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Science Policy Around the Web – May 24, 2016

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By: Allison Burrell, MS, MPhil

photo credit: koya979/Shutterstock

Human Development

Embryology policy: Revisit the 14-day rule

Human developmental biology is at a crossroads. Recently, two labs reported a breakthrough that advances the field of embryology, but ushers in ethical and legal quandaries. Human embryos were grown in vitro for 12-13 days, well beyond the previous 9-day record and nearly double the typical 7-day survival. In vitro research uses cells outside their normal environment. Currently the regulatory and legal statute, going back decades, limits in vitro human-embryonic research to 2 weeks. Also known as the 14-day rule, this regulation is based upon a delineation in development called the ‘primitive streak’ that occurs after the first 14 days after fertilization. Following the formation of this streak, the embryo loses its ability to split into two independent embryos, thus solidifying its status as a biological individual; although, in vivo this also represents the completion of implantation. In vivo means within the organism, and in this context refers to an embryo naturally growing inside a woman’s womb. However, in the lab when culturing embryos in vitro, implantation does not occur, whereas in vivo embryogenesis implantation into the placenta would occur after the 14-day mark. Therefore, since these experiments are completed in vitro the 14-day rule shouldn’t be considered the boundary when moral status begins, and legal research tissue ends. Now, with the impetus of researchers forging past this so-called ‘line in developmental sand,’ regulators must reevaluate the limit.

First suggested in 1979, by the US Department of Health’s Ethics Advisory Board, the 14-day limit is now law in at least 12 countries, and referenced in numerous other reports and guidelines related to embryonic research throughout the world. With re-evaluation of the limit on the table, this could conjure up philosophical and ethical debates. It must be firmly stated that the 14-day rule is a policy tool, written to ensure a figurative space for embryonic research in a pluralistic society.

One could argue that the rules should not necessarily be changed just because researchers are now able to grow embryos beyond the 14-day boundary. It was initially created not only because 14 days was unattainable, but due to a physiological observation. Yet this policy tool is just that, a tool. A tool used to preserve the trust of the public while still allowing for research to move forward. The regulations that govern the circumstances surrounding embryonic growth in vitro must be amended. And in doing so, the emendation of the 14-day rule will address scientific, as well as moral concerns. To encourage a thoughtful revision, developmental biologists should communicate, to the public as well as to international policy makers, why embryonic research is important, and how a possible extension of the 14-day rule will aid that research.

In the interim, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)  has released updated guidelines for stem cell research and clinical translation. Even with the publication of guidelines, the interdisciplinary task force that led the revision must maintain close collaborations with international foundations and governments to prevent public criticism and the implementation of restrictions that hinder the progression of the embryonic research field. (Insoo Hyun, Amy Wilkerson, and Josephine Johnston; Nature)

Microbiology – BREAKING NEWS

Rebuilding trust in biology : An opinion ahead of the NSABB microbiology biosecurity meeting

Today (May 24, 2016), the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) will meet at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to discuss and vote to approve the revised NSABB report. Back on January 7-8, 2016, the NSABB met to consider the risks, benefits, ethics, and policy surrounding gain of function studies, particularly regarding infectious pathogens, leading to the final report. This debate officially started 18 months ago, and will culminate today.

The primary purpose of meetings like this is to implement biosecurity policies designed to protect the public from research projects that could pose a risk to national, and global safety. The promise that new biological technologies will be beneficial and safe is still on shaky ground and public trust in this research is flagging. Infractions are still occurring, as just last week it became apparent that certain labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were subjected to secret sanctions and suspensions for mishandling bioterror pathogens. Prior to that, the NIH stumbled upon a 30-year old smallpox virus in a neglected freezer when the virus should have only been safely secured at either of two dedicated storage facilities in the world, in which this freezer was not located. And additionally, the US military erroneously sent live infectious anthrax from a secured facility to over 200 labs in the world.

