Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Amid patent lawsuit, genetic sequencing upstart unveils new technology

    Oxford Nanopore Technologies, facing a lawsuit from Illumina, revealed that this microscopic pore, CsgG, underlies its new devices.

    Oxford Nanopore Technologies, facing a lawsuit from Illumina, revealed that this microscopic pore, CsgG, underlies its new devices.

    Oxford Nanopore Google Hangout March 2016

    Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the company that pioneered a new DNA analysis technique called nanopore sequencing, has remained secretive about the microscopic channel at the heart of its products.

  • Accusations of errors and deception fly in CRISPR patent fight

    Accusations of errors and deception fly in CRISPR patent fight

    An artist’s conception of the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9.

    NIH 3D Print Exchange/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Adversaries in the legal battle over the rights to the CRISPR gene-editing technology are preparing to fire their initial shots. In two documents filed with the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board last week, lawyers for the Regents of the University of California (UC) and the Broad Institute (BI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered hints at how they will lay claim to the breakthrough technology and its financial spoils.

  • Science is a major plank in China’s new spending plan

    Kicking off the National People’s Congress on Saturday, China Premier Li Keqiang promised strong support for science.

    Kicking off the National People’s Congress on Saturday, China Premier Li Keqiang promised strong support for science.

    Damir Sagolj/Reuters/Newscom

    China will invest heavily in S&T over the next 5 years and cut red tape hampering science spending with the hope that innovation will help the country weather its economic slowdown.

    In a speech to open the National People’s Congress on 5 March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang—the country’s top economic official—gave a broad-brush overview of the central government’s draft plan for economic development during the 13th 5-year plan, which runs from 2016 to 2020. Major elements include boosting science spending, which will rise 9.1% this year to 271 billion yuans ($41 billion), reducing bureaucratic barriers for scientists, and improving environmental protection while curbing carbon emissions and other pollutants.

    “Innovation is the primary driving force for development and must occupy a central place in China's development strategy,” Li told delegates on the first day of the 2-week congress. Li’s speech, considered a guidepost for the specific policies that will be fleshed out in the next year or two, used the word “innovation” 61 times—nearly double the mentions it received in his work report last year, the state-run Xinhua News Agency pointed out.

  • Q&A with Scott Halstead: Zika will subside in ‘5 years, max’

    In 1963, Scott Halstead was living in Thailand and studying dengue and chikungunya in children.

    In 1963, Scott Halstead was living in Thailand and studying dengue and chikungunya in children.

    Courtesy of Scott Halstead

    In a 1999 interview published in The Lancet, Scott Halstead said that his greatest regret was not having won the Nobel Prize, his worst habit was yelling a lot, and his favorite ways to relax were “skiing, tennis, and sex (not necessarily in that order).” He was equally unabashed about what he saw as his greatest professional accomplishment: the once-contentious assertion that antibodies against one type of dengue virus could “enhance” a later infection by a different strain, leading to a deadly hemorrhagic fever.

    Halstead, now 86, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on viruses spread by mosquitoes, including dengue, Japanese encephalitis, and chikungunya. He continues to be a scientific provocateur, and he has intriguing ideas about the likely fate of Zika as well as the factors that may have converted it from a largely harmless human virus into a major threat to infants.

  • Proposal to define wood-burning as ‘carbon neutral’ fuels debate

    Proposal to define wood-burning as ‘carbon neutral’ fuels debate

    Shenghung Lin/Flickr

    Federal legislation  promoting wood-burning power plants as a “carbon neutral” way to make energy is drawing criticism from some scientists. The provision is part of a much larger bipartisan energy bill now pending in the U.S. Senate, which could approve the bill as early as next week.

    In a letter sent to Senate leaders on 24 February and released earlier this week by the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center, 65 scientists warned that “this well-intentioned legislation, which claims to address climate change, would in fact promote deforestation in the U.S. and elsewhere and make climate change much worse.”

    The dispute is the latest skirmish in a fight over whether power plants fueled by wood should be promoted as climate-friendly, or discouraged for putting more carbon into the atmosphere and imperiling forests. The debate has pitted scientists against each other, and some environmental groups against the timber industry.

  • What’s the face of U.S. innovation? Don’t think Bill Gates

    What’s the face of U.S innovation? Don’t think Bill Gates

    Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The archetypal U.S. innovator is not a young white college dropout building a startup in his garage, argues a wide-ranging new study of the demographics of U.S. innovators.

    Rather than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  a middle-aged male Ph.D. toiling at a large U.S. firm—and perhaps born abroad—is more likely to be behind the next big thing, conclude researchers from George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C.–based think tank.

    “Contrary to popular conceptions about precocious college dropouts with big ideas, U.S. innovators actually tend to be experienced and highly educated,” concludes the study, which is based on a survey of more than 900 people associated with “meaningful and marketable” recent inventions. In addition, nearly half are immigrants or children of immigrants.

  • Republicans promise ‘sustained’ NIH funding hikes without budget gimmicks

    Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), right, at last night’s FASEB awards ceremony.

    Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), right, at last night’s FASEB awards ceremony.

