Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. aging researchers prepare for loss of hungry mouse colony

    A mouse eats its fill—but calorie-restricted rodents typically live longer.

    A mouse eats its fill—but calorie-restricted rodents typically live longer.

    Steve Berger/Wikimedia

    The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, revealed earlier this month that it will be phasing out its colony of calorie-restricted rodents. Although most researchers who study aging won’t be affected by the decision, some scientists will have to pay substantially more for experimental mice, and some may be priced out of the field.

    In the 1930s, researchers first noticed that a very low-cal diet prolongs the life of some animals. This regimen, known as calorie restriction (CR), also delays age-related maladies such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. For nearly 20 years, NIA has sponsored a colony of calorie-restricted rodents, which are available only to its grantees. The price was right: Until this year, researchers paid $6 per month of the animal’s age plus shipping. And because of a rule change that went into effect in January 2014, the rodents are now free.

    Despite the low prices, there isn’t much appetite for the CR mice. Just eight to 10 researchers request animals from the colony each year, says NIA’s Nancy Nadon, chief of the Biological Resources Branch. On 11 June, NIA announced it would not renew the contract with the company that houses the rodents, Charles River Laboratories in Wilmington, Massachusetts. “The way the usage has changed over the last few years,” Nadon says, “it wasn’t the best way to go about using NIA funds.” (She had no estimate of what maintaining the colony costs.)

  • Russian rocket blasts wildlife tracker into orbit

    Russian rocket blasts wildlife tracker into orbit.

    DTUsat undergoing testing before its launch into space.

    René Fléron

    Last week, from the Yasny launch base in eastern Russia, a rocket soared into space carrying several dozen satellites, many of them dedicated to scientific endeavors. An instrument designed to track massive dust storms, for example, represents Iraq’s first spacecraft. But another of the modest-sized orbiters, dubbed cube satellites, marks an important step toward an orbiting system dedicated to tracking large-scale movements of animals small enough to hold in an adult hand. “For this satellite, it’s a lot about solving the mysteries of migrations,” says zoologist Kasper Thorup of the University of Copenhagen, who is in charge of the wildlife tracker and attended the Russian launch.

     Funded by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, the instrument, called DTUsat, will record data from 4.6-gram tags that researchers plan to place on animals such as the common cuckoo, a parasitic bird that lays its eggs in another species’s nest. Affixed among the cuckoo’s feathers, each tiny tag will relay the bird’s position to the satellite circling thousands of meters above. DTUsat will then collect the tag’s information and pass it on to a base station at DTU. Two of the tags have already been made, and the researchers hope to soon test whether they can connect to the now orbiting DTUsat.

    Though an independent mission, DTUsat is a forerunner for the ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) project, an ambitious plan to equip birds and other small mammals with tags that transmit their location directly to the International Space Station, rather than via a satellite relay.  The ICARUS project reflects growing interest in how small animal migration patterns are influenced by global issues such as climate change. Thorup and Martin Wikelski of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, the lead researcher for ICARUS, hope that the DTUsat’s launch provides incentive to build location-transmitting tags that have the power to send signals to the ISS. The researchers speculate that the tags will be ready by the end of 2015. Now, the tags are still in the developmental stage and are about 5 grams, but Thorup and Wikelski hope that the tags will weigh as little as 1 gram in the future.

  • U.S. House budget bill would nix Steven Chu's brainchild

    JCAP's home base: The Earle M. Jorgensen Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.


    Fifteen months after Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Chu stepped down as secretary of energy, budgetmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have moved to kill the project perhaps most emblematic of Chu's vision for reshaping research in the Department of Energy (DOE). In their version of the proposed DOE budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins 1 October, House appropriators zero out funding for the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), which seeks to develop a technology to convert sunlight to a fuel such as hydrogen gas. The White House's proposed budget, released earlier this year, had requested $24 million for JCAP, which is based at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

    JCAP was one of five energy innovation hubs that Chu envisioned as miniature versions of the storied Bell Labs. The hubs, Chu argued, would make DOE research more nimble and responsive to the nation's energy needs. And JCAP was arguably the hub closest to Chu’s heart: He had strongly promoted research into artificial photosynthesis during his tenure as director of Berkeley Lab, from 2004 to 2008.

    Launched in July 2010, JCAP aims to develop an efficient, cheap, and durable system for producing fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide as inputs. As with the DOE’s other hubs, it was originally funded for a total of $122 million over 5 years, with the possibility of having its funding renewed for a second 5 years. That means JCAP has already received the last of its initial funding and DOE officials must decide whether to renew the center. But they haven't done that. Instead, the White House's budget asks for one extra year of funding and said that DOE officials would make a decision on whether to continue the project by the end of fiscal year 2015. House appropriators apparently felt no need to indulge such dithering, zeroing out money for JCAP next year in the report accompanying the budget bill. "The committee notes that the Department has made no decision for continued funding for the hub beyond the initial term," explains the report, rolled out Wednesday.

  • Research goes to the dogs—and the drones

    A teleoperated robot looms over rescue dogs with wearable robotics at the booth for the SERS team. Graduate student Kevin Huang (inset) and a ground-based drone.

    A teleoperated robot looms over rescue dogs with wearable robotics at the booth for the SERS team. Graduate student Kevin Huang (inset) and a ground-based drone.

