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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Canada's World-Renowned Freshwater Research Facility Saved by New Management

    Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada's Experimental Lakes Area.

    Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada's Experimental Lakes Area.

    Experimental Lakes Area

    The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), Canada’s flagship environmental research center that has been under threat of closure for 2 years, has found a savior. The ELA will leave government hands and will now be managed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg-based think tank. The 1 April announcement guarantees that the 46-year-old field site in northwestern Ontario will survive, at least for another 5 years, and will expand its research focus beyond that of the Canadian government’s mandate.

    The deal will hopefully bring the ELA some “stability,” says Diane Orihel, a freshwater ecologist who since mid-2012 has led a campaign to save the facility. The campaign began after the Canadian government pulled the project’s funding and handed pink slips to its team of 16 scientists and technicians. Last year, the lab, which conducts experiments in a system of 58 lakes, was saved from the bulldozers by a stopgap payment of $2 million from the provincial government of Ontario. Now, IISD has a chance to rebuild the ELA after years of neglect by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Orihel says.

    The ELA, the world’s only facility where researchers can intentionally poison whole lakes to monitor ecosystem effects, has an impressive research record: Its scientists were the first to find evidence for acid rain, and to fully diagnose the effects of pollutants such as mercury, phosphate, and synthetic hormones on aquatic life. IISD President Scott Vaughan tells ScienceInsider that he intends to build upon this past research, while looking to expand the scope of the facility’s science to investigate the effects of micropollutants and climate change on aquatic systems.

  • Neurological Institute Finds Worrisome Drop in Basic Research

    Disease shift. The percentage of funding dedicated to basic research focused on treating disease (“basic; disease-focused” on the graph) has been going up at one institute at the National Institutes of Health, raising concerns about a drift away from more

    Disease shift. The percentage of funding dedicated to basic research focused on treating disease (“basic; disease-focused” on the graph) has been going up at one institute at the National Institutes of Health, raising concerns about a drift away fr

    National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

    For years, some biomedical researchers have worried that a push for more bench-to-bedside studies has meant less support for basic research. Now, the chief of one of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) largest institutes has added her voice—and hard data—to the discussion. Story Landis describes what she calls a “sharp decrease” in basic research at her institute, a trend she finds worrisome.

    In a blog post last week, Landis, director of the $1.6 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), says her staff started out asking why, in the mid-2000s, NINDS funding declined for R01s, the investigator-initiated grants that are the mainstay of most labs. After examining the aims and abstracts of grants funded between 1997 and 2012, her staff found that the portion of NINDS competing grant funding that went to basic research has declined (from 87% to 71%) while applied research rose (from 13% to 29%).

    To dig deeper, the staffers divided the grants into four categories—basic/basic; basic/disease-focused; applied/translational; and applied/clinical. Here, the decline in basic/basic research was “striking”: It fell from 52% to 27% of new and competing grants, while basic/disease-focused has been rising (see graph). The same trend emerged when the analysts looked only at investigator-initiated grants, which are proposals based on a researcher’s own ideas, not a solicitation by NINDS for proposals in a specific area.

  • In Reversal, Genetics Group Says Patients Should Be Allowed to Refuse 'Incidental' Findings

    Apparently bowing to pressure from its members, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) says that patients should be allowed to “opt out” of learning about how their DNA might increase their risk of disease. The policy, announced today, reverses a controversial recommendation that the group made last year. It urged clinicians to tell people undergoing genomic sequencing whether their genes might make them more likely to develop serious disease in the future, even if they didn’t want that information. 

    The original ACMG policy aimed to offer much-needed guidance in the area of so-called incidental findings, which are increasingly presenting a conundrum in medicine and research. As the cost of gene sequencing drops, DNA being sequenced for one purpose may yield many other secrets, such as the risk of certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Almost exactly a year ago, ACMG proposed a radical shift in how incidental findings are handled. Not only did it say that findings should be shared with patients—it also argued that labs should actively look for certain DNA mutations in someone whose DNA is being sequenced for any medical reason. The recommendations included sharing the DNA finds linked to adult-onset cancers with the parents of pediatric patients.

