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Archive for August 2017

Science Policy Around the Web – August 18, 2017

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

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Source: pixabay

Climate Science

Effort backed by California’s flagship universities comes as US President Donald Trump shrugs off global warming

As US President Donald Trump announces to withdraw from Paris Agreement, renouncing climate science and policy, scientists in California are deciding to develop a home-grown climate research institute -‘California Climate Science and Solutions Institute’. California has always tried to protect the environment with different initiatives and this one is already getting endorsed by California’s flagship universities and being warmly received by Governor Jerry Brown. The initiative is still in the early stages of development and will also need clearance from the state legislature. The institute will aim to fund basic as well as applied research in all the topics related to climate change ranging from ocean acidification to tax policy. Priority will be given to projects and experiments that engage communities, businesses and policymakers. “The goal is to develop the research we need, and then put climate solutions into practice,” says Daniel Kammen, an energy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He also states that this work will have global impact. The climate research project being undertaken in California may have an ally too, as the science dean of Columbia University of New York city, Peter De Menocal, plans to build an alliance of major universities and philanthropists to support research for answering pressing questions about the impacts of climate change. De Menocal already tested the idea on a smaller scale by launching the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University last year, which raised US$8 million of private funding. This is no the first time California has taken the initiative to support an area of science that fell out of favor in Washington DC. In 2004, President George W. Bush restricted federal support for research on human embryonic stem cells. This led to the approval of $3 billion by the state’s voters to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Oakland. Since then, the center has funded more than 750 projects. The proposal for a new climate institute also started along a similar path, as a reaction to White House policies, but its organizers say that the concept has evolved into a reflective exercise about academics’ responsibility to help create a better future. The panel members wish to put forward a complete plan to set up the institute to the California legislature this year, in the hope of persuading lawmakers to fund the effort by September 2018, before Governor Brown’s global climate summit in San Francisco.

(Jeff Tollefson, Nature News)

Retractions

Researchers pull study after several failed attempts by others to replicate findings describing a would-be alternative to CRISPR

The high-profile gene-editing paper on NgAgo was retracted by its authors on 2nd August, citing inability in replicating the main finding by different scientists around the globe. The paper was published in Nature Biotechnology in May 2016. It described an enzyme named NgAgo which could be used to knock out or replace genes in human cells by making incisions at precise regions on the DNA. The study also emphasized the findings as a better alternative to the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system which revolutionized gene editing and has even been used to fix genes for a heritable heart condition in human embryos. Han Chunyu, molecular biologist at Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang is the inventor and immediately attracted a lot of applause for his findings. However, within months, news started emerging in social media about failures to replicate the results. These doubts were confirmed after a series of papers were published stating that the NgAgo could not edit genomes as stated in the Nature paper. Earlier, Han told Nature’s news team that he and his team had identified a contaminant that can explain other groups’ struggles to replicate the results and assured that the revised results would be published within 2 months. Yet on August 2, they retracted the paper stating that “We continue to investigate the reasons for this lack of reproducibility with the aim of providing an optimized protocol.”

The retraction of the paper, however, puts in question the future of the gene-editing center that Hebei University plans to build with 224 million yuan (US$32 million) as Han as the leader. Moreover, Novozymes, a Danish enzyme manufacturer, paid the university an undisclosed sum as part of a collaboration agreement. Dongyi Chen, Novozymes’ Beijing-based press manager, told Nature’s news team in January that the technology is being tested and shows some potential, but it is at a very early stage of development and hence it is difficult to determine its relevance. Following the news of retraction, he stated that the company has explored the efficiency of NgAgo, but so far has failed to track any obvious improvement. Yet they are not giving up hope as scientific researches takes time.

(David Cyranoski, Nature News)

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August 18, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 15, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

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Picture Source: pixabay

Public Health

Obesity and Depression, Entwined or Not?

It might seem that obesity and depression are not related since they are diseases from different parts of the body; however, health care practitioners have observed that these two diseases have a close relationship. The development of obesity and depression can be a vicious cycle, one favoring the other. Extra weight brings anxieties to obese people, which can cause poor self-image and social isolation. These are known contributors to depression. On the other hand, people experiencing depression tend to overeat and avoid exercising. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 43 percent of people with depression are obese, compared with 36.5 percent of the general population. People with obesity have a higher risk to develop depression, and vice versa, according to one 2010 study.

