Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Progress, but still much to do, AIDS report finds

    A cell infected with HIV.

    A cell infected with HIV.

    NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Of the estimated 36.9 million HIV-infected people in the world, 70% live in sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, 49% do not know their HIV status and about 57% are not receiving antiretroviral drugs, according to a report released today by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

    The report, which arrives in the run-up to World AIDS Day on 1 December, celebrates the progress that has been made in getting antiretrovirals to 15.8 million people by June of 2015. But it also notes how far many countries are from meeting World Health Organization guidelines issued in September, which call for every infected person to receive treatment.

  • French agency asks academics to shed light on Paris attacks

    The new call is "a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity," CNRS says.

    Roberto Maldeno/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) has asked academics for proposals to help understand and prevent the type of violence that left 130 dead in Paris on 13 November and profoundly shocked the country. The call came in a letter from Alain Fuchs, the president of the flagship agency, who described it as "a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity with all those who, directly or indirectly, have been affected by the terrible events which, as we all know, can happen again.”

    The funding call aims to encourage scholars of all disciplines to work together and fill research gaps. “This understanding is crucial if we are to combat these phenomena more effectively—without being blinded by anger or resentment, which is the hallmark of terrorism and its perpetrators—by using our most potent weapons: intelligence and knowledge," Fuchs wrote. The call doesn't specify topics of interest or a budget; a CNRS spokesperson says that part of CNRS's €10 million budget for interdisciplinary projects may be used.

    Many academics welcome the initiative, especially because French politics are currently dominated by raw emotions. “At a time when ‘the gut’ too often tends to prevail over the brain, within the political class as in the media, any call to think can only be salutary,” says François Burgat, a CNRS political scientist at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim World in Aix-en-Provence.

  • Italy’s supreme court clears L’Aquila earthquake scientists for good

    L'Aquila's prefecture after the 2009 earthquake.

    Wikimedia Commons

    Six scientists convicted of manslaughter for advice they gave ahead of the deadly L'Aquila earthquake in 2009 today were definitively acquitted by Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome following lengthy deliberations by a panel of five judges. But the court upheld the conviction of a public official tried alongside them.

    The ruling marks the end of a 5-year legal process that has proven immensely controversial in the scientific world and beyond. In 2010 the seven were placed under investigation for allegedly giving false and fatal reassurances to the people of L'Aquila a few days ahead of the earthquake, which struck on 6 April 2009, killing 309. The seven were put on trial a year later and in 2012 were each handed 6-year jail sentences. At an appeal last year, however, six of them—three seismologists, a volcanologist, and two seismic engineers—were acquitted. The seventh, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who at the time of the quake was deputy head of Italy's civil protection department, remained convicted but with a reduced jail term of 2 years.

    The hearing at the Court of Cassation, which started yesterday, took place after appeals prosecutor Romolo Como asked that the convictions be reinstated. Although that possibility appeared remote, the five-judge panel, headed by Fausto Izzo, remained closed in their chamber for 10 hours before confirming the lower court’s decision.

  • China pursues fraudsters in science publishing

    China pursues fraudsters in science publishing
    Sean Winters/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    China’s main basic research agency is cracking down on scientists who used fake peer reviews to publish papers, demanding that serious offenders return research funding. The move accompanies an announcement by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) in Beijing, first reported by state media on 12 November, that it had investigated dozens of scientists involved in peer-review scams. The probe’s findings highlighted the role of China’s many unscrupulous paper brokers, which peddle ghostwritten or fraudulent papers.

    “If it wasn't obvious before, it is now difficult to deny China's research community has serious underlying ethical issues,” says Benjamin Shaw, China director for the English-language editing company Edanz in Beijing. Others caution that the sanctions on discredited authors are not severe enough to deter academic dishonesty. But the coordinated response by funding agencies and CAST, which links China’s science and technology community with the government, suggests China is taking the publishing abuses seriously.

  • Scientists call for lifting protections for Great Lakes wolves

    Reboot. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is restarting an effort to select an expert panel that will review efforts to alter legal protection for gray and Mexican wolves.


    Gray wolves (Canis lupus) living in the U.S. Great Lakes region no longer need the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), argue 26 scientists and wildlife managers in a letter sent this week to top federal officials. But other researchers are taking a decidedly different view.

    The 18 November letter, sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is intended to support the federal government’s position that wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan are fully recovered and that states should now manage the species.

    “Wolf recovery in these states is a great success story,” says L. David Mech, the letter’s first signer and a wolf biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul. As of 2014, biologists estimate that more than 3700 wolves were residing in the Great Lakes region, surpassing FWS’s original recovery target of 300, set in 1992.

  • Updated: Genetically modified salmon wins FDA approval

    U.S. grocery stores may soon carry a fast-growing GM alternative to conventional Atlantic salmon (above).

    U.S. grocery stores may soon carry a fast-growing GM alternative to conventional Atlantic salmon (above).

    Peter Whyte/CSIRO

    A fast-growing salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies today became the first genetically modified (GM) animal to win the blessing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Its approval, nearly 20 years after the biotech company first approached the agency, marks the end of a long struggle for the right to sell the fish in grocery stores. But it probably doesn’t mark the end of a contentious debate over its safety.

