ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • How a Pennsylvania industrial engineer became the odds-on favorite to win a seat in Congress

    Chrissy Houlahan at a campaign event

    Chrissy Houlahan makes her pitch to voters in Pennsylvania’s sixth congressional district.

    Kelly Schulz

    Pennsylvania is a key battleground in the fight for control of the next Congress, and scientists are in the middle of that fight. In February, the state’s highest court threw out a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 18 congressional districts and installed one that, for the most part, eliminates partisan gerrymandering. Those new districts helped push some Republican incumbents into retirement, while at the same time prompting many first-time Democratic candidates to run for seats that now appear winnable.

    The result is a political free-for-all in which veteran campaign watchers are hedging their bets on who the winners might be. “I haven’t seen a single poll, and without a poll, you can’t begin to make a guess,” says political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College (F&M) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and runs the F&M Poll. A crowded field, he says, simply adds to the confusion.

    This story is the second in a three-part series on candidates with considerable scientific training who are running as Democrats for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania. Their first test is the 15 May primary.

  • Postdoc hopes Pennsylvania voters will help her re-engineer how to run for Congress

    Molly Sheehan at a campaign event

    Molly Sheehan engages voters in Pennsylvania’s fifth congressional district.

    the Molly Sheehan Campaign

    Pennsylvania is a key battleground in the fight for control of the next Congress, and scientists are in the middle of that fight. In February, the state’s highest court threw out a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 18 congressional districts and installed one that, for the most part, eliminates partisan gerrymandering. Those new districts helped push some Republican incumbents into retirement, while at the same time prompting many first-time Democratic candidates to run for seats that now appear winnable.

    The result is a political free-for-all in which veteran campaign watchers are hedging their bets on who the winners might be. “I haven’t seen a single poll, and without a poll, you can’t begin to make a guess,” says political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College (F&M) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and runs the F&M Poll. A crowded field, he says, simply adds to the confusion.

    This story is the first in a three-part series on candidates with considerable scientific training who are running as Democrats for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania. Their first test is the 15 May primary.

  • Basic scientists still feel pinch of new NIH clinical trial policy

    Megan Gunnar working with students

    Megan Gunnar’s basic research on how teens respond to stress has been classified as a clinical trial.

    Twelve Plus Media

    Basic researchers who study the brain and human behavior thought lawmakers had come to their rescue in March by blocking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, from redefining their studies as clinical trials. But NIH officials are still pushing ahead with new requirements that scientists say make no sense and will cripple their research.

    What some see as NIH’s narrow interpretation of a directive from lawmakers has researchers up in arms as they navigate confusing new rules and paperwork. The clinical trial policies “are not appropriate for fundamental research,” a group of societies wrote in an email to NIH this week.

    The issue goes back almost a year, when researchers became aware that a new NIH definition of clinical trials would encompass many basic studies involving human subjects. Since January 2018, these projects must now go through a new submission and review process and will need to be registered and have results reported on clinicaltrials.gov, a public database, among other requirements aimed at improving rigor and transparency in clinical research.

  • Salmon spawn fierce debate over protecting endangered species, thanks to a single gene

    Members of California’s Karuk Tribe net a Chinook salmon from the Klamath River, where spring runs of the fish are in decline.

    Members of California’s Karuk Tribe net a Chinook salmon from the Klamath River, where spring runs of the fish are in decline.

    David McLain

    For 40 years, Leaf Hillman, a ceremonial leader of California’s Karuk Tribe, has danced on the banks of the Klamath River. Following the tradition of his ancestors, he implores the salmon that have long sustained his tribe to return from the sea.

    Chinook, or king, salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) arrive in two waves, in spring and fall, to spawn in freshwater. But the Karuk hold the spring arrivals in “special esteem,” Hillman says. The fish leave saltwater in March, having packed enough fat onto their meter-long bodies to sustain them for months, until they mature and spawn far up the river. Fall Chinook spawn lower down in the watershed and mature in the ocean before heading upstream, so they don’t carry as much fat.

