Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH scales back plan to curb support for big labs after hearing concerns

    Researchers standing at lab benches.

    The National Institutes of Health is worried that middle-aged investigators are being crowded out of the research workforce.


    Faced with a barrage of criticism, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has scaled back a plan to cap its support for individual labs in order to free up funds for more scientists. The changes did not appease scientists who gave NIH a tongue-lashing this morning at a meeting of NIH’s Council of Councils.

    Council member Jonathan Epstein described the “serious concerns” about the policy as “more than I’ve ever seen before in my scientific career.” He came close to resigning in protest because NIH did not consult the council first, said Epstein, who is chief scientific officer and executive vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Many researchers “feel that this was thrust upon them,” he added.

    The policy announced on 2 May would assign points to various types of grants and give individual investigators a total score called a Grant Support Index (GSI). NIH would aim to limit a person’s GSI to 21 points, or the equivalent of three standard R01 grants. The objective, NIH explained, is to free up funds now held by 6% of the 1950 lead investigators over the cap so that NIH could support 1600 more grants for early- and midcareer investigators.

  • House science panel joins Trump in questioning research overhead payments

    gas burner in lab

    Federal payments for overhead on research grants help keep the lights on in laboratories—and the burners burning.

    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A hearing on how the U.S. government defrays the cost of doing federally funded research on college campuses might put most people to sleep. But when budgets are tight, the billions of dollars being spent each year on so-called overhead become an irresistible target for lawmakers.

    This past Wednesday, the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives weighed in on the subject, one that is at the core of the U.S. research enterprise but also exceedingly complicated. The hearing gave Republicans an opportunity to voice support for lowering overhead payments, which cover things like electricity, lab maintenance, regulatory compliance, and administration. Lowering those costs is a key to a proposal by the Trump administration that would affect those getting grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Democrats acknowledged that the current system could be improved but warned that some approaches on the table could have unintended negative consequences.

    Chaired by Representative Barbara Comstock (R–VA), the 100-minute hearing was refreshingly free of the extreme partisanship that has hobbled much of the committee’s efforts in recent years. The panel of witnesses included both a longtime advocate for blowing up the current system, Ohio University in Athens economist Richard Vedder, as well as James Luther, a senior financial officer at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and board chair of a Washington, D.C.–based organization representing the interests of the mainstream academic community.

  • Could pigs be involved in Congo's new Ebola outbreak?

    Red Cross volunteers

    Red Cross workers gathered in Likati at the outbreak's center to help with response. 


    It might all just be a big coincidence. But scientists and public health officials are investigating whether pigs are somehow involved in the Ebola outbreak now underway in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). If so, it would add a new—but not totally unexpected—chapter to the virus's turbulent history.

    Scientists' interest stems from two data points. An epidemiological investigation has indicated that the first person to fall sick was a hunter who had come into contact with a wild boar carcass. And 84 pigs have recently died in eight villages in Nambwa, the epicenter of the current outbreak, according to a report issued yesterday by the DRC's Ministry of Health. Researchers have taken samples from those animals, according to the report, which says a "protocol for investigation of unusual deaths reported in pigs is under development.”

    “I’m doubtful that the pigs actually carry Ebola, but we have to test them,” says epidemiologist Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, who has been consulted by the Institute of National Biomedical Research in Kinshasa about the potential link. Indeed, pigs in the DRC frequently die from other pathogens; the country often has outbreaks of African swine fever, which has a very high mortality rate. “Ebola is not even the prime suspect,” says Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist from the University of California, Los Angeles, who has worked in the DRC for 15 years and is there now. 

  • Call to keep secrets on rare species draws reluctant support

    earless monitor lizard perched on a rock

    After scientists published a paper documenting a new population of earless monitor lizards in Borneo, poachers moved in.

    Chien C. Lee/Wild Borneo Photography/Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

    The extent to which rare animal poachers piggyback on scientific research became clear to Mark Auliya soon after he published a 2012 paper announcing the discovery of the Borneo earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) in a new part of the southeast Asian island.

