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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • House reverses proposed cut to energy innovation hubs

    Then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visiting the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 2012.

    Then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visiting the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 2012.

    U.S. Department of Energy/Flickr

    The U.S. House of Representatives has reversed course and has now decided to fund the Department of Energy's (DOE’s) five "energy innovation hubs" in fiscal year 2018, which begins 1 October. The House appropriations committee had zeroed out funding for the hubs in the House version of the so-called energy and water bill, which funds DOE. But last night the full House passed a package of amendments to the bill, which the House has now rolled together with three other spending bills into a so-called minibus spending bill. One of the amendments, submitted by Representative Mark Takano (D–CA), restores the hubs, each of which is currently funded at $25 million per year or less.

    The White House called for terminating the hubs in its 2018 budget proposal. However, Senate appropriators have balked at that and many other proposed cuts to DOE's research programs: They have called for full funding of the hubs in the Senate version of the energy and water bill.

    The energy innovation hubs are the brainchild of Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who served as Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013. They include:

    • the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena;
    • the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee;
    • the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois;
    • the Critical Materials Institute at Ames Laboratory in Iowa; and
    • a yet-to-be sited hub on low-energy desalination of sea water, which received its first funds this year. 
  • At Harvard, extraordinary court battle between Ph.D. student and prominent researcher grinds on

    Harvard Yard

    Harvard Yard

    Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Earlier this year, ScienceInsider reported on a dispute between a graduate student and a prominent biomedical researcher at Harvard University that escalated into an unusual legal confrontation. The chain of events included the student’s allegation of misconduct against the researcher, a forced mental exam of the student, and an extraordinary court order preventing the scientist from working in his laboratory while the student is present. (You can learn all the details in our 18 January story.) Since that story, the conflict between Gustavo German, a Harvard doctoral student in biomedicine, and Lee Rubin, a prominent stem cell researcher, has continued to evolve. Alison McCook, the editor of Retraction Watch who wrote the original story, provides this update:

    Amid continued legal jousting, the situation has remained difficult for all of the parties involved in this tumultuous episode.  Nearly a year after Elizabeth Fahey, a Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, ordered Harvard in August 2016 to allow German to work in Rubin’s lab to complete the final months of his degree, German still does not have his Ph.D.—and Harvard has moved to kick him out of the university.

    German says he was able to make some progress toward his degree this past February and March, but that came to a halt over disagreements about who would serve as German’s dissertation adviser. This past April, that dispute led Harvard to place him on academic probation, and on 16 May it withdrew him from the university, saying he had violated the terms of the probation.  Afraid that the withdrawal would expose him to deportation, German—an Argentine citizen in the United States on a student visa—filed an emergency motion with the court after he was put on probation. On 31 May, Fahey ruled that Harvard could not notify federal authorities about German’s immigration status, nor respond to federal authorities’ requests about it.

  • First U.S. team to gene-edit human embryos revealed

    8-cell embryo illustration

    A U.S. research team has reportedly edited the DNA of a human embryo just as a sperm fertilizes an egg, well before its eight-cell stage.

    alxpin/iStockphoto

    Since Chinese researchers announced the first gene editing of a human embryo 2 years ago, many expected that similar work in the United States was inevitable. Last night, the MIT Technology Review broke the news that such experiments have happened. The research, led by embryologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, also reportedly sidestepped problems of incomplete and off-target editing that plagued previous attempts, though details could not be confirmed since the work is not yet published and Mitalipov has so far declined to comment.

    If a peer-reviewed paper bears out the news story, “It’s one more step on the path to potential clinical application,” says bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who served on a committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., to address gene editing. The panel’s report earlier this year concluded that a clinical trial involving embryo editing would be ethically allowable under narrow circumstances.

    The first published human embryo–editing work, in 2015, used nonviable embryos and targeted a gene mutated in the heritable blood disorder beta thalassemia. But it revealed major shortcomings in applying the increasingly popular CRISPR gene-editing technology. The few embryos that took up the change made by CRISPR were a patchwork of edited and unchanged cells, and they bore unintended edits outside the targeted gene.

  • Plant scientists plan massive effort to sequence 10,000 genomes

    An image of a freshwater alga in the genus Zygnema. It looks like a chain of oblong cells.

    Freshwater alga in the genus Zygnema would be one target of sequencing project.

    Norbert Hülsmann/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    SHENZHEN, CHINA—Hopes of sequencing the DNA of every living thing on Earth are taking a step forward with the announcement of plans to sequence at least 10,000 genomes representing every major clade of plants and eukaryotic microbes. Chinese sequencing giant BGI and the China National GeneBank (CNGB) held a workshop yesterday on the sidelines of the International Botanical Congress, being held this week in BGI's hometown of Shenzhen, to discuss what they are calling the 10KP plan. About 250 plant scientists participated in the discussions and "are raring to go," says Gane Ka-Shu Wong, a genomicist and bioinformaticist at University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

    The 10KP plan will be a key part of the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), an ambitious and still evolving scheme to get at least rough sequence data on the 1.5 million eukaryotic species, starting with detailed sequences of one member of each of the 9000 eukaryotic families. The effort to sequence plants is moving ahead a bit faster than other aspects of EBP "because plant scientists are more collaborative," Wong says jokingly.

    The 10KP plan is also building on a previous 1000 plant (1KP) transcriptome project. That effort, launched in 2012 and now nearing completion, was also led by BGI, where Wong is an associate director. 

  • Sci-Hub’s cache of pirated papers is so big, subscription journals are doomed, data analyst suggests

    Sci Hub Map

    Sci-Hub activity on 5 February 2016.

