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- 17 April 2014 12:48 pm , Vol. 344 , #6181
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- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 4:16pm
Cora Marrett has been appointed acting deputy director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, effective 18 January. She replaces Kathie Olsen, who has been reassigned to work in the Office of Information and Resource Management as a senior adviser. As a political appointee, Olsen had submitted her resignation to the outgoing Bush Administration and would have had to leave her post by 20 January. The move keeps her at NSF.
NSF Director Arden Bement announced the job changes today in separate staff memos. He praised Marrett's "willingness to take on such an important leadership role" and said that Olsen would help improve NSF-wide management practices "in areas such as strengthening merit review and interdisciplinary research processes, workforce planning, Program Officer training and development, and succession planning."
Marrett has been head of the education and human resources directorate since February 2007, her second executive management stint at NSF. Trained as a sociologist, she came to NSF from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she was a senior vice president for academic affairs. Her appointment takes effect on Sunday.
Olsen has been deputy director since August 2005, coming from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she had been associate director and deputy director for science. She joined NSF in 1984 and went to work for NASA in 1997, where she served as chief scientist and later acting associate administrator for biological and physical research.
From Marrett's NSF bio:
Dr. Marrett has served as the Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources (EHR) at NSF since February 2007. During her tenure, she has led NSF's mission to achieve excellence in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels and in both formal and informal settings. Dr. Marrett also served as the first Assistant Director for NSF'sContinue Reading
- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 4:15pm
[Editor's note: the following text has been corrected in italics.]
The only funds directed towards the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the House of Representative’s draft stimulus package is include $600 million specifically targeting satellite and sensor development. (It's a little ridiculous to use a word like "only" in that sentence, but in a $550 billion spending package ... see new text after the jump) But Terry Schaff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts says the funding for space based Earth monitoring could revolutionize ocean science as a whole if Congress were to pass it and the president signed the bill.
The reason is that the skyrocketing costs of equipping and launching satellites has crippled the science components elsewhere within NOAA’s $3.9 billion budget. "This is a huge deal. If they can offload the satellite stuff with the stimulus package, that releases enormous budget pressure within the agency for other research at NOAA." Ocean and atmospheric researchers also stand to benefit from another pot of funds being doled out to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The House proposes to give National Institute of Standards and Technology $300 million for a competitive grant program aimed at creating new science and research buildings at colleges and universities. But the grants wouldn’t go just to support NIST-backed research, such as work on advanced atomic clocks. It would support all the missions of the Commerce Department, home to both NIST and NOAA. NIST first ran the competitive grants program last year, doling out three grants for a total of $24 million. Two of those, in fact, went for NOAA-type work on marine ecosystem sensing and an aquatic animal health facility. Only one went for a NIST-related center on quantum measurement. Ninety applications didn’t make the cut. SoContinue Reading
- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 3:40pm
Facilities are a big focus of the House stimulus bill, the thinking being that scientific construction provides jobs now and offers intellectual investment for the future. Thus more spacious lab facilities may be on the way at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if the bill passes. Congress is proposing a $462 million boost for the agency, which currently has an $8.8 billion budget. The money would go to several new buildings planned long before the bill was written, as well as facilities currently under construction.
An epidemiology research facility at the Atlanta headquarters, slated to be a sprawling 323,000 square feet, would get $71 million, while two CDC buildings in Chamblee, Georgia, would get $127 million each. One will be a research facility for birth defects, genomics, and other developmental disabilities, and the second will support chronic disease prevention, says Thomas Skinner, a CDC spokesperson. The rest of the money would be spent to replace facilities at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to finish construction of an infectious disease lab in Fort Collins, Colorado.
If the construction projects come to fruition, the buildings will be filled with existing CDC staff, many of whom are now working in labs built 40 or 50 years ago. The money "will definitely allow us to complete our master plan" of revamping CDC's facilities, says Skinner.Continue Reading
- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 3:32pm
Yesterday's announcement of methane on Mars--a possible byproduct of life--could influence where NASA's next rover touches down, according to an agency official. One possible target is Nili Fossae, a once-water-rich area that had been in contention until its relatively high altitude put the kibosh on it.
The years-long landing site selection process--open to any planetary scientist--had whittled down a list of sites to seven and then to four, all with the guidance of mission engineers. All of the finalists showed signs of once-flowing water or water-altered minerals. Nili Fossae was a favorite for its clays, which are products of water alteration. Scientists were to pass a single recommended site up the management chain for a final decision this spring by NASA Associate Administrator Edward Weiler.
