Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • After a coma left him blind and in a wheelchair, this undergrad invented a new way of teaching math

    Logan Prickett (right) works through math problems with tutor Jordan Price (left).

    Logan Prickett (right) works through math problems with tutor Jordan Price (left).

    Matt Kemp/Auburn University at Montgomery

    Logan Prickett had been in a coma for nearly 12 days. The 13-year-old from Ohatchee, Alabama, had gone in for a routine MRI but soon slipped into unconsciousness, a rare allergic reaction to the contrast agents in his MRI. His family thought he would never wake up. When he did, he couldn’t walk, he lost many fine motor skills, and he couldn’t raise his voice above a whisper. He was also almost completely blind. For an active teen like Prickett, the changes were devastating. But his mind was still the same.

    But when he returned to school a year later, he faced a slew of obstacles to learning advanced math. He could no longer read textbooks, and his limited range of motion prevented him from using Braille’s math equivalent. When in 2014 he enrolled in Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM) in Alabama as a psychology major, his frustrations peaked: How was he supposed to learn the precalculus and advanced statistics he would need to earn his degree and get into graduate school?

    Before Prickett’s first year began, he met Ann Gully, a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) tutoring coordinator at AUM. She wanted to do everything she could to help him, and she started by making sandpaper cutouts of numbers and symbols, hoping Prickett might be able to literally feel his way through the math problems. But after several unsuccessful attempts, she realized it was going to take more. “We were just going to have to describe this math to him, and describe it in a way that he wouldn’t get lost in the weeds.”

  • Trump’s first list of science priorities ignores climate—and departs from his own budget request

    Donald Trump at a lectern, pointing.

    Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President Donald Trump has translated his campaign promise to “make America great again” into his administration’s first blueprint for federal investment in science and technology.

    The White House today issued a four-page memo telling federal agencies that their research dollars should be focused on delivering short-term dividends in strengthening national defense and border security, the economy, and “energy dominance,” as well as improving public health. It says achieving those goals should not require additional spending, and that agencies should focus primarily on basic science, and then step aside as quickly as possible to let industry pursue any results that show commercial promise.

    The memo, written jointly by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), is an annual reminder of the administration’s research priorities sent to agencies before they submit their next budget request. Those requests are due next month for the 2019 fiscal year that starts in October 2018. (Congress has yet to act on the budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins 1 October; most observers expect lawmakers to extend current spending levels well into the new fiscal year.)

  • Maps reveal how Amazon development is closing in on isolated tribes

    satellite image of deforestation

    Deforestation (pink) in the Peruvian Amazon, captured by a Landsat satellite in 2016.


    LIMA—Development projects in the Amazon Basin—including dams, roads, and oil and gas operations—are encroaching on forests that are the last refuges of thousands of indigenous people who continue to shun contact with the outside world, according to a study that estimates the tribes’ locations.

    Antenor Vaz, formerly of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) in Brasília, the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs agency, combed a wide range of records to map confirmed or reported locations of isolated groups in seven South American countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Then he laid that map over maps of oil and gas leases, mining claims, deforestation, and hydroelectric dams planned or under construction. Although most sightings of isolated people are inside parks or territories set aside to protect them, the maps show how these areas are increasingly hemmed in by large projects. Vaz, former assistant director of FUNAI’s office for people in isolation or initial contact, presented the maps at a conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America held here last month.

    Vaz says his maps should serve as a warning. “This [rush of] development is the greatest risk factor for isolated indigenous peoples and those in recent contact,” he says. Isolated people, who live seminomadic, traditional lives in the forest, lack immunity to common diseases and are at risk when they make contact with outsiders.

  • An MIT professor’s bittersweet departure for astronaut training

    Woody Hoburg with the Jungle Hawk Owl drone

    Warren “Woody” Hoburg prepares the Jungle Hawk Owl for its first flight in May.

    Veronica Padron

    There was a time when aerospace engineer Warren “Woody” Hoburg wouldn’t have thought twice about swapping his tenure-track faculty position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge for the chance to become an astronaut. But when NASA called in early June to say he had beaten the 1500-to-one odds of being chosen for its next astronaut class, Hoburg was deeply conflicted.

    The 31-year-old, who joined the MIT faculty in 2014, had become deeply—and happily—enmeshed in his academic career. He and his students had just flown a lightweight, long-duration drone built with the help of a powerful software tool for optimizing airplane design, called GPkit, that he had created. The U.S. Air Force, which has funded the work, hopes to use the drone to maintain communications during disaster relief, but Hoburg was already thinking of many other uses. His research team had “so much momentum” that it was “hard for me to just end it,” he says.

    Ultimately, however, Hoburg couldn’t resist NASA’s offer to become the first astronaut candidate plucked from the ranks of tenure-track faculty at a major U.S. research university. Next week, he will report for work at NASA’s training facility in Houston, Texas. But before leaving MIT, he’s finishing up a task unique to academia: making sure his students and projects have a continuing home. “I think we have a bunch of ideas that are really powerful,” he says, “and I want to set up my students to continue that research.”

  • New FDA security rules will bar agency from hiring some foreign nationals

    Cardiologist nominated to be next FDA chief

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration/FLICKR

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving to adopt a new policy on security background checks that is sowing confusion and alarm among some of its scientists. The change, described in a "communications plan” shared with the agency’s senior staff in recent weeks, appears to effectively bar the agency from hiring—as employees or contractors—foreign nationals who have not lived in the United States for a total of 3 out of the last 5 years.

    FDA says that the new requirement is based on recent revisions to a government-wide security policy, but it appears to be interpreting those rules more strictly than some other agencies.

