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Archive for January 2015

Science Policy Around the Web – January 30, 2015

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

photo credit: Matti Mattila via photopin cc

Federal Budget – Science Funding

Next week, the annual hemming and hawing over the allocation of the precious federal dollars begins with the Obama administration sending its 2016 budget requests to Congress. Researchers are eager to see how this year’s fiscal drama unfolds, particularly with both houses being controlled by a Republican majority for the first time since President Obama was elected in 2008. In anticipation of these events, Jeffrey Mervis of ScienceInsider is writing a series of articles to offer some perspective on how this process works. In the three part series, Mr. Mervis talks with Representative John Culberson (R—TX), the new chair of the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS), and Related Agencies spending panel for the House of Representatives; Tom Cole (R—OK), a Ph.D. historian who now oversees the budget of the NIH; and the final essay will actually track the money (not available as of this writing).

A lawyer and a science enthusiast, Culberson was elected to Congress from a conservative district of Houston in 2000. Culberson comes from a family that was “fiscally conservative, devoted to the Constitution, and believed the American republic is a special inheritance.” With Thomas Jefferson as his role model, Culberson believes in a small federal government. However, because the Constitution states that “promoting the progress of science” is in the pervue of the federal government, he is comfortable supporting multibillion-dollar science investments in NASA’s space exploration efforts and the NSF’s efforts to improve science and math education. Culberson does follow the party line, though, in that the behavioral and social sciences and climate change funding are not priorities for the federal budget. (Mervis – ScienceInsider)

Since joining the House in 2003, Representative Tom Cole has served on both the Appropriations and Budget committees and sits on the rules committee and is a deputy whip for the Republican Steering Committee. Now, Dr. Cole is set take control of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-H) subcommittee appropriations panel, which includes funding the NIH. While growing up, Dr. Cole’s mother impressed on him that everywhere she lived that had a competitive two-party system was governed better than locations where power was concentrated in one party. Thus, he became a Republican largely because Oklahoma was a Democratic haven when he entered politics. Thus, despite his conservative credentials, Dr. Cole has a reputation for listening to all sides of an argument and working cooperatively with both sides of the aisle to achieve goals. “Legislators are students too,” says Cole, and thus he endeavors to learn more about the NIH and how it functions before making any bold declarations. Yet, he does state that some of his priorities include maintaining a strong military, protecting the weather forecast office in Norman, OK, and advocating for the Indian Health Service. (Mervis – ScienceInsider)

There are always seem to be plenty of sensationalist headlines to go around about the “anti-science Republicans.” However, there are certainly high-ranking Republicans who are staunch advocates for funding different branches of science. The biggest hurdle in the months of arguing to come is that the federal budget, in general, remains tight. Thus, it is likely that even with the best discussions and compromises, there will still be plenty of disappointments once the final 2016 budget is passed.

 

Science Communication – Scientists vs the General Public

The results of a new poll administered by the Pew Research Center are in, and they confirm there is a large gap in opinions between the general public and scientists on many popular topics. The poll, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asked 2,002 US adults and 3,748 AAAS members the same set of questions about scientific achievements, education, and controversial issues. Some of the few things that the two groups agree on are that the International Space Station has been a good investment for the US and that we should not increase the use of fracking. Yet, as many people are aware, there are large differences in opinion on whether is it safe to eat genetically modified foods (51% gap in opinion), the extent that climate change is mostly due to human activity (37% gap), or whether humans have evolved over time (33% gap). Although scientists tend to point to their own poor track record of interacting with the general public and deficits in scientific education, this is likely an over-simplification of a complex issue. In many cases, the people being polled are educated, scientifically literate individuals. Yet, according to one study published in American Sociological Review, one in five US adults are deeply religious, and those individuals often disregard scientific findings that clash with their beliefs. Alan Leshner, the leader of AAAS, believes that scientists need to make a greater effort in engaging small, grass roots, type of venues like retirement communities or library groups to help the general public understand that “scientists are people too.” (Graham – BioMed Central, Funk and Raine – Pew Research Center)

 

Environmental Policy – Offshore Drilling

Perhaps receiving less attention than the more widely touted Precision Medicine Initiative, on Tuesday the Obama Administration announced a proposal to open the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. The administration seems to be offering this proposal as a compromise for limiting drilling efforts in the Arctic, where President Obama called for wilderness protection of 12.4 million acres of oil-rich lands in Alaska. Environmentalists are concerned about the potential of oil spills and other environmental disasters, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. And even the fossil fuel industry has complaints about the proposal. It is unclear how much oil and gas are even accessible off of the Atlantic coast. Based off of the most recent surveys, which are 30 years old, the Atlantic holds only a fraction of the reserves available off of Alaska. Adding further to the fossil fuel industry’s displeasure is the fact that the proposal does not call for drilling in the Arctic until 2017 at the earliest. The Arctic is an area becoming quite popular in the international community due to the melting of the polar ice caps making the region more accessible and increasing available shipping lanes. Industry advocates say the delay jeopardizes the US’s energy security, since countries like Russia and Denmark are already aggressively exploring the region. (Koch – National Geographic)

 

 

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January 30, 2015 at 11:54 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 27, 2015

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By: Lani S. Chun

photo credit: javierdevilman via photopin cc

Global Health – Malaria

Malaria nets used instead as fishing nets in poor countries.

