Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Texas Cancer Research Agency Back on Track

    Texas Cancer Research Agency Back on Track


    Texas’s $3 billion cancer research agency is back in business. Yesterday, state leaders lifted a moratorium on new grants at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) that had been in place since December.

    Governor Rick Perry had asked CPRIT to freeze operations after a string of controversies involving conflicts of interest and other irregularities. The trouble began in May 2012 with the resignation of CPRIT Chief Scientific Officer Alfred Gilman, a Nobel Prize winner, over the agency’s review procedures, and culminated in the resignation of two other top leaders.

    In the months since, the Texas legislature passed a bill to overhaul CPRIT’s operations. The agency also has a new oversight board that will hold its first meeting tomorrow.

  • Huge Research Gaps on Youth Concussion in Sports, U.S. Report Finds

    Understudied. Researchers need to do more systematic study of concussions in young athletes, such as these high school football players in Arkansas, a new report finds.

    Understudied. Researchers need to do more systematic study of concussions in young athletes, such as these high school football players in Arkansas, a new report finds.


    A new report released today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) may help dispel some common misconceptions about sport-related concussions in youth—for example, that wearing helmets can prevent them. First and foremost, however, it highlights the large gaps in knowledge that make it difficult for parents, coaches, and physicians to navigate decisions about prevention and treatment. The report also suggests where federal research agencies should focus their attention.

    The study, by a 17-member committee assembled by the Washington, D.C.-based IOM, which advises the government on health issues, comes amid growing concern about sports-related brain injuries. Although much of the attention has focused on adult professional athletes playing American football, health professionals have highlighted the need to understand risks among young athletes as well. To help clarify matters, a number of agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Defense, and the Department of Education, asked IOM to conduct its study.

    The most glaring obstacle to understanding youth concussion at this point is a lack of data, the report finds. Most published research on sports-related concussions has been conducted in adults, and “there’s little-to-no information about concussions in youth,” particularly for ages 5 to 21, says panel member Susan Margulies, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s dangerous to assume that findings in adults can be mapped onto children, she says, because of the changes that occur during brain development. “It’s possible that the threshold for injury might be different across different age ranges.”

  • A Year Later, Researchers Still Recovering From Superstorm Sandy

    Heavy weather. Superstorm Sandy, seen here from space, wreaked havoc at some research facilities.

    Heavy weather. Superstorm Sandy, seen here from space, wreaked havoc at some research facilities.

    NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon; data courtesy NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team.

    One year after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the eastern United States, flooding research laboratories and knocking out nearly one-half of a coastal research radar network, some scientists are still picking up the pieces.

    “We still have three radar stations down in northern New Jersey, but we’re hoping to get the money to replace them in November,” says Gerhard Kuska, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observing System, which helps run a string of 41 radars stretching from Massachusetts to North Carolina. When Sandy came ashore on the night of 29 October 2012, the storm’s high winds and surging tides destroyed four of the 5- to 7-meter-tall radar towers and damaged another 13. Failing electrical grids also “totally fried some of our computer hard drives and electrical components,” Kuska adds.

    Since then, “we’ve really been piecing things together with glue and duct tape,” he says. “There was no money to fix this stuff, and we didn’t have a lot of spares, so we temporarily took money out of other” programs to replace the radars, which a coalition of universities and government agencies use to study offshore winds and currents. They also invested in new backup power and computing systems. “We’re much better prepared for a storm now,” Kuska says, “but it has been expensive.” Financial help is coming soon, however: Earlier this year, Congress passed a $50 billion storm relief bill that includes funding to cover the approximately $2 million cost of restoring the damaged radars.

  • The Competition Over a U.S. COMPETES Bill

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

    Office of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson

    Increasing federal support for research and science education used to be topics for bipartisan agreement. But an attempt this fall by the U.S. House of Representatives to update landmark legislation shaping the direction of three major science agencies reveals the deep cracks in that once united front.

    The battle over reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act is still weeks away. But yesterday Democrats on the House science committee unveiled draft legislation that bears little resemblance to what the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (TX), has in mind.

    The original COMPETES legislation, approved in 2007, committed the federal government to expanding research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It broadened science education across several agencies, launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at DOE, and set government-wide science priorities to be managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. After breezing through a divided Congress with the strong support of then President George W. Bush, it was reauthorized in 2010 despite partisan bickering within Congress over its size and duration.

  • Livermore Weapons Laboratory Loses Leader

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory chief Penrose "Parney" Albright is stepping down on 31 October.

    Departing. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory chief Penrose "Parney" Albright is stepping down on 31 October.

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    In an unexpected move, Penrose “Parney” Albright has announced that he will stand down as the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California at the end of this month. Speaking to staff yesterday, Albright, a physicist, said he will continue to pursue other interests in the area of national security.

  • Researchers Spar Over Tests for Breast Cancer Risks

    Angelina Jolie opted to have surgery after learning she had inherited a mutation in the BRCA1 gene.

    At-risk. Angelina Jolie opted to have surgery after learning she had inherited a mutation in the BRCA1 gene.

