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- Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 5:15pm
Citing an increasingly bleak outlook for federal research funding, Harvard Medical School is shutting down its major primate center, which has recently experienced the departure of several key scientists and an investigation into its handling of animals.
In the announcement yesterday, which surprised many primate researchers, the school said it will not seek to renew the New England Primate Research Center's (NEPRC's) 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and will "wind down operations" at the center in Southborough, Massachusetts, over the next 2 years. "Driving the decision was the fact that the external funding environment for scientific research has become increasingly challenging over the past decade. Recent funding pressures have added uncertainty to this already-challenging fiscal context," the university stated, apparently referring to mandatory spending cuts that sliced 5% from NIH's budget this year.
"Deciding how to best assign our limited resources is not unique to HMS," said medical school Dean Jeffrey S. Flier in the announcement, "but this decision was made with a heavy heart."
The center, which has a nearly 50-year history, had done groundbreaking work on an AIDS vaccine and developed animal models for diseases such as Parkinson's, among other accomplishments. According to The Boston Globe, the center received $27 million from NIH this year and has 20 faculty members, 32 postdocs and graduate students, and 150 staff members. Harvard is planning "an orderly transition of the NEPRC research programs," according to the announcement. Some of the center's nearly 2000 animals will be transferred to the NIH's seven other primate centers; others will be "managed" at NEPRC, Harvard's statement says.
The Globe notes that after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvard was working to correct problems that led toContinue Reading
- Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 4:00pm
The United States is already training more technical talent than the job market can absorb, says a new report, and immigration policies that encourage an inflow of high-skilled foreign workers are likely only to make matters worse. The analysis, by a trio of academics, comes as the U.S. Senate begins to debate a controversial proposal with provisions that would ease the ability of foreign-born engineers and scientists to work and live in the United States.
"The argument here isn't that foreign workers aren't good or productive," says report co-author B. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "The question is at what amount. Is more better?"
Just how far the United States should go in attracting foreign workers with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) training has been the subject of long and fractious debate. Some analysts and high-tech companies see a dearth of technically trained workers and say that the situation is hobbling economic growth and innovation. But other observers say that there is little evidence of a serious shortage of homegrown STEM talent, and that policies that encourage companies to hire temporary foreign "guest workers" have helped suppress wages in some fields. Lower salaries, they argue, further reduce the incentive for U.S. students to enter STEM disciplines.
The new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C., think tank with close ties to labor unions, comes as the debate enters a particularly fierce new phase. On 17 April, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators unveiled a sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration policies. Its proposals to create a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States and to boost border security have gottenContinue Reading
- Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 3:15pm
Infectious diseases researcher Jeremy Farrar will take over the reins at the Wellcome Trust, the United Kingdom's most important private funder of medical research. Farrar is now heading the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he has done research on drug resistance in tuberculosis and other diseases. The trust announced today that he will become director on 1 October.
Farrar is "an extraordinary guy", says Nicholas White, a malaria researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and Mahidol University in Bangkok, who set up the Vietnam lab in 1991 and has known Farrar for almost 18 years. "He understands science and he understands people," says White, who praises the Wellcome Trust for picking him. "It's a very important job not just for U.K. science but for global medical research. Very few people have the ability to do it well and he is one of them." Farrar succeeds Mark Walport, who had left the post in March to become the U.K. government's chief science adviser.
The Wellcome Trust, established in 1936 from the estate of pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome, is an independent charity that funds biomedical research. Endowed with more than $22 billion, it spends about $1 billion annually.
Farrar, who now receives funding from the Wellcome Trust, has been intimately involved with some of the most dreaded viruses. In 2003, he lost a good friend, Italian parasitologist Carlo Urbani of the World Health Organization's Hanoi office, to SARS. In January 2004, he was part of a team of researchers that diagnosed the first human case of H5N1 avian influenza in Vietnam. In recent weeks, he has collaborated in an effort to analyze travel patterns between China and the rest ofContinue Reading
- Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 12:30pm
An international team of experts concluded an investigative mission to China today with both sobering and encouraging findings about H7N9, a novel avian influenza virus recently found for the first time in humans.
"This is an unusually dangerous virus for humans," said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security of the World Health Organization (WHO), at a press conference in Beijing this morning. From what is known so far, he added, H7N9 "is more easily transmissible from poultry to humans than H5N1," the avian influenza virus that has circulated in poultry in Asia for more than a decade, occasionally causing human fatalities.
