Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Italy Blocks Use of Controversial Stem Cell Therapy

    Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin

    Italian Ministry of Health

    ROME—The controversy surrounding an unproven stem cell therapy in Italy may be drawing to a close. Italy’s Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin announced yesterday that Stamina, the Turin-based nonprofit foundation that developed the treatment, will not be allowed to test it on humans—at least not in Italy.

    The so-called Stamina method is a treatment based on bone marrow stem cells that Stamina’s President Davide Vannoni claims can grow new neurons under specific conditions and hence cure several neurodegenerative diseases. However, while thousands of patients still support Stamina and its treatment, scientists believe the method has no scientific basis. In May, the government passed legislation providing €3 million for the treatment to undergo a clinical trial. But in July, Lorenzin ordered Stamina to release its scientific files concerning the treatment for scrutiny by a committee of scientific experts to assess if the method is safe and effective enough to enter human trials. 

    On 12 September, media reported that the experts had unanimously rejected the method, although the reasons behind the rejection were not released to the public. Now, a decree from the Ministry of Health states that the committee’s rejection was based on the following:

  • NASA's Bolden to Give Banned Chinese Scientists a Second Chance

    Try again. NASA chief Charles Bolden, shown here at the launch of the LADEE spacecraft last month, says barred Chinese students can reapply to attend a conference—but the agency won’t be able to answer until the U.S. government shutdown i

    Carla Cioffi/NASA/SIPA/Newscom

    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden today extended an olive branch to several Chinese scientists that were banned from an upcoming meeting at NASA’s Ames Research Center as part of the space agency’s attempt to thwart foreign spies. But it’s not clear if his peace offering will make any difference.

  • Fusion "Breakthrough" at NIF? Uh, Not Really …

    Science reporting breakdown? Press reports of a breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility, a powerful U.S. laser system, turned out to be a bit of hype.

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Wikimedia

    One unintended effect of the U.S. federal shutdown is that helpful press officers at government labs are not available to provide a reality check to some of the wilder stories that can catch fire on the Internet. They would have come in handy this week, when a number of outlets jumped on a report on the BBC News website. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, it reported, had passed a "nuclear fusion milestone." NIF uses the world's highest energy laser system to crush tiny pellets containing a form of hydrogen fuel to enormous temperature and pressure. The aim is to get the hydrogen nuclei to fuse together into helium atoms, releasing energy.

    The BBC story reported that during one experiment last month, "the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel - the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world." This prompted a rush of even more effusive headlines proclaiming the "fusion breakthrough." As no doubt NIF's press officers would have told reporters, the experiment in question certainly shows important progress, but it is not the breakthrough everyone is hoping for.

    A memo sent out on 29 September to collaborating labs from NIF Director Ed Moses—which has been seen by Science—describes a fusion shot that took place at 5:15 a.m. on 28 September. It produced 5x1015 neutrons, 75% more than any previous shot. Neutrons are a product of fusion reactions, so they are used as a measure of success.

  • Tales From the Shutdown: Grad Student Is Frozen Out of Research in Antarctica

    Time on his hands. Sebastian Vivancos (inset) is part of the newly arrived team whose planned research activities at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica are being thwarted by the government shutdown.

    Jamie Collins (inset); Wikimedia

    After 5 years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, Jamie Collins knows what it’s like to be at sea. But nothing in his military service prepared him for his current 30,000-km scientific round trip to nowhere, courtesy of the failure of the U.S. Congress to approve a budget. His predicament is one of the stranger—and sadder—tales of how the government-wide shutdown is affecting researchers.

    Collins, a third-year graduate student in chemical oceanography, arrived Wednesday at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Palmer Station in Antarctica. He was eager to begin working on a long-running ecological research project funded by NSF and to start collecting data for his dissertation in a graduate program run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But the rough seas he encountered during his 4-day crossing of the notorious Drake Passage in the south Atlantic—the final leg of a journey that began in Boston—paled in comparison to the storm he encountered once he stepped off the Laurence M. Gould, a U.S. icebreaking research vessel that ferries scientists and supplies between Punta Arenas, Chile, and the west Antarctic Peninsula.

    On Tuesday, NSF had announced that its contractor for Antarctic logistical support, Lockheed Martin, would begin putting the three U.S. stations on “caretaker” status unless Congress passed an appropriations bill to continue funding the government by 14 October. Although legislators will eventually adopt such a bill, nobody expects them to act in the next few days. Without an appropriation, NSF has no money to operate the stations.

  • Influential Ecology Think Tank Survives With New Focus


    Few institutions have had as big an impact on ecology in recent years as the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) of the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara. Its innovative model of collaboration and pulling together existing data sets has helped shape perceptions of a wide range of issues, including overfishing and climate change. So it was a shock to many researchers when they learned in 2011 that core funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) was ending. Now, with a new lease on life thanks to philanthropic grants, NCEAS has refocused on applied ecology and conservation. But how much it can continue to serve basic research is not clear.

    It is a question “that keeps me up at night,” says Frank Davis, an ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, who became director of NCEAS in July 2011.

    When NCEAS began in 1995, it was the first national center of its kind. Researchers could propose questions in a range of areas, such as infectious disease and marine ecology. Then a dozen or more colleagues from around the world would gather in Santa Barbara for working group meetings to assemble often disparate data sets and search for answers. The collegial approach paid off. NCEAS created a critical mass of researchers with resident postdocs and visiting academics, and technical staff members who developed new informatic approaches to support data synthesis. More than 500 working groups produced a long list of highly cited papers, often putting NCEAS in the top 1% of institutions cited for their work in ecology. And the model was duplicated elsewhere, with centers that focus on evolution and mathematical biology, for example. The latest is the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis.

