Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Proposed U.S. biotech rules raise industry hopes and anxieties

    Genome editing has created cows that grow no horns, the better to avoid painful dehorning.

    Genome editing has created cows that grow no horns, the better to avoid painful dehorning.

    Cornell Alliance for Science

    Makers of genetically engineered (GE) products have long been on the lookout for changes in U.S. regulations. The system that divvies up the safety review of these products between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in the middle of a years-long overhaul, in part to accommodate modern gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR. And a set of new proposals released last week offers hints about what those agencies still hope to change.

    Products made through genetic engineering have often faced an inconsistent and counterintuitive path to market. Some have worried that potentially risky products could fall through the regulatory cracks and avoid proper review. (USDA’s decision last April not to regulate a CRISPR-edited nonbrowning mushroom, for example, shocked some genetically modified [GM] organism opponents.) Meanwhile, developers of these products have argued that new, precise techniques to edit a few letters of genetic code shouldn’t be held to the same strict standards as older approaches that make less predictable or more widespread genetic changes.

    Earlier this month, the White House released an update to the overarching system of biotech regulation, known as the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. But it’s still up to individual agencies to clarify how they intend to classify and evaluate various GE products. In an apparent effort to get plans on the table before a change of administration, USDA and FDA put out draft proposals on 18 January addressing several categories of GE products. Reactions from the companies behind those products have been mixed:

  • Uh oh. Studies find little U.S. money to study ecological impacts of chemicals

    Names of chemicals

    Marcin Wichary/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    U.S. government funding for studies of how synthetic chemicals affect the environment isn’t keeping pace with the rapidly expanding use of these substances, which include pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and industrial agents, two recent analyses conclude.

    There has been a precipitous decline since the 1980s in the amount of money available for external research grants at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is primarily responsible for regulating chemical use, four researchers noted last month in an opinion piece published in Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T). And relatively few journal papers or grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)—the nation’s major funder of ecological research by academics—focus on the issue, finds a study published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (FREE).

    One result: “[C]hemicals continue to be approved for commercial use, although their environmental impacts are unknown,” writes G. Allen Burton of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and colleagues in ES&T.

  • Doomsday Clock ticks 30 seconds closer to midnight, thanks to Trump


    Jesse! S?/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Citing a rise in global nationalism and humanity’s failure to confront nuclear weapons and climate change, scientists today pushed the infamous Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight—the symbolic moment humankind is supposed to annihilate itself. That pushes the planet from 3 minutes to destruction to a mere 2.5. Since the clock was launched in 1947, this is the closest we’ve come to the brink since 1953, when the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) moved the hand 2 minutes to midnight following the first testing of a hydrogen bomb.

    One of the biggest reasons for the move, wrote BAS scientists in an op-ed in The New York Times, was the ascent of U.S. President Donald Trump: “Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person,” they wrote. “But Mr. Trump’s statements and actions have been unsettling.”

    Those include comments about the use of nuclear weapons during his campaign as well as during his transition to the White House. In a tweet in December 2016, Trump wrote, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Politico reported he has since given mixed responses regarding the notion, saying “there is not going to be an arms race” but also noting he won’t “take anything off the table.”

  • Meet the three people who hope to lead WHO in the Trump era

    David Nabarro;  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus;  Sania Nishtar

    The three finalists. From left to right: David Nabarro, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and Sania Nishtar.

    (Left to right): UNMEER/Simon Ruf; European External Action Service/Flickr; Benedikt von Loebell/World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

    Now the race is really on. Only three candidates remain for the highest post at the World Health Organization (WHO), widely seen as one of the toughest jobs in global health. Chronically underfunded, WHO is a complex bureaucracy that has come under heavy fire for its handling of the Ebola catastrophe in West Africa. And its new boss arrives just as the United States, WHO’s most important financial contributor, has chosen a president who has little appreciation for international organizations and who reportedly wants to slash U.S. contributions to the United Nations, of which WHO is part.

