ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • This Trump administration whistleblower has some advice for young scientists

    headshot of Joel Clement

    Joel Clement was the top climate policy expert at the U.S. Department of the Interior before he was reassigned to a post collecting royalty checks from the oil and gas industry.

    Ja-Rei Wang/Union of Concerned Scientists

    TORONTO, CANADA—One year ago, Joel Clement—then a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.—wrote in The Washington Post: “I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.”

    And with that, Clement went public about his ongoing feud with President Donald Trump’s administration, alleging that Trump appointees had retaliated against him and transferred him to an inappropriate position because of his work on climate change policy. He filed an official complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel—a complaint that, a year later, is still being investigated. And in October 2017, he resigned from his position entirely.

    ScienceInsider caught up with Clement last week here at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology, where he received an award for his work on climate change and his “courage in upholding the highest standards of scientific integrity in government service.” This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • European court ruling raises hurdles for CRISPR crops

    a hand holding a corn plant in a laboratory

    Crop researchers worry a new European court ruling could complicate efforts to move gene-edited crops from the lab to the field.

    Michael Gottschalk/Photothek/Getty Images

    Hopes for an easier regulatory road for genetic engineering in European agriculture were dashed today by the Court of Justice of the European Union. In a closely watched decision, the court ruled that plants created with new gene-editing techniques that don’t involve transferring genes between organisms—such as CRISPR—must go through the same lengthy approval process as traditional transgenic plants.

    Many researchers had argued that regulators should take a lighter touch when evaluating products created with the new technologies, but environmental groups and their allies successfully argued that they should be subject to the same EU rules that apply to other genetically modified organisms.

    “We applaud the European Court of Justice for this forward-thinking decision,” said Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FOE) in Washington, D.C., in a statement. “All products made with genetic engineering, including ones made with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, should be regulated, assessed for health and environmental impacts, and labeled.” FOE’s affiliate in France was part of a coalition of groups that brought the case.

  • U.S. psychology group set to modify rules on interactions with military detainees

    a guard stands between two cells at Guantanamo Bay

    Two cells at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, one designated as a library and the other as a gym.

    Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

    The American Psychological Association (APA) will have a chance next month to modify its policy prohibiting military psychologists from conducting interrogations at the Pentagon’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and other national security facilities. It is the latest twist in a long-running and contentious dispute within the Washington, D.C.–based professional society over how to respond to revelations that psychologists were involved in abusive interrogation practices in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

    The current policy is based on the idea that military interrogations are inherently coercive and thus, violate the profession’s code of ethics to help people. The new policy would retain the ban on participating in interrogations but would allow military psychologists to provide mental health services to detainees at national security sites. The measure—labeled a “clarification” of previous resolutions adopted in 2009, 2013, and 2015—will come before APA’s Council of Representatives on 8 August at the society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California.

    The measure’s advocates say the current rule, which went into effect in 2015, has unfairly restricted their ability to practice their profession. “It was the first time I can recall that APA outlawed a setting rather than a behavior,” says Mark Staal, president of APA’s Division of Military Psychology (Division 19), which drafted the latest resolution.

  • ‘It’s sobering’: A once-exciting HIV cure strategy fails its test in people

    HIV

    A treatment that worked brilliantly in monkeys infected with the simian AIDS virus did nothing to stop HIV from making copies of itself in humans (shown here).

    NIBSC/Science Source

    When Science published a monkey study nearly 2 years ago that showed an anti-inflammatory antibody effectively cured monkeys intentionally infected with the simian form of the AIDS virus, the dramatic results turned many heads. But some skeptical researchers thought the data looked too good to be true and predicted the intervention wouldn’t work on HIV in humans. They were right.

    Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, and a co-author of the Science paper, today reported the failure of a clinical trial that attempted to translate the remarkable monkey success to humans. “We did not see those dramatic results at all,” Fauci said at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam that is taking place this week.

