Next Bioethics Commission Meeting Will Continue Deliberations On Deliberation

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will next meet September 2 in Washington, D.C.  As is the current practice, there will be a live webcast and the Commission staff will liveblog the meeting.

Per the Federal Register notice (a formal agenda is not yet available), the meeting will continue the work it started at its May meeting in Philadelphia.  Topics will include:

  • The role of deliberation and deliberative methods to engage the public in bioethics, and how to integrate pubic dialogue into the bioethics conversation;
  • Bioethics education as a forum for fostering deliberative skills, and preparing students to participate in public dialogue in bioethics;
  • Goals and methods of bioethics education; and
  • Integrating bioethics education across a range of professional disciplines and educational levels.

There may or may not be a formal report coming from these discussions.  Given the nature of these topics, I think the Commission could simply augment its ongoing efforts in bioethics education with some public experiments in new techniques involving deliberation and deliberative methods.  This is a particular theme in Chair Amy Gutmann’s research, so I am not surprised to see the level of commitment to this effort.

(While a very politically charged matter due to recent events, it is possible that the Commission could be tasked with, or asked by the public about, current practices in fetal tissue collection and use.)

John H. “Jack” Gibbons, 1929-2015

Dr. John H. Gibbons, known as Jack, passed earlier this month following complications after a stroke.  He was 86, and like many who served years in science and technology policy, has received little attention on his passing.  Following a career in nuclear physics, energy and the environment, Gibbons served in lead science and technology policy positions for both Congress and the Executive branch.

Dr. Gibbons earned his Ph.D. in physics from Duke, following an undergraduate degree in mathematics and chemistry from Randolph-Macon College.  He started his career at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory working on nuclear geophysics and astrophysics, energy efficiency, environmental matters and ballistic missile defense.  He rose to direct the lab’s environmental program from 1969-1973.  Gibbons then served as the first head of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation programs.

In 1979 Gibbons was appointed head of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, an agency focused on providing scientific and technical advice to Congress.  He led the agency until 1992, and was nominated by then President-elect Clinton to be his science adviser.  He served in that position, and as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, until 1998.  After a short break Gibbons returned to government service as a Senior Adviser to the State Department from 1999-2001.  A major accomplishment of his tenure there was to grow the scientific and technical capacity of the Department, including the creation the office of Science Adviser to the Secretary of State.  Since leaving the State Department Gibbons had remained active in several scientific organizations and advisory groups.

Condolences to Dr. Gibbons family and colleagues.

Fish And Wildlife Service Providing Additional Details For New Chimp Research Requirements

Earlier this summer the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) classified captive chimpanzees as endangered – the same as chimpanzees found in the wild.  Starting September 14, most biomedical research involving captive chimpanzees will require a permit.

In a meeting with staff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the American Physiological Society, the FWS provided additional information about the process.  The permits would be required for most instances where the research would harm, harass, kill or injure a chimpanzee, as this is otherwise a violation of the Endangered Species Act.  There will be two types of research eligible for a permit: research that directly benefits conservation efforts for wild chimpanzee populations and research that doesn’t directly benefit such conservation efforts but includes support for in situ conservation efforts (though federal grant money cannot be used to pay for such efforts).  In other words, if there’s no direct benefits to conservation efforts in the research, a successful permit will involve a little extra support (not from the government) to support conservation efforts.

Permits should take about 3 months to complete, which includes a 30 day public comment period.  Once approved, such permits will be valid for five years, with annual reports required.  Entities interested in the permitting process should reach out to the FWS for a conversation.

White House Demo Day Strategy Seems Counterproductive

Earlier this year the White House announced (earlier than I thought) a White House Demo Day, scheduled for August 4.  This is not to be confused with the Demo Day held at the White House today, which was focused on disaster response and recovery.  Entrepreneurs will be demonstrating their products and/or services with an eye toward a

The Demo Day, per this White House post on Medium, ties into a larger Administration effort to encourage entrepreneurship, especially in underrepresented communities.  Like the Science Fairs, the messaging around the Demo Day (at least for me) runs counter to the pre-screened nature of who is present (selected from nominations accepted over a three-day period in April).  A quick search of the White House recommended Twitter hashtag (#WHDemoDay) shows a lot of people still just finding out about the event, and interested in participating.

