NASA Doesn’t Just Want To Deflect Asteroids

Besides the planetary defense mission motivating the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, NASA is interested in redirecting an asteroid as part of its Asteroid Initiative.  While demonstrating deflection capabilities is part of this mission, the more direct goal is to place part of an asteroid into a stable orbit that would allow for more effective exploration and study.

The redirecting mission certainly has technical merit, but as Walter Valdivia has explained on the Brookings website, NASA also sought public opinion on the mission.  The agency contracted with the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) to host a citizen forum to gather public input.  100 citizens selected to reflect the nation’s population were selected in Boston and Phoenix, briefed about the mission, and then were solicited for their opinions on various approaches to the mission.

Through this process, NASA was able to gather information that demonstrates a willingness to be responsive to public opinion and to be more accountable to that public.  It could also help in the ongoing tug of war with Congress over the asteroid mission.  Other agencies could take advantage of this kind of public consultation, though it remains unclear if that will provide the kind of political cover necessary to dissuade motivated members of Congress from imposing their will.

It’s Not Just About The Bees

Earlier this week a U.S. government Task Force released a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.  The strategy was requested by Presidential Memorandum last year and the task force is led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The major goals of the strategy are:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels (no more than 15%) within 10 years;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration (225 million in the Eastern population by 2020); and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action (7 million within 5 years).

Accompanying the strategy is a Pollinator Research Action Plan, which has ten subject areas and five main action areas.  Those action areas are:

Establishing a baseline – Researchers would establish numbers and conditions for existing populations of pollinators, the better to understand what influences populations decline and how those populations change.

Assess environmental influences – Here is where researchers would examine the neonicotinoids and other chemicals used that may contribute to population declines.  Such environmental influences include pests, diseases and proper nutrition.

Restoring habitats – A major goal of the strategy, habitat restoration includes the plant species that depend on pollinators.

Understanding and supporting stakeholders – Another way in which this strategy is not all about the bees is its focus on those engaged with pollinators and the crops that rely on them.  It’s another reason economics are one of the subject areas of emphasis in the research action plan.

Curating and sharing knowledge – This area covers how the processes of research and data collection could or should be standardized to make it easier to communicate this research to other countries and to researchers in other fields.

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Research Integrity Reporting Apparently Depends On What Should Means

Back in 2012 Universities UK released The concordat to support research integrity.  The document was developed by representatives from UK research universities, funding institutions and government agencies.  Among other things, the concordat recommended that employers of researchers should submit annual statements to their governing body outlining activities done with research integrity and research misconduct.

The UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO, and I didn’t know about it either) decided to survey institutions about whether they were submitting these reports.  In a survey of 44 institutions that subscribe to UKIRO, 27 responded and 9 of them had submitted the annual reports.  Of another 44 institutions that did not subscribe to UKIRO, only 3 institutions submitted those reports.  (The survey will be published at a later date, so I do not know the response rate of the non-UKIRO subscribing institutioins.)

As described in this Nature article, there is a difference of opinion on the meaning of should in this context.  Not all institutions assumed that should means the reports are required.  (I wouldn’t automatically assume it did, but I’d advocate for submitting such reports regardless.)

The survey should provide additional insight once it’s released later this year.

European Commission Has Started Building Its Next Science Advice Mechanism

Earlier this week European Commission President Juncker met with several scientists along with Commission Vice President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Katainen and the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Moedas.  The meeting was to discuss methods for the Commission to handle scientific advice.  The current President opted not to continue with a chief scientific adviser position, and for now has endorsed a plan from Commissioner Moedas that is, as Roger Pielke suggests, open to future problems.

What details are publicly available are currently limited to this slide deck.  It lists two main mechanisms for science advice, a high-level group of eminent scientists (numbering seven), staffing and resource support from the Commission, and a structured relationship with the science academies of EU member states.  The deck gives a deadline of this fall for the high-level group to be identified and stood up.

At first glance, this would appear to be more of an effort to leverage existing expertise, both within the Commission and the member states, than an effort to build a new source of advice.  That is, absent serious resourcing from the Commission, this high-level group seems likely to be able to do little more than make use of connections with other groups to transmit relevant advice to Commissioner Moedas, who would then communicate things to other Commissioners.

