Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH fears good-government bill would hamper peer review

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.
    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The much-admired system to review grant proposals at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has become the latest flashpoint in a long-running battle between Congress and the executive branch over how the U.S. government manages advisory bodies.

    NIH’s parent body, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., opposes legislation moving rapidly through Congress that is aimed at making those committees more transparent. The department says that if the bill becomes law, its requirements could cause monthslong delays in appointing reviewers to NIH study sections and create massive amounts of additional paperwork. In addition, “requiring [NIH peer reviewers] to go through this process could be a major disincentive to service,” HHS argued in a 9 April letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY).

    Supporters of the bill say they responded to HHS’s concerns, first expressed in a similar letter sent to McConnell last year, by tweaking the bill to exempt NIH study sections. But HHS officials are now demanding the exclusion of all HHS advisory bodies, including those at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they say. Such a blanket exemption would gut the proposed reforms, proponents argue.

  • Why some climate scientists are saying no to flying

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    In 2016, two seemingly unrelated events conspired to make Kim Cobb confront her personal carbon footprint. First, a massive El Niño event hit the coral reef researcher’s 22-year study site, warming the ocean to record levels and killing 85% of the reefs. During her first scuba dive afterward, “I was crying in my mask,” says Cobb, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. It’s one thing to read papers about coral bleaching, but when it happens to a place where “you know every dive like the back of your hand, it’s something different.” Then, a few months later, her hope for government action to tackle climate change was extinguished when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president.

    So, she started to do a rigorous accounting of the carbon that she’s responsible for emitting, finding that air travel accounted for a whopping 85% of her carbon footprint in 2017. She’d flown roughly 200,000 kilometers that year, mostly to conferences. She vowed that 2018 would be different. “Flying is a luxury and a privilege that must be reserved for a fraction of the events that we use it for right now,” she argues.

    Cobb is one of a small but growing minority of academics who are cutting back on their air travel because of climate change. Traveling to conferences, lectures, workshops, and the like—frequently by plane—is often viewed as crucial for scientists to exchange information and build community. But Cobb and others are questioning that perspective—pushing conferences to provide more opportunities to participate remotely and changing their personal behavior to do their part in confronting the climate change crisis. On a website called No Fly Climate Sci, for example, roughly 200 academics—many of them climate scientists—have pledged to fly as little as possible since the effort started in 2017.

  • The world needs to get serious about managing sand, U.N. report says

    A sand dune in shadow
    bigalia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Our reliance on sand is staggering—by volume, the amount we use is second only to water. As a key component of cement, asphalt, and glass, sand is integral to every aspect of our lives. It is in our phones, our schools, our hospitals, and our roads. Globally, humans consume up to 50 billion metric tons of sand and gravel every year, amounting to 18 kilograms per person per day. 

    But our insatiable demand for sand now poses “one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century,” and meeting it will require “improved governance of global sand resources,” concludes a United Nations report released this week. In particular, the report recommends encouraging ways of reducing demand for new sand and strengthening policies aimed at discouraging the harmful environmental impacts of sand mining. It also recommends developing a more traceable sand supply chain through better monitoring and international information sharing.

    The U.N. recommendations are “very timely,” says geologist Minik Rosing of the University of Copenhagen, because sand “is a natural resource that transcends national borders, and … extraction frequently has consequences beyond national borders.”

  • NIH says its 1-million-person health study is off to good start

    a research tech draws blood from the arm of a woman

    The National Institutes of Health’s All of Us health study aims to enroll 1 million participants, including children, within 6 years.

    Dake Kang/AP Photo

    A plan to entice 1 million people in the United States to volunteer for a huge study of health and genes is making good progress 1 year after its national launch, organizers said this week. The All of Us study run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has recruited 143,000 participants who have already taken surveys and visited a clinic to give blood and urine samples. Another 87,000 have at least registered for the study.

    Study leaders say these numbers give them confidence All of Us will reach 1 million participants within 5 or 6 years—although they will need to ramp up enrollment to reach that goal. And they expect to broaden the study’s geographic distribution, which so far largely covers just a few states.

    Announced by then-President Barack Obama 4 years ago, the All of Us study, which could cost $4 billion over 10 years, aims to enroll a diverse swath of U.S. inhabitants—citizens or not—who agree to share their health records and DNA on an anonymized basis. Researchers will use the data to develop “precision medicine,” or personalized treatments for others—the study participants themselves can request their genetic data but won’t receive medical help as part of the project. The 143,000 people who have given consent, taken surveys, and visited a clinic for physical measurements and to give blood and urine samples meet All of Us’s original diversity goal: Fifty-three percent are ethnic or racial minorities, far more than the 39% these groups constitute in the U.S. population. (For example, participants with self-identified African ancestry constitute 20% of the study, compared with 13% in the population.)

  • Chinese bioethicists call for ‘reboot’ of biomedical regulation after country’s gene-edited baby scandal

    He Jiankui

    He Jiankui speaks at a 2018 conference in Hong Kong, China, where he gave a public account of creating the first gene-edited human babies.

    Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Four prominent Chinese bioethicists have published an unusually frank and critical assessment of their country’s handling of biomedical research in the wake of what they refer to as the “CRISPR babies’ scandal.”

    Their commentary, published online today in Nature, calls for “an overhaul” in the way the biomedical experiments in China are regulated, monitored, and registered and for “severe” penalties for researchers who violate regulations. “China is at a crossroads,” write Ruipeng Lei of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Xiaomei Zhai of Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, Wei Zhu of Fudan University in Shanghai, and Renzong Qiu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “The government must make substantial changes to protect others from the potential effects of reckless human experimentation.”

    The authors say a “soul searching” is now taking place in China because of the November 2018 revelation that He Jiankui, a biophysicist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, had created the world’s first babies, twin girls, who had genes edited while they were embryos. He, who was subsequently fired from his job and has not spoken publicly since he described the germline editing experiment at a Hong Kong, China, meeting, used CRISPR—which cuts DNA—to cripple a cell surface protein that HIV uses to infect cells. The intent, he said, was to “genetically vaccinate” the girls so that they would not be susceptible to the virus.

  • Two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers no longer run free

    aerial view of mangrove and shrimp farms

    Free-flowing rivers are increasingly threatened by dams, levees, and water diversions, such as for these shrimp farms in Ecuador.

    © Antonio Busiello/WWF-U.S.

    About two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers are no longer free flowing, compromising their ability to move sediment, facilitate fish migration, and perform other vital ecosystem services, according to a new study. And with more than 3700 large dams in the works, the future of free-flowing waterways looks even bleaker, researchers say.

    To get a global perspective on river conditions, Bernhard Lehner, a hydrologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who for years has studied the effects of dams on entire watersheds, teamed up with researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), based in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Using aerial, satellite, and other data, the team examined 12 million kilometers of waterways, evaluating their flows in 4.5-kilometer segments.

    Traditionally, researchers focused on dams when assessing a river’s free flow. But in this assessment, the team also considered the impacts on flow created by riverbank levees, other flood control structures, and water diversions for power, irrigation, or drinking supplies. “It’s a more comprehensive analysis of global hydrology than we have had before,” says N. LeRoy Poff, a hydroecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who was not part of the project.

  • DRC expands Ebola vaccine campaign as cases mount rapidly

    a health care worker preparing to vaccinate a patient

    More than 110,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received an experimental Ebola vaccine, which appears to have helped slow spread of the deadly virus.

    World Bank/Vincent Tremeau (CC BY-NC-ND)

    The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will expand its use of the experimental Ebola vaccine that more than 110,000 have already received to try to stop an unusually stubborn outbreak of the disease. New vaccination strategies will attempt to reduce the security risks faced by health care workers in the outbreak region, which is home to nearly two dozen rebel groups—some of which have attacked response teams.

    There’s also a bit of good news in this bleak situation: A new analysis of the vaccine dose needed to protect people found that the amount can be substantially reduced—by more than half for some people—essentially eliminating a long-standing concern about a potential vaccine shortage.

