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Posts Tagged ‘biomedical research

Science Policy Around the Web – July 7, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Autism

Is There Such a Thing as an Autism Gene?

Autism has become a global burden of disease. In 2015, it was estimated to affect 24.8 million people globally. Significant research efforts are underway to investigate the causes of autism. Autism is highly heritable – there is an 80 percent chance that a child would be autistic if an identical twin has autism. The corresponding rate is about 40 percent for fraternal twins.

However, is there such a thing as a single autism gene? Researchers haven’t found one specific gene that is consistently mutated in every person with autism. Conversely, 65 genes are strongly linked to autism and more than 200 others have weaker ties, many of which are related to important neuronal functions. Mutations in a variety of these genes can collectively lead to autism. The mutations could be from single DNA base pair, or copy number variations, which are deletions or duplications of long stretches of DNA that may involve many genes. Most mutations are inherited, but some mutations could also happen in an egg or sperm, or even after conception.

Besides genetic factors, maternal lifestyle and environmental factors can also contribute to autism. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy or a maternal immune response in the womb may increase the risk of autism. While there is speculation on the link between vaccines and autism, it is not backed by scientific evidence.

Since both genetic and non-genetic factors play a role in the development of autism, establishing the underlying mechanism is complicated. There is no single specific test that can be used for screening autism. However, some tests are available to detect large chromosomal abnormalities or fragile X syndrome, which is associated with autism. (Nicholette Zeliadt, Washington Post)

STEM Education

New Florida Law Lets any Resident Challenge What’s Taught in Science Classes

A new law was signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) last week, and has taken effect starting July 1. The law requires school boards to hire an “unbiased hearing officer” to handle complaints about teaching materials that are used in local schools. Any county resident can file a complaint, and the material in question will be removed from the curriculum if the hearing officer thinks that the material is “pornographic,” or “is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group.”

There are different voices in the new legislation, which affects 2.7 million public school students in Florida. Proponents argue that it gives residents more right in participating in their children’s education. A sponsor, state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples), said that his intent wasn’t to target any particular subject. However, Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Council for Science Education, is worried that science instruction will be challenged since evolution and climate change have been disputed subjects. A group called Florida Citizens for Science asked people to pay close attention to classroom materials and “be willing to stand up for sound science education.”

Like the new law in Florida, the legislature in Idaho rejected several sections of the state’s new public school science standards related to climate change and requested a resubmission for approval this fall. Since the Trump administration began, there has been “a new wave of bills” targeting science in the classroom. To protect teacher’s “academic freedom,” Alabama and Indiana adopted non-binding resolutions that encourage teachers to discuss the controversy around subjects such as climate change. A supporter of the resolution, state Sen. Jeff Raatz (R-Centerville), told Frontline, “Whether it be evolution or the argument about global warming, we don’t want teachers to be afraid to converse about such things”. (Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post)

 

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July 7, 2017 at 1:32 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 20, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: Flickr, via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Research Funding

America is Still First in Science, but China Rose Fast as Funding Stalled in U. S. and Other Countries

American scientific groups continue to publish more biomedical research discoveries than groups from any other country, and the United States still leads the world in research and development expenditures. However, American dominance is slowly diminishing as China’s increase in funding on science over the last twenty years are starting to pay off. Chinese biomedical research now ranks fourth in the world for total number of discoveries published in six top-tier journals. This is with China spending three-fourths of the amount of money that the U.S. spent on research and development in 2015. In addition, new discoveries and advances in science are becoming more of a collaborative effort, which include researchers from around the world.

These findings come from research published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation by a group of University of Michigan researchers. The analysis comes at an important time for Congress to think about whether the annual uncertainty of the National Institutes of Health’s(NIH) budget and proposed cuts are in the nation’s best interest over the long-term. Bishr Omary, the senior author of the article commented, “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The research was based on data up to 2015. During the current fiscal year of 2017, funding for NIH was proposed to be increased by 2 billion dollars, which is the second year in a row where funding was increased after 12 years of flat budgets. With this increase in funding, Omary hopes that, “our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.” (University of Michigan, ScienceDaily)

Opioid Crisis

The Role of Science in Addressing the Opioid Crisis

Opioid addiction is an ongoing public health crisis. Millions of individuals all over the United States suffer from opioid use disorder with millions more suffering from chronic pain. Due to the urgency and scale of this crisis, innovative scientific solutions need to be developed. As part of a government-wide effort to address this crisis, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is supplementing current research efforts with a public-private collaborative research initiative on pain and opioid abuse.

