ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Hundreds of astronomers rally behind whistleblowers at controversial Swiss institute

    night view of ETH building

    ETH Zurich has announced an investigation into alleged mistreatment of researchers at its Institute for Astronomy.

    trabantos/shutterstock

    Nearly 700 astronomers have signed a letter of support for early-career researchers who recently reported cases of alleged bullying at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. The university announced last week that it would launch an external investigation into allegations that a leading professor of astronomy, Marcella Carollo, had exhibited “inept management conduct toward many of her graduate students.”

    The ETH investigation follows the university’s August decision to close the Institute for Astronomy, where the alleged mistreatment took place. That decision was made quietly, and few in the astronomy community noticed until 21 October, when the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag reported extensively on the allegations, including charges that authorities had ignored earlier reports of misconduct.

    After the story appeared, two dozen of Carollo’s colleagues and former lab members drafted a letter defending her and her husband, cosmologist Simon Lilly, both of whom were hired in 2002 to launch the institute. That letter acknowledged that Carollo could be “a relentless task master” but said this stemmed from a strong commitment to her students and a “desire to maximise their career chances.”

  • Trump’s EPA has blocked agency grantees from serving on science advisory panels. Here is what it means

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Scientists receiving grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., many of them leading university researchers, are being purged from the agency’s advisory boards. The move, announced today by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, bars scientists from serving on these boards if they are now receiving money through an agency grant. It marks a major change in who can serve on the committees, which help steer EPA research and regulations by providing input on scientific questions.

    Pruitt’s move comes after he signaled earlier this month that he would take this step, and acted earlier this year to end the service of numerous researchers on several EPA advisory bodies. (Read more here and here.)

    ScienceInsider breaks down today’s announcement, why it matters, and how people are reacting.

  • United States blocks Iran from fusion megaproject

    Scientists at ITER facility

    Preparing for future ties, an ITER team visits an Iranian fusion facility.

    ITER ORGANIZATION

    TEHRAN—The Iran nuclear deal was meant to usher in a new era of science cooperation between the Islamic republic and other parties to the landmark agreement, which deters the country from pursuing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. But nearly 2 years after implementation began, few projects are underway. And Science has learned that the United States has frozen Iran out of a collaboration that the deal expressly brokered: ITER, the multibillion-dollar fusion experiment in France.

    Iran has been poised for months to ink an agreement to join ITER in a limited capacity. “It was all moving well, until President [Donald] Trump took office,” says Ali Akbar Salehi, president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran here. An ITER official who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity confirms that the United States is blocking Iran through its seat on ITER’s governing council, which must approve Iran’s participation unanimously. Bringing Iran into ITER was expected to be straightforward. The long delay, European and Iranian officials say, casts a pall on other scientific collaborations expected under the nuclear deal. An ITER council meeting later this month is expected to take up the issue.

    To prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is formally known, curtails Iran’s uranium enrichment program and mandates the redesign of the Arak research reactor to greatly reduce plutonium production there. Last month, Trump declared that the JCPOA is not in the United States’s national interest; his decertification gave the U.S. Congress 60 days to reevaluate it. 

  • U.S. oversight of risky pathogen research has flaws, report finds

    A mock federal inspection of a select agent lab.

    A mock federal inspection of a select agent lab.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    The program that keeps watch over the management of dangerous pathogens at research laboratories still isn’t up to snuff, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

    The Federal Select Agent Program, run jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), regulates how government, academic, and industry labs store, use, and transfer 66 potentially harmful organisms and toxins, including anthrax and plague. It has faced new scrutiny from Congress and GAO in recent years after a string of safety incidents involving select agents at laboratories run by the federal government.

    In 2014, as many as 84 CDC employees were exposed to live samples of anthrax bacteria that were inadvertently shipped between labs, leading the agency to temporary close two labs and halt shipment of pathogens. The same year, forgotten vials of smallpox virus were discovered on the campus of the National Institutes of Health. In response to these and other mishaps, the White House announced far-reaching measures in 2015 to improve biosafety procedures, including increased training for lab workers. Congress also asked GAO to evaluate federal agency procedures for managing risky pathogens.

  • Researchers grapple with the ethics of testing brain implants

    X-ray of electrodes in the brain of a 58-year-old patient with Parkinson's disease

    Researchers grapple with ethical questions as deep brain stimulation implants like this one—approved for Parkinson's disease—are applied to other disorders.

    Zephyr/Science Source

    In 2003, neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University in Atlanta began to test a bold, experimental treatment for people with severe depression, which involved implanting metal electrodes deep in the brain in a region called area 25. The initial data were promising; eventually, they convinced a device company, St. Jude Medical in Saint Paul, to sponsor a 200-person clinical trial dubbed BROADEN.

    This month, however, Lancet Psychiatry reported the first published data on the trial’s failure. The study stopped recruiting participants in 2012, after a 6-month study in 90 people failed to show statistically significant improvements between those receiving active stimulation and a control group, in which the device was implanted but switched off.

    Although that decision was “game over” for BROADEN, the story wasn’t finished for some 44 patients who asked to keep the implants in their brains, and the clinicians responsible for their long-term care, Mayberg explained last week to colleagues at a meeting on the ethical dilemmas of brain stimulation research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. 

