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Science Policy Around the Web – July 15, 2016

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By: Leopold Kong, Ph.D.

Healthcare Policy

United States Health Care Reform – Progress to Date and Next Steps

On Monday, President Obama published a special communication in The Journal of the American Medical Association summarizing the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) during his tenure in office.  The report outlined the president’s initial motivations for health care reform, including his frustration over the relatively low insurance coverage across the US population when he first entered office, even though the U.S. was devoting over 16% of its economy to health care.  The report noted that since the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the uninsured population in the United States had stabilized to around 15% since the early 1990s.  With the creation of the ACA, the uninsured population has dropped 43% from 16% in 2010 to 9.1% in 2015.  Importantly, the health care reform has not decreased employment rates, while it has decreased insurance payment prices in the private sector by improving detection of health care fraud and by increasing insurance provider competition.  President Obama is optimistic that coverage will further expand, considering that many of the reforms that are part of the ACA have not yet reached their maximum effect. Policymakers must be on guard, however, against backtracking in the years ahead, considering there are continued attempts to repeal parts of the ACA. The report notes: “We need to continue to tackle special interest dollars in politics. But we also need to reinforce the sense of mission in health care that brought us an affordable polio vaccine and widely available penicillin.” (Barack Obama, JAMA)

HIV Health Policy

South Africa ushers in a new era for HIV

Next week, the International AIDS Conference returns to Durban, South Africa to discuss research and health care policy challenges in the country with the largest HIV epidemic in the world. Nearly 7 million people in South Africa have HIV, about 15% of the global HIV infected population. Remarkable progress has been made over the last two decades with the advent of more effective antiretroviral therapeutics and their wide dissemination.  South Africa’s average life expectancy has increased from 54.4 years in 2004 to 62.5 in 2015, and mother-to-child transmission has fallen from 30% to 1.5%.  Furthermore, AIDS-related deaths have been cut in half since 2006, from 400 to 200 thousands per year.  It is hopeful that continued gains in therapeutics accessibility would greatly improve the situation in South Africa, though substantial challenges remain. These include maintaining patient compliance in the face of a disease that no longer appears to be immediately life threatening, and dealing with the inevitable development of drug resistance that would require constant and costly patient monitoring.  Surprisingly, in South Africa, but not in Europe, people on therapy appeared to have better quality of life than their HIV-negative peers, highlighting the general benefit of increased interaction with health practitioners. Health policymakers in a country with over 3 million on antiretroviral therapy must also consider the side effects of the drugs, which include increased risk of hypertension, diabetes and obesity for older populations. With continued advances in small molecule and antibody therapeutics, as well as novel vaccine platforms, there is increased hope for millions of people living with HIV. (Linda Nordling, Nature)

NASA

First virus-hunter in space will test DNA-decoding device

Earlier this week, virus-hunter turned astronaut Kate Rubins arrived at the International Space Station with a pocket-sized DNA sequencer, the MinION (9.5 x 3.2 x 1.6 centimeters, ~ 120 grams) developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.  Unlike conventional sequencers, the MinION “reads” DNA strands by passing them through nanopores on the device that detect changes in electrostatic charge.  The small size of MinION is important to curb expenses, as it costs about $10,000 per pound of equipment flown to the space station. “Altogether, it’s an extremely exciting research package and a great capability on board station,” Rubins said. NASA hopes this project will improve scientific microbial research and disease diagnostics in space.  The MinION technology may also be used to detect extraterrestrial life, though further development may be needed, especially if non-DNA based life forms are expected.  Importantly, the experiments in space could encourage the expansion of genomics-based medicine utilizing MinION technology to more remote and poorer areas on Earth where the use of large, conventional DNA sequencers would not be practical. (Marcia Dunn, Associated Press)

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July 15, 2016 at 1:45 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 8, 2016

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By: Valerie Miller, Ph.D.

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Federal Regulatory Policy

To keep the blood supply safe, screening blood is more important than banning donors

With the recent mass shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, many members of the LGBT community were outraged that gay men were unable to donate blood to help victims of the massacre. The federal ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, instituted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been in place since 1983, after scientists understood the HIV disease and how it was spreading. This rule was recently scaled back in December 2015, when the FDA determined that men who have sex with men can donate, but not if they have had sexual contact with other men in the past year. The FDA continues to support a ban on men who have sex with men, because this demographic has the highest incidence of HIV infection.

