Bioethics Commission Looking Retrospectively In Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will be in Washington, D.C. on May 3.  There is one more Commission meeting scheduled after the May meeting, and that may be the last Commission meeting before it finishes its work (and President Obama leaves office).

I base that in part on this Federal Register notice the Commission released last month (which states the Commission has two more meetings) and on the agenda for the May 5th meeting.  That agenda is focused on the past, present and future influence of national bioethics advisory bodies.  The Commission will discuss the topic with several academics and the head of the Commission’s Mexican counterpart, CONBIOÉTICA.

The Commission is also interested in input from you.  The Federal Register notice the Commission released last month was a request for comments on:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of different models for national bioethics advisory bodies, e.g., standing or temporary, narrowly or broadly focused (examining one topic or issue or a variety of issues);
  • The lessons we can learn from national bodies in other countries to inform how U.S. bodies might work;
  • The influence of national bioethics bodies on bioethics as a field; other academic fields, such as science, medicine, and technology; and public policy;
  • The future of national bioethics advisory groups in the United States.

Comments must be received by July 1.

Presumably the Commission is consulting with the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA), I certainly think that INGSA would be interested in the comments and any reports or other documents to come from them and the meeting on May 5th.

InterAcademy Partnership Releases Responsible Research Guide

Earlier this month the InterAcademy Partnership, a coalition of world science academies, released a guidebook on conducting responsible research.  This report follows the IAP’s 2012 report (released with the InterAcademy Council) on responsible research and was written by the same committee.

(In March, the InterAcademy Partnership will be relaunched as a combination of the InterAcademy Council, the present InterAcademy Partnership, and two other international science advisory bodies.  It’s likely to happen during the InterAcademy Partnership international conference going on now in South Africa.)

This new report builds on the general principles for responsible research outlined in the 2012 report, as well as that report’s recommendations on how scientists, students, funders, policymakers and other stakeholders can provide the foundation for responsible research.  This new report is more of a practice-oriented, day-to-day guidebook on how to conduct responsible research (including public engagement) in ways consistent with the principles outlined in the 2012 report.  It is not intended to be *the* resource on conducting responsible research, but a resource, especially for training and educational purposes.

Policy-oriented readers may wish to give additional attention to Chapter 10, which covers communicating with policymakers and the public.  It takes care to note the different kinds of advice that scientists may be called to provide policymakers, noting the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the L’Aquila earthquake in explaining the different and sometimes competing pressures scientists face when presenting work in the public sphere.

Next Bioethics Commission Meeting Is Strictly An Audio Affair

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will next meet on March 3 from 2 to 4 pm.  However, unlike its previous meetings, the March 3 gathering is strictly virtual.  It will be a teleconference open to the public, with the agenda and call-in number available on the Commission’s website at least one week in advance (by February 25).

The shorter length for the meeting suggests the agenda will be relatively light, and the Federal Register notice for the event notes a single topic.  Additionally, the meeting had at one point been scheduled to take place in Atlanta, Gerogia.

Continuing a theme of this Commission throughout its existence, this teleconference will cover the “ongoing development of pedagogical materials to facilitate the integration of bioethics into education in a range of traditional and non-traditional settings.”  The Commission has been building a suite of education resources throughout its tenure, and I expect that in its last months, absent rush requests from the President, the Commission will be working to further that work.


Defense Department Calls On American Psychological Association To Reconsider Ban

The New York Times is reporting that a Pentagon official has requested that the American Psychological Association (APA) reconsider its blanket prohibition on having its members participate in what it calls ‘national security interrogations’ at facilities like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  The ban is a result of an investigation into APA conduct that concluded that APA officials colluded with the Defense Department on torture techniques used by the U.S.  (See this timeline of APA activities related to this report.)

The ban was overwhelming approved (157-1) by the Association’s Council of Representatives in August 2015, but it has yet to be incorporated into the APA Code of Ethics.  There have been rebuttals to the independent report that focus on the Defense Department putting into place policies and procedures intended to prevent future abuses involving detainees.  They do not directly address the matter of APA collusion with the Department.

