The Politics of Science

By many measures, 2004 was a tumultuous and high-profile year for science around the world.

Anne Harding(aharding@the-scientist.com)
Jan 30, 2005
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Erica P. Johnson

By many measures, 2004 was a tumultuous and high-profile year for science around the world. The US Congress, faced with an increasingly expensive war in Iraq and the biggest deficit in history, limited science-budget increases and cut funding to the National Science Foundation. In Europe, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Switzerland passed legislation specifically supporting stem cell research, but German scientists were still limited to using first-generation stem cell lines created before Jan. 1, 2002.

In South Korea, a team created a human embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human embryo, further roiling international debate about cloning. But one of the biggest stories of the year in Asia was China, where burgeoning economic growth helped fuel a continued sharp climb in science spending, and Chinese scientists both inside and outside the country worked to reform government science funding.

Around the world, 2004 saw new regulations,...

UNITED STATES: Speaking of Politics

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US scientists interviewed for this article agree that the worst thing to US science in 2004 was the $388 billion 2005 which Congress passed over a weekend in late November. The National Institutes of Health got a 2.1% increase, the smallest in more than 15 years. "No one knows what the budget for 2006 will be, but there is a great deal of concern that the increase will be less than this year's and possibly even an actual decrease," says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former scientific director at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Just two years after supporting a plan to double the NSF's budget by 2007, Congress cut the agency's funding by $105 million to $5.473 billion, and warned the foundation to expect more belt-tightening for several years to come. "I think that it's a statement of individual priorities among members of Congress, and frankly I think it's a national mistake," says Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Leshner notes that this is just the third decrease in funding voted for the NSF in 50 years. He argues that the symbolism of the cuts may be just as damaging as the loss of funds. "For a nation to send a message that science is of decreasing importance is a terrible message, not only to the scientific community but to the rest of the world."

DECLINING INTEREST IN US EDUCATION

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While budget cuts are on the menu in 2005, the United States may also have to struggle to attract talented scientists and students from outside the country. Plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates that foreign scholars are opting to study in other countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China, to name a few – rather than attempting to cope with the process of getting a visa to study in the United States. "The impression one gets now is that our borders are closed unless you can convince us to let you in," says Shere Abbott, chief international officer of AAAS.

Statistical evidence exists for a decline in foreign interest in US graduate programs in science education as well. From 2003 to 2004, the number of foreign students applying to US graduate programs in the life sciences fell by 24%, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools. Overall enrollment by foreign students in US graduate programs fell by 6% during the same time period, the third decrease in three years. Applications from Chinese students fell by 45%; those from India fell 28%, and 14% fewer Korean students applied.

In response to calls from academia and the scientific community, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department have recently taken steps to ease the visa process for foreign students. For example, foreign students are prioritized in visa waiting lines, and staff has been added, says Heath Brown, director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, DC. Students and scientists who work in any of roughly 200 areas of science considered "sensitive" by the State Department – including microbiology, immunology, pharmacology, and biochemistry, as well as nuclear power and rocket propulsion – must still reapply annually for a special type of security clearance, known as Mantis clearance. But there's hope, Brown says, that in 2005 the rules will change to extend the time between Mantis applications.

The decrease in applications is due partly to the increasing competitiveness of graduate schools elsewhere in the world with US institutions, Brown says. Nonetheless, the difficulties encountered in getting a visa, as well as perceptions about the process, also play a role.

Within the US, restrictions have been placed on intramural NIH researchers who travel to international scientific meetings. Most famously, only 50 US staffers received permission to attend the AIDS meeting in Bangkok, while funds to support travel to the meeting were sharply cut.

The restrictions extend throughout the institutes. Scientists planning to attend any international meetings must seek central approval and then await decisions that seem arbitrary and are often made at the last minute, says Bai Lu, chief of neural development and plasticity at the NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "In my opinion, it's a control issue," says Lu. "They just feel they want to be in control. But scientists have to be in control. Scientists know what is the best way to spend the money."

With the reelection of President George W. Bush, a change in the ban on federal funding for research on unapproved human embryonic stem cell lines is unlikely. Although the government has announced plans for a stem cell bank to support research with the approved cell lines, some in the field say the measure is too little, too late.

Californians took matters into their own hands last year by passing Proposition 71, which makes $3 billion available for stem cell research. Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante called the initiative "this century's gold rush," while critics feared the program lacked oversight and could become a slush fund. New Jersey has planned its own stem cell research institute, with $10 million a year in public and private funding, but some worry that the resignation of Governor James McGreevey might stop the project in its tracks. At least eight more states are considering making their own laws to support stem cell research, including Wisconsin, whose governor announced plans to spend $375 million to create a stem cell research center at the University of Wisconsin. However, 10 other states are mulling legislation that would restrict or ban this research.