  • U.S. Will Suspend Antarctic Program, Major Construction Projects if Shutdown Lingers

    Deep freeze. The United States will have to suspend its research activities in Antarctica, such as this C-17 Air Force cargo jet landing at McMurdo Station in 2011, if the U.S. government shutdown continues through 14 October.

    National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek

    Confirming earlier press reports, the National Science Foundation (NSF) today said that it will have to close its research programs in Antarctica if the U.S. government shutdown continues beyond 14 October. “All field and research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended,” the agency said in a statement. “[F]unds for [the program] will be depleted on or about October 14, 2013.”

    In a separate development, NSF has informed researchers that it will have to suspend work on several major construction projects if the shutdown continues beyond 31 October. Included on that list are a solar telescope, a gravity wave observatory, and ecological and ocean-observing networks.

    In Antarctica, NSF helps support three stations and numerous scientific facilities at those locations. It also coordinates ships and aircraft that move people and supplies and helps U.S. researchers set up short-term field stations. The busiest part of the Antarctic research season begins this month and runs through February. For the 2014 fiscal year, which began on 1 October, NSF had requested $465 million to support its polar programs, including work in Antarctica.

    But Congress could not agree on 2014 funding, causing the partial shutdown that is now in its second week. While most NSF activities were immediately suspended, and nearly all of its staff furloughed, the polar and construction programs had some leeway to continue operating using 2013 funds already appropriated but not yet spent. But the clock is now winding down, NSF says.

    Here is the agency’s statement on its Antarctic program:

  • Tales of the Shutdown: Fruit Fly Shipments on Hold

    Shutdown shoutout. Researchers associated with the American Society for Cell Biology discuss the shutdown’s impact on science in Washington, D.C., today.

    Shaila Kotadia/American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

    Even Austrian research fruit flies are feeling the effects of the U.S. government shutdown. The flies are unable to enter the country in shipments bound for U.S. research labs because border inspectors are on furlough, speakers at a Washington, D.C., press conference said today.

    The grounded flies are just another example of how the 1 October shutdown is affecting science, speakers organized by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) said at today’s event. And it is yet another blow on top of a decade of declining budgets for the $29 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) and last year’s 5.5% cut due to across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, they added. ASCB Executive Director Stefano Bertuzzi noted that in addition to shuttering experiments at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, the shutdown has canceled peer-review meetings and furloughed the 1300 NIH program officers who help scientists receive funding.

    ASCB President Don Cleveland of the University of California, San Diego, said his team just published an animal study on a gene silencing therapy for treating a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that they now hope to move to clinical studies. But his grant application submitted in September is now on hold at NIH’s neuroscience institute. “We are deeply frustrated. … It’s demoralizing,” he said.

  • Legislator Blasts NASA's Explanation for Excluding Chinese Students From Meeting

    Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA)

    House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology (Democrats)

    The chair of a congressional spending panel that funds NASA has ramped up his attack on NASA’s Ames Research Center, calling it “a rat’s nest of inappropriate and possibly illegal activities.” The latest salvo from Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) criticizes the center’s rationale for excluding six Chinese students from an upcoming scientific meeting, a step that has prompted some scientists to call for a boycott of the 4 to 8 November meeting at Ames, located in Mountain View, California.

    The rejections were first reported over the weekend by The Guardian, a British newspaper. The article cites an e-mail from Ames’s Mark Messersmith to Yale University astrophysicist Debra Fischer explaining why one of her postdocs, Ji Wang, would not be allowed to attend the Kepler II conference. Wang was planning to present a poster based on data collected by the now-moribund NASA spacecraft.

    “Unfortunately, federal legislation … passed last March forbids us from hosting any citizens of the People’s Republic of China,” Messersmith wrote to Fischer in an exchange obtained by ScienceInsider. In an earlier e-mail to Wang rejecting his registration, Messersmith says “I apologize in advance for the inconvenience.”

  • Astronomer: Shutdown Could Waste a Year’s Worth of Work

    Wasted effort? Radio astronomer Mark Reid’s work to map the Milky Way galaxy may be set back a year by the closure of U.S. radio telescopes.

    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    More than a year’s worth of expensive data used to trace the shape of the Milky Way galaxy could become worthless as a result of today’s closure of U.S.-based radio telescopes because of the government shutdown.

    “Holy cow, this is really bad,” radio astronomer Mark Reid said when informed by ScienceInsider that the telescopes were going offline. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.” And it would be a costly loss, he adds, estimating that the data cost $500,000 to collect.

    Reid is a U.S. government employee who works for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like hundreds of thousands of other federal workers, he’s been at home since the shutdown began on Tuesday. Meanwhile, he’s been trying to use some of his time off productively, thinking about his collaborative work with an international team on measuring and mapping the great spiral arms of the Milky Way.

    Twice a year, Reid and his colleagues use the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)—a string of 10 sensitive radio telescopes stretching 8600 kilometers from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands and New England—to help make measurements from Earth to massive gas clouds surrounding about 50 newborn stars in the galaxy. The VLBA measurements, made in the spring and fall, allow the team to calculate distances to the stars and construct a map of the galaxy. The map’s accuracy, however, depends on comparing three sets of VLBA measurements taken over 18 months.

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