Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Few authors choose anonymous peer review, massive study of Nature journals shows

    A stack of Nature journals

    Scientists from India and China far more often ask Nature's journals for double-blind peer review than those from Western countries.

    Emily Petersen

    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Once you’ve submitted your paper to a journal, how important is it that the reviewers know who wrote it?

    Surveys have suggested that many researchers would prefer anonymity because they think it would result in a more impartial assessment of their manuscript. But a new study by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) in London shows that only one in eight authors actually chose to have their reviewers blinded when given the option. The study, presented here at the Eighth International Congress on Peer Review, also found that papers submitted for double-blind review are far less likely to be accepted.

    Most papers are reviewed in single-blind fashion—that is, the reviewers know who the authors are, but not vice versa. In theory, that knowledge allows them to exercise a conscious or unconscious bias against researchers from certain countries, ethnic minorities, or women, and be kinder to people who are already well-known in their field. Double-blind reviews, the argument goes, would remove those prejudices. A 2007 study of Behavioral Ecology found that the journal published more articles by female authors when using double-blind reviews. In a survey of more than 4000 researchers published in 2013, three-quarters said they thought double-blind review is “the most effective method.” 

  • Scientists grow bullish on pig-to-human transplants

    three genetically modified pigs

    Genetically engineered pigs produced in Munich, Germany, were recently used in a record-breaking baboon heart transplant.

    Jan-Michael Abicht

    BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Add your name to a waitlist for a kidney transplant in the United States today, and you’ll join around 100,000 people, many of whom have already been waiting years. The scarcity of life-saving organs for transplants has raised hopes for substitute organs from pigs, which have a similar anatomy to humans. But decades of scientific setbacks have kept clinical trials of that approach, called xenotransplantation, on the horizon.

    Now, a few teams are chomping at the bit. Exhilarated by recent results in monkey experiments, some researchers here at a meeting of the International Xenotransplantation Association are eyeing human testing.

    “What we thought was very far away seems to be coming to the near future,” says Muhammad Mohiuddin, a cardiac transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine here. He moderated a premeeting session where scientists discussed advances with officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which would review any application for a clinical trial.

  • Dueling preprint servers coming for the geosciences

    broad, short-lens photograph of Earth’s night lights while looking out over the Pacific Ocean

    Early findings from across the geosciences will soon have not one, but two online servers ready to post preprints.


    Are climate scientists ready to air preliminary findings—mistakes and all—before their papers are reviewed?

    That question will soon be put to the test. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C., the giant of earth and planetary science publishing, announced plans yesterday to launch a preprint server that—much like and its descendants, bioRxiv and ChemRxiv—would host studies prior to peer review. The site, called the Earth and Space Science Open Archive (ESSOAr), could open as soon as the AGU's fall meeting in December.

    ESSOAr will have company. In a separate initiative, a grassroots group of scientists will start, as soon as next month, EarthArXiv. That preprint site would be powered by the Center for Open Science, a nonprofit based in Charlottesville, Virginia, that has provided similar support for several nascent servers, including SocArXiv and engrXiv. Though AGU's effort is partially funded by Wiley, a for-profit publisher, and built on their software, EarthArXiv would remain independent, says Thomas Narock, a data scientist at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, who is helping to lead the effort.

  • New single-day pill for HIV treatment promises more bang for less buck

    Dolutegravir HIV drug molecule. Integrase inhibitor antiviral class. Atoms are represented as spheres

    A molecular model shows the anti-HIV drug dolutegravir, which is the backbone of a powerful, cheap new three-drug pill taken once a day. Stock Photo

    For about $75, the governments in South Africa and Kenya will soon be able to treat an HIV-infected person for 1 year with a pill taken once a day that contains a “best-in-class” combination of three antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. The backbone of the new pill is dolutegravir, a remarkably powerful and safe ARV that inhibits HIV’s integrase enzyme and has been too expensive for most poor and middle-income countries to afford. The annual per-person cost of the new pill, made by generic manufacturers, is also about $25 less than the least expensive similar triple-ARV combo pill on the market. “This is a major breakthrough,” says Michel Sidibé, head of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland.

