Science Envoys Have Been Racking Up The Miles

The latest group of Science Envoys was named in late 2014, and the State Department has kept them active since then.  Their travel involves meetings with scientists and engineers in various countries in support of research, educational support, and exchanges between countries.

Back in January Dr. Geraldine Richmond traveled to Thailand and Vietnam.  Richmond is the Presidential Chair of Chemistry at the University of Oregon, and (among other things) is the President of the AAAS (though she was President-elect at the time).  Richmond has returned to the region twice since then, visiting Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in March; and Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in June.  Her meetings have included an effort to strengthen research networks in the lower Mekong region.

In February Dr. Peter Hotez traveled to Morocco in Februrary.  Hotez is an expert in tropical diseases and vaccines.  Later that same month Dr. Arun Majumdar (former director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) traveled to Poland, and his meetings had a special emphasis on U.S.-Poland energy collaboration.

The fourth of the current cohort of Science Envoys, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, is traveling in South Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles throughout the last two weeks of July.  As the Science Envoy for the Ocean, Lubchenco’s meetings will involve scientists, business leaders, and other ocean users in the region.  Lubchenco’s background is in oceanography, and she served as Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during President Obama’s first term.

To date there have been 13 science envoys, whom have visited 30 countries (some of them more than once).


APA Not Waiting For Council Meeting To Act On Collusion Report

Yesterday the American Psychological Association (APA) announced the retirements and resignations of several high-ranking officials.  Even the press release acknowledges that the recent release of the report on APA collusion with the government affected these departures.  While the APA has made recommendations to its Council of Representatives meeting next month, ongoing criticism of the association made more immediate

Leaving are the Chief Executive Officer, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer and the executive director for public and member communications.  While not mentioned in the press release, ScienceInsider is reporting that the APA ethics director is also leaving.  They will depart between the end of this month and the end of the year.  Other departures may be forthcoming, based on the recommendations of APA critics that reviewed the report prior to its release.

Additionally, two former APA Presidents have released a response to the report, which includes discussion of some of the collusion claims.  The former presidents acknowledge that the APA response was poorly executed, but they assert that the association did what it could with the information that it had.  That Hoffman and his staff have said something similar about their report suggests that definitive answers will be hard to find agreement.

The former presidents do raise two point worth considering for any scientific society.  First, the APA lacked the resources and the mechanisms to conduct the kind of investigation into abuses involving psychologists and physicians that critics have called for.  I suspect that is true of other scientific societies.  The former presidents also ask why other societies have not been subjected the kind of scrutiny that the APA has.  For me, that speaks to a larger issue of scientific conduct, and to what extent scientific societies are (or are not) dealing with the misconduct of their membership.

While these points might be made from a defensive crouch by these former association presidents, it’s worth noting how difficult it could be for scientific societies to actively police misconduct, and how ill-prepared they might be to do so.

APA Report Indicates Evidence Of Collusion On Interrogation Policy

Last November the American Psychological Association (APA) launched an investigation in response to allegations by author James Rosen.  Rosen alleged in his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War that the association colluded with George W. Bush Administration officials in the development of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.  In response, the APA engaged attorney David Hoffman (a former assistant U.S. Attorney) to conduct the investigation, and the report was released on Thursday (H/T The Washington Post).  The report release is in advance of the APA Council of Representatives meeting in August.

The report is extensive, over 560 pages plus appendices.  Hoffman and his staff have detailed the challenges they have had in meeting with witnesses, many of whom have either declined to do so or delayed meeting for months.  The report takes pains to state it does not provide a definitive answer to the matter, but provides as many answers as it could, while organizing and presenting the evidence they have as best they believe they could.

Bottom line, the report indicates there was collusion between elements of the APA and various government agencies over the use of psychologists in connection with ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.  While the report did not find evidence that APA officials knew of a program using such techniques, it did find that officials had reason to suspect that abusive interrogations had occurred.  Those officials also took steps to avoid confirming such suspicions.  The collusion extended to developing APA policies that would not place additional constraints on Department of Defense interrogation practices.

The APA Board of Directors regrets these activities and apologized for them in a press release associated with the report.  The Board has also recommended the following policy actions to the APA Council, which meets in August.

  • Adopt a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, but allowing training of military personnel on recognizing and responding to persons with mental illnesses, on the possible effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation and other areas within their expertise;
  • Create a Commission to evaluate and recommend changes to APA ethics processes;
  • Adopt formal guidelines to ensure that all relevant policies are anchored in APA core values, including promoting human rights, human welfare and ethics;
  • Approve the substitute motion of Council New Business Item #23B, which clarifies the role of psychologists related to interrogation and detainee welfare in national security settings and safeguards against acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in all settings.

The Board also approved the following actions:

  • Increase the organization’s engagement around human rights activities in collaboration with other organizations;
  • Collaborate with the Council to create governance constraints on elected and appointed APA officials;
  • Evaluate existing conflict-of-interest policies regarding financial, policy or relationship-based conflicts to ensure the policies are understood and followed;
  • Adopt clear procedures for appointing members to APA Task Forces and Commissions;
  • Create specific criteria for emergency action by the Board.

The Quest For Science Advice Continues

The European Commission is still working on its next science advice mechanism.  The new Commission has opted for an advisory council rather than a chief science adviser, and the research Commissioner, Carlos Moedas, announced the next step in this process earlier this week (H/T ScienceInsider).

