Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Posts Tagged ‘biomedical research

How Science Policy Affects Pandemic Pathogen Research

leave a comment »

By: Samuel Porter, PhD

         In 2012, a pair of studies were published in Nature and Science weeks apart igniting one the biggest national debates about science in recent memory. These studies demonstrated that a few mutations in the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of influenza virus (colloquially known as “bird flu”) could enable it to be transmitted through the air to mammals. At the heart of controversy was the question of whether scientists should be creating more virulent and/or pathogenic strains of deadly viruses in the lab. This controversial research is known as “gain of function” studies.

Critics claimed that the research was too dangerous that the risk of an accidental or deliberate release of these lab strains was far greater than the scientific and public health benefits. In an attempt to respond to the growing concern over their work, the community of researchers working with these pathogens voluntarily agreed to suspend this gain of function research for 60 days to discuss new policies on conducting the research safely.

But that was not enough to satisfy critics of the research, who continued to lobby the Obama administration to take official action. On October 17, 2014 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), abruptly announced a pause on all U.S. Government funding of gain of function research on influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus until the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) could make recommendations for policy regulating the research going forward. The NSABB was formed in 2005 (in the wake of the anthrax attacks in 2001), and is composed of scientists from universities around the nation, and administrators from 14 separate agencies in the federal government. The board reports to the Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS) and is tasked primarily with recommending policies to the relevant government entities on preventing published research in the biological sciences from negatively impacting national security and public health.

The move drew harsh criticism from researchers in the field, many of whom thought that it was too broad. They claimed it would jeopardize their ability to predict, detect, and respond to potentially emerging pandemics. In the private sector, several companies said that the order would prevent them from working on new antiviral drugs and vaccines. Furthermore, many young scientists worried that an inability to do their experiments could jeopardize their careers. In an effort to bring attention to the issue, many scientists (including the two flu researchers whose research triggered the pause) formed the group Scientists for Science, which advocates against blanket bans on research. In addition, researchers were especially upset by the recommendation of the NSABB to censor the publications resulting from the experiments due to fears that this research could have a “dual use” that would threaten national security. However, not all researchers in the field support gain of function research (the opposition group is called Cambridge Working Group) and maintain that the risks of the research outweigh benefits.

The moratorium lasted until January 9th, 2017, when the OSTP released the guidelines for funding this research in the future. The new rules are essentially the same recommendations put forth by the NSABB seven months earlier. The NSABB had concluded that these studies involving “potentially pandemic pathogens” (PPP) do indeed have important benefits to public health, but warranted additional screening prior to funding approval. It directed federal agencies to create a pre-funding review mechanism using eight criteria (including whether the pathogen is likely to cause a naturally occurring pandemic, and if there are alternative methods of answering the scientific question). The results of these reviews must be reported to the White House OSTP. Importantly, the policy was implemented in the final days of the Obama administration rather than leave it to the incoming Trump administration, who, as of this date, has yet to fill nearly any top science positions, and may not have issued guidance for months, if at all.  Researchers welcomed the decision to finally lift the ban, but questioned when the projects would be allowed to resume.

What can we learn from this situation from a science policy perspective? First, we must learn not to overreact to hysteria regarding the risks of this type of research. Indeed, there are risks in performing research on potentially pandemic strains of influenza and other pathogens, as there are with other types of research. But issuing overly broad, sweeping moratoriums halting ground breaking research for years is not the answer, nor is government censorship of academic publication. While in the end, the studies were given the green light to resume, and were published without modification, there is no making up for the lost time. These studies are not machines than can simply be turned on and off on a whim without repercussions. When we delay research into learning how viruses become pandemic, we hurt our ability to detect and respond to naturally occurring outbreaks. Additionally, when American scientists are prevented from doing research that other countries are still pursuing, American leadership in the biomedical sciences is at a competitive disadvantage. (The European Academies Science Advisory Council also recently updated its recommendations for PPP research in 2015, but did not institute a moratorium.) What we learn from these studies could potentially save countless lives. Secondly, the freedom to publish without any government censorship must be valiantly defended in any and all fields, especially with a new administration with an aggressively anti-science and anti-climate stance. Lastly, the scientific community must do a better job educating the public both on the importance of these studies from a public health perspective, and on the precautions put into place to ensure that these studies are conducted safely.

