Sudip Parikh has helped shape U.S. science policy as a staffer on a powerful congressional spending panel. He’s been a senior health care executive for a large nonprofit organization that manages several federal research facilities. And in January 2020, the 46-year-old structural biologist will become the new CEO of AAAS (which publishes Science) as the 171-year-old association pursues its mission to advance science and serve society.
“It’s a marvelous organization, and I’m super excited to become a part of it,” Parikh says. “I think every scientist has a place in their heart for AAAS. My goal is to turn those warming feelings into a valuable engagement with AAAS that will help us move forward.”
Parikh is now a senior vice president at the Drug Information Association (DIA), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit whose 12,000 members share a common interest in drug development. He spent 8 years as part of the Senate appropriations committee before joining Battelle in 2009.
Student protesters in Hong Kong, China, are forcing local universities to consider their roles in the ongoing standoff between citizens demanding greater democratic representation and the city’s authorities. And the continuing disturbances may be starting to have an impact on faculty recruitment and retention.
In the latest example of campus friction, on 22 October, a group of University of Hong Kong (HKU) students delivered a petition—now signed online by more than 3000 individuals—calling on university President Xiang Zhang to issue a statement condemning police brutality, bar police searches on campus, provide legal and financial support to arrested students, and hold a forum to listen to students’ concerns. They gave a deadline of 28 October.
Late yesterday evening, Zhang sent a brief, four-paragraph email to all students, staff, and alumni. “I am against any form of violence by any party,” Zhang writes. He goes on to explain that a student support team established in July is providing legal advice, counseling, and other support to those in need. The letter links to an explanation of the university’s policies covering police entry onto campus. And he closes by writing: “We have held discussions with students at various occasions in different manners and will continue to do so.”
You’ll need an invitation to attend, but on 5 November the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will host a 1-day meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss a host of hot-button issues affecting the U.S. research community.
Several dozen university and industry leaders from across the country have been summoned by OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier to advise an internal committee he leads that is trying to harmonize research policies across all federal agencies. The impact of foreign collaborations on national security will probably be uppermost on the minds of attendees, some of them still reeling from aggressive efforts by the National Institutes of Health to enforce existing rules that require NIH-funded scientists to disclose all foreign sources of support. But the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE) is also tackling three other long-running challenges: how to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, how to reduce the administrative burden on grantees, and how to strengthen scientific integrity.
Droegemeier won Senate confirmation in January, filling a post vacant for the first 2 years of the Trump administration. In May, he appended JCORE to the government’s long-running in-house coordinating body, the National Science and Technology Council, and gave it the mandate to oversee policy deliberations on all four topics. Its four subcommittees have been meeting regularly, and the summit will be the first chance for outsiders to add their 2 cents.
The rules apply only to researchers who received an award after 22 October 2018 or a recent amendment to an earlier award, and kick in only when an institution takes what is called an “administrative action.” That could range from monitoring someone’s behavior to banning the alleged perpetrator from campus. Institutions must also notify NSF of the final decision in a harassment investigation involving an NSF grantee, the end of a process that can drag on for years.
If followed by institutions, the notification rules should reduce the chances that the agency is blindsided by media reports of current grantees who are found guilty of harassment. But the rules will not create a database of all sexual harassment investigations at NSF-funded institutions, nor was that NSF’s intention. Rather, the rule addresses NSF’s obligation to ensure a “safe and secure” research environment at places where it is spending money.
A university commission announced this week it had found evidence of “extensive and severe scientific misconduct” by Christof Sohn, director of the women’s clinic at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany and the lead researcher behind a highly publicized but questionable blood test designed to detect breast cancer.
The hospital has been rocked for months by the scandal, which has led to ongoing criminal proceedings. The hospital intended to release the results of an external investigation into the scandal at a press conference on 22 October, the same day that Heidelberg University released the report from its commission for good scientific practice. But that day, after a petition from Sohn, a local court ordered the cancelation of the press conference to protect the rights of and presumption of innocence for Sohn, who reportedly has been suspended from teaching and research for 3 months and faces a university disciplinary inquiry. Following the court’s decision, the university also removed its commission’s report from its website. Prosecutors in Mannheim, Germany, declined to name suspects in their ongoing inquiries concerning economic crimes.
The affair began in February, when Sohn promoted the blood-based liquid biopsy test as a “new, revolutionary option” in a press release that appeared on the websites of both the hospital and HeiScreen GmbH, a spin-off company. The institutions claimed the test, which looks for 15 biomarkers that reflect cancer-related genetic processes, has a sensitivity of 80% to 90% for some groups of women with breast cancer. (Sensitivity reflects the proportion of women with cancer that is correctly identified.)
Thousands of Argentine scientists are hoping the man expected to be the country’s next president will reverse deep cuts to research imposed by the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri. But the first priority for Alberto Fernández, the front-runner in Sunday’s election, will almost certainly be Argentina’s crumbling economy. And it’s not clear when—or how effectively—the concerns of scientists will be addressed.
