Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Researchers call on Iran to release jailed chemist

    Mohammad Hossein Rafiee

    Mohammad Hossein Rafiee

    Fanood~enwiki/Wikimedia Commons

    In early 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration was in the middle of intense negotiations with the United States and other nations to limit Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Rouhani, considered a moderate reformer, was under attack by his country’s hardline conservatives, who opposed a potential deal. Rouhani challenged Iranian intellectuals to come out and publicly support his policies.

    “Why is the university silent? Why are the professors silent?” Rouhani said. “What are you afraid of?”

    One answer may be that they were afraid of being jailed, suggests Anna Maryam Rafiee, a cultural heritage specialist in Toronto, Canada. Her father, chemist Mohammad Hossein Rafiee, has been stuck in a cell in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison since June 2015, after speaking out in favor of the nuclear deal that was announced a month after he was imprisoned.

  • Worries about brain damage in infants linked to Zika leads WHO to declare a public health emergency

    Purple areas highlight countries and territories now reporting Zika virus transmission.

    Purple areas highlight countries and territories now reporting Zika virus transmission.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Increasingly strong links between the spread of Zika virus and microcephaly in newborns led the World Health Organization (WHO) today to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

    WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in Geneva, Switzerland, made this declaration upon the advice of a committee of 18 experts and advisers, who she said “agree that a causal relationship between the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected though not yet scientifically proven.” Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, is currently spreading through 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, plus Cape Verde, an island off West Africa. Chan noted that there was “a particularly strong association in time and in space” between the arrival of the virus and the detection of microcephaly and other neurological disorders. Although Brazil has had more than 4000 suspected cases of microcephaly, it has confirmed only 270 cases of this brain-damaging condition in children born to mothers who had evidence of having been infected with the virus.

    Although Brazil is the only country to report a spike in microcephaly during the current outbreak, French Polynesia in 2014 saw a rise in this rare disorder concurrent with viral spread, Chan said. Brazil, El Salvador, and French Polynesia also suspect Zika virus may have led to increased cases of a neurological disorder in adults called Guillain-Barre syndrome that causes temporary paralysis. “The committee advised that the cluster of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and public threat to other parts of world,” Chan explained. She was careful to note that her declaration of concern focused on these clusters and not the spread of the virus itself, which causes no symptoms in 80% of people it infects, and a short-lived rash and fever in the other 20%.

  • Science on the campaign trail: Where the presidential candidates stand

    Although not top-tier issues, candidates have addressed research-related topics

    Eric (HASH) Hersman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The 2016 presidential election season gets underway in earnest today as voters cast their first ballots at the Iowa caucuses. As usual, science-related issues aren’t getting much attention from the candidates, as the debate has been dominated by national security, immigration policy, and the economy. But science does sometimes creep into the conversation, and ScienceInsider has been keeping its ears perked.

    Here’s an overview of where the candidates stand on some select science-related issues (keeping in mind that the candidates have yet to sound off on many topics of interest to researchers).

  • U.K. researcher receives permission to edit genes in human embryos

    A developing human embryo.

    The study's use of CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos is a "justified technical approach," HFEA says.

    Duncan Hull/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan has received permission from U.K. authorities to modify human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology. Niakan, who works at the Francis Crick Institute in London, applied for permission to use the technique in studies to better understand the role of key genes during the first few days of human embryo development.

    The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which grants licenses for work with human embryos, sperm, and eggs in the United Kingdom, approved Niakan’s application at a meeting of HFEA's license committee on 14 January. The minutes of that meeting state that, “[o]n balance, the proposed use of CRISPR/Cas9 was considered by the Committee to offer better potential for success, and was a justified technical approach to obtaining research data about gene function from the embryos used.” 

    The debate about the ethics of editing embryonic genomes has raged for several years; critics say studies such as Niakan's could be the first step towards "designer babies" or even eugenics.

  • Germany’s excellence program gets good grades

    Berlin’s Humboldt University won Excellence Initiative funding for eight graduate schools, four research clusters and for its "future concept."

    Berlin’s Humboldt University won Excellence Initiative funding for eight graduate schools, four research clusters and for its "future concept."

    Heike Zappe

    BERLIN—Germany should award millions of euros in extra funding to its 10 top-performing universities, an international commission recommended today. That is one of the best ways to build on the country’s Excellence Initiative, a decade-long program that was supposed to boost German universities to world-class status. The commission, chaired by physicist Dieter Imboden of the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, presented its long-awaited evaluation of the program today.

    The program has had a “very positive” influence on the country’s higher education system, the commission says. Although the initiative hasn't reached its goals yet, “it has set the system on the right path,” Imboden told a press conference here this morning. The report will help politicians shape the program that will take over when current funding ends in 2017.

  • Ridding research reactors of highly enriched uranium to take decades longer than projected

    Workers tightening a cask containing highly enriched uranium in Vietnam, before putting it on a plane to Russia.

    Workers tightening a cask containing highly enriched uranium in Vietnam, before putting it on a plane to Russia.

    Sandor Tozser / IAEA/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Since 1978, the United States and other nations have been pushing to eliminate the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—the kind of stuff that terrorists or a rogue nation might use to make an atomic bomb—from dozens of civilian research reactors around the world. However, achieving that goal will take far longer than officials had previously hoped, according to a new study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Only a few years ago experts had hoped to eliminate the use of HEU in civilian research reactors by 2018. But that objective cannot be reached until 2035 at the earliest, the report concludes.

    "Clearly there have been unexpected challenges, both technical and nontechnical, that have led to the significant extension of the timeframe," said Julia Phillips, a former vice president of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who chaired the report committee at a webcast press briefing today. A follow-up to a 2009 report, the new study was requested by Congress in 2012.

  • WHO director calls for emergency Zika meeting

    The yellow fever mosquito, <cite>Aedes aegypti</cite>, is Zika's most important vector.

    The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is Zika's most important vector.

    Marcos Teixeira de Freitas, Creative Commons

    An emergency panel convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) will discuss on Monday what steps should be taken to slow the spread of Zika, the mosquito-borne virus spreading quickly through Latin America. WHO director-general Margaret Chan announced the panel today at a meeting of WHO's Executive Board in Geneva, saying that "[t]he level of alarm is extremely high." The Zika virus is suspected of causing severe birth defects and occasional but serious neurological complications in adults. The virus has spread to 23 countries in the Western Hemisphere, after emerging in Brazil in May 2015.

    The committee will decide whether the epidemic deserves to be designated a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” That would allow WHO to issue travel restrictions and would also be a strong signal that more resources should be devoted to studying and fighting the virus. The last such emergency was declared in August 2014 in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa; it is still in place today. WHO was widely criticized for taking that step many months too late.

  • U.S. charges drug researchers with sending trade secrets to China, but will case stand up?

    GlaxoSmithKline's research facility in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania.

    GlaxoSmithKline's research facility in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania.

    Montgomery County Planning Commission/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Attorneys are urging caution in evaluating the strength of a U.S. trade secrets case against two GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) scientists who were accused last week of transferring trade secrets to China. The case bears some similarities, they say, to other recent cases involving Chinese American or Chinese defendants in which federal prosecutors abruptly dropped charges because of improper analysis or insufficient evidence.

    Last week, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, announced the indictments of biomedical researchers Yu Xue and Lucy Xi, as well as three associates, for trade secrets theft, wire fraud, and other charges.  The scientists stand accused of emailing and downloading proprietary data about GSK products and sending it to contacts working for the Chinese startup Renopharma, which provides contract research services for early drug discovery, according to its website. Xue, the key scientist in the GSK endeavor and a researcher in the company’s Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, research center, told an acquaintance that she owned a 30% stake in Renopharma. The 66-page indictment, released 20 January, details emails and messages sent among the defendants over a 3-year period, and alleges that Xue hoped to profit off the transfer of information.

  • Better power lines would help U.S. supercharge renewable energy, study suggests

    Better power lines would help U.S. supercharge renewable energy, study suggests

    Inigo Skies Photography/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Analysts have long argued that nations aiming to use wind and solar power to curb emissions from fossil fuel burning would first have to invest heavily in new technologies to store electricity produced by these intermittent sources—after all, the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing. But a study out today suggests that the United States could, at least in theory, use new high-voltage power lines to move renewable power across the nation, and essentially eliminate the need to add new storage capacity.

    This improved national grid, based on existing technologies, could enable utilities to cut power-sector carbon dioxide emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2030 without boosting power prices, researchers report today in Nature Climate Change.

  • New sensors promise better picture of world ocean health

    Argo floats, such as this one deployed from a French vessel, have produced valuable oceanographic data but new techniques are needed to track changes in the world's oceans.

    Argo floats, such as this one deployed from a French vessel, have produced valuable oceanographic data but new techniques are needed to track changes in the world's oceans.


    TOKYO–Marine scientists are developing new sensors they plan to deploy in a global monitoring system to better observe changes occurring in the world’s oceans. 

    “In some ways we know more about Mars than our own oceans yet they do govern everything from regional climate to economics,” said Karen Wiltshire of Helmholtz, Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. Wiltshire, chair of the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) presented the new observational strategy at a press conference here today ahead of the annual meeting of the partnership, which brings together 40 oceanographic institutions. The goal is to have the new global monitoring system in place by 2030.

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