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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Australia’s new government makes an about-face on climate research

    CSIRO facility in Hobart, Australia.

    Australia’s climate change research efforts will be coordinated from this CSIRO facility in Hobart, Australia.

    CSIRO

    Australia’s new science minister has ordered the nation’s premier science agency to “put the focus back on climate science.” And Australian scientists have their fingers crossed, hoping the directive from Greg Hunt, revealed this morning, really indicates the federal government is reversing a previous decision to scale back climate research efforts.

    They also hope the U-turn might mean a rethink of a February realignment of priorities by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) that called for eliminating 350 jobs, including 110 climate science positions. The agency later scaled back the job cuts to 295 positions, including more than 60 climate and marine scientists. 

    The new directive came as a surprise, given Hunt—environment minister until a recent reshuffle after the 2 July federal election—did not oppose the cuts when they were first announced. However, he today told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) “both the prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] and I have clear and strong views” on the importance of climate science.

  • Russian scientists bracing for massive job losses

    Russian Academy of Sciences building

    The ax is falling at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    Nataliya Sadovskaya/Wikimedia

    MOSCOW—Russia’s scientific community is reeling from news that the government plans to fire about 10,000 researchers over the next 3 years. Most layoffs would be from Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) institutes, according to the online news site Gazeta.ru.

    The staff cuts, representing about 17% of RAS’s 49,000-strong workforce, are the latest move in a controversial and painful effort to overhaul the academy. The Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), set up in 2013 to manage RAS’s property and most of its budget, has recently stepped up efforts to make the academy leaner and meaner by merging institutes; several dozen mergers are planned.

    Scientists decry the moves. In an open letter last month to President Vladimir Putin, more than 150 RAS researchers asserted that the reforms are eroding science’s image in Russia; they warned of disastrous consequences for the nation, including a brain drain of young scientists and an “upsurge in activities of bureaucrats and impostors.” The mergers are “a completely unnatural way of development,” says Mikhail Sadovsky, a physicist at RAS’s Institute of Electrophysics in Ekaterinburg. The 21 July letter, initiated by a group of discontented RAS researchers called the July 1 Club, argues that FASO must be brought to heel by placing it under RAS.

  • Young blood antiaging trial raises questions

    Plasma

    A controversial pay-to-participate clinical trial will test whether plasma from young donors can counteract aging.

    Martin Schutt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    It was one of the most mind-bending scientific reports in 2014: Injecting old mice with the plasma portion of blood from young mice seemed to improve the elderly rodents’ memory and ability to learn. Inspired by such findings, a startup company has now launched the first clinical trial in the United States to test the antiaging benefits of young blood in relatively healthy people. But there's a big caveat: It's a pay-to-participate trial, a type that has raised ethical concerns before, most recently in the stem cell field.

    The firm’s co-founder and trial principal investigator is a 31-year-old physician named Jesse Karmazin. His company, Ambrosia in Monterey, California, plans to charge participants $8000 for lab tests and a one-time treatment with young plasma. The volunteers don’t have to be sick or even particularly aged—the trial is open to anyone 35 and older. Karmazin notes that the study passed ethical review and argues that it’s not that unusual to charge people to participate in clinical trials.

  • Dispute over president's age tears Pasteur Institute apart

    Christian Bréchot

    Christian Bréchot says the discussion “goes beyond me as a person.”

    Seba/ZUMA Press/Newscom

    Is 65 too old to stay at the helm of a major research center? That question is sowing division at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Science has learned, and has plunged the 128-year-old institute, home to 1200 scientists and the place where HIV was first isolated, into a leadership crisis. At the center is Christian Bréchot, a physician and viral hepatitis specialist whose first 4-year term as Pasteur president will end on 1 October 2017.

