Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH in uproar over report slamming Clinical Center, leadership shakeup

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    National Institutes of Health

    A decision to overhaul the leadership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center after an outside review group found serious patient safety problems has sparked an uproar at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. In a recent letter, department chiefs at the center wrote that the review, triggered by problems with a drug production facility, unfairly concluded that patient safety has been compromised across the research hospital. They say the working group’s report has demoralized staff, worried patients, and “demonized” the center’s leadership.

    Patient advocates and clinical research leaders across NIH have also written letters taking issue with the review. NIH Director Francis Collins yesterday responded to one of the letters, from Clinical Center department heads. In a statement, Collins said he is “taking the comments … very seriously. They are highly dedicated senior leaders, and I have great respect for all of them.” At the same time, he “stand[s] by” the outside working group’s process and expertise and agrees that the center needs “more central authority and accountability.” Collins was expected to meet with clinical leaders today to discuss their concerns.

  • Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

    Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

    2013 Intel finalist Alexa Dantzler has become an advocate for more diversity in student science competitions.

    Intel STS

    Alexa Dantzler fell in love with science as a freshman at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. And by the time she graduated in 2013, she had been chosen as one of 40 finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition (STS). 

    But Dantzler, whose ethnic background is Slovak, Korean, and African-American, was troubled by how few of the other competitors were from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. So, soon after she arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, Dantzler started a program to attract more students “who look like me” into university research and science competitions. The Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the Washington, D.C.–based organization that runs the STS competition, was thinking along the same lines. And last month it chose Dantzler as one of a handful of “advocates” to draw more underrepresented minorities into research-based competitions.  

  • Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

    Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

    The Human Genome Project–Write would design human chromosomes from the ground up.


    Last year, researchers working to synthesize the genome of a strain of yeast began to eye a much bigger prize: assembling from scratch the 3 billion base pairs of DNA that drive a human cell. The idea caught the attention of other prominent scientists, and inspired a proposal published online in Science today. The so-called Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write) aims to synthesize entire genomes—of humans and other species—from their chemical components, and get them to function in living cells.

    The initiative generated buzz last month after an invitation-only meeting to discuss the prospect at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Its organizers aimed to keep the details under wraps until this more formal proposal was published—a move that rankled those hoping for a broader public discussion about its ethical, legal, and social implications. Some speculated that scientists would use these engineered cells to create designer humans with no genetic parents.

    The new proposal makes clear that HGP-write has no such aim, the authors say. The main goal instead is to drive down the cost of engineering large stretches of DNA and testing their activity in cells. “HGP-write would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude,” the authors write.

  • U.K. government isn’t tracking policy-related research

    U.K. government building

    The U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change

    Wayland Smith/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Government agencies in the United Kingdom do a poor job of keeping tabs on research they fund to set policies, according to a report released today by Sense About Science, a London-based group that advocates for the use of scientific evidence in policymaking. The report also described examples of delays in releasing the results of what it called “politically awkward” studies.

    “I am very concerned by the evidence from this enquiry,” Anne Glover, of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and a former science adviser to the European Commission, said in a statement.

    The analysis was done by Stephen Sedley, a retired judge in the United Kingdom and the European Court of Human Rights who is a trustee for the advocacy group. It focuses on research with immediate relevance to public policy, rather than basic scientific research. 

  • Scientific sleuths hunt for Zika-carrying mosquitoes


    Researchers in Brazil have captured thousands of mosquitoes to test them for Zika and other viruses.

    AP Photo/Felipe Dana

    Zika virus, the once obscure pathogen now widely feared for causing birth defects and other problems, has spread very far very quickly since an outbreak was first noticed in northeast Brazil in early 2015. It has reached more than 
40 countries across the Americas, even making it to the Cape Verde islands, off the western coast of Africa. More than a million people have become infected.

    As public health officials try to contain the epidemic, researchers are racing to answer a key question with important implications for which areas are at risk, and what methods might work to slow its spread: Which mosquitoes are transmitting the virus? Answering the question is no small challenge. Scientists need evidence from both lab-raised and wild-caught mosquitoes to make the case that a given species is guilty.

    Just last week, a team in Rio de Janeiro announced that it had nabbed several 
Aedes aegypti infected with Zika—the first infected mosquitoes found in Brazil. The species, the yellow fever mosquito, has long been the prime suspect, but some scientists believe the Zika virus must have other carriers to have spread so quickly—and they have field and lab studies underway to resolve the issue. Until that evidence is in, “we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” says Duane Gubler, a virologist at Duke-NUS Medical School 
in Singapore.

  • New chair of science board helps make NSF’s case to U.S. Congress

    New chair of science board helps make NSF’s case to U.S. Congress

    Maria Zuber.

    Bryce Vickmark/MIT

    The new chair of the board that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to continue the board’s stepped-up efforts to educate Congress on how NSF does its business.

    This month Maria Zuber, a planetary geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, took over from Dan Arvizu as chair of the National Science Board. The presidentially appointed body has traditionally kept a low profile. But in 2014 Arvizu asked Zuber to design a bigger role for the board in response to criticism from Republican legislators that NSF was funding frivolous research.

    The board’s response has been face-to-face meetings with individual legislators that take place after the end of the board’s regular 2-day sessions at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Over the past 18 months Arvizu and Zuber have helped connect a small contingent of board members with a score of legislators from both parties. Zuber and Arvizu say each side has learned from the other.

  • After meeting Nobel laureates, French president backs off ‘suicidal’ science cuts

    After meeting Nobelists, French president backs off ‘suicidal’ science budget

    French President François Hollande (right) and mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani at yesterday's meeting.

    Présidence de la République

    Some of France's most illustrious scientists were outraged—and yesterday, their president listened. After meeting five Nobel laureates and a winner of the Fields Medal, the world's top honor in mathematics, French President François Hollande has canceled more than half of an unexpected €256 million cut in research and higher education budgets that had caused consternation in the country's scientific community.

    The six laureates and two other Nobelists likened the cuts to "scientific and industrial suicide" in a letter published in Le Monde last week. The presidents of the scientific councils of five national agencies called the measures, introduced to offset unforeseen government expenses, "brutal" and said they would discourage young people from entering science.

    But in a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris at the president's invitation, "it was immediately clear that he was convinced by our arguments," physicist and 2012 Nobel Prize–winner Serge Haroche of the Collège de France in Paris tells ScienceInsider. "He understood that this was giving the wrong signal to the scientific community."

  • Massive bleaching killed 35% of the coral on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef

    Dead (brown) and dying staghorn coral on the central Great Barrier Reef in May.

    Dead (brown) and dying staghorn coral on the central Great Barrier Reef in May.

    Johanna Leonhardt

    Researchers have confirmed the grim toll of an unusually hot summer on Australia's Great Barrier Reef: Mass bleaching has killed 35% of corals on the northern and central sections of the 2300-kilometer-long system. On 24 of the 84 reefs surveyed, 50% of the corals have perished, including specimens that were 50 to 100 years old. "They can't recover in anything less than that period, certainly not in 10 years," says Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville.

    Aerial surveys earlier this year found extensive and severe bleaching on the northern two-thirds of the reef. A combination of global warming and the ongoing El Niño, a periodic phenomenon that brings unusually warm water to the equatorial Pacific, warmed coastal waters. In reaction to hot water, corals lose the colorful symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae they host and turn white. The white coral skeletons are visible from the air. But brownish algae soon smother dead corals, after which the reef's condition can only be determined by close-up inspection. Hughes and his colleagues, who previously conducted aerial surveys, announced the results of their in-water confirmations in a media release today.

  • Questions abound after study links tumors to cellphone radiation

    Questions abound after study links tumors to cellphone radiation

    New study has raised fresh questions about the health impacts of cellphone use.

    Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Male rats exposed to cellphone radiation in a large U.S. government study were more likely to develop rare brain and heart cancers, a preliminary analysis has found, adding weight to concerns the ubiquitous devices could pose a health risk to people.

    But though the study is the most comprehensive yet of lab animals exposed to cellphone radiation, researchers say it’s far from conclusive. And the findings pose a number of puzzles. It’s not clear why cancer rates rose in male but not female rats, for instance, or why rats exposed to cellphone radiation lived, on average, longer than radiation-free rats. The study also does not pinpoint a biological mechanism that would account for the findings. And, as usual, it comes with the caveat that studies of rodents can mean little for humans.

    The findings, posted on the bioRxiv preprint server late on 26 May by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a multiagency research effort, have already begun rippling through scientific and political circles, triggering calls for additional research and, potentially, additional warnings about cellphone use.

  • In dramatic statement, European leaders call for ‘immediate’ open access to all scientific papers by 2020

    In dramatic statement, European leaders call for ‘immediate’ open access to all scientific papers by 2020

    The Competitiveness Council meeting in Brussels this week.

    EU Competitiveness Council

    In what European science chief Carlos Moedas calls a "life-changing" move, E.U. member states today agreed on an ambitious new open-access (OA) target. All scientific papers should be freely available by 2020, the Competitiveness Council—a gathering of ministers of science, innovation, trade, and industry—concluded after a 2-day meeting in Brussels. But some observers are warning that the goal will be difficult to achieve.

    The OA goal is part of a broader set of recommendations in support of open science, a concept that also includes improved storage of and access to research data. The Dutch government, which currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency, had lobbied hard for Europe-wide support for open science, as had Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research and innovation.

    "We probably don't realize it yet, but what the Dutch presidency has achieved is just unique and huge," Moedas said at a press conference. "The commission is totally committed to help move this forward."

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