Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Massive cyberhack by Iran allegedly stole research from 320 universities, governments, and companies

    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

    U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at a press conference this morning that announced the indictment of nine Iranians who allegedly stole data from researchers around the world.

    Yuri Gripas/REUTERS

    Nine Iranians working on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hacked the computers of 7998 professors at 320 universities around the world over the past 5 years, an indictment filed by a federal grand jury alleges. The hackers stole 31.5 terabytes of documents and data, including scientific research, journals, and dissertations, the indictment alleges. Their targets also included the United Nations, 30 U.S. companies, and five U.S. government agencies.

    The “massive and brazen cyber assault” is “one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, where the indictment was filed, said at a press conference this morning. The hacks came to light through investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and reports from victims. “The hackers targeted innovations and intellectual property from our country’s greatest minds,” Berman said, adding that they went after data and research from many fields.

    According to the indictment, 3768 of the hacked professors were at 144 U.S. universities, and the attackers stole data that cost these institutions about $3.4 billion to “procure and access.” The accused allegedly set up an institute in Iran called Mabna that coordinated and paid for the hacks. The defendants then sold the stolen data through two websites, Gigapaper and Megapaper. The institute, the indictment says, aimed to “assist Iranian universities, as well as scientific and research organizations, to obtain access to non-Iranian scientific resources.”

  • Advocates celebrate funding bump for USDA-funded research

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    George Thomas/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Farm science advocates had some success this year in boosting federal funding for the discipline.

    The 2018 spending bill approved by Congress this week gives a slight but meaningful boost to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) research accounts—including its competitive grants program for universities and other institutions.

    The bill gives a $25 million, 6.7% increase, to $400 million, to USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Advocates have been pushing Congress to increase AFRI’s budget for years, and they welcomed this year’s number—while noting it still falls short of a $700 million goal for AFRI once set by Congress. The increase is “a good move” given “the context of the very scarce resources,” says Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Overall, AFRI funding has climbed by nearly 25% in the past 3 years, he notes.

  • Final 2018 budget deal should help the National Science Foundation in 2019, too

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    Oregon State University

    The 4% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill hammered out by congressional leaders this week may be modest next to what its peer science agencies received. But it does offer NSF officials more breathing room to fund some major initiatives starting next year.

    Under the 2019 budget request that President Donald Trump unveiled last month, NSF would have been forced to find money for those new initiatives within a budget that had been flat for the previous 2 years. But the new agreement, which could become law by tonight, gives NSF a $295 million raise over 2017 with only 6 months remaining in the current 2018 fiscal year.

    Within the agency total of $7.767 billion, NSF’s research directorate would get a $301 million increase, to $6.33 billion. That new money comes with only one string attached: a $10 million bump, to $171 million, for NSF’s long-running program to help scientists in 28 have-not states and U.S. territories do better in competing for NSF funding. The agency can decide how to allocate the rest of the money.

  • Science at Department of Energy gets a hefty raise in final 2018 budget

    Advanced Photon Source in Argonne, Illinois

    The Advanced Photon Source in Argonne, Illinois, will get an upgrade under spending bill recently passed by Congress.

    Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    For researchers supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., a 6-month wait for a federal budget may have been worth it. DOE’s basic research wing, the Office of Science, gets a 16% boost, to $6.26 billion, in a 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this week. In contrast, last May President Donald Trump’s administration had proposed a 17% cut in its budget for the fiscal year that ends on 30 September.

    "It's amazingly good news," says Thom Mason, vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle in Columbus and a former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "This is beyond anything I expected." Battelle helps run six of the 10 DOE national labs run by the Office of Science, including Oak Ridge.

    The Office of Science comprises six distinct research programs, and all would see their funding grow by double-digit percentages. The biggest winners would be advanced scientific computing research, which supports DOE's supercomputing efforts, and fusion energy sciences, which supports effort to harness nuclear fusion as a source of energy. The computing budget would soar 25%, to $810 million, and fusion would receive a 24% increase, to $410 million. DOE's nuclear physics program would climb by 10%, to $684 million. The biological and environmental research program, which funds work on, among other things, biofuels and climate simulation, would receive a 10% boost to $673 million. High energy physics would rise by 10%, to $908 million, and basic energy sciences, by far the biggest program, would grow by 12%, to $2.090 billion. BES supports basic research in chemistry, materials science, condensed matter physics, and related fields, as well as funding DOE's x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources.

  • Planetary science wins big in NASA’s new spending plan

    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

    President Donald Trumps administration has proposed killing NASAs Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. But Congress seems intent on funding it.


    NASA’s science programs get a big boost in the 2018 spending bill approved by Congress this week, allowing researchers to continue developing an orbiter and lander to study Jupiter’s moon Europa and robot probes to return soil samples from Mars.

    Scientists were giddy over the 7.9% boost, to $6.2 billion, given to NASA’s science account. Within that total, the agency’s planetary science coffers get an even bigger raise, a 20.7% increase to $2.2 billion, the highest level ever after adjusting for inflation and programmatic changes over the years.

