Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae—flourishing in the plate on the right despite nearby disks containing antibiotics.

James Gathany/CDC

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae—flourishing in the plate on the right despite nearby disks containing antibiotics.

In the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the U.S. government is dangling a new incentive: a $20 million prize for a quick diagnostic test to recognize highly resistant infections. The prize is just one in a slew of actions announced by the White House today to signal its greater attention to the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Alongside the prize, the administration announced a national strategy that sets goals to be achieved by 2020, including better surveillance of highly resistant infections, faster development of new antibiotics, and more judicious use of existing drugs. The president also signed an executive order creating both an advisory council of nongovernmental experts and an interagency task force, co-chaired by the secretaries of the Health and Human Services (HHS), Defense, and Agriculture departments. “This represents a major elevation of the issue, a major upgrading of the administration’s effort to help address it,” said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during a press conference today.

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A child is vaccinated in Syria last year.

European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr/Creative Commons

A child is vaccinated in Syria last year.

Sixteen children, all or most under age 2, have died after receiving an injection in a measles immunization campaign in an opposition-held area of northern Syria. Up to 50 more children were sickened.

Details are hazy, says a World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Geneva, Switzerland, but at this point the cause looks like a “very bad human error,” in which a strong muscle relaxant was administered instead of the measles vaccine. The tragic deaths threaten to undermine all vaccination efforts across Syria, where childhood immunization rates have dropped precipitously after years of civil war.

WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have dispatched an investigation team but for now are dependent on secondhand information from nongovernmental organizations and other partners in northern Syria, says WHO’s Christian Lindmeier. (For security reasons, neither organization has staff on the ground in Idlib, where the deaths occurred.) Until the cause is confirmed, rumors will continue to circulate, he warns; various press accounts are alleging a plot by the government of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or perhaps the terrorist group ISIS.

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Co-chairs Neal Lane and Norman Augustine listen to Bart Gordon (at podium) discuss new report.

Tony Brown/imijphoto.com

Co-chairs Neal Lane (left) and Norman Augustine (right) listen to Bart Gordon (at podium) discuss new report.

When academics argue for more U.S. government spending on basic research, they usually haul out statistics that demonstrate how research has played an outsized role in spurring economic development. Those numbers may appeal to other scholars, but to date that approach hasn’t been particularly effective in winning over Washington policymakers. Bart Gordon prefers the Peyton index.

“There are two ways we can compete with the rest of the world,” explains Gordon, the former chair of the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. “If we compete on wages, which are less than $2 a day for half the people in the world, the standard of living for my 13-year-old daughter’s generation will be dramatically reduced. Or we can invest in research and innovation.”

Gordon made the reference to his daughter, Peyton, at a media briefing this week on a new report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. It recommends a huge increase in federal spending as well as changes to the U.S. research enterprise that will make it more efficient. The title, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, is meant to highlight the link between research and the country’s future prosperity. But the optics of the event were at odds with that forward-looking message.

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Treponema pallidum spirochetes, which cause syphilis.

CDC/Dr. Edwin P. Ewing Jr.

Treponema pallidum spirochetes, which cause syphilis.

Public health experts in Australia are sounding alarms over a record number of new cases of syphilis and a dramatic rise in viral hepatitis deaths. Experts trace the spike in syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to a decrease in condom use, particularly among men who have sex with men (MSM), and they see the hepatitis death toll as the inevitable result of long-term trends in injecting drug use.

The alarming numbers and the underlying behaviors are examined in a pair of reports on HIV, viral hepatitis, and STIs in Australia released today by the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society and the Centre for Social Research in Health, both at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. 

"Unfortunately, it's really bad news for STIs in Australia," says epidemiologist David Wilson of the Kirby Institute. And for hepatitis, "there is a very large epidemic that largely went on under our nose but it is catching up with us right now," he says.

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Coffee rust

Richard/Flickr/Creative Commons

Coffee scientists from around the world last week flew into Colombia's Eje Cafetero region, a verdant collage of deep gullies and mountainsides covered in thousands of small-scale coffee farms framed by banana trees. At the heart of the 25th International Conference on Coffee Science (ASIC) was a burning question: how to deal with coffee leaf rust, or roya. The world's most damaging coffee disease, leaf rust has torn through Latin America, costing farmers an estimated $1 billion and cutting some harvests by more than half in Central America. Between copious coffee breaks, scientists announced several new molecular techniques to help combat this continental epidemic.

