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    Jennifer Couzin-Frankel
    Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 5:20pm
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    Eight years after South Korean stem cell scientists were exposed in one of the biggest scientific frauds ever, a paper claiming to have achieved work they faked is itself under investigation.

    Last week, a group led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton reported in Cell that it had used cloning to make personalized human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The news was widely covered (including in Science) that Woo-Suk Hwang and his team claimed to have created individually tailored hESCs by cloning skin cells. That report, in Science, soon unraveled when it was found that the team had manipulated images and faked their data.

    After last week's report, a commenter on PubPeer, a site dedicated to postpublication peer review, alleged several instances of "image reuse" in the Cell paper. The commenter also noted that "in the paper, it is recorded that the journal Cell accepted this paper just 4 days after submission."

    The claims of image inconsistencies were enough to pique the journal's concern. "I can confirm that our editorial team is assessing the allegations brought up in the PubPeer piece," writes Cell spokesperson Mary Beth O'Leary in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "I will get back to you as soon as they have fully investigated the claims raised in PubPeer."Continue Reading

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    Laura Margottini
    Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 4:35pm
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    ROME—A controversial Italian stem cell therapy that scientists say is unproven will undergo its first solid scientific test. The Italian Senate today voted in favor of a new bill, already approved by the Chamber of Deputies on 16 May, that sets aside €3 million for a clinical trial of the treatment, devised by the Stamina Foundation in Turin. Meanwhile, the foundation can continue treating 12 patients at a hospital in Brescia who are already undergoing the disputed therapy.

    "This will probably be the first time that a parliament orders a clinical trial," says Elena Cattaneo, director of UniStem stem cell center at the University of Milan.

    The merits of Stamina's treatments have long been under dispute in Italy. The foundation says that it has found a way to transform a patient's own mesenchymal stem cells, derived from bone marrow, into newly minted nerve cells that can be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. But many stem cell scientists have dismissed those claims; the International Society for Stem Cell Research recently said that there is no "compelling evidence from clinical trials that such cells provide benefit to patients with neurological conditions."

    Under existing Italian law, unproven stem cell therapies can be administered on a case-by-case basis to patients with untreatable, severe illnesses who have no other options—but only if there are enough published data on safety in internationally recognized journals and if therapies are prepared by authorized hospital labs under the Italian rules for the production of stem cells. Stamina has treated 12 patients at the Spedali Civili, a public hospital in Brescia, since 2011. But in 2012, the Italian Medicines Agency (AIFA) halted the treatments there after it had identified several irregularities.

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    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 5:05pm
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    In a sign of how much the controversy over human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) has waned, the most prominent lobbying group for hESC research announced today that it is folding after 12 years. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) will transfer its work to another group that focuses on moving hESC research into the clinic.

    "We are in an era where the primary issues are not federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research," wrote CAMR President Amy Comstock Rick, who is also CEO of the Parkinson's Action Network, in an e-mail to the more than 100 patient advocacy, scientific, and other groups that belong to CAMR. "Given the progress we are seeing in the field of regenerative medicine, the policy issues we now see go beyond the historical focus of CAMR."

    CAMR was founded around when President George W. Bush issued an executive order on 9 August 2001 limiting federal funding for hESC studies to existing cell lines. The coalition pushed for a bill, passed by Congress in 2005 and 2007, that would have removed those limits; Bush vetoed the bill both times. In 2009, the landscape changed when President Barack Obama issued an executive order instructing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lift the Bush-era constraints. The number of NIH-approved stem cell lines has since grown from 21 to more than 200, CAMR notes.

    In the last couple of years, CAMR wrote amicus briefs supporting NIH's battle against a lawsuit seeking to shut down federally funded hESC research. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the suit.

    Rick notes that little is now happening in Congress on the stem cell front. Even the announcement last week that researchers have achieved the long-sought goal ofContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 12:55pm
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    National Institutes of Health

    NIH

    Given that sequestration lopped off a staggering $1.55 billion from the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget this year, it shouldn't be hard to find examples of how the cut is harming research labs. Although sequestration "has already dealt a devastating blow," said NIH Director Francis Collins at a Senate hearing last week, it turns out it's not that easy to spell out the damage.

    One reason is that many grantees won't receive good or bad news about their proposals until later in the fiscal year that ends 30 September. Even then, the effects will be part of a larger pattern of declining funding over the past decade, NIH watchers say. "People are feeling a lot of pain, but to actually put it on sequestration versus other pressures on the budget, we're only guessing," says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. At the individual level, "it's hard to say what the actual source is."

