Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.K. wants eyes in the sky to keep watch on its record marine reserve

    The waters around Pitcairn Island will become the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve.

    The waters around the Pitcairn Islands will become the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve.

    MJ Patterson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The United Kingdom plans to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in South Pacific waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands—and they are counting on satellites to help police it. Yesterday’s announcement of the 834,334-square-kilometer reserve marks the latest move to create a mega–marine reserve, following similar moves by other nations.  

    “This is a major development in marine conservation,” says Elliott Norse, chief scientist of the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington. “Adding another really big, important, protected area to the world’s pathetically small list of big, imported protected areas—that’s a big thing.”

    The announcement of the reserve, which will bar commercial fishing, mining, and other extractive uses, came in the U.K. government’s 2015 budget. It states that designation of the reserve “will be dependent upon reaching agreement with [nongovernmental organizations] on satellite monitoring” of reserve users, including fishing fleets, and on reaching deals with regional port authorities “to prevent landing of illegal catch.” The government also wants to identify “a practical naval method of enforcing” sea life protections “at a cost that can be accommodated within existing departmental expenditure limits.”

  • U.K. budget includes new money for innovation

    Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with the red budget box.

    Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne with the red budget box.

    Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

    One of the old traditions when the annual government budget is released in the United Kingdom is for the chancellor of the exchequer to carry his speech to the House of Commons in a red briefcase. This year’s budget, announced yesterday, contained few surprises for researchers—the core science budget is planned over 5 years—but did yield more than £240 million of additional funding and some details about previously announced commitments.

    “It is great to see the chancellor putting additional money into innovation and recognizing the value of science,” says Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), an advocacy group in the United Kingdom, which remains concerned about the effects of inflation on the flat budget for core funding.

     The new money will be spent mostly on technology-related research, according to a statement from CaSE. Specifically:

    • £100 million for R&D on driverless car technology

    • £60 million for a new “Energy Research Accelerator”

    • £40 million for R&D on the Internet of Things

  • House approves EPA 'secret science' bills despite White House veto threat

    Image of US Capitol

    Wally Gobetz/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Defying a White House veto threat, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved two mostly Republican-backed bills that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses scientific data and advice in writing its regulations. The bills, closely related to two measures that came up but died in previous Congresses, now go to the Senate. White House officials have already said that they would advise President Barack Obama to veto the bills, which have drawn opposition from science and environmental groups, if they arrive on his desk in their present form.

    Today, the House voted 241 to 175, mostly along party lines, to approve H.R. 1030, the EPA Secret Science Reform Act. It would bar EPA from issuing regulations that draw on data that have not been made public in a way that allows independent scientists to analyze it.

    Yesterday, the House approved, on a 236 to 181 vote, H.R. 1029, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. It would change the membership and procedural requirements for the agency’s federally chartered advisory panels of scientists and economists.

  • Bypass White House, come to Congress with spending request, key legislator tells NSF

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

    Office of Congressman John Culberson

    The new chair of a congressional spending panel that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA thinks those agencies should submit their budgets directly to the committee, without vetting by the White House. It’s the latest twist in the endless battle between Congress and the executive branch over how to set funding priorities, and comes from a legislator who says he’s just trying to give U.S. scientists what they need.  

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX) believes that the current budget process, during which agency spending plans get folded into the president’s annual request to Congress after negotiations with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), prevents legislators from getting an accurate picture of the nation’s research priorities. “We want to avoid having politics shape those decisions,” Culberson told NSF Director France Córdova yesterday at a hearing on NSF’s 2016 budget request.

    Of course, politics also rests at the core of Culberson’s suggestion. Legislators often pressure agency heads to talk about what they originally asked for, rather than what OMB eventually approved, in hopes that such inside information will give Congress an edge in its annual tug of war with the administration over spending.

  • NSF unveils plan to make scientific papers free

    Scientific journal articles will become freely available, thanks to new policies at major U.S. science agencies.

