New European Commission Scientific Advice Mechanism Meets

Today the High Level Group of the newly constituted Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) of the European Union held its first meeting.  The seven members of the group met with Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas and Andrus Ansip, the Commission’s Vice-President with responsibility for the Digital Single Market (a Commission initiative focused on making a Europe-wide digital market and improving support and infrastructure for digital networks and services).

The High Level Group selected officers and determined subjects for its first advice to the Commission.  The chair is Professor Henrik C. Wegener, Executive Vice-President and Chief Academic Officer of the Technical University of Denmark.  Professor Elvira Fortunato, Professor of Materials Science, New University of Lisbon, was selected as deputy chair of SAM.  At the request of Commissioner Moedas and Vice-President Ansip, the Group will focus on cybersecurity (linked to the Digital Single Market) and vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide.

Minutes and background documents are supposed to be made available on the SAM website, so check that link in a week or so.  They may provide information on when the advice on those topics is expected and when the next meeting of the High Level Group will take place.

We Might Get A Vaccine Ready For The Next Ebola Epidemic

Back in July a vaccine for Ebola was shown to provide 100 percent protection in a  clinical trial.  The test was on a small population, and only addressed short term protection.  But if deployed widely, the vaccine could be a very useful tool in containing a major outbreak.

But vaccines aren’t cheap, and ensuring that they are viable and produced in quantity takes time and money.  For better or worse, vaccines for major contagious diseases in Africa aren’t considered lucrative, but there are organizations trying to overcome that obstacle.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance has taken a step to make it easier to have a major vaccine response available for the next Ebola outbreak.  Nature is reporting that Gavi has paid Merck, the manufacturer of this vaccine, $5 million to have 300,000 doses of the vaccine ready for use by May 2016.  The virus could be used for clinical trials, or possibly for the next Ebola outbreak, should it happen prior to Merck having the vaccine licensed.  Merck has promised to have the vaccine licensed by the end of 2017, and to obtain emergency approval from the World Health Organization to use the vaccine in an outbreak prior to licensure.  That process is already underway.

Gavi is a public-private partnership combining the contributions of several governments, companies and foundations to develop and stockpile vaccines for future outbreaks.  Once this particular Ebola vaccine is licensed, Gavi will develop stockpiles for use, and distributing the vaccines should be much easier.

Montreal Neurological Institute Goes Full Open Science

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute.

While some universities have established open access repositories for research results, the declaration that the MNI will not seek patents makes its version of open science as closer to a government model.  I’m sure some university technology transfer departments might blanch at the notion, as making a research institute’s output and intellectual property available for free and without expectation of financial return seems contrary to at least American research and development policy from the last few decades.  Perhaps the current state of neurological research, where technology developed for a mass market is still some time away, makes the choice to forego patents easier.

But this kind of open access seems a natural evolution of the perspective taken by some units within the MNI.  This release from the Brain Imaging Centre at McGill suggests that data sharing and open source software projects have been part of the university’s mission.

The new policy reflects an institutional perspective, individual participation is voluntary, and those researchers can still pursue patents.  They simply can’t benefit from university support in navigating that process.

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology).  Perhaps more institutes will try and combine these choices, and it will be interesting to see how they do.

One Chief Scientist Hands Off To Another

Professor Ian Chubb is a neuroscientist, and until January 22, the Chief Scientist of Australia, a position he assumed in May of 2011.  He came to the position from a long career as a researcher and university administrator.  While the Australian executive branch recently went for a few months without a science minister, the Chief Scientist position has been a part of the Australian government for a few decades.

One of his achievements in office has been developing recommendations for a national strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  His successor, Doctor Alan Finkel, will be Chief Scientist as the Turnbull government seeks to implement such a strategy, something Australia has lacked.

Finkel will come to the office with training as an engineer and a neuroscientist.  He has also founded a scientific instruments company and is just ended several years of service as Chancellor of Monash University (located in Melbourne).  He has been outspoken about climate change and the need for more nuclear power.  Whether or not these positions will lead to conflict with the Turnbull government remains to be seen.  According to this Sydney Morning Herald article most of the search process was conducted prior to Prime Minister Turnbull assuming office.  While Turnbull may be sympathetic to Finkel’s positions, it is possible that Finkel could chafe at the advisory constraints of the role of Chief Scientist.

More Tussles Over Science In Italy

I wouldn’t blame someone if they thought Italy was a scientifically contentious society, given the controversies involving scientists, earthquakes and olive trees.  The latest challenge involves papers on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  But when a paper is cited in a legislative body, I don’t think Italy has exclusivity on given that research additional scrutiny.

The facts, as Nature describes them, are as follows.  Three papers from a lab at the University of Naples were cited in a July 2015 hearing on GMOs in the Italian Senate.  The papers focused on experiments with goats kids whose mothers were fed genetically modified soya-bean meal.  The papers contend that fragments of the genetic material inserted in the soya can migrate into the mother’s milk and influence the development of the kids.

Following the hearing Italian Senator Elena Cattaneo, who is also a neuroscientist at the University of Milan (let that last part sink in for a bit), reviewed the papers and noted what appeared to problems with the data presented.  She commissioned a biomedical consultancy firm to conduct a forensic analysis of the research, which concluded that the papers contained images that were manipulated and/or reused.  The firm forwarded its results to the relevant journals (in September) and the University of Naples (in November).  The university launched its own investigation and Federico Infascelli, the head of the lab that produced the papers, is keeping quiet until the university investigation is concluded.

However, confidential details of the investigation were leaked to the press, and one journal, according to Retraction Watch, has retracted one of the papers.  That journal, Food and Nutrition Science, cited duplication of data from a previously published paper.  Plagiarism is not the same as data manipulation, but depending on what is copied and why, copying can certainly contribute to conclusions that don’t match the data.  Retraction Watch, in its analysis of relevant Italian news reports, notes that the retraction is connected to the investigation(s), and that .

The investigation continues, though the leaking of information may complicate matters.  Infascelli will likely have a response once the results of the investigation are out, and the use of his research in a government hearing may add to any penalties he faces from the university.

Well, That Didn’t Take Long

A day after the World Health Organization declared Liberia free from the Ebola virus, it confirmed that a new case has emerged in Sierra Leone. That country was still under a period of enhanced surveillance following the November 7 declaration that it was free of disease transmission.  What follows now is tracking of the new case and the contacts with that person to determine the lines of transmission and identify other possible infected people.

Hopefully what comes next is that the patient is successfully treated and any who came in contact either test negative or are effectively treated.  Flare ups are likely to happen again in each of the affected countries, but hopefully transmission can be limited, if not eliminated.

Just Because It’s No Longer An Epidemic

Today the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak over in Liberia.  This means that it has been 42 days since the last known Ebola patient in the country had tested negative for the disease twice.

This means that there are currently no new cases in each of the three countries hardest hit by the outbreak – Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.  However, this does not necessarily mean an end to the disease in the region.  Since cases were first disclosed in March 2014, there have been several flare-ups of the disease.  Today’s announcement is not the first time Liberia was declared free of the disease, and it’s possible that future flare-ups could happen.

That is why, even though each of the most affected countries have been declared free of the disease, they are each in a 90-day period of heightened surveillance.  The first one of those will end early next month.

President Obama referenced the Ebola epidemic in his State of the Union address this week, but the U.S. involvement was known much, much more for fear and hysteria over less than a handful of cases in the country than any significant impact on the progress of the disease.  The ‘czar’ appointed by the President to coordinate the U.S. response left the job nearly a year ago and he focused primarily on the domestic cases.

While the disease may be stopped in West Africa, the damage remains.  Three countries have been decimated, with more than 28,000 infected and over 11,000 dead.  Then there is the impact on the countries’ health systems and infrastructure.  Should there be another outbreak in these countries before they have had time to recover, they may be more affected.