Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Science groups react to U.S. government shutdown as researchers scramble

    US Capitol at night

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Science groups are reacting with dismay to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government that began today after the U.S. Senate failed last night to advance funding legislation. Many scientists, meanwhile, are scrambling to determine whether they will be able to keep working.

    The shutdown is “just deeply disappointing because Congress has had months to fund the government,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement. “Without a resolution the federal scientific enterprise will come to a screeching halt, potentially adding millions of dollars in costs and months of delay to taxpayer funded projects.”

    The funding lapse “deals another serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS in Washington, D.C., (the publisher of ScienceInsider), in a statement. He suggested the shutdown will add to long-term funding strains that have reduced federal spending on research from about 1.25% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) to 0.82%, “which is a near 40-year low.”

  • Oddball scientists, the rise of Chinese research, and other highlights from NSF’s new tome of essential science statistics

    chinese flag

    Chinas growing strength in science has been a recurring theme in recent editions of the National Science Foundations biennial statistical compendium.

    Max Braun/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    Scientists discover something new every day. But science policy trends can take decades to reveal themselves. That’s why the bottom line in the newest edition of an indispensible statistical tome from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—that China continues to close the gap with the United States in the international race for scientific supremacy—will sound very familiar to those who follow these trends.

    “The U.S. global share of [science and technology] activities is declining as other nations—especially China—continue to rise,” NSF officials declared yesterday in rolling out the 2018 Science & Engineering Indicators, a massive biennial report that tracks scientific activity around the world. “The U.S. still leads by many measures,” adds Maria Zuber, chair of the National Science Board in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF’s oversight body, “but our lead is decreasing in certain areas that are important to the country.”

    Indicators has been documenting that narrowing over the past decade. In 2010, for example, NSF officials said they saw no end in sight to China’s large, decadelong investments in science. In 2012, agency officials talked about “the beginning of an Asian science zone” with China as the hub. So the new data on China’s scientific prowess—documenting its continued high levels of spending and growing workforce, publications, and commercial high-tech activities—are hardly surprising.

  • A paper showing how to make a smallpox cousin just got published. Critics wonder why

    Painting of doctor giving a boy a vaccination

    One of the paper’s authors, Tonix CEO Seth Lederman, says he is “obsessed” with Edward Jenner, who invented the smallpox vaccine in 1796

    University of Michigan Health System, Gift of Pfizer Inc.

    Today, a highly controversial study in which researchers synthesized a smallpox relative from scratch is finally seeing the light of day. The paper, in PLOS ONE, spells out how virologist David Evans at the University of Alberta in Canada, and his research associate Ryan Noyce ordered bits of horsepox DNA from the internet, painstakingly assembled them, then showed that the resulting virus was able to infect cells and reproduce.

    The study stirred alarm when Science first reported it in July 2017 because it might give would-be terrorists a recipe to construct smallpox virus, a major human scourge vanquished in 1980. And now that it's out, many scientists say the paper doesn’t answer the most pressing question: Why did they do it?

    The team claims its work, funded by Tonix, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in New York City, could lead to a safer, more effective vaccine against smallpox. But safe smallpox vaccines already exist, and there appears to be no market for a horsepox-based replacement, says virologist Stephan Becker of the University of Marburg in Germany. “It simply does not add up,” Becker says. Given the apparent lack of benefits, publishing the paper was “a serious mistake,” says Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “The world is now more vulnerable to smallpox.” 

  • U.S. scientists on edge as government shutdown looms

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

    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Scientists in the United States are bracing for a partial federal government shutdown tonight that could scramble research projects and meetings, delay grants, and complicate hiring and training.

    Unless the White House and lawmakers in Congress can reach an agreement by midnight to extend current spending levels, many agencies will be forced to furlough workers, halt routine activities, and shutter public facilities. A shutdown could make idle as many as 800,000 federal workers, including researchers working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other science agencies. At the same time, employees involved in critical health and safety activities—such as air traffic control and military missions—would remain on the job.

    For better or worse, many researchers are familiar with the drill. In October 2013, the U.S. government partially shut down for 16 days after Republicans in Congress blocked spending legislation in an effort to repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act. This time, the Democrats (and a few Republicans) have taken the initiative by pledging to vote against further extensions of a current spending freeze until Congress protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants and agrees to lift caps on current spending.

  • After safety breaches, new Los Alamos director pushes for accountability at nuclear weapons lab

    Terry Wallace, director of Los Alamos

    Terry Wallace is the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

    Los Alamos National Laboratory

    LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO—The new director of Los Alamos National Laboratory here, Terry Wallace, took the helm earlier this month at a particularly challenging time in the U.S. nuclear weapons lab’s storied 75-year history. Repeated safety violations necessitated a temporary shutdown of much of the lab’s plutonium facility from 2013 to 2015, and prompted the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos’s overseer, to put the lab’s management contract out for bid. The most recent incidents, in August 2017, included improper storage of plutonium metal that could have triggered an uncontrolled fission reaction.

  • Nearly 100 scientists spent 2 months on Google Docs to redefine the p-value. Here’s what they came up with

    Daniël Lakens

    “It was incredible” to see how the online paper evolved, says Daniël Lakens, who led the effort. “It worked like a charm.”

    Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie

    Psychologist Daniël Lakens of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands is known for speaking his mind, and after he read an article titled “Redefine Statistical Significance” on 22 July 2017, Lakens didn’t pull any punches: “Very disappointed such a large group of smart people would give such horribly bad advice,” he tweeted.

    In the paper, posted on the preprint server PsyArXiv, 70 prominent scientists argued in favor of lowering a widely used threshold for statistical significance in experimental studies: The so-called p-value should be below 0.005 instead of the accepted 0.05, as a way to reduce the rate of false positive findings and improve the reproducibility of science. Lakens, 37, thought it was a disastrous idea. A lower α, or significance level, would require much bigger sample sizes, making many studies impossible. Besides. he says, “Why prescribe a single p-value, when science is so diverse?”

    Lakens and others will soon publish their own paper to propose an alternative; it was accepted on Monday by Nature Human Behaviour, which published the original paper proposing a lower threshold in September 2017. The content won’t come as a big surprise—a preprint has been up on PsyArXiv for 4 months—but the paper is unique for the way it came about: from 100 scientists around the world, from big names to Ph.D. students, and even a few nonacademics writing and editing in a Google document for 2 months. 

  • Broad Institute takes a hit in European CRISPR patent struggle

    European Patent Office headquarters

    European Patent Office in Munich, Germany

    European Patent Office

    A decision from the European Patent Office (EPO) has put the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on shaky ground with its intellectual property claims to the gene-editing tool CRISPR. EPO yesterday revoked a patent granted to the Broad for fundamental aspects of the technology, one of several of its patents facing opposition in Europe.

    In the United States, the Broad has had better fortune. It has so far prevailed in a high-profile patent dispute with the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Last February, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled that although a team led by UC Berkeley structural biologist Jennifer Doudna had first laid claim to the use of CRISPR to cut DNA in a test tube, the use of the method on human cells by molecular biologist Feng Zhang’s team at the Broad was still an advance.

    But in Europe, a dispute that has gotten much less attention could derail several key Broad patents. The patent just revoked was filed in December 2013, but to show that its claims predate competing publications and patent filings from UC and other groups, the Broad cites U.S. patent applications dating back to December 2012.

  • In Trump’s first year, science advice sees a marked decline

    Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

    Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, expert panels that provide key federal agencies with science advice have had fewer members and met less often than at any time since 1997, when the government started tracking such numbers, a new analysis concludes.

    At least some of the decline appears to be attributable to a deliberate effort by the Trump administration to exclude scientists from the policymaking process, argues Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’s (UCS’s) Center for Science and Democracy, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which issued today’s report.

    The science panels—there are some 200 across the federal government—advise agencies on a wide range of policy issues, including environmental protection, drug development, and energy innovation, and help set priorities for research programs. Their members, who serve voluntarily, are typically drawn from academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector.

  • Tensions flare over electric fishing in European waters

    fisherman on board a vessel looking at a pulse trawler in the water

    Many Dutch trawlers catch bottom-dwelling fish with bursts of low-voltage electricity, sparking fears from other fishing nations and some environmental groups.

    Ton Koene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    In a surprise outcome, the European Parliament voted today to ban a type of electric fishing that has demonstrated environmental benefits, as part of legislation to reform Europe’s fisheries.

    The proposed end to “pulse trawling”—in which short bursts of electricity get flatfish out of the sediment and into nets—is a major disappointment to Dutch fishing companies, which have invested heavily in the technology; they claim it’s less damaging to marine ecosystems than traditional bottom trawling and saves energy. But some environmental groups applaud the parliament’s decision.

    Many observers had predicted European Parliament would only recommend scaling back pulse trawling. “I’m baffled, to be honest,” says Marloes Kraan, an anthropologist at Wageningen Marine Research in IJmuiden, the Netherlands. “We had prepared ourselves for a bad outcome, but a ban was totally unexpected,” says Pim Visser, director of VisNed, a trawling trade group in Urk, the Netherlands. 

  • Make replication studies ‘a normal and essential part of science,’ Dutch science academy says

    test tubes

    Researchers should more widely share information that allows studies to be replicated, says the new report, and funding agencies should make more money available for replication.

    Trondheim Havn/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Scientists, universities, funding agencies, and journals alike should be doing much more to ensure the reproducibility of scientific research, according to a new report released Monday by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

    The report adds to a growing number of voices calling for fundamental changes in the way science is conducted and published. It comes in the wake of recent failures to replicate published scientific work, also known as the “reproducibility crisis." A panel at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is currently also studying reproducibility and replication, and the British Psychological Society is holding an event on the topic later this month.

    The KNAW panel, chaired by Johan Mackenbach, a public health researcher at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, makes several recommendations to both improve the rigor of original scientific papers and support scientists who conduct replications of previous research. Institutions should put a greater emphasis on training in research design and statistical analysis, the report says, and teach scientists how to conduct replication studies. Journals should require authors to register reports in advance so that the study protocol and analysis plan is locked in place before data collection even begins, and scientists should be encouraged to store methods and data in repositories to help other groups reproduce experiments. 

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