Elsewhere in Science, 17 July 2015

Science director Eric Grimm talks with visitors at the threatened Illinois State Museum.

Credit: Doug Carr, Illinois State Museum

Every Friday, Science Careers points to articles in the Science family of publications that are relevant to careers in science and other technical fields. Some of them are accessible to anyone, but access to articles appearing in Science Translational MedicineScience Signaling, and Science may require AAAS membership (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers) or a site license.

► Last Friday at ScienceInsider, Juan David Romero reported that IBM and more than 60 scientists are teaming up for the Jefferson Project, an effort that will use New York’s “Lake George as a test bed for an array of sophisticated ‘smart’ sensors that will monitor 25 different variables, including biological characteristics and water chemistry and quality.” So far, the researchers have activated 14 sensor-carrying platforms, and in the end they “plan to equip the lake with 40” of them, “some on land and some in the water.” “Private-public partnerships are going to be a hallmark of how more research is done in the future and this is a great model to see that in action,” says Kevin Rose, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, who is active in the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network.

► “The number of federally regulated animals used in U.S. biomedical research dropped last year to its lowest level since data collection began in 1972, according to new statistics posted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” David Grimm reported later at ScienceInsider. The numbers tell the tale: “Approximately 834,000 rabbits, nonhuman primates, and other regulated animals were used in research last year, compared with more than 1.5 million in the early 1970s. The use of these animals has been on a downward trend since 1993, with a 6% decrease from 2013 to 2014. Since USDA first started posting its numbers on its website in 2008, total use has dropped 17%. The figures do not include most mice, rats, birds, and fish, which make up 98% of lab animals but are not covered under the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA).” While the decrease may be seen as good news, Grimm noted that the biggest factor in the drop “appears to be the increasing use of mice and rats in biomedical research. A PETA study conducted earlier this year found that there has been a 73% rise in the use of these animals in U.S. labs over the past 15 years, obviating the need for other types of animals.”

► Friday evening at ScienceInsider, Kelly Servick reported that the 21st Century Cures Act, “a bill to speed the discovery and development of new medical treatments[,] was approved by a strong majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.” The act calls for the authorization of $550 million for the Food and Drug Administration. It also calls for “new funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a temporary ‘innovation fund,’ which would give the agency an extra $8.75 billion over 5 years; $500 million per year would fund specific projects within NIH’s 27 institutes, including research on biomarkers and precision medicine. The remaining money would support young scientists: high-risk, high-reward research; intramural research; and other areas.”

► The Illinois State Museum, which houses research projects like the Neotoma Paleoecology Database and Community, “may be forced to close,” becoming “the innocent victim of a budget fight between the state’s new Republican governor and the Democratic legislators who control the General Assembly,” Laura Olivieri reported in a Monday ScienceInsider. Some researchers are shocked by the news. “‘The Illinois State Museum is deeply respected in the scientific community for the expertise of its curators and for its irreplaceable collection of archaeological, cultural, and paleontological artifacts,’ says paleoecologist Jack Williams of [UW], Madison, who has used the Neotoma database to explore vegetation change over the past 20,000 years on a continental and global scale. ‘The museum is also, of course, a gateway for students to discover the wonder and beauty of science.’”

► “Health advocacy groups are scrambling to save a U.S. research agency on the chopping block in Congress,” wrote Jocelyn Kaiser in a Monday ScienceInsider. “Last month a House of Representatives panel approved a spending bill that would give [NIH] a $1.1 billion raise next year, with some of the new money coming from zeroing out funding for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which funds studies to improve health care delivery. A proposal from the corresponding Senate committee, approved 25 June, would be only slightly less kind, slashing AHRQ’s $364 million budget by 35%.”

► Iran’s agreement on Tuesday to “dismantle large pieces of its nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions … paves the way for a rapid expansion of scientific cooperation with Iran in areas as diverse as fusion, astrophysics, and cancer therapy using radioisotopes,” Richard Stone wrote that day at ScienceInsider. For example, “Iran will convert its sensitive Fordow uranium enrichment facility into an international ‘nuclear, physics, and technology centre,’ allowing it to remain open as a research lab. … The agreement also calls for exploring cooperation in other research areas, such as neutrino astronomy and fusion research, and even ‘facilitating’ Iran’s participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, being built in France.”

