News Article | May 11, 2017
This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges. Some have put a freeze on sending samples to Australia until they are assured that their packages won’t meet a similar fate, and others are discussing broader ways of assuring safe passage of priceless specimens. "This story is likely to have a major chilling effect on the loan system between herbaria across national boundaries," says Austin Mast, president of the Society of Herbarium Curators and director of the herbarium at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Without the free sharing of specimens, the pace of plant diversity research slows." As a result of the customs debacle, curators in New Zealand put a stay on shipping samples to Australia. So has the New York Botanical Garden in New York City, which holds the second largest collection of preserved plants in the world. "We, and many other herbaria, will not send specimens to Australia until we are sure this situation will not be repeated," says herbarium Director Barbara Thiers. Herbaria are guardians of plant biodiversity data. Around the world, about 3000 institutions keep a total of 350 million plants specimens that have been pressed, dried, and stored in cabinets. Some are hundreds of years old; others are rare examples of extinct species. Particularly valuable are so-called type specimens, used to describe species for the first time. Botanists consult these when they are identifying new species or revising taxonomy. Many herbaria have digitized images of their specimens, allowing initial research to be conducted remotely. But some details must be examined first-hand. To do that, biologists often request specimens through a kind of interlibrary loan. "The system works well when the risk of damage or destruction of loaned specimens is perceived to be very low," Mast says. But sometimes things go awry. Earlier this week, many botanists learned about the destruction of six type specimens of daisies—some collected during a French expedition to Australia from 1791 to 1793—which the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Paris had mailed along with 99 other specimens to the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane, Australia. After the package arrived in Brisbane in early January, the specimens were held up at customs because the paperwork was incomplete. Biosecurity officers asked the Queensland Herbarium for a list of the specimens and how they were preserved, but the herbarium sent its responses to the wrong email address, delaying the response by many weeks. In March, the officers requested clarification, but then incinerated the samples. "It's like taking a painting from the Louvre and burning it," says James Solomon, herbarium curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. According to Australia’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, which enforces biosecurity rules, part of the problem was that the samples had a declared value of $2—and its agents routinely destroy low-value items that have been kept longer than 30 days. Michel Guiraud, director of collections at NMNH, says his museum's policy is to put minimal values on shipments. "If it is irreplaceable, there is no way to put an insurance value on it," he says. Guiraud says the package was sent with the usual documentation and he's trying to find out what went wrong. Concerned about the possibility of other scientific samples being destroyed, the museum is considering stopping loans from all of its collections to Australia. Australia’s agriculture department admitted in a statement that it erred in prematurely destroying the specimens, but didn't take sole responsibility for the snafu. "This is a deeply regrettable occurrence, but it does highlight the importance of the shared responsibility of Australia’s biosecurity system, and the need for adherence to import conditions." The department has reviewed its procedures for handling delayed items and is considering how package labels could highlight the “intrinsic value” of scientific specimens. On Monday, officials met with representatives from a consortium of Australasian herbaria to help them understand and comply with importation rules. "At this stage it appears we are resolving the matter very positively," says botanist Michelle Waycott of the University of Adelaide in Australia and the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria. A second incident came to light after botanists at the Allan Herbarium in Lincoln, New Zealand, heard last month about the destruction of the French specimens. They inquired about six lichen samples, including a type specimen of Buellia macularis, that they had shipped to the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra last year. It turned out the specimens had been destroyed in October 2016 by biosecurity officers in Sydney, Australia. The department is investigating what happened in this case. New Zealand herbaria have suspended loans to Australia while they wait for written guarantees that their specimens will be safe. “We are disappointed we have lost an important part of our collection but we’re looking forward to further international collaboration,” said Ilse Breitwieser, director of the Allan Herbarium, in a statement this week. Curators elsewhere are reviewing how they ship samples internationally. "We will rethink our policy of lending specimens to countries that would pose a risk for loss of collections," says Christine Niezgoda, collections manager of flowering plants at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, who, like others, was surprised to learn that specimens would be destroyed rather than returned. The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, which is following the situation in Australia, hopes to increase communication among curators about shipping regulations and border inspection procedures. A long-standing frustration for many is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), like its counterpart in Australia, does not have a separate category for low-risk scientific specimens. "The way that the U.S. and Australian governments are treating these shipments is basically going to bring taxonomic work to a halt," says Ellen Dean, curator of the Center for Plant Diversity at the University of California, Davis. "We are thinking of no longer loaning our specimens to other countries, because we are uncertain that APHIS will allow our own specimens back into this country." Whatever the destination, veterans emphasize that every detail matters, even the most obvious. "Nothing derails a shipment faster than a wrong address," says Thiers, who maintains a public database of herbaria addresses and contact information. "Sometimes they don't get returned for years, and unless you take extraordinary measures, you won't get them back." (With the volume of specimens that get mailed from the New York Botanic Garden—up to 30,000 a year—Thiers can't afford tracked shipments and uses cheaper library rate shipping.) Even the most diligent curators confess to late-night worries. "Any time you let something go out the door, there's a risk," says Solomon, who is continuing to send specimens to Australia. "The benefit from making the material available far outweighs the risk." Says Niezgoda: "Collections are meant to be used to promote scientific inquiry and this should not change."
