TOKYO- - Tying up a loose end of a long-running stem cell research fiasco, yet another RIKEN investigating committee released yet another report in Tokyo today. It concludes that the so-called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) stem cells, as well as the chimeric mice and teratomas supposedly derived from those cells, "all originated in cultures contaminated with (embryonic stem) cells, a fact that refutes all of the main conclusions of the two papers" that reported the the supposed breakthrough method of reprogramming adult cells. Those two papers, an article and a letter, appeared online at Nature on 29 January.

The committee determined that 3 supposed STAP stem cell lines were actually likely to be 3 previously existing embryonic stem (ES) cell lines. "It is unlikely that there was accidental contamination by three different ES cells, and it is suspected that the contamination may have occurred artificially," the committee concluded in a report released today. However the panel could not find conclusive evidence of deliberate contamination, nor of who might be responsible. "We cannot, therefore, conclude that there was research misconduct in this instance," the committee reported.

However, the committee did find "research misconduct involving fabrication" in the production of two images in the article that had no supporting experimental data. The images are Fig. 5c: Growth curves of STAP stem cells and Fig. 2c: DNA methylation. The committee laid responsibility for the fabrications on Haruko Obokata, the lead author of both papers.

The committee's announcement came a week after a separate RIKEN group announced it could not reproduce the STAP cell method even with Obokata's help. The same day, Obokata resigned from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, home to most of the research team.

A previous investigating committee had looked at the...Continue Reading »

The ScienceInsider’s guide to 2014

Plagiarism, Ebola, and boring lectures don’t have much in common. But they were the topics of some of ScienceInsider’s most read stories of 2014. Here’s a full list the top 10:

1. Study of massive preprint archive hints at the geography of plagiarism. Analyses of hundreds of thousands of technical manuscripts submitted to arXiv, a massive repository of digital preprint articles, offered some intriguing insights into the consequences—and geography—of scientific plagiarism. It found that copying text from other papers is more common in some nations than others, but the outcome is generally the same for authors who copy extensively: Their papers don’t get cited much.

2. What does Ebola actually do? How Zaire ebolavirus and the family of filoviruses to which it belongs disarm the human immune response and then dismantle the vascular system.

3. Lectures aren't just boring, they're ineffective, too, study finds. Drone on before your undergraduate class, and your students are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods. “It’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data,” noted one researcher.

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The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which operates the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, is part of NWO.

Wikimedia Commons

The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which operates the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, is part of NWO.

AMSTERDAM—A government plan to radically reform the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), a major research funding agency in the Netherlands, is causing an uproar among scientists. Many say that the attempt to streamline the agency—which a 2013 evaluation called a “disorderly patchwork”—is a threat to basic science and will give nonscientists too much power in the distribution of research grants.

"NWO must remain an organization for, and managed by, researchers," wrote the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in a statement last month. "Letting go of that principle means a serious threat to the quality of scientific research in the Netherlands."

The reform plan is part of the 2025 - Vision for Science choices for the future, a broad policy document issued by the Dutch Cabinet on 25 November that won plaudits for several other proposals. KNAW and other organizations praised its proposals to prioritize the country's scientific goals in a "National Research Agenda" to be produced next year, to reduce the pressure on scientists by putting quality over quantity in peer review and to boost large-scale research infrastructure. But the government's plans for NWO, a semiautonomous agency with a €625 million annual budget, have become the target of a growing barrage of criticism and the subject of a lively debate on KNAW's website.

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A barge loaded with timber from Kalimantan in Indonesia, one of the world’s major sources of tropical timber.

Budi Nusyirwan/Flickr

A barge loaded with timber from Kalimantan in Indonesia, one of the world’s major sources of tropical timber.

A 2008 law aimed at reducing U.S. imports of products from illegal logging appears to be working, concludes a new analysis—but it may not necessarily be helping protect the world’s forests.

For more than 100 years, a law called the Lacey Act has served as America’s premier weapon in the fight against the illegal trade of plants and animals. The original Lacey Act of 1900 created penalties for selling or importing poached wildlife and was instrumental in curbing markets for feathers and hides from overexploited bird and mammal populations. Congress later expanded the law to include plants, and in 2008 lawmakers amended it to cover, for the first time, plant products. Whether it’s wood, paper, or pulp, any product containing illegally obtained tree material is now banned from import and interstate trade. The goal is to reduce demand for illegal timber products and thus discourage illegal logging.

