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Science Policy Around the Web – April 20, 2016

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By: Kimberly Leblanc, Ph.D.

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via photo pin cc

Mental Health

Investing in treatment for depression and anxiety leads to four-fold return – UN report

According to a new study led by the United Nations health agency, published last week in The Lancet Psychiatry, every one dollar invested in scaling up treatment for anxiety and depression leads to a return of four dollars in better health and ability to work. The study estimates, for the first time, both the health and economic benefits of investing in treatment of the most common forms of mental illness globally, and provides a strong argument for greater investment in mental health services in countries of all income levels. Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year, and the prevalence of these disorders is increasing. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 416 million to 615 million. Close to 10 per cent of the world’s po pulation is affected, and mental disorders account for 30 per cent of the global non-fatal disease burden.

The new study calculated treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 low-, middle- and high-income countries for the 15 years from 2016-2030. The estimated costs of scaling up treatment, primarily psychosocial counselling and antidepressant medication, amounted to $147 billion. Yet the returns far outweigh the costs. A five per cent improvement in labour force participation and productivity is valued at $399 billion, and improved health adds another $310 billion in returns. However, current investment in mental health services is far lower than what is needed. According to WHO’s Mental Health Atlas 2014 survey, governments spend on average three per cent of their health budgets on mental health, ranging from less than one per cent in low-income countries to five per cent in high-income countries. “We know that treatment of depression and anxiety makes good sense for health and well being; this new study confirms that it makes sound economic sense too,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan in a press release jointly issued with the World Bank Group. “We must now find ways to make sure that access to mental health services becomes a reality for all men, women and children, wherever they live.” (UN News Centre)

Substance Abuse

Surgeon General uses bully pulpit to combat opioid crisis

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has recently made prescription opioid abuse a top priority, taking part in the CDC opioid summit alongside President Obama a few weeks ago and laying out his vision for addressing the painkiller crisis at a health journalism conference earlier this month. The Surgeon General’s office will release a major report this year on substance use, addiction and health — covering topics including opioids, heroin and other substances. Murthy plans to send a letter to every single provider in the country — anyone with access to a prescription pad, including doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists — helping them understand the risks and benefit of opioids and educating them about safer practices. He also wants to help expand access to treatment for people who have a dependency or substance abuse disorder. The Obama administration has already begun this, as have several state governments. But some of it still has to be funded, and there’s also a big educational component.

Disseminating prescribing guidelines, as the CDC recently did, is a first step. But much of the work that Murthy sees ahead involves changing deeply-rooted attitudes. Prescriber patterns are part of that. But so is making health care professionals and the public understand that substance abuse isn’t a moral failing but a chronic medical disorder and that people who become addicted to medicine prescribed by their doctors aren’t “weak” or “bad” or “criminal,” no matter where they come from.

The drug problem is complicated, as is the solution. Physicians need to be retrained to think twice — or three or four times — before writing that first opioid prescription, he said. The medical community has to reexamine — and more thoroughly research — its entire approach to relieving pain, both chronic and acute. And people who are already addicted, who are at risk of overdose and death, need expanded access to treatment, particularly medication-assisted treatment. An Obama appointee whose pro-Obamacare political advocacy had riled some Republicans and whose frank talk about gun violence had alienated the NRA, Murthy now has bipartisan support and works closely with many Republicans who had earlier been skeptical of him. The opioid crisis, he said, isn’t picking sides. (Joanne Kenen, Politico)

The Future of Space Exploration

Is The New $100-Million “Starshot” For Real?

Last week, billionaire Yuri Millner, along with physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, announced a $100 million dollar project called Breakthrough Starshot. The goal is to launch a gram-sized spacecraft, or nanocraft, to the nearest star, Alpha Centuri.  The nanocraft,or StarChip, will be packed with cameras, thrusters, and navigation and communications equipment—the kinds of things Silicon Valley is good at making tiny and sticking on chips. Once in space, the craft will be propelled by light rather than combustion, courtesy of a thin, perhaps three-foot-wide (one-meter-wide) laser sail attached to each chip. The sail is hit by a carefully aimed laser to push it up to speed; two decades later, the chip and sail arrive at Alpha Centauri. Then the chip beams data back to Earth at the speed of light, giving scientists insight into another solar system just a quarter of a century after the mission was launched. (Watch an animation of the plan here).

Instead of sending just one tiny spacecraft, the idea is to send hundreds or thousands — so many could be lost along the way, without the mission’s being useless. The Starshot team still has a long list of challenges, including potential impacts with space debris, taking in-focus pictures while moving at 20% of the speed of light, and the delay in receiving the pictures, since it will take more than four years for those photos to get back here. Ultimately, launching something like the StarChip will be a multibillion-dollar enterprise, but the team sees it as the first step on the path to the future of humanity. As Stephen Hawking said, “The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it. With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.” (Nadia Drake, National Geographic).

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April 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 15, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D

Photo credit: Holly Pavlika at Shot@Life.org

Social health policy

Paid maternity leave reduces infant death

In developing nations, more generous maternity leave can save the lives of babies, according to a recent study in PLoS Medicine. The paper estimates that each extra month of maternity leave is linked to about eight fewer infant deaths for each 1,000 live births, or a reduction of 13% in infant mortality. The advantages of paid maternity leave are that mothers-to-be will be able to make use of health services before and after childbirth as their income and jobs are protected. It will also reduce anxiety in mother, improving her health besides that of her baby, the study says. Maternity leave also increase the likelihood that mothers will breastfeed their child and stick to vaccination schedules, potentially increasing the power of paid maternity leave.

Based on our analysis, I’m fairly convinced that increasing the duration of paid leave is an effective way to reducing infant mortality”, the lead author Nandi from McGill University says. He adds that his team controlled for other factors that reduce infant death, such as gross domestic product and national health spending. The researchers compared rates of infant death in two groups of low- and middle-income countries, covering 300,000 life births between 2000 and 2008.

Child health researcher Zulfiqar Bhutta from the University of Toronto is cautious about extrapolating the results from this study over all low- and middle-income countries. “The major limitation here is the assumption that maternity leave policies in a country are universally applied, which they are not.” A cautionary note that Nandi agrees with on the end of implementation, as they did not study this. He also points to research in other areas, which suggest that policies improving the conditions of employees tend to have spillover effects. (PLoS Medicine)

Gene-editing technology

Committee to study oversight of GMOs

The United States is revamping its rules for regulating GMOs, which collectively are known as the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. To that end, the National Academies of Sciences have convened a committee that is charged with predicted what advances will be made in biotechnology products over the next 5-10 years. It will hold its first meeting on April 18th. To date, GMOs are regulated by three US agencies: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates any genetically engineered organisms that may pose a risk to plant health. In addition, GMOs may still undergo a voluntary review at the FDA (as Oxitec did with their GMO mosquito), or face oversight by the EPA.

Recently, the USDA allowed a mushroom that has been genetically modified with the new gene-editing technology CRISPR (removing several base-pairs knocking-out a gene responsible for browning) to allowed on the US market without going through a review process. It is one of about 30 GMOs to sidestep the USDA regulatory system in the past five years. In each case, the USDA deemed that each GMO did not qualify, as something the agency must regulate. In other words, the USDA itself acknowledges that it might be overregulating some crops if they have traits that have already been scrutinized.

This is of course not to say that no oversight is needed. The use of gene editing technology in humans is still controversial, especially in human embryos, as became clear again by a second study published by a Chinese group where they used CRISPR to alter human embryos, or the approval of project in the United Kingdom. New hurdles will be encountered as well. The successful removing of HIV from an HIV infected cell by CRISPR was hailed, but its success was short-lived as HIV found a way to outsmart the power of the current CRISPR technology. The fast moving pace at which gene-editing technology is developing and how its use if being exploited highlights the need for the US regulatory agencies to keep up with these chances both from economical growth as well as a public safety perspective. (Heidi Ledford, Nature)

