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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Japanese military entices academics to break taboo

    A X-2 stealth fighter taking off.

    Japan’s defense research paved the way for its homegrown X-2 stealth fighter. Now, the defense ministry is stepping up efforts to court academics to work on projects that could have both civilian and military payoffs.

    The Asahi Shimbun/Contributor/Getty Images

    In 1950, Japan’s scientific community, chastened by the complicity of researchers in their nation’s disastrous military adventurism, took an extraordinary vow. “To preserve our integrity as scientists, we express our firm commitment both domestically and abroad that we will never pursue scientific research for the purpose of war,” declared the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), now the nation’s equivalent to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Extended to broadly proscribe military research in 1967, the commitment held for 65 years—until Japan’s defense ministry started a small program to fund university research with both civilian and military applications in 2015. Now, the ministry is sharply ramping up support for “dual-use” research—sparking an outcry among academics who see it as a dangerous revanchist policy.

    The budget of the dual-use program, run by the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) here, will skyrocket from $5.2 million this year to $95 million in the fiscal year beginning 1 April. In response, SCJ is considering amending its code of conduct to spell out conditions under which academic researchers can accept military money. That’s not sufficient, some say: “I want the SCJ to clearly state that military research in academia is extremely inappropriate,” Satoru Ikeuchi, an astrophysicist at Nagoya University in Japan, said at a 14 January symposium on the topic at Keio University’s Yokohama campus.

    The defense ministry’s courtship of civilian researchers is another step in Japan’s ongoing remilitarization, asserts Morihisa Hamada, a volcanologist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka. A key tenet of Japan’s stance on promoting peace, he believes, “is not to take part in military research at universities.” The new policy’s supporters, meanwhile, argue that military research benefits Japan’s overall science and technology efforts.

    Japan’s constitution, written during the U.S.-led occupation after World War II, renounces war and the use or threat of force to resolve international conflicts and says military forces “will never be maintained.” Despite that clause, Japan has built up self-defense forces now ranked as the world’s seventh most powerful military by the Global Firepower website. The defense ministry has its own considerable R&D capabilities. Last year Japan flew a prototype stealth fighter, the X-2, based on domestic technologies.

    Prime Minister Shinzō Abe wants Japan’s military to have a bigger role. In 2015, his governing parliamentary coalition adopted legislation that reinterpreted the constitution, allowing Japan’s forces to fight overseas in “collective self-defense” alongside allies. In the face of increasingly sophisticated threats, the defense ministry must rely on input from civilian researchers to maintain “technical superiority,” Shigeo Suzuki, an ATLA official, has explained.

    Two years ago, ATLA began awarding grants to scientists at universities—and at other governmental institutions and private companies—to work on dual-use technologies. It started with a modest $2.6 million budget, covering nine grants over 3 years. The budget doubled last year, and 10 more groups won support. Projects include reducing resistance of ship hulls moving through water, tactile sensing for robotic hands, and hypersonic jet engines. Defense labs will pick up on promising results, Suzuki said at a November 2016 meeting of a new SCJ committee on security and academic studies. He added that ATLA-funded civilian researchers are, in principle, free to publish their results.

    Openly disseminating findings is likely to be a key point in any guidelines SCJ might adopt, says the society’s president, Takashi Onishi, an urban planner and president of Toyohashi University of Technology. The council will not disavow the 1950 and 1967 declarations, he says, noting that under the constitution, “We cannot conduct research for an atomic bomb.” SCJ’s security committee is due to complete a report on the guidelines for working with ATLA by this summer so the council’s governing board can decide on any action by September. It is too early to predict what the committee may recommend, Onishi says, because “reaching a unified opinion is not easy.”

    Critics, however, are drumming up support for maintaining a strict separation of academic and military research. In September 2016, Ikeuchi and colleagues launched the Japanese Coalition Against Military Research in Academia, bringing together 25 university unions and antiwar citizen groups and hundreds of individuals. It has gathered nearly 2000 signatures on a petition opposing any relaxation of the ban on academic cooperation with the military. Even if ATLA-funded research starts out in an open manner, Ikeuchi says, “At some point if it is adopted for military use, secrecy will creep in.”

