Lab Accident Roundup: New Details In Hawaii, Progress In Houston

Chemical and Engineering News is reporting on the investigation into the March explosion that claimed the arm of a postdoc (said postdoc has not permitted the release of information on her current condition).  Per the investigation report of the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD), sparks from a pressure gauge caused the explosion of gases being used to ‘feed’ bacteria in a bioreactor.  For this the gases need to be transferred from a high pressure container to a lower pressure container, and the pressure gauge that sparked was not rated for use in a gaseous chamber.  The HFD report also notes that there had been a prior explosion in this lab with a smaller tank and similar setup.  Reading the report, one could infer that some lab safety practices were either not effectively implemented or not followed by lab personnel.  There are at least two other investigations to come, as the University hired the Center for Laboratory Safety at the University of California to conduct an investigation, and the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division is also examining the accident.  They may be more definitive concerning how lab practices may have contributed to the accident.

Beryl Benderly at Science wrote recently about two lab accidents at Texas Tech University.  One, in 2010, seriously injured a graduate student, and prompted an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.  The resulting report criticized lab safety procedures nationwide and prompted the University to adjust its own procedures.  Thankfully, an explosion in March at Texas Tech was limited to ‘superficial’ injuries.  Benderly notes that the underlying missteps in each accident reflect better overall procedures.  Arguably that could simply be because things at Texas Tech were pretty awful back in 2010, but relative improvement is still improvement.

Bioethics Commission Looking Retrospectively In Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Commission) will be in Washington, D.C. on May 3.  There is one more Commission meeting scheduled after the May meeting, and that may be the last Commission meeting before it finishes its work (and President Obama leaves office).

I base that in part on this Federal Register notice the Commission released last month (which states the Commission has two more meetings) and on the agenda for the May 5th meeting.  That agenda is focused on the past, present and future influence of national bioethics advisory bodies.  The Commission will discuss the topic with several academics and the head of the Commission’s Mexican counterpart, CONBIOÉTICA.

The Commission is also interested in input from you.  The Federal Register notice the Commission released last month was a request for comments on:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of different models for national bioethics advisory bodies, e.g., standing or temporary, narrowly or broadly focused (examining one topic or issue or a variety of issues);
  • The lessons we can learn from national bodies in other countries to inform how U.S. bodies might work;
  • The influence of national bioethics bodies on bioethics as a field; other academic fields, such as science, medicine, and technology; and public policy;
  • The future of national bioethics advisory groups in the United States.

Comments must be received by July 1.

Presumably the Commission is consulting with the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA), I certainly think that INGSA would be interested in the comments and any reports or other documents to come from them and the meeting on May 5th.

Lab Explosion Claims Arm Of Postdoc

Last month there was an explosion in a lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  A postdoc lost her arm in the explosion, which happened while she was transferring hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide gases into a small, low-pressure system.  The explosion is still under investigation, and caused over $700,000 in damages.

Besides the Hawaii Occupational Health and Safety Division, the University of California’s Center for Laboratory Safety is investigating the explosion.  The center was formed in 2011 as part of the settlement proceedings following a fatal lab incident at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The investigations are still ongoing, though the Chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Manoa has stated that preliminary indications suggest the explosion was an isolated incident rather than part of a pattern or connected to an intentional act.

While serious injuries or deaths are common outcomes of lab incidents, they are still too frequent.  And as the press clippings on the Center for Laboratory Safety’s website suggest, these accidents – with serious injuries or not – are way too common.  We still seem to have way too far to go to make sure laboratory facilities are as safe as we might expect them to be.

Sometimes The Infrastructure Is The First To Go

A quick, no joke post for the fools…

On March 16, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a pause in its Collections in Biological Research funding program (H/T Ed Yong at The Atlantic).  As the NSF describes the program (BIO refers to the Biological Sciences Directorate of the NSF):

“The Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program provides funds: 1) for improvements to secure and organize collections that are significant to the NSF BIO-funded research community; 2) to secure collections-related data for sustained, accurate, and efficient accessibility to the biological research community; and 3) to transfer ownership of collections.”

In other words, this is an infrastructure program.  It helps institutions (museums mainly) to make sure that their collections and associated data are kept in a manner that makes using the collections easier for the relevant research communities.

