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Posts Tagged ‘HHS

Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay


An Arms Race with Nature

H7N9, a new bird flu emerging in China, has infected roughly 1,500 people and killed 40% of them. The virus is contracted directly from infected birds but is not yet easily transmissible between humans, however researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have evidence H7N9 could potentially become transmissible between humans fairly easily. They examined a fragment of the virus that interacts with receptors on animal cells to gain entrance, and identified three minor mutations that could cause the fragment to shift from preferentially entering avian cells to preferentially entering human cells. If these mutations were to occur, it could rapidly result in a pandemic.

Tests in a viral fragment do not prove functionality in the intact virus; that would require mutating H7N9 itself. A 2014 moratorium on mutating three types of viruses (SARS, MERS, influenza) to more dangerous forms is expected to lift when the Department of Health and Human Services finishes current work drafting a new policy establishing reviews designed to assess benefit/risk ratios before funding research.

The subject is divisive, even among scientists in the field. Stanford researcher David Relman says he would support efforts to test mutations in a weakened strain of flu, but not in the H7N9 virus.  Bioterrorism expert Thomas Inglesby opposes increasing the contagious lethality of a virus, and opposes publishing such procedures due to concern that less benevolent actors would be enabled to replicate the process. NIH funded researcher, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, whose alteration of H5N1 to become highly contagious between ferrets (the animal model for humans) in 2011 influenced the moratorium, believes examining dangerous virus mutations in a controlled lab environment is important to identify potential pandemic viruses.

Many of these topics were discussed at the recent Immunology and Evolution of Influenza Symposium, and are sure to be a hot topic at the July 16 – 19 Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance meeting. With policy guidance needed on benefit/risk, potentially safer models, security, and publication limitations, the new HHS policy will be critical. (Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)


Modeling with Dough – Pick your Species

The Supreme Court found the Endangered Species Act was “intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” Today, in light of the cost, conservation policy makers are being invited to triage species extinctions. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives recently met with ecologist Dr. Leah Gerber to discuss her proposed use of an algorithm guiding conservation funding.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gerber says her model suggests that defunding “costly failures,” including the spotted owl, golden-cheeked warbler and gopher tortoise, could help save about 180 other species. Gerber says policy makers may opt to continue to support species that her algorithm rejects, as was done for the koala in Australia where algorithm triage has been used. In this case, a popularity contest may determine who lives and who goes extinct.

Details of the algorithm are not explicit, but Dr. Gerber’s recent publication in PNAS is a straightforward return-on-investment calculation analyzing the mathematical relationship between funds requested, spent, and species success or decline.  Gerber finds “the cost–success curve is convex; funding surpluses were common for the species least likely and most likely to recover” so it’s not simply ‘money in – species out’. Other factors – endemism, keystone status, level of species risk – are also important, though Gerber acknowledges they are not currently included.

While proponents call use of the equation “doing the best you can with what you have,” lack of data on its predictive validity make it a frightening policy tool governing something as permanent as species extinction. What if region affects costs, population growth is slower in species reaching sexual maturity later, a break-through in understanding one species’ requirements is just around the corner or we haven’t yet discovered the significance of the niche occupied by another species? What if business or political interests conflict with a species’ needs? What if the algorithm developer seeks intellectual property legal status, as is happening now with a proprietary algorithm used in parole and sentencing situations? Algorithms impacting public policy should be vetted by multiple experts in germane disciplines, validated, and kept publicly accessible for healthy scrutiny. (Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)


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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 3, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Trump and Science

Scientists’ Lives Upended by Trump’s Immigration Order

New executive orders have been signed by President Trumpthat suspend immigration into the United States from “terror-prone regions.” The target countries listed are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. These new immigration orders have caused chaos at U.S. airports to people from these countries, including people with a valid U.S. visa or green card who were traveling outside of the U.S. when the order was signed. It is also affecting scientists who are currently in the United States, but are visiting from the affected countries. For example:

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.

