ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New call to ban gene-edited babies divides biologists

    an embryo in a petri dish sitting on a sperm injection microscope

    Conducting research that alters human embryos with the genome editor CRISPR (shown here) would not be banned if a proposed moratorium goes in place, but implanting altered human embryos would.

    Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

    A prominent group of 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven countries has called for a global “moratorium” on introducing heritable changes into human sperm, eggs, or embryos—germline editing—to make genetically altered children. The group, which published a commentary in Nature today, hopes to influence a long-standing debate that dramatically intensified after China’s He Jiankui announced in November 2018 that he used the genome editor CRISPR to try to alter the genes of babies to be resistant to the AIDS virus.

    Their call, which is endorsed in the same issue of Nature by Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is a departure from statements issued by two global summits on genome editing in 2015 and 2018, a 2017 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), and a 2018 report from the United Kingdom’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics. None has banned human germline editing, and most have stressed that it holds promise to help correct some heritable diseases. All have warned against using germline editing for cognitive or physical “enhancement” of people. Scientists including Nobel laureate David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena remain opposed to a moratorium. Even in the wake of the He incident, Baltimore, who helped organize the summits, denounced such a ban as “draconian” and “antithetical to the goals of science.”

    Any nation that wants to greenlight a human germline edit by its scientists, the 18 authors declare, should have to give public notice, engage in an international and transparent assessment of whether the intervention is justified, and make sure the work has broad support in their own nation. “Nations might well choose different paths, but they would agree to proceed openly and with due respect to the opinions of humankind on an issue that will ultimately affect the entire species,” they write. They strongly encourage that nonscientific perspectives, including those of people with disabilities and religious groups, be included in the discussion. And they stress that they are not calling for a moratorium on genome editing of somatic cells, which would not affect future generations.

  • In a first, U.S. private sector employs nearly as many Ph.D.s as schools do

    Science Careers logo

    The job market for U.S. science and engineering Ph.D.s is about to pass a long-anticipated milestone. For decades, educational institutions have been the largest employer of Ph.D.s. In 1997, for instance, they eclipsed private sector employment by 11 percentage points, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) biennial Survey of Doctorate Recipients. But the academic job market has not kept pace with the supply of graduates, and the equivalent data for 2017—released last month—reveals a very different picture: For the first time, private sector employment (42%) is now nearly on par with educational institutions (43%).

    The trend is particularly striking in the life and health sciences, the fields that award the most Ph.D.s. In 2017, only 23% of these Ph.D.s held a tenured or tenure track position in academia—a drop of 10 percentage points since 1997. Only math and the computer sciences have seen a larger drop, from 49% to 33%. Those 20-year shifts outpace changes in psychology and the social sciences (35% to 30%), engineering (23% to 16%), and the physical and earth sciences (22% to 19%).

    The numbers understate the impact on today’s academic job seekers, says Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies the scientific workforce. That’s because NSF’s data include all U.S.-trained Ph.D.s under 76 years of age who are employed full time in the United States. Newer cohorts are less likely to secure the tenure track position that many covet, Stephan says. “We’re in a system where … lots of really smart people are going to get faculty jobs and lots of really smart people aren’t,” adds Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, California, that advocates on behalf of early-career researchers.

  • The planet’s premier health agency has announced drastic reforms. Critics say they aren’t drastic enough

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at an Ebola treatment center

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited an Ebola treatment center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 9 March.

    L. Mackenzie/World Health Organization

    In a speech last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recalled the posters about smallpox that he saw as a child in his hometown Asmara, in what is now Eritrea. “I remember hearing about an organization called the World Health Organization [WHO] that was ridding the world of this terrifying disease, one vaccination at a time,” he said. Much has changed since then. Smallpox was vanquished; Tedros, who’s Ethiopian, is the first African head of WHO; and in a series of reforms laid out in the same speech, he is trying to restore the storied organization to health.

