DARPA Wants To Fight A Bug

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) often uses challenges to stimulate research in challenging areas.  At least some of the current work in self-driving cars can be traced back to several of DARPA’s Grand Challenges in autonomous ground vehicles.

The latest challenge appears to be the first that DARPA has issued outside of engineering and/or information technology.  Last week it announced the CHIKV Challenge for teams to develop methods to track and predict the emergence of a virus (H/T ScienceInsider).  The competition is interested in the Chikungunya virus, which has appeared in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in decades.  It’s mosquito borne, and any challenge solutions proven successful could be used for other viruses, especially those carried by mosquitoes.

The competition starts on September 1, and run through February 1 of next year.  The contest involves predictions of disease spread over the Western Hemisphere.  Entrants must submit the methodology, along with an indication of data sources and related models, by September 1.  Over the next several months, teams will submit accuracy reports indicating how well (or badly) their predictions match the spread of the virus, and describing their prediction for the balance of the competition period.

The top six teams will receive cash prizes (unless they are part of a federally funded research and development center).  DARPA hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Centers for Disease Control, which held a comparable competition on predicting the timing, peak and intensity of influenza during the 2013-2014 season.

Dive Deep Into Mission Blue

Fresh off the festival circuit and available for your Netflix queue is Mission Blue, an documentary about marine sanctuaries and one of their champions, Sylvia Earle (H/T Science Friday).  Earle is a leading explorer in oceanography, having studied the oceans since the 1950s.  Her latest effort is the Mission Blue of the title, an organization focused on establishing and expanding protected marine spaces around the world.  By telling her story, the film documents how human impacts on the ocean have unfolded in her decades of ocean exploration.  Here’s the trailer:

As Earle notes in her Science Friday segment, the United States has taken steps to establish and expand quite large tracts of marine reserves over the last several years (starting with President George W. Bush).  Mission Blue has identified several dozen spots around the globe that should receive comparable protection (though some of them already have protection).

Science Envoys Continue To Travel The World

The State Department started appointing Science Envoys back in 2009, and the men and women who have served to date have traveled to 22 different countries.  The latest Envoy to represent the U.S. abroad is Dr. Barbara Schaal, who is in Uruguay as I type.  Schaal traveled to Colombia in September 2013, and is the first Envoy to visit Latin America.  Schaal is a biology professor at Washington University and a member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST).

At least one of her colleagues has been active since I last posted on the program.  In September 2013 Dr. Bernard Amadei convened a workshop (the first Envoy to do so) in Pakistan on science, technology and engineering for development.  Amadei is an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the founding president of Engineers Without Borders.  I have not been able to find any trips for the third Science Envoy, MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield, since her May 2013 travel to Turkey.  Information on the Envoys is not widely publicized, so I may simply be missing something.

‘Secret’ Ebola Treatment And Other Stories

The outbreak of Ebola virus disease (formerly known as Ebola hermorrhagic fever) in western Africa is no laughing matter.  The way it’s been inserted into fights over immigration reinforces the need to fight misinformation.  (That one of the politicians concerned that Ebola will come into the U.S. via Central American immigrants is a retired doctor reinforces my belief that not all doctors are scientists.)

Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has to say (effective August 6).

“The World Health Organization, in partnership with the Ministries of Health in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria announced a cumulative total of 1711 suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and 932 deaths, as of August 4, 2014. Of the 1711 clinical cases, 1070 cases have been laboratory confirmed for Ebola virus infection.”

Contrary to the concerns of several elected officials and media outlets, there is no significant risk of Ebola in the United States.  Two researchers with the disease were evacuated to the United States for treatment at Emory University in Atlanta.  As long as a hospital follows CDC infection control recommendations and can isolate the patient, it can contain the disease.

