Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • In wake of Trump’s fetal tissue clampdown, scientists strain to adjust

    Two researchers in a lab with test tubes

    Renewals of two diabetes grants held by Megan Sykes (right) of Columbia University could be held up by a new federal policy scrutinizing fetal tissue research.

    Michael DiVito

    Megan Sykes, an immunologist at Columbia University, has spent years using human fetal tissue to develop a mouse with a humanlike immune system, which mimics how type 1 diabetes develops in humans. The tissue is donated after elective abortions, and the mice are testbeds for potential diabetes treatments. But last week, she learned that President Donald Trump, acting on a priority of advocacy groups opposed to abortion, had issued a new policy that is likely to cause lengthy delays the next time she seeks U.S. government grants for her work—and could even choke off federal funding for all studies that use fetal tissue. The policy “is incredibly disappointing,” Sykes says, because it is a “politically motivated decree” that could derail numerous disease research efforts.

    The new Trump policy, issued 5 June after a 9-month review led by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has three major components. One kills a long-standing contract between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the University of California (UC), San Francisco, under which the university used fetal tissue to develop humanized mice for HIV drug testing. Another ends research using fetal tissue conducted by any scientist directly employed by NIH. The third and widest-reaching provision adds a lengthy and uncertain step to NIH’s process for awarding new or renewal grants to university scientists, such as Sykes, for studies that use human fetal tissue. It requires HHS to appoint a separate 14- to 20-member ethics advisory board to review each proposal that NIH reviewers have found worthy of funding. The review of up to 6 months will result in a funding recommendation to the HHS secretary, who can accept or reject the advice.

    Enacting the new policy “was the president’s decision …. to protect the dignity of human life,” Judd Deere, deputy White House press secretary, told Science. It was applauded by antiabortion activists, whose lobbying prompted HHS to launch its review of U.S.-funded fetal tissue research in September 2018. “This is a major pro-life victory,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C.

  • Powerful U.S. senator calls for vetting NIH grantees at hearing on foreign influences

    Chuck Grassley sits at table

    Senator Chuck Grassley (RIA) chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    Research typically enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. But when it comes to the increasingly contentious topic of academic espionage by foreign governments, politics is never far from the surface.

    At a hearing yesterday of the Senate Committee on Finance, Chairman Chuck Grassley (RIA) urged federal agencies to do more to thwart “real, aggressive, and ongoing” attempts by foreign entities to steal the fruits of U.S.-funded research. His to-do list included a thorough vetting of the foreign affiliations of potential grantees, something that’s not done now.

    But the top Democrat on the influential panel, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, warned that taking new steps to root out would-be spies could damage the traditionally open U.S. research enterprise. Those concerned about the vitality of U.S. research, Wyden said, should instead be worrying about the “antiscience” policies of President Donald Trump.

  • Medical preprint server debuts

    Davide Bonazzi/Salzmanart

    Clinical researchers can now share initial versions of their manuscripts through a free preprint server modeled after websites where physicists and biologists post papers before they appear in a peer-reviewed journal. Today, its organizers announced that medRxiv is taking submissions and will begin to post papers later this month. Co-sponsored by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, which created the bioRxiv preprint server in 2013, Yale University, and publisher The BMJ, the site aims to address concerns about posting draft papers on health science research involving human subjects by screening them carefully for select criteria and prominently labeling the papers as unreviewed.

    Preprint advocates say they are a way to get findings out to the research community quickly and gather feedback before the work is published in a journal. Physicists have shared preprints online for decades, and many biologists have joined them since bioRxiv launched in 2013. But clinical researchers have been reluctant to embrace preprints, in part because of the harm that could result if doctors change clinical care or patients try treatments on their own based on findings that haven’t been vetted by peer reviewers.

    But Yale cardiologist Harlan Krumholz, who first announced plans for medRxiv nearly 2 years ago, argues that clinical researchers already share their unreviewed findings at scientific meetings. With conference talks, he says, “There’s no opportunity to present the kind of detail” that appears in a paper.

  • Trump administration restricts fetal tissue research

    fetal brain cells in the corpus striatum

    Fetal brain tissue is used for federally funded studies of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases and conditions.

    Steve Gschmeissner/Science Source

    After a 9-month review, President Donald Trump’s administration is moving to eliminate some federally funded research that relies on fetal tissue from elective abortions and to more tightly regulate the rest.

    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced today that it will no longer allow government scientists working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct studies that use fetal tissue. Such intramural studies received about $31 million last year.

    HHS also said university scientists who want NIH funding for such studies must now have each proposal examined by an ethics advisory board. The new policy will not affect currently funded extramural projects; there are about 200 such studies, which received about $84 million in 2018. But the new policy will apply to researchers who apply for a renewal of a current grant or for new grants.

  • Updated: Chronic fatigue syndrome scientist fired after conduct complaints, Stanford says

     Stanford University’s School of Medicine

    Jose Montoya had been at Stanford University’s School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, for nearly 30 years.

    Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, has fired a prominent researcher who studies the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis as well as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

    The school fired Jose Montoya on 30 May, citing unspecified behavioral violations, The Stanford Daily first reported.

    A Stanford spokesperson provided ScienceInsider with this statement:

  • Update: House spending panel restores U.S. ban on gene-edited babies

    a human four-cell embryo

    Lawmakers have dropped language in a draft spending bill that bars embryo editing to create a baby.

