Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH says its 1-million-person health study is off to good start

    a research tech draws blood from the arm of a woman

    The National Institutes of Health’s All of Us health study aims to enroll 1 million participants, including children, within 6 years.

    Dake Kang/AP Photo

    A plan to entice 1 million people in the United States to volunteer for a huge study of health and genes is making good progress 1 year after its national launch, organizers said this week. The All of Us study run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has recruited 143,000 participants who have already taken surveys and visited a clinic to give blood and urine samples. Another 87,000 have at least registered for the study.

    Study leaders say these numbers give them confidence All of Us will reach 1 million participants within 5 or 6 years—although they will need to ramp up enrollment to reach that goal. And they expect to broaden the study’s geographic distribution, which so far largely covers just a few states.

    Announced by then-President Barack Obama 4 years ago, the All of Us study, which could cost $4 billion over 10 years, aims to enroll a diverse swath of U.S. inhabitants—citizens or not—who agree to share their health records and DNA on an anonymized basis. Researchers will use the data to develop “precision medicine,” or personalized treatments for others—the study participants themselves can request their genetic data but won’t receive medical help as part of the project. The 143,000 people who have given consent, taken surveys, and visited a clinic for physical measurements and to give blood and urine samples meet All of Us’s original diversity goal: Fifty-three percent are ethnic or racial minorities, far more than the 39% these groups constitute in the U.S. population. (For example, participants with self-identified African ancestry constitute 20% of the study, compared with 13% in the population.)

  • Chinese bioethicists call for ‘reboot’ of biomedical regulation after country’s gene-edited baby scandal

    He Jiankui

    He Jiankui speaks at a 2018 conference in Hong Kong, China, where he gave a public account of creating the first gene-edited human babies.

    Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Four prominent Chinese bioethicists have published an unusually frank and critical assessment of their country’s handling of biomedical research in the wake of what they refer to as the “CRISPR babies’ scandal.”

    Their commentary, published online today in Nature, calls for “an overhaul” in the way the biomedical experiments in China are regulated, monitored, and registered and for “severe” penalties for researchers who violate regulations. “China is at a crossroads,” write Ruipeng Lei of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Xiaomei Zhai of Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, Wei Zhu of Fudan University in Shanghai, and Renzong Qiu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “The government must make substantial changes to protect others from the potential effects of reckless human experimentation.”

    The authors say a “soul searching” is now taking place in China because of the November 2018 revelation that He Jiankui, a biophysicist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, had created the world’s first babies, twin girls, who had genes edited while they were embryos. He, who was subsequently fired from his job and has not spoken publicly since he described the germline editing experiment at a Hong Kong, China, meeting, used CRISPR—which cuts DNA—to cripple a cell surface protein that HIV uses to infect cells. The intent, he said, was to “genetically vaccinate” the girls so that they would not be susceptible to the virus.

  • Two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers no longer run free

    aerial view of mangrove and shrimp farms

    Free-flowing rivers are increasingly threatened by dams, levees, and water diversions, such as for these shrimp farms in Ecuador.

    ? Antonio Busiello/WWF-U.S.

    About two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers are no longer free flowing, compromising their ability to move sediment, facilitate fish migration, and perform other vital ecosystem services, according to a new study. And with more than 3700 large dams in the works, the future of free-flowing waterways looks even bleaker, researchers say.

    To get a global perspective on river conditions, Bernhard Lehner, a hydrologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who for years has studied the effects of dams on entire watersheds, teamed up with researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), based in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Using aerial, satellite, and other data, the team examined 12 million kilometers of waterways, evaluating their flows in 4.5-kilometer segments.

    Traditionally, researchers focused on dams when assessing a river’s free flow. But in this assessment, the team also considered the impacts on flow created by riverbank levees, other flood control structures, and water diversions for power, irrigation, or drinking supplies. “It’s a more comprehensive analysis of global hydrology than we have had before,” says N. LeRoy Poff, a hydroecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who was not part of the project.

