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Science Policy Around the Web – August 22, 2014

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

photo credit: Bernt Rostad via photopin cc

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

 

NIH Funding Policy

Closing the “Grant Gap” between racial minorities and Caucasian applicants

Beginning in September, the NIH will begin analyzing the factors responsible for the fact that African American scientists are only two-thirds as likely to receive an NIH grant as a Caucasian applicant. Although the NIH launched a $500 million program to train and mentor minority scientists in 2012, officials recognize that training disparities are not the sole factor in the grant gap. This new initiative will investigate the role of reviewer bias during the grant review process. If racial bias is identified, it would not be a complete surprise after a study published in July found that faculty members at US universities are less likely to respond to interview requests from individuals whose names are associated with women and minorities than those associated with Caucasian males1. However, even if racial bias is not a key factor in the racial disparity of NIH grant awarded, the initiative will hopefully still identify the causes of the gap, allowing the NIH to develop future programs that will address the appropriate needs.   (Sara Reardon)

  1. Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M. and Chugh, D. What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Soc. Sci. Res. Network. 2014. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2063742

 

Science in Society

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages employees to be model citizens

The CDC’s mission is to “protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the US” 24/7 (http://www.cdc.gov/about/organization/mission.htm). The CDC puts much effort into encouraging public awareness of potential threats and personal preparedness for when disasters do arise. However, upon looking into its own “house,” officials realized that its employees were not implementing the preparedness measures that they implore the public to adopt. Therefore, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the CDC created the Ready CDC program. To instill community level preparedness within the CDC “community” of employees, Ready CDC provides it employees the support they need to participate, the tools and resources required for personal preparedness and the education to practice “actionable behaviors,” like making emergency kits and family disaster plans. By implementing these measures within their own workforce, the CDC hopes to study behaviors of preparedness, like a community’s resistance to change, to understand if their efforts are effecting the desired changes. At the core of this program is the desire to effectively respond when disaster strikes, and studies show that an individual is more likely to assist in an emergency if that person feels their family will be okay in their absence.

 

Space Policy

NASA paving the way to use 3D-printed instruments in space

NASA is already making full use of 3D printing to manufacture items like rocket engine parts and photographs from the Hubble Space telescope. However, by the end of September they hope to have printed an entire camera from 3D printing materials. The goal is to cut down the time and cost of manufacturing, particularly on components that have tiny features that are difficult, or impossible, to accomplish with traditional manufacturing techniques. In addition to building cameras, Jason Budinoff, an aerospace engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center, is working on techniques to 3D print the high quality mirrors that are so important in telescopes. Although these items will have to withstand rigorous testing to see if they can tolerate the stresses of deep space, Budinoff is hopeful.   (Kelly Dickerson)

 

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August 22, 2014 at 5:22 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – August 15, 2014

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By: Bethanie L. Morrison, Ph.D.

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Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

 

Global Health

Using experimental drugs and vaccines against Ebola is ethical, WHO panel says

A 12-member World Health Organization (WHO) ethics panel has approved the use of experimental drugs to combat the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the worst outbreak on record. Panelists and other disease experts initially worried that testing the experimental drugs in rural Africa may be seen as racist, yet after seeing the positive results of the experimental ZMapp on two Americans infected with the Ebola virus, they have put those concerns aside. While agreeing that the compassionate use of experimental therapeutics is warranted in this situation is a huge hurdle that had to be overcome, there are many more policy considerations that will be up for discussion at the next convening of ethics panel members in Geneva at the end of the month. Some of these roadblocks include whether to distribute the therapeutics to health care workers first, which authority makes the decisions about individual patient treatment and, most importantly, the fact that the experimental drugs in discussion are only available in limited quantities.  “Much more ethical work needs to be done to create a sound infrastructure for compassionate use in humanitarian emergencies,” wrote Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University.   (Kai Kupferschmidt)

 

Diplomacy, Defense,  and Technology

Pentagon’s breakthrough human brain-inspired computer chip to power drones

Researchers at the Pentagon, as part of the Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have created a computer chip inspired by the synapses of the human brain. The chip, which contains over 5 billion transistors and more than 250 million life-like “synapses,” requires only a fraction of the electricity typically required to power commercially available computer chips. The decrease in energy requirements for the chip will make it much easier for military field use. In addition, the chip is powerful enough to “give unmanned aircraft or robotic ground systems with limited power budgets a more refined perception of the environment,” says Gill Pratt, the DARPA program manager. This will take some of the burden off of system operators as drones should be able to distinguish threats more accurately. Ultimately the development of this chip will allow for a much wider range of portable computing applications used for military and defense.   (Douglas Ernst)

