Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Archive for the ‘Linkposts’ Category

Science Policy Around the Web – July 26, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Ian McWilliams, Ph.D.

photo credit: Newport Geographic via photopin cc

Infectious Diseases

Research charities help marry two major South African HIV/TB institutes

Two institutes, the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), have announced that they are joining efforts in to fund the fight against HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) in South Africa. South Africa has the largest population infected with HIV. Because TB thrives in HIV-infected individuals, South Africa is experiencing a co-epidemic that has been challenging to battle. This collaboration will mark the first time that HHMI and The Wellcome Trust have worked together on a global health institution.

The new Africa Health Research Institute combines the Africa Centre for Population Health’s detailed population data gathered from over 100,000 participants with basic laboratory science and medical research of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute TB-HIV (K-RITH). Together the organization will work towards eliminating HIV and TB by training African scientists and will “link clinical and laboratory-based studies with social science, health systems research and population studies to make fundamental discoveries about these killer diseases, as well as demonstrating how best to reduce morbidity and mortality.” Projects funded by the institute include maintaining the longest running population-based HIV treatment as prevention (TasP) trial in Africa and using genomics to study drug resistant TB.

The organization is funded by a $50 million grant from The Wellcome Trust that is renewable over the next five years. Additionally, HHMI has already spent $40 million for the construction of new facilities, including a new biosafety level 3 laboratory that is designed to handle dangerous pathogens. These new efforts aim to apply scientific breakthroughs to directly help the local community. Deenan Pillay, the director of the new institute, has expressed his support of the organization’s mission by stating “There’s been increasing pressure and need for the Africa Centre not just to observe the epidemic but to do something about it. How long can you be producing bloody maps?” (Jon Cohen, ScienceInsider)

Scientific Reproducibility

Dutch agency launches first grants programme dedicate to replication

While a reproducibility crisis is on the minds of many scientists, the Netherlands have launched a new fund to encourage Dutch scientists to test the reproducibility of ‘cornerstone’ scientific findings. The €3 million fund was announced on July 19th by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and will focus on replicating work that “have a large impact on science, government policy or the public debate.”

The Replication Studies pilot program aims to increase transparency, quality, and completeness of reporting of results. Brian Nosek, who led studies to evaluate the reproducibility of over 100 reports from three different psychology journals, hailed the new program and stated “this is an increase of infinity percent of federal funding dedicated to replication studies.” This project is the first program in the world to focus on the replication of previous scientific findings. Dutch scientist Daniel Lakens further stated that “[t]his clearly signals that NWO feels there is imbalance in how much scientists perform replication research, and how much scientists perform novel research.” The NWO has stated that it intends to include replication in all of its research programs.

This pilot program will focus both on the reproduction of findings using datasets from the original study and replication of findings with new datasets gathered using the same research protocol in the original study. The program expects to fund 8-10 projects each year, and importantly, scientists will not be allowed to replicate their own work. The call for proposals will open in September with an expected deadline in mid-December. (Monya Baker, Nature News)

Health Care Insurance

US Sues to block Anthem-Cigna and Aetna-Human mergers

United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced lawsuits to block two mergers that involve four of the largest health insurers. Co-plaintiffs in the suits include eight states, including Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinoi, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Main, Maryland, and New Hampshire, as well as the District of Columbia. The lawsuits are an attempt by the Justice Department to block Humana’s $37 billion merger with Aetna and Anthem’s $54 billion acquisition of Cigna, the largest merger in the history of health insurers. The Justice Department says that the deals violate antitrust laws and could mean fewer choices and higher premiums for Americans. Antitrust officials also expressed concern that doctors and hospitals could lose bargaining power in these mergers.

Both proposed mergers were announced last year, and if these transactions close, the number of national providers would be reduced from five to three large companies. Furthermore, the government says that Anthem and Cigna control at least 50 percent of the national employer-based insurance market. Lynch further added that “competition would be substantially reduced for hundreds of thousands of families and individuals who buy insurance on the public exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act.” The Affordable Care Act (ACA) aimed to encourage more competition between insurers to improve health insurance options and keep plans affordable. The Obama administration has closely watched the health care industry since the passing of that legislation and has previously blocked the mergers of large hospital systems and stopped the merger of pharmaceutical giants, such as the proposed merger of Pfizer and Allergan.

