ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Scientists want to block the move of two USDA research agencies, but are making little headway

    A plan to move two U.S. agencies that fund farm research and track agricultural statistics out of Washington, D.C., has drawn opposition from researchers.

    iStock.com/maomspv

    Agricultural scientists are deeply unhappy with a plan by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to move two of its research agencies out of Washington, D.C. However, to date, their objections have gone largely unheeded, as the scientists find themselves outmaneuvered politically and lacking the clout to convince Congress to intervene. Instead, USDA hopes to pick a new location by the end of next month and complete the moves by the end of 2019.

    On 9 August, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in Washington, D.C., USDA’s primary source of competitive grants for academic research, and the Economic Research Service (ERS), its major in-house research and statistical office. He also said that ERS would be reporting to the department’s chief economist (see sidebar) rather than its undersecretary for research, education, and economics (REE), which also oversees NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service. In a shrewd political tactic, Perdue simultaneously invited communities to compete for the opportunity to host the two agencies and gain the 700 jobs that would be transferred.

    Perdue said the move would bring those agencies closer to the farmers and ranchers who ultimately benefit from the research that NIFA funds and the analyses and number crunching that ERS conducts. He also claimed the move would save money through cheaper rent and enable USDA to attract and retain top scientists now repelled by the high cost of living in the nation’s capital.

  • NIH chief defends use of human fetal tissue as opponents decry it before Congress

    Francis Collins

    Stephen Voss

    A long-simmering debate about the ethics of using fetal tissue from elective abortions in biomedical research heated up today in Washington, D.C. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins this morning defended human fetal tissue research as scientifically and ethically justified at a meeting of an agency advisory panel. At about the same time, the scientific community and opponents of fetal tissue studies faced off at a congressional hearing looking into alternatives. The two developments came as President Donald Trump’s administration is scrutinizing the use of fetal tissue in federally funded research.

    At today's meeting today of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) in Bethesda, Maryland, Collins noted that NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is auditing federal purchases of fetal tissue and that NIH has just announced it will spend up to $20 million on research on alternatives. He called that effort “scientifically, highly justified.” At the same time, fetal tissue “will continue to be the mainstay,” he said, adding: “There is strong evidence that scientific benefits can come from fetal tissue research, which can be done with an ethical framework.”

    In September, HHS canceled a U.S. Food and Drug Administration contract to purchase fetal tissue for drug testing and announced it was launching a review of all federally funded research that uses fetal tissue obtained after elective abortions. Last week, the department told researchers on an NIH contract at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), that it was allowing only a 90-day renewal of an annual contract that funds the use of fetal tissue to produce mice with humanlike immune systems, pending the outcome of the review. And as Science first reported, NIH acknowledged last week that a lab within the NIH intramural research program had to suspend an HIV research project this past September because NIH has halted procurement of fetal tissue by its own scientists.

  • United States should prepare to build a prototype fusion power plant, panel says

    A new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report calls for a complete rejuvenation of the U.S. fusion program, which hasn’t built a tokamak like the National Spherical Torus Experiment at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory since the 1990s.

    Elle Starkman/PPPL Communications (CC BY-NC)

    Just in time for the holidays, a panel of leading scientists has presented a plan for nuclear fusion research in the United States that reads like a wish list. The United States should stick with the controversial ITER project, a hugely expensive fusion reactor now under construction near Cadarache in France, says a report released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But even if the United States quits ITER, it should prepare to build its own fusion power plant as a follow-up, the report says. To do all that, the United States should boost spending on fusion research by $200 million per year, or 35%, it concludes.

    The report reflects the will of the broader fusion community, say the co-chairs of the 19-member report committee, Michael Mauel, a fusion physicist at Columbia University, and Melvyn Shochet, a particle physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “We listened very carefully to the community, especially some of the younger scientists who are very active in the field, and what we heard from the scientists is a desire to get on with fusion energy,” Mauel says. “We’re not just studying this thing, we’re trying to see if it really does work.”

    In nuclear fusion, light nuclei fuse to form heavier nuclei and release energy. The process powers the sun, and for decades physicists have worked to turn fusion into a practical source of power on Earth. Their main approach has been to use magnetic fields to confine and squeeze ionized gases, or plasmas, of deuterium and tritium in doughnut-shaped devices called tokamaks, so that the deuterium and tritium fuse to make helium. ITER aims to be the first tokamak to obtain a “burning plasma” that produces more energy through fusion than is pumped into the device to maintain the plasma, a key milestone toward developing fusion power.

  • Despite scathing harassment report, UNAIDS board gives agency head a reprieve for now

    Michel Sidibé

    DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS

    A board that oversees the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland, the global command center in the fight against the infectious disease, has resisted calls to immediately recommend the firing of the agency’s executive director in the wake of a report that found UNAIDS rife with harassment, bullying, and abuses of power. The Programme Coordinating Board, which finished a meeting today that included discussions of the report, instead established a working group to further consider the allegations and criticisms. (The board itself cannot fire the UNAIDS head, but it can recommend the action to the United Nations.)

    UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, who initiated the review that ultimately called for his ouster, spoke at the board’s meeting and asked to stay on through June 2019 to oversee an “agenda for change” that his management team has drafted in response to the report. “We don’t have a moment to lose in moving forward our management response,” Sidibé said in a statement. “I look forward to an inclusive, transparent, and open dialogue and collaboration with staff in shaping a new UNAIDS.”

  • Draw clearer red lines around human gene editing, say leaders of Chinese and U.S. science academies

    Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland used the genome editor CRISPR to correct a mutation that causes a heart problem. The embryos were not implanted.

    OHSU

    The world urgently needs better international oversight of “genome editing in human embryos for reproductive purposes,” says an editorial co-written by the heads of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine (NAM), which are both in Washington, D.C.

    The leaders of these powerful scientific societies joined voices after a genome-editing meeting in Hong Kong, China, 2 weeks ago made headlines around the world. At the conference, He Jiankui of the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, confirmed news reports that he used the genome editor CRISPR in an attempt to create HIV-resistant people, disabling genes in in vitro fertilization embryos that were then implanted and produced twin girls. The editorial “Wake Up Call from Hong Kong,” published in Science today, denounces the He experiment and calls for scientists and physicians to clarify what constitutes unacceptable genome-editing research.

    “To maintain the public’s trust that someday genome editing will be able to treat or prevent disease, the research community needs to take steps now to dem­onstrate that this new tool can be applied with com­petence, integrity, and benevolence,” the academy presidents state. “Unfortunately, it appears that the case presented in Hong Kong might have failed on all counts, risking human lives as well as rash or hasty political reaction.”

  • Are scientific conferences providing enough child care support? Science investigates

    Robin Soderland

    This year, 68% of major scientific conferences held in North America provided child care support for parent attendees, Science found after examining resources available at 34 meetings, each attended by more than 1000 people. An even larger share—94%—made a lactation room available for nursing mothers.

    "That's good," says Rebecca Calisi, an animal physiologist at the University of California, Davis, and author of an opinion piece published in March arguing that conferences need to do a better job supporting parent attendees. But, she adds, they still aren't good enough—those statistics should be 100%.

    Of the conferences that offered support, 83% arranged for licensed providers to operate at conference facilities, where parents were charged between $40 and $110 a day. Two societies offered free child care at their annual meetings: the American Chemical Society and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Five conferences awarded child care grants that parents could use for a variety of child care-related expenses, for example, to pay for their child's travel, for travel expenses incurred by a caregiver, or to hire a nanny.

  • Updated: NIH says cancer study also hit by fetal tissue ban

    President Donald Trump’s administration ordered scientists at the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, ​to stop acquiring human fetal tissue, disrupting HIV experiments.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health (CC BY-NC)

    *Update, 13 December, 11:45 a.m.: A third laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is also affected by the agency’s temporary ban on acquiring new human fetal tissue, an agency spokesperson confirmed last night. Initially, NIH said only research projects run by staff scientists at the National Eye Institute (NEI) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) would be affected. The third laboratory is at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is pursuing a “project on cancer immunotherapy, which will need tissue by January 31,” the agency said in a statement. “We are determining appropriate next steps to obtain tissue so that the NIAID project can begin and to avoid interruption of the NCI project. NEI does not have an immediate need to procure new fetal tissue (they have frozen stores).”

