Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Scientists fight over threat to Texas songbird—and who owns the data

    a golden-cheeked warbler

    Habitat destruction has endangered the golden-cheeked warbler.

    Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

    The golden-cheeked warbler sits just a few centimeters high and weighs 15 grams. But the diminutive Texas songbird is causing an outsize political flap, from courthouses to the pages of an academic journal. At stake are the fate of an endangered species, land development plans worth millions of dollars—and scientific reputations.

    A long-running saga over whether the warbler deserves legal protection took an unexpected twist this month, when a scientific journal reinstated a study showing alarmingly low bird numbers, which the journal editor had previously said should be retracted for plagiarism. The Journal of Field Ornithology republished the controversial paper alongside three separate commentaries in which dueling research teams trade allegations of sinister motives, censorship, and misuse of data. And the journal editor admits he is publishing the paper now against his better judgement. 

    The editor, Gary Ritchison, a biologist at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, told Science he reversed his 2016 decision to retract the paper after taking advice from lawyers at the journal’s publisher Wiley and the Council on Publication Ethics, a global advisory body based in the United Kingdom. “I think this is the end of it,” he says.

  • New effort aims to study brain diseases in African-Americans

    MRI image of a human brain

    Earlier this week, the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, a nonprofit housed at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, announced a new neuroscience research initiative that aims to tackle a gaping hole in medicine: the interplay between brain diseases and their genomic drivers among African-Americans. The goal is to better understand how brain diseases play out in this population, which has been profoundly underrepresented in neuroscience research. To build trust among African-Americans in Baltimore and eventually beyond, the venture includes a partnership with the African-American Clergy Medical Research Initiative, a group of clergy leaders in the city. African-American scientists at Lieber are already involved, but project leaders hope to engage those at other institutions as the work expands.

    The effort builds on Lieber’s rapidly growing brain bank, which now stands at about 3000 brains, with more than 400 new brains collected each year, all donated by next of kin. Many are from young and middle-aged people who die suddenly of suicide, drug overdose, or other causes. Although most of the brains are from people of European ancestry, more than 700 are from African-Americans. Despite growing recognition that African-Americans are underrepresented in medical research—and face discrimination and other hardships that can heighten health risks—study of brain diseases in this population have lagged behind, says Daniel Weinberger, the institute’s director.

    ScienceInsider spoke with Weinberger, a psychiatrist and schizophrenia researcher who came to the Lieber Institute in 2011 from the National Institute of Mental Health. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Another major drug candidate targeting the brain plaques of Alzheimer’s disease has failed. What’s left?

    Brain cell surrounded by toxic β-amyloid

    Another Alzheimer’s drug candidate targeting toxic β-amyloid (brown) has failed.


    “Futile”—that’s the devastating label now attached to two highly anticipated clinical trials of a drug that targets β-amyloid, the neuron-killing protein fragment littering the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Biogen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Eisai in Tokyo, the pharmaceutical partners developing the drug, called aducanumab, today announced their decision to halt a pair of ongoing phase III trials after seeing the results of a “futility analysis,” in which an independent committee found that the drug was unlikely to slow cognitive decline as intended. This latest blow to the β-amyloid approach has left researchers asking: Do any of the remaining antiamyloid drug trials have a better chance, or is it time to declare the whole approach, well, futile?

    “Amyloid definitely has something to do with Alzheimer’s—there’s far too much evidence to dismiss,” organic chemist Derek Lowe wrote today on his drug industry blog In the Pipeline. (The blog is hosted by Science Translational Medicine, which, like ScienceInsider, is published by AAAS.) “But the situation is clearly more complicated than people have hoped, because otherwise, all the attempts to address amyloid … would have yielded some tiny bit of clinical benefit.”

    There were reasons to think that aducanumab might succeed where antiamyloid drugs from Merck & Co., Eli Lilly and Company, and others had failed. The drug is an antibody designed to bind to and eliminate sticky β-amyloid plaques that build up around neurons, block their communication, and, ultimately, kill them. And it was clear from a smaller clinical trial that this drug was very effective at clearing plaques—“that’s one of the reasons we were sanguine about this trial,” says neurologist Dennis Selkoe of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who treats patients who were enrolled in one of the trials. Studies also suggest aducanumab can attack the most noxious form of amyloid—so-called oligomers—that other drugs may have left untouched.