News Article | May 22, 2017
Citrus growers and viticulturists across the Mildura region will benefit from three biosecurity projects worth over $250,000 to protect the industry from plant pests and to open up export opportunities. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Barnaby Joyce, today joined Member for Mallee, Andrew Broad, in Mildura to announce the projects, which include work to strengthen biosecurity surveillance and create horticultural export opportunities. “The Coalition Government is funding Plant Health Australia $88,000 to develop a National Citrus Biosecurity Surveillance Strategy, to enable governments and industry to coordinate pest surveillance and detection efforts,” Minister Joyce said. “This strategy will provide ongoing evidence to demonstrate area freedom from pests, to support new market access requests and the maintenance of existing markets, boosting exports. “Many of our trading partners require evidence of our strong biosecurity and freedom from pests and diseases to allow our produce into their country. “This work will give trading partners more evidence to be confident of claims of pest absence and area freedom. This makes things easier for exporters through minimising delays and allowing producers to get a better price for their quality produce overseas. “The government has funded Australian Vignerons $88,000 to develop a National Phylloxera Management Plan to provide consistency in how this pest is managed across the country. “Through strict biosecurity management, large parts of New South Wales and Victoria—including Mildura—and Queensland remain free of this damaging pest and we want to keep it that way. “The national arrangements under the plan will help protect Mildura growers by containing the pest to its current locations, with improved surveillance to help detect and quickly respond to any potential incursions. “The government has also funded Agriculture Victoria $75,000 to streamline contingency plans for exotic plant pests.” The Member for Mallee, Andrew Broad, said strengthening plant biosecurity would deliver benefits across the Mildura region. “The Mildura region is a significant player in the horticulture industry, responsible for 75 per cent of Australia’s table grapes, 98 per cent of Australia’s dried grapes, 20 per cent of Australia’s wine crush and 24 per cent of Australia’s citrus,” Mr Broad said. “We are reliant on Australia’s strong plant biosecurity system, and this work to ensure early detection of pests or diseases, better management and evidence to support pest area freedom is hugely important.” For more information on our biosecurity work, visit www.agriculture.gov.au/biosecurity/australia.
News Article | May 22, 2017
TR4 is a plant disease of the roots of banana plants. It is a fungus but it cannot be controlled by fungicides or chemicals. This poses a serious threat to the worldwide banana production. The best way to fight the disease is to prevent its spread. Following the FAOs and GLOBALG.A.P. stakeholders' urge to step up action against this destructive banana disease, GLOBALG.A.P. developed a tool whereby banana producers can curb the spread of the disease and at the same time show evidence of this. GLOBALG.A.P. recently presented the TR4 Biosecurity Add-On for Bananas. It is an innovation in the GLOBALG.A.P. family of standards, since it is the first commodity-specific Add-On that focuses on a major pathogen. It tackles biosecurity measures to prevent the introduction and spread of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense - tropical race 4 (TR4), which is also referred to as "Foc 4" or "Panama disease". This Add-On has been developed through an extensive collaboration with producer organizations from various countries, leading scientific institutions, plant protection agencies and other stakeholders such as certification bodies (CBs). The TR4 Biosecurity Add-On equips Integrated Farm Assurance (IFA) certified producers (for bananas only) with a tool to perform a detailed risk assessment of their banana plantations and provides the basic points in the preparation of a mitigation plan. The requirements build on the Good Agricultural Practices set out in the IFAStandard and the Add-On is therefore only applicable to those producers that have IFA certification for their banana production. At the same time, CBs assessing this Add-On need to have provisions in place in order to ensure that proper disinfection measures have been performed by their auditors before and after visiting a banana plantation. The TR4 Biosecurity Add-On is a voluntary assessment (not a certificate), which will be visible in the GLOBALG.A.P. Database. GLOBALG.A.P. is a leading global certification program whose mission is to bring farmers and retailers together to produce and market safe food to protect scarce resources and build a sustainable future. For more information, please visit the TR4 Biosecurity website.
