ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • EXCLUSIVE: Controversial experiments that could make bird flu more risky poised to resume

    A worker at a laboratory harvests avian flu viruses

    A worker at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory harvests avian flu viruses for sharing with other laboratories in 2013.

    James Gathany/CDC

    Controversial lab studies that modify bird flu viruses in ways that could make them more risky to humans will soon resume after being on hold for more than 4 years. ScienceInsider has learned that last year, a U.S. government review panel quietly approved experiments proposed by two labs that were previously considered so dangerous that federal officials had imposed an unusual top-down moratorium on such research.

    One of the projects has already received funding from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, and will start in a few weeks; the other is awaiting funding.

    The outcome may not satisfy scientists who believe certain studies that aim to make pathogens more potent or more likely to spread in mammals are so risky they should be limited or even banned. Some are upset because the government’s review will not be made public. “After a deliberative process that cost $1 million for [a consultant’s] external study and consumed countless weeks and months of time for many scientists, we are now being asked to trust a completely opaque process where the outcome is to permit the continuation of dangerous experiments,“ says Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch. 

  • New DOE policies would block many foreign research collaborations

    researcher workers on a sputtering system in a clean room

    Many foreign scientists could be banned from working at such Department of Energy facilities as the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory (above) in Lemont, Illinois.

    Mark Lopez/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Scientists who work for or receive funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., are facing a ban on collaborating with researchers from dozens of countries deemed to pose security risks.

    The new policy, spelled out in two recent memos from DOE’s Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette, are meant to thwart attempts by foreign governments to steal U.S.-funded research. But some scientists worry DOE may be overreacting to the espionage threat, and fear its approach could stifle progress in areas important to U.S. economic and national security.

    The first memo, dated 14 December 2018, restricts DOE-funded researchers working in unspecified emerging research areas and technologies from collaborating with colleagues from “sensitive” countries. Given DOE’s recent research priorities, the affected fields could include artificial intelligence, supercomputing, quantum information, nanoscience, and advanced manufacturing. The sensitive nations are not named, but DOE now gives that label to about 30 countries for travel and security purposes. The memo also establishes a new, centralized DOE oversight body that will maintain a list of sensitive nations and research areas and has the authority to approve exemptions from the collaboration ban.

  • Worrisome nonstick chemicals are common in U.S. drinking water, federal study suggests

    running faucet
    Imani/Unsplash

    In recent weeks, the leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., has been dithering on whether to protect drinking water from unregulated industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Meanwhile, the agency’s scientists have found that the compounds are more widespread in drinking water than they previously knew.

    PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. Two of the most common forms—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—are no longer made in the United States, but in some cases have been replaced by related chemicals. The compounds can persist in the environment for decades and have been found in many drinking water supplies. That has raised health concerns because studies have linked PFAS to cancer and developmental defects.

    EPA is facing pressure to set a national limit on PFAS concentrations in drinking water. (Some states have already set their own limits.) But the agency has not yet acted, and has disputed reports that it will not issue a standard. In the meantime, many communities have been pushing officials to test water supplies in order to document the extent of any contamination.

  • New patent win for University of California upends CRISPR legal battle

    CRISPR-Cas9 illustration

    The protein components of the genome editor CRISPR (red) target and cut DNA strands.

    Meletios/shutterstock

    The University of California (UC) has received good news on a patent for the invention of the genome editor known as CRISPR—and it likely moves a fierce legal war over who owns the valuable intellectual property for this powerful tool closer to a peace treaty. As STAT reports, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia, posted a “notice of allowance” on Friday for UC’s CRISPR patent, which it applied for in March 2013. The patent should be officially issued to the school within 8 weeks.

  • NIH asks federal watchdog to investigate 12 allegations related to foreign influence

    Chuck Grassley

    Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) has been concerned about foreign powers poaching U.S.-funded research.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    A newly released letter from a government watchdog has shed a little light on an ongoing U.S. government effort to scrutinize federally funded biomedical research for potentially problematic foreign involvement.

    The letter reveals that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, recently asked federal investigators to review 12 allegations of rule violations, mostly involving researchers at U.S. universities who allegedly failed to disclose foreign affiliations on their grant proposals.

    The letter also discloses that over the past 5 years, investigators at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, referred two cases to prosecutors that involved federally funded scientists who allegedly failed to disclose foreign ties or stole intellectual property. Neither of those cases appears to have involved NIH. (HHS also oversees other research agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In both cases, the Department of Justice declined to file civil or criminal charges.

  • Violence and insecurity threaten Mexican telescopes

    The Large Millimeter Telescope

    The Large Millimeter Telescope in the Mexican state of Puebla has severely reduced scientific operations in the wake of carjackings and robberies.

    Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Photo

    Two astronomical observatories in Mexico have scaled back access and operations because of security threats, Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE) in San Andrés Cholula announced on 5 February. The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) and the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC) are both located on the Sierra Negra volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla. The highway leading to the mountain has become a target for carjackings and robberies in recent weeks, as a fight intensifies between the Mexican government and fuel thieves. Scientists and technical staff have stopped visits to the HAWC, canceling a planned repair trip, while the LMT has reduced its scientific operations to “the bare minimum level,” says INAOE astrophysicist and LMT Director David Hughes. “I cannot responsibly continue the scientific operation of the telescope until these issues are addressed.”

    The LMT is a single-dish telescope that works at millimeter wavelengths. The joint U.S.-Mexico project is part of the worldwide Event Horizon Telescope that is trying to image a black hole. Normally, the LMT would host scientists for observations at night and maintenance and engineering crews during the day. It was poised to start observations with a new 50-meter dish, up from 32 meters, before what Hughes calls “a severe security incident” caused him to dramatically reduce operations. He declined to describe the incident or say exactly what is being done to protect employees and collaborators.

  • How HIV/AIDS ended up in Trump’s State of the Union speech

    President Trump giving state of the union address

    President Donald Trump announced an initiative to end HIV/AIDS in the United States during his State of the Union address.

    Doug Mills/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    The people who planted the seed that led President Donald Trump to announce a new agenda to end AIDS in his State of the Union address yesterday had no notion that their idea would receive this kind of prime-time attention.

    Last summer, a few months after taking the helm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in April 2018, Robert Redfield met with Anthony Fauci, who heads the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. One topic of discussion was their vision of how to better coordinate the federal government’s response to the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and to help bring it to an end. “We got together and said this can work, let’s start pushing it,” Fauci tells ScienceInsider.

    About 2 months ago, Fauci and Redfield took their idea to their boss, Alex Azar, who leads the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington D.C., and his top deputy, Brett Giroir. “Alex really, really liked it,” Fauci says. “He said, ‘I think we can bring this to the president.’ We said, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be interesting.’ The president was very excited about it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’” (Fauci, incidentally, says he has developed friendships with all five previous presidents, but has yet to meet Trump.)

  • New chapter in climate change politics begins with simultaneous House hearings

    two men shaking hands

    A bipartisan pair of governors—Roy Cooper (D–NC, left) and Charlie Baker (R–MA, right)—shake hands after testifying on climate change before the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources today.

    Cliff Owen/AP Photo

    Reprinted from E&E News

    Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives this morning brought climate change back to the political forefront for the first time in nearly a decade and were met with a Republican tone shift far from the skeptical attitude the GOP has taken to the issue for years.

    The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change and the full Natural Resources Committee met simultaneously to discuss the need to act on climate change and the costs of inaction.

  • Applause, with some raised eyebrows, for Trump’s pledge to end AIDS in the United States by 2030

    a health worker examines a patient

    A major challenge to ending AIDS in the United States is reaching the many HIV-infected immigrants who dont get testing or treatment. This clinic in Miami, Florida’s Little Haiti neighborhood caters to HIV-infected clients who speak Creole.

    Misha Friedman

    When news leaked yesterday that U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address tonight would include a call for ramping up efforts to end the AIDS epidemic in the United States by 2030, many advocacy groups quickly weighed in with guffaws. The nonprofit AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power New York in New York City, under the rubric “know your scumbags,” published a list of how it says the Trump administration has “further marginalized people living with HIV.” The president of GLAAD, which bills itself as the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning media advocacy group, issued a statement that said the planned announcement was “undermined by the Administration’s record and rhetoric” on health issues, and was “designed to distract from what’s really happening behind the scenes every day.”

    But many HIV/AIDS researchers and even some leading advocates had a more measured, and even enthusiastic, reaction to the possibility that Trump wants to join an existing ambitious campaign—famously endorsed on World AIDS Day in 2011 by then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—and position his administration as a champion of a cause that he thus far has not embraced.

    “Together, we will defeat AIDS in America and beyond,” Trump said in his speech tonight. “My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years.” He did not specify how much money he will request or whether it will come from existing programs or new appropriations. (Shortly after the speech, the Department of Health and Human Services released a fact sheet about the proposal; the White House is expected to release its annual budget request to Congress on 11 March.)

  • Rookies lead the way on House science panel

    the U.S. capitol building
    iStock.com/YayaErnst

    A major perk of being the majority party in the U.S. Congress is getting to fill the leadership slots on every committee. For several new Democratic legislators, however, having their party regain control of the House of Representatives also creates an unprecedented opportunity to shape U.S. science policy.

    On Wednesday, the newly configured House science committee will convene for the first time to adopt its rules and structure. To no one’s surprise, the 39-member committee will choose Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) as its chairwoman.

    A 14-term legislator and former nurse administrator, Johnson has spent the past 6 years aggressively leading the Democratic charge against any number of Republican proposals seen as threats to the U.S. research enterprise. Now, her party will be setting the agenda. But her new lieutenants—the chairs of the panel’s five subcommittees—are rookies unschooled in the ways of Congress and, for the most part, in the challenges facing the community.

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