    The conservation biologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, had left the lizards’ location vague, in an attempt to shield the animal from collectors and their suppliers. Nevertheless, within a year, the lizard was turning up outside Borneo.

    So Auliya embraces a new call, published today in Science, for scientists to keep mum about details that could turn rare and sought-after species into the next easy target for the global wild animal trade. “It’s terrible,” he says. “If you describe a new species in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you should probably only list the country.” 

  • How NSF cut 11% from its budget

    A copy of U.S. President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 budget proposal is arranged on a table.

    Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Last fall’s divisive presidential campaign was still underway when Jim Olds, who leads the biology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, began worrying that the agency could soon be facing a serious budget crunch. It was already under a government-wide spending freeze, and Olds wanted to be prepared if things got worse. So he asked his staff to begin thinking about how to handle a 20% cut in the directorate’s $724 million budget.

    “I picked what I thought was an extreme number,” he says. “The idea was to think about what would be necessary to get the science done in a very challenging environment. And we wanted to stay positive.”

    That hypothetical exercise turned into an ugly reality this spring when NSF learned that the winner of that election, Donald Trump, planned to include an 11% cut to NSF’s $7.4 billion budget in his first full spending request to Congress. The news—which was publicly unveiled on Tuesday as part of the president’s $4.1 trillion budget for 2018—sent Olds and the heads of NSF’s other six research and education programs scrambling to erase big chunks of their portfolios without sacrificing NSF’s ability to fund the best new ideas.

    It was a historic challenge: No U.S. president in NSF’s 67-year history had ever proposed giving the agency less than its current budget. (President Ronald Reagan may have come closest in 1981 when he tried to take back money Congress had already appropriated.) And Olds’ planning exercise was soon followed by final action on 2017 spending levels, which held NSF essentially flat.

  • How the transgenic petunia carnage of 2017 began


    The African Sunset petunia is one of the genetically engineered varieties that U.S. officials are asking breeders to destroy.


    Two years ago, plant biologist Teemu Teeri was walking by a train station in Helsinki when he noticed some vivid orange petunias in a planter. The flowers reminded Teeri, who has studied plant pigments at the University of Helsinki, of blooms created in a landmark gene-engineering experiment some 30 years earlier. As far as he knew, those flowers never made it to market. But he was curious, and he stuck a stem in his backpack.

    Now, that chance encounter has ended up forcing flower sellers on two continents to destroy vast numbers of petunias. Teeri ultimately confirmed that the plants contained foreign DNA, and he tipped off regulators in Europe and the United States, who have identified other commercial strains that are genetically engineered (GE). Although officials say the GE petunias pose no threat to human health or the environment—and likely were unknowingly sold for years—they’ve asked sellers to destroy the flowers, because it’s illegal to sell them in the United States and Europe without a permit.

    Ironically, proposed revisions to U.S. biotechnology rules now under discussion might have exempted the harmless petunias from regulation. But the petunia carnage highlights the growing complexity of regulating GE plants, which have a long history of showing up where they aren’t allowed and can be hard to track.

  • Activists battle U.S. government in court over making animal welfare reports public

    Anesthetized pig

    Pigs are among the animals that breeders supply to government, academic, and industry research labs.

    GEORGE F. MOBLEY/National Geographic Creative

    In 2013, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector visited Thomas D. Morris, Inc., a Maryland animal breeder that sells to U.S. government and academic scientists. The inspector found numerous violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which sets standards for humane treatment. Fifteen unshorn sheep were penned in a sweltering building, while a group of calves and sheep had no shelter at all. A goat and a lamb were lame; another goat had an egg-sized swelling on its shoulder. In a subsequent letter, USDA warned the firm, which had 18 employees and $5 million in revenue in 2013, that future violations could result in fines or criminal prosecution.

    But it’s difficult for the public to know whether the company—which supplied animals used in at least 48 biomedical studies published since 2012—has kept a clean record. That’s because, on 3 February, USDA abruptly removed inspection reports, warning letters, and other documents on nearly 8000 animal facilities that the agency regulates, including Thomas D. Morris, from public databases. Some of the documents, which are maintained by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), have since been restored. But thousands remain hidden, and animal welfare advocates are now in court trying to force USDA to restore the records, and post all new documents, too.