News Article | May 29, 2017
The Maritime Union of New Zealand has welcomed the Ports of Auckland’s decision to stop releasing methyl bromide emissions into the air, and called for other ports to follow their example. The move to fully recapture the toxic gas after fumigation, used to kill insects in logs before export, sets a new benchmark for industry best practice, according to the Union. “We will continue the campaign to stop rogue employers exposing people to methyl bromide for another decade if need be,” Joe Fleetwood, MUNZ National Secretary, said. After fumigation is complete the gas can be recaptured and turned into a disposable salt. However, some ports instead release the toxic fumes into the air, endangering workers and nearby communities. “The Government must not allow best practice in some ports to be undermined elsewhere,” Fleetwood said, adding that “if Wellington and Auckland can do the right thing, all ports must.” The Maritime Union continues to call for a total ban on the use of methyl bromide. As part of Ports of Auckland’s ambition to be the most sustainable port in New Zealand, the company earlier said that it will require the total recapture of methyl bromide gas used for container fumigation by September 1, 2017, and for all cargoes by the end of the year. “The intention to move to a full ‘recapture’ system by the end of the year, instead of the current practice of simply venting the gas into the atmosphere, shows leadership and responsibility by Ports management,” Damien O’Connor, Labour’s Spokesperson for Biosecurity, said. “Ports of Auckland’s decision will surely put pressure on the remaining ports around New Zealand which still release methyl bromide,” Damien O’Connor informed.
News Article | May 8, 2017
Australian biosecurity officials have destroyed historically significant plant samples from 19th-century France and damaged the reputation of Australian researchers, the head of the peak herbaria body has said. In two separate incidents, quarantine officials have incinerated specimens sent to Australian research facilities from overseas. One collection dated back to the mid-1800s and was sent to the Queensland herbarium by the Paris Natural History Museum in March. “Quarantine basically said the paperwork wasn’t compliant and their response was to destroy them before another solution could be made,” the chairwoman of the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, Prof Michelle Waycott, said. “What usually happens is we have a discussion – whether it’s letters or a phone call – but in this case we seem to have missed a step somewhere.” Waycott told Guardian Australia it was the second such incident and, after a sample from a Christchurch facility sent to Canberra was destroyed, New Zealand enacted a blanket ban on sending any further specimen to Australia. “It means taxonomy on materials in New Zealand can’t go ahead,” she said. “That’s a huge problem for us but I understand it. I wouldn’t want to send stuff overseas if it’s going to get destroyed either.” Waycott said international research depended on sample sharing around the globe and it was how we learned whether there had been new discoveries made. “We can find new species formerly not known to science – many of those are hidden away until a researcher does some work on them,” she said. “When you have specimens that are very old or hard to get to – mountaintops in Papua New Guinea, or found 150 years ago on the north Australian coastline – they sometimes represent material that may not exist anymore. That’s why it’s so devastating.” Waycott said the two incidents had put Australia researchers in a difficult position and there was now a question mark for anyone considering sending them material. “Australia’s quarantine rules, which are very important, are strict and the herbarium network is very careful – most of our institutions have quarantine status,” she said. “We’re world leaders and we should be supported in this.” The Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is conducting a review into the incidents. A spokesman said the French samples were marked with a value of $2 and there was no prior notification of the package’s arrival or significance. An email mix-up has been blamed for a communication failure which saw further documentation not received by officials. Biosecurity officials held the samples for more than a month longer than they were required once problems with the paperwork were identified but conceded they were of “significant value as a botanical reference collection” and should not have been destroyed. “Destruction of the specimens should not have proceeded while communication between the department and the intended recipient was ongoing,” the department said. “This is a deeply regrettable occurrence, but it does highlight the importance of the shared responsibility of Australia’s biosecurity system, and the need for adherence to import conditions.” The department was unaware of the New Zealand specimen destruction but was investigating “as a matter or priority”.