Precision Medicine Initiative

Dishman to lead PMI Cohort

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, has announced that the permanent director of the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) Cohort Program will be Eric Dishman, taking over the helm from interim director Dr. Josephine Briggs. Dishman, 48, who now heads the Health and Life Sciences Group at Intel Corporation in Santa Clara, California, will start his new job next month. He is not an obvious choice to lead the cohort program as he does not have a background in genomics or large, long-term health studies, nor a PhD or MD degree. He does have a trove of knowledge about health technologies, which will play a key role in the PMI-cohort. At Intel, he oversaw research on devices to help Alzheimer’s patients and elderly living independently. Dishman also battled and overcome a rare type of kidney cancer at the age of 23. Several years ago he has his tumor sequences, which pointed to a treatment that might help save his life. According to Collins, Dishman is the right person to the lead PMI-Cohort program with his “wealth of health innovation experience … as a social scientist and researcher, entrepreneur and business leader, patient and patient advocate, and policy advocate and thought leader.” (Joselyn Kaiser, Science Insider)

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April 15, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 12, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

A representation of the surface of the Zika virus is shown. A team led by Purdue University researchers is the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines. (Purdue University image/courtesy of Kuhn and Rossmann research groups)

Funding the ongoing Zika pandemic

Shifting funds for Zika is a good start, but more money is still needed

Last week, the White House made the decision to redirect $589 million in unspent federal funds, previously allocated for an Ebola response, to cover costs associated with fighting and researching Zika. The White House is still advocating for additional funding for both the ongoing Zika pandemic and to replenish the money that was moved away from Ebola. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), informed ScienceInsider that ~$50 million of the reallocated funds will go to NIAID to fund Zika research. None of the redirected funds will come out of the money that NIAID had previously received for research on Ebola, as the vast majority of those funds have already been spent. Further, Fauci warns “That’s not enough to last me very long. We can start the work, but we can’t finish what we need to do.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a press conference on April 12, “Everything we know about this virus seems to be scarier than we initially thought.”

In February, the Obama administration had requested almost $2 billion to help thwart the Zika virus and its transmission. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to act on this emergency funding request. White house officials are nevertheless still trying to persuade Congress to pass the emergency Zika funding. Fauci bleakly predicts, “If we don’t get all of the Zika money, that is when things start getting hurt,” alluding to the possibility of having to further shift critical NIAID funds away from ongoing malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis research. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Solutions to mental health impairments require global collaboration

Globally, almost 1/3 of people will suffer from a mood, anxiety, or substance-use issue during their lifetime. In fact, these disorders are one of the leading causes of disability. The resources to assist people facing these problems are not only inadequate in the United States, but around the world as well. There are some countries in Africa, where people are extremely underserved leaving them particularly vulnerable because these countries have the fewest resources for mental-health care as they only one psychiatrist for the entire country. In fact, there are only 9 mental health providers per 100,000 people worldwide.

Importantly, support for mental health does not lack political backing. Both the World Health Organization and the World Bank will coorperate to broaden global efforts in mental health. This past September, mental health was included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Since 2011, new investments (estimated at ~$80 million US) have been made by the three largest funders of mental-health research in low- and middle-income countries: the US National Institute of Mental Health, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK Department for International Development. Recently, research has focused on efficacy, effectiveness and implementation in the low- and middle-income countries. These local research teams often work or consult with colleagues in rich countries. Researchers, clinicians, and caregivers must unite to all work together because “when it comes to mental health, all countries are developing.” (Pamela Y. Collins & Shekhar Saxena, Nature Comment)

Vaccine shortage and Global Health

Dangerous shortage of yellow fever vaccine

Four. There are only four facilities worldwide that produce yellow fever vaccines: the Pasteur Institute, two government facilities in Russia and Brazil, and a French vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur. Unfortunately, their combined efforts have been failing the world’s demands and the ongoing outbreak in Angola only further emphasizes the escalating shortage. Jack Woodall, formerly of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, warns “another major outbreak…could be impossible to control.” He admits that this potential is something that he’s deeply concerned about.

Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The ‘yellow’ in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients. Without treatment, up to half of severely affected people will die. Annually, there are an estimated 60,000-80,000 deaths attributed to yellow fever globally. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever, leaving vaccination the most important preventative measure.

When a yellow fever outbreak occurs in an urban setting, like the one in Angola, it is often relentless as the mosquitoes can easily transmit the virus person to person. William Perea, of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Control of Epidemic Diseases department, stated that Angola has confirmed 490 cases and almost 200 deaths, the actual numbers could be 10 fold higher. Since February, a large vaccine initiative has been underway, reaching 6 million of Luanda’s estimated 7.5 million residents. Currently, yellow fever has stretched into 6 of the 18 provinces in the country. The global emergency yellow fever vaccine stockpile has been left empty, unlikely to be replenished anytime soon. (Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceInsider)

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April 12, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 8, 2016

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D.

photo credit: 3D via photopin (license)

Science and Environment

A New European Rocket Design Uses 3D Printed Parts

“The dream is moving to reality” was the message from European Space Agency (ESA) boss, Jan Woerner. Woerner was referring to the Ariane 6 launch vehicle, which is the ESA’s next-generation rocket built by Airbus Safran Launchers. The Ariane 6 rocket is under development by the ESA, with a first test flight scheduled for 2020. The new rocket will be used to launch medium-sized government science missions and commercial telecom satellites. Ariane 6 is Europe’s response to the competitive prices offered to satellite operators from the US and California-based SpaceX company. Space X’s Falcon nine rocket is twice the mass and more than twice the price as Ariane 6. One reason for these differences is the use of 3D printed parts for rocket engines in Ariane 6. Airbus CEO Alain Charmeau believes that different market conditions apply in Europe and the US, which means there will not be a single, winner-takes-all approach. In addition, he cites that in Europe there is an “unwritten rule” that European states should use European rockets. For example, there is a procurement in political blocs, especially in the US, which bars foreign rockets from launching home institutional and government satellites. Now Europe is following suit with its new Ariane rocket design. Ariane 6 is projected to lead 11-12 space missions per year, with reduced cost for EU government and private satellite operators. (Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

Science Funding

U.S. Senators Still Disagree on Mandatory Spending for the NIH

So far the U.S. Senate has approved eighteen biomedical innovation bills with one to go. Lawmakers on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee held the last meeting yesterday to approve the bills. The bills form a companion to the House of Representative’s 21st Century Cures Initiative, which aims to encourage medical breakthroughs by reforming the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While Democratic lawmakers on the HELP committee support mandatory funding for the NIH, Republicans in the Senate have yet to agree. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), for example, does not support the selling off of petroleum reserves to pay for mandatory NIH spending. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) thinks that using mandatory funding for NIH’s 2017 budget is “risky,” and prefers that the NIH focuses on “specific projects.” NIH director Francis Collins explained that the agency could use a special fund on five specific areas, which include: President Obama’s precision medicine initiative, the recently announced cancer moonshot, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, a system of grants for “big ideas” across NIH institutes, and support for young investigators. The final Cures package and companion bills could be available for a floor vote next week if bipartisan agreement is reached. (Kelly Servick, Science News)

Sustainable Development

Eradicating Poverty is Possible: Just Take a Small Fraction of Global Military Spending

Two of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations in 2015, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, are not so out of reach. U.N. figures show an estimated 800 million people live in extreme poverty and suffer from hunger. It turns out that eradicating poverty can be achieved with about ten percent of the world’s military spending. A new study published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on April 5th, shows that global military spending is up for the first time since 2011, at $1.7 trillion in 2015. Overall expenditure increases occurred in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Spending on the military fell in North America, Western Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa. Although spending dropped in the US, the country still ranks number one in terms of military expenditures, spending $596 billion last year. China was the second largest spender at $215 billion. The head of the study, Sam Perlo-Freeman, looked at what could be achieved with just ten percent of global military spending. According to a 2015 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, eliminating extreme poverty and hunger sustainably by 2030 would require an estimated additional $265 billion a year on average. Of this, $89–$147 billion would need to come from public funding, putting total annual public spending requirements at $156–214 billion. This amounts to 9.5–13% of global military spending in 2015. “This could stir up some debate although we are certainly not expecting a ten percent cut in military spending at all,” said Perlo-Freeman in an interview with the Thomas Reuters Foundation. The SIPRI military expenditure project was established in 1967 to study developments in world military expenditure. (Belinda Goldsmith, Reuters)

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April 8, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 6, 2016

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By: Sterling Payne, B.Sc.

Artificial Intelligence

To Beat Go Champion, Google’s Program Needed a Human Army

“It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go — maybe even longer,” Dr. Piet Hut communicated to New York Times’ George Johnson in a 1997 conversation. The event prompting their discussion was the victory of IBM’s Deep Blue over grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a series of chess games. Dr. Hut’s prediction was bested by about 80 years by AlphaGo, the product of Google’s DeepMind. AlphaGo recently secured a victory against 9 dan Go champion Lee Sedol in a 5-game match hosted by Google. By nature, Go as a game is more complex than chess; less stringent gameplay guidelines don’t offer a surefire way to determine which player is at an advantage. Rather than powering through an analysis of thousands upon thousands of potential moves each turn, AlphaGo utilizes a novel combination of machine-learning methods to determine which board configurations are more advantageous, and positively reinforces correct decisions via thousands of matches played against itself. The product of this is an artificial intelligence (AI) that more closely represents human intuition, at least in the small scope of the Chinese board game.

With its 4-1 victory over Sedol, AlphaGo demonstrated extreme proficiency in the game of Go, but in only that. While inarguably an astounding accomplishment and significant leap in the field of computer science, AIs like AlphaGo have a long way to go before they can replicate the intuition of the human mind, which is far expandable beyond an ancient board game. In terms of policy, the very methods used to create AlphaGo could also find their ways into hospitals and healthcare facilities in the near future. With the advent of artificial intelligence in the workplace, extra considerations will have to be taken by patients and care providers alike in terms of personal information, data management, and general communication. (George Johnson, The New York Times) (Will Knight, MIT Technology Review)

Federal Cancer Research

Blue Ribbon Panel Announced to Help Guide Vice President Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot

The Cancer Moonshot Initiative , headed by Vice President Joe Biden, plans to put an end to the disease that has plagued millions of humans for hundreds of years. Armed with a $1 billion budget over the next five years, the initiative’s primary aim is to speed up cancer research such that a decade’s worth of discoveries can occur in half that time. Two of the main areas where such discoveries will fall are detection and treatment. A task force to handle financial matters and progression of the initiative was announced in February, and just yesterday (April 04, 2016), the National Cancer Institute unveiled their Blue Ribbon Panel, a special selection of various leaders in the fields of cancer research and patient advocacy, to direct efforts of the initiative to where they are likely to make the largest impact.

As a society, our knowledge of cancer has grown considerably since the turn of the century; Cancer is no longer thought of as a single disease that affects people, rather, it is the product of multiple genetic mutations and cellular microenvironments, painting a unique disease landscape for each person it affects. Members were chosen such that the panel represented multiple walks of science from immunology to bioinformatics, as well as cancer prevention and treatment. Already armed with capital and a team to guide finances and general progress, the Cancer Moonshot Initiative has taken another giant step forward with the addition of the Blue Ribbon Panel. The full member list of the Blue Ribbon Panel and the original announcement are linked here. (News Releases, National Institutes of Health)

Biotechnology

Biology software promises easier way to program living cells

With computer programming, the programmer gives the computer a set of instructions in one (or more) of several different programming languages. These instructions include logical operations such as true-false statements (i.e. “if this is true, then do this”) and various loops (i.e. “while this is true, do this”). At the end of all of this, sits a program, executed by the computer to provide some sort of output, whether it be ordering a data set, turning on a light, or spinning a motor. Dr. Christopher Voigt and his lab at MIT have taken these principles and applied them to their new software Cello, a programming language capable of producing working circuits in living systems. Cello requires the user to input commands, such as a function they would like a given cell to perform and under what conditions it should perform said function. After the input is compiled, the end result is a DNA sequence or “circuit” that, when placed inside a cell, can fulfill the function(s) specified by the user. In a paper recently published in Science (April 01, 2016), Alec Nielsen and colleagues used cell to generate 60 different DNA circuits, 75% of which worked as expected the first time when introduced into Escherichia coli cells.

