Representatives Fred Upton (R–MI) and Diana DeGette (D–CO) last year made a video promoting their 21st Century Cures initiative.

Offices of representatives Fred Upton and Diana DeGette

Representatives Fred Upton (R–MI) and Diana DeGette (D–CO) last year made a video promoting their 21st Century Cures initiative.

A U.S. House of Representatives panel today released a widely anticipated proposal for speeding the development of new medical treatments. The massive, 393-page document, dubbed the 21st Century Cures Act, has been under development by Fred Upton (R–MI) and Diana DeGette (D–CO) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee since last April. It grew out of a series of hearings and roundtables last year on ways to spur biomedical research innovation and streamline clinical trials and the drug approval process. The result is a long list of ideas summarized in this document.

The document is a "discussion draft" the committee said in a statement. Upton has invited comments via the Twitter handle #Cures2015. “Some things may be dropped, some items may be added, but everything is on the table as we hope to trigger a thoughtful discussion toward a more polished product,” he said in a statement.

DeGette, in a statement, said that she appreciated Upton's effort "to publicly share possible legislative language on a number of proposals that might be included in an eventual bill. … While I don’t endorse the draft document, I know that with continued engagement, we can reach a bipartisan consensus to help advance biomedical research and cures.”

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Hoping to entice more foreign scientists to work in China, the Chinese government has unveiled regulations that greatly expand the number of talent programs, the recipients of which are eligible for favorable immigration status. But the research culture in China would deter many potential recruits, experts say.

Previously, permanent resident permits were limited to applicants to the Thousand Talents plan, a scheme launched in 2008 by the Communist Party of China directed at attracting highly skilled scientists and entrepreneurs, and a handful of other cases. Other researchers largely enter under annual work permits or even on tourist visas; the bulk of recruits are Chinese educated overseas who had relinquished their passports upon obtaining foreign citizenship. Under the new regulation, awardees in an additional 55 programs will now be eligible to obtain permanent resident permits, or so-called Chinese green cards. Most of the programs affected are province- or city-level talent plans. Also included are a few Chinese Academy of Sciences programs, including the well-known One Hundred Talents plan.

“Setting up a talent visa category under the law shows that our talent policy is more open and more clearly directed at attracting talent,” former Chinese Academy of Personnel Science President Wu Jiang told People’s Daily in a 25 January news report. But others say that immigration policy is only one in a long list of considerations for researchers contemplating a post in China.

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NASA's SMAP mission will monitor large swathes of Earth.

NASA/JPL

NASA's SMAP mission will monitor large swathes of Earth.

Globally, soils hold a tiny fraction of Earth’s water. But that moisture is nevertheless a crucial quantity in water, carbon, and energy cycles: It determines how vulnerable regions are to drought and flood, how well plants grow and suck up atmospheric carbon, and how Earth heats up and cools off—a key driver for storms. Yet for the most part, soil moisture has been monitored by a sparse set of probes stuck in the ground. “The three biggest cycles in a climate model are being modeled with something that’s a complete fantasy,” says Dara Entekhabi, a hydrologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

That will change with NASA’s Soil Moisture Activity Probe (SMAP), a $916 million satellite due to launch on 29 January. A high priority among U.S. earth scientists, the mission will generate a global map of soil moisture every 2 to 3 days at 10 kilometers resolution, helping improve weather forecasts, flood forecasts, and drought monitoring. “This is an important factor that people have been chasing from the earliest days of optical remote sensing,” says Entekhabi, the science team leader for the mission.

The satellite looks like a contraption out of a Dr. Seuss book: a dish antenna 6 meters across spins like a lasso atop a long boom. Soon after reaching orbit, the boom will extend and the dish will unfurl. The dish, made of a gold-plated molybdenum webbing, serves as a reflector for both of the satellite’s instruments: a radar and a radiometer. The radar works actively, by sending a pulse bouncing off the dish to Earth and then listening for the reflection. The radar has higher resolution, but has a harder time penetrating foliage than the radiometer, which detects radiation emitted from the soil itself (with poorer resolution but fewer interference problems).

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White House plans big 2016 budget ask to fight antibiotic resistance

Sheep purple/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In advance of the 2016 budget proposal, the White House has tipped its hand on one big priority: the fight against antibiotic resistance. A fact sheet released today describes how President Barack Obama plans to double the government's investment in combating the mounting public health crisis of drug-resistant infections by spreading roughly $1.2 billion in funding across several federal agencies.