Mosquito nets have been long heralded as one of the most effective, low cost prophylactics for malaria. Usually free, these nets have small holes designed to prevent mosquito entry when draped around the area a person sleeps. However, local fishermen in malaria-affected areas are re-purposing these nets to catch fish. The small holes in mosquito nets make them much better at catching smaller fish than typical fishing nets with larger holes. The use of mosquito nets as fishing nets has had several negative consequences in these areas. First, because the nets are not being used to prevent mosquito bites, malaria prevention efforts are being stymied. Second, the nets dredge the bottom of the water body, leading to rapid destruction of the environment. Additionally, the nets are often treated with insecticide, which can lead to water contamination. Finally, misuse of these nets is causing conflict between the people in malaria-affected communities who are against using malaria nets for fishing and those who point out that without the nets, they would go hungry. It is uncertain what can be done to counteract this activity, but policy makers, government officials, and healthcare workers are trying to formulate a set of viable solutions. (Jeffrey Gettleman, NY Times; CDC)

 

Energy Policy – Nuclear Power

India and the USA develop nuclear power agreement.

In a show of policy fostering friendship between two global powers, President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India have announced an agreement to bring the United States into India’s nuclear power economy. Previously hindered by issues regarding the logistics of establishing and maintaining power plants in India, the agreement facilitates US investment in Indian plants. This is expected to help India, one of the largest consumers of fossil fuel, move the energy pendulum over to using clean energy sources for the majority of their needs. Although the trip was cut short by the death of King Abdullah, President Obama and PM Modi were also able to come to agreement in the areas of defense and climate change policies. (Dana Farrington, NPR; White House OPS)

 

Regulatory Policy – FDA

Blood-glucose monitoring mobile app for diabetics approved by the FDA.

Although it is not the first app to target the healthcare segment, Dexacom Inc.’s app is the first that can take blood-glucose measurements in real-time and share readings with user designated “followers.” The FDA began regulating healthcare apps in 2013 with the stated goal of regulating only the apps that are “medical devices and whose functionality could pose a risk to a patient’s safety if the mobile app were to not function as intended.” This development potentially signals a new era of medicine where every heartbeat and health anomaly can be tracked by a patient’s doctor. This may help revolutionize what, when, and how treatments are administered, and is expected to create a mass of data that can be mined for information to inform research aiming to produce new treatments. However, this does not come without serious concerns about privacy and a the production of a “data deluge,” and regulators are working hard to find the happy medium between optimal healthcare and optimal privacy levels. (Brady Dennis, Washington Post; FDA.gov; Eric J. Topol, Wall Street Journal)

 

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January 27, 2015 at 9:00 am

Progress on parental policies; President Obama makes paid parental leave a priority

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

photo credit: brixton via photopin cc

In a press release issued by the White House on January 15th, and reiterated briefly in the State of the Union address on Jan 20th, President Obama asked Congress to pass a bill providing 6 weeks of paid parental leave to all federal employees, a move which aims to fill “a notable gap in federal benefits,” that “can hamper federal agencies’ ability to recruit talented young people to join public service.” The president’s budget also proposes a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund to bolster states that choose to enact paid leave programs1. Currently there are only 5 states which guarantee paid leave to new parents; California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

The issue of paid parental leave for federal employees is not a new one in the House. Since 2009, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D – N.Y.) has spearheaded a bill proposing to fund 4 of the 12 weeks of leave given under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for federal employees who are new parents. In its debut, H.R. 626 passed the House in a 276-to-146 vote but stalled in the Senate. Rep. Maloney has supported passage of this bill in every congress since 2009. The most recent iteration, H.R. 517 – Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2013, never made it to a House vote2-4.

Offering paid parental leave to federal employees is a step in the right direction toward universal leave for all Americans. In practice, the U.S. is shockingly behind the times in supporting working families. A survey released in May 2014 by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization revealed that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not offer government-mandated paid maternity leave. In fact, the U.S. is one of only 2 countries out of 185 surveyed that provide no cash benefits to women during maternity leave; the other country being Papua New Guinea5.

Science overwhelmingly supports the health benefits of parental leave for both parents and children. Research suggests that mandated leave increases the duration of breastfeeding, and breast milk protects against childhood infections, chronic diseases, and may prevent obesity6. Lack of access to paid parental leave may explain, in part, the poor statistics for breastfeeding in the U.S. compared to other developed countries where paid leave is a right7. Additionally, paid parental leave leads to better long-term health of the child and to lower rates of depression in mothers, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research10,11. Highlighting both positive health and economic benefits, a report on European leave policies found that paid leave is a cost-effective way to reduce infant mortality because it allows parents to better care for their child and monitor their child’s health16.

There are additional economic benefits of paid parental leave. Healthier parents and children incur fewer medical bills, which makes fiscal sense for government-supported healthcare programs, such as Medicare and health plans offered through the Affordable Care Act. And, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “Paid leave improves worker retention, which saves employers money through reduced turnover costs.13” The drive to retain highly trained workers in skilled fields, such as information technology (IT), may be the reason why some major players in IT have generous family leave policies. Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube (which is owned by Google), in a piece for the Wall Street Journal wrote, “When we increased paid maternity leave to 18 weeks from 12 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50%.8” Although 18 weeks of paid leave will likely never be offered to the majority of Americans, even short stints of paid parental leave can have positive economic benefit. The National Partnership for Women and Families cites a study that found 87% of businesses in California (where 4 weeks of paid state-supported parental leave is offered) reported no increased costs resulting from the state leave policy, and 9% reported cost savings in the form of reduced turnover and/or reduction of their own benefit costs13.

