By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.
Workforce Development – Federal Policy
Yes, you can attend that career event, says the U.S. government
Whether a graduate student or a postdoc aspires to hold an academic position, or transition to a career away from the bench, developing skills other than those required at the bench are important. However, some principal investigators express reservations about sending their trainees to career development events; they consider it breaking the law, since they believe that federally funded trainees are meant to be doing research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and several other agencies approached the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requesting a policy clarification, which has resulted in the Council on Financial Assistance Reform (under the U.S. OMB) stating that graduate students and postdocs, even when supported by federal funds, are authorized to spend time away from the lab to develop career-related skills, since they hold “dual roles” as trainees and employees. Vanderbilt University postdoc, Lindsey Morris, says that without specialized career training, “you get to the end of your postdoc, and what do you do? You haven’t spent any time building those really critical career development skills, and you’re left without a job.” Though the OMB statement does not specifically state how much time a trainee can spend on career-related activities outside of lab, the guidelines “say very clearly that trainees are permitted to go and seek these opportunities. … You cannot misunderstand the language. There are no two ways of interpreting it”, says Ambika Mathur, Dean of the graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. How the clarification and its implementation play out will be closely monitored over the next few years, to determine if further modifications are needed, says Michelle Bulls, director of the NIH Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration, who worked on the statement. She says, “It will take about 3 years to figure out if this is good, bad, or indifferent.” (Rachel Bernstein, Science)
European court clears way for stem-cell patents
The European Court of Justice ruled on December 18 that human embryonic stem (ES) cells made from unfertilized eggs can be patented, on the basis that these cells lack the capacity to develop into a human being. These cells are created through parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction in some animals, but one that does not result in normal development in humans. This ruling counters the general ban imposed by the court in 2011, banning patents on human ES cells. The original ruling banned patents that involved destroying cells capable of forming human embyros, as well as patents on ES cells made from unfertilized eggs. The ruling had met with opposition from many scientists. “We have known for a very long time that parthenogenetic embryos are not capable of developing very far after implantation”, says Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem-cell scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. In a press release, the European court said: “The mere fact that a parthenogenetically-activated human ovum commences a process of development is not sufficient for it to be regarded as a human embryo.” A couple of patents filed by the International Stem Cell Corporation, a biotechnology company in Carlsbad, California, for methods to generate corneal tissues from ES cells made from egg cells, had been rejected by the UK, and now it’s up to the UK courts to decide if these cells are eligible for patent protection. The ruling “is generally good news”, says Clara Sattler de Sousa e Brito, lawyer based in Munich, Germany. She adds that though it opens up space to argue that human ES cells obtained from other methods like cloning, are not capable of developing into a human being, and thus should be patentable, arguing scientifically that ES cells from spare human embryos do not have this capability would be harder. (Ewen Callaway and Alison Abbott, Nature)
The Arctic keeps warming, and polar bears are feeling the heat
The air temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as temperatures in the lower latitudes, says a federal report, released on Wednesday, co-authored by sixty-three scientists from thirteen countries. The report was peer reviewed by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council and released in San Francisco at an annual gathering of the American Geophysical Union. The effect of the Arctic temperature rise, a result of global warming, can be seen in many different places. Alaska has recorded temperatures nearly 20 degrees higher than the January average. The amount of snow in Eurasia in April was at its lowest since 1979, and snow in June in North America was the third lowest on record. “Snow disappeared three to four weeks earlier than normal in western Russia, Scandinavia, the Canadian sub-Arctic and western Alaska due to below average accumulation in winter and above normal spring temperature,” said Jacqueline A. Richter-Menge, a senior research engineer for NOAA’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, wrote that the polar bear population declined from about 1,200 to 800 in the western Hudson Bay area of Canada between 1987 and 2011, though there might be some good news for bears in other parts of the Arctic. Overall, the findings from this report highlight an observation made by University of Virginia environmental professor Howard Epstein last year: “The Arctic is not like Vegas. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” (Darryl Fears, The Washington Post)
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