Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Spanish plan for a funding agency gets lukewarm reception

    A row of telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

    A row of telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

    Bob Tubbs/wikimedia commons

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has finally made good on its promise to create a national science funding agency. On Friday, it announced the launch of the State Research Agency, which could start disbursing grants as early as 2017.

    The agency doesn't come with new money—instead it will usurp existing research budgets—but it will guarantee more stability in the funding stream and “more agile, flexible, and autonomous” management procedures, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which oversees Spanish science, wrote in its announcement.

    Scientists are cautiously optimistic, but many have questions. Few operational details have been provided so far, and there are doubts about the scientific independence of the agency’s management. Some researchers also wonder about the future of the agency if the ruling People’s Party (PP) loses the parliamentary elections, slated for 20 December.

  • Japan to resume whaling in defiance of international court ruling

    Minke whale

    Minke whale

    Len2040/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    Less than 2 years after the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands ruled that Japan must stop killing whales, Japan has announced that it will relaunch its program to hunt minke whales in the Antarctic, BBC reports.

    Japan joined an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, but continued with “scientific” whaling programs that it claimed were exempt from the agreement. Antiwhaling groups and countries have argued that the programs aren’t actually carried out for research purposes, and in 2014 the international court agreed. Japan put its programs on hold when the ruling came down, and now it has reduced the number of minke whales it plans to kill each year from 1000 to 333.

  • Optimism at Canada’s annual science policy summit, but also doubts

    Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

    Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

    Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

    OTTAWA—Scientists and policy experts gathered here last week for Canada’s premier science policy conference. It was the first since a new Liberal government took power, replacing a Conservative government that had drawn fierce complaints from many scientists as a result of its moves to muzzle government scientists, shut down science advisory mechanisms, and shuffle spending priorities. And although many participants expressed relief over the election results, they also voiced a list of research deficiencies and needs that seemed so long it took on almost liturgical tones.

    Speakers decried decimated science policy advisory mechanisms and politicians’ efforts to disregard evidence and sanitize documents. And they highlighted other problems. Stagnant research budgets. Muzzled government researchers. Excessive bureaucratic control. National labs converted into toolboxes for industry. Incentive systems that reward commercialization over discovery. Scientific R&D tax credits, loan programs and targeted research initiatives that yielded little industrial benefit, or were primarily aimed at again bailing out aerospace giant Bombardier.

    Odd, then, that Canada’s latest Nobel laureate, physicist Art McDonald, had a rosier view. Canadian science is actually quite robust, particularly basic research conducted within academia, he told ScienceInsider during an interview at the 7th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), held here from 25 to 27 November.

  • As Paris talks open, meet a geoscientist who has attended every major climate negotiation

    Jonathan Pershing last year at a meeting at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

    Dennis Schroeder / NREL

    As the world today kicks off the 21st, and perhaps biggest, meeting of nations who have joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Jonathan Pershing is aiming to keep his perfect attendance record.

    Pershing, a Ph.D. geologist turned climate diplomacy wonk, has attended every past conference of the parties (COP) to the framework agreement. Now, he’s attending the Paris meeting, known as COP-21, as a top technical advisor on energy matters to the U.S. delegation.

    After earning a doctorate in geology and geophysics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in 1990, Pershing landed a fellowship at the U.S. State Department. He then climbed the ranks to serve as one of the top U.S. negotiators at several world climate meetings between 2009 and 2012. At other times, he has attended the conferences representing the International Energy Agency and the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

  • U.K. science spared the budget ax and bolstered against inflation

    U.K. science spared the budget ax and bolstered against inflation
    Images Money/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

    For many research advocates, the news today was a huge relief: Funding for science in the United Kingdom will remain constant in real terms at £4.7 billion per year until 2021, according to a government spending review released today. “Hugely welcome news," says Imran Khan of the British Science Association in London. “Hugely encouraging,” adds Dominic Tildesley, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, also in London. Others, however, noted that many details remain unclear.

    Scientists were bracing for cuts. In preparing for its 4-year spending plan, the government had asked its departments to suggest budgets cuts of 25% to 40%. The Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), which funds the majority of U.K. science, will see its budget gouged by 17% to £11.5 billion in fiscal year 2020–21. But science funding will be protected, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in a speech to the House of Commons today. Over the past 5 years science funding has been kept at the same cash level, so is worth 6% less today than in 2010 because of inflation, pointed out Nicola Blackwood, chair of the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons. During this parliament, the science budget will rise in step with inflation.

    Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a private medical foundation based in London, is “reassured” by the protection of science funding, but cautions that “policies that essentially amount to flat cash—even if protected in real terms—can only be absorbed for a limited time.”

  • Researchers dispute lawmaker’s allegation that NOAA rushed climate study

    ocean buoy

    Data collected by satellites, land-based sensors, and NOAA ocean buoys like this are at the heart of the dispute.


