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Science Policy Around the Web – April 16, 2019

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By: Mary Weston, PhD

Source: Wikimedia

Astronaut twins study spots subtle genetic changes caused by space travel

In 2015, NASA began their Twins Study, where they evaluated the biological effects of one year of spaceflight on an astronaut by comparing him to his earthbound identical twin. One year after returning to earth, the majority of observed physiological changes from space reverted back to the astronaut’s original state, with only subtle genetic changes remaining. 

Spaceflight exposes the body to ionizing radiation and near-zero gravity, and the consequences of long-term exposure to these conditions are not known. On this mission, Scott Kelly spent 340 days in space from 2015-2016 (he has a lifetime total of 520 space days). His brother Mark, a retired astronaut who had previously spent 54 days in space over four space-shuttle missions, remained on earth and acted as a near identical biological control. The study involved only two people, so not all findings may be applicable to other astronauts, but NASA hopes to use the information to direct future astronaut health studies.

Teams of researchers gathered a wide array of genomic, molecular, physiological, and other data on the men before, during, and after the mission. They reported that Scott Kelly did display signs of stress from space travel, with changes seen in most areas measured. 

However, now researchers are finding that most of the changes Scott Kelly experienced from spaceflight have reverted back to their original state after 6 months of being back on earth. NASA argues that “the Twins Study demonstrated the resilience and robustness of how a human body can adapt to a multitude of changes induced by the spaceflight environment”.

One genetic change that did persist six months after Scott’s return was to his chromosomes. Parts of them inverted (flipped), which could lead to DNA damage, and is possibly due to the large amounts of space radiation. Further, researchers hypothesized that space flight would shorten telomers, important caps at the end of chromosomes, since they decrease with age and spaceflight is expected to stress the body similar to aging. However, a majority of his telomers lengthened while Scott Kelly was in space, while only few shortened. Those that lengthened returned to their normal state after about 48hrs on earth, but the shortened ones remained. 

Given the space community’s interest in increasingly ambitious space missions and plans to explore Mars, studies exploring the long-term health impacts of spaceflight will be extremely important for the future.

(Alexandra Witze, Nature


Abnormal Levels of a Protein Linked to C.T.E. Found in N.F.L. Players’ Brains, Study Shows

Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that used experimental brain scans to compare the levels and distribution of tau, a protein linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in retired NFL players and male controls who had never played football. They found that the NFL players had elevated levels of tau in areas where the protein had previously been detected postmortem. 

CTE is associated with repetitive hits to the head, like those encountered during contact/collision sports. Currently, pathologists can only posthumously diagnose CTE. This new study is the first to evaluate tau averages and overall patterns from a group of living former football players (26 men) with a control group (31 men). The project, led by Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University, used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans to image the brain after exposure to a radiolabeled substrate that specifically binds tau. 

Both the study’s authors and outside experts emphasize that a CTE diagnostic test is still far from ready and would likely include other markers from blood and spinal fluid as well.  However, this study represents a preliminary, first step towards developing a clinical test to detect CTE in living players, which may also ultimately assist in identifying early disease signs and those with potential risk of developing CTE. 

The relationship between CTE symptoms and the role of tau, which occurs naturally in the brain, is not clear. The study found no correlation between the amount of abnormal tau and the severity of cognitive and mood problems in the players. However, these results are preliminary and the player sample size was small. Evaluation of larger sample size of football players is needed to continue to explore the role of tau and replicate the observed elevated levels found in this paper. 

(Ken Belson and Benedict Carey, New York Times


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April 17, 2019 at 9:34 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 26, 2019

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By: Mary Weston, Ph.D.

Source: Wikimedia

A Century-Old Debate Over Science Patents Is Repeating Itself Today

In 1923, after the economic devastation of World War I, the Italian senator Francesco Ruffini wanted to bolster scientific research by giving scientists ownership of their discoveries. His scheme would have awarded scientists a patent of sorts on the laws of nature they found. Although he had reasonable scientific support and the backing of the newly formed League of Nations, ultimately scientists around the world strongly rejected the plan for various reasons. Recent proposed changes to scientific discovery patent law possess a striking similarity to these events and proposals nearly 100 years ago.

