Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • In effort to understand continuing racial disparities, NIH to test for bias in study sections

    Laboratory at the Morehouse School of Medicine

    A core laboratory at the Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically black institution in Atlanta.

    Morehouse School of Medicine

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has decided to find out whether its fabled grantsmaking process discriminates against African-American scientists.

    Armed with new data showing black applicants suffer a 35% lower chance of having a grant proposal funded than their white counterparts, NIH officials are gearing up to test whether reviewers in its study sections give lower scores to proposals from African-American applicants. They say it’s one of several possible explanations for a disparity in success rates first documented in a 2011 report by a team led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas, Lawrence. The so-called Ginther report also noted that black researchers are more likely to have their applications for an R01 grant—the bread-and-butter NIH award that sustains academic labs—thrown out without any discussion by study sections and that black scientists are less likely to resubmit a revised proposal for a second review.

    NIH is also faced with the problem of low participation rates by minority scientists. Only 1.5% of its R01 applications come from African-American scientists. (The average applicant submits three applications, although whites submit at a higher rate than blacks.)

  • Italy investigates explosive letter sent to European food safety agency

    Italy investigates explosive letter sent to European food safety agency

    The headquarters of the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy.


    Italian police are trying to figure out who sent a letter containing an explosive powder to Europe’s food safety agency. A bomb squad earlier this week blew up the letter, which was addressed to a scientist who works on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The incident comes amid an ongoing and acrimonious debate over European regulation of GM crops and foods.

    The suspicious letter arrived at the headquarters of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, on 7 June. It “did not seem to conform to the rest of the items that we usually receive,” an EFSA spokesperson told ScienceInsider. Police say an inspection revealed it contained enough gunpowder inside to injure the hands and face of someone who opened it. Officials declined to identify the addressee, except to say it is a scientist who serves as an external adviser to the agency. No person or group has claimed responsibility for the letter, and it is not clear where it originated.

  • Updated: United States adopts major chemical safety overhaul

    Industrial chemicals sign

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

    The U.S. Senate yesterday unanimously approved a major overhaul of the nation’s primary chemical safety law—marking one of the last steps in a decades-long reform effort. The House of Representatives on 24 May overwhelmingly approved the rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which governs how industrial chemicals are tested and regulated. The legislation now moves to President Barack Obama for signing.

    The measure—H.R. 2576, named for the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ), a long-time TSCA reform champion—is perhaps the most far-reaching and influential environmental statute passed by Congress since the body updated the Clean Air Act in 1990. The measure aims to make chemical safety reviews more science-based, and includes provisions designed to reduce the use of animals in chemical testing and promote the study of so-called cancer clusters.

    “The end result … is a vast improvement over current law,” said Representative John Shimkus (R–IL), who co-sponsored the House bill, on the House floor. The bill, he added, is “a careful compromise that’s good for consumers, good for jobs, and good for the environment.”

  • U.S. Academies gives cautious go-ahead to gene drive

    The ʻAkiapolaʻau is a honeycreeper in Hawaii

    The ʻAkiapolaʻau is a honeycreeper in Hawaii that is threatened by mosquito-borne disease.

    © Photo Resource Hawaii/Alamy Stock Photo

    Although it may take 5 years or more before researchers will be ready to try a controversial technology for eradicating or replacing populations of pests and vectors in the field, today a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee urged researchers, funding organizations, and regulatory agencies to waste no time in coming up with ways to deal with the societal and regulatory issues surrounding this technology, called gene drive. Its report, Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty and Aligning Research with Public Values, stresses that although gene drive offers great promise for agriculture, conservation, and public health, neither the science nor the current regulatory system is adequate to address the risks and requirements of gene drive–altered organisms.

    Gene drive is a natural phenomenon whereby a certain version of a gene is passed on preferentially to the next generation and thus can quickly spread throughout a sexually reproducing population. For decades, researchers dreamed of harnessing gene drive to control pests or disease-carrying organisms. For example, by biasing inheritance toward the production of one sex over another, altered sex ratios might eventually cause a population to peter out. Thus, gene drive could be used to reduce malaria transmission in humans—or in endangered birds (see image, above)—by making the mosquito vectors incapable of spreading the malaria parasite or even eliminating the insects altogether.

    The approach hadn’t seemed within close reach until geneticists last year demonstrated gene drive in fruit flies and yeast by harnessing a gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. The experiments set off a debate about the safest way to do gene drive experiments in the lab and helped prompt the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the academies’s study. It's one of several efforts inspired by the fast progress made possible by CRISPR: Another CRISPR-inspired academy study is looking at genome editing in animals, and last year the academies held a summit on genome editing in human embryos.

  • Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

    Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

    Ilaria Capua says the University of Florida is not at all concerned by her legal troubles at home.

    Italian virologist-turned-politician Ilaria Capua has thrown in the towel. After 3 years in politics, she is leaving Italy and going back to science, frustrated by what she says is an antiscientific attitude among fellow politicians. Capua, an expert on avian influenza, will become director of the One Health Center of Excellence for Research and Training at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville on 20 June.

    In 2013, Capua took a leave of absence as director of the Division of Biomedical Science of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie in Padua, Italy, a government lab for veterinary research, after being elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies for Scelta Civica, a party led by economist and then–Prime Minister Mario Monti. Capua has been under criminal investigation since 2005, resulting in a formal accusation in 2014 that she sold and trafficked in avian flu viruses between 1999 and 2008. She says the charges are baseless but that they have made her a “lame duck” in Parliament.

