More Details On August Bioethics Commission Meeting

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) next meets on August 31 in Philadelphia.  The Commission recently released a draft agenda for the meeting, which will focus on the role of national bioethics advisory panels, both in the U.S. and around the world.  (As usual, you can access a webcast of the meeting from the Commission website.)

This topic has been a focus for the Commission of late, and with no additional meetings scheduled (as of this writing), a report on this topic (formal or not) may be the last one from this Commission.  Those interested in a peak at what the Commission might release should look at the History section of the Commission website.  It’s focused on the U.S., but the Commission has cast a broader net in its study of the topic.  Hopefully some of it’s work on advisory bodies outside of the U.S. gets a broader audience before the Commission disbands.

I’ll take time to be more reflective of the Commission’s work after the August meeting (and any subsequent meetings, should there be any).  But 26 meetings since 2010 and at least 10 substantial reports reflect a significant output from the Commission members and staff.

Draft Arctic Research Plan Open For Public Comment

Last week the White House released the draft Arctic Research Plan for 2017-2021.  It’s available for public comment through August 21.  The U.S. Global Change Research Program wants people to sign up online for an account at its website in order to comment.  It also appears that signing up for such an account is the only way to read the draft plan.

There are nine research goals for the plan:

  1. Enhance understanding of health determinants, and support efforts that improve the well-being of Arctic residents;
  2. Advance process and system understanding of the changing Arctic atmospheric composition and dynamics and resulting changes to surface energy budgets;
  3. Enhance understanding and improve predictions of the changing sea-ice cover;
  4. Increase understanding of the structure and function of Arctic marine ecosystems and their role in the climate system, and advance predictive capabilities of regional models;
  5. Understand and project the mass balance of mountain glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet and the consequences for sea level rise;
  6. Advance understanding of processes controlling permafrost dynamics and the impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure, and climate feedbacks;
  7. Advance an integrated, landscape-scale understanding of Arctic terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and the potential for future change;
  8. Strengthen coastal community resilience and advance stewardship of coastal natural and cultural resources by engaging in research related to the connections among people, and natural and built environments; and,
  9. Enhance environmental intelligence gathering, interpretation, and application to provide decision support.

If you’re still not sure whether or not to sign up for an account in order to review and comment on the plan, check out the FAQ page.  It describes how the draft plan differs from the existing plan, and outlines not only the research goals listed above, but the policy drivers for the plan.  Listed below, the drivers are the desired outcomes of the plan, which would be informed by the research goals.

  1. Enhance the well-being of Arctic residents. Knowledge will inform local, state, and national policies to address a range of goals including health, economic opportunity, and the cultural vibrancy of native and other Arctic residents.
  2. Advance stewardship of the Arctic environment. Results will provide the necessary knowledge to understand the functioning of the terrestrial and marine environments, and anticipate globally-driven changes as well as the potential response to local actions.
  3. Strengthen national and regional security. Efforts will include work to improve shorter-term environmental prediction capability and longer-term projections of the future state of the Arctic region to ensure defense and emergency response agencies have skillful forecasts of operational environments, and the tools necessary to operate safely and effectively in the Arctic over the long term.
  4. Improve understanding of the Arctic as a component of planet Earth. Information will recognize the important role of the Arctic in the global system, such as the ways the changing cryosphere impacts sea-level, the global carbon and radiation budgets, and weather systems.

This plan does appear to include more research on socio-economic impacts related to the Arctic.  Once the comments have been submitted, the intention is to submit the plan to the relevant federal agencies in September.  This may seem like a rush, but with the Arctic Science Ministerial scheduled for late September in Washington, D.C., I think it makes sense to have some form of the plan in front of the people likely to attend the Ministerial.

Bioethics Commission To Continue Look Back In Next Meeting

The next meeting of the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will take place August 31 in Philadelphia.  Building off part of the work in its last meeting, the Commission will continue its discussion of the impacts of bioethical advisory bodies, with an eye toward recommendations for future bodies.

While there is no agenda available as yet, the meeting comes after the Commission concluded a request for comment from the public on this topic.  Regrettably, I cannot find the submitted comments online, but I would expect the Commission to discuss them during the August meeting.

As more information becomes available, I’ll post about it.  But given my oversight of the May PCAST meeting, I don’t want to let this one slip through the cracks.

What Was Likely The Most Interesting PCAST Meeting In Years

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on May 20th in Washington, D.C. You can watch a webcast and/or review a transcript of the meeting online.

