Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Here are 10 topics senators could ask Trump’s science adviser nominee to address

    scientific balloon launch in Greenland

    Proposals to cut spending on basic research, such as this scientific balloon launch in Greenland funded by the National Science Foundation, could get attention at the 23 August Senate confirmation hearing for Kelvin Droegemeier, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the White House science office.

    August Allen/Polar Field Services/NSF

    Is Kelvin Droegemeier in sync with the science policies of President Donald Trump? That’s what members of the Senate commerce committee will want to know when Droegemeier appears before them on Thursday to discuss his nomination to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

    U.S. science leaders have applauded the choice of the 59-year-old vice president for research and emeritus professor of meteorology at The University of Oklahoma in Norman. A life-long Republican, he upheld the community’s core values during a 12-year term as a member of the National Science Board, the presidentially appointed oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has funded much of his work on severe storms. Accordingly, it seems unlikely that Droegemeier will experience much turbulence during the hearing over any past statements he’s made—although his 2014 comments on climate change could raise some eyebrows.

    At the same time, the OSTP director traditionally has also served as the president’s science adviser. (An OSTP spokesperson says Droegemeier, if confirmed, would “report to the president” but that no decision has been made on whether he will officially hold both jobs.) And given OSTP’s responsibility to coordinate federal science policy across the executive branch, senators from both parties may use the confirmation hearing to explore what Droegemeier thinks about several controversial positions the Trump administration has taken that either rely on scientific evidence or affect the health of the research community.

  • Trump releases plan to roll back Obama administration climate rules aimed at power plants

    President Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump


    Originally published by E&E News

    President Donald Trump’s administration released a plan today to regulate carbon dioxide emissions at power plants, undercutting a much broader effort by former President Barack Obama to slash planet-warming gases.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal would give states wide latitude for determining how to cut greenhouse gases from the power sector, a key contributor in the U.S. to climate change. The proposed rule is far narrower than the Obama plan, which sought to cut emissions across the power sector rather than only at individual plants.

  • What does Trump’s pick for science adviser think about climate science? A 2014 talk offers clues

    Kelvin Droegemeier, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Technology, is pictured in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The meteorology professor picked to advise President Donald Trump on science-related matters has urged climate scientists to be more humble when they talk about the conclusions of their research—and said Earth might be more resilient to human-caused environmental assaults than many believe.

    The comments by Kelvin Droegemeier, Trump’s pick to lead the White House science office, were made during a talk he gave 4 years ago to researchers at a climate science center in Oklahoma.

    Droegemeier, vice president for research at The University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman and an expert on predicting severe storms, will appear before the Senate on Thursday to field questions on his qualifications to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Given the policies of the Trump administration, Droegemeier is almost certainly going to be asked about climate change and other environmental issues. He has kept mum on those and all other research topics since his nomination was announced on 31 July, as is the custom for presidential nominees. But a video of a June 2014 talk Droegemeier gave to OU colleagues provides some intriguing hints about his thoughts on climate science and other politically charged topics.

  • Congo’s new Ebola outbreak is hitting health care workers hard

    Ebola treatment center

    Doctors Without Borders built and is running an Ebola treatment unit in Mangina, the epicenter of the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Karin Huster/Doctors Without Borders

    Health care workers have been especially hard hit by the current outbreak of Ebola in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). To date, nine of the 51 confirmed cases of Ebola have been in people caring for the ill, says Peter Salama, an epidemiologist based in Geneva, Switzerland, who heads the response to the outbreak for the World Health Organization (WHO).

    “There’s an extremely low level of knowledge and awareness about Ebola in the area,” Salama says. “Early on, the health care workers took no precautions whatsoever, and unfortunately, we’re expecting more confirmed cases from that group.”

    The outbreak is the 10th in the DRC since the disease first surfaced in 1976, and though it is the first to occur in this region of the country, Salama says he was surprised how little the affected communities knew about the deadly disease. In the past, health care workers have often been heavily affected during the early days of outbreaks, but the massive Ebola outbreak that caused more than 28,000 cases in West Africa in 2014–16 brought more attention to the risks and proper responses than ever before.

  • U.S. energy research agency doesn’t need a scientist at the helm, Congress tells nominee

    Lane Genatowski speaking during hearing

    Lane Genatowski testified today before the Senate on his nomination to lead the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

    U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources

    The first reviews from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on President Donald Trump’s choice of an investment banker to lead a cutting-edge energy research agency are in, and they are positive.

    The senators who will judge the nomination of S. Lane Genatowski don’t seem to think that his lack of technical training will hinder his ability to direct the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). At the same time, several Democrats wonder why anyone would volunteer to head an agency that his boss has said he wants to eliminate.

    Genatowski’s confirmation hearing this morning before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was also a chance for members from both parties to remind him that they really like the $350-million-a-year agency, which aims to transform promising research discoveries into marketable technologies. They expect him to fight for ARPA-E during negotiations over the president’s budget request; Congress has twice rejected Trump’s plan to eliminate or dramatically downsize the agency.

  • Q&A: Doctoral students at Germany’s Max Planck Society say recent troubles highlight need for change

    Jana Lasser

    “Max Planck directors have a scientific career behind them, but—to put it bluntly—they haven’t necessarily learned how to lead people,” Jana Lasser says.

    Timotheus Hell

    This year, two cases of alleged harassment and bullying have rocked Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society (MPG), headquartered in Munich. In February, the news magazine Der Spiegel reported allegations against an unidentified researcher, and in June, Buzzfeed identified her as astrophysicist Guinevere Kauffmann at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. In the other case, Science last week reported on allegations that Tania Singer, director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, created an “atmosphere of fear” at her lab and bullied and denigrated researchers there.

    But, “What recent media reports have shown is only the tip of the iceberg,” concludes a position paper released today by PhDnet, a network of the roughly 5000 doctoral students working at the 84 MPG institutes. Early career scientists working within the system face an array of tensions—especially with supervisors—the network says, and the society needs stronger systems for preventing and resolving problems. “We as the representation of [doctoral researchers] see the prevalence of power abuse and the difficulties to solve interpersonal conflicts as a structural problem of the academic system,” the statement says.

    Science spoke about the statement with Jana Lasser, a spokesperson for PhDnet and a physicist and doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, Germany. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Critics pan EPA plan for evaluating studies of toxic chemicals

    Person in fire-resistant suit

    U.S. regulators are reviewing the safety of asbestos, which is still used to make fire-resistant fabrics.

    ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo

    Academic scientists and advocacy groups are urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw and rewrite proposed guidelines for determining which scientific findings to use when evaluating the safety of toxic chemicals. Critics say that if adopted, the guidance will allow regulators to exclude high-quality health and risk studies for “ridiculous” reasons, favor industry-backed research, and prevent EPA from considering academic studies that rest on innovative methods.

    EPA’s guidance “is less about evaluating the quality of evidence, and more about eliminating it altogether,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of Washington, D.C., wrote this week to EPA in comments blasting the “flawed” proposal, which it says “describes a head-in-sand approach to any evidence that a toxic chemical is toxic.” EPA, however, says the guidelines are likely to evolve and that it is aiming for an “efficient systematic review process that generates high-quality, fit-for-purpose risk evaluations that rely on the best available science.”

    The controversy, which mirrors a debate over a proposal EPA released earlier this year that critics say would allow the agency to ignore certain human health studies, has its roots in a 2016 overhaul of the nation’s premier chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The revised law aims to make it easier for EPA to complete safety reviews of new chemicals before they reach the market and to more quickly restrict the use of existing chemicals if new evidence of risks emerges. It also orders EPA to develop new guidelines for the “systematic review” of the quality of the scientific evidence used in risk assessments.

  • Survey of U.S. government scientists finds range of attitudes toward Trump policies


    More than one-quarter of the 4211 federal scientists who responded to a recent survey worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also employed this biologist working in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

    NOAA Ocean Service

    It’s widely assumed that many U.S. government scientists disagree with President Donald Trump on several of his controversial science appointments, his proposed deep cuts to research, and a spate of executive actions aimed at overturning current government policies to combat climate change. Some have publicly voiced their concerns. But what do the rank-and-file really think of working for this president?

    The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based advocacy organization that views Trump’s track record on science as “abysmal,” tried to find out. But its survey, released today, suggests their views are hard to pigeonhole and fall short of documenting widespread unhappiness with the Trump administration.

    The 58-question survey went to 61,289 federal workers at 16 agencies and departments, and 4211 responded. Their answers contain plenty of ammunition for those already inclined to wring their hands over how science is faring under Trump. One-third of the nearly 449 respondents who work at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, complained about the “influence” of political appointees or White House officials in “science-based” decisions. Two in five of the respondents from the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS) said senior administrators with financial interests in the outcome are “inappropriately” affecting policymaking at those agencies.

  • Psychologists keep policy on U.S. detainees, but issue remains open wound

    American Psychological Association building in Washington, D.C.

    The headquarters of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

    Oakstreetstudio/Wikimedia commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C., has decided to retain a policy banning military psychologists from working with detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and other national security detention facilities. But the political machinations surrounding a decisive vote this week by APA’s governing body suggest the 115,000-member organization is still far from resolving a decadelong debate over the ethical rules of conduct for psychologists in the U.S. government’s ongoing war against terrorism.

    APA’s current policy is a response to revelations that psychologists were involved in abusive interrogation practices at the Cuban detention facility and elsewhere in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Last year, a group of military psychologists asked APA’s Council of Representatives to ease that blanket prohibition so they could provide mental health services to detainees who requested their help. The measure would have kept the ban on participating in interrogations, an interaction seen as inherently coercive.

    Various APA advisory panels were asked to comment on the proposal and were divided on its merits. Some psychologists began to actively campaign against the idea in the weeks before the 8 August vote, which preceded the official start of APA’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California.

  • She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them

    Tania Singer

    In The ReSource Project, Tania Singer sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring.

    Moritz Hager/WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, is known as one of the world’s foremost experts on empathy. In her research, she has sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring. The title of a profile of Singer written by this reporter in 2013 summed up her public image: Concentrating on Kindness.

    But inside her lab, it was a very different story, eight former and current colleagues say in interviews with Science. The researchers, all but one of whom insisted on remaining anonymous because they feared for their careers, describe a group gripped by fear of their boss. “Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague says.

    Singer, one of the most high-profile female researchers in the Max Planck Society (MPG), sometimes made harsh comments to women who became pregnant, multiple lab members told Science. “People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies,” one former colleague says. “For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team,” says another, who became a mother while working in Singer’s department.

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