Next Bioethics Commission Meeting Will Continue Deliberations On Deliberation

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will next meet September 2 in Washington, D.C.  As is the current practice, there will be a live webcast and the Commission staff will liveblog the meeting.

Per the Federal Register notice (a formal agenda is not yet available), the meeting will continue the work it started at its May meeting in Philadelphia.  Topics will include:

  • The role of deliberation and deliberative methods to engage the public in bioethics, and how to integrate pubic dialogue into the bioethics conversation;
  • Bioethics education as a forum for fostering deliberative skills, and preparing students to participate in public dialogue in bioethics;
  • Goals and methods of bioethics education; and
  • Integrating bioethics education across a range of professional disciplines and educational levels.

There may or may not be a formal report coming from these discussions.  Given the nature of these topics, I think the Commission could simply augment its ongoing efforts in bioethics education with some public experiments in new techniques involving deliberation and deliberative methods.  This is a particular theme in Chair Amy Gutmann’s research, so I am not surprised to see the level of commitment to this effort.

(While a very politically charged matter due to recent events, it is possible that the Commission could be tasked with, or asked by the public about, current practices in fetal tissue collection and use.)

Fish And Wildlife Service Providing Additional Details For New Chimp Research Requirements

Earlier this summer the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) classified captive chimpanzees as endangered – the same as chimpanzees found in the wild.  Starting September 14, most biomedical research involving captive chimpanzees will require a permit.

In a meeting with staff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the American Physiological Society, the FWS provided additional information about the process.  The permits would be required for most instances where the research would harm, harass, kill or injure a chimpanzee, as this is otherwise a violation of the Endangered Species Act.  There will be two types of research eligible for a permit: research that directly benefits conservation efforts for wild chimpanzee populations and research that doesn’t directly benefit such conservation efforts but includes support for in situ conservation efforts (though federal grant money cannot be used to pay for such efforts).  In other words, if there’s no direct benefits to conservation efforts in the research, a successful permit will involve a little extra support (not from the government) to support conservation efforts.

Permits should take about 3 months to complete, which includes a 30 day public comment period.  Once approved, such permits will be valid for five years, with annual reports required.  Entities interested in the permitting process should reach out to the FWS for a conversation.

APA Not Waiting For Council Meeting To Act On Collusion Report

Yesterday the American Psychological Association (APA) announced the retirements and resignations of several high-ranking officials.  Even the press release acknowledges that the recent release of the report on APA collusion with the government affected these departures.  While the APA has made recommendations to its Council of Representatives meeting next month, ongoing criticism of the association made more immediate

Leaving are the Chief Executive Officer, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer and the executive director for public and member communications.  While not mentioned in the press release, ScienceInsider is reporting that the APA ethics director is also leaving.  They will depart between the end of this month and the end of the year.  Other departures may be forthcoming, based on the recommendations of APA critics that reviewed the report prior to its release.

Additionally, two former APA Presidents have released a response to the report, which includes discussion of some of the collusion claims.  The former presidents acknowledge that the APA response was poorly executed, but they assert that the association did what it could with the information that it had.  That Hoffman and his staff have said something similar about their report suggests that definitive answers will be hard to find agreement.

The former presidents do raise two point worth considering for any scientific society.  First, the APA lacked the resources and the mechanisms to conduct the kind of investigation into abuses involving psychologists and physicians that critics have called for.  I suspect that is true of other scientific societies.  The former presidents also ask why other societies have not been subjected the kind of scrutiny that the APA has.  For me, that speaks to a larger issue of scientific conduct, and to what extent scientific societies are (or are not) dealing with the misconduct of their membership.

While these points might be made from a defensive crouch by these former association presidents, it’s worth noting how difficult it could be for scientific societies to actively police misconduct, and how ill-prepared they might be to do so.

APA Report Indicates Evidence Of Collusion On Interrogation Policy

Last November the American Psychological Association (APA) launched an investigation in response to allegations by author James Rosen.  Rosen alleged in his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War that the association colluded with George W. Bush Administration officials in the development of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.  In response, the APA engaged attorney David Hoffman (a former assistant U.S. Attorney) to conduct the investigation, and the report was released on Thursday (H/T The Washington Post).  The report release is in advance of the APA Council of Representatives meeting in August.

The report is extensive, over 560 pages plus appendices.  Hoffman and his staff have detailed the challenges they have had in meeting with witnesses, many of whom have either declined to do so or delayed meeting for months.  The report takes pains to state it does not provide a definitive answer to the matter, but provides as many answers as it could, while organizing and presenting the evidence they have as best they believe they could.

Bottom line, the report indicates there was collusion between elements of the APA and various government agencies over the use of psychologists in connection with ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.  While the report did not find evidence that APA officials knew of a program using such techniques, it did find that officials had reason to suspect that abusive interrogations had occurred.  Those officials also took steps to avoid confirming such suspicions.  The collusion extended to developing APA policies that would not place additional constraints on Department of Defense interrogation practices.

The APA Board of Directors regrets these activities and apologized for them in a press release associated with the report.  The Board has also recommended the following policy actions to the APA Council, which meets in August.

  • Adopt a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, but allowing training of military personnel on recognizing and responding to persons with mental illnesses, on the possible effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation and other areas within their expertise;
  • Create a Commission to evaluate and recommend changes to APA ethics processes;
  • Adopt formal guidelines to ensure that all relevant policies are anchored in APA core values, including promoting human rights, human welfare and ethics;
  • Approve the substitute motion of Council New Business Item #23B, which clarifies the role of psychologists related to interrogation and detainee welfare in national security settings and safeguards against acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in all settings.

