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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Australia's New Government Cuts Climate Panels

    Decommissioned. Australia’s newly elected government has told environmental scientist Tim Flannery that it is disbanding the advisory Climate Commission he led.

    Climate Commission

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—On its second day in office, Australia’s new conservative government has fulfilled an election promise by shuttering the independent Climate Commission. It also began drafting legislation to abolish a second government body, the Climate Change Authority.

    Both organizations were established by the previous Labor administration. The commission was designed to provide the public with an “independent and reliable” source of information about the science of climate change, as well as global policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The authority’s role was to advise the government on the operation of carbon abatement programs and other climate change initiatives. The moves are part of a larger overhaul spearheaded by the new government.

    Critics aren’t happy. “These sorts of issues are not going to go away just because we ignore them,” said Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist and a member of the Climate Change Authority, prior to the decisions.

  • Golden Rice Not So Golden for Tufts

    Golden rice (right) protects against vitamin A deficiency in children.

    Worth its weight in gold? Golden rice (right) protects against vitamin A deficiency in children.

    Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

    A study in which Chinese children were fed a small amount of genetically modified rice violated university and U.S. federal rules on human research, according to a statement issued yesterday by Tufts University in Boston, whose scientists led the study. Tufts has barred the principal investigator, Guangwen Tang, from doing human research for 2 years and will require her to undergo training in research on human subjects.

    In August 2012, Tang and colleagues published a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing that golden rice is a promising source of vitamin A in Chinese children aged 6 to 8 years old. The study ignited a media firestorm in China a few weeks later, after Greenpeace issued a statement claiming that the children were used as "guinea pigs" and labeling the study a "scandal of international proportions." Three Chinese collaborators who initially denied involvement in the study, according to media reports, were punished for their participation in December, following an official investigation in China, and parents of the children received generous financial compensation from the Chinese government.

    Golden rice contains β-carotene, a compound that is turned into vitamin A inside the body and that gives the rice its trademark yellow hue. It was developed in the 1990s to help fight vitamin A deficiency, a major global health problem estimated to cause blindness in up to half a million children every year, half of whom die within 12 months after losing their eyesight.

    The study that has drawn so much opprobrium, carried out in 2008 among 72 children in a primary school in China's Hunan province, was designed to find out how well golden rice is converted into vitamin A inside kids' bodies. The results were good news for supporters of the rice variety: One serving could provide more than half of a child's daily vitamin A needs, the researchers reported.

  • BRAIN Initiative Gets (a Little) More Detailed

    Shaping up. In a highly anticipated report, the mysterious BRAIN Initiative begins to take form.

    NIH

    Last April, the neuroscience community erupted in a flurry of speculation when President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative—a proposed $110 million investment in neuroscience research. To hammer out a plan for its $40 million contribution, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recruited 15 top scientists to identify research priorities. Yesterday, after a summer of meetings and discussion, the scientific team released its first attempt to put some meat on the bones of the project.

    The team’s report lists nine top research priorities, all geared toward developing tools to help scientists understanding how linked “circuits” of neurons work together, to produce behaviors such as emotion, for example. The report highlights the need for cheaper, faster technologies that can trace connections between individual brain cells and record large networks of cells acting in synchrony. It calls for development of tools that can manipulate neural circuits in both animals and humans, and for new ways of handling and processing the vast amounts of data that the BRAIN project is expected to produce. And it lays out principles for how the research within the BRAIN Initiative should proceed, such as sharing data publicly and helping researchers learn new skills.

    People who follow the field of neuroscience “won’t find anything in these recommendations boggling or shocking,” says Gerald Rubin, executive director of the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. Overall, the recommendations are “fair, balanced, and reflect consensus in the field,” he says. That something-for-everyone approach, however, means that the $40 million that NIH has pledged to the project will run out long before it meets its goals, he cautions. “This is a call to action to Congress” to see if the project can get $500 million—not $110 million—in government investment, Rubin says. In the meantime, the advisory committee will need to sort through its ideas and make tough decisions about which are ready to scale up, he says.

