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Science Policy Around the Web – March 13, 2018

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By: Roger Mullins, Ph.D.

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source: modified from openclipart

International Science Policy

Key science agencies brace for change as leaders discuss new policies

Important changes to science policy are looming in key areas of the globe that drive a large portion of scientific publications; namely China, the European Union, and the United States of America. As international collaboration, publication, and sharing results make science a notably cosmopolitan enterprise, these developments will affect informed researchers outside of these regions as well.

China began their annual assembly of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference earlier this March, during which they drafted policies to direct their development of science and technology. The latest 5-year plan that resulted placed a high priority on brain science, deep ocean exploration, conservation, stem cells, and pollution. Currently rivaling the US in terms of publications, the effect of any adjustments made within China’s centralized, top-down system of fostering science as a national priority will be of interest to the science community in general.

In the European Union, Robert-Jan Smits has handed his role over as the director-general of the European Commission’s research directorate to Jean-Eric Paquet. Smits eight-year tenure as director was marked by efforts to promote science and innovation in the EU, including the Horizon 2020 research programme and the prospective Framework Programme 9. In an interview with Nature, he outlines his ideas of what future EU research plans will include; specifically supporting research in poorer member states, potential defense research, supporting innovative companies and start-ups, and the ever-present issues of climate and health.

In the United States, Rep. Lamar Smith is expected to retire from Congress later this year. This move includes stepping down from the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which he has held since 2013. While his replacement has not yet been determined, this change presents an opportunity for scientists to address lingering issues of maintaining world leadership in science via our national priorities, tackling disparities in the scientific workplace, and promoting scientific integrity and respectability.

Even so early in the year, these events signal substantial upheaval of the scientific community in several influential regions of the globe. It will be imperative for scientists in these communities to make their voices heard and set priorities for the advancement and integrity of their profession.

(David Cyranoski, Nature)

(Allison Abbot, Nature)

(Andrew A. Rosenberg, Scientific American)

Science Communication

Fake news spreads faster than true news on Twitter—thanks to people, not bots

Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”

This observation from Jonathan Swift in 1710 is likely timeless, as shown by a new Science article about the undeniably human tendency to latch on to exciting and novel but false stories and perpetuate them. With recent news about the role of automated “Bots” in spreading false information, this study found that the lion’s share of the blame actually rests on uncritical social media users.

A key finding of this study was that Tweets containing misinformation reached other users approximately six times faster than similar-but-truthful information. For their part, the Bots themselves actually disseminated roughly equal amounts of true and false information. This is attributed to a higher degree of novelty in the false tweets and their emotional valence. False tweets that were spread more rapidly and widely were those that contained both novel and emotionally manipulative reactions, especially for those that elicited strong emotions of surprise and disgust.

How this relates to scientists whose work is written about by journalists should be apparent, as sensational misinterpretation of results is of great concern. In these times one can also expect that stories will be picked up and shared on social media as well as on the traditional web, which may only lead to faster tragic miscommunications with the public.

(Katie Langin, Science)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 13, 2018 at 5:05 pm

How Science Policy Affects Pandemic Pathogen Research

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By: Samuel Porter, PhD

         In 2012, a pair of studies were published in Nature and Science weeks apart igniting one the biggest national debates about science in recent memory. These studies demonstrated that a few mutations in the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of influenza virus (colloquially known as “bird flu”) could enable it to be transmitted through the air to mammals. At the heart of controversy was the question of whether scientists should be creating more virulent and/or pathogenic strains of deadly viruses in the lab. This controversial research is known as “gain of function” studies.

Critics claimed that the research was too dangerous that the risk of an accidental or deliberate release of these lab strains was far greater than the scientific and public health benefits. In an attempt to respond to the growing concern over their work, the community of researchers working with these pathogens voluntarily agreed to suspend this gain of function research for 60 days to discuss new policies on conducting the research safely.

