Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Zika’s long, strange trip into the limelight

    Investigators at the Uganda Virus Research Institute first isolated the Zika virus from this forest.

    Investigators at the Uganda Virus Research Institute first isolated the Zika virus from this forest.

    Andrew Haddow

    On 18 April 1947, a rhesus monkey that researchers identified as 766 ran a fever of 39.7°C, about 2°C higher than normal. The monkey was part of a study hunting for yellow fever virus and was living in a cage on a platform built into the tree canopy in the 1.5-kilometer-long Zika Forest, which runs adjacent to an arm of Lake Victoria in Uganda. Three days later, the investigators took a blood sample from Rhesus 766 and injected it into the brains of Swiss albino mice. The mice “showed signs of sickness” after 10 days, and the researchers harvested their brains, from which they isolated a “filterable transmissible agent.”

    Come January of the following year, the same researchers trapped mosquitoes from these canopy platforms and took their bounty back to the lab, hoping to isolate yellow fever virus. Others had shown that one of these species they caught, Aedes africanus, shuttled the yellow fever virus, so the investigators put 86 of the insects in a refrigerator to “render them inactive” and then ground them up in a blood-saline solution, which they again injected into the brains of mice. The animals “appeared inactive” after 7 days, and tests showed they harbored the same transmissible agent that had sickened Rhesus 766.

    The researchers called their “hitherto unrecorded virus” Zika.

  • Updated: Obama wants nearly $2 billion in emergency aid to combat Zika

    The yellow fever mosquito, <cite>Aedes aegypti</cite>, is Zika's most important vector.

    The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is Zika's most important vector.

    Marcos Teixeira de Freitas, Creative Commons

    U.S. President Barack Obama today announced that his administration plans to ask Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to beef up preparations for and responses to the Zika virus.

    More than half the money, which is expected to be part of the fiscal year 2017 budget request to be released Tuesday, would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to strengthening programs to control mosquitoes—which carry and spread the Zika virus—the new funds would aim to improve domestic and international surveillance of the once exotic pathogen and possible links to disease. Although Zika causes no harm in most people it infects, its possible role in clusters of microcephaly in babies and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults led the World Health Organization on 1 February to declare that it is a “public health emergency of international concern.”

  • What will Obama’s last budget request mean for science?

    Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

    Andrew Magill/Flickr

    When President Barack Obama unveils his 2017 budget request tomorrow, it will honor a 2-year spending agreement that he and Congress embraced this past December. The pact set a spending ceiling that was intended to usher in a temporary truce in the annual budget wars. But that truce appears to be short-lived: The White House will be asking legislators to boost research activities in many areas through the use of spending mechanisms that sidestep the normal appropriations process. And that request isn’t likely to win much support from the Republican majority.

    The carrot in the December agreement was an additional $50 billion in the current (2016) fiscal year for discretionary spending, a $1.1 trillion pot that covers all federally funded research. But the agreement was front-loaded: It stipulates essentially flat funding for the fiscal year 2017 that starts in October.

  • Top Nobel Prize administrator resigns in wake of Macchiarini scandal

    Urban Lendahl announced the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on 5 October 2015.

    Erik Cronberg, KI

    The widening scandal surrounding surgeon Paolo Macchiarini and his employment at the Karolinska Insitute (KI) in Stockholm has prompted Urban Lendahl, secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, to resign. Lendahl, a developmental geneticist at KI, was involved in hiring Macchiarini in 2010, according to Swedish media reports. A statement from the Nobel Committee today said that Lendahl expected to be involved in the investigation and was giving up his work on the committee “out of respect for the integrity of the Nobel Prize work.”

    KI announced last week that it had “lost confidence” in Macchiarini  and would cut ties with him when his current contract as a senior researcher ends in November. It also said it would launch an external investigation into the university’s interactions with Maccharini since his hiring as a guest professor in 2010.

    Lendahl has been a member of the Nobel Assembly at KI since 2000. Made up of 50 professors from KI, the assembly chooses the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine every year. Lendahl was elected as secretary general in late 2014 and assumed office in early 2015. The secretary general directs the Nobel office at KI, is the assembly’s spokesperson, and usually announces the winner of the prize—as Lendahl did last October, when the Nobel went to three pioneers in antiparasitic drug development. The job “clearly involves a fair share of administrative work,” Lendahl said in an interview last year, “but the most exciting part is to be constantly engaged in thinking about and discussing the best science that is conducted on the planet.”

  • ‘Woohoo!’ email stokes rumor that gravitational waves have been spotted

    The LIGO facility in Livingston, Louisiana.

    The LIGO facility in Livingston, Louisiana, has a twin in Hanford, Washington.


    It's just a rumor, but if specificity is any measure of credibility, it might just be right. For weeks, gossip has spread around the Internet that researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have spotted gravitational waves—ripples in space itself set off by violent astrophysical events. In particular, rumor has it that LIGO physicists have seen two black holes spiraling into each other and merging. But now, an email message that ended up on Twitter adds some specific numbers to those rumors. The author says he got the details from people who have seen the manuscript of the LIGO paper that will describe the discovery.