    In the monkey experiment, the animals infected with the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) were treated with antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that suppressed the pathogen, and then given repeated injections of an antibody that blocks a receptor called α4β7 found on immune cells. The researchers then stopped giving both the antibodies and ARVs, and the monkeys still completely controlled SIV for more than 9 months. The virus quickly came roaring back in control animals that had only received ARVs and then had that treatment halted. Some considered the antibody-treated monkeys cured, as they appeared capable of indefinitely controlling the small quantity of virus that persisted without any further interventions.

  • Trials of impotence drug to help poorly growing fetuses are halted after infant deaths

    hands measuring a newborn’s head

    Impaired fetal growth can lead to stillbirth or neonatal death, and babies that survive are still at higher risk of infections and long-term problems.

    Cavan Social/Alamy Stock Photo

    AMSTERDAM—When gynecologist Wessel Ganzevoort received a request for an urgent meeting from the independent committee watching over his clinical trial last week, he thought it might be good news.

    Ganzevoort leads a study to find out whether sildenafil could help poorly growing fetuses if given to their pregnant mothers; the drug dilates blood vessels and in theory could bring fetuses more oxygen and nutrients. A data and safety monitoring committee, however, had looked at the unblinded evidence halfway through the study and wanted to talk. Ganzevoort, who’s at the Amsterdam University Medical Center (AUMC), knew that probably meant one of two things: Either the drug worked so well that continuing to give a placebo to half of the mothers in the trial would be unethical, or the study had to be stopped because sildenafil was causing serious complications. Because previous studies had not shown any major side effects, Ganzevoort expected the former.

    He was wrong. At the 19 July meeting, the committee told him that a very specific complication, persistent pulmonary hypertension—in which blood vessels in the baby’s lungs fail to open after birth—had occurred 17 times in the sildenafil-treated group, leading to 11 deaths. There were only three cases of the condition in the placebo group and no deaths. (In total, there were 19 deaths in the treatment group versus nine in the placebo group—the latter not being a surprise given all the fetuses were at high risk because of their poor growth.) “It took us very little time to make the decision to halt the study,” Ganzevoort says. That same day, he and his colleagues began to call the women who participated in the study, including several who are still pregnant or whose babies are in the hospital.

  • Troubling questions remain about whether a popular HIV drug causes birth defects

    couples acting in front of a crowd in Botswana

    As part of a program aimed to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, outreach workers in Francistown, Botswana, staged a skit in a supermarket parking lot.

    Malcolm Linton

    Dolutegravir, which enjoys a reputation as the best of 32 marketed antiretroviral drugs, took a serious hit in May when a preliminary analysis from a study that included more than 10,000 HIV-infected pregnant women in Botswana revealed it may lead to serious birth defects. Today, at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, researchers reported more data from that study that suggest the risk of harm may be lower than first thought. But troubling questions remain about its safety during pregnancy and whether programs that plan to promote it widely should restrict its use in women of child-bearing age.

    The potential problem with dolutegravir surfaced because of worries about another anti-HIV drug, efavirenz, which caused what are known as neural tube defects in newborn monkeys. In 2014, researchers in Botswana began a 4-year surveillance study, called Tsepamo, of all babies born to both HIV-infected and uninfected mothers at eight clinics to assess the frequency of neural defects. This rare condition can cause large holes in the spine or can prevent the top of the skull from forming. Two years later, before those results were in, Botswana made dolutegravir a preferred treatment because it powerfully suppresses HIV, people tolerate it well, and drug resistance rarely surfaces. 

    In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, contacted the Tsepamo team to help with new guidelines being prepared for pregnant, HIV-infected women. Scant data existed about dolutegravir, and Botswana was an ideal place to look for clues: The study was already underway, capturing about 45% of the births in the country, and the prevalence of HIV prevalence there is high. When the researchers took an early peek at their data, they found an association between neural tube defects and dolutegravir—not efavirenz. “We were extremely surprised,” says infectious disease specialist Rebecca Zash, a co–principal investigator of the study who is based at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “We thought we did something wrong.”

  • Trump officials drafted plans to eliminate marine monument off New England

    A yellow, fern-shaped feather star crinoid anchored to a rock.

