Sisyphean Quest to Reform OTA Continues

It what appears to have nothing to do with the Harold Varmus appearance I mentioned earlier this week, and seems coincidental with this essay by Gerald Epstein, there appears to be another push to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).  The OTA was an office within Congress that provided advise on science and technology issues to its members.  It was defunded (but not officially disbanded) in the mid-1990s.  There are plenty of Prometheus posts connected to the OTA, but a good refresher would include this post with comments from OTA staffers, and the last big push to reinstitute some kind of technology assessment capacity for Congress.  More on the last push (late 2007) can be found at Denialism.

The recent push appears to start from the remaining legislative champion of the OTA, Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey.  According to Science Cheerleader (H/T The Intersection), Rep. Holt will make a request for OTA funds this week, and argue his case before appropriators in May.  Since the OTA was just defunded, and not dissolved, technically the request for funds is sufficient to restart the agency.  Assuming Rep. Holt is successful, we shall see.  I wish this movement weren’t so focused on reconstituting the past, as I’m not sure that’s the easiest (or best) means of re-establishing science and technology advisory capacity in the Congress.  At a minimum, it’s not the only way, yet the advocates seem to act as though it is.  If there’s a compelling reason for this, I’d love to hear it.


Secretary Chu Open to Multiple Modes of Technology Transfer

Andy Revkin and Kate Galbraith write at the DotEarth blog about recent remarks by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.  During a tour with the press of Brookhaven National Laboratory, Secretary Chu indicated that collaborative measures, rather than strict patenting and licensing, might be better means of spreading the fruits of energy research.  Some have suggested that the weak intellectual property protections of the Chinese have been a hindrance in spreading designs and technology to that country.  While that certainly removes an incentive for private sector entities to disseminate their technologies, governments need not be so restricted with knowledge generated through its funding (Secretary Chu is likely focused on government supported technologies).  And realistically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be restrictive in how knowledge is transferred, particulary in areas deemed of importance, like new energy technologies are.

Even if areas of national concern were not involved, public returns on research investment will be different from the private returns on investment.  So thinking in terms of only one or two forms of knowledge transfer unnecessarily limits the potential for capturing the kinds of returns sought by the transferer(s).  I do not mean to say that patenting and licensing are private sector tools, and more collaborative efforts are necessarily the best for public sector returns.  The semiconductor industry has used a mix of transfer methods to some success – collaborating on more fundamental technologies of benefit to all, and relying more on other forms of intellectual property for more specific innovations.  It’s a mix worth keeping in mind as energy technologies receive more and more attention.

Varmus Apparently Promises Sun and Moon, but Takes Away the Stars

Harold Varmus, one of the co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (though you couldn’t tell by looking at their website), recently appeared before the Royal Society (H/T The Great Beyond) as part of the promotional tour for his recent memoir, The Art and Politics of Science.  As part of a panel discussion both Varmus and John Beddington, U.K. science adviser, downplayed the likelihood of significant boosts for science spending in either the U.S. or U.K. budgets.  Varmus recommended that researchers think creatively about the opportunities possible with stimulus funding, as he does not expect baseline budget amounts to increase, or at least increase significantly, in the near term.

I have yet to find any transcript of Varmus’ remarks, or of the discussion in general.  There’s also no mention of the address in other press reports.  An interview Varmus gave with the Times of London focused primarily on global issues.  According to The Great Beyond, he did give an address to the society, in which two interesting, if wildly optimistic, remarks were made.  In response to a question about teaching evolution, Varmus noted that President Obama was considering addressing science in a future address.  He also said that the Office of Technology Assessment would likely be brought back.  I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons.  President Obama addressed scientific integrity concerns with his remarks earlier this month.  Having the executive branch create an office for the legislative branch is not the easiest of tasks, and Congress has trouble passing much of anything.  So either Varmus has high expectations, or any new OTA will likely look very different from its predecessor.  Personally, I’d wait for the administration to finish its appointments to OSTP and ramp up that office and the new PCAST before throwing a new ball into the mix.

