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  • European Commission Unveils 'Fairer' University Ranking System

    Fresh perspective. When ranked by "international joint publications," European universities tend to do better than in existing global rankings.

    Fresh perspective. When ranked by "international joint publications," European universities tend to do better than in existing global rankings.

    U-Multirank

    BRUSSELS—The European Commission has launched an online tool to rate universities worldwide. The new system, called U-Multirank, provides a more sophisticated alternative to cruder rankings by letting users select rating criteria out of 30 indicators in five areas: research, teaching, regional engagement, knowledge transfer, and international orientation. European universities, which tend to fare poorly in existing rankings, score better on some of these criteria.

    Funded by the European Union, U-Multirank is presented as a departure from oft-criticized global rankings. Critics say that these charts—such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings—rely on inadequate indicators and meaningless aggregated scores.

    “We are not producing league tables. We don't think it is worthwhile. … We don't even think it can be done methodologically and statistically in the right way,” said Frans van Vught, one of U-Multirank's project leaders, at a launch event here yesterday.

    Bernard Rentier, rector of the University of Liège in Belgium and a fierce critic of existing rankings, says he is pleased with the first results of U-Multirank and that the system's indicators are “relevant and enlightening” to compare his university's performance with others. But Ellen Hazelkorn, a specialist of rankings and director of research and enterprise at the Dublin Institute of Technology, points out that U-Multirank uses some of the same data as other rankings do, including citation rates or patent figures. Some of those numbers, such as the student-staff ratio, are controversial and “not necessarily meaningful” to assess quality, Hazelkorn says.

  • U.S. BRAIN Initiative Gets Ethical Advice

    The Bioethics Commission

    The Bioethics Commission. Back row: Raju Kucherlapati, Col. Nelson Michael, Nita A. Farahany, Daniel Sulmasy, John D. Arras, Anita L. Allen, Christine Grady. Front row: Stephen L. Hauser, Amy Gutmann, James W. Wagner, Barbara F. Atkinson.

    The Bioethics Commission

    The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues today released its first set of recommendations for integrating ethics into neuroscience research in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Last July, President Barack Obama charged the commission with identifying key ethical questions that may arise through the BRAIN Initiative and wider neuroscience research.

    The report is “a dream come true,” says Judy Illes, a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was a guest presenter to the commission. Brain research raises unique ethical issues because it “strikes at the very core of who we are,” said political scientist and philosopher Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, who chairs the commission, in a call with reporters yesterday.

    Specific areas of concern identified in the report include questions of brain privacy raised by advances in neuroimaging research; whether research participants and patients with dementia can give informed consent to participate in experimental trials; and research into cognitive enhancement, which raises “issues of distributive justice and fairness,” Gutmann says.

  • No Patent for Dolly the Cloned Sheep, Court Rules, Adding to Industry Jitters

    Dolly the sheep and other cloned animals cannot be patented, a U.S. federal circuit appeals court has ruled.

    Product of nature? Dolly the sheep and other cloned animals cannot be patented, a U.S. federal circuit appeals court has ruled.

    Wikimedia

    Dolly the sheep enjoyed a brief and highly publicized life as the first mammal cloned from an adult cell before succumbing to lung disease in 2003 at age 6. But an attempt to patent Dolly, and lay commercial claim to animals produced by cloning, survived much longer. But that nearly 10-year-long saga also appears to have ended last week when a U.S. federal appeals court ruled against giving a patent to Dolly’s creators. Although the ruling did not surprise patent experts, it is adding to the jitters that some biotech firms and patent attorneys are feeling over the broader fate of U.S. biomedical patents in the wake of recent court decisions.

    In 2009, the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh, where Dolly’s creators Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmut made their discovery, received a U.S. patent on the method used to make her: somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). But they had also submitted a second claim on the product: Dolly herself, and any other cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats produced using SCNT. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) turned down that application, however, citing a federal law that restricts the subject matter of a patent to exclude “laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas.”

    Roslin later appealed PTO’s rejection, but it was upheld by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board in February 2013. On 8 May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, which specializes in patent cases, agreed with that decision. Dolly and other cloned animals cannot be patented, a three-judge panel ruled, because they are identical to animals found in nature—namely, the animals whose DNA is used to make them. “Dolly’s genetic identity to her donor parent renders her unpatentable,” Judge Timothy Dyk wrote in the decision.

  • U.K. Research Groups Pledge Openness About Animal Research

    Open up. U.K. research organizations have pledged to become more transparent about animal tests.

    Open up. U.K. research organizations have pledged to become more transparent about animal tests.

    Stephen Ausmus/ARS

    In an effort to put behind them decades of opposition from animal rights campaigners, dozens of organizations involved in animal research released a concordat on openness today aimed at helping the public better understand the conditions of animals in laboratories and their importance for medical and biological science. The concordat commits organizations to a number of measures to increase the visibility of their operations and requires them to report annually on their progress. It encourages but does not require animal research labs to allow visits by journalists, politicians, schools, and patient and community groups.

    Laboratory animals remain a vital tool in improving our understanding of how biological systems work, the U.K. government’s chief science adviser, Mark Walport, emphasized in the document's introduction. But, he added, “[t]he public deserves to know why and how animals are used on its behalf in scientific, medical and veterinary research in the UK.”

    The United Kingdom has a painful history of animal rights extremism that has included break-ins at laboratories, fire bombs, and the violent intimidation of researchers, animal breeders, building contractors working on laboratories, and companies that transport animals. This culminated in a notorious case in 2004 in which extremists exhumed and stole the remains of a woman whose son-in-law ran a guinea pig breeding business. Many companies ceased trading in animals or withdrew from contracts following intimidation.