Both obesity and depression are chronic diseases that are hard to treat, placing a big burden on the health care system. Obesity rates in the United States are among the highest in the world. Obesity alone costs almost $150 billion per year in direct expenses, and this number is estimated to increase about $1.24 billion each year till the year 2030. The cost of treating depression is even higher, which is more than $200 billion every year. So it is urgent to find ways to treat both diseases more effectively if they are bidirecitonally comorbid.

When depression and obesity coincide, the combination of physical and mental health interventions becomes important, which has been supported by several studies. Researchers from the University of Texas-Southwestern found that patients’ depression were alleviated when they did weekly exercise sessions, which were prescribed by physicians. Another study from Duke University found that the rate of depression in obese women was decreased by 50 percent simply by helping them control their weight. The combinatorial treatment has been adopted. Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, screens patients for weight and BMI, and treats obesity and depression together. She tailors her prescription, as some antidepressants can cause weight gain. Her “self-taught” method was welcomed by her patients. However, this is not a general practice in treating patients with both symptoms. To benefit patients’ health and reduce cost for curing obesity and depression, the whole health care system needs a change.

(Shefali Luthra, Kaiser Health News)

 

The ACA

What do people and health-policy experts think about repealing the ACA?

Since March, the Trump administration has strived to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but the Senate rejected this repeal, as 3 republican senators voted “no” last month. How do people feel about repealing the ACA? What do most people say the Trump administration should do after the Senate failed to repeal? There were two reports about it.

The first one was about a survey conducted Aug. 1-6 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which capture the opinions of 1,211 adults. Their analysis found that a majority of people (78 percent) think that the government should make the ACA work better. Grouping this majority by Political Party ID, reveales 95 percent are Democrats, 80 percent re independents and 52 percent are Republicans. Even 51 percent of President Trump’s supporters think both parties should work together to improve the health law.

The second report said that a coalition of liberal and conservative health-policy leaders is making suggestions for how to strengthen the existing ACA law, aligned with a favorable view in the public. The nine group members are from think tanks, universities and advocacy groups, who can be influential in health-policy formation of the government. The coalition was founded when it appeared that the Republican-controlled Congress would pass a repeal of the ACA without a replacement plan. It took the group eight months to come up with a five-point set of principles. It says that the government should continue providing subsidies to insurers that extend plans to 7 million lower-income customers and strong incentives for Americans to carry health insurance. The latter will help the cost of expensive care be shared by a stable insurance pool with healthy customers. They also urge the government to bring health plans to about two dozen counties, which would be left providerless in the ACA marketplace for 2018. The group said they intend to present their idea to Republican and Democratic lawmakers. “We are trying to model bipartisanship so incremental steps can be taken,” said by Ron Pollack, chairman emeritus of the liberal consumer-health lobby Families USA.

To prevent the potential collapse of health insurance market, the Senate is planning a bipartisan hearing on health care in September. In the House, a group of around 40 Republicans and Democrats known as the Problem Solvers Caucus aims to making urgent fixes to the ACA law. On September 27th, insurers will sign contracts with the federal government over what insurance plans to sell on the marketplace for 2018, which pushes Congress to come up with a solution before then.

(Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News, and Amy Goldstein, The Washington Post)

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August 15, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 11, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

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source: FDA

Health information privacy

Finding the legal line between voluntary disclosure and doctor-patient confidentiality

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has suffered a setback in its efforts to protect private health information from what they see as unjust and unauthorized access by the government. Last week, a court in Utah ruled that federal agents are free to collect sensitive prescription records without a warrant. The concept of ‘third party doctrine’, which states that individuals lose their expectation of privacy when information is disclosed voluntarily (in this case, to a physician or pharmacist), played a key role in the court’s reasoning. This position contradicts common-sense expectations of doctor-patient confidentiality, as well as the spirit of the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which pledges that ‘your health information cannot be used for purposes not directly related to your care without your permission’.