The importance of paid leave for new parents reflects a shift in the social and economic implications of raising a family in the U.S. According to the White House, “it is no longer the case that one parent is the breadwinner while the other is the caregiver. Women now make up nearly half of all workers on U.S. payrolls, and men and women are more evenly sharing care-giving responsibilities.1” Data from a 2012 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that among families with children, 59% have two working parents9. So, should the government be obligated to help support new families? On one hand, there exists a well documented of dearth of U.S. women in high-profile positions, despite the fact that there are equivalent numbers of men and women getting college degrees in nearly all fields of study. The choice to have children and a lack of subsequent maternity support is often cited as a reason for this imbalance. By that measure, better support for working women could be considered the next logical outgrowth of affirmative action policy, initiated by the Johnson administration in the 60s. However, the issue may be even more striking when considering single parent households and lower-income jobs. Many Americans cannot afford to take unpaid leave and, even if they could save enough for this to be an option, 40% of the American workforce is not covered by FMLA, so unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child is not their right. For these workers, mandated paid parental leave, even for only a few weeks, could be the difference between returning to a job or turning to welfare.

Americans from all political backgrounds overwhelmingly agree that it is time to better support working families, according to a poll by the Make it Work campaign, an advocacy organization pushing to make working family issues a priority in 2016, cited by the Washington Post15. But the likelihood of Congress moving on a bill to that effect anytime soon seems slim. The last time Congress passed legislation to support working families was FMLA in 1992, which took 10 years. The good news is that White House coverage of the topic has illuminated the need for better support of working parents. Ultimately, child rearing is a personal choice, but one that should be considered, as it is in other nations, an investment in the future.

 

  1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/cwg/work-flex-kit/get-started/factsheet
  2. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr616ih/pdf/BILLS-112hr616ih.pdf
  3. http://maloney.house.gov/issues/working-families/federal-employees-paid-parental-leave-act
  4. https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/517/all-info
  5. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_242615.pdf
  6. Guendelman S et al. 2009 123(1) pg.e38-e46
  7. http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/files/Breastfeeding-Paid-Leave.pdf
  8. http://www.wsj.com/articles/susan-wojcicki-paid-maternity-leave-is-good-for-business-1418773756
  9. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/famee.nr0.htm
  10. http://www.nber.org/papers/w6554
  11. http://www.nber.org/papers/w10206
  12. Ruhm C.J. J. Health Econ. (2000) 19(6) pg931-960
  13. http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/work-family/paid-leave/paid-leave-good-for-business.pdf
  14. http://www.npr.org/2013/02/05/171078451/fmla-not-really-working-for-many-employees
  15. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/01/21/voters-want-paid-leave-paid-sick-days-poll-shows-obama-too-will-congress-oblige/
  16. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/leave_report_final.pdf

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 26, 2015 at 11:14 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 23, 2015

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By: Thomas Calder, Ph.D.

Source for image: Creative Commons; author Alfred Palmer

Climate Change

Wrap-up: U.S. Senate agrees climate change is real—but not necessarily that humans are causing it

The U.S. Senate voted this week on several amendments to affirm their belief on climate change. One of the amendments, which states that climate changes is real and not a hoax, was approved by 98 of the 99 senators present. This consensus was a surprise to many people, because several conservative politicians have challenged the idea of climate change in the past. Another amendment that was more controversial specifies that humans are contributing to climate change. This amendment failed to reach the 60-vote majority required for passage, despite being attached to the Keystone Pipeline bill to entice approval by conservative senators. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) believes that this vote was still a victory though, stating, “I think this is a significant step forward, and I think in the months and years to come more and more Republicans will accept that position.” Future climate-based amendments will likely continue this debate. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

 

Federal Science Policy

Science gets its moment in Obama’s 2015 State of the Union

In President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, the President discussed several important science-related topics. The idea of “precision medicine” gained the national spotlight, as the President announced, “Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes—and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.” Precision medicine, also known as personalized medicine, involves tailoring medication specific to a patient by utilizing information about the patient, such as their genomic sequence. The Precision Medicine Initiative is still in the planning stages. The president also stressed the country’s dire need to combat climate change, and described the recent negations with China on cutting carbon pollution as a helpful step in the right direction. NASA also gained attention in the President’s address. The President highlighting astronaut Scott Kelly’s year-long trip in space and described its potential to help NASA plan future trips to Mars. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

 

Genetically Modified Organisms

Scientists Work to Contain Modified Organisms to Labs

With the invention of genetic engineering in the 1970s, scientists have been addressing the need to contain genetically modified organisms in the lab. Several methods have been developed, such as physical containment with sealed containers or biological methods involving suicide genes or nutrient dependent genes. Recently, scientists from Harvard Medical School developed a novel method to prevent a genetically modified E. coli strain from spreading into the wild. The research team engineered the bacterium’s genetic code by replacing a specific stop codon, defined as a 3 nucleotide signal that stops amino acid construction at the end of a protein, with a different stop codon. The researchers then incorporated this removed stop codon into the middle of essential genes and created a synthetic amino acid that would be incorporated into that codon site. With this technique, the engineered bacteria can only survive in the presence of the synthetic amino acid. According to Dr. Karmella A Haynes, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, “this research represents a step-change towards building reliable control switches for G.M.O.s.” This novel technique may become a useful tool for industries that grow large amounts of genetically modified bacteria. Further information about this study can be found in the journal Nature. (Andrew Pollack, New York Times)

 

 

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January 23, 2015 at 11:31 am

Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) Funding Pause: A Risky Response

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito

photo credit: AJC1 via photopin cc

On October 17th, the Obama administration announced a funding pause on new gain of function (GOF) research and a voluntary moratorium of current research on Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and both highly pathogenic and low pathogenic influenza viruses. The re-evaluation of the potential risks and benefits of federally funded GOF research will be pioneered by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies. These organizations will consult with the biomedical community and are responsible for developing a new policy on “dual use of research of concern” (DURC), which includes GOF research, using a deliberate process that is expected to be decided in 2015. Formation of the new policy will determine what DURC research can be done and whether the funding pause will be lifted. Although this funding pause is limited to MERS, SARS, and influenza, this policy will have implications for many other areas of research. While a discussion on the future of DURC is merited, the funding pause has broader implications that may affect our ability to prepare for potential pandemics.

