It’s Not Just About The Bees

Earlier this week a U.S. government Task Force released a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.  The strategy was requested by Presidential Memorandum last year and the task force is led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The major goals of the strategy are:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels (no more than 15%) within 10 years;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration (225 million in the Eastern population by 2020); and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action (7 million within 5 years).

Accompanying the strategy is a Pollinator Research Action Plan, which has ten subject areas and five main action areas.  Those action areas are:

Establishing a baseline – Researchers would establish numbers and conditions for existing populations of pollinators, the better to understand what influences populations decline and how those populations change.

Assess environmental influences – Here is where researchers would examine the neonicotinoids and other chemicals used that may contribute to population declines.  Such environmental influences include pests, diseases and proper nutrition.

Restoring habitats – A major goal of the strategy, habitat restoration includes the plant species that depend on pollinators.

Understanding and supporting stakeholders – Another way in which this strategy is not all about the bees is its focus on those engaged with pollinators and the crops that rely on them.  It’s another reason economics are one of the subject areas of emphasis in the research action plan.

Curating and sharing knowledge – This area covers how the processes of research and data collection could or should be standardized to make it easier to communicate this research to other countries and to researchers in other fields.

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How Many Deputy Chief Technology Officers Do We Need?

On Monday the White House announced that Dr. Ed Felten, a computer scientist who has served as the Chief Technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, would rejoin the Obama Administration as a Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  He becomes the fourth Deputy CTO in the, along with Alex Macgillivray, Ryan Panchadsaram, and D.J. Patil.  Patil’s title is Deputy CTO for Data Policy and he also holds the title of Chief Data scientist.

(Disclosure – I have worked with Felten in our respective capacities at the Association for Computing Machinery, where he is a Fellow and a member of the Associations U.S. Public Policy Council.)

While Patil’s policy responsibilities are still emerging, he is the only one of the four Deputy CTOs for whom I can find specific responsibilities.  While I appreciate the need for flexibility when trying to support technology and innovation policy, I find the absence of specific portfolios a bit curious.  Each of the Deputy CTOs has different backgrounds and experiences, so it makes sense for each of them to focus on different areas.  It would be nice to know if that was the case or not.

The continued expansion of the CTO’s Office reminds me again of how it does (or does not) fit within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The CTO’s Office is separate from the Technology and Innovation Division (where the policy responsibilities are much more explicit).  But if the mission of the CTO is sufficiently distinct from that of the Technology and Innovation Division, and the Administration is not keen on having the CTO also lead the Technology and Innovation Division, perhaps it would be better for the Office to be separate from OSTP entirely?

Readers may remember my preference on this matter, and your answer may be different.  But with the current Administration in its last two years, it’s not too early to try and figure out whether to continue this experiment, and how it might be different for the next President (assuming that person decides to keep the job).  Knowing more about how the current position (and office) are intended to operate can help inform that discussion.

NIH Reiterates Opposition To Funding Gene Editing For Human Embryos

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

(For what it’s worth, the research indicated a very low success rate in editing the gene.)

The statement mentions the various legal and regulatory prohibitions on funding the kind of research the Chinese conducted.  In this case, the editing was of a gene responsible for a particular blood disorder.  But the changes to the gene would be heritable by the descendants (if the embryos in question were viable), and that is the source of concern.

From the Director’s statement (CRISPR/Cas9 is the editing technique in question):

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.”

While Collins also notes the federal laws and regulations that restrict funding, I do not expect the statement to be the end of the discussion around the gene-editing research reported on in China (which is probably continuing).  I suspect many would find the use of non-viable embryos in this research acceptable, even if it punts on the questions of consent to changes for future generations and the safety of the techniques on viable embryos.  After all, stem cell research lines have been derived from non-viable embryos.  I think that the need to (eventually) work with these technologies on viable human embryos makes the stem cell comparison problematic, but that won’t likely matter in the policy debates to come.


NIST Chooses PubMed To Help Comply With Public Access Policy

Earlier this month the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released its open access policy for federally funded research results and research data (H/T GCN). This is to comply with the Office of Science and Technology directive from 2013 for all agencies with annual research budgets over $100 million.

The policy will be implemented in stages, starting with two of the agency’s journals, and then expanding to all intramural agency research by October of 2015.  By October 2016 the policy will be completely implemented, and any NIST-funded research articles will need to be deposited in the PubMed Central repository within 12 months of publication (fields can petition the agency for a longer or shorter embargo period).

Research data will be handled indirectly.  NIST has developed an enterprise data inventory to list NIST-funded research datasets.  The agency would not store those datasets, but provide sufficient metadata and other information to allow the public to access those datasets.  This is consistent with the approach favored by many of the agencies that have already released their open access plans.

Open Access Bills Stage A Return Engagement

For the fifth consecutive Congress bills have been introduced to extend open access to government-funded research results.  In the last month three bills have been introduced, resembling bills introduced in previous years.

For the 114th Congress there are House and Senate versions of the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR).  Essentially the same bills were introduced in the 113th Congress with the same sponsors and the same terms.  Previous editions of these two bills were under a different name – the Federal Research Public Access Act.  The bills are assigned to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, respectively.  The bills would require open access to federally funded research articles within six months of publication.

Another open access bill in this Congress is the latest edition of the Public Access to Public Science Act.  It too was introduced in the previous Congress, and has the same sponsors this time around.  Compared to the FASTR bills, this act covers a smaller set of agencies (those under the jurisdiction of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee), and hews closer to the requirements of the February 2013 Policy Memo from the Office of Science and Technology on open access.  Like the FASTR bills, this legislation requires open access for covered articles within six months of publication.

With nearly 10 years of legislative efforts to expand open access, I’m not optimistic that these bills will be much more successful than their predecessors.  A major difference in this Congress is that agency public access policies are in the process of final review and/or implementation.  (The difference in embargo periods between these bills and agency access policies is not likely a bill-killer, at least by itself.)  That might help get these bills out of committee, but I think it will take stronger effort by their legislative champions to get them to the President’s desk.

Then there’s the matter of open access to research data, which is not covered by these bills.  Baby steps, I suppose.

Chief Technology Officer Bill Back, Now With New Sponsor

When President Obama decided to have a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the position is not permanent.  At the moment, should his successor opt not to appoint one, the CTO position would cease to exist.

Since 2009, there have been two bills introduced to put the CTO position into law.  The bills, had either passed, would have put into law the specific requirements of the position, and establish a separate office for the CTO.  While this would make the position last longer than a single presidential administration, it would also remove a flexibility with the position that is reflected in the backgrounds and portfolios of the three CTO’s appointed by the Obama Administration.

The bills essentially make the CTO position into the head of information technology purchasing and implementation in the government.  That’s an important function, but there already is a federal chief information officer.  Ideally, at least from where I type, the CTO would be on par with the President’s chief science adviser.  Focusing the position on information technology runs the risk of making the job the government’s tech support, instead of a position focused on how to utilize all kinds of technology to support the government and serve the public.

There is now a third bill attempting to formalize the CTO position.  While the first two were sponsored by Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia), the latest bill is sponsored by Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia), and co-sponsored by members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, where Loudermilk serves as chair of the Oversight Subcommittee.  The House Science Committee was not involved with the previous bills, which were considered by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  The newest bill has been referred to both committees for consideration

The latest bill makes the CTO position optional, but would require any CTO appointment to also serve as the Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  (The first CTO in the Obama Administration, Aneesh Chopra, served in both positions.  His successors did not.)  The bill does focus the CTO position on information technology responsibilities, but it does think a bit more broadly than IT.  The CTO would also handle information exchange between the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the public; agency records transparency; and technological interoperability.

I appreciate the greater breadth of portfolio in this bill, but I’d rather not see the CTO subsumed by the OSTP.  An equal partner is more to my liking, but your mileage may vary.  I don’t expect this bill to have a better fate than its predecessors, but it’s certainly not to soon to see what President Obama’s successors might do about a CTO.  Where does your candidate stand on the issue?

White House Demo Day Announced

Earlier today the Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, announced the first White House Demo Day to take place later this year.

As described on the Demo Day website, the idea appears to be something like the White House Science Fair for entrepreneurs.  Put another way, successful entrepreneurs will come to talk about their ideas and how they managed their success.  The White House is particularly interested in hearing from entrepreneurs in underrepresented groups.  Nominees are being taken (scroll down) until this Friday, April 24.

(A 72-hour window for nominations may be a record short window of comment from this White House.  The cynical part of my analytical faculties makes me think that most of the entrepreneurs are already lined up, and this is just for show.  But I can’t prove that.)

The Demo Day announcement follows on last week’s Tech Meetup, an event where organizers of activities like maker fairs, coding camps, and other gatherings of local technology talent met at the White House to share best practices and discuss how to replicate their efforts in other places.