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Posts Tagged ‘ethics

Science Policy Around the Web – August 25, 2017

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By: Rachel F Smallwood, PhD


Source: pixabay

Science policy

US science envoy cites Trump policies in a public resignation

The US Department of State houses the US Science Envoy Program, designed to allow accomplished US scientists to represent the country’s interests and goals in science and technology. These envoys engage international representatives, advocate for institutions, endorse science education and its importance, and advise the government on scientific matters. On August 21, 2017, in a letter to President Trump, Professor Daniel Kammen resigned his position as envoy. His focus in the program was on “building capacity for renewable energies.”

In his open letter to the president, he cited Trump’s leadership and policy decisions as his factors for leaving. He condemned Trump’s reluctance to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He also stated that the president’s refusal of the Paris Climate Accord in addition to denial and undermining of environmental and energy research could not allow him to continue his position in good conscience. The first letter of each paragraph in the document spelled out the word “impeach.” He ends dramatically by asserting that Trump’s presidency is harmful to the United States and “threatens life on this planet.”

It is no secret that the scientific community has serious concerns regarding the Trump administration’s views of and plans for scientific policy and research. This past April a March for Science was held on Earth Day with the intention of demonstrating the importance of science and the amount of support it garners. There has also been worry and discussion over what the administration’s recommendations will be for prioritizing funding for scientific research.

Professor Kammen’s resignation highlights a struggle for scientists in his position. For an administration that does not seem to appreciate the gravity of scientific matters such as climate, energy, and health research, there seems to be an important need for knowledgeable and experienced advisors to help them. However, when those experts’ advice is not heeded, and when the administration takes a stance that the experts are opposed to, it is difficult for them to continue. While resignations in these kinds of positions often seem to have a domino effect, at least one envoy is planning to remain in his position, and the state department confirmed it is in the process of appointing more.

(Jeff Tollefson, Nature)

Scientific Training

NSF issues a reminder that grant-winning universities should be formally training students in ethics

The National Science Foundation recently posted a notice reminding universities and research institutions of their responsibilities in teaching their trainees about ethical research practices. In 2007, the US Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which requires institutions applying for funding from the NSF to show that they are educating their students and trainees on good science and ethical practices. The NSF enacted this by implementing the Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR) requirement; however, they only gave vague guidelines, allowing institutions flexibility in executing this training. In 2010, they did recommend that institutions incorporate a risk assessment to determine the needs for training.

In 2013, the NSF’s Office of the Inspector General published an independent report on compliance with the RCR requirements. There were several areas where institutions were falling short. Almost a quarter of the schools had no training at all when first contacted, and no schools conducted risk assessments. Additionally, a substantial portion of the universities that did having training implemented went with a minimalist approach, only have a short, online course. However, not all of the blame can be placed on the institutions. The America COMPETES Act did stipulate that the NSF should create written guidelines or templates for institutions to follow in implementing these trainings.

Despite the RCR requirements’ failure to induce institutions to provide satisfactory training in ethical science, the NSF has reiterated the importance that universities and institutions comply with providing this training. At a time when facts are being called “fake news” and leaders are making statements and decisions against scientific consensus, it is more important than ever that young scientists learn to conduct sound, ethical science and interpret it in honest and realistic ways. While it is good that the NSF is encouraging this, many hope that in the future they will take a more proactive and forceful stance in enforcing it.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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August 25, 2017 at 10:58 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 25, 2017

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By: Allison Dennis B.S.


Gene Drives

With Great Power There Must Also Come–Great Responsibility!