The details of the case are as follows. Like almost every state, Utah monitors the prescription and distribution of controlled substances, ostensibly to prevent drug abuse and overdose, and archives this information in a database. Utah began requiring a probable cause warrant to access the database after an incident of police misconduct in 2015, but since then, DEA agents have been circumventing this rule by using administrative subpoenas to pull any record they feel is relevant to an investigation, without judicial oversight. When Utah stopped complying on the grounds that this practice violates state law and the Fourth Amendment, the DEA challenged the state in court and won.

The decision is disappointing, considering the ACLU won a similar suit in Oregon in 2014. However, there is hope that it may be revisited soon: United States vs. Carpenter will use the context of cell phone data to question the validity of the third party doctrine, which, if successful, would have clear implications for this case. Carpenter will be argued by the ACLU before the Supreme Court this fall.

(Brett Max Kaufman, ACLU)

 

International science policy

Indian scientists get their day to speak out

Though hundreds of international sites participated in the March for Science earlier this year, major cities in India were conspicuous by their absence. On Wednesday, a series of public demonstrations finally gave the Indian scientific community an opportunity to add their voices to this global movement. The marches, organized by the Breakthrough Science Society, saw modest but encouraging turnout, despite reports of scientists being instructed not to attend.

India is the largest source of immigrant scientists and engineers in the US, but it lags behind its regional peers in numbers of top-tier scientific publications. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is a lack of government support for scientific institutions and funding agencies. While the Indian Department of Science and Technology has received substantial boosts in funding in recent years, budgets are still far short what scientific department heads say they need. One of the march’s core demands was for the government to increase investment in R&D from ~0.8% to 3% of GDP, in line with other developed Asian countries.

The other main goal of the march was to counteract rising levels of pseudoscience and religious intolerance of science in Indian culture. Organizers point out that violent incidents motivated by superstition still occur regularly, and cite ‘confrontational chauvinism’ regarding science by high-ranking officials. While this toxic blend of anti-science sentiment and nationalism is not unique to India, the country is unusual in that its constitution explicitly includes developing a scientific temperament as a ‘Fundamental Duty’ of its citizens. Ultimately, as in the US, the extent to which such events will truly promote rational discourse and evidence-based policy remains to be seen.

(Sanjay Kumar, Science)

 

Marijuana legalization/Opioid crisis

Hands-off/Hands-on approaches to the war on drugs

Initial recommendations from two separate commissions on drug policy set up by the Trump administration have yielded unexpected results. First, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety has urged officials to continue the Obama administration’s hands-off stance on enforcing federal anti-marijuana laws. This is a surprising outcome, considering the Task Force was created by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and was expected to support a crackdown on state-level legalization: Sessions has blamed marijuana for increased violent crime, and recently notified several pot-tolerant states that they will face increased scrutiny from his Justice Department. Though the report’s suggestions are not binding and several methods to discourage legalization still exist (such as raiding dispensaries or suing state governments), given the overwhelming public support for legal marijuana and Sessions’ increasingly tenuous political position, it appears unlikely that any significant changes in enforcement policy are on the way.

The second report comes from the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The death toll and burden to society of opioid addiction have increased dramatically in recent years, and the commission offers several constructive, bipartisan solutions that echo those advocated by public health and drug policy experts. However, Trump has already signaled his disinterest in these suggestions, ignoring the commission’s ‘urgent’ request to ‘declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act‘ in order to divert more resources into fighting opioid abuse. Trump routinely exploited the opioid epidemic for political points while on the campaign trail, often using it to justify ‘tough-on-crime’ proposals such as a Mexican border wall, mandatory minimum sentencing, and property seizure. The report does not recommend any of these measures, instead encouraging expanded drug treatment under Medicaid, which would have been gutted by the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Failure to effect change in opioid-afflicted communities, which strongly supported Trump in 2016, could be politically costly for him in 2020; but steadily climbing rates of addiction mean that this timeline would be too late for many.

