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  • Europe loosens funding rules for non-EU quantum and space researchers

    Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, making a statement on the publication of the Horizon Europe Work Programme

    EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel said the openness of Horizon Europe funding would be balanced with the need “to protect the interests of Europe.”

    © European Union 2021

    The European Union has walked back an attempt to bar some non-EU nations from access to quantum computing and space projects. A major new round in the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe funding program announced today will allow some non-EU countries to join such projects—but the European Union will seek special “assurances” to guarantee its interests will be protected.

    Horizon Europe launched in February with calls for curiosity-driven basic research proposals from the European Research Council. But details of themed calls that specify subject areas, which account for the majority of the budget, were not published until today because of a monthslong dispute over who can join them.

    The European Commission, the European Unions executive arm, had wanted to bar the United Kingdom, Israel, Switzerland, and several other countries from participating in dozens of quantum computing and space projects, which it believes to be of strategic importance to the European Union. But a coalition of EU member states, led by Germany, pushed back, arguing to include associate” countries that pay for full access to EU research programs. The United Kingdom struck such a deal last year, whereas Switzerland and Israel hope to renew the association agreements they had for Horizon 2020, Horizon Europes predecessor.

  • Monoclonal antibodies cut risk of dying from COVID-19—but only in some patients

    An antibody trial site for Regeneron and Eli Lilly treatments in Mesa, Arizona

    Regenerons antibodies were studied in a clinical trial in outpatients in Arizona in 2020. Now, the Recovery study has found the therapy reduces mortality in some hospitalized patients with severe disease.

    Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times via Redux

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

    The world’s largest trial of COVID-19 therapeutics has for the first time produced convincing evidence that a therapy that directly attacks the virus can save hospitalized patients from death. A combination of antibodies called casirivimab and imdevimab, produced by Regeneron, did not lower mortality when all patients in the study were taken together, investigators of the United Kingdom’s Recovery trial announced today—but it reduced deaths by one-fifth among those who did not produce antibodies themselves. A paper with the results will be made available on the medRxiv preprint server later today, the researchers say.

    “Here you have really the first direct SARS-CoV-2 drug,” says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. Two drugs previously shown to reduce mortality from COVID-19 were developed for other diseases and work by dampening an overactive immune response, which is “kind of an indirect strategy,” Topol says.

  • House science panel firms up its plan to expand NSF

    the capitol dome

    The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have both passed their own versions of legislation that would increase the budget of the National Science Foundation and add a new technology directorate. Now, they will need to negotiate a final bill.

    lucky-photographer/iStockPhoto

    The U.S. Congress today took another step toward doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) over 5 years, with the science committee of the House of Representatives unanimously approving legislation to reauthorize the agency’s programs.

    The House committee’s work overlaps in part with a bill passed last week by the Senate that gives NSF a primary role in strengthening the U.S. research enterprise so the United States can better compete against China and the rest of the world. Both the House and Senate bills would rapidly grow the $8.5 billion agency, as well as give it a new technology directorate aimed at accelerating the commercial application of academic research. Both bills also call for tightening oversight of NSF-funded research to block adversaries from gaining improper access to the results.

    However, the House bill (H.R. 2225) takes a much more targeted approach to bolstering federal research than does the Senate bill (S. 1260). It’s a svelte 141 pages compared with the 2376-page Senate behemoth. It also confines itself to NSF; the Senate bill covers several additional federal research agencies and tweaks U.S. trade and foreign policy to address the economic and military challenges posed by China and other nations.

  • When his suspicions went unanswered, this biologist decided to disavow his own study

    Ken Thompson

    Blowing the whistle on his first paper was “incredibly isolating,” according to Ken Thompson. “I don’t want to deal with this alone anymore.”

    Mackenzie Urquhart-Cronish

    A scientist’s first academic paper is usually a career milestone as well as a source of pride. For evolutionary biologist Ken Thompson of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, it’s neither. Instead, it has become a case study in the frustrations facing a would-be whistleblower.

    On 10 May, Thompson published a “technical comment” via Dropbox that reads like a frontal attack on his own first paper, published in 2014 in Biodiversity and Conservation. Thompson was the first author of the study, which pitted traditional techniques for identifying plant species against DNA barcoding, which uses short genetic sequences to differentiate species. But his post identified what he said were serious issues in data from his co-author and concluded: “Until and unless these matters are resolved, I feel that I can no longer stand by the results of the study.”

    Thompson wrote the 2014 paper as an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph (UG), but the data came from botanist Steven Newmaster, a prominent lab leader there. Among the issues Thompson raised: Records showed the DNA data were not posted online in 2014, as the paper said, and when they were posted—in 2020, after Thompson began to raise concerns—they did not support all of the paper’s conclusions. They also showed a striking and, in Thompson’s view, implausible resemblance to a different molecular data set collected for a separate study by a researcher at the university’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG).

  • ‘This gives hope’: A third COVID-19 vaccine dose can boost protection for organ transplant recipients

    Illustration of three syringes on orange background
    RLT Illustrations/iStock

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

    A few months ago, transplant surgeon Dorry Segev was despondent about how COVID-19 vaccines were performing in patients like his, who have a donated organ and take powerful drugs to suppress their immune system. After one dose of a highly effective messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, for example, just 17% of those patients churned out protective antibodies against the pandemic coronavirus, and after the standard two doses, only 54% did. The very medications his patients took to protect their transplanted organ precluded them from mounting a healthy immune response after the vaccine. Even people who did make the antiviral antibodies often had very low levels, raising questions about how well they were shielded from COVID-19.

