Dispatches from the US (3)

(November 25th, 2014) The month of November saw the announcement of the Breakthrough Science Award winners and the first anniversary of BioRxiv. In Washington, the 44th international Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting was held and the White House released its new immigration policy.

Top celebrities give away $36 million as Breakthrough science prizes

Money is what it takes for even the most brilliant ideas to crystallise. But there’s never too much dough when it comes to science. To foster cutting-edge research, top celebrities of the internet world, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, the founders of Facebook and Google, and entrepreneurs Jack Ma and Yuri Milner, launched the Breakthrough Prizes in 2013. Each year, the awardees are chosen by a panel comprising prize-recipients of the previous year. This year, in a ‘star-studded’ ceremony held in California on November 9, a total prize money of $36 million was disbursed among 60 biologists, physicists and mathematicians for discoveries that, in Zuckerberg’s terms, “move the world forward”. Eleven laureates, including all six biologists, landed $3 million each – a sum twice fatter than the Nobel Prize.

Among the six awardees for biology were C. David Allis, Rockefeller University, New York, for his work on histone modifications that regulate gene expression in health and in diseases, and Alim Louis Benabid, Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble, for developing high-frequency deep brain stimulation, a technique that has transformed Parkinson’s treatment. Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig, and Umeå University, were lauded for shedding insight into the Crispr/Cas9 bacterial defence mechanism, which is now extensively exploited for genome editing. For their independent discovery of genetic regulation by micro RNAs, Victor Ambros, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, and Gary Ruvkun, Harvard, each received an award.

Cameron Diaz, Eddie Redmayne, portraying Stephen Hawking in a recent movie, and Kate Beckinsale were among the presenters at the luxurious event. The awards are given in the hope of tagging researchers with celebrity status and saluting scientists as heroes, and in the long term may serve as a huge investment for research. But whether such incentive is here to stay or is a mere publicity stunt for the stars is for time to tell.

Preprint server BioRxiv turns one

As scientists, we are all too aware of the hassles of peer-reviewed publishing – a non-objective process that tests our patience until either our work turns obsolete, or is scooped by the findings of ostensibly the more ‘influential’ strata. Any solution that aims to mitigate the burden of publishing can offer some consolation for those of us in despair. In view of this, and inspired by similar initiatives in math and physics societies, the New York state publisher Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Press set up the online preprint server bioRxiv (pronounced Bio-archive) in late 2013. BioRxiv invites life sciences researchers to deposit their preprint manuscripts on their website, where they stay open to comments and feedback from the scientific community. This way the stories can be revised and reshaped before being sent off to journals. The manuscripts are each given a DOI when they are entered into the server, so they become instantly searchable and citable. What’s more, major publishers such as Nature and Science accept papers submitted to preprint servers.

On the first anniversary of their website, John Inglis, executive director of CSHL Press, and Richard Server, bioRxiv co-leader, took stock of its progress in an interview with Science. Over the last 12 months, the server has attracted some 800 papers from 25 disciplines ranging from cell and molecular biology, cancer biology and neuroscience. At least 28% of authors, from 44 countries, have benefited from the site and revised their manuscripts. 25% of all manuscripts have been successfully published in peer-reviewed journals. Despite receiving a modest submission rate of 80 papers a month, the website has “enormous capacity of growth”, says John Inglis to Science. “It’s not a product, it’s not a business. It’s a service that a laboratory has invested itself in … not just financially, but with a commitment from the laboratory that it is a good thing for science.” The preprint culture is new to life scientists but has the potential to stick around given that an expanding spectrum of journals today publish papers that were up as preprints. Besides, with its long history in publishing biology, CSHL turns out as a legit publisher for scientists to test out the new culture.

Washington, D.C. plays host to 44th SfN meeting

Every year, the SfN hosts the biggest international neuroscience conference bringing together scientists, physicians, industry professionals and publishers all under one roof in one of the US metro cities. This year, the 44th annual meeting of the society was held in the capital, where over 31,000 attendees congregated at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center between November 15 and 19. Over 15,000 works of neuroscience, posters and talks, covering technology such as optogenetics, CLARITY and high-frequency deep brain stimulation, basic and translational research ranging from understanding cortical interneuron subtypes to advances in stem cell therapy were presented at the hectic five-day meet. The participants could also sneak a peek at the latest scientific products marketed by the 700 exhibitors.

Carol Mason, president of SfN pointed at how neuroscience is making significant strides and how crucial it is to ramp up our efforts to understand the brain. Besides scientific exchange, the meeting also felicitated some of the best pieces of research in the form of 22 neuroscience awards. Among them, $15,000 Young Investigator awards were given to Feng Zhang of MIT and Diana Bautista of University of California, Berkeley. The SfN’s highest award, the $25,000 Gerard Prize was shared by veteran scientists Roger Nicoll, University of California and Richard Tsien, New York University for their seminal work on the mechanisms of neurotransmission in the mammalian brain.

Though the array of presentations was befuddling for any one person, experts in different areas point at some of the takeaways. Physiologist Loren Frank learnt about new hippocampal circuits that generate short wave ripples, idiosyncratic oscillations that contribute to learning and memory and Melissa Bauman, a psychiatrist, was impressed by studies that sought to unravel the contribution of the immune system to social behaviour. Also autism research seemed to be pacing up and garnered a lot of attention. There was a chest of new work on Shank3, a candidate autism gene. The meeting also showcased technological advances in the field. Among the highlights was scalable, super-resolution 3D imaging of brain tissue, an innovation by MIT engineer Ed Boyden. The technique holds tremendous potential to image brain circuits with nanoscale precision and may be transformative to mapping neural connections.

All that should leave the neuroscience community with enough food for thought to last a year, until they meet again in Chicago in October 2015.

Obama’s immigration plans do Science some good

US President Barack Obama announced important changes to the nation’s immigration policies in his speech on November 20. Obama will exert executive power to mobilise new policies that will permit more foreign students in the US to take up jobs locally, and make it easier for Asian researchers with US work permits to change jobs or acquire permanent residence. In his speech, Mr. President urged foreign students educated in US universities to stay here and “create businesses here, create industries right here in America”.

As part of the new policies, foreign students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses will be permitted to work full time while still on student visa. Besides, more degree programmes would allow students to work via the Optional Practical Training (OPT) module, an optional programme that authorises recent STEM graduates to work full time for 29 months. The new rules would also extend the length of the OPT.

Changes in the policies may also benefit Indian and Chinese researchers on H1-B and similar visas. They currently have to endure long waiting periods to file application I-485 for permanent residency, owing to backlogs in the system. But with an improved policy, Indians and Chinese may be able to file an I-485 immediately after obtaining a H1-B. Filing this form automatically entails work authorisation, and hence allows applicants to switch jobs and even permits spouse employment.

Another addition would be the national interest waiver (NIW), with which “non-citizens with advanced degrees or exceptional ability” can apply for green cards without employer sponsorship, if they can demonstrate that their admission would be of “national interest”. Though these new developments may allure foreigners, they do not get a ready nod from the locals, who fear that the policies may reduce wages and job opportunities for native scientists and engineers. 

Madhuvanthi Kannan

Image: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Petr Kratochvil

Last Changes: 01.16.2015