Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • European Union, worried about rising tensions, plans to boost military research

    RM-70 tubes in front of flags

    Tubes from an RM-70 multiple launch rocket system, seen at a defense industry exhibition in Poland last year

    Jaap Arriens/Sipa USA/Newscom

    After decades of keeping a low profile in the military arena, the European Union is flexing its muscles. On Wednesday, the European Commission proposed a new, €13 billion fund for military R&D. Its main beneficiaries are expected to be major European companies, such as Airbus, Leonardo, and the Thales Group, but universities and research institutes will be able to apply as well.

    All but six of the European Union’s 28 members states are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has guaranteed their security for decades. But in a climate of rising international tensions—including Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and a series of terrorist attacks—the European Union is keen on taking on a more important role, especially in defense R&D. “Both Europeans and our partners in the world expect the EU to be more and more a security provider, in our region and beyond,” Federica Mogherini, the commission’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “We are ready to fulfill our responsibilities.” To achieve this, cooperation “must become the norm, not the exception anymore,” added industry commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska.

    At the moment, most defense research in the European Union is funded at the national level or through specific agreements between governments. To illustrate what it calls “fragmentation and inefficiencies,” the commission says 178 different weapon systems and 17 types of main battle tanks are in use across the European Union, compared with 30 and one, respectively, in the United States.

  • House bill gives NIH a 3% boost in 2019, to $38.3 billion

    NIH building 1
    Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

    A draft bill released by a House of Representatives spending panel today would give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, a $1.25 billion raise in 2019, to $38.3 billion. That is 3% more than this year’s level and $4.1 billion more than President Donald Trump’s administration had requested.

    Although researchers are welcoming the modest bump, the bill also brings back a proposed ban on research with fetal tissue that alarmed the scientific community last year.

    The measure from the House Appropriations Committee includes $401 million in new funding for research on Alzheimer’s disease, bringing the total to $2.25 billion. The All of Us personalized medicine study receives a $147 million raise, to $437 million. The cancer moonshot would get a $100 million bump, to $400 million, and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative would grow by $29 million to $429 million. Some funding for these last three programs comes from $711 million provided by the 21st Century Cures Act.

  • Following charges of flawed statistics, major medical journal sets the record straight

    child and adult pouring olive oil onto food

    A study of the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet was rewritten after a statistical analysis set off alarm bells.

    Jozef Polc/500px

    One year after a damning review suggested that many published clinical trials contain statistical errors, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) today is correcting five of the papers fingered and retracting and republishing a sixth, about whether a Mediterranean diet helps prevent heart disease. (Spoiler alert: It still does, according to the new version of the paper.) Despite errors missed until now, in many ways the journal system worked as intended, with NEJM launching an inquiry within days of the accusations.

    The journal’s unusual move was prompted by a controversial analysis published in June 2017. Writing in Anaesthesia, where he is also an editor, anesthesiologist John Carlisle of Torbay Hospital in Torquay, U.K., took a statistical deep dive into 5087 randomized, controlled trials. With the help of a computer program, Carlisle looked for a specific type of anomaly: nonrandom assignment of volunteers to different treatments, when the trial had claimed the assignments were random. This can skew a trial’s results—for example, if many more elderly people are assigned to a control group while younger ones get an experimental treatment, the new drug may look like it has fewer side effects because the people getting it are healthier.

    Across eight journals, Carlisle analyzed how certain features of the volunteers—such as their height, weight, and age—were spread across the treatments tested. If he didn’t see certain patterns—if the distribution was too perfect, or too far off—he suspected the assignments were not truly random, whether because of scientific misconduct or honest error. Roughly 2% of the papers he ran through his program fell into this questionable category.

  • Obama official would have led EPA’s climate science debate—if all agencies took part

    Steve Koonin

    Steve Koonin

    Charles Watkins/U.S. Department of Energy/Flickr

    Originally published by E&E News

    Scott Pruitt’s top aide wanted to use special authority to hire a former Obama administration official to scrutinize climate science.

    The EPA administrator's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, suggested last year that Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist and an Obama Energy Department appointee, could quickly get on EPA's payroll. Pruitt and his staff have drawn criticism for using special authority to expedite the hires of political appointees, and EPA's internal watchdog has launched a probe into the matter.
  • NASA science and NSF do well in Senate spending bill

    Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2

    The recently canceled Carbon Monitoring System, a NASA research program that uses data from satellites such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, could be reinstated by Congress.


    A U.S. Senate spending panel has proposed giving healthy boosts to space research at NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) next year.

    The increases are part of a 2019 spending bill marked up yesterday by the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee. It is slightly less generous to research than a version approved last month by the parallel spending committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, but stands well above what President Donald Trump requested for those agencies. The bills cover the fiscal year that begins on 1 October.

    The panel has allocated $21.3 billion for NASA, $6.4 billion of which would go to the science division. That is an increase of 2.8% for science, or $180 million above fiscal year 2018 levels, and $500 million above Trump’s request. Within the science division, earth sciences would receive $1.9 billion, planetary science would receive $2.2 billion, and astrophysics would receive $1.5 billion, of which $305 million is for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the overbudget project whose launch has been delayed to 2020. The earth science allocation includes money to reinstate the Carbon Monitoring System, a $10-million-a-year research program that studies how sinks and sources of carbon can be remotely monitored from space. After the Trump administration quietly killed the program, House appropriators voted to put the money back. Now, the Senate has taken its first step in following suit. “Thank goodness Congress has a say in the matter,” said Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) in a statement.

