Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Senior Chinese Science Official Snared in Corruption Probe

    The Communist Party’s effort to root out corruption in officialdom is now targeting its biggest fish to date in the Chinese science establishment. On 12 April, the state news agency Xinhua reported that Shen Weichen, Communist Party secretary at the China Association for Science and Technology, or CAST, “is now under investigation for suspected serious violation of discipline and laws.”

    On its website, CAST describes itself as “the bridge linking Chinese science and technology community with the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government.” The nongovernmental organization, headquartered in Beijing, may be best known in China for its efforts to popularize science for the general public and its occasional reports on the state of the nation’s scientific workforce. Its U.S. equivalent is AAAS, publisher of ScienceInsider.

  • IPCC: Mitigating Climate Change More Challenging Than Ever

    New report says efforts to develop biofuels, such as this U.S. Navy project to make fuel from algae, could be key to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

    Part of the solution. New report says efforts to develop biofuels, such as this U.S. Navy project to make fuel from algae, could be key to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

    U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

    BERLINGlobal greenhouse emissions are skyrocketing. Emissions cuts required to avoid dangerous impacts of climate change are steep. And despite decades of talk, world governments have made paltry efforts to address the problem.

    That’s the grim picture painted by a major report on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

    “There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, an energy expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who was a co-chair of the roughly 500-page report, in a statement.

    The report also describes the daunting work required to sidestep climate dangers, says energy expert Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. “To greatly reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions, we must revolutionize our systems of energy production and consumption,” he says. And that’s a “long, hard, and costly undertaking.”

  • Updated: Cardiology Paper Retracted as Harvard Investigates 'Compromised' Data

    Overturned? Research suggesting a rapid turnover rate for heart muscle cells (above) has been pulled.

    Overturned? Research suggesting a rapid turnover rate for heart muscle cells (above) has been pulled.

    Anversa et al., Circulation 126, 15 (9 October 2012)

    A 2012 paper on the regenerative powers of the human heart has been retracted from the journal Circulation amid an investigation of compromised data. The American Heart Association, which publishes the journal, issued an 8 April retraction for the paper, whose corresponding author  was Piero Anversa, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The retraction states that “an ongoing institutional review by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital has determined that the data are sufficiently compromised that a retraction is warranted.”

    Another author is Circulation’s editor-in-chief, Joseph Loscalzo, who is chair of Brigham’s Department of Medicine. The journal received a letter late last week from Harvard University’s dean for faculty and research integrity calling for the retraction, Rose Marie Robertson, chief science and medical officer at the American Heart Association, tells ScienceInsider. She said the letter mentioned problems with the data in several of the paper’s figures. A Brigham representative declined to give any details about the ongoing review. Robertson said that, based on Harvard’s letter, she has no concerns about Loscalzo’s role in the paper and that he recused himself from both the review process and the retraction.

  • White House Budget Director to Lead Health and Human Services

    Sylvia Mathews Burwell

    Sylvia Mathews Burwell

    Walmart Foundation

    President Barack Obama today nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the White House budget office, to replace Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

    Burwell, 48, has a background in public policy and held several positions in the Clinton administration, including deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). From 2001 to 2011, she worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where for several years she headed the foundation’s Global Development Program. Under her purview were projects ranging from agricultural development—including crop research—to polio eradication. She directed the Walmart Foundation before she became OMB director a year ago.

    As HHS director, Burwell will continue efforts to carry out the Affordable Care Act. Sebelius struggled with that task, enduring months of criticism for problems with the government’s health insurance website. The former governor of Kansas announced her resignation today.

  • Australia's Antarctic Research Division Faces Cuts

    Aurora australis (the southern lights) at the South Pole

    Aurora australis (the southern lights) at the South Pole

    Keith Vanderlinde, National Science Foundation

    Imagine the McDonald’s Australia Antarctic Expedition or perhaps the launch of Australia’s new research vessel, the Microsoft Australis. These scenarios are not complete fantasy. Government officials this week told staff at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), the nation’s lead polar science agency, that planned funding cuts mean the division will be seeking “[a]lternative funding models” for research, including philanthropic donations and commercial sponsorship.

    Gordon de Brouwer, secretary of the federal Environment Department, which oversees AAD, told scientists and support staff on 8 April that the division, based near Hobart, Tasmania, also faces an unspecified number of “voluntary” job losses. According to the acting regional secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Jessica Munday, AAD has already lost 30 employees over the past few months, leaving the remaining 300 staff members stretched. “So more cuts could impact workloads and research capabilities,” she told Fairfax Media.

    The news follows a warning issued late last month by the Australian Academy of Science that the country’s strategic position in Antarctica is at risk because of a declining scientific effort there. Seven countries have made territorial claims to Antarctica under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, and Australia’s claim of 43% of the continent is the largest. Such claims, however, have little practical effect under the treaty, which does not recognize, dispute, or establish territorial claims, and establishes an access system to the continent governed by the 50 nations that have signed the treaty.

  • U.S. Air Force Shelves Proposal to Move Research Office

    Staying put. The U.S. Air Force says it won't move an office that manages much of its basic research, such as this work involving materials science.

    U.S. Air Force

    A proposal to move the U.S. Air Force’s basic research office from the Washington, D.C., area to an air base in Ohio has crashed. The office is “staying put,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told a Senate hearing yesterday, according to a story published by FYI, an online newsletter published by the American Institute of Physics.

