Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Posts Tagged ‘nsf

Tackling scientific misconduct in academic research

leave a comment »

By: Jenny Kim, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

In recent years, scandals surrounding scientific misconduct have gained significant media attention. In 2018, the Washington Post reported the resignation of Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell University. At Cornell, Wansink headed the Food and Brand lab which examined factors that influence people’s food choices. Following an internal investigation, it was determined that Wansink had encouraged his trainees and collaborators to manipulate data to achieve viral, media-worthy results. According to Retraction Watch, 18 of Wansink’s papers have been retracted and 15 papers corrected. Similarly, last year the New York Times published an exposé on Dr. Piero Anversa, a professor at Harvard Medical School, whose work examined the use of stem cells to repair damaged heart muscle. Anversa’s prolific research was able to secure millions of dollars in federal grant funding and even led to clinical trials. Investigation of Anversa’s scientific misconduct began in 2013 after collaborators accused his research group of falsifying data and photoshopping images in scientific publications. The investigation concluded 31 papers affiliated with Anversa should be retracted. In 2017, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital settled to pay $10 million to the federal government following the accusations of data falsification in the Anversa lab. While these cases of scientific misconduct are extreme examples, they highlight a larger problem in academic research: a lack of oversight on research integrity.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires all trainees receiving support from an NIH training, career development, research education, or dissertation research grant to receive education pertaining to the responsible conduct of research (RCR). RCR training covers broad subject matters including conflict of interest, peer review, research misconduct and policies for handling misconduct, and responsible authorship and publication. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has similar RCR requirements for all trainees supported by their grants. While most universities and research institutions provide RCR education for their trainees, RCR instruction can vary greatly across research programs. The most effective RCR curricula tend to focus on real-world ethics cases, use of multiple types of practice exercises, contain more than 9 hours of coursework, and facilitate significant instructor-student interaction. However, not all research institutions are able to offer in-person, intensive RCR instruction, rather opting for online workshops instead. Several factors contribute to this discrepancy in RCR training across research programs. Financial constraints may prevent universities and research institutions from hiring instructors to create and teach RCR curriculum. For some, focus on promoting research integrity may not be a top priority for their program. Regardless, it is clear that significant restructuring and standardization of RCR education must occur across research institutions to enhance research integrity in an effort to prevent scientific misconduct.

In 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a report recommending the formation of a Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB) at the national level. The RIAB would aim to work with stakeholders (e.g. researchers, research institutions, funding agencies, and journals) “to share expertise and approaches for addressing and minimizing research misconduct and detrimental research practices.” If an RIAB were established, it could serve as a central resource that stakeholders could use to develop RCR training at their respective institutions to bolster research integrity. By using resources offered by an RIAB, RCR training can be standardized across universities and research institutions to ensure all trainees receive the same level of high quality RCR education. This is especially crucial given that universities often do not have prior knowledge or exper

ience to efficiently investigate these cases, potentially due to the relatively low incidence of reported gross scientific misconduct. Through consulting on these types of cases, the RIAB could act as a central repository for best practices on handling misconduct allegations; this would enable the promotion of research integrity to be more uniform across all research disciplines.  

Improvements in RCR training and the formation of an RIAB will not be as effective without the promotion of scientific rigor and research integrity from research faculty and staff. Trainees interact with their research mentors on a daily basis and use them as a guide to navigate the research environment. If research faculty and staff are not well-informed on current research policies or do not promote discussion of or encourage RCR in the laboratory, this could negatively impact a trainee’s understanding of research integrity. Even after his numerous retractions, Brian Wansink defends his research. He admits to poor record keeping but does not believe he conducted improper statistical methods or misreported his data. An internal review by Cornell confirmed Wansink used problematic statistical techniques. Former trainees of Wansink say he strongly encouraged p-hacking, or analyzing data in multiple different ways to discover a desired result, in the lab. Wansink’s trainees knew for years he used questionable research practices, but, under Wansink’s instruction, they continued to manipulate data and re-run analyses until they reached an interesting story. It is important that universities and research institutions provide assistance in identifying dubious practices and protection to trainees that subsequently report scientific misconduct. It would also be beneficial for universities and research institutions to require research faculty and staff to participate in RCR training and gain knowledge on leading RCR instruction. Preparing senior research personnel to have an open discussion of RCR in the research setting would help promote a culture of ethical research.

