Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Ecologists raise alarm over releases of mosquito-killing guppies

    A guppy

    For decades, health officials have used guppies (Poecilia reticulata) for mosquito control.

    H. Krisp

    The little guppy Poecilia reticulata has developed a big reputation. For decades, the fish has been championed as a mosquito fighter and dumped into ponds and ditches to eat up the insect’s larvae. But among scientists, it has a different reputation—as an invasive species with a remarkable ability to reproduce and spread.

    Now, as health officials in regions facing mosquito-borne viruses like Zika consider expanding use of these predatory fish, ecologists are urging them to think twice. In a paper published online today in Biology Letters, a group of ecologists argues that the guppies—and other nonnative fish used for mosquito control—haven’t actually proven very effective mosquito fighters, but are known to pose ecological risks.   

    “It all sounds like it’s magical—you put the guppies in, they eat the mosquitoes, everything is fine,” says Rana El-Sabaawi, an ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada and lead author on the new paper. “Our concern is that you have a potentially invasive species that is being introduced haphazardly.”

  • Pasteur Institutes acknowledge unauthorized import of MERS samples on a flight from Seoul to Paris

    An artist's conception of the MERS virus.


    A researcher from the Pasteur Institute Korea (IPK) in Seoul brought samples taken during the country's outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) on an intercontinental flight last year without the appropriate paperwork, hoping to get them studied at the Pasteur Institute (IP) in Paris. Both institutes have acknowledged the incident, which IP says was a breach in French biosafety protocol. But both say the trip never put anyone in danger, because the samples had undergone a treatment that would have killed any living virus.

    The story was first reported earlier this month by English-speaking newspaper The Korea Times, which wrote that a researcher from IPK had transported samples containing the MERS virus on a Korean Air flight from Seoul to Paris on 11 October 2015—a few months after a MERS epidemic outbreak that sickened 186 people and killed 38 in South Korea. IPK “committed serious biosecurity breaches, which could have resulted in the loss of many lives, and tried to cover it up,” the newspaper alleged.

    In a statement issued today, IPK sought to downplay the issue. A review conducted with IPK’s safety committee has shown that the samples were treated with glutaraldehyde fixative, a standard virus inactivation protocol, the statement says; as a result, they were noninfectious and did not need any special approval from the airline to be taken onto the flight. (The samples traveled in the aircraft's baggage hold, the institute also says, not in the researcher’s cabin luggage, as The Korea Times claimed.)

  • To save money, NSF requires university cost-sharing for rotators



    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided that universities should pay 10% of the salaries of faculty members working temporarily at the agency. NSF hopes the new policy will demonstrate its commitment to saving taxpayer dollars without alienating the academic community that it relies upon to stay on the cutting edge of basic science. But the changes, which also curb travel and eliminate subsidies for lost consulting opportunities, could make it more difficult for the agency to attract talented academic help.

    The rules, announced on Friday, apply to academic researchers who come to NSF for up to 4 years to help the agency manage its research portfolio. These rotators comprise 28% of the agency’s scientific workforce, and about 12% of its overall workforce (see graph, below).

    NSF officials have long argued that rotators are important to the agency’s success, because they bring up-to-the-minute knowledge of their fields. And the agency has been willing to pay a premium for that know-how: The average rotator earns $36,500 more than a federal employee in the same position would receive.

  • Update: R.I.P. Schiaparelli: Crash site spotted for European Mars lander

    Imagery from a Mars orbiter

    Imagery from a Mars orbiter shows a bright parachute and a dark smudge 1 kilometer north of it.