These infractions barely touch the surface, since smaller minor breaches are not regularly reported in the news. That this is occurring ad nauseam in countries with strict biosafety regulations, makes one wonder how many incidents slip through the cracks in these countries as well as ones with lesser regulations.

The NSABB’s focus today on debating gain of function mutations run the risk of jeopardizing the reputation of the “global biomedical research enterprise.” One way to gain public trust is to provide transparency in the process, which is why the report and meeting minutes are published online, and the meeting is also public. A second way is to give scientists leading this research the responsibility of helping encourage responsible behavior amongst colleagues to prevent accidental and premeditated misuses of biology. Thirdly, accountability is an imperative tenet towards gaining public trust. Creation and enforcement of new scientific norms that do not detract from the goal of honesty through accountability are changes that can’t come too soon. Lastly, transparency must be reiterated in relation to potentially hazardous experiments, such as inserting a gene, or genes, responsible for airborne transition to a virus that currently can only be transmitted via mosquito bite. This experiment may inform scientists how said gene(s) are responsible for airborne evolution, and thus enable the prevention of future deleterious outbreaks. But if this airborne mutant recombinant pathogen were to be accidentally released, or fall into the wrong hands, it could quickly become an epidemic or bioterrorism tool. Science that enforces trustworthiness, accountability, transparency, open communication and feedback, organized vetting of new technologies, and responsibility can, and will, allow for the growth of science in a safe and beneficial path. (Filippa Lentzos and Nicholas Evans, The Guardian)

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May 24, 2016 at 11:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 20, 2016

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By: Valerie Miller, Ph.D.

License: (license) Photo Credit: photo credit: Happy Days via photopin (license)

Global Health

Society is Messing with Your Sleep

There are a number of factors, such as work, personal habits and families, that determine how much sleep a person gets. Individual chronotypes, the sleep cycle an individual’s body naturally prefers, also affect sleeping patterns. However, a question that remains to be answered is: does society as a whole affect sleeping patterns? Researchers from the University of Michigan seeking to examine societal effects on sleeping patterns at the population level have published a study in the journal Science Advances that used smartphone data to track sleep cycles in different countries. The researchers created a smartphone app, called Entrain, which was designed to recommend sleeping times to travelers to help them deal with jetlag in new time zones. People who signed up for the app were also given the option to answer questions for research purposes, such as where they live, how much indoor or outdoor light they’re exposed to, their usual bedtime, and when they typically wake up. The study included data from over 5,000 app users. Shift workers were excluded from the analysis.

The researchers first created a mathematical model to determine what might be considered a “normal” bedtime and wake time for each user location, using local sunset and sunrise times. They then compared these times to the actual sleep and wake times reported by the users. They found that there were variations on a demographic level, with older people sleeping less and waking earlier, and with women of all age groups getting more sleep than men. At the society level, the researchers found that there was little variation on when people in different countries wake up, although people in locations with earlier sunrises tended to get up slightly earlier. However, major differences were found when people in different countries reported going to bed. In other words, in countries where people tend to get less sleep, such as Japan and Brazil, later bedtimes are the cause, not rising earlier.

The study did not delve into the particular reasons for why some societies have later bedtimes, but did discuss that oftentimes, wake times are more rigid than bed times, due to work and school responsibilities. With bed time, people have more control in deciding when they want to go to bed, which may be based on how tired one is, how much sleep one wants to get and what else is going on in ones’ life. However, when bedtimes are differing across societies, cultural reasons are likely the cause, but future studies will need to be performed to determine what those reasons are. (Julie Beck, The Atlantic)

Child Health Policy

Beware the Monkey Bars! Playground Concussions are Rising

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an increasing number of children have been visiting the ER due to traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, sustained at playgrounds. The study, recently published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at children between the ages of 0-14 who visited an ER in the US between 2001 and 2013. They found that the estimated annual visits to the ER due to traumatic brain injuries remained relatively stable between the years 2001 and 2008, with fewer than 20,000 per year. However, this number has steadily increased to approximately 30,000 estimated ER visits per year by 2013. Of all pieces of playground equipment, the monkey bars and swings were the two places where children suffered the most traumatic brain injuries, followed by the slides.

