Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Budget Cuts Lead to Lab Closures in Australia

    Mopra Telescope

    Mopra Telescope

    Australia Telescope National Facility

    SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The bad news just keeps coming for Australia’s scientific community. According to an internal planning document obtained by ScienceInsider, the cash-strapped national research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), will shutter eight research facilities in the wake of an austerity budget announced by the federal government for 2014 to 2015.

    The labs slated to close include a horticultural facility in Merbein specializing in wine, table grapes, and citrus fruit; the Aspendale Laboratories near Melbourne, a stronghold of marine and atmospheric research; and the Griffith Laboratory in New South Wales, which specializes in water and irrigation. Industry was not consulted on the closures, which could “rob us of a great resource” and undermine Australian competitiveness, says Anne Mansell of Sunraysia Citrus Growers in Mildura. The planning document, called the CSIRO Directions Statement 2014, also spells out cuts to agency-funded research on geothermal energy and liquid fuel and marine biology.

  • Space Buffs Make Contact With Discarded NASA Probe

    Let's talk. Volunteers succeed in contacting long-lost spacecraft.

    Let's talk. Volunteers succeed in contacting long-lost spacecraft.

    NASA/ISEE-3 Reboot Project

    A group of citizen scientists has commandeered a NASA spacecraft that was launched in 1978 and had gone unused since 1997.

    Today the group made first contact with the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) when the spacecraft acknowledged receiving a signal from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, says Keith Cowing, co-director of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, a group of about 20 volunteer space buffs. “We knew we could do this—it’s a vindication,” he says. “It’s sort of like reaching back in time to grab something that otherwise would have been lost.”

  • Nine Scientists Share Three Kavli Prizes

    Nine Scientists Share Three Kavli Prizes

    The claim that inflationary theory has been verified may have been called into question in recent weeks, but today the theory itself won an honor.

    The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded the Kavli Prize in astrophysics to three physicists who pioneered the theory: Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrei Linde of Stanford University, and Alexei Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics. Beginning in the late 1970s, the three researchers helped develop the idea that the universe underwent a phase of tremendous expansion in the first sliver of a second after the big bang.

  • Amid Partisan Split, U.S. House Panel Approves Controversial NSF Bill

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    Committee on Science, Space, and Technology/Majority

    The chair of the House of Representatives science committee threw the legislative equivalent of a no-hitter last night, winning his panel’s approval of a bill that sets policy for the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a straight party-line vote. And although the committee’s Democratic minority failed to make any changes to a bill that the scientific community feels is seriously flawed, they made a strategic decision that they hope will lead to victory on a related NSF spending bill now pending on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Playing flawless defense, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) and the committee’s Republican majority rejected all 13 Democratic amendments to the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) Act, which covers programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In straight party-line votes, the committee voted 20 to 16 to block attempts to remove language that would alter NSF’s grantsmaking processes and reshuffle funding within the $7 billion agency.

  • Researcher Behind Stem Cell Controversy Agrees to Retraction

    A STAP backward? STAP stem cells may not have contributed to multiple cell types in this mouse fetus, as claimed.

    A STAP backward? STAP stem cells may not have contributed to multiple cell types in this mouse fetus, as claimed.

    Haruko Obokata/Nature

    After steadfastly defending her work against accusations of falsified data and an official misconduct ruling, the lead author on two controversial stem cell papers published this year in Nature has reportedly agreed to retract one of them. Earlier today, Japanese media began reporting that stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, is willing to retract a paper concluding that so-called STAP stem cells can form a wide variety of tissues, but does not intend to retract the paper describing how to make those stem cells.

    Along with colleagues in the United States and Japan, Obokata described online on 29 January in Nature a new method for reprogramming mature cells into stem cells. The technique, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), appeared amazingly simple—exposing mature cells to an acid bath or physical pressure could seemingly switch them into stem cells. But it drew almost immediate accusations of image manipulation and plagiarism. In April, an investigating committee at RIKEN ruled that the issues with the papers constituted research misconduct, but did not call for their retraction. Obokata’s lawyer now tells the Japanese press that she will retract a secondary paper describing what STAP cells can develop into, but not the methods article, in which the committee had identified image manipulation and data apparently reused from Obokata’s graduate thesis.

