When a researcher in China startled the world earlier this week with the revelation that he had created the first gene-edited babies, only one prominent scientist quickly spoke out in his defense: geneticist George Church, whose Harvard University lab played a pioneering role in developing CRISPR, the genome editor used to engineer embryonic cells in the hugely controversial experiment. Church has reservations about the actions of He Jiankui, the scientist in Shenzhen, China, who led the work.
The fiercely debated experiment, described by He at a meeting in Hong Kong, China, today, used CRISPR to try to make the babies resistant to HIV by crippling a receptor, CCR5, that the virus uses to infect white blood cells. But Church also thinks there’s a frenzy of criticism surrounding He that exaggerates the severity of what one critic gingerly called his “missteps” but another called “monstrous.”
ScienceInsider spoke with Church shortly before He’s lecture in Hong Kong, but Church had seen the data earlier. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA—In a laboratory on Earth, the marsforming had already begun.
On 27 November, the day after the successful touchdown of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars, after the television crews had departed, technicians here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) were already at work, simulating Mars for a full-size model of the lander, which they call ForeSight. Scientists don’t yet know exactly where on Mars InSight is. But the first few images sent back to Earth have established its immediate environment—and that the lander is slightly tilted, by 4°. So yesterday, NASA engineers were playing in the sand, moving fake Mars rocks into position. They heaved ForeSight up on their shoulders while shoving small blocks underneath a lander leg to get it listing just right.
Looking on from a gallery above ForeSight was Matt Golombek, the JPL geologist who will lead the placement of two of InSight’s instruments, a heat probe and seismometer. From the few photos returned so far, he says, much has been learned about its location, which closely resembles martian terrains previously scouted by the Spirit rover.
HONG KONG, CHINA—The researcher who set off a global firestorm 2 days ago when he announced the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies defended his study at a meeting here this morning. He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in nearby Shenzhen, China, said he was “proud” of the work, which he said could lead to disease prevention “for millions of children,” and provided some details about the unpublished research that many scientists and bioethicists—as well as a phalanx of journalists—were clamoring to hear. Thousands around the world watched a webcast of his talk.
He dropped another bombshell, acknowledging that a second woman is in the early stages of a pregnancy with a gene-edited embryo.
But He, who used the genome-editing technique CRISPR in his attempt to make twin girls resistant to HIV infection, failed to provide many key details about the trial, was evasive about the ethical debate that had preceded the study, and provided sometimes confusing answers about the balance between risks and purported benefits. And his talk immediately triggered fresh criticism. The work should be “considered irresponsible,” biologist David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena said after hearing the presentation. “I don’t think it has been a transparent process, we only found out about it after it happened … after the children were born. I personally don’t think it was medically necessary,” Baltimore added, reflecting concerns that were widely voiced even before any details of the study had become available. “I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency.”
The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge today honored two women who have played leading roles in advancing the #MeToo movement within science by awarding them, along with one other #MeToo advocate, its edgy, $250,000 “Disobedience Award.”
BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, will share the prize with biologist Sherry Marts and #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke. The Disobedience Award, now in its second year, is funded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman to honor people or groups “who engage in ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience in service of society.” Hoffman has said he wanted to “recognize the people who help us look in the mirror and see who our better selves could be.”
McLaughlin—better known to her Twitter followers as @McLNeuro—will collect one-third of the prize money for speaking out against sexual harassment in science. Angered by a Science article describing allegations of sexual harassment against cancer scientist Inder Verma, who has since resigned from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, McLaughlin in May launched a petition urging the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to eject proven harassers from lifetime memberships in the prestigious academies. NASEM leaders soon said they would explore whether and how they might do so. They say full votes of their memberships are needed for change.
TAIPEI—Taiwanese voters have rejected the island’s policy to phase out nuclear energy. In a referendum held on Saturday, 59% of voters supported overturning legislation enacted last year that would end all use of nuclear power by 2025.
Taiwan’s three nuclear reactors provided 8.3% of its electricity in 2017, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which controls both the presidency and the legislature, had hoped to take nuclear power out of the mix by increasing the share of renewable sources in power generation to 20% by 2025; 50% would come from liquefied natural gas (LNG) and 30% from coal. But pro-nuclear advocates gathered more than 290,000 valid signatures in favor of a referendum on removing the nuclear phaseout clause from the books—enough for the referendum to proceed.
Science spoke with Min Lee, a nuclear engineering professor at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, and one of the referendum’s co-organizers. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Plan S, the contentious plan that a group of European science funders hopes will end scholarly journals’ paywalls, has fleshed out its rules—and softened its tone a bit. In seven pages of implementation guidance released today, the funders explain how their grantees can abide by Plan S rules come 2020, when it goes into effect. But some critics say the document—which is up for public discussion for the next 2 months—remains too restrictive.
The guidance outlines three ways researchers can comply with Plan S, which is backed by national funding agencies of countries including the United Kingdom, France, and Austria, as well as private funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They can publish in an open-access (OA) journal or platform. They can also publish in a subscription journal provided they also make a final, peer-reviewed version or accepted manuscript immediately available in an OA repository. Finally, contrary to earlier indications, grantees will be permitted to publish in hybrid journals, which charge subscriptions but also offer an OA option, but only if the journal has committed to flip to a fully OA model.
The guidance aims to explain practicalities and “sets things straight,” said Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s OA envoy and one of the creators of Plan S, at a news briefing in London today. Referring to the often-acrimonious debate that has emerged since Plan S was released on 4 September, he admitted to a “lack of clear communication” from his side.
HONG KONG, CHINA—On the eve of an international summit here on genome editing, a Chinese researcher has shocked many by claiming to have altered the genomes of twin baby girls born this month in a way that will pass the modification on to future generations. The alteration is intended to make the children’s cells resistant to infection by HIV, says the scientist, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.
The claim—yet to be reported in a scientific paper—initiated a firestorm of criticism today, with some scientists and bioethicists calling the work “premature,” “ethically problematic,” and even “monstrous.” The Chinese Society for Cell Biology issued a statement calling the research “a serious violation of the Chinese government’s laws and regulations and the consensus of the Chinese scientific community.” And He’s university issued a statement saying it has launched an investigation into the research, which it says may “seriously violate academic ethics and academic norms.”
Other scientists, meanwhile, asked to see details of the experiment and its justification before passing judgment.
On Wednesday, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will welcome the first cohort of members appointed by President Donald Trump to its oversight body, the National Science Board. Most of the seven fit the mold of senior academic leaders, prominent scientists, and corporate research managers who typically sit on the 24-member board. But Maureen Condic is somewhat different.
An associate professor of neurobiology at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Condic works in spinal cord regeneration, a field NSF does not fund. Bioethics is a passion of hers, and she has weighed in publicly on highly partisan debates in Congress over the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions and embryonic stem cells in research—issues on which the science board defers to other federal agencies. She also believes scientists should stick to their expertise in advising the government and has chastised researchers for claiming to have a better understanding than nonscientists about how new technologies and techniques should be used.
“I’m very much an advocate for broader public input on science policy, and less reliance on the opinions of scientists who have a vested interest in the outcome,” Condic told ScienceInsider in an interview shortly after her appointment was announced. “We tend to take the attitude that what scientists say is good for their enterprise is good for society. But that may not be true.”