ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Novel human virus? Pneumonia cases linked to seafood market in China stir concern

    aerial view of Wuhan cityscape

    A seafoofd market in Wuhan, China has been considered the likely source of an outbreak of a novel virus but it may have first infected people elsewhere.

    sleepingpanda/shutterstock.com

    Update, 6 January, 8:55 a.m.: Wuhan health authorities reported yesterday that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have now been ruled out as the cause of unexplained viral pneumonia that has sickened 59 people, according to the latest tally. No deaths have resulted so far, though some people remain critically ill. “The epidemiological association of these unexplained pneumonia cases with the wet market selling not just seafood, but also some game-food animals strongly suggests that this is a novel microbe jumping from animal to human," says Yuen Kwok-Yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong. Given China's advances in epidemiology, infection control, and laboratory diagnostic capabilities since the SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003, Yuen says "It is highly unlikely that this outbreak will lead to a major [SARS-like] epidemic, though we cannot be complacent!" Screening in Hong Kong has turned up more than a dozen travelers from Wuhan suffering from pneumonialike symptoms, although it’s not clear they are related; Singapore found one such case.

    Stoking fears that a novel virus may have begun to infect people, health authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late on Friday local time announced they have documented 44 unusual cases of pneumonia—a sharp jump from their initial report of 27 cases on 31 December 2019. Although the city is being praised for quickly sharing information, infectious disease specialists around the world are eager to get more details on the mysterious pathogen and the disease it produces in patients. In today’s report, Wuhan officials ruled out influenza, avian flu, and adenovirus; they call the disease a “viral pneumonia of unknown cause.”

    Hints of trouble first surfaced publicly on 30 December, when a directive from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission asking hospitals to report unusual cases of pneumonia was reported by local media. The next day, the commission posted a notice in Chinese on its website stating that a number of local hospitals had reported cases of pneumonia linked to the wholesale Huanan Seafood Market. The commission had turned up 27 cases in the city of 11 million, 690 kilometers west of Shanghai. Seven of the patients were in serious condition, two had recovered and were nearing discharge, and the remaining number were stable. All patients were isolated and their close contacts were under surveillance, the notice stated.

    At that time, no human-to-human transmission had been identified. The commission updated that information today, saying 11 of the 44 cases are considered serious. The new patients are also in isolation. An additional 121 close contacts of patients are under surveillance, although the commission has so far ruled out human-to-human transmission.

  • From service to science: NIH shifts focus of mentoring network aimed at boosting grantee diversity

    Christine Pfund speaking with two others at a table

    Christine Pfund (left) leads the the National Research Mentoring Network’s coordination center.

    Todd Brown/University of Wisconsin, Madison

    As co-director of graduate affairs at the University of Chicago, Nancy Schwartz spent the past 4 years helping faculty members at 15 major research universities become better mentors. The project was supported by the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), a $23 million effort that the National Institutes of Health launched after discovering an embarrassing racial gap in who gets NIH grants.

    Begun in 2014, NRMN was designed to scale up successful mentoring practices in the biomedical sciences. NIH officials hoped its efforts would boost the fortunes of minority applicants. But last summer, when NIH renewed the network for another 5 years, officials decided to spend most of the money on the science of mentoring, that is, testing different approaches to mentoring with a small, carefully chosen population. Barely 10% of NIH’s $50 million investment in phase two of NRMN is going to the type of services, including an online portal that provides one-stop shopping for a cornucopia of mentoring activities, that characterized first phase.

    Schwartz’s project is a casualty of that shift in emphasis from service to research. And she is one of several researchers familiar with NRMN who wonder whether something will be lost as NIH remakes the program. “What’s wrong with more service?” she wonders. “Or at least a mix of both approaches?’”

  • EPA science advisers slammed the agency for ignoring science. Here is what they said

    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

    In a stinging rebuke of the Trump administration’s handling of science, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory panel has found major shortcomings in the agency’s pursuit of key regulatory rollbacks.

    The sharp criticism in the reports on four top deregulatory efforts is particularly notable given that the administration has selected the majority of the members of the Science Advisory Board (SAB).

  • Chinese scientist who produced genetically altered babies sentenced to 3 years in jail

    He Jiankui

    He Jiankui speaks at a 2018 conference in Hong Kong, China, where he gave a public account of creating the first gene-edited human babies.

    Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who stunned the world last year by announcing he had helped produce genetically edited babies, has been found guilty of conducting “illegal medical practices” and sentenced to 3 years in prison.

    A court in Shenzhen found that He and two collaborators forged ethical review documents and misled doctors into unknowingly implanting gene-edited embryos into two women, according to Xinhua, China’s state-run press agency. One mother gave birth to twin girls in November 2018; it has not been made clear when the third baby was born. The court ruled that the three defendants had deliberately violated national regulations on biomedical research and medical ethics, and rashly applied gene-editing technology to human reproductive medicine.

    All three pleaded guilty, according to Xinhua. The court also fined He, formerly of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) and known as JK to friends and colleagues, 3 million Chinese yuan ($429,000). His collaborators were identified as Zhang Renli, of a medical institution in Guangdong province, and Qin Jinzhou, from a Shenzhen medical institution; Zhang received a 2-year prison sentence and was fined 1 million yuan, according to Xinhua, whereas Qin was given 18 months in prison with a 2-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.

  • Trump’s NSF pick reflects close links between agency and White House

    Panchanathan, recent nomination to Director for the National Science Foundation, speaking during theArizona Solar Summit IV at Skysong.

    Sethuraman Panchanathan

    Arizona State University

    The computer scientist whom President Donald Trump picked this month as the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has followed the path taken by an untold number of foreign-born researchers by seeking greater opportunities in the United States. If the Senate confirms him, as seems likely, 58-year-old, India-born Sethuraman Panchanathan will become not only the second NSF director of Asian American descent, but a living embodiment of how the international flow of talent has helped fuel U.S. leadership in global science.

    Panchanathan, who goes by “Panch,” is executive vice president for research and chief innovation officer at Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, where he has worked since 1997. A former chair of its computer science and engineering department, he founded the university’s school of computing and informatics and created and leads its center for cognitive ubiquitous computing, which combines artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop technologies to help those with disabilities.

    “His star has kept rising,” says Subbarao Kambhampati, an ASU computer scientist and a longtime colleague and friend. “I think he’s got three or four jobs. But he has a crazy amount of energy, and he seems to like going full speed all the time.”

  • Bullying allegations lead to firing of prominent ancient DNA expert

    Alan Cooper posing for a photo

    Alan Cooper

    Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

    Prominent evolutionary biologist Alan Cooper has been fired as director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), the university announced today. Cooper’s ouster followed multiple allegations of bullying, which led the university to launch a probe and suspend him in August. The university said in a statement that it terminated Cooper “for reasons of serious misconduct.”

    Cooper rejects the charge of bullying. “I’ve occasionally been too blunt in my language and actions, and regret this—but it was never bullying,” he told Nature in this article published today. In an investigation published in August, Nature interviewed nine current and former co-workers of Cooper’s; four alleged that he bullied them and four more said they saw him bullying colleagues.

  • Relocated island wolves outlasting mainland wolves in new Isle Royale home

    a wolf walks along a trail

    The September release of a male wolf from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Isle Royale. The wolf population now numbers 15, with seven females and eight males.

    NPS/Phyllis Green

    Island life isn’t for everyone, nor, it seems, for every wolf.

    One year into a federal effort to restock the wolf population in Isle Royale National Park in Michigan’s Lake Superior, a pack of eight relocated from a nearby island appears to be thriving, while four of 11 wolves brought from the mainland have died. Another wolf voluntarily departed last winter, returning to Minnesota over an ice bridge.

    The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) today released news of the most recent wolf deaths, and the emerging pattern is clear: Wolves relocated as a pack from Canada’s Michipicoten Island Provincial Park have so far been more successful on Isle Royale than wolves brought individually from either mainland Minnesota, Michigan, or Canada’s Ontario province.  The Michipicoten wolves’ provenance as a bonded group was likely crucial to the fact they have all survived so far in the new environment, says wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, who has studied Isle Royale wolves since 1971. “That’s about the only explanation I can think of,” to account for the difference in the wolves’ fates.

  • 2020 U.S. spending bill restricts some animal research, pushes for lab animal retirement

    Rhesus monkeys inside cage

    Research monkeys

    Richard T. Nowitz/Science Source

    Federal research agencies will be under increased pressure to reduce their use of monkeys, dogs, and cats when President Donald Trump signs the final 2020 U.S. spending bill this week. Language pushed by animal advocacy groups will require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore alternatives to the use of nonhuman primates, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to come up with a detailed plan for the reduction and retirement of its monkeys, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reduce or eliminate its use of cats, dogs, and monkeys within the next 5 years.

    “This is the first time in history, to our knowledge, that Congress has set hard deadlines for the elimination and reduction of experiments on dogs, cats, and primates,” says Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.–based group that worked with lawmakers to introduce the language. “The science has been there, the public sentiment has been there, and now there’s the political will to make these things happen.”

    Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C., is concerned, however. “There is some language that could set a dangerous precedent for deciding how research in the U.S. should be conducted in the future,” he says. “This kind of language should raise serious questions and concerns about the role Congress plays in research.”

  • Trump to nominate Arizona State computer scientist to lead the National Science Foundation

    Panchanathan, recent nomination to Director for the National Science Foundation, speaking during theArizona Solar Summit IV at Skysong.

    Sethuraman Panchanathan

    Arizona State University

    President Donald Trump has chosen a 58-year-old, Indian-born computing engineer and university administrator to be the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    Trump today announced his intention to nominate Sethuraman Panchanathan to succeed France Córdova, whose 6-year term ends in spring 2020. Panchanathan, who uses the nickname “Panch,” is executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Arizona State University in Tempe. He is also a member of the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body.

    “The impending formal nomination of Dr. Panchanathan is a win for science in the Trump Administration and a win for America,” said Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a statement. “I’d like to thank the outgoing NSF Director, Dr. France Córdova, for her tireless service in a variety of scientific leadership roles at home and abroad. Dr. Córdova has been an exceptional leader and will be leaving NSF in capable and effective hands.”

  • Science groups, senator warn Trump administration not to change publishing rules

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    More than 125 scientific societies and journal publishers, as well as an influential U.S. senator, are urgently warning the Trump administration not to move forward with a rumored executive order that would make all papers produced by federally funded research immediately free to the public. In three separate letters, they argue such a move would be costly, could bankrupt many scientific societies that rely on income from journal subscriptions, and would harm the scientific enterprise.

    The White House won’t comment on whether the administration is considering issuing an executive order that would change publishing rules, and society officials say they have learned no details—nor been asked for input. But if the murmuring is accurate, the order would represent a major change from current U.S. policy, which allows publishers to keep papers that report the results of federally funded studies behind a paywall for up to 1 year. That 2013 policy was the compromise result of a fierce battle between open-access advocates, who wanted free immediate public access to the fruits of federally funded research, and scientific societies and publishers, who argued such a policy would destroy a long-standing, subscription-based business model that has well served society and scientists.

    The new letters restate that argument. “Going below the current 12 month ‘embargo’ would make it very difficult for most American publishers to invest in publishing these articles,” argues a letter to President Donald Trump released today by the Association of American Publishers in Washington, D.C., and signed by more than 125 research and publishing groups.

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