The CDC doesn’t have a clear answer as to what is causing the increase. One suggestion posits that children are playing on playgrounds that aren’t repaired or maintained enough. Another possibility is that due to a number of recent reports regarding concussions in professional sports, doctors, parents and teachers have an increased awareness of traumatic brain injury, leading to more diagnoses.

Although concussions are serious injuries, they represent a relatively small percentage of injuries that occur at the playground. A study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission determined that fractures were most likely, representing 40% of all playground injuries in 2015. Concussions accounted for 3% of injuries, and internal injuries that affected the head accounted for an additional 9.5%. (Leah Libresco, FiveThirtyEight)

Public Health

How safe is bike commuting? Perhaps less than you think

While most people think of biking as a healthy way to commute that is earth-friendly and can be faster, cheaper and more reliable than driving or public transportation, it turns out that biking is a lot less safe than people realize. Of all methods of transportation, biking is the second most dangerous, with motorcycles claiming the top spot. According to a 2007 study published by the CDC, people in the US are twice as likely to die while biking than riding in a car per trip, and 500 times more likely to die per trip than taking the bus. In US cities, the addition of dedicated bike lanes and trails have helped to reduce fatalities. Washington, DC and Boston are safest large cities for bicyclists, with only 1.5 fatalities per million residents in 2014, whereas Tucson, AZ was the least safe, with 11.4 fatalities per million residents.

Accidents aren’t the only health risk that bicyclists face. Air pollution is another risk that affects bike commuters. A 2015 study by researchers at Colorado State University found that, on average, people commuting by bike inhaled three times more air pollution than drivers, caused by heavier breathing and longer commute times outside in the presence of cars.

Despite these factors, Johanna Boogaard, a researcher at the Health Effects Institute in Boston, argues that biking is still the best commuting option for overall health due to the benefit of getting regular exercise. In fact, using data from the Netherlands, a nation in which many people bike, Boogaard and colleagues demonstrated that the benefits of cycling (3-14 months of lifespan gained) outweighed the negative effects of accidents (5-9 days lost) and air pollution (0.8-40 days lost). Boogaard also was confident that the findings of her study would hold true in the US, a place where there are more traffic accidents, but where more people with inactive lifestyles could benefit from physical activity. (Sadie Dingfelder, The Washington Post)

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May 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 17, 2016

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By: Melissa Pegues, Ph.D.

Photo source:

Zika Virus

WHO’s Zika guidelines don’t include delaying Olympics

With the summer Olympic games slated to begin in Brazil in August, many have expressed concerns about the health risks posed by the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Central and South America. Despite these concerns, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on Thursday making it clear that they are not calling for a cancellation of the Olympic games this summer.

The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, has garnered much attention recently after infection with the virus during pregnancy has been found to cause microcephaly in infants. Microcephaly is a birth defect in which the brain does not develop properly resulting in a smaller than normal head. The virus has also been associated with the development of Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare form of paralysis.

Although many prominent medical ethicists have publicly called for the postponement or relocation of the games, few athletes have expressed concern over the risks posed by Zika. However, Marcos Espinal, the director of the Zika response of the Pan American Health Organization, has strongly rejected the idea of postponing the games. He cited trends seen from dengue and chikungunya, similar viruses that are also carried by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito, in that infections peak during the summer months and subsequently drop off after the season changes. Furthermore, he noted that the games are occurring in the winter months of August and September when mosquitoes are not so abundant. International Olympic Committee (IOC) director, Richard Budgett, reaffirmed that although the situation is being closely monitored, the IOC is committed to continuing with the Olympic games this summer.