Health insurers argue that these mergers are necessary to make the health care system more efficient, and would allow doctors and hospitals to better coordinate medical care. In reaction to the announcement by the Justice Department, Aetna and Humana stated that they intend to “vigorously defend” the merger and that this move “is in the best interest of consumers, particularly seniors seeking affordable, high-quality Medicare Advantage plans.” Cigna has said it is evaluating its options. (Leslie Picker and Reed Abelson, New York Times)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 26, 2016 at 11:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 22, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via photo pin cc

The Common Rule and human testing

Science academies blast US government’s planned research-ethics reforms

The ultimate advancement in human health and welfare depend on research with human subjects. To achieve this, properly controlled studies with human subjects is imperative for eliminating abuse of human subjects and proper protection of the data. To address these concerns the “Common Rule” was established in 1991 influenced by the Belmont Report, a 1978 document which laid out principles for ethical research with humans, such as minimizing patient harm and maximizing the benefit to society. The ‘Common Rule’ is the current human subject regulation policies which addresses ethical issues such as informed consent, storage of study participants’ biological specimens and many others. However with technological advances over time, achieving these goals has become more complicated and thus imposes difficulties in maintaining patient privacy. Hence in September, 2015 the US government proposed revisions for regulations governing studies of human subjects.

Recently however, an independent advisory panel proposed that the US government’s proposed overhaul of  the Common Rule is flawed and should be withdrawn. On June 29th the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that the government’s proposed changes are “marred by omissions and a lack of clarity”. They indicated that it would slow down research and will do little to improve protections of patients enrolled in studies. The panel recommended that the government should appoint an independent commission to craft new rules for such research.

The changes proposed by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attempted to address concerns that have arisen since the ‘Common Rule’ was established. For instance, the HHS reforms suggests a requirement for participants’ consent to use stored samples, such as blood or tissue, for future research. But the US academies’ panel pointed that the new consent requirements would slow research unnecessarily because little harm is likely to come to a person as a result of the use of stored samples. Moreover the extra consent forms can link the samples to the person’s name and thus increasing risk of identification.

Currently HHS is reviewing more than 2,100 public comments to its proposal and many of these comments were critical. However, the US academies’ panel says that the proposal should be scrapped and HHS should start fresh by appointing an independent commission to recommend reforms for the Common Rule. Meanwhile an HHS spokesperson said that the government is still pondering over the public’s comments and the report. She adds that the proposal comes after “many years of work,” and “that starting over would require many more.” (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

Scientific Publishing

Beat it, impact factor! Publishing elite turns against controversial metric

Journal Impact factor (JIF) – one of the most promoted and controversial metric system in the field of science is currently facing negative reviews from the scientific community. Impact factor is a measure of the average number of citations that articles published by a journal in the previous two years have received in the current year which is calculated by various companies. It is solely aimed to indicate the quality of journals said Heidi Siegel, a spokesperson for Thomson Reuters, the major publisher of JIFs. However, the irony is researchers often use the JIF to judge individual papers instead and in some cases even the authors.

On July 5th, several leading science publishers posted a paper to the preprint server bioRxiv asking all journals to consider a different metric which will capture the range of citations that a journal’s articles acquire. Also the American Society for Microbiology in Washington DC announced its plans to discard impact factor from its journals and website, and also from marketing and advertising.

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London and also the lead author on the bioRxiv preprint paper said that sadly many researchers evaluate papers by the impact factor of the journals and this can also influence decisions made by hiring committees and funding agencies. Curry’s team highlighted some limitations by plotting the distribution of citations (used to calculate the 2015 impact factors) for articles published in 2013–14 in 11 journals, including ScienceNatureeLife. They showed that most of the papers gathered fewer citations than the impact factor for the journal: 74.8% of Nature articles were cited below its impact factor of 38.1, and 75.5% of Science papers were cited fewer than 35 times with its impact factor of 34.7. Highly cited papers are the cause of this disconnect as Nature’s most cited paper in the analysis was referenced 905 times and Science’s 694 times. Curry and his team highly recommends the use of citation distribution curves instead of JIF as it provides a more informative snapshot of a journal’s standing.

