ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • European Commission proposes €100 billion research spending plan

    The flag of the European Union: yellow stars on a blue background.

    The flag of the European Union

    Giampaolo Squarcina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The European Commission today proposed spending €100 billion on research from 2021 to 2027 under its next continent-wide science funding program. That is less than some research groups had hoped for. Still, they say it is a good—but not great—opening bid in what are expected to be lengthy negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Union’s member states on a final spending plan.

    The €100 billion proposal, which the commission says represents a 50% increase compared with the previous period, includes €97.6 billion for Horizon Europe, the follow-on to the current Horizon 2020 multiyear spending initiative, and €2.4 billion for the nuclear research program Euratom. The total doesn’t include €6 billion for ITER, the international fusion project under construction near Cadarache in France, but it does include  €3.5 billion under the InvestEU fund, which aims to help research projects secure loans or equity funds from other sources. Including funds for digital technologies, the commission is proposing to devote €114.8 billion to research and innovation.

    The commission notes that its proposal marks the largest amount ever earmarked for EU research programs, which started in 1984. And it says that although other spending areas, such as agriculture and regional development, are being “moderately” squeezed, they’ve put a priority on protecting science. Research even got star billing as the first topic in the commission’s budget document.

  • Accused cancer scientist resigns as editor of prestigious journal

    Inder Verma

    Inder Verma in a lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 2012.

    Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy Stock Photo

    Inder Verma, the prominent cancer scientist and geneticist who has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, resigned yesterday as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a prestigious academic journal.

    Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., which publishes PNAS, announced Verma’s departure in an email to NAS members today:

    Yesterday Dr. Verma informed me that he has resigned as Editor-in-Chief. In view of Dr. Verma’s resignation and to ensure that PNAS has leadership in place to move the journal forward, we will soon initiate the search to identify his successor and would welcome your suggestions.

  • NIH’s neuroscience institute will limit grants to well-funded labs

    scientist pipetting in laboratory

    The National Institutes of Health’s neuroscience institute plans to free up funds for young and at-risk investigators by limiting support for large labs.

    iStock.com/Hotaik Sung

    Big laboratories are back in the crosshairs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH’s neurological institute plans to pare back the number of investigators it supports who have $1 million or more in NIH grants.

    The policy “will allow us to fund more early stage investigators and help people who just missed the pay line [funding cutoff] and are about to drop off the radar screen,” says Robert Finkelstein, extramural research director at the $2.1 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Maryland, NIH’s fifth largest institute.

    The 27 April policy brings to mind a hugely controversial proposal a year ago to limit the number of NIH grants an investigator could hold at the equivalent of three basic R01 awards. The cap, called the Grant Support Index (GSI), was meant to free up funds for early- and mid-career researchers. The GSI drew an outcry from many researchers, however. NIH replaced it with the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, which will direct $210 million a year to 400 early stage investigators and others at risk of losing all support.

  • Critics allege EPA’s new transparency rule has hidden pro-industry agenda

    Smog blanketing Los Angeles, California

    Critics say a new Environmental Protection Agency policy will make it harder to cut fine particles, such as those in smog blanketing Los Angeles, California.

    IM_photo/shutterstock.com

    When Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., announced last week that the agency plans to bar regulators from considering studies that have not made their underlying data public, he said it was to ensure the quality of the research used to shape new rules. “The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” Pruitt said at a 24 April event (which was closed to the press) unveiling the proposed “transparency” rule.

    But longtime observers of EPA, including former senior agency officials, see a more troubling and targeted goal: undermining key studies that have helped justify stricter limits on air pollution. In particular, they say, the new policy is aimed at blocking EPA consideration of large epidemiological studies that have highlighted the health dangers of tiny particles of soot and other chemicals less than 2.5 microns in diameter. Those studies, which rest in part on confidential health information that is difficult to make public, have been under attack for decades from some industry groups and Republican lawmakers in Congress, who argue that the confidentiality masks flaws in the studies. The same interests lobbied heavily for the new EPA rule, and critics of the policy say it is just new clothing for an old—and largely discredited—argument.