    The change would apply to hires slated to start work after 1 October, and not to existing employees. Based on past hiring, FDA estimates that the change would affect about 50 people a year—most of them postdoctoral fellows in short-term positions. 

  • Australia to ax support for long-term ecology sites

    Simpson Desert

    An Australian agency plans to pull the plug on a long-term ecological monitoring program in the stunning Simpson Desert.

    Aaron Greenville

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The Simpson Desert of central Australia is as starkly beautiful as it is ecologically entrancing. Ranks of rusty red sand dunes run unbroken for hundreds of kilometers. During rare years with sustained downpours, moist swales are carpeted with spiky spinifex grasses that take on the appearance of fields of golden wheat. Desert ecosystems dominated by spinifex or Triodia grasses cover about 70% of Australia, but the only long-term experiment for studying them is set in a section of the desert in western Queensland—and that research site is now in jeopardy.

    Launched in 1990, the study has shown that heavy rains cause flushes of vegetation and seeds that lead to booms of insects, small marsupials, and rodents. Outback pools draw immense swarms of parakeets called budgerigars. That explosion of life attracts feral foxes and cats, which have had a role in the extinction of 27 species and subspecies of mammals in Australia since European colonization in 1788. The invasive species ravage the native ones, which may spend many years hunkered down in scrubby woodland refugia until fresh downpours start the cycle again.

    If you monitored the desert’s fauna for just a few years at a time you’d miss that dynamic, says Glenda Wardle, an ecologist at the University of Sydney here. “Long-term research in the Simpson Desert has provided fundamental insights into the ecology of outback Australia” and crucial information for protecting endangered species and other natural resources, says Wardle, co-leader of the Simpson Desert Mammal Monitoring project.

  • Spat over design of new Chinese telescope goes public


    China’s astronomers hope to leap from the 4-meter Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope to a new 12-meter telescope.

    Lu Feng

    A deep division among Chinese astronomers over the design of a proposed 12-meter telescope broke into public view this week as statements from competing camps went viral on social media.

    The dispute centers on whether to adopt a technically ambitious four-mirror design proposed by optical engineers or a conventional three-mirror option favored by astronomers. The stakes are high. It will be China’s largest optical telescope and serve as the workhorse observational facility for several generations.

    In a 4 August letter to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Jiansheng Chen, an astronomer at Peking University in Beijing, notes that currently the largest Chinese-built scopes are a 2.16-meter general purpose instrument and the 4-meter Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) that is dedicated to surveys. LAMOST “is not very successful,” he adds, noting that its performance doesn’t match that of the 2.5-meter Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. “You can imagine how much risk there is in leaping from this foundation to 12 meters!” Chen writes in the letter that was posted on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform.

  • Americans are becoming more open to human genome editing, survey finds, but concerns remain


    Americans have conflicting views on how technologies that allow human genome editing, such as one that uses the Cas9 enzyme to snip DNA, should be employed.


    CRISPR, the powerful genome-editing tool, does a molecular tango to cut and modify DNA that is highly nuanced. The same subtlety applies to the public’s views on how best to use genome editing in humans, a new survey of adults in the United States shows.

    Earlier surveys of Americans (here and here) have found a reluctance to support human genome editing, with many respondents expressing ethical and other concerns about such intentional tinkering. But the new survey, conducted by social scientists from the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found that two-thirds of the 1600 respondents thought genome editing was generally “acceptable.” This held true whether the genome modification was in germline cells, which can be passed on to offspring, or in somatic cells that cannot. But that acceptance was qualified, and colored by religious beliefs and scientific knowledge. There was one thing that almost everyone agreed on, however: They want to be part of the policy discussion about what should and should not be allowed.

    The survey, described today in a Policy Forum published by Science, randomly presented people with different vignettes that described genome editing being used in germline or somatic cells to either treat disease or enhance a human with, say, a gene linked to higher IQ or eye color. Although respondents were generally open to the use of editing technologies, acceptance depended strongly on the specific purpose and its impact on future generations. For instance, there was scant support for using genome editing to enhance a germline; just 26% of people found that acceptable and 51% said it was unacceptable. But acceptance jumped to 39% if the enhancement was in somatic cells, and only 35% objected. 

  • Cash bonuses for peer-reviewed papers go global

    A map depicting cash bonuses around the globe for peer-reviewed papers

    Credits: (Graphic) G. Grullón/Science; (Data) Gathered by Retraction Watch

    China is well known for the generous bonuses it pays scientists who land a peer-reviewed publication in a prestigious research journal. But scientists in many countries are reaping similar bounties.

    After spotting a discussion on a scholarship listserv about the topic, we dug further to find official documents on such payments from institutions named in the thread. Searching the internet using key terms such as “publishing cash incentives” and “schemes cash publishing” widened our net. We relied mostly on online documents in English, so we surely missed some policies. The numbers in the graphic below represent the maximum amounts we uncovered at a particular institution in a specific country.

    Even under those constraints, we documented publishing incentives from all corners of the globe, including at a number of U.S. institutions. Awards are primarily cash; some are as small as the $10 that Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, bestows on authors when their papers are cited in the literature. Some institutions designate payments for faculty members, whereas others reward student authors.

  • U.S. court rejects Obama-era plan to eliminate some potent planet warming chemicals

    A grocery store refrigerator holding milk, orange juice and other products.

    The regulation struck down by the court targeted heat trapping chemicals used in commercial refrigerators, aerosol cans and other products.

    Lynn Friedman/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    A federal court today ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot require companies to replace potent heat-trapping chemicals with other substances, dealing a blow to part of the Obama administration's climate change legacy.

    The court found that the Obama EPA exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act with a 2015 rule that eliminated some uses for hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — which were previously accepted as alternatives to ozone-depleting substances — and approved certain replacements.

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