Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Does ‘supportive housing’ help the homeless with medical needs? Not clear, study says

    homeless man sleeping in a doorway

    A new report questions the impact of support services that go beyond providing stable, safe shelter for the homeless.

    Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

    A new report finds no evidence that efforts to provide support for the chronically homeless improve their health or reduce the cost of their care. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. government should stop funding programs that offer permanent supportive housing (PSH), say the authors of the study, conducted by a panel convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Instead, the report calls for more analyses of what types of interventions work best for which populations.

    “As a former clinician and public health official it would seem logical, if not obvious, that if you can keep people safe with housing they should have better health outcomes,” says the report’s chair, Kenneth Kizer, who leads the Institute for Population Health Improvement at the University of California, Davis. “Indeed, one of our recommendations is that we need to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing.”

    The chronically homeless represent less than 20% of the 550,000 homeless people in the United States. But that group tends to require more social and medical services than those with even occasional access to safe and stable housing environments do.

  • Trump’s pick to lead energy technology program puzzles observers

    pervoskite solar cells

    Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy funds work on cutting-edge perovskite solar cells, like the version here produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Dennis Schroeder / NREL

    Since it was first funded in 2009, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program aimed at using government funding to push promising technologies from the laboratory into the marketplace, has been headed by scientists bearing doctorates in fields such as chemistry and engineering. Now, President Donald Trump’s administration wants a lawyer and energy investor to take over.

    This week, the White House announced that Trump intends to nominate S. Lane Genatowski, a Houston, Texas–based investment adviser, to be ARPA-E’s next director. If confirmed by the Senate, he would become ARPA-E’s third director. (It has had several interim leaders.)

    The 10 July announcement is prompting questions about the direction ARPA-E will take under Trump—and whether someone with Genatowski’s experience is equipped to lead a small, tight-knit agency where discussions can touch on the latest developments in fields as diverse as nuclear fusion and batteries.

  • NSF wants to know what you think it should fund

    illustrations of hands putting votes into a ballot box

    Got an idea that could transform the world? The National Science Foundation (NSF) is all ears.

    The $7.8 billion research agency in Alexandria, Virginia, already gets way more good research proposals from scientists than it can fund. But NSF officials worry they still might be missing something important. So this fall they will give the public a chance to win glory—and some money—in a contest dubbed The NSF 2026 Idea Machine.

    “We don’t want [the idea] to be something NSF is already doing,” says Suzi Iacono, head of NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities. “We want it to be exciting, and original, and important in terms of the potential benefits to science and to society.”

  • FDA tries to take the reins on regulating cultured meat

    Fried chicken on plate.

    Fried “chicken” from cells grown in culture by Memphis Meats.

    Memphis Meats

    COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND—There may be a turf war on between two U.S. federal agencies over who will regulate the emerging industry of cultured meat, but you wouldn’t know it from the presentations by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at a meeting here yesterday.

    In a daylong discussion of safety considerations, the agency asserted its jurisdiction over products made of chicken, beef, pork, and seafood cells grown in a culture medium, despite recent calls—including a proposal from lawmakers in the House of Representatives—to leave that responsibility to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

    Cultured meat, also sometimes called clean meat or lab-grown meat, is made by extracting cells from an animal and prompting them to mature into muscle fibers and grow in a bioreactor. No products have yet hit the market, though several companies have suggested that their first generation of cultured meat will be available in the next 5 years.

  • New digital chemical screening tool could help eliminate animal testing

    rabbit given eye drops

    An estimated 3 million to 4 million rabbits, rats, and other animals are used annually around the world for chemical safety tests.

    Cairney Down/Alamy Stock Photo

    Toxicologists today unveiled a digital chemical safety screening tool that could greatly reduce the need for six common animal tests. Those tests account for nearly 60% of the estimated 3 million to 4 million animals used annually in risk testing worldwide.

    The computerized tool—built on a massive database of molecular structures and existing safety data—appears to match, and sometimes improve on, the results of animal tests for properties such as skin sensitization and eye irritation, the researchers report in today’s issue of Toxicological Sciences. But it also has limitations; for instance, the method can’t reliably evaluate a chemical’s risk of causing cancer. And it’s not clear how open regulatory agencies will be to adopting a nonanimal approach.

    Still, “We’re really excited about the potential of this model,” says toxicologist Nicole Kleinstreuer, deputy director of a center that evaluates alternatives to animal testing at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Durham, North Carolina. Kleinstreuer, who was not involved in the work, adds that using “big data … to build predictive models is an extremely promising avenue for reducing and replacing animal testing.”

  • Biomedical charity places major bet on ‘bold’ research to win bigger payoffs

    Wellcome Trust Gibbs Building in London

    The Wellcome Trust, whose headquarters marries old and modern buildings, plans a future full of high-risk, high-reward research.

