Is The U.K. Following the Harper Government’s Science Communication Lead?

A change to the U.K. Civil Service Law may dramatically restrict the ability of U.K. government scientists to communicate with the media (H/T ScienceInsider).  The language would require all media contacts to be approved in advance by the appropriate Minister.  The specific language:

“All contacts with the media should be authorised by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.”

Certainly scientific communication could be handled under a dispensation, but there was none offered when the change was announced.  On Friday three U.K. science organisations (the Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers, and Stempra) wrote Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, for clarification.  In this letter the organisations note that many participants in quasi-governmental bodies have to sign on to the Civil Service Code, so the new language may affect more than government employees.  (Advisory bodies to government would not be affected, as their communications are covered in the Ministerial Code.)

Similar concerns emerged over how the change in the law affects whistleblower protections.  Minister Maude had indicated to a trade union representative that whistleblower protections would not be affected.  That union has petitioned the government to reverse the change.

Given the changes in communication practices in Canada where its government scientist are concerned (referenced in the letter to Maude), I can understand the skepticism about the impacts of this change.  Given the May election in the U.K., I would not be surprised if this became an issue in some quarters of the British electorate.  I don’t think it will swing Parliament to one party or the other, but depending on the local constituency, it may swing a seat or two.

National Action Plan For Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Calls For More Judicious Use

Last fall the Obama Administration took several steps to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  The steps included a report from the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, a National Strategy for combating antibiotic resistance, and the establishment of a government-wide Task Force to determine how to implement that strategy.

Earlier today the chairs of that task force, the Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, announced the release of the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. It is worth noting that the President has doubled the amount of money for fighting antibiotic resistance in his latest budget request.

The National Action Plan is focused on activities the country should take over the next five years to achieve the goals of the National Strategy.  The Task Force must provide the President with status updates on an annual basis, and the President’s Advisory Council on Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria will advise the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department on the programs recommended by the National Action Plan.

Speaking of that Advisory Council, the HHS Department is seeking nominations. The Council will be a mix of public and governmental members (only the public members will vote) representing a variety of perspectives in the fields of public health, agriculture, and biomedicine.  Nominations will be accepted until April 29th, so submit them soon.

For me, the most interesting challenge in the National Action Plan is to reduce antibiotics use in the agriculture industry.  While consumer demand has driven some companies to reduce antibiotics in their food, antibiotics-free food is still a small portion of the total market.  The hardest challenge may well be establishing the kind of surveillance and reporting mechanisms to capture the best possible picture of current antibiotics uses.

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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Agency Scientists Still Have Challenges Communicating Freely

Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a new edition of its report Grading Government Transparency (H/T Nextgov).  The first edition came out in 2013, and it expands on a previous report, Freedom to Speak?, from 2008, that focused on agency media policies (15 agencies and 2 federal departments).  Grading Government Transparency includes social media policies along with traditional media policies.

The scorecards from the 2013 and 2015 reports suggest slight improvement in policies, or at least maintaining the status quo.  Agencies in the report that didn’t have social media policies in 2013 have them now, so the progress is forward.

The report recommendations in 2015 aren’t that different from 2013.  The UCS still encourages agency media policies to place free and open communication ahead of political principles.  As the organization strongly advocates for a fundamental right to scientific free speech, this is not a surprise.

For agencies where there was improvement in agency policies, the UCS noted several key changes in many cases: the existence of a social media policy, whistleblower protections, a personal-views exception (provisions that allow for government scientists to state personal opinions if they are clearly noted as their personal opinion and do not use unreasonable amounts of government time or resources), and a dispute resolution process.

What is still lacking in many cases, according to UCS, are a right of last review (of written product going under their name or relying on their research) and a right to access drafts and revisions of written materials using contributions from the scientists’ research.

The agencies and departments covered in the report are only part of the government, and do not cover all scientists and engineers employed by the government.  And I don’t think the UCS finds every agency’s grades in the reports satisfactory.  So there remains work to be done.  Media and social media policies for scientists and engineers need to be in more agencies, and need to be strengthened in those where they already exist.


