White House Launches Effort To Revise Biotechnology Regulation

While I find the timing suspect, on Thursday John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), announced (along with other senior White House staff) the Administration will be reviewing the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, the policy that designates agency responsibilities for overseeing the introduction of biotechnology products into the environment (H/T Grist).  First developed in 1986, the last revision was in 1992.  So, clearly overdue.

Holdren’s announcement accompanied a memorandum to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.  It (along with Holdren’s blog post) outlines the elements of the review process:

  • Updating the Common Framework (with public input) to clarify the biotechnology product areas (not processes) for which each agency will be responsible.  This will include how to handle situations where more than one agency may be responsible.
  • Developing a long-term strategy (with public input) to ensure that the Federal regulatory process will be better prepared for emerging biotechnologies.  This would include horizon scanning exercises and additional support of so-called ‘regulatory science.’
  • An independent examination of the future landscape of biotechnology.  The National Academies have already been engaged to start this analysis.

This all sounds great, but there are some aspects of this that give me pause.  First, the announcement comes the afternoon before the July Fourth holiday weekend.  It screams news dump – an effort to ensure that very few people become aware of the effort.

Additionally, while the revisions and the strategy will involve public input, Holdren asks for people interested in additional information to register.  If this wasn’t already part of an announcement that seems timed to minimize public reception, I might not think much of it.  But I can see the Administration limiting its subsequent publicity on this project to the people who register.  If they are going to try and hold listening sessions around the country (the first one will take place this fall), I think they should spread their message far and wide.

Finally, I guess I’m still a bit chagrined from other efforts to revise (or develop) regulations related to science and technology research.  The effort to revise the Common Rule related to human subjects research stalled out after a big public comment push in 2011.  And it still seems as though the push on scientific integrity policies has failed mainly from a lack of coordinated follow-through from the OSTP.

I’d love to see this not happen with the revisions to the Coordinated Framework, but I’m not optimistic – especially with roughly 18 months to go with this Administration.

Adventures In Wildlife Infrastructure

While developing artificial means to help wildlife do what they need to do has been a thing for a while (see fish ladders in dams), there are two current projects that strike me as something new.

In Oslo work is underway for a ‘bee highway.’  It’s not an actual road in the sky for the exclusive use of bees.  It’s a series of rooftops with flowers and the bee equivalent of rest stops.  The project is a collaboration between state bodies, local homeowners and companies, and you can track its progress online (you’ll need a translator or a working knowledge of Norwegian).

In the State of Washington work has been proceeding on helping wildlife cross a section of Interstate-90 in the Snoqualmie Pass region.  Earlier this month the state’s Department of Transportation started work on a wildlife overpass along a natural migration route to Keechelus Lake (The Interstate follows the northeast side of the lake).  Large fences along the highway near the overpass should help nudge bear, deer, elk and other fauna over the highway and on to the lake.  The overpass should complement the wildlife underpasses already being used in the vicinity and make it easier for migration and a broader genetic exchange.  Think of it as analogous to the parks being developed along unused elevated train tracks, if those parks were over major highways or surface streets.

The projects are not solely for the benefit of wildlife.  The crossings will cut down on more traditional surface crossings of Interstate-90 and the associated destruction.  This also facilitates a widening of the Interstate.  The overpass should be ready for nature traffic in 2019.

Asking Dr. H. – Probably Just As Meaningful This Time Around

On Thursday, the White House blog ran a post about Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren.  It announced the revival of ‘Ask Dr. H.’  Back in 2010 there was a series of posts from Dr. Holdren on science education and science policy topics.  The latest effort is targeted to climate change.

Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Vine, people can send their questions, tagged #AskDrH, about climate change.  Dr. Holdren will respond to questions via video.  Given the flood of requests, the challenge is not just to get your question in under whatever character limit applies.  You have to, somehow, craft the inquiry such that it will attract attention.

As for what will work, your guess is as good as mine.  If you search any of these services with the #AskDrH tag, you’ll likely find a lot of noise.  Even if you manage to get through, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have your question responded to in such a way that it will simply restate Administration policy.  It’s an excellent reminder that while Dr. Holdren is a scientist, he’s a political appointee obligated to represent the Administration.  Not scientists or science enthusiasts.

