Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Guns kill more U.S. kids than cancer. This emergency physician aims to prevent those firearm deaths

    Rebecca Cunningham says public health research can help prevent gun injuries in children.


    ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—Rebecca Cunningham has only one kind of memory from her early childhood: violence. Her father shattered mirrors, tore up the house, and beat and threatened to kill her mother. Cunningham, then less than 5 years old, remembers her older sister trying to protect her.

    "When my father would start in with my mother, my sister would cover my eyes and try to hide with me behind the couch," recalls Cunningham, now a 48-year-old emergency physician and researcher at the University of Michigan (UM) here. "The police were in and out of the house a lot. If there had been a gun in my home in those years, my mother certainly would have been killed."

    One day Cunningham's father, a lawyer, called her mother threatening to kill her. Her mother changed the locks on their New Jersey house. She sent Cunningham's two older siblings to live with a safely distant foster family. And she bought a handgun.

  • Report that NIH will cancel fetal tissue research contract fuels controversy

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is disputing a news report that it has decided to end a multimillion-dollar contract that funds the use of human fetal tissue for HIV drug testing.

    Tim Evanson/Flickr (CC BY-SA)

    *Update, 6 December, 11:45 a.m.: Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from ScienceInsider, NIH has released its 3 December letter to UCSF indicating that a contract involving humanized mice might be terminated. Here is our original story from 5 December:

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., is vigorously contesting a report, published by The Washington Post, that it has decided to cancel a $2-million-a-year contract that funds work using human fetal tissue to develop mice with humanlike immune systems for testing drugs against HIV.

    HHS officials insist they have made no decision on the contract, and say they are still in the process of completing a previously announced review of all federally funded research that uses human fetal tissue derived from elective abortions. But the report comes as antiabortion groups have stepped up their long-standing efforts to end federal funding for research using human fetal tissue, which is legal under a 1993 law. And the battle over the contract is being followed closely by other researchers who rely on fetal tissue in their work.

  • Trump ocean plan axes climate chapter

    Neville Nell/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    The White House is no longer including a distinct chapter on climate change in an overarching plan setting federal priorities on ocean policy for a decade.

    The move by the National Science and Technology Council is angering environmentalists, although administration officials say they are presenting the issue in a different way and emphasizing new areas.

  • Empathy expert resigns as head of Max Planck institute after report confirms bullying allegations

    In The ReSource Project, Tania Singer sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring.

    Moritz Hager/WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Empathy expert Tania Singer will resign as director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, after a commission confirmed allegations of bullying made by several members of the institute.

    “[S]ignificant failures in leadership had occurred” at the institute, the Max Planck Society said in a statement released yesterday. “In order to avoid a further escalation of the situation and to enable all parties involved to return to focused scientific work, the Max Planck Society and Ms. Singer have agreed that she will step down from her position as Director on her own initiative.” The neuroscientist “will continue her work as a scientific researcher, on a smaller scale, without a management function outside the Leipzig Institute,” the statement noted.

    Singer apologized “for the mistakes I made as a young director of a big Max Planck Department” in a letter to her former lab members. “My psychological and physical resources are exhausted and my reputation and my scientific career are severely damaged,” she wrote.

  • Trump emphasizes workforce training in new vision for STEM education

    A new federal science, technology, engineering, and math education plan highlights the value of apprenticeships, such as the one enrolling these two apprentices at a highly automated Stihl chainsaw manufacturing plant in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

    John Minchillo/AP Photo

    The U.S. government needs to partner with industry and community organizations to train more Americans for jobs in an increasingly high-tech work environment. That’s the key message in a new 5-year strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education released today by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

    The plan, which looks across the federal government’s entire $3 billion investment in STEM education by more than a dozen agencies, emphasizes the importance of computational literacy and the value of blending the arts, social science, and other fields in “authentic” STEM learning experiences. The 45-page report also commits federal agencies to be more transparent in tallying participation in STEM programs by minorities and women, which it acknowledges “face barriers to success.”

    At the same time, the report largely dismisses several key priorities of former President Barack Obama’s administration, including the need to train more STEM elementary and secondary school teachers, strengthen the STEM curriculum, and improve undergraduate and graduate instruction to prevent would-be scientists and engineers from leaving the field. There’s also no mention of whether Trump will once again seek cuts to several STEM education programs when he releases his 2020 budget request in February 2019—a suggestion that Congress has so far twice ignored.

  • Reorganization sparks turmoil at Copenhagen’s research powerhouse museum

    courtyard of danish museum

    Researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen have made major discoveries about human migrations and the impacts of climate change.


    Over the past decade, the 40 researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen have published more than 100 papers in Nature and Science, putting it among the world’s top research museums. But budget pressures are forcing a reorganization that will split museum research from curation and outreach. The museum’s scientists are dismayed, and several of the most prominent group leaders say they may leave.

    Previously, the museum was its own department within the University of Copenhagen. But last month, the university announced that, as of 1 January 2019, the museum will be downsized, becoming a unit within the biology department. Roughly half of the 40 researchers will remain part of that unit; they will give up some of their research to focus on curation and outreach. The other half will become full faculty within the biology department—including the geologists and astrophysicists. These scientists will lose their affiliation with the museum and replace their curatorial roles with increased teaching duties.

    Divorcing the scientists’ dual roles will curtail the fruitful ways that curation pollinates research, and vice versa, says Carsten Rahbek, who heads the museum’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate and who is slated to become a biology professor. (The center will move with him.) “The curation is driven by the research,” he says. “It’s not like a library where you go borrow a book and then go do cutting-edge research. If you don’t have a say in how [the collection] develops, in 2 or 3 years you won’t be able to use it anymore.”

  • An ‘epic scientific misadventure’: NIH head Francis Collins ponders fallout from CRISPR baby study

    National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins says he has “a hard time seeing many examples” where germline gene editing would be justifiable: “Most of them are pretty far out there.”

    Stephen Voss

    A “profoundly unfortunate,” “ill-considered,” “epic scientific misadventure” that “flout[ed] international ethical norms” and was “largely carried out in secret” with “utterly unconvincing” justifications. Those are the words in a statement issued by Francis Collins, head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, in response to the claim by He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, that he used CRISPR to genetically modify two embryos, resulting in the recent birth of twin girls.

    The scathing condemnation from the typically measured NIH chief, who has done landmark genetic research himself, came hours after He first described his work at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday. “The need for development of binding international consensus on setting limits for this kind of research, now being debated in Hong Kong, has never been more apparent,” Collins wrote.

    The next day, the meeting’s prominent organizing committee—convened by academies of science and medicine from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong—issued its own statement about what it called He’s “deeply disturbing claim.” It concluded that the risks were still “too great to permit clinical trials of germline gene editing at this time,” but it didn't call for a moratorium; instead it suggested a responsible way forward to clinical trials of the technique, provided there is “strict independent oversight.”

  • Trump White House tried to bury U.S. climate report. That has only generated more attention

    President Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. President Donald Trump administration's rebuke of a 1700-page climate report produced by 13 federal agencies has fueled a week of media coverage that shows little sign of dying down.

    The National Climate Assessment was dropped on Black Friday, an obscure time that was widely perceived as an attempt to bury the report. Instead, it's been given extra life.

  • Organizers of gene-editing meeting blast Chinese study but call for ‘pathway’ to human trials

    Some say a global moratorium on germline gene editing is called for in the wake of He Jiankui’s controversial study.


    HONG KONG, CHINA—An international conference on human gene editing dominated by news of the birth of the world's first genetically engineered babies concluded today with a statement from the organizers that harshly condemned the controversial study. But it did not call for a global moratorium on similar studies, as some scientists had hoped; instead it called for a "translational pathway" that might eventually bring the ethically fraught technology to patients in a responsible way.

    The hotly debated study, which apparently resulted in twin baby girls whose genomes were altered in a way that could affect their offspring, came to light on the eve of the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing here. The first summit, held in Washington, D.C., in December 2015, concluded with a statement that specifically said that unless and until safety, efficacy, and ethical and regulatory issues are resolved, "it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing," a reference to genetic modifications that can be passed on to the next generation.

    But that is exactly what Chinese researcher He Jiankui did, crippling a gene known as CCR5 in hopes of making the babies, as well as their offspring, resistant to HIV infection. After the news was reported, He appeared yesterday at a special session at the summit to defend his work and answer questions from the stunned audience. (He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in nearby Shenzhen, China, withdrew from a second session on embryo editing scheduled for Thursday afternoon.)

  • Trump’s nominee for USDA science post calls new U.S. climate report ‘genuine’

    Scott Hutchins at his Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C.

    United States Senate

    The entomologist nominated to be the chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C., said today he accepts the conclusions of a new federal report on climate change that President Donald Trump has dismissed and that he hopes science can help farmers adapt to some of the harmful effects already being caused by global warming.

    Scott Hutchins went before the Senate agriculture committee this morning in his bid to become USDA undersecretary for research, education, and economics. The 59-year-old Hutchins, who recently retired after a career in research and management at what is now the agricultural division of DowDuPont, would fill a position that has been vacant since the end of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

    Hutchins’s comments stand in sharp contrast to the hostile reaction from the Trump administration to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released last week. The 1600-page report concluded that “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.” It adds that “the impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify,” but notes that the severity might be mitigated by the country’s ability to adapt to those changes.

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