Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • First peanut allergy treatment gains backing from FDA advisory panel

    A peanut in its shell
    Flickr/Andrew Malone (CC BY 2.0)

    After 8 hours of contentious discussion, an advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today endorsed the effectiveness of a first-of-its-kind peanut allergy treatment. By a seven-to-two vote, the panel concluded that the treatment, known as AR101, can reduce allergic reactions from accidental exposure to peanuts. The committee also voted eight to one to endorse a safety plan FDA has proposed; it would be used, along with available safety data, to support the treatment’s use in children and teenagers.

    FDA is not bound to follow its advisory committees’ advice but often does. It will now weigh whether to approve the treatment, which is marketed by the company Aimmune Therapeutics headquartered in Brisbane, California.

    The vote marks a turning point for the food allergy field, where the treatment—ingesting gradually increasing doses of peanut protein, in hopes of helping the immune system learn to tolerate it—has captured the attention of patients, families, and doctors. Called oral immunotherapy, it’s already offered by about 200 allergists in the United States who give patients calibrated doses of peanut products in the doctor’s office and at home. But hundreds more doctors have been waiting for FDA’s approval of Aimmune’s version, a designated capsule that contains powder derived from peanut flour and holds peanut proteins at consistent levels.

  • Why a high-profile climate science opponent quit Trump’s White House

    William Happer

    William Happer

    Gage Skidmore/flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    When William Happer realized this summer that his plan to question climate science had been shut down by the White House, he knew he'd stick to his promise: to serve exactly one year in President Donald Trump’s administration and then leave.

    Happer’s original idea to review climate research involved a team of scientists who would critique government science reports and play up the areas of uncertainty. It would be centered on attacking the National Climate Assessment and potentially be used to mount a challenge to the endangerment finding, the scientific underpinning of federal climate policy, according to several associates of Happer.

  • Clubby and ‘disturbing’ citation behavior by researchers in Italy has surged

    conceptual illustration of multiple  people’s speech bubbles overlapping forming a target.
    Mark Airs/Getty Images

    The rate at which scientists in Italy cite themselves and their compatriots is rising faster than in 10 other developed countries, according to a new study. The surge in Italy’s clubby citation behavior is likely the result of a 2010 law requiring productivity standards for academic recruitment or promotion, the study authors say.

    The findings are a cautionary tale for research administrators who rely too much on citation metrics in allocating resources and making decisions on career advancement, says study author Giuseppe De Nicolao, an engineer at the University of Pavia in Italy. Linking professional advancement to citation indicators can prod scientists into unintended behaviors and make the metrics unreliable, he says.

    The findings are “disturbing,” says Ludo Waltman, a bibliometric expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands who was not involved in the study. To limit questionable citation practices, Waltman says, the Italian evaluation system should exclude self-citations and consider factors such as a researcher’s experience and activities in addition to citation counts.

  • EU research commissioner named, but lacks ‘research’ in her title

    Mariya Gabriel

    Bulgarian politician Mariya Gabriel has been named as the European commissioner to oversee research in a sprawling portfolio.

    Mauro Bottaro/European Union

    Mariya Gabriel, a conservative politician from Bulgaria, is slated to become the next European research chief—although her job title, unlike that of her predecessors, doesn’t include the words “research” or “science.” If approved by the European Parliament, she will become commissioner for innovation and youth in November, the European Commission’s President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced on 10 September. Gabriel will be responsible for spending billions of euros in a portfolio covering education, research, innovation, culture, youth, and sport policies—areas that are now split between two commissioners.

    Some researchers and science policy experts worry the new job title could signal a reduced standing for science within von der Leyen’s proposed executive branch for the European Union, made up of 26 commissioners. “I'm rather concerned with ‘research’ dropping from the portfolio name of our commissioner,” says Maud Evrard, head of policy affairs at Science Europe, an association of research organizations based in Brussels. But others say the new, merged position will wield a large budget and have the power to bridge related policies. Bringing the portfolios together will give education, research, and innovation more “weight and visibility,” says Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general for research for the commission who is now president of the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

    Despite growing EU budgets, the research commissioner’s role lacks prestige, complained the incumbent research commissioner Carlos Moedas in a tweet he posted before von der Leyen’s announcement. “The truth is that nobody was talking about or interested by the next R&D Commissioner,” he wrote. “In the last 5 years, I really tried to put this portfolio on the map. We have still a long way to go.”

  • When Europeans do science in China

    Javid Babak speaking with a student in front of a whiteboard

    Babak Javid (right) of Tsinghua University in Beijing and his former student Junhao Zhu (left), now a postdoc at Harvard University

    Rongjun Cai and Babak Javid

    China’s evolution into a scientific superpower has altered the politics behind the global movement of scientific talent. Once seen as a benign step in fostering international collaboration, such migrations are now viewed as a potential threat to domestic research by officials in the United States and Australia. In this week’s two-part series, ScienceInsider examines the nature of interactions between European and Chinese scientists. Yesterday, we focused on how European funding agencies view the issue. Today, we explore the experiences of several European researchers who have worked in China (although some scientists cited the current political climate in declining to comment). Some aspects of their stories will sound familiar to academic scientists anywhere in the world, whereas others have a uniquely Chinese flavor.

    Getting started

    Babak Javid knew that assembling a strong research team would be essential to his success as a new faculty member at Tsinghua University in Beijing. But for the first 6 months after setting up his tuberculosis (TB) lab, the U.K.-trained physician-scientist struggled to find a single graduate student willing to come on board.