    View Pictures/NICK GUTTRIDGE/VIEW/Newscom

    The world’s second-biggest private funder of medical research, the London-based Wellcome Trust, is taking a high-stakes gamble. The charity announced this week that it would put £250 million (about $330 million) toward pursuing “bold ideas that would fall outside the remit of conventional life sciences funding.” The money is earmarked for ideas that have a high risk of failing or “need to overcome a major scientific or technical hurdle.” The money will also be open to researchers without a background in life sciences.

    Called the Wellcome Leap Fund, the initiative will be set up as a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust with an independent board; the search for a CEO will start shortly and its first research programs could start in late 2020. James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, says considering people outside of biomedical research is a good idea. “Anything which further opens up Wellcome’s rich vein of funding to those wider communities of health research, practice, and policy is something we should embrace.”

    Established in 1936 from the estate of eccentric businessman Henry Wellcome, the Wellcome Trust now has assets topping £23 billion, more than $30 million. Last year, it spent about £900 million on research, more than any other charity in the world except the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The new fund fits into the recent priorities of Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, Wilsdon says. The charity, he explains, is“going beyond discovery-led biomedical and life sciences to support other areas of the research and innovation system for global health."

  • If you give your DNA and tissues to science, should you get a peek at what they might contain?

    DNA test evaluation

    A new report says scientists should offer participants data on their DNA and other tissue samples collected for research studies.

    As the tissue samples and DNA of more and more people are shared with researchers, the question of what information buried in those samples to give back is more pressing than ever. Now, a 335-page report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released this morning urges researchers and regulators to return more biological data to the people whose samples yielded it in the first place. Giving back data to individuals is part of a broader push to offer participants a voice in research, especially research on their own tissues—but how best to do it in a way that is helpful to recipients and their physicians remains murky.

    The issue has been charged for years, since expanded DNA sequencing started turning up unexpected findings in research participants’ samples that weren’t always connected to the original study—such as a gene predisposing a person to breast cancer in a project studying heart disease. In addition, scientists often uncover mutations or other findings that have questionable medical significance to an individual. A DNA quirk that might raise the risk of disease only marginally, for example, or carry uncertain medical meaning may still merit publication and help advance a field of research. For participants, this distinction can be frustrating. If their DNA is worth publishing and helps boost a scientist’s career, why can’t it also be shared with them?

    Given these questions, along with inconsistent regulations, three major U.S. agencies--the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—turned to NASEM for help. And about a year after its work began, the NASEM authors concluded that “the expanded return of results on a cautious basis is the way to go,” says Jeffrey Botkin, a pediatrician and bioethicist at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City, who chaired the committee. Researchers have traditionally focused on returning results that are medically significant, meaning they have a big effect on disease risk, and are medically “actionable,” meaning something can be done to head off that disease. In 2013, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics in Bethesda, Maryland, put out a list of 57 gene mutations that it said fit the bill, although it later said the results should be returned only if people want them

  • Physicist learns hard lessons about money and leadership in U.S. politics

    Elaine DiMasi

    Elaine DiMasi (left) talks with a luncheon crowd in the Long Island, New York, district she hoped to represent.


    Physicist Elaine DiMasi doesn’t actually believe she was lying to her campaign volunteers. But letting them think that she expected to win the Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress—“We’re going to win, I have the right message,”—despite clear evidence she was falling far short of her targets for fundraising and identifying likely supporters never felt right, either.

    “As a scientist you wouldn’t say things that you don’t know to be true,” says DiMasi, who quit her job at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to run in New York’s 1st congressional district. “But for politics, the reality is that’s what you do. I was good enough at it to feel this dissonance, but not good enough at it to get the money I needed. And I’d known it all along.”

    DiMasi is still processing her last-place finish in a five-person race to take on Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican incumbent, in November. In keeping with her scientific training, she’s brutally honest about the mistakes she made during her year as a novice candidate.

  • After outcry, Puerto Rico’s legislature spares statistical agency

    Hurricane damage from Maria in Puerto Rico

    Unreliable statistics have been a problem in Puerto Rico. The government recently grossly undercounted Hurricane Maria’s death toll.

    Hamiel Irizarry/PRNG/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Puerto Rico has backed away from a controversial plan to eliminate a key statistical agency.

    Puerto Rico’s legislature last week approved legislation that calls for a sweeping reorganization of one government agency—but only after it eliminated a provision critics feared would gut statistical collection and analysis on the island.

    In the reorganization’s crosshairs was the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics (PRIS), an independent government agency in San Juan. Although PRIS doesn’t collect much data itself, it analyzes the statistics collected by other government agencies, identifies errors, and helps fix methodological problems. Rather than being run by a political appointee, PRIS is overseen by an independent board of directors that appoints CEOs to 10-year terms.

  • EPA science advisers want chance to comment on controversial transparency plan

    Portrait of Scott Pruitt

    Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Don’t do anything until we get a chance to weigh in.

    The 44-member Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt not to revise or finalize a controversial proposed rule on data transparency until it can analyze it and offer comments.

    “[T]he precise design of the proposed rule appears to have been developed without a public process for soliciting input specifically from the scientific community,” states the 28 June letter signed by SAB Chair Michael Honeycutt, who directs the Toxicology Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Austin. 

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