Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Botanists fear research slowdown after priceless specimens destroyed at Australian border

    Type of Lagenophora sundae Mia, collected in Java.  Digitized as part of the renovation of the National Herbarium of the Museum

    The type specimen of a daisy, genus Lagenophora, collected in Java. The image is all that remains after the specimen was destroyed by Australian customs. 

    ©MNHN - Herbier National, Paris

    This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges. Some have put a freeze on sending samples to Australia until they are assured that their packages won’t meet a similar fate, and others are discussing broader ways of assuring safe passage of priceless specimens.

    "This story is likely to have a major chilling effect on the loan system between herbaria across national boundaries," says Austin Mast, president of the Society of Herbarium Curators and director of the herbarium at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Without the free sharing of specimens, the pace of plant diversity research slows."

    As a result of the customs debacle, curators in New Zealand put a stay on shipping samples to Australia. So has the New York Botanical Garden in New York City, which holds the second largest collection of preserved plants in the world. "We, and many other herbaria, will not send specimens to Australia until we are sure this situation will not be repeated," says herbarium Director Barbara Thiers. 

  • Spanish court clears leading mathematician of mismanagement charges, orders him restored to job

    Manuel de León

    Credit: ICMAT

    After a nearly 2-year legal battle, a Spanish court has cleared a leading Spanish mathematician of allegations that he mismanaged funds, and has ordered him returned to his position as head of a prestigious national mathematics institute.

    In 2015, mathematician Manuel de León was removed as director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) in Madrid, a research center that is jointly run by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and three Madrid universities, amid allegations that the center had sidestepped spending rules. De León, who helped found ICMAT and had led the center since 2008, said the allegations were fueled by internal bureaucratic disputes and jealous colleagues. He challenged his dismissal in court.

    A ruling issued by the Upper Court of Justice of Madrid on 27 April backs De Léon and tells a dark tale of intrigue. It presents evidence that “there had been a campaign of discredit” against De León, prompted by his complaints against another administrator, and that the decision to dismiss him was motivated in part by professional envy. The court ordered ICMAT’s overseers to restore De León to his post; he had been elected to a new term as director in July 2015, just before his dismissal. 

  • Senate fails to repeal methane control rule in final antiregulation vote

    gas burning

    Oil and gas operations often burn off excess methane.

    WildEarth Guardians/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A Republican push to kill an Obama-era rule restricting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry fell short today. In a razor-thin 49–51 vote, the Senate rejected a resolution overturning the so-called methane rule.

    The vote comes just as the clock runs out on a tool Republicans have used to do away with 14 regulations issued in the last months of the Obama administration. Thursday is the last day for Congress to use the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which gives Congress 60 working days to overturn new regulations. Until this year, the act had been used only once—in 2001—to overturn a workplace ergonomics rule.

    The surprise deciding vote in the methane rule came from Senator John McCain (R–AZ). In a statement, McCain said although he has concerns about the current regulations, using the CRA would tie the hands of agencies, blocking them from issuing any “similar” rule in the future. “I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] methane rule,” he said. Two other Republican senators, Lindsey Graham (R–SC) and Susan Collins (R–ME), had previously announced their opposition to the bill.

  • Australian astronomy one of few winners in new budget

    The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization building in Australia

    Australia’s CSIRO faces fresh cuts in new spending plan.

    CSIRO (CC BY-NC 3.0)

    In terms of the impact on science, the Australian budget, released 9 May, is “very bland,” says Les Field, science policy secretary at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, the nation’s leading scientific association. “There are no big spending initiatives but no major cuts,” he adds.

    It’s a “business-as-usual budget for science and technology,” agrees Kylie Walker, CEO of Science and Technology Australia in Canberra, which represents scientists.

    Overall spending on science for the fiscal year beginning 1 July and in later years, called the forward estimates, is not yet clear because support is spread across several ministries. But the plan does reveal some winners and losers. 

  • Departure of U.S. Census director threatens 2020 count

    Portrait of John Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

    John Thompson will leave the Census Bureau on 30 June.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    John Thompson is stepping down next month as director of the U.S. Census Bureau. His announcement today comes less than 1 week after a congressional spending panel grilled him about mounting problems facing the agency in preparing for the 2020 decennial census. And Thompson’s pending retirement is weighing heavily on the U.S. statistical community.

    Thompson is leaving halfway through a 1-year extension of a term that expired last December. His departure will create what a 2012 law was expressly designed to avoid—a leadership vacuum during a crucial time in the 10-year life cycle of the census, the nation’s largest civilian undertaking. The immediate concern is who the Trump administration will appoint, and how soon it will act.

    “The key is to act expeditiously,” says Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy organization. “The normal length of time to fill a vacancy [with a nomination] is 6 months, but the Census Bureau doesn’t have the luxury of time.”

  • Is NSF feeling the Trump effect on clean energy?

    parabolic trough solar power plant

    The National Science Foundation’s oversight board is discussing whether to continue featuring advances in clean energy technologies, such as this parabolic trough solar power plant, in its periodic statistical tome.

    Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The Trump effect may have swept over the National Science Board this morning.

    The presidentially appointed oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering whether to revise a portion of the agency’s statistical bible because it might be seen as out of step with the new administration’s views on renewable energy research.

    “Given the current climate—I mean, political situation—in Washington, I’m wondering whether highlighting [clean energy] is something we still want to do,” board member G. P. (Bud) Peterson asked today during the board’s review of the next edition of Science & Engineering Indicators, a biennial compendium of global trends in science and technology.

  • Biotech execs, academic leaders make case for NIH funding at White House meeting

    Donald Trump with U.S. biomedical research leaders in the Oval Office

    President Donald Trump meets with U.S. biomedical research leaders in the Oval Office on 8 May.

