Not All Scientists Are Opposed To GMO Labeling

ScienceInsider reported yesterday that scientists in Germany are calling for labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO).  The petition (which should be online any time now) goes beyond labeling for GMOs in food, to include such organisms in feed, drugs, textiles, chemicals, and other products that have been produced using genetic engineering.  Should the petition receive enough signatures by a certain time, the German Bundestag would have to consider the proposal.

I remain skeptical that the no-label position regarding GMO’s is the right move, so I welcome this petition effort.  Opposing labeling makes it look like there’s something to hide, which feeds into GMO opponents’ argument that the development and use of GMO’s has been deceptive in some fashion.  It also strikes me as anti-democratic and anti-transparency.  And while those might not be value positions linked to science, they are important values in policy decisions (the current debates over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement suffer from a similar challenge since the text of the agreement is not widely available).

Arguably the pro-GMO side has won, given the prevalence of these organisms in many items.  But the effort to prevent labeling has the potential to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Maybe the German scientists are onto something.

UK Election Jiggles Science And Technology Ministers

Last week the U.K. held Parliamentary elections, seating a new Parliament but returning David Cameron as Prime Minister.  His Conservative party, which came to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, won enough seats to hold a majority on its own.  You can find plenty of analysis about the impact of the election in many sources, including discussion of how the polls so badly connected to the final outcome.

And, of course, I’m just a Yank speculating from across the ocean about all of this.

Following the election, there has been a reshuffling of Cabinet portfolios.  This reflects both the change from a coalition to single party rule and the normal turnover expected between elections.  The last reshuffling put MP Greg Clark in charge of Universities and Science (along with Cities), replacing now former MP David Willetts.  Clark was returned to Parliament in this election, but his portfolio has returned to focus on cities.  Clark is now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  The BBC has characterized this as a promotion, which implies the relative importance of the universities and science portfolio for aspiring MPs.

The new Minister for Universities and Science is MP Jo Johnson.  Johnson was elected in 2010 and in his first term served in Cabinet Office.  He was made head of the Number 10 Policy Unit in 2013, and it’s unclear as of this writing whether he will remain in that position or not.  Johnson’s educational background is in history and business, and after a short time as an investment banker he has been a financial journalist for several years.

It’s early to know what Jo Johnson will do in the position.  With the UK looking at a referendum concerning EU membership, I think the higher education portion of his portfolio may command most of his attention.  Based on Johnson’s work on the Conservative Party manifesto for this election, he may well see this posting as a stepping stone to other possibilities.  With Johnson’s brother Boris returning to Parliament after several years as Mayor of London, both Johnsons may strive to become larger players in UK politics.

The Universities and Science Minister is part of the Department on Business, Innovation and Skills.  The new Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is MP Sajid Javid.  Prior to the election he served in several positions, most recently as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  Like Johnson, Javid worked in finance, but did not move into journalism before entering politics.  His educational background is in economics and politics.  I kind of expect both Javid and Johnson to move on to higher positions within this new Cameron government, should the opportunities present themselves.

Finally, MP Greg Freeman remains as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences.  His post remains split between the Health Department and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

American Psychological Association Settles Lawsuit Over Lobby Fees

From today’s Washington Post is word that the American Psychological Association (APA) has settled a class-action lawsuit with its membership.  At issue was the contention that the association had required several of its members to pay a voluntary fee to the group’s lobbying arm, the APA Practice Organization.  The alleged deception dates back to 2001.  The total cash payments of the settlement will be nine million dollars.

The settlement process is ongoing, and the court will either approve or reject the settlement later this year.  As you might expect, the terms of the settlement agreement include language asserting that there is no admission of any claims levied in the suit or any acknowledgment of liability.  The agreement also means the association will be more explicit in communicating that fees paid to the APA Practice Organization are optional.

The way the APA has a separate lobbying arm brings up the matter of how scientific societies do or do not engage with advocacy.  The particular issue here is only tangentially related to the question, in that members can opt to provide support of association lobbying independent of their membership dues.  I don’t have any particular recommendation of the best way to handle this matter, but I think it highlights how agreement of a scientific association on the state of the field doesn’t necessarily translate into agreement on policy choices.  Nor do I think it should, but that’s a separate discussion.

Transcendence Explores The When And What Of Einstein’s Nobel

Robert Marc Freidman is an historian of science and a playwright.  His theatrical works include “Remembering Miss Meitner,” covering the flight of physicist Lise Meitner’s departure from pre-war Germany and later career in Sweden, and “Transcendence,” a work currently going through public readings.  The premiere performance is expected in Berlin this November, as part of the commemoration of the centenary of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Commissioned by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, “Transcendence: Relativity and Its Discontents” covers the years leading up to Albert Einstein being awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics.  Worth remembering is that Einstein was not recognized for his work in relativity, but for his work on the photoelectric effect.  A member of the committee responsible for awarding the Physics prize, Allvar Gullstrand, did his best to block Einstein from being recognized with a Nobel.  Carl Wilhelm Oseen, a member of the committee that sought to recognize Einstein’s work.  Also part of the play are Max Planck, who encouraged Einstein to move to Berlin from Zurich, and Franz Kafka, who corresponded with Einstein during this period.

While this is a new commissioned work by Friedman, his 2001 book The Politics of Excellence certainly informed “Transcendence.”  The book covers the politics behind the Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics, including Einstein’s.  If you can’t wait for the November premiere (or won’t be able to be in Berlin), I’d seek out the book to tide you over.


Journalists Still Frustrated At Access To U.S. Scientists

While it’s possible there is no level of access to government scientists that would satisfy journalists, the current levels of access – even in the U.S. – remain a matter of complaint.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), soon after releasing its latest report on agency media policies, has issued an early summary of how journalists currently feel about access to government scientists (H/T Government Executive).

Through its Center for Science and Democracy, the UCS worked with the Society for Professional Journalists in developing and conducting the survey.  It’s a follow-up to a 2011 survey conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica.  In the 2011 survey it was found that the Obama Administration had made marginal progress in making agency scientists accessible to journalists.  The 2015 survey suggests not much has changed.  Per the UCS:

  • Public information offices routinely require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees.
  • Sometimes, when reporters ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the public information office.
  • It’s not unusual for reporters to have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert.
  • Despite reporters’ positive working relationships with public information officers, a majority feel that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of the barriers that agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.

Worth noting is that in many respects, science reporters compared favorably to other reporters, according to the Society for Professional Journalists.  From its conclusions:

“The analysis of the science writers’ survey compared with the earlier surveys of political and education reporters indicates the science agencies may be more open and less controlling than other types of government agencies – there may be more protection for scientists to speak openly as opposed to other people. Also, it appears a good number of science writers are better able to develop relationships with their subject matter expert sources than other types of reporters, thus mitigating the public information offices’ efforts at media control.”
So, while there may not be great access to government scientists and the relationships between science journalists and public information officers can be complicated, other fields may not have it so good.

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.

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.