In the future, there will inevitably be debates over the safety or ethics of the latest experiments in a particular field. In attempting to wade through the murky waters of a complex controversy, science policy makers should make decisions that balance public health, safety, and ethics, rather than reactionary policies like censorships and moratoriums.

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 21, 2017 at 8:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – April 4, 2017

leave a comment »

By: James Taylor, PhD

Photo source: pixabay.com

Research Funding

NIH Research Grants Yield Economic Windfall

Assessing the social and economic benefits of basic research – research conducted with no clear medical or financial goal in mind – has is often tricky with the former being philosophical in nature whilst the later sometimes coming years later from unexpected angles. A classic example of this process is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which was built on basic research on DNA replication in bacteria from hot springs published years before its invention.  Critics of publicly funded research often take studies out of context in order to ridicule them, such as Sarah Palin’s infamous “fruit flies” comment.

A recent analysis of the economic effects of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding has shone light on the economic benefits of basic research. Danielle Li and colleagues found that although 8.4% of NIH grants between 1980 and 2007 led directly to patents, 30.8% produced a scientific article which was later cited in a commercial patent for a drug, device or other medical technology. This demonstrates an enormous but indirect benefit of publically funded research. Furthermore, when the studies were broken down into basic or applied (research with a stated medical or commercial goal) they found no difference between the two in terms of how likely they were to be cited in a patent. This should give funding bodies pause for thought, as it calls into question their growing emphasis on applied research.

Taking into account the indirect effects of NIH funded research, the authors estimate that every $1 in NIH funding returns $1.40 in drug sales. This report is timely with proposed budget cuts for science funding looming large in the horizon, and exposes such cuts as sheer economic folly. (Elie Dolgin, Nature News)

HIV/AIDS

HIV Infections are Spiking Among Young Gay Chinese

Recent surveys of HIV infections in China have shown a worrying spike in HIV infections among young gay and bisexual men, and have sparked the implementation of a broad 5-year plan to raise awareness and boost research into new treatments by the country’s ruling State Council. In the early 2000s, HIV infections were most prevalent amongst drug users in China, but there has been a steady decrease in prevalence amongst this group. The increase in HIV infections amongst men who have sex with men (MSM) has bucked this trend, and instead has been rising at an alarming rate. The cause of this increase remains unknown, with researchers at the National Health and Family Planning Commission in Beijing and China Medical University in Shenyang rather hopelessly suggesting that it was “possibly due to several unidentified and yet unaddressed risky sexual behaviors”.

China has previously mounted an effective response to the initial HIV epidemic by providing free antiretroviral to all HIV patients. This does little good, however, if you are afraid to admit you have HIV because it may out you as gay or bisexual. Despite recent improvements in LGBT rights and growing acceptance of LGBT people among the younger generation, being LGBT in China still carries with it significant stigma. This stigma, along with that of having HIV, may be causing young men to avoid seeking help out of fear. To reach out to gay men who may be at risk, the government and concerned nongovernmental organizations are working on novel outreach programs, such as working with dating apps popular with young gay and bisexual men to spread HIV awareness. The director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control (China CDC), Wu Zunyou, has proposed increasing the availability of HIV self-test kits and pre-exposure prophylaxis medications, both of which would help those at risk whilst lessening the pressure from social stigma. (Kathleen McLaughlin, Science)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 4, 2017 at 10:00 am

How to Make a Valuable Postdoctoral Experience: Updating the Model

leave a comment »

By: Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD

       To an outside observer, the scientific enterprise in the US appears to be thriving. The 2016 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was $31.3 billion. Of this, about 80% was distributed to research projects performed extramurally, pointing to the fact that hundreds of thousands of researchers nationwide, established scientists as well as trainees, benefit from the funding. Although the numbers are somewhat murky, it is likely that over 50% of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) receive some federal funds.