Dive Deep Into Mission Blue

Fresh off the festival circuit and available for your Netflix queue is Mission Blue, an documentary about marine sanctuaries and one of their champions, Sylvia Earle (H/T Science Friday).  Earle is a leading explorer in oceanography, having studied the oceans since the 1950s.  Her latest effort is the Mission Blue of the title, an organization focused on establishing and expanding protected marine spaces around the world.  By telling her story, the film documents how human impacts on the ocean have unfolded in her decades of ocean exploration.  Here’s the trailer:

As Earle notes in her Science Friday segment, the United States has taken steps to establish and expand quite large tracts of marine reserves over the last several years (starting with President George W. Bush).  Mission Blue has identified several dozen spots around the globe that should receive comparable protection (though some of them already have protection).

PCAST Meets To Take A Deep Dive

When I first posted about tomorrow’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it was without benefit of an agenda.  Now that I have seen it, my mildly informed speculation has been confirmed.

The meeting will start at 9:15 Eastern time tomorrow in Washington.  A webcast will be available, as usual.  Simply visit the PCAST meetings page tomorrow.  The morning starts with progress updates (and perhaps final approvals) on PCAST reports on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and antibiotic resistance.  The NNI report is required every other year by law, so PCAST will be returning to somewhat familiar territory.

The presentation part of the meeting concludes with a panel on oceans policy.  As I guessed, Beth Kertulla, Director of the National Ocean Council, will be part of the panel.  She will be joined by other leaders in the ocean science research community: Robert Gagosian, President of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and Anthony Knap, head of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

As usual, there is time set aside for public comment.  The public session is scheduled to end by lunchtime.

Missed Humor Opportunity – Thermal Hydrolysis In Washington

Even with a former comedy writer serving in the United States Senate, I would have expected someone to mine the humor potential in this energy project.

Washington D.C.’s water department is working on an enriched water (also known as wastewater) plant that uses thermal hydrolysis to generate, among other things, energy.  It’s the first effort of its kind in North America, and it will start operations this summer, with the goal of achieving full operation in January 2015.  Cambi, a company in Norway, developed the technology that is the heart of the new water treatment plant.  Here’s a time-lapse video of construction.

Thermal hydrolysis will take the solids generated in regular wastewater treatment and cook them so that microbes can digest them more effectively.  The resulting methane gas will power a turbine on site.  That turbine will generate steam that provides the heat to cook the solids.  A different take on the circle of life, but a cycle nonetheless.

The power generated in the effort will be consumed by other plant operations, but it certainly helps reduce the resource demands for water treatment.  An additional benefit of this process is that the biosolids produced by thermal hydrolysis are class A (the current output is class B).  Class A biosolids can be used for a lot more agricultural purposes as they are cleaner.  Producing Class A solids will reduce the transportation costs for the plant’s biosolids, further reducing the energy costs of the operation.

But, seriously, nobody has mined the comic vein of Washington producing something out of excrement?  Maybe that will change once operations start, but I’m just a little disappointed.

Should Science Have Run The Keystone Editorial?

In the latest (February 21) edition of Science, editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey under President Obama, has an editorial (free, with registration) on the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the U.S. government has not yet decided to pursue (or not).  McNutt, in a reversal of her previous position, believes it should be approved.  Her rationale hinges on the capability of the U.S. government to extract concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers to ensure better environmental safety than transporting the oil via rail and truck.

McNutt is more than entitled to her opinion on the matter, as well as her own criteria for choosing the way that she has.  But I’m not sure this had any business being aired in the pages of Science.

My recollection of Science editorials is hardly comprehensive (especially since I am not a subscriber).  But I find it difficult to see why the pipeline extension is worthy editorial fodder for Science, certainly with how this editorial is written.

Science editorials have certainly been political, and have certainly made policy recommendations in the past.  I’ve even supported a scientific journal making a recommendation for political office – provided it was open and transparent about what it was doing.

But in all of these matters (again, based on the editorials I have read), there was some connection to the specific interests of the journal, its publishers, its readers, or the relevant scientific communities.

I don’t see any such connection in this editorial.

McNutt’s editorial is written from her individual perspective (the number of times I is used in the piece stood out for me).  Nothing in the editorial reflects her position as editor-in-chief nor concerns specific to the journal or its publisher, AAAS.  Her reasons for supporting the extension are conditioned on successfully obtaining concessions from the pipeline owners and manufacturers – a policy process that may have very little to do with relevant science.

Certainly an editor is expected to have some influence on the perspective of the publication she edits.  But that perspective should be connected to the mission of the journal or the interests of its readers.  Many readers of Science may agree with McNutt.  But I doubt that has anything to do with their membership in AAAS or interests in science and technology.