    Scott Henrichsen, FASEB

    The two legislators with arguably the most clout over the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) promised yesterday to give NIH “at least” the $1 billion increase that President Barack Obama has requested. It would be the second step in “sustained” annual boosts for the agency, said Representative Tom Cole (R–OK) and Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO). And they said the increase won’t rely on a spending gimmick in the president’s 2017 budget request last month, a tactic that Congress is almost certain to reject and that could leave NIH and several other research agencies with smaller budgets.

    Cole and Blunt lead the two appropriations subcommittees in Congress that oversee NIH and other health, education, and labor programs. Last night the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) feted them for their critical role in hiking NIH’s 2016 budget by $2 billion—the largest in a decade outside of a one-time injection of $10 billion from the 2009 stimulus package. The two Republicans told an appreciative audience on Capitol Hill that they hope to repeat their 2016 performance this year.

    “The most important thing, as Roy has already said, is to make sure that the $2 billion increase in 2016 is not a one-hit wonder,” Cole explained. “We want this to become a regular pattern for Congress, to make these NIH investments in a regular, manageable, and predictable way so that the scientific community knows they will continue.”

  • Japanese physicists take revamped collider for spin

    KEKB upgrade

    At Japan's SuperKEKB accelerator, an electron ring, left, and a positron ring, right, share space in a 3-kilometer circular tunnel.


    For the first time in 5 years, particle physicists are on the cusp of having two major collider facilities running. Researchers have succeeded in circulating beams in a collider called SuperKEKB, officials at Japan's High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) in Tsukuba announced today. If all goes as planned, researchers using SuperKEKB will start smashing electrons into positrons next year and join their counterparts working on the world's biggest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, in the hunt for new physics. (A third collider, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, focuses more on a type of nuclear physics.)

    "It's the first new accelerator since 2008," when the LHC turned on, says Thomas Browder, a physicist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and spokesperson for the 600 physicists working on the Belle II particle detector, which will be fed by SuperKEKB. The LHC has been particle physicists' lone collider since the United States shutdown its Tevatron collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, in 2011.

    Both the LHC and SuperKEKB hope to discover physical phenomena that don’t fit the well-tested standard model of particle physics. But SuperKEKB will pursue a strategy different from the LHC's. The LHC aims to blast heavy new fundamental particles into fleeting existence by smashing protons at the highest energies ever achieved. This tack succeeded spectacularly in 2012, when research at the LHC discovered the long-sought Higgs boson. In contrast, SuperKEKB will collide positrons and electrons at much lower energies to produce massive numbers of familiar particles and study their properties in great detail for hints of new particles and other phenomena.

  • Brazil starts building snazzy new research station in Antarctica

    Antarctic station

    Artist's conception of Brazil's new Antarctic research station, planned to open in 2018.

    Brazilian Navy

    Four years after its old research station went up in flames, Brazil has started work on a new $100 million scientific stronghold in Antarctica. A symbolic founding stone was unveiled on Monday by Brazilian defense minister Aldo Rebelo during a ceremony in Punta Arenas, Chile. The plan was to hold the event at the station site in Antarctica—at the edge of the Keller Peninsula, on King George Island—but bad weather grounded the flight that was scheduled to take the party there.

    Compared with the previous base that operated for nearly 30 years, the new one, expected to be completed in 2018, has a slick futuristic design, with 17 laboratories and cozy accommodations for about 65 people. But scientists worry about whether a looming funding squeeze will crimp research by the time the station is up and running. “To build a new station is commendable. But if new research projects are not approved, it won’t do us any good,” says Yocie Yoneshigue-Valentin, a marine botanist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and general coordinator of the National Science and Technology Institute for Environmental Research in Antarctica.

    An investigation concluded that the fire in February 2012 started in a machine room, after a fuel tank was left unattended and overflowed during a refueling operation. Two Navy officers died combating the flames; none of the roughly 30 scientists working at the station at the time were injured. The federal government responded quickly, installing 45 emergency operational modules and replacing all equipment on site within a year of the accident. That has kept Brazilian science afloat in Antarctica, with support from two Navy research ships and international collaborations. A quarter of Brazil’s science program in Antarctica depends on the land station, with the rest carried out aboard ships or in seasonal summer camps.

  • Gene sequencing technology sparks a patent fight shrouded in mystery

    Two firms are battling over the technology behind this compact nanopore sequencing device made by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

    Two firms are battling over the technology behind this compact nanopore sequencing device made by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

    The inexpensive and portable approach to DNA analysis known as nanopore sequencing has just begun to take off, but it has already sparked a legal battle between an industry giant and a high-profile upstart. Last week, Illumina, Inc.—which dominates the genetic sequencing industry—sued Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the first company to market a commercial nanopore platform. Illumina claims that Oxford’s two flagship devices infringe on patents that Illumina controls.

    The battle, closely watched by researchers who already rely on Oxford’s products, hinges on the details of a technology that are still secret, and could lead the two firms into a murky corner of patent law.

    Illumina leads the sequencing market, selling refrigerator-sized devices that read DNA by building and piecing together short complementary strands that bear chemical tags. In contrast, nanopore sequencing—which has been hailed as a game-changing approach to DNA analysis because of its simplicity and portability—reads long strands of DNA in a single pass, by measuring changes in electrical current as each nucleotide passes through a microscopic pore. Since 2014, Oxford has made its handheld MinION nanopore device available to researchers through an early access program, and is preparing to debut a larger and more powerful model called PromethION.

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