    “It just keeps coming back in different forms. … It’s like malaria. Or maybe herpes would be a better analogy,” says toxicologist Dan Costa of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who recently retired after leading EPA’s air research program for 14 years.

  • Genome writing project aims to rally scientists around virus-proofing cells

    worker looking into a

    A team of synthetic biologists hopes to protect cells used in drug manufacturing facilities from viral infection.

    BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS/Newscom

    Launched in 2016 with the sprawling ambition to build large genomes, the synthetic biology initiative known as Genome Project–write (GP-write) is now, slowly, getting down to specifics. Ahead of a meeting today in Boston, GP-write’s leadership announced a plan to organize its international group of collaborators around a “community-wide project”: engineering cells to resist viral infection.

    GP-write’s original proposal to design and assemble an entire human genome from scratch seems to have receded from view since the project’s rocky launch, when a private meeting of its founders sparked accusations of secrecy and speculations about labmade humans. A proposal published weeks later in Science described GP-write as a decadelong effort to reduce by more than 1000-fold the cost of engineering and testing large genomes consisting of hundreds of millions of DNA letters.

    The narrower project announced today—redesigning the genomes of cells from humans and other species to make them “ultrasafe”—represents “a theme that could run through all of GP-write,” says geneticist Jef Boeke of New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, who leads the project along with Harvard University geneticist George Church, lawyer Nancy Kelley of Nancy J Kelley + Associates in New York City, and biotechnology catalyst Andrew Hessel of the San Francisco, California–based software company Autodesk Research.

  • Federal appeals court hears CRISPR patent dispute

    Statue of Justice holding scales

    A federal appeals court today heard arguments that the U.S. patent office made legal mistakes when reviewing its ruling on CRISPR, the genome editor.

    iStockPhoto/no_limit_pictures

    Here’s a double-negative brain twister with potentially huge financial ramifications and a Nobel Prize resting on the answer: For an invention to be “nonobvious”—and therefore patentable in the United States—should there be no guarantee of success when researchers embark on experiments that lead to the invention?

    That mind-bending question was the centerpiece of a case heard today by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., over the lucrative patent portfolio surrounding the revolutionary genome editor commonly known as CRISPR. This 2-year-old intellectual property battle pits lawyers from the University of California (UC) against litigators from the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both teams represent groups of researchers from several institutions who claim to have made the key discoveries that allow CRISPR, which bacteria naturally use as an immune mechanism, to make precise cuts in the genomes of mammals—technology that ultimately may pave the way for new medical treatments. The invention has spawned several companies, and many expect it will lead to Nobel Prizes for the key scientists.

    In April 2014, Broad received the first of several issued patents for the mammalian cell use of CRISPR, which the UC lawyers contested with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But in February 2017, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) ruled in favor of Broad. At a hearing today that ran less than 45 minutes, a lawyer for the UC system asserted that PTAB made a “legal error” in its interpretation of “nonobvious” and asked the appeals court to either reverse the decision or—and this is the more likely scenario—remand the case back to PTAB to reconsider its ruling. “UC did the best they could with the cards they were dealt, but it’s still not looking great for UC,” says Jacob Sherkow, a visiting scholar at Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, California, who has followed the case closely and was at the hearing.

  • Update: Despite protests, NSF plans to sell seismic research ship

    R/V Marcus Langseth in front of the Manhattan skyline

    Because of a $3.5 million budget shortfall, NSF may sell off the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, which explores marine geology.

    Bob Vergaras, A.P.S. for Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

    Marine seismologists are decrying a move by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to sell off its only ship capable of imaging structures, such as the subduction zones that drive the largest earthquakes, deep beneath the ocean floor.

    For the past few years, NSF has sought a new operating model for the R/V Marcus G. Langseth to close an annual $3.5 million funding shortfall that has forced the vessel to spend long periods docked. But no palatable fix has been forthcoming, the agency said earlier this month . That means the agency will sell the ship and require scientists to arrange their own surveys from the private sector while it seeks a long-term solution.

