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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Italian scientists welcome surprise €400 million boost for basic research

    Valeria Fedeli

    Italian Minister for Education, University, and Research Valeria Fedeli

    AP Photo/Luca Bruno

    Plagued by budget cuts and attacks on science, Italian scientists have had little to cheer about recently. But on Sunday, they received a welcome surprise when Valeria Fedeli, the minister for education, university, and research, announced that Italy will put an extra €400 million into its main basic science fund, the Research Projects of National Interest (PRIN). The money, to be spent over 3 years, will more than quadruple PRIN’s annual funding.

    The biggest part of the increase, €250 million, will come out of unused reserves at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), a government-funded foundation under private law in Genoa that has recently come under criticism.

    “This is the largest investment in competitive funds for basic research of the last 20 years,” says Elena Cattaneo, a stem cell biologist at the University of Milan and a senator for life in the Italian Parliament who had lobbied for the shift to basic science. PRIN funding has been going up and down since 2002, according to a group of academics calling itself Return On Academic ReSearch (ROARS), but overall has been modest. The latest funding round, in 2015, provided only €95 million for 3 years.

  • Billionaire’s gift pushes ocean sensors deeper in search of global warming’s hidden heat

    Workers on boat deck with Deep Argo float

    Encased in plastic, the glass spheres inside Deep Argo floats resist ocean pressures 6000 meters deep.

    LEARNZ

    Every day, thousands of robotic floats bob up and down, tracking temperatures in the world's oceans, which sop up an estimated 90% of the heat from global warming. In the course of a decade, the international Argo array has provided one of the steadiest signatures of the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. But Argo has its limits. The floats go no deeper than 2000 meters, warded off by the crushing pressures at greater depths.

    Now, the array is going deeper, where hidden reservoirs of heat may lurk. On 7 September, billionaire Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen announced a $4 million partnership with the U.S. government that would be used to purchase 33 Deep Argo floats, capable of descending 6000 meters and reaching 99% of the ocean's volume. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which pays for U.S. contributions to Argo, is calling it the first "formal public-private partnership for sustained ocean observation."

    In a time of tight budgets, cautious federal agencies might shy away from unproven technology such as Deep Argo, says Bob Weller, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who is leading a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel investigating the future of ocean observation. That's where billionaires can step in. "It's exciting to see philanthropies bring support to innovative new sampling methods," he says.

  • United Kingdom wants cozy science ties with Europe after Brexit

    Joint European Torus

    The U.K. government wants to continue research with the European Union at the Joint European Torus, a fusion facility, after Brexit. 

    Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

    The U.K. government today released a long-awaited position paper on the future of scientific collaborations with the European Union after Brexit. Its overarching goal is “a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.”

    Despite the lofty aim, the paper is getting a mixed reception. While lauding the aspiration of such a science arrangement as “absolutely correct,” John Womersley, who directs the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, said in a statement that “the paper is so lacking implementation details that it will probably disappoint most of the science community rather than reassure them.”

    Topping the list of complaints is the lack of clarity over how the U.K. government will ensure the continued exchange of scientific talent across the English Channel. In contrast to the government’s stated wish in the paper to attract the “best and brightest,” Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, notes that a leaked draft strategy on immigration, if implemented, “could lead to swathes of scientists and engineers being cut off from entering the U.K.” The research community is also worried about shortfalls in funding and about new complexities in regulations.

  • Lasker prizes recognize work on cell growth, cancer prevention, and reproductive care

     (left to right):  Professor Michael N. Hall, Biozentrum University of Basel Switzerland; John T. Schiller, Ph.D., Deputy Chief, Laboratory of Cellular Oncology, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute; Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., Acting Director

    Michael N. Hall, John T. Schiller, and Douglas R. Lowy, winners of this year’s Lasker awards for basic and clinical medical research.

    (Left to right): Ingrid Singh, Photo Department, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland/Wikimedia; National Cancer Institute; National Cancer Institute

    This year’s Lasker prizes are going to a molecular biologist who figured out how cells regulate growth and two researchers who developed a vaccine for the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV). Another honoree is Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care in the United States and beyond. The award comes as the group faces efforts by Republicans in Congress and the White House to cut its federal funding because it provides abortion services.

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced today its three annual prizes, each of which comes with a $250,000 award. Regarded as the United States’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, the Laskers often precede a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have gone on to win a Nobel.

    The 2017 prize for basic medical research was awarded to molecular biologist Michael Hall, 64, of the University of Basel’s Biozentrum in Switzerland for discovering how a group of proteins called target of rapamycin (TOR) direct cell growth. In yeast, humans, and many other organisms, TOR proteins sense the availability of nutrients and other growth signals, such as hormones, and regulate cell size accordingly. “I think of TOR as the brain of the cell,” Hall said in a video produced by the Lasker Foundation. Until the early 1990s, researchers assumed that cell growth was a process that happened spontaneously in the presence of raw materials, without any control mechanism. Hall’s work challenging that idea got a sometimes chilly reception, he told Science, because his finding weren’t easy to communicate and they upended a long-standing scientific paradigm. Today, researchers recognize that TOR growth regulators are involved in a multitude of processes, including aging, brain development, and diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

  • Researchers thought peace in Colombia would mean more science funding. They were wrong

    Scientists in Cali, Colombia protest

    Scientists gather in Cali to protest a proposed 42% cut to Colombia's national science agency.