    NIH is losing $1.7 billion this year from sequestration and other cuts, lowering its budget to $29.15 billion. New and competing grants are going down by 703, from 8986. As a result, the NIH grant success rate (the portion of reviewed grants that received funding) may drop from an already record-low 18% in 2012 to 16%, according to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate spending subcommittee that discussed NIH's 2014 budget request last week.

    Based on the 5% drop in NIH funding, many universities and medical centers—which rely on overhead cost reimbursements from grants—have predicted layoffs. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, estimates that losing $26 million will force the university to lay off 350 staff members and shut down 50 of about 1000Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Adrian Cho
    Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 4:35pm
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    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Ernest Moniz

    In a vote of 97-0, the U.S. Senate today confirmed Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy. A theoretical nuclear physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Moniz succeeds Steven Chu, the only other physicist to hold the post since the Department of Energy (DOE) was established in 1977. Moniz, 69, had previously served as undersecretary of energy from 1997 to 2001 and as associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1995 to 1997.

    President Barack Obama nominated Moniz on 4 March. But despite receiving bipartisan support, Moniz had to wait 2 months for Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to lift a "hold" on his candidacy.

    Graham was upset because the Obama administration's 2014 budget request called for a study of alternatives to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction at DOE's Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. The plant is supposed to convert plutonium from weapons into fuel for nuclear power plants, but the study triggered fears that DOE wanted to pull the plug on the project, whose cost has ballooned from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. This week, Graham agreed to let the vote on Moniz go forward, although he warned that he might still hold up votes on lower level DOE appointments, according to a report in Environment & Energy Daily. Graham joined in on the unanimous approval for Moniz.

    "My Senate colleagues recognize that Dr. Moniz is smart, he is savvy about how the Department of Energy operates because he has been there before, and he has a proven track record of collaboration, which is just what you need when you're leading the Department of Energy," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of theContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 2:00pm
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    The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment

    More than 150 prominent scientists and 75 scientific groups from around the world today took a stand against using impact factors, a measure of how often a journal is cited, to gauge the quality of an individual's work. They say researchers should be judged by the content of their papers, not where the studies are published.

    Journal impact factors, calculated by the company Thomson Reuters, were first developed in the 1950s to help libraries decide which journals to order. Yet, impact factors are now widely used to assess the performance of individuals and research institutions. The metric "has become an obsession" that "warp[s] the way that research is conducted, reported, and funded," said a group of scientists organized by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) in a press release. Particularly in China and India, they say, postdocs think that they should try to publish their work in only journals with high impact factors.

    The problem, the scientists say, is that the impact factor is flawed. For example, it doesn't distinguish primary research from reviews; it can be skewed by a few highly cited papers; and it dissuades journals from publishing papers in fields such as ecology that are cited less often than, say, biomedical studies.

    In what they've dubbed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)—a document drafted last December at the annual ASCB meeting and posted online today—the scientists write: "It is … imperative that scientific output is measured accurately and evaluated wisely." Their 18 recommendations urge the research community to "eliminate" the use of journal impact factors in funding, hiring, and promotion decisions.

    Signatories include Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts (see his editorial); AAAS, Science's publisher; dozens of other editors, journals, and societies; as wellContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 5:55pm
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    (left) NSF; (right) U.S. House of Representatives

    Yes and no. Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett and Representative Lamar Smith look for middle ground in battle over grant selection.

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) today rebuffed a request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to obtain reviewer comments on five social science research projects it is funding. The refusal is the latest twist in an increasingly edgy battle between the agency and Republicans in Congress over the agency's grants-making process and, in particular, its support for the social and behavioral sciences.

    In a letter to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), NSF defended the need to preserve the confidentiality of the peer-review process, according to sources with knowledge of the letter's contents. The letter explains how NSF's process works and that the independent reviewers recruited by the agency are promised anonymity in return for offering their candid comments on the quality of the proposal. After taking that hard line, however, acting NSF Director Cora Marrett proposed to brief the committee on how NSF selects from among some 40,000 research proposals that it receives each year. NSF also offered to provide general information on how the five grants satisfy NSF's mission to expand the frontiers of science.

    In a statement, Smith tells ScienceInsider, "I am disappointed the NSF declined to provide Congress with additional information that would show why they are spending taxpayer dollars on specific research grants." A committee aide says that, earlier this year, NSF officials told the committee to submit a letter describing the information it was seeking and that today's NSF response "is at variance with that conversation."

