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  • By: 
    Constance Holden
    Monday, February 9, 2009 - 10:20am
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    Stem cell researchers are getting restive. Many scientists fully expected that President Barack Obama would sign an executive order reversing the Bush Administration's stem cell policy the minute he took his hand off the Bible. For the past 2 weeks, the word has been that an executive order was imminent. Last week, following a meeting with House of Representatives Democrats, came word that Obama might wait for Congress to repass legislation vetoed by then-President George W. Bush. Obama apparently feels working with Congress to pass legislation on the matter would strengthen the move, but it's unclear why he’s waiting to issue the order, which he promised to do repeatedly on the campaign trail. Another reason might be that the president wanted to get his health team assembled first—a plan that has fallen into disarray with the withdrawal of Tom Daschle as his nominee for HHS secretary.  
              

    Now, almost 3 weeks into the new presidency, two advocacy groups have decided it's time to step up the political pressure. On Friday, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research sent Obama a letter urging Obama to get moving on the executive order. And the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation says it will send out an "action alert" today asking its people to write to the president to tell him how much they are looking forward to that executive order. 

    (Update, 3pm: JDRF's alert is out.)Continue Reading

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    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Saturday, February 7, 2009 - 11:39pm
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    The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has suspended research activities involving biological select agents and toxins. Army officials took the step on Friday after discovering apparent problems with the system of accounting for high-risk microbes and biomaterials at the Fort Detrick, Maryland, facility.

    The lab has been under intense scrutiny since August, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named former USAMRIID researcher Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Although the case never went to trial because of Ivins's suicide on 29 July 2008, FBI officials have claimed that the evidence against him is indisputable and that he carried out the mailings using anthrax stolen from a flask at USAMRIID.

    Officials have begun a complete inventory of all select agents and toxins at the facility. All experiments using select agents will remain suspended until the accounting is finished, which could take several weeks. Several USAMRIID researchers have been grumbling about the decision, which seems to have caught them by surprise, according to a government official not connected to the lab.

    The decision was announced by institute commander Col. John Skvorak in a 4 February memo to employees. The memo, which ScienceInsider has obtained, says the standard of accountability that USAMRIID had been applying to its select agents and toxins was not in line with the standard required by the Army and the Department of Defense. USAMRIID officials believed that a satisfactory accounting involved finding all the items listed on its database; the Army and DOD wanted the converse—that is, all select agents and toxins needed to be matched to the database.

    According to the memo, any materials found without a corresponding record in the database must be reported to the Vice ChiefContinue Reading

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    Lila Guterman
    Friday, February 6, 2009 - 1:42pm
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    A controversial bill about open-access is back on the congressional agenda. The bill would undermine the U.S. National Institutes of Health's requirement that its grantees provide NIH with a copy of their peer-reviewed articles, which NIH makes freely accessible online on the PubMed Central database. Representative John Conyers (D-MI), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, originally proposed the bill last fall, when it received a hearing and plenty of attention. He reintroduced it this week.

    The bill is again provoking strong reactions from both sides of the issue. Supporters argue that NIH's current policy hurts publishers' copyright protection. Critics say it does nothing of the sort and instead provides much-needed public access to the results of federally funded research.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Daniel Clery
    Friday, February 6, 2009 - 12:47pm
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    Those following European science policy would likely raise an eyebrow if they read this article  suggesting that the European Union's research commissioner Janez Potočnik planned to step down to run for the seemingly less lofty position of European Parliament member. Potočnik may have been surprised, too. A spokesperson for him tells ScienceInsider that the minister isn't leaving and even wants to serve a second term.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    John Bohannon
    Friday, February 6, 2009 - 10:54am
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    The great and good of Austrian science are passing around a petition to confront the government over funding cuts announced late last year.


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  • By: 
    Pallava Bagla
    Friday, February 6, 2009 - 8:51am
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    NEW DELHI—India's long nuclear winter has come to end. On Wednesday, the government’s nuclear power utility inked a deal to buy at least two power reactors from France—India’s first major nuclear purchase from the West since it exploded an atom bomb in 1974 and came under international sanctions.

