ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Astronomer Geoff Marcy booted from National Academy of Sciences in wake of sexual harassment

    Astronomer Geoff Marcy

    Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is no longer a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Niklas Hellen/Getty Images

    For the first time, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has expelled a member who had been found guilty of sexual harassment. NAS’s governing council has rescinded the membership of astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, the academy told its members in an email yesterday.

    The action is the first since the 158-year-old NAS revised its bylaws 2 years ago to allow members to be expelled for documented misconduct violations. No actions were taken on the policy until fall 2020, when, after reading news accounts, a French scientist filed a complaint against Marcy and three other NAS members who had been investigated for sexual harassment.

    The email from NAS informed members that Marcy’s membership had been rescinded, effective 24 May, for violating its harassment policy. The NAS press office confirmed the academy’s action in an email to ScienceInsider, noting that the council’s vote met the required two-thirds majority.

  • Biden adds voice to calls for further investigation into origins of pandemic virus

    Security outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab

    In February 2020, security personnel stood guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China during the visit of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

    Thomas Peter/REUTERS

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    President Joe Biden today joined a growing chorus of voices calling, yet again, for a fuller, more transparent investigation into whether the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Biden outlined steps the United States would take to try to resolve the question, apparently even if China declines to allow a more thorough investigation of the scenario than a World Health Organization (WHO) team conducted earlier this year. The president’s move came as several top federal scientists testified at a Senate hearing this morning that the lab-leak hypothesis was a credible explanation for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, although less likely than a competing scenario in which the virus spilled over from wild or domesticated animals into people.

    In a written statement, Biden said he has “asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days. … As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts.”

  • Biden’s pick to lead Department of Energy science signals focus on climate and diversity

    Asmeret Asefaw Berhe speaks from a stage

    Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is known for her climate-related research and efforts to increase diversity in science.

    TED CONFERENCE/FLICKR/CC BY-NC-ND

    Sometimes a new presidential administration signals where it’s headed through whom it selects to lead a federal research agency. That appears to be the case with President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research wing, the Office of Science. Last month Biden tapped Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil scientist at the University of California (UC), Merced, to lead the office, which has a $7 billion annual budget and is best known for funding physics, running national laboratories, and building atom smashers and other scientific megamachines.

    The nomination of Berhe, 46, suggests the office will increasingly emphasize research related to climate change, scientists say. Berhe currently studies how factors such as erosion, fire, and temperature affect whether soil soaks up carbon dioxide or releases more of it into the air. She was born and raised in Eritrea and, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would be the first person of color to direct the office. (As usual for nominees awaiting confirmation, Berhe declined to be interviewed.)

    Announced on 22 April, Berhe’s nomination delighted many environmental researchers. “She’s as star scientist as star scientists get,” says soil ecologist Bala Chaudhary of De- Paul University. Ecologist John Harte of UC Berkeley, who was Berhe’s doctoral adviser, hopes her nomination marks a shift in DOE science from esoteric conceptual problems to addressing the climate crisis. “There will be, I hope, more emphasis on science that relates to the sustainability of the human enterprise as opposed to the mere sustainability of a scientific endeavor,” he says.

    Berhe has also long worked for greater diversity in the sciences, says geochemist Peggy O’Day of UC Merced. “She’s been a real leader, both on our campus as well as nationally and internationally, in advocating for people of color in science,” O’Day says. Last year, Berhe and Chaudhary published a paper in PLOS Computational Biology entitled, “Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab.”

    But some physicists worry Berhe may have trouble guiding the often-fractious agency, citing her scant experience managing large organizations and her unusual scientific background for a position often held by physicists. According to her CV, Berhe has held one DOE grant for $200,000 and has served as interim associate dean of UC Merced’s graduate division.