In their statement, WHO urged athletes and anyone traveling to Brazil to attend the Olympic games to take steps to protect against Zika, including wearing insect repellent and clothing that covers as much of the body as possible. The WHO statement also cautions against sexual transmission of the virus and suggested practicing safe sex or abstaining from sex during their stay and for at least four weeks after returning from the epidemic zone. This recommendation contrasts those issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that recommend abstaining from sex for eight weeks after returning, further highlighting how little is known about transmission of the virus. There have been few documented cases of sexual transmission and many questions regarding sexual transmission of the virus remain, including if an asymptomatic infected person can transmit the virus sexually. WHO also recommended that Olympic visitors stay in air-conditioned accommodations and avoid areas where there is increased risk of being bitten by a mosquito such as “impoverished and overcrowded areas in cities and towns with no piped water and poor sanitation.” (Pam Belluck, New York Times)

Genetic Engineering

Secret Harvard meeting on synthetic human genomes incites ethics debate

The ability to modify the genome is rapidly advancing the medical field, but a private meeting of scientists has brought intrigue and concern to the field of genetics. Nearly 150 Scientists gathered at Harvard Medical School last week to discuss how to create a complete genome from scratch. The project has been described as a follow-up to the human genome project, but rather than aiming to read all of the base pairs of the human genome, the goal is to synthesize a “complete human genome.” Although scientists already have the capability to synthesize DNA chemically, significant focus is being given to improving these techniques with the goal to construct complete genomes that could be implanted in cells for research purposes.

However, the meeting has drawn criticism because the organizers of the event asked attendees not to contact the media or post to Twitter during the meeting. Researchers Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth published an essay questioning the decision to keep the meeting private. In their joint statement they questioned whether the organizers gave full consideration to potential ethical issues by asking “how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”

George Church, the Harvard geneticist who oversaw the meeting, explained that the project was aimed at creating cells, not people. He further explained that the project is not restricted to the human genome, and that these techniques could be applied to other animals, plants, and microbes. The meeting was originally intended to be open with video streaming and numerous invited journalists, but attendees were asked not to publicly discuss the event since there were also plans to pair the meeting with a peer-reviewed article. Church commented that “there was nothing secret about it” that a video of the meeting will be released with their soon-to-be published peer-reviewed article. (Joel Achenbach, Washington Post)

Federal Science Initiatives

Earth’s microbes get their own White House Initiative

With months left in Obama’s presidency, the White House Office of Science and Technology has announced yet another scientific endeavor, the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI). This latest initiative will join numerous other efforts in the Obama administration’s scientific legacy including: the BRAIN Initiative, the Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), and the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The human “microbiome” is the collection of microbes that inhabit our bodies, and variations in its composition has been found to correlate with many diseases including autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and obesity.

The NMI however includes many governmental departments to study the microbiome of many ecosystems such as “those that help plants pull nutrients from soil, to those that capture and release carbon dioxide in the ocean.” Because these environments contain many species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, determining the role of any one species is nearly impossible. Reaching the lofty goals set by this initiative will require better tools to dissect individual species within the microbiome, and to address these shortcomings, the NMI has set forth 3 goals:  supporting interdisciplinary research, developing platform technologies, and expanding the microbiome workforce. To support these goals, the NMI will receive an investment of $121 million dollars from federal 2016 fiscal appropriations and 2017 fiscal proposals, as well as commitments of $400 million dollars from stakeholder and institutions in different sectors. (Kelly Servick, ScienceInsider)

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May 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 13, 2016

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Gene Therapy Treatment

Gene Therapy Effective in Treating Rare Brain Disorder

A recent study has shown promising results using gene therapy to treat andrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a genetic disorder that occurs in approximately 1 in 18,000 individuals and is caused by a mutation in a gene on the X chromosome. With ALD, individuals lose the myelin sheath that protects and allows brain cells to function properly. Symptoms of ALD begin between the ages of four and ten and include behavioral issues. Symptoms progress with individuals developing blindness, deafness, seizures, loss of muscle control, and dementia, ultimately leading to death. Until now the only treatment for ALD was a bone marrow transplantation that includes problems related to immune rejections and difficulty matching donors.