  • Philosophers and neuroscientists join forces to see whether science can solve the mystery of free will

    conceptual illustration of a driver inside a man’s head

    A new research program on free will teams up neuroscientists and philosophers.

    Philosophers have spent millennia debating whether we have free will, without reaching a conclusive answer. Neuroscientists optimistically entered the field in the 1980s, armed with tools they were confident could reveal the origin of actions in the brain. Three decades later, they have reached the same conclusion as the philosophers: Free will is complicated.

    Now, a new research program spanning 17 universities and backed by more than $7 million from two private foundations hopes to break out the impasse by bringing neuroscientists and philosophers together. The collaboration, the researchers say, can help them tackle two important questions: What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?

    Neuroscience’s first and most famous encounter with free will occurred in 1983, when physiologist Benjamin Libet made a peculiar discovery. A brain signal called the readiness potential was known to precede self-initiated actions, such as raising a hand or spontaneously tapping a finger. Libet found the readiness potential starts to rise before people report they are aware of their decision to move. Many took that as a challenge to the existence of free will. But subsequent studies argued that was a flawed interpretation, and that the results said little about free will.

  • Q&A: Why fishery managers need to overhaul recreational fishing rules

    Robert Arlinghaus holding a sea trout

    Robert Arlinghaus with a sea trout he caught off the Danish coast

    Christian Skov

    For environmental conflict and political drama, it’s hard to beat fishing. Almost all the fish consumed by developed countries comes from industrial fisheries, which generate not just a lot of revenue, but controversy over their impact, such as accidentally harming seabirds or scraping the sea floor. Meanwhile, recreational fishing usually escapes notice. Although it also has a large impact, both environmental and economic, amateur fishing is often ignored by regulators or swept under the same kind of rules as commercial fishing. This needs to change, researchers argue in a commentary published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    Each year, recreational anglers catch an estimated 47 billion fish. About half are let go, but there can be a sizable impact on fish stocks. Populations can be depleted in small lakes, for example. Intense fishing can cause fish to evolve to smaller sizes and adopt new behaviors. And some management practices designed to please freshwater anglers, such as the release of popular but nonnative species, can harm biodiversity. Off the coast, saltwater anglers are sometimes chasing the same fish as commercial boats, leading to conflicts between the two groups.

    Researchers have been thinking about how to improve management of recreational fisheries and reduce conflicts, and a group of experts offers recommendations in the PNAS article. ScienceInsider spoke with one of the lead authors, biologist Robert Arlinghaus of Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin. Arlinghaus is also an avid angler. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • WHO panel proposes new global registry for all CRISPR human experiments

    a hand holding a microplate containing embryos

    A researcher adjusts a microplate containing embryos undergoing gene editing with CRISPR. An expert panel has recommended that all such experiments be submitted to a global registry.

    Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

    There’s an “urgent need” to create a transparent global registry that would list all experiments related to human genome editing, an expert committee convened to advise the World Health Organization (WHO) said today. The international committee of 18 researchers and bioethicists, which met in Geneva, Switzerland, over the past 2 days, also agreed with the widespread consensus that it would be “irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing.”

    The committee stopped short, however, of endorsing the call for a “moratorium” on human germline editing issued last week by prominent group of researchers in a Nature commentary. “I don’t think a vague moratorium is the answer to what needs to be done,” said Margaret Hamburg, a co-chair of the WHO committee who formerly headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and now works with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., during a teleconference for the media today. Several other high-profile statements and reports on genome editing have also avoided using the word “moratorium,” although they have similarly emphasized that too many risks and unknowns still surround this technology to use it for germline modifications—which could alter sperm, eggs, or embryos in a way that could pass changes on to future generations—even if the modifications are aimed at preventing life-threatening diseases.

    The committee met in the wake of the startling news in November 2018 that a researcher in China, He Jiankui, had used the genome editor CRISPR on the embryos of twin girls who subsequently were born. He and his co-workers say they attempted to cripple a gene in the girls to make their cells resistant to HIV infection. Researchers from around the world criticized the work for not being transparent, failing to address an unmet medical need, and not properly informing participants in the study of the risks. The Chinese government has condemned He’s work, he was fired from his university in Shenzhen, China, and a formal investigation is underway.

