Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Ebola infection in Dallas nurse underscores critical need for proper training

    Health care workers scheduled to fight Ebola in West Africa receive training at an old military base in Anniston, Alabama.

    Health care workers scheduled to fight Ebola in West Africa receive training at an old military base in Anniston, Alabama.

    Nahid Bhadelia

    A nurse in Dallas who was treating the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States has become infected with the virus herself even though she was wearing protective gear. “At some point, there was a breach in protocol,” said Tom Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a press conference this morning.

    The nurse, who Frieden said had “extensive contact” with the patient, was wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). The patient, Thomas Eric Duncan from Liberia, died 8 October. Frieden noted that Duncan had respiratory intubation and kidney dialysis as “a desperate measure to try to save his life,” which he suggested may have been linked to the transmission. “Both of those procedures may spread contaminated materials and are considered high-risk procedures,” he said.

    Frieden said CDC will “undertake a thorough investigation to understand how this may have happened and we will ramp up infection control to do whatever we can to minimize the risk that there would be any future infections.”

    The case has similarities to that of a nurse infected in a Spanish hospital after taking care of a priest who had contracted the disease in Sierra Leone, and both raise questions about the training procedures that hospital staff receive before they come into contact with Ebola patients. “There’s a need to enhance the training and protocol to make sure the protocols are followed,” Frieden said today, and although all U.S. hospitals need to know how to diagnose Ebola infection, it may be safer to provide care at designated facilities that have received more extensive training, he said. “That’s something we'll absolutely be looking at.”

  • For $1 million: Will an ocean science quiz program survive tough times?

    Students compete in the 2014 National Ocean Sciences Bowl finals in Seattle, Washington.

    Students compete in the 2014 National Ocean Sciences Bowl finals in Seattle, Washington.

    Katherine Pietrucha, Consortium for Ocean Leadership

    Ocean scientists are working to keep afloat a 16-year-old U.S. competition aimed at encouraging young people to appreciate marine research and join their field. Since 1998, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) has been giving high school students a chance to test their knowledge of all things marine. But federal budget cuts are putting a squeeze on the effort, forcing organizers to cancel some bowls and scramble to find alternative support for others.

    “We’re facing some serious funding challenges,” says Kristen Yarincik of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., which created and oversees NOSB, which is scheduled to begin its next season in February. “There [have] been a lot of cuts to our key funding agencies.”

    In particular, the automatic 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester slashed education funding at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOSB’s main financial supporter. “In years past we were able to fund it up to $1 million a year,” says Christos Michalopoulos, NOAA’s deputy director of K–12 and informal education. But in 2013, the total dropped to zero, and in 2014 it rebounded to about $125,000. In 2015, “our hope is that we can give a little bit more.” (Congress will resume work on the budget for fiscal year 2015, which began on 1 October, after the November elections.)

  • European scientists ask governments to boost basic research

    A 3-week bicycle tour is part of the European-wide protest.

    A 3-week bicycle tour is part of the European-wide protest.

    Sciences En Marche

    The economies of Germany and Greece may have little in common. But scientists in those two countries—and across Europe—believe that their national science systems are facing similar assaults from what they view as wrong-headed government policies.

    In an open letter published Wednesday, prominent science policy advocates from Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom deplore “the systematic destruction of national R&D infrastructures.” The nine authors highlight what they describe as “drastic” budget and hiring cuts at research institutions and universities in an increasing number of countries, a funding bias toward well-established groups, and an increasing emphasis on applied research.

    The situation is especially dire in the countries most shaken by the economic crisis, according to Amaya Moro-Martin, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who summarized the letter in a Nature commentary. Since 2009, the “Spanish civil R&D budget has dropped by 40%, resulting in a reduction of 40% in grants and 30% in human resources programs,” she writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. During that same time frame, Italy has cut its higher education budget by 20%, and the number of permanent positions open to recruitment is down by 90%, says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the Enrico Fermi Center in Rome. Since last year, there has been virtually no money for basic research grants in Italy, he adds. In Greece, the budget of research centers and universities has been cut by at least 50%, and there’s a freeze on new hiring, notes Varvara Trachana, a cell biologist at the University of Thessaly in Greece.