At yesterday's press conference, NASA's Mars program lead scientist, Michael Meyer, explained that Nili Fossae had been axed because its high altitude made landing problematic. But that was before NASA had to delay the Mars Science Laboratory, a classically ambitious mission whose high-tech instruments and landing system pushed its launch date back to late 2011. It was also before the methane discovery placed Nili Fossae close to one of three sources of the gas. "Adding potential landing sites is possible," said Meyer. "Nili Fossae is not ruled out."Posted In:
- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 3:18pm
Stem cell supporters are in a frenzy over the coming change in presidential policy and have been holding press conferences abrim with enthusiasm, if not content. But at a meeting today at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, D.C., held to release a report called A Life Sciences Crucible, some differences emerged on how the new Administration should proceed in normalizing stem cell research and sheltering it from the political winds that have buffeted it during the Bush Administrations.
CAP wants President-elect Barack Obama to swiftly issue an Executive Order erasing the Bush restrictions, and for Congress to pass a bill that explicitly allows federally funded researchers access to human embryonic stem cell lines derived after August 2001.
But Amy Comstock Rick, head of the patient-oriented Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, warned that it's important how the Executive Order is worded. Executive Orders can come and go, she noted, so this one shouldn't be used to spell out criteria for research. Rather, she said the order should simply put the whole subject "back where it belongs"--in NIH's capable hands. By the same token, she said, her group opposes passing a new law which she said would not be "conducive to flexible decision making."
CAP is also calling for a special working group for clinical research using embryonic stem cells to be created within NIH's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research disagrees with that, too. It's just another layer of national oversight on subjects that should be left to existing institutional oversight committees, said Rick. "Separate special structures" to oversee stem cell research still smack of political motivations.
Looks like the shouting may have subsided in the world of stem cell politics, but it's far from over.Continue Reading
- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 2:16pm
Officials at the National Science Foundation are still pinching themselves over the agency's high profile in the $825 billion package of proposed tax cuts and new spending that Democrats introduced in the House of Representatives yesterday. The basic research agency is slated to get a $3 billion temporary bump up--half its current $6 billion budget--to spend in the next 20 months on research, training, instrumentation, and infrastructure projects. If the money materializes, the challenge for NSF officials will be to avoid a boom-and-bust cycle like the one being endured by its much larger sister agency, the National Institutes of Health.
The size of NSF's increase makes it the biggest winner, on a percentage basis, of any research agency mentioned in the economic recovery plan. The money, if it survives scrutiny by both houses of Congress, would push NSF far beyond even the lofty spending levels authorized under the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which projected a 7-year doubling of NSF's budget. "It's an incredibly positive message from [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Appropriations Committee Chair David] Obey about the value of basic science in contributing to economic recovery. It's unbelievable," says Anthony Gibson of NSF's congressional affairs office.
While most of the stimulus package targets specific programs at various agencies, Democratic leaders gave NSF officials a free hand in deciding how to spend most of the money. The biggest single chunk, $2 billion, would go to NSF's six research directorates for ongoing and new activities. By comparison, its education directorate would receive an additional $100 million with short strings attached: $60 million to expand the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program to attract undergraduates into science and math teaching, and $40 million under the Math and Science Partnership program for university-based school reform efforts.
The rest of the money, some $900Continue Reading
- Friday, January 16, 2009 - 11:36am
Space program critics often complain that spending money on space doesn't benefit people stuck within the confines of this planet. But in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, Congress is not buying that logic. As part of the stimulus package, a House of Representatives panel proposed yesterday to give a $250 million boost to the space agency's efforts to understand changes in the planet's climate. That money would go to a variety of specific instruments, from a sensor to measure the impact of solar irradiance to a thermal infrared sensor that can be used to manage water resources. The funding would also go to restarting a new set of climate missions, an idea backed last year by a National Research Council study. That study harshly criticized the Bush Administration for letting Earth science projects play second fiddle to space science. And the money would provide 2,600 jobs, the House report notes. An additional $150 million would go to NASA's aeronautics research program (adding 1,000 jobs), which the Bush Administration has cut severely in recent years. Another $50 million would go to fixing NASA facilities damaged during a series of ferocious hurricanes which struck space agency centers in the last 2 years. That work, NASA says, will also create 440 jobs.Continue Reading
- Thursday, January 15, 2009 - 6:03pm
... is budget analysis ace Kei Koizumi of AAAS. And not just because he works for the same company as ScienceInsider, and his office is downstairs.