But that was not enough to satisfy critics of the research, who continued to lobby the Obama administration to take official action. On October 17, 2014 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), abruptly announced a pause on all U.S. Government funding of gain of function research on influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus until the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) could make recommendations for policy regulating the research going forward. The NSABB was formed in 2005 (in the wake of the anthrax attacks in 2001), and is composed of scientists from universities around the nation, and administrators from 14 separate agencies in the federal government. The board reports to the Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS) and is tasked primarily with recommending policies to the relevant government entities on preventing published research in the biological sciences from negatively impacting national security and public health.

The move drew harsh criticism from researchers in the field, many of whom thought that it was too broad. They claimed it would jeopardize their ability to predict, detect, and respond to potentially emerging pandemics. In the private sector, several companies said that the order would prevent them from working on new antiviral drugs and vaccines. Furthermore, many young scientists worried that an inability to do their experiments could jeopardize their careers. In an effort to bring attention to the issue, many scientists (including the two flu researchers whose research triggered the pause) formed the group Scientists for Science, which advocates against blanket bans on research. In addition, researchers were especially upset by the recommendation of the NSABB to censor the publications resulting from the experiments due to fears that this research could have a “dual use” that would threaten national security. However, not all researchers in the field support gain of function research (the opposition group is called Cambridge Working Group) and maintain that the risks of the research outweigh benefits.

The moratorium lasted until January 9th, 2017, when the OSTP released the guidelines for funding this research in the future. The new rules are essentially the same recommendations put forth by the NSABB seven months earlier. The NSABB had concluded that these studies involving “potentially pandemic pathogens” (PPP) do indeed have important benefits to public health, but warranted additional screening prior to funding approval. It directed federal agencies to create a pre-funding review mechanism using eight criteria (including whether the pathogen is likely to cause a naturally occurring pandemic, and if there are alternative methods of answering the scientific question). The results of these reviews must be reported to the White House OSTP. Importantly, the policy was implemented in the final days of the Obama administration rather than leave it to the incoming Trump administration, who, as of this date, has yet to fill nearly any top science positions, and may not have issued guidance for months, if at all.  Researchers welcomed the decision to finally lift the ban, but questioned when the projects would be allowed to resume.

What can we learn from this situation from a science policy perspective? First, we must learn not to overreact to hysteria regarding the risks of this type of research. Indeed, there are risks in performing research on potentially pandemic strains of influenza and other pathogens, as there are with other types of research. But issuing overly broad, sweeping moratoriums halting ground breaking research for years is not the answer, nor is government censorship of academic publication. While in the end, the studies were given the green light to resume, and were published without modification, there is no making up for the lost time. These studies are not machines than can simply be turned on and off on a whim without repercussions. When we delay research into learning how viruses become pandemic, we hurt our ability to detect and respond to naturally occurring outbreaks. Additionally, when American scientists are prevented from doing research that other countries are still pursuing, American leadership in the biomedical sciences is at a competitive disadvantage. (The European Academies Science Advisory Council also recently updated its recommendations for PPP research in 2015, but did not institute a moratorium.) What we learn from these studies could potentially save countless lives. Secondly, the freedom to publish without any government censorship must be valiantly defended in any and all fields, especially with a new administration with an aggressively anti-science and anti-climate stance. Lastly, the scientific community must do a better job educating the public both on the importance of these studies from a public health perspective, and on the precautions put into place to ensure that these studies are conducted safely.

In the future, there will inevitably be debates over the safety or ethics of the latest experiments in a particular field. In attempting to wade through the murky waters of a complex controversy, science policy makers should make decisions that balance public health, safety, and ethics, rather than reactionary policies like censorships and moratoriums.

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April 21, 2017 at 8:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 10, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Source: pixabay

Sleep

The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

Humans spend approximately one third of their lifetime sleeping, yet the purpose of sleep is still largely unknown. A pair of recent studies in the journal Science suggest that a key function of sleep is to give the brain a chance to rewire itself, specifically by cutting down connections between neurons, which naturally scale up during wakefulness, and especially during learning.