    Greg Skidmore/Wikimedia

    BOSTON—A heated discussion broke out here today at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics over a hot-button topic: When will we know enough about rare cancer risk genes to begin routinely testing for them in patients with a family history of cancer?

    On one side of the debate was a team led by breast cancer geneticist Mary-Claire King, who discovered the first inherited breast cancer risk gene, BRCA1. King’s group now wants to routinely test certain women for other cancer-linked genes. Other researchers, however, argued that it is premature to test for these other genes, which are less well understood.

    Doctors often offer women with breast cancer in their family testing for mutations in BRCA1 and a related gene, BRCA2. If the tests are positive, some women may take preventive measures. Earlier this year, for example, actress Angelina Jolie drew widespread attention for her decision to have a double mastectomy because she inherited a version of BRCA1 that carries an 87% risk of developing breast cancer.

    Many women with breast cancer in their family don’t test positive for BRCA mutations, however. At the meeting, Tomas Walsh of the University of Washington, Seattle, reported on a test he and King developed, called BROCA, that sequences not only the BRCA genes, but also about 38 other cancer risk genes. They ran the BROCA test on nearly 2300 women from 743 families with breast cancer. In 77 families, they did not find BRCA mutations, but did find changes in other genes they say are definitely linked to breast cancer, such as TP53 and CHEK2. Another 41 families carried mutations in a larger set of genes whose role in cancer is “emerging,” Walsh said.

  • Syria Stockpiled 1000 Tons of Chemicals for Weapons

    Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (logo, above) are making progress in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

    On the job. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (logo, above) are making progress in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.


    As new details emerge about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, work has begun in earnest to destroy its ability to use the arsenal in the ongoing civil war.

    Syria’s military is thought to hold about 1000 tons of chemicals, now known to be mostly precursors for sarin and mustard gas, said Paul Walker, a chemical weapons expert at Green Cross International, at a forum held yesterday at AAAS, the publisher of ScienceInsider. That amount is comparable to the stockpiles that India and South Korea once held before renouncing and eliminating their chemical weapons.

    Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are now on the ground in Syria. They are assessing sites and overseeing the demolition of equipment and facilities used to produce the chemical precursors of sarin and mustard, mix the precursors, and pour the finished nerve agents into munitions. There’s a lot of “sledgehammer and bulldozer work,” Walker says. Inspectors have visited 18 of 23 weapons sites that Syria has disclosed to date, OPCW media officer Michael Luhan stated at a press conference today in The Hague. The operation, he says, is to ensure that Syria “will no longer have the capability to produce any more chemical weapons.” OPCW expects this work to be completed by 1 November, Luhan says.

    That ambitious target is part of an agreement imposed on Syria last month after the United States threatened a military strike in response to a chemical weapons attack—almost certainly sarin—in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians in August. Under terms negotiated by Russia and the United States that compelled Syria to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) last month, Syria must grant OPCW inspectors “unfettered access” to sites and individuals associated with its chemical weapons program. On 27 October, Syria must deliver a final and complete declaration to OPCW, and its entire arsenal must be eliminated by 1 July 2014.

  • Report Claims Industry Influence at European Food Watchdog Persists

    Food for thought? A new report claims there are still "dismaying" conflicts of interest at EFSA.

    Corporate Europe Observatory

    In 2012, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) adopted a new independence policy to address criticism that it was not managing conflicts of interest adequately. But a report prepared by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a group seeking to expose private sector lobbying in Europe, says industry's influence over the body is still "dismaying."

    Experts with conflicts of interest dominate all EFSA panels but one, according to the report, which was released yesterday. In the worst example, 17 of the 20 members of the Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies have a total of 113 conflicts of interest, according to the investigation.

    A spokesperson for EFSA says that the agency can't immediately react to individual claims, but that it will review the report and consider its recommendations. He also says EFSA "applies a robust set of internal mechanisms and working processes to safeguard the independence of its scientific work." Sue Davies, chair of EFSA's management board, echoed that sentiment in a written statement today. "The Management Board is confident that the policy EFSA has in place to ensure independence in its scientific work is robust," the statement says.

    The report comes at a sensitive time for EFSA. French food-safety expert Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, who headed the agency since 2006, stepped down unexpectedly in July to take up a position in the French government; EFSA is looking for a replacement. The agency has also launched a "transparency initiative" and hosted a conference on transparency earlier this month.

  • French Mathematician Tapped as Next ERC President

    Doing the math. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon.

    Wikimedia Commons

    A French mathematician of global renown and with a wealth of international connections has been tapped to become the new president of the European Research Council (ERC), Europe's funding agency for frontier research. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the longtime head of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies (IHES) in Bures-sur-Yvette, France, is slated to succeed Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny, who has presided over the agency since 2010.

    The European Commission, which makes the final decision, has not yet announced the appointment, and a commission spokesperson declined to comment today. But a source with inside knowledge of the process confirms to ScienceInsider that Bourguignon, 66, is slated to succeed Nowotny after she steps down on 31 December. Bourguignon said farewell to IHES, a private institute founded in 1958 and modeled on the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, on 31 August.

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