    The spring runs were historically larger, but dams built on the Klamath between 1912 and 1964 denied these so-called springers access to hundreds of kilometers of spawning habitat in the uppermost tributaries. And other changes, such as water diversions for farming, have affected the spring Chinook more than the fall fish, because springers spend more time in the river. As a result, fewer and fewer spring salmon answer Hillman’s appeal these days.

  • European Commission proposes €100 billion research spending plan

    The flag of the European Union: yellow stars on a blue background.

    The flag of the European Union

    Giampaolo Squarcina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The European Commission today proposed spending €100 billion on research from 2021 to 2027 under its next continent-wide science funding program. That is less than some research groups had hoped for. Still, they say it is a good—but not great—opening bid in what are expected to be lengthy negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Union’s member states on a final spending plan.

    The €100 billion proposal, which the commission says represents a 50% increase compared with the previous period, includes €97.6 billion for Horizon Europe, the follow-on to the current Horizon 2020 multiyear spending initiative, and €2.4 billion for the nuclear research program Euratom. The total doesn’t include €6 billion for ITER, the international fusion project under construction near Cadarache in France, but it does include  €3.5 billion under the InvestEU fund, which aims to help research projects secure loans or equity funds from other sources. Including funds for digital technologies, the commission is proposing to devote €114.8 billion to research and innovation.

    The commission notes that its proposal marks the largest amount ever earmarked for EU research programs, which started in 1984. And it says that although other spending areas, such as agriculture and regional development, are being “moderately” squeezed, they’ve put a priority on protecting science. Research even got star billing as the first topic in the commission’s budget document.

  • Accused cancer scientist resigns as editor of prestigious journal

    Inder Verma

    Inder Verma in a lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 2012.

    Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy Stock Photo

    Inder Verma, the prominent cancer scientist and geneticist who has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, resigned yesterday as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a prestigious academic journal.

    Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., which publishes PNAS, announced Verma’s departure in an email to NAS members today:

    Yesterday Dr. Verma informed me that he has resigned as Editor-in-Chief. In view of Dr. Verma’s resignation and to ensure that PNAS has leadership in place to move the journal forward, we will soon initiate the search to identify his successor and would welcome your suggestions.

  • NIH’s neuroscience institute will limit grants to well-funded labs

    scientist pipetting in laboratory

    The National Institutes of Health’s neuroscience institute plans to free up funds for young and at-risk investigators by limiting support for large labs.

    iStock.com/Hotaik Sung

    Big laboratories are back in the crosshairs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH’s neurological institute plans to pare back the number of investigators it supports who have $1 million or more in NIH grants.

    The policy “will allow us to fund more early stage investigators and help people who just missed the pay line [funding cutoff] and are about to drop off the radar screen,” says Robert Finkelstein, extramural research director at the $2.1 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Maryland, NIH’s fifth largest institute.

    The 27 April policy brings to mind a hugely controversial proposal a year ago to limit the number of NIH grants an investigator could hold at the equivalent of three basic R01 awards. The cap, called the Grant Support Index (GSI), was meant to free up funds for early- and mid-career researchers. The GSI drew an outcry from many researchers, however. NIH replaced it with the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, which will direct $210 million a year to 400 early stage investigators and others at risk of losing all support.

  • Critics allege EPA’s new transparency rule has hidden pro-industry agenda

    Smog blanketing Los Angeles, California

    Critics say a new Environmental Protection Agency policy will make it harder to cut fine particles, such as those in smog blanketing Los Angeles, California.

    IM_photo/shutterstock.com

    When Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., announced last week that the agency plans to bar regulators from considering studies that have not made their underlying data public, he said it was to ensure the quality of the research used to shape new rules. “The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” Pruitt said at a 24 April event (which was closed to the press) unveiling the proposed “transparency” rule.

