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13 March 2014 11:08 am ,
Vol. 343 ,
In the shadow of the crisis in Crimea, Ukrainian legislators are weighing a pair of science and education bills that...
Researchers dependent on government funding would face a flat future under the White House's $3.9 trillion budget...
Reservoirs of cells that harbor HIV DNA woven into human chromosomes have become the bane of researchers trying to cure...
Geochemists have now incorporated in their models some details of the way naturally acidic rainwater dissolves rock...
Schizophrenia is a devastating mental disorder that afflicts about 1% of the world's population at one time or another...
Surface tension is a force to be reckoned with, especially if you are small. It enables a water strider to skate along...
- 13 March 2014 11:08 am , Vol. 343 , #6176
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- Thursday, March 13, 2014 - 8:15pm
The use of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe is being hampered by a “dysfunctional approval process” imposed by the European Union, says a U.K. government-sponsored report released today. As a result, only a handful of GM crops may be approved in the near future, according to the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the U.K. prime minister on science policy.
While stating that the unanimous scientific consensus is that GM crops are safe, the report, whose authors include prominent plant biologists and biotechnologists, criticizes the European Union for regulation that has fettered progress of the technology and risk assessments that have been “influenced by political considerations that do not have a scientific basis.”
The council is jointly chaired by Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, who was an author on the report. “We’re asking for the regulation to be fit for purpose,” Walport says. Co-author Jim Dunwell, a plant biotechnologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, adds: “There has been an accumulation of regulation in a nonscientific way.”
Anyone seeking to release a GM organism in Europe has to get approval from Brussels. Applications are assessed largely by the European Food Safety Authority. As yet, only one variety, Bt maize, is grown and its crops are concentrated in Spain. None are grown in the United Kingdom. A vote in February to approve another variety of GM maize saw opposition from most nations, including France, Italy, and Austria. There was support, however, from Spain, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and the United Kingdom.
- Thursday, March 13, 2014 - 5:15pm
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives today laid out their arguments for keeping the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a short leash. It was the latest salvo in a yearlong battle with Democrats over the nature of federal support for basic research.
The setting was a markup of controversial legislation, H.R. 4186, by the research panel of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The bill, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, would reauthorize research and education programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and provide greater oversight of federal efforts in science education. Science lobbyists and House Democrats have complained sharply about proposed changes to NSF’s peer-review process and a 40% reduction in authorized funding levels for the agency’s social science research programs in the bill. They also object to language relating to public access to government-funded research and cracking down on scientific misconduct.
But Republicans largely dismissed those and other concerns in approving the bill on a straight party-line vote. In the course of the markup, the Republican majority rejected two Democratic amendments, one of which would have restored current funding levels for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences and for the geosciences and the second given NSF more flexibility to allocate funding among its six research directorates. (The panel did accept a previously negotiated deal with Representative Dan Lipinski [D-IL], the top Democrat on the research panel, to restore almost half of the cuts to the social sciences.) The full science committee is expected to take up the legislation in early April.
- Thursday, March 13, 2014 - 2:30pm
Researchers in Switzerland breathed a sigh of relief this week after their government stepped in to replace lost funding opportunities from the European Union. This will ease the effects of a referendum held in Switzerland on 9 February, in which voters agreed to curb mass immigration. The vote indirectly led Switzerland to lose its privileged status as an associated country to Horizon 2020, the European Union's new research funding program, and to the higher education program Erasmus+, which both run from 2014 through 2020.
As of 26 February and until further notice, Switzerland is now considered a so-called third country in Horizon 2020. This means that its researchers can still apply for E.U. funding as part of a group with partners from E.U. member states, but individual scientists from Swiss institutions are barred from applying for coveted basic research grants from the European Research Council (ERC), as well as for Marie Curie scholarships. This was bad news for Swiss candidates, who were very successful under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013. According to ERC, €585 million went to 321 ERC grantees in Switzerland in that period.
Switzerland's government has now offered a partial remedy: The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) will offer ERC-like grants so that Swiss applications don't go to waste. “The scientific community is especially grateful for this timely decision, less than 6 weeks after the Swiss vote,” says Martine Rahier, president of swissuniversities, a group that will merge the country's three existing rectors' conferences this year.