His initial take on the House-proposed stimulus package is a must-read:
The draft stimulus appropriations bill contains $13.3 billion in R&D funding, $9.9 billion for the conduct of research and development and $3.4 billion for R&D facilities and large research equipment, mostly extramural. Adding in another $2.5 billion in non-R&D but science and technology-related funding brings total science and technology-related funding in the stimulus to nearly $16 billion. There is also additional money for higher education construction and other education spending of interest to academia.
The bill requires nearly all of the funding to be awarded within 120 days of when the President signs the bill into law, with staggered deadlines of 30 days for formula funds, 90 days for competitive grants, and 120 days for competitive grants in brand-new programs, with the intention of spending the funding as quickly as possible to provide immediate economic stimulus.
But in a nod to concerns about possible waste and fraud in the enormous appropriations bill, there are extensive accountability and transparency mandates in the bill, including separate appropriations for agency inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to monitor stimulus spending, a set-aside within programs for oversight spending, and the establishment of a new Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board to monitor and oversee all spending. There will also be a recovery.gov web site to provide detailed public disclosure of stimulus spending.
Key R&D funding agency highlights of the bill include:
National Science Foundation (NSF) - $3.0 billion (note: FY 2008 total budget $6.0 billion). There would be $2.5 billion for Research and Related Activities (R&RA), $100 millionContinue Reading
- Thursday, January 15, 2009 - 5:44pm
Last year, Louisiana passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that many scientists and educators said was a thinly veiled attempt to allow creationism and its variants into the science classroom. On Tuesday, the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted a policy that sharpens those fears, giving teachers license to use materials outside of the regular curriculum to teach "controversial" scientific theories including evolution, origins of life, and global warming. Backers of the law, including the Louisiana Family Forum, say it is intended to foster critical thinking in students. Opponents insist its only purpose is to provide a loophole for creationists to attack the teaching of evolution.
"We fully expect to see the Discovery Institute's book, Explore Evolution, popping up in school districts across the state*," says Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, is a proponent of Intelligent Design. In a statement on the institute's Web site, its education analyst Casey Luskin hailed the new policy as a "victory for Louisiana students and teachers." The policy will now be printed in the Louisiana Handbook for School Administrators, which public school officials use as a guide.
State education officials tasked with translating last year's law into policy drafted a document that explicitly prohibits teachers from teaching intelligent design, but on 2 December, board members deferred a scheduled vote. Forrest says the advocates of the law used the delay to pressure education officials to remove that language and a disclaimer saying that religion should not be taught under the guise of critical thinking. On 13 January, the 11-member board unanimously approved a policy that contains no such caveats.
Education officials have defended the revision, arguing that it already includes language barring the use of materialsContinue ReadingPosted In:
- Thursday, January 15, 2009 - 12:58pm
House Democrats today unveiled an $825 billion plan to boost the U.S. economy that includes $10 billion for research and instrumentation and another $6 billion to modernize academic laboratories. A 13-page summary of the package proclaims that "we need to put scientists to work looking for the next great discovery, creating jobs in cutting-edge technologies, and making smart investments that will help businesses in every community succeed in a global economy."
Details of the proposal, which was developed in cooperation with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team and introduced this morning by Representative David Obey (D-WI), chair of the House appropriations committee, include:
National Science Foundation: $3 billion, including $2 billion for expanding employment opportunities in fundamental science and engineering to meet environmental challenges and to improve global economic competitiveness, $400 million to build major research facilities that perform cutting edge science, $300 million for major research equipment shared by institutions of higher education and other scientists, $200 million to repair and modernize science and engineering research facilities at the nation's institutions of higher education and other science labs, and $100 million is also included to improve instruction in science, math, and engineering.
National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research: $2 billion; including $1.5 billion for expanding good jobs in biomedical research to study diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, and heart disease (NIH is currently able to fund less than 20% of approved applications); and $500 million to implement the repair and improvement strategic plan developed by the NIH for its campuses.
University Research Facilities: $1.5 billion for NIH to renovate university research facilities and help them compete for biomedical research grants. The National Science Foundation estimates a maintenance backlog of $3.9 billion in biological science research space. Funds are awarded competitively.
