Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Report blames both contractor and NSF for blunders in building major ecological observatory

    A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    A worker readies instruments on a tower that is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

    NSF/Neon Inc.

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, hired an inexperienced contractor for a big job that was over its head and then failed to take steps when things started going wrong. That’s the conclusion of an independent review of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a troubled $433 million scientific facility under construction at dozens of sites across the United States.

    Last December NSF fired the contractor, NEON Inc., citing a potential $80 million cost overrun and continued delays in completing the project. But NSF officials share the blame for those problems, James Abrahamson, an independent consultant hired by NSF to review the project, said this morning during a preliminary report to the National Science Board, NSF’s oversight body.

    “NEON Inc. was like a high school team trying to tackle a job that requires the skills of the NBA [National Basketball Association] or the NFL [National Football League],” said Abrahamson, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who managed the controversial Strategic Defense (“Star Wars”) Initiative during the Reagan administration. “Over a period of years they made progress. But they could no longer make up the time that they had left.”

  • Could shrinking NSF’s beloved Indicators be a boon to researchers?

    Could shrinking NSF’s beloved <i>Indicators</i> be a boon to researchers?

    National Science Foundation

    Scientists always want access to more data. But what if offering less were the way to achieve that goal?

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is pondering that seemingly paradoxical approach as part of rethinking Science and Engineering Indicatorsthe agency’s massive biennial statistical bible covering everything from spending on research and education to regional development, trade, and public attitudes toward science.

    First issued in 1972, Indicators is a product of a mandate from Congress to compile “a report on indicators of the state of science and engineering in the United States.” The tome has become an important source book for policymakers who set the nation’s scientific priorities and for a community of researchers, educators, lobbyists, journalists, and others who use the data.

  • World’s largest chimpanzee research facility to release its chimps

    A chimp at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.

    A chimp at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.

    Doug Dugas/University of Louisiana, Lafayette

    In what it is calling the largest resettlement of chimpanzees from a U.S. research center, Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) announced yesterday that it will move all 220 of its chimps to a sanctuary in Blue Ridge, Georgia. The animals include Hercules and Leo, which have been the subject of an intense legal battle over the legal rights of chimps.

    Biomedical research with chimps has been on its way out since 2013, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said that it would phase out most government-funded chimp research and retire the majority of its research chimps to sanctuaries. Then, in June of last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that all U.S. chimpanzees—including the more than 700 chimps used in research—would be classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. And this past November, NIH said it would end all its support for invasive chimp research.

  • Science gets little attention in Australian budget

    Research efforts at Australia's Davis Station will get a boost from a recently announced Antarctic Strategy partly funded by the country's 2016–17 budget.

    Research efforts at Australia's Davis Station will get a boost from a recently announced Antarctic Strategy partly funded by the country's 2016–17 budget.

    David Barringhaus

    Blink and you missed it. Science got barely a mention in Australia’s 2016–17 federal budget released yesterday. Total spending won’t be known until someone tallies the line items scattered across government departments. But there is little to suggest any recovery from the $2.2 billion decline in support for science, innovation, and research since 2014. It was “no surprise that there is little new for science in [the] budget,” says Catriona Jackson, CEO of Science and Technology Australia in Canberra, the country’s top scientific society.

    It was cautiously crafted, being released days before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to call a federal election. The one big-ticket item for science in the budget, announced in Canberra last night by treasurer Scott Morrison, is $820 million for the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), launched last December. Designed to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship and promote science, math, and computing education, few details were revealed beyond tax breaks to encourage investment in research and development by small and medium enterprises and tax incentives for angel investors.

    But there are no NISA initiatives to boost cooperation between industry and public research labs, an area where the country performs poorly. Australia ranked last out of 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for public-private collaborations in 2013.

  • Zika vaccine efficacy trials could start in 2017

    Pregnant women who are infected with Zika virus can give birth to malformed children.

    Pregnant women who are infected with Zika virus can give birth to malformed children.

    Frank de Kleine (CC BY 2.0)

    In the most optimistic scenario, a Zika vaccine could prove its worth by the start of 2018, Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, said today.

    NIAID plans to begin tests of a vaccine made in its labs in September in 80 people, said Fauci, who spoke at a press conference held at a meeting on Zika virus risk communication challenges in Washington, D.C. If the vaccine proves safe and capable of stimulating relevant immune responses, he said NIAID plans in the first quarter of 2017 to launch what he called a phase 2b study “in a country that has a very high rate of infection.” That study would enroll thousands of volunteers.  “If in the early part of 2017 we still have major outbreaks in South America and in the Caribbean, we may show that it’s effective or not within a year,” Fauci said.

  • Pedophile drug trial extends crowdfunding effort after falling short

    A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.

    A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.


    Swedish researchers hoping to raise funds to conduct a trial of a potential drug to treat pedophilia have fallen short of their initial crowdfunding target. But they are now planning to extend the fundraising effort, and say that the study, which aims to assess whether a prostate cancer drug could help prevent pedophiles from acting on their impulses, will move ahead. They hope to complete the trial in 2 to 3 years, says project leader Christoffer Rahm, a psychiatric researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

    The initial fundraising campaign on the website Walacea draws to a close on 7 May, and so far the research team has collected just 5% of the £38,000 ($55,700) it aimed to raise. Rahm says he was hoping to use some of this money to fund the work of a Ph.D. student, but now plans to do the bulk of the work himself. In the meantime, they will extend their fundraising effort (but have set no new deadline).

