Bioethics Commission To Continue Look Back In Next Meeting

The next meeting of the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will take place August 31 in Philadelphia.  Building off part of the work in its last meeting, the Commission will continue its discussion of the impacts of bioethical advisory bodies, with an eye toward recommendations for future bodies.

While there is no agenda available as yet, the meeting comes after the Commission concluded a request for comment from the public on this topic.  Regrettably, I cannot find the submitted comments online, but I would expect the Commission to discuss them during the August meeting.

As more information becomes available, I’ll post about it.  But given my oversight of the May PCAST meeting, I don’t want to let this one slip through the cracks.

More On The UK Cabinet Reshuffle

Again, UK readers should feel free to move along, as there’s likely nothing you haven’t already read on the latest cabinet postings.

New UK Prime Minister Theresa May continues to appoint members of Parliament to her cabinet.  On Friday I noted the reorganization of the department formerly known as Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and the appointment of MP Greg Clark to head the new Department of Business, Energy, and Investment Strategy.  Now we know the fate of the two ministers with responsibilities for science in the previous cabinet of former Prime Minister Cameron.

Jo Johnson has been reappointed to serve as Minister for Universities and Science.  However, the universities portfolio has been shifted from the former BIS to the Department of Education.  So Johnson will answer to two departments.  That’s not unheard of for a junior minister, but apparently it is unusual.  MP George Freeman, who had served as a minister for life sciences, was responsible to ministers at both BIS and the Department of Health.  He is no longer, having been asked by the Prime Minister to head her policy board.  I think this is an entity separate from the Number 10 Policy Unit, but I may be wrong on this point.

It is also worth noting that MP Nicola Blackwood has been named a minister in the Department of Health.  As a result, she will have to step down as chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.  Hopefully that means at most a pause in the inquiry that committee is conducting on the impact of leaving the European Union on U.K. science and technology.

Appointment News: UK Cabinet Reshuffle + New Librarian

With Theresa May now officially the U.K. Prime Minister, there have been changes to the government’s cabinet.  This was certainly expected, but the part of this that I still haven’t gotten used to in parliamentary systems is how the departments can change along with whomever is appointed to head those departments.

Most notable of these changes is the reorganization (once again) of what was the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (where much of the science portfolio resided since 2009) to now include much of what was the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  The new name is Department of Business, Energy and Investment Strategy.  MP Greg Clark, who had served as Minister for Universities and Skills from 2014-2015, is the Minister in charge of the new department.  I have seen no word yet about junior ministers in the department, including the fates of Cameron life sciences minister George Freeman and universities minister Jo Johnson.  That information should come soon.

Here in the U.S. the Senate finally confirmed a new Librarian of Congress.  Nominated in February, Dr. Carla Hayden has been the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore since 1993.  She has also served as head of the American Library Association and is the first librarian to hold the job in decades.  Based on Hayden’s work in modernizing the Baltimore library system, I would expect her to focus, at least in part, on doing the same for the Library of Congress.  She will have a 10 year term (recently established in law) to work her magic.

What Was Likely The Most Interesting PCAST Meeting In Years

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on May 20th in Washington, D.C. You can watch a webcast and/or review a transcript of the meeting online.

For the PCAST work updates, there was information on the ongoing PCAST forensic science study, the Council noted that there is an ongoing study on drinking water safety, which was the focus of the sole in-person public comment at this meeting.

The outside experts presenting at the panel talked about two potentially transformative subjects.  One panel of federal employees spoke on near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which we need to monitor in the event of future close calls (or impacts).  The other outside panel was on cryptocurrencies.  While you might think that Bitcoin is the one and only digital currency secured by cryptography, it is not, and the presenters helped PCAST engage with what cryptocurrencies are and some of the policy issues that come with introducing a new kind of money into an existing monetary system.

PCAST Breaks Pattern By Meeting On A Wednesday

Today the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) met in Washington, D.C., breaking its usual pattern of meeting on Fridays.  As is customary, a webcast is available.

The public agenda was focused primarily on ongoing projects, with presentations on studies PCAST is conducting on forensics and biological defense.  PCAST also heard from members of the National Academies Committee on Accessible and Affordable Health Care for Adults.  PCAST issued a letter report on innovation in hearing technologies in late 2015, and the Academies released its report last month.  As you might expect, the Academies’ report is longer, with more detailed research and recommendations than the PCAST letter report.

For once, there was some detail about the private session that PCAST (likely) held with the President.  Per the Federal Register, PCAST was to meet with the President for an hour to discuss a report on “Action Needed to Protect Against Biological Attack.”  The meeting was to be held in a secure location and the contents of that report may not be made public due to national defense or security interests.  (Pardon the verb tense, as I’m not sure whether the scheduled meeting took place, and may never know given the security concerns.)

The next meeting of PCAST is likely in September.  And yes, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted about the May meeting of PCAST.  I will rectify that shortly.

FDA Releases Proposed Guidances For Next Generation Sequences

Last week the Obama Administration released one of its periodic fact sheets announcing recent actions on the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI).  The PMI is trying to build tools and gather data to make it easier to target therapies and other medical treatments for specific individuals.

Part of this latest fact sheet is the announcement that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is releasing draft guidance on oversight for what’s called next generation sequencing (NGS).  This category of tests measures a much higher number of genetic variants than current sequencing.  The agency believes that these draft guidances – one on standards for analytical validity of NGS tests and another on using evidence from public genome databases to demonstrate the clinical validity of NGS tests – can be sufficiently flexible for a family of tests that is emerging and notably distinct from existing sequencing and related tests.  This is a situation where the agency likely believes that establishing some boundaries for a new testing field can support the development of such tests.

If you’re interested in providing comment on either draft guidance (or both), you will need to submit them by October 6.

Private Email Use For Government Work Not Just A Classification Problem

Remember folks, I am not a lawyer.

On Tuesday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit (H/T G. William Thomas) involving the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).  The CEI had requested documents under FOIA, and as part of that request sought emails from an email account that OSTP Director John Holdren has from the Woods Hole Research Center (where he served as director prior to becoming OSTP Director).

At first blush you may consider this an overreach, but according to the ruling (page 3), the OSTP had previously shown in a separate FOIA lawsuit involving CEI that Director Holdren had used the Woods Hole account for work related purposes.  The proof was a Vaughn Index produced by OSTP, so the agency had to know that there would be work-related email on the Woods Hole account.  (I have not been able to find the Vaughn index in question, which was complicated immensely by the Court failing to cite the specific case.  The FOIA improvements signed into law earlier this week can’t come fast enough.)

Those who follow the news may find this annoyingly familiar.  While the case currently dominating the news is more involved, and has the extra wrinkle of involving classified material, public officials have been using private email for public business for a while.  Personally, I don’t think it should be permitted in any instance.  (And this kind of nonsense is not limited to federal officials.)

And this is where I might differ with those concerned about fishing expeditions conducted into personal email accounts.  If there had been no evidence to suggest Holdren was using a private account for government business, I would certainly consider it an overreach for CEI to want OSTP to search Holdren’s private email.  In that situation, CEI would need to demonstrate why it felt that documents relevant to its request could be expected on that account and the corresponding search would need to be very targeted.

The case will return to the district court that dismissed the case back in March 2015 for further proceedings.  The OSTP may have other grounds to contest the production of these emails, and there will certainly be a new OSTP Director (perhaps one with an Acting in front) by the time the case is resolved.