Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Scientist Live-Blogs His Lab’s Attempts to Generate New Type of Stem Cells

    In the latest twist in the story of STAP cells, a new kind of stem cell described in two Nature papers in January, a scientist is live-blogging his latest attempt to generate the cells. The papers described how subjecting cells from newborn mice to a mildly acidic solution turned them into pluripotent stem cells, the sought-after cells that can become all the body’s cell types. The researchers called the process “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP. Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee, a stem cell researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has already tried once to make the cells, following the methods published in Nature in January. That attempt failed, which Lee documented publicly on the website ResearchGate. The lack of success mirrors other reports from scientists around the world in the weeks since the papers were published, despite a more detailed set of methods posted by some of the authors on 5 March.

    Observers have also found problems with some of the images in the papers, which has triggered an investigation by RIKEN, the Japanese research organization that employs several of the papers’ authors. The image problems have also prompted at least one of the authors to suggest that the papers should be retracted until the images and data can be verified.

  • Scientists Fix Errors in Controversial Paper About Saturated Fats

    Going nuts. Critics have panned a paper that questions whether unsaturated fats, common in nuts, are healthier than saturated ones.

    Going nuts. Critics have panned a paper that questions whether unsaturated fats, common in nuts, are healthier than saturated ones.

    Wikimedia Commons/Sage Ross

    When a paper published on 17 March questioned whether fats from fish or vegetable oils are healthier than those in meat or butter, it quickly made headlines around the world; after all, the study seemed to debunk a cornerstone of many dietary guidelines. But a new version of the publication had to be posted shortly after it appeared on the website of the Annals of Internal Medicine to correct several errors. And although the study's first author stands by the conclusions, a number of scientists are criticizing the paper and even calling on the authors to retract it.

    "They have done a huge amount of damage," says Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "I think a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered."

    Health officials have long argued that so-called saturated fatty acids, which are found in butter, meat, chocolate, and cheese, increase the risk of heart disease, and that people should instead eat more unsaturated fatty acids, the type that dominates in fish, nuts, or vegetable oils.

    In the new study, a meta-analysis, scientists from Europe and the United States pooled 72 individual studies to gauge how different fats influence the risk of a heart attack or other cardiac events, such as angina. These included trials in which participants were randomly assigned to different diets, as well as observational studies in which participants' intake of fatty acids was determined by asking them about their diet or by measuring the fatty acids circulating in the bloodstream.

  • Russia's Science Reform Czar on U.S. Sanctions List

    Andrei Fursenko

    Andrei Fursenko

    A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons

    As part of the U.S. government’s attempt to inflict a cost on Russia for annexing the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, the Treasury Department yesterday slapped sanctions on 16 Russian government officials, freezing their assets and making it a crime for U.S. citizens to engage in financial transactions with them. The official overseeing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reform Russian science made the list.

  • Director of German-Spanish Observatory Resigns Over Funding, Strategy

    José María Quintana, director of the German-Spanish Astronomical Center at Calar Alto (CAHA) near Almería, Spain, has resigned from his post, arguing that a budget plan being imposed by the observatory’s funders is too harsh. His resignation will be effective late next month.

    The budget dates back to an operating plan signed in May 2013 by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPG), which jointly operate the observatory. That agreement guaranteed an operating budget of €1.6 million per year until 2018, when MPG will cede its role in the observatory. Quintana came out of retirement in June 2013 to direct the observatory. He says that at the first executive meeting, he told the vice president of CSIC that operating the observatory on the proposed budget was impossible. An earlier 2010 operating plan envisioned annual budgets of about €4 million.

    Spanish media reports say that since Quintana’s resignation, the observatory's interim managers have already fired cooking and cleaning staff and restricted the operation of one telescope by 10 days a month.

  • NIH Chief of Minority Health Research Retiring After 24 Years

    John Ruffin

    John Ruffin


    John Ruffin, who has headed minority health efforts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for 24 years, is stepping down as director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Ruffin will retire from federal service at the end of this month, he wrote yesterday in a message on NIMHD’s website.

    Ruffin is a developmental biologist who joined NIH in 1990 to head a new Office of Minority Programs. Ten years later, when Congress created a National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities to study problems such as higher rates of certain cancers in African-Americans, Ruffin became director. In 2010, Congress elevated the center to an institute. In addition to funding health disparities research and minority training programs, NIMHD also coordinates minority health research across NIH. With a $268 million budget, it is among the smaller of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers.

    “It has been an incredible journey,” Ruffin wrote in his message to the NIMHD community. “The time has now come for new vision, leadership, passion and commitment to sustain what you have created through the NIMHD, and to chart the course for the next chapter towards the elimination of health disparities.”

  • U.S. and Mexico Unleash a Flood to Restore Colorado River Delta

    No return? The parched estuary of the Colorado River will benefit less than riparian vegetation further upstream.

    No return? The parched estuary of the Colorado River will benefit less than riparian vegetation further upstream.

    Edith Santiago

    The Colorado River delta once supported many birds and other species. After the U.S. government dammed the river, the lush habitat became a salt-caked wasteland. Now, an experimental flood will send water down the dry channel to help restore the ecosystem. Researchers will evaluate the responses of the riverbed, soil, and native vegetation, and perhaps pave the way for future floods.

