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Posts Tagged ‘America COMPETES

Science Policy Around the Web – May 18, 2015

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

Agriculture and Food Policy

Food industry braces for Obama trans fat ban

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

Antibiotic resistance

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

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

Federal Funding

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

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

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May 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 17, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

photo credit: MJ/TR (´・ω・) via photo pin cc

Genomics in Medicine

Personalizing Cancer Treatment With Genetic Tests Can Be Tricky

Since the New Year, President Obama, backed by National Institutes of Health Director, Dr. Francis Collins, has rejuvenated an initiative to use the human genome to make more informed medical decisions in health care. Since the completed endeavor to sequence the human genome was published in 2001, scientists and physicians have used this information to better understand the underlying complexities of human behavior, health, and disease. As a consequence, many areas in medicine use human genetic information as a diagnostic to guide treatment regimens.

More and more oncologists, or cancer doctors, are relying on genetic tests of a patients’ tumor to help guide cancer treatment. However, given the complexity of our genome coupled with our limited understanding of the millions of A, T, C, and G’s encoding our genetic information, oftentimes much of the information generated from genetic tests can be ambiguous. Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine say there is a way to make these tests more meaningful.

One of the main issues with genetic testing of tumors is that they harbor mutations and it is unclear which mutation is the key to killing the cancer cell, thus, making a therapeutic decision difficult. In this regard, the researchers suggest not only conducting genetic tests on the cancer of the patient, but also conducting genetic tests on healthy, normal tissue of the patient. In this way, physicians and researchers can detect cancer-specific mutations as these mutations would only be present in the cancer, but not the normal, healthy tissue.

This is not to say that current genetic tests conducted on cancer are not trustworthy. They, indeed, are quite reliable at identifying mutations that are clearly linked to certain cancers. This group asserts that in those cases where this approach does not work, that additional sequencing of the normal, healthy tissue as a means of comparison may help improve the diagnostic quality of those tumors that produce ambiguous results. The future of cancer diagnostics is a booming, changing, field and much is to remain to be seen in regards to consistency of tactic used. (Richard Harris, NPR)

Federal Research Funding

Controversy awaits as House Republicans roll out long-awaited bill to revamp U.S. research policy

The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES Act, was signed by President Bush in 2007 and it became law on August 9, 2007. The COMPETES Act sets funding targets for select physical science agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and two offices with the Department of Energy (DOE): the Office of Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E.

Authored by the panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), there are provisions to the reauthorization act that scientists are likely to find interesting.

  • NSF spending: The bill would authorize $126 million less than President Obama requested but $253 more than NSF’s current budget. It relocates NSF’s budget to the natural sciences and engineering at the expense of the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences. To add injury to insult, additional cuts from the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences are expected.
  • DOE R&D: At least in 2016, the bill funds most Office of Science programs but the budget remains flat in 2017. Cuts will occur in the more applied renewable energy programs and new energy technologies. Interestingly, funding will boost in the areas on fossil and nuclear energy.
  • Peer review: Since Smith became chair in 2013, this has been a major area of debate regarding how NSF reviews the 50,000 or so requests for funding it receives from scientists every year. Apparently Smith and the NSF Director, France Córdova, have agreed upon legislation that will not “[…]alter[ing] the Foundation’s intellectual merit or broader impacts criteria for evaluating grant applications.”
  • NSF’s portfolio: This section of the bill gives NSF the responsibility “to evaluate scientific research programs undertaken by [other] agencies of the federal government.” This language apparently wants NSF to judge other research agencies about how they are facilitating their research programs. This is quite an awkward and broad demand. It still remains to be seen how this will play out.
  • Large new facilities: This section of the bill tries to rein in “wasteful spending” by requiring the NSF to correct any problems identified by an independent audit on a project’s expected cost before starting construction. However, the bill also restricts spending from contingency funds “[…] to those occurrences that are foreseeable with certainty … and supported by verifiable cost data.” This is interesting language given the need of a contingency fund is to fund unexpected occurrences.
  • Administrative burden: This part of the bill supports reducing administrative oversight in the form of government oversight and regulations. The bill argues that administrative costs are high and costly and these monies could be used to fund research. Instead, the bill will have the White House science advisor convene an inter-agency panel.
  • NIST: The bill increases NIST’s budget; however, falls short of President Obama’s request.