Resistant coffee plants

Helping the coffee plant defend itself from the fungus is a top priority. Colombia leads the world in developing rust-resistant coffee breeds, also known as cultivars. When coffee leaf rust—which was first spotted in East Africa in the 1860s—made it to South America in the 1970s, Colombia's national coffee research center, Cenicafé, was already a decade into its rust resistance breeding program. Since then, it has released two major coffee cultivars—Colombia (in 1980) and Castillo (2005)—that have been effective since 1983 in tempering leaf rust while preserving the characteristics so important to world-class coffee: high yield, large grain size, great taste.

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Heinz Feldmann in scrubs and a rain jacket outside one of the tents in Monrovia.

NIAID

Heinz Feldmann in scrubs and a rain jacket outside one of the tents in Monrovia.

Virologist Heinz Feldmann has spent most of his career studying the deadly Ebola virus at research institutes in Germany, Canada, and the United States. He is now at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton, Montana.

Feldmann has co-developed one of the vaccine candidates that is scheduled to be tested soon and has helped contain several Ebola outbreaks in the past. On 8 September, he returned from 3 weeks in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where he ran a diagnostic lab for a treatment center operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What was your impression of the situation in Monrovia?

A: The first impression was actually that nothing is wrong. The part of the city we were in, outside the center, was pretty calm. But when you get to the Ebola ward, that impression turns. It is a disastrous situation. There are a lot of sick people hanging around, trying to get in, but the ward is just not big enough. They have to turn obviously sick people back into the community because there are no beds. I think we would need at least five to 10 times the capacity in Monrovia. The city is totally overwhelmed by the number of cases and the outbreak.

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The Ebola virus

CDC/Dr. Frederick A. Murphy/Wikimedia Commons

The Ebola virus

Mark 16 September 2014 as the day the United States declared an all-out war on the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa.

As President Barack Obama explained in remarks he made today at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the world is looking to the United States for help. “It’s a responsibility we embrace,” Obama said. “We’re prepared to take leadership on this to provide the kinds of capabilities that only America has, and to mobilize the world in ways that only America can do.  That’s what we’re doing as we speak.”

At the same time Obama was speaking in Atlanta, the U.S. Senate held an Ebola hearing that featured testimony from leading public health officials and perhaps the world’s most famous Ebola survivor, Kent Brantly, who became ill with the disease while treating patients in Liberia in July. “We must take the deadly dangerous threat of the Ebola epidemic as seriously as we take ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria],” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN).

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Okairos uses a “wave bag” to shake up cells and produce small lots of vaccine.

Loredana Siani/Okairos

Okairos uses a “wave bag” to shake up cells and produce small lots of vaccine.

As the Ebola outbreak in West Africa accelerates, the containment measures that worked in the past, such as isolating those who are infected and tracing their contacts, clearly have failed. This has spurred hopes that biomedical countermeasures, such as monoclonal antibodies and vaccines, can help save lives and slow spread. But as President Barack Obama calls for an aggressive ramp up of the U.S. government’s response, resolve is colliding with a grim reality: The epidemic is outpacing the speed with which drugs and vaccines can be produced.

Administration officials have begun working with industry to speed manufacturing of experimental drugs and vaccines. “We’re trying to do everything we can to scale up product,” says Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But the logistical obstacles are huge, and makers are getting a late start.

An Ebola vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Rixensart, Belgium, is the furthest along, having entered phase I human trials on 2 September. GSK has committed to manufacturing up to 10,000 doses of the vaccine, which consists of an Ebola surface protein stitched into a weakened chimpanzee adenovirus, by the end of the year. If it passes muster in the early studies, it could be given to health workers as soon as November. But hundreds of thousands of doses would be needed to put a dent in the outbreak. That “would take one-and-a-half years at the scale we’re working at,” says Ripley Ballou, who heads the Ebola vaccine program for GSK.

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Tetrafluoropropene, a hydrofluorocarbon used as a refrigerant.

Jynto/Wikimedia

Tetrafluoropropene, a hydrofluorocarbon used as a refrigerant.

The White House today announced a plan to reduce U.S. emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas with 2400 times the climate impact of CO2. Companies that make the refrigerants have pledged to dramatically reduce and eventually phase out their production at the same time they develop greener alternatives, and retailers have agreed to use equipment that is HFC-free.

