New Sponsor For Major Science Fair Announced

On Thursday the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) announced a replacement for the sponsor for its Science Talent Search, which has been sponsored by Intel since 1998.  Regeneron Pharmaceuticals reached an agreement for a 10-year, $100 million sponsorship commitment that will start with the competition cycle that begins in 2017. This is a large annual increase from Intel’s support, which was $6 million per year.  Besides increasing the prize money, the sponsorship support will include outreach to young researchers that have been underrepresented in science fairs.

Regeneron is the third company to sponsor the 75 year old competition, after Westinghouse and Intel.  The company is led by two alumni of the Science Talent Search, the Founder/Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, and has supported many local science fairs in the past.

The progression of sponsorship from a company that focused on mechanical and electrical products (Westinghouse) to a computer company (Intel) to a biotechnology company (Regeneron) may reflect the changing focus of top science fair projects, but I disagree with Neil deGrasse Tyson that it’s such a surprise that Intel is looking elsewhere.  (It’s worth noting that Intel remains a sponsor of SSP’s international science fair competition – at least through 2019).  Intel has focused more on maker fairs and competitions that are more closely linked to the kinds of products the company produces.  It’s tough to argue that the company is no longer interested in supporting new scientists and engineers when it sponsored a million-dollar competition and associated television show.

I think the bigger challenge relates to the welcome news that part of Regeneron’s support will be outreach to those young people that aren’t participating in science fairs.  Science writer Carl Zimmer described this problem well in recounting his experience with his daughter’s science fair project and how it really could only get done because of his contacts with scientists.  In other words, if you don’t have access to professional scientists, you are at a serious disadvantage.  Which significantly reduces the impact programs like science fairs can have in finding the next generations of scientists and engineers.  Meaning that the increased annual investment in Science Talent Search probably doesn’t go as far as it could.

New Science Magazine Editor-in-Chief Announced

The board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently announced that Jeremy Berg, currently Director of the Institute for Personalized Medicine and Associate Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, will become the next editor-in-chief of Science magazine.  Berg will take over from Marcia McNutt, who will become the next President of the National Academy of Sciences.

Like McNutt, who served as Director of the U.S. Geological Survey before becoming editor-in-chief, Berg has experience in federal services.  From 2003 to 2011 Berg led the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.  Berg’s training is in chemistry, and he is a past president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Berg was a named author in this recent Policy Forum encouraging the use of preprints in biology, and has expressed interest (confirmed by the folks at Retraction Watch) in tackling the challenges of reproducibility of scientific research.

Berg will commute from Pittsburgh, which is both understandable (not wanting to disrupt his family) and daunting (it’s roughly 240 miles each way).  Congratulations to Dr. Berg.

White House Targets June 29th For Several Cancer Moonshot Summits

Today the Vice President’s Office announced that it will host a Cancer Moonshot Summit on June 29th.  The national meeting will take place at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and in a break with the typical cancer meeting, the focus is on cancer, not a specific type of cancer.  This is consistent with the focus of the Moonshot – reducing barriers to communications across fields and specific cancers, as well as encouraging data sharing.

The meeting in Washington is not the only Summit planned for June 29th.  The Department of Health and Human Services is looking to coordinate a series of summits across the country.  If you are interested in participating in such a meeting, you can let them know here.

The events are intended for a wide variety of stakeholders, including researchers, clinicians, cancer patients, caregivers, and others involved in fighting cancer and trying to understand it better.

2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference Returns To Ottawa

The 2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), the eighth such event, will return to the nation’s capital from November 8-10.  This is the third year the Conference will take place in Ottawa, and the first time it has been held in the same city in consecutive years.  I attended the first conference in 2009, and the event has grown in size and stature every year since.  I’d encourage anyone interested in Canadian science policy, or even in how interested researchers and practitioners form and grow a community, to review previous conferences and consider attending the event.

The conference themes have been announced, and conference organizers are looking for panel proposals.  The deadline for submitting them is June 17th.  Most of the conference themes reflect the change in Canadian government (which took place just before the last CSPC) and the statements that government has made regarding science, technology and innovation policies for the country.  These new policies include the establishment of a science adviser of some kind (distinct from the government’s Minister of Science, Kristy Duncan, who spoke at the 2015 conference) and a spending review for fundamental science research.

More information on the 2016 conference should trickle in over the summer.

US Government Might Just Spend Some Zika Money Before The Virus Spreads

On Tuesday the Senate is scheduled to vote on various proposals for committing over $1 billion to fight the spread of the Zika virus in the United States and in other countries.  The White House released a spending proposal back in February, while whatever Senate proposal emerges still has to be approved by the House of Representatives (or a House proposal, reportedly coming this week, would need to be approved by both houses of Congress).

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have obtained money redirected from other federal programs in order to help state and territorial governments the ability to boost their own Zika preparedness programs.  Proposals are due by June 13 and the money will be available through July 2017.  The Obama Administration has identified several hundred million dollars that will be redirected (not just through the CDC).

While some coverage of the emergence of the Zika virus in the United States has been described as sensational, to me it doesn’t appear to rise to the level of the concerns over Ebola in the United States back in 2014.  The consequences of the disease may not be as severe as the lethal potential of Ebola, but the nature of this virus, and how it spreads, suggests there will be many more cases than the handful of people infected by Ebola that were discovered in the U.S.

About those consequences…Zika is very rarely lethal.  But it can contribute to birth defects (most notably microcephaly) in the fetuses of pregnant women that contract the disease.  Perhaps the fact that the most serious consequences of Zika are to fetuses makes it easier to push off acting against the virus.  If the consequences aren’t seen for months, the urgency to act may be hard to stoke.

As of May 11, the locally generated cases of Zika – those not linked to people traveling from affected areas – have been limited to the territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  There have been a total of 1204 cases reported in the U.S. and its territories, with cases of Zika reported in 44 of the 50 states.

Increasingly it appears that many elected leaders are inclined to treat disease prevention like they do funding elections – as cheaply as possible and after ‘more important’ things receive funding.  Maybe we can put both actions in the maintenance camp – things that need to be done, but lack the interest or the rewards to motivate sufficient action.

Execution Drugs Just Got Much Harder To Find…Legally

Earlier today the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced restrictions to the sale of seven of its drugs to better control the uses of said drugs (H/T The New York Times).  Each of the covered drugs has specific medical applications (and all are approved by the Food and Drug Administration – FDA – for those medical applications) but they can be used in executions by lethal injection.  The relevant drugs are:

  • Propofol (anesthetic)
  • Pancuronium bromide (muscle relaxant)
  • Midazolam (anesthetic)
  • Hydromorphone (opiod analgesic, lethal in sufficient dosage)
  • Rocuronium bromide (muscle relaxant)
  • Vecuronium bromide (muscle relaxant)
  • Potassium chloride (helps the body replenish potassium, but can stop the heart in sufficient dosage)

While drug shortages have prompted some changes in execution drug protocols, typically the procedure is to administer an anesthetic, followed by a muscle relaxant and then potassium chloride to stop the heart.  Alternatives to the three-drug protocol have tried lethal doses of an anesthetic, or combine the anesthetic with a lethal dose of an opiod.

Pfizer’s action marks the closing of the last open market source of these drugs for use in executions.  If you compare the new Pfizer policy with the one it replaced, (H/T Joanne Stocker)  while the company was not in favor of having its drugs used in executions, it acknowledged that Pfizer drugs could still be acquired through third party channels.  The new policy suggests that Pfizer will take steps to foreclose such workarounds, and will insist that government purchasers of its drugs affirm to the company that they will use the drugs only for patient care and will not resell or otherwise provide to other parties.

This is unlikely to eliminate the death penalty, but will certainly contribute to the trend of fewer executions by lethal injection.  States will probably continue to seek the appropriate drugs through channels like compounding pharmacies (which are not subject to FDA regulations). However, there is now no FDA-approved U.S. manufacturer of these drugs willing to provide them for execution (or to allow such provision through the gray market and/or alternate providers), so what has been a tough task will become much tougher.

I would also expect states to ensure that they have alternate methods of executions available in situations where drugs are not available at the time of execution.  While some states have alternate methods of execution as an option, lethal injection has been the primary method of execution for all states and the federal government for a few years.  The ongoing drug restrictions have prompted a few states to amend their laws to accommodate the possibility of lethal injection not being available.

Additionally, the Supreme Court has resisted efforts to have lethal injection declared unconstitutional, and in the last death penalty case it heard (Glossip v. Gross), several of the Justices were frustrated by what was perceived as an end run around the Supreme Court by restricting the ability to procure the necessary drugs.  In other words, the state’s ability to execute should not be infringed by drug companies seeking to restrict the use of their products to only medically approved uses.

It will take time for the implementation of Pfizer’s new policy to have an effect.  But the short shelf life of many drugs means that whatever amount from Pfizer of those seven compounds is in the hands of prisons will become unusable in the next several months.

Open Science Prize Finalists Announced

Earlier this week the six finalists for the first Open Science Prize were announced.  The prize is a joint effort of the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  Focused on encouraging the development of tools and services to make it easier to use open data, the six finalists were selected from a total competition pool of 96 teams representing 45 countries.  Each finalist team now has $80,000 to develop a prototype or refine an existing prototype.  The finalist teams are:

  • OpenAQ: A Global Community Building the First Open, Real-Time Air Quality Data Hub for the World – Combines the existing real-time air quality data sources into one data hub.
  • Real-Time Evolutionary Tracking for Pathogen Surveillance and Epidemiological Investigation – Promoting the open sharing of viral genomic data to make it easier to identify emerging epidemics.
  • Open Neuroimaging Laboratory – An app program called BrainBox would facilitate collaborative annotation and analysis of brain imaging data.
  • OpenTrialsFDA – Facilitates the access, searching and presentation of clinical trial data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  • Fruit Fly Brain Observatory – Creates a model of the fruit fly brain upon which researchers could apply computational disease models to assess the impacts of various drugs.
  • MyGene2: Accelerating Gene Discovery with Radically Open Data Sharing – Facilitates sharing of medical information on single gene caused diseases to improve diagnoses.

The teams have until December 1 to make their final submissions, and the winner will be announced by February 28 of next year.