    The sale amounts to a “loss of trust,” the leaders of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, which represents academics who use the ship, wrote in a letter to NSF on 26 April. The group argues the sale will penalize early-career scientists, who lack ties to the powerful seismic ships used by oil and gas companies, and slant research toward questions that these companies are seeking to answer. A sale should not proceed until a long-term solution is in place, they add, and NSF must continue to accept new funding proposals aimed at keeping the field alive.

  • U.S.-U.K. science armada to target vulnerable Antarctic ice sheet

    airplane on the ground in Antarctica

    Planes, ships, and submersibles: Operating on the Thwaites glacier will require a heavy logistic lift from the United States and the United Kingdom.

    Mike Lucibella/U.S. National Science Foundation U.S. Antarctic Program

    An armada of 100 scientists will soon be descending on West Antarctica, and understanding the future of global sea levels might depend on what they find. Today, after several years of planning, the U.S. and U.K. science agencies announced the details of a joint $50 million (or more) plan to study the Thwaites glacier, the Antarctic ice sheet most at risk of near-term melting.

    The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration plans to deploy six teams to the remote ice sheet, where they will study it using a host of tools, including instrument-carrying seals and earth-sensing seismographs. The researchers will concentrate their work in the Antarctic summers of 2019–20 and 2020–21. An additional two teams will channel the findings of the field teams into global models.

    Overall, the collaboration is the largest joint effort between the two nations in Antarctica since the 1940s. “We’ll see what until now has been inferred playing out right in front of our sensors,” says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who is serving as the lead U.S. scientific coordinator.

  • A chat with the geneticist who predicted how the police may have tracked down the Golden State Killer

    deputies leaving the California home of Joseph James DeAngelo

    Sacramento County Sheriff's Department deputies leave the California home of Joseph James DeAngelo, who last week was arrested on suspicion in a string of violent crimes in the 1970s and 1980s. He was identified using a public database of people's DNA.

    Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

    Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist at Columbia University, was far from surprised at last week's news that police may have found a serial murderer and rapist, California’s long-sought Golden State Killer, by tapping a public DNA database to match crime scene DNA: Erlich had cautioned in a June 2014 article about genetic privacy, published in Nature Reviews Genetics, that GEDmatch, the website that was reportedly used, could allow for such “genealogical triangulation.” On GEDmatch, people voluntarily supply their own DNA sequences that they obtain through consumer sequencing companies—such as MyHeritage, where Erlich serves as chief science officer—and provide email addresses, which allows presumed relatives to contact each other. In this case, the investigators fished the database with a DNA sequence obtained from a frozen, 37-year-old rape kit used in a murder case attributed to the Golden State Killer.

    Police have not yet revealed precise details about how GEDmatch, or other such sites, were used, but Erlich, who was not involved with cracking this decades-old case, spoke with Science about how the suspect’s DNA sequence likely led to his arrest and related privacy issues.

    This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides

    Bees

    European regulators worried three neonicotinoid pesticides threatened bees and other pollinators.

    MARISA LUBECK, USGS

    The European Union today expanded a controversial ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, based on the threat they pose to pollinators. The decision pleased environmental groups and was greeted with trepidation by farming associations, which fear economic harm.

    In 2013, the European Union placed a moratorium on three kinds of neonicotinoids, forbidding their use in flowering crops that appeal to honey bees and other pollinating insects. The pesticides are commonly coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests; when the seed germinates, the pesticide is absorbed and spreads through the tissue. It eventually reaches pollen and nectar, which is how pollinators are exposed. Many studies have shown harm to pollinators in laboratory settings; large field trials have produced mixed results.

    The European Commission last year proposed extending the ban of three neonicotinoids—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—to all field crops, because of growing evidence that the pesticides can harm domesticated honey bees and also wild pollinators. A scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority, released this February, added momentum to the campaign.

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