    Ultimately, each university must decide whether to allow its researchers to accept defense funds. Institutions are split. Onishi says that now 10 universities allow researchers to accept defense grants. According to Hamada, 14 forbid military research. Most universities have yet to take a stance—but with the pot of money about to grow much bigger, they will soon have to.

  • Commerce nominee Ross promises to protect "peer-reviewed research" at NOAA

    Wilbur Ross testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee

    Wilbur Ross 

    Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

    Under Wilbur Ross, President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will continue to provide accurate and factual data to the public, including peer-reviewed research, without political filters, Ross wrote last night in a letter to Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), the ranking member of the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

    "I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public," Ross wrote. "To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter."

    The letter comes as the new administration's influence has started to ripple through federal scientific agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At EPA, Trump administration officials have issued a freeze on all grants and contracts, ProPublica reports, although the full details are unclear. At USDA, researchers have been ordered not to “release any public-facing documents,” Buzzfeed reports, although they are apparently allowed to submit manuscripts to journals and speak at technical conferences. (After this story went to press, USDA announced it was withdrawing the order and will rewrite it.)

  • Facing ‘doomsday’ scenario, scientists consider fleeing Brazil

    Students and teachers of Rio de Janeiro State University protesting

    Students and teachers protest parlous conditions at Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil.

    Newzulu/Alamy Stock Photo

    Two years ago, Fernanda De Felice was at the top of her game. The biochemist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was developing a nonhuman primate model for Alzheimer’s disease and publishing in top journals. But since then, a state budget crisis has cut off all public funding for her work. In March, De Felice will decamp to Canada for a 2-year stint at Queen’s University in Kingston, leaving her husband and main collaborator, UFRJ professor Sergio Ferreira, to shuttle between Rio and Kingston. “It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I had to do,” De Felice says. “Staying in Brazil would mean the end of my career.”

    Thousands of other scientists in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which includes Rio, Brazil’s second biggest city, and many key research institutions, face a similar struggle. Declining federal support for science in cash-strapped Brazil had sapped funds for scholarships and lab infrastructure. Now, Rio de Janeiro’s funding agency, FAPERJ, is bankrupt. It has fallen $150 million behind on grant payments—and over 2 years has cut off funds to 3670 research projects. Last year, it devoted most of its spending—$30 million—to graduate scholarships. Science funding faces similar threats in other Brazilian states.

    A massive brain drain is a real risk, scientists warn. “I know a lot of people who want to leave,” says Stevens Rehen, a stem cell researcher at UFRJ and the D’Or Institute for Research and Education. Compounding the poverty, he says, is a despair that permeates the scientific community. “This is affecting an entire generation of scientists.” Rehen has kept his lab running on cash accumulated before 2015, and his team has published several papers in recent months. However, he says, “We’ve burned all the fat that we had left.” FAPERJ owes him more than $475,000, and last year he lost three postdocs: one to Poland, one to the United States, and another to the private sector.

  • President Trump and science: 10 things to look for (and fear?)

    President Donald J. Trump arrives at the inauguration ceremony

    President Donald Trump at his inauguration.

    Doug Mills/REUTERS

    Donald Trump did not mention science in his inaugural address. But that’s the norm for a president. None of his recent Republican predecessors—Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush—did so, nor did Bill Clinton. Most researchers hold fond memories of Barack Obama’s pledge in 2009 to “restore science to its rightful place,” although historians will ultimately judge whether that promise was fulfilled.

    When presidents talk about science, practically speaking they are thinking of one or more of three things: funding, people, and policies. Trump’s closest reference to science was his comment that “we stand ready …  to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries, and technologies of tomorrow.” He also repeated his campaign slogan to “make America great again.”

    Now that the nation’s 45th president is on the job, scientists will be listening closely to see whether those words are a harbinger of his science policy. Here are 10 questions that researchers should be asking as presidential rhetoric confronts political realities.

  • Wanted: A leader for the toughest job in global health

    Margaret Chan takes a bow during the opening of the 68th World Health Assembly

    Former Hong Kong, China, public health official Margaret Chan led the World Health Organization for 10 years.

    Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP

    Global health watchers will pay close attention to Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, when the World Health Organization (WHO) will announce the final three candidates to take the agency’s top job. The decision by WHO’s Executive Board, made up of representatives of 34 member states, follows months of behind-the-scenes jockeying, campaigning by the candidates, and intense speculation. It will be followed in May by a final vote by WHO’s 194 member states.

