Petitioning The Government To Update Electronic Communications Law

One of the petitions that generated a response from the U.S. government this summer concerned outdated laws on electronic communications.  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was passed by Congress back in 1986 and was intended to update wiretapping laws to reflect the advent of e-mail and comparable electronic communications.

There has been action in Congress over the last several years to try and update the legislation.  Senator Leahy of Vermont, who was instrumental in crafting the initial legislation, understands the need to update it and has worked with others to extend the protection of a warrant to many forms of electronic communications stored with third parties.  Based on the 1986 laws, electronic communications could only be accessed with a warrant if they were kept with the individual.  But with web-based and cloud-based services, many electronic communications are held with third parties.  As such, after 180 days no warrant is necessary to access such communications.

The Administration was supportive of ECPA reform in its response, but since updates to this and other privacy laws have gone through the Congressional process several times without sniffing the President’s desk, it’s not clear from the response that the Administration is likely to expend much political capital on the latest bill supporting ECPA reform.

We The People – A Meaningful Tool For Disease Advocacy?

A fair number of petitions on the We The People site focus on individual matters.  This could be a petition about a bestowing an honor on a particular person, seeking some kind of criminal proceeding (or the ending of same), or resolving some injustice.  Individual matters can also include specific species or diseases.

A petition on sickle cell disease (one type of which is sickle cell anemia) was started last September and gathered enough signatures to receive a response from the Administration.  While the petition mentions support for a particular piece of legislation (which did not advance in the last Congress) the Administration’s response focused, as is its custom, on executive branch actions.

The response describes how the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control are doing to improve understanding and awareness of Sickle Cell Disease.

Now, from an uninformed outsider, this seems to be a case where the Administration response implies a message of ‘don’t worry about it, we’re giving it the level of attention that (the petitioners) want.’  Presumably the disease organizations that spearheaded the petition drive have been doing other things to make sure Sickle Cell Disease gets the attention they think a national health priority warrants.  But I wouldn’t blame anyone who considers the response little more than lip service.

Petition Site Dabbles In Science And Technology Topics

In late July the White House announced a revision of its We The People petition site, and released several petition responses at the same time.  Some of those petitions addressed science and technology topics.  I’m very late in getting back to this, but it’s worth exploring each of those responses, if only briefly.

In February of this year, a petition was filed to ban the mandatory vaccination of anyone for any reason.  Not that the Administration seriously considered agreeing with the petitioner, the response was very thorough and accompanied by a video message from the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy.  In the response both Murthy and President Obama are quoted on the necessity of vaccination and the benefits of the same.  The response notes that state and local laws typically determine vaccination policies for school admission, and that typically employers are the parties responsible for any vaccination policies for their employees.

Vatican Appoints New Chief Astronomer

No doubt buried under the news related to the Pope’s recent Western Hemisphere travel the Vatican Observatory announced a new Chief Astronomer (H/T ScienceInsider).  Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, takes over from Father José Funes who ends his second five-year term.  Father Funes is also a Jesuit and an Argentinian like Pope Francis.  His tenure leading the Observatory was marked by moving the Observatory to new headquarters, and a modernization of the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona

Consolmagno is American, and holds a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona. He has served at the Observatory since 1993 and his research has focused on the relationship between meteorites, asteroids, and small solar system bodies.  There is an asteroid named for Brother Consolmagno, and he appeared on The Colbert Report back in 2009.

The Vatican Observatory was established in its current form by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.  However, papal interest in astronomy dates back to at least 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII consulted with astronomers to correct for errors in the Julian calendar that had been in use for more than 1500 years.  While observational research is conducted at the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona, the Observatory has collections of scientific works and instruments.  It also has a meteorite collection and laboratory which certainly influenced Brother Consolmagno to join the staff shortly after entering the Jesuit order in 1989.

NIH Selects Next Head Of Extramural Research

This summer Sally Rockey left her position as head of extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Early this week the NIH Director announced the selection of her replacement (H/T The Scientist).

Michael Lauer comes to the position from the cardiovascular sciences division of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.  He has worked at NIH since 2007 and his medical background is in cardiology.

Librarian Of Congress To End An Era Sooner

Librarian of James Billington, the current Librarian of Congress, had announced his retirement effective the end of this year.  However, this week he announced that he would be leaving at the end of this month.

Billington is the 13th Librarian of Congress, and has served since 1987.  While he has transformed the institution over the nearly 30 years of his tenure, the Library has been criticized of late for lagging behind in updating and securing ito technological infrastructure.  Recent computer problems may have accelerated Billington’s departure.

The position is a Presidential appointment requiring Senate confirmation.  Following Billington’s departure, Deputy Librarian David Mao will lead until a replacement is confirmed.

National Science Board Seeking Nominees

Every two years eight members of the 24-member National Science Board (NSB) step down, and the President appoints their replacements.

The nomination process is starting now for the cohort that would serve from 2016-2022.  The NSB is the advisory board for the National Science Foundation, though its most public presence is probably in the release of the Science and Engineering Indicators publication in even-numbered years.

The NSB released a call for nominations earlier this week. Basically nominees should have the depth and breadth of experience in science and/or engineering research and research administration you would expect for the board of directors of a top private company.  The Board has listed a number of field-specific and cross-cutting issues it expects to address, so candidates with a background in one or more of those should give thought to a nomination. The nomination package (letter of recommendation, biography and CV without publications) must be submitted by October 30.