But this measure is not enough to solve the whole problem, Rahier adds. “In the mid-term, a full membership in the Horizon 2020 and ERC programs remains crucial—the only way—to guarantee the high standard of Swiss research and innovation potential,” she says.Continue Reading
- Thursday, March 13, 2014 - 8:15am
The U.S. Senate last night confirmed France Córdova to be director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). An astrophysicist and former university president, the 66-year-old Córdova succeeds Subra Suresh, who stepped down 1 year ago to become president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Cordova was nominated last summer by President Barack Obama for a 6-year term. In the interim, Cora Marrett has served as acting director of the $7 billion agency. Marrett will now return to her Senate-confirmed position as deputy NSF director.
You can read ScienceInsider’s coverage of Córdova’s nomination here. We also wrote about the Senate’s slow confirmation process and conducted an interview with Córdova on her decision to accept the nomination.Continue Reading
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 5:15pm
The director of the U.S. government office that monitors scientific misconduct in biomedical research has resigned after 2 years out of frustration with the “remarkably dysfunctional” federal bureaucracy. David Wright, director of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), writes in a scathing resignation letter obtained by ScienceInsider that the huge amount of time he spent trying to get things done made much of his time at ORI “the very worst job I have ever had.”
ORI, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), monitors alleged research misconduct by researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other Public Health Service (PHS) agencies. It runs education programs and reviews institutions’ misconduct investigations, each year posting a dozen or so findings of misconduct, defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism. It also recommends PHS sanctions, such as barring researchers from receiving grants. ORI’s visibility has grown recently along with a rise in retracted research papers, some involving misconduct.
Observers lauded Wright’s appointment in December 2011, which ended 2 years in which the office had no permanent director. Wright, a historian of science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, had served as an ORI consultant and came in with plans to beef up training programs. But on 25 February, he fired off a fiery resignation letter to his boss (see below), HHS Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH) Howard Koh. (Wright’s departure has not been formally announced by HHS and was first made public last week by the blog Retraction Watch. HHS spokeswoman Diane Gianelli declined to comment on why Wright left but confirmed his resignation and said that Don Wright, an Office of ASH (OASH) official who is unrelated to David Wright and had previously served as acting director, will resume that position.)Continue Reading
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 2:45pm
The European Parliament has approved stricter rules for the protection of personal data across the European Union, dealing a blow to research organizations that said the changes would undermine public health and medical research.
In a vote held today in Strasbourg, France, 621 members of the European Parliament approved the draft regulation, with only 10 voting against and 22 abstentions. The document, which updates 1995 rules, is based on a 2012 proposal by the European Commission.
Many research organizations are worried about changes made last fall by Parliament's civil liberties committee that define conditions under which researchers can use (or reuse) patients' data without specific consent. One key change allows the obligation to get consent to be lifted only if the research serves a “high public interest … [and] cannot possibly be carried out otherwise.” Supporters say that the changes are reasonable and necessary to ensure privacy, but scientists argue that the new language is too strict, vague, and threatens important health research.
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 1:15pm
University groups and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have begun to weigh in on a legislative proposal by Republicans to reshape a major chunk of the U.S. government’s science funding enterprise—and so far there’s a lot of skepticism.
A prominent scientific society today also released an analysis that compares funding levels proposed by the Republican bill and a competing proposal from Democrats. The two parties are taking "vastly different" approaches, concludes budget analyst Matthew Hourihan of AAAS in Washington, D.C., which publishes ScienceInsider.
On Tuesday, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, introduced a bill—the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186)—that would shape key research, education, and policy programs at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is intended to be a follow-on to the COMPETES Act of 2010, which also covered programs at the Energy and Commerce departments. (Smith plans to deal with many of those programs in a separate bill.)
Under discussion for about a year, FIRST includes a number of provisions that have drawn criticism from research and university groups. Some of those concerns are likely to be aired Thursday, when a subcommittee of the House science panel is scheduled to debate and vote on the measure, which will then move to the full committee.
In a press release, Smith said FIRST is intended to help the United States remain globally competitive and ensure “that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 12:45pm
BRUSSELS—CureVac, a company based in Tübingen, Germany, that develops RNA-based vaccines and therapies, has won a €2 million prize awarded by the European Commission to stimulate new vaccine technologies that might help the developing world. An expert jury says that the company's research could lead to a new generation of vaccines that don't need refrigeration—a massive benefit in many poor countries where power and equipment are in short supply.