    The changes follow recommendations made today by a group of vaccine experts that advises the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. The 9-month-old outbreak in the northeastern region of the DRC as of 6 May had sickened 1506 people, 1045 of whom have died. (Only the Ebola outbreak that exploded in West Africa in 2014 had more cases and deaths.) The outbreak has spiked over the past month, with more than 400 new cases in April alone—a doubling from March—which WHO says reflects the recent disruption of the response because of violence.

  • Landmark analysis documents the alarming global decline of nature

    A black rhino

    Black rhinos, poached for their horns, are just one of some 1 million species that a new report warns are at risk of extinction.

    Mint Images/Aurora Photos

    The state of biodiversity and ecosystems is at its most perilous point in human history and the decline is accelerating, warns a landmark assessment released today. But the hope is that the bleak assessment—crafted by hundreds of scientists and historic in its depth and breadth—will finally persuade governments and others of the need to change course and prevent further harm to the ecological systems that provide for human well-being. “What’s at stake here is a livable world,” says Robert Watson of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., who chaired the organization that produced the report.

    Only transformative changes to economic, political, and social systems will allow nations to meet agreed targets for nature conservation, the authors conclude. The core message is “quite radical,” says Georgina Mace, an ecologist at University College London who reviewed the assessment. “You have to prioritize nature and nature’s benefits to people in everything you do.”

    The report confirms “that we can’t just preserve, we must reverse the trend by increasing biodiversity locally, regionally, and globally,” said Alexandre Antonelli, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom, in a statement.

  • German research promised a decade of budget increases

    Anja Karliczek

    German research minister Anja Karliczek helped negotiate a budget deal with steady rises for science.

    Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    BERLIN—German research organizations cheered a decision announced today by state and federal ministers to increase research budgets by 3% a year for the next decade—a total boost of €17 billion over that time. For more than a decade, German research organizations have enjoyed consistent budget increases—3% boosts every year since 2006, even during downturns in the German economy. But some observers have worried that falling tax revenues and deep disagreements between state and federal ministers could bring an end to the largesse.

    The news turned out much better than most expected. Not only will the research organizations—including the Max Planck Society and the grantmaking agency the German Research Foundation—get their increases, universities and technical schools will also receive significant boosts through 2027. “It’s a huge relief,” says Matthias Kleiner, president of the country’s Leibniz Association here, which includes more than 90 research institutes. The agreement is “an extraordinarily positive and encouraging signal for science.”

    The deal also approves two new Max Planck institutes: the Institute for Cybersecurity and Privacy Protection, to be based in Bochum, and a new independent Institute for the Biology of Behavior in Radolfzell, previously part of the Institute for Ornithology. The Leibniz Association will also add two institutes: The German Resilience Center in Mainz will study factors that keep people healthy even under stressful conditions and the Center for Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe in Frankfurt will study the effects of political decisions on finance markets.

  • Shake-up at NIH: Term limits for important positions would open new opportunities for women, minorities

    two women working at a computer in a laboratory

    The National Institutes of Health’s in-house research program plans to limit the terms of midlevel managers, in part so that more women can move into leadership positions.

    National Institutes of Health/flickr (CC BY-NC)

    Able to pursue open-ended research without relentless grant deadlines, some scientists who work directly for the National Institutes of Health joke that NIH stands for "nerds in heaven." But the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and its other intramural research sites are also known as stodgy places where the scientific management, mostly white men, tends to stay in place for decades. Now, NIH is aiming to shake up its intramural program, the largest collection of biomedical researchers in the world, by imposing term limits on midlevel leadership positions.

    Starting next year, the 272 lab and branch chiefs who oversee NIH's intramural research will be limited to 12-year terms. The policy, now being refined by the directors of NIH's 23 institutes with in-house science programs, means up to half of the chiefs will turn over in the next 5 years, says Michael Gottesman, NIH's deputy director for intramural research. "We see this as an opportunity for diversity in the leadership at NIH, especially gender and ethnic diversity," says Hannah Valantine, NIH's chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

    The changes are roiling the campus, with some grumbling they will have little impact and others questioning whether good leaders should automatically be replaced. "The appointment of more women … could be a plus, but the ‘coin of the realm’ still remains scientific excellence and productivity," says Malcolm Martin, who has headed a lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 37 years.

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