    Here is our story from 7 December:

    U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has ordered scientists employed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to stop acquiring new human fetal tissue for experiments, ScienceInsider has learned. The suspension, imposed this past September without a public announcement, came as the government launched a review of all fetal tissue research funded by the federal government. The pause affects two laboratories run by the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency, NIH officials say. In one case, it disrupted a study probing how the virus that causes AIDS initially colonizes human tissues.

     

  • Canada denied visas to dozens of Africans for a big artificial intelligence conference

    Black In AI

    MONTREAL, CANADA—Dozens of African researchers were denied visas for an artificial intelligence (AI) meeting here last week, even as the Canadian government takes steps to advance the country’s standing in AI and the field aims for greater inclusivity.

    Black in AI, a daylong workshop for scientists of African descent held in conjunction with the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), a leading AI conference, had invited more than 200 scientists from Africa to participate. But about half of the visa applications led to denials or acceptances so delayed that the researchers were unable to attend. “It looks like we have some inconsistency between what one part of government does and what another does,” says Yoshua Bengio, a NeurIPS organizer and professor at the University of Montreal.

    NeurIPS is the largest AI conference in the world. This year, more than 8500 people came for academic talks, conversations with job recruiters, and social events. Conference organizers foresaw problems obtaining visas for foreign invitees and reached out to the Canadian government for help in July. Still, out of 230 Africans, about 15% heard back too late to attend or not at all. Another 33% were denied visas.

  • $125 million gift from Microsoft co-founder launches new institute to probe immune system

    Paul Allen

    Evan Agostini/AP Photo

    Immunology is the latest field that will benefit from a hefty sum donated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The newly launched Allen Institute for Immunology, planned before the philanthropist died in October from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, will attempt to better define what’s normal for the immune system and why it falters in cancer and autoimmune diseases.

    The institute, which will be announced today at a press conference, will eventually hire about 70 researchers, who will work at the Seattle, Washington, location shared by Allen institutes focused on cell biology and the brain. Their new sibling starts with a nest egg of $125 million from Allen, but it could receive more money from his estate. The immunology institute will differ from the other Allen institutes because “we are going to be really dedicated to understanding disease mechanisms and translational opportunities,” says Executive Director Thomas Bumol, a former senior vice-president at Lilly Research Laboratories.

    With the recent explosion in immune-based therapies such as checkpoint inhibitors for treating cancer, it might seem that scientists have the immune system figured out. But these drugs aren’t the norm, Bumol says. “The successes are great but, as everyone knows, failure is the predominant result in drug discovery.” A prime reason for these stumbles, he says, is “a lack of understanding of the complexity of the immune system.”

  • Q&A: This air pollution expert advised EPA for a decade. Now, he’s a leading critic

    Chris Frey

    NCSU

    This week, a key science advisory panel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will meet to review recent research on a particularly dangerous form of air pollution: tiny soot particles, which have been shown to damage lung and heart function and contribute to premature death.

    Such meetings, designed to help EPA meet a mandate to review air pollution regulations every 5 years and revise them if necessary, typically attract little notice. But the 12–13 December meeting of EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) in Washington, D.C., has drawn unusual attention—and sparked a surge of criticism. In large part, that’s because President Donald Trump’s administration has dramatically remade the committee’s membership, appointing all seven of its members. It has also dismantled a 26-member Particulate Matter Advisory Panel that traditionally was tasked with advising CASAC on soot pollution. (That move was criticized yesterday by two of the current CASAC members.)

    The administration says the changes, which are just one part of a larger (and also controversial) effort to remake EPA’s science advice process, are aimed at streamlining and accelerating CASAC’s work. But critics say they are mostly designed to reduce the voice of independent experts in agency decisions and to ease the administration’s efforts to weaken existing air pollution standards or block the imposition of tighter limits. EPA’s standards for particulate matter have been a particular flashpoint. Although the nearly 2000-page science summary that CASAC will be reviewing suggests current U.S. standards are too lax, many industry groups and conservative lawmakers fiercely opposing any tightening of the standards, arguing they would be too costly, even as other nations move to crack down on soot.

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