A more granular view of the reality of modern scientific training reveals its true complexity. In The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, a report on postdoctoral training in the US, the National Academies argue that there are serious issues in the way we train our young scientists today, including those having to do with recognition and compensation, mentorship, and career advising. Fundamentally, although the US has more postdocs than ever before, does this serve the individuals involved?

First some context. For those committed to a career in the biological sciences, the first stage of training is graduate study to acquire technical and field-specific skills, culminating in a PhD. Traditionally, the second is the postdoctoral stage, which provides additional technical experience and preparation for a future career, ideally culminating in a research position. In the US, approximately 65% of those with graduate degrees in the life sciences continue on to a postdoc which is the field with the highest rate of entry. The second highest is in the physical sciences, with only 50%. Although the quotidian experiences of the two may be similar, the graduate and postdoctoral stages are actually quite different, particularly since graduate training tends to have formal requirements and expectations while postdoctoral training, does not. This framework also has distinct benefits for the principle investigators (PIs). A major one is economic: junior scientists are a willing, and in the case of postdocs, highly trained, source of cheap labor (more on this below). On occasion, the work may be done at no cost to the PI if the trainee has funding from another source, although this is becoming proportionally less common.

When the postdoctoral arrangement was established in the early part of the 20th century, the training periods were typically 1-2 year stints in a lab to learn additional skills and consolidate connections in the field. After this, the young researcher would generally transition into an academic position. In the 1970’s, close to 55% of postdocs held tenure or tenure track faculty positions 6 years after completion of their graduate studies. Now, when a postdoc plans for his or her next career move, the situation is not so simple and this has aroused the concern of the National Academies. Partly, the difficulty is due to the number of available academic positions being outstripped by the number of postdocs in the pipeline. Data from 2006 show that only 33% of postdocs had faculty positions 6 years after graduate school and only half of those were tenured or tenure-track. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that the landscape of the scientific enterprise has evolved.

Most obviously, the demographics of the postdoc community are markedly different from those in the early 20th century resulting in different needs for trainees. As of 2014, women were receiving close to 50% of all life science doctorates awarded in the US. Gender parity at graduation has not carried through to the faculty level (where only approximately 25% of tenured faculty are women). Among the many potential causes for this decline, one is that many women leave the academic track due to the challenges in balancing a career with raising a family. Nonetheless, there are more women at all levels in the sciences than before, indicating that retention may be increased by supporting women during the time that their children are young. Holders of temporary visas comprise another important population, but there are very few concrete data pertaining to them. They obtain close to 25% of all doctorates in the biological sciences, and 80% of those who have jobs after graduation stay in the US. With this, there is significant flux into the system at the postdoc level. As a result, upwards of a third of all biomedical postdocs in the US are foreign nationals primarily from India and China. Since these people have never been counted, the best way to help them meet their goals and the role they play in the US scientific arena are undefined.

Another important change is that postdoctoral training periods have lengthened from 1-2 years to around 4 years. For those who want the training, this timeline extension is believed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to gain entry into the competitive world of academia. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of PIs under 36 has fallen from 18% from 1980 to 3% in 2010. For established investigators, the longer training times are advantageous. Postdoc salaries at research institutions generally amount to less than the combined tuition-plus-stipend package offered to graduate students. After a few years, a postdoc may conduct research at a level equivalent to that of permanent scientific staff but at a fraction of the cost – postdocs pull in anywhere from $40,000 to $49,000 a year, while staff will have full benefits and a salary closer to $80,000 a year. Given this, the challenge is to make a prolonged training period valuable, feasible, and non-exploitative for all who choose it.

Finally, there is growing evidence that a postdoc may not be the right choice for everyone. Most junior scientists feel limited by the now-classic dichotomy between pursuing research in academia and industry. The reality is that many other career options exist, although some are a step or two removed from pure research. These are in areas like consulting, intellectual property, and science policy. Some jobs will provide entry-level incomes greater than a postdoc, and may even lead to career prospects that are more secure than that in research. Entry level salaries for some careers in industry begin at $70,000 and mean salaries in industry can be $40,000 more than that in academia, and the age at first non-academic job is lower than that for academics. Critically, for those wishing to optimize some of these other aspects of their professional advancement, a postdoc may be unnecessary.

