Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Researchers win some, lose some in final U.S. tax bill

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.

    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The U.S. research community experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in lobbying congressional Republicans as they wrapped up a major overhaul of the nation’s tax code.

    Research advocates persuaded lawmakers to drop changes that would have eliminated a valuable tax break for companies that invest in research, forced graduate students to pay taxes on tuition assistance, and reduced incentives for investing in renewable energy technologies. But scientific, academic, and other groups failed to kill several other provisions, notably, a reduction in a tax break designed to encourage companies to develop drugs for rare diseases, the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, and a new tax on the largest university endowments.

    The release yesterday of the final version of the Republican-backed bill marks the end of a fierce but remarkably brief battle over the biggest rewrite of the U.S. tax code in decades. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed versions of the tax bill in the past month that had been drafted largely out of public view. No Democrats or Independent lawmakers voted for either bill. The campaign by science advocates included plenty of backroom maneuvering and some very public drama, including the Capitol Hill arrests of science graduate students who demonstrated against a plan to tax tuition waivers.

  • NIH tweaks plan to award more grants to younger researchers

    senior and junior scientist working with mixing vessels

    The National Institutes of Health is worried that middle-aged investigators are being crowded out of the research workforce.

    Cultura Creative (RF)/Alamy Stock Photo

    U.S. biomedical research leaders are pulling back from a plan to fund 400 additional grants each year from a narrowly defined set of young and midcareer researchers. The agency is tweaking the plan after hearing concerns that the policy was too arbitrary and could shut down productive labs.

    Instead of focusing on midcareer scientists who are no more than a decade into their independent careers, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, will instead seek to steer funds to any researcher whose lab is at risk of folding, NIH officials said. “Age should not matter,” NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak said at a meeting today.

    The move is the second time this year that NIH has revised its strategy for halting the aging of its workforce. This May, the agency announced that it would free up funds for early and midcareer researchers by capping the number of grants a principal investigator could have. But a month later, the agency dropped the so-called Grant Support Index after senior scientists with big research programs vigorously objected.

  • Trump team puts controversial ‘red team’ challenge to climate science ‘on hold’

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    Editor’s note: A nice scoop today from E&E News’ Robin Bravender on the status of a proposal to have a “red team” composed of climate science critics challenge a “blue team” of mainstream researchers.

    Originally published by E&E News

    The effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publicly debate mainstream climate science is on ice. The idea of a "red team, blue team" debate to critique climate science — championed by EPA boss Scott Pruitt — has created divisions within the Trump administration, spurring high-level staff discussions at the White House about how to proceed. Earlier this week, EPA air chief Bill Wehrum attended a White House meeting with Trump energy aide Mike Catanzaro, deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn and others to discuss the future of the debate, according to an administration official.

  • Would you advise Trump on science? Survey examines attitudes of U.S. researchers

    Donald Trump

    Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Arizona in 2016, prior to being elected president.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The policies of President Donald Trump have soured U.S. scientists on working with the federal government and his administration. At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

    However, an informal survey by Science of 66 prominent scientists and engineers suggests a more nuanced reaction to Trump’s first year in office. Half say they would seriously weigh an offer to serve in the administration as an appointed or Senate-confirmed official, and 80% say they would consider serving on a high-level panel advising the president or a federal agency. Almost 10% are current members of such panels.

    “You need to be at the table, otherwise you are on the table,” says Charles Rice, a soil scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who labels himself a moderate Republican. “Just ignoring [the administration] would not help the scientific community,” says Rice, who is chair of the agriculture board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), an independent body that conducts government-funded studies.

  • Department of Energy broke law in blocking research funds, report says

    a man holding a wind blade

    Todd Griffith, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, displays a wind turbine blade developed as part of a program funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. 

    Sandia National Laboratory/Randy Montoya/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A congressional watchdog agency says the Department of Energy (DOE) broke the law in trying to prevent one of its research units from spending part of its budget. The ruling, issued yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is part of a larger fight between President Donald Trump’s administration and Congress over the future of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds research designed to move new technologies into the marketplace.

    On 23 May, Trump’s 2018 budget request to Congress called for shutting the 9-year-old agency. The move came just days after lawmakers had finished work on a fiscal year (FY) 2017 spending bill that gave the agency $306 million.

    GAO’s decision doesn’t address the agency’s fate. But it says that DOE officials were wrong to allow the agency to redirect $91 million in 2017 funding before Congress had acted on the president’s 2018 request. Specifically, the administration wanted to return $46 million of ARPA-E’s 2017 appropriation to the U.S. Treasury and spend $45 million to begin shutting down operations (before Congress had approved that proposal). 

  • Emails shed light on controversial DOE request to remove ‘climate change’ from abstracts

    Sign marking entrance to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.

    The U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.


    Originally published by E&E News

    A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) official's controversial request this summer for scientists to remove "climate change" from research abstracts was ordered by senior national lab managers and was intended to satisfy President Trump's budget request, according to emails obtained by E&E News and confirmed by a lab aide.

    The communications, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, suggest officials at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, a national lab funded by DOE, were trying to protect scientists. But the emails also leave unanswered questions about why decisions were made on a Trump plan that was not law.

