Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Boston University concludes geologist sexually harassed student

    protesters hold signs which read "BU protect your students"

    Members of the Boston University community rally against sexual harassment after a former graduate student leveled accusations against a geology professor.

    Tab Media Inc.

    Boston University (BU) has found that geologist David Marchant sexually harassed his former graduate student, Jane Willenbring, when they were working at an isolated field camp in Antarctica in 1999 and 2000, when Willenbring was 22 years old.

  • Cancer immunotherapy company tries to explain deaths in recent trial

    a chimera antigen receptor cell sits on a cancer cell

    A chimeric antigen receptor–T cell (orange) on a cancer cell (green)

    Eye of Science/Science Source

    More than a year after five leukemia patients died from an experimental treatment involving genetically engineered immune cells, its developer believes it has a better handle on what went wrong—and possibly how to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. Juno Therapeutics, based in Seattle, Washington, last week presented the most comprehensive public results so far from its internal investigation, concluding that individual patient characteristics and “product variability” made for a lethal combination that led to fatal brain swelling. The company says it is now using insights from its analysis to inform work on a modified cell treatment that is in early-stage clinical trials.   

    Stephen Gottschalk, a pediatric oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, who is not associated with Juno, says he still finds the clinical trial deaths somewhat mysterious, but he praises the company’s efforts to understand them. “They presented a very comprehensive analysis and they did it in a timely fashion,” Gottschalk says.

    The treatment that Juno was testing, known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy, equips a patient’s own immune cells with a new surface protein that allows them to home in on and kill cancer cells. It’s an approach promising enough that it was honored as part of Science’s Breakthrough of the Year in 2013. And earlier this year two CAR-T cell products were approved, one to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children and young adults, and another for a form of adult lymphoma. 

  • Astronomers relieved as U.S. funding agency moves to keep Arecibo telescope operating

    The giant silver dish of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

    The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

    pedrik/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo Observatory, recently battered by Hurricane Maria, looks set to remain open as a scientific facility following a yearslong assessment of its future. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it will be pursuing the option it has favored throughout the process: keeping Arecibo working, but with much-reduced funding from the agency.

    The fact that this option has been formally chosen means that at least one viable partner has come forward to take on the bulk of the funding burden and manage the observatory. “Having the ability to keep this facility open is a win for everybody,” says Jim Ulvestad, acting assistant director for NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate in Alexandria, Virginia.

    The 54-year-old observatory, with a fixed dish built into a depression in the karst hills of western Puerto Rico, is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world—at least until a larger rival in China becomes fully operational. It is used for a range of sciences, including radio astronomy in deep space and radar studies of planets, asteroids and Earth’s atmosphere.

  • NIH institute directors stand firm on not renewing focused firearm research program

    Representative Frank Pallone

    Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D–NJ) is among the members of Congress who have asked the National Institutes of Health why it ended a research funding program focused on gun violence.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    The directors of two institutes that fund firearm research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, say they have no plans to renew a lapsed gun violence research initiative launched under former President Barack Obama in response to the 2012 killings of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The NIH officials’ comments, made yesterday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., came on the same day that two members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged NIH to renew the initiative.

    “We probably will issue [a new] funding opportunity announcement, but it will be on violence in general. I don’t think we have to specify gun violence,” George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said at a press conference. He argued that alcohol abuse is associated with many forms of violence, and added that in his opinion, “much more important is the interaction of violence and sexual aggression with alcohol.”

    Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, noted that the institutes already fund projects on brain-based and other causes of violence. He added: “Whether we need additional specific studies on gun violence … that’s a question that we will look into but we have not identified that currently as a gap” in agency research.

  • Massive U.S. defense bill includes a bevy of research-related provisions

    U.S. Coast Gaurd icebreaker Polar Star, with red hull, cruising through thick polar ice.

    The U.S. Coast Gaurd’s Polar Star, the only heavy icebreaker in the fleet, could soon have a sister ship thanks to a massive defense spending bill.

    U.S. Coast Guard/Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

    Congress is poised to tell the U.S. military to identify bases that are most threatened by climate change and give it limited new authority to accelerate the use of battlefield medical treatments that have not been fully approved by safety regulators. The provisions are part of a mammoth defense policy bill that the House of Representatives approved on Tuesday.

    The bill also calls for building a new heavy icebreaker able to operate in polar seas—an item long on the wish list of scientists who work in the Antarctic and Arctic. And it establishes a new pilot program that would enable government scientists working at federal defense laboratories to receive up to $500,000 per year in royalties if they produce a commercially valuable invention. But lawmakers rejected an effort to place limits on Congress’ ability to direct funding to specific medical research programs run by the military, and a proposal to create a new space warfare service dubbed the U.S. Space Corps.

    Those are just some of the research-related provisions in the 2400-page National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018, which is expected to become law later this year after passage by the Senate. The influential measure sets policy and budget levels for the Department of Defense (DOD) and related agencies (although a separate appropriations bill actually sets spending levels). Congress has passed and the president has signed an NDAA every year for more than 50 years, making it one of the few legislative sure bets.

  • New California telescope aims to catch quickly moving celestial events

    workers installing a camera

    Zwicky Transient Facility team members install the instrument's new camera. 

    Caltech Optical Observatories

    Astronomers in California have taken a telescope built before most of them were born and converted it into a new instrument dedicated to one of the newest and fastest-moving branches of astronomy: spotting objects in the sky that change from one day to the next.