At the moment, the APA policy is only permitting member psychologists to work at Defense Department facilities in caring for military members and their families, for a third party protecting human rights, or directly for any detainees.

In the letter, Acting Principal Deputy Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson argues against the ban for a number of reasons, and would like the opportunity to discuss revising the prohibition in order to minimize the licensing uncertainty that current exists for military psychologists and those providing psychological care to detainees.  That concern explains a lot of the language in the letter seeking clarification about what is a matter of policy and what is a matter of ethical conduct.

(Should the blanket prohibition be incorporated into the APA’s Code of Ethics, a document that influences the state licensure of psychologists, members participating in national security interrogations face the possibility of having their licenses revoked.)

Carson further argues that current Defense Department policy is consistent with the intent of the APA resolution to do no harm.  He suggests that APA guidelines need to be consistent on this point, focused on the well-being of the patient and not on courtroom evidence rules.  My interpretation is that Carson’s preferred perspective would make meaningless the APA policy, which allows for work with law enforcement due to the implicit Miranda and other Constitutional protections.

The APA policy specifically forbids participation at Guantanamo Bay except to provide care for military personnel.  It cites United Nations reports related to activities at Guantanamo to support it stance.  Surprising possibly nobody, the Defense Department notes that it is acting consistent with U.S. law and Supreme Court decisions, which disagree with the U.N. reports.

And I think here is where there might be the biggest pushback from the Association.  Part of the effort to revise policy was to demonstrate support of U.N. guidance on the humane treatment of detainees.  While members may be willing to find appropriate grounds to maintain ethical standards of detainee patient care, they may be unwilling to be seen as supporting policies inconsistent with U.N. guidance.

Throughout the letter, Carson seeks to distinguish between policy preferences and ethical standards.  But I think some members of the association will indicate that their ethical standards should dictate policy preferences.  Further stung by the impact of the collusion described in the independent report, enough APA members may be willing to stand firm on compliance with U.N. policy, and see the threat to detainee patient care as motivation for the Department of Defense to change its policies.

The fight, if there is one, will have two components.  Discussions between the APA and the Defense Department will take place, but changes in APA policy will be conducted through the membership (which has a section of military psychologists).  As it has taken the APA years to get to this point, a final resolution likely will not be quick.

More Tussles Over Science In Italy

I wouldn’t blame someone if they thought Italy was a scientifically contentious society, given the controversies involving scientists, earthquakes and olive trees.  The latest challenge involves papers on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  But when a paper is cited in a legislative body, I don’t think Italy has exclusivity on given that research additional scrutiny.

The facts, as Nature describes them, are as follows.  Three papers from a lab at the University of Naples were cited in a July 2015 hearing on GMOs in the Italian Senate.  The papers focused on experiments with goats kids whose mothers were fed genetically modified soya-bean meal.  The papers contend that fragments of the genetic material inserted in the soya can migrate into the mother’s milk and influence the development of the kids.

Following the hearing Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo, who is also a neuroscientist at the University of Milan (let that last part sink in for a bit), reviewed the papers and noted what appeared to problems with the data presented.  She commissioned a biomedical consultancy firm to conduct a forensic analysis of the research, which concluded that the papers contained images that were manipulated and/or reused.  The firm forwarded its results to the relevant journals (in September) and the University of Naples (in November).  The university launched its own investigation and Federico Infascelli, the head of the lab that produced the papers, is keeping quiet until the university investigation is concluded.

However, confidential details of the investigation were leaked to the press, and one journal, according to Retraction Watch, has retracted one of the papers.  That journal, Food and Nutrition Science, cited duplication of data from a previously published paper.  Plagiarism is not the same as data manipulation, but depending on what is copied and why, copying can certainly contribute to conclusions that don’t match the data.  Retraction Watch, in its analysis of relevant Italian news reports, notes that the retraction is connected to the investigation(s), and that .

