Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • DOE ends freeze on several ARPA-E grants

    Portrait of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson.

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) says the Department of Energy is flaunting a 1974 budget law.

    NASA/Joel Kowsky

    UPDATE: Three stalled research projects received word yesterday from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that the department has ended its undeclared freeze on processing approved grants. The department “is honoring commitments to several previously selected Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy [ARPA-E] awardees,” declared an 18 May DOE press release, which notes that “additional awardees are expected to move forward in the coming weeks.” The two REFUEL projects and one NEXTCAR project, which total $11 million, were announced last fall. But their funding languished as DOE measured all awards against what it calls the “new Administration’s policy directives.”

    A senior Democratic legislator who has questioned the legality of the contracting freeze said yesterday that she’s still keeping an eye on the department. “While this is a step in the right direction,” says Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), top Democrat on the House of Representatives science committee, “I still have serious concerns given that at least 20 additional competitively selected awardees are still awaiting notice that contract negotiations with ARPA-E can resume.”

    Here is our previous story, published on 8 May:

  • Two female scientists and a militant environmentalist join Emmanuel Macron’s new government

    New French Education Minister Frederique Vidal leaves after the first weekly cabinet meeting under new French President Emmanuel Macron

    Molecular geneticist and university administrator Frédérique Vidal is France’s new minister for higher education, research, and innovation.

    Christophe Ena/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Science will have a bigger voice in the next French government. Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron announced yesterday that a molecular geneticist–turned–university administrator will head the new ministry of higher education, research, and innovation, while a highly respected physician-scientist is France’s new health minister. Both are women—as is fully half of the new cabinet.

    But perhaps the biggest surprise was the appointment of the immensely popular green activist Nicolas Hulot at the new Ministry of “Ecological and Solidarity-based Transition.” Hulot—who has called Donald Trump’s retreat from the Clean Power Plan “a crime against humanity” and who wants to phase out nuclear energy—is credited with major changes in French environmental policy in the past decade—but always from outside the government.

    Frédérique Vidal, 53, the new research minister for science, spent most of her career at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she increasingly focused on education and climbed through the administrative ranks until becoming university president in 2012. The fact that Vidal “knows the sector … is a good thing,” says Patrick Monfort, secretary general of SNCS-FSU, a trade union for researchers based near Paris.

  • Strike disrupts research at Puerto Rico’s top university

    people protesting

    A student strike at the University of Puerto Rico is part of an island-wide protest like this one in San Juan on 1 May urging authorities to rescind proposed austerity measures.

    AP Photo/Danica Coto

    Last week molecular biologist Juan Ramirez-Lugo put all his coral samples in the freezer, locked the door of his lab, and told his six undergraduate assistants to stay home the next day. The assistant professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in San Juan wasn’t happy about yet another disruption to his research on seasonal variations in how corals respond to thermal stress and his efforts to give undergraduates “authentic research experiences.” But he felt he had no choice.

    Ramirez-Lugo’s campus has been shut down since late March, when students began a peaceful protest against proposed massive cuts to the territory’s flagship university as part of a slew of austerity measures to address the territory’s fiscal crisis. On 10 May the strikers voted to ignore a judge’s order to end their protest, raising concerns about possible violence if the authorities tried to enforce the court ruling.

    That didn’t happen, and the next day Ramirez-Lugo was able to return to work. However, he and the rest of the UPR faculty remain pawns in a larger battle over the U.S. territory. The fate of its 3.6 million residents rests in the hands of a federal judge who this week began hearing testimony from the government and those owed some $74 billion in bonds. (Puerto Rico also has $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations.)

  • Key Republican lawmakers urge Trump not to cut DOE research

    Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

    Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN)

    Brookings Institution/Paul Morigi/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Top Senate Republicans are urging President Trump not to slash funding for Department of Energy (DOE) research programs, following reports that the full fiscal 2018 budget will seek deep cuts at the department.

    In a letter sent today, six GOP senators called on Trump to "maintain funding for these critical" energy development efforts.

  • Journal that holds record for retracted papers also has a problem with editorial board members

    stack of retracted papers from Tumor Biology

    Springer retracted 107 papers from Tumor Biology in April.

    Emily Petersen

    Almost every scientific journal has to retract a paper once in a while. But at Tumor Biology, when it rains, it pours. Last month, its former publisher, Springer, announced that the journal was retracting 107 papers all at once, after finding that the peer-review process had been compromised. It was the third mass retraction at Tumor Biology, which now holds the unenviable world record for most retracted papers, according to Retraction Watch.

    But that’s not Tumor Biology’s only problem. ScienceInsider has discovered that the journal’s editorial board, as published online, contains the names of several scientists who say they have no relationship whatsoever with the journal—including German Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen. Until a few months ago, the board’s membership list even included a researcher who passed away in 2013.  

    Tumor Biology is owned by the International Society of Oncology and BioMarkers (ISOBM), and was published by Springer until last year; since January, the journal has been published by California-based publisher SAGE. Its editorial board is supposed to review submissions and offer advice on editorial strategy.

  • Senators press interior nominee on science and climate

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building


    Originally published by E&E News

    The Trump administration's nominee for Interior deputy secretary today promised he would honor science in his decisionmaking if confirmed to lead the department's daily operations.