► In the wake of the report finding that the American Psychological Association (APA) “had given scientific and ethical legitimacy to torture by the U.S. government, ... APA is struggling to craft an institutional response that will satisfy its members and long-time detractors, even as some of those pilloried in the probe defend themselves and their colleagues,” John Bohannon wrote at ScienceInsider, also on Tuesday. Two “persistent critics of APA’s role in the interrogation program, were invited by APA to review the ... report in advance and give the society their feedback.” They “urged that APA’s top executive, legal, and public relations staff be fired,” but as of Tuesday, “several people on their ‘staff to be fired’ list remain with APA.”

► “A provision in a new biomedical innovation bill passed last week in the [U.S.] House of Representatives would create a new program to launch prize competitions at” NIH to “incentivize medical breakthroughs,” Servick reported at ScienceInsider on Thursday. “Challenges are an appealing alternative to traditional research grants because ‘you’re only paying for success,’ Christopher Frangione, XPRIZE’s vice president of prize development, told members of the space, science, and competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate commerce committee on Tuesday. And … prizes can inspire applicants from outside the academic mainstream. ‘You’re democratizing innovation,’ [Frangione] said. ‘As long as you solve the problem, you win.’”

► Also on Thursday, Martin Enserink provided an update on virologist Ron Fouchier, who for the past 3 years “has battled the Dutch government over a fundamental question in the balance between academic freedom and biosecurity: Did he need a government license to publish his hotly debated gain-of-function (GOF) studies on the H5N1 influenza strain?” On 18 June, “the Court of Appeal in Amsterdam … tossed out” the 2013 ruling that yes, he did need such a license. “But it's a pyrrhic victory for Fouchier. Rather than ruling on the fundamental issue, the court said Fouchier and his employer … didn't have standing to sue the Dutch government, putting them back at square one.”

“For the moment, Fouchier doesn't have any new GOF work to publish. Last year, the U.S. government unexpectedly decided to halt the funding of such studies, asking researchers to pause their work and ordering a review of the risks and benefits—a process that is still ongoing. Fouchier, who has an important grant from the National Institutes of Health for his flu work, has stopped his project as well. Although he could resume the research with Dutch or European funding, ‘I don't think it's wise to bite the hand that feeds me,’ he says.”

► In the editorial in this week’s issue of Science, Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt reported back from the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, where Nobel laureates Elizabeth Blackburn, Jack Szostak, and Daniel Shechtman offered trainees “some tough advice.”

Given the current competitive climate for hiring and advancement, the panel agreed that young scientists who are not deeply passionate about their research need to reconsider their career choices. And even if one has such extraordinary passion, it alone is not enough. The panelists stressed the importance of becoming a leading expert in something new and in demand. They also emphasized the need to hone people skills, as science is more and more a team effort, and to become able communicators in order to share goals and achievements with potential funders and the public. Graduate students also need to be smart in selecting a lab for postdoctoral training; ideal attributes are a collaborative atmosphere, opportunities for leadership in publications, and exposure to more than just one senior leader in the field who will be able to write a letter of recommendation. … [I]f a young scientist faces despair from too many failed academic job searches, one panelist had some tough advice: It's time to reassess options as to whether academia is the right track.

► Salaries and fringe benefits account for 66% of the biomedical research price index, reported Jeffrey Mervis, also in this week’s issue of Science, reflecting an “outsized effect of salaries and benefits on biomedical inflation.” “[B]iomedical inflation largely tracks salary trends, not the sticker price of essential lab equipment and supplies,” Mervis wrote. Therefore, “it may behoove biomedical lobbyists to think twice before citing the cost of high-tech science as a rationale for pumping up NIH's budget.”

► Vandi Verma “is one of the few people in the world who is qualified to drive a vehicle on Mars.” Read more about how she became one of the drivers for Mars rover Curiosity and what it’s like to explore a new world in this week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life column.

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