The Board also approved the following actions:

  • Increase the organization’s engagement around human rights activities in collaboration with other organizations;
  • Collaborate with the Council to create governance constraints on elected and appointed APA officials;
  • Evaluate existing conflict-of-interest policies regarding financial, policy or relationship-based conflicts to ensure the policies are understood and followed;
  • Adopt clear procedures for appointing members to APA Task Forces and Commissions;
  • Create specific criteria for emergency action by the Board.

National Academies Aims To Prime Pump For Self-Correction Discussion

In this week’s issue of Science the Policy Forum section includes an essay from several senior researchers and research administrators discussing the challenges to improving the incentives for ensuring high integrity in research.  The group was convened by the National Academies and the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnyland.

The essay covers a number of concerns about vetting research results that have been heard before (publishing negative results, need for additional mentoring, independent validation/replication, etc.) and the initiatives several journals and institutions are taking to improve those processes.  But one particular item caught my attention, and that of others: distinguishing between retractions due to fraud or misconduct and those needed for other reasons.  From the essay:

“[V]oluntary withdrawal of findings by a researcher eager to correct an unintended mistake is laudatory, in contrast to involuntary withdrawal by a duplicitous researcher who has published fraudulent claims. Alternative nomenclature such as “voluntary withdrawal” and “withdrawal for cause” might remove stigma from the former while upping it for the latter.”

In other words, the authors suggest folks aren’t so inclined to report unintended mistakes because of the stigma attached to the word retraction.  Whether or not withdrawal for cause has a more negative stigma than retraction is unclear to me.

Changing the nomenclature may help, but as the essay also notes, the infrastructure for checking research results has not matured at a rate comparable to either the increase in scientific research output or the increasing ease of committing scientific fraud and other misconduct.

What might be more effective, but possibly more challenging, is implementing this goal from the essay – “We believe that incentives should be changed so that scholars are rewarded for publishing well rather than often.”  I think this is an excellent goal, but there are two sets of stakeholders that have locked into a notion of scientific research quantity as a proxy for quality.  Not only is it embedded within the university reward structure, but it is also integrated into policymakers discussions of scientific research support.  With Nobel Prize winner numbers often cited (often as a scientific equivalent of ‘mine’s bigger than yours’) efforts to encourage fewer publications are going to be looked at a little oddly from those who hold the purse strings.

There will be a National Academies report coming later in the year that should give more details on some of the ideas broached in this essay.  Hopefully it can also prompt the dialogue desired by the authors.

My Comments On The Next National Action Plan For Open Government

Earlier this month I noted that the White House is seeking input on its third iteration of the National Action Plan for Open Government.  You can submit comments via email or on a Hackpad collaborative platform (you will have to register on Hackpad to submit via that platform).

Guidelines are pretty broad, and the Hackpad provides some categories to guide submissions.  The organizers have populated many of the pages with content from an Open Sunshine Week brainstorming event in March.  Since I mouthed off about submitting comments on the National Action Plan related to scientific integrity policies, I thought I’d share what I submitted (via the Other Topics section of the Hackpad platform).

“The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should commit to collecting information on federal agencies compliance with their scientific integrity policies (including OSTP’s own scientific integrity policy).  The public should be able to view information on how many complaints each agency receives, a brief description of the claims, and the disposition of each case.  Additional details on scientific integrity cases should be available on request from OSTP, with appropriate exceptions consistent with open records laws.”

It’s not terribly detailed, but it’s at a level of detail consistent with other submissions on the platform.  Ideally, there should be a website where interested members of the public can get information on how agencies have been implementing their scientific integrity policies.  I’m not proposing a massive data dump of information, but to have enough summary information that interested parties can pursue additional information with the agency.  It would also, I hope, prompt the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to continue monitoring the issue across the government.  It seems that once the agency policies were posted, the OSTP acted like the job was done.  But it’s only just started, and having a public reminder of that strikes me as a good thing to do.

Fish And Wildlife Service Gives Captive Chimpanzees The Same Rights As Their Wild Cousins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has formally classified captive chimpanzees as endangered, the same status as chimpanzees in the wild (H/T Nature News).  The action also removes several exemptions to the Endangered Species Act that applied to captive chimpanzees.  The removal of these exemptions will further limit what research can be done on captive chimpanzees.  The final rule will take effect in mid-September.

The rule comes after the National Institutes of Health had already reduced the number of chimpanzees it uses for research.  Back in 2013 the agency retired more than 300 chimpanzees, retaining roughly 50 for research purposes.

This does not completely eliminate legal research on chimpanzees.  It will still be legal to import chimpanzees into the United States and conduct research provided that such research is “to benefit wild chimpanzees or to enhance the propagation or survival of chimpanzees, including habitat restoration and research on chimpanzees in the wild that contributes to improved management and recovery.”

Those opposed to the changes argue that the requirements for obtaining research permission will be so onerous as to prevent the activity.  They also argue that captive chimpanzees have been bred for research purposes, making them sufficiently distinct from their wild cousins as to warrant the present separate treatment.  However, with the NIH already winding down its supported research involving chimpanzees, it seems likely that such research would become more difficult to conduct in the U.S. with or without the new FWS rule.

(Rumors of this being prompted by the recent revival of the Planet of the Apes films are greatly exaggerated, or solely my fault.)