Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. looking to expert panel to predict future GM products

    U.S. regulators are thinking about how they should approach the use of new biotechnologies that alter common crops such as corn.

    U.S. regulators are thinking about how they should approach the use of new biotechnologies that alter common crops such as corn.

    United Soybean Board/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The U.S. government is hoping an expert panel will be the next best thing to a crystal ball in helping predict what the future of biotechnology holds. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) in Washington, D.C., yesterday held the first public meeting of a new committee of academic and industry researchers, tasked with forecasting what biotechnologies will emerge in the next 5 to 10 years, and what new types of risk they might pose to the environment or human health.

    The effort comes as U.S. regulatory agencies prepare to update the legal framework for evaluating biotechnology products.

    The White House announced last July that it would revise the nearly 24-year-old framework for how companies should clear agricultural biotech products, such as genetically modified (GM) crops and animals, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). New gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR have sped the development of new crop varieties and animals, but products based on engineered organisms sometimes face a web of complex and overlapping regulations before they can reach the market.

  • Extreme inbreeding likely spells doom for Isle Royale wolves

    Extreme inbreeding likely spells doom for Isle Royale wolves

    Isle Royale's surviving male wolf, now 8 years old, trails the surviving female, now 6 years old, in this 2015 photo. Half siblings as well as father and daughter, they are doomed as mates.

    Rolf Peterson

    Like a spent royal family dynasty, the wolves of Isle Royale, Michigan, have reached a genetic dead end. The two wolves remaining on the Lake Superior island, a male and female, are more inbred than any known wild wolves—and more inbred than some infamous human families; their relationship is so close that “we don’t have a word to describe [it],” says wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson of Michigan Technological University in Houghton. “There is no reason to expect this pair will flourish. “

    The two wolves are the only survivors of an iconic population. Since 1958, researchers have tracked the fate of wolves and their moose prey on the island, a U.S. national park and wilderness area, in the world’s longest running predator-prey study, a staple of ecology textbooks .  The National Park Service (NPS) today released the annual report of the Isle Royale predator-prey study, now in its 58th year.

  • Q&A: What can $250 million achieve? Chief of new cancer immunotherapy institute explains

    Jeff Bluestone in 2012.

    Jeff Bluestone in 2012.

    Cindy Chew/CTSI at UCSF (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Can a tech entrepreneur come up with a better way to do cancer research? That’s a gamble that Napster co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Sean Parker made this week when he put $250 million into a new institute for research on cancer immunotherapy. By comparison, the proposed 2017 price tag for Vice President Biden’s cancer moonshot effort is $680 million for the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Cancer Institute. (That amount, however, would likely be an annual funding level continued in subsequent years.)

    Parker wants to build on stunning successes with treatments that harness the immune system to fight cancer. Engineered immune cells called T cells and drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors” that make tumors visible to the immune system have beaten back tumors for years—but only in some patients with certain types of cancer. Parker says that expanding the reach of immunotherapy will take “a more entrepreneurial approach.”

    His Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy will create a network of centers at six cancer research centers: the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; the University of Pennsylvania; Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. (Another big player, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is not on the list, but received $125 million in gifts last month for its own center for cancer immunotherapy.)

  • No pressure: NSF test finds eliminating deadlines halves number of grant proposals

    Roger Wakimoto, assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation, reports a new approach to relieving grant proposal pressure is working.

    Roger Wakimoto, assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation, reports a new approach to relieving grant proposal pressure is working.

    Sandy Schaeffer/National Science Foundation

    In recent years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, has struggled with the logistics of evaluating a rising number of grant proposals that has propelled funding rates to historic lows. Annual or semiannual grant deadlines lead to enormous spikes in submissions, which in turn cause headaches for the program managers who have to organize merit review panels. Now, one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

    This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. “We’ve found something that many programs around the foundation can use,” Wakimoto told the advisory committee on 13 April.

    The idea is one of several that NSF has tested for easing the strain on the merit review system. The no deadline idea began several years ago with a small grant program for instruments and facilities within the earth sciences division of the geosciences directorate. After making the switch in 2011, the program saw a more than 50% drop in proposals—and that number has stayed down ever since.

  • How grad students get paid affects where they work

    A postdoctoral researcher, Carlee Ashley, conducts cancer research at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2011. Sandia researcher and University of New Mexico professor Jeff Brinker watches.

    A postdoctoral researcher, Carlee Ashley, conducts cancer research at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2011. Sandia researcher and University of New Mexico professor Jeff Brinker watches.

    Sandia Labs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    It’s only one study. But a novel analysis finding a link between how U.S. graduate students in the biomedical sciences are funded and their first job after earning their Ph.D. turns one piece of conventional wisdom on its head: Students supported on a research grant are more likely to take a research job than those funded by other mechanisms.

    That finding, which appears in the July issue of Research Policy but was posted online last week, adds fuel to an already heated debate over the best way to prepare the next generation of biomedical scientists. It’s also causing some serious head scratching among researchers who study the U.S. biomedical workforce. To understand why, here’s some background on support for graduate education in the sciences.

  • Harsh grades for ‘Europe’s MIT’

    What’s the face of U.S innovation? Don’t think Bill Gates

    Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) gets poor grades from the European Union’s financial watchdog. In a report released today, the European Court of Auditors said that EIT needs some fundamental changes if it is to fulfill its job of sparking innovation in Europe.