    Bréchot, who previously led INSERM, the French biomedical research agency, aspires to a second term, but he will turn 65 in July 2017. Under the governing statutes of the foundation that runs the Paris center, that disqualifies him for the renewal, Pasteur’s 21-strong board of directors has concluded. Angered by the board’s refusal to change the rules, Pasteur’s General Meeting, a parliament-style governing body, dissolved the board in June. Now, Bréchot’s future is in limbo.

  • Zika has gained a foothold in Florida but is unlikely to become widespread in the United States

    Mosquitoes likely transmitted Zika to people in this Miami neighborhood, according to the Florida health department

    Mosquitoes likely transmitted Zika to people in this Miami neighborhood, according to the Florida health department.

    Florida Department of Health

    It’s little surprise that the Florida Department of Health confirmed this morning that there’s a “high likelihood” that local transmission of Zika has occurred in the United States for the first time, says Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. “I can tell you right here today I’m almost certain that we’re going to see more,” Fauci said this morning at an event held by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “The critical issue is how do you respond to that.”

    The four cases appear to have been infected in early July just north of downtown Miami in an area of about 2.5 square kilometers, the Florida health department reported after doing intensive investigations to rule out the possibility that the patients were infected by traveling to affected countries or via sex with infected people.

    The department released a map featuring a rectangle where transmission has likely occurred—an area whose boundaries are "NW 5th Avenue to the west, US 1 to the east, NW/NE 38th Street to the north and NW/NE 20th Street to the south," the department says. At a press conference held by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta later in the day, CDC Director Tom Frieden explained that the area had high levels of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a species known to spread the Zika virus, although no infected mosquitoes have yet been found.

  • U.S. mental health institute puts champion of basic science at the helm

    U.S. mental health institute puts champion of basic science at the helm

    The clinical center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    NIH

    Up to now, Joshua Gordon has split his career between working with patients with mental illness and mice designed to mimic that illness. But this fall, the neuroscientist and psychiatrist will take control of the $1.5 billion U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, the agency announced yesterday

    Gordon, who treats patients at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City, is best known for developing mouse models that mirror aspects of anxiety and schizophrenia. His lab at Columbia University Medical Center has recreated cognitive deficits seen in schizophrenia by blocking the activity of neurons in mouse brains, for example, and developed a mouse model of the genetic disorder 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, which predisposes humans to psychosis.

    “Josh is certainly coming from a basic science side,” says Carrie Bearden, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies people with the syndrome. “He really cares about taking the findings in the animal models and looking how it’s really convergent with patient findings.”

    Joshua Gordon

    Joshua Gordon

    NIH

  • Sex problems? Researchers find ‘widespread’ mislabeling of the sex of human samples

    Errors recording the sex of human tissue samples, or cell contamination, may explain why nearly half of RNA data sets studied don’t seem to match the sex noted in the data set.

    Errors recording the sex of human tissue samples, or cell contamination, may explain why nearly half of RNA data sets studied don’t seem to match the sex noted in the data set.

    © BSIP SA/Alamy Stock Photo

    What if scientists don’t really know what’s in their vials and lab dishes? A research team has analyzed dozens of data sets from human genomics studies and found that nearly half of them have a sexual identity problem—they’re labeled as coming from a male but the data suggest they must be from a female, or vice versa . These mix-ups, likely due to accidental mislabeling of the data at some point, but possibly also from cell contamination in the original samples, could have untold effects on the validity of comparisons in genomics experiments conducted worldwide, according to the group, which last week posted its findings on bioRxiv, a site for preprints that have not yet been formally peer reviewed.

    The disputed data sets describe a tissue’s transcriptome—the array of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) produced when genes in cells turn on to manufacture a protein. Although much work has been done in recent years to reduce errors in studies of RNA transcriptomes, computational biologist Lilah Toker and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada, kept noticing errors in how samples were labeled after they performed routine quality checks of data sets. “At some point we were wondering if this is just because we are doing so much data analysis, or is it actually something much more widespread,” Toker says.

    Toker and her colleagues then examined the transcriptomes from 70 publicly available data sets for human tissue samples, trying to corroborate the sex of the tissues by looking for mRNAs from male- or female-specific genes. They found discrepancies between the labeled sex and the mRNA results in 32 out of the 70 data sets.

  • Scientists mull a risky strategy to save world’s most endangered porpoise

    Vaquitas are often killed in gillnets that fishers use to catch other species.

    Vaquitas are often killed in gillnets that fishers use to catch other species.

    Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative

    Species don’t come much more endangered than the vaquita, a tiny porpoise that’s frequently killed in commercial fishing nets in the northern reaches of Mexico’s Gulf of California. Earlier this year, a dire report from experts estimated that just 60 individuals remain, solidifying Phocoena sinus’s status as the world’s most endangered marine mammal. That grim assessment now has biologists pondering a controversial strategy: removing a handful of vaquitas from the wild and breeding them in captivity.

    The vaquita population has been declining for decades, in large part because the diminutive, 1.5-meter-long cetaceans are prone to becoming entangled in gillnets and drowning. Still, conservationists had long rejected captive breeding as too risky. As the vaquita’s collapse has accelerated, however, it has become impossible to dismiss so-called ex situ conservation, the practice of preserving species by removing them from wild habitats and managing them in artificial settings.

    “Given the crisis we’re in, we need to explore all of our options,” says Barbara Taylor, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California, and member of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA). “Keeping some individuals in a sanctuary is one of those options.”

  • Physics lab aims to bridge political divides in Middle East

    CERN

    Jordan is on the verge of opening the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East as workers enter homestretch of synchrotron’s construction.

    CERN

    MANCHESTER, U.K.—An experiment in science diplomacy is on the threshold of success. Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), an $80 million synchrotron lab in Allan, Jordan, announced this week its first call for research that will be conducted on two beamlines expected to switch on this autumn. Research should start in earnest early next year. 

    “The news is that it’s working, against the odds,” says Chris Llewellyn Smith, a physicist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and president of the SESAME Council. The project was behind schedule because of political complications—visa restrictions for scientists, for example, and sanctions against Iran, a partner—and a freak snowstorm that collapsed the main building’s roof in 2013. Now, “we are in the final stage,” Eliezer Rabinovici, a theoretical physicist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem said at a 27 July press conference here at the EuroScience Open Forum. “To see dreams become reality, this is a very special moment.”

    A synchrotron is an important tool for many fields, as it creates intense beams of light that are used to probe biological cells or materials. There are about 60 synchrotrons in the world; SESAME is the first in the Middle East. Projects envisioned for the synchrotron include analyzing breast cancer tissue samples, studying Red Sea corals and soil pollution, and probing archaeological remains.

  • Meet Europe's new science advice brigade

    Scientific Advice Mechanism's High Level Group

    The SAM group poses with European research commissioner Carlos Moedas. From left to right: Cédric Villani, Elvira Fortunato, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Moedas, Henrik Wegener, Pearl Dykstra, Janusz Bujnicki, and Julia Slingo.

    European Union, 2016

    MANCHESTER, U.K.—Too many cooks spoil the broth, goes the saying. Could too many advisers spoil the advice?

    On the contrary, say the seven scientists who front the European Commission's new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), and who collectively replaced the single-headed role of chief scientific adviser last year. Their “200 years of combined experience" is a strength, boasts microbiologist Henrik Wegener, chairman of the so-called High Level Group and executive vice president of the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby.

    ScienceInsider sat at the advisers' table after the first day of a 2-day meeting on the margins of the EuroScience Open Forum, a large biennial conference held here from 23 to 27 July. The group, nicknamed the “magnificent seven” by Robert-Jan Smits, the commission's director-general for research, is made up of three women and four men from a range of disciplines, countries, and ages—a mix of backgrounds reminiscent of the carefully assembled skill set of the characters in the heist movie Ocean's Eleven.

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