Newest Medal Of Freedom Recipients Include Figures In Science And Science Policy

President Obama recognized the latest recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier today in a ceremony at the White House.  It’s the highest civilian honor a president can bestow for services to the country, and this year’s group include two people recognized for their contributions to science or science policy.

Katherine Johnson is a mathematician whose work for the government included service at NASA and its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).  Her 33 year career at both agencies included calculations critical to every human spaceflight program from Mercury through the Space Shuttle.  As one of the first African American women who worked for NACA and NASA, Johnson has also worked hard to encourage other women and minorities to pursue education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Also recognized this week is William Ruckelshaus, a two-time Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  He was the first to head the agency, serving from 1970-1973 under President Nixon.  Ruckelshaus instituted the U.S. ban on the pesticide DDT.  He returned to the agency as President Reagan’s second EPA Administrator from 1983-1985.  Ruckelshaus also served as Deputy Attorney General and Acting FBI Director during the Nixon Administration, and was involved in environmental protection matters during the 1960s in Indiana.  Now living in Washington state, Ruckelshaus has kept active in local and national ocean and environmental matters, being appointed to various panels by both President Clinton and President George W. Bush.

Congratulations to both Ruckelshaus and Williams, and the other medal recipients.

Homeopathy May Receive Heightened Scrutiny From Regulatory Agencies

While it appears (at least to me) to get more attention (and ridicule).  Homeopathy – the attempt to treat conditions with items that produce the same symptoms in healthy patients – is a business of note in the U.S.  While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates homeopathic treatments, it does not make claims as to their efficacy.

(Let’s put aside the discussion of what reason there might be to regulate a substance without judging whether it does what it is claimed to do.)

That might change soon.  According to Dan Vergano at Buzzfeed, both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may act soon on homeopathic treatments.  The FTC has raised concerns that FDA practice in this area runs counter to the FTC requirement that health claims in advertising need to be backed up by “competent and reliable scientific evidence.”

This has, apparently, been a longstanding conflict, as the FDA first promised to put homeopathic products up to a standard comparable to the FTC’s in 1972.  Maybe, just maybe, this long standoff is approaching an end.

From One CSA To A Committee Of Seven: EU Science Advice

Back in May the European Commission announced it would set up a Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) under the current President.  This was to replace, at least in part, the functions of the chief scientific adviser under the previous administration.  One component of the SAM is the High Level Group of Scientific Advisers, a committee of seven prominent scientists that will provide independent advice to the Commission.

On November 10 the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, named the seven members of the high level group.  They are:

  • Janusz M. Bujnicki
    Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Protein Engineering, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Warsaw
  • Pearl Dykstra
    Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
  • Elvira Fortunato
    Professor, Materials Science Department of the Faculty of Science and Technology, NOVA University, Lisbon
  • Rolf-Dieter Heuer
    Director-General, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
  • Julia Slingo
    Chief Scientist, Met Office, Exeter
  • Cédric Villani
    Director, Henri Poincaré Institute, Paris
  • Henrik C. Wegener
    Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Technical University of Denmark

The group is expected to hold its first meeting in January.  Between now and then (and probably for some time after) the group and its staff will be developing processes and guidelines for its work and the plethora of questions about how it will provide independent scientific advice to the Commission.  Given the way in which the Commission decided to create this body, a lot of people will be watching.

An Immodest Proposal For Biological (And University) Lab Safety

Nature has posted a commentary from a biomedical security consultant suggesting a way forward in light of recent problems with hazardous sample security.  In short, the author suggests that facilities dealing with other hazardous materials (or processes) are worth emulating.  The goal of this imitation is to instill a culture of safety not present in facilities that handle dangerous biomedical specimens like anthrax.

So while the specific practices and materials involved in the nuclear industry are not transferable to biosecurity, the author thinks that it would be useful to imitate the perspective the industry has of safety.  This includes expanding responsibility for safety from just designated officers to everyone at the facility.  Also important is encouraging a focus on reliability and an awareness of when things deviate from normal, even just a little.

