ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Turkish-American NASA scientist sentenced to 7.5 years in prison

    Kubra Golge and son

    Kubra Golge, holding one of her sons, has fought for the release of her husband, Serkan Golge, a U.S. citizen and NASA scientist held by Turkey on terrorism charges. He was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison yesterday.

    The New York Times/Redux

    ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American research scientist at NASA in Houston, Texas, was sentenced to 7.5 years in a Turkish prison Thursday on terrorism charges. The verdict, which has been condemned by the U.S. government, has put his career on hold and left his family and friends reeling. “I feel like this cannot be real,” his wife Kubra Golge, who was inside the courtroom when her husband’s verdict was read, tells Science.

    At a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State said the United States is “deeply concerned” by Golge’s conviction, which came “without credible evidence.” The spokesperson said the U.S. government would continue to follow his case closely. A spokesperson for Turkey’s foreign ministry dismissed the criticism in a statement posted to its website and said the court’s decision must be respected.

    Golge, a dual citizen who had been studying the effects of radiation on astronauts, was swept up in a crackdown that followed Turkey’s 2016 failed military coup. While visiting family in southern Turkey weeks after the putsch attempt, police showed up to his parents’ home and arrested him in front of his wife and children. According to Golge’s wife, a distant relative who was angered over an inheritance dispute told police Golge was a spy and supporter of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup.

  • Canada’s new environmental review plan gets a lukewarm reception

    A tar sands mine in Alberta province in Canada

    A new plan would change how Canada evaluates proposed development, such as this tar sands mine in the province of Alberta.

    NSFblogs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Scientists, industry officials, and environmentalists are giving mixed reception to a new plan to revamp how the Canadian government assesses the environmental impacts of development projects.

    The plan, released yesterday after 14 months of deliberation, delivers on an election promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party to revisit controversial changes made to Canada’s environmental policies by the previous Conservative Party government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Critics charged that Harper dramatically reduced the number of dams, mines, pipelines and other projects receiving reviews, and weakened the use of scientific evidence in evaluations. Trudeau promised to “restore confidence” in the reviews and “ensure that decisions on major projects are based on science, facts, and evidence.”

    In a bid to realize that goal, the Trudeau government yesterday unveiled an Impact Assessment Act that would establish a new government agency to oversee environmental reviews of proposed projects and set new timetables and rules for carrying out assessments. Among other things, the proposal—which will have to be approved by Parliament—calls for increased consultation with Canada’s indigenous groups, expanding reviews to include social, economic and climate impacts, and making greater efforts to explain the kinds of information regulators are using in evaluations. The bill would also shorten timelines for project reviews and potentially alter the number of projects that would receive full reviews.

  • New U.S. budget deal includes more funding for 2020 census

    Wilbur Ross

    Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau.

    U.S. Embassy Bangkok/Flickr

    The latest short-term budget agreement that keeps the U.S. government running for another 6 weeks gives a much-needed boost to planning for the 2020 census.

    The continuing resolution (CR) passed early this morning by Congress contains an additional $182 million for the Census Bureau to stay on track for the decennial headcount in April 2020. Census officials have had to reduce or eliminate several components of the massive undertaking—its estimated price tag is $15.6 billion—because Congress has failed to provide the funding needed to ramp up activities in the past few years of each 10-year cycle.

    Last May, for example, President Donald Trump requested only $51 million more for the account that includes the decennial census. In October 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress that the agency would need an additional $187 million in 2018 to stay on schedule for 2020, part of a review that bumped up the cost of the 2020 census by $3.3 billion.

  • Q&A: George Church and company on genomic sequencing, blockchain, and better drugs

    George Church

    Harvard University geneticist George Church has co-founded a new company to help individuals share and market their genomes.

    GRETCHEN ERTL/The New York Times

    In Hollywood terms, a marriage of blockchain, the technology created to track the bitcoin digital currency, and whole genome sequencing is a supercouple. And when the best man at the wedding is Harvard University geneticist George Church—whose innovations, his website notes, “have contributed to nearly all ‘next generation’ DNA sequencing methods and companies”—we’re talking TMZ-level celebrity splash. Meet Nebula Genomics, a new company that Church announced yesterday in a “white paper” that spells out how this Brangelina can lead to a better understanding of the causes of diseases, improve drug development, and, ultimately, tap into “a genomic data market worth billions of dollars.”

