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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH Looking to Kick-Start Biotech Startups

    Lessons learned. Entrepreneurial teams present their findings during the "Lean LaunchPad for Life Sciences & Healthcare" program at UCSF.

    Lessons learned. Entrepreneurial teams present their findings during the "Lean LaunchPad for Life Sciences & Healthcare" program at UCSF.

    UCSF Entrepreneurship Center

    Last fall, microbial ecologist Kei Fujimura took time away from her lab work to hunt down people with inflammatory bowel disease on Facebook. The postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), was doing a bit of market research, in hopes of starting a company that would offer people with Crohn’s disease and colitis personalized microbiome sequencing data that could help them manage their conditions. She and a fellow postdoc “thought we had a pretty good shot” at commercializing the idea, she says.

    To help find out, Fujimura had applied to—and won a place in—a special 7-week entrepreneurship boot camp offered by UCSF. Step one, she learned: gauge interest in her product by interviewing 100 potential customers. That meant identifying people by means of social media willing to share their reactions to her pitch.

    Soon, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) hopes to have a lot more biomedical researchers following Fujimura’s path. Earlier this month, the agency announced that it will, for the first time, offer certain grantees a chance to participate in boot camps like the one offered by UCSF. The goal: to see if a bit of training can help wannabe entrepreneurs make the leap from science to the market and increase the economic impact of the federal government’s investment in research.

  • Panel Says U.S. Not Ready for Inevitable Arctic Oil Spill

    A new NRC report highlights many weaknesses in the United States’ readiness to respond to an Arctic oil spill—an increasingly likely prospect as exploration of the Arctic's oil and gas resources (shown) as well as traffic in the Arctic increase.

    A new NRC report highlights many weaknesses in the United States’ readiness to respond to an Arctic oil spill—an increasingly likely prospect as exploration of the Arctic's oil and gas resources (shown) as well as traffic in the Arctic increase.

    U.S. Geological Survey

    As eagerness to explore the Arctic’s oil and gas resources grows, the threat of a major Arctic oil spill looms ever larger—and the United States has a lot of work to do to prepare for that inevitability, a panel convened by the National Research Council (NRC) declares in a report released today. The committee, made up of members of academia and industry, recommended beefing up forecasting systems for ocean and ice conditions, infrastructure for supply chains for people and equipment to respond, field research on the behavior of oil in the Arctic environment, and other strategies to prepare for a significant spill in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

    The report “identifies the different pieces that need to come together” to have a chance at an effective oil spill response, says Martha Grabowski, a researcher in information systems at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and chair of the NRC committee.

    Even in the absence of oil and gas exploration, the Arctic’s rapidly intensifying traffic—whether from barges, research ships, oil tankers, or passenger cruises—makes oil spills increasingly likely. So “the committee felt some urgency” about the issue, says geologist Mark Myers, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The report, sponsored by 10 organizations ranging from the American Petroleum Institute to the Marine Mammal Commission, focused primarily on the United States’ territorial waters north of the Bering Strait, including the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

  • Scientists Licking Wounds After Contentious Climate Report Negotiations

    It has been more than a week since a U.N. panel released a major report on mitigating climate change, but some scientists who helped write a key summary say they continue to smart from some disconcerting last-minute edits.

    “We are still shaking,” says Giovanni Baiocchi, an economist at the University of Maryland, College Park, whose work was central to the debates over the summary’s wording. The episode is making some researchers reconsider participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process in the future. 

    The 13 April release of  IPCC’s  mitigation assessment—the third of three reports—was capped by 5 days of negotiations in Berlin over the wording of the report’s “Summary for Policymakers.” It is a 33-page boil-down of key points culled from the report’s 2000 pages. Unlike the text in the body of the report, which scientists essentially control, the influential summary is the product of give-and-take with government diplomats and requires consensus.

  • Indian Grad Students Eyeing U.S. as Land of Opportunity

    NEW DELHI—The top two suppliers of foreign graduate students for U.S. universities are heading in opposite directions. Over the past 2 years, applications from India have skyrocketed, while those from China have tapered off—leaving analysts scrambling for answers.

    According to a report released on 17 April by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., the number of applicants to U.S. graduate schools from India grew by 32% in the past year, following a 22% rise the previous year. The new report also documents a parallel decline in Chinese applications, which fell by 1% this past year and 3% the year before, according to 294 colleges and universities that responded to a CGS survey.

    If current trends continue, India may soon surpass China in the number of graduate students it sends to the United States. In 2013 alone, the number of Indian students taking the Graduate Record Examination, widely used to evaluate applicants to U.S. institutions, rose by 70%, and India has already overtaken China in the number of test takers. And in a 2012 study, Rupa Chanda, an economics professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, found that the number of Indian students—both undergraduate and graduate students—going abroad grew by a whopping 256% between 2000 and 2009. “There’s rising demand for higher education, growing aspirations, and affluence which enable people to go abroad,”  Chanda says.

  • China's Soil Woes in Sharper Focus

    BEIJING—The Chinese government has lifted the veil just a bit on a nationwide soil survey that it had classified as a state secret. The environment ministry posted a bulletin to its website yesterday divulging that 16% of sites tested during the 5-year survey are polluted. The report concludes, dryly, that China’s “overall national soil environment” is “not optimistic.”

    “Finally the public really knows the overall situation of the pollution under their feet, and the severe situation of food pollution,” says Chen Nengchang, a soil scientist at the Guangdong Institute of Eco-Environmental and Soil Sciences in Guangzhou. However, much of the data from the survey—which ran from 2005 to 2010—remains under lock and key. “The transparency is not enough,” says Chen Ruishan, a geologist at Hohai University in Nanjing.

    Most worrying to researchers is that pollution is most widespread on agricultural lands, where 19% of sites are tainted. Major contaminants, the bulletin noted, are heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and lead. The report blames mining and industrial waste for fouling croplands.

  • NIH to Relax 'Two Strikes' Grant Submission Policy

    Sally Rockey

    Sally Rockey

    National Institutes of Health (NIH)

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is dropping a policy that gave researchers only one chance to revise a rejected grant application before having to start over with a new idea—a rule that was especially hard on young investigators. Instead, the agency will allow an applicant to resubmit the identical proposal as many times as they like as a new submission.

    The change is the result of years of complaints that the agency’s “two strikes” rule, as it is sometimes called, is forcing scientists who would be funded in a better budget climate to abandon their work and start over. Under the two strikes rule, researchers get two chances to submit the same proposal—the A0 and A1 versions. If the second submission misses the funding cutoff, they have to start over with a fresh A0 application that is closely scrutinized to make sure it is substantially different from the rejected versions. This rule was difficult for new investigators, who lacked the resources to come up with fresh ideas, as well as for established labs with productive long-term projects, said Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, in a press call today.

    Under the new policy that takes effect today, scientists will still have just one chance to resubmit a proposal and respond to reviewers’ comments. However, if this A1 application fails, they can resubmit the application as an A0 and NIH reviewers will consider it a fresh proposal. “We believe this is a very positive move for our applicants. I’m very optimistic that this change will give the research community greater versatility in allowing them to present their phenomenal ideas to NIH,” Rockey said.

  • Winners of White House Prize for Young Scientists Share Some Advice

    President Barack Obama talks with recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at the White House on 14 April.

    President Barack Obama talks with recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at the White House on 14 April.

    Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

    This week the new winners of the most prestigious U.S. government prize for young scientists were honored at the White House, although they had to cool their heels as President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged some harsh words. The 102 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers recipients also had some advice to those hoping to follow in their footsteps.

  • Dino Delivery: T. rex Arrives in Washington, D.C.

    Long live the king. The Smithsonian's Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is welcomed by (from left): Kirk Johnson, Sant director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History; Kathy and Tom Wankel, who discovered the fossil in Montana in 198

    Long live the king. The Smithsonian's Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is welcomed by (from left): Kirk Johnson, Sant director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History; Kathy and Tom Wankel, who discovered the

    James Di Loreto/Smithsonian Institution

    A Tyrannosaurus rex baring banana-sized teeth is taking over Washington, D.C.—and it came via FedEx. The 12-meter “Nation’s T. rex” arrived this morning at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History accompanied by a police escort and was greeted by a packed hall of reporters and dinosaur lovers. The 66-million-year-old bipedal dinosaur, uncovered in 1990, journeyed 3200 kilometers from its former home in Bozeman, Montana, in a dino-decorated delivery truck complete with its own tracking number. “I’m happy to say we FexExed the T. rex,” joked museum director Kirk Johnson before signing a 50-year loan agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fossil’s former caretaker.

    The 7-ton dinosaur, one of the five most complete specimens ever unearthed, will become the centerpiece of the museum’s $48 million renovated National Fossil Hall, scheduled to debut in 2019. The hall will be named in recognition of David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries Inc., who donated $35 million toward the makeover. The museum currently displays a replica skeleton erected shortly after the Smithsonian’s failed 1999 bid for the famous T. rex nicknamed “Sue.” Until National Fossil Day on 15 October, visitors can watch museum staff unpack, catalog, and 3D scan the fossilized bones in a “Rex Room” exhibit. The bones will then be shipped to Toronto for mounting.

  • Japan Says It Will Resume Antarctic Whaling Next Year

    Whaling redux. Japan says it plans to redeploy its whaling vessels to the Antarctic starting in 2015.

    Whaling redux. Japan says it plans to redeploy its whaling vessels to the Antarctic starting in 2015.

    Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia

    Earlier this month, many cetacean researchers and conservationists rejoiced when Japan canceled its controversial scientific whale hunt in Antarctica in response to an order from the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands. Now, however, Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) says it plans to resume research whaling in the region next year, with a program that is “in accord” with the court’s ruling. But ICR’s move could be just a legal maneuver, some observers say.

    ICR’s plans became public last week, after the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), an antiwhaling group known for harassing Japanese whaling ships, publicized legal briefs the research agency filed in a federal court in Seattle, Washington. (ICR is seeking a court order preventing SSCS from interfering with its fleet when killing whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.) Although the documents provide few details, ICR says it plans to resume its Antarctic hunts beginning in the 2015 to 2016 season. (Japan has a second scientific whale hunt in the North Pacific that is not affected by the international court’s ruling.)

    The news came as little surprise to those following the controversy. “It’s entirely consistent with what I would expect from ICR,” says Phillip Clapham, a marine biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington. Clapham has served as a member of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, which for decades has been critical of Japan’s research whaling program.

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