Archive for the ‘Science Policy: General’ Category

Research Takes First Step on Tolerance of Nanoparticles

June 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Scientist has a capsule review of a 2007 research article on the ability of mice to purge themselves of nanoparticles.  The full article is available in Nature Biotechnology (subscription/purchase required).  The article also includes notes on some subsequent work in this area.

As nanotechnology matures, providing more and more products with particles measured in nanometers, the risk of exposure to these particles needs to be assessed and regulated.  Being able to determine what size of particles can be expelled by the body and what sizes accumulate in the body helps shape the questions for the regulatory landscape.  But it doesn’t close off exploration into potential risks.

While other regulatory models can provide useful examples, it’s important to remember that the scale of these particles may provide unique concerns.  I would hope that the hard lessons of chemical regulation – where accumulated exposure flew under the regulatory radar for years (see Krimsky’s Hormonal Chaos for a good overview), could be used to good effect here.  It may not be enough that the small particles can be expelled.  Enough transitory exposures over time could have unfortunate effects, much like enough small doses of certain chemicals have had dramatic effects on endocrine systems.

UK Petition Pushes Linear Model to the Extreme

June 20th, 2009

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There is a custom in the U.K. to submit petitions to the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street.  It can be done in person, by mail, or electronically.  Some of the petitions deal with science and technology issues.  One that I saw circulate on a listserv claims that the U.K. government is moving its research portfolio to support research where the results are already known.  As of today, about 1550 people have signed on to a petition pressuring the government to:

“request the reversal of a policy now being applied by the UK Research Councils. This policy directs funds to projects whose outcomes are specified in advance.”

This reads – at least to this American – that the U.K. is essentially supporting busy work – research that is pointless to conduct since the results are known in advance.  Looking further at the petition, there is this text:

“Where a specific outcome can be predicted with confidence, then there is no research.”

“The UK taxpayer should not support investigations with foregone conclusions, however beguiling. UK research must not be guided by wishful thinking, nor relegated to producing footnotes for ground-breaking discoveries made elsewhere.”

There is a bit of a shift in perspective as the text proceeds.


UK Backs Away from a Bibliometric Research Assessment Exercise

June 19th, 2009

Posted by: admin

According to ScienceInsider (and Times Higher Education), the planned shift of the U.K. Research Assessment Exercise from peer review to bibliometric analysis may not happen.  Bibliometric analysis may still be used, but only to guide the extensive peer review process that has determined how the U.K. government distributes research money to its universities.  Part of the reason for the proposed shift had to deal with the significant costs involved.

Moving foward the Higher Education Funding Council will need to figure out how bibliometrics could be used in a meaningful way.  Otherwise there will be additional pressure to try and bump up citation counts and numbers of publications with little regard to the quality of either.  There are already ways to game the assessment in terms of who and what is selected by institutions to be assessed.  If bibliometric analysis isn’t crafted carefully, the ways to skew results will increase.

Bioethics Panel Dismissed; Obama Panel Will Be More Policy Oriented

June 18th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Per the New York Times, the President’s Council on Bioethics has been given its walking papers.  Although the Council’s authority was set to expire September 30, it has been asked to cancel its June meeting, and the members have been told their services are no longer needed.  I have found no indication that the naming of a new council is imminent, but it stands to reason that it should happen soon, at least prior to September 30.

The New York Times article notes that

“The council was disbanded because it was designed by the Bush administration to be “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that favored discussion over developing a shared consensus, said Reid Cherlin, a White House press officer.

“President Obama will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a new mandate and that “offers practical policy options,” Mr. Cherlin said.”

Aside from the stem cell decision made by President Bush early in his administration, there have been few, if any, policy judgments made that received recommendations from the council.  It has issued several reports on various biomedical issues, but they were often readers on the subject, essay collections, or other documents more suited for background information than policy advice.  This is, of course, the perogative of the President.

NSF Director Speaks on Stimulus Funds

June 12th, 2009

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New Scientist runs an interview with National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement where he discusses what the Foundation will do with its share of the stimulus fund.  It appears the NSF will follow the same path of the National Institutes of Health and use the funding boost to clear the backlog of proposals.  After the interviewer asks about the hard landing sure to follow, Director Bement mentions that

If we plan and manage well, this will not be a major factor. The president has plans for a big increase in NSF funding in 2012. By integrating our usual budget increases with the stimulus money we will make this work.

This suggests that the increase Bement mentions will be above and beyond the planned increases from President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative and the COMPETES Act.  I’ll believe it when I see the President’s FY 2012 request, which will probably come around the same time President Obama will be looking for Director Bement’s replacement (his 6 year term expires sometime in 2010).