  • U.S. researchers hope Congress will dig NSF out of a $1 billion budget hole

    NSF's McMurdo Station in Antarctica

    The proposed budget for the National Science Foundation would continue to fund a $410 million renovation of its McMurdo research station in Antarctica, where construction costs have risen.

    Mike Lucibella/NSF

    For the second time in 3 years, President Donald Trump has recommended deep cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia. And scientists are hoping Congress will again come to the agency’s rescue.

    One month after signing a 2019 spending bill that gave NSF a record $8.1 billion budget, Trump has proposed shrinking it by $1 billion in 2020. The president’s $7.1 billion request was apparently so depressing that NSF’s director, France Córdova, did not participate in a media call yesterday to review the request. Instead, she left it to her aides to insist that NSF will continue “to push the frontiers” of knowledge despite the proposed 12.5% reduction.

    The chair of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body in Alexandria, also sees a silver lining in the dark budget clouds. “NSF will persevere at $7.1 billion and do wonderful things,” says Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “And if it gets additional funds, its impact on research will be even greater.”

  • Gene-edited foods are safe, Japanese panel concludes

    employee stocking grocery shelves

    In Japan, genetically modified products have to be labeled; an advisory panel did not say whether that should apply to gene-edited food as well.

    Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Japan will allow gene-edited foodstuffs to be sold to consumers without safety evaluations as long as the techniques involved meet certain criteria, if recommendations agreed on by an advisory panel yesterday are adopted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. This would open the door to using CRISPR and other techniques on plants and animals intended for human consumption in the country.

    “There is little difference between traditional breeding methods and gene editing in terms of safety,” Hirohito Sone, an endocrinologist at Niigata University who chaired the expert panel, told NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster.

    How to regulate gene-edited food is a hotly debated issue internationally. Scientists and regulators have recognized a difference between genetic modification, which typically involves transferring a gene from one organism to another, and gene editing, in which certain genes within an organism are disabled or altered using new techniques such as CRISPR. That’s why a year ago, the U.S.Department of Agriculture concluded that most gene-edited foods would not need regulation. But the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled in July 2018 that gene-edited crops must go through the same lengthy approval process as traditional transgenic plants

  • Founder of geometric analysis honored with Abel Prize

    Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck

    Karen Uhlenbeck

    Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study

    The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters today announced that Karen Uhlenbeck has won the 2019 Abel Prize, a Nobel-level honor in math. Uhlenbeck won for her foundational work in geometric analysis, which combines the technical power of analysis—a branch of math that extends and generalizes calculus—with the more conceptual areas of geometry and topology. She is the first woman to receive the prize since the award of 6 million Norwegian kroner (approximately $700,000) was first given in 2003.

    Caroline Series, a math professor at the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K., and president of the London Mathematical Society, says, “To see a woman right up there, honored for a lifetime of distinguished work in math, who has made a huge difference to the development of the field in the last 40 years—that is hugely important.”

    Uhlenbeck, 76, spent much of her career at the University of Texas in Austin and is now a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Her work stands at the heart of several important advances in math, including the revolutionary work in 4D topology by Simon Donaldson of the Simons Center at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. It has also fertilized interactions between math and theoretical physics, including string theory.

  • Cost of Mars 2020 mission may rise by up to 15%

    Image of the Mars 2020 rover.

    An artist’s conception of the Mars 2020 rover. Several of its instruments are costing more than expected.


    THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS—It was largely buried in the detailed budget justification for 2020 that NASA released today, but it didn’t take long for eagle-eyed scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) here to dig it up: NASA’s next flagship mission, the $2.46 billion Mars 2020 rover, is following the pattern of its predecessors and seeing its cost rise because of technical issues.

    The mission’s cost will increase by no more than 15%, Lori Glaze, NASA’s acting director of planetary science, said at LPSC’s annual “NASA night” today. But that sizable sum—which could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the agency’s final calculations—will take money away from other projects, including small trims to currently operating Mars missions.  

    The admission is a blow for NASA, which allowed Mars 2020 to grow in scope and ambition earlier this decade but had been proud of it staying within spending limits the agency set in 2016.

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