Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Chimpanzee 'personhood' effort begins new court battle

    Tommy the chimpanzee lives in a cage on private property in New York, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project.

    Tommy the chimpanzee lives in a cage on private property in New York, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project.

    2014 Pennebaker Hegedus Films Inc.

    Chimpanzees are back in court. Today, judges in New York state heard the first in a series of appeals attempting to grant “legal personhood” to the animals. The case is part of a larger effort by an animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free a variety of creatures—from research chimps to aquarium dolphins—from captivity.

    Late last year, NhRP filed lawsuits in three New York lower courts on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in the state. Two—Tommy and Kiko—live in cages on private property, according to the group. The other two—Hercules and Leo—are lab chimps at Stony Brook University. The litigation was spearheaded by Steven Wise, a prominent animal rights lawyer and NhRP’s founder, who spent years consulting with scientists, policy experts, and other lawyers to hone a strategy. His group settled on filing a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a person being held captive to have a say in court. Any judge that granted the writ would be tacitly acknowledging that a chimpanzee is a legal person and thus must be freed from its current confines.

    That didn’t happen: All three lower courts dismissed the lawsuits. So NhRP appealed, and Wise argued the first of those appeals this afternoon. Making his case for Tommy in front of a five-judge panel and a packed courthouse, he contended that chimpanzees are so cognitively and genetically similar to humans that they deserve a fundamental right to bodily liberty. He wants Tommy—and eventually the other chimpanzees—moved to a sanctuary in Florida. Wise didn’t have any pushback: Tommy’s owners didn’t appear in court, and they didn’t file legal briefs challenging the case.

  • Tough choices ahead in Ebola vaccine trials

    An Ebola vaccine manufactured by a GSK subsidiary, Okairos, has entered its first safety trials.

    An Ebola vaccine manufactured by a GSK subsidiary, Okairos, has entered its first safety trials.

    Loredana Siani, Okairos

    When Ripley Ballou came to a Geneva, Switzerland, meeting about Ebola vaccines last week, he had a tough message to sell. In the efficacy tests for such vaccines that may start in West Africa in a few months, half of the volunteers should randomly be assigned into a control arm, Ballou argued—a group of people at risk of becoming infected who would not receive an experimental Ebola vaccine. Instead, they would serve as so-called active controls and be injected with other, approved vaccines, for instance against hepatitis B or pneumococcal disease. That would be the fastest way to know whether the Ebola vaccines work and can be deployed widely, Ballou said—and thus potentially save the most lives.

    It was a controversial opinion. Health care workers at the front lines of Ebola, who will serve as the target group in the first efficacy tests, are so vulnerable that giving them anything other than the experimental vaccine seems inhumane and could create tensions, some contended. “Going into this meeting, we were told the idea of a controlled trial … was not going to be acceptable,” says Ballou, who heads the crash program to develop an Ebola vaccine at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Rixensart, Belgium.

    Indeed, Ballou didn't win everyone over in his talk at the meeting, which took place on 29 and 30 September at the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO). Representatives of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were strongly opposed to giving trial participants anything other than an actual Ebola vaccine candidate—and they didn't change their minds. "The meeting was quite tense at moments,” says Marie-Paule Kieny, a WHO assistant director-general and vaccine expert.

  • Final chapter in Italian stem cell controversy?

    Advocates of Stamina therapy claimed it could regrow neurons.

    Advocates of Stamina therapy claimed it could regrow neurons.

    ZEISS Microscopy/Flickr

    A long-running controversy sparked by the Italian government’s decision to fund a clinical trial of an unapproved stem cell therapy may have reached its final chapter. Last week, a panel of experts appointed by the Italian Ministry of Health concluded that the trial of the so-called Stamina method should not move forward.

    A similar panel reached the same conclusion in 2013, citing scientific flaws and safety concerns, but that ruling was set aside after a legal challenge. This time, Italy’s minister of health, Beatrice Lorenzin, says the new panel’s 3 October recommendation is final and has vowed to block any trial.

    Meanwhile, 20 people involved in promoting the therapy, including its leading proponent, are facing allegations of criminal conduct. In April, Italian prosecutors released a report alleging that the group was engaged in fraud by selling the therapy to patients. In November, a judge is expected to hold a hearing on whether the case will move forward.

  • Physicists who changed the light bulb win Nobel Prize

    From left to right: Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura.