    CREDITS: (DATA) SCI-HUB; (IMAGE/AUTOPLAY VIDEO) ADAPTED BY J. YOU/SCIENCE

    There is no doubt that Sci-Hub, the infamous—and, according to a U.S. court, illegal—online repository of pirated research papers, is enormously popular. (See Science’s investigation last year of who is downloading papers from Sci-Hub.) But just how enormous is its repository? That is the question biodata scientist Daniel Himmelstein at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues recently set out to answer, after an assist from Sci-Hub.

    Their findings, published in a preprint on the PeerJ journal site on 20 July, indicate that Sci-Hub can instantly provide access to more than two-thirds of all scholarly articles, an amount that Himmelstein says is “even higher” than he anticipated. For research papers protected by a paywall, the study found Sci-Hub’s reach is greater still, with instant access to 85% of all papers published in subscription journals. For some major publishers, such as Elsevier, more than 97% of their catalog of journal articles is being stored on Sci-Hub’s servers—meaning they can be accessed there for free.

    Given that Sci-Hub has access to almost every paper a scientist would ever want to read, and can quickly obtain requested papers it doesn’t have, could the website truly topple traditional publishing? In a chat with ScienceInsider, Himmelstein concludes that the results of his study could mark “the beginning of the end” for paywalled research. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

  • Ding, ding, ding! CRISPR patent fight enters next round

    An artist's conception of the DNA cutting enzyme Cas9.

    An artist’s conception of the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9.

    NIH 3D Print Exchange/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The University of California (UC) has fired another legal salvo in the prolonged patent battle over CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technology that has spawned a billion-dollar industry.

    UC leads a group of litigants who contend that the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) wrongly sided with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and two partners—Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge—in February when it ruled that the Broad group invented the use of CRISPR in eukaryotic cells. After that ruling, UC moved the battleground to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In a 25 July brief to the Federal Circuit, the UC group contends that PTAB “ignored key evidence” and “made multiple errors.”

  • What can science learn from a child who has controlled HIV without drugs for more than 8 years?

    HIV

    Treating people soon after they become infected might reduce the size of the initial HIV reservoir in their bodies. 

    Donald Bliss and Sriram Subramaniam, NIH

    PARIS—An HIV-infected child in South Africa who is controlling the virus without antiretroviral (ARV) drugs has reinvigorated the push to find ways to allow people to control the virus for prolonged periods without treatment.

    The child, whose gender hasn't been revealed to help protect anonymity, was born to an HIV-infected mother and was given ARVs starting at 8 weeks old; the treatment was stopped at 40 weeks as part of a controlled clinical trial. Now, more than 8.5 years later, the virus hasn't rebounded and the child is doing fine, researchers reported here yesterday at an international AIDS conference. That doesn't mean the HIV infection has been cured, they stressed; the child still harbors low levels of the virus, invisible with standard tests but easily detected with ultrasensitive ones.

    But the case may offer fresh clues to what makes long-term remission possible. In most people living with HIV who stop taking drugs, the virus comes roaring back within weeks. If long drug holidays were possible, it could simplify people’s lives, slash the costs of treatment, and reduce long-term side effects. And the research into what some call "sustained viral remission" could help inform the search for a complete cure.

  • Senate spending panel would squeeze science agencies but exceed Trump request

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.

    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A Senate spending panel voted today to reduce funding in 2018 below current levels for several science agencies under its jurisdiction.

    Even so, the move by the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee would erase most of the cuts that President Donald Trump requested next year for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The exception is NASA’s science program, which would get less under the Senate panel’s plan than the president has requested.

    Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL), chair of the panel, blamed the tight proposed spending levels on the panel’s overall allocation of $53.4 billion for agencies under its jurisdiction, some $3.2 billion below 2017 levels. He said it forced lawmakers into making “difficult but responsible decisions.”

  • Researchers think they’ve found a much better way to conduct the 2030 U.S. census

    a man hands another man a form

    Researchers are thinking about ways to reduce the number of face-to-face visits needed to conduct the census.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    The decennial census is supposed to be a tally of everybody living in the United States. But it actually starts out as a master list of addresses. That list, updated once a decade by the U.S. Census Bureau, is then used to send out an army of workers to collect basic demographic information from whoever answers the door at those addresses.

    The approach allows the agency to meet its constitutional requirement to provide Congress with the data needed to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But the 2010 census also cost $12.3 billion, and future censuses that use that approach may be prohibitively expensive (see our story yesterday on issues facing the 2020 census). It also assumes that households, not people, should be the key unit of measurement.

  • It will be much harder to call new findings ‘significant’ if this team gets its way

    the number 5

    Joanna Poe/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    A megateam of reproducibility-minded scientists is renewing a controversial proposal to raise the standard for statistical significance in research studies. They want researchers to dump the long-standing use of a probability value (p-value) of less than 0.05 as the gold standard for significant results, and replace it with the much stiffer p-value threshold of 0.005.

    Backers of the change, which has been floated before, say it could dramatically reduce the reporting of false-positive results—studies that claim to find an effect when there is none—and so make more studies reproducible. And they note that researchers in some fields, including genome analysis, have already made a similar switch with beneficial results.

    “If we’re going to be in a world where the research community expects some strict cutoff … it’s better that that threshold be .005 than .05. That’s an improvement over the status quo,” says behavioral economist Daniel Benjamin of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, first author on the new paper, which was posted 22 July as a preprint article on PsyArXiv and is slated for an upcoming issue of Nature Human Behavior. “It seemed like this was something that was doable and easy, and had worked in other fields.”

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