    India intends to quadruple its electricity generation by 2032, from its present capacity of 145 gigawatts. Toward that end, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited agreed to purchase from the French nuclear giant AREVA at least two 1650 MW European Pressurized Reactors, each priced at more than €3.5 billion, with an option for four more later. The reactors will be built at Jaitapur, south of Mumbai, on the coast of the Arabian Sea. “This signifies the first commercial steps to end India's nuclear isolation and to emerge as a responsible nuclear state with advanced nuclear technology,” says computer scientist Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office.

    Sanctions forbidding nuclear commerce with India were formally lifted last September, when the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency amended their rules despite the fact that India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty. AREVA is the first beneficiary of the highly touted Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement. And it won’t be the last, assures Anil Kakodkar, chair of India's Atomic Energy Commission. It’s ”just the beginning,” he says.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Erik Stokstad
    Thursday, February 5, 2009 - 2:57pm
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    The European Commission today approved an action plan that would improve protections for sharks, skates, and rays. "It's an important accomplishment and a useful first step," says Ellen Pikitch, who directs the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. The plan was also welcomed by the conservation group Oceana, which nevertheless called for more action.

    Among the measures, the plan calls for immediately closing loopholes in the regulations on shark finning and determining catch limits according to scientific recommendations.

    The plan also suggests increased spending on data collection about shark catches. As European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Joe Borg said today in Brussels:

    "… the Action Plan places great emphasis on better catch reporting, more investment in data collection and analysis, and extensive observer programs to support the efforts of scientists working in this field."

    Such data will help managers set accurate, protective catch limits and improve understanding of sharks, Pikitch says. But she's disappointed that the better reporting wouldn't begin for at least 3 years. Other actions would also be phased in gradually.

    The measures are up for comment by the European Union’s fisheries ministers in April, after which they would head in the direction of being enacted as national legislation.

    The general need for fishing regulations gets a boost from an analysis in today’s issue of Nature, which found that many countries have shown “dismayingly poor compliance” with the 13-year-old U.N. Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Lila Guterman
    Thursday, February 5, 2009 - 2:43pm
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    Continuing his quest to bring to light researchers' conflicts of interest, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) has introduced an amendment to the stimulus package the Senate is considering that would force the National Institutes of Health to keep a tighter leash on its grantees.

    The legislation requires that for grants of more than $250,000, recipients report the amounts of any significant financial interest of the principal investigator, and explain how a resulting conflict of interest will be managed. Currently, NIH does not require grantees to report dollar amounts of their potential conflicts of interest. Debate on the amendment could happen anytime between now and Saturday.

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    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Thursday, February 5, 2009 - 1:25pm
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    Some biomedical researchers are changing their behavior inside and outside the lab because of concerns that malefactors might misuse knowledge about their research, according to a new survey of U.S. life scientists.

    To the panel that authored the survey report, the finding is at once worrisome and reassuring: worrisome because security concerns seem to be having a chilling effect on collaborations and reassuring because some researchers seem to be doing due diligence—without government regulations—to prevent terrorists from using life sciences research to cause harm. Three-fourths of the 2000 respondents in the survey expressed opposition to new federal oversight mechanisms to improve the security of so-called dual-use biological research.

    Sponsored by the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of ScienceInsider), the survey found that 15% of respondents had taken one or more of the following steps due to security concerns: modified or altogether avoided certain research projects, censored themselves while discussing their work with colleagues, chosen not to collaborate with overseas scientists, and excluded foreign nationals from certain experiments.

    In 2007, the National Scientific Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended to the government that policies governing biosecurity should allow researchers to decide for themselves whether their projects have the potential for dual use. The government has yet to formulate any rules, but researchers at some institutions have already begun considering dual-use issues in consultation with their institutional biosafety committees while planning experiments.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Daniel Charles
    Thursday, February 5, 2009 - 12:03pm
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    The Albuquerque Journal reported yesterday that the Obama Administration is considering transferring control of the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories to the Defense Department from DOE. The newspaper reports that it obtained an internal memorandum from the White House Office of Management and Budget that calls for an analysis of the costs and benefits of such a move. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) says he’ll "fight it tooth and nail." He added in a statement: “Moving the labs from DOE to DOD … would change the fundamental mission and purpose of the labs, and would discourage exactly the kind of science that is now most needed.”Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Thursday, February 5, 2009 - 10:38am
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    ScienceInsider has learned that the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hopes to hold a joint hearing next Thursday on the nominations of John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco for the respective positions as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Holdren has been working since the inauguration as assistant to the president for science and technology, which, unlike the OSTP job, doesn't require Senate confirmation. Both nominees are expected to sail through.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Daniel Charles
    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - 5:03pm
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    Cass Sunstein, the Obama Administration's choice to head a powerful White House office overseeing all federal regulations, hasn't been confirmed yet, but he's already making his presence felt. His fingerprints are all over two recent presidential directives that lay the groundwork for the most far-reaching revision of regulatory policy in 15 years.

