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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Polio pioneer tapped to breathe life into India's science ministry

    New science minister Harsh Vardhan

    New science minister Harsh Vardhan

    Government of India

    NEW DELHI—Science now has a more potent voice in India’s government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday appointed physician Harsh Vardhan as minister for science and technology and earth sciences and elevated him to full Cabinet rank.

    Vardhan, 59, is known for his pioneering role in the eradication of polio from India, which earlier this year was declared free of wild poliovirus. A seasoned politician and outspoken critic of tobacco use, Vardhan had served as India’s health minister since Modi formed his government in May. One of his main tasks during in his stint at the health ministry was to promote Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine; just last week he presided over a world conference on Ayurveda here.

  • Campaign saves famed Lick Observatory, but challenges remain

    The Lick Observatory

    The Lick Observatory

    Hilary Lebow/University of California

    The historic Lick Observatory in California has gained a new lease on life. University of California (UC) administrators have scrapped a plan to cut funding for the facility. But the observatory’s financial future remains as tricky as the road that twists to its perch on a mountaintop above San Jose.

    The reprieve came as a relief to astronomers who rallied to save the observatory from the budget ax. “This really changes everything,” said Claire Max, interim director of the University of California Observatories (UCO), which manages the observatory program for the university system. “It’s very frugal, but we’ve got a base budget to keep the doors open and keep the telescopes operating.”

    The first permanent mountaintop observatory in the world when it opened in 1888, Lick has been involved in a string of important discoveries, from proof of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to confirmation of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Today, the observatory is used primarily to search for supernovae and planets in other solar systems. It also serves as a testing ground for astronomy students and new technology.

  • Physicist who inspired Interstellar spills the backstory—and the scene that makes him cringe

    Better than fiction: Radiation jets emerging from a black hole at the center of Centaurus A in a composite image prepared by NASA.

    Better than fiction: Radiation jets emerging from a black hole at the center of Centaurus A in a composite image prepared by NASA.

    ESO/WFI/MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. /NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al.

    Interstellar, which opens this week, looks set to be one of the most talked-about films of 2014, not just because of its compelling storyline and dazzling special effects, but also for the fact that it sticks pretty close to established science and any speculation remains in the realm of plausibility. The man who inspired the film and kept a close eye on its scientific fidelity is Kip Thorne, a renowned theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and one of the world’s leading experts in the astrophysical predictions of general relativity.

    In 2006, Thorne and Lynda Obst, a longtime friend and film producer, wrote an eight-page treatment for a film that sprang from the astrophysics of black holes, wormholes, and time dilation. Steven Spielberg was soon on board to direct. Jonathan Nolan, who wrote films such as The Prestige and The Dark Knight Rises with his director brother Christopher, was working on the screenplay. Six years later, however, Spielberg had to drop out but was replaced by Christopher Nolan, director of the three Dark Knight movies and Inception.

    The movie is set in a not-too-distant future, when various blights on crops have driven humanity to the brink of starvation and against science. A secret effort is under way to make a last-ditch attempt to find another planet that humans could colonize. Thorne has written about his experiences working with Hollywood and the scientific concepts addressed in the film in a book, The Science of Interstellar, to be published on 7 November. He spoke with ScienceInsider about the experience earlier this week. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Where the voters came down on science-related ballot items

    An anti-GMO foods demonstration last year in Colorado.

    An anti-GMO foods demonstration last year in Colorado.

    Chris Goodwin/Flickr

    The votes are in, and Republicans now control both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, but as ScienceInsider reported earlier, there were also a number of science-related items on state ballots yesterday. Here’s how things shook out:

    In Colorado and Oregon, voters rejected referenda that would have required genetically modified foods to be labeled. In Colorado, Proposition 105 was defeated by roughly a 2-1 ratio, with the latest numbers showing 66.4% of some 1,844,197 voters checking the “no” box. Oregon’s vote was much closer, as Measure 92 was defeated by just 1.3% of 1,334,791 votes cast, 50.7% to 49.3%.

    In Michigan, voters defeated by significant margins propositions to allow hunting of the state’s wolves. In spite of the vote, however, the matter isn’t settled. State courts will have to decide whether a measure passed by the legislature, and designed to circumvent yesterday’s vote, is constitutional. If courts uphold that measure, wolf hunting will be allowed.

  • U.S. Senate science panels will have new leadership in wake of Republican takeover

    Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) is expected to become head of the health, education, and labor panel, which oversees biomedical research.

    Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) is expected to become head of the health, education, and labor panel, which oversees biomedical research.

    Talk Radio News Service/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate will mean new chairs of all committees. Although the choices won’t become official until January, here are likely changes atop key committees that affect the U.S. research committee:

    Appropriations: Senator Thad Cochran (R–MS) would replace Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) as chair of the full committee. Either he or Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is likely to take over the subcommittee that oversees the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Senator Jerry Moran (R–KS) would take over from retiring Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA) as chair of the subcommittee that funds the National Institutes of Health.

    Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions: Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) would succeed Harkin as chair of this panel, which oversees federal education and biomedical research policy.

  • Italian physicist to lead world's leading particle physics lab

    Fabiola Gianotti in 2011

    Fabiola Gianotti in 2011

    Ars Electronica/Flickr

    Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist who garnered global attention 2 years ago when she and another physicist announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, has been named the next director-general of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, where that momentous discovery was made. Gianotti will take over for current director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer on 1 January 2016, the laboratory announced today.

    CERN boasts the world's biggest atom smasher, the 27-kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and an annual budget equal to $1.1 billion, making it the de facto global center of particle physics. Gianotti will be the 16th director-general in the laboratory's 60-year history. She will also be the first woman, which has some leading female particle physicists cheering.