Receiving a blood transfusion is extremely safe. Statistically, the risk of contracting HIV from a blood transfusion is 1 in 2 million, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, the actual incidence is much lower. Each year, more than 15 million donated pints of blood are transfused into patients. The last time anyone was known to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion was 2008. However, experts believe this this success has little to do with donor bans, and is instead a result of advances in blood screening technology. All blood donated in the United States is federally regulated, and has been tested for HIV since 1985. Currently, donated blood is subjected to two tests for HIV, both of which are highly accurate. In a typical year, there are a few hundred cases in which donated blood tests positive for HIV.

Researchers at the FDA recently published a paper concluding that relying solely on blood testing would result in an additional 31 pints of HIV infected blood to get past the screening process, because there is a window following HIV infection and when it becomes detectible by today’s technologies, which is currently nine days. However, the FDA model is based on a complete lack of a ban, and doesn’t take into account the fact that donors themselves who participate in risky behaviors may practice self-selection. Instead, evidence suggests that it may be possible to ban donors based on risky behaviors such as unprotected sex with multiple partners, instead of focusing on the gender of sexual partners. From 2010-2013, researchers conducted a pilot study that collected information about every donor who tested positive for HIV, and found that 76% of HIV-positive donors were male, and 52.4% of those men had had sex with another man in the past year. This study indicated that men who have sex with men are already donating blood, and that half of the men whose blood tested positive had not had sex with another man in the past year. In the study, men who had sex with women were found to have a higher number of lifetime partners than men who had sex with men. At this point, no questions are asked about heterosexual partnerships during the blood donation process. A possible solution would be to make donor bans based on risky sexual behavior that apply to everyone. However, the Canadian Blood Services performed a survey of sexual behaviors on potential donors and found that many would be excluded, leading to potential blood shortages, indicating that careful consideration must be given to any potential new bans. In the meantime, the FDA recently approved the Intercept Blood System, which can reduce viruses, bacteria and pathogens that contaminate platelets, making the blood supply even safer. (Maggie Koerth-Baker, FiveThirtyEight)

Drug Legalization

Now we know what happens to teens when you make pot legal

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has published the results of a new survey showing that following legalization in 2012, the rate of marijuana use among Colorado teens has remained unchanged. This survey, based on a random sample of 17,000 middle and high school students, showed that in 2015, 21% of Colorado students used marijuana in the past 30 days, which is lower than the national average, and is a slight decrease from the 25% of Colorado students who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days in 2009.

The results of these surveys are being monitored closely by policymakers on both sides of the legalization debate. Opponents of legalization have feared that more kids would smoke pot following legalization, due to increased availability. However, the data from Colorado, which includes two full years following the legalization of marijuana, indicates that adolescent use has not increased in this state. One explanation for why legalization is not increasing pot smoking among teenagers is that adolescents report that marijuana is widely available. Nationally, nearly 80% of high-school seniors report that pot is easy to obtain, indicating that those who want to smoke marijuana probably already are, which would change little following legalization. (Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post)

NASA

Jupiter, meet Juno: NASA spacecraft settles in to begin its mission

Juno, NASA’s planetary probe sent to investigate Jupiter, has safely entered Jupiter’s orbit. NASA received confirmation of the successful orbit entry in the form of three tones, at 11:53 pm EDT on the 4th of July, following a 35-minute engine burn to slow the speed of the probe. Now that Juno has arrived at Jupiter after a 5-year journey from Earth, it will investigate the planet at 4000 kilometers above its outer veil of clouds, more closely than any spacecraft before. Juno’s mission will be to attempt to shed light on the origin and evolution of Jupiter by investigating questions such as: what structures are present below the surface clouds? Does Jupiter have a solid core? And how far do the surface stripes and storms extend into the center of the planet? Juno will begin observations in August after a 53-day orbit, and will then will orbit Jupiter 33 times over the next year and a half. At the end the mission, Juno will crash into Jupiter and disintegrate, in order to prevent accidental collision with one of Jupiter’s potentially habitable moons, which could cause contamination with microbes from Earth. (Daniel Clery, Science Magazine)

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July 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 19, 2015

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D.

