A former senior career official at the U.S. Census Bureau has been nominated as its director. The appointment, applauded by community leaders, comes at a time of intense political and financial pressure on the statistical agency.
Last night, President Barack Obama announced that he wants John Thompson to succeed Robert Groves, who left last summer to become provost of Georgetown University. Thompson spent 27 years at the Census Bureau and led the 2000 census. Since 2008, he has been president of NORC, an independent research organization based at the University of Chicago.
Groves called Thompson's appointment "a wonderful gift" to the country. "The world of data describing human behavior is changing at an unprecedented rate, and John has grappled with those issues at both the Bureau and NORC," Groves said.
Last month, The Census Project, a coalition of organizations that use census data, urged the White House to act "promptly" on the nomination. In a letter to Obama, the coalition noted the need for a permanent director "as the agency confronts serious budget challenges, defends the American Community Survey (ACS), and conducts critical testing and systems development for Census 2020."
"I think it's a great choice, and I'm glad there's a nominee," said Lawrence Brown, a professor of statistics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and chair of the National Academies' Committee on National Statistics. "The selection of someone with his experience and stature and knowledge is a sign of the administration's support for moving the agency forward."
The renovation of an office for Lynda Chin, the wife of the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Ronald DePinho, may have cost as much as $2 million, according to an analysis by a Washington, D.C., investigative newsletter. The allegations of lavish spending on Chin's office at MD Anderson add to the woes of the pair of cancer research leaders a year after Chin was awarded an $18 million grant from a state cancer research fund that did not undergo scientific review.
The office suite for Chin, who heads a new drug discovery institute at MD Anderson and chairs the center's Department of Genomic Medicine, was meant to have a "corporate" feel, according to 680 pages of documents obtained by The Cancer Letter. The do-over included designer furniture and required many exceptions from university building rules for features such as glass walls. The renovation was paid for by the center's capital accounts, which come from investment income, gifts, and patient revenue, MD Anderson officials told the newsletter.
MD Anderson disputed the newsletter's cost estimates and defended the spending. Although the overall project cost $1.5 million, officials said that this amount included the purchase of lab equipment. The tab for Chin's office
renovations was $547,434, they said. They told The Cancer Letter that the project "transformed a traditional academic office suite to a work
environment and meeting area for a science/business enterprise, a concept new not only to MD Anderson, but most of academic medicine." (The Cancer Letter estimated costs of up to $2 million based on invoices and other documents that did not mention lab equipment.)
Last week, DePinho announced that because of financial pressures, MD Anderson is freezing staff salaries and postponing some capital projects.
DePinho has drawn criticism for his ties to companies and for launching a "moon shot" program aimed at dramatically improving survival for several cancers within a decade. The controversy over MD Anderson's $18 million "incubator" grant from the $3 billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) spurred the resignations of CPRIT chief scientific officer and Nobel Prize-winner Alfred Gilman and many of the agency's scientific advisers. After questions about several grants triggered investigations, CPRIT briefly suspended its grantmaking. The Texas legislature has since drafted a bill to overhaul CPRIT's operations and is poised to approve $600 million in new funding .
*Update, 5:15 p.m., 24 May: The estimates of the costs of the office renovation have been clarified.
Swiss billionaires Hansjörg Wyss and Ernesto Bertarelli have bought the former building of drug company Merck Serono in Geneva, where they plan to set up a biotech research center with two local universities. The announcement, made on Wednesday, was welcomed by Swiss scientists as a boon for the Geneva area. It comes about a year after Merck Serono said that it would close down its Geneva headquarters and relocate R&D activities to Germany, the United States, and China. The company employed about 1250 people in Geneva at the time.
"This will fill a gap. Serono's exit had caused hundreds of researchers to lose their jobs," Jean-Paul Clozel, head of biotech company Actelion in Basel, Switzerland, told La 1ère, a Swiss public radio station, yesterday.
Merck Serono sold the building to a consortium called Campus Biotech, made up of the Bertarelli family, the Wyss Foundation, the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). Bertarelli is, in fact, buying back the site of his former family business, biotech firm Serono, which he had sold to Merck in 2007.
Clozel praised the billionaires, regional authorities, and university leaders for their joint work. "It's quite rare to see so many people agreeing among themselves," he said, adding that politicians should now let scientists lead the endeavor. "Creating this kind of center cannot be done without political will and support … but at the end, the venture's success will be down to the research projects," Clozel said.
