Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Dog research at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gets formal review

    LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/Newscom

    Dog research at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is going under the microscope. Yesterday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington, D.C., began a formal review of studies involving nearly 100 canines at four VA facilities to determine whether the animals are being properly treated—and whether the work is necessary.

    If VA decides to end its dog research, it will be the first time a federal agency has stopped working on an entire species of animals since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effectively outlawed all biomedical research on chimpanzees in 2015, says Cindy Buckmaster, chair of the board of directors of Americans for Medical Progress, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes the need for animals in labs. “The findings from this report will impact how science is done on dogs across the country.”

    The NASEM review traces back to a campaign launched by the White Coat Waste Project in March 2017. The Washington, D.C.–based animal activist group used a public records request to highlight—in TV ads, on billboards, and through a massive email campaign—what it called “the mistreatment of puppies in painful heart attack studies,” including alleged botched surgeries and widespread animal abuse, at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. (VA responded, saying the studies had been carefully vetted and complied with the U.S. Animal Welfare Act.)

  • EPA science adviser allowed industry group to edit journal article

    Smog envelops Salt Lake City.

    Ravell Call/The Deseret News/AP

    Originally published by E&E News

    When the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins a major review of air pollution standards this week, a researcher who has received funding from an industry group opposed to the rules will be leading the agency's panel.

    Tony Cox, who was named chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, accepted funding from the American Petroleum Institute (API) to help finance his research into particulate matter pollution. He also allowed the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group to proofread and copy edit his findings before they were published, according to his own acknowledgements.

  • Despite growing budget, U.S. cancer institute slashes operating budget by 5%

    Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland

    Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

    A good year for biomedical research funding has turned sour at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, where the director is cutting operating budgets by 5% across the agency. Despite a rising overall budget, NCI’s funds are being stretched thin by various priorities and a ballooning number of funding applications, explains NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless.

    Just 2 months ago, biomedical researchers celebrated a 5% budget boost in 2019 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the fourth large annual increase after more than a decade of stagnant growth. NCI’s share was a $179 million increase (or 3%) for a total of $5.74 billion. But only $79 million went to NCI’s base operating budget and $100 million is tagged for the cancer moonshot funded through the 21st Century Cures Act. And NCI’s funds are being whittled away by rising federal salaries, transfers to other parts of NIH and its parent department, larger grants, and a mandate to raise training stipends, Sharpless says.

  • Panel investigating bullying, harassment at UNAIDS finds ‘boy’s club,’ calls for firing of head

    A report on the culture of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS calls for the firing of Michel Sidibé, its executive director.

    Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

    An independent panel that reviewed the culture at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland, has issued a scathing report that calls for the ouster of Executive Director Michel Sidibé. The panel, which was initiated in July by Sidibé after public allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, and abuse were leveled at UNAIDS, interviewed and surveyed a total of 500 staffers. It concluded that a “boy’s club” culture exists that does not effectively prevent or address sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.

    The panel said UNAIDS has a “vacuum of accountability” and concluded: “The UNAIDS Secretariat is in crisis, a crisis which threatens its vital work.” UNAIDS issues authoritative epidemiological updates about the epidemic, highlights shortcomings in responses and funding, and leads campaigns to address problems.

    “This is a damning indictment of the senior management of UNAIDS; radical reform is now essential. First Michel Sidibé has to resign. He was the right appointment once but now he is the biggest blockage to change,” says Gareth Thomas, a member of the U.K. Parliament for Harrow West and former U.K. minister for international development who supported Sidibé’s appointment.

  • In advance, satellites reveal hidden hot spots of ammonia pollution

    Livestock operations can be a major source of ammonia emissions.

    Melanie Blanding/Alamy Stock Photo

    Ammonia is a significant ingredient in smog and a growing problem, but scientists have struggled to track emissions in detail from sources such as animal feedlots and fertilizer factories. Now, satellite data described in a new paper can help them pinpoint and measure ammonia hot spots, potentially providing an independent way of tracking progress toward national pollution targets.

    “It’s a real historic moment,” says Mark Sutton, an environmental physicist with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Edinburgh. “This paper presents a landmark, an incredible level of detail.”

