President Barack Obama and the Republican-led Congress reached an agreement last December on a 2-year spending plan that was supposed to lead to a temporary truce in the annual federal budget wars. But this week Obama broke that truce, at least in the eyes of most Republicans, with a 2017 budget request that aims to use revenue not covered by that agreement to boost the budgets of several research agencies. The fiscal legerdemain is likely to trigger even more of a partisan standoff with Congress and darken an already cloudy picture for U.S. researchers who rely on federal funding.
The new wrinkle is the administration’s heavy reliance on what is called mandatory spending, which would fund a specific program using revenue generated by the sale of a government asset, such as oil in the strategic petroleum reserve, or a particular tax or license fee. That sidesteps the annual congressional appropriations process that divvies up what is known as discretionary spending, money from the government’s general pot of tax and other revenue. Typically, mandatory funding streams continue indefinitely—and don’t have to be revisited and approved each year—unless Congress specifies otherwise.
Overall, two-thirds of next year’s proposed $6 billion increase in overall federal research spending—a 4% boost to $152 billion—would come from mandatory sources. Although Congress has approved plenty of mandatory spending programs—the National Science Foundation (NSF), for instance, gets a regular stream of money from visa fees for science education efforts—lawmakers are often loath to approve them, because they are perceived to reduce congressional control over spending.
An online statement against sexual misconduct in academia, written and circulated by three human evolution experts at Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, has garnered more than 600 signatures since it was launched on 9 February. The petition, inspired by recent cases of alleged sexual harassment in astronomy, biology, and anthropology, calls on those who sign it to make an “individual commitment” to “zero tolerance of sexual misconduct” and to publicly support “the victims who come forward to report” such incidences.
Paleoanthropologist William Kimbel, anthropologist Katie Hinde, and paleoecologist Kaye Reed, all at ASU, began preparing the statement weeks ago, after learning of an impending Science story on alleged sexual misconduct by Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The statement, which went online right after the Science story appeared, was initially aimed at bioanthropologists and bioarchaeologists. But as the number of signatories grew, it began to include a wider range of researchers including biologists, ecologists, geoscientists, and even a real estate broker. The list of supporters runs the gamut from senior faculty to undergraduate students.
Kimbel says that asking researchers to make an individual, public commitment to ending sexual misconduct will accelerate the cultural change in academia that many scientists believe is essential to enforcing zero tolerance policies. “It is an easy thing to sign the form, but the power of the collective commitment of hundreds of signers is undeniable,” he says.
*Update, 11 February, 8:30 a.m.: As expected, the House of Representatives yesterday passed HR 3293 by a 236 to 178 vote. Lawmakers voted largely along party lines, with just seven Democrats voting in favor of the bill and four Republicans against.
After the Wednesday vote, leaders of the House science committee’s majority and minority blocs issued dueling statements.
“This bill ensures that a project’s benefits are clearly communicated to earn the public’s support and trust,” said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the science panel’s chairperson and the bill’s major backer, in a statement. “Researchers should embrace the opportunity to better explain to the American people the potential value of their work. This bill is an essential step to restore and maintain taxpayer support for basic scientific research.”
Data from studies of Zika virus and its clinical effects should be shared as soon as possible, without scientists having to worry that they're endangering a later publication, dozens of leading journals and research funding agencies said today in a statement.
The 11 journal publishers that signed the declaration—including The New England Journal of Medicine, PLOS, Springer Nature, and Science journals, pledge that they will make all papers concerning Zika virus freely available to anyone, and that data or preprints that are made publicly available won’t preempt their journals from later publishing the work. The 20 funding organizations, which include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and public funding agencies from 11 countries, promise that they will require grantees to have plans in place for sharing their results and data “as rapidly and widely as possible,” including with public health agencies and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Sharing has been a touchy topic in previous outbreaks and epidemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, and Ebola. Countries are sometimes reticent to share data or samples with foreign researchers or organizations; Indonesia, for instance, refused to share influenza strains with WHO for some time because it feared it would not benefit if the viruses were used to produce a pandemic vaccine. Scientists often fret that releasing data early will make it difficult to publish them in top-notch journals, which prize exclusivity. But this lack of transparency can slow down both the international response and the scientific understanding of an epidemic.
Accusations of biopiracy have led a French government institute to pledge that it will share any proceeds from a potential new malaria drug with local authorities in French Guiana. The Institute for Development Research (IRD) in Marseille, France, had come under fire for patenting the drug without acknowledging the indigenous and local communities that helped the institute isolate the drug from a traditional medicinal plant.
On Friday, IRD put out a statement saying it will work out a protocol with Guianan authorities to guarantee the fair sharing of the scientific and economic benefits if the drug makes it to the market and to ensure that people in Guiana can get it at an affordable price. The controversy comes just as France is passing a new biodiversity law that gives local communities more rights over the use of their traditional knowledge and regulates how researchers share benefits of their work.
At issue is a compound named Simalikalactone E (SkE), isolated by IRD researchers from Quassia amara, a small red-flowered tree native to Central and South America. The scientists focused on that species after they had interviewed members of the Kali’na, Palikur, and Creole communities, as well as local Brazilian and European people, about traditional remedies against malaria. In a paper published in 2009, they confirmed that SkE had antimalaria activity in test tubes and in animal studies. Without acknowledging the Guianan communities, they applied for a patent from the European Patent Agency, which was granted in March 2015.
The massive biomedical innovation bill that breezed through the U.S. House of Representatives last summer is moving through the Senate, albeit on much weaker tailwinds. In the first of three scheduled hearings, the Senate’s health committee today approved an initial set of bipartisan proposals aimed at speeding the discovery and development of new medical treatments. Lawmakers hope the bills can be combined into a companion to the House bill, known as 21st Century Cures.
This piecemeal approach, which Senate health committee chair Lamar Alexander (R–TN) laid out last month, signaled partisan tensions over certain proposals in 21st Century Cures, notably an $8.75 billion boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over 5 years, which in the House proposal would consist of dedicated mandatory funding, not subject to the annual budget appropriations process and budget caps. (The House bill proposes selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves to create the needed revenue.)
Alexander has been resistant to that approach, together with Republican colleagues on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. Today he indicated that the NIH windfall isn’t off the table, and that he is personally “willing to consider using mandatory funds” to support five priority areas: President Obama’s precision medicine initiative, the recently announced cancer moonshot, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, a system of grants for “big ideas” across NIH institutes, and support for young investigators. (Those first three programs are also priorities in President Obama’s 2017 budget request released today.) But he noted that any proposal would need to find that funding by reducing existing mandatory spending elsewhere. And because many Republicans on the committee are resistant to mandatory funding, Alexander said he will reserve the question of how to pay for an NIH increase for the debate on the full Senate floor.
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.
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.”
Zika virus has raced around Latin America and the Caribbean over the past year. Although there have been 50 laboratory-confirmed cases in the United States over the past 3 months, all have been in people who have traveled to affected countries. But the Aedes aegpyti mosquito that carries the virus lives in parts of the United States, and health officials expect to see local transmission of Zika occur once warmer weather spurs an increase in mosquito populations. “We must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the Southern United States,” a White House press release states.