As synthetic biology continues to grow and gain popularity throughout the research world, it is of increasing importance to think about what policies and potential restrictions should be set in place. Engineering de novo biological systems and functions can be extremely powerful, yet, if left in the wrong hands, could have significant consequences as with any equally commensurate technique (e.g. CRISPR-Cas9). (Erika Check Hayden, Nature News)

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April 6, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 1, 2016

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By: Ian McWilliams, Ph.D.

photo credit: Matti Mattila via photopin cc

Federal Research Funding

House budget plan would rearrange and restrict federal research portfolio

Since the financial crisis of 2008, much attention has been given to the state of the economy. With recent optimism about the health of the economy, the president’s new budget plan for 2017, increases the NIH budget in FY 2016, and initiates new research spending for the Cancer moonshot. However, not all agencies are benefiting from the proposed budget. A report filed recently by the U.S. House of Representatives’ budget committee could curtail research spending for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), and could lead to reshuffling sections of the Department of Commerce (DOC) into other agencies. Current DOE budget speculation is that there will be a decrease in funding for “several high-risk projects” that should be picked up in the private sector. While NSF biology, computing and information science, and math and physical sciences research directorates are to receive “stable funding”, the omission of specific plans for engineering, geoscience, and the social and behavioral sciences is ominous. It is unclear how the reorganization of the DOC will contribute to decreases in discretionary spending. The DOC is responsible for the research portfolios of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Census Bureau. (Jeffrey Mervis, ScienceInsider)

Science in the Public Eye

Controversial anti-vaccination documentary pulled from Tribeca Film Festival

In 2010, The Lancet retracted a highly controversial paper by Andrew Wakefield which proposed to link the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Since the original publication in 1998, this paper has been a cornerstone for the anti-vaccination movement, even after the paper has been discredited and retracted. Recently, Wakefield himself has directed and co-written a documentary titled “Vaxxed: from cover-up to catastrophe,” which claims that the CDC falsified and omitted crucial data linking vaccines to autism. This divisive film was to be screened at the Tribeca film festival , but was pulled, likely due to the backlash over screening the film. The original plan, put forth by Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro, was to give an “opportunity for a conversation around the issue,” but he later decided after consultation that “we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.” In response, Wakefield and Del Bigtree, a producer for the film, released a statement that “We will be pressing forward and sharing our plans in the very near future.” With both sides pointing fingers, this argument will likely continue for some time to come. (Jason Ukman, StatNews)

Medical Devices and Testing

Study of Theranos Medical Tests Finds Irregular Results

The first peer-reviewed results of finger prick blood tests offered by Theranos have been published this week and bring more questions about the accuracy of its tests. Theranos, the medical start-up that provides direct-to-consumer blood tests, has come under increased scrutiny after an independent study found irregular results from tests offered by the company. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, compared results from 22 different tests offered by Theranos to conventional blood test results from two national diagnostic laboratories, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp.

Theranos has received much attention for their claims to offer blood tests that require small amounts of blood as a low-cost alternative to conventional laboratory testing. The company offers over two hundred different tests that require only a finger prick compared to vials of blood needed for conventional tests. Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, touts the convenience and consumer experience of Theranos’s tests. However, the company has been reluctant to release data regarding their tests and has been mired in controversy after a Wall Street Journal article questioned the accuracy of the results of these tests. Furthermore, Theranos’ Newark, California laboratory has been cited by The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for problems that “pose immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.”

The current study used 60 healthy, adult volunteers who were tested at separate laboratories on the same day and found more measures outside of their normal range for Theranos’s finger prick blood tests when compared to measures from conventional blood tests. Results from Theranos were out of range for 12.2 percent of measurements compared to 7.5 and 8.3 percent for Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, respectively. Although variability was seen in results from all three labs, Eric Schadt, one of the authors of the study, said that “Theranos was outside of range in ways that would impact clinical decision-making.”

Theranos’ laboratory directors responded to the study by sending a letter the journal calling the study “flawed and inaccurate.” They claim that a large blood draw from a vein could affect the results from a finger prick test and that the study authors did not attempt to determine which measurements were correct. (Andrew Pollack, New York Times)

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April 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 29, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, Ph.D.