However, Ludo Waltman, a bibliometrics researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, thinks that citation distributions are more relevant than impact factors for making decisions in hiring and promotion. But he feels that impact factors can be useful for researchers in some cases. Nonetheless anti-impact-factor campaigners believes that it will take time and pressure from various directions to diminish the influence of impact factor as it has become a cultural thing in the scientific field. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Brain research advancements

Human brain mapped in unprecedented detail

Neuroscientists have long sought to divide the brain into smaller pieces to better appreciate how it works as a whole. On July 20th,  Nature published the new unprecedented map of the brain’s outermost layer — the cerebral cortex — subdividing each hemisphere and valley-like folds into 180 separate areas. Ninety-seven of these areas have never been previously described despite showing clear differences in structure, function and connectivity from the neighboring areas.

“Until now, most brain maps were based on a single type of measurement which provides an incomplete view of the brain’s inner workings” says Thomas Yeo, a computational neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore. This new map is based on multiple MRI measurements which measures the flow of blood in response to different mental tasks, which Yeo says “greatly increases confidence that they are producing the best in vivo estimates of cortical areas.”

The map was constructed by a team of people led by neuroscientist Mathew Glasser at Washington University Medical School. They collected imaging data from 210 healthy young adults participating in the Human Connectome Project, an National Institutes of Health-funded initiative to map the brain’s structural and functional connections. They collected information of cortical thickness; brain function; connectivity between regions; topographic organization of cells in brain tissue; and levels of myelin — fatty substance that speeds up neural signaling. The borders on the map was delineated by areas which showed significant changes in two or more of these properties. Analysis of all the data confirmed the existence of 83 previously reported brain areas while identifying 97 new ones. Scientists further tested the map generated by Glasser and his team, and found it accurate by looking for these regions in the brains of additional 210 people. But the size of the areas varied from person to person and these differences may reveal new insights into individual variability in cognitive ability and opens up the possibility to explore further the unique intersection of individual talents with intellectual and creative abilities.

But the map is limited in some important ways as it reveals little about the biochemical basis of the brain and about the activity of single neurons or small groups. However, Glasser says that “We’re thinking of this as version 1.0, that doesn’t mean it’s the final version, but it’s a far better map than the ones we’ve had before.” (Linda Geddes, Nature News)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 19, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.

Photo source: digitaltrends.com

Data Mining

Big Data Fighting Terror

How do we stop terrorist attacks before they happen? The US Department of Defense (DOD) has projects dedicated to maintaining our military prowess; however, a new branch of science may be our best bet in fighting this increasingly sinister opponent. Managing huge sets of data from multiple sources presents a challenge for our intelligence and military organizations as we scramble to thwart acts of terror. This involves identifying target locations, suspects and reacting quickly and/or proactively.

After the terror attacks of 9/11, the Patriot Act was passed to allow the government unprecedented access to data from Americans, including bulk phone metadata – famously leaked by Edward Snowden after working for the National Security Agency. Although this type of data is no longer accessible since the bill expired in 2015, the government now has more data than it knows how to handle from social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The National Science Foundation and the DOD are seeking interdisciplinary approaches to efficiently analyze huge data sets and enhance predictive abilities to spot potential terror suspects or events.

It is estimated that ISIS members make up to 90,000 posts on social media per day, so sifting through these posts is a challenge being tackled by researchers and data miners. A 2015 paper looked at 3.1 million Arabic tweets related to ISIS from 250,000 different users over the span of a few years. Using big data analytics they were able to use present tweets to determine if users were pro or anti-ISIS. After identifying users’ present status, they used an algorithm to look at past tweets and predicted which users became ISIS supporters with 87% accuracy.

Our country must weigh the benefits of using big data to foil terror plots before they happen against the loss of privacy. Just this month the House of Representatives voted to block expansion of the Patriot Act, which would have allowed banks to share information with federal authorities of those suspected of funding terrorism. America may be the land of the free, but like France, this leaves us vulnerable to opportunistic terrorists.

