Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Escape of dangerous bacterium leads to halt of risky studies at Tulane

    An investigation into how a pathogen may have escaped from a laboratory has halted studies involving regulated bio-agents at a Tulane University research facility.

    An investigation into how a pathogen may have escaped from a laboratory has halted studies involving regulated bio-agents at a Tulane University research facility.

    Tulane Public Relations/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The apparent escape from a high-security lab of a dangerous bacterium that led federal officials last month to suspend research on certain high-risk pathogens at Tulane University has left questions about an ongoing investigation of the incident and broader risks.

    According to a lengthy 1 March news article in USA Today, two rhesus macaques at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana, that fell ill in early November later tested positive for infection with Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is found naturally in soil and water in Southeast Asia and northern Australia. Center researchers had been working with rodents on a vaccine for the bacterium, which can cause a sometimes serious illness called melioidosis in animals and people. The two macaques, which later had to be euthanized, and two other rhesus macaques that tested positive for the bacterium may have been exposed while being treated at the center’s hospital.

    Adding to concerns, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigator who visited the site in late January fell seriously ill a day later and tested positive for Burkholderia pseudomallei. It is not clear whether the investigator, who has since recovered, was infected at Tulane or earlier during travel abroad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in February. The agency said it had suspended all studies at the center involving select agents, a list of dangerous viruses, bacteria, and toxins that are tightly regulated. That includes about 10 projects, USA Today reports.

  • NIH sets aside more than $40 million for study of human placenta

    The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

    The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

    John Bavosi/Science Photo Library/Corbis

    The Human Placenta Project, launched last year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) despite uncertainty over how much money would back in the effort, has just received a whopping $41.5 million in 2015 to study the vital mass of tissue that sustains a developing fetus.

    The placenta carries nutrients and oxygen to a fetus from its mother’s bloodstream and removes waste; problems with its performance may contribute to health concerns ranging from preterm birth to adult diabetes. Yet it is the least understood human organ, according to Alan Guttmacher, director of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Last year, Science reported on a NICHD workshop where planning began for a Human Placenta Project that would aim to monitor the placenta during a woman’s pregnancy, using new imaging approaches, tests for fetal molecules shed into a mother’s blood, and other tools.

  • Lone physicist in Congress joins science panel

    If I may … . When he was in Congress before, Bill Foster took time during a 2009 press conference at Fermilab to explain—not ask—how a piece of scientific equipment works.

    Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

    The U.S. House of Representative’s one-man physics caucus is joining its science committee—with the goal of restoring science to its rightful place in legislative discourse.

    Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) holds a physics Ph.D. from Harvard University and spent 22 years as a particle accelerator designer at Fermilab, a Department of Energy national laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. When he arrived in the House in 2008, he was one of three members with a Ph.D. in physics. But the two others—representatives Vern Ehlers (R–MI) and Rush Holt (D–NJ)—have since retired, leaving Foster as the sole remaining member of that troika. (There are no doctoral-level physicists in the Senate.)

    Foster didn’t join the House’s science committee as a rookie, instead focusing his legislative energies on reforming the nation’s tattered banking system after the 2008 financial meltdown. He also feared being pigeonholed as “the science guy.” But the world has changed, he tells ScienceInsider today in a phone interview after revealing he has been chosen to fill one of three Democratic vacancies on the science panel.

    “Congress is now seized in gridlock, and that made the Financial Services Committee a smaller drain on my time and my staff’s time,” he explains. “And secondly, science has come under attack. Support for science, and even acknowledging that scientific thought is a useful way to operate our government, has come under increasing partisan attack. And the [House] science committee is one important platform to have that discussion about the proper role of science in government and in the economy.”

  • Moniz defends DOE budget at House hearings

    Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

    Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

    Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz went committee-hopping this week, defending President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) before two panels in the U.S. House of Representatives. And although some lawmakers worried that DOE’s request tilts too far toward applied research in its science programs, their grilling of Moniz on science was relatively light.

    On Wednesday, Moniz appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and yesterday testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies. Representatives mostly peppered Moniz with questions that focused on hot-button energy issues—including DOE’s role in evaluating the controversial Keystone pipeline and efforts to promote nuclear power—but the department’s science programs also saw some time in the spotlight.

  • What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you?

    What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you?

    A.F. Archive/Alamy

    Leonard Nimoy—poet, photographer, and Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock”died today at 83. The New York Times has the full story here. Though Nimoy wasn’t a scientist, he undoubtedly inspired generations of children to become one, thanks to his role as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s science officer. Nimoy also contributed to science-themed projects, such as the 1994 IMAX documentary Destiny in Space, which contained footage from nine Space Shuttle missions. We here at Science will feel his loss deeply. What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

  • Billionaires for basic research

    Marc Kastner

    Marc Kastner

    Kay Herschelmann

    After 42 years of doing atomic physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and 16 years as an MIT administrator, Marc Kastner knows intimately both the value of basic research—and how to convince rich people to foster its growth at a premier research institution. Yesterday he announced he was leaving MIT for a job that will give him the chance to make the case on a national scale.

