ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump to nominate Chris Fall, neuroscientist and policy veteran, to lead DOE Science

    Flowering bushes around the Department of Energy's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    The Department of Energy's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    DOE

    President Donald Trump announced today that he will nominate a senior official at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) technology commercialization program, and a former member of the White House staff under President Barack Obama, to lead the department’s $6 billion Office of Science. The office is the nation’s leading funder of the physical sciences, and supports a fleet of facilities used extensively by academic and commercial researchers.

    Fall, who earned a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is currently principal deputy director of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which helps transform promising research findings into commercial products. 

    Prior to joining ARPA-E, Fall spent 6 years with the Office of Naval Research in a variety of roles, including a 3-year assignment to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under Obama. At OSTP, he served as assistant director for defense programs and then as acting lead for the National Security and International Affairs Division, according to a White House statement. He was one of the few Obama-era OSTP officials to stay on well into the Trump administration.

  • Despite spread to port city, Congo Ebola outbreak isn’t an international emergency yet, WHO says

    Shoppers in crowded market in Mbandaka, DRC

    Screening for Ebola will be particularly difficult at ports in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, a major city that has one confirmed case.

    BRYAN DENTON/The New York Times

    The Ebola outbreak underway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is still too limited in scope to warrant a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a special status that would allow the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue far-reaching recommendations to stop it. That was the conclusion today of a high-level WHO advisory group.

    As of today, surveillance teams in the DRC have identified 45 suspected, probable, and confirmed cases of Ebola, including 25 deaths, in three areas of the country’s Équateur province. Of the 14 confirmed cases, the one that has raised the most intense concern is in Mbandaka, a heavily populated port city on the Congo River that connects people to neighboring countries.

    The International Health Regulations (IHRs), a WHO agreement on how to handle disease outbreaks, stipulate that a PHEIC be declared if there’s a “significant” risk of international spread. This outbreak doesn’t meet that condition yet, Robert Steffen, who heads the IHR Emergency Committee, announced today at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

  • That NASA climate science program Trump axed? House lawmakers just moved to restore it

    John Culberson at NASA satellite

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX, center) with NASA officials in 2015

    NASA SMAP/T. Wynne

    A U.S. House of Representatives spending panel voted today to restore a small NASA climate research program that President Donald Trump’s administration had quietly axed. (Click here to read our earlier coverage.)

    The House appropriations panel that oversees NASA unanimously approved an amendment to a 2019 spending bill that orders the space agency to set aside $10 million within its earth science budget for a “climate monitoring system” that studies “biogeochemical processes to better understand the major factors driving short and long term climate change.”

    That sounds almost identical to the work that NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) was doing before the Trump administration targeted the program, which was getting about $10 million annually, for elimination this year. Critics of the move said it jeopardized numerous research projects and plans to verify the national emission cuts agreed to in the Paris climate accords.

  • Republican lawmaker: Rocks tumbling into ocean causing sea level rise

    Portrait of Representative Mo Brooks

    Repesentative Mo Brooks (R–AL)

    Wikimedia Commons

    Originally published by E&E News

    The Earth is not warming. The White Cliffs of Dover are tumbling into the sea and causing sea levels to rise. Global warming is helping grow the Antarctic ice sheet.

    Those are some of the skeptical assertions echoed by Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee yesterday. The lawmakers at times embraced research that questions mainstream climate science during a hearing on how technology can be used to address global warming.

  • Exclusive: The would-be U.S. census director assails critics of citizenship question

    Tom Brunell

    Tom Brunell

    University of Texas in Dallas

    President Donald Trump’s first choice to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau strongly endorses the administration’s controversial decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

    Speaking publicly for the first time, Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Dallas, tells ScienceInsider that critics—including the six previous Census Bureau directors—have exaggerated the potential problems that could arise from including the question. Brunell, who earlier this year withdrew from consideration for the deputy director’s post at the Census Bureau, also believes that the nation’s largest statistical agency has a duty to carry out the political agenda of its White House bosses.

    “I’m agnostic on whether [the citizenship question] is needed,” Brunell says. “I think the critical point is that the administration wants to put it on there. They have made a political decision. And they have every right to do that, because they won the election.” In March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for such a question; the department says it needs the data to enforce voting rights laws.

  • In Germany, controversial law gives Bavarian police new power to use DNA

    crowd protesting in Bavaria, Germany

    An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Munich, Germany, last week to protest a new Bavarian law giving police new powers.

    Michael Dalder/REUTERS

    Police in the German state of Bavaria will have new powers to use forensic DNA profiling after a controversial law passed today in the Landtag, the state parliament in Munich. The law is the first in Germany that allows authorities to use DNA to help determine the physical characteristics, such as eye color, of an unknown culprit.

    The new DNA rules are part of a broader law which has drawn criticism of the wide surveillance powers it gives the state’s police to investigate people they deem an “imminent danger,” people who haven’t necessarily committed any crimes but might be planning to do so.