    (Inset): Howard Chizeck

    Stop me if you've heard this one before: A cyborg dog, an aerial drone, and a robot walk into a bar and …

    You haven’t? Okay, so the bar in question was just hit by an earthquake and several patrons are still trapped inside. The local emergency response team dispatches a rescue dog equipped with sensors and other devices. The dogs sense the survivors and alert central control, which sends aerial drones to scout the otherwise unnavigable disaster area.

    Cell service is down, but the patrons are able to communicate with first responders by connecting to wireless routers set down by the drones. Ruling out a live rescue team because of the danger, the first responders instead send in a remotely operated robot, which leads the patrons to safety.

    That scenario might still be science fiction, but a team of U.S. scientists is working hard to make it a reality with a project called the Smart Emergency Response System (SERS). Last week, the group brought a prototype to Washington, D.C., as one of 24 participants in the SmartAmerica Challenge, a novel event designed by the Obama administration to demonstrate how federally funded research can deliver tangible benefits to society.

  • CDC says 75 workers may have been exposed to anthrax

    Anthrax colonies growing in a dish.

    Anthrax colonies growing in a dish.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it is treating or monitoring 75 of its Atlanta-based staff members for possible anthrax exposure. The exposure may have occurred earlier this month because “established safety practices were not followed,” the agency said in a press statement released today.

    “Out of an abundance of caution, CDC is taking aggressive steps to protect the health of all involved, including providing protective courses of antibiotics for potentially exposed staff,” the agency stated. “Based on most of the potential exposure scenarios, the risk of infection is very low.” Anthrax can be deadly if inhaled, with symptoms usually appearing within a few days or weeks, but widely available antibiotics can prevent illness.

    Some of the CDC workers were involved in “inactivating”—or rendering harmless—live samples of Bacillus anthracis bacteria in a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory for shipment to other CDC laboratories with lower biosafety levels, according to CDC. The samples were intended for studies aimed at developing new ways of detecting anthrax in environmental samples. “However, the lab used a procedure that did not adequately inactivate the samples,” according to the statement.

  • U.S. Senate wants more support for science at black colleges

    David Wilson of Morgan State University has advised Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) on a proposal to expand NSF programs serving historically black colleges and universities.

    David Wilson of Morgan State University has advised Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) on a proposal to expand NSF programs serving historically black colleges and universities.

    (Left to right): Morgan State University; Office of Senator Barbara Mikulski

    Senate appropriators want the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do more for faculty and students at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It’s the latest attempt by Congress to push NSF in that direction. And although NSF officials agree on the importance of helping those institutions as part of a larger effort to broaden participation in science and engineering, they don’t like being told exactly how to do it.

    A 2015 spending bill now being debated by the full Senate contains three specific ways for NSF to increase its support of HBCUs, 106 institutions that range from 2-year schools to research universities. In report language accompanying the bill, the legislators declare that:

  • Bear in NIH tree sets Twitter aflutter

    Budget cuts. Infectious disease. Conflict of interest scandals. Bioterrorism. Just when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) thought it had faced just about every conceivable problem, today a black bear (Ursus americanus) took shelter in one of the pine trees on its sprawling campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

    At about midday, NIH employees received an e-mail telling them about the bear (which apparently breached NIH’s security fence, built after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks). Local police, media, and animal control officials soon descended, according to media reports. Soon, Twitter was abuzz with bear reports and jokes.

    “OMG the bear is at NIH! The bear does not have appropriate identification!” tweeted ‏@sarahrodeo.

    “I'm sure he's trying to find parking,” speculated ‏@SofiaL246.

  • Marine reserves get a big boost at U.S. conference

    Bluefin trevally and humphead wrasse near Palmyra Atoll.

    Bluefin trevally and humphead wrasse near Palmyra Atoll.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/J. E. Maragos

    It’s been a good few days for marine conservationists.

    On Monday, the island nation of Kiribati announced that it will soon end commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a biologically-rich, California-sized swath of the Central Pacific.

    Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced that he will take steps to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific. The protected area now covers 225,000 square kilometers, but White House officials suggest it could expand to cover some 1.8 million square kilometers, making it the largest reserve on the planet. And a number of other nations announced that they will create new reserves, expand protections for existing ones, or take other steps to protect marine life.

    The bevy of announcements, which came during an “Our Ocean” conference organized by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C., are drawing positive reactions from marine scientists and activists.

  • U.S. Senate panel would give slight boost to energy science budget

    U.S. Senate panel would give slight boost to energy science budget


    The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) science program would see a slight budget increase under a spending bill approved today by a U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee. The bill would provide $5.086 billion for DOE’s Office of Science in the 2015 fiscal year that begins 1 October. That is about $20 million above current spending levels and about $25 million less than requested by President Barack Obama.

    The details of the bill, which is scheduled to go before the full Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, are not yet available. But a committee summary offers a few nuggets:

  • USC considers acquiring Scripps Research Institute

    The Scripps Research Institute's Florida satellite campus.

    The Scripps Research Institute's Florida satellite campus.

    Julian Voss-Andreae/Wikimedia

    In an unexpected announcement yesterday, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles revealed it may be acquiring or merging with the Scripps Research Institute. Scripps, a major nonprofit biomedical research hub based in San Diego, California, issued a joint statement with the university, telling U-T San Diego that they were “discussing the possibility of a relationship that would enhance the missions of both institutions.” The article cites anonymous sources who say funding woes at Scripps motivated the possible merger—namely, increasing competition for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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