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Science Policy Around the Web – April 24, 2018

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By: Kelly Tomins, BSc

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source: pixabay

NASA

Trump’s NASA Nominee, Jim Bridenstine, Confirmed by Senate on Party-Line Vote

The senate has confirmed Jim Bridenstine, republican Oklahoma congressman and former navy pilot, as the new administrator of NASA. The senate confirmed Bridenstine along party lines, with 50 republicans for and 47 democrats and two independents against. His confirmation concludes 454 days NASA has operated without a permanent leader, the longest period in the organizations history. Despite Bridenstine’s long-time interest in space, his lack of technical expertise and bureaucratic leadership experience has left many legislators skeptical of his ability to run a $18.5 billion dollar agency.

Bridenstine’s background differs greatly from past NASA administrators. He is a three-time Oklahoma congressman and the first elected official to ever hold the top position at NASA. Bridenstine’s science experience is limited to sponsoring the American Space Renaissance Act, an unpassed outline of the future of NASA, and serving for two years as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. The NASA administrator under Barack Obama, Charles F. Bolden, Jr., was an astronaut for 14 years at NASA before returning to the Marine Corp. Current acting administrator, Robert M. Lightfoot, is a mechanical engineer who has worked for NASA for nearly 20 years. Bridenstine will be only the third of 22 NASA administrators or acting administrators without previous NASA experience or formal science/engineering training. In addition, Bridenstine has no experience running a government bureaucracy and has come under fire for questionable dealings during his brief tenure at the Tulsa museum.

Democratic senator Bill Nelson of Florida was one of the most outspoken opponents of the confirmation, denouncing Bridenstine’s political background as a potential conflict of interest. Bridenstine has made controversial and conservative statements in the past, including criticisms of climate change funding and opposition to same-sex marriage. Even republican Marco Rubio expressed concerns regarding Bridenstine’s lack of science expertise, and was only swayed to vote yes after the current acting NASA administrator announced his retirement.

Bridenstine’s confirmation follows the trend within the current administration to appoint non-scientists to lead scientific agencies. Rick Perry was appointed as Secretary of Energy despite his lack of scientific expertise, his questioning of climate change, and having once proposed eliminating the agency as a whole. The current administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, entered the position without scientific background. Additionally he was a well known critic of the EPA, demonstrated when he sued the agency more than a dozen times during the Obama presidency.

NASA is a historically nonpartisan agency, and its best interest would not be served by swaying political ties. There has historically been little partisan divide over the NASA administrator appointment, and both administrators under Barack Obama and George Bush were unanimously confirmed by the senate. Despite Bridenstine’s unconventional political background, Bridenstine assured the senate during his confirmation hearing that he “want[s] to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical”. Let’s hope that’s the case.

(Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

 

Ethical Research

African scientists call for more control of their continent’s genomic data

New guidelines published by the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative (H3Africa) hope to clarify ethical standards of studies, give African scientists more autonomy, and ensure that Africans benefit from the research they participate in. The African continent contains a wealth of human genetic diversity and overseas researchers are increasingly utilizing this diversity to discover more about our species history and health. Despite the wealth of information African samples can provide, there is a lack of infrastructure to support African scientists. African genomic samples are often shipped to the global north to be analyzed, a practice driven by superior computational facilities and faster computing times. African scientists often have to collaborate with researchers overseas, reducing their autonomy. In addition, there are ethical questions regarding the use of African biobank data for secondary use by researchers not involved in the original study.