That sum includes $650 million for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to study mechanisms of resistance in bacteria and promote the development of new antibiotics and diagnostics. Funding for NIH would also support a clinical trial network that would let drug developers more easily collect data across multiple clinics, according to the fact sheet.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive $280 million for monitoring and research, including the addition of 10 sites to its Emerging Infections Program. The fact sheet also hints at two new programs: a detection network to identify new outbreaks and a comprehensive “isolate bank” to collect known resistant bacteria.

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Gianluca Felicetti (<i>left</i>) is the president of LAV, one of the groups that filed a complaint against Green Hill.

LAV

Gianluca Felicetti (left) is the president of LAV, one of the groups that filed a complaint against Green Hill.

ROME—Three employees of Green Hill, a company that breeds beagles for animal studies, are guilty of unjustified killing and mistreatment of dogs, a court in Brescia, Italy, ruled on Friday. Ghislaine Rondot, Green Hill’s executive manager, and Renzo Graziosi, the facility's veterinarian, were each sentenced to 18 months in jail; Green Hill’s director, Roberto Bravi, received a 1-year sentence. A fourth defendant was cleared of all accusations.

The court has to release a written motivation for the verdicts within 60 days.

The accusations against Green Hill, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Marshall BioResources and one of Europe's largest suppliers of dogs for research, were presented to prosecutors in June 2012 in a complaint filed by Legambiente, an environmental organization, and the animal rights group Lega Anti Vivisezione (LAV). In July 2012, the court in Brescia ordered the temporary closure of the facility and the seizure of all animals. Legambiente and LAV took custody of more than 3000 dogs, which were later placed in foster homes all over Italy. The trial against Green Hill employees started in June 2014.

Enrico Moriconi, a veterinarian who served as a consultant to the prosecutor and reviewed evidence gathered by the police, says that 6023 dogs died at the center between 2008 and 2012, compared with 98 in the 2-year period that followed the animals’ seizure in 2012. In 44 cases, the court was able to establish that dogs were euthanized even though they suffered only from mild, curable diseases, Moriconi says. Some of the beagles were put down with Tanax—a drug that causes cardiorespiratory failure—without prior anesthesia, which is widely considered a less ethical way to kill them.

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Cannabis

Don Goofy/Flickr

Cannabis

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) today urged that federal restrictions around marijuana be loosened to facilitate research on the drug’s potential medical benefits. In a statement published online in Pediatrics, the organization walked a tightrope between strongly discouraging recreational marijuana use among teenagers while acknowledging that medical applications, including in young children, have grown more popular and that more research is needed to better understand when and how the drug might help.

“[N]o studies have been done on the use of medical marijuana in children and adolescents,” wrote Seth Ammerman, a pediatrician at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and co-author of the new policy, in a news story accompanying it. “Therefore, the effects of medical marijuana use on the developing brain is unknown.”

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New report calls for cutting spending on infrastructure for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) by 20% to free up funding for research. Above, researchers prepare to test a part of the OOI network.

Craig Risien, Oregon State University/OOI

New report calls for cutting spending on infrastructure for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) by 20% to free up funding for research. Above, researchers prepare to test a part of the OOI network.

A bleak U.S. federal budget outlook requires aggressive moves to revitalize ocean research, a distinguished panel of the National Research Council (NRC) has concluded. Their report, released today, calls for cutting spending on major ocean infrastructure, such as new ships and fixed seafloor observatories.  If implemented, the report’s recommendations could increase the share of funding available for experiments at sea, which has been on the decline.

“Like a ship maneuvering through a narrow channel, the field of ocean science requires careful course adjustments to be well-positioned for the next decade,” concludes the report, titled Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the major funders of oceanographic research, requested the report 2 years ago. It asked NRC to determine major research priorities for the next 10 years and suggest how spending could be rebalanced to fit those priorities. Although such decadal surveys have long been used by physicists and astronomers to develop unified priorities, today’s report marks the first time the oceanography community has attempted to grapple with those issues in such detail.

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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves Doomsday Clock 2 minutes closer to midnight

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The board that runs the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has decided to move the minute hand on its symbolic Doomsday Clock 2 minutes closer to disaster. The clock now shows 3 minutes before midnight because the “probability of global catastrophe is very high” as a result of continuing climate change and efforts to modernize nuclear weapons stockpiles.

“In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity,” the group said in a statement. “[W]orld leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., today, BAS Executive Director Kennette Benedict said accelerating climate change and stalled efforts to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles had “equal weight” in pushing BAS’s Science and Security Board to reset the clock at 11:57 p.m.