HFCs became a significant climate issue in the wake of the success of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which eliminated the emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). HFCs were a common substitute for CFCs in refrigerators and air conditioners in the 1980s and 1990s. Scientists have warned of the impact of HFCs on climate for years, but government action has been slow to follow. Today’s announcement notes that U.S. emissions of HFCs, if left unchecked, were on track to double by 2020.

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Collaborations between industry and universities are essential for innovation, report says.

Robert Scoble/Flickr/Creative Commons

Collaborations between industry and universities are essential for innovation, report says.

How long can U.S. science lobbyists keep repeating the same message—that boosting federal funding for basic research and removing barriers to innovation is a proven way to ensure economic prosperity—without tuning out their intended audience? And is there any reason to think that those who have resisted their pleas in the past will warm to their arguments this time around?

Neal Lane and Norm Augustine are about to find out. Today the two eminent science policy veterans came to Washington, D.C., to unveil a report from a panel of academic and industry leaders assembled by the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The 152-page report takes its place alongside a half-dozen other tomes in the last decade intended to first warn U.S. policymakers of an impending disaster and then describe how to avert it.

The twin message is captured in the report’s title, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. China and other nations are a growing threat to U.S. preeminence in science and innovation, the report notes, and the best response is spending more on basic research and reforming the current U.S. system of innovation.

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Burying an Ebola victim in West Africa.

© EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser

Burying an Ebola victim in West Africa.

A week after sharp criticism met the U.S. military’s announcement that it planned to help Liberia combat its Ebola epidemic with a “deployable hospital” that has a mere 25 beds, U.S. President Barack Obama tomorrow plans to unveil dramatic new efforts to assist the West African countries besieged by the disease. 

(Update: The White House on Tuesday morning released a fact sheet outlining its planned response. It will be coordinated by a U.S. Army general stationed at a new command center in Monrovia with an estimated 3000 troops. The Department of Defense has asked to "reprogram" $500 million toward the effort.)

Obama will be visiting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to discuss the U.S. response, At about the same time, a U.S. Senate hearing on Ebola will also take place with testimony from key public officials and Ebola survivor Ken Brantly.

Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), spoke with ScienceInsider on Friday and said she expected there would be “a substantial surge” in the U.S. government’s assistance. She particularly wants to see more attention paid to providing infected people with good care. “There’s a very, very wide variability in what’s being delivered as clinical care,” says Lurie, noting that case fatality rates differ dramatically  in different locations. “We know that simple interventions are likely to save the most lives.”

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An entrance to the Los Alamos National Laboratory during a 2012 snowstorm.

LANL

An entrance to the municipality of Los Alamos, New Mexico during a 2012 snowstorm.

An independent watchdog at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will investigate whether political scientist James Doyle was booted out of Los Alamos National Laboratory this summer after writing about the futility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

In a letter today to Doyle’s attorney, Mark Zaid, DOE officials rejected Doyle’s petition to reverse or modify his dismissal this summer. Doyle had argued that the lab’s decision to classify the scholarly article—“Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?”—after it had appeared in the February-March 2013 issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy violated federal guidelines and that he was wrongly punished. Los Alamos officials have said that Doyle was laid off for budgetary reasons.

It’s no surprise that DOE stands by that decision. But what has raised eyebrows is that the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, has asked the department’s inspector general to determine “whether Mr. Doyle’s termination resulted, in whole or in part, from the publication of his article … or the views expressed in it.”

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The University of Bern. A new agreement with the European Union means that Swiss researchers are eligible for some Horizon 2020 grants.

Bobo11/Wikimedia Commons

The University of Bern. A new agreement with the European Union means that Swiss researchers are eligible for some Horizon 2020 grants.

BRUSSELS—Starting today, scientists in Switzerland will again be able to apply for some research funds from the European Union's Horizon 2020 program—including coveted grants from the European Research Council (ERC). Both sides reached a short-term deal undoing restrictions imposed on Swiss scientists after a referendum to curb mass immigration back in February.

Scientists were the first to feel the cooling of the relationships between the European Union and the affluent country it surrounds after the referendum. The union expects Switzerland to include Croatia, which entered the union last year, in its agreement on the free movement of persons. But following the vote, Switzerland said it couldn't sign the Croatian deal. As a result, Switzerland lost its privileged status as an associated country to Horizon 2020, the bloc's research funding program.

