Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Putin tightens control over Russian Academy of Sciences

    Russian Academy of Sciences headquarters at night

    Russian Academy of Sciences headquarters in Moscow.


    The Russian government has taken further steps to tighten its grip on the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) in Moscow. On 23 June, the State Duma—one of the two chambers of the Russian parliament—passed the first draft of a new law that would give President Vladimir Putin the final say in the elections for RAS's presidency.

    The bill introduces three main changes. The list of candidates must from now on be approved by the government, and can have not more than three names; a candidate can be elected by winning more than 50% of the vote, instead of the two-thirds needed until now; and the newly elected academy president must be approved by the Russian president.

    Elections for a new RAS president were supposed to take place last March but were postponed after all three candidates withdrew for reasons that have not been announced. RAS President Vladimir Fortov stepped down in March, and an acting president, Valery Kozlov, took over.

  • House bills would keep DOE science spending flat, eliminate ARPA-E, and cut farm science

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building


    The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) science spending would remain flat, and agricultural research budgets would see cuts, under 2018 spending bills released today by the U.S. House of Representatives appropriations panels. The two bills (energy and agriculture) will be taken up tomorrow in the first step of an annual process that could stretch into the next fiscal year, which begins 1 October.

    Although details are lacking, the bills appear to reject the deep science cuts proposed by President Donald Trump. However, DOE programs aimed at developing and deploying renewable energy sources would see major reductions under the House proposal, although less than what the White House requested.

    DOE’s Office of Science would get $5.39 billion in a bill covering energy and water projects at several agencies. That is the same as this year’s level, and $919 million above the White House’s 2018 request. The bill would also eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, created in 2009 to support high-risk projects with great commercial potential, according to Greenwire.

  • Decision by Europe’s top court alarms vaccine experts

    Woman Receiving Vaccine in Arm

    A French patient claimed that a hepatitis B vaccine caused his multiple sclerosis, but scientists say there’s no evidence for such a link.

    Media for Medical/UIG via Getty Images

    Did the European Union’s highest court just deal a blow to science? "Vaccines can be blamed for illness without scientific proof," read many headlines about the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ’s) ruling on the case of a French man who claimed that a hepatitis B vaccine caused his multiple sclerosis (MS). Alarmed experts pointed out that no link between the vaccine and MS has ever been established and fretted that the Luxembourg-based court had opened the floodgates to large numbers of spurious lawsuits.

    But experts on liability law are divided on what the court's decision, announced in a jargon-filled press release on 21 June, will mean for medical product liability in Europe. Dorit Reiss of the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco says that rather than dealing a blow against science or vaccines, the court sought to balance individuals’ rights against society’s interest in preventing disease. But Jean-Sébastien Borghetti of the Panthéon-Assas University in Paris says the ruling leaves a worrying amount of room for judges in the European Union to ignore certain kinds of scientific evidence.

    The case involves a French man, called “W” in court documents, who received the three recommended doses of a hepatitis B vaccine between December 1998 and July 1999. In August 1999, W developed symptoms of MS, an autoimmune attack on the protective sheath covering nerves. In 2006, he and his family sued Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccinemaker, claiming that the vaccine had caused the illness. (W died of MS-related complications in 2011.) Other people have made similar claims, but large epidemiological studies have found no connection between the vaccine and MS. 

  • Cancer studies pass reproducibility test

    a mouse

    Though researchers have had general success reproducing cancer results, studies involving mice have proven difficult to replicate.

    Adva/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A high-profile project aiming to test reproducibility in cancer biology has released a second batch of results, and this time the news is good: Most of the experiments from two key cancer papers could be repeated.

    The latest replication studies, which appear today in eLife, come on top of five published in January that delivered a mixed message about whether high-impact cancer research can be reproduced. Taken together, however, results from the completed studies are “encouraging,” says Sean Morrison of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, an eLife editor. Overall, he adds, independent labs have now “reproduced substantial aspects” of the original experiments in four of five replication efforts that have produced clear results.

    In the two new replication efforts, however, one key mouse experiment could not be repeated, suggesting ongoing problems with the reproducibility of animal studies, says one leader of the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology.

  • Almost all of the 29 coral reefs on U.N. World Heritage list damaged by bleaching

    A bleached colony of Acropora coral

    A bleached colony of Acropora coral off American Samoa in 2015.


    There was good news and bad news for the world's coral reefs last week. The good news, announced 19 June, is that the global coral bleaching event that started in 2015 appears to be over, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. The bad news, released 23 June, is that the 3 successive years of bleaching conditions damaged all but three of the 29 reefs that are or are contained within United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites. And the prognosis is grim: Without dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, all these reefs "will cease to host functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of the century," predicts the report from UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris.

    Bleaching occurs when overly warm water leads corals to expel symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae. Without the colorful algae, which use photosynthesis to produce nutrients for themselves and their hosts, the corals turn white, or bleach. If the waters cool soon enough, algae return; if bleaching persists, the corals die. Reefs are ecosystems that support more than a million marine species. And an estimated half billion people around the world rely on reefs for livelihoods from fishing and tourism.