  • Irreproducibility Dogs New Reprogramming Method

    Media darling. Haruko Obokata explained her surprisingly simple method for making stem cells to a packed press conference in January.

    Media darling. Haruko Obokata explained her surprisingly simple method for making stem cells to a packed press conference in January.


    TOKYO—Since January, scientists around the world have unsuccessfully attempted to reproduce a surprising stem cell finding that claimed simply stressing adult cells could turn them into powerful stem cells that resemble those found in early embryos. Now, ScienceInsider has learned that some of the labs involved in producing the two papers describing the work had not attempted to reproduce the technique before the papers were published. Only two of the labs involved in the papers say they have been able to generate so-called STAP cells.

    The controversy emerged about 2 months ago, when stem cell scientist Haruko Obokata suddenly became a media sensation in Japan. The 30-year-old was widely celebrated when she and colleagues published two papers in Nature describing a new and surprisingly simple way of creating stem cells, which the researchers dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells.

    Now, Obokata is still in the spotlight, but the script has changed. Allegations that the papers contain images recycled from Obokata’s Ph.D. thesis, among other problems, have fed doubts about the claims. And as the scrutiny has grown, several of the collaborating researchers have confirmed that they have not yet produced STAP cells either.

  • Evidence Mounts Against Reprogrammed Stem Cell Papers

    RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori (center) apologized for "grave errors" in two recent papers by RIKEN researchers.

    Sorry. RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori (center) apologized for "grave errors" in two recent papers by RIKEN researchers.

    Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—Amid mounting allegations of problematic images and plagiarism, the lead author and two co-authors are considering retracting two controversial papers describing a simple method for creating stem cells known as STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency). Their written statement was released during a press conference here today at which an investigating committee confirmed finding problems in the papers but stopped short of rendering a judgment on research misconduct.

    “I apologize for the great trouble and concerns caused to so many in society by the STAP papers published in Nature by RIKEN researchers,” RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori said with a deep bow. RIKEN, with its headquarters near Tokyo, oversees a network of nationally supported research centers, including the institute at which three of the key authors work. Meanwhile, no one has reported reproducing the team’s method of creating STAP cells.   

    Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe and colleagues at other institutions in Japan and at Harvard Medical School in Boston, reported a surprisingly simple way of creating stem cells in an article and a letter published online on 29 January in Nature. Their method relied on briefly bathing blood cells from newborn mice in a mildly acidic solution and then tweaking culture conditions.

  • The E.U. Is the Problem on GM Crops, Say U.K. Scientists

    Uprooted. French protestors uproot a crop of GM maize in 2004.

    Uprooted. French protestors uproot a crop of GM maize in 2004.

    Jean-Marc Desfilhes/Wikimedia Commons

    The use of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe is being hampered by a “dysfunctional approval process” imposed by the European Union, says a U.K. government-sponsored report released today. As a result, only a handful of GM crops may be approved in the near future, according to the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the U.K. prime minister on science policy.

    While stating that the unanimous scientific consensus is that GM crops are safe, the report, whose authors include prominent plant biologists and biotechnologists, criticizes the European Union for regulation that has fettered progress of the technology and risk assessments that have been “influenced by political considerations that do not have a scientific basis.”

    The council is jointly chaired by Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, who was an author on the report. “We’re asking for the regulation to be fit for purpose,” Walport says. Co-author Jim Dunwell, a plant biotechnologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, adds: “There has been an accumulation of regulation in a nonscientific way.”

    Anyone seeking to release a GM organism in Europe has to get approval from Brussels. Applications are assessed largely by the European Food Safety Authority. As yet, only one variety, Bt maize, is grown and its crops are concentrated in Spain. None are grown in the United Kingdom. A vote in February to approve another variety of GM maize saw opposition from most nations, including France, Italy, and Austria. There was support, however, from Spain, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and the United Kingdom.

  • First Step for FIRST Bill Exposes Party Differences

    It’s complicated. Representatives Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) at a 2013 hearing before the House research panel that Bucshon chairs.

    It's complicated. Representatives Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) at a 2013 hearing before the House research panel that Bucshon chairs.

    Representative Larry Bucshon

    Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives today laid out their arguments for keeping the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a short leash. It was the latest salvo in a yearlong battle with Democrats over the nature of federal support for basic research.

    The setting was a markup of controversial legislation, H.R. 4186, by the research panel of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, would reauthorize research and education programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and provide greater oversight of federal efforts in science education. Science lobbyists and House Democrats have complained sharply about proposed changes to NSF’s peer-review process and a 40% reduction in authorized funding levels for the agency’s social science research programs in the bill. They also object to language relating to public access to government-funded research and cracking down on scientific misconduct.

    But Republicans largely dismissed those and other concerns in approving the bill on a straight party-line vote. In the course of the markup, the Republican majority rejected two Democratic amendments, one of which would have restored current funding levels for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences and for the geosciences and the second given NSF more flexibility to allocate funding among its six research directorates. (The panel did accept a previously negotiated deal with Representative Dan Lipinski [D-IL], the top Democrat on the research panel, to restore almost half of the cuts to the social sciences.) The full science committee is expected to take up the legislation in early April.

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