GMTO

Edward Moses

Change is afoot at the offices of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO), which is building one of the world’s largest telescopes. Today the group announced that its president, physicist Edward Moses, is stepping down after less than a year in the job. Moses is leaving to “deal with family matters that require his attention,” according to a statement on the GMTO website.

It’s the second recent high-profile departure from the project. On 9 July the organization announced that Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago was stepping down as chair of the GMTO board after 12 years in the role.  

When completed, the Giant Magellan Telescope will have a mirror 25 meters across, roughly 2.5 the size of today’s top telescopes. When it begins operation in 2024 at Las Campanas in northern Chile, it will join two other giant telescopes that are also just beginning construction: the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii; and the 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) at Cerro Armazones in Chile. The GMT’s huge reflector will be made up of seven large mirrors mounted together, each one 8.4 meters across and weighing 17 tonnes. The other giant two scopes use a segmented mirror approach, their reflectors patched together with a much larger number of hexagonal mirror tiles (798 on the E-ELT and 492 on the TMT), each one independently steerable.Continue Reading »

NIH wants Congress to spend roughly $1 billion per year on Alzheimer’s research.

ZUMA Press/Alamy

NIH wants Congress to spend roughly $1 billion per year on Alzheimer’s research.

From time to time, Congress asks federal science agencies to prepare an expert “bypass budget” that lays out the funding the agency thinks is necessary to meet an important goal. Usually such budgets are purely aspirational, and aren’t included in the White House’s formal budget request to Congress (hence the name; they “bypass” White House budget officials). But lawmakers see the documents as an opportunity to get straight talk from an agency without White House interference. And, occasionally, bypass budgets have helped build political support for shunting new money toward research in areas such as cancer and HIV.

Yesterday, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released the first such bypass budget proposal for Alzheimer’s disease, which is projected to triple in prevalence by 2050. Distilled from discussions at a series of NIH meetings and consortia, the new document requests $1.06 billion for Alzheimer’s research in the 2017 fiscal year that begins 1 October. That’s $323.5 million more than the $737 million the president requested in the formal budget request. The new request, which NIH expects to update yearly, identifies 66 separate “milestones” for the Alzheimer’s community, ranging from research projects into the molecular pathogenesis and physiology of Alzheimer’s to new clinical trials, and studies aimed at caregiver support.

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Jun Wang

BGI

Jun Wang

SHANGHAI, CHINA—Surprising many in the worldwide genomics community, the head of Shenzhen-based sequencing powerhouse BGI stepped down earlier this month. Jun Wang will now concentrate on research into artificial intelligence (AI), the institute announced on 17 July.

Wang, 39, has been with BGI from its 1999 inception as the Beijing Genomics Institute. While still a Ph.D. candidate at Peking University, Wang led the bioinformatics team as BGI completed China's contribution to the Human Genome Project and then sequenced the rice genome on its own. Wang took on additional responsibilities as BGI launched more ambitious projects, including sequencing the giant panda as well as multiple silk worms to identify genes selected for during domestication. He became executive director in 2008 as BGI pushed into providing sequencing services to other research groups, diagnostics, and applications in agriculture. Along the way, BGI moved from Beijing to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen and grew into a global operation, with 5000 employees working at offices scattered around the world.

Wang gained fame throughout the community for his quick decision-making and a willingness to take on ambitious projects, such as an ongoing effort to sequence the genomes of all 10,500 or so bird species.

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Manuel de León

ICMAT

Manuel de León

One of Spain’s star mathematicians was removed from the head of a national research institute over accusations that the center had mismanaged public funds. Manuel de León remains a professor of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) but has lost the directorship of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), a research center run jointly by CSIC and three universities in Madrid.

CSIC has not issued a statement about de León's departure, first reported in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and declined to answer questions the past 2 days. But de León confirms that he has lost his directorship over what CSIC considered inappropriate spending, and ScienceInsider has seen the internal audit reports listing irregularities.