The team also reported that the available evidence points to live bird markets as being the most likely pathway for the virus from poultry to humans. Positive samples have been retrieved from poultry and from contaminated surfaces at the markets. Nancy Cox, a flu expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, cautioned that while it is still early, "we can now understand that the likely source of infection is poultry—that the virus originates from poultry."
Shanghai closed its live poultry markets on 6 April, shortly after the market link was suspected. "Almost immediately there was a decline in the number of new cases," said Anne Kelso, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Australia. "This is a very encouraging outcome so far," she added, calling the decision to close markets "very quick and appropriate."
But Kelso also stressed that there is a need for continuing vigilance. "It's going to be very important to watch over the next days, weeks, even months, what happens as a result of a shutdown of the live markets. It's possible other routes ofContinue Reading
- Monday, April 22, 2013 - 5:30pm
Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), an ambitious project to inventory all that country's biota, is in the midst of negotiating its rescue from financial ruin with the Costa Rican government. The deal entails the government taking over the maintenance of INBio's extensive collection of specimens, a $750,000 annual cost savings that will enable INBio to begin to pay off its debts. At issue, however, is what part of the government will actually foot the bill and what will be the ultimate fate of the collections.
Started in 1989, INBio quickly earned international recognition for its approach to cataloging biodiversity and, after a few years, its success partnering with pharmaceutical companies for "bioprospecting," or searching for new drugs and other useful chemicals in tropical plants and animals. For the inventory, INBio trained dozens of local residents as parataxonomists who collected and did a first pass on identifying all species. The private, nonprofit organization now has about 4 million specimens in its coffers; they represent about 28% of the Costa Rica's biodiversity.
INBio has run into financial trouble before, yet managed to keep going by expanding its consulting efforts. But for the past 3 years, INBio has had increasing trouble making ends meet, in part because of a $7 million debt incurred to develop a theme park that provides the public with a chance to experience Costa Rican ecosystems. INBio employs 121 people and spends about $6 million per year, of which $750,000 per year goes for the collections.
Until now, INBio has been independent of the Costa Rican government. Initially, INBio relied on grants from international agencies such as the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility and from national governments, such as Norway and the Netherlands. But that support has beenContinue Reading
- Friday, April 19, 2013 - 4:30pm
The Romanian Ministry of Education, Research, Youth and Sport has asked universities to nominate replacements for the 19 members of the National Research Council (CNCS), Romania's main research funding agency. Council members resigned en masse on 12 April to protest retroactive cuts in research grants.
In e-mails recently sent to CNCS grantees, the Romanian government announced that it would make cuts in the 2013 installment of multiannual research grants issued in 2011. The decision appears to have been the final straw in already strained relations between the government and the council, chaired by neurobiologist Alexandru Babeş of the University of Bucharest.
One of the researchers affected by the cuts is Romanian paleoclimatologist Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida in Tampa, who used his 2011 CNCS grant, worth $455,000, to rekindle research relationships with his home country. Onac bought an isotope analyzer, hired two graduate students in Romania, and paid half a professor's salary there to help him analyze samples found in Romanian caves. On 8 April, however, Onac got an e-mail from the government financing agency, UEFISCDI, advising him that the grant's 2013 installment would be about 45% less than agreed, "taking into account the available budget." Other grantees lost up to 55% of their promised 2013 funds, Onac says.
The government e-mails said that the difference would arrive in 2014. But many Romanian scientists no longer trust such promises. A protest letter to the Romanian government signed by 568 Romanian researchers notes that similar delays beset the 2010 funding round and that promises of later making up the payments fell through. (Three hundred and fifty-eight researchers signed the English version of the letter.) The letter, dated 9 April, also asks why the government is issuing new callsContinue Reading
- Friday, April 19, 2013 - 1:50pm
The U.S. Supreme Court isn't the only high court considering a precedent-setting case on patenting human genes. Australia's Full Federal Court this week began proceedings in an appeal of an earlier decision that upheld the validity of breast cancer diagnostic tests developed by Myriad Genetics—the same tests that were the subject of oral argument before the U.S. high court earlier this week.
The Australian legal jousting comes as that nation's policymakers pursue a trio of initiatives that could have far-reaching implications for how Australia handles biomedical patents, including those on human genes. On 2 April, a draft report on pharmaceutical patents that calls for limiting the reach of intellectual property (IP) was unveiled. On 5 April, the government released an independent government review of health and medical research that argues for allowing human gene patents. And on 15 April, a new law that updates the country's patent system came into effect, but it mostly sidesteps the gene patenting issue.
Amid this flurry of activity, many eyes are on the court case, which focuses on the validity of patents held by Myriad and Melbourne-based Genetic Technologies Ltd. that cover isolated genetic sequences linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad has used sequences on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes to develop a diagnostic test over which it or its international representatives have held a potentially lucrative monopoly. But many researchers and ethicists believe that the patents should be invalidated, arguing that the company has not actually "invented" anything new and that the patents hobble research and pose ethical concerns.
"The cases raise philosophical and ethical issues about the commercialization of the human body," says attorney Rebecca Gilsenan of the firm Maurice Blackburn in Sydney. She is leading the appeal of February'sContinue Reading
- Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 3:10pm
A group of scientists and policymakers has released a collection of essays today discussing how the United Kingdom's civil service, Whitehall, can make better use of scientific advice. Release of the essays, Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Whitehall, is timed to coincide with a conference held today at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP). The meeting included the first major public speech by the United Kingdom's new chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport, who took office on 1 April. Walport, former director of the Wellcome Trust, highlighted the importance of scientific advice in the development and implementation of government policy in his remarks.
The essays originated with a series of seminars developed last summer by a group of five partners, including CSaP, the University of Sussex's Science and Technology Policy Research center, and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills's Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre. Whitehall published its plan for civil service reform last summer as well, and Robert Doubleday, co-editor of the essay collection, says that it was a combination of a new chief science adviser and a renewed interest in government efficiency due to budget constraints that got the ball rolling. "We're looking ahead," Doubleday tells ScienceInsider. With "pressure on public budgets, coming together with new leadership at the top, we have a good opportunity to bring in some fresh thinking about how science advice works and how it should work."
Future Directions includes essays by former Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Robert Watson. Suggestions include making scientific advice available at shorter notice, the appointment of a chief social scientist, better integration of science staff members in policy teams, and for scientists to better understand the process of policymakingContinue Reading
- Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 2:00pm
A proposed reshuffling of federal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs in the United States would move the Department of Education (ED) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the head of the class. Their new status would be a major change for the federal government, which now spends nearly $3 billion on 226 STEM education programs run by a dozen agencies.
Many of those programs were created to address a specific problem or at the behest of Congress to serve a specific constituency. However, the resulting fragmentation has hampered efforts to coordinate and assess the impact of the government's investment. The proposed realignment, part of the president's 2014 budget request to Congress, would slice the overall number of programs in half by slashing the education activities of mission agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institutes of Health.
The reorganization unveiled last week surprised science educators, legislators, and even other federal officials. While the upcoming debate in Congress is likely to focus on whether some of the programs targeted for elimination should be preserved, the broader issue is the wisdom of creating two executive branch heavyweights in STEM education. Under the proposal, ED would oversee federally funded activities to improve elementary and secondary school science education, while NSF would lead the way in undergraduate and graduate STEM education. (The Smithsonian Institution was given the green light, and $25 million, to expand its activities in informal, or nonclassroom, science education.) The realignment is designed to tap into ED's extensive ties to, and experience working with, local schools as well as NSF's expertise in funding high-quality STEM education activities.
The administration has targeted 78 programs for elimination, and an additional 49 would beContinue Reading
- Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 11:30am
The National Science Foundation (NSF) may soon be getting some unsolicited advice from Congress on how to improve its vaunted peer-review system.
Yesterday, over the course of two contentious hearings, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology floated the idea of having every NSF grant application include a statement of how the research, if funded, "would directly benefit the American people." Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that he was not trying to "micromanage" the $7 billion agency but that NSF needs to do a better job of deciding what to fund given the low success rates for grant applicants and a shrinking federal budget.
The morning hearing examined the president's overall 2014 budget request for science and featured presidential science adviser John Holdren. The afternoon hearing focused on NSF's 2014 budget request. The timing gave Republican legislators the chance to level a double-barreled attack on several grants in the social sciences that NSF has awarded in recent years.
The targeting of individual research projects with frivolous-sounding titles is a cottage industry in Washington, going back decades and practiced by legislators from both parties. Last month, however, it took a dramatic turn, when Congress approved an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to a spending bill; the language would choke off funding this year for political science research at NSF unless the director certifies that the research addresses economic or national security interests.
