Gray Matters Volume 2 Seeks To Counter Hype With Discussion

Today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released the second volume of its Gray Matters report, the ninth report by this commission.  The report was requested by the President following the announcement of the BRAIN Initiative.  He requested that the Commission identify a set of core ethical standards to influence neuroscience research and to address some of the debates emerging from applications of that research.

Volume One, released in May 2014, focused on how to fully integrate ethics into neuroscience research throughout the research cycle.  Volume Two concerns ethics in applications of neuroscience research, with an emphasis on three topics that have attracted some level of debate: cognitive enhancement, the capacity of a being to consent (to research conducted on them), and neuroscience in the law.  Through these cases the Commission wanted to tease out relevant ethical considerations and related tensions brought out by the potential impacts of these technologies.

There are fourteen main recommendations in the report:

Prioritize Existing Strategies to Maintain and Improve Neural Health

Continue to examine and develop existing tools and techniques for brain health

Prioritize Treatment of Neurological Disorders
As with the previous recommendation, it would be valuable to focus on existing means of addressing neurological disorders and working to improve them.

Study Novel Neural Modifiers to Augment or Enhance Neural Function
Existing research in this area is limited and inconclusive.
Ensure Equitable Access to Novel Neural Modifiers to Augment or Enhance Neural Function

Access to cognitive enhancements will need to be handled carefully to avoid exacerbating societal inequities (think the stratified societies of the film Elysium or the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders“).

Create Guidance About the Use of Neural Modifiers
Professional societies and expert groups need to develop guidance for health care providers that receive requests for prescriptions for cognitive enhancements (something like an off-label use of attention deficit drugs, beta blockers or other medicines to boost cognition rather than address perceived deficits).
Continue reading

I Can’t Be The Only One Bothered By The Ease Of Cyborg Insects

I recently read this article from Futurity reporting on cyborg beetle experiments conducted at the University of California at Berkeley.  The study is available in Current Biology (subscription required for the full article), and focused on determining the muscles involved in steering beetles in flight.  There’s video.

I’ve posted before about cyborg beetles, and my misgivings about making cyborg beetle kits available for the general public.  I wasn’t quite as bothered by experiments in laboratory settings, but the notion of people conducting home surgery to attach mechanical parts to living creatures still strikes me as a bit cavalier.

I recognize that other animals are used in scientific experiments, so why is this different?  Are the mechanical changes in these experiments somehow qualitatively different than the genetic modifications to mice that can result in wholly new traits (or parts) for the animal?

I think, besides the possibility of backyard surgery, it comes down to remote control.  That these beetles, as well as other insects (and some higher animals, it turns out) are being manipulated gives me pause.  I still see the value in it, but whatever ethical discussions are going on about this research are not visible to those of us not working in the field.

I think it might make public acceptance of this research a bit easier to let people know what considerations and discussions have gone into this research before we see remote-control cyborg gerbils available at your local pet store at some point a few years from now.

Agency Scientists Still Have Challenges Communicating Freely

Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a new edition of its report Grading Government Transparency (H/T Nextgov).  The first edition came out in 2013, and it expands on a previous report, Freedom to Speak?, from 2008, that focused on agency media policies (15 agencies and 2 federal departments).  Grading Government Transparency includes social media policies along with traditional media policies.

The scorecards from the 2013 and 2015 reports suggest slight improvement in policies, or at least maintaining the status quo.  Agencies in the report that didn’t have social media policies in 2013 have them now, so the progress is forward.

The report recommendations in 2015 aren’t that different from 2013.  The UCS still encourages agency media policies to place free and open communication ahead of political principles.  As the organization strongly advocates for a fundamental right to scientific free speech, this is not a surprise.

For agencies where there was improvement in agency policies, the UCS noted several key changes in many cases: the existence of a social media policy, whistleblower protections, a personal-views exception (provisions that allow for government scientists to state personal opinions if they are clearly noted as their personal opinion and do not use unreasonable amounts of government time or resources), and a dispute resolution process.

What is still lacking in many cases, according to UCS, are a right of last review (of written product going under their name or relying on their research) and a right to access drafts and revisions of written materials using contributions from the scientists’ research.

The agencies and departments covered in the report are only part of the government, and do not cover all scientists and engineers employed by the government.  And I don’t think the UCS finds every agency’s grades in the reports satisfactory.  So there remains work to be done.  Media and social media policies for scientists and engineers need to be in more agencies, and need to be strengthened in those where they already exist.


Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of March 23

Tonight marks the beginning of James Corden’s tenure as host of The Late Late Show.  Both he and David Letterman have just three shows this week, due to the college basketball tournament, so you may have additional opportunities to catch one of Corden’s first few programs.  Corden will appear on Conan Thursday, should you need a new dose after his first three shows.  I will monitor the show for science and technology content, but I’d be amazed if Corden matches his predecessor Craig Ferguson in terms of guests and monologues on the subject(s).

There is a repeat worth mentioning.  Senator Ted Cruz appeared recently on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and made some claims about climate change.  That program will re-air on Friday night.

In the new material this week, The Daily Show is the place to watch.  Tuesday night Jon Ronson stops by to discuss his latest book.  So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed concerns public shaming, and part of the rise in this activity has been technologically based.  Part of Ronson’s motivation for writing involves his interactions with people impersonating him online.  Former orca trainer John Hargrove, who was part of the documentary Blackfish, visits the show on Thursday.

On Friday, Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory (where he plays a scientist) visits The Talk.  He’ll be promoting his new animated film, and The Talk‘s technology reporter, Chi-Lan Lieu, will be on as well.  (Earlier today/Monday on The Talk was Emily Deschanel, who plays a forensic scientist on Bones.)

Tomorrow Marks Fifth White House Science Fair

On March 23rd the White House will recognize the science and engineering achievements of students and teams of students in 34 different projects for the Fifth White House Science Fair.  The President should, as he has before, tour the Fair, and live video will be available through the White House website.  In case not every project gets time in front of the camera, please take a look at each of the participants here.  (One of the projects comes from my hometown, which is a nice surprise.)

My guesses as to what will get the most attention are the tech projects.  Robots are usually a good bet to get eyeballs, and a few robotics teams are exhibiting at the fair.  The jukebox piano and the augmented wheelchair could also catch a fair amount of interest.

I’ve been curious about how the projects are selected, and this recent Science Friday interview with current U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and Associate Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for Science Jo Handelsman hints at it.  White House staff apparently sort through science and technology fairs and similar competitions (one team was a finalist in Verizon’s Innovative App contest) and then select teams that represent a diversity of projects and people.  While I still think presenting at the White House Science Fair could be a great incentive for young researchers and tinkerers, there may not be a direct line for making that happen.

Coverage will begin at 7 a.m. Eastern tomorrow on The Weather Channel.  Live video from the White House should start around that time as well.  You can access that through the Science Fair website.



Maybe The Folks Concerned About A Chinese Space Race Are Looking In The Wrong Place?

It seems with major advancements in Chinese space exploration that concerns are raised about the United States falling behind.  That most of what the Chinese are trying to do the U.S. accomplished before I was born seems beside the point.

What I think might be of greater concern to those not interested in China maturing as a space power is its efforts at collaboration.  Not so much with the U.S., as export controls prevent the use of many American components in Chinese missions, China has not been invited to join the International Space Station, and legislation prevents using NASA money on joint efforts with China.  But China has been working with the European Space Agency (ESA).  Earlier this week the ESA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced a number of prospective missions for the two countries to work on (H/T Nature).  It’s not the first space mission where the two countries have been involved, but it is the first where the two countries will jointly operate the mission.

I’m not surprised that with Chinese-U.S. space cooperation discouraged on our side, that the Chinese have gone elsewhere to increase their knowledge.  As the United States used keeping the Russians engaged as a major selling point of the ISS back in the 1990s, it strikes me as a bit ironic that we seem fit on keeping the Chinese at arm’s length.

Meanwhile, Over At The Department Of Agriculture

I missed the announcement when the Agriculture Department (USDA) released its open access policy for research results and digital data.  I chalk it up to the tunnel vision of many science policy analysts – The Agriculture Department is often an afterthought.  But starting January 1, 2016, USDA grantees cannot make public access an afterthought.

The Department’s policy takes advantage of existing information infrastructure for its public access repository system.  Research articles funded by the Department will have to be submitted to this repository within 12 months of publication.  USDA has developed a research search engine, PubAg, that already contains research articles published by USDA scientists.

The Department is still working through how it will address digital scientific data.  This portion of the current plan describes how the agency will manage and organize the development of this policy, with specific requirements to come later.  Three repository options are currently under consideration (page 16) – a USDA data repository for all federally supported research data; contribution to a single federal wide data repository; and encouragement of a highly interoperable federal, academic, private hybrid system.  Most agencies’ plans that I have read are, if the address accessing research data sets, approach a hybrid approach, linking to research data sets, but not necessarily storing them within the agency.  It’s too early to tell what choice will be made, but the USDA might have sufficient research history and resources to develop its own data repository.  We should find out sometime in 2016.