Parsing How High Court Nominees Might Engage With Science And The Law

Earlier today the President announced his nominee for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, D.C. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland.  As several Senate Republicans are on the record indicating a lack of interest in meeting the nominee, much less holding a confirmation hearing, it’s unclear when or if Garland might sit on the court.  Even so, the nomination raised the question for me about how to assess potential jurists on how they would use science and technology in the court.

It strikes me as a tricky bit of business, but one worth engaging with regardless.  Especially since whomever joins the Court next is replacing a Justice who felt it necessary to note in the Myriad Genetics opinion (page 22) that

“I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

Often the disputes that come before the Supreme Court and lower courts may involve decisions and agencies that deal with science on a regular basis, but are contested on grounds that deal with matters of law and authority for which science and technology are context but not the crux of the decision.  So while issues related to science and technology have become more important to society and have appeared more often in court matters beyond the specialized cases you might expect to see them (intellectual property chief among them), they don’t drive decisions so much as force the legal disputes.

When you review assessments of judges such as this one about Judge Garland from SCOTUSBlog in 2010 (the first time he was considered for a Supreme Court nomination) you don’t see any mention of science or technology.  It’s hard to say if that’s because he didn’t deal with cases that engaged with those topics or not.  The Circuit Court Garland serves on deals primarily with regulatory actions, so it stands to reason that science and technology factors into those cases in terms of informing policy choices.  But that doesn’t automatically mean that Garland had to have significant technological or scientific literacy in order to rule in those cases.

Again, Senate Republicans may make discussing a future Justice Garland moot.  But they won’t stop me from thinking of how difficult it could be to assess if the next Supreme Court Justice will feel the need to commit their lack of science and technology knowledge (or interest in same) to the public record.  Pointers and suggestions (as always) welcome.

National Maker Faire Returning In June

Today the White House announced that the second National Maker Faire will take place on June 18 and 19 as part of the National Week of Making (June 17-23).

The White House held a Maker Faire in 2014, and expanded it to a Week of Making and the National Maker Faire in 2015.  This year’s event will also be held at the University of the District of Columbia and feature participation from several federal agencies.  As the producer of Maker Faires, Maker Media is involved again this year.

The White House is encouraging people to submit their maker stories, and to host events during the Week of Making.  If interested in sharing your stories or otherwise supporting the effort, please contact the White House by May 30th.

In related news, the Education Department announced a new competition today to support creating more maker spaces in high schools.  The idea here is that such spaces would help boost interest and participation in career and technical education.  Put another way (and one that Mike Rowe might get behind), it’s updating various shop classes to include new skills needed in the 21st century and to get more people in the room.  It’s a multi-stage competition that will recognize the winners at the World Maker Faire in October.  The deadline for the first phase of the competition is April 1.

Research Mice Are Strongly Segregated By Sex

Earlier this week, when discussing the recently implemented National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant requirement that proposals cover how sex is accounted for as a biological variable, I commented on the length of time it has taken to get to this point.

“While some of this time can be accounted for by the typical time required in developing policy I think it also highlights the challenges in confronting and mitigating a longstanding bias against systematic consideration of sex in biomedical research.”

I mentioned in that post a 2015 GAO report noting the problems NIH grantees have had in incorporating women into clinical trials.  However, this Nature news article describes the problems ahead for addressing sex differences in research animals.  It discusses a paper in eLife that describes an analysis of sex differences in research mice used in over 15,000 open access research papers published between 1994 and 2014.

While researchers did find that recording data on animal studies improved over the time series of the study, it plateaued around 2010.  So the existence of subsequent policies, like that of the NIH, has not yet translated into further improvements.  The study also noted that certain research fields have strong preferences for either male or female research mice.  These differences were also found in different kinds of research in the same field (the Nature article notes that diabetes research tends to use male mice, but studies on immunology related to diabetes tend to use female mice.

It would seem that policies will only be one tool used in order to successfully manage the use of both genders in research mice for biomedical research.  Education and journal practices will need to adapt to make sure researchers understand why sex is an important variable in their research that needs to be address much better than it has until now.

Defense Department Building An Innovation Advisory Board

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has named Alphabet (the new parent company for all Google businesses) executive chairman Eric Schmidt as the chair of the newly constituted Defense Department Innovation Advisory Board (H/T WIRED).  Aside from Schmidt’s work at Alphabet, he serves on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).

The board will have up to 12 members, and be selected by both Schmidt and Secretary Carter.  The mission of the board, according to the Department’s press release, is to:

“provide department leaders independent advice on innovative and adaptive means to address future organizational and cultural challenges, including the use of technology alternatives, streamlined project management processes and approaches – all with the goal of identifying quick solutions to DoD problems.”

Members are expected to be leaders of (or have led) major public and/or private organizations and have experience with identifying advanced technology concepts.  The Department sees this board as comparable to the Defense Business Board, and would likely meet quarterly.

No first meeting date has been announced yet, but that is not likely to happen until the full slate of board members have been selected by Carter and Schmidt.  How much this board will be able to do before the Presidential transition is unclear.  Absent a statutory basis for the board fixing terms independent of whomever is President, this process will be restarted (or possibly not) under the next administration.

Changes At The Top Of Several Science Organizations

Over the last month there have been changes at the top of a few national science organizations.

