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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

    OneDay0619/shutterstock.com

    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.

  • Go for launch: A former astronaut becomes Spain’s science minister

    Astronaut Pedro Duque

    Former astronaut and new science minister Pedro Duque says he is “looking forward to increasing awareness in science and technology among Spanish citizens.”

    E. Fletcher/ESA

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—Spain has a ministry of science again—and none other than the first Spanish astronaut is leading it. Yesterday, the new transition government led by socialist Pedro Sánchez announced that Pedro Duque, who visited space twice, will be at the helm of the newly created Ministry for Science, Innovation, and Universities. The announcement was cheered by the Spanish scientific community, which has long suffered from declining budgets and bureaucratic hurdles.

    “It is a great privilege to be able to transfer my experience as an astronaut, project manager and space sector CEO to my new role in the government,” Duque says in a statement on the website of his previous employer, the European Space Agency (ESA). “I am looking forward to increasing awareness in science and technology among Spanish citizens.”

    In 2011, the center-right government of Mariano Rajoy—which lost a vote of confidence last week—relegated science to a state secretariat under the economy minister. The creation of a new ministry is “very good news for Spanish science,” says Nazario Martín, president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies here. The appointment of Duque rather than a career politician at the top job is the icing on the cake. His background “puts him in a good position to do interesting things,” Martín says.

  • NASA chief signals reprieve for endangered climate missions

    NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

    Jim Bridenstine

    Aubrey Gemignani/NASA

    For the past 2 years, climate science at NASA has been on edge, as several missions in development—or already flying in space—have been targeted for elimination by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. But a change may be coming next year, according to Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican representative from Oklahoma who survived a long and partisan nomination fight to win confirmation, 6 weeks ago, to the agency’s top job.

    The Trump administration’s first two budget requests to Congress have targeted a range of NASA earth science projects for elimination. They include:

    • the Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10 million research program that the administration ended prior to Bridenstine’s arrival;
    • two Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory; and
    • three climate-focused missions, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder, and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite.

    So far, Congress has taken a dim view of the proposals. A House of Representatives spending panel recently moved to revive the CMS, and lawmakers have rejected the other proposed cuts after broad public outcry.

  • Chile, keen to become a knowledge society, creates a ministry of science

    scientist looking at ice

    A Chilean scientist in action at Glaciar Unión, a polar station operated by the Armed Forces of Chile and the Antarctic Chilean Institute.

    FELIPE TRUEBA/EFE/Newscom

    Scientists in Chile have welcomed last week’s decision by Congress to create a science ministry. Many researchers hope that a dedicated ministry will give science more prominence and better-coordinated policies—provided the ministry's budget matches the government's ambitions to “bring Chile towards an information and knowledge society,” as Gonzalo Blumel, the country’s minister secretary-general of the presidency, put it in a statement issued after the 31 May vote.

    According to Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are the only Latin American countries with science ministries. Fernando Valiente Echeverría, an HIV researcher at the University of Chile in Santiago, says he hopes other countries in the region will be inspired to follow suit.

    “Chile is one of the leaders in terms of research in the region,” the Chilean bill says; yet the country only spent 0.38% of its gross domestic product on R&D in 2014—on par with Uruguay, but below neighboring Argentina (0.59%) and Brazil (1.17%). Chile’s economy relies on extracting and exporting natural resources such as copper, but that isn’t sustainable in the long term, the document states. Countries that made a shift toward growth based on “knowledge and creativity” have ramped up investments in education, science, and technology, it continues.

  • Singapore could become the second country to legalize mitochondrial replacement therapy

    Colored Scanning Electron Micrograph of mitochondria and rough endoplasmic reticulum in a cell

    DNA mutations in mitochondria (seen here in pink), can cause devastating diseases that are passed on from mother to child.

    P. M. Motta, G. Macchiarelli, S.A. Nottola/Science Source

    SINGAPORE—This small city state could become the second country—after the United Kingdom—to explicitly legalize mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), a controversial assisted reproduction technique that allows women who are carriers of some rare genetic disorders to give birth to healthy babies.

    Members of the Singaporean public and religious groups have until 15 June to provide their feedback about MRT to the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC). Based on its findings, a 13-member BAC review committee will make formal recommendations to the government later this year about whether to legalize the technology.

