Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Two major California research institutes will merge

    The new Calibr headquarters building in San Diego, California.

    The Calibr headquarters building in California.


    One of the biggest nonprofit biomedical research outfits in the world is getting a new translational medicine research arm, aimed at speeding the conversion of basic research insights into novel medicines. Yesterday, officials at the Scripps Research Institute announced that it will merge with the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), which was launched in 2012 as a nonprofit version of a drug development company. Both Scripps and Calibr are headquartered in San Diego, California, and led by Scripps chemist Peter Schultz.

    In an interview yesterday, Schultz said that he hopes the merger will not only speed the development of new medicines, but that proceeds from any commercial successes will be fed back into the institute’s coffers to bolster future research. “We will generate significant revenues, which will be reinvested in the entire enterprise,” Schultz says. If true, that could be a major boon for Scripps, which has been running in the red for years, as it has struggled to replace declining grant money from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Over the next 2 years, Schultz says Calibr expects to launch clinical trials on eight different medicines, three of which should be ready to go either later this year or in the first quarter of 2017.

    The new merger isn’t the first to attempt to marry basic biomedical research with efforts to promote commercialization. Universities and medical schools around the world have established translational research arms in recent years hoping to cash in on basic research discoveries. But such efforts often stumble, Schultz says, because the culture of basic research, which focuses on insights from individual investigators, is often at odds with translational efforts, which require highly integrated teamwork. “We aren’t building from scratch; rather we are integrating the strengths of two proven nonprofit research organizations,” he says.

  • Q&A: Crowdsourced personal genomes database slowly gains momentum

    DNA code

    A project called hopes to entice huge numbers of people to share their genetic test results.


    Computational geneticist Yaniv Erlich is known for attention-grabbing studies that harness big data. In 2013, his team showed they could identify some people in supposedly anonymized DNA databases by combining their data with searches in public databases. His team later linked genealogical information from 13 million people into a single family tree. And last year, Erlich and co-worker Joe Pickrell at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University made another splash by inviting people who have had their DNA tested by consumer genetics companies such as 23andMe and to share their DNA reports with their group and others for research., Erlich suggested, could potentially tap into the genetic data of up to 3 million people who have already sent off a saliva sample for DNA testing. And unlike these companies, can make consenting participants’ individual information—including, eventually, health data —available to a broad swath of researchers.

    As of this month, has enlisted 32,000 participants. Erlich, who is giving an update on the effort this week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Vancouver, Canada, told ScienceInsider that although it's far short of even 1 million, he feels the project is on track and ready to move into new territory, such as working with disease advocacy groups.

  • Updated: Hopes dim for Europe’s Mars lander

    Schiaparelli on Mars

    Mission managers do not yet know whether Schiaparelli survived its descent to Mars.

    ESA/ATG medialab

    DARMSTADT, GERMANY—There’s good news and bad news tonight from the European Space Agency (ESA). Its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the first prong of a multipart ExoMars mission, appears to have been captured into its planned orbit around Mars and is working normally. But the Schiaparelli lander, a testbed for future landing technologies, is missing in action. “Something went wrong, at least in the communications,” Paolo Ferri, ESA’s head of mission operations, told reporters here at ESA’s control center. Mission engineers will be working through the night to process the scant data from the probe to try to find out what went wrong and whether recovery is possible. “There’s a very good chance that by the morning we will know either that the lander is lost or how to recover it,” he says.

    During its 6-minute descent to the surface, Schiaparelli broadcast basic telemetry data but in a weak signal, designed to be picked up and recorded by the TGO for later transmission to Earth. The TGO at the time was in the middle of a 2-hour-long burn maneuver to enter Mars's orbit and wasn’t able to communicate with Earth. But two other receivers were trained on Schiaparelli: ESA’s 13-year old Mars Express orbiter and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune, India. Neither instrument could interpret the telemetry data, but the nature of the radio signals alone offered some insight into the lander’s descent.

    From the signals received at Pune, managers followed the descent in real time and, initially, everything seemed to go to plan. The GMRT saw Schiaparelli power up right on schedule. They also saw it slowing down as it entered the atmosphere. But less than a minute before it was due to land, the signal was lost. That didn’t cause undue concern at the time because detecting this extremely weak signal all the way from Mars was an experimental technique, and any number of things could have interrupted the signal. But managers really got worried when the data relay from Mars Express showed the lander’s signal breaking off at just the same moment. “It’s clear we lost the signal from the lander, but we don’t know where it happened in the sequence of events,” Ferri says.

