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Public Affairs Update

  • Oral history interviews are not subject to human research rules . . . . The federal Office on Human Research Protections (OHRP), which oversees human volunteers in research, has decided that oral-history interviews generally do not fall under the government’s definition of research. This precludes them from institutional review board (IRB) regulation. This is good news for oral historians and some social scientists who have felt unreasonably questioned, restricted, or delayed by university-based IRBs. The scholars have felt that the regulations were interpreted inflexibly and too broadly and that their projects pose little or no risk. Oral historians have argued that universities have overreacted to federal rules, and say that the federal regulations designed primarily for biomedical research do not apply to their field. OHRP issued its decision in late September in a letter to the American Historical Association and the Oral History Association. However, the federal agency has not yet posted its guidelines on the OHRP website (

  • Improving racial and ethnic data in health . . . . The National Research Council has released an online prepublication report on a workshop conducted by its Panel on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Collection of Race and Ethnicity Data. The comprehensive study was prompted by Congress’ fears over weakness in DHHS data collection systems. The panel reviewed the DHHS’ systems and practices for collecting racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and language data as well as related practices in other federal agencies. They identified the data needed in order to evaluate the effects of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES) on disparities in health; the effectiveness of data systems by federal, state, and local agencies in the collection and utilization of data; and the critical gaps in data on race, ethnicity and SES in existing systems and the methods for filling these gaps. The 50-page report was edited by Daniel Melnick and Edward Perrin. Contact Customer Service for updates regarding projected date of release and price. The Panel’s research is congruent with ASA’s 2003 report titled The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race.

  • NSF awards grants to study societal implications of nanotechnology . . . . The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced two new grants, well over $1 million apiece, that greatly expand its ongoing commitment to assessing the societal implications of nanotechnology, the emerging discipline that seeks to control and manipulate matter at a molecular level. The grants are the largest awards the foundation has devoted to societal implications exclusively. Nanotech has often been hailed as a “transformative” technology—one that could change the way we live and work as profoundly as did the microchip or the automobile. Therefore NSF and 16 other federal agencies are supporting a nearly $1-billion-a-year National Nanotechnology Initiative in an effort to speed the development. One grant will go to the University of California-Los Angeles, where sociologist Lynne Zucker and her colleagues will study how newly acquired knowledge about nanotechnology makes its way from the laboratory to the marketplace. “This is not something that happens automatically,” says Zucker, “and many startup companies fail because it’s not done well.” Thus, says Zucker, one of the major products of the UCLA study will be an extensive database on small startup firms in the nanotechnology arena, and what factors influence how well ideas succeed in the marketplace. “It will help us understand how the knowledge is transmitted, what facilitates that transfer, what blocks it, and what works well.” The other grant goes to Davis Baird, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina. Baird and colleagues will tackle the path toward better nanotechnology by setting up an ongoing dialog among as many points of view as possible. More information can be found at

  • Country profiles for population and reproductive health . . . . The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), recently published an update to the 1995 Resource Requirements for Population and Reproductive Health Programmes: Programme Country Profiles for Population Assistance. The volume contains national and sub-national indicators on the demographic and social situations in 162 countries. Indicators are organized by the following categories: population, estimated program resource requirements, socioeconomic and health conditions, adolescent reproductive health, gender equality, and reproductive health commodity security needs. Each country also has a population profile that details current social and political contexts, and policy priorities. A graph of key population and reproductive health indicators is presented for each country. Country Profiles for Population and Reproductive Health will be published every two years with updated policy descriptions and indicators. The information is also available on, where it will be updated annually. The site allows users to conduct comparisons between countries. A CD-ROM is also available with search and comparison capabilities.