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Science Policy Around the Web – October 18, 2016

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By: Agila Somasundaram, PhD

Source: WHO

Global Health

Why is the news about TB so bad?

The Global Tuberculosis Report released recently by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that the Tuberculosis (TB) epidemic is larger than previously estimated. TB has generally been considered a disease of the past, but the new report estimates that around 10.4 million people were infected in 2015, 480,000 of the new cases being multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). TB claimed on average more than 34,000 lives a week, exceeding the death toll by Ebola. 60 % of the new cases were seen in India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa.

TB is especially difficult to combat in the developing world, for many reasons. Firstly, it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of TB cases. For example, WHO estimates that about half of the TB cases in India are not reported to health authorities. In parts of Central Africa, the lack of resources to carry out large-scale surveys results in insufficient data on the epidemic. Secondly, crowded living conditions and poor nutrition make people more susceptible to the disease. TB is also financially draining on the families of those infected, resulting in poor treatment. Thirdly, new drugs (Bedaquiline, Delamanid) that have been developed to treat MDR-TB are being used very cautiously to avoid the development of drug-resistance and side effects. And last, current efforts to cure TB are focused on symptomatic cases, and not pre-symptomatic or early stage cases.

The WHO report states, “Global actions and investments fall far short of those needed to end the global TB epidemic.” Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of WHO said, “We face an uphill battle to reach the global targets for tuberculosis. There must be a massive scale-up of efforts, or countries will continue to run behind this deadly epidemic…” (Rina Shaikh-Lesko, NPR)

Science Diplomacy

U.S. and Cuban biomedical researchers are free to collaborate

The United States reconciled with Cuba in 2014, and has been removing several sanctions since then. Along with ease of trade and travel between the two countries, scientists from the two nations can now collaborate more easily with each other. Earlier, scientists in the US had to go through a “a very involved and detailed process” with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to get a license to conduct research with Cuban scientists, and these licenses typically lasted only a year or two. Also, what kinds of collaborations were permissible was unclear under the old rules.

Both the US and Cuban scientists welcome the new move. Dr. Pedro Valdés-Sosa, research director at the Cuban Neuroscience Center in Havana said on his visit to the US, “…Everywhere I went there were concrete ideas for collaborations that would benefit the people of both countries. These new measures pave the way for cooperation.” Also, Cuban scientists can now receive research funding from the US government, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can review drugs developed in Cuba, and FDA-approved drugs can be imported from Cuba and sold in the US. Dr. Thomas Schwaab of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York wonders whether Cuban scientists who have ongoing collaborations with scientists in other parts of the world would welcome working with the US, given that they were shunned for so long. But the Cuban scientists “are very proud of what they’ve achieved,” says Dr. Schwaab. (Richard Stone, Science)

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October 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 14, 2016

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By: Fabricio Kury, MD

Source: pixabay

2016 Elections

What 10 health care experts would ask Trump and Clinton about health care

Health care finally had presence in the U.S. presidential race during the second debate this last Sunday. While Politico fact-checked what was said at the debate, the team at Advisory Board listed questions that should be of concern to the presidential candidates. Below is an overview of the topics and contexts of some of these questions.

Amitabh Chandra brought the important issue of Medicaid expansion. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, or ACA, a.k.a. “Obamacare”), signed into law in 2010, included provisions to expand Medicaid eligibility to all people with income up to 133% of the federal poverty line. However, unlike Medicare which is federally funded, Medicaid is jointly funded by each state and the union. The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government cannot coerce states into expanding Medicaid, and, as of early 2016, 18 states had opted not to expand.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Martin Gaynor bring the perennial topic of free market-based versus government-based health care. Proponents of market-based approaches, such as Donald Trump, argue that competition can lower costs and thereby increase access, including for people currently uninsured. Government-based health care, also known as single-payer health care, is the case where the government provides or subsidizes care for everyone. This option, to a degree, is supported by Hillary Clinton. The Affordable Care Act, defended by Democrats and despised by Republicans, sought to establish a “middle-ground” approach. It promotes a U.S. health care system based on private insurance, but competition among the insurers would be stronger thanks to health insurance exchanges, where consumers are empowered to make better decisions. Under the ACA, everyone is obligated to have insurance, and vulnerable population groups, such as those living close to the poverty line, receive subsidies to lower the costs of their premiums. Moreover, the ACA, as well as other pieces of legislation, promotes alternative payment models, which seek to reimburse care for its value rather than number of procedures, encounters, services, i.e., its volume. In 2015Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced plans to tie 90% of Medicare payments to value as early as 2018.

