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Science Policy Around the Web – May 22, 2015

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

“Ball-and-stick model of the morphine molecule, C17H19NO3.” by Ben Mills. – Own work. source

Drug Policy and Biotechnology

A Way to Brew Morphine Raises Concerns Over Regulation

Traditionally, heroin has been made from poppy – the opium from poppy seeds yields morphine, which can then be refined to heroin. However, it might soon be possible to convert sugar to morphine using genetically modified yeast. There are several steps in this conversion, and a recent study by scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, and Canada’s Concordia University, published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, has provided the final missing one. This has triggered a debate on whether synthesis of morphine should be regulated, and if yes, how? Dr. Kenneth A. Oye, a professor of engineering and political science at M.I.T., and other experts argue that this technology could benefit the heroin trade more than the prescription painkiller industry, because drug sellers currently rely on smuggling raw materials from countries like Afghanistan and Laos, and brewing close to home would save them costs. The pharmaceutical industry, on the other hand, has a steady supply of cheap opium from countries like India and Australia, or can synthesize opiates in their own labs. Dr. Oye and others suggest that steps should be taken to prevent abuse of the synthetic approach, including restricting access to the bio-engineered yeast strains and the DNA. Biotech experts who counter these suggestions say that Dr. Oye’s precautions might be overkill, because producing morphine by fermentation using engineered yeasts is a delicate process that may not yet be ready for producing heroin in large quantities. They argue that restricting access to DNA stifles research and may not necessarily succeed in preventing a heroin synthesis epidemic. Robert H. Carlson, the author of “Biology Is Technology,” says, “DNA synthesis is already a democratic, low-cost technology. If you restrict access, you create a black market.” Because the genetically modified yeast strain is not commonly available yet, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is not too concerned about an imminent threat. But FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You is glad that the debate on regulating access has begun before the synthetic technology is ready. He says, “We want the people in the field to be the sentinels, to recognize when someone is trying to abuse or exploit their work and call the FBI.” (Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times)


In unusual move, German scientists lobby for GM labeling

Whether or not to label genetically modified (GM) food is a topic of huge debate, and generally, people who oppose GM food want the food labeled. In a surprising move, German scientists and other supporters of GM crops are lobbying for labeling GM crops because they want the public to know that there is nothing to be afraid of, hoping that this would make it easier for GM products to reach the consumer. This petition requests the German government to draft a law that would require labeling of all products that contain or have been produced using GM organisms. The petition was drafted by Horst Rehberger, leader of the group Forum Grüne Vernunft (Forum Green Reason), and has the support of several prominent scientists and politicians. It requires 50,000 signatures in 4 weeks to be considered by the German parliament. Though GM crops and food derived directly from them are already labeled in Germany, certain products in which genetic engineering plays an indirect role are not required to be labeled. This petition seeks to address the deficiencies in the current system. But environmental organizations like the Greenpeace are concerned that labeling all GM products, irrespective of how much genetic engineering actually went into their making, would negate the differences and could distract the public from the real issue, and make it harder for consumers to make choices. Proponents of the GM labeling say that the labels should be graded differentially, for instance, between products that contain GM organisms versus products that were processed by GM organisms. “I think we just need to be honest and transparent to consumers,” says Wilfried Schwab, a professor of biotechnology of natural products at Technische Universität München. The proposal is a chance to change the conversation about GM organisms, says geneticist Hans-Jörg Jacobsen. Modeling studies have suggested that if GM food was sold at a 15 % discount, and organic food at a 15 % premium, consumers are more likely to choose GM products. With time, a GM label could even become a positive sign, Jacobsen says. (Kai Kupferschmidt, Science Insider)