News Article | May 4, 2017
Funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and co-organized with the Ministry of Fisheries (MoF), the Biosecurity Agency of Fiji (BAF), the University of South Pacific (USP) and facilitated by FAO, the workshop participated by 39 representing the government, the academe (USP), producers (Pacific Ocean Culture Pte Ltd., The Crab Company of Fiji Ltd., Valili Pearls Co., Ltd., Pacific Ocean Culture Pte Ltd., Aquarium Fish (Fiji) Ltd. and Vet Essentials Fiji Ltd.) and regional and international organizations (FAO, JICA, Secretariat of the Pacific Community), prepared a draft NAAHB Strategy. A broad yet comprehensive strategy for building and enhancing capacity for the management of national aquatic biosecurity and aquatic animal health, the strategy will focus on five priority commodities, namely: prawn & shrimp, seaweeds, pearls, Nile tilapia, giant clam & sandfish. The strategy contains the national action plans at the short-, medium- and long-term using phased implementation based on national needs and priorities. The strategy framework consists of Purpose and Vision Statements and Guiding Principles. The strategy includes 10 Programme Component/Elements, each one contains a description of the scope, objectives, current status and projects/activities that will be implemented at the short-, medium- and long-term based on national needs and priorities. Responsible entities for each project/activity are also included as well as an Implementation Plan. The 10 Programme Components/Elements are: (1) Policy, Legislation and Enforcement, (2) Risk Analysis, (3) Pathogen List, (4) Border Inspection and Quarantine, (5) Surveillance, Monitoring and Reporting, (6) Emergency Preparedness and Contingency Planning, (7) Institutional Structure (Including Infrastructure), (8) Research and Development, (9) Regional and International Cooperation, and (10) Capacity Building. Development of a NAAHB Strategy involves an extensive & iterative process led by the Competent Authority and extensive consultation with key stakeholders from other government agencies, academia and the private sector. It is a proactive measure without which a country can only react in a piecemeal fashion to new developments in international trade and the global situation with regard to serious transboundary aquatic animal diseases (TAADs), and its aquaculture and fisheries sectors will remain highly vulnerable to new and emerging diseases that may severely affect capture fisheries and aquaculture production, leading to major social and economic impacts. Fiji can take an important lead role in setting an example for the Pacific region with a vision that Fiji's aquatic wildlife and aquaculture species thrive in a healthy environment, valued by its society that embraces and sustainably benefits from the diversity of its aquatic resources. Fiji's MoF has taken the initial necessary steps for developing a NAAHB Strategy for the country. The development of this strategy is a very timely initiative and is in line and in parallel to a number of legal and policy instruments (e.g. Aquaculture Bill 2016 scheduled for 3rd hearing at the Parliament; the draft National Fisheries Policy and the draft Fiji Aquaculture Strategy) – all of which will support sustainable aquaculture development. Mr Semi Koroilavesau, The Honorable Minister for Fisheries, Mr Hiroyuki Sawada, JICA Resident Representative, Dr Ciro Rico, Head of the School of Marine Studies of USP, Dr Robin Yarrow, Keynote Speaker and Chairperson of National Trust of Fiji and Dr Melba Reantaso of FAO graced the Opening session of the workshop. Further information can be obtained by writing to Melba.Reantaso@fao.org
News Article | April 19, 2017
From the beginning, Trump has pitted agency heads against their departments—Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department, and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. But subtly, Trump is also diminishing the role of science and technology, simply by not hiring anyone at all. Specifically, the White House has significantly reduced staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a vibrant policy and research hub that flourished under the Obama administration. Out of roughly 114 former OSTP positions, Trump has left more than 70 unfilled since his inauguration. This is according to a list of current OSTP staff that Motherboard acquired using a Freedom of Information Act request. It was last updated by OSTP record-keeping on March 27, 2017. The new roster, when compared to President Obama's own staff listing, reveals that most of the previous administration's employees there have vacated—though the impetus for their departures is tricky to determine. Trump's inability to fill these positions has insiders worried about his capacity for making informed decisions related to artificial intelligence, STEM education, digital innovation, and other issues. Notably absent are chief technology officer, a host of policy advisors to the Technology & Innovation Division, everyone with "climate" in their title, and executive director for the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The office's budget and administration division was left untouched. "There's real value in having this office around and functioning. We can point to all sorts of policy reports that we've done over the last few years [and] this stuff isn't stagnant," Dan Hammer, who served as senior policy advisor in the OSTP's Office of the Chief Technology Officer under President Obama, told me. When Congress established the office in 1976 under President Ford, its intent was to strengthen the president's policymaking, as far as science and technology were concerned, with sound science and analysis. During Obama's tenure, OSTP experts prepared America for the realities of artificial intelligence, the technology of future cities, and imminent cybersecurity threats. Still, a modest amount of turnover is expected. Some OSTP staff, such as fellows, are temporarily hired from nonprofits or academia. As of March 1, 2016, OSTP had 117 employees, including 19 fellows. It's not uncommon for