The National Academy of Sciences made it official earlier this month and elected Marcia McNutt to be its first female president.  She was nominated last July and will take office on July 1st of this year.  It marks the third time she will be the first female in a particular science position.  McNutt is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine and was the head of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Also of note is that McNutt is the second consecutive geological scientist to become president of the National Academy of Sciences.  It is apparently tradition that the officeholders alternate between the physical and geological sciences.  She will take office from Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist and former Chancellor of the University of California at Irvine.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its annual presidential transition, and Barbara Schaal is the new President of the organization.  She will serve for one year while continuing in her position as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington at St. Louis.  Schaal has also served as a science envoy at the State Department and as a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) under President Obama.

(The election process for the AAAS also has a long lead time.  The new President-elect of the organization, Susan Hockland, was selected in late 2015 and will take over from Schaal next February.  Once a AAAS President completes their one-year term, they become Chair of the Board for the following year.)

There is also a new head for the Italian National Research Council (CNR).  Massimo Inguscio, an optical physicist at the University of Florence, has experience in running scientific organizations, but the CNR is a much larger and more multi-disciplinary institute.  He takes over at a time when Italian scientists are initiating a national discussion over research funding.

Commerce Department Seeking To Expand Manufacturing Network

The National Network of Manufacturing Innovation currently consists of seven institutes where industry and university partners work together on developing and deploying new manufacturing capabilities and processes.  Each institute has a specific focus:

  • America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (additive manufacturing and 3D printing);
  • DMDII (integrated digital design and manufacturing);
  • PowerAmerica (wide bandgap semiconductor-based power electronics);
  • LIFT (lightweight metals);
  • IACMI (advanced fiber-reinforced polymer composites);
  • AIM Photonics (integrated photonic circuit manufacturing);
  • NextFlex (flexible hybrid electronics)

Two more institutes are currently under competition.  One will focus on fibers and textiles manufacturing and the other on and advanced sensors, modeling and platforms.  Proposals on these institutes were submitted in the last few months, and decisions may come later this year.  In each instance, a federal agency provides start-up funding for the institute, which eventually will be self-sustaining through additional funding sources.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have been the lead federal agencies for the institutes funded to date (and the two currently under competition), but the National Institute of Standards and Technology will be the federal agency partner for the new institutes that emerge from the competition announced by the Department of Commerce on February 19th.  The focus of the institutes is open, as long as the proposed institute doesn’t overlap with any existing one.  A Proposers’ Information Day is scheduled for March 8, where the competition will be described in additional detail for prospective teams.  Registration closes on March 2, and it will be webcast.  Submission deadline for pre-applications is April 20 and the deadline for full applications (for those invited based on successful pre-applications) is July 22 (subject to change)


Confirmation And Nomination News, Non-Scalia Edition

Contrary to the sturm und drang of the political class (and press) over judicial nominations, the Senate still confirms nominees and the President still nominates people to serve.

The latest cases in point for science and technology jobs involve the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Library of Congress.

In a slightly shorter time than I had predicted, Dr. Robert Califf was confirmed by the Senate to become the new Commissioner of the FDA.  Several senators had sought to block the nomination, including current Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.  Califf has been with the FDA since 2015 when he was appointed the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Medical Products and Tobacco.

With the exception of Senator Sanders the stated objections by Senators were due to concerns over specific FDA policies.  Senators Markey and Manchin are concerned with how the FDA approves opiod-based painkillers and Senator Murkowski wants the FDA to label genetically modified salmon.  Echoing the concerns of other critics, Senator Sanders sought to block the nomination over Califf’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry based on his time leading the Duke Clinical Research Center.  (Matthew Herper at Forbes suggests that Califf could have been appointed to lead the FDA back in 2009 if not for those ties, which Herper does not consider disqualifying)

Califf was unanimously approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (Senator Sanders, a committee member, was not present at the hearing and could not vote no) in January, and the Senate advanced his confirmation to a vote on Monday.  The vote to advance the nomination was 80-6 in favor, and the confirmation vote was 89-4 in favor.

Senators Manchin and Markey were joined by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire in voting against the nomination (Sanders, and the other Senators running for President, did not vote) Califf.  Joining those four Senators in voting against advancing the nomination were Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

On Wednesday President Obama announced he would nominate Carla Hayden to become the next Librarian of Congress.  Hayden is currently the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and has served in that post since 1993.  She is a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board, confirmed to that post by the Senate in 2010.  She has worked in libraries and museums for most of her four decade career, most of that time in Baltimore and Chicago.

This nomination, coming after the 28-year tenure of the recently retired Librarian, James Billington, will likely mean notable scrutiny to the nomination, the first of the Information Age.  IT infrastructure is an issue for the Library, as noted by this 2015 GAO report.  The current Chief Information Officer has been on the job since September, after three years with no one in the position.  A possible source of contention is over copyright, as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) released a statement congratulating Hayden but also “hop[ing] that the new Librarian would continue to demonstrate…respect for the Copyright Office’s expertise.”

While I suspect that the RIAA would make this statement regardless of whomever the President nominated, this video of Dr. Hayden could be interpreted as representing a potential Librarian of Congress that would be focused on making more information available to more people more easily.  Someone that sees the Library of Congress as the nation’s library more than the Congress’s library.

No confirmation hearing has been scheduled at this time.