Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NAS panel tackles—and is tackled by—genome editing in animals

    Genome editing has created cows that grow no horns, the better to avoid painful dehorning.

    Genome editing has created cows that grow no horns, the better to avoid painful dehorning.

    Cornell Alliance for Science

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—A 2-day National Academy of Sciences (NAS) workshop here last week exposed just how far scientists, ethicists, and regulators are from agreeing on the best way to move forward with genome editing in animals. Following on the heels of this month’s NAS summit on genome editing in humans, the workshop attracted much less attention, even though the work has more immediate regulatory and scientific implications. It also has the potential to shape how these technologies may one day be used in humans.

    In one sense, gene editing has been going on for nearly 10,000 years. The selective breeding of livestock leads to changes in a breed’s genetic makeup similar to what can be done with modern techniques. The big difference, say genome-editing advocates, is that these new molecular tools make the process much more efficient, with precise ways of deleting, inserting, or regulating genes. One approach, called CRISPR, has made gene editing so easy that in little more than 2 years, researchers have used it to change the genomes of more than a dozen plants and animals. With CRISPR, researchers have modified or disabled multiple genes at once, in some cases leaving no trace of the foreign DNA that makes it possible.

  • Updated: Budget agreement boosts U.S. science

    American Advisors Group/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Congress today overwhelmingly passed the 2016 spending bill. The House of Representatives this morning voted 316 to 113, with a majority of Republicans and nearly all Democrats favoring the $1.1 trillion package for all federal agencies. The Senate concurred a few hours later with a vote of 65 to 33. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law later today.

    Early on 16 December, congressional leaders released the text of an omnibus spending bill that will fund all federal agencies for the rest of the 2016 fiscal year. We’ve taken a look at how individual agencies fared under the bill (see bullets below). Science has also compiled a table showing the budgets of key research agencies and programs.

  • After rocky road, U.S. Senate passes landmark chemical law overhaul

    Congress is struggling to rewrite a law regulating industrial chemicals.

    Congress is struggling to rewrite a law regulating industrial chemicals.

    Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    These days in Congress, not even strong bipartisan support seems to guarantee a bill’s success. But the Republicans and Democrats who backed a U.S. Senate bill to overhaul the nation’s environmental safety law for industrial chemicals refused to give up. Overcoming a thicket of procedural barriers, they won a signature victory tonight as the Senate unanimously approved, on a voice vote, an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

    The vote puts Congress close to reforming one of the nation’s most maligned environmental laws for the first time in nearly 40 years. Both environmentalists and industry have assailed the TSCA, first passed in 1976, for being unwieldy and ineffective.

  • China launches satellite to join the hunt for dark matter

    Artist’s impression of DAMPE, the first of four purely scientific Chinese space missions.

    Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics, University of Geneva

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—China's space science efforts got a boost today with the launch of the first of four planned scientific missions. The Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) rode into space on a Long March 2D rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, about 1600 kilometers west of Beijing, at about 8:12 a.m. local time.

    "This is an exciting mission," says theoretical astrophysicist David Spergel of Princeton University. If dark matter annihilates, as some theories predict, "DAMPE has an opportunity to detect dark matter annihilation products," Spergel says. The launch also marks China’s new commitment to scientific space missions. "DAMPE is the first Chinese space mission for astronomy and astrophysics," says Yizhong Fan, an astrophysicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences's (CAS's) Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing who is one of the mission scientists.

  • NIH releases first agency-wide strategic plan in 2 decades

    A word cloud for NIH’s new strategic plan.

    A word cloud for NIH’s new strategic plan.


    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today released its first agency-wide strategic plan in more than 20 years. Although the document is largely a roundup of what the agency is already doing, it has some NIH advisers wondering whether the plan promises too much.

    Despite reservations from some NIH advisers, one lawmaker who called for the plan thinks it is just what Congress ordered. In a statement, Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) called the strategic plan “groundbreaking” and “an important first step toward increasing accountability and resource prioritization at NIH.”

  • Aah, that’s a heavenly name for a planet

    Tau Boötis b

    Tau Boötis b

    NASA/G. Bacon (STScI/AVL)/Wikimedia Commons

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—With roughly 2000 exoplanets confirmed and more added every month, the problem of providing names for these orbiting bodies outside our solar system is becoming pressing.

    The scientific monikers such as OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb just aren’t going to cut it. So the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which has the responsibility of naming heavenly bodies, held a competition. And today it announced the results—names for 14 stars and 31 planets around them.

  • New XPrize challenge seeks next-generation robots to map the ocean floor

    An ice wall and the ocean floor in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound. The latest XPrize calls for new innovations in mapping and illuminating the ocean floor.