Most of the prize money will go to new research and a company party, but CureVac also plans to use some of it to build an exhibit honoring Friedrich Miescher, a 19th century Swiss scientist whose discovery of nucleic acids isn't widely known.
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 10:15am
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is slated to get $126 million over 10 years for pediatrics research after the U.S. Senate yesterday approved legislation that was once seen by many Democrats as a cynical ploy.
The bill, the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, shifts money from public financing of conventions into a special pot within the Common Fund at NIH that can be used only for pediatric research. The $3 checkoff appears on U.S. tax forms and was created as a way to offset the influence of special interests in presidential elections. But since 2008, candidates have declined to accept the money because it would impose a ceiling on their overall spending.
A story in Roll Call describes the political roller coaster ride that the legislation has taken since Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA), the House of Representatives majority leader, went to bat for the parents of Gabriella Miller, a 10-year-old Virginia girl who died last year from a brain tumor. The legislation easily passed the House in December despite complaints from leading Democrats that it diverted attention from NIH’s larger budget woes. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) took up the cause of their state colleague and eventually persuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to allow the bill to go to the floor, where it passed on a voice vote after only brief debate.Continue Reading
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 10:15am
Animal rights activists have dramatically shifted their tactics over the last decade, targeting individual researchers and the businesses that support them, instead of going after their universities. That’s the biggest revelation to come out of a report released today by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States.
The purpose of the report—The Threat of Extremism to Medical Research: Best Practices to Mitigate Risk through Preparation and Communication—is to provide guidance to scientists and institutions around the world in dealing with animal rights extremists. That includes individuals and groups that damage laboratories, send threatening e-mails, and even desecrate the graves of researchers’ relatives. In 2004, for example, Animal Liberation Front activists broke into psychology laboratories at the University of Iowa, where they smashed equipment, spray-painted walls, and removed hundreds of animals, causing more than $400,000 in damage. In 2009, extremists set fire to the car of a University of California, Los Angeles, neuroscientist who worked on rats and monkeys. And other researchers say activists have shown up at their homes in the middle of the night, threatening their families and children.
- Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 8:00am
The U.K. government announced nearly £300 million ($500 million) of new investment in large-scale science projects yesterday. The beneficiaries will be a new European neutron source soon to be built in Sweden, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, and an exoplanet-hunting mission by the European Space Agency (ESA).
U.K. scientists had thought that their days of participation in large-scale projects were numbered when the current government, in its first spending review in 2010, slashed funds for capital spending in science projects by more than 50%. But since then the government has made a number of one-off spending commitments for research that now amounts to several billion pounds.
The largest part of the latest slice goes to the €1.8 billion European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, which will produce neutron beams that are an extremely sensitive probe of materials, measuring how atoms are arranged and how they interact. Some neutron sources use a nuclear reactor to produce the beams, but ESS uses a proton beam colliding with a metallic target, a process known as spallation. ESS will be 30 times brighter than today’s top sources.
The United Kingdom had previously not committed to participation in ESS, although in January ESS began collaborating with ISIS, the current most powerful European spallation source, at the Harwell laboratory near Oxford. "The U.K. contribution to ESS is very important both financially and intellectually," says Jim Yeck, ESS director-general and CEO. "Access to ISIS combined with the experience building and operating a spallation neutron source that the U.K. team brings to ESS adds greatly to the success of the project."Continue Reading
- Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 6:00pm
Within a 2015 budget request that is nearly flat, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has proposed beefing up its signature Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and reworking its approach to graduate traineeships. The twin goals are in line with the Obama administration’s approach to training the next generation of scientists and engineers.
In budget documents unveiled Monday at a media briefing, NSF officials describe their plan to raise the annual GRFP stipend to $34,000 in 2015. That would be an increase of $2000 over the current level. NSF gave students a similar $2000 boost in 2013 after holding the size of the stipends steady at $30,000 for a decade.
Those two increases would require an 11% hike in NSF spending on the GRFP, to $333 million. That growth points to the high status of GRFP within NSF’s education directorate, which is seeking an increase of 5%. It also dwarfs the 1.2% increase for the agency as a whole.