these staff to plan for their departures a year before their terms are scheduled to end. Potentially, they were among the first to leave when Trump came into office. There's little doubt, however, that Trump has his own plans for science and technology leadership. His son-in-law, senior advisor Jared Kushner, will spearhead the new White House Office of American Innovation, whose mission is similar to that of the OSTP's Technology & Innovation Division. Trump also hired Michael Kratsios, former chief of staff at Thiel Capital, to be his deputy chief technology officer. The political neophyte and Peter Thiel confidant will also serve as deputy assistant to the president for technology initiatives. Another OSTP staffer, Stephanie Xu, was recently hired under the title of "Confidential Assistant." It's unclear what this role will entail. Xu isn't listed in the FOIA documents that Motherboard received, but we were able to confirm her employment there. According to her LinkedIn page, Xu formerly worked as a deputy finance director for the Republican National Committee. The president hasn't indicated that he intends to fill the vacant positions or create new ones. Historically, this is somewhat unprecedented. Under Obama, OSTP roles were allegedly staffed out within months. But Trump has been slow to hire across the board, which some attribute to "an overworked White House personnel office." White House sources told the New York Times that OSTP staff are no longer privy to daily briefings. In an interview with Recode, one person described the office, which is hardly ever consulted anymore, as "disempowered." We also learned that existing staff have absorbed much of their former colleagues' excess workload. Based on the information we received from our FOIA request, below are the current and former OSTP employees, along with their titles. Chief of Staff Cristin Dorgelo Senior Advisor to the Director Jeff Smith Assistant Director, Federal Research and Development Kei Koizumi Assistant Director, Legislative Affairs Donna Pignatelli Communications Director and Senior Policy Analyst Kristin Lee Senior Communications Advisor Chris Vaccaro Senior Policy Advisor, Public Engagement Fae Jencks Policy Advisor to the Chief of Staff Erin Szulman Executive Assistant Billie McGrane U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith Deputy Chief Technology Officer Ed Felten Deputy Chief Technology Officer Corinna Zarek Deputy Chief Technology Officer Alexander Macgillivray Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy and Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil Senior Policy Advisor Evan Cooke Senior Policy Advisor Renee Gregory Senior Policy Advisor Dan Hammer Senior Policy Advisor Lynn Overmann Senior Policy Advisor Jason Schultz Senior Policy Advisor, Digital Government Emily Tavoulareas Senior Policy Advisor Aden Van Noppen Senior Policy Advisor Laura Weidman-Powers Senior Policy Advisor, Innovation and IP Nancy Weiss Senior Policy Advisor, Health and Health IT Claudia Williams Policy Advisor Read Holman Policy Advisor Kristen Honey Policy Advisor Kelly Jin Policy Advisor Terah Lyons Special Assistant and Policy Advisor Matthew McAllister Special Assistant and Policy Advisor Suhas Subramanyam Associate Director Vacant Principal Assistant Director for Environment & Energy Tamara Dickinson Assistant Director, Clean Energy and Transportation Austin Brown Assistant Director, Climate Adaptation and Ecosystems Laura Petes Assistant Director, Climate Resilience and Information Amy Luers Assistant Director, Climate Resilience and Land Use Rich Pouyat Assistant Director, Climate Science Donald Wuebbles Assistant Director, Environmental Health Bruce Rodan Executive Director, Arctic Executive Steering Committee Mark Brzezinski Senior Policy Advisor Fabien Laurier Senior Policy Advisor, Energy Elaine Ulrich Executive Secretary and Policy Advisor, Arctic Executive Steering Commitee Renee Crain Wagner National Ocean Council Fellow Matthew Lurie Associate Director Vacant Principal Assistant Director for National Security & International Affairs Steve Fetter Assistant Director, Cybersecurity Strategy Gregory Shannon Assistant Director, Global Security Matt Heavner Assistant Director, International Science and Technology Mahlet Mesfin Senior Policy Advisor, National Security, Space, and Aviation Fred Kennedy Associate Director Vacant Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation Tom Kalil Assistant Director, Behavioral Science Maya Shankar Assistant Director, Biological Innovation Robbie Barbero Assistant Director, Education and Telecommunications Innovation Aadil Ginwala Assistant Director, Entrepreneurship Douglas Rand Assistant Director, Innovation for Growth Jennifer Erickson Assistant Director, Learning and Innovation Kumar Garg Assistant Director, Open Innovation Christofer Nelson Senior Policy Advisor, Advanced Manufacturing/Fellow Megan Brewster Senior Policy Advisor, Small Business Innovation Nate Segal Senior Policy Advisor, Tech Inclusion Ruthe Farmer Senior Policy Advisor Ayo Babajide Senior Policy Advisor Beadsie Woo Senior Advisor, Innovation Policy Daniel Correa Senior Advisor, Making Andrew Coy Policy Advisor Erik Martin Policy Advisor Lusine Galoyan PRESIDENT'S COUNCIL OF ADVISORS ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Assistant Director, Cybersecurity Tim Polk Assistant Director, Research Infrastructure Tof Carim Policy Analyst for Medical and Forensic Sciences Eleanor Celeste Assistant Director, Intelligence Allison Curran Natalie Senior Policy Advisor Natalie Evans Harris Acting Division Lead Chris Fall Assistant Director, Polar Sciences Martin Jeffries Assistant Director, Civil and Commercial Space Benjamin Roberts Staff Director for Energy and Environment Robert Strickling USGEO Program Director Timothy Stryker Assistant Director, Broadening Participation Wanda Ward Acting Division Lead Lloyd Whitman SINSI Fellow Becky Kreutter Senior Policy Advisor, Counterterrorism and WMD Maureen Kraner Acting Division Lead Meredith Drosback Program Support Specialist Jennifer Michael Executive Director, NSTC Afua Bruce