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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Emory ousts two Chinese American researchers after investigation into foreign ties

    entrance gate of Emory University

    The entrance to Emory University in Atlanta

    iStock.com/aimintang

    Emory University in Atlanta has ousted two veteran biomedical researchers and shuttered their laboratory after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, expressed concern about their foreign ties. The researchers “had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China,” the university said in a statement first reported today by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    Emory has not identified the researchers, but according to a story posted on uschinapress.com (in Chinese), they are geneticists Li Xiao-Jiang and Li Shihua. The two researchers, who are married to each other, are Chinese Americans who have both worked at Emory for more than 2 decades, according to biographical information posted online. Both are U.S. citizens. They have been involved in efforts to use CRISPR gene editing to create engineered pigs and monkeys used to study human diseases. NIH Director Francis Collins highlighted their work in a June 2017 blog posting. In March 2018, the pair were co-authors of a paper in Cell that described the creation of a genetically modified pig that could be used to study Huntington disease and received press attention.

    The move marks the second publicly known case in which an institution has moved to sever ties with NIH-funded researchers because of the funding agency’s concerns about undisclosed foreign sources of support for their work. Last month, Science and the Houston Chronicle revealed that the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, ousted three senior researchers after receiving letters from NIH declaring that the scientists had committed potentially “serious” violations of agency rules involving confidentiality of peer review and the disclosure of foreign ties. Those researchers are among five MD Anderson scientists that NIH cited in its letters to the Texas cancer center.

  • U.S. lawmakers move to protect historic Chaco Canyon from mining and drilling

    chaco National Park

    Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico

    iStock.com/kojihirano

    Originally published by Greenwire

    Appropriators in the U.S. House of Representatives would ensure federal lands around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico are protected from new energy and mineral development.

    The House Appropriations Committee released a report to accompany its Interior-EPA bill up for markup tomorrow (E&E News PM, 14 May).

  • EPA plan to end funding for children’s health research leaves scientists scrambling

    epa headquarters building

    The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

    Rob Crandall/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    Despite repeatedly expressing public support for children’s health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ending funding for a network of research centers focused on environmental threats to kids, imperiling several long-running studies of pollutants’ effects on child development.

    The move, critics say, is part of a broader effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to downplay science that could lead to stricter regulations on polluting industries.

  • NSF, NASA, NIST would get funding boosts under House spending bill

    the US capitol
    iStock.com/uschools

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a 7% budget increase, and NASA a 3.8% bump, under a 2020 spending bill approved today by an appropriations panel of the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill rejects cuts to those and other federal research agencies proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

    The bill includes $73.9 billion in funding for the departments of commerce and justice, as well as independent agencies such as NSF, for the 2020 fiscal year that begins 1 October. It includes “robust funding to address climate change and support scientific research,” said Representative José Serrano (D–NY), chair of the House appropriations subcommittee handling the bill.

    Some highlights:

  • U.S. cancer institute cancels nanotech research centers

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    The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, will halt funding next year for its long-running Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNEs), which are focused on steering advances in nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer. The shift marks nanotechnology’s “natural transition” from an emerging field requiring dedicated support to a more mature enterprise able to compete head to head with other types of cancer research, says Piotr Grodzinski, who heads NCI’s Nanodelivery Systems and Devices Branch, which oversees the CCNEs. “This doesn’t mean NCI’s interest in nanotechnology is decreasing.”

    Nevertheless, cancer nanotechnology experts see the decision as a blow. “It’s disappointing and very shortsighted given the emergence of nanotechnology and medicine,” says Chad Mirkin, who directs a CCNE at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. CCNEs have spawned dozens of clinical trials for new drugs and drug delivery devices, as well as novel technologies for diagnosing disease, he says. “Cancer research needs new ways of making new types of medicines. Nanotechnology represents a way to do that,” he says.

  • Q&A: On a Bering Sea island, disappearing ice threatens a way of life

    Opik Ahkinga on a cellphone

    Opik Ahkinga

    Brendan Smith/North Pacific Research Board

    Over the past two winters, ice cover in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia has fallen to the lowest levels seen in at least 4 decades. Now, scientists are trying to figure out whether this is a statistical fluke, or another sign of climate change. A lasting shift could dramatically transform a region that is home to indigenous communities whose way of life relies on ice. Some communities cut holes in the sea ice for crabbing, for example, or use the ice to travel to fishing and hunting areas.

    One native community that has had a close-up view of the recent changes in the Bering Sea is the village of Diomede, which sits on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait. Opik Ahkinga is the village’s environmental coordinator. ScienceInsider recently interviewed her about how the changing winter ice has affected life on Little Diomede Island and nearby Big Diomede Island.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Citizen sleuths exposed pollution from a century-old Michigan factory, with nationwide implications

    Right to left: Lynn McIntosh, A. J. Birkbeck, Janice Tompkins, and Rick Rediske

    A small group of Michigan residents, including (right to left) Lynn McIntosh, A. J. Birkbeck, Janice Tompkins, and Rick Rediske, tracked widespread contamination from a former tannery.

    REX LARSEN

    ROCKFORD, MICHIGAN—For more than a century, a sprawling tannery here on the banks of the Rogue River churned out leather used to make some of the country's most popular shoes. The factory emitted a putrid stink, but it enabled this city of roughly 6000 people to thrive. "That's the smell of money," some locals used to say.

    In 2009, however, shifts in the shoe trade prompted the tannery's owner, Wolverine Worldwide, which is based here, to close the facility. In a 2010 request for state funds to help redevelop the 6-hectare site, which sits astride a picturesque business district, lawyers representing the company stated: "There is no known contamination on the property."

    Lynn McIntosh, a piano teacher and writer who has lived just a block from the tannery for more than 25 years, was skeptical. The statement was "legalese laced with hogwash," she recalls thinking when she read it. Tanneries use a stew of hazardous chemicals to transform raw hides into leather, she knew, and sometimes left contamination behind. For that and other reasons, McIntosh and others asked city and state officials to require a comprehensive environmental study of the site before it was redeveloped.

    Their plea was rebuffed, so she and a small band of allies launched their own investigation. The group, which ultimately named itself Concerned Citizens for Responsible Remediation (CCRR), collected maps, dug into newspaper archives, and filed requests for public records. Members spoke with scientists knowledgeable about tannery chemicals and hired an environmental attorney with a background in geology to help them strategize. McIntosh even staked out and photographed the demolition of tannery buildings, followed waste trucks to dump sites, and interviewed retired tannery workers. The years of effort yielded stacks of documents that McIntosh—who prefers a simple clamshell cellphone to modern smart screens and paper files to the digital cloud—lugged to meetings in heavy bags.

    Now, that sleuthing is having far-reaching impacts in Michigan and beyond. The concerned citizens uncovered evidence that the tannery had contaminated large swaths of land and water with chemicals known as a per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which researchers have linked to an array of human health problems. More than 4000 such compounds exist, and they are widely used in products such as fire-fighting foams, nonstick coatings, carpeting, food packaging, and even dental floss. The tannery used two PFASs by the ton to waterproof shoe leather. In a statement to Science, Wolverine said that when it submitted its application for state redevelopment funds in 2010, it did not know any of the chemicals had leaked. "There was no testing or other environmental data for the former tannery, and no basis to conclude that there was contamination on the property."

  • Trial set for Italian underground lab chiefs accused of endangering water supplies

    Gran Sasso National Laboratory

    Gran Sasso National Laboratory, built under a mountain in Italy, is closing two of its big physics experiments because of environmental concerns.

    Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

    The Gran Sasso National Laboratory, an underground physics lab in central Italy and one of the largest of its kind, is in trouble. Last week, several lab heads were ordered to stand trial on charges of endangering local water supplies, even as the lab prepares to shut down two of its biggest and most controversial experiments. The events come amid threats to close the motorway tunnel that connects the lab to the outside world.

    The lab, run by Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Rome, is home to many experiments designed to study dark matter, neutrinos, and other rare phenomena. Its position 1400 meters under the Gran Sasso mountain chain shields experiments from the noise of cosmic rays that strike Earth. But the lab also sits in the middle of a large aquifer that supplies drinking water to several hundred thousand people and is vulnerable to pollution from chemicals used in the lab.

    Last week, prosecutors in nearby Teramo announced that 10 people will stand trial in September, after being charged with failing to properly isolate the aquifer from sources of pollution. The indicted include three of the lab’s managers—INFN President Fernando Ferroni, lab director Stefano Ragazzi, and the lab’s head of environment Raffaele Adinolfi Falcone—as well as three directors of Strada dei Parchi, the company that runs the 10-kilometer-long motorway tunnel, and four from Ruzzo Reti, which operates an aqueduct that distributes drinking water from the aquifer.

  • Snakebites, a globally neglected killer, get a ‘transformational’ injection of research funds

    Great Lakes Bush Viper
    reptiles4all/Shutterstock

    In 1970, when David Warrell was a young hospital clinician in northern Nigeria, he faced three horrifying snakebite cases in quick succession that would change the course of his career. One man had stepped on a puff adder while getting out of bed. He arrived with a gangrenous leg and died of sepsis before Warrell could amputate. Another man was bitten by a saw-scaled viper while farming sorghum. He arrived bleeding from his mouth and urinary tract, and he soon died from massive internal bleeding. A third victim, a boy, was struck by a snake charmer’s Egyptian cobra. He was dead on arrival, after the snake’s venom progressively paralyzed his body, starting with his eyelids and ending with his breathing muscles. In no cases did Warrell have antivenom to administer as he helplessly observed deaths that he soon realized were common.

    “I got a missionarylike attitude toward snakebite as a neglected public health problem,” says Warrell, an emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and director of the Global Snakebite Initiative in Brisbane, Australia.

    Snakebites kill as many as 138,000 people a year, mostly among the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Another 400,000 victims suffer major disabilities such as amputation. The health burden is greater than that of any of the 20 neglected tropical diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO) and equal to that of prostate or cervical cancer. Yet funders, more interested in infectious diseases that can be prevented and eradicated, have largely stayed away.

  • Senate panel delays good-government bill, scolds HHS for ‘moving the goal posts’

    Rob Portman

    Senator Rob Portman (R–OH) hopes to strike a compromise on new rules for government advisory panels.

    Joshua Morrison/The News via AP

    A Senate panel delayed action today on a bipartisan bill to improve government transparency among advisory bodies in deference to concerns from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that the legislation would seriously disrupt the agency’s ability to review research proposals. At the same time, the bill’s Republican sponsor in the Senate chastised NIH’s parent body for “moving the goal posts” after legislators believed they had struck a compromise last fall to address NIH’s concerns about the bill’s impact on its 173 study sections.

    “I’m not someone who likes to publicly admonish agencies, unless it’s warranted,” said Senator Rob Portman (R–OH), referring to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “But we did work with them, and I thought we had reached a compromise. And then they moved the goal posts.”

    Without debate, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) unanimously approved 15 bills and four nominees to senior positions at agencies it oversees during a 20-minute business meeting this morning. But its chairman, Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI) postponed action on the transparency bill, H.R. 1608, after Portman said committee members needed more time to examine its provisions.

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