Researchers at Bluebird Bio have now tested a gene therapy approach in a trial including 17 children with ALD. Blood from the affected children was removed, the blood cells treated with a virus that expressed the normal ALD protein, and the blood was then reinfused into the patients. According to the report, within 6 months, 16 of the 17 patients symptoms had stabilized. Brains scans conducted 2 years after the reinfusion indicate that the myelin loss stopped progressing. Importantly, none of the patients have shown signs that the gene was inserted into an inappropriate location on the genome, causing serious side effects seen with other gene therapies.

Although these results have lead to a possible therapeutic for halting symptoms, the treatment is unable to reverse the damage to the myelin and thus reverse symptoms that have already manifested. However, the hope is that in the future gene therapy to treat ALD could be used as soon as patients are diagnosed, thus ideally preventing the progression and development of the more severe symptoms.

Bluebird Bio will soon be applying for approval from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however a long road to treatment of patients in the United States could be ahead. While authorities in Europe have given approval for the use of gene therapy for rare disorders, the FDA has yet to approved a single gene therapy. This hesitancy from the FDA likely stems from previous side effects and the unfortunately death of Jesse Gelsinger resulting from gene therapy treatment. In addition to the development of an effect means for treating ALD, these gene therapy findings also provide hope for gene therapy techniques in safely treating other diseases in the future. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

Zika Virus

Rapid, Cost Efficient Diagnostic for Zika Coming Soon

Until recently the only means for determining if an individual was infected with Zika was to use a technique known as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) or antibody detection. Unfortunately the resources to perform these tests are unavailable in many areas. Furthermore, antibodies produced against Zika may cross react with those produced against other similar viruses, thus limiting the specificity of the results. For an example, an individual whom was infected with dengue, when tested using the antibody method, may also test positive for Zika despite never having been infected with Zika. Since the rise in Zika spread there has been an emphasis on the development of a diagnostic test that would allow individuals all over the country (and world) to easily and quickly be tested for the virus.

Last week, a consortium of researchers including scientists from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, Arizona State, and Boston University all led by Dr. James Collins, a synthetic biologist at Harvard announced that they may developed such a test. The new test, which can develop results in two to three hours is not only faster and potentially more accurate than current methods but is also much cheaper and the result can be easily read. The test is paper-based and consists of a series of yellow dots that change to the color purple when placed in contact with Zika virus RNA.

While the test has not yet been tested with human samples, it has successfully detected Zika virus in the blood of infected monkeys. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health stated that they are now working with groups in Colombia and Brazil to test the diagnostic in the field. Additionally the researchers state that they hope the new test will not only reduce future spread of Zika but other possible diseases as well by paving the way for a rapid, low-cost diagnostics. (Donald McNeil Jr., New York Times)

Public Health Policy

Food and Drug Administration Begins Regulating E-Cigarettes

The first piece of legislation aimed at regulating e-cigarettes was issued last week when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the sale of e-cigarettes illegal to those under the age of 18. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 5.3 percent of middle school and 16 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, a statistic that has risen in the last couple of years.

While public health experts support the new regulations, they also call for the FDA to do much more, suggesting that increased regulation on advertising for e-cigarettes and the ban of e-cigarette flavors that appeal to children including bubble gum, chocolate, and cotton candy should be put in place. In contrast, the e-cigarette industry and others are concerned that the new regulations will make it harder for consumers to obtain less harmful alternatives to traditional cigarettes. In fact, David Levy, professor in the department of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center believes that there is strong evidence that e-cigarettes may help addicted individuals stop smoking and the new regulations may be prohibitive for individual who use traditional cigarettes from quitting.