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LSTHM took second place in the new ranking.

LSHTM

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine took second place in the new ranking.

Only a handful of U.K. universities are deeply involved in the fight to improve global health, according to a new ranking table released yesterday at the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament. The idea behind the list—which follows a similar ranking for U.S. and Canadian universities and another one for pharmaceutical companies—is to encourage spending on global health research and to increase the pressure on stragglers to step up their efforts.

The University of Oxford came out on top in the table, followed by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Imperial College London, University College London, and the University of Liverpool. These five account for 74% of the United Kingdom's global health research spending and 78% of the spending on neglected tropical disease, according to the ranking. Out of the 20 others listed in the table, eight are ranked with a D grade; only six received a B or above. The University of Cambridge, which shared the No. 2 spot in a ranking of the world's best universities last year, is 15th on the list with a C-minus grade.

The list received plaudits from Harvard University's Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners in Health, a U.S. research and aid group. The table helps "illuminate the effects of academic biomedical research on the health of the world’s poor, and hold universities accountable for the impact, or lack of impact, that their policies have on global health," Farmer said in a statement yesterday.

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An excerpt from the federal complaint.

Department of Justice

An excerpt from the federal complaint.

A prominent cancer researcher has become entangled in a high-profile corruption case in New York state. Media outlets are reporting that Robert Taub of Columbia University is the “Doctor-1” described in a criminal complaint that accuses Democratic state Representative Sheldon Silver, the powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly, of arranging bribes and kickbacks that netted Silver millions of dollars.

Doctor-1 is cooperating with federal investigators, according to the complaint. In exchange for his cooperation, he will not be charged with any crime.

The complaint, some of which is based on information supplied by Doctor-1, alleges that Silver steered to Taub some $500,000 from a state health care research fund that Silver controlled. In exchange, Taub referred patients suffering from asbestos-related disease to Silver’s law firm, investigators allege. Some of the funds were used to establish a university research center on mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, the complaint states; Taub helped found Columbia University’s Mesothelioma Center, according to several online biographies. Taub is the Vivian and Seymour Milstein Family professor of clinical medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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Measures declaring humans contribute to climate change got a majority of votes, but fell short of the 60 needed for adoption.

Curtis Perry/Flickr

Measures declaring humans contribute to climate change got a majority of votes, but fell short of the 60 needed for adoption.

Nearly all U.S. senators agreed today on a measure affirming that climate change is real and not a hoax—including, to the surprise of many observers, Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), the man who once declared global warming a hoax. Meanwhile, although two other measures stating that humans are contributing to climate change won a majority of votes from the 99 senators present, they failed to garner the 60 votes needed to be adopted by the Senate.

All three measures were offered as amendments to legislation that would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which could carry crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to the United States.

By a 98 to 1 vote, the U.S. Senate approved Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D–RI) amendment that asked simply whether it is “the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.” The only senator voting no was Roger Wicker (R–MS).

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The final tally was 98 to 1.

CSPAN

The final tally was 98 to 1.

The U.S. Senate has voted overwhelmingly, 98 to 1, to approve an amendment affirming that climate change is real and "not a hoax."

The vote came on an amendment to legislation that aims to force approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from the Canadian oil sands to the United States.

Senators opposed to the pipeline, who say it would help accelerate climate change by encouraging mining of oil sands, are using votes on the bill as an opportunity to force Republican senators to take a stand on whether climate change is real. Some Republican lawmakers have dodged the issue, saying they lack the scientific credentials to evaluate the evidence for climate change. One lawmaker, Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), has even called climate change a "hoax."

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U.S. Senate set to vote on whether climate change is a hoax

RJ Schmidt/Flickr

The U.S. Senate’s simmering debate over climate science has come to a full boil today, with lawmakers trading feisty remarks as they prepare to vote on at least two measures offered by Democrats that affirm that climate change is real—with one also noting that global warming is not “a hoax.” A Republican Senator, meanwhile, is offering another climate amendment that doesn't address whether global warming is real, but encourages the development of clean energy.

In an effort to highlight their differences with some Republicans on climate policy, several Democrats have filed largely symbolic amendments to a bill that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline. They are designed to put senators on the record on whether climate change is real and human-caused. The backers are now pushing for votes on those measures as soon as today.

