Cancer Moonshot Summit Backdrop For Several Administration Announcements

Today was the Cancer Moonshot Summit in Washington, D.C.  Vice President Biden hosted that event, while there were roughly 270 similar events across the country, with approximately 6,000 participants engaged with cancer in some capacity.  The Cancer Moonshot page on Medium has plenty of stories about the various commitments made and efforts in progress to make it easier to share knowledge and questions about cancer.

The White House has released a fact sheet in connection with the Summit summarizing these and other commitments made by public and private sector entities.  I want to highlight some of the government commitments, particularly those I think could be used in other fields.  They include:

  • The National Cancer Institute is developing an API (application programming interface) for clinical trial data hosted on cancer.gov.  This would make it easier for other parties to access, analyze, and re-use this data for a host of different applications.
  • Several cross-agency agreements to utilize the supercomputing resources of the Department of Energy to speed up various research efforts.
  • Efforts at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Food and Drug Administration to reduce the time required for various regulatory review and other administrative processes.

Of particular note is something the Vice President said concerning clinical trials.  With several institutions failing to report (in a timely fashion, or at all) clinical trial data, the Vice President expressed an interest in following through on the legal penalties for not complying with the law.  National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins indicated that a final rule was expected soon that should provide additional authority to the agency to crack down on those failing to comply.

More information on the Summit should emerge over the next few days, as information comes in from the other events across the nation.

 

Screwworm Sex Study Snares Second Golden Goose Of 2016

June 23 Update – The Golden Goose Award organizers reached out and pointed me to this press noting criticism of the screwworm fly study.  There are likely contemporaneous references in the Congressional Record, which to my knowledge has not been digitized that far back.

ORIGINAL POST

Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Award recognized the work of Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland on the sex life of the screwworm fly.  This is the second group of researchers recognized this year, and their work will be formally recognized at the Golden Goose Award ceremony held this September in Washington.

The Golden Goose Award is meant to recognize federally funded research that may be considered silly or foolish but is later found to have profound impact.  The work by Knipling and Bushland was funded by the Department of Agriculture starting in the 1930s, and led to techniques that were critical in eliminating the screwworm fly from North and Central America. Knipling’s work developed and tested a theory of reducing the screwworm fly population by introducing sterilized males and Bushland developed a means for growing the numbers of sterilized males necessary to be effective in eradicating the flies.

Research on the sex lives of flies (or any insect, really) could easily be derided as a waste of effort.  Unless those casting aspersions knew of farmers and/or ranchers affected by the spread of such insects.  The screwworm fly feeds on living (as opposed to dead) animals, posing a serious risk to livestock and wild animals.  I would have expected that the economic impact of eradicating a parasitic fly would have pushed down concerns over the perceived frivolity of fly sex research.  But even in the time before Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, the Golden Goose organizers claim that this research was a favorite target of elected officials and others seeking to shine a light on Washington waste.  Given what seems like the clear application of this work and its profound impact, I think the value of this particular award (but not the research) is blunted by the lack of direct evidence of the ridicule.

(In researching this post, I have found conflicting accounts as to whether or not Proxmire recognized this work.  My review of this Wisconsin history database of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece related press releases suggests he did not.)

Canadian Government Engaged In Fundamental Science Review

Part of the Canadian government’s 2016 budget stipulated a review of science funding government-wideThis review will be led by Science Minster Kirsty Duncan, and was launched earlier this week.  Minister Duncan expects the review to be completed by the end of 2016.