The good news is that the COMPETES bill has finally been reauthorized. However, controversy awaits as to the effectiveness of the reauthorized bill. (Jeffrey Mervis and David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)

Climate Policy

Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needs to broaden its perspective by adding more social scientists. The organization is akin to a moth to a flame— focusing attention on a well-lit pool of the brightest climate science. But the insights that matter are not readily viewed and are far from the bright light of the debate. The IPCC has involved only a narrow slice of social-sciences disciplines: economics. The other social sciences were mostly absent. Bringing the broader social sciences into the IPCC may prove challenging, but it is achievable if they adapt a strategy that reflects how the fields are organized and which policy-relevant questions these disciplines know well. The IPCC has proved to be important. But presently, it is too narrow and must not monopolize climate assessment. In the future, reforming the organization will benefit the conversation surrounding climate change greatly and move contentious work into other forums. (David Victor, Nature)

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April 17, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 7, 2014

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D

photo credit: subarcticmike via photopin cc


Newly discovered fossil could prove a problem for creationists

Ichthyosaurs were dolphin-like reptiles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs. These aquatic predators are thought to have evolved from land-dwelling ancestors that eventually returned to the water. Because of gaps in the fossil record, a definitive link between these proposed terrestrial reptiles and the ichthyosaur has been lacking. A study recently published in Nature identifies a semiaquatic reptile that appears to partially fill that gap. The creature, named Cartorhynchus lenticarpus, was recovered from China’s Anhui Province in 2011. Close analysis of the specimen identified C. lenticarpus as the oldest ichthysauriform identified to date. Unlike its descendant, C. lenticarpus had a shorter snout as well as large flippers, flexible wrists, and thicker bones which would have allowed them to troll shallow waters without being swept away by coastal waves. This animal lived approximately 4 million years after the earth’s largest mass extinction. Lead author of the study, Ryosuke Montani, said the amphibian “was probably one of the first predators to appear after that extinction.”  The next step? Find C. lenticarpus’ predecessor.  (Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post)


Ebola Outbreak – Vaccine Research

Nasal spray vaccine has potential for long-lasting protection from Ebola virus

A nasal spray vaccine developed by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin provided long-term protection in a non-human primate model after challenge with 1,000 plaque-forming units of Ebola Zaire, the strain responsible for the current outbreak in West Africa. The nasal vaccine resulted in 100 percent survival (3 out of 3 animals) 150 days post-immunization, in contrast to only 50% survival in primates vaccinated by standard intra-muscular injection. Results of the study, co-authored by Dr. Maria Croyle, graduate student Kristina Jonsson-Schmunck, and colleagues from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg were published this week in the online edition of Molecular Pharmaceuticals. While the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to rage with a fatality rate as high as 70%, there remains no licensed vaccine. Officials have declared the outbreak a public health emergency. According to Jonsson-Schmunck, “There is a desperate need for a vaccine that not only prevents continued transmission from person to person, but also aids in controlling future incidents.” This is the first study to examine the longevity of an Ebola vaccine and the first to demonstrate efficacy from a single-dose, non-injectable formulation. Use of a nasal spray is preferable to needle-based vaccines in terms of both cost and safety. A Phase I clinical trial is planned to test the vaccine’s efficacy in human subjects. (ScienceDaily, Mark Prigg, MailOnLine)


Federal Science Policy

After Election 2014: COMPETES Reauthorization

In the coming year, Congress will likely seek to reauthorize important legislation governing research and science education. The America COMPETES Act expired last year and has yet to be extended although two different congressional committees have emerged with strikingly opposed revisions to the previous 2010 COMPETES law. Democratic Senator John Rockefeller (who has chosen to retire and will not be returning to the Senate in January) introduced S. 2757 in July. This bill seeks to make good on the 2007 and 2010 COMPETES Act by doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The increase in NSF funding would be applied to all fields of research, including the social sciences and the NSF’s current peer review system would be maintained. The bill also provides for the continuation of federal outreach and educational activities. In stark contrast, Republican Representative Lamar Smith has crafted the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. FIRST authorizes NSF programs for only 1 year with a small increase in the current budget. However, the bill also specifically allocates the funds within the foundation’s six research directorates, slashing funding for the social sciences. Smith’s bill has raised strong opposition from the scientific community who are not only pushing for a substantial, long-term budget, but are equally committed to their own peer review process for awarding research dollars. Although Republicans will control both the House and Senate come January, COMPETES may still have a fighting chance. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the anticipated new head of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, expressed support for COMPETES legislation in 2013; and fellow Republican Senator John Thune, predicted chair of the commerce and science committee, while not coming out in support of COMPETES reauthorization, has endorsed the development of a research facility in his home state of South Dakota. Regardless of whether House and Senate can agree, the White House will still play a major role in dictating policy, making a lengthy battle over reauthorization likely. (Jeffrey Mervis, ScienceInsider)



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm