Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

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  • HHMI, one of the largest research philanthropies, will require immediate open access to papers

    a pencil sits on top of a scientific paper

    An open-access requirement puts pressure on elite, subscription-only journals to make articles free to read on publication.


    The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), one of the largest research philanthropies, said today it will begin to require its scientists to make research papers in which they played a leading role immediately free to read. HHMI now requires open access within 12 months of publica­tion.

    After the policy takes effect in January 2022, the move could block the institute’s scientists, who include some of the biggest names in biomedical research, from publishing in top-tier, subscription-only journals such as Cell, Nature, and Science. Work by more than 4700 staff members, including 256 investigators and nearly 1700 postdoctoral researchers at laboratories across the United States, could be affected, HHMI says. But if elite journals continue to join the movement toward open-access publishing, HHMI authors may gain new options for compliance.

    HHMI spends “an enormous amount of money supporting biomedical research”—$763 million in 2019—“and we feel strongly that it’s critical that the information is rapidly disseminated so that it can be reproduced and built upon,” says the institute’s president, biochemist Erin O’Shea. Like HHMI, U.S. federal science agencies require that research they fund be made free, but only after 12 months. “The delays … are a problem for science,” O’Shea says. “It’s not helping to speed up the discovery process.”

  • ‘Provocative results’ boost hopes of antibody treatment for COVID-19

    Illustration of antibodies surround a COVID-19 coronavirus

    Companies are developing COVID-19 treatments using monoclonal antibodies, Y-shaped immune proteins that target the pandemic coronavirus.

    KTSDESIGN/Science Source

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    A second company has now produced strong hints that monoclonal antibodies, synthetically produced versions of proteins made by the immune system, can work as treatments in people who are infected with the pandemic coronavirus but are not yet seriously ill.

    The biotech Regeneron Pharmaceuticals has developed a cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies that attach to the surface protein of that coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and attempt to block it from infecting cells. Yesterday at an investor and media webcast, the firm revealed early results.

  • This biologist helped trace SARS to bats. Now, he’s working to uncover the origins of COVID-19

    Illustration of Linfa Wang

    “I am now fascinated with bats [but] I am still not an animal fan,” says Linfa Wang of the Duke-NUS Medical School.


    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    By pure chance, Linfa Wang, one of the world’s foremost experts on emerging viruses, was in the Chinese city of Wuhan in January. The biologist was visiting collaborators at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) just as SARS-CoV-2 was starting to spread from the city to the rest of the world. Even among those experts there was little fear then. “I was mixing with all the lab people,” Wang says. “We would go to a restaurant every night.”

    Only when he left on 18 January did he realize how serious the situation was. At the airport, staff checked his temperature three times before he could board his flight home to Singapore. Five days later, Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was shut down. Wang later learned that a woman on his plane had carried the virus; luckily, he was not infected.

  • ‘Try to be serious.’ Climate policy gets rare notice in chaotic presidential debate

    President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden debate on stage with moderator Chris Wallace.

    Former Vice President Joe Biden (D, left), President Donald Trump (R, right), and moderator Chris Wallace (center) at the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland

    Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP

    Originally published by E&E News

    Between cross-talk and insults, climate change got more attention last night than in any other U.S. presidential debate in history.

    Voters might not have noticed.

  • As wildfires continue in western United States, biologists fear for vulnerable species

    Fire spreads across the horizon in the Angeles National Forest at night.

    The Bobcat fire burning in the Angeles National Forest in California earlier this month

    KYLE GRILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

    Two weeks ago, conservation scientist Dominick DellaSala was at his home in Talent, Oregon, writing an opinion column warning that the hotter, drier weather that had sparked devastating wildfires in California could soon catalyze blazes across the western United States. Then, his power went out. Looking out his front door, he saw a wall of black smoke produced by a wildfire that was speeding toward Talent. “It was close,” recalls DellaSala, who works at the Earth Island Institute—so close that he had to evacuate, then wait and see whether his home would survive.

    So far this year, fires in Oregon, Washington, and California have burned some 3 million hectares, marking the West Coast’s worst fire season in at least 70 years. The blazes have killed at least 35 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, and caused extreme air pollution that has threatened the health of millions of residents. Ecologists fear the wildfires also could inflict lasting damage on species and ecosystems. In particular, they worry the loss of habitat could imperil species with small populations or restricted ranges, and that incinerated ecosystems will fail to rebound in a warming climate, leading to permanent landscape changes. “We are in unchartered territory here, and we just don’t know how resilient species and ecosystems will be to wildfires of the magnitude, frequency, and intensity that we are currently experiencing in the U.S. West,” says S. Mažeika Patricio Sullivan, an ecologist at the Ohio State University, Columbus.

    It’s too soon to say how many species the fires have put in jeopardy, researchers say. But Australia’s experience with its record fires last year has created anxiety; scientists there now say the habitat loss has imperiled dozens of species, and perhaps caused some to go extinct. And, already, there are worrying reports from the United States. In Washington, biologists estimate the fires have killed 50% of the state’s endangered pygmy rabbits, which inhabit sagebrush flats that burned this year. They believe only about 50 of North America’s smallest rabbit remain. Officials estimate the flames have also killed 30% to 70% of the state’s sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, birds that also depend on sagebrush.

  • On the road with Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. COVID-19 vaccine effort

    Moncef Slaoiu speaks with Carl Fichtenbaum and O’dell Moreno Owens speaks with Gustave Perna in a hospital hallway

    Operation Warp Speed leaders Moncef Slaoui (second from right) and Gen. Gustave Perna (second from left) speak with Cincinnati physicians Carl Fichtenbaum (far right) and O’dell Moreno Owens (far left) during a visit to one of the sites for the efficacy trial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

    University of Cincinnati Health

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    CINCINNATI—A hospital at the University of Cincinnati (UC) sits on a street named after Albert Sabin, who famously developed a vaccine against polio that has helped rid most of the world of this once widely feared disease. A unit at the hospital now has a similarly ambitious goal as it participates in the U.S. effort to find a vaccine against COVID-19. Last week, on 25 September, the leaders of Operation Warp Speed—the Trump administration program that has committed $10 billion to this vision—flew in from Washington, D.C., for a tour. After learning that the hospital had in about 3 weeks enrolled 130 participants in the multisite phase III efficacy trial of one experimental vaccine, the first question Warp Speed’s scientific director, Moncef Slaoui, asked was, “Do you have a good representation of diverse populations?”

    This was one several recent visits to trial sites and vaccine manufacturing plants by Slaoui and his Warp Speed co-leader, Gen. Gustave Perna. The four-star general had on his camouflaged Army uniform and combat boots, but Slaoui, who formerly headed the vaccine division of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), wore casual slacks, an open-collared shirt, and penny loafers without socks. He aimed to put people at ease on the tour, encouraging them to discuss uncomfortable, even taboo, topics—race, politics, regulations, and risks. Perna made small talk with the clinical staff, but largely kept to himself.

  • One number could help reveal how infectious a COVID-19 patient is. Should test results include it?

    A women receives a nose swab with her mask covering her mouth.

    Positive coronavirus tests could reveal a person’s infectiousness, too.

    MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, battles have raged over testing: Which tests should be given, to whom, and how often? Now, epidemiologists and public health experts are opening a new debate. They say testing centers should report not just whether a person is positive, but also a number known as the cycle threshold (CT) value, which indicates how much virus an infected person harbors.

    Advocates point to new research indicating that CT values could help doctors flag patients at high risk for serious disease. Recent findings also suggest the numbers could help officials determine who is infectious and should therefore be isolated and have their contacts tracked down. CT value is an imperfect measure, advocates concede. But whether to add it to test results “is one of the most pressing questions out there,” says Michael Mina, a physician and epidemiologist at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health

  • Trump White House recruited climate science critics to work at NOAA

    Judith Curry and John Christy speak during a hearing at the Capitol

    Climate scientists Judith Curry (left) and John Christy (center) were recruited by White House officials to take a senior position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both declined.


    Originally published by E&E News

    At least three prominent researchers who question the severity of climate change rebuffed the opportunity to take a senior position at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    The White House has been quietly working in recent weeks to reshape the leadership of NOAA with a goal of criticizing climate science, according to people who were contacted about the job.

  • French plan for improving science communication stirs up controversy

    microphones on a table at a news conference

    France backed away from an explicit call for a science media center after a critical news story was published.


    France will launch an initiative to bring scientists and journalists closer together and boost public access to reliable information, according to a provision in a 10-year science plan that moved one step closer to parliamentary approval this week. “At a time when French society is crossed by currents of irrationality and doubts about progress and knowledge, the Government has chosen to resolutely reverse the trend,” the science ministry stated in the draft bill preamble. Although many applaud the idea of reducing misinformation through deeper ties between science and the media, some observers are worried about the potential vulnerability of the initiative to political or corporate influence, and its threat to journalistic independence.

    The French Association for Scientific Information (AFIS) welcomes the idea of “making new and reliable resources available to the public and journalists,” climate physicist Francois-Marie Bréon wrote in an email on behalf of the association, which aims to fight the misuse of scientific results toward economic or ideological ends. But, Bréon says, a concern is that any government initiative could have the perverse effect of provoking people who already lack trust in official information. By its mere existence, a new government center could “reinforce obscurantist or conspiratorial discourse” rather than stifling it, he says.

    On paper, the French initiative would seem to emulate science media centers (SMCs) in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and elsewhere. The new activities promoted by the French government would “allow rapid contact between journalists and researchers, promote citizens’ access to reliable scientific information, and increase the contribution of scientific insights into public debates on major current topics,” the draft bill states.

  • COVID-19 data on Native Americans is ‘a national disgrace.’ This scientist is fighting to be counted

    Illustration of Abigail Echo-Hawk

    “If you eliminate us in the data, we no longer exist,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute.


    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Abigail Echo-Hawk can’t even count how many times she’s been called a troublemaker. It’s happened at conferences, workshops, and even after she testified before Congress—all places where she has advocated for the full and ethical inclusion of American Indians and Alaska Natives in public health data. “I didn’t used to know what to say,” she says. “Now, my answer is, ‘Is calling for justice making trouble?’”

    As the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) and the chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, Echo-Hawk has been working for years with Indigenous people, mostly in cities, across the United States to collect data about their communities. She has also advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health, and many universities on best practices for analyzing data about American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has given Echo-Hawk’s work even more urgency.

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