Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Can unrest be predicted?

    According to an analysis of Twitter data, social unrest like the riots and marches in Baltimore can be predicted ahead of time.

    According to an analysis of Twitter data, social unrest like the riots and marches in Baltimore can be predicted ahead of time.

    AP Photo/Matt Rourke

    The broken glass and burned wreckage are still being cleared in the wake of the riots that convulsed Baltimore's streets on 27 April. The final trigger of the unrest was the funeral of a 25-year-old African-American man who had died in police custody, but observers point to many other root causes, from income inequality to racial discrimination. But for a few researchers who are studying Baltimore's unrest, the question is not the ultimate causes of the riot but its mechanism: How do such riots self-organize and spread? One of those researchers, Dan Braha, a social scientist at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been collecting data from Twitter that spans the riot from buildup to aftermath, part of a larger study of social media and social unrest around the world.

    Q: What can you learn about the Baltimore riots from social media?

    A: The protesters are mostly teens who use social media routinely. The riots that started around 3:30 p.m.—ignited by messages on social media urging high school students to “purge”—spread within 3 hours around the city. It's interesting to see the pattern of spread, much like forest fires, spreading in clusters and locally. The riots, in my view, could easily spread also across other cities in the United States where racial tensions are high and are close to a tipping point.

  • President’s science adviser attacks COMPETES bill in U.S. House, raises concern about NASA bill

    John Holdren at a White House event earlier this year.

    John Holdren at a White House event earlier this year.


    The president’s science adviser today criticized science policy legislation moving through the U.S. House of Representatives, hinting that his boss would veto the two bills if they ever reached his desk.

    Speaking at the annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy sponsored by AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), John Holdren had harsh words for the America COMPETES Act approved last week by the House science committee. He also expressed concern about a bill being marked up today by the science committee to reauthorize NASA programs. It’s the first comment on either bill by the White House, which typically refrains from taking an official position on legislation until it is scheduled for a vote by the full House or Senate.

    “In my personal opinion, the COMPETES bill as it now stands is bad for science, it’s bad for scientists and engineers, bad for the federal science agencies, and damaging to the world-leading U.S. scientific enterprise,” Holdren told the Washington, D.C., audience.

  • World's biggest telescope will build its headquarters in the United Kingdom

    An artist's impression shows the proposed extension to SKA's current building at Jodrell Bank.

    An artist's impression shows the proposed extension to SKA's current building at Jodrell Bank.

    University of Manchester

    The partners planning to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be by far the world’s biggest radio telescope, have passed up the chance of headquartering the organization in the historic Castello Carrarese in the northern Italian city of Padua and will instead move into a new purpose-built HQ at Jodrell Bank near Manchester, U.K., SKA’s current interim home.

    At a meeting at Jodrell Bank yesterday, the 11 partners—Australia, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom—weighed up bids from the United Kingdom and Italy and came down in favor of the former. “Now we’ll begin formal negotiations with the United Kingdom to establish the headquarters at Jodrell Bank,” says SKA Director General Philip Diamond.

    Italy was something of an underdog in the competition to host the SKA HQ, which began last year with an invitation to bid. Castello Carrarese was used as a prison for much of the 20th century and is now being renovated. Padua is also home to an observatory of Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics and a world-class university. Jodrell Bank is the site of Britain’s Lovell Telescope which, although built in 1957, remains the third largest steerable radio dish. The site is 30 kilometers from the university city of Manchester.

  • New version of cures bill recommends $10 billion boost for NIH

    An ambitious effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to jump-start biomedical innovation took another step forward today with the release of a bipartisan draft bill. The so-called 21st Century Cures Act contains huge news for supporters of biomedical research: It recommends substantial budget increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including $10 billion in extra funding over 5 years. Other provisions aimed at speeding the drug approval process at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are mostly unchanged from an earlier version, but some incentives for drug developers have been removed.

    Although the call for increased NIH funding is aspirational—the bill can only recommend funding levels, not require congressional appropriators to provide the cash—it is still “some of the best news for NIH funding since 2003,” says Patrick White, president of Act for NIH, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. (A big one-time budget increase as part of the 2009 to 2010 stimulus funding was another high point, he notes.)

    United for Medical Research, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of research, patient, and industry groups, commented that a $10 billion increase would “help put the NIH on a sustainable growth path and ensure the United States remains the world’s medical innovation leader.” Other provisions affecting NIH have drawn concern, however, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), based in Rockville, Maryland, calls the draft bill “a mixed bag.”

  • Senate advances 'secret science' bill, setting up possible showdown with White House

    Image of US Capitol

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

    Republicans in Congress appear to be headed for a showdown with the White House over controversial “secret science” legislation aimed at changing how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses scientific studies. A deeply divided Senate panel yesterday advanced a bill that would require EPA to craft its policies based only on public data available to outside experts. The House of Representatives has already passed a similar measure. But Democrats and science groups have harshly criticized the approach, and the White House has threatened a veto.

    The House and Senate bills are the product of long-standing complaints—mostly from conservative lawmakers—that EPA relies too heavily on raw data that are not easily available to outsiders. Republicans on the House science committee, for instance, have been waging a long-running battle with EPA officials over the release of health data used to support air pollution regulations. The bill’s opponents, however, say the calls for transparency are aimed at blocking the agency from using certain types of confidential data, potentially delaying or imperiling new environmental regulations to industry’s gain.

    Both perspectives got airtime during yesterday’s debate in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works over S. 544, the Secret Science Reform Act. It would require EPA to base all its rules, assessments, and guidance on data that is “transparent” and “reproducible.” The legislation, sponsored by Senator John Barrasso (R–WY), serves as a companion to a measure that the House approved last month mostly with GOP votes.