 

Science Communication

Ebola May Pose Little Threat to U.S., but It Looms Large on Twitter

Ebola is trending on Twitter. This fact has social scientists and biomedical scientists on high alert for completely different reasons, both of which converge on the implications of appropriate scientific communication.   Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has found that heightened emotions increase story sharing, regardless of the truth.   While Ebola remains a very rare disease, the emotions that its horrific symptoms stir up in the general public are very strong, enticing people to share stories regardless of the validity of their sources or the impact that spreading potentially false information may have on people and policy makers. People want to be more a part of the conversation and be “in the know” than a part of the alternative. While strong emotional issues are great for the social media model of marketing, they may not have the same impact on the biomedical research community who now has to spend countless amounts of time and resources explaining why the Ebola virus is not one to be concerned with in day to day living. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing; as it has pushed people like Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to release fact sheets about Ebola and other “emerging threats.”    (Joshua A. Krisch)

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August 15, 2014 at 6:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – August 8, 2014

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito

photo credit: Microbe World via photopin cc

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

American Ebola patients become serum test subjects. -With no approved vaccine or treatment for Ebola infection, two American health care workers infected in Liberia were given an unapproved drug in hopes of preventing death. Zmapp, a combination of three humanized monoclonal antibodies, has not previously been tested in humans, but has shown promise in non-human primates. These drugs bypassed the usual FDA requirements of human clinical trial safety and efficacy testing.   Following administration of the drug, one of the patients showed a “miraculous” recovery. However, Ebola researchers are skeptical of the antibody cocktail leading to such quick improvement.   (Monte Morin)

Geopolitics disrupt scientific exchange with Russia.   -The rocky political relationship between the US and Russia is impacting the scientific community. Due to guidelines restricting travel of US government scientist to Russia, scientists from the DOE and NASA have been forced to cancel plans to attend scientific conferences in Russia including the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conference on fusion. Policies regarding travel differ between agencies and the approval process is nontransparent, confusing and frustrating scientists seeking to travel to Russia. However, many other US-Russian projects are seemingly continuing without a hitch including a long term project RUSLCA involving US NOAA.   (Eli Kintisch)

Flores bones show features of Down syndrome, not a new ‘Hobbit’ human. – Unique characteristics of a skull and leg bone found in a cave in Flores Indonesia in 2004  led to the description of a new species, Homo floresiensis. However, re-examining of the bones by researchers has led to the conclusion that they are in fact not from a new species, but likely from a hominoid with Down syndrome. Scientists came to this conclusion by calculating cranial volume, craniofacial asymmetry, and occipital-frontal circumference. Furthermore, no other remains found at the same site had any of the unusual characteristics, suggesting that these bones represent an abnormality among this population.    (Science Daily)

 

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August 8, 2014 at 6:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 3, 2014

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By: Tara Burke, Ph.D.

 

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US. confirms 2 Americans with Ebola coming home for treatment – Two American volunteers who were working to stop the largest outbreak of Ebola in history have contracted the virus. They are now being flown to the U.S. for treatment and the evacuations should be completed by next week. Emory University announced that it would be treating one of those patients. This decision has provoked fear among Americans, who fear the spread of the virus in the U.S. A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained that the transportation and treatment of these patients would not cause an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. and reiterated that Ebola is not transmitted through the air and can only spread by direct contact with bodily fluids of a person who is sick and showing symptoms. (Joel Achenbach, Brady Dennis, Lenny Bernstein)

 

F.D.A. Acts on Lab Tests Developed In-House – On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would start to regulate medical laboratory testing. The FDA stressed that these tests need to be validated and checked before they go into use. This issue had been a tug of war in Congress between some Democrats pushing for this regulation and some Republicans trying to stop it. Some laboratories and pathologists vehemently oppose this new regulation. They feel this regulation is unnecessary and will only increase the cost and time needed to develop tests. The agency said it would phase in the requirements over nine years and that they would focus on tests where wrong results would result in the highest level or risk to the patient. (Andrew Pollack)

 

