Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
As potentially more dangerous coronavirus variants spread worldwide, scientists and clinicians have raced to discover how well the available COVID-19 vaccines protect against the mutant strains. Preliminary results from a large study of health care workers now suggest one dose of CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by a Chinese company, is still about 50% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 in a Brazilian city where more than three-fourths of new cases are caused by the highly transmissible variant known as P.1.
That real-world protection is about the same level clinical trials saw with two doses of CoronaVac against the standard, or “wild type,” pandemic coronavirus in the country, suggesting the variant’s mutations have not increased SARS-CoV-2’s ability to evade vaccine-evoked immune responses.
The Biden administration today began to flesh out a proposal for a new agency—modeled on the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—that would seek to speed the development of medical treatments by funding risky, innovative projects. The agency, dubbed ARPA-Health (ARPA-H), would be housed at the National Institutes of Health and have a 2022 budget of $6.5 billion, according to a White House spending request released today.
Few other details about ARPA-H have been released, except that it would initially focus on cancer and diseases “such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.” Advocates who have been pushing for the new agency welcomed the announcement, but some were dismayed that ARPA-H will not be a stand-alone agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. “If it’s just another fund within the NIH, we’re not optimistic that it’s going to succeed,” says Liz Feld, president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation, a pancreatic cancer research advocacy group.
Feld is part of a group of disease advocates and former U.S. officials who have been pushing for ARPA-H since 2017, when they pitched it to then-President Donald Trump. They argue that too much NIH-funded research does not make it out of the lab because of a lack of funding for the high-risk work needed to develop a treatment to the point where it interests companies.
President Joe Biden today proposed huge increases for many federal research agencies as part of a $118 billion boost in domestic spending.
The increases over the current year are part of a 58-page list of priorities Biden released today in advance of a detailed budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2022, which begins on 1 October. Civilian agencies would receive an overall 16% boost, to $769 billion, whereas defense spending would rise by less than 2%, to $753 billion.
Here are some research highlights from that request, written as a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT), chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
A private company betting on an innovative fusion technology announced today that its latest device can sustain high temperatures for long reaction times—a major step toward a reactor capable of producing more fusion energy than is consumed by the device. The company, TAE Technologies, is still far from that goal, which huge government efforts are also pushing toward. But its achievements so far have drawn $880 million in investment—more than any other private fusion company. The company also announced plans to scale up to a larger machine, which it hopes will reach fusion conditions by 2025.
“The results look like steady progress, but it’s a long way from a fusion device,” says plasma physicist Cary Forest of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Nevertheless, he adds, “I’m in the supporters camp.”
Fusion holds the promise of carbon-free energy, generated from abundant fuels and producing limited radioactive waste. But for more than 7 decades, the goal has been elusive: It requires extreme temperatures to coax nuclei to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse. Most publicly funded efforts have focused on tokamaks, which use powerful magnetic fields to imprison ionized gas in a doughnut-shaped vessel, where the plasma can be heated with microwaves and particle beams. The giant ITER reactor under construction in France is the pinnacle of that approach. At other labs, such as the U.S. National Ignition Facility, researchers crush tiny pellets of fuel with powerful laser pulses to spark a burst of fusion.
Experiments that create tiny brainlike structures from human stem cells or transplant human cells into an animal’s brain have made some scientists, ethicists, and religious leaders uneasy in recent years. And the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has restricted some of this research. Now, a U.S. scientific panel has weighed in with advice about how to oversee this controversial and fast-moving area of neuroscience.
The panel finds little evidence that brain “organoids” or animals given human cells experience humanlike consciousness or pain, and concludes current rules are adequate for overseeing this work. But they caution that could change, particularly as experiments move into nonhuman primates. “The rationale for the report is to get out ahead of the curve,” says Harvard University neuroscientist Joshua Sanes, co-chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that released its report today.
The report was requested by NIH, together with the Dana Foundation, which funds neuroscience research. It arrives as NIH ponders whether to lift a moratorium on funding chimera experiments—studies that create animals carrying human tissues or cells—that has been in place since 2015, even after NIH announced it would be lifted. The moratorium on chimera research suspended not only brain studies, but also projects that aim to grow organs for transplantation in pigs and sheep.
Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, one of Germany’s top psychologists and an expert in treating anxiety and phobias, is not shy about promoting himself. His email signature says he is a “highly cited researcher,” and with good reason. He has almost 1000 articles to his name, according to the Web of Science, and has racked up nearly 70,000 citations. He is an editor of Germany’s diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders—the bible of clinical psychology—and until 2017, he led a psychology research institute at the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden).
