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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Europe should launch satellite to monitor faint glow of plants, panel says

    FLEX would detect a reddish fluorescence from crops in fields as small as 300 meters across.

    FLEX would detect a reddish fluorescence from crops in fields as small as 300 meters across.

    AIRBORNE SENSOR HYPLANT OF THE IBG-2/FORSCHUNGSZENTRUM JÜLICH/GERMANY

    An advisory panel has recommended that the European Space Agency (ESA) launch a satellite that would measure the faint fluorescent glow of plants, ScienceInsider has learned.

    The Fluorescence Explorer, or FLEX, was endorsed as ESA’s next Earth Explorers mission by the agency’s Earth Science Advisory Committee, following a user consultation meeting held last week in Krakow, Poland.

    Volker Liebig, the director of ESA’s Earth observation programs, notified the FLEX team of the decision on 18 September, along with team members from CarbonSat, the other mission up for consideration in the Earth Explorer 8 competition. Formal selection of either the FLEX or CarbonSat mission will be made in November by ESA’s Earth Observation Programme Board, but the board has always followed the recommendations of the scientific advisory committee.

  • Australia gets a new science minister

    Christopher Pyne

    Credit: Policy Exchange/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia has a new science minister. Christopher Pyne, a lawyer and veteran politician who has been serving as the conservative government’s education minister, was sworn in to his new post today as part of a reshuffle by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

    Many Australian researchers say they hope Pyne’s appointment will mark a turn in policy under Turnbull, who ousted former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 15 September after an internal party uprising. The hard-charging Abbott had drawn fierce criticism from many in Australia’s scientific community as a result of his moves to make deep cuts in nonbiomedical research budgets, and to weaken climate and environmental protection policies.

    “After the weirdness of Abbott and the obtuse ideology of the hard right, we all hope for a better day,” says Peter Doherty, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne and Nobel laureate who criticized the last government. Nothing is certain, he adds. “But as of now, [the new government] should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

  • NEON contractor hanging by a thread, NSF tells Congress

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    NEON Inc.

    Scrambling to rescue a unique but troubled environmental facility under construction, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has warned a nonprofit organization that it has until 1 December to get its act together or face being replaced as contractor on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    This past Friday the head of NSF’s biology directorate told a congressional panel that NSF has set that deadline for NEON Inc., the Boulder, Colorado–based group overseeing the multisite project aimed at monitoring long-term environmental change across the United States. NEON is trying to stave off a projected $80 million deficit and logistical problems that have already pushed back its originally scheduled completion next fall by more than a year. Last month NSF shrunk the $434 million project, eliminating 15 sites, several planned sensors, and a novel aquatic experiment. And 2 weeks ago NEON Inc. fired its CEO in an attempt to show that it was serious about turning things around.

  • U.K. researcher applies for permission to edit embryo genomes

    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)

    A researcher in London has applied to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a license to edit the genes of human embryos. Several techniques developed in recent years allow researchers to easily and accurately add, delete, or modify genes in cells. This has stirred debate about using genome editing in ways that would pass the changes on to future generations. The application filed with HFEA would involve only embryos in the lab, however, not any intended to lead to a birth. Many scientists say such lab experiments are crucial to understanding more about early human development, which could lead to new approaches to help infertile couples.

    The applicant, Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, investigates the genes that are active at the earliest stages of human development, before it implants in the womb. Work with embryonic stem cells from mice and humans has suggested that some of the key genes active in this preimplantation period are different in humans and in mice. Niakan hopes to use genome editing to tweak some of the key genes thought to be involved and study the effects they have on human development.

    She has applied for a license from HFEA, which regulates the use of human embryos in the United Kingdom. The agency confirmed that it had received an application involving genome editing and said it would be evaluated under the agency’s standard rules. The experiments could be allowed under U.K. law.

  • Scripps hooks duo to lead major biomedical institute

    Peter Schultz (left) and Steve Kay like to fish together. Now, they've teamed up to run the Scripps Research Institute.

    Peter Schultz (left) and Steve Kay like to fish together. Now, they've teamed up to run the Scripps Research Institute.

    Steve Kay

    A pair of old fishing buddies is now steering the ship at the Scripps Research Institute, one of the world’s largest private basic biomedical research institutes. Today, Steve Kay, formerly the dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles was announced as Scripps’s president, whereas Peter Schultz, currently a Scripps chemist and director of the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr) in San Diego, was named CEO. Kay will be in charge of day-to-day operations, whereas Schultz will lay out Scripps's long-term strategic plan.

    The announcement likely brings to a close a contentious chapter at Scripps, which has campuses in San Diego, California, and Jupiter, Florida. Just over a year ago, Scripps faculty led a revolt against the institute’s former leadership amid financial troubles and merger discussions with USC. The appointments also portend a new push aimed at marrying the institute’s historical strength in basic biomedical research with translational medicine designed to turn research leads into novel treatments.

    “It’s a very exciting move,” says Peter Kim, formerly the head of the Merck Research Laboratories and now a biochemist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. In addition to running Calibr, Schultz previously led the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF), and has been a founder of eight startups involved in using robotics and other high throughput technologies to advance biomedicine and materials science. Before joining USC, Kay also worked with Schultz at Scripps and GNF. Together the pair has raised well over $1 billion in backing from pharma companies, foundations, and private donations in their recent positions.

  • Blueprint in hand, NIH embarks on study of a million people

    President Obama discussing his Precision Medicine Initiative

    Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

    Hoping to avoid the potholes that recently wrecked a similarly ambitious study of children, a panel of human geneticists, medical researchers, and other experts today proposed a blueprint for the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) plan to recruit 1 million Americans for a long-term study of genes and health. The study, which hopes to recruit its first volunteers next year and could last a decade or longer, may become the largest national study of this kind in the world.

    For NIH Director Francis Collins, the project, known as the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) Cohort Program, brings to fruition an idea he first proposed 11 years ago. “I am so excited to see this dream come to life,” Collins said in a statement released after he accepted the blueprint. “[It] will be a broad, powerful resource for researchers working on a variety of important health questions.”

    President Obama called for a large national research study in January as part of a broader effort to use genetics and health information to tailor medical care to individuals. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Estonia, have assembled similar studies of large groups of people, or cohorts, that collect DNA and health information on volunteers in repositories, sometimes called "biobanks." But designing such a massive research effort in the United States, which lacks a centralized health care system, can be difficult and controversial; NIH recently scuttled and then revived a plan to study 100,000 children, for example.

  • Nature changes animal policy after cancer study comes under fire

    Experiments on mice and other animals are about to get more scrutiny. `

    Experiments on mice and other animals are about to get more scrutiny.

    dra_schwartz/iStockphoto

    The journal Nature is revising its policy on publishing animal experiments after a study it ran in 2011 received criticism because the authors allowed tumors to grow excessively large in mice. The paper reported that a compound isolated from a pepper plant killed cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

    Yesterday, the journal published a correction to the study (the paper’s second), which noted that “some tumors on some of the animals exceeded the maximum size … permitted by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.” The tumors were only supposed to grow to a maximum of 1.5 cubic centimeters, but some reached 7 cubic centimeters, according to David Vaux, a cell biologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, who first raised concerns about the paper in 2012. (Vaux spoke to Retraction Watch, which first reported the correction.)

    In an editorial published yesterday, Nature calls the large tumors “a breach of experimental protocol,” one that could have caused the mice to “have experienced more pain and suffering than originally allowed for.” The journal also noted the lapse could have implications beyond the one study, saying that “cases such as this could provoke a justifiable backlash against animal research.”

  • BARDA broadens pharma funding to fight superbugs

    Acinetobacter, one of the multidrug-resistant bacterial species targeted by BARDA’s Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials program.

    Acinetobacter, one of the multidrug-resistant bacterial species targeted by BARDA’s Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials program.

    CDC

    The U.S. government is deepening its effort to entice drug companies back into antibiotic research with a new public-private partnership. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) announced yesterday that it will invest up to $170 million to help pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca move new antibiotic drug candidates toward the market.

     AstraZeneca has long been an exception to the trend of waning corporate interest in antibiotic research. Discouraged by the scientific challenges of finding novel antibiotic compounds—and by the difficulty of turning a profit in a field dominated by low-cost generics—many companies have fled the field since the early 2000s. AstraZeneca’s announcement this February that it would spin out its early-stage research into a separate company was interpreted by industry analysts as a signal that it, too, was stepping out of the field.

    But under the new agreement, AstraZeneca will receive an initial $50 million to focus first on a combination drug it has been developing for hard-to-treat gram-negative infections. BARDA then plans to invest up to $120 million more over the next 5 years, as it advises the company on other drug candidates to pursue.

  • U.S. Navy to limit sonar testing to protect whales

    Blue whales, such as this one off California, gain new protections from Navy sonar under legal settlement.`

    Blue whales, such as this one off California, gain new protections from Navy sonar under legal settlement.

    Tom Benson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The U.S. Navy agreed this week to limit its use of sonar and other activities that unintentionally harm cetaceans and other marine mammals.

    A federal court on 14 September approved the settlement of two cases brought by environmental groups that challenged the Navy’s training and testing activities off the coasts of southern California and Hawaii. The settlement comes in the wake of the court’s decision earlier this year that found the Navy’s exercises in these areas were illegally harming numerous populations of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

    The decision is being celebrated by conservationists and cetacean experts who have long sparred with the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency charged with protecting marine mammals, over the sonar tests. “By agreeing to this settlement, the Navy acknowledges that it doesn’t need to train in every square inch of the ocean and that it can take reasonable steps to reduce the deadly toll of its activities,” said David Henkin, an attorney in the Honolulu office of Earthjustice, one of the environmental organizations that challenged the Navy’s latest round of sonar training and testing, in a statement. 

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