  • U.S. EPA to eliminate all mammal testing by 2035

    researcher hands holding a mouse unoL

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., announced today that it will stop conducting or funding studies on mammals by 2035. The move, which is already eliciting strong reactions from groups supporting or opposing experiments on animals, makes EPA the first federal agency to put a hard deadline on phasing out animal research.

    EPA’s decision “is a decisive win for taxpayers, animals, and the environment,” says Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.–based animal activist group that has slammed such research as a waste of taxpayer money. “Animal tests are unreliable and misleading,” he asserts.

    But Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C.–based environmental group, blasts EPA’s decision. “It’s very disappointing and very frustrating,” Sass says. Ending animal testing, she argues, “is going to allow potentially dangerous chemicals to get out there into the environment and into consumer products.”

  • Chinese ties don’t faze European funders

    John Speakman with two research colleagues

    Scottish physiologist John Speakman (left) runs a laboratory in Beijing while maintaining his affiliation with the United Kingdom’s University of Aberdeen, where he also has a laboratory.

    Agata Rudolf

    China’s evolution into a scientific superpower has altered the politics behind the global movement of scientific talent. Once seen as a benign step in fostering international collaboration, such migrations are now viewed as a potential threat to domestic research by officials in the United States and Australia. In this week’s two-part series, ScienceInsider examines the nature of interactions between European and Chinese scientists. Today, we focus on how European funding agencies view the issue. Tomorrow, we explore the experiences of several European researchers who have worked in China (although some scientists cited the current political climate in declining to comment). Some aspects of their stories will sound familiar to academic scientists anywhere in the world, whereas others have a uniquely Chinese flavor.  

    Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus needs some time to describe all her ties to top-ranked Chinese research institutions.

    “Let me think,” says the professor of chemistry at Germany’s Bielefeld University. “At Tsinghua University I’m a member of the advisory board for its clean energy center. At Shanghai Jiao Tong [University] I’m associated with the engineering school. At Nanjing University it’s thermal engineering. And at the CAS [Chinese Academy of Sciences] institute I’m a guest professor in thermal physics.”

  • Suspect surfaces in the mysterious case of the underwater research station that vanished

    a cut cable underwater

    Divers found only a torn cable where a research station had been in the Baltic Sea.

    Research Diving Center CAU

    Divers in the Baltic Sea remain on the hunt for an unusual sunken treasure: an 800-kilogram, €300,000 underwater scientific observatory that went missing several weeks ago. The internet has been flooded with speculative explanations—scrap metal thieves or a Russian sub, perhaps—but a few clues have surfaced to suggest a more prosaic culprit: a boat, possibly fishing illegally, somehow hooked the facility and dragged it away.

    On the morning of 21 August, a Wednesday, researchers in Kiel, Germany, noticed something strange. At 8:15 a.m., data transmissions from an underwater research observatory in the Baltic Sea suddenly stopped. At first the scientists thought there might be a temporary problem with the data connection. But when divers went down 1 week later to investigate, the explanation was much worse: The observatory itself had vanished. All that was left was a frayed cable that had connected the station to land.

    The observatory—a base station and an instrument platform—weighed so much that movement by natural causes such as a storm, sea animal, or strong currents have been ruled out. Speculation about wayward military submarines accidentally running into it or thieves in search of scrap metal are also probably off the mark, says Hermann Bange, a biogeochemist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, who coordinates the observatory project. The station was on a seabed only 14.5 meters below the surface, too shallow for a large submarine, and “while the station was incredibly valuable to us, it was made mostly of steel that wouldn’t have much resale value.”

  • India loses communication with moon lander

    An image of India's Chandrayaan-2 lander with moon behind it

    An image of IndiaChandrayaan-2 lander broadcast today by India’s space agency


    Mission controllers lost communication with India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander this afternoon, shortly before it was expected to settle on the moon’s surface.

    The descent was going smoothly until the lander was about 2 kilometers above the surface, an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) staffer at the mission control center in Bengaluru said. At that point, “Communication from [the] lander to [the] ground station was lost. The data is being analyzed,” the staffer said.

    After the apparent mishap, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: India is proud of our scientists! They’ve given their best and have always made India proud. These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be! Chairman @isro gave updates on Chandrayaan-2. We remain hopeful and will continue working hard on our space programme.

  • €100 million German insect protection plan will protect habitats, restrict weed killers, and boost research

    A bumble bee on a common thistle plant

    Bumble bees are expected to benefit from Germany’s insect protection efforts.

    NABU/Helge May

    BERLIN—Save the whales, sure. But save the dung beetles? In 2017, researchers reported a dramatic loss of insects in Germany’s nature reserves: 76% less biomass over 3 decades. Spurred by wide public concern about the findings, the federal government announced on 4 September a €100 million “action plan for insect protection,” which includes at least €25 million a year for research and monitoring of insect populations.

    “This takes several steps in the right direction,” says Lars Krogmann, an entomologist at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, who with colleagues last year published a nine-point plan with recommendations for reversing insect population declines.

    The government plan includes some of those recommendations, such as protecting insect habitats like meadows and hedges. “The insect decline is closely tied to a decline of habitats,” he says. For example, many traditional hay meadows—important habitats for native plants, insects, and other animals—have disappeared as farmers convert them to fields of fast-growing grass for animal feed, adding fertilizer and mowing every few weeks instead of once or twice a year. Farmers have also expanded their fields, plowing former hedgerows and verges. The plan, which is expected to become law in the coming months, proposes that several insect-rich habitats be granted protected status, including semiwild fruit orchards and stone walls in the countryside.

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