Elsewhere in Science, 9 October 2015

Juan José Negro, posing with a lesser kestrel, a small falcon.

Credit: Airam Rodriguez

Every Friday, Science Careers points to articles in the Science family of publications that are relevant to careers in science and other technical fields. Some of them are accessible to anyone, but access to articles appearing in Science Translational MedicineScience Signaling, and Science may require AAAS membership (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers) or a site license.

► “During his 2 years in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has filled his cabinet with Ph.D.-trained technocrats,” Richard Stone wrote in a ScienceInsider published last Friday. “A mechanical engineer by training,” Sorena Sattari, the vice president for science and technology, “has been a forceful proponent of yoking science more tightly to the economy and says he would like to imbue Iran with an ‘entrepreneurial spirit.’” In a Q&A with Sattari, they discussed, among other topics, Sattari’s father, who was commander of the Iranian Air Force during the Iran-Iraq war; the future of the Iranian space program; and Sattari’s plan for privatizing Iran’s research institutes. “There must be a difference between grants for pure research and support for projects that have potential to become a business. Government funds should be used to expand the boundaries of science. … In many of our institutes, frankly, we need a new way of thinking,” Sattari said. In addition, Sattari’s “Innovation and Prosperity Fund has handed out $600 million in low-interest loans to 1650 technology startups and to other firms seeking to branch out in new directions,” Stone wrote.

► As you probably know, the winners of the Nobel Prize were announced this week in Stockholm. On Monday, Erik Stokstad and Gretchen Vogel reported that William Campbell of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey; Satoshi Ōmura of Kitasato University in Tokyo; and Youyou Tu of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing were “awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for decades-old findings that led to ‘revolutionary treatments’ for devastating diseases in the developing world.” On Tuesday, Adrian Cho reported that “[a] weird identity shifting among ghostly particles called neutrinos has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for the leaders of massive underground experiments in Japan and Canada.” The winners were Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo and Arthur McDonald of Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. And on Wednesday, Stokstad reported that the chemistry prize went to Paul Modrich of Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina; Aziz Sancar of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute at Clare Hall Laboratory, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom for discovering the “molecular tools [that] help ensure that DNA is in proper working order.”

► “A scientist who helped organize a call for a federal investigation of the fossil fuel industry—for allegedly orchestrating a cover-up of climate change dangers—has himself become the target of a congressional probe,” Warren Cornwall wrote in another Monday ScienceInsider. “Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the science panel of the House of Representatives, announced plans to investigate a nonprofit research group led by climate scientist Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.” But “[i]t’s not clear what exactly Smith’s committee will be investigating. A committee spokeswoman, Laura Crist, declined to say whether the panel was looking at whether public funds were misused for political purposes, or whether [the research group] might have violated its nonprofit status with political activity.”

► “[T]he European Commission said it will do its bit to help the scientists among [the more than 500,000 refugees in the European Union] find research jobs,” Tania Rabesandratana wrote on Tuesday at ScienceInsider. “Under a program called Science4Refugees, launched [Tuesday] by E.U. research commissioner Carlos Moedas, the commission says it will help match refugees with universities willing to hire them. … Several universities have already said they will sign up, including the University of Strasbourg in France and the University of Leuven in Belgium, says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, a group of universities that expressed its support at the Science4Refugees launch yesterday.” But, Rabesandratana notes, “Refugees4Science will not give preferential treatment to anyone during university recruitment or application procedures for visa or work permits, the commission says.”   

► As cannabis is increasingly decriminalized in the United States, contradictions between federal and state laws are creating problems for some academics, Brooke Borel explained in another Tuesday ScienceInsider. Specifically, some universities “operate so-called extension programs, which are cooperative efforts between federal and state governments to help support agriculture. Extension researchers often spend a lot of time with local farmers, educating them on how to incorporate the latest science. But because pot is illegal, extension staff often can’t advise growers on the best practices for growing the crop.” In a Q&A with plant physiologist Angus Murphy of the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park, Borel explored the difficulties presented by the current situation. “If a person is funded by federal money in any way, or their facilities are funded by federal money, then it is illegal to use those facilities for cannabis production or for advising people on cannabis production,” Murphy said during the interview. “There’s definitely some conflict. For instance, we have two University of Maryland faculty members on the Maryland Medical Cannabis [Commission], and that had to be worked out very, very carefully.”

► Later that day at ScienceInsider, David Malakoff reported that economist Hoesung Lee, the current vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), had just been selected to be the panel’s new leader. “In a candidate’s statement released earlier this year, he wrote that ‘I  want  to  support  what  has  worked,  keep  what  is  needed  and  change  what  needs improvement across IPCC’s mode of operation, its activities and communication of its findings.’”