The Democratic amendments vary in detail and whether they call for specific actions on climate policy. But they share one thing in common: that lawmakers should at least accept climate science, regardless of party affiliation. “We may not agree on the solutions, on the paths forward, or even on some of the details, but I do believe it’s time for us to begin to agree on a basic set of facts,” said Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI), who is offering a climate amendment, on the Senate floor today.

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NASA astronaut Scott Kelly stands as he is recognized by President Barack Obama during the State of the Union speech. First lady Michelle Obama, front left, and other guest applaud.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly stands as he is recognized by President Barack Obama during the State of the Union speech. First lady Michelle Obama, front left, and other guest applaud.

Science rarely makes a major appearance in the president’s annual State of the Union address. Tonight’s speech by President Barack Obama maintained that tradition—but he did take a few moments in the 60-minute address to stake out a strong defense of his administration’s policies to combat climate change, and to preview a new “precision medicine” initiative that aims to tap genetic and other information to improve treatments for human diseases.

“I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine—one that delivers the right treatment at the right time,” Obama said. “In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable.  Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes—and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”

The White House has yet to release any other details about the initiative—such as whether it will involve additional funding for biomedical research—but it appears to refer to a rapidly growing research area also known as “personalized medicine.” The personalized approach attempts to take account of each person’s unique biological makeup to design effective treatments and avoid using those that won’t work. Knowing that a cancer tumor contains certain genetic traits, for example, can help clinicians pick the best drugs.

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Sunset from the International Space Station.

NASA

Sunset from the International Space Station.

The political war over climate science is flaring up again on Capitol Hill this week as the U.S. Senate debates a bill that would approve the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Pipeline opponents, many of whom oppose the project because they say it would accelerate climate change, are trying to secure votes on a number of largely symbolic amendments affirming the Senate’s belief that climate change is real and human-caused and that policymakers should address it.

The pipeline opponents, including a number of Democratic senators and one independent, hope that their push will put Republicans in a politically perilous position: Either they block votes on the climate amendments and get accused of dodging the issue, or they allow votes and have to take a position on a sensitive issue with a core Republican voting bloc—self-described conservatives who don’t believe human activity is seriously affecting Earth’s climate system. The Keystone debate, which is expected to last several weeks, comes shortly after government researchers concluded that 2014 was the planet’s hottest year on record.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I–VT), Brian Schatz (D–HI), Jeff Merkley (D–OR), Tim Kaine (D–VA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI) all have filed climate-related amendments. And Democrats aren’t hiding the reasoning behind their strategy. “We're going to have a vote to find out who the climate change deniers in the U.S. Senate really are,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, during a Capitol Hill press conference today. “Do they deny that human activity has helped create climate change? Stay tuned. We'll see.”

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Shuji Nakamura says the Asian educational system "is a waste of time."

FCCJ

Shuji Nakamura says the Asian educational system "is a waste of time."

TOKYO—Age and recognition haven't mellowed Nobel physics laureate Shuji Nakamura. He and fellow Japanese Hiroshi Amano and Isamu Akasaki shared 2014's physics award for developing a blue light-emitting diode (LED), which was at the center at a bitter patent dispute more than a decade ago at about the time Nakamura left Japan. At a press conference here on Friday—the first in his native country since he picked up his medal in Stockholm last month—Nakamura lashed out at the way Japan treats technology pioneers and criticized what he says is a failing education system.

The Nobel Prize committee cited the development of the blue LED as leading to a new, more efficient, and environmentally friendly way "to illuminate the world." Amano and Akasaki laid the groundwork by getting gallium-nitride, a notoriously finicky material, to emit a dim blue glow while working together at Nagoya University in the late 1980s. In 1993, Nakamura, who held only a master's degree and was toiling practically on his own at a small specialty chemical manufacturer in rural Shikoku, cracked the fabrication challenges to get a bright blue LED that was commercially viable.

In the early 2000s, Nakamura had a falling out with his employer and, it seemed, all of Japan. Relying on a clause in Japan's patent law, article 35, that assigns patents to individual inventors, he took the unprecedented step of suing his former employer for a share of the profits his invention was generating. He eventually agreed to a court-mediated $8 million settlement, moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and became an American citizen. During this period he bitterly complained about Japan's treatment of inventors, the country's educational system, and its legal procedures.

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The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in 2010.

U.S. Coast Guard

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in 2010.

After a lengthy court proceeding featuring dueling testimony from numerous geoscientists, a federal judge has ruled that petroleum giant BP spilled 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion. That is lower than the 4.2 million barrel number endorsed by U.S. government prosecutors—but higher than BP’s preferred estimate of 2.45 million barrels.

