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.

NIH Names Working Group For Precision Medical Initiative

To support the work of the Precision Medicine Initiative, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the formation of a Working Group.  Part of the Advisory Committee to the Director, this Working Group will help develop the million-person cohort that is an important part of the Initiative.

The membership is two-fold.  There will be non-voting representatives from a variety of federal agencies and voting members with expertise in large clinical trials and/or precision medicine.

The working group will help determine how to design studies based on a cohort of such size, and the unique challenges such a group presents.  It will also coordinate efforts to gather public input from patient and stakeholder groups through workshops on various topics related to large-scale medical studies.  Opportunities for the public to comment should be publicized on the Precision Medicine Initiative website.

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

Next PCAST Meeting Wants You To Bundle Up and Wash Your Hands

The next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 27th.  As is the custom, the meeting will be webcast, and you can access that link from the meetings section of the PCAST website.

The draft agenda available is pretty thin on details.  There will be two subject matter sessions, one on Arctic policy and the other on antibiotic resistance.  But there are no panelists listed.  PCAST has addressed the topic of antibiotic resistance before, releasing a report last fall.  This session is scheduled for one hour and fifteen minutes, which may mean that some kind of follow-up project is under consideration.  Since the release of that report was tied to follow-up actions by the Administration, some kind of progress report may be part of this session.  You’ll have to watch to find out.

New EU Policy Support Facility Will Focus On National Research and Innovation Systems

Earlier this week the European Commission announced that a Policy Support Facility will assist European Union member states in reviewing and reforming their national innovation and research systems (H/T ScienceInsider).  The Policy Support Facility is one of several programs intended to boost science and technology capacity in member states, all as part of Horizon 2020.  The Facility will have a budget endowment of up to 20 million Euros until 2020.

Bulgaria is the first member state to take advantage of the Policy Support Facility.  It will have several senior experts and researchers conduct a “Peer Review of Bulgaria” and provide advice in three areas: public funding of research, science careers, and knowledge transfer from academia to business.

Hungary has expressed interested in using the Policy Support Facility, and the Commission will support a country peer review for it later in the year.  Other countries have expressed interest in working with the Facility as well.

Bioethics Commission Finds National Ebola Response Lacking

Earlier today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released a brief (90 pages, so your mileage may vary), Ethics and Ebola.  The report is intended to provide an assessment of the current Ebola outbreak (particularly of the response to cases diagnosed in the U.S.) and recommendations for becoming better prepared for future outbreaks.

The report’s recommendations cover how to prepare for outbreaks, ethical reasons for intervention in outbreaks, guiding principles for deciding to use restrictive public health measures (such as quarantines), and how to conduct research (if warranted) in outrbeak situations.  The recommendations are summarized below: Continue reading

Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’ Continues, With Concerns

ScienceInsider has an update on the review of gain-of-function (GOF) research currently underway at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The moratorium was announced last October and is supposed to last for one year.  It covers federal funding for research that would make influenza, MERS or SARS viruses more virulent or easier to transmit.

Reportedly the agency is close to signing a contract with a private company for a risk-benefit analysis.  But, as you might expect with any restriction imposed on active scientific research, there is concern about what NIH has been doing.  Two researchers, Sir Richard Roberts and David Relman, sent the Chairman of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity a letter expressing their concerns over the process by which the pause and review have been conducted.  They would prefer a more open, Asilomar-style conference where scientists and other experts in the area of gain-of-function research would meet to discuss issues and develop a set of guidelines to influence research moving forward.  They are concerned about what appears to be a lack of transparency to the process, limited (if any) opportunities for public input, possible conflicts of interest (the NIH funds much GOF), a lack of risk assessment experience in the Board, and a very U.S.-centric focus.