Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.


    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


  • 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


    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.


    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.

  • Pan-European pension fund for scientists leaves the station

    Pan-European pension fund for scientists leaves the station

    Hopping from country to country in Europe can put a dent in your pension plans.

    Creative Commons

    MANCHESTER, U.K.—Old age may not be something European scientists think about as they hop around the continent in search of exciting Ph.D. opportunities, broader postdoctoral experience, or attractive faculty positions. But once they approach retirement age, many realize that working in countries as diverse as Estonia, Spain, or Germany can be detrimental to one’s nest egg.

    But now, there is a potential solution: a pan-European pension fund for researchers, called RESAVER, that was set up by a consortium of employers to stimulate researcher mobility. The fund was officially created on 14 July under Belgian law as a Brussels-based organization. Three founding members—the Central European University in Budapest; Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste in Basovizza, Italy; and the Central European Research Infrastructure Consortium headquartered in Trieste, Italy—will soon start making their first contributions. Researchers can also contribute part of their own salary to the fund.

    “We have a solution” to preserve the pension benefits of mobile researchers, Paul Jankowitsch, who is the former chair of the RESAVER consortium and now oversees membership and promotion, said earlier this week here at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF). “The excuse [for institutions] to do nothing is gone.”

  • Uncertainty reigns in aftermath of the United Kingdom's Brexit vote


    Jeff Djevdet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    MANCHESTER, U.K.—Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. In the weeks since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the U.K. government has made it clear that foreign residents won’t be kicked out, and their legal rights remain intact—and that might only change after new treaties are forged, a process that could take years. But when the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom held an information session on Brexit this month, the meeting was packed and several hundred scientists and other staff crammed into an overflow room. “The general feeling was anxiety,” says Ian Walmsley, pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Oxford.

    Researchers from other parts of the European Union, who make up 16% of academic staff at U.K. universities, are anxious about their status, and—like their U.K. colleagues—concerned about access to European grant funding and research facilities. Reassuring details are scarce. In a speech at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), which is the largest general scientific meeting in Europe and ended here today, a tired looking Jo 
Johnson, U.K. minister for universities and science, could only tell delegates: “I recognize the demand for further clarity on these issues and I’m working intensively with colleagues across government to provide it as soon as practicable.” He took no questions.

    After the 23 June referendum, the pressure group Scientists for EU asked researchers about their concerns. Among the 
400 responses, 46 reported hearing about or experiencing xenophobia. And at least 
84 people were planning to leave the United Kingdom or know someone who is. “We are very concerned about recruitment and retention of academic and research staff,” says Paul Crowther, an astrophysicist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

  • Gender lawsuit stimulates discussion of ways to improve undergraduate science

    A physics lab at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

    A physics lab at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

    Harvey Mudd College

    A suit against the University of Cincinnati (UC) in Ohio for allegedly segregating students by sex in a physics lab course points to the widespread confusion among academics over how to increase women’s participation in science.

    The suit, filed 1 July in U.S. District Court by UC undergraduate Casey Helmicki, claims that physics professor Larry Bortner’s practice of grouping women together violates Title IX of a 1972 federal education law prohibiting gender discrimination in higher education. Helmicki says that Bortner’s teaching assistant told the class “women and men should not be working together in science” after a student asked why the class was being placed in single-sex groups on the first day of class.

    "Physicists are predominantly male,” Bortner wrote last September in an email to Jyl Shaffer, then the university’s Title IX coordinator, after Helmicki expressed her unhappiness with the lab rule. “To change this, we try to make the educational environment open to females. Studies have shown that females do better in small lab groups (three or four) that contain more females than males than more males than females. I train instructors who teach the labs and have told them to rearrange groups if there is one female with three males [and] if at all possible [to] have all-female groups."

  • New Zealand’s ‘mind-blowing’ goal: Rat-free by 2050

    The Norway rat is one of eight predators targeted for eradication in New Zealand.

    The Norway rat is one of eight predators targeted for eradication in New Zealand.

    © Tim James/Mabel Gray/Alamy Stock Photo

    An isolated archipelago, New Zealand once hosted almost 200 bird species, many of them, like the iconic kiwi, having become flightless over generations because of a lack of natural predators. But several recently introduced species, such as rats, possums, and weasellike carnivores called stoats, now kill about 25 million of these native birds every year. Yesterday, the country’s prime minister, John Key, announced a $20 million commitment of seed money to set up Predator Free New Zealand Ltd., a company that would lead the charge in ridding the nation of the three mammals and five other foreign predators by 2050. Until now, similar eradication efforts by the country have focused on small islands; those efforts boast a 90% success rate in eliminating rodents, says James Russell, a conservation biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The new goal, Russell says, is “the modern equivalent to landing someone on Mars” and will ultimately require new technologies and billions of dollars to succeed. But he is optimistic because local communities and organizations, which could foot a large portion of the total bill, are on board.

    Other areas of the world have become or stayed rat-free or close to it, says Phil Merrill, a conservation biologist with the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry ministry in Lethbridge, Canada. In the 1950s, this western province organized a rat surveillance program that has prevented rodents from neighboring provinces and the United States from settling in, allowing it to boast of a rat-free status. Rats invaded the neighboring Saskatchewan in the 1930s, and for the past 50 years, that province has been trying to get rid of them, recently with increasing success, Merrill says. Farmers in this northern, colder region have a higher standard of living than in the past, enabling them to keep their livestock indoors and build barns, silos, and other structures out of steel and cement instead of wood. As a result, there’s much less ideal rat habitat, he notes, and Saskatchewan “is finally winning” against these invaders.

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