Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Study retraction reignites concern over China’s possible use of prisoner organs

    protest of illegal organ harvesting

    A protest in Hong Kong of illegal organ trafficking in mainland China.


    A journal has decided to retract a 2016 study because of concerns that its data on the safety of liver transplantation involved organs sourced from executed prisoners in China. The action, taken despite a denial by the study’s authors that such organs were used, comes after clinical ethicist Wendy Rogers of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues authored a letter to the editor of Liver International on 30 January, calling for the paper’s retraction in the “absence of credible evidence of ethical sourcing of organs.”

    For years, Chinese officials have come under fire for allegedly allowing the use of organs from executed prisoners for transplants, including for foreigners coming to the country for so-called medical tourism. In January 2015, it explicitly banned the practice and set up a volunteer donation system, but doubts persist that much has changed.

    The disputed study—published online in October 2016—analyzed 563 consecutive liver transplantations performed before the ban (from April 2010 to October 2014) at a medical center in China. Suspicious, Rogers organized the protest letter to the journal. “Publication of data from prisoners is ethically inappropriate given that it [is] not possible to ensure that the prisoners freely agreed either to donate their organs, or to be included [in] a research program,” she tells ScienceInsider.

  • Venezuela is running short on HIV meds—and places to turn for help

    A woman rests in a chair in a pharmacy with mostly empty shelves.

    A pharmacy employee waits for customers at a drugstore in Caracas.


    On top of its currency being in free fall for 3 years running, empty shelves at supermarkets, and electricity rationing, Venezuela has a serious shortage of medicines, including life-saving anti-HIV drugs. This led a network of Venezuelans living with HIV to seek “urgent humanitarian aid” in June 2016 from the Geneva, Switzerland–based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But because the World Bank classifies Venezuela as a high-income nation, the Global Fund on 18 January denied the request. “As an agency relying itself on donations from multiple stakeholders, the Global Fund is not in a position to grant any exceptions from its rules,” wrote Executive Director Mark Dybul and chair of the board Norbert Hauser.

    An estimated 110,000 people in 2015 were living with HIV in Venezuela, and at least 63,000 of them have started antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, says Feliciano Reyna Ganteaume, whose Caracas-based nonprofit Acción Solidaria supplies HIV-infected people with ARVs. “[The situation] is much worse than one can describe,” he says. When the government does take action, drug orders are placed late and not paid for on time, causing interruptions that have lasted more than 3 months. “There is not even 1 month without our receiving complaints of lack of one or more ARVs from one or more Venezuelan states,” he says. Reagents for the tests needed to monitor people on treatment also are in short supply.

  • USDA blacks out animal welfare information

    Dogs at a Class B dealer facility await transport to research labs.

    Dogs at a Class B dealer facility await transport to research labs.

    Animal Welfare Institute

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today removed public access to tens of thousands of reports that document the numbers of animals kept by research labs, companies, zoos, circuses, and animal transporters—and whether those animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act. Henceforth, those wanting access to the information will need to file a Freedom of Information Act request. The same goes for inspection reports under the Horse Protection Act, which prohibits injuring horses’ hooves or legs for show.

    The agency said in a statement that it revoked public access to the reports “based on our commitment to being transparent … and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.”

    The reports apply to 7813 facilities that keep animals covered by the law. Roughly 1200 of these are research labs, which are often housed at major academic centers or run by government agencies themselves, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the act covers animals like dogs and chimpanzees, it does not cover rodents like laboratory mice.

  • U.S. science conferences brace for boycotts: The ScienceInsider briefing

    opening ceremony of the International Year of Astronomy for the International Astronomical Union

    The opening ceremony of the International Year of Astronomy for the International Astronomical Union in 2009.

    IAU/José Francisco Salgado

    As an intense week winds into what may very well be an intense weekend, scientists around the world are starting to make their voices heard on U.S. science-related policy, in particular on President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. But will they be shouting into a void? That’s what some researchers think, as boycotts of science conferences based in the United States begin to blossom. Already, 5800 researchers around the world have signed one boycott petition, and some astronomers are asking their society not to hold meetings in the United States. Meanwhile, a scientist from one of the affected countries—Iran—has just been sentenced to death in his home country for unknown reasons. 

  • Scientists urge boycott of U.S. meetings

    The registration area in the IAU General Assembly 2012 in Beijing

    Some members of the International Astronomical Union, which held its General Assembly in China in 2012 (above), are now calling for a boycott of U.S. meetings in response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.


    A growing number of researchers is calling for a boycott of U.S. scientific meetings to protest the immigration policies of the new Trump administration.

    The Organizing Committee of the Commission G2 Massive Stars, part of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), announced today it would not hold any meetings in the United States as long as the ban on entry by persons from seven Muslim-majority countries is in place. The committee asked its parent organization to do likewise after IAU said it was “profoundly concerned by the impact the recent U.S. executive order, and possible reactions to it from other countries, could have on international collaboration in astronomy and the mobility of scientists.”

    “People in our committee felt that the statement that came from the IAU wasn’t strong enough,” says Jorick Vink, vice president of the Organizing Committee and an astronomer at Armagh Observatory in the United Kingdom. The committee’s seven members “agreed in a minute” to launch the boycott, Vink notes.

  • Winners and losers in India’s science budget

    Busy street in West Bengal

    The Indian government hopes the 2017 budget, including a hefty boost for science, will help get the nation’s economy back on track.


    NEW DELHI—For scientists in India, 2017 is becoming a year of feast or famine. India's annual budget, unveiled this week, doles out lavish increases for space, biotechnology, and renewable energy. Programs vying for scraps, on the other hand, include nuclear research, spending on which won’t keep pace with inflation.

    The budget rollout comes on the heels of an economic crisis sparked last November, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government took higher denomination rupee banknotes out of circulation. The surprise move triggered massive queues at banks as people struggled to deposit old notes and withdraw scarce new ones. Independent estimates peg that the crisis eroded gross domestic product growth by as much as 2%. (GDP growth in 2016 was 7.6%.)

    The Indian government hopes the new budget will help get the economy back on track. Most boats will rise in science and technology, slated for $8.05 billion in the budget year that starts on 1 April. That’s an 11.5% increase over last year, a robust growth in spending even after accounting for India’s projected inflation rate of 5.16% in 2017.

  • Disaster medicine scientist may face death sentence in Iran

     Ahmadreza Djalali

    Ahmadreza Djalali was arrested in April 2016 on still-unknown charges.

    Courtesy of VUB

    *Correction, 7 February, 2:15 p.m.: This story previously said, based on information provided by the Free University of Brussels, that Djalali had been sentenced to death. On 7 February, we learned that information was erroneous. The story has been corrected accordingly.

    A researcher studying disaster medicine at two European institutes has been detained in Iran for 9 months, apparently for security-related offenses, and may face the death penalty. Iranian-born Ahmadreza Djalali, a scientist at the Research Center in Emergency and Disaster Medicine (CRIMEDIN) at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Novara, Italy, and the Free University of Brussels (VUB), was arrested in April 2016, and has spent much of the time since in solitary confinement and without access to a lawyer.

    According to Amnesty International, Djalali was taken before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on 31 January, without his lawyer present, and was told by the presiding judge that he was accused of “espionage” and could face the death penalty.


  • European researchers spin off sister marches for science in at least eight countries

    Researchers and academics protesting in Paris

    French researchers, here demonstrating in Paris in 2014, are no strangers to marching for science. 


    AMSTERDAM—U.S. cities won’t be the only places where lab coats and science-inspired signs will fill the streets on 22 April. Groups in eight European countries have announced “solidarity marches” in support of the U.S. March for Science, to be held on Earth Day. Some of the rallies will take place on the same day, whereas others don’t yet have a firm date.

    Marches are in the planning stages in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Bigger countries may see several; in the United Kingdom, for instance, there are already plans to march in London, Edinburgh, and Manchester. In Norway, researchers plan to take to the streets in Oslo and Trondheim. (There will be marches in New Zealand and Australia as well.)

    "We are thrilled," a spokesperson for the U.S. March for Science says in an email to ScienceInsider. "The Women's March really changed the game here.  The second this march was announced we began getting emails from cities all over the world with people planning on satellite marches. At this point, the Washington march and rally is a small part of a larger movement, which is exactly as it should be."

    In France, 22 April is hardly ideal, because it’s the eve of the first round of voting for the French presidential election. “But we plan to do it that day anyway,” says astrophysicist Olivier Berné of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, a member of the organizing group. The idea for a march coalesced on Twitter, just as it did in the United States, Berné says. French scientists routinely demonstrate against declining budgets and a lack of job opportunities, and some of the organizers of the April protest are experienced, Berné says. Frances’s main march will be in Paris, but there are also plans for marches in Lyon, Toulouse, and Montpellier; Berné says the group is seeking support from scientific organizations and societies.

  • Americans say ‘yes’ to vaccines; Europeans, to marches: The ScienceInsider briefing

    Medical assistant gives MMR vaccine to 1 year old

    A 1-year-old gets the measles, mumps, and rubella combination vaccine.

    Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

    As scientists—and science supporters—prepare to march in the United States, Europe, and beyond, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is on board. Some point to the dangers of further politicizing science, and some (including many of our astute readers) say it’s far too early to weigh in on the science-related policies of the new U.S. administration. But the key word there is “science-related.” Science touches politics in a host of areas, from funding for health care research to policies that limit—or enhance—international cooperation. Is there a story you think we’re missing? Contact us at the bottom of this briefing to let us know!

  • The £6 billion man: New top job in U.K. science goes to Mark Walport

    Mark Walport

    Mark Walport led the Wellcome Trust for a decade before becoming the U.K. government's chief science adviser.

    Government Office for Science

    It will be the most powerful agency in U.K. science, created to give research a stronger voice, and after a 5-month search, it has a director. Today, the government announced the selection of Mark Walport, currently the chief science adviser to the U.K. government, as head of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The umbrella organization for the existing research councils will serve as the strategic command center of government research funding.

    UKRI will be created by a controversial higher education reform bill that Parliament is expected to approve this year. The bill calls for UKRI to oversee seven existing research councils, which together hand out £6 billion in research grants and institutional funding each year. Also folded in will be Innovate UK, which funds and supports technology transfer, and parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

    The government anticipates UKRI will open its doors in April 2018. In the meantime, Walport and Non-Executive Chair John Kingman will start “to shape the new organisation,” according to a statement. Before becoming science adviser in 2013, Walport led the Wellcome Trust for a decade. While at Imperial College London, he conducted research in immunology and rheumatology.

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