The National Parks Service As A Science Agency

In this week’s edition of Science, the editorial covers the upcoming centennial of the National Parks Service (NPS) and how it has supported science.  Written by Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt and the science adviser to the National Park Service Gary Machlis, the editorial describes how the NPS has served as a field study location for researchers in many fields, and encourages scientists to continue to do so.

The NPS scientific apparatus includes a number of different tools, in a wider variety of fields than you might expect.  This likely isn’t news for ecologists or researchers in related fields, but I think the NPS centennial could be a wonderful opportunity to help demonstrate that science and technology matter to many different government agencies.

I want to close by re-emphasizing some of the recommendations in the editorial.  The research data generated in the park system should be as widely shared as practical.  Researchers should be encouraged to use parks sites for study, and this includes citizen scientists.  You can recreate and investigate in the National Parks.


My Comments On The Next National Action Plan For Open Government

Earlier this month I noted that the White House is seeking input on its third iteration of the National Action Plan for Open Government.  You can submit comments via email or on a Hackpad collaborative platform (you will have to register on Hackpad to submit via that platform).

Guidelines are pretty broad, and the Hackpad provides some categories to guide submissions.  The organizers have populated many of the pages with content from an Open Sunshine Week brainstorming event in March.  Since I mouthed off about submitting comments on the National Action Plan related to scientific integrity policies, I thought I’d share what I submitted (via the Other Topics section of the Hackpad platform).

“The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should commit to collecting information on federal agencies compliance with their scientific integrity policies (including OSTP’s own scientific integrity policy).  The public should be able to view information on how many complaints each agency receives, a brief description of the claims, and the disposition of each case.  Additional details on scientific integrity cases should be available on request from OSTP, with appropriate exceptions consistent with open records laws.”

It’s not terribly detailed, but it’s at a level of detail consistent with other submissions on the platform.  Ideally, there should be a website where interested members of the public can get information on how agencies have been implementing their scientific integrity policies.  I’m not proposing a massive data dump of information, but to have enough summary information that interested parties can pursue additional information with the agency.  It would also, I hope, prompt the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to continue monitoring the issue across the government.  It seems that once the agency policies were posted, the OSTP acted like the job was done.  But it’s only just started, and having a public reminder of that strikes me as a good thing to do.

National Academies Encourage Expansion Of Science And Technology Advice At State Department

Tomorrow, June 17, the National Academies will host a press briefing on a new report, Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State. The report is available online, and you can access the report electronically for free (with a National Academies Press account, which is also free).

This report follows on the 1999 National Academies report The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy.  The 1999 report prompted the Department to re-establish a scientific advisory capacity in the form of a Science & Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (the acting adviser is Dr. Frances Colon).

The report calls for an expansion and elevation of this capacity throughout the Department.  The Science & Technology Adviser should be given the status equivalent of an Assistant Secretary (currently the Adviser reports to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, and most of the other positions reporting to this Under Secretary are Assistant Secretaries).  There should also be a Science and Technology Advisory Board of independent experts.  The Board would provide advice on science and technology issues (non-defense) that would affect the Department’s foreign policy agenda.

Additional report recommendations (Chapter Six details all of the report’s findings and recommendations) seek to further integrate science and technology expertise into the Department.  The report encourages (among other things) the inclusion of science and technology in foresight exercises (it considers the current use of science and technology advice to be focus on short-term questions and challenges); connecting with in-country American scientists, engineers and health professionals; reviewing and expanding (as appropriate) staff with scientific and technical expertise; and expand training opportunities to include the value of science and technology to the Department’s mission (whether or not the trainee is a science or technology specialist).

The full report is worth reviewing and digesting.  Whomever becomes the next Science & Technology Adviser to Secretary Kerry will likely be critical to the implementation of the recommendations in this report.  Hopefully that person has been identified, or will be soon, as the position has been vacant for nearly a year.