    "We will apply the law and be honest with the science," David Bernhardt said today during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

  • As Ebola outbreak grows, question of using vaccine becomes more urgent

    a man getting a shot in the arm

    A hospital worker in Conakry in 2015 opted to receive the experimental VSV Ebola vaccine.

    Idrissa SOUMARE/Afreecom

    As health officials and aid workers head to a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to respond to an outbreak of Ebola virus disease, a key question remains: Will the government authorize the use of a promising experimental vaccine? The vaccine had stunning results in a clinical trial in Guinea in 2015, but it has yet to be licensed for broad use.

    As DRC officials weigh whether to use the vaccine, new details are emerging about the outbreak, which so far includes 20 suspected cases and three deaths, including the first, or “index,” case. Most cases are in the Bas-Uélé health zone that borders the Central African Republic. Three teams there are working on identifying suspect cases, educating the communities, and investigating villages where “nonsecure” funerals have taken place. They are also contacting a traditional healer in Nambwa who “received the index case"—a 45-year-old man who first sought help on 22 April—for 6 days.

    In Likati, the largest town in the area, another team is overseeing a database of the cases. Two mobile laboratories are on their way, as are personal protective equipment for frontline responders, reagents for 100 tests, and GPSs for field crews. More experts from the government, the World Health Organization (WHO), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Alliance for International Medical Action are on the way, and a helicopter is being arranged to bridge Likati to other places.

  • Lawmakers decry Trump plan to slash NIH 2018 budget

    Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins

    National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins in 2013.

    Stephen Voss/Redux

    Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives today voiced their displeasure with the Trump administration’s proposed $5.8 billion cut next year to the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. But they avoided asking NIH Director Francis Collins for his thoughts on the topic, perhaps knowing that it would put him in a very uncomfortable spot.

    During a hearing on "advances in biomedical research", Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), who chairs the House appropriations panel that oversees NIH’s budget, said he was “very proud” of a $2 billion increase, to $34.1 billion, that Congress approved for NIH in 2017. That action overrode President Donald Trump’s request for a $1 billion cut. Cole added that he was “disappointed” with Trump’s 2018 proposal in his “skinny budget” released in March to cut NIH by 18%. That would “stall progress” and “potentially discourage promising young scientists” from pursuing biomedical research, Cole said.

    Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) and Nita Lowey (D–NY) said the president actually wants to cut NIH’s next budget by $8 billion, using as a baseline the amount that NIH had been appropriated for 2017 when the skinny budget was issued. That 24% drop would mean 5000 to 8000 fewer grants. Such a decline would “decimate biomedical research and the economy” by eliminating 90,000 jobs, said Lowey, citing a new analysis by United for Medical Research, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

  • Superstar surgeon fired, again, this time in Russia

    Paolo Macchiarini headshot

    Macchiarini gave five patients in Russia artificial windpipes; three of them have died.

    Lars Granstrand, SVT

    After Paolo Macchiarini’s star fell in Sweden, the Italian surgeon still had a place to shine: Russia. The Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm fired him in March 2016 for multiple ethical violations, including "breach of KI’s fundamental values" and "scientific negligence." But Russia had long showered Macchiarini with funding and opportunities to perform his experimental surgeries to implant artificial tracheas, and it allowed him to stay. Now, a year later, his Russian refuge has ended as well.

    On 30 March, it became clear that the Russian Science Foundation (RSF) would not renew its funding for Macchiarini’s work, which now focuses on the esophagus rather than the trachea. The decision came 9 days after Nature Communications retracted a paper by Macchiarini that documented successful esophagus transplantations in rats. Minutes of a meeting made public last week show that Kazan Federal University (KFU), Macchiarini’s current employer, decided to end his research project there on 20 April, effectively firing him.

    “They have probably realized that it’s all based on nothing but hot air,” says Pierre Delaere of the University of Leuven in Belgium, one of the first to criticize Macchiarini’s work. Yet despite a passionate plea by four Swedish doctors who blew the whistle on Macchiarini’s work at Karolinska in 2014, Russian authorities appear to have no plans to launch a misconduct investigation of his work in Russia.

  • Here’s a suggestion for Congress: Try bipartisanship

    Ro Khanna, wearing a suit, standing at a podium speaking

    Representative Ro Khanna (D–CA) touts a plan by Republican Representative Harold Rogers (second from left) to turn Rogers’s eastern Kentucky district into “Silicon Holler.”

    Cris Ritchie/EKCEP Inc

    As a newly elected progressive Democrat, Representative Ro Khanna (CA) couldn’t be more out of step with the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives. He supports free public college, for example, along with a single payer health care system and a path to citizenship for undocumented residents.

    So why has Khanna thrown in with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–CA) on a bill to fund job training for veterans? Why has he gone to rural Kentucky to help Representative Hal Rogers (R–KY), former chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, promote the idea of turning his district into “Silicon Holler”? And why is he teaming up with fellow freshman Representative Jodey Arrington (R–TX), who hails from one of the country’s most conservative districts, to propose a radical change in how Congress operates?

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