    One document, a "presidential memorandum" that was published in the Federal Register yesterday, orders the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to come up with new guidelines for reviewing all proposed government regulations, which cover everything from air-pollution rules to exposure limits on toxic materials in the workplace. The new policy, if approved, would replace an executive order that has been in effect since the early days of the Clinton Administration.

    In his memorandum, President Barack Obama called on OMB to "offer suggestions on the role of cost-benefit analysis" and to "identify the best tools for achieving public goals through the regulatory process." He listed some of those newfangled tools: warnings, disclosure requirements, public education, and economic incentives.

    It's hardly a coincidence that this is exactly what Sunstein recommends in his latest book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which he co-authored with University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler.

    In a second decision, published in the Federal Register today, Obama revoked a controversial Bush-era directive, Executive Order 13422, that was widely seen as imposing greater White House control over regulatory decisions.  

    Michael Livermore, an expert on regulatory policy at New York University's School of Law, says revoking that executive order carried an important symbolic message: "Whatever you thought you knew about regulatory policy—things are going to be different."Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Erik Stokstad
    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - 2:04pm
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    Note: This item has been corrected. It previously cited GAO as the source of the report.

    The Environmental Protection Agency needs an overall plan for its research on climate change, according to a report released Monday by the agency's Inspector General. It's not clear how the agency decides what research to focus on, the IG said. The agency's Office of Research and Development doesn't keep its scientific results in a central repository, nor does it communicate them quickly enough. "ORD’s current climate change research products and plans do not meet users’ needs in timeliness or scope," the report notes.

    EPA spent $36.6 million on climate change research in fiscal year 2008, a tiny fraction of the federal spending in that area. In comments to the IG, agency officials wrote that they intend to issue a memo on research prioritization by the end of the year.

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  • By: 
    Sara Coehlo
    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - 1:53pm
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    With the hope of centralizing research on human and animal diseases in the United Kingdom, the Royal Society today published a policy statement calling for the creation of a National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

    The society’s report says that an "integrated approach to infectious diseases would lead to overall improvements in public health and decrease response times to major outbreaks." This is important when dealing with diseases that can jump the species barrier in a sustained way, says virologist John McCauley of the National Institute for Medical Research, who contributed to the society’s report. He cites, for example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, and different strains of avian influenza as human health concerns that are linked to animal diseases.

    The new NIID would be an umbrella organization to bring together technical know-how, research expertise, and funding on infectious diseases. Currently, animal disease research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whereas human disease is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health

    The Royal Society's statement highlights the key role for infectious disease research of the U.K.’s Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, a research facility built more than 50 years ago that is now showing its age. "The redevelopment of the IAH facility at Pirbright should be a priority," it concludes.

    The report echoes the recommendations of a 2007 review undertaken after a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak was traced to a release of the virus from the Pirbright site. The so-called Anderson report warned at the time that IAH's "governance and funding arrangements are muddled and ineffective" and highlighted the importance of the Pirbright Site Redevelopment Programme, proposed in 2003. At the time, the estimatedContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Eliot Marshall
    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - 10:35am
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    Biomedical research may be headed for a big 2-year boost in the stimulus bill—more than even some lobbyists expected. In debate last night, the Senate agreed by voice vote to an amendment from Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania that would add an extra $6.5 billion to the $3.5 billion already proposed in the Senate's draft bill for the National Institutes of Health. Both the House and the Senate had planned to give NIH $3.5 billion.

