Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • North Korea travel ban would hit Pyongyang University hard

    PUST Chancellor Chan-Mo Park

    Chan-Mo Park

    Emily Petersen

    2017 has been a tough year for North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The university, founded by a Korean-American and one of the isolated nation’s top schools, was sucked into a political maelstrom this spring when the government arrested two Korean-Americans affiliated with the university. And now it’s facing a potentially devastating blow: The U.S. Department of State next week plans to impose a ban on travel by any U.S. passport holder to North Korea, effective next month. PUST President Yu-Taik Chon and some 40 PUST faculty and lecturers are U.S. citizens.

    State Department guidance notes that it is “establishing a process” for U.S. citizens to apply for a limited validity passport and “special validation” to travel to North Korea for “certain purposes,” including humanitarian work. In the meantime, it urges all U.S. citizens to depart North Korea and cancel any imminent travel.

    The ban could leave PUST administrators scrambling to find replacement faculty for the upcoming fall term. And it would compound the university’s woes. On 22 April, authorities detained Sang-duk "Tony" Kim, who had spent several weeks teaching accounting at PUST, over “criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” the North Korean government. Barely 2 weeks later, Hak-song Kim, who managed an experimental farm for PUST, was arrested; he was accused of unspecified “hostile acts.” A U.S. State Department envoy who visited the hostages last month, and a third Korean-American detainee not connected with PUST, found them to be in good health. According to sources, the PUST-affiliated detainees told the official that they are being held in isolation, individually, in a hotel and that their main daily activity is writing confessions to their alleged crimes. (The State Department notes that the detainees are exempted from the travel prohibition.) 

  • Salk Institute hit with discrimination lawsuit by third female scientist

    Salk with clouds behind

    A third gender discrimination lawsuit has been filed against the Salk Institute.

    Rex Boggs (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    Following two gender discrimination lawsuits filed last week, a third senior female professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has similarly sued the storied independent institute in San Diego, California.

    Beverly Emerson, 65, a molecular biologist who has worked at Salk since 1986, filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages on 18 July in California Superior Court in San Diego. In it, she alleges that she and two other senior female professors at Salk, despite their accomplishments and accolades, have endured slower promotion rates, lower pay, and underfunding of their labs relative to their male colleagues. As in the suits filed by Salk professors Katherine Jones and Vicki Lundblad, Emerson also alleges that all three women have been shut out of opportunities for lucrative grants and denied leadership opportunities within Salk, a “hostile environment in which they are undermined, disrespected, disparaged, and treated unequally.”

    “What is worse,” Emerson alleges, Salk administration and board of trustees, including former President William Brody and current President Elizabeth Blackburn, a biology Nobel laureate, “have known about this discrimination, yet done absolutely nothing to stop it or right the wrongs perpetrated against its … talented and decorated female Full Professors.”

  • Building a robot is one of many skills these students have mastered

    The Liberia robotics team at the competition

    Michael Davies Sergbeh, left, and Gregline Kumba Natt hold the Liberian flag. 

    Zahra Ahmad

    Michael Davies Sergbeh has never let obstacles stand in the way of acquiring an education that could serve as his ticket to a world beyond his small village in Liberia. As a child he worked at his stepfather’s garage to afford private school, a necessity because of the sorry state of most public schools in his native country. Earlier this year, when he was chosen to represent Liberia in a robotics competition for high school students from 157 countries, he wasn’t discouraged by his relative inexperience in the field and by his school’s bare-bones science facilities.  

    “I had never really worked on a computer before, but I learned from my mentor so that I could teach my teammates,” he says, referring to six other students attending nearby schools. At times, the only light in their workroom came from a cellphone. But Team Liberia persisted. This week the students were rewarded with a 12th place finish in the FIRST Global Challenge held in Washington, D.C.

    “I never thought I would be able to build a robot that can move, pick things up, and lift itself up,” says Sergbeh, the team’s captain, “so ranking this high is amazing. It’s really encouraged us to pursue STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] because it’s very important in furthering Liberia’s future and bettering the world.” 

  • For first time in history, half of all people with HIV are getting treatment

    boxes of pharmaceuticals

    For the first time, more than half of the world’s HIV-infected population is receiving antiretroviral drugs.

    Jon Cohen

    A new update on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic offers “scorecards” for countries that starkly highlight successes in green and failures in red (for an example, see here).