In addition to banning sales for individuals under 18, the new regulations also call for e-cigarette manufactures whose products went on sale after February 15th 2007 to seek approval from the FDA before they begin selling their products. The FDA also states that the new approval requirement will allow the FDA to verify e-cigarette ingredients and evaluate possible health risks. The American Vaping Association stated in response “This is not regulation — it is prohibition,” further emphasizing that submitting an application for approval takes more than 1,700 hours and cost upwards of $1 million. Retailers are also banned from selling e-cigarettes in vending machines that minors have access to and from distributing free e-cigarette samples. The FDA also suggests that they may soon ban e-cigarette flavors that are specifically targeted to children.

No doubt this will not be the last we hear of this battle between the e-cigarette industry and the FDA, Nicopure Labs LLC, a manufacturer of e-cigarette products, announced Tuesday that it has filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Washington, D.C., challenging the FDA’s regulations. (Laurie McGinley and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

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May 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – May 10, 2016

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By: David Pagliaccio, Ph.D.

Source: Ashley Fisher / Flickr

Scientific Publishing

Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone

Sci-Hub is an online repository for millions of scientific and academic articles, which has sparked major controversy among the scientific and publishing communities. The site, launched in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a graduate student in Kazakhstan, provides free access to ‘pirated’ articles. These articles would otherwise only be accessible through personal or institution journal subscriptions or by purchasing individual articles, which often can cost ~$30 each. Recent analysis of Sci-Hub’s 28+ million download requests from September-February 2015 found that requests were coming from over 3 million different IP addresses (potentially many more individual users as those sharing university internet network will often share an IP address). These download requests came from all over the world and across all types of scientific fields. Download rates reached more than 200,000 per day. An opinion survey regarding Sci-Hub found that at least half of users download articles from Sci-Hub because they do not otherwise have access to the articles at all. Interestingly, many others use Sci-Hub purely out of convenience when they would still have access through their institution. Many respondents also use Sci-Hub in objection to the profits made by publishers off of academics and feel that efforts like Sci-Hub have the power to disrupt the status-quo of science publication. That said, Elsevier, of the largest publishers affected by Sci-Hub, launched a lawsuit against Elbakyan last year for infringing on their legal rights as copyright holders. Despite having their domain seized during the lawsuit, Sci-Hub is largely beyond the reach of the U.S. legal system by being based in Russia. This is an still evolving situation and debate, which may have large effects on the state of scientific publishing today particularly given the major support from much of scientific community. (John Bohannon, Science News)

Mental Health

New Study Shows Mental Health Diagnoses and Treatment Vary Significantly by Race and Ethnicity

The Department of Research and Evaluation at Kaiser Permanente published result of a large study in the journal Psychiatric Services regarding the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. The study included data from electronic health records of 7.5 million adult patients. The patients were part of 11 private, not-for-profit health care systems participating in the Mental Health Research Network. The results indicated that 15.6% (1.17 million) of these patients received a mental health diagnosis in 2011. This varied by race and ethnicity from 7.5% among Asians to 20.6% among Native American/Alaskan Native patients. Most groups had generally lower diagnosis rates than non-Hispanic white patients. Importantly, regardless of race and ethnicity, all patients with a diagnosed mental health condition were much more likely to receive psychiatric mediations (73%) than they were to receive formal psychotherapy treatment (34%). While the study does not point to any specific causative factors, they do indicate a need for evaluation of the causes and effects of racial and ethnic differences in diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions as well as those relating to the vast discrepancy in treatment by medication vs. therapy. (PR Newswire)

