Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Colombia reports huge jump in babies harmed by Zika

    Mother with a baby with microcephaly

    In Brazil, thousands of babies have been born with microcephaly after their mothers were infected with Zika virus.

    By Sumaia Villela/Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 br], via Wikimedia Commons

    A far higher number of babies in Colombia have developed microcephaly related to Zika virus infections than previously reported. The news, reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR),  may help resolve a puzzle: After Brazil, Colombia is the country that has been hardest hit by the mosquito-borne disease, yet it appeared to have far fewer microcephaly cases per capita than its southern neighbor.

  • Florida-Georgia water war kills weather forecasting bill

    Homes and docks on river

    Lake Lanier, which supplies drinking water for Atlanta, has been at the heart of water conflicts between Georgia and Florida as drought persists across the U.S. Southeast.

    AP Photo/Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    A decades-long feud between Georgia and Florida over water has killed a bill in the U.S. Congress that was poised to bolster the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities, including support for seasonal predictions and commercial alternatives to collecting data.

    The Senate passed the bill on 1 December, building off earlier legislation in the House of Representatives. With broad bipartisan support, it was widely expected to pass the House again and be signed into law by President Barack Obama. But when the bill returned to the House this week, a section had been added by Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) calling for a study of the water management of a river system shared by Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. That addition drew a heated, nearly unanimous rebuke from Georgia representatives, and the bill was not brought up for a vote before the House adjourned for the remainder of the year.

    The study was not relevant to the rest of the bill, says Representative Doug Collins (R–GA). It was “the latest in a series of attempts by Alabama and Florida senators to interfere in the ongoing tristate water wars through congressional intervention. I have maintained that Congress should not interfere in this issue, yet Alabama and Florida repeatedly try to tilt the playing field at the expense of Georgia.”

  • NIH taps retired U.S. Army physician to head troubled clinical center

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    National Institutes of Health

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has tapped Major General James Gilman (retired), a longtime manager of military hospitals, to lead its troubled research hospital.

    A cardiologist, Gilman “has the kind of experience that we believe will serve us extremely well,” said NIH Director Francis Collins today at a meeting of his NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). As the center’s first CEO, Gilman will oversee management including patient safety and regulatory compliance at the hospital on NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, Maryland, starting early in 2017. He will work with former Clinical Center Director John Gallin, who is moving to the position of chief scientific officer (CSO) at the center.

    With more than 200 beds, the NIH Clinical Center is the world's largest hospital devoted to research. It specializes in studies of treatments for rare diseases and life-threatening disorders. But the discovery last year of fungal contamination in two vials of a drug produced in a facility at the center led to an investigation that found broader problems.

  • Studying embryos beyond 14 days? Not so fast, says one key U.K. expert


    An 11-day-old human embryo tagged with fluorescent markers.


    LONDON—It’s a looming question facing biologists, ethicists, and society as a whole: Should scientists be allowed to study embryos cultured in the lab beyond 14 days after fertilization? Perhaps in the future, but not just yet, one highly influential voice said at a meeting here today.

    “It’s too soon,” said philosopher Mary Warnock, who chaired a committee in the 1980s that informed current regulations. “What we should do now is give people who do research the chance to exploit what they can find out between 5 and 14 days.” That will help build the case for what benefits might come from doing research on embryos older than 14 days, Warnock argued.

    Currently, biologists in the United Kingdom and many other countries are not allowed to culture human embryos in the laboratory longer than 14 days. This never posed a constraint because it wasn’t possible to keep embryos alive longer than about a week anyway. But earlier this year, two teams succeeded in keeping embryos alive for 13 days, reigniting the debate about the legal limit. (Their work is among the finalists for the People’s Choice for Science’s Breakthrough of the Year.) Experts discussed the hopes and concerns of extending the limit at a daylong workshop held here today by the Progress Educational Trust, a nonprofit that promotes public understanding of embryology, human genetic research, and assisted reproduction.

  • Popular French physicist accused of plagiarizing colleagues and famous writers

    Étienne Klein

    Étienne Klein has acknowledged “mistakes” but has yet to respond to new accusations leveled against him today.

    LIONEL BONAVENTURE/Staff/Getty Images

    Accusations of serial plagiarism against one of France’s best-known scientists have shaken the country’s scientific community and the media. Physicist and philosopher Étienne Klein, a gifted popularizer of science, stands accused of appropriating passages from other scientists, philosophers, and famous writers. Some of the authors are long dead, such as novelists Émile Zola and Stefan Zweig. Klein has admitted making mistakes but says he hasn’t knowingly committed plagiarism.

