U.S. FUNDING FOR SCIENCE CONTINUES ITS DECLINE.
Last year, bipartisan legislation in the U.S. aimed to bolster the nation’s competitiveness, particularly against countries like China, by increasing funding for science and innovation. However, concerns are growing that Congress might not fulfill these commitments. In 2024, the funding for major U.S. science agencies could miss the target by over $7 billion, keeping funding levels at a 25-year low. The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 had pledged about $280 billion over five years, focusing mainly on semiconductor research and manufacturing – a domain where countries like China excel. The annual appropriations process has been hindered by political polarization and budgetary disputes. Despite the CHIPS Act authorizing $26.8 billion for agencies like the NSF, DoE Office of Science, and NIST in 2024, they might receive just above $19 billion, a 28% deficit. Though the U.S. still leads in R&D funding globally, government investments have declined, with concerns that basic research, vital for long-term innovation, might be the hardest hit. To stay globally competitive, the U.S. needs substantial and lasting federal investments, beyond just policy declarations. (Nature)
ACCESS TO COVID VACCINE IN U.S. UNEVEN.
In late 2018, Danielle Campoamor’s son, Samuel, contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and was hospitalized. Four years later, amidst a “tripledemic” of RSV, Covid-19, and the flu, he faced another hospitalization. Campoamor, a journalist, expressed the trauma of watching her child struggle and emphasized her family’s commitment to vaccinations. Recently, however, many Americans, including Campoamor, faced challenges in securing a Covid vaccine. The shift from government distribution to private companies handling Covid vaccine distribution led to problems. Jennifer Kates of KFF indicated that this new system led to “hiccups”. As of 2022’s end, the federal government spent $30bn on Covid vaccines. When funding ceased, insurance companies or individuals became responsible for the cost. Issues arose with billing codes, and pharmacies faced supply uncertainties. Major pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens attributed canceled appointments to supply chain issues. Despite these challenges, vaccine manufacturers ensured adequate supply. Switching from public to private distribution has its challenges, highlighting the need for efficient public health systems. (The Guardian)
MAJOR mRNA VACCINE DONATION FOR AFRICA.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is donating $40 million to improve access to mRNA vaccines in Africa. Belgian biotech company, Quantoom Biosciences, will receive $20 million to further its mRNA manufacturing platform, while the Institut Pasteur de Dakar (Senegal) and Biovac (South Africa) will each get $5 million to acquire the technology. Another $10 million is reserved for other vaccine producers interested in the platform. While mRNA vaccines played a crucial role during the COVID-19 pandemic, their distribution was inequitable. Efforts are ongoing to utilize this technology against diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that significantly affect low-income nations. The World Health Organization initiated an mRNA vaccine technology hub in Cape Town, with Afrigen Biologics producing Africa’s first lab-made mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. Quantoom’s Ntensify platform, funded initially by Gates in 2016, facilitates cost-effective, large-scale mRNA production. This can potentially halve vaccine development costs compared to conventional mRNA methods. (Reuters)
EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY FAILING SCHOOLS POST-COVID.
Upon receiving federal pandemic relief, American schools were inundated with pitches from tech companies offering software solutions. An Associated Press analysis revealed that major school systems spent millions from pandemic relief funds on edtech, despite little evidence of its efficacy. Some software went unused, and the total expenditure remains unclear due to the lack of reporting requirements. The federal aid, totaling $190 billion, lacked directives for schools to report specific purchases. While the pandemic drove edtech revenues up as schools transitioned online, the push for tech solutions was also fueled by aggressive marketing. However, spending on technology only formed a small portion of the total pandemic relief spending. Despite some success stories, numerous edtech initiatives failed to achieve desired results, with some schools letting up to 67% of their software licenses go unused. Experts highlight the need for more stringent regulation and emphasize that effective education primarily relies on direct instruction. (Associated Press)
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DENGUE DUE TO SPREAD TO NEW REGIONS.