Source: Ashley Fisher / Flickr

Modernizing Scientific Publishing

Handful of Biologists Went Rogue and Published Directly to Internet

Peer-reviewed scientific journals are essential for science. They motivate and reward high-quality experimental design and facilitate the dissemination of knowledge that drives innovation. A recent article in the New York Times nicely captures some of the complexity of modern scientific publishing by examining a recent push by some researchers to publish their findings directly to ‘preprint’ servers – a practice already common in physics and mathematics.

Preprint publishing has the potential to significantly speed up publishing, allowing for faster and wider dissemination of ideas into a free, modern digital forum. Some researchers worry that bypassing the traditional peer-review process might eventually erode the quality of research. Though, it could be argued that so long as articles published to preprint servers are treated as preliminary findings (as, perhaps, we should treat all findings published in even the highest tier journals), the online forum has the potential to be a more transparent, robust peer review process than the current model in which a small number of anonymous reviewers decide the value of research.

The article notes other potential hurdles to the widespread adoption of preprint publishing that are deeply embedded in the culture of research. For example, papers are the currency of science. If authors bypassed this system, they would also bypass the possibility of attaining the classic badges of honor associated with publishing in high tier journals, potentially decreasing their competitiveness when applying for jobs and grants.

A change in publishing practices will also, likely, need to coincide with a change in the culture and value system of scientific research, but it is exciting to watch publishing move into the modern world. Scientific progress thrives on new ideas, and the resources of the digital age have the potential to broaden the reach of ideas and to increase the speed of their communication. (Amy Harmon, New York Times)

Economic Policies

A “Circular Economy” to Reduce Waste and Increase Efficiency

Our current economy can largely be described by a linear flow of material in which natural resources are harvested, combined, refined, and converted into products. These products are purchased, and after some amount of use, ultimately recycled or discarded at the discretion of the owner.  In a Nature special this week, Walter R. Stahel describes the potential economic and environmental benefits of a different sort of economy – a “circular economy” – that “replaces production with sufficiency” by encouraging reuse, repair, and recycling over remanufacturing.

Originally conceived by Stahel and his colleague Geneviève Reday-Mulvey in the 1970s, the concept of a circular economy “grew out of the idea of substituting manpower for energy.” For example, Stahel observed that it requires “more labour and fewer resources to refurbish buildings than to erect new ones.” Applying this model to all products has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially and expand the workforce because “remanufacturing and repair of old goods, buildings and infrastructure creates skilled jobs in local workshops.”

To support a transition to a more circular economy, Stahel recommends – among other things in his article –  a change in the way economic success is measured. Rather than trying to maximize our gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the flow of resources, perhaps we should attempt to optimize the “value-per-weight” or “labor-input-per-weight” of the manufactured products. Policies and tax structures designed to maximize these economic indicators might be effective in encouraging stewardship of the earth’s limited resources and cultivating job growth. (Walter R. Stahel, Nature News)

A Second Chance for Grants

New funding matchmaker will cater to NIH rejects

The majority of NIH grant applications do not receive funding, not necessarily because the applications are of poor quality, but rather because there are simply more good ideas than the government has the capacity to support. A recent article in Science news by Kelly Servick describes a pilot program started earlier this month by NIH in collaboration with Leidos to address this gap in funding.

The program, known as OnPAR, aims to establish a more open market in which NIH grant applications that score well (within the thirtieth percentile) but do not receive funding would then be made available to private organizations and funding agencies for consideration. It seems that this system would be of substantial benefit to grantwriters – increasing the efficiency of grant-writing and review by allowing “recycling” of grants and their associated peer reviews, which are expensive to produce in terms of time and energy, and thus, money.

Funding agencies may see value in this program through expanded access, possibly finding themselves in the position to fund and motivate inquiry for researchers who may not have applied to their organization directly. However, private funding agencies are often in a position similar to that of the federal government – they receive more good applications than they have resources to support, and Servick notes that “the success of the project will hinge on whether private funders see value in using OnPAR in addition to their existing grant review process.”

If funders do find value in OnPAR, it is conceivable that they might allocate a percentage of their annual budget for OnPAR grants. Time will reveal the ultimate value of OnPAR, but it is a step in the right direction. How else might we increase the efficiency of the scientific production cycle? (Kelly Servick, Science News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 29, 2016 at 10:00 am

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