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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Canada denied visas to dozens of Africans for a big artificial intelligence conference

    Black In AI

    MONTREAL, CANADA—Dozens of African researchers were denied visas for an artificial intelligence (AI) meeting here last week, even as the Canadian government takes steps to advance the country’s standing in AI and the field aims for greater inclusivity.

    Black in AI, a daylong workshop for scientists of African descent held in conjunction with the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), a leading AI conference, had invited more than 200 scientists from Africa to participate. But about half of the visa applications led to denials or acceptances so delayed that the researchers were unable to attend. “It looks like we have some inconsistency between what one part of government does and what another does,” says Yoshua Bengio, a NeurIPS organizer and professor at the University of Montreal.

    NeurIPS is the largest AI conference in the world. This year, more than 8500 people came for academic talks, conversations with job recruiters, and social events. Conference organizers foresaw problems obtaining visas for foreign invitees and reached out to the Canadian government for help in July. Still, out of 230 Africans, about 15% heard back too late to attend or not at all. Another 33% were denied visas.

  • $125 million gift from Microsoft co-founder launches new institute to probe immune system

    Paul Allen

    Evan Agostini/AP Photo

    Immunology is the latest field that will benefit from a hefty sum donated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The newly launched Allen Institute for Immunology, planned before the philanthropist died in October from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, will attempt to better define what’s normal for the immune system and why it falters in cancer and autoimmune diseases.

    The institute, which will be announced today at a press conference, will eventually hire about 70 researchers, who will work at the Seattle, Washington, location shared by Allen institutes focused on cell biology and the brain. Their new sibling starts with a nest egg of $125 million from Allen, but it could receive more money from his estate. The immunology institute will differ from the other Allen institutes because “we are going to be really dedicated to understanding disease mechanisms and translational opportunities,” says Executive Director Thomas Bumol, a former senior vice-president at Lilly Research Laboratories.

    With the recent explosion in immune-based therapies such as checkpoint inhibitors for treating cancer, it might seem that scientists have the immune system figured out. But these drugs aren’t the norm, Bumol says. “The successes are great but, as everyone knows, failure is the predominant result in drug discovery.” A prime reason for these stumbles, he says, is “a lack of understanding of the complexity of the immune system.”

  • Q&A: This air pollution expert advised EPA for a decade. Now, he’s a leading critic

    Chris Frey

    NCSU

    This week, a key science advisory panel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will meet to review recent research on a particularly dangerous form of air pollution: tiny soot particles, which have been shown to damage lung and heart function and contribute to premature death.

    Such meetings, designed to help EPA meet a mandate to review air pollution regulations every 5 years and revise them if necessary, typically attract little notice. But the 12–13 December meeting of EPA’s Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) in Washington, D.C., has drawn unusual attention—and sparked a surge of criticism. In large part, that’s because President Donald Trump’s administration has dramatically remade the committee’s membership, appointing all seven of its members. It has also dismantled a 26-member Particulate Matter Advisory Panel that traditionally was tasked with advising CASAC on soot pollution. (That move was criticized yesterday by two of the current CASAC members.)

    The administration says the changes, which are just one part of a larger (and also controversial) effort to remake EPA’s science advice process, are aimed at streamlining and accelerating CASAC’s work. But critics say they are mostly designed to reduce the voice of independent experts in agency decisions and to ease the administration’s efforts to weaken existing air pollution standards or block the imposition of tighter limits. EPA’s standards for particulate matter have been a particular flashpoint. Although the nearly 2000-page science summary that CASAC will be reviewing suggests current U.S. standards are too lax, many industry groups and conservative lawmakers fiercely opposing any tightening of the standards, arguing they would be too costly, even as other nations move to crack down on soot.

  • Key EPA science advisers call on agency to revive an expert soot panel it just killed

    Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Cliff Owen/AP photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    Two of acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler's appointees to a prominent advisory committee are pushing back against his recent decision to disband an auxiliary panel involved in a closely watched review of airborne particulate standards.

    EPA "should immediately" reconstitute the particulate matter panel, Dr. Mark Frampton, a retired University of Rochester, New York, pulmonologist, wrote in comments made public yesterday. The panel "should be retained to enable more thorough review" of a draft EPA roundup of scientific research on the health and environmental effects of particulate matter exposure, said Tim Lewis of the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

  • EPA claims ‘no data’ on impact of weakening water rule. But the numbers exist

    A river delta in Alaska

    Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC; Mandy Lindeberg (CC-BY)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration says it doesn't know how many streams it is proposing to exclude from Clean Water Act jurisdiction today.