GMOs

House gives thumbs-up to GMO label law; bill goes to Obama

Food labels are about to get more complicated: a law proposed by the Senate was passed by the House of Representatives on July 14th will require foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. The labels will be designed with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversight, and can include text, a logo, or a Quick Response (QR) smartphone code. The federal government was pushed to action by the recent legislation in Vermont, which required GMO labeling for foods in grocery stores. This caused many food products to be removed from sale in Vermont such as Coca-Cola, Sabra Hummus, and Heinz Ketchup because companies did not have the motivation or time to prepare labels for Vermont’s new law.

The benefits of passing a law reduces the patchwork of laws bound to spring up in other states, which decreases the burden of individual state labeling for food makers. However there is no consensus on what qualifies as a GMO, as some genetic modifications are simply via selective breeding, while others are “in the lab” like recombinant DNA techniques. Other problems with the bill are exceptions; including foods made with a GMO no longer have the genetic material after processing, which is the case with many sweeteners and cooking oils.

Although the “right to know” movement stimulated by public interest has good intentions, unfortunately the anti-GMO movement is not backed by scientific research. Recently, more than 100 Nobelaureates penned a letter to Greenpeace requesting they stop their anti-GMO campaign. They point to examples of GMO products being better for public health and the environment, as they increase food’s nutritional value and often reduce the amount of chemicals required.

Overall, the mandatory GMO labeling is a compromise bill which will increase the amount of information available about the foods we purchase. Unfortunately the variety of methods used and the complexity of genetic modification of food makes it difficult to make into a simple label for the general population’s benefit. (Jim Spencer, Star Tribune)

Brexit

Science’s status shifts in new Brexit government

The weeks following the Brexit yielded an atmosphere of chaos for British politicians, citizens and scientists as the world came to grips with what an EU exit would do for the economy and everyday lives of those in the UK. Scientists in the UK are especially anxious following the Brexit, as researchers have much at stake with a split from the EU. These include limited access to EU research dollars, less mobility for scientists seeking training opportunities and collaborations between the UK and EU, and an uncertainty for the level of support they will receive from the new UK government.

Now the UK has selected a new prime minister, Theresa May, who has been busy re-organizing government offices. A new department responsible for research funding and oversight will now be headed by Greg Clark, a previous science minister, which is positive news for the scientific community. The department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) replaces the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which had research budget of $6.3 billion. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) also seems to be rolled into the BEIS, although some worry that without a specific department for environmental concerns, funding and priority for this research and combating climate change will fall by the wayside.

With a swift ascension to the prime minister spot and no actual campaign, scientists have very little idea if May values scientific research. In the past she has pushed to restrict visas (hampering scientist movement and training opportunities), and supported a bill to ban “designer drugs”. However scientists remain hopeful as “[s]he has been an example of good practice in gathering evidence, and also of explaining her decisions when they have not gone with the scientific advice” said Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. For the future, scientists will have to wait and see if May views science as a funding priority. (Davide Castelvecchi, Nature News)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 15, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Leopold Kong, Ph.D.

Healthcare Policy

United States Health Care Reform – Progress to Date and Next Steps

On Monday, President Obama published a special communication in The Journal of the American Medical Association summarizing the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) during his tenure in office.  The report outlined the president’s initial motivations for health care reform, including his frustration over the relatively low insurance coverage across the US population when he first entered office, even though the U.S. was devoting over 16% of its economy to health care.  The report noted that since the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the uninsured population in the United States had stabilized to around 15% since the early 1990s.  With the creation of the ACA, the uninsured population has dropped 43% from 16% in 2010 to 9.1% in 2015.  Importantly, the health care reform has not decreased employment rates, while it has decreased insurance payment prices in the private sector by improving detection of health care fraud and by increasing insurance provider competition.  President Obama is optimistic that coverage will further expand, considering that many of the reforms that are part of the ACA have not yet reached their maximum effect. Policymakers must be on guard, however, against backtracking in the years ahead, considering there are continued attempts to repeal parts of the ACA. The report notes: “We need to continue to tackle special interest dollars in politics. But we also need to reinforce the sense of mission in health care that brought us an affordable polio vaccine and widely available penicillin.” (Barack Obama, JAMA)

