Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. high court topples controversial mercury pollution regulations

    Upcoming clean power rule aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

    Upcoming clean power rule aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

    Li Tsin Sun/Flicker (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Long-delayed action on the health risks of mercury produced by U.S. coal power plants will have to wait even longer, as the Supreme Court decided today that federal authorities failed to properly weigh the benefits of regulation against the costs.

    Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the opinion for a 5-4 majority, said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acted unreasonably when it deemed cost "irrelevant" to the question of whether or not to regulate hazardous power plant pollution.

    The decision blocks enforcement of rules that just went into effect this past April after decades of study, lawsuits, and political wrangling through four administrations.

  • Lawmakers seek to resurrect National Children’s Study

    A huge study of U.S. children that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) terminated last year after spending more than $1 billion appears to have come back to life. House of Representatives and Senate spending committees this week called for a new version of the National Children’s Study (NCS) in 2016 that would be funded at the same level as the now-defunct NCS—$165 million a year.

    According to sources, lawmakers agreed with pediatric groups that the study’s goals were too important to abandon. NIH is moving ahead with planning for the new study.

    The history of the NCS goes back to 2000, when Congress called for NIH to follow a large group of children from before birth to age 21 and explore the influences of the environment, from toxic chemicals to social factors, on children’s health. Researchers set out to recruit 100,000 pregnant women at sites around the country. But the study became bogged down by a complex, expensive recruitment strategy. In December 2014, after an Institute of Medicine report found serious design and management flaws, NIH Director Francis Collins canceled the study.

  • Artificial trachea researcher responds to misconduct report

    A inquiry has concluded that Paolo Macchiarini, a surgeon who transplanted artificial windpipes, committed research misconduct.

    A inquiry has concluded that Paolo Macchiarini, a surgeon who transplanted artificial windpipes, committed research misconduct.


    Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini has now responded to the report, released last month, that concluded he was guilty of scientific misconduct as part of his clinical testing of artificial tracheas that he has helped pioneer. Macchiarini’s 23-page response disputes key parts of the misconduct report’s findings, saying that the investigator, Bengt Gerdin, a professor emeritus of surgery at Uppsala University in Sweden, did not have access to all the relevant clinical records describing patient conditions. As a result, the surgeon writes in an opening note of his response, there has been “a potentially disastrous miscarriage of justice.”

    Over the past decade, Macchiarini has transplanted tissue-engineered tracheae into more than a dozen people whose own windpipes were damaged by disease or injury. At the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, he transplanted into three patients artificial tracheae that consisted of a polymer scaffold seeded with the patient’s own stem cells. The stem cells were supposed to grow over the scaffold and ultimately form a living graft. Two of the those recipients have died, however, and the other remains in intensive care at a Karolinska hospital nearly 3 years after receiving the transplant.

    The report by Gerdin, whom the Karolinska requested conduct an investigation after whistleblowers lodged complaints, concluded that the series of clinical reports published by Macchiarini and his colleagues did not accurately describe the condition of patients; Gerdin said that constituted scientific misconduct. In particular, a paper in The Lancet describing a patient’s status 5 months after the transplant claimed that the patient was doing well and the graft was starting to show evidence of being covered by growing cells. However, Gerdin concluded, the clinical information in the paper was based on the patient’s condition when he was initially discharged from Karolinska, 1 month after the transplant. Gerdin’s investigation was not able to find any clinical information about the patient at 5 months following the transplant. Shortly before the paper was published—roughly 5.5 months after the transplant—the patient was readmitted to the Karolinska hospital with complications.

  • What to do with $1 billion in cancer funding? Oregon university to provide answer

    A fundraising challenge from philanthropist Phil Knight and his wife Penny will fuel new cancer detection research at Oregon Health & Science University.

    A fundraising challenge from philanthropist Phil Knight and his wife Penny will fuel new cancer detection research at Oregon Health & Science University.


    The Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland is gearing up to see how far $1 billion will go toward better cancer detection. The university declared victory today in a challenge launched in 2013 by Nike shoe mogul Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, who offered up a $500 million donation if the university could match that amount through fundraising.

    The money flowed in from more than 10,000 donors—including the state of Oregon, which pledged $200 million for new research buildings. Brian Druker, head of the OHSU cancer institute created with a previous donation from the Knights, will lead the new project—a 10-year effort that focuses on distinguishing lethal from benign growths and catching life-threatening cancers at earlier stages.

    Current tests for common cancers, including mammograms and prostate-specific antigen blood tests, may miss lethal tumors or lead to unnecessary treatment for benign ones. Druker, who led the development of the blockbuster blood cancer drug Gleevec, plans to survey the field for a range of possible detection targets, which could include circulating tumor DNA in blood or other molecular markers in urine, stool, or saliva.

  • Protesters block effort to restart work on controversial Hawaii telescope; 11 arrested

    An artist's conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    An artist's conception of the Thirty Meter Telescope

    TMT Collaborative

    An attempt to restart construction on what would be one of the world’s largest telescopes was blocked yesterday, after state authorities escorting construction vehicles clashed with protesters blockading the road to the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano.

    Officers from Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and construction workers for the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), turned back from the summit shortly after noon Wednesday, citing concerns for public safety after finding the road blocked by boulders.

    The withdrawal followed several hours of clashes with Native Hawaiian protesters blockading the road, culminating in the arrests of 11 men and women, including several protest organizers. The protesters have said the $1.4 billion TMT would desecrate sacred land.

  • In surprise, Dutch court orders government to do more to fight climate change

    Joy in the courtroom after the ruling in Urgenda’s favor.

    Joy in the courtroom after the ruling in Urgenda’s favor.

    Urgenda/Chantal Bekker

    In a ruling that came as a surprise to many legal experts, a court in the Netherlands today ordered the Dutch government to dramatically intensify its fight against climate change. The district court in The Hague ruled that by 2020, the Netherlands must cut CO2 emissions by 25% from 1990 levels. Current government policies would lead to a reduction by just 17%.

    The court ruled in a civil case against the government brought by an environmental group called Urgenda. (The name is a contraction of “urgent” and “agenda.”) The case framed global warming as a human rights violation that the Dutch government must do more to prevent.

    Environmental groups hailed the ruling as a legal landmark that could inspire similar action elsewhere. But the court didn’t specify which measures the government must take to meet the target, and the verdict immediately triggered discussions about whether a 25% reduction in 5 years is feasible and whether it might hurt the Dutch economy.

  • U.S. chemical regulation reform gets boost as House passes TSCA rewrite

    Congress is struggling to rewrite a law regulating industrial chemicals.

    Congress is struggling to rewrite a law regulating industrial chemicals.

    Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday evening overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill that would update the nation's industrial-chemicals regulations for the first time in nearly 40 years. The bill—which would make it easier for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to request new safety data on chemicals and regulate chemicals already on the market—takes a narrower approach than a competing bill in the Senate. But it brings Congress another step closer to making long-sought reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) a reality.

    The 398 to 1 vote came just weeks after the bill, H.R. 2576,  sailed through a key House committee with unanimous bipartisan support. A Senate panel last month also advanced a far more expansive (but also more contentious) compromise measure of its own. The two actions mark what is arguably the furthest lawmakers have ever come in efforts to overhaul what they agree is a broken law, which they say has analytical and legal hurdles that have often prevented EPA from cracking down on harmful substances.

    The House measure, sponsored by Representative John Shimkus (R–IL), who chairs a key subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, resulted from negotiations that go back to the previous Congress. After previous measures that sought to update TSCA more comprehensively failed to gain support, lawmakers opted for a smaller bill to make it easier to gain broad support among industry's allies and environmental advocates in Congress. "The bill does not try to be all things for all people," Shimkus said on the House floor on 23 June. "Of course we want to be protected from harm. But we do not want needless expensive regulation."

  • Senate panel approves $2 billion raise for NIH in 2016

    Jonathon Colman/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    At last, biomedical researchers may be getting some relief. A Senate panel today approved a bill that would bestow a generous $2 billion increase on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2016, or what appears to be a 6% raise, to $32 billion. Although a House of Representatives panel last week approved a lower figure, it seems the agency may be on track to its first significant increase in more than a decade.

    The draft bill approved today by the Senate appropriations panel that oversees NIH’s budget would give the agency twice the $1 billion proposed by the Obama administration and $900 million more than the corresponding House panel, according to a summary statement.

    The National Institute on Aging, which the panel notes funds Alzheimer’s disease research, would receive $350 million more, or a roughly 25% increase. (The House version of the bill also favors Alzheimer’s, but takes a different approach, directly earmarking $300 million for the disease—$250 million more than the president’s request.)

  • In first, a woman will run U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory

    Jill Hruby

    Jill Hruby

    Sandia National Laboratories

    Engineer Jill Hruby was named director of the Sandia National Laboratories on Monday, becoming the first woman to head one of three U.S. government labs charged with developing and maintaining the country’s nuclear arsenal.

    The 32-year veteran of the Albuquerque, New Mexico–based labs has overseen a wide range of research there, including studies focused on nuclear weapons, solar power, and machines that build miniscule electrical components the width of a human hair.

    Hruby’s promotion is a significant milestone in a system historically dominated by men, says Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who has spent years examining the culture of the weapons labs: Sandia, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. At the labs, the fields of physics and engineering intersect with the world of weapons development—all traditionally male-dominated realms. “To have a female director is a major development,” Gusterson says.

  • E.U. science chief wants to work ERC magic on innovation

    Carlos Moedas
    Credit: Michael Chia/European Commission

    BRUSSELS—The European Union’s research commissioner Carlos Moedas has proposed setting up a European Innovation Council (EIC) to fund applied research and innovation. Inspired by the well-loved European Research Council (ERC), this idea is one of several measures announced here yesterday to boost innovation across the union.

    When Moedas took on the research portfolio in November, the E.U. research program Horizon 2020 and its 7-year budget were settled, and it appeared that the new commission had little leeway to make profound changes during its 5-year term. That hasn’t stopped the commission from raiding Horizon 2020's cash pile to fodder a new investment fund. By citing ERC's success, Moedas also signals that he wants the future EIC to be a game changer.

    “Europe does not yet have a world-class scheme to support the very best innovations in the way that the European Research Council is the global reference for supporting excellent science,” Moedas said yesterday at a large research and innovation policy conference held here by the European Commission.

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