Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Workshop on ethics of monkey research earns cheers and boos

    Rhesus macaques

    Rhesus macaques used in anxiety studies at an NIH lab.

    Richard T. Nowitz/Science Source

    Depending on whom you ask, yesterday’s U.S. government workshop on the state of nonhuman primate research was either a raging success or a complete fiasco. The event, held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, brought together dozens of scientists, veterinarians, and bioethicists to discuss how research on monkeys and related animals is contributing to human medicine and to review the welfare policies that surround this work. But observers differed widely on whether it accomplished what Congress had in mind when it told NIH to hold the event.

    “It was a great showcase of the importance nonhuman primates have played and continue to play in human health,” says Anne Deschamps, a senior science policy analyst at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, one of several scientific organizations that signed onto a white paper released in advance of the meeting that promoted the use of these animals in biomedical research. She contends that research on these animals has been critical for our understanding of HIV and the human brain.

    But the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose lobbying efforts led to the workshop, says the meeting was supposed to determine whether monkeys and their relatives belong in laboratories in the first place. “It was an infomercial for the use of monkeys in experiments,” says PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo in Norfolk, Virginia. “It was a wasted opportunity.”

  • Did a Swedish researcher eat the first CRISPR meal ever served?

    Pasta dish with cabbage engineered with CRISPR-Cas9

    A Swedish scientist included cabbage engineered with CRISPR-Cas9 in this pasta dish.

    Stefan Jansson/Umeå University

    In what Swedish plant scientist Stefan Jansson declares “maybe” a historic event, he cultivated, grew, and ate a plant that had its genome edited with CRISPR-Cas9. Umeå University, where Jansson studies how trees know it’s autumn and how proteins allow plants to harvest light, released a 5 September press release about his meal, a pasta dish that included 300 grams of cabbage he grew from seeds that had been genetically modified with CRISPR-Cas9. The revolutionary technology vastly simplifies the editing of genes, and has triggered many debates about whether its plant products should be considered a genetically modified organism (GMO) and subject to regulation.

    As noted by Science Daily and other media outlets, Jansson enjoyed the lunch with Gustaf Klarin, host of a Radio Sweden gardening show, which broadcast it earlier this week (in Swedish). “To our delight—and to some extent to my surprise—the meal turned out really nice,” Jannson wrote in a blog entry on 16 August, the actual day that history might have been made. “Both of us ate with great relish. Gustaf even thought the cabbage was the best tasting vegetable on the plate. And I agreed.”

  • India’s first transgenic food crop edges toward approval

    Mustard growing

    Mustard is grown widely in India. A genetically modified variety would greatly boost yields.

    Abhijit Kar Gupta/Flickr

    NEW DELHI—India has moved a big step closer toward embracing its first genetically modified (GM) food crop. In a safety review released yesterday, the environment ministry finds that GM mustard “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals.”

    Backers feel vindicated. “The biosafety study that has been carried out is as thorough as it can be, and now ideology should not overwhelm scientific evidence,” says Deepak Pental, a plant geneticist at the University of Delhi here who developed the GM variety. Critics are unswayed. “The conclusions are based on inadequate experimentation,” says Pushpa M. Bhargava, a plant molecular biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. Bhargava acknowledged that he had not fully read the report before ScienceInsider went to press.

    India in 2004 introduced GM cotton, which now comprises more than 90% of all cotton cultivated in the country. But it has been leery of allowing widespread cultivation of GM food crops. In 2010, the environment ministry put on hold the commercial planting of GM brinjal, an eggplant variety, equipped with a bacterial gene that thwarts insect pests. The moratorium continues and is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon.

  • Most humpback whales no longer endangered, United States says

    A humpback whale and calf swim side by side

    Humpback whale and calf.

    Texaus1/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The U.S. government announced Tuesday that it has removed most humpback whales from the federal endangered species list, saying that they have fully recovered in the last 46 years. The move marks “a true ecological success story,” said Eileen Sobeck, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assistant administrator for fisheries in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a 6 September statement.

    The plan has been in the works for more than a year. Previously, NOAA regarded all humpback whales as a single population. Under the new plan, the whales will be classified into 14 distinct population segments, and the fate of each considered separately.

    Nine of these populations, including whales that breed in Hawaii, Australia, and the West Indies, are now regarded as sufficiently recovered and no longer in need of the protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision to remove these populations was “based on the best available scientific information” and “extensive public comments,” said Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division in Silver Spring, in a press conference yesterday.

  • Blue ribbon report urges U.S. cancer moonshot to invest in 10 promising areas

    Vice President Joe Biden talking to scientists inside a Duke University School of Medicine Lab.

    Vice President Biden discusses his cancer moonshot at Duke University School of Medicine earlier this year.

    Ben McKeown/Associated Press

    Vice President Joe Biden’s proposed moonshot to conquer cancer should invest in large collaborations, data sharing projects, and the promising cancer treatment known as immunotherapy, among 10 areas described in an advisory group’s draft report released this morning. The report was accepted (with one abstention) today by the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI's) advisory board, which is expected to pass it on to the NCI director and then to a federal task force. Now, Congress just needs to come up with the money to pay for the moonshot, research advocates say.

    “We are hopeful that these recommendations are going to be so exciting that Congress will be looking to identify paths forward to fund the cancer moonshot initiative,” says Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Washington, D.C., one of several cancer research and patient organizations that are praising the report.

    Biden first proposed a moonshot to cure cancer last year after his son Beau died of brain cancer. President Barack Obama embraced the idea in his January State of the Union address, with Biden vowing to make a decade’s worth of advances in 5 years. To help guide the effort, a 28-member blue ribbon panel of NCI’s National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) then consulted with more than 150 experts and reviewed more than 1600 suggestions from researchers and the public.

