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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Physics Nobel honors architect of modern cosmology, discoverers of other worlds

    The universe

    The universe is just 5% visible matter, something that Princeton University cosmologist James Peebles foresaw. 

    NASA/ESA/S. Beckwith (STScI)/HUDF Team

    This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics honors the human desire to understand both the fundamental nature of the universe and its planetary particularities. Half of the $900,000 prize goes to Princeton University cosmologist James Peebles, for laying the foundations of modern-day cosmology and predicting the basic ingredients of the universe. The other half will be split between astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. In 1995, at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, they discovered the first planet around another sunlike star—opening the floodgates to the discovery of thousands more exoplanets of every description.

    Peebles’s many theoretical predictions have proved prescient. For starters, in 1965 he predicted the big bang nearly 14 billion years ago should have left an afterglow, radiation that would have stretched to microwave wavelengths as the universe expanded. That cosmic microwave background (CMB) was discovered the same year and has proved invaluable for deciphering the universe. “He was the guy in the early days,” says Joseph Silk, a cosmologist the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He “put the physics into cosmology.”

    Others had suggested an afterglow; Peebles laid bare the details. He showed how its temperature is pinned down by the abundance of light elements in the cosmos. He also predicted that the sloshing interplay between radiation, ordinary matter, and dark matter—the invisible stuff that was already thought to hold the galaxies together—would cause the temperature of the CMB to vary from point to point across the sky. Those tiny fluctuations were eventually spotted by NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, which launched in 1989.

  • Medicine Nobel honors work on cellular system to sense oxygen levels

    A man announces Nobel Prize awards as winners' faces are projected onscreen

    Nobel Assembly member Randall Johnson (far right) announces the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Gregg Semenza, Peter Ratcliffe, and William Kaelin Jr.

    JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

    The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three scientists for their research into how cells detect oxygen and react to hypoxia—conditions when oxygen is low in tissues. The fundamental physiology work has led to a better understanding of how more than 300 genes in the body are regulated, including the one for the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which controls the production of red blood cells.

    Oxygen sensing is integral to many diseases and numerous drugs are being developed to alter the response of this system to treat everything from cancer to anemia. “Applications of these findings are already beginning to affect how medicine is practiced,” Randall Johnson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who studies hypoxia and was on the prize selection committee, said in a press conference announcing the winners.

    “How oxygen is sensed by both normal tissues and tumors is an incredibly important discovery that is highly deserving of a Nobel Prize,” says Amato Giaccia, a cancer researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “It’s a fundamental aspect of nature.” Many of the genes that are turned on when oxygen is scarce are also turned on in tumor cells, he notes.

  • Turmoil mounts at MIT Media Lab as scientist is ousted for sexual harassment

    MIT MEDIA LAB BUILDING E14

    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab has been roiled by controversy.

    ES Tech Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) troubled Media Lab last week ousted longtime faculty member Michael Bove for violating the university’s sexual harassment policy. The Media Lab also announced mandatory sexual harassment training for all personnel.

    Media Lab Executive Director Deb Roy sent a letter yesterday to students, staff, and faculty saying: “Michael was terminated solely as a result of a determination that he violated MIT’s sexual harassment policy. … [T]here are aspects of MIT policies and practices that I believe should be improved. I will work with colleagues at MIT towards better policies for the entire community.”

    Bove had been a principal research scientist at the Cambridge lab and his last day of employment was 26 September, according to an email statement last week from Kimberly Allen, MIT’s director of media relations. Allen declined to comment on the details of Bove’s ouster, but wrote: “At all times we encourage any member of our community who has experienced or witnessed harassing behavior to report it using the resources MIT makes available.”

  • A global push to get from disease genes to medicines

    conceptual illustration of a hand opening a pill tablet with double helices inside
    Malte Mueller/Getty Images

    The Human Genome Project’s completion in 2003 brought hope that geneticists would soon uncover the genes behind scourges such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s. But soon came a reality check: Most common diseases have been tied not to a few genes, but scores or even hundreds, each raising a person’s risk of disease by a tiny amount. Despite a growing list of these genetic markers, identified by combing the DNA of large groups of people with and without a disease, researchers have only figured out what a specific marker means for a person’s health in a few cases.

