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Science Policy Around the Web – April 7, 2017

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By: Kseniya Golovnina, PhD

Cancer Research

RNA-Seq Technology for Oncotargets Discovery

One of the most significant discoveries in cancer research, using the “Big Data” approach with experimental validations, was made recently by Chinese and American scientists together with Splicingcodes.com. They described the first cancer predisposition, familially-inherited, fusion gene, KANSARL, specific to populations with European ancestry, by using advanced RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) of cancer transcriptomes.

A fusion gene is a hybrid formed from two previously separate genes as a result of chromosomal rearrangements. Often, fusion genes are oncogenes. The first fusion gene abnormality was described in a human malignancy and was called the Philadelphia chromosome. In the early 1980s, scientists showed that a translocation between chromosomes 9 and 22 led to the formation of a fusion gene (BCR/ABL1), which produced a chimeric protein with the capacity to induce chronic myeloid leukemia. KANSARL is the most prevalent cancer gene discovered so far. Scientists systematically analyzed the RNA-seq data of many cancer types from different parts of the world, together with RNA-seq datasets of the 1000 Genome Project. KANSARL fusion transcripts were rarely detected in tumor samples of patients from Asia or Africa, but occurred specifically in 28.9% of the population of European origin.

Scientists from Cancer Genome Anatomy project at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), using sophisticated sequencing techniques, have identified 10,676 gene fusions among cancer-related chromosomal aberrations. Splicingcodes.com has identified over 1.1 million novel fusion transcripts, many of which are likely biomarkers of diseases. Fusion genes play an important role in diagnosis and monitoring of cancer treatment progress by measuring the disappearance of the fusion and, thereby, the disappearance of the tumor tissue. Currently, several clinical trials are aimed at treating fusion-positive patients with a range of targeted therapies, which will hopefully lead to novel therapy development and save patients’ lives. (Splicingcodes)

Biotechnology

Turning Mammalian Cells into Biocomputers to Treat Human Disease

Engineering cells by manipulating DNA and controlling their performance is a growing field of synthetic biology. Scientists have been working with bacterial cells for years to perform different controlled actions, for example, lighting up when oxygen levels drops. Bacterial cells, including Escherichia coli, have a simple genome structure and are relatively easy to manipulate. Using bacterial cells, it was possible also to join several genetic circuits within a single cell to carry out more complex actions.

After successful engineering in bacteria, researchers have aimed to create genetic circuitry to detect and treat human disease in mammalian cells. Most of the attempts have failed due to the complexity of the mammalian genome, until a group of biomedical engineers from Boston and Basel, Switzerland decided to upgrade their DNA “switches”. They used an ability of special enzymes, DNA recombinases, to selectively cut and stitch DNA. The new system in mammalian cells is called ‘Boolean logic and arithmetic through DNA excision’ (BLADE). BLADE founders built a wide variety of circuits (113), each designed to carry out a different logical operation with 96.5% success. This Boolean system has great potential for applications in cell and tissue engineering. One exciting possibility is engineering T-cells with genetic circuits that initiate a suicide response to kill tumors when they detect the presence of two or three “biomarkers” produced by cancer cells. (Robert F. Service, ScienceNews)

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April 7, 2017 at 9:22 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 06, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Technology and Health

Is That Smartphone Making Your Teenager’s Shyness Worse?

The development of new technologies, especially computers and smartphones, has greatly changed people’s lifestyles. People can telework without going to offices, and shop online without wandering in stores. While this has brought about convenience, it has also generated many adverse effects. People tend to spend more time with their devices than with their peers. Parents of shy teenagers ask, “Is that smartphone making my teenager’s shyness worse?”

Professor Joe Moran, in his article in the Washington Post, says that the parents’ concern is reasonable. The Stanford Shyness Survey, which was started by Professor Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s, found that “the number of people who said they were shy had risen from 40 percent to 60 percent” in about 20 years. He attributed this to new technology like email, cell phones and even ATMs. He even described such phenomena of non-communication as the arrival of “a new ice age”.

Contrary to Professor Zimbardo’s claims, other findings showed that the new technology provided a different social method. As an example, teenagers often use texting to express their love without running into awkward situations. Texting actually gives them time and space to digest and ponder a response. Further, Professor Moran said that the claim of Professor Zimardo was made before the rise of social networks;  shy teenagers can share their personal life online even if they don’t talk in public. He also talks about the paradox of shyness, where shyness is caused by “our strange capacity for self-attention”, while “we are also social animals that crave the support and approval of the tribe.” Therefore, new technologies are not making the shyness worse, in contrast social networks and smartphones can help shy teenagers find new ways to express that contradiction. (Joe Moran, Washington Post)

Genomics

Biologists Propose to Sequence the DNA of All Life on Earth

You may think that it is impossible to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth, but at a meeting organized by the Smithsonian Initiative on Biodiversity Genomics and the Shenzhen, China-based sequencing powerhouse BGI, researchers announced their intent to start the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP). The news was reported in Science. There are other ongoing big sequencing projects such as the UK Biobank, which aims to sequence the genomes of 500,000 individuals.

The significance of the EBP will greatly help “understand how life evolves”, says Oliver Ryder, a conservation biologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California. Though the EBP researchers are still working on many details, they propose to carry out this project in three steps. Firstly, they plan to sequence the genome of a member of each eukaryotic family (about 9000 in all) in great detail as reference genomes. Secondly, they would sequence species from each of the 150,000 to 200,000 genera to a lesser degree. Finally, the sequencing task will be expanded to the 1.5 million remaining known eukaryotic species with a lower resolution, which can be improved if needed. As suggested by EBP researchers, the eukaryotic work might be completed in a decade.

There are many challenges to starting this project. One significant challenge is sampling, which requires international efforts from developing countries, particularly those with high biodiversity. The Global Genome Biodiversity Network could supply much of the DNA needed, as it is compiling lists and images of specimens at museums and other biorepositories around the world. As not all DNA samples in museum specimens are good enough for high-quality genomes, getting samples from the wild would be the biggest challenge and the highest cost. The EBP researchers also need to develop standards to ensure high-quality genome sequences and to record associated information for each species sequenced. (Elizabeth Pennisi, ScienceInsider)

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March 6, 2017 at 8:41 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 10, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Source: pixabay

Sleep

The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

Humans spend approximately one third of their lifetime sleeping, yet the purpose of sleep is still largely unknown. A pair of recent studies in the journal Science suggest that a key function of sleep is to give the brain a chance to rewire itself, specifically by cutting down connections between neurons, which naturally scale up during wakefulness, and especially during learning.

In one paper, researchers used 3D electron microscopy to measure the sizes of these connections, called synapses, in mouse brain slices. They found that sleep produced a significant decrease in the size of synapses. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced in smaller synapses, which were likely strengthened by general information processing while awake, than large ones (~20% of synapses), which may encode more well-established memories. In the other, researchers used two-photon imaging in live mice to observe sleep-induced changes in synapses. They found a similar decrease in synaptic strength, and went on to identify the signaling pathway that caused this effect; blocking this pathway prevented a normal reduction in the scope and magnitude of a learned behavioral response.

These findings underscore the importance of sleep, especially for memory consolidation involved with learning. Studies like these can have far-reaching effects on the public’s perception of sleep, influencing individual habits as well as policy related to education. For example, they suggest that prioritizing sleep when setting school start times (an issue currently under debate in Montgomery County schools) could improve students’ lesson retention and ultimately their test performance. They also point to important cellular and molecular processes that take place during sleep, which could help explain how existing sleep aids adversely affect brain functioning and memory (a public health concern), and ultimately lead to the development of better drugs. (Carl Zimmer, The New York Times)

Drug Policy

Massive Price Hike for Lifesaving Opioid Overdose Antidote

Increased public exposure to the epidemic of opioid abuse, which continues to intensify in the US, has made it increasingly influential in politics, possibly including the recent presidential election.  A crucial tool for communities at the forefront of this public health crisis is naloxone, which can reverse potentially fatal symptoms associated with overdose. The Evzio naloxone auto-injector, produced by Kaleo, is one of two such products approved by the FDA. Kaleo has recently come under fire for increasing the price of Evzio from $690 to $4,500.

Kaleo cites several justifications for the price hike. Firstly, they offer coupons to patients whose insurance doesn’t cover Evzio. Second, they argue that large insurance companies and government agencies (such as the Veterans Health Administration, which sees a high rate of opioid use) can negotiate prices, while other organizations are currently well funded (thanks to public concern) to absorb the increase. Thirdly, they are expanding their donation supply to allow smaller groups to apply for free devices. However, experts say that the increase is not justified by production costs, and some organizations have been forced to switch to alternative drugs.

News of the decision arrives at a time when the public is particularly sensitive to drug pricing, and have made their concern clear to lawmakers. Negotiation with drug companies over prices has been a prominent campaign issue in recent elections. Public outcry following similar moves by investor Martin Shkreli and Mylan led to hearings by a special congressional committee. Soon after the last election, a bill that would have allowed patients to import cheaper drugs from Canada became a high-profile occasion for posturing in the Senate, where it failed despite overwhelming public support. These stories highlight the often antagonistic relationships between the American public, its government, and the pharmaceutical industry, and illustrate how disruptive drug pricing can directly affect policy. (Shefali Luthra, Scientific American)

Scientists in Politics

Geneticist Launches Bid for US Senate; while Empiricists Around the Country Will March for Science

Donald Trump’s agenda of self-serving lies and denial of evidence has led to unprecedented levels of engagement and activism across the country. The scientific community has been especially impacted by Trump’s brand of broad, allegedly populist anti-intellectualism. Thus, although the empirical facts uncovered by scientific research are inherently apolitical and should be treated as such, scientists are beginning to mobilize to oppose the Trump administration in several ways.

One essential path to policy change is increased representation. With that in mind, evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Eisen, an HHMI-funded investigator at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the People’s Library of Science (PLOS), recently announced his candidacy for the US Senate in 2018. Dr. Eisen’s platform seems to center on bringing a scientific perspective to Senate proceedings, and working towards comprehensive yet practical solutions to issues such as climate change. More of Dr. Eisen’s views can be found on his twitter feed and blog.

Protests are another way for individuals to make their voices heard by policy makers. The March for Science, which currently has over 350,000 followers on Facebook, will be an opportunity for ‘scientists and science enthusiasts’ to both call for and demonstrate support for the scientific community, and promote solidarity between science and the public. The main march will be held on April 22nd, 2017 in Washington D.C.; satellite marches are scheduled in over 100 additional cities. Organizers hope to maintain the momentum gained by January’s Women’s Marches, which saw historic attendance. (Sara Reardon, Nature News; Lindizi Wessel, ScienceInsider)

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 6, 2017

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By: Aaron Rising, PhD

Source: Flickr

Technology

Do You Want to Be a Superhero? Your Electronics Might Be Able to Get You a Little Closer to Being ‘Wolverine’!

In a recent communication in the journal Advanced Material, and summarized in The Christian Science Monitor, researchers have designed a conductive material that has quite a number of uncanny attributes. It consists of polarized, stretchable, polymer chains that are connected via ion-dipole interactions. This material stretches well, tolerating “extreme strains exceeding 5000%”, has high electrical conductivity, and is practically invisible.

What makes this material even more Incredible and Amazing is its ability to completely heal in 24 hours at room temperature. If cut with scissors, the ends will reconnect like new when placed in close proximity to one another. In talking with the Monitor, a co-author, Christopher Keplinger, described how we could go from metal robots like in Transformers to ones that look more like Data from Star Trek. “What you usually imagine is a metallic, clumsy piece of hardware that you would not want to have near yourself for any sort of collaboration or interaction – the mismatch in mechanics with the robot being hard and the human body being soft makes direct contact dangerous. Now imagine a new class of robots that are based on soft, elastic materials, being powered by stretchable electronic circuits and thus much more closely resemble the elegant design of biology.”

While these materials won’t make you invincible or heal like Wolverine they may make your cellphone or computer a little better at fighting crime or perhaps surviving being dropped. For a more global importance, this new material would allow for more suitable robotic human aids and caretakers. The use of robotic caretakers and companions has a rather large implication in both the health and the manufacturing sectors of our economy. (Joseph Dussault, The Christian Science Monitor)

Health

A New Human Organ

We all know the major organs in our body, the heart, brain, lungs, stomach, etc. In fact, for well over 100 years medicine has stated we have 78 organs in total. These organs have been discussed and described in modern textbooks such as the 40th edition of “Gray’s Anatomy” published in 2008. The editors of the prestigious textbook have revised the most recent version as a new organ called the mesentery has been found. It is located in and around the abdomen.

While discussed as early as 1885 by Dr. Frederick Treves and described as far back as 1508 by Leonardo da Vinci, the mesentery is a lining of the abdominal cavity that attaches to the intestine. This lining is what keeps the intestines in place in our gut. Treves described the mesentery ‘existed only sporadically, in disjointed ribbons, dispersed among the intestines and therefore did not meet the definition of an organ’. And as such was not and has not been classified as one of the 78 organs.

Two Irish scientists, however, disagreed and have claimed that the mesentery was not correctly categorized. According to Dr. J Calvin Coffey and Dr. D Peter O’Leary in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, the mesentery can really be described as a single and continuous tissue and thus can be classified as an organ. First summarized in the Independent and subsequently in Discovery Magazine and The Washington Post, the new organ’s function isn’t entirely understood. Talking to the Independent Dr. Coffey said, “Now we have established anatomy and the structure. The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science.”

This new discovery opens up the possibility that some gastrointestinal ailments that have previously been associated with one organ, such as the stomach, may in fact be more aligned with the mesentery. Because the function of the mesentery is largely unknown, drug companies have a new target to test drugs and academic and government research groups have a complete new system to study. How to appropriately tackle the funding and attention this new organ and the emerging ‘mesenteric science’ will receive is just now being examined. (Tom Embury-Dennis, Independent)

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January 6, 2017 at 1:17 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – October 28, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Technology and Health

Can You Please Pass the iPad?

As digital media screens have become more prevalent, doctors have warned parents of its negative impact on developing minds. In 1999, screen time was first addressed, with doctors mandating that no screen time was recommended for children under age 2.   The argument goes that children need parents present in real-time to interact with to develop the ability to read social cues and engage on a personal level.

Now the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has dictated that one hour per day of high-quality educational screen time may be allowed for children between 2 and 5 years of age. For children 18 months to 2 years, some screen time is ok as long as a parent is actively engaged and watching with the child. This is especially relieving for parents of children who have relatives far away who use Skype or FaceTime to communicate. Although this is technically screen time, it does benefit children with those important social interactions and reading facial and vocal cues.

Overall the goal of the AAP is to ensure that media is used in a mindful way, not to replace social interactions but to enhance family discussions and provide supplementary education material for older age groups. They also recommend media-free family time to ensure children develop a healthy relationship with technology. Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP and lead author for the statement said, “What’s most important is that parents be their child’s media mentor. That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.” In relation to screen time rules, it seems the amount of parent involvement and moderation are the keys to success. (AAP)

Mental Health Research

New Director of National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH)

NIMH has a tall order to fill: bridge the gap from the breakneck speed of basic neuroscience research advances to bring solid and reliable treatments to the clinic. Last month NIMH welcomed a new director, Dr. Joshua Gordon, to take the helm and direct the institute toward a balance between these two priorities. After 19 years as a faculty member at Columbia University, Gordon hopes to bring his experience as both a clinician and a researcher to achieve this delicate result.

NIMH’s strategic plan for research was laid out in September, with four priorities highlighted to combat mental illness. These include describing mechanisms of complex behaviors, at the molecular, cellular, circuit and genetic levels. Second, characterizing mental illness trajectories to determine best intervention procedures and time points, which would include detecting biomarkers and understanding how behavior reflects neuropathology. Third, NIMH strives to marry tried and true existing treatments with new therapies which can be implemented in community settings, thus bringing help to patients. Finally, NIMH funded research must improve public health, with better clinician education about new treatments, and new service delivery models that can be implemented to reach more patients suffering from mental illness.

These are all monumental tasks but Gordon seems up for the challenge. In a recent Q&A session by Meredith Wadman of Science Magazine, he was asked about the op-ed pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times by NIMH clinical psychiatrists where they accused previous director Thomas Insel of putting too much priority on basic research and letting clinical neuroscience fall by the wayside. Gordon replied by saying, “I think my first priority is good science. Where there are opportunities in psychiatry for short-term effects, we are going to try to take advantage of them. Absolutely. We’d be mad not to. We know so little about the brain, we have so few truly novel treatments in the pipeline that I’m all ears.” (NIH News Release)

Autism

Autism early intervention – help the parents, help their children

The plight of the working parent has become an important and almost bipartisan issue this election season. Politicians are proposing policies that will help families with paid family leave and some help with childcare costs, however there is a growing segment of people who desperately need even more help. Raising a child with autism is increasingly common, currently 1% of children and young people in the US are on the spectrum.

The cost of having an autistic child can be tremendous, with extra health care expenses, special equipment, classes and educational requirements. Often one parent must leave the workforce to care for their child as they require extensive and specialized care. Early interventions such as classes and therapy are thought to be effective for lessening the symptoms of autism, but until now the trials have been small and have had short end points. This week The Lancet published an article demonstrating that interventions aimed at educating parents of autistic children had long-term (up to 6 years) benefits. 152 children aged 2-4 years old were recruited to the study, with half given interventions that included therapy, monthly support and a parent-mediated 20-30 minute daily session of planned activities. The children who received this extra support reported lower levels of severe autism and had better teacher and parent assessed behaviors. However, the study did not find significant reductions in anxiety or depression or a language benefit.

This study demonstrates that providing education and resources for parents of autistic children are a worthwhile endeavor. Government resources are often aimed at providing services for the child, which are equally important. Parents armed with the proper educational tools can become personalized therapists for their children, which could reduce societal costs and improve outcomes. (Heidi Ledford, Nature)

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October 28, 2016 at 10:50 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 27, 2016

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

Source: pixabay

Alzheimer’s Disease

Larger studies are under way to test whether the promising early data holds up

Recent clinical trials reported that the drug “Aducanumab” might remove toxic amyloid-β proteins thought to trigger Alzheimer’s disease from the brain. In the study involving 165 people, 103 patients received the drug once a month for 54 weeks and the other group received a placebo. Patients receiving infusions of aducanumab experienced a reduction in the amount of amyloid-β in their brains, which was in accordance with the findings of a pretrial mouse study in which the drug cleared amyloid-β plaques from the animals’ brains. “This drug had a more profound effect in reversing amyloid-plaque burden than we have seen to date,” says psychiatrist Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

Whether aducanumab works to ameliorate the memory and cognitive losses associated with Alzheimer’s is currently under phase III clinical trials. Scientists have debated for years whether accumulation of amyloid-β causes memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This trial is in favor of the “amyloid hypothesis”, and suggests that elimination of the protein might alleviate the symptoms. In the past, other Alzheimer’s drugs have looked promising in early-stage trials, but ended in failure and even caused deaths of patients because of brain inflammation. Aducanumab also showed abnormalities on brain-imaging scans but it was in less than one-third of the patients. Hence, to avoid death of participants, researchers closely monitored such anomalies in these Alzheimer’s trials. All of the reported imaging abnormalities eventually disappeared in about 4 to 12 weeks, and no patients were hospitalized.

Patients who received higher doses of the drug, or who had genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, were more likely to develop the brain anomalies. Accordingly, Biogen — the company that makes aducanumab —adjusted the drug’s dosage and the monitoring schedule for people with genetic risks for Alzheimer’s in its phase III trials.

Aducanumab is a bright spot in the field of Alzheimer’s therapeutics after years of failed antibody and other types of drug trials. “This is the best news we’ve had in my 25 years of doing Alzheimer’s research, and it brings hope to patients and families affected by the disease,” says neurologist Stephen Salloway of Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, who was on the team that ran the initial trial. (Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

Clinical Trials

Investigators are now required to disclose all clinical trials, whether successful or not

On 16th September 2016, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the new rules for clinical-trial disclosures. According to the new law, it is required that all researchers must report the design and results of all clinical trials whether successful or not. The revised law also empowers the government to enforce penalties for those who fail to comply. The new rule will be effective from 18th January onwards and researchers have 90 days to comply. The disappointing results of clinical trials will no longer remain unpublished, and the new rule intends to crack down on the large number of clinical trials that are conducted but never reported. Robert Califf, head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, “A lot of major universities just miss the point that if you do an experiment on a person and get consent, you really have the obligation to make the results known.”

The old rule mandated that researchers conducting trials with human subjects had to register their study with the HHS website, ClinicalTrials.gov, before starting their work, and should follow up with information about their methods and results. But there were many exceptions and loopholes which created a lot of ambiguity. This allowed researchers to avoid reporting all the trials, particularly the failed ones. Christopher Gill, a health researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts says, “This can bias the literature and obscure important information on whether an experimental therapy is harmful. From the perspective of consumers and science, failures are as important as successes”.

Under the new rule, all trials must be registered on ClinicalTrials.gov within 21 days of enrolling their first patient and researchers can no longer wait for the results of their trials to report their data. Additionally the NIH’s companion rule edicts that NIH-funded researchers have to register phase I trials and also trials that do not involve an FDA-regulated product, such as behavioral interventions. Further changes dictate reporting the details of plans to conduct trials, outlining the statistics to be used to analyze the results, and revealing any changes in the protocol over the course of the study. The final HHS rules will give regulators a greater ability to enforce existing regulations, because many studies of drugs that are eventually licensed are still not reported. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

Income Inequality

Wages for top scientists are shooting skywards while others are being left behind

Income inequality in science is in the rise and is evident in all universities across several countries. The salary gap between elite scientists and those toiling in the benches is expanding over the past few decades. Limited data on the salaries of scientists is available making it difficult to determine the full extent and causes of income inequality. “But the gap in wages has reached a point at which it could be driving talented young people away from careers in academic science”, says Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The results of Nature‘s 2016 salary survey also support this concern.

One of the metrics used to measure disparities in salaries is the Gini coefficient in which 0 means everyone earns the same and 1 indicates maximum inequality. In 2012, economist Paula Stephan found that the Gini coefficient has more than doubled between 1973 and 2006 in most fields and faculty ranks in science, with the biggest increases in the life sciences. In contrast, it grew only 35% for full-time male earners in the United States and 18% for US households.

A major issue responsible for the rise of the Gini coefficient is the doubling of the National Institutes of Health’s budget during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This created competition among institutions for a small pool of top-ranked, grant-winning scientists. Everybody wanted to employ the most productive scientists who could bring in grants thus driving up the salaries. “One way for universities to minimize risk is to pick someone who is a demonstrated winner,” says Donna Ginther, a labour economist at the University of Kansas. Like the US, in the UK too, the salaries of top-earning professors have been pulling away from the pack since the late 1990s. An analysis of full-professor salaries in UK in July suggested that low ranking universities, to improve their REF (Research Excellence Framework – an assessment, done by UK funding agencies roughly every five years) performance, are offering high salaries to recruit researchers with high-quality papers to boost their scores. A similar trend is seen in other countries like China and Germany.

On the other end of the salary spectrum, there is little pressure to boost pay. With grants getting harder to win, labs are employing low-cost workforce to maximize research output. This labor environment benefits from the willingness of postdocs to sacrifice income for a chance at an academic research career. Even those lucky enough to land offers for tenure-track junior faculty positions find that starting salaries are not very negotiable.

High salaries at the top can attract productive workers, but low pay at the bottom signals that there may not be a good future in this career. If big rewards become concentrated among a smaller group of people in a highly competitive area, then others who could still have been productive scientists end up losing a disproportionate amount in terms of earnings and career prospects and it could keep promising people from further pursuing a research career. (Corie Lok, Nature)

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September 27, 2016 at 11:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 9, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay

Biotechnology

DNA Data Storage

In a recent Nature News article, Andy Extance described the growing need for novel data storage methods and materials. It is estimated that between 2013 and 2020 there will be a tenfold increase in digital information, requiring 44 trillion gigabytes of storage. This is a number that is difficult to comprehend, but it’s magnitude and the rapid rate of digital data growth are put in context by a second, more shocking, estimate: if the expansion of digital information continues at the forecasted rates the amount of data requiring storage in 2040 will require “10 to 100 times the expected supply of microchip-grade silicon.” For this reason, researchers have begun considering alternative data storage materials including DNA, which is able to store information at an impressive density; it is estimated that 1 kg of DNA would be sufficient to store the world’s digital archives. DNA is also stable – while there is data loss from hard disks after less than ten years of storage, Nick Goldman, a researcher pioneering DNA data storage at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), notes that in 2013, researchers successfully read the genome of a horse that had been trapped in permafrost for 700,000 years. But there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome before we are able to stream our favorite show out of a test tube. These hurdles include: 1) it is slow to read and (especially) to write DNA sequences, 2) DNA synthesis is error prone, 3) DNA synthesis is currently expensive and 4) it is difficult to specifically access desired information stored within DNA. There have been exciting advances over the last few years from researchers at EBI, Harvard, the University of Washington, and Microsoft that begin to address these problems. This year, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington reported successfully storing and retrieving 200 megabytes of data in DNA. This is a far throw from the 44 trillion gigabytes of storage we will require in 2020, but progress in science is non-linear and the need for alternative storage media will motivate the growth of this exciting field. (Andy Extance, Nature News)

Environment

Oklahoma Shuts Down Wastewater Injection Wells Following Earthquake

There is a significant amount of wastewater that is released in the process of extracting oil and gas from traditional and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) wells. One way to dispose of this wastewater is to inject it deep into the earth’s crust. As oil production has increased within the continental United States within the last few years, wastewater injection has increased in stride. Recent evidence suggests that wastewater injection into rock formations alters pre-existing stresses within faults, in some cases leading to slippage that results in an earthquake. A recent article by Niraj Chokshi and Henry Fountain for the New York Times reported that on September 3rd, Oklahoma experienced a 5.6-magnitude earthquake – tying the state’s previous record for its most severe earthquake set in 2011. In response, Oklahoma government officials ordered the shutdown of three dozen wastewater injection wells in the area most affected by the earthquake. The quake comes amid an impressive increase in earthquake frequency for the state. In 2009, there were only three earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater, but in 2015, this number increased to over 900. To address this increase, state officials ordered a reduction in wastewater injection last year with the hope of decreasing earthquake activity. To date in 2016 there have been over 400 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in Oklahoma. While it is widely accepted that oil and gas production and the associated wastewater injection have set off a number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states, it remains unclear if last Saturday’s earthquake was the result of this activity. In the future, additional monitoring of injection wells will provide valuable data to inform decisions on the placement and operation of wastewater injection wells. (Niraj Chokshi and Henry Fountain, New York Times)

Health

Early Support for Amyloid Plaques as the Causative Agent of Alzheimer’s Disease

As humans are living longer, Alzheimer’s disease is becoming an increasingly significant public health problem. The prevailing hypothesis is that aggregation of proteins such as amyloid-β (Aβ) into larger “plaques” leads to Alzheimer’s disease, but there is still no direct evidence to demonstrate that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease. In a Nature News & Views article this week, Eric M. Reiman, summarizes the results of an article published in the same journal, which showed that a human antibody, called aducanumab, was able to reduce Aβ plaques in a dose-dependent manner in a small, 12-month placebo-controlled human trial. Though other Aβ-targeting therapies have successfully reduced Aβ aggregates, the most tantalizing result of this study comes from early exploratory analysis of the trial data, which suggested – based on a study population that is too small to make definitive conclusions – that higher doses of aducanumab and larger reductions in Aβ plaques were associated with slower cognitive decline. Before accepting the hypothesis that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease, it will be critical to repeat the experiment in larger clinical trials appropriately powered to measure the impact of antibody treatment and plaque reduction on cognitive decline. The study authors also noticed that high doses of antibody were sometimes associated with the inflammation within the brain, causing them to limit the maximum antibody dose tested. Overall, these are exciting results, which, if confirmed in larger clinical trials, would provide much-needed clarity about the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease and inform future treatments. (Eric M. Reiman, Nature News & Views)

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September 9, 2016 at 9:20 am