Privacy and Genomic Data

Microbiomes raise privacy concerns

The human body harbors many types of bacteria, collectively called the microbiome. The microbiome’s influence on our health has become an important topic of research. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it would be possible to uniquely identify an individual based on information contained in their microbiome DNA. This information could also reveal details about their health, diet or ethnicity, raising privacy concerns. Curtis Huttenhower, a computational biologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, and lead author of the study, says, “As the field develops, we need to make sure there’s a realization that our microbiomes are highly unique.” Huttenhower’s team investigated if microbiomes lasted long enough in humans to help identify individuals over time. They used the microbiome data publicly available through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Microbiome Project (HMP). Though the HMP does not identify individuals by name, a participant’s first sample could be compared with a second one donated much later. The researchers found that the microbiome in a person’s stool sample offered the best signature – a person’s first sample could be linked to their second sample using microbial DNA 86% of the time, whereas skin samples could be match only about 25% of the time. But Huttenhower concludes that it would be “exceptionally challenging to do anything with the microbiome data in a single study,” and that privacy risks would come when a person participated in two different microbiome studies that each contained different pieces of identifiable information. Publicly available microbiome data poses privacy risks also because of the presence of potentially identifiable human DNA, suggests another study published recently in the journal Genome Research. A team lead by computational biologist Jonathan Allen of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has found that the HMP database has stretches of human DNA called short tandem repeats that are used in forensics to distinguish between individuals (even though NIH took measures to eliminate human DNA from the HMP as much as possible). Even if this information per se does not help form a precise DNA signature of an individual, the increase in publicly available DNA databases increases the risk. Amy McGuire, a bioethicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says that those who participated in the HMP study were advised of the risk, and that there should not be premature panic over this. Laura Rodriguez, director of policy at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, says that an overreaction could slow understanding of the microbiome, and that as long as precautions are taken to eliminate privacy concerns (such as removing human DNA from the HMP) “we would want to keep it in open access because of the value it adds to science.” (Ellen Callaway, Nature)

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May 22, 2015 at 11:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 19, 2015

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D.

Gender Bias in Science Funding

Pentagon Request for Information About Gender Bias in Grant Funding

Last year, members of the U.S. House of Representatives asked a congressional watchdog agency to analyze the issue of gender discrimination in the grantsmaking process. Six agencies were asked to report information about their applicants including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Energy (DOE). While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that both the NIH and NSF routinely report information on gender and minority status on their applicants, they found that NASA, DOD, and DOE do not report demographic information. The three agencies previously claimed that they had “no use for this information” and that their “computer systems lacked the capacity” to collect additional data on applicants. In response, the White House budget office has provided agencies with templates for the collection of demographic information to be completed by the time the final GAO report is due this fall. Today, the DOD announced that it would start collecting information on gender. Lawmakers hope to explore whether success rates at federal research agencies differ by gender. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science Insider)

Public Health

Federal Government Invests to End the Rape Kit Backlog

Every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. With the crime of sexual assault, the victim’s body is part of the crime scene. Immediately following the assault, many victims endure an arduous process in emergency rooms and health clinics with hopes that the police will use the collected biological material as scientific evidence to accurately and quickly identify and prosecute the perpetrator. Mainly, the police use the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) of known offender’s DNA records to find suspects. According to a recent report, 100,000 to 400,000 untested kits remain untested nationwide. In Memphis, Tennessee alone, for example, there are 12,374 untested rape kits. The reason for this backlog is, in part, due to the cost of the tests; it costs $1,000 to $1,500 to process one rape kit. In response to lobbying efforts by advocacy groups, such as the Natasha Justice Project and the Joyful Heart Foundation, the federal government has invested $41 million to support law enforcement agencies testing backlogged rape kits. This investment will hopefully lead to the prosecution of those sexual assault perpetrators still at large. New York City has taken the lead and cleared their backlog of 17,000 rape kits, resulting in 200 prosecutions throughout the city. Now, more than 20 states have passed legislation holding jurisdictions accountable for their rape kit backlogs. (Abigail Tracy, Scientific American; Vocativ)

Climate Change

Scientists Find That Global Warming is Causing Stronger Hurricanes

Hurricane Sandy costs the U.S. over $60 billion in damages and was rated as the second costliest storm behind Hurricane Katrina. Although Sandy was rated a category 1 storm when it hit the Northeastern U.S., the size of the post-tropical cyclone created a surge typical of a much larger storm. According to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change and led by researchers at Florida State University, stronger hurricanes, like Sandy, are becoming more common with increases in ocean temperature. The study examined how both frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones vary with ocean warmth. (Angela Fritz, Washington Post; Nature)