  • Undersecretary Paul Dabbar paints broad vision for Department of Energy science

    Paul Dabbar visiting the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

    Paul Dabbar (center) at a visit last fall to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois

    Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

    When the White House nominated Paul Dabbar as the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) undersecretary for science last July, many scientists had no idea who he was. However, he knew plenty about DOE. A 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Dabbar sailed on nuclear submarines for 5 years before earning an MBA from Columbia University. He spent 21 years as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase, where he focused on nuclear energy and emerging energy technologies.

    Dabbar oversees DOE’s basic research arm, the $6.3 billion Office of Science. He also is responsible for technology transfer and DOE’s $7.1 billion environmental management (EM) effort, which aims to clean up pollution at old nuclear weapons sites. DOE’s applied energy programs and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains the United States’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, answer to other undersecretaries. Dabbar spoke recently with ScienceInsider about his unusual background and his vision for DOE’s scientific efforts.

    The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

  • An outspoken epidemiologist becomes U.S. science envoy

    Michael Osterholm

    Michael Osterholm

    Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm Health (CC BY-NC-ND)

    If there’s an infectious disease that has threatened public health over the past 4 decades, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota (UM) in Minneapolis likely has said something about it. Osterholm, who runs UM’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), has a reputation for speaking bluntly—torpedoes, political correctness, friends, even funders be damned—and understands the power of a punchy metaphor. Yesterday, the U.S. Department of State announced he would be one of its five science envoys, a program that began in 2010 and taps prominent scientists for 1-year appointments to build global collaborations on pressing issues.

    Joining Osterholm in this year’s class are chemical engineer Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum of Rice University in Houston, Texas; environmental engineer James Schauer of the University of Wisconsin in Madison; and retired NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

  • Leading Salk scientist resigns after allegations of harassment

    Inder Verma

    Cancer biologist Inder Verma has resigned from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. 

    Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy Stock Photo

    The prominent cancer biologist Inder Verma unconditionally resigned from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, last Wednesday, 6 June, and this morning the research institute’s board of trustees voted unanimously to accept his resignation.

    Salk President Rusty Gage and Board Chairman Dan Lewis made the announcement in a letter sent today to Salk colleagues that reads, in part:

    This morning, Salk’s Board of Trustees met to discuss the findings of the Institute’s investigation into allegations against Dr. Inder Verma….Based on the findings of the investigator, the Institute has considered appropriate responsive action.  

    Last week, prior to the board concluding its discussions regarding the investigation and taking formal action, Dr. Verma tendered his unconditional resignation.  This morning, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to accept it.

    The letter said Salk would not share further details of the confidential personnel matter.

    “This has been a challenging time for the Institute,” Lewis and Gage added. “We have been heartened by the way the Salk community has come together and worked together to face these challenges.”

  • More restrictive U.S. policy on Chinese graduate student visas raises alarm

    Person holding suitcase and China passport

    Chinese graduate students in some fields may now receive 1-year visas.


    Reversing yet another policy of the previous administration, the U.S. Department of State today began applying tougher restrictions on some Chinese graduate students. The new policy shortens from 5 years to 1 year the duration of visas for those planning to study aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. Although the ostensible reason for the change is to improve national security, U.S. university officials see it as the latest attack on graduate education and the free flow of scientific knowledge.

    The revised visa policy was initially reported last month by various media outlets and confirmed last week by a senior departmental official during a hearing on student visas by a Senate panel on border security and immigration. The title of the hearing paints the dilemma in stark terms: “Student Visa Integrity: Protecting Educational Opportunity and National Security.”

    The new rule will make it harder for the affected Chinese students to attend international conferences and to work collaboratively with scientists abroad, U.S. higher education officials say. It may also curtail periodic visits back home. When added to other policies by the current administration that affect non-U.S. citizens, academic officials say, the visa change gives these talented foreign students one more reason to pursue advanced degrees in countries with lower barriers to entry. “For decades, doing their graduate work in the U.S. was a no-brainer” for the best Chinese students, says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, graduate dean at the University of Illinois in Champaign. “But now, they have to decide if they really want to come here.”

  • The fight has begun over Europe’s big budget increase for science

    Carlos Moedas at a press conference

    Research commissioner Carlos Moedas promised “radical change” to EU innovation policies yesterday at a press conference in Brussels.

    Georges Boulougouris/© European Union, 2018

    European universities are unhappy about the details, announced yesterday, of Horizon Europe, the European Union’s new 7-year research program that will start in 2021. They say the 22% increase in funding overall proposed by the European Commission is the bare minimum and worry that the program shortchanges basic research in favor of innovation funding. “We will fight for a better distribution of the budget,” says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) in Leuven, Belgium.

    The commission had announced some proposed features of Horizon Europe—the successor to the current 7-year program, Horizon 2020—in the past few months, including its overall budget. Details of the plan were unveiled yesterday by Carlos Moedas, the commission’s research chief, at a press conference in Brussels. The €94.1 billion that the commission proposes spending for Horizon Europe in 2021–27 aims to bring “radical change” to innovation policies while preserving funding for “what we always did: good fundamental science,” Moedas said.

    Of the total, €16.6 billion would go to the European Research Council (ERC), which gives out generous basic research grants. This is an increase from €13.1 billion under Horizon 2020, the current 7-year program, but ERC’s share of the whole program’s budget would remain at about 17%. Meanwhile, the well-liked Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships for doctoral programs, postdocs, and staff exchanges would see their share decrease slightly, from 8% of Horizon 2020 to about 7% under Horizon Europe. At the same time, the commission wants to spend €10.5 billion—about 11% of the 7-year budget—on the European Innovation Council (EIC), a brand-new agency that will provide funding for entrepreneurs, to stimulate breakthrough technologies without prescribing priority areas.

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