Child Development Policies

Bringing Brain Science to Early Childhood

Researchers at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child are pushing better use of developmental psychology and neuroscience research in the creation and implementation of policy regarding early-childhood programs. Particularly, they critique incentives in the current policy system and call for research and development on the most effective early-childhood programs for stemming intergenerational poverty. Programs for child development should all be based on the rapidly evolving knowledge base in the scientific field and should be allowed to develop as we learn and understand more. Work in this area has shown lifelong consequences of early childhood stress as well as lifelong benefits of early positive parenting both on mental and physical health. The Center has already been to pilot programs in Washington state aimed at improving executive function and self-control among parents and children and hopefully to improve parental engagement. This work allows for testing and refining of new interventions based on data collected from the pilot testing. On the other hand, many interventions have previously been enacted at large-scale without adequate follow-up testing or methods for improvement based on outcomes. For example, they cite that the Head Start program, which aims to help young disadvantaged infants and children, has but has not utilized the infrastructure to evaluate the effectiveness of their various programs and to identify which programs benefit which types of individuals most. As research suggests, intervening early in development can be incredibly impactful, and thus we should be capitalizing on our scientific understanding to implement the most evidence-based programs and utilizing outcomes data to constantly improve our programs. (Emily Deruy, The Atlantic)

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May 10, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Science Education Policy

Are Science Lecture Classes Sexist?

Students of both sexes complain it is increasingly more difficult to get A’s in college science and math classes then in other non-science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) classes. However, women are suffering disproportionately to a “grade penalty” in sciences versus male college students.

A study from the University of Michigan, that has been submitted to the open access journal, PLoS One, observed that female college student typically earn half a letter grade lower in large, introductory math or science courses than in other classes at the university. In contrast, male college students only received a grade that was a third of a letter grade lower. Both sexes do worse in the introductory chemistry course, however, female college students experience a “grade penalty” more often than male college students.

What is interesting is that the reverse is true when looking at STEM laboratory grades and breaking it down by gender. Female college students do better overall in laboratory classes compared to lecture and even outscore their male counterparts. The author of the study, Dr. Timothy McKay, a Michigan professor of physics, contributes this difference the the fact that labs allow time for students to go at their own pace and polish up their reports without a ticking time clock — such as you have with in-class timed examinations. Why would women do worse on objective, timed tests? McKay speculates that something called “stereotype threat” is at play, whereby women may not perform at their best when they feel that they are in an environment where women don’t succeed. Timed tests add an element of stress, which can trigger this sort of self-doubting, counterproductive anxiety.

McKay is now conducting experiments to see if he can level the playing field. In some lecture classes, he is replacing a few high-stakes exams with biweekly in-class quizzes. The hope is that more frequent evaluation will lower stress levels and diminish self-doubt. He is also working with psychologists to program an online coaching system to send reassuring messages to female students, designed to reduce anxiety. (Jill Barshay, U.S. News).

STEM Education

Top business leaders, 27 governors, urge Congress to boost computer science education

Top businesses in the United States — Apple, Facebook, Target, Walmart, and AT&T—are calling on Congress to improve computer science education in all K-12 schools. The companies worry that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in science among the nation’s youth in technological fields. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort. They hope by supporting the teaching of coding and programming that this will draw in middle-class jobs to their states. Moreover, with children who are trained in computer science and math, they will be giving them the skills they need to be successful in a modern economy. “Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”

It is estimated that nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often forcing companies to turn to foreign workers for specialized skills. To make matters worse, the federal government has virtually no federal funding dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools. For many schools, computer science education is treated as an elective: a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. However, there is a push to treat computer science as a core subject instead, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed. “It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, and the dating site

Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job. “Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field.” (Emma Brown, Washington Post).

Science in Health

After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight

“The Biggest Loser” is a reality TV show where contestants who are extremely overweight compete in their weight loss efforts and whoever is ‘the biggest loser’ wins. Danny Cahill, winning contestant from Season 8 of NBC’s television show said, “I’ve got my life back. I mean, I feel like a million bucks” upon winning. However, in the 5 years since the show’s end, he has gained more than 100 pounds back despite his best efforts. In fact, most of the season’s contestants have regained most if not all the weight they lost. Surprisingly, some are even heavier now.

Kevin Hall, a scientist at a federal research center, had the idea to follow contestants from “The Biggest Loser” for six years. The project was first to measure what happened to people over that time period. Their stunning results showed the body’s resistance to weight loss. “It is frightening and amazing,” said Dr. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “I am just blown away.”