(Daniel Politi, Slate, and Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post)

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August 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 4, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

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source: pixabay

CTE Research

National Football League Backs out of Funding Brain Research

A new study released this week added more fuel to the fire surrounding the health problems associated with playing contact sports, most notably American football. The study found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of 110 out of 111 former National Football League (NFL) players. Repetitive head trauma is thought to cause CTE, which can result in behavioral and mood disorders and cognitive impairment. Football players donated their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation so that scientists could evaluate the impact of playing contact sports on their brains. Currently CTE is only diagnosed post-mortem, so developing effective diagnoses and treatments for living patients would benefit NFL players, soldiers and others at risk of head trauma.

Advancing the science to benefit these groups in theory should serve in the NFL’s interest, however the initial damaging reports demonstrating the dangers their players face didn’t sit well. In 2012 the NFL pledged $30 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for brain research, however the partnership is set to expire this year with about half the money unspent. A 2016 New York Times article revealed some unsettling interactions between the NFL and NIH, when a congressional study found that the NFL tried to direct their funding away from research performed by certain scientists. The NIH was set to award a $17 million grant to Dr. Robert Stern at Boston University to study the link between repeated concussions and CTE, however representatives from the NFL attempted to discredit Dr. Stern’s work. The NIH chose to fund Dr. Stern’s highly ranked proposal, and reserve the NFL’s money for future research. It seems now that future research funded by the NFL and distributed by the NIH is unlikely to happen.

Eliminating conflicts of interest is important for research to remain unbiased and evidence based. Concussion research conducted by the NFL or clinical trials performed by pharmaceutical companies can produce bias results. There is a need for the NIH and FDA to act as fair and unbiased grant reviewers and funding distributors. Even among players at the NFL there is a spectrum of how people feel about the dangers of playing football, best exemplified by the following quotes:

“We live and breathe it and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally, I would — if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” – Jamal Adams Jet’s Rookie

“I hope All these young cats that are willing to die for the game of football find a higher purpose in life. Look football is great but I ain’t dying for this sh*t. Lol.” – Martellus Bennett Green Bay Packers Tight End (Twitter)

(Laurel Wamsley, NPR)

 

Human Genetic Engineering

No Super-Babies Yet

The United States has had a long history with avoiding research using stem cells. Since in vitro fertilization (IVF) became possible in the 1970’s we have been debating the ethics of using human stem cells and embryos for research. During George Bush’s tenure as president, stem cell research was explicitly un-fundable with public tax dollars (i.e. from NIH). As scientists found new ways to create stem cells without fetal tissue and Barack Obama’s presidency began, the US finally embraced stem cell research. However, researchers are still not permitted to use public funding to create and destroy human embryos – they can only use already fertilized embryos donated by patients from IVF clinics. If the research is privately funded, then researchers can both make and dispose of human embryos.

This little history lesson sets the stage for a discovery made in America and published this week in Nature, where researchers in Oregon (with collaborators in South Korea and China) were able to use gene editing to remove a heart defect-causing gene in human embryos. This technique is called CRISPR-Cas9, which uses prokaryotic (bacterial) DNA to target desired genes to be deleted or replaced and has already been used to edit embryos (human, other vertebrates, invertebrates and plants) with mixed results. There are reports of both off-target mutations (editing occurring in the wrong place) or mosaic embryos, meaning some cells are edited while others are not. What sets this new paper apart from the pack is the researchers inserted the CRISPR-Cas9 complex at the same time as the sperm, thus the editing began at fertilization. The inserted Cas9 protein was degraded too quickly to be effective at producing off-target mutations, and since the editing happened at conception only one out of 58 embryos was a mosaic. In contrast, waiting as little as 18 hours after fertilization to edit the embryo resulted in 13 out of 54 mosaic embryos.

For those worried about the production of designer babies, this study alleviates some of these concerns as well. Although researchers in this study provided a synthetic DNA template for the CRISPR-Cas9 system to rewrite the faulty gene, the cells ended up using the healthy mother’s DNA strands. This means scientists aren’t yet able to create babies to specifications, just strongly favor the existing but healthier parental gene to be passed on to the offspring. There are obvious ethics issues involved in creating human embryos and destroying them in the name of scientific discovery. However, getting rid of fatal diseases by gene editing could be music to the ears of parents who long to have children of their own but don’t want to risk having children affected with lethal conditions. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have launched the Human Gene-Editing Initiative to tangle with these issues as they arrive to policy forums.