Farzad Mostashari makes a rather stingy question for Clinton because of her support for the ACA. One of the predicted impacts of this law is generalized consolidation in the health care industry. However, consolidation can hamper competition, and moreover there is evidence that smaller practices are those ripe for the best improvements in quality and cost. How will small physician practices compete with large conglomerates, the largest of which are akin to Kaiser Permanente or the Geisinger Health System? Nicholas Bagley and Margaret O’Kane reinforce this concern by inquiring directly about how to address such excessive consolidation.

Finally, Robert Wachter, author of the praised book The Digital Doctor, asks about how to rein the resilient costs of health care, which today occupy almost 1 dollar out of every 5 in the entire U.S. economy. Clinton’s answer could be something close to the ACA’s Accountable Care Organizations approach, in which a group of providers receive bonus payments if they spend less than expected. Trump, as he mentioned in the last presidential debate when answering a question from the audience, believes in the power of market competition to lower health care costs.

Overall, this presidential election is also a contrasting choice between proceeding with the Democrat-supported Affordable Care Act and realizing the Republican pledge of dismantling this law to come up with something else. Bob Kocher and Ezekiel Emanuel, who worked in the White House in drafting the ACA, have laid their defense for “Obamacare” in this article. (Daily briefing, Advisory Board)

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October 14, 2016 at 10:14 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – October 7, 2016

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Antibiotic Resistance

World health leaders agree on action to combat antimicrobial resistance, warning of nearly 10 million deaths annually if left unchecked

World leaders committed to take action on antimicrobial resistance during their September 21, 2016 high-level meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance in New York. This is the first time Heads of State made a commitment to address the root cause of antimicrobial resistance in human health, animal health, and agriculture. Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization emphasized that “antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development, and security. The commitments made today must now be translated into swift, effective, lifesaving actions across the human, animal and environmental health sectors. We are running out of time.”

The committed countries pledged to strengthen regulation of antimicrobials, improve knowledge and awareness, and promote best practices. World leaders also agreed to foster innovative approaches using alternatives to antimicrobials and new technologies for diagnosis and vaccines. The committed countries will base their national action plans on the Global Action Plan on Microbial Resistance, a blueprint developed in 2015 by the World Health Organization along with Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health. (United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases)


Documents reveal intense battle over CDC Zika tests

In addition to battling the spread of Zika infections, the Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC) is currently in an internal battle with determining which test will be best in diagnosing someone with the disease. Robert Lanciotti is the Chief of the Diagnostics and Reference Activity in the Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases in Fort Collins, CO. At the center of the debate is the agency’s prioritization of the Trioplex real-time PCR-based assay that tests for Zika, dengue, and chikungunya over the Singleplex assay which only detects Zika, which Lanciotti’s research found to be 39% more effective than the Trioplex assay.

Lanciotti claimed that the CDC “created a substantial and specific danger to public health” when it did not disclose lower sensitivity of the test it used. Lanciotti was subsequently reassigned to a non-supervisory position in his laboratory who then filed a whistleblower retaliation claim with the US Office of Special Counsel. Lanciotti alleged that the demotion was because of his concerns with the Zika test. Lanciotti has since been reinstated as director of his lab. In addition, the Office of Special Counsel requested that the CDC investigate Lanciotti’s concerns with the sensitivity of the Trioplex test.

The CDC’s own investigation found that Dr. Lanciotti’s allegations “are not substantiated by the available evidence.” The CDC ruled that “[t]here is insufficient, statistically robust, definitive data to reach an evidence-based conclusion that use of the Trioplex assay over the Singleplex in clinical practice will result in 39 percent of Zika virus infections being missed.” The CDC also noted that it is continuing to improve on the Trioplex assay such as enabling testing laboratories to use larger sample volumes in order to increase the assay’s limit of detection. The Trioplex assay is still approved for use as a method of detecting Zika virus, dengue, and chikungunya. (Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)

Research Funding

HHMI Launches New Program for Early-Career Scientists

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) recently launched a new program to recruit and retain early-career scientists that are underrepresented in the life sciences. These individuals include those coming from a disadvantaged background. The selected HHMI scientists will become Hanna H. Gray fellows, named after Hanna H. Gray, former chair of the HHMI Trustees and former president of the University of Chicago.

The purpose of the Gray Fellows Program is to find and encourage talented students and early scientists that are committed to continuing their scientific training in the nation’s top laboratories. The Hanna H. Gray Fellows grant competition is open to all eligible applicants and no nomination is required.  Selected fellows are required to devote at least 75 percent of their total effort to research during both the postdoctoral training and faculty phases of the award. In addition, part of the goal for the program is to position Gray fellows to be competitive for NIH grants and other awards when they transition to the faculty phase of their careers. (Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

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October 7, 2016 at 11:12 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 4, 2016

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By: Cheryl Smith, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Health Policy

FDA approves first drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug, Exondys 51, to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare, debilitative disease that destroys muscle and confines boys to wheelchairs and eventually death. The decision was made by the FDA in opposition to its own medical staffers who questioned the effectiveness of the drug. One of the key issues medical staffers were concerned about was whether the drug can produce a sufficient amount of a protein called dystrophin to reverse muscle damage and, as a consequence, overall mobility and strength.

However, patients and their families lobbied hard for drug approval. Laura McLinn, an Indiana mother whose 7-year-old son has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, was in tears Monday when she heard the news of the drug’s approval. “I’m really overwhelmed,” McLinn said. “We’ve been waiting a long time to hear this.”

In reaching its decision, the agency essentially overruled its own medical staffers, who earlier this year questioned the effectiveness of the drug over concerns about a small clinical trial. The wrangling raised still larger questions about standards for approving a drug, but some FDA officials also acknowledged that unmet medical needs for patients with some rare diseases warranted endorsement under a program known as accelerated approval. (Ed Silverman, Scientific American)

Biotechnology and Forensics

DNA breakthrough finally gives ‘a face to this crime.’ But can it solve a woman’s 1992 murder?

Lisa Ziegert was murdered in 1992 and her killer was not found, however, a sliver of her attacker’s DNA was recovered. But that DNA lead went cold – like all the other evidence in the case. Now, prosecutors say that the DNA left by Ms. Ziegert’s attacker has given them a new lead in the case as well as a face. The Reston-based company Parabon Nanolabs has developed a new technology that uses DNA to make predictions about the suspect’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape. The DNA technology uses these characteristics to reconstruct faces based on DNA characteristics.

In the past, DNA has typically been used as a biometric identifier capable of identifying individuals with great certainty. Now, this technology can literally put a face to a crime.