A person’s resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns at rest, is set to the individual’s body weight set-point. Therefore, when a person deliberately loses weight, regardless of if they are a normal weight or not, the body will slow its metabolism to thwart their best efforts.

It was already known that those who deliberately lose weight will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So the researchers were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slower metabolisms when the show ended. What shocked the researchers was as the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight. These research findings give insight into the nation’s obesity problem and the struggles individuals go through to keep the weight off. (Tracey Yukich, The New York Times).


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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 29, 2016

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By: Rebecca Meseroll, Ph.D.

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Smoking cessation policy

British medical group recommends switch to e-cigarettes

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) released a report this week encouraging cigarette smokers to switch to electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) as a step toward quitting smoking entirely.  E-cigarettes provide a source of nicotine, the addictive chemical in cigarettes, without tar and other cancer-causing additives.  The report found that the benefits in switching to e-cigarettes far outweigh the risks, noting that smoking is the largest avoidable public health threat in the UK and the health hazards of inhaling vapor from e-cigarettes amounts 5% or less of the risk of smoking cigarettes. These recommendations are somewhat at odds with the stance of public health officials in the US, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have been more cautious about e-cigarette use and have focused on potential risks.  Major concerns include the use of e-cigarettes as a gateway to other tobacco products for nonusers, especially youth, and the unknown effects of inhaling additives in the nicotine liquid.  The Food and Drug Administration is has proposed to extend its tobacco authority to e-cigarettes and is currently devising their recommendations for regulation, so the US public policy on e-cigarette use will likely be addressed formally in the near future.  Public health officials on both sides of the Atlantic will no doubt be observing the impact of the RCP’s recommendation on smoking cessation and amending their policies accordingly. (Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times)

Priorities in health policy

Proliferation of multiple cancer moonshot programs raises some concerns

Several cancer “moonshots”, initiatives aimed at finding a cure for cancer, have been announced in recent months.  Most famous perhaps is the proposed $1 billion effort spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden, in addition to three other privately-funded initiatives by the Parker Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Cancer MoonShot 2020 program.  Some cancer researchers have expressed concern over the proliferation of these different efforts without a strong central leadership, which could lead to unintended overlap of topics and a waste of precious research funds. One issue in coalescing these efforts is that the private enterprises may have different goals from the moonshot proposed by the government, including the need to satisfy investors.  Yet it does not appear that these efforts will be operating completely at cross-purposes, as all three private enterprises will have representation on the government’s advisory panel for Biden’s moonshot, so there will be at least some awareness among the different projects about what the other initiatives are doing.  One advantage of the involvement of privately-funded cancer moonshots is that they can begin work immediately; the government project still remains to be approved and funded by Congress which may balk at the high price tag or be otherwise reluctant to fund a large White House initiative this late in Obama’s presidency. (Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

Global childhood health

Childhood obesity on the rise in rural China

Childhood obesity has been generally on the rise across the globe in the 21st century, and a decades-long study of children in rural Shandong, China found that childhood obesity has absolutely skyrocketed since 1985.  Previous studies have demonstrated the rise in obesity in China, now second in the world behind the US, but the results from the current study on the rural population are staggering.  The rate of overweight and obese boys rose from 0.5% to 30.7% between 1985 and 2014, and for girls from 0.8% to 20.6%.  The authors of the study implicate a shift toward high energy, high fat, low fiber diets coupled with a decrease in physical activity in this astonishing trend.  The rise in obesity also coincides with increasing wealth in rural Chinese households, with previously poor families able to afford more food, so overfeeding during a time of plenty is likely another contribution to the problem.  Public health outcomes of this trend could be very serious; childhood obesity can lead to major deleterious effects, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoarthritis.  The authors of the study conclude that rural China should be included in public efforts and education to curb childhood obesity and prevent a generation from suffering the impaired health complications that come with it.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 29, 2016 at 9:00 am


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