Surgeon General Calls for Action to Reduce Skin Cancer Rate – The acting surgeon general, Dr. Boris D. Lushniak, called for urgent action to reduce the rate of skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. but is also one of the most preventable. The rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, rose by 200 percent from 1973 to 2011. Additionally, melanoma is one of the most common cancers among teenagers and young adults. Dr. Lushniak advises Americans to reduce their exposure to harmful rays of the sun and tanning beds. The report comes on the heels of an announcement by the F.D.A. saying they would require manufacturers to put black-box warnings on tanning beds warning against their use to individuals under 18 years of age. (Sabrina Tavernise)

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August 3, 2014 at 9:16 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 25, 2014

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By: Jennifer L. Plank, Ph.D.

photo credit: Gates Foundation via photopin cc

photo credit: Gates Foundation via photopin cc

 A Call to Fight Malaria One Mosquito at a Time by Altering DNA

Two recent publications discuss the possibility of genetically engineering mosquitoes to reduce transmission of malaria to susceptible populations using CRISPR. Despite the potential positive implications of the experiments, several negative results may occur. First, completing the experiments may not be as straight-forward as anticipated. Additionally, genetically engineering an entire species may have disastrous consequences for the ecosystem. Therefore, policies will need to be implemented to address the potential negative concerns prior to beginning the large-scale experiment. (Carl Zimmer)

 

The Women’s Health Gap That Must Be Closed

An unfortunate statistic: African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer but are less likely to be diagnosed with it than white women. Two potential causes for this discrepancy is the lack of available health coverage and lack of education about breast cancer and preventative medication for many African-American women. The Affordable Care Act addresses the first concern; health coverage, including preventative coverage, is now more widely available. The second issue is harder to address. This blog post calls for action by health care providers and community groups to improve the awareness of the risks, importance of preventive medicine, and the availability of preventative medicine. (Thomas Duncan)

 

Point/Counterpoint: Sex and Basic Science. A Title IX Position

In May, Drs. Janine Clayton and Francis Collins published a comment in Nature outlining future policies that will be implemented by the NIH regarding the use of both sexes in basic research studies, including model animals and cell lines. Here, a point/counterpoint has been published to address the pros and cons of such a policy. (Kathryn Sandberg, Joseph G. Verbalis, Gina L.C. Yosten, and Willis K. Samson)

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July 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 18, 2014

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

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Maintaining the prestige of US research and innovation

In the face of ever-increasing global competition in science and technology innovations, Congress requested that the National Academies develop a way to measure the impact of research on society in efforts to effectively prioritize Federal spending. In the pre-publication of that report, now available online, the study committee repeatedly highlights three “crucial pillars of the research system:” a strong, talented workforce, adequate and dependable (emphasis added) resources and world-class basic research in all major areas (emphasis added) of science. The committee stresses the importance of understanding the larger picture of US research, in all of its complexities, rather than using one, or a few, metrics to guide federal-level funding decisions. It is impossible to predict where the next transformative innovation will come from; therefore, limiting funding to one sector in favor of others may have unintentional consequences. Furthermore, the committee suggests that using metrics like the flow of knowledge within a scientific field and international comparison of innovation will help maximize the federal budget resources. (National Research Council)

Should research fraud be criminalized?

In a “Head to Head” article published in the British Medical Journal this week, two researchers debated the question, “Should research fraud be a crime?” Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, the chair of the Center for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto argued for such action; Dr. Julian Crane, the director of the Wellington Asthma Research Group at the University of Otago Wellington in New Zealand, argued against criminalization. At the core of the debate is the fact that PNAS published a review of the 2,047 abstracts that have been retracted from PubMed since 1977. Of the retracted abstracts, 67.4% were due to scientific misconduct, which equates to roughly one in every 18,234 published abstracts being retracted because of misconduct. Dr. Bhutta argues that scientific misconduct can have large negative consequences on human health, citing the damage of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent vaccine study. Yet, he states, there is little in place to deter such behavior other than dismissal from research positions and academic shaming. Arguing against criminalization, Dr. Crane believes that criminalizing research is a bad idea and would only erode trust. Supporting this point, he quoted philosopher Onora O’Neill, “criminalizing research fraud would not improve trust—it would undermine it…[scientifc fraud] is much better prevented by transparency.” (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News)