Ms. Ziegert’s killer, according to Parabon, was likely a man of European descent with hazel eyes and brown or black hair. For the first time in twenty-four years, we have a face to this crime,” Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said in a statement released Wednesday. “The technology we have put to use is at the leading edge of the industry. No expense, effort, or means will be spared to bring the person(s) to justice who killed Lisa. We will never forget her.” (Cleve R. Wootson Jr., The Washington Post)

Biomedical Research

Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan wins Nobel prize for study of ‘self-eating’ cells

Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 3, 2016 for his discovery of autophagy – a Greek term for “self-eating”. It is a crucial process for cellular survival. During starvation, cells are able to break down proteins and reuse them for energy internally running their recycling plant for survival. Autophagy is also critical during infections and can serve to protect the cell by destroying invading viruses or bacteria and then sending them for recycling. Cells can also use autophagy to get rid of damaged protein structures. In diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, or immunological diseases, autophagy is thought to be defective. The importance of this cellular recycling mechanism was not known until Dr. Ohsumi studied the process in baker’s yeast in the 1990s.

Dr. Ohsumi received his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1974 in molecular biology. His ‘unimpressive’ Ph.D. thesis made it difficult for him to find a job. His advisor suggested a postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University in New York where he was to study in vitro fertilization in mice. Because Dr. Ohsumi grew ‘very frustrated’ he switched to studying the duplication of DNA in yeast. This work led him to a junior professorship at the University of Tokyo where he began his autophagy work. Dr. Ohsumi later moved to the National Institute for Basic Biology, in Okazaki, and since 2009, has been a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

“All I can say is, it’s such an honor,” Dr. Ohsumi told reporters at the Tokyo Institute of Technology after learning he had been awarded the Nobel, according to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. “I’d like to tell young people that not all can be successful in science, but it’s important to rise to the challenge.” (Gina Kolata and Sewell Chan, New York Times)

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October 4, 2016 at 9:02 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 30, 2016

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By: Jessica Hostetler, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Human Genetic Manipulation

World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique

On September 27, 2016, the New Scientist reported the birth of a baby born with DNA from three people. The now five-month old healthy baby boy was born in New York to a Jordanian couple who had struggled for years to have a healthy child. The baby’s mother had genes for the lethal Leigh syndrome, a neurological disorder typically resulting in death in 1-3 years after birth, from which her first two children had died. These genes were carried in about 25% of her mitochondria, the energy producers for cells, which contain 37 genes separated from the thousands of other genes held inside the cell’s nucleus. Mitochondrial genes are only passed down from mothers through the mitochondria present in the mother’s egg before being fertilized by a father’s sperm.

The couple worked with US-based fertility expert John Zhang from the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City to undergo an approach for mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT) called spindle nuclear transfer. Dr. Zhang transferred the nucleus of one of the mother’s eggs into a donor egg, which had the nucleus removed but contained healthy mitochondria. Several of these eggs were then fertilized with the father’s sperm to make 5 embryos with nuclear genes from both the father and the mother and mitochondria from the donor. The only healthy embryo was then implanted into the mother, and resulted in the birth of a healthy baby boy, with 99% healthy mitochondria.

This type of egg manipulation is now legal in the UK, though effectively banned in the US, so the team completed the fertility work in Mexico, which lacks clear regulations for the procedure. While several people such as Sian Harding who reviewed ethics for the UK guidelines, and legal scholar Rosario Isasi (from a Nature article), have acknowledged that Zhang’s group appears to have followed ethical guidelines, questions remain about the ethics, quality and safety of the technique.

The report was covered in a number of additional articles and commentaries, including in the New York Times, Science, and Nature. The commentaries note that researchers are eager for more information on a host of fronts such as the choice of using Mexico as the site of the work (as opposed to a more regulated and rigorous scientific environment) and the threshold of contaminating maternal mitochondria used in transfers (5%). These and other specifics are likely to come up when Dr. Zhang and team report on the case at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in October, 2016. (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist)

Health Policy

Why do obese patients get worse care? Many doctors don’t see past the fat

One in three Americans is obese; despite this fact, doctors and the healthcare system remain ill equipped in “attitudes, equipment and common practices” to treat obese patients. Beyond equipment issues, such as 90% of ERs and 80% of hospitals lacking M.R.I. machines built to accommodate very obese patients, research into bias against obese patients (both conscious and unconscious) shows that healthcare providers spend less time with such patients and refer them for fewer diagnostic tests. The same review reports that doctors feel less respect for obese patients and are more likely to stereotype them as “lazy, undisciplined and weak-willed,” all of which can negatively impact communication in the doctor-patient relationship, which in turn affects quality of care. In an effort to address the problem, the American Board of Obesity Medicine was founded to educate physicians about patient care and provide certification for achieving “competency in obesity care.”

