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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Medical DNA sequencing leads to lawsuits and legal questions

    illustration of two people holding up a magnify glass to DNA revealing an individual’s information
    iStock.com/dane_mark

    As DNA testing gallops ahead, doctors face wrenching questions about legal risks, protecting patients’ privacy, and the quality of the genetic information they’re providing—and they need help. That was one message from a symposium yesterday at the University of Minnesota (UMN) in Minneapolis. Leaders of a $2 million project called LawSeq are wrestling with how to push the legal world to catch up to science.

    “The genome is static, but our ability to analyze it and interpret it is undergoing dramatic change,” said James Evans, a geneticist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “We don’t understand most of these variants, nor their potential impact on health and diseases … and we change our minds a lot, which is kind of frightening for patients.”

    One of the biggest concerns is legal liability. Health care providers face a disconnect: Technology has outpaced their ability to interpret genetic results, such as a patient’s risk of breast cancer or heart attack from a particular mutation. Because of that, typical fallbacks including providing a rigorous standard of care—which can also act as a legal shield against malpractice claims—are becoming fuzzy. What is a doctor to do when a patient has results from a direct-to-consumer testing company like 23andMe and asks what implications they have for their health? Or when a lab notifies a doctor that a genetic variant their patient carries, thought meaningless 3 years ago, is now known to be harmful, but they can’t locate the patient? Can a testing lab be held liable for not regularly reviewing the scientific literature, to track science’s understanding of the gene variants it tests for?

  • U.S. universities reassess collaborations with foreign scientists in wake of NIH letters

    the Cullen Building on the main campus of Baylor College of Medicine

    The main campus of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas

    Baylor College of Medicine

    Adam Kuspa tries to anticipate queries from his institution’s largest source of research funding, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. “We like to tell NIH things before they ask us,” says Kuspa, senior vice president and dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, Texas.

    In August 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins asked BCM and thousands of other institutions to be more vigilant in defending the U.S. research enterprise against efforts by unscrupulous foreign governments to steal ideas and technology. Kuspa had just attended a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation briefing on the topic for Houston-area academic leaders and figured the issue was heating up. So he ordered up an audit of the foreign affiliations of every BCM faculty member with current NIH funding. The review, which won’t be finished until the end of the year, has meant poking into the professional lives of roughly 500 of the college’s 3500 scientists.

     But Kuspa’s attempt to stay ahead of NIH came to naught. A few months into the audit, BCM received letters from NIH asking about four scientists it believed had violated the agency’s rule requiring them to disclose all foreign ties relating to their research.

  • Update: Nuclear weapons agency moves to save Jason advisory group from immediate extinction

    aerial view of the Pentagon

    The Department of Defense has been Jason’s sponsor from the start.

    iStock.com/icholakov

    *Update, 26 April, 10 a.m.: The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has decided to offer Jason an 8-month lifeline to carry out its planned studies this summer and look for a new government sponsor.

    The news came yesterday in the form of a two-page notice posted on a U.S. government contract website. The announcement declares NNSA’s intent to award a short, sole-source contract to the MITRE Corporation of McLean, Virginia, which manages the current Jason contract that expires on 30 April.

    “NNSA and other [federal] agencies have critical national security support studies that JASON is performing or scheduled to perfom this year,” the notice explains, “and a gap in coverage … could be harmful to the completion of these studies.”

  • Plan to drill in Alaskan wildlife refuge downplays climate impact, U.S. agency argues

    aerial view of caribou walking across melting snow

    Parts of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been opened to oil drilling after a decadeslong battle.

    The Asahi Shimbun/Contributor

    Originally published by E&E News

    Plans to drill Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have underestimated the effects of climate change, one arm of the Interior department is warning another.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) pointed to several aspects of climate change that were minimized or absent in the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM’s) draft environmental impact statement (EIS). In some cases, the service corrected BLM characterizations of climate research.

  • Facebook fact checker has ties to news outlet that promotes climate doubt

    a woman scrolling through facebook on an ipad
    CJG-Technology/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    Facebook’s newest fact checking partner is connected to an enterprise that was founded by a conservative Fox News host and that routinely promotes climate doubt.

    The social media giant is partnering with CheckYourFact.com to provide third-party oversight of news on its platform, Facebook announced last week. Check Your Fact is an affiliate of The Daily Caller, the right-leaning news outlet co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

  • Fearing no-deal Brexit, European funder orders U.K. researchers to transfer grants

    illustration of EU flag with one star fallen off

    A European funder has taken action against U.K. researchers in advance of Brexit.

    iStock.com/rami_hakala

    The prospect of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, has loomed long and large over researchers, but the effects on funding, so far, have been speculative. Now, a European funding agency has made a pre-emptive strike in advance of Brexit, changing a policy that directly impacts grants in the United Kingdom. The European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Association, in Brussels, is requiring that U.K. grant holders shift financial administration to a partner in Europe by 1 May.