In one paper, researchers used 3D electron microscopy to measure the sizes of these connections, called synapses, in mouse brain slices. They found that sleep produced a significant decrease in the size of synapses. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced in smaller synapses, which were likely strengthened by general information processing while awake, than large ones (~20% of synapses), which may encode more well-established memories. In the other, researchers used two-photon imaging in live mice to observe sleep-induced changes in synapses. They found a similar decrease in synaptic strength, and went on to identify the signaling pathway that caused this effect; blocking this pathway prevented a normal reduction in the scope and magnitude of a learned behavioral response.

These findings underscore the importance of sleep, especially for memory consolidation involved with learning. Studies like these can have far-reaching effects on the public’s perception of sleep, influencing individual habits as well as policy related to education. For example, they suggest that prioritizing sleep when setting school start times (an issue currently under debate in Montgomery County schools) could improve students’ lesson retention and ultimately their test performance. They also point to important cellular and molecular processes that take place during sleep, which could help explain how existing sleep aids adversely affect brain functioning and memory (a public health concern), and ultimately lead to the development of better drugs. (Carl Zimmer, The New York Times)

Drug Policy

Massive Price Hike for Lifesaving Opioid Overdose Antidote

Increased public exposure to the epidemic of opioid abuse, which continues to intensify in the US, has made it increasingly influential in politics, possibly including the recent presidential election.  A crucial tool for communities at the forefront of this public health crisis is naloxone, which can reverse potentially fatal symptoms associated with overdose. The Evzio naloxone auto-injector, produced by Kaleo, is one of two such products approved by the FDA. Kaleo has recently come under fire for increasing the price of Evzio from $690 to $4,500.

Kaleo cites several justifications for the price hike. Firstly, they offer coupons to patients whose insurance doesn’t cover Evzio. Second, they argue that large insurance companies and government agencies (such as the Veterans Health Administration, which sees a high rate of opioid use) can negotiate prices, while other organizations are currently well funded (thanks to public concern) to absorb the increase. Thirdly, they are expanding their donation supply to allow smaller groups to apply for free devices. However, experts say that the increase is not justified by production costs, and some organizations have been forced to switch to alternative drugs.

News of the decision arrives at a time when the public is particularly sensitive to drug pricing, and have made their concern clear to lawmakers. Negotiation with drug companies over prices has been a prominent campaign issue in recent elections. Public outcry following similar moves by investor Martin Shkreli and Mylan led to hearings by a special congressional committee. Soon after the last election, a bill that would have allowed patients to import cheaper drugs from Canada became a high-profile occasion for posturing in the Senate, where it failed despite overwhelming public support. These stories highlight the often antagonistic relationships between the American public, its government, and the pharmaceutical industry, and illustrate how disruptive drug pricing can directly affect policy. (Shefali Luthra, Scientific American)

Scientists in Politics

Geneticist Launches Bid for US Senate; while Empiricists Around the Country Will March for Science

Donald Trump’s agenda of self-serving lies and denial of evidence has led to unprecedented levels of engagement and activism across the country. The scientific community has been especially impacted by Trump’s brand of broad, allegedly populist anti-intellectualism. Thus, although the empirical facts uncovered by scientific research are inherently apolitical and should be treated as such, scientists are beginning to mobilize to oppose the Trump administration in several ways.

One essential path to policy change is increased representation. With that in mind, evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Eisen, an HHMI-funded investigator at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the People’s Library of Science (PLOS), recently announced his candidacy for the US Senate in 2018. Dr. Eisen’s platform seems to center on bringing a scientific perspective to Senate proceedings, and working towards comprehensive yet practical solutions to issues such as climate change. More of Dr. Eisen’s views can be found on his twitter feed and blog.

Protests are another way for individuals to make their voices heard by policy makers. The March for Science, which currently has over 350,000 followers on Facebook, will be an opportunity for ‘scientists and science enthusiasts’ to both call for and demonstrate support for the scientific community, and promote solidarity between science and the public. The main march will be held on April 22nd, 2017 in Washington D.C.; satellite marches are scheduled in over 100 additional cities. Organizers hope to maintain the momentum gained by January’s Women’s Marches, which saw historic attendance. (Sara Reardon, Nature News; Lindizi Wessel, ScienceInsider)

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Science Policy Around the Web – February 3, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Trump and Science