On the horizon of life-changing biotechnology up for ethical debate, nestled between CRISPR and whole genome sequencing, are gene drives, which have the potential to alter genes for better or for worse across generations. During sexual reproduction each of the two versions of a gene carried by a parent has a 50% chance of being inherited by each offspring. The frequency of each version of a gene across a population is influenced by rates of mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection. Gene drives present the technology to circumvent these natural forces. By introducing molecular machines capable of damaging a particular version of a gene along with the version they prefer to the cells that give rise to eggs or sperm in an organism, scientists can shift the likelihood that their version will be inherited by that organism’s offspring from 50% to 100%. Upon fertilization the undesired gene will be damaged by the molecular machine and the desired gene will used as a template to repair the damaged copy, allowing two copies of the desired gene to be permanently introduced in the offspring and inherited by the next generation. Clever applications have been proposed to design mosquitoes resistant to malaria, mice unable to transmit lyme’s disease, or salmon able to grow to full size in half the time. More bold applications would use the technology to render female mosquitoes sterile, the ultimate insecticide. However, for each one of these beneficial applications exists the devastating opposite, which could be employed to accelerate the spread of disease. Altering population genetics of one species could accidentally devastate ecosystems.

U.S. defense organizations have taken notice of this powerful technology. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, has launched the Safe Genes program in an effort to anticipate and address potential risks of introducing uncontrolled or undesired gene drives. The program awarded a collective $65 million to seven labs hoping to develop counter technologies including self-fizzling drives, chemical control methods, and gene drive vaccines. This summer, to delve deep into the intellectual discussion JASON, tackled the issue. This independent group of scientists, holding stellar academic records and top-secret clearances, meets once a year to address questions posed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Defense, CIA, and FBI. However, their report is likely to be classified. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Violence Against Women

Beginning to Understand the Nature of Intimate Partner Violence Through Data Curation

Careful evaluation of the nature of homicides of women has revealed that 55% result from intimate partner violence (IPV). The study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) looked into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 10,018 women over the age of 18 between 2003 and 2014 across 18 states. In addition to cases where the victims were intimate partners of the suspect, IPV-related homicides included cases where the female victims were friends, family, or those who intervened during an incident of IPV.

Nationwide political attention was drawn to the issue of IPV starting in the 1990s. The Violence Against Women Act was passed by Congress in 1994 and sought to legally define domestic violence as a crime external to the purview of private family matters. Research has revealed several risk factors associated with intimate partner violence, including threats with weapons, stalking, obsessive jealousy, sexual assault, and controlling behavior. However, the effectiveness of political and public health interventions remain unclear due to the overall decline in violence over the last decade and believed underreporting of individual incidence.

In an effort to more broadly understand the “who, when, where and how” surrounding violent deaths that occur in the United States, including those connected with IPV, the CDC created the National Violent Death Reporting System in 2002. By pooling information gathered by local law enforcement officers, coroners, medical examiners, and state agencies the CDC is hoping learn more about “why” so many violent deaths occur, towards the goal of developing and evaluating public health interventions. At its inception, funding only supported the participation of six states. However, involvement has been increasing from 17 states in 2006 and 42 in 2016 with the goal of eventually including all 50 states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.

This study confirmed that homicide as a result of IPV occurs across all age groups and racial ethnic groups. However, young black and Hispanic women are disproportionately affected compared with white and Asian women of the same age group. Overall, black and indigenous women experienced significantly higher higher homicide rates, including non IPV related cases, than women of other races. Women died as a result of the use of firearms in 53.9% of all cases. While the “why” still remains unclear, this 15 year glance back sheds some light on the groups most affected by violence inflicted by their own partners, providing opportunity for targeted prevention. (Camila Domonoske, NPR)

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July 25, 2017 at 6:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 24, 2017

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By: Joel Adu-Brimpong, BS

Source: Flickr by Selena N. B. H. via Creative Commons

Scientific Publishing

Fake It Until You’re Caught?

The beauty of the scientific enterprise is that it is, eventually, self-correcting. Thus, occasionally, a scientific paper may be retracted from a journal based on new revelations or due to reports of ethical breaches. Tumor Biology, a peer-reviewed, open access journal disseminating experimental and clinical cancer research, however, seems to have set a record for the number of retracted papers at once. In a single notice, in April, Tumor Biology retracted 107 articles; yes, one hundred and seven!

Springer, the former publisher of Tumor Biology, reported that the retracted papers were due to a compromised peer review process. Like other journals, Tumor Biology allows the submission of preferred reviewer information (name and email address) when submitting a manuscript. In the case of the retracted papers, “the reviewers were either made up, or had the names of real scientists but false email addresses.” Unsurprisingly, the manuscripts sent to the fake reviewers consistently received positive reviews, bolstering the likelihood of publication.