A federal judge has issued an emergency stay that halts deportations of refugees with valid U.S. entry documents. Two days after executive order was signed, John Kelly, Secretary for Homeland Security, issued a statement deeming “the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest,” which was interpreted as allowing the re-entry of green card holders. from nations covered by the order, although they could receive extra scrutiny. The Council on American-Islamic Relations still intends to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Western District of Virginia challenging the constitutionality of what it calls the “Muslim ban.”

Over 7000 scientists of all nationalities and religions, including 43 Nobel laureates, have signed an open letter, warning that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” (Richard Stone and Meredith Wadman, ScienceInsider)

Science Policy

Scientists ‘Partly to Blame’ for Skepticism of Evidence in Policymaking, says AAAS CEO

In addition to access to high-quality technical experts to handle science-related global crisis, an United States president also needs to believe that scientific evidence is useful in setting government policy says American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Rush Holt. At the winter meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., Dr. Holt remarked how scientists are partly to blame for the decreased priority of scientific evidence in U.S. policymaking.  One potential explanation for this devaluation of evidence may be due to scientists’ way of presenting evidence that is too “condescending and hierarchical. We might say, ‘Let me try to explain this to you. Maybe even you can understand this.’ And that is not very effective. So we are partly to blame,” stated Dr. Holt.

Dr. Holt believes that “reverence for evidence” has been part of the nation’s political discussion since the United States was founded, and traditionally covers both parties. The biggest challenge now will be to try and empower policymakers to think about any scientific evidence presented to them and to evaluate the validity of the conclusion based on the evidence for themselves. (Jeffery Mervis, ScienceInsider)

Public Health

Senate Finance Committee OKs Tom Price, MD, for HHS Chief

The Senate Finance Committee voted 14-0 to approve the nomination of Rep. Tom Price, MD, (R-Ga), to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). All votes were from the Republican members of the committee because 12 Democratic members boycotted the executive session to confirm Dr. Price. Although the committee normally requires at least one member from each party present to reach its quorum requirement, the rule was suspended prior to the vote. Now Dr. Price’s nomination will go before the Senate for a vote, which will only need a simple majority of 51 votes for confirmation. (Robert Lowes, Medscape)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 22, 2016

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via photo pin cc

The Common Rule and human testing

Science academies blast US government’s planned research-ethics reforms

The ultimate advancement in human health and welfare depend on research with human subjects. To achieve this, properly controlled studies with human subjects is imperative for eliminating abuse of human subjects and proper protection of the data. To address these concerns the “Common Rule” was established in 1991 influenced by the Belmont Report, a 1978 document which laid out principles for ethical research with humans, such as minimizing patient harm and maximizing the benefit to society. The ‘Common Rule’ is the current human subject regulation policies which addresses ethical issues such as informed consent, storage of study participants’ biological specimens and many others. However with technological advances over time, achieving these goals has become more complicated and thus imposes difficulties in maintaining patient privacy. Hence in September, 2015 the US government proposed revisions for regulations governing studies of human subjects.

Recently however, an independent advisory panel proposed that the US government’s proposed overhaul of  the Common Rule is flawed and should be withdrawn. On June 29th the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that the government’s proposed changes are “marred by omissions and a lack of clarity”. They indicated that it would slow down research and will do little to improve protections of patients enrolled in studies. The panel recommended that the government should appoint an independent commission to craft new rules for such research.

The changes proposed by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attempted to address concerns that have arisen since the ‘Common Rule’ was established. For instance, the HHS reforms suggests a requirement for participants’ consent to use stored samples, such as blood or tissue, for future research. But the US academies’ panel pointed that the new consent requirements would slow research unnecessarily because little harm is likely to come to a person as a result of the use of stored samples. Moreover the extra consent forms can link the samples to the person’s name and thus increasing risk of identification.

