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Science Policy Around the Web – February 24, 2017

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By: Alida Palmisano, PhD

Source: usda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Public Access to Data

Lawsuit Aims to Force USDA to Repost Scrubbed Animal Welfare Records

“Put the records back on the internet.”

An article published in Science discusses a lawsuit filed on February 13 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by an animal law expert at Harvard University. According to the plaintiffs, USDA violated the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when it removed thousands of animal welfare inspection reports and other records from a publicly accessible website. USDA generated records that document animal facility inspections, enforcement actions, animal censuses, and other information collected by the agency in the course of enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act.  The law covers animals in more than 7800 facilities, including zoos, roadside circuses, and research laboratories at government agencies and academic medical centers.

The decision to remove the public access to these records may have been a response to a lawsuit involving another law, the Horse Protection Act. The plaintiffs in a 2016 Texas lawsuit accused USDA of violating their rights under the Privacy Act by posting inspection documents required by the Horse Protection Act. A resulting USDA review of all its public postings led the agency to scrub from its website documents generated under both the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act.  In the future, the agency announced, people who want access to those records will need to file a FOIA request. The agency’s most recent FOIA report states that it takes an average of 94 days for the agency to respond to a simple FOIA request and 234 days on average for more complicated requests.

In February 13’s lawsuit, the plaintiffs invoke a section of FOIA that requires agencies to make publicly available electronically all records that it has released under FOIA which “because of the nature of the subject matter, the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.” (Meredith Wadman, ScienceInsider)

Science and Immigration

Grad Students, Postdocs with U.S. Visas Face Uncertainty

While U.S. courts are busy handling President Donald Trump’s travel ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the temporary shut down of the executive order, the appeal to reinstate the travel ban, the rejection of the immediate restoration of the ban, and more appeals and rulings, graduates and postdoctoral students already in the United States are weighing their options and trying to plan rationally in an unpredictable and fluid situation.

Many scientists in the U.S. are on student or other working visas. All these visas may not be renewable, depending on future executive orders and regulations. The dilemma “simply ruins their future. It’s a catastrophe,” says a Yemeni biologist who is on a university faculty on an H-1B, a 3-year visa for professionals. For years, lawmakers in Washington have tried to reform abuses of visa regulations by companies using visas to bring workers to the U.S. to learn the ropes, and then send the trained workers to other countries where the job can be done cheaply. The H-1B system is contentious: on one side labor advocates want the exploitation of the H-1B system to stop supporting an outsourcing business model. On the other hand, tech companies like Google and Facebook say they can’t get enough visas for top foreign talent, as the cap on the number of H-1Bs issued every year means that sometimes foreign graduates from top U.S. universities, places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, can’t get one. The travel ban already has harmed the top universities in the U.S., stranding students, faculty and scholars abroad, and making foreign schools more attractive to some of the world’s brightest students.

In papers filed in Brooklyn federal court, the schools (that include Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several more) said that the order blocking travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries threatens their abilities to educate future leaders from every continent. They said the executive order has “serious and chilling implications” and that the ban “casts doubt on the prospect and value of studying and working here for everyone,” the papers said. (Meredith Wadman, Richard Stone, Science)

Genetic Engineering

US Science Advisers Outline Path to Genetically Modified Babies

“Scientists should be permitted to modify human embryos destined for implantation in the womb to eliminate devastating genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia or cystic fibrosis — once gene-editing techniques advance sufficiently for use in people and proper restrictions are in place. That’s the conclusion of a 14 February report from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.”

The report follows a 2015 National Academies summit between scientists, ethicists, legal experts and patient groups from around the world. At the time of the meeting, given the outstanding scientific, ethical and legal questions surrounding the issue, the organizers concluded that scientists shouldn’t yet perform germline editing on embryos intended for establishing a pregnancy. However, the organizers also stated that altering human embryos for basic research was acceptable.

The latest iteration of this ongoing CRISPR debate moves the bar a little further. The report recommends restricting the technique to severe medical conditions for which no other treatment exists. Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said, “It’s a very careful, conservative position that’s just a little bit beyond an absolute bar.” In the report, the committee also called for international cooperation, strict regulatory and oversight framework, public input into decisions and long-term follow-ups of children who have edited genomes. The report adds that for now, genome editing should not be used for human enhancement, such as improving a person’s intelligence or giving them super-strength.

The report drew immediate criticism from a California-based non-profit organization called the Center for Genetics and Society. “This report is a dramatic departure from the widespread global agreement that human germline modification should remain off limits,” said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the center. “It acknowledges many of the widely recognized risks, including stigmatizing people with disabilities, exacerbating existing inequalities, and introducing new eugenic abuses. Strangely, there’s no apparent connection between those dire risks and the recommendation to move ahead.” (Sara Reardon, Nature)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 24, 2017 at 11:23 am