  • Australia's New Budget Hard on Nonbiomedical Science

    Australia’s scientific community could be forgiven for thinking the country’s new conservative government isn’t keen on nonmedical research. Not only did it decline to appoint a science minister—the first time since the portfolio was created in 1931—but its first federal budget, released in Canberra on 13 May, contains major cuts to science funding outside of biomedical research.

    Overall, the budget released by Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government, elected this past September, is aimed at slashing the federal government’s long-term spending deficits. The budget represents “pain with a purpose,” Abbott has said. It cuts or slows the growth of spending in an array of areas, including education, social welfare programs, and staffing at government agencies.

    In science, the big losers will be Australia’s lead research agencies. Spending at five major agencies will be at least AU$420 million less than envisioned by previous government projections (called “forward estimates” in Australia). The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would lose AU$111.4 million, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation AU$120 million, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation AU$27.6 million, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science AU$7.8 million.

  • Lectures Aren't Just Boring, They're Ineffective, Too, Study Finds

    Traditional lecture classes have higher undergraduate failure rates than those using active learning techniques, new research finds.

    Blah? Traditional lecture classes have higher undergraduate failure rates than those using active learning techniques, new research finds.

    Wikimedia

    Are your lectures droning on? Change it up every 10 minutes with more active teaching techniques and more students will succeed, researchers say. A new study finds that undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods.

    “Universities were founded in Western Europe in 1050 and lecturing has been the predominant form of teaching ever since,” says biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle. But many scholars have challenged the “sage on a stage” approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses, arguing that engaging students with questions or group activities is more effective.

    To weigh the evidence, Freeman and a group of colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement—about 6%—could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.”

  • U.S. House Passes Permanent R&D Tax Credit

    U.S. House Passes Permanent R&D Tax Credit

    Wikimedia

    The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would permanently extend a popular tax break for companies investing in research. Despite strong bipartisan support, however, the proposal appears unlikely to become law—at least not this year.

    The 274 to 131 vote ended several days of sniping over the bill, which would permanently renew the so-called R&D tax credit, which expired at the end of last year. Although both Democrats and Republicans sponsored the legislation, it had drawn a veto threat from the White House because it didn’t provide a way to offset the $156 billion that the tax break is expected to cost over the next decade.

    Republican leaders in the House argued that Congress has a long history of extending the R&D tax break—it’s been renewed 15 times since it was first adopted in 1981—without finding a way to pay for it. But Democratic leaders said Republican supporters were guilty of hypocrisy because they typically insist that any new program not add to federal spending deficits. “All of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth with reference to the deficit seems to go by the boards when the Republicans talk of tax cuts,” said Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, at press conference earlier this week.

  • Salmon Over Science: House Spending Panel Goes Fishing at the Expense of NSF and Census

    Salmon win. A congressional spending panel wants to boost a program aimed at helping salmon, such as these sockeye, by raiding research programs.

    Salmon win. A congressional spending panel wants to boost a program aimed at helping salmon, such as these sockeye, by raiding research programs.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Although most U.S. researchers probably think it exists, and both Republican and Democratic administrations play along, there is no federal science budget. Instead, there is one pot of money to be divvied up as legislators see fit. A congressional spending panel made that very clear yesterday by choosing salmon over science.

    The case in point is an amendment passed on a voice vote by the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee. It would move $5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and $10 million from the Census Bureau’s research activities to strengthen a Pacific salmon recovery program run by the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

    In his 2015 budget request to Congress, President Barack Obama proposed cutting the salmon recovery program by $15 million, to $50 million. Last week, the House spending panel that controls the budgets of the Commerce Department, NSF, and several other agencies went along with that request. At the same time, it gave NSF $154 million more than the president had asked for. The subcommittee, chaired by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), also embraced the president’s request to give the Census Bureau $176 million more in 2015 as it ramps up for the 2020 decennial census.

  • NOAA Gets First Chief Scientist in More Than a Decade

    Richard Spinrad

    Oregon State University

    President Barack Obama today announced that he intends to appoint oceanographer Richard “Rick” Spinrad to become the next chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Spinrad would be the agency’s first chief scientist since former astronaut and earth scientist Kathryn Sullivan—now NOAA’s Administrator—held the job in the mid-1990s.

    The move marks the administration’s second effort to fill the post, which it reestablished in 2009 as a presidential appointment requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate. (Previous administrations downgraded, eliminated, or refused to fill the position.) But the White House’s initial nominee, geochemist Scott Doney, ultimately withdrew his name in 2012 after a 2-year battle with Republicans in the U.S. Senate. In particular, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) blocked a vote on the nomination to protest the Obama administration’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Because of changes to federal personnel rules, Spinrad will not need Senate confirmation.

    Now the vice president for research at Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis, Spinrad is a known face at NOAA and in Washington. He served as NOAA’s assistant administrator for research from 2005 to 2010 and led its oceans and coastal zone programs from 2003 to 2005. From 1987 to 2003, he worked for the U.S. Navy, including as technical director for the oceanographer of the Navy. He earned his doctorate at OSU.

  • New Hope for Asia's Embattled Forests

    Net gain? Oil palm plantations have supplanted natural forests in parts of Asia.

    Net gain? Oil palm plantations have supplanted natural forests in parts of Asia.

    Achmad Rabin Taim from Jakarta, Indonesia/Wikimedia Commons

    Prospects for tackling deforestation in Asia are looking brighter. At the Forests Asia Summit 2014, held in Jakarta on Monday and Tuesday, a high-profile lineup of government officials, business executives, environmentalists, community activists and scientists reached a surprising common ground on the need to address deforestation.

    "I actually have a sense of hope," says Scott Poynton, founder and executive director of The Forest Trust, a Swiss nonprofit organization that helps companies run responsible supply chains. It was clear that all parties are "moving toward solutions" for deforestation and related issues, adds Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia.

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