  • Landmark analysis documents the alarming global decline of nature

    A black rhino

    Black rhinos, poached for their horns, are just one of some 1 million species that a new report warns are at risk of extinction.

    Mint Images/Aurora Photos

    The state of biodiversity and ecosystems is at its most perilous point in human history and the decline is accelerating, warns a landmark assessment released today. But the hope is that the bleak assessment—crafted by hundreds of scientists and historic in its depth and breadth—will finally persuade governments and others of the need to change course and prevent further harm to the ecological systems that provide for human well-being. “What’s at stake here is a livable world,” says Robert Watson of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., who chaired the organization that produced the report.

    Only transformative changes to economic, political, and social systems will allow nations to meet agreed targets for nature conservation, the authors conclude. The core message is “quite radical,” says Georgina Mace, an ecologist at University College London who reviewed the assessment. “You have to prioritize nature and nature’s benefits to people in everything you do.”

    The report confirms “that we can’t just preserve, we must reverse the trend by increasing biodiversity locally, regionally, and globally,” said Alexandre Antonelli, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom, in a statement.

  • German research promised a decade of budget increases

    Anja Karliczek

    German research minister Anja Karliczek helped negotiate a budget deal with steady rises for science.

    Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    BERLIN—German research organizations cheered a decision announced today by state and federal ministers to increase research budgets by 3% a year for the next decade—a total boost of €17 billion over that time. For more than a decade, German research organizations have enjoyed consistent budget increases—3% boosts every year since 2006, even during downturns in the German economy. But some observers have worried that falling tax revenues and deep disagreements between state and federal ministers could bring an end to the largesse.

    The news turned out much better than most expected. Not only will the research organizations—including the Max Planck Society and the grantmaking agency the German Research Foundation—get their increases, universities and technical schools will also receive significant boosts through 2027. “It’s a huge relief,” says Matthias Kleiner, president of the country’s Leibniz Association here, which includes more than 90 research institutes. The agreement is “an extraordinarily positive and encouraging signal for science.”

    The deal also approves two new Max Planck institutes: the Institute for Cybersecurity and Privacy Protection, to be based in Bochum, and a new independent Institute for the Biology of Behavior in Radolfzell, previously part of the Institute for Ornithology. The Leibniz Association will also add two institutes: The German Resilience Center in Mainz will study factors that keep people healthy even under stressful conditions and the Center for Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe in Frankfurt will study the effects of political decisions on finance markets.

  • Global health institute sued for age and sex discrimination

    Mt. Sinai Medical Center

    A lawsuit targets a global health institute and the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, which is part of the Mount Sinai Health System.

    Homieg340/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

    Seven current and former female employees have sued officials at a global health institute that is part of the Mount Sinai Health System’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, claiming age and sex discrimination. They claim the medical school’s dean, Dennis Charney, hired an underqualified man to direct the center, and allege that the director then drove out women who were in their 40s and older and preferentially hired younger men. An eighth plaintiff on the lawsuit, a man, claims discrimination based on race, religion, and national origin.

    The 174-page lawsuit, filed on 26 April, names as defendants Charney and three men at the Arnhold Institute for Global Health (AIGH), which designs technology and systems to improve the health of poor communities. It makes a number of allegations against center Director Prabhjot Singh, who was hired in 2015, including that he disparaged, demoted, and marginalized female employees; lied to funders about the status of a software project; and did not seek required ethics reviews for some research projects.

    The plaintiffs also allege that Singh countenanced abuse of female employees by David Berman, who was Singh’s chief of staff at the time, and Bruno Silva, the institute’s director of design and product development. Silva, the lawsuit alleges, called female co-workers and donors “bitches” and “c---s,” and that Singh “did nothing to curb him.” Berman “was known for violent screaming at women … which Singh nonchalantly ignored,” the lawsuit alleges.