    Other companies offer genome testing directly to consumers. Ancestry, 23andMe, and Helix sequence scan parts of the genome. A recent newcomer called Luna DNA combines the database features of blockchain with whole genome sequencing and compensates participants with cryptocurrency called Luna Coins. But Nebula says it alone will offer consumers private storage of personal data, secure computing, payment for their data, and a way to subsidize the cost of sequencing. “Data buyers”—read: drug and biotech companies—will be able to directly contact owners and quickly access large data sets. Nebula has a mere $600,000 in seed money, but it also has Boston-based Veritas Genetics, one of many biotechs Church has co-founded, as a partner.

    ScienceInsider discussed the new venture with Church, founder of the nonprofit Personal Genome Project (PGP), which since 2005 has gathered publicly shared genomic and health data from around 10,000 volunteers. Because some of the questions stumped him, he asked two of his co-founders, Dennis Grishin and Kamal Obbad, to provide input. Grishin is a grad student in Church’s lab who specializes in sequencing technologies and bioinformatics, and Obbad, the blockchain brain, graduated from Harvard in 2016 and worked at Google for a spell. Their answers were edited and condensed.

  • Big tobacco’s offer: $1 billion for research. Should scientists take it?

    A photo of someone using an e-cigarette

    A new tobacco industry–funded foundation will study "harm reduction" strategies, including e-cigarettes.

    ISTOCK.COM/DIEGO_CERVO

    Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands thought it had nothing to be ashamed of when it accepted a €360,000 research grant from Philip Morris International (PMI) last September. The tobacco giant had agreed to fund a study on cigarette smuggling that had obvious public health importance, and the lead researcher, law professor John Vervaele, would enjoy complete academic freedom. Sure, there had been a "thorough debate" about the grant, Vervaele said in a press release, "but the tobacco industry is not illegal. The illicit tobacco trade is."

    But the announcement sparked a firestorm of criticism from outside groups, including associations of pulmonologists and oncologists and the Dutch Cancer Society. A university should not take money from an industry whose products kill an estimated 7 million people annually, they argued. And on 17 January, UU made a U-turn, announcing that it would sever ties with PMI and pay for the study itself. By then, the topic had become so controversial that Vervaele was no longer allowed to speak to the press.

    Similar battles seem bound to emerge at academic institutes elsewhere in the months and years ahead, because PMI is planning to spend a lot more money. The UU grant came from PMI Impact, a $100 million program to fight illegal trade by funding both research and enforcement. Much more money will come through the controversial Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, a New York City–based independent foundation launched last September, to which PMI has pledged to donate almost $1 billion over the next 12 years—most of it for research.

  • NSF requires institutions to report sexual harassment findings

    National Science Foundation headquarters

    The National Science Foundation announced new measures to combat sexual harassment.

    National Science Foundation

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, announced today a new set of measures to combat sexual harassment by people working on the projects it funds. The steps may include suspending or eliminating research grants after an institution finds that a grantee committed harassment.

    NSF said it will require institutions to tell the agency when they make such a finding. They also must report placing grantees accused of harassment on administrative leave while an investigation is underway. NSF Director France Córdova said the agency may suspend a project’s funding in such cases. The policy allows the agency to take actions “as necessary to protect the safety of all grant personnel.”

    The move comes as research organizations continue to confront reports that sexual harassment is rampant within many scientific disciplines and too often is ignored by administrators.

  • Breakthrough in budget negotiations could raise spending for science

    Capitol dome at night

    The agreement could avoid a federal government shutdown on Friday.

    Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

    Top lawmakers in Congress today announced a budget agreement that could produce substantial spending increases for research at key U.S. science agenciesand avoid a partial government shutdown on Friday. But the deal must still clear a few hurdles before it is finalized.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY) and Senator Chuck Schumer (NY), the Senate’s top Democrat, said the two partiesand the White Househave agreed to smash through caps on military and domestic spending imposed by a 2011 law designed to reduce the nation’s long-term debt. (The caps apply only to so-called discretionary spending, which accounts for about one-third of annual federal outlays, but not to so-called mandatory programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that account for about two-thirds of annual spending.)

    Under the deal, federal discretionary spending this year and next will total roughly $300 billion more than allowed by the caps.

  • Under fire by U.S. politicians, World Health Organization defends its claim that an herbicide causes cancer

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) leads the U.S. House of Representatives science committee.

    NASA/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News.

    The World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer agency is firmly defending its finding that a widely used herbicide is "probably carcinogenic" despite reports cited by key House lawmakers.

    The International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC's) unwavering stance was publicly revealed yesterday by Oregon Representative Suzanne Bonamici, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, at a full committee hearing on the controversial 2015 glyphosate evaluation.

    Bonamici entered into the hearing record a series of responses that IARC Director Christopher Wild has sent to the panel in recent months.

    Wild specifically criticized two stories from Reuters reporter Kate Kelland that suggested the evaluation, known as a monograph, excluded key information. Both stories were cited in letters to IARC by Republican Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona, the respective chairmen of the full committee and Environment Subcommittee.

  • Internal logs show White House interviewed science adviser candidates. But who?

    the White House with the fountain in front spouting water

    The White House in Washington, D.C.

    Norman Maddeaux/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    White House officials appear to have interviewed at least three people last spring to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a key post that remains vacant more than a year into the administration of President Donald Trump.

    That information comes from the appointments calendar of the de facto head of the office and its only political appointee, Michael Kratsios. The calendar was obtained by ScienceInsider under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

    The names of the candidates were redacted for privacy considerations. However, the document provides evidence that the Trump administration took steps to fill the position of OSTP director within a few months of taking office. If true, that would address widespread concerns by scientists that the president has no interest in finding someone to coordinate the activities of some two dozen federal agencies on matters relating to research, education, and technological innovation. At the same time, their anonymity makes it impossible to judge the quality of the applicants.

  • Critics blast move to dismember Puerto Rico’s statistical agency

    van covered in debris

    Unreliable statistics are a problem in Puerto Rico. Most recently, the government grossly undercounted Hurricane Maria’s death toll.

    ALVIN BAEZ/REUTERS PICTURES

    Puerto Rico’s legislature is set to consider a bill that critics say would hobble the collection and analysis of statistical data on the island. Scientists, business groups, and even some U.S. congressional representatives contend that a proposed overhaul of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics (PRIS) in San Juan, an independent agency, would undermine the independence and trustworthiness of data on Puerto Rico. But Governor Ricardo Rosselló told Science that privatizing parts of PRIS and encouraging the federal government to take over the rest would do precisely the opposite: He argues that it would restore credibility to statistics collected in the territory.

    Last month, following up on a promise he made during the 2016 election campaign, Rosselló proposed a sweeping overhaul of Puerto Rico’s government agencies. Under the reorganization, PRIS would come under the control of Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, with a mandate to consolidate all data collection responsibilities on the island within that department and then outsource those functions to the private sector. Now, Puerto Rico’s government agencies each collect their own statistics, with PRIS analyzing the data and ensuring that methodologies meet international standards. Rosselló says his plan would streamline the process. The Puerto Rican House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the measure on Wednesday; the island’s Senate also plans to take it up this week.

    Although PRIS, which employs 12 data scientists, doesn’t collect much data itself, CEO Mario Marazzi-Santiago says it provides the government with vital services. For example, PRIS recently identified and corrected methodological mistakes made by other agencies that led Puerto Rico to underestimate its mortality statistics and overestimate inflation. Now, PRIS is part of the executive branch but is overseen by an independent board of directors that appoints CEOs to 10-year terms. That setup is unusual in Puerto Rico, where most government appointments are made by the political party in power. “PRIS is an exception since the law that created it guarantees its autonomy,” says Rafael Irizarry, an applied statistician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Harvard University. “Once PRIS falls under a government agency, it is no longer autonomous.”

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