Taken together, these developments indicate a need to change the culture surrounding the postdoc. The essence of the National Academies’ recommendation to improve the postdoctoral experience is that the entire scientific community must treat it as a valuable training opportunity instead of basic employment. To this end, the minimum postdoctoral salary should be increased, even beyond the current $47,484.  The improved economics for trainees will have a number of benefits: it will place more value on these individuals, limit the number of postdocs an investigator may hire, perhaps encourage more women to stay in research, and make positions more competitive, lessening their use as a default employment option. Postdocs should also be encouraged to receive individual funds as proof of independence. There is some evidence that postdocs on their own fellowships are more satisfied than those funded by their lab, although it seems likely that people more committed to a career as a researcher are the ones most likely to apply for fellowships. Additionally, those who receive early career grants are more likely to receive independent investigator grants and faculty appointments. Finally, there is an argument for more staff positions as a measure to keep postdoctoral opportunities as dedicated training experiences.

For now, it is important for each researcher to decide whether it is in his or her best interest to embark on the postdoctoral route. Fortunately, career advising is increasingly available to trainees at all levels and the NIH and other groups have issued mentorship guidelines for postdocs. Overall, the entire scientific community must assist in returning value to a postdoc and in meaningful career development for all trainees.

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 27, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

Source: NIH Image Gallery on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Human Research Regulation

US Agency Releases Finalized ‘Common Rule’, Which Govern Human-Subjects Research

On September 8, 2015 the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed significant revisions to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects which is also known as the “Common Rule”. “Common Rule” is the set of federal regulations governing the conduct of clinical research involving human subjects. Among the proposed changes, an important one was regarding getting peoples’ consent before using the biological samples for subsequent studies. On 18th January 2017, the final version of the rule was released in which the proposed change was abandoned. This is a blow to the patient-privacy advocates, however the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine argued against that requirement and others citing that the changes would impose an undue burden on researchers and recommended that it be withdrawn.

The current version of Common Rule has generated mixed feelings among people. Researchers are happy that the government listened to scientists’ fears about increased research burdens whereas people like Twila Brase, president and co-founder of Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom in St Paul, Minnesota, are disappointed as they believe that these specific changes are ought to be made. Moreover the new version of the Common Rule requires that scientists include a description of the study, along with the risks and benefits, on the consent forms used by patients, and federally-funded trials should post patient consent forms online. However, these requirements do not extend to trials that are conducted with non-federal funds. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

Biomedical Research

An Open-Science Effort to Replicate Dozens of Cancer-Biology Studies is Off to a Confusing Start

The Reproducibility Project on Cancer Biology was launched in 2013 to scrutinize the findings of 50 cancer papers from high-impact journals. The aim is to determine the fraction of influential cancer biology studies that are sound. In 2012, researchers at the biotechnology firm Amgen performed a similar study and announced that they had failed to replicate 47 of 53 landmark cancer papers but they did not identify the studies involved. In contrast, the reproducibility project makes all its findings open. Full results should appear by the end of the year and eLife is already publishing five fully analyzed reports in January. Out of the five, one failed to replicate and the remaining four showed replication results that are less clear.

These five results paint a muddy picture for people waiting for the outcome to determine the extent of impact of these studies. Though some researchers praised the project, others feared unfair discredit of their work and career. According to Sean Morrison, a senior editor at eLife, the reason for the “uninterpretable” results is “Things went wrong with tests to measure the growth of tumors in the replication attempts and the replication researchers were not allowed to deviate from the protocols, which was agreed at the start of the projects in consultation with the original authors”. “Doing anything else — such as changing the experimental conditions or restarting the work — would have introduced bias”, says Errington, the manager of the reproducibility project.

According to Errington, the clearest finding from this project is that the papers include very few details about their methods. The replication researchers had to spend hours to work out the detailed protocols and reagents along with the original authors. Even after following the exact protocols, the final reports include many reasons why the replication studies might have turned out differently, including variations in laboratory temperatures to tiny variations in how a drug was delivered. He thinks that the project helps to bring out such confusing details to the surface, and it will be a great service for future follow up work to develop a cure for cancer. However, scientists think that such conflicts mean that the replication efforts are not very informative and couldn’t be compared to the original and will only cause delays in advancing future clinical trials. (Monya Baker and Elie Dolgin, Nature News)

 

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

Science Policy Around the Web – January 24, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Leopold Kong, PhD

Landfill by Dhscommtech at GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Environment

New Discovery Could Lead to a Safer Solution to Plastic Pollution

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a commonly used resin of the polyester family used in the fibers for clothing and liquid containers. In 2015 alone, 56 million tons of PET was produced. Although recyclable, with 1.5 billion pounds recovered annually in the United States, PET is not biodegradable and is a major presence in landfills. Screening 250 samples of contaminated soil, waste water and sludge from a bottle recycling factory for microorganisms that can grow on PET, a team of Japanese scientists has discovered a bacterium, Idoenella sakaiensis, that can break down this tough plastic. Recently spotlighted as a major breakthrough of 2016 by the American Chemical Society, research on the bacterium continues as scientists seek to unlock the mechanism behind the biodegradation pathway that was previously thought to be impossible. Professor Kenji Miyamoto, one of the study authors, said, “This is the first PET-degrading bacterium found [with potential] to develop a new and nature-friendly system”. (Research Highlights, Keio University).

Biomedical Research

Trump Asks NIH Director Francis Collins to Stay On

Last Thursday, on the eve of the inauguration, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that Dr. Francis Collins has been asked to continue his role as NIH director by the Trump administration for an unspecified time. This eleventh hour development came as Collins received back the letter of resignation he had sent late last year, something all presidential appointees do. If asked to stay on through this presidential term, Collins, part of Obama’s science ‘dream team’, would be the first NIH director since the 1970s to be chosen by two presidents.

Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania said, “In general, I think more than eight years has not been a good idea. There’s a cycle, and eight years is hard to have new ideas and new energy.”  Nonetheless, Collins, a National Academy of Sciences member who led the human genome project and a highly vocal Christian apologist, would serve as an effective bridge between the research community and the new Republican administration to secure much needed funding for basic research. Tony Mazzashi, senior director for policy and research at the Association schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington DC said, “ I think everyone in the research community will be thrilled.” (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

Public Health

Novavax Starts New Clinical Trial in Bid to Prove Failed RSV Vaccine

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a significant public health burden, infecting almost all children by age 2, with 5 to 20 out of 1,000 requiring hospitalization and with a mortality rate of 8 to 34 out of 10,000. Unfortunately, the development of an effective vaccine has been challenging. In the late 1960s, an RSV vaccine for infants devastatingly failed clinical trials with 80% of children receiving the shot being hospitalized. Recent advances in immunology and the RSV vaccine target has led to a new generation of potentially safer and more effective vaccine candidates from industry giants Novavax, GlaxoSmithKline, Global Vaccines, AstraZeneca and MedImmune. Also being explored is vaccination of expectant mothers to protect infants.

However, the field took a hit last year when Novavax’s candidate vaccine failed its phase 3 clinical trials, resulting in a 30% layoff of its workforce. Nonetheless, last Thursday, the company announced that it has started a new phase 2 trial on older adults in the southern hemisphere.  “We expect the results from this trial to inform the next steps in our older adults program and would ensure we maintain our leadership position in this very attractive market opportunity,” said Stanley Erck, president and CEO of Novavax. (Tina Reed, Washington Business Journal)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 24, 2017 at 10:04 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 13, 2017

leave a comment »

By: James Taylor, PhD

Source: pixabay

Brexit and Science

Scientists Need To Wake Up to the Opportunities of Brexit

The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union last July has raised numerous concerns about the future of science within the UK, most notably regarding access to EU funding, such as Horizon 2020, and the effect of new immigration controls on non-UK researchers and students. A recent House of Lords report has called for the UK government and scientists to come together and address these concerns.

Firstly, the government should engage scientists throughout the negotiation process and not just in regards to funding. Leaving the EU will require reworking and harmonizing numerous consumer protection, environmental and manufactory laws, for which technical advice is indispensible. The report welcomes the recent increase in science funding from the government, but states that any loss in EU funding should be compensated for. They recommend that both the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) appoint scientific advisors immediately.

Secondly, the report calls for the scientific community’s voice to be heard alongside that of business during the negotiations. The UK’s relationship with the EU has been consistently harmonious in regards to research, providing a solid point of agreement amongst more difficult negations.

Thirdly, the UK should explore research collaborations beyond the EU. The report suggests this could be realized if the UK were to offer to host a large, international research facility comparable to the Crick Institute or the Diamond Light Source. They also highlight the potential for industrial collaboration and reform of R&D taxation which would not be possible within the EU.

Immigration remains a key concern in regards to Brexit, with many EU scientists in the UK uncertain of their futures with many now considering leaving. The report emphasizes the need to attract and retain the best international talent going as far as to suggest 10 year research grants and support for immediate family for foreign scientific leaders. They also call for the government to clearly state how immigration laws will affect researchers coming to work in the UK, and that the number of international students coming to study in the UK should not count against any immigration targets. (Graeme Reid, The Guardian)

Biomedical Research

The New Face of US Science

A recent analysis has found that the face of biomedical research has changed considerably over the last few decades. The study, which pooled data on holders of PhDs working as biological or biomedical scientists from the Survey of Doctorate Recipients and the American Community Survey, found that the doubling of NIH funding between 1998 and 2004 had a profound effect on the demographics of the scientific workforce. The authors classify scientists who entered the workforce around this time (i.e. under 40s) as a new cohort, giving them the not so snappy title of “doubling boomers”.

The 1998 to 2004 funding increase meant the number of PhD graduates increased significantly during this time, but the lack of growth in academic positions and funding cuts mean that only 1 in 5 still work in academia (as compared to 1 in two in 1990). For the aspiring academic this may seem like terrible news, but the report also found that the majority of biomedical PhDs now work in the private sector where they earn around $30,000 more a year than their academic peers and report lower pressure to publish publications.

The work force is more diverse than ever, with almost half of young biomedical scientists coming from US minority races. The largest growth has come from Asian ethnic groups, followed by a modest increase in researchers from Latino backgrounds. However the proportion of black scientists showed only a minor increase. These demographics should be borne in mind when devising recruitment and retention strategies to make the workforce more egalitarian.

Finally they found that scientists under 40 are likely to have children around the time they will be applying for their first grant. This is particularly problematic for female scientists, who the study found were less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse who can shoulder household responsibilities. The current academic career trajectory does not take in to account these important differences.

Despite many of these problems being discussed anecdotally for quite some time, the systems for tracking the fates of holder of PhDs after they graduate remain lacking, especially for those who leave academia. The authors insist that better and more transparent data is critical for designing new policies to assist young researchers. (Misty Heggeness, Kearney Gunsalus, José Pacas and Gary McDowell, Nature News)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 13, 2017 at 10:37 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 22, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD

Photo source: pixabay

Federal Research Funding

US R&D Spending at All-Time High, Federal Share Reaches Record Low

Recently released data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) showed trending increases in scientific research funding in the US across the past several years. Estimates of the total funding for 2015 put the value at an all-time high for research and development (R&D) funding for any country in a single year. In 2009, President Obama stated a goal to devote 3% of the USA’s gross domestic product (GDP) to research, and we have been making slow progress to that point; in 2015, 2.78% of the GDP went to research. Businesses accounted for the largest portion of overall scientific funding, contributing 69% of the funds. The second largest contributor was the federal government; however, it had the lowest percentage share of the total since the NSF started tracking funding in 1953, and the actual dollar amount contributed has been declining since 2011. Therefore, although the overall percentage of GDP going to research is increasing, that increase is driven by businesses, whereas the GDP percentage contributed by the federal government has dropped to almost 0.6%.

When taking a closer look at types of research, the federal government is the largest funding source for basic science research, covering 45% of the total. However, businesses make up the majority of the funding for applied research (52% in 2014) and experimental development (82% in 2014). This disproportionality in funding types combined with the decreases in federal research spending are concerning for the basic science field. There is more competition for less money, and this concern is compounded by uncertainty and questions about President-Elect Trump’s position on and plans for scientific funding. Aside from a couple of issues, primarily concerning climate change and the environment, he has said very little about science and research. Many scientists, institutions, and concerned citizens will be watching closely to see how science policy develops under Trump’s administration and its effects on federal spending and beyond. (Mike Henry, American Institute of Physics)

Biomedical Research

‘Minibrains’ Could Help Drug Discovery for Zika and for Alzheimer’s

A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is working on a promising tool for evaluating disease and drug effects in humans without actually using humans for the tests. ‘Minibrains’ are clusters of human cells that originated as skin cells, reprogrammed to an earlier stage of development, and then forced to differentiate into human neural cells. They mimic the human brain as far as cell types and connections, but will never be anywhere near as large as a human brain and can never learn or become conscious.

A presentation earlier this year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference showcased the potential utility for minibrains. A large majority of drugs that are tested in animals fail when introduced in humans. Minibrains provide a way to test these drugs in human tissue at a much earlier stage – saving time, money, and animal testing – without risking harm to humans. Minibrains to test for biocompatibility can be made from skin cells of healthy humans, but skin cells from people with diseases or genetic traits can also be used to study disease effects.

A presentation at the Society for Neuroscience conference this month demonstrated one such disease – Zika. The minibrains’ growth is similar to fetal brain growth during early pregnancy. Using the minibrains, Dr. Hongjun Song’s team at JHU was able to see how the Zika virus affected the cells; the affected minibrains were much smaller than normal, a result that appears analogous to the microcephaly observed in infants whose mothers were infected with Zika during the first trimester.

Other presentations at the meeting showcased work from several research groups that are already using minibrains to study diseases and disorders including brain cancer, Down syndrome, and Rett syndrome, and plans are underway to utilize it in autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there might be a bit of an acceptance curve with the general public, minibrains potentially offer an avenue of testing that is a better representation of actual human cell behavior and response, is safer and more affordable, and reduces the need for animal testing. (Jon Hamilton, NPR)

Health Policy

A Twist on ‘Involuntary Commitment’: Some Heroin Users Request It

The opioid addiction epidemic has become a significant healthcare crisis in the United States. Just last week the US Surgeon General announced plans to target addiction and substance abuse. He also stated the desire for a change in perception of addiction – it is a medical condition rather than a moral or character flaw. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control published guidelines that address opioid prescribing practices for chronic pain, strongly urging physicians to exhaust non-pharmacologic options before utilizing opioids. In response to the rising concern over prescription opioid abuse, steps have been taken to reduce prescriptions and access. This has resulted in many turning to heroin – which is usually a cheaper alternative anyway – to get their opioid fix.

One of the first steps in treatment and recovery for addiction and dependence is detoxing. However, opioids are highly addictive and many people struggle with the temptation to relapse. Additionally, many of the programs designed to help with the initial detox have long wait lists, are expensive, and may not be covered by insurance, further deterring those with addiction and dependence from getting the help they need. These factors have caused many to start turning to their states, asking to be voluntarily committed to a program on the basis that they are a danger to themselves or others because of their substance abuse. This is currently an option in 38 states. These programs can be held in either privately-run institutions or in state prisons. However, this practice is controversial because if the person’s insurance does not cover their stay, it falls to tax payers to foot the bill. While this is unpopular with some, advocates say the civil commitment laws are important options while there may be no other immediate ways for an individual to get help. (Karen Brown, NPR)

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

Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 22, 2016 at 9:00 am