  • Shake-up at NIH: Term limits for important positions would open new opportunities for women, minorities

    two women working at a computer in a laboratory

    The National Institutes of Health’s in-house research program plans to limit the terms of midlevel managers, in part so that more women can move into leadership positions.

    National Institutes of Health/flickr (CC BY-NC)

    Able to pursue open-ended research without relentless grant deadlines, some scientists who work directly for the National Institutes of Health joke that NIH stands for "nerds in heaven." But the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and its other intramural research sites are also known as stodgy places where the scientific management, mostly white men, tends to stay in place for decades. Now, NIH is aiming to shake up its intramural program, the largest collection of biomedical researchers in the world, by imposing term limits on midlevel leadership positions.

    Starting next year, the 272 lab and branch chiefs who oversee NIH's intramural research will be limited to 12-year terms. The policy, now being refined by the directors of NIH's 23 institutes with in-house science programs, means up to half of the chiefs will turn over in the next 5 years, says Michael Gottesman, NIH's deputy director for intramural research. "We see this as an opportunity for diversity in the leadership at NIH, especially gender and ethnic diversity," says Hannah Valantine, NIH's chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

    The changes are roiling the campus, with some grumbling they will have little impact and others questioning whether good leaders should automatically be replaced. "The appointment of more women … could be a plus, but the ‘coin of the realm’ still remains scientific excellence and productivity," says Malcolm Martin, who has headed a lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 37 years.

  • Senator’s queries prompt NIH and NSF to clarify how they monitor foreign research ties

    Senator Charles Grassley

    Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) wants U.S. research agencies to pay more attention to foreign collaborations.

    Stefani Reynolds/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    Responding to the rising concern within Congress that foreign governments are taking advantage of the open U.S. research enterprise, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have recently tweaked their grantmaking process to better monitor the foreign ties of the researchers they fund. And although there are subtle differences in how the two agencies are approaching the task, the goal is the same: to collect more information about the foreign affiliations of grantees. When it comes to policing suspicious relationships, however, neither agency sits in the driver’s seat.

    Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, has been leading a chorus of lawmakers who believe the large number of foreign-born scientists working in the United States—in particular those from China—pose a potential threat to the nation’s research enterprise. And they worry that U.S. universities and government agencies have been slow to respond. A longtime watchdog of federal spending practices, Grassley in recent months has sent nearly identical letters to NIH, NSF, and the Department of Defense (DOD) asking each agency about its practices in rooting out any illegal behavior.

    Last week, NSF replied to a letter Grassley sent on 15 April. NIH responded at the end of 2018 to a query sent in October 2018, and DOD has yet to reply to a letter it received on 1 April.

  • Analysis: U.S. science adviser has a vision for cutting research red tape, but details are scarce

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Kelvin Droegemeier in his office next to the White House

    Stephen Voss

    U.S. academic scientists and university officials have long complained about how much time they must spend complying with the many rules relating to the federal dollars they receive. But since President Donald Trump assumed office, most scientists have refocused their angst on the president’s proposed large spending cuts to basic research and his administration’s seeming indifference to combatting climate change. What is known as the administrative burden issue has largely fallen off their radar, in large part because they fear that any changes by the Trump administration might make matters worse rather than better.

    Kelvin Droegemeier wants to turn back the clock. As director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the president’s science adviser, Droegemeier generally avoids the subject of federal budgets and climate change when talking to researchers. Science lobbyists say his silence is understandable, given the slim chance that his advice would alter the administration’s stance on those issues.

    Instead, Droegemeier prefers to discuss how he wants to “unleash scientists” and remove obstacles to their greater productivity—especially bureaucratic red tape. “This thing has been studied to death. Now it’s time to take action,” he said yesterday during a meeting with a panel of space scientists and aerospace engineers convened by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C. “I am absolutely intent on moving the needle. In fact, I’m almost angry.”

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