    But now Segev, at Johns Hopkins University, has become cautiously optimistic. He and his colleagues have found that a third dose of vaccine may help: Among 24 organ transplant patients who had no antibodies after two doses, eight people generated protective antibodies after they sought out a third on their own. Six people who had few antibodies against the coronavirus after two doses all wound up with high levels after a third shot, the researchers reported today in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Although Segev didn’t conduct a systematic study—the 30 patients got combinations of different vaccines at different time intervals—“this gives hope, which is critical right now,” he says. “There is some encouraging evidence that we will be able to help the immune system do what it needs to do.”

  • Genome researchers question security provisions in new U.S. Senate bill

    Conceptual illustration of a lock over DNA sequence
    Turtle Rock Scientific/Science Source

    Buried in a 2400-page bill approved last week by the U.S. Senate to help the United States compete with China is language that is drawing fire from human genome researchers. It would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop new security protocols aimed at preventing the misuse of U.S.-funded genomic data by China and other nations.

    The provision is not based on any substantiated security risks, and “could slow biomedical advances and impose unintended burdens,” the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) warned last week in a letter to lawmakers. The Association of American Medical Colleges cautioned in a statement that “any additional protections or restrictions … should be commensurate with the actual risk.”

    Research advocates are applauding many provisions of the massive Senate bill, the United States Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260). It calls for ramping up federal research spending, as well as creating a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation.

  • Okinawans seek return of forebears’ remains, collected decades ago for research

    Visitors Mamajuana tomb.

    Kyoto University possesses remains taken from the Momojyana tomb in Okinawa, Japan, where members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom are believed to be buried.

    Yasukatsu Matushima

    In the late 1920s and early ’30s, researchers from Kyoto Imperial University collected 200- to 600-year-old remains of several hundred people from burial caves in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, which has its own culture and language. Now, in an echo of requests from Indigenous people around the world for repatriation of the remains of their ancestors, five Okinawans are demanding that Kyoto University return the bones and pay compensation.

    The plaintiffs say Kyoto University rebuffed requests to discuss the issue, so in 2018 they took the matter to court. The case is slowly making its way through the legal system, further delayed by the pandemic. To put pressure on the university, last month the plaintiffs pleaded for international support at a briefing for foreign correspondents in Japan.

    Holding the remains violates the constitutional right to freedom of religion, because the Okinawans don’t have the opportunity to venerate their ancestors, says Yasukatsu Matsushima, an economist at Ryukoku University who is one of the plaintiffs. He adds that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for the repatriation of indigenous human remains. The bones taken from one of the sites, the Momojyana tomb, are believed to include those of members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was based on Okinawa Island. Japan absorbed the kingdom into its empire in 1872 and dissolved it 7 years later.

  • Powerful new COVID-19 vaccine shows 90% efficacy, could boost world’s supply

    a participant in a clinical trial receives a shot in the arm

    A participant in Plano, Texas, is injected during Novavax’s North American COVID-19 vaccine trial this spring. The company reported its results today.

    Novavax

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

    The dark horse vaccine company Novavax announced strong results today from a pivotal, 30,000-person trial of its pandemic coronavirus vaccine in the United States and Mexico. The vaccine uses a protein of SARS-CoV-2, a different technology from the COVID-19 vaccines authorized so far, and delivered 90.4% overall efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 infections, and 100% protection against moderate and severe disease. Against eight viral variants of interest and concern, its efficacy was 93.2%. And the vaccine appeared safe and well-tolerated.

    “This vaccine looks phenomenal. I am thrilled about these results,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. She notes that the clinical trial was highly diverse, with 44% nonwhite participants, and that the vaccine’s straightforward storage requirements could speed access to it in remote communities around the globe.

  • More than 70 lab heads removed from NIH grants after harassment findings

    ILLUSTRATION OF PROFILE VIEW OF FACES AT A MICROPHONE
    DARIA KIRPACH/SALZMAN ART

    Since early 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has received more than 300 complaints of sexual and other harassment and approved removing 75 principal investigators (PIs) from grants as a result, the agency reported this week. That’s the eye-opening result of an update NIH provided on its efforts to address professional misconduct by agency-funded investigators.

    About two-thirds of the complaints involved sexual harassment allegations; 54 PIs were removed as a result. Before 2018, a PI had never been stripped of a grant for that reason, but in response to the #MeTooSTEM movement, NIH began to encourage sexual harassment victims to file complaints.

    The agency’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) also looks into other forms of professional misconduct—including bullying and racial discrimination, which have recently made up a greater share of the complaints (see first table, below), OER Deputy Director Michael Lauer says. He presented the data on the 314 total complaints on 10 June at a meeting of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), noting that some cases involve a combination of these concerns. 

  • Europe picks categories for three flagship space missions

    An artist’s impression depicts thermal plumes venting from the southern polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with its geysers of water (artist’s illustration), could be the target for a future European flagship mission.

    European Space Agency/Science Office

    The biggest space missions gestate for the longest time. Today, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed the three broad science themes it wants to pursue for large-scale missions of €1 billion or more that would launch between 2035 and 2050. They include a close look at icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn, dissecting the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, and new ways to study the formation of the universe’s first stars, galaxies, and black holes. “We must start planning the science and the technology we’ll need for the missions we want to launch decades from now,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a statement.

    ESA refreshes its slate of science missions roughly every decade or two. The current program, called Cosmic Vision, has three flagship missions that will launch before 2034: a spacecraft to study Jupiter’s moons, an x-ray telescope, and a gravitational wave detector. 

    The next round, dubbed Voyage 2050, kicked off in 2019 with almost 100 suggested missions or themes from teams of researchers. Those ideas that could achieve breakthrough science were whittled down into three broad categories by 75 researchers split into six committees. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the categories this week. Although the themes do not explicitly call for missions, some translate into fairly specific mission possibilities.

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