In August 2017, I received an email from publicist Masha Drokova asking whether I wanted to interview her client, Jeffrey Epstein.
“I saw your piece on [President Donald] Trump’s science budget,” she wrote, referring to a story on the president’s proposed massive cuts to research in his 2018 budget request to Congress. “Jeffrey has an interesting perspective on what it will take to fill the gaps. … Would you like to speak with him next week?”
Why would Science talk to a shadowy financier and convicted sex offender? I queried my editors. “How strange,” one said. “Wonder why he is seeking press now?” another asked.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is dropping plans to issue a final version this year of its divisive plan to limit the agency’s use of scientific studies in crafting major new regulations, Administrator Andrew Wheeler indicated at a congressional hearing this morning.
Instead, the agency will issue a supplemental proposal early next year, Wheeler told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, adding that it will apply only to future rulemakings.
Six professors from India’s top science institutions have appealed to the government to lift the blockade of academic and research institutions in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The blockade has been a “devastating blow,” the six write in an open letter published yesterday.
Like the rest of India’s only majority-Muslim state, Kashmir’s academic community has been cut off almost entirely from the rest of the world since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abolished the state’s special status on 5 August. “We call upon the government to lift the blackout at these institutions right away and take all steps possible to help members of the Kashmiri academic community to make up for these lost weeks,” the researchers write.
Kashmir has been a source of tension for decades. India and Pakistan have fought four wars over the region and India accuses Pakistan of fomenting secessionism in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the part administered by India. After unilaterally ending the state’s special status, which included limited autonomy, the Indian government has split the region into three administrative territories, Jammu (which has a Hindu majority), Kashmir (predominantly Muslim), and Ladakh (where Buddhists and Shia Muslims are in the majority).
A Senate spending panel today released a draft 2020 spending bill containing a hefty $3 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that would bring the agency’s total budget to $42.1 billion. That 7.7% boost is $1 billion more than a House of Representatives committee approved in its version of the bill in April, and would complete a 40% increase in NIH’s budget over the past 5 years.
The Senate Committee on Appropriations measure includes a $350 million increase for Alzheimer’s disease research at NIH, bringing the total to $2.82 billion, as well as $50 million for a new Childhood Cancer Data Initiative as part of President Donald Trump’s proposed 10-year, $500 million pediatric cancer research effort. The bill also includes $492 million for the 21st Century Cures Act, which supports the Cancer Moonshot, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative (which would receive $500 million overall, a $71 million increase), and the All of Us precision medicine study (funded at $500 million, an increase of $161 million). Funding for these programs includes $219 million to make up for a mandatory drop in fiscal year (FY) 2020 in 21st Century Cures funding, which comes from sources that are separate from NIH’s regular budget appropriation.
Like the House bill, the Senate measure rejects Trump’s proposal to move the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality into NIH. But the Senate legislation does not contain $25 million in new NIH funding for firearm injury prevention research that the Democrat-led House Committee on Appropriations added to its version of the bill. Nor does the Senate bill include House language blocking part of a new Trump administration policy that restricts NIH funding for research that uses human fetal tissue donated after elective abortions.
For 10 years, the company Oxitec has been testing whether genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes can suppress populations of their natural brethren, which carry devastating viruses such as Zika and dengue. Its strategy: Deploy (nonbiting) male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes bearing a gene that should doom most of their offspring before adulthood.
Now, a team of independent researchers analyzing an early trial of Oxitec’s technology is raising alarm—and drawing fire from the firm—with a report that some offspring of the GM mosquitoes survived and produced offspring that also made it to sexual maturity. As a result, local mosquitoes inherited pieces of the genomes of the GM mosquitoes, the team revealed last week in Scientific Reports.
There’s no evidence that these hybrids endanger humans more than the wild mosquitoes or that they’ll render Oxitec’s strategy ineffective, both the paper’s authors and the company agree. “The important thing is something unanticipated happened,” says population geneticist Jeffrey Powell of Yale University, who did the study with Brazilian researchers. “When people develop transgenic lines or anything to release, almost all of their information comes from laboratory studies. … Things don’t always work out the way you expect.”