    But a 2017 slideshow prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers staff shows that at least 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands nationwide would not be protected under the new definition of "waters of the United States," or WOTUS, announced today.

  • Trump releases plan to reduce protections for wetlands

    President Donald Trump

    Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration today is proposing to severely restrict the number of wetlands and waterways covered by the federal Clean Water Act.

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers are unveiling a new definition for "waters of the U.S.," or WOTUS, that would erase federal protections for streams that flow only after rainfall or snowmelt, as well as wetlands without surface water connections to larger waterways.

  • Dog research at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gets formal review

    LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/Newscom

    Dog research at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is going under the microscope. Yesterday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington, D.C., began a formal review of studies involving nearly 100 canines at four VA facilities to determine whether the animals are being properly treated—and whether the work is necessary.

    If VA decides to end its dog research, it will be the first time a federal agency has stopped working on an entire species of animals since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effectively outlawed all biomedical research on chimpanzees in 2015, says Cindy Buckmaster, chair of the board of directors of Americans for Medical Progress, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes the need for animals in labs. “The findings from this report will impact how science is done on dogs across the country.”

    The NASEM review traces back to a campaign launched by the White Coat Waste Project in March 2017. The Washington, D.C.–based animal activist group used a public records request to highlight—in TV ads, on billboards, and through a massive email campaign—what it called “the mistreatment of puppies in painful heart attack studies,” including alleged botched surgeries and widespread animal abuse, at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. (VA responded, saying the studies had been carefully vetted and complied with the U.S. Animal Welfare Act.)

  • EPA science adviser allowed industry group to edit journal article

    Smog envelops Salt Lake City.

    Ravell Call/The Deseret News/AP

    Originally published by E&E News

    When the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins a major review of air pollution standards this week, a researcher who has received funding from an industry group opposed to the rules will be leading the agency's panel.

    Tony Cox, who was named chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, accepted funding from the American Petroleum Institute (API) to help finance his research into particulate matter pollution. He also allowed the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group to proofread and copy edit his findings before they were published, according to his own acknowledgements.

  • Trump administration has quietly barred NIH scientists from acquiring fetal tissue

    President Donald Trump’s administration ordered scientists at the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, ​to stop acquiring human fetal tissue, disrupting HIV experiments.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health (CC BY-NC)

    U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has ordered scientists employed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to stop acquiring new human fetal tissue for experiments, ScienceInsider has learned. The suspension, imposed this past September without a public announcement, came as the government launched a review of all fetal tissue research funded by the federal government. The pause affects two laboratories run by the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency, NIH officials say. In one case, it disrupted a study probing how the virus that causes AIDS initially colonizes human tissues.

    “We were all poised to go and then the bombshell was dropped,” says HIV researcher Warner Greene, director of the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure Research in San Francisco, California, who was collaborating with an NIH laboratory that received the order. “The decision completely knocked our collaboration off the rails. We were devastated.”

    The order expands the scope of the Trump administration’s interventions into federally funded research that uses human fetal tissue from elective abortions, which is legal but fiercely opposed by antiabortion groups. In September, it canceled a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contract for acquiring human fetal tissue for testing candidate drugs. This week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees NIH, told researchers at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, that it would be extending a contract for work involving human fetal tissue for just 90 days instead of the usual 1 year, prompting media reports that the department was preparing to cancel the contract. HHS denied those reports, saying it has made no decisions regarding federal funding for human fetal tissue research pending the outcome of the ongoing review of all such work.

  • Despite growing budget, U.S. cancer institute slashes operating budget by 5%

    Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland

    Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

    A good year for biomedical research funding has turned sour at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, where the director is cutting operating budgets by 5% across the agency. Despite a rising overall budget, NCI’s funds are being stretched thin by various priorities and a ballooning number of funding applications, explains NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless.

    Just 2 months ago, biomedical researchers celebrated a 5% budget boost in 2019 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the fourth large annual increase after more than a decade of stagnant growth. NCI’s share was a $179 million increase (or 3%) for a total of $5.74 billion. But only $79 million went to NCI’s base operating budget and $100 million is tagged for the cancer moonshot funded through the 21st Century Cures Act. And NCI’s funds are being whittled away by rising federal salaries, transfers to other parts of NIH and its parent department, larger grants, and a mandate to raise training stipends, Sharpless says.

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