Smith's suggestion, made during the afternoon hearing, could signal yet another twist in the debate. It also suggests that his thinking had evolved in the 2 hours between hearings. Instead of confining himself to social science research, as he and his Republican colleagues had done during the morning hearing with Holdren, SmithContinue Reading
- Wednesday, April 17, 2013 - 3:25pm
The question has been debated for years but not addressed directly by the U.S. Supreme Court—until this week. It came up for consideration on 15 April thanks to a coalition of clinicians, researchers, and legal activists who have waged a 4-year legal campaign to invalidate one company's patents on the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, used in diagnostic tests to estimate cancer risk. The challengers argue that human genes are "products of nature"—not inventions—and so cannot be patented. The defendant, Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City, argues that its patents are valid because they describe genes not as they occur in nature but as they exist after they have been "isolated" from tissue.
The oral argument in the case—Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics Inc.—took the court deep into the territory of molecular biologists. For more than an hour, the justices quizzed the competing sides about exons, introns, and cDNAs, proposing several different metaphors in an effort to squeeze the complex biology into a manageable legal mold. At the end, it was clear that many of the justices did not seem to like the idea of patenting human genes. But they struggled to find a way to distinguish between what might be called artificial genes (patentable) and "natural" genes (not patentable). The decision, expected later this year and from which there is no appeal, could have an impact on hundreds of companies and thousands of researchers.
The first justices to attack the question with a metaphor were Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They compared Myriad's patented genes to a molecule taken from an imaginary tree deep in the Amazon. Alito proposed that the leaves of this tree contained a molecule with "tremendous medicinal purposes. … Let's say it treats breast cancer." Questioning theContinue Reading
- Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 5:30pm
The new H7N9 avian influenza strain that surfaced in China recently is now making its way around the world—not in humans, as far as anyone knows, but in carefully labeled, small packages sent from country to country and from lab to lab. Researchers at many institutes are still awaiting their own sample, eager to develop diagnostics and vaccines, gauge the virus's potential to sicken animals and spread between them, and better understand its molecular makeup.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO)—which now updates epidemiological info about H7N9 on Twitter first—reported three new infections with the virus and one death, bringing the total to 63 cases and 14 deaths.
On Friday, WHO reported that the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing had sent samples of the virus to all five of the so-called collaborating centers for influenza—a network of top influenza labs that work together with WHO—outside mainland China. These labs (in Tokyo, Melbourne, London, Atlanta, and Memphis) will carry out experiments themselves but are also responsible for distributing the virus further to other research labs and companies.
John McCauley, head of the collaborating center at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill, a suburb of London, says that he received the virus sample, named A/Anhui/1/2013, on Thursday, "packaged in multiple containers, all with secured screw tops." It was contained in about half a milliliter of amniotic fluid, the liquid that surrounds an embryo in a hen's egg.
In order to coax the virus into producing billions of copies, scientists use embryonated hen's eggs that are 9 or 10 days old. The available eggs at Mill Hill were only 8 days old on Thursday and could have been difficult to infect, soContinue Reading
- Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 2:00pm
President Barack Obama signed a law yesterday that eliminates a requirement that many high-level government employees' financial holdings be posted online in a public database. This revision of the so-called STOCK Act brought relief to researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, who called the requirement an invasion of privacy and warned that it would drive researchers to leave the government.
"We are completely elated," says Joshua Zimmerberg, a researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development who used most of his annual leave last year to help organize an effort to block the disclosure rule.
The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, enacted a year ago, was originally meant to prevent insider trading by members of Congress and their staff members, in part by requiring that reports on their family's financial holdings be posted on the Internet. But at the last minute, this provision was expanded to cover about 28,000 executive branch officials. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of federal employees to block the online disclosure provisions; plaintiffs included 45 NIH researchers and other federal scientists. Congress delayed the deadline for implementing the rule and requested a study by National Academy of Public Administration. Its report last month agreed that the disclosure rule could harm federal employees and their agencies.
The new law amends the bill to exempt most federal employees from the online disclosure requirements. (It still covers members of and candidates for Congress, the president, the vice president, and some Senate-confirmed officials.) The federal employees have withdrawn their lawsuit, Zimmerberg says, adding: "I can't tell you how great it feels to have closure."Continue Reading
- Monday, April 15, 2013 - 3:55pm
In an unusual joint investigation, Republican members of two House of Representatives committees are asking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for details on how much the $30 billion agency spends on communications and public relations. Some of this money could be cut to help the agency make up for funds lost this year to across-the-board spending cuts, the letter suggests.
Five Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and two on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH's budget wrote NIH Director Francis Collins about the matter on 12 April. Their letter cites a recent editorial in Nature that discusses an investigation by a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter, The Cancer Letter, that found that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) spent $45 million on communications in 2012, almost twice the amount spent by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The lawmakers note that Nature suggested that the money could have funded 100 research grants.
"Given the need for the NIH to find ways to control spending, our Committees are interested in examining the expenditures … for separate offices of communications or public relations" at NIH's 27 institutes and centers and the NIH director's office, the letter says. It asks NIH to provide budget information and other details about its communications spending from 2010 through 2013 by 25 April.
NCI Director Harold Varmus has been looking at the institute's public relations operations and killed a publication called the NCI Cancer Bulletin in January. An advisory group will report on NCI's overall communications activities in June.Continue Reading
- Saturday, April 13, 2013 - 9:00am
Fieldwork is a rite of passage for anthropologists. It gives the initiate firsthand knowledge of a culture, along with a feeling of camaraderie with colleagues, often in remote and rugged locations. But for women there is also a dark side—a risk of sexual harassment and rape, according to a survey of fieldwork experiences released today. Anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, who authored the study, found a disturbingly high incidence of physical sexual harassment among respondents: More than 20% of female bioanthropologists who took part said that they had experienced "physical sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact." Most of these victims are female, and most of the perpetrators were colleagues of superior professional status, sometimes the victim's own fieldwork mentor.
The idea for the survey took shape in 2011 when Clancy, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was talking to a friend, a female bioanthropologist like herself. The friend was traumatized, Clancy says: She had been raped in the field by a colleague, and her mentor convinced her to keep quiet for the sake of her career.
"It was like a slap in the face to learn that this was happening to my friends," Clancy says. In contrast, she describes her own Ph.D. fieldwork as "paradise." It took place in Poland and, just by chance, all the anthropologists at the site were female.
Clancy writes the Context and Variation blog for Scientific American. Starting in January of last year, she started posting anonymized sexual harassment horror stories that female colleagues shared with her. Anonymous comments started rolling in from fellow scientists, describing nasty experiences that they had never shared. "I have had people from nonbioanthro field sites contact me since I started writing about this," Clancy says. "This is definitely notContinue Reading
- Friday, April 12, 2013 - 2:20pm
On 10 April, President Barack Obama submitted to Congress his spending plan for the 2014 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. The document can be found at www.fdsys.gov. The stories below detail requests for specific agencies, programs, or initiatives and offer some insight into the Obama administration's vision for science. Plus, reactions from the research community and around the web.United States to Cap ITER Spending; Domestic Fusion Research Would Still Suffer Laser Fusion Facility Faces Dimmer Spending At CDC, Budget Drops and Priorities Shift NSF Basks in Double-Digit Increase NIST Manufactures Some Big Spending Dreams Smithsonian Outreach Gets a Boost Rock On! Asteroid Spending Hot Item for NASA More Love for USDA's Competitive Research NIH Gets Slight Relief From Sequester Pain USGS Sees Budget Boost as Vote for Expanding Mission A Fundamental Shift at the Pentagon EPA Loses Out in R&D Budget Nanotechnology Initiative Would Get Smaller Climate Change Research Gets a Warm Reception Big Bump-Up for Department of Energy Research Homeland Security Would Move Ahead With Controversial Agrosecurity Laboratory NASA Budget Includes Money to Send New Rover to Mars, Capture Asteroid Most Civilian Agencies Get a Boost
Adrian Cho, 2:20 p.m. on 12 April
To preserve fusion research at home, the United States will limit its annual contributions to the international fusion experiment ITER, now under construction in Cadarache,Continue Reading
- Friday, April 12, 2013 - 12:00pm
The words are flowing. Reactions are starting to trickle in to the research-related portions of President Barack Obama's 2014 budget request, which was delivered to Congress. ScienceInsider will be tracking what groups are saying as they release statements.
Statement by the Task Force on American Innovation on the president's FY '14 budget (12:00 p.m. on 12 April):
Members of the Task Force on American Innovation—a coalition of industry, universities, and scientific societies—believe it is essential that the federal government maintain a robust investment in scientific research. We believe that Congress and the President can and must commit to such spending even as they work to reduce budget deficits.