Ruffini, desiring to increase scientific research, argued that scientists should be able to receive “scientific property” for a discovery, similar to patents awarded for inventions. He cited the example of “Hertzian waves” (i.e. radio waves) as something that resulted in many valuable products. The proposal was a large deviation from the existing law, where patents could only be assigned for inventions – artificial things made by humans, like machines – but not for discoveries of the natural world. Ruffini “was clear that scientific property would not prevent all uses of a natural law. But only practical commercial applications”.

In 2017, the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) and the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Section (ABA’s IP) both submitted proposals to change current laws (Amendment 35, Section 101) and allow for patents on scientific discoveries. Motivation for change stems from recent Supreme Court decisions regarding patents for medical techniques (use of the BRCA1/2 gene for detecting breast cancer and a blood diagnostic test to fine-tune autoimmune disease treatments). Currently legislators, specifically Senators Thom Tillis and Chris Coons, are revisiting these guidelines and roundtables were held in both January and February of this year. 

The demise of the previous 1920s proposal was due to details in implementation, very similar to the problems current proposals face today. These include how to:

  • attribute scientific property when there are many contributors to one discovery (i.e. who “discovered” electricity? Benjamin Franklin? George Ohm?). 
  • deal with unexpected liability, potentially requiring some sort of scientific property insurance scheme. 
  • deal with the scope of some scientific discoveries, possibly being so large that it leads to tremendous and costly amounts of ligation. 
  • write the patents with the specificity required without being too vague and/or speculative. 

Edward S. Rogers, a Chicago lawyer who assisted Ruffini with his proposals in the 1920s, ultimately warned against it in 1931, saying that while the plan was appealing, “the whole scheme seems impractical.”

If changes to the patent law are to occur, the same issues that prevented change nearly 100 years ago will need to be solved – a daunting and challenging task.

(Charles DuanSlate

Japanese Spacecraft Successfully Snags Sample of Asteroid Ryugu

The Hayabusa2, a Japanese asteroid-sampling spacecraft, just successfully retrieved surface pieces from Ryugu, a 3000-foot wide asteroid. To obtain the sample, the probe fired a 0.2 ounce tantalum “bullet” into the boulder-covered surface at close range, and then collected disturbed particles using a “sampling horn” located on the underside of the machine. 

The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) launched the Haybusa2, Japanese for Peregrine Falcon, in December 2014. They told CNN that even reaching the asteroid, 180 million miles from earth, is the “equivalent of hitting a 2.4-inch target from 12,400 miles away”. Upon arrival, the probe circled the small asteroid for 1.5 years collecting data. Then, last September, two probes were successfully released to image and document the asteroid surface. 

The goal of this exploration journey is to better understand the early history and evolution of the solar system. Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, the category that ~75% of known asteroids falls into, and is thought to contain water and other organic materials. One theory suggests that much of earth’s water and organic compounds may have been delivered by asteroids and comets. This will be the first time scientists have visited and collected samples from this type of asteroid and evaluation of its composition may “clarify interactions between the building blocks of Earth and the evolution of its oceans and life,” JAXA described

JAXA is planning two additional sampling expeditions in the next couple of weeks. This second mission will collect additional surface material. The third will use a copper projectile to create a surface crater in order to obtain samples from beneath the asteroid’s surface, which has been weathered by deep-space radiation. The Haybusa2 will depart the asteroid in December 2019 and should arrive back to earth in December 2020.

(Mike WallSpace.com)

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March 1, 2019 at 12:58 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 6, 2018

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By: Neetu M. Gulati, Ph.D.

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Source:Pixabay

 

The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day

Ethical concerns and controversy came to the forefront last week when news broke that Chinese scientist He Jiankui had supposedly created genetically edited babies using CRISPR technology: a first in the world. CRISPR/Cas9 technology, or CRISPR as it is more commonly known, is a scientific tool that allows researchers to edit (add, subtract, or change) the expression of genes quickly and precisely. This technology could be used to fix mutations that cause human disease. However, there are also risks, using CRISPR for gene editing may have disastrous side effects such as potentially leading to cancer.

