European Parliamentary Research Committee Has New Chair(s)

The Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee of the European Parliament is the chamber’s third largest, with 67 members.  It recently announced a new chair, Jerzy Buzek.  Buzek served on the Committee from 2004-2009, before presiding over Parliament from 2009-2012.  He is also a former Prime Minister of Poland.  That someone with his background would take the position reflects its importance.

Buzek will serve as chair for half of the 5-year term of the current Parliament.  in January of 2017 he will be replaced by former European budget commissioner (and fellow Pole) Janusz Lewandowski.  It is expected that he would continue the ITRE Committee’s encouragement of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s latest research programme.

The shift in personnel reflects recent European Parliamentary elections.  The new European Commission President will be formally announced later this week (the sole nominee is former Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker).  Whomever will be the Commissioner responsible for research will be determined by the incoming President.

PCAST Meets To Take A Deep Dive

When I first posted about tomorrow’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it was without benefit of an agenda.  Now that I have seen it, my mildly informed speculation has been confirmed.

The meeting will start at 9:15 Eastern time tomorrow in Washington.  A webcast will be available, as usual.  Simply visit the PCAST meetings page tomorrow.  The morning starts with progress updates (and perhaps final approvals) on PCAST reports on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and antibiotic resistance.  The NNI report is required every other year by law, so PCAST will be returning to somewhat familiar territory.

The presentation part of the meeting concludes with a panel on oceans policy.  As I guessed, Beth Kertulla, Director of the National Ocean Council, will be part of the panel.  She will be joined by other leaders in the ocean science research community: Robert Gagosian, President of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and Anthony Knap, head of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

As usual, there is time set aside for public comment.  The public session is scheduled to end by lunchtime.

When It Makes Sense To Not Enforce Your Patents

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors (and also SpaceX), announced earlier today that the company will not pursue enforcement of its existing patents.  This means that other parties (whether they are car companies or not) can use Tesla electric vehicle technology to develop their own cars.

This is not a surrender.  It’s an acknowledgement that if electric cars are going to become a significant share of global automobiles, more than one company will have to produce the cars with the range and at the price that most people will want to use them.  Musk says as much in the announcement.

In a very real sense, electric cars would benefit from network effects the same way the Internet and related technologies can benefit.  There is more value (from a utility standpoint) in the individual electric car the more of them are available.  Once a critical mass of cars is on the road, there stands a better chance of support structures (charging stations, repair facilities) spreading across the country.

And with more cars on the road, prices stand an excellent chance of going down.  And that’s a good thing.

Would Musk do the same thing with SpaceX patents?  I don’t know.  Continue reading

Court Takes The Procedural Way Out Of Ruling On Stem Cell Patent

Consumer Watchdog will apparently need to get into stem cell research in order to get Courts to act on the validity of stem cell patents.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has dismissed Consumer Watchdog’s challenge to a stem cell patent granted in 2007 to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).  The court did not rule on the merits of the challenge, but dismissed it based on Consumer Watchdog not being involved in the work on human embryonic stem cells.  As they weren’t directly involved or affected by stem cell research, the court decided that Consumer Watchdog lacked standing to challenge the patent.  The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) made that argument in filings earlier this year.

Consumer Watchdog filed the case because it felt that aggressive defense of the patent by WARF could effectively pre-empt research on stem cells in the State of California.  Perhaps the challenge would have met the court’s requirements for standing if a California research university, or the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (which supports stem cell research in the state) had filed it.  At least for now, the patent stands.  As it expires in 2015, the window of opportunity to successfully challenge it, and change related patent law, is small.  The decision also suggests, as one of the legal experts quoted by ScienceInsider implies, that challenges by consumer groups like California Watchdog (or the ACLU) may not get much further than the USPTO.

PCAST Releases Second Report Of May On Health Care Delivery

Last Thursday the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on health care.  The title, Better Health Care and Lower Costs: Accelerating Improvement Through Systems Engineering, implies the thrust of the report.  The report group suggests that the use of systems engineering panels can enhance health care in several ways, including:

  1. reforming payment systems
  2. building the Nation’s health-data
  3. providing technical assistance to providers
  4. increasing community
  5. sharing best practices, and
  6. training health professionals in systems-engineering approaches

The recommendations, according to the report, should be implemented in that order, because the current payment model (which encourages volume of treatment rather than value of treatment) and the ability to measure and analyze health care activity are significant impediments to using systems engineering in this area.

For those not familiar with systems engineering, I would jump to the appendices first before diving into the body of the report.

The Morning Jolt Could Be Taken Literally

I missed it when the press ran with it earlier this year, but thanks to the Star Trek website, I’m up to speed on Air Force efforts to substitute electricity for caffeine.  The intent is to use mild (and the emphasis should be on mild) electric shocks to keep airmen and women alert and attentive.

Efforts are still quite preliminary, but research scientists interviewed have claimed that noninvasive stimulation of the right areas of the brain have enabled subjects to respond better cognitively than a control group that had been awake for comparable amounts of time.  The techniques used are taken from electrical stimulation procedures used for some psychiatric conditions.  (The levels of electricity are much, much lower than what had been used in so-called electroshock therapy.  At 1-2 milliamperes, the shocks are just perceptible.)

One challenge the researchers still have to address is determining which areas of the brain need stimulation in order to achieve the increased alertness and cognitive function.  The research has focused on subjects who work in persistent data monitoring, and researchers are optimistic that a working device may be achievable in five years or so.  Whether or not something like this could (or should) be available commercially is a question for another day.


Bioethics Commission Isn’t Waiting For Next Meeting To Issue BRAIN Report

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has a lot to say about the BRAIN Initiative.  So much that the Commission report will take at least two volumes.  The Commission released Volume One of Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society today.  It’s the seventh report of the Commission since it was formed in late 2009.

The report was prompted by a request from President Obama to “identify proactively a set of core ethical standards – both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.”  The recommendations in Volume One of the report are focused on achieving a more explicit integration of ethics into neuroscience research throughout the life of a research program.  There are four main recommendations:

  1. Integrate ethics early and explicitly throughout research
  2. Evaluate existing and innovative approaches to ethics integration
  3. Integrate ethics and science through education at all levels
  4. Explicitly include ethical perspectives on advisory and review bodies

Of specific application to the BRAIN Initiative is the need to include professionals with expertise in ethics in advisory boards and similar entities conducting research in this area.

Volume Two will focus more on the social and ethical implications of neuroscience research, topics likely to appear on the agenda of the Commission’s next meeting.  As a hint of what may be in that report, the Commission notes four examples that demonstrate the need to better integrate ethics throughout the course of neuroscience research:

  1. Neuroimaging and brain privacy;
  2. Dementia, personality, and changed preferences;
  3. Cognitive enhancement and justice; and
  4. Deep brain stimulation research and the ethically difficult history of psychosurgery.

The Commission did not give a deadline for when Volume 2 would be ready, but it may provide some insight on that front during the June meeting in Atlanta.