ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH may bar peer reviewers accused of sexual harassment

    Noni Byrnes

    Noni Byrnes leads the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review in Bethesda, Maryland.

    NIH Image Gallery/Flickr

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, reminded the research community this week that the agency can—and sometimes does—bar scientists accused of sexual harassment from serving as peer reviewers. The bar is lower than the standard to remove an investigator from a grant, say NIH officials, because of their concern about “the integrity of the process.”

    Noni Byrnes, the newly appointed director of NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR), explained in a 25 March blog post that allegations of sexual harassment could bias a reviewer’s score for a research proposal even if they are ultimately found to be innocent. For example, a male reviewer accused of harassing female postdocs could give better scores to proposals from female postdocs to avoid appearing biased, even if the science didn’t deserve that score. The allegations could come not only from institutions conducting an investigation, but also from victims or “observers.”

    NIH “can exercise our discretion to exclude” such individuals from its pool of 18,000 reviewers, Byrnes explained. Such a step “is not meant to be punitive, or to imply guilt on the part of the accused,” Byrnes writes. “It is intended simply to protect the integrity of our scientific review process.”

  • Japanese court rules against journalist in HPV vaccine defamation case

    Riko Muranaka

    Riko Muranaka did not provide evidence that research data were fabricated, a court in Tokyo said.

    Takuma Suda

    A Japanese court ruled yesterday that a medical journalist who has championed vaccination to reduce the risk of cervical cancer defamed a neurologist by writing that he had fabricated data showing a link between the vaccine and brain damage in mice.

    The case had been closely watched by vaccine proponents, who worried the decision might embolden those in Japan and elsewhere who claim shots against the human papillomavirus (HPV) cause chronic pain and movement disorders in humans. To their relief, the court in Tokyo didn’t address that question; it only said that Riko Muranaka, a doctor, medical writer, and lecturer at Kyoto University in Japan, had not provided evidence that neurologist Shuichi Ikeda had made up the data behind his controversial claim.

    The case comes against a backdrop of deep mistrust against the HPV vaccine, introduced in Japan in 2009 and added to the national vaccine program in April 2013. That same year, some vaccine recipients complained about severe side effects. In June 2013, the health ministry suspended its recommendation that all girls in their early teens receive the vaccine, causing the vaccination rate to drop from 70% for girls born in the mid-1990s to 1% today. The health ministry has also funded research and set up advisory panels to study the alleged side effects.

  • Emissions growth in United States, Asia fueled record carbon levels in 2018

    smoke rising from towers at an industrial oil refinery
    Robert Coy/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    Global carbon levels reached a record high last year, as surging demand for fossil fuels in the United States and Asia sent emissions soaring, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris said today.

    The 33.1 gigatons of energy-related carbon dioxide reported in 2018 represents a 1.7% increase over the previous year. It also means emissions have risen in each of the first two full years since the signing of the Paris climate agreement, leaving the world far short of the 26% to 28% cut in emissions targeted by 2025.

  • New U.S. sanctions put spotlight on Iranian research institute

    Benjamin Netanyahu presents material on Iranian nuclear weapons

    At a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, in April 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows off a trove of materials on Iran’s nuclear weapons effort that were spirited out of that country in a daring heist.

    Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo

    When the United States and allies struck a landmark nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, a key selling point was that it blocks Iran’s paths to building an atomic bomb. But U.S. President Donald Trump has denounced the deal, and in May 2018 he followed through on a campaign promise to pull the United States out. His administration argues the agreement allows Iran to bide its time, preserving illicit nuclear know-how until provisions of the deal sunset. “What you have,” asserts a senior administration official, is “the perfect storm for proliferation breakout.”

    Hoping to derail that ambition, the departments of state and the treasury on 22 March announced sanctions on 31 entities and individuals linked to a military instituteknown as the Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, or SPNDthat U.S. officials allege is maintaining nuclear weapons expertise under the guise of civilian R&D. The sanctions restrict opportunities for the targeted scientists to conduct research abroad and participate in international conferences, and they would penalize any U.S. person or foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a “significant transaction.” And they are a shot across the bow of all scientists in Iran contemplating working with SPND. “Any association, they should understand, with SPND or its subordinate groups makes them radioactive,” the administration official says.

    The list of researchers and institutes subject to the new sanctions appears to have been compiled, in part, from a trove of materials—some 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs—on Iran’s nuclear efforts up until 2003 that Israel says its spies spirited out of Tehran. The archive, seized during a daring nighttime heist in January 2018, is said to be from the now-defunct program, code-named Amad, to develop nuclear weapons.

  • Duke University settles research misconduct lawsuit for $112.5 million

    duke university
    uschools/istockphoto

    Duke University will pay $112.5 million to the U.S. government to settle a lawsuit brought by a former employee who alleged that the university included falsified data in applications and reports for federal grants worth nearly $200 million. The university will also take several steps “to improve the quality and integrity of research conducted on campus,” including the creation of a new advisory panel that will provide recommendations to the president, the Durham, North Carolina, institution said in a statement released today.

    Late last year, ScienceInsider reported that Duke and federal prosecutors had moved to settle the case, but no details were available. It had drawn close attention from other universities, in large part because it involved a federal whistleblower law, the False Claims Act, that has rarely been used to address scientific misconduct. Under the law, Duke biologist Joseph Thomas, who filed the lawsuit in 2014, could receive as much as 30% of any settlement reached between the United States and the university. (RetractionWatch has reported Thomas will receive $33.8 million.)

    Thomas alleged that Duke biologist Erin Potts-Kant—a co-author on numerous papers that are now retracted—included fraudulent data in 60 grant reports and funding applications to U.S. agencies. “Duke discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013 after [Potts-Kant] was fired for embezzling money from the university, which also occurred over the same period,” the university noted in a statement released today. Potts-Kants “eventually pled guilty to two counts of forgery and paid restitution to Duke.”

  • Scientists fight over threat to Texas songbird—and who owns the data

    a golden-cheeked warbler

    Habitat destruction has endangered the golden-cheeked warbler.

    Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

    The golden-cheeked warbler sits just a few centimeters high and weighs 15 grams. But the diminutive Texas songbird is causing an outsize political flap, from courthouses to the pages of an academic journal. At stake are the fate of an endangered species, land development plans worth millions of dollars—and scientific reputations.

    A long-running saga over whether the warbler deserves legal protection took an unexpected twist this month, when a scientific journal reinstated a study showing alarmingly low bird numbers, which the journal editor had previously said should be retracted for plagiarism. The Journal of Field Ornithology republished the controversial paper alongside three separate commentaries in which dueling research teams trade allegations of sinister motives, censorship, and misuse of data. And the journal editor admits he is publishing the paper now against his better judgement. 

    The editor, Gary Ritchison, a biologist at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, told Science he reversed his 2016 decision to retract the paper after taking advice from lawyers at the journal’s publisher Wiley and the Council on Publication Ethics, a global advisory body based in the United Kingdom. “I think this is the end of it,” he says.

  • New effort aims to study brain diseases in African-Americans

    MRI image of a human brain
    iStock.com/Highwaystarz-Photography

    Earlier this week, the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, a nonprofit housed at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, announced a new neuroscience research initiative that aims to tackle a gaping hole in medicine: the interplay between brain diseases and their genomic drivers among African-Americans. The goal is to better understand how brain diseases play out in this population, which has been profoundly underrepresented in neuroscience research. To build trust among African-Americans in Baltimore and eventually beyond, the venture includes a partnership with the African-American Clergy Medical Research Initiative, a group of clergy leaders in the city. African-American scientists at Lieber are already involved, but project leaders hope to engage those at other institutions as the work expands.

    The effort builds on Lieber’s rapidly growing brain bank, which now stands at about 3000 brains, with more than 400 new brains collected each year, all donated by next of kin. Many are from young and middle-aged people who die suddenly of suicide, drug overdose, or other causes. Although most of the brains are from people of European ancestry, more than 700 are from African-Americans. Despite growing recognition that African-Americans are underrepresented in medical research—and face discrimination and other hardships that can heighten health risks—study of brain diseases in this population have lagged behind, says Daniel Weinberger, the institute’s director.

    ScienceInsider spoke with Weinberger, a psychiatrist and schizophrenia researcher who came to the Lieber Institute in 2011 from the National Institute of Mental Health. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Another major drug candidate targeting the brain plaques of Alzheimer’s disease has failed. What’s left?

    Brain cell surrounded by toxic β-amyloid

    Another Alzheimer’s drug candidate targeting toxic β-amyloid (brown) has failed.

    NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON AGING/NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH

    “Futile”—that’s the devastating label now attached to two highly anticipated clinical trials of a drug that targets β-amyloid, the neuron-killing protein fragment littering the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Biogen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Eisai in Tokyo, the pharmaceutical partners developing the drug, called aducanumab, today announced their decision to halt a pair of ongoing phase III trials after seeing the results of a “futility analysis,” in which an independent committee found that the drug was unlikely to slow cognitive decline as intended. This latest blow to the β-amyloid approach has left researchers asking: Do any of the remaining antiamyloid drug trials have a better chance, or is it time to declare the whole approach, well, futile?

    “Amyloid definitely has something to do with Alzheimer’s—there’s far too much evidence to dismiss,” organic chemist Derek Lowe wrote today on his drug industry blog In the Pipeline. (The blog is hosted by Science Translational Medicine, which, like ScienceInsider, is published by AAAS.) “But the situation is clearly more complicated than people have hoped, because otherwise, all the attempts to address amyloid … would have yielded some tiny bit of clinical benefit.”

    There were reasons to think that aducanumab might succeed where antiamyloid drugs from Merck & Co., Eli Lilly and Company, and others had failed. The drug is an antibody designed to bind to and eliminate sticky β-amyloid plaques that build up around neurons, block their communication, and, ultimately, kill them. And it was clear from a smaller clinical trial that this drug was very effective at clearing plaques—“that’s one of the reasons we were sanguine about this trial,” says neurologist Dennis Selkoe of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who treats patients who were enrolled in one of the trials. Studies also suggest aducanumab can attack the most noxious form of amyloid—so-called oligomers—that other drugs may have left untouched.

  • Philosophers and neuroscientists join forces to see whether science can solve the mystery of free will

    conceptual illustration of a driver inside a man’s head

    A new research program on free will teams up neuroscientists and philosophers.

    iStock.com/rudall30

    Philosophers have spent millennia debating whether we have free will, without reaching a conclusive answer. Neuroscientists optimistically entered the field in the 1980s, armed with tools they were confident could reveal the origin of actions in the brain. Three decades later, they have reached the same conclusion as the philosophers: Free will is complicated.

    Now, a new research program spanning 17 universities and backed by more than $7 million from two private foundations hopes to break out the impasse by bringing neuroscientists and philosophers together. The collaboration, the researchers say, can help them tackle two important questions: What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?

    Neuroscience’s first and most famous encounter with free will occurred in 1983, when physiologist Benjamin Libet made a peculiar discovery. A brain signal called the readiness potential was known to precede self-initiated actions, such as raising a hand or spontaneously tapping a finger. Libet found the readiness potential starts to rise before people report they are aware of their decision to move. Many took that as a challenge to the existence of free will. But subsequent studies argued that was a flawed interpretation, and that the results said little about free will.

  • Q&A: Why fishery managers need to overhaul recreational fishing rules

    Robert Arlinghaus holding a sea trout

    Robert Arlinghaus with a sea trout he caught off the Danish coast

    Christian Skov

    For environmental conflict and political drama, it’s hard to beat fishing. Almost all the fish consumed by developed countries comes from industrial fisheries, which generate not just a lot of revenue, but controversy over their impact, such as accidentally harming seabirds or scraping the sea floor. Meanwhile, recreational fishing usually escapes notice. Although it also has a large impact, both environmental and economic, amateur fishing is often ignored by regulators or swept under the same kind of rules as commercial fishing. This needs to change, researchers argue in a commentary published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    Each year, recreational anglers catch an estimated 47 billion fish. About half are let go, but there can be a sizable impact on fish stocks. Populations can be depleted in small lakes, for example. Intense fishing can cause fish to evolve to smaller sizes and adopt new behaviors. And some management practices designed to please freshwater anglers, such as the release of popular but nonnative species, can harm biodiversity. Off the coast, saltwater anglers are sometimes chasing the same fish as commercial boats, leading to conflicts between the two groups.

    Researchers have been thinking about how to improve management of recreational fisheries and reduce conflicts, and a group of experts offers recommendations in the PNAS article. ScienceInsider spoke with one of the lead authors, biologist Robert Arlinghaus of Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin. Arlinghaus is also an avid angler. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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