    Shealah Craighead/White House

    Could the Trump administration be changing its mind about slashing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)? Scientific leaders were optimistic yesterday after meeting for 2 hours at the White House with several biotech executives to discuss the “ecosystem” in which federally funded basic research leads to discoveries that companies turn into treatments.

    The closed meeting, described 2 weeks ago by Bloomberg News as a “summit,” took place on 8 May in a room in the White House residence. Twenty-seven people attended, including NIH Director Francis Collins, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, and nine White House officials including President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. About a dozen outside speakers ranged from Stanford University’s president and the CEOs of the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine to four CEOs from biotech companies including Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

    The meeting took place against the backdrop of White House plans for massive cuts to NIH that lawmakers in Congress have so far rebuffed. After the president proposed cutting NIH by about $1 billion in 2017, Congress instead gave the agency a $2 billion raise, to $34 billion, in a bill Trump signed last Friday. However, Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October would trim $5.8 billion from NIH’s budget.

  • Liberian mystery disease may be solved

    A photo of a rapid response group

    A new disease outbreak stirred memories of Liberia’s Ebola epidemic in 2014 and 2015, when health workers wore protective garb, but studies suggest it’s bacterial meningitis.

    DOMINIQUE FAGET/Staff/Getty Images

    When several people died suddenly late last month in Liberia after attending a funeral in the southern county of Sinoe, alarm bells sounded: Had Ebola returned to West Africa? In 2014 and 2015, the largest known outbreak of the deadly disease killed more than 11,000 people in Liberia and two neighboring countries. But instead of signaling the return of that virus, the outbreak—which so far has sickened 30 people and killed 13—may have highlighted its legacy: a disease-monitoring system put in place after Ebola. Although the public health response was far from flawless, it rapidly stilled Ebola fears and now points to a different disease: meningitis.

    On Monday, just 13 days after the first cases were reported, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta announced that samples from four patients tested positive for Neisseria meningitidis serotype C, a bacterium that infects the membranes surrounding the brain and, if untreated, can kill up to half the people it sickens. The disease spreads through close contact such as kissing and often causes devastating epidemics across what is known as the meningitis belt stretching across Africa. But it is unfamiliar in Liberia. 

    The first patient, an 11-year-old girl, arrived at the F. J. Grant Memorial Hospital in Greenville, a regional capital, on 23 April, suffering from vomiting and diarrhea but also mental confusion and hallucinations. Within an hour she was dead. Another patient with similar symptoms came the next day. Then, on the morning of 25 April, 14 patients arrived. At that point, the “integrated disease surveillance and response,” a framework established post-Ebola, kicked in. At least one health worker in every district has been trained to monitor and report any suspicious events, says Alex Gasasira, the World Health Organization representative in Monrovia. They then inform county officials, who pass the information up to the national level.

  • French scientists cheer Macron’s victory

    French President-elect Emmanuel Macron celebrates on the stage at his victory rally near the Louvre in Paris on 7 May 2017

    French President-elect Emmanuel Macron celebrates in Paris.

    Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

    PARIS—The French scientific community is breathing a deep sigh of relief today after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the national presidential election over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. But although most scientists felt that Le Pen’s National Front party represented a threat to tolerance, openness, and evidence, many remain unconvinced that Macron’s policies will benefit research.

    “We’ve escaped the black plague [and] … the danger was so dreadful that it is a relief,” says theoretical physicist Édouard Brézin, a former president of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. He believes that many people who supported Macron simply as a rejection of Le Pen are now hoping that “he may also be a president of quality.”

    Macron’s massive margin of victory in yesterday’s runoff—66% to 34% for Le Pen—also reflects disenchantment for the traditional left and right parties, which weren’t on the ballot. Neither Macron nor Le Pen offered detailed plans on science, but scientists were appalled by Le Pen’s proposals to curb immigration and take France out of the European Union.

  • Money still missing as the plan to synthesize a human genome takes another step forward

    Yeast cells bioprinted by Jeff Boeke’s lab in a design showing chromosomes in two colors for wild type and synthetic.

    Yeast grow on an agar plate in the form of the microbe’s chromosomes, with colors representing whether a chromosome exists in a synthetic form (yellow) or just wild-type (orange).

    Drew Gurian

    Tuesday morning, more than 200 biologists, businesspeople, and ethicists will converge on the New York Genome Center in New York City to jump-start what they hope will be biology’s next blockbuster: Genome Project-write (GP-write), a still-unfunded sequel to the Human Genome Project where instead of reading a human genome, scientists create one from scratch and incorporate it into cells for various research and medical purposes. For example, proponents suggest that they could design a synthetic genome to make human cells resistant to viral infections, radiation, and cancer. Those cells could be used immediately for industrial drug production. With additional genome tinkering to avoid rejection by the immune system, they could be used clinically as a universal stem cell therapy.

    The project got off to a bumpy start last year and despite the central rallying cry of a synthetic human genome, many of those attending the conference will bring in different expectations and ambitions. Some resent the unwanted attention and criticism that the project’s public objective has brought, saying it distracts from the goal of improving DNA synthesis technologies, because cheaper and faster methods to write DNA have many applications in applied and basic research. Others say that a made-to-order human genome is inevitable anyway, hoping to seize the publicity and controversy it creates as an opportunity to educate the public about synthetic biology.

    “If you put humans as the target, even though you are not going to make a human baby, it will be provocative, it will be misinterpreted, but people will engage,” says Andrew Hessel, a self-described futurist and biotechnology catalyst at Autodesk in San Francisco, California, a successful software company that specializes in 3D design programs for architecture and other fields that has been exploring synthetic biology applications in recent years. Hessel is one of the four founders of GP-write, along with lawyer Nancy Kelley and geneticists Jef Boeke of New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City and George Church of Harvard University.

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