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Science Policy Around the Web – November 18, 2014

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito

photo credit: yui.kubo via photopin cc

Federal Science Policy

Panel considers lifting FDA ban on blood donations by gay men

Due to the rise in AIDS in the US and the association with homosexual men at the time, the FDA banned blood donations by gay men in 1985. This ban includes all men who have had sex with another man since 1977. According to the FDA, the rationale behind this ban is that men who have sex with men are at an increased risk of acquisition of HIV, Hepatitis B and other blood-borne pathogens and HIV testing of blood is not 100% accurate. However, proponents of removal of the ban emphasize that risk behavior is not taken into account. Overturning of the sexual orientation based ban is supported by the American Red Cross, AABB, and America’s Blood Centers which supply the major of blood in the US. Many other nations have removed the lifetime ban of gay men in favor of ban on men who have had sex with men within 12 months. A US Department of Health and Human Services Panel is currently debating the lifting of the ban in the US.  (Monte Morin, ScienceNow, LA Times)


Technology Development

U.S. to build two world-class supercomputers

The Department of Energy (DOE) is developing two new supercomputers with 4-10 fold increased computing ability up to speeds of 100-300 petaflops. The work on these supercomputers will be done in two national labs: Oak Ridge and Livermore.   The DOE have set aside $325 million for construction of two supercomputers.   In conjunction with the hardware, the DOE will apply another $100 million to software and application development through the FastForward 2 program. One of the supercomputers will be available for use by the scientific community while the other computer will mainly be utilized by National Nuclear Security Administration.   The DOE hopes that funding of these technological advances will maintain the US as a leader in technology as well as contribute to national security and the economy.  (Robert F. Service, ScienceInsider)


Antibiotic Resistance

Racial disparities in ear infection treatment may contribute to antibiotic overuse

A joint study by the CDC, Emory University, and the University of Utah found that black children are 30% less likely to be diagnosed with ear infections than their non-black counterparts. Of those diagnosed with ear infections, non-black children are 20% more likely to be prescribed broad-spectrum antibiotics than black children. This may indicate that black children are being under diagnosed and under prescribed or that non-black children are being over diagnosed and overprescribed antibiotics.   Regardless of the explanation, this study highlights an important discrepancy between treatment received by black and non-black children indicating a potential bias in physicians. Recently, new guidelines on antibiotic usage for otitis media were released with a focus on reduction in the use of broadspectrum antibiotics to help combat antibiotic resistance.  (Science Daily)


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November 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 14, 2014

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By: Nicholas Jury, Ph.D

Photo Credit: Lester V. Bergman/Corbis


Mental Health

Recent evidence linking gut microbes and mental disorders grab neuroscientists’ attention

Dietary supplement companies selling “probiotics” have often claimed that adding them to a diet can enhance the overall mental health of an individual. Even though these gut-derived microbes are readily available over-the-counter, neuroscientists are not completely sold on their utility. However, recent pre-clinical studies have provided some evidence linking mental conditions such as autism and depression to the gut microbiome. These studies have spurred new interest in the potential connection between the “gut-brain axis.”

More than $1 million has been spent this year by the National Institute of Mental Health on research projects investigating the connection between the gut microbiome and the brain. Furthermore, John Cryan at the University of College Cork in Ireland will present evidence linking gut microbes to depression-like behavior in mice at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. His study demonstrated that mice that were born via caesarean section acted in a more depressed-like manner when compared to mice that were born vaginally. “The microbiome is likely to have its greatest impact on early life,” said Cryan.

Another study conducted in mice demonstrated a potential link between autism-like symptoms and the gut microbe Bacteroides fragilis. Mice with autism-like symptoms were fed these gut bacteria and symptoms ceased. Furthermore, this same group found that the mice with autism-like symptoms had high levels of a bacterial metabolite, and that injecting this metabolite into normal mice caused them to exhibit autism-like symptoms.