But the paper’s suggestion that this genetic mixing could have made the mosquito population “more robust”—more resistant to insecticides, for example, or more likely to transmit disease—has triggered anti-GM news reports, a backlash from some scientists, and strong pushback from Oxitec. The company, a subsidiary of U.S. biotech Intrexon, has a lot at stake; it recently submitted a new generation of its GM mosquitoes for U.S. regulatory review and hopes to conduct its first U.S. field test next year.
“We’re not surprised by the results, but what we are surprised by are the speculations that the authors have made,” says Nathan Rose, head of scientific and regulatory affairs at Oxitec in Oxford, U.K. He says the company has asked Nature Research, which publishes Scientific Reports, to “address the range of misleading and speculative statements” in the study. On Tuesday, the journal added an editor’s note to the paper saying its conclusions “are subject to criticisms that are being considered by editors.”
Even before Oxitec conducted pilot releases of its altered mosquitoes in Brazil, Malaysia, and the Cayman Islands, it knew the inserted gene wasn’t inevitably lethal. Lab tests had shown that when the GM males mated with wild females, roughly 3% of their offspring survived. “We’ve been very clear about that,” Rose says.
What wasn’t clear was whether those rare offspring, often sickly in the lab, could themselves produce progeny, Powell says. To see whether the survivors fared well enough in the wild to spread their DNA, he contacted Oxitec’s collaborators on the eve of a large field trial in the Brazilian city of Jacobina. From 2013 to 2015, Oxitec released roughly 450,000 GM male mosquitoes per week there—which the company reported reduced the overall mosquito population by about 90%. Powell and his collaborators collected mosquitoes from several neighborhoods before, during, and in the 3 months after the trial. Within these populations, they estimate, between 5% and 60% of the insects had some DNA from the Oxitec strain in their genome—as much as 13% of the genome in one case.
Jason Rasgon, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University in State College who studies insect-borne diseases, says the genetic finding is important. “But I think there are a number of things that are really overhyped and kind of irresponsible about the paper,” says Rasgon, who has no financial ties to Oxitec. The authors should have emphasized that they didn’t find any mosquitoes carrying Oxitec’s transgenes, he says, referring to the two genes, foreign to A. aegypti, introduced to kill offspring and to fluorescently label the mosquitoes as GM. The novel DNA that did show up in the Jacobina population was from the Oxitec mosquitoes’ genetic “background”—a cross between strains from Cuba and Mexico.
Rasgon, like Oxitec, takes issue with the paper’s assertion that the mixing of genomes “likely” made the population stronger by increasing its genetic variation. (“Failed GM mosquito control experiment may have strengthened wild bugs,” read one headline last week.) “We don’t know that that’s the case here, but we do know that this population is a hybrid of three strains,” Powell says. His team, however, didn’t test whether the hybrid mosquitoes were more resistant to pesticides or more likely to transmit disease. Neither was true of the Oxitec mosquitoes themselves, Rose says.
Rasgon is concerned that the Scientific Reports paper has fueled unfounded suspicions about GM organisms. Previous proposed Oxitec releases in Florida have faced opposition from residents. “I don’t think [the paper] needs to be retracted. But some sort of clarification or a statement or something should be made,” he says.
Oxitec’s latest strain of GM mosquitoes is designed to spread the lethal gene more effectively. Instead of killing offspring regardless of sex, it eliminates only the females. Male offspring survive to pass on the lethal gene. In a Brazilian field trial, these second-generation mosquitoes caused local populations to dip by as much as 96%, Oxitec announced in June. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection opened a monthlong window for public comments on the company's proposed releases in Florida and Texas.
In the push to make the scientific literature open access, small scientific societies have feared they could be collateral damage. Many rely on subscription revenue from their journals—often among the most highly cited in their disciplines—to fund other activities, such as scholarships. And whereas big commercial publishers have the scale to absorb financial losses in some of their journals, many scientific societies operate at most a handful of journals.
