ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Updated: FIRST Bill Draws Early Opposition

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is among those opposed to the recently introduced FIRST Act.

    Opposed. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is among those opposed to the recently introduced FIRST Act.

    U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology/Democrats

    University groups and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have begun to weigh in on a legislative proposal by Republicans to reshape