    The new pill, announced today by Sidibé and others at a press conference connected to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York City, will help speed efforts to offer treatment to all 37 million HIV-infected people in the world, Sidibé says. Currently, only 19.5 million are receiving ARVs. The pill will be offered as a first-line treatment, and the hope is that its excellent “profile”—powerful suppression of HIV, low toxicity, and ease of use—will make it simpler for people to stay on treatment for their lifetimes and reduce the chances of ARV resistance emerging. The other two ARVs in the cocktail are lamivudine and tenofovir, both of which are already in widespread use.

    South Africa, which has more HIV-infected people than any country and is the biggest purchaser of ARVs, estimates it will save $900 million over 6 years. The pill “will greatly benefit our patients due to its superior therapeutic qualities,” said Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa's minister of Health in Pretoria, who said the country expects to make the first purchase in April 2018. UNAIDS says the intent is eventually to offer this in 92 countries

  • Scientists pan proposal to open pristine Pacific islands to fishing

    Aerial view of Palmyra Atoll

    Opening Palmyra’s waters to fishing would harm unique tropical research lab, scientists say. 

    Erik Oberg/Island Conservation/Flickr

    Marine scientists are warning that if the Trump administration rescinds fishing protections around eight Pacific islands, the United States will lose one of its best laboratories for measuring how a warming climate affects marine life.

    “We need baselines,” says Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu. “We need pristine reefs to see what we’ve lost elsewhere, to better manage damaged reefs and to isolate the effects of climate change.”

    A proposal from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, leaked to The Washington Post last week, argues that regulations on waters around the islands—Howland, Baker, Johnston, Wake, Jarvis, Palmyra, Rose, and Kingman Reef—“should be amended ... to allow commercial fishing.” 

  • Canada’s neutron scientists lament closure of world’s oldest nuclear reactor

    Aerial of Chalk River Laboratories

    Canada’s Chalk River complex contains the 60-year-old National Research Universal reactor, the world’s oldest operating nuclear reactor. 

    Canadian Nuclear Laboratories

    The world’s oldest operating nuclear reactor is in the twilight of its life, but the scientists who rely on it for their research are not going gentle into that good night. Canadian scientists are upset about the imminent closure of the Chalk River research reactor and are lobbying the government for a CA$200 million ($162 million) commitment so they can continue to perform materials research using the neutron beams that research reactors provide.

    “You need an organization somewhere that’s providing central support and stewardship for a national program,” says John Root, director of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre in Chalk River, Ontario, which relies on the 60-year-old reactor. “If you don’t have this central hub, you don’t really have a national program. You have somebody sending checks to laboratories in the United States or Europe, and Canadian individual researchers are on their own.”

    In February executives of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and McMaster University in Hamilton, publicly launched the Canadian Neutron Initiative to lobby the federal government for a 10-year, CA$200 million commitment, a figure that sounds large but pales in comparison to the CA$100 million the government spends annually to keep the reactor running. Root would like to see this funding open up beam time at other neutron sources around the world, as well as maintain a critical amount of neutron beam research within Canada until another large-scale neutron source might be built. The Canadian government has remained silent on the matter so far.

  • Craig Venter’s synthetic biology company hit with gender discrimination suit

    Portrait of Craig Venter

    J. Craig Venter

    K. C. Alfred/ZUMA Press/Newscom

    A former employee of a company co-founded by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter has filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination against the firm’s female employees—and alleging harassment by Venter himself.

    The complaint, filed on 7 September in San Diego Superior Court in California against Synthetic Genomics, which is located in San Diego, was first reported on 19 September by The San Diego Union Tribune. Attorney Teresa Spehar, former vice president of intellectual property for the company, alleges that women were paid less than men, promoted less often, left out of meetings, and discriminated against “with gender-based stereotypes.” Spehar says she was fired in June, after more than 8 years with the company.

