Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Plan to Allow Libyan Nuclear Scientists to Study in U.S. Draws Fire in Congress

    Nuclear legacy. A U.S. government guard stands watch over gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment seized in 2003 from a ship bound for Libya.

    Nuclear legacy. A U.S. government guard stands watch over gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment seized in 2003 from a ship bound for Libya.

    U.S. Department of Energy

    Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are raising objections to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plan to lift a 1983 ban on Libyan nationals receiving pilot training or studying nuclear science in the United States. At a hearing last week, supporters of lifting the ban said the move is needed to help Libya rebuild global ties after decades of international sanctions during the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Critics, however, worried it could help train potential terrorists.

    The regulations at issue were created by President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the early 1980s, when Libya hosted terrorist training camps and sought to procure nuclear weapons. Libya was already included on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the Reagan administration wanted to make sure that Libyans were not able to come to the United States to learn to fly or repair aircraft, or study the nuclear sciences. Wanting to improve foreign relations with the United States, in 2003 Libya voluntarily ended its nuclear program, which was still in the early stages of uranium enrichment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed the country as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2006.

  • Italian Geologist Reflects on Tragedy of 2009 Earthquake

    Earthquake science. Italian geologist Gianluca Valensise heads a project examining seismic risks in central Italy.

    Earthquake science. Italian geologist Gianluca Valensise heads a project examining seismic risks in central Italy.

    Gianluca Valensise

    This weekend, it will be 5 years since a massive earthquake, centered on the town of L’Aquila, killed 309 people in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. The aftershocks of that tragedy included a controversial court case in which a judge found four scientists, two engineers, and a former government official guilty of manslaughter for having misleadingly reassured the citizens after a series of earlier tremors; the prosecution argued that residents would have otherwise followed the traditional practice of fleeing houses before a major quake hits. Each was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment, but the judgment is still under appeal.

    The earthquake on 6 April 2009 has also led to new research. Gianluca Valensise, a geologist at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), is the scientific coordinator of Progetto Abruzzo, which involved opening a research center in the “red zone” of L’Aquila—the devastated area of the city’s historical center that is largely uninhabited and restricted to traffic. Valensise recently spoke with ScienceInsider about the effort, which has been funded since 2012 by Italy’s research ministry, and the general relationship between Italy’s geoscientific community and citizens since the trial. While some progress has been made, problems remain in his view. Despite their crucial role in a hazard-prone country like Italy, and the demand for effective communication to the public, Italian scientists “have never received any formal training in the communication of science and of natural hazards,” he notes. Valensise’s remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • NIH Puts Squeeze on Chimpanzee Living Space

    Downsized. NIH says chimpanzees need less space than some experts had advised.

    Downsized. NIH says chimpanzees need less space than some experts had advised.

    Frans de Waal/Emory University

    The few chimpanzees still used for biomedical research in the United States can live in much tighter quarters than some experts prefer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided that about 23 square meters (250 square feet) per individual is adequate. That is just one-fourth the area that an advisory committee had recommended.

    The space plan affects a dwindling number of research chimpanzees. In December 2011, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report found that most research on chimpanzees is unnecessary and that NIH should limit the animals’ use. After asking an advisory committee to help it carry out IOM’s advice, NIH announced last June that it would retire to sanctuaries all but 50 of its 360 research chimpanzees and impose new requirements on any remaining NIH-funded behavioral and biomedical studies.

    The one sticking point, however, was the advisers’ recommendation that an individual chimpanzee have at least 93 square meters (1000 square feet) of primary living space. NIH said there was little evidence to support that amount of space, which could be costly, especially because the chimpanzees were supposed to live in groups of at least seven animals. So the agency decided to get input from experts on animal care and commission a literature review.

  • Former U.S. Research Fraud Chief Speaks Out on Resignation, 'Frustrations'

    David Wright

    David Wright

    Rebecca C. Henry

    Last month, David Wright, the director of the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which keeps watch on fraud in federally funded biomedical research, quit in frustration after 2 years. His resignation letter was a scathing critique of what he called the “dysfunctional” bureaucracy at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH). After it was obtained and published by ScienceInsider, it drew national attention to an office that often labors in obscurity. Wright, 68, has since returned to Michigan, where he is a professor emeritus at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He spoke with ScienceInsider earlier this week about his reasons for leaving. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q: Did something trigger your decision in February?

    D.W.: It was the accumulation of frustrations with the bureaucracy and trying to operate a regulatory office which requires precision, transparency, procedural rigor in an organization that values none of those things.

    While the ORI director has a lot of creative capacity and leadership capacity when he or she faces outward to the research community helping institutions better handle allegations or promote the responsible conduct of research, for example, inside the director is essentially treated like a flunky in a kind of backwater bureaucracy.

  • Scientist Quits Effort to Live-Blog STAP Cell Replication

    A scientist who has been trying to reproduce STAP cells—a new type of stem cells—and has been regularly blogging about his progress has given up. "I don’t think STAP cells exist and it will be a waste of manpower and research funding to carry on with this experiment any further," wrote Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee, an embryologist and stem cell researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on his ResearchGate page yesterday. Though he is giving up, he hopes others will continue to investigate whether the new approach—which has been dogged by controversy and claims of research misconduct—can really lead to stem cells.

    Two papers that appeared online in Nature on 29 January described how subjecting cells from newborn mice to a mildly acidic solution and then tweaking culture conditions turned them into pluripotent stem cells that can differentiate into all of a body's cell types. The authors—Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and colleagues at other institutions in Japan and at Harvard Medical School in Boston—dubbed the process stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP.

