ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • How the transgenic petunia carnage of 2017 began

    petunias

    The African Sunset petunia is one of the genetically engineered varieties that U.S. officials are asking breeders to destroy.

    F. D. RICHARDS/FLICKR (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Two years ago, plant biologist Teemu Teeri was walking by a train station in Helsinki when he noticed some vivid orange petunias in a planter. The flowers reminded Teeri, who has studied plant pigments at the University of Helsinki, of blooms created in a landmark gene-engineering experiment some 30 years earlier. As far as he knew, those flowers never made it to market. But he was curious, and he stuck a stem in his backpack.

    Now, that chance encounter has ended up forcing flower sellers on two continents to destroy vast numbers of petunias. Teeri ultimately confirmed that the plants contained foreign DNA, and he tipped off regulators in Europe and the United States, who have identified other commercial strains that are genetically engineered (GE). Although officials say the GE petunias pose no threat to human health or the environment—and likely were unknowingly sold for years—they’ve asked sellers to destroy the flowers, because it’s illegal to sell them in the United States and Europe without a permit.

    Ironically, proposed revisions to U.S. biotechnology rules now under discussion might have exempted the harmless petunias from regulation. But the petunia carnage highlights the growing complexity of regulating GE plants, which have a long history of showing up where they aren’t allowed and can be hard to track.

  • Activists battle U.S. government in court over making animal welfare reports public

    Anesthetized pig

    Pigs are among the animals that breeders supply to government, academic, and industry research labs.

    GEORGE F. MOBLEY/National Geographic Creative

    In 2013, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector visited Thomas D. Morris, Inc., a Maryland animal breeder that sells to U.S. government and academic scientists. The inspector found numerous violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which sets standards for humane treatment. Fifteen unshorn sheep were penned in a sweltering building, while a group of calves and sheep had no shelter at all. A goat and a lamb were lame; another goat had an egg-sized swelling on its shoulder. In a subsequent letter, USDA warned the firm, which had 18 employees and $5 million in revenue in 2013, that future violations could result in fines or criminal prosecution.

    But it’s difficult for the public to know whether the company—which supplied animals used in at least 48 biomedical studies published since 2012—has kept a clean record. That’s because, on 3 February, USDA abruptly removed inspection reports, warning letters, and other documents on nearly 8000 animal facilities that the agency regulates, including Thomas D. Morris, from public databases. Some of the documents, which are maintained by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), have since been restored. But thousands remain hidden, and animal welfare advocates are now in court trying to force USDA to restore the records, and post all new documents, too.

    USDA officials said the removal was prompted by their commitment to “maintaining the privacy rights of individuals” identified in the documents, which animal rights groups, journalists, and others have regularly used to publicize the failings of AWA violators. And they say they are still reviewing the withdrawn documents, with an eye toward blacking out information that shouldn’t be public before reposting them. So far, APHIS has reposted inspection reports on most of the 983 research facilities that it regulates. But according to a 19 May analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., it has not restored records covering 94% of the 3333 breeders and dealers that provide animals for the pet trade and, in some cases, research.

  • Vaccine could soon be enlisted in the fight against Ebola in the DRC

    DRC health minister Oly IIunga

    DRC Health Minister Oly IIunga (with white cap) flew to Likati on 17 May to help coordinate the Ebola response.

    EUGENE KABAMBI/WHO

    The Democratic Republic of the Congo has moved a step closer to using an unlicensed vaccine to battle an Ebola outbreak that began last month in a remote northeastern part of the country. Yesterday, the country's government submitted a formal vaccine trial protocol, developed with Epicentre, the Paris-based research arm of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), to an ethical review board.

    If the plan gets the green light, the first doses of the vaccine could go into the arms of people at risk within 2 weeks, according to an official at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. WHO today issued a “donor alert,” urgently requesting a 6-month budget of $10.5 million to support the vaccine study (which may require 5000 doses), as well as surveillance, treatment, and conventional prevention and control efforts.

