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Science Policy Around the Web – December 15, 2017

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

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Science funding

Indian research labs face financial crisis

In June 2015 at Dehradun, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology mandated that India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), should generate half its funds from external sources to support their research activities.  The ‘Dehradun Declaration’ resulted in all CSIR labs resolving to turn research projects into ‘for-profit’ ventures over the next two years and develop a revenue model in a business-like manner with a clear cost-benefit analysis. The CSIR is India’s largest public sector research and development organization, employing over 4600 scientists across 38 premier laboratories.  Two years after the decision, Indian research labs face a looming financial crisis. In an email earlier this year to CSIR lab directors, CSIR Director General Girish Sahhni wrote that after covering a roughly 15% increase in salaries, pensions and employee benefits, only $31 million out of the total $681 million budget for the 2017 fiscal year will be left to support new research.  Furthermore, only 15% of CSIR’s budget is supplemented through successful marketing of its discoveries, which is far from the mandated 50% that may take another three years according to the latest projections.  “There is no ready market for CSIR technologies,” says Dinesh Abrol, a science policy expert at the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development in New Delhi and a former CSIR scientist. “These are all pipe dreams and pipe dreams will not work.” ‘It is too ambitious a time-period. We need to change the culture of our organization as most of us are currently focusing on scientific research. We cannot switch gears to take up work on industrial applications or research overnight,’ says one CSIR scientist who did not want to be named. ‘Barring a few, most CSIR labs cannot raise money from private companies as we don’t have capabilities such as technology marketing, intellectual property or negotiating abilities with industries.’  Nonetheless, India has seen tremendous growth in recent years in translational STEM sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry, which was worth $18.8 billion in 2010 and is currently worth $41.1 billion in 2017.  The Indian government also plans to develop 20 existing universities into ‘world class’ research institutions with $1.54 billion of funding.  In a more optimistic tone, Dr. Srivari Chandrasekhar, Director of the Hyderabad-based CSIR-Institute of Chemical Technology, commented “All good fundamental science research leads to applied research and CSIR is a unique agency which has competence to perform translational research in our country. Innovative solutions to industrial problems are nothing but great science. The scientist is happy only when his fundamental research is used by industry for a product formation.”

(Sanjay Kumar, Science)

Research Misconduct/The Environment

Investigation finds Swedish scientists committed scientific misconduct

In 2016, Swedish scientists Oona M. Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv published a ground shaking report in the journal Science on the adverse effects of microplastic polysterene particles on the European perch. They found that exposure to plastic particles had a significant negative impact on hatching success rates, growth rates, feeding preferences, response to olfactory threat cues and innate behaviors.  The results were heralded as “an important step”, that could potentially “guide mitigation efforts” of microplastic pollution. However, soon thereafter, two colleagues of the scientists claimed the study was “a complete fantasy”, since they never saw either Lönnstedt or Eklöv at the Ar Research Station in 2015, where the study was purportedly done.  Subsequently, a group of five ecologists and physiologists joined with the whistleblowers to sort through the mounting evidence of fraudulence. “Of course I did these experiments,” Lönnstedt told Science and suggested the accusations were fueled by “jealousy” on the part of one of the whistleblowers. “If you compare my CV with her CV … then yeah, there is a big difference,” she said.  An initial probe into the matter was dismissed, but a second, more in-depth study led by a panel at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) concluded on December 7th that the two were guilty of “misconduct in research”. In an interview with Science after CEPN’s decision, Eklöv expressed disappointment towards his former postdoctoral mentee Lönnstedt: “This is a person I very much trusted, and now it’s been shown that she was dishonest, not only to me but also to the whole scientific community.” At a key point during the investigation, when more data from the study was requested, Lönnstedt had given the excuse that her laptop had been stolen.  Looking back, Eklöv said, “I also confronted her about that several times. She was devastated. She was sitting here in my office completely devastated about this computer. … We talked about it, and I thought it could have happened; I could not exclude that. But it seemed strange, of course.” Although the contested report has been retracted since May 26, 2017, the paper has been cited 46 times so far this year according to google scholar.

