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).
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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.

February Bioethics Commission Meeting Tackled Medical Emergencies

The Presidential Commission on Bioethical Issues met earlier this month in Washington, D.C.  The meeting focused on two major topics – medical emergency research and neuroscience.  The first day dealt with medical emergency research and was heavily influenced by the ongoing Ebola epidemic in west Africa.  The Commission heard from researchers, public health personnel and practitioners on the epidemic in Africa, efforts intended to prevent the spread of the virus in the United States, and the ethical issues associated with research on something like Ebola during an epidemic or other medical emergency.

The Commission is conducting a review of the U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, with a focus on three issues:

  • The ethics of placebo-control trials in the context of public health emergencies;
  • The ethics of U.S. public policies that restrict association or movement; and
  • The ethical considerations relevant to collecting and storing biospecimens during a public health emergency and sharing them for future research.

On the second day, the meeting shifted to the Commission’s ongoing work in neuroscience.  The Commission intends to release volume two of its report Gray Matters sometime in the spring.  Volume 1 was released in May 2014, and focused on the integration of ethics into neuroscience education.  Volume 2 will tackle neural modifications, neuroscience in the legal system, and how neural capacity can affect the ability to consent in neuroscience research.

The next meeting will take place in Philadelphia May 27 and 28.

International Network For Government Science Advice Ready To Work

Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has been at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, California.  Following his activities there, I found out about the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA).  The network can be traced back to the international science advice conference held last August in Auckland, New Zealand.

The focus of the INGSA is to serve as a forum for sharing and discussing research and experience in providing science advice to governments.  It is part of the International Council of Science, and the secretariat is presently hosted with Sir Peter in Auckland.  The INGSA’s Network Development Group reflects a diversity of countries and a mix of academic and practitioner experience.

Expect INGSA to leverage other international meetings for opportunities to convene side gatherings.  It would also develop its own events as it sees fit, with a follow up to the 2014 conference presumably on a list of future activities.