There is word of a ‘secret serum’ that the U.S. has, but is not currently going to send over to Africa.  This likely refers to the experimental treatment ZMapp, which has not undergone testing on humans.  While it was used in connection with one of the U.S. cases, neither the National Institutes of Health nor the CDC were involved in procuring the experimental treatment or getting it to the infected person in Africa. Continue reading

UK Minister Responsible For Science To Grow Hair

The UK cabinet just underwent a reshuffle, with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron replacing several ministers in advance of the 2015 Parliamentary elections.  Incoming ministers are, generally speaking, younger and more diverse than the people they are succeeding.  Since this is a coalition government, it should be noted that at the moment, cabinet ministers appointed by the Liberal Democrats remain in place.

Replacing MP David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science is MP Greg Clark.  He’s been a member of Parliament since 2005, and prior to his new ministerial position he held ministerial portfolios (some of them while in opposition) for cities and local government as well as for energy and climate change.  CIties will be part of Clark’s portfolio going forward, in addition to Universities and Science.

It’s too early to tell how Clark might address matters of science policy in his new position.  Unfortunately, he seems persuaded that homeopathy has some therapeutic value, based on his signature on this Early Day Motion in support of National Health Service homeopathic hospitals.  This may simply reflect an interest in protecting one such hospital in his constituency.  However that matter is explained, Clark may well be seen as a step down from his predecessor, simply based on his divided interests and the begrudging respect MP Willetts received from some quarters.

What might further complicate the change is another ministerial appointment.  MP George Freeman was announced as Minister for Life Sciences near the end of the reshuffle.  He has been in Parliament since 2010 and has 15 years experience before that in venture capital focused on biomedicine.  He had served the Government as Life Science Adviser since 2011.   The ministerial appointment is split between the Health Department and the Department on Business, Innovation and Skills.

As for science degrees in the bunch, Willetts and Clark have degrees in economics, and Freeman has one in geography.

European Parliamentary Research Committee Has New Chair(s)

The Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee of the European Parliament is the chamber’s third largest, with 67 members.  It recently announced a new chair, Jerzy Buzek.  Buzek served on the Committee from 2004-2009, before presiding over Parliament from 2009-2012.  He is also a former Prime Minister of Poland.  That someone with his background would take the position reflects its importance.

Buzek will serve as chair for half of the 5-year term of the current Parliament.  in January of 2017 he will be replaced by former European budget commissioner (and fellow Pole) Janusz Lewandowski.  It is expected that he would continue the ITRE Committee’s encouragement of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s latest research programme.

The shift in personnel reflects recent European Parliamentary elections.  The new European Commission President will be formally announced later this week (the sole nominee is former Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker).  Whomever will be the Commissioner responsible for research will be determined by the incoming President.

A Persistent Cloud In The Rise Of Chinese Research

Part of the arguments for increased scientific funding, regardless of country, focus on international competitiveness.  And the rise of China’s scientific enterprise is usually mentioned, especially in the countries already established in the research firmament.

However, what doesn’t get as much attention – perhaps because it undercuts the desired external threat – is the health of China’s research system.  The latest problems to come to light (it’s the third science-related incident reported by the Chinese antigraft committee this year) involve fraud in grants managed by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and awarded to Fudan University in Shanghai (H/T ScienceInsider).

The specific concerns should be familiar to anyone concerned with ethics.  Conflicts of interest, too many outside appointments, and in some cases outright skimming of funds.  The rapid increase of investment in research and development certainly invites attention from researchers and those seeking to exploit an opportunity.  Only now does the Chinese government appear to be catching up with the latter category.  Whether university oversight has remains to be seen.

Now the problems plaguing Chinese research are not unique.  Every country needs to be vigilant with the research investments it makes and in making sure its personnel conduct themselves and their work in ways consistent with accepted ethical practices – scientific and otherwise.  But until oversight and proper research controls are better institutionalized in China, the problem could affect the quality of research output from that country.  As that output becomes a larger share of global output, concerns over the quality of Chinese research should be a concern for anyone seeking to rely on it – regardless of where they reside.