(Quirin Schiermeier, Nature News)

 

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December 15, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 12, 2017

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By: Mike McKenna, BA

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source: SalFalko via flickr

The Scientific Workforce

House G.O.P. Tax Writers Take Aim at College Tuition Benefits

If House Republicans get their way with tax reform, graduate students could be hit where it hurts the most – their pockets. Without a single hearing or vote of support from the Democrats, on Nov 16, the House passed the most extensive tax reform bill in the past three decades. Included in the bill is a provision to treat tuition waivers as taxable income. According to figures cited in the New York Times, over 145,000 graduate students receive free education, often through tuition waivers. NPR reports that of those 145,000 graduate students, 60 percent of them are in STEM related fields. These waivers, which often come along with a stipend, are typically tied to positions graduate students fill, such as teaching assistants or research assistants, and cover the cost of a student’s graduate training. Currently, graduate students only pay taxes on money from university stipends, which is treated like normal income.

How hard will the tax hike hit grad students? If the House bill becomes law, the hike could take away up to a third of their income. For example, the New York Times reports that for a student at the Carnegie Mellon College of Science, which give students a $43,000 tuition waiver and a $29,400 stipend, they may pay close to an extra $10,000 in taxes a year. Instead of only having to use 10 percent of their stipend to pay taxes, graduate students would be committing around 40 percent of their stipend to Uncle Sam.

However, some individuals blame universities for creating this issue by charging high tuition prices and then providing a waiver instead of making tuition $0 for graduate students. Critics of this practice  partly attribute it to institutions wanting to collect additional funding from government grants since many grants pay a portion of graduate students tuition.  Others note that universities could reclassify tuition waivers as scholarships, which would still be not taxable. Under this plan universities could waive the requirement for graduate students to work as teaching or research assistants to receive financial assistance, but could still tie stipends to these positions.

Barring a university response, graduate students are not without hope though, as the passed Senate version of the tax reform bill does not include a provision to classify tuition waivers as taxable income. The two separate bills are currently being reviewed by a conference committee who will create a final piece of legislation. This new piece of legislation would have to pass both the House and the Senate before being signed into law by President Trump.

(Erica L. Green, The New York Times)

The Opioid Crisis

Court-mandated Opioid Rehab Rarely Meets Medical Standards

According to a recent study published in Health Affairs, the top ranked health policy journal, only five percent of individuals court ordered into rehab programs for opioid use disorder are getting the best treatment available- methadone and buprenorphine therapy. Opioids are a class of drug known for their pain relief properties. However, use of these types of drugs can also produce euphoria, contributing to why individuals misuse opioids. Opioids include prescription medications such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine and morphine and the illegal drug heroin. Methadone and buprenorphine, both medications classified as opioid agonist therapies, help reduce cravings and withdrawal from long-term opioid use.

Despite being the gold standard for the treatment of opioid use disorder, not even a majority of individuals outside the criminal justice system are referred to specialty treatment programs that utilize agonist therapies. The study’s authors found that only 41 percent of individuals referred by non-criminal justice sources received methadone or buprenorphine as part of their treatment. However, this is still four times higher than those in the criminal justice system, who often have little say over the type of treatment they will receive.

According to the study’s author, individuals in the criminal justice system often receive less effective treatments. The programs focus on abstinence while providing peer counseling and psychotherapy, which does not adequately address the biological maladaptation caused by opioid use.

Limitations of the study include that the analysis only examined first time clients, so perhaps repeat patients are more likely to receive medication assistance. But with such a drastic difference between methadone and buprenorphine treatment rates in individuals within and outside the criminal system, the authors note that the criminal justice system must provide more options for patients.

Driving this issue is the stigma against methadone and buprenorphine treatment by both individuals in need of treatment and by those providing treatment, who see it as replacing one drug dependency with another. But experts contest this claim, saying that medications like methadone and buprenorphine stabilize individuals by preventing the onset of withdrawal symptoms while not providing a high.

(Lisa Rapaport, Reuters)

 

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December 12, 2017 at 4:04 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 8, 2017

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By: Roger Mullins, Ph.D.

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Chemical Safety

Chlorpyrifos Makes California List of Most Dangerous Chemicals

Last Wednesday, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) passed a vote to add the organophosphorus pesticide Chlorpyrifos to Proposition 65, an extensive list of over 900 chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. While Chlorpyrifos was previously considered for inclusion on this list in 2008, updated scientific information gave the OEHHA cause for reassessment.

This new data included further information on the neurodevelopmental toxicity of Chlorpyrifos in humans and wildlife. Of particular concern to this board was its harmful effect on fetal brain development. Central to this decision was the extensive review of scientific evidence provided in the 2014 and 2016 EPA Human Health Risk Assessments, as well as new and additional findings not previously reviewed in these assessments.

On a national level, the findings of earlier EPA risk assessments resulted in a national ban on homeowner use as far back as 2000. The recent 2014 and 2016 reports further cemented the evidence for pervasive neurodevelopmental toxicity and also highlighted the danger of dietary exposure from residues in drinking water and crops. An all-out ban on Chlorpyrifos was proposed in 2015, revoking all pesticide tolerances and cancelling its registrations, but this was ruled out by the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2017. This pesticide is still under registration review by the EPA, which re-evaluates their decision on a 15-year cycle.

Inclusion on California’s Proposition 65 list does not amount to a ban within the state, though products containing Chlorpyrifos will have to be labeled as such starting in late 2018. This action on the state level stands in contrast to federal decisions, and is a revealing lesson in regard to the complexity of national response to scientific evidence.

(Sammy Caiola, Capital Public Radio)

Gene Drives

US Military Agency Invests $100m in Genetic Extinction Technologies

Gene-drives, an emerging powerful gene-editing technology, have been drawing considerable attention and controversy for their proposed use in disease vector control. This method involves the release of an animal that has been genetically modified into a wild population, with the aim of breeding in genes that have been designed to reduce the species’ ability to spread disease. These introduced genes are preferentially inherited, resulting in their eventual dominance in the population. For example, a gene could be designed and introduced to provide resistance to a particular parasite or reduce fertility. This technique is proposed for use in controlling mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus, as well as to halt the spread of invasive species.

Controversy over this technique however also hinges on its strengths. The primary concerns are the likelihood of animals with favorable modifications crossing over international borders, downstream effects on dependent species, and the possibility of irreversible harm to the ecosystem if the technique is misapplied. Appropriately, much of this concern comes from fellow scientists. In light of this, scientists and policy-makers alike have been proactive about addressing the safety and ethical issues presented, coming up with a set of specific guidelines to advance quality science for the common good. These entail an effort to promote stewardship, safety, and good governance, demonstrate transparency and accountability, engage thoughtfully with affected communities, stakeholders, and publics, and foster opportunities to strengthen capacity and education. Consensus on these issues is intended to help move this promising field forward in the face of growing public scrutiny.

Recently, a trove of emails from US scientists working on gene drive technology was acquired under the Freedom of Information Act and disseminated to the media. Some of these emails revealed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s engagement with a public relations company to influence the UN moratorium on the use of this technology. The Foundation has long been a financial supporter of the Target Malaria research consortium that seeks to develop gene drives for the eradication of Malaria. The concern surrounding the release of these emails realizes the common fear of scientists involved in research with the potential to fall under the public eye, as ironically, even attempts to recruit expertise in portraying your research favorably may be seen as damning.

This will inevitably be true of any powerful emerging technique to come in the future as well. With the advance of science’s ability to address problems effectively, there will be obstacles towards implementing new technologies and addressing concerns from the communities they may affect. Some of these will be valid and cause for moratorium and introspection, and some will be more attributable to sensationalism. Understanding and navigating these differences will be an increasing and ever-present concern for policy-minded scientists.