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May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 18, 2015

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

Agriculture and Food Policy

Food industry braces for Obama trans fat ban

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to announce its final determination on the use of partially hydrogenated oils (or trans fats) in food products as early as next week. The announcement is expected to ban the use of trans fats. This potentially marks a final step in removing artificial trans fats from the American diet, a move that began in 2013 when the Obama administration issued a tentative determination stating that partially hydrogenated oils are not generally regarded as safe (GRAS). Partially hydrogenated oils are created when unsaturated liquid oils are exposed to hydrogen, which reduces their unsaturation and creates solid fats that improve food product texture and shelf life. Consumption of trans fats have been linked to cardiovascular disease and their removal could “prevent 20,000 heart attacks and some 7,000 deaths” according to FDA estimates, said Sam Kass, the former senior adviser for nutrition at the White House and executive director of Let’s Move!, to Politico. While the potential health benefits of such a policy are easily apparent, there are other repercussions to consider with a policy change such as this. Trans fats have been used in a myriad of smaller applications, such as in the sprinkles on cupcakes to prevent color leaching, to prevent baked goods from sticking to equipment, and to stabilize flavors in food products, that may not have been well considered by the FDA. Food manufacturers will need tweak their recipes and/or find alternative substances to fill the void left by a trans fat ban. In the past, they have turned to palm oil, though there are environmental concerns over rainforest deforestation to harvest the palm oil. Getting rid of trans fats is not a bad idea in terms of public health – let’s hope that its alternative does not end up having an unintended detrimental effect elsewhere. (Helena Bottemiller Evich, Politico)

Antibiotic resistance

Guarantee drug companies a profit to develop new antibiotics, U.K. report says

With the increasing, widespread and global appearance of antibiotic resistant infections, the need to develop new potent antibiotics to tackle these threats is quite clear. Once developed however, in order to prevent resistance from developing to the new drugs, their use – and in our current economic model, their sales – must be restricted and limited. This presents drug companies with a problem, since the high cost of drug research and development is often driven and funded with an eye on the potential future sales of a drug. This makes it highly economically undesirable for a drug company to spend resources to develop a drug that must then be restricted, despite the very great worldwide need for such drugs. A report commissioned by the government of the United Kingdom, seeks to fix this problem. In the report, it is suggested that global governments “unite to offer multibillion-dollar incentives for drug developers, and pharmaceutical companies should pool their billions in support of early-stage research.” Most interestingly, the report suggests a way to incentivize drug development without encouraging overuse by “de-linking” a drug company’s profits from the drug’s sales. Specific examples of how this could be accomplished include having a “designated global body” buy the rights to a new pharmaceutical (at $2-3 billion per antibiotic) and then carefully manage the worldwide supply, or having a company retain the rights to the drug but receive a “bonus” for developing and introducing it to market, while being patient with overall (rather than initial blockbuster) sales. While this would take worldwide cooperation, aligning financial incentives for drug companies with the needs public health via a unifying policy could help kick-start drug development where we need it most. (Kelly Servick, ScienceInsider)

Federal Funding

Key House Republican says 70% of NSF’s research dollars should go to “core” science—not geo or social research

Two out of the six research directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF) have been targeted to not receive any additional funds in the 2016 federal spending bill. The current spending bill allots an additional $50 million to the overall NSF budget, much smaller than the total $379 million (or 4.3% increase) requested. The markup of the House spending bill from the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee would allow the NSF to spread the additional $50 million in funds only in areas that have been deemed “pure sciences” – namely, biology, computing, engineering, and math and physical sciences. The bill prevents NSF from funding research in geoscience and the social and behavioral sciences. Both Representative John Culberson (R–TX), chair of the CJS subcommittee, and Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the science committee who introduced the America COMPETES Act to set NSF policies, say they support the NSF and simply want to make sure what it funds is in the “national interest.” That is all well and good, but what is in the “national interest” today may not be where the groundbreaking research of tomorrow is born. Scientific research is increasingly breaking out of such siloed classifications and into multidisciplinary fields and collaborative discovery that require inputs from all areas. While Rep. Culberson may favor funding only the “hard sciences,” understanding our own home planet and our human-to-human interactions are also areas worthy of study and research. (Jeffrey Mervis, ScienceInsider)

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May 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 12, 2015

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Image credit: money faucet from Gts/Shutterstock

Science Funding

Uncertainly about science funding in the UK after Tories win elections

An outright victory for the Tories (conservatives) in the recent general election in the United Kingdom was unexpected based on poll-results. This means an end to the previous governing coalition and five more years for David Cameron as Prime Minister. One question that remains is what will this change in power mean for science in the UK? One of the spear points of the Tories’ program are austerity measures to reduce the deficit ($46B). Notably, no promise was made to protect science funding, even after five years of a frozen science budget. In addition, a high turnover of Members of Parliament (MP) and loss of MPs who favor science in combination with the rise of the Scottish National Party is suspected to result in policy focused on regional projects. The biggest fear is the the upcoming referendum on whether the UK will stay in the European Union (EU). Leaving the EU would be a major set-back for UK science research as about 20% of its science funding comes from the EU. The new Minister for Universities and Science is Jo Johnson, the brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson. Although not much is known where he stands on the topic of science and research, Mr. Johnson is thought to be supportive of the EU and he as spoken out on the importance of allowing students to come to the UK.

At the same time, fellow EU-member Greece has decided to use the money allocated for funding Greek science for paying for public salaries and the US House Science Committee in the US has suggested to cut NASA’s earth science budget. On the other hands, some in US congress have called for a doubling of the NIH budget, making this a very volatile time for scientific research funding around the globe. (Elizabeth Gibney, Nature News)

Global Health

Liberia is Ebola free as complications for survivors become apparent

In December 2013, one-year Emile Ouamouno died in a small village in Guinea. This is believed to be patient zero for the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Over 14 thousand laboratory-confirmed cases (and many more suspected) have been reported to date and 11 thousand people have died. The last confirmed case of Ebola in Liberia was on March 28th, 2015. On May 9th the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Liberia Ebola-free, the first of the three principally affected countries to successfully quell the epidemic. This is a monumental achievement for a country that reported the highest number of deaths and was made possible by community-driven societal changes around especially mourning rituals. At the peak of the epidemic in August/September 2014, Liberia reported about 400 new cases each week.

At the same time as the good news from Liberia, other reports are emerging about the many survivors of Ebola. Dr. Ian Crozier, an American volunteer with the WHO who worked in a treatment ward in Sierra Leone and who survived Ebola with treatment in the United States, has returned to Emory University Hospital. He was considered cured two months ago, but fading eye sight, intense pain, and soaring pressure in his left eye appears to be the result from a persistent Ebola infection. Besides eye problems, Crozier continues to suffer from debilitating joint and muscle pain, deep fatigue, and hearing loss. Similar problems are being reported by survivors in West Africa. The impact of these newly observed complications on society remain to be seen, besides the trauma from the Ebola epidemic and feared secondary wave of other infectious diseases. (WHO; Denise Grady, The New York Times)

Global Drug Policy

Expensive new hepatitis C and cancer drugs make it on WHO Essential Medicines List

Every two years since 1977, a committee of experts of the World Health Organization (WHO) select medications that are considered minimum medicines for a basic health-care system, based on their efficacy, safety record, and cost effectiveness. Currently, over 400 drugs and vaccines have been selected, especially drugs that target the most pressing needs in developing nations. On May 8th, this year’s Essential Medicines List (EML) was released and includes five new drugs that target hepatitis C virus (HCV) and 16 new cancer medications. Most notably, new members on this list are the pricey anti-HCV drug sofosbuvir and the anti-leukemia drug Imatinib. In the United States, a full course treatment with these drugs will cost more than $84,000 per patient. Many developing nations use the EML to help determine in which drugs they have to invest. Nevertheless, Magrini, an Italian pharmocologist who oversees the EML, says that it still takes too long for many life-saving medicines to become widely available. The EML highlights the gaps. For example, sofosbuvir’s manufacturer, Gilead Sciences Inc. of Foster City, California, sells the drug to Egypt at a discount and allows generic manufacturers in India to produce and sell in 91 poorer countries. Yet advocates criticize Gilead for not offering deals to over 50 middle-income countries. Magrini says that the list is clever tool to build momentum to lower pricing for essential drugs worldwide. (

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May 12, 2015 at 10:50 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 8, 2015

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By: Cameron J. Schweitzer, Ph.D.