For the PCAST work updates, there was information on the ongoing PCAST forensic science study, the Council noted that there is an ongoing study on drinking water safety, which was the focus of the sole in-person public comment at this meeting.

The outside experts presenting at the panel talked about two potentially transformative subjects.  One panel of federal employees spoke on near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which we need to monitor in the event of future close calls (or impacts).  The other outside panel was on cryptocurrencies.  While you might think that Bitcoin is the one and only digital currency secured by cryptography, it is not, and the presenters helped PCAST engage with what cryptocurrencies are and some of the policy issues that come with introducing a new kind of money into an existing monetary system.

PCAST Breaks Pattern By Meeting On A Wednesday

Today the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) met in Washington, D.C., breaking its usual pattern of meeting on Fridays.  As is customary, a webcast is available.

The public agenda was focused primarily on ongoing projects, with presentations on studies PCAST is conducting on forensics and biological defense.  PCAST also heard from members of the National Academies Committee on Accessible and Affordable Health Care for Adults.  PCAST issued a letter report on innovation in hearing technologies in late 2015, and the Academies released its report last month.  As you might expect, the Academies’ report is longer, with more detailed research and recommendations than the PCAST letter report.

For once, there was some detail about the private session that PCAST (likely) held with the President.  Per the Federal Register, PCAST was to meet with the President for an hour to discuss a report on “Action Needed to Protect Against Biological Attack.”  The meeting was to be held in a secure location and the contents of that report may not be made public due to national defense or security interests.  (Pardon the verb tense, as I’m not sure whether the scheduled meeting took place, and may never know given the security concerns.)

The next meeting of PCAST is likely in September.  And yes, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted about the May meeting of PCAST.  I will rectify that shortly.

Canadian Government Engaged In Fundamental Science Review

Part of the Canadian government’s 2016 budget stipulated a review of science funding government-wideThis review will be led by Science Minster Kirsty Duncan, and was launched earlier this week.  Minister Duncan expects the review to be completed by the end of 2016.

The review will be support by an independent panel of experience researchers.  Former president of the University of Toronto David Naylor will chair the panel.  The panelists are drawn from various public and private entities across Canada (Dr. Birgeneau preceded Naylor at the University of Toronto).  The men and women working with Naylor on the panel are:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will assess the current state of Canadian research institutions as well as examining the Canadian research ecosystem as a whole.  It will consult with members of the Canadian research community and solicit input from the public.  The panel will also review international best practices, particularly in areas that they identify as weaknesses in the Canadian system.

 

The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canadian Foundation for Innvoation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding.  However, with researchers on the panel   that are experienced in providing such advice to governments (such as Dr. Naylor), I think the panel’s recommendation stand a fair chance of being adopted by the government.

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail, the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.  Yes, Dr. Naylor recommended a streamlining of health care organisations in a review he conducted during the previous government.  But the focus in health care is more application focused than is usually expected of fundamental research.

There is a simple mechanism online to receive comments (attachments are accepted as well), and as the panel begins its work, I would expect to see announcements of future meetings/consultations with stakeholders and the public.  To keep informed, visit the website, and sign up for email updates.

About Those Government Reports That Sit On A Shelf

Today (early Thursday UK time) Sense About Science, a UK charity focused on public access to and understanding of scientific evidence, released a report it commissioned about UK government-commissioned research (H/T ScienceInsider).  The report was also supported by the JRSST Charitable Trust.

The focus of the report is not on scientific research funded by the UK government in general, but on studies commissioned on research that would inform policy.  After press reports claiming delay or suppression of research that could be politically awkward, Sense About Science asked Sir Stephen Sedley a former judge in the Court of Appeal, to conduct an inquiry.

There are to big problems, and both seem to me to be something that any country’s government – whether well-intentioned or negligent – could have.  The main problem for me is that the UK government does a poor job tracking and making accessible the research for policy it does commission.  Only 4 of the 24 UK government departments have a research database for this kind of report, and 11 departments were unable to provide a list of research they had commissioned.

Sir Stephen noted that the rules governing the publication of this research is similarly inconsistent across departments and relatively susceptible to manipulation so that commissioned research could easily be gathering dust on office shelves.  He recommends that there be a central government register for this research, and that it be accessible to the public.  Expect Sense About Science to make this a key issue moving forward.

I think this would be an excellent idea for the U.S. to follow.  I do not think that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would be a good place for this register, primarily because the proposed register is for all agencies, and not just those with which the OSTP has a long-standing relationship.  I think it would be better suited for the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, or a comparable agency with cross-government responsibilities and a history of collecting information and making it available for public review and analysis.