Science Policy For All

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Archive for April 2015

Science Policy Around the Web – April 10, 2015

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By: Kaitlyn Morabito, Ph.D.

photo credit: Asha Hall-10 via photopin (license)

Women in STEM

Women in engineering engage best with gender parity

The lack of women in STEM related fields has been a hot topic recently with many groups focusing on closing the gender gap. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a social psychology researcher setup an experiment to gauge the role of female peers in female engineers participation in a group problem-solving activity. Within the groups of 4 engineers, different male to female ratios were utilized: 1:3, 2:2, and 3:1. Each group contained one female engineer subject and 3 evaluators who utilized a script in the problem-solving activity. Following the activity, the evaluators rated the female engineers on participation, confidence, interest and comfortableness. The female engineer also took a self-survey after she met her group, but before the activity started to measure how confident, anxious, challenged, or threatened she felt and the likelihood of her staying in engineering. When there were no other females in the group environment, the female engineers felt less confident and were more likely to view the activity as a threat and less likely to remain in engineering. The females who were in even groups, felt more confident, but were still less likely to participate the females who were in a mostly female group. This highlights how challenging it can be for a women to participate and succeed in a male-dominated field. The study has its caveats so the results may not be generalizable. The subjects were women who already chose engineering, the groups were small, and the interactions were scripted. However, it still emphasizes the role that female peers may have on other females. (Bethany Brookshire, Scicurious – ScienceNews)


Years after shutting down, U.S. atom smasher reveals properties of ‘God particle’

The Tevatron collider, which was shut down over 3 years ago, has provided more insight into the Higgs boson particle, which was discovered by the physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2012. The Higgs boson particle is essential to the standard model theory, which explains how particles get their mass. Scientists working on the LHC directly measured the mass of the Higgs boson particle and other quantitative measurements such as angular momentum. The subject of angular momentum or spin was determined to be zero spin and the parity was determined to be negative. Scientists using the Tevatron collider, however, used a more indirect approach by using the interaction of the Higgs particle with other particles (Z boson or W boson) to approximate the spin and parity of the parental Higgs particle. This indirect measure puts more strident limits on the hypothetical parity and spin of the Higgs particle. This data was slow to analyze due to the loss of personal to the LHC project and otherwise could have been published prior to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. (Adrian Cho, Science)


Amid Protests, Hawaii Governor Says Construction of Thirty Meter Telescope is Paused

The company Thirty Meter Telescope stopped construction of a telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. This telescope, standing at 180 ft, will be one of the largest in the world with scientists reasoning that the location is perfect for studying “the earliest years of the universe.” The one-week secession of building comes after a week of demonstrations by protesters who argue that the land is sacred to some of Hawaii’s natives. The opposition to the telescope project has existed since its initiation over a year ago, but really came to a head with the demonstrations beginning last week. The land on which the telescope is being erected is leased by the Thirty Meter Telescope company through the University of Hawaii. The Hawaiian Land Board approved the construction of the telescope on March 6th. The pause in construction will provide an opportunity for the opponents, university and government officials, and company to have a discussion of the future of the projects. (Caleb Jones, Huffington Post)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Linkposts

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The remarkable efficacy of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis could change the trajectory of the HIV epidemic

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By: Elisavet Serti, PhD

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that in 2013, there were 35 million [33.2–37.2 million] people living with HIV globally, despite widespread awareness of the modes of transmission and the protective benefits of condom use. As of June 2014, only 13.6 million of these people living with HIV had access to antiretroviral therapy. The most alarming statistic is that 19 million of these people do not know their HIV-positive status, according to a new report by UNAIDS. It appears that individuals at risk for HIV infection are still participating in risky sexual behavior and that more education about HIV and AIDS prevention is crucial.

In the United States, complacent attitudes among young adults towards HIV/AIDS infection are on the rise, in part, due to increasingly effective therapies that improve the disease’s manageability. The fact that HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic “death sentence” could possibly explain lax attitudes among young people when it comes to safe sex practices to avoid infection, such as condom use. As such, the approval of Truveda – a daily, oral pill indicated for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012 was hailed as a victory by the medical community. Truvada’s safety and efficacy for PrEP were demonstrated in two large, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. A PrEP indication means that Truvada is approved for use as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy that includes other prevention methods, such as safe sex practices, risk reduction counseling, and regular HIV testing. In an FDA press release, Truvada was described as “the first drug approved to reduce the risk of HIV infection in uninfected individuals who are at high risk of HIV infection and who may engage in sexual activity with HIV-infected partners. Truvada, taken daily, is to be used for PrEP in combination with safer sex practices to reduce the risk of sexually-acquired HIV infection in adults at high risk.” The FDA Commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg M.D., marked its approval as “an important milestone in our fight against HIV.”

When HIV researchers showed that people likely to be exposed to HIV could significantly decrease their risk of infection by taking one pill, many researchers immediately raised doubts about the pill’s real-world efficiency. Some scientists and health care workers rejected PrEP stating that this strategy could potentially undermine the traditional and still necessary ways of anti-HIV protection, such as safe-sex practices like condom use. Additionally, some at-risk people have not used PrEP because they fear it will brand them as promiscuous or reckless. Young, single women appear especially reluctant to use the drug, again because of the fear of a social stigma. The pill has also raised controversy in the gay community. The husband of an HIV-positive man who is taking PrEP regularly and remains HIV-negative said in a recent interview, “there’s a real stigma against this drug. Any young gay man that considers using Truvada is viewed as somebody who must be putting himself at great sexual risk for HIV.” It has been shown that men who have sex with men (MSM) carry a disproportionate burden of being infected with HIV compared with general population samples from low- and middle-income countries in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. MSM is a term coined in 1994 to reduce stigma against gay, bisexual, transgendered, and self-identified heterosexual men who engage in sex with other men, by describing behaviors rather than social or cultural identities. The odds for HIV infection in MSM are elevated across prevalence levels of MSM-associated HIV infection by country and decrease as general population prevalence increases, but remain 9-fold higher in medium-high prevalence settings. MSM from low- and middle-income countries are in urgent need of prevention and care, and appear to be both understudied and underserved.