The review will be support by an independent panel of experience researchers.  Former president of the University of Toronto David Naylor will chair the panel.  The panelists are drawn from various public and private entities across Canada (Dr. Birgeneau preceded Naylor at the University of Toronto).  The men and women working with Naylor on the panel are:

  • Dr. Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-President, Research, Dalhousie University
  • Mike Lazaridis, co-founder, Quantum Valley Investments
  • Dr. Claudia Malacrida, Associate Vice-President, Research, University of Lethbridge
  • Dr. Art McDonald, former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory, Nobel Laureate
  • Dr. Martha Piper, interim president, University of British Columbia
  • Dr. Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist, Quebec
  • Dr. Anne Wilson, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies Fellow and professor of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

The panel will assess the current state of Canadian research institutions as well as examining the Canadian research ecosystem as a whole.  It will consult with members of the Canadian research community and solicit input from the public.  The panel will also review international best practices, particularly in areas that they identify as weaknesses in the Canadian system.

 

The panel’s mandate focuses on support for fundamental research, research facilities, and platform technologies.  This will include the three granting councils as well as other research organisations such as the Canadian Foundation for Innvoation. But it does not preclude the panel from considering and providing advice and recommendations on research matters outside of the mandate.  The plan is to make the panel’s work and recommendations readily accessible to the public, either online or through any report or reports the panel produces.  The panel’s recommendations to Minister Duncan are non-binding.  However, with researchers on the panel   that are experienced in providing such advice to governments (such as Dr. Naylor), I think the panel’s recommendation stand a fair chance of being adopted by the government.

As Ivan Semeniuk notes at The Globe and Mail, the recent Nurse Review in the U.K., which led to the notable changes underway in the organization of that country’s research councils, seems comparable to this effort.  But I think it worth noting the differences in the research systems of the two countries, and the different political pressures in play.  It is not at all obvious to this writer that the Canadian review would necessarily lead to similar recommendations for a streamlining and reorganization of the Canadian research councils.  Yes, Dr. Naylor recommended a streamlining of health care organisations in a review he conducted during the previous government.  But the focus in health care is more application focused than is usually expected of fundamental research.

There is a simple mechanism online to receive comments (attachments are accepted as well), and as the panel begins its work, I would expect to see announcements of future meetings/consultations with stakeholders and the public.  To keep informed, visit the website, and sign up for email updates.

HGP-Write A Wish List In Plan’s Clothing

In the latest issue of Science is an immodest proposal from a number of genetic researchers for what they call The Genome Project – Write, or HGP-Write.  The name evokes a kind of CD recording media while staking ground for what would be a groundbreaking achievement – a dramatic reduction in the cost of engineering and testing large genomes (up to 100 billion base pairs) by over 1000-fold in the next ten years.

If I understand the proposal correctly – which is questionable as this reads more like the first draft of a roadmap rather than a project proposal – the ultimate goal of synthesizing a human genome would be accomplished after a great deal of work at smaller scales.  But widespread genome synthesis is still quite new.  For instance, the CRISPR suite of tools for more targeted genome editing are still under scrutiny for how they are being used and questions remain unanswered about how they should be used.

The proposal comes soon after a private meeting involving many of the authors to discuss HGP-Write.  The closed-door nature of the meeting and relatively small numbers involved prompted concerns and likely led to what one of the principals, George Church, calls a misunderstanding over what the project intends.  While genome synthesis is the goal, according to Church it is not intended to create humans out of whole cloth.

I think misunderstandings like this will make it harder for the project to get the $100 million in research commitments it seeks for 2016.  If HGP-Write wants to avoid some of the pitfalls that have faced dramatic technology changes such as genetically modified organisms, future meetings should be more public, and the conversations about the project need to be thoughtful and thorough about future applications and implications of the changes they want to make happen.

A short outline of HGP-Write is the start of the beginning, not the beginning of a project.

Congress Likely To Punt On National GMO Labeling Legislation

Vermont passed a law in 2014 requiring that grocery food labels will need to declare if the products contain ingredients that were genetically modified.  The law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, even with a pending lawsuit in federal court.  As the market in Vermont is relatively small, it is not economically feasible to print labels just for products sold in Vermont, which will effectively make the Vermont labeling law a national standard…

Unless Congress does something by July 1, or other states enter the labeling space and offer their own bills.