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A wolf track in Michigan mud.

Viewminder/Flickr

A wolf track in Michigan mud.

Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region are once again protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), following a federal court ruling. The decision ends wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In Michigan, which does not allow wolf hunting, voters recently rejected an effort to establish a wolf season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) removed federal protections for the wolves (Canis lupus) in 2012. The agency concluded that the canids had fully recovered from near-extinction and turned their management over to the three states’ wildlife departments. But in her 19 December ruling, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell called the decision “arbitrary and capricious.”

At the time of the wolves’ delisting, federal wildlife biologists estimated the animals’ population in the region at 4400. That number dropped to 3748 this year as a result of hunting and trapping, and state plans called for an even greater decline. For instance, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources was aiming for a statewide wolf population of just 350 animals (from a high of 800).

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Anthrax growing in a laboratory dish.

Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory/AgriLife Today/Flickr

Anthrax growing in a laboratory dish.

FBI’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people in the United States was marred by weak scientific practices and analytical gaps, a report by Congress’s watchdog agency has concluded. The findings, released 19 December, mirror those reached by a similar study conducted in 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

In 2008, FBI concluded that microbiologist Bruce Ivins, who worked for a U.S. Army research laboratory in Maryland, was responsible for the letter attacks. Ivins committed suicide shortly before the FBI released its findings. But the government’s case was largely circumstantial and rested in part on genetic analyses of anthrax spores used in the attacks and in Ivins’s laboratory.

The 2011 NAS review concluded that the science behind the investigation could not rule out the possibility that someone other than Ivins committed the crime. Last week’s study, from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), comes to a similar conclusion. In particular, GAO found that contractors hired by FBI to test and evaluate the anthrax spores relied on poorly designed sampling and statistical methods. “[T]he FBI lacked a comprehensive approach—or framework—that could have ensured standardization of the testing process,” the report states. “As a result, each of the contractors developed their tests differently, and one contractor did not conduct verification testing, a key step in determining whether a test will meet a user's requirements, such as for sensitivity or accuracy.”

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Midui Glacier in Tibet

Jan Reurink/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Midui Glacier in Tibet

BEIJING—Glaciers in China that are a critical source of water for drinking and irrigation in India are receding fast, according to a new comprehensive inventory. In the short term, retreating glaciers may release greater meltwater, “but it will be exhausted when glaciers disappear under a continuous warming,” says Liu Shiyin, who led the survey for the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute in Lanzhou.

In 2002, Chinese scientists released the first full inventory of the country’s glaciers, the largest glacial area outside of Antarctica and Greenland. The data came from topographical maps and aerial photographs of western China’s Tibet and Xinjiang regions taken from the 1950s through the 1980s. That record showed a total glacial area of 59,425 square kilometers. The Second Glacier Inventory of China, unveiled here last week, is derived from high-resolution satellite images taken between 2006 and 2010. The data set is freely available online

Liu and his colleagues calculated China’s total glacial area to be 51,840 square kilometers—13% less than in 2002. That figure is somewhat uncertain because the previous inventory used coarser resolution images that may have mistaken extensive snow cover for permanent ice, says Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who was not involved in the project.

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Bangladesh was unprepared for an oil spill that has hit one of the world’s most important mangrove forests.

Jennifer Lewis/Tropical Dolphin Research Foundation

Bangladesh was unprepared for an oil spill that has hit one of the world’s most important mangrove forests.

The United States and the United Nations are sending experts to Bangladesh to assess the impact and potential cleanup of a serious oil spill that threatens the Sundarbans, a globally important mangrove ecosystem and home to endangered river dolphins.

Nearly 350,000 liters of oil spilled into the world's largest mangrove forest on 9 December, after a tanker carrying furnace oil collided with another vessel. The spill occurred within the Chadpai Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the 140,000-hectare Sundarbans—a mangrove-rich UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its exceptional biodiversity.

Bangladesh’s “government was totally unprepared for this,” says Brian D. Smith, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asian Freshwater and Coastal Cetacean Program. “There were some real jurisdiction problems. … It wasn't clear who was in charge.”

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WCN24/7/Flicker

Flaring at a fracking well in Pennsylvania.

Scientific findings—and a lack of them—played a starring role in a controversial decision earlier this week by Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to essentially ban the natural gas extraction technique known as fracking in the Empire State.