    Compared with soot, ozone, and other air pollutants, ammonia is a neglected stepchild, Sutton says, both in research and air quality regulations. Part of the difficulty is simply measuring it. The chemical typically stays in the atmosphere for less than a day, before it reacts with other molecules and turns into particulate matter. So it’s not easy to measure concentrations, even when studying it with ground-based instruments. In the Netherlands, for example, “We still can’t get a good picture of ammonia” despite a large number of monitoring stations, says Jan Willem Erisman, a nitrogen expert at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “This tells you the importance of satellite measurements.”

  • One dead, three severely injured after explosion at Indian shock wave lab

    The main building of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru

    Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—The explosion of a gas cylinder left one researcher dead and three others seriously injured yesterday in a shock wave lab at one of India’s premier research facilities. It’s unclear what caused the blast, which took place at 2:20 p.m. local time at the Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru.

    The explosion shook the entire neighborhood, according to scientists from the nearby National Institute of Advanced Studies. Manoj Kumar, 32, an employee of a startup named Super-Wave Technology, died on the spot, IISc says. The three wounded were employees of the company as well. The startup was launched in 2016 by two faculty members of IISc’s aerospace department.

    IISc’s shock wave lab opened half a century ago; it was upgraded in 2011 with funding from BrahMos Aerospace, a joint Indo-Russian venture that makes a supersonic cruise missile called BrahMos. Researchers at the lab have developed several potential applications for shock waves, including the delivery of drugs and vaccines, artificial insemination of livestock, oil extraction, and even the production of fruit juice. The facility now houses four sophisticated shock wave tubes that can use liquid hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and helium to generate shock waves.

  • Private research funders court controversy with billions in secretive investments


    A few years ago, scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's wealthiest private philanthropies, published sobering findings about the deadly effects of air pollution. In a long-term study of elderly residents of Hong Kong, China, those exposed to higher levels of smog—especially tiny particles of soot produced by burning fossil fuels—were more likely to die of cancer than people who breathed cleaner air.

    The study, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention in 2016 by researchers from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, is one of many to highlight the health threats posed by soot. And it is just one product of the extensive investments that Wellcome, with $29.3 billion in assets, has made in environmental science. "We aim to stimulate research excellence and develop global collaborations to drive change," the London-based philanthropy explains on a web page that highlights its commitment to making "cities healthy and environmentally sustainable."

    The trust does not highlight, however, that some of the more than $1.2 billion it has handed out annually in recent years comes from investments in companies that contribute to the same problems the philanthropy wants to solve. Not long before the Hong Kong study was published, for example, the trust became an investor in Varo Energy, a company based in Cham, Switzerland, that sells fuel to shipping firms. One of Varo's main products is bunker fuel for marine engines: a cheap, sulfurous residue of oil refining that is a major source of soot pollution. Particulates billowing from ship stacks contribute to the premature deaths of 250,000 people annually, researchers estimate.

  • Google’s DeepMind aces protein folding

    Complex of bacteria-infecting viral proteins modeled in CASP 13. The complex contains four separate subunits that were modeled individually.

    Protein Data Bank

    Turns out mastering chess and Go was just for starters. On 2 December, the Google-owned artificial intelligence firm DeepMind took top honors in the 13th Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction (CASP), a biannual competition aimed at predicting the 3D structure of proteins.

    The contest worked like this: Competing teams were given the linear sequence of amino acids for 90 proteins for which the 3D shape is known but not yet published. Teams then computed how those sequences would fold. Though London-based DeepMind had not previously joined this competition, the predictions of its AlphaFold software were, on average, more accurate than those of its 97 competitors.

    How close was the race? By one metric, not very. For protein sequences for which no other information was known—43 of the 90—AlphaFold made the most accurate prediction 25 times. That far outpaced the second place finisher, which won three of the 43 tests.

    So AlphaFold lapped the competition? Well, not exactly. When you track how much AlphaFold won or lost by in each case, the results look much closer. That’s shown in the graph below. It shows AlphaFold’s performance on the vertical axis and that from the best other group on the horizontal axis. Points above the red line show predictions where AlphaFold won. Points below, it lost. And those on the red line were essentially a tie. The upshot? AlphaFold won a lot of rounds, with an average margin of 15% accuracy improvement over other groups on the toughest 43 tests, says John Moult, CASP’s lead organizer and a computational biologist at the University of Maryland in Rockville.

  • 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.

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