Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH gets $2 billion boost in final 2019 spending bill

    NIH building 1
    Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

    Congress has approved a $2 billion raise, to $39.1 billion, for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a 2019 spending bill approved by House of Representatives and Senate negotiators last night.

    As expected, the 5% boost matches the Senate’s proposed spending level and surpasses a $1.25 billion increase in a draft bill passed by the House. President Donald Trump’s administration had requested $34.8 billion for the fiscal year that begins 1 October. This is the fourth year in a row that NIH has received a substantial increase, after more than a decade of flat budgets.

    The final bill funding the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, also matches the amounts the Senate measure had tagged for NIH research in specific areas. It includes $425 million more for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (bringing the total to $2.34 billion); a $100 million increase for the cancer moonshot, or $400 million total; and an $86 million raise for the All of Us precision medicine study, for a total of $376 million.

  • Congress sends Trump energy spending bill that includes healthy boost for science

    the US capitol

    The U.S. Congress today sent President Donald Trump a 2019 spending bill that boosts funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research efforts—and rejects deep cuts to the department’s applied research programs that the White House had proposed.

    If Trump signs the bill into law—as many observers expect—DOE’s Office of Science would get a 5.2% spending boost, to $6.585 billion, in fiscal year 2019, which begins 1 October. In contrast, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the Office of Science budget by 13.9% to $5.39 billion.

    The White House had called for an even bigger cut to applied energy research supported through DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), a 70% whack to $696 million. Instead, the bill—which the House of Representatives approved today and the Senate passed yesterday—gives EERE a 2.5% increase to $2.379 billion. Similarly, the White House had sought to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which seeks to quickly translate the best ideas from DOE-funded basic research into budding technologies that can be developed further by private industry. The bill gives ARPA-E a healthy 3.7% boost to $366 million.

  • Researchers reboot ambitious effort to sequence all vertebrate genomes, but challenges loom

    Lynx canadensis crouching toward the camera
    Joel Sartore/Getty Images

    In a bid to garner more visibility and support, researchers eager to sequence the genomes of all vertebrates today officially launched the Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP), releasing 15 very high quality genomes of 14 species. But the group remains far short of raising the funds it will need to document the genomes of the estimated 66,000 vertebrates living on Earth.

    The project, which has been underway for 3 years, is a revamp and renaming of an effort begun in 2009 called the Genome 10K Project (G10K), which aimed to decipher the genomes of 10,000 vertebrates. G10K produced about 100 genomes, but they were not very detailed, in part because of the cost of sequencing. Now, however, the cost of high-quality sequencing has dropped to less than $15,000 per billion DNA bases, putting detailed vertebrate genomes within the research community’s reach, says G10K co-founder David Haussler, a computational biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “What we thought was a ‘genome’ back then really wasn’t suitable for in-depth studies,” he explains. “I think we’ve reached a turning point.”

    Error-free genomes from a broad sampling of vertebrates will enable researchers “to address questions not possible to [answer] before,” adds neuroscientist Erich Jarvis of The Rockefeller University in New York City, who leads G10K.

  • Universities are worse than drug companies at reporting clinical trial results

    gloved hands holding a sample vial and taking notes

    A study finds that 89% of clinical trials run by universities and registered in an EU database do not have their results reported as quickly as is mandated.

    Drug companies have taken a lot of heat over the years for not promptly reporting results from clinical trials, but a new study suggests academics may be even worse. Nearly nine in 10 university clinical studies fail to report results in the European Union Clinical Trials Register (EUCTR) within the required 1-year time frame, a team from the Evidence-Based Medicine DataLab at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom reports today in The BMJ.

    Sharing the methods and results of all trials is “an ethical and scientific imperative,” the authors say. EU guidelines require that results be published in the EUCTR 12 months after a registered trial ends, but there is no legal basis for the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which runs the register, to impose penalties on laggards.

    Compliance is low across the board and particularly poor at universities. In January, the Oxford team downloaded records for all 31,821 trials registered in the EUCTR since 2004. Overall, about half of the 7274 trials that were due to report results at the time of the study complied, the researchers found. Only 11% of university-led trials in the study complied with the 1-year mandate, compared with 68% of ones run by companies.