When life science research has the potential to be used for malicious as well as beneficial intentions, it may fall into the category of DURC. Although a lot of the recent debate has surrounded GOF studies involving avian flu virus transmission, the definition of DURC is wide reaching. Infectious pathogen research is a major component of DURC, with a particular focus on agents and toxins which fall into the Federal Select Agent Program, including Ebola and anthrax among others. There are seven kinds of experiments that may be considered DURC and are generally referred to as GOF research. These involve creating mutations within the pathogen, allowing it to gain a function such as increased host range or tropism, transmissibility, or ability to be disseminated. Additionally, changes to pathogens that lead to resistance to prophylactic or therapeutic agents, or make a vaccine or natural immunity less effective, are considered DURC experiments. The final categories involve enhancing vulnerability of a host population and generation of new pathogens or regeneration of previously eradicated or extinct Select Agents. These experiments are considered to be biosecurity threats since modified agents can be used for bioterrorism or accidently released. There has been a lack of open discussion between researchers and policy makers regarding DURC research and there are four major issues that need to be addressed. What dual-use research should be allowed to be done? Should the public fund this research? Who should determine which research can and cannot be done? Should the details and results of these studies be published and available to the public? While these issues are important and need to be discussed and a DURC policy developed, the moratorium on GOF research is not the solution.

The major problem with the GOF moratorium is the overall vagueness of it. There is no end date to the moratorium in which a new policy has to be decided. The initial controversy regarding avian flu transmission studies appeared over two years ago; however, prior to the funding pause, NSABB has failed to hold any scientific meetings to work on DURC policy. Although they have already organized a meeting of scientists in December, without a deadline for the funding pause, there is no motivation to determine the policy. Additionally, the definition of the types of research that fall into this category is vague; the funding pause applies to any work by which researchers could “reasonably anticipate” an increase in pathogenicity or transmission. This definition could apply to nearly any research involving passaging or mutating these viruses.

The timing of this moratorium may hinder work on pandemic preparedness particularly in the case of the recently emerged MERS coronavirus. There is currently no small animal model for the pathogenesis of MERS. Animal models that recapitulate human disease are often developed by passaging a virus through a small animal such as a mouse. However, this type of research is not allowed under the funding pause because the virus may be gaining host range or pathogenicity in the animal. Animal models allow researchers to better understand the virus as well as test treatments and vaccines. Without these models, there is a real hindrance in the development of new prophylactics and treatments, which may prevent epidemics from becoming pandemics.

Another important aspect of pandemic preparedness is surveillance of naturally occurring genetic mutations in viruses. By collecting samples from sick patients or animals and then sequencing the viruses, a researcher can monitor the spread and mutation of different viruses throughout the world. This surveillance is a powerful tool in predicting outbreaks, drug susceptibility, and determining the contents of the influenza vaccine. However, monitoring genetic changes without understanding the level of functional changes is not very informative. This surveillance needs to be used in conjunction with reverse genetics in the laboratory to determine the effects of these changes on pathogenicity, transmission, drug susceptibility, treatment, and immunization. Using laboratory data to supplement surveillance is one aspect of the relationship between surveillance and GOF research. It is also very important to have the reverse relationship with laboratory research informing surveillance. Genetic mutation in viruses is fairly noisy, with many changes having little or no effect on the virus or a detrimental effect. Determining potential mutations in the laboratory that may increase pathogenicity can help determine signals above the noise. Without the ability to supplement knowledge gained by surveillance in the laboratory, the data obtained through surveillance is insufficient to understand the potential outcomes of genetic mutation in viruses.

When talking about DURC, it is impossible for one to avoid the debate swirling around two avian flu studies (1, 2), which involved increased transmission among ferrets. In these studies, an important aspect is often overlooked. Increased transmission among ferrets decreased the pathogenicity of these viruses, with fewer ferrets dying from the transmitted virus. So while this study increased one aspect of GOF, transmission, there was a compensatory loss of function since lethality decreased. This is an important aspect of DURC. By doing these GOF experiments, researchers can also discover loss of function (LOF) mutations, which can be exploited for drug development and also better understand the potential costs of these mutations to the pathogen.

The risk of dual-use research or accidental release of these altered pathogens is real.   This moratorium comes on the heals of a number of highly publicized laboratory incidents including the discovery of a vial of smallpox in an FDA laboratory and the CDC’s distribution of anthrax that had not properly been inactivated. However, the pausing of new research and cessation of current research involving these viruses, which have the potential to cause pandemics, is a bigger threat. A new policy and guidelines for DURC and oversight of research is needed, but until that has been established, researchers should be trusted to determine which DURC should be done.

 

Resources:

1) Science – Avian Flu Transmission in Ferrets Paper

2) Nature – Avian Flu Transmission in Ferrets Paper

3) Office of Science and Technology Policy – Doing Diligence to assess Risk and Benefits of GOF

4) mBio – Influenza-Gain of-Function Experiments

6) mBio – Moratorium on Research intended to create Novel Potential Pandemic Pathogens

7) mBio – Vagueness and Cost of GOF Funding Pause

 

 

 

 


 

 

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January 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 20, 2015

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D

photo credit: pixbymaia via photopin cc

Women in STEM Research

Hidden hurdle for women in science

Whether success in a given field is believed to be due more to a raw, innate talent or to an industrious work ethic could be one explanation for the discrepancy in gender representation within certain academic disciplines. That is the conclusion of a recent paper in Science that looked at the number of PhD degrees granted in the United States in 2011 and compared that to the distribution of male and female PhD holders in academic positions.