    From left to right: Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura.

    AP Photo/Kyodo News

    In a choice that surprised Nobel watchers, this year's physics prize is going to three Japanese scientists not for a basic discovery, as is typical, but rather for an invention: the blue light-emitting diode (LED). The Nobel Committee recognized three researchers as contributing equally to the breakthrough: Isamu Akasaki of Meijo University in Nagoya and Nagoya University; Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University; and Shuji Nakamura, now of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Light-emitting diodes appeared in commercial applications in the early 1960s. But even until the early 1990s they only came in such colors as red and green. They were used as indicator lights in electronic devices and in electronic displays and, later, in high center-mount auto brake lights. But without a blue LED there was no way to create the white light needed for general purpose lighting.

    The challenge was in the materials. LEDs are semiconductor constructions that rely on an applied voltage to drive electrons and positive carriers called holes through different layers of a crystal sandwich. When electrons and holes come together in the so-called active layer of the sandwich, they give off photons—light. The wavelength of the light, and thus the color, depends on the properties of the crystal and the embedded impurities, which are called dopants. For years, major corporations tried to find the right combination of semiconductor materials and dopants to produce blue light, but they failed.

  • Updated: Fountain of youth: A congressman's plan to make NIH grantees younger

    NIH-funded researchers past retirement age now outnumber those under 36.

    NIH-funded researchers past retirement age now outnumber those under 36.

    National Institutes of Health

    A member of Congress has waded into the thorny issue of the graying of U.S. biomedical researchers with a radical solution: He wants to order the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to bring down the average age at which new investigators receive their first grant by 4 years within a decade. Not surprisingly, the idea is getting a rocky reception from biomedical research advocates.

    As a physician-researcher before he went into politics, “I saw firsthand how the most innovative thinking frequently came from younger scientists,” writes Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) today in an op-ed in The New York Times. He cites the well-worn statistic that the median age at which a Ph.D. researcher receives his or her first NIH R01, the agency’s bread-and-butter research grant, is now 42 (up from 36 on average in 1980). NIH is “aware” of the problem but “does not have a serious plan to fix it,” argues Harris, a former anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Indeed, the issue is not new: For years, the community has lamented the rising age of first-time investigators, which many attribute to ever-longer graduate studies and postdocs and a dearth of new faculty positions. Worried about losing NIH’s “seed corn,” in 2008 then–NIH Director Elias Zerhouni crafted a policy ensuring that these new investigators—and in particular “early stage investigators,” defined as those no more than 10 years out from finishing their Ph.D. or residency—have the same success rate as established investigators submitting a new grant. Many NIH institutes achieve this by setting a higher “payline,” or quality cutoff score, for grants from the new applicants. The policy and small programs aimed at young investigators have stabilized the average age for the first R01 grant for Ph.D. researchers at 42, but haven’t reduced it.

  • Updated: Brain's GPS earns three neuroscientists a Nobel Prize

    From left to right: Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O´Keefe.

    From left to right: Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O'Keefe.


    (Science has made this 2006 feature looking at the history of place and grid cells freely available)

    Research on how the brain knows where it is has bagged the 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, the Nobel Committee has announced from Stockholm. One half of the prize goes to John O'Keefe, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London. The other is for a husband-wife couple: May-Britt Moser, who is director of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim, and Edvard Moser, director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim.

    In the 1970s, O'Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system, a kind of nerve cell that is active when a rat is in a certain place in a room. Trying to learn more about how individual brain cells could control behavior, he recorded signals from individual nerve cells in a rat’s brain as the animal moved around a room. He noticed that a specific cell in the brain region called the hippocampus would signal each time the rat was in a specific part of the room. Different cells corresponded to different places, and O'Keefe concluded that these “place cells” allowed the rat to construct a mental map of the environment. The hippocampus stores multiple maps, based on the activity of place cell activities.

  • Twitter's science stars, the sequel

    Twitter's science stars, the sequel

    Martyn Green

    We listed. You tweeted (often in outrage). We listened (mostly). And now we’re doubling down on our recent list of Twitter’s 50 most popular researchers with a revision that names 100 of the most followed scientists on the social media platform. (See below for that list, or download our updated spreadsheet, which marks the additions in red.)