Centers for Disease Control andContinue Reading
- Thursday, January 15, 2009 - 12:15pm
The appointment of a new NASA administrator typically comes months after the 20 January swearing-in of a new president. But Washington insiders say that President-elect Barack Obama may name his choice for the space chief before he takes the oath of office on Tuesday. The current leading candidate, retired Air Force Major General Jonathan Scott Gration, is an unknown in the space community. But the former fighter pilot became a key military adviser to the Obama campaign after he retired in 2006.
While that familiarity may eventually be a boon to NASA, Gration's name has already generated some criticism on Capitol Hill. "I think President Bush made a mistake when he appointed someone without NASA experience in Sean O'Keefe to head the agency," Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said yesterday, referring to the predecessor of current agency chief Mike Griffin. Nelson, a longtime space advocate who flew on the space shuttle, added that he hopes Obama will choose someone familiar with NASA.Continue Reading
- Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - 4:10pm
PARIS--Few criminal investigations go on so long that one of the accused dies of old age, and fewer draw upon the opinions of someone soon to win a Nobel Prize, but a court case in which both happened ended here today. Three French judges rejected charges of involuntary homicide and aggravated fraud against six doctors and pharmacists, which may end a stunningly prolonged investigation centering on the distribution of human growth hormone apparently contaminated with deadly prions.
The hormone had been isolated from cadavers, and much of the trial centered on whether appropriate purification standards were used, an issue that resulted in several prominent scientists being called to the witness stand. The Pasteur Institute, located here, which was involved in purifying the hormone, had already been fined by a civil court that held it responsible for the contamination, but whether someone had done anything criminal remained an open matter.
The defendants' acquittals today come more than 25 years after high-risk batches of the hormone were administered to 968 children in France and 18 years after the criminal investigation began. (Science's original stories from the early 1990s are available here and here.) So far, 117 of the youngsters have died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the human form of mad cow disease, and three more have recently shown symptoms.
For virologist Luc Montagnier, a witness in the trial and a winner of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, the ruling arouses concern. "I fear we may have not learned any lessons from this case and will face other and bigger public health scandals in the absence of adequate scientific and medical caution over the effects of new treatments on young people and future generations," he says.
In 1980, Montagnier recommended a series of precautions to be taken in the gatheringContinue Reading
- Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - 2:44pm
"Science, science, science, and the rule of law," demanded Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at the confirmation hearing today for Lisa Jackson, the presumptive head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, got what she wanted: a firm statement by Jackson that she will use science to guide her decisions on environmental policy and regulation.
Jackson's response after the jump.
Reading from a prepared statement, Jackson said:
Science must be the backbone of what EPA does. The environmental and public-health laws Congress has enacted direct the EPA administrator to base decisions on the best available science. EPA's addressing of scientific decisions should reflect the expert judgment of the Agency's career scientists and independent advisors.
If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide. I understand that the laws leave room for policy-makers to make policy judgments. But if I am confirmed, political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA's technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.
There's some wiggle room in there, of course (see "guide" and "policy judgments"). Stephen Johnson, who has headed EPA since 2005, used those terms to justify regulatory decisions that environmentalists said favored industry over public health. And many suspected that Johnson was simply following orders from the White House's Office of Management and Budget. When Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) asked how Jackson would resolve a conflict with OMB, Jackson said she'll make up her own mind on regulations.
Under questions, Jackson made some promises, such as to quickly reassess the hazards posed by hundreds of coal ash dumps across the country and "immediately" revisit EPA's denial of California's petition to clamp down on auto emissions.
On a lighter note, Jackson also pledged to visit climate change skepticContinue Reading
- Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - 11:56am
The National Science Board--the body that oversees the National Science Foundation--is so worried about the state of math and science education in U.S. schools that it sent President-elect Barack Obama a letter this week that lays out six ways to improve. But if yesterday's Senate hearing on the nomination of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education is any guide, the issue is low on the list of education priorities for both Congress and the Obama Administration.
Duncan, now CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was greeted warmly by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and he's expected to be confirmed without opposition. Members from both parties praised his efforts to reform the nation's third-largest school system and eagerly sought his advice on preschool programs, junk food, childhood obesity, high school dropout rates, higher teacher salaries, vocational training, and paying for and completing college. The only time science and math education came up during the 2-hour hearing, however, was when Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) informed the 44-year-old Chicago native that he expected "a yes answer" to all the questions he was about to pose. So when Roberts asked if Duncan supported improving the science and math skills of all students, the school chief dutifully replied, "Yes, sir."