  • Surprisingly few new parents enlist in study to have baby’s genome sequenced

    Baby being monitored

    Geneticists are studying the risks and benefits of sequencing the genome of every newborn.


    One of the first studies to explore the idea of routinely sequencing the genes of newborns to help guide their health care has run into an unexpected road bump: Few parents approached are interested in having their baby’s genome profiled.

    When Robert Green, a geneticist at the Harvard University–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and co-workers began planning to sequence babies about 4 years ago, they surveyed more than 500 parents of healthy newborns. Nearly half declared they would be “very” or “extremely” interested and another 37% said “somewhat.” But since their actual BabySeq Project began last year in May, only about 7% of more than 2400 couples approached so far have agreed to participate, says Green, who co-leads BabySeq with Alan Beggs of Boston Children's Hospital. That “very surprising” figure is the same both for parents of very sick infants and those with healthy babies, he adds.

    BabySeq is one of four projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 3 years ago to probe the risks and benefits of sequencing newborns’ DNA and compare the results to conventional newborn disease screening using biochemical analysis of blood spots. These studies got a slow start because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided some of the genome tests had to go through regulatory review.

  • Budget cap would stifle Brazilian science, critics say

    Sirius Project

    Brazil’s new synchrotron light source, the Sirius Project under construction in Campinas, is slated to receive $115 million in 2017—double this year’s budget. But that windfall may not survive efforts to rein in public spending.


    SÃ​O PAULO, BRAZIL—Brazil’s economy is in free fall, and the new government has a controversial remedy: a constitutional amendment that would cap public spending for the next 20 years. The proposal, known as PEC 241, would prohibit all three branches of Brazil’s government to raise yearly expenditures above the inflation rate, essentially freezing spending at current levels for 2 decades. The bill, now making its way through Congress, would put Brazilian science in a budgetary straightjacket, observers say.

    “It will be a disaster,” says Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro. Gaining passage of the amendment bill before the end of this year is the top priority of Brazilian President Michel Temer, who took office on 31 August after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. The Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of the bill on 11 October; according to procedure, the chamber must take a second vote—expected to happen early next week—followed by two votes in the Senate.

    The 2016 federal budget for science, technology, and innovation, approximately $1.5 billion, is the lowest in 10 years when corrected for inflation. (Inflation is expected to run at about 7.2% this year.) Agencies have been reducing scholarships and grants, both in number and award amounts. Earlier this year, for example, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (NCSTD), the government’s main science funding agency, announced that it would not offer new scholarships for graduate study or research abroad. The council and the Brazilian Innovation Agency have slashed funding for national programs and are delaying payments on research grants. The situation is so dire that federal research institutes are struggling to pay electricity bills. “There is no way we can survive another 20 years like this,” says Davidovich, who is also a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

  • Europe attempts Mars landing

    For the European Space Agency (ESA), tomorrow will hold a nerve-shredding 6 minutes. At 4:42 p.m. local time, the agency’s Mars lander Schiaparelli will begin its furious descent through the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere. Six minutes later, mission managers will know whether they have joined the select club of agencies that have successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars. NASA has landed seven working craft, and in 1971 Russia gleaned 20 seconds of data from its Mars 3 lander. ESA carried the U.K.-built Beagle 2 to Mars in 2003 but it failed to deploy its arrays and never called home. Tomorrow, it is hoped, Schiaparelli will not only provide ESA entry to the club, but will also pave the way for a more ambitious rover in 4 years’ time. Once its job of landing is done, Schiaparelli will devote its few remaining days of battery power to studying the atmosphere above the Meridiani Planum.

    Schiaparelli is part of a multielement mission called ExoMars. In the first phase that launched in March, Schiaparelli shared a ride with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which will search the martian atmosphere for methane and other gases that could signal life. These will be followed in 2020 by a much larger lander with a rover that can drill up to 2 meters below the surface in search of ancient, or even current, microbes.

    The ExoMars program has had a long and difficult gestation. Originally a solo ESA project, NASA came on board but had to jump ship again in 2012 because of budget problems. ESA then teamed up with Russia’s Roscosmos, which offered to provide launchers and some contributions to the project’s hardware.

  • Biden’s moonshot cancer plan calls for more data sharing

    Joe Biden meeting with task force

    Vice President Joe Biden meets with his moonshot federal task force earlier this month.


    Vice President Joe Biden today released his vision for doubling progress against cancer over 5 years. It includes numerous policy recommendations and a laundry list of projects by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and other federal agencies that would require additional funding.