Fernández, a 60-year-old lawyer and political insider, worked for former President Nestor Kirchner and, for a short time, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after she succeeded her husband in 2007. Despite a decadeslong rift between Fernández and Cristina Kirchner, she is now his running mate, and the presidential candidate is expected to continue her brand of populism, whose roots go back almost 70 years to the rule of Juan Peron. Polls show Fernández leading Macri by a wide margin; Fernández will gain the presidency if he captures more than 45% of the vote in a six-person field, or wins 40% of the vote and leads by at least 10 percentage points.
Kirchner won the support of many scientists by creating Argentina’s first Ministry of Science. She also increased the number of student scholarships and pledged to create more jobs within the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Elected in November 2015, Macri eliminated the science ministry and cut new CONICET jobs to less than one-third the level that Kirchner had targeted by this year. Other cuts have left research labs struggling to cover basic services such as routine maintenance and the cost of electricity and security.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) will not be retiring all of its chimpanzees to a sanctuary, as it originally pledged to do, agency head Francis Collins announced today. Nearly four dozen chimps at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico will remain there because they are too old and sick to move, he said, although scientific studies of them have ended. Some federally owned or supported chimpanzees at other biomedical primate facilities may also not be retired to sanctuaries.
“Some of these animals are quite old and very frail. It was just going to be too unsafe to move all of them,” says NIH Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “We’re not going to take the risk.”
Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, the national chimpanzee sanctuary where the animals were supposed to be retired, laments the decision. “We’re disappointed,” says Stephen Ross, the sanctuary’s board chair. “We believe that every chimpanzee should have the opportunity to live out the rest of their life in a sanctuary, and we’re concerned this decision will set a precedent for other chimps still waiting to be retired.”
Two major U.S. biomedical research funders plan to each put at least $100 million over 4 years toward bringing cutting-edge, gene-based treatments to a part of the world that often struggles to provide access to even basic medicines: sub-Saharan Africa. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced the unusual collaboration to launch clinical trials for gene-based cures for HIV and sickle cell disease within the region in the coming decade.
The ambitious goal is to steer clear of expensive, logistically impractical strategies that require stem cell transplantation, and instead develop simpler, affordable ways of delivering genes or gene-editing drugs that can cure these diseases. “Yes, this is audacious,” NIH Director Francis Collins said during a press teleconference this morning on the project. “But if we don’t put our best minds, resources, and visions together right now, we would not live up to our mandate to bring the best science to those who are suffering.”
After decades of work and setbacks, the traditional gene therapy approach of delivering DNA into the body to replace a defective gene or boost a protein’s production is now reaching the clinic for several diseases, including inherited blindness, neuromuscular disease, and leukemia. Animal studies and some clinical trials have suggested that two diseases prevalent in Africa, HIV and sickle cell disease, can be treated by gene therapies or newer genome-editing tools such as CRISPR.
The poisons were so fearsome that U.S. government scientists were forbidden from publicly uttering their name. Then, in 2018, one of the Novichok compounds was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.
On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting next month, as expected, they would be the first update to the list of banned chemical weapons since the CWC came into force in 1997. “This is a historic milestone for the treaty,” says Gregory Koblentz, a chemical and biological weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments. “Fourth-generation agents are now on the list of compounds we can study,” says David Jett, director of the Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats Program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The U.S. government limits work on Novichoks to a handful of defense labs, but academic researchers may now partner with these labs as well as conduct computer modeling or other studies that don’t require the chemicals. Such research, Jett hopes, will “provide more information on the toxicity of these threat agents.”
Concerned that reports of clinical trials can exaggerate a treatment’s benefits and downplay its risks, two research groups will sift through data from tests of drugs involving thousands of people with chronic pain or depression. The question for those reanalyzing the data is whether dozens of papers on the trials’ outcomes painted a complete picture, and what details may have gone unmentioned about the drugs’ effects.
“Bias and spin are incredibly common in the publication of clinical trials,” says Peter Doshi, a health services researcher at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore and an editor at The BMJ. He and others have long been concerned about how trial results wend their way to doctors and patients, and whether both groups are fully informed when considering a specific medication. So in 2013 Doshi formed RIAT, which stands for Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials. It sought to encourage researchers to obtain unpublished clinical trial information, which would include deidentified patient-level data. With those data in hand, the researchers could reanalyze a trial’s results and publish what they found, which may or may not jibe with the original reports.
In 2017, RIAT received $1.4 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now called Arnold Ventures), and last year awarded its first grant for clinical trial reanalysis. It provided $150,000 to look at a U.S. government–funded trial of antidepressants in more than 300 teenagers. That trial’s reporting had been criticized in part because some arms of the study were unblinded and because it described outcomes that it didn’t originally set out to analyze—called post hoc analysis. Trial investigators reported that taking Prozac alone or combining it with cognitive-behavioral therapy eased depression, and the combination strategy reduced suicidality. “This trial is much more influential than any other antidepressant trial in kids,” says child psychiatrist Jon Jureidini at Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, who is leading the reanalysis. Jureidini acknowledges that even if his reanalysis turns up something new, changing practice patterns may be tough. “But that has to be our target,” he says.