    The House version would steer $1.5 billion of the total through NIH's National Center for Research Resources for extramural facilities and equipment, whereas the initial Senate plan put just $300 million in that category. (Both propose $500 million for renovation of NIH campus facilities and the remainder for extramural research.) With last night's amendment, the Senate bill would provide a total of $10 billion for NIH, of which $9.2 billion would go to extramural research. It passed with little debate. Whether that big number will stick in the final bill is anyone's guess. In the past, big increases for NIH proposed in the Senate have resulted in a difference-splitting compromise between the House and Senate. Lobbyist Jennifer Zeitzer of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology says it "will be difficult to keep [the Senate’s] figure" in conference with the House.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Martin Enserink
    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - 7:33am
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    Taking their cue from the angry Iraqi journalist who took aim at then-U.S. president George W. Bush, several hundred French researchers hurled shoes at the Department of Higher Education and Research in Paris to protest hotly contested reforms by research minister Valérie Pécresse. But so far, a call for a national university strike starting this past Monday does not seem to have caught on.

    Strike organizers had hoped that French academic life would come to a standstill, and SNESup-FSU, a major trade union in higher education, boasted that at least 45% of classes were affected by the strike on Monday. But press reports suggest a smattering of actions around the country at best, and the government says there have been “limited and sporadic” disruptions so far. Pécresse said Tuesday that she does not plan to budge.

    Protests movements in France often gather steam slowly, and organizers are hopeful that a series of local demonstrations tomorrow and a national march in Paris on Tuesday will draw more support. They also hope that student organizations will join the protests next week. The other shoe may yet drop.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - 5:58pm
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    Figuring out how much the U.S. government will spend this year on science got a little more complicated today after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said the 2009 spending bills would not be taken up until the end of the month. That’s likely to be after Congress approves billions of dollars for science as part of the stimulus package to be spent over the next 18 months. The convoluted schedule means federal science officials may get news of their windfall before they know how much their base budgets will be for 2009—adding confusion to an already uncertain, if hopeful, federal budget season for researchers. Congress must act by 6 March to extend a temporary spending measure for the fiscal year that began in October.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Eliot Marshall
    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - 5:01pm
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    Elias Zerhouni, the radiologist-researcher who ran the U.S. National Institutes of Health for 6 years until he stepped down in October, is joining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a senior fellow in its global health program. Although generally well-regarded for his leadership by scientists, he was not notably involved in the international policy battles—involving birth control, abortion, and travel to AIDS meetings—that rumbled through the early years of the George W. Bush Administration.

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  • By: 
    Eli Kintisch
    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - 1:33pm
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    As Massachusetts General Hospital and the U.S. Senate investigate conflict-of-interest allegations, Harvard Medical School has named a committee to review its rules governing the conflicts. From The Boston Globe:

    US Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, has accused three Mass. General psychiatrists of not fully disclosing payments they received from drug companies for consulting and other activities. The doctors have said they believed they complied with the rules. Harvard Medical School and Mass. General are conducting their own investigations.

    "The public and regulatory agencies are saying we have to be much more transparent about any relationships faculty have with industry," said Dr. Richard Schwartzstein, a member of the review committee and a pulmonologist at Beth Israel Deaconess. "The trend is to become more and more stringent, there's no question about that."

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  • By: 
    Eli Kintisch
    Monday, February 2, 2009 - 3:39pm
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    The Heinlein Prize Trust is offering a new $25,000 prize for scientists to design microgravity experiments to fly into space in the next 2 years. SpaceX, an innovative commercial space company in Hawthorne, California, last week also announced it will donate experimental payload space on its Dragon spacecraft (below) on an upcoming flight.

    The U.S. space agency has pioneered the use of prizes to boost research before—in competitions on designing lunar landers and a so-called space elevator, for example.

    The Obama Administration may well expand the use of prizes even further. During the presidential campaign, scientists allied with the Obama camp criticized a proposal by Senator John McCain for a $300 million government-sponsored prize for the successful builder of an ultraefficient car battery.  

    But a key member of Obama's fledgling White House science staff, Tom Kalil, has endorsed use of government research prizes, and the new head of the budget office, Peter Orzag, backed their use, where appropriate, in a 2006 paper he co-wrote on inspiring innovation.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Eli Kintisch
    Monday, February 2, 2009 - 3:26pm
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    It's expected that the Obama Administration will nominate one of several big critics of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to run the beleaguered agency. Yesterday, the president signaled in a pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC's Matt Lauer that he is prepared to give the next FDA head wide berth in fixing things:

    MATT LAUER: There’s been a massive peanut butter products recall in this country over the last several weeks. Most of the products track—trace to one plant down in Georgia that has a bit of a history of sending out products even though there have been traces of salmonella found.