    Six countries have fielded candidates to succeed Margaret Chan, the former Hong Kong, China, health official who is stepping down after 10 years at the helm. Among the top contenders, many say, is former Ethiopian Health Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The African Union has declared its support for him and some observers have suggested it’s time for WHO’s first director-general from the African continent. Another candidate widely seen as having good chances is David Nabarro, a physician nominated by the United Kingdom who has worked at WHO in various positions and was appointed the United Nations’ senior coordinator on Ebola in 2014.

    The other candidates are Pakistani cardiologist Sania Nishtar; former French Health Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy; Hungary’s former minister of health, Miklós Szócska; and WHO’s assistant director-general for family, women’s and children’s health, Flavia Bustreo from Italy.

  • Amsterdam to host Europe's first 'forensic cemetery'

    The University of Tennessee's body farm.

    Federal Bureau of Investigation agents excavate a body during a 2009 training course at the University of Tennessee's "body farm."

    FBI

    AMSTERDAM—A vacant lot near a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise here will soon host research that might make you lose your appetite. Amsterdam's Academic Medical Center (AMC) announced last week that it has obtained a permit to open Europe’s first taphonomical cemetery, a place where scientists can study the decomposition of human corpses under natural conditions. Such research can help forensic investigators, for instance when they're trying to determine how long ago a body was buried.

    The 500-square-meter burial ground will open later this year, says Roelof-Jan Oostra, an anatomist at AMC. Bodies donated to science will be interred in graves up to 1 meter deep, along with instruments that can carry out chemical analyses without disturbing the grave. The cemetery can be used by researchers from AMC as well as from Dutch universities, the Netherlands Forensic Institute, and the police.

    Six similar facilities—most of them much larger—already exist in the United States, where they are often called "body farms," a term that Oostra says he avoids because he considers it disrespectful to the dead. The University of Technology Sydney last year opened the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, situated in an undisclosed location near Sydney; there are plans for a facility in the United Kingdom as well.

  • At least seven countries are jockeying to host EU's medicine watchdog after United Kingdom leaves

    Barcelona by night

    Barcelona, Spain, officials feel they deserve to host EMA because the city narrowly lost out when London was selected.

    Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons

    When a relationship ends, there are usually just two people to fight over who gets what. Not so with Brexit. The United Kingdom hasn’t even triggered the negotiations to end its membership of the European Union, but already half a dozen countries are jockeying to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA), currently located in London. This week, the Dutch government became the latest to announce it wants to host the influential regulatory agency once Brexit is a done deal.

    In a Q&A posted with the announcement (Dutch), the government noted that Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, and Malta have all said they will seek to host EMA. But Spain, Denmark, Germany, and Finland have unofficially expressed an interest as well. Other countries, like France, may still come forward.

    Set up in 1995, EMA employs about 900 people, making it one of the biggest EU agencies; it has a €300 million annual budget and draws some 65,000 visitors to more than 500 international meetings every year.

  • Trump asks NIH Director Francis Collins to stay on

    Francis Collins, current NIH director

    Francis Collins

    Ernesto del Aguila III/NHGRI/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Ending weeks of speculation, President-elect Donald Trump has asked National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins to remain in his position. It is not clear for how long.

    "We just learned that Dr. Collins has been held over by the Trump administration," an NIH spokesperson said in a statement. "We have no additional details at this time."

    Collins, a geneticist who has headed the $32 billion NIH for the past 8 years, has been campaigning to keep his job and met with Trump last week. On Wednesday, he told a reporter at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he still didn’t know what his fate would be. But although Collins had the support of key Republicans in Congress, he has been one of several candidates for the NIH post, including Representative Andy Harris (R–MD).

  • A half-billion-dollar bid to develop vaccines against the next viral threat

    Two doctors help a young girl onto a bed.

    A patient arrives in an isolation ward during a 2014 outbreak of deadly Lassa fever in Sierra Leone.

    Lam Yik Fei/Contributor/Getty Images

     A coalition that aims to develop new vaccines for emerging infectious diseases has nearly half a billion dollars in its coffers and its first three diseases in its sights.