    COST says the change will prevent disruption if Brexit occurs without a deal to smooth the transition, and that it does not affect participation by U.K. scientists. But U.K. grant holders say the policy change is premature, disruptive to research—and in at least one case it has led to a staff layoff. “The bureaucratic nightmare of moving these grants is pretty horrendous,” says Nic Walton, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

    COST hands out about €33 million per year in grants designed to stimulate and expand research networks. The 4-year grants, each about €500,000, typically include dozens of partners in Europe and elsewhere. The funding covers travel to workshops, training, and other outreach and networking events. Often, the events lead to larger collaborative research proposals, says Stefan Bouzarovski, a geographer at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, who chairs a network on improving access to household energy with more than 200 members in 40 countries.

  • ‘Audacious’ science ideas win huge funding boosts after selection by TED group

    Hosts Anna Verghese and Chris Anderson speak at TED2019

    At a meeting last week, Anna Verghese, director of the Audacious Project, and Chris Anderson, head of the TED group, detailed the fundraising success so far for eight ambitious projects, several of them focused on science.

    Dian Lofton/TED (CC BY-NC-ND)

    The TED organization, whose slick online video presentations have helped thousands of scientists and other thinkers reach huge audiences and potential financial backers, has jumped into the funding business itself. Last week, TED’s Audacious Project announced its second cohort of grantees, who will each receive tens of millions of dollars from donors. Among them are teams working to design improved proteins, eradicate parasitic diseases, and develop plants that counter global warming.

    David Johnson, a sociologist who studies trends in scientific funding at the University of Nevada in Reno, compares TED’s funding strategy to stock market investing. “In investment portfolio terms, federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are like [an] index fund with diversified investment in science [whereas] Audacious is taking it to an extreme by making major investments in a few blue-chip scientific stocks.”

    This second funding round began when the organization put out a call for proposals, asking for just a few hundred words describing an idea and its scope. It received about 1500 initial applications. Officials within TED worked with a philanthropic consultancy called the Bridgespan Group in Boston to narrow that batch to a short list.

  • First marsquake detected by NASA’s InSight mission

    NASA's Mars InSight lander

    InSight’s seismometer is protected from wind and heat swings by a dome-shaped shield.

    JPL-CALTECH/NASA

    Mars is shaking. After several months of apprehensive waiting on a quiet surface, NASA’s InSight lander has registered a sweet, small sound: the first marsquake ever recorded. On 6 April, the lander’s seismometer detected its first verifiable quake, NASA and its European partners announced today.

    The quake is tiny, so small that it would never be detected on Earth amid the background thrum of waves and wind. But Mars is dead quiet, allowing the lander’s sensitive seismometer to pick up the signal, which resembles similar surface ripples detected traveling through the moon’s surface after moonquakes. The quake is so small that scientists were unable to detect any waves tied to it that passed through the martian interior, defying efforts to estimate its exact location and strength, says Philippe Lognonné, a planetary seismologist at Paris Diderot University who leads the mission’s seismometer experiment. Still, it was gratifying to observe, he says. “It is the first quake. All the time, we were waiting for this.”

    The detection is a milestone for the $816 million lander, kicking off a new field of “martian seismology,” added Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator and a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in a news release. It proves Mars is seismologically active, and marks NASA’s return to planetary seismology after more than 4 decades. The mission is intended to peer through the planet’s rust-colored shell, gauging the thickness and composition of its crust, mantle, and core. But while on Earth, the lander was plagued by delay and cost overruns; since landing on Mars in a sand-filled hollow, the lander’s second instrument, a heat probe, got stuck soon after it began to burrow into the surface.

  • After ousters, MD Anderson officials try to calm fears of racial profiling

    University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center buildings

    MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas

    Houston Chronicle

    Administrators at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, yesterday tried to reassure alarmed employees that its recent dismissals of faculty members alleged to have broken federal funding rules were not connected to race or ethnicity.

    “I can assure you 100% that this is not based on ethnicity,” Stephen Hahn, chief medical executive at the institution, told a group of MD Anderson employees who attended a town hall meeting Monday morning. “This is something that we abhor and that we would never do,” he said, according to an audio recording obtained by ScienceInsider.

    MD Anderson administrators called the meeting after Science and the Houston Chronicle last week reported that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had asked the cancer center to investigate possible rule violations by at least five of its scientists, including failing to protect the confidentiality of peer review and failing to report foreign funding and business ties. In particular, NIH raised concerns about ties to funding programs and institutions in China.

  • Three in four female physics undergrads report sexual harassment

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    Fully three in four U.S. undergraduate women majoring in physics reported being sexually harassed over a 2-year period ending in 2017, according to a new paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

    That year, scholars surveyed more than 450 undergraduate women attending conferences sponsored by the American Physical Society. They represented a significant chunk of female physics undergraduates, considering that in 2015—the most recent year for which data are available—1349 women received bachelor’s degrees in physics.

    Questioned about specific forms of harassment, 68% reported experiencing sexist remarks such as “women aren’t as good at physics” or being treated differently, ignored, or put down because of their gender. Fifty-one percent said they endured sexual jokes; were the object of sexual remarks about their bodies, appearance, or clothing; or had their sexual activity discussed. And 24% reported receiving unwanted sexual attention.

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