Dengue fever is expected to pose a significant threat in the southern US, southern Europe, and new regions in Africa this decade, warned the World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist. The expansion of this disease is attributed to climate change, which enables the mosquitoes carrying the infection to proliferate, and is exacerbated by increased human mobility and urbanization. Global dengue cases have surged eight-fold since 2000, with 4.2 million reported in 2022 alone. Jeremy Farrar, an infectious diseases specialist at the WHO, stressed the need for proactive discussions and preparations for dengue. The disease’s onset in new regions could strain healthcare systems, as dengue care demands significant resources. Dengue symptoms include severe fever and joint pain, and while a vaccine is available, there isn’t a specific treatment. Effective prevention requires a multifaceted approach, blending health measures, urban planning, and cross-sector collaboration to control mosquito populations and spread. (Reuters)
HUMANS WERE IN NORTH AMERICA DURING ICE AGE.
Scientists found human footprints in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, suggesting humans were present in the Americas between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago, a timeline that challenges the dominant belief of human arrival around 16,000 years ago. Initial dating using radiocarbon methods on seeds from Ruppia cirrhosa sparked controversy, as the plant could absorb older carbon, potentially skewing results. The implications of such an early human presence change the understanding of migration routes, suggesting movement into the region might have happened before major ice sheets formed. To verify their findings, the White Sands team used two additional dating techniques: radiocarbon dating of pine tree pollen and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) on quartz grains. Both methods supported the earlier timeline. While some experts are convinced, skeptics, like archaeologist Loren Davis, seek further evidence. Irrespective of the debate, indigenous community members like Kim Charlie emphasize the cultural significance and stories these footprints represent. (Science)
BEAR ATTACKS ON THE RISE AND PROBLEMATIC.
In Montana, the increasing number of grizzly bears has amplified the demand for livestock guard dogs like Aries, an Anatolian shepherd. Originating from Turkey, Anatolian shepherds are loyal, protective dogs that guard against predators. With Montana home to over 2,100 grizzlies and frequent bear attacks, tools like Anatolian shepherds are seen as invaluable, especially as bears, once secluded to remote regions, have begun moving into valleys and prairies. Grizzlies are larger and more defensive than black bears, posing a unique threat. Although grizzlies have been a threatened species since 1975, their numbers have rebounded in the past 50 years. As the bear population grows, conflicts with humans are inevitable due to urban expansion into bear territories. While Montana has petitioned to strip the bear’s protected status, nonlethal bear management methods are also being explored. The Bear Smart initiative in Western Montana identifies and eliminates bear attractions, while other preventive measures, like electric fences and bear-resistant containers, are being implemented. The grizzly bear’s future is uncertain, with human-bear coexistence as the overarching goal. (New York Times)
JAPANESE PANDA ON SHOW IN CHINA.
A giant panda named Xiang Xiang, born in Ueno Zoo, Tokyo in June 2017, is now on public display at the China Conservation and Research Center in Sichuan province. Born to pandas loaned from China to Japan, Xiang Xiang was transferred to China in February under an ownership agreement. Initially, only her keepers could approach her due to her shy nature. Recent videos show Xiang Xiang walking and exploring bamboo sticks, with another video on Chinese social media displaying her eating bamboo shoots. (NHK)
AR APPS HAVE A FUTURE IN TOURISM.
Tourists visiting the Acropolis can now experience a digital restoration of the ancient Greek site using an augmented reality (AR) app, “Chronos”. This app, supported by Greece’s Culture Ministry, provides a virtual representation of the marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon over two centuries ago, currently housed in the British Museum in London. The app also reveals less-known features, such as painted sculptures and a statue of Athena standing over water. Visitors have praised the immersive experience, noting that it makes the site more engaging. Beyond being a tourist attraction, the app contributes to Greece’s effort to boost year-round tourism. Tourism has seen a significant increase since the pandemic, with a 21.9% rise in visitors in the first seven months of the year. The AR sector, driven by tech giants like Meta and Apple, is anticipated to revolutionize various fields, from medical surgery to leisure activities. The app, developed by Greek telecom provider Cosmote, is part of a broader trend of digitizing Greece’s historical sites to enhance accessibility and education. (Associated Press)
Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.
WORDS: The Biology Guy.
IMAGE CREDIT: Karolina Grabowska.