With time and money running out, Brazilian scientists are turning up the pressure on the federal government to avoid a total collapse of the national science and technology funding system before the end of the year.
Researchers last week delivered a petition with more than 82,000 signatures to congressional leaders in Brasília, demanding the reversal of deep budget cuts that have left research institutions struggling to pay even basic water and electricity bills. The petition delivery was part of a series of meetings and protests held across Brazil.
As a result of Brazil’s mounting economic woes, federal funding for science and technology is now at its lowest level in modern history, dropping by more than half over the past 5 years. The science ministry kicked off this year with a slim $1.8 billion budget, but President Michel Temer’s administration later reduced that by 44%, imposing a spending cap of just over $1 billion.
The head of the 2020 U.S. census has been removed, a step that may signal an end to the aggressive attempt by former Census Bureau Director John Thompson to follow a congressional directive to both save money and modernize the decennial U.S. head count.
Senate Republicans have launched a new attack on peer review by proposing changes to how the U.S. government funds basic research.
New legislation introduced this week by Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) would fundamentally alter how grant proposals are reviewed at every federal agency by adding public members with no expertise in the research being vetted. The bill (S.1973) would eliminate the current in-house watchdog office within the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, and replace it with an entity that would randomly examine proposals chosen for funding to make sure the research will “deliver value to the taxpayer.” The legislation also calls for all federal grant applications to be made public.
Paul made his case for the bill yesterday as chairperson of a Senate panel with oversight over federal spending. The hearing, titled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research,” was a platform for Paul’s claim that there’s a lot of “silly research” the government has no business funding. Paul poked fun at several grants funded by NSF—a time-honored practice going back at least 40 years, to Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) and his “Golden Fleece” awards—and complained that the problem is not “how does this happen, but why does it continue to happen?”
A new study of China’s one-child policy is roiling demography, sparking calls for the field’s leading journal to withdraw the paper. The controversy has ignited a debate over scholarly values in a discipline that some say often prioritizes reducing population growth above all else.
Chinese officials have long claimed that the one-child policy—in place from 1980 to 2016—averted some 400 million births, which they say aided global environmental efforts. Scholars, in turn, have contested that number as flawed. But in a paper published in the journal Demography in August, Daniel Goodkind—an analyst at the U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, who published as an independent researcher—argues that the figure may, in fact, have merit.
By extrapolating from countries that experienced more moderate fertility decline, Goodkind contends that birth-planning policies implemented after 1970 avoided adding between 360 million and 520 million people to China’s population. Because the momentum from that decline will continue into later generations, he suggests, the total avoided population could approach 1 billion by 2060. Some scholars worry such estimates could be used to justify, ex post facto, the policy’s existence, and feel that Goodkind’s criticisms of previous work fall outside the bounds of scholarly decorum.
Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute and a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is the most influential biomedical researcher of the modern era, according to a computer program. Lander, a geneticist and mathematician, ranks first on a new list of top biomedical researchers produced by the scientific literature search tool Semantic Scholar.
Semantic Scholar, launched in 2015, is an academic search engine aiming to tackle the problem of information overload. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help users sift through huge numbers of scientific papers and understand (to a limited extent) their content. The free tool was developed by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), a nonprofit based in Seattle, Washington, that was co-founded in 2014 by Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen.
Semantic Scholar’s archive of searchable literature initially focused on computer science, and last year expanded to include neuroscience. Today, it is expanding again, to include the millions of biomedical research papers indexed by PubMed and other sources; overall, Semantic Scholar’s archive is now approaching 40 million papers.
To the dismay of many researchers, the U.S. government announced last week that it would formally withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) based in Paris. The decision—which is not expected to cause major disruptions in UNESCO’s science programs—comes roughly 6 years after the United States stopped contributing funds to the organization because of its recognition of Palestine, and 4 years after the United States lost its UNESCO voting rights.
In a statement issued on 12 October, the U.S. Department of State cited three reasons for its decision: UNESCO has an “anti-Israel bias,” needs “fundamental reform,” and the United States has a mounting financial debt to the organization that, under U.S. law, it cannot pay.
UNESCO expressed “profound regret” at the decision, which will take effect on 31 December 2018. The organization’s director-general, Irina Bokova, highlighted UNESCO’s “interaction with the United States Geological Survey, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with United States professional societies, to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources, agriculture,” as examples of valuable joint work.