And that’s not all. The 2015 boost, if endorsed by Congress, would follow a 23% jump in the program this year, to $300 million. That large increase was needed to accommodate both the previous bump in stipends and the final year of a 5-year program expansion. Students are allowed to use the 3-year fellowships over a 5-year period, and 2014 marked the first year every class was at NSF’s target size of 2000.
- Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 1:15pm
As an academic researcher, Roger Howe knows what it’s like to lose out to a worthy competitor in the never-ending scramble for federal funding. But as director of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) at Stanford University in California, Howe is scratching his head over what he and others say is a recent nondecision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support what was to be the agency’s next big step in providing support for the burgeoning field.
However, NSF says it’s all a big misunderstanding and that it remains foursquare behind such collaborations.
NSF began funding NNIN in 2003 under a 10-year cooperative agreement, and this year NNIN is winding down its efforts to coordinate nanotech user facilities at 14 sites around the country. So in December 2012 NSF put out a solicitation describing its plans for a “next-generation” NNIN (NG-NNIN) that would broaden the collaboration to encompass researchers and educators in related fields.
The competition came down to Howe and a rival proposal from a team led by James Sturm of Princeton University. After pitching their visions last summer to a 12-member panel of outside experts assembled by NSF, each team went home and awaited word on who would claim the prize, expected to be $16 million a year for the next decade.Continue Reading
- Monday, March 10, 2014 - 6:00pm
It’s been nearly 1 year since Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, first circulated his ideas on replacing a 2010 law that touches on key aspects of federal policy toward research and science education. Its draft provisions to alter the National Science Foundation’s (NSF's) peer-review process and restrict funding for social science research elicited howls of protests from the community (also here), and Smith has said repeatedly that he welcomes constructive criticism. Last fall, he held a hearing to solicit outside comment.
Today that bill was formally introduced, and on Thursday the committee’s research panel is expected to debate and then vote on the measure. Here are some of the provisions of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (H.R. 4186) that seem certain to trigger angry reaction among Democrats on the panel.
- Monday, March 10, 2014 - 5:45pm
For the first time, a physician will take the helm at the Smithsonian Institution, a partially U.S. government-funded organization consisting of 19 museums, a zoo, and nine research centers. David Skorton, president of Cornell University since July 2006, will become the 13th secretary of the 168-year-old Smithsonian, the institution's Board of Regents announced today. In July 2015, he will replace the retiring G. Wayne Clough, an engineer who previously was the president of Georgia Institute of Technology.
Trained as a cardiologist, Skorton specialized in treating children and adults with congenital heart disorders and helped develop computer-assisted 3D imaging of the heart and its arteries. He also spent more than 20 years as a university president, first from 2003 to 2006 at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor for 26 years, and now at Cornell.Posted In:
- Monday, March 10, 2014 - 5:30pm
A claim of an astoundingly easy way to make pluripotent stem cells reported online in two papers in Nature on 29 January continues to unravel as one of the co-authors called for a temporary retraction of the papers while their data and images are verified.
The research coming under fire reported the discovery of a potentially revolutionary process called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), in which exposing adult cells to a stress such as acid or pressure prompts them to behave like cells in early embryos, which can become any cell type in the body. But within days of the work being published, critics on the PubPeer website and other blogs pointed out problems with some of the images in the papers, including some that were very similar to those in earlier papers by first author Haruko Obokata, a unit leader at the Kobe, Japan-based RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology.
RIKEN launched an investigation into the matter on 13 February. Over the weekend, the story took another turn when critics noted that other images in the paper are very similar to those published in Obokata’s doctoral thesis in 2011.
And as both The Wall Street Journal and NHK, Japan's national public broadcaster, reported today, Teruhiko Wakayama of the University of Yamanashi, Kofu, a cloning researcher and co-author of both papers, now says he has lost confidence in the papers. But he is not yet entirely dismissing them.
- Monday, March 10, 2014 - 1:15pm
How the U.S. government’s budget process works has always been something of a mystery to outsiders. To researchers working on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), that process just got a whole lot more mysterious.
In its 2015 budget proposal unveiled last week, the White House proposed mothballing SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747 outfitted with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope and other instruments. The move would save some $80 million, the agency said, which could be redirected to higher priority missions.
Yet, just days before the budget was released, NASA managers were sending congratulatory e-mails to the Universities Space Research Association (USRA)—the contractor for SOFIA—on the successful commissioning of all of SOFIA’s instruments on a 20 February test flight.
