Nominations Corner – Health And Human Services

The recent resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius prompts a revisit of the slow march from nominee to confirmation.  While the President acted quickly to nominate Sylvia Burwell (current Director of the Office of Management and Budget) to replace Sebelius, the continuing paralysis of the Senate may mean it will be several months before she takes the job.

Normally the Secretary is, oddly enough, distanced from many of the science and technology functions the Department deals with.  But with the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Public Health Service (headed by the Surgeon General), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues, and various research programs connected to Medicare and similar health programs, it would be tough for a Secretary to be completely detached from such actions.  In the case of Secretary Sebelius, perhaps her most controversial science and technology action is her decision to overrule the FDA in connection with the availability of emergency contraception.  While I doubt it will come up during the confirmation hearings, I think there will be an attempt to revisit the decision with a new person in charge of the Department.

(While we’re on the subject of Health and Human Services nominations, it’s worth noting that the latest attempt to nominate a Surgeon General has been blocked due – at least in part – on the refusal of some Senators to accept the nominee’s opinion that gun violence is a public health issue.)

The Web Catches Up With the BRAIN Initiative

The National Science Foundation finally put up a web presence for its part in the BRAIN initiative.  Announced a little over a year ago, the BRAIN initiative is a multi-agency program that is also a public-private partnership with various companies and foundations.  The focus of the initiative is to develop tools and foundational knowledge for researchers to get a better picture of the activities in the brain.

Until recently the only federal agency involved with the initiative with a website on it was the National Institutes of Health.  I have yet to find a similar portal for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), though there is this press release.  But the National Science Foundation has finally opened a web presence for its part of the initiative (H/T SSTI).   Arguably it’s website is the most public-facing of the three agencies, but the bar is set quite low in that regard.

What would be nice, but is not likely to come, is some government-wide site that provides a broad picture of the activities in this initiative.  Each agency can speak effectively to its particular function within the larger project.  But with three agencies dealing with $200 million (the President has asked for double that money for the next budget), and private entities also involved, looking at the NIH and NSF websites can’t help but present an incomplete picture of what’s going on.  And that makes the promotion of this initiative, and of whatever results emerge from it, all the harder to explain – to funders and to the public.

Space Isn’t Special When It Comes To Russia

Noted here last week was the chilling of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in space operations.  It was not the only instance where scientific exchange and cooperation has been stalled due to tensions between the two countries over military actions in the Ukraine.  As noted during this Science Friday segment on April 4, just because the NASA action was the only one made public at the time does not mean it was the only action of its kind taken concerning scientific cooperation.

Russian media (sure, consider the source, but still) are reporting that the Department of Energy has suspended visits of Russia citizens to Department facilities.  The report appears to be based on the leak of a letter sent to Energy Department scientists, and no official communication has been released to the public or received by the Russian government.  Much like the exceptions to the NASA restrictions, activities connected to nuclear security, weapons of mass destruction, or otherwise in the U.S. national interest.  Brookhaven National Lab comes up in these reports in part due to significant Russian involvement with Lab scientists, but Russian reports suggest other facilities received similar letters.

It seems reasonable to think that other agencies have been, or will be, affected by restrictions similar to those affecting NASA and the Energy Department.  The effectiveness of such measures can be debated, but there are some possible actions that could be coming.  One is retaliatory measures by the Russian government (for instance, not even allowing cooperation on those activities excepted by U.S. policies).  The other would be Congressional involvement in international science activities.  Remember how incensed a member of Congress got over cooperation with China?

This Futures Game Requires Your Informed Consent

AAAS and several other organizations are partnering with SciCast – a research project run by George Mason University – in an effort to run a crowdsourced experiment in science and technology forecasting.  SciCast is a big prediction market, covering a number of topics.  The current recruiting drive appears to be focused on gathering participants interested (though not necessarily trained) in science and technology matters.  That’s because prediction markets seem to work well with informed participants, regardless of any formal experience.  Those in the market who have successful predictions gain influence in the market, and their subsequent predictions are given additional value.  The game play come in through a leaderboard, which keeps participants amused and interested so the researchers can fine tune their market algorithms.

If you want to play, you will need to register, and sign the informed consent forms.  Since the last futures/forecasting exercise I participated in didn’t have one, I was particularly interested in the details.  The project is funded, at least in part by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) – the intelligence community’s high-risk/high-reward research outfit.  This should be a surprise considering the value of prediction markets to intelligence agencies.  I do find it suspect that IARPA is only mentioned in the informed consent form.

Also worth noting is that the project kind of presumes that intelligence about science and technology developments is only of interest to the intelligence community.  Prediction markets could have utility for determining undersupported (and oversupported) areas of research, deficiencies in scientific and technically trained personnel, or other questions of importance to the agencies that fund, support and perform scientific and technical research.  Will IARPA be willing to share?  I have my doubts.

There’s Some Edge To The Open Access Bite

While funding entities that have open access requirements have seen decent compliance rates, enforcement of such policies has usually been with a light hand.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced nearly 18 months ago that it would start withholding money from those grantees that fail to comply.

While the agency isn’t giving details, Nature indicates it has followed through.  It is reporting that both NIH and The Wellcome Trust have delayed grant payments to parties that have not complied with their open access requirements.  While NIH could not give numbers (and would not name parties), Wellcome indicated that 63 parties had payments withheld in the last year.

Policy compliance rates have improved since enforcement was instituted.  But any single action seems unlikely to lead to 100 percent compliance.  Grantees’ home institutions can help by boosting enforcement of their own open access policies (assuming they have them).  Four U.K. higher education funders have announced that they will only count open access compliant papers in their assessment exercises starting in 2016.  That would likely boost compliance, at least in the U.K.  With some in the U.S. Congress still seeking to roll back the NIH public access policy, I’m not expecting U.S. government agencies to follow suit, at least right away.