The official explanation on the website is that the Foundation is evaluating the long term resource needs and research priorities for the Biological Sciences Directorate.  Yong’s piece confirms this, and notes that the Foundation is seeking feedback.  The researchers and collections staff directly affected are understandably concerned, even though this is not the first such pause for the program.

I think the concerns over a program like this help demonstrate that supporting scientific infrastructure is important and that the indirect costs of administration and support covered by research grants do not cover all infrastructure costs.  Thinking in terms of transportation infrastructure, it would be like assuming that gasoline taxes were enough to handle the costs of supporting roads and related structures.

PCAST Meeting Covers Indicators, Health And Cancer

Earlier today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held a public meeting in Washington.  As is the recent custom, it was a half-day morning meeting on a Friday.  Also as custom, a webcast was made and the archive will be available within a few days.

The meeting began with a presentation on the latest edition of Science and Engineering Indicators, published every other year by the National Science Board.  The Board has continued to update the way the Indicators are presented, with the website for the 2016 edition demonstrating additional means of diving into report data, including state indicators and a digest.

The later presentations were about health.  The first of those focused on the One Health program, supported in the U.S. out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  It is a global effort focused on disease processes in both animal health and human health and how they both relate to the health of the environment.  The other health presentation in the meeting concerned the frontiers of cancer research.  This was certainly influenced by the recent effort by the Obama Administration to address roadblocks in cancer research.

While no official announcement or Federal Register notice is out, I would expect the next PCAST meeting to take place in May, possibly early June.

Cancer Moonshot Task Force Has An Executive Director

On Friday the Vice President appointed Greg Simon to serve as the Executive Director for the Cancer Moonshot Task Force.  Simon is currently CEO of Poliwogg, a financial services company focused on investments in the life sciences.  Before Poliwogg Simon worked at Merck, and also served as a policy advisor to Vice-President Gore from 1991-1997.

From 2003-2009 Simon was also involved in FasterCures, a self-described ‘action tank’ focused on cutting through roadblocks and otherwise accelerating the process of translating research data into cures.  In most cases this would be the critical piece that makes Simon quite suited to facilitating many of the same functions as the Executive Director of the Task Force.

But Simon is a cancer survivor.  Diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, he has recently completed one course of chemotherapy and is currently healthy.  The Task Force only has the rest of the Obama Administration to do its work, but Simon’s recent experience may add to that sense of urgency.

In related activity, the Vice President has continued his listening tour of various cancer research facilities.  On Monday he was in Seattle at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Parsing How High Court Nominees Might Engage With Science And The Law

Earlier today the President announced his nominee for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, D.C. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland.  As several Senate Republicans are on the record indicating a lack of interest in meeting the nominee, much less holding a confirmation hearing, it’s unclear when or if Garland might sit on the court.  Even so, the nomination raised the question for me about how to assess potential jurists on how they would use science and technology in the court.

It strikes me as a tricky bit of business, but one worth engaging with regardless.  Especially since whomever joins the Court next is replacing a Justice who felt it necessary to note in the Myriad Genetics opinion (page 22) that

“I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

Often the disputes that come before the Supreme Court and lower courts may involve decisions and agencies that deal with science on a regular basis, but are contested on grounds that deal with matters of law and authority for which science and technology are context but not the crux of the decision.  So while issues related to science and technology have become more important to society and have appeared more often in court matters beyond the specialized cases you might expect to see them (intellectual property chief among them), they don’t drive decisions so much as force the legal disputes.

When you review assessments of judges such as this one about Judge Garland from SCOTUSBlog in 2010 (the first time he was considered for a Supreme Court nomination) you don’t see any mention of science or technology.  It’s hard to say if that’s because he didn’t deal with cases that engaged with those topics or not.  The Circuit Court Garland serves on deals primarily with regulatory actions, so it stands to reason that science and technology factors into those cases in terms of informing policy choices.  But that doesn’t automatically mean that Garland had to have significant technological or scientific literacy in order to rule in those cases.

Again, Senate Republicans may make discussing a future Justice Garland moot.  But they won’t stop me from thinking of how difficult it could be to assess if the next Supreme Court Justice will feel the need to commit their lack of science and technology knowledge (or interest in same) to the public record.  Pointers and suggestions (as always) welcome.