Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Congress to vote on previous spending deals that could presage final 2019 budgets

    Congress is considering spending bills that warn NASA not to exceed a new $8.8 billion cap for the James Webb Space Telescope, now under construction.

    Chris Gunn/NASA

    Don’t try to take the money to the bank. But this week Congress plans to pass 2019 spending bills that would give healthy increases to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and a handful of other science agencies that are now closed because of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

    Given the current partisan fight over a border wall, it’s no surprise that the Democratic-led House of Representatives and the Republican-led Senate will be voting on different bills. Neither version is expected to be adopted by the other body until congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump can reach some sort of deal to end the monthlong shutdown.

    When that finally happens, the numbers contained in this week’s appropriations measures stand a good chance of becoming the final spending levels for the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. That’s because both bills are based on a conference agreement hashed out last fall by top appropriators in each house.

  • The ocean is full of drifting DNA. The United States needs to collect it, researchers say

    Researcher Rámon Gallego of the University of Washington in Seattle collects a water sample for environmental DNA analysis in Hood Canal, Washington.

    Ryan Kelly

    U.S. government agencies monitoring fisheries, endangered species, and environmental impacts ought to leverage the DNA present in every drop of seawater, say the organizers of a conference on marine environmental DNA (eDNA), held at Rockefeller University in New York City in November 2018. Biological surveys based on eDNA are reliable and poised to cut costs and save time, they argue in a report released last week.

    The report calls for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other government agencies that survey marine life to add the technology to their standard palette of assessment techniques.

    “We are exploring all pathways to get the critical information of what animals are where and how many there are,” says conference attendee Michael Weise, who manages the Office of Naval Research’s Marine Mammals and Biology program in Arlington, Virginia. “We are already developing our capabilities using eDNA and we will continue to push that forward. There are gaps and challenges, but I think they are surmountable in the near term.”

  • Scientist behind CRISPR twins sharply criticized in government probe, loses job

    He Jiankui (center) during a Q&A after his presentation at a meeting in Hong Kong, China, on 28 November 2018.

    Imaginechina via AP Images

    He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who claimed to have edited the genomes of twin baby girls in a heritable way—and earned widespread condemnation for conducting a risky procedure with little potential benefit—deliberately sidestepped regulations, dodged oversight, and used fake ethical review documents in hopes of gaining “personal fame” for a worldwide first, according to preliminary results from a Chinese governmental investigation reported today.

    In response to the news, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, announced it was rescinding He’s contract as an associate professor and terminating his teaching and research activities, effective immediately.

    In November 2018, He claimed to have engineered the genomes of early embryos to give the girls and their descendants resistance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The dubious achievement, which He described at a scientific meeting and in YouTube videos in the wake of media reports, relied on CRISPR, a genome-editing technique that has never before been used on human embryos that were then implanted. He’s experiment was swiftly condemned by researchers and ethicists within China and around the world who insisted that safe, effective ways already exist to prevent HIV infection. What’s more, many questions still remain about the CRISPR technology and the potential for it to accidentally cause unwanted, dangerous changes.

  • Surprise! Shutdown also disrupting U.S. science agencies that aren’t closed

    Hundreds of furloughed workers and others rallied in Washington, D.C., on 10 January to call for an end to the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

    AFGE/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Many U.S. government scientists and federally funded researchers breathed a sigh of relief last month, after the partial shutdown of the U.S. government began. That’s because the budget impasse between Congress and President Donald Trump didn’t affect some of the largest federal research agencies, including the $39 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the $35.6 billion Department of Energy (DOE). Their spending had already been approved.

    This week, however, it became clear that the shutdown is hampering even agencies that are open—sometimes in unexpected ways.

    At NIH, for example, officials have been scrambling to comply with a rule that requires them to publish notice of upcoming proposal review meetings in the Federal Register, the public notice publication for federal agencies. But the agency that publishes the Federal Register is closed, threatening NIH’s grantmaking process.

  • Shutdown imperils NASA’s decadelong ice-measuring campaign

    Delayed maintenance work means NASA’s P-3 Orion will miss at least half of its IceBridge campaign to measure Arctic sea ice.

    Christy Hansen/NASA (CC BY)

    The spreading effects of the partial U.S. government shutdown have reached Earth’s melting poles. IceBridge, a decadelong NASA aerial campaign meant to secure a seamless record of ice loss, has had to sacrifice at least half of what was supposed to be its final spring deployment, its scientists say. The shortened mission threatens a crucial plan to collect overlapping data with a new ice-monitoring satellite called the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2).

    The nearly monthlong spending impasse between Congress and President Donald Trump, “throws a giant wrench into that long-developed plan,” says John Sonntag, an IceBridge mission scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

    NASA, among the many research agencies mostly closed by the shutdown, launched IceBridge in 2009 after the failure of ICESat-1, the agency’s first laser-based ice-monitoring satellite. To fill the gap until ICESat-2 was launched, the agency funded annual aircraft flights over the Arctic and Antarctica. IceBridge scientists sought to match the satellite data by flying similar paths over glaciers and sea ice, using the reflected light of a laser altimeter to measure ice and snow height.

  • Q&A: The odd—and sometimes tense—intersection of cops, soldiers, and public health

    A policeman in Karachi, Pakistan, protects a health worker as she administers a polio vaccine.

    ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

    In 2003, epidemiologist Nicholas Thomson was doing HIV prevention work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when the country’s president, Thaksin Shinawatra, launched an aggressive war on drugs. “Thaksin gave permission to extra-judiciously take out what were meant to be drug traffickers, and we lost a couple hundred people out of our prevention trials who weren’t drug traffickers,” says Thomson, who was working with a team from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “We were decimated.”

