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Science Policy Around the Web – July 6, 2018

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By: Kelly Tomins, BSc

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source: pixabay

Genetic privacy

Could DNA Testing Reunite Immigrant Families? Get the Facts.

Since the enactment of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, over 2300 children have been separated from their families at the border. The policy caused widespread outrage throughout the US, and over 400,000 people protested the policy at the “Families Belong Together” march last week. Although the policy has since been redacted, the government has shown little transparency on how they plan to reunite families. Could DNA testing be a solution?

DNA testing companies, MyHeritage and 23andMe, seem to think so. They have offered thousands of testing kits to help reunite migrant children to their families. Scientifically, these tests are very reliable, and can detect direct relations by 99.9% accuracy. However, the science is the least complicated aspect of this situation.

Consent and privacy are several of the most troubling aspects of the use of these tests. Due to medical privacy rules, children would need a designated legal guardian or representative to have their DNA tested, which is clearly a problem. In addition, adults likely cannot give informed consent, especially since they are in distressing conditions and many do not speak English. Migrants may feel pressured to have the sequencing done if they believe it is the only way to be reunited with their children. DNA sequencing reveals private information about health and paternity, and sequencing data stored in databases has been used to genetically track criminals. It is difficult to imagine that detainees would be given enough information about DNA sequencing and its’ implications to make an informed decision.

Despite these concerns, according to an unnamed federal official, DNA testing has already begun. Jennifer K. Falcon, communications director for RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas that offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, is extremely against DNA testing in this context. In addition to her concerns regarding consent, she argues that the government will have access to extremely personal data that could be used for future surveillance. Although 23andMe and MyHeritage have assured that the genetic data will only be used for reunification, it is unclear what will happen to the DNA samples and data afterwards.

Beyond the ethical and logistical hurdles in this case, DNA sequencing is not a quick fix. 23andMe state on their website that sample processing takes 6-8 weeks. It would also be a logistical nightmare to obtain and match DNA samples from all the detainees currently in custody, especially when matching results from two different genetic testing companies. Critics point out that registering the identity and locations of migrant parents and children would have circumvented the need for such invasive testing. Although genetic tests are cheaper and more accessible than ever, they require unique consideration to address issues of privacy and consent.

(Maya Wei-Haas, National Geographic)

Endangered species

Rhino Embryos Made in Lab to Save Nearly Extinct Subspecies

Thousands of northern white rhinos once inhabited the grasslands of east and central Africa, but habitat loss and poaching led to the population’s swift demise. All hope for the survival of the rhino subspecies seemed lost when the its’ last remaining male, Sudan, died earlier this year.  There are now only two surviving individuals of the subspecies, a mother-daughter pair named Najin and Fatu, both of whom are infertile. Remarkably, a new breakthrough in reproductive technology has reignited the possibility of saving this subspecies.

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, Dr. Thomas Hildebrant, a wildlife reproductive biologist, and his team show for the first time that rhino embryos can be created using in vitro fertilization (IVF). Although there are no remaining living males of the subspecies, there are four samples of frozen sperm that could potentially be used for reproduction. The research group created four hybrid embryos by combining frozen northern white rhino sperm and eggs from southern white rhinos. The scientists plan on implanting these hybrid embryos into surrogates, to see if they survive to birth. If that is successful, the scientists aim to extract eggs from the remaining female northern white rhinos and create pure-blood northern white rhinos in the lab.

Since there is a limited supply of northern white rhino gametes (only four sperm samples and two egg samples), Hildebrant and his team are also pursuing a technology called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). iPSC are a type of stem cell that can be created from adult cells, such as skin or blood. These iPSC can then be reprogrammed into various cell types. iPSC have already been created from northern white rhinos, and scientists are now figuring out how to convert them to sperm and eggs. Since the San Diego zoo has skin cells from 12 northern white rhinos, the future conversion of these cells into gametes could provide more genetic diversity to any future population.

While many conservation scientists applaud the use of technology to save the subspecies, many wonder whether the resources should rather be spent protecting habitats for remaining rhinos on-the-ground. In a study in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists show that de-extinction efforts can lead to a net biodiversity loss, since resources could be spent on endangered species. As Dr. Bennett, a conservation scientist at Carleton University, puts it “if the person is couching de-extinction in terms of conservation, then she or he needs to have a very sober look at what one could do with those millions of dollars with living species — there’s already plenty to do.”