The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) has launched a second round of Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) in Brazil. The 17 new, multidisciplinary centers will receive a total of $680 million over 11 years for basic research, technology transfer initiatives, and outreach in a variety of fields including drug discovery and the social science of violence. FAPESP will provide half their funding, with the rest coming from the host institutions.
The RIDC program is designed "to offer funding for research groups which have especially bold scientific proposals that require funding for a long time," explains Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the scientific director of FAPESP, which announced the new round of winners on 15 May. São Paulo's constitution guarantees 1% of the state's tax revenues to FAPESP every year, a provision that Brito calls "essential" to the foundation's ability to fund ambitious, long-term research projects like the RIDCs.
FAPESP funded the first round of RIDCs from October 2000 to December 2012. Three of the original 10 centers have basically been extended for a second decade: the Center for Metropolitan Studies, the Center for Cell-Based Therapy, and the Center for the Study of Violence.
One day after a prominent paper in the journal Cell was flagged for image duplication, the main author and the journal say that the problems arose from simple mislabeling of images and do not invalidate the results. They also defended the unusually rapid review of the paper, which was accepted only 4 days after official submission and published online 12 days later.
The work, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton, was notable for two reasons: It's the first time anyone has used cloning to create personalized human embryonic stem (ES) cells, and it's the same result that was described back in 2004 and 2005 by a group of South Korean scientists in what turned out to be one of the world's most notorious cases of scientific fraud.
Stem cell scientists were initially delighted, with one telling Science that the work was a "hard-won triumph after many years of diligent research." After a commenter posted on a site called PubPeer, alleging duplicated and mislabeled images in the paper, delight turned to dismay. "It's a shame that this important area of research has come under scrutiny once again," writes Kevin Eggan of Harvard University to ScienceInsider in an e-mail.
Mitalipov spoke with ScienceInsider this afternoon, and says that he and the other co-authors simply overlooked the mistakes, in part because the images in question are meant to show that the cells are similar. "With the naked eye, it's very hard to see if this is the same image or a different image." He says that he is curious whether the PubPeer contributor used image-checking software to catch the duplications. "I wish we had that software to run the paper through," he says.
Eight years after South Korean stem cell scientists were exposed in one of the biggest scientific frauds ever, a paper claiming to have achieved work they faked is itself under investigation.
Last week, a group led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton reported in Cell that it had used cloning to make personalized human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The news was widely covered (including in Science) that Woo-Suk Hwang and his team claimed to have created individually tailored hESCs by cloning skin cells. That report, in Science, soon unraveled when it was found that the team had manipulated images and faked their data.
After last week's report, a commenter on PubPeer, a site dedicated to postpublication peer review, alleged several instances of "image reuse" in the Cell paper. The commenter also noted that "in the paper, it is recorded that the journal Cell accepted this paper just 4 days after submission."
The claims of image inconsistencies were enough to pique the journal's concern. "I can confirm that our editorial team is assessing the allegations brought up in the PubPeer piece," writes Cell spokesperson Mary Beth O'Leary in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "I will get back to you as soon as they have fully investigated the claims raised in PubPeer."
ROME—A controversial Italian stem cell therapy that scientists say is unproven will undergo its first solid scientific test. The Italian Senate today voted in favor of a new bill, already approved by the Chamber of Deputies on 16 May, that sets aside €3 million for a clinical trial of the treatment, devised by the Stamina Foundation in Turin. Meanwhile, the foundation can continue treating 12 patients at a hospital in Brescia who are already undergoing the disputed therapy.
"This will probably be the first time that a parliament orders a clinical trial," says Elena Cattaneo, director of UniStem stem cell center at the University of Milan.
The merits of Stamina's treatments have long been under dispute in Italy. The foundation says that it has found a way to transform a patient's own mesenchymal stem cells, derived from bone marrow, into newly minted nerve cells that can be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. But many stem cell scientists have dismissed those claims; the International Society for Stem Cell Research recently said that there is no "compelling evidence from clinical trials that such cells provide benefit to patients with neurological conditions."
In a sign of how much the controversy over human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) has waned, the most prominent lobbying group for hESC research announced today that it is folding after 12 years. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) will transfer its work to another group that focuses on moving hESC research into the clinic.
"We are in an era where the primary issues are not federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research," wrote CAMR President Amy Comstock Rick, who is also CEO of the Parkinson's Action Network, in an e-mail to the more than 100 patient advocacy, scientific, and other groups that belong to CAMR. "Given the progress we are seeing in the field of regenerative medicine, the policy issues we now see go beyond the historical focus of CAMR."
CAMR was founded around when President George W. Bush issued an executive order on 9 August 2001 limiting federal funding for hESC studies to existing cell lines. The coalition pushed for a bill, passed by Congress in 2005 and 2007, that would have removed those limits; Bush vetoed the bill both times. In 2009, the landscape changed when President Barack Obama issued an executive order instructing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lift the Bush-era constraints. The number of NIH-approved stem cell lines has since grown from 21 to more than 200, CAMR notes.
Given that sequestration lopped off a staggering $1.55 billion from the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget this year, it shouldn't be hard to find examples of how the cut is harming research labs. Although sequestration "has already dealt a devastating blow," said NIH Director Francis Collins at a Senate hearing last week, it turns out it's not that easy to spell out the damage.
One reason is that many grantees won't receive good or bad news about their proposals until later in the fiscal year that ends 30 September. Even then, the effects will be part of a larger pattern of declining funding over the past decade, NIH watchers say. "People are feeling a lot of pain, but to actually put it on sequestration versus other pressures on the budget, we're only guessing," says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. At the individual level, "it's hard to say what the actual source is."
NIH is losing $1.7 billion this year from sequestration and other cuts, lowering its budget to $29.15 billion. New and competing grants are going down by 703, from 8986. As a result, the NIH grant success rate (the portion of reviewed grants that received funding) may drop from an already record-low 18% in 2012 to 16%, according to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate spending subcommittee that discussed NIH's 2014 budget request last week.
In a vote of 97-0, the U.S. Senate today confirmed Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy. A theoretical nuclear physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Moniz succeeds Steven Chu, the only other physicist to hold the post since the Department of Energy (DOE) was established in 1977. Moniz, 69, had previously served as undersecretary of energy from 1997 to 2001 and as associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1995 to 1997.
President Barack Obama nominated Moniz on 4 March. But despite receiving bipartisan support, Moniz had to wait 2 months for Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to lift a "hold" on his candidacy.
Graham was upset because the Obama administration's 2014 budget request called for a study of alternatives to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction at DOE's Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. The plant is supposed to convert plutonium from weapons into fuel for nuclear power plants, but the study triggered fears that DOE wanted to pull the plug on the project, whose cost has ballooned from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. This week, Graham agreed to let the vote on Moniz go forward, although he warned that he might still hold up votes on lower level DOE appointments, according to a report in Environment & Energy Daily. Graham joined in on the unanimous approval for Moniz.
"My Senate colleagues recognize that Dr. Moniz is smart, he is savvy about how the Department of Energy operates because he has been there before, and he has a proven track record of collaboration, which is just what you need when you're leading the Department of Energy," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, shortly after the vote.
Back at MIT, Robert Armstrong, a chemical engineer, will replace Moniz as director of the MIT Energy Initiative. Armstrong had been Moniz's deputy. That announcement came just minutes after the Senate vote.
More than 150 prominent scientists and 75 scientific groups from around the world today took a stand against using impact factors, a measure of how often a journal is cited, to gauge the quality of an individual's work. They say researchers should be judged by the content of their papers, not where the studies are published.
Journal impact factors, calculated by the company Thomson Reuters, were first developed in the 1950s to help libraries decide which journals to order. Yet, impact factors are now widely used to assess the performance of individuals and research institutions. The metric "has become an obsession" that "warp[s] the way that research is conducted, reported, and funded," said a group of scientists organized by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) in a press release. Particularly in China and India, they say, postdocs think that they should try to publish their work in only journals with high impact factors.
The problem, the scientists say, is that the impact factor is flawed. For example, it doesn't distinguish primary research from reviews; it can be skewed by a few highly cited papers; and it dissuades journals from publishing papers in fields such as ecology that are cited less often than, say, biomedical studies.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) today rebuffed a request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to obtain reviewer comments on five social science research projects it is funding. The refusal is the latest twist in an increasingly edgy battle between the agency and Republicans in Congress over the agency's grants-making process and, in particular, its support for the social and behavioral sciences.