    The changes aim to bring more talent to WHO and improve coordination between its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and six regional offices. But some observers say Tedros’s agenda doesn’t address long-standing problems, including a chronic shortage of money, little power over how to spend it, and the regional offices’ prickly independence. “The main problems of WHO are unsolved by this reform,” says Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

    Founded in 1948 as a United Nations agency to promote public health, WHO is partly financed by 194 member states, but most of its $4 billion annual budget comes from donors, many of whom earmark their contributions for specific projects. Tedros became director-general in 2017, succeeding Margaret Chan, who was heavily criticized for her handling of the West African Ebola epidemic. In last week’s speech, Tedros recalled the lofty new goals WHO set last year: ensuring that by 2023 1 billion more people benefit from universal health coverage, 1 billion people are better protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion people enjoy better health. To achieve them, Tedros said, will require “changing the DNA of the organization.”

  • NCI Director Norman Sharpless named acting FDA chief

    Ned Sharpless

    Ned Sharpless

    Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

    Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, will become acting administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Silver Spring, Maryland, after current FDA chief Scott Gottlieb steps down in early April.

    The announcement came this morning from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing. “Dr. Sharpless’ deep scientific background and expertise will make him a strong leader for FDA,” Azar said in a statement. “There will be no let-up in the agency’s focus, from ongoing efforts on drug approvals and combating the opioid crisis to modernizing food safety and addressing the rapid rise in youth use of e-cigarettes.”

    Gottlieb's resignation to spend more time with his young family in Connecticut rattled markets and FDA watchers when it was announced last week. That uncertainty is at least temporarily eased by the acting appointment of Sharpless, a physician-scientist and former director of the University of North Carolina’s cancer center in Chapel Hill who has drawn praise as NCI director since October 2017.

  • Vanderbilt panel weighs in against tenure for #MeToo scientist

    students stand outside Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University

    Students sat in on 27 February at the office of Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos in Nashville in support of #MeToo advocate BethAnn McLaughlin.

    Shun Ahmed/Vanderbilt Hustler

    A faculty grievance committee last month upheld a decision to deny tenure to BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville who has become a prominent spokesperson for the #MeToo movement in science.

    “We do not find any justification to overturn the recommendation … to deny tenure,” the five-member, ad hoc Grievance Committee, composed of professors from diverse disciplines at the university and its graduate schools, wrote in a report obtained by ScienceInsider.

    The committee’s word in the 12 February report is not final. The university’s chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, can overturn its decision if he justifies his move in writing to the executive committee of the university’s Board of Trust.

  • Largest ever HIV prevention study delivers sobering message

    women carry HIV testing materials into a neighborhood

    Community health workers with the Population Effects of Antiretroviral Therapy to Reduce HIV Transmission study did door-to-door HIV testing of 1 million people annually for 3 years.

    Kim Cloete

    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—The recipe for ending HIV epidemics seems straightforward. Introduce widespread testing. Immediately put those who test positive on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, which suppress the virus to undetectable levels so those people won’t infect others. The number of new infections will drop, and the epidemic will peter out.

    But massive, costly studies done in the past few years have failed to show this strategy can reliably curb the spread of the virus, to the frustration of researchers. The latest and largest ever study presented here last week at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections did show a modest benefit. But confusingly, there was almost no decline in infections in the study group where it was most expected.

    Ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic may be harder than anticipated, it seems. “ARVs on their own are not the magic bullet,” says Collins Iwuji, an epidemiologist at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom who helped run one of the earlier studies, a South African treatment as prevention (TasP) trial.

  • Renowned Sudanese geneticist behind bars for opposing regime

    Muntaser Ibrahim

    Muntaser Ibrahim

    World Academy of Sciences

    A leading Sudanese geneticist has been imprisoned for speaking out against the country’s repressive regime. Muntaser Ibrahim, who heads the University of Khartoum’s Institute of Endemic Diseases, was arrested on 21 February in Khartoum and has been detained ever since. His friends and family do not know his location. They say Ibrahim suffers from a heart condition that requires specialist care.

