White House Looking for Commercialization Advice

Last week the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Economic Council (NEC) released a Request for Information (.pdf) (RFI) on commercialization of university research (H/T State Science and Technology Institute).  Those who have followed technology transfer in universities and related commercialization issues will find familiar material in the RFI, which will close at the end of April 26 (Eastern Daylight Time).

The RFI questions are organized around two basic concerns:

  • Seeking ideas for supporting the commercialization and diffusion of university research.  This would include best practices, useful models, metrics (with evidence of their success), and suggested changes in federal policy and/or research funding.  In addition, the RFI is interested in how commercialization ecosystems can be developed where none exist.
  • Collecting data on private proof of concept centers (POCCs).  These entities seek to help get research over the so-called “Valley of Death” between demonstrable research idea and final commercial product.  The RFI is looking for similar kinds of information as for commercialization in general: best practices, metrics, underlying conditions that facilitate such centers.

The comments received (which can be on any or all of the questions) will help the OSTP and the NEC to shape future Administration policy on research commercialization.  It’s way too early for me to guess where things might go with this, but not too late to spread the word about the RFI.  I do wish they’d stop with the short comment periods…

A Baby Step Forward for the Bioethics Commission

As of last week, visiting the website for the U.S. government’s Bioethics Commission still brought up with material from the Council on Bioethics that President Obama closed last summer.  But that’s no longer the case.  In today’s edition of the Federal Register (H/T The Scientist), the Department of Health and Human Services gave notice that a charter for the Commission was lodged with the General Services Administration on March 10.  No additional appointments have been made, so it’s just a chair and vice-chair at the moment.

The charter doesn’t shed a lot of additional light on the structure and operations of the Commission, as it repeats much of the language from the Executive Order that established the Commission.  There are figures on the estimated budget and staff for the Commission.  Three staff have been appointed so far, and they estimate there will be a total of 10 once the Commission is at full strength.

Now Maybe People Will Take Drug Resistance Seriously

Today’s demonstration of the real problem of drug resistant infections comes from the U.K. where gonorrhoea is the drug resistant infection of the day (H/T Nature News).  While gonorrhoea has always been a very adaptive bug, requiring changing antibiotics from time to time, but there are presently no new antibiotics on the horizon.

This doesn’t mean there are alternative treatments.  However, instead of a single dose treatment, it would involve several, and that poses a public health problem.  Given the stigma of sexually transmitted diseases, the easier and faster it is to treat them, the more likely people will be successfully treated.  Should treatment rates decline, resistance rates will increase, as partial treatment can be even worse than no treatment.  Giving the bug a little bit of the treatment helps build up resistance rather than knock it out.

Maybe health professionals will be able to keep up with the ever-evolving sexually transmitted diseases.  Whether they do or not, the possibility of drug resistant STDs makes it all the more important for sexually active folks to get tested – regularly – and to play safely.

Japanese Government Stumbling Over Research Budget Review

ScienceInsider notes that the Japanese government will once again review its research budgets as part of an effort to rein in government spending.  The last review took place in November, and resulted in cuts to several research program that were mostly restored in the 2010 budget.

I commented last summer, shortly before the current ruling party took over, that the conflation between research funding and waste assumed by Japanese researchers seemed problematic.  Part of my concern could be explained by the limited information available at the time (translated information, anyway), and part from an apparent unwillingness to separate the waste and fraud concerns from the big money attached to research.  Whatever the problem was, it seems the message did not get through (subscription required) the first time.  It might this second time.

“In a second round of hearings, a new task force will take a close look at government-funded organizations. Edano said that many of these agencies are staffed with former bureaucrats and have large personnel and indirect costs. “We are focusing not on scientific research itself but the indirect, wasteful spending that surrounds research activities,” he said.”

Now in the U.S., there are plenty of concerns about indirect costs, usually on the difficulty in having those costs fully covered by research grants.  But I have no way of knowing if similar concerns exist in Japan, or if there are legitimate concerns about whether there are irregularities or inefficiencies in the administration of research in Japan that could be changed and save some money.  Hopefully Japanese research and science advocates can manage the dance between wasteful spending and necessary research once again.

Add Murder and You Have a Future Law and Order Episode

UPDATE 3/30 – the opinion is now available (PDF) via the ACLU (one of the plaintiffs in the case) website.

ORIGINAL POST – Earlier today a U.S. District Court judge ruled against Myriad Genetics in its defense of a lawsuit challenging the validity of its genetic patents (H/T Techdirt and Twitter).  Since there are levels of appeal left in this case, do not expect to see a lot of invalidated patents just yet.  Once the ruling is available online, I can link to it here.  In the meantime, the key point is that the judge ruled that the patents at issue

“are directed to a law of nature and were therefore improperly granted.”

It appears that this ruling indicates that the Myriad patents went beyond the standards established in the 1980 ruling that established the validity of patenting organisms, Diamond v. Chakrabarty.  So even if this ruling survives appeal (and it may go to the Supreme Court), it won’t roll back all genetically focused patents.  Artificially created organisms would presumably still be patentable.

The direct motivation behind this case is two-fold: that the patents on the two breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 have restricted research on those genes, and an undue restriction of patients trying to get a second opinion on their situation. That argument will survive for what we expect to be at least one more day in court.  And the line between what biological things can or cannot be patented will continue to shift.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of March 29

Not much to report on this week, even though everyone is back from repeats.  “Science Bob” Pflugfelder will appear on Thursday’s edition of Jimmy Kimmel Live.  Science Bob is a traveling science teacher, with a mobile lab.