Gender Bias in Science Funding

Pentagon Request for Information About Gender Bias in Grant Funding

Last year, members of the U.S. House of Representatives asked a congressional watchdog agency to analyze the issue of gender discrimination in the grantsmaking process. Six agencies were asked to report information about their applicants including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Energy (DOE). While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that both the NIH and NSF routinely report information on gender and minority status on their applicants, they found that NASA, DOD, and DOE do not report demographic information. The three agencies previously claimed that they had “no use for this information” and that their “computer systems lacked the capacity” to collect additional data on applicants. In response, the White House budget office has provided agencies with templates for the collection of demographic information to be completed by the time the final GAO report is due this fall. Today, the DOD announced that it would start collecting information on gender. Lawmakers hope to explore whether success rates at federal research agencies differ by gender. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science Insider)

Public Health

Federal Government Invests to End the Rape Kit Backlog

Every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. With the crime of sexual assault, the victim’s body is part of the crime scene. Immediately following the assault, many victims endure an arduous process in emergency rooms and health clinics with hopes that the police will use the collected biological material as scientific evidence to accurately and quickly identify and prosecute the perpetrator. Mainly, the police use the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) of known offender’s DNA records to find suspects. According to a recent report, 100,000 to 400,000 untested kits remain untested nationwide. In Memphis, Tennessee alone, for example, there are 12,374 untested rape kits. The reason for this backlog is, in part, due to the cost of the tests; it costs $1,000 to $1,500 to process one rape kit. In response to lobbying efforts by advocacy groups, such as the Natasha Justice Project and the Joyful Heart Foundation, the federal government has invested $41 million to support law enforcement agencies testing backlogged rape kits. This investment will hopefully lead to the prosecution of those sexual assault perpetrators still at large. New York City has taken the lead and cleared their backlog of 17,000 rape kits, resulting in 200 prosecutions throughout the city. Now, more than 20 states have passed legislation holding jurisdictions accountable for their rape kit backlogs. (Abigail Tracy, Scientific American; Vocativ)

Climate Change

Scientists Find That Global Warming is Causing Stronger Hurricanes

Hurricane Sandy costs the U.S. over $60 billion in damages and was rated as the second costliest storm behind Hurricane Katrina. Although Sandy was rated a category 1 storm when it hit the Northeastern U.S., the size of the post-tropical cyclone created a surge typical of a much larger storm. According to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change and led by researchers at Florida State University, stronger hurricanes, like Sandy, are becoming more common with increases in ocean temperature. The study examined how both frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones vary with ocean warmth. (Angela Fritz, Washington Post; Nature)

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May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – December 9, 2014

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By: Jennifer E. Seedorff, Ph.D.

Flu Season – Public Health

Potential for a deadlier flu season

This flu season has the potential to be an especially bad season. This year the predominant circulating flu strain is a H3N2 virus, and historically the H3 strains have been associated with more severe flu seasons, including increases in hospitalizations and deaths. This season may be especially bad because some of the circulating H3 viruses have mutated since the strains for the vaccine were chosen, and these mutations may mean that the vaccine may be less effective against the mutated strain. Despite the mismatch between the flu strains and the vaccine, vaccination is still highly recommended. The vaccine will still provide protection against other strains of flu, including the unmutated H3N2 strain that is also in circulation, and may still provide a “weak defense” against the mutated strain, according to the CDC.   Additionally, this year CDC recommends that anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) be given to vulnerable patients with flu symptoms without waiting for a positive flu test, since these drugs work better when given earlier in the infection. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said that, “Flu is unpredictable, but what we’ve seen thus far is concerning.” (Donald McNeil, Jr. New York Times)

 

NASA

Successful test flight of the Orion spaceship

NASA’s Orion spaceship successfully completed its first unmanned test flight on December 5th. Orion is intended to replace the retired shuttle for manned spaceflight, including missions to the Moon and eventually Mars. Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager, commented on the successful flight and splashdown in the Pacific, “It’s hard to have a better day than today.” This 4.5 hour unmanned spaceflight was intended to test the performance of critical re-entry systems, including its thermal shielding. The Orion spaceship is being developed in parallel with a new launch rocket that will likely be ready around 2017-2018. Amos reports that commentators are “worried that the policy as laid out cannot continue in its current guise.” John Logsdon, a historian, commented that, “the first Orion launch with a crew aboard is 2020/21, and then nothing very firmly is defined after that, although of course NASA has plans. That’s too slow-paced to keep the launch teams sharp, to keep everyone engaged. It’s driven by the lack of money, not technical barriers.” Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientists said that, “We have all these technologies mapped out and we’re asking, ‘what is the most sustainable path we can get on (to acquire them)?’” Despite concerns about the pace of development and future missions, Friday’s launch was a reason for celebration. As mission control commentator Rob Navias said, “There’s your new spacecraft, America.” (Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

 