    Klein is a researcher at the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, where he leads a lab for material sciences in Saclay, France. In September, he was also named president of the Institute of High Studies for Science and Technology (IHEST), which seeks to foster debate about the role of science in society and to buttress public trust in the scientific enterprise. Klein is the author of many popular science books, a columnist, and the host of a radio show every Saturday on France Culture. He has won a long list of awards. “The French adore him,” the weekly journal L’Express wrote in a 30 November story.

    But many passages from Klein’s recent Einstein biography Le pays qu’habitait Albert Einstein appear to have been lifted almost verbatim, without attribution or quotation marks, from other sources, L’Express reported. “Strangely, it’s the most personal, most literary passages, those where Étienne Klein puts himself on the scene, the ones that bring the reader happiness, that often don’t come from his own pen,” L’Express wrote.

  • Senate sends massive biomedical innovation bill to Obama for signing

    House approves EPA ‘secret science’ bills despite White House veto threat

    Wally Gobetz/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    By a 94-to-five vote, the Senate today approved the 21st Century Cures Act, clearing the way for President Barack Obama to sign the measure into law. The massive bill dedicates $4.8 billion over the next decade to research initiatives at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and makes an array of changes at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designed to speed the approval of new drugs and medical devices. It also creates a new federal advisory board aimed at cutting burdensome regulation on academic researchers. The House of Representatives on 30 November passed the bill on a 392-to-26 vote.

    Click here to read ScienceInsider’s previous coverage of the Cures legislation.

    Many research and university groups applauded the Senate vote.

    “At a time when bipartisanship is a rare commodity, this bill affirms the resolve across party and ideological lines to find cures for devastating illnesses and strengthen investment in American research and innovation,” said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., in a statement.

  • Trump picks prominent climate skeptic as EPA chief

    Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to lead EPA

    Scott Pruitt

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President-elect Donald Trump is poised to name Scott Pruitt, a prominent skeptic of climate science and an ardent foe of government action on climate change, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to media reports. Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, has been a leading architect of legal opposition to President Barack Obama’s climate and environmental policies.

    “Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time,” Pruitt and Luther Strange, the attorney general of Alabama, wrote in a May opinion piece in National Review, criticizing plans by some state attorneys general to investigate fossil fuel companies. “That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged—in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.”

  • Extended budget freeze makes room for NIH, NASA, Census programs

    US Capitol at night

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A new agreement to extend the current spending freeze on all U.S. agencies makes an exception for several research-related projects.

    Late last night congressional leaders released details of the next continuing resolution (CR), a stopgap measure needed to keep the government open until lawmakers agree on a final 2017 budget. The CR would hold federal agencies to 2016 spending levels until the end of April, which is halfway through the 2017 fiscal year. Normally, such a CR would prevent agencies from increasing spending on any activities or launching an initiative. But legislators made room in the new CR for a handful of programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA.

    The CR grants NIH $352 million as a down payment on projects included in the 21st Century Cures Act, legislation to accelerate drug development that the Senate is expected to pass later today. That bill authorizes $1.4 billion over 10 years for a Precision Medicine Initiative, $1.8 billion for Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot, and $1.6 billion for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative.

  • Museum curator resigns after investigations of sexual misconduct

    American Museum of Natural History

    The American Museum of Natural History in New York City conducted three investigations of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who has now resigned from his position as curator of human origins. 


    Paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who allegedly sexually assaulted a research assistant and harassed trainees in a field school, has resigned his prestigious position as curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, the museum said this week. Richmond will continue to work off-site until 31 December, and will be paid 1 year of salary, as his contract, which included tenure, requires.

    Museum spokesperson Anne Canty declined to say whether Richmond resigned under pressure, although he has been the subject of repeated investigations over the past 2 years for violating policies on sexual harassment. Earlier this year, Richmond wrote to Science that the museum asked him to resign in December 2015, but that he “had never assaulted anyone,” and that he had “sincerely apologized” to the assistant. This week he told Science that the details of his departure are confidential and stressed that only one formal complaint had been lodged against him. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he wrote in a statement, including “to publish the outstanding discoveries that my colleagues, former students, and I made.”

    Richmond’s case convulsed the field of paleoanthropology, and reaction to the news of his resignation was swift. “Woo-hoo! This is a positive step in the direction of there being consequences for perpetrators,” said biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois in Urbana. Clancy co-led a high profile survey called SAFE, which reported numerous cases of sexual harassment at field sites. She and other anthropologists hope that the case marks a shift in how their field deals with harassment.

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