Cancer ‘Moonshot’ Task Force Holds First Meeting

While I’m on record about having problems with the rhetoric of moonshots, I am encouraged by other aspects of the cancer initiative pushed by Vice President Biden mentioned in the 2016 State of The Union address (though started last year).  On Monday the Task Force for the effort held its first meeting, just days after the White House circulated this memo concerning the Task Force.

Chaired by the Vice President, the task force is big and composed of top level executive branch and White House officials.  Members include heads of the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Energy and Veterans Affairs.  Members also include heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.  The National Cancer Board is not represented in the Task Force, but is named as one of the many experts the Task Force could

Perhaps the number of different agencies involved demonstrates the breadth of cancer research across the federal government and underlies the challenges in coordinating those efforts.

The Task Force must act quickly.  Per the memorandum, it has until December 31 of this year to conduct its review of existing cancer research, therapy and treatments and provide its recommendations.  They will cover, at a minimum, how to:

  • Accelerate our understanding of cancer, and its prevention, early detection, treatment, and cure;
  • Improve patient access and care;
  • Support greater access to new research, data, and computational capabilities;
  • Encourage development of cancer treatments;
  • Identify and address any unnecessary regulatory barriers and consider ways to expedite administrative reforms;
  • Ensure optimal investment of Federal resources; and
  • Identify opportunities to develop public-private partnerships and increase coordination of the Federal Government’s efforts with the private sector, as appropriate.

This does appear to be a long list, but keep in mind that the Vice President was inquiring about this effort at least as early as last fall, and the focus of the project – all moonshot notions to the contrary – is to focus on changes that can be done relatively easily.

The Task Force meeting was paired with another White House announcement – of increased federal money for the effort.  The initiative will have $195 million of the fiscal year 2016 National Institutes of Health (NIH) allotment, and $755 million of dedicated cancer money in the fiscal year 2017 budget from the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration.  With additional investments from the Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Departments the total investment will top $1 billion over two years.

And while that is a large amount, the expense of biomedical research highlights how much this project isn’t really a moonshot.  The money is going to support increased access and availability at least as much as it will boost new research and treatments.  The goal is to make finding the cure(s) easier, not to find those cures.  And by the time people become disappointed that this project didn’t really get to the ‘moon’ everyone directly involved will be out of office.

New European Commission Scientific Advice Mechanism Meets

Today the High Level Group of the newly constituted Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) of the European Union held its first meeting.  The seven members of the group met with Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas and Andrus Ansip, the Commission’s Vice-President with responsibility for the Digital Single Market (a Commission initiative focused on making a Europe-wide digital market and improving support and infrastructure for digital networks and services).

The High Level Group selected officers and determined subjects for its first advice to the Commission.  The chair is Professor Henrik C. Wegener, Executive Vice-President and Chief Academic Officer of the Technical University of Denmark.  Professor Elvira Fortunato, Professor of Materials Science, New University of Lisbon, was selected as deputy chair of SAM.  At the request of Commissioner Moedas and Vice-President Ansip, the Group will focus on cybersecurity (linked to the Digital Single Market) and vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide.

Minutes and background documents are supposed to be made available on the SAM website, so check that link in a week or so.  They may provide information on when the advice on those topics is expected and when the next meeting of the High Level Group will take place.

One Chief Scientist Hands Off To Another

Professor Ian Chubb is a neuroscientist, and until January 22, the Chief Scientist of Australia, a position he assumed in May of 2011.  He came to the position from a long career as a researcher and university administrator.  While the Australian executive branch recently went for a few months without a science minister, the Chief Scientist position has been a part of the Australian government for a few decades.

One of his achievements in office has been developing recommendations for a national strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  His successor, Doctor Alan Finkel, will be Chief Scientist as the Turnbull government seeks to implement such a strategy, something Australia has lacked.

Finkel will come to the office with training as an engineer and a neuroscientist.  He has also founded a scientific instruments company and is just ended several years of service as Chancellor of Monash University (located in Melbourne).  He has been outspoken about climate change and the need for more nuclear power.  Whether or not these positions will lead to conflict with the Turnbull government remains to be seen.  According to this Sydney Morning Herald article most of the search process was conducted prior to Prime Minister Turnbull assuming office.  While Turnbull may be sympathetic to Finkel’s positions, it is possible that Finkel could chafe at the advisory constraints of the role of Chief Scientist.

Next PCAST Meeting Just Might Revisit Forensic Science

The first meeting of 2016 for the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) is scheduled for January 1615 in Washington, D.C.  There is (as of this writing) no agenda available, and no Federal Register announcement to even suggest what might be covered.