Three people have been selected to assist the Commission in identifying the members of the new advisory body.  They are Sir David King, Rianne Letschert, and António Vitorino.  Sir King is a former Government Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom, Letschert is a professor of criminal law and chair of the Young Academy in the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and Vitorino is a former deputy prime minister of Portugal (Commissioner Moedas’s country) and European Commissioner.  The three will develop criteria for selection and a preliminary list of names for consideration.  Their methodology should be made public in the next two weeks.  The plan is to have the group up and running in October.

Meanwhile, Canadian MP Kennedy Stewart continues his quest to establish an independent Parliamentary science officer.  His bill, introduced (what is called tabled in many Parliaments) in 2013, still has a chance before the elections expected sometime this year.  Stewart restated his case for the position in this article he cowrote with Andrew Cuddy for Policy Options.  I’d avoid the introduction, which tries to link his bill with the ongoing restrictions Canadian government scientists face in publicizing their research.  Focus on the meat of the piece, which is a good summary of what the Parliamentary science officer would do, and how it’s different from the closest Canadian analog, the Office of the National Science Adviser.  Those dying for a U.S. equivalent might look toward the Office of Technology Assessment, though it was not organized in the same fashion that the Parliamentary science officer would.

The next Canadian Parliamentary elections are tentatively scheduled for late October, so we should know what will happen in both Canada and Europe around science advice at the same time.  Something to look forward to.

White House Launches Effort To Revise Biotechnology Regulation

While I find the timing suspect, on Thursday John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), announced (along with other senior White House staff) the Administration will be reviewing the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, the policy that designates agency responsibilities for overseeing the introduction of biotechnology products into the environment (H/T Grist).  First developed in 1986, the last revision was in 1992.  So, clearly overdue.

Holdren’s announcement accompanied a memorandum to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.  It (along with Holdren’s blog post) outlines the elements of the review process:

  • Updating the Common Framework (with public input) to clarify the biotechnology product areas (not processes) for which each agency will be responsible.  This will include how to handle situations where more than one agency may be responsible.
  • Developing a long-term strategy (with public input) to ensure that the Federal regulatory process will be better prepared for emerging biotechnologies.  This would include horizon scanning exercises and additional support of so-called ‘regulatory science.’
  • An independent examination of the future landscape of biotechnology.  The National Academies have already been engaged to start this analysis.

This all sounds great, but there are some aspects of this that give me pause.  First, the announcement comes the afternoon before the July Fourth holiday weekend.  It screams news dump – an effort to ensure that very few people become aware of the effort.

Additionally, while the revisions and the strategy will involve public input, Holdren asks for people interested in additional information to register.  If this wasn’t already part of an announcement that seems timed to minimize public reception, I might not think much of it.  But I can see the Administration limiting its subsequent publicity on this project to the people who register.  If they are going to try and hold listening sessions around the country (the first one will take place this fall), I think they should spread their message far and wide.

Finally, I guess I’m still a bit chagrined from other efforts to revise (or develop) regulations related to science and technology research.  The effort to revise the Common Rule related to human subjects research stalled out after a big public comment push in 2011.  And it still seems as though the push on scientific integrity policies has failed mainly from a lack of coordinated follow-through from the OSTP.

I’d love to see this not happen with the revisions to the Coordinated Framework, but I’m not optimistic – especially with roughly 18 months to go with this Administration.

So, There Was This Week Of Making…

Happy Canada Day, everybody!

The U.S. held its first National Maker Faire on June 12 and 13 in Washington, D.C.  It was part of a week-long celebration of Making, which included a few other events of interest.

The Faire was well attended by federal agencies and senior leadership from the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  There was also a showcase of Makers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the White House announced commitments from several educational institutions to expand efforts to support makers at their institutions.  Companies, state and local governments have also announced commitments to support Makers.  A long list of the commitments announced is available online.

I was struck in particular by the commitments from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to help Makers in commercializing their products.  As you might have guessed, the USPTO will assist Makers in protecting their intellectual property (though some Makers may be more interested in Creative Commons-type limited rights).  NIST will help Makers through the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).  The MEP has Centers set up to assist small and mid-sized manufacturers with business and technical assistance, and will make those same services available to Makers.  (There was likely nothing preventing Makers from doing this already, but the commitment should demonstrate an understanding of Making that may not have previously existed at the MEP.)


Adventures In Wildlife Infrastructure

While developing artificial means to help wildlife do what they need to do has been a thing for a while (see fish ladders in dams), there are two current projects that strike me as something new.

In Oslo work is underway for a ‘bee highway.’  It’s not an actual road in the sky for the exclusive use of bees.  It’s a series of rooftops with flowers and the bee equivalent of rest stops.  The project is a collaboration between state bodies, local homeowners and companies, and you can track its progress online (you’ll need a translator or a working knowledge of Norwegian).

In the State of Washington work has been proceeding on helping wildlife cross a section of Interstate-90 in the Snoqualmie Pass region.  Earlier this month the state’s Department of Transportation started work on a wildlife overpass along a natural migration route to Keechelus Lake (The Interstate follows the northeast side of the lake).  Large fences along the highway near the overpass should help nudge bear, deer, elk and other fauna over the highway and on to the lake.  The overpass should complement the wildlife underpasses already being used in the vicinity and make it easier for migration and a broader genetic exchange.  Think of it as analogous to the parks being developed along unused elevated train tracks, if those parks were over major highways or surface streets.

The projects are not solely for the benefit of wildlife.  The crossings will cut down on more traditional surface crossings of Interstate-90 and the associated destruction.  This also facilitates a widening of the Interstate.  The overpass should be ready for nature traffic in 2019.