EUROPE: Cutting Red Tape

The policies on stem cell research also remained fragmented in Europe. Swiss voters approved a law allowing research on stem cells extracted from surplus embryos, while France's National Assembly passed legislation permitting embryonic stem cell research that will likely take effect this spring. Spain's new socialist government also took steps to support embryonic stem cell research in that country. Stem cell researchers from 14 European countries, along with Israel, formed the European Stem Cell Network to foster collaboration, and the EU's new commissioner for science and research voiced support for embryonic stem cell research.

But for German researchers, restrictions remained. In a US-style compromise under the country's Embryo Protection Law, researchers are limited to working with existing stem cell lines imported from other countries. They are not permitted to develop their own lines for research.

Momentum also built last year for the formation of a European Research Council (ERC), which supporters hope would provide a funding source for basic research independent of EU bureaucracy. In the interim, individual countries strengthened existing international networks for life science research or built new ones, with the help of EU cash. Scanbalt, formed in 2001 by 11 northern European countries to link 67 universities and 900 biotech and life sciences companies, won €1 million in EU funds and plans to use the cash to help improve its effectiveness.

Twelve European nanotechnology institutes formed a new group, called Frontiers, with the help of €5 million from the European Union. Additionally, 24 bioinformatics groups from 14 countries received €12 million to develop a virtual institute for research on genome annotation, as well as a school for bioinformatics training, to be called the BioSapiens Network of Excellence in Bioinformatics.

The European Union's research funding program, the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP6), has been roundly criticized for its burdensome grant-making process. For the first time, the EU sought comment from the scientific community in the formation of FP6's successor, which would fund research from 2007 to 2013. European life scientists are hopeful, but skeptical, that this gesture could ultimately make for a more streamlined grant process.

Janez Potocnik, who replaced Philippe Busqin as the EU commissioner for science and research in November, says he supports a simpler grant-making system. Potocnik calls for doubling FP7 funding to €13 billion and voices strong support for an ERC.

"We are moving in a totally different way. Never before has the scientific community been so involved in making sure this will happen," says Julio Celis, president of the European Life Sciences Foundation. The European Commission is set to review a proposal for the ERC on April 20.

The planned doubling of FP7 funding, as well as the inclusion of two platforms specifically devoted to biotechnology, "gives some hope for the future," says Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries. Another positive step, he adds, is an initiative to reduce bureaucracy and fees involved in accession to the European Medicines Agency, making it easier for smaller companies to develop drugs.

EU SCIENCE ROADBLOCKS

Barriers remain to so-called green biotechnology, Vanhemelrijck says. Although the European Union accepted about 20 genetically modified (GM) crop products last year, he adds, all were grown outside Europe. "That is a big hindrance, because how can you stimulate industry to investment in research if in fact the products are not accepted here for cultivation." Another hindrance, he adds, was the European Union's failure to adopt a Europe-wide patent this year. "The patenting process stays burdensome, complicated, and very expensive."

At the national level, the United Kingdom announced a 10-year plan to boost R&D spending to 2.5% of its gross domestic product in 2014, compared to the current 1.9%. Ian Gibson, a Labour Member of Parliament and chair of the House of Commons' Science and Technology Select Committee, notes that financial concerns have led some universities to close their chemistry departments, and it is feared that other scientific departments will follow.

Gibson and his colleagues took steps to protect UK researchers after Cambridge University dropped plans to build a primate lab. The university came under threat from animal rights activists, and similar threats stalled efforts to construct a larger animal facility at Oxford. Parliament amended existing legislation to create a special police unit and network of prosecutors to cope with demonstrators, and wrote a new law banning protests at an individual's home.

The UK Medical Research Council announced a reform of its grants system, phasing out the Cooperative Grants that critics said only fostered copycat research. Instead, it has instituted New Investigator Grants to support innovation.

CHINA: Bamboo Shoots after Rain

This year saw a number of positive developments in Chinese science, as the nation's booming economy allowed the government to continue to pump money into infrastructure and international cooperative efforts. The Knowledge Innovation Program, launched in 1998, has strengthened living and working conditions to the point where many young Chinese scientists are choosing to stay at home to work rather than looking for opportunities overseas.

The size of China's economy is one-eighth that of the United States, so the amount of money involved is relatively small, but rising fast. "Often scientists are reacting to the slope of the curve; the slope there is steeply rising," says MIT's Desimone, who is an advisor to the new Beijing MRI Center for Brain Research.