    At the same time, the aide sees NSF's letter as a temporary bump on the road to obtaining the reviewer comments. "We are working through the problem," says the aide. The next step, according to the staffer, is a meeting at which NSF officials will clarify "whatContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
    Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 5:35pm
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    NASA

    Kaput? NASA engineers are trying to fix the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft.

    One of the most successful missions in NASA history may be coming to an end. NASA officials announced this afternoon that the Kepler spacecraft, which has found more than 2700 planetary candidates outside the solar system, has lost the ability to point in a specified direction due to the malfunctioning of one of its reaction wheels. The spacecraft has been put into safe mode while engineers attempt to figure out how to resolve the malfunction.

    Launched in 2009, the Kepler mission completed its 3.5-year planned run last year, winning plaudits from planetary scientists. The spacecraft monitors some 150,000 sunlike stars in search of transiting planets. In November 2012, the mission began an extension of an additional 3.5 years, and officials were hopeful that it would continue beaming back data until 2016.

    That now looks uncertain following the failure of the second of its four reaction wheels, officials announced at a telecom this afternoon. One of the wheels failed last year, and the spacecraft needs three reaction wheels to be pointed precisely. Mission managers learned of the latest failure earlier this week.

    Engineers must either regain functionality of one of the two broken wheels or find another way of pointing the spacecraft as desired. "We are not down and out," says Charles Sobeck, deputy project manager for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "The spacecraft is safe and stable. We'll proceed with our investigation."

    Sobeck says that "the mission itself has been spectacularly successful. We have lots of data on the ground still to pore through. The next question is going to be what the future of the mission looks like."Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Martin Enserink
    Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 3:15pm
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    NIAID/RML

    It shall be called. Researchers are proposing a name for new coronavirus (yellow): Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

    A group of coronavirus experts has published its proposal to name a new, deadly virus after the Middle East, the region where it originates. In a short paper published online today by the Journal of Virology, the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG), along with several other scientists, recommends calling the pathogen Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-Cov).

    As ScienceInsider reported last week, the group, part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, hopes to end confusion about the name of the virus. It was initially called human coronavirus-EMC in a paper by its discoverer, Egyptian microbiologist Ali M. Zaki, and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, enlisted by Zaki to help characterize the virus. Since then, a plethora of other names has been used. The paper's authors write:

    After careful consideration and broad consultation, the CSG has decided to call the new coronavirus "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus" (MERS-CoV). This name is endorsed by the discoverers of the virus and other researchers that pioneered MERS-CoV studies, by the World Health Organization and by the Saudi Ministry of Health. We strongly recommend the use of this name in scientific and other communications.

     

    Apart from the nine members of the Coronavirus Study Group, the authors include Zaki, Fouchier, Saudi Deputy Minister for Public Health Ziad Memish, Caroline Brown of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) European office in Copenhagen, and Maria Zambon of the U.K. Health Protection Agency, who identified the second known coronavirus case in September.

    Geographical names are often controversial because they can be seen as stigmatizing, but CSG chair Raoul de Groot of Utrecht University in the Netherlands says that the reference to the Middle East was eventually acceptable to all. He hopes that the paper will end the debate. "It's goodContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Tania Rabesandratana
    Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 3:35pm
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    Wikimedia Commons

    In the spotlight. A report has criticized management at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.

    The venerable Institut Pasteur is in turmoil over accusations by a government watchdog that it is misleading the donors that fund part of its research. In a scathing report published earlier this month, the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS) says that the well-respected biomedical research organization massages figures to attract private donations and government funding, while it sits on a comfortable money cushion. Pasteur denies any wrongdoing, but the report could hurt its government funding as well as the trust of its donors.

    Set up in 1887, the Institut Pasteur boasts an impressive track record of 10 Nobel Prize laureates. Today, it is a nonprofit research foundation focused on infectious diseases with a budget worth €243.6 million in 2011; IGAS says that includes about €60 million from the French government and €50 million in donations every year, including many small contributions from private citizens.

    Pasteur tells its donors that donations and bequests make up a third of the institute's funding, while the actual figure is less than 20%, the report's authors write. They add that the institute "artificially" presents its balance sheet to funders as "structurally in the red" to appear vulnerable and dependent on external funding, including from France's research ministry.

