More Tussles Over Science In Italy

I wouldn’t blame someone if they thought Italy was a scientifically contentious society, given the controversies involving scientists, earthquakes and olive trees.  The latest challenge involves papers on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  But when a paper is cited in a legislative body, I don’t think Italy has exclusivity on given that research additional scrutiny.

The facts, as Nature describes them, are as follows.  Three papers from a lab at the University of Naples were cited in a July 2015 hearing on GMOs in the Italian Senate.  The papers focused on experiments with goats kids whose mothers were fed genetically modified soya-bean meal.  The papers contend that fragments of the genetic material inserted in the soya can migrate into the mother’s milk and influence the development of the kids.

Following the hearing Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo, who is also a neuroscientist at the University of Milan (let that last part sink in for a bit), reviewed the papers and noted what appeared to problems with the data presented.  She commissioned a biomedical consultancy firm to conduct a forensic analysis of the research, which concluded that the papers contained images that were manipulated and/or reused.  The firm forwarded its results to the relevant journals (in September) and the University of Naples (in November).  The university launched its own investigation and Federico Infascelli, the head of the lab that produced the papers, is keeping quiet until the university investigation is concluded.

However, confidential details of the investigation were leaked to the press, and one journal, according to Retraction Watch, has retracted one of the papers.  That journal, Food and Nutrition Science, cited duplication of data from a previously published paper.  Plagiarism is not the same as data manipulation, but depending on what is copied and why, copying can certainly contribute to conclusions that don’t match the data.  Retraction Watch, in its analysis of relevant Italian news reports, notes that the retraction is connected to the investigation(s), and that .

The investigation continues, though the leaking of information may complicate matters.  Infascelli will likely have a response once the results of the investigation are out, and the use of his research in a government hearing may add to any penalties he faces from the university.

State Of STEM Takes Place Today

While lacking the promotion of previous years, this afternoon there will be the fourth State of STEM presentation from the White House.  Starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, the address will include the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, and some of the STEM (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) guests at yesterday’s State of the Union address.

As with previous years, I expect the video to be available on the White House’s YouTube channel soon after the event today.

As I noted yesterday there will be two sessions related to science and technology in the White House’s Big Block of Cheese Day presentations.  The 2 p.m. session on energy and the environment will likely overlap with the last part of the State of STEM address, but since John Holdren is part of the 3 p.m. panel, I doubt the State of STEM address will run too long.

Have Some Science With Your Cheese Tomorrow

The Obama Administration will hold its third “Big Block of Cheese Day” tomorrow.  While inspiration comes from the television program The West Wing, and the administration of Andrew Jackson, the questions come from online, allowing for a much more managed process.

Various Cabinet officials and other senior members of the White House Staff and Executive Branch will be answering questions during the day tomorrow, from 10 a.m. Eastern until 6:30 p.m.  (Never mind the two Senators ending the festivities).

There are two sessions focused on science and technology matters.  From 2-3 p.m. you can listen to various energy and environmental officials, including the Secretary of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and staff from the Department of the Interior.  From 3-4 p.m. the focus is on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  The participants will include the President’s science adviser, the Chief Technology Officer and Bobak FederowskiFerdowsi from NASA.  He was a flight engineer on the last Mars rover mission and is currently involved on a Europa mission.

Another post-State of the Union event has been the State of STEM, which started the year before the Big Block of Cheese Day.  However, I cannot find any mention of this event – where many more science and technology agency personnel and related White House staff answer questions – taking place tomorrow.  As it, like the Big Block of Cheese Day, follows the State of the Union, it’s absence is striking.  But they may simply be postponing the event rather than cancelling it.  As some of the same officials participating in the State of STEM events participated in past Big Block of Cheese Day discussions, it may simply be an issue of scheduling.

Next State Of The Union Will Be Annotated And Enhanced?

President Obama’s final State of the Union address will take place on Tuesday, January 12, at roughly 9:10 p.m. Eastern.  Since 2011 the White House has offered an ‘enhanced’ version of the address for online viewers, where charts, photos and graphs are inserted into the presentation to augment the president’s remarks.  You can find previous enhanced video of the addresses on the White House YouTube channel.

This year the White House appears to be taking things a step further.  While there’s no official word that the address will again be available in an enhanced version (I’d be surprised if it wasn’t), it will be made available in an annotated form shortly after the address.  Working with the Genius website the White House has made the addresses available for online comments in a way similar to how other political campaigns and public officials have made comments to other public documents.  You will need a Genius account in order to comment, and as the comments are made on the White House site (through the Genius commenting mechanism), they will certainly be subject to White House review before possibly being added to the page.

Already the White House has placed annotated versions of previous State of The Union addresses (and his first address to a joint Session of Congress in 2009) online.  Comments have been added by several White House staffers and administration officials.  You do not need an account to read the comments, simply click on the highlighted text to read the comment and any associated media.

FTC Takes Aim At “Brain Training”

On Tuesday the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement with Lumos Labs, the company behind the Luminosity ‘brain training’ subscription program (H/T ScienceInsider).  The company will pay $2 million to its subscribers in connection with its claims that the products would help prevent cognitive decline, reduce cognitive impairment and improve cognitive functioning.  The FTC alleged in its complaint that the company failed to back up its claims and that it failed to disclose that some of the testimonials the company used were solicited with prizes.

The proposed order would require the company to have competent and reliable scientific evidence at hand when making the kinds of claims it did.  Additionally, the company must notify its subscribers that participate in auto-enrollment and allow them means to cancel their subscriptions.

Meanwhile, if you see any advertisements for Luminosity or similar programs, I’d encourage you to ask for evidence behind any claims.

China Looking At Possibility Of Its Own Precision Medicine Initiative

Nature is reporting that the Chinese government is giving serious attention to conducting its own version of the U.S. Precision Medicine Initiative.  Details are thin, and second-hand, at least until any formal announcements from the government, which are anticipated in March.

What I think is valuable to consider from the Nature piece are the differences expected between the two programs.  Funding levels are expected to be larger for the Chinese program, and the million person cohort planned in the U.S. program will be done by a single institute in China.  So the ambition is there.

The Nature article notes that one possible challenge is the lack of enough medical personnel to effectively implement some of the planned projects.  Between a high demand for patient visits and a relative lack of specialization, it’s possible there might not be enough people to do the work in the way it needs to be done.

It raises a larger question about China’s research enterprise in general.  While its numbers are often cited in this country to try and stoke competitive fires, the quality of that research output may make such comparisons problematic.  That is, can a random selection of 100 Chinese researchers be as effective in their work as a selection of 100 American researchers.  I don’t know, but the challenges the Chinese system faces with fraud, combined with a lack of sufficient specialists, may mean that its investment in a precision medicine initiative may not go as far as they (or we) think.

European Innovation Council Still On Drawing Board?

Last summer Commissioner Research, Science and Innovation Moedas of the European Commission mentioned the possibility of establishing a European Innovation Council (EIC) to support innovation policies.  It could be a counterpart to the European Research Council, established in 2007.

There is this piece from Science|Business suggesting that the Commissioner and his staff are working behind the scenes to make the Council possible.  It’s hard for me to know how much credence to give to what is effectively a blind item, but its presence suggests to me a continued interest in having some kind of EIC, and that interest is not limited to the Commissioner.  The European Association of Research Technology Organizations is supportive, based on its short paper on the EIC.

But, and this is something I’ve slowly come to understand about Europe-wide regulatory and legislative processes, this will take time.  More time than the molasses-like output of the U.S. Congress.  Additionally, the lack of money for the project at the moment means those looking for more help in getting European research commercialized will need to be patient.