Challenge Grants, Cloning, and Cyberwarfare

Although swine flu is dominating the news (you can find our continuing coverage and exclusive stories here), Science's policy blog, ScienceInsider, has also been keeping tabs on important developments in the world of science policy. Here are some highlights from the past week:

As of 4 May, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expected to receive about 15,000 applications for its Challenge Grants, NIH officials say. (The deadline was 27 April with an extension for making corrections.) The agency tagged $200 million of its $10.4 billion in the recent stimulus bill for the competition, which covers research on dozens of specific topics. If NIH funds only 200 of the $1 million, 2-year grants, as initially proposed, that will put the success rate at less than 2% (compared with roughly 20% for a regular NIH research grant). However, individual institutes will likely fund at least 200 additional grants, NIH says.

In other grant news: After howls of protests and charges of "blacklisting," a U.K. research council has partially backed away from a new policy that would have prevented repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants from submitting new proposals. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will now allow those scientists to still submit one proposal within a 12-month period, according to an amended policy released today.

Last week, a bioethics committee advising the South Korean government recommended conditionally approving plans for the first attempt at therapeutic cloning in the country since the work of Woo Suk Hwang was found fraudulent in 2006. Technically known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, therapeutic cloning has the potential to create human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to the adult cell donor. Molecular developmental biologist Hyung Min Chung of the Cha Stem Cell Institute thinks his 200-scientist-strong, $15-million-per-year team can make the breakthrough. Read his Q & A with ScienceInsider here.

University researchers who work with dangerous pathogens should keep an eye on each other and report any signs of suspicious behavior to lab managers, says a panel of life scientists that was asked by the U.S. government to think of ways to tackle the threat of lab insiders carrying out a bioterrorist attack. However, in recommendations released last week, the panel rejected psychological screenings, drug tests, and medical monitoring as useful methods for enhancing personnel reliability in the academic setting.

And finally, the National Research Council (NRC) has stepped into the shadowy world of cyberwarfare, issuing a call for open discussion of the Pentagon's efforts to build computer viruses or other novel weapons to infect or destroy an adversary's computers. According to the NRC panel, the "cyberattack capabilities" of the United States are probably more powerful than "the most sophisticated cyberattacks perpetrated by cybercriminals."

For more stories and the best science policy news on the Web, check out ScienceInsider.