ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides

    Bees

    European regulators worried three neonicotinoid pesticides threatened bees and other pollinators.

    MARISA LUBECK, USGS

    The European Union today expanded a controversial ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, based on the threat they pose to pollinators. The decision pleased environmental groups and was greeted with trepidation by farming associations, which fear economic harm.

    In 2013, the European Union placed a moratorium on three kinds of neonicotinoids, forbidding their use in flowering crops that appeal to honey bees and other pollinating insects. The pesticides are commonly coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests; when the seed germinates, the pesticide is absorbed and spreads through the tissue. It eventually reaches pollen and nectar, which is how pollinators are exposed. Many studies have shown harm to pollinators in laboratory settings; large field trials have produced mixed results.

    The European Commission last year proposed extending the ban of three neonicotinoids—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—to all field crops, because of growing evidence that the pesticides can harm domesticated honey bees and also wild pollinators. A scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority, released this February, added momentum to the campaign.

  • A house too far: Two scientists abandon their bids for Congress

    Phil Janowicz walking with two potential voters

    Phil Janowicz on the campaign trail earlier this year

    Matt Gush

    When Phil Janowicz and Kristopher Larsen began their campaigns for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, they joined what appears to be a record number of Ph.D. scientists running for national office this year. But in March, after spending months on the campaign trail, the two Democrats—an organic chemistry professor from southern California and a space physics researcher from Colorado, respectively—decided to drop out before a single ballot had been cast in their states.

    As scientists, they had learned to listen to their data. And the numbers they were seeing didn’t add up.

    Janowicz had spent nearly a year running at full tilt in California’s 39th congressional district. National Democrats are hoping to flip the seat from Republican control as part of a so-called blue wave in November that would give them control of the House. But his polling showed that, under California’s unusual election rules, a crowded field could split the Democrat vote and allow a Republican to retain the seat.

  • Disgraced surgeon is still publishing on stem cell therapies

    Paolo Macchiarini

    Despite being found guilty of scientific misconduct, Paolo Macchiarini has published a new stem cell paper that is not far removed from his past work.

    ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo

    Paolo Macchiarini, an Italian surgeon, has been fired from two institutions and faces the retraction of many of his papers after findings of scientific misconduct and ethical lapses in his research—yet this hasn’t prevented him from publishing again in a peer-reviewed journal. Despite his circumstances, Macchiarini appears as senior author on a paper published last month investigating the viability of artificial esophagi “seeded” with stem cells, work that appears strikingly similar to the plastic trachea transplants that ultimately left most of his patients dead. The journal’s editor says he was unaware of Macchiarini’s history before publishing the study.

    “I’m really surprised,” says cardiothoracic surgeon Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, one of the whistle-blowers who exposed Macchiarini’s misconduct at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm. “I can’t understand how a serious editorial board can accept manuscripts from this guy.”

    Macchiarini was once heralded as a pioneer of regenerative medicine because of his experimental transplants of artificial tracheas that supposedly developed into functional organs when seeded with a patient’s stem cells. But his career came crashing down after the Swedish documentary Experimenten showed the poor outcomes of his patients, all but one of whom have now died. (The lone survivor was able to have his implant removed.) Macchiarini was subsequently fired from KI, both the university and a national ethics board found him guilty of scientific misconduct in several papers, and Swedish authorities are now considering whether to reopen a criminal case against him.

  • New rule could force EPA to ignore major human health studies

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Research looking at everything from links between air pollution and disease to the impact a pesticide has on children’s brains could be banned from consideration by environmental regulators under a new policy proposed yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    At an event at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., that was closed to the press, agency head Scott Pruitt touted the new policy as a way to increase transparency and enable the public to double-check research underpinning environmental regulations. The rule would require the agency to use only studies in which the underlying data are available for public scrutiny when formulating new “significant” regulations, which typically are regulations estimated to impose costs of $100 million or more.

    Specifically, the proposed rule says that EPA is seeking transparency for “the dose response data and models that underlie what we are calling ‘pivotal regulatory science.’” The agency does not define pivotal regulatory science, but says it could include studies that “are critical to the calculation of a final regulatory standard or level, or to the quantified costs, benefits, risks, and other impacts on which a final regulation is based.”

  • With €1.5 billion for artificial intelligence research, Europe pins hopes on ethics

    Conceptual image of brain with global print and technology connection

    European computer scientists are calling for an intergovernmental artificial intelligence laboratory that could compete with leading world universities.

    istock.com/imaginima

    Europe’s plan to catch up to the United States and China in an artificial intelligence (AI) arms race is coming into focus. The European Commission today announced that it would devote €1.5 billion to AI research funding until 2020. It also said it would present ethical guidelines on AI development by the end of the year, suggesting that Europe could become a precautionary counterweight to its global rivals in a field that has raised fears about a lack of fairness and transparency even as it has made great advances.

    Both the United States and China practice “permissionless innovation: Break things as you go and go fast,” says Eleonore Pauwels, a Belgian ethics researcher at the United Nations University in New York City. In contrast, Europeans “are betting on being the good guy,” she says. This could mean, for instance, developing AI systems that require smaller data sets, enhance privacy and trust, and are more transparent than their competitors, Pauwels says. “This is noble, but I don’t know if they have the means of their politics.”