In its 11 January letter to the Obama transition team, the National Science Board went into considerably more detail, imploring the next president to support developing national standards on what students need to learn, paying science and math teachers market salaries, and increasing funding for education research. At the same time, the board also recommended a "public awareness campaign" similar to those waged on such public health issues as eating right and getting enough exercise. Food for thought, you could say.Continue Reading
- Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - 11:24am
Wire services are carrying the news of the end of France's trial of six people accused of distributing contaminated human growth hormone, a nearly 2-decade-old case that saw science play a central role and scientists called as expert witnesses. Science will bring you more details soon. Here's the Reuters lead:
A French court on Wednesday acquitted all six defendants on trial over the distribution in the 1980s of growth hormones contaminated with the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
The court ruled it was impossible to be certain the doctors and pharmacists on trial were aware of the risk of contamination by CJD, which was little known at the time.
The brain-wasting disease causes rapid dementia and death and most of the 117 infected victims so far have been children. The three most recent deaths occurred in 2008.
The trial began on Feb. 6 last year after a 17-year investigation. The doctors and pharmacists were facing charges of aggravated deception, manslaughter and causing unintentional injury.Continue Reading
- Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - 10:50am
For senators cross-examining physicist Steven Chu yesterday at his confirmation hearing to become secretary of the $24 billion Department of Energy, one thing was clear: The pick was a real indication of how different the Obama Administration's energy policies will be from those of the Bush era. Chu listed the dangers of climate change before the importance of energy security in his opening statement and had called coal his "worst nightmare."
Chu mostly sailed through the hearing, and Republican as well as Democratic members of the energy panel said he would have little trouble getting confirmed once Obama was officially inaugurated. The praise was effusive. "Keen scientific mind" (Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico). "His determination is infectious" (Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who declared that Chu and his wife Jean were friends).
But Democrat Byron Dorgan of coal-rich North Dakota reminded Chu that he controls the appropriations subcommittee that determines the Department of Energy budget and that the two of them would be working together for the foreseeable future. "So be nice," he told Chu. He then pressed Chu to give context to his "nightmare" quote. Chu's response: "If we use coal the way we're using it today, then it is a pretty bad dream." Chu emphasized that the key is making coal plants able to pump their carbon emissions into the ground.
The hearing yielded plenty of details about what to expect in Obama's Administration. Chu wants to expand federal energy efficiency research programs, which have long received less emphasis from the Department of Energy than efforts to put solar panels on roofs or build windmills. He would continue controversial programs to study the reprocessing of nuclear waste but at a much slower pace than the Bush Administration had tried.
- Tuesday, January 13, 2009 - 3:57pm
The stem cell community is stirred up with the news that after all the trouble U.K. scientists went to to persuade the government to let them make "hybrid" embryos, they can't get funding to do the work. The technique offers a potential way to generate genetically tailored cells without destroying human embryos. Three groups got licenses last year to cultivate embryos by inserting human DNA into animal eggs. Last fall, two of them failed to get funding for the work. The third group hasn't applied yet (subscription required).
From The Independent:
People reviewing grants may be looking at this from a completely different moral perspective and how much that has influenced people's perception about whether this should be funded, we don't know," said Professor Stephen Minger of King's College London.
Minger (pictured) told Science, however, that he thinks the "very competitive funding environment" led to the decision by the Medical Research Council reviewers. He also points out that his group would have needed £100,000, a major investment for the U.K. government, just for equipment.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, January 13, 2009 - 2:36pm
As predicted yesterday in a ScienceInsider preview, the European Parliament voted this morning to approve proposed legislation revising pesticide regulations, despite intense last-minute lobbying by farmers and researchers concerned about crop yields and the development of resistance to remaining pesticides. Scientists are already reacting against the decision. "There is a real concern that this decision reflects the continued dissemination of opinions based on half-truth, misunderstanding, and deliberate misrepresentation. This decision is not supported by the current state of the science,” says toxicologist Alan Boobis, at the Imperial College London, in one of several critical comments released by the U.K. Science Media Centre.