  • Asian Institutions Release Genomes of 3000 Rice Lines

    A farmer harvests rice in Nepal.

    A farmer harvests rice in Nepal.


    As a step toward boosting rice production to meet a projected 25% increase in demand by 2030, researchers from three Asian institutions today announced the release of the genetic sequences of 3000 rice lines.

    "The 3000 genomes will help us explore new genes needed to create new adaptive varieties; this is becoming increasingly important to sustain rice productivity and to ensure food security under the impact of climate change," says Hei Leung, a plant geneticist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, the Philippines, and one of the scientists involved in the project.

    The backers hope that this genetic information will lead to identifying genes for draught, disease, and pest resistance as well as tolerance for poor soils. The first rice genomes were sequenced in the mid-2000s, but this advancement in understanding rice genetics had limited impact in improving rice strains.

  • Chinese Science to Get With the Global Program

    BEIJING—Chinese science leaders here today threw their weight behind plans to embrace open access and Western norms of scientific conduct, including a plea from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for more rigorous evaluation and peer review.

    At the start of the Global Research Council meeting here on Monday, CAS released a statement exhorting its scientists to raise their game. “Chinese science today still faces formidable challenges and problems … result[ing] in a weak scientific ethos.” The academy called for “urgent measures to establish excellence-oriented evaluation systems and funding mechanisms for Chinese science.”

  • E.U. Commission Rejects Plea to Block Stem Cell Research Funding

    E.U. Commission Rejects Plea to Block Stem Cell Research Funding

    European Commission

    BRUSSELS—The European Commission today turned down a request by pro-life organizations to block E.U. funding for research using embryonic stem cells—causing many scientists to breathe a sigh of relief. The commission says the existing rules under the European Union's science program, Horizon 2020, are appropriate and will not change.

    Last month, a citizens' initiative called One of Us asked the commission to stop funding research in which embryos are destroyed. Because the initiative reached 1 million verified signatures from seven or more member states, the commission had to formally consider the proposal.

  • Supreme Court Rejects Florida's Strict IQ Rule for Death Penalty

    The execution chamber at the Florida Department of Corrections.

    The execution chamber at the Florida Department of Corrections.

    Florida Department of Corrections

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the state of Florida cannot execute death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall based solely on his IQ test score.

    In line with amicus briefs written by a bevy of professional mental health organizations, the court ruled that Hall and his lawyers must be allowed to present additional evidence of his intellectual disability before state officials can decide if he can be put to death. The decision reins in a state’s power to determine who is mentally competent enough to qualify for the death penalty.

    In 2002, the high court barred the execution of people who are intellectually disabled as cruel and unusual punishment, but left it up to states to define who is impaired. Florida adopted one of the strictest definitions of intellectual disability—an IQ score of 70 or below—and barred anyone with a higher score from presenting additional evidence of their impaired function.

  • Physicians Take the Helm at India's Science and Health Ministries

    All smiles on the first day. Science minister Jitendra Singh (center) has a word with top deputies Shailesh Nayak, secretary for earth sciences, and K. VijayRaghavan, secretary for biotechnology.

    All smiles on the first day. Science minister Jitendra Singh (center) has a word with top deputies Shailesh Nayak, secretary for earth sciences, and K. VijayRaghavan, secretary for biotechnology.

    Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, today appointed a pair of physicians to the top science jobs in his Cabinet.

    Science minister Jitendra Singh, 57, a diabetes specialist from the conflict-riven state of Jammu and Kashmir, has studied, among other things, stress as a cause of diabetes in Kashmiri Hindus forced to migrate from the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley in the 1990s. Singh has several hot potatoes already on his plate, including crafting regulations governing genetically modified foods and how to make clinical trials more transparent. Singh told ScienceInsider that he feels “tense” about meeting the expectations of India’s scientific community. “A new odyssey has begun,” he says.

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