(Heidi Ledford, Nature News)

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August 4, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 1, 2017

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By: Sarah L. Hawes, PhD

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Source: pixabay

Climate Science

Conducting Science by Debate?

Earlier this year an editorial by past Department of Energy Under Secretary, Steven Koonin, suggested a “red team-blue team” debate between climate skeptics and climate scientists. Koonin argued that a sort of tribalism segregates climate scientists while a broken peer-review process favors the mainstream tribe. Science history and climate science experts published a response in the Washington Post reminding readers that “All scientists are inveterate tire kickers and testers of conventional wisdom;” and while “the highest kudos go to those who overturn accepted understanding, and replace it with something that better fits available data,” the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human activities are a major contributor to planetary warming.

Currently, both Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, and Department of Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, cite Koonin’s editorial while pushing for debates on climate change. Perry said “What the American people deserve, I think, is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.” That sounds good doesn’t it? However, we already have this: It’s called climate science.

Climate scientists have been forthright with politicians for years. Scientific consensus on the hazards of carbon emissions lead to the EPA’s endangerment findings in 2009, and was upheld by EPA review again in 2015. A letter to Congress in 2016 expressed the consensus of over 30 major scientific societies that climate change poses real threats, and human activities are the primary driver, “based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science.”

Kelly Levin of the World Resources Institute criticizes the red team-blue team approach for “giving too much weight to a skeptical minority” since 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree human activities are contributing significantly to recent climactic warming. “Re-inventing the wheel” by continuing the debate needlessly delays crucial remediation. Scientific conclusions and their applications are often politicized, but that does not mean the political processes of holding debates, representing various constituencies, and voting are appropriate methods for arriving at scientific conclusions.

(Julia Marsh, Ecological Society of America Policy News)

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source: pixabay

Data Sharing, Open Access

Open Access Science – getting FAIR, FASTR

Advances in science, technology and medicine are often published in scientific journals with costly subscription rates, despite originating from publicly funded research. Yet public funding justifies public access. Shared data catalyzes scientific progress. Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and of the Harvard Open Access Project, Peter Suber, has been promoting open access since at least 2001. Currently, countries like The Netherlands and Finland are hotly pursuing open access science, and the U.S. is gearing up to do the same.

On July 26th, bipartisan congressional representatives introduced The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), intended to enhance utility and transparency of publicly funded research by making it open-access. Within the FASTR Act, Congress finds that “Federal Government funds basic and applied research with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries that result from the research, if shared and effectively disseminated, will advance science and improve the lives and welfare of people of the United States and around the world,” and that “the United States has a substantial interest in maximizing the impact and utility of the research it funds by enabling a wide range of reuses of the peer-reviewed literature…”; the FASTR Act mandates that findings are publicly released within 6 months. A similar memorandum was released under the Obama administration in 2013.

On July 20th, a new committee with the National Academies finished their first meeting in Washington D.C. by initiating an 18-month study on how best to move toward a default culture of “open science.” The committee is chaired by Alexa McCray of the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, and most members are research professors. They define open science as free public access to published research articles, raw data, computer code, algorithms, etc. generated through publicly-funded research, “so that the products of this research are findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR), with limited exceptions for privacy, proprietary business claims, and national security.” Committee goals include identifying existing barriers to open science such as discipline-specific cultural norms, professional incentive systems, and infrastructure for data management. The committee will then come up with recommended solutions to facilitate open science.

Getting diverse actors – for instance funders, publishers, scientific societies and research institutions – to adjust current practices to achieve a common goal will certainly require new federal science policy. Because the National Academies committee is composed of active scientists, their final report should serve as an insightful template for federal science agencies to use in drafting new policy in this area. (Alexis Wolfe & Lisa McDonald, American Institute of Physics Science Policy News)

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August 1, 2017 at 7:38 pm