► “The head of one of Spain's premier ecology institutes says he has been dismissed for publicly voicing his opposition to a controversial mining project,” Elisabeth Pain wrote at ScienceInsider on Wednesday. “Juan José Negro, removed from his post as director of the Doñana Biological Station headquartered in Seville on 29 September, claims he had to go because he spoke out against the reopening of a zinc and silver mine near Aznalcóllar in the province of Seville. The mine was the site of an ecological disaster in 1998. Although Negro is no longer the institute's director, he plans to stay on as a senior scientist.” The station's parent organization, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), “denies that Negro was dismissed because of politics. … A CSIC spokesperson says that Negro was dismissed because ‘trust has been lost,’ but declined to elaborate.” “This is not about me being director or not,” Negro says. “This is about freedom of speech and political interference in favor of corporations in the largest scientific institution of Spain.”

► “Life just got easier—and cheaper—for Australian medical researchers, clinicians, and patients needing genetic testing,” Leigh Dayton reported on Thursday at ScienceInsider. “On 6 October Australia’s highest court overturned a lower court decision by ruling that an isolated gene sequence is not a ‘patentable invention.’ … The ruling also aligns Australian legislation with that of the United States, South America, and most of Asia. Canada allows human gene patenting, as does the European Union if the biological material has been isolated by a technical process.” “According to intellectual property experts like Luigi Palombi [of Murdoch University in Perth], the decision is ‘fantastic’ for medical researchers, enabling them to work with genetic material without fear of encroaching on patents. … The decision also sets an important precedent for public health administration. Hospitals will be free to perform genetic testing—and develop their own tests—without fear of reprisals from biotechnology companies.” But “Big Pharma and the biotechnology community see things differently. They fear the ruling will have a chilling effect on research and be a 'blow to innovation,' as claimed by the industry publication Pharma in Focus.”  

► In another Thursday ScienceInsider, Jeffrey Mervis reported that “Republican legislators … reiterated their distrust of the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the science committee for the U.S. House of Representatives approving legislation that would tighten its oversight of NSF’s merit-review process.” Mervis noted that “[t]he vote is the latest twist in a bitter fight between many House Republicans and the U.S. scientific establishment over the rules of engagement on federal funding for research.” The bill, called H.R. 3293, “would require NSF officials to explain why every grant they make is ‘in the national interest,’ using seven criteria that range from ‘increased economic competitiveness’ to ‘promotion of the progress of science.’” During the markup session the committee’s chairman, Representative Smith, said “that he has reviewed several dozen ‘questionable’ grants that do not meet that definition,” but “[m]ost Democrats on the committee, however, think that Smith’s real motive is to suppress research that he dislikes.”

► In this week’s issue of Science, two authors wrote about the role—or lack thereof—of science in Canadian politics. In an editorial, James L. Turk, a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and director of their Centre for Free Expression, wrote that “[t]he upcoming Canadian election later this month will provide a welcome opportunity to reboot the federal government's controversial approach to science policy and research. The current Conservative government has been undermining science for the past 9 years, damaging the institutions that make scientific advancement possible and trying to ensure that political and ideological priorities dominate scientific work.” “Canada needs to reverse this damage to its scientific enterprise. An immediate priority should be establishing a prominent role for science in government,” he argued.

Then, in a News item a few pages later, Brian Owens wrote that “[s]cience is making a rare appearance in Canada's election. ... [T]he nation's leading opposition parties have taken aim at Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's science policies, which have alienated large segments of the nation's scientific community. Science policy isn't a top concern for most voters in the election. ... But some research advocates hope the issue could move enough ballots to sway what appears to be a tight three-way race.” According to the New Democratic Party’s spokesman on science issues, Kennedy Stewart, who is also a member of Parliament, “[s]cience could be the sleeper issue.”

► In this week’s Letters section, Germán Orizaola and Ana Elisa Valdés of Uppsala University in Sweden urged speakers to “[f]ree the tweet at scientific conferences.” In the letter, the researchers note that social media is a powerful tool for rapid communication, but “there is a new and controversial trend to limit the free use of social media in scientific conferences.” Orizaola and Valdés give the example of the 100th Anniversary Meeting of the Ecological Society of America held in Baltimore, Maryland, in August, where “the open use of Twitter and photography during talks was restricted unless permission from the organization or speakers had been granted for each specific talk.” They conclude that “[a] restrictive policy regarding the use of social media in conferences clearly limits the impact of the communicated science and makes little sense in events with attendees in the thousands. We believe that results communicated in a public event should be viewed as public as if they were published in a journal.”

► While volunteering at a scientific conference, Tal Polak came up with an idea that helped her and a number of the other conference attendees network with top scientists. Read this week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life story to find out what she did.

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