Money alone won't be enough to foster first-class science in China, notes the NICHD's Lu, who is also an advisor to China's Ministry of Science and Technology. Lu helped to establish an independent peer-review system last year for grant proposals to China's National Science Foundation covering basic life sciences research. The peer-review process was extended to medical research projects last year. Lu says he hopes other major government sources of research in China will adopt a similarly fair and transparent system. He notes the persistence of corruption and "behind-the-scenes" maneuvering in the awarding of funds.

While corruption and social problems remain, the government itself has placed high importance on science and technology, says Lin Chen, director of the Beijing MRI Center for Brain Research and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The research center is home to China's first MRI built specifically for basic research. The 3-Tesla scanner is the seventh largest scientific instrument paid for by the government last year.

China's government is also making efforts to foster collaboration with overseas scientists. Last year, it invited 17 teams of Chinese scientists living overseas to return to work in Chinese centers. The Beijing MRI Center is hosting seven scholars, and is receiving 6 million Yuan in funding for the program.

In 2004, China's President Hu Jintao mentioned brain and cognitive science as one of the frontiers of the nation's scientific research over the next decades. Chen notes that this is the first time this area of research had been specifically mentioned. "Brain and cognitive science is really emerging in China," says Chen. "It is like bamboo shoots after a spring rain."

Chen says he expects more growth in government scientific funding in 2005, and continued reform and improvement of China's system for appraising scientific research. He predicts: "Chinese -scientists will increase their presence in world science with more contributions of original scientific innovations."

Science Around the World

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Australia's government planned steady increases in funding for research, with $3 billion (Australian) going toward the Science and Innovation Programs through 2005 and another $5.3 billion pledged for 2006-2011. Australia switched sides in the UN debate on cloning and backed a total ban; stem cell researchers feared the move might mean bad news for the country's domestic policy. A parliamentary review of existing law, which bans therapeutic cloning, is planned for this year and will be led by Health Minister Tony Abbott, an opponent of therapeutic cloning.

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Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin promised $27.6 million (US) over the next 10 years to establish a Canadian Academies of Science, to be run by the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Institute of Advanced Medicine.

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In France the government allocated funds to establish a National Research Agency modeled on the NSF in the United States. The new agency is intended to help France meet its goal of spending 3% of its budget on research and development, compared to the current 2.2%. The French National Assembly approved a law permitting research on human embryonic stem cells up to six to eight days old, which will take effect in the spring.

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Germany passed tough new rules on genetically modified (GM) crops. The rules, which critics call a "law of gene-technology prevention," hold all GM crop farmers liable for damage to nearby organic crops. While the EU rule on GM crop farming allows non-GM plants to be "contaminated" with up to 0.9% of pollen from GM plants, the German law allows organic farmers to determine what this threshold would be.

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India's new government led by the Indian National Congress party made science a priority, boosting funding of the country's science agencies by 27% to a total of $2.7 billion (US). Beginning in 2005, the country has pledged to recognize foreign patents, thus meeting World Trade Organization commitments. The change is expected to encourage more original drug research within the country, and foster more international collaboration.

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Japan's Ministry of Education sought big boosts in science funding for the 2005 budget, including 32% more for life science research, with a major focus on competitive grants. The ministry also took steps to make its grant-reviewing process more transparent, establishing a panel of part-time program officers who will coordinate the review of the roughly 70,000 grant applications it receives each year. Scientists will also receive comments made by reviewers on their proposals.

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Mexico began construction on a $196 million (US) genome center, the only one of its kind in Latin America. The center will be dedicated to studying the health problems affecting Mexico's population.

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin supported a plan to sharply cut the number of state-funded research institutions from 5,000 to 100-200, while providing more support to the agencies that remain. The government has said it will provide more funding to the Russian Academy of Sciences, but also is planning changes to make it more accountable to the government.

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Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research continued to support biomedical research at a number of levels, partnering with the US Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to fund seven stem cell research projects with $3 million (Singapore). The Agency also supported a plan to help bring bioimaging research to the clinic, and launched a plan to foster collaboration between Singapore and the European Union. The government passed a law that forbids reproductive cloning, but it does allow nuclear transfer to create stem cells.

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South Korea's government announced several efforts to improve the quality of the country's science, including doubling the funding of science scholarships to $46 million (US) and boosting research spending by 8.5%.

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Spain's new socialist government announced an ambitious plan to boost research funding by 25% each year until 2008, and to exclude military spending from this equation. Other reforms include giving postdocs and third- and fourth-year graduate students rights as workers.

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Switzerland's voters passed a law, originally approved by Parliament in December 2003, to allow extraction of stem cells from human embryos up to seven days old for research. The Green Party and antiabortion groups had opposed the legislation. Nearly two-thirds of Swiss voters supported the measure, which will take effect in March.