Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH to impose grant cap to free up funds for more investigators

    National Institutes of Health building

    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    In a major policy shift that is reverberating across the biomedical research community, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, says it plans to cap the number of grants an investigator can hold in order to free up funding for early-career scientists and those struggling to keep their labs afloat.

    The new policy, announced yesterday by NIH Director Francis Collins, will limit the amount of support a single investigator can have to the equivalent of three bread-and-butter NIH R01 grants. About 6% of the investigator pool now has more than this level of support, and freeing up the money going to those awards could support 1600 new grants, NIH concludes. This will ensure “that the funds we are given are producing the best results from our remarkable scientific workforce,” Collins wrote.

    The policy follows years of worrying, after NIH’s budget flattened in 2003, about cutthroat competition for funding and the need to stretch NIH’s budget to support more labs. NIH already has a 9-year-old policy that essentially gives extra points to grant proposals from early-career investigators that has helped stabilize the fraction of NIH grantees under age 45. But now, as those grants come up for renewal, midcareer scientists are a shrinking part of the NIH investigator pool. Congress, too, is concerned and in the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act pressed NIH to take steps to help early-career investigators.

  • Angering animal welfare activists, Mauritius invites primate research labs to set up shop

    A photo of two macaques

    Mauritius's breeders established colonies from wild-caught macaques.


    The persistent fight by animal welfare activists to end nonhuman primate research has found its way to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. In the 1700s, Dutch and Portuguese seafarers introduced the long-tailed macaque to the island, where the animals thrived and, in recent decades, formed the basis of an export industry supplying biomedical labs in the developed world. Now, Mauritius has decided to get into the business of nonhuman primate experimentation itself even as such work is becoming increasingly constrained in North America and Europe. Last month the move touched off a heated debate in Mauritius's National Assembly about whether the government could adequately protect the macaques used in research and whether the new industry might endanger a far bigger lifeline for the island—tourism.

    The debate is reverberating overseas. Activists, led by London-based Cruelty Free International, see the influence of Mauritius's five monkey breeding companies behind the government's February step allowing licenses to be issued for local research on island-bred macaques. (The new regulations also allow rabbit and rodent studies.) They contend that the companies are alarmed by a successful, high-pressure campaign to discourage commercial airlines from flying nonhuman primates from source countries such as Mauritius to research centers—and are trying to hedge their bets. The London group also argues that the new regulations, which amend the country's Animal Welfare Act, are invalid because they don't further the purpose of the original legislation.

    Some scientists see it differently. Tipu Aziz, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who says he was obliged by stringent U.K. animal welfare regulations to abandon studies of Parkinson's disease in long-tailed macaques, commends Mauritius's effort as a "forward-thinking" attempt to build up its biotech sector. But, he says, "They've got a lot of work ahead of them" to attract drug studies and basic research, noting that China has already established sophisticated nonhuman primate research centers that are attractive to Western customers.

  • How science fares in the U.S. budget deal

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building


    Congress has finally reached a deal on spending bills for the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. House of Representatives and Senate leaders announced last night that they expect lawmakers to vote this week on an agreement that wraps together all 12 appropriations bills that fund federal operations. For the past 7 months, the government has been operating under a continuing resolution that froze 2017 spending at most agencies at 2016 levels and generally prevented them from starting new programs. The new deal allows agencies to operate normally within the constraints of the spending plans, assuming that President Donald Trump signs the legislation (as is expected). It also averts a shutdown of the government that would have occurred next weekend if Congress failed to act in time.

    Overall, the deal staves off major cuts for federal science agencies that Trump had requested last month. A few, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA science programs, actually receive substantial increases.

    Below, the Science News staff provides some details:

  • Paper about how microplastics harm fish should be retracted, report says

    perch larva

    A perch larva’s stomach is filled with microplastics.

    Oona Lönnstedt

    It took more than 10 months, but today the scientists who blew the whistle on a paper in Science about the dangers of microplastics for fish have been vindicated. An expert group at Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) has concluded that the paper’s authors, Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University (UU), committed “scientific dishonesty” and says that Science should retract the paper, which appeared in June 2016.

    Science published an editorial expression of concern—which signals that a paper has come under suspicion—on 3 December 2016, and deputy editor Andrew Sugden says a retraction statement is now in preparation. (Science’s news department, which works independently of the journal’s editorial side, published a feature about the case in March.)

    The report comes as a “huge relief,” says UU’s Josefin Sundin, one of seven researchers in five countries who claimed the paper contained fabricated data shortly after it came out.

  • DOE freezes millions in high-tech energy grants and gags staff

    Molly Hanlon with advisor Kathleen Brown in lab

    Pennsylvania State University graduate student Molly Hanlon, right, had hoped Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy funds would fuel the next phase of her career. 

    Patrick Mansell/Penn State

    The Department of Energy (DOE) has stopped processing the paperwork on tens of millions of dollars in research that its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has agreed to fund.

    DOE officials aren't saying why they have taken this unusual step, dubbed a “no-contract action.” It went into effect earlier this month and affects more than a dozen projects across four new ARPA-E programs. The move, first reported by Politico Pro, includes a gag order on ARPA-E program managers, leaving investigators in the dark about the status of their grants. The resulting uncertainty is having a devastating impact on research teams, scientists say, and even threatens the viability of small companies for whom these major awards are so important.

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, is concerned that the apparent contracting freeze might violate federal laws requiring agencies to spend appropriations from Congress—in this case, the $291 million that ARPA-E received for the 2016 fiscal year that ended last September. On Wednesday she wrote to DOE Secretary Rick Perry reminding him that “diversion or impoundment of this money would be contrary to law” and asking him whether the agency “is currently subject to a ‘no-contract action’ or similar action and, if so what the parameters are.”

