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Science  27 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6387, pp. 360-361
DOI: 10.1126/science.360.6387.360

New NASA leader inherits long to-do list

Space exploration

A lunar space station could lead to a human mission to Mars.


Last week, in a narrow, 50–49 vote, the U.S. Senate confirmed Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK), a former Navy pilot, to serve as NASA's 13th administrator. Bridenstine, the first politician to serve in the role, will have a full plate to start. He will manage the delayed launch of the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope. He'll have to decide on a mission to retrieve a cache of rocks collected by the Mars 2020 rover. He's under pressure to resolve delays and finish NASA's heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. And space experts hope he will flesh out the agency's focus on exploring the moon, including plans for a small orbiting space station called the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway that's intended to support a human mission to Mars. Bridenstine faces skepticism from some members of Congress who question his qualifications and past statements skeptical of global warming. “There is simply no excuse for voting for someone so unqualified to run NASA,” Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI) wrote following Bridenstine's confirmation. Winning over critics, and appointing a deputy with a technical background, should be his top priority, observers say.

“Back then, we thought it was fine. Right now, my opinion has really been changed.”

Social psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, to 60 Minutes, about his work harvesting data from Facebook profiles for the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Birds will perch on an improved tree of life


The Turaco lineage, which includes this Knysna turaco from South Africa, has been difficult to place in the avian tree of life.


Bird lovers can mark their calendars: The most comprehensive avian family tree is expected to be completed by 2022, thanks to The OpenWings Project launched this month at the American Ornithological Meeting in Tucson, Arizona. The $1.42 million effort will be the first to sequence selected DNA segments from all 10,560 bird species to establish how they are related and trace their evolutionary history. It should be finished long before a similar tree-building effort called the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project, which will sequence the whole genomes of all these species. The OpenWings Project will isolate about 5000 short pieces of DNA from each species, saving time and money by focusing on regions that are very highly conserved among all birds, says project co-leader Brant Faircloth from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Harvard University evolutionary biologist Scott Edwards says OpenWings “will be a huge improvement over what we have now,” including an avian tree published in Science in 2014 based on 40 whole genomes. But, “Ultimately, OpenWings will be a stepping stone to the grand tree that the whole genomes [will generate].”

Dengue vaccine on hold

Public health

The world's first dengue vaccine should be used only in people who have previously been infected with the mosquito-borne disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) said last week. Dengue is most dangerous when a person is infected a second (or subsequent) time, and giving the vaccine to people who have never had the disease can leave them vulnerable to a dangerously severe reaction if they are infected later. (The vaccine doesn't confer full protection from the virus.) The vaccine's maker, Sanofi Pasteur, issued a similar warning in November 2017, after new data revealed the risk to previously uninfected people. Because no rapid, reliable test for previous dengue infection is available, the new guidelines mean the vaccine can't be widely used. WHO said it hopes a test might be available in 2 to 3 years.

Cannabis-based drug wins nod

Drug development

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel last week unanimously recommended that the agency approve the country's first marijuana-derived prescription medication. The drug, called Epidiolex, aims to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy in children known as Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes. GW Pharmaceuticals, based in Cambridge, U.K., makes the syrup, which contains purified cannabidiol (CBD), a pot extract. CBD has been shown to reduce monthly seizures by about 40% in patients who otherwise suffer as many as 100 daily. How CBD reduces seizures is unknown. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, another pot extract, CBD does not cause a high. FDA, which is expected to approve Epidiolex, has previously approved synthetic CBD to ease nausea in cancer patients. Medical marijuana is used to treat other ailments, but the dose from smoking or ingesting the plant is hard to consistently control.

Risks of air pollution grow

Public health


Air pollution from power plant smoke, dust, and other kinds of fine, inhalable particles is growing and is a leading contributor to deaths worldwide, a new report says. In 2016, the most recent year for which data were available, 95% of the world's population lived in areas where airborne particulates exceeded levels recommended by the World Health Organization. From 2010 to 2016, the global average concentration grew by an estimated 18%, according to the report by the nonprofit Health Effects Institute in Boston and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle. The largest increases came in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Indoor burning of coal, wood, and dung for heating and cooking also contributed substantially to mortality, but these deaths fell 16% during those years as the practice declined. In deaths caused, these forms of indoor and outdoor air pollution rank ahead of other well-known health risk factors such as low physical activity, low birth weight, and poor sanitation, which are estimated to be major killers but did not crack this top 10 list.

EPA releases data access plan

Science policy

U.S. science groups are harshly criticizing a data access proposal unveiled this week by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt. It would, in general, require EPA to use only publicly available data and models to evaluate the health impacts of pollution when it develops any regulation that would cost more than $100 million annually. EPA said the move will ensure that “pivotal regulatory science” is “fully transparent.” But critics say the vaguely worded plan would make it harder for regulators to use certain kinds of studies, including long-term air pollution and workplace exposure studies that aren't easy to reproduce or involve confidential health records.

Ethics plan for Africa genomics


A consortium of genomics and public health researchers last week published the first ethical framework created by Africans to govern genomics research in Africa. The pact, which is nonbinding, emphasizes recruiting African researchers to play a central role in these projects; many African institutions cannot afford the technology required for next-generation sequencing studies. The framework also calls on scientists who plan to use biological samples to obtain an ethical review from the country in which the samples will be collected and for the work to benefit the African people. The Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust, produced the framework. Many researchers are interested in human genomes from Africa because of the continent's genetic diversity and high disease burden.

Salk suspends leading biologist


The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, put prominent cancer scientist Inder Verma on administrative leave on 20 April and said it is investigating harassment allegations against him. In an email to Salk employees, Dan Lewis, chairman of the institute's board of trustees, wrote that the institute “recently” learned of allegations about Verma, who was hired by Salk in 1974. The institute began investigating him in February and on 12 March hired The Rose Group, an international employment law firm in San Diego, to conduct an outside probe, a Salk spokesperson wrote in an email. In a statement, Verma denied ever using his position at Salk “to take advantage of others. … I have never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute.”

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