Mythbusters is back with all new episodes in the U.S., so that’s another source of good science content for a few weeks.  One of the Mythbusters, Grant Imahara, will visit The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson next Monday, with a robot.

As always check those local listings.

Visit Cape Cosmos and Learn About the Future Past

I wrote recently about the radio program Rocketing Ahead, which discussed the political goings-on in the United States in the late 1950s that helped form NASA.  You can now listen to that broadcast via podcast at Cape Cosmos, an educational-ish website supported in part by the National Science Foundation.  Besides podcasts and links to Smithsonian affiliate museum events, the site has a series of interactive features to help describe what working at NASA was like in the 1950s and 1960s.  The theme here is to emphasize the very different social settings of the time and place where NASA was – the American south.  Not all of these features are quite ready (or I may have missed the part where I had to watch them in a special order to unlock others), so keep visiting the site.  You’ll need to press the flashing button after the introductory audio and click on Guide.

Besides Rocketing Ahead, you can check out two other podcasts (more may be added later).  Race and the Space Race is pretty self-explanatory.  Rocket Girls and Astro-nettes is as well, but will cover more than the early effort to test possible female American astronauts.  Each podcast is 52 minutes long, and worth the time.

With Errata and Retractions Journals May Resemble Their Print Media Cousins

Dr. Free-Ride over at Adventures in Ethics and Science analyzes a 2007 paper in Science and Engineering Ethics (subscription required) assessing how well the scientific literature manages to address the consequences of articles that need retraction.

The article looks at biomedical research articles that were tagged as connected to scientific misconduct.  This means an official determination by the relevant agency (in this case the Public Health Service) that handles scientific misconduct.  The research judged how many articles were corrected or marked as required, and the extent to which other articles ended up citing articles connected to misconduct.  The research indicated that of 102 articles identified as needing retraction or correction, 98 were so noted in the PubMed database.  While that’s not perfect, it’s pretty good.

A serious concern, as noted by Dr. Free-Ride and the article’s authors, comes from the number of citations that reference the tagged material.  The 102 targeted papers generated roughly 6,000 citations by the time data collection for this paper was ended.  Now it’s hard to know, without going through all of these citations, how many of them were made to argue against the paper or note it as having some suspect quality to it.  Even if half of the 6,000 citations were of that character, there’s still a number of papers that relied on other papers that they shouldn’t have.

Continue reading

PCAST Releases Second Report; Recognizes 10 Years of Federal Nanotechnology

On Thursday the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its second report of the Obama Administration.  The report was the Third Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was established in late 2000 to coordinate nanotechnology research and development across the federal government.  While the report notes that the U.S. continues to have a strong nanotechnology sector and corresponding support from the government.  However, as with most other economic and research sectors, the rest of the world is catching up, or spending enough to try and catch up to the United States.

According to the report, more attention needs to be paid to commercialization efforts (a concern not unique to nanotechnology).  In addition, there should be a more systematic or comprehensive examination of environmental, health and safety issues.  Arguably those two main concerns are very related, as concerns – real and perceived – about the impact nanotechnology products may have on the body can well affect how commercially successful these products can be.  Remember, concerns over genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture have affected how well those products have sold (or been banned) in parts of the world.

The report examines three components of the NNI: Program Management, Nanotechnology Outcomes (metrics), and Environmental, Health and Safety.  The report also lists action items (excerpted below), some of which may see Congressional action:

  • Over the next five years, the Federal Government should double the funding devoted to nanomanufacturing. At the same time, the NNI should maintain or expand the level of funding devoted to basic nanotechnology research.
  • Direct the agencies within the NNI to increase the percentage of their nanotechnology related funding provided to the [National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office] NNCO from $3 million to $5 million, and to require each agency to task senior representatives with decision-making authority to participate in coordination activities of the NNI.
  • The NNCO must also more actively and aggressively manage the NNI so that it can respond quickly to emerging opportunities and better coordinate interagency efforts, and it must develop metrics for program outputs.
  • Mandate that the [Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology] Subcommittee’s [Nanotechnology Environmental Health Implications] working group develop a cross-agency strategic plan that links [Environmental, Health and Safety] research activities with knowledge gaps and decision-making needs within government and industry, and that the NNCO create a new senior-level position to hold the participating agencies accountable for implementing this strategic plan. This strategic plan must contain clear principles to support the identification of plausible risks based on realistic expectations of exposure to specific nanomaterials.
  • Develop a program to provide U.S. Permanent Resident Cards for foreign individuals who receive an advanced degree in science or engineering at an accredited institution in the United States and for whom proof of permanent employment in that scientific or engineering discipline exists.

By all means, go ahead and read the report, or the NNI website, for more details.

Today in Scarce Natural Resources

My past posts on this subject have focused mostly on elements in the bottom half of the periodic table.  Today’s focus is on the upper right corner – helium.  As described by SEED magazine, the U.S. manages to have a significant amount of helium – a relatively scarce material elsewhere on the planet.  Unfortunately, the stockpile has not been effectively managed, and the increase in demand for helium has driven up the price such that even though the U.S. has a huge amount of helium, research and manufacturing facilities have run into trouble keeping up with rising prices.  Unfortunately, current trends suggest that the U.S. may well transition from a net exporter of helium to a net importer of helium just as it did with oil in the last century.  And we all remember how dependence on foreign oil worked out.

The SEED article has some suggestions that make sense.  First is to reset the price for federal helium so that it’s not a source of income, but a scarce resource.  Second is to start supporting work on technology that can recycle and/or minimize the use of helium in the manufacturing processes that have stoked demand.  Will this happen before the U.S. has to start importing the stuff?  I hope so.