    A feather star crinoid found on seamounts within the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the U.S. Atlantic coast

    NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program/Public Domain

    Originally published by E&E News

    Senior U.S. Department of Interior officials prepared last fall to eliminate the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the Atlantic coast—even as they had yet to agree on the public justifications for doing so, according to newly disclosed internal documents.

    Interior last week accidentally released thousands of pages of unredacted internal emails in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

  • NIH delays controversial clinical trials policy for some studies

    people working around a table

    Some basic studies, such as a project at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis studying teenagers’ behavior, are now considered clinical trials by the National Institutes of Health.

    TWELVE PLUS MEDIA

    Basic brain and behavioral researchers will get more than a year to comply with a new U.S. policy that will treat many of their studies as clinical trials. The announcement from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) appears to defuse, for now, a yearlong controversy over whether basic research on humans should follow the same rules as studies testing drugs.

    Although research groups had hoped NIH would drop its plans to tag basic studies with humans as trials, they say they’re relieved they get more time to prepare and give the agency input. “It’s a positive step forward,” says Paula Skedsvold, executive director of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences in Washington, D.C.

    At issue is a recently revised definition of a clinical trial along with a set of rules in effect since January that are meant to increase the rigor and transparency of NIH-funded clinical trials. About a year ago, basic scientists who study human cognition—for example, using brain imaging with healthy volunteers—were alarmed to realize many of these studies fit the new clinical trial definition.

  • Here’s the sexual harassment report that felled a famed geneticist—and his defense

    Francisco Ayala

    Francisco Ayala resigned from the University of California, Irvine, effective 1 July, in the wake of a sexual harassment report.

    AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

    The investigative report that triggered the ouster of prominent evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala from the University of California (UC), Irvine, found that his behavior included telling a pregnant colleague “you’re so huge” and regularly putting his hands under a female administrator’s jacket and rubbing them up and down her sides. According to the report, he told a female professor that she had been so animated while giving a talk that he thought she would “have an orgasm.” In another instance, he invited a junior professor in a crowded meeting to sit on his lap, saying he would enjoy the presentation more that way.

    The 97-page report, completed in May and obtained by Science, describes a long-standing pattern of behavior by Ayala that continued even after he was warned to stop in 2015. The report detailed off-color remarks and repeated unsolicited compliments on women’s physical appearances—behaviors witnessed by one or more of the 61 people interviewed for the investigation. The investigators said women felt professionally undermined by his conduct and they concluded that Ayala, 84, violated UC Irvine’s sexual harassment and sex discrimination policies in the cases of three of the four women who lodged complaints against him. In response, the university terminated Ayala on 1 July and plans to strip his name from its science library and biology building.

    In responses included in the report, Ayala strenuously denies most of the allegations. He told investigators that the entire complaint of Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) professor and chair Kathleen Treseder, who reported the “you’re so huge” and orgasm comments, “was a lie.” “I saw my compliments as courtesies. And they turned those courtesies into sexual harassment,” Ayala told Science in an interview today.

  • Census Bureau nominee becomes lightning rod for debate over 2020 census

    Richard Fink and Steven Dillingham at a George Mason University event

    Steven Dillingham (right) at a 2016 event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

    Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

    If there’s going to be a fight over President Donald Trump’s choice for the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau, it won’t be over whether Steven Dillingham has sufficient government experience: He’s led two smaller federal statistical agencies and spent several more years at other agencies. Nor will it be over his academic qualifications: He holds a Ph.D. in political science, as well as a law degree, an MBA, and a master’s degree in public administration.

    Instead, the fight will be over whether Dillingham, a 66-year-old native of South Carolina and rock-ribbed Republican, is capable of steering the agency through a sea of controversy as it prepares for the 2020 census. Democrats and civil rights groups worry he will do the bidding of his political bosses and undermine the integrity of the decennial head count. But those who know him, including liberal academics, say he’s a straight shooter with good management skills and someone who doesn’t let his conservative political views interfere with day-to-day operations.

    “He’s a tip-top scholar, a progressive administrator, and a very ethical guy,” says Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia, who worked under Dillingham at the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the early 1990s but no longer stays in touch with the nominee. “I think it’s a wonderful appointment.”

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