The 17 December decision rested heavily on a state health department report that reviewed dozens of studies of the potential human health impacts of oil and gas development and found cause for concern. “I looked at this process with the same critical eye I always use in medicine,” said Howard Zucker, a physician and New York’s acting health commissioner, at a Cabinet meeting that covered the issue. During the discussions, Zucker displayed numerous scientific papers that he said highlighted how multiple facets of shale gas production, including drilling, trucking, and wastewater disposal, could potentially harm human health. He also lamented a lack of data on some risks. Precaution was the best course, Zucker suggested in recommending a hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, ban.

Cuomo said he was only heeding expert advice in making the move, which makes permanent a temporary fracking moratorium the state has had in place since 2008. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not an environmentalist, I’m not a scientist,” he said. “So let’s bring the emotion down, and let’s ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.”

Not surprisingly, the decision is drawing divided reaction.

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A lawsuit filed earlier this week by two researchers involved in an investigation into possible scientific misconduct offers the first indication of just what was amiss in two papers that have been called into question. The complaint filed in a federal district court acknowledges that there are fictitious data points in a now-retracted 2012 paper that appeared in the journal Circulation, and altered figures in a much-publicized 2011 paper in The Lancet that is now under scrutiny. But it blames those problems on a third researcher—raising questions about who bears final responsibility for possible misconduct.

The lawsuit was filed by cardiac stem cell scientist Piero Anversa of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and Annarosa Leri, a Harvard associate professor in his lab. The pair is suing Harvard and Brigham, claiming that investigations launched by the institutions have wrongfully damaged their careers. In particular, they allege that news of the investigations, which came to light this past April, cost them millions of dollars by derailing a deal to sell their stem cell company, Autologous/Progenital, and took them out of the running for lucrative faculty positions. They are asking for unspecified compensation. The complaint alleges that Anversa and Leri were unaware of any misconduct and lays blame on Jan Kajstura, the first author on the retracted paper and a former member of a lab headed by Anversa.

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U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters.

Wikimedia/Coolcaesar

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is taking another crack at how it evaluates inventions derived from nature. The agency has been forced to tighten its eligibility rules in light of recent Supreme Court decisions—including a 2013 ruling that struck down patents on human genes—but its first pass at new guidelines for examiners raised a stink. University groups and industry representatives feared the rules would chill investment by rendering potential new therapies and diagnostics unpatentable. A new guidance, released this week, goes a long way to quell those fears, though many are still uncertain how it will be implemented.

The document unveiled this past spring was troubling to the biopatent community for several reasons. It went too far beyond the court’s ruling on DNA, critics claimed, by suggesting that other naturally derived products—including chemical compounds, vaccines, seeds, and antibodies—must be “significantly different” from anything found in nature or else be immediately tossed out as patent ineligible. Many also protested the idea that an applicant had to demonstrate structural differences between a product and its natural counterpart. Amid criticism at public meetings and in written letters, the agency vowed to incorporate stakeholder comments into a revised guidance.

But while it’s eager to satisfy the applicants that keep it in business, USPTO also has to respect often murky directions handed down from the courts, says Dan Burk, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Particularly influential were last year’s ruling in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics Inc. that naturally occurring human genes cannot be patented and the 2012 Mayo v. Prometheus decision, which invalidated a patent on a method of adjusting drug dosage using measures of blood metabolites because it relied on a “law of nature.”

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Haruko Obokata

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Haruko Obokata

A Japanese team announced Friday in Tokyo that it has been unable to reproduce a new, astoundingly simple way of generating pluripotent stem cells, despite working directly with the lead author on the Nature papers reporting the breakthrough method. That researcher, Haruko Obokata, also today resigned from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, home of most of the team conducting the research.

Despite an 8-month effort, "We could not verify the STAP cell phenomenon," said Shinichi Aizawa, a CDB developmental biologist who led the verification team, at a press conference, referring to the so-called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) method. He added that RIKEN was halting efforts to verify the STAP approach. 

"I remain very puzzled by these results," Obokata wrote in a statement released to the press. She admitted being unable to reproduce satisfactory results, though she complained about the conditions under which she had to try. (Documents from the press conference are available in Japanese here.)

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Geoscientists aim to magnify specialized Web searching

Jake Bouma/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When oceanographer Peter Wiebe sat down recently to write a paper on findings from his January cruise to the Red Sea, he wanted to examine all data sets on plankton in the region. He knew other researchers have been sampling the organisms for years, but there was a problem: He didn’t know where to find those data sets.

“These data centers are kind of black holes,” says Wiebe, who works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The data go in, but it’s very hard to figure out what’s in there and to get it out.”

That could soon change. Wiebe is working with a group of computer scientists to lay the groundwork for a smarter academic search engine that would help geoscientists find the exact data sets and publications they want in the blink of an eye, instead of spending hours scrolling through pages of irrelevant results on Google Scholar. The group officially kicked off their project, called GeoLink, yesterday at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting in San Francisco, California. The research effort is part of EarthCube, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to upgrade cyberinfrastructure for the geosciences.

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Astronomers aboard the SOFIA airborne telescope work with educators during a flight as part of an NASA program.

NASA/SOFIA/Nick Veronico

Astronomers aboard the SOFIA airborne telescope work with educators during a flight as part of an NASA program.

Since 2011, 55 science teachers from across the United States have flown on a Boeing 747, modified to hold a 2.5-meter telescope, that serves as NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). They have used that experience working alongside scientists—enhanced by additional training before and after their flights—to inform and excite students about the world around them.

Next week is the deadline for teachers to apply to be part of the next cohort of airborne astronomy ambassadors. But the fate of that NASA-funded education program and many others was very much up in the air until this week, when Congress passed a $1 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government through 30 September 2015. The legislation, signed into law on Tuesday, restores funding for what NASA calls education and public outreach (E/PO) programs operated by SOFIA and dozens of other scientific missions. Many educators are relieved, but are also watching closely as the agency reshuffles some of its E/PO programs.

“We had a bumpy ride in 2014,” admits Edna DeVore, an astronomy educator who manages the program for SOFIA, which is based in southern California. DeVore actually works in northern California as deputy CEO for the SETI Institute, which also conducts E/PO for two other NASA science missions: Kepler, a space telescope that is searching for exoplanets, and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, which is orbiting Mars to study its atmosphere.

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MERS coronavirus particle.

NIAID/flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

MERS coronavirus particle.

The U.S. government has lifted a temporary ban on research attempting to develop an animal model for the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) virus, a deadly coronavirus spreading from camels to people in the Middle East.

On 17 October, in an unusual move, the U.S. government halted federal funding for risky studies on MERS, SARS, or influenza that tweak these viruses to make them more pathogenic or transmissible by respiration in mammals. Among the 18 stopped projects were at least five working on adapting the MERS virus to mice in order to generate a strain that sickens the animals. That could ease studies aimed at understanding the virus and developing vaccines and drugs.

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University College London

Steve Cadman from London, U.K./Wikimedia Commons

University College London

LONDONThe anticipation is over. Scientists and higher education officials in the United Kingdom are now poring over the findings of an influential evaluation of university research released here today. The periodic and typically controversial report, now called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), highlights overall improvement in research quality across the United Kingdom. The government funding councils that ran the massive review evaluated individual research departments, but didn't rank them or the universities. As usual, though, others quickly crunched the numbers and officials started bragging. 

University College London (UCL) was first to trumpet its ranking, claiming the top slot that had in the previous evaluation gone to the Institute of Cancer Research and before that to the University of Cambridge. Cardiff University boasted of its "meteoric rise" in the rankings. Meanwhile, the Russell Group, a consortium of UCL, Cardiff, and 22 other large universities, said the REF’s results justified concentrating limited funds into the best performing institutions. “The volume of world-leading research in Russell Group universities is more than double that in other universities," said Wendy Piatt, the group’s director general in a statement.

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A sunset in Havana.

Howard Ignatius/Flickr

A sunset in Havana.

A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations could be a boon for scientific cooperation between the two nations. The diplomatic breakthrough between the Cold War foes, announced separately today by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, is expected to immediately loosen restrictions on U.S. and Cuban scientists getting together for joint research. It may also pave the way for U.S. organizations to sponsor workshops and meetings in Cuba and to export state-of-the-art instruments to Cuba, activities now essentially prohibited under U.S. law.

“This is huge news for science,” says David E. Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit that has sponsored marine research with Cuba. “These policy changes will go a long way to ensure a more robust science relationship,” said Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS, in a statement.  (AAAS publishes ScienceInsider and has been working in recent years to promote science diplomacy with Cuba.) The new Obama administration policy, Leshner says, should boost collaboration on such topics as the spread of emerging pathogens like the chikungunya virus and atmospheric research on hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

The United States has imposed a web of sanctions, including a trade embargo, on Cuba for more than half a century. The U.S. Treasury Department prohibits most expenditures by U.S. citizens in Cuba, including tourism. In 2009, however, the agency relaxed its regulations to allow U.S. scientists to conduct research visits to Cuba under a general license. That rule is unchanged.

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MERS coronavirus particles (yellow).

NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

MERS coronavirus particles (yellow).

Scientists who met in Washington, D.C., earlier this week to debate the risks and benefits of dangerous virus experiments found little to agree on, except for two points: A moratorium on U.S. funding for certain experiments should probably not cover studies of the virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a novel virus infecting people in the Middle East; and both sides worried that the U.S. government’s plans to quantify the risks and benefits of these experiments in the next 6 months seems unrealistic.

The 2-day meeting at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is one step in a yearlong review that the U.S. government launched after imposing the research moratorium in October. Officials were responding to a debate about studies that modify the H5N1 avian flu and other risky flu strains to spread among ferrets, potentially making the bird viruses more dangerous to humans. Several accidents this year in federal high-containment labs heightened concerns that such gain-of-function (GOF) studies could result in a dangerous virus escaping the lab and touching off a pandemic. The ban is much broader, however: It covers about 18 projects on influenza, MERS, and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) viruses that make these respiratory viruses more pathogenic or likely to spread in mammals.

Former Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg, who chaired the symposium committee, compared the polarized debate over the GOF flu studies to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character wakes up and relives the same day over and over. The same people continue to make the same arguments, and some scientists "feel like they're treading water," Fineberg said.

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Many small aircraft in the United States still burn leaded gas.

Andrew W. Sieber/Flickr

Many small aircraft in the United States still burn leaded gas.

The United States phased out the use of leaded gasoline for automobiles in 1996, but many small aircraft continue to run on it. That’s worrying to some public health experts, because lead is a potent neurotoxicant, and leaded aviation gas is now the nation’s leading contributor to airborne lead pollution. And studies suggest that people who live near or work at airports can have elevated lead levels in their blood. As a result, for years advocates have been pushing the aviation industry to get the lead out of aviation gasoline, or avgas.

Last week brought a milestone in that effort. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH), an advocacy group based in Oakland, California, announced a legal settlement with 30 companies that sell or distribute leaded avgas in California, bringing closure to a long-running lawsuit that had been closely watched within the small-aircraft community. Under the settlement, the companies must sell the lowest lead fuel that is commercially available in sufficient quantities, warn the public about the danger of lead exposure through signs posted at airports and notices sent to nearby residences, and pay a total of $550,000 in penalties and legal costs.

“We’re really optimistic that it will make a transition [away from leaded avgas] occur,” says Caroline Cox, CEH’s research director.  It’s a shift, she says, that “should have happened back when they transitioned cars away from leaded gasoline.”

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A researcher under investigation by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is suing the institution, claiming it has wrongfully damaged his career. The investigation into the lab of cardiac stem cell scientist Piero Anversa came to light in April, when the journal Circulation retracted a 2012 paper from the lab, and The Lancet issued an “expression of concern” about another. Now, The Boston Globe reports that Anversa and a Harvard associate professor in his lab, Annarosa Leri, are suing the hospital and Harvard Medical School in a U.S. District Court for an unspecified amount. They claim the investigations harmed their reputations and cost them millions by derailing a deal to sell their stem cell company, Autologous/Progenital. According to the Globe, Anversa claims that the evidence of misconduct uncovered in the investigation—including image and data manipulation—are solely the responsibility of Jan Kajstura, a former member of the lab and first author on the retracted paper.Continue Reading »

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute in Chicago, Illinois, is one of several new advanced manufacturing centers to be funded by the federal government and industry users.

UILabs.org

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute in Chicago, Illinois, is one of several new advanced manufacturing centers to be funded by the federal government and industry users.

Last week’s 1600-page bill to finance the U.S. government through September 2015 contains a section creating a network of research institutes aimed at strengthening U.S. manufacturing. It also requires the government to draw up a national manufacturing strategy that would be reviewed every 4 years. The idea of allowing government to help repair this former cornerstone of the U.S. economy was once derided as industrial policy by many Republicans. But now it’s entered the political mainstream.

That’s good news for Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL), a leading advocate of the manufacturing initiative. Its inclusion in the massive spending bill also validates his faith in the adage about politics being the art of the possible.

“I think it’s a big victory,” Lipinski tells ScienceInsider. “Were this 4 years ago, I would not have thought that. But you have to remember where we are now. Given how few things get done around here with respect to science and advanced manufacturing, I’m very pleased with how things ended up.”