The ruling means that BP faces a maximum fine of $13.7 billion for violations of the Clean Water Act, although the company could pay less if the judge finds it took action to mitigate the spill. Under the RESTORE Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012, 80% of the fine will be dedicated to restoration, recovery, and research in the five Gulf Coast states most affected by the spill. And at least 5% of that money will be dedicated to scientific research in the Gulf.

“There is no way to know with precision how much oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico,” District Court Judge Carl Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans wrote in a 44-page opinion released Thursday. “There was no meter counting off each barrel of oil as it exited the well. The experts used a variety of methods to estimate the cumulative discharge. None of these were perfect.”Continue Reading »

Nature publisher to merge with the world’s second biggest science publisher

Scazon/Flickr

The London-based publisher of Nature and Scientific American, Macmillan Science and Education, announced today that it will merge with Berlin-based Springer Science+Business Media, one of the world’s largest science, technology, and medicine publishers. Together, the duo will generate an estimated $1.75 billion in annual sales and employ some 13,000 people. 

The German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which owns Macmillan Science and Education, will own 53% of the new company. BC Partners, a private equity firm that owns Springer+Business Media, will hold the rest. In 2013, BC Partners bought Springer in a deal worth approximately $3.8 billion.

The move is “aimed at securing the long-term growth of both businesses,” BC Partners said in a statement. Eventually, the firm aims to sell the new publishing giant, perhaps by transforming it into a publicly held company, managing partner Ewald Walgenbach told reporters. "The most likely exit will be an IPO [initial public offering],” he told Reuters. “However, that is still at least 2-3 years away."

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Economists offer new arguments for U.S. research tax break

Flickr/www.planetofsuccess.com/blog/

Add another study to the sagging bookshelf of reports suggesting that the United States would benefit from permanently allowing companies to get a tax break for investing in research and development.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), one of the nation’s largest industrial trade groups, today released a report from three academic economists that reviews the scholarly literature on the economic impact of the so-called R&D tax credit, worth some $7 billion annually in recent years. It concludes that making the credit permanent—a long-sought goal of industry and science groups—could boost the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.16% annually and add between 36,000 and 38,300 jobs each year.

The report marks the renewal of what has become a perennial lobbying campaign in Washington, D.C. For years, many economists and a large bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress have advocated making the credit more generous and permanent, arguing it is an efficient way of promoting investment in scientific advances. Since the credit was created in 1981, however, Congress has allowed it to lapse six times—most recently in January 2014—and temporarily extended it 16 times. Last month, for example, Congress retroactively extended the credit for 2014.

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Funding for nanotechnology research would be diverted to an economic stimulus plan under European Commission plan. Above: carbon nanotubes.

BASF/Flickr

Funding for nanotechnology research would be diverted to an economic stimulus plan under European Commission plan. Above: carbon nanotubes.

A controversial plan to use research funds to pay for economic stimulus became more concrete this week, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled proposed legislation to implement the shift. The new investment fund would take €2.7 billion over 5.5 years from Horizon 2020, the commission’s main funding stream for research that will invest about €80 billion between 2014 and 2020. Draft legislation, released on 13 January, lays out the framework for the stimulus.  

The single largest share of the Horizon 2020 cuts—€350 million—would be directed at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in Budapest. With a staff of about 50, it funds collaborations between universities and industry to work on issues such as climate change adaptation and sustainable energy. The cut would amount to 13% of its budget. Another victim is the basic research portfolio of the European Research Council (ERC), which would lose €221 million, mostly in 2016 and 2017.

The commission has said it believes that the economic stimulus will ultimately generate new funds for research. It also points out that, even with the cuts, Horizon 2020 and the ERC budgets remain substantially higher than during the previous funding period. (Taking funds from research is also less difficult politically than getting it from agriculture, the commission admits.) The European Parliament is expected to approve the legislation relatively quickly, so that the new stimulus fund may begin in June.

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Republican effort to remake U.S. regulatory process ruffles science groups

EHPLEN/FLICKR

Defying a White House veto threat, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved, largely along party lines, a bill that its Republican authors say would make the process of writing new federal regulations more accountable and reduce regulatory costs. But public interest groups argue that the bill would make it tougher for agencies to issue rules needed to protect public health and the environmentin part by interfering with how they use scientific evidence.

