Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • If you haven’t had dengue infection, don’t use our vaccine, drug company warns

    A health worker inserts a syringe into a vial of dengue vaccine.

    A health worker prepares to administer a vial of dengue vaccine in the Paraná state of Brazil in 2016.

    Sanofi Pasteur/Gabriel Lehto/Novas Imagens Cine Video/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The manufacturer of the sole dengue vaccine on the market says a new study shows that it should only be used in people who have had a previous infection from the mosquito-borne virus.

    As Reuters and several other news outlets have reported, France’s Sanofi Pasteur released a statement that said a 6-year analysis of people who received the vaccine found more severe disease occurred in people who initially were naïve to the virus. Sanofi Pasteur stressed that the vaccine still protected against dengue fever when it was given to people who had prior dengue infections.

  • Q&A: Japanese physician snares prize for battling antivaccine campaigners

    Riko Muranaka speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club

    Riko Muranaka


    A Japanese physician and writer who is under fire from antivaccination groups for defending a cervical cancer vaccine won an international award today for her perseverance. She hopes the recognition will lead to a reevaluation of the vaccine's safety in Japan.      

    Riko Muranaka, a lecturer at the Kyoto University School of Medicine in Japan who writes about women's health issues, found herself in the crosshairs of antivaccination campaigners after publishing articles explaining how clinical trials and extensive reviews had demonstrated the safety of several human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer and also causes genital warts, as well as oropharyngeal and other cancers in men. International trials have shown that the vaccines prevent HPV infections in most individuals, and the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, recommends including HPV vaccination in national immunization programs.

    The HPV vaccine became available in Japan at a reduced cost or for free in 2010, and the vaccination rate rose to about 70%. In April 2013, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare made the vaccine part of the free national immunization program and recommended it for girls in their early teens. But soon afterward, antivaccine campaigners started claiming the shot causes debilitating side effects. TV programs repeatedly broadcast a video of a young woman having seizures supposedly after receiving the HPV vaccine. The ministry suspended its vaccination recommendation and vaccination rates have since plummeted to less than 1% of eligible girls. (The HPV vaccine remains freely available.)

  • NASA sensor to study space junk too small to be seen from Earth

    Impact chip in the window of the International Space Station

    A fragment of space debris much smaller than a millimeter gouged out a 7-millimeter-wide chip in a window on the International Space Station.


    The film Gravity dramatized the risks of space junk. But although flyaway wrenches and broken-off rocket parts may pose the deadliest threat to spacecraft, most orbital debris is actually much smaller—think flecks of paint and the splinters of shattered satellites. Now, NASA hopes to learn more about the dust-size microdebris orbiting Earth with the Space Debris Sensor (SDS), set to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS) following a 4 December cargo launch by SpaceX.

    Using ground-based radars, the U.S. Air Force keeps track of about 23,000 objects larger than a baseball, so satellite operators can avoid collisions by maneuvering out of the way. But much less is known about smaller debris, says Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit focused on space sustainability, in Washington, D.C. The SDS will study objects smaller than a millimeter—and at high speeds they can still cause real damage, Weeden says. “If a satellite is in orbit for 10 or 15 years, those little abrasions can have an impact by degrading sensors or degrading materials on the satellite,” he says.

    NASA previously studied microdebris by inspecting the windows and radiators of space shuttles, which returned to Earth pockmarked with tiny impacts. “A detailed ground inspection could estimate what sizes the objects were that impacted it, but there’s limited information you can get out of that,” says Joseph Hamilton, an orbital debris scientist and SDS principal investigator at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 

  • China’s dark matter space probe detects tantalizing signal

    An image of the remains of Kepler’s supernova

    The remains of Kepler’s supernova, as seen in a composite image produced by NASA. As part of the hunt for dark matter, China’s Dark Matter Particle Explorer mission tracked particles related to cosmic rays produced by supernovae. 


    A long-standing challenge in physics has been finding evidence for dark matter, the stuff presumed to make up a substantial chunk of the mass of the universe. Its existence seems to be responsible for the structure of the universe and the formation and evolution of galaxies. But physicists have yet to observe this mysterious material.

    Results reported today by a China-led space science mission provide a tantalizing hint—but not firm evidence—for dark matter. Perhaps more significantly, the first observational data produced by China’s first mission dedicated to astrophysics shows that the country is set to become a force in space science, says David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University. China is now "making significant contributions to astrophysics and space science," he says.

    Physicists have inferred the existence of dark matter from its gravitational effect on visible matter. But it has never been observed. 

  • Europe gives controversial weed killer a 5-year lease on life

    A tractor sprays farm chemicals on green row crops.

    Glyphosate is one of the world’s most widely used herbicides.

    Tamina Miller/Creative Commons

    The world's most popular herbicide can be used by European farmers for another 5 years. After several indecisive votes, a technical committee of the European Commission today approved a 5-year license renewal for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Round-Up weed killer and similar products. The license was scheduled to expire on 15 December.

    Glyphosate is less toxic to mammals than other herbicides. But it became highly controversial in 2015 after it was deemed probably carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization. The European Food Safety Authority and other regulators have concluded it is safe to use.

    The chemical's commission license most recently expired in June 2016. But the commission's Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF), made up of representatives from the commission’s 28 member nations, couldn’t agree on the length of a renewed license. PAFF initially proposed a 15-year renewal, then a 9-year renewal, and eventually settled on an 18-month extension. 