Despite the fact that women receive half of all math and science doctorates awarded in the United States, their representation in these fields is notoriously low. While the study discounted a number of hypotheses for the skewed PhD ratio, such as total working hours or whether a field emphasized abstract versus empathic thinking, the greatest correlation came from a belief about men and women. “Pervasive cultural associations” link men, but not women, with traits such as brilliance or genius, says Sarah-Jane Leslie, a co-author of the paper. The authors found that disciplines (such as mathematics and science) which most highly associated raw talent with success were also the most likely to be underrepresented in female PhDs. This effect extended into the humanities as well, with female philosophers and musicians also being underrepresented compared to their number graduated.

The authors posit an academic “attitude change” to retain more women in these fields by placing less emphasis on aptitude and more on work ethic as indicators of potential success. How this knowledge could (or even should) translate into academic hiring policy or decisions remains to be seen.  (Boer Deng, Nature News)

Bioethics – Clinical Trial Policy

Informed consent: U.S. considers new rules for taking part in medical research

The U.S. government is currently in the process of updating federal guidelines for informed consent in clinical research, specifically related to disclosing risks to patients with respect to comparing current standards of care. The information to be disclosed will now include all possible risks and harms that the patient could face in the trial, even if those same risks would be present by getting the standard treatment outside of the trial. While the government aims to make possible risks more clear, researchers are worried that the new guidelines will create overly complicated consent forms describing every possible risk, discourage patients from enrolling in trials and prevent some trials from even being conducted.

Conducting a clinical trial to determine which treatment protocols are safe and effective against a given disease is a key cornerstone of medical research. Running a clinical trial requires recruiting volunteers of both sick and healthy people to act as human test subjects. To be ethically sound, all research involving human subjects requires that participants give “informed consent” – that is, that they understand and accept the facts, implications and consequences of participating including any benefits and risks to themselves.

The US government has long regulated the use of human subjects in research. The current update to informed consent stems from controversy over a 2009 study involving administering oxygen to extremely premature babies. While both treatment groups received oxygen post-birth within standard concentration ranges, there were potential patient outcomes involving blindness and/or death that were not adequately conveyed to the parents of the children involved.  (Shefali Luthra, Washington Post)

Federal Research Funding

A one-grant limit: NIH institute puts squeeze on flush investigators

Effective January 2016, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) will be imposing a one-grant limit on certain scientists who receive funding from them. This new rule, announced in a January 13th notice, is primarily directed at scientists who already receive substantial, long-term, and unrestricted funding from other sources in excess of $400,000 per year.

NIGMS, which funds basic science research, aims to better distribute its limited funding resources to more investigators. The new guidelines “will enable NIGMS to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances” and supporting more outstanding biomedical scientists, says NIGMS. A large group of scientists affected by this new rule include those that receive substantial funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), or others with endowed chairs at research universities, for example. As NIGMS Deputy Director Judith Greenberg told ScienceInsider, there are over 20 HHMI instigators who currently hold two or more NIGMS grants, potentially freeing up to $6 million in funding to be awarded to less well-funded but equally scientifically important research.

In an era of restricted funding for scientific research, taking from the rich to fund the poor could be one way to ensure that all deserving research gets a chance at being done.  (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)

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January 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 16, 2015

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By: Varun Sethi, Ph.D

photo credit: Matti Mattila via photopin cc

Federal Research Funding

U.S. House approves flat funding for DHS science amid fight over immigration policy

The US House of Representatives approved a spending bill on the 14th of January 2015, with funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) research programs remaining flat. The bill will now move to the Senate, where in 60 votes are needed to advance the House version. If this does not happen, then the Senate could pass a different version to be accepted by the House. However there is an urgent need to resolve this as the current budget measure (freezing spending at 2014 levels), will expire in about six weeks at the end of February. DHS’s research account would dip by $4.5 million, still being $24million higher than requested by the White House. Funding for university based research centers remains at $39.7 million, not agreeing to a White House proposal for a $8.7 million cut. A group of six senators is meanwhile renewing the emphasis on making it easier for highly skilled immigrants to work in the US and remain here permanently. However there is much criticism from groups representing technical workers following the introduction of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2015. White House officials commented earlier this week, that they would recommend that Obama veto the DHS measure in case it includes the immigration provisions. While the immigration issue is unlikely to affect the funding for the DHS’s science and technology directorate, it is likely to delay the department’s final budget for 2015.  (David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)

Science Communication – Publishing

Nature owner merges with publishing giant

Macmillan Science and Education, the London-based publisher of journals such as Nature and Scientific American will be merging with the Berlin-based Springer Science and business media. The parent companies announced that this joint venture, with about 13000 employees, is likely to generate a turnover of €1.5 billion. The deal has been agreed between Holtzbrinck Publishing group, the private firm that owns Macmillan, and BC partners, the private equity firm that bought Springer in 2013. Media analyst, Claudio Aspesi, believes that the deal is a sensible decision on part of both companies. The BC partners add value to their deal by adding the worlds most prestigious journals and for Holtzbrinck, the additional scale from Macmillan will give additional funds. The combined company would have a potential for stronger growth.

Four major companies dominate the scientific publishing market. These include Springer (2987 journals), Elsevier (3057 journals), Wiley (2339 journals) and Taylor and Francis (2105 journals). Through this merger two well established companies with a strong publishing tradition, will significantly increase their impact. There is no clear comment on the financial structure of the merger; it is likely that the BC partners would cash out its 47% share by an initial public offering in 2 to 4 years. Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London, raises an important question in whether such mergers are good for the users? Competition in the commercial market helps to bring prices down; concentration of larger publishing volumes in one source would thus not be good for the users. It is however also possible that the greater efficiency resulting from the enormous scale, will reduce costs. Time will tell.  (Richard Van Noorden, Nature News)

Science Communication

Cognitive Advantage in Bilingualism: An Example of Publication Bias?