Currently, these attitudes can lead health care providers to misdiagnose symptoms as being obesity-related instead of fully investigating other, potentially life threatening causes. Drug dosing may often be incorrect for obese people, particularly for cancer drug regimens for which obese individuals have worse outcomes across the board. Many orthopedists refuse joint hip and knee replacement surgery for obese patients unless they lose weight, though a review committee from the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons recommends a measured approach including options for surgery in some patients after the risks are discussed. The problems obese patients face may be exacerbated by the risk-averse hospital culture where adverse event scores affect Medicare reimbursements; thus pushing hospitals to avoid helping higher-risk patients. Beyond this there is a distinct lack of guidance from drug makers for correct dosing of anethesia drugs, with only a few examples, for instance a report from Dr. Hendrikus Lemmens out of Stanford University. Dr. Lemmens notes that 20-30% of obese-patient stays in intensive care after surgery are due to anesthetic complications and are likely frequently caused by drug dosing errors. Providing quality healthcare will likely only increase as the numbers of obese patients continue to increase in the US. (Gina Kolata, New York Times)

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September 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 27, 2016

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

Source: pixabay

Alzheimer’s Disease

Larger studies are under way to test whether the promising early data holds up

Recent clinical trials reported that the drug “Aducanumab” might remove toxic amyloid-β proteins thought to trigger Alzheimer’s disease from the brain. In the study involving 165 people, 103 patients received the drug once a month for 54 weeks and the other group received a placebo. Patients receiving infusions of aducanumab experienced a reduction in the amount of amyloid-β in their brains, which was in accordance with the findings of a pretrial mouse study in which the drug cleared amyloid-β plaques from the animals’ brains. “This drug had a more profound effect in reversing amyloid-plaque burden than we have seen to date,” says psychiatrist Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

Whether aducanumab works to ameliorate the memory and cognitive losses associated with Alzheimer’s is currently under phase III clinical trials. Scientists have debated for years whether accumulation of amyloid-β causes memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This trial is in favor of the “amyloid hypothesis”, and suggests that elimination of the protein might alleviate the symptoms. In the past, other Alzheimer’s drugs have looked promising in early-stage trials, but ended in failure and even caused deaths of patients because of brain inflammation. Aducanumab also showed abnormalities on brain-imaging scans but it was in less than one-third of the patients. Hence, to avoid death of participants, researchers closely monitored such anomalies in these Alzheimer’s trials. All of the reported imaging abnormalities eventually disappeared in about 4 to 12 weeks, and no patients were hospitalized.

Patients who received higher doses of the drug, or who had genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, were more likely to develop the brain anomalies. Accordingly, Biogen — the company that makes aducanumab —adjusted the drug’s dosage and the monitoring schedule for people with genetic risks for Alzheimer’s in its phase III trials.

Aducanumab is a bright spot in the field of Alzheimer’s therapeutics after years of failed antibody and other types of drug trials. “This is the best news we’ve had in my 25 years of doing Alzheimer’s research, and it brings hope to patients and families affected by the disease,” says neurologist Stephen Salloway of Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, who was on the team that ran the initial trial. (Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

Clinical Trials

Investigators are now required to disclose all clinical trials, whether successful or not

On 16th September 2016, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the new rules for clinical-trial disclosures. According to the new law, it is required that all researchers must report the design and results of all clinical trials whether successful or not. The revised law also empowers the government to enforce penalties for those who fail to comply. The new rule will be effective from 18th January onwards and researchers have 90 days to comply. The disappointing results of clinical trials will no longer remain unpublished, and the new rule intends to crack down on the large number of clinical trials that are conducted but never reported. Robert Califf, head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, “A lot of major universities just miss the point that if you do an experiment on a person and get consent, you really have the obligation to make the results known.”

The old rule mandated that researchers conducting trials with human subjects had to register their study with the HHS website,, before starting their work, and should follow up with information about their methods and results. But there were many exceptions and loopholes which created a lot of ambiguity. This allowed researchers to avoid reporting all the trials, particularly the failed ones. Christopher Gill, a health researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts says, “This can bias the literature and obscure important information on whether an experimental therapy is harmful. From the perspective of consumers and science, failures are as important as successes”.

Under the new rule, all trials must be registered on within 21 days of enrolling their first patient and researchers can no longer wait for the results of their trials to report their data. Additionally the NIH’s companion rule edicts that NIH-funded researchers have to register phase I trials and also trials that do not involve an FDA-regulated product, such as behavioral interventions. Further changes dictate reporting the details of plans to conduct trials, outlining the statistics to be used to analyze the results, and revealing any changes in the protocol over the course of the study. The final HHS rules will give regulators a greater ability to enforce existing regulations, because many studies of drugs that are eventually licensed are still not reported. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

Income Inequality

Wages for top scientists are shooting skywards while others are being left behind

Income inequality in science is in the rise and is evident in all universities across several countries. The salary gap between elite scientists and those toiling in the benches is expanding over the past few decades. Limited data on the salaries of scientists is available making it difficult to determine the full extent and causes of income inequality. “But the gap in wages has reached a point at which it could be driving talented young people away from careers in academic science”, says Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The results of Nature‘s 2016 salary survey also support this concern.

One of the metrics used to measure disparities in salaries is the Gini coefficient in which 0 means everyone earns the same and 1 indicates maximum inequality. In 2012, economist Paula Stephan found that the Gini coefficient has more than doubled between 1973 and 2006 in most fields and faculty ranks in science, with the biggest increases in the life sciences. In contrast, it grew only 35% for full-time male earners in the United States and 18% for US households.

A major issue responsible for the rise of the Gini coefficient is the doubling of the National Institutes of Health’s budget during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This created competition among institutions for a small pool of top-ranked, grant-winning scientists. Everybody wanted to employ the most productive scientists who could bring in grants thus driving up the salaries. “One way for universities to minimize risk is to pick someone who is a demonstrated winner,” says Donna Ginther, a labour economist at the University of Kansas. Like the US, in the UK too, the salaries of top-earning professors have been pulling away from the pack since the late 1990s. An analysis of full-professor salaries in UK in July suggested that low ranking universities, to improve their REF (Research Excellence Framework – an assessment, done by UK funding agencies roughly every five years) performance, are offering high salaries to recruit researchers with high-quality papers to boost their scores. A similar trend is seen in other countries like China and Germany.

On the other end of the salary spectrum, there is little pressure to boost pay. With grants getting harder to win, labs are employing low-cost workforce to maximize research output. This labor environment benefits from the willingness of postdocs to sacrifice income for a chance at an academic research career. Even those lucky enough to land offers for tenure-track junior faculty positions find that starting salaries are not very negotiable.

High salaries at the top can attract productive workers, but low pay at the bottom signals that there may not be a good future in this career. If big rewards become concentrated among a smaller group of people in a highly competitive area, then others who could still have been productive scientists end up losing a disproportionate amount in terms of earnings and career prospects and it could keep promising people from further pursuing a research career. (Corie Lok, Nature)

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September 27, 2016 at 11:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 23, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: pixabay

Biomedical Research

BRAIN Initiative might get a global boost

While politicians met at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, another meeting of a more scientific variety was going on nearby at Rockefeller University. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted a meeting to organize neuroscientists from across the globe to develop new ideas to organize their field of research. The US BRAIN initiative was launched in 2013 as an effort to study key issues in neuroscience, such as how the brain connects and functions at the cellular and systems levels. Worldwide, other countries have similar initiatives in place or in planning, thus NSF wanted to get a feel of how data and resources could be shared between scientists regardless of country. For example, Japan and China are investing heavily in primate research, while America and Europe tend to shy away from these organisms, but put more focus on basic research and clinical applications.