    Thomson, who today has a joint appointment with Hopkins and the University of Melbourne in Australia, realized that part of the problem was that the Hopkins and Chiang Mai University research collaboration had not forged strong enough connections with the nation’s police, Ministry of the Interior, and prisons. “I thought this can’t happen again, and I spent the next 10 years trying to go as deeply as I could into the ministries responsible for public security across Southeast Asia to see what the levers were that could be adjusted to get a better public health outcome—without mentioning public health or human rights,” Thomson says. He soon realized that the intersection of public health and security, which involves both the police and the military, reached far beyond HIV/AIDS, and today affects responses to polio, Ebola, Zika, malaria, mental health, bioterrorism, and disasters.

    That rarely acknowledged intersection is the topic of a special series of three papers that Thomson coordinated and were published online today in The Lancet. ScienceInsider spoke with Thomson about the topic and the changes he’s advocating. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • The contiguous United States just lost its last wild caribou

    A caribou that was part of the Southern Selkirks herd, which once traversed the U.S.-Canada border. Biologists captured the last member of the herd this week.

    David Moskowitz

    The last caribou known to inhabit the contiguous United States has been removed from the wild. This week, a team of biologists working for the Canadian province of British Columbia captured the caribou—a female—in the Selkirk Mountains just north of the U.S.-Canada border. They then moved it to a captive rearing pen near Revelstoke as part of a controversial, last-ditch effort to preserve highly endangered herds. The female caribou is believed to be the last member of the last herd to regularly cross into the lower 48 states from Canada.

    The 14 January capture of the caribou was “like losing a piece of the tribe in some way,” says Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel tribe in Usk, Washington. It is one of two indigenous nations in the United States that have been pushing governments to maintain the cross-border caribou herd and protect its habitat.

    In about a month, the British Columbia biologists plan to release the caribou—along with two other animals from another endangered herd—back into the wild, into a larger and more stable Canadian herd. The ultimate fate of these animals, however, is unclear. They are mountain caribou, a distinct ecotype of caribou found only in a forested swath of northwestern North America, which have become endangered because of habitat loss and other factors. Conservation efforts have failed to reverse population declines or prevent the complete extirpation of some herds at the southern end of the mountain caribou’s range, where they inhabit inland temperate rainforests. And biologists can’t say whether any caribou will again inhabit the contiguous United States. (There are herds of other types of caribou in Alaska.)

  • How Commerce Secretary Ross got the science behind the census so wrong—and why it matters

    A U.S. judge agrees with research showing households with noncitizens are much less likely to respond to the 2020 census than other demographic groups.

    A decision this week by a federal court to block the U.S. government’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census is more than a political setback for Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and President Donald Trump. It also represents a strong vote of confidence in the U.S. statistical community and the value of research.

    On 15 January, U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York declared that Ross had been “arbitrary and capricious” in deciding last year to add the citizenship question. He also ruled that the question would most likely result in leaving millions of noncitizens and Hispanic residents out of the decennial head count.

    The plaintiffs in the case, some 33 state and local officials as well as numerous civil rights organizations, argued successfully that Ross had violated a federal law governing how to make changes in the census. They also convinced the judge that their jurisdictions would likely suffer politically and economically from an undercount.

  • After outcry, Battelle reinstates science panel at ecological observatory

    A collection tower at one of the 81 National Ecological Observatory Network sites that will be gathering environmental data for decades.

    Trevor Frost

    The contractor running a major U.S. ecological research facility has reversed its decision to disband a scientific advisory panel. The move had drawn fierce criticism from researchers.

    Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus-based nonprofit that manages the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for the National Science Foundation (NSF), said today it will reinstate the project’s Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC). Batelle had dissolved the panel last week, hours after NEON’s chief scientist, Sharon Collinge, resigned. Collinge acted after Battelle fired two senior NEON managers without her knowledge and consent.

    A Battelle official apologized today to STEAC’s 20 members and invited them to meet with the project’s acting chief scientist, Eugene Kelly. “My decision to dissolve the STEAC was based on my erroneous assumption that such advisory bodies were routinely reconstituted at the change of leadership of NSF large facilities,” Michael Kuhlman, Battelle’s chief scientist, explained in an email to the researchers, several of whom had threatened to resign in support of Collinge. “That was incorrect, and I accept full responsibility for my error.”

  • Crash-out Brexit looms larger for scientists after deal rejected

    U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise Brexit deal was rejected by Parliament.

    Frank Augstein/AP Photo

    A historic defeat for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has raised the odds that the United Kingdom will crash out of the European Union in March, a prospect that scientists dread for its potential for disruption to research collaborations and the economy. On 15 January, Parliament roundly rejected May’s deal with the European Union, which lays out the terms for an orderly withdrawal. What happens next is unknown.

    “Yesterday’s unprecedented vote makes the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal even more likely,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London, in a statement. “A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for British science and innovation and I urge our elected representatives to put the interests of the country first and get a new plan to prevent this catastrophic outcome.”

    After a 2016 referendum, in which a majority of 51.9% voted to leave Europe, May invoked Article 50 of the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon. This action set 29 March as the date of departure. In November 2018, May’s negotiators reached an agreement with the European Union over the terms of the departure, spelling out the United Kingdom’s remaining financial obligations to the European Union and specifying a 2-year period to smooth the transition.

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