    Collectively, the world receives high marks for its HIV/AIDS efforts from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland. It notes in Ending AIDS that 19.5 million of the estimated 36.7 million people living with the virus now receive lifesaving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. This is the first time in history that more than half the infected people are being treated.

    But several countries are falling far short of the UNAIDS prescription of what it takes to bring an epidemic to an end, which essentially requires slowing the rate of virus transmission to the point that new infections peter out.

  • Updated: Trump pick for USDA science post has drawn darts for lack of technical background

    Sam Clovis speaks at a Trump campaign event in Iowa in 2016.

    Sam Clovis at a campaign event in Iowa in 2016.

    Alex Hanson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    President Donald Trump today announced his intention to nominate Samuel Clovis to be the under secretary of agriculture in charge of the U.S. Department of Agrculture's (USDA's) research, education, and economic analysis programs. Clovis is currently the Senior White House Advisor to USDA. The pick of Clovis, a former economics professor who has little science background, is likely to draw criticism from some quarters, as a story ScienceInsider published this past May noted (see below).
    According to a White House statement, Clovis most recently served as the chief policy advisor and national co-chair of the Trump-Pence campaign. Here is the rest of the statement:
    He came to the campaign from Morningside College where he was a professor of economics.  Mr. Clovis holds a B.S. in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University and a Doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama.  He is also a graduate of both the Army and Air Force War Colleges.  After graduating from the Academy, Mr. Clovis spent 25 years serving in the Air Force.  He retired as the Inspector General of the North American Aerospace Defense Command  and the United States Space Command and was a command pilot.  Mr. Clovis is married to the former Charlotte Chase of Piketon, OH.  He is originally from rural central Kansas.
  • How will we keep controversial gene drive technology in check?

    A mosquito full of blood on a person's arm.

    Gene drive technology might limit the ability of Anopheles gambiae mosquito to transmit malaria to humans.

    CDC/James Gathany

    We don’t yet know whether the gene-spreading approach known as gene drive, intended to wipe out invasive pests or reduce the spread of insect-borne disease, will work in the wild. But groups of genetic experts are already talking about how to make it stop working if needed.

    And at a symposium today in Washington, D.C., organized by the International Life Sciences Institute and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, researchers and policy experts discussed how to measure and limit a gene drive strategy’s environmental risks. And the U.S. military’s research arm announced it will fund efforts by several high-profile genetics labs to develop ways to reverse or limit the spread of an introduced gene if it should have unintended consequences on animals or an ecosystem.

    “We’re in the business of preventing technological surprise, but also being prepared for the surprises that come from the use of these technologies,” said Renee Wegrzyn, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, which today announced seven research teams that will share a $65 million pot of funding under the agency’s Safe Genes program over the next 4 years.

  • Nominee for Department of Energy’s undersecretary for science draws praise

    Paul Dabbar speaks at podium in 2015

    Paul Dabbar

    © The Philadelphia Tribune Co., Inc.

    It looked like the sort of appointment that would make many scientists uneasy. Last week, the White House announced the nomination of Paul Dabbar, now an investment banker, as undersecretary for science for the Department of Energy (DOE). The position aims to coordinate scientific efforts and expertise across the sprawling agency, which has a $30.8 billion annual budget. Several sources familiar with DOE’s $5.3 billion Office of Science—the United States’s single largest funder of the physical sciences—told ScienceInsider that they did not know Dabbar, who has his Senate confirmation hearing tomorrow. But observers versed in DOE’s broader mission say that Dabbar is highly qualified and applaud his nomination.

    “He is one bright cookie,” says Beverly Ramsey, a systems ecologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, who has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and currently serves with Dabbar on DOE’s Environmental Management Advisory Board. “Dabbar has a great personality, he has a very easy way of making his points, and he asks great questions.”

    The White House announcement stresses Dabbar’s business experience. He’s the managing director for mergers and acquisitions at J.P. Morgan in New York City and, according to the White House announcement, “has over $400 billion in investment experience across all energy sectors.” But it’s Dabbar’s earlier career that DOE observers point to with interest. A graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Dabbar served as a nuclear submarine officer. “As a general principle, the nuclear navy is a really elite organization,” says Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear arms, energy, and proliferation at Harvard University, who says he doesn’t know Dabbar. “There ain’t no such thing as a stupid nuclear navy guy.”

  • Some scientists hate NIH’s new definition of a clinical trial. Here's why

    person with electrodes on their head looking at a picture of a monkey on a screen

    Under new rules, basic studies of how the brain processes images could be redefined as clinical trials.

    © Vassar College/Karl Rabe

    Nancy Kanwisher, a cognitive neuroscientist, has spent her career pinning down how the human brain responds to visual inputs such as faces. As part of that work, Kanwisher asks volunteers—usually college students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, where she works—to lie in an MRI machine that records their brain activity while they do a task, such as viewing a photo. Although such studies reveal information that can be relevant to diseases, and disorders such as autism, they do not test treatments.

    But a few weeks ago, Kanwisher and colleagues in related behavioral research fields—from cognitive psychology to vision science—were dismayed to learn that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, could soon deem their studies to be clinical trials. That designation would impose a raft of new requirements on studies that have already passed ethics review, such as following different standards for funding applications, and reporting results on, a public database.

    NIH officials say they simply want to ensure that all clinical trials—including those testing drugs, medical devices, and behavioral interventions—meet recently bolstered standards for rigor and transparency. But Kanwisher and others say that the agency’s widening definition of clinical trials could sweep up a broad array of basic science studies, resulting in wasted resources and public confusion. “The massive amount of dysfunction and paperwork that will result from this decision boggles the mind” and will hobble basic research, Kanwisher says. To prevent that outcome, she and dozens of other researchers, along with several scientific societies, have flooded NIH with letters and emails expressing concern about the policy, which the agency announced last September but is only now implementing.

  • Salk Institute under fire for ‘smear’ on women suing it for discrimination

    Katherine Jones (left) and Vicki Lundblad (right)

    Katherine Jones (left) and Vicki Lundblad (right) say gender discrimination at the Salk Institute damaged their careers.

    © Alejandro Tamayo/San Diego Union-Tribune via ZUMA Wire

    Alleging decades of gender discrimination, two senior female scientists last week sued the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, sparking a public relations debacle that has engulfed the venerable institution and could threaten its appeal to donors and new researchers. Leaders of the San Diego, California, research center have strenuously denied the allegations made by biologists Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones, and publicly questioned their productivity and the quality of their scientific work.

    The case has divided the institute’s staff, and Salk’s statements about the women have drawn social media dismay and rebukes from prominent biologists, including Nobel laureates. “The fact that an institution would treat its own distinguished faculty in this way is very disturbing,” says Nancy Hopkins, professor emerita of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, who in the late 1990s led a groundbreaking review of MIT’s treatment of its female faculty.

    Salk President Elizabeth Blackburn said in a statement that she is “saddened that an institute as justly revered as the Salk Institute is being misrepresented by accusations of gender discrimination. … I would never preside over an institute that in any way condoned, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists.”

  • ‘Scientific wellness’ study—and a famed biologist’s spinoff company—divide researchers

    Arivale co-founders Clayton Lewis and Lee Hood

    CEO and co-founder of Arivale, Clayton Lewis (left), and Co-Founder Leroy Hood, are sold on “scientific wellness” as a new medical frontier.


    Leroy Hood knows a thing or two about disruptive technologies. One of biology’s living legends, the now 78-year-old scientist played an influential role in the development of the first automated DNA sequencer. He pioneered systems biology, the study of interactions of molecular networks, and still leads an institute devoted to it in Seattle, Washington. His latest vision is “scientific wellness,” which aims to improve health and prevent disease by combining personalized behavior coaching with DNA and blood testing, activity tracking, and other measures.

    Hood unveiled the concept 3 years ago, but a pilot study attempting to back it up has only now appeared. He and colleagues have compiled what Hood calls “personal, dense, dynamic data clouds” for 108 people after tracking them for 9 months. Included in the data clouds are their full genome sequences; blood, saliva, urine, and stool samples taken every 3 months that measured levels of 643 metabolites and 262 proteins; and physical activity and sleep monitoring. The massive data set may have helped people avoid diabetes and other health issues, the researchers suggest. Indeed, Hood intends to move forward with his previously proposed 100K Wellness Project, for which he hopes to recruit 100,000 people for by 2020. The study also spurred Hood to co-found a company called Arivale, which now offers similar services coupled to monthly coaching, with a first-year membership price of $3499.

    Yet not all researchers see the pilot study as a rousing success, or justification for people to spend such sums. They are taking the collection of personal physiological information “to new heights, or depths, depending on how you look at it,” says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego, California. Atul Butte, a computational biologist and director of the Institute of Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, notes a “lack of sparkling findings” in the study. “All of these tests cost a lot of money, and it’s not exactly clear what we are getting out of them yet,” he says. 

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