    In a bid to increase that number, human geneticist Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and colleagues gathered last week near Washington, D.C., to launch a nonprofit, the International Common Disease Alliance (ICDA). Nearly 170 researchers from 19 countries, from Japan to South Africa, met for 2 days to talk about how to get from maps (genetic markers) to mechanisms (what a gene does inside cells) to medicines (using the information to develop treatments).

    The invitation-only meeting, which was also broadcast online, was co-hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose director, geneticist Francis Collins, gave the keynote address. Many researchers only learned about the meeting a few days before it began, drawing complaints. (One geneticist tweeted that it was “cover for a plan to siphon huge amounts of #NIH $$$ directly to the @BroadInstitute.”) In this edited interview, Lander and Cecilia Lindgren of the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute in the United Kingdom—who with Lander co-chairs ICDA’s organizing committee—say they had to limit the meeting’s size, but they want researchers everywhere to help flesh out their plans.

  • Dissent splits authors of provocative transgenic mosquito study

    Female Aedes aegypti mosquito

    Oxitec has released genetically engineered mosquitoes to reduce wild populations of Aedes aegypti (above), a species that carries Zika and other viruses.

    CDC/James Gathany/Science Source

    A journal article showing that DNA from genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes had spread to the local mosquito population in Brazil prompted alarming news reports and backlash from some scientists after its publication last month. Now, one co-author of the paper contends it overstates the potential risks of the GM insects, and several co-authors have reportedly requested that it be retracted.

    The study tracked the effects of a field trial of GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes created by the company Oxitec and released in Jacobina, Brazil, between 2013 and 2015. The Abingdon, U.K.–based company released nonbiting male insects endowed with a gene that would kill most of their offspring. The trial was designed to see whether such engineered insects could reduce populations of wild mosquitoes that carry viruses such as Zika and dengue.

    Before that release, lab tests had shown that when GM males mated with wild females, a small percentage of their offspring survived. To test whether these survivors had managed to reproduce and pass on their genes, a Yale University team led by population geneticist Jeffrey Powell collaborated with Brazilian researchers to collect and analyze DNA from mosquitoes before, during, and up to 3 months after the release. These collaborators included biochemist Margareth Capurro and colleagues at the University of São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil, who had an agreement with Oxitec to monitor the effects of the Jacobina release.

  • Three percent of NIH grants involved a direct financial conflict of interest, watchdog report finds

    NIH building 1

    National Institutes of Health

    National Institutes of Health

    Financial conflicts of interest that could bias researchers funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are rare, a report released last week found: About 3% of the 55,600 grants the agency awarded in 2018 involved at least one researcher reporting such a conflict. But some experts question whether the data are capturing all relevant conflicts.

    The 25 September report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, follows a 2008 OIG analysis that found NIH was not collecting adequate data on financial conflicts, such as payments from drug companies for consulting or royalties from patents. The report helped prompt HHS to tighten its reporting rules, which now require investigators to tell their institution about all conflicts related to their institutional duties. The institutions then tell NIH about those that could bias an NIH-funded research project and explain how the conflict will be managed.

    A decade on, NIH’s improved tracking system allows a count for the first time. OIG found that in 2018, 202 of 2064 grantee institutions reported any financial conflicts of interests. A total of 1668 unique grants had at least one conflict. In total, 3978 separate “significant financial interests” were reported, because grants can have more than one investigator, and each investigator can have several types of conflicts.

  • Turkish scientist gets 15-month sentence for publishing environmental study

    Polluted Ergene river

    Turkish scientist Bülent Şık has studied contamination in the Ergene River Basin in Turkey’s Edirne province.

    KENAN KAYA/Alamy Stock Photo

    A Turkish food engineer and human rights activist was sentenced yesterday to 15 months in jail after publishing the results of a study he and other scientists had done that linked toxic pollution to a high incidence of cancer in western Turkey.

    Bülent Şık, former deputy director of the Food Safety and Agricultural Research Center at Akdeniz University, was convicted of disclosing classified information after he published the results as a four-part series in a Turkish newspaper in April 2018. “Bülent Şık fulfilled his duty as a citizen and a scientist and he used his right to freedom of expression,” his lawyer, Can Atalay, said in his closing statement before the sentence was handed down by a court in Istanbul.

    The study was commissioned by Turkey’s Ministry of Health to see whether there was a connection between toxicity in soil, water, and food and the high incidence of cancer in western Turkey. Working for 5 years, Şık and a team of scientists discovered dangerous levels of pesticides, heavy metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in multiple food and water samples from several provinces in western Turkey. Water in several residential areas was also found to be unsafe for drinking because of lead, aluminum, chrome, and arsenic pollution.