    Capua entered politics at Monti's invitation; he wanted candidates with technical expertise to join his new reformist party. But her experience since then has been “surreal,” she says. In a book published in January, Capua observed the bombastic behavior of her colleagues and the overly formal procedures in Montecitorio, the seat of the Chamber of Deputies, much like a scientist studying an unknown insect. “Politics is a complicated world, especially if you think in a rational and fact-related fashion. I often feel dismayed,” she says.

  • NIH gets $2 billion boost in Senate spending bill

    Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

    Andrew Magill/Flickr

    A Senate spending panel today approved a $2 billion boost in 2017 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or a 6.2% increase to $34.1 billion. It's the second year in a row that the Senate has slated the agency for a large increase after 12 years of flat budgets. 

    “This is tremendous and we are profoundly grateful to [committee leaders] for taking a critical step toward rebuilding the stability of the NIH budget,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The bill from the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budgets of health, labor, and education agencies disregarded a request from President Obama to cut NIH's budget by $1 billion and then use so-called mandatory funds to restore that money and give the agency an additional $825 million. Many lawmakers are loathe to use mandatory funding, which comes from a dedicated stream such as a special tax or selling off some of the nation’s petroleum reserves. In March, Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), who chairs the health spending subcommittee, and the chair of the corresponding House of Representatives panel, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), said they would reject the Obama proposal. They pledged to use the regular appropriations process to give NIH at least a $1 billion boost in the 2017 fiscal year that begins 1 October as part of steady budget growth. 

  • European research universities form a new lobby organization—but did they need it?

    European research universities form a new lobby organization—but did they need it?

    The University of Groningen in the Netherlands is one of nine founding members of the new organization.

    Eigenberg Fotografie/Creative Commons

    Nine European universities that invest heavily in research have set up a new group to lobby the European Union's institutions. The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, announced on Wednesday, includes the University of Oslo, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and the University of Bologna in Italy. It's seeking new members before its official launch in November.

    But wait, you might ask—didn't Europe's research universities have an organization in Brussels already?

    Yes, they do; that would be the influential League of European Research Universities (LERU), founded in 2002 and made up of 21 prestigious institutions, including the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, that do well in international university rankings. There are several other university organizations as well, such as the mammoth European University Association (EUA), with 850 members in 47 countries, and the Coimbra Group, which unites 38 European universities, including some of the guild's founding members. (There's also IDEA League and the EuroTech Universities Alliance, which are made up of just four and five universities, respectively.)

  • NIH in uproar over report slamming Clinical Center, leadership shakeup

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    National Institutes of Health

    A decision to overhaul the leadership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center after an outside review group found serious patient safety problems has sparked an uproar at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. In a recent letter, department chiefs at the center wrote that the review, triggered by problems with a drug production facility, unfairly concluded that patient safety has been compromised across the research hospital. They say the working group’s report has demoralized staff, worried patients, and “demonized” the center’s leadership.

    Patient advocates and clinical research leaders across NIH have also written letters taking issue with the review. NIH Director Francis Collins yesterday responded to one of the letters, from Clinical Center department heads. In a statement, Collins said he is “taking the comments … very seriously. They are highly dedicated senior leaders, and I have great respect for all of them.” At the same time, he “stand[s] by” the outside working group’s process and expertise and agrees that the center needs “more central authority and accountability.” Collins was expected to meet with clinical leaders today to discuss their concerns.

  • Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

    Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

    2013 Intel finalist Alexa Dantzler has become an advocate for more diversity in student science competitions.

    Intel STS

    Alexa Dantzler fell in love with science as a freshman at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. And by the time she graduated in 2013, she had been chosen as one of 40 finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition (STS). 

    But Dantzler, whose ethnic background is Slovak, Korean, and African-American, was troubled by how few of the other competitors were from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. So, soon after she arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, Dantzler started a program to attract more students “who look like me” into university research and science competitions. The Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the Washington, D.C.–based organization that runs the STS competition, was thinking along the same lines. And last month it chose Dantzler as one of a handful of “advocates” to draw more underrepresented minorities into research-based competitions.  

  • Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

    Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

    The Human Genome Project–Write would design human chromosomes from the ground up.


    Last year, researchers working to synthesize the genome of a strain of yeast began to eye a much bigger prize: assembling from scratch the 3 billion base pairs of DNA that drive a human cell. The idea caught the attention of other prominent scientists, and inspired a proposal published online in Science today. The so-called Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write) aims to synthesize entire genomes—of humans and other species—from their chemical components, and get them to function in living cells.

    The initiative generated buzz last month after an invitation-only meeting to discuss the prospect at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Its organizers aimed to keep the details under wraps until this more formal proposal was published—a move that rankled those hoping for a broader public discussion about its ethical, legal, and social implications. Some speculated that scientists would use these engineered cells to create designer humans with no genetic parents.

    The new proposal makes clear that HGP-write has no such aim, the authors say. The main goal instead is to drive down the cost of engineering large stretches of DNA and testing their activity in cells. “HGP-write would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude,” the authors write.

  1. « 1
  2. ‹ previous
  3. 15
  4. 16
  5. 17
  6. 18
  7. 19
  8. 20
  9. 21
  10. next ›
  11. 580 »

Follow News from Science

Latest News