    Claude Cortier/Science Source

    *Update, 4 June, 1:25 p.m.: By voice vote, the full Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives today restored language to a 2020 spending bill that bars the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from considering requests to approve any clinical trial “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification.” Late last month, an appropriations subcommittee had removed the rider, which has been part of the spending bill that funds FDA for the past 4 years. Today, Democrats who lead the spending panel said they had removed the rider because they wanted to spur a fuller debate on how the U.S. government should regulate the genetic modification of human sperm, eggs, or embryos. In particular, they said that although they support a ban on using gene-editing tools such as CRISPR to modify babies, they were concerned that the FDA rider might also hinder the development of potentially helpful therapies, such as modifying a cell’s mitochondria to prevent heritable diseases. Several Democrats said they were reluctantly supporting the request from Republicans to restore the rider, and lawmakers from both parties suggested congressional health committees that shape agency policies need to address the issue comprehensively, rather than have it debated annually during the appropriations process.

    Here is our previous story from 24 May:

    A Democrat-led spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives has dropped a provision that banned embryo editing with the intention of creating a baby. The draft bill is still moving through the legislative process, however, and Republicans will likely push to restore the language.

  • Controversial U.S. bill would lift Supreme Court ban on patenting human genes

    protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court

    A 2013 case on human gene patenting drew demonstrators to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.


    A congressional proposal that would overturn a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred the patenting of human genes and ease other restrictions on patenting software and biomedical inventions is drawing fierce criticism from some scientific societies and patient advocates. Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C., along with more than 100 other signatories from research institutes and advocacy groups, released a letter to lawmakers arguing the changes would stifle medical research and hinder patients’ access to diagnostic tests.

    The draft bill “would result in a quagmire of patent claims and legal impediments to the normal scientific exchange,” said Harold Varmus, a cancer biologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and former director of the National Cancer Institute, in a press conference yesterday. “It’s in the interest of virtually everyone to keep ideas and basic discoveries about the laws and products of nature in the public domain.”

    The ACLU letter comes as the Senate Committee on the Judiciary kicks off the first in a series of three hearings that will examine potential changes to U.S. patent law. Today’s hearing is expected to include discussion of the draft proposal, released last month by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, which would overturn current restrictions on patenting products and processes that occur in nature, including human genes.

  • Update: In reversal, science publisher IEEE drops ban on using Huawei scientists as reviewers

    Huawei logo over people walking by

    A Huawei Technologies booth at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, earlier this year.

    Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    *Update, 3 June, 12:15 p.m.: On 2 June, IEEE lifted its ban on using Huawei scientists as journal reviewers, saying it had received “clarification” from the U.S. Department of Commerce on how the government’s recent actions against the company affect its peer-review process.

    Here is our original story from 29 May:

    A major scientific society has banned employees of Huawei, the Chinese communications giant, from reviewing submissions to its journals because of U.S. government sanctions against the company.

  • National Academy of Sciences to allow expulsion of harassers

    outside the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.

    For the first time since its founding in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences will allow expulsion of members for serious offenses including sexual harassment.

    Maxwell MacKenzie/National Academy of Sciences

    The prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., has voted to allow expulsion of members for breaches of its Code of Conduct, including sexual harassment. Until now, election to the 156-year-old academy, a pinnacle of scientific achievement, has been a lifetime honor.

    In voting that concluded on 31 May with results announced this morning, 84% of those who cast ballots approved an amendment to the organization’s bylaws, allowing expulsion of a member by a two-thirds vote of NAS’s 17-member Council; 16% voted against the change. The average age of NAS members is 72; 83% are men. Although 2242 NAS members were eligible to vote, the academy did not disclose how many participated.

    “All women who have had a tough road—even those who have made it—I’m sure like me are happy to see this day where they can finally say: ‘The climate is gonna change,’” says Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, who drove the vote to the change the bylaws. “No longer will a climate be tolerated that doesn’t allow women to have the same chance as their male colleagues to thrive.”

  • NASA selects three companies to lead its robotic return to moon

    Moon lander

    Astrobotic's Peregrine is one of three landers selected to put experiments on the moon for NASA.


    Nearly a half-century after the United States last landed a spacecraft on the moon, NASA today announced the details of its first robotic return trip. But the agency’s visit, which could come as soon as next fall, won’t be on a spacecraft it designed. Instead, NASA will be buying a ride on three small robotic landers to be built by similarly small U.S. companies.

    The agency has awarded a total of $254 million in contracts to Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Intuitive Machines of Houston, Texas; and Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines plan to land their machines in the summer of 2021, whereas Orbit Beyond has set an aggressive schedule of landing in September 2020 on Mare Imbrium, a lava plain previously visited by Apollo 15.

    The contracts represent an important step for the agency, says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “If you’re going to have a space program, the way to keep it going is to show return of investment to the taxpayer.” The regular cadence of these missions, which could launch three to four times a year by 2024, could grab the public’s imagination—and enable scientists to answer questions about the moon that they didn’t even know to ask until recently. But the speed could also have a cost: an increased risk of failure. Last month, for example, a small, low-cost Israeli lander, Beresheet, crashed on the moon’s surface. “Some of these will fail,” Neal says. “But failure is a learning experience.”

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