    The first list—in case you missed it last month—was part of a story examining the use of Twitter by scientists, prompted by the furor that had erupted over the so-called Kardashian Index (K-index). This metric, whose inventor says he meant it in fun, compared a researcher’s number of Twitter followers with the number of citations to his or her academic papers. Our story explored why some highly respected scientists had embraced tweeting, but we also made a stab at compiling a list of the most followed researchers on Twitter, which online we dared to headline “The top 50 science stars of Twitter.”

    Well, make a list of the “best,” “worst,” or “top” and you’re asking for trouble. Many, including biologist Jonathan Eisen, who was one of our original top 50 and who has argued that tweeting helps his career, took to Twitter to question why we conferred stardom based on a simple ranking of follower number, with some calling that a meaningless popularity contest. Others suggested alternative ways to measure the impact a scientist has on Twitter, among them retweets, direct mentions, and Klout Score. Euan Adie of Altmetric probably took the most serious look at an influence-based ranking of science-themed Twitter accounts with this blog post on the “The Real Science Stars of Twitter.”

  • How reliable is eyewitness testimony? Scientists weigh in

    Ben K Adams/Flickr

    The victim peers across the courtroom, points at a man sitting next to a defense lawyer, and confidently says, "That's him!"

    Such moments have a powerful sway on jurors who decide the fate of thousands of people every day in criminal cases. But how reliable is eyewitness testimony? A new report concludes that the use of eyewitness accounts need tighter control, and among its recommendations is a call for a more scientific approach to how eyewitnesses identify suspects during the classic police lineup.

    For decades, researchers have been trying to nail down what influences eyewitness testimony and how much confidence to place in it. After a year of sifting through the scientific evidence, a committee of psychologists and criminologists organized by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) has now gingerly weighed in. "This is a serious issue with major implications for our justice system," says committee member Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist at New York University in New York City. Their 2 October report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, is likely to change the way that criminal cases are prosecuted, says Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was an external reviewer of the report.

  • In NSF fight, was The Great Immensity the victim of a slight leak to Fox News?

    Republicans have criticized NSF's funding of The Great Immensity, a play about climate change that includes research data and interviews with scientists.

    Republicans have criticized NSF's funding of The Great Immensity, a play about climate change that includes research data and interviews with scientists.


    As the top Democrat on the House of Representatives science committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) has vociferously defended the National Science Foundation (NSF) against criticism from the panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), and other Republicans. This week, in a letter to Smith, Johnson described Smith’s 18-month inquiry into NSF’s grantsmaking process as “a fishing expedition” aimed ultimately at reducing NSF’s funding of the social and behavioral sciences. That inquiry has included having committee staffers pore over all the material NSF used in deciding to fund 50 grants that Smith regards as questionable.

    However, the most controversial passage in Johnson’s letter may be when she asks Smith if he played any role in an alleged leak of confidential information to She asserts that the breach, involving details of an NSF grant to a New York City theater group for a play about climate change and biodiversity, was designed “to embarrass the agency and the grantee.”

    The $697,000 grant helped fund a musical called The Great Immensity. The play opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in February 2014 before moving to New York City in April for a 4-week run.

    Smith has repeatedly criticized the award and other projects related to public understanding of climate change. The production, now closed, also has become a favorite target for conservative media. Last month, for example, ran an article headlined “Curtain, reviews come down on taxpayer-funded climate change musical,” in which Smith declares: “There is no doubt that the Great Immensity was a great mistake.”

  • Hong Kong profs step in to soothe protesters

    Hong Kong's umbrella revolution

    Hong Kong's umbrella revolution

    Pasu Au Yeung/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The heads of two of the city’s universities have found themselves thrust into the middle of the escalating standoff between the Hong Kong government and student activists demanding democratic reforms.

    Yesterday, with the clock ticking toward a midnight showdown between the two sides, Peter Mathieson, a physician-researcher who became vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in April, stepped onto a makeshift platform along a major road in front of the seat of the Hong Kong legislature. He chose that location, he said, "on the advice of our student leaders," who recommended it as the protest site most in need of calming words. Mathieson praised the protesters for earning goodwill through their orderly and peaceful demonstrations. "Please, please, put safety first, don’t provoke any conflict," Mathieson said, his checked shirt soaked with sweat in the sweltering heat. Otherwise, he warned, "everything you’ve achieved so far could be lost."

    He urged the crowd to remain calm and wait for a press conference announced by the government for 11:30 p.m. And then Joseph Sung, a physician who is vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), got up and made a similar plea in Cantonese.

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