    Update: Poor Schiaparelliyour life was so short. Imagery released on 21 October from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows the bright, reflective surface of a parachute, and 1 kilometer north of it, a dark patch on the ground where before there had been nothing. In a statement, the European Space Agency (ESA) said this could be a small crater from the lander’s impact at more than 300 kilometers per hour, having fallen from an altitude of between 2 and 4 kilometers after its thrusters cut out too early. “It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely full,” ESA said in its statement. Better imagery of the crash site could come in subsequent days from a higher resolution camera on MRO. Meanwhile, ESA reports that the Trace Gas Orbiterthe main scientific rationale for the ExoMars 2016 missionis in good health, and is set to begin slowly lowering the altitude of its orbit so that it can begin looking for methane and other gases that could signal life on Mars.

    DARMSTADT, GERMANY—The morning after, we know little more about the fate of Europe’s Mars lander Schiaparelli than we did last night: It ceased communicating 50 seconds before its predicted landing time and all efforts to contact it again have been met with a stony silence. As the hours pass, it seems increasingly likely that the lander crashed onto the Red Planet instead of making a gentle touchdown.

    But mission managers here at the European Space Agency's mission control center are putting a positive spin on the situation. With the data received during the descent, they say they will still learn important lessons for the much larger rover that ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos will dispatch to the Red Planet in 2020.

  • Review finds misconduct in events surrounding WHO fetal growth study

    Sonogram image

    A WHO study of fetal growth led to controversy.

    Glenn Scott/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    For the first time in its 68-year history, the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that researchers are guilty of research misconduct. An independent review commissioned by WHO has found that “research ethics misconduct occurred” in a multimillion-dollar global study on fetal growth led by researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. WHO has referred the finding, which it did not explain in detail, to the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC), it announced Thursday.

    It is unclear whether GMC has opened an investigation. The body is legally obliged to look at any concerns that are referred to it, a spokesperson told ScienceInsider, but she could not comment on the specific case.

    The allegations—first reported by Science last month—date back to late 2006. Then, researchers at WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, Switzerland, were working on developing a study to determine global standards to assess whether a fetus is on a healthy growth trajectory. Oxford researchers José Villar and Stephen Kennedy participated as external experts. In 2007, Kennedy signed a contract for Villar to develop a key protocol for the study. But in March 2008, the two Oxford researchers secured a $29 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a similar study. Members of the WHO group say that the Oxford duo used ideas developed in the WHO project in their competing grant proposal; some accuse them of deliberately delaying their WHO work while they were courting the Gates Foundation.

  • Two major California research institutes will merge

    The new Calibr headquarters building in San Diego, California.

    The Calibr headquarters building in California.


    One of the biggest nonprofit biomedical research outfits in the world is getting a new translational medicine research arm, aimed at speeding the conversion of basic research insights into novel medicines. Yesterday, officials at the Scripps Research Institute announced that it will merge with the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), which was launched in 2012 as a nonprofit version of a drug development company. Both Scripps and Calibr are headquartered in San Diego, California, and led by Scripps chemist Peter Schultz.

    In an interview yesterday, Schultz said that he hopes the merger will not only speed the development of new medicines, but that proceeds from any commercial successes will be fed back into the institute’s coffers to bolster future research. “We will generate significant revenues, which will be reinvested in the entire enterprise,” Schultz says. If true, that could be a major boon for Scripps, which has been running in the red for years, as it has struggled to replace declining grant money from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Over the next 2 years, Schultz says Calibr expects to launch clinical trials on eight different medicines, three of which should be ready to go either later this year or in the first quarter of 2017.

    The new merger isn’t the first to attempt to marry basic biomedical research with efforts to promote commercialization. Universities and medical schools around the world have established translational research arms in recent years hoping to cash in on basic research discoveries. But such efforts often stumble, Schultz says, because the culture of basic research, which focuses on insights from individual investigators, is often at odds with translational efforts, which require highly integrated teamwork. “We aren’t building from scratch; rather we are integrating the strengths of two proven nonprofit research organizations,” he says.

  • Q&A: Crowdsourced personal genomes database slowly gains momentum

    DNA code

    A project called hopes to entice huge numbers of people to share their genetic test results.