As you might guess, the chances of Congress acting by the deadline are relatively slim.  An effort to prevent state GMO labeling laws failed in March.  There are efforts underway to find a way forward, but with a limited number of legislative days before July 1, there might not be enough time.  Given that the Secretary of Agriculture and major food producers are interested in a national standard (if for no other reason than to avoid a patchwork of several different state laws), I think this is another example of the willingness of Congress to not do its job (see the annual tragedy of the budget process for the first, best example of this negligence).

For the record, my personal position on this is much like what the General Mills executive outlined in the blog post I cited earlier.  I think GMO food products have been demonstrated as safe for human consumption, but I also think it reasonable to label products with GMO ingredients.

About Those Government Reports That Sit On A Shelf

Today (early Thursday UK time) Sense About Science, a UK charity focused on public access to and understanding of scientific evidence, released a report it commissioned about UK government-commissioned research (H/T ScienceInsider).  The report was also supported by the JRSST Charitable Trust.

The focus of the report is not on scientific research funded by the UK government in general, but on studies commissioned on research that would inform policy.  After press reports claiming delay or suppression of research that could be politically awkward, Sense About Science asked Sir Stephen Sedley a former judge in the Court of Appeal, to conduct an inquiry.

There are to big problems, and both seem to me to be something that any country’s government – whether well-intentioned or negligent – could have.  The main problem for me is that the UK government does a poor job tracking and making accessible the research for policy it does commission.  Only 4 of the 24 UK government departments have a research database for this kind of report, and 11 departments were unable to provide a list of research they had commissioned.

Sir Stephen noted that the rules governing the publication of this research is similarly inconsistent across departments and relatively susceptible to manipulation so that commissioned research could easily be gathering dust on office shelves.  He recommends that there be a central government register for this research, and that it be accessible to the public.  Expect Sense About Science to make this a key issue moving forward.

I think this would be an excellent idea for the U.S. to follow.  I do not think that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would be a good place for this register, primarily because the proposed register is for all agencies, and not just those with which the OSTP has a long-standing relationship.  I think it would be better suited for the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, or a comparable agency with cross-government responsibilities and a history of collecting information and making it available for public review and analysis.

New Sponsor For Major Science Fair Announced

On Thursday the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) announced a replacement for the sponsor for its Science Talent Search, which has been sponsored by Intel since 1998.  Regeneron Pharmaceuticals reached an agreement for a 10-year, $100 million sponsorship commitment that will start with the competition cycle that begins in 2017. This is a large annual increase from Intel’s support, which was $6 million per year.  Besides increasing the prize money, the sponsorship support will include outreach to young researchers that have been underrepresented in science fairs.

Regeneron is the third company to sponsor the 75 year old competition, after Westinghouse and Intel.  The company is led by two alumni of the Science Talent Search, the Founder/Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, and has supported many local science fairs in the past.

The progression of sponsorship from a company that focused on mechanical and electrical products (Westinghouse) to a computer company (Intel) to a biotechnology company (Regeneron) may reflect the changing focus of top science fair projects, but I disagree with Neil deGrasse Tyson that it’s such a surprise that Intel is looking elsewhere.  (It’s worth noting that Intel remains a sponsor of SSP’s international science fair competition – at least through 2019).  Intel has focused more on maker fairs and competitions that are more closely linked to the kinds of products the company produces.  It’s tough to argue that the company is no longer interested in supporting new scientists and engineers when it sponsored a million-dollar competition and associated television show.

I think the bigger challenge relates to the welcome news that part of Regeneron’s support will be outreach to those young people that aren’t participating in science fairs.  Science writer Carl Zimmer described this problem well in recounting his experience with his daughter’s science fair project and how it really could only get done because of his contacts with scientists.  In other words, if you don’t have access to professional scientists, you are at a serious disadvantage.  Which significantly reduces the impact programs like science fairs can have in finding the next generations of scientists and engineers.  Meaning that the increased annual investment in Science Talent Search probably doesn’t go as far as it could.