    “Our position is to keep a close watch on what happens in the U.K., to track the U.K. experience, and to learn from what they have done,” says Oi Lian Kon, who studies human genetics at the National Cancer Centre Singapore and is leading the BAC review group. 

  • Scientists fare poorly in Super Tuesday primary vote

    I Voted sticker
    Bored-now/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Science-minded candidates seeking seats in the next U.S. Congress took a drubbing from their Democratic opponents in yesterday’s raft of primary elections across the country.

    Voters went to the polls Tuesday in eight states to choose nominees for the November elections. And none of the candidates who touted their scientific credentials—a list that includes volcanologist Jess Phoenix, technologist Brian Forde, pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran, and geophysicist Grant Kier—won their contested contests. In one California district, neuroscientist Hans Keirstead is trailing in a race that is still too close to call.

    California attracted most of the attention, thanks to its showcase races for governor and U.S. senator. But its so-called jungle primary, which rewards the top two candidates regardless of party affiliation, proved too high a hurdle for three scientists running for congressional seats. 

  • Biomedical group weighs in on U.S. court fight over wildlife imports

    A female inspector examines table with stuffed owl, rhino horn and other items that violate U.S. import laws.

    A U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector examines items that violated wildlife import laws.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

    Originally published by E&E News

    Biomedical researchers have entered the thicket that entangles the importation of foreign fish and wildlife.

    Citing the potential exposure of precious information, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington, D.C., is challenging a judge's order that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) release more public records about the wildlife being imported into the United States.

  • Updated: Past failures shadow current hopes of testing drugs during an Ebola outbreak

    man standing in a doorway to an Ebola security zone of a hospital in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    A hospital in Mbandaka, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, set up an Ebola security zone after cases surfaced in that heavily populated city.

    JUNIOR KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

    *Update, 4 June 2018, 3 p.m.: While public health authorities and international organizations are trying to stop the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), scientists have a rare chance to test new therapies on people infected with the virus, both to potentially help them and to gather data for the future. The DRC is considering testing several candidate Ebola drugs and antibodies that are in development. But the Ebola epidemic that exploded across West Africa several years ago showed that such trials are difficult to set up and conduct.

    As the West African epidemic was winding down, Science took stock of each clinical study that researchers had conducted—or attempted to carry out—in the three most affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. It was a thin harvest—except for a study of a vaccine produced by Merck, none of the trials yielded conclusive results. Some were able to enroll only a handful of patients, even though there were more than 28,000 cases; others suffered from not having a control group.

    ScienceInsider is reposting that 31 December 2015 report below, as a background to the trials that are now under discussion during the DRC outbreak.

  • With prestigious prize, an overshadowed CRISPR researcher wins the spotlight

    Photo of Virginijus Šikšnys

    Virginijus Šikšnys

    Vilnius University

    Late in the afternoon on 30 May, biochemist Virginijus Šikšnys received a phone call that is the stuff of a scientist’s dreams: The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters informed him that he had won a prestigious award, the Kavli Prize, for his “seminal advances” in developing the revolutionary genome editor CRISPR-Cas9. For Šikšnys, who works at Vilnius University’s Institute of Biotechnology, the recognition was doubly sweet because his part in the discovery of CRISPR often has been overlooked. Šikšnys will share the $1 million award with two researchers who have received far more attention, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. Conspicuously absent from the award was another researcher who has enjoyed the CRISPR spotlight, chemist Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Šikšnys first showed that the CRISPR-Cas9 system, a bacterial immune mechanism, could be transferred from one bacterium to another. He also independently made the same advance as Doudna and Charpentier: developing a way to steer the CRISPR-Cas9 complex to specific targets on a genome, which he called “directed DNA surgery.” Zhang’s group made its mark by building on these findings and publishing evidence that CRISRP-Cas9 could work in mammalian systems, including humans—which has been the centerpiece of a prolonged patent battle between the Broad group and what’s known as the UC team.

    Doudna and Charpentier reported their findings in a landmark Science paper published online on 28 June 2012. But it took Šikšnys 5 months to publish his study; it was rejected by Cell and Cell Reports, and then moved slowly through editing at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which published it online on 25 September 2012.

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