Executive Director, USGCRP Mike Kuperberg Senior Policy Advisor for Biological Threat Defense JP Chretien Director, NITRD Bryan Biegel Special Assistant and Policy Advisor Alexander Kamrud Assistant Director, Biosecurity and Emerging Technologies Gerald Epstein White House Leadership Development Fellow Kenneth Wright Acting Division Lead Deerin Babb-Brott Assistant Director, Natural Disaster Resilience Jaqueline Meszaros Director, NNCO Lisa Friedersdorf Policy Analyst Steven Baldovsky Acting Legislative Advisor Linda Bunn Mary Administrative Security Specialist Mary Burgess-Gregg Administrative Specialist Donna Coleman IT Specialist George Cravaritis Administrative Operations Officer Dawn Epperson Budget Analyst Penny Guy Administrative Specialist Daw Mielke Operations Manager Stacy Murphy Administrative Officer Diana Zunker Deputy Assistant to the President for Technology Initiatives and Deputy US CTO Michael Kratsios Deputy General Counsel and Senior Policy Advisor for Oceans and the Environment Jennifer Lee General Counsel Rachael Leonard Acting Director Ted Wackler Assistant Director, Special Programs Mark Leblanc Confidential Assistant Stephanie Xu Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Deputy Chief Technology Officer Corinna Zarek left her position at the Office of Science and Technology Policy on March 30, 2017, after this list was provided to us. Zarek's departure was known by then, according to Alex Howard, Deputy Director at the Sunlight Foundation.
News Article | February 22, 2017
A laboratory in Wuhan is on the cusp of being cleared to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens. The move is part of a plan to build between five and seven biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs across the Chinese mainland by 2025, and has generated much excitement, as well as some concerns. Some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping, and the addition of a biological dimension to geopolitical tensions between China and other nations. But Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats. “It will offer more opportunities for Chinese researchers, and our contribution on the BSL‑4-level pathogens will benefit the world,” says George Gao, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Key Laboratory of Pathogenic Microbiology and Immunology in Beijing. There are already two BSL-4 labs in Taiwan, but the National Bio-safety Laboratory, Wuhan, would be the first on the Chinese mainland. The lab was certified as meeting the standards and criteria of BSL-4 by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment (CNAS) in January. The CNAS examined the lab’s infrastructure, equipment and management, says a CNAS representative, paving the way for the Ministry of Health to give its approval. A representative from the ministry says it will move slowly and cautiously; if the assessment goes smoothly, it could approve the laboratory by the end of June. BSL-4 is the highest level of biocontainment: its criteria include filtering air and treating water and waste before they leave the laboratory, and stipulating that researchers change clothes and shower before and after using lab facilities. Such labs are often controversial. The first BSL-4 lab in Japan was built in 1981, but operated with lower-risk pathogens until 2015, when safety concerns were finally overcome. The expansion of BSL-4-lab networks in the United States and Europe over the past 15 years — with more than a dozen now in operation or under construction in each region — also met with resistance, including questions about the need for so many facilities. The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, although the area has no history of strong earthquakes. It will focus on the control of emerging diseases, store purified viruses and act as a World Health Organization ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world. “It will be a key node in the global biosafety-lab network,” says lab director Yuan Zhiming. The Chinese Academy of Sciences approved the construction of a BSL-4 laboratory in 2003, and the epidemic of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) around the same time lent the project momentum. The lab was designed and constructed with French assistance as part of a 2004 cooperative agreement on the prevention and control of emerging infectious diseases. But the complexity of the project, China’s lack of experience, difficulty in maintaining funding and long government approval procedures meant that construction wasn’t finished until the end of 2014. The lab’s first project will be to study the BSL-3 pathogen that causes Crimean–Congo haemorrhagic fever: a deadly tick-borne virus that affects livestock across the world, including in northwest China, and that can jump to people. Future plans include studying the pathogen that causes SARS, which also doesn’t require a BSL-4 lab, before moving on to Ebola and the West African Lassa virus, which do. Some one million Chinese people work in Africa; the country needs to be ready for any eventuality, says Yuan. “Viruses don’t know borders.” Gao travelled to Sierra Leone during the recent Ebola outbreak, allowing his team to report the speed with which the virus mutated into new strains1. The Wuhan lab will give his group a chance to study how such viruses cause disease, and to develop treatments based on antibodies and small molecules, he says. The opportunities for international collaboration, meanwhile, will aid the genetic analysis and epidemiology of emergent diseases. “The world is facing more new emerging viruses, and we need more contribution from China,” says Gao. In particular, the emergence of zoonotic viruses — those that jump to humans from animals, such as SARS or Ebola — is a concern, says Bruno Lina, director of the VirPath virology lab in Lyon, France. Many staff from the Wuhan lab have been training at a BSL-4 lab in Lyon, which some scientists find reassuring. And the facility has already carried out a test-run using a low-risk virus. But worries surround the Chinese lab, too. The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy. “Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he