(Arthur Neslen, The Guardian)

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December 8, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 1, 2017

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By: Kelly Tomins, BSc

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Fake Drugs

Health agency reveals scourge of fake drugs in developing world

The World Health Organization (WHO) released two concerning reports detailing the prevalence and impact of substandard and falsified medical products in low and middle income countries. Although globalization has led to the increase in e-commerce of medicine, making life-saving treatments available to a broader population, it also created a wider and more accessible market to dispense fake and harmful medicines for profit. Despite this, there was a lack of a systematic method of tracking falsified medicines on a global scale. Thus, the WHO created the Global Surveillance and Monitoring System for substandard and falsified medical products (GSMS). With this program, medicine regulatory authorities can enter information about fraudulent drug incidences into a centralized database, making it easier to understand global trends and to possibly identify the source of harmful products. The WHO also conducted an extensive literature search of nine years’ worth of medicine quality studies to assess rates of fake medicines.

Their dual analysis showed that falsified medicines are heavily prevalent, particularly in low-and -middle income countries. They estimate that an incredulous 10.5% of medicines in these countries are falsified or substandard, representing $30 billion in wasted resources. Low income countries are the most vulnerable to this type of exploitation, given their higher incidence of infectious disease and their likelihood of purchasing cheaper alternatives to more reliable and tested medicines. In addition, these countries are more likely to lack the regulatory framework and technical capabilities to ensure safe dispensing of medicines. However, reports of fake drugs were not limited to developing countries. The Americas and Europe each accounted for 21% of the reported cases, highlighting how this is a global phenomenon.

Antimalarials and antibiotics are the two products most commonly reported as substandard or falsified, with 19.6% and 16.9% of the total reports respectively. These findings are especially concerning given a recent finding that the number of malaria infections increased the past year, despite a steady global decrease from 2000-2015. In addition, the number of deaths from the disease have not decreased for the first time in 15 years. By providing an insufficient dose to eradicate the malaria parasite from the body, the use of substandard or falsified antimalarials can foster the emergence of drug-resistant strains of malaria, like those recently found in several Asian countries. Overall, the WHO estimates that falsified products may be responsible for 5% of total deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the clear need for action to ensure drug safety around the world, there are an abundance of challenges to making this possible. The supply chain of drug manufacturing, from the chemical synthesis of the drug, to the creation of packaging and the shipping and dissemination, can span multiple countries with extremely variable regulatory procedures and oversights. The need for strengthened international framework and oversight is necessary to ensure patients receive the drugs they think they are getting and preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

(Barbara Casassus, Nature)

Biotechnology

AI-controlled brain implants for mood disorders tested in people

Mood disorders have been traditionally difficult to treat due to the often-unpredictable onset of symptoms and the high variability of drug responses in patients.  Lithium, a popular drug used to treat bipolar disorder, for example, can cause negative side effects such as fatigue and poor concentration, making it more likely for patients to elect to stop treatment. New treatments developed by the Chang lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and Omid Sani of UCSF hope to provide real-time personalized treatments for patients suffering from mood disorders, such as depression and PTSD. The treatment utilizes a brain implant that can monitor neural activity, detect abnormalities, and then provide electrical pulses to a specific region of the brain when needed. These electrical pulses, known as Deep Brain Stimulation (DSB), have already been used to treat other disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Other groups have tried to use DSB in the past to treat depression, but patients showed no significant improvement. In those studies, however, the pulses were given constantly to a single portion of the brain. What is unique about this treatment is that the pulses are only given when necessary, or when the implant receives signals that the brain is producing abnormal neural activity. The researchers have also found ways to map various emotions and behaviors to specific locations in the brain. They hope to utilize that information in order to more finely tune a person’s behaviors. In addition, the algorithms created by the labs to detect changes in the brain can be modified for each patient, providing an alternative to the one-size-fits all pharmacological approaches currently used.