    USDA officials said the removal was prompted by their commitment to “maintaining the privacy rights of individuals” identified in the documents, which animal rights groups, journalists, and others have regularly used to publicize the failings of AWA violators. And they say they are still reviewing the withdrawn documents, with an eye toward blacking out information that shouldn’t be public before reposting them. So far, APHIS has reposted inspection reports on most of the 983 research facilities that it regulates. But according to a 19 May analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., it has not restored records covering 94% of the 3333 breeders and dealers that provide animals for the pet trade and, in some cases, research.

  • Vaccine could soon be enlisted in the fight against Ebola in the DRC

    DRC health minister Oly IIunga

    DRC Health Minister Oly IIunga (with white cap) flew to Likati on 17 May to help coordinate the Ebola response.


    The Democratic Republic of the Congo has moved a step closer to using an unlicensed vaccine to battle an Ebola outbreak that began last month in a remote northeastern part of the country. Yesterday, the country's government submitted a formal vaccine trial protocol, developed with Epicentre, the Paris-based research arm of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), to an ethical review board.

    If the plan gets the green light, the first doses of the vaccine could go into the arms of people at risk within 2 weeks, according to an official at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. WHO today issued a “donor alert,” urgently requesting a 6-month budget of $10.5 million to support the vaccine study (which may require 5000 doses), as well as surveillance, treatment, and conventional prevention and control efforts.

    But whether the shots will actually be needed is unclear. So far, there have been only two confirmed Ebola cases and 41 suspected or probable cases. More than 350 contacts of cases were being monitored. But samples from several dozen suspected cases tested negative on Monday, raising the possibility that the outbreak may be quite small, and perhaps already nearing the end.

  • Academies calculate how much Brexit will cost U.K. researchers


    Jeff Djevdet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Some academic fields in the United Kingdom will have major funding holes to fill once the country leaves the European Union, according to new research commissioned by four U.K. academies. The Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society commissioned the Technopolis Group, an independent policy research organization, to find out in detail just how reliant U.K. science is on European funding. The €1.1 billion per year that U.K. research now gets from Europe is, the report found, spread across all academic disciplines it analyzed but some fields will have a tougher time than others finding alternative sources.

    According to the study, U.K. archaeology gets the largest proportion of its funding from Europe (38%), followed by classics (33%) and information technology (IT) (30%). Of the top 15 fields by that measure, only two are natural or physical sciences. But in terms of absolute amounts of money, the rankings are very different: Clinical medicine won the most EU funding in 2014–15 (£120 million), followed by biosciences (£91 million), physics (£55 million), chemistry (£55 million), and IT (£46 million).

  • Lawsuit at Columbia University roils prominent chronic fatigue syndrome research lab

    Dr. W. Ian Lipkin at his office in New York.

    Ian Lipkin is being sued by his long-time collaborator Mady Hornig.

    JOSHUA BRIGHT/The New York Times

    A sex discrimination lawsuit filed last week has exposed a nasty fight roiling one of the most prominent, and well-funded, labs studying the mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME). The lengthy list of accusations, the most gossipy of which sparked coverage by the tabloid New York Post, include diversion of federal and foundation grant money.

    Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, a well-known virologist who  probes links between microbial infections and neuropsychiatric disorders, is being sued, along with the university, by epidemiologist Mady Hornig, his long-term collaborator. In the lawsuit, filed on 15 May in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Hornig alleges that Lipkin for years has discriminated against her on the basis of sex and created a hostile work environment, violating U.S. and New York civil rights laws. In particular, it alleges that Lipkin took credit for Hornig’s work; diverted or misused funds, thus delaying the publication of Hornig’s research results; undermined her relationships with external collaborators and potential donors; and improperly added himself as principal investigator to grants.

    In an email response to a request for comment, Lipkin denies the charges, writing, “I did not engage in any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend against the allegations." A Columbia spokesperson said the university does not comment on matters in litigation. 

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