Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Europe overhauls rules for ‘first-in-human’ trials in wake of French disaster

    Many phase I studies now include several subtrials that may require new risk reduction strategies.

    Many phase I studies now include several subtrials that may require new risk reduction strategies, the European Medicines Agency says.

    J. Ling/Wikimedia Commons

    The European Union is beefing up protections for volunteers in phase I clinical trials in the wake of a disastrous clinical study in Rennes, France, that resulted in the death of one volunteer and the hospitalization of five others. On 21 July, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London announced in a "concept paper” that it wants to improve strategies to identify and reduce risks in “first-in-human” (FIH) studies on healthy volunteers. EMA is asking for input from stakeholders.

    The current guideline for FIH studies dates from 2007; it was established in the aftermath of a similar tragedy in 2006 in London, when six volunteers were hospitalized with severe adverse events after receiving a monoclonal antibody named TGN1412 for the first time.

    EMA will seek in particular to reduce the risks of studies that combine a number of different subtrials. Such studies are becoming more and more common, EMA writes; for instance, the trial in Rennes included subtrials using single and multiple dose administration, as well as trials on drug interactions with food and on pharmacodynamics, the study of a drug’s biochemical and physiologic effects on the body.

  • Israel’s botanical gardens face funding crisis

    Israel’s botanical gardens face funding crisis

    A tropical plant greenhouse at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

    Avital Pinnick/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Israel’s 11 botanical gardens are scrambling to cope with deep cuts in funding from the government’s agricultural ministry. Government spending on the gardens, which host research and education programs and are often associated with universities, is down by more than 50% this year. That’s a reprieve from a 98% cut that the ministry announced last year, but still a major blow for the gardens, which rely heavily on government funds to pay for basic operations.

    “There were times this year when we couldn't afford potting soil, or even printer paper,” says Tal Levanony, curator of Tel Aviv University' in Israel's botanical garden. “I'm not sure how the researchers will cope without support.”

    The agriculture ministry started funding the gardens in 2008, and since then has provided annual payments of 2 million to 6 million shekels ($521,000 to $1.56 million), helping boost plant conservation, research, and public education programs across the nation. Late last year, however, curators like Levanony got a nasty surprise. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development informed them that it would spend just 100,000 shekels ($26,000) on the gardens in 2015, down from 4.5 million shekels ($1.1 million) in 2014.

  • Q&A: China lunar chief plots voyage to far side of moon

    Wu Weiren

    Wu Weiren


    As chief designer for the China National Space Administration's (CNSA’s) Chang'e lunar exploration program, Wu Weiren oversaw the Chang’e-3 mission that in late 2013 landed and released a rover on the moon's surface—the first soft touchdown on Earth’s satellite since a Soviet mission in 1976.

    Two even more ambitious missions are on the way as China continues its rapid ascent in space science. Next year, Chang'e-5 will land, scrape up surface soil and rocks, drill down 2 meters for samples, and return the haul to Earth, all within 2 weeks or so. In 2018, CNSA, which runs the lunar program, will attempt the first ever landing on the far side of the moon. Remote observations of the far side’s geology have convinced some planetary scientists that it is the most accessible location in the solar system to study planetary accretion, crust formation, and the effects of impacts. An engineer, Wu concedes that engineering has priority in China’s lunar program: Without solid engineering, he says, scientific objectives cannot be realized.

    The interview, conducted at CNSA headquarters in Beijing, was edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Everglades Foundation launches $10 million prize to clean up toxic algae blooms

    Everglades Foundation launches $10-million prize to clean up toxic algae blooms

    This Landsat 8 image captures the extensive algal bloom in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.

    NASA Earth Observatory

    Removing the phosphorus that causes toxic algal blooms in bodies of water around the world is a huge challenge for conservationists. The Everglades Foundation hopes that a $10 million prize will spur the development of cost-effective technology that can lick the problem.

