Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Shutdown Static Blinds U.S. Radio Telescopes

    Going dark. A 25-meter radio telescope in New Mexico, part of the Very Long Baseline Array, is just one of a number of U.S. radio telescopes being turned off today as a result of the government shutdown.

    NRAO/Ian Parker

    U.S. radio telescopes are going off the air as a result of the government shutdown. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is turning off its three U.S.-based facilities today because of a lack of funds, although it will be able to continue supporting a fourth international telescope based in Chile for a short while longer.

    “We’re really at a dead halt,” NRAO Director Anthony Beasley tells ScienceInsider from the group’s headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some 385 NRAO staff members are being sent home, with about 90 remaining to look after sensitive equipment. Overall, it costs about $150,000 per day to keep the observatories running, Beasley estimates.

    NRAO, largely funded by the National Science Foundation, is a coalition of universities that operates four facilities that collect electromagnetic signals from space:

  • Tales From the Shutdown: Gets Exemption

    Restarted. After a complaint from a member of Congress, NIH has found a way to keep updating its clinical trials registry, which enables trials to move forward.

    A plea from a federal lawmaker has allowed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to update a clinical trials database that had been frozen as a result of the U.S. government shutdown, according to The Boston Globe.

    Earlier this week, the Globe reported on a local man with advanced cancer who could not receive an experimental treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute because the trial had not yet been entered in, the federal trials registry. Like other databases run by NIH, the site was still online but not being updated.

  • Shutdown Won't Prevent NASA's MAVEN Mission From Lifting Off

    Whew! Researchers had worried the U.S. government shutdown might cause the MAVEN spacecraft (artist’s conception, above) to miss its launch date. But NASA officials say it’s OK to spend money on the project.

    MAVEN/Lockheed Martin

    MAVEN is a go after all. After days of worries that the U.S. government shutdown might delay the launch of the Mars probe, NASA officials ruled today that work on the spacecraft can proceed, mission principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells ScienceInsider.

    Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) is designed to study the martian atmosphere, in part to figure out how its climate apparently became inhospitable for life. It is scheduled to launch sometime between 18 November and 7 December, but the congressional impasse over spending had put meeting that schedule in doubt. NASA has essentially shuttered its space science operations.

    But MAVEN is also needed to help relay signals from Earth to the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers now roaming Mars, officials found, making the mission eligible for emergency funding during the shutdown.

    Jakosky explained the details in an e-mail:

  • U.S. Senate Blocks House Plan to Exempt NIH From Shutdown

    No deal. Senate Democrats have rejected a House plan to restore funding for the National Institutes of Health.


    The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate has blocked a House of Representatives plan to restore current funding levels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through 15 December, saying House Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which federal agencies they’d like to reopen.

    “We are also not going to choose between veterans [and] cancer research," said Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate majority leader, before using a procedural move this afternoon to essentially kill the House NIH measure.

    Nearly three-quarters of NIH’s staff are now off the job as a result of the U.S. government shutdown that began on 1 October. It has also stopped processing grant applications and accepting new patients at its clinical research center in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

    Yesterday, the specter of children with cancer being turned away from NIH’s door became a political talking point for both sides in the shutdown battle, with Democrats and Republicans accusing the other of ignoring the plight of the sick. In response, the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives offered a series of bills that would temporarily reopen NIH and several other popular agencies, including the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution. Senate Democrats, however, rejected that approach, saying Republicans should pass a bill restoring funding for the entire government, not just bits and pieces.

  • Company's 'Designer Baby' Patent Divides Bioethicists

    23andMe, the test-your-own-genes company, has come under fire on moral grounds today for patenting a DNA prediction service that critics say could lead to “designer babies.”

    The company received a U.S. patent last week for software it offers clients to estimate the chances that a theoretical child might have key genetic traits.

    Called the “Family Traits Inheritance Calculator,” it does not examine disease risks but predicts six variable benign traits, including “eye color” and “muscle performance,” based on how parental DNA would likely combine.

    23andMe has offered the service for years—it applied for the patent in 2008—but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision has brought new attention to its potential. A bioethics commentary out today—written for the journal Genetics in Medicine by lead author Sigrid Sterckx of Ghent University in Belgium, and three others—suggests that U.S. authorities might have withheld the patent for moral reasons. “[S]electing children in ways such as those patented by 23andMe is hugely ethically controversial,” they write.

  • Despite U.S. Shutdown, Many Marine Researchers Still Afloat

    Still sailing. A U.S. government shutdown hasn't idled the Ronald H. Brown, a research vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, although it is now in port in Brazil.


    Ahoy! Despite some reports to the contrary, many U.S.-funded research vessels are not returning to port because of the U.S. government shutdown—at least until December.

    The American Geophysical Union (AGU) caused consternation among some marine scientists on 1 October when it suggested in a press release that government research vessels would have to return to port if the shutdown lasted more than 24 hours. But ship operators tell ScienceInsider that while some vessels have been idled by the lack of government funds, many major ships used by scientists are still under way. 

    “None of our ships have been recalled to port,” says Jon Alberts, executive secretary of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), which counts 19 vessels in a fleet heavily used by academic researchers. It includes ships owned by the government but operated by nonprofit partners and university. UNOLS ships are funded on a calendar-year basis and have money to operate through 31 December 2013, Alberts explained.

  • Shutdown Throws Wrench in Scientific Meetings

    Go to the video. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has videotaped a talk for an AIDS conference in Spain next week in case the shutdown prevents him from attending.

    AIDS Vaccine Barcelona 2013

    The U.S. government shutdown that sent 800,000 federal workers home this week, including many researchers, is now having a ripple effect on scientific meetings, blocking federal scientists from attending and directly canceling some meetings.

    A White House-sponsored meeting set for today on using big data was canceled; another on the microbiome scheduled for Monday sponsored by AAAS (ScienceInsider’s publisher) is also postponed. As Science Careers has reported, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation peer-review panel meetings are on hold, which will delay the review of grant proposals.

    Other meetings are being affected by the absence of NIH participants. A meeting in Baltimore on HIV in children took place without many NIH researchers, according to the Miami Herald. Lamented Steven Lipshultz, a researcher from the University of Miami in Florida: “We’re looking at data from all over the country. And there is no one from the government there.”

  • In Japan, Novartis Official Apologizes for Problematic Drug Trials, Promises Reforms

    Sorry. Novartis Pharmaceuticals executive David Epstein, who expressed regret about a flawed clinical trial of one of the company’s drugs, at a press conference today in Tokyo.

    Dennis Normile/Science

    TOKYO—After a deep ritual bow while cameras clicked and flashed, David Epstein, division head of Novartis Pharmaceuticals, apologized for "the great concern and inconvenience experienced by patients, their families, and health care practitioners" as a result of flawed Japanese clinical trials involving one of the company’s drugs. Novartis employees participated in the trials of the hypertension drug Diovan, but the potential conflict was not reported by researchers. And a ministry of health panel reported earlier this week that there was data manipulation in scientific reports resulting from the trials, but could not conclude who did it or why.

    Diovan, known generically as valsartan, was approved to treat hypertension in Japan in 2000. Later clinical trials conducted at several universities sought to study whether the drug also helped prevent heart disease and stroke. Investigators found that a former Novartis employee helped two university research teams with data analysis, though that person's link to the company was not disclosed in published papers.

    The various investigations have indicated that the university researchers turned to Novartis employees for help in the statistical analysis. "In retrospect, people did not have the skills in academia to conduct these trials, nor did we have the controls in place to ensure our people participated in an appropriate manner," Epstein said. He said that he agreed with the interim finding of the health ministry panel that both Novartis and the universities involved shared blame.

  • Astronaut's Help Gives Hollywood's Take on Space Some Gravity

    Lost in space. New film Gravity sets astronauts adrift.

    © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    Catherine “Cady” Coleman is a chemist, former Air Force officer, flute player, scuba diver, and astronaut. And most recently: Hollywood adviser. In 2011, while serving 159 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Coleman spoke with actress Sandra Bullock, helping Bullock parse her role as a newbie astronaut destined for disaster in the dizzying new space thriller Gravity, opening tomorrow. The film sets Bullock’s character adrift in space after a catastrophic collision with space debris destroys her shuttle.

    In a recent interview with ScienceInsider, Coleman said her days in space were, by design, never as eventful as in the movies. But for her, Gravity captures the essence of life 400 kilometers above Earth. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Q: What questions did Bullock ask you? What did she want to know?

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