  • Human vaccine data release jump-starts biotech’s bid for RNA drugs

    messenger RNA

    The biotech Moderna delivers messenger RNA (blue) into cells to be translated into proteins by ribosomes.

    V. Altounian/Science

    Originally published by Endpoints News.

    The executive team at Moderna raised a cheer today after publishing their first early snapshot of human efficacy data that demonstrate their messenger RNA tech works — at least on the first try.

    The biotech tested their H10N8 flu vaccine on a small group of 31 subjects, looking at their response in two different measures. All demonstrated a sufficient immune response to fight off the virus in the first measure, and all but 3 in the second, for a total of 23 who received the vaccine.  None of the 8 subjects who received a placebo responded.

  • Marine Le Pen is a ‘terrible danger,’ French research leaders say

    Marine Le Pen celebrates after early results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election

    Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, celebrating results from the first election round on 23 April.

    Charles Platiau/REUTERS

    The French science and higher education community appears virtually united in its opposition against Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who could become France’s next president during the second round of elections on 7 May. In an unprecedented letter issued yesterday, the directors of nine major public research institutes describe Le Pen’s candidacy as a “terrible danger” and call on voters not to support her.

    “The program of Ms Le Pen promises recession and decline on all fronts: economic, social, and of course scientific,” the nine say in the statement, which was sent to French news agency AFP yesterday. Among the signatories are the directors of the national research agency CNRS, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and the National Institute for Agricultural Research.

    Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, won 21.3% of the vote in the first round on 23 April, slightly less than political newcomer and pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron, who got 24%. (France’s traditional parties all did worse, as did a far-left candidate.) Macron and Le Pen have sketchy programs on science, but their world views could not be farther apart. Le Pen’s proposals to curtail immigration and take France out of European treaties are very unpopular in academic circles.

  • More than 1500 people told us where and why they marched for science

    people marching

    Science marchers in Washington, D.C.

    Bill Douthitt

    Nearly a third of attendees at the March for Science last weekend were at their first political or issue protest, one-fifth work outside of the sciences, and most say, whether you believe them or not, that U.S. President Donald Trump was not their primary reason for gathering, an online poll conducted by ScienceInsider indicates.

    Several research teams braved the chill and rain to conduct formal scientific surveys of people attending the Washington, D.C., March for Science, but ScienceInsider stayed in our cozy offices and invited the marchers to come to us and tell us where and why they took to the streets. Nearly 1600 people accepted that invite, filling out a short online survey that we ran from the start of the New Zealand march—Friday night U.S. time—through Tuesday afternoon.

    Such internet polls are always difficult to decipher, warn social scientists, not least because they draw a nonrandom response. “You just have a bunch of people who care a whole lot about the issue, or what could be called a self-selected biased sample based on convenience.” cautioned sociologist Dana Fisher of the University of Maryland in College Park, who conducted one of the Washington, D.C., surveys, in an email. “The findings CANNOT be generalized to participants at any one March 4 Science or to the population of participants as a whole (or to the samples that we collected since our sampling methodology was very different and was used to be able to attempt to collect a random sample of participants).”

  • $10 million settlement over alleged misconduct in Boston heart stem cell lab

    ambulance vehicles at Brigham and Women's Hospital

    Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.


    A research misconduct investigation of a prominent stem cell lab by the Harvard University–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston has led to a massive settlement with the U.S. government over allegations of fraudulently obtained federal grants. As Retraction Watch reports, BWH and its parent health care system have agreed to pay $10 million to resolve allegations that former BWH cardiac stem cell scientist Piero Anversa and former lab members Annarosa Leri and Jan Kajstura relied on manipulated and fabricated data in grant applications submitted to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    A statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts released today notes that it was BWH itself that shared the allegations against Anversa’s lab with the government. The hospital had been conducting its own probe into the Anversa lab since at least 2014, when a retraction published in the journal Circulation revealed the ongoing investigation. The hospital has not yet released any findings.

    In 2014, Anversa and Leri sued Harvard and BWH—along with BWH President Elizabeth Nabel and Gretchen Brodnicki, Harvard’s dean for faculty and research integrity—for launching and publicizing the investigation that they claimed wrongfully damaged their careers. In their complaint, they acknowledged fabricated data in the Circulation paper and altered figures in a 2011 paper for which The Lancet has published an “expression of concern.” But they claimed that Kajstura had altered data without their knowledge. (Anversa and Leri’s recent papers list their institution as Swiss Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Retraction Watch notes.)

  • Science and politics collide over Bears Ears and other national monuments

    sunset at Bears Ears National Monument

    Sunset at Bears Ears National Monument.

    Bob Wick/BLM

    President Donald Trump signed an executive order yesterday calling on the Department of the Interior (DOI) to review “all Presidential designations or expansions of designations under the Antiquities Act made since January 1, 1996.”  Why would a new president with so much on his plate care about 24 parcels of land and sea that his three immediate predecessors decided to protect permanently?

    The answer, not surprisingly, is politics. Opponents of such designations see them as unwanted federal interventions. And that’s why Trump has asked Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review those decisions, starting with an expanse of land in southeastern Utah surrounding a twin pair of mesas known as Bears Ears. Its designation was one of former President Barack Obama’s last acts in office.

    “In December of last year alone, the federal government asserted this power over 1.35 million acres of land in Utah, known as Bears Ears—I’ve heard a lot about Bears Ears, and I hear it’s beautiful—over the profound objections of the citizens of Utah,” Trump said during a signing ceremony at DOI. “The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice,” he added. 

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