Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Nigeria outbreak forces rethink of polio strategies

    Polio vaccine in Nigeria

    A child receives polio vaccine during a 2013 vaccination campaign in Nigeria.

    ZUMA Press Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

    Hit with a report of a third case of polio in northern Nigeria, leaders of the global eradication effort are asking themselves how they could have been so terribly wrong about the country. Like the other two cases detected last month, the new case—a 24-month-old boy—is living in the violence-wracked state of Borno, the stronghold of the terrorist group Boko Haram.

  • Congress returns, with a long science to-do list and not much time

    U.S. Capitol building

    Art Wager/iStockphoto

    Congress returns today from a 7-week summer break with a lengthy list of unfinished business, some of great interest to the U.S. research community—and just a few weeks to tackle it. Lawmakers aren’t likely to pare that list by much before they return to the campaign trail for a final push before Election Day on 8 November. But they will have a second shot when they return for a lame-duck session after voters have chosen a successor to President Barack Obama and a new Congress.

    The one big responsibility Congress can’t shirk is passing some kind of spending bill to keep the government running for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October (see table, below). But Republicans, who control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, don’t agree on whether to abide by an existing spending pact made with Obama, or to modify it to increase the defense budget and cut domestic programs. As a result, legislators this month are expected to put off a decision by temporarily extending 2016 spending levels into 2017 with a so-called continuing resolution (CR). Its duration is uncertain, but the most likely scenario is one that funds the government through late December. That would allow lawmakers to know whether they will be dealing with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump before adopting a final 2017 spending plan.

  • New vaccine coalition aims to ward off epidemics

    Vaccine vials

    Vaccine vials on an assembly line.

    © Ken Garrett

    A new public-private coalition that aims to derail epidemics by speeding development of vaccines has now hung its shingle with the backing of the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which launched its website today, grew out of the widespread conviction that vaccines languishing in R&D could have prevented the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people. “CEPI is something the world desperately needs, and we’ve been struggling to create it for several years,” says John-Arne Røttingen, who headed the steering committee of an Ebola vaccine trial in Guinea that yielded astonishingly positive results.

    Røttingen is interim CEO of CEPI, which for now will be headquartered at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, where he headed the infectious disease division until taking the new job. Norway and India are also partners in CEPI, which has yet to raise money but has a preliminary agenda. “CEPI can’t fill all the gaps—that would be too ambitious,” Røttingen says. But he says the coalition aims to fund early stage human trials of vaccines that have little commercial market but could have a major impact on global health. CEPI plans to work closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) and help vaccine developers navigate the complicated regulatory pathways that lead to marketed products. CEPI also wants to purchase small stockpiles of these vaccines so they’re on hand to attack emerging diseases.

  • Q&A: Livestock insurance helps African herders survive droughts

    Andrew Mude

    Andrew Mude, right, at a ceremony for the Norman Borlaug Award.

    Sophia Mbugua

    NAIROBI—A Kenyan economist has won the 2016 Norman Borlaug Award from the World Food Prize for an innovative program that provides pastoralists with livestock insurance.

    Andrew Mude, a senior economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) here, created a program that protects pastoralists against losses from drought, an increasing scourge for nomadic communities in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. The index-based insurance uses satellite imagery revealing how much foliage has been lost to calculate the projected impact on the herds. It eliminates the need for an actual census of dead animals. More than 3 million pastoralist households in northern Kenya depend on goats, cows, sheep, and camels, and the high rate of livestock losses during droughts is a major cause of childhood malnutrition. With their households constantly on the move, the payments give families enough money to survive economic downturns without having to sell off their herds. Foreign aid programs from several nations help subsidize the cost of the insurance.

    Mude, 39, says his interest in finding new tools for economic development comes from his parents, who were the first boy and girl from the Marsabit district of northern Kenya to attend high school and who later helped other villagers acquire an education.

  • Panel: Swedish hospital should never have hired 'star surgeon'

    Paolo Macchiarini holding artificial trachea

    Paolo Macchiarini


    The Karolinska University Hospital and the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm ignored warning signs when they hired surgeon Paolo Macchiarini in 2010, an independent panel concluded this week. The investigation was commissioned by the hospital’s director in the wake of an ongoing misconduct scandal surrounding Macchiarini and the artificial tracheae he implanted in three patients at the hospital. Two of the patients died, and a third has been hospitalized since receiving an implant in 2012. “Macchiarini’s transplant activities have damaged clinical research not only at Karolinska University Hospital, but also in Sweden in general,” the panel noted.

    The procedures did not have proper ethical approval, were not based on adequate science, and failed to follow Swedish regulations regarding new medical products, the panel says in its 31 August report. (An English summary is here. The full report in Swedish is here.) The investigation was led by Kjell Asplund, professor emeritus in medicine at Umeå University in Sweden, chairman of the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics in Stockholm, and former director general of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, also in Stockholm.

    The report highlights mistakes made during Macchiarini’s tenure at the hospital. But it also notes that the hospital terminated Macchiarini’s employment in late 2013, successfully resisting pressure from KI, where Macchiarini remained a senior researcher until March. Whistleblowers raised questions about Macchiarini’s work in 2014, but KI stood by the surgeon, extending his contract even after an independent investigator found that the allegations had merit. He was dismissed after a television documentary in January raised additional questions about the surgeon and his work.