  • Cost Skyrockets for United States' Share of ITER Fusion Project

    The U.S. share for the ITER fusion energy project, under construction in France, could reach $3.9 billion overall, according to a new estimate.

    Costs rising. The U.S. share for the ITER fusion energy project, under construction in France, could reach $3.9 billion overall, according to a new estimate.


    ITER, the international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, aims to prove that nuclear fusion is a viable power source by creating a "burning plasma" that produces more energy than the machine itself consumes. Although that goal is at least 20 years away, ITER is already burning through money at a prodigious pace. The United States is only a minor partner in the project, which began construction in 2008. But the U.S. contribution to ITER will total $3.9 billion—roughly four times as much as originally estimated—according to a new cost estimate released yesterday. That is about $1.4 billion higher than a 2011 cost estimate, and the numbers are likely to intensify doubts among some members of Congress about continuing the U.S. involvement in the project.

    The United States and ITER share a complicated history. The project was first proposed in 1985 as a joint venture with the Soviet Union and Japan. The United States backed out of that effort in 1998, citing concerns over cost and feasibility—only to jump in again in 2003. At the time, ITER was envisioned to cost roughly $5 billion. That estimate had grown to $12 billion by 2006, when the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and United States signed a formal agreement to build the device. The United States agreed, essentially, to build 9% of the parts for the reactor, at whatever price was necessary.

  • U.S. Park Service Nixes Immediate Genetic Rescue of Isle Royale Wolves

    An Isle Royale wolf

    An Isle Royale wolf

    Rolf Peterson

    The next chapter in the long-running scientific story of Michigan’s Isle Royale wolves will not include a dramatic genetic rescue. After 2 years of consideration, the National Park Service (NPS) announced this week that it will not introduce mainland wolves to revive the genetically inbred and declining wolf population on the isolated island. “The decision is not to intervene as long as there is a breeding population,” Isle Royale National Park Superintendent Phyllis Green tells ScienceInsider.   

    Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, is a wilderness area where hands-off management has been the rule. But a recent record decline in wolf numbers—and ripple effects on the island’s moose and forest—convinced researchers studying the predator-prey system that genetic rescue of the wolves was an ecological necessity. The decision not to introduce wolves is disappointing to many scientists who have consulted with NPS about its plan. 

    Wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson of Michigan Technological University (MTU) in Houghton, who has been studying the Isle Royale wolves since 1970, notes that the park service announcement makes no mention of ecosystem functioning or health. He and MTU collaborator John Vucetich are planning a response to the NPS decision, which they will release next week. It will accompany their annual report on this winter’s fieldwork, the 56th year of the study. “I’m sure the word disappointed will be in our statement,” Peterson says.

  • Former German Minister Drops Her Fight to Reclaim Ph.D.

    Annette Schavan

    Annette Schavan

    Laurence Chaperon/Wikimedia Commons

    BERLIN—Former German Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan is giving up her fight to keep her Ph.D. title, she announced today on her website. It marks the end of one of the most hotly debated plagiarism cases here in recent years.

    Schavan was awarded the degree in educational science at the University of Düsseldorf after completing her dissertation in 1980. More than 30 years later, Schavan, by then the nation's education and research minister, was charged with plagiarism by an anonymous accuser who posted an analysis of the dissertation online. The University of Düsseldorf investigated and in February 2013 revoked the degree. Just 4 days later, Schavan resigned.

    But the wrangling continued even after her resignation. Although Schavan acknowledged mistakes in her dissertation, she denied any intent to mislead and took her case to court. Last month, the Düsseldorf Administrative Court ruled that the university's action "was taken in compliance with the law." Schavan had taken several passages from secondary sources without citing them correctly, the court found. "After being able to think about the judgment … for a few days, I have decided not to appeal and to end the legal fighting," Schavan wrote in the statement on her home page. "Now I am preparing for new challenges and am looking forward to them." Schavan, a devout Catholic, has been tapped as Germany's ambassador to the Vatican.

  • Armed With New Data, Researchers Again Challenge Effectiveness of Antiflu Drug

    Worth it? There’s little evidence that the antiflu drug Tamiflu reduces health complications or hospitalizations, a new study argues.

    Worth it? There's little evidence that the antiflu drug Tamiflu reduces health complications or hospitalizations, a new study argues.

    Wikimedia Commons

    BMJ has published the latest volley in a battle over one of the most controversial drugs of the 21st century: the anti-influenza compound oseltamivir, better known as Tamiflu. A working group of the Cochrane Collaboration, an international network of scientists that performs systematic reviews of the medical literature, has carried out the most exhaustive meta-analysis yet of the drug’s efficacy—and its conclusions are, once again, pretty damning.

    Tamiflu can make flu symptoms disappear a little sooner than they would otherwise, the authors say, but there is no evidence that it can prevent serious complications from flu, or keep people out of the hospital. The group questions the wisdom of buying massive stockpiles of the drug to prepare for influenza pandemics, as many countries have done.

    The review comes after a long, drawn-out fight to obtain all available data from Tamiflu trials from Roche, the company that produces the drug. The Cochrane group, with active support from BMJ, eventually won that tussle, and in doing so made Tamiflu the poster child for a successful broader campaign to ensure access to clinical trial data. (The European Medicines Agency has already said that it will make the information it receives from drug companies publicly available, and several companies—including Roche and GlaxoSmithKline—have pledged to become far more transparent.)

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