  • Could November elections scramble a controversial U.S. mission to a frozen moon?

    John Culberson at a House subcommittee meeting

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who has been a key player in providing funding for a NASA mission to Europa, is facing a tough re-election battle.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    Earlier this year, planetary scientists got a pleasant surprise: a big boost in NASA’s budget, instituted at the direction of Representative John Culberson (R–TX), a leading member of the House of Representatives spending panel. But some of that money—$195 million, to be exact—came with a catch. It had to be spent on a robotic mission to land on Europa, Jupiter’s frozen moon, to search for signs of life.

    Culberson’s lander has been somewhat controversial among scientists because it hasn’t gone through NASA’s traditional selection and vetting process. And today, researchers at an agency advisory meeting debated whether the congressional elections in November could bring a new lander-related headache: the defeat of Culberson, who is facing a tough re-election contest. If Culberson loses, NASA risks becoming “locked in” to an expensive and complicated project that lacks a key champion in Congress, one researcher worried.

    By Culberson’s mandate, NASA had already begun to lay out plans for the Europa lander, which could launch by 2026. But at a panel session today at NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group, held in Pasadena, California, planetary scientists grappled with whether, and how aggressively, the agency should support the mission.

  • Hurricane Florence is coming. Scientists are scrambling to prepare

    Hurricane Florence seen from ISS

    A state of emergency has been declared for much of the United States’s mid-Atlantic seaboard as Hurricane Florence, a swirling spiral more than 550 kilometers wide with winds gusting to more than 225 kilometers per hour, churns toward the coast. Florence is expected to cause life-threatening flooding as it makes landfall on Friday, and 1.5 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia have already been ordered to board up their homes and flee.

    Researchers at the universities and government facilities in Florence’s predicted path are bracing for the storm. Some are scrambling to protect sensitive samples against power outages and secure expensive instruments from winds and floods. Others are rushing to deploy new experiments to collect as many data as possible before, during, and after the hurricane.

    ScienceInsider will be tracking how Hurricane Florence affects the research community. Tell us your story—or send us a tip about a story you think we should be covering—by emailing, or tweeting to @ScienceInsider.

  • Slippery volcanic soils blamed for deadly landslides during Hokkaido earthquake

    aerial view of Landslides in Atsuma, Japan

    Landslides in the town of Atsuma killed dozens after last week’s earthquake on Japan’s Hokkaido island.

    The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

    The magnitude-6.7 earthquake that struck Japan’s Hokkaido island on 6 September had an outsize impact on the landscape: hundreds of landslides that scarred hillsides, decapitated ridges, and caused most of the 41 deaths attributed to the earthquake. Now, some scientists are saying the island was primed for the landslides when heavy rains soaked subsurface deposits of volcanic soil in the region, turning them into a geologic grease layer. Others, however, aren’t convinced yet.

    Like much of Japan, Hokkaido hosts numerous volcanoes, both active and dormant. Kyoji Sassa, a landslide expert and professor emeritus at Kyoto University in Japan, believes eruptions over the ages have left layers of volcanic material such as pumice draping the hilly landscape beneath sediments deposited later, as is seen in many other volcanic areas in Japan. The porous volcanic material readily soaks up water and becomes slippery, Sassa says. And Hokkaido had just been hit by drenching rains from Typhoon Jebi, the most powerful storm to strike Japan in 25 years. It pummeled the Osaka area to the south on 4 September, then traveled up the archipelago, delivering heavy rains to Hokkaido.

    When the earthquake shook the water-logged soils a few days later, Sassa says the shear forces easily ruptured the weak pumice strata, allowing tons of heavy, wet soil to slide downhill. The landslides, concentrated in an area near the quake epicenter on the southern side of the island, “moved very rapidly,” says Sassa, founder and secretary general of the International Consortium on Landslides, because wet pumice is particularly slippery.

  • Controversial plastic trash collector begins maiden ocean voyage

    boat towing long trash collector

    An experimental plastic trash collector is towed out of San Francisco Bay on 8 September.