    Over the next 5 years, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) plans to bankroll the development of vaccines against three viral threats—Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-coronavirus, Lassa, and Nipah—so that small outbreaks never get a chance to become raging epidemics. Formed last year without serious funding, CEPI has received $100 million commitments from the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the governments of Japan, Germany, and Norway have pledged to contribute an additional $260 million. As Science went to press, CEPI planned to announce the commitments at the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, Switzerland.

    Epidemiologist John-Arne Røttingen, CEPI's interim president through 2017, says he hopes more countries will now contribute. "CEPI is a collective function, and it's a premium they need to pay for global health security," says Røttingen, who is based in Oslo.

    The devastating Ebola epidemic that erupted in West Africa in 2014 sparked the formation of CEPI. Experimental Ebola vaccines, which have no commercial market, were sitting in laboratory freezers when the epidemic broke out, but they had never been tested in humans. Clinical trials began in haste in September 2014, but vaccine development is a multiphase process that requires first conducting small-scale studies for safety and immune responses in hundreds of people who are not at risk for the disease. Vaccines that pass those tests move on to real-world efficacy trials in thousands of volunteers. By the time an Ebola vaccine proved its worth in July 2015, standard containment efforts had already nearly brought the epidemic to a standstill.

    Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust in London, co-authored an influential perspective in the 23 July 2015 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine that spelled out the need for a coordinated global effort to help advance vaccines against menacing infectious diseases that industry ignored because of dodgy markets. The article proposed taking novel vaccines through preliminary human testing before the inevitable outbreaks—an idea that has now evolved into CEPI. "We now have enough money to show the world that this can deliver," says Farrar, who is on the interim CEPI board.

    CEPI will now solicit proposals from academic researchers and industry to develop candidate vaccines for its three target viruses. In 5 years, it aims to take two vaccines for each virus through early human studies so that they're in the wings and ready for a real-world test as soon as one of these viruses surfaces again. CEPI also intends to fund vaccine "platforms"—technologies like messenger RNA or harmless viral vectors that can serve as backbones for a variety of vaccines.

    CEPI chose its first targets after analyzing the public health impact of several diseases on a priority list assembled by the World Health Organization in 2016. All three are serious threats: Respiratory illness caused by MERS continues to haunt the Middle East, Lassa fever causes life-threatening hemorrhagic illness in West Africa, and Nipah virus in Asia leads to brain inflammation with a high mortality. Vaccines for all are lacking, but CEPI's scientific advisers believe they do not present any obvious technical obstacles and are within reach.

    The U.S. government, one of the world's largest investors in vaccines against emerging infectious diseases, has yet to commit anything to CEPI, but Røttingen says he'll try again now that the U.S. presidential election is over. In the meantime, he says, CEPI has "a very strong collaboration and compact" with U.S. agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "I cannot give them money, but I'm very interested in collaborating when they do trials of vaccines," says Anthony Fauci, head of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. "They'll get in-kind contributions from us. And the half-billion they roll out at Davos will attract other donors."

    By the end of 2017, CEPI aims to raise a total of $1 billion, needed to fully fund its first 5 years. "There are as many as 50 pathogens that could emerge, and we'd like CEPI to be so successful that 10 or 20 years from now, we'll have a vaccine for every one of them," Farrar says. But for now, he says it's crucial to prove that it can be done with the first three targets. "You'll do more than just produce three vaccines," Farrar says. "You'll transform the way we think about vaccines and the pipeline."

  • How a dispute at Harvard led to a grad student’s forced mental exam and an extraordinary restraining order against a prominent scientist

    Harvard Yard

    Harvard Yard

    Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    At 1 a.m. on 4 June 2016, Gustavo German, a doctoral student in biomedicine at Harvard University, heard a knock at his door. It was three police officers.

    They explained that a doctor with Harvard’s health service had issued an order to take German to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation to see whether he should be committed, even against his will. Surprised, German said he was fine. One police officer put on black gloves. His parents, who were visiting, tried to persuade the police to stop, saying they were not concerned about their son.  

    The officers made German lie down on a stretcher, and an ambulance carried him to a hospital. He was back home within hours, however; a psychiatrist had found nothing out of the ordinary. But German was traumatized, he says, and “my mom was distraught.” She couldn’t sleep for 5 days, he says. Soon after, German says a Harvard official told him he shouldn’t return to his laboratory.

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