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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Industry-backed project aims to become one-stop shop for clinical research data

    Information from clinical trial serum samples could end up in a new data-sharing platform called Vivli.

    Information from clinical trial serum samples could end up in a new data-sharing platform called Vivli.

    OJBerlin/iStockphoto

    There’s a broad consensus that widely sharing patient-level data from clinical trials is desirable, with potential advantages ranging from faster identification of side effects, easier confirmation of a therapy’s efficacy, and a reduction in duplicative efforts. But many in industry and academia are still reluctant to divulge their data, for a variety of reasons. Now, a new project from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University is trying to build a global, neutral platform for such data sharing, but some are skeptical it’s the right solution.

    The idea for Vivli, from vivlíthiki, the Greek word for library, was articulated nearly 20 years ago in a dissertation written in the wake of the Human Genome Project. Informatics researcher Ida Sim, now a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, was inspired then by GenBank, a website now operated by the National Institutes of Health that allowed researchers to easily upload and find full genomic sequences in one place. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we have that for human clinical trials?’” Sim said.

    Despite her lobbying efforts, the idea didn’t take root, however. Clinical trial registries did emerge, such as ClinicalTrials.gov, but they typically offered only broad information about each trial and its findings, not the actual data from each trial subject.

  • Europe stalls weed killer renewal, again

    Activists in the United Kingdom last month relabeled bottles of Roundup, which contains glyphosate, to warn that it "probably causes cancer."

    Activists in the United Kingdom last month relabeled bottles of Roundup, which contains glyphosate, to warn that it "probably causes cancer."

    Global Justice Now

    European regulators have again eschewed a decision on the renewal of the approval of the widely used weed killer glyphosate, giving fodder to critics who say the chemical causes cancer and should be banned.

    Glyphosate's current license expires on 30 June and its renewal has divided the European Union's member states after contradictory scientific assessments. The Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF), which is made up of representatives of the 28 states, was to decide on the renewal yesterday, but the European Commission canceled the vote—which was bound to be indecisive yet again.

    The commission had initially proposed to renew the chemical's license for 15 years, a plan that needed the member states' green light through a so-called qualified majority in the PAFF committee. In March, the committee failed to reach an agreement. At this week's meeting, member states were still split on a revised, 9-year renewal proposal, prompting the commission to scrap the vote again.

  • Yellow fever threat is ‘serious’ but not an ‘emergency,’ WHO says

    The Angola military administers yellow fever vaccine at the Quilometro 30 market in Luanda in February.

    The Angola military administers yellow fever vaccine at the Quilometro 30 market in Luanda in February.

    © JOOST DE RAEYMAEKER/epa/Corbis

    After weeks of growing alarm about the ongoing urban outbreaks of yellow fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) lowered the pitch a little today. It called the outbreak “a serious public health event,” but because the international spread of the disease has slowed and vaccine supplies are recovering, the committee stopped short of declaring it a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). That label would have given any recommendations from WHO greater power. (The organization has declared a PHEIC four times: for H1N1 influenza, the resurgence of polio, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and most recently the Zika virus.)

    “I think it was the correct decision,” says Duane Gubler, an infectious disease specialist who recently retired from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “However, the threat is there and needs to be recognized, not ignored like we usually do.” 

    Yellow fever is caused by a virus spread by Aedes aegypti, the same mosquito that spreads Zika. Isolated human cases usually occur in or close to the jungle, where monkeys are a reservoir of the pathogen. When the virus gets into the mosquito population of a major city, however, it can cause devastating outbreaks. This happened in December of last year in Luanda, the capital of Angola and home to at least 8 million people. In the country as a whole, 2267 suspected cases of yellow fever have been reported, with at least 293 deaths.

  • As U.S. moves to cut greenhouse emissions from farms, new study finds big global challenge

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    George Thomas/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    From cow burps to decaying food waste, agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers estimate farms are responsible for about 13% of total global emissions, making it the world’s second-largest source, after energy production. And now that nations have committed to trying to hold global warming to no more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, researchers and policymakers are looking for practical ways to cut agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

    Two recent developments could inform that search. Last week, officials in the United States—one of the world’s largest sources of agricultural products—released a progress report on U.S. efforts to promote “climate smart” agriculture. And this week, an international research team published a study that highlights the big changes in farm technology and human behavior that will be needed to achieve the worldwide farm-related cuts necessary to stay below the 2°C threshold.

  • After a prominent gene-testing firm declined to give patients their complete data, ACLU filed a legal complaint

    After a prominent gene-testing firm declined to give patients their complete data, the ACLU filed a legal complaint

    Nathan Nelson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Four people with a family history of cancer, or who have cancer themselves, lodged a complaint this afternoon with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It alleges that Myriad Genetics, a prominent genetic testing company, broke a federal rule by withholding genomic data that are rightfully theirs. At least one plaintiff wants to share her information with an open-access research database, to which Myriad has declined to contribute.

    In a twist, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notified journalists of an upcoming press conference on the matter, Myriad reversed course and supplied the patients with the information they had requested in February. Despite that move, ACLU went ahead and helped the patients file the complaint, in part because it covers what the organization describes as a past violation.

    A spokesperson for Myriad, based in Salt Lake City, says that the company is frustrated by the complaint and believes it should be dropped. 

  • House panel would block NSF from building two new ships

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    Oregon State University

    A congressional spending panel has rejected a request by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for $106 million to start building two new research vessels for the nation’s academic fleet. Yesterday’s action by an appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives puts the panel at odds with its Senate counterpart, which last month exceeded NSF’s request and backed construction of three vessels. A key lawmaker’s explanation of the House move also reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of the academic fleet and how it operates.

