ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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
    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.”

  • Disturbing losses of protective ozone near Earth’s equator may be tied to short-lived chemicals

    a conceptual image showing ozone-depleting chemicals moving around the Earth’s equator

    An unheralded group of chemicals may complicate the current view of ozone-depleting substances in the midlatitudes.

    NASA Goddard

    Thirty years after nations banded together to phase out chemicals that destroy stratospheric ozone, the gaping hole in Earth’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation shield above Antarctica is shrinking. But new findings suggest that at midlatitudes, where most people live, the ozone layer in the lower stratosphere is growing more tenuous—for reasons that scientists are struggling to fathom.

    “I don’t want people to panic or get overly worried,” says William Ball, an atmospheric physicist at the Physikalisch-Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos World Radiation Centre in Switzerland. “But there is something happening in the lower stratosphere that’s important to understand.”

    Several recent studies, including one published last month in Geophysical Research Letters, point to a robust recovery of stratospheric ozone concentrations over Antarctica—the long-awaited payoff after the Montreal Protocol in 1987 mandated a global phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-eating compounds.

  • Astronomers ready to unveil prototype radio dish for landmark observatory

    Artist’s conception of part of the Square Kilometer Array

    Artist’s conception of the portion of the Square Kilometer Array to be built in South Africa.

    SKA Organisation

    A landmark radio astronomy project is about to unveil its first prototype dish antenna.

    Tomorrow, researchers and engineers with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)—to be the largest radio telescope in the world—will inaugurate the dish at a test site in Shijiazhuang, China. And they expect to erect a sister prototype in South Africa by April. But funding, technical, and bureaucratic challenges have forced planners to downsize the first phase of the SKA—envisioned to include hundreds of dishes in South Africa and thousands in Australia—and delay completion by at least 2 years, to 2026.

    Still, SKA officials are thrilled to see the first prototypes appear. “It’s great to actually see metal being deployed,” says Phil Diamond, director-general of the SKA Organisation, based in Manchester, U.K. “This is the culmination of a 5-year design program.”

  • Trump to dump controversial environmental nominee

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    President Donald Trump plans to withdraw his highly controversial nominee to chair a key White House environmental panel, according to media reports.

    Kathleen Hartnett White, who had been picked to chair the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), came under fire from senators in both parties for what they characterized as her extremist views and disregard for science. Hundreds of scientists had also signed a letter calling on the administration to dump the nominee, who had been an environmental regulator and policy analyst in Texas.

    Hartnett White’s nomination had been in doubt since this past November, when she encountered tough questioning from both Democrats and Republicans during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. 

  • New cellphone and health studies don’t eliminate uncertainty

    Women with a pink glove talks on a cell phone.

    Researchers have long debated the health impacts of cellphone use.

    Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Two long-awaited studies of how cellphone radiation affects the health of mice and rats, released yesterday, are giving scientists plenty to think about—but the findings won’t resolve the decades-old uncertainty surrounding the issue.

    The voluminous but sometimes puzzling results also aren’t likely to prompt U.S. agencies or other bodies to immediately change how they regulate the ubiquitous devices or view their health risks.

    Questions about whether cellphones harm health have persisted for decades. The devices emit nonionizing, electromagnetic radiation of the sort that heats food in a microwave oven, but scientists have struggled to conclusively link cellphone use to cancers or other illnesses.

  • Nasty U.S. flu season continues to intensify

    a person getting a shot in the arm

    Public health experts say getting a flu shot can still help protect you from this year’s unusually big outbreak.

    Jovanmandic/iStockPhoto.com

    It’s week 10 of a flu season that may only be half over, and a wave of influenza across the entire United States has led to an alarmingly high number of sick people. Last week, 7.1% of all outpatient visits were for what’s classified as influenzalike illness (ILI), said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in a telephone press conference this morning. That was a jump of 0.5% from the preceding week, indicating that this year’s flu may not have peaked yet.

    In the last 15 years, only two U.S. flu seasons had a week with a higher percentage of outpatient visits for ILI, which is used as a proxy for flu because few cases are actually tested for the virus. And, Schuchat added, “We are by no means out of the woods.”

    CDC has linked the high number of cases to the spread of an influenza variant known as Type A, subtype H3N2, which is both particularly virulent and hard to stop with the flu vaccine. A Type A subtype known as H1N1 also is circulating widely, as is a Type B virus.

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