Elsewhere in Science, 10 October 2014

Ayanna Howard with a robot

Courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology

Each week, the Science family of publications publishes articles that are likely to be of interest to Science Careers readers. So, every Friday, we're pointing our readers toward articles that hold some relevance to careers in science and other technical fields. Note that many of the articles appearing in Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, and Science require AAAS membership (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers), a Science subscription, or a site license.

► Is congress leaking confidential information related to National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposals? That’s the question raised by a ScienceInsider post from last Friday, written by Jeffrey Mervis. It’s also the question asked by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the House of Representatives science committee, in a letter to Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the panel’s chair. As we mentioned last week in this space (citing earlier reporting by Mervis), congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle spent time this summer at NSF headquarters, poring over grant proposals and related documentation. Republican staffers were seeking information they could use to discredit NSF’s funding of social science research grants, while Democratic staffers were trying to prepare themselves to counter Republican charges and defend NSF.

A reasonable person could conclude that the only other party who had access to this material—you or your staff—released the information. I seek your assurance that this did not happen.

—Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX)

In the letter, Johnson asserts that a leak of confidential information “involving details of an NSF grant to a New York City theater group for a play about climate change and biodiversity, was designed ‘to embarrass the agency and the grantee.’ ” The grant helped fund a musical called The Great Immensity, which “opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in February 2014 before moving to New York City in April for a 4-week run,” Mervis wrote. Smith has criticized the award, along with others intended to educate the public about climate change. Johnson’s letter says the story “ ‘contained at least two pieces of information that were not publicly available and that were available in the confidential materials reviewed by both your staff and mine.’ After saying her staff ‘never shared this information,’ she lowers the boom,” Mervis writes. “ ‘A reasonable person could conclude that the only other party who had access to this material—you or your staff—released the information. I seek your assurance that this did not happen.’

“Asked for a comment,” Mervis continues, “Smith authorized this statement from an aide to the science committee: ‘In conducting its proper oversight role, the Committee has not jeopardized the integrity of the peer review process, nor made public any sensitive information. Staff closely followed the written terms of the document review, as laid out by the agency.’ ”

► On Monday, John Travis offered up a “sequel” to earlier coverage of “the science stars of twitter,” adding physicians and others left off the original list and expanding it from 50 to 100 people. The new additions include @NIHDirector Francis Collins and astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May. While the expanded list contains many women, only three cracked the top 50 (as determined by the number of Twitter followers) raising the number of women in the top 50 to just seven.

► This week was Nobel Prize week, and Science covered it. First to be announced was the prize for physiology or medicine, for three scientists’ work on the “place cells” and “grid cells” which help us orient ourselves in space. “ ‘The discoveries of John O´Keefe, May‐Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries—how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment? How do we experience our environment?’ the Nobel Committee says in its statement.” O’Keefe, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London, was awarded half the prize. The other half was shared by the Mosers, a married couple: May-Britt, director of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim, and Edvard, director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim.

► This year’s physics prize went to three Japanese physicists—not, as is usual, for a scientific discovery, but for an invention: the blue light-emitting diode. “The Nobel Committee recognized three researchers as contributing equally to the breakthrough: Isamu Akasaki of Meijo University in Nagoya and Nagoya University; Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University; and Shuji Nakamura, now of the University of California, Santa Barbara,” wrote Dennis Normile at ScienceInsider.

► On Thursday at ScienceInsider, Daniel Clery passed along news that the Nobel Prize in chemistry had been awarded to three microscopists who study biological systems. “Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia; Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany; and William Moerner of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, share the prize equally ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,’ the Nobel Committee announced earlier today,” Clery wrote.

► Early-career scientists are getting support from a member of Congress. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jocelyn Kaiser reported Monday that Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) “wants to order the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to bring down the average age at which new investigators receive their first grant by 4 years within a decade. Not surprisingly, the idea is getting a rocky reception from biomedical research advocates,” Kaiser wrote.

“As a physician-researcher before he went into politics, ‘I saw firsthand how the most innovative thinking frequently came from younger scientists,’ “ Harris wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. “He cites the well-worn statistic that the median age at which a Ph.D. researcher receives his or her first NIH R01, the agency’s bread-and-butter research grant, is now 42 (up from 36 on average in 1980). NIH is ‘aware’ of the problem but ‘does not have a serious plan to fix it,’ argues Harris, a former anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.” Kaiser also wrote about the issue in this week’s Science.

► A panel of experts appointed by the Italian Ministry of Health has decided that a clinical trial of an unapproved stem-cell method should not go forward. Italy’s health minister says the decision is final. Twenty people involved in promoting the therapy, including scientists, are facing allegations of criminal conduct. “In April, Italian prosecutors released a report alleging that the group was engaged in fraud by selling the therapy to patients. In November, a judge is expected to hold a hearing on whether the case will move forward,” wrote Laura Margottini at ScienceInsider.

► On Thursday at ScienceInsider, Kai Kupferschmidt passed along advice from two risk-communication experts about how scientists should talk about risk in the context of the Ebola outbreak. Look for a related Science Careers article next week.

► “Hoping to tame the torrent of data churning out of biology labs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced $32 million in awards in 2014 to help researchers develop ways to analyze and use large biological data sets, Kaiser and Emily Underwood wrote Thursday at ScienceInsider. “The awards come out of NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative, announced last year after NIH concluded it needed to invest more in efforts to use the growing number of data sets—from genomics, proteins, and imaging to patient records—that biomedical researchers are amassing.”

► In a Policy Forum in this week’s Science, four scientists argue that “predominantly human activities” are “a principal bottleneck in scientific progress” and propose that “a new generation of artificial intelligence (AI) systems can radically transform the practice of scientific discovery. Such systems are showing an increasing ability to automate scientific data analysis and discovery processes, can search systematically and correctly through hypothesis spaces to ensure best results, can autonomously discover complex patterns in data, and can reliably apply small-scale scientific processes consistently and transparently so that they can be easily reproduced. We discuss these advances and the steps that could help promote their development and deployment.”

► Today at ScienceInsider, Elisabeth Pain, Science Careers contributing editor for Europe, wrote about an open letter published Wednesday in which “prominent science policy advocates from Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom deplore ‘the systematic destruction of national R&D infrastructures.’ ” “The nine authors highlight what they describe as ‘drastic’ budget and hiring cuts at research institutions and universities, a funding bias toward well-established groups, and an increasing emphasis on applied research.” The letter was signed by 5000 scientists.

Pain says the letter “is part of a broader movement that includes a 3-week cycling tour around France and a series of meetings at major Italian universities.” The protest is expected to culminate next week with a march in Paris, a protest in Madrid, and a press conference in Rome.”

► Don’t miss this week’s special section on robots.

► This week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life column, features robotics engineer Ayanna Howard, on Building the Bionic Woman.

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