I found the argument persuasive, but not just for biomedical security.  Given the horrible track record of lab safety in universities, it seems that a lot of research facilities could benefit from a culture of safety instead of just a lab safety officer.

Ministerial Mandate Letters Help Detail Expectations For Canadian Government

New Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has released the Ministerial Mandate Letters he submitted to his Cabinet Ministers (H/T The Frogheart Daily).  They outline PM Trudeau’s expectations for his ministers, which focus a great deal on collegiality with members of Parliament outside of the Liberal Party and being open and transparent in their dealings.

But the letters also outline priorities and goals for the ministries.  As Science is part of the job title for two different Ministers, these letters help define which areas of science and science policy will fall under which Minister.  Other Ministers have science and technology responsibilities (I’ve described these in a separate post) and you can check out their letters as well.

The new Science Minister, Kirsty Duncan, was given the following priorities in her letter:

  • Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.
  • Support your colleagues in the review and reform of Canada’s environmental assessment processes to ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence.
  • Support the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in efforts to help employers create more co-op placements for students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and business programs.
  • Support your Ministerial colleagues as they re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making and investment choices.
  • Lead the establishment of new Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technologies, working with the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
  • Work in collaboration with the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to examine the implications of climate change on Arctic marine ecosystems.
  • Examine options to strengthen the recognition of, and support for, fundamental research to support new discoveries.

The following paragraph from the letter outlines Trudeau’s philosophy with respect to the role of science in this government.

“We are a government that believes in science – and a government that believes that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making.  We believe that investments in scientific research, including an appropriate balance between fundamental research to support new discoveries and the commercialization of ideas, will lead to good jobs and sustainable economic growth. As Minister of Science, your overarching goal will be to support scientific research and the integration of scientific considerations in our investment and policy choices.  Support for science is an essential pillar in our strategy to create sustainable economic growth and support and grow the middle class.”
It’s worth noting – because it often gets lost – that this philosophy sees scientific knowledge and scientific considerations are but one input into policy and decision making.  Inform, not dictate.
It’s also worth noting that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (MP Navdeep Bains) is mentioned just once in the Minister of Science letter.  Looking at the letter sent to Minister Bains, it would seem that PM Trudeau sees science in this portfolio in service to economic development and innovation.  The role as outlined in the letter:

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Ebola Outbreak Continues, With Some Good News

Since the little panic has subsided in the U.S., little attention has been paid here to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  While it has not yet ended, there is some good news.

While the epidemic re-emerged in Liberia earlier this year, as of November 7 it has retreated from Sierra Leone.  This means that it has been seven weeks since the person with the last reported case of the disease has had a second negative blood test for the virus.  For the next 90 days World Health Organization and other personnel will engage in a period of enhanced surveillance to ensure no new cases of Ebola emerge in the country.

As of November 1 there have been 28,571 reported confirmed, probable and suspected cases of Ebola since this outbreak officially began in Mary 2014.  There have been 11,299 reported deaths linked to these cases (though it is not always clear that Ebola was the proximate cause of death).

While the outbreak is subsiding, the lasting damage to the physical and social systems of the affected countries will linger for a long time.  (For instance, since this outbreak affected those over 14 much, much more than those under 14, there are a lot more orphans in the affected countries.)  Recovery efforts will continue for months, and the damage caused will linger for longer.

European Science And Technology Ethics Group To Continue In New Government

Most of the fuss raised by the science advocacy community over the changes in European Commission structure focused on the discontinued position of Chief Scientific Adviser.  By the end of this year a seven member science advisory board should be in place.

However, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) was in a similar state of limbo following the change in Commission Presidents.  It was recently announced that the group will continue as part of the research department, where the science advisory board will also sit.

The EGE has been around since 1991, and currently has five theologians, five lawyers and five scientists as members.  Its closest U.S. equivalent appears to be the various bioethical commissions that advised presidential administrations.  The work product of the EGE has focused on matters connected to biotechnology, but it is not limited to that area.  Recently the EGE has also conducted ethics reviews of grant applications under the Framework Programmes (and presumably their successor, Horizon 2020).