Following a two-day hearing, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation has affirmed the decision of a lower court to overturn the convictions of six Italian seismologists (H/T ScienceInsider). They were convicted (along with a public official) back in 2012 based on actions taken right before a serious earthquake in L’Aquila.
Once again, I am not a lawyer, nor an Italian. I’m certainly not an Italian lawyer, nor a seismologist.
The judgment in the original trial considered the scientists guilty of not discharging their duties under the law as part of an advisory committee. The judges in the local appellate court overturned the conviction in part because they felt the judge should have focused on the scientific quality of their analyses. This rationale was contested in the Cassation court because the scientists on the panel did not object to the claim that previous tremors had discharged energy in the area, thereby reducing the possibility of future quakes.
However, as is often the case at the appellate level, the deliberations focused on the legal analysis applied in the cases, and not the level of scientific analysis. (If you’re confused yet, you’re not alone). In that analysis, the court found that only the public official should have been convicted because he reassured the public prior to the advisory committee meeting. The scientists’ statements were considered by the appellate court to be neutral and not sufficient support for the official’s reassurances of a lower chance of tremors.
In related news, the manslaughter trial for another public official connected to the L’Aquila earthquake was delayed until next March.
Back in May the European Commission announced it would set up a Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) under the current President. This was to replace, at least in part, the functions of the chief scientific adviser under the previous administration. One component of the SAM is the High Level Group of Scientific Advisers, a committee of seven prominent scientists that will provide independent advice to the Commission.
On November 10 the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, named the seven members of the high level group. They are:
- Janusz M. Bujnicki
Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Protein Engineering, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Warsaw
- Pearl Dykstra
Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
- Elvira Fortunato
Professor, Materials Science Department of the Faculty of Science and Technology, NOVA University, Lisbon
- Rolf-Dieter Heuer
Director-General, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
- Julia Slingo
Chief Scientist, Met Office, Exeter
- Cédric Villani
Director, Henri Poincaré Institute, Paris
- Henrik C. Wegener
Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Technical University of Denmark
The group is expected to hold its first meeting in January. Between now and then (and probably for some time after) the group and its staff will be developing processes and guidelines for its work and the plethora of questions about how it will provide independent scientific advice to the Commission. Given the way in which the Commission decided to create this body, a lot of people will be watching.
Three short items to pass along.
The next Bioethics Commission meeting is November 17 in the Washington, D.C. area. The agenda is now available online. The meeting is effectively a continuation of the September meeting, when the Commission focused on deliberation and deliberative methods in bioethics and bioethics education. Following a morning panels on innovation in ethics education, the rest of the day is dedicated to member discussions. This suggests that a report on these topics is reaching a place where it could be released in the next few months.
314 PAC, a political action committee which focuses on (Democratic) scientifically inclined candidates for federal office, has started issuing its endorsements for the 2016 Congressional elections. The three endorsed so far are all incumbent members of Congress, and two of them – Representative Bill Foster (Illinois, and the sole Ph.D. physicist in Congress) and Representative Seth Moulton (Massachusetts, with an undergraduate degree in physics) – have been endorsed by 314 PAC in the past. The newest addition is Representative Louise Slaughter of New York. She has undergraduate training in microbiology and a master’s degree in public health, and has served in Congress since 1987 (far longer than either Foster or Moulton). Among Slaughter’s legislative accomplishments is ensuring that the National Institutes of Health would include minorities and women in the populations of its clinical trials.
Sadly, I cannot find recent activity of two other political committees organized around science. Neither Franklin’s List nor First in Science (a so-called super PAC) appear to be currently active, though I would love to be proven wrong.
Finally, Tom McFadden has released the third episode/lesson of Science With Tom. It focuses on body systems and bacteria. His scientist guest is Dr. Jonathan Lynch, a microbiologist. As is his practice, each lesson has bonus video besides the main episode. I’ll embed the main episode, but check out the full playlist for the reading recommendation, music video and other science goodness.
McFadden links his lessons to the Next Generation Science Standards, which will explains some of the on-screen graphics that non-educators might not recognize. You can also make your own ‘Verse Two’ to go over the instrumental break in the music video (at the end of the main episode or available separately).
Most of the fuss raised by the science advocacy community over the changes in European Commission structure focused on the discontinued position of Chief Scientific Adviser. By the end of this year a seven member science advisory board should be in place.
However, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) was in a similar state of limbo following the change in Commission Presidents. It was recently announced that the group will continue as part of the research department, where the science advisory board will also sit.
The EGE has been around since 1991, and currently has five theologians, five lawyers and five scientists as members. Its closest U.S. equivalent appears to be the various bioethical commissions that advised presidential administrations. The work product of the EGE has focused on matters connected to biotechnology, but it is not limited to that area. Recently the EGE has also conducted ethics reviews of grant applications under the Framework Programmes (and presumably their successor, Horizon 2020).
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will next meet in the Washington, D.C. area on November 17. There is no agenda available yet, but based on the Federal Register notice, this meeting will continue the Commission’s work on deliberative methods and bioethics education that has informed much of its work. The description of the meeting in the notice is nearly identical to that of the September 2015 meeting.
This general issue has received more attention from the Commission than any other subject, so I am not terribly surprised to see the Commission describe this work as its ‘capstone report.’ It does present an air of finality to things, even with over a year left in the Commission’s tenure.
In connection with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) meetings this week in Mexico City, the U.S. released its third Open Government National Action Plan. The government releases these plans every two years as part of its membership in the Partnership. (It is also distinct from any commitments OGP members make during the current meetings.)
The third plan includes new commitments, many of which build on previous commitments to make government information more usable and accessible to the public that it serves. New commitments that are of particular interest to me are the efforts to set up web design standards, as well as an effort to make publicly available every address in the U.S. Science and technology do not have a large role as a subject in this plan, but technology is an important tool in implementing many, if not all, of the commitments to open government.
Unfortunately, the most recent progress report on how the government has been implementing its plan(s) is for 2011-2013. There is a more current self-assessment available. The Open Government Partnership summit continues through tomorrow, the 29th.
On Monday the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a letter report on innovation in hearing technologies. The focus of the report is on the technologies used for mild and/or moderate hearing impairment. The aging population will have need of such technologies, but a relatively small percentage of people who could benefit from them actually use them. To help support the report recommendations, PCAST makes the argument that the current market and regulations covering hearing aids lead to a relatively static market that provides little innovation and extracts rather large costs for devices, preventing many from purchasing them.
The recommendations are exclusively about regulations. PCAST recommends that non-surgical air conductive hearing aids be allowed for over-the-counter sales without needing to visit a credentialed dispenser. Similarly, the report recommends that diagnostic tests for fitting and adjusting these devices should be available over the counter. PCAST wants the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its 2013 draft guidance on personal sound amplification devices (PSAP), which, in the opinion of PCAST, heightens an artificial distinction between the two kinds of devices that prevents those with hearing loss to benefit from advances in technology.
(While the report does not address this head on, the distinction between hearing aids and PSAP devices touches on the different values placed on technology that restores ‘normal’ function and technology that ‘augments’ that function. Possibly a topic more appropriate for the Bioethics Commission.)
The other two recommendations call for consumers to have the ability to take the results of relevant hearing and audio tests acquired from hearing aid dispensers and audiologists at no additional cost. This would be comparable to what consumers can already do with vision tests for eyeglasses and/or contact lenses.
The date of the next PCAST meeting is November 20, though it is not currently on the PCAST website. This letter report will be on the agenda, along with presentations on nanotechnology and new regulatory frameworks for research. The PCAST study on private sector activities in climate change adaptation and resilience. More details will be available once the draft agenda is online.