    Today, the Palmetto Bay, Florida–based foundation officially launched the George Barley Water Prize, with the goal of removing phosphorus from the water at a cost that doesn’t exceed $120 a kilogram. “It’s going to be hard to get there, but we trust that someone somewhere has the capabilities,” says Melodie Naja, chief scientist at the foundation.

    The need is pressing. In May, Lake Okeechobee—the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida—was hit with an algae bloom that extended across 33 miles. Unusually heavy rains forced water districts to drain other lakes and rivers earlier than usual to avoid flooding. That action funneled warm, nitrogen-rich water through the St. Lucie Canal into Lake Okeechobee.

  • No tenure for German social psychologist accused of data manipulation

    Jens Förster'

    Three of Jens Förster's papers have been retracted; more retractions may follow.


    The academic career of German social psychologist Jens Förster, under suspicion of data manipulation, is unraveling. Förster won't get tenure at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) in Germany, as was the plan when he arrived there in 2014. Yesterday, the university published a job ad for a new professor of social psychology, to be appointed in October 2017, whose research profile is very different from Förster's.

    A spokesperson for the university alerted ScienceInsider to the ad this week, but declined further clarification. “It’s a pending procedure and we will not comment about it,” he wrote in an email. But the job description makes it clear that the university isn't planning on hiring Förster. It is seeking a researcher who has done field studies in economic psychology, an area where Förster has virtually no experience. Förster, who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, did not respond to requests for comment.

    Förster won an important European award in 2001 for his "pioneering research in the domains of self regulation, creativity, novelty, embodiment and social cognition." But he came under fire in 2014 after an investigation by his former employer, the University of Amsterdam (UvA), of odd data patterns in three studies. The Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI) concluded that research data had been manipulated in one study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The journal retracted that paper at UvA's request; LOWI did not investigate the other two. At the time, Förster had just bagged a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, which comes with €5 million in funding, at RUB. Pending the controversy, RUB offered him a 1-year contract instead, which was later extended until 2017.

  • Turkish academics targeted as government reacts to failed coup

    The flag of Turkey.

    The flag of Turkey.

    alexeyklyukin/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    In the wake of a failed coup attempt last weekend, the Turkish government has brought higher education to a grinding halt. It appears to be part of a massive political purge in which the government has arrested and fired thousands of people. And educators across the country are bracing for more bad news after the government this week suspended teachers and academic deans. "They are restructuring academia," says Caghan Kizil, a Turkish molecular biologist based at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany who has been in close communication with colleagues in Turkey. "People are very scared and not hopeful."

    The coup itself only lasted a day. On 15 July, a faction of rebel soldiers stormed government and media buildings, blocked key bridges, and clashed with forces loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But by the next morning they had surrendered. With his grip on power re-established, Erdoğan then made an ominous announcement about the dissenters: "They will pay a heavy price." What remains to be seen is who "they" are.

    In the span of a few days, more than 45,000 civil servants in the military and judiciary have been fired or suspended. Although there are ambiguous and conflicting media reports, it appears that some 15,000 staff members of the ministry of education also were fired, 21,000 teachers lost their professional licenses, and more than 1500 university deans were all but ordered to resign.

  • A week of political bloodletting, but U.K. science minister keeps his job

    Jo Jonson

    Jo Johnson

    C. Radburn/ZUMA Press/Newscom

    For researchers worried about the future of science in the United Kingdom, the news was something to hold onto. Late on Friday, Jo Johnson announced he will remain as science minister, despite a massive shakeup of the government cabinet. “I’m happy he’s kept the same job,” says Sarah Main, director of the advocacy group Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. “It’s good for continuity.” It’s not exactly the same job, and it may have become harder, because Johnson will have two bosses—one for research and one for universities—in the new government. Main and other lobbyists say it will be crucial to keep these two sectors closely linked as the United Kingdom slowly figures out what last month’s referendum to leave the European Union means for its future.

