ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • National Institutes of Health apologizes for lack of action on sexual harassers

    National Institutes of Health headquarters building
    Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, today responded to ongoing criticism of how the agency handles sexual harassment by NIH-funded investigators by issuing an apology. In a lengthy statement from NIH leaders, replete with language unusually contrite and passionate for a federal agency, NIH says it “has been part of the problem” and vows to take new steps, but does not list any immediate policy changes.  

    The agency also released data on actions it has recently taken against individuals found guilty of sexual harassment, which in 2018 included removing 14 principal investigators (PIs) from grants.

    The statement begins by quoting a September 2018 missive from NIH Director Francis Collins calling sexual harassment “morally indefensible,” but goes further by expressing new concerns about reports shared by the #MeTooSTEM movement. They “portray a heartbreaking story of opportunities lost, pain suffered, and a systemic failure to protect and defend. To all those who have endured these experiences, we are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm,” the statement says. It continues: “We are concerned that NIH has been part of the problem. We are determined to become part of the solution.”

  • China tightens its regulation of some human gene editing, labeling it ‘high-risk’

    He Jiankui talking on stage

    He Jiankui (left), discussing his creation of genetically altered babies, prompted China to issue tighter regulations on gene-editing experiments.

    Imaginechina/AP Images

    In the wake of the shocking news that one of its scientists had produced genetically altered babies, the Chinese government this week issued draft regulations that would require national approval for clinical research involving gene editing and other “high-risk biomedical technologies.” Although some Chinese researchers welcome the move to tighten oversight, there are worries that the rules could impose a burden on areas of genetic research that are not so controversial.

    “I am happy to see the national regulations regarding new biomedical technologies; I think this makes relevant policy more clear,” says Wei Jia, a medical oncologist who is involved with an ongoing trial using gene editing to modify cancer patient T-cells at the Affiliated Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital of Nanjing University Medical School in China.

    The regulations are in response to the late November 2018 claim by He Jiankui, then of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, that he had altered the DNA embryos in a way that would give the babies and their descendants resistance to HIV. This approach is called germline engineering—it can involve changing DNA in embryos or sperm or eggs—and is banned in many countries, by law or regulation. He’s effort, using a technique called CRISPR, resulted in twin girls born last fall; one more baby, he said, is on the way. The experiment earned He worldwide condemnation for prematurely using a still glitchy technique that might negatively affect the babies’ development and health in a medically unnecessary and unjustified intervention.

  • Physicist leading Trump’s ‘adversarial’ climate review also led group touting carbon emissions

    William Happer

    William Happer

    Gage Skidmore/flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Fill up that gas-guzzling truck—because global bursts of carbon dioxide will benefit society, feed the poor and help future generations thrive.

    Those photos of bleached coral, the disappearing island nations and images of glaciers tumbling into the ocean are "mostly myths designed to terrify people into accepting harmful policies that allegedly 'save the planet.'"

    Those are some of the claims promoted by the CO2 Coalition, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit founded in 2015 by the White House official who's overseeing the administration's "adversarial" review of climate science. The group's assertions are disputed by a vast majority of climate researchers. But in the eyes of CO2 Coalition members, it's the world's leading scientists who are wrong.

  • University research center will search for extraterrestrial intelligence

    Arecibo

    The massive Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico was used in a NASA search for alien radio signals before Congress canceled it in 1993.

    David Parker/Science Source

    The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is getting a home base. On 1 March, Pennsylvania State University in State College will announce the first contributions to a campaign that hopes to raise $110 million for the new Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center with endowed professorships and a degree-granting graduate program. It would be one of just a few academic SETI research centers and, if plans are realized, it could be the first to offer courses from the undergraduate to Ph.D. level. Some astronomers say it would provide a badly needed boost to a subdiscipline that has long suffered from neglect.

    “There really isn’t an academic ecosystem for the field as a whole,” says Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, who will serve as the PSETI Center head. “You can’t work on it if you can’t hire students and postdocs.”

    Financial backing for SETI research has been scarce ever since 1993, when the U.S. Congress banned NASA from funding it. “We became the four-letter word at NASA,” recalls astronomer Jill Tarter, a co-founder of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, one of the few other centers to support SETI research with nongovernmental funds.

  • Data sharing will be a major thrust of Trump’s $500 million childhood cancer plan

    Melania Trump applauds with Grace Eline

    Brain cancer survivor Grace Eline (right) and first lady Melania Trump (left) at the State of the Union address.

    Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

    President Donald Trump’s proposal in his State of the Union address earlier this month to spend $500 million over 10 years on pediatric cancer research will begin in 2020 with a focus on sharing patients’ data, federal officials say. That plan is getting a mixed response from researchers and patient advocates, who also worry that the initiative will come at expense of other parts of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) budget.

    During his speech, Trump described a “very brave” guest sitting with first lady Melania Trump—10-year-old brain cancer survivor Grace Eline, who raised funds for pediatric cancer research before developing the disease herself. “Many childhood cancers have not seen new therapies in decades. My budget will ask the Congress for $500 million over the next 10 years to fund this critical life-saving research,” Trump said. A $50-million-a-year boost would mean an 11% increase over the $462 million that NCI and other National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes expect to spend this year on pediatric cancer. (In contrast, Trump administration officials have warned that they expect to issue a budget request to Congress next month that calls for an overall 5% cut to nondefense spending in the 2020 fiscal year that begins 1 October.)

