By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.
How the NIH fared in the federal spending bill
On Tuesday evening, Congress finally reached an agreement for the 2015 federal budget. The NIH has been appropriated with $30 billion of the $1.013 trillion federal budget. This is a mere $150 million increase over the 2014 budget, and is insufficient to maintain pace with inflation. However, there are some key areas that are specifically earmarked for increases. The National Institute of Aging receives a 2.4% increase over 2014 levels, with an emphasis placed on studying Alzheimer’s disease. And, of course, some institutes will receive a $25 million increase for the BRAIN Initiative. In addition to these highlights, the bill funds a $12.6 million “jump start” for the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act pediatric research initiative, a program that will otherwise be funded through contributions from tax returns.
Included with the budget was a report that contained certain directives that bear watching. The first of these directives echoes a proposal of Representative Andy Harris (R-MD), and urges the NIH to lower the age that investigators receive their first grant—the average age is currently 42. Although this is an issue on the NIH’s radar, the steps necessary to lower this age are unclear. A second directive voices lawmakers’ concerns that not enough emphasis is placed on disease burden when the NIH awards grants to study disease. Biomedical research advocates understand that the appropriations committee is expressing concerns and setting expectations. However, the advocates typically feel that the NIH should award grants based on the quality of the proposal, and not bias the award system towards criteria set by Congress. (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)
Environmental Policy – Conservation
Wildlife pathogens ravage the world around us
We live in a world where international travel is easy and common. Although this can be a strong positive for the global economy, it can also mean increased ease in the spread of wildlife pathogens. A. Marmaduke Kilpatrick, Ph.D., a disease ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, outlines the “big three” of these devastating pathogens. Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) is a fungus that has caused the extinction of hundreds of species of frogs across every continent but Antartica. The fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans causes white-nose syndrome in bats. White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in North America, and is still spreading westward across the continent. Finally, there is the West Nile virus. Although not as deadly as the other two pathogens, West Nile virus can reduce local populations of some bird species by up to 90% and be transmitted to humans. Not surprisingly, the one of these three that poses a threat to humans, the West Nile virus, is the pathogen that receives the most research funding. But it is also the least devastating. This raises the question of, in these days of reduced research funding, do the plights of the ecosystem warrant the money and effort to better understand the causes of wildlife pathogens and implement management policies? The sentiment of Dr. Kilpatrick is yes. Although the pathogens may not always be communicable to humans, they can still have very real impacts on livestock and crops, and thus still impact the lives of humans. Thus, higher-risk conservation efforts are needed to better detect, track, and stop the global march of wildlife pathogens. (A. Marmaduke Kilpatrick, The Scientist)
The effectiveness of debunking vaccine myths
There is a common belief that communication and education are “silver bullets” when it comes to swaying a person’s beliefs. A study published on Monday in Vaccine found that educating people about popular myths associated with the flu vaccine did reduce misbelief. However, this new information did not actually increase the likelihood of people actually getting vaccinated. In fact, it actually reduced the likelihood! If misperceptions are not driving force behind vaccine hesitancy, then what is? One key reason is “motivated reasoning,” a psychology concept explaining why people change their minds in an argument. Essentially, if a person believes strongly about a subject, even when a facet of their perception is challenged, they fill in the “gap” with other reasons. Brendan Nyhan, Ph.D., still believes that it is important to ensure that the accurate information is readily available to the public. Yet, we do need to better understand how to effectively convey accurate public health messages. (Tara Haelle, NPR)
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