals.  In July 2013 Consumer Watchdog filed a brief with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to have the patent invalidated.  (February 9 – Edited To Add – I had posted about the matter back in 2010 as it worked its way through appeal(s))

As with many patent cases, there are a number of different arguments that can be made for deciding the case.  But one of the arguments in the brief draws comparisons with the Supreme Courts arguments in the Myriad and related cases.  Specifically Consumer Watchdog is arguing that like the isolated gene sequences, the stem cell cultures are isolated products of nature and should not be eligible for patent protection.

Now, the Court of Appeals may opt to let the USPTO’s decision stand.  It will hear the case (it requested all parties submit briefs by January 16), and decide to validate or invalidate the patent based on any other claims put forth in the argument.  There are any number of procedural questions (in the courts or at the USPTO) that could stop the case cold.  And should the case make it through the Court of Appeals, a visit to the Supremes could certainly happen.

We The People Has Fewer, But Older, Petitions Awaiting A Response

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.

When Recycling Is Insufficiently Holistic

As the case for reconsidering critical minerals policy has changed since 2009, many legislative and executive branch proposals have sought to establish and/or re-establish domestic means of obtaining more of the elements we need to produce high technology.

Regrettably, but perhaps understandably, the proposals don’t go very far.  In most cases they simply try to alleviate regulatory burdens and/or increase what knowledge we have of our own supplies and manufacturing processes.  Unfortunately, the lack of information can contribute to a lack of imagination.  At least that’s something I took away from this Nature article outlining the needs for a more comprehensive strategy.

Andrew Bloodworth, director of waste and minerals at the British Geological Survey, makes a compelling argument that the markets for critical minerals are changing (and will change) in ways that make relying on recycling a strategy likely to disappoint.  But because many policymakers have not had to deal with this matter for decades, and were prompted to be reactive to manufacturing challenges, more deliberative thinking is harder to come by.

Bloodworth is persuasive in arguing that shifting market demands will make other solutions, like mining lower-grade ore, feasible.  Hopefully policymakers will listen, even if that can’t put his recommendations into law.

Ohio Finally Taking the Non-Pentobarbital Killing Plunge

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.