U.S. Government Not Keen On Germ-Line Editing, At Least Right Now

Yesterday John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), posted to the OSTP blog about recent activities in genome editing.  While the Chinese effort to conduct genome editing in human embryos attracted headlines and an announcement from the National Institutes of Health stating it would not fund similar research, it was not the specific focus of the statement.

That was reserved for the recent announcement that the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine (the new name of the Institute of Medicine) launched an initiative to address these technologies.  The initiative will include an international meeting this fall, along with a committee to study gene-editing technologies and an advisory board to guide the effort.  The project will include, technical, social, legal and ethical issues related to these technologies.

Dr. Holdren’s blog post and the Academies’ announcement noted the historical precedents for this kind of a priori assessment, including the restrictions imposed on recombinant DNA research, gain-of-function research, stem cell research and human cloning while researchers and policymakers discussed the implications of that work.

While not going so far as to echo calls for a moratorium on germline genetic editing, Dr. Holdren’s blog post can be read to imply Administration support for such a move.

“The White House applauds NAS and NAM for convening this dialogue and fully supports a robust review of the ethical issues associated with using gene-editing technology to alter the human germline. The Administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”

Given the nature of how the National Academies typically prepare their study committees, the international meeting this fall will more likely be the start of its process rather than a culmination.  I would also not be surprised to see the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues engage with these technologies, either through its own initiative or a request from the President.

House Committee Expanding Investigation Into Lab Safety

Last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced it would expand its investigation into lab safety at federal facilities, specifically select agents such as anthrax.  Last year there were a number of instances that suggested safety measures were being inconsistently implemented by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), all of whom have been involved with the facilities at issue.  The CDC issued a report, at least one hearing was held, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to investigate.

Since last summer there have been additional incidents.  The House investigation, according to The Washington Post, has found some apparent irregularities regarding how inspection reports treat the use of cardboard in cold storage rooms.  Those irregularities are important to the 2014 discovery of smallpox virus in cardboard boxes.

The House committee has requested the GAO expand its investigation to address questions related to these apparent irregularities.  The letter also goes into detail about the various requests to federal agencies and their responses.  My review of the letter suggests that the failures to adequately control the inventory of select agents can be attributed – at least in part – to miscommunications due to several agencies using the facilities over time, and a general failure to manage records over decades.

However, my word should be far from the final one on this matter.  The ongoing committee and GAO investigations do not have a set end date, but I would think it behooves everyone involved to complete matters by the end of the calendar year, if not by the anniversary this summer of the initial lab incidents.

It’s Not Just About The Bees

Earlier this week a U.S. government Task Force released a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.  The strategy was requested by Presidential Memorandum last year and the task force is led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The major goals of the strategy are:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels (no more than 15%) within 10 years;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration (225 million in the Eastern population by 2020); and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action (7 million within 5 years).

Accompanying the strategy is a Pollinator Research Action Plan, which has ten subject areas and five main action areas.  Those action areas are:

Establishing a baseline – Researchers would establish numbers and conditions for existing populations of pollinators, the better to understand what influences populations decline and how those populations change.

Assess environmental influences – Here is where researchers would examine the neonicotinoids and other chemicals used that may contribute to population declines.  Such environmental influences include pests, diseases and proper nutrition.

Restoring habitats – A major goal of the strategy, habitat restoration includes the plant species that depend on pollinators.

Understanding and supporting stakeholders – Another way in which this strategy is not all about the bees is its focus on those engaged with pollinators and the crops that rely on them.  It’s another reason economics are one of the subject areas of emphasis in the research action plan.

Curating and sharing knowledge – This area covers how the processes of research and data collection could or should be standardized to make it easier to communicate this research to other countries and to researchers in other fields.

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European Commission Has Started Building Its Next Science Advice Mechanism

Earlier this week European Commission President Juncker met with several scientists along with Commission Vice President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Katainen and the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Moedas.  The meeting was to discuss methods for the Commission to handle scientific advice.  The current President opted not to continue with a chief scientific adviser position, and for now has endorsed a plan from Commissioner Moedas that is, as Roger Pielke suggests, open to future problems.

What details are publicly available are currently limited to this slide deck.  It lists two main mechanisms for science advice, a high-level group of eminent scientists (numbering seven), staffing and resource support from the Commission, and a structured relationship with the science academies of EU member states.  The deck gives a deadline of this fall for the high-level group to be identified and stood up.

At first glance, this would appear to be more of an effort to leverage existing expertise, both within the Commission and the member states, than an effort to build a new source of advice.  That is, absent serious resourcing from the Commission, this high-level group seems likely to be able to do little more than make use of connections with other groups to transmit relevant advice to Commissioner Moedas, who would then communicate things to other Commissioners.

Perhaps that’s all the Commission (or at least the Commission under the current President) needs.  In the deck the need for this new advice mechanism is described as something to “provide timely, independent, high level scientific advice to meet needs across all policy areas.”  It will augment existing entities like the Joint Research Centre, the Research 2020 programme, and other advisory groups and outside experts.  The Commission may use this high-level group more as a conduit than a source for policy advice.  A reasonable question to ask is whether or not the high-level group can meet the Commission’s expectations, and those of the scientific community with which it is expected to work.  I don’t have enough details to make even an uneducated guess on that.

How Many Deputy Chief Technology Officers Do We Need?

On Monday the White House announced that Dr. Ed Felten, a computer scientist who has served as the Chief Technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, would rejoin the Obama Administration as a Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  He becomes the fourth Deputy CTO in the, along with Alex Macgillivray, Ryan Panchadsaram, and D.J. Patil.  Patil’s title is Deputy CTO for Data Policy and he also holds the title of Chief Data scientist.

(Disclosure – I have worked with Felten in our respective capacities at the Association for Computing Machinery, where he is a Fellow and a member of the Associations U.S. Public Policy Council.)

While Patil’s policy responsibilities are still emerging, he is the only one of the four Deputy CTOs for whom I can find specific responsibilities.  While I appreciate the need for flexibility when trying to support technology and innovation policy, I find the absence of specific portfolios a bit curious.  Each of the Deputy CTOs has different backgrounds and experiences, so it makes sense for each of them to focus on different areas.  It would be nice to know if that was the case or not.

The continued expansion of the CTO’s Office reminds me again of how it does (or does not) fit within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The CTO’s Office is separate from the Technology and Innovation Division (where the policy responsibilities are much more explicit).  But if the mission of the CTO is sufficiently distinct from that of the Technology and Innovation Division, and the Administration is not keen on having the CTO also lead the Technology and Innovation Division, perhaps it would be better for the Office to be separate from OSTP entirely?

Readers may remember my preference on this matter, and your answer may be different.  But with the current Administration in its last two years, it’s not too early to try and figure out whether to continue this experiment, and how it might be different for the next President (assuming that person decides to keep the job).  Knowing more about how the current position (and office) are intended to operate can help inform that discussion.

UK Election Jiggles Science And Technology Ministers

Last week the U.K. held Parliamentary elections, seating a new Parliament but returning David Cameron as Prime Minister.  His Conservative party, which came to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, won enough seats to hold a majority on its own.  You can find plenty of analysis about the impact of the election in many sources, including discussion of how the polls so badly connected to the final outcome.

And, of course, I’m just a Yank speculating from across the ocean about all of this.

Following the election, there has been a reshuffling of Cabinet portfolios.  This reflects both the change from a coalition to single party rule and the normal turnover expected between elections.  The last reshuffling put MP Greg Clark in charge of Universities and Science (along with Cities), replacing now former MP David Willetts.  Clark was returned to Parliament in this election, but his portfolio has returned to focus on cities.  Clark is now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  The BBC has characterized this as a promotion, which implies the relative importance of the universities and science portfolio for aspiring MPs.

The new Minister for Universities and Science is MP Jo Johnson.  Johnson was elected in 2010 and in his first term served in Cabinet Office.  He was made head of the Number 10 Policy Unit in 2013, and it’s unclear as of this writing whether he will remain in that position or not.  Johnson’s educational background is in history and business, and after a short time as an investment banker he has been a financial journalist for several years.

It’s early to know what Jo Johnson will do in the position.  With the UK looking at a referendum concerning EU membership, I think the higher education portion of his portfolio may command most of his attention.  Based on Johnson’s work on the Conservative Party manifesto for this election, he may well see this posting as a stepping stone to other possibilities.  With Johnson’s brother Boris returning to Parliament after several years as Mayor of London, both Johnsons may strive to become larger players in UK politics.

The Universities and Science Minister is part of the Department on Business, Innovation and Skills.  The new Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is MP Sajid Javid.  Prior to the election he served in several positions, most recently as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  Like Johnson, Javid worked in finance, but did not move into journalism before entering politics.  His educational background is in economics and politics.  I kind of expect both Javid and Johnson to move on to higher positions within this new Cameron government, should the opportunities present themselves.

Finally, MP Greg Freeman remains as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences.  His post remains split between the Health Department and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Bioethics Commission Will Explore Deliberation And Education In Next Meeting; PCAST Might Tackle Capitalism

As occasionally happens both the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet in the same month.  The PCAST meeting is on May 15th, and while I have posted about it already, there is now a draft agenda available for review.  The session on business had already piqued my curiosity, and the agenda has only fueled my speculative interest.  The panelist named in the agenda, Rebecca Henderson of Harvard Business School, has been working on disruptions to capitalism and how that economic system could manage major transitions.

The Bioethics Commission will meet in Philadelphia on May 27.  No agenda is currently available, but the Federal Register notice indicates the meeting will focus on public engagement on bioethics issues (using deliberation) and bioethics education (also involving deliberation).

Deliberative democracy is a research interest of the Commission’s Chair, and ethics education was part of the Commission’s recommendations in its Gray Matters report, so it makes sense that these would be subjects of a Commission meeting.  Additionally, the Commission issued this request for comment in April for information relating to both public deliberation and education on bioethical issues.  The call will be open until July 20, so you may wish to watch the meeting (in person or online) before submitting your comments.