Scientists’ Lives Upended by Trump’s Immigration Order

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

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

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

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

Science Policy

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

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

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

Public Health

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

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

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February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 18, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay

2016 Presidential Elections

How the Trump Administration Might Impact Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Health

Soda Taxes on the Ballot

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

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

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November 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 23, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: pixabay

Biomedical Research

BRAIN Initiative might get a global boost

While politicians met at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, another meeting of a more scientific variety was going on nearby at Rockefeller University. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted a meeting to organize neuroscientists from across the globe to develop new ideas to organize their field of research. The US BRAIN initiative was launched in 2013 as an effort to study key issues in neuroscience, such as how the brain connects and functions at the cellular and systems levels. Worldwide, other countries have similar initiatives in place or in planning, thus NSF wanted to get a feel of how data and resources could be shared between scientists regardless of country. For example, Japan and China are investing heavily in primate research, while America and Europe tend to shy away from these organisms, but put more focus on basic research and clinical applications.

One problem that neuroscientists encounter as they compare research findings is differences in data acquisition and processing, with each lab having their own in-house protocols and analyses. A global repository of data with access to super computers and/or powerful microscopes for all could be a boon for how neuroscience research of the future is performed. Other researchers voiced concerns over the possibility that a global project would re-direct funds from local and national sources. This new neuroscience “club” could also create yet another economic hurdle for developing nations’ scientists to overcome.

Politicians at the UN General Assembly voiced their support for an International Brain Initiative, and were met by cautious enthusiasm from neuroscientists. Time will tell if a truly global approach to neuroscience materializes, but political and financial support for neuroscience research makes this an exciting time to be a scientist. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

2016 Presidential Elections

How do the candidates stack up on science?

With the first presidential debate scheduled for Monday, September 26, our nation continues a heated election season with two powerful candidates. Although science is generally low on the priority list for the voting public, it remains an integral part of how our educated nation works. Research influences broad issues in public policy, and policy influences how science gets funded and moves forward.

The candidates have some points of agreement and points of contention for various scientific topics. For example, both Trump and Clinton support NASA and space exploration, although Trump is more eager for a private sector endeavor. Both Trump and Clinton support vaccines in children, with Trump having some reservations, but for other issues of public health such as funding for biomedical research, Clinton has clear proposals for increasing funding, while Trump seems more skeptical than supportive of funding NIH.

Neither candidate has voiced strong opinions on the use of genetically modified foods. However, Clinton does support food labeling, citing a “right to know”, while the Republican Party opposes making labels mandatory. In addition, neither candidate has made a clear statement about gun research; while Clinton has proposed many changes to gun control, Trump supports a right to carry at the national level. Improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a topic about which Clinton is passionate, while Trump’s stance is less clear. He maintains that education should be on a locally managed level, which means geography would impact the availability of quality STEM programs.

The strongest point of contention is regarding climate change, where Clinton proposes creating clean energy jobs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while Trump considers climate change a hoax and vowed to use American-produced natural gas and oil and reverse the EPA’s moratorium on new coal mining permits.

Overall the candidates have said little regarding these top scientific issues, but based on what they have said in the past, there are certain issues they agree on, while others are divisive in both politics and for the general public. (Science News Staff, ScienceNews)

Biomedical Training

It’s postdoc appreciation week!

In 2009 the US House of Representatives officially declared a week of appreciation for the forces which move scientific research: the postdoc. Postdoctoral fellows/researchers (postdocs) are research scientists who have completed a PhD and continue their training under a more established principle investigator in order to expand their research experience and launch their careers. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) pioneered the celebrations in 2010, giving postdocs perks such as career fairs, ice cream socials, and free tickets to local events. Although some of these perks may seem superficial, the larger goal of this week is to bring attention to the plight of these mid-career scientists.

Recently postdocs have been an increasingly vocal part of the research community, as their numbers swell and job prospects appear bleak. Under the organization of the NPA, postdocs have won increases in stipend (pay) levels dictated by the NIH. The NPA has also provided recommendations, information and guidance to the White House and other policy branches of the government. Their goals are to enhance postdoctoral training experiences and opportunities for postdocs in academic and government research settings. The US is placing more focus on getting students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, however biomedical PhDs are being produced at an unsustainable rate for academia, government and industry to employ. By celebrating postdoc appreciation week, the focus is briefly shifted to the other end of the pipeline, where conditions must improve if more people are to be inspired to join at the entry point.

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September 23, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 6, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: DSC03602.JPG via photopin (license)

Human Genetics

Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

The limits of genomic engineering took another step forward with the publication of a proposal in Science to synthesize a human genome from the ground up. The project, called the Human Genome Project – Write or HGP-write, seeks to take the progress made by the original Human Genome Project in reading a human genome one step further, and “learn by building” in order to test our understanding of how genetic information results in a living, functioning cell. “You know all the parts needed [to make a chromosome], so you take these parts and rebuilt it,” said chromosome biologist Torsten Waldminghaus of Philipp University of Marburg in Germany who is not a part of this project. “If it’s functional, you see that you were right.”

HGP-write originally made headlines back in May with the report that a private, invite-only meeting of 150 scientists would be held at Harvard Medical School to discuss the project. The meeting was criticized for excluding the media and asking participants to not contact the media or post to Twitter about it. Concerns about the private meeting stemmed from not being able to have an open dialogue with other scientists and the public about ethical concerns surrounding the topic of “Einstein genomes” or “human beings without biological parents.” The meeting organizers including George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, clarified the project’s intentions by saying the goal was to create functioning cells, not people. The recently published proposal goes on to further clarify the intentions of HGP-write, including several “stepping stone” pilot projects such as constructing specific chromosomes to model human diseases and potentially developing cells powered by “baseline” human genomes, containing the most common pan-human alleles (or allele ancestral to a given human population) at each position. (Kelly Servick, Science Insider)

Science-policy research

UK government slammed for losing track of its own research

An independent analysis into the commissioning and publication of the UK government’s policy-related research has found significant problems, delays and overall confusion. The London-based science-advocacy group, Sense About Science, instigated the analysis as a “response to media stories of government research being suppressed or withheld” and had “the aim of determining the scale and significance of the problem and to look into potential remedies” according to their website. The UK government spends around $3.6 billion US per year on research related to policy-issues, both conducted in house and out-sourced to external researchers. This information is then (theoretically) used to make government decisions in policy areas ranging from social and public policies, to health and climate change.

While all of this research was funded and conducted, the analysis found that there is no “comprehensive account” or centralized mechanism to find out just what research has been done, how much public money was spent, or whether any of it was published and accessible. “Sir Stephen [the lead investigator] has revealed that we don’t know what has become of millions of pounds worth of government-commissioned research because government itself doesn’t know whether it was published, or where it all is now,” said Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science. The report recommended that the UK government establish a central and searchable database of all government-commissioned research and commit to the prompt and routine publication of any work that has been used in deciding government policy. (Daniel Cressey, Nature News)

Antibiotic Resistance

The superbug that doctors have been dreading just reached the U.S.

On May 26th, researchers from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center published their findings that for the first time, a person in the United States was found to be carrying bacteria resistant to an antibiotic of last resort, colistin, a polymyxin antibiotic. The sample of E. coli came from a 49 year old woman in Pennsylvania and was found to be carrying a colistin-resistance gene, known as mcr-1. This gene, first discovered in China in late 2015 in pigs treated with colistin, most worryingly was found to be located on a small piece of circular DNA known as a plasmid, allowing it to be easily shared and spread among bacterial strains. Similarly, the American sample also contained plasmid-borne mcr-1, leading to fears about when (not if) bacteria with other resistance genes might come in contact with it and gain additional resistance.

“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary-tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in an interview.  While Congress recently increased spending in the 2016 fiscal year by at least  $375 million for the purpose of battling antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one would hope that this latest incident on American soil would further spur action at the highest levels including urgent action to improve detection, control outbreaks and especially prevent new cases by improving prescribing patterns so that antibiotics are used only when necessary. In addition, significant research is needed into the link between antibiotic use in food animal products and the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. (Lena H. Sun and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

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June 6, 2016 at 3:00 pm