Canadian Science Review Seeking Additional Public Input

The Fundamental Science Review taking place in Canada continues apace.  Led by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan with the assistance of an advisory panel, the Review is required as part of the current Canadian budget document.

After taking initial public comments and meeting with stakeholder, last week the Review started a second phase of public comment.  Those interested in commenting should visit the website, pick the link for the stakeholder group they belong to, and answer the questions and/or provide feedback as you like.  There are specific questions for Researchers; Institutions and Administrators; and Students, Trainees, and Postdocs.  Other interested parties should also feel free to provide feedback, but there are no specific questions for you.

The Review is asking for submissions up to September 30.  The plan is to conclude the Review by the end of the year, so the deadline seems quite reasonable.

More Details On August Bioethics Commission Meeting

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) next meets on August 31 in Philadelphia.  The Commission recently released a draft agenda for the meeting, which will focus on the role of national bioethics advisory panels, both in the U.S. and around the world.  (As usual, you can access a webcast of the meeting from the Commission website.)

This topic has been a focus for the Commission of late, and with no additional meetings scheduled (as of this writing), a report on this topic (formal or not) may be the last one from this Commission.  Those interested in a peak at what the Commission might release should look at the History section of the Commission website.  It’s focused on the U.S., but the Commission has cast a broader net in its study of the topic.  Hopefully some of it’s work on advisory bodies outside of the U.S. gets a broader audience before the Commission disbands.

I’ll take time to be more reflective of the Commission’s work after the August meeting (and any subsequent meetings, should there be any).  But 26 meetings since 2010 and at least 10 substantial reports reflect a significant output from the Commission members and staff.

Government Releases Federal Source Code Policy

On Monday the federal Chief Information Officer, Tony Scott, announced the release of the Federal Source Code policy.  It covers custom source code developed by or for the Federal Government, and is intended to encourage its sharing and re-use by other government agencies.  Additionally, at least 20 percent of this source code must be shared with the public, and the policy will encourage agencies to share more.

The policy is straightforward, and includes general guidance for agencies to determine when and how to develop custom source code.  It also encourages the sharing of source code as open source software.  This supports government transparency, and it also allows for improvement of the shared code through the collaborative ethos of the open source community.  This isn’t the first time that the government is sharing source code, as federal agencies have been sharing code on Github for some time.  This includes the new data.gov website, which will serve as a portal to custom federal source code and a resource for agencies working to comply with the policy.

Agencies have 90 days to develop a policy for complying with the Federal Source Code policy.

Ahmed Zewail, 1946-2016

Dr. Ahmed Zewail, 1999 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Linus Pauling Chair and professor of chemistry and professor of physics at California Institute of Technology, passed away on Tuesday, August 2.

Dr. Zewail’s scientific accomplishments are extensive, as might be expected of a Nobel Laureate.  I want to acknowledge his work in the area of science policy.  He served on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) from 2009-2013, and was one of the first Science Envoys of the Department of State.  He traveled to the Middle East during his service as a Science Envoy, and has worked throughout his life in encouraging science education and research in his native Egypt.  He founded the Zewail City of Science and Technology shortly after being recognized with the Nobel Prize, and it was inaugurated in 2011 in the greater Cairo area.  A new campus has a major opening scheduled for later this year.  He was also working as one of the members of the United Nations Scientific Advisory Board.

As Margaret Warner writes for PBS NewsHour, Ahmed served as a mediator during the 2011 revolution, doing what he could before events overtook nearly everyone.  She reports that Zewail will receive full honors at his funeral in Egypt next week, something reserved for very few, and in Zewail’s case, well deserved.

U.S. Government Grants Moon Landing Authority To Private Company

Today Moon Express announced that the federal government granted the company authority for a lunar landing in connection with its 2017 lunar mission.  This is the first of three planned missions that the company has arranged with Rocket Lab USA for lunar exploration and development.  Two of these missions are scheduled for 2017 with the third taking place at an as yet undetermined date.

Moon Express will use the MX-1 lander it has developed.  Having received Milestone prizes in landing and imaging from the Lunar X Prize competition (for a prototype lander), the company is working on a mission-ready craft for deployment next year.  The company is focused on resource extraction from the Moon, so scientific instruments and experiments are a secondary purpose (or additional income stream).  NASA and possibly other organizations may take advantage of this opportunity, should Moon Express be successful.

Moon Express is not alone in trying to reach the moon.  The Lunar X Prize is still in the competition phase, and of the 16 teams still in it, Moon Express is a leading contender to take the Grand Prize.  It would need to successfully land on the moon, travel at least 500 meters, and send back HD quality video (Moon Express plans to send a telescope, but may have other video options for the lander).