    Kastner is the first president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a new effort by six foundations to boost private giving to basic science research, which is largely conducted at universities. The alliance has set itself the 5-year goal of boosting such giving by $1 billion a year—an estimated 50% jump over current levels, although Kastner admits that there are no good baseline numbers.

    Philanthropy will never replace U.S. government support for basic research, Kastner says. But what he calls a “tilt” in federal support toward applied research over basic science has created a “desperation situation” for academic researchers that “in my view, is probably the worst since the Second World War.”

  • Results from encouraging Ebola trial scrutinized

    The Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea, one of the trial sites.

    The Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea, one of the trial sites.

    Xavier Anglaret and Dadoua Sissoko/INSERM

    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—When French scientists presented the results from an Ebola drug trial at a press conference on Monday, they did so with plenty of caveats, but their message was hopeful: The drug, favipiravir, appeared to lower mortality in people with low and medium-high levels of virus in their blood, the researchers told journalists at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) here.

    But when study leader Denis Malvy of the University of Bordeaux in France presented more details of the results at CROI, many colleagues were underwhelmed. Several scientists criticized the evidence as well as the design of the trial, which is ongoing at four clinics in Guinea. “It doesn’t tell us anything,” said epidemiologist Scott Hammer of Columbia University, who chairs the meeting.

    In his presentation, Malvy focused on a group of 40 patients who began the trial with lower viral loads than 29 others who clearly did not benefit from favipiravir. As he explained on Monday, only six of those 40 patients died—half of what was expected based on similar patients treated at the same clinics over the past 3 months. What’s more, after 4 days of starting treatment on favipiravir, an influenza drug, 51% of these patients had such low levels of the virus in their blood that the standard test could no longer detect it. “There was a signal that monotherapy with favipiravir may decrease viral load,” Malvy said.

  • It’s only a game, but even earth scientists struggle to defeat global warming

    Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

    Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

    Kerry Klein

    “Welcome, delegates,” the U. N. official boomed to the international negotiators gathered to find a way to prevent catastrophic global warming. The delegates whispered and scribbled on pie charts as she spoke. One popped open an orange cream soda.

    “What is the planet,” the woman concluded, “that you will leave to our collective future?”

    It’s a question those in the room contemplate daily. But on this day, they knew the burden of decision didn’t really rest on their shoulders—because neither the U.N. official nor the negotiation was real.

    It was World Climate, a game that simulates international climate negotiations. The U.N. official was biogeochemist Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. And she addressed not diplomats, but earth scientists, gathered late last year in San Francisco for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

    The game, created in 2010 by the nonprofit Climate Interactive and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology System Dynamics Group, is to U.N. climate negotiations what Model UN is to the real thing: a chance for outsiders to get a glimpse of what it takes to hammer out a consensus on a thorny international issue. And the players’ collective goal is straightforward: Commit enough resources to prevent dangerous global warming by the year 2100. The benchmark is to prevent Earth from warming more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, or about 1.2°C. higher than today—the same as the goal set by the United Nations’ climate agency.

  • PETA study finds 'dramatic' rise in use of lab animals in United States

    Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

    Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

    Armin Rodler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The number of animals used by the top federally funded U.S. biomedical research institutions has risen 73% over 15 years, a “dramatic increase” driven mostly by more mice, concludes an animal rights group. They say researchers are not doing enough to reduce their use of mice, which are exempt from some federal animal protection laws.

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which collected the data, says the analysis by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is “inappropriate.” The analysis was published online today in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

    Although the Animal Welfare Act requires that the U.S. Department of Agriculture track research labs’ use of cats, dogs, and nonhuman primates, smaller vertebrates—including mice, rats, fish, and birds bred for research—are exempt. To get a sense of the trends, PETA filed Freedom of Information Act requests for data from inventories that NIH-funded institutions must submit to NIH every 4 years to receive an “assurance” allowing them to do animal research.

  • NIH moving ahead with review of risky virology studies

    Risky science. The U.S. government is proposing special reviews for experiments that might increase the risk posed by the H5N1 avian influenza virus (brown).


    Last fall, in a startling move, the U.S. government announced that a handful of U.S.-funded studies on risky pathogens were so dangerous that researchers should halt the work until experts could review them. After weeks of quiet, that review now appears to be moving forward. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has chosen a private firm to conduct a formal risk assessment to help experts decide whether the halted studies, which generally focus on flu viruses, should ever be allowed to resume.

    But two prominent scientists have written the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a federal advisory board that is helping guide the analysis, to complain that it is being rushed through in secret and that the board lacks the needed range of expertise.

    The controversy goes back to the fall of 2011, when two labs announced that they had modified the deadly H5n1 avian influenza virus to make it spread more readily in mammals. Many researchers worried about the risks of a pandemic if the new virus escaped the lab, and flu scientists doing so-called gain-of-function (GOF) experiments agreed to a 1-year pause in these studies. But the studies then restarted, despite ongoing concerns from many scientists that the risks were unacceptable.

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