Next Bioethics Commission Meeting Will Continue Deliberations On Deliberation

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will next meet September 2 in Washington, D.C.  As is the current practice, there will be a live webcast and the Commission staff will liveblog the meeting.

Per the Federal Register notice (a formal agenda is not yet available), the meeting will continue the work it started at its May meeting in Philadelphia.  Topics will include:

  • The role of deliberation and deliberative methods to engage the public in bioethics, and how to integrate pubic dialogue into the bioethics conversation;
  • Bioethics education as a forum for fostering deliberative skills, and preparing students to participate in public dialogue in bioethics;
  • Goals and methods of bioethics education; and
  • Integrating bioethics education across a range of professional disciplines and educational levels.

There may or may not be a formal report coming from these discussions.  Given the nature of these topics, I think the Commission could simply augment its ongoing efforts in bioethics education with some public experiments in new techniques involving deliberation and deliberative methods.  This is a particular theme in Chair Amy Gutmann’s research, so I am not surprised to see the level of commitment to this effort.

(While a very politically charged matter due to recent events, it is possible that the Commission could be tasked with, or asked by the public about, current practices in fetal tissue collection and use.)

John H. “Jack” Gibbons, 1929-2015

Dr. John H. Gibbons, known as Jack, passed earlier this month following complications after a stroke.  He was 86, and like many who served years in science and technology policy, has received little attention on his passing.  Following a career in nuclear physics, energy and the environment, Gibbons served in lead science and technology policy positions for both Congress and the Executive branch.

Dr. Gibbons earned his Ph.D. in physics from Duke, following an undergraduate degree in mathematics and chemistry from Randolph-Macon College.  He started his career at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory working on nuclear geophysics and astrophysics, energy efficiency, environmental matters and ballistic missile defense.  He rose to direct the lab’s environmental program from 1969-1973.  Gibbons then served as the first head of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation programs.

In 1979 Gibbons was appointed head of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, an agency focused on providing scientific and technical advice to Congress.  He led the agency until 1992, and was nominated by then President-elect Clinton to be his science adviser.  He served in that position, and as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, until 1998.  After a short break Gibbons returned to government service as a Senior Adviser to the State Department from 1999-2001.  A major accomplishment of his tenure there was to grow the scientific and technical capacity of the Department, including the creation the office of Science Adviser to the Secretary of State.  Since leaving the State Department Gibbons had remained active in several scientific organizations and advisory groups.

Condolences to Dr. Gibbons family and colleagues.

Fish And Wildlife Service Providing Additional Details For New Chimp Research Requirements

Earlier this summer the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) classified captive chimpanzees as endangered – the same as chimpanzees found in the wild.  Starting September 14, most biomedical research involving captive chimpanzees will require a permit.

In a meeting with staff of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the American Physiological Society, the FWS provided additional information about the process.  The permits would be required for most instances where the research would harm, harass, kill or injure a chimpanzee, as this is otherwise a violation of the Endangered Species Act.  There will be two types of research eligible for a permit: research that directly benefits conservation efforts for wild chimpanzee populations and research that doesn’t directly benefit such conservation efforts but includes support for in situ conservation efforts (though federal grant money cannot be used to pay for such efforts).  In other words, if there’s no direct benefits to conservation efforts in the research, a successful permit will involve a little extra support (not from the government) to support conservation efforts.

Permits should take about 3 months to complete, which includes a 30 day public comment period.  Once approved, such permits will be valid for five years, with annual reports required.  Entities interested in the permitting process should reach out to the FWS for a conversation.

NIH Looking For Input On Strategic Plan

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has to submit a new strategic plan to Congress by December of 2015.  This is an agency-wide strategic plan, and is focused on general goals and cross-cutting plans for the NIH.  Specific disease and/or research strategies will be covered in the strategic plan(s) for the relevant institute, office or center at NIH that is focused on that matter.

The NIH is seeking comment on the framework for its strategic plan, and released the Request for Information on July 22nd.  Comments are due by August 16th, and must run 300 words or fewer.  The questions for which the NIH seeks information are:

  • Potential benefits, drawbacks/challenges, and areas of consideration for the current framework
  • Compatibility of the framework with the broad scope of the NIH mission
  • Additional concepts in [individual institute, center or office] strategic plans that are cross-cutting and should be included in this trans-NIH strategic plan
  • Comprehensive trans-NIH research themes that have not been captured in the Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine
  • Components of the Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine that are not applicable to an NIH-wide Strategic Plan
  • Future opportunities or emerging research needs

The Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine listed in the framework are:

  • Promote Fundamental Science
    • Basic Science is the foundation for progress
    • Consequences of basic science discoveries are often unpredictable
    • Advances in clinical research methodologies stimulate scientific progress
    • Leaps in Technology often catalyze major scientific advances
    • Data science increases the impact and efficiency of research
  • Improve Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
    • Importance of studying healthy individuals
    • Advances in early diagnosis/detection
    • Evidence-Based interventions to eliminate health disparities
  • Advance Treatments and Cures
    • Unprecedented opportunities on the basis of molecular knowledge
    • Breakdown of traditional disease boundaries
    • Breakthroughs need partnerships and often come from unexpected directions

Again, comments are due by August 16th.  Submissions should be sent via email at the appropriate address listed in the Request for Information.

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.

Second Golden Goose Award Of 2015 Recognizes Neuroplasticity Breakthrough

While it may lack the cachet of The Marshmallow Test, the subject of the second 2015 Golden Goose Award may also seem familiar to many.

Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel will be recognized this September for their work in neuroplasticity (something at least one company is using as a selling point in its advertisements) research.  Supported by grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Institutes of Health, Wiesel and Hubel researched how the visual centers of cats and monkeys processed information.  A breakthrough prompted by accidental movement of a slide allowed the two to determine that certain neurons in the eye were responding to particular kinds of stimulation.

But that serendipity is not what prompted the award, it was the subsequent work on newborn animals, where Hubel and Wiesel determined that the brain could rewire neurons to adapt to stimulation (or its absence).  This neuroplasticity declined with age.

It also allowed clinicians to improve their treatment for childhood cataracts and other eye impairments.  They now understood it was not enough simply to correct the physical defect of the eye, the corresponding neurons in the brain needed to be trained to adapt to the change in stimulation.  It was this connection to neuroplasticity, which was not expected from the initial research into visual processing, that best fits the intentions of the Golden Goose Award.

Doctors Hubel and Wiesel will be presented their award, along with the other 2015 recipients, at a Washington, D.C. ceremony on September 17.