HIV Health Policy

South Africa ushers in a new era for HIV

Next week, the International AIDS Conference returns to Durban, South Africa to discuss research and health care policy challenges in the country with the largest HIV epidemic in the world. Nearly 7 million people in South Africa have HIV, about 15% of the global HIV infected population. Remarkable progress has been made over the last two decades with the advent of more effective antiretroviral therapeutics and their wide dissemination.  South Africa’s average life expectancy has increased from 54.4 years in 2004 to 62.5 in 2015, and mother-to-child transmission has fallen from 30% to 1.5%.  Furthermore, AIDS-related deaths have been cut in half since 2006, from 400 to 200 thousands per year.  It is hopeful that continued gains in therapeutics accessibility would greatly improve the situation in South Africa, though substantial challenges remain. These include maintaining patient compliance in the face of a disease that no longer appears to be immediately life threatening, and dealing with the inevitable development of drug resistance that would require constant and costly patient monitoring.  Surprisingly, in South Africa, but not in Europe, people on therapy appeared to have better quality of life than their HIV-negative peers, highlighting the general benefit of increased interaction with health practitioners. Health policymakers in a country with over 3 million on antiretroviral therapy must also consider the side effects of the drugs, which include increased risk of hypertension, diabetes and obesity for older populations. With continued advances in small molecule and antibody therapeutics, as well as novel vaccine platforms, there is increased hope for millions of people living with HIV. (Linda Nordling, Nature)

NASA

First virus-hunter in space will test DNA-decoding device

Earlier this week, virus-hunter turned astronaut Kate Rubins arrived at the International Space Station with a pocket-sized DNA sequencer, the MinION (9.5 x 3.2 x 1.6 centimeters, ~ 120 grams) developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.  Unlike conventional sequencers, the MinION “reads” DNA strands by passing them through nanopores on the device that detect changes in electrostatic charge.  The small size of MinION is important to curb expenses, as it costs about $10,000 per pound of equipment flown to the space station. “Altogether, it’s an extremely exciting research package and a great capability on board station,” Rubins said. NASA hopes this project will improve scientific microbial research and disease diagnostics in space.  The MinION technology may also be used to detect extraterrestrial life, though further development may be needed, especially if non-DNA based life forms are expected.  Importantly, the experiments in space could encourage the expansion of genomics-based medicine utilizing MinION technology to more remote and poorer areas on Earth where the use of large, conventional DNA sequencers would not be practical. (Marcia Dunn, Associated Press)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 15, 2016 at 1:45 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 12, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Health Policy

20 Years after Dolly the Sheep Led the Way—Where Is Cloning Now?

Scientist Dr. Ian Wilmut cloned a mammal, Dolly the Sheep, from an adult sheep’s mammary gland. Born on July 5, 1996, Dolly has “[…] changed everything,” says Dr. Alan Trounson, Dr. Wilmut’s colleague. Cloning a mammal changed the scientific dogma of its time and opened up a Pandora’s box of possibilities with significant consequences.

The impact of cloning on basic science has surpassed expectations. Cloning’s biggest impact has been in the advancement of stem cell and developmental biology. Stem cell biologist, Shinya Yamanaka, said via email, “Dolly the Sheep told me that nuclear reprogramming is possible even in mammalian cells and encouraged me to start my own project.” Dr. Yamanaka uses adult cells to make stem cells that can form a wide range of other cells – in a way, reversing their biological clock back to infancy so the cells are “young again” and capable of forming a wide range of other cells. Because they are artificially created and have a variety of features, they are call induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The rise of these iPS cells has reduced the need for embryonic stem cells, an acrimonious ethical dilemma tightly bound with stem cell research.

“Dolly’s birth was transformative because it proved that the nucleus of the adult cell had all the DNA necessary to give rise to another animal,” says stem cell biologist Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Despite the successes achieved with cloning Dolly the Sheep, we likely will not see a cloned human any time soon. The technique used to clone Dolly the Sheep has been unsuccessful in the species closest to humans, primates. Additionally, Dr. Wilmut says, “Just because it may work in the sense of producing offspring doesn’t meant to say we should do it. The likelihood is that you would get pregnancy losses, abnormal births. I wouldn’t want to be the person who looked a cloned child in the face and said ‘very sorry.’” Others think that the recent advances in gene-editing technology (such as CRISPR), to correct genetic errors, will diminish the need to clone. Additionally, the thought of cloning a deceased loved one or beloved pet has reduced in popularity because of the recognition that the environment affects behavior along with genetics. It is unlikely the cloned subject would be a “true” clone when it comes to personality traits that helped create the initial bond.