Five leading German scientists have resigned from their editorial positions at journals published by Elsevier, the latest step in a battle over open-access and subscription policies between the Dutch publishing giant and a consortium of German libraries, universities, and research institutes.
The researchers want Elsevier to accept a new payment model that would make all papers authored by Germany-based researchers open access. The five are only the first of many ready to step down, warn leaders of the consortium, called Projekt DEAL.
Instead of having individual libraries pay subscriptions for individual journals, Projekt DEAL wants to set up nationwide “publish and read” agreements with publishers. DEAL would pay publishers a lump sum to cover publication costs of papers authored by researchers in Germany. Then all such papers would be open access, and DEAL members would receive electronic access to all the publisher’s journals.
A pioneering AAV gene therapy from Spark Therapeutics took a giant stride toward an FDA approval yesterday as an outside panel of experts offered their support for getting this game-changing treatment into the market after looking over the data and hearing from some of the severely sight-impaired patients whose lives had been transformed by this therapy.
The vote was 16 to 0 favoring the benefit-risk profile of the drug, backing an OK for voretigene neparvovec by the agency’s Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee and providing a compelling reason for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to follow through with an historic first U.S. approval of a vector-delivered gene therapy.
“Gene therapy has made my world so much more brighter,” said one young patient, who went on to describe how he could see the moon for the first time, go out at night, watch facial expressions, and basically live his life more normally instead of waiting for blindness to take over. And Christian Guardino talked about how the treatment four years ago saved his sight, a span of time when the darkness might well have closed in.
This was no panacea. As the agency’s internal review made clear, voretigene neparvovec (or Luxturna) — which uses an adeno-associated viral vector — improved sight using the light levels measured for the primary endpoint, but fell far short of curing retinal dystrophy triggered by genetic RPE65 mutations. Improvement in vision is also limited by the number of viable retinal cells they have left at the time they’re treated, according to investigators.
With four trained U.S. Navy dolphins acting like herding dogs and an array of special nets, enclosures, and stretchers, conservationists today began their roundup of the vaquita, a porpoise that lives in the upper Gulf of California. Only an estimated 30 vaquitas are left in the wild, and those numbers have been dwindling despite efforts by the Mexican government to ban fishing with gillnets, which inadvertently trap and drown these marine mammals. So as a final, desperate measure, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita and the Mexican government brought a team of experts to San Felipe, Baja California to try to locate at least some of the vaquitas and corral them in nets. They hope to transfer 10 to 12 of these rare survivors to a temporary sanctuary—a sea pen off San Felipe—and eventually to release them in a part of the gulf that’s been cleared of gillnets and illegal fishing activity. The rescue effort, Vaquita CPR, will last two weeks, program spokesperson Steve Walker says. The strategy—first proposed by biologists last year—is a risky endeavor because porpoises, unlike dolphins, tend to be very sensitive and are hard to keep in captivity. But recent successes, including the captive breeding of harbor porpoises rehabilitated after being tangled in nets or stranded, gives the team hope of reviving the species.
President Donald Trump late yesterday nominated Barry Myers—CEO of AccuWeather, the for-profit forecasting company in State College, Pennsylvania—to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation's premier agency for weather, climate, and ocean research. As a wealthy businessman, Myers fits the mold of other Trump picks.
Myers leads AccuWeather with his two brothers, both weather forecasters. He has business and law degrees, but will bring no scientific expertise to an agency that traditionally has been led by administrators holding scientific doctorates. Yet Myers is well-acquainted with at least one NOAA division: the National Weather Service (NWS), which provides the free data and models that AccuWeather relies on for its forecasts. His nomination is a sign that the Trump administration could seek to further shake up parts of the country's weather enterprise, says Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “No NOAA administrator has been willing to make the substantial, but necessary, changes,” he says. “Is it possible that an outsider from the private sector might consider a fresh approach?”
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Myers will lead an agency under stress. The White House has proposed slashing NOAA's 2018 budget by 17%, with the cuts targeting ocean and climate research, along with the development of a next-generation weather model. Although the 2018 spending bill passed by the House of Representatives did include a double-digit drop in the agency’s overall budget, the Senate has indicated that many of those cuts—such as zeroing out the popular Sea Grant program or reducing investment into a next-generation weather model—won't happen. The agency’s budget is now frozen as part of a government-wide holding pattern that expires in early December.