Medical Group Changes Mind On Incidental Findings

The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) has changed its mind on the subject of incidental findings (H/T ScienceInsider).  Such findings are things found that were beyond the scope or focus of a particular test or procedure.  A little over a year ago ACMG issued recommendations on incidental or secondary findings.  While there was some disagreement on what they meant, a particular issue with the recommendations was that patients should be notified of the findings, whether they wanted to know them or not.

The latest report changes that policy to allow for patients to opt out of such notification, specifically at the point where genomic sequencing may be ordered.  This changes the tenor of the initial recommendations, which encouraged labs to actively look for particular mutations.  It’s certainly easier to facilitate an opt-out option if it’s done before the findings can be established.

No word yet on how much the report on incidental findings from The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues influenced this change.  But I’m not surprised to see a significant push against the initial policy, as it could be reasonably seen as coercive.  Here’s to the willingness of organizations to change their collective minds.

Agency Public Access Policies For Research – Still Working On It

In response to a statutory requirement, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren submitted a report on agency open access policies to the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate.  If you haven’t been following the efforts during this Administration to extend the National Institutes of Health public access policy to other federal agencies, the report is a reasonable start on understanding what the Executive Branch has been doing.

Agencies with over $100 million in annual research funding were required to submit open access plans to OSTP by August 22, 2013.  Per the report, all agencies subject to this requirement have submitted draft plans (see page 3 for the full list).  To the possible disappointment of those championing the private sector CHORUS initiative, agencies are pursuing a variety of options to comply with the requirements.  Some are looking to work with the existing NIH tools, while others are seeking to use existing agency infrastructure.  Still others are seeking to develop new tools, either on their own or in partnership with other groups.

At this point the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the OSTP have reviewed the agency draft plans and submitted their comments.  While no deadline is mentioned in the report, Holdren anticipates several interagency meetings over the next few months to facilitate opportunities to share best practices and pursue opportunities for collaboration.

While there was opportunity for public comment on the process that produced the OSTP memorandum that required agencies to act, I hope there will be additional chances for the public to provide feedback on the draft policies and help agencies refine them once they are implemented.

An (Im)Modest Proposal – The UK Evidence Information Service

Three U.K. universities are doing something I doubt their U.S. counterparts have the resources (or the willingness to risk) to duplicate.  They have started a process for establishing an Evidence Information Service (EIS) to, as they put it, help put scientists ‘on tap’ for policymakers.

As the organizers explain in The Guardian, this is not a lobbying or advocacy group.  The intent is to assist policymakers and politicians in accessing and interpreting evidence.  If you want a U.S. comparison, I would suggest the agricultural extension service, though that is targeted toward farmers and other agricultural workers in the field.

The organizers are looking for interested citizens in the U.K. to talk with their elected representatives to get a sense of how they access evidence in their decision making and how they use this evidence.  They anticipate a 20 minute semi-structured interview would do the job.  Given the more localized nature of U.K. representation, this might be a bit harder to do in the U.S., with town halls and face-to-face meetings a bit harder to manage.

The organizers anticipate operating in two modes, reacting to requests from politicians, and preparing material in advance of parliamentary debates on particular topics.  Once an initial funding amount is raised, the organization would be set up as a U.K. charity – independent of parties and government agencies.  I like the plan, and hope that the consultation will demonstrate that there would be demand for such a service.

Add this to the list of science policy ideas the U.S. ought to steal.

Next PCAST Meeting Covers Policy Analytics

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will meet again next Friday, April 4, in Washington.  The public session is scheduled, per the current agenda, to run from 9:30 a.m. Eastern until noon.  As is customary the meeting will be webcast, and an archive will be available through the meetings page of the PCAST website.

This morning meeting will focus on two report and one panel that science policy stakeholders should find of particular interest.  As part of the President’s review of big data, privacy and the economy, PCAST was asked to conduct “a study to explore in-depth the technological dimensions of the intersection of big data and privacy.”  The subject was a theme in the January 2014 meeting, and the report will be discussed at this one.  Another report, focused on anitmicrobial resistance, will also be discussed.

The 10:45 panel is titled “Analytical Techniques to Improve Public Policy Decision Making.”  Panelists come from a variety of fields – sociology, computing, digital advertising and bioinformatics.  I don’t know if this panel is intended to inform the big data report or if it’s focused on a completely separate project.  Perhaps we can all find out on April 4.

Stanford Brings The METRICS To Research

John Ioannidis attracted some attention through a 2005 paper titled “Why Most Research Findings Are False.”  Ioannidis continued working in what is sadly just a niche – research quality assurance.  Part of Stanford’s School of Medicine, Ioannidis is now one of the directors of a new center, the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS).  This Economist article appears to serve as an early announcement about the center ahead of a formal launch in the coming days.  The center does have a website, but as of this posting, it’s not fully operational.

Ioannidis is joined as Director by Steven Goodman, Associate Dean of Clinical and Translational Research at Stanford.  His work has focused on proper inference, statistical analysis, and other components of effective research.  His interests include comparative effectiveness research and research outcomes.  The combination of experience between Goodman and Ioannidis seems tightly coupled to two major goals of the center -

“Our center aims to undertake rigorous evaluation of research practices and find ways to optimize the reproducibility and efficiency of scientific investigation. We aim to apply research methods to study how research is done, and how it can be done better.”

There’s an extensive laundry list of items METRICS wants to tackle.  Those interested in open research data (and methods), the various biases within research, conflicts of interest and commitment, and otherwise strengthening the reputation of the scientific enterprise should keep an eye on METRICS, and if they can, urge other researchers to take heed.  METRICS shouldn’t stand alone as a university research center focused on closing the gaps between research practices and research ideals.