The Director of NIH, Dr. Francis Collins met with research and development leaders from biopharmaceutical companies in April 2017 to discuss new ways in which  government and industry can work together to address the opioid crisis. Dr. Collins stated how some advances such as improved formulations, opioids with abuse-deterrent properties, longer-acting overdose-reversal drugs, and repurposing of treatments approved for other conditions may be quick. Other advances such as mu-opioid receptor-based agonists, opioid vaccines, and novel overdose-reversal medications may be slower to develop. Overall, the goal for this partnership is to reduce the time typically required to develop new, safe, and effective therapeutics to half the average time. (Nora D. Volkow and Francis S. Collins, New England Journal of Medicine)

Climate Change

France is Offering US Scientists 4-year Grants to Move to the Country and do Research

Following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, France created an initiative that will allow researchers, teachers, and students to apply for a fully financed four-year grant to combat climate change. The website for the initiativesays,

“You will be able to stay in France at least for the duration of the grant, and longer if you are granted a permanent position. There is no restriction on your husband / wife working in France. If you have children, note that French public schools are free, and the tuition fees of universities and ‘grandes écoles’ are very low compared to the American system.”

Since Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election in May, he has addressed American scientists who feel alienated by the Trump administration. Macron has promised strong funding for climate initiatives. However, some U.S. scientists like David Blockstein of the National Council for Science and the Environment see Macron’s invitation as “both a publicity stunt and a real opportunity.” Although it is not very likely that many U.S. researchers will take up the offer, it does provide a “sharp contrast to an increasingly hostile U.S. political environment for science.” (Chris Weller, Business Insider)

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June 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 16, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: pixabay

Science and Politics

Politics in Science – It’s Not Just the U.S.!

Romania is a country in eastern Europe that joined the European Union (EU) in 2007. Scientists there are few and far between; research spending only accounts for 0.49% of GDP, the lowest in Europe (the US spent 2.7% in 2016). After joining the EU, Romanian researchers were encouraged to apply for European merit-based grants and sit on international review boards such as the National Research Council and the National Council of Ethics. It seemed that research was making slow but steady progress, but the new administration elected this year has shaken things up in all facets of government, including scientific research.

The new research minister, Serban Valeca, removed the international members appointed to government councils that oversee research funding, ethics, innovation and science policy, and replaced them with city council members, government-loyal union members, researchers from second tier Romanian institutes and even a surgeon being investigated for embezzlement. Grant review panels have been shuffled to remove international scientists and replace them with domestic researchers, but only if they have a certificate saying their university approves of their participation. These changes mark a departure from welcoming international input into Romanian proceedings and a movement towards scientific isolation.

To combat these changes, Romanian scientists have formed an organization, Ad Astra, which calls on researchers to boycott grant evaluations. Combined with the shuffling, the councils have been suspended for 3 months, which delays funding and puts already under-funded researchers in peril. The European University Association calls the policies deeply concerning, and although the current president may disagree with the research minister’s handling of the situation, his political ties ensure he won’t hold much sway over how this plays out. A computer scientist at the University Politehnica in Bucharest, Costin Raiciu, is concerned that the policies will affect talented researchers who have returned to Romania and says, “Without [merit-based] funding, people would either give up research altogether or move out of the country”. This is an all too familiar scenario in which it is apparent that policy and science must cooperate to produce ideal outcomes. (Alexandra Nistoroiu, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Clinical Trials Down, Basic Research Up at NIMH

Mental health is a notoriously tricky field. The development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the 1950s has historically been a way to diagnose patients with mental health issues, and then give appropriate treatment. This has proved to be an imprecise treatment strategy, because within a category of diagnosis there is a broad spectrum of behaviors, and underlying this behavior there may be multiple causes. The NIH’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) seeks to characterize 1,000,000 people by behavior, genetics, environment, and physiology. Researchers from the NIMH will send questionnaires evaluating behavior to detect mood and reward responses for this group of people. When this mental health evaluation is combined with information about their genetics, lifestyle and environment, scientists can characterize mental health disorders more specifically.

Many clinician researchers are upset by the steep decline in clinical trial research funded by NIMH, which has become higher profile with director Joshua Gordon’s arrival in 2016. NIMH seeks to route funding to study mental disorders using a basic research approach before spending time and money on costly clinical trials which too often lead to inconclusive or disappointing results. In 2011 NIMH launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), which encourages research proposals to include a hunt for the mechanism underlying mental health studies. Since the initial call to include a RDoC perspective in grant applications, the incidence of RDoC appearing in funded applications has increased while mention of the DSM has decreased. Other buzzwords that are present in funded grants include biomarker, circuit, target and mechanism.