    But longtime observers of EPA, including former senior agency officials, see a more troubling and targeted goal: undermining key studies that have helped justify stricter limits on air pollution. In particular, they say, the new policy is aimed at blocking EPA consideration of large epidemiological studies that have highlighted the health dangers of tiny particles of soot and other chemicals less than 2.5 microns in diameter. Those studies, which rest in part on confidential health information that is difficult to make public, have been under attack for decades from some industry groups and Republican lawmakers in Congress, who argue that the confidentiality masks flaws in the studies. The same interests lobbied heavily for the new EPA rule, and critics of the policy say it is just new clothing for an old—and largely discredited—argument.

    “It just keeps coming back in different forms. … It’s like malaria. Or maybe herpes would be a better analogy,” says toxicologist Dan Costa of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who recently retired after leading EPA’s air research program for 14 years.

  • Genome writing project aims to rally scientists around virus-proofing cells

    worker looking into a

    A team of synthetic biologists hopes to protect cells used in drug manufacturing facilities from viral infection.

    BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS/Newscom

    Launched in 2016 with the sprawling ambition to build large genomes, the synthetic biology initiative known as Genome Project–write (GP-write) is now, slowly, getting down to specifics. Ahead of a meeting today in Boston, GP-write’s leadership announced a plan to organize its international group of collaborators around a “community-wide project”: engineering cells to resist viral infection.

    GP-write’s original proposal to design and assemble an entire human genome from scratch seems to have receded from view since the project’s rocky launch, when a private meeting of its founders sparked accusations of secrecy and speculations about labmade humans. A proposal published weeks later in Science described GP-write as a decadelong effort to reduce by more than 1000-fold the cost of engineering and testing large genomes consisting of hundreds of millions of DNA letters.

    The narrower project announced today—redesigning the genomes of cells from humans and other species to make them “ultrasafe”—represents “a theme that could run through all of GP-write,” says geneticist Jef Boeke of New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, who leads the project along with Harvard University geneticist George Church, lawyer Nancy Kelley of Nancy J Kelley + Associates in New York City, and biotechnology catalyst Andrew Hessel of the San Francisco, California–based software company Autodesk Research.

  • Federal appeals court hears CRISPR patent dispute

    Statue of Justice holding scales

    A federal appeals court today heard arguments that the U.S. patent office made legal mistakes when reviewing its ruling on CRISPR, the genome editor.

    iStockPhoto/no_limit_pictures

    Here’s a double-negative brain twister with potentially huge financial ramifications and a Nobel Prize resting on the answer: For an invention to be “nonobvious”—and therefore patentable in the United States—should there be no guarantee of success when researchers embark on experiments that lead to the invention?

    That mind-bending question was the centerpiece of a case heard today by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., over the lucrative patent portfolio surrounding the revolutionary genome editor commonly known as CRISPR. This 2-year-old intellectual property battle pits lawyers from the University of California (UC) against litigators from the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both teams represent groups of researchers from several institutions who claim to have made the key discoveries that allow CRISPR, which bacteria naturally use as an immune mechanism, to make precise cuts in the genomes of mammals—technology that ultimately may pave the way for new medical treatments. The invention has spawned several companies, and many expect it will lead to Nobel Prizes for the key scientists.

    In April 2014, Broad received the first of several issued patents for the mammalian cell use of CRISPR, which the UC lawyers contested with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But in February 2017, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) ruled in favor of Broad. At a hearing today that ran less than 45 minutes, a lawyer for the UC system asserted that PTAB made a “legal error” in its interpretation of “nonobvious” and asked the appeals court to either reverse the decision or—and this is the more likely scenario—remand the case back to PTAB to reconsider its ruling. “UC did the best they could with the cards they were dealt, but it’s still not looking great for UC,” says Jacob Sherkow, a visiting scholar at Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, California, who has followed the case closely and was at the hearing.

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