While there are undeniably social benefits in being able to speak more than one language, scientific studies supporting, as well as challenging cognitive benefits of bilingualism been published extensively. Cognitive rewards such as the ability to plan and focus have been attributed to being bilingual in some reports. On the other hand, some studies found no such advantages. A recent study examined if the idea of bilingual advantage stems from a publication bias that tends to favor the publication of studies showing positive results.

Conference abstracts relating to bilingualism and executive control, spanning a 13-year period from 1999 to 2012 were examined. Of about 104 meeting abstracts, about half were found to support a bilingual advantage. Of these, 63% of studies were published as opposed to 36% of studies with null findings. These differences were not attributable to differences in sample size, tests used or power of the analysis. It is however not clear whether the source of bias stemmed from the journal editors, reviewers or scientists themselves. The authors conclude that while bilingualism has desirable effects, these findings should not be promoted by ignoring null or negative results. This also emphasizes the need to share all data, not just selected data that supports a particular theory; this being especially true when it comes to data regarding issues with societal relevance and implication. (Angela de Bruin, et al., Physiological Science)

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January 16, 2015 at 2:59 pm

The FIRST Act: Is Congress imposing too many restrictions on scientists?

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By: Joseph P. Tiano, Ph.D.

The target of the FIRST Act is the National Science Foundation (NSF) but scientists everywhere should be concerned by some of the provisions it contains. Especially alarming are the provisions dealing with funding allocations and those dealing with determining a grant’s merit (the first two bullet points under the section titled “Potential Negatives”). On March 10th 2014 Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, along with Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana), Chairman of the House Research and Technology Subcommittee, introduced the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186). The bill is still in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote. The bill contains many NSF provisions but those centered on eliminating wasteful spending, i.e., funding grants Congress deems useless, are drawing the most criticism from scientists. What is in the FIRST Act The FIRST Act is 130 pages long and contains many wide-ranging provisions. Below are a few highlights with the potential to benefit the scientific community and a few highlights that many institutions (American Institute of Physics, National Science Board, Association of American Universities, and many other science-focused societies and institutions) fear will harm the scientific community. Potential Positives • The bill takes steps to improve science education in the U.S. by broadening the definition of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to include computer science; by allowing NSF funding to be used to support student participation in nonprofit competitions, out-of-school activities and field experiences related to STEM education; and by broadening secondary school students’ access to, and interest in, careers that require academic preparation in STEM subjects. • The bill supports President Obama’s BRAIN initiative by instructing the NSF to support research activities related to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. • The bill would ban researchers found guilty of falsification, fabrication or plagiarism from receiving NSF grants or extensions for 5-10 years. • The bill increases NSF funding for FY2015 by 1.5% from the current FY2014 level of $7,171.9 million to $7,279.5 million. Although well intentioned it is not even enough to keep up with inflation. Potential Negatives The National Science Board’s greatest concern: • The bill authorizes funding levels for individual directorates or sub-agencies within the NSF rather than authorizing a single budget for the NSF and allowing it the flexibility to deploy its funds where it believes will generate the most benefit. For example, the bill would reduce funding for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences by 28.4% from the current FY2014 level of $256.85 million to $200 million for FY2015 without any input from the NSF. The major concern of most scientists: The bill will require that the NSF provide clear justifications for why the grants that they fund are in the national interest. A summary of this section from Congress.gov states that this bill allows NSF to award grants “only if it makes, and justifies in writing, an affirmative determination that the grant or agreement is worthy of federal funding and meets certain other criteria [is in the national interest].” Page 14 of the bill defines what constitutes national interest: “increased economic competitiveness; advancement of the health and welfare of the American People; development of a STEM workforce and increased public scientific literacy in the U.S.; increased partnerships between academia and industry in the U.S.; support for the national defense of the U.S.; or promotion of the progress of science in the U.S.” Page 15 specifies that “Public announcement of each award of Federal funding…shall include a written justification from the responsible NSF official that a grant…meets the requirements of [the national interest of the U.S.].” Is peer review compromised? • Page 15 of the bill states that “Nothing in this section shall be construed as altering the NSF’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.” However, many scientists disagree and interpreted this section of the bill as interfering with the peer review process by imposing political agendas. • The bill stipulates that principal investigators who have received more than 5 years of NSF funding at any point in their careers (except grad school and postdoc training) can only receive additional NSF funding by contributing “original, creative, and transformative research under the grant.” “Questionable” research projects One of the goals of the FIRST Act is to reduce wasteful spending by the NSF. Since at least 2010 Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has released an annual report on government spending called “Wastebook: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful Government Spending” in which he highlights the government’s 100 most wasteful projects of the year. Although no department is safe from being singled out the NSF appears to be disproportionally targeted making up 10% (8/100 in 2010; 15/100 in 2011; 12/100 in 2012; 7/100 in 2013) of the most wasteful projects – its $7.2 billion budget represents less than 0.5% of total government spending. By comparison the NIH made up 2.5% of the most wasteful projects and its $30.1 billion budget is about 4x more than the NSF. Many of the NSF projects that were singled out were used as justification for sections the FIRST Act. Some of my NSF favorites are: (edited for brevity) In 2008 the University of California-Irvine received $100,007 from the NSF to analyze and understand the ways in which players of World of Warcraft, a popular multiplayer game, engage in creative collaboration. NSF awarded over $600,000 to the Minnesota Zoo to create a wolf avatar video game called WolfQuest. NSF provided $216,884 in funding to the University of California Berkeley and Stanford University to study Candidate Ambiguity and Voter Choice. In 2011 researchers at the University of California-Riverside received an NSF grant of almost $150,000 to create a video game called RapidGuppy for cell phones and other mobile devices. The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange received $300,000 from the NSF to teach the public about the origins of matter through a unique performance experience, “The Matter of Origins.” The group produced a two-part experimental program that it performed at Universities. NSF awarded a multi-year grant to study the impact of women on the Icelandic textile industry from the Viking Era to the 19th Century. In 2012 the NSF supported the creation of “Prom Week,” a video game simulating all the social interactions of the event. The project used part of a $516,000 grant from NSF. Purdue University researchers used part of a $350,000 NSF grant to examine the benefit golfers might gain from using their imagination. The work was also supported previously by part of a $1.1 million NIH grant. The Civilians, a New York City-based theatre company, received $697,177 from the NSF to create a musical about climate change and biodiversity. My favorite The “Green Ninja” is a cartoon superhero created to motivate “kids to take action on climate change.” Eugene Cordero, one of the creators, says “the goal of the project is to make the Green Ninja the new Smokey the Bear. “Support for the Green Ninja originally came from the National Science Foundation, but now includes $390,000 in funding from NASA.” (Figure 2) NSF provided Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology with $2.9 million to create the “City as a Living Laboratory” initiative throughout Indianapolis. Project officials hope to use the money “to create sites along six Indianapolis waterways where arts and science will be used to educate the public about Indianapolis’s water system.” Yale University launched a project in 2005 with funding from the NSF to study the oddities of the duck penis. In 2009, the school received an additional $384,989 to continue its work. Are some of these projects wasteful? Maybe, okay, probably, okay, fine, yes, they are wasteful. I mean why we are spending $400,000 to create a new climate change superhero called the green ninja when 60% of the U.S. is overweight, antibiotic resistance is a real threat to become the norm and there is an Ebola outbreak in Africa. It is easy to get distracted and single out a handful of wasteful projects as evidence that the entire system of peer review is broken but that would be irresponsible and dangerous. Is peer review (for grants) perfect? Peer review is not perfect, nothing is. There will always be a small percentage of grants being funding that from the onset probably should not have been funded. This is because the grants never had a chance to succeed (poorly conceived) or because their potential findings would not have yielded important or relevant results (of course no one can truly say whether particular findings will be relevant or important ten years in the future but that is a discussion for another time). Maybe the price we pay for the immense success of peer review is a small amount of waste. It is a fact peer review works – the scientific and medical achievements of the 20th century alone are proof of its success! If this is the case, that we accept the small amount of waste for the huge payoffs, then peer review should not be meddled with. But maybe we can do better? Whether you think peer review is perfect the way it is or whether you think it needs tweaked, the FIRST Act does not appear to provide the correct solution and may end up doing more harm than good.  References The FIRST Act http://science.house.gov/press-release/first-act-prioritizes-science-investments-keep-america-first https://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/4186 http://www.aip.org/fyi/2014/overview-hr-4186-frontiers-innovation-research-science-and-technology-act https://beta.congress.gov/113/bills/hr4186/BILLS-113hr4186ih.pdf National Science Board Statement http://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=131218&org=NSF&from=news Senator Tom Coburn’s wastebooks http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=774a6cca-18fa-4619-987b-a15eb44e7f18 http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=b69a6ebd-7ebe-41b7-bb03-c25a5e194365 http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=b7b23f66-2d60-4d5a-8bc5-8522c7e1a40e http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=d204730e-4a24-4711-b1db-99bb6c29d4b6 The Green Ninja http://greenninja.org/