A Step Towards Standardizing DNA Sequencing

Last month The New York Times reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a reference standard for use in DNA genetic sequencing.  Specifically, NIST has made available genetic material that can be tested to confirm that a lab would find the known mutations in the proper places when sequencing the reference material.  This would help assure the reliability of the testing at that lab.

By providing this testing standard, labs will be able to better demonstrate the reliability of their tests, which should stimulate demand for the tests, and may make insurance companies more likely to pay for them.  This might help address the concerns agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have had about direct-to-consumer genetic testing – at least where reliability is concerned.

While this is the first NIST reference material for genetic sequencing, it has developed reference materials for other DNA tests and procedures.  Those reference materials, developed by NIST’s Applied Genetics Lab, are usually smaller amounts of DNA, often produced via Polymerase Chain Reaction and targeted to tests looking at specific genetic sequences.

Fish And Wildlife Service Gives Captive Chimpanzees The Same Rights As Their Wild Cousins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has formally classified captive chimpanzees as endangered, the same status as chimpanzees in the wild (H/T Nature News).  The action also removes several exemptions to the Endangered Species Act that applied to captive chimpanzees.  The removal of these exemptions will further limit what research can be done on captive chimpanzees.  The final rule will take effect in mid-September.

The rule comes after the National Institutes of Health had already reduced the number of chimpanzees it uses for research.  Back in 2013 the agency retired more than 300 chimpanzees, retaining roughly 50 for research purposes.

This does not completely eliminate legal research on chimpanzees.  It will still be legal to import chimpanzees into the United States and conduct research provided that such research is “to benefit wild chimpanzees or to enhance the propagation or survival of chimpanzees, including habitat restoration and research on chimpanzees in the wild that contributes to improved management and recovery.”

Those opposed to the changes argue that the requirements for obtaining research permission will be so onerous as to prevent the activity.  They also argue that captive chimpanzees have been bred for research purposes, making them sufficiently distinct from their wild cousins as to warrant the present separate treatment.  However, with the NIH already winding down its supported research involving chimpanzees, it seems likely that such research would become more difficult to conduct in the U.S. with or without the new FWS rule.

(Rumors of this being prompted by the recent revival of the Planet of the Apes films are greatly exaggerated, or solely my fault.)

Head Of NIH Extramural Research Departing For Agriculture

Sally Rockey, the deputy director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for extramural (not performed by the agency) research, recently announced she would be leaving her post in September (H/T Nature News).  She’s been with the NIH since 2005, and worked at the Department of Agriculture for 19 years before that.

Rockey’s blog, which I hope is archived, is worth reading, not only because she has used it to solicit input on potential new NIH grant initiatives.  I found it a useful place to gain insight on the funding processes faced by biomedical researchers in a way I hadn’t seen before, and in a way that doesn’t seem to be happening (at least as publicly) in other funding agencies.

What’s also interesting about this development is where Rockey is going.  She will become the Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.  While created in 2014 by Congress, Rockey will become the Foundation’s first director.  The Foundation is a non-profit corporation that will solicit private sector support for agriculture research, and it will have some federal matching funds available. This foundation is distinct from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the Agriculture Department.

I think this foundation, like the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, are tools that deserve additional consideration in this era of additional financial scrutiny.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Dr. Rockey and her staff can do.

First National Maker Faire Starts Tomorrow

This Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, the first National Maker Faire takes place on the University of the District of Columbia campus in Washington.  In addition to the participation of several federal agencies and makers from around the country, there are several presentations scheduled.  There will be screenings of the documentary film Maker, a showcase of makers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, demonstrations of specific maker projects and panels discussing the many different kinds of people that can and do engage in making.

The National Maker Faire is the start of the National Week of Making, which runs from the 12th through the 18th.  The White House will hold an event on Friday morning from 8:30-11:30 to kickoff the week, including announcements of the progress the Administration and its partners have made in various making-related initiatives.  This website (motivated by, if not officially affiliated with, the White House effort) tracks making events around the country, in case you want to get involved locally.