These data represent a shift in how funding decisions will proceed in mental health but may have broader reaching implications for other areas of research. In a blog post Dr. Gordon writes, “the idea that RDoC will facilitate rapid, robust and reproducible neurobiological explanations for psychopathology (as observed within and across DSM disorders) represents a hypothesis”. It remains to be seen if RDoC is an effective metric to evaluate successful grants. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 13, 2017

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

By Mikael Häggström, used with permission. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stem Cell Therapy

Texas on Track to Become First State to Explicitly Back Stem Cell Therapies

On 30th May, Texas passed a bill  authorizing unapproved stem cell therapies, making Texas the first state to openly recognize experimental treatments. The bill will make the use of unapproved stem cell therapies legal for patients and is currently awaiting the approval of Governor Greg Abbott, who already supports the measure. Experimental stem cell therapies for terminal and chronic conditions have struggled for years to gain support without much success. Until now, no state has provided legal validation for these kind of therapies and the current stem cell procedures are mostly done under strict regulations.

Amendments were added to the bill, which require that the treatments be delivered by doctors with the approval of an institutional review board, which deals with human research. It will also add another amendment that will allow patients to have authority to sue in case the treatments go wrong. Many scientists and advocates opposed the measure stating that unapproved stem cell therapies can be harmful rather than beneficial. They state that though the amendments add protection to the patients, there are a few aspects of the bill that make them uncomfortable. Two other bills focused on patient access to experimental therapies, also known as “right-to-try” policies, failed to pass in the Texas Senate. (Andrew Joseph, STATNews)

Research Funding

NIH Scraps Plans for Cap on Research Grants

US National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided to drop the controversial proposal of capping the number of grants that an investigator can have at a time. The initial capping attempt was suggested to gather funds for younger researchers by NIH in May. The proposal was based on studies that suggested that a lab’s productivity decreases once it holds too many grants. Younger scientists often face more difficulties in obtaining NIH RO1 grants compared to their older more experienced colleagues. As a result, many researchers applauded the NIH’s effort to provide more funding for younger scientists. Yet the capping proposal received major adverse response from the scientific community stating that the NIH’s interpretation of the productivity study data does not apply to all labs, especially to the collaborative lab groups with four or five R01s that are more productive than labs with only one. Researchers also complained that the proposed point-based scoring system will also make collaborations difficult thus hampering productivity in the long run.

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins stated that the original idea was still a work in progress and NIH is going to put a hold on it. Instead of the cap, on 8th June, NIH announced the creation of the special fund, the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI), starting with US$210 for funding young researchers. The initiative will focus on investigators with less than 10 years of experience as NIH- funded principal investigators, and on high score grant proposals that were rejected because of lack of money. The initiative will grow up to $1.1 billion over the next five years. According to NIH principal deputy director Larry Tabak, NIH will immediately start creating an inventory of investigators who meet these criteria and expects that this approach will allow more than 2,000 additional R01 grants to be funded to younger scientists compared to the cap-based plan, which would have supported only 1600 awards. Nonetheless, the current proposal is still going to generate controversy as it will affect the older researchers because of NIH’s diversion of funding. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

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June 13, 2017 at 7:08 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 06, 2017

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By: Kseniya Golovnina, PhD

Source: Flickr, by USDA, via Creative Commons     (CC BY 2.0)

Food Security

What if Food Crops Failed at the Same Time?

When one group of people is fighting with climate change and another considers it “mythical”, researchers specialized in the study of social-ecological systems are developing food supply risk assessment models. Food crops are one of the most important sources of human being existence, and less than one-fourth of the planet (“breadbaskets”) produces three-fourth of the staple crops that feed the world’s population. In fact, climate change could cause crop losses in most of the breadbaskets.

Two important factors included in the models are shocks to major land crop production and economy. Shocks like droughts and heat waves in Ukraine and Russia in 2007 and 2009 almost wiped out wheat crops, and caused global wheat prices to spike. And demand assessments project that food production may have to double by 2050 to feed a growing population. Together, the potential environmental and economic stresses are making the world food production system less resilient, and will affect both rich and poor nations. To measure the fragility of the system, researchers developed scenarios of small shocks (10 percent crop loss) and large shocks (50 percent crop loss). These were then applied to corn, wheat or rice output using an integrated assessment model, the Global Change Assessment Model, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Among the critical findings are that “breadbasket” regions respond to shocks in different ways. For example, South Asia, where most of the arable land is already in use, is quite unresponsive to shocks occurring elsewhere in the world, because the total amount of land in agricultural production cannot be changed significantly. In Brazil the situation is opposite, it has a lot of potential to bring new land into production if large shocks occur. However, cleaning Brazil’s forests requires significant effort and would add significantly to global climate change. Within the research agenda of the Pardee Center, these risks and preventive actions are discussed in more detail. The warning is clear: humankind needs to be aware and prepared for potential multiple “breadbaskets” failure if we want to reduce the potential for catastrophe. (Anthony Janetos, The Conversation)

Reproducibility in Science

Research Transparency: Open Science

Increasing amounts of scientific data, complexity of experiments, and the hidden or proprietary nature of data has given rise to the “reproducibility crisis” in science. Reproducibility studies in cancer biology have revealed that only 40 % or less peer-reviewed analyses are replicable. Another large-scale project attempting to replicate 100 recent psychology studies was successful in replicating less than 50% of the original results.

