On The Porousness Of Borders

(Apologies for the delay)

In the April 10 edition of Science, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins and Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci wrote an editorial on where the research their Institutes support (and conduct) takes place.  The point of the editorial comes early:

“Now, in the face of serious fiscal constraints, the idea has reemerged from some congressional leaders and disease constituency groups to more closely align NIH funding for disease research with disease burden in the United States.”

Consider this the biomedical equivalent of Congressional efforts to ensure that National Science Foundation research is targeted to areas that advance the national interest.

Fauci and Collins write about why focusing research strictly on the United States is problematic.  It reminds us that one of the tools the United States uses in its foreign policy is public health.  And while they don’t mention it in the piece, disease does not respect national borders.  So while you could capture what diseases are affecting Americans at one point in time for the purposes of determining funding, that snapshot would soon be out of date.  And our public health infrastructure would suffer as a result.

NIH Seeks Public Input On Sustainable Biomedical Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeking information from the public on topics intended to help boost the impact and sustainability of biomedical research (H/T FASEB).  Comments are due no later than May 17.

The NIH is seeking information on the following broad topics:

  • Input on key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the scientific enterprise.
  • Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH research enterprise.
  • Ideas for new policies, strategies and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
  • Comments on any other issues that you feel are relevant.

This request will help inform the efforts of an NIH-wide working group headed by the director of the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, Dr. Jon Lorsch, on more efficient and/or sustainable funding strategies.  Past work in this area (from another working group) includes a possible ’emeritus award’ that would help senior researchers transition away from an NIH-dependent research position and assist the transfer of those research lines to younger researchers.  I mention that because I think the NIH would welcome creative approaches to these topics.

Again, comments are due May 17, and submission instructions are in the Request for Information.


Nature Still Not Keen On U.S. Open Access Policies

Nature recently ran this editorial describing how U.K efforts in open access policies are doing three years after its government announced a push for so-called ‘gold’ open access for research results funded by the U.K. government.  This kind of open access would make a research article available for free immediately on publication.  The U.S. system is better characterized as a ‘green’ system, where free access is usually provided after an embargo and to a version of the article deposited in a repository.

The U.K. effort, like the U.S. effort, has had bumps along the road.  The first 16 months of the U.K. policy are covered in this review from the Research Councils U.K.  Released in late March, the report discusses the needs for effective evidence gathering in order to effectively measure compliance with and the impact of the policy.  This would allow for future discussion of how licences, embargos and other access considerations should affect the policy.  Additionally, there needs to be continued communication with stakeholders about the policy.  Confusion persists about what is expected in terms of compliance, data collection, and how to handle circumstances like collaborative work.

The Nature editorial staff is not keen on how the U.S. effort has unfolding, describing it as:

“[L]oitering with little intent, and mandating only delayed access to an author’s version of a peer-reviewed manuscript — a ‘green’ form of open access that ultimately benefits science less (see Nature 494, 401; 2013).”

Truly, the persistence of an embargo rankles many in the open access community.  The publisher-led CHORUS system is also not gold-friendly, and, at least to me, does not strike me as helpful in complying with the research data aspect of the U.S. Public Access Policy.  I would have liked to see the government push for a more uniform open access policy, one that does not maintain dependence on journal publishers that still resist opening access to research that they did not fund.  But I can’t deny that several agencies now have open access policies that didn’t before, and some of these policies follow the National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy and strike out on their own or intend to share the NIH repository.

But, as some in the U.K. remind me, open access is a journey, not a destination.


The Sisyphean Push For Nominations Continues

With confirmation votes from the Senate more rare and infrequent these days, I’ve not been as diligent in tracking the announcements of nominations.  Two recently announced science and technology nominees help detail the problem.

Thomas Burke has been re-nominated to serve as Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Office of Research and Development.  Since his initial nomination last year, Burke did join the EPA, but as a Deputy Assistant Administrator in the same office (likely due to that position not requiring Senate confirmation).  Burke’s eventual predecessor, Paul Anastas, left the position back in 2012.

Another renomination was for the position of Director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  The current Acting Director, Dr. Willie May, was renominated in February.  With Burke and May both in place at their intended agencies, their confirmations are likely a lesser priority for the administration and Congress.

Wanda Austin was appointed to serve on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) just before its March 27 meeting.  Austin is the President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, where she has worked since 1979.  Her education is in mathematics and systems engineering, and besides her PCAST service, Austin is also a member of the NASA Advisory Council and the Defense Science Board.

SHARE – Another Piece Of The Open Access Puzzle?

In recounting developments in U.S. open access policy, I have focused on agency efforts and the emergence of CHORUS, an attempt by publishers to keep eyeballs on research via their journals.  Outside of individual institutions’ efforts, I have not posted much about how higher education is addressing the open access requirements set out by the Office of Science and Technology Policy back in 2013.

One thing I missed from this 2014 update to Congress on open access policies is the development of SHARE (SHared Access Research Ecosystem).  A project of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Association of American Universities (AAU), and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU), SHARE appears to focus on means of sharing access to research results across institutions.  I’m tentative in my writing as the project is not as far along.  According to the latest Update newsletter, the public beta should be available sometime this month.  SHARE is focused first on a notification service, and will then work on means for sharing research data.  This is key, as CHORUS does not include research data in its system.  As that is a key part of the open access directive, SHARE, or systems like it, can help agencies address those obligations.

The desired end state of SHARE is outlined in this EDUCAUSE Review article.  Besides the notification service, there should be a content layer to handle both data sets and research articles, an index to allow for discovery across several different repositories, and a means to conduct value-added work (data mining, visualization, etc.).

If your institution isn’t aware of SHARE, and has content worth connecting to the effort, please have the appropriate people contact the project.

Will Science Policy Factor Into The UK Election?

On April 2 there will be a leader’s debate for the May 7 U.K. Parliamentary election (H/T Nature News).  While there was a joint appearance by the leaders of the two largest parties (the Conservatives and Labour) on March 26, the April 2 debate will have leaders from seven parties. Of the other debates currently scheduled, this event will have the most parties represented.  Leaders of the Liberal Democrats (coalition partner with the Conservatives in the current government), the Green Party, The U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), Plaid Cymru (a Welsh party), and the Scottish National Party (SNP) will join the Labour and Conservative leaders in the ITV studios.

This marks the second election in which party leaders will hold televised debates.  IN the 2010 campaign, there was a series of cross-party science debates where most of the policy discussions around science happened in the campaign.  However, in at least one debate involving party leaders, science questions did get some attention.

Nature recently compiled information on the likely science policies of three of the smaller parties: the UKIP, the SNP and the Greens.  The Campaign for Science and Engineering has published the responses it received from all seven parties represented in tomorrow’s debate, plus the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.  Parties are expected to release campaign manifestos later this month, which should provide additional information.  Those particularly interested in research budgets in the U.K. may be most persuaded by the positions of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

While science and technology issues get more attention from U.K. parties compared to the U.S., they are not dominant issues for any political party.  The increased profile of several smaller parties, and dissatisfaction with the current coalition government, suggest to me that another coalition government could emerge following the May 7 election (minority governments, like the Harper government in Canada, are rare in the U.K., and typically short-lived).  In that case, it is possible that science and/or technology issues could be key toward gaining the support from a party or parties to give a coalition a Parliamentary majority, but that’s a question nobody can answer until at least May 8.

Is The U.K. Following the Harper Government’s Science Communication Lead?

A change to the U.K. Civil Service Law may dramatically restrict the ability of U.K. government scientists to communicate with the media (H/T ScienceInsider).  The language would require all media contacts to be approved in advance by the appropriate Minister.  The specific language:

“All contacts with the media should be authorised by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.”

Certainly scientific communication could be handled under a dispensation, but there was none offered when the change was announced.  On Friday three U.K. science organisations (the Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers, and Stempra) wrote Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, for clarification.  In this letter the organisations note that many participants in quasi-governmental bodies have to sign on to the Civil Service Code, so the new language may affect more than government employees.  (Advisory bodies to government would not be affected, as their communications are covered in the Ministerial Code.)

Similar concerns emerged over how the change in the law affects whistleblower protections.  Minister Maude had indicated to a trade union representative that whistleblower protections would not be affected.  That union has petitioned the government to reverse the change.

Given the changes in communication practices in Canada where its government scientist are concerned (referenced in the letter to Maude), I can understand the skepticism about the impacts of this change.  Given the May election in the U.K., I would not be surprised if this became an issue in some quarters of the British electorate.  I don’t think it will swing Parliament to one party or the other, but depending on the local constituency, it may swing a seat or two.