Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt set to become first woman to lead U.S. National Academy of Sciences

    Marcia McNutt

    Marcia McNutt


    Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who has served as editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals since 2013, today was nominated to stand for election as next president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). If elected, as expected, McNutt would become the first woman to head the U.S. government's premier science advisory organization, which was founded in 1863.

    McNutt is slated to take the helm at NAS on 1 July 2016, when current president Ralph J. Cicerone ends his second term, the Council of NAS said in a statement. Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist, has served as president since 2005. McNutt plans to remain at the helm of the Science journals until she formally takes the NAS post.

    In a statement, McNutt said she was "immensely honored" to be nominated to lead NAS, an organization that she said "represents the highest standards of scientific honesty, quality, and integrity."

  • Geologist reflects on life behind bars in China

    Xue Feng reads the inscription in a book given to him by U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus.

    Xue Feng reads the inscription in a book given to him by U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus.

    Catherine Matacic/Science

    When Xue Feng landed his first job after academia as a petroleum consultant in 2000, he was delighted. His new employer, Englewood, Colorado–based IHS, had high ambitions for the young geologist: overhaul how the company—a corporate intelligence firm—gathered oil and gas data on China. Feng dove into his assignment with gusto—so much so that in 2005, when he was 40 years old, he suffered a mild heart attack. By then, he had snared a rare, unclassified database of 30,000 oil wells in China from a private broker. The database promised substantial profits for IHS and—in a country that tightly guards such data on national security grounds—substantial risks.

    Disaster struck on 20 November 2007. Feng, who had just left IHS for Houston, Texas–based C&C Reservoirs, was on a business trip in Beijing when he was abducted from his hotel room. Chinese security personnel interrogated him and charged Feng, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen, with selling state secrets. His chief crime: arranging for IHS’s purchase of the oil well database, which the Chinese government declared a state secret in 2007. In 2010, Feng was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison, including the nearly 3 years he had already spent in detention.

    Back in the United States, Feng’s former Ph.D. adviser, University of Chicago geologist David Rowley, campaigned for his early release. Rowley met with U.S. embassy staff in Beijing and spurred prominent activists to petition both governments. But even U.S. President Barack Obama’s personal request to Chinese leaders in 2009 wasn’t enough. Feng was finally released in April—10 months before his sentence was set to expire—and immediately deported to the United States, where he rejoined his wife and two children in Houston. Feng spoke with Science about his time in prison and what other researchers working abroad might glean from his experiences. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • European Commission tasks scouts to find suitable science advisers

    From left to right: David King, Rianne Letscher, and António Vitorino.

    From left to right: David King, Rianne Letscher, and António Vitorino.

    Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Ben Bergman/KNAW; Jacques Delors Institute

    The European Commission has asked a trio of scouts to help fill the void left by the former Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), a role that the commission controversially removed from its organigram when it took office in November. The three will be tasked with finding suitable scientists for a seven-strong “high level group” of advisers, one of the key elements of the commission's new science advice system.

    Research commissioner Carlos Moedas will formally announce their names on Monday and meet them for lunch. The trio consists of David King, a chemist and a former British CSA; Rianne Letschert, a law professor at the International Victimology Institute Tilburg in the Netherlands; and António Vitorino, the president of the Jacques Delors Institute, a European policy think tank.

    “The identification committee strikes me as sensibly balanced,” but its job will not be easy, says James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. The committee will have to find the “right mix” of people who will “between them need to reflect Europe's geographical and disciplinary diversity, command the respect of their peers, and be skilled in navigating the often treacherous terrain that lies between science, policy and politics,” Wilsdon tells ScienceInsider in an email.

  • Greek researchers worry as crucial referendum looms

    Researchers taking samples from the Evrotas River in Greece. The project was suspended because the group lacked money to buy gas.

    Researchers taking samples from a river in Greece. Some sampling trips had to be postponed because of the cash crunch.

    Hellenic Centre for Marine Research

    With their banks closed and the economy grinding to a halt, Greek voters will go to the polls on Sunday in what could be a crucial moment in international negotiations over the country’s crushing debt. Greek scientists are watching the referendum nervously, because it could herald a Greek departure from the Eurozone or even the European Union itself—a devastating prospect, many say, because it would imperil E.U. funding streams that help keep Greek science alive. “This would be a total nightmare,” says Babis Savakis, the director of the Biomedical Sciences Research Center "Alexander Fleming" in Vari.

    But Costas Fotakis, Greece's vice minister for research & innovation, sought to downplay such concerns in an interview with ScienceInsider. The Greek government has no intention of leaving the euro, Fotakis says, and “even in the hypothetical case that Greece decides to leave the Eurozone, Greece will be able to apply for E.U. grants as an E.U. member.”

    Like most other people in Greece, scientists have suffered under the austerity-driven cuts to government budgets—and so has their ability to work. University salaries have been cut by 30% to 40% since 2010, and research centers are receiving less than half their previous support from the government. Some centers have not gotten any government funding at all this year. “Greek science is not well,” says George Christophides of Imperial College London, who last year helped review the status of two universities there. “It’s like a freefall.”