For example, ICMAT paid for computing services in several chunks, each below the €18,000 limit over which the institute would have had to go through a lengthier procurement process. CSIC insiders say that, at least until a few years ago, these practices were “rather common” to work around cumbersome procedures. In addition, the audit flags expenses for the organization of a scientific congress that it says were insufficiently justified, but which de León says were duly authorized at the time.

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Steve Rhodes/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A 2013 demonstration in favor of labeling GMO foods in California.

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved a bill that would block states and localities from requiring mandatory labeling of food made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It would also set up a voluntary federal program for manufacturers to certify foods that don’t contain GMOs.

The bill’s supporters—Republicans, some Democrats, and the food industry—call the bill a science-based effort to balance consumer right-to-know concerns with the need for a uniform national policy. Opponents of the bill, including environmental and food activists and liberal Democrats, argue that it would deny people the right to know what is in their food.

On a 275 to 150 vote, with 45 Democrats joining 230 Republicans, the House approved H.R. 1599, the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act, a measure sponsored by Representative Mike Pompeo (R–KS). The bill’s future in the Senate is unclear and the White House has yet to weigh in. But proponents called it a first step toward a badly needed update to the nation’s food policy in the biotechnology age.

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A large clinical trial that included this child showed that a candidate vaccine offered some protection against malaria.

D. Poland/PATH

A large clinical trial that included this child showed that a candidate vaccine offered some protection against malaria.

You’d think that the first-ever vaccine candidate to protect against malaria would be cause for jubilation. But instead, as data on the candidate, known as RTS,S or Mosquirix, have dribbled out over the past couple of years, it has been greeted with considerable head-scratching and some consternation about whether and how to use it.

The problem is that the vaccine, developed by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in partnership with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, doesn’t work all that well. In a large phase III trial, it reduced episodes of malaria by about one-third in young children in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s well under the 50% efficacy expected at the beginning of the trial, and a far cry from the 95% efficacy vaccine makers dream of, leaving scientists and policymakers asking: How good is good enough?

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The NIST Administration Building on the agency’s campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

© Robert Rathe

The NIST Administration Building on the agency’s campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) appears to have been the unwitting victim of a real-life Walter White, the meth-cooking chemistry teacher in the hit television show Breaking Bad. A weekend explosion at the federal laboratory’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, campus was linked yesterday to the production of methamphetamine, an illegal stimulant often “cooked” in home laboratories. Federal and local law enforcement agencies are now investigating how the explosion happened and whether a NIST security guard injured in the blast might have been involved.

“Just as in any investigation … we’re interviewing possible witnesses and letting the evidence take us just where it should,” said Montgomery County Police Department spokesman Captain Paul Starks, who added that no charges have been filed and no suspects publicly identified.

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Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN)

AMSF2011/FLICKR (CC BY 2.0)

Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN)

Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) today told a National Academies panel examining federal oversight of academic research that he hopes to make reform happen as part of broader legislation to hasten medical advances. The catch: The panel must deliver its recommendations by the end of the summer. That’s a much shorter timetable than the panel had envisioned, but one that it now seems eager to meet.  

Alexander’s offer is not an empty promise: He chairs the Senate panel that oversees both the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the 800-pound gorilla for federally funded basic research, and the Department of Education, which monitors higher education, where most NIH-funded research is performed. The political stars are favorably aligned, Alexander told the Academies’ Committee on Federal Research Regulations and Reporting Requirements, which Congress has asked to look at ways to streamline the process by which institutions comply with federal rules governing research.

Alexander says he is eager to hear the committee’s views on rules affecting the entire scope of federally supported research. But a major driver is to clear the way for finding cures and treatments for dread diseases. “For example, I hear repeatedly that our conflict-of-interest rules [for NIH-funded research] prohibit participation in clinical trials by many of the people who know the most about what is going on,” he told ScienceInsider in comments after his presentation. “It doesn’t protect the public to spend money on administrative costs that would be better spent finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.”

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A new study says that climate-induced feedback loops could lead to a change in ocean stratification and the more rapid melting of ice sheets.

Flickr/mariusz kluzniak (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new study says that climate-induced feedback loops could lead to a change in ocean stratification and the more rapid melting of ice sheets.