Regulatory Policy – FDA

New drug labels to include more information on risks of medications during pregnancy

In June 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin to require labels on prescription drugs and biologics to include more information on risks to pregnant and breastfeeding women, and on the reproductive risks to both men and women. Prior to this rule change, drugs were given a letter grade based on known or unknown risks of the medication during pregnancy and breastfeeding. “The ABC system was useless. Every thing was C, and all it said was there was no known data during pregnancy but that wasn’t necessarily the case,” said Jacques Moritz, director of gynecology at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt in New York. Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the Office of New Drugs in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA, wrote, “Our new method provides for explanations, based on available information, about the potential benefits and risks for the mother, the fetus, the breastfeeding children, and women and men of reproductive age.” The new rule will require that the information packets included with medications approved since 2001 include subsections on “Pregnancy,” “Lactation,” and “Females and Males of Reproductive potential” and include a summary of risks and the data to support the conclusions.  The rule will not require companies to do studies on the risks during pregnancy and lactation, but will require them to provide the information, if it exists. “Oftentimes the research is out there in the medical literature,” Kweder said and that, “oftentimes companies know about it,” but may not include it. (Brady Dennis, Washington Post and Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)

 

GMOs – EU

Compromise in debate over genetically modified plants in the European Union

Recently, a compromise was reached in the approval process of genetically modified (GM) plants for cultivated in the European Union (EU). Approval of genetically modified crops has been particularly controversial in Europe where resistance and support for GM crops varied greatly amongst the member states. Prior to this compromise, approval by the EU Commission would have allowed GM crops to be grown in all member states, some of which have laws that ban cultivation of GM plants. This compromise agreement will allow individual member states to overrule EU approval of GM crops in their state. This agreement should help to speed up the approval process, but still needs to be approved to come into force. The compromise of letting individual member independently decide on whether to allow GM crops to be grown has met with resistance from both supporters and defenders of GM crops. Still the EU commissioner of Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis called the deal “a significant step forward, after 4 years of intense debates . . . (The agreement will) give the democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice when it comes to important decisions concerning food and environment.” (Daniel Cressey, Nature News)

 

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December 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – August 22, 2014

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

photo credit: Bernt Rostad via photopin cc

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

 

NIH Funding Policy

Closing the “Grant Gap” between racial minorities and Caucasian applicants

Beginning in September, the NIH will begin analyzing the factors responsible for the fact that African American scientists are only two-thirds as likely to receive an NIH grant as a Caucasian applicant. Although the NIH launched a $500 million program to train and mentor minority scientists in 2012, officials recognize that training disparities are not the sole factor in the grant gap. This new initiative will investigate the role of reviewer bias during the grant review process. If racial bias is identified, it would not be a complete surprise after a study published in July found that faculty members at US universities are less likely to respond to interview requests from individuals whose names are associated with women and minorities than those associated with Caucasian males1. However, even if racial bias is not a key factor in the racial disparity of NIH grant awarded, the initiative will hopefully still identify the causes of the gap, allowing the NIH to develop future programs that will address the appropriate needs.   (Sara Reardon)

  1. Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M. and Chugh, D. What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Soc. Sci. Res. Network. 2014. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2063742

 

Science in Society

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages employees to be model citizens

The CDC’s mission is to “protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the US” 24/7 (http://www.cdc.gov/about/organization/mission.htm). The CDC puts much effort into encouraging public awareness of potential threats and personal preparedness for when disasters do arise. However, upon looking into its own “house,” officials realized that its employees were not implementing the preparedness measures that they implore the public to adopt. Therefore, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the CDC created the Ready CDC program. To instill community level preparedness within the CDC “community” of employees, Ready CDC provides it employees the support they need to participate, the tools and resources required for personal preparedness and the education to practice “actionable behaviors,” like making emergency kits and family disaster plans. By implementing these measures within their own workforce, the CDC hopes to study behaviors of preparedness, like a community’s resistance to change, to understand if their efforts are effecting the desired changes. At the core of this program is the desire to effectively respond when disaster strikes, and studies show that an individual is more likely to assist in an emergency if that person feels their family will be okay in their absence.