Congress questions CDC about recent safety lapses

This has been a rough few months for the CDC. First, scientists in Atlanta moved active anthrax from a high containment facility to a less secure one, mistakenly thinking the samples were inactivated. Then, two weeks ago, the CDC accidentally shipped flu vaccines that were contaminated with avian influenza to the USDA. Most recently, samples of smallpox, dating to the 1950s, were found on the NIH campus in Bethesda; samples of the eradicated disease are only supposed to exist at the CDC in Atlanta, and a Russian research facility. Because of this recent string of incidents, Congress convened an investigative committee to see what action Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC since 2009, was taking to address these matters. This is not the first time Congress has investigated the CDC’s safety measures, and Dr. Frieden acknowledged that he and the agency had failed to see “the pattern” of safety lapses that is now evident. While the immediate issues with contamination and safety are being addressed, the CDC has ceased operations in its bioterrorism and influenza laboratories, and stopped shipments from other CDC laboratories. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Jim Thompson)

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July 18, 2014 at 5:49 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 11, 2014

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By: Bethanie Morrison

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

AACR Joins Coalition in Urging CMS to Adopt Tobacco Screening and Treatment Measures
Despite the undesirable health consequences of smoking, most hospitals have not placed a high priority on offering evidence-based assistance to patients who should or would like to quit smoking. Tobacco use is the leading cause of disease and early mortality in the United States and adds $150 billion in health care costs each year. In its 2015 Proposed Rule on Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) encouraged compliance with certain health care performance measures required for CMS to continue to make payments to hospitals. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), in partnership with various public health organizations, has submitted comments to CMS suggesting that they include tobacco use screening, tobacco use treatment during hospitalization, and tobacco use management at discharge for acute- and long-term care hospitals as well as psychiatric facilities. Thus far CMS has incorporated the first two measures in its quality reporting requirements and is being encouraged by AACR and others to incorporate the third. (AACR Cancer Policy Monitor)

Seedy tale: Chinese researchers stole patented corn, U.S. prosecutors allege
U.S. prosecutors have alleged that employees of the Chinese agricultural company Dabeinong Technology Group Co. (DBN) and a subsidiary sneaked through midwestern cornfields and gathered patented corn that they attempted to smuggle out of the United States in microwave popcorn boxes. The strains had been developed by various companies including DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and LG Seeds. The genetic makeup of corn lines is a highly valued form of intellectual property and is carefully guarded by seed companies. This case reflects real obstacles to innovation within China, according to experts on Chinese agriculture. Court documents reveal that the FBI had been following this group for over a year, and has now arrested seven defendants on charges of stealing trade secrets. DuPont Pioneer has developed a popular corn line in China together with a Chinese company. However, the Chinese government has such tight control over its seed industry that officials have allowed the company to make only one hybrid cultivar available. This tight control has given Chinese scientists the need to investigate the genetic makeup of patented seeds grown in the United States, seeds which they could have requested from DuPont based in China. (Mara Hvistendahl)

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programs
The science coverage on the BBC has recently been criticized for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose issues that have no contention in the science community. As a result, BBC journalists are now being made to attend workshops and courses that will help them establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found, and also how to make that clear to the public audience.  A BBC Trust progress report on this issue stated, “science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.” A “false-balance” occurs when unqualified critics, such as non-scientific heads of lobby firms, are given the same air-time as the qualified scientists. At least 200 BBC staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be offered in the near future to stop journalists giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’ (Sarah Knapton)

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July 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 4, 2014

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Malaria parasite alters host body order to entice mosquitoes. Building upon earlier indications that mosquitoes are more attracted to people that are infected with Plasmodium, the parasite that causes Malaria, scientists were able to identify chemical exuded by mice infected with plasmodium which attract Anopheles mosquitoes. These four chemicals are present mainly at 13-20 days post infection, which coincides with diminishing Malaria symptoms. Researchers are now determining whether these findings hold true for infected humans. The presence of these chemicals may allow for rapid detection of people who are carriers of the disease. (Geoffrey Mohan)

Ninety-nine percent of the ocean’s plastic is missing. Disappearing garbage does not typically raise alarm bells, but researchers studying how much garbage is floating in the oceans cannot account for 99% of the estimated plastic that should be in our oceans. Scientists hypothesize that the plastic, which is broken down into tiny pieces by sun and ocean exposure, are becoming fish food. Since fish are part of the food web, they worry that the plastic and toxins such as DDT, PCBs, and mercury that adsorb on the plastic may be concentrating in the fish. These chemicals could make it up the food chain and ultimately eventually land on your plate. However, the effects of fish eating plastic are not known, and neither is how much plastic is being consumed. Other “best case” possibilities for the missing plastic include digestion by microbes, washing ashore and sinking to the bottom of the oceans. Further investigation into the quantity and consequences of marine animal consumption of plastic is needed to assess the risk to the human population. (Angus Chen)