One problem that neuroscientists encounter as they compare research findings is differences in data acquisition and processing, with each lab having their own in-house protocols and analyses. A global repository of data with access to super computers and/or powerful microscopes for all could be a boon for how neuroscience research of the future is performed. Other researchers voiced concerns over the possibility that a global project would re-direct funds from local and national sources. This new neuroscience “club” could also create yet another economic hurdle for developing nations’ scientists to overcome.

Politicians at the UN General Assembly voiced their support for an International Brain Initiative, and were met by cautious enthusiasm from neuroscientists. Time will tell if a truly global approach to neuroscience materializes, but political and financial support for neuroscience research makes this an exciting time to be a scientist. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

2016 Presidential Elections

How do the candidates stack up on science?

With the first presidential debate scheduled for Monday, September 26, our nation continues a heated election season with two powerful candidates. Although science is generally low on the priority list for the voting public, it remains an integral part of how our educated nation works. Research influences broad issues in public policy, and policy influences how science gets funded and moves forward.

The candidates have some points of agreement and points of contention for various scientific topics. For example, both Trump and Clinton support NASA and space exploration, although Trump is more eager for a private sector endeavor. Both Trump and Clinton support vaccines in children, with Trump having some reservations, but for other issues of public health such as funding for biomedical research, Clinton has clear proposals for increasing funding, while Trump seems more skeptical than supportive of funding NIH.

Neither candidate has voiced strong opinions on the use of genetically modified foods. However, Clinton does support food labeling, citing a “right to know”, while the Republican Party opposes making labels mandatory. In addition, neither candidate has made a clear statement about gun research; while Clinton has proposed many changes to gun control, Trump supports a right to carry at the national level. Improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a topic about which Clinton is passionate, while Trump’s stance is less clear. He maintains that education should be on a locally managed level, which means geography would impact the availability of quality STEM programs.

The strongest point of contention is regarding climate change, where Clinton proposes creating clean energy jobs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while Trump considers climate change a hoax and vowed to use American-produced natural gas and oil and reverse the EPA’s moratorium on new coal mining permits.

Overall the candidates have said little regarding these top scientific issues, but based on what they have said in the past, there are certain issues they agree on, while others are divisive in both politics and for the general public. (Science News Staff, ScienceNews)

Biomedical Training

It’s postdoc appreciation week!

In 2009 the US House of Representatives officially declared a week of appreciation for the forces which move scientific research: the postdoc. Postdoctoral fellows/researchers (postdocs) are research scientists who have completed a PhD and continue their training under a more established principle investigator in order to expand their research experience and launch their careers. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) pioneered the celebrations in 2010, giving postdocs perks such as career fairs, ice cream socials, and free tickets to local events. Although some of these perks may seem superficial, the larger goal of this week is to bring attention to the plight of these mid-career scientists.

Recently postdocs have been an increasingly vocal part of the research community, as their numbers swell and job prospects appear bleak. Under the organization of the NPA, postdocs have won increases in stipend (pay) levels dictated by the NIH. The NPA has also provided recommendations, information and guidance to the White House and other policy branches of the government. Their goals are to enhance postdoctoral training experiences and opportunities for postdocs in academic and government research settings. The US is placing more focus on getting students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, however biomedical PhDs are being produced at an unsustainable rate for academia, government and industry to employ. By celebrating postdoc appreciation week, the focus is briefly shifted to the other end of the pipeline, where conditions must improve if more people are to be inspired to join at the entry point.

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September 23, 2016 at 3:29 pm