Shaky UK Government May Affect Science Policy

June 5th, 2009

Posted by: admin

UPDATE – 7 pm EDT, 6/5/09 – apparently the DIUS is no more, according to Nature.  It will be incorporated into a new department, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.  Whether Nature neglected a comma after Business or not is unclear.

UPDATE – 6/6/09 – Apparently Nature did neglect the comma, but given how it’s absent from the Department logo, but not the announcement, I can understand the confusion.

Original Post – I’d encourage any of our readers closer to this to provide additional details, but I found it interesting this speculation from Nature News that the troubles in the government of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown could affect the organization of science policy in that country.  The Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet in light of recent resignations, promoting the current head of the Department on Universities, Innovation and Skills (DIUS) to a Cabinet position.  DIUS was created by PM Brown in 2007 to put universities and innovation issues in the same place.  Previously innovation concerns were handled in a department focused on business interests.  The Nature report reflects concerns that things will return to where they were before.


Changing Outcome Targets in Health Care

May 31st, 2009

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In what might be a microcosm of the pending struggle over the nation’s health care system, a radiologist has proposed in Nature magazine that stablizing tumors at a manageable size, rather than eliminating them entirely (H/T 60 Second Science Blog).  This is a significant shift in traditional strategy, which is usually to knock out the cancer – sometimes repeatedly, should it recur.  Put another way, treat the disease as chronic and manage it with smaller doses of chemotherapy, rather than seeking the death strike and risk the potential of resistant cells returning with a vengeance.  Robert Gatenby, the radiologist behind this idea, compares this different strategy to the integrated pest management approach to invasive species, which was accepted by the Agriculture Department as far back as the Nixon Administration (as it happens, the beginning of the War on Cancer can be traced to the Nixon Administration as well).

A parallel with the upcoming debates over the U.S. health care system would be the current emphasis in the United States on treatment and prolonging the last years of life over prevention and other longevity measures.  While it may be an open question in either situation whether or not changing tactics would be more effective, there will be significant resistance to entertaining the idea in either case.

More Journals Should Learn from Failure

May 30th, 2009

Posted by: admin

I’m not speaking about the ongoing sea changes in print journalism, but about the tendency of researchers to submit, and scientific publishers to print, successful research and ignore the failures.  While anyone in any field can learn from what went wrong, certain areas of research (medicine and engineering come to mind) are in stronger positions to make meaningful contributions to knowledge and to the use of that knowledge from reporting what failed.  The same is true of history, where learning why something didn’t happen can provide insight.  Understanding that something didn’t work in a field can shift choices in products purchased, treatments sought, or services offered.  Yet most published research excludes that kind of result.

One small step to addressing the ignorance of failure is starting with the journal Restoration EcologyAccording to Nature, the editors of Restoration Ecology will host a regular section in their journal for reports on experiments and projects in the field that did not meet expectations.  Understanding the baggage attached to the work failure, the section is titled “Set-Backs and Surprises.”  Perhaps this will catch on with other journals, especially if the setback or surprise is couple with some kind of analysis or discussion of lessons learned.  While policymakers are often focused more on the successes than what didn’t work, they do respond to lessons learned.  In that way, they may have a healthier attitude toward failure than the researchers they support.

Professional Research Techs: A Way to Address Ph.D. Overproduction?

May 28th, 2009

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This article at Science Progress describes an oversight in research funding proposals – both from funding agencies and from those seeking grants.  The scientific equipment, and more importantly, the personnel necessary to operate and maintain it, don’t get much attention in funding.  The main recommendations from the author, a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry:

“In order to stay globally competitive, the federal government must invest in developing a sustainable and professional technical research workforce to supply research demands at both our nation’s institutes and universities. This could be undertaken by:

  • Boosting job stability in this sector by increasing the number of state and federal positions for permanent university research staff
  • Restructuring the grant process with an emphasis on personnel and service contracts in conjunction with new equipment
  • Sponsoring the creation of university degree programs for technical training in the laboratory sciences.”


Green Chemistry Infiltrates EPA’s Office of Research and Development

May 24th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Amongst the recent appointment announcements is the news that Paul Anastas, a synthetic chemist who coined the phrase ‘green chemistry,’ was nominated to head the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (H/T ScienceInsider).  As the EPA’s green chemistry efforts are in a different part of the agency, the choice of Anastas was not necessarily expected.  While currently at Yale, Dr. Anastas has worked at the agency before, and just might shift some of the research and development initiatives at the EPA to incorporate green chemistry.  This might prompt a scenario where there is greater attention paid to designing and innovating new products that reduce environmental impact.  It would be nice to have additonal policy choices besides traditional limits on exposure and similar regulatory restrictions.