Quick Hits: Bioethics Meeting Agenda, Science PAC Endorsements And More Science With Tom

Three short items to pass along.

The next Bioethics Commission meeting is November 17 in the Washington, D.C. area.  The agenda is now available online.  The meeting is effectively a continuation of the September meeting, when the Commission focused on deliberation and deliberative methods in bioethics and bioethics education.  Following a morning panels on innovation in ethics education, the rest of the day is dedicated to member discussions.  This suggests that a report on these topics is reaching a place where it could be released in the next few months.

314 PAC, a political action committee which focuses on (Democratic) scientifically inclined candidates for federal office, has started issuing its endorsements for the 2016 Congressional elections.  The three endorsed so far are all incumbent members of Congress, and two of them – Representative Bill Foster (Illinois, and the sole Ph.D. physicist in Congress) and Representative Seth Moulton (Massachusetts, with an undergraduate degree in physics) – have been endorsed by 314 PAC in the past.  The newest addition is Representative Louise Slaughter of New York.  She has undergraduate training in microbiology and a master’s degree in public health, and has served in Congress since 1987 (far longer than either Foster or Moulton).  Among Slaughter’s legislative accomplishments is ensuring that the National Institutes of Health would include minorities and women in the populations of its clinical trials.

Sadly, I cannot find recent activity of two other political committees organized around science.  Neither Franklin’s List nor First in Science (a so-called super PAC) appear to be currently active, though I would love to be proven wrong.

Finally, Tom McFadden has released the third episode/lesson of Science With Tom.  It focuses on body systems and bacteria.  His scientist guest is Dr. Jonathan Lynch, a microbiologist.  As is his practice, each lesson has bonus video besides the main episode.  I’ll embed the main episode, but check out the full playlist for the reading recommendation, music video and other science goodness.

McFadden links his lessons to the Next Generation Science Standards, which will explains some of the on-screen graphics that non-educators might not recognize.  You can also make your own ‘Verse Two’ to go over the instrumental break in the music video (at the end of the main episode or available separately).

Precision Medicine Initiative Working On Its Privacy

On Monday the Obama Administration released Privacy and Trust Principles for the Precision Medicine Initiative.  This follows a public comment period responding to the draft principles released this summer.

My comparison of the draft and final principles suggest that most of the changes are in terms of streamlining and reorganizing the document.  The concerns I had at the time I posted about the draft principles remain.  An enforcement regime for these principles is not within the document, and I think it is critical to success in obtaining the data from the million individuals the Initiative wants.  The same is true of the Security Policy Framework (what was probably the Security Framework in the draft principles).

The broad Privacy and Trust Principles described by the document are:

  • Creating a dynamic and inclusive governance structure
  • Building trust and accountability through transparency
  • Respecting participant preferences
  • Empower Participants through Access to Information
  • Responsible data sharing, access and use
  • Maintaining data quality and integrity

European Science And Technology Ethics Group To Continue In New Government

Most of the fuss raised by the science advocacy community over the changes in European Commission structure focused on the discontinued position of Chief Scientific Adviser.  By the end of this year a seven member science advisory board should be in place.

However, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) was in a similar state of limbo following the change in Commission Presidents.  It was recently announced that the group will continue as part of the research department, where the science advisory board will also sit.

The EGE has been around since 1991, and currently has five theologians, five lawyers and five scientists as members.  Its closest U.S. equivalent appears to be the various bioethical commissions that advised presidential administrations.  The work product of the EGE has focused on matters connected to biotechnology, but it is not limited to that area.  Recently the EGE has also conducted ethics reviews of grant applications under the Framework Programmes (and presumably their successor, Horizon 2020).

November Bioethics Commission Meeting Continues Its Deliberations On Deliberation

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will next meet in the Washington, D.C. area on November 17.  There is no agenda available yet, but based on the Federal Register notice, this meeting will continue the Commission’s work on deliberative methods and bioethics education that has informed much of its work.  The description of the meeting in the notice is nearly identical to that of the September 2015 meeting.