He Jiankui claimed that he used the technology to alter a gene called CCR5 to reduce the risk of of HIV infection in embryos before implanting them in a woman, who then gave birth to twin girls. He claimed another CRISPR baby may be on the way from another pregnant woman. It is unclear if He has actually done what he claimed, and he has not yet published his results in a peer-reviewed journal. Nevertheless, the response to He’s claims have been strongly negative. Many people are concerned that He violated ethical norms by editing human embryos, especially because the overall consensus among scientistsin the field of gene-editing was that “there is a need for caution” and to only use the technology after “much more research to meet appropriate risk/benefit standards.”

Since the public has learned about He’s experiments, numerous scientists, including pioneers in the CRISPR field, have spoken out against He’s actions and have called for a temporary moratorium on similar experiments. Southern University of Science and Technology in China, where He has been on unpaid leave since February, has opened an investigation into He after finding out about his research. China’s National Health Commission is also investigating He.

Amid the backlash, He defended himself and his actions at the Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, claiming to be “proud” of his work. Dr. He has not been seen since the summit, however, and there are now concerns that he may be missing.

(Ed Yong, the Atlantic)

 

Trump emphasizes workforce training in new vision for STEM education

The White House released a new five-year strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education this week, with a vision that “all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation and employment.” The report emphasizes workforce training in STEM, focusing primarily on opportunities outside of traditional classroom settings, such as apprenticeships. The plan also highlights the need for more diversity in STEM, such as minorities and women.

Overall the strategic plan focuses on four pathways to success: developing and enriching partnerships between educators, employers, and the community; engaging students in trans-disciplinary learning, including advancing innovation and entrepreneurship education; building computational literacy; and operating with transparency and accountability. The plan put forth by the Trump administration diverges from some of the key priorities of the former administration, including efforts focused on traditional academic environments such as training more teachers, and improving STEM instruction in colleges and universities. Instead, this plan appears more focused on how STEM education prepares students for the years after schooling is completed. “STEM education is absolutely critical to supporting the American worker, and this plan brings together a number of programs that are part of our emphasis on the American worker,” said Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president at OSTP.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

 

NASA’s InSight Mars explorer lands safely on the Red Planet

For only the eighth time in human history, a spacecraft has been landed on Mars. The InSight lander touched down on Martian soil on November 26, 2018 after over six months of space travel.

NASA’s InSight mission aims to gather information about Mars, and is part of the NASA Discovery program for focused solar science missions. InSight will study the crust, mantle, and core of Mars, to allow scientists to learn more about the formation of rocky planets in the solar system.

InSight has already begun taking photos of the surface of Mars, which have been posted on social media accounts such as Twitter. The lander has also set up solar panels, which allows InSight to power its cutting edge instruments. In doing so, the lander set an ‘off-world record,’ generating more electrical power than any previous vehicle on the planet’s surface. InSight project manager Tom Hoffman spoke on the importance of this achievement, “The 4,588 watt-hours we produced during sol 1 means we currently have more than enough juice to perform these tasks and move forward with our science mission.” This almost doubles the energy produced in a Martian day produced by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which previously held the record.

InSight will continue taking pictures of the surface of Mars to study its new surroundings and use its robotic arm to set up instruments to place them on the surface of Mars for the next few weeks. It will take two to three months before the lander begins conducting science on the Red Planet.

 

(Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post)

 

 

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December 6, 2018 at 5:23 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 24, 2018

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By: Kelly Tomins, BSc

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source: pixabay

NASA

Trump’s NASA Nominee, Jim Bridenstine, Confirmed by Senate on Party-Line Vote

The senate has confirmed Jim Bridenstine, republican Oklahoma congressman and former navy pilot, as the new administrator of NASA. The senate confirmed Bridenstine along party lines, with 50 republicans for and 47 democrats and two independents against. His confirmation concludes 454 days NASA has operated without a permanent leader, the longest period in the organizations history. Despite Bridenstine’s long-time interest in space, his lack of technical expertise and bureaucratic leadership experience has left many legislators skeptical of his ability to run a $18.5 billion dollar agency.

Bridenstine’s background differs greatly from past NASA administrators. He is a three-time Oklahoma congressman and the first elected official to ever hold the top position at NASA. Bridenstine’s science experience is limited to sponsoring the American Space Renaissance Act, an unpassed outline of the future of NASA, and serving for two years as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. The NASA administrator under Barack Obama, Charles F. Bolden, Jr., was an astronaut for 14 years at NASA before returning to the Marine Corp. Current acting administrator, Robert M. Lightfoot, is a mechanical engineer who has worked for NASA for nearly 20 years. Bridenstine will be only the third of 22 NASA administrators or acting administrators without previous NASA experience or formal science/engineering training. In addition, Bridenstine has no experience running a government bureaucracy and has come under fire for questionable dealings during his brief tenure at the Tulsa museum.

Democratic senator Bill Nelson of Florida was one of the most outspoken opponents of the confirmation, denouncing Bridenstine’s political background as a potential conflict of interest. Bridenstine has made controversial and conservative statements in the past, including criticisms of climate change funding and opposition to same-sex marriage. Even republican Marco Rubio expressed concerns regarding Bridenstine’s lack of science expertise, and was only swayed to vote yes after the current acting NASA administrator announced his retirement.

Bridenstine’s confirmation follows the trend within the current administration to appoint non-scientists to lead scientific agencies. Rick Perry was appointed as Secretary of Energy despite his lack of scientific expertise, his questioning of climate change, and having once proposed eliminating the agency as a whole. The current administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, entered the position without scientific background. Additionally he was a well known critic of the EPA, demonstrated when he sued the agency more than a dozen times during the Obama presidency.

NASA is a historically nonpartisan agency, and its best interest would not be served by swaying political ties. There has historically been little partisan divide over the NASA administrator appointment, and both administrators under Barack Obama and George Bush were unanimously confirmed by the senate. Despite Bridenstine’s unconventional political background, Bridenstine assured the senate during his confirmation hearing that he “want[s] to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical”. Let’s hope that’s the case.

(Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

 

Ethical Research

African scientists call for more control of their continent’s genomic data

New guidelines published by the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative (H3Africa) hope to clarify ethical standards of studies, give African scientists more autonomy, and ensure that Africans benefit from the research they participate in. The African continent contains a wealth of human genetic diversity and overseas researchers are increasingly utilizing this diversity to discover more about our species history and health. Despite the wealth of information African samples can provide, there is a lack of infrastructure to support African scientists. African genomic samples are often shipped to the global north to be analyzed, a practice driven by superior computational facilities and faster computing times. African scientists often have to collaborate with researchers overseas, reducing their autonomy. In addition, there are ethical questions regarding the use of African biobank data for secondary use by researchers not involved in the original study.

H3Africa is an NIH funded health-genomics consortium that works to increase the genomic infrastructure by funding African-led projects and train bioinformaticians. These new guidelines were written by an ethics working group aimed at all stakeholders involved in the design, participation, and regulation of genomic research throughout Africa. The guidelines four core principles are summarized as:

  1. Research should be respectful of African culture
  2. Research should benefit the African people
  3. African investigators/ stakeholders should have intellectual leadership in research
  4. Research should promote fairness, respect, equity, and reciprocity

H3Africa hopes that these guidelines will help guide research-ethics committees to promote the best practice for research in Africa, and eventually spark the creation of national regulations for genomics research and biobanks. Brenna Henn, a population geneticist at the University of California, Davis, is optimistic about the framework guidelines, although somewhat worried of heightened tensions with western scientists. She states, “The guidelines could be a rude awakening for scientists who seem to believe they can fly into an African country, study a genetically unique population and export the samples in a few months”. It is definitely a necessary awakening that African populations should not be exploited for their genomic data, and hopefully these guidelines will pave the way for more ethical, consensual, African-led research studies.

(Linda Nordling, Nature)

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April 24, 2018 at 10:21 pm

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