    The study, dubbed Priotab (Pedophilia at Risk-Investigations of Treatment or Biomarkers), has been approved by Swedish regulators. It has already enrolled a few participants: men who have sought help to deal with their pedophilic impulses. Instead of treating people who have committed offenses, Priotab wants to assess whether the drug, which lowers testosterone levels in the body, can prevent child abuse from happening in the first place.

  • Scholars describe exodus from Syria

    “Rescuing scholars is like adopting orphan minds,” Amal Alachkar says.

    “Rescuing scholars is like adopting orphan minds,” Amal Alachkar says.

    IIE Scholar Rescue Fund

    After militants burned down his house outside Damascus in late 2013, Moustafa* faced a bitter choice: “Either join the fight or have your silence taken to mean support for the other side,” he says. The intellectual property law researcher at the University of Damascus found neither option palatable, so he fled Syria.

    The 5-year-old Syrian civil war has displaced 4.8 million people, including some 2000 scholars like Moustafa. He and several other exiled researchers gathered to tell their stories and highlight the urgent need for support at a symposium in New York City on 29 April put on by the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE). According to IIE, fewer than 10% of the displaced scholars have resumed their academic careers. Most are still refugees in neighboring countries, where they encounter resentment and bureaucratic obstacles to finding jobs. Moustafa is one of the lucky ones: In August 2015, he landed a position at Rutgers University, Newark, in New Jersey.

    “We need to help rescue scholars when there is a crisis or war, because these professionals will bear the burden of rebuilding their country,” says IIE President Allan Goodman in New York City. IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) has provided fellowships of up to $25,000 to more than 130 Syrian scholars since 2011. Western organizations must step up their efforts, he says, to connect scholars with several dozen European and North American universities that have pledged to host at least one uprooted academic.

  • ExoMars rover launch slips to 2020


    The launch of the ExoMars rover has been delayed to 2020.

    European Space Agency

    Europe and Russia have delayed the launch of a Mars rover to July 2020. The rover, equipped with a drill to search for life in the subsurface, is the second prong in the ExoMars program. The first ExoMars mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter, launched this past March, and will attempt to nail down the existence and source of methane gas, which has mysteriously come and gone over the years.

    But many scientists had looked ahead to the ExoMars rover as the main event, not only as a chance for a country other than the United States to successfully land a rover, but also as a mission that would explicitly be looking for life. The mission was originally intended to be a U.S. collaboration, but NASA backed out in 2012.

  • Italy's troubled geophysics institute gets a new boss

    Carlo Doglioni will head up Italy’s scandal-plagued national geophysics institute

    Carlo Doglioni will head up Italy’s scandal-plagued national geophysics institute

    An outsider was named president of one of Italy's largest and most strategically important research organizations yesterday. Carlo Doglioni, a geologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, takes over the reins at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), which has been at the center of several widely publicized affairs in recent years.

    Doglioni, 59, an expert in plate tectonics, was selected by research and education minister Stefania Giannini from a short list of five, mainly internal, candidates. He says he hopes to restore INGV's focus to its two main functions—basic research and monitoring of natural hazards—following a tumultuous period in the institute's history. Outgoing President Stefano Gresta and other managers have been accused of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and misuse of funds, while two of the organization's scientists, including previous boss Enzo Boschi, were put on trial and convicted to 6 years in prison in 2012 for allegedly giving false reassurances ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. They were acquitted on appeal in 2014, a decision upheld by Italy's highest court last year.

    Gresta was appointed in March 2012 following the resignation of fellow seismologist Domenico Giardini, who reportedly was unhappy with his salary of about €100,000 a year. Gresta's nomination generated controversy among INGV researchers after it emerged that the selection committee had described the geophysicist to then–research minister Francesco Profumo as having had an "average level" university career. Institute researchers became more disgruntled 3 months later following the appointment of a new director-general, Massimo Ghilardi, whom they derided for having a degree in physical education and sociology.

  • Death knell for Japan’s x-ray space observatory

    Both solar panels are believed to have snapped off Japan’s failed Hitomi spacecraft.

    Both solar panels are believed to have snapped off Japan’s failed Hitomi spacecraft.

    Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

    Japan’s stricken x-ray observatory ASTRO-H (renamed Hitomi after launch) cannot be recovered, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced today. The hopes of many astronomers were riding on the mission since there has not been another major x-ray telescope launched since 1999. But following a 17 February launch that appeared to go flawlessly, JAXA lost contact with the craft on 26 March. U.S.-based tracking radars appeared to see multiple objects at the observatory’s orbital position, and ground-based satellite watchers reported seeing the craft in a slow spin.

    JAXA began a thorough technical investigation and reported today that it was likely that both the craft’s solar arrays had broken off at their bases where they are vulnerable to rotation. Brief radio signals from ASTRO-H that JAXA had reported receiving after the problems developed turned out to be from some other source since JAXA says they were at slightly the wrong frequency. “Accordingly, JAXA will cease the efforts to restore ASTRO-H and will focus on the investigation of anomaly causes,” the agency’s statement says.

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