Sadly, Dolly died on February 14, 2003, at the age of six due to a lung infection common among animals who are not given access to the outdoors. What started out as an unexpected discovery (Dr. Wilmut and his colleagues admit Dolly’s birth was a lucky accident) has paved the way for significant discoveries in stem cell biology and in how we view one another as people. 20 years after Dolly the Sheep scientists, ethicists, and society are still putting all the pieces together to figure out the mysteries of life and who should hold the key of creation. (Karen Weintraub, Scientific American)

Breast Cancer Research

NIH launches largest-ever study of breast cancer genetics in black women

A $12 million collaborative research grant awarded to Dr. Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, Christopher Haiman, Sc.D., of the University of Southern California, and Julie Palmer, Sc.D., of Boston University will support the largest-ever study of breast cancer genetics in black women. The collaborative research project, funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will build on years of research cooperation among investigators who are part of the African-American Breast Cancer Consortium, the African-American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk (AMBER) Consortium, and the NCI Cohort Consortium. These investigators are from various institutions and will share biospecimens (such as patient blood, urine, etc.), clinical characteristics, and resources from 18 previous studies, resulting in a study population of 20,000 black women with breast cancer.

Acting Director of the NCI, Douglas R. Lowy, M.D. says, “This effort is about making sure that all Americans – no matter their background – reap the same benefits from the promising advances of precision medicine. Survival rates for women with breast cancer have been steadily improving over the past several decades. However, these improvements have not been shared equally across the board – black women are more likely to die of their disease and have a more aggressive breast cancer subtype that is more difficult to treat. The exact reasons for these disparities are unclear, although previous studies suggest that the underlying causes are multifactorial with a complex interplay between genetic, environmental, and societal factors.”

“This $12 million grant — in combination with previous investments — should help advance our understanding of the social and biological causes that lead to disparities in cancer among underserved populations,” said Robert Croyle, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS), which is administering the grant. “A better understanding of the genetic contributions to differences in breast cancer diagnoses and outcomes among African-Americans may lead to better treatments and better approaches to cancer prevention.” (NCI Press Officers, NIH)

Science Education

Schools Look to Legos to Build Science Interest

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the Duval, Florida school district has proposed spending $187,700 to set up Lego robotics teams in 50 schools, an increase from the 36 schools currently operating such clubs. The long-term vision is to have robotics teams in all 161 Duval public schools. The hope is that this extracurricular activity will spark students’ engagement in technology fields and hopefully get them more involved in math, science and computers in class.

Mr. Vitti wants the school district to work with Renaissance Jax, a nonprofit Lego League and affiliate partner for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” (FIRST). FIRST organizes thousands of robotics and technology competitions around the country from kindergarten through 12th grade. The contract would involve training teachers and volunteers to run the teams and to coordinate practices and competitions.

FIRST team surveys show that 86 percent of participants say they are more interested in doing well at school, 84 percent are motivated to take challenging math and science courses, and 80 percent are more interested in Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM)-related jobs. What’s more, the gender gap in science and technology is not apparent at the tournaments. Mechanisms such as these introduced early on and throughout children’s education may help to increase student’s desire for a STEM education and decrease STEM bias among men and women. (Associated Press, U.S.News)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 12, 2016 at 10:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 8, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Valerie Miller, Ph.D.

Photo source

Federal Regulatory Policy

To keep the blood supply safe, screening blood is more important than banning donors

With the recent mass shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, many members of the LGBT community were outraged that gay men were unable to donate blood to help victims of the massacre. The federal ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, instituted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been in place since 1983, after scientists understood the HIV disease and how it was spreading. This rule was recently scaled back in December 2015, when the FDA determined that men who have sex with men can donate, but not if they have had sexual contact with other men in the past year. The FDA continues to support a ban on men who have sex with men, because this demographic has the highest incidence of HIV infection.