    Biden and his wife, Jill, have met with thousands of experts and patient advocates, they explain in a 17-page strategic plan submitted to President Barack Obama, who asked Biden in January to lead the effort. “We sought to better understand and break down the silos and stovepipes that prevent sharing of information and impede advances in cancer research and treatment, while building a focused and coordinated effort at home and abroad,” they explain.

    The Bidens’ wish list ranges from giving patients more control over their medical data to launching “a national conversation” about cancer drug pricing. They also want to see more high-risk research funding at NCI and changes to the institute’s intramural research program to focus more on emerging science and major public health challenges.

  • Nations sign major deal to curb warming chemicals used for air conditioning

    The earth seen from space


    An international treaty originally created to save the ozone layer from destruction is now being enlisted to help tackle climate change.

    Early Saturday morning, world leaders gathered in Kigali announced an agreement to curb the use of superpotent greenhouse gases used in air conditioners and refrigerators. The chemicals, called hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, have up to 2000 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main planet warming gas. At a time when the world is poised to add 700 million air conditioners by 2030, the agreement could prevent nearly 0.5°C in temperature rise over this century.

    The deal “shows that we can take action to protect our planet in a way that helps all countries improve the lives and livelihoods of their citizens,” said President Barack Obama in a statement hailing the agreement.

  • U.S. and Cuban biomedical researchers are free to collaborate

    fumigation fog in Havana

    In Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, soldiers sprayed to kill mosquitoes in an attempt to prevent the spread of Zika, chikungunya, and dengue. New U.S. rules will make it easier for Cuban and U.S. scientists to study these viruses.


    Aficionados of cigars and rum are celebrating new U.S. rules that allow visitors to Cuba to carry home as much as these fine commodities as they can cram into their luggage. But the regulations, unveiled today and set to take effect on 17 October, are sure to please another constituency: researchers in biomedicine and public health. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has authorized U.S. scientists to freely collaborate with Cuban counterparts on everything from cancer therapies to combatting the Zika virus.

    “It is a very important step,” says neuroscientist Pedro Valdés-Sosa, research director at the Cuban Neuroscience Center in Havana. On a trip last month to the United States, he says, “everywhere I went there were concrete ideas for collaborations that would benefit the people of both countries. These new measures pave the way for cooperation.”

    The rules, which build on the historic rapprochement between the two nations in December 2014, also make it easier for Cuban-made pharmaceuticals to undergo U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review, and they allow FDA-approved Cuban drugs to be imported and sold. In a potential boon for Cuban scientists of all stripes, the U.S. government is also lifting restrictions that have mostly barred Cubans from receiving U.S. grants, scholarships, and awards for research.

  • A stronger voice for U.K. science—but at what cost?

    Bill calling for change

    Some observers say UK Research and Innovation should be made responsible for the management of large facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source synchrotron.

    A.P.S. (UK)/Alamy Stock Photo

    LONDON—Who would be the most effective advocate for scientists at a time of desperate uncertainty over future budgets and the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union? To Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute here, the answer is clear: a preeminent scientist who would oversee £6 billion in research funding. A bill now before Parliament would create this position by combining the bulk of government science spending into a new organization called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It’s a controversial proposal, so the Science Media Centre (SMC) gathered proponents and critics for a press briefing here this morning to lay out their cases.

    The Higher Education and Research Bill, which was introduced in May, would make the biggest changes to the university sector in decades, creating an Office for Students that would regulate universities and remove their royal charters, which have been seen as a guarantor of their independence from government interference. As for research, the changes largely follow recommendations from a review of the funding councils, undertaken last year by Nurse. The bill creates UKRI as a body over the seven existing research councils, which collectively distribute about £3 billion a year in funding. UKRI would also absorb parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which hands out another £3 billion in block grants to English universities. In addition, UKRI would take in Innovate UK, which has invested £1.8 billion in business since 2007 to stimulate innovation. As with universities, the bill would remove the royal charters for the research councils, making it easier for government to change, dissolve, or create funding councils.

    Opinions are divided about the bill. In July, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) brought together more than 40 organizations to examine the bill. Most participants thought the bill should be improved rather than ditched. Last week, however, an editorial in Nature strongly opposed the bill and called on scientists to join the debate. “If its proposals become law, the government will upend globally accepted norms that protect independence and self-determination in science and higher education. If scientists and their representative organizations don’t want that to happen, they need to speak up—and do it now.”

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