  • Scientists watching volcanic eruption on Bali minute by minute

    Mount Agung volcano erupting

    Indonesia's Mount Agung volcano erupting on 27 November. 

    AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

    Indonesia's Mount Agung finally erupted Saturday, after more than 2 months of seismic rumbling that had led authorities to evacuate more than 100,000 residents from an exclusion zone ringing the mountain on Bali Island. Over the past 3 days, the volcano has sporadically sent ash plumes up to 9 kilometers (km) into the sky, leading airlines to cancel all flights into and out of Bali's main Denpasar International Airport, stranding a reported 50,000 travelers. Today, the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority raised the alert to four, the highest level, and ordered residents to stay 10 km away from the mountain because the "probability of a bigger eruption is increasing." Scientists are now watching to see whether the volcano repeats the violent eruptions of 1963, when superheated gases and volcanic material raced down the mountain in a series of pyroclastic flows, killing more than 1000 people.

    "The volcanic eruption has now moved on to the next, more severe, magmatic eruption phase, where highly viscous lava can trap gases under pressure, potentially leading to an explosion," says Mark Tingay, a geologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia. But Agung might still subside, as it did in 1989 after spewing gas, and in 2007, when the crater swelled with an apparent buildup of magma that gradually decreased.

    The 3000-meter volcano, the highest peak on Bali, has erupted repeatedly throughout geologic history. Eruptions in 1963 and in 1843 had a volcanic explosivity index of five, on a scale of zero to eight, says Heather Handley, a volcanologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 had an explosivity index of six and resulted in more than 800 deaths, devastated the surrounding landscape, and pumped enough aerosols and dust into the atmosphere to cause significant global cooling. (A zero-level eruption is a slow lava flow that people can walk away from.)

  • Director of HHS scientific fraud office is out after stormy 2-year tenure

    headshot of Kathryn Partin

    Kathryn Partin

    William A. Cotton/CSU Photography

    The controversial director of the office that polices research fraud in U.S.-funded biomedical labs is temporarily moving to another agency. Kathy Partin has been removed after nearly 2 years as director of the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville, Maryland, according to Retraction Watch, which broke the story today. But Partin reportedly has hired an attorney and plans to challenge the decision.

    Partin’s move was announced on Friday, along with several other departmental staff changes, in an internal memo from the acting assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C. The memo states that on 4 December, Partin “will begin a 90-day detail,” or temporary assignment, in the Office of the Vice President for Research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

    Partin was asked to leave and clear out her office, according to Linda Schutjer, a former colleague of Partin’s at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, who is quoted by Retraction Watch. An email to Partin seeking comment drew an automatic reply saying she is on annual leave.

  • European Medicines Agency will move to Amsterdam

    aerial view of Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands

    The European Medicines Agency’s new home will be Amsterdam.

    In the end, after three rounds of voting, it came down to a proverbial coin flip between the Dutch capital and an Italian fashion hub. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), charged with evaluating human and animal medicinal products for the European Union, will relocate to Amsterdam after it was selected in a draw of lots between it and Milan. The European Council announced the result on Monday evening after voting had taken place in Brussels. “It’s not very Dutch to be proud of the Netherlands,” says pharmacologist Adam Cohen, who heads the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, the Netherlands. “But I always thought it was the best place for it.”

    Among the European Union’s most important scientific agencies, EMA was seen as one of the biggest spoils up for grabs after the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union made its more-than-2-decade-old London location untenable. Set up in 1995, it employs about 900 people and hosts tens of thousands of visitors for hundreds of meetings each year.

    Nineteen countries vied to be EMA’s new home, though three later dropped out. Candidate cities produced glossy videos and websites highlighting their international connections, quality of life, and international schools. But as is often the case in the European Union, much political horse-trading was also expected to play a role in the final decision. The council was also voting today on a new home for the European Banking Agency and no country was allowed to host both agencies.

  • United Kingdom promises another shot of cash for R&D

    The Palace of Westminster in London

    The Parliament building in London Leonid Andronov

    After promising a major new investment in science last year, the U.K. government is planning another significant increase in spending. A year ago, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a boost to the government R&D budget that will total £4.7 billion over 4 years. Funding will ramp up each year, by 2020 reaching £2 billion above 2016 levels—a 21% increase. The funding, targeted to applied research, is part of an industrial strategy designed to stimulate the U.K. economy.

    Now, Chancellor Philip Hammond is set to announce on Wednesday that the R&D funding will rise by an additional £300 million in 2021. “This gives confidence that the Government’s plan is to keep rising public R&D investment on target over the next 10 years to reach parity with our international competitors,” said Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering London.

    During the campaign for the general election this past June, the ruling Conservative party pledged that overall R&D funding would reach 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, by 2027 and eventually rise to 3%. The U.K. investment level is now just 1.7% of GDP. 

  • Trump proposes farm research cuts to pay for storm aid

    Researchers in white coats measure chlorophyll levels in leaves of marigolds with yellow flowers at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory.

    Researchers measure chlorophyll levels in leaves of marigolds at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory.

    USDA/Stephen Ausmus/Fickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    The Trump administration would pay for hurricane relief in part by cutting conservation and research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—an idea that's running into a roadblock from advocates for those programs.

    In its $44 billion request for supplemental appropriations to respond to this year's storms and wildfires, the administration proposed to eliminate all $212 million in funding for improvements to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) buildings and facilities, as well as $1.4 billion from various conservation programs.

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