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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • President Obama’s 1-million-person health study kicks off with five recruitment centers

    Obama’s precision medicine initiative will aim to enroll a large number of people in a genetic database representing the U.S. population.

    Obama’s precision medicine initiative will aim to enroll a large number of people in a genetic database representing the U.S. population.

    Amy West/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    President Barack Obama’s ambitious 1-million-person personalized medicine study began to take shape this week with the announcement of four medical centers that will recruit volunteers starting this fall. A fifth center aims to sign up 350,000 participants by blasting the general public with ads coming soon to your web browser or mobile phone.

    The White House’s announcement yesterday of $55 million in awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fires the starting gun for the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) Cohort Program. The plan is to recruit 1 million or more people who are willing to share their health and genetic information over many years to help researchers develop individualized treatments. Other countries have similar studies underway, but the U.S. version aims to be larger, more diverse, and more patient-centric—participants will help shape the study and be able to see their data. NIH Director Francis Collins calls it “the largest, most ambitious research project of this sort ever undertaken.”

  • German university says it will rewrite controversial funding deal

    German university says it will rewrite controversial funding deal

    Georg Krausch, president of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany.

    Bernd Eßling

    In a surprise move, the president of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany this week announced plans to overhaul controversial contracts governing the use of a €150 million donation from a philanthropic foundation. Critics have charged that the agreement gives the donor, the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation in Mainz, too much control over publishing decisions and faculty appointments at the school’s Institute of Molecular Biology, which the foundation helped create in 2009.

    The move, which could eventually influence similar funding arrangements at other German universities, only partly satisfies critics. They are pushing for greater transparency from universities and donors.

    In a 4 July meeting with journalists, university President Georg Krausch conceded that contract provisions give the foundation the authority to veto faculty appointments made by the university, but said that was not the intent of the agreement, and that the foundation had never blocked an appointment. And he said language requiring the university to get prepublication consent from the foundation for press releases and “publications,” which could include research papers, was an “error.” The intent of such language, he said, was to ensure that research products were of good quality, not to give the funder control. Still, Krausch admitted that the provisions created a perception that the university was not free to act independently. “Throughout all these issues … you can interpret it as quality assurance or exercise of influence,” he said.

  • French scientists oppose nominee to head agricultural research institute

    French scientists oppose nominee to head agricultural research institute

    French scientists are protesting a plan to oust Francois Houllier, president of France’s agricultural research institute.

    Global Bioeconomy Summit (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    French scientists are sharply criticizing the nomination of a policy specialist to become the new president of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).  The critics say nominee Philippe Mauguin, a senior official in France’s agriculture ministry, knows little about research and was offered the job as a political favor ahead of next year’s general elections. Mauguin was competing for the post against outgoing INRA President François Houllier, a former researcher.

    “We, INRA members of staff and associated members, protest against the possible parachuting of a political figure external to the world of research at the head of our Institute,” reads an online petition launched 5 July by a collective called @INRAlerte. The petition has so far gathered more than 2300 signatures.

  • U.K. government enlists industry leaders to chart post-Brexit course for life sciences

    U.K. Minister George Freeman

    U.K. Minister George Freeman says Brexit may help make the United Kingdom a “world leader” in regenerative medicine.

    © Chris King/Alamy Stock Photo

    LONDON—While many scientists in the United Kingdom are still reeling from the country’s decision to leave the European Union, politicians and industry leaders are starting to think about what science in a post-Brexit United Kingdom might look like. At a press briefing here yesterday, the country's minister for life sciences, George Freeman, announced that he had convened a joint government-industry steering group to "set out key priorities for the U.K. life sciences sector" in the upcoming divorce negotiations with the European Union. The group will be co-chaired by GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty and Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca.

    Scientists are worried that outside the European Union, they will find it harder to recruit top researchers to the United Kingdom and will be cut off from lucrative E.U. research grants and scientific collaborations. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), based in London, is likely to relocate to one of the remaining 27 member countries, and it's unclear whether drug manufacturers will in the future have to apply separately for authorization in the United Kingdom. It’s also unclear what will happen to plans for the Unified Patent Court, a new patent court for European Union member states that is now being established. The section handling chemistry cases, including pharmaceuticals, was to have its seat in London. Freeman said the steering group will look at all of these issues over the summer.

  • Survey finds laissez-faire attitude toward validating antibodies

    Scientist prepping cell cultures

    A scientist at Cell Signaling Technology in Danvers, Massachusetts, preps cell cultures for use in validation testing.

    Image reproduced courtesy of Cell Signaling

    James Anderson studies how epithelial cells that act as barriers within cells, tissue, or organs are bound together. In his lab at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute on the Bethesda, Maryland, campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the cell biologist uses antibodies to tag the proteins he and his colleagues are looking for, but only after making sure they are labeling with the proper antibody. To do without such baseline information, the entire experiment could be irreproducible.

    “It’s not just the protein you buy in a tube from a vendor that can vary,” he says. “It’s also the protocol you use in your own lab, the solutions, the pHs, the ionic strengths, and the different applications. The validation of each antibody can turn into a small research project in itself.”

    Outside the lab, Anderson’s primary job is to lead the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives within the NIH Office of the Director.  And in that capacity he must deal with an emerging crisis in the global biomedical research—an inability to replicate experimental results. A key component of this so-called reproducibility crisis is the failure of antibodies to perform as promised. One reason they fail, according to a new survey, is that fewer of his research colleagues are following in his footsteps and validating the antibodies they are using.

  • Hate journal impact factors? New study gives you one more reason

    Hate journal impact factors? New study gives you one more reason

    Citation lists are key to calculating journal impact factors.