However, there is this Federal Register announcement from December 1st about PCAST soliciting responses to specific questions about forensic science.  The post with the questions is dated November 20 and responses are being accepted through Wednesday.

PCAST meetings have discussed forensic science before, but the questions (which cover current practice, new technologies, and other sources for useful information) suggest that the council may be preparing a report on the matter.  If forensic science is on the agenda for the January meeting, I would be surprised not to hear some mention of the request for comment, but I don’t know if a report will be discussed – especially if things are in the early stages.  An agenda, likely arriving early in the new year, could settle matters.

The FDA Insists On Egg In Your Mayonnaise, But Not In Your Mayo

Just Mayo is a vegan mayonnaise substitute produced by Hampton Creek.  I’ve had it, and it persuaded my pedestrian palate that it tastes like mayonnaise (something comparable substitutes have not).  The product does not contain any eggs, so it can’t be labeled as mayonnaise, at least in the United States.

As defined in the Code of Federal Regulations Section 169.140, mayonnaise must include egg-yolk containing ingredients including:

“Liquid egg yolks, frozen egg yolks, dried egg yolks, liquid whole eggs, frozen whole eggs, dried whole eggs, or any one or more of the foregoing ingredients listed in this paragraph with liquid egg white or frozen egg white.”

As Just Mayo doesn’t contain eggs, there was disagreement as to whether or not the product could include Mayo in its name.  Quartz has a recap of the events, but one company sued Hampton Creek for false advertising (the suit was withdrawn), and the American Egg Board (whose members are appointed by the Agriculture Secretary) also acted against the company, and Board documents showed it was seriously worked up over the success of Just Mayo.

This attention eventually prompted a letter from the Food and Drug Administration to Hampton Creek in August warning the company that it could not use mayo in its product name if the product wasn’t legally mayonnaise.  (There were additional health claims questioned by the FDA in the letter.)

Hampton Creek has been in discussion with the FDA on the matter, and will make changes to its label that the FDA considers satisfactory.  A closeout letter from the agency is anticipated.

The insistence on using eggs to legally be mayonnaise in the U.S. might remind readers of the fact that tomatoes, while botanically fruits, are vegetables in the U.S. for purposes of a tariff.  In that case, the rationale from the court focused on how tomatoes are considered in ‘everyday life’ compared to their botanical nature.

That rationale could be applied to mayonnaise, with the everyday conception of mayonnaise as including eggs.  The apparent accommodation from the FDA appears to stake out a middle ground.  The product will still be called Just Mayo, but the new labels will call it a spread and dressing.  The forthcoming closeout letter might address this hair-splitting, as it might prompt other mayonnaise substitutes to move toward this middle ground.

Second International Conference On Science Advice To Government Announced

The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), formalized after an August 2014 conference on that subject, announced it will hold another one.  Co-hosted by INGSA and the European Commission, the conference will take place September 29 and 30 of 2016 in Brussels.

More information will be forthcoming, but the 2014 conference may be instructive in what might take place next September.  The speakers came from a number of countries around the world, and included several top-level government science advisers.  While the new location will likely influence the speakers at the next conference, I’m confidant that the interests of countries around the world will be represented.

In related INGSA news, Sir Peter Gluckman, science adviser to the New Zealand Prime Minister, and James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy at SPRU, are working on a collected edition of science advice articles for Palgrave Communications.  The articles will be open access, peer-reviewed, and available around April.

European Commission Developing Open Science Policy Platform

Recently the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Development announced the development of an Open Science Policy Platform.  In the European Commission context, Open Science is one of its Digital Government initiatives, but this Policy Platform is not technical infrastructure.  It is a communications mechanism for stakeholders in open access, new digital tools for research and joint arts and research communities.

According to the press release, the Platform will be guided by a Steering Group appointed by the Directorate-General and representing stakeholder organizations.  In turn the Platform advises the Commission on how best to implement its Open Science Agenda.  It’s not clear to me whether there will be additional infrastructure created for the Platform, or if existing resources within the Directorate-General will be sufficient.  This may become clearer once the Steering Group is appointed.

There are eight main policy topics identified in the press release for the Platform to begin work on next year.  They are: rewards, altmetrics, Open Science Cloud, changing business models for publishing, research integrity, Citizen Science, open education and skills, and FAIR open data (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable).  The Platform will create working groups on the first three topics in 2016, and start groups for the other topics after that in phases.  And the Platform will not be restricted to these issues as it conducts its work.

What I appreciate about this approach is its systematic nature.  Compared to how the U.S. is approaching at least the open access aspect of open science, the EU approach – if effectively implements – promises a greater sense of consistency across the Commission.  The U.S. approach – at least from my perspective – leaves much to the agencies, and little explicit coordination or understanding of the government-wide effort.