Perhaps that’s all the Commission (or at least the Commission under the current President) needs.  In the deck the need for this new advice mechanism is described as something to “provide timely, independent, high level scientific advice to meet needs across all policy areas.”  It will augment existing entities like the Joint Research Centre, the Research 2020 programme, and other advisory groups and outside experts.  The Commission may use this high-level group more as a conduit than a source for policy advice.  A reasonable question to ask is whether or not the high-level group can meet the Commission’s expectations, and those of the scientific community with which it is expected to work.  I don’t have enough details to make even an uneducated guess on that.

Bioethics Commission Will Explore Deliberation And Education In Next Meeting; PCAST Might Tackle Capitalism

As occasionally happens both the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet in the same month.  The PCAST meeting is on May 15th, and while I have posted about it already, there is now a draft agenda available for review.  The session on business had already piqued my curiosity, and the agenda has only fueled my speculative interest.  The panelist named in the agenda, Rebecca Henderson of Harvard Business School, has been working on disruptions to capitalism and how that economic system could manage major transitions.

The Bioethics Commission will meet in Philadelphia on May 27.  No agenda is currently available, but the Federal Register notice indicates the meeting will focus on public engagement on bioethics issues (using deliberation) and bioethics education (also involving deliberation).

Deliberative democracy is a research interest of the Commission’s Chair, and ethics education was part of the Commission’s recommendations in its Gray Matters report, so it makes sense that these would be subjects of a Commission meeting.  Additionally, the Commission issued this request for comment in April for information relating to both public deliberation and education on bioethical issues.  The call will be open until July 20, so you may wish to watch the meeting (in person or online) before submitting your comments.

A Reminder That Health Screenings Aren’t Without Consequence

It’s a perfectly understandable to want frequent screenings for various diseases.  But to screen for various problems every year can cause problems that, while not as life-threatening as the diseases the tests are designed to detect, have their own costs.

Take the case of cervical cancer.  A very preventable form of cancer, increased screenings and earlier detection have decreased its frequency and lethality.  But the nature of the disease and the requirements of screening do not make it something worth doing annually – regardless of how many lives are saved by early detection.  The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommends screenings for cervical cancer every three years for women 21-65 with an average risk for the disease (there are additional recommendations, but I’ll focus on this one).

A best practice review published in Annals of Internal Medicine examined the consequences of more frequent screening for women with low risk of cervical cancer (H/T Popular Science) (The level of risk is important.  A family history of any of these diseases would affect the recommendations for screening.)  The review indicated that clinical practice does not adhere closely to the recommendations, resulting in more frequent screening and screening of those outside of the recommended age range.  As abnormal test results for those younger than 21 does not often result in actual cervical cancer, this leads to increased testing and procedures that are not warranted.  This leads to increased costs for tests and unnecessary procedures (and associated trauma) for patients.

So, to repeat the message I’ve tried to communicate in previous posts on preventive screening, it’s important to place these screening tests in a proper context.  One’s risk for the disease has to be considered along with the effectiveness of the tests and the consequences of false positive test results.

Next PCAST Meeting Will Get Into Business, Energy and Medicine

The next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will take place in Washington, D.C. on May 15th.  As is usually the case, the public session will take place at the National Academies main building from 9 a.m.-noon on a Friday (no respect for possible West Coast webcast viewers.).

The draft agenda is not yet available.  However, this Federal Register notice suggests the main themes for the meeting.

“PCAST is scheduled to hear from speakers about the Quadrennial Energy Review and about the Precision Medicine Initiative. The Council will discuss and hear remarks about reimagining business roles to address significant societal challenges.”

I’ve posted about the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Quadrennial Energy Review in the past.  Both are new programs, though PCAST has called for a Quadrennial Energy Review since at least 2010.  I can only guess, and guess badly, at what PCAST has in mind about reimagining business roles, and how that might be connected to the group’s science and technology portfolio.

More information, particularly the panelists for each topic, should be available via the PCAST website as May 15th approaches.