As scientific research continues to advance, RCR training will need to adapt to stave off potential threats to the conservation of scientific integrity. The creation of a central organization, like an RIAB, will allow for the development and maintenance of effective, efficient, high quality training in scientific rigor and research integrity for current and future researchers. Furthermore, encouraging the participation of senior researchers in RCR training and instruction will have important implications for improving education and communication with mentees in the research setting. When stories of gross scientific misconduct steal the headlines in mainstream media, the reliability of science falters. If the general public does not have confidence in science research, this can lead to difficulty in implementing science-based public policies. Improving RCR training across multiple disciplines at universities and research institutions can be a possible mechanism to promote research integrity and prevent incidents of scientific misconduct.

Have an interesting science policy link? Share it in the comments!

Advertisements

Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 28, 2019 at 8:09 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – January 15, 2019

leave a comment »

By: Patrick Wright, Ph.D.

hierarchy-73338_640

Source: Pixabay

All Seven of the FDA’s Recent Commissioners Agree It Should be Independent—But Not on How to Accomplish It

From 2016 onward, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioners have called on Congress to make the FDA an independent agency that would no longer fall within the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The idea was initially proposed at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in 2016, which subsequently lead to the crafting of formal bipartisan white papers detailing the proposal to be used by current and upcoming administrations; these two companion white papers were recently released via the Aspen Institute and the January edition of Health Affairs.The co-authors of these white papers, seven former Commissioners of the FDA spanning 30 years of service, propose a new framework in which the FDA is reconfigured as an independent federal agency. The hope would be to make the FDA a cabinet-level agency (e.g. the Environmental Protection Agency) or an autonomous entity with powers similar to the Securities and Exchange Commission. These changes would help minimize the extent of bureaucracy (e.g. falling under HHS but funded as though it is part of the Department of Agriculture) and interference from other bodies. The FDA currently operates as one of eleven Operating Divisions under the HHS Secretary’s oversight, along with agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

The current structure allows other HHS agencies to have input on FDA policymaking, despite not necessarily having any familiarity with the innerworkings of FDA policy. David Kessler, the commissioner under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, stated that there are “150 people in between the commissioner and the president, and they all think they’re your boss—that’s the problem”. A recent example of the results of external influence was in 2011 when the HHS Secretary at the time, Kathleen Sebelius, barred the decision by then-FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg to allow emergency contraception to be sold over the counter.

In the Aspen Institute white paper, the Commissioners state: “The goal of independence is to accommodate efficient, science-based decisionmaking by reengineering the processes through which FDA regulations and guidances flow from proposal to final form”. Many objectives that can be achieved with increased independence of the FDA as an entity are outlined in the paper, including the ability to enhance transparency of the Agency and thus sustain public confidence and to ensure predictable decisionmaking exclusively grounded in scientific evidence. Given the breadth of the FDA’s regulatory umbrella, newfound independence would have profound implications on the agency’s ability to address public health issues.

(Ike Swetlitz, StatNews)

Bipartisan Bill on Sexual Harassment Signals Strong Interest by Congress

A recently introduced bipartisan bill, the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019 (H.R. 36, 116thCongress), directs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to implement a number of strategies to combat sexual harassment in STEM academic and research settings. It was introduced by Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Frank Lucas (R-OK), leading members from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

The bill allocates $17 million to the NSF Director to award grants to expand research efforts to “better understand the factors contributing to, and consequences of, sexual harassment affect individuals in the scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics workforce, including students and trainees”; collect relevant national survey data on the issue; update the report on responsible conduct of research by the National Academies to include evidence-based practices for fostering a climate intolerant of sexual harassment; and work with the National Academies to assess the influence of sexual harassment in institutions of higher education on the career advancement of individuals within STEM. The NSF implemented a policy in 2018 that requires institutions receiving NSF funds to disclose whether they have put a funded investigator on administrative leave pending the conclusion of a harassment investigation or have found an investigator guilty of sexual harassment. Under this NSF policy, funds will be reallocated to another investigator at the institution; decisions to terminate a grant to an investigator found guilty of sexual harassment would depend on the capacity of the institution to continue the research without the original investigator.

