Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • White House to host closed-door summit on U.S. research enterprise

    the White House at night

    You’ll need an invitation to attend, but on 5 November the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will host a 1-day meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss a host of hot-button issues affecting the U.S. research community.

    Several dozen university and industry leaders from across the country have been summoned by OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier to advise an internal committee he leads that is trying to harmonize research policies across all federal agencies. The impact of foreign collaborations on national security will probably be uppermost on the minds of attendees, some of them still reeling from aggressive efforts by the National Institutes of Health to enforce existing rules that require NIH-funded scientists to disclose all foreign sources of support. But the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE) is also tackling three other long-running challenges: how to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, how to reduce the administrative burden on grantees, and how to strengthen scientific integrity.

    Droegemeier won Senate confirmation in January, filling a post vacant for the first 2 years of the Trump administration. In May, he appended JCORE to the government’s long-running in-house coordinating body, the National Science and Technology Council, and gave it the mandate to oversee policy deliberations on all four topics. Its four subcommittees have been meeting regularly, and the summit will be the first chance for outsiders to add their 2 cents.

  • NSF tallies 16 cases of alleged harassment by grantees in first year of new rules

    NSF headquarters

    The National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia

    Maria Barnes/National Science Foundation

    It’s been 1 year since the National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented a new policy governing when universities must tell it about possible sexual harassment by grantees. Despite adopting a narrow definition of who is covered, agency officials say they are surprised by how many notifications—16 to date—they have received.

    The rules apply only to researchers who received an award after 22 October 2018, and kick in only when an institution takes what is called an “administrative action.” That could range from monitoring someone’s behavior to banning the alleged perpetrator from campus. Institutions must also notify NSF of the final decision in a harassment investigation involving an NSF grantee, the end of a process that can drag on for years.

    The new rules are designed to prevent the agency from being blindsided by media reports of current grantees who are found guilty of harassment. But the goal is not to stamp out sexual harassment, per se. Rather, it is to inform NSF of any step that could interfere with the funded project. The rule addresses NSF’s obligation to ensure a “safe and secure” research environment at places where it is spending money.

  • German university finds ‘severe’ misconduct by researcher who promoted questionable cancer blood test

    Christof Sohn with Sarah Schott working in a laboratory

    In a press release, Christof Sohn (right) promoted a questionable breast cancer blood test as “revolutionary.”

    Heidelberg University

    A university commission announced this week it had found evidence of “extensive and severe scientific misconduct” by Christof Sohn, director of the women’s clinic at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany and the lead researcher behind a highly publicized but questionable blood test designed to detect breast cancer.

    The hospital has been rocked for months by the scandal, which has led to ongoing criminal proceedings. The hospital intended to release the results of an external investigation into the scandal at a press conference on 22 October, the same day that Heidelberg University released the report from its commission for good scientific practice. But that day, after a petition from Sohn, a local court ordered the cancelation of the press conference to protect the rights of and presumption of innocence for Sohn, who reportedly has been suspended from teaching and research for 3 months and faces a university disciplinary inquiry. Following the court’s decision, the university also removed its commission’s report from its website. Prosecutors in Mannheim, Germany, declined to name suspects in their ongoing inquiries concerning economic crimes.

    The affair began in February, when Sohn promoted the blood-based liquid biopsy test as a “new, revolutionary option” in a press release that appeared on the websites of both the hospital and HeiScreen GmbH, a spin-off company. The institutions claimed the test, which looks for 15 biomarkers that reflect cancer-related genetic processes, has a sensitivity of 80% to 90% for some groups of women with breast cancer. (Sensitivity reflects the proportion of women with cancer that is correctly identified.)

  • Argentine scientists rally behind favorite in Sunday’s presidential election

    Presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez

    Alberto Fernández

    Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo

    Thousands of Argentine scientists are hoping the man expected to be the country’s next president will reverse deep cuts to research imposed by the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri. But the first priority for Alberto Fernández, the front-runner in Sunday’s election, will almost certainly be Argentina’s crumbling economy. And it’s not clear when—or how effectively—the concerns of scientists will be addressed.

    Fernández, a 60-year-old lawyer and political insider, worked for former President Nestor Kirchner and, for a short time, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after she succeeded her husband in 2007. Despite a decadeslong rift between Fernández and Cristina Kirchner, she is now his running mate, and the presidential candidate is expected to continue her brand of populism, whose roots go back almost 70 years to the rule of Juan Peron. Polls show Fernández leading Macri by a wide margin; Fernández will gain the presidency if he captures more than 45% of the vote in a six-person field, or wins 40% of the vote and leads by at least 10 percentage points.

    Kirchner won the support of many scientists by creating Argentina’s first Ministry of Science. She also increased the number of student scholarships and pledged to create more jobs within the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Elected in November 2015, Macri eliminated the science ministry and cut new CONICET jobs to less than one-third the level that Kirchner had targeted by this year. Other cuts have left research labs struggling to cover basic services such as routine maintenance and the cost of electricity and security.

  • Some of NIH’s chimpanzees will not retire to a sanctuary as planned

    a chimpanzee eating watermelon

    A chimpanzee munches on a watermelon at Chimp Haven.

    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) will not be retiring all of its chimpanzees to a sanctuary, as it originally pledged to do, agency head Francis Collins announced today. Nearly four dozen chimps at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico will remain there because they are too old and sick to move, he said, although scientific studies of them have ended. Some federally owned or supported chimpanzees at other biomedical primate facilities may also not be retired to sanctuaries.

    “Some of these animals are quite old and very frail. It was just going to be too unsafe to move all of them,” says NIH Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “We’re not going to take the risk.”

    Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, the national chimpanzee sanctuary where the animals were supposed to be retired, laments the decision. “We’re disappointed,” says Stephen Ross, the sanctuary’s board chair. “We believe that every chimpanzee should have the opportunity to live out the rest of their life in a sanctuary, and we’re concerned this decision will set a precedent for other chimps still waiting to be retired.”

  • NIH and Gates Foundation lay out ambitious plan to bring gene-based treatments for HIV and sickle cell disease to Africa

    a doctor inspecting the eyes of a child in a hospital bed

    A new $200 million collaboration aims to speed development of genetic cures for people in Africa with sickle cell disease (above) and, separately, HIV infection.

    JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

    Two major U.S. biomedical research funders plan to each put at least $100 million over 4 years toward bringing cutting-edge, gene-based treatments to a part of the world that often struggles to provide access to even basic medicines: sub-Saharan Africa. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced the unusual collaboration to launch clinical trials for gene-based cures for HIV and sickle cell disease within the region in the coming decade.

    The ambitious goal is to steer clear of expensive, logistically impractical strategies that require stem cell transplantation, and instead develop simpler, affordable ways of delivering genes or gene-editing drugs that can cure these diseases. “Yes, this is audacious,” NIH Director Francis Collins said during a press teleconference this morning on the project. “But if we don’t put our best minds, resources, and visions together right now, we would not live up to our mandate to bring the best science to those who are suffering.”

    After decades of work and setbacks, the traditional gene therapy approach of delivering DNA into the body to replace a defective gene or boost a protein’s production is now reaching the clinic for several diseases, including inherited blindness, neuromuscular disease, and leukemia. Animal studies and some clinical trials have suggested that two diseases prevalent in Africa, HIV and sickle cell disease, can be treated by gene therapies or newer genome-editing tools such as CRISPR.

  • Poison used in recent attack on Russian spy may soon be banned

    personnel in hazmat suits securing a tent covering a bench in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury

    U.K. investigators at the site where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok agent in March 2018.

    Andrew Matthews/Press Association via AP Images

    The poisons were so fearsome that U.S. government scientists were forbidden from publicly uttering their name. Then, in 2018, one of the Novichok compounds was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

    On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting next month, as expected, they would be the first update to the list of banned chemical weapons since the CWC came into force in 1997. “This is a historic milestone for the treaty,” says Gregory Koblentz, a chemical and biological weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

    The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments. “Fourth-generation agents are now on the list of compounds we can study,” says David Jett, director of the Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats Program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The U.S. government limits work on Novichoks to a handful of defense labs, but academic researchers may now partner with these labs as well as conduct computer modeling or other studies that don’t require the chemicals. Such research, Jett hopes, will “provide more information on the toxicity of these threat agents.”

  • Reanalyzing drug trials in depression, chronic pain aims to unearth new data

    illustration of scientists looking through glass into a lab

    Two new projects reanalyzing clinical trial data aim to encourage transparency in clinical research.

