Elsewhere in Science, 24 April 2015

Jens Förster

Credit: Humboldt-Stiftung/Sven-Müller

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►“The European Parliament has thrown a spanner into the works of European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to slash €2.7 billion from the European Union's 2014 to 2020 research budget for a new investment fund to help ramp up Europe's economy,” Tania Rabesandratana wrote in a Monday ScienceInsider. “Although E.U. member states seem happy to sign off on Juncker's proposal, the Parliament says the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) must find its money elsewhere. Talks [began] on 23 April in Brussels to reconcile these opposing stances.”

► Also on Monday, Frank van Kolfschooten reported that “Jens Förster, the German social psychologist found responsible for data manipulation last year, has withdrawn his candidacy for a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorship at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB),” but it is unclear if he did so because of an ongoing investigation. “Also unclear is whether Förster can continue to work at RUB, where he currently has a temporary position.”

►“The Australian government and a big part of its research workforce are headed for a showdown,” Dennis Normile wrote in a Tuesday ScienceInsider. “[S]taff at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) could start skipping meetings with managers and ignoring their phone messages, refusing to fill in time sheets, and working strictly to specified hours.” The act of protest will take place “[b]arring a breakthrough in negotiations over a new employment agreement at a meeting on 29 April.”  The negotiations have stalled because “[m]anagement wants to increase working hours and cut holidays without any adjustments to compensation, [says Anthony Keenan, a spokesman for the CSIRO Staff Association]. CSIRO also wants to reduce severance payments for those whose jobs are eliminated due to budget cuts.”

►The controversial America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, introduced last week by the U.S. House of Representatives science committee and authored by committee chair and National Science Foundation critic Lamar Smith (R-TX), went through markup on Wednesday, Jeffrey Mervis reported. (Mervis and Adrian Cho also provided a preview earlier in the day.) In the markup session, Mervis wrote, Smith “took a small, tactical step back today from his assault on the policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Smith hasn’t abandoned his 2-year strategy of pushing NSF in directions that the U.S. scientific community doesn’t want it to go. … [H]e made it clear that he’s calling the shots.” “The final bill was approved by a margin of 19 to 16.”

“The bulk of the committee’s time … was spent in debate over a series of proposals introduced by Democrats to correct what they view as a very flawed bill,” even though Smith “kn[ew] he had the votes to reject every Democratic suggestion.” Even with the numbers advantage, Smith gave up a little ground, “drop[ping] language in the bill about how NSF builds and manages large scientific facilities that NSF officials say is unreasonable, unnecessary, and in places even contradictory” and “put[ting] back $500,000 he had removed from the $4.3 million budget of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body.” “The bill’s next stop is the House floor, at a time to be determined.”

►“[Canadian] Finance Minister Joe Oliver unveiled a 2015 to 2016 financial blueprint in which honoring a commitment to balance the budget takes precedence over immediate goodies for science,” Wayne Kondro wrote in a Wednesday ScienceInsider. “The deferred list includes a new, $1.08 billion competition by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation for research infrastructure grants to begin 3 years down the road, as well as modest funding toward buying a 15% to 20% stake in the colossal Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to be built in a dormant Hawaii volcano by 2024.” Kondro also noted that Canada’s “three granting councils, which fund academic research, will see their combined $2.13 billion budgets remain flat this year,” but “$41 million of a 10-year, $1.22 billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund announced in the 2014 to 2015 fiscal plan will start to flow into their coffers to bolster the capacity of universities to ‘create long-term economic advantages for Canada.’ ”

►“Republican budgetmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives signaled their support for basic research and their reluctance to invest federal dollars in applied research today in their markup of a bill that would set the budget for the Department of Energy (DOE) next year,” Cho wrote on Wednesday. The bill “would boost spending by 0.6% for DOE's basic research arm, the Office of Science, to $5.10 billion.” In contrast, it would cut the DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program’s “current budget by 13.8%, to $1.66 billion.” “The bill has already drawn a veiled veto threat from the White House, however, in part because of the cuts it would make to DOE's applied research programs,” Cho wrote.  

►“Big science is hard,” declared an editorial by University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner in the magazine this week. For example, before the Large Hadron Collider, Hubble Space Telescope, and Atacama Large Millimeter and Submillimeter Array “became famous for discoveries, these and other big projects were infamous for their problems.” “And yet big science can overcome these hurdles and be triumphant,” Turner continued. He went on to list “key ingredients for success at this scale”: “[T]he stakeholders … must view the science as truly worthy of a big-science approach and must be committed to seeing things through. … Partners must be committed to the project and to their well-defined, agreed-upon responsibilities and willing to delegate authority. … [A]ll involved must be honest and realistic about both progress and problems and willing to make hard decisions.”

►In today’s fiercely competitive funding climate, the merit of the grant peer-review process has come under fire from a number of critics. Now adding to the debate are two recent studies, one in this week’s issue and the other in the journal Research Policy, that “support claims that peer review works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH),” Mervis reported. The study in Science “examined the outcomes of 137,215 NIH research project, or R01, grants awarded between 1980 and 2008. It found that grant proposals rated more highly by NIH study sections generated more publications and more citations than those that received lower scores.” The study in Research Policy “found that the additional proposals funded after the agency received billions of dollars from the 2009 economic stimulus package garnered fewer publications and citations than the grants initially funded.”

“But some who follow the peer-review debate say the papers' definition of success … ignores important factors, meaning that the debate is sure to continue,” Mervis wrote. For one, the head of NIH’s “massive grant-review enterprise,” Richard Nakamura, “says he worries about judging outcomes using publications and citations, because journal editors and authors have considerable control over those variables.” “[T]he debate over how to measure the outcome of grants remains very much alive,” he says.  

►Also in this week’s issue, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel wrote about potential changes brewing in the way that clinical trials are designed and carried out. “Last week, 200 statisticians, scientists, and physicians gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to hash out some options for” how clinical trials could be improved, Couzin-Frankel wrote. The focus was “pragmatic clinical trials, which focus less on disease biology and more on helping doctors. They do not hew to a single design. Rather, pragmatic trials are guided by their end goal: informing practice.” Such trials are intended to address some of the problems with today’s clinical trial system. Currently, “[m]any trials are too small or too poorly designed to tell us much, [U.S. Food and Drug Administration cardiologist Robert] Califf says. Others don't address what doctors need to know, such as how one particular treatment stacks up against another. And even the biggest and best clinical trials tightly restrict who can sign up, casting doubt on their relevance to broad patient populations.”

► In this week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life column, a two-scientist couple argue that men and women should demand policies that support women who return to work after having children—and also “encourage their partners to take on their fair share of the domestic load.”

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