Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Archive for December 2017

Science Policy Around the Web – December 15, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Leopold Kong, PhD

20171215_Linkpost

source: pixabay

Science funding

Indian research labs face financial crisis

In June 2015 at Dehradun, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology mandated that India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), should generate half its funds from external sources to support their research activities.  The ‘Dehradun Declaration’ resulted in all CSIR labs resolving to turn research projects into ‘for-profit’ ventures over the next two years and develop a revenue model in a business-like manner with a clear cost-benefit analysis. The CSIR is India’s largest public sector research and development organization, employing over 4600 scientists across 38 premier laboratories.  Two years after the decision, Indian research labs face a looming financial crisis. In an email earlier this year to CSIR lab directors, CSIR Director General Girish Sahhni wrote that after covering a roughly 15% increase in salaries, pensions and employee benefits, only $31 million out of the total $681 million budget for the 2017 fiscal year will be left to support new research.  Furthermore, only 15% of CSIR’s budget is supplemented through successful marketing of its discoveries, which is far from the mandated 50% that may take another three years according to the latest projections.  “There is no ready market for CSIR technologies,” says Dinesh Abrol, a science policy expert at the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development in New Delhi and a former CSIR scientist. “These are all pipe dreams and pipe dreams will not work.” ‘It is too ambitious a time-period. We need to change the culture of our organization as most of us are currently focusing on scientific research. We cannot switch gears to take up work on industrial applications or research overnight,’ says one CSIR scientist who did not want to be named. ‘Barring a few, most CSIR labs cannot raise money from private companies as we don’t have capabilities such as technology marketing, intellectual property or negotiating abilities with industries.’  Nonetheless, India has seen tremendous growth in recent years in translational STEM sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry, which was worth $18.8 billion in 2010 and is currently worth $41.1 billion in 2017.  The Indian government also plans to develop 20 existing universities into ‘world class’ research institutions with $1.54 billion of funding.  In a more optimistic tone, Dr. Srivari Chandrasekhar, Director of the Hyderabad-based CSIR-Institute of Chemical Technology, commented “All good fundamental science research leads to applied research and CSIR is a unique agency which has competence to perform translational research in our country. Innovative solutions to industrial problems are nothing but great science. The scientist is happy only when his fundamental research is used by industry for a product formation.”

(Sanjay Kumar, Science)

Research Misconduct/The Environment

Investigation finds Swedish scientists committed scientific misconduct

In 2016, Swedish scientists Oona M. Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv published a ground shaking report in the journal Science on the adverse effects of microplastic polysterene particles on the European perch. They found that exposure to plastic particles had a significant negative impact on hatching success rates, growth rates, feeding preferences, response to olfactory threat cues and innate behaviors.  The results were heralded as “an important step”, that could potentially “guide mitigation efforts” of microplastic pollution. However, soon thereafter, two colleagues of the scientists claimed the study was “a complete fantasy”, since they never saw either Lönnstedt or Eklöv at the Ar Research Station in 2015, where the study was purportedly done.  Subsequently, a group of five ecologists and physiologists joined with the whistleblowers to sort through the mounting evidence of fraudulence. “Of course I did these experiments,” Lönnstedt told Science and suggested the accusations were fueled by “jealousy” on the part of one of the whistleblowers. “If you compare my CV with her CV … then yeah, there is a big difference,” she said.  An initial probe into the matter was dismissed, but a second, more in-depth study led by a panel at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) concluded on December 7th that the two were guilty of “misconduct in research”. In an interview with Science after CEPN’s decision, Eklöv expressed disappointment towards his former postdoctoral mentee Lönnstedt: “This is a person I very much trusted, and now it’s been shown that she was dishonest, not only to me but also to the whole scientific community.” At a key point during the investigation, when more data from the study was requested, Lönnstedt had given the excuse that her laptop had been stolen.  Looking back, Eklöv said, “I also confronted her about that several times. She was devastated. She was sitting here in my office completely devastated about this computer. … We talked about it, and I thought it could have happened; I could not exclude that. But it seemed strange, of course.” Although the contested report has been retracted since May 26, 2017, the paper has been cited 46 times so far this year according to google scholar.