This general issue has received more attention from the Commission than any other subject, so I am not terribly surprised to see the Commission describe this work as its ‘capstone report.’  It does present an air of finality to things, even with over a year left in the Commission’s tenure.

L’Aquila Earthquake Trial Expands And Reaches Next Level Of Appeal

ScienceInsider reports on developments in the trial of six Italian scientists and a public official in connection with remarks made prior to the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.

(Once again I will note that I am not a lawyer, and have even less experience with the Italian legal system.)

That earthquake led to 309 deaths, and the seven people on trial were convicted of manslaughter.  However, earlier this last year the convictions of the six scientists were overturned, while the conviction of the then-deputy of Italy’s civil protection department remained (with a reduced sentence).  Their case continues on appeal, and will have a hearing in front of the highest appellate court in Italy on November 19.

On the next day the manslaughter trial begins of Guido Bertolaso, who was head of the Italian civil protection department.  He had been investigated since January of 2012 in light of a recorded phone call that Bertolaso made to a local official the night before his deputy and the six seismologists met with people in L’Aquila to discuss the risk of earthquakes in the region.  In the call Bertolaso allegedly outlines what the scientists would say and characterized the meeting as a means of quieting another scientist whose predictions had alarmed the L’Aquila population.  Bertolaso has only recently been ordered to stand trial, despite prior efforts to compel such an action.  The first hearing will take place in L’Aquila on November 20.

Movies About Artificial Intelligence Are Really About Feelings?

The eighth episode of CUNY TV’s Science Goes to the Movies is now available online.  It focuses on two films that deal with artificial intelligence that takes human form – Ex Machina and Blade Runner.  The plot of both films concern robots and how close they come to acting like (and perhaps becoming the mechanical equivalent of) human beings.

Co-hosts Faith Salie and Heather Berlin are joined by Christof Koch, who is President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science (a major non-governmental partner in the BRAIN Initiative).  Both Koch and Berlin have Ph.Ds in neuroscience, with Koch’s work focused on the nature of consciousness and Berlin’s on the neural basis of certain disorders.

While the plot of both films focus on testing the human-ness of androids, the episode struggles – at least in the beginning – with whether or not it is thinking or feelings that ultimately determine one’s human-ness.  And, while mentioned just in passing during this episode, it is often the case that examinations of fictional artificial intelligence are often mechanisms to explore our own selves.

The next episode will premiere later this week on CUNY TV and become available online later.  It will cover the films Silence of the Lambs and Welcome to Me as well as the television series The Jinx and Game of Thrones.  This episode will discuss various kinds of personality disorder and the capacity to kill.

Department Of Veterans Affairs Seeks Input On Open Access Plan

Last week the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a Federal Register notice seeking comments on its open access data policy.  (As of this writing the most recent version is dated July 23, 2015.)  Comments are due by November 6.

The policy is in response to the Administration’s initiative to establish open access policies for research results and research data generated through federal funding.  Research funded by the VA involves a lot of confidential patient information, and the access policy devotes many pages to detailing how best to ensure access to research results that also preserves – as much as possible – the privacy of patients in clinical trials and related research.  This means that the agency (much like many others required to comply with this policy) will be doing a lot of work over the next few years to implement new data storage and access systems.

To that end, while the agency will allow for public access to research results starting no later than December 31, 2015, such access will not be unrestricted until at least December 31, 2016.  Even

As might be expected from a (comparatively) smaller research agency, the VA will take advantage of existing repositories for their research results.  They are working with the National Institutes of Health to have VA funded research results deposited in PubMed Central.  Articles will have to be deposited in that repository within 12 months of publication.  Clinical trial results will have to be deposited in the database at clinicaltrials.gov.

Each researcher applying for VA funds will have to submit a data management plan that includes how the research data will be preserved and made available for public access.

There are no questions attached with the request for comment, but interested parties with their own questions and/or suggestions for how to refine the plan, increase the ease of implementation, and other ideas, should go ahead and submit them by November 6.