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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • United Kingdom wants cozy science ties with Europe after Brexit

    Joint European Torus

    The U.K. government wants to continue research with the European Union at the Joint European Torus, a fusion facility, after Brexit. 

    Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

    The U.K. government today released a long-awaited position paper on the future of scientific collaborations with the European Union after Brexit. Its overarching goal is “a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.”

    Despite the lofty aim, the paper is getting a mixed reception. While lauding the aspiration of such a science arrangement as “absolutely correct,” John Womersley, who directs the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, said in a statement that “the paper is so lacking implementation details that it will probably disappoint most of the science community rather than reassure them.”

    Topping the list of complaints is the lack of clarity over how the U.K. government will ensure the continued exchange of scientific talent across the English Channel. In contrast to the government’s stated wish in the paper to attract the “best and brightest,” Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, notes that a leaked draft strategy on immigration, if implemented, “could lead to swathes of scientists and engineers being cut off from entering the U.K.” The research community is also worried about shortfalls in funding and about new complexities in regulations.

  • Lasker prizes recognize work on cell growth, cancer prevention, and reproductive care

     (left to right):  Professor Michael N. Hall, Biozentrum University of Basel Switzerland; John T. Schiller, Ph.D., Deputy Chief, Laboratory of Cellular Oncology, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute; Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., Acting Director

    Michael N. Hall, John T. Schiller, and Douglas R. Lowy, winners of this year’s Lasker awards for basic and clinical medical research.

    (Left to right): Ingrid Singh, Photo Department, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland/Wikimedia; National Cancer Institute; National Cancer Institute

    This year’s Lasker prizes are going to a molecular biologist who figured out how cells regulate growth and two researchers who developed a vaccine for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV). Another honoree is Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care in the United States and beyond. The award comes as the group faces efforts by Republicans in Congress and the White House to cut its federal funding because it provides abortion services.

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced today its three annual prizes, each of which comes with a $250,000 award. Regarded as the United States’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, the Laskers often precede a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have gone on to win a Nobel.

    The 2017 prize for basic medical research was awarded to molecular biologist Michael Hall, 64, of the University of Basel’s Biozentrum in Switzerland for discovering how a group of proteins called target of rapamycin (TOR) direct cell growth. In yeast, humans, and many other organisms, TOR proteins sense the availability of nutrients and other growth signals, such as hormones, and regulate cell size accordingly. “I think of TOR as the brain of the cell,” Hall said in a video produced by the Lasker Foundation. Until the early 1990s, researchers assumed that cell growth was a process that happened spontaneously in the presence of raw materials, without any control mechanism. Hall’s work challenging that idea got a sometimes chilly reception, he told Science, because his finding weren’t easy to communicate and they upended a long-standing scientific paradigm. Today, researchers recognize that TOR growth regulators are involved in a multitude of processes, including aging, brain development, and diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

  • Researchers thought peace in Colombia would mean more science funding. They were wrong

    Scientists in Cali, Colombia protest

    Scientists gather in Cali to protest a proposed 42% cut to Colombia's national science agency.

    Kelly Johana Rodriguez Durán

    Wearing lab coats and hoisting placards with slogans such as "A country without science is a country without a future," hundreds of scientists poured into plazas in cities across Colombia on 24 August. Their beef: a proposed 42% cut to the 2018 budget of Colciencias, the nation's science ministry in Bogotá, which doles out research grants and supports graduate students. Cutting science "shows a lack of vision and understanding," fumes Juan Posada, an ecologist at El Rosario University in Bogotá.

    Posada and many colleagues had hoped 2018 would usher in a new era for science in Colombia. Earlier this year, the guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia demobilized after 52 years of war with the state, under a peace deal negotiated by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The end of the war offered a chance for biologists to study areas once occupied by rebel groups. And for all scientists, it seemed to promise new investment. During the long conflict, Colombia had few resources left over for science; in 2015, for example, it spent a minuscule 0.24% of its gross domestic product on R&D, according to Colciencias. Santos seemed poised to change that, dubbing innovation a "locomotive" that would drive Colombia's economy in the postconflict era.

    The 2018 budget proposal reveals "a deep disconnect" between the government's rhetoric and reality, says Diego Torres, a nuclear physicist at the National University of Colombia's Bogotá campus. Colciencias's budget increased during Santos's early years in office, from 243 billion pesos in 2010 ($128 million) to a high of 430 billion pesos in 2013 ($230 million). But it is set for a precipitous drop next year. The government's 2018 proposal, released on 28 July, would slash Colciencias's funds from 379 billion pesos ($128 million) in 2017 to 221 billion pesos ($75 million) in 2018. "It's going from bad to really bad," Posada says.

  • Senate spending panel approves $2 billion raise for NIH in 2018

    the NIH building

    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    A Senate subcommittee today approved a $2 billion raise, to $36.1 billion, for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October. That 6% raise is nearly twice what a House of Representatives panel has approved and contrasts with a 22% cut that President Donald Trump’s administration had proposed for the agency. To the relief of research universities, the Senate draft spending bill would also block a Trump proposal to slash NIH payments to cover the overhead costs of research.

    Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), chairperson of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, noted that this is the third year in a row that the committee has voted to boost NIH’s budget by $2 billion, a figure that prevailed in final spending bills in 2016 and 2017. The corresponding House panel has approved a $1.1 billion increase for the agency in 2018.

    The draft Senate bill includes $414 million in new spending for research on Alzheimer’s disease, a 30% increase that would bring the total NIH spends on the disease to $1.8 billion, according to a bill summary. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative would receive a $140 million increase, for a total of $400 million. And the All of Us precision medicine study would get $290 million, a $60 million boost. 

  • Trump has picked a politician to lead NASA. Is that a good thing?

    Portrait of Representative James Bridenstine

    Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) in 2015.

    City Year/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    President Donald Trump’s pick to lead NASA, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK), is a political ally who has long lobbied for the job. If confirmed by the Senate, he is expected to serve as a champion for advocates who seek to open up commercial access to space.

    But his views on climate change are likely to draw opposition from some senators who will consider his nomination.

    And some critics are wary of naming a politician to lead an agency known for science and technology.

  • Breaking: Trump picks NASA chief, NOAA second-in-command

    Donald Trump at a lectern, pointing.

    Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President Donald Trump has announced his picks for two prominent science-related positions in his administration.

    He intends to nominate Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to be the administrator of NASA, the White House announced tonight.

    And he wants Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, a former oceanographer of the Navy, to be assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, the No. 2 job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

  • Young immigrant scientists anxiously await Trump’s DACA decision

    Students assemble around a sign announcing support for the D-A-C-A program.

    Students in Wisconsin demonstrate in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2016.

    Joe Brusky/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

    *Update, 5 September, 12:05 p.m.: Attorney General Jeff Sessions anounced today that the Trump administration will wind down the DACA program in March 2018, giving Congress a window in which to pass legislation that would formalize the program. The government will not accept any new applicants to the program, but will renew work and other permits held by those in the program that expire within the next 6 months. Here is our story that was posted before the decision was announced:

    Biomedical researcher Yuriana Aguilar, a postdoctoral fellow at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois, is feverishly working to compete in the cut-throat race for a tenure-track faculty position. To catch the eye of prospective employers, she’s been trying to do the best science she can.

    But Aguilar might soon have to prove she has another qualification: a legal right to work in the United States. That’s because the 27-year-old is one of an untold number of scientists and engineers who are undocumented immigrants, and have been able to get jobs and degrees thanks to a federal initiative that President Donald Trump has threatened to end.

  • Update: Life after Harvey—scientists take stock of the damage, and their luck

    satellite image of Hurricane Harvey

    Hurricane Harvey approaches the Texas coast in this color-enhanced satellite image.

    NOAA/NASA

    After record-breaking rains and catastrophic flooding, many scientists remain in suspense about how Hurricane Harvey will affect their research. Some are still unable to return to their labs and field sites to assess any damage. But others are beginning to get a look at the storm’s aftermath. 

    Here is a sampling of what ScienceInsider is hearing from researchers. And we’re eager to hear your story. Let us know how Harvey is affecting your research, for better or worse, by sending an email to dmalakof@aaas.org.

  • A lab flees from Harvey: We were ‘just so damn lucky’

    Microbiologist Brett Baker in his lab

    Microbiologist Brett Baker’s barrier-island lab was directly in the path of Hurricane Harvey.

    University of Texas

    On Wednesday morning last week, as the tropical depression that would become Hurricane Harvey took direct aim at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) in Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast, microbiologist Brett Baker had already begun to prep his lab for the worst. On the top floor of a three-story building erected on the low-lying barrier island called Mustang, he and his crew of three graduate students wrapped PCR machines, centrifuges, and other laboratory equipment in clear plastic sheeting and meters of duct tape. They transfered data to offsite servers, lined the windows with old towels, and unplugged all the electronics. Then, they gathered up their personal items, turned off the lights, and shut the door.

    “It all seemed not very real,” says Kiley Seitz, a Ph.D. student in the Baker lab.

    Baker, who studies the genetics and metabolism of marine bacteria, hoped to see the inside of his lab within the week. Seitz and some of her fellow grad students had planned to ride out the storm in their apartments. But another Ph.D. student, Ian Rambo, had lived through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, at age 14. He had a suitcase ready and already had contacted friends in San Antonio, Texas, for a place to crash. Then, mandatory evacuation orders came down early Friday morning as the storm strengthened into a Category-4 monster, and Baker realized he might never see his lab again.

  • Skepticism surfaces over CRISPR human embryo editing claims

    This sequence of images shows the development of embryos after co-injection of a gene-correcting enzyme and sperm from a donor with a genetic mutation known to cause hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

    Newly fertilized (left) and later-stage (right) human embryos that have had a disease mutation corrected by the CRISPR editing system.

    OHSU

    When the first U.S. team to edit human embryos with CRISPR revealed their success earlier this month, the field reeled with the possibility that the gene-editing technique might soon produce children free of their parents’ genetic defects. But the way CRISPR repaired the paternal mutation targeted in the embryos was also a surprise. Instead of replacing the gene defect with strands of DNA that the researchers inserted, the embryos appeared to use the mother’s healthy gene as a template for repairing the cut made by CRISPR’s enzyme.

    But such a feat has not been observed in previous CRISPR experiments, and some scientists are now questioning whether the repairs really happened that way. In a paper published online this week on the preprint server bioRxiv, a group of six geneticists, developmental biologists, and stem cell researchers offers alternative explanations for the results. And uncertainty about exactly how the embryos’ DNA changed after editing leaves many questions about the technique’s safety, they argue. (The authors declined to discuss the paper while it’s being reviewed for publication.)

    Embryologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, who led the now-disputed experiments, released a statement saying that his team stands by its explanation. “We based our finding and conclusions on careful experimental design involving hundreds of human embryos,” it says.

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