  • RIKEN Panel Finds Misconduct in Reprogrammed Stem Cell Papers

    Standing room only. A press conference unveiling the final report of a RIKEN investigating committee into STAP cells drew hundreds of reporters.

    Standing room only. A press conference unveiling the final report of a RIKEN investigating committee into STAP cells drew hundreds of reporters.

    Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—An investigating committee has concluded that falsification and fabrication mar two recent Nature papers reporting a new, simple way to reprogram mature cells into stem cells. The committee concluded that these acts constitute research misconduct, but it stopped short of calling for the papers to be retracted and will leave the question of disciplinary action to a separate committee. RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori today said he favors one paper's retraction if the committee’s findings are upheld in an appeals process.

    “I am filled with feelings of indignation and surprise,” said lead author Haruko Obokata, of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (RIKEN CDB) in Kobe, Japan, in a statement. She wrote that she intends to appeal the judgment.

    The committee's final report (in Japanese), released today, is the latest blow against a surprisingly simple method for creating stem cells, known as STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency), published in a Nature article and an accompanying letter online on 29 January by Obokata and colleagues at RIKEN CDB, along with other institutions in Japan and at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Their method relied on briefly bathing blood cells from newborn mice in a mildly acidic solution and then tweaking culture conditions to produce stem cells. This method, if it proves viable, would be an alternative to far more complicated but established methods of deriving stem cells, which are prized for possible use in regenerative medicine.

  • Japan Ordered to Stop Scientific Whaling

    A minke whale and her 1-year-old calf are dragged aboard a Japanese vessel. The image was taken and released by the Australian government, which disputes that Japan is whaling for scientific purposes.

    Is this science? A minke whale and her 1-year-old calf are dragged aboard a Japanese vessel. The image was taken and released by the Australian government, which disputes that Japan is whaling for scientific purposes.

    Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

    Japan has to stop capturing and killing whales under its whaling program in the Antarctic, called JARPA II, the International Court of Justice has said.

    In a judgment issued in The Hague in the Netherlands today, the U.N. court has ordered Japan to revoke existing permits to catch whales for scientific purposes and to stop granting such permits in the future. The ruling is a victory for Australia, which filed court proceedings against Japan's whaling in 2010, arguing that it breached international obligations.

    In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, allowing the taking and killing of whales for research purposes only. Scientific catch limits are set by each country on a yearly basis, submitted to a review by IWC's scientific committee.

    Antiwhaling critics say that Japanese whale research is a fig leaf for commercial hunting, as whale meat can be sold to cover research costs. Japan counters that its whale meat sale is not profitable and that it needs to take and kill whales to study the animals and their potential as a food source.

    The court said that JARPA II activities can “broadly be characterized as scientific research,” but found several “shortcomings” with the program's details—saying in particular that Japan had not paid enough attention to nonlethal methods. “The evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives,” the court said. Therefore, “the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not 'for purposes of scientific research,' ” the judges added.

  • Major Climate Report Describes a Changing World, Striving to Adapt

    Ready to adapt? New report focuses on efforts to adapt to challenges posed by climate change, such as coastal flooding caused by rising seas. Here, waves batter the coast in Scotland in 2011.

    Ready to adapt? New report focuses on efforts to adapt to challenges posed by climate change, such as coastal flooding caused by rising seas. Here, waves batter the coast in Scotland in 2011.

    Wikimedia Commons

    Earth's changing climate is already having an impact on ecosystems, agriculture, coastal infrastructure, and a host of other human and natural systems. And a host of serious risks await as global warming intensifies, although nascent efforts are under way to adapt and prepare for a hotter, more uncompromising planet. Those are the takeaway messages of a major new report released 31 March by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international group of scientists convened by the United Nations to report on the science and policy implications of a changing climate every 7 years or so.

    “Climate change has altered systems from the equator to the poles, from the ocean to the mountains," ecologist Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Palo Alto, California, told reporters earlier today from Yokohama, Japan, where hundreds of the report’s authors and government representatives negotiated the final wording of the 44-page summary of the mammoth document.

    Field is a lead author on today’s so-called assessment report, which surveys the voluminous literature published since 2005 on climate impacts and possible adaptation strategies. Titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, it is the second of three volumes put out by the IPCC. The first, with focus on the physical changes related to climate change, appeared last September. The third, on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, will be published next month.

  • Continued Rise in Autism Diagnoses Puzzles Researchers, Galvanizes Advocates

    Rising tide. New U.S. report shows autism diagnosis has grown by 30% between 2008 and 2010.

    Rising tide. New U.S. report shows autism diagnosis has grown by 30% between 2008 and 2010.

    Autism Speaks

    Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised eyebrows, and concern among current and prospective parents, with a report documenting that the rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis in the United States jumped 30% between 2008 and 2010, from one in 88 to one in 68 children. CDC officials don’t know, however, whether the startling increase is due to skyrocketing rates of the disorder or more sensitive screening, or a combination of both. (Forbes gives a nice rundown of the many reasons for this uncertainty).

    The number of diagnoses “have been steadily climbing” from one in 150 since the CDC’s national surveillance system was put into place in 2000, “so I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised” by the new data, says Sarah Spence, a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. About half of the children diagnosed with ASD in the new report had normal or above-average intelligence, compared with a third of children 10 years ago, suggesting that a significant proportion of the new cases are due to more sensitive diagnostic measures rather than increased incidence, she says. Still, “I think all of us in the field are a little frightened by the numbers.”

  • At House Science Panel Hearing, Sarcasm Rules

    Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA)

    Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA)

    U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology/Democrats

    It was supposed to be a chance for legislators to discuss the Obama administration’s 2015 federal budget with presidential science adviser John Holdren.

    But sarcasm and political trash-talking overrode serious debate at Wednesday’s hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Even in a Congress noted for its polarization and lack of comity, members of the panel seemed more interested in name-calling than numbers. As a result, the 2-hour hearing was more evidence of how entrenched and extreme views are dramatically remaking what was once one of the most rational forums in Congress for discussing science policy.

    Several members, for example, appeared to be trying to mock rather than engage Holdren on climate change. “I may want to get your cellphone number, Dr. Holdren,” said Representative Randy Weber (R–TX), “because, if we go through another few cycles of global warming and cooling, I may need to ask you when I should buy my long coat on sale.”

  • Scientists Call on Spain to Ban Vulture-Killing Drug

    Griffon vultures

    Griffon vultures

    Bruno Barthemy-Vulture Conservation Foundation

    The Spanish government should rescind approval of a veterinary drug that threatens Europe’s largest population of wild vultures, researchers argue in a letter published online yesterday in Conservation Biology. The drug, diclofenac, is commonly used to treat pain in livestock. It has already caused the decline of nearly 99% of India’s vultures, which ingested the drug while feeding on carcasses. It has also triggered an ecological chain reaction there, resulting in, among other impacts, record numbers of rabies cases.

    “[I]t is undeniable that European vulture populations could be seriously affected by the ingestion of diclofenac, and its use has become a matter of great concern for ecologists, politicians, and conservationists,” write the five scientists, who represent agriculture, ecology, and biology departments at universities in both Spain and Switzerland. Although European grazing and sanitation practices are substantially different from those used in India, potentially reducing the drug’s threat to scavenging birds, the researchers remain concerned about its potential impact in Spain, which is home to an estimated 95% of Europe’s wild vultures.

    The drug was approved by the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products (AEMPS) in March 2013. It is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug currently approved in many countries for both human and veterinary use. It reduces pain and inflammation caused by a variety of conditions, such as arthritis, kidney stones, and endometriosis. It is the active ingredient in more than 100 trade named medications, some of which are available over the counter. In veterinary application, diclofenac is most often used to treat joint pain and swelling.

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