The White House Is Doing The Maker Faire Again

This year I missed any early announcement about this year’s White House Maker Faire.  The 2015 White House Maker Faire will take place during the week of June 12-18, what the White House is calling a ‘Week of Making.‘  The announcement talks much more about last year’s Faire than this year’s week.

Perhaps that’s because the White House is looking for people and organizations to step up.  In line with last year’s call, the White House is looking for commitments to supporting Makers in a number of ways, including:

  • Creating hands-on learning opportunities for students to engage in STEM arts and design through making in and outside the classroom
  • Broadening participation in making for girls, young women and underrepresented minorities
  • Supporting the development of low-cost tools for prototyping
  • Developing capabilities that enable maker entrepreneurs to produce their products domestically and scale volume
  • Engaging makers in developing solutions to pressing local and global challenges

In order to be ready to announce new commitments during the June ‘Week of Making,’ The White House wants submissions by May 15.  If interested, please fill out the form at this webpage.

Australia Considering Tinkering With Its Census

The Sydney Morning Herald reports on the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) arguing in favor of changing its census (H/T The Conversation).  Currently taken every five years (like Canada used to do), there is interest in changing that to every 10 years.  Unlike in Canada, where the head of Statistics Canada resigned over the change of the census from mandatory to voluntary, the ABS chief defended shifting the census.  David Kalisch has argued that the current census was a modest input into national statistics.

Given the challenges Canada has faced since it went to a voluntary survey, I understand, and share, the caution some have expressed in making significant changes to a data tool.  If the shift to every ten years is accompanied with more regular population surveys (much like in the United States), it is possible that Australia could strengthen its data gathering and analysis capabilities.  But the caution encouraged by Canadians should be well considered.  Cutting costs appears to be part of the motivation behind these changes.  I have a hard time reconciling that interest with increasing the number of surveys taken over time (a less frequent census plus more regular population surveys).  The people in Australia – policymakers, researchers, and other concerned citizens – need to hold the ABS to account and demand to see how the agency plans to maintain, if not increase, the value of the information it collects.  The Save Our Census campaign indicates that some are.

The Sisyphean Push For Nominations Continues

With confirmation votes from the Senate more rare and infrequent these days, I’ve not been as diligent in tracking the announcements of nominations.  Two recently announced science and technology nominees help detail the problem.

Thomas Burke has been re-nominated to serve as Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Office of Research and Development.  Since his initial nomination last year, Burke did join the EPA, but as a Deputy Assistant Administrator in the same office (likely due to that position not requiring Senate confirmation).  Burke’s eventual predecessor, Paul Anastas, left the position back in 2012.

Another renomination was for the position of Director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  The current Acting Director, Dr. Willie May, was renominated in February.  With Burke and May both in place at their intended agencies, their confirmations are likely a lesser priority for the administration and Congress.

Wanda Austin was appointed to serve on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) just before its March 27 meeting.  Austin is the President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, where she has worked since 1979.  Her education is in mathematics and systems engineering, and besides her PCAST service, Austin is also a member of the NASA Advisory Council and the Defense Science Board.

Second Lawsuit Filed Over Guatemalan STD Experiments

Following the disclosure in 2010 that several Guatemalans were exposed to sexually transmitted diseases without their consent, several parties initiated a class action lawsuit against the government.  That lawsuit was eventually dismissed over the inability to sue the U.S. over actions conducted in another country.  For details on the experiments, consult the report from The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

The plaintiffs have not given up, yesterday they filed suit against Johns Hopkins University for its role in the exposures.  Several Johns Hopkins researchers held positions in panels that reviewed federal funding for the studies at issue in the suit.  Other defendants include the Rockefeller Foundation and Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

The suit is filed against these defendants apparently due to the affiliation several officials involved in the exposures had with the named institutions (or in the case of Bristol-Meyers Squibb, its predecessor companies).  Both Johns Hopkins and The Rockefeller Foundation have denied that their institutions were involved in the experiments.  Bristol-Meyers Squibb officials have declined to comment as of this writing.  The suit alleges that the experiments were used as clinical trials for the predecessor companies’ products.

With the dismissal of the previous lawsuit, it is not clear that the current matter will be any more successful.  Arguably the plaintiff’s case here will be harder, as holding an institutional affiliation will not likely be sufficient to demonstrate the institution was responsible for the conduct of particular individuals working for other organizations.

NIH Names Working Group For Precision Medical Initiative

To support the work of the Precision Medicine Initiative, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the formation of a Working Group.  Part of the Advisory Committee to the Director, this Working Group will help develop the million-person cohort that is an important part of the Initiative.

The membership is two-fold.  There will be non-voting representatives from a variety of federal agencies and voting members with expertise in large clinical trials and/or precision medicine.

The working group will help determine how to design studies based on a cohort of such size, and the unique challenges such a group presents.  It will also coordinate efforts to gather public input from patient and stakeholder groups through workshops on various topics related to large-scale medical studies.  Opportunities for the public to comment should be publicized on the Precision Medicine Initiative website.

Is The U.K. Following the Harper Government’s Science Communication Lead?

A change to the U.K. Civil Service Law may dramatically restrict the ability of U.K. government scientists to communicate with the media (H/T ScienceInsider).  The language would require all media contacts to be approved in advance by the appropriate Minister.  The specific language:

“All contacts with the media should be authorised by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.”

Certainly scientific communication could be handled under a dispensation, but there was none offered when the change was announced.  On Friday three U.K. science organisations (the Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers, and Stempra) wrote Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, for clarification.  In this letter the organisations note that many participants in quasi-governmental bodies have to sign on to the Civil Service Code, so the new language may affect more than government employees.  (Advisory bodies to government would not be affected, as their communications are covered in the Ministerial Code.)

Similar concerns emerged over how the change in the law affects whistleblower protections.  Minister Maude had indicated to a trade union representative that whistleblower protections would not be affected.  That union has petitioned the government to reverse the change.

Given the changes in communication practices in Canada where its government scientist are concerned (referenced in the letter to Maude), I can understand the skepticism about the impacts of this change.  Given the May election in the U.K., I would not be surprised if this became an issue in some quarters of the British electorate.  I don’t think it will swing Parliament to one party or the other, but depending on the local constituency, it may swing a seat or two.

National Action Plan For Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Calls For More Judicious Use

Last fall the Obama Administration took several steps to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  The steps included a report from the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, a National Strategy for combating antibiotic resistance, and the establishment of a government-wide Task Force to determine how to implement that strategy.

Earlier today the chairs of that task force, the Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, announced the release of the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria. It is worth noting that the President has doubled the amount of money for fighting antibiotic resistance in his latest budget request.

The National Action Plan is focused on activities the country should take over the next five years to achieve the goals of the National Strategy.  The Task Force must provide the President with status updates on an annual basis, and the President’s Advisory Council on Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria will advise the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department on the programs recommended by the National Action Plan.

Speaking of that Advisory Council, the HHS Department is seeking nominations. The Council will be a mix of public and governmental members (only the public members will vote) representing a variety of perspectives in the fields of public health, agriculture, and biomedicine.  Nominations will be accepted until April 29th, so submit them soon.

For me, the most interesting challenge in the National Action Plan is to reduce antibiotics use in the agriculture industry.  While consumer demand has driven some companies to reduce antibiotics in their food, antibiotics-free food is still a small portion of the total market.  The hardest challenge may well be establishing the kind of surveillance and reporting mechanisms to capture the best possible picture of current antibiotics uses.