After several months of negotiations, the commission has now agreed to give Switzerland its associated country status back for the so-called first pillar of Horizon 2020, worth €24.4 billion for 7 years. This includes individual grants from ERC and the Marie Curie fellowships for science training, staff exchanges and mobility, as well as the Future and Emerging Technologies scheme, which is showering two 10-year projects with up to €1 billion each. (One of them, a controversial plan to model the human brain, is the brainchild of Henry Markram, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.)

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A pro-democracy rally earlier this year in Hong Kong.

larique/Flickr/Creative Commons

A pro-democracy rally earlier this year in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's academics are being drawn into a long-running debate over local election procedures as student activists organize a boycott of classes to protest what they argue are undemocratic restrictions proposed by Beijing. More than 500 professors and staff members at 20 of the city's colleges and universities have signed a statement supporting the students. And at least a few worry that Beijing's attempts to micromanage local affairs could eventually crimp academic freedom.

A statement of support titled "Don’t let the striking students stand alone" is posted in Chinese and English on the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union’s website. 

"As teachers and as citizens, we are pained and outraged to see the advancement of democracy in Hong Kong stifled and suppressed," the statement begins before strongly endorsing student activism: "When we look back at history, both in China and overseas, we see that student movements have been an important force in pushing for social progress. Our hope in Hong Kong’s future lies in the passion and spirit shown by our young people and their willingness to take up the mantle in the fight for democracy and social justice."    

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Circle marks landing spot: Lander hopes to avoid jets of gas and dust that could complicate descent.

ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Circle marks landing spot: Lander hopes to avoid jets of gas and dust that could complicate descent.

The Rosetta mission has picked a destination on top of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for its Philae lander, mission managers announced today at European Space Agency (ESA) headquarters in Paris.

The area—site “J”—is near the top of the smaller lobe, or head, of the comet, which some have likened to the shape of a duck ever since the Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the comet on 6 August. The spacecraft is the first to accompany a comet as the sun heats it up and turns on its jets of gas and dust. The landing, to take place on 11 November, would be the first to scoop up a sample of dust and ice and analyze its composition.

Scientists and engineers picked the site, an ellipse with an area of about a square kilometer, from a shortlist of five candidates following a 2-day meeting in Toulouse, France. Site “C” will be the backup landing, in case site “J” proves troublesome on further inspection. “It is not a perfectly flat area,” says Stephan Ulamec, the Philae landing manager at the German space agency (DLR) in Berlin. “Even here the risk is high.”

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Health care workers in Sierra Leone earlier this year.

© EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

Health care workers in Sierra Leone earlier this year.

The Cuban government is sending 165 doctors and nurses to battle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced this morning in Geneva, Switzerland, at a joint press conference with Cuba’s minister of public health, Roberto Morales Ojeda. The health care workers, 103 nurses and 62 doctors, are going to be deployed to Sierra Leone in the first week of October.

It is the biggest contribution of health care staff by any single country so far to help control the epidemic, noted WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “This will make a significant difference in Sierra Leone,” Chan said.

To put the numbers in perspective: WHO has deployed about 500 foreign medical experts to the region. Because they rotate, at any one time about 170 of them are in the affected countries, Chan said.

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Carlos Moedas

Portuguese Republic Government

Carlos Moedas

BRUSSELS—Carlos Moedas, secretary of state to Portugal's center-right prime minister, has been appointed European commissioner in charge of research, science, and innovation here yesterday. If his appointment is approved by the European Parliament, he will take over from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn for a 5-year term in this top-level position at the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch.

Moedas will oversee the use of funds from Horizon 2020, the European Union's €80 billion research program. Jean-Claude Juncker, president-elect of the European Commission, has tasked Moedas with promoting the excellence of European science, monitoring national research policies, making sure that “Commission proposals and activities are based on sound scientific evidence,” and focusing more on applied research, among other duties.

Moedas, 44, has no apparent research policy experience, but he is likely to have a good understanding of scientific research, says Marco Alves, a researcher at WavEC - Offshore Renewables, a nonprofit research center in Lisbon. Moedas earned his civil engineering degree at the Higher Technical Institute of the University of Lisbon—one of the country's top schools, with a strong research component—where Alves also studied. Moedas worked as an engineer before turning to banking and economics. After an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2000, he worked as a banker for Goldman Sachs and Aguirre Newman, and founded his own investment company in 2008.

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Questions have dogged the STAP technique—which the researchers claimed could make all the cell types in a mouse fetus—from the start.

HARUKO OBOKATA

Questions have dogged the STAP technique—which the researchers claimed could make all the cell types in a mouse fetus—from the start.

As two discredited, and now retracted, stem cell papers have produced an almost unimaginable fallout—a national hero accused of scientific fraud, the revamping of one of Japan’s major research institutes, and the suicide of a respected cell biologist—researchers have privately and publicly asked how Nature could have published work that, in retrospect, seems so obviously flawed. 

Another piece of the puzzle has come to light. The Science news team received a copy of e-mail correspondence between a Nature editor and Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the papers, that indicates the work initially received as rocky a reception there as at two other journals, Cell and Science, that had rejected the work previously. The e-mail, dated 4 April 2013, includes detailed separate criticisms of the two papers and suggestions for new data to support the authors’ claims of a simple and novel way to make stem cells that could form the myriad cell types within a body. The Nature editor rejected the papers, but left open a window, writing, “Should further experimental data allow you to address these criticisms, we would be happy to look at a revised manuscript.” The two papers were published 10 months later.

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The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Think nationally, act regionally. That’s the bumper-sticker version of a new study out today that says the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) 17 national science laboratories need to get more engaged in economic development, innovation, and technology commercialization at the regional level.

To date, the DOE labs have failed “to aggressively and fully seize the opportunity to turn federally funded research into new products and services, particularly at the state and regional level,” concludes the report, available here and here. The trio of authors, from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Center for Clean Energy Innovation (CCEI), offers 15 recommendations for improving the labs’ connections to their communities. They include giving lab managers more control over funds for building local economic partnerships, creating off-campus “microlabs” to attract local businesses, and providing small- and medium-sized firms with “vouchers” for research assistance. The report also calls for making an array of current federal technology transfer and commercialization programs more flexible and nimble.

The idea, says co-author Mark Muro of Brookings, is to help a federal laboratory system initially established to fight the Cold War adapt to the global economic and security challenges of the 21st century. “The competitiveness and innovation game is changing very quickly, and [the United States] needs to be seeking the greatest return on our investments,” he says. “The point is not to completely rethink what the labs are, but update them.”

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Some diagnostic tests designed and manufactured in clinical labs will soon need FDA approval.

CDC/Amanda Mills

Some diagnostic tests designed and manufactured in clinical labs will soon need FDA approval.

A move by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate diagnostic tests developed in thousands of laboratories is picking up steam—and drawing fire. The agency recently notified Congress that it plans to regulate some of these so-called laboratory developed tests (LDTs)—which, unlike tests marketed by diagnostic manufacturers, don’t currently require FDA approval. FDA has not yet released a draft guidance on the matter, but at a hearing yesterday, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee raised questions about the agency’s authority to regulate these tests, its motivation for doing so, and the potential impact of such regulations on the diagnostic industry.

Doctors use diagnostic tests to determine which patients are at risk for developing a disease and which would benefit from a treatment. And while companies offer FDA-approved kits for many of these uses, clinical labs often design and offer their own. According to the American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA), more than 11,000 laboratories are authorized to develop and perform LDTs, and the majority of them do.

FDA has had the authority to regulate LDTs—and all in vitro diagnostics—since 1976, explained Jeffrey Shuren, director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, at the hearing. But the agency has so far exercised “enforcement discretion” and has not required that labs manufacturing these tests seek its approval. Labs have instead been regulated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services through the 1988 Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA).

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Pacific bluefin tuna

Aes256/Wikimedia Commons

Pacific bluefin tuna

TOKYO—A multinational organization that coordinates fishing activities in the western Pacific is throwing a lifeline to heavily overfished Pacific bluefin tuna stocks.

Speaking today at a press briefing, Japanese officials provided details on a plan agreed to last week that aims to rebuild the spawning population by halving the catch of juveniles and limiting takes of mature fish as well. The proposal calls for total Pacific bluefin catches to be kept below the 2002 to 2004 annual average levels and for catches of fish weighing fewer than 30 kilograms—juveniles too young to spawn—to be reduced to 50% of those levels.

Conservation organizations see the proposed limits as a step in the right direction. But they are "far from enough," Wakao Hanaoka, senior ocean campaigner for Greenpeace, tells ScienceInsider. He says that Pacific bluefin tuna stocks have shrunk to just 4% of the historical population, making proper stock management a matter of urgency.

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The diatom known as rock snot has sparked efforts to stop its spread.

rickpilot_2000/Flickr/Creative Commons

The diatom known as rock snot has sparked efforts to stop its spread.

Max Bothwell is an expert on the nuisance algae didymo, also known as rock snot. And when he first published an article online about the origins of the algae this past May, a reporter with the Canadian Press, a news agency, asked to interview him. But Bothwell works for the government agency Environment Canada, and the interview request got bogged down in bureaucracy. Really bogged down. 

In all, 16 public affairs people in various agencies wrote a total of 110 pages of e-mails, according to records acquired through a freedom of information request by the enterprising and presumably fairly frustrated reporter. The minders were busy dealing with “agreed answers” that Bothwell would be allowed to give and an “approved interview script.” But they didn’t get the interview approved by deadline.

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Valerie Barr spent a year as a program director in NSF’s education directorate.

Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Valerie Barr spent a year as a program director in NSF’s education directorate.

Valerie Barr was 22 and living in New York City in 1979 when she became politically active. A recent graduate of New York University with a master’s degree in computer science, Barr handed out leaflets, stood behind tables at rallies, and baked cookies to support two left-wing groups, the Women’s Committee Against Genocide and the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence. Despite her passion for those issues, she had a full-time job as a software developer—with 50-plus-hour workweeks and frequent visits to clients around the country—that took precedence.

After a few years, she found herself devoting even less time to those causes. By the late 1980s, she had resumed her pursuit of an academic career. A quarter-century later, she’s a tenured professor of computer science at Union College in Schenectady, New York, with a national reputation for her work improving computing education and attracting more women and minorities into the field.

That social conscience also led her to decide it was time to “give something back to the community.” So in August 2013 she took a leave from Union College to join the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director in its Division of Undergraduate Education. And that’s when her 3-decade-old foray into political activism came back to haunt her.

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Roll back aging, win $1 million

James Benninger/Flickr/Creative Commons

Google has already gotten into the age-fighting business. Now another Silicon Valley initiative is taking aim at the science of boosting longevity. The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, announced yesterday at a shindig in San Francisco, is offering $1 million to scientists who can solve two aging-related research challenges.

Joon Yun, an M.D. who is president of the health care investment firm Palo Alto Investors in California, put up the prize money. Researchers have plenty of fresh ideas about how to boost health and stretch lifespan, but few were getting public attention, he says. “We needed a way to accelerate these ideas into action.”

The prize’s immodest goal is to stop aging, but it’s starting out with two less ambitious competitions that could represent steps toward that objective. One $500,000 award will go to the research team that can restore an older animal’s homeostatic capacity—its ability to balance its internal conditions—to a youthful level. As a gauge of that capacity, the prize organizers selected variability in heart rate. Not only is reduced variability linked to age-related diseases, Yun says, but heart rate is also easy and cheap to measure, potentially allowing more scientists to take part in the challenge.

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Monrovia

Christopher Herwig/www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

Monrovia

When President Barack Obama spoke about the U.S. military helping combat the Ebola epidemic on NBC News’s Meet the Press this past Sunday, Tim Flanigan, an American clinician working in Monrovia, says he was “ecstatic.” It was exactly what many of the people leading the Ebola effort in Liberia, the hardest hit country, had been hoping for. But that joy turned to dismay the next day, when Flanigan learned the details of the Pentagon’s plans.

Obama pledged “to get U.S. military assets just to set up, for example, isolation units and equipment there to provide security for public health workers surging from around the world.” On Monday, a Pentagon representative said the military planned to send only a $22 million, 25-bed field hospital to Monrovia, Liberia's capital. “It's not going to make any dent in Ebola treatment for the people of Liberia,” Flanigan warns. “It's such a small number of beds and they may well be directed toward non-Liberians."

Flanigan, who works at Brown University and from 1999 to 2012 headed the infectious disease unit there, arrived in Monrovia on 1 September and plans to stay for 2 months. A Catholic deacon, he is also working with health-oriented church groups and is blogging about his experience.

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