However, H.R. 36 currently does not outline appropriate actions that federal agencies should take upon receipt of information from institutions of any harassment. To address this, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), aims to reintroduce a bill she wrote in 2016 that would require agencies to consider any finding of sexual harassment against a research when deciding to award funding. These collective efforts point to an increased drive by Congress to tangibly address this issuethat has been plaguing the scientific research spectrum.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

 

 

 

Have an interesting science policy link? Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 15, 2019 at 8:58 pm

Posted in Linkposts

Tagged with , , , ,

Science Policy Around the Web – February 9, 2018

with one comment

By: Rachel Smallwood Shoukry, PhD

20180209_Linkpost

source: pixabay

Ethics

Big tobacco’s offer: $1 billion for research. Should scientists take it?

A controversial debate has arisen in recent years about whether scientists should accept funding from sources that have interests at odds with improving the human condition and promoting health. Specifically, should researchers accept research money from tobacco companies? This practice used to be generally accepted up until a couple of decades ago, but as the harmful effects of smoking have become more clear, as well as evidence of the tobacco industry’s attempts to cover-up and misdirect the public from becoming aware of those effects, the scientific community has become reluctant to partner with “big tobacco” and is more aware of conflicts of interest.

The tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI), makers of Marlboro and other cigarette brands, is looking to invest in research of illegal cigarette trade and smuggling. It recently established a partnership with the University of Utrecht (UU) in the Netherlands to investigate this phenomena, but UU has now pulled out of the deal after a large amount of backlash. However, PMI is still looking to fund research on the tobacco industry, setting up the potential for more controversy.

There is additional concern about this possibility due to PMI’s funding of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The foundation has stated that its goals are related to smoking cessation and preventing smoking deaths through several approaches. However, many fear that the foundation is simply a front for PMI to be able to distribute funds under a better-sounding name while continuing to fund research that can be presented in a misleading way to distract from legitimate health concerns. Several top institutions have denounced the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World for using PMI’s funds, and many have vowed that they will not seek grants from or collaborations with the foundation.

Proponents of allowing the funding via the tobacco industry are interested in research of cigarette alternatives aimed at harm reduction, arguing that little is known about their long-term health implications. They say there is little funding outside of the tobacco companies for these types of studies and don’t know where else to turn. They are also worried about the climate surrounding the topic, after the response UU received when accepting research dollars from PMI. But opponents do not believe that PMI and other companies are seeking harm reduction or to hide the truth about tobacco’s health effects through their research activities and marketing tactics. This ethical debate is sure to continue as PMI disclosed that it has had over 50 applications for funding.

(Martin Enserink, Science)

NSF

US science agency will require universities to report sexual harassment

The NSF has announced it will implement a new requirement that institutions receiving grants must report grant-funded investigators who have sexual or other types of harassment claims against them and whether they were put on leave pending investigation. Many are welcoming this step as movement toward a code of conduct that has been called-for in recent years. It is also coming on the heels of several research initiatives into sexual harassment in STEM fields and other organizations implementing policies to expose and prevent harassment. Although the #MeToo movement only brought sexual harassment claims to the forefront of our culture a few months ago, the STEM field had its own bombshell revelation followed by the unveiling of many stories of sexual harassment a couple of years ago when a renowned astronomer resigned after an investigation revealed years of sexual misconduct and harassment. This new policy is also likely related to the US Congress commissioning the Government Accountability Office to look into sexual harassment by individuals funded by federal scientific agencies.

The notice the NSF sent out also directs the recipient institutions to have clear policies on what constitutes harassment and what is appropriate behavior, as well as giving clear instructions to students and employees on how to report harassment. The institutions themselves will be responsible for conducting investigations and deciding repercussions. Until now the NSF has had an option to voluntarily report sexual misconduct of award recipients, but it was rarely used. The notice states that the NSF can remove the responsible personnel from the grant or even suspend or terminate the grant following the mishandling of a report.

Despite the general positive view of this attempt by the NSF to deter harassment and establish serious consequences, some have expressed concerns at the potential implications and logistics of implementation. It was suggested that this step may discourage universities from undertaking investigations of sexual harassment, since universities benefit from grant money and reputation just as the investigators do. Another aspect to consider is that universities have different policies on sexual harassment and misconduct, and what may be allowable at one institution may be a severe breach at another. It was not immediately clear from the notice how decisions will be made with regard to the grant following investigations. While perhaps not perfect, this policy by the NSF is a first step in the right direction to ensuring everyone can pursue their scientific endeavors in a harassment-free environment.