A reprieve may be in sight. Last week, a project that included funders backing Plan S, the European-led effort to speed the transition to open access, released a set of contract templates and tips meant to help small, independent publishers reach deals with libraries that would eventually eliminate subscriptions while protecting revenue. The project also helped arrange pilots, which may soon be inked, that use the guidance; they will allow researchers served by library consortia to publish an unlimited number of open-access articles in return for a set fee paid to societies.
The Biochemical Society, based in London, is participating because “we have to start somewhere, and our principle is, learn by doing,” says Malavika Legge, its publishing director. The new guidance grew out of a June workshop in London attended by two dozen society and library officials, which “opened the door to talking to librarians in a way we’ve never done before.”
Police in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have arrested the former health minister, Oly Ilunga Kalenga, for allegedly mismanaging $4.3 million in Ebola response money. The 14 September arrest came on the same day that an unprecedented high-level delegation of U.S. government health officials met with the DRC’s president and other leaders in Kinshasa to discuss the 13-month-old Ebola outbreak, which is the second largest in history.
There’s no obvious link between the two events, but worries have steadily increased over the past few weeks that shortfalls in funding could hamper the country’s efforts to end the outbreak, which has killed two-thirds of the 3100 people who have developed the disease.
Ilunga resigned in July after DRC President Félix Tshisekedi shifted control of the response away from him. Ilunga was arrested in Kinshasa because he was planning to flee across the river to the Republic of Congo to avoid charges of mismanaging the funds, according to a police statement. Ilunga’s lawyers have strongly denied the allegations, which they called “scandalous” and “defamatory” in their own statement. The country’s inspector general had overseen the Ebola funding, they noted, and stressed that $1.9 million of the total came to the ministry after Ilunga resigned. “He firmly reaffirms his innocence in this affair and promises to defend himself with the utmost energy for his honor,” they wrote, stressing that the money under his watch had been used exclusively for the Ebola response.
President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. Census Bureau, to do something it would prefer to avoid: Determine the citizenship status of every U.S. resident, and where they live, without asking them. And he wants the answer by early 2021.
The presidential directive, issued in July, is an outgrowth of a failed attempt by the Trump administration to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census to be conducted next April. And meeting his short deadline will be a stern test for the nation’s largest statistical agency.
The technical challenges are enormous. The Census Bureau has never before collected and disseminated citizenship data at the fine level—as small as one or two city blocks—that the president wants, and the bureau is still trying to figure out how to produce what it calls the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) file.
After 8 hours of contentious discussion, an advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today endorsed the effectiveness of a first-of-its-kind peanut allergy treatment. By a seven-to-two vote, the panel concluded that the treatment, known as AR101, can reduce allergic reactions from accidental exposure to peanuts. The committee also voted eight to one to endorse a safety plan FDA has proposed; it would be used, along with available safety data, to support the treatment’s use in children and teenagers.
FDA is not bound to follow its advisory committees’ advice but often does. It will now weigh whether to approve the treatment, which is marketed by the company Aimmune Therapeutics headquartered in Brisbane, California.
The vote marks a turning point for the food allergy field, where the treatment—ingesting gradually increasing doses of peanut protein, in hopes of helping the immune system learn to tolerate it—has captured the attention of patients, families, and doctors. Called oral immunotherapy, it’s already offered by about 200 allergists in the United States who give patients calibrated doses of peanut products in the doctor’s office and at home. But hundreds more doctors have been waiting for FDA’s approval of Aimmune’s version, a designated capsule that contains powder derived from peanut flour and holds peanut proteins at consistent levels.
When William Happer realized this summer that his plan to question climate science had been shut down by the White House, he knew he'd stick to his promise: to serve exactly one year in President Donald Trump’s administration and then leave.
Happer’s original idea to review climate research involved a team of scientists who would critique government science reports and play up the areas of uncertainty. It would be centered on attacking the National Climate Assessment and potentially be used to mount a challenge to the endangerment finding, the scientific underpinning of federal climate policy, according to several associates of Happer.