“Congratulations to the entire SOFIA team,” one senior NASA administrator wrote in an e-mail on 21 February. “We are all proud of you and grinning like madmen here at HQ.”
That’s why the mothballing proposal came as a “complete shock,” says Erick Young, the head of SOFIA’s science mission operations at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “We’ve been working for the past couple of years to achieve full operational capability. We had until the end of 2014 to meet that milestone, and we satisfied that 2 weeks ago. We were under budget.”
- Friday, March 7, 2014 - 5:00pm
Change doesn’t always come quickly at an institution as big and venerable as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But advocates for agricultural research were pleased this week when the White House budget request included $75 million for three new research institutes. The announcement comes in the first budget request possible after a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended the idea as part of an approach to stimulating more innovation in agricultural research.
“This is a very exciting moment for us in agricultural research,” says Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an author of the PCAST report. “We’ve been heard.”
The plans for the institutes, which are not yet fully sketched out, were inspired by research hubs undertaken by the Department of Energy (DOE) and public-private partnerships, such as energy company BP’s investment at the University of California, Berkeley. If approved by Congress, each institute would receive $25 million a year (ideally for 5 years) that would be used to stimulate research relevant to companies and the public.
PCAST argued that there are key challenges and opportunities in agriculture that don’t offer immediate financial incentives for companies to invest in research, but for which science is likely to help create solutions. Creating collaborations between industry scientists, government researchers, and academics can stimulate these new ideas and products, the committee concluded. PCAST recommended USDA fund six institutes and tap expertise at other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, DOE, and the National Institutes of Health, the committee said. Continue Reading
- Friday, March 7, 2014 - 4:30pm
Has the cull begun? New data show that after remaining more or less steady for a decade, the number of investigators with National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding dropped sharply last year by at least 500 researchers and as many as 1000. Although not a big surprise—it came the same year that NIH’s budget took a 5% cut—the decline suggests that a long-anticipated contraction in the number of labs supported by NIH may have finally begun.
Although NIH publicizes the number of grants it funds each year, it does not routinely disclose the number of principal investigators—the leaders of the labs these grants support. But in response to a request from ScienceInsider, NIH shared these data for two sets of grants: research project grants (RPGs), which include all research grants, and R01 equivalents, a slightly smaller category that includes the bread-and-butter R01 grants that support most independent labs.
These data show that despite minimal budget growth at NIH since a 5-year doubling ended in 2003, the number of investigators with R01-equivalent grants has held steady at about 22,000. (That number does not necessarily include researchers who received funding from a $10 billion, one-time spending boost that NIH got as a result of stimulus programs designed to combat the recession.)Continue Reading
- Friday, March 7, 2014 - 11:00am
The U.S. Senate yesterday confirmed former astronaut and earth scientist Kathryn Sullivan as the 10th administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency issued a press release to mark the voice vote, and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who leads NOAA’s parent department, issued a statement saying she was “pleased” with the move.
President Barack Obama nominated Sullivan for the job this past August. Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space, “[y]et despite her ample qualifications and obvious acumen, she may well look back and find that training for her space walk was easier than preparing to take the helm of NOAA,” write Michael Conathan and Shiva Polefka of the Center for American Progress in a blog post outlining "The Top 5 Challenges Facing the New NOAA Administrator." “By any estimation, NOAA faces massive challenges,” they write, “from the sequestration-worsened budget crunch crimping the entire federal government’s ability to carry out its congressional mandates, to the global climate crisis, to fishery management dilemmas threatening one of the nation’s oldest commercial industries.”Continue Reading
- Wednesday, March 5, 2014 - 11:30am
A new, deadly H5N8 strain of avian influenza penetrated the biosecurity defenses of a National Institute of Animal Science (NIAS) campus, prompting authorities to cull all of the facility's 11,000 hens and 5000 ducks.
The devastating loss could set back poultry experiments at the NIAS lab for 2 years. "It will likely to take up to 95 weeks to fully rebuild [the flocks] and resume normal research," says Kim Sung-Il, head of the contingency team at the Rural Development Administration, which oversees NIAS. Kim adds that the institute, which studies breed improvement and animal husbandry techniques, will reconstitute its flocks from birds kept at other facilities.
