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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Ukraine’s science minister aims to mend Soviet-era rift

    Serhiy Kvit in 2014.

    Serhiy Kvit in 2014.

    Ukraine Crisis Media Center

    In recent months, Serhiy Kvit, Ukraine’s education and science minister, has had the stressful task of overseeing the hurried relocation of 25 science-related institutions, including 11 universities, from separatist-controlled enclaves in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, or Donbas. The crisis, which began after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula last March, has overshadowed ambitious attempts that Kvit is helping orchestrate to reform Ukraine’s higher education and science. The latest move on this front is a draft science law promising sweeping changes, including a new competitive grants body similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation, that’s expected to be introduced into parliament in March or April.

    A literary critic and journalist by training and former president of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kvit, 49, has won high marks from reform-minded scientists since his appointment as minister in February 2014. On the sidelines of the AAAS meeting in San Jose, Kvit spoke with ScienceInsider about the strain of dealing with the crisis in Donbas and the challenges of reforming the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, which has been led since 1962 by 96-year-old metallurgist Boris Paton. This transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: The relocation of institutions from Donbas has been piecemeal: Many scientists and professors chose to remain in the separatist areas. Why?

    A: We didn’t move whole universities, just motivated students and teachers. Some people thought that if they left their labs in Donbas, they would have no opportunity to continue to be researchers. For others, they did not want to leave their apartments or their relatives behind. Very few are on the side of the Russians and the terrorists.

  • A new shot at reducing research red tape

    A new shot at reducing research red tape

    Ashley Fisher/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    No matter how much scientists complain about it, federal oversight of academic research isn’t going away. But could it be done better?

    The chair of a new National Academies panel examining how the government keeps tabs on its $40-billion-a-year investment wants that oversight “to be sensible enough so that investigators have more time to do research.” That’s a reference to an often-cited 2005 survey in which faculty say that “administrative tasks”—such as complying with agency reporting requirements—take up 42% of the time they devote to federally supported research projects.

    Speaking yesterday during a break at the panel’s first meeting in Washington, D.C., Larry Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas (UT), Austin, told ScienceInsider that “it would be a mistake to think that the only purpose of this study is to lighten the regulatory burden on universities. Regulation is required, it’s justified, and it’s needed. What we’re trying to do is guide both government and higher education to find more efficient ways to address those needs.”

  • Open records laws becoming vehicle for harassing academic researchers, report warns

    Disclosure

    Credit: Jared Rodriguez/Truthout/Flickr

    The electronic age of communication is making it easier for activists, companies, and lobbying groups to use state open records laws—designed to promote transparency—to harass academic researchers they disagree with, a scientific integrity group warns in a new report. The findings underscore the need for states to revisit how the laws are implemented and for universities to clarify how they balance privacy, transparency, and academic freedom in responding to requests for e-mails, letters, and other documents, the report argues.

    “[I]ndividuals and well-heeled special interests across the political spectrum are increasingly using broad open records requests to attack and harass scientists and other researchers and shut down conversation at public universities,” warns the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which was unveiled today at a session of the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) in San Jose, California. It documents numerous examples of university researchers becoming engaged in often lengthy and complex battles with outside groups requesting internal records.

    But that doesn’t have to happen, concludes the report, authored by Michael Halpern, a program manager for strategy and innovation at UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy in Washington, D.C. “If lawmakers, universities, and researchers develop a shared understanding of what they should disclose and a system for proactively doing so, they can avoid costly and time-consuming lawsuits and other battles,” it states. “And that, in turn, will allow researchers to get back to what they are supposed to be doing: learning more about our world.”

  • Researchers call for interstellar messages to alien civilizations

    A graphic message sent into space by the Arecibo radio telescope in the 1970s.

    A graphic message sent into space by the Arecibo radio telescope in the 1970s.

    Arne Nordmann/Creative Commons

    SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—Is it time to send deliberate messages to the stars, in the hopes of reaching alien civilizations? Advocates in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) say that moment is long overdue. But other researchers want to take a more cautious approach and seek an international consensus before outing Earth to the rest of the universe. Scientists in both camps faced off today at a debate held at a meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) here.

    Douglas Vakoch, the director of interstellar message composition at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, doesn’t dismiss the need to consider ethical or political issues, but says that it will be tough to achieve a consensus. “It’s ‘either-or’ thinking,” he says. “Either we have international discussion, or we transmit. We should be doing both.” But David Brin, an astrophysicist and science fiction author here, says that Earth’s relative radio quietude should not be changed so radically, so quickly. “If you’re going to transform one of the major characteristics … of our planet, we’ve learned that small groups shouldn’t do that peremptorily.”

  • Updated: Agricultural researchers rattled by demands for documents from group opposed to GM foods

    GM food opponents, like these in Los Angeles, are adopting new strategies that put academics on the spot.

    GM food opponents, like these in Los Angeles, are adopting new strategies that put academics on the spot.

    Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Corbis

    The fierce public relations war over genetically modified (GM) food has a new front. A nonprofit group opposed to GM products filed a flurry of freedom of information requests late last month with at least four U.S. universities, asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms. The scientists—many of whom have publicly supported agricultural biotechnologies—are debating how best to respond, and at least one university has already rejected the request.

    “It seems like a fishing expedition to me,” says geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California (UC), Davis, one of six UC researchers targeted by the requests. “I am very worried [the correspondence] is going to be used to sully the reputations of scientists.” The tactic is familiar in another controversial area, climate science, where researchers have faced an avalanche of document requests from climate change skeptics.

    The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, says it has no vendetta. It has targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms, and work in states with laws that require public institutions to share many internal documents on request, says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business, he says, and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.”

    (After this article was published, ScienceInsider learned that a number of the scientists receiving freedom of information requests from USRTK have no involvement with GMO Answers. In an e-mail, Ruskin writes that he was incorrect on this point and apologized for the error. He says he requested documents from the scientists with no connection to GMO Answers as a result of their public statements pertaining to California's 2012 GM food labeling proposition, which was defeated.)

  • Why Italian earthquake scientists were exonerated

    Damage from the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

    DARKROOM DAZE/FLICKR (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Six scientists convicted of manslaughter in 2012 for advice they gave ahead of the deadly L'Aquila earthquake were victims of "uncertain and fallacious" reasoning. So say the three judges who acquitted the experts and reduced the sentence of a seventh defendant last November. In a 389-page document deposited in court on Friday and since released to the public, the trio of magistrates attack the convictions on multiple grounds and state that no blame can be laid on the scientists for the risk analysis they carried out (find links to document in first sentence here). Other scientists, however, accuse the judges of failing to understand modern seismology.

    The six scientists—three seismologists, a volcanologist, and two seismic engineers—together with a public official were put on trial in 2011 for advice they gave at a meeting of an official government advisory committee known as the Major Risks Commission held on 31 March 2009. The judge in that trial, Marco Billi, concluded that the experts' advice was unjustifiably reassuring and led some of the 309 victims of the earthquake, which struck L'Aquila in the early hours of 6 April 2009, to underestimate the threat posed by the ongoing "swarm" of tremors and so remain indoors on that fateful night rather than seek shelter outdoors. Describing the experts' risk analysis as "superficial, approximate and generic," Billi sentenced each of them to 6 years in jail.

  • Goodbye chronic fatigue syndrome, hello SEID

    A new report tries to simplify diagnosis of what were called ME/CFS patients and says that cardiopulmonary exercise tests are not necessary.

    A new report tries to simplify diagnosis of what were called ME/CFS patients and says that cardiopulmonary exercise tests are not necessary.

    Zuma Press Inc./Alamy

    A committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has proposed a new name for a condition known variously as chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis. The unwieldy new moniker: systemic exertion intolerance disease, or SEID. In a report released today, the committee also suggests a new set of diagnostic criteria for SEID.