 

Space Policy

NASA paving the way to use 3D-printed instruments in space

NASA is already making full use of 3D printing to manufacture items like rocket engine parts and photographs from the Hubble Space telescope. However, by the end of September they hope to have printed an entire camera from 3D printing materials. The goal is to cut down the time and cost of manufacturing, particularly on components that have tiny features that are difficult, or impossible, to accomplish with traditional manufacturing techniques. In addition to building cameras, Jason Budinoff, an aerospace engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center, is working on techniques to 3D print the high quality mirrors that are so important in telescopes. Although these items will have to withstand rigorous testing to see if they can tolerate the stresses of deep space, Budinoff is hopeful.   (Kelly Dickerson)

 

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August 22, 2014 at 5:22 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – April 8, 2014

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By: Tara Burke

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

NASA Breaks Most Contact With Russia – NASA is suspending most contacts with Russian space agency officials. This move underscores the rapid deterioration of the Russian-American relationship which comes after the annexation of Crimea by Russia earlier this year. One exception to this move is operations of the International Space Station which are to remain the same. Historically, the relationship NASA has with Russia has been immune to such political tensions between the two countries. However, as the confrontation over Ukraine intensifies, the Obama administration cannot continue allowing meetings between NASA and Russian officials as if all were normal. This decision by the administration was made easier since the US space program has dwindled and space-relations with other countries are not needed like they once were. (Kenneth Chang and Peter Baker)

 

Neurological Institute Finds Worrisome Drop in Basic Research – The director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Story Landis, announced data that showed a “sharp decrease” in basic research at her institute. Landis and her staff examined the aims and abstracts of grants funded between 1997 and 2012 and found that NINDS competing grant funding that went to basic research declined from 87% to 71%. Applied research rose from 13% to 29%. When NINDS staffers dug deeper, they found that the percentage of NINDS-funded proposals that were considered basic research and did not have a specific disease focus fell from 52% to 27%. Landis plans to continue to explore the reason behind this decline. She finds this decline worrisome since “fundamental basic research is the engine of discovery”. (Jocelyn Kaiser)

 

The Africa Ebola outbreak that keeps getting worse – News of an Ebola outbreak in Africa has received modest notice in the West. The World Health Organization was not notified until March 23th, months after individuals were infected. As of April 3, the WHO reported that Ebola “has a case fatality of up to 90 percent” with 83 dead and 127 confirmed cases. On April 6th, the number of dead reached 90 and Ghana and Mali announced their first suspected cases of the disease. The announcement of this outbreak has struck fear in the African population. What is particularly worrisome is the migratory pattern of the outbreak. Usually, the outbreaks stay in isolated, remote geographical pockets but, this time, Ebola has shot hundreds of miles from southwest Guinea to the coastal capital of Conakry. Very few doctors, poor infrastructure, and a general distrust of authority by the people of Guinea exacerbate this situation. (Terrence McCoy)

 

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April 8, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 8, 2013

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By: Tara Burke

Photocredit: Chase Dekker via Photopin cc

Photocredit: Chase Dekker via Photopin cc

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

Panel Says Global Warming Carries Risk of Deep Changes – On Tuesday, a panel appointed by the National Research Council warned that continued global warming poses the risk of drastic changes to the environment. The deep environmental changes of concern include potential mass extinction of plant and animal life, possible collapse of polar sea ice as well as the threat of dead zones in the ocean. However, the panel ruled out the possibility of most worst-case fears perpetuated by Hollywood and popular imagination such as a sudden release of methane from the ocean that would fry the planet. The panel recommends the creation of an early warning system capable of alerting society before such changes create irreversible chaos. (Justin Gills)

United States Should End Gene Therapy Review Panel, Study Says – A panel commissioned by the Institute of Medicine at the U.S. National Academies recommended that the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) be phased out. The RAC was created in 1974 to vet clinical trials of gene therapy for novel risks. The report issued Thursday says, in most cases, gene therapy does not need this extra regulation anymore as concerns about common gene therapy methods no longer exist and the public perception of such treatment has transitioned from negative to positive. Panelists suggest that the RAC should be replaced by a RAC-like body with a larger breadth that reviews all risky clinical research that may not be sufficiently reviewed by supporting agencies. (Eliot Marshall)

NASA funding shuffle alarms planetary scientists – On December 3rd, NASA’s planetary science division announced restricting of its funding of various research and analysis programs. This jarred planetary scientists who already feel slighted in the ever-shrinking world of science research funding and who rely on this division for a majority of their funding. Even more worrisome is the newly-formed Solar System workings research program which will not be taking funding proposals until 2015…long after many of currently-funded planetary scientists run out of their current monies. Early-career planetary scientists are especially fearful of these new funding woes and are concerned they may be forced to change careers. (Alexandra Witze)

 

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December 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm