Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Japan loses contact with its new x-ray space observatory

    An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

    An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

    Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

    Japan’s space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is desperately trying to re-establish communications with its recently launched Hitomi x-ray observatory (formerly known as ASTRO-H) following a loss of contact on 26 March. Hitomi is a groundbreaking telescope that will be able to image emissions from black holes, the swirl of hot gas in galaxy clusters, and supernova remnants through high-energy photons—including x-rays and gamma rays—with unprecedented accuracy. It was launched 17 February and was still being commissioned, but at the start of operations on Saturday it failed to respond as normal.   

    The U.S.-based Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which tracks orbiting objects with radar, reported on 27 March seeing five separate objects at Hitomi’s location. But JAXA spokesperson Azusa Yabe says that the agency had received short signals from Hitomi after JSpOC reported its possible breakup.

    Ground-based amateur satellite watchers also reported seeing Hitomi in a slow spin. Chisato Ikuta, deputy director of Institute of Space and Astronautical Science/JAXA’s press office in Kanagawa, says “these may help us to understand the status of Hitomi. However, we still do not know the present status of Hitomi, because we have not communicated with the satellite yet.” Yabe adds that as long as the spacecraft’s solar array is getting enough power, Hitomi should be able to communicate with Earth even if spinning. “We are still trying to recover communication with ‘Hitomi,’ and trying to find out the status and causes of this communication failure,” Yabe says.

  • Biologists ask NSF to reconsider plan to pause collections funding program

    Coquerel's sifakas at the Duke Lemur Center are cared for in part by the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which was just suspended by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

    Coquerel's sifakas at the Duke Lemur Center are cared for in part by the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which was just suspended by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

    David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

    Leaders of U.S. natural history collections yesterday asked the National Science Foundation (NSF) to reconsider a recent decision to suspend a key funding program for a year, warning that a “vital resource is at risk.”

    Agency officials, however, say the move is part of the agency’s periodic efforts to assess the effectiveness of its spending, and they played down worries that NSF will abandon its support for maintaining collections of both dead and living organisms that are important to biologists and ecologists. "It's premature to assume that this particular program will disappear, given that the collection program has gone through this process in the past and reappeared as a very vital and important part of our research resource activities," says Muriel Poston, director of NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) in Arlington, Virginia.

    Last week, DBI officials alarmed some researchers when they announced that NSF would suspend and reevaluate the program, called Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). Created in 2011, CSBR has awarded about $3 million to $5 million per year in recent years to projects such as upgrading freezers for tissue samples, tending stock colonies of fruit flies, and providing new cabinets for plant specimens. One role of the program is to rescue “orphaned” collections, moving them to new institutions when their former homes can no longer care for them.

  • House budget plan would rearrange and restrict federal research portfolio

    U.S. House tees up controversial bill on NSF research

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    If an influential congressional budget committee has its way, the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) could be eliminated, and many research programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) would be sharply curtailed.

    Those startling changes in federal research policy are part of a blueprint for spending that was released yesterday by the budget committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. A faction of House Republicans has blocked approval of the so-called annual budget resolution—which does not have the force of law but is symbolically potent—because they think it calls for too much spending. Specifically, they have objected to a $1.07 trillion ceiling for discretionary spending in 2017, part of a December 2015 budget agreement between Congress and the White House.

    So it’s not clear whether Republican leaders in the House will be able to gain enough support to pass any budget resolution. In addition, the Republican-controlled Senate has put an indefinite hold on its work on a budget resolution.

  • Karolinska Institute fires fallen star surgeon Paolo Macchiarini

    Allegations raised by a Swedish television documentary may prompt the Karolinska Institute to reopen a misconduct investigation involving surgeon and tissue engineering pioneer Paolo Macchiarini.

    Allegations raised by a Swedish television documentary may prompt the Karolinska Institute to reopen a misconduct investigation involving surgeon and tissue engineering pioneer Paolo Macchiarini.

    Conan Fitzpatrick/SVT

    The curtain has finally fallen for trachea surgeon Paolo Macchiarini at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm. Today, the renowned university announced that Macchiarini will be dismissed effective immediately after its disciplinary board found that he "engaged in conduct and research that is incompatible with a position of employment at KI."

    But Macchiarini, who has shaken off misconduct allegations several times before, vows to fight on. "I do not accept any of the findings of the Disciplinary Board," he wrote in an email to Science this afternoon. "I have instructed lawyers and will be taking immediate steps to restore my reputation."

    Once hailed as a surgical pioneer for attempts to replace damaged tracheae with artificial ones that combined stem cells with polymer scaffolds—or decellularized donor tracheae—Macchiarini survived a misconduct investigation at KI last year. But a troubling three-part documentary aired on Swedish television in January ripped the scandal wide open again and triggered serious questions about the way KI had handled its investigation.

  • Microsoft pioneer invests big, again, in bioscience

    Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

    Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

    Kevin Cruff

    Paul G. Allen, who built a fortune as co-founder of Microsoft, is showering science once more with his money. The philanthropist behind the 13-year-old Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, and several other science efforts today announced the creation of a new bioscience research initiative funded with an initial investment of $100 million over the next 10 years.

    The newly created Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group has selected four initial researchers—Jennifer Doudna of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Ethan Bier of UC San Diego, James Collins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Bassem Hassan of the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris—to receive $1.5 million each to study topics ranging from novel techniques for gene editing, how shapes and forms arise over the course of evolution, and how synthetic biology can create microbes that trap and kill dangerous bacteria. Allen will also fund two new $30 million research centers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Tufts University in Boston; Stanford researchers will model how bacteria interact with immune cells, whereas the Tufts group will seek to crack the biological code that determines how tissues are created. To determine which investigators would receive the Frontier Group’s first grants, “we asked everyone the same question: What is the dark matter of bioscience?” says its executive director, biomedical engineer Tom Skalak in Seattle. That includes fundamental questions about organisms’ growth, development, and regeneration, such as how the epigenetic code works to control tissue function, he says.

    It’s a bet on a proven artist [to fund] their next masterpiece.

    Tom Skalak
  • This time, it’s North Dakota that sinks an experiment related to burying nuclear waste

    Borehole advocates say tubes of cesium and strontium waste stored in a pool at the Hanford site in Washington State could go deep underground.

    Borehole advocates say tubes of cesium and strontium waste stored in a pool at the Hanford site in Washington could go deep underground.

    U.S. Department of Energy

    The history of failed attempts to deal with U.S. nuclear waste gained another chapter this month, when local opposition prompted scientists to abandon tests of a new disposal technique in eastern North Dakota.

    In early March, Battelle Memorial Institute, a large research nonprofit based in Columbus, quietly withdrew plans to drill two holes up to 5 kilometers deep into the granite bedrock beneath the rolling prairie there. Those were supposed to be the centerpiece of an $80 million, federally funded project to see whether the government could get rid of some highly radioactive waste by sticking it deep underground.

    The retreat followed objections from residents of rural Pierce County, who feared the drilling would open the door to nuclear waste. It underscores the treacherous path facing any major effort tied to nuclear waste, even when federal officials insist the project was a test that would never involve radioactive material.

  • Canadian scientists smile as Liberals deliver a déjà vu budget

    Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

    Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

    Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

    What a difference a government makes. After spending nearly a decade in the darkness of the former Conservative government’s so-called “war on science,” Canada’s research community finds itself stepping into the sunshine after the nation’s new Liberal government today unveiled a fiscal blueprint for 2015–16 that provides an immediate $72.79 million per year injection into the budgets of the nation’s research granting councils. The new money comes after years of static or declining budgets.

    And in a bit of déjà vu, today’s spending plan also resurrects several initiatives from the last budget a Liberal government presented, in 2005, before the Conservatives swept to power.

    Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised “sunny days” for the nation after winning a general election last October, and today Finance Minister Bill Morneau laid out a host of scientific goodies. And Morneau vowed that more will follow in the months to come, as the Liberals “put forward a new Innovation agenda which will outline a new vision for Canada’s economy as a center of global innovation, renowned for its science, technology, resourceful citizens, and globally competitive companies.” Morneau also fired a parting shot across the bow of ex–Prime Minister Stephen Harper by declaring that the Liberals will promote “evidence-based policies.”

  • Why the big change to Lilly’s Alzheimer’s trial is not evidence its drug has failed again

    Eli Lilly's corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.

    Eli Lilly's corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.

    Eli Lilly

    When pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly in Indianapolis last week announced a major change to its closely watched clinical trial for the Alzheimer’s drug solanezumab, some in the scientific community and drug development industry cried foul. To critics, the company’s decision to eliminate changes in a person’s daily ability to function as a primary measure of solanezumab’s efficacy and focus solely on a cognitive test seemed like a last-ditch attempt to keep a doomed drug from failing its third trial. Lilly’s stock plunged by nearly 5%, apparently reflecting that sentiment.

    Largely lost in the online “chatter,” however, was that Lilly’s move reflects a growing scientific consensus about how the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease progress, says Dennis Selkoe, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who is not involved in the Lilly trial. “From the point of view of a neurologist who’s seen hundreds of patients, [Lilly’s decision] makes clinical sense,” he says.

    Solanezumab is an antibody designed to bind to and promote the clearance of the β-amyloid protein, which forms plaques around the neurons of people with Alzheimer’s. Not everyone agrees that these plaques are at the root of the disease—a concept called the amyloid hypothesis, of which Selkoe is a major proponent—but fighting them is the foundation of nearly all current efforts in Alzheimer’s drug development. By helping destroy the plaques in people with early stages of Alzheimer’s, Lilly hopes solanezumab can slow the disease’s progression.

  • China finally setting guidelines for treating lab animals

    Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

    Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

    Armin Rodler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    China has released its first national standards governing the treatment of laboratory animals, and scientists hope the guidelines will improve both conditions for animals and China’s prospects for international research collaborations.

    The draft standards were posted last week for public comment and could be implemented by the end of this year. They cover such topics as euthanasia, pain management, transport, and housing. The standards also set requirements for breeding facilities and personnel training. Chinese scientists have said the lack of national regulations has stymied some international collaborations because scientists in other countries can be reluctant to engage in research involving animals if they are not covered by humane protections. In addition, there is growing domestic opposition to the mistreatment of lab animals because of recently documented incidents of abuse.

    The new standards are based on international best practices, says Qin Chuan, professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences’s Institute of Laboratory Animal Sciences (ILAS) in Beijing. Though China has not had national standards previously, she says, most provinces certify that Chinese labs meet what are essentially globally accepted practices. Qin said national standards are needed bring all labs into line with what is best for the animals.

  • Wild relatives of key crops not protected in gene banks, study finds

    Wild relatives of key crops not protected in gene banks, study finds

    Phaseolus lunatus, a wild relative of the lima bean, is threatened by land use change in Costa Rica.

    Daniel Debouck/CIAT

    The wild, sometimes scraggly cousins of grains and vegetables have a role to play in food security, but urgent action is needed to conserve them, says a new study published today in Nature Plants. The first global survey of the distribution and conservation of 1076 wild relatives of 81 crops finds that more than 95% are insufficiently safeguarded in the world’s gene banks, which store seeds and other plant tissues that can be used for future breeding efforts.

    Some 70% of the wild populations examined by the study, including the relatives of banana, cassava, wheat, and sorghum, are considered high priority for collection; 300 could not be located in any gene bank.

    Crop wild relatives are, in essence, evolutionary experiments. Without coddling from farmers, these hardy plants withstand drought, pests, and disease. As a result, they often evolve valuable traits that plant breeders could use to create varieties able to resist pests or maintain yields in the face of global warming. In the past, virus-resistant wild relatives of sugarcane and rice have helped produce new varieties that averted millions of dollars in losses.

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