  • The True Cost of Becoming an Academician in China?

    Failed candidate. Zhang Shuguang stood trial on corruption charges in a Beijing court last week.

    Xinhua

    Revelations of government corruption hardly raise eyebrows in China these days. But Zhang Shuguang’s exploits have managed to shock a jaded populace. The “father” of China’s high-speed rail system, standing trial on corruption charges in Beijing last week, testified that he solicited bribes from businessmen because he needed money—a whopping 23 million yuan (about $3.8 million)—to burnish his credentials and influence votes in the biannual elections for membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 2007 and 2009. It turned out to be money ill spent, in more ways than one: Zhang failed to get elected not once, but twice.   

    Becoming a CAS academician, or yuanshi, is considered one of the highest honors for a scientist in China. But unlike academy memberships in many other countries, the yuanshi title bestows more than respect: It comes with a host of privileges as well. For example, academicians can keep their jobs as long they wish; everyone else in government service, from China’s president on down, face mandatory retirement. Academicians help set the nation’s science policy, influence funding decisions, and some of them control large sums of research money.

    The railway ministry, which was broken up in March during an ongoing government crackdown on corruption, wanted its very own academician. According to an investigative report published in December 2011 in the Chinese business newsmagazine Century Weekly, then-minister Liu Zhijun picked Zhang, a deputy chief engineer, to be the ministry’s nominated candidate for CAS membership in the 2007 elections. (In July, Liu received a death sentence, with a 2-year reprieve, after he was convicted of graft and abuse of power by a Beijing court.)

  • U.N. Experts Find Convincing Evidence of Large-Scale Sarin Attack in Syria

    Reporting in. Swedish researcher Åke Sellström (left), head of the chemical weapons team working in Syria, hands a copy of the group’s findings to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

    UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

    A team of U.N. inspectors has found “clear and convincing evidence” that a chemical weapons attack using the nerve agent sarin killed a large number of civilians near Damascus on 21 August. Although the team’s report does not discuss who was responsible for the attack, it includes information on the rockets used to deliver the sarin that some countries say implicates the Syrian government.

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who received the report yesterday from team leader and Swedish scientist Åke Sellström, said today at a press conference: “The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale. This is a war crime. … It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988,” an attack that killed at least 3200 Kurds. (U.S. officials say 1400 people died in the recent Syrian attack.) But Ban stopped short of assigning blame, saying that was not the mission of the U.N. team.

    The group, which included experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, visited the Ghouta suburb of Damascus between 26 August and 29 August. Their 38-page report (including appendices) contains sections on environmental samples such as soil and swipes from rockets; interviews with more than 50 survivors and with medical staff members; and blood, urine, and hair samples from survivors. Chemical testing on the biological and environmental samples was done by four OPCW-designated labs in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland.

  • Australia's New Science-Lite Government

    Downgrade. Tony Abbott, prime minister-elect of Australia, has decided not to appoint a minister for science in his new government.

    Wikimedia

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia’s scientific community and incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott are off to a rocky start. Unveiling his picks for Cabinet posts at a press conference in Canberra today, Abbott left science out in the cold.

  • Sequester Cuts May Have Driven NIH Grant Success Rates Down to 14% in 2013

    Call to action. NIH Director Francis Collins (fourth from left) urged the audience at a Research!America forum to push for more biomedical research funding.

    Research!America

    The automatic spending cuts and other reductions to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) budget this year have caused slightly less damage than expected, NIH Director Francis Collins said yesterday. Preliminary data show that about 50 more grants were funded than projected, he said at a forum sponsored by Research!America. But success rates may have plunged even further than the agency predicted.