    The question—the obvious question people want to know, is the FDA doing its job?

    THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch. And so we’re going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations. I don’t want to prejudge this particular case, but there have been enough instances over the last several years--and at bare minimum we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.

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  • By: 
    Eliot Marshall
    Monday, February 2, 2009 - 11:44am
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    “The greatest risk in periods of tight economic times and tight budgets is to stop taking risks.” That FDR-style aphorism about the need to spend more money on risky science even in hard times—uttered by former U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni—appears in a paper issued Friday by the National Academies, a summary of last month’s so-called Biosummit of biomedical research leaders. The report, which says recommendations will follow, signals the start of an effort to get comment from the field and to draw up a long-term agenda for bioscience later this year.Continue Reading

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    Eli Kintisch
    Friday, January 30, 2009 - 4:48pm
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    The $6 billion National Science Foundation usually flies under the radar here in Washington, D.C., but a kerfuffle involving Internet pornography has angered hard-charging senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). And that's got fans of NSF worried.

    A September 2008 report by the foundation's inspector general listed six cases involving foundation officials viewing pornography at work. In one case, an unnamed "senior official" was found to have viewed pornography at work over 2 years, costing the foundation $58,000 in wasted time. In a statement and subsequent appearances on CNN and Fox News, Grassley questioned whether NSF is fit to manage the $3 billion that the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed giving to it as part of the stimulus package.

    Grassley is not a member of the Senate appropriations committee, so he won't have a direct effect on the fate of that proposed boost. But lobbyists who follow NSF closely worry that Grassley's concerns could sour some lawmakers concerning NSF, which generally enjoys a stellar reputation as a well-run ship. "It's just the absolute wrong time for questions about management at NSF to be coming out,” said one lobbyist. "This is the time to stay out of the newspapers."

    Previously, Grassley has used his perch on the Senate Committee on Finance to investigate everything from megachurches to conflicts of interest among health scientists at U.S. universities. Researchers affiliated with the U.S. National Institutes of Health certainly know the rigor with which the Republican can challenge federal scientists.

    For his part, NSF Director Arden Bement said through a spokesperson that he's not worried about the incidents affecting his organization’s chances to get big boosts as Congress debates what the final level for NSF should be in the stimulus package. "We expect [lawmakers] to focus on stimulus funding for theContinue Reading

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    Eli Kintisch
    Friday, January 30, 2009 - 2:46pm
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    …according to Beryl Lieff Benderly, to help young students who want to pursue scientific careers get ahead and thereby bolster America's stature as a research powerhouse. Politicians who want to boost American researchers may focus on federal money for science, but she says it's an overhaul of the basic research system in the United States that's needed. There have got to be jobs available for students when they leave universities with Ph.D.s, she says, and the current hierarchical system of basic research labs based in universities isn't cutting it:

    Instead of depending for labor on a constant stream of cheap, temporary students and postdoc “trainees,” labs need to establish many long-term positions that offer workers a realistic income commensurate with their education and experience as well as opportunities for advancement within predictable career tracks. A model that many experts favor is staffing labs primarily with bachelors- or masters-level career technicians and PhD-level permanent staff scientists while using much smaller percentages of grad students and postdocs.

    Because these new-style labs would not depend on student labor, they would not need to be in universities. ... Janelia Farm. the Howard Hughes Research Institute’s innovative new research facility in Ashburn, Virginia, eschews university-style hierarchy and places a strong emphasis on employing long-term PhD staff scientists.

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  • By: 
    Martin Enserink
    Friday, January 30, 2009 - 12:19pm
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    Seven so-called neglected diseases just became a little less neglected. This morning, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new $34 million grant in support of a global network that aims to slash rates of easily treatable infectious diseases that affect as many as 1.4 billion poor people.

    While research and treatment budgets for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis have exploded in recent years, many lesser-known tropical diseases have not gotten nearly the same attention—even though their collective disease burden is just as high or higher, and cheap, effective drugs exist for the seven most common ones, says Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., and one of the founders of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

    Part of the grant, announced today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, will be used to help drum up more financial support for the network, Hotez says, while the rest will go to scaling up treatment of the seven infectious diseases in developing countries. The septet includes ascariasis, hookworm, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, trachoma, and trichuriasis.Continue Reading

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