    Computational geneticist Yaniv Erlich is known for attention-grabbing studies that harness big data. In 2013, his team showed they could identify some people in supposedly anonymized DNA databases by combining their data with searches in public databases. His team later linked genealogical information from 13 million people into a single family tree. And last year, Erlich and co-worker Joe Pickrell at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University made another splash by inviting people who have had their DNA tested by consumer genetics companies such as 23andMe and to share their DNA reports with their group and others for research., Erlich suggested, could potentially tap into the genetic data of up to 3 million people who have already sent off a saliva sample for DNA testing. And unlike these companies, can make consenting participants’ individual information—including, eventually, health data —available to a broad swath of researchers.

    As of this month, has enlisted 32,000 participants. Erlich, who is giving an update on the effort this week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Vancouver, Canada, told ScienceInsider that although it's far short of even 1 million, he feels the project is on track and ready to move into new territory, such as working with disease advocacy groups.

  • Updated: Hopes dim for Europe’s Mars lander

    Schiaparelli on Mars

    Mission managers do not yet know whether Schiaparelli survived its descent to Mars.

    ESA/ATG medialab

    DARMSTADT, GERMANY—There’s good news and bad news tonight from the European Space Agency (ESA). Its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the first prong of a multipart ExoMars mission, appears to have been captured into its planned orbit around Mars and is working normally. But the Schiaparelli lander, a testbed for future landing technologies, is missing in action. “Something went wrong, at least in the communications,” Paolo Ferri, ESA’s head of mission operations, told reporters here at ESA’s control center. Mission engineers will be working through the night to process the scant data from the probe to try to find out what went wrong and whether recovery is possible. “There’s a very good chance that by the morning we will know either that the lander is lost or how to recover it,” he says.

    During its 6-minute descent to the surface, Schiaparelli broadcast basic telemetry data but in a weak signal, designed to be picked up and recorded by the TGO for later transmission to Earth. The TGO at the time was in the middle of a 2-hour-long burn maneuver to enter Mars's orbit and wasn’t able to communicate with Earth. But two other receivers were trained on Schiaparelli: ESA’s 13-year old Mars Express orbiter and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune, India. Neither instrument could interpret the telemetry data, but the nature of the radio signals alone offered some insight into the lander’s descent.

    From the signals received at Pune, managers followed the descent in real time and, initially, everything seemed to go to plan. The GMRT saw Schiaparelli power up right on schedule. They also saw it slowing down as it entered the atmosphere. But less than a minute before it was due to land, the signal was lost. That didn’t cause undue concern at the time because detecting this extremely weak signal all the way from Mars was an experimental technique, and any number of things could have interrupted the signal. But managers really got worried when the data relay from Mars Express showed the lander’s signal breaking off at just the same moment. “It’s clear we lost the signal from the lander, but we don’t know where it happened in the sequence of events,” Ferri says.

  • Surprisingly few new parents enlist in study to have baby’s genome sequenced

    Baby being monitored

    Geneticists are studying the risks and benefits of sequencing the genome of every newborn.


    One of the first studies to explore the idea of routinely sequencing the genes of newborns to help guide their health care has run into an unexpected road bump: Few parents approached are interested in having their baby’s genome profiled.

    When Robert Green, a geneticist at the Harvard University–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and co-workers began planning to sequence babies about 4 years ago, they surveyed more than 500 parents of healthy newborns. Nearly half declared they would be “very” or “extremely” interested and another 37% said “somewhat.” But since their actual BabySeq Project began last year in May, only about 7% of more than 2400 couples approached so far have agreed to participate, says Green, who co-leads BabySeq with Alan Beggs of Boston Children's Hospital. That “very surprising” figure is the same both for parents of very sick infants and those with healthy babies, he adds.

    BabySeq is one of four projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 3 years ago to probe the risks and benefits of sequencing newborns’ DNA and compare the results to conventional newborn disease screening using biochemical analysis of blood spots. These studies got a slow start because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided some of the genome tests had to go through regulatory review.

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