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Science Policy Around the Web – January 5, 2018

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD


source: pixabay


Nature’s 10: Ten people who mattered this year

As we kick off a new year of discovery amidst an unpredictable social and political landscape, it helps to reflect on those who made big changes in science in 2017. Nature Magazine put together a list of the top 10 “people who mattered” this year, which runs the gamut from lawyers, patients and of course, scientists.

Academic scientists hailed from most corners of the globe and a variety of fields:

  • US geneticist David Liu (Broad Institute and Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA) was recognized for pioneering work in gene editing. CRISPR-Cas9 is one of the hottest ways to accurately and easily edit genes. Liu’s team created new enzymes from scratch that can rewrite genetic code, swapping AT pairs to CG pairs – a team in China used this technique to cure human embryos of a blood disorder.
  • Marica Branchesi (Gran Sasso Science Institute, L’Aquila, Italy) plays a pivotal role in coordinating astronomers and physicists who study gravitational-wave research. 70 teams of scientists from all over the world shared their equipment and data on August 17, 2017 to watch two neutron stars collide in a galaxy far away. Without Branchesi’s efforts this important event would have been inadequately monitored, leaving some questions unanswered.
  • Pan Jianwei (University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, China) is a physicist developing quantum teleportation, which can be used to create encryption keys. Jianwei’s group beamed these keys from a satellite to Beijing and Vienna, enabling groups to videochat with compete security – the photons become distorted if hackers try to intercept the signal. This technology lays the groundwork for quantum internet to be available worldwide.
  • Victor Cruz-Atienza (National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico) studies earth’s seismic activity. In 2016 he published a paper simulating how different soil structures are affected by earthquakes, using Mexico City’s ancient lake basin as an example. His calculations were validated after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September 2017. Cruz-Atienza’s goal is to raise awareness about upcoming earthquake threats and help countries prepare for them before they hit.

Other members on the list brought unique skills to the table to help scientists continue their work.

  • Khaled Toukan (Chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, Acting Director of the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) paved the way for physicists to obtain and share valuable equipment in a turbulent region of the world. His skilled diplomatic interactions steered the project to completion through 20 years of funding upsets and political upheaval.
  • Lassina Zerbo (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, Vienna, Austria) is dedicated to reducing nuclear conflict. 2017 has been rife with nuclear threats, as hostile barbs are routinely traded between the US president and the North Korean leader. Zerbo coordinates a worldwide system to share information which detect data about the earth’s hydroacoustic, infrasound, seismic and radionuclide activity. This is helpful for monitoring who is doing nuclear testing, but also for tsunami detection and studying whale migration.
  • Jennifer Byrne (Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, Australia) is a cancer geneticist and flawed paper detective. Scientists must publish frequently, and the number of dubious scam journals has increased in recent years. Both factors contribute to flawed and fraudulent literature which muddy the waters in a field based on a trust that what is published is true. Byrne and a computer scientist have developed a software (Seek & Blastn) which could be used by journals to detect misconduct prior to publication.

Rounding out the list is the inspirational posterchild for novel cancer therapies, Emily Whitehead, who was recognized for her role in getting CAR-T cell therapy approved by the FDA. The dubious distinction of using creative ways to dismantle the EPA from the inside was awarded to Scott Pruitt.

(Heidi Ledford, Davide Castelvecchi, Elie Dolgin, Sara Reardon, Elizabeth Gibney, Nicky Phillips, Alexandra Witze, Nature)


U.S. lifts research moratorium on enhancing germs’ danger / NIH lifts 3-year ban on funding risky virus studies

The US is a great place to do research for many scientists, and the outlook is even brighter in 2018 for a select group of viral researchers. Studying how viruses work is an important undertaking – we can prepare for pandemic outbreaks, develop vaccines, and sometimes use viruses to delivery DNA for gene therapy. However, in 2011 researchers in the Netherlands and The University of Wisconsin in Madison published a study in which they made the H5N1 bird flu easier to transmit between ferrets. This type of study is called “gain of function” and is usually a way for scientists to make viruses even more deadly or transmittable. If this sounds like the zombie apocalypse to you, it did to HHS lawmakers too; they paused funding in 2014 for this type of research. On December 19, 2017 the pause was lifted after a lengthy process of putting new policies in place.

The pause was to allow the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the HHS to craft clear new rules and regulations that all grants will have to pass before being permitted to work with research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ie deadly viruses). Grants which make it through the peer review process then experience a secondary review by a panel who will determine if the project’s benefits outweigh the risks, and make recommendations for funding and/or request modifications. In addition, such dangerous research will only be permitted in facilities which are properly equipped to handle such biosafety concerns.

Biomedical research moves at a fast pace, so most proposals that were submitted before the freeze are now obsolete, requiring researchers to submit fresh proposals, following the new guidelines. This may sound tedious and most researchers may not relish new hoops to jump through, however nobody wants a deadly pathogen released due to limited oversight. Even the CDC managed to send live anthrax, bird flu, and botulinum toxin (which causes botulism) to other labs five times over the course of a decade. The pause in funding came at the request of epidemiologists and other scientists who felt there weren’t enough regulations from a safety or ethical standpoint to support funding for gain of function types of viral research. If researchers can prove that their projects pose a limited risk and will produce valuable benefits to our knowledge of public health, their research can resume once more.

(Jocelyn Kaiser, Science) (Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post)


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January 12, 2018 at 1:27 pm

How to Make a Valuable Postdoctoral Experience: Updating the Model

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By: Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD

       To an outside observer, the scientific enterprise in the US appears to be thriving. The 2016 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was $31.3 billion. Of this, about 80% was distributed to research projects performed extramurally, pointing to the fact that hundreds of thousands of researchers nationwide, established scientists as well as trainees, benefit from the funding. Although the numbers are somewhat murky, it is likely that over 50% of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) receive some federal funds.

A more granular view of the reality of modern scientific training reveals its true complexity. In The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, a report on postdoctoral training in the US, the National Academies argue that there are serious issues in the way we train our young scientists today, including those having to do with recognition and compensation, mentorship, and career advising. Fundamentally, although the US has more postdocs than ever before, does this serve the individuals involved?

First some context. For those committed to a career in the biological sciences, the first stage of training is graduate study to acquire technical and field-specific skills, culminating in a PhD. Traditionally, the second is the postdoctoral stage, which provides additional technical experience and preparation for a future career, ideally culminating in a research position. In the US, approximately 65% of those with graduate degrees in the life sciences continue on to a postdoc which is the field with the highest rate of entry. The second highest is in the physical sciences, with only 50%. Although the quotidian experiences of the two may be similar, the graduate and postdoctoral stages are actually quite different, particularly since graduate training tends to have formal requirements and expectations while postdoctoral training, does not. This framework also has distinct benefits for the principle investigators (PIs). A major one is economic: junior scientists are a willing, and in the case of postdocs, highly trained, source of cheap labor (more on this below). On occasion, the work may be done at no cost to the PI if the trainee has funding from another source, although this is becoming proportionally less common.

When the postdoctoral arrangement was established in the early part of the 20th century, the training periods were typically 1-2 year stints in a lab to learn additional skills and consolidate connections in the field. After this, the young researcher would generally transition into an academic position. In the 1970’s, close to 55% of postdocs held tenure or tenure track faculty positions 6 years after completion of their graduate studies. Now, when a postdoc plans for his or her next career move, the situation is not so simple and this has aroused the concern of the National Academies. Partly, the difficulty is due to the number of available academic positions being outstripped by the number of postdocs in the pipeline. Data from 2006 show that only 33% of postdocs had faculty positions 6 years after graduate school and only half of those were tenured or tenure-track. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that the landscape of the scientific enterprise has evolved.

Most obviously, the demographics of the postdoc community are markedly different from those in the early 20th century resulting in different needs for trainees. As of 2014, women were receiving close to 50% of all life science doctorates awarded in the US. Gender parity at graduation has not carried through to the faculty level (where only approximately 25% of tenured faculty are women). Among the many potential causes for this decline, one is that many women leave the academic track due to the challenges in balancing a career with raising a family. Nonetheless, there are more women at all levels in the sciences than before, indicating that retention may be increased by supporting women during the time that their children are young. Holders of temporary visas comprise another important population, but there are very few concrete data pertaining to them. They obtain close to 25% of all doctorates in the biological sciences, and 80% of those who have jobs after graduation stay in the US. With this, there is significant flux into the system at the postdoc level. As a result, upwards of a third of all biomedical postdocs in the US are foreign nationals primarily from India and China. Since these people have never been counted, the best way to help them meet their goals and the role they play in the US scientific arena are undefined.

Another important change is that postdoctoral training periods have lengthened from 1-2 years to around 4 years. For those who want the training, this timeline extension is believed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to gain entry into the competitive world of academia. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of PIs under 36 has fallen from 18% from 1980 to 3% in 2010. For established investigators, the longer training times are advantageous. Postdoc salaries at research institutions generally amount to less than the combined tuition-plus-stipend package offered to graduate students. After a few years, a postdoc may conduct research at a level equivalent to that of permanent scientific staff but at a fraction of the cost – postdocs pull in anywhere from $40,000 to $49,000 a year, while staff will have full benefits and a salary closer to $80,000 a year. Given this, the challenge is to make a prolonged training period valuable, feasible, and non-exploitative for all who choose it.

Finally, there is growing evidence that a postdoc may not be the right choice for everyone. Most junior scientists feel limited by the now-classic dichotomy between pursuing research in academia and industry. The reality is that many other career options exist, although some are a step or two removed from pure research. These are in areas like consulting, intellectual property, and science policy. Some jobs will provide entry-level incomes greater than a postdoc, and may even lead to career prospects that are more secure than that in research. Entry level salaries for some careers in industry begin at $70,000 and mean salaries in industry can be $40,000 more than that in academia, and the age at first non-academic job is lower than that for academics. Critically, for those wishing to optimize some of these other aspects of their professional advancement, a postdoc may be unnecessary.

Taken together, these developments indicate a need to change the culture surrounding the postdoc. The essence of the National Academies’ recommendation to improve the postdoctoral experience is that the entire scientific community must treat it as a valuable training opportunity instead of basic employment. To this end, the minimum postdoctoral salary should be increased, even beyond the current $47,484.  The improved economics for trainees will have a number of benefits: it will place more value on these individuals, limit the number of postdocs an investigator may hire, perhaps encourage more women to stay in research, and make positions more competitive, lessening their use as a default employment option. Postdocs should also be encouraged to receive individual funds as proof of independence. There is some evidence that postdocs on their own fellowships are more satisfied than those funded by their lab, although it seems likely that people more committed to a career as a researcher are the ones most likely to apply for fellowships. Additionally, those who receive early career grants are more likely to receive independent investigator grants and faculty appointments. Finally, there is an argument for more staff positions as a measure to keep postdoctoral opportunities as dedicated training experiences.

For now, it is important for each researcher to decide whether it is in his or her best interest to embark on the postdoctoral route. Fortunately, career advising is increasingly available to trainees at all levels and the NIH and other groups have issued mentorship guidelines for postdocs. Overall, the entire scientific community must assist in returning value to a postdoc and in meaningful career development for all trainees.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 10, 2017 at 9:56 am