Finally, some solid science on Bigfoot. Following an open solicitation of possible Yeti/Bigfoot hairs, Scientist Bryan Sykes and his colleagues at Oxford University and the Museum of Zoology in Lausaane, Switzerland found two DNA samples matching a 40,000-year-old polar bear’s jawbone. While there was no indication of yeti DNA, researchers may have discovered a new species of bear and deduce that “the hairs are from either an unknown bear species or a hybrid of a brown bear and a polar bear.” However, the match is only based on 100bp of DNA, so these results are preliminary and need to be further validated. Since these samples were collected independently and far apart in both time and distance, Sykes believes this is not a hoax. If real, this bear species may account for some of the Bigfoot sightings in this region. (Erika Engelhaupt)

 

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July 4, 2014 at 6:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2014

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By: Tara Burke

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Oral Vaccine for Cholera Found Effective in Africa – A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last month found that two doses of a new oral vaccine, Shanchol, provided 86 percent protection against cholera. Cholera causes diarrhea and dehydration so severe that it can kill. Shanchol is cheaper, packaged in a smaller container and is also easier to administer than the older vaccine, Dukoral. Shanchol, which costs less than $2, was developed with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Donald G. McNeil Jr.)

Researcher Charged in Major HIV Vaccine Fraud Case – Former Iowa State University laboratory manager Dong-Pyou Han had federal charges filed against him after he admitted to falsifying data. This falsification led to million of dollars in AIDS funding with hopes of a breakthrough in AIDS vaccine research. Han faked data that appeared to show promise for an experimental HIV vaccine by spiking samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies. The irregularities of Han’s research were discovered by another laboratory. He could face up to 5 years in prison for making these false statements. Iowa State has agreed to pay back the NIH nearly $500, 000, making up for the cost of Han’s salary. This case is the result of fierce competition to win scarce NIH funding and is a bellwether for desperately needed changes within the peer review funding process that, if not changed, will most likely lead to more and more desperate acts similar or worse than Han’s. (Ryan J. Foley)

U.S., U.K. debate nutrition advice – In an effort to get U.S. and U.K. citizens to eat healthier foods, government-led proposals in both countries are stirring up a lot of debate. In the U.S., The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label on food products. These labels have not been overhauled since 1993 and since then, there have been substantial changes in our understanding of nutrition. While most people agree that changes need to be made, there is little consensus on specifically which changes should be made. However, one of the main topics of discussion is how to inform consumers about added sugars which many nutritional advocates agree is extremely detrimental to the U.S. diet.  In the U.K., a 366-page report was released recommending that the population consume “free sugar” (added sugars and naturally present sugars such as honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices) that’s no more than 5% of their diet. (Jennifer Couzin-Frankel)

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June 27, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 22, 2014

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By: Jennifer Plank

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Administration Takes Steps to Aid Bees – In recent hears, the numbers of honey bees and other pollinators have drastically decreased. In order to address the issue, President Obama has assembled a “pollinator health task force” consisting of individuals from 14 different federal agencies to address the decline and to determine if pesticides played a role in the reduction. (Josh Schwartz)

U.S. Senate wants more support for science at black colleges – The Senate appropriations committee has been urging the NSF to provide more funding for research and programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The NSF agrees with the sentiment, but would prefer to address the issue on their own terms. A 2015 spending bill addresses the issue in 3 ways. 1- HBCUs should receive no less than 3 (out of 15) grants awards through I-Corps, 2- NSF should set aside $7.5 million for programs to attract minorities into the life sciences, and 3- the NSF should form a panel to address mechanisms to approve opportunities at HBCUs. (Jeffrey Mervis)

Report: Government warnings about antidepressants may have led to more suicide attempts – Beginning in the 2003, the government began issues warnings that children and adolescents may have increased suicidal thoughts while taking antidepressants. A recent study published in BMJ suggests that the warnings resulted in increased suicide attempts by young people because patients were afraid of seeking treatment. These findings further suggest that the warnings placed on antidepressants such as Paxil and Zoloft may have had unintended consequences. (Brady Dennis)

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June 22, 2014 at 4:32 pm

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