  • Six papers by disgraced surgeon should be retracted, report concludes

    a headshot of Paolo Machiarini, a silver-haired man with dark eyebrows and dark hair

    Paolo Macchiarini was fired by the Karolinska Institute last year.

    Lars Granstrand, SVT

    Sweden’s national scientific ethics board, the Expert Group on Misconduct in Research, has concluded that six papers authored by disgraced surgeon Paolo Macchiarini should be retracted. The papers describe the purported clinical success of artificial tracheae “seeded” with a patient’s own stem cells. All three patients described in the papers died of complications related to the implant.

    The new report reaffirms the conclusions of a 2015 review of the papers, commissioned by Macchiarini’s employer at the time, the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm. That investigation concluded that Macchiarini and his co-authors were guilty of scientific misconduct, but KI dismissed the report after Macchiarini supplied additional information. It then extended the surgeon’s contract.

    A few months later, Macchiarini’s reputation unraveled after a magazine article and a television documentary described falsehoods he had spun in his personal and professional life. Macchiarini was fired, and half a dozen of Macchiarini’s defenders at the university were caught in the fallout. Editorial expressions of concern have been attached to several of the papers, but none have yet been retracted. 

  • Update: Satellites measuring Earth’s melting ice sheets go dark

    Artist’s conception of the GRACE spacecraft orbiting Earth.

    Artist’s conception of the GRACE spacecraft orbiting Earth.

    NASA/JPL

    Update, 27 October, 11:25 a.m.: NASA announced today that it has ended GRACE's science operations earlier than expected, after determining that its remaining battery capacity would not be sufficient for one last run that was previously planned to last from October into early November. Its early demise leaves what could be close to a half-year gap in its records before its successor mission, GRACE Follow-On, launches early next year.

    Here is our earlier story from 15 September:

    A sentinel of Earth’s climate is going dark. After running for a decade beyond its planned life, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) is nearly out of fuel and will soon make its final science run, NASA announced late yesterday. The tandem of satellites—called GRACE-1 and GRACE-2—measure minute shifts in Earth’s gravity to chart flows of mass across the planet, such as the unexpectedly rapid melt of polar ice sheets and the drawdown of underground water reservoirs called aquifers.

    Scientists had hoped GRACE would operate until its successor, the $550 million GRACE Follow-on (GRACE-FO) mission, reached orbit. But troubles securing a ride to space have delayed GRACE-FO’s launch until early 2018. Meanwhile, the battery in GRACE-2 used to store solar power has been deteriorating rapidly, forcing the satellite to burn through fuel. Engineers turned off an accelerometer last year to keep it running, but the satellite’s data have continued to degrade.

  • House science committee investigating sexual harassment allegations against Boston University geologist

    close shot of Represantatives Johnson and Smith. Johnson is a black woman with short hair, Smith is a white man with glasses and gray hair.

    Representatives Lamar Smith (R–TX, right) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) in 2013

    House Committee on Space, Science and Technology

    The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives today launched a bipartisan investigation into sexual harassment allegations against David Marchant, a prominent Antarctic geologist at Boston University (BU). 

  • New test of electron’s roundness could help explain universe’s matter/antimatter imbalance

    Artist's rendering of electron dipole moment

    Chris Burns/Science

    When it comes to measuring how round the electron is, physicists hate uncertainty. Much depends on the most precise measurement possible, including a potential answer to a major scientific puzzle: why the universe contains any matter at all.

    In a series of ever-more-sensitive experiments over the past 30 years, researchers have established that if the shape of the electron has any distortion at all, the bulge must be smaller than 1 thousand trillion trillionths of a millimeter (10-27 mm). Now, a group at the JILA research institute in Boulder, Colorado, has demonstrated what it describes as a "radically different" approach that probes electrons inside larger charged particles. Ed Hinds of Imperial College London calls the approach "brilliant" for the field, because it promises to help reduce the uncertainty still further—and perhaps reveal an actual distortion.

    The electron's egg shape, if real, would be quantified by what is known as the electric dipole moment (EDM). Whereas scientists usually think of the electron as an exceedingly, if not infinitely, small and uniform sphere of negative charge, a nonzero EDM would mean that charge is distributed unevenly—forming one region fractionally more negative than the particle's average charge and one slightly less negative.

  • Swiss university dissolves astronomy institute after misconduct allegations

    ETH Zurich at night

    The ETH Zurich in Switzerland dissolved its institute for astronomy in August.

    ETH-Bibliothek/Wikimedia Commons

    In August, ETH Zurich in Switzerland quietly dissolved its institute for astronomy. Today it launched an official investigation into allegations that led to its closure: that a leading professor there mistreated graduate students for more than a decade, while the administration ignored complaints against her. The professor’s spouse had been head of the institute.

    The allegations came to light Sunday in a story in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, which did not name the professors involved. The former head of the institute was cosmologist Simon Lilly, and his wife is astrophysicist Marcella Carollo. Both are now on sabbatical.

    The university administration today issued a statement describing how several students brought complaints to the university ombudsperson early this year, charging that “a female professor” had “demonstrated inept management conduct toward many of her graduate students.” The university’s executive board took on the case in February. It decided in March that the affected students would be reassigned to a different supervisor and that the professor would be given “close support” if asked to supervise students in the future.   

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