Elsewhere in Science, 30 January 2015

Precision Medicine

Credit: NHGRI

Every week, we're pointing our readers toward articles in Science-family publications that are relevant to careers in science and other technical fields. Many of the articles appearing in Science Translational MedicineScience Signaling, and Science require AAAS membership (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers) or a site license.

► Remember that chemistry demonstration back in high school where the teacher dropped sodium in water and it exploded? Who knew that chemists didn’t really understand how it works? Sure, they understood the basics, but until now they didn’t know the details. (A video is included.)

► This week’s big news is the imminent 2016 budget proposal from the White House, which is due to be officially released next week. On Tuesday, Kelly Servick looked at one aspect of the upcoming proposal: $1.2 billion to fight antibiotic resistance, which will be distributed across several federal agencies. “That sum includes $650 million for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to study mechanisms of resistance in bacteria and promote the development of new antibiotics and diagnostics. Funding for NIH would also support a clinical trial network that would let drug developers more easily collect data across multiple clinics,” Servick wrote. She also noted that $280 million would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of it for research.

►In a Tuesday ScienceInsider, Mara Hvistendahl reported that China is offering permanent resident permits to foreign scientists in its talent programs. But some “say that immigration policy is only one in a long list of considerations for researchers contemplating a post in China,” Hvistendahl wrote. A “potential obstacle to recruitment is China’s research culture, which is shaped by personal and political connections and a lack of tenure at most Chinese institutions.” 

“ ‘I don’t think that the visa is a critical issue,’ says a U.S.-based scientist who spends summers as a visiting professor in China. Senior scientists ‘really value tenured positions and are used to the system here,’ he said of the United States. ‘I would feel very insecure if I were to take a professorship in China and give up my professorship here.’ ”

► “A U.S. House of Representatives panel today released a widely anticipated proposal for speeding the development of new medical treatments,” wrote Servick and Jocelyn Kaiser in a Tuesday ScienceInsider. The document proposes incentives for drug companies to target complex and rare diseases, methods of speeding up clinical trials, and ways of incorporating new types of data into the Food and Drug Administration’s drug evaluation process. “The draft also proposes a 21st Century Cures Consortium, involving federal agencies, drug companies, patient groups, and other stakeholders, which would work together on ways to get drugs to patients faster. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grantees would be required to share data, and data from health care facilities would be made available for research.”

“Other proposals from Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) may be more controversial. For example, the draft calls for setting aside a portion of NIH’s Common Fund to fund proposals from early-career scientists.”

► A short post Wednesday at ScienceInsider announced the death of Charles Townes, whose work “led to the development of modern lasers.” Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for the work. He was 99 years old.

► This week, Jeffrey Mervis introduced readers to the two new science spending leaders in Congress: Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who will head the panel that is responsible for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), who will lead the subcommittee that oversees the NIH budget.

In a Wednesday ScienceInsider, Mervis wrote about Culberson’s life and his plans for NASA, NSF, and other research-focused agencies.

“ ‘I think NSF should focus more on the pure sciences, on the fundamentals, and be careful to avoid funding research projects that would damage its sterling reputation in the eyes of the public,’ Culberson says. ‘I’d encourage them to avoid funding studies like shrimps on a treadmill—I hope we never see anything like that again—or alcoholism among prostitutes in Thailand.’ ”

Then, in a Thursday ScienceInsider, Mervis wrote about Cole’s life, career in politics, and spending plans for NIH. On science funding, “Cole isn’t promising that he can deliver a big boost for NIH, or even allow it to keep pace with inflation,” Mervis wrote.  

“Until people above the Appropriations Committee pay grade actually come to an agreement on the appropriate balance and sources of revenue and entitlement reform, we’re going to have this problem across the discretionary budget. Whether you’re a defense hawk or if you believe in a robust federal role in research, you’re both facing the need for some hard choices,” Cole said in the interview.

Those with Science subscriptions or a site license can find a shorter, compiled version of the interviews in this week’s Science.

► Three scientists whose work focuses “on the health of humans and of rivers” won 2015 Japan Prizes, Dennis Normile reported Thursday at ScienceInsider. “Theodore Friedmann of the University of California, San Diego, and Alain Fischer of the Imagine Institute in Paris and of the Collège de France will share the prize for ‘Medical Science and Medicinal Science,’ ” Normile wrote. “Their winning work involved gene therapy, an experimental technique in which genes are inserted into patients to replace mutated genes that are causing disease.” Yutaka Takahasi, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Tokyo, was recognized for his work, which “convinced engineers and policymakers to look holistically at entire river basins and the hydrological cycle when attempting to control flooding, rather than simply building more dams and higher embankments,” explained Hiroshi Komiyama, a chemical engineer and former president of the University of Tokyo who chaired the selection committee, at the awards ceremony.