    "This is just from talking to people who said they've seen the paper, but I've not seen the paper itself," says Clifford Burgess, a theoretical physicist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in nearby Waterloo. "I've been around a long time, so I've seen rumors come and go. This one seems more credible."

  • French company bungled clinical trial that led to a death and illness, report says

    Health minister Marisol Touraine of France.

    Health minister Marisol Touraine of France.

    Philippe Grangeaud/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    Why one man died and four others fell ill during a drug safety study in France last month is still very unclear. But a preliminary inspection report lashes out at Biotrial, the company that conducted the study, for how it responded after the first volunteer in the clinical trial was hospitalized. Three major errors by Biotrial put other volunteers at risk, says the report, published yesterday by France's General Inspectorate of Social Affairs (IGAS).

    Biotrial was testing a compound called BIA 10-2474, developed by Portuguese pharma company Bial as a candidate drug for a range of diseases. The study started in July 2015, and initial administrations of the drug produced no severe side effects; things went wrong in a group of eight people who entered the study on 6 January and received multiple, high doses. Six of them were scheduled to receive 10 daily doses of BIA 10-2474, two others a daily placebo. On 10 January, a subject identified as "volunteer 2508" complained of headaches and blurry vision; he was taken to the hospital in the early evening and stayed there overnight.

    The next morning at 8 a.m., Biotrial staff proceeded to give the seven remaining volunteers their daily dose of BIA 10-2474 or placebo without first finding out how volunteer 2508 was doing. Biotrial apparently assumed his condition wasn't serious and that he was recovering. "We expected to see him come back," one staffer told the investigators. "The hospital didn't call us," said another. But at 9 a.m., a Biotrial doctor was told by the hospital that the patient's condition had worsened and that he had been sent to get an MRI. The patient was declared brain-dead later that day, and the study was halted. Four others who had received their doses that day fell ill and subsequently needed hospitalization.

  • What else makes DARPA tick

    DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar welcomes Defense Secretary Ash Carter to a conference whose name highlights the agency’s unorthodox approach to technology.

    DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar welcomes Defense Secretary Ash Carter to a conference whose name highlights the agency’s unorthodox approach to technology.

    Sun Vega/DARPA

    This week’s issue of Science profiles the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, the U.S. military’s renowned research and technology development arm, through the eyes of Benjamin Mann, a former program manager. The agency enjoys a stellar reputation as a potent source of technological innovation for the U.S. military, in large part thanks to the unique degree of autonomy, flexibility, and authority given DARPA program managers, who serve relatively brief tenures.

    The three stories below examine facets of DARPA discussed only briefly in our magazine story. One presents the exceptions to the rule that most DARPA program managers spend just a few years at the agency. Another reveals the sudden demise of an outside expert panel that advised the agency for most of its existence. The third highlights a rarity in Washington, D.C.: an agency basically satisfied with its annual budget.  

  • White House to ask for big boost for farm science funding

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    George Thomas/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Farm research backers are making some political gains in their push to double funding for the U.S. government’s premier competitive grants program for agricultural science.

    The Obama administration this week announced that it will ask Congress to appropriate $700 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) in its 2017 budget request, to be released 9 February.

    The ambitious request—double AFRI’s current budget, and $250 million more than the White House requested in 2016—represents a coup for research lobbyists seeking to build political support for ramping up AFRI’s budget.

  • U.S. House tees up controversial bill on NSF research

    U.S. House tees up controversial bill on NSF research

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Next week the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to repeat a warning to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that every one of its research grants must advance “the national interest.” Depending on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, passage of the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act (HR 3293) is either a simple reminder that federal dollars should be spent wisely, or an unwise and unwarranted intrusion into NSF’s grantsmaking process.

    HR 3293 repeats one section of controversial legislation laying out policy guidance for NSF that the House narrowly approved in May 2015. (That bill, HR 1806, is called the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015.) The Senate has yet to take up its version of COMPETES, although staff have been working on a draft for several weeks after collecting community input last year.

  • Australia’s national lab network to cut staff and trim research efforts

    New priorities will mean fewer jobs and a change of focus for Australia’s national laboratories.

    New priorities will mean fewer jobs and a change of focus for Australia’s national laboratories.

    CSIRO (CC BY-NC 3.0)

    Outrage has greeted a decision by the head of Australia’s premier research agency to cut jobs and eliminate work in certain fields, including basic climate science. According to Larry Marshall, chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) since 2014, there’s no need to “prove” climate change is real. “That question has been answered,” he wrote in an email message to staff yesterday. “The new question is what do we do about it.”

    Marshall’s decision to “realign” CSIRO’s priorities could see 350 jobs go over the next 2 years and comes on top of cuts of more than $15 million to climate and environmental science in the 2014–15 federal budget.

    Reaction within the scientific community was swift and scathing. Marshall’s decision has been described as “disappointing,” “appalling,” “disastrous,” “ludicrous,” and “deeply disturbing.”

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