    Today’s move was prompted, in part, by the rape and murder of a medical student in Freiburg, Germany, in late 2016. An asylum seeker, originally from Afghanistan, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. But some authorities complained that they could have narrowed their search more quickly if they had been able to use trace DNA to predict what the suspect would look like. Existing federal and state laws allow investigators to use DNA only to look for an exact match between crime scene evidence and a potential culprit, either in a database of known criminals or from a suspect.

  • More money, more worries: 2020 census plans continue to generate controversy

    Wilbur Ross testifies before a House Committee

    Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testifies before a House of Representatives appropriations panel earlier this year.

    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

    A trio of events last week on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., left advocates for the 2020 U.S. census both heartened and concerned. Its supporters—including social scientists who are heavy users of the data—hailed prospects of a healthy budget increase for the constitutionally mandated exercise. But they continue to wring their hands over recent actions by President Donald Trump’s administration that they say will undermine the accuracy of the upcoming head count.

    Advocates cheered as a spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a 2019 budget for the Census Bureau that adds $1 billion to what Trump has requested. It exceeds what even stakeholders say is needed next year to get ready for Census Day on 1 April 2020, and reflects unusual bipartisan support.

    But they also anguished over testimony from Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census. Testifying before a Senate panel, Ross defended his recent decision to add a controversial citizenship question to the census at the last minute despite acknowledging that its presence could reduce participation. His repeated assertions that the question has been adequately vetted infuriated Democrats, who also think his reasons for adding the question don’t pass the smell test. Even Republicans were miffed when, at a House hearing the day before, an invited Department of Justice (DOJ) official failed to even show up to explain why his department felt it needed the data from such a question.

  • NIH’s plum award for young scientists skews male, agency’s data show

    National Institutes of Health building 1

    The National Institutes of Health’s Building 1 houses the office that administers the Early Independence Awards.

    National Institutes of Health

    Two days from now, a council at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, is set to approve recipients of the agency’s coveted Early Independence Awards (EIAs). These prestigious grants aim to vault the most promising new Ph.D.s to independence by allowing them to bypass postdoctoral fellowships and start their own labs immediately, providing up to $250,000 annually for 5 years. But since the awards were launched by NIH Director Francis Collins in 2010, men have consistently won them in numbers exceeding their representation in the applicant pool (see chart below).

    In a 2-day meeting that begins on 17 May, NIH’s Council of Councils will review the scored applications—“to ensure fairness in the review process,” according to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page of NIH’s website. However, their recommendations rarely, if ever, diverge from those of a scientific panel that rates applicants.

    Men appear to be favored throughout the selection process. Applicants are nominated by their institutions, which tend to put forward more men; and men disproportionately are chosen as winners. This year, another factor is unsettling women: The panel was chaired by cancer scientist Inder Verma, who was suspended from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, last month while the institute investigates allegations of sexual harassment against him. (Verma denies the allegations.) Verma had already been placed on leave as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in December 2017, after gender discrimination lawsuits filed last July by female colleagues at the Salk Institute accused Verma of blocking their career advancement and disparaging their science. He resigned the PNAS editorship on 1 May.

  • House spending bill could brighten prospects for two giant telescopes

    TMT complex

    Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope

    TMT International Observatory

    Two planned giant telescopes may soon get a boost from Congress.

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who chairs a U.S. House of Representatives spending panel that sets funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), is hinting that he wants NSF to get behind both the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a $1.4 billion facility proposed for Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a 25-meter telescope already under construction in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

    The first step could come Thursday, when the full House appropriations committee is expected to take up Culberson’s $62 billion spending bill covering NSF and several other federal science agencies.

  • Journal retracts paper claiming neurological damage from HPV vaccine

    women at a press conference

    Women claiming a vaccine against human papillomavirus harmed them hold a press conference in Tokyo in 2016. Despite little evidence that the vaccine is dangerous, its use has dropped in Japan.

    The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images

    Scientific Reports this morning retracted a controversial paper claiming to show that mice given a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine showed signs of neurological damage. The paper was assailed by critics as being "pseudoscience" that could have "devastating" health consequences by undermining public confidence in a vaccine given to girls to prevent cervical cancer. 

    "I'm pleased that finally they did manage to retract it, but it was a very long process," says Alex Vorsters, a molecular biologist at University of Antwerp in Belgium. However, the controversy seems likely to continue. "The Authors do not agree with the retraction," the retraction notice states.

    The paper, by a group led by Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, was published online 11 November 2016. It describes impaired mobility and brain damage in mice given an enormous dose of HPV vaccine along with a toxin that makes the blood-brain barrier leaky. Shortly after the paper appeared, two groups separately wrote to Scientific Reports and its publisher, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), pointing out problems with the experimental setup, the use of a dose proportionally far larger than what is normally given, the use of the toxin, and inconsistencies between the data presented and the descriptions of results, among other issues.

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