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Science Policy Around the Web – June 6, 2018

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

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source: pixabay

Research funding

China increasingly challenges American dominance of science

Earlier this year, China’s science minister announced that China’s total spending on research and development in 2017 was estimated to be US$279 billion, which is up 70.9% since 2012 and represents 2.1% GDP. In comparison, the United States devoted 2.8% GDP to research and development that same year.  In terms of scientific research, the United States spends half a trillion dollars, more than any other country, but China has pulled into second place and is on track to surpass the U.S. by the end of this year, according to the National Science Board.  In fact, China surpassed the US in terms of scientific publications in 2016. According to Pastor-Pareja, a geneticist who gave up Yale for Bejing, there are now 30 fly genetics laboratories in Beijing, more than in either Boston or San Francisco. Furthermore, China has 202 of the world’s 500 most powerful supercomputers, 60 more than the U.S., and the largest radio telescope ever built, a US$180 million dish used to hunt for black holes.

The increased investment in science has enabled Chinese scientists to make more cutting edge discoveries.  For example, last year, biologists in China were the first to clone a monkey, which may speed medical research. Chinese physicists developed the proof of concept for a quantum communications system that is theoretically instant and secure. Much of this growth is driven by aggressive recruiting programs such as the Thousand Talents, which targets Chinese citizens who have studied science in the United States or elsewhere, driving a “reverse brain drain”.  The program has recruited more than 7,000 scientists, who are given a US$160,000 signing bonus and guaranteed research funding for many years.  Foreign-born scientists may get additional perks such as subsidies for housing, meals, relocation and additional bonuses.

Despite the massive growth in science, Chinese research faces challenges in quality control.  For example, last year, 107 scientific papers involving over 400 Chinese authors were retracted in a major publication fraud.  In fact since 2012, China has retracted more scientific papers because of faked peer-reviews than all other countries and territories put together, according to Retraction Watch.  In 2013, Science had exposed a thriving academic black market in China involving corrupt scientists and editors operating in plain view.  Poor quality Chinese research may be exacerbated by lack of stringent regulatory systems. “In America, if you purposely falsify data, then your career in academia is over.  But in China, the cost of cheating is very low. They won’t fire you. You might not get promoted immediately, but once people forget, then you might have a chance to move up”, said Zhang Lei, a professor of applied physics at Xi’an Jiaotong University in an interview with the New York Times.  Still, China has much to offer as collaborators according to experts. Denis Simon, executive chancellor of Duke Kunshan University noted, “The Chinese, for the first time, really have something to offer us. It is vitally in the U.S. interest to plug in.”

(Ben Guarino, Emily Rauhala and William Wan, The Washington Post)

Privacy

Took an ancestry DNA test? You might be a ‘genetic informant’ unleashing secrets about your relatives

Last Friday, police revealed parts of the arrest warrant for Joseph DeAngelo, the 72 year old former police officer accused of being the Golden State Killer who committed at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries from 1974 to 1986. Until recently, DeAngelo had eluded capture until DNA from a genealogical website was found to match the DNA found at one of the killer’s crime scenes. The lead from the website belonged to a distant relative of the suspect which helped lead the authorities to focus their investigation on DeAngelo.  Supplemented with other evidence, such as saliva collected from the suspect’s garbage can for a more direct DNA match, the authorities arrested DeAngelo in April of this year.

The DNA match was found on GEDmatch, a Florida- based website that pools raw genetic profiles, which now number more than a million genomes.  In at least eight states, authorities can search law enforcement databases for possible genetic matches.  Genetic family searching has been used numerous times in the past.  For example, in 2003, Craig Harman was identified as the individual who threw a brick through a windshield of a passing vehicle that caused the driver to suffer a fatal heart attack via a DNA match to Harman’s brother. In 2011, the serial killer Lonnie Franklin, charged on 10 counts of murder, was identified through DNA of Franklin’s son.

While genomics searching may provide valuable leads, some critics say it infringes on privacy. “When you put your information into a database voluntarily, and law enforcement has access to it, you may be unwittingly exposing your relatives — some you know, some you don’t know — to scrutiny by law enforcement. Even though they may have done nothing wrong,” said Andrea Roth, assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley Boalt School of Law and an expert on of forensic science in criminal trials.  Genomics searching failed in 2014 when Micheal Usry, a New Orleans filmmaker was falsely accused of murder using evidence from AncestryDNA after authorities asked for access to the data through a court order. “…even though it is easy to think of this technology as something that is used just to track down serial killers,” says Roth, “If we allow the government to use it with no accountability or no further safeguards, then all of our genetic information might be at risk for being used for things we don’t want it to be used for.”

(Ashley May, USA Today)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 5, 2018 at 10:00 pm

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