    NSF/USAP/Steve Clabuesch

    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA -- Uncharted volcanoes, unimagined species, unanticipated treatments for disease – scientists have many guesses but little actual data on what lies in the 95% of the ocean that remains unexplored. But now Shell and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have teamed up to sponsor a $7 million XPrize that they say will hopefully provide some answers by promoting the development of new sensors, robotic submerisbles, and other technologies. The prize was announced today at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting here.

    When confronted with the difficulties of space exploration, oceanographers tend to have a snappy retort. “I love to have this conversation with my NASA friends,” said Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist, at a press conference accompanying the announcement. Exploring the ocean is harder than space, Spinrad said, due to crushing pressures, a harsh chemical environment, the inability to communicate with radio frequencies, and no light. As a result, not only is the majority of the ocean floor unmapped, but an estimated 60% to 90% of marine species are still unknown to science.

    The ocean discovery XPrize, intended to speed up the development of new technologies to illuminate the deep ocean, is actually the third in a series of five ocean-related competitions, part of XPrize’s 10-year ocean initiative. Two earlier prizes focused on oil spill cleanup and ocean health. Like those earlier prizes, the new prize is designed to draw new players into the game of ocean exploration, “democratizing” the ocean.

  • Which studies got the most media buzz in 2015?

    An antibiotic found in previously uncultivable soil bacteria yielded the most buzzed-about paper of the year.

    An antibiotic found in previously uncultivable soil bacteria yielded the most buzzed-about paper of the year.

    Slava Epstein

    Scientists don't like to admit it, but they love attention from the media. Stories about their work raise their professional profile, leading to better grants and better jobs. And as both scientists and their funders move to ditch impact factor as the main metric for judging the value of published research, media attention has emerged as one of many alternative metrics.

    One of the most prominent scoring systems is run by an outfit called Altmetric, now a division of the London-based publishing technology startup Digital Science. Rather than scoring journals by their impact within the scientific community, Altmetric scores individual articles based on buzz: stories in the media and references on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and even Wikipedia. And each December, the company releases a list of the top 100 buzz-generating scientific papers over the past year.

    This year's buzziest studies were mentioned a total of 112,492 times in Altmetric's online sources. Contrary to the myth that the media gets most of its science stories from just a few traditional powerhouse journals, the top 100 papers were published in a broad range of 34 journals. Their authors hailed from 105 different countries, working together in 52 international collaborations. (You can download the data here.)

  • Study finds criticisms of Endangered Species Act unfounded

    A Fish and Wildlife Service employee surveys wildlife on the Louisiana coast.

    A Fish and Wildlife Service employee surveys wildlife on the Louisiana coast.

    U.S. Dept of the Interior/Flickr

    At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, sits a treasure trove of data. As part of a program called TAILS (Advanced Tracking and Integrated Logging System), FWS keeps records of consultations between its field agents and other federal agencies whose proposed projects might affect federally protected species. These consultations, mandated by Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), document which federal agencies have authorized or funded projects—such as new oil and gas drilling—and whether a given project poses any risk to threatened or endangered species. Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species at FWS, calls the TAILS data “pretty dry bureaucratic stuff.”

    But Ya-Wei Li, senior director of endangered species conservation at the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, didn’t think so. In the spring of 2014, he brought his whooping crane–shaped thumb drive to FWS headquarters to download the information. He and his colleagues hoped to find out whether common criticisms of Section 7—that the consultation process is onerous, it takes too long, and it’s bad for the economy—were borne out in the data. The results of their year-and-a-half-long analysis, out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that many of the reproaches of the process are unfounded.

  • Decision to end monkey experiments based on finances, not animal rights, NIH says

    A baby rhesus macaque in Stephen Suomi’s lab at NICHD.

    A baby rhesus macaque in Stephen Suomi’s lab at NICHD.

    On Friday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) revealed that it had begun to phase out controversial monkey experiments at one of its labs in Poolesville, Maryland. The action followed an aggressive yearlong campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but an NIH director tells ScienceInsider today that financial straits—not animal rights pressures—led to the decision.

    “NIH has to make decisions on how to spend its research dollars regardless of what others may think,” says Constantine Stratakis, the scientific director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which oversees the lab in question. “Clearly the timing is awkward, but I can assure you that PETA was not a factor in this decision.”

    The lab is run by Stephen Suomi, who has been at NICHD since 1983. His team studies how early environment shapes behavior—work that involves separating young rhesus macaques from their mothers, measuring their addiction to alcohol, and monitoring their long-term stress levels.

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