In a letter to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), NSF defended the need to preserve the confidentiality of the peer-review process, according to sources with knowledge of the letter's contents. The letter explains how NSF's process works and that the independent reviewers recruited by the agency are promised anonymity in return for offering their candid comments on the quality of the proposal. After taking that hard line, however, acting NSF Director Cora Marrett proposed to brief the committee on how NSF selects from among some 40,000 research proposals that it receives each year. NSF also offered to provide general information on how the five grants satisfy NSF's mission to expand the frontiers of science.
In a statement, Smith tells ScienceInsider, "I am disappointed the NSF declined to provide Congress with additional information that would show why they are spending taxpayer dollars on specific research grants." A committee aide says that, earlier this year, NSF officials told the committee to submit a letter describing the information it was seeking and that today's NSF response "is at variance with that conversation."
One of the most successful missions in NASA history may be coming to an end. NASA officials announced this afternoon that the Kepler spacecraft, which has found more than 2700 planetary candidates outside the solar system, has lost the ability to point in a specified direction due to the malfunctioning of one of its reaction wheels. The spacecraft has been put into safe mode while engineers attempt to figure out how to resolve the malfunction.
Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission completed its 3.5-year planned run last year, winning plaudits from planetary scientists. The spacecraft monitors some 150,000 sunlike stars in search of transiting planets. In November 2012, the mission began an extension of an additional 3.5 years, and officials were hopeful that it would continue beaming back data until 2016.
That now looks uncertain following the failure of the second of its four reaction wheels, officials announced at a telecom this afternoon. One of the wheels failed last year, and the spacecraft needs three reaction wheels to be pointed precisely. Mission managers learned of the latest failure earlier this week.
A group of coronavirus experts has published its proposal to name a new, deadly virus after the Middle East, the region where it originates. In a short paper published online today by the Journal of Virology, the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG), along with several other scientists, recommends calling the pathogen Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-Cov).
As ScienceInsider reported last week, the group, part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, hopes to end confusion about the name of the virus. It was initially called human coronavirus-EMC in a paper by its discoverer, Egyptian microbiologist Ali M. Zaki, and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, enlisted by Zaki to help characterize the virus. Since then, a plethora of other names has been used. The paper's authors write:
The venerable Institut Pasteur is in turmoil over accusations by a government watchdog that it is misleading the donors that fund part of its research. In a scathing report published earlier this month, the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS) says that the well-respected biomedical research organization massages figures to attract private donations and government funding, while it sits on a comfortable money cushion. Pasteur denies any wrongdoing, but the report could hurt its government funding as well as the trust of its donors.
Set up in 1887, the Institut Pasteur boasts an impressive track record of 10 Nobel Prize laureates. Today, it is a nonprofit research foundation focused on infectious diseases with a budget worth €243.6 million in 2011; IGAS says that includes about €60 million from the French government and €50 million in donations every year, including many small contributions from private citizens.
Pasteur tells its donors that donations and bequests make up a third of the institute's funding, while the actual figure is less than 20%, the report's authors write. They add that the institute "artificially" presents its balance sheet to funders as "structurally in the red" to appear vulnerable and dependent on external funding, including from France's research ministry.
NEW DELHI—In the United States, rotavirus is a public health nuisance, resulting in tens of thousands of hospitalizations for severe diarrhea in infants and young children each a year, but few deaths. In India, the virus is a public health menace: It claims more than 100,000 lives a year. A new vaccine could sharply reduce that death toll.
At a press conference here today, K. Vijayraghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, announced that a vaccine against the predominant rotavirus strain circulating in India had compiled an "excellent safety and efficacy profile" in phase III clinical trials. ROTAVAC, the first fruits of the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program, is expected to be on the market in early 2014. But some experts caution that the vaccine will not be a panacea. "It is unlikely that a single Indian strain of the virus will provide immunity to children all over India, since there is so much genetic variation in the rotavirus," says Jacob Puliyel, a pediatrician at St. Stephen's Hospital in New Delhi.
Rotavirus spreads easily through contaminated food and water; some 20 million children in India are infected every year. The virus causes severe diarrhea, often accompanied by vomiting and fever; most deaths are from dehydration in children who are not given treatment or inadequately treated by India's frail health care system.