says. Yuan says that he has worked to address this issue with staff. “We tell them the most important thing is that they report what they have or haven’t done,” he says. And the lab’s international collaborations will increase openness. “Transparency is the basis of the lab,” he adds. The plan to expand into a network heightens such concerns. One BSL-4 lab in Harbin is already awaiting accreditation; the next two are expected to be in Beijing and Kunming, the latter focused on using monkey models to study disease. Lina says that China’s size justifies this scale, and that the opportunity to combine BSL-4 research with an abundance of research monkeys — Chinese researchers face less red tape than those in the West when it comes to research on primates — could be powerful. “If you want to test vaccines or antivirals, you need a non-human primate model,” says Lina. But Ebright is not convinced of the need for more than one BSL-4 lab in mainland China. He suspects that the expansion there is a reaction to the networks in the United States and Europe, which he says are also unwarranted. He adds that governments will assume that such excess capacity is for the potential development of bioweapons. “These facilities are inherently dual use,” he says. The prospect of ramping up opportunities to inject monkeys with pathogens also worries, rather than excites, him: “They can run, they can scratch, they can bite.” Trevan says China’s investment in a BSL-4 lab may, above all, be a way to prove to the world that the nation is competitive. “It is a big status symbol in biology,” he says, “whether it’s a need or not.”
News Article | February 15, 2017
Invasive species, from feral pigs to Japanese knotweed, can devastate ecosystems. They damage crops, clog rivers, and cost farmers and homeowners billions of dollars to control each year. People aren’t the only ones suffering: The invaders have been linked to the decline of some four in every 10 endangered or threatened species in the United States. Now, the first-ever look at just how quickly these species have spread reveals more bad news: Since 1800, the rate at which alien species have been reported around the world has skyrocketed, with almost 40% of them discovered since 1970. “There are no signs of a slowdown [except for mammals and fish], and we have to expect more new invasions in the near future,” says study leader Hanno Seebens, an ecologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt, Germany. He cautions that not all nonnative or “alien” species are a problem—only those that adversely affect the environment, which are known as “invasive.” To figure out how to help scientists deal with the problem, Seebens first had to find out how big it was. To do so, he and a team of researchers from across Europe, Asia, and the United States combed through more than 500 years of records from scientific publications, books, and unpublished works taken from more than 280 countries and islands. The documents revealed the very first sightings of alien species in each region, from squirrels to mosquitoes. Altogether, the scientists found 16,926 records of alien species of plant, mammal, insect, bird, and fish, they report today in Then, the team analyzed the speed at which new incursions were taking place, broken down by major taxonomic groups. Since 1800, that speed has increased for all groups, with the absolute number of new species reaching 1.5 sightings per day in 1996. Part of this is inevitably because of better recordkeeping over time, says Mark Hoddle, an entomologist at the University of California (UC), Riverside, who was not involved in the work. But Hoddle, who directs the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside, adds that the key trends are not surprising. The introduction of nonnative plants exploded in the 1800s thanks to the growth of globalized trade, and it has remained high ever since. Mammals and fish peaked around 1950. But other groups, including algae, mollusks, and insects rose steeply after 1950, thanks to climate change and the post–World War II wave of global trade. For those plants and animals that can easily stow away in the ballast of ships, there is a strong correlation between the spread of nonnative species and the market value of goods imported into each region. One glimmer of hope is that biosecurity measures that limit the movement of species and pathogens between countries—which have been growing in use since the early 20th century—seem to be having an effect. Since the early 1950s, for example, the speed of fish and mammals spreading beyond their native habitats has decreased, going from more than 150 sightings per year to just 24 from 1996 to 2000. In New Zealand, the study found a significant decline in the number of new alien plants since the 1990s, which coincides with the country’s 1993 Biosecurity Act and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. These acts regulate imports using a white list of permitted species, and they require a risk assessment for all new species entering the country. As an island, says Hoddle, New Zealand has a distinct advantage. For countries without such geographically distinct borders, preventing the introduction of nonnative species is much harder. He says success requires science-based policy that accommodates increasing tourism and trade. “The good news is that biosecurity and quarantine measures [have worked] for some more obvious taxa, so we know we can take actions that have positive outcomes,” says Margaret Stanley, an ecologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who was not involved in the new analysis. The challenge now, she adds, is to set policies that prevent more inconspicuous nonnative species from becoming established. Conservationists hope that better awareness of the threats of species, coupled with improved global biosecurity, will continue to slow the spread of nonnative species. Some researchers predict the rate of spread will reach a saturation point before tailing off. Unfortunately, Seebens’s data suggest that may be a long way off.