  • NIH reveals its formula for tracking foreign influences

    conceptual illustration of people holding balloon-like globes showing different countries.
    DAVIDE BONAZZI/SALZMAN ART

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) thinks it may have figured out how China’s foreign talents recruitment program is undermining its system for making awards and ensuring ethical behavior by its grantees.

    In an interview yesterday with Science, Michael Lauer, director of NIH’s extramural research program in Bethesda, Maryland, described a two-pronged strategy that NIH believes China’s Thousand Talents Program has pursued to improperly reap the benefits of NIH-funded research. One entails breaching NIH’s vaunted system of reviewing grant proposals to share information with colleagues in China. The second consists of setting up shadow labs in that country to replicate NIH-funded research.

    Lauer offered no new evidence to support those assertions and no data on how often these tactics have been used. But his description adds considerable detail to previous NIH statements addressing concerns by Congress and officials in President Donald Trump’s administration that federal research agencies aren’t doing enough to combat attacks on U.S. science by foreign entities, particularly China.

  • Can you spot the duplicates? Critics say these photos of lionfish point to fraud

    collage of lionfish images

    Part of the collage posted on the Biology Letters website that a correction note says provides evidence of the number of lionfish used in experiments in an Australian lab.

    O. Lönnstedt et al., Biology Letters 10, 10.1098 (CC-BY 4.0)

    How many fish really appear in the photo collage above? The answer bears on whether a study about lionfish social behavior, published in Biology Letters in 2014, was fabricated—and whether Oona Lönnstedt, a marine biologist formerly at Uppsala University (UU) in Sweden who made up data in a 2016 Science paper, committed an earlier fraud. The case also raises fresh questions about whether senior scientists working with Lönnstedt, who was then a Ph.D. student, properly oversaw and took responsibility for her work.

    Last year, Lönnstedt and her co-authors posted the collage on the Biology Letters website in what appeared to be an attempt to end questions about whether the scientists really caught enough fish to carry out their behavioral experiments. But critics say the colorful ensemble appears to include many photos of the same fish, and in some cases doctored duplicates of the same photo—which would undermine the authors’ defense.

    The lionfish study was done in 2012, when Lönnstedt was a student at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, Australia. But the suspicions about it resemble those that discredited the 2016 Science study of the effects of microplastics on fish larvae. There, too, researchers questioned whether Lönnstedt had collected the claimed number of fish and wondered how she could have recorded reams of behavioral data without videotaping the experiments. In 2017, both UU and a national Swedish ethics panel confirmed the doubts about the Science paper, co-authored with UU biologist Peter Eklöv. It was retracted and Lönnstedt, who maintained her innocence, lost her job.

  • Seven years later, NIH center that aims to speed drugs to market faces challenges

    Chris Austin from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

    Chris Austin says the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, has begun to streamline drug development.

    NATIONAL CENTER FOR ADVANCING TRANSLATIONAL SCIENCES/FLICKR/CC BY

    In September 2012, when neurologist Chris Austin at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, took charge of a new translational science center, he faced a host of skeptics. In launching the new center, NIH Director Francis Collins said he wanted to re-engineer drug development to speed new treatments to the clinic. But some accused NIH of wanting to become a drug company or solve the pharmaceutical industry's challenges—a notion one former CEO likened to believing in fairies. It fell to Austin to prove that the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) wasn't going to compete with industry, but could give it powerful new tools. After 7 years, the jury is still out.

    Austin is proud of his record. In a recent conversation with Science, he pointed to a long list of programs he says will make drug development and clinical trials run more smoothly. "We've taken a quite different approach than everyone else," says Austin, who spent 7 years at Merck before joining NIH in 2002. Whereas other NIH institutes and companies study specific diseases, "Our disease is the system: the translational science process," Austin says.

    Some who have tracked NCATS, however, say it has yet to help improve the failure rate of at least 95% in drug development and is barely on the radar of major drug company executives. Even Austin admits, "I don't know how much the bigwigs have kept up" with the center's accomplishments. For one thing, his supporters say, NCATS's resources never matched its ambitions. Given that NCATS's resources were "a rounding error" compared with those of multinational companies, Collins's "grandiose vision" was unlikely to be realized, says cardiologist and pharmacologist Garret FitzGerald of the University of Pennsylvania.

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