In that context, the Task Force supports President Obama's proposed increases in funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, Department of Defense basic research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The federal investment in scientific research is vital to the nation's long-term economic growth and national security. Indeed, one of the reasons that deficit reduction is so important is to ensure that the government can afford this and other critical investments. We recognize that there are strong differences over how to reduce budget deficits. But we believe there should be bipartisan support for the research that is the foundation of innovation and economic competitiveness.
With both the House and Senate having approved budgets, and the President now having submitted his own, we continue to urge the nation's leaders to come together and negotiate a major long-term budget agreement that not only protects coming generations from unsustainable debt but also ensures our ability to invest in their future.
The American Chemical Society responds (4:00 p.m. on 11 April):Continue Reading
- Thursday, April 11, 2013 - 10:31am
President Barack Obama presented his spending plan for the 2014 fiscal year to Congress today. What does his budget request mean for science? Check out how the scientific community is reacting to the spending plan and share your thoughts on Vine, Instagram, and Twitter with the tag #FY2014.
Visit scim.ag/2014Budget for news and analysis from the ScienceInsider team.
- Tuesday, April 9, 2013 - 5:45pm
Physicist Ernest Moniz appears to be on the fast track to become the next U.S. secretary of energy. Moniz received bipartisan praise today at a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with lawmakers touting his past experience as a senior official at the Department of Energy (DOE) and his scholarly work on energy policy.
"You may very well prove to be this rare nominee that generates bipartisan support," said Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), the panel's senior Republican. "It's clear you've built a lot of goodwill with senators on both sides of the aisle," added Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the panel's chair.
Moniz, a longtime member of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, was nominated last month by President Barack Obama to become the 13th DOE secretary. Already a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Moniz would replace Nobel laureate Steven Chu, another physicist, who is headed to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, once he is confirmed.
That approval could be imminent. At today's hearing, senators voiced no complaints about Moniz's nomination and tossed him generally friendly questions on a wide range of issues. DOE's role as a major funder of energy research and the physical sciences got relatively little attention, although Moniz vowed several times to use his post to help keep U.S. science on the cutting edge. One goal of DOE research efforts, he said, should be to develop the technologies needed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy use, and to help "create a low carbon economy." He also said that he would like to see DOE's national laboratories "perform more of their work in multidisciplinary teams, for multiple years," in order toContinue Reading
- Monday, April 8, 2013 - 4:55pm
Thousands of scientists and patient advocates poured into a square in downtown Washington, D.C., today to hold what organizers billed as the largest-ever rally to call for more funding for biomedical research. The event, as reported earlier today with a slideshow on ScienceInsider and held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) with support from over 200 organizations, aimed to draw attention to the 5% cut to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) $31 billion budget imposed by Congress last month through sequestration as well as the flat growth of NIH's budget over the past decade. "The continued erosion of funding for the most important medical research institute in the world, the National Institutes of Health, must stop," said AACR CEO Margaret Foti.
AACR attendees and others listened for nearly 2 hours in unusually warm April weather as more than a dozen lawmakers, patient advocates, and celebrities spoke in support of NIH. Emcee Cokie Roberts of ABC News and NPR declared that "it could not be a stupider time to cut back on funding for medical research." Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), an ovarian cancer survivor, said that "life-saving cancer research is being cut because of ideology, and that's wrong." Rockefeller University president and former Genentech executive Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he worries most that young people are being discouraged from research careers. "It is possible to ruin our scientific community. If we continue on this path, we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he said, drawing cheers.
Clad in white T-shirts and an occasional hot pink boa, rally participants chanted "more progress, more hope, more life." They raised their cell phones with actress Maura Tierney of the TV drama ER to send aContinue Reading
- Monday, April 8, 2013 - 1:55pm
NASA plans to launch an exoplanet-hunting satellite and an instrument to study neutron stars in 2017. Both are small missions that could have a big impact.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will aim to find terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars. It will use an array of wide-field cameras to survey the brightest stars in the sun's neighborhood in hopes of detecting exoplanets such as gas giants and rocky, Earth-sized planets. Some of these planets, researchers hope, will become candidates for follow-up studies of their atmospheres by the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018.
The other mission chosen by NASA is the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which will be deployed on the International Space Station. The instrument will observe x-rays flashed by neutron stars, helping researchers understand the nature of matter contained in these dense, spinning objects that result from the collapse of massive stars.
"TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission," said George Ricker, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and principal investigator of the mission, in a statement. "It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth."
Both TESS and NICER have been selected as part of NASA's Explorer program, out of four concept studies submitted to the agency in the fall last year. TESS will get up to $200 million, and NICER—to be led by Keith Gendreau of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland—will receive up to $55 million.Continue ReadingPosted In:
- Monday, April 8, 2013 - 1:53pm
Several thousand researchers, physicians, and patient advocates rallied this morning in a downtown Washington, D.C., park, urging Congress and the White House to sustain federal funding for biomedical research. Scroll through to see what the event looked like. More details soon on ScienceInsider.David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff David Malakoff Continue Reading
- Friday, April 5, 2013 - 12:55pm
The environment committee of the United Kingdom's House of Commons is calling for a ban of three common pesticides in order to protect honey bees and other pollinators. "We believe that the weight of scientific evidence now warrants precautionary action," the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley, said in a statement.
The number of honey bees and many wild pollinators have declined in the United Kingdom from a variety of causes, including habitat loss and disease. There is debate about the role of pesticides in the loss of honey bee colonies, but evidence is growing that they do harm bumblebees. In September, the Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee began an inquiry into how the United Kingdom should be regulating pesticides.
Meanwhile, the European Food Safety Authority issued a report in January that three pesticides are an "acute risk" to honey bees and should not be used on corn and other crops from which bees collect pollen. Later in the month, the European Commission, which had requested the study, proposed a 2-year ban of three common neonicotinoids for four crops. Member nations then voted down the ban, and the United Kingdom abstained.Continue Reading
- Thursday, April 4, 2013 - 11:30am
On 26 March, a 73-year-old man from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, died at the Klinikum Schwabing, a hospital in Munich. He was the 11th known fatality related to infection with the novel coronavirus (nCoV), a pathogen that was first reported in September 2012 and is attracting substantial interest from researchers. Overall, officials have reported 17 cases of nCoV infection.
Clemens Wendtner, a professor of medicine and assistant medical director at the University of Cologne, is a physician at the Munich hospital. ScienceInsider asked Wendtner how the case was handled and why he thinks the patient may have been infected by one of his racing camels. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why did the patient seek treatment in Germany and why did he come to the Klinikum Schwabing?
C.W.: We are one of seven reference centers for infectious diseases in Germany; the Klinikum Schwabing has a unit for highly contagious patients, and one of the first SARS patients was treated here in 2003. This particular patient was treated in Munich for multiple myeloma, which had been diagnosed in 2009. He flew into Germany on a frequent basis to get chemotherapy and even stem cell transplantation at a private center.
While in Abu Dhabi, his condition deteriorated, and his treating hematologist here in Munich asked to fly him in to get a closer look; the family also wanted him to be transferred. At this point we only knew he had some pulmonary problems, but we were not aware of any coronavirus testing; this was not done in the United Arab Emirates.
Q: When did you suspect he might have the virus?
C.W.: When we examined his condition and saw his medication list; he had even started on [the influenza drug]Continue Reading
- Wednesday, April 3, 2013 - 5:00pm
For neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, sitting in an ornate White House chamber yesterday listening to President Barack Obama heap praise—and some $100 million—on a brain-mapping initiative that he helped hatch was a "luminous" experience. "It felt like history," says the researcher, who works at Columbia University.
"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked," Obama told the East Room crowd packed with leaders of American neuroscience during a 12-minute paean to brain research (likely the most expansive yet delivered by an American president). By "giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action," he said, the new initiative will help scientists find a cure for complex brain processes such as traumatic brain injury and Parkinson's, and create jobs that "we haven't even dreamt up yet."
For all the lofty rhetoric, however, the White House didn't provide many details about how the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative will accomplish its mission. And the lack of detail is worrying not only BRAIN skeptics—who argue that it targets the wrong goal and could detract from other research efforts—but also even some staunch advocates such as Yuste. The way that the White House has packaged and plans to fund and coordinate the initiative, they say, is creating some unease.
"As the proposal stands, it's still awfully vague, so it's hard not to have some reservations," says biophysicist Jeremy Berg of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who is a former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Several years ago, Yuste and other scientists originally pitched BRAIN to U.S. government officials as the Brain Activity Map, a 10-year, $3 billion effort to develop tools in nanotechnology, optogenetics, and synthetic biology thatContinue Reading