A wild goose that died of the virus was found 10 kilometers from NIAS's Suwon campus, near Seoul, on 1 February. The entire NIAS staff went to work disinfecting and shoeing away wild birds at the three centers that keep poultry. Despite those efforts, 30 ducks were found dead on 2 March at the Cheonan campus, 85 kilometers south of Seoul. The next day, authorities confirmed the cause of death as H5N8 avian influenza. NIAS immediately initiated culling, which was completed on 4 March.
- Tuesday, March 4, 2014 - 10:30pm
President Barack Obama on Tuesday released a $3.901 trillion budget request to Congress, including proposals for a host of federal research agencies. The unveiling is just the beginning of the annual budget process; Congress will now chew on the proposal and is likely to ignore many of the White House's suggestions. Still, the budget request offers insight into the White House's research priorities and can play an important role in negotiating final spending levels for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins 1 October.
ScienceInsider has been combing through the document, and the stories below report some of what we found on the first day. Come back for more stories this week on research spending.Posted In:
- Tuesday, March 4, 2014 - 5:45pm
Human genome sequencing pioneer J. Craig Venter has jumped with both feet into biomedical sequencing with his latest venture, Human Longevity Inc., "a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company" that should be up and running by summer. Its ultimate goal: promote healthy aging.
Speaking at a telephone press conference today, the founder and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute headquartered in San Diego, California, announced that the new company has $70 million in startup funds to build the largest human genome sequencing center in the world. Its ability to read DNA will surpass even the sequencing powerhouse BGI in China, Venter says. The firm plans to acquire 20 of the new million-dollar sequencing machines from Illumina, which, when running at full capacity, should bring the cost of generating a human genome down to $1000. "Their new technology finally crosses the threshold that I've been waiting for in terms of quality, volume, and cost," says Venter, who points out that deciphering his genome in 2007 took $100 million and 9 months.
To date, beyond limited success tying certain tumor genetic profiles to prognosis and treatment, genome sequencing of individuals rarely provides a clear guide for doctors. But by pooling "everything we can measure" with clinical data, Venter hopes patterns will emerge that will be predictive of disease and of what treatments or preventive actions will be most beneficial. “Genomics is only a small part of the picture,” Venter stresses. Still, Human Longevity plans to sequence 40,000 genomes a year at first, with the goal of having a half-million or more within 5 years.
- Monday, March 3, 2014 - 6:45pm
At 10 a.m. Monday morning, while most of Washington, D.C., lay quietly under a blanket of snow, the U.S. Supreme Court rang with nerve-wracking arguments over the fate of Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall.
The question at hand was whether Hall, who in 1978 helped assault and murder a 21-year-old woman, is intelligent enough to merit the death sentence. The court's decision could set new national standards for assessing the mental capacities of death row inmates. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing people who are intellectually disabled qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional, but it left individual states to establish their own means of assessing a defendant's level of impairment.
Since the 2002 ruling, Florida has opted for a strict definition of intellectual disability as having a score of 70 or below on tests that measure a person’s IQ. The state says that Hall's average score puts him above a "bright line" of 70, and therefore makes him eligible to be executed. But Hall's lawyers and mental health organizations, including the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association, argue that Hall's assessment does not include the standard 5-point margin of error built into the design of the test. If that uncertainty is considered, Hall would not be eligible for the death penalty, they argue.
- Monday, March 3, 2014 - 3:00pm
George Gollin faces an uphill battle in his campaign for Congress. A particle physicist from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), he has never run for public office. In contrast, his chief opponent in the 18 March Democratic primary is Ann Callis, a veteran county judge who has been anointed by the party’s leadership as their best bet to topple freshman Representative Rodney Davis (R–IL) in the November general election.
But Gollin, 60, isn’t backing down. Labeling himself a “scientist, teacher, watchdog” and bolstered by contributions from scientists and educators from around the country, Gollin hopes to convince voters in this swing district in central Illinois that a “progressive” Democrat who has spent his career “analyzing tough problems and fixing things that are broken” deserves their vote.
He’s also embracing the reality that he’s David against a political Goliath. His first television ad, a 30-second spot intended to introduce him to voters, shows the U.S. hockey team beating the heavily favored Soviet squad in the 1980 Olympics as the announcer proclaims, “Do you believe in miracles?” The miracle is changing Washington, Gollin explains. But the words could also suggest that Gollin knows he’s bucking long odds.Posted In: