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Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, NIH, Public Health, Science Policy

Research investment needed now, say top scientists

Top scientists made the case for continued investment in basic science and engineering earlier this week by unveiling a new report, “Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Here’s why this is important: Federal investment is needed to power innovation engines like Stanford’s School of Medicine, and if that money gets funneled to roads, the military, Medicare, or any of a variety of other uses, fewer jobs, and fewer discoveries, could result. From the report:

Unless basic research becomes a higher government priority than it has been in recent decades, the potential for fundamental scientific breakthroughs and future technological advances will be severely constrained.

Compounding this problem, few mechanisms currently exist at the federal level to enable policy-makers and the research community to set long-term priorities in science and engi­neering research, bring about necessary reforms of policies that impede progress, or facilitate stronger cooperation among the many funders and performers of research…

Stanford President John Hennessy, PhD; biochemist Peter S. Kim, PhD; and physicist (and former U.S. Secretary of Energy) Steven Chu, PhD, are among the scientific rock-stars who co-authored the report.

For an excellent piece on the political debate surrounding the report’s release, check out the coverage in Science here. NPR also recently aired a series that colorfully illustrates the effects of research cutbacks, including a piece on a patient suffering from ALS, and a profile of several underemployed scientists.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing or practicing yoga. She’s a science writing intern in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: More attention, funding needed for headache care, “Bold and game-changing” federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research funding, Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge

Podcasts, Public Safety, Science, Science Policy, Stanford News

The risks of tinkering with dangerous pathogens

The risks of tinkering with dangerous pathogens

In an effort to understand new and rare infectious diseases, researchers often use recombinant DNA technology to create novel strains in the lab. In 2012, researchers did just that, creating strains of the H5N1 influenza virus that were transmissible between mammals, setting off a debate about the ethics of creating viruses that were potentially more dangerous than those that occurred naturally.

Earlier this year, in July, a group called the Cambridge Working Group convened to continue discussing these questions. David Relman, MD, a biosecurity expert at Stanford, is a member of the group and spoke to Paul Costello about the risks and benefits of lab-created pathogens. Highlights of their conversation are in a piece in the most recent issue of Inside Stanford Medicine, where Relman notes:

My greatest fear is that someone will create a highly contagious and highly pathogenic infectious agent that does not currently exist in nature, publish its genetic blueprint, allow it to escape the laboratory by accident, or else enable a malevolent person or persons to synthesize the agent with the intention of releasing it in a deliberate manner. Although these may be unlikely scenarios, they could have catastrophic consequences, which is why I and others feel that we need to sensitize everyone to these possibilities and decide how to manage these risks ahead of time. I want to be clear: I am not opposed to laboratory work on dangerous pathogens, especially if they are known to exist in nature. Rather, I am opposed to high-risk experiments and, in particular, those that seek to create novel, dangerous pathogens that cannot be justified by well-founded expectations of near-term, critical benefits for public health — benefits that clearly outweigh the risks, and benefits that cannot be achieved through other means.

But not all researchers advocate the same level of caution. A few weeks after the Cambridge Working Group formed, another group called Scientists for Science to advocate in favor of using recombinant versions of pathogens in order to understand them better. Relman says that the two groups are probably not as far apart as they appear. He says he fully supports studying disease-causing bacteria, but:

The place where we may disagree is on whether we are willing to acknowledge that there may be experiments — probably few and far between — that perhaps ought not to be undertaken because of an unusual degree of risk. Just because a scientist can think up an experiment doesn’t mean it should be performed.

Relman elaborates on these topics in the 1:2:1 podcast with Costello above.

Previously:  How-to manual for making bioweapons found on captured Islamic State computer, Microbial mushroom cloud: How real is the threat of bioterrorism? (Very) and Stanford bioterrorism expert comments on new review of anthrax case

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Science, Science Policy, Stanford News

Stanford microscope inventor invited to first White House Maker Faire

Stanford microscope inventor invited to first White House Maker Faire

Foldscope-adams-squareLast week assistant professor of bioengineering Manu Prakash, PhD, received a call he couldn’t refuse — an invitation to attend the first-ever White House Maker Faire, to show attendees how to build a 50-cent microscope out of laser-cut paper, plastic tape and a tiny glass bead.

At today’s event, Prakash will also demonstrate how he turned a toy music box into a $5 programmable microfluidic chemistry set that can be used for applications as diverse as testing water quality and science fair projects.

