Italy's plans for new research hub get critical reception

The “Tree of Life” at the World Expo 2015 site in Milan, Italy, where the Human Technopole is planned.

© ATLANTIDE PHOTOTRAVEL/CORBIS

Elsewhere in Science: Budgets, forensics, and more

Here is this week’s career-related news from across the Science family of publications.  

► As announced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on 5 March, “China will invest heavily in [science and technology (S&T)] over the next 5 years and cut red tape hampering science spending with the hope that innovation will help the country weather its economic slowdown,” Kathleen McLaughlin reported on Monday. The central government’s draft plan for economic development “contains a long list of priorities, from building national science centers and space programs to expansion of major infrastructure with thousands of kilometers of new high-speed rail and roadways.” In particular, “China’s new plan promises that by 2020, R&D investment will account for 2.5% of gross domestic product, compared with 2.05% in 2014.” But although “Chinese scientists welcome the budget boost for science,” they remain cautious, noting that “the real impact remains in the as-yet unknown details.”

Meanwhile, in an unrelated letter, Guoyou Qi of East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai; Xuemei Xie of Shanghai University; and Kevin Zhu of the University of California, San Diego, highlighted the need for China to reform its S&T evaluation system. Last year, Chinese scientist “Youyou Tu won the Nobel Prize, yet she failed to be nominated for China's own State Science and Technology … Awards,” the researchers wrote. The new evaluation system “should depend on merit, transparency, peer reviews, and objective measures.”

► “Canada needs a comprehensive, long-term, and transparent roadmap for all biomedical trainees, and evidence-based planning must guide future funding decisions,” Ryan T. Lewison and his co-authors, all of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Canada, wrote in a Focus article published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine. The authors reacted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR’s) 2011 announcement—and subsequent implementation— “that funding for MD-PhD programs would be terminated.” Since then, “CIHR appears to be placing the responsibility for training all clinician-scientists into the hands of the emerging Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research … networks. Unfortunately, the few networks currently in existence have huge, complex portfolios, and currently, none of the networks have any definitive, publicly released plan for delivering stable support for physician-scientist training.” The authors gave some recommendations on how to develop “a roadmap to create a pipeline of future high-caliber Canadian researchers.”

► Far away from China is another ambitious science plan that was met with caution. The Human Technopole Italy 2040 (HT) was unveiled by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on 24 February, Laura Margottini reported on Thursday. The new life sciences center, to be located in Milan, is to “receive €1.5 billion over the next decade and focus on genomics, personalized medicine, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases,” Margottini wrote. “Many researchers applaud the government for investing in science, which has suffered from drastic budget cuts and political neglect. But they object to the lack of transparency with which the plan was hatched. And some worry that it won’t benefit the best researchers and institutes, but those with the best connections.”

► As part of this week’s Science special issue on forensics, Lizzie Wade told the story of how José Torero, a world expert in the forensic science of fire investigation, has shed a light on—or perhaps, added to the mystery of—“a crime that shocked the world: the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, a rural teacher’s college near Tixtla, Guerrero,” in Mexico in September 2014. Torero, who now teaches at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Brisbane, Australia, first “got interested in fire after he left [his native] Peru to study engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met researchers working on fire safety problems for the International Space Station,” Wade wrote. A “fire in the tunnel under Mont Blanc in the French Alps that killed 38 people” in 1999, however, compelled Torero to tackle “more ‘down-to-earth’ work.” Apart from the Ayotzinapa case, Torero was involved in studying “the structural weaknesses that allowed fire to bring down the Twin Towers” in the 9/11 attacks and investigating a fire that killed 81 inmates in Chile’s San Miguel prison in 2011.

► “[T]he process of offering admission at selective Ph.D. programs is chock-full of assumptions that are seldom made explicit or challenged,” wrote Sian Beilock, vice provost for academic initiatives at the University of Chicago in Illinois, in her review of the book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, by Julie Posselt. “Many more highly qualified candidates apply to prominent Ph.D. programs than there are slots. Faculty are therefore constantly looking for reasons to reject applicants,” Beilock continued. Although at first sight such rejection criteria may seem acceptable, “Posselt astutely points out that, when faculty follow a model of risk aversion, they tend to gravitate toward applicants similar to themselves. It's perceived as risky to take a chance on a student from a nonelite educational background or one with different training. The result is often a failure to realize the Ph.D. diversity that most faculty and universities strive to achieve.”

► “Water treatment and corrosion expert Marc Edwards made headlines recently for his work to uncover and address the elevated lead levels in drinking water in Flint, Michigan.” In this week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life story, he discussed his career and the obstacles that he has faced because of his research. You can read the full story here.

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