Springer, of course, is not the first and only major publisher to uncover issues in its peer-review process leading to mass retractions. A 2016 paper reveals similar issues from other major publishers including SAGE, BioMed Central and Elsevier. These breaches are particularly worrisome as some of the retracted manuscripts date back to the beginning of the decade. This means that studies floating around in other journals may have built on knowledge reported by the retracted studies. As if this was not enough, Springer has also come under scrutiny for individuals listed on Tumor Biology’s editorial board, several of whom appear to have no association with the journal and/or in at least one case, have been deceased for several years.

These discoveries are particularly disturbing and are percolating at a time when biomedical research spending is increasingly being scrutinized. Richard Harris, the award-winning NPR journalist, in his recent book Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (2017), highlights major areas in biomedical research that produce wastes, such as studies that may incite researchers, and even whole fields, to follow a phantom lead. In the meantime, it does appear that journals are taking measures to ensure that these breaches are minimized, if not prevented entirely. (Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup, ScienceInsider)

Research Funding

Fighting On All Fronts: Republican Senators Advocate for DOE’s Research Funding

Republican senators are, again, urging President Trump to rethink potential budget cuts to research programs; this time to the Department of Energy (DOE). On Thursday, May 18, 2017, six top senate republicans, including well-known congresspersons Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), drafted a letter to the President reminding him of the importance of government-sponsored research. In the letter, they re-echo, “Government-sponsored research is one of the most important investments our country can make to encourage innovation, unleash our free enterprise system to create good-paying jobs, and ensure American competitiveness in a global economy.” They go on, “It’s hard to think of an important technological advancement since World War II that has not involved at least some form of government-sponsored research.”

If it seems like we’ve been down this road before, it’s because we have. Earlier this year, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), on the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, and his colleagues signaled disagreement with proposed budget cuts to the NIH and CDC in President Trump’s fiscal blueprint. The Republican congressman reiterated the importance of agencies like the NIH and CDC in conducting crucial biomedical research and leading public health efforts that protect Americans from diseases. The strong commitment to advancing biomedical research and the health of the American people led to an omnibus agreement that repudiated President Trumps proposed cuts, increasing NIH funding by $2 billion for the 2017 cycle.

The letter by Senator Alexander and colleagues was drafted following reports suggesting that the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy could face a reduction in funding of up to 70 percent for the 2018 fiscal cycle.  In a separate follow-up analysis, Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee reported on the growth and importance of clean energy jobs and its contribution to the economy. Cuts to the DOE’s research programs could have profound impact on not only millions of jobs but also America’s ability to stay competitive in the global economy as it shifts towards renewable energy and resources. (Geof Koss, ScienceInsider)

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Science Policy Around the Web – October 2, 2015

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Health Policy Conflict of Interest

Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets

Coca-Cola recently released statements indicating that they have given more than $118 million in funding to health-related projects with approximately $22 million allocated to health research. A complete list of projects funded by Coco-Cola can be found here. The release of these numbers is presumed to be in response to growing fears and complaints regarding the possibility of biased influence of food and beverage companies support on nutrition research. Additionally, the New York Times reports that Coco-Cola recently used $1.5 million to help create the Global Energy Balance Network, a non-profit that emphasizes the importance of physical activity rather than diet in weight control and maintenance. The Global Energy Balance Network has partnered internationally with scientists to help spread the message that “weight conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.” Conversely, health experts state that Coco-Cola’s message is misleading and is an effort to reduce the responsibility that companies like Coco-Cola have played in developing sugary drinks that contribute to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Sales of sugary drinks have significantly sank in the last few years and companies like Coco-Cola are likely using this new tactic to encourage health-conscience consumers to focus more one exercise than diet in relation to weight loss and maintenance but clearly brings up concerns about the ethics of this tactic. (Anahad O’Connor, New York Times)