Climate scientist James Hansen has fired a new salvo in the climate wars. In a new paper, Hansen and colleagues warn that the current international plan to limit global warming isn’t going to be nearly enough to avert disasters like runaway ice-sheet melting and consequent sea-level rise. Hansen told reporters at a press conference yesterday that he hoped the paper—to be published online this week—would influence global climate talks this December in Paris and encourage negotiators to reconsider their goal of keeping warming to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels, a laudable but insufficient target, some scientists say. But how influential this paper will be is unclear, given its flaws.

The new study, which includes nearly 300 references and is 66 pages long, argues that the 2°C target—hard-won as it might be politically—isn’t good enough, and is in fact “highly dangerous.” At that temperature, the study says, enough ice-sheet melting causes a positive feedback loop that leads to more melting and rising seas. Instead, Hansen and his co-authors say, a far better target would be to return to an atmosphere with 350 parts per million CO2. That number currently stands at about 400 parts per million.

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Chemical biologists hope a new Internet portal will improve information on small, druglike molecules that are used to study protein vital to human health and disease.

Len Rubenstein/The Broad Institute

Chemical biologists hope a new Internet portal will improve information on small, druglike molecules that are used to study protein vital to human health and disease.

Chemists looking to design and test new medicines are awash in a sea of bad data, according to a report released today by an international panel of experts. The panel, made up of researchers from 46 nonprofit institutions, universities, and biotech and pharmaceutical firms, say they are setting up a TripAdvisor-like crowdsourcing portal to disseminate up-to-date information about chemical probes that they see as the heart of the problem.

The issue with faulty chemical probes has been growing rapidly in recent years. These small, druglike molecules are used primarily to block the activity of specific proteins to determine their roles in biochemistry. Ideally, this helps researchers design drug compounds that perform similar functions but retain attributes needed for successful medicines, like nontoxicity and the ability to travel through the human body. Today, thousands of such probes exist. But most of them interact with nontarget proteins as well or have other unwanted “off-target” effects.

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A new report recommends eight steps to bring stability to the U.S. biomedical research workforce and improve the experiences of  young scientists.

NCATS/NIH

A new report recommends eight steps to bring stability to the U.S. biomedical research workforce and improve the experiences of young scientists.

The authors of a new report urging changes in training the U.S. biomedical workforce say they were motivated by a desire for “less talk, more action.” But their prescription for how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should deal with a glut of young scientists demonstrates why the problem has been so hard to solve.

Report after report in recent years has decried the surfeit of young biomedical scientists stuck in seemingly endless years of training and chasing too few academic research positions. In hope of finding consensus, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in Rockville, Maryland, combed through 267 recommendations in nine of these reports from a variety of groups that include the National Academy of Sciences and a group of postdocs. ASBMB pulled out eight suggestions common to most of the reports and presented them today in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

A consensus already exists around many of those recommendations: NIH needs more stable funding and a larger budget, and researchers should face fewer administrative burdens. But provisions aimed specifically at young scientists are more problematic.

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Artist’s conception of Kepler 186f, an Earth-size exoplanet in the habitable zone of its star that might harbor extraterrestrial life.

NASA

Artist’s conception of Kepler 186f, an Earth-size exoplanet in the habitable zone of its star that might harbor extraterrestrial life.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) received a huge shot in the arm today thanks to Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, who will devote $100 million to a much beefed-up 10-year effort to detect signals from other technological civilizations in the universe. The project will make use of two of the world’s largest radio dishes and an optical telescope, and will develop new digital signal processing technology to monitor 10 billion radio frequencies simultaneously. “It’s time to answer the question of whether there is life beyond Earth,” physicist Stephen Hawking told a press conference in London today, where Milner announced the plan.

Milner has amassed a large fortune investing in Web-based companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Spotify, and Groupon. In 2012, he established himself as a benefactor of science through a series of Breakthrough Prizes with individual awards of $3 million, the largest in the world. Today’s “Breakthrough Listen” project aims to quicken the pace of SETI with increased amounts of telescope time, improved technology, and the development of new open-source software to process the huge quantities of data it will produce.

