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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Economics Nobel honors trio taking an experimental approach to fighting poverty

    Nobel prize medal
    KAY NIETFELD/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES

    Economists may not build gigantic atom smashers or gene-sequencing facilities, but they can still perform rigorous experiments. This year's Nobel Prize in economics honors three researchers who pioneered the use of randomized controlled trials to determine how best to ameliorate global poverty. Michael Kremer of Harvard University and Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will split the roughly $9 million prize. The three have often worked together and form an intellectual team, other economists say.

    "We all knew that they would win, just not so early in their careers," says Sandra Sequeria, a development economist at the London School of Economics. Kremer is 54 years old, Banerjee is 58, and Duflo 46. While many Nobel prizes honor discoveries made long ago, this year's economics prize goes to work still gaining momentum at foundations and development agencies around the world, says Sylvie Lambert, a development economist at the Paris School of Economics. "It's an ongoing project," she says. "This is the frontier."

    Globally, more than 700 million people live in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, which defines poverty as living on less than $1.90 per day. One in three children is malnourished, according to figures provided by the Nobel foundation, and most children leave school without basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. The new Nobel laureates have strived to explain empirically which interventions work to alleviate poverty and why. "The goal of our work is to make sure that the fight against poverty is based on scientific evidence," Duflo said on the phone at the press conference announcing the prize. "It starts from the idea that often the poor are reduced to caricatures, and often even people who are trying to help them do not understand the deep roots of the problems." 

  • An ambitious effort to map the human body’s individual cells gets backing from NIH

    cell map of a liver

    This map of a developing liver shows single cells as dots, color coded by cell type.

    Newcastle University

    The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) latest foray into turning emerging technologies into useful data sets is focusing on how the body’s trillions of cells interconnect and interact. The Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP) aims to describe the biochemical milieu and the locations of individual cells in the body’s major organs, researchers write this week in Nature. It uses technology heralded by Science as the 2018 Breakthrough of the Year.

    The goal is to “establish a baseline of what constitutes a healthy system,” says HuBMAP grantee Julia Laskin, an analytical chemist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. That way, she says, researchers will be able to see what goes awry in disease.

    Until recently, biomedical scientists had just a broad-brush view of how organs functioned. In particular, they had succeeded in getting only a sense of gene activity—when genes turn on and off—in specific tissues. Gene activity defines what a cell does. But organs consist of many kinds of cells, each with their own molecular profiles.

  • In bid to boost transparency, bioRxiv begins posting peer reviews next to preprints

    a stack of papers

    BioRxiv, the server for life sciences preprints, has begun an experiment that allows select journals and independent peer-review services to publicly post evaluations of its papers should the authors make the request.

    The idea is to make the peer-review process more transparent, and help authors more easily strengthen their manuscripts before they are submitted to journals. But some authors might balk at making critical reviews of their work available for anyone to read.

    The experiment, called Transparent Review in Preprints, launched last week. To run it, bioRxiv has teamed with two publishers and two independent services that are providing peer reviews. In addition to increasing the transparency and usefulness of bioRxiv’s preprints, the initiative is also a platform to test models of “portable” peer reviews, or independent reviews that authors can share with any journal considering their work. (Traditionally, reviews are arranged and reviewed only by the journal considering a particular submission, not a third party.)

  • Dismissed EPA science advisers gather in ‘unprecedented’ challenge to Trump administration

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    Originally published by E&E News

    What was billed as an extraordinary event launched this morning in the most mundane of surroundings: a neutral-toned conference room that featured scientific researchers seated around a makeshift table.

    "We are here to talk about air quality," Chris Frey, chairman of the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel, said at the outset of a two-day meeting that is effectively a rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) handling of a high-stakes review of the standards for a common, but dangerous, pollutant.

  • ‘There’s no hope for the rest of us.’ Uyghur scientists swept up in China’s massive detentions

    Tashpolat Tiyip recieves an award in Paris

    Tashpolat Tiyip (left) receives an honorary degree for his work on arid ecosystems ecology from the Sorbonne in Paris in November 2008.

    Nury Tiyip

    No one outside the Chinese government knows where Tashpolat Tiyip is. No one knows exactly what charges have been filed against him. The only thing that anyone really knows is that in April 2017, as the geographer and former president of Xinjiang University in ürümqi prepared to fly from Beijing to Berlin for a scientific conference and the launch of a research center, he disappeared without even a phone call to colleagues or family.

    Six months later, a Chinese propaganda video emerged saying Tiyip was one of 88 scholars who had “deeply poisoned the minds” of students by approving textbooks with too much content from Uyghur sources—the ethnic group that makes up about half of Xinjiang province’s 24 million people. The video calls Tiyip and three other Uyghurs “two-faced” separatists before announcing their sentence: death, with a 2-year reprieve.

    “It just doesn’t make any sense to anybody,” says Gary Langham, executive director of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), which last week sent Chinese president Xi Jinping a letter asking him to halt the execution and release Tiyip unless there is evidence he committed actual crimes. It was signed by more than 1300 researchers from 50 countries. (AAG took action after Amnesty International warned that Tiyip’s execution could be imminent.)

  • Drug tailored to one girl with brain disease paves way for similar customized treatments

    Mila Makovec

    Mila Makovec (right) has had fewer seizures since she began to receive a drug tailored to the mutation that causes her brain disease.

    Julie Afflerbaugh

    After their apparent success treating a young girl with a drug tailored to counteract a genetic mutation that had given her a usually fatal brain disease, the researchers behind the innovative strategy have this week laid out criteria for similarly helping more sick children. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cautioning that such one-off therapies need to be thoroughly considered before moving ahead and carefully evaluated, in part because desperate parents sometimes perceive improvements from a treatment that are not real.