    The agency’s earth science programs will receive flat funding at $1.9 billion, while heliophysics gets an increase of 1.5%, to $688 million. Astrophysics is a big winner, with a surge of 13.3%, to $850 million. Lawmakers also saved NASA’s education programs, which the White House sought to begin closing down. 

  • Trump, Congress approve largest U.S. research spending increase in a decade

    Capitol dome at night
    Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

    It took an extra 6 months, but Congress has finally completed its work on a spending plan for the 2018 fiscal year, which began last October. And the delay was good news for many federal science agencies.

    President Donald Trump today signed into law a $1.3 trillion spending package that largely rejects deep cuts to research agencies proposed by the White House and, in many cases, provides substantial increases.

    When it comes to federal research spending, there are “some silly good numbers in here,” tweeted Matt Hourihan, who analyzes U.S. science spending patterns for AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) in Washington, D.C., when the deal was released this past Wednesday.

  • Final 2018 budget bill eases biomedical researchers’ policy worries

    the NIH building
    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    The 2018 omnibus spending bill released yesterday is cheering biomedical researchers. Not only because of the 8.8% raise it gives the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—its largest in 15 years—but also because it blocks or drops several proposed policy changes that had concerned the community.

    The $3 billion boost, to $37 billion, is the biggest percent increase NIH has received since a 5-year effort to double the agency’s budget ended in 2003. (That doesn’t include 2 years of stimulus funding during the recession.) Research advocates credit the generous increase to strong bipartisan support for NIH as well as the recent budget agreement raising mandatory caps on spending. “This is extraordinary. We are tremendously grateful,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The bill includes $414 million in new funding for Alzheimer’s disease research, a 30% increase. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative receive $140 million more, for a total of $400 million. The All of Us precision medicine study gets a $60 million increase, to $290 million. The bill also provides $40 million in new funds for research on a universal flu vaccine, for $100 million in total. At least $500 million in new funds will be targeted to research on opioid addiction. An accompanying report calls for setting up a multi-institute Down syndrome initiative that has been championed by an advocacy group, but does not specify a funding amount.

  • In a San Francisco courtroom, climate science gets its day on the docket

     offshore drilling platforms

    Cities in the United States are taking oil companies to court, arguing that they should pay for climate-related problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

    P. A. Lawrence, LLC/Alamy Stock Photo

    U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup strode into his San Francisco, California, courtroom Wednesday morning wearing a necktie chosen for the occasion. It was his “science tie,” he told the packed chamber: blue decorated with an image of a solar system.

    Alsup’s sartorial statement was an idiosyncratic footnote to an unusual day in the annals of climate change policy. In an unprecedented move in a federal lawsuit, Alsup presided over a crash course in climate science with a single student: himself.

    For 5 hours, opposing sides in a closely watched climate change lawsuit pitting the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against some of the world’s biggest oil companies offered Alsup their accounts of the history and current state of climate science. The cities allege that, for decades, the companies sold fossil fuels they knew were contributing to climate change, while engaging in a multimillion-dollar campaign to sow doubt about global warming. And they want the companies to pay for measures such as sea walls to cope with rising sea levels they blame on carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. 

  • Trump’s pick to lead CDC both celebrated and censured

    Portrait of Dr. Robert Redfield

    Robert Redfield

    Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine

    Robert Redfield, an HIV/AIDS researcher and clinician who has weathered his share of controversies over a long career, will soon become the next director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

    “Dr. Redfield’s scientific and clinical background is peerless,” Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., CDC’s parent agency, said in a press release issued today announcing the appointment.

    Redfield co-founded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology (IHV) in Baltimore, Maryland, which opened its doors in 1996. His most recent work has focused on helping improve HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts in both Baltimore and several sub-Saharan African countries (through funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). He previously spent 20 years in the U.S. Army’s Medical Corps, heading its department of retroviral research.

  • NIH to investigate officials’ role in industry funding of study on moderate drinking


    NIH will look at whether its staff improperly urged the beverage industry to fund a study of whether moderate drinking has health benefits.

    Malmaison Hotels/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, is launching an investigation into whether NIH officials improperly urged the alcohol industry to help fund a 10-year, $100 million study on the health benefits of moderate drinking. The agency will also review the scientific merits of the study, which was pitched by a Harvard University researcher who is now its leader.

    The agency is responding to an article published last week in The New York Times that described how companies came to fund the study, launched in January by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). It will enroll 7800 participants over age 50 in several countries who will either abstain from drinking or consume one alcoholic beverage of their choice daily for 6 years.

    Although epidemiological studies have suggested that moderate drinking can lower a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke, that possibility has not been studied in a randomized trial with a control group. Funding for the study from Anheuser Busch InBev, Pernod Ricard, and three other beverage companies is being channeled through the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH), a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization in Bethesda, the Times reports.

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