A new program to train more U.S. college students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is hardly a novelty. And nobody would be surprised to learn that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is involved.
But heads still turned last week when NSF held a glitzy Washington, D.C., press event to announce $10 million in grants to nine university-based projects designed to lower dropout rates among minorities, women, and low-income students in computer science and engineering. The twist is that the "Graduate 10K+" initiative is being funded not by taxpayers but by two high-tech companies: Intel and GE.
The new effort is part of a broader push by the Obama administration for the private sector to supplement federal activities on many fronts. Specifically, it's an outgrowth of a now-defunct task force created by President Barack Obama in 2011 to improve U.S. competitiveness. (The Graduate 10K+ name is a nod to the president's goal of producing 1 million more STEM graduates by 2020.)
In a unanimous decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court backed the agribusiness firm Monsanto on its soybean patents. The justices concluded that an Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, violated the company's intellectual property rights when he refused to pay royalties on unlabeled soybeans he bought that contained genes patented by the company.
The court ruled that Monsanto's patents cover not just genetically engineered seeds distributed by Monsanto and its agents, but also seeds circulating in the environment that contain Monsanto's genes.
Bowman never disputed Monsanto's patents—which apply to genes that make soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. But he claimed that the company's right to charge royalties had been "exhausted" because the unlabeled seeds he bought from a local dealer and planted were the progeny of plants grown from previously purchased Monsanto seed. As a result, Bowman argued that his seed purchases weren't covered by Monsanto's customary patent license. Although Bowman had signed a Monsanto license in previous years—and paid the extra required fees—he did not continue to do so. Instead, he bought "commodity beans," which are usually sold for feed or other products, from a local granary. He later sprayed glyphosate on his crop and saw that it flourished, indicating that the anonymous seeds contained Monsanto's genes. He said he had written to Monsanto seeking information on its patent license rules, but argued that he never got a clear answer. Instead, Monsanto took him to court for violating its license.
Speaking for the entire court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 13 May opinion: "The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission. We hold that he may not."
Russian researchers are up in arms over a government decree issued last month which turns the process of issuing research grants into a bureaucratic nightmare for international foundations. The decree introduces new regulations according to which any organization that wants to award grants to Russian researchers must obtain permission from the Ministry of Education and Science for every grant. "No self-respecting grant-giving agency would deal with Russia on such conditions," says Andrey Tsaturyan of Moscow State University's Mechanics Research Institute.
Under the new decree, organization's will have to apply to the ministry for every grant and complete a bulky set of forms that include the bank details of the organization and the would-be grantee, the subject of the research, the purpose of the support, and so on. If the project to be funded is not in line with the main priorities of basic research and R&D in Russia approved by the government, the ministry may decline the request and the organization will not be allowed to award the grants. Tsaturyan believes that most painfully, the new regulations will affect research in medical sciences and humanities as the physical sciences are now rarely funded by international foundations.
The new regulations have raised serious worries among the researchers. Evgeny Onishchenko of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences thinks the decree is an absurd and very dangerous example of bureaucratic zeal. "The fact that an application will be required for each specific grant will cause bureaucratic hurdles," he says. In his view, the demand that the research subject must fit in with officially approved research priorities is ridiculous. "The government should be happy that someone supports research that is not a government priority," he says.
The French Parliament is soon to debate a draft bill that would establish a new framework for the nation's higher education and research systems. Many scientists have already criticized the proposal for ignoring several funding and employment issues. Now, however, some researchers worry that those concerns—and the importance of English in science—are being eclipsed by a high-profile debate over provisions that would expand the use of English in French universities.
"I find this a little sad as a debate," says Joël Bockaert, a member of the French science academy who directs a biomedical research collaboration in Montpellier.
At the heart of the controversy is the bill's proposal to relax a 1994 provision that makes the use of French compulsory in higher education except in foreign language classes or in classes given by invited professors from abroad. The new law would add two more exceptions by allowing foreign languages to be used in classes that are offered either as part of an agreement with foreign institutions or that belong to a European program. The idea behind the measure is to help attract foreign students to France and to better prepare French students for a globalized world, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research explained in a document accompanying the new draft bill, which was presented by science minister Geneviève Fioraso on 20 March. Unless France makes such efforts to attract foreign students, Fioraso told Libération, "we will be left to having five people discussing Proust around a table."