These pre-clinical studies provide some evidence of the interaction between our gut microbiome and the brain, and the potential therapeutic utility of probiotics in mental health disorders.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)


Federal Science Policy – Regulatory

The 21st century cures initiative drums up bipartisan support on Capitol Hill

Amidst the partisan rancor and gridlock on Capitol Hill, there appears to be some resemblance of bipartisanship with a new biomedical legislative priority. The 21st Century Cures Initiative aims to reduce unnecessary regulation and decrease the time to bring new biological and pharmacological treatments to market. Specifically, the initiative could address regulation regarding clinical trials and institutional review boards. The initiative was conceived by two unlikely bedfellows on the House Energy and Commerce Committee: a conservative, Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman, and a liberal Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO). The first draft of the legislation is expected to be announced at the beginning of the 114th Congress.

(Kelly Servick,  ScienceInsider)


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November 14, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 11, 2014

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By: Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph.D.


More money for the fight against Ebola

President Obama asked Congress for more than $6 billion dollars in additional funds to cope with the Ebola crisis. By framing the request as emergency funds, the president hopes to win bipartisan support for the measure. It includes $2.43 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, much of which is apportioned for the Centers for Disease Control to shore up U.S. defense against the disease, as well as to control the epidemic in West Africa. $238 million is requested for the National Institutes for Health for vaccine and medicine development. $2.1 billion for State and international aid is slated for the U.S. Agency for International Development and USAID. Republicans indicate support for the request but also the need for careful review first. The request likely will be discussed in more detail at a Senate Appropriations hearing Nov 12th. (David Rogers, Politico)


Equal Pay for Equal Work

Gender inequity in pay persists in science

A recent survey conducted by the magazine, The Scientist, shines a light on the persistent inequity in pay received by equally qualified female scientists compared to their male colleagues. The difference in pay was most stunning in the U.S. and Canada, where female scientists made approximately $28,000 less than male scientists comparing average salaries. The most equitable pay was found in Latin America, where the difference in average salary was about $300. Independent of gender, the data showed that there were slight to modest increases in pay across different scientific disciplines compared to 2013, with relatively greater increases in the fields of genomics and immunology. (Jyoti Madhusoodanan, The Scientist)


Federal Science Policy – Climate Change

GOP majority could challenge Obama climate policy

In Tuesday’s election, Republicans gained control of the Senate and retained control of the House, which could spell disaster for the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to cut CO2 pollution from coat-fired power plants. The GOP-lead senate has also indicated they will approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would shuttle oil from Canada to U.S. refineries. Republican senator from Oklahoma and climate change denier, James Inhofe, is next in line to chair the Environment and Public Works Committee. (NPR)


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November 11, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – November 7, 2014

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D

photo credit: subarcticmike via photopin cc


Newly discovered fossil could prove a problem for creationists

Ichthyosaurs were dolphin-like reptiles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs. These aquatic predators are thought to have evolved from land-dwelling ancestors that eventually returned to the water. Because of gaps in the fossil record, a definitive link between these proposed terrestrial reptiles and the ichthyosaur has been lacking. A study recently published in Nature identifies a semiaquatic reptile that appears to partially fill that gap. The creature, named Cartorhynchus lenticarpus, was recovered from China’s Anhui Province in 2011. Close analysis of the specimen identified C. lenticarpus as the oldest ichthysauriform identified to date. Unlike its descendant, C. lenticarpus had a shorter snout as well as large flippers, flexible wrists, and thicker bones which would have allowed them to troll shallow waters without being swept away by coastal waves. This animal lived approximately 4 million years after the earth’s largest mass extinction. Lead author of the study, Ryosuke Montani, said the amphibian “was probably one of the first predators to appear after that extinction.”  The next step? Find C. lenticarpus’ predecessor.  (Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post)


Ebola Outbreak – Vaccine Research

Nasal spray vaccine has potential for long-lasting protection from Ebola virus

A nasal spray vaccine developed by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin provided long-term protection in a non-human primate model after challenge with 1,000 plaque-forming units of Ebola Zaire, the strain responsible for the current outbreak in West Africa. The nasal vaccine resulted in 100 percent survival (3 out of 3 animals) 150 days post-immunization, in contrast to only 50% survival in primates vaccinated by standard intra-muscular injection. Results of the study, co-authored by Dr. Maria Croyle, graduate student Kristina Jonsson-Schmunck, and colleagues from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg were published this week in the online edition of Molecular Pharmaceuticals. While the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to rage with a fatality rate as high as 70%, there remains no licensed vaccine. Officials have declared the outbreak a public health emergency. According to Jonsson-Schmunck, “There is a desperate need for a vaccine that not only prevents continued transmission from person to person, but also aids in controlling future incidents.” This is the first study to examine the longevity of an Ebola vaccine and the first to demonstrate efficacy from a single-dose, non-injectable formulation. Use of a nasal spray is preferable to needle-based vaccines in terms of both cost and safety. A Phase I clinical trial is planned to test the vaccine’s efficacy in human subjects. (ScienceDaily, Mark Prigg, MailOnLine)


