Why Focus On One Committee Where Science Is Concerned?

In this blog I’ve only focused on the rosters and leadership of one Congressional committee – the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Exactly how narrow-minded is that?

Well, pretty narrow-minded.  But my focus, at least where I type, does not appear that unique.  Review the blogs and websites that report on science policy, and the House Science Committee gets most of the attention.  Not without cause, certainly, but it’s not the only one worth considering.

For instance, there’s a new chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Senators Thune and Bill Nelson, respectively.  But the Senate Commerce Committee is not focused on science in the same way that it’s closest House counterpart is.  Perhaps that explains why the appointment of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to chair subcommittees on space (Cruz) and the oceans and atmosphere (Rubio) attracted some attention, but not nearly the attention focused on members of the House Science Committee whenever they make pronouncements that suggest things other than science motivate their thinking.

So, what other committees are worth attention and scrutiny?  Several.  The Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate are critical in determining agency funding, and this is where last minute restrictions like Senator Coburn’s amendment on political science research, get in.  Committees on technology get short shrift from a lot of science policy press, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I don’t know that it requires equal attention, but I think the committees dealing with new technologies can be just as influential as those determining how to support research and development in the United States.

There’s also the environmental committees.  Sure, there’s an Environment Subcommittee in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, but there’s also the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  (You’ll note the Democrat currently trying to find supposedly fraudulent climate researchers is on the House Natural Resources Committee.)  Health doesn’t have a dedicated committee in either chamber, but those topics are covered in other committees.

So, if you are really interested in science and technology issues in Congress, cast a wider net than I do.  A wider net than the science press does.

The Science Foundation Alliance – How Might It Help?

Recently the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a consortium of foundations that contribute to fundamental/basic research, announced that Marc Kastner, recently the Dean of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be it’s first President.

(Keen readers may remember that Kastner was nominated to lead the Office of Science at the Department of Energy in 2013, and never confirmed.  Clearly he will not be renominated, and there is speculation that the Obama Administration will not nominate someone else.)

The Alliance is interested in promoting private investment in what it calls fundamental research – discovery (of new knowledge) driven research.  Specifically, it aims to significantly increase the amount (by $1 billion) of discovery-driven research funding in five years, and to broaden the community of institutions funding such research.  This would be done through funding universities (the Alliance has identified several universities with dedicated funds for discovery-driven research).

It seems quite early to see what the collaboration encouraged by the Alliance might bring.  Kastner starts on March 15, and then we can see what nudging he and his staff might bring.

Gain-Of-Function Research ‘Pause’ Continues, With Concerns

ScienceInsider has an update on the review of gain-of-function (GOF) research currently underway at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The moratorium was announced last October and is supposed to last for one year.  It covers federal funding for research that would make influenza, MERS or SARS viruses more virulent or easier to transmit.

Reportedly the agency is close to signing a contract with a private company for a risk-benefit analysis.  But, as you might expect with any restriction imposed on active scientific research, there is concern about what NIH has been doing.  Two researchers, Sir Richard Roberts and David Relman, sent the Chairman of the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity a letter expressing their concerns over the process by which the pause and review have been conducted.  They would prefer a more open, Asilomar-style conference where scientists and other experts in the area of gain-of-function research would meet to discuss issues and develop a set of guidelines to influence research moving forward.  They are concerned about what appears to be a lack of transparency to the process, limited (if any) opportunities for public input, possible conflicts of interest (the NIH funds much GOF), a lack of risk assessment experience in the Board, and a very U.S.-centric focus.

House Science Committee Leadership In The 114th: New Faces

With a new Congress there comes new committee assignments, and sometimes new committee leadership.  Now that both the major parties have announced their leadership assignments, here is how the House Science, Space and Technology Committee leadership looks for the 114th Congress.

Representatives Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) remain chair and ranking member, respectively, of the full committee.  Former Chair Ralph Hall (R-Texas) lost his seat in a primary last year, but another former Chair, James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) remains on the committee.  Representative Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) will serve as vice-chair.

(While there are 36 Representatives from Texas, due to its size, the number who have served in leadership positions on this committee seems to be out of proportion.  Your mileage may vary, of course.)

Subcommittee chairs and ranking members are as follows:

Space: Chair – Steven Palazzo (Mississippi, in his third term as chair), Ranking Member – Donna Edwards (Maryland, in her second term as ranking member).

Energy: Chair – Randy Weber (Texas), Ranking Member – Alan Grayson (Florida).  Both are new to these positions.

Environment: Chair – Jim Bridenstine (Oklahoma, in his first term as chair), Ranking Member – Suzanne Bonamici (Oregon, in her second term as ranking member).

Research and Technology: Chair – Barbara Comstock (Virginia, in her first term as chair), Ranking Member – Dan Lipinski (Illinois, in his third term as ranking member).

Oversight: Chair – Barry Loudermilk (Georgia), Ranking Member – Don Beyer (Virginia).  Both are new to these positions.

There is a fair amount of turnover in this committee for this Congress, so the decline of tacit knowledge, comity and experience is likely to continue.  (The continued microscrutiny of National Science Foundation grants by this Committee suggests as much.)  Regrettably, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is not an outlier in this respect.

February Bioethics Commission Meeting Tackled Medical Emergencies

The Presidential Commission on Bioethical Issues met earlier this month in Washington, D.C.  The meeting focused on two major topics – medical emergency research and neuroscience.  The first day dealt with medical emergency research and was heavily influenced by the ongoing Ebola epidemic in west Africa.  The Commission heard from researchers, public health personnel and practitioners on the epidemic in Africa, efforts intended to prevent the spread of the virus in the United States, and the ethical issues associated with research on something like Ebola during an epidemic or other medical emergency.

The Commission is conducting a review of the U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, with a focus on three issues:

  • The ethics of placebo-control trials in the context of public health emergencies;
  • The ethics of U.S. public policies that restrict association or movement; and
  • The ethical considerations relevant to collecting and storing biospecimens during a public health emergency and sharing them for future research.

On the second day, the meeting shifted to the Commission’s ongoing work in neuroscience.  The Commission intends to release volume two of its report Gray Matters sometime in the spring.  Volume 1 was released in May 2014, and focused on the integration of ethics into neuroscience education.  Volume 2 will tackle neural modifications, neuroscience in the legal system, and how neural capacity can affect the ability to consent in neuroscience research.

The next meeting will take place in Philadelphia May 27 and 28.

New Agency Open Access Plans Favor PubMed

In the last week two federal agencies, the National Aeronautics and Atmospheric Administration (NASA) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), released their open access policy plans (H/T OA Tracking Project, techdirt and SPARC).  They follow the Department of Energy, which announced its plans last August.

AHRQ and NASA plans both rely on the PubMed Central database for depositing publications that come from research the agencies fund.  PubMed Central is the repository used for compliance with the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy.  (It is not the same system that underlies the new Department of Energy system.)  Each agency would expect the research publications to be available on PubMed Central within 12 months of publication.

But the new open access effort of the Obama Administration addresses both research publications and research data.  PubMed Central is not set up as a digital data repository, and most of the effort to set up new systems has been focused on research publications.  The AHRQ policy departs from this by including digital data.  The policy does not establish an AHRQ repository, but would require the agency to contract with a repository for address storage of research data covered by the policy.  Grantees would have to submit a data management plan (increasingly a requirement of federal research grants), and work with agency personnel to address the matter.

The NASA policy on digital data does not involve a digital repository of its own – at least at the moment.  It will instead serve as a central point of information for accessing digital data stored elsewhere.  Grantees would outline their digital data access strategy in a data management plan.  The agency will make a registry available with metadata and access instructions for datasets generated by its funded research.  NASA indicates in its plan that it will consider developing a research data commons (in consultation with other Federal agencies), but gives no timetable for that decision.

It is worth noting that NASA went so far as to commission an independent assessment of PubMed Central, the Energy Department’s PAGES system, and the publisher-encouraged CHORUS system before making its decision on how to handle research publications.  That suggests to me how seriously the agency is approaching the matter of open access to scientific information.  That NASA recognizes the infrastructure investment that is involved in complying with this policy, and that it wants to make a wise investment. I do hope other agencies are following suit.

So, About Those Scientists On Trial In Italy…

Important disclaimers – I am not a lawyer, either in this country or Italy.  I also don’t speak the language, so I am relying on secondary sources.

ScienceInsider has reported on the decision to acquit six of the seven people convicted of manslaughter in connection with the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.  The people had been convicted due to the poor way they communicated the risk of possible earthquakes leading up to the 6.2 quake that killed 309 people.

It is not, and never was, about the prediction of earthquakes or a misunderstanding of the underlying science.  But that was the easy message, and the one that got through, at least outside of Italy.  I could have been more effective in communicating that in the many posts I made on the topic, and I apologize for that.

Back to the latest developments.  The appellate court which acquitted six of the seven defendants (all of the scientists were acquitted, while the public official remains sentenced to 6 years) ruled that only the public official could be faulted for the reassurances that caused some people to remain indoors.  The scientists, according to the appellate court, should not have been judged by any regulatory responsibilities they had, but by how well they complied with the accepted science of the time.  And because, according to the court, the notion that a cluster of earthquakes can indicate a larger one was not a commonly accepted scientific theory until after the L’Aquila quake.

That last statement seems like it could be subject to debate for years to come.  Perhaps that debate might play out – at least in part – in the next level of appeals.  The chief prosecutor can appeal this latest decision to the top Italian appeals court.  So this may still not be over.