    Kelly Johana Rodriguez Durán

    Wearing lab coats and hoisting placards with slogans such as "A country without science is a country without a future," hundreds of scientists poured into plazas in cities across Colombia on 24 August. Their beef: a proposed 42% cut to the 2018 budget of Colciencias, the nation's science ministry in Bogotá, which doles out research grants and supports graduate students. Cutting science "shows a lack of vision and understanding," fumes Juan Posada, an ecologist at El Rosario University in Bogotá.

    Posada and many colleagues had hoped 2018 would usher in a new era for science in Colombia. Earlier this year, the guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia demobilized after 52 years of war with the state, under a peace deal negotiated by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The end of the war offered a chance for biologists to study areas once occupied by rebel groups. And for all scientists, it seemed to promise new investment. During the long conflict, Colombia had few resources left over for science; in 2015, for example, it spent a minuscule 0.24% of its gross domestic product on R&D, according to Colciencias. Santos seemed poised to change that, dubbing innovation a "locomotive" that would drive Colombia's economy in the postconflict era.

    The 2018 budget proposal reveals "a deep disconnect" between the government's rhetoric and reality, says Diego Torres, a nuclear physicist at the National University of Colombia's Bogotá campus. Colciencias's budget increased during Santos's early years in office, from 243 billion pesos in 2010 ($128 million) to a high of 430 billion pesos in 2013 ($230 million). But it is set for a precipitous drop next year. The government's 2018 proposal, released on 28 July, would slash Colciencias's funds from 379 billion pesos ($128 million) in 2017 to 221 billion pesos ($75 million) in 2018. "It's going from bad to really bad," Posada says.

  • Senate spending panel approves $2 billion raise for NIH in 2018

    the NIH building

    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    A Senate subcommittee today approved a $2 billion raise, to $36.1 billion, for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October. That 6% raise is nearly twice what a House of Representatives panel has approved and contrasts with a 22% cut that President Donald Trump’s administration had proposed for the agency. To the relief of research universities, the Senate draft spending bill would also block a Trump proposal to slash NIH payments to cover the overhead costs of research.

    Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), chairperson of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, noted that this is the third year in a row that the committee has voted to boost NIH’s budget by $2 billion, a figure that prevailed in final spending bills in 2016 and 2017. The corresponding House panel has approved a $1.1 billion increase for the agency in 2018.

    The draft Senate bill includes $414 million in new spending for research on Alzheimer’s disease, a 30% increase that would bring the total NIH spends on the disease to $1.8 billion, according to a bill summary. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative would receive a $140 million increase, for a total of $400 million. And the All of Us precision medicine study would get $290 million, a $60 million boost. 

  • Trump has picked a politician to lead NASA. Is that a good thing?

    Portrait of Representative James Bridenstine

    Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) in 2015.

    City Year/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    President Donald Trump’s pick to lead NASA, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK), is a political ally who has long lobbied for the job. If confirmed by the Senate, he is expected to serve as a champion for advocates who seek to open up commercial access to space.

    But his views on climate change are likely to draw opposition from some senators who will consider his nomination.

    And some critics are wary of naming a politician to lead an agency known for science and technology.

  • Breaking: Trump picks NASA chief, NOAA second-in-command

    Donald Trump at a lectern, pointing.

    Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President Donald Trump has announced his picks for two prominent science-related positions in his administration.

    He intends to nominate Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to be the administrator of NASA, the White House announced tonight.

    And he wants Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, a former oceanographer of the Navy, to be assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, the No. 2 job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

  • Young immigrant scientists anxiously await Trump’s DACA decision

    Students assemble around a sign announcing support for the D-A-C-A program.

    Students in Wisconsin demonstrate in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2016.

    Joe Brusky/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

    *Update, 5 September, 12:05 p.m.: Attorney General Jeff Sessions anounced today that the Trump administration will wind down the DACA program in March 2018, giving Congress a window in which to pass legislation that would formalize the program. The government will not accept any new applicants to the program, but will renew work and other permits held by those in the program that expire within the next 6 months. Here is our story that was posted before the decision was announced:

    Biomedical researcher Yuriana Aguilar, a postdoctoral fellow at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois, is feverishly working to compete in the cut-throat race for a tenure-track faculty position. To catch the eye of prospective employers, she’s been trying to do the best science she can.

    But Aguilar might soon have to prove she has another qualification: a legal right to work in the United States. That’s because the 27-year-old is one of an untold number of scientists and engineers who are undocumented immigrants, and have been able to get jobs and degrees thanks to a federal initiative that President Donald Trump has threatened to end.

  • Update: Life after Harvey—scientists take stock of the damage, and their luck

    satellite image of Hurricane Harvey

    Hurricane Harvey approaches the Texas coast in this color-enhanced satellite image.

    NOAA/NASA

    After record-breaking rains and catastrophic flooding, many scientists remain in suspense about how Hurricane Harvey will affect their research. Some are still unable to return to their labs and field sites to assess any damage. But others are beginning to get a look at the storm’s aftermath. 

    Here is a sampling of what ScienceInsider is hearing from researchers. And we’re eager to hear your story. Let us know how Harvey is affecting your research, for better or worse, by sending an email to dmalakof@aaas.org.

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