SETI has been going on since 1960, when radio telescopes became sensitive enough to detect signals from another planet if it was broadcasting signals similar to those which our civilization does. Researchers developed devices that could monitor millions of frequencies at once for any signal that looked at all different from that produced by astronomical objects or the natural background. At first funded by universities and NASA, public funding for SETI was axed by Congress in the early 1990s. Since then, the nonprofit SETI League has received funding of a few million dollars a year from private donors.

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AIDS researcher and activist Joep Lange (right) was killed along with his partner and co-worker Jacqueline van Tongeren when Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development/Pharmaccess

AIDS researcher and activist Joep Lange (right) was killed along with his partner and co-worker Jacqueline van Tongeren when Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

AMSTERDAM—One year ago today, the missile attack on Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MH17) ended the life of Joep Lange, a towering figure in the world of HIV/AIDS and global health. But Lange's work will live on in a new institute that aims to bring his characteristic combination of research and on-the-ground action to bear on health problems in developing countries.

The Joep Lange Institute was formally announced on Wednesday, along with a new, rotating chair and fellowship program at the Academic Medical Center, where Lange was a professor and founded the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development. The new institute will open its doors in Amsterdam later this year, supported by some $20 million from various private sources in the United States. A spokesperson declined to name these benefactors but says they will be announced later this year. The Joep Lange Chair and Fellows program will be partly funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Lange died while traveling to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia, along with his partner and co-worker Jacqueline van Tongeren and 296 other people on board MH17. Their plane was shot down in eastern Ukraine while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

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The Cherenkov Telescope Array will consist of 120 telescopes that will search the skies for gamma rays and signs of dark matter.

Airworks

The Cherenkov Telescope Array will consist of 120 telescopes that will search the skies for gamma rays and signs of dark matter.

The world's largest and most powerful gamma-ray observatory looks set to be based in Chile and the Canary Islands, following a decision today by the governing board of the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA). Sites in the Atacama Desert and the island of La Palma—already home to major astronomical facilities—were chosen ahead of rival sites in Namibia and Mexico for the northern and southern portions of the CTA, a €297 million facility that will allow astrophysicists to study some of the most energetic and distant objects in the universe.

The decision came during a 2-day meeting of the CTA Resource Board on 15 and 16 July. The board, made of representatives from 14 of the project’s 31 member countries, did not give final approval for the site selection—that is the job of the CTA Council—but it did vote to start formal negotiations with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which operates the Paranal Observatory in Chile, and Spain.

Chair of CTA Resource Board Beatrix Vierkorn-Rudolph would not tell ScienceInsider how the 14 members voted. But she says it was not an easy decision, since all 4 bidders put forward "very good sites." The selection criteria were many, she explains, including the sites' environmental suitability, scientific potential, and likely cost. But one factor stood out in both cases, she sayshow swiftly construction could get underway once the official green light has been given.

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Ron Fouchier (right) with Yoshi Kawaoka at a 2012 meeting on their work in London.

M. Enserink/Science

Ron Fouchier (right) with Yoshi Kawaoka at a 2012 meeting on their work in London.

AMSTERDAM—For more than 3 years, virologist Ron Fouchier has battled the Dutch government over a fundamental question in the balance between academic freedom and biosecurity: Did he need a government license to publish his hotly debated gain-of-function (GOF) studies on the H5N1 influenza strain?

Yes, a Dutch court ruled in 2013, in a decision that dismayed Fouchier and raised questions about how the publication of sensitive studies is handled in the Eurpoean Union.

Now, the Court of Appeal in Amsterdam has tossed out that verdict. But it's a pyrrhic victory for Fouchier. Rather than ruling on the fundamental issue, the court said Fouchier and his employer—Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, Netherlands—didn't have standing to sue the Dutch government, putting them back at square one.

"I'm disappointed," Fouchier says. "They didn't want to touch the hot potato and passed it on instead."

The Court of Appeal decided the case on 18 June, but released the verdict (in Dutch) only yesterday. In accordance with Dutch judicial practice, all names in the text have been redacted, along with details about the technology and the virus strain that Fouchier used.

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Contestants celebrate their robot’s performance in last month’s DARPA challenge.