    David Malakoff

    Scientists have a love-hate relationship with the journal impact factor (JIF), the measurement used to rank technical journals by prestige. They have come to use it not only for deciding where to submit research papers, but for judging their peers, as well as influencing who wins jobs, tenure, and grants. All that from a single, easy to read number.

    And yet a journal’s impact factor is dismissed by many as useless or even destructive to the scientific community. In an attempt to shed some light, a group of researchers and journal editors today released a data set and analysis of the citation counts used to calculate this magical number. And their conclusions are likely to delight critics of the metric.

    Calculating the impact factor might seem straightforward. It is just the average number of times that a journal’s articles are cited over the past 2 years. Nature, for example, currently has a JIF of 41.456, which is generally interpreted to mean that over the past 2 years, Nature articles have been cited, on average, about 41 times each.

  • House panel would give NIH a 4% raise to $33 billion

    Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

    Andrew Magill/Flickr

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is slated to receive a $1.25 billion increase, to $33.3 billion, in a proposed spending measure released today by a House of Representatives spending panel. That 4% boost is good news for an agency that has been flat funded for a decade, although it falls short of a 6% raise approved by a Senate panel last month.

    “It is encouraging to see the committee making such a substantial investment in medical research,” says Tannaz Rasouli, Senior Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C. The bill marks the second year in a row that this same House panel has given NIH an increase that exceeds the rising costs of doing biomedical research. “We are thrilled by that,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The draft bill released today by the House Appropriations committee includes $350 million more for Alzheimer’s disease research, compared with a $400 million bump for Alzheimer’s in the Senate bill. It includes $300 million (a $100 million increase) that the president had requested for the Precision Medicine Initiative and $45 million more, or a total of $195 million, for the cross-agency Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative. The revamped National Children’s study would receive $165 million, the same level as this year.

  • Update: Canada's health funder agrees to meet with researchers outraged by peer-review changes

    James Woodgett

    Jim Woodgett of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto, Canada’s Mount Sinai Hospital has been leading an effort to change how Canada’s leading biomedical research funder does business.

    Courtesy of Sally Szuster

    *Update: On Tuesday, officials at the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) agreed to a request from Jane Philpott, Canada’s minister of health, to meet with representatives of more than 1000 researchers who have demanded that the agency reverse changes to its grantsmaking process, including a decision to replace face-to-face peer review meetings with an online system.

    CIHR President Alain Beaudet said the agency will heed Philpott’s 5 July request to “convene a working meeting in the very near future with key representatives of the research community, including those who have raised this issue publicly, to find common ground and move forward with solutions that address the issues raised with regard to the quality and integrity of CIHR's peer review system.” The meeting is expected to occur on 13 July.

    In a 5 July statement, the besieged Beaudet acknowledged a need for the agency to endeavor to restore the community’s faith. “CIHR embarked on the reform of its open funding programs and peer review process to improve the sustainability of our health research system, the transparency and fairness of our granting processes, and the quality and impact of the research supported by federal investments,” he wrote. “However, the online system implemented to ensure an unbiased and tailored evaluation of each research proposal has raised serious concerns among applicants and reviewers alike. These concerns must be addressed since CIHR can only be successful if it has the support and confidence of the research community. This working meeting represents an important next step toward re-establishing that support and confidence.”

  • U.K. research charity will self-publish results from its grantees

    The London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust

    The London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, which is launching an open-access journal for its grantees.

    © Caroline Morley/Alamy Stock Photo

    Starting sometime this fall, the Wellcome Trust, the charity in London that has become one of the biggest nongovernmental funders of biomedical research, will launch its own open-access online journal. Publication will be limited to the thousands of scientists worldwide working on research funded by a Wellcome grant, and it will be free not only for readers, but authors—the charity is covering the costs charged by the company that will provide the journal's software and online platform.

    This really is a potential game changer for a major funder to be taking control of the research output.

    Paul Ginsparg

    The move has excited many critics of the traditional scientific publishing industry. "This really is a potential game changer for a major funder to be taking control of the research output," says Paul Ginsparg, the Cornell University physicist who founded arXiv.org, the massive online scientific preprint server. He hopes that U.S. funding agencies will follow suit. "It would be a miracle."

    From the point of view of Wellcome and other nonprofit groups that fund science, academic journals can be an expensive drain on time and money. Publication can take months or even years before anyone gets to read the output of the research they back, and with traditional subscription journals the reader then pays for the privilege. One fix is the open-access publishing model: Authors pay up front and then anyone can read the work online for free.

  • Titanic NASA balloon reaches milestone

    May launch of NASA balloon

    May launch of NASA balloon

    NASA

    The latest and largest pressurized balloon to be launched by NASA has set a record for endurance: the longest midlatitude flight by a large scientific balloon. Packing 532,000 cubic meters of helium and measuring 114 meters in diameter, the balloon circled the Southern Hemisphere for 46 days, lofting a gamma ray telescope to the edges of space. Nightly dips in altitude forced a premature end to the voyage yesterday, but the flight still marks a milestone in NASA’s efforts to develop so-called superpressure balloons as a low-cost alternative to satellites.

    For decades, conventional “zero-pressure” balloons have given researchers a high-altitude platform for studying atmospheric chemistry, the cosmic microwave background (CMB), and many other phenomena. But at temperate latitudes, the endurance of conventional balloons is limited. During the daytime, sunlight heats the helium, causing the gas to expand and leak. At night, the balloon cools and must drop ballast to avoid drifting too low. Zero-pressure balloons can only achieve long flights during summertime near the poles, when constant daylight allows them to stay afloat for weeks at a time.

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