Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • Cancer immunotherapy company tries to explain deaths in recent trial

    a chimera antigen receptor cell sits on a cancer cell

    A chimeric antigen receptor–T cell (orange) on a cancer cell (green)

    Eye of Science/Science Source

    More than a year after five leukemia patients died from an experimental treatment involving genetically engineered immune cells, its developer believes it has a better handle on what went wrong—and possibly how to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. Juno Therapeutics, based in Seattle, Washington, last week presented the most comprehensive public results so far from its internal investigation, concluding that individual patient characteristics and “product variability” made for a lethal combination that led to fatal brain swelling. The company says it is now using insights from its analysis to inform work on a modified cell treatment that is in early-stage clinical trials.   

    Stephen Gottschalk, a pediatric oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, who is not associated with Juno, says he still finds the clinical trial deaths somewhat mysterious, but he praises the company’s efforts to understand them. “They presented a very comprehensive analysis and they did it in a timely fashion,” Gottschalk says.

    The treatment that Juno was testing, known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy, equips a patient’s own immune cells with a new surface protein that allows them to home in on and kill cancer cells. It’s an approach promising enough that it was honored as part of Science’s Breakthrough of the Year in 2013. And earlier this year two CAR-T cell products were approved, one to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children and young adults, and another for a form of adult lymphoma. 

  • Astronomers relieved as U.S. funding agency moves to keep Arecibo telescope operating

    The giant silver dish of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

    The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

    pedrik/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo Observatory, recently battered by Hurricane Maria, looks set to remain open as a scientific facility following a yearslong assessment of its future. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it will be pursuing the option it has favored throughout the process: keeping Arecibo working, but with much-reduced funding from the agency.

    The fact that this option has been formally chosen means that at least one viable partner has come forward to take on the bulk of the funding burden and manage the observatory. “Having the ability to keep this facility open is a win for everybody,” says Jim Ulvestad, acting assistant director for NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate in Alexandria, Virginia.

    The 54-year-old observatory, with a fixed dish built into a depression in the karst hills of western Puerto Rico, is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world—at least until a larger rival in China becomes fully operational. It is used for a range of sciences, including radio astronomy in deep space and radar studies of planets, asteroids and Earth’s atmosphere.

  • NIH institute directors stand firm on not renewing focused firearm research program

    Representative Frank Pallone

    Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D–NJ) is among the members of Congress who have asked the National Institutes of Health why it ended a research funding program focused on gun violence.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

    The directors of two institutes that fund firearm research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, say they have no plans to renew a lapsed gun violence research initiative launched under former President Barack Obama in response to the 2012 killings of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The NIH officials’ comments, made yesterday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., came on the same day that two members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged NIH to renew the initiative.

    “We probably will issue [a new] funding opportunity announcement, but it will be on violence in general. I don’t think we have to specify gun violence,” George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said at a press conference. He argued that alcohol abuse is associated with many forms of violence, and added that in his opinion, “much more important is the interaction of violence and sexual aggression with alcohol.”

    Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, noted that the institutes already fund projects on brain-based and other causes of violence. He added: “Whether we need additional specific studies on gun violence … that’s a question that we will look into but we have not identified that currently as a gap” in agency research.

  • Massive U.S. defense bill includes a bevy of research-related provisions

    U.S. Coast Gaurd icebreaker Polar Star, with red hull, cruising through thick polar ice.

    The U.S. Coast Gaurd’s Polar Star, the only heavy icebreaker in the fleet, could soon have a sister ship thanks to a massive defense spending bill.

    U.S. Coast Guard/Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

    Congress is poised to tell the U.S. military to identify bases that are most threatened by climate change and give it limited new authority to accelerate the use of battlefield medical treatments that have not been fully approved by safety regulators. The provisions are part of a mammoth defense policy bill that the House of Representatives approved on Tuesday.

    The bill also calls for building a new heavy icebreaker able to operate in polar seas—an item long on the wish list of scientists who work in the Antarctic and Arctic. And it establishes a new pilot program that would enable government scientists working at federal defense laboratories to receive up to $500,000 per year in royalties if they produce a commercially valuable invention. But lawmakers rejected an effort to place limits on Congress’ ability to direct funding to specific medical research programs run by the military, and a proposal to create a new space warfare service dubbed the U.S. Space Corps.

    Those are just some of the research-related provisions in the 2400-page National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018, which is expected to become law later this year after passage by the Senate. The influential measure sets policy and budget levels for the Department of Defense (DOD) and related agencies (although a separate appropriations bill actually sets spending levels). Congress has passed and the president has signed an NDAA every year for more than 50 years, making it one of the few legislative sure bets.

  • New California telescope aims to catch quickly moving celestial events

    workers installing a camera

    Zwicky Transient Facility team members install the instrument's new camera. 

    Caltech Optical Observatories

    Astronomers in California have taken a telescope built before most of them were born and converted it into a new instrument dedicated to one of the newest and fastest-moving branches of astronomy: spotting objects in the sky that change from one day to the next.

    The new Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), which today opened its eye to the sky, was created by retooling the 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, which, starting in 1948, took pictures of the night sky onto specially curved glass photographic plates. The ZTF, named in honor of Fritz Zwicky, the Bulgaria-born astronomer who worked for most of his career at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, has been fitted with a new camera made up of 16 charge-coupled device (CCD) detectors. That will enable it to snap single images covering an area more than 200 times the size of the full moon.

    With such a wide field of view—the biggest of any telescope more than 0.5 meters wide—the ZTF can survey the whole northern sky visible from Palomar every night. By doing so, astronomers can spot anything that changes from the previous night’s images, enabling them to identify quickly changing celestial phenomena, including supernovae, variable and binary stars, the active cores of distant galaxies, potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, and the flash of merging neutron stars that could also emit gravitational waves. 

  • Update: After death of captured vaquita, conservationists call off rescue effort


    Captured vaquitas will be housed in a sea pen until a sanctuary is set up.

    Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative

    On Friday, VaquitaCPR, the $5 million last-ditch effort by the Mexican government and conservationists to capture a rare porpoise called the vaquita, will formally announce the end of the project. The team captured two vaquitas: One, a calf, had to be released because it was stressed; the other, an adult female, died before it could be released. Since that death on 5 November, the 67-person team stopped trying to capture this diminutive cetacean. Instead, it has focused on trying to get detailed photographs of the 15 or so animals that still exist in the Gulf of California, their only habitat, so they can keep better track of the animals.

    Continually plagued by bad weather, the project was halted because the vaquitas reacted poorly to being placed in the sea pen designed to house them. That persuaded researchers that capturing the animals was not worth the risk. “There’s nothing worse than having an animal die in your hands,” says Frances Gulland, the lead VaquitaCPR veterinarian and a scientist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. 

    The rescue attempt came about because illegal poaching of a fish highly prized for its swim bladder. The vaquitas become entangled and drown in the fishing nets. Despite efforts by the Mexican government to stop fishing where the vaquitas live, their numbers have dropped precipitously. With bringing vaquitas into captivity off the table for now as a solution, “what has to happen is the ramping up of enforcement” against poachers, Gulland says. 

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