These findings are driving scientists to look for ways to increase study reliability, and make research practices more efficient and available for evaluation. A philosophy of open science, where scientists share their primary materials and data, makes analytical approaches more transparent and allows common research practices and standards to emerge more quickly. For scientific journals and associations, open science methods enable the creation of different ways to store and utilize data. Some journals are specifically dedicated to publishing data sets for reuse (Scientific DataJournal of Open Psychology Data), others require or reward open science practices like publicly posting materials and data.

The widespread use of online repositories to share study materials and data helps to store large data sets and physical materials to help mitigate the problems of reproducibility. However, open science practice is still very much in development, and faces some significant disincentives. Habits and reward structures are two major forces work against. Researchers are used to being close, and hide their data from being stolen. Journal editors tend to favor publishing papers that tell a tidy story with perfectly clear results. This causes researchers to omit “failed” studies that don’t clearly support their theories.

While efforts to overcome these obstacles are difficult, development of fully transparent science should be encouraged, as openness helps improve understanding, and acknowledges the truth that real data are often messy. (Elizabeth Gilbert and Katie Corker, The Conversation)

 

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June 6, 2017 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 12, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Biosafety

Basic Scholarship in Biosafety Is Critically Needed

While a significant amount of money funds primary research in life sciences, the portion allotted in biosafety assessment is almost neglected, which can be detrimental to biomedical research. In a recent paper in mSphere, an open-access journal published by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the authors reported the status of practicing biosafety in U.S. labs and pointed out the urgent need for funding in this field.

They identified human errors as the dominant component of laboratory biosafety risk, but there was limited data to support a quantitative analysis of human failure rates. Publicly available risk assessments were only focused on mechanical failure rates. They also found that historical biosafety incident data is not adequate, and incidents reporting systems are not sufficiently standardized. So the same mistakes could likely happen in multiple labs. In contrast, other industries, such as the power and transportation industries, have been investing heavily in maintaining safety records and have benefited from doing so. The authors cite an example from the airline industry to address the importance of incident reporting system. After a flight crash outside Washington’s Dulles airport in 1974, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created a no-fault system of reporting aviation incidents and mistakes. FAA has maintained this system ever since, which has helped reduce accident rates by two-thirds compared to that in the early 1970s.

Even though funding for biosafety assessment is much less than that in other industries, the consequences of a potential infectious disease outbreak can be much bigger than any other accidents. Therefore, such funding is urgently needed for three aspects: “(i) development of a national incident reporting system, (ii) primary research programs focused on human reliability assessments, equipment failures, and decontamination efficiencies, and (iii) sharing of best practices.” Investing in biosafety and biorisk management will help enhance laboratory safety practices and improve work performance of our research enterprise in the long run. (Ryan Ritterson and Rocco Casagrande, mSphere)

Human Stem-Cell Research

Attitudes Towards Stem-Cell Research in Europe, Canada and the United States

Human embryonic stem-cell research has caused many political and public debates over moral concerns while providing benefits to human health. In science policy making, public opinion has great impact. To investigate factors that affect international public opinion towards stem-cell research, Allum N. and colleagues analyzed representative sample surveys in Europe and North America, fielded in 2005, when it was a highly contested issue.

The authors found that public attitudes towards stem-cell research has been affected by government decisions, especially in the U.S. During the Bush administration, federal funding only allowed the use of a small number of existing cell lines in stem-cell research. These limitations were removed by an Executive Order from President Barack Obama that expanded NIH support for human stem-cell research. In response to government guidance, public support for stem-cell research in the U.S. rose from 40 percent in 2002 to around 65 percent in 2010. About 65 percent of Europeans and Canadians supported human stem-cell research on the condition that it is tightly regulated. The other influential factor is religion. The authors showed that in all the regions examined, approval for stem-cell research decreased with increasing religious commitment. This pattern was more pronounced in the U.S. and Canada than in Europe. But interestingly, half of even the most religious public supported stem-cell research, which indicated that perhaps the benefits of stem-cell research are being more appreciated. Overall, the majority of people in the surveyed areas hold positive attitudes towards human stem-cell research. (Nick Allum et al, PLOS ONE)

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May 12, 2017 at 11:07 am

How Science Policy Affects Pandemic Pathogen Research

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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.

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April 21, 2017 at 8:47 am