  • No proof that shooting predators saves livestock

    Gray wolf pelts hanging over side of pickup truck

    Federal officials shot four pack members after wolves killed cattle in Montana.

    Joel Sartore/National Geographic Creative

    On 5 August, biologists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ascended in a helicopter to shoot two members of the Profanity Peak wolf pack, which had been preying on cattle in the state’s northeast corner. After the cull failed to end predation, the state removed four more members of the 11-wolf pack. Some conservationists were outraged, but the logic behind such lethal control seems airtight: Remove livestock-killing wolves, coyotes, bears, and other predators, and you’ll protect farmers and ranchers from future losses.

    A new study, however, claims that much of the research underpinning that common sense notion is flawed—and that the science of predator control needs a methodological overhaul. Adrian Treves, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his colleagues examined more than 100 peer-reviewed studies, searching for ones that randomized some by removing or deterring predators while leaving others untouched. Not a single experiment in which predators were killed has ever successfully applied this randomized controlled design, they reported 1 September in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. “Lethal control methods need to be subjected to the same gold standard of science as anything else,” Treves says. He argues that policymakers should suspend predator management programs that aren’t backed by rigorous evidence.

  • In wake of attacks, German science bodies fend for animal research

    A lab mouse rests in the gloved hands of a researcher


    Germany's major research institutes have teamed up to publicly defend “responsible” animal testing as a necessary part of biomedical science. At an event in Berlin today, the organizations launched a new project to educate the public about animal studies, after harsh attacks by animal rights activists in recent years. The 5-year project, called Tierversuche verstehen (Understanding animal testing), is centered around a website providing scientists’ testimonials and background information.

    “Responsible means always balancing animal protection and welfare with the importance of scientific knowledge for human beings. Acting responsibly also means developing and using alternative and supplementary methods,” says the website, which encourages researchers to use its materials—such as videos and graphics—in public presentations. It also offers to put interested scientists in touch with the organizers of media training courses, and to add volunteers to a database of researchers willing to respond to press queries.

    “Animal experimenters used to do what they wanted, and now they are increasingly under pressure to justify their work,” says Silke Strittmatter of Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany, an animal rights group in Cologne.

  • Turkish government shuts down important archaeological dig, apparently to punish Austria

    Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey

    The Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey, an ancient city that is not only a research site, but also a popular tourist attraction.

    Michi/Wikimedia Commons

    A major archaeological project in Turkey that involves about 200 researchers has been shut down early, an apparent victim of international politics. The Austrian Archaeological Institute (AAI) in Vienna was notified last week by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism that its project at the ancient city of Ephesus near Selçuk, Turkey, would have to end immediately.

    “This is a major shock,” says Sabine Ladstätter, AAI director and head of the excavation. A smaller excavation that AAI runs at Limyra, Turkey, was also ordered to shut down. The future of the projects remains in question.

    The decision was reportedly made by Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No reason for the closure was given, but Austria’s chancellor, Christian Kern, had antagonized the Turkish government in August by saying the country was not fit to join the European Union. In a sign of the deteriorating relations, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Vienna on 22 August. The revocation of AAI’s two permits for fieldwork in Turkey appears to be the latest blow. “I regret this decision very much because it mixes politics and science, and is inconsistent with the partnership that we have fostered in Ephesus for many years,” Austrian science minister Reinhold Mitterlehner said in a statement to the media on Sunday. “With this step, the freedom of science is continuing to decline.”

  • Another scathing report causes more eminent heads to roll in the Macchiarini scandal

    Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson

    As chancellor, Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson was in charge of all public universities in Sweden.

    Gunnar Ask

    The scandal surrounding Paolo Macchiarini, the former star surgeon who became famous for his pioneering trachea transplants, has prompted yet another round of resignations and firings at the highest levels of Swedish higher education. On Monday evening, Swedish Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson said she had dismissed the country’s chancellor in charge of all public universities, Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, following the release of a sharply critical report by an independent commission that examined the Karolinska Institute’s (KI’s) hiring and management of Macchiarini. Wallberg-Henriksson was vice-chancellor of KI in Stockholm, a position comparable to that of a university president, when Macchiarini was hired, and played a key role in his recruitment.

    The minister also announced that all remaining KI board members who were active during Macchiarini’s tenure would be replaced. Five had already stepped down, including chairman Lars Leijonborg, who resigned Friday after receiving the panel’s report.

    The affair continues to threaten the credibility of the world's most prestigious scientific award as well. Today, the Nobel Assembly—which chooses the winner of the prize for physiology or medicine—asked Wallberg-Henriksson and another former KI vice-chancellor, Anders Hamsten, to resign their membership of the assembly. Both had already said they would not take part in this year’s prize deliberations, as had three other members involved in the affair. (Urban Lendahl stepped down as secretary general of the assembly in February.)

  • Sharp dissent over Australian carbon emissions strategy

    Wind turbines creating energy in Australia

    Australia needs more renewable energy to cut carbon emissions, two scientists argue in criticizing an advisory body report.


    Two Australian academics serving on a government climate panel have publicly criticized their own committee's latest report as "untrue and dangerous," stoking a long-running debate over the country's carbon emissions reduction strategies.   

    Australia's Climate Change Authority is a panel created in 2012 to provide expert advice on mitigation initiatives. On 31 August, the authority, chaired by Wendy Craik, a deputy chancellor at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, released a review of what actions Australia should take “to deliver on its international commitments" under the Paris Agreement of December 2015, according to the authority’s website.

    The two dissenting members yesterday released their own minority report after highlighting their objections in an op-ed that appeared online Sunday at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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