    In early 2017, after hearing of 6-year-old Mila Makovec, who had a condition called Batten disease that progressively damages brain cells and leads to death by adolescence, neurologist Timothy Yu of Boston Children’s Hospital and co-workers offered to try to help. They quickly designed and had a company synthesize a strand of RNA intended to mask a mutation in a gene called CLN7, which over time was causing Mila’s brain cells to accumulate waste and die. They first showed the potential drug, an antisense oligonucleotide that they dubbed “milasen,” could correct the CLN7 defect in cells cultured from her skin. With FDA approval, in January 2018 they then began to infuse the RNA into her spinal fluid. The team soon saw improvements in Mila’s condition, such as fewer and shorter seizures, Yu reported at a meeting 1 year ago.

    Today, in a paper describing the case in The New England Journal of Medicine, Yu’s team reports that although Mila has continued to lose brain volume since treatment began, her seizures are still suppressed and her scores on neurological tests have mostly stabilized or improved. Her case is widely seen as a possible model for treating other individuals with certain disease mutations with a custommade oligonucleotide drug. Yu estimates that could include 10% of all cases of inherited central nervous system diseases.

  • One billion people, many in poor countries, have major vision problems that could be fixed

    a man standing outside

    A man blinded by trachoma pauses in Laikala, Tanzania. The disorder is caused by a bacterial infection that scars the eyelid.

    Joe McNally/Getty Images

    At least 1 billion people live with moderate to severe vision impairment, such as glaucoma or age-related far-sightedness, that could have been prevented or could be corrected with glasses, cataract surgery, or other means, says a report released Tuesday by the World Health Organization (WHO).

    The burden is disproportionately high in women and specific populations, including people in rural areas and low- and middle-income countries. Poor residents of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have rates of blindness eight times higher than people in high-income countries, WHO says.

  • NIH marquee awards for ‘high risk, high reward’ projects skew male—again

    National Cancer Institute building

    Administrators at the National Institutes of Health’s Building One in Bethesda, Maryland, say they want more female and minority applicants for the prestigious “high risk, high reward” program.

    National Cancer Institute

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) on 1 October announced the winners of an annual crop of prestigious “high risk, high reward” (HRHR) awards. The plum awards provide generous, multiyear funding to a select group of scientists—101 this year—doing outside-the-box research that might not survive standard peer review. But in past years, the awards have been scrutinized because of the paucity of women among awardees.

    For women, this year’s harvest was a mixed bag. For three of the four types of HRHR awards, women won in numbers that met or exceeded their representation in the applicant pool. However, that representation was meager: Eighteen percent to 38% of the applicants for these four awards were women, although women have earned more than 50% of U.S. Ph.D.s in biological sciences in every year since 2008. What’s more, in the award that is arguably best positioned to help women at a critical time in their career—the Early Independence Award (EIA), which allows awardees to skip a postdoc and start an independent lab immediately after a Ph.D.—women constitute 38% of applicants but only 25% of awardees. “I don’t see why consistently fewer women should make it through than apply,” says Monica Mugnier, a molecular parasitologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who won an EIA in 2016.

    The sample size is small: Among the new EIA winners, three of 13 were women, notes Kristin Knouse, a 2018 EIA winner who is a cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, she adds, women have been underrepresented among EIA awardees in eight of the 9 years since the award was launched (see graph, below). “In aggregate over all the years, there has been a significant bias,” Knouse says. “There needs to be a systematic examination of where this awardee bias is arising.”

  • Study identifies a key reason black scientists are less likely to receive NIH funding

    Researcher Stephen Thomas pictured with barbers in a shop

    Stephen Thomas (center) is a researcher at the University of Maryland in College Park who helps train barbers to be health advocates for their customers.

    CADE MARTIN

    In 2011, a study led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas in Lawrence found that black applicants were significantly less likely than white applicants to be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since then, NIH officials have examined a host of factors that might cause the disparity, from the historical advantages that white men enjoy to overt discrimination by grant reviewers. But the picture remains cloudy.

    Now, NIH scientists have identified a key factor they hadn't previously considered: the topics that black scientists want to study. Specifically, black applicants are more likely to propose approaches, such as community interventions, and topics, such as health disparities, adolescent health, and fertility, that receive less competitive scores from reviewers. And a proposal with a poorer score is less likely to be funded. The finding is already prompting discussion about whether that disparity is rooted in NIH's priorities—and whether those priorities should be rethought.

    The study, published today in Science Advances, is based on some 157,000 proposals submitted between 2011 and 2015 for NIH's bread-and-butter R01 grants. After analyzing the text, researchers placed each proposal into one of 150 topic areas. Then they examined six factors that could influence the final outcome. They found that three contributed to creating the "Ginther gap"—whether a proposal is scored (more than half are not), what score it receives, and the applicant's choice of topic.

  • Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to development of lithium batteries

    a module of a lithium-ion electric vehicle battery

    This lithium-ion battery that powers electric cars is one of many commercial products made possible by the research honored by this year’s chemistry Nobel.

    Akio Kon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    You probably have evidence of a Nobel Prize in your pocket. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to the pioneers of the lithium-ion battery, an invention that has become ubiquitous in the wireless electronics that power modern life: your phone, your laptop, and sometimes even your car. Lighter and more compact than the lead and nickel-cadmium batteries of yesteryear, lithium-ion batteries, with further tinkering, could provide a path to storing energy to power homes, airplanes—and even the grid.

    The $900,000 prize is split between three scientists: Stanley Whittingham of the State University of New York in Binghamton, John Goodenough of the University of Texas in Austin, and Akira Yoshino of Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo. 

    "Lithium-ion batteries have made a tremendous impact on our society," said Yang Shao-Horn, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "I am thrilled."

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