Agency Scientists Still Have Challenges Communicating Freely

Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a new edition of its report Grading Government Transparency (H/T Nextgov).  The first edition came out in 2013, and it expands on a previous report, Freedom to Speak?, from 2008, that focused on agency media policies (15 agencies and 2 federal departments).  Grading Government Transparency includes social media policies along with traditional media policies.

The scorecards from the 2013 and 2015 reports suggest slight improvement in policies, or at least maintaining the status quo.  Agencies in the report that didn’t have social media policies in 2013 have them now, so the progress is forward.

The report recommendations in 2015 aren’t that different from 2013.  The UCS still encourages agency media policies to place free and open communication ahead of political principles.  As the organization strongly advocates for a fundamental right to scientific free speech, this is not a surprise.

For agencies where there was improvement in agency policies, the UCS noted several key changes in many cases: the existence of a social media policy, whistleblower protections, a personal-views exception (provisions that allow for government scientists to state personal opinions if they are clearly noted as their personal opinion and do not use unreasonable amounts of government time or resources), and a dispute resolution process.

What is still lacking in many cases, according to UCS, are a right of last review (of written product going under their name or relying on their research) and a right to access drafts and revisions of written materials using contributions from the scientists’ research.

The agencies and departments covered in the report are only part of the government, and do not cover all scientists and engineers employed by the government.  And I don’t think the UCS finds every agency’s grades in the reports satisfactory.  So there remains work to be done.  Media and social media policies for scientists and engineers need to be in more agencies, and need to be strengthened in those where they already exist.


Dr. Varmus To Step Away From National Cancer Institute

Ending what is arguably the science policy equivalent of Presidents Adams or Johnson serving in Congress following their time in the White House, Dr. Harold Varmus announced he will step down as chief of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) effective March 31st.  Varmus was head of the entire National Institutes of Health between 1993 and 1999, meaning he was a predecessor of his current boss, Dr. Francis Collins.  Both of these stints in public service came after Varmus was recognized as a 1989 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine

Varmus highlighted the National Cancer Institute accomplishments during his tenure in a letter to NCI staff.  They include two new centers, improvements in its clinical trials program, innovations in research funding and significant changes to the NCI’s grant process.

Varmus will now live full time in New York City (he was commuting to the NCI facility in Bethesda, Maryland), conducting cancer research in his own lab at the Meyer Cancer Center at the Weill-Cornell Medical Center.  He is likely to apply for funding for the cancer components of the Precision Medicine Initiative.  He will also advise the newly formed New York Genome Center.

The current NCI Deputy Director, Doug Lowy, will serve as Acting Director once Varmus departs.  With less than two years remaining in the current administration, it is possible that Lowy will remain in the position until at least the next President is sworn in.

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.

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.

Senator Warren Proposes ‘Swear Jar’ For Pharmaceutical Companies

According to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, pharmaceutical companies paid more than $13 billion in fines and/or settlements for violations of federal law.  The Senator would like to use some of that money to boost the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

The Medical Innovation Act (not yet introduced) would require large pharmaceutical companies that enter into settlement agreements with the government to contribute money to the National Institutes of Health budget.  It would be one percent of the annual profits for each ‘blockbuster drug’ that can be connected to federal research support.  The contributions to the so-called ‘swear jar’ would take place for five years – often the term of the settlement agreement entered into by the company.

There is no legislative language available just yet, so analysis based on a speech has its limitations.  The terms of the proposed legislation feed into Senator Warren’s role as a populist champion – someone targeting big companies for behavior she (and others) consider contrary to the interests of the non-rich.  That it would boost medical research is a bonus, but not really the major political motivation for the Senator.

While the additional money would be nice, it is dependent on what would be an irregular funding stream.  It would be hard to plan well for the use of the ‘swear jar’ proceeds without some kind of mechanism to provide some funding stability.  Senator Warren estimates that her legislation would have provided the NIH an additional six billion dollars per year over the last five years.  But its unrealistic to expect that the same amount of money would be available each year over the next five.

The biomedical research community is arguably still recovering from the end of the dramatic NIH budget increases around the turn of the century.  While the community would certainly welcome more money, I’m concerned that a stretch of good behavior by pharmaceutical companies would lead to halted grants and/or construction projects because this income dried up.

I like the idea – it’s an acknowledgement of how some profits from scientific and technical companies can be traced back to federal support of the underlying research.  But without a meaningful plan to properly manage this income stream, it could cause more problems than it solves.

So, What Is Precision Medicine, Exactly?

Amidst the laundry list that is the State of the Union was the Precision Medicine Initiative.  In short, it’s a program geared toward expanding treatments crafted to address patients that don’t respond to treatments targeted to an ‘average patient.’ The initiative was announced with Bill Elder in the audience.  Elder benefited from a ‘precision’ treatment for his cystic fibrosis.  The cause of his disease is shared by only 4 percent of cystic fibrosis patients.

Details at the moment are scarce.  The Federal budget may give additional details once it’s released next month.  The program would likely be led by the National Institutes of Health, though the focus of the Initiative would not necessarily be restricted to medicines, wider use of DNA testing to help craft cures or similar clinical treatments.  Refinements in medical imaging can be helpful in this area and health information technology may also be leveraged to develop new cures that can assist those not helped by treatments geared toward the ‘average’ patient.

Setting aside the usual concerns about getting approval for new initiatives in a tight budgetary environment, it remains to be seen if this program can successfully be sold to the general public.  If the focus is on treatments focusing on the margins, it could be hard to sell the benefits to a broader public.  Of course, if there are members of Congress with direct experience benefiting from targeted treatment, then the acceptance of this program might be easier to get.  Unlike the BRAIN Initiative, focused on better understanding of something we all have, the Precision Medicine Initiative runs the risk of being a niche program, not likely to get the large investments it might need.  If it follows the organization of the BRAIN Initiative, including several agencies and a few public-private partnerships, the total investment might be spread around sufficiently to mitigate the political challenges of getting lots of money.

Coming Soon To Your Bookshelf – Collection of Marburger Writings

Coming next month from Harvard University Press is Science Policy Up Close, an edited collection of writings from former presidential science adviser John Marburger.  Edited by Robert Crease, the book covers much more of Marburger’s life than his tenure as the longest serving science adviser (current occupant John Holdren should take that distinction in early 2016).

The first half of the book covers Marburger’s extensive service prior to joining the George W. Bush Administration.  Marburger chaired the organization that oversaw construction of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project, and chaired the Shoreham Commission, a New York State panel in the early 1980s that assessed the safety and other concerns surrounding the Shoreham nuclear power plant.

I have seen one review of the book so far, in Nature (you should be able to access a ReadCube version without a subscription).  Written by Sir Peter Gluckman, the chief science adviser to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the review reads as though Sir Peter is frustrated by what is not covered as much as he may respect what is in the book.  Regrettably, Dr. Marburger passed in 2011, and may not have had much input into this project.

I do not yet have a copy of the book, and hope to get my hands on it at some point.  I am interested to see how Marburger’s explorations of the science of science policy are addressed – it would appear to be in the last chapter of the book.  Assuming I can tackle my reading piles (measured in fractions of my height), expect a post on the book sometime this year.