    The House panel, chaired by Representative John Culberson (R–TX), approved an overall budget for NSF of $7.406 billion. That figure is some $57 million below its current level and $103 million below what the Senate panel embraced. Both the Senate and House figures are below the president’s request for $7.564 billion in discretionary spending for the 2017 fiscal year that starts on 1 October. At the same time, the House bill adds $46 million to NSF’s current research account, which the Senate held steady. Legislators aren’t likely to work out their differences until after the November elections.

    The ocean research community had initially requested three ships, estimated to cost a total of $380 million. But NSF pared down that request to two, in line with a report by a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel, before submitting its 2017 budget last fall to the White House. Culberson thinks NSF shouldn’t have asked for any at this time.

  • New U.S. overtime rules will bump up postdoc pay, but could hurt research budgets

    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)

    Shock waves are rippling through the U.S. research community in reaction to a new labor law that will require that postdoctoral researchers be paid at least $47,476—thousands of dollars more than many earn now. Although welcomed by many, the change could have major impacts on budgets of labs and universities, which have only until 1 December to comply. And some fear it will lead to loss of postdoctoral positions, although some fields with relatively well-paid postdocs may feel less impact.

    In a commentary in The Huffington Post, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Thomas Perez acknowledge “concern” about how the biomedical research community, which relies on about 40,000 postdocs (roughly half the total in all fields), will absorb the change. But they are “fully supportive” of raising postdoc pay and “confident the transition can be made in a way that does not harm—and actually serves to enrich—the future of our research enterprise.” They say they plan to work with the research community “to ensure a smooth transition.” In comments below their piece and on blogs, however, many researchers doubt whether disruption can be avoided.

    The new overtime pay rule, released yesterday, will double (from $23,660) the salary threshold below which employers must pay workers overtime for working more than 40 hours per week. The rule specifies that postdoctoral researchers are covered. Because most postdocs work more than 40 hours, employers can either put in place timecard systems and pay them overtime, or—as Collins and Perez suggest—increase their salaries. (Postdoctoral researchers in the humanities whose primary duty is teaching are exempt from the new rule, and will not get overtime pay.)

  • U.S. research groups going to war again over small business funding

    Funding

    A federal small business research grant helped the Ocean Renewable Power Company of Anchorage, Alaska, develop this floating generator, which produces electricity from river currents.

    Ocean Renewable Power Company

    Advocates for small businesses and the U.S. research community are once again at loggerheads over pending legislation to expand a multibillion-dollar federal program that promotes commercialization of academic research. It’s shaping up as another long, hard fight: Science lobbyists are playing catch-up but have time on their side, while small business leaders say they don’t understand why more academics aren’t in their corner.

    The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, begun in 1982, is funded by taxing the research budgets of 11 federal agencies. This year, for example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will spend almost $900 million of its $32 billion budget on SBIR and a smaller, related program called Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR).

    The money is awarded competitively to small business owners, many with university ties, to fine-tune technology so that it can be commercialized. Legislation moving through both houses of Congress would raise the current 3% SBIR set-aside significantly over the next several years—to 6% by 2028 in the Senate version (S. 2812), and to 4.5% by 2022 in the bill before the House of Representatives (H.R. 4783). STTR, now at 0.45%, would grow by 2022 to 0.6% in the House bill and 1% in the Senate bill.

  • 'Brexit' would hit U.K. research hard, report says

    Brexit

    Economic studies, evolutionary biology, and nanotechnology are most at risk if the United Kingdom left the European Union.

    DSmith/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Leaving the European Union would cause a steep drop in research funding for scientists in the United Kingdom, according to a new study—and it's unclear whether the country can "buy its way back" into European funding schemes under favorable conditions.

    The United Kingdom is “significantly more dependent on E.U. funding than other countries such as Germany,” warns the study, published today by research software company Digital Science. “Our success in gaining European funding is masking serious deficiencies” in both government and business commitment to R&D investment, adds the report, entitled What is the real cost of Brexit for the UK’s research base?

    The United Kingdom is set to vote on whether to leave the European Union in a referendum next month, and there has been a sharp debate about the impact a departure would have on science. The new study provides fodder primarily for the anti-Brexit camp.

  • Medical complications cut Everest research expedition short

    Richard Parks undergoing tests on Island Peak in Nepal during his acclimatization period.

    Richard Parks undergoing tests on Island Peak in Nepal during his acclimatization period.

    Richard Parks

    Earlier this month, U.K. mountaineer Richard Parks prematurely abandoned his team’s expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal. He planned to ascend the peak without supplemental oxygen as part of Project Everest Cynllun, and take the highest-elevation blood sample and muscle biopsy ever collected. The project’s original goal was to examine the link between hypoxia and cognitive decline by examining human performance in low-oxygen environments, but its abrupt end has sparked questions of a different sort.

    The team had for several weeks been climbing smaller peaks to acclimatize to high altitude, and Parks was about to start his second rotation up the mountain: a 2-week stay above the Khumbu Icefall (5486 meters). Damian Bailey, a physiologist at the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom and the lead scientist on the project, decided to perform a blood test on Parks earlier than scheduled. When he drew the blood, he immediately knew something was wrong. “His blood was extraordinarily thick,” Bailey says. “It was actually clotting as I was taking a sample.”

    Testing revealed that Parks had exceptionally high levels of red blood cells and a high hematocrit, the percentage of the blood’s mass made up of red blood cells. On one hand, this was a clue to Parks’s ability to function in low-oxygen conditions: “His brain was actually getting more oxygen than it would get at sea level,” Bailey says, despite the thin alpine atmosphere containing half the amount of oxygen found at lower elevations. But such high cell densities also put him at increased risk of a stroke or a heart attack. For this reason, the team decided to end the expedition on 3 May despite Parks outwardly seeming in perfectly good health.

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