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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • The Insider's Guide to 2013

    Viking saga. A story about a group of NASA researchers who dressed up as Vikings in an effort to promote space science, and in the process sparked an investigation by a U.S. Senator, was one of ScienceInsider's most-read stories of 2013.

    Ved Chirayath

    ScienceInsider’s most read stories of 2013 make for an eclectic mix—Space Vikings and “invisible” drug trials, a fusion “breakthrough” that wasn’t, and a controversial effort to reshape grantmaking criteria at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Here’s the Top 10:

    1. U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants: When Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House of Representatives science committee, suggested that NSF ensure its grants are in the national interest, researchers blew a gasket. The issue was also the topic of the year’s #8 story, NSF Peer Review Under Scrutiny by House Science Panel.

    2. Unmasking 'Invisible' Drug Trials: Fed up by the fact that only about one-half of all clinical trials are published, a group of researchers in June launched an unusual initiative called RIAT, Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials.

    3. Scientists Condemn Destruction of Golden Rice Field Trial: The August destruction of a field of experimental, genetically modified rice in the Philippines drew protests from scientists.

  • China to Break Ground on Antarctic Base

    BEIJING—After a weeklong, 522-kilometer traverse, a 28-strong team of Chinese scientists and engineers is due to arrive tomorrow in the heart of Princess Elizabeth Land in East Antarctica to start building China’s fourth Antarctic base. 

    The new base, called Taishan, will sit 2621 meters above sea level in “a part of Antarctica we know very little about,” says Robin Bell, a glaciologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She and others are looking forward to using Taishan as a launch pad for probing the geological history of the Grove Mountains and the glaciology of the Amery Ice Shelf.  

  • Gay Math Genius Receives Royal Pardon

    <b>Exonerated.</b> British mathematician Alan Turing was formally pardoned today.

    Exonerated. British mathematician Alan Turing was formally pardoned today.

    National Portrait Gallery, London

    Alan Turing, the British mathematician whose code-breaking is believed to have shortened World War II, was granted a royal pardon today, more than 60 years after being convicted for homosexual behavior and undergoing chemical castration. "Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science," U.K. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said in a statement issued today. "A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man."

    Turing, widely seen as the father of modern computing, was working at the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Bletchley Park when he cracked the Enigma code, used by Germany to encrypt its military communications. Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 after admitting to a homosexual relationship and was forced to take female hormones as an alternative to jail. He committed suicide in 1954 by ingesting cyanide.

    The U.K. government had apologized for the conviction in 2009, calling Turing's treatment "appalling." But it had previously resisted granting a pardon, despite an e-petition signed by more than 37,000 people, including high-profile scientists like Stephen Hawking. Its policy is based on whether the crime violated existing laws—even if the laws are considered unfair today.

  • Science Nominees Are Home for the Holidays

    A slow walk. Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) HELP committee voted last week on Obama’s choice of France Córdova to be the next NSF director.

    A slow walk. Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) HELP committee voted last week on Obama’s choice of France Córdova to be the next NSF director.

    US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pension

    On Friday, the U.S. Congress made sure that France Córdova and several other scientists would be spending the holidays with family and friends rather than house-hunting in Washington, D.C.

    Córdova, a 65-year-old astrophysicist, was nominated on 31 July to be the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But the process of having the U.S. Senate confirm a president’s choices to serve in his administration is broken. And even though Córdova and her colleagues aren’t the ones who have fueled the recent headline-grabbing congressional battles over presidential nominees, the fallout has slowed the process for everyone.

    In Córdova’s case, her nomination is so noncontroversial that the Senate panel responsible for vetting her, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), didn’t even hold a hearing on her qualifications and plans to run the $7 billion agency. Still, it took the Democratic-led panel until last Wednesday—some 140 days after her name was announced—to give its approval. And that step came during an emergency session conducted in an anteroom off the Senate floor, as legislators rushed to complete work on an overall budget deal and a spending plan for the Department of Defense before taking a 2-week recess.

  • E.U. Clinical Trials Reform Leaps Forward

    BRUSSELS—Researchers will have to disclose the results of clinical trials conducted in the European Union under a provisional agreement reached here today. Representatives of the European Union's 28 member states have approved a deal with the European Parliament—a decisive step forward as part of a wider reform to simplify and speed up authorization procedures for clinical trials across the bloc.

    Advocates for easier public access to clinical trial results have praised the outcome of the negotiations, which they say sets a global example. Today's agreement is “a fantastic result at a very important stage of negotiation,” the AllTrials campaign in the United Kingdom said in a statement.

    Between 2007 and 2011, the number of applications for clinical trials in the European Union dropped by 25%. In July last year, the European Commission tabled a proposal to overhaul the European Union's unpopular 2001 clinical trials directive to cut down on red tape, make Europe a more attractive location for clinical research, and improve the transparency of clinical trials information.

    As the proposal moved forward through the E.U. system, activists succeeded in convincing E.U. policymakers to include further changes that help ensure that trial outcomes are made public whether the sponsor prefers to do so. One of the most notable novelties is a requirement to publish every trial's results in a database managed by the European Medicines Agency. “Irrespective of the outcome of the clinical trial, within one year from the end of a clinical trial in all member states concerned, the sponsor shall submit to the EU database a summary of the results of the clinical trial,” says the draft agreement, seen by ScienceInsider. This should also include a summary “written in a manner that is understandable to lay persons.”

  • Critics of H5N1 Studies Lobby European Commission

    José Manuel Barroso

    José Manuel Barroso

    European Commission

    The European Commission needs to take an interest in the controversy over so-called gain-of-function studies with dangerous viruses and should initiate a risk-benefit analysis for this line of research, 56 scientists from more than a dozen countries write in a letter sent to commission President José Manuel Barroso. The 18 December letter accuses the European Society for Virology (ESV) of making "misleading scientific statements" when it lobbied Barroso in support of the hotly debated studies 2 months ago.

    At issue are studies to find out which mutations might make dangerous viruses like the H5N1 avian influenza strain more easily transmissible between humans. Critics of such research argue that its risks, such as an accidental escape from the lab, don't outweigh the potential benefits.

  • NIH Takes Steep Fall in Best Places to Work Survey

    Flagging morale? Survey points to employee unhappiness at the National Institutes of Health.

    Flagging morale? Survey points to employee unhappiness at the National Institutes of Health.

    National Institutes of Health

    The latest survey of U.S. government workers confirms that 2013 was a tough year to be a federal employee. And the malaise from sequestration and continued political gridlock (although the survey was taken 5 months before the 16-day government shutdown in October) seems to have been felt especially hard by those working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    The annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey released this week records a 3–point drop in the average score across all government agencies, to 57.8 on a scale of 100. That’s the third straight decline, and the lowest score in the survey’s 10-year history. The news for NIH is even worse: Its score plunged by 6.5 points, to 62.7.

    The biggest factor in an organization’s performance is what workers think of their bosses, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzes the survey done each year by the Office of Personnel Management. And NIH Director Francis Collins and his team took it on the chin this year: NIH’s score on effective leadership fell by 4.2 points, to 55.4.

  • The Secret Half-Lives of Scientific Papers

    Scholarly papers can have relatively long “half-lives,” finds a survey released yesterday by a U.S.-based association of publishers. More than one-half of the total downloads of the articles covered by the survey took place more than 2 years after publication, while in some fields it took more than 4 years for a paper to hit its half-life.

    The findings come as the U.S. government, and other governments around the world, attempt to establish policies and deadlines for making government-funded research published in private journals freely available to the public. U.S. officials have suggested that allowing publishers to keep taxpayer-funded papers behind paywalls for a year should be adequate to protect the business model of journals that charge fees to access papers. Some publishers have generally agreed, but others have pushed back, saying that’s not enough time. The new survey, sponsored by the Professional/Scholarly Publishing (PSP) Division of the Association of American Publishers in Washington, D.C., injects some hard data into the debate.

    “There has been extensive dialogue surrounding public access and embargo periods but assumptions, opinions and ideas have never been grounded in actual data about usage of journal literature,” said John Tagler, PSP’s executive director, in a statement. “Rigorous, scientifically sound studies such as this are critical to setting rational and effective policy.” The results, Tagler added, support the view that “a one-size-fits-all embargo period for scholarly works will not fairly address disparities in journal usage.”

  • Old Data Play Hard to Get, Study Finds

    The older the raw data, the harder it is to get your hands on. That’s the perhaps-not-unsurprising message of a new study by a group of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, who set out to track down the authors of 516 papers published between 2 and 22 years ago.

    Evolutionary biologist Timothy Vines, of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada, got the idea for the project after finishing up a paper late last year about how archiving policies at journals affected the availability of data. Vines began wondering about a broader question: How fast do data (or the people generating it) disappear?

    Vines and his colleagues focused on a type of data collection that hasn’t changed all that much, certain types of morphological studies of plants and animals. They focused on 516 papers published after 1990, examining only those that appeared in odd-numbered years to make their list more manageable. They searched for author e-mail addresses online.

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