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.

314 PAC Makes Three

I’m late to the party about a new science-oriented Political Action Committee, 314 PAC.  By my far from official count, this makes three different PACs (First in Science, Franklin’s List and 314 PAC) focused on science and technology in some fashion.  First in Science is focused on improving research funding rather than supporting individual candidates, which is the focus of both 314 and Franklin’s List.  (First in Science is an independent-expenditure-only PAC, commonly referred to as a Super PAC.  314 PAC and Franklin’s List are not.)

314 PAC came about after the unsuccessful primary campaign of Shaughnessy Naughton in 2014.  Naughton, a trained chemist, ran for Congress in part due to cuts in research funding and attacks on science.  She relied on her connections with other researchers, scientists and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals in her Pennsylvania community to raise money for her campaign.  She looks to use (and grow) that network through 314 PAC.

A major difference between 314 PAC and Franklin’s list is that only the latter is non-partisan.  314 is looking to support Democratic STEM candidates.  For the 2014 election it endorsed four candidates: Seth Moulton (Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District), Representative Bill Foster (Illinois’ 14th Congressional District), Manan Trivedi (Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District) and Amanda Curtis (one of Montana’s Senate seats).  All of them have a STEM degree of some kind.  Two of the candidates – Moulton and Foster – won their races.

For me this raises a bit of a dilemma.  If there is to be a science PAC (or several), I would rather they be non-partisan.  I think gaining additional attention to science and technology matters is valuable, but I’d rather not see those matters become further entrenched with a specific party.  However, it does appear that the partisan PACs are more active, and perhaps more successful.

But I am neither a lawyer nor a political operative, so I could be wrong.  I’d appreciate any insights, and pointers to other science and technology-oriented PACs.

NSF Changes Transparency And Accountability Procedures

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced in early December changes to its accountability and transparency procedures.  Based on some of the changes, it would appear that the move is also in response (see the third paragraph) to the Republican congressional efforts to explicitly connect individual grants to ‘the national interest.’

The changes are focused on how projects are described in grant proposals and abstracts.  While that may appear superficial, it’s worth remembering that most policymakers and members of the public will only encounter brief descriptions of scientific projects.  Like an abstract.

So, effective December 26, the NSF Proposal and Awards Policies and Procedures Guide was updated to reflect the following (quoting from the press release):

“Should a proposal be recommended for award, the PI may be contacted by the NSF Program Officer for assistance in preparation of the public award abstract and its title. An NSF award abstract, with its title, is an NSF document that describes the project and justifies the expenditure of Federal funds.”

“The guidelines for program officers in the Proposal and Award Manual now state that a nontechnical project description must explain the project’s significance and importance and “serve as a public justification for NSF funding by articulating how the project serves the national interest, as stated by NSF’s mission: to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; or to secure the national defense.” The titles and abstracts of NSF’s awards are made public on NSF.gov.”

What would be lovely to see is the commencement of a research program to assess how these new requirements are implemented, and how views of titles and abstracts change (if they do).  Will these new requirements be handled in the same way the ‘broader impacts’ requirements have been?  Will Congressional efforts to micromanage grant approvals make use of this information?

How Changes In Cuba Policy Could Help Research

The recent thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations may be chilled by the incoming Congress, but researchers are encouraged.

Since 2009 the Treasury Department has allowed U.S. scientists to conduct research visits to Cuba.  But the changes announced by the Obama Administration should make it easier to conduct research in Cuba and collaborate with Cuban scientists.  Once the country is removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, it will no longer be necessary to obtain an export license to bring scientific equipment to Cuba.  Travel licenses for scientists should become easier to obtain, meaning it should be easier for American scientists to attend scientific meetings in Cuba and vice versa.  AAAS is quite pleased with the development, in part due to its efforts over the last several years to strengthen collaborative opportunities between the two countries.

Perhaps the most widespread scientific impact of this thaw in relations could come from infectious disease research.  With Cuba’s proximity to Florida, tracking infectious tropical disease is of great interest to both countries, especially with the recent spread of dengue and chikungunya to both the U.S. and Cuba.