    NOAA's Coral Reef Watch uses satellite observations of sea surface temperatures and modeling to monitor and forecast when water temperatures rise enough to cause bleaching. In the most recent case, waters in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian ocean basins began rising in mid-2014 and bleaching started in 2015. The 3-year duration of this latest event is unprecedented; previous bouts of global bleaching came and went within a year.

  • U.S. energy secretary steps carefully around budgetmakers in Congress

    Bespeckled energy secretary Rick Perry, his hair graying, poses with his hands on his hips in front of the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

    Energy Secretary Rick Perry poses in front of the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Secretary of Energy Rick Perry once performed the Cha Cha and the Quickstep on the television show Dancing with the Stars. So it’s no surprise that the former Texas governor displayed some careful footwork this week before three congressional panels examining the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). The president has called for deep cuts to science and technology programs at the $30 billion agency, evoking harsh criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum.

    In the face of that opposition, Perry this week repeatedly pirouetted away from defending the spending request. He noted that it was finalized, without his input, before he took office in early March. And he signaled that he recognizes Congress is the lead partner in the annual budgetary dance, because it holds the purse strings. “We have some work to do on this budget, I know that,” he told members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on 21 June, adding that he “looked forward” to working with lawmakers to address their concerns about spending levels. (Perry also met with House of Representatives appropriators on 20 June, and on 22 June with a Senate energy panel that oversees DOE programs.)

    At the same time, Perry struck a defiant pose when Democrats pressed him on his views of climate change. “My perspective is that it is not settled science,” he told the Senate spending panel, arguing that the jury is still out on whether carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are driving global warming. 

  • University of Tokyo scientist hit by anonymous allegations fights back

    The University of Tokyo.

    The University of Tokyo

    Perry Li/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Last September, anonymous allegations of questionable data and images in 22 papers by six prominent groups at the prestigious University of Tokyo prompted the school to set up an investigating committee. Now, even before the panel completes its investigation, one of the accused researchers has mounted a staunch defense of his work, with a point-by-point rebuttal of the allegations and an apology for mistakes confirmed in several of the questioned papers.

    “We believe that none of the errors affect the main conclusions of any of the reports,” Yoshinori Watanabe, who studies chromosome dynamics, writes in a statement posted in a Dropbox on 17 June. He adds that he is discussing with journals whether corrections or retractions to the affected papers would be “most appropriate.” He writes that at least one journal has already accepted a “short corrigendum.”  

    The allegations of falsified and fabricated data were made by an individual or group going by the name Ordinary_researchers in more than 100 pages of documents delivered to the university, funding agencies, and the press and posted online in two batches on 14 and 29 August. Twenty-three of the claims involved seven papers by Watanabe’s group. Watanabe goes through the 23 allegations one-by-one in a document placed in a Dropbox reached by following a link on a personal website. He explains where he believes Ordinary_researchers went wrong or misunderstood the image.

  • Europe backs missions to search for Earth-like planets, deep space cataclysms

    an ESA launcher

    The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), expected to begin operations in 2034, is a follow-on to the LISA Pathfinder mission launched in 2015.

    ESA/Manuel Pedoussaut

    The European Space Agency (ESA) today gave the green light to two missions: one to find places just like home; the other to detect the biggest cataclysms in the history of the universe.

    ESA’s Science Program Committee approved advancing Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) to construction. In 2026, it will begin scouring the skies for alternative Earths, terrestrial planets at a distance from sunlike stars that are comfortable for life.

    At the same time, the committee placed the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) onto ESA’s roster of missions, and planners can now begin its detailed design. In 2034, LISA is scheduled to begin detecting gravitational waves in space; ripples that originate in the universe-shaking explosions produced when galaxies collide and the supermassive black holes at their cores spiral together and merge.

  • EPA axes 38 more science advisers, cancels panel meetings

    Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to lead EPA

    Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

    All board members whose three-year appointments expire in August will not get renewals, Robert Kavlock, acting head of EPA's Office of Research and Development, said in the email, which was obtained by E&E News.

  • Q&A: Why a top mathematician has joined Emmanuel Macron’s revolution

    Cédric Villani talking to Emmanuel Macron

    Emmanuel Macron (left) is “a president who believes science is part of global politics,” Cédric Villani (right) says.

    Frederic Stevens/Getty Images

    French President Emmanuel Macron has promised his country a revolution—and after a comfortable victory in the parliamentary elections, he is well-positioned to deliver. Macron’s brand-new centrist and reformist party, La République En Marche!, won 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly yesterday. Almost half of his delegates are women; most have never been active in politics.

    What the upset will mean for French science is unclear. Macron has promised to raise the country’s research spending from 2.2% of gross domestic product to 3% and give universities more autonomy. He aims to make France a world leader in climate and environmental science and has promised €30 million to help attract foreign scientists using a website named “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Most French scientists were relieved that Macron defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen last month, but reforms in science and higher education are likely to meet resistance from leftist groups.

    Science talked to one of En Marche!’s new National Assembly members, mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani, 43, who won 69% of the vote in a constituency south of Paris. Villani, who heads the Henri Poincaré Institute in the capital, has won a book prize from the American Mathematical Society in 2014 and joined the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences last year. Frequent media appearances over the past decade—and his trademark silk ascot and spider brooch—have made him one of France’s best-known scientists. (He also gave a TED talk explaining what’s so sexy about math.)

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