Despite the promising and appealing aspects of this personalized treatment, it also raises several ethical issues regarding privacy and autonomy. First off, with such detailed maps of neural activities, the patient’s mind is practically an open book to their doctor. They have little agency of what emotions they would want to share or, more importantly, hide. Also, the patient may feel a lack of autonomy over their treatment, as the implant itself decides when the patient is displaying an unwanted mood or behavior. The algorithms could also potentially change the patient’s personality for worse by limiting the spectrum or intensity of emotions that a patient can feel. Any type of manipulation of brain activity could be viewed as worrisome from an ethical standpoint, and although promising, this proposed treatment should undergo intense scrutiny in order to maintain autonomy for the patients.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)

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December 1, 2017 at 4:03 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 28, 2017

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By: Patrice J. Persad, PhD

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Mental Health

Brain Patterns May Predict People at Risk of Suicide

Suicide is the second common cause of death for adults under 27 years old in the United States. In light of this, being able to identify individuals who are more likely to attempt suicide may transform suicide prevention initiatives’ outcomes.

At the end of last month, scientists published that machine learning (ML) algorithms were able to yield accurate prognoses by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) profiles to differentiate subjects with suicidal thoughts (17 cases) and those without (17 controls) . After being exposed to a display of thirty words classified as positive (some examples: “kindness,” “carefree,” and “innocent”), negative (some examples: “guilty,” “evil,” and “gloom”), or pertaining to suicide (some examples: “lifeless,” “hopeless,” and “apathy”), each participant’s brain activity, or “neural signature”, for each word was captured by fMRI.

The accuracy of predicting individuals who had experienced suicidal thoughts was calculated as 91%. Upon stratifying the cases, a portion of those who had experienced suicidal thoughts were successfully identified as having attempted ending their lives in the past (nine out of 17). From categorizing individuals by suicide attempt status, the ML algorithm’s predictions were 94% accurate. The study’s authors envision clinical applicability, including improving patient surveillance, which could impact the suicide rate and lead to treatment or therapies concentrating on the cerebral areas identified by the algorithm. However, the researchers counsel that the study must be replicated with more subjects, particularly across different demographic groups and including individuals that have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders but do not experience suicidal thoughts.

Various ethical concerns are raised by the application of this research, including the complications surrounding valid consent and how the life insurance industry could use the data. Classification of potential thoughts by ML may intrude privacy beyond what volunteers may feel they are consenting to when they agree to be recorded by fMRI or similar technologies. Neural signature classification in patients may have secondary uses, which can expand outside of medicine and healthcare areas, and must be evaluated. Misuse by life insurance companies, inviting discrimination against candidate insurance policy holders because of true and false classification of suicide ideation from fMRI, is a hypothetical scenario.

(Jon Hamilton, National Public Radio)

Species Conservation

‘Gene Drives’ Are Too Risky for Field Trials, Scientists Say

Consider the following illustration. On the island of New Zealand, a clan of non-native stoats, short-tailed weasels, are pulverizing numbers of the endemic takahes, flightless birds. Settlers in the 1800s had set stoats free through the terrain to prey on the rabbits, disturbers and unwanted consumers of agricultural crops. Thus, the stoat in this case may have been thought of as posts in a living rabbit-proof fence. Consequently, impacts on the native ecosystem were and are negative underlining the decline in and harm to takahes and other flightless bird species, such as the kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird. This currently heralds the question “How can population sizes of invasive species, such as these stoats, be reduced?”

A proposed solution to the aforementioned question features the germline genome editing system CRISPR to introduce genetic elements designed to undermine the reproductive success of a particular species. The idea of a gene drive system is to increase the inheritance, or frequency, of a particular variation in a gene. The CRISPR system can be applied to introduce variation in a gene essential for a given species’ reproductive system. When an animal carrying a CRISPR edited copy of a gene mates with an animal carrying a functional copy of the gene, their offspring will inherit one altered copy and one regular copy. Eventually, as this genetic variation becomes frequent enough, two individuals carrying the altered copy are likely to mate, producing infertile offspring. Then the number of invasive species’ members, the stoats for example, would drop as a result.