    After reviewing more than 9000 scientific studies, hearing testimony from experts, and soliciting input from the public, the committee concluded that “the name ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ has done a disservice to many patients,” calling it  “stigmatizing and trivializing.” Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), they noted, “does not accurately describe the major features of the disease.”

    At least 20 sets of diagnostic criteria exist, the committee noted, which has confused patients, clinicians, and their families, as well as researchers studying the disease. The proposed diagnostic criteria are more focused on “the central symptoms” such as a reduced or impaired ability to work and study, malaise after exertion, and “unrefreshing” sleep.  The report, “Beyond Myalgic Encephalitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Redefining an Illness,” runs 235 pages.

  • RIKEN announces penalties related to stem cell fiasco

    TOKYO—RIKEN, the network of nationally supported Japanese labs, today handed out disciplinary measures for those involved in the STAP stem cell scandal who remain under its authority.

    The actions result from nearly a year's worth of investigations centered on an article and a letter published online in Nature on 29 January 2014 that described a new and extremely simple way of generating stem cells called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Nature retracted the papers last July. Even before the retraction, a RIKEN panel found lead author Haruko Obokata guilty of research misconduct for fabricated and falsified images. Investigators also concluded that several of Obokata's supervisors bore a heavy responsibility for the mess because of their lax oversight. 

    Obokata resigned in December after failing to reproduce her research results. Also in December, a RIKEN investigative team concluded that STAP cells never existed and that indications of pluripotency reported in experiments likely resulted from contamination of cell lines.

  • Stem cell pioneer joins forces with stem cell fraudster

    Shoukhrat Mitalipov (left), of Oregon Health & Science University and MitoGenome Therapeutics, shakes hands with Woo Suk Hwang of Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul (second from right) and two others to seal a cooperative research agreement.

    Shoukhrat Mitalipov (left), of Oregon Health & Science University and MitoGenome Therapeutics, shakes hands with Woo Suk Hwang of Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul (second from right) and two others to seal a cooperative research ag

    Boyalife

    The scientist who once fraudulently claimed to have created embryonic stem cells matched to human patients and the one who really did it plan to conduct joint research, a Korean newspaper reported this morning. A Chinese regenerative medicine company will provide financial support, according to the account.

    The two scientists would seem an odd match. In 2006, Woo Suk Hwang had to retract two papers published in Science in which his team claimed it had used the technique employed in cloning Dolly the sheep to create human embryonic stem cells matched to specific people who had various diseases.    After investigators determined all the claims were bogus, Hwang was fired from Seoul National University and later convicted of embezzling research funds and bioethics violations. He escaped jail time with a suspended sentence. Since his downfall, Hwang has quietly continued his cloning work on animals, particularly pet dogs, at Seoul-based Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, a private institute friends established specifically for him.

  • A little bias in peer review scores can translate into big money, simulation finds

    A little bias in peer review scores can translate into big money, simulation finds

    sanickels/Flickr

    Late last month, many scientists submitted their first grant proposals of the year to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest U.S. funder of biomedical research. Each will be graded by a panel of external reviewers—scientists who volunteer to rate the merit of the ideas presented by their peers. The scores peer reviewers award will play a big role in deciding which proposals NIH funds, and the process is extremely competitive: In 2014, the agency funded just 18.8% of the more than 27,000 proposals for a bread-and-butter R01 grant.

    In recent years, however, some observers have been questioning whether merit alone determines the outcome of such peer reviews, which many agencies around the world use to award research grants. Some studies have found that certain geographic or demographic groups, such as minorities or researchers from certain states, can fare unusually poorly in funding competitions, raising concerns that bias—conscious or unconscious—is skewing scores. Other experiments have raised questions about the role of randomness and subjectivity in scoring, showing that two groups of reviewers can give the same proposals very different scores, leading to different funding outcomes.

    Now, a new computer simulation explores just how sensitive the process might be to bias and randomness. Its answer: very. Small biases can have big consequences, concludes Eugene Day, a health care systems engineer at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, in Research Policy. He found that bias that skews scores by just 3% can result in noticeable disparities in funding rates.

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