    Scientific journal articles will become freely available, thanks to new policies at major U.S. science agencies.

    Nationale Bank van Belgie - Banque nationale de Belgique/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) today released a long-anticipated policy that will require its grantees to make their peer-reviewed research papers freely available within 12 months of publication in a journal. The agency is not creating its own public archive of full-text papers, but instead will send those searching for papers to publishers’ own websites.

    Although that’s what most observers expected, it’s not what open-access advocates hoped for. “I’m disappointed,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a Washington, D.C.–based group which represents academic libraries. But scientific publishers who worry that full-text archives will harm journal revenues praised the plan. “This is a very good way to do things because it minimizes the cost to taxpayers without having to duplicate existing infrastructure,” says Frederick Dylla, CEO of the American Institute of Physics and a board member of a coalition of publishers that runs CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States), a system for providing links to papers on journal’s sites. (The coalition includes AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider.)

    Despite some grumbling, today’s NSF announcement marks a milestone: It means that essentially all of the major U.S. federal science agencies now have a public-access policy. That reflects a push starting in the late 1990s by some scientists and activists to make the results of taxpayer-funded research freely available to the public. Since 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has required its grantees to submit their accepted manuscripts to its PubMed Central repository, which posts full-text manuscripts online within 12 months of publication. And in February 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy ordered science agencies to come up with similar policies.

  • Reddit prompts citizen scientists to go dig up dirt

    Fungi grown from soil samples will be searched for compounds that could treat cancer and infectious disease.

    Fungi grown from soil samples will be searched for compounds that could treat cancer and infectious disease.

    Robert Cichewicz

    Thousands of citizen scientists around the country are getting their hands dirty collecting soil samples after the Internet bestowed a recent burst of attention on a soil sampling project. The crowdsourced project, which aims to find new drugs by cultivating fungi from soil samples, drew only moderate interest since it began in 2010. But it caught a lucky break on social media and has now exploded, surpassing researchers' wildest dreams in just a few days.

    Since Friday morning, when a reddit user posted a link to the website of the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program, run by the Natural Products Discovery Group at the University of Oklahoma, the group has received more than 4000 requests for soil collection kits—a huge boost from the 500 samples they collected over the past year. Researchers watched the project go viral, spreading on social media and other websites. One enthusiastic reddit user wrote, "I'd love to see what's hiding in the dirt under these redwoods!"

    "It's just incredible; this is exactly what we were hoping for. I wish I could say we were the architects of it, but it just happened, and it's awesome," says chemist Robert Cichewicz, lead scientist for the project.

  • In Italy, researchers blast proposal to ban seafloor mapping with air guns

    Scientists in Italy are protesting a move by politicians to outlaw the use of high-pressure blasts of air to map the sea floor. Backers of the ban say it is needed to protect marine mammals and other creatures that can be harmed by the noise created by so-called air guns. But opponents argue the measure—which includes jail terms of up to 3 years for violators—would damage research and energy prospecting efforts in Italian waters, and that there are less onerous ways to protect sea life.

    Air guns, which are towed by ships, use compressed air to generate sound waves that reflect off seafloor rock formations. Differences in the reflections allow researchers to map seafloor geology, and such seismic surveys are often used to identify new sources of oil and gas, as well as earthquake-generating faults or magma chambers that could create volcanic eruptions. But the noise created by air guns has been implicated in disturbing marine environments, and even causing the deaths of some marine mammals. As a result, many nations require survey vessels to take steps to protect sea life, such as halting surveys if animals are seen nearby or forbidding measurements in particularly sensitive regions or during certain seasons.

