European Science And Technology Ethics Group To Continue In New Government

Most of the fuss raised by the science advocacy community over the changes in European Commission structure focused on the discontinued position of Chief Scientific Adviser.  By the end of this year a seven member science advisory board should be in place.

However, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) was in a similar state of limbo following the change in Commission Presidents.  It was recently announced that the group will continue as part of the research department, where the science advisory board will also sit.

The EGE has been around since 1991, and currently has five theologians, five lawyers and five scientists as members.  Its closest U.S. equivalent appears to be the various bioethical commissions that advised presidential administrations.  The work product of the EGE has focused on matters connected to biotechnology, but it is not limited to that area.  Recently the EGE has also conducted ethics reviews of grant applications under the Framework Programmes (and presumably their successor, Horizon 2020).

Let’s Not Get Too Excited, But There’s A New Canadian Cabinet

Yesterday Justin Trudeau was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Canada following the Liberal Party’s performance in last month’s election.  He also announced his cabinet, and his government announced that it would restore the mandatory long-form census.  I’ll focus on the cabinet, but the census decision is a big deal, especially with the next one scheduled for 2016. The official list of the top tier Cabinet appointments is online.

The census decision was announced by the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, MP Navdeep Bains.  Minister Bains was returned to Parliament in this year’s election, having served previously in Parliament from 2004-2011.  His training is in finance and his non-Parliamentary experience has been in financial analysis.  Like the new UK Minister with responsibility for science, Jo Johnson, Bains is considered a rising figure in his party.

Prime Minister Trudeau also appointed a Minister of Science, MP Kirsty Duncan.  In a rarity for such a position, Duncan is a trained scientist, a medical geographer.  This ministerial post is at a higher level in the cabinet than it was in the Harper Government (some would argue that it didn’t exist in that government, but I consider that a semantic argument).  Duncan has served in Parliament since 2008, and was a professor at the University of Windsor and the University of Toronto before this.  Details of her portfolio, and how things might differ now that this ministry is on a higher cabinet level, aren’t clear at the moment.

There are, of course, other appointments to the cabinet that will deal with science and/or technology matters.

MP Marc Garneau, retired astronaut and former head of the Canadian Space Agency, will be Minster of Transport.  Garneau represented the Liberal Party in the national cross-party science debate.

MP Jim Carr will be the Minister of Natural Resources.  This is his first term in Parliament, but has served in the Manitoba legislative assembly.  His background is particularly varied, having (among other things) formed the Business Council of Manitoba, worked as a reporter on the Winnipeg Free Press, and played oboe for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

MP Catherine McKenna is the new Minister for Environment and Climate Change (climate change has been added to the job title).  She is a lawyer and also in her first term in Parliament.

MP Dr. Jane Philpott is the new Health Minister, and also a first-termer in Parliament.  She has years of experience in the health care industry and is a medical doctor of note.

MP Hunter Tootoo is the new Minister for Oceans and Fisheries and the Canadian Coast Guard.  He is also a first-term federal MP, though he has experience in local and territorial government in Nunavut (go ahead, look it up).  He has stated that Trudeau appointed him to the ministry in part because Trudeau wanted to remind Canadians they have three oceans.  Tootoo is not the first Inuk nor the first MP from Nunavut to serve in a Canadian cabinet.  His predecessor, Leona Aglukkaq, served as Minister of Health and then Minister of Environment during the Harper Government.  Canada continues to take the Arctic seriously.

November Bioethics Commission Meeting Continues Its Deliberations On Deliberation

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will next meet in the Washington, D.C. area on November 17.  There is no agenda available yet, but based on the Federal Register notice, this meeting will continue the Commission’s work on deliberative methods and bioethics education that has informed much of its work.  The description of the meeting in the notice is nearly identical to that of the September 2015 meeting.

This general issue has received more attention from the Commission than any other subject, so I am not terribly surprised to see the Commission describe this work as its ‘capstone report.’  It does present an air of finality to things, even with over a year left in the Commission’s tenure.

L’Aquila Earthquake Trial Expands And Reaches Next Level Of Appeal

ScienceInsider reports on developments in the trial of six Italian scientists and a public official in connection with remarks made prior to the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.

(Once again I will note that I am not a lawyer, and have even less experience with the Italian legal system.)

That earthquake led to 309 deaths, and the seven people on trial were convicted of manslaughter.  However, earlier this last year the convictions of the six scientists were overturned, while the conviction of the then-deputy of Italy’s civil protection department remained (with a reduced sentence).  Their case continues on appeal, and will have a hearing in front of the highest appellate court in Italy on November 19.