But the people have already been selected, and the livestream of the event may not reach beyond the already engaged audience that the White House is interested in expanding.  I wouldn’t blame any entrepreneurs who felt frustrated by a White House that on the one hand seems to encourage participation in something that has been closed off for a while.  I think the messaging needs to be more consistent, thorough, and for longer.

What am I missing here?  It’s never been clear to me after any of the Science Fairs how someone watching could work to be one of those presenting, and I think the same thing will happen after next week’s Demo Day.  That seems like such a lost opportunity.

We The People Petition Process Opens Up

The Obama Administration started the We the People petition process in 2011.  If a petition reaches a set signature threshold within a set time period (currently 100,000 signatures within 30 days), then the Administration guarantees that it will respond to that petition.  It doesn’t guarantee what that action will be (and it will be unable to act in certain circumstances), which likely disappoints many petitioners and signers.

Another issue that draws complaints is the timeliness of the Administration’s responses.  One of a series of changes announced today will attempt to address this.  In releasing responses to 20 petitions today, the Administration has cleared its backlog, and has now responded to all 275 petitions that met the signature threshold.  Going forward, the Administration intends to respond to all petitions that meet the threshold within 60 days (the specific language allows for some wiggle room).

In addition, the petition platform will become more open.  The Change.org petition website will integrate with We the People, and the code supporting petitions.whitehouse.gov will soon be available on Drupal and Github.  This will enable other governments to make use of this code for their own purposes.

While it is easy to be skeptical, if not cynical, of the utility of such petitions, the White House has cited a We the People petition as an important part of why it supported reversing a Library of Congress decision that made cell phone unlocking illegal in the U.S.  It also credited the petition site for other Administration actions, as it describes on the White House website.

I note that a few of the 20 petitions responses released today deal with science and/or technology matters.  I’ll dive into those responses over the next week or so.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of July 27

Most of the shows are back from their July breaks.  Of the programs still in repeats, you can see Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory on Friday, on a repeat of an appearance with Ellen DeGeneres back in March.

Regrettably, the new episodes this week have no science and technology guests of note.  I am assuming you can catch Chi-Lan Lieu, The Talk‘s technology correspondent, on Friday’s program.  With Jon Stewart leaving at the end of next week, the guest list on The Daily Show is focused away from science and technology guests (I do hope Neil deGrasse Tyson will show up before the final show on August 6).  New host Trevor Noah will sit down with James Corden on Tuesday, but I don’t expect future Daily Show guests will be a big emphasis in this conversation.

NIH Looking For Input On Strategic Plan

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has to submit a new strategic plan to Congress by December of 2015.  This is an agency-wide strategic plan, and is focused on general goals and cross-cutting plans for the NIH.  Specific disease and/or research strategies will be covered in the strategic plan(s) for the relevant institute, office or center at NIH that is focused on that matter.

The NIH is seeking comment on the framework for its strategic plan, and released the Request for Information on July 22nd.  Comments are due by August 16th, and must run 300 words or fewer.  The questions for which the NIH seeks information are:

  • Potential benefits, drawbacks/challenges, and areas of consideration for the current framework
  • Compatibility of the framework with the broad scope of the NIH mission
  • Additional concepts in [individual institute, center or office] strategic plans that are cross-cutting and should be included in this trans-NIH strategic plan
  • Comprehensive trans-NIH research themes that have not been captured in the Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine
  • Components of the Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine that are not applicable to an NIH-wide Strategic Plan
  • Future opportunities or emerging research needs

The Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine listed in the framework are:

  • Promote Fundamental Science
    • Basic Science is the foundation for progress
    • Consequences of basic science discoveries are often unpredictable
    • Advances in clinical research methodologies stimulate scientific progress
    • Leaps in Technology often catalyze major scientific advances
    • Data science increases the impact and efficiency of research
  • Improve Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
    • Importance of studying healthy individuals
    • Advances in early diagnosis/detection
    • Evidence-Based interventions to eliminate health disparities
  • Advance Treatments and Cures
    • Unprecedented opportunities on the basis of molecular knowledge
    • Breakdown of traditional disease boundaries
    • Breakthroughs need partnerships and often come from unexpected directions

Again, comments are due by August 16th.  Submissions should be sent via email at the appropriate address listed in the Request for Information.