ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Researchers react to China’s two-child policy move

    Posters promote China’s one-child policy in the late 2000s.

    Posters promote China’s one-child policy in the late 2000s.

    Kattebelletje/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Researchers aren’t surprised by yesterday’s announcement that China’s government will abandon its longstanding one-child policy. And although demographers predict the new two-baby allowance will have just a modest near-term impact on the nation’s demographics, they say it could bring social and political benefits.

    China’s government will be “actively taking steps to counter the aging of the population,” the Xinhua state news agency reported Thursday in announcing the move, which followed discussions among Communist Party leaders about China’s forthcoming 5-year development plan. Demographers had long urged the change, pointing to China’s rapidly aging population, along with a surplus of tens of millions of males caused by sex-selective abortion. 

    The announcement is “long overdue,” wrote Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in an email. “This is probably the easiest reform program that the Chinese Communist Party could push out—with virtually no political risk, but with enormous social benefits.”

  • Give U.S. national labs freer rein, commission urges skeptical senators

    New study says researchers at the Department of Energy’s 17 National Laboratories, such as this materials scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, need more freedom and less red tape.

    New study says researchers at the Department of Energy’s 17 National Laboratories, such as this materials scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, need more freedom and less red tape.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Like a familiar movie, sometimes a predictable congressional hearing can still be enlightening and engaging. That’s one way to view a hearing held Wednesday by a Senate spending panel on how the Department of Energy (DOE) should manage its 17 National Laboratories.

    For decades, directors of the national labs have grumbled that DOE micromanagement leaves them little leeway to guide their institutions. So, not surprisingly, a commission requested by Congress to study the labs recommended that DOE give them greater latitude to pursue goals set by the mothership.

    For just as long, however, Congress has complained about cost overruns and mishaps at the labs. So, just as predictably, at yesterday’s hearing some senators—including the one who requested the study—expressed skepticism about giving the labs more freedom.

  • U.S. high-containment biosafety labs to get closer scrutiny

    A mock federal inspection of a select agent lab.

    A mock federal inspection of a select agent lab.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Spurred by several accidents at federal laboratories involving risky pathogens, the White House today announced a sweeping set of steps aimed at shoring up biosafety and biosecurity procedures. The plan includes public disclosure of lab accidents, a new system for reporting mishaps, and a review of the large number of high-containment labs in the country.

    The incidents included inadvertent shipments of live anthrax samples at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the Department of Defense, and the discovery of old vials of live smallpox on the campus of the National Institutes of Health. Accidents at universities have also drawn scrutiny of federal oversight of labs that work with select agents, a list of risky viruses, bacteria, and toxins that could potentially be used to cause harm.

    A review launched in August 2014 has resulted in a 3-page memo (plus 184 pages of attachments and related reports) sent today to federal agencies from the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, and Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. It describes about 50 steps with timelines, ranging from beefed-up biosafety training to plans for an outside review of local labs’ protocols for inactivating select agents. Most steps are to be completed within the next year or two.

  • Official behind earthquake advice to stand trial in Italy

    In ruins: The 2009 L'Aquila earthquake killed over 300 people.

    In ruins: The 2009 L'Aquila earthquake killed more than 300 people.

    Joanna Faure Walker/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    A high-ranking public official who sent a group of scientists to L'Aquila to assess seismic risk ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck the city in 2009 is to stand trial on charges of manslaughter, a judge ruled today. His trial follows the October 2012 conviction and sentencing to 6 years in prison of the seven experts, and the acquittal of all bar one of them last November.

    Guido Bertolaso, who at the time of the earthquake was head of Italy's civil protection department, set up a meeting of the experts as full or acting members of an official panel known as the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks on 31 March 2009, ostensibly to analyze the risk posed by a series of small- and medium-sized earthquakes that had been shaking the region around L'Aquila for several months. But following the earthquake, which struck 6 days later leaving 309 dead, the scientists were accused of having provided the public with a false and fatal sense of security.

  • NIH refocuses research into chronic fatigue syndrome

    ME/CFS patient and advocate Robert Miller spoke at a workshop NIH held on the disease in December 2014.

    ME/CFS patient and advocate Robert Miller spoke at a workshop NIH held on the disease in December 2014.

    NIH

    In the wake of mounting criticism that researchers pay scant attention to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced that it is increasing efforts to figure out what causes the baffling illness and to find treatments for it.

    NIH Director Francis Collins told Science that some investigators have long shied away from studying ME/CFS because it has been a “tumultuous” research arena, with high-profile leads that imploded and a vocal advocacy community. The attitude among many researchers has been “maybe this is an unsolvable problem, let’s just work on something else,” Collins says. “I’m happy to say we’re countering that attitude rather strongly here.”

    NIH has not committed new funding to ME/CFS research, but its Clinical Center plans to launch a study of people shortly after they develop related symptoms from a probable but as yet unidentified infection. (Symptoms of the disease range from neurological and cognitive problems to immune and sleep abnormalities.) NIH also is moving oversight of ME/CFS research from the Office of Research on Women’s Health to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

  • Gene drive workshop shows technology’s promise, or peril, remains far off

    “Gene drive” could be a new way to get rid of malaria-carrying mosquitos—if it works and passes regulatory and ethical muster.

    “Gene drive” could be a new way to get rid of malaria-carrying mosquitos—if it works and passes regulatory and ethical muster.

