Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Science group asks U.S. energy secretary to intervene in case of fired Los Alamos researcher

    Science group asks U.S. energy secretary to intervene in case of fired Los Alamos researcher

    A science advocacy group is calling on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to get involved in the case of political scientist James Doyle, who was fired by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) after publishing a scholarly article questioning the value of nuclear weapons.

    LANL officials have said that Doyle’s departure had nothing to do with the article and a subsequent procedural dispute that resulted in the lab retroactively classifying the paper, but was the result of budget reductions. But in a letter sent to Moniz yesterday, Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, D.C., expresses skepticism. “Although the Lab may deny it, it is hard to see this turn of events as anything but tacit retaliation against Doyle for his outspokenness and his embrace of what may be a dissenting view on national nuclear policy,” Ferguson writes.

  • Chinese academician snagged in corruption dragnet

    China’s antigraft campaign has ensnared a leading animal cloning researcher, according to Chinese news reports. The well-respected financial news magazine Caijing says that Li Ning, an animal breeding specialist at China Agricultural University (CAU), is under investigation for allegedly transferring research funds to companies in which he holds majority shares; he has not been seen in public since early July, the report says.

    When Chinese President Xi Jinping launched an anticorruption campaign at the end of 2012, he vowed to catch both “tigers and flies,” meaning officials at all strata of the nation’s leadership. The biggest catch so far is China’s former internal security czar Zhou Yongkang. Li, who was elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2007 at age 45, is the first academician targeted in the campaign.

    Li is a principal investigator on 18 major research projects in China, including the country’s well-funded transgenic project, according to CAU’s website. He is the director of CAU’s national key lab for agricultural biotechnology and leads teams in big animal cloning, stem cell research, and genetic engineering. Li’s bio also boasts of being a partner in the PigBioDiv2 project, a European Union–China collaboration under the European Union’s Fifth Framework Programme that aimed to assess diversity of pig breeds. According to Leif Andersson, an animal geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, Li provided tissue samples of Chinese domestic pigs to the project, which ended several years ago.

  • Iranian parliament ousts reform-minded science minister

    Reza Faraji-Dana

    Reza Faraji-Dana

    Office of the President of Islamic Republic of Iran

    A monthslong effort to breathe new life into Iranian universities is at a crossroads after the ouster on Wednesday of the nation’s reformist science minister, Reza Faraji-Dana. “His downfall is a sad day for science in Iran,” says a scientist at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous because of the uncertain political climate. “His heart was in the right place, and he was nudging universities in the right direction,” she says.

    Under Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, university leaders had steadily curtailed academic freedom by squelching debate on any topic deemed anathema or sensitive to the conservative establishment, purging liberal-minded administrators, and limiting the possibilities for researchers to travel or collaborate with colleagues overseas. Strengthening the higher education system has been a consistent theme of Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in August 2013.

  • Data check: Toward a more user-friendly census

    Jo Runjajic with an interactive exhibit on Australia's census.

    Jo Runjajic with an interactive exhibit on Australia's census.

    Questacon, courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—Jo Runjajic’s job at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is to improve the country’s next census in 2016. For any country, a better head count would result in better data for the public institutions, private businesses, and researchers that rely on the information. But those improvements won’t happen, she believes, until governments abandon their traditional way of thinking about how to collect data and adapt to today’s digital realities.

    “We need to think first about the respondents, rather than what is easiest for us,” said Runjajic, assistant director of census operations at ABS, in a talk here at a recent international conference on census methods sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau. The U.S. agency is hoping to use digital platforms in 2020 to collect the data and also reduce the number of fieldworkers needed to track down those who fail to fill out the census questionnaire the first time around. But Runjajic thinks that governments around the world will need to become more agile and tech-savvy if they hope to lower costs and achieve a more accurate census.

    In a follow-up conversation after returning to Canberra, Runjajic explained what she meant. The biggest expense in conducting a census is tracking down those who have ignored the government’s first invitation to fill out a census questionnaire. So increasing the pool of self-responders can save a ton of money.

  • Flow of Chinese grad students to U.S. slows

    Students from China's Harbin Engineering University compete in an international robotic submarine competition in San Diego, California, in 2011. The flow of Chinese students to U.S. universities has slowed in recent years.

    Students from China's Harbin Engineering University compete in an international robotic submarine competition in San Diego, California, in 2011.

    U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

    Is it finally happening?

    For years, U.S. university administrators have worried that China’s massive investment in higher education would eventually mean fewer Chinese students seeking to earn advanced science and engineering degrees at their institutions. A new survey from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) hints that the time may be approaching: For the second straight year, graduate applications from Chinese students are essentially flat. So is the number of acceptances, the first time that has happened in nearly a decade.

    China is the biggest single source of foreign applicants to U.S. graduate programs, composing roughly one-third of the total, so any changes in their behavior could have a potentially huge impact. And their presence is quite large: Chinese students submitted nearly 300,000 applications this year to the 285 universities that responded to the latest CGS survey and received nearly 72,000 offers of admission. (The survey’s respondents confer roughly two-thirds of all U.S. graduate degrees and represent 82 of the 100 largest graduate-degree awarding institutions.)