    Whether STAP cells exist is yet to be proven. But the controversy surrounding them shows how scientists are embracing the latest social media tools. Immediately after the Nature papers appeared, stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler raised questions about STAP cells on his blog. He later started weekly polls, asking how many scientists believed in the existence of STAP cells. He also ran a tally of groups trying to reproduce the results. (So far, none have.) The PubPeer website, for open postpublication review of published papers, set up two webpages—one for each paper. Contributors soon started raising questions about images and text in the Obokata papers.

  • French Science Minister Loses Job in Cabinet Reshuffle—Or Does She?

    Thanks, see you soon. Benoît Hamon (left) and Geneviève Fioraso.

    Thanks, see you soon. Benoît Hamon (left) and Geneviève Fioraso.

    Wikimedia Commons

    French Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso was among the political victims of a major defeat for the Socialist Party (PS) in local elections last Sunday. In the wake of the electoral disaster, President François Hollande ditched almost half of his Cabinet, including Fioraso; the new prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced yesterday that career politician Benoît Hamon will succeed her in a new superministry that also encompasses primary and secondary education.

    But Fioraso’s role may not have ended. There was strong speculation in Paris yesterday that she may be appointed secretary of state under Hamon next week, a position in which she may keep most of the responsibilities she had as minister. Hamon himself hinted at a prolongation at a handover ceremony, according to Le Monde, when he told her: “Thank you very much … see you soon.” Fioraso said that “the adventure hasn’t ended yet.”

  • European Parliament Approves Bill to Increase Clinical Trial Transparency

    BRUSSELS—Researchers who do clinical trials in the European Union will have to make the results public under a bill approved by the European Parliament yesterday. In a sweeping vote held here yesterday, 594 members of the Parliament voted in favor of the plan, while only 17 voted against and 13 abstained.

    The vote, which confirms an informal deal reached in December between Parliament and the European Union's 28 member states, is a victory for activist groups who want trials data out in the open. "This is fantastic,” said Sile Lane from Sense About Science, one of the organizations behind the AllTrials campaign in the United Kingdom, in a statement after the vote. “It will mean that researchers will in future know about trials as they are happening and will be able to scrutinize results soon after their end.”

    Under the draft reform, trials carried out in the European Union must be registered in a central database, and a summary of results—positive or negative—must be uploaded within 1 year after the end of the trial. In addition, researchers must release a full clinical study report—which contains detailed information about the trial design and analysis, including patient-level data sets—if the medicine is submitted for marketing authorization, irrespective of that application's success. Academic researchers and companies would be fined if they don't comply.

  • DARPA Carves Out New Division to Entice Biotech Talent

    Going live. New DARPA office will focus on biological research, such as better ways to grow and store blood cells (above).

    Going live. New DARPA office will focus on biological research, such as better ways to grow and store blood cells (above).

    Mustafa Mir, Sam Copeland, and Gabriel Popescu/National Science Foundation/DARPA

    The U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm is making a concerted grasp at biotechnology. On 1 April, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a new division that will consolidate biology research scattered across its existing six divisions and possibly expand the arsenal of projects. “Researchers should see this move as a recognition of the enormous potential of biological technologies,” Alicia Jackson, deputy director of the new Biological Technologies Office (BTO), told ScienceInsider in an e-mail. Whether the agency will devote a larger chunk of the roughly $2.9 billion in its requested 2015 budget to biotech programs is not yet clear.

    DARPA has been applying its high-risk, high-reward funding model to projects in the life sciences for years. In 1997, it announced the first big push into research on fighting biological hazards. More recently, it launched the Living Foundries program to use cells as molecular factories for making new materials. And its Defense Sciences Office (DSO) has aligned with President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, calling for grant applications on projects to design therapeutic devices for neurological disorders and to repair brain damage in military service members. A key player in those brain-focused programs, former DSO deputy director and neurologist Geoffrey Ling, will direct the new division.

  • Canada's World-Renowned Freshwater Research Facility Saved by New Management

    Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada's Experimental Lakes Area.

    Saved. A nonprofit group has struck a deal to keep open Canada's Experimental Lakes Area.

    Experimental Lakes Area

    The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), Canada’s flagship environmental research center that has been under threat of closure for 2 years, has found a savior. The ELA will leave government hands and will now be managed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg-based think tank. The 1 April announcement guarantees that the 46-year-old field site in northwestern Ontario will survive, at least for another 5 years, and will expand its research focus beyond that of the Canadian government’s mandate.

    The deal will hopefully bring the ELA some “stability,” says Diane Orihel, a freshwater ecologist who since mid-2012 has led a campaign to save the facility. The campaign began after the Canadian government pulled the project’s funding and handed pink slips to its team of 16 scientists and technicians. Last year, the lab, which conducts experiments in a system of 58 lakes, was saved from the bulldozers by a stopgap payment of $2 million from the provincial government of Ontario. Now, IISD has a chance to rebuild the ELA after years of neglect by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Orihel says.

    The ELA, the world’s only facility where researchers can intentionally poison whole lakes to monitor ecosystem effects, has an impressive research record: Its scientists were the first to find evidence for acid rain, and to fully diagnose the effects of pollutants such as mercury, phosphate, and synthetic hormones on aquatic life. IISD President Scott Vaughan tells ScienceInsider that he intends to build upon this past research, while looking to expand the scope of the facility’s science to investigate the effects of micropollutants and climate change on aquatic systems.

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