Archive for the ‘Science + Politics’ Category

Canadian Science Minister Muddles in Peer Review

June 13th, 2009

Posted by: admin

From ScienceInsider comes this report that the Canadian science minister has taken an extraordinary step of asking the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to conduct a second peer review of an awarded workshop grant.  The topic of the workshop is “Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace.”  This is a topic that can attract controversy, and the issue has been the source of protest when combined with scientific events.  The minister’s stated objections are that:

“several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.”

Independent of the accuracy of these claims (the ScienceInsider article notes only two speakers have withdrawn over the issue, and neither are Israeli), there’s plenty wrong with why this would be a valid reason to re-do the peer review.   There doesn’t appear to be a claim that the possible bias of these speakers has influenced the work that would be presented (and supported).  In other words, no clear indication or suggestion of bad research that was missed by the review process.  This was a political request to change scientific procedures for non-scientific reasons.


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.


Science Diplomats on Science Diplomacy

June 3rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

Among the other interesting discussions at the science diplomacy event Yasmin Khan posted about was a set of remarks from the science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, Nina Federoff, and the chief science adviser of the U.K. government, Sir David Beddington.  Part of their discussion (H/T Nature News) outlined the challenges of avoiding the misuse of science to acheive political goals.  Another important distinction made was the difference of using science in diplomacy and science diplomacy.  While this may seem obvious to some, it’s an important reminder that the former – such as addressing international resource shortages – is distinct from the latter – using science to form partnerships.  It also seems like that the former will get more attention.

EPA Issues Its Own Scientific Integrity Memo

May 19th, 2009

Posted by: admin

On May 9, EPA Administrator Jackson issued a memo to all EPA employees about scientific integrity in the agency (H/T OSTP Blog).  Keeping in line with the Obama Administration’s scientific integrity memo, scientific integrity is not defined in this memo.  While referencing the agencies previous efforts in this area, including whistleblower protections, Administrator Jackson notes that she has asked the EPA Science Council to assess EPA efforts and gaps in this area:

“The SPC at my request is inventorying all our guidelines and policies that relate to scientific integrity to look for gaps and possible areas for improvement. One SPC focus, for example, will be updating and reaffirming EPA’s Peer Review Handbook and recommending how we can improve implementation of our peer review policies across our programs and regions. I also have asked the SPC to work the National Partnership Council to reaffirm the Agency’s Principles of Scientific Integrity and update the Principles of Scientific Integrity online training.”


Scientific Integrity Trumps Stem Cell Research?

May 18th, 2009

Posted by: admin

That’s an interpretation of this analysis in Cell Stem Cell (no, that’s not a stutter, but a journal title).  In short, there is a significant concern that the consent standards required by the new NIH guidelines (currently under public comment) would preclude using most existing stem cell lines, including those that were accepted under President Bush’s stem cell research guidelines.  Of course, we are talking about federal funding for these stem cell lines; private entities will be free to continue to fund stem cell research.  The new guidelines were drafted in response to President Obama’s Executive Order removing the guidelines of the previous administration.

The issue is the retroactive application of informed consent standards.  For reasons listed in the piece that are primarily legal/judicial in nature, the authors of the analysis consider retroactive regulations to be an unfair infringement, equivalent to an ex post facto law which is specifically proscribed in the Bill of Rights.  From a research perspective, such retroactive regulations are problematic where consent procedures are concerned because it is usually difficult, if not impossible, to conform old consent actions to new consent procedures without violating subject confidentiality (or anonymity), or the validity of the experiments in the research.  As a result, most current NIH grants in this area would have to be stopped.

Given that President Obama’s actions on stem cell research and scientific integrity were issued on the same day, I find it ironic that an effort to preserve one could serve to undercut change in another.  The comment period on the stem cell guidelines should close soon, and we will see whether or not the final regulations will manage to have a chilling effect on stem cell research that could rival the effect following President Bush’s 2001 limitations.  If this is the case, some comfort could be taken in the Obama Executive Order, which allows for the NIH to review and update the guidelines as appropriate.  This ought to be a lesson to those who thought the issue was resolved with the March Executive Order.

Applying the Science of Science Policy

May 11th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Picking up from last week’s posts on the science of science policy, I want to shift emphasis to what happens after the research program generates useful information about relevant investment decisions.  Here things move from the rationality encouraged by Dr. Marburger to the competing interests and priorities of politics that may make any useful knowledge generated by the research program wither and die.  He’d be the first to admit that he doesn’t have a good idea about how to address this problem, and I make no claims that what follows will fit the bill either.  But there is no effective S&T wide discussion of strategy and tactics in approving policy, and the lackluster record of this community reflects it.  We need to change how we support our arguments and desired policies, as well as adjust the strategies and institutions we use to give these policies life, if there is any hope of being taken more seriously than we are at present.

Many of the science and technology organizations in Washington are disciplinary in their focus, and are more concerned with advocacy than research.  While it certainly makes sense in supporting the interests of their members and their disciplines, it can lead to a diffusion of effort in support of science and technology.  the biological sciences and the engineering disciplines have umbrella organizations (FASEB and IEEE, respectively) that help alleviate some of this stovepiping, but the basic problem remains.  The organizations that are arguably for all of science and technology – AAAS and the National Academies -  are more involved with their research and service activities, and what advocacy they do is relatively mild.


Dr. Marburger’s Bromley Lecture: Science as Policy

May 7th, 2009

Posted by: admin

I attended last week’s Bromley Lecture (in honor of D. Allan Bromley, science adviser to President George H.W. Bush) by Dr. John Marburger, President George W. Bush’s science adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  As suggested by the abstract, the bulk of Marburger’s remarks focused on his call for a science of science policy and what that means.  Today I’ll post about what Dr. Marburger said, and tomorrow I’ll spend some time discussing what else is needed to fulfill the notion of science of science policy as envisioned by Dr. Marburger.

The summary that follows is based on my notes and recollections.  Any misrepresentations are mine and mine alone.  If you were there and think I mischaracterized something, please comment or contact me off-blog.

Dr. Marburger came to the job from a notable research and research administration career, having served as President of SUNY-Stonybrook as well as Director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.  He acknowledged that taking the job opened his eyes to science policy beyond his narrow slice of the pie (physics, mostly).  Moving quickly from his background to an overview of science and technology policy, he used a series of charts to note two points that often need repeating.  First, the pattern of public support ($) for science is typically reactive to random, outside events.  Second, there is no apparent systematic approach to support for science and technology funding.  The latest evidence of this was the addition of $6.5 billion to the NIH stimulus bill funding by one senator.  In other words, narrow advantage trumps objective planning. These repeating themes prompted Marburger to respond as a scientist and attempt to place some order on the chaos.


Varmus Interview Discusses NIH Organization, Research Balance

April 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Co-Chair of the new President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), Dr. Harold Varmus, has a new interview at American Scientist’s website.  The interview covers his work in science and science policy.  Those readers not familiar with biomedical research or the NIH will learn more about how the NIH may not be as disease-centered as coventionally thought.  You will also find some suggestion that PCAST will be a more vital and active advisory body than it’s been before.

Unfortunately, the interviewer asks a question that somehow completely confuses the problem of politicization in science.

Do you think controversial scientific questions, such as the use of human embryonic stem cells, can ever be removed from politics in the United States?

While Varmus appears to accept the premise and say that they can, a careful reading of his response demonstrates how questions involving ethics choices – like the use of human embryonic stem cells – always involve some level of politics.  He speaks of how the U.K. and the U.S. used different forms of regulation to control the use of human embryonic stem cells, and how an effective incorporation of scientific expertise in the political process would allow for effective rules on research to be established and used.

OSTP Seeks Public Comment on Scientific Integrity

April 23rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Office of Science and Technology Policy released today a Request for Public Comment in the Federal Register (H/T ScienceInsider).  The comments would inform the drafting of recommendations to the President for action to preserve scientific integrity in the executive branch.  These recommendations were required by a Presidential Memorandum* issued by President Obama in early March.  As noted here when it was released, the memo seems to be better as a political statement than as effective policy.  Hopefully the comments process can nudge it towards the latter.

The comment period is brief – it ends at 5 p.m. Eastern time on May 13.  You can submit comments via email (, online (though I’d make sure they fixed the link on that page), or by mail (address is listed in the Federal Register notice).  Comments can also be made on the new OSTP Blog, with blog posts for each of the principles outlined below.  You will need to register in order to comment on the blog.

There is some guidance for the comments, which are after the jump:


Robert Cook-Deegan Reviews The Art and Politics of Science

April 12th, 2009

Posted by: admin

In the March-April issue of American Scientist, Robert Cook-Deegan reviews the memoir of Harold Varmus, The Art and Politics of Science (H/T Review-a-Day).  Cook-Deegan runs the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy at Duke University, and has written a wonderful review.  I recommended the book earlier this year based on an excerpt. Anyone still not persuaded of the need to read the book, or to follow Varmus as he serves as co-chair of President Obama’s PCAST (President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology), will be after reading Cook-Deegan’s review.