It’s worth noting that SpaceX would need to obtain similar approval from the government for its planned missions to Mars.  This is required under the Outer Space Treaty, which makes member states responsible for all space activities by both governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Draft Arctic Research Plan Open For Public Comment

Last week the White House released the draft Arctic Research Plan for 2017-2021.  It’s available for public comment through August 21.  The U.S. Global Change Research Program wants people to sign up online for an account at its website in order to comment.  It also appears that signing up for such an account is the only way to read the draft plan.

There are nine research goals for the plan:

  1. Enhance understanding of health determinants, and support efforts that improve the well-being of Arctic residents;
  2. Advance process and system understanding of the changing Arctic atmospheric composition and dynamics and resulting changes to surface energy budgets;
  3. Enhance understanding and improve predictions of the changing sea-ice cover;
  4. Increase understanding of the structure and function of Arctic marine ecosystems and their role in the climate system, and advance predictive capabilities of regional models;
  5. Understand and project the mass balance of mountain glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet and the consequences for sea level rise;
  6. Advance understanding of processes controlling permafrost dynamics and the impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure, and climate feedbacks;
  7. Advance an integrated, landscape-scale understanding of Arctic terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and the potential for future change;
  8. Strengthen coastal community resilience and advance stewardship of coastal natural and cultural resources by engaging in research related to the connections among people, and natural and built environments; and,
  9. Enhance environmental intelligence gathering, interpretation, and application to provide decision support.

If you’re still not sure whether or not to sign up for an account in order to review and comment on the plan, check out the FAQ page.  It describes how the draft plan differs from the existing plan, and outlines not only the research goals listed above, but the policy drivers for the plan.  Listed below, the drivers are the desired outcomes of the plan, which would be informed by the research goals.

  1. Enhance the well-being of Arctic residents. Knowledge will inform local, state, and national policies to address a range of goals including health, economic opportunity, and the cultural vibrancy of native and other Arctic residents.
  2. Advance stewardship of the Arctic environment. Results will provide the necessary knowledge to understand the functioning of the terrestrial and marine environments, and anticipate globally-driven changes as well as the potential response to local actions.
  3. Strengthen national and regional security. Efforts will include work to improve shorter-term environmental prediction capability and longer-term projections of the future state of the Arctic region to ensure defense and emergency response agencies have skillful forecasts of operational environments, and the tools necessary to operate safely and effectively in the Arctic over the long term.
  4. Improve understanding of the Arctic as a component of planet Earth. Information will recognize the important role of the Arctic in the global system, such as the ways the changing cryosphere impacts sea-level, the global carbon and radiation budgets, and weather systems.

This plan does appear to include more research on socio-economic impacts related to the Arctic.  Once the comments have been submitted, the intention is to submit the plan to the relevant federal agencies in September.  This may seem like a rush, but with the Arctic Science Ministerial scheduled for late September in Washington, D.C., I think it makes sense to have some form of the plan in front of the people likely to attend the Ministerial.

Non-Travel Zika Emergence In Florida Likely To Increase Your Cynicism

Yesterday the Florida Department of Health announced that there was a high likelihood that four cases of the Zika virus in the Miami-Dade County area were due to local transmission.  This marks the first time that non-travel related cases were found in the continental United States.  There are currently just under 400 cases of Zika confirmed in the state that are travel-related (contracted due to travel in areas outside of the continental United States).  The Health Department will continue to update its Zika virus information each weekday at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

At this time the area of transmission is quite small – roughly one square mile.  However, two of the infected individuals live in neighboring Broward County.  The Department has instituted a serious canvass effort in the transmission area to determine if there are additional cases that have not caught the attention of medical personnel (which was the situation for the four cases reported to date).  As the mosquito bites that transmitted the virus took place in early July, additional cases seem likely.  However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not anticipate widespread transmission at the present time.

As of July 27, there were 1,658 cases of Zika in the continental United States and Hawaii, all of which were travel related (thought some cases were spread via sex or in one case, a laboratory accident).  However, the situation in Puerto Rico is serious, with over 5,500 cases in the commonwealth as of July 7.  The CDC has been working with Puerto Rican health agencies for months, but its impact has been limited.

As Congress is not in session (and won’t be until September), the anemic federal response (mainly redirecting unspent money for the Ebola virus) will continue.  Members of Congress from Florida have been diligent in advocating for funding, and the Obama Administration had provided $8 million before the President informed Governor Scott that another $5.6 million was on the way.  It’s a lot less than what share Florida would receive under the various Zika aid packages that Congress tried and failed to pass earlier this year.

That said, I would expect the newly reported cases would spur some action, even if it’s only campaign rhetoric in connection with the upcoming elections.  Florida is once again expected to be a major battleground in the presidential race, and it would not surprise me to see one or both of the major party candidates to try and wring some advantage from the situation.  Whether it will be well informed remains to be seen, but the campaign to date leaves me skeptical.

The change in action following the Florida cases, however slight, will also point out the dramatic difference in attention that our outlying territories receive compared to the states.  Congressional representation matters, especially in situations like this.