  • Is there really a covert manipulation of U.N. discussions about regulating gene drives?

    Anepholes mosquito

    Some researchers believe gene drive technology could one day control populations of mosquitoes that spread malaria.

    Penn State/James Gathany/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    It had scandal written all over it. Disclosed emails revealed that a covert coalition lobbying for relaxed regulations around a genetic extinction technology, with help from a well-funded public relations firm, Emerging Ag, was attempting to game the system and manipulate the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). That was the spin in press releases (see here, here, and here) issued last week by several watchdog groups that want a moratorium on research related to gene drives, which could enable bioengineers to increase the odds of passing down genes to offspring. The people in the supposed covert coalition say it’s nothing of the sort, they have no interest in gaming the system, and that their opponents are manipulating the truth. “It’s complete bullshit,” says Todd Kuiken, a synthetic biology researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who is a central target of the criticisms. “It’s asinine.”

    Kuiken is a member of the CBD’s Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology (AHTEG), which met last week in Montreal, Canada. Like other proponents of gene drive research, Kuiken contends that they could help control disease, remove invasive species, and create pest-resistant crops. “They’re trying to slander my name,” he asserts.

    A member of the AHTEG who resigned, longtime biosafety activist Edward Hammond of Austin, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a trove of Kuiken’s emails. Hammond called the emails “the Gene Drive Files,” which he posted on his website, Prickly Research. The emails disclose that Emerging Ag is working with Kuiken and other AHTEG members to help recruit scientists to an open online forum on synthetic biology meant to inform the CBD. The public relations firm—which the critics note was given $1.6 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of possible gene drive applications for public good purposes”—also coordinates responses to postings on the online forum that are critical of gene drives. Other emails discuss gene drive research projects funded by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

  • French president’s climate talent search nabs 18 foreign scientists

    French President Emmanuel Macron

    Emmanuel Macron 

    ©FNMF/N. MERGUI/Flickr

    French President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to lure disgruntled foreign climate scientists to France—especially from the United States—has produced its first harvest. France today announced that Macron’s Make Our Planet Great Again initiative has recruited its first class of 18 scientists. Of the new recruits, 13, including a few French nationals, now work in the United States, whereas others are based in Canada, India, and elsewhere in Europe.

    One recruit is Louis Derry, a U.S. citizen who studies Earth’s critical zone—its life-supporting skin—at Cornell University. When he first heard about Macron's move to attract about 50 high-level foreign climate scientists for France, he thought it had to be another swipe at U.S. President Donald Trump by the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné. But it was real. In June, just a few hours after Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accordMacron cheekily invited disgruntled U.S. scientists to relocate to France. A week later, the French government unveiled a website that soon spelled out the details: It was offering 3- to 5-year grants, worth up to €1.5 million each.

    Derry, who says he liked both the scientific opportunity and the collateral benefits, was one of more than 1800 scientists to express initial interest in applying. “I think it’s hard to find too many downsides to living in Paris for a little while,” he says.

  • Researcher in Swedish fraud case speaks out: ‘I’m very disappointed by my colleague’

    Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt

    Peter Eklöv (left) oversaw research conducted by postdoc Oona Lönnstedt (right) that an investigative panel has concluded was based on fabricated data.

    Uppsala University

    Uppsala University (UU) in Sweden released a long-awaited, damning report yesterday about two researchers who published a high-profile study about the dangers of microplastics—particles less than 5 millimeters in size—to fish in Science last year.

    An investigation by UU’s Board for Investigation of Misconduct in Research found that postdoc Oona Lönnstedt fabricated data for the paper, purportedly collected at the Ar Research Station on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. Her supervisor, Peter Eklöv, bears responsibility for the fabrication as well, the board said, but his behavior didn’t meet UU’s criteria for misconduct at the time the paper was published. (It would today, the board’s chairperson, Erik Lempert, tells Science.) Both researchers were found guilty of misconduct for not obtaining a permit from an ethics review panel before conducting the experiments on Gotland.

    Accusations against the duo were leveled a week after the paper was published by Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and UU’s Josefin Sundin, with the help of five colleagues elsewhere in the world. Jutfelt and Sundin had seen Lönnstedt at work on Gotland, and claimed she didn’t perform the experiments described in the paper.

  • Brexit agreement would allow EU scientists to stay in United Kingdom

    Theresa May shakes hands with Jean-Claude Juncker

    U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May shook hands with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today in Brussels before announcing a divorce deal for the United Kingdom.

    AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

    The United Kingdom announced today that EU citizens living in the country can stay after Brexit happens in 2019—a key demand of the U.K. scientific community. The announcement will come as a relief to the many thousands of EU scientists who work in the United Kingdom.

    “For researchers today’s deal offers much needed hope,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in London, said today in a statement. “Certainty over their right, and their family’s right, to live, work, or study under the same conditions as they do now will allow people to plan for their future.” 

    The decision comes after months of tense negotiations with the European Union over the “terms of the divorce,” including the amount of the United Kingdom’s outstanding debts. The agreement is likely to be approved by the European Council on 14 December.

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