(Quirin Schiermeier, Nature News)

 

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Advertisements

Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 15, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 12, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Mike McKenna, BA

20171212_Linkpost.jpg

source: SalFalko via flickr

The Scientific Workforce

House G.O.P. Tax Writers Take Aim at College Tuition Benefits

If House Republicans get their way with tax reform, graduate students could be hit where it hurts the most – their pockets. Without a single hearing or vote of support from the Democrats, on Nov 16, the House passed the most extensive tax reform bill in the past three decades. Included in the bill is a provision to treat tuition waivers as taxable income. According to figures cited in the New York Times, over 145,000 graduate students receive free education, often through tuition waivers. NPR reports that of those 145,000 graduate students, 60 percent of them are in STEM related fields. These waivers, which often come along with a stipend, are typically tied to positions graduate students fill, such as teaching assistants or research assistants, and cover the cost of a student’s graduate training. Currently, graduate students only pay taxes on money from university stipends, which is treated like normal income.

How hard will the tax hike hit grad students? If the House bill becomes law, the hike could take away up to a third of their income. For example, the New York Times reports that for a student at the Carnegie Mellon College of Science, which give students a $43,000 tuition waiver and a $29,400 stipend, they may pay close to an extra $10,000 in taxes a year. Instead of only having to use 10 percent of their stipend to pay taxes, graduate students would be committing around 40 percent of their stipend to Uncle Sam.

However, some individuals blame universities for creating this issue by charging high tuition prices and then providing a waiver instead of making tuition $0 for graduate students. Critics of this practice  partly attribute it to institutions wanting to collect additional funding from government grants since many grants pay a portion of graduate students tuition.  Others note that universities could reclassify tuition waivers as scholarships, which would still be not taxable. Under this plan universities could waive the requirement for graduate students to work as teaching or research assistants to receive financial assistance, but could still tie stipends to these positions.

Barring a university response, graduate students are not without hope though, as the passed Senate version of the tax reform bill does not include a provision to classify tuition waivers as taxable income. The two separate bills are currently being reviewed by a conference committee who will create a final piece of legislation. This new piece of legislation would have to pass both the House and the Senate before being signed into law by President Trump.

(Erica L. Green, The New York Times)

The Opioid Crisis

Court-mandated Opioid Rehab Rarely Meets Medical Standards

According to a recent study published in Health Affairs, the top ranked health policy journal, only five percent of individuals court ordered into rehab programs for opioid use disorder are getting the best treatment available- methadone and buprenorphine therapy. Opioids are a class of drug known for their pain relief properties. However, use of these types of drugs can also produce euphoria, contributing to why individuals misuse opioids. Opioids include prescription medications such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine and morphine and the illegal drug heroin. Methadone and buprenorphine, both medications classified as opioid agonist therapies, help reduce cravings and withdrawal from long-term opioid use.

Despite being the gold standard for the treatment of opioid use disorder, not even a majority of individuals outside the criminal justice system are referred to specialty treatment programs that utilize agonist therapies. The study’s authors found that only 41 percent of individuals referred by non-criminal justice sources received methadone or buprenorphine as part of their treatment. However, this is still four times higher than those in the criminal justice system, who often have little say over the type of treatment they will receive.

According to the study’s author, individuals in the criminal justice system often receive less effective treatments. The programs focus on abstinence while providing peer counseling and psychotherapy, which does not adequately address the biological maladaptation caused by opioid use.

Limitations of the study include that the analysis only examined first time clients, so perhaps repeat patients are more likely to receive medication assistance. But with such a drastic difference between methadone and buprenorphine treatment rates in individuals within and outside the criminal system, the authors note that the criminal justice system must provide more options for patients.

Driving this issue is the stigma against methadone and buprenorphine treatment by both individuals in need of treatment and by those providing treatment, who see it as replacing one drug dependency with another. But experts contest this claim, saying that medications like methadone and buprenorphine stabilize individuals by preventing the onset of withdrawal symptoms while not providing a high.

(Lisa Rapaport, Reuters)

 

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 12, 2017 at 4:04 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 8, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Roger Mullins, Ph.D.