Receiving a blood transfusion is extremely safe. Statistically, the risk of contracting HIV from a blood transfusion is 1 in 2 million, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, the actual incidence is much lower. Each year, more than 15 million donated pints of blood are transfused into patients. The last time anyone was known to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion was 2008. However, experts believe this this success has little to do with donor bans, and is instead a result of advances in blood screening technology. All blood donated in the United States is federally regulated, and has been tested for HIV since 1985. Currently, donated blood is subjected to two tests for HIV, both of which are highly accurate. In a typical year, there are a few hundred cases in which donated blood tests positive for HIV.

Researchers at the FDA recently published a paper concluding that relying solely on blood testing would result in an additional 31 pints of HIV infected blood to get past the screening process, because there is a window following HIV infection and when it becomes detectible by today’s technologies, which is currently nine days. However, the FDA model is based on a complete lack of a ban, and doesn’t take into account the fact that donors themselves who participate in risky behaviors may practice self-selection. Instead, evidence suggests that it may be possible to ban donors based on risky behaviors such as unprotected sex with multiple partners, instead of focusing on the gender of sexual partners. From 2010-2013, researchers conducted a pilot study that collected information about every donor who tested positive for HIV, and found that 76% of HIV-positive donors were male, and 52.4% of those men had had sex with another man in the past year. This study indicated that men who have sex with men are already donating blood, and that half of the men whose blood tested positive had not had sex with another man in the past year. In the study, men who had sex with women were found to have a higher number of lifetime partners than men who had sex with men. At this point, no questions are asked about heterosexual partnerships during the blood donation process. A possible solution would be to make donor bans based on risky sexual behavior that apply to everyone. However, the Canadian Blood Services performed a survey of sexual behaviors on potential donors and found that many would be excluded, leading to potential blood shortages, indicating that careful consideration must be given to any potential new bans. In the meantime, the FDA recently approved the Intercept Blood System, which can reduce viruses, bacteria and pathogens that contaminate platelets, making the blood supply even safer. (Maggie Koerth-Baker, FiveThirtyEight)

Drug Legalization

Now we know what happens to teens when you make pot legal

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has published the results of a new survey showing that following legalization in 2012, the rate of marijuana use among Colorado teens has remained unchanged. This survey, based on a random sample of 17,000 middle and high school students, showed that in 2015, 21% of Colorado students used marijuana in the past 30 days, which is lower than the national average, and is a slight decrease from the 25% of Colorado students who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days in 2009.

The results of these surveys are being monitored closely by policymakers on both sides of the legalization debate. Opponents of legalization have feared that more kids would smoke pot following legalization, due to increased availability. However, the data from Colorado, which includes two full years following the legalization of marijuana, indicates that adolescent use has not increased in this state. One explanation for why legalization is not increasing pot smoking among teenagers is that adolescents report that marijuana is widely available. Nationally, nearly 80% of high-school seniors report that pot is easy to obtain, indicating that those who want to smoke marijuana probably already are, which would change little following legalization. (Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post)

NASA

Jupiter, meet Juno: NASA spacecraft settles in to begin its mission

Juno, NASA’s planetary probe sent to investigate Jupiter, has safely entered Jupiter’s orbit. NASA received confirmation of the successful orbit entry in the form of three tones, at 11:53 pm EDT on the 4th of July, following a 35-minute engine burn to slow the speed of the probe. Now that Juno has arrived at Jupiter after a 5-year journey from Earth, it will investigate the planet at 4000 kilometers above its outer veil of clouds, more closely than any spacecraft before. Juno’s mission will be to attempt to shed light on the origin and evolution of Jupiter by investigating questions such as: what structures are present below the surface clouds? Does Jupiter have a solid core? And how far do the surface stripes and storms extend into the center of the planet? Juno will begin observations in August after a 53-day orbit, and will then will orbit Jupiter 33 times over the next year and a half. At the end the mission, Juno will crash into Jupiter and disintegrate, in order to prevent accidental collision with one of Jupiter’s potentially habitable moons, which could cause contamination with microbes from Earth. (Daniel Clery, Science Magazine)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 1, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Image source: Scientia Salon blog