    The European measures come 1 month after France presented its own AI intentions, and a week after a U.K. Parliament report urged the government to draw up a policy to help the country become one of the world’s AI leaders.

  • U.S. EPA says it will define wood as a ‘carbon-neutral’ fuel, reigniting debate

    hands holding wood chips

    Wood pellets have become a popular fuel, but scientists are divided on whether burning wood to produce heat and power can be considered climate friendly.

    Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Weighing in on a fierce, long-standing climate debate, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., said yesterday the agency will now define wood as a “carbon-neutral” fuel for many regulatory purposes.

    The “announcement grants America’s foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said at an event in Cochran, Georgia, The Washington Post reports. But many environmental groups and energy experts decried the move, arguing the science is far from settled on whether wood is a climate-friendly fuel.

    As Science contributing correspondent Warren Cornwall reported last year, the forest products industry has long been pushing for the carbon neutral definition in a bid to make wood an attractive fuel for generating electricity in nations trying to move away from fossil fuels. The idea is “attractively simple,” Cornwall reported:

  • Salk puts cancer scientist Inder Verma on leave after harassment allegations, announces investigation

    The Salk Institute for Biological Studies campus in San Diego, California

    The Salk Institute for Biological Studies campus in San Diego, California.

    Anjani Jain CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Salk Institute for Biological Studies has placed prominent cancer and gene therapy scientist Inder Verma on administrative leave and launched an investigation into allegations against him.

    Dan Lewis, the chairman of the San Diego, California, institute’s board of trustees, announced the moves in an email to Salk employees today.

    He wrote that the decision to place Verma, 70, on leave was made by the board yesterday.

  • Trump’s EPA wants to stamp out ‘secret science.’ Internal emails show it is harder than expected

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Update: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) submitted a draft rule on "Strengthening Transparency and Validity in Regulatory Science" to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the White House's Office of Managment and Budget on 19 April, reports E&E News. But the agency released no details about the proposal. OIRA now has at least 90 days to review the proposed plan. Here is E&E's 20 April story on the background of the plan:

    EPA coordinated with Republicans in U.S. House of Representatives about their plans to restrict the science used in crafting regulations, newly released emails show.

    In early January, EPA chief Scott Pruitt met with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, to discuss one of Smith's pet projects—overhauling how EPA uses science. Smith hasn't been able to get legislation to do so through Congress, so he pitched Pruitt to do so internally, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails were obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and shared with E&E News.

  • A new dengue vaccine should only be used in people who were previously infected, WHO says

    woman enclosed in a mosquito net at a hospital

    Nadia Gonzalez recovers from dengue in a hospital in Paraguay in 2016. There is no easy test for previous exposure to dengue, which makes implementing World Health Organization's new recommendations for the vaccine difficult.

    Jorge Saenz/AP Photo

    The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, put the brakes on implementation of the world’s first dengue vaccine today when it recommended it only be used in people who have previously been infected with the disease—a move that will shrink the potential market for the vaccine’s producer, Sanofi Pasteur.

    Dengue is most dangerous when a person is infected a second (or subsequent) time. Studies have shown that giving the vaccine to people who have never been infected before can leave them vulnerable to a severe reaction if they are subsequently infected. (The vaccine doesn’t confer full protection to the virus.)

    The new recommendation, announced today by WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on Immunization, is consistent with a warning that Sanofi Pasteur announced in November 2017. But some observers worry that the recommendation could mean the end of the vaccine. No rapid, reliable test for previous dengue infection is available, so the new guidelines mean that the vaccine can’t be widely used; that could lead the company to stop making the vaccine. So far, however, Sanofi Pasteur has expressed confidence in the vaccine.

  • In dramatic vote, with baby, Senate confirms Bridenstine to lead NASA

    Jim Bridenstine

    Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) testifies before the Senate science committee on his nomination to lead NASA in November 2017.

    NASA/Joel Kowsky

    President Donald Trump’s administration is pointing NASA back toward the moon, and now it has a leader to guide it there. Today, the U.S. Senate narrowly voted 50–49 on partisan lines to confirm Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to serve as NASA’s 13th administrator.

    Bridenstine, facing a self-imposed term limit on his House of Representatives career, had long sought to lead the $20.7 billion agency, crafting legislation he hoped would influence its direction. But Trump’s nomination of Bridenstine, which came last September, had until now lacked the votes to confirm him. In particular, he faced stiff opposition from Senate Democrats, led by Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), and several Republicans against whom Bridenstine had campaigned, including Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and John McCain (AZ).

    The drama-filled vote, which prompted Vice President Mike Pence to attend as a potential tiebreaker and featured the first vote of Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) with her baby at her side, hinged on the vote of Senator Jeff Flake (R–AZ), who has sought leverage in addressing his non-NASA priorities with the Republican leadership. Flake's vote, and Rubio's decision to drop his opposition yesterday allowed confirmation. The pending retirement of the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, forced his hand, Rubio told USA Today. The agency, so vital to his state’s economy, faced a “gaping leadership void,” he said. “I expect him to lead NASA in a nonpolitical way and to treat Florida fairly,” he added.

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