    But in fact, the organization is well-off, the report says: The institute's endowment was worth €658 million in investment funds in 2011—bringing its total wealth to about €1 billion, including real estate assets. The authors say that management of these funds should be better controlled and less risky, "if only to get closer to the will of donors who wish to contribute to research efforts, not to gamble on the evolution of financial markets."

    The Institut Pasteur did not respond to requests for comment from ScienceInsider. InContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Pallava Bagla
    Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 12:45pm
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    Pallava Bagla

    Homespun innovation. Inside Bharat Biotechnology's vaccine facility.

    NEW DELHI—In the United States, rotavirus is a public health nuisance, resulting in tens of thousands of hospitalizations for severe diarrhea in infants and young children each a year, but few deaths. In India, the virus is a public health menace: It claims more than 100,000 lives a year. A new vaccine could sharply reduce that death toll.

    At a press conference here today, K. Vijayraghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, announced that a vaccine against the predominant rotavirus strain circulating in India had compiled an "excellent safety and efficacy profile" in phase III clinical trials. ROTAVAC, the first fruits of the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program, is expected to be on the market in early 2014. But some experts caution that the vaccine will not be a panacea. "It is unlikely that a single Indian strain of the virus will provide immunity to children all over India, since there is so much genetic variation in the rotavirus," says Jacob Puliyel, a pediatrician at St. Stephen's Hospital in New Delhi.

    Rotavirus spreads easily through contaminated food and water; some 20 million children in India are infected every year. The virus causes severe diarrhea, often accompanied by vomiting and fever; most deaths are from dehydration in children who are not given treatment or inadequately treated by India's frail health care system.

    Hope for an Indian vaccine against rotavirus was born in 1985, when Maharaj Kishan Bhan, a vaccine researcher then at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences here identified a nonpathogenic strain of the virus. The vaccine effort gained momentum 13 years later, when the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program selected a young pharmaceuticals company in Hyderabad, Bharat Biotech Ltd., to develop and manufacture the vaccine. Since then, the Indian government and foreign partners,Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Monday, May 13, 2013 - 2:45pm
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    Sandy Schaeffer for the National Science Foundation

    A helping hand. Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett talks with computer science major Cassandra Martin at a Graduate 10K+ event.

    A new program to train more U.S. college students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is hardly a novelty. And nobody would be surprised to learn that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is involved.

    But heads still turned last week when NSF held a glitzy Washington, D.C., press event to announce $10 million in grants to nine university-based projects designed to lower dropout rates among minorities, women, and low-income students in computer science and engineering. The twist is that the "Graduate 10K+" initiative is being funded not by taxpayers but by two high-tech companies: Intel and GE.

    The new effort is part of a broader push by the Obama administration for the private sector to supplement federal activities on many fronts. Specifically, it's an outgrowth of a now-defunct task force created by President Barack Obama in 2011 to improve U.S. competitiveness. (The Graduate 10K+ name is a nod to the president's goal of producing 1 million more STEM graduates by 2020.)

    The group of corporate, labor, and academic bigwigs who served on the president's so-called jobs council agreed that lower attrition rates among STEM majors was a key impediment to producing enough graduates with high-tech skills. However, Intel CEO Paul Otellini was able to persuade only one of his peers, GE's Jeff Immelt, who chaired the council, to chip in. So the resulting pot falls far short of the $100 million the CEOs were expected to pony up.

    Setting up this unique partnership was also a heavy lift. Tiffany Sargent, an industrial engineer and Intel lifer who had recently spent 2 years at NSF in a mid-career fellowship program, was given the assignment because of her familiarity with the agency. After brainstorming with her NSF counterpart in the educationContinue Reading

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    Eliot Marshall
    David Malakoff
    Monday, May 13, 2013 - 1:15pm
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    USDA

    Soybeans

    In a unanimous decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court backed the agribusiness firm Monsanto on its soybean patents. The justices concluded that an Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, violated the company's intellectual property rights when he refused to pay royalties on unlabeled soybeans he bought that contained genes patented by the company.

    The court ruled that Monsanto's patents cover not just genetically engineered seeds distributed by Monsanto and its agents, but also seeds circulating in the environment that contain Monsanto's genes.