Based on studies conducted primarily outside the United States of both high-risk men who have sex with men and heterosexual couples, Truvada has been shown to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV infection by more than 50% in several subgroups of patients when used daily in combination with a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy, including safer sex practices. The key factor for its effectiveness is the adherence to daily administration. Robert Grant, a top HIV researcher at the Gladstone Institutes and University of California at San Francisco and one of the pioneers of the PrEP approach, led a pivotal study of PrEP in 2010 with remarkable efficiency results. In this study, Truvada cut the rate of new infections in men who have sex with men and transgender women by 92% if they took the pill daily. Unfortunately, half of the participants failed to comply with the daily administration rules, which reduced the overall efficiency to 44%. A follow-up study included a large number of heterosexual “discordant” couples, in which only one partner was infected, found that adherence was much better, yielding 75% protection. There has been a lot scientific controversy from the publication of these studies, with other research groups raising questions about the economic impact of this prevention strategy, the side effects (e.g., renal insufficiency), the potential emergence of drug resistance (in patients with HIV and hepatitis B virus infection), the chance of risk compensation (increased high-risk sexual behavior) of the uninfected recipients of PrEP, and the age difference between experimental groups of the study.

Dr. Grant has continued his PrEP research and published a modeling study of the San Francisco epidemic, in which only 31% of people at high risk of infection used the PrEP regimen at some point last year, showing again that the potential payoff of widespread PrEP could be huge. If 65% of these people used the PrEP regimen for 12 months, the number of annual new infections would be halved. That drop could double again by aggressive use of both PrEP and antiretroviral treatment. “We’re at a tipping point where PrEP was a proven concept of unknown applicability,” Grant stated in a recent Science article, “and what’s most exciting is we can now see that is feasible.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 and was one of the leading researchers involved in developing antiretroviral therapy for HIV, stated that Truvada is “highly efficacious, in my mind easily over 90 percent if you adhere rigidly to it.” He was quick to add, in line with the guidelines from all the United States government agencies, that the use of Truvada should be purely a preventive measure, that it’s meant to augment the protection provided by condoms, not to replace them. Still, having one more tool to add to the arsenal against HIV/AIDS is a great step forward in combating the spread of this disease.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 8, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

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Science Policy Around the Web – April 3, 2015

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

photo credit: Pangolin via photopin (license)

Animal Conservation Policy

Poaching brings another creature to the brink of extinction

Ever heard of the pangolin? Me neither, but recent media coverage of this critically endangered creature places a spotlight on the impact humans are having on their environment. The pangolin, also known as the spiny anteater, is a nocturnal mammal that lives in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that subsists on ants and other small insects. Asian pangolins are threatened by loss of habitat, as land is increasing cleared for agricultural and other human use, but are most severely in danger due to poaching. Pangolin meat is prized as a delicacy in China, and its scales composed of keratin are used as a traditional medicine for skin and other disorders. Demand for the animal has increased in the past decade resulting increased illegal shipments disguised as other goods. According to the NY Times, “officials in Uganda said they had seized two tons of pangolin skins packed in boxes identified as communications equipment. In France a few years ago, more than 200 pounds of pangolin scales were discovered buried in bags of dog biscuits.” Because the animals are endangered, most countries have laws against hunting pangolin. However, the laws are either weakly enforced or poachers make enough from the animal carcass to incentivize the activity anyway. There is some question as to how endangered the animals are. Because they are nocturnal and shy, little is known about population levels in the wild. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has the pangolin categorized in Appendix II; species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Chinese pangolin as critically endangered and all other species of pangolin as threatened. Some conservation groups are hoping to increase the endangered status of the pangolin and make all trade of the animal illegal. (Erica Goode, NY Times;

Resource Conservation Policy

Record drought forces increased water conservation in California

After a record low snowpack was recorded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on April 1st, the governor of California issued an executive order mandating cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent. This conservation amounts to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water saved over the next nine months. KQED and NPR compiled an infographic to show just how severe the decline in snowpack has been over the past few years of drought; the water content of the Sierra Nevada range was just 6% of the average in 2015. The impact of the loss of mountain snow will be great. Millions of people depend on the water that melts and flows downstream during the summer and fall months, including the farmers of the agriculture-rich California Central valley. In addition to general water conservation, the governor also ordered millions of acres of lawns throughout the state to be replaced by drought tolerant landscaping and the prohibition of new developments from using potable water for irrigation. Increased conservation and enforcement measures will help, but it is small consolation to the already parched fields that account for the overwhelming majority of produce on US shelves, including 90% of all broccoli and 95% of all celery and garlic; hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland was fallowed or lost in 2014 due to insufficient water supply. Although Americans have yet to really feel the pinch (with the exception of citrus fruit; both drought and disease have been driving up prices in the past couple years), experts predict the price of fresh fruits and vegetables will rise this summer.      (Craig Miller, KQED Science and NPR;; Brian Palmer, Slate)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 3, 2015 at 12:20 pm