    The three who say they’re up to that challenge are former Ethiopian Health Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, U.K. physician and United Nations official David Nabarro, and Pakistani cardiologist and former science minister Sania Nishtar.

    Today, the candidates introduced themselves during consecutive press conferences in Geneva, Switzerland. From now until the election in May, they and their countries will campaign in the media and lobby furiously behind the scenes to get as many of WHO’s 194 member states as possible on their side.

  • Firestorm over supposed gag order on USDA scientists was self-inflicted wound, agency says

    Building at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville, Maryland.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville, Maryland.

    Luigi Guarino/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Don’t blame this one on the Trump administration.

    In a bungled attempt to anticipate the wishes of their new political bosses, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) on Monday imposed what was widely interpreted as a gag order on its scientists communicating with the public. But a senior ARS official tells ScienceInsider that it was a poorly worded effort by career officials—not anyone appointed by Trump—to remind employees of a longstanding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy on clearing statements that have policy relevance with senior officials before releasing them.

    The statement was rescinded the next day after a flurry of media reports accused the new Trump administration of attempting to still the voice of scientists at ARS.

    Christopher Bentley, ARS’s communications chief in Beltsville, Maryland, blames himself for the wording in a two-sentence staff memo declaring that “until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents.” Bentley says the memo, issued by Chief of Staff Sharon Drumm, used the wrong phrase to describe what is standard operating practice at USDA. (Both Bentley and Drumm are career civil servants; indeed, ARS has no political appointees, not even ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young.)

  • What Trump's nominees have said about science at their Senate hearings

    Donald J. Trump at a podium

    President-elect Donald J. Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    This is the third week of U.S. Senate hearings on President Donald Trump’s nominees to his Cabinet. Most, if not all, of the nominees are expected to win confirmation, which requires just 51 votes. ScienceInsider is keeping a watch to see whether scientific issues—such as climate change and vaccine issues—get much discussion, and what kind of reaction any comments draw. 

  • Trump officials suspend plan to delete EPA climate web pages

    Global temperatures could rise dramatically in 2100 compared with current conditions (dark red areas) under some scenarios for global greenhouse gas emissions.

    Global temperatures could rise dramatically in 2100 compared with current conditions (dark red areas) under some scenarios for global greenhouse gas emissions.


    Originally published by E&E News

    Trump administration officials appear to have walked back plans to scrub climate change references from U.S. EPA's website.

    "We've been told to stand down," an EPA employee told E&E News today. That new directive comes after staff were told yesterday to remove the agency's climate change page from its website, worrying climate change activists and sending data specialists scrambling to download files.

    The backlash that erupted after reports surfaced last night that the climate page would be eliminated may have prompted administration officials to change course. News of the plans was first reported last night by Reuters. EPA's press office did not respond to requests for comment today.

  • Candidates from Ethiopia, United Kingdom, and Pakistan will compete for WHO's top slot

    WHO symbol

    Symbol of the World Health Organization.

    Mattia Panciroli/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Three have been voted off the island, and now there are only two men and one woman left. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced who will be up for election to the post of director-general in May. They are: former Ethiopian Health Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, U.K. physician and United Nations official David Nabarro, and Pakistani cardiologist and former science minister Sania Nishtar.

    Earlier this week there were still six candidates; WHO's Executive Board, made up of representatives of 34 member states, had decided to do interviews with only five. On Monday, it rejected Hungarian former Health Minister Miklós Szócska. After talking to the remaining candidates today, the board sent home former French Health Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and WHO’s assistant director-general for family, women’s and children’s health, Flavia Bustreo from Italy.

  • Memo freezing NIH communications with Congress triggers jitters

    National Institutes of Health building

    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    Is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) part of the clampdown by the 5-day-old Trump administration on communications at science agencies? That’s how some are reacting to White House directive telling NIH to halt correspondence with public officials and hold off on new policies. But some observers say the NIH directive is not unusual for a new administration.

    The worries were triggered by an email sent today by NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak to NIH’s 27 institute and center directors. It was first reported on the blog of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and states in part:

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