    The new Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), which today opened its eye to the sky, was created by retooling the 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, which, starting in 1948, took pictures of the night sky onto specially curved glass photographic plates. The ZTF, named in honor of Fritz Zwicky, the Bulgaria-born astronomer who worked for most of his career at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, has been fitted with a new camera made up of 16 charge-coupled device (CCD) detectors. That will enable it to snap single images covering an area more than 200 times the size of the full moon.

    With such a wide field of view—the biggest of any telescope more than 0.5 meters wide—the ZTF can survey the whole northern sky visible from Palomar every night. By doing so, astronomers can spot anything that changes from the previous night’s images, enabling them to identify quickly changing celestial phenomena, including supernovae, variable and binary stars, the active cores of distant galaxies, potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, and the flash of merging neutron stars that could also emit gravitational waves. 

  • Update: After death of captured vaquita, conservationists call off rescue effort


    Captured vaquitas will be housed in a sea pen until a sanctuary is set up.

    Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative

    On Friday, VaquitaCPR, the $5 million last-ditch effort by the Mexican government and conservationists to capture a rare porpoise called the vaquita, will formally announce the end of the project. The team captured two vaquitas: One, a calf, had to be released because it was stressed; the other, an adult female, died before it could be released. Since that death on 5 November, the 67-person team stopped trying to capture this diminutive cetacean. Instead, it has focused on trying to get detailed photographs of the 15 or so animals that still exist in the Gulf of California, their only habitat, so they can keep better track of the animals.

    Continually plagued by bad weather, the project was halted because the vaquitas reacted poorly to being placed in the sea pen designed to house them. That persuaded researchers that capturing the animals was not worth the risk. “There’s nothing worse than having an animal die in your hands,” says Frances Gulland, the lead VaquitaCPR veterinarian and a scientist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. 

    The rescue attempt came about because illegal poaching of a fish highly prized for its swim bladder. The vaquitas become entangled and drown in the fishing nets. Despite efforts by the Mexican government to stop fishing where the vaquitas live, their numbers have dropped precipitously. With bringing vaquitas into captivity off the table for now as a solution, “what has to happen is the ramping up of enforcement” against poachers, Gulland says. 

  • A new ‘accelerator’ aims to bring big science to psychology

    a gray-scale face

    A study of human faces will kick off the Psychological Science Accelerator.

    Valerie Everett/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    A study of how people perceive human faces will kick off a new initiative to massively scale up, accelerate, and reproduce psychology studies.

    The initiative—dubbed the “Psychological Science Accelerator” (PSA)—has so far forged alliances with more than 170 laboratories on six continents in a bid to enhance the ability of researchers to collect data at multiple sites on a massive scale. It is led by psychologist Christopher Chartier of Ashland University in Ohio, who says he wants to tackle a long-standing problem: the “tentative, preliminary results” produced by small studies conducted in relatively isolated laboratories. Such studies “just aren’t getting the job done,” he says, and PSA’s goal is to enable researchers to expand their reach and collect “large-scale confirmatory data” at many sites.

    To gain access to the accelerator, researchers submit proposals to Chartier, who then forwards anonymized versions of submissions to a five-member selection committee. It considers factors such as how important the research question is, what impact it might have on the field, and how feasible data collection would be. Promising proposals are then passed to other committees—totaling more than 40 people—for feedback. The initial panel then makes the final call.

  • Trump’s agriculture department reverses course on biotech rules

    A tractor plows a farm field with red and green row crops.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to reconsider how to regulate some genetically engineered crops.

    Wayne Stadler/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has withdrawn a plan to overhaul how it regulates biotechnology products such as genetically engineered (GE) crops.

    The proposed rules, released in January as part of a broader update to federal biotech regulations, would have formally exempted some modern gene-edited plants from regulation, but industry and academic groups worried it would also add more onerous requirements for safety assessments early in the development of such products.

    USDA’s announcement and its notice in the federal register today provided little detail about the motivation for the reversal. The agency is taking another look at the rules to balance “regulatory requirements [that] foster public confidence” with a “review process that doesn’t restrict innovation,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue said in a statement. USDA will now start fresh discussions with stakeholders to consider other approaches, the statement said. 

  • Lamar Smith, the departing head of the House science panel, will leave a controversial and complicated legacy

    Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) presides over a hearing.

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) in 2014

    NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    When Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) announced last week that he would not run for re-election in 2018, after 32 years in Congress, many scientists reacted with glee.

    Smith’s current 5-year tenure as chairman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, they say, has been a relentless attack on the integrity of the scientific enterprise, with a special focus on undermining peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF), blocking the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate industrial excesses, and curbing research on climate change. Smith’s use of subpoenas—he is the first science panel chairman to gain the power to issue those legally enforceable orders to produce documents or testify—has led to bitterness among researchers who argue he abused his power to attack individual scientists and attempt to smear their reputations. And some science lobbyists say the committee has become a cesspool of bitter partisanship; they fondly recall a time when panel Republicans and Democrats joined hands on important legislation designed to strengthen federal support for research and innovation that was backed by the academic community.

    But before Smith became chairman of the science committee in late 2012, he spent 2 years as the head of the judiciary committee. And longtime observers of Congress note that he built precisely that kind of bipartisan coalition to win passage of landmark legislation reforming the U.S. patent system. The 2011 America Invents Act, which adopted the same first-to-file rule that governs patents in the rest of the world, required him to work in tandem with a Democratic administration and Senate—after winning over an academic community that was initially skeptical of the dramatic policy shift and wary of how it would affect small inventors.

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