Federal Science Policy

After Election 2014: COMPETES Reauthorization

In the coming year, Congress will likely seek to reauthorize important legislation governing research and science education. The America COMPETES Act expired last year and has yet to be extended although two different congressional committees have emerged with strikingly opposed revisions to the previous 2010 COMPETES law. Democratic Senator John Rockefeller (who has chosen to retire and will not be returning to the Senate in January) introduced S. 2757 in July. This bill seeks to make good on the 2007 and 2010 COMPETES Act by doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The increase in NSF funding would be applied to all fields of research, including the social sciences and the NSF’s current peer review system would be maintained. The bill also provides for the continuation of federal outreach and educational activities. In stark contrast, Republican Representative Lamar Smith has crafted the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. FIRST authorizes NSF programs for only 1 year with a small increase in the current budget. However, the bill also specifically allocates the funds within the foundation’s six research directorates, slashing funding for the social sciences. Smith’s bill has raised strong opposition from the scientific community who are not only pushing for a substantial, long-term budget, but are equally committed to their own peer review process for awarding research dollars. Although Republicans will control both the House and Senate come January, COMPETES may still have a fighting chance. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the anticipated new head of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, expressed support for COMPETES legislation in 2013; and fellow Republican Senator John Thune, predicted chair of the commerce and science committee, while not coming out in support of COMPETES reauthorization, has endorsed the development of a research facility in his home state of South Dakota. Regardless of whether House and Senate can agree, the White House will still play a major role in dictating policy, making a lengthy battle over reauthorization likely. (Jeffrey Mervis, ScienceInsider)



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November 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 4, 2014

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

photo credit: Storm Crypt via photopin cc


Algal virus found in humans, slows brain activity

Humans have traditionally caught viruses from closely related species like monkeys and pigs, but recent studies show that algal viruses can reside in our bodies. Scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland have implicated the virus ATCV-1, which infects algae in lakes and rivers, in reduced cognitive function in humans. The group found the ATCV-1 virus in a study of 92 otherwise healthy people. People infected with the virus performed poorly on visual processing tasks, and exhibited shorter attention spans. The team tested if the virus had a causal role in cognitive decline by injecting mice with infected and uninfected algae. The infected mice exhibited poorer attention spans and spatial memory when compared with the uninfected mice. The researchers have also found a change in activity of almost 3000 genes in the infected animals in the hippocampal region of the brain, which is important for learning and memory. The researchers speculate that the virus might stimulate certain immune responses that might in turn affect gene activity in the brain. It is unclear if and how ATCV-1 infects people, even though the virus has been found in many samples around the world. These new findings raise concerns about whether workers who work around water bodies are more susceptible to this virus. Only more studies will tell. (Elizabeth Pennizi, Science)




Science suffers in rocket explosion

The surging enthusiasm for the rocket launch was crushed when Antares exploded 6 seconds after takeoff from the Virginia launch pad on 28th October. Also crushed were all of the scientific experiments that were to be sent to the International Space Station. About one-third of the cargo on Antares was scientific equipment, including a miniature satellite developed by Planetary Resources to mine asteroids for valuable deposits, a high-definition video camera built at the Chiba Institute of Technology to study the properties of meteor showers, and satellites made by Planet Labs to add to their constellation of small satellites to image Earth. A radiometer to measure atmospheric water vapor, one to study how satellites break-up when they de-orbit, and experiments to grow pea shoots to feed astronauts are among other cargo lost in the explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the explosion, and the six astronauts aboard the space station should be fine with the existing cargo for another six months, says Michael Suffredini, the space station program manager for NASA in Houston. However, the biggest challenge now seems to be getting a ride for the cargo to space in future launches. A significant amount of rescheduling needs to be done given that Orbital Sciences, the company that launched Antares, will not be able to fly for some time, pending investigations, and so cargo needs to be accommodated in other missions. “Nobody likes to see a rocket blow up on a launch pad,” says Dante Lauretta, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. (Alexandra Witze, Nature)



Ebola in the Maternity Ward

 The World Health Organization recently estimated the mortality rate for Ebola at seventy percent, but the viral infection is even more deadly for pregnant women. In the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire, the virus killed fourteen out of fifteen infected pregnant women. This has created a serious ethical and practical problem in the Ebola stricken West African countries. Pregnant women in labor bleed profusely, and they are therefore highly infectious. The staff is at high risk of contamination, and there is a shortage of medical supplies and trained obstetricians or midwives. This, coupled with the belief that pregnant women infected with Ebola are highly likely to die anyway and the resources could instead be given to some other patient, results in them not being permitted in the standard Ebola wards. “They aren’t even given beds. They get put in an area where they get no interventions. They are assumed to die,” says Gabriel Warren, who runs West African Medical Missions, a nonprofit in Sierra Leone. If the Zaire mortality rate of pregnant women were to be applied to the present Ebola outbreak, then only around five percent of infected pregnant women would survive. But if that figure is wrong, then excluding pregnant women is too, says Nir Eyal, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that of the eight hundred thousand women projected to give birth in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in the coming year, a hundred and twenty thousand are at risk of dying due to insufficient medical care. Ethics being one side of the argument, a large amount of funding is required to manage the projected maternal deaths in the coming year. How to deal with pregnant women infected with Ebola “is a challenging medical-ethics scenario. There’s no easy answer,” says Joseph Bresse, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control mission in Sierra Leone. (Joshua Lang, The New Yorker)



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November 4, 2014 at 11:03 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – October 31, 2014

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D

photo credit: Ian Ruotsala via photopin cc

Research Policy

Brain-Training Companies Get Advice From Some Academics, Criticism From Others

Media attention has exploded recently over brain games such as Lumosity and CogMed.  These companies often make claims that their games can enhance intelligence and slow cognitive decline.  Although the groups advertise they base their games on research studies from top universities, their advertisements are not well-founded on science, asserts a group of 70 researchers in a critique of some of the statements made by the brain-training industry. Sometimes brain game companies even promote their products by showing photos and names of collaborating scientists without their permission. According to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, this was the case for Susanne M. Jaeggi, an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine.  Dr. Jaeggi briefly collaborated with Lumosity several years ago, hoping the company’s web platform would facilitate data collection on an experiment she and her research partners had designed. Although Jaeggi terminated the project after running a few subjects, her name is still in Lumosity’s materials, and she has found her photo on other companies’ websites, used without her permission, to hint that she endorses their products.    The critique was signed by professors of neuroscience, psychology, and gerontology.  Professors from the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, wrote that there was “little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.” Not all researchers agree, however. Lumping all brain game companies together is “a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief scientific officer of the brain-training company Posit Science, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education article describing the statement as “irresponsible.”  Roberto Cabeza, a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and another signatory on the statement, says that his view is that it’s fine to play such games for fun, but “if you’re doing it like a chore” to postpone cognitive aging and dementia there are other, better established methods of keeping the brain sharp, such as exercising.  Bottom line is that the $120 you might be tempted to spend on a commercial brain games subscription might be better spent on a gym membership. (Rebecca Koenig, Chronicles of Higher Education)


Biology – Stem Cell Research

Scientists grow ‘miniature stomachs’ from stem cells, which could patch up ulcers one day

Scientists grow ‘miniature stomachs’ from stem cells, which could eventually be used to patch ulcers. The study, conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center published in Nature this week, was the first time scientists were able to use human stem cells to generate functional 3D stomach tissue. In addition, the researchers replicated what occurs in the real stomach when they injected the ulcer-causing H.Pylori bacteria. According to the lead author James Wells, “whatever the mouse stomach did at any given stage, our mini-stomach did as well, and at basically the same time, and it developed into a strikingly stomach-like architecture.” Eventually the hope is that a patient’s own cells can be used to grow patches of tissue to repair damage in the stomach, intestine, or colon. (Rachel Feltman, Washington Post)


