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News at a glance: ‘Green’ steel, a consortium for gene therapy, and a disabled sabertooth’s allies


CLIMATE POLICY

United States, European Union back ‘green’ steel, aluminum

On the eve of the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, U.K., the United States and European Union this week said they will negotiate a deal that expands methods to reduce carbon emissions from the manufacturing of steel and aluminum. Collectively, steel and aluminum production account for 10% of all global carbon releases. The pact also calls for an immediate truce in a trade war between the two parties over those products. The emissions deal, to be negotiated during the next 2 years, aims to restrict imports of metals produced with “dirty” methods, targeting especially those from China, which are produced largely by burning coal. The agreement is also expected to contain incentives to reduce emissions by U.S. and EU producers of those metals.

It’s not a very happy place. We are getting quite concerned about this.

  • David Frost
  • top U.K. negotiator for Brexit, in The Guardian, about his country’s impasse with the European Union over participation by U.K. scientists in the EU Horizon Europe funding program.
THERAPEUTICS

Antidepressant fights COVID-19

An inexpensive antidepressant commonly used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder significantly decreased the risk of COVID-19 patients becoming hospitalized, conclude authors of a large trial published last week. The randomized, controlled study examined fluvoxamine in 1500 symptomatic, unvaccinated people in Brazil with at least one preexisting condition that made them more likely to develop severe COVID-19. Patients who received a fluvoxamine pill twice a day starting within 7 days of developing symptoms were 32% less likely to be hospitalized or need prolonged observation in an emergency room than those in a placebo group, the authors reported in The Lancet Global Health. In patients who took the pills for at least 80% of the recommended 10-day course, the risk of hospitalization was 66% less than in those in the placebo group, and just one of the treated patients died, compared with 12 who received the placebo. Although fluvoxamine’s mechanism of action in the COVID-19 context is uncertain, the drug is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that has antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects; it also has antiplatelet activity that could potentially reduce the widespread clotting that can complicate severe COVID-19.

FUNDING

Biden plan offers smaller science boost

The U.S. Congress could begin to vote as early as this week on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, a $1.75 trillion package that includes hefty boosts for some federal research agencies. Many of the sums for science in the plan’s latest version—which also supports efforts to deal with climate change and enhance social welfare—are far smaller than those included in an earlier one. A proposed $10 billion increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science for 19 major projects, including new instruments at national laboratories, shrank to just $985 million over 5 years, all targeted at fusion energy, in the current plan. The National Science Foundation, once slated to get $11 billion, instead would receive $3.5 billion through 2028. Congress has yet to finish work on separate bills that set spending for science in 2022.

How select agencies and programs fared

 

Agency/Program Amount for research ($ millions) Purpose
National Science Foundation 3500 Includes $1.5 billion for new technology directorate
Department of Energy Office of Science 985 Studies of fusion energy, low-dose radiation
National Institute of Standards and Technology 340 Advanced manufacturing, worker training, and wildfire studies
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 100 Climate research grants
NASA 85 Earth science studies involving climate change
National Institutes of Health 75 Support for minority-serving institutions
COVID-19

Mood disorders qualify for shots

Tens of millions of additional U.S. adults became eligible for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots last month, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added depression, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders to a list of conditions that put people at higher risk of severe COVID-19. About 50 million U.S. adults suffer from mental health conditions, the government estimates. CDC cited two meta-analyses published in JAMA Psychiatry in July and October. The first found a 38% increased risk of COVID-19 mortality in people with any mental health disorder and a 67% increased risk in people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The second, which analyzed studies involving 19 million people, found a higher (31%) risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and mortality (51%) among people with mood disorders.

COLLECTIONS

Ukraine to get treasures back

a silver pin
An Amsterdam museum must return to Ukraine this silver pin and other treasures on loan since 2014.ALLARD PIERSON MUSEUM

A disputed set of archaeological treasures loaned from museums in Crimea should be returned to the Ukrainian government, a Dutch court ruled on 26 October. Crimea was part of Ukraine until March 2014, when Russia annexed it. At the time, the University of Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum was holding the objects—including jewels from Chersonesus, a Greek colony founded some 2500 years ago in present-day Sevastopol, and a gold helmet from the Scythians, a nomadic people living on the region’s steppes around the same time. The museums wanted them back, but the Ukrainian government, which owned the museums until the annexation, claimed the objects as well. The Allard Pierson Museum says it has “no opinion” on the outcome, but is “pleased that a verdict has been reached.”

COVID-19

Indonesia OKs Novavax vaccine

Indonesia’s government this week authorized Novavax’s vaccine, making it the first protein-based COVID-19 vaccine to win authorization anywhere, the company said. The small biotechnology company and its partner, the Serum Institute of India, asked the World Health Organization for emergency use listing in September, but no decision has been issued. U.S.-based Novavax says it expects to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for authorization by December, after it struggled to meet the agency’s vaccine purity standards. Twenty-seven percent of people in Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation, had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by 31 October, according to Our World in Data. Since 27 October, Novavax has also applied for authorizations in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

PUBLISHING

Co-author wins retraction bid

A journal retracted a controversial article about plant biodiversity last week after more than 1 year of effort by a co-author turned whistleblower who sought to expose a range of data anomalies attributed to the paper’s senior author. The paper, in Biodiversity and Conservation, purported to show a method of distinguishing plant species by comparing snippets of DNA—known as DNA barcoding—is more cost-effective than traditional plant-survey methods. Ken Thompson, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, worked on the paper as an undergraduate in 2014 at the University of Guelph (UG) with Steven Newmaster, a botany professor there. But he eventually asked the journal and UG to investigate the paper—his first to be published—asserting in part that the data bore a dubious similarity to separate data collected at the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, also located at UG. The retraction notice in Biodiversity and Conservation corroborated several of Thompson’s concerns. Newmaster, it added, “has not responded to any correspondence from the Editor or publisher about this retraction.” Newmaster did not respond to a request for comment from Science. A UG spokesperson says the university “is not in a position to comment on a decision made by a journal.”

BY THE NUMBERS

4%

Share of global funding for climate change research that goes to topics in Africa, even though the United Nations deems the continent the most vulnerable to climate impacts. African institutions receive less than one-quarter of the money. (Climate and Development)

$1.8 billion

Funding obtained by 18 private fusion energy companies, according to the first annual report about their industry. Two-thirds of the 23 companies featured were founded in or after 2010. (Fusion Industry Association, U.K. Atomic Energy Authority)

EQUITY

NIH yanks diversity policy

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week canceled a policy meant to help bridge a funding gap between Black and white scientists. A May notice from three institutes offered to highlight applicants from groups underrepresented in science, including people of color and people from disadvantaged backgrounds, which could boost a proposal close to the threshold to win funding. But on 25 October, NIH’s Office of the Director rescinded the notice to promote “clarity in communications.” NIH said institutes already had leeway to consider “diverse scientific perspectives” when picking proposals. Last week, NIH also released an agencywide notice that encourages applications from underrepresented groups, but the applications won’t be tagged as such. Outside scientists voiced disappointment, noting that program officers won’t know which applications come from scientists from underrepresented groups. The now-rescinded policy came after NIH Director Francis Collins apologized in March for “structural racism” in science. Data through 2020 show a long-standing gap between white and Black investigators’ success rates when applying for research grants had narrowed only slightly.

PUBLISHING

MIT food computer paper pulled

The journal PLOS ONE last week retracted a controversial 2019 paper co-authored by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab about a “food computer” it suggested could revolutionize agriculture by identifying optimum growing conditions. The retraction notice cited “concerns about the reliability of the article’s results and conclusions” and said the latter were not supported by experimental data. The retraction followed the filing in August of a wrongful termination lawsuit against MIT by Babak Babakinejad, a scientist who ran the food computer project. He says he was fired after he complained about the paper to MIT officials. MIT’s news office ended up widely promoting it. This week the institute declined to comment on the pending litigation, but wrote in an emailed statement: “Ensuring an accurate research record is important to MIT, and we have updated our MIT News article about this paper to reflect the retraction.” The retraction adds to a string of troubles for the Media Lab, whose former director, Joi Ito, resigned in 2019 over a separate controversy involving donations from sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR

Did social bonds help disabled sabertooth survive?

illustration of two sabertoothed tigers jumping on a zebra
Sabertoothed tigers needed healthy hips to leap on and take down big prey.LA BREA TAR PITS

Rendered lame by hip dysplasia, a sabertoothed cat couldn’t have hunted, dooming it to a premature death—unless it got a helping hand. Last week, a research team described in Scientific Reports evidence for just that, supporting previous work indicating these big cats lived in social groups. The team used computed tomography imaging to create 3D models of a fossil pelvis and right femur from an adult sabertoothed tiger that died more than 11,000 years ago and was found in California’s La Brea tar pits. They discovered the cat’s hip joint had been afflicted by hip dysplasia from a young age; common in modern pet dogs and cats, the condition can cause hip dislocations. The researchers suggest other sabertoothed cats must have shared their kills with their injured companion. Smilodon outnumber herbivores at the La Brea pits, leading scientists to speculate that they hunted in packs.

BIOMEDICINE

Gene therapy gets a boost

A new U.S. public-private partnership is putting up $75 million over 5 years to speed the development of genetic treatments for rare inherited diseases. The Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium, announced on 27 October, will focus on adeno-associated viruses (AAVs), a widely used vehicle to introduce new genes into cells. Researchers will study the basic biology of AAV gene delivery, and how to streamline manufacturing of the viruses and regulatory steps such as toxicology testing. The consortium will also launch four to six clinical trials. Participants include the National Institutes of Health, which will contribute just over half the funding; the Food and Drug Administration; 10 companies; and five nonprofit groups, including the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, which will manage the project. The United States has only approved gene therapies for two inherited diseases—spinal muscular atrophy and a blindness disorder.



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