ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • More environmental action needed, European agency says

    The recession put the brakes on driving in Europe, a new environmental report finds, but car use remains popular.

    The recession put the brakes on driving in Europe, a new environmental report finds, but car use remains popular.

    Dirk-Jan Kraan/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The latest big-picture analysis of the state of the environment in Europe finds that although the continent is making progress in energy efficiency, it is falling short in protecting biodiversity and natural resources. In some areas, the financial recession led to improvements in trends, but the gains may be short-lived, the report warns.

    Every 5 years since 1995, the European Environment Agency provides a broad assessment of status and trends. The refrain is familiar to Andrew Jordan, an environmental policy analyst at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. “They’ve continuously said the same thing: We’re not moving as rapidly toward sustainable development as we should.”

  • Human subjects protections under fire at the University of Minnesota

    Report takes the University of Minnesota to task for its efforts to protect human subjects.

    Report takes the University of Minnesota to task for its efforts to protect human subjects.

    Jason Moran/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    A damning report on how the University of Minnesota (UM) protects volunteers in its clinical trials concludes that researchers inadequately reviewed research studies across the university and need more training to better protect the most vulnerable subjects. It also found that a “climate of fear” existed in the Department of Psychiatry, where concerns about clinical trials first surfaced.

    The 97-page report, released 27 February, was prepared by a group of six experts appointed by the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs. It comes after years of complaints by some UM faculty members, led by bioethicist Carl Elliott. They charged that the school and its doctors failed to protect 27-year-old Dan Markingson, who died by suicide while enrolled in a psychiatric drug trial in 2004. They also expressed grave concerns about how Markingson’s death was investigated. (More on that case is here and here.)

    Recently, Elliott’s crusade began having an impact. In December 2013, the UM Faculty Senate called for an independent review of current practices in clinical trials. The administration agreed to open its records to outsiders. Although the review did not look back at history, it nonetheless had plenty to say about how the university handles trials, which bring in millions of dollars from drug companies along with much prestige.

  • Escape of dangerous bacterium leads to halt of risky studies at Tulane

    An investigation into how a pathogen may have escaped from a laboratory has halted studies involving regulated bio-agents at a Tulane University research facility.

    An investigation into how a pathogen may have escaped from a laboratory has halted studies involving regulated bio-agents at a Tulane University research facility.

    Tulane Public Relations/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The apparent escape from a high-security lab of a dangerous bacterium that led federal officials last month to suspend research on certain high-risk pathogens at Tulane University has left questions about an ongoing investigation of the incident and broader risks.

    According to a lengthy 1 March news article in USA Today, two rhesus macaques at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana, that fell ill in early November later tested positive for infection with Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is found naturally in soil and water in Southeast Asia and northern Australia. Center researchers had been working with rodents on a vaccine for the bacterium, which can cause a sometimes serious illness called melioidosis in animals and people. The two macaques, which later had to be euthanized, and two other rhesus macaques that tested positive for the bacterium may have been exposed while being treated at the center’s hospital.

    Adding to concerns, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigator who visited the site in late January fell seriously ill a day later and tested positive for Burkholderia pseudomallei. It is not clear whether the investigator, who has since recovered, was infected at Tulane or earlier during travel abroad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in February. The agency said it had suspended all studies at the center involving select agents, a list of dangerous viruses, bacteria, and toxins that are tightly regulated. That includes about 10 projects, USA Today reports.

  • NIH sets aside more than $40 million for study of human placenta

    The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

    The human placenta is the focus of a new NIH initiative.

    John Bavosi/Science Photo Library/Corbis

    The Human Placenta Project, launched last year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) despite uncertainty over how much money would back in the effort, has just received a whopping $41.5 million in 2015 to study the vital mass of tissue that sustains a developing fetus.

    The placenta carries nutrients and oxygen to a fetus from its mother’s bloodstream and removes waste; problems with its performance may contribute to health concerns ranging from preterm birth to adult diabetes. Yet it is the least understood human organ, according to Alan Guttmacher, director of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Last year, Science reported on a NICHD workshop where planning began for a Human Placenta Project that would aim to monitor the placenta during a woman’s pregnancy, using new imaging approaches, tests for fetal molecules shed into a mother’s blood, and other tools.

  • Lone physicist in Congress joins science panel

    If I may … . When he was in Congress before, Bill Foster took time during a 2009 press conference at Fermilab to explain—not ask—how a piece of scientific equipment works.

    Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

    The U.S. House of Representative’s one-man physics caucus is joining its science committee—with the goal of restoring science to its rightful place in legislative discourse.

    Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) holds a physics Ph.D. from Harvard University and spent 22 years as a particle accelerator designer at Fermilab, a Department of Energy national laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. When he arrived in the House in 2008, he was one of three members with a Ph.D. in physics. But the two others—representatives Vern Ehlers (R–MI) and Rush Holt (D–NJ)—have since retired, leaving Foster as the sole remaining member of that troika. (There are no doctoral-level physicists in the Senate.)

    Foster didn’t join the House’s science committee as a rookie, instead focusing his legislative energies on reforming the nation’s tattered banking system after the 2008 financial meltdown. He also feared being pigeonholed as “the science guy.” But the world has changed, he tells ScienceInsider today in a phone interview after revealing he has been chosen to fill one of three Democratic vacancies on the science panel.