The new legislation, expected to result in the banning of up to 23% of currently approved pesticides, will be gradually implemented and will supersede the old regulations over the next 10 years.Continue Reading
- Tuesday, January 13, 2009 - 3:00am
Agricultural experts in Africa say the continent faces a crisis of depleted soil and they're hoping that a detailed, high-tech map of soil quality will help them solve the problem. This morning at an event in Nairobi, Kenya, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture announced that it will lead the $18 million effort. Most of the money will come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
That price tag sounds almost too good to be true for a map of soil conditions on every hectare of land in sub-Saharan Africa. But Don Doering, project coordinator at the Gates Foundation, says new technology makes it possible. Researchers will first analyze samples of soil from 60 "sentinel sites" across the continent. Each such site—represented by red dots on the map to the left—covers 100 square kilometers. Then, with the help of computer models, scientists will extrapolate to the rest of the continent, predicting soil conditions based on such factors as elevation, how much the land is sloping, and whether it's covered with vegetation.Posted In:
- Monday, January 12, 2009 - 2:31pm
Another Bushie is on her way out: Julie Gerberding has resigned as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a post she’s held for more than 6 years. She’ll be replaced temporarily by CDC’s Chief Operating Officer Bill Gimson, until President-elect Barack Obama appoints a permanent chief, expected soon.
Gerberding was a tumultuous figure during a tumultuous time at CDC. She led the $8.8 billion public health agency through rocky seas, helping to carve out a new role in detecting and responding to bioterror attacks following 11 September and the anthrax mail attacks; coordinating with other countries to stem SARS, the fast-spreading and obscure virus that hit China; conducting research into avian flu and managing public fears about an outbreak; and promoting disease prevention, such as for obesity. But Gerberding also had to beat back a number of vocal critics upset by her major restructuring of the agency, known as the Futures Initiative.
In an unusual move, five former CDC directors sent Gerberding a letter in December 2005 expressing “great concern” about morale at the agency and losses of key scientific staff. Ten months later in an interview with Science, she defended her actions and argued that “we have to grow new science at CDC” while keeping up with top-notch surveillance and epidemiology.
“Her tenure’s been challenging in many ways,” says James LeDuc, who spent 14 years at CDC before leaving at the end of 2006 to join the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. But those who know the agencies say that things have settled down a bit at CDC in the last couple years. And,Continue Reading
- Monday, January 12, 2009 - 12:15pm
Those wringing their hands about the state of science at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can breathe a little easier, as things seem to be looking up. A well-respected oncologist and cancer biologist will be acting chief of the agency after current head Andrew von Eschenbach steps down next week. Filling the new post of chief scientist, Frank Torti came to FDA in May from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he headed up the cancer center. The agency created the chief scientist position at the urging of the Institute of Medicine, which had expressed concerns about FDA’s research capacity and handling of scientific issues.
It's unknown whether Torti is a candidate for the permanent spot. But for the time being, scientists will be cheered by the selection of the new boss. In his brief time at FDA, Torti has created a new fellowship program for physicians and scientists, and reportedly was a driving force behind the review of the safety of bisphenol-A (BPA) in plastics. It’s not clear how much headway Torti has made on the culture of science at FDA, where reviewers have complained that their concerns about drug and device safety are often squelched.
“He’s very forward-thinking and strategic,” and “very close to the practice of both medicine and basic science,” which should serve him well as acting commissioner, says Barbara McNeil, who chairs FDA’s Science board and is a physician and health care policy expert at Harvard. She’s particularly pleased that Torti is “making efforts to make sure that there is a lot of external input from outside FDA” to help the agency prioritize what toContinue Reading
- Monday, January 12, 2009 - 11:19am
The European Parliament is set to vote Tuesday on new licensing regulations that could ultimately outlaw up to one-quarter of the pesticides currently on the European market. The legislative changes are prompted by health concerns about pesticides, including their potential to disrupt endocrine systems and kill neurons, but farmers have issued warnings that the ban could devastate crops yields: "E.U. pesticides ban will 'wipe out' carrot crop,” one U.K. newspaper recently declared. While not endorsing such dire warnings of immediate harm, some agricultural scientists have been lobbying against the regulations for another reason: They are worried that any reduction in available pesticides will accelerate the development of resistance among plant pests and pathogens to the remaining agents.">
“The portfolio [of pesticides] that we have is already compromised in some cases by resistance,” says John Lucas of the U.K. agricultural institute Rothamsted Research, who, along with other scientists, recently signed a petition against the new rules. He and his colleagues fear that that pesticide resistance could escalate out of control and turn into an issue as serious as the multiresistant bacteria strains causing havoc in hospitals. “Most of the chemicals that have been introduced to control diseases have, at some point or another, encountered problems of resistance,” Lucas warns.">
The agricultural strategy known as integrated pest management typically requires the use of a wide variety of chemicals. Over the years, agricultural scientists have fought a cat-and-mouse game with insects and plant pathogens, developing new substances as the pests build up resistance to the older ones. One pesticide group at great risk of being banned in Europe is the azoles, compounds used to control plant diseases such as the septoria leaf blotch that attacks wheat. This condition is the most important wheat crop disease in northwest Europe and is caused byContinue Reading
- Friday, January 9, 2009 - 5:38pm
While some fear that the scientific and technical assistance programs to Africa and other developing regions may suffer as a result of the economic downturn, Harvard University's Calestous Juma, an expert on the topic, believes it may have the opposite impact. With the incoming Administration of President-elect Barack Obama promising to devote more resources to developing "green" energy projects and rebuilding infrastructure, Juma says the nation's focus will be more in line with that of most African countries, including his native Kenya—where his hometown near Lake Victoria is not far from the ancestral village of Obama's father.
Also, Juma says, Obama's new science team—which includes John Holdren, Juma's colleague at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has been named to be the White House science adviser, as well as Harold Varmus of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who will co-chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—are all internationally minded and will "think globally."
China is already taking advantage of such shared goals to channel funding and projects into Africa, and Juma believes the United States needs to do the same. Asserting that S&T assistance to the developing world should be measured more in terms of skills imparted rather than dollars spent, Juma says African countries need to do their part by making key structural changes to put more emphasis on research: for example, by bolstering research at universities (most African schools focus entirely on teaching); by encouraging technologically advanced higher education that would keep more talented Africans in their home countries instead ofContinue Reading
- Friday, January 9, 2009 - 5:22am
BEIJING—Last September, two British students on a geophysics expedition in western China ran afoul of local authorities, who confiscated their GPS equipment and fined each student roughly $1450. The incident, which came to light earlier this week after Chinese officials released a statement, offers important lessons for foreign researchers contemplating fieldwork in China.
The Ph.D. student and an undergraduate, both from Imperial College London, were collecting seismic data on the Keping fold-thrust belt in the Aksu-Keping area of western Xinjiang Province. The aim of the work is to understand earthquake and geohazard risk in the foothills of the south Tien Shan range, says Imperial remote sensing specialist Liu Jian Guo, the students’ adviser. The Institute of Crustal Dynamics in Beijing had invited the team to China, but Liu’s group had not obtained a research permit from local authorities. In most other parts of China that might not be a problem, but Chinese security services are keeping an especially close watch on Xinjiang, the site last year of several deadly terrorist attacks attributed to Uyghur separatists.
On 19 September 2008, officials from Aksu Bureau of Land and Resources halted the Imperial team’s research and questioned the students—neither of whom speaks Chinese—for several hours at their hotel. “The students were not threatened and were treated politely,” says Liu, who had been with his wards at the start of fieldwork but had by then returned to London. The students got their equipment back on 28 September and flew home a few days later.
There are several take-home lessons, says William Chang, a U.S. National Science Foundation official who established NSF’s Beijing office.
All international scientists who wish to conduct research should have county-level permits arranged by a Chinese institute, he says, and all sensitive equipment must be operated by Chinese. In China,Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Thursday, January 8, 2009 - 5:48pm
Looks like some scientists at the Food and Drug Administration are doing what they can to influence President-elect Barack Obama's choice of their new boss. Nine scientists have written to Obama’s transition team pleading with him to restructure the agency and lamenting manipulation of scientific data there. The biggest worry cited in the letter has to do with review of medical devices. Obama reportedly has his eye on some candidates who would likely shake up the FDA, including agency critic Steven Nissen and Joshua Sharfstein, who was reportedly the Obama staffer who received the letter.
But even as FDA scientists seek change, the agency is finding itself in hot water for a pricey effort to boost morale. Members of Congress are fuming about the agency’s decision to fork over $1.5 million to a consulting company to improve battered morale, following an independent review citing this as a serious problem at FDA. A slide show designed by the consultants and shown at an FDA retreat reportedly compared senior FDA official Janet Woodcock to Golda Meir (pictured above), a former prime minister of Israel, and Mahatma Gandhi, the Wall Street Journal reports. A call to the FDA for comment went unreturned. A congressional committee has opened an investigation into the spending choice.
(The spelling of Gandhi’s name has been corrected)Continue Reading