    As the nation’s single largest funder of the physical sciences, the Office of Science supports six research programs, including fusion energy sciences, high energy physics, and nuclear physics. Its basic energy sciences program funds chemistry, materials science, and condensed matter physics, and its advanced scientific computing program provides supercomputing for myriad studies. Biological and environmental research get 10.7% of its budget. The office owns 10 of DOE’s 17 national labs and builds big scientific facilities—the newest is a $730 million particle accelerator at Michigan State University.

    The director’s job is to set priorities among the competing research programs and coordinate billion-dollar construction projects so that as one nears completion the next is ready to go, says Bill Madia, a nuclear physicist and former director of two national labs. “It’s one of the most important management jobs in science in the world,” he says. “You’re comparing priorities from bioenergy centers to neutrino experiments to exascale computers.”

    Given that much of the office’s money goes to physics, Michael Lubell, a physicist at City College of New York and former head of public affairs for the American Physical Society, wonders how, as a biogeochemist, Berhe will approach those decisions. “There’s nothing in her background to suggest that she knows anything about fusion, or particle physics, or nuclear physics, or atomic physics,” he says.

    Most past office directors have had a mixture of training in physics, experience running large organizations, and work history with DOE. But that background is not a prerequisite for success, says Raymond Orbach, a theoretical physicist and former chancellor of UC Irvine who directed the office from 2002 to 2009. Orbach won plaudits for, among other things, developing a 20-year to-do list of major projects that DOE has largely followed. But he notes that he, too, was a newcomer to DOE. “One never knows how someone with no prior formal government service (e.g. me) will turn out,” he wrote in an email. The office’s most recent director, Christopher Fall, has a doctorate in neuroscience and had prior management experience at DOE and the Office of Naval Research.

    Some directors with traditional credentials have struggled with the job. William Brinkman, a theoretical physicist who led the office from 2009 to 2013 under former President Barack Obama, came to DOE with 14 years of experience as a director at the storied private Bell Labs. But the scholarly and cerebral Brinkman found it difficult to communicate with Congress, Lubell says. During one hearing, a legislator pressed Brinkman for a plan to deal with a particular issue. To lawmakers’ dismay, Lubell recalls, “Brinkman pointed to his head and said, ‘It’s in here.’”

    No director has to do it all on her own, notes physicist Cherry Murray of the University of Arizona, who was director from 2015 to 2017. DOE has a corps of staffers who are “incredibly competent” and can help keep the agency humming, she says. “I’m not worried at all about physics research dropping by the wayside” under Berhe, she says. “That will continue, just as under me biology research continued.” Murray says she is curious to see where Berhe will head in setting policy.

    If Berhe is confirmed, her success will largely rest with budgetmakers in Congress. For example, even though former President Donald Trump repeatedly tried to slash the office’s budget, Congress increased it by 31% over 4 years. That boost spared Fall from having to make unpopular cuts. If the budget keeps growing, Berhe may enjoy a long honeymoon with DOE-sponsored researchers.

    Should budgets tighten, she could face the challenge of retaining the support of the community while picking winners and losers. Berhe has the leadership skills to meet that potential challenge, Harte says. “I would call her steadfast with good humor and an extraordinary thoughtfulness,” he says. “She will gather the respect of others because of her intense intelligence.”

  • U.K. set to loosen rules for gene-edited crops and animals

    Person in lab field growing iron-rich wheat

    U.K. rules on gene editing are expected to be less strict than those for transgenic crops like this iron-rich wheat the John Innes Center is testing.

    JOHN INNES CENTRE/FLICKR

    When Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 2019, he pledged to “liberate the U.K.’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti–genetic modification rules.” The country had to hew to strict European biotech regulations until it finalized its divorce from the European Union in January. Next month, the government is widely expected to follow through on Johnson’s promise by making it easier to test and commercialize some genetically engineered crops and livestock.

    The decision, which will be announced by 17 June, applies to plants and animals whose genes have been edited with precision techniques such as CRISPR. It will put the United Kingdom in line with several countries including the United States, and U.K. biotechnologists say it will speed research and stimulate investment.