The investigation continues, though the leaking of information may complicate matters.  Infascelli will likely have a response once the results of the investigation are out, and the use of his research in a government hearing may add to any penalties he faces from the university.

Fallout Continues From APA Collusion Report

This item in the January 1st edition of The Washington Post prompted me to check on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) responses to the independent report finding that the APA colluded with Defense Department officials concerning so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.

(The APA has a timeline of activities in connection with the report that is worth reviewing.)

The item reports on the military’s decision to withdraw psychologists from many activities concerning detainees at Guantanamo Bay.  It cited the new APA rules established following the report as the reason, not wanting to jeopardize the professional credentials of the psychologists invovled with detainees at the facility.  As APA guidelines influence the licensing of psychologists in the United States, the new rules would influence psychologists’ professional and legal standing.

The new APA rules were set in August following a 157-1 vote of its Council of Representatives.  In essence, the revisions try to emphasize that the Association is interested in supporting and complying with UN guidance regarding the humane treatment of individuals.  Since the UN does not consider the U.S. military’s interrogation programs in compliance, the APA has opted to separate itself from such activity.  The key phrase, as I see it, is the prohibition against participating in ‘national security interrogations,’ which are defined in the document (page 5) as:

“interrogation of any detainee in the custody of any agency or subsidiary agency that reports to the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of Homeland Security, or the National Security Council, including joint elements such as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. This also includes any operations by those agencies with any allied governments or non-state actors, including private contractors. This does not include those detainees held under domestic law enforcement where Miranda Rights and the U.S. Constitution apply.”

To that end, the General in charge of the U.S. Southern Command (which includes Guantanamo Bay) has ordered the psychologists to no longer be involved with detainee interviews, provide feedback on detainee behavior, or be involved in detainee mental health programs.  This follows formal notification to the U.S. government of the APA’s new policy concerning national security interrogations.  They have been replaced at Guantanamo Bay by Navy psychiatrists, corpsmen and nurses trained in mental health.

The New York Times is reporting that the APA continues to receive reactions from Obama Administration officials and current and former military psychologists about the changes.  While it’s premature to consider the matter closed, I think those seeking a narrowing of the restrictions will have a lot of work to do if they are to be successful.  The new policies were developed following a serious set of allegations and a lengthy report process.  They aren’t likely to be changed without a comparable amount of concern and work.

AAAS Considering Revisions To Fellows Selection Process

Earlier this month I noted the criticism levied at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about the selection of Dr. Patrick Harran as one of its new class of Fellows.  Dr. Harran’s lab was the site of a fatal lab accident in 2008, and both he and his university, UCLA, are complying with settlement agreements reached in the case.

AAAS Fellows are nominated either by existing fellows (as Harran was) or by the leadership of the relevant topical section (Chemistry, in Harran’s case).  Regardless of how a potential Fellow is nominated, the relevant topical section must review the nomination.  Then the elected members of the AAAS Council vote on the nomination.

On December 18 the steering group of the Chemistry topical section was granted approval to re-evaluate Harran’s nomination.  On the 22nd AAAS released this statement announcing that the Chemistry Section voted to not move Harran’s nomination forward and outlining the process used to come to that decision (H/T The Scientist).

For me, the troublesome language is at the end of the second paragraph.

“Members of the nomination reviewing committee recently became aware of a 2008 case involving the death of a technician in the UCLA laboratory of Dr. Harran.”

I understand that the selection criteria for a Fellow is work in advancing science and/or its applications.  But I think it prudent to note – in advance of final selection – where there are other factors that make the prospective honoree a problematic selection.  That the Chemistry section failed to note the accident the first time is the problem.  The process allows for the opportunity to discuss nominees and any information that

Also noted in the AAAS announcement was that the AAAS Council Subcommittee on Fellows will be considering changes to the review process for future selections.  The American Chemical Society (ACS) may well beat them to any official changes, based on this report from Chemical and Engineering News.  Its leadership started including safety questions in its award nominations in 2013, and it is considering adding safety criteria to ACS fellow nominations.