Currently HHS is reviewing more than 2,100 public comments to its proposal and many of these comments were critical. However, the US academies’ panel says that the proposal should be scrapped and HHS should start fresh by appointing an independent commission to recommend reforms for the Common Rule. Meanwhile an HHS spokesperson said that the government is still pondering over the public’s comments and the report. She adds that the proposal comes after “many years of work,” and “that starting over would require many more.” (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

Scientific Publishing

Beat it, impact factor! Publishing elite turns against controversial metric

Journal Impact factor (JIF) – one of the most promoted and controversial metric system in the field of science is currently facing negative reviews from the scientific community. Impact factor is a measure of the average number of citations that articles published by a journal in the previous two years have received in the current year which is calculated by various companies. It is solely aimed to indicate the quality of journals said Heidi Siegel, a spokesperson for Thomson Reuters, the major publisher of JIFs. However, the irony is researchers often use the JIF to judge individual papers instead and in some cases even the authors.

On July 5th, several leading science publishers posted a paper to the preprint server bioRxiv asking all journals to consider a different metric which will capture the range of citations that a journal’s articles acquire. Also the American Society for Microbiology in Washington DC announced its plans to discard impact factor from its journals and website, and also from marketing and advertising.

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London and also the lead author on the bioRxiv preprint paper said that sadly many researchers evaluate papers by the impact factor of the journals and this can also influence decisions made by hiring committees and funding agencies. Curry’s team highlighted some limitations by plotting the distribution of citations (used to calculate the 2015 impact factors) for articles published in 2013–14 in 11 journals, including ScienceNatureeLife. They showed that most of the papers gathered fewer citations than the impact factor for the journal: 74.8% of Nature articles were cited below its impact factor of 38.1, and 75.5% of Science papers were cited fewer than 35 times with its impact factor of 34.7. Highly cited papers are the cause of this disconnect as Nature’s most cited paper in the analysis was referenced 905 times and Science’s 694 times. Curry and his team highly recommends the use of citation distribution curves instead of JIF as it provides a more informative snapshot of a journal’s standing.

However, Ludo Waltman, a bibliometrics researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, thinks that citation distributions are more relevant than impact factors for making decisions in hiring and promotion. But he feels that impact factors can be useful for researchers in some cases. Nonetheless anti-impact-factor campaigners believes that it will take time and pressure from various directions to diminish the influence of impact factor as it has become a cultural thing in the scientific field. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Brain research advancements

Human brain mapped in unprecedented detail

Neuroscientists have long sought to divide the brain into smaller pieces to better appreciate how it works as a whole. On July 20th,  Nature published the new unprecedented map of the brain’s outermost layer — the cerebral cortex — subdividing each hemisphere and valley-like folds into 180 separate areas. Ninety-seven of these areas have never been previously described despite showing clear differences in structure, function and connectivity from the neighboring areas.

“Until now, most brain maps were based on a single type of measurement which provides an incomplete view of the brain’s inner workings” says Thomas Yeo, a computational neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore. This new map is based on multiple MRI measurements which measures the flow of blood in response to different mental tasks, which Yeo says “greatly increases confidence that they are producing the best in vivo estimates of cortical areas.”

The map was constructed by a team of people led by neuroscientist Mathew Glasser at Washington University Medical School. They collected imaging data from 210 healthy young adults participating in the Human Connectome Project, an National Institutes of Health-funded initiative to map the brain’s structural and functional connections. They collected information of cortical thickness; brain function; connectivity between regions; topographic organization of cells in brain tissue; and levels of myelin — fatty substance that speeds up neural signaling. The borders on the map was delineated by areas which showed significant changes in two or more of these properties. Analysis of all the data confirmed the existence of 83 previously reported brain areas while identifying 97 new ones. Scientists further tested the map generated by Glasser and his team, and found it accurate by looking for these regions in the brains of additional 210 people. But the size of the areas varied from person to person and these differences may reveal new insights into individual variability in cognitive ability and opens up the possibility to explore further the unique intersection of individual talents with intellectual and creative abilities.

But the map is limited in some important ways as it reveals little about the biochemical basis of the brain and about the activity of single neurons or small groups. However, Glasser says that “We’re thinking of this as version 1.0, that doesn’t mean it’s the final version, but it’s a far better map than the ones we’ve had before.” (Linda Geddes, Nature News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 22, 2016 at 9:00 am