    James Gathany/CDC

    The idea sounds appealingly simple: Quickly spread a gene through a population of animals in order to prevent it from transmitting disease, or, more directly, to kill a destructive species such as an agricultural pest. But a workshop hosted yesterday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) in Washington, D.C., made abundantly clear that a lot of uncertainty—scientific and regulatory—still exists for the so-called gene-drive technology at the heart of such concepts. And as result, field applications of gene drives are “still years off,” says Austin Burt, a population geneticist at Imperial College London who spoke at the meeting.

    Over the past 3 years, a technology called CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized scientists’ ability to make precise changes in the DNA of a wide range of organisms. By being cheap, relatively easy to use, and effective in almost every species tested, this genome editing method is putting another technology, called gene drive, within reach for many organisms. Because gene drive shifts biases inheritance to favor certain versions of genes, a genetic alteration introduced into a few members of a population spreads rapidly throughout the entire population. If that alteration inhibits reproduction or survival in some way, gene drive can drive that population extinct in theory. In other uses, a desired trait could be driven through a population.

  • Report: Put Biden in charge of biodefense

    A biohazards response team outside the U.S. Capitol in October 2001.

    A biohazards response team outside the U.S. Capitol in October 2001.

    Michael Kleinfeld, UPI Photo Service/Newscom

    Now that Vice President Joe Biden has decided not to run for president, a blue-ribbon panel wants him to take on a new job: leading the nation’s sprawling $6 billion biodefense program.

    “There’s nobody driving this bus,” says former Connecticut Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman joined with former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Thomas Ridge yesterday to unveil a report sponsored by two conservative think tanks on how to improve current efforts spread across a half-dozen agencies. “We’re spending $6 billion a year on biodefense—a number that is not easy to find in the budget, by the way—and we’re not getting our money’s worth,” Lieberman told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “We need a coordinated, national strategy.”

    The 63-page report, which will receive a similar review next Tuesday before the House homeland security committee, asserts that the United States is vulnerable to a bioattack, and that the threat is real. It focuses on improving existing activities, such as fixing or scrapping a decadelong effort to deploy environmental sensors as an early warning system, called BioWatch. It gives short shrift to the scientific aspects of defending the country against both infectious diseases that move from animals to humans and agents used as a bioweapon by terrorists. It does, however, call for a “reassessment” of the program governing the use of these so-called select agents by researchers.

  • Criticism mounts of a long-controversial chronic fatigue study

    A 2011 <i>The Lancet</i> paper examining treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome is still causing controversy.

    A 2011 The Lancet paper examining treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome is still causing controversy.

    The Lancet

    The authors of a controversial 2011 trial that showed that exercise and behavioral therapy could help treat chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) today released a follow-up study that supports their original findings. But the new report comes on the heels of a lengthy and highly critical examination of the original trial by a journalist.

    At issue is an $8 million trial run in the United Kingdom, dubbed PACE, which examined a number of treatments for CFS, a disease also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) that has no known cause. In The Lancet, the PACE researchers reported that patients with CFS/ME experienced “moderate improvements” in their symptoms if they did a program of graded exercise or cognitive behavior therapy. Two other interventions tested, so-called specialist medical care and adaptive pacing therapy, did not help.

    The Lancet study drew immediate fire from patient groups, with some complaining that it appeared to suggest that CFS/ME is a psychological, rather than physical, disorder. Many researchers, meanwhile, argued that some of the study’s methods were seriously flawed. As The Lancet itself noted in an editorial a few months after publishing the 2011 study, the “response to the trial’s publication was swift and damning.”

  • Neuroscientist tapped as Australia’s chief scientist

    Alan Finkel

    Alan Finkel

    EPA/Lukas Coch/Newscom

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Neuroscientist Alan Finkel will be Australia’s next chief scientist, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced at a press conference in Canberra today.

    As the government’s chief scientist, Finkel—president of Australia’s Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and former chancellor of Monash University in Melbourne—will provide independent advice and work to lift the profile of Australian science. Two priorities, Finkel says, are to boost Australia’s poor innovation record and set the nation on the road to a fossil-free future. “It’s important to have a vision of a world without the use of coal,” he told ScienceInsider.

  • China making dramatic public health gains

    Health indicators for Shanghai are comparable to those of advanced industrialized countries, but China's rural areas are lagging.

    Health indicators for Shanghai are comparable to those of advanced industrialized countries, but China's rural areas are lagging.

    Agnieszka Bojczuk

    BEIJING—China’s robust economic growth in recent decades has ushered in monumental health improvements—but wide regional disparities remain, a pair of studies published in The Lancet this week shows.

    Researchers from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, China’s National Office for Maternal and Child Health Surveillance, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle, used provincial and county-level data to produce a detailed picture of health throughout the country. Wealthy urban centers such as Shanghai enjoy a health status comparable to that of developed Western European nations, but the situation in the rest of the country is complex and potentially challenging for public health improvement efforts.

    One key finding is that mortality rates for children under 5 dropped 78% nationwide between 1990 and 2013. Children in richer urban areas fared far better than those in the poorer countryside. In 2012, Shanghai’s wealthy Huangpu district had the lowest rate, 3.3 deaths among children under 5 per 1000 live births. By contrast, that same year the rate across the Tibetan plateau ranged as high as 104.4.

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