(Alexandra Witze, Nature)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 9, 2018 at 4:01 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 6, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Allison Dennis, B.S.

20171006_Linkpost

source: pixabay

Homelessness

An outbreak waiting to happen: Hepatitis A marches through San Diego’s homeless community

San Diego’s homeless population, the fourth largest among US cities, has been battered by a Hepatitis A outbreak since early 2017. The outbreak may have been brought on by the conditions that arose when homeless people were locked out of public bathrooms and further displaced from popular downtown areas by City officials in anticipation of the Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game last summer. The Hepatitis A virus, which is transmitted person-to-person and through the fecally contaminated environment, affects the liver, resulting in fatigue, yellow skin, diarrhea, and discolored urine. Its 50-day incubation period combined with its ability to survive outside the body for months, provides the virus an extensive time frame to spread from a single carrier. So far 481 people have reported infections, and 17 people have died.

The city is now struggling to respond. 54,000 people have already been vaccinated and a state law has been temporarily relaxed, allowing paramedics to administer the vaccine to at risk individuals. New portable bathrooms and hand-washing stations have been installed near homeless encampments. However, providing stable housing for the homeless remains an outstanding obstacle. In July, the San Diego Housing Commission announced an $80 million, 3-year initiative, Housing First-San Diego, which will provide incentives to landlords, 700 housing vouchers, and the construction of additional voucher-eligible housing. Housing First refers to a US government endorsed approach to providing stable housing, free of conditions, as a first step in addressing homeless people’s healthcare needs. Stable housing is fundamental to addressing the health needs of homeless populations both for prevention and treatment.

(Usha Lee McFarling, STATnews)

Science Funding

Does your state get its fair share of federal research dollars?

Representative Bill Foster is proposing a change to the way the National Science Foundation (NSF) distributes funding across the country. Twenty-nine years after it’s creation, NSF began a formal program to address the disparities in its funding across the fifty states, territories, and commonwealths of the United States, recognizing that scientific funding was being predominantly steered towards institutions housed on either the East and West coasts. The Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) currently allocates additional funds specifically to the twenty-five states, two territories, and one commonwealth winning less than 0.75% of NSF’s Research and Related Activities budget. Additional funds are supplied to these states for improving infrastructure, funding grants that fell under the cutoff for funding through traditional NSF programs, and supporting workshops and outreach. In fiscal year 2016, $160 million was allocated for the EPSCoR program compared with $5,500 million for the Research and Related Activities budget.

Bill Foster is arguing that EPSCoR is now disproportionately benefiting small states, proposing eligibility should be determined on a per capita instead of per state basis. This seems to be a change of pace from Bill Foster’s previous calls to eliminate the program altogether. Barring the passage of the proposed bill into law, NSF does not have plans to change the way they calculate eligibility, citing the popularity of the current program with congress.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 6, 2017 at 10:24 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 17, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Eric Cheng, Ph.D.

Photo source: pixabay.com

Biomedical Research Funding

NIH gets $2 billion boost in Senate spending bill

The Senate approved a $2 billion dollar boost to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for the 2017 fiscal year. This will increase the agency’s overall budget to $34 billion which represents a 6.2% increase from the previous year. This boost in funding represents an increase to NIH’s funding for the second year in a row after more than a decade of stagnate funding. NIH received an additional $2 billion last year.

The increase to NIH’s funding is the result of bipartisan negotiations between Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) and Ranking Member Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

“Last year, for the first time in 12 years, we were able to have an increase in [funding to support] NIH research,” Blunt said at a subcommittee meeting to unveil the budget proposal. “We have worked hard to repeat that this year.” Adding that he hopes to establish a pattern of increases for health research funding, he further noted that “if you are going to have an annual pattern, year two is critical. So we’re proposing for the second year in a row we make a substantial commitment to NIH research.”