  • NIH makes $32 million in awards to mine big data

    ENIGMA project collects thousands of brain images to allow researchers to better understand nervous system wiring.

    ENIGMA project collects thousands of brain images to allow researchers to better understand nervous system wiring.

    USC Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics and Laboratory of Neuro Imaging

    Hoping to tame the torrent of data churning out of biology labs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced $32 million in awards in 2014 to help researchers develop ways to analyze and use large biological data sets.

    The awards come out of NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative, announced last year after NIH concluded it needed to invest more in efforts to use the growing number of data sets—from genomics, proteins, and imaging to patient records—that biomedical researchers are amassing. For example, in one such “dry biology” project, researchers mixed public data on gene expression in cells and patients with diseases to predict new uses for existing drugs.

    The BD2K awards “will help us overcome the obstacles to maximizing the utility of the mammoth data sets that are emerging at an accelerated pace,” said NIH Director Francis Collins in a call today with reporters. The grants, he said, will support computational tools, software, standards, and methods for sharing and using large data sets.

  • Protestors greet opening ceremony for Hawaii telescope

    A good beginning is halfway to success, the saying goes—but groundbreaking for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a strong competitor-to-be in the new astronomical landscape, has run into a roadblock. Dozens of native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians gathered at the entrance to Mauna Kea summit on Tuesday to protest further development on their “sacred mountain,” blocking the way for the planned ceremony. Some officials and scientists did manage to reach the construction site at the summit, but the ceremony’s organizers had to cancel planned speeches and locally flavored ceremonies intended to officially begin the project, including the untying of the maile lei and turning of dirt with an O’o stick.

    Tuesday’s protests came on top of years of coordination difficulties and delay as a result of concern from native Hawaiians and environmentalists alike over construction of the $1.4 billion telescope on the volcano, which is already home to more than a dozen telescopes. (Protesters have come to coin their own definition for the acronym TMT: Too Many Telescopes.)

  • Updated: Barrier-breaking microscopy methods that revealed cell's inner life win Nobel

    From left to right: Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner.

    From left to right: Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner.

    N. Elmehed/Nobel Media/Wikimedia Commons.

    Three scientists who overcame the diffraction limit of light to take optical microscopy down to the molecular level have won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry. Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia; Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany; and William Moerner of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, share the prize equally “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” the Nobel Committee announced earlier today.

    For more than 100 years, microscopists trying to view very small objects ran up into what was thought to be a fundamental physical limit: that resolution could get no better than half a wavelength of light. Known as the Abbe diffraction limit, it meant that a researcher using visible light—the best method for studying biological samples—couldn’t hope to see things smaller than about 0.2 micrometers, or millionths of a meter. With that restriction, bacteria, cells, and viruses looked either blurry and indistinct or like featureless blobs.

    The three new Nobelists overcame that limit using fluorescence, getting the objects under the microscope to emit light themselves to reveal their details. Hell developed a technique called stimulated emission depletion microscopy in 2000. It uses a laser beam to excite molecules to glow, and a second beam to cancel out all fluorescence except that in a small nanometer-scale (billionths of a meter) volume.

  • University of Hong Kong head ponders impact of protests

    Peter Mathieson

    Peter Mathieson


    Though not generating the headlines it did a week ago, the standoff in Hong Kong between a pro-democracy movement and the government continues. University students are still boycotting classes. Occupy Central movement leaders have threatened to ratchet up acts of civil disobedience. The government has responded by threatening to call off planned talks with student leaders. Regardless of how the impasse is resolved, the events of this fall are likely to reverberate through the university system for years.

    At 11 p.m. on 3 October, Peter Mathieson and Joseph Sung, the vice chancellors of University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, respectively, urged students at one of the main protest sites to remain calm and eschew violence. Protesters had set a midnight deadline for Hong Kong's chief executive, Chun-ying Leung, to resign. At 11:30, the government announced an agreement to hold talks with student leaders, who in turn shelved their call for Leung's resignation. Mathieson and Sung then held a midnight press conference welcoming the breakthrough. In a telephone interview with Science, Mathieson, who took the top job at HKU in April, recalled the experience of addressing the protesters and discussed the impact of the democracy movement on the university community. His remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.  

  • How to talk to the public about Ebola: Five tips from risk communication experts

    A CNN discussion about Ebola

    A CNN discussion about Ebola

    Screenshot via CNN

    Shortly before 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, a Liberian man died from Ebola in a hospital in Dallas, Texas—the first fatal case in the United States. It was the end of a personal tragedy that, according to an article in The New York Times, started when the man helped carry a woman who was 7 months pregnant and dying of Ebola to a taxi in the Liberian capital of Monrovia.

    But the media frenzy that started when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the case on 30 September shows no signs of abating. CDC has been holding daily press conferences. Politicians have called for U.S. borders to be closed and attacked President Barack Obama for not doing enough. And news channels have been vying for superlatives to describe the deadly disease; experts on CNN recently opined on the question of whether Ebola is “the ISIS of biological agents.”

  • Exit interview: CDC epidemiologist sees hope for controlling Ebola in southeastern Liberia

    The road into Fish Town.

    The road into Fish Town.

    Adam Bjork

    Liberia has become synonymous with out-of-control Ebola and all the horrors that follow. But Liberia is a fairly large country, nearly the size of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium combined. Adam Bjork, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, spent the last 2 weeks in the southeastern corner of the country, which has seen relatively few Ebola cases. He spoke with ScienceInsider on 6 October as he waited for his flight home at the airport in Monrovia, the country’s Ebola-ravaged capital.

    Bjork had an unusually optimistic assessment about the opportunities to curb the epidemic in remote River Gee County, home to some 70,000 of Liberia’s 4.3 million inhabitants. But he also had a most frightening story about a sick family, traveling from place to place in a taxi in a desperate search for care, who inadvertently spread the virus.

    CDC sent Bjork to Fish Town, the capital of River Gee County, a 3-day drive from Monrovia this rainy time of year, to assess the situation. He arrived on 15 September, one of three CDC employees sent to the southeast to “be eyes and ears on the ground and give our bosses in Monrovia a sense of what’s going on.”

    Health workers in Fish Town told Bjork about a woman who died on 2 August in River Gee, presumably the county's first Ebola case. Before arriving in River Gee, she had been in Monrovia and in Grand Kru County, which borders River Gee, where she saw a pharmacist.

  • Push to gamble big on mass production of Ebola vaccines

    Okairos, a GSK subsidiary that makes the Ebola vaccine, isn't ready to make millions of doses.

    Okairos, a GSK subsidiary that makes the Ebola vaccine, isn't ready to make millions of doses.

    Loredana Siani, Okairos

    The world needed an Ebola vaccine months ago to stop the epidemic that has exploded in West Africa—but none existed. Now, the race is on to develop vaccines in a matter of months, instead of the years it typically takes. But even if one of the current candidates works, many questions remain. How fast can companies make millions of vaccine doses? When should they start production? And who will foot the multimillion-dollar bill?

    At the end of a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, last week to discuss Ebola vaccines, several participants were convinced that mass production of experimental products should begin in parallel with studies that aim to determine whether they actually work. “I’d pull out all the stops,” says Ira Longini, a statistician at the University of Florida at Gainesville who attended the meeting. “I’d try to make 30 to 40 million doses to cover at risk West African populations."

    Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease researcher and head of the Wellcome Trust in London—which has provided funding for Ebola vaccine testing—agrees. “We may come to regret that we have to throw those vaccines away if they prove not to be effective,” Farrar says, “but I think that is a risk we have to take.”

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