H3Africa is an NIH funded health-genomics consortium that works to increase the genomic infrastructure by funding African-led projects and train bioinformaticians. These new guidelines were written by an ethics working group aimed at all stakeholders involved in the design, participation, and regulation of genomic research throughout Africa. The guidelines four core principles are summarized as:

  1. Research should be respectful of African culture
  2. Research should benefit the African people
  3. African investigators/ stakeholders should have intellectual leadership in research
  4. Research should promote fairness, respect, equity, and reciprocity

H3Africa hopes that these guidelines will help guide research-ethics committees to promote the best practice for research in Africa, and eventually spark the creation of national regulations for genomics research and biobanks. Brenna Henn, a population geneticist at the University of California, Davis, is optimistic about the framework guidelines, although somewhat worried of heightened tensions with western scientists. She states, “The guidelines could be a rude awakening for scientists who seem to believe they can fly into an African country, study a genetically unique population and export the samples in a few months”. It is definitely a necessary awakening that African populations should not be exploited for their genomic data, and hopefully these guidelines will pave the way for more ethical, consensual, African-led research studies.

(Linda Nordling, Nature)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 24, 2018 at 10:21 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 25, 2017

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By: Rachel F Smallwood, PhD

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Science policy

US science envoy cites Trump policies in a public resignation

The US Department of State houses the US Science Envoy Program, designed to allow accomplished US scientists to represent the country’s interests and goals in science and technology. These envoys engage international representatives, advocate for institutions, endorse science education and its importance, and advise the government on scientific matters. On August 21, 2017, in a letter to President Trump, Professor Daniel Kammen resigned his position as envoy. His focus in the program was on “building capacity for renewable energies.”

In his open letter to the president, he cited Trump’s leadership and policy decisions as his factors for leaving. He condemned Trump’s reluctance to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He also stated that the president’s refusal of the Paris Climate Accord in addition to denial and undermining of environmental and energy research could not allow him to continue his position in good conscience. The first letter of each paragraph in the document spelled out the word “impeach.” He ends dramatically by asserting that Trump’s presidency is harmful to the United States and “threatens life on this planet.”

It is no secret that the scientific community has serious concerns regarding the Trump administration’s views of and plans for scientific policy and research. This past April a March for Science was held on Earth Day with the intention of demonstrating the importance of science and the amount of support it garners. There has also been worry and discussion over what the administration’s recommendations will be for prioritizing funding for scientific research.

Professor Kammen’s resignation highlights a struggle for scientists in his position. For an administration that does not seem to appreciate the gravity of scientific matters such as climate, energy, and health research, there seems to be an important need for knowledgeable and experienced advisors to help them. However, when those experts’ advice is not heeded, and when the administration takes a stance that the experts are opposed to, it is difficult for them to continue. While resignations in these kinds of positions often seem to have a domino effect, at least one envoy is planning to remain in his position, and the state department confirmed it is in the process of appointing more.

(Jeff Tollefson, Nature)

Scientific Training

NSF issues a reminder that grant-winning universities should be formally training students in ethics

The National Science Foundation recently posted a notice reminding universities and research institutions of their responsibilities in teaching their trainees about ethical research practices. In 2007, the US Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which requires institutions applying for funding from the NSF to show that they are educating their students and trainees on good science and ethical practices. The NSF enacted this by implementing the Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR) requirement; however, they only gave vague guidelines, allowing institutions flexibility in executing this training. In 2010, they did recommend that institutions incorporate a risk assessment to determine the needs for training.

In 2013, the NSF’s Office of the Inspector General published an independent report on compliance with the RCR requirements. There were several areas where institutions were falling short. Almost a quarter of the schools had no training at all when first contacted, and no schools conducted risk assessments. Additionally, a substantial portion of the universities that did having training implemented went with a minimalist approach, only have a short, online course. However, not all of the blame can be placed on the institutions. The America COMPETES Act did stipulate that the NSF should create written guidelines or templates for institutions to follow in implementing these trainings.

Despite the RCR requirements’ failure to induce institutions to provide satisfactory training in ethical science, the NSF has reiterated the importance that universities and institutions comply with providing this training. At a time when facts are being called “fake news” and leaders are making statements and decisions against scientific consensus, it is more important than ever that young scientists learn to conduct sound, ethical science and interpret it in honest and realistic ways. While it is good that the NSF is encouraging this, many hope that in the future they will take a more proactive and forceful stance in enforcing it.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 25, 2017 at 10:58 am