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Federal officials are pulling the plug on an ambitious plan hatched 14 years ago to follow the health of 100,000 U.S. children from before birth to age 21. The National Children’s Study (NCS), which has struggled to get off the ground and has already cost more than $1.2 billion, has too many flaws to be carried out in a tight budget environment, advisers today told National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins. He announced he is dismantling the study immediately.

At the same time, the advisers endorsed the aims of the study and urged NIH to fund related research. NIH now plans to figure out a way to do that by redirecting some of NCS’s $165 million in funding for 2015, Collins said today at a meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD).

Collins insisted that the news is not all bad. “This is not killing the study. It is discontinuing a study in the form that had been previously contemplated. But it is opening up a much broader array of scientific horizons to try to accomplish those goals, which we all strongly agree are worthwhile and highly deserving of that kind of attention,” he said.

One researcher who has been involved with NCS since it began says he’s not surprised by NCS’s demise. “It’s a bittersweet moment. I think it was not only the right thing, it was the only thing that could be done,” said pediatrician and epidemiologist Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who is part of a group of academic researchers who until recently led NCS research sites.

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The promise of developing new medical treatments from stem cells (green) helped persuade California voters to fund research effort.

Christina Tu/Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center/Flickr

The promise of developing new medical treatments from stem cells (green) helped persuade California voters to fund research effort.

California’s $3 billion stem cell funding agency has made a sweeping New Year’s resolution. The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) yesterday approved a plan to overhaul the agency’s grant process, effective 1 January. The theatrically titled “CIRM 2.0” represents a big move by the agency’s president, Randy Mills, who took the helm in May with a plan to speed promising stem cell therapies through clinical testing to make them available to patients.

A key feature of the plan is a rolling application process, which will replace the system of proposal windows that opened and closed somewhat unpredictably. Groups can apply for funding at any time, and applications will be reviewed monthly. “We want the best programs coming to us—the programs that are ready to go,” Mills explains in a presentation on CIRM’s website, “and not one that’s been shoehorned into an artificial timeline.”

Mill has also vowed to shorten the time from application to funding from an average of about 2 years to 120 days, and groups must start work on a funded project within 45 days of approval.

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is cancelling the National Children’s Study (NCS), a controversial and long-delayed plan to follow the health of 100,000 U.S. children from birth to age 21, NIH director Francis Collins announced this morning.

The move follows the release this morning of a report, from a working group created by the NIH director's advisory committee, that concluded "the NCS, as currently outlined, is not feasible.”

"I am accepting the ACD findings that the NCS is not feasible," Collins said in a statement. "I am disappointed that this study failed to achieve its goals. Yet I am optimistic that other approaches will provide answers to these important research questions."

"I concur with the report’s conclusions that research addressing the links between the environment and child health and development is much needed, and that the specific research in this area should be initiated within the scientific community, use mechanisms that can evolve with the science, employ the use of a growing number of clinical research networks, and capitalize on research and technology advances that have developed since the inception of the study. NIH will consider the alternative approaches defined in the report in consultation with the broader scientific community."

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Smithsonian freezers will preserve the diversity of life.

Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian freezers will preserve the diversity of life.

On the heels of two vast analyses of the genomes of both birds and insects, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has announced that it will launch a virtual biodiversity genomics institute to accelerate efforts to capture and catalog all the DNA from Earth’s flora and fauna.

The Smithsonian is already devoting $10 million a year toward genomics research in evolutionary, diversity, conservation, and ecological studies. By formally tying all those efforts together, the Smithsonian hopes to “mobilize [its] internal troops”—about 100 scientists—to do even more, says John Kress, the Smithsonian’s interim under secretary for science. At the same time, he hopes the Smithsonian will take a lead in coordinating biodiversity genomics worldwide. Toward that goal, he hopes to raise $100 million over the next 10 years.

“The Smithsonian is one of the very few institutions around the world that are able to do this,” says Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who coordinated the sequencing of the genomes of 48 bird species. For one, the Smithsonian already has quite a diverse collection: hundreds of thousands of museum specimens and thousands of blood samples in 30 special freezers, part of an initiative to freeze 50% of the diversity of life in the next 5 years. For another, the name carries clout. “You need some global leadership, and the Smithsonian is recognized for that,” Jarvis says. It has already partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop the bioinformatics power to support the genomics efforts.

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