Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • To save money, NSF requires university cost-sharing for rotators



    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided that universities should pay 10% of the salaries of faculty members working temporarily at the agency. NSF hopes the new policy will demonstrate its commitment to saving taxpayer dollars without alienating the academic community that it relies upon to stay on the cutting edge of basic science. But the changes, which also curb travel and eliminate subsidies for lost consulting opportunities, could make it more difficult for the agency to attract talented academic help.

    The rules, announced on Friday, apply to academic researchers who come to NSF for up to 4 years to help the agency manage its research portfolio. These rotators comprise 28% of the agency’s scientific workforce, and about 12% of its overall workforce (see graph, below).

    NSF officials have long argued that rotators are important to the agency’s success, because they bring up-to-the-minute knowledge of their fields. And the agency has been willing to pay a premium for that know-how: The average rotator earns $36,500 more than a federal employee in the same position would receive.

  • Update: R.I.P. Schiaparelli: Crash site spotted for European Mars lander

    Imagery from a Mars orbiter

    Imagery from a Mars orbiter shows a bright parachute and a dark smudge 1 kilometer north of it.


    Update: Poor Schiaparelliyour life was so short. Imagery released on 21 October from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows the bright, reflective surface of a parachute, and 1 kilometer north of it, a dark patch on the ground where before there had been nothing. In a statement, the European Space Agency (ESA) said this could be a small crater from the lander’s impact at more than 300 kilometers per hour, having fallen from an altitude of between 2 and 4 kilometers after its thrusters cut out too early. “It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely full,” ESA said in its statement. Better imagery of the crash site could come in subsequent days from a higher resolution camera on MRO. Meanwhile, ESA reports that the Trace Gas Orbiterthe main scientific rationale for the ExoMars 2016 missionis in good health, and is set to begin slowly lowering the altitude of its orbit so that it can begin looking for methane and other gases that could signal life on Mars.

    DARMSTADT, GERMANY—The morning after, we know little more about the fate of Europe’s Mars lander Schiaparelli than we did last night: It ceased communicating 50 seconds before its predicted landing time and all efforts to contact it again have been met with a stony silence. As the hours pass, it seems increasingly likely that the lander crashed onto the Red Planet instead of making a gentle touchdown.

    But mission managers here at the European Space Agency's mission control center are putting a positive spin on the situation. With the data received during the descent, they say they will still learn important lessons for the much larger rover that ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos will dispatch to the Red Planet in 2020.

  • Review finds misconduct in events surrounding WHO fetal growth study

    Sonogram image

    A WHO study of fetal growth led to controversy.

    Glenn Scott/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    For the first time in its 68-year history, the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that researchers are guilty of research misconduct. An independent review commissioned by WHO has found that “research ethics misconduct occurred” in a multimillion-dollar global study on fetal growth led by researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. WHO has referred the finding, which it did not explain in detail, to the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC), it announced Thursday.

    It is unclear whether GMC has opened an investigation. The body is legally obliged to look at any concerns that are referred to it, a spokesperson told ScienceInsider, but she could not comment on the specific case.

    The allegations—first reported by Science last month—date back to late 2006. Then, researchers at WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, Switzerland, were working on developing a study to determine global standards to assess whether a fetus is on a healthy growth trajectory. Oxford researchers José Villar and Stephen Kennedy participated as external experts. In 2007, Kennedy signed a contract for Villar to develop a key protocol for the study. But in March 2008, the two Oxford researchers secured a $29 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a similar study. Members of the WHO group say that the Oxford duo used ideas developed in the WHO project in their competing grant proposal; some accuse them of deliberately delaying their WHO work while they were courting the Gates Foundation.

  • Two major California research institutes will merge

    The new Calibr headquarters building in San Diego, California.

    The Calibr headquarters building in California.


    One of the biggest nonprofit biomedical research outfits in the world is getting a new translational medicine research arm, aimed at speeding the conversion of basic research insights into novel medicines. Yesterday, officials at the Scripps Research Institute announced that it will merge with the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), which was launched in 2012 as a nonprofit version of a drug development company. Both Scripps and Calibr are headquartered in San Diego, California, and led by Scripps chemist Peter Schultz.