  • Q&A: Biological oceanographer Mark Abbott to lead Woods Hole institute

    Mark Abbott

    Mark Abbott

    Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

    Biological oceanographer Mark Abbott was tapped this week to be the next president and director of the venerable Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. It is one of the top ocean science and engineering institutions in the world. Abbott has abundant leadership experience: He has been the dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Corvallis, since 2001, and has also served on the National Science Board, the body that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), and on the Board of Trustees for the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, which advocates for marine science. Abbott will start his new job in October. He will take WHOI’s helm amid choppy seas for the ocean sciences. Some members of the U.S. Congress, seeking to limit funding for climate change research, have said the geosciences are not “core sciences” and want to restrict NSF funding to the discipline. Meanwhile, a National Research Council report earlier this year found that the tough budget climate will necessitate significant spending cuts to major ocean infrastructure such as the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), in which WHOI plays a large role. (Outgoing WHOI President Susan Avery has urged a reassessment of the cuts to the still-fledgling OOI after the initiative is fully formed and data becomes available.) ScienceInsider talked with Abbott about the challenges the ocean science community is facing, and where he hopes to steer WHOI. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Contrary to perceptions, politics doesn't always drive public views on science issues

    Politics doesn't always rule
    Pew Research Center

    Ideology is not the dominant factor in shaping what Americans think about most science-related issues, according to a new poll by the Pew Research CenterAlthough a person’s political views are a strong predictor of their attitudes on climate change and a handful of energy issues, their gender, age, religion, race, or education play a larger role on many other controversial topics.

    The Washington, D.C.–based think tank surveyed 2002 U.S. adults last summer on 22 issues ranging from global warming and offshore drilling to the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods, the use of animals in research, and the value of the International Space Station. A previous report based on the same survey found striking differences in what scientists and the public think about many topics, including GM foods and animal research.

    The new analysis suggests that an oftrepeated claim that Republicans are “antiscience” is simplistic. “Sometimes politics is at the center of the story,” says Cary Funk, the lead author and associate director for science research at Pew, “and sometimes politics has very little to do with the way people think about science issues."

  • A Washington journal: Using an Antarctic film to highlight climate change without taking sides

    The breathtakingly beautiful images in a new documentary, Antarctica: On the Edge, are meant to appeal to anyone curious about this fragile, frozen continent. But Deborah Raksany, head of development for the Chicago-based company that is distributing the 40-minute film by Jon Bowermaster, thought that some of it might also resonate with scientists and policymakers.

    So Raksany reached out to a few professional friends in Washington, D.C., who know the political landscape much better than she does. After months of complicated logistics, Raksany and her colleagues got their wish: a 36-hour climate tripleheader in the nation’s capital. The three events, hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) and a group of Democratic senators, played to capacity crowds earlier this month.

    The climate lollapalooza was not your normal science lobbying fly-in, a venerable political strategy in which advocates for a particular cause descend on the nation’s capital for a day to lobby Washington’s movers and shakers. One big difference was that the organizers added artists and entertainers to the usual lineup of scientists, legislators, federal employees, and lobbyists. There also was no “ask”—their support for a particular bill or change in federal policy.

  • Fate of red wolves, endangered in the United States, remains uncertain

    A red wolf.

    A red wolf.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

    Can the red wolf survive outside of zoos? Is it really a distinct species? These are some of the questions that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says it needs to answer before it can decide whether to continue managing the only population left in the wild. The agency announced today that it would spend the rest of the year evaluating its recovery efforts and conducting research on the controversial species, and won’t release any more animals into the wild for the time being.

    Advocates are concerned that the agency is winding down its efforts to protect the wolf. “The emphasis and tone have moved far away from the conservation and recovery of an endangered species and seems to be preparing the public for its eventual extinction in the wild,” says Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

    Red wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the 20th century. Biologists established a captive breeding population in zoos, some of which FWS released back into the wild starting in 1987. Between 50 and 75 red wolves (Canis rufus) remain on a peninsula in North Carolina. The main threat is hybridization with coyotes, which have encroached on wolf habitat. Until recently wolves were being shot by hunters at night, but a court banned the practice in 2013. Many landowners were upset, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) promptly demanded that FWS take a hard look at its wolf recovery program.

  • Liberia's puzzle: How did the new Ebola patient become infected?

    A billboard in Monrovia earlier this year.

    A billboard in Monrovia earlier this year.

    UNMEER/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    More than 7 weeks after Liberians took to the streets to celebrate that their country had been declared free of Ebola, the deadly virus has come back, raising fears of a resurgence. The body of a 17-year-old boy who died recently has tested positive for Ebola, Liberian deputy minister of health Tolbert Nyenswah announced yesterday. The big question now is how he became infected.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has sent a team to investigate the case and trace all contacts in collaboration with the Liberian health ministry. "Obviously this is not good news," says Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for WHO. But he also pointed out that a sample was taken from the body after death, an Ebola test was done, and when it came back positive, a team was dispatched immediately to conduct a safe burial. "This shows clearly that Liberia is in a much better position than it was a year ago," Jasarevic says.

    "It is really important to understand how this person got infected," Jasarevic adds. The patient's hometown of Nedowian is close to Liberia’s capital Monrovia, and far away from the border regions with Sierra Leone (SL) and Guinea, the two countries where the virus is still spreading. At a meeting about the case held this morning at Liberia's ministry of health, some suggested that the boy might have traveled within Liberia the past 2 weeks, says Philippe Le Vaillant, a program manager for Liberia at Doctors without Borders currently working in Monrovia, who attended the meeting. Travel inside the country would not explain how he became infected, however, because Liberia is officially Ebola-free. "There is no known source of infection and there's no information about him traveling to Guinea or SL,” a spokesperson for the ministry of health wrote in an email. 

  • Cuba nearly eliminates mother-to-child HIV infections

    Mosaic of the Cuban flag

    Cuba on 30 June became the first country in the world to receive validation from the World Health Organization (WHO) that it has eliminated mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV and syphilis. Low-level transmission still occurs there: In 2013, three babies were born with congenital syphilis and two with HIV. But the country has met the official WHO criteria for elimination: fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 live births for at least 1 year.

    Although Cuba is a relatively small country with an extremely low prevalence of HIV—it has fewer than 4000 HIV-infected women—Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne called this “a truly historic accomplishment.” Etienne said Cuba’s elimination of MTCT of HIV and syphilis “provides inspiration for other countries.”

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