    “Much as I have to swallow hard and say it through gritted teeth, Brexit has at least one dividend,” says Jonathan Jones, a plant biologist at the Sainsbury Laboratory, a nonprofit center investigating plant disease resistance. Tina Barsby, CEO of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, says the shift may be “the most significant policy breakthrough in plant breeding for more than 2 decades.”

  • Antivaccine activists use a government database on side effects to scare the public

    aerial view of cars lining up in a parking lot

    Lines for COVID-19 vaccinations in Houston in February. Hundreds of millions of U.S. inoculations have led to reports of possible side effects in an open-access government database.

    Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    On 5 May, Fox News host Tucker Carlson delivered a 10-minute monologue casting doubt on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines on his show, Tucker Carlson Tonight. He announced that almost 4000 people had died after getting COVID-19 vaccines, and added that those data “comes from VAERS,”—the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a U.S. government program that collects reports of side effects possibly caused by vaccines.

    It was a misleading statement. The reporting of a death to VAERS indicates nothing about what caused it, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) subsequent investigations have found no indication that deaths were caused by COVID-19 vaccines, save in a small subset with an extremely rare clotting disorder linked to one vaccine. But the TV segment pulled VAERS, a 31-year-old early warning system widely relied on by scientists, even deeper into the culture wars over vaccination. After the broadcast, a new phalanx of antivaccine activists began plumbing VAERS for data to scare the public about vaccination, says Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning nonprofit that is monitoring anti–COVID-19 vaccine activity on social media. “We have been tracking these attacks since February and this one resonated in a different way after Tucker hit it,” Carusone says.

  • Rich countries cornered COVID-19 vaccine doses. Four strategies to right a ‘scandalous inequity’

    Illustration: 8 people around a world map, gambling with vaccine vials, most of which sit on North America and Europe.
    Stephan Schmitz/FolioArt

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    In January, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, issued a blunt warning. The world was “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure,” he said. Wealthy countries were buying up available COVID-19 vaccines, leaving tiny amounts for others—a replay of what happened during the 2009 influenza pandemic. “The price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” Tedros said.

    He was right. Today, some rich countries are vaccinating children as young as 12 years old, who are at extremely low risk of developing severe COVID-19, while poorer countries don’t even have enough shots for health care workers. Nearly 85% of the COVID-19 vaccine doses administered to date have gone to people in high-income and upper middle–income countries. The countries with the lowest gross domestic product per capita only have 0.3%.

    Tedros lambasted the “scandalous inequity” again in his opening speech at the World Health Assembly on 24 May. By September, at least 10% of the population in every country should be vaccinated, he said.

    Disparities in global health are nothing new. Lifesaving therapies such as monoclonal antibodies are unavailable in large parts of the world. Even vaccines and drugs that cost pennies to make don’t reach millions of people who need them. But the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the inequities in a distinct, acute way. As normality is returning to vaccine front-runners such as Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States, India’s health system is buckling under soaring case numbers—and the world is still recording almost 5 million cases and more than 80,000 deaths every week.

    The moral argument aside, there’s a very practical reason to try to distribute vaccines more equitably: No part of the world can feel safe if the pandemic rages on elsewhere, posing the risk of reintroduction and spawning potentially more dangerous viral mutants.

  • I’m subject NL002-0060 and I’m dropping out of my COVID-19 vaccine trial

    A syringe sits on a tray

    A syringe containing either CureVac’s COVID-19 vaccine or a placebo is ready to be used at a trial site in Brussels on 2 March.

    REUTERS/Yves Herman

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma the past few weeks: Do I stay in the COVID-19 vaccine trial I’ve been enrolled in for 4 months—and which I very much hope will be successful—or do I drop out, take an already proven vaccine, and protect myself sooner? It’s a question thousands of trial participants have faced over the past 6 months but that you don’t hear much about.