    NIH’s budget shrunk by 5.5% this year, to $29.15 billion. As a result, NIH expects to fund about 650 fewer grants than it did the previous year. About 150, or nearly a quarter, of those grants were from investigators hoping to renew their award, Collins said. “We’re losing what we’ve already invested in,” he lamented during a panel discussion. In May, NIH had estimated that it would make 703 fewer new and competing awards for a total of 8283, but the new figure bumps that up to 8336.

    The success rate—the number of proposals receiving funding divided by the number of proposals reviewed—could drop as low as 14% or 15%, Collins told ScienceInsider. That is lower than the 17% rate that NIH had anticipated. A larger than expected rise in applications this year could be the cause of the stiffer competition.

  • TV Host’s Comments on Human Evolution Draw Fire

    Evolving views. TV host David Attenborough, shown here working with a film crew at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is stirring up discussion with comments on human evolution.

    NASA/Wikimedia

    Have humans stopped evolving? That question has been getting some rare media and blog attention this week ever since David Attenborough, the 87-year-old British naturalist and broadcaster, declared: “I think that we’ve stopped evolving.”

    In an interview published this week in the magazine Radio Times, the influential Attenborough, host of numerous television documentaries on natural science, held forth on a number of topics. At one point, he explained that so many more babies survive childbirth now that natural selection, as proposed by Charles Darwin, cannot act on humans to favor infants with traits that are beneficial today or to weed out those with adaptations that impair survival. “We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95–99 per cent of our babies that are born. We are the only species to have put a halt to natural selection, of its own free will, as it were,” he said.

  • U.S. Science Laureate Bill Hits Roadblock

    Science/Wikimedia

    Climate science skeptics have derailed a congressional proposal to create the honorary position of U.S. science laureate. But proponents haven’t abandoned the idea of giving someone a national platform to foster public understanding of science and serve as a role model.

    On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to give swift approval to a bill introduced this spring by a bipartisan coalition of legislators in both the House and the Senate. The legislation would allow the president to name not more than three laureates at a time to an unpaid position that could last up to 2 years. The idea was considered so innocuous that it was to be brought up under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority and allowing no amendments.

    The bill was never discussed in any committee, however, and Larry Hart of the American Conservative Union hit the roof when he saw it on the House calendar for the next day. (The Washington, D.C.-based group calls itself “the oldest and largest grassroots conservative organization in the nation.”) In a letter to other conservative organizations and every House member, Hart said the bill would give President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint someone “who will share his view that science should serve political ends, on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases.” He also called the bill “a needless addition to the long list of presidential appointments.”

  • No Point in Testing Controversial Stem Cell Treatment, Italian Panel Says

    Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin

    Italian Ministry of Health

    ROME—An expert panel that the Italian government asked to come up with a trial design for a controversial Italian stem cell therapy has thrown in the towel. The group, made up of top Italian scientists, has concluded that the treatment—designed by the Stamina Foundation and the focus of an intense public debate in Italy—has no scientific foundation and that there is no point in doing the study, for which the Italian government has allocated €3 million.

    The panel has sent its verdict to Italian Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin today, according to a ministry spokesperson; Lorenzin is now reviewing the report, which will be released tomorrow, the spokesperson says. But a source with inside knowledge of the deliberations told ScienceInsider earlier this week that the panel, in a meeting on 29 August, concluded that the Stamina method has no scientific merit. Italian news agency ANSA reported the same in a story published last night.

    “The rationale on which the treatment is based was found to be both unclear and scientifically inconsistent," according to the source, "while there was no evidence of efficacy in growing new neurons.”

    Stamina's mesenchymal stem cell therapy has inflamed a passionate debate in Italy. Stem cell scientists say it lacks any scientific credibility, but patients and their supporters have demanded that the therapy be made available for a range of diseases for which Stamina claims benefit. In May, the Italian Parliament decided that the therapy should undergo a formal clinical trial; in July, Italy's new minister of health, Lorenzin, appointed a top-level scientific committee to review Stamina's clinical protocol and design the study.

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