Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Research groups attend HHS ‘listening session’ on fetal tissue research amid funding fears

    fetal astrocyte cells

    Fetal brain cells called astrocytes are used in studies on Alzheimer’s disease.

    Riccardo Cassiani-Ingoni/Science Source

    Science advocates who attended a “listening session” on the use of fetal tissue in medical research held today by senior officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., say they are optimistic that they were listened to and heard. But many researchers remain concerned about reports that President Donald Trump’s administration is considering withdrawing funding for such studies, which are fiercely opposed by antiabortion advocates. 

    “It was a very good conversation. It was not a ‘check the box’ meeting,” says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy and media relations for the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

    “It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about the science,” adds Jennifer Zeitzer, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), also in Bethesda. Zeitzer was accompanied by FASEB board member Patricia Morris, a reproductive biologist at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

  • A U.S. biochemistry professor takes his political shot—and misses by a lot

    Randy Wadkins

    Randy Wadkins on election night

    Sam DeLuca

    His bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress had just gone down in flames. But instead of rehashing his election night defeat, Randy Wadkins says he spent the next morning describing “oxidative phosphorylation electron transport in mitochondria” to a class of chemistry majors at The University of Mississippi in Oxford.

    Wadkins’s lecture on the molecular cycle creating adenosine triphosphate highlighted his unique status among the 49 candidates with training in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or medical field who ran this year for the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only was Wadkins the only academic researcher in the bunch, but he also kept working as a tenured professor of biochemistry during his 18-month campaign.

    Wadkins, a progressive Democrat, lost to the conservative Republican incumbent, Representative Trent Kelly, by more than a two-to-one margin. (Only seven of the STEM candidates won seats.) A heavy underdog from the start, Wadkins couldn’t raise nearly enough money to get his message out to the conservative voters that dominate his rural district in northeastern Mississippi. But having to wear two hats certainly didn’t help.

  • In reversal, NSF lifts proposal limits on biologists

    team of divers underwater

    Scientists investigate deep-sea comb jellies with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program.

    Steve Haddock/NSF

    In a reversal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will no longer restrict researchers to only one proposal submission per year to the biology directorate’s three core tracks in which they are listed as a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI.

    The change, announced yesterday in a statement by the biology directorate’s acting head, Joanne Tornow, will be in place for at least the 2019 fiscal year that began 1 October. It rescinds a policy implemented this past August that was immediately met with strong opposition from the research community. Tornow cited the community response and the relatively low number of proposals submitted to the directorate since August as the motivation behind lifting the restriction.

    “NSF understood the community’s concerns about the new submission process because we care about the same things,” Tornow said in statement to ScienceInsider. “To ensure we remain good stewards of the merit review process, we will continue to monitor the effects of these changes and adjust as necessary.”

  • A ‘rediscovered’ drug against sleeping sickness gets the green light

    A mobile screening team working at a table surrounded by patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Health workers screen for human African trypanosomiasis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Neil Brandvold/DNDi

    A powerful new treatment for human African trypanosomiasis, better known as sleeping sickness, received a stamp of approval today from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London, clearing the way for countries affected by the disease to approve its use. That could soon improve the lives of thousands of patients in West and Central Africa where sleeping sickness, caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the tsetse fly, not only causes severe disruption in sleep patterns but also aggression, psychosis, and, ultimately, death.

    “It’s a great victory for people in Africa with sleeping sickness, but it is also a victory for” the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), the nonprofit organization that rediscovered the drug and is shepherding it to approval, says Peter Hotez, a tropical disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “It’s a great validation of DNDi’s approach.”

    Health officials reported 1447 cases of human African trypanosomiasis to the World Health Organization (WHO) last year, but the true number of cases is widely believed to be much higher. As recently as 10 years ago, the main treatment for human African trypanosomiasis was the arsenic-based drug melarsoprol, which killed 5% of those treated with it. Current treatments with drugs named eflornithine and nifurtimox aren’t deadly, but they involve a complicated series of infusions and pills that have to be administered in a hospital; they also require patients to undergo painful lumbar punctures in order to check whether the parasite is present in the spinal fluid. All of that puts the treatments out of reach for many patients in the countries where most of the cases occur: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Guinea, and Chad.

  • STEM candidates elected to U.S. House prepare for their new jobs

    Joe Cunningham holding his son and carrying luggage

    Representative-elect Joe Cunningham (D–SC) arrives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and infant son for an orientation for newly elected members.

    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

    They’ve won their elections and are headed to Washington, D.C. Their next challenge is using their expertise to make Congress work better.

    Among the more than 100 newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives are six who touted their backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and medicine on the campaign trail. All Democrats, they helped their party seize control of the 435-seat House for the first time since 2010. At the same time, they promised constituents they would reach across the aisle to get things done—something they will have many chances to do with Republicans maintaining their grip on the Senate and Republican President Donald Trump in the White House.

    Fresh off their electoral victories, the new STEM members talked with Science last week about national issues that also affect the scientific community. Topics included whether scientific facilities should be part of any upgrading of the country’s infrastructure, how to provide accessible and affordable health care, and how the billions spent on political campaigns limit who can run for office. They also described their preferences for committee assignments, which are determined by party leaders, and their thoughts on being part of the largest Democratic gain in the House since the 1974 post-Watergate class.

  • Is ride-sharing killing people? Yes, study suggests, but critics are doubtful

    hand holding up a smartphone with the Uber app on the street

    Ride-sharing services have boomed in many urban areas. Researchers are debating their costs and benefits.

    Alberto Grosescu/Alamy Stock Photo

    Has the boom in ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft led to an increase in traffic deaths in U.S. cities?

    That is the provocative question a trio of economists tackles in a recent study. It concludes that the arrival of ride-sharing was associated with a 2% to 3% increase in the number of car occupants and pedestrians killed in accidents between 2011 and 2016.

    Some researchers are skeptical of the finding, however, and say other factors might be involved. And ride-sharing companies are bashing the study, calling it flawed.

  • High-profile ocean warming paper to get a correction

    The ocean stores much of the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases.

    The ocean stores much of the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases.

    Daniel Ramirez/Flickr

    Originally published by E&E News

    Scientists behind a major study on ocean warming this month are acknowledging errors in their calculations and say conclusions are not as certain as first reported.

    The research, published in the journal Nature, said oceans are warming much faster than previously estimated and are taking up more energy than projected by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [Climatewire, Nov. 1].

  • With Democrats in control of U.S. House, science panel gets fresh start

    Kim Schrier

    Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, played up her technical training in a winning congressional campaign.

    AP PHOTO/Elaine Thompson

    The results of last week’s divisive midterm elections, with Democrats reclaiming control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republicans likely strengthening their hold on the Senate, have allowed both parties to claim victory. U.S. scientists are also experiencing mixed emotions.

    Many are pleased with what they expect to be a more data-driven approach to science policy under the new Democratic chair of the House science committee. But they also face the sobering reality that, by Science’s count, only seven of the 49 House candidates with technical backgrounds were victorious. And environmental activists are chagrined by the defeat of a proposed tax on carbon emissions in Washington and an Arizona initiative to increase that state’s reliance on renewable energy, although Nevada voters took a first step toward adopting a similar policy.

    In the House, Democrats picked up nearly 40 seats. That outcome gives them control of the 435-seat body for the first time since 2010, meaning they will appoint committee chairs and decide which bills get a vote.

  • Science restored: Eddie Bernice Johnson prepares to chair key panel in U.S. House of Representatives

    Eddie Bernice Johnson

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is in line to lead the House of Representatives science committee.


    After 8 years in the political wilderness, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is relishing the chance to “restore the credibility” of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. With Democrats winning control of the House, Johnson is in line to move from ranking member to chair of the panel when the 116th Congress convenes in January 2019. And she says ending the committee’s ideologically driven fights over climate change, management of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other research topics is high on her agenda.

    She feels that the polarizing 6-year tenure of Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the current science panel chair who is retiring, was an anomaly for the typically low-key panel she joined as a new member in 1993. She is hoping her Republican colleagues take a less partisan approach to the committee’s business now that Democrats are in charge and Smith is out of the picture.

    Trained as a psychiatric nurse, the 82-year-old Johnson served for more than a decade in the Texas legislature before coming to Washington, D.C. She spoke with ScienceInsider on 9 November from her Dallas district about a range of topics, including climate policy under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, gender discrimination in science, and how the need for members to raise money influences the committee’s roster. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Killing badgers not enough to defeat costly tuberculosis in cattle, U.K. report finds

    a badger at night

    European badgers can spread tuberculosis to cattle, but killing the animals to prevent outbreaks has led to controversy.

    mike lane/Alamy Stock Photo

    One of the most contentious wildlife management debates in the United Kingdom is whether badgers must be killed in order the slow the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, a disease that costs farmers and taxpayers about £120 million a year. Farmers insist the culling is necessary, because badgers can spread the disease to cattle. Wildlife advocates counter that the practice is inhumane and can make the problem worse.

    A new review of the issue, released today, reaffirms that badgers are partly responsible, but urges farmers to do more to protect their herds and prevent inadvertent spread of the disease. “It is wrong to put all the blame on wildlife,” said population biologist Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, an author of the review. “This is a disease that needs action on all fronts.”

    Bovine TB is the “most pressing animal health problem in the U.K.,” according to the review. The strain that infects cattle is killed by pasteurizing milk, but sick animals produce less milk and lower quality meat. Infected animals are typically killed. The disease been particularly difficult to control in the United Kingdom and is getting worse, in part because badgers are also susceptible. The bacteria can spread between cattle and badgers that live near farms. In 2014, the U.K. government launched a 25-year strategy to eradicate the disease with a combination of testing, controls on cattle movements, and a controversial plan to kill badgers. The justification for the culling comes from a large randomized trial that took place between 1998 and 2005. It found that culling can reduce the number of TB cases in cattle, but only if at least 70% of the badgers around a farm are killed. Killing fewer can disrupt the social structure of badger communities, causing some to travel farther away and potentially spread the disease.

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