Maker Faires, started by Make magazine in 2006, are gatherings where do-it-yourself enthusiasts show off their homemade projects and teach others how to make things using new technologies such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and desktop machine tools.

President Obama is hosting the first-ever White House Maker Faire to celebrate our “Nation of Makers” and to help empower America’s students and entrepreneurs to invent the future.

Prakash, who grew up in the mega-cities of India without a refrigerator, is a leader in the frugal maker movement. At Stanford, he works with students from bioengineering, medicine, and Bio-X to reengineer expensive, complex health-related devices to make them better, faster and cheaper.

His team also focuses on developing affordable science tools to inspire global innovation. To that end, Prakash recently launched an educational initiative called the “10,000 Microscopes Project,” where build-your-own-microscope kits will be shipped to the first 10,000 people who pledge to share their microscope images and experiments in a free, online microscopy manual.

“I’m so happy that the White House is looking at ways to celebrate scientific curiosity and invention,” Prakash told me. “Many children around the world have never used a microscope, even in developed countries like the United States. A universal program providing a microscope for every child could foster deep interest in science at an early age.”

For more information on the White House Maker Faire and today’s National Day of Making, or to watch the event live, visit www.whitehouse.gov/makerfaire or follow #NationofMakers on Twitter.

Previously: The pied piper of cool science tools, Music box inspires a chemistry set for kids and scientists in developing countries, Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas and Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope
Photo, of Quinn Monahan trying out a paper microscope, by Amy Adams
Photo in featured entry box by Manu Prakash

In the News, Neuroscience, Research, Science Policy

“Bold and game-changing” federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research funding

"Bold and game-changing" federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research funding

Collins and ObamaSome news today about the federal BRAIN Initiative – a major research plan aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. (Stanford neurologist William Newsome, PhD, is co-chair of the initiative.) Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, today heard and accepted a working group’s recommendations for the initiative’s budget and long-term scientific vision.

As outlined in an NIH release:

The report drafted by the ACD BRAIN Working Group maps out a sustained commitment of $4.5 billion in new federal funding over 10 years beginning in fiscal year 2016 to achieve seven primary goals. NIH already announced an investment of $40 million in fiscal year 2014 and President Obama has made a request for $100 million for NIH’s component of the initiative in his fiscal year 2015 budget.

The NIH efforts on the BRAIN Initiative will seek to map the circuits of the brain, measure the fluctuating patterns of electrical and chemical activity flowing within those circuits, and understand how their interplay creates our unique cognitive and behavioral capabilities.

Collins called the recommendations “bold and game changing” and noted, “As the Human Genome Project did with precision medicine, the BRAIN Initiative promises to transform the way we prevent and treat devastating brain diseases and disorders while also spurring economic development.”

Previously: NIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative, BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project: Aiming to understand how the brain works, Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiatives, Co-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience institute, Experts weigh in on the new BRAIN Initiative and A federal push to further brain research
Photo, of April 2013 announcement of BRAIN Initiative, from the National Institutes of Health

Clinical Trials, Health Policy, Research, Science Policy, Stanford News, Videos

New Stanford center aims to promote research excellence

New Stanford center aims to promote research excellence

Updated 4-24-14: The center founders discuss METRICS in this just-posted 1:2:1 podcast.

***

4-23-14: Stanford has a new center, called the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, or METRICS for short, that will focus on ways to transform research practices to improve the reproducibility, efficiency and quality of scientific investigations.
When Stanford professor John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, discusses ideas on how METRICS might improve research quality, he points to the wealth of statistics within any newspaper’s sports section.

“Science needs as many ways to measure performance as sports do,” says Ioannidis. “More important, we need to find efficient approaches for enhancing this performance. There are many ideas on how to improve the efficiency of setting a research agenda, prioritizing research questions, optimizing study design, maximizing accuracy of information, minimizing biases, enhancing reporting of research, and aligning incentives and rewards so that research efforts become more successful. Possibly we can do better on all of these fronts.”

The center’s other co-director is Steven Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD, professor of medicine and of health research and policy.

METRICS’s core group of interdisciplinary scholars will be working on various aspects of meta-research, from methodologies to processes to policy. The center will also provide educational funding for students and scholars; organize collaborative working groups that include academics, policymakers, research funders and the public; and help establish similar initiatives worldwide.

You can learn more about “meta-research” and METRICS’s mission in the short interview above and in this release. Ioannidis discusses the center’s short- and long-term goals in the video clip below.

Previously: The Lancet documents waste in research, proposes solutions, “US effect” leads to publication of biased research, says Stanford’s John Ioannidis and Shaky evidence moves animal studies to humans, according to Stanford-led study
Photo in featured-entry box by Norbert Von Der Groeben

Public Health, Research, Science Policy, Videos

Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge

Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge

Government investment in research and higher education have made the United States a global innovation leader and have led to the creation of the Internet, global positioning systems, magnetic resonance imaging, touch-screen technology, and life-saving vaccines (among other things). But some worry that recent cuts and stagnating funding pose a serious risk to America’s ability to maintain its innovation edge at a time when other nations are rapidly increasing their research investments.

In preparation for the release of President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal and the start of the appropriations season on Capitol Hill, a group of 14 business, higher education and scientific organizations have produced a video explaining the direct link between basic research, economic growth, improved medical treatments, and national security. Take a moment to watch it and learn more about how renewed investments in research would significantly benefit the country.

Previously: Future of medical research is at risk, says Stanford medical school dean, The economic benefits of publicly funded medical research, Report: NIH investments created $68 billion in economic activity last year, Academic medical centers bring billions to the economy and New initiatives show how federal stimulus dollars advance scientific and medical research

Medical Education, Medical Schools, NIH, Science, Science Policy

Medical school leaders to Congress: Stop NIH budget cuts

Medical school leaders to Congress: Stop NIH budget cuts

In a letter (.pdf) to Congress yesterday, nearly 200 medical school deans and hospital CEOs expressed their “grave concern regarding the impact of the continued cuts, especially those imposed by sequestration” on NIH-supported research. The group of leaders, including Stanford’s Lloyd Minor, MD, went on to say:

Sequestration already has resulted in the loss of $1.5 billion from the NIH budget in FY 2013. This reduction comes at the end of a decade that has seen NIH lose more than 20 percent of its purchasing power after inflation. As a result, the percentage of promising research proposals that NIH is able to fund has fallen to less than 17 percent, an all-time low. Furthermore, NIH estimates it will lose a total $19 billion from its budget if sequestration is allowed to continue for the next eight years, delaying progress for patients awaiting the chance for a better

Enacted and proposed cuts in NIH funding threaten current and emerging basic research opportunities across the country, as well as the clinical studies that are essential to bring scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside. Further, these cuts also will discourage young people from careers in medical research, risking the loss of the next generation of innovators and their ideas.

Previously: Senate proposes to increase NIH’s budget in 2014, NIH director on scaring young scientists with budget cuts: “If they go away, they won’t come back” and Sequestration hits the NIH – fewer new grants, smaller budgets
Via Association of American Medical Colleges

Behavioral Science, Clinical Trials, Research, Science Policy, Stanford News

“U.S. effect” leads to publication of biased research, says Stanford’s John Ioannidis

"U.S. effect" leads to publication of biased research, says Stanford's John Ioannidis

pressuregaugeThe life of a scientist can be filled with pressure – pressure to publish, pressure to obtain funding, pressure to support the people in his or her lab. It’s no surprise that some would-be researchers *cough, me, cough* choose instead to pursue other careers (science writing FTW!).

Now new research by Stanford study-design expert John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, and Daniele Fanelli, PhD, from the University of Edinburgh, suggests that such pressures may lead to more than just sleepless nights. Their results, published today (subscription required) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, conclude that, at least in areas of “soft” science that measure behavioral changes, studies with researchers from the United States are more likely to report that the intervention they were testing had an extremely positive outcome than studies whose authors hail from elsewhere. As Ioannidis explained to me last week:

One possible explanation for the pattern that we are seeing is that scientists from the United States are under higher pressure to generate extreme results. This could be for various reasons: to obtain funding, to justify a promotion or to advance one’s career.

Ioannidis isn’t suggesting that scientists are falsifying their results intentionally. Rather, some fields of research are more difficult to quantify than others. “In the behavioral sciences, results are presented with more leeway and creativity than in other ‘hard’ sciences like genetics, when, for example, there’s less room for error when sequencing a gene,” he explained.

For the study, the researchers analyzed more than 1,000 primary outcomes of 82 meta-analyses published in genetics or psychiatry published between 2009 and 2012. And, as Ioannidis points out, things could have changed since that time:

Our study shows what has happened in the past. It’s possible that this phenomenon is becoming more global. Unfortunately, there’s no “investigative pressure meter” we can use to directly compare the policies governing scientific research in various countries.

Previously: Shaky evidence moves animal studies to humans, according to Stanford-led study, Neuroscience studies often underpowered, say researchers at Stanford, Bristol and NIH funding mechanism “totally broken,” says Stanford researcher
Photo by William Warby

Health Costs, Health Disparities, Health Policy, In the News, Obesity, Public Health, Science Policy

Can food stamps help lighten America’s obesity epidemic?

shopping_12from SNAPIn a recent article in New Scientist, Peter Aldhous discussed several issues related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. Noting that “because junk food is cheaper than fruit and vegetables, poverty and obesity tend to go hand-in-hand,” he offered several ways in which the program could be used to lower obesity and malnutrition rates among food stamp users. Here are some examples of the “economic carrots and sticks” he mentions in his piece:

One simple idea is to give the benefits every two weeks, rather than monthly. This would smooth out a cycle in which people load up on high-calorie food when the payments come in, then go hungry towards the end of the month – a pattern known to cause weight gain…

But most attention is focused on efforts to provide incentives to buy fruit and vegetables, or restrict purchases of junk food. A pilot project delivered promising results last month. Over 14 months to December 2012, 7500 households receiving food stamps in Hampden, Massachusetts, were given an extra 30 cents for every dollar spent on fruit and vegetables. Surveys run four to six months into the study show that their consumption of fruit and vegetables was 25 per cent higher than for people on regular food stamps.

Sanjay Basu of Stanford University in California has studied how changes in food prices affect what people put in their shopping baskets. His work suggests that banning food-stamp purchases of unhealthy foods, or increasing their price, should be even more effective…

If the food stamp program could be used to improve the diet of food stamp users, Aldhause writes, it could pave the way “for using taxes and subsidies to nudge the nation as a whole towards a healthier relationship with food.”

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: More evidence that boosting Americans’ physical activity alone won’t solve the obesity epidemicLucile Packard joins forces with Ravenswood School District to feed families during the summer breakFood stamps and sodas: Stanford pediatrician weighs inFood stamp use shows scope of child poverty and Denmark’s “fat tax” aims at life expectancy – not just waistlines
Photo by United States Department of Agriculture

Clinical Trials, Medicine and Society, Research, Science Policy, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Very small embryonic like stem cells may not exist, say Stanford researchers

Very small embryonic like stem cells may not exist, say Stanford researchers

There’s a shake-up happening today in the world of stem cell research. Very small embryonic-like stem cells, or VSEL cells, have been proposed by some researchers as an alternative to human embryonic stem cells. Because they’re said to exist in the bone marrow of adult humans and mice, they could obviate the ethical issues surrounding the use of human embryos.

The research has sounded promising enough that a New York-based company, NeoStem, was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to investigate the use of the cells to stimulate bone growth after tooth extraction.

But in a study published today in Stem Cell Reports, Stanford stem cell scientist Irving Weissman, MD, casts doubt on the existence of the cells. From our release:

“It has become important to know to what extent and where these VSEL cells exist to understand how they may affect the field of stem cell research,” said Weissman, who directs Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine at Stanford. “We tried as hard as we could to replicate the original published results using the methods described and were unable to detect these cells in either the bone marrow or the blood of laboratory mice.”

Although other groups have seemingly confirmed the existence of these cells as defined by size and the expression of key cell-surface molecules, Weissman’s study is the first to evaluate the biological potency of the cells.

An article in today’s Nature magazine summarizes the controversy surrounding the cells, and calls Weissman’s study a “major blow to the field.” Alison Abbott writes:

Led by Irving Weissman, a prominent stem-cell researcher at Stanford University in California, the study is the fourth to refute the cells’ existence — and the most thorough yet.

“Weissman’s evidence is a clincher — it is the end of the road for VSELs,” believes Rüdiger Alt, head of research at Vita 34, a private bank for umbilical cord blood in Leipzig, Germany, who last year published the first failure to replicate claims for the cells2.

Robin Smith, chief executive at Neostem, disagrees. She compares the attacks on VSELs to those suffered by Charles Darwin and Nicolaus Copernicus when they proposed their world-changing scientific theories.

It will likely take some time for the controversy to end. In the meantime, Weissman and his colleagues have concluded that “the existence of adult mouse VSELs in the bone marrow remains dubious.”

Previously: Stanford’s Irving Weissman on the (lost?) promise of stem cells

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