At issue is H.R. 185, the Regulatory Accountability Act, which the House approved on a 250 to 175 vote on 13 January. Under the bill, which is similar to legislation that died in Congress last year, agencies would be required to craft rules that achieve their goals in the lowest cost way. It also would direct the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to write standards for how agencies conduct risk assessments and economic analyses, and would give the public and outside groups more opportunities to challenge the data agencies use to justify regulations. In figuring out the cost of proposed rules, agencies also would have to perform analyses of “direct” and “indirect” economic impacts and the effects of possible alternatives on jobs, the economy, and wages.

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The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, shown here in a drawing, gets construction funding in a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.

DHS

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, shown here in a drawing, gets construction funding in a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) research programs would remain essentially flat under a 2015 spending bill approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives. But that’s probably not the last word on its research budget: There may not be enough votes to win Senate passage, and the White House has threatened to veto it over provisions on immigration that it dislikes. A stalemate would leave DHS’s budget frozen at last year’s levels for months to come.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of six senators is renewing their push to make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to work in the United States and remain permanently. But the introduction yesterday of Immigration Innovation (“I-Squared”) Act of 2015, which mirrors legislation introduced in the previous Congress, is drawing criticism from some groups that represent technical workers.

House lawmakers voted 263 to 191 today to approve the $39.7 billion DHS measure (H.R. 240), which would fund DHS in the 2015 fiscal year which began this past fall. It includes $1.1 billion for DHS’s science and technology directorate, a cut of $116 million from 2014 levels. But the bulk of the reduction reflects declining construction costs for new laboratory facilities, including the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, a $1.2 billion, high-security laboratory in Kansas.

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In the latest example of budget stretching at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency’s basic science institute is imposing a strict one-grant limit on scientists who already have plentiful no-strings support. The move could free up at least $6 million, or 25 grants for other scientists.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) announced the belt tightening on 13 January: “Investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted research support may generally hold no more than one NIGMS research grant,” a notice says. The rule will apply to researchers who already have at least $400,000 per year in research funding not tied to a specific project (not including salary or overhead costs).

The new limit “will enable NIGMS to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances,” NIGMS says. The rule takes effect in January 2016. (It comes on top of an NIGMS policy giving extra scrutiny to proposals from investigators whose proposals would bring their overall direct funding to at least $750,000.)

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Ballast water can transport harmful organisms.

Islandstock/Alamy

Ballast water can transport harmful organisms.

In the early 1990s, an epidemic of cholera killed thousands of people in Latin America. The new strain came from Asia, and experts suspected cargo ships of accidentally transporting the pathogen in the water that fills their ballast tanks. In order to prevent such outbreaks, and the spread of invasive species, many nations have agreed to require ships to treat their ballast water starting next year. Installing the treatment systems may cost the shipping industry $70 billion.

Now, two scientists are criticizing the tests used to validate the cleaning technologies, saying they don’t ensure that they can kill disease-causing bacteria. “We have this system of testing and certification that in virtually all cases is meaningless,” says Andrew Cohen, a marine biologist and consultant on invasive species in Richmond, California.

The critique is rejected by Allegra Cangelosi, president of the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington D.C., a nonprofit group that helps test ballast water treatment systems as part of the Great Ships Initiative. She notes the tests do check levels of harmless bacteria, which can suggest how effective the technology might be at killing harmful varieties. Meanwhile, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is reviewing its guidelines for the tests.

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Cannabis

Dave H/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cannabis

The deaths of two men—one yesterday and one today—and a rash of recent hospitalizations in Australia, all suspected to result from the use of synthetic cannabis, are focusing attention on a growing worldwide problem.

Drug users have been embracing products touted as producing a natural marijuanalike high. The effect is produced by synthetic compounds designed to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which are sprayed onto plant material then often marketed as "Spice." However, "synthetic cannabinoids certainly have the potential to be significantly more dangerous than the natural plant material that they supposedly mimic," says David Caldicott, an emergency medical doctor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The compounds were originally designed to study the neurobiology of cannabis in animals. They were never intended for human use. But "these drugs aren't too difficult to synthesize," says Richard Kevin, a psychopharmacology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney in Australia who is studying the effects of the synthetic compounds on mice. He says a competent chemistry grad student could cook them up in a university lab. So a worldwide cottage industry has sprung up producing synthetic cannabis. But with no standards, no regulation, and no quality control, there is "a large variety of synthetic cannabinoids with largely unknown toxicity," Kevin says. And "because they are simply sprayed onto whatever carrier plant material is chosen,” Caldicott says, “hot spots can occur where the concentration is higher than intended."

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