    Bowman never disputed Monsanto's patents—which apply to genes that make soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. But he claimed that the company's right to charge royalties had been "exhausted" because the unlabeled seeds he bought from a local dealer and planted were the progeny of plants grown from previously purchased Monsanto seed. As a result, Bowman argued that his seed purchases weren't covered by Monsanto's customary patent license. Although Bowman had signed a Monsanto license in previous years—and paid the extra required fees—he did not continue to do so. Instead, he bought "commodity beans," which are usually sold for feed or other products, from a local granary. He later sprayed glyphosate on his crop and saw that it flourished, indicating that the anonymous seeds contained Monsanto's genes. He said he had written to Monsanto seeking information on its patent license rules, but argued that he never got a clear answer. Instead, Monsanto took him to court for violating its license.

    Speaking for the entire court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 13 May opinion: "The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission. We hold that he may not."

    The courtContinue Reading

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    Vladimir Pokrovsky
    Monday, May 13, 2013 - 11:05am
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    Russian researchers are up in arms over a government decree issued last month which turns the process of issuing research grants into a bureaucratic nightmare for international foundations. The decree introduces new regulations according to which any organization that wants to award grants to Russian researchers must obtain permission from the Ministry of Education and Science for every grant. "No self-respecting grant-giving agency would deal with Russia on such conditions," says Andrey Tsaturyan of Moscow State University's Mechanics Research Institute.

    Under the new decree, organization's will have to apply to the ministry for every grant and complete a bulky set of forms that include the bank details of the organization and the would-be grantee, the subject of the research, the purpose of the support, and so on. If the project to be funded is not in line with the main priorities of basic research and R&D in Russia approved by the government, the ministry may decline the request and the organization will not be allowed to award the grants. Tsaturyan believes that most painfully, the new regulations will affect research in medical sciences and humanities as the physical sciences are now rarely funded by international foundations.

    The new regulations have raised serious worries among the researchers. Evgeny Onishchenko of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences thinks the decree is an absurd and very dangerous example of bureaucratic zeal. "The fact that an application will be required for each specific grant will cause bureaucratic hurdles," he says. In his view, the demand that the research subject must fit in with officially approved research priorities is ridiculous. "The government should be happy that someone supports research that is not a government priority," he says.

    Onishchenko hopes that researchers' protests will leadContinue Reading

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  • By: 
    Elisabeth Pain
    Friday, May 10, 2013 - 5:35pm
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    The French Parliament is soon to debate a draft bill that would establish a new framework for the nation's higher education and research systems. Many scientists have already criticized the proposal for ignoring several funding and employment issues. Now, however, some researchers worry that those concerns—and the importance of English in science—are being eclipsed by a high-profile debate over provisions that would expand the use of English in French universities.

    "I find this a little sad as a debate," says Joël Bockaert, a member of the French science academy who directs a biomedical research collaboration in Montpellier.

    At the heart of the controversy is the bill's proposal to relax a 1994 provision that makes the use of French compulsory in higher education except in foreign language classes or in classes given by invited professors from abroad. The new law would add two more exceptions by allowing foreign languages to be used in classes that are offered either as part of an agreement with foreign institutions or that belong to a European program. The idea behind the measure is to help attract foreign students to France and to better prepare French students for a globalized world, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research explained in a document accompanying the new draft bill, which was presented by science minister Geneviève Fioraso on 20 March. Unless France makes such efforts to attract foreign students, Fioraso told Libération, "we will be left to having five people discussing Proust around a table."

    But some prominent academics, especially in the social sciences, saw the proposal as a threat to the French language. On 22 March, the French Academy called on lawmakers to prevent the changes, saying they favored "the marginalizing of our language."Continue Reading

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    Erik Stokstad
    Friday, May 10, 2013 - 5:30pm
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    The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has voted for a global ban of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a common flame retardant in insulation, textiles, and electronics. HBCD now joins two other such compounds on the convention's list of restricted chemicals.

    Brominated flame retardants are very good at preventing plastics and textiles from catching fire. They also tend to persist in the environment and accumulate in biological tissue. Out of concern for possible human health effects, the convention in 2009 banned tetrabromodiphenyl ether and pentabromodiphenyl ether.

    According to the convention's description of HBCD, the chemical is made in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 2001, about half of the 16,500 tons on the market was used in Europe. By 2003, global demand had risen to nearly 22,000 tons.

    With HBCD now on the convention's list of pollutants, countries must work to eliminate its use. The European Union's toxics program, called REACH, had already identified HBCD as a "substance of very high concern" and called for its phase-out by 2015. But David Azoulay, managing attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Geneva, Switzerland, says that the global ban is a good step. "The ban prevents other countries from adopting this chemical for existing or developing new uses for it," he told ScienceInsider.