News Article | February 15, 2017
For the German translation, please visit here. On Friday February 3rd, 2017, Make Magazine (Germany) published "Biohacking: Federal Office warns against Do-It-Yourself kits", pointing to the German federal government's declaration on GM projects. This declaration, published by the German government on January 25th, 2017, as “"Genetic engineering with biology kits: simple, but potentially criminal", outlines the current legislation for the handling of “DIY genetic engineering kits” bought from abroad (North America). Who can do genetic engineering experiments, and where can they do them? These are the types of questions that very frequently arise in European countries as the accessible science movement gains momentum worldwide. Unfortunately, each European country has slightly different rules, making it difficult to get a straight answer. Since the DIYbio and Maker movements are growing rapidly around the world and Making with Biology outside of universities and corporations is now an exciting and feasible exercise no longer relegated to the realm of science fiction, it is important for governments to clearly delineate the current laws and regulations. In fact, looking at the German DIYbio Google Group, the legal uncertainties surrounding DIYbio in the home are brought evident. The German government along with Make: have done Europe a service in clarifying the rules in Germany. Initially when reading the Make: article using Google Translate (as many native English speakers would do), it comes across as polarizing, and even suggests that the products are potentially “criminal kits.” After a careful read, one would realize that the intention is not to crackdown on biohacking or limiting access to hands-on biology education but that it is rather a timely reminder of the containment level and environment required in Germany to complete genetic engineering tasks. For this, we see the German government's move to clarify the current rules as a positive undertaking. Furthermore, the Make: article closes on a constructive note with a link to information about how non-scientists in Germany can learn about biotechnology and genetic engineering. The “Accessible Bio” companies recommend that all European countries follow Germany’s lead and clearly and concisely communicate GM regulations to DIYbio and makers in their countries, as well as recommend appropriate locations where this type of exploration can be done if they are unable to complete the Risk Group 1 experiments at home. For example, in the United Kingdom you can find accredited DIYbio labs such as MadLab and London Biohackspace. In the Netherlands, the Waag Society, La Paillasse in France, and the OpenBiolab in Austria. Efforts are also being made by EKoli, a European “Maker” initiative that aims to standardize and make learning and hands-on genetic engineering possible for Belgium schools. “We’re pursuing and working with government to establish a scalable model for setting up appropriate containment levels in an ad hoc basis in schools, so that this important [genetic engineering] content can be effectively taught.”, says co-founder Deepak Mehta. “We are North American companies building products for North American customers, under the North American regulatory framework. At the moment, it is more complicated for those in European countries who wish to learn about genetic engineering hands-on as the rules are unclear”, says Justin Pahara, Fellow of the Johns’ Hopkins Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) and former Biosafety Committee member of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge. “Safety is one of our greatest considerations, and we encourage everyone who purchases our product(s) to comply with their local containment laws and follow the safety and disposal instructions.” In North America, these DIY, Education, and Design kits do not require regulated containment as they are considered non-harmful to humans or the environment. The regulations for containment in North America begin with potentially hazardous agents and pathogens. “We design our kits and technologies in response to information inequality” says Orkan Telhan, co-founder of Biorealize and faculty of Emerging Design Practices at University of Pennsylvania. "Not everyone has access to the same resources and infrastructure to start learning biology. And anyone who is interested in exploring the world of the living should be able to pursue it, whether it is through DIY Biology, Biohacking, or PhDs in Life Sciences. This diversity is necessary. These educational kits are stepping stones that will turn young curious minds into a growing community of professionals who can design the next generation applications of biology.” “Through our research, we found that once a person reaches the age of 16, they’ve often already decided on a career path based on the opportunities they have had access to”, says Julie Legault, CEO of Amino Labs. “The world needs innovation that leads to more abundant and cheaper medicine - more nutritious and non-animal-based sustainable food options - more eco-friendly and sustainable manufacturing methods — all of which will lead to economic growth. Genetic engineering is a key tool for achieving these goals, and, as a complex topic, is best explored hands-on. Everyone should have the opportunity to unearth their passion for solving humanity’s grand challenges through biology, regardless of their access to university labs.” We see this response as an opportunity to jointly express our commitment to make biology accessible to anyone who would be willing to use it responsibly. We invite the all policy-makers and enforcers of GM laws to consider the following: The mission of “Accessible Bio” companies is mainly to address information inequality. We intend to support biotech education to make it more accessible to those who do not have the resources. We invite all stakeholders to be in dialogue with each other to address the regulatory concerns together. There is no need to contemplate, pass and/or enforce regulation due to fear and unverified opinions. We are always ready to hear new perspectives from everyone who would like to learn genetic engineering with our kits and technologies. We are ready to improve our products to support your interests.