► In a Thursday ScienceInsider, David Grimm reported that “[t]he National Institutes of Health (NIH) has responded to calls from members of Congress to investigate monkey experiments being carried out at a government lab. Four U.S. representatives—prompted by an aggressive ad campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which claimed that baby rhesus macaques at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lab of Stephen Suomi were being ripped from their mothers at birth and being mentally traumatized—called on NIH to conduct a bioethical review of the lab.” NIH Director Francis Collins responded in a letter that the laboratory had recently been investigated and that no major problems were found. He added, though, that “ additional steps would be taken to ‘further protect and improve animal welfare’.”

► Earlier today, Kaiser fleshed out the details of the “precision medicine” proposal that President Barack Obama discussed during his State of the Union address. “As expected,” she wrote, “much of the $215 million proposed to launch the multiagency initiative in the 2016 fiscal year, which begins in October, will support building a cohort of 1 million American volunteers for genomics and other biomedical research.”  There’s more about the proposal in this ScienceInsider post. “Another chunk of money will fund efforts to understand the genomes of cancer cells.” 

►In this week’s Science editorial, “Bridging the opinion gap,” AAAS CEO Allen Leshner addressed “a wide opinion gap between scientists and the general public in the United States when it comes to their attitudes about the state of science and science-related policy,” detected by a Pew Research Center poll. For example, 92% of scientists believe that U.S. scientific achievements are either the best in the world or among the best in the world—but only 54% of the public answered that question the same way.

“Speaking up for the importance of science to society is our only hope, and scientists must not shy away from engaging with the public, even on the most polarizing science-based topics,” Leshner wrote. “Scientists need to speak clearly with journalists, who provide a great vehicle for translating the nature and implications of their work. Scientists should also meet with members of the public and discuss what makes each side uncomfortable. In these situations, scientists must respond forthrightly to public concerns. In other words, there needs to be a conversation, not a lecture.”

► Your research could soon be done by a machine. Last year, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency “launched a $45 million program called Big Mechanism, aimed at developing computer systems that will read research papers, integrate the information into a computer model of cancer mechanisms, and frame new hypotheses for flesh-and-blood scientists (or even other robots) to test—all by the end of 2017,” wrote Jia You in this week’s issue of Science.

► “For years, U.S. marine scientists have fretted about the future of their field, watching as federal funding stagnated and the cost of seafloor observatories and other infrastructure steadily eroded the money available for research. But there's been little agreement on how to respond,” wrote Eli Kintisch in this week’s Science. “That changed last week, as an unprecedented, 2-year effort to set priorities for the beleaguered field unveiled some hard-edged recommendations. The National Science Foundation (NSF) should immediately cut funding for several major hardware programs in order to divert some $40 million a year back to science, concluded a 20-member panel organized by the National Research Council.” The cuts are “the only way to recover funding for core science,” the panel concluded.

► This week’s Science includes a special focus on privacy. “The end of privacy” contains several privacy-related stories that are relevant to science careers, including:

 - “Trust me, I'm a medical researcher,” by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel. “It's becoming more and more difficult to safeguard the privacy of patients who participate in scientific studies,” Couzin-Frankel wrote. “Many patient samples today are banked, sequenced, and shared with potentially thousands of researchers, and it's widely accepted that if you can read someone's DNA, you may be able to figure out who they are.” “That's why researchers are seeking new ways of gaining patients' trust and keeping them involved—for instance by giving them more control over how their samples are used or being more transparent about the studies that their data are used in.”

- “Breach of trust,” by John Bohannon. “Each year, recruiters from the National Security Agency (NSA), said to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States, visit a few dozen universities across the country in search of new talent,” Bohannon wrote. “It used to be an easy sell.” But ever since knowledge of some of NSA’s activities—“harvesting e-mail and phone records from ordinary American citizens on a massive scale” and perhaps “purposefully compromise[ing] a mathematical standard used widely for securing personal computers the world over”—became widespread, a “sense of moral clarity has clouded for some mathematicians, and the recruiters' task has become more complicated.”

► In this week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life column, Mervis tells the story of Tamer Elsayed, an Egyptian scientist who came to the United States for an education. He did whatever it took, and now he can’t come back to the United States.

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