    CIEL and other environmental groups were disappointed that the European Union was granted a 5-year exception for using HBCD in expanded and extruded polystyrene insulation in buildings. Companies that make HBCD for this purpose must notify the convention, clearly identify their products, and cannot export them from the European Union.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Erik Stokstad
    Friday, May 10, 2013 - 3:35pm
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    Wikimedia

    Cassava root

    Cassava is a major source of food in Africa, and it's under increasing threat from two devastating diseases. This week researchers and development organizations meeting in Bellagio, Italy, pledged to step up their efforts to prevent the spread of the diseases and safeguard the crop.

    About 300 million people in Africa depend on cassava, a root that is ground into flour, used as starch, biofuel, and for brewed into beer. For a century, production across the continent has been hindered by outbreaks of cassava mosaic disease, which is caused by several viruses. Breeding of new varieties helped get this problem mostly under control, but in the last decade cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) has emerged as an even more serious concern. The virus can wipe out the root crop underground without a farmer noticing until harvest.

    CBSD has been afflicting crops in east and central Africa. Now there are worrying signs it is moving west. Whiteflies, which spread the viruses, have been found east of the Congo, the world's third largest source of cassava. If the disease were to reach into Nigeria, Congo, and Ghana, which all grow a lot of cassava, "it would be a human disaster, an economical disaster, and would translate to a lot of instability," says Claude Fauquet of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.

    Fauquet helped organize the meeting, which included representatives from 22 organizations, including the World Bank, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the Gates Foundation, and others. "There is urgency to get organized internationally to better control these diseases," Fauquet says.

    Attendees at the meeting committed to developing a surveillance system to prevent outbreaks from blowing up into epidemics. The disease is "relatively easy to eradicate whenContinue Reading

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    Jeffrey Mervis
    Friday, May 10, 2013 - 2:25pm
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    The National Science Foundation needs one more week to reply to a controversial request from the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee to explain why five social sciences grants were approved. And NSF wants its oversight body to weigh in first.

    On 25 April, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) wrote to acting NSF Director Cora Marrett about his "concerns regarding some grants approved by the foundation and how closely they adhere to NSF's 'intellectual merit' guideline." Smith requested "access" to both the reviews from outside scientists and the analyses of the program officers who funded them.

    Scientific leaders and senior House Democrats have condemned that request and related draft legislation that would alter NSF's grant-making process, viewing it as an unwarranted intrusion into NSF's vaunted peer review system. On Wednesday, three former NSF directors asked Smith to "rescind the April 25, 2013 letter and keep this draft bill from ever coming up for a vote or from being incorporated in other legislation."

    Smith had asked for the grants information "within 2 weeks," a period that ended yesterday. NSF met that deadline, barely, submitting an "interim" response by the close of business.

    But NSF's response doesn't contain the information Smith is seeking. Instead, Marrett told the National Science Board this afternoon that, "at the request of chairman Dan Arvizu, I have told Mr. Smith that I would respond by the end of next week following input from the board."

    That delay postpones appears to be okay with Smith. "The Chairman looks forward to reviewing the full response, including all of the information requested in the April 25 letter," a committee aide says.Continue Reading

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  • By: 
    Jeffrey Mervis
    Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 4:00pm
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    National Science Foundation

    Big chill. Three former directors of the U.S. National Science Foundation, (from left) Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, and Arden Bement, say the proposed legislation would have a "chilling" effect on NSF grant-making.

    Several former top officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the chairs of its oversight body yesterday wrote to Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) urging him to withdraw a bill proposing changes to grant-making at the agency.

    In one of two 8 May letters to Smith, the former officials say that the draft legislation, entitled "The High-Quality Research Act," "will have a chilling and detrimental impact on the merit-based review process." Smith, who is chair of the House of Representatives science committee, has said that the legislation is intended to weed out projects not worthy of federal support. But the letter writers say that "rather than improving the quality of research, [the changes] would do just the opposite."

    That letter is signed by three previous NSF directors—Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, and Arden Bement—and three past chairs of the National Science Board, NSF's presidentially appointed oversight body. The second letter, from 18 scientists who once headed individual research directorates at the agency, also argues that many of NSF's most spectacular successes would not have qualified for funding under the terms of the legislation.

    "It's just an awful piece of legislation," says Michael Turner, former head of the math and physical sciences program at NSF and incoming president of the American Physical Society. "And we're hoping that it is never introduced."