Are there any caveats to the CRISPR-based gene drive system for species conservation? A research team headed by Kevin M. Esvelt, the first proposer of gene drives for wild populations, used population models and stimulations to revealed a vital finding: if several gene-drive-modified organisms of an invasive species came into contact and bred with wild-type organisms of the same species, the population of the species as a whole in its native habitat would decrease over time. In other words, the encounter between a wild-type organism and gene drive organism is inauspicious if mating transpires in the species’ native habitat. Based on these findings, the researchers stressed prudence in initiating this application in field studies, which echoed discussions lead by the National Academy of Sciences in 2016.

One alternative may be to engineer gene drives to deteriorate after a certain number of generations. However, according to Esvelt in the context of eradicating vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, restricted gene drive systems affecting only several generations (out of many) may be ineffective in vector populations.

Although the opening example’s setting is New Zealand, the future development and employment of CRISPR-based gene drive systems depend on international cooperation plus participation because other nations may experience the impact of an ecosystem beyond their designated borders. For formulating proper safeguards before field testing commencement, voices from the scientific community, political arena, general community, and other domains across potentially affected countries must be amplified and heard for maximizing the protection of all species.

(Carl Zimmer, New York Times)

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November 28, 2017 at 7:03 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 17, 2017

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By: Janani Prabhakar, PhD 

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Public Health

The ‘Horrifying’ Consequence of Lead Poisoning

Changes in water treatment practices in Flint, Michigan in 2014 resulted in large levels of lead in the water supply, and eventually culminated to a state of emergency in January 2016. The supply affected over 10,000 residents, forcing these individuals to refrain from using the city’s water supply until 2020. Because state officials may have been aware of lead contamination in the water supply for months before it became public, these officials are now facing criminal charges. This negligence is particularly troubling given recent evidence that shows persisting effects of lead contamination on health outcomes in Flint residents. In a working paper by Daniel Grossman at West Virginia University and David Slusky at the University of Kansas, the authors compared fertility rates in Flint before and after the change in water treatment practices that led to the crisis, and compared post-change fertility rates in Flint to those of unaffected towns in Michigan. They found that the fertility rate declined by 12 percent and fetal death rate increased by 58 percent. These reductions in rate have been witnessed in other cities after similar incidents of lead contamination in the water supply. Furthermore, given that the number of children with lead-poisoned blood supply doubled after changes to the treatment practices, the long-term effects on cognitive, behavior, and social outcomes of this contamination are only beginning to be examined and understood. The circumstances in Flint are an example of how misplaced focus of high-level policy decisions can negatively impact local communities, particularly low-income black neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by lead contamination, but the lack of sufficient attention as well as the false suggestion that effected individuals were to blame propagated by industry leaders and policy makers have deterred progress in addressing critical issues in at-risk and underserved communities.

(Olga Khazan, The Atlantic)

Climate Change

Why China Wants to Lead on Climate, but Clings to Coal (for Now)

In a country of 1.4 billion people, China is one of the world’s largest coal producers and carbon polluters. However, it aims to spearhead the international agreement to address climate change. Despite this contradiction, China is already on track to meet its commitment to the Paris climate accord. This move towards reducing its dependence on coal comes as a necessity to China because of internal pressure to curb air pollution. But, according to NRDC climate and energy policy director Alvin Lin, given its size and population, phasing out coal dependence will not only be a long process for China, but one that has lots of ups and downs. For instance, while China has shown progress in meeting its commitments, a recent report shows higher emission projections this year may reflect an uptick in economic growth and reduction in rains needed to power hydroelectric technologies. While Lin portrays this uptick as an anomaly, competing interests in the Chinese government make the future unclear. In efforts to increase its presence abroad, China has built coal plants in other countries. But, China is also the largest producer of electric cars. President Xi Jinping has derided the United States for being isolationist and reneging on the Paris climate accord, but how his Government plans to hold its end of the deal has not been revealed. An important revelation is the fact that even if every country achieves their individual Paris pledges, the planet will still heat up by 3 degrees Celsius or more. Given that this increase is large enough to have catastrophic effects on the climate, adherence to Paris pledges serves only as a baseline for what is necessary and sufficient to combat global warming.