    A second striking finding is that the number of Indian students applying to graduate programs at U.S. universities has skyrocketed for the second straight year. (India represents the second largest source of foreign applications, supplying roughly 18% of the total.) The survey found that graduate applications from Indian students soared by 33% this year, after a jump of 22% in 2013. In contrast, 1% fewer Chinese students sought to enroll, compounding a 3% drop in 2013. Offers of admissions followed a similar pattern, increasing by 25% over last year for Indian students and holding steady for Chinese students.   

  • From high school math teacher to U.S. senator?

    Amanda Curtis

    Amanda Curtis

    Courtesy of Amanda Curtis

    Amanda Curtis drew up a life plan in college that included studying biology in preparation for “spending time in the lab, working on a cure for cancer.” She envisioned that her research would be interrupted by stints in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, its U.S. counterpart.

    Idealistic? Sure. But at 18, the Montana native saw that career path as a way to meld her love of science with her desire to improve the world.

    Then life happened. Curtis did indeed graduate with a biology degree from Montana Tech, a branch of the University of Montana in Butte. But she began to rearrange her game plan after her future husband “asked me if I would consider working on a community scale rather than on a global scale.” That knocked out the PeaceCorps and AmeriCorps. A summer internship taking water samples at a plant in Butte that her father had helped build “made me realize I did not want to spend my life in the lab,” she says. Instead, Curtis chose the classroom, and for the past decade she has taught secondary school math and science in Butte and nearby Helena, the state capital.

  • China pulls plug on genetically modified rice and corn

    Rice terraces in China

    Rice terraces in China

    Tine Steiss/Wikimedia

    China’s Ministry of Agriculture has decided not to renew biosafety certificates that allowed research groups to grow genetically modified (GM) rice and corn. The permits, to grow two varieties of GM rice and one transgenic corn strain, expired on 17 August. The reasoning behind the move is not clear, and it has raised questions about the future of related research in China.

    The ministry, with much fanfare, had approved the GM rice certificates in August 2009. The permits enabled a group at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan to produce two varieties of rice carrying a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria that provides pest resistance. At the same time, the ministry approved production of a corn strain developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute in Beijing. Researchers had altered the corn so that kernels contain phytase, a livestock feed additive that boosts absorption of phosphorus, which enhances growth. All of the certificates were valid for 5 years.

    Since the certificates were issued, however, public skepticism about the benefits of GM crops has grown in China. Some scientists conducting GM plant research have been attacked when giving public lectures.

  • Data check: Not so EAGER for NSF funding?

    Rahul Telang

    Rahul Telang

    Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University

    How do consumers react after learning that an online bank account has been hacked? Do they take their business elsewhere? Do they limit their online activities to reduce their exposure to such invasions?

    Those were some of the questions that intrigued Rahul Telang, a professor of information systems and management at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who studies the economics of information security. With data breaches an increasingly common problem, he suspected the behavior of hacked consumers could be having a significant impact on global commerce. But Telang didn’t have enough preliminary data to win a grant to study the issue from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which last year funded only 22% of the nearly 50,000 proposals it received.

    Fortunately for Telang, NSF offers a funding mechanism that supports the type of exploratory research he wanted to conduct. And this spring Telang received $200,000 to analyze how customers of one major financial institution actually responded to real data breaches. (The firm agreed to share a vast amount of anonymized data with the researcher.)

  • Scientists seek high bar for climate engineering experiments

    Sunset through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from space.

    Sunset through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from space.


    The first ever international public conference on geoengineering, the deliberate tinkering with Earth's atmosphere, is under way in Berlin. Researchers there are considering a call for stringent controls on future field experiments aimed at finding ways to curb climate change. Geoengineering ideas have included pumping particulates into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and installing mirrors in space.

    A draft “Berlin Declaration” distributed this week at the meeting calls on:

    “governments, research funding organizations and scientific and professional bodies to withhold approval or endorsement of any experimental work on such techniques without the establishment of an open and transparent review process.”

    Meeting participants are now debating the statement, the full text of which is here. One scientist, geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology in Palo Alto, California, told Motherboard's Brian Merchant that such language could stifle research. "How do you define 'experimental work on such techniques'?" Caldeira said. “I think it will end up doing more harm than good."

  • Chikungunya threat inspires new DARPA challenge

    Aedes albopictus is one of two mosquito species that transmit chikungunya virus, recently reported in the United States.

    Aedes albopictus is one of two mosquito species that transmit chikungunya virus, recently reported in the United States.

    CDC/James Gathany

    The research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense wants to know when and where the next outbreak of the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus will occur, and it’s offering $150,000 for the best new approach. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) today announced its first health-related challenge, which asks scientific teams to forecast over 6 months how the debilitating disease might spread in the Americas and the Caribbean.

    Why is the Defense Department taking a special interest in chikungunya? For starters, “it’s a really bad infection,” says Matthew Hepburn, a program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, who will run the challenge. The virus causes high fever, joint and muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue, and rash. It’s very rarely fatal, but the painful swelling of joints can be disabling and sometimes persists for months. With U.S. military deployed worldwide, “we have a strong interest in … trying to prevent our soldiers from being infected,” he says.

    But recently, the threat has gotten much closer to home. Once considered a disease of developing countries in African and Asia, chikungunya got a burst of scientific attention when it popped up on the French island of La Reunion in 2007. Then last December, it reached the island of St. Martin, and has now caused hundreds of thousands of cases in the Caribbean. The first four locally acquired cases in the United States were reported in Florida last month. Currently, there is no vaccine available.

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