On The Lack Of Imagination In Science Advocacy Rhetoric

Perhaps I’ve just been in this field too long.

Earlier this month several leading science policy administrators put their names to this article on The Huffington Post.  In the piece the authors use the 70th anniversary of Science: The Endless Frontier to argue for using a vision from 1945 to continue America’s status as a prime innovating nation.

The report in question was written by Vannevar Bush to argue for a dedicated source of federal funding for scientific research.  This National Research Foundation was not the same thing as the National Science Foundation that emerged.  So while the report was not entirely successful in crafting the agency Bush envisioned, it has managed to be successful in crowding out any other major rationale for federal investment in science and technology research.  The shorthand it represents is reified by these senior administrators in their article.  Both in citing Science: The Endless Frontier and by calling for the same things – more scientists, more investments and more policy champions – the authors do little more than say what could have been said by their predecessors 5, 10, 15 or more years ago.

I’d love to hear a new theme, something that’s younger than me.

Informed Consent Teases Out Research Ethics On The Stage

Informed Consent is currently in its New York premiere run at the Duke at 42nd Street through September 13.  The play was written by Deborah Zoe Laufer and is a fictionalized drama about the case of the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona and its lawsuit against researchers at Arizona State University.  The case concerns the use of blood samples taken from tribe members by the researchers.  While the samples were taken voluntarily for the purposes of a diabetes study, the use of these samples in subsequent research prompted the lawsuit.  (The lawsuit eventually ended in an out-of-court settlement, not the most dramatically satisfying of conclusions.)

Laufner was featured on a recent segment of Science Friday, where she talked with Ira Flatow about the play, the case, and the ethics involved in genetic research, informed consent, properly managing genetic data, and issues of identity.  While the court case started over 25 years ago, the challenges of determining how to practically ensure ethically-informed consent for the drawing of samples and use of genetic information.  The ultimate resolution of the case prevented the establishment of relevant case law to inform subsequent court cases.

The court case also raised an issue about genetic migration studies.  Determining the genetic ancestry of individuals can conflict with family and/or cultural understanding of where people came from.  And while individuals being tested might accept such a conflict, there are others who would be exposed to the conflict that were not consulted about the testing.  Figuring out how to set boundaries in such matters is something worthy of consideration by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues.

But none of that necessarily makes for a good play.  Readers in the New York area (or visiting) still have a few days to check out Informed Consent.

BBC And PBS Collaborate On Live Nature Television From The Monterey Bay

Big Blue Live is a co-production of BBC Worldwide and PBS that will air in the UK starting next Sunday, and in the U.S. starting August 31.  The live broadcasts will focus on the Monterey Bay area and the aquatic life that usually travels through the region at this time of the year.  As befits a live event in this era, there will be opportunities to watch online and comment on the action via social media.  But with the staggered broadcast schedules (the event will end in the UK the night before it starts in the US), it won’t be quite as global as it could be.

The Monterey Bay is part of the eponymous National Marine Sanctuary, so the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be part of the program, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.  Parts of the program will air live from the deck of a NOAA research vessel as well as the aquarium.

Big Blue Live will air in the UK on August 23, 27 and 30.  In the U.S. it will air August 31-September 2, with live feeds for both the East and West coasts.

Latest PCAST Report Encourages New Categories For IT Investments

Earlier this month the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its latest report, focused on the Network and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program.  PCAST is required by law to evaluate the program, which coordinates federal investment across the government in information technology research.

As is regrettably the case with many government programs in technology, the organization of NITRD reflects what was close to cutting edge thinking of the time it was created.  A major recommendation of this report is to reorganize the NITRD program to better reflect the state of research in information technology and the current priorities for the government.

The report focuses on the following areas of information technology: cybersecurity, health, Big Data and data-intensive computing, IT and the physical world (any IT connected to something that isn’t a computer or a phone), privacy protection, cyber-human systems, high-capability computing, and foundational computing research.  The authors consider each of these areas as critical to success in any national priority related to information technology research.  However, there remain gaps in access to large-scale infrastructure and other resources that make it harder to effectively support federal research in these areas.

In order to establish a more nimble NITRD program, the authors recommend establishing new program component areas (PCAs) that are used to organize NITRD funding.  Most of these categories have remained unchanged for twenty years.  What the report recommends is establishing eight new PCAs for the 2017 budget cycle, and that these PCAs should be updated every five or six years.  The PCAs recommended in the report are:

  • Large-scale data management and analysis;
  • Robotics and intelligent systems;
  • Computing-enabled networked physical systems (such as distributed sensor networks);
  • Cybersecurity and information assurance;
  • Computing-enabled human interaction, communication, and augmentation;
  • IT foundational research and innovation;
  • Enabling-IT for high-capability IT systems; and
  • Large-scale research infrastructure.

The recommendations would need to be implemented by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget.  Both agencies have expressed support for such changes.  They would also need to develop, with other NITRD stakeholders, the process for judging when and how to modify these PCAs based on changes in the field.

Nominations Sought For Sustained National Climate Assessment Advisory Committee

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has produced three national climate assessments since 2000.  The program is also developing a sustained assessment process to provide a more robust climate change information source.  It would inform both the quadrennial assessments and other elements of the USGCRP.

To assist in that end, there will be an Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has chartered the Committee, and will forward its work to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  The Committee would provide advice on the engagement of stakeholders and on sustained assessment activities and the quadrennial National Climate Assessment report.

NOAA is seeking nominations for the committee, which will close on September 14.  The call for nominations says that the committee should have people with the following areas of expertise:

  • Communications, engagement, and education;
  • Risk management and risk assessment;
  • Economics and social sciences;
  • Technology, tools, and data systems; and
  • Climate change and variability, including impacts and societal responses

Individuals can self-nominate or nominate another individual.  An application package is required, which includes the individuals contact information, institutional affiliation, area of expertise, short description of qualifications and a résumé (no longer than four pages).  Consult the call for nominations for how to submit this information.

Some Movement On Science And Technology Nominations

This month has produced some motion on filling vacant science and technology positions.  Whether this represents forward momentum or the bureaucratic equivalent of Brownian motion remains to be seen.

There is one vacancy remaining on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, even with two nominees being confirmed around the beginning of the year.  Jessie Roberson has been nominated to fill that vacancy (technically last held by a current Commissioner, Jeff Baran).  Roberson is currently Vice Chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Security Board, and has worked for the Department of Energy both in Washington and at two different Department nuclear facilities.

This week the President also nominated people to fill vacancies at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.  Richard Buckius has been nominated to fill the position of Deputy Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has been vacant since August 2014.  Dr. Buckius has worked at NSF before, and currently serves as both Chief Operating Officer and Senior Science Officer.  His academic training is in engineering, and Buckius served as head of the Engineering Directorate from 2006 to 2008.

Cherry Murray, a Harvard physicist who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation last year, has been nominated to serve as Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy.  There has not been a confirmed Director of the Office since 2013.  Marc Kastner was nominated to the position in 2013, but did not receive a Senate vote before the end of that Congress in December 2014.  Cherry worked at Bell Labs for much of her career, and also at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.  She currently holds academic appointments in Technology and Public Policy as well as Physics at Harvard.

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.)