The week in science: US bolsters patent system; $25-billion pharma deal the biggest in 5 years; and Europe picks exoplanet-hunting mission for 2024 launch.
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Health-data delay England’s National Health Service has postponed the creation of a database of medical records that would eventually be accessible to researchers. Data collection was scheduled to begin in April, but on 19 February the organization announced a six-month delay after members of the public complained that they were ill-informed about the project and how to opt out. See go.nature.com/97zxcr for more.
Patent reform US President Barack Obama’s administration announced on 20 February several initiatives to bolster the nation’s troubled patent system. These include three executive actions: to improve training for patent examiners; to expand free legal assistance for independent inventors and small businesses; and to facilitate crowd-sourcing to help patent examiners to determine whether a claimed invention is new. The actions are part of Obama’s ongoing push to restrict opportunities for ‘patent trolls’ that aggregate patents and then profit from them by threatening other businesses with lawsuits, rather than commercializing the invention.
Pollution curbs On 23 February, Colorado lawmakers adopted the first regulations in the United States for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. The rules require producers in Colorado to retrofit facilities with low-emission equipment and to monitor emissions using site inspections and aerial surveys. The regulations were first announced in November 2013, and must now be approved by the state legislature.
Reactor construction gets funding boost The US Department of Energy has approved US$6.5 billion in loan guarantees to build two nuclear reactors at the $14-billion Vogtle Electric Generating Plant (pictured) near Waynesboro, Georgia, it said on 19 February. The reactors are the first new nuclear facilities to be constructed in the United States in nearly 30 years. Competition from natural gas and renewable energy as well as safety concerns have prompted several US nuclear plants to shut in the past year. See go.nature.com/pmauru for more.
Synchrotron to shut A light source at the University of Wisconsin–Madison will close on 7 March, following a US National Science Foundation (NSF) decision to cut off its funding. The Synchrotron Radiation Center has provided researchers with infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray photons for experiments including semiconductor research and biological imaging since 1986. The NSF cut support in 2011 because of budget constraints (see Nature 471, 278; 2011). The centre was unable to raise alternative funding to save itself from closure; the synchrotron costs US$5 million per year to run.
Nuclear leak The US Department of Energy confirmed on 20 February that radiation has escaped from a facility storing nuclear waste. The department closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, after an underground air-monitoring system detected radiation on 14 February. Five days after the closure, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center at New Mexico State University announced that it had found elevated levels of radioactive plutonium and americium at an independent air-sampling station nearly 1 kilometre from the site. Energy-department officials say radiation levels have now dropped and they expect plant staff to be able to re-enter the WIPP within two weeks.
Drug buyout The biggest pharmaceutical deal since 2009 was announced on 18 February with the US$25-billion purchase of Forest Laboratories in New York. Forest is being acquired by Actavis, which is headquartered in Dublin and is known for producing generic pharmaceuticals. The buyout will create a company with annual sales of $15 billion from drugs targeting disorders of the heart, digestive system and central nervous system, among other areas. The expanded company will have a combined investment in new drug development of $1 billion per year.
Holt retires Physicist and congressman Rush Holt (Democrat, New Jersey) announced on 18 February that he will retire from the House of Representatives at the end of this year. Holt was a former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey. During his eight terms representing the state’s 12th district, he campaigned for better use of science in policy-making (see Nature 489, 493–494; 2012). Holt did not give a reason for his decision, but did not rule out a return to politics in future.
Italy research head Linguist Stefania Giannini was appointed minister for education, universities and research in Italy’s new government on 21 February. Giannini’s first task will be to enact a seven-year national research programme that was approved by the outgoing government last month. Funding for the programme has not yet been approved, but it has an anticipated €6.3-billion (US$8.7-billion) budget that includes funding for hundreds of extra academic posts. Giannini is a former rector of the University for Foreigners of Perugia.
New medical chief Cardiologist Victor Dzau will be the next president of the US Institute of Medicine, it was announced on 19 February. The institute, based in Washington DC, provides the government and the public with health advice. Dzau will start on 1 July, taking over from Harvey Fineberg, who has led the institute for 12 years. Dzau is president and chief executive of the Duke University Health System. His research contributed to the development of enzyme inhibitors used to treat heart disease.
Planet hunter The European Space Agency announced on 19 February that it will launch a space-based observatory to hunt for planets around nearly one million stars outside the Solar System. The Plato (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) mission (pictured) will launch in 2024. It will use an array of 34 telescopes and cameras to search for Earth-sized planets and super-Earths at distances from their parent star that would allow them to be habitable. The aim is to study possible conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life. See go.nature.com/ufeafl for more.
Military psychology Many mental-health programmes designed for the military and their families are not based on good science, finds the US Institute of Medicine in a report released on 20 February. The US Department of Defense needs to evaluate the psychological help it provides to veterans to ensure that its services are effective, it says. The defence department sponsored the report to help to address the prevalence of psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety, plaguing veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sea sickness Europe’s seas are in poor health. This is the conclusion of two reports published on 20 February detailing the state of the continent’s marine ecosystems. One of the reports, from the European Commission, says that the European Union is failing to meet a pledge to clean up its seas by 2020. According to the other report, from the European Environment Agency, 88% of the assessed fish stocks in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea were overfished in 2013. See go.nature.com/qcetra for more.
Tracking forests A tool enabling the public to track deforestation around the globe was launched on 19 February by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a think tank based in Washington DC. The Global Forest Watch monitoring system integrates several data sources — including satellite imagery and publicly available statistics — to track forest cover, loss and use. The WRI developed the tool with more than 40 partners, including Google.
US venture-capital investment rose to US$29.4 billion in 2013, a 7% increase on the year before. According to a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US National Venture Capital Association based on Thomson Reuters data, the jump was aided by a 27% rise in money ploughed into software firms compared with 2012. By contrast, investment in companies working on medical devices, energy or clean technologies all fell in 2013, with biotechnology rising slightly (see chart).
4 March US President Barack Obama unveils his proposed 2015 budget. It is expected to include a request for a US$1‑billion fund to fight climate change.
5–7 March The Wellcome Trust biomedical charity hosts the Genomic Disorders 2014 conference in Cambridge, UK. Researchers will look at the latest findings on the genomic basis of rare disorders and discuss how genome analysis can aid clinical practice and patient care. go.nature.com/dqzhpa
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Seven days: 21–27 February 2014. Nature 506, 412–413 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/506412a