    I knew I might face this dilemma since 21 January, the day I drove to a behemoth academic center in the southeastern part of Amsterdam, my hometown, to enroll in the HERALD study, a large efficacy trial of a candidate COVID-19 vaccine produced by the company CureVac. I sat down in a small basement room with an infectious diseases physician who provided some basic information about the study, gave me a consent form to sign, and carried out a physical examination.

  • Amid violence and protests, Colombian universities seek to promote a national dialogue

    A group of students depict wounded people hanging from a bridge during a protest

    Students take part in a street play depicting people wounded in demonstrations during an antigovernment protest in Bogotá, Colombia, on 15 May.

    AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

    In the first week of May, hundreds of college students in Colombia turned off their webcams during online classes and shared the same profile picture, a black background with a message in capital letters: “It is difficult to study while my people are being killed.” It was their way of supporting a national strike and protests that started on 28 April and left 19 people dead in the first week, many of them apparently killed by the Colombian police and its antiriot squad.

    The webcam demonstration marked a turning point in the involvement of Colombia’s academic world in the country’s social upheaval, which has only escalated since then. More than 40 people have now died and there are more than 2000 complaints of police brutality, including 27 cases of sexual violence; nearly 200 people are missing. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, initially to protest a tax reform that was later withdrawn, and now to demand measures against police brutality, inequality, and the economic impact of the pandemic, which has left 42% of Colombians living on less than $90 monthly.

    University students from all fields have led demonstrations in the biggest cities and nearly 8000 Colombian researchers have signed a letter rejecting police brutality. The Colombian Association of Evolutionary Biology and the Colombian Botanical Association have released statements supporting protesters and demanding respect for human rights. On 8 May, ornithologists and biology students boycotted Colombia’s participation in the biggest international bird-watching event, the Global Big Day.

  • Two more coronaviruses can infect people, studies suggest

    immune transmission electron microscopy of a coronavirus

    An electron microscopic image of a new caninelike coronavirus isolated from a child in Malaysia with pneumonia and grown in dog cells

    Molecular and Cellular Imaging Center/Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center/Ohio State University

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Eight children hospitalized with pneumonia in Malaysia several years ago had evidence of infections with a novel coronavirus similar to one found in dogs, a research team reports today. Only seven coronaviruses were previously known to infect people, the latest being SARS-CoV-2, the spark of the COVID-19 pandemic. The discovery of this likely new human pathogen, along with the report of an instance of a coronavirus that appears to have jumped from pigs to people many years ago, could significantly expand which members of the viral family pose another global threat.

    “I think the more we look, the more we will find that these coronaviruses are crossing species everywhere,” says Stanley Perlman, a virologist at the University of Iowa who was not involved in the new work.

  • China overhauls its public health bureaucracy

    Passengers wearing masks are seen at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan January 2020

    Passengers at Hankou railway station in Wuhan, China, on 22 January 2020, the day before the government locked down the city. 

    Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

    The Chinese government, roundly criticized at home and abroad for its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to have taken some lessons from that crisis. On 13 May, it announced an overhaul of its public health bureaucracy, centered on the creation of a new national agency that will report directly to China’s State Council. On paper, at least, the new structure should help bypass the layers of bureaucracy that stymied the timely flow of information from local authorities in Wuhan and Hebei province to top national officials in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

    The new National Administration of Disease Prevention and Control (NADPC) will be tasked with safeguarding and promoting public health, establishing an epidemic monitoring and early warning system, and guiding disease control research, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. It will absorb the existing Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) and will be headed by Wang Heshang, an official at the National Health Commission (NHC) who was dispatched to Hubei last year to direct the governmental response to the outbreak.

    “The development is clearly important,” says Keiji Fukuda, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong who previously held several positions at the World Health Organization (WHO). Although Xinhua’s announcement did not link NADPC’s creation to the pandemic failures, “In essence, it is a response to China’s internal assessment of what it needs to do differently to perform better,” Fukuda says. “What is not clear is how this will actually work in practice.”

  1. « 1
  2. ‹ previous
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. 5
  7. 6
  8. 7
  9. 8
  10. next ›
  11. 813 »