Elsewhere in Science, 30 May 2014

France Córdova

Each week, Science publishes a number of articles that are likely to be of interest to career-minded readers. Because those articles are published on the other Science sites, Science Careers readers could easily overlook them.

To remedy that, every Friday we're pointing our readers toward articles appearing in Science—the print magazine as well as ScienceInsider, Science Translational Medicine (Sci. TM), and Science Signaling—that hold some relevance to careers in science and other technical fields. (Note that articles appearing in Sci. TM, Science Signaling, and Science may require AAAS—the publisher of Science Careers—membership, a Science subscription, or a site license.)

► A citizen-science group appears to be getting its own NASA spacecraft. Last Friday at ScienceInsider, Eric Hand reported that “[a] group of crowd-funded amateurs, students, and NASA retirees are on the cusp of resurrecting—and possibly taking control of—a disused NASA spacecraft that has been coasting around the solar system since the days of disco.” The group includes 81-year-old Robert Farquhar, the mission’s original flight director. NASA says it will allow the group to contact the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 probe, which had been used to study weather and two comets before NASA stopped using it in 1997. If they can make contact and regain control of the spacecraft, the group will try to put it into a different orbit and then use it to study another comet, 46P/Wirtanen. The group has raised $150,000 to fund the work; NASA’s only contribution will be the probe itself.

Update: On Thursday, the group announced that they had made contact with the discarded probe.

► For weeks in this space, we have chronicled (via ScienceInsider) the fate of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The FIRST Act would reauthorize the National Science Foundation, but its provisions would amount, to quote White House science adviser John Holdren, to “adding congress as reviewers” of NSF grant proposals. On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated House science committee approved the proposal in a party-line vote. Jeffrey Mervis wrote about it at ScienceInsider, calling it the “equivalent of a no-hitter” and nearly a perfect game for Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the house science committee.

On Tuesday, Mervis ran the numbers, concluding that “it takes some unorthodox arithmetic to square the claims by the chair of the House of Representatives science committee with the actual numbers in his Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) Act.”

► On Tuesday in ScienceInsider, Gretchen Vogel wrote that German politicians have finally agreed on how to spend €9 billion in education funds over the next 4 years. Reporting from Berlin, Vogel wrote “that the federal government will take over the full cost of the country’s financial aid program for university students—which will amount to a €1.2 billion savings for state budgets each year.” States have promised to spend those savings on schools and universities. The states also agreed “to a change in the constitution that would allow the federal government to fund universities directly, which is currently forbidden.”

While politicians are still working on the final wording of the amendment, “[t]he agreement spells out that the federal government will also continue its funding of several key programs that have boosted research budgets in recent years, such as the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation—which funds nonuniversity research organizations like the Helmholtz Association and the Max Planck Society—and the Excellence Initiative, which allows universities to compete for extra funding for special projects and the title of ‘elite university.’ ”

► On Wednesday at ScienceInsider, Tania Rabesandratana reported from Brussels that the European Commission has denied a request by a citizens' initiative to “block E.U. funding for research using embryonic stem cells.” The commission says that the current rules under Horizon 2020, the European Union’s science program, are “appropriate and will not change.”

► Also on Wednesday, Christina Larson wrote that, at the Global Research Council meeting Monday in Beijing, Chinese science leaders “threw their weight behind plans to embrace open access and Western norms of scientific conduct, including a plea from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for more rigorous evaluation and peer review.” CAS issued a statement noting a “weak scientific ethos” in China and calling for “urgent measures to establish excellence-oriented evaluation systems and funding mechanisms for Chinese science.” They announced plans to create a repository where scientific articles would be collected and made public after an embargo period, similar to PubMed Central.

► In another chapter in the STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) stem cell saga, Kelly Servick reported in a Wednesday ScienceInsider that according to Japanese media, stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata is prepared to retract one of her Nature papers, but not the other. She “is willing to retract a paper concluding that so-called STAP stem cells can form a wide variety of tissues, but does not intend to retract the paper describing how to make those stem cells.”

“It would be naive to think that only the letter [the second paper] can be retracted and that the [methods] article will remain with the STAP cell narrative overall having any legitimacy,” stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler of the University of California, Davis told ScienceInsider in an e-mail. “I believe the ultimate fates [of the two papers] are tightly tied together.”

► Lots of prizes were announced this week, including Shaw Prizes and Kavli Prizes.

► We mentioned last week in this space that science budgets in Australia were not looking promising. Earlier today at ScienceInsider, Leigh Dayton reported that according to a leaked document, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation plans to “shutter eight research facilities.” It isn’t clear how many science jobs will be lost.

► In planning a major scientific initiative like the BRAIN project, it’s good to brainstorm and have many bold ideas. “But in their heady excitement, some may have forgotten to check the math in their first proposals,” writes Emily Underwood in this week’s Science. You can always count on physicists and engineers to have a sobering effect, which is just what they planned to do at a meeting this week of physicists, engineers, and neuroscientists. The goal is to do a reality check, to determine what ideas are likely to work and which violate some physical law or serious engineering constraint.

► This week’s Science includes an interview that Mervis conducted with France Córdova, NSF’s new director. An English major in college, Córdova got interested in physics after watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Accepted for grad school at CalTech, she succeeded, she says, by “working hard and having that passion.”

Córdova doesn’t like the pipeline metaphor often used to describe the flow of women and minorities into and through science. “I think our lives are filled with lots of disjointed pipelines. We go in one direction for a while, then we have an opportunity to go in a different direction. My own life shows that. It's unpredictable. We don't know what's going to happen.” Asked about broadening participation by members of underrepresented groups, her response embraced both traditional and nontraditional careers. “We have leverage through specific programs designed to foster development of faculty who are hired. And to the extent NSF can encourage people to do more formal and informal education, we can inspire people who will become the next generation of faculty.

“We have an untapped talent pool in this country of women and minority students. And some would argue that young men from disadvantaged communities would also be part of that pool. We are also looking at who will be the future legislators and journalists, and what they know about science.”

Top Image: France Córdova CREDIT: Matthew Rakola Photography

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