    "I just sent her a note saying it was the best news I'd ever heard," says Melissa Franklin of Harvard University. "It makes me proud to be a physicist." Gianotti's appointment "is really going to change the feel of CERN for some people," Franklin predicts. Young-Kee Kim, of the University of Chicago in Illinois, says Gianotti's appointment is "huge." "Scientifically, intellectually, and even politically, this is a powerful position," she says. "This is a fantastic thing."

  • When it comes to diversity grants, NIH hopes bigger is better

    Renato Aguilera with graduate students from the 2013 RISE class.

    Courtesy of Renato Aguilera, UTEP

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded scores of programs over the last 4 decades aimed at increasing the number of minorities who apply for its bread-and-butter investigator grants. But NIH Director Francis Collins is not satisfied with the progress to date in correcting the serious underrepresentation of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the applicant pool.

    “We are far short of where I believe we ought to be,” he said during a 22 October media briefing on NIH’s latest attempt to achieve that deceptively simple goal. “I can tell you that a number of those programs have produced stunning successes in terms of individuals who have been significant contributors to the biomedical research enterprise. But those are more anecdotes than systematic data.”

    The new, three-part program, which Collins called “a bold experiment,” hopes to address those problems with significantly more resources and better record keeping. Each of 10 BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity) awards, ranging from $17 million to $24 million over 5 years, will fund partnerships among several institutions to attract and retain more minority students. Another grant, based at Boston College, will create a national mentoring network serving all sites. The final grant, to a consortium led by the University of California, Los Angeles, will be used to evaluate all of the BUILD grants. NIH expects to spend $240 million over the first 5 years of the initiative, which bears the clunky title of Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce. There are plans to hold a second competition in 2019, in which the first-round winners will compete against newcomers.

  • After Election 2014: 21ST CENTURY CURES

    Left to right: Former Representative Eric Cantor (R–VA) with representatives Fred Upton (R–MI) and Diana DeGette (D–CO) at a 21st Century Cures Initiative roundtable earlier this year.

    Left to right: Former Representative Eric Cantor (R–VA) with representatives Fred Upton (R–MI) and Diana DeGette (D–CO) at a 21st Century Cures Initiative roundtable earlier this year.

    U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce

    This story is the ninth in ScienceInsider’s After Election 2014 series. Through Election Day on 4 November, we will periodically examine research issues that will face U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington, D.C., for a lame-duck session and when a new Congress convenes in January. Click here to see all the stories published so far; click here for a list of published and planned stories.

    Today, a look at the 21st Century Cures Initiative, which is expected to produce legislative proposals to improve biomedical research and innovation in the new Congress that convenes in January.

    Can a congressional odd couple successfully shake up the complex system that transforms research discoveries into new drugs and treatments?

    It’s a question that has been rippling through biomedical research circles in recent months, as an unlikely pair of allies—conservative Representative Fred Upton (R–MI) and the relatively liberal Representative Diana DeGette (D–CO)—have pursued a project they’ve dubbed the 21st Century Cures Initiative. The goal: to speed up the lengthy and costly process of developing new treatments for disease.

  • Older papers are increasingly remembered—and cited

    Older papers are increasingly remembered—and cited

    European Southern Observatory

    As Isaac Newton famously put it, today's scientists are "standing on the shoulders of giants" by relying on the work of their predecessors. Scientists give a nod to those predecessors by citing their papers. But bibliometric researchers have debated whether older work is becoming obsolete more quickly, with scientists increasingly citing the recent work of their contemporaries. Now, the team behind Google Scholar has weighed in with a study of their own massive index of papers—and it appears that Newton’s aphorism is truer than ever.

    There’s no doubt that scientific papers become obsolete. Although some papers are continually cited and become immortal, the vast majority end up in the dustbin of scientific history. The question is whether the rate of obsolescence has been increasing or decreasing over time.

    A 2007 study published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology concluded that obsolescence has been slowing down since the 1960s as authors cite ever older work. But a 2008 study published in Science reached the opposite conclusion: Obsolescence has accelerated over the past 2 decades as journals have gone online, with authors tending to ignore older papers.

  • In some states, science on the Election Day ballot

    Demonstrators at an anti-GMO rally in Colorado last year.

    Demonstrators at an anti-GMO rally in Colorado last year.

    Chris Goodwin/Flickr

    When voters go to the polls tomorrow, there will more than just candidates on the ballot. There are also 146 referenda and initiatives in 41 states and the District of Columbia, including a handful that relate to science, engineering, or the environment. They include questions asking voters to fund a new $21 million genomic medicine research center in Maine, to approve a $125 million bond for a new engineering building at the University of Rhode Island, and to allow terminally ill patients in Arizona to use experimental treatments.

    Two ballot issues have stirred particularly strong debate—and an outpouring of cash. In Colorado and Oregon, groups are spending millions of dollars to sway votes on the question of whether companies should be required to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In Michigan, hunting and conservation groups are engaged in a heated and complicated battle over whether to allow the hunting of wolves.

    The GMO labeling initiatives—Proposition 105 in Colorado and Measure 92 in Oregon—have attracted strong opposition from industry groups, who argue there is no evidence that GMO foods pose a health threat and that labeling would be costly to consumers. “Once you start to label, now you have to segregate every single step of the way—the field, silo, transportation,” says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, a biotechnology researcher at the University of California, Davis, who is allied with groups urging a "no" vote on Proposition 105. “You’re going to end up paying a tax for a label that has no health value.”

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