Earlier this month the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its latest report, focused on the Network and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program. PCAST is required by law to evaluate the program, which coordinates federal investment across the government in information technology research.
As is regrettably the case with many government programs in technology, the organization of NITRD reflects what was close to cutting edge thinking of the time it was created. A major recommendation of this report is to reorganize the NITRD program to better reflect the state of research in information technology and the current priorities for the government.
The report focuses on the following areas of information technology: cybersecurity, health, Big Data and data-intensive computing, IT and the physical world (any IT connected to something that isn’t a computer or a phone), privacy protection, cyber-human systems, high-capability computing, and foundational computing research. The authors consider each of these areas as critical to success in any national priority related to information technology research. However, there remain gaps in access to large-scale infrastructure and other resources that make it harder to effectively support federal research in these areas.
In order to establish a more nimble NITRD program, the authors recommend establishing new program component areas (PCAs) that are used to organize NITRD funding. Most of these categories have remained unchanged for twenty years. What the report recommends is establishing eight new PCAs for the 2017 budget cycle, and that these PCAs should be updated every five or six years. The PCAs recommended in the report are:
- Large-scale data management and analysis;
- Robotics and intelligent systems;
- Computing-enabled networked physical systems (such as distributed sensor networks);
- Cybersecurity and information assurance;
- Computing-enabled human interaction, communication, and augmentation;
- IT foundational research and innovation;
- Enabling-IT for high-capability IT systems; and
- Large-scale research infrastructure.
The recommendations would need to be implemented by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget. Both agencies have expressed support for such changes. They would also need to develop, with other NITRD stakeholders, the process for judging when and how to modify these PCAs based on changes in the field.
Also in the Policy Forum section of this week’s edition of Science is a longer paper on how journals and scientific organizations might promote transparency and openness in their research. The Transparency and Openness Promotion Committee developed the guidelines, which are also available on the website of the Center for Open Science, one of the parties involved in the project. The committee met in November of 2014, and was organized by representatives from the Center for Open Science, Science magazine and the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences.
Signing on to these guidelines means the organizations and journals are expressing support for the guidelines. It also represents a commitment to review those guidelines for possible adoption.
The guidelines have eight kinds of standards: citations, data, analytic methods, research materials, reporting research design and analysis, preregistration of studies and preregistration of analysis. For each of these standards categories, there are three levels of disclosure. Per the guidelines, “Level 1 recommends citation standards, Level 2 requires adherence to citation standards, and Level 3 requires and enforces adherence to citation standards.”
The appropriate level for each type is something that each journal and/or organization can decide for itself. There are variations in scientific norms by field where citations are concerned, and there are also matters of infrastructure and expense to consider.
So this project has come to the beginning of the middle. Over the next several months the many signatories should be reviewing their practices and determining which standards they will adopt and at what level. If your field has signed on, see what you can do to ensure that a commitment is made to follow these guidelines.
The next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) takes place on July 14 at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. While this is not on a Friday (as has been the custom) the public portion of the meeting will still be from 9 a.m. to noon Eastern time. No agenda is available at this time at the PCAST website, but the Federal Register notice provides some indication of what will be discussed.
The PCAST will discuss its review of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program. PCAST is obligated to do this review periodically, and the next report would be its third during the Obama Administration. Also scheduled for the meeting are presentations on aging and for human spaceflight. My past experience suggests that comments on space exploration will dominate the public comment session scheduled for the meeting.
You will be able to view the meeting live on the 14th, through the usual webcast provider. A more detailed agenda should be available by the beginning of July.
Today the U.S. government announced the beginning of a forecasting project on Dengue Fever. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Armed Forces Medical Surveillance Center (AFMSC) have made available datasets on Dengue fever from Puerto Rico and Peru.
This data, when coupled with environmental and climate data from the area and associated climate models, should allow scientists the ability to forecast the emergence of Dengue outbreaks. Interested parties will have four months (until September 2) to use this data to develop their forecasting models. An evaluation team will decide on the finalists (up to six teams), who will be invited (on their own dime, regrettably) to appear before the Interagency Pandemic Prediction and Forecasting Science and Technology Working Group of the National Science and Technology Council.
This is not a competition in the now-traditional sense of a short term contest with a cash prize. Project organizers, according to this description, are looking to publish the evaluations, and all those who submit will have their predictions included. Team leaders will be invited to receive author credit.
For more detailed information on submission procedures and project rules, consult the Dengue Forecasting Project portion of the Epidemic Prediction Initiative (EPI) website. The EPI is a product of the Department of Health and Human Services Idea Lab, and is currently in beta.
Yesterday John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), posted to the OSTP blog about recent activities in genome editing. While the Chinese effort to conduct genome editing in human embryos attracted headlines and an announcement from the National Institutes of Health stating it would not fund similar research, it was not the specific focus of the statement.
That was reserved for the recent announcement that the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine (the new name of the Institute of Medicine) launched an initiative to address these technologies. The initiative will include an international meeting this fall, along with a committee to study gene-editing technologies and an advisory board to guide the effort. The project will include, technical, social, legal and ethical issues related to these technologies.
Dr. Holdren’s blog post and the Academies’ announcement noted the historical precedents for this kind of a priori assessment, including the restrictions imposed on recombinant DNA research, gain-of-function research, stem cell research and human cloning while researchers and policymakers discussed the implications of that work.
While not going so far as to echo calls for a moratorium on germline genetic editing, Dr. Holdren’s blog post can be read to imply Administration support for such a move.
“The White House applauds NAS and NAM for convening this dialogue and fully supports a robust review of the ethical issues associated with using gene-editing technology to alter the human germline. The Administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”
Given the nature of how the National Academies typically prepare their study committees, the international meeting this fall will more likely be the start of its process rather than a culmination. I would also not be surprised to see the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues engage with these technologies, either through its own initiative or a request from the President.
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.
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:
- Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels (no more than 15%) within 10 years;
- Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration (225 million in the Eastern population by 2020); and
- 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.