Research Participant Protection

National Academy of Sciences advises White House to rewrite Common Rule

In order to protect participants of clinical studies from being harmed by the very same studies, a set of regulations was set-up for this purpose. These regulations are called the Common Rule and most researchers will encounter the Common Rule when they submit their proposal for ethical review with their local Institutional Review Board (IRB). The rules (45 CFR 46) that apply today were drafted back in 1991 and have not been updated since. Thus last year the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) proposed a major revision. The proposal was greeted with criticism and on June 29th, 2016 the National Academy of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering (NAS) joined the critics. According to the NAS, the HHS proposal is “marred by omissions, the absence of essential elements, and a lack of clarity.” Therefore, NAS made bold suggestions to the Obama administration withdraw the proposed revision to the Common Rule and create a independent national committee modeled on the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research to essentially rewrite the Common Rule from scratch. (Rob Stein, NPR News)

Science Funding

Interdisciplinary research proposal are less frequently funded

Although interdisciplinary research is frequently praised and encouraged, funding such projects has proven to be difficult. The latest report by an Australian group is similar to those conclusions drawn by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) before it launched the Roadmap for Medical Research in 2004 to stimulate interdisciplinary research. What makes the most recent Australian study stand out is the metric they developed to determine how interdisciplinary a proposal was. This metric is called “interdisciplinary distance”. The measure assigns a value between 0 and 1 on the basis of the information included in the proposal. A value of 0 represents a proposal that only covered one discipline, whereas all other proposals would receive a value up to 1 depending on how distant and abundant the disciplines were. The method is similar to a biodiversity metric that takes into account the distance between species on an evolutionary tree and their relative abundance in an ecosystem. The group then analyzed over 18,000 proposals submitted to the Australian Research Council Discovery Programme between 2010 and 2014. Betsy Wilder from the NIH Office of Strategic Coordination wants to use the new metric to see if the Roadmap has made progress in funding interdisciplinary research over the last 10 years. (Elena Bozhkova, Nature News)

Cancer MoonShot

Vice-President Biden threatens to cut funding to non-compliant medical research institutes

During the 2016 State of the Union, President Obama revealed his latest biomedical initiative: the moonshot to cure cancer. This initiative is led by Vice-President Joe Biden. The goal of this initiative is to stimulate collaborative research to accelerate the potential of combination immunotherapy as the next generation standard for cancer treatments. The goal is to initiate randomized Phase II clinical trials in patients at all stages of disease in 20 tumor types in 20,000 patients within the next 36 months. These findings will inform Phase III trials and the moonshot to develop an effective vaccine-based immunotherapy to combat cancer by 2020. On June 29th, 2016, Biden attended the National Cancer Summit at Howard University. Here he made comments following a STAT investigation revealing frequent lapses in reporting clinical trials. If this is found to be true, Biden promises to cut funding. This falls in line with new rules imposed by the National Institutes of Health that will help crack down on institutions that lapse, not just individual investigators. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon be able to impose a $10,000/day fine to non-compliant companies. All together, this is a push to make clinical trials funded with public money be part of the public record and thereby facilitate collaborations and accountability. (David Nather and Charles Piller, STAT news)

Natural Resources

Large helium reserves found in Tanzania

Everyone knows helium for one of two things: 1) keeping balloons afloat and 2) making people sound funny. Nevertheless, helium is a remarkably important gas, especially in medicine and science. To keep the magnets of an MRI machine cool, it requires helium. To keep the Large Hadron Collider at CERN running, it needs helium. Helium is also used in other industries that require superconductivity. It is a naturally occurring gas that is formed from decaying uranium and thorium, but this is a slow process. Furthermore, helium does not react with anything (ergo its important role in cooling) and is very light. As a result, helium escapes to the atmosphere quickly and cannot be retrieved. The great demand on helium has led to several moments of shortages. It has been vital to discover a new deposit on helium.

To date, helium was only extracted as a by-product of oil and gas drilling, but these deposits only contain a small amount of helium. By understanding how helium is released from rocks, a team of researchers have devised a method to explore for helium in a new and specific way. Just like other gasses, released helium has to be trapped by underground formations. Using the same kind of seismic studies in oil and gas exploration, helium can be recovered. An area in the Tanzanian part of the East African Rift was proposed to be a prime candidate region to find helium. Indeed, a large amount of helium was discovered there. As much as 1.5 billion cubic meter of helium is thought to be trapped. This is more than twice the amount that is currently stocked at the Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, TX. This reserve supplies 40% of the helium used in the U.S. (Henry Fountain, NY Times)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 88 other followers