  • U.S. won’t drop census questions on college major and marital history

    This question won’t be disappearing from the American Community Survey after a show of support from researchers.

    This question won’t be disappearing from the American Community Survey after a show of support from researchers.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    The U.S. Census Bureau has decided not to drop questions from its annual American Community Survey (ACS) about marital history and what people studied in college after researchers complained about the pending loss of important data.

    Last fall, the agency had proposed removing the questions in a bid to streamline the 72-question survey, begun in 2005 as a replacement for the so-called long form of the decennial census. The questions had scored low in a review that evaluated whether they were mandated by Congress, their cost, the burden to respondents, and their overall utility.

    In a Federal Register notice posted today, the Census Bureau says it received 1361 comments urging it to retain three questions (#21, #22, and #23) relating to marital history and status and 625 comments asking it to preserve the question (#12) about a resident’s undergraduate college major. Demographers and social scientists say states already do a poor job of providing marriage data and that federal registries are “a disgrace.” The National Science Foundation had spent years lobbying for the Census Bureau to include the college-major question, arguing that it is essential for monitoring trends in the scientific workforce.

  • Journal responds to controversy over embryo gene-editing paper

    The journal that days ago published the first-ever paper on an attempt to genetically modify human embryos has come out in defense of its decision and rebuffed claims that the paper was not adequately peer reviewed.

    The paper appeared online on 18 April in Protein & Cell, which is co-published by Springer and an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education. Junjiu Huang and colleagues at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou describe their efforts to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to alter a gene in abnormal human embryos. Their gene-editing effort was not very successful and introduced many unintentional mutations.

    The paper has touched off a furor from scientists and others who have called for a moratorium on any efforts to establish a pregnancy with such a genetically modified embryo. Many have deemed Huang’s experiment unethical, and Huang himself has reportedly said that the paper was rejected by Science and Nature in part for ethical reasons.

  • Will a kinder, gentler census survey placate congressional foes?

    Excerpt from a Census Bureau pamphlet explaining that U.S. law requires recipients to respond to the American Community Survey.

    Excerpt from a Census Bureau pamphlet explaining that U.S. law requires recipients to respond to the American Community Survey.

    Census Bureau

    The U.S. Census Bureau is proud of the high response rate on its American Community Survey (ACS), an annual sampling of the U.S. population begun in 2005 to replace the long form of the decennial census.

    But those results don’t come easily—or cheap. Despite a law requiring people to participate in the survey, only about half of the 295,000 households chosen each month actually complete the 72-question ACS on their own. For the rest, the agency takes a series of steps to badger or cajole them into completing the survey, including home visits. That extra effort eventually bumps up the response rate to an impressive 97%.

    Such diligence by a federal agency would normally win praise from Congress. But several Republican legislators regard the survey, which provides policymakers and social scientists with an exquisitely detailed portrait of the country and is used to determine how to distribute half a trillion dollars in federal aid, as a form of harassment and an invasion of privacy.

  • Heartland danger zones emerge on new U.S. earthquake hazard map

    New map highlights earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced, or human-caused, quakes.

    New map highlights earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced, or human-caused, quakes.


    The gentle landscape of southern Kansas doesn’t exactly shout “earthquake country.” Until recently, the notoriously flat state had just two of the seismic stations used for recording and locating earthquakes. Now, 21 are in place. They have been sorely needed. Since 2013, 192 earthquakes bigger than magnitude 2 have hit Harper and Sumner counties, on the border with Oklahoma, up from just two in the previous 35 years. “It feels like we’re on the front lines of this thing,” says Rex Buchanan, the state geologist for the Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence.

    Across the U.S. heartland, an oil and gas boom has driven a surge of small to moderate earthquakes. Scientists say that deep underground injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations is triggering the tremors by pushing critically stressed faults past the snapping point. On 23 April, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report that, for the first time, accounts for these human-caused, or induced, earthquakes in a map of seismic hazards across the country. The new map highlights 17 areas in eight states with frequent induced earthquakes (see boxed areas on map). The probability of dangerous levels of ground shaking in some of these areas, such as the one that bleeds from central Oklahoma into southern Kansas, rivals that of California, the traditional earthquake king. “It was kind of a surprise,” says Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project in Golden, Colorado.

    So far, most induced earthquakes have done no more than rattle windows. But a few have been big enough to damage buildings, and now USGS says that it can’t rule out the possibility of a magnitude-7 temblor, which would cause widespread damage.

  • Greek government raids research funds to pay public salaries

    Greek government raids research funds to pay public salaries

    Trine Juel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Greek scientists are angry and incredulous at what they see as a double-pronged government attack on the country's research system: the confiscation of research funding to plug a hole in Greece's ever worsening finances, and a new reform of higher education that they say will make universities more politicized and less meritocratic.

    The cash seizure was authorized in an emergency decree passed by Greece's Parliament in a heated and emotional session last week. The decree forces local government and other state bodies to transfer their cash reserves to the Bank of Greece in order to pay salaries and pensions of public-sector employees. As Science went to press, it remained unclear exactly how much money would be targeted and when it would be taken, but researchers expect the government to grab funds set aside to pay for overheads. These amount to as much as 20% of the value of grants and pay for utility bills and temporary staff as well as expenses that are not covered up front by research agencies.

    Costas Fotakis, research minister in the government coalition led by the left-wing Syriza Party, describes the move as an "interim measure" that will place the money in accounts with high interest rates of 2.5% and return it later. "We do hope that a fair agreement in the ongoing negotiations for the Greek debt will be reached soon, by the end of June," he said in an e-mail. "Then this measure will be waived."

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