Issue Date: March 2, 2009
An Influential Body
SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 1916, the National Research Council (NRC), the National Academies' research arm, has provided government decisionmakers and the public with expert advice and information based on sound scientific evidence.
For issues grounded in chemistry, the Board on Chemical Sciences & Technology is the go-to group within NRC. BCST has a staff of eight, an 18-member advisory board, and a number of committees that develop studies that sometimes yield book-length reports. All of these components of BCST include chemists and chemical engineers representing academia, government, industry, and nonprofit organizations around the country. Members of the advisory board and the committees work on a pro bono basis.
BCST is one of 11 boards that fall under the umbrella of NRC's Division on Earth & Life Studies. "The boards are really where the rubber hits the road in the Academies," says Dorothy Zolandz, director of BCST. The boards are the ground-level operational units that initiate studies and orchestrate their production, she adds.
BCST is best known for reports based on its benchmarking studies, process evaluations, and research projections. The report topics can be derived from many places, among them congressional mandates, federal agency requests, or ideas from BCST committee members. Examples of the board's reports include "The Future of U.S. Chemistry Research: Benchmarks and Challenges," "Visualizing Chemistry: The Progress and Promise of Advanced Chemical Imaging," and "Catalysis for Energy: Fundamental Science and Long-Term Impacts of the U.S. Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences Catalysis Science Program."
The members of the BCST advisory board get together several times a year to identify potential study topics, Zolandz explains. Topics generally involve issues of societal relevance where the chemical science community can have an impact. Energy, sustainability, and national and homeland security have been on the table in recent years, as have themes central to the well-being of the chemical enterprise, such as education, safety, and what direction research is likely to take.
During these brainstorming sessions, policy-savvy BCST staffers help brief advisory board members on items concerning government agencies and forthcoming legislation. The members also take the opportunity to discuss matters consequential to their home institutions or other sectors within the chemical enterprise.
BCST also looks to its Chemical Sciences Roundtable, an apolitical forum of leaders in the chemical sciences, for study ideas, Zolandz says. This group hosts meetings and workshops to discuss issues of importance throughout the chemical enterprise, such as green chemistry, high school chemistry education, and research teams and partnerships.
The roundtable's role is to "illuminate and educate," not to advocate or solve problems, says Sharon L. Haynie, a member of the roundtable and a research scientist at DuPont. "BCST finds value for the roundtable because it offers sponsored symposia and workshops that are shaped by a broader group, and those topics that merit greater attention will be studied in greater depth by BCST," she says.
From all this input "we pick particular areas where we think BCST can have an impact," Zolandz says. BCST will then develop a study proposal and talk with relevant federal agency officials as part of its charge to identify financial sponsors for its studies. Because the National Academies is a nonprofit organization, BCST lacks in-house funds to support the studies.
Once BCST secures a sponsor for a study, the staff then need to select experts in the scientific community to serve on the study's committee. The board aims to convene an independent group that is tailored for each study and that has a mix of backgrounds and points of view that protects against potential biases. The committee's job generally consists of synthesizing information from the available published literature and from experts and other sources that BCST and the committee can muster.
Meanwhile, BCST staff act as a buffer zone between the study committee, those sifting through the evidence, and the sponsoring organizations. Committee members are also carefully screened to avoid conflicts of interests, Zolandz says.
ALTHOUGH the roundtable and the advisory board play an "extremely valuable" role in determining study topics, Zolandz says requests for specific studies may also come directly from an agency or from Congress. Such was the case for the study of compositional bullet-lead analysis (CBLA) for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI asked for a review of the scientific merit of CBLA. This analytic method had been questioned by defense teams and the public. In the end, BCST's report played a role in the FBI's decision to actually abandon CBLA, but it was not the "sole reason," Ann Todd, a special agent with the FBI's Public Affairs Office, tells C&EN. The CBLA study demonstrates "one really cool thing that BCST did that everyone can understand," Zolandz says, adding that it also highlights the impact that BCST can have on society.
As illustrated in the CBLA report, study results—whether they are what the sponsoring agency wants to hear or not—have consequences. For example, Luis Echegoyen, director of the Division of Chemistry at the National Science Foundation, which sponsors BCST studies, acknowledges that "the Division of Chemistry uses BCST reports in many facets of strategic planning, budget justification, implementation, and assessment of programs."
One agency that has sought advice from BCST is the Department of Defense. "DOD asked for expert assessment and guidance on proper protocols for testing and evaluating detection systems for biological and chemical agents," Zolandz tells C&EN. Before procuring such systems and deploying them in the "theater of war," she says, DOD needs to be confident the systems are sound.
BCST is currently working on a study for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The board is helping evaluate the effectiveness of the BioWatch program, a national surveillance system for detecting human health trends that could be due to biological terrorism, among other possible causes. Congress mandated that DHS seek an objective review of BioWatch, so the agency reached out to NRC.
THE STUDY, which involves a review of biological detection systems, environmental monitoring technologies, biological assays, and statistical methods, is expected to be delivered to Congress in April and will likely have an impact on future legislation, Zolandz notes.
Nongovernmental organizations also can fund BCST studies. For instance, with a partnership of sponsors including the American Chemical Society, the board is working to update its laboratory safety handbook "Prudent Practice in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposal of Chemicals," which was last published in 1995. That edition is "widely used by professionals" and is in real need of an update, says F. Fleming Crim, cochair of BCST's advisory committee and chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
As the largest professional scientific organization, ACS, whose members work in chemistry laboratories, has a vested interest in the updated handbook, says Marta U. Gmurczyk, staff liaison to ACS's Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS). ACS and its CCS have played an important role in this project since its conception in the early 1980s, she notes.
Besides ACS, project sponsors include NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health. The updated report, which will take the place of its predecessor, is slated to be released by the end of this year, Zolandz says.
This project spawned a new BCST study. Sponsored by the State Department, the study involves creating a safe-chemical-management guide that can be used to assist scientists in developing countries.
According to Zolandz, BCST staff are organizing a new committee to tackle the topic, which will include international and U.S.-based scientists who have conducted research in developing countries.
This type of project offshoot is "one thing that really tickles me," Crim says. It is great to see this sort of link between current studies and new ones, he adds.
The service that BCST provides is always in fashion, according to Crim. He doesn't see the need for objective advice based on scientific and technical issues going away. If anything, he believes that "the new Administration may be even more receptive and more eager to hear the kind of advice that BCST offers."
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