Human Health and Nutrition

Sweet Stuff
How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health

Time to take out the candy for tonight’s ‘Trick-or-Treaters’?   Maybe it would be better to offer something not so sweet or to try the Halloween Candy Buyback program featured on today’s NPR’s blog “The Salt.”  NIH pediatricians, such as Kristina Rother, and other sweetener experts agree that Americans eat way too much sugar and it contributes to the obesity epidemic and cardiovascular problems. The leading culprits are soft drinks and sweetened juices, but sugar is also added to foods to make them taste better. On a list of ingredients, they may be listed as sucrose (table sugar), corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit-juice concentrates, nectar, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, fructose sweeteners, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, or other words ending in “-ose,” the chemical suffix for sugars. It turns out that 15% of the American diet is made up of added sugar and this percentage is equivalent to 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day.  ( Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, NIH News in Health)


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October 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 28, 2014

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By: Lani S. Chun

photo credit: BWJones via photopin cc

Ebola Outbreak – Public Health

WHO convenes meeting to discuss the development and implementation of Ebola vaccine

Much attention has been given to the isolated incidents of travelers inadvertently bringing Ebola outside of West Africa, feeding fears that Ebola may become a global epidemic. However, it is important to note that there have only been 10 deaths and 27 cases confirmed outside of the three hardest hit countries—Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia—where almost 5,000 ebola deaths out of over 10,000 cases have been confirmed. This highlights the need to concentrate on the plight of the citizens and healthcare workers who are living and working in West Africa, where limited healthcare resources, long-standing cultural traditions, and distrust in the government are prolonging and exacerbating the ebola outbreak. On the 23rd of October, the WHO convened a meeting to discuss the development and implementation of ebola vaccines as the best option to curb current and future ebola outbreaks. Among the 90+ participants were representatives of governments, charities, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and academic scientists. As a result, production of potential vaccines is scheduled ramp up in 2015. In addition, clinical trials and approvals of said vaccines will be fast-tracked with the prioritization put on vaccination of healthcare workers. (Chris Johnston, The Guardian; Patterson Clark, Washington Post; CDC; WHO)


Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-awardee, Eric Betzig, makes additional contributions to the field of microscopy

The Nobel Prizes serve as symbols of global participation in the advancement of culture, human welfare, and scientific achievement and are widely considered crowning achievements for awardees, but Eric Betzig isn’t just accomplished; he’s prolific. On October 8, 2014, Eric Betzig shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to the development of single-molecule microscopy, which he was the first to utilize in 2006. Sixteen days after the Nobel Prize announcement, his group published a paper in Science, describing another ground-breaking method called lattice light-sheet microscopy. Lattice light-sheet microscopy overcomes the low spatio-temporal resolution of current technologies, allowing in vivo, 3D visualization of highly dynamic processes with minimal photobleaching and background fluorescence. This method provides a more nuanced and detailed mechanism for visualizing cellular processes and is an essential advancement of fluorescence imaging technology. (Rachel Feltman, Washington Post;; Chen et al., Science)


Federal Science Policy

USA share of internationally funded nuclear fusion research in jeopardy due to Congressional concerns over budget

In 2007, the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) Agreement was signed and ratified by six countries (China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and USA) and the European Union. With the ratification of the agreement, the countries set out to collaboratively build and test a magnetic confinement system, called a tokamak, that could serve as a proof-of-concept for nuclear fusion as a source of energy. Although the tokamak will not be used to produce electricity, the goal of the 30-year project is to demonstrate that energy output from nuclear fusion can be ten times greater than energy input. Construction of the largest tokamak to date began in 2013 with scheduled completion of the machine in 2019. The USA agreed to build 9% of the tokamak regardless of the price tag. However, mismanagement, ballooning expenditures, and moving deadlines have caused some members of Congress to question the cost-benefit potential of US participation in such a high-cost, long-term project with relatively uncertain outcomes. Some Senate members have moved to end US funding for the project by next year. With upcoming elections in multiple states and low approval ratings, it is to be seen what direction Congress will go with respect to ITER. (Adrian Cho, Science;



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October 28, 2014 at 5:49 pm


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