20171208_Linkpost

source: pixabay

Chemical Safety

Chlorpyrifos Makes California List of Most Dangerous Chemicals

Last Wednesday, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) passed a vote to add the organophosphorus pesticide Chlorpyrifos to Proposition 65, an extensive list of over 900 chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. While Chlorpyrifos was previously considered for inclusion on this list in 2008, updated scientific information gave the OEHHA cause for reassessment.

This new data included further information on the neurodevelopmental toxicity of Chlorpyrifos in humans and wildlife. Of particular concern to this board was its harmful effect on fetal brain development. Central to this decision was the extensive review of scientific evidence provided in the 2014 and 2016 EPA Human Health Risk Assessments, as well as new and additional findings not previously reviewed in these assessments.

On a national level, the findings of earlier EPA risk assessments resulted in a national ban on homeowner use as far back as 2000. The recent 2014 and 2016 reports further cemented the evidence for pervasive neurodevelopmental toxicity and also highlighted the danger of dietary exposure from residues in drinking water and crops. An all-out ban on Chlorpyrifos was proposed in 2015, revoking all pesticide tolerances and cancelling its registrations, but this was ruled out by the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2017. This pesticide is still under registration review by the EPA, which re-evaluates their decision on a 15-year cycle.

Inclusion on California’s Proposition 65 list does not amount to a ban within the state, though products containing Chlorpyrifos will have to be labeled as such starting in late 2018. This action on the state level stands in contrast to federal decisions, and is a revealing lesson in regard to the complexity of national response to scientific evidence.

(Sammy Caiola, Capital Public Radio)

Gene Drives

US Military Agency Invests $100m in Genetic Extinction Technologies

Gene-drives, an emerging powerful gene-editing technology, have been drawing considerable attention and controversy for their proposed use in disease vector control. This method involves the release of an animal that has been genetically modified into a wild population, with the aim of breeding in genes that have been designed to reduce the species’ ability to spread disease. These introduced genes are preferentially inherited, resulting in their eventual dominance in the population. For example, a gene could be designed and introduced to provide resistance to a particular parasite or reduce fertility. This technique is proposed for use in controlling mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus, as well as to halt the spread of invasive species.

Controversy over this technique however also hinges on its strengths. The primary concerns are the likelihood of animals with favorable modifications crossing over international borders, downstream effects on dependent species, and the possibility of irreversible harm to the ecosystem if the technique is misapplied. Appropriately, much of this concern comes from fellow scientists. In light of this, scientists and policy-makers alike have been proactive about addressing the safety and ethical issues presented, coming up with a set of specific guidelines to advance quality science for the common good. These entail an effort to promote stewardship, safety, and good governance, demonstrate transparency and accountability, engage thoughtfully with affected communities, stakeholders, and publics, and foster opportunities to strengthen capacity and education. Consensus on these issues is intended to help move this promising field forward in the face of growing public scrutiny.

Recently, a trove of emails from US scientists working on gene drive technology was acquired under the Freedom of Information Act and disseminated to the media. Some of these emails revealed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s engagement with a public relations company to influence the UN moratorium on the use of this technology. The Foundation has long been a financial supporter of the Target Malaria research consortium that seeks to develop gene drives for the eradication of Malaria. The concern surrounding the release of these emails realizes the common fear of scientists involved in research with the potential to fall under the public eye, as ironically, even attempts to recruit expertise in portraying your research favorably may be seen as damning.

This will inevitably be true of any powerful emerging technique to come in the future as well. With the advance of science’s ability to address problems effectively, there will be obstacles towards implementing new technologies and addressing concerns from the communities they may affect. Some of these will be valid and cause for moratorium and introspection, and some will be more attributable to sensationalism. Understanding and navigating these differences will be an increasing and ever-present concern for policy-minded scientists.

