Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • Special Report: Can NSF Put the Right Spin on Rotators? Part 2

    Scientists on Loan to NSF Have No Protection if Job Conduct Is Questioned

  • Never Mind. NASA Says Ban on Chinese Students Was a Misunderstanding

    Milky Way Galaxy

    You're invited. NASA now says it's OK for six Chinese students who were barred from a conference on the findings of the Kepler spacecraft, which searched the Milky Way galaxy for new planets, to attend.

    Kepler/NASA Ames

    It was all just a misunderstanding.

    That’s NASA’s explanation for a decision to bar six Chinese nationals from attending a conference to be held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The agency has now reversed that decision. And it says a ban that agency chief Charles Bolden imposed in March on citizens from China and seven other countries from attending events at NASA facilities is no longer in place—and hasn’t been since this past July.

    Earlier this month, officials at NASA Ames informed the six individuals—all graduate students at U.S. universities—that they could not register for the conference from 4 to 8 November to discuss scientific findings from the Kepler mission because of language that Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) put in a 2011 appropriation bill. The decision sparked an outcry from conference participants, some of who threatened to boycott the event. It also prompted Wolf to send a scathing letter to Bolden pointing out that his legislation could not have been the basis for NASA’s decision. Among other things, the legislation prohibits NASA from hosting representatives of the Chinese government at any of the agency’s facilities; however, it does not place any blanket restriction on Chinese citizens entering NASA centers.

    In fact, officials said, the decision to bar the students was based on the policy that Bolden announced at a congressional hearing in March. Bolden said it would be a temporary moratorium and would be lifted after NASA completed an internal review of security procedures for allowing citizens of these countries access to NASA facilities.

  • Special Report: Can NSF Put the Right Spin on Rotators? Part 1

    NSF Urged to Improve Oversight of Program for Scientists on Loan

  • E.U. Parliament Confirms Intentions to Crack Down on Overfishing

    Changing tide. The European Parliament voted to spend less on modernizing Europe's fishing fleet and more on data collection.

    Changing tide. The European Parliament voted to spend less on modernizing Europe's fishing fleet and more on data collection.

    Wikimedia Commons

    Scientists and environmental groups have welcomed a European Parliament vote that they say will help curb overfishing. The vote, which took place in Strasbourg, France, today, fleshes out how the Parliament wants to spend the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), a public aid package worth €6.5 billion in the next 7 years.

    The EMFF puts in practice—and in budget figures—the intentions laid out in the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP was revamped earlier this year, in particular to ban discards of unwanted fish and to rely more on scientific data and principles to set sustainable catch limits. According to the European Commission, 80% of Mediterranean stocks and 47% of Europe's Atlantic stocks are overfished, compared with only 21% in the United States.

    Today, the Parliament said that the European Union should spend more money on data collection, controls, and enforcement than the commission had proposed, and less on modernizing Europe's fleet, which would lead to a higher fishing capacity. “The Parliament refused to go back in time and reintroduce fleet renewal aid” that the European Union had phased out in 2002, adds Markus Knigge, an adviser to the Pew Charitable Trusts in Brussels.

  • Mexican University Lifts Sanctions in Misconduct Case

    MEXICO CITY—The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) here has lifted sanctions imposed on microbiologists Mario Soberón and Alejandra Bravo after a misconduct investigation. The husband-and-wife team at the university’s Institute of Biotechnology (IBt) was found to have manipulated images in 11 published papers. IBt today released a memo outlining its view of the case and calling for UNAM—widely viewed as Mexico’s most important university—to establish guidelines for handling misconduct allegations in the future.

    The allegations against Soberón and Bravo involved papers on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins, which are used in engineered crops to target insect pests. After IBt launched an internal investigation, Bravo and Soberón acknowledged having modified the images, says Carlos F. Arias, IBt’s director at the time. “They insisted that [these] were merely ‘cosmetic’ modifications,” he says—for example, erasing a line on a Western blot to make their conclusions clearer. Bravo and Soberón declined an interview request from ScienceInsider.

    In the fall of 2012, an external committee convened by IBt concluded that modifications in at least two of the 11 articles were “inappropriate and categorically reprehensible,” according to a memo circulated publicly by IBt. But the panel found that the alterations did not constitute scientific fraud because they did not affect the papers’ central conclusions. The commission advised against retracting the papers. Instead, it recommended sanctions, which IBt imposed: asking Soberón to resign as head of UNAM’s molecular microbiology department (he complied); demoting Bravo from an “academic leader” to an “associate researcher;” and forbidding the pair from accepting new graduate students for 3 years.

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