Yet his reputation is under fire after an investigation into one of his studies found evidence of manipulation—and elaborate efforts to cover up the misdeed. The investigation report, turned over to TU Dresden in February and obtained by Science, also shows Wittchen intimidated whistleblowers and pressured senior TU Dresden staff. The Federal Joint Committee (G-BA), a public health organization, is suing the company it paid to do the study. And the Dresden public prosecutor’s office is now investigating criminal charges related to the study.
Wittchen was one of the top epidemiologists of psychiatry, and TU Dresden “has benefited greatly from him,” says Jürgen Margraf, a psychologist at Ruhr University, Bochum, who has collaborated with Wittchen. “If the commission’s findings turn out to be true, they are very disturbing for the entire field, and that would also have an impact on TU Dresden.” Thomas Pollmächer, director of the mental health center at Ingolstadt Hospital, says the allegations are “startling.” He worries about other possible irregularities in Wittchen’s extensive publication record. “Some time bombs may be ticking,” he says.
Last week, scientists at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), Brazil’s lead agency for studying and managing the nation’s vast protected areas, had to start abiding by an unwelcome new rule. It gives one of ICMBio’s top officials the authority to review all “manuscripts, texts and scientific compilations” before they are published.
Researchers fear President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which has a markedly hostile relationship with Brazil’s scientific community, will use the reviews to censor studies that conflict with its ongoing efforts to weaken environmental protections. The administration says that is not the intent. But the move adds to recent developments that have rattled many Brazilian scientists and left those who are critical of Bolsonaro’s policies fearing for their jobs and even their physical safety.
“Science is being attacked on several fronts,” says Philip Fearnside, a veteran ecologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). “There is denial of the pandemic, denial of climate change, denial of deforestation; not to mention budget cuts.”
If you want your work to be highly cited, here’s one simple tip that might help: Steer clear of discipline-specific jargon in the title and abstract. That’s the conclusion of a new study of roughly 20,000 published papers about cave science, a multidisciplinary field that includes researchers who study the biology, geology, paleontology, and anthropology of caves. The most highly cited papers didn’t use any terms specific to cave science in the title and kept jargon to less than 2% of the text in the abstract; jargon-heavy papers were cited far less often.
“I was really, really interested in what the study did,” says Nandita Basu, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who serves as an editor-in-chief at the Journal of Hydrology. “We all talk about jargon—'it’s not a good idea to use jargon’—but to quantitatively see that in terms of your citation count is really interesting.” She’d love to see the study repeated for her discipline. “I think this would be a universal finding,” she says.
Hazel Barton, a professor at the University of Akron who studies microbes in caves, hopes the findings serve as a wake-up call for all jargon-loving scientists—especially those in her discipline. “I’m pretty amused by cave science being pulled out as one of the sciences to make an example of,” she says. “I’m sure there’s a lot of jargon in other fields, but in my field people seem to be really hung up on clinging to the jargon. … It drives me nuts.” For example, Barton once tried in vain to convince a scientist who was having trouble securing funding to omit “karst”—a term describing certain landscapes where caves are commonly found—from the title of his grant proposals because some reviewers wouldn’t know what it meant. He pushed back, arguing, “That’s what I do—they need to understand that.”
The idea of massively expanding the budget and mission of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help the United States out-innovate China is gaining political momentum in Washington, D.C.
In Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) is preparing to introduce a revised version of bipartisan legislation that would create a technology directorate at NSF and boost its funding by $100 billion. The changes address fears voiced by academic leaders that the new unit might disrupt the agency’s culture and dilute NSF’s ability to support basic research at universities.
On 31 March, President Joe Biden lined up behind the concept, including both the new directorate and a $50 billion bump for NSF in his $2.3 trillion proposal to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure. And late last month, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), chair of the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, also backed both a new directorate and a larger NSF budget as part of a bill reauthorizing programs at the agency, which currently has an $8.5 billion budget.
Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
When the Kremlin last month said Russian President Vladimir Putin had received the first dose of a homegrown COVID-19 vaccine, a guessing game began. Had he gotten Sputnik V, which Russia had given emergency use authorization—a world first—in August 2020 after testing in just 79 patients? Or had Putin been given another COVID-19 vaccine that Russia had sanctioned with much less fanfare—and with equally sparse evidence that it works?
Putin and state officials wouldn’t say, but Russia’s second COVID-19 vaccine, known as EpiVacCorona and first authorized in October 2020, has begun to emerge from the shadow of Sputnik V, bringing controversy of its own. Developed by VECTOR, the famed State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology that once studied bioweapons and now is one of two global repositories of the eradicated smallpox virus, the vaccine is key to the country’s plans to combat the pandemic. Russia began to offer it to small numbers of people last year, plans to administer 1.5 million doses per month by this summer, and aims for a bigger national campaign.