Consumer Product Regulations

Nut So Fast, Kind Bars: FDA Smacks Snacks On Health Claims

In a letter dated March 17, the FDA stated that the snack food company Kind violated labeling rules by putting the word “healthy” on the packaging of some of its bars. The rules in question are the requirements the FDA places on foods that may be deemed healthy. For instance, “healthy” must contain 1 gram or less of saturated fat, which was not the case for some of the bars Kind produces.

The main problem seems to stem from the nuts used in the bar (in this case almonds). Almonds are considered high fat nuts and are the source of a majority of the saturated fats found in the Kind bars. Now many experts are speaking up and defending Kind and claiming that research has confirmed the health benefits of almonds.

For instance, Dr. David Katz wrote in his blog on the Huffington Post that “the failure of one-size-fits-all-regulation to, in fact, fit all; and the ineluctable law of unintended consequences. “ He goes on to claim that the same standard threshold for saturated fat would preclude calling salmon, hummus, and avocado “healthy.” A second nutrition expert, Walter Willet, has also chimed in saying “They’re [almonds] probably one of the healthiest choices you can make in a diet.” Willet goes on to say that the FDA’s letter is based on outdated guidelines when it comes to nuts. It’s likely the agency needs to update its guidelines to be in-line with research pertaining to almonds and nuts in general.

The company responded saying they will be changing the labels for the four bars mentioned in the letter as well as reviewing its entire line to ensure that it complies with FDA regulations. Of note, the word “healthy” has been on the label since 2004, but has only recently experienced a growth in sales. (Poncie Rutsch, NPR)

Patenting and Biotechnology

Patent debate heats up over CRISPR/Cas9 technology

The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology has tremendous potential for human health and on April 15, 2014, a patent to edit eukaryotic genomes was awarded to Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and MIT. However, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkley and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Germany, who first published on this system, filed a similar patent seven months earlier than Zhang. Zhang’s was accepted earlier because he filed for a fast-track patent, which was awarded just a mere six months after submission.

Now that Zhang’s patent is official there are three possible scenarios for the Doudna/Charpentier submission. First, the patent may not be granted without significant revisions that could limit the current scope of the application. Second, the patent that is still under review may be granted and consequently invalidate some of Zhang’s prior claims and diminish his current advantage. The last option includes a rejection of the Doudna/Charpentier application and likely a lengthy patent dispute in court. Realistically, it could be upwards of 3-5 years before this quarrel is fully resolved.

Despite the patent free-for-all several companies have been built entirely around the idea of using this technology to improve human health. Feng Zhang co-founded his own company called Editas Medicine, while Doudna and colleagues created Caribou Biosciences. Additionally, other startups are hoping to harness this tool by moving forward regardless of the outcome. Nessan Bermingham, CEO of Intelia Therapeutics sums it up by saying “We all need to be pragmatic and understand that our priority here is patients, we’re not here to fight about IP.” (Jenny Rood, The Scientist)

Communication Policy

UK scientists outraged by policy change that may prevent contact with the media

In the middle of March, the United Kingdom’s Parliament amended the Civil Service Code to prevent all civil servants from speaking with the media without ministerial authorization. However, there is now confusion as to whom this applies to and many within the government offices are asking for clarification. It is also unclear if this rule change will alter business as usual. Although Fiona Fox, the chief executive of the Science Media Centre claims that several scientists have already declined press interviews as a result of the rule change.