John F. Williams/Office of Naval Research

Contestants celebrate their robot’s performance in last month’s DARPA challenge.

As U.S. lawmakers search for ways to incentivize medical breakthroughs, some appear to have their eyes on the prize. A provision in a new biomedical innovation bill passed last week in the House of Representatives would create a new program to launch prize competitions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Some federal agencies have been offering prizes for years, and the 2010 America COMPETES Act officially authorized them to do so. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has run a series of high-profile competitions in robotics and vehicle design since 2004, the latest of which took place last month in California (see photo). The private sector has also embraced the concept, and the 2004 Ansari XPRIZE competition is widely credited with spurring the U.S. commercial space industry. And prizes were central to the discussion this week during a Senate hearing on promoting cures for deadly diseases.

Challenges are an appealing alternative to traditional research grants because “you’re only paying for success,” Christopher Frangione, XPRIZE’s vice president of prize development, told members of the space, science, and competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate commerce committee on Tuesday.  And although grant competitions usually require fully developed proposals written by acknowledged experts, Frangione said, prizes can inspire applicants from outside the academic mainstream. “You’re democratizing innovation,” he said. “As long as you solve the problem, you win.”

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NIH’s Lawrence Tabak describes revised plans to track children’s health.

HOUSE COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM

NIH’s Lawrence Tabak describes revised plans to track children’s health.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is gearing up for a large, long-term study of how environmental factors affect a child’s health. But please don’t call it the National Children’s Study (NCS).

The NCS was launched more than a decade ago at the request of Congress; its goal was to follow 100,000 children from the womb to age 21. But last December, after spending $1.3 billion on planning and pilot testing, NIH Director Francis Collins ended the full NCS before the first child was enrolled. An Institute of Medicine report had found problems with its management, design, and cost, and scientific advisers told NIH the study was not feasible.

Last month, Congress signaled that it wants NIH to try again. Spending panels in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate included $165 million for it in NIH’s budget for 2016, with a House report referring to the NCS Alternative. NIH prefers to call it the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. The new study will focus on four areas of high public health concern: obesity, birth defects and other early outcomes, neurodevelopmental disorders (such as autism and depression), and airway diseases (such as asthma and allergies).

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A 2007 protest denouncing waterboarding as torture; several psychologists guided the method's use on U.S.  military detainees.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

A 2007 protest denouncing waterboarding as torture; several psychologists guided the method's use on U.S. military detainees.

After years of denying that it had given scientific and ethical legitimacy to torture by the U.S. government, the American Psychological Association (APA) last week accepted the finding of an external investigation that concluded it had done just that. Now, with a public apology and sudden wave of high-level resignations or retirements, APA is struggling to craft an institutional response that will satisfy its members and long-time detractors, even as some of those pilloried in the probe defend themselves and their colleagues.

“This is a crisis,” says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta and a former APA president, who helped launch the investigation. “I regret that the organization didn’t listen to the critics earlier.”

The 542-page report from a former Chicago inspector general, David Hoffman, pulls no punches, concluding that APA officials colluded with the U.S. government to enable the torture of detainees. APA’s Board of Directors quickly released a response, promising among other things to recommend a new policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities. APA then announced the departure of most of its staff leadership: CEO Norman Anderson, Deputy CEO Michael Honaker, public relations director Rhea Farberman, and ethics director Stephen Behnke.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands after today’s deal was announced.

U.S. State Department

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands after today’s deal was announced.

After 2 years of negotiations, Iran today agreed to dismantle large pieces of its nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions. The agreement, signed today in Vienna, paves the way for a rapid expansion of scientific cooperation with Iran in areas as diverse as fusion, astrophysics, and cancer therapy using radioisotopes.

The agreement between Iran and six world powers is expected to face significant hostility in the U.S. Congress, which has 60 days to review the deal—and endorse or scuttle it. “I welcome a robust debate in Congress on this issue, and I welcome scrutiny of the details of this agreement,” U.S. President Barack Obama said today. However, he noted, “Without this deal, there would be no agreed-upon limitations for the Iranian nuclear program.”

The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would slow Iran's “breakout time”—the time needed to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for one bomb—from an estimated 2 to 3 months to at least a year. Achieving that longer lead time requires blocking Iran's four routes to nuclear weapons: through its Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment facilities, where thousands of centrifuges separate uranium isotopes; through plutonium production at the Arak heavy water reactor, which Iran says is needed to produce medical radioisotopes; and by way of a covert path involving undisclosed facilities. The challenge has been to block these pathways without shuttering a single nuclear facility, because Iran has insisted that closures were a deal-breaker.

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UNAIDS new estimates of people living with HIV in different regions of the world.

UNAIDS

UNAIDS new estimates of people living with HIV in different regions of the world.

A huge new report on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic celebrates the “extraordinary progress” in both treatment and prevention over the past 15 years. But “How AIDS Changed Everything” also has “heart-breaking stories about the challenges that still remain,” wrote the director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Michel Sidibé, in an introduction.

The 515-page report by UNAIDS includes new estimates of infections for each country, “lessons of hope,” details on shortcomings, and essays from health officials, politicians, disease advocates, and celebrities. “If we’ve learned anything, it’s that when we neglect lethal infectious diseases, the problem will become bigger, more costly and more difficult to solve in the long run,” wrote former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose foundation helps people receive treatment.

In 2014, the report estimates that 36.9 million people were living with the virus, some 70% of them in sub-Saharan Africa, and that number continues to increase because 15 million of them now are taking lifesaving antiretroviral drugs. South Africa alone has 6.8 million HIV-infected people—more than any other country.

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Supporters say AHRQ’s broader look at healthcare research complements the focus on specific diseases by the National Institutes of Health.

NIH/NCATS

Supporters say AHRQ’s broader look at healthcare research complements the focus on specific diseases by the National Institutes of Health.

Health advocacy groups are scrambling to save a U.S. research agency on the chopping block in Congress. Last month a House of Representatives panel approved a spending bill that would give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a $1.1 billion raise next year, with some of the new money coming from zeroing out funding for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which funds studies to improve health care delivery. A proposal from the corresponding Senate committee, approved 25 June, would be only slightly less kind, slashing AHRQ’s $364 million budget by 35%.

Those who want to trim or eliminate AHRQ argue that its work overlaps with NIH research. To make his point, Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) points to the $1.37 billion that NIH spends each year on health services research and $1 billion for studies of patient safety (both listed here). Others say AHRQ overlaps with the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), a nonprofit supported by a trust fund that was created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. PCORI now spends about $500 million a year on studies looking at which of two treatments works better, an area known as comparative effectiveness research.

But supporters say these three agencies focus on different pieces of the health care puzzle. Whereas NIH focuses on efficacy—does a treatment work in a clinical trial?—AHRQ was created in 1989 to study effectiveness, explains pediatrician Lisa Simpson, a former AHRQ deputy director and president and CEO of AcademyHealth in Washington, D.C., which runs a coalition called Friends of AHRQ. “Not, ‘can it work in a highly selected group of patients,’ but ‘will it work on patients in the community?’” Simpson says.

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Science director Eric Grimm talks with visitors at the threatened Illinois State Museum.

Doug Carr, Illinois State Museum

Science director Eric Grimm talks with visitors at the threatened Illinois State Museum.

Paleoecologist Eric Grimm couldn’t even imagine an electronic database for his field when he joined the Illinois State Museum in 1987 as a postdoc. But over the past 2 decades, Grimm, now the museum’s director of sciences, has helped to create and curate exactly such a resource. It’s given scientists around the world critical cybertools to catalog and analyze how plants and animals have responded to changes in global climate going back 5 million years.

The Neotoma Paleoecology Database and Community—which takes its name from one of nature’s premier accumulators, the pack rat—is one of many research projects based at the Springfield-based museum, which houses extensive collections showcasing the natural, cultural, and artistic history of the state. But next month the 138-year-old museum and its four branches may be forced to close, the innocent victim of a budget fight between the state’s new Republican governor and the Democratic legislators who control the General Assembly.

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The 21st Century Cures Act would speed the development of some drugs and medical devices, but some worry it might unintentionally compromise patient safety.

Ron Cogswell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The 21st Century Cures Act would speed the development of some drugs and medical devices, but some worry it might unintentionally compromise patient safety.

A bill to speed the discovery and development of new medical treatments was approved by a strong majority in the U.S. House of Representatives today. The legislation, known as the 21st Century Cures Act, has evolved slightly from the version that won unanimous support in the House’s energy and commerce committee in May. And although it continues to enjoy the backing of hundreds of industry, research, and patient organizations, some scientists and advocates are asking whether the effort to speed cures to patients might unintentionally compromise their safety.  

The bill calls for new funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a temporary “innovation fund,” which would give the agency an extra $8.75 billion over 5 years; $500 million per year would fund specific projects within NIH’s 27 institutes, including research on biomarkers and precision medicine. The remaining money would support young scientists: high-risk, high-reward research; intramural research; and other areas. The fund lost more than $1 billion from its previous $10 billion authorization as sponsors struggled to pay for it amid tight budget restrictions. But Republican lawmakers failed to pass an amendment that would have made the fund discretionary—subject to the annual budget appropriations process and thus budget caps—rather than mandatory.

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The use of rabbits in U.S. biomedical research declined 36% from 2008 to 2014.

USDA

The use of rabbits in U.S. biomedical research declined 36% from 2008 to 2014.

The number of federally regulated animals used in U.S. biomedical research dropped last year to its lowest level since data collection began in 1972, according to new statistics posted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Approximately 834,000 rabbits, nonhuman primates, and other regulated animals were used in research last year, compared with more than 1.5 million in the early 1970s. The use of these animals has been on a downward trend since 1993, with a 6% decrease from 2013 to 2014. Since USDA first started posting its numbers on its website in 2008, total use has dropped 17%. The figures do not include most mice, rats, birds, and fish, which make up 98% of lab animals but are not covered under the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

“It’s a continuation of a long-running trend that’s showing no sign of slowing down—in fact it’s speeding up,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, a U.K.-based organization that supports the use of animals in research. Animal rights activists are “very pleased,” says Alka Chandna, the senior laboratory oversight specialist at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which opposes the use of animals in research.

The use of nearly every kind of AWA-covered animal dropped from 2013 to 2014. Twelve percent fewer dogs were used from 2013 to 2014 (16% fewer since 2008), 11% fewer rabbits (36% fewer since 2008), 11% fewer Guinea pigs (26% fewer since 2008), and 10% fewer nonhuman primates (19% fewer since 2008). The only animals to see an increase were “all other covered species,” which includes ferrets, squirrels, and some rodents (such as sand rats and deer mice) that are not excluded from the AWA. They saw a 25% bump from 2013 to 2014 and a 45% increase since 2008. Cats also...Continue Reading »

Researchers tow a one-ton vertical profiler platform to its drop point in Lake George.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Researchers tow a one-ton vertical profiler platform to its drop point in Lake George.

Academic researchers and computer giant IBM are aiming to make Lake George, a 52-kilometer-long body of water in New York state, one of the smartest lakes in the world. Late last month, scientists formally began to capture data from the first of 40 sensing platforms that will give researchers a detailed glimpse into lake behaviors such as water circulation and temperature. The information will be fed into computer models that the researchers say could help managers protect Lake George from threats such as invasive species, excessive nutrients, road salt, and pollution.

The effort, known as the Jefferson Project, involves more than 60 scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York; the FUND for Lake George, a regional conservation group; and IBM research labs in Brazil, Ireland, Texas, and New York. The researchers are using Lake George as a test bed for an array of sophisticated “smart” sensors that will monitor 25 different variables, including biological characteristics and water chemistry and quality. The sensors will not only report data back to laboratories, often in real time, but be able to respond to changes in the lake environment. “Our sensors can look at other sensors around [them] and say, ‘I’m seeing something a little unusual, are you seeing it too?’” says RPI’s Rick Relyea, director of the Jefferson Project. “If so, the sensor can make the decision to sample more frequently or sample in a particular depth of water more. They have a great deal of intelligence.”

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