    Asked about the status of his draft bill, Smith issued a statement calling it "a starting point to determine how the NSF grant process can be improved. And I welcome the input of individuals involved in that process." According to Smith, "we agree that the peer review process should remain intact, and that basic research should be supported. … Priorities have to be set so that taxpayer funded grantsContinue Reading

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    David Malakoff
    Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 2:35pm
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    Wikimedia

    Who would wear the laurels? Members of the U.S. Congress have proposed legislation that would create a Science Laureate.

    A bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers wants the United States to have a Science Laureate. Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) yesterday introduced legislation that would empower the president to select a "nationally renowned expert" who would "travel around the country to inspire future scientists," according to a statement released by Hirono's office.

    "Like the Poet Laureate, the Science Laureate would be an unpaid, honorary post," according to the statement. The laureate would serve a 1- or 2-year term, and "would also be encouraged to continue their important scientific work." Nominees would be vetted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

    "The U.S. Science Laureate will be a national role model who can encourage students to learn more about the sciences," Hirono said in the statement. "By elevating great American scientific communicators, we can empower students - especially girls and minorities - to get excited about science."

    Science organizations, including AAAS, the publisher of ScienceInsider, are backing the proposal. Having bipartisan authors "speaks volumes about the importance of [science, technology, engineering and math education] to our nation's future," James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, said in the statement.

    Some science fans aren't waiting for Congressional action to put forward nominees. One Daily Kos poster dubbed "raatz" nominated astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    Who would you nominate?Continue Reading

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    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 2:30pm
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    OMICS Screen Capture From 9 May 2013

    Misleading? A federal lawyer alleges that OMICS Publishing Group has used NIH's name in erroneous ways.

    Submitting a paper to a new open access journal can be a risky venture: More and more companies are popping up with an offer to publish a report for a fee but deliver less than expected—sometimes they skip peer review or use editors who do no work—according to critics such as Jeffrey Beall, a University of Colorado, Denver, librarian who keeps a list of so-called predatory publishers. Now, the U.S. government has jumped in as an enforcer, warning one open access publisher to stop misusing the names of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the agency's employees in promotional material.

    Open-access journals make articles available for free online and cover their costs by charging authors a fee. Although many open-access journals are respected, some have been accused of inviting researchers to serve as editors in name only or to submit papers that the journal publishes after little or no review, for a fee, according to recent news reports. One large open access outfit, the OMICS Publishing Group of Los Angeles and Hyderabad, India, which publishes approximately 250 journals, has also come under fire for holding conferences that advertise organizers or speakers who did not agree to be involved. (See reports by Beall and The New York Times.)

    Ken Witwer, an HIV researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says he got burned last August when he presented his work at a nutrition conference sponsored by OMICS. Witwer attended partly in hopes of meeting biochemist Bruce Ames, inventor of the Ames mutagenicity test, identified in OMICS material as a speaker. Ames did not show up. Witwer says he later learned from Ames that he had never agreed to speak. In March, Witwer sent an e-mail to NIH urging it to pursue legal options against the company, whichContinue Reading

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    Jeffrey Mervis
    Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 2:00pm
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    U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

    Ungranted. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) has proposed revising the U.S. National Science Foundation's funding process after some members questioned some of its social science grants.

    The new push by the House of Representatives science committee to change the grant-making process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) flows from members' unhappiness over a handful of grants awarded in the social sciences. And the goal is to screen out "questionable" grants.

    That explanation comes from a committee aide who was authorized to discuss the draft bill after Science acceded to his request for anonymity. An article in the 10 May issue of Science describes the origins of the controversy regarding the draft written by the chair of the committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). It also examines his 25 April letter to NSF asking for more information about five recent grants and the current state of play on the issue.

    In the 3 May interview, the aide described the intent behind the bill, entitled, "The High Quality Research Act." The aide also discussed its relationship to a broader legislative exercise, called reauthorization, of the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which sets policy and funding levels for NSF and several other federal research agencies. The scientific community has sharply criticized the legislation and is pushing for major revisions.

    Here are excerpts from the interview.

    Q: What's broken about peer review at NSF that the proposed legislation is trying to fix?

    Aide: The concern is with a certain number of specific NSF grants that were awarded that have raised questions in the minds of policymakers about why these projects are being funded. That's not the peer-review system itself, and the intent of the legislation is not to change the peer-review system. It is the next step after, which is making the awards. It is an additional layer of accountability.