    “Congress is now seized in gridlock, and that made the Financial Services Committee a smaller drain on my time and my staff’s time,” he explains. “And secondly, science has come under attack. Support for science, and even acknowledging that scientific thought is a useful way to operate our government, has come under increasing partisan attack. And the [House] science committee is one important platform to have that discussion about the proper role of science in government and in the economy.”

  • Moniz defends DOE budget at House hearings

    Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

    Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

    Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz went committee-hopping this week, defending President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) before two panels in the U.S. House of Representatives. And although some lawmakers worried that DOE’s request tilts too far toward applied research in its science programs, their grilling of Moniz on science was relatively light.

    On Wednesday, Moniz appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and yesterday testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies. Representatives mostly peppered Moniz with questions that focused on hot-button energy issues—including DOE’s role in evaluating the controversial Keystone pipeline and efforts to promote nuclear power—but the department’s science programs also saw some time in the spotlight.

  • What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you?

    What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you?

    A.F. Archive/Alamy

    Leonard Nimoy—poet, photographer, and Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock”died today at 83. The New York Times has the full story here. Though Nimoy wasn’t a scientist, he undoubtedly inspired generations of children to become one, thanks to his role as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s science officer. Nimoy also contributed to science-themed projects, such as the 1994 IMAX documentary Destiny in Space, which contained footage from nine Space Shuttle missions. We here at Science will feel his loss deeply. What did Leonard Nimoy mean to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

  • Billionaires for basic research

    Marc Kastner

    Marc Kastner

    Kay Herschelmann

    After 42 years of doing atomic physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and 16 years as an MIT administrator, Marc Kastner knows intimately both the value of basic research—and how to convince rich people to foster its growth at a premier research institution. Yesterday he announced he was leaving MIT for a job that will give him the chance to make the case on a national scale.

    Kastner is the first president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a new effort by six foundations to boost private giving to basic science research, which is largely conducted at universities. The alliance has set itself the 5-year goal of boosting such giving by $1 billion a year—an estimated 50% jump over current levels, although Kastner admits that there are no good baseline numbers.

    Philanthropy will never replace U.S. government support for basic research, Kastner says. But what he calls a “tilt” in federal support toward applied research over basic science has created a “desperation situation” for academic researchers that “in my view, is probably the worst since the Second World War.”

  • Results from encouraging Ebola trial scrutinized

    The Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea, one of the trial sites.

    The Ebola treatment center in Nzérékoré, Guinea, one of the trial sites.

    Xavier Anglaret and Dadoua Sissoko/INSERM

    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—When French scientists presented the results from an Ebola drug trial at a press conference on Monday, they did so with plenty of caveats, but their message was hopeful: The drug, favipiravir, appeared to lower mortality in people with low and medium-high levels of virus in their blood, the researchers told journalists at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) here.

    But when study leader Denis Malvy of the University of Bordeaux in France presented more details of the results at CROI, many colleagues were underwhelmed. Several scientists criticized the evidence as well as the design of the trial, which is ongoing at four clinics in Guinea. “It doesn’t tell us anything,” said epidemiologist Scott Hammer of Columbia University, who chairs the meeting.

    In his presentation, Malvy focused on a group of 40 patients who began the trial with lower viral loads than 29 others who clearly did not benefit from favipiravir. As he explained on Monday, only six of those 40 patients died—half of what was expected based on similar patients treated at the same clinics over the past 3 months. What’s more, after 4 days of starting treatment on favipiravir, an influenza drug, 51% of these patients had such low levels of the virus in their blood that the standard test could no longer detect it. “There was a signal that monotherapy with favipiravir may decrease viral load,” Malvy said.

  • It’s only a game, but even earth scientists struggle to defeat global warming

    Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

    Earth scientists Jean Bergeron of the University of Sherbrooke; Lauren Garofalo of the University of California, Berkeley; and Lev Horodyskyj of Arizona State University participate in a climate negotiation game in late 2014.

    Kerry Klein

    “Welcome, delegates,” the U. N. official boomed to the international negotiators gathered to find a way to prevent catastrophic global warming. The delegates whispered and scribbled on pie charts as she spoke. One popped open an orange cream soda.

    “What is the planet,” the woman concluded, “that you will leave to our collective future?”

    It’s a question those in the room contemplate daily. But on this day, they knew the burden of decision didn’t really rest on their shoulders—because neither the U.N. official nor the negotiation was real.

    It was World Climate, a game that simulates international climate negotiations. The U.N. official was biogeochemist Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the Climate Change Initiative at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. And she addressed not diplomats, but earth scientists, gathered late last year in San Francisco for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

    The game, created in 2010 by the nonprofit Climate Interactive and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology System Dynamics Group, is to U.N. climate negotiations what Model UN is to the real thing: a chance for outsiders to get a glimpse of what it takes to hammer out a consensus on a thorny international issue. And the players’ collective goal is straightforward: Commit enough resources to prevent dangerous global warming by the year 2100. The benchmark is to prevent Earth from warming more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, or about 1.2°C. higher than today—the same as the goal set by the United Nations’ climate agency.

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