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January 14, 2015 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 13, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D

photo credit: rickz via photopin cc

The Economy and the Environment

What Low Oil Prices Mean for the Keystone XL Pipeline

Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment

Congress is back in session and on the docket is whether or not the United States will move forward with the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline could potentially transport up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian oil a day down to the Gulf Coast. The pipeline brings promise of strengthening U.S./Canadian economic relations, U.S. job creation and even creating a safer way of transporting oil (rail versus pipeline). Opponents to the pipeline remark that the U.S. could potentially increase fossil fuel consumption by driving down the price of oil and making oil less of a scarce commodity. However, the price per barrel has dropped below $50 driving the price of oil way down and bringing into question the need to even continue the Keystone XL pipeline debate. The State Department Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) concluded that if the price per barrel dropped below $65 there would be no economic need for the pipeline despite that the pipeline would probably have no “substantial impact” on greenhouse gas emissions. Now that oil prices are low, another tier to the debate concerns the overall benefit of constructing the pipeline given present oil prices. One concern is that lower oil prices will reduce the odds that the pipeline will ever be fully used; thus creating jobs upfront, but not sustaining them. In another scenario the pipeline does get built and lowers oil prices but without a clear picture of its economic costs. Whatever scenario, it is clear that before proceeding, there should be a clearer idea of the combined impact on both the economy and the environment of the Keystone XL pipeline in the future where oil prices are low.

 

Health Policy

Newly discovered antibiotic kills pathogens without resistance

Greg St. Martin, Northeastern University

The arms race between antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is of great concern with the medical community and is a serious threat to public health. As new antibiotics have been developed to treat and defeat the nastiest bacteria, the rise of a new class of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has left clinicians with few therapeutic options in some cases. But in new research, a group out of Northeastern University in Boston Massachusetts presented a newly discovered antibiotic that eliminates pathogens without encountering any detectable resistance—a discovery that challenges long-​​held scientific beliefs and holds great promise for treating chronic infections like tuberculosis and those caused by Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Researchers from Northeastern developed a novel method for growing uncultured bacteria leading to the discovery of the antibiotic, teixobactin. The exciting results were recently published in the journal Nature earlier this month. Teixobactin was discovered by new methodology that allowed unculturable bacteria (that make up 99 percent of all species in the external environment) to thrive in a lab setting. Their approach involves the iChip, a miniature device created by the group that is able to isolate and grow bacteria in their natural environment and thereby provide researchers with much improved access to uncultured bacteria. This remarkable finding brings promise of combating the public health threat of antibiotic resistance and could potentially bring onto the market a new class of “superior” antibiotics.