  • Whistleblower sues Duke, claims doctored data helped win $200 million in grants

    Duke University in North Carolina

    Duke University is at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit concerning potential research misconduct.

    Uschools University Images/iStockphoto

    On a Friday in March 2013, a researcher working in the lab of a prominent pulmonary scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. The researcher, biologist Erin Potts-Kant, later pled guilty to siphoning more than $25,000 from the Duke University Health System, buying merchandise from Amazon, Walmart, and Target—even faking receipts to legitimize her purchases. A state judge ultimately levied a fine, and sentenced her to probation and community service.

    Then Potts-Kant's troubles got worse. Duke officials took a closer look at her work and didn't like what they saw. Fifteen of her papers, mostly dealing with pulmonary biology, have now been retracted, with many notices citing "unreliable" data. Several others have been modified with either partial retractions, expressions of concern, or corrections. And last month, a U.S. district court unsealed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former colleague of Potts-Kant. It accuses the researcher, her former supervisor, and the university of including fraudulent data in applications and reports involving more than 60 grants worth some $200 million. If successful, the suit—brought under the federal False Claims Act (FCA)—could force Duke to return to the government up to three times the amount of any ill-gotten funds, and produce a multimillion-dollar payout to the whistleblower.

  • NSF proposes changes in use of costly rotators for senior positions



    In June, the head of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) engineering directorate left the agency to return to academia. Next winter the agency will bid adieu to the assistant NSF directors who run its math/physical sciences and geosciences programs. But the departures of Pramod Khargonekar, Fleming Crim, and Roger Wakimoto, respectively, after only a few years at NSF are not some kind of mass protest against government service.

  • China tackles antimicrobial resistance

    Antibiotics for human and animal use are widely available in  China without a prescription, leading to overuse and antimicrobial  resistance.

    Antibiotics for human and animal use are widely available in China without a prescription, leading to overuse and antimicrobial resistance.

    kafka4prez/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    BEIJING—China, the world’s largest consumer of human and animal antibiotics, has pledged to step up research and development into new antimicrobials and to rein in overuse of existing medicines to counter growing global antimicrobial resistance.

    As part of a national action plan unveiled on 26 August, the Chinese central government said that it would mobilize the efforts of 14 ministries and departments including health, food and drugs, and agriculture. By 2020, the government aims to develop new antimicrobials, make sales of the drugs by prescription only, ramp up surveillance of human and veterinary usage, and increase training and education for both medical professionals and consumers on their proper use. No details were available on funding or new drug development.

  • The world may soon run out of drugs to treat gonorrhea

    <i>Neisseria gonorrhoeae</i> bacterium

    Resistant strains of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium have spread around the world.


    It’s another sign that an era of untreatable bacterial infections is inching closer. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines for treating gonorrhea that reflect the sobering reality that this sexually transmitted disease is becoming ever more difficult to treat. WHO recommends no longer using quinolones, a class of antibiotics that has become less and less effective. And for the first time, the agency makes suggestions on what to do when none of the standard drugs work.

    Gonorrhea, caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, infects an estimated 78 million people every year. Although many suffer no symptoms, the bacterium can cause pain in the genitals, rectum, and throat, and can lead to infertility and infections of the brain or the heart if untreated. Current WHO guidelines, written in 2003, recommend treating infections with quinolones, such as ciprofloxacin. But resistant strains of the bacterium have now spread across the globe, says Teodora Wi from WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, Switzerland, making quinolones all but useless. Another class of drugs called cephalosporins should be the first line of defense.

    Many high-income countries changed their guidelines years ago based on their own data. But WHO’s guidelines set a global standard and are particularly important for low-income countries that do not have good surveillance data. "We really wanted countries to remove quinolones as the treatment of choice,” Wi says. "Imagine if African countries invest so much money just to buy quinolones and the bacteria are already resistant.”

  • Deadly Italian quake highlights continuing struggle to communicate risk

    Italy's 'earthquake trial' casts a long shadow over risk communication

    The town of Amatrice, Italy, lies in ruins after last week's earthquake.

    Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

    ROMEIn the wake of the magnitude-6.0 earthquake that killed at least 290 people in central Italy last week, scientists and government officials here have grappled with a fraught and delicate question: what to tell the public about the risk that another major quake will follow.

    More than 2000 aftershocks in the region around the epicenter, a mountainous area some 100 kilometers northeast of Rome, have caused only minor damage. But more powerful tremors—which could add to the death toll in the days, weeks, or months to come—are possible, the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (CGR) cautioned in a report produced on Thursday. The report mentioned that some past earthquakes in Italy were followed by equally strong quakes not much later.

    How to communicate such risks to a jittery population has become a perilous issue for scientists on the commission and officials at Italy's Civil Protection Department (DPC) after the controversy that erupted when a similar earthquake struck in 2009 in the town of L’Aquila, just 40 kilometers south of the epicenter of last week's event. A year after that tremor, Italian prosecutors charged six scientists and a public official with falsely assuring L’Aquila’s residents that a quake was unlikely, just days before it struck and killed 309 people.

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