Tomorrow Marks Fifth White House Science Fair

On March 23rd the White House will recognize the science and engineering achievements of students and teams of students in 34 different projects for the Fifth White House Science Fair.  The President should, as he has before, tour the Fair, and live video will be available through the White House website.  In case not every project gets time in front of the camera, please take a look at each of the participants here.  (One of the projects comes from my hometown, which is a nice surprise.)

My guesses as to what will get the most attention are the tech projects.  Robots are usually a good bet to get eyeballs, and a few robotics teams are exhibiting at the fair.  The jukebox piano and the augmented wheelchair could also catch a fair amount of interest.

I’ve been curious about how the projects are selected, and this recent Science Friday interview with current U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and Associate Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for Science Jo Handelsman hints at it.  White House staff apparently sort through science and technology fairs and similar competitions (one team was a finalist in Verizon’s Innovative App contest) and then select teams that represent a diversity of projects and people.  While I still think presenting at the White House Science Fair could be a great incentive for young researchers and tinkerers, there may not be a direct line for making that happen.

Coverage will begin at 7 a.m. Eastern tomorrow on The Weather Channel.  Live video from the White House should start around that time as well.  You can access that through the Science Fair website.



Meanwhile, Over At The Department Of Agriculture

I missed the announcement when the Agriculture Department (USDA) released its open access policy for research results and digital data.  I chalk it up to the tunnel vision of many science policy analysts – The Agriculture Department is often an afterthought.  But starting January 1, 2016, USDA grantees cannot make public access an afterthought.

The Department’s policy takes advantage of existing information infrastructure for its public access repository system.  Research articles funded by the Department will have to be submitted to this repository within 12 months of publication.  USDA has developed a research search engine, PubAg, that already contains research articles published by USDA scientists.

The Department is still working through how it will address digital scientific data.  This portion of the current plan describes how the agency will manage and organize the development of this policy, with specific requirements to come later.  Three repository options are currently under consideration (page 16) – a USDA data repository for all federally supported research data; contribution to a single federal wide data repository; and encouragement of a highly interoperable federal, academic, private hybrid system.  Most agencies’ plans that I have read are, if the address accessing research data sets, approach a hybrid approach, linking to research data sets, but not necessarily storing them within the agency.  It’s too early to tell what choice will be made, but the USDA might have sufficient research history and resources to develop its own data repository.  We should find out sometime in 2016.

NSF Joins The Open Access CHORUS; DoD Ventures Out On Its Own

Yesterday the National Science Foundation (NSF) released its open access plan for the research it funds (H/T ScienceInsider).  It follows the release of the Department of Defense (DoD) open access plan earlier this week.

These agencies join the Department of Energy and NASA, among others, in releasing open access plans and developing associated infrastructure.  Of course, the National Institutes of Health was first to this party, with the other agencies following suit after a 2013 memo from The Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The Department of Defense plan is a proposed plan.  The agency will release the plan in the Federal Register for public comment, a process that will take roughly 2 years.  In August of this year the agency will update its plans before proceeding to implementation.  The Department will rely on the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) for developing and/or expanding the relevant infrastructure for storing and/or accessing applicable research publications and digital data sets (the latter will not be stored at DTIC, but at other repositories and linkable via the DTIC system).  The DTIC will also handle the associated metadata and track usage.

The goal is to start accepting voluntary author submissions under this policy by the end of the calendar year.  Full compliance is not likely prior to 2017.  Articles will need to be submitted within 12 months of journal publication.

The NSF plan follows in the footsteps of the Department of Energy, at least for now.  It will start applying to grants awarded in January 2016, and also require publications to be submitted within 12 months of journal publication.  (Grant applicants are already required to submit a data management plan, which covers how access will be granted to digital scientific data associated with NSF-funded research.) Continue reading