In a letter to the cabinet secretary, Francis Maude, science organizations expressed deep concerns over the change. Many feel it will leave the public far less informed than before and could have a negative impact on the public understanding of science. In response, the cabinet office has stated that individual departments could apply for exemption to get around the new amendment. (Ian Sample, The Guardian)

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May 8, 2015 at 4:06 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – May 5, 2015

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By: Amy L. Kullas, Ph.D.

Global Health

Antibiotic Resistance: Combating Deadly ‘Superbugs’ Weak In Most Countries, World Health Organization Report Says

According the the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recent report, most countries are still failing to address the serious issue of antibiotic misuse, and are ill-prepared for the resulting increase in drug resistant microbes, allowing previously-treatable diseases to become killers. This statement was delivered approximately a year after the organization released its first global report on antibiotic resistance, which should have sounded an emergency alarm to the world, but essentially went unheard or ignored. At that time, Charles Penn, WHO coordinator on antimicrobial resistance, had this warning for reporters: “We will lose the ability to treat a range of serious conditions such as blood stream infections, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV, and the benefits of advance medical treatment, such as cancer chemotherapy and major surgery will also become much riskier and may well be lost.”

For the current report, a only dismal 34 of the 133 countries that even responded to the WHO survey, currently have comprehensive national plans to combat resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines. Counterfeit and low-quality drugs plague many regions of the globe, “resulting in sub-optimal dosing.” Additionally, many countries do not have standard treatment guidelines, which may allow the overuse and over-consumption of drugs. As a result, the WHO has drafted a Global Action Plan for addressing antimicrobial resistance and plans to ask all 193 member states to approve the plan at the next World Health Assembly, being held in Geneva, Switzerland later this month. By approving the plan, the countries will agree to develop their own national plans over the next two years and hopefully try to stem the tide of antimicrobial resistance. (Elizabeth Whitman, International Business Times)

Climate change policy

Analysis: In boosting climate goals, California daring others to follow

Californian governor, Jerry Brown, took action for climate change policy by issuing an executive order on April 29th requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% of the 1990 level by 2030. This level is consistent with scientifically established levels needed in the United States to limit global warming below 2oC, the threshold implicated for “major climate disruptions,” such as rising sea levels, changes in the ocean currents or extensive droughts. Governor Brown stated, “With this order, California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached-for this generation and generations to come.” Californians usage of renewable resources, such as LED lighting and electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars, will have to leap from the current “25% to at least 50%” while halving their oil consumption. Further, Dan Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California-Berkeley, has estimated “$27 billion of venture capital and other financing has flowed into California clean technology companies since 2006” and almost 460,000 payroll positions have been generated in the past year. California’s effort will be successful on a global level only if other states and nations make set similar goals for themselves. (Marianne Lavelle, ScienceInsider; Adrienne Alvord, The Equation)

Gender equality in science

‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online

Controversy has erupted after comments made by a reviewer for the journal PLOS ONE about a manuscript submitted by two female researchers were made public last week on Twitter. The reviewer felt that “one or two male biologists” co-authors would improve the manuscript written by the two female researchers to verify that data were interpreted appropriately and to “serve as a possible (fact)check.” The anonymous peer reviewer further stated that men have “better health and stamina” which may contribute to why men publish in higher impact journals and more successful in the highest jobs in science.

Dr. Fiona Ingleby, a postdoctoral fellow in evolution, behavior, and environment at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, tweeted sections of the letter that she and her co-author, Dr. Megan Head, received after rejection of their manuscript. The manuscript highlights the progression of Ph.D. graduates in the life sciences to postdoctoral positions and “found that men finished their PhDs with more other-author papers than women, but no difference in number of first-author publications.” According to Dr. Ingleby, “the reviewer acknowledged that they had looked up our websites prior to reading the manuscript” suggesting that the reviewer may not have been an unbiased referee.

