Tuesday, July 30, 2013

High Quality Research Act

Earlier this year, Lamar Smith, the new chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, drafted a bill that would require that the National Science Foundation (NSF) director certify that projects funded by the NSF are groundbreaking and in the interests of national health and welfare. Additionally, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency. This could potentially politicize decisions made by the NSF. The bill is called the High Quality Research Act, and it has not yet been formally introduced in Congress.

Specifically, the draft would require the NSF director to post on the NSF website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:
1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

At face value to a lay audience, this may not seem like such a bad thing; after all, don’t we want our tax dollars to fund innovative research that has the potential to cure diseases? However, it is concerning that bill could potentially undermine the peer review process, which has always been at the crux of scientific research. The best feedback and criticism comes from other researchers in the same field, and this needs to continue. However, this is probably the worst-case scenario. In reality, it seems to me that this bill would not have the power to replace the peer review process, and it says nothing about doing so.

I can understand the motivation for writing such a bill. The government is appropriating less money for research, especially after the sequestration cuts, so with its limited resources it should fund projects that are of greatest interest to the American people. However, I really do not see this bill having much effect because the NSF and our country’s scientists use these promises (i.e. their work is groundbreaking and of interest to the American people) to justify their grant recipients and research, respectively. Nevertheless, it is important to be mindful that this bill could potentially undermine the peer review process.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gun Policy Ideas

I have previously discussed the gun crisis we have in this country. So how are we going to deal with it? First, Senator Manchin announced on April 29 that he would reintroduce a bill requiring universal background checks. This is something we all need to get behind, as it is sound policy for our health and is supported by about 90% of Americans. Under current federal law, people who buy weapons from federally-licensed gun dealers have to undergo a background check. The name is submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is a computerized background check system designed to respond within 30 seconds on most inquiries. Private transactions are not covered by federal law, so no background checks are required.

Second, the NICS database needs to be strengthened because 28 states do not report inpatients with mental illness, and 17 have reported fewer than 10 mental health records since database’s creation. Furthermore, the U.S. General Accounting Office(GAO) estimates that NICS’s mental illness data falls short by 2 million individuals. New York made a step in the righ direction when it recently passed the New YorkSecure Ammunition and Firearms Act of 2013, requiring mental health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, etc.) to report patients deemed likely to seriously harm themselves or others, check the gun license database, suspend the individual’s gun license, and send a police officer to remove the firearm. I am curious to see the gun violence data in New York following this law.

Third, we need to get rid of high capacity weapons. The problem is that there are so many of them in circulation, and guns are durable goods and will not dissolve or expire. A solution might be to offer payouts for returning your guns, but obviously this will require government funding.

Fourth, we need to do more research on smart gun technology. A smart gun is a gun that will only fire in the hands of its lawful owner and can use technologies such as fingerprint recognition, magnetic rings, and other. Eventually it might be possible to require gun companies to include this technology in their products. New Jersey jumped on this and passed the Childproof Handgun Bill in 2002 that requires new handguns to contain a mechanism that only allows their owners to use them.

Fifth, we need to strengthen policies concerning gun shows, because approximately 40%of guns sales occur at gun shows. A possible option is requiring background checks before anyone enters a gun show. This would prevent the large number of gun sales that occur without background checks at gun shows.

These ideas for policy change are not going to fix all our gun problems, but they will make steps in the right direction.