    Davide Bonazzi/Salzman Art

    Concerned that reports of clinical trials can exaggerate a treatment’s benefits and downplay its risks, two research groups will sift through data from tests of drugs involving thousands of people with chronic pain or depression. The question for those reanalyzing the data is whether dozens of papers on the trials’ outcomes painted a complete picture, and what details may have gone unmentioned about the drugs’ effects.

    “Bias and spin are incredibly common in the publication of clinical trials,” says Peter Doshi, a health services researcher at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore and an editor at The BMJ. He and others have long been concerned about how trial results wend their way to doctors and patients, and whether both groups are fully informed when considering a specific medication. So in 2013 Doshi formed RIAT, which stands for Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials. It sought to encourage researchers to obtain unpublished clinical trial information, which would include deidentified patient-level data. With those data in hand, the researchers could reanalyze a trial’s results and publish what they found, which may or may not jibe with the original reports.

    In 2017, RIAT received $1.4 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now called Arnold Ventures), and last year awarded its first grant for clinical trial reanalysis. It provided $150,000 to look at a U.S. government–funded trial of antidepressants in more than 300 teenagers. That trial’s reporting had been criticized in part because some arms of the study were unblinded and because it described outcomes that it didn’t originally set out to analyze—called post hoc analysis. Trial investigators reported that taking Prozac alone or combining it with cognitive-behavioral therapy eased depression, and the combination strategy reduced suicidality. “This trial is much more influential than any other antidepressant trial in kids,” says child psychiatrist Jon Jureidini at Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, who is leading the reanalysis. Jureidini acknowledges that even if his reanalysis turns up something new, changing practice patterns may be tough. “But that has to be our target,” he says.

  • Deadly typhoon forces Japan to face its vulnerability to increasingly powerful storms

    satellite image of Typhoon Hagibis with an atmospheric river circled.
    Kazuhisa Tsuboki

    Typhoon Hagibis, which pummeled Japan earlier this month and caused widespread flooding that killed at least 80, is leading the country to face some tough questions. The disaster has shown that the levees built up over decades along virtually all of Japan’s major rivers may not provide protection from the increasingly powerful storms expected to accompany climate change. Even while construction crews are working to plug the numerous breeches in river embankments, experts and government officials are debating how to prepare for future storms.

    Last week, the land and infrastructure ministry announced it was forming a panel of experts to study the embankment failures and recommend remediation options. But experts are also calling for more attention to evacuation planning and long-term measures to encourage people to move off lowlands susceptible to flooding.

    Hagibis originated in the tropical latitudes of the western North Pacific Ocean in early October and underwent a period of rapid intensification with 10-minute sustained winds of 195 kilometers per hour as it tracked north and west toward Japan. The winds had diminished significantly by the time Hagibis made landfall on 12 October. Instead of high winds, however, Hagibis brought unusually sustained rainfall, apparently thanks to an accompanying weather phenomenon called an atmospheric river. Still imperfectly understood, atmospheric rivers are narrow channels of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere that sometimes form in association with midlatitude cyclones.

  • Alzheimer’s drug resurrected, as company claims clinical benefits

    beta-amyloid plaques in the brain

    In a surprise move, Biogen says it will press for U.S. approval to sell an Alzheimer’s drug candidate targeting toxic beta-amyloid (brown).


    Biogen stunned investors and scientists alike today, announcing it will resurrect an Alzheimer’s drug it had declared a failure in March; the company plans in early 2020 to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for marketing approval of aducanumab, an antibody designed to bind and eliminate the protein beta-amyloid in the brain.

    As STAT reports, Biogen says the about-face came after it assessed clinical trial data from a larger number of patients than it first analyzed. Whereas an initial “futility” analysis of data from two late-stage clinical trials found that the drug failed to meaningfully slow progression of early Alzheimer’s disease, the company now concludes that, due primarily to the responses of people on  the higher of two doses of the antibody, the drug did significantly slow people’s cognitive decline and their functional decline, meaning their ability to cope with activities of daily living.

    Biogen’s first analysis used data from 1748 patients who had completed 18 months on a low dose or a high dose of the drug; the new analysis, whose underlying data are not yet publicly available nor described in a journal article, included 2066 such patients.

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