As a result, PLOS ONE has requested the editor involved in the situation to step down from the editorial board and removed the anonymous reviewer from the database. Furthermore, the journal “sincerely apologize(s) for the distress the report caused the authors, and …completely oppose(s) the sentiments it expressed.” This incident highlights that while women in science have made significant strides towards gender-equality, more still needs to be accomplished. (Holly Else, Times Higher Education; Rachel Bernstein, ScienceInsider)

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May 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 1, 2015

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By: Rebecca A. Meseroll, Ph.D.

photo credit: Colours via pixabay

Consumer Safety Regulations

Senators seeks increased FDA oversight for personal care products and cosmetics

Despite the ubiquity of personal care products and cosmetics, federal regulations of these goods have not changed significantly since the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed into law in 1938. A bill introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D- California) and Susan Collins (R- Maine) would give new regulatory oversight of personal care products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under the current regulations, cosmetics manufacturers are not required to divulge adverse health effects of their products reported to them by consumers and the FDA can only request that manufacturers voluntarily disclose this information to the public. If the bill becomes a law, companies would be required to report serious adverse health effects of products, such as death, disfigurement, and hospitalization, to the FDA within 15 days of notification by the consumer. Less severe health effects would need to be reported annually. Furthermore, the bill would require FDA’s yearly evaluation of at least five personal care product ingredients to determine whether the ingredients are safe, to what concentration they are safe, and whether they should have consumer warnings. Some of the proposed ingredients on the list for the first round of evaluations are propylparaben, a preservative in many products including shampoos and lotions, an estrogen-mimicking compound which can act as an endocrine system disruptor, and lead acetate, an additive in hair dyes. In addition to its bipartisan sponsorship, the bill has broad support of several large associations and companies representing the personal care industry, as well as consumer protection groups. (Rachel Abrams, The New York Times)

Federal Research Funding

A call for a doubling of the NIH budget

Health care costs are on the rise, while federal funds for biomedical research have stagnated for more than a decade. Taxpayers already spend upward of a trillion dollars annually on Medicare and Medicaid, but perhaps these costs could be reduced, if cures or preventative measures could be identified for some of the more financially demanding illnesses. Given these observations, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich argued last week, in an op-ed published in the New York Times, that Congress should plan double the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as they previously did between 1998 and 2003. In this article, which he directs particularly toward fiscal conservatives like himself, Gingrich selects Alzheimer’s as a representative disease and describes in detail the skyrocketing financial burdens and human suffering the disease will inflict on the American public if better preventions or cures are not discovered. He contends that there is a great deal of possibility for breakthroughs in treatments and cures for Alzheimer’s and many other diseases, and that increasing NIH funding would be a step in the right direction toward achieving those breakthroughs. Recent discussions in the Senate indicate there is bipartisan support for increasing NIH funding above current levels, although how close it will come to Gingrich’s proposed doubling remains to be seen. There is also history to consider, since the previous NIH budget doubling (and subsequent abrupt end of funds) has lead to some of the problems in federal biomedical research today, such as low grant funding rates and an overabundance of young researchers struggling to get their first grant to even attempt the “breakthroughs” touted by Gringrich. A long-term commitment to sustained funding increases to the NIH could be the best of both worlds. (Newt Gingrich, The New York Times; Peter Sullivan, The Hill)

Lab Animal Rights

Court orders hearing in lab chimpanzee rights case

New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe ordered Stony Brook University to appear in court on May 27, 2015 to respond to a petition by the animal rights group, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), that two evolution research chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, are being unlawfully detained. NhRP initially filed three lawsuits in 2013 contending that chimps are too cognitively advanced to be kept captive lawfully, and ought to be moved from the lab to a chimpanzee sanctuary. NhRP’s legal strategy has been to petition the courts with a writ of habeas corpus, which is traditionally used to challenge human imprisonment. Prior to the current court order, which was issued in appeals, the lawsuits have been struck down, as the courts stated that the writ of habeas corpus does not apply to the chimps because they are not legal persons. Even the current court order has been amended to strike the writ of habeas corpus, indicating that the court has not granted personhood to the chimps. The upcoming hearing will determine whether Hercules and Leo are being unlawfully detained, and ScienceInsider reports that NhRP has plans to continue to petition for the release of other animals on the basis of personhood, regardless of the outcome of this case. (David Grimm, ScienceInsider)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 1, 2015 at 9:00 am


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