 

Research Interpretation

Polls of Future Past: A History of Public Expectations for the Future of Science

Kathleen Weldon, Research Coordinator for the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at UConn

Sometimes science fiction accurately portrays the actual state-of-affairs of scientific advancement. For example, we are living in the year that Marty McFly in “Back to the Future Part II” wore grey Nike hightops (now fashionable again) and accurately predicted the existence of flat panel televisions, internet video chat, and intelligent gaming systems in 2015. However, the changes that are anticipated are not always the ones that appear. For example, when Gallup first asked Americans in 1949 whether they expected a man to land on the moon within the next 50 years, only 15 percent responded ‘yes’. This was quite surprising given the great accomplishments such as the atomic bomb during that time. Since then, American opinion concerning the pace of scientific advancements has greatly changed. As compared to 1949, American expectations for medical breakthroughs are outpacing reality. There was a strong majority of Americans who had anticipated a cure for cancer by the end of the 20th century—and were severely disappointed by the lack thereof (despite increased advancements in cancer treatment and life expectancy). Some in the medical and science communities may see this as an unwanted aggravation to the field: additional pressure on top of an already pressurized system. Another perspective is that unlike the opinion of Americans in 1949, Americans in the 21st century believe in the ability of scientists to continually discover and innovate unhindered by the impossible.

 

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January 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 9, 2015

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By: Elisavet Serti, PhD

photo credit: sjrankin via photopin cc

Scientific Breakthroughs

Science journal publishes Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs of 2014

On the 19th of December issue of Science, the editors listed the Rosetta spacecraft and its preliminary results as the most important scientific breakthrough of 2014. This spacecraft became known for catching up with the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko beyond Mars last August. Rosetta’s short-lived lander, known as Philae, managed to touch down on the side of the comet next to a cliff, far from the initial targeted spot. The absence of adequate sunlight that would recharge its batteries gave Philae only 57 hours to collect data before its expiration. The importance of this first-ever soft landing of a spacecraft on a comet was emotional and largely symbolic since 80% of the scientific data of this mission will be generated from Philae’s mother ship, Rosetta, that will orbit around the comet throughout 2015. With this mission, scientists want to understand how comets are altered while approaching the sun and also how comets formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

This annual list of groundbreaking scientific achievements includes advances in medicine, robotics, synthetic biology and paleontology. Interestingly, the visitors to Science’s website picked the impressive genetic achievement of incorporating two additional letters into E.coli ’s genetic code, as the top scientific breakthrough for 2014. Two researchers managed to engineer the bacterial DNA in a novel way, which includes a pair of lab-synthesized nucleotides: X and Y. These two nucleotides don’t code for anything and because they do not exist in nature, the engineered bacteria would not be able to replicate and pass on their genetic material to any offspring. The two researchers aim to use X and Y for the encoding of artificial amino acids, beyond the 20 natural ones that are encoded by the nucleotides of the “normal” DNA, that would lead to artificial protein products.   (Eric Hand and Robert F. Service, Science).

 

Federal Research Programs

National Children’s Study program is cancelled after 14 years

The National Children’s Study (NCS) was initiated in the late 1990’s by US pediatricians and other scientists that initiated a plan to follow a cohort of 100,000 children from birth to age 21, generating an unprecedented amount of biological specimens and clinical data of invaluable scientific potential. The main aim of this study was to identify the factors that shape child development and to understand how these factors lead to disease phenotypes. The Congress approved the project’s budget in 2000 and the NCS Program Office was established at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2003 aiming to recruit a representative sample of 100,000 pregnant women from 100 states in the largest longitudinal study of its kind in the United States.

In 2007, the initial funding of $70 million launched the first NCS centers that managed to enroll 5700 children. The recruitment plan proved to be inadequate. When the costs rose to $6.9 billion, the NCS program officers decided to close the NCS centers and rely on large contractors to run the projects. These changes were criticized by a large number of researchers, and the consequent review that was ruled by the Congress concluded that although the NCS had great potential, there were problems with its design and its management. In addition, there was no specific protocol for the study and the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director agreed with this review stating that the NCS “as currently outlined, is not feasible.” After these findings, Dr Francis Collins, the NIH director, decided to cancel the study and to close the NCS program office on December 2014. However, all existing data and biospecimens will be made available to outside researchers and the NCS funds will be redistributed to NIH institutes for related activities so that there is still potential for a positive outcome from this otherwise brilliant initiative.   (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

 

Research Interpretation

Should cancer patients blame their bad luck?

Despite the large emphasis placed on gene heredity or risky habits like smoking on cancer risks, random mutations that occur during ordinary cell division are responsible for the two-thirds of cancer incidence of various types (22 out of 31 cancer types). These random mutations prove to be harmful if they affect the expression of cancer-related genes, known as oncogenes or tumor-suppressor genes, leading to tumor formation. As expected, it was observed that tissues that undergo a greater number of divisions were more prone to tumors since the probability of mutations is elevated. This means that most cancer patients could simply blame their biological bad luck and not their lifestyle or their genetic background. However, there are 9 cancer types, including colorectal, skin and lung cancer, which are heavily influenced by heredity and environmental factors like smoking, prolonged sun exposure or exposure to carcinogens, thus verifying the importance of these factors in carcinogenesis.   (Will Dunham, Reuters)

 

 

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January 9, 2015 at 1:36 pm