Dr. Insel to leave NIH, headed for Google

The director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Dr. Tom Insel, recently announced that he will be leaving his position after 13 years to join the Google Life Science team (GLS). During his time at the NIH, Dr. Insel is credited for shifting the field of mental health toward a more biology based, biomarker approach. In particular, Dr. Insel’s work at the NIH has focused on trials demonstrating that many of the medications that are currently available to treat mental illness are not as effective as previous thought. When asked what type of projects Dr. Insel will be leading at GLS, he responded that the projects were currently still undefined but would likely involve the development of technology that could aid in public health by tracking and predicting behavior related to mental illnesses. Tom also stated that the “GLS mission is about creating technology that can help with earlier detection, better prevention, and more effective management of serious health conditions. I am joining the team to explore how this mission can be applied to mental illness.” Google Life Sciences is currently a division of Google X and will soon become a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., a conglomerate of several companies linked to Google.

NASA Discovery

Water on Mars

Scientist at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed this week that they have identified liquid water on Mars. The news was announced by James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division. This news is especially exciting to those who are interested in examining whether life exists on other planets. “We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’ But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, great opportunities in the right locations on mars to thoroughly investigate that”, Green states. The house committee on Science, Space, and Technology held hearings on Tuesday titled “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade” with the mission of reviewing scientific methods to be used to search for life, examine recent scientific discoveries in the field of astrobiology, and to assess the prospects of finding life beyond Earth over the next decade. Much of the hearings will focus on the Mars Exploration Program. (Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

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October 2, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 11, 2015

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Photo credit: via

International Policy

A deal with Iran leads to new hope for science

On July 14th, six countries and Iran agreed on a nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, that would increase the amount of time necessary for Iran to produce enough fissile material to produce a nuclear bomb. Should the Iran nuclear deal pass scrutiny by the United States Congress, in addition to loosening sanctions on Iran, the deal may also give Iran the opportunity to expand scientific programs and develop scientific collaborations with Western countries. In agreement for dismantling the nuclear program, Iranian scientists could have the opportunity to work with scientists across the globe on issues relate to nuclear fusion, astrophysics, and the development of radioisotopes for the treatment of cancer. Additionally, the deal includes converting one of Iran’s uranium enrichment sites, known as Fordow, into an international nuclear, physics, and technology center. Fordow is located beneath a mountain and its location is concerning because it would be difficult to destroy. Re-purposing the location into a science center could be a positive alternative. While the exact research that will be conducted at Fordow has yet to be determined, Iran plans to invite proposals for projects and will host an international workshop to review and determine which projects will be chosen. Russia has also agreed to help Iran convert the existing uranium centrifuges at Fordow into centrifuges that have the ability to produce isotopes for medical imaging. An additional part of this agreement would include strengthening Iran in other areas of science such as neutrino astronomy and fusion research, and allowing Iran to participate in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Of course, Iranian scientists will be restricted in their ability to participate in some types of nuclear research such as studying metallic uranium and plutonium but overall these terms provide Iranian scientists with hope for the future of science in Iran. (Richard Stone, ScienceInsider and Declan Butle, Nature News)

Science and Ethics

APA overhauling policies and leadership after torture report

For the last five years, the American Psychological Association (APA) has denied involvement in United States government’s use of torture to interrogate detainees. However a recent external investigation commissioned by the APA reports that APA psychologists and association officials were in fact involved in the interrogations lead by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the George W. Bush administration. The report from Former inspector general, David Hoffman reports that the APA assisted the United States government in allowing torture of detained individuals. The APA has since released statements indicating that they will change their policies including the prohibition of psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. In addition to announcing these new policies, much of the APA leadership has resigned their positions. Although president Obama since banned interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration, interviews conducted by psychologists are still widely used by the United States. Should these new policies be adopted by the APA, interrogation techniques would need to change. (, ScienceInsider and James Risen, NY Times)

