Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), surprised many in the neuroscience community yesterday with the announcement that he will be ending his 13-year tenure in November to join Google’s life sciences team.
Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy
President Barack Obama has nominated a veteran heart researcher who has run numerous large clinical trials to be the next head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Robert Califf, currently FDA’s deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco, was a top administrator and researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for more than 30 years before coming to FDA earlier this year. If confirmed by the Senate, Califf would succeed Margaret Hamburg, who stepped down this past March.
Califf, 63, “has long been considered a likely candidate for the top FDA job,” Brady Dennis reports in The Washington Post. “He has led scores of pivotal clinical trials, been among the nation's most cited medical authors and for years served on various FDA advisory committees.”
Reaction to the 15 September White House announcement has been positive. “Great news!,” tweeted Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Federal prosecutors filed a motion Friday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to drop a case against a Temple University physicist accused of helping Chinese organizations illegally obtain U.S. technology. The government’s case against Xiaoxing Xi had rested on a “misunderstanding” of the technology involved and the nature of scientific collaborations, according to Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg.
In a 14 May indictment, the government alleged that Xi, a well-known expert on thin-film materials, schemed to pass information about a device known as a Pocket Heater—a proprietary U.S. technology used to make magnesium diboride superconducting thin films—to Chinese entities in order to help them become leaders in the field of superconductivity. Federal investigators obtained Xi’s email exchanges with colleagues in China, and cited four messages in charging Xi with four counts of wire fraud. In June, Xi pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The email exchanges concern “routine academic collaboration,” says Zeidenberg, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm Arent Fox LLP. And the technologies discussed, he says, “were not restricted in any way.” In one email, Xi offered to help build a world-class oxide thin-film lab at a Chinese university; the exchanges, Zeidenberg says, had nothing to do with either the Pocket Heater or MgB2 thin films. Xi says he bought the heater to test variations of his own method for making MgB2 thin films at his lab here, and the Pocket Heater was one of the devices tested. Contrary to the indictment’s claim that the Pocket Heater “revolutionized the field of superconducting magnesium diboride thin film growth,” the device is only a modified version of an earlier invention by a German scientist, Xi says.
The 400-plus page Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) released yesterday by the Department of Energy (DOE) is “far better than any sleeping pill,” Michael Knotek, DOE’s deputy under secretary for science and energy, quipped yesterday following the document’s public release at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider). “It will stun you to sleep, and you can use it for years for that purpose.”
But an all-star lineup of President Barack Obama’s administration’s science leaders, including Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren, applauded the giant tome for distilling the views of more than 700 energy experts on promising research areas. They identified “enormous, underappreciated, and underexploited” opportunities to conserve energy and increase supply in six sectors of the U.S. energy system, Knotek said, including the electric grid, buildings, and transportation. At present, “there are countless sources of inertia” that cause more than half of the country’s energy to be wasted, Knotek added.
DOE released its first QTR report, commissioned by then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in 2011. Among other recommendations, it found that DOE should devote its greatest R&D efforts to electric vehicles and modernizing the electric grid. The new report, which is three times as long, “goes beyond the first in scope and depth,” said the current secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, at the event. It analyzes all forms of energy supply and use in the United States at a much deeper and more comprehensive level, he said.
Genetic editing of human embryos “has tremendous value” to help solve important scientific questions, and should proceed despite potential worries about use of the technique in the clinic, an influential bioethics group said today in a statement. The Hinxton Group, which includes members from eight countries, called for more public discussion and careful policies to govern research using gene editing in embryos, but concluded that the insights such research could provide into early human development and disease was ethically justifiable.
New techniques that allow researchers to precisely edit genes in living cells have become powerful tools for biologists. They have raised old questions, however, about the ethics of genetically altering humans in ways that could be passed on to future generations. In April, Chinese scientists published the first paper describing the use of a genome editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos. Their attempts were not particularly successful, producing the desired gene change in only four of 54 embryos that survived. The technique also introduced new, unintended mutations. But the work sparked controversy among scientists, and some criticism of the journal that published it.