    No country has banned the technique outright, however, notes Elisabetta Erba, president of the Italian Geological Society in Rome. The Italian ban, which is part of an environmental protection bill, was proposed by two center-right senators and approved by Parliament’s upper house on a 114 to 103 vote on 3 March. The bill, which establishes a number of “eco crimes,” now awaits a vote in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

  • Feeling ignored by government, Canadian academics offer their own climate policy

     Feeling ignored by government, Canadian academics offer their own climate policy

    RicLaf/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Under the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has become a tough and frustrating political environment for researchers trying to advance evidence-based policies to reduce emissions. The country has withdrawn from international climate pacts, muzzled government climate researchers, and put new regulatory efforts on the back burner. Now, one group of prominent Canadian academics is trying to change the dynamic by releasing its own set of climate policy recommendations for the nation.

    “We believe that putting options on the table is long overdue in Canada,” write the 71 authors of the Sustainable Canada Dialogues report, released today. The authors, whose expertise ranges broadly across scientific, sociological, and political disciplines, were organized by Catherine Potvin, a climate and policy researcher at McGill University in Montreal. One goal, she says, is to encourage Canadians—and ultimately their government—to support “ambitious and thoughtful commitments to emission reductions” at a global negotiating conference set for Paris in December. The group is trying “to do whatever can be done to raise the level of ambition of Canada prior to the Paris conference,” Potvin tells ScienceInsider.

    “Climate change is the most serious ‘symptom’ of non-sustainable development,” concludes the report, which offers a detailed policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. It calls for Canada to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and eliminate at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. Ten major recommendations include calls to impose a price on carbon emissions through a tax or pollution permit trading system, add more solar and wind power to Canada’s bountiful hydropower supplies, and eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels.

  • Huge data gaps cloud fate of Arctic mammals

    Some polar bear populations are decreasing, a new analysis of Arctic mammals concludes.

    Some polar bear populations are decreasing, a new analysis of Arctic mammals concludes.

    Eric Regehr/USFWS

    A first-ever effort to gauge the ecological status of all 11 species of marine mammals living in the Arctic reveals a mixed picture—and a lot of missing information. Researchers found that although some populations appear to be coping with climate change, others are in decline. Overall, however, scientists found that little information is available on most of the 78 known populations.

    “Unless we fill critical data gaps, this is the information we have to base management decisions on for the foreseeable future—amid increasing development pressures,” says Kristin Laidre, the study’s lead author and a marine mammal biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center in Seattle.

    Laidre’s team looked at what is known about marine mammal populations that play a key role in Arctic ecosystems and human communities, focusing on polar bears, beluga whales, narwhals, bowhead whales, walrus, and six different seal species. Many of these animals are fierce predators that sit atop the food web, but Laidre’s team found that they are also important subsistence resources: Arctic people hunt nearly 80% of the studied populations for food and other uses. “In modern times, there are few other places in the world where wild top predators support humans,” Laidre notes.

  • Cancer institute plans new award for staff scientists

    NCI is launching an award to encourage labs to rely more on staff scientists and less on trainees.

    NCI is launching an award to encourage labs to rely more on staff scientists and less on trainees.

    Scripps Health via National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/Flickr

    The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) plans to test an idea aimed at bringing stability to biomedical research labs: an award to support scientists who want to spend their careers doing research but don’t want to be the harried principal investigator (PI) who runs the lab and chases research grants.

    Some biomedical research leaders have suggested that labs would operate more efficiently if they relied more on experts who stayed for years and less on short-term graduate students and postdoctoral trainees. It would also curb the cycle of PIs churning out too many young scientists for the available academic jobs, they argue. Last year, NCI Director Harold Varmus co-authored a commentary on coping with flat biomedical research funding that highlighted the importance of staff scientists. And Varmus, who is stepping down this month, mentioned NCI’s plans to launch a staff scientist award in his recent farewell letter.

    Last week, NCI’s Dinah Singer rolled out the details at an NCI Board of Scientific Advisors meeting. (Watch her talk at 2:20 here.) The K05 “research specialist award,” as NCI is calling it, would be aimed at scientists with a master’s, Ph.D., M.D., or other advanced degree holding positions such as lab research scientist, core facility manager, or data scientist.

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