    Ibrahim’s colleagues and students issued a statement calling for his release on Friday. “It is deplorable that a scholar such as Professor Ibrahim remains in prison, rather than classroom and research centres,” the text reads.

    Ibrahim took part in peaceful antiregime protests in recent months, according to the statement; he was arrested twice in early January but released shortly after both times. The third and final arrest came as Ibrahim planned to deliver suggestions for national reform drawn up by him and other University of Khartoum lecturers to Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir. “Professor Ibrahim and his colleagues genuinely believed that their initiative could provide a satisfactory way out of the crisis, but the dictatorial authority saw otherwise, hence his repeated incarceration,” reads the statement, which is unsigned.

  • Trump once again requests deep cuts in U.S. science spending

    Donald Trump at a podium

    President Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    For the third year in a row, President Donald Trump’s administration has unveiled a budget request to Congress that calls for deep spending cuts at many federal science agencies, including a 13% cut for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a 12% cut for the National Science Foundation (NSF), while providing hefty increases for the military.

    But the $4.7 trillion request for the 2020 fiscal year that begins 1 October, released today, is already drawing bipartisan pushback from lawmakers in Congress and—as with past Trump administration requests—many of the cuts are unlikely to be enacted into law.

    The president’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, calls the request “an important down payment on America’s future.” A statement from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which he leads, says the president’s budget “promotes responsible spending [by] prioritizing high-impact programs that have been shown to be effective.”

  • Men get larger first NIH grants, but is the news all bad for female scientists?

    illustration of a man and woman pushing wheel barrels of money, and the woman has much less
    Gary Waters/Getty Images

    A headline-grabbing study out this week is adding to concerns about gender bias in science: Women received about $40,000 less than men in their first funding award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or just $127,000 per year. But surprisingly, women’s median award size was larger than men’s for NIH’s standard independent research grant. A close look at the data, which cover more than 200 different kinds of grants awarded by NIH, suggests the story is more nuanced than the overall numbers indicate.

    Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, examined 53,903 grants from 2006 to 2017 that went to first-time principal investigators (PIs). Men and women didn’t differ significantly in some research metrics, such as the number of publications. Yet the median size of a grant for male PIs was $165,721, whereas for women it was just $126,615 or 24% smaller, the authors reported on 5 March in JAMA. The results were even more striking for some types of institutions: At Big Ten public universities, for example, grants to men were more than twice as large as those to women ($148,076 versus $66,365).

    That difference has profound implications for a woman’s scientific career, the study’s authors say. “This shows women are disadvantaged from the very first NIH grant they submit relative to their male counterparts. This represents an early stumbling block” that means women have less money for equipment and hiring graduate students, corresponding author Teresa Woodruff wrote in a press release. NIH, too, “is aware and concerned about differences in funding patterns between women and men in science,” the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency wrote in a statement.

  • Japanese government punts on decision to host the International Linear Collider

    ILC Cryomodule

    A cryomodule, a key component of the proposed International Linear Collider

    © Rey.Hori/KEK

    The government of Japan finally said something about hosting the International Linear Collider (ILC): It still can’t make up its mind, and it may hold off on a decision until the fall, if not longer.

    This morning in Tokyo, an official of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) explained to a meeting of the International Committee for Future Accelerators (ICFA) and the Linear Collider Board that the ministry could “not yet” indicate the intention of “hosting the ILC in Japan,” according to a written executive summary of the presentation obtained by ScienceInsider. “MEXT will continue to discuss the ILC project with other governments while having an interest in the ILC project,” the summary concludes. 

    “There was disappointment” among the scientists at the meeting, ICFA chair Geoffrey Taylor, an experimental physicist at the University of Melbourne in Australia admitted at a briefing this evening in Tokyo. “People were hoping there would be a statement that Japan was willing to host the ILC.”

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