    The Trump announcement came as a surprise to staff at NCI and cancer patient groups. NCI officials say details are still being worked out. But during a conference call with researchers and advocates on 14 February, NCI Director Ned Sharpless in Bethesda, Maryland, who has made “big data” part of his agenda, said data sharing will be a major initial thrust of the initiative. An NCI spokesperson explains to ScienceInsider that $50 million in 2020 “would afford a unique opportunity to leverage the power of existing data and develop new knowledge that will drive discovery and development of new approaches to treat childhood cancers.”

  • In Colombia, biodiversity researchers seek relief from regulatory red tape

    a salamander

    Colombian biologist Jean Paul Delgado dropped plans to sequence the genome of Bolitoglossa ramosi, a native salamander that can regenerate lost limbs, because of burdensome regulations.

    Andrea Gómez/Genetics, Regeneration and Cancer Group at the University of Antioquia

    MEDELLÍN, COLOMBIA—In 2011, when biologist Jean Paul Delgado set up his laboratory at the University of Antioquia (UdeA) here, he was eager to help his home nation learn more about its extraordinary biological wealth, including some 800 species of salamanders, frogs, and other amphibians. Delgado’s enthusiasm soon turned to frustration, however, and he’s largely abandoned his efforts to study Colombia’s biodiversity.

    Sitting in his office recently, he displayed the reason: a huge folder stuffed with the paperwork needed to get government permission to collect native species or just sample their DNA. It can take a year or more to obtain approval from Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, Delgado says. And, “If you deviate from the contract, there will be consequences” that could include fines and research restrictions.

    Many Colombian researchers say the cumbersome, stressful process has prompted them to give up on studies involving the nation’s more than 62,000 native species. Delgado, for example, is no longer planning to sequence the genome of Colombian salamander Bolitoglossa ramosi, which regenerates lost limbs. And UdeA chemist Alejandro Martínez dropped his effort to extract useful chemical compounds from marine sponges found along the nation’s Caribbean coast. “My scientific productivity was sadly affected,” Martínez says.

  • White House recruits researchers for ‘adversarial’ climate science review

    the white house
    iStock.com/bboserup

    Originally published by E&E News

    The White House is recruiting researchers who reject the scientific consensus on climate change for its "adversarial" review of the issue.

    The proposal to form a "Presidential Committee on Climate Security" at the National Security Council (NSC) has shifted, into an ad-hoc group that will review climate science out of the public eye. Those involved in the preliminary discussions said it is focused on recruiting academics to conduct a review of the science that shows climate change presents a national security risk.

  • Q&A: Ron Vale, new chief of Janelia Research Campus, on why 15 years is a good research time frame

    Ron Vale
    Alison Yin/AP Images for HHMI

    This week, cell biologist Ron Vale was named executive director of Janelia Research Campus, the in-house research arm of the $20 billion Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Vale, now at the University of California, San Francisco, has been part of HHMI’s cadre of roughly 300 investigators at institutions for the past 24 years. Next January, he will replace fruit fly geneticist Gerald Rubin, Janelia’s director since its founding in 2003.

    When the now–$130 million Janelia opened its doors on the site of a former farm in Ashburn, Virginia, some questioned its narrow focus on neurobiology and suggested the funding should go toward adding HHMI investigators. But the institute is now a well-established research center with 41 small groups and 190 total lab staff.

    In late 2017, HHMI announced some tweaks: Focus areas will be limited to 15 years. The institute is refocusing its work on brain circuitry to study the mechanisms of cognition. And a new research area will be added every 5 years, starting with one to be chosen by an ongoing open competition. One constant will be the institute’s work on tools such as novel microscopes.

  • United States extends fetal tissue contract and revives one experiment

    Entrance to Rocky Mountain Laboratories

    Scientists at the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, ​have restarted an HIV study that was interrupted by an order to stop acquiring human fetal tissue.

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

    The U.S. government’s leading medical research agency is quietly extending and reviving research that relies on human fetal tissue, even as President Donald Trump’s administration ponders the future of the controversial work in a far-reaching review.

    Early this month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, told researchers it intends to extend a key agency contract that funds work using human fetal tissue to develop mice used to test drugs against HIV. Without NIH action, the $2 million annual contract between its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), will expire on 5 March.

    Normally, the contract, which has been in place for years, is renewed each December. But in December 2018, NIH extended it for just 90 days. Officials said the shorter renewal was a response to an ongoing review of federally funded fetal tissue research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and that no final decision on the contract’s fate would be made until that review was complete. The newest extension would keep the contract alive for an additional 90 days, through 5 June, according to a 7 February letter from NIH to UCSF obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

  • Astronomers discover solar system’s most distant object, nicknamed ‘FarFarOut’

     The solar system’s most distant object is 140 times farther from the sun than Earth.cts whose orbits cannot be explained.

    The solar system’s most distant object is 140 times farther from the sun than Earth.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech

    For most people, snow days aren’t very productive. Some people, though, use the time to discover the most distant object in the solar system.

    That’s what Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., did this week when a snow squall shut down the city. A glitzy public talk he was due to deliver was delayed, so he hunkered down and did what he does best: sifted through telescopic views of the solar system’s fringes that his team had taken last month during their search for a hypothesized ninth giant planet.

    That’s when he saw it, a faint object at a distance 140 times farther from the sun than Earth—the farthest solar system object yet known, some 3.5 times more distant than Pluto. The object, if confirmed, would break his team’s own discovery, announced in December 2018, of a dwarf planet 120 times farther out than Earth, which they nicknamed “Farout.” For now, they are jokingly calling the new object “FarFarOut.” “This is hot off the presses,” he said during his rescheduled talk on 21 February.

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