    The AquAdvantage salmon—which grows twice as fast as non-GM Atlantic salmon, thanks to the overexpression of a growth hormone—has long been expected to gain approval. In 2010, FDA announced that the salmon is safe to eat, and a draft assessment released in 2012 found that it is unlikely to have any harmful impact on the environment.

  • ITER fusion project to take at least 6 years longer than planned

    ITER construction earlier this year.

    ITER Collaborative

    The multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project will take another 6 years to build beyond the—now widely discredited—official schedule, a meeting of the governing council was told this week. ITER management has also asked the seven international partners backing the project for additional funding to finish the job.

    It remains unclear whether the project will get what it wants: Delegations from the partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—concluded the council meeting today by announcing the council would conduct its own review of the schedule and funding to look for ways to tighten them up. In the meantime, the council approved the proposed schedule for 2016 and 2017, set out milestones for the project to reach in that time, and agreed to make available extra resources to help achieve it. After consulting their governments, the delegations committed themselves to agreeing on a final schedule at the next council meeting, in June 2016.

    “It was a very important meeting for us and it went well,” says ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot. “Every member expressed their concerns and in the end they reached an agreement.” Jianlin Cao, vice minister at the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, stressed the challenges the meeting faced. The council delegates “have been so careful about this work. But ITER is a new thing, and success does not come easily,” Cao told Science.

    The ITER project aims to show that nuclear fusion—the power source of the sun and stars—is technically feasible as a source of energy. Despite more than 60 years of work, researchers have failed to achieve a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes. ITER, with a doughnut-shaped “tokamak” reaction chamber able to contain 840 cubic meters of superheated hydrogen gas, or plasma, is the biggest attempt so far and is predicted to produce at least 500 megawatts of power from a 50 megawatt input. The project was officially begun in 2006 with an estimated cost of €5 billion and date for the beginning of operations—or first plasma—in 2016. Those figures quickly changed to €15 billion and 2019, but confidence in those numbers has eroded over the years.

  • United Kingdom needs a science funding czar, report says

    United Kingdom needs a science funding czar, report says
    Wikimedia/Creative Commons

    As a sharp ax hangs over government budgets in the United Kingdom—a new 4-year spending plan from the governing Conservative Party is due out next week—a major review today recommended ways to increase the efficiency of science funding. The key suggestion is to create a supervisory organization that would coordinate and support the seven research councils that award grants to investigators in various disciplines. This new organization should be headed by a high-profile scientist who could provide “a stronger strategic voice for research,” the report recommends.

    The U.K. government, eager to balance its budget and reduce debt, asked all departments earlier this year to propose cuts of 25% to 40% for the next spending cycle. In preparation, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) commissioned an independent review of the seven research councils, which spend £3 billion on science each year. The councils are funded by BIS but operate independently. The review was done by Paul Nurse, who leads the Francis Crick Institute, a huge biomedical research facility about to open in London. (After suggestions that he might have a conflict of interest, as Crick depends on support from research councils, BIS appointed an advisory panel to help with the review.)

    Nurse recommends that the councils be subsumed into a new body called Research UK. The councils should not be merged—a tactic rumored to be under consideration—because Nurse fears that would lessen agility of funding, create more distance between managers and bench scientists, and make it harder to recruit top staff.

  • NIH to end all support for chimpanzee research

    The NIH says there is no longer a need to use chimpanzees in research.

    The NIH says there is no longer a need to use chimpanzees in research.

    Thomas Lersch/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is effectively ending its support for invasive research on chimpanzees. In a memo leaked this week, agency head Francis Collins says that a colony of 50 chimps it had planned to keep in reserve for research—after retiring the rest—is no longer needed.

    “I think it is the natural next step in what has been a process over the last 5 years, really, of deep thinking about the appropriateness of research on our closest relatives, the chimpanzees,” Collins tells Science.

    The news got out to the press today after someone at NIH leaked an internal staff email from Collins sent on Monday. In it, he wrote that several factors, including the fact that no researchers have asked to use chimps, led him to conclude that the 50 chimpanzees are no longer needed. “Given this complete absence of interest in a space now approaching 3 years, I think it’s fair to say the scientific community has come up with other ways to answer the kinds of questions they used to ask with chimpanzees,” Collins tells Science.

  • U.S., Cuba to jointly protect, study marine life

    A Sagassum triggerfish in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.

    A Sagassum triggerfish in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.

    NOAA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Today two U.S. agencies shook hands with Cuba’s science ministry, agreeing to work together to manage and study marine protected areas.

    During a visit to Havana, Kathryn Sullivan, the administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), signed a memorandum of understanding that brings the U.S. Flower Garden Banks and Florida Keys marine sanctuaries and two U.S. national parks, as well as Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park and an offshore reef area known as the Banco de San Antonio, under cooperative management.

    The agreement is necessary, says Daniel Whittle, director of the Cuba program of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., because key fish species, such as billfish and red grouper, cross international boundaries and need to be managed regionally to ensure their protection. Some of Cuba’s reefs and seagrass beds are healthier than those just 100 kilometers away in Florida, and joint baseline studies now likely as a result of this agreement may help clarify why. “This particular agreement is the highest profile [attempt] to truly remove the barriers to scientific [collaboration],” Whittle says.

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