    But whether the shots will actually be needed is unclear. So far, there have been only two confirmed Ebola cases and 41 suspected or probable cases. More than 350 contacts of cases were being monitored. But samples from several dozen suspected cases tested negative on Monday, raising the possibility that the outbreak may be quite small, and perhaps already nearing the end.

  • Academies calculate how much Brexit will cost U.K. researchers

    Brexit

    Jeff Djevdet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Some academic fields in the United Kingdom will have major funding holes to fill once the country leaves the European Union, according to new research commissioned by four U.K. academies. The Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society commissioned the Technopolis Group, an independent policy research organization, to find out in detail just how reliant U.K. science is on European funding. The €1.1 billion per year that U.K. research now gets from Europe is, the report found, spread across all academic disciplines it analyzed but some fields will have a tougher time than others finding alternative sources.

    According to the study, U.K. archaeology gets the largest proportion of its funding from Europe (38%), followed by classics (33%) and information technology (IT) (30%). Of the top 15 fields by that measure, only two are natural or physical sciences. But in terms of absolute amounts of money, the rankings are very different: Clinical medicine won the most EU funding in 2014–15 (£120 million), followed by biosciences (£91 million), physics (£55 million), chemistry (£55 million), and IT (£46 million).

  • Lawsuit at Columbia University roils prominent chronic fatigue syndrome research lab

    Dr. W. Ian Lipkin at his office in New York.

    Ian Lipkin is being sued by his long-time collaborator Mady Hornig.

    JOSHUA BRIGHT/The New York Times

    A sex discrimination lawsuit filed last week has exposed a nasty fight roiling one of the most prominent, and well-funded, labs studying the mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME). The lengthy list of accusations, the most gossipy of which sparked coverage by the tabloid New York Post, include diversion of federal and foundation grant money.

    Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, a well-known virologist who  probes links between microbial infections and neuropsychiatric disorders, is being sued, along with the university, by epidemiologist Mady Hornig, his long-term collaborator. In the lawsuit, filed on 15 May in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Hornig alleges that Lipkin for years has discriminated against her on the basis of sex and created a hostile work environment, violating U.S. and New York civil rights laws. In particular, it alleges that Lipkin took credit for Hornig’s work; diverted or misused funds, thus delaying the publication of Hornig’s research results; undermined her relationships with external collaborators and potential donors; and improperly added himself as principal investigator to grants.

    In an email response to a request for comment, Lipkin denies the charges, writing, “I did not engage in any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend against the allegations." A Columbia spokesperson said the university does not comment on matters in litigation. 

  • Former Ethiopian health minister becomes first African head of the World Health Organization

    Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus leaves after delivering a speech during the 70th World Health Assembly at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

    Tedros says he will work tirelessly to fulfill the promise of universal health coverage.

    Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP

    For the first time in its history, the World Health Organization (WHO) will be led by an African. In a secret ballot, the World Health Assembly today elected Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a physician and former health minister of Ethiopia, to be the agency's new director-general.

    Many felt it was Africa’s turn to lead the agency, and the African Union, representing 54 WHO member states, supported the candidacy of Tedros, who goes by his first name. "This is a historic moment,“ says Ashish Jha, a global health expert at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. "I think it is a good thing for WHO."

    Tedros was health minister between 2005 and 2012 and served as Ethiopia’s foreign minister the past 4 years. His achievements for public health have been widely hailed; he built up a network of more than 40,000 female health workers, and deaths from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis were more than halved on his watch. But Tedros has been criticized for being part of the government that alledgedly committed human rights abuses. And just 10 days before the vote, Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., claimed Tedros covered up cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia as health minister. Gostin supported and advised another candidate, physician and longtime United Nations operative David Nabarro from the United Kingdom.

  • What’s in Trump’s 2018 budget request for science?

    Donald J. Trump at a podium

    President Donald J. Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President Donald Trump unveiled his full 2018 budget request to Congress today. The spending plan, for the fiscal year that begins 1 October, fleshes out the so-called skinny budget that the White House released this past March. That plan called for deep cuts to numerous research agencies. But it did not include numbers for some key research agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). ScienceInsider will be scouring today’s budget documents for fresh details. Come back to our rolling coverage for analysis and reaction.

    NIH spending slashed by 22%, overhead payments squeezed

    As expected, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) budget would be slashed to $26.9 billion in the full Trump 2018 budget request. That is $7.7 billion less than NIH’s final 2017 budget of $34.6 billion, or a 22% cut.

  • DOE ends freeze on several ARPA-E grants

    Portrait of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson.

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) says the Department of Energy is flaunting a 1974 budget law.

    NASA/Joel Kowsky

    UPDATE: Three stalled research projects received word yesterday from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that the department has ended its undeclared freeze on processing approved grants. The department “is honoring commitments to several previously selected Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy [ARPA-E] awardees,” declared an 18 May DOE press release, which notes that “additional awardees are expected to move forward in the coming weeks.” The two REFUEL projects and one NEXTCAR project, which total $11 million, were announced last fall. But their funding languished as DOE measured all awards against what it calls the “new Administration’s policy directives.”

    A senior Democratic legislator who has questioned the legality of the contracting freeze said yesterday that she’s still keeping an eye on the department. “While this is a step in the right direction,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), top Democrat on the House of Representatives science committee, “I still have serious concerns given that at least 20 additional competitively selected awardees are still awaiting notice that contract negotiations with ARPA-E can resume.”

    Here is our previous story, published on 8 May:

  • Two female scientists and a militant environmentalist join Emmanuel Macron’s new government

    New French Education Minister Frederique Vidal leaves after the first weekly cabinet meeting under new French President Emmanuel Macron

    Molecular geneticist and university administrator Frédérique Vidal is France’s new minister for higher education, research, and innovation.

    Christophe Ena/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Science will have a bigger voice in the next French government. Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron announced yesterday that a molecular geneticist–turned–university administrator will head the new ministry of higher education, research, and innovation, while a highly respected physician-scientist is France’s new health minister. Both are women—as is fully half of the new cabinet.

    But perhaps the biggest surprise was the appointment of the immensely popular green activist Nicolas Hulot at the new Ministry of “Ecological and Solidarity-based Transition.” Hulot—who has called Donald Trump’s retreat from the Clean Power Plan “a crime against humanity” and who wants to phase out nuclear energy—is credited with major changes in French environmental policy in the past decade—but always from outside the government.

    Frédérique Vidal, 53, the new research minister for science, spent most of her career at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she increasingly focused on education and climbed through the administrative ranks until becoming university president in 2012. The fact that Vidal “knows the sector … is a good thing,” says Patrick Monfort, secretary general of SNCS-FSU, a trade union for researchers based near Paris.

  • Strike disrupts research at Puerto Rico’s top university

    people protesting

    A student strike at the University of Puerto Rico is part of an island-wide protest like this one in San Juan on 1 May urging authorities to rescind proposed austerity measures.

    AP Photo/Danica Coto

    Last week molecular biologist Juan Ramirez-Lugo put all his coral samples in the freezer, locked the door of his lab, and told his six undergraduate assistants to stay home the next day. The assistant professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in San Juan wasn’t happy about yet another disruption to his research on seasonal variations in how corals respond to thermal stress and his efforts to give undergraduates “authentic research experiences.” But he felt he had no choice.

    Ramirez-Lugo’s campus has been shut down since late March, when students began a peaceful protest against proposed massive cuts to the territory’s flagship university as part of a slew of austerity measures to address the territory’s fiscal crisis. On 10 May the strikers voted to ignore a judge’s order to end their protest, raising concerns about possible violence if the authorities tried to enforce the court ruling.

    That didn’t happen, and the next day Ramirez-Lugo was able to return to work. However, he and the rest of the UPR faculty remain pawns in a larger battle over the U.S. territory. The fate of its 3.6 million residents rests in the hands of a federal judge who this week began hearing testimony from the government and those owed some $74 billion in bonds. (Puerto Rico also has $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations.)

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