    Theresa May became prime minister after the vote for a Brexit, which has created great uncertainty about research in the United Kingdom. The tumult continued last week as a raft of senior ministers were fired and hired. As part of the major reshuffling, May separated science and higher education into two departments. (The university portfolio has moved into the Department of Education, while the research portfolio remains part of what has been renamed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.)

  • Research charities help marry two major South African HIV/tuberculosis institutes

    The Africa Centre for Population Health

    The Africa Centre for Population Health in Somkhele is half of a new major research institute.

    B. Gilbert/Wellcome Trust

    As the International AIDS Conference kicked off in Durban, South Africa, today, two of the nation’s most prominent biomedical research institutions announced that they will marry and combine resources to attack the raging coepidemic of tuberculosis (TB) and HIV in the region. 

    The new Africa Health Research Institute, backed by the deep-pocketed U.K.-based Wellcome Trust and the equally flush U.S.-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), plans to connect basic research to population-level studies and clinical trials. “This is something very strong,” says Bruce Walker, an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who is an HHMI investigator.

    Many fundamental questions remain about why HIV spreads so fiercely in South Africa, which has more people infected with the AIDS virus than any country in the world. South Africa also has a huge burden of TB, caused by a mycobacterium that thrives in an HIV-compromised immune system, and badly needs both better diagnostics to detect cases and more effective treatments to combat widespread multidrug-resistant TB strains. The Africa Health Research Institute promises to attack these overlapping problems—both of which are at their worst in the province of KwaZulu-Natal where the institute resides—with a unique combination of high-powered basic research and biological samples, such as blood or lung tissue, from tens of thousands of people who have carefully documented health histories. “We’ve got significant funding and significant expertise and it really has a huge potential,” says clinical virologist Deenan Pillay, who will head the new institute. “There’s nothing like it as far as I can see anywhere in the world.”

  • Which iconic science centers are also Pokémon GO hot spots?

    Which iconic science centers are also Pokémon GO hotspots?

    S. Gollnow/AP Images

    Pokémon GO, a free-to-play mobile game from the Pokémon Company, has millions of players flocking to locations all over the world to flush out and capture rare Pokémon: digital monsters the franchise has been creating since 1996. The viral sensation recently beat out Twitter for the most active users, and requires players to physically move to neighborhood landmarks to find supplies (Pokéstops), competition grounds (Gyms), and, of course, 151 different Pokémon to catch and collect. Pokémon GO uses the phone’s camera to overlay Pokémon with the real world, and players across the globe have been posting what they’ve found, and where, on social media.

    Along with monuments and statues, some buzzworthy scientific landmarks have made the Pokémon GO circuit.

  • Criminal charges against prominent Italian flu scientist dismissed

    Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

    Ilaria Capua says the University of Florida is not at all concerned by her legal troubles at home.

    The legal travails of one of Italy's best-known scientists are over. Last week, a judge in Verona dismissed a host of criminal charges against veterinary researcher and former politician Ilaria Capua, including allegations that she deliberately set off avian influenza outbreaks that also caused a human epidemic—a crime that would have been punishable with life imprisonment if proven. Capua was also accused of "criminal conspiracy aimed at corruption," handling stolen goods, and administration of drugs that endanger public health.

    Verona judge Laura Donati concluded that the statute of limitations on most charges had expired at the time the prosecutor requested a trial in 2014, but noted that even if it hadn't, most charges had no merit. The judge criticized police investigators who handled the affair, even suggesting that some of the accusations had been fabricated.

    Capua, who became the head of the One Health Center of Excellence for Research and Training at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month, says she feels "relieved," but also "embittered" because the affair has harmed her credibility. The alleged crimes took place while Capua was director of the Division of Biomedical Science of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, a government lab in Padua, Italy. Capua was also a member of the Chamber of Deputies, one of the two houses of the Italian Parliament, for 3 years.

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