Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Congress is poised to back NSF’s approach to research

    Innovation banner

    Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Congress has reached a truce—and possibly a lasting settlement—in the fiercely partisan 3-year war between Republican leaders in the House of Representatives and the scientific community over how the National Science Foundation (NSF) should operate. The terms of the agreement, between House and Senate negotiators, may seem like minor changes. But the compromise, which the Senate could adopt as early as this week, resolves differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research in ways that the agency thinks it can live with.

    The battleground is a reauthorization of the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which sets out policies governing NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide important policy guidance.

    Since 2013, the House of Representatives has adopted a succession of bills containing language that scientific leaders argued would have restricted NSF’s ability to support the best research. The strategy, coordinated by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, over the objections of committee Democrats, included favoring some disciplines over others and linking basic research projects more tightly to improvements in health, the economy, and national security. Republicans said they were simply trying to ensure that every NSF grant serves “the national interest.” But many scientists interpreted that language to mean NSF should tilt toward funding applied research with obvious payoffs.

  • Drug, HIV crises hit HHS nominee Price close to home

    Tom Price

    Orthopedic surgeon Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia, is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the $1 trillion Department of Health and Human Services.

    Paul Morigi

    Representative Tom Price (R–GA), the physician and congressman who is Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), represents a wealthy suburban district just north of Atlanta that is regularly ranked by Forbes and others as one of the best places to live in the country.

    But Price’s district is also experiencing some public health crises that he will likely be dealing with as HHS secretary: a serious heroin and opioid abuse epidemic, as well as elevated HIV infection rates.

    The heroin problem was described in great detail in this investigative special by the local NBC affiliate 11Alive, which aired in March.  The narrator introduces the multipart series with the following stark facts:

  • Europe moves ahead with Mars mission, kills asteroid lander

    Rover on Mars.

    A half-scale model of ESA's 2020 Mars rover. It will descend using parachutes and thrusters.


    Europe’s ExoMars 2020 lander will go ahead as scheduled, despite the failure of the test-run Schiaparelli lander this past October, the European Space Agency (ESA) said today at the end of a council meeting at which government ministers from its 22 member states agreed on budgets for the next several years. ESA won a total of €10.3 billion for a wide range of projects extending into next decade but because the agency had requested €11 billion, some belt tightening will be required. And there was one notable casualty: the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which planned to study in detail and land on a near-Earth asteroid in 2022, did not win enough support from member governments to proceed.

    There will be huge relief that ministers supported going ahead with ExoMars 2020 as planned, because it has been on the books at ESA for more than a decade. The mission carries a rover that will be able to, for the first time, drill as deep as 2 meters below the surface in search of present or past life. The first part of the ExoMars program—the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)—successfully entered Mars orbit in October. It carried with it Schiaparelli, a demonstrator designed to test landing technology. But after a faultless atmospheric entry, a software error caused Schiaparelli to think it was on the surface when it was still kilometers from landing and it subsequently crashed.

    Because Schiaparelli was able to transmit data during the landing to the TGO, ESA engineers believe they can avoid a similar mishap in 2020. But it remained to be seen whether ESA members agreed with them. They did; today, ministers approved the €440 million funding needed to complete the ExoMars mission, but with caveats. Some €97 million of the total must come not from the ExoMars budget line, but from ESA’s central funding, which pays for other science missions. That could potentially lead to conflicts down the line.

  • Misconduct allegations fly in spat over paper on microplastics and fish larvae

    Perch larvae

    A study suggesting that larvae of perch (above) are harmed by microplastics has drawn charges of research misconduct.


    When Fredrik Jutfelt and Josefin Sundin read a paper on a hot environmental issue in the 3 June issue of Science, the two researchers immediately felt that something was very wrong. Both knew Oona Lönnstedt,  the research fellow at Sweden's Uppsala University (UU) who had conducted the study, and both had been at the Ar research station on the island of Gotland around the time that Lönnstedt says she carried out the experiments, which showed that tiny particles called microplastics can harm fish larvae. Jutfelt, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, and Sundin, a UU postdoc, believed there was no way that Lönnstedt had been able to carry out the elaborate study.

    Less than 3 weeks later, the duo wrote UU that they had "a strong suspicion of research misconduct" and asked for an investigation. Their letter, initially reported by Retraction Watch in August, was cosigned by five scientists from Canada, Switzerland, and Australia, who hadn’t been at the research station but also had severe misgivings about the paper and who helped Sundin and Jutfelt build their case.

    There was just a massive discrepancy between what we saw in that room and have pictures of, and what was presented in the paper.

    Fredrik Jutfelt, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

    This week, Science is publishing an “Editorial expression of concern” about the paper, because Lönnstedt and her supervisor at UU, Peter Eklöv, have been unable to produce all of the raw data behind their results. Lönnstedt says the data were stored on a laptop computer that was stolen from her husband's car 10 days after the paper was published, and that no backups exist.

  • Maryland congressman in running to head NIH?

    Representative Andy Harris (R–MD)

    Representative Andy Harris (R–MD)

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Representative Andy Harris (R–MD), an anesthesiologist who has shown a keen interest in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) while in Congress, has put his hat in the ring for NIH director in the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, he told ScienceInsider today. Harris says he knows that some biomedical scientists would view him as a controversial choice, but argues that his blend of research and political experience would make him a good advocate for addressing NIH’s flaws and for growing the agency’s budget in a time of fiscal restraint.

    “I have conducted both clinical research and basic science research. And I have the background in the political arena to understand how funding occurs, how policies can change in new directions, and how reform can be accomplished,” says Harris, a fiscal and social conservative representing eastern Maryland.

    There will be people in the scientific community who view reformers as something to be wary about.

    Andy Harris

    Harris says he has spoken with the Trump transition team about his interest in NIH and that Representative Tom Price (R–GA), whom Trump has tapped to head the Department of Health of Human Services, NIH’s parent agency, is also aware of his desire to be considered for the NIH directorship.

  • Remembering Erich Bloch (1925–2016)

    Erich Bloch

    Erich Bloch (center) at a 1987 White House ceremony honoring outstanding science and math teachers.

    Courtesy of Bassam Shakhashiri

    Erich Bloch, who died last week at age 91, was not your typical federal bureaucrat. As director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, Bloch was called before the Senate science committee in the late 1980s to explain why NSF had awarded an earthquake research center to a team in Buffalo, New York, over a competing bid from researchers in California, where residents live in constant fear of the next great quake.

    How could NSF make such a ridiculous choice? Senator Pete Wilson (R–CA) wanted to know. Rather than trying to placate an angry legislator, Bloch defended NSF’s peer-review process, considered the gold standard for identifying the best research proposals. Wilson wasn’t assuaged, and continued to bombard Bloch with questions. But Bloch stood his ground. Finally, the committee’s chairman, Senator Ernest Hollings (D–SC), leaned back and whispered to his staff: "It looks to me like Senator Wilson has picked on the wrong witness to try and make his point."

    The hearing was quintessential Bloch. And those who served under him at NSF or have strong links to the agency can offer up many such cherished anecdotes. Many think he was arguably the most influential director in the 65-year history of the agency. “He was probably the best government manager ever, certainly at NSF,” says Gordon Bell, a legendary designer of computers who Bloch recruited in 1986 to manage a new NSF computer science directorate created to tap the vast potential of the emerging field.

  • Southern Africa’s AIDS epidemic takes nosedive

    Wafaa El-Sadr and team

    Wafaa El-Sadr (left) joined her survey team (green shirts) when they visited Zimbabwean households last fall.

    Jon Cohen

    Today is World AIDS Day, and three neighboring countries in southern Africa that have been hard-hit by HIV received remarkably good news.

    As part of a massive, first-of-its-kind survey, researchers randomly visited households in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and tested about 80,000 people for HIV. In each country, more than 86% of the people receiving antiretroviral treatment had fully suppressed HIV, which means viral levels are so low they are not detectable on standard blood tests. This not only staves off AIDS, but makes it highly unlikely that they will infect others. The rate of new infections has also plummeted by more than 50% in the region since 2003. “We were amazed when we saw this,” says Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist who heads an international health-strengthening program called ICAP at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, which led the survey. “It’s really a credit to these countries—and they’re not the world’s richest places.”

    The three countries since 2004 collectively have received nearly $4 billion from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which gave ICAP $125 million to conduct what are known as population-based HIV impact assessments (PHIAs) in 12 sub-Saharan African countries and Haiti. The aim is to help the countries and PEPFAR better target prevention and treatment efforts. The preliminary findings announced today are the first data reported from these assessments. “It’s pretty doggone amazing,” says Deborah Birx, who heads PEPFAR in Washington, D.C. “This really shows us why it’s so important to get community level survey data.”

  • Why Texas is becoming a major antivaccine battlefield

    Vaccinated child

    Opposition to childhood vaccination has become a flash point in many communities.

    MediC Pix/Alamy Stock Photo

    Peter Hotez used to worry mostly about vaccines for children in far-away places. An infectious diseases researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, Hotez is developing shots against diseases in poorer countries such as hookworm and schistosomiasis.

    But now, Hotez is anxious about children much closer to home. The number of schoolchildren not vaccinated against childhood diseases in Texas is growing rapidly, which means that the state may see its first measles outbreaks in the winter or spring of 2018, Hotez predicted in a recent article in PLOS Medicine. Disgraced antivaccine physician Andrew Wakefield has set up shop in the Texan capital, Austin, and a political action committee (PAC) is putting pressure on legislators facing a slew of vaccine-related bills.

    "Texas is now the center of the antivaxxer movement,” Hotez says. “There is a big fight coming,” adds Anna Dragsbaek of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit organization in Houston that advocates for vaccinations.

  • NIH says it will raise postdoc salaries, despite threats to overtime rule

    Working overtime

    New federal rule would have paid some postdocs overtime for working late.

    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

    Republicans in Congress have vowed to roll back a controversial new rule expanding the number of workers eligible for overtime pay when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January 2017. And a federal judge has already blocked implementation of the rule, which covers postdoctoral researchers and was supposed to take effect on 1 December.

    But the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, says that, regardless of those developments, it will move ahead tomorrow with its plan to raise the stipends of certain biomedical postdocs so they aren’t affected by the rule.

    The overtime rule, released this past May, requires overtime pay for workers earning less than $47,476—more than what many postdocs earned at the time. In response, NIH announced this past August that it would increase the starting stipends of postdoctoral fellows on the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA)—one of NIH’s bread-and-butter training awards—to $47,484 from $43,692. It also offered a one-time supplement for grant recipients to meet the pay difference. (NIH did not offer specific guidance regarding pay for postdocs funded through non-NRSA avenues.)

  • Trump’s pick to run HHS has researchers speculating on how science will fare

    Tom Price

    Orthopedic surgeon Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia, is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the $1 trillion Department of Health and Human Services.

    Paul Morigi

    Representative Tom Price (R–GA), the orthopedic surgeon and six-term congressman who President-elect Donald Trump yesterday picked to be his secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is a conservative spending hawk and fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and abortion. But he has also spoken generally in favor of increasing funding for federal research agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which he would oversee if confirmed to the job by the Senate.

    Now, many research advocates are wondering how Price’s mix of views might play out in the new administration’s approach to a wide range of issues, including funding, research involving human embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue, and the appointment of a new NIH director.

    “I have a lot of confidence that [Price] understands and supports the research mission and I hope that he will continue to do so,” says Michael M.E. Johns, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon who was the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and the chancellor of Emory University in Atlanta, and who is now a professor in Emory’s schools of medicine and public health.

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