    In an interview yesterday, Schultz said that he hopes the merger will not only speed the development of new medicines, but that proceeds from any commercial successes will be fed back into the institute’s coffers to bolster future research. “We will generate significant revenues, which will be reinvested in the entire enterprise,” Schultz says. If true, that could be a major boon for Scripps, which has been running in the red for years, as it has struggled to replace declining grant money from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Over the next 2 years, Schultz says Calibr expects to launch clinical trials on eight different medicines, three of which should be ready to go either later this year or in the first quarter of 2017.

    The new merger isn’t the first to attempt to marry basic biomedical research with efforts to promote commercialization. Universities and medical schools around the world have established translational research arms in recent years hoping to cash in on basic research discoveries. But such efforts often stumble, Schultz says, because the culture of basic research, which focuses on insights from individual investigators, is often at odds with translational efforts, which require highly integrated teamwork. “We aren’t building from scratch; rather we are integrating the strengths of two proven nonprofit research organizations,” he says.

  • Q&A: Crowdsourced personal genomes database slowly gains momentum

    DNA code

    A project called hopes to entice huge numbers of people to share their genetic test results.


    Computational geneticist Yaniv Erlich is known for attention-grabbing studies that harness big data. In 2013, his team showed they could identify some people in supposedly anonymized DNA databases by combining their data with searches in public databases. His team later linked genealogical information from 13 million people into a single family tree. And last year, Erlich and co-worker Joe Pickrell at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University made another splash by inviting people who have had their DNA tested by consumer genetics companies such as 23andMe and to share their DNA reports with their group and others for research., Erlich suggested, could potentially tap into the genetic data of up to 3 million people who have already sent off a saliva sample for DNA testing. And unlike these companies, can make consenting participants’ individual information—including, eventually, health data —available to a broad swath of researchers.

    As of this month, has enlisted 32,000 participants. Erlich, who is giving an update on the effort this week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Vancouver, Canada, told ScienceInsider that although it's far short of even 1 million, he feels the project is on track and ready to move into new territory, such as working with disease advocacy groups.

  • Updated: Hopes dim for Europe’s Mars lander

    Schiaparelli on Mars

    Mission managers do not yet know whether Schiaparelli survived its descent to Mars.

    ESA/ATG medialab

    DARMSTADT, GERMANY—There’s good news and bad news tonight from the European Space Agency (ESA). Its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the first prong of a multipart ExoMars mission, appears to have been captured into its planned orbit around Mars and is working normally. But the Schiaparelli lander, a testbed for future landing technologies, is missing in action. “Something went wrong, at least in the communications,” Paolo Ferri, ESA’s head of mission operations, told reporters here at ESA’s control center. Mission engineers will be working through the night to process the scant data from the probe to try to find out what went wrong and whether recovery is possible. “There’s a very good chance that by the morning we will know either that the lander is lost or how to recover it,” he says.

    During its 6-minute descent to the surface, Schiaparelli broadcast basic telemetry data but in a weak signal, designed to be picked up and recorded by the TGO for later transmission to Earth. The TGO at the time was in the middle of a 2-hour-long burn maneuver to enter Mars's orbit and wasn’t able to communicate with Earth. But two other receivers were trained on Schiaparelli: ESA’s 13-year old Mars Express orbiter and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune, India. Neither instrument could interpret the telemetry data, but the nature of the radio signals alone offered some insight into the lander’s descent.

    From the signals received at Pune, managers followed the descent in real time and, initially, everything seemed to go to plan. The GMRT saw Schiaparelli power up right on schedule. They also saw it slowing down as it entered the atmosphere. But less than a minute before it was due to land, the signal was lost. That didn’t cause undue concern at the time because detecting this extremely weak signal all the way from Mars was an experimental technique, and any number of things could have interrupted the signal. But managers really got worried when the data relay from Mars Express showed the lander’s signal breaking off at just the same moment. “It’s clear we lost the signal from the lander, but we don’t know where it happened in the sequence of events,” Ferri says.

  • Surprisingly few new parents enlist in study to have baby’s genome sequenced

    Baby being monitored

    Geneticists are studying the risks and benefits of sequencing the genome of every newborn.


    One of the first studies to explore the idea of routinely sequencing the genes of newborns to help guide their health care has run into an unexpected road bump: Few parents approached are interested in having their baby’s genome profiled.

    When Robert Green, a geneticist at the Harvard University–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and co-workers began planning to sequence babies about 4 years ago, they surveyed more than 500 parents of healthy newborns. Nearly half declared they would be “very” or “extremely” interested and another 37% said “somewhat.” But since their actual BabySeq Project began last year in May, only about 7% of more than 2400 couples approached so far have agreed to participate, says Green, who co-leads BabySeq with Alan Beggs of Boston Children's Hospital. That “very surprising” figure is the same both for parents of very sick infants and those with healthy babies, he adds.

    BabySeq is one of four projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 3 years ago to probe the risks and benefits of sequencing newborns’ DNA and compare the results to conventional newborn disease screening using biochemical analysis of blood spots. These studies got a slow start because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided some of the genome tests had to go through regulatory review.

  • Budget cap would stifle Brazilian science, critics say

    Sirius Project

    Brazil’s new synchrotron light source, the Sirius Project under construction in Campinas, is slated to receive $115 million in 2017—double this year’s budget. But that windfall may not survive efforts to rein in public spending.


    SÃ​O PAULO, BRAZIL—Brazil’s economy is in free fall, and the new government has a controversial remedy: a constitutional amendment that would cap public spending for the next 20 years. The proposal, known as PEC 241, would prohibit all three branches of Brazil’s government to raise yearly expenditures above the inflation rate, essentially freezing spending at current levels for 2 decades. The bill, now making its way through Congress, would put Brazilian science in a budgetary straightjacket, observers say.

    “It will be a disaster,” says Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro. Gaining passage of the amendment bill before the end of this year is the top priority of Brazilian President Michel Temer, who took office on 31 August after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. The Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of the bill on 11 October; according to procedure, the chamber must take a second vote—expected to happen early next week—followed by two votes in the Senate.

    The 2016 federal budget for science, technology, and innovation, approximately $1.5 billion, is the lowest in 10 years when corrected for inflation. (Inflation is expected to run at about 7.2% this year.) Agencies have been reducing scholarships and grants, both in number and award amounts. Earlier this year, for example, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (NCSTD), the government’s main science funding agency, announced that it would not offer new scholarships for graduate study or research abroad. The council and the Brazilian Innovation Agency have slashed funding for national programs and are delaying payments on research grants. The situation is so dire that federal research institutes are struggling to pay electricity bills. “There is no way we can survive another 20 years like this,” says Davidovich, who is also a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

  • Europe attempts Mars landing

    For the European Space Agency (ESA), tomorrow will hold a nerve-shredding 6 minutes. At 4:42 p.m. local time, the agency’s Mars lander Schiaparelli will begin its furious descent through the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere. Six minutes later, mission managers will know whether they have joined the select club of agencies that have successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars. NASA has landed seven working craft, and in 1971 Russia gleaned 20 seconds of data from its Mars 3 lander. ESA carried the U.K.-built Beagle 2 to Mars in 2003 but it failed to deploy its arrays and never called home. Tomorrow, it is hoped, Schiaparelli will not only provide ESA entry to the club, but will also pave the way for a more ambitious rover in 4 years’ time. Once its job of landing is done, Schiaparelli will devote its few remaining days of battery power to studying the atmosphere above the Meridiani Planum.

    Schiaparelli is part of a multielement mission called ExoMars. In the first phase that launched in March, Schiaparelli shared a ride with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which will search the martian atmosphere for methane and other gases that could signal life. These will be followed in 2020 by a much larger lander with a rover that can drill up to 2 meters below the surface in search of ancient, or even current, microbes.

    The ExoMars program has had a long and difficult gestation. Originally a solo ESA project, NASA came on board but had to jump ship again in 2012 because of budget problems. ESA then teamed up with Russia’s Roscosmos, which offered to provide launchers and some contributions to the project’s hardware.

  • Biden’s moonshot cancer plan calls for more data sharing

    Joe Biden meeting with task force

    Vice President Joe Biden meets with his moonshot federal task force earlier this month.


    Vice President Joe Biden today released his vision for doubling progress against cancer over 5 years. It includes numerous policy recommendations and a laundry list of projects by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and other federal agencies that would require additional funding.

    Biden and his wife, Jill, have met with thousands of experts and patient advocates, they explain in a 17-page strategic plan submitted to President Barack Obama, who asked Biden in January to lead the effort. “We sought to better understand and break down the silos and stovepipes that prevent sharing of information and impede advances in cancer research and treatment, while building a focused and coordinated effort at home and abroad,” they explain.

    The Bidens’ wish list ranges from giving patients more control over their medical data to launching “a national conversation” about cancer drug pricing. They also want to see more high-risk research funding at NCI and changes to the institute’s intramural research program to focus more on emerging science and major public health challenges.

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