Unsolicited Advice To Canada – Follow A UK Model For Science Debates

Thanks to Twitter, I read this opinion piece in The Toronto Star advocating for science to be part of the leaders’ debates leading to the October 19 Parliamentary election.  Breaking from previous tradition, there will be not two debates (one in English, one in French), but at least six.  (One has already been held, and there are proposals for additional debates beyond the five currently scheduled.)

The authors would love to have a debate focused on science matters.  That’s understandable, especially given how science has fared under the current Canadian government’s efforts to tightly control the information it produces.  However, I think the compressed campaign schedule (though it is the longest Canadian campaign in history) will make it difficult to get either a debate exclusively on science questions or science questions into the debates that will be held.

That’s not to say it shouldn’t be tried.  But I would recommend not copying those of us on your southern border concerning science debates.  Rather I suggest you review our British cousins and adapt your strategy accordingly.  Two science questions were part of a UK leaders debate in the 2010 campaign (though it was the one conducted over YouTube and Facebook), but that same campaign saw three cross-party debates at the science ministerial level.  The science minister for the then-ruling Labour party debated shadow ministers from the two next largest parties (the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats).

I think it manageable to have the science minister and his shadow minister counterparts in the major Canadian parties debate each other.  In particular, MP Kennedy Stewart, shadow minister for science and technology of the National Democratic Party, may be strongly motivated to have such a debate, given his interest in establishing a Parliamentary science officer.  The bigger challenge may be getting something to happen during the current campaign.  Good luck!

Postscript – The parliamentary system underlying these minister-level debates is not present in the United States, so it’s a bit harder to identify an American equivalent.  For instance, I see little in it for the leaders and ranking members of the relevant Congressional committees to debate in an election year when they aren’t running against each other.  And given the stronger division between the executive and legislative branches in the U.S., such a debate wouldn’t cover what a President might do.  For that you might have to have candidates who could identify a Presidential science adviser early in their campaign – a rarity.

Breakthrough Expands To Include Interstellar Communication

Of the several science prizes nobody remembers, the Breakthrough Prize is funded by Yuri Milner, Russian venture capitalist.  Milner is now expanding his science projects to include seeking and communicating with intelligent life.  On Monday, not coincidentally the 46th anniversary of the first moon landing, Milner and several science figures announced the formation of the Breakthrough Initiatives.  There are two initiatives, Listen and Message.  Listen will be a 10-year $100 million initiative for a more extensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence than has previously been attempted.  Both radio and laser signals will be sought.  It is worth noting, as Roger Pielke, Jr. and Martin Rees (who is on the Breakthrough Initiatives Board) have, that we’re not ready for a response to this message, and any extraterrestrials out there may not be easy to understand (and vice versa).

The other Breakthrough Initiative is Message, focused on what exactly we might send to extraterrestrials.  It will be an international competition for developing methods to communicate with aliens in a way that well represents humanity.  Deadlines and more details will be announced at a later date.

Wellcome Supports Effort To Crowdsource Review of Chemical Probes

Nature Chemical Biology has published a Commentary on its website about chemical probes.  These are important tools in biochemical research for their ability to explore the function of proteins in broader contexts.  The commentary notes the increased utility of these probes and how their use has increased over the last few years.

But there are problems.  These chemicals are difficult to produce in high quality, and lower quality probes lead to poor results.  To try and mitigate those problems, the commentary authors have developed a crowdsourced resources for information on high-quality chemical probes and how to use them (H/T ScienceInsider).  Online at http://www.chemicalprobes.org/, the site is supported by The Wellcome Trust, and endorsed by The Broad Institute, The Institute for Cancer Research, and the Structural Genomics Consortium.

The site provides information, and can connect interested parties with the experts behind the website.  This includes suggesting new chemicals for inclusion on the site.  While there is not yet an online submission process, those using the feedback mechanism on the site can make suggestions to the reviewers.

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.