    EIT, officially launched in 2008, was the idea of former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso. He hoped that the European Union could create an institute that would help forge links between education, innovative science, and business, to overcome a perceived “innovation gap” in Europe. (The name was supposed to be reminiscent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.) The idea was widely criticized from the start, with various expert commissions concluding that it was “ill-conceived and doomed to failure” and “a politically motivated idea, starting from a wrong premise.”

    The first few years were indeed rough, says Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, a funding body for Europe’s top scientists, and an early critic of the concept. But after a couple of years and a management overhaul, she says, “in the last couple of years they have really made progress.” EIT now has five so-called Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), which bring together scientists from universities, research institutes, and businesses who are focused on a given theme such as climate, sustainable energy, or digital technology. 

  • Brazil president signs law legalizing renegade cancer pill


    For 20 years, synthetic phosphoethanolamine was made in this University of São Paulo lab and distributed to cancer patients without regulatory approval.

    Cecilia Bastos/Jornal da USP

    Responding to political pressure and popular demand for a largely untested cancer drug, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law today a measure that allows the renegade compound—synthetic phosphoethanolamine—to be produced and sold legally as a cancer therapy in Brazil.

    Scientists poured scorn on the decision, contending it puts patients at risk and undermines the authority of the Brazilian Health Surveillance Agency (the equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to regulate research and approval of new drugs based on internationally accepted safety and efficacy protocols. This was a “political decision inspired by a messianic surge of pseudoscience,” says Gustavo Fernandes, president of the Brazilian Society of Clinical Oncology in Brasília. “It was the worst possible way of dealing with this problem.”

    The “cancer pill” sparked a national debate last year after Brazilian media carried testimonials of patients claiming that it relieved symptoms or even cured their cancer. The compound was developed in the early 1990s by Gilberto Chierice, an analytical chemist at the University of São Paulo whose lab distributed it to patients free of charge for several years, without any regulatory approval or clinical oversight.

  • Congressional budgetmakers would hold line on Department of Energy research

    Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

    Andrew Magill/Flickr

    Scientists supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) likely won't be happy with Congress's version of the budget for the agency in fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October. In February, the Obama administration proposed a 4.2% increase, to $5.572 billion, in the budget of DOE's basic research wing, the Office of Science—not counting an extra $100 million request dedicated for university research that would not be part of the usual budget process. However, yesterday both the Senate and House of Representatives appropriations subcommittees that oversee DOE released spending plans that would give the Office of Science just a 0.9% increase, to $5.4 billion. Both chambers also rejected the call for the $100 million mandatory spending on university research.

    Although that increase may seem like small change, it represents a vote of confidence for the Office of Science, Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), chair of the Senate energy and water subcommittee, said at the Senate subcommittee markup yesterday. "The top priority is the Office of Science," Alexander said. "This is the second year that we've been able to increase funding for the Office of Science. … This puts us one step closer to doubling funding for federal basic energy research."

    Details of both bills have yet to be released. However, for the third year in a row the Senate panel moved to zero out spending on the United States's contribution to ITER, the massive fusion experiment currently under construction in Cadarache, France, which has been experiencing delays and massive cost overruns. "ITER started out in 2005 with an initial cost of $1.1 billion, but we've already spent that much and the project may not be completed until 2025," Alexander said. Senator Diane Feinstein (D–CA), the top-ranked minority member on the Senate subcommittee, said that the cost to the United States, which has ballooned to at least $4 billion, threatens more than just other DOE research programs. "Continued funding of ITER doesn't just threaten our investment in domestic science, it also threatens funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, which plays a really important role in maintaining our nation's infrastructure," Feinstein said. DOE is due to report to Congress in early May whether it wants to stay in the ITER project.

  • E.U. urged to free all scientific papers by 2020

    Open access science

    Like other research funded by the Netherlands’s main science agency, findings from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy starting this year are supposed to appear in open-access publications.


    One of the perks of holding the rotating presidency of the European Union is that it gives a member state a 6-month megaphone to promote its favorite policy ideas. For the Netherlands, which took over the presidency on 1 January, one surprising priority is open access (OA) to the scientific literature. Last week, the Dutch government held a 2-day meeting here in which European policymakers, research funders, librarians, and publishers discussed how to advance OA.

  • U.K. begins world's largest biomedical imaging study

    United Kingdom

    Scans, such as these of body fat, will be part of a massive new imaging study in the United Kingdom.

    Jimmy Bell, University of Westminster and Advanced MR Analytics AB

    The largest ever health imaging study will soon offer researchers a look inside the bodies of Brits. The UK Biobank, a nonprofit biological data repository in Stockport, announced today it plans to scan the organs of 100,000 people over the next 6 to 8 years. The snapshots, taken with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other standard techniques, will be linked to diverse data on health and lifestyle, allowing researchers to improve understanding and diagnoses of diseases such as cancer, dementia, arthritis and osteoporosis, and coronary heart disease.

    Biobank was set up in 2006 by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust. The goal was to create a resource for health researchers by gathering health-relevant data—such as diet, physical activity, lifestyle, and cognitive function—as well as samples of blood and DNA from a half million people in the United Kingdom. To allow analysis of health outcomes, these data are linked to the individuals' health records from hospitals, death registers, and, now, general physicians.

    So far, Biobank has DNA from 150,000 people and anticipates it will have DNA from the other 350,000 by the end of the year. They have physical activity from 100,000, taken from a watchlike monitor for up to 7 days. Blood samples have been analyzed for hormones, glucose, lipid markers, and other aspects.

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