    The Ocean Cleanup

    *Update, 11 September, 9:55 a.m.: A high-profile and controversial effort to collect and haul away plastic trash in the ocean is finally going to sea. A massive tugboat left San Francisco Bay this weekend, pulling a long sinuous boom constructed by The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The device, which is intended to catch plastic trash floating at the surface, will be tested for 2 weeks about 400 kilometers offshore. If it does well, the boom will be towed to a concentration of floating trash about 2200 kilometers from California. Although the original design called for a few trash collectors each with a 200-kilometer span, revised plans called for many smaller collectors with 1-kilometer-long booms. The current system has been scaled down further, to 600 meters in length. The Ocean Cleanup hopes to make its first pickup run in 6 months, shipping the trash back to shore and converting it into promotional objects to help cover costs. As Science reported below on 11 May 2017, critics are skeptical of the project, which some see as well-intentioned but misguided.

    Critics say plan for drifting ocean trash collectors is unmoored

    It is undeniably an ambitious vision. Boyan Slat, a charismatic 22-year-old drop-out inventor, plans to clean up plastic trash circulating in the North Pacific Gyre by launching a fleet of floating trash collectors. Ocean currents would propel floating plastic trash into curved floating booms, which would funnel trash toward a central tank, to be collected monthly by ships. “We let the plastic come to us,” he says. The group hopes to eventually finance the operation by recycling the plastic and selling it as a branded product or raw material. Slat already has a pair of sunglasses made from recycled Pacific plastic.

    Skeptics say the idea doesn’t make much sense and that collecting trash closer to shore would be more cost effective. “Focusing clean-up at those gyres, in the opinion of most of the scientific community, is a waste of effort,” says marine biologist Jan van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands. “It’s a lot of money to reduce something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input.” His research on seabirds showed a 75% decline of ingested plastic over 2 decades after reductions in industrial plastic entering the North Sea. Critics also worry that the high-tech clean-up project could distract from less glamorous efforts to lessen the use of plastic.  

    Slat’s 4-year-old organization, The Ocean Cleanup, based in Delft, the Netherlands, is well on its way to launching its first unit. At an event tonight in the Werkspoorkathedraal—an industrial meeting hall in Utrecht, the Netherlands—Slat unveiled a new design that he says will allow The Ocean Cleanup to deploy its first collector in 2018, 2 years earlier than planned. It will also collect trash at twice the rate of earlier designs, he predicts.

  • If you’ve had anesthesia, you can likely thank this veterinarian who just won a top science prize

    John B. “Iain” Glen

    John “Iain” Glen

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has awarded its three annual prizes, regarded as the United States’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, to four researchers in fields including genetics and anesthetic drug development. The Laskers often precede a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Since the awards were founded in 1945, 87 Lasker laureates have later gotten the call from Stockholm.

    The basic research prize is shared by Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and C. David Allis of The Rockefeller University in New York City, who investigated the histone, once considered to be inert packing material for DNA. It is now recognized as an essential component in gene regulation.

    Joan Argetsinger Steitz of Yale University won the special prize for her discoveries in RNA biology, as well as her work in mentoring and advocating for women in science.

  • Fewer people are answering a U.S. agency’s citizenship query. That’s fueling fears for the 2020 census

    empty seats with American flags

    Citizenship status has become a hot-button issue for the U.S. Census Bureau.

    Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

    A growing number of Americans are not willing to disclose their citizenship status on a government survey, according to new research. The finding adds fuel to an already fierce political debate over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

    State officials and civil rights groups have sued Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, challenging his decision earlier this year to add such a question to the decennial census. Ross’s opponents worry some groups, notably foreign-born residents, will shy away from answering the question because of the current hyperpartisan battle over U.S. immigration policy. That could undermine the accuracy of the constitutionally mandated exercise used to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and allocate $800 billion in federal funds, they say. The new data appear to bolster that argument by documenting rising nonresponse rates to the question on a related Census Bureau survey.

    Citizenship is one of 72 questions on the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual sampling of 3.5 million households that in 2005 replaced the long form of the decennial census. The new study finds that the portion of respondents who did not answer the ACS citizenship question more than doubled between 2010 through 2016, from 2.7% to 6%. In contrast, the nonresponse rates for other demographic questions on the ACS—including race, sex, age, and Hispanic origin—remained constant, at less than 2%.

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