What Was Likely The Most Interesting PCAST Meeting In Years

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on May 20th in Washington, D.C. You can watch a webcast and/or review a transcript of the meeting online.

For the PCAST work updates, there was information on the ongoing PCAST forensic science study, the Council noted that there is an ongoing study on drinking water safety, which was the focus of the sole in-person public comment at this meeting.

The outside experts presenting at the panel talked about two potentially transformative subjects.  One panel of federal employees spoke on near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which we need to monitor in the event of future close calls (or impacts).  The other outside panel was on cryptocurrencies.  While you might think that Bitcoin is the one and only digital currency secured by cryptography, it is not, and the presenters helped PCAST engage with what cryptocurrencies are and some of the policy issues that come with introducing a new kind of money into an existing monetary system.

PCAST Breaks Pattern By Meeting On A Wednesday

Today the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) met in Washington, D.C., breaking its usual pattern of meeting on Fridays.  As is customary, a webcast is available.

The public agenda was focused primarily on ongoing projects, with presentations on studies PCAST is conducting on forensics and biological defense.  PCAST also heard from members of the National Academies Committee on Accessible and Affordable Health Care for Adults.  PCAST issued a letter report on innovation in hearing technologies in late 2015, and the Academies released its report last month.  As you might expect, the Academies’ report is longer, with more detailed research and recommendations than the PCAST letter report.

For once, there was some detail about the private session that PCAST (likely) held with the President.  Per the Federal Register, PCAST was to meet with the President for an hour to discuss a report on “Action Needed to Protect Against Biological Attack.”  The meeting was to be held in a secure location and the contents of that report may not be made public due to national defense or security interests.  (Pardon the verb tense, as I’m not sure whether the scheduled meeting took place, and may never know given the security concerns.)

The next meeting of PCAST is likely in September.  And yes, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted about the May meeting of PCAST.  I will rectify that shortly.

FDA Releases Proposed Guidances For Next Generation Sequences

Last week the Obama Administration released one of its periodic fact sheets announcing recent actions on the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI).  The PMI is trying to build tools and gather data to make it easier to target therapies and other medical treatments for specific individuals.

Part of this latest fact sheet is the announcement that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is releasing draft guidance on oversight for what’s called next generation sequencing (NGS).  This category of tests measures a much higher number of genetic variants than current sequencing.  The agency believes that these draft guidances – one on standards for analytical validity of NGS tests and another on using evidence from public genome databases to demonstrate the clinical validity of NGS tests – can be sufficiently flexible for a family of tests that is emerging and notably distinct from existing sequencing and related tests.  This is a situation where the agency likely believes that establishing some boundaries for a new testing field can support the development of such tests.

If you’re interested in providing comment on either draft guidance (or both), you will need to submit them by October 6.

Canadian Science Policy Conference Announces 2017 Date And Location

You may already have plans for the 2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), taking place November 8-10 in Ottawa.  Now you can plan for next year’s conference as well.  The organizers recently announced that the 2017 Conference, which will be the 9th such event, will take place November 1-3 in Ottawa.  This would mark the third consecutive year (and fourth overall) the event will take place in Ottawa, and it certainly makes sense that if the conference is to have a permanent home city that it would be the nation’s capital.

2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Dominion of Canada, and the CSPC organisers are encouraging those proposing themes and events to keep that in mind.  Themes should be suggested by August 29, and while there is no deadline for submitting events (which would apparently be coordinated with the 2017 CSPC), I would assume the sooner the better.

By point of comparison, here are the themes for the 2016 CSPC (explained in more detail on teh conference website).

  • A New Culture of Policy Making and Evidence-Based Decision-Making: Horizons and Challenges
  • A New Innovation Agenda for Canada: What are we building?
  • Science Funding Review: New Visions and New Directions
  • Clean Energy and Climate Change as Global Priorities: Implications for Canada?
  • Canada’s Return to the International Stage: How Can Science Help Foreign Policy?

Both this year’s and next year’s events should be worthwhile, especially for those interested in broadening their science policy expertise to include the Canadian experience.

50th Anniversary of FOIA Marked By Signing Of Updated Legislation

While it did not come into effect until 1967, this Fourth of July marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  The law is how the public can access the records of any federal agency, provided the information does not fall under one of nine categories of exemptions.  A well-intentioned law, the response to FOIA requests can leave something to be desired, with agencies citing exemptions or imposing serious burdens of time and cost on parties requesting information.  An effort to update and reform the legislation has been in the works for several years, and on July 1st, President Obama signed into law the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.

The bill does not provide new resources for agencies to comply with FOIA requests.  This is unfortunate because the slowness of an agency’s response is a common criticism of FOIA compliance (and could be used to delay or stonewall transparency efforts).  However, the bill does put into law several changes, that if successfully implemented, could make it easier to access government information even if you weren’t the one making a request under FOIA.

The new law puts into law a ‘presumption of openness’ that both the Clinton and Obama Administrations applied to their FOIA responses.  That means agencies would comply with requests unless the information is specifically barred from disclosure by law or that it would present a ‘forseeable harm’ to one of the exemptions in FOIA.  It also limits to 25 years the exemption for documents used for an agency’s ‘deliberative process’ (internal decision making).

The law pushes forward the efforts to digitize FOIA requests and compliance.  It requires the development of a government-wide online portal through the Office of Management and Budget for FOIA requests.  It would also make available online records that have been released in response to FOIA requests, with an emphasis on those records that have been requested multiple times or have otherwise been determined to be subject to frequent requests.

This is unlikely to be the end of public pressure to reform and update FOIA.  Various groups interested in public disclosure of government activity will continue to argue that the public interest should favor disclosure more than it currently does, and the limited resources available for FOIA will continue to make compliance an afterthought for agencies.

The Obama Administration announced additional FOIA actions in connection with the signing.  The Chief FOIA Officers Council outlined in the law (formalizing an existing group) will have its first meeting on July 22, and it will work on identifying the top challenges in complying with the law.  The Department of Justice pilot program on proactively posting FOIA responses online (rather than distributing them just to the requesters) will be reviewed and perhaps expanded.  Guidance on implementing the new FOIA law will be released later this year, along with specifics on a cross-agency goal to improve agency compliance with FOIA requests.

As there is little time left in this Administration, it’s worth considering how either of the presumptive Presidential candidates may approach the new FOIA in their tenure as President.  Given the high-profile instances of each campaign failing to disclose relevant information or act in ways that lack transparency, it seems likely to me that the open government groups aren’t looking to let up in their campaigns to make government decisions and activities more transparent.

The Government Wants To Hear From You About AI

Yesterday the Federal Register published a Request for Information (RFI) from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The RFI is part of the ongoing White House Initiative on the Future of Artificial Intelligence, which includes an ongoing series of workshops (the latest was today in Pittsburgh, and another is scheduled for July 7 in New York City).  The OSTP is asking for comments between now and July 22.

The RFI is open-ended, but the document lists 10 different topics that are of particular interest around artificial intelligence (AI):

(1) The legal and governance implications of AI;
(2) the use of AI for public good;
(3) the safety and control issues for AI;
(4) the social and economic implications of AI;
(5) the most pressing, fundamental questions in AI research, common to most or all scientific fields;
(6) the most important research gaps in AI that must be addressed to advance this field and benefit the public;
(7) the scientific and technical training that will be needed to take advantage of harnessing the potential of AI technology, and the challenges faced by institutions of higher education in retaining faculty and responding to explosive growth in student enrollment in AI-related courses and courses of study;
(8) the specific steps that could be taken by the federal government, research institutes, universities, and philanthropies to encourage multi-disciplinary AI research;
(9) specific training data sets that can accelerate the development of AI and its application; and
(10) the role that “market shaping” approaches such as incentive prizes and Advanced Market Commitments can play in accelerating the development of applications of AI to address societal needs, such as accelerated training for low and moderate income workers (see https://www.usaid.gov/cii/market-shaping-primer).

The main goal of the White House initiative is to identify and pursue opportunities for using AI to support the provision of government services.  So if you can tailor your submissions to account for this, it might boost your chances of getting attention.  Either way, you will have to limit your submissions to 2,000 words or less.  And submit those comments by July 22.

National Maker Faire Returns To Washington

Tomorrow and Sunday, June 17 and 18, is when the second National Maker Faire takes place at the University of the District of Columbia.  It is the biggest event of the National Week of Making, which started today.  Tickets are required, but they are free.

The Maker Faire will have demonstrations and presentations from makers and people supporting and studying making.  The schedule is packed, even moreso than last year.  There are also workshop opportunities, which may require a small additional fee.  Attendees can also see some  of the cutting edge research facilities at the University.

The Week of Making provides the Obama Administration the opportunity to announce several government and private sector commitments that has some connection to providing maker spaces or otherwise supporting technology education.  The White House has a full list of these commitments available online (and a more detailed fact sheet), but here are a few that drew my interest:

  • Over 1400 K-12 schools have committed to having a maker space available for their students.
  • A trend of having libraries serve as maker spaces, encouraged by programs like the Education Department’s Future Ready initiative, and the efforts of many public and private organizations to utilize recreation centers, libraries and similar spaces to support making.
  • Agencies making an effort to help makers navigate their funding (NSF, NIST) or regulatory (FDA) procedures.
  • The continued efforts of longstanding making organizations like Maker Media, to spread the word.  The tour headed by Adam Savage could be very interesting, especially if it manages to reach beyond the making audience that already follows the former MythBusters host and his projects.

Most can’t make it to Washington for the weekend Maker Faire.  There are also a number of events taking place across the country (and not limited to the official Week of Making).  Feel free to check the calendar for something happening near you.