On the next day the manslaughter trial begins of Guido Bertolaso, who was head of the Italian civil protection department.  He had been investigated since January of 2012 in light of a recorded phone call that Bertolaso made to a local official the night before his deputy and the six seismologists met with people in L’Aquila to discuss the risk of earthquakes in the region.  In the call Bertolaso allegedly outlines what the scientists would say and characterized the meeting as a means of quieting another scientist whose predictions had alarmed the L’Aquila population.  Bertolaso has only recently been ordered to stand trial, despite prior efforts to compel such an action.  The first hearing will take place in L’Aquila on November 20.

Nation Boosting Space Weather Preparedness

Earlier today the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted an event (archived video not yet available) on space weather.  This weather includes solar flares, coronal ejections, solar energetic particles and other phenomena that can affect systems on Earth or in orbit.  The event marked announcements by several agencies and organizations (including Airlines for America, the Air Force, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) on what they are doing in space weather.

The event also marks the release of the National Space Weather Strategy and the National Space Weather Action Plan.  The Action Plan describes how the Strategy will be implemented (with timelines and deliverables), and both reflect intended investments by the Administration in its next federal budget.  There are six broad strategic goals

  • Establish Benchmarks for Space-Weather Events
  • Enhance Response and Recovery Capabilities
  • Improve Protection and Mitigation Efforts
  • Improve Assessment, Modeling, and Prediction of Impacts on Critical Infrastructure
  • Improve Space-Weather Services through Advancing Understanding and Forecasting
  • Increase International Cooperation

The Strategy and Action Plan are not working in a (policy) vacuum.  The U.S. has been working on space weather for a long time, and the Space Weather Prediction Center is a functioning element of the National Weather Service and can be traced back to a National Bureau of Standards lab set up in the 1940s to provide forecasts on radio blackouts.  What today’s meeting and releases suggest to me is an effort to standardize and broaden the data and data collection on space weather to assist in developing a more systematic approach to space weather that can cause problems here on Earth.

U.S. Releases Third Open Government National Action Plan

In connection with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) meetings this week in Mexico City, the U.S. released its third Open Government National Action Plan.  The government releases these plans every two years as part of its membership in the Partnership.  (It is also distinct from any commitments OGP members make during the current meetings.)

The third plan includes new commitments, many of which build on previous commitments to make government information more usable and accessible to the public that it serves.  New commitments that are of particular interest to me are the efforts to set up web design standards, as well as an effort to make publicly available every address in the U.S.  Science and technology do not have a large role as a subject in this plan, but technology is an important tool in implementing many, if not all, of the commitments to open government.

Unfortunately, the most recent progress report on how the government has been implementing its plan(s) is for 2011-2013.  There is a more current self-assessment available.  The Open Government Partnership summit continues through tomorrow, the 29th.

PCAST Wants People To Hear Better For Less

On Monday the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a letter report on innovation in hearing technologies.  The focus of the report is on the technologies used for mild and/or moderate hearing impairment.  The aging population will have need of such technologies, but a relatively small percentage of people who could benefit from them actually use them.  To help support the report recommendations, PCAST makes the argument that the current market and regulations covering hearing aids lead to a relatively static market that provides little innovation and extracts rather large costs for devices, preventing many from purchasing them.

The recommendations are exclusively about regulations.  PCAST recommends that non-surgical air conductive hearing aids be allowed for over-the-counter sales without needing to visit a credentialed dispenser.  Similarly, the report recommends that diagnostic tests for fitting and adjusting these devices should be available over the counter.  PCAST wants the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its 2013 draft guidance on personal sound amplification devices (PSAP), which, in the opinion of PCAST, heightens an artificial distinction between the two kinds of devices that prevents those with hearing loss to benefit from advances in technology.

(While the report does not address this head on, the distinction between hearing aids and PSAP devices touches on the different values placed on technology that restores ‘normal’ function and technology that ‘augments’ that function.  Possibly a topic more appropriate for the Bioethics Commission.)

The other two recommendations call for consumers to have the ability to take the results of relevant hearing and audio tests acquired from hearing aid dispensers and audiologists at no additional cost.  This would be comparable to what consumers can already do with vision tests for eyeglasses and/or contact lenses.

The date of the next PCAST meeting is November 20, though it is not currently on the PCAST website.  This letter report will be on the agenda, along with presentations on nanotechnology and new regulatory frameworks for research.   The PCAST study on private sector activities in climate change adaptation and resilience.  More details will be available once the draft agenda is online.