Military Fitness

The Unites States Army takes a scientific view at preparedness for combat

What fitness and combat tests best predict whether a service member is prepared for combat? And more specifically, what tests best judge a female service member’s ability to carry out certain tasks? As the United States government begins to allow female service members to participate more in combat operations, questions such as these become important given that women physically have smaller hearts, skeletons, smaller muscle mass, and a greater percentage of body fat relative to their male counterparts. In order to answer these questions and help identify the best predictors of those who will most successfully be involved in combat, the US Air Force has designed a study to be led by exercise physiologist, Neal Buamgartner. Buamgartner has already recruited 63 female and 109 male airmen to participate in the study. The subjects will complete fitness tests as well as combat and rescue simulations and Baumgartner plans to examine the data for correlations between measures of physical fitness. Such correlations might be “does the ability to do crunches predict how fast an airman can climb a rope ladder, or do push-ups correlate better?” From this data, he will also develop standards to to judge whether an airman is physically fit for combat. Although Baumgartner’s work is geared at setting standards for all airmen these data may specifically inform standards for women in combat. Additional concerns regarding women serving in combat positions include their increased risk for musculoskeletal injuries. More research examining the differences between men and women in combat training may provide greater insight into how these injuries can be better prevented. (Kelly Servick, Science News)

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August 11, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 17, 2013

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By: Jennifer Plank

photo credit: ynse via photopin cc

photo credit: ynse via photopin cc

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Will insurance cover genetic testing, preventative surgery? – This week, Angelina Jolie was in the news following her op-ed piece discussing her preventative double mastectomy once she learned that she had a mutated BRCA1 gene. Women with a mutation in either of the BRCA genes are at an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Due to their patent, Myriad Genetics is the only company allowed to perform genetic testing on either of the BRCA genes resulting in the test being very expensive- on average, BRCA genetic screening costs approximately $4000 when not covered by insurance. Doctors recommend that a patient with a positive result receive yearly mammograms and/or MRIs, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of preventative care. Once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, BRCA genetic testing will be classified as preventative care and require no out of pocket costs for the patient. (Melanie Hicken)

Scientists report first success in cloning human stem cells – 17 years after the cloning of Dolly the sheep, scientists generated stem cells from human skin cells. Until recently, human cells have been unable to be reprogrammed using “nuclear transfer”, a technique that has been effective in many other species. Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a scientist at Oregon Health and Science University, has used the technique to reprogram human skin cells into cells resembling embryonic stem cells. This new advance in technology provides another source for deriving embryonic stem cells to be used for stem cell based therapies. (Alice Park)

Supreme Court supports Monsanto in seed-patent case – In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court opined that farmers cannot use Monsanto’s genetically altered soybeans to make new seeds without paying the company. According to the opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the ruling was narrow in scope and will not automatically be extended to every self-replicating product. Normally, farmers who buy soybeans from Monsanto must sign a contract stating that they will not harvest seeds from one season’s crop to use in following seasons. This ensures that the farmers will buy new seeds yearly. However, in this case, the farmer obtained seeds through a second-hand source and determined which seeds were Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds. He then harvested seeds from those plants to use in subsequent seasons. The Supreme Court ruled that the farmer must pay Monsanto over $84,000. (Adam Litpak)

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May 17, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 28, 2011

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By jeltovski on Used with permission

By:  Rebecca Cerio

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Cooking in the Classroom Helps Kids Learn, Changes Food Attitudes – An evaluation of the Cooking with Kids program shows that fruit and vegetable tastings and cooking classes integrated into other core curricula (history, science, etc.) introduces kids to new, healthy foods, changes their views of cooking as “chores”, and helps them understand the curriculum material better.    (via

Congress Blocks New School Lunch Rules – The USDA proposed new rules to make school lunches healthier by increasing fruits and vegetables and decreasing starch and salt.  Critics said that the new proposals were too restrictive and would result in lunches kids wouldn’t eat.  Congress listened.  (via The New York Times, by Ron Nixon)

Debate Intensifies on Usefulness and Ethics of Chimpanzee Research – Is invasive ape research useful?  Is it ethical?  Would a ban on invasive great ape research (such as the Great Ape Protection Act, now in Congress) be an ethical protection of primate species or an unethical roadblock to cures for human disease?   An NIH report due this year on the usefulness of chimps in research will hopefully bring some data to the debate table. (via The New York Times, by James Gorman)

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November 28, 2011 at 10:53 am