The bill will include $1.39 billion for Alzheimer’s disease research, a $100 million increase for Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, an additional $100 million for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) brain-mapping project, and $50 million in new spending for a federal initiative to combat antimicrobial resistance. Not mentioned is the $670 million proposal for Vice President Joe Biden’s proposed moonshot to double progress against cancer. (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)

Federal Accountability

House sharpens oversight of new NSF facilities

The U.S. House of Representatives approved bill H.R. 5049 by a vote of 412 to nine which would direct the National Science Foundation (NSF) to audit its major multi-user research facilities. This bill was passed in response to the problems that have plagued NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under construction at dozens of sites across the country. Last December NSF fired the contractor, NEON Inc., citing a potential $80 million cost overrun and continued delays in completing the project.

The passage of the NSF Major Research Facility Reform Act of 2016 would direct the NSF to audit its major multi-user research facilities in order to prevent such cost overrun problems in the future. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that conducting these audits required by the legislation would cost about $2 million annually and $10 million over the 2017-2021 period. Specifically, the bill would require NSF to analyze how much every large research project would cost by the first year of the start of construction.

NSF officials remain concerned on how these changes in legislation would affect how audits are conducted and the use of management fees for a contractor. Such additional restrictions on management fees could potentially scare off some highly qualified would-be bidders for future projects. In addition, they believe that the proposed audits would not have caught the problems that NEON faced. (Jeffrey Mervis, ScienceInsider)

Infectious Diseases

Zika virus added to the FDA Priority Review Voucher Program Act

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) supported emergency funding to help stem the spread of the Zika virus in the United States. Over $1 billion in emergency funds passed the Senate today on a bipartisan basis to help mitigate the spread of Zika and respond to outbreaks of the virus.

“The Zika virus is a real threat, and we need action to curtail its spread and encourage the development of treatments and a vaccine,” said Franken. “This emergency support will help fight back against the disease, and now, we need to work with the House of Representatives and with President Obama to make sure that the funding measure becomes law. This is far too important of an issue to ignore.”

The Centers for Disease Control has reported that over 150 pregnant women in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Zika virus, which can cause a range of birth defects including devastating neurological defects. There are currently no known treatments or vaccines for the disease. The funds will be used to control mosquitos that carry the Zika virus, raise awareness of Zika virus disease, provide education on how to reduce risk of becoming infected, and accelerate development of a vaccine. (Congressional Research Service)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 25, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

Photo source via pixabay

Genetically Engineered Foods

Policy: Reboot the debate on genetic engineering

Genetic engineering (GE) is a highly controversial topic of debate in current days partially because of its increasing impact on day to day living. In recent years, a great deal of advancement has been made in the field of GE as established by the development of sophisticated modern tools like CRISPR. This has led to increasing concern among people regarding GE and food safety laws.

One of the issues with respect to food safety laws was to determine whether the focus of the regulatory policies should be the process by which GE organisms are made or the GE products themselves. Most people in favor of product-based regulation believe that GE organisms are no different compared to the conventionally bred organisms. In United States, since mid-1980s, GE products have been overseen by the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology (CFRB). According to the CFRB, product-based regulation is the science-based approach and hence GE organisms could be covered by existing policies without any need for formulating new laws. Thus they could be simply channeled into particular government agencies depending on whatever category they fell into.

However, in the process of regulating GE products, the agencies realized that the process of engineering is important as well. The agencies recognized that from a scientific standpoint, a product’s traits, harmful or beneficial, depend on the process by which it is made. For example, in human gene-therapy trials, new methods for delivering genes have removed the need for potentially harmful viral vectors. Thus, product and process issues are not distinct in regulation. Though regulating GE products rather than the process is accepted in many countries beyond the United States, other countries like Brazil and Australia have laws which mandates the regulation of the mechanisms by which the GE products are developed.

The inconsistency of views among GE developers and regulators in product-versus-process arguments demands a fresh start on formulating regulatory policies involving GE. It’s time to consider a mix of product and process issues to order to identify product groups which are likely to be of concern and require regulation. These efforts should be focused on keeping in mind the polarization of product-versus-process and science-versus-values framings so that the government can form a system which will be based on information provided by science as well as the concerns and values of citizens. (Jennifer Kuzma, Nature Comment)

Infectious Diseases

Dengue vaccine aces trailblazing trial

Vaccine development is a long and complex process which can take decades to be available for clinical use. Scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, have developed a vaccine which may be the most potent vaccine available to date for preventing dengue infections. These researchers employed a ‘human challenge’ strategy during the development and testing of this vaccine, a method which fell out of favor during the last century. ‘Human challenge’ involves deliberately infecting healthy volunteers with a weakened form of the disease causing virus. Concerns about the safety of deliberately infecting people has limited the use of human challenge studies and usually researchers test developing vaccines on people who are already at risk of contracting the disease of interest.

The dengue virus is a difficult vaccine target because of its four serotypes. Infection with one of the serotype will render a person immune against that type for life but will offer no protection against the others and may also increase the risk of acquiring hemorrhagic fever upon exposure to a different dengue serotype. The current vaccine study tested only dengue serotype 2, the most virulent serotype. 21 volunteers were injected with the experimental vaccine, and 20 volunteers with a sham vaccine. Six months later, all 41 volunteers were injected with a weakened version of the dengue virus which causes symptoms similar to a mild dengue infection, such as rash. The vaccine provided 100% protection against the challenge and only the individuals who received the sham vaccine showed mild symptoms with 80% of them developing a rash.

As all the current dengue vaccines only protect a proportion of volunteers, if these results hold up in larger populations the vaccine could be one of the most promising dengue vaccines developed. “This is a tremendous step forward, and something that has been desperately needed for 30 years,” says Duane Gubler, a disease researcher at the Duke NUS Medical School in Singapore who was not involved in this study. Moreover, he mentioned that the lack of human challenge studies is actually one of the things that made the development of dengue vaccines very difficult. Scott Halstead, a virologist and vaccinologist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland stated that “this is an incredible paper that shows what is absolutely necessary to develop a vaccine against the dengue virus. It’s a really important demonstration of the kind of proof that you really need to have before you spend US$1.5 or 2 billion on a phase III [efficacy] trial.”

Meanwhile investigators have already begun a second human-challenge study to test whether the vaccine protects against dengue serotype 3, and they hope to go on to test it against serotypes 1 and 2 using human challenge strategy. Moreover, they intend to perform studies using the human-challenge strategy to develop vaccine against Zika virus, which is related to dengue. Though scientists are enthusiastic of using human challenge strategy for developing vaccines in recent future, it demands reconsideration of the policies and consideration of the past incidents on which current laws are based. (Erika Check Hayden, Nature News)

Federal Science Funding

Biological specimen troves threatened by funding pause

Collecting biological specimens is an essential part of science and conservation and collections are used to identify species, track diseases and study climate change. One such important biological specimen collection is the collection of fish samples in Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle which serves as a repository for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the North Pacific. NOAA uses the specimens collected each year to assess fish abundance and set fishing quotas for species conservation. In another case, a collection of eggs possessed by the Field Museum in Chicago led to the famous conservation discovery that the pesticide DDT caused widespread nesting failures in birds of prey resulting in near extinction of several species.

Despite their value to science, biological specimen collections recently lost a valuable source of funding and support. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it would indefinitely suspend a program which provides funding to maintain biological specimen collections. The NSF will maintain its current grants but not accept any new proposals. Many researchers and curators have found this disheartening and are worried because the NSF is one of the only public providers of such funding and  only roughly 0.06% of the agency’s $7.5-billion is allocated for maintaining biological specimen collections. According to NSF they are soliciting feedback on the program along with evaluating the currents grants in the collections grant program. Depending on the results of evaluation, decisions will be made and it remains unclear whether the funding hiatus is temporary or permanent.

This pause however has scientists dismayed given the importance of these scientific collections. As mentioned earlier, preserved specimens play an immense role in understanding historic range of species and provide information on species invasion and extinction. Biological collections also help researchers track species carrying human diseases for containment of disease outbreak. Moreover, due to advancements in technology, the specimens can be put to use in a way which has not yet been anticipated. For example, DNA sequencing of museum specimens which were collected before DNA identification was discovered has helped to identify previously unknown species. With the sudden change in funding options many museums are considering digitizing their collections, and indeed, the NSF’s program to support digitizing collections remains unchanged.  But “there’s no point digitizing if we don’t take care of the collections themselves”, says Barbara Thiers, director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden. “You certainly can’t get any DNA out of an image.” (Anna Nowogrodzki, Nature News)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 19, 2015

leave a comment »

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)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am