(Steph Yin, New York Times)

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July 6, 2018 at 3:11 pm

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

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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February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 18, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay

2016 Presidential Elections

How the Trump Administration Might Impact Science

Donald Trump is now the President-elect of the United States of America. Mr. Trump’s loose speaking (and tweeting) style, affinity for controversy, relative disregard for facts, and his lack of experience in domestic and foreign policy, led him to make a number of vague, and sometimes contradictory statements about his specific policy positions over the course of his campaign. In light of this, there are few people on earth – and perhaps no people on earth, including Mr. Trump – who know exactly what to expect from his presidency. In Nature News last week, Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Lauren Morello considered how Mr. Trump’s presidency might affect science, focusing on what is known about his positions on biomedical research, climate change, the space program, and immigration. The authors’ analyses are summarized below:

Biomedical Research – Mr. Trump will be in a position to undo the executive order signed by President Obama in 2009, which eased some restrictions on work with human embryonic stem cells, a decision criticized at the time by the current vice-president elect, Mike Pence. In his characteristically brash speaking style, Mr. Trump also called the NIH ‘terrible’ in a radio interview last year, but beyond this, he has said little about his plans for biomedical research.

Climate Change – Early signs suggest that Mr. Trump will dramatically shift the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and undo some of its work to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan implemented by President Obama. Mr. Trump has already appointed Myron Ebell, a denier of climate change, to lead the transition at the EPA and other federal agencies involved in climate change and environmental policy. Mr. Trump has also vowed to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement which, under the terms of the agreement, may not happen immediately, but it may influence how and whether other countries participate in the agreement in the future.

Space Program – Based on writings from Trump’s campaign advisers there may be continued support for deep space exploration, especially through public-private partnerships with companies such as Orbital and SpaceX, but not earth observation and climate monitoring programs, which account for one third of NASA’s budget.

Immigration – A central pillar of Mr. Trump’s campaign was his strong and divisive stance on immigration. He has vowed to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, deport millions of illegal immigrants, defund ‘sanctuary cities’ throughout the United States, impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants, and stop immigration from countries where “adequate screening cannot occur”, which he believes includes Syria and Libya, and set new “caps” on legal immigration into the United States. These proposals have drawn objections from human rights advocates, and scientists worry that they may discourage international students and researchers from working in, and contributing their expertise to, the United States.

It remains to be seen how Mr. Trump will shape the future of science in the United States and the world, but it is clear that he is taking office at a pivotal moment. He would do well to seriously consider how his policies and his words will impact research, discovery, and innovation within the United States, and more importantly, the long-term health of vulnerable populations, economies, and ecosystems around the globe. (Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Lauren Morello, Nature News)

Public Health

Soda Taxes on the Ballot

Given the focus that has been placed on the outcome of the Presidential election, you may NOT have heard about the results of smaller ballot items including a decision to begin taxing sodas in four US cities – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado – as reported by Margot Sanger-Katz for the New York Times. These cities join Berkeley, California and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which passed soda taxes of their own in 2014 and June of 2016, respectively. The victory for proponents of soda taxes came after a costly campaign, with total spending in the Bay Area region campaign on the order of $50 million. Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Laura and John Arnold spent heavily in support of taxing sodas, but did not equal the spending by the soda industry, which opposed the taxes. During his time as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces in New York City in 2012, but this was struck down in the New York State Court of Appeals in 2014.

Soda tax advocates see the outcome of this year’s ballot initiatives as a sign of a sea change in public acceptance of programs intended to discourage soda consumption (and increase revenue for municipalities), but it is indisputable, especially in light of the results of the presidential election, that the set of relatively liberal cities that have adopted soda tax measures do not accurately represent the thinking of people throughout the United States. Though it is still too early to know if soda tax programs lead to improvements in public health, evidence from Berkeley and Mexico – which passed a soda tax in 2013 – indicates that these programs have the potential to decrease soda consumption. Regardless of how similar initiatives may perform in other cities on future ballots, the increasing number of cities participating in soda tax programs will provide valuable data to inform policy decisions aimed at reducing obesity and diabetes. (Margot Sanger-Katz, New York Times)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 18, 2016 at 9:00 am