A Wisconsin bill that would limit the research use of fetal tissue from abortions is gaining momentum, over the protest of scientists who say the measure would stifle progress in disease research. The bill, approved today by a committee in the state assembly and expected to win the support of the full assembly this fall, is the first in what many predict will be a series of battles waged at the state level against the distribution and use of fetal tissue.
The momentum behind the bill comes in part from hidden-camera footage released this summer showing a Planned Parenthood official discussing how the organization fulfills research requests for tissue from aborted fetuses. The videos sparked accusations that Planned Parenthood was illegally profiting from these procedures, and Republican legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have called for the withdrawal of its federal funding. Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue, though it allows providers of donated tissue to charge recipients for processing and shipping costs.
Lawmakers in several states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, and California, have already introduced bills intended to limit the exchange of fetal tissue, either by revoking funding for clinics that supply it, excluding such tissue from laws governing organ donation, or criminalizing its use in research.
The Intel Science Talent Search, one of the nation’s most prestigious competitions for science-savvy high school students in the United States, is losing its title sponsor, The New York Times (NYT) reports. Intel has announced that it will no longer sponsor the program, and the nonprofit that runs the competition, the Society for Science & the Public in Washington, D.C., is looking for a new sponsor to pick up the $6 million annual tab starting in 2017.
The program, meant to “inspire innovators of tomorrow,” targets science, math, engineering, and technology students in their last year of high school. It has drawn in thousands of hopeful applicants since it began in 1942. Many of the winners (who receive prize money ranging from $35,000 to $150,000) have excelled as university professors, award winning scientists, and even Nobel laureates.
As U.S. lawmakers today begin debating the agreement the United States and five other nations have reached with Iran to limit its nuclear weapons program, the only physicist serving in Congress has announced he will support the deal.
“After carefully weighing all the options and possible outcomes, I do believe that voting for this deal will make it less likely that Iran will develop nuclear weapons,” Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) said yesterday at a Washington, D.C., press conference. “And voting against this deal, with no better options in sight, makes the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon more likely.”
Whether Iran ultimately obtains a nuclear weapon is as much a matter of physics as it is of politics, Foster suggested at Tuesday's announcement. That’s why he has been analyzing the science underpinning the deal—in addition to the politics—since the proposed agreement was announced this past July. Now, after 15 “lengthy” briefings with U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) scientists and other technical experts, Foster says his support “is determined not just by trust, but by science.”
The European Parliament today voted to ban the cloning of all farm animals as well as the sale of cloned livestock, their offspring, and products derived from them. The measure, which passed by a large margin, goes beyond a directive proposed by the European Commission in 2013, which would have implemented a provisional ban on the cloning of just five species: cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and horses.
The supporters of the ban cited animal welfare concerns, claiming that only a small percentage of cloned offspring survive to term, and many die shortly after birth.
The ban does not cover cloning for research purposes, nor does it prevent efforts to clone endangered species.
Countries in Ebola-ravaged West Africa are on high alert after a case of polio was confirmed in a toddler in Mali on 7 September, just a week after two cases were reported in southwestern Ukraine. The outbreaks are unrelated, but in both instances the culprit is a so-called vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV). These rare VDPVs arise when a virus used in the live vaccine reverts from its weakened form and regains its virulence—a danger when vaccination rates are low, as they are in both places, allowing the vaccine strain to circulate and accumulate genetic mutations.
In West Africa, a 19-month-old boy was paralyzed in Guinea on 20 July and then traveled to the Malian capital for treatment, where polio was confirmed. The type 2 VDPV is closely related to one detected in the Kankan region of Guinea in 2014, which researchers believe has been circulating undetected for 2 years. Because health systems in West Africa have been decimated and immunization rates have fallen precipitiously, the World Health Organization (WHO) deems the risk of spread high.