    Q: What do you mean byContinue Reading

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    Jocelyn Kaiser
    Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - 3:30pm
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    National Institutes of Health

    NIH

    After weeks of worrying about how the mandatory across-the-board 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester would play out at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical research community now has final figures. The bottom line is as grim as expected: The agency's overall budget will fall by $1.71 billion compared to 2012, to $29.15 billion, a cut of about 5%, according to an NIH notice today. That is essentially what NIH predicted as part of the 5.1% sequestration. (Including transfers to other agencies and other adjustments in the spending bill funding NIH in 2013, the total reduction is $1.71 billion or 5.5% compared to 2012.)

    As a result, NIH expects to fund 8283 new and competing research grants this year, a drop of 703, according to this table. That number firms up the "hundreds fewer" awards that NIH officials warned of earlier this year. Including ongoing (already awarded) grants that are ending, the total number of research grants will drop by 1357 to 34,902 awards. The decline "reflects the fact that NIH's budget is being shrunk due to the new budget and political reality, which is bad news for researchers and the patients they are trying to help," says Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.

    NIH will try to keep the size of the average award consistent with 2012; it will not award inflationary increases for future years. The agency also expects to trim continuing grants. Grants that were cut up to 10% earlier this year because of budget uncertainty "may be partially restored," but probably not to the original commitment level, NIH's notice says.

    Individual institutes have also begun to announce their sequester plans. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is actually being cut by 5.8% to $4.78Continue Reading

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  • Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - 3:00pm
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    Copyright Large Millimeter Telescope, Jorge Reyes

    Up in the air. The Large Millimeter Telescope was constructed on the summit of one of Mexico's tallest volcanoes.

    Perched on the summit of a dormant volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) watches how stars, galaxies, and planets form. The result of a binational collaboration between the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Mexico's National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics (INAOE), the LMT saw first light in 2011 and is about to begin its first scientific observation season. ScienceInsider chatted with LMT Director David Hughes about millimeter-wavelength telescopes, Mexico's growing astronomy community, and his plans for the LMT's future. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: What makes the LMT unique?

    D.H.: If we talk only of single dish, steerable, millimeter-wavelength telescopes, then the LMT is the world's largest. Since its very conception, it's been designed to operate optimally at high millimeter frequencies or short millimeter wavelengths. And it's been constructed on the summit of the Sierra Negra, a 4600-meter-high volcano in central Mexico. The combination of the physical size, the optimal design for millimeter wavelengths, and the high altitude makes the LMT unique.

    Q: What are the advantages of millimeter-wavelength astronomy?

    D.H.: At millimeter wavelengths, we are sensitive to the coldest objects in the universe. And those are typically found in the most dense and obscured regions of the universe, and in particular the most dense and obscured regions of star formation. We're actually seeing the initial stages of structure formation in the universe, all the way back to the Big Bang. More locally, in our galaxy, we're able to see the formation of planets. So it's an opportunity to really study how the universe has evolved from shortly after the big bang to the observable universe we see around us today.

    Q: How did you getContinue Reading

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    Wayne Kondro
    Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - 1:35pm
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    National Research Council Canada

    Open for business. NRC President John McDougall at an event in 2012.

    The Canadian government's makeover of the 97-year-old National Research Council will significantly alter the nature of its research and how it operates, says NRC President John McDougall.

    Plans to make it a "toolbox for industry" will require the NRC's structure, staffing, and research programs to evolve as industrial partnerships develop, McDougall says in an interview today. Some institutes or research groups may have to be transferred to other government departments or to academe, he says, while others will be jettisoned if they prove "obsolete in a total sense" or "they are operating too far up upstream."

    The new NRC will be very "fluid," he says, pulling expertise from its various divisions and groups to focus on an industrially-driven initiative. "The intent is to allow people to access the full-meal deal," MacDougall says. "We used to operate in a very siloed way, in fact, virtually as independent organizations and because of that, we weren't able to give people what they really need. People don't need a little bit of science or a component of technology. What they need is a whole solution, and if you can't provide the whole solution, then it's very difficult to get things to go anywhere."

    McDougall hopes that this new approach will overcome Canadian industry's notorious indifference to research by demonstrating what he called the "mutual value" of collaborative projects. "The risk is much higher if we do things that they don't value if we don't talk to them," he says. "But if we're working with them right from the beginning, and we're not even going to launch if they don't come along, then it sort of becomes much less likely that that kind of risk will actually play out."

    Getting Canadian businesses to investContinue Reading

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