  • Russia wants to protect itself from climate change—without reducing carbon emissions

    People wear face masks to protect themselves from the forest fire smog near St. Basil's cathedral on Red Square, Moscow

    Illnesses and deaths linked to heat and wildfire pollution in the Moscow region in 2010 are now seen as a harbinger of the future toll of climate change.

    NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/ Staff/Getty Images

    When a squall tore through Moscow at the end of May, the toll was unusually high: The fierce gales killed 18 people and injured scores more, officials say, and inflicted about $3.5 billion in damages in Russia's capital region.

    Now, there's another casualty. Earlier this month, Russia's government fired the head of its weather forecasting agency, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, or Roshydromet. Alexander Frolov, 65, had surpassed the mandatory retirement age for civil servants, but the real reason he was forced out, observers say, was Roshydromet's failure to anticipate the late-May storm's intensity and warn Muscovites accordingly. His ousting also sent a message to the environment ministry, Roshydromet's overseer. The state prosecutor's office, according to the newspaper Kommersant, demanded that the ministry take steps to increase the accuracy of forecasts in light of a changing climate.

    The new charge to the environment ministry reflects a sea change in Russia's views about climate change and how the nation must respond. Politicians have acknowledged that extreme weather events have doubled over the past 25 years, to 590 in 2016, and that average temperatures are rising, particularly in the Arctic. Yet until recently, tackling climate change was a low priority for the federal government. One reason is complacence, because Russia's greenhouse gas emissions have already plummeted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another is political: Russia's economy depends heavily on pumping oil and gas out of the ground. Many influential voices here routinely debunked climate change, and some Russian newspapers in recent years chalked up climate variability to a mythical U.S. weapon aimed at Russia, or as a foreign plot aimed at Russia's energy exports.

  • HHMI’s own brand of diversity in the life sciences

    illustration of a hand holding a beaker

    fitie/iStock Photo

    “Zero is a real problem.”

    Erin O’Shea is talking about the number of minority professors in life science departments at many of the top U.S. research universities. O’Shea, a systems biologist, trained and taught in that rarified environment for 2 decades before joining the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2013 and becoming its president last September. But the 51-year-old systems biologist says that the lack of diversity at those schools weakens the U.S. scientific enterprise by shrinking the pool of minds equipped to make discoveries.

    One of O’Shea’s first moves as HHMI president was committing $25 million a year to support postdocs from underrepresented groups. Her hope was that they would eventually change the color—and culture—of their departments as they moved into leadership positions, in addition to serving as role models for the next generation of scientists.

  • U.K. science seeks ‘a new and special relationship with the EU’

    Jo Johnson and Mark Walport

    Left to right: Jo Johnson, U.K. minister of state for universities, science, research, and innovation, and Mark Walport, chief executive designate of United Kingdom research and innovation.

    (Left to right): Chris Radburn/Associated Press; BIS Digital Image Library/Wikimedia Commons

    Two of the most influential figures in U.K. science were in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among others. But their top priority was signing an agreement to support the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which will be built in South Dakota and Illinois. It's the kind of international collaboration that the U.K. government is keen to nurture, as its impending exit from the European Union has injected many existing relationships with uncertainty.   

    Earlier this month, the U.K. government's Department for Exiting the European Union released a position paper on its goals for access to European research programs post-Brexit, but the aspirational document was criticized for its fuzziness.

    Taking a break from their hectic schedules in the U.S. capital, Jo Johnson, minister of state for universities, science, research, and innovation; and Mark Walport, chief executive designate of United Kingdom research and innovation (UKRI), the new organization of research funding councils that will launch next April, spoke with ScienceInsider about the difficulties in being concrete about post-Brexit science relations with Europe. Johnson promised "more detail shortly."

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