    Scientists are disputing a prominent Republican congressman’s claims that federal climate researchers rushed a study to publication in order to advance the Obama administration’s policies. And yesterday a coalition of science groups released a letter decrying the lawmaker’s efforts to force researchers to release emails and other records surrounding the study.

    The moves mark the latest developments in a fight that has brewed for nearly 6 months. Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, says that whistleblowers within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have complained that their concerns about a major study published by Science this past June were ignored in a “rush to publication.”

    The study, led by NOAA researcher Thomas Karl, refuted previous findings that global warming had slowed since 1998. That “pause” has become a chief talking point of skeptics of mainstream climate science, including Smith. And the “timing of [the study’s] release raises concerns that it was expedited to fit the Administration’s aggressive climate agenda,” Smith wrote in an 18 November letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who oversees NOAA.

  • Compromise is key as major U.S. school reform looms

    Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

    Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN)

    Brookings Institution/Paul Morigi/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Last week’s 39-to-1 vote by a key congressional panel to scrap the much-maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law governing federal policy for elementary and secondary schools was a rare instance of Democrats and Republicans meeting in the middle on an important national issue. A key architect of that compromise was Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who has also emerged as the leading congressional advocate for an issue near and dear to the hearts of the U.S. academic research community: the need to ease federal rules that they say are stifling their productivity.

    The 19 November vote by House and Senate conferees is the penultimate step in putting to rest NCLB, which was passed in 2002. The new bill, which the House and Senate are expected to pass early next month and which President Barack Obama has applauded, would retain annual testing of math and reading in grades three through eight and require three science tests across a student’s career. It also folds a long-running program to fund innovative math and science initiatives into a block grant to the states.

    The new education bill gives states much more authority to monitor student performance, an essential change for conservatives unhappy with the current regime. At the same time, it retains the requirement that states must act to improve conditions for the lowest performing schools, a core principle for liberals. Congress has been unable to strike a similar balance on a host of other contentious policy issues, from health care to environmental regulation.

  • Progress, but still much to do, AIDS report finds

    A cell infected with HIV.

    A cell infected with HIV.

    NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Of the estimated 36.9 million HIV-infected people in the world, 70% live in sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, 49% do not know their HIV status and about 57% are not receiving antiretroviral drugs, according to a report released today by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

    The report, which arrives in the run-up to World AIDS Day on 1 December, celebrates the progress that has been made in getting antiretrovirals to 15.8 million people by June of 2015. But it also notes how far many countries are from meeting World Health Organization guidelines issued in September, which call for every infected person to receive treatment.

  • French agency asks academics to shed light on Paris attacks

    The new call is "a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity," CNRS says.

    Roberto Maldeno/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) has asked academics for proposals to help understand and prevent the type of violence that left 130 dead in Paris on 13 November and profoundly shocked the country. The call came in a letter from Alain Fuchs, the president of the flagship agency, who described it as "a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity with all those who, directly or indirectly, have been affected by the terrible events which, as we all know, can happen again.”

    The funding call aims to encourage scholars of all disciplines to work together and fill research gaps. “This understanding is crucial if we are to combat these phenomena more effectively—without being blinded by anger or resentment, which is the hallmark of terrorism and its perpetrators—by using our most potent weapons: intelligence and knowledge," Fuchs wrote. The call doesn't specify topics of interest or a budget; a CNRS spokesperson says that part of CNRS's €10 million budget for interdisciplinary projects may be used.

    Many academics welcome the initiative, especially because French politics are currently dominated by raw emotions. “At a time when ‘the gut’ too often tends to prevail over the brain, within the political class as in the media, any call to think can only be salutary,” says François Burgat, a CNRS political scientist at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim World in Aix-en-Provence.

  • Italy’s supreme court clears L’Aquila earthquake scientists for good

    L'Aquila's prefecture after the 2009 earthquake.

    Wikimedia Commons

    Six scientists convicted of manslaughter for advice they gave ahead of the deadly L'Aquila earthquake in 2009 today were definitively acquitted by Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome following lengthy deliberations by a panel of five judges. But the court upheld the conviction of a public official tried alongside them.

    The ruling marks the end of a 5-year legal process that has proven immensely controversial in the scientific world and beyond. In 2010 the seven were placed under investigation for allegedly giving false and fatal reassurances to the people of L'Aquila a few days ahead of the earthquake, which struck on 6 April 2009, killing 309. The seven were put on trial a year later and in 2012 were each handed 6-year jail sentences. At an appeal last year, however, six of them—three seismologists, a volcanologist, and two seismic engineers—were acquitted. The seventh, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who at the time of the quake was deputy head of Italy's civil protection department, remained convicted but with a reduced jail term of 2 years.

    The hearing at the Court of Cassation, which started yesterday, took place after appeals prosecutor Romolo Como asked that the convictions be reinstated. Although that possibility appeared remote, the five-judge panel, headed by Fausto Izzo, remained closed in their chamber for 10 hours before confirming the lower court’s decision.

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