(UPDATE: A comment below from a reader who was at the event suggests the account overplayed the OTA comments)

Science Press and Science Blogs Perpetuate Bioethics Confusion

In what might be a mix of a slow news day and the “War on Science” mentality, several science sites are reporting on a statement made criticizing President Obama’s recent stem cell research decision.  The statement was released by the Hastings Center and authored by several members of the President’s Council on Bioethics.  There is no mention of the statement on the Council’s website, and language in the statement suggests (though it could be stronger) that it is not an official Council statement.  Part of why some think this is newsworthy is that the Council is still operative until later in the year.  It is advisory, so it can do nothing binding on the Administration (or its predecessor).

Even so, it looks odd to the casual observer to have members of a Presidential Council opposing a President.  Therefore, much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth by those seeking to fill column inches or RSS feeds.  The problem is that the writing of the documents and especially the headlines perpetuates falsehoods about what happened.  It is not an official council statement, yet two of the headlines reporting the statement suggest that it is.  Now who’s pulling a bait and switch?

GAO Borrows Sting Tactics from Chief Wiggum to Bust For-Profit IRBs

Nature‘s The Great Beyond blog has an interesting, if annoying, entry on a recent Congressional investigation into for-profit Institutional Research Boards (IRBs).  For those readers who haven’t done research involving humans, IRBs sign off on research protocols in human subject research.  Universities and other non-profit research organizations have them, but there are also for-profit IRBs.  As the profit motive in such operations can skew toward generating approvals rather than fulfilling the expected research oversight, a Congressional investigation into these companies makes sense to me.

You can read the specifics – statement from witnesses and Representatives, supporting documents – about the hearing via the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s website.  The really short version – the committee had Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators set up fake companies with fake products seeking IRB approval.  So far, so good.  The tactics, however, suggest an interest in the eventual Congressional grandstanding had way too much influence over the investigation.   From the blog entry:

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NIH Can See the Hard Landing This Time

ScienceInsider reports that the House Appropriations Committee (the Labor, Health and Education Subcommitee) recently held a hearing on stimulus spending and the National Institutes of Health.  A webcast of the hearing is currently online.

An exchange between the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jackson (D-IL) and Acting Director Kington noted the potential hard landing after the stimulus funds are spent by NIH and the acceptance rate declines as the budget comes back to Earth.

But hearing chair Jesse Jackson Jr. (D–IL) noted the obvious: The 2-year bolus of money could prove to be “a double-edged sword” if scientists can’t keep going when NIH’s budget drops to normal levels in 2011.

Raynard Kington, NIH acting director, said that because the stimulus-funded grants will lead to new advances and ideas, NIH expects a rise in applications in 2011. As a result, the success rate for grants could “drop several points below what it has been” if NIH does not receive a “substantial” budget increase, Kington said. The success rate is projected to be 21% in 2009, NIH officials say, which is close to the historical low.

Just because the cliff can be seen doesn’t mean it will be avoided.  It just makes it easier.

Science and Party Lines; Neither Coincident nor Parallel

There’s plenty to find fault with about the “War on Science” meme.  One problem is that it presumes – or at least lends itself to the assumption – that one party or political philosophy is naturally pro-science and others are naturally anti-science.  It’s just not that simple.  This isn’t exactly news, especially if you’ve been reading this blog for a while.  But it’s worth repeating because the reverse has currency in other circles.  Aside from the battle cries against the former President, there are those in conservative circles that suggest science is an anti-democratic force, and Democrats its unwitting allies.  A prime example of this argument is found in Yuval Levin’s recent book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.  I’ll defer to Erik Perens’ review of the book and deconstruction of the argument as to why Levin suffers from the same general problem of soldiers in the recent “War on Science.”

While some may note the closeness in time of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment as supporting a particular political orientation to science, the attempt at a parallel ignores the nature of the political shift during that time.  Several political philosophies either originated or undertook significant shifts during this time.  Traditional liberalism and conservatism (in the theory sense, not the political label sense) both emerged during this frame, so it’s not necessarily so that science must support one over the other.

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