(Arthur Neslen, The Guardian)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 8, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 1, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Kelly Tomins, BSc

20171201_Linkpost

source: pixabay

Fake Drugs

Health agency reveals scourge of fake drugs in developing world

The World Health Organization (WHO) released two concerning reports detailing the prevalence and impact of substandard and falsified medical products in low and middle income countries. Although globalization has led to the increase in e-commerce of medicine, making life-saving treatments available to a broader population, it also created a wider and more accessible market to dispense fake and harmful medicines for profit. Despite this, there was a lack of a systematic method of tracking falsified medicines on a global scale. Thus, the WHO created the Global Surveillance and Monitoring System for substandard and falsified medical products (GSMS). With this program, medicine regulatory authorities can enter information about fraudulent drug incidences into a centralized database, making it easier to understand global trends and to possibly identify the source of harmful products. The WHO also conducted an extensive literature search of nine years’ worth of medicine quality studies to assess rates of fake medicines.

Their dual analysis showed that falsified medicines are heavily prevalent, particularly in low-and -middle income countries. They estimate that an incredulous 10.5% of medicines in these countries are falsified or substandard, representing $30 billion in wasted resources. Low income countries are the most vulnerable to this type of exploitation, given their higher incidence of infectious disease and their likelihood of purchasing cheaper alternatives to more reliable and tested medicines. In addition, these countries are more likely to lack the regulatory framework and technical capabilities to ensure safe dispensing of medicines. However, reports of fake drugs were not limited to developing countries. The Americas and Europe each accounted for 21% of the reported cases, highlighting how this is a global phenomenon.

Antimalarials and antibiotics are the two products most commonly reported as substandard or falsified, with 19.6% and 16.9% of the total reports respectively. These findings are especially concerning given a recent finding that the number of malaria infections increased the past year, despite a steady global decrease from 2000-2015. In addition, the number of deaths from the disease have not decreased for the first time in 15 years. By providing an insufficient dose to eradicate the malaria parasite from the body, the use of substandard or falsified antimalarials can foster the emergence of drug-resistant strains of malaria, like those recently found in several Asian countries. Overall, the WHO estimates that falsified products may be responsible for 5% of total deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the clear need for action to ensure drug safety around the world, there are an abundance of challenges to making this possible. The supply chain of drug manufacturing, from the chemical synthesis of the drug, to the creation of packaging and the shipping and dissemination, can span multiple countries with extremely variable regulatory procedures and oversights. The need for strengthened international framework and oversight is necessary to ensure patients receive the drugs they think they are getting and preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

(Barbara Casassus, Nature)

Biotechnology

AI-controlled brain implants for mood disorders tested in people

Mood disorders have been traditionally difficult to treat due to the often-unpredictable onset of symptoms and the high variability of drug responses in patients.  Lithium, a popular drug used to treat bipolar disorder, for example, can cause negative side effects such as fatigue and poor concentration, making it more likely for patients to elect to stop treatment. New treatments developed by the Chang lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and Omid Sani of UCSF hope to provide real-time personalized treatments for patients suffering from mood disorders, such as depression and PTSD. The treatment utilizes a brain implant that can monitor neural activity, detect abnormalities, and then provide electrical pulses to a specific region of the brain when needed. These electrical pulses, known as Deep Brain Stimulation (DSB), have already been used to treat other disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Other groups have tried to use DSB in the past to treat depression, but patients showed no significant improvement. In those studies, however, the pulses were given constantly to a single portion of the brain. What is unique about this treatment is that the pulses are only given when necessary, or when the implant receives signals that the brain is producing abnormal neural activity. The researchers have also found ways to map various emotions and behaviors to specific locations in the brain. They hope to utilize that information in order to more finely tune a person’s behaviors. In addition, the algorithms created by the labs to detect changes in the brain can be modified for each patient, providing an alternative to the one-size-fits all pharmacological approaches currently used.

Despite the promising and appealing aspects of this personalized treatment, it also raises several ethical issues regarding privacy and autonomy. First off, with such detailed maps of neural activities, the patient’s mind is practically an open book to their doctor. They have little agency of what emotions they would want to share or, more importantly, hide. Also, the patient may feel a lack of autonomy over their treatment, as the implant itself decides when the patient is displaying an unwanted mood or behavior. The algorithms could also potentially change the patient’s personality for worse by limiting the spectrum or intensity of emotions that a patient can feel. Any type of manipulation of brain activity could be viewed as worrisome from an ethical standpoint, and although promising, this proposed treatment should undergo intense scrutiny in order to maintain autonomy for the patients.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 1, 2017 at 4:03 pm