(Somini Sengupta, The New York Times)

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November 17, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 14, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

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Alzheimer’s Disease

Bill Gates sets his sights on neurodegeneration

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has announced a new funding initiative for research into Alzheimer’s Disease, starting with a personal donation of $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF).  The DDF is a UK-based, public-private collaboration, launched in 2015 and designed to encourage innovative research into treatments for dementia, of which Alzheimer’s Disease is a leading cause.  Initial investment in the DDF, which came from the pharmaceutical industry and government entities, was $100 million, meaning Gates’ contribution will be significant.  Gates says his family history makes him particularly interested in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease.  The DDF has already taken steps in this direction: its first investment was in the biopharma company Alector, which is moving forward with immune system-related research to combat Alzheimer’s Disease.

Gates is already famous for his philanthropy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds efforts to fight poverty and disease throughout the world.  However, the Foundation has traditionally focused on infectious diseases, such as HIV and malaria, making Alzheimer’s Disease Gates’ first foray into neuroscience.  In this regard, he has some catching up to do to match philanthropic contributions and business pursuits by other tech billionaires.  These include his Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who started the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences with $100 million in 2003.  The Allen Institute provides a range of tools for basic researchers using mouse models, generating comprehensive maps of brain anatomy, connectivity and gene expression.  More recently, Tesla founder Elon Musk started Neuralink, a venture which aims to enhance cognitive ability using brain-machine interfaces.  Kernel, founded by tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, has a similar goal.  Finally, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2015) doesn’t explicitly focus on neuroscience, its science program is led by acclaimed neuroscientist Cori Bargmann.

As pointed out by former National Institutes of Mental Health Director Tom Insel, this infusion of money, as well as the fast-moving, results-oriented tech mindset behind it, has the potential to transform neuroscience and deliver better outcomes for patients.  As government funding for science appears increasingly uncertain, such interest and support from private investors is encouraging.  Hopefully the results will justify their optimism.

(Sanjay Gupta, CNN)

 

Physics

Elusive particles create a black hole for funding

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) enabled a scientific breakthrough in 2012 when it was used to produce evidence for the Higgs boson, a physical particle that endows matter with mass.  In the wake of the worldwide excitement generated by that discovery, physicists finalized plans for a complementary research facility, the International Linear Collider (ILC), to be built in Japan.  While the LHC is circular and collides protons, the ILC would collide positrons and electrons, at lower energy but with more precise results.  Unfortunately, anticipated funding for the $10 billion project from the Japanese government has failed to materialize.  Following recent recommendations by Japanese physicists, the group overseeing the ILC has now agreed on a less ambitious proposal, for a lower energy machine with a shorter tunnel.  Though physicists remain optimistic that the ILC will still provide useful data, it will no longer be able to produce high-energy quarks (one of its planned uses), and will instead focus on previously detected particles and forces.  The ILC’s future is currently in limbo until the Japanese government makes a concrete financial commitment, and it is unlikely to be completed before 2030.

After the Higgs boson, the LHC struggled to find proof of the existence of other new particles.  One such high-profile disappointment was the search for dark matter.  When dark matter was hypothesized to be the source of unexplained gamma radiation observed with NASA’s Fermi Space Telescope, the search for a dark matter particle became a top priority for the LHC’s second run.  Such evidence would also have supported supersymmetry, a key theory in particle physics.  However, these efforts, as well as multiple others using different detectors, have thus far failed to find any signs of dark matter.  These unsuccessful experiments certainly contributed to scaling back the ILC, and illustrate larger problems with setting realistic expectations and/or valuing negative results among scientists, government officials, and the public.  As a result, in order to advance our understanding of the basic building blocks of our universe, particle physicists will now have to do more with less.

(Edwin Cartlidge, Nature News)

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November 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm