Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • The Ebola vaccine underdog

    NewLink CEO Charles Link.

    NewLink CEO Charles Link.


    In the race to develop an Ebola vaccine, little NewLink Genetics has been in the shadow of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

    Both companies have rushed experimental vaccines into small, early-stage trials. Hopes are high that the vaccines can be ready for large efficacy trials in hard-hit West Africa in January—and if they work, for real-world use in the spring. GSK’s efforts have received extensive media attention, and, with its substantial manufacturing capacity and experience, the mammoth U.K.-based company is widely assumed to be in the lead. In contrast, NewLink, a cancer drug company based in Ames, Iowa, with just 120 employees, has until recently avoided media coverage and drawn criticism for delaying the launch of its studies.

    But a different picture emerged after NewLink broke its media silence following a high-level meeting on Ebola vaccines held by the World Health Organization on 23 October. At the meeting, NewLink executives said that, under a best-case scenario, the company might have 12 million doses of vaccine by April. That number would far outstrip GSK’s estimate of 230,000 doses by that date.

  • A disagreement over climate-conflict link heats up

    Riot police in Oakland, California, in 2009

    Riot police in Oakland, California, in 2009

    Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A debate among scientists over climate change and conflict has turned ugly. At issue is the question of whether the hotter temperatures and chaotic weather produced by climate change are causing higher rates of violence. A new analysis refutes earlier research that found a link, and the two lead researchers are exchanging some pointed remarks.

    Last year, a team of U.S. researchers reported a robust connection between climate and violence in Science. But in a critique published online yesterday in Climatic Change, a team of mostly European researchers dismissed the connection as "inconclusive." The Science authors are hitting back, claiming that the critics are fudging the statistics and even manipulating their figures. The new analysis "is entirely based on surprisingly bold misrepresentations of our article, the literature, basic statistics, and their own findings," says Solomon Hsiang, the lead author of the Science paper and an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Numerous past studies have found a correlation between heat waves and violence, manifesting as conflicts between individuals and between groups. Demonstrating a direct connection between climate change and violence on a global scale, however, is tricky. It requires a meta-analysis of hundreds of already published studies that have slightly different techniques and measurement scales. Hsiang's team performed just such a meta-analysis and grabbed headlines with their findings that a changing climate appeared to be amping up conflict.


    Some farmers are concerned about impact proposed Clean Water Act rule could have on their operations.

    Some farmers are concerned about the impact that the Clean Water Act rule could have on their operations.

    Randy von Liski/Flickr

    This story is the sixth in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

    Today, we examine an issue that affects water, agriculture, and development in every congressional district.

    It’s probably the toughest fight over ditches since World War I. Two federal agencies have proposed a clarification to how much turf they can regulate under the Clean Water Act (CWA), sparking bitter debate. The battle has drawn in members of Congress, largely along party lines, who are attempting to derail or defend the controversial proposed rule.



    This story is the fifth in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

    Today, a look at how to break the current deadlock over a road map for the National Science Foundation.

    The axiom that federal funding for research enjoys bipartisan support will be sorely tested next year as the U.S. Congress tries to reauthorize major legislation governing federal policies on research and science education. And although voters rarely ask candidates about research, the results of next month’s election could have a major impact on the bill’s fate.

  • Creationism conference at large U.S. research university stirs unease

    Creationist message on the hood of a car.

    Creationist message on the hood of a car.

    Amy Watts/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    A creationist conference set for a major research campus—Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing—is creating unease among some of the school’s students and faculty, which includes several prominent evolutionary biologists.

    The 1 November event, called the Origin Summit, is sponsored by Creation Summit, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit Christian group that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and was founded to “challenge evolution and all such theories predicated on chance.” The 1-day conference will include eight workshops, according the event’s website, including discussion of how evolutionary theory influenced Adolf Hitler’s worldview, why “the big bang is fake,” and why “natural selection is NOT evolution.” Another talk targets the work of MSU biologist Richard Lenski, who has conducted an influential, decades-long study of evolution in bacterial populations.

    News of the event caught MSU’s scientific community largely by surprise. Creation Summit secured a room at the university’s business school through a student religious group, but the student group did not learn about the details of the program—or the sometimes provocative talk titles—until later, says MSU zoologist Fred Dyer. The talk titles led Dyer to suspect that the student group was not involved in planning the conference, he says, prompting him to look into its origins.

  • Researcher files lawsuit over anonymous PubPeer comments

    An excerpt from the complaint.

    An excerpt from the complaint.

    The scientist who claimed that comments on the postpublication peer-review website PubPeer caused him to lose a job offer has now filed suit against the anonymous posters and has subpoenaed the website’s operators in a bid to obtain their identities.

    In September, PubPeer’s anonymous moderators revealed that Fazlul Sarkar, a cancer researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, had threatened legal action after the University of Mississippi rescinded its offer of a tenured, $350,000-per-year position. Sarkar, who remains employed at Wayne State, claimed that anonymous comments suggesting misconduct in his research caused the university to revoke its offer.

    This weekend, PubPeer moderators announced in a comment thread that Sarkar has filed a libel suit in a Wayne County circuit court against several “John Does” behind the comments he considers defamatory. And although he is not suing PubPeer directly, Sarkar has filed a subpoena asking the site’s moderators to turn over “all identifying information” about the posters by 10 November. As a Retraction Watch post on the suit explains, shield laws in many states would likely have protected PubPeer from being forced to turn over whatever information it has about the commenters, but Michigan’s shield law applies only to grand jury and criminal cases, not civil cases like this one.

  • Ebola vaccines racing forward faster than predicted, but high hurdles remain

    Ebola virus particles

    Ebola virus particles

    NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Two Ebola vaccine candidates might be ready for testing in hard-hit West African countries in December, a month earlier than previously predicted. And one vaccine manufacturer has said it may have millions of doses available by April, should studies prove that it’s safe and effective, a much more optimistic scenario than outlined until now.

    As more and more resources are mobilized for development of Ebola vaccines, the timeline is being compressed, said Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director-general at the World Health Organization (WHO), today at a press conference about a high-level meeting on vaccines that took place yesterday. “Things are changing from week to week,” said Kieny, who also noted that several new donors have offered to help finance vaccine production and testing. Two new Ebola cases, one in Mali and one in New York City, have added to the sense of urgency in containing the spread of the deadly virus. But the best-case scenarios being discussed may be far too optimistic given the rapid spread of the Ebola virus, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

    The focus of the meeting was “access and financing” of the vaccines, which many workers in the field initially thought could not be developed quickly enough to help with this epidemic. But as the epidemic continues to grow—there are nearly 10,000 officially reported cases to date, about half of whom have died—efforts to speed the testing and production of vaccine have gained steam, and this was the latest of several related WHO meetings. (ScienceInsider described some of the meeting’s key talking points yesterday based on leaked documents from the meeting; the documents were originally distributed to participants, who included scientists and representatives from companies, governments, and regulatory agencies.)

  • After Election 2014: FUSION RESEARCH

    The ITER fusion project under construction in France last year.

    The ITER fusion project under construction in France last year.

    Fusion for Energy/Flickr

    This story is the fourth in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

    Today, a look at the growing controversy surrounding U.S. funding for the international fusion experiment ITER.

    Should we stay or should we go? Once the voters have spoken, that's the question Congress will have to answer regarding the United States' participation in ITER, the hugely overbudget fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France. Some lawmakers say it may be time for the United States to bow out, especially as the growing ITER commitment threatens to starve U.S.-based fusion research programs. The next Congress may have to decide the issue—if the current one doesn't pull the plug first when it returns to Washington, D.C., for a 6-week lame-duck session.

    For those tired of the partisan squabbling on Capitol Hill, the ITER debate may provide curious relief. ITER appears to enjoy bipartisan support in the House of Representatives—and bipartisan opposition among key senators.

  • Managers of discredited STAP stem cell study refund salary



    The top administrators of RIKEN, Japan’s national network of research laboratories, will voluntarily return 1 to 3 months of their salaries to atone for their responsibility for the STAP stem cell fiasco.

    STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, is the name given to an extremely easy way of deriving stem cells, which can theoretically develop into any of a body’s tissues. The method was defined in two papers that appeared in Nature this past  January. After coming under fire by researchers who found problematic images in the papers, and by others who could not reproduce the findings, the papers were retracted this past July. An investigating committee found the lead author, Haruko Obokata, guilty of research misconduct. A RIKEN team is continuing experiments to try to get to the bottom of exactly what went wrong.

  • China's dash to moon a dress rehearsal for sample return

    Like the Chang'e-3 mission pictured here, CE5-T1 was a nighttime launch.

    Like the Chang'e-3 mission pictured here, CE5-T1 was a nighttime launch.

    Joel Raupe/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    China raised the curtain today on the most ambitious act yet of its lunar exploration program. At just about 2 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the Chang’e-5 Test 1 (CE5-T1) spacecraft lifted off aboard a Long March rocket for an unmanned dash to the moon and back that aims to test technology for a sample return mission planned for 2017 and, a decade from now, possibly landing astronauts on the moon.

    CE5-T1 marks China’s fourth lunar mission in the Chang’e series, named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. Chang’e-1, launched in 2007, spent 16 months in orbit snapping the nation’s first images of the lunar surface. Previous Chang’e probes were left in space. Guiding CE5-T1 back to Earth poses a new challenge; entering the atmosphere at a speed of 11.2 km/s is nearly 50% faster than the return speed of China’s Shenzhou spacecraft, which has carried orbiting astronauts safely back to Earth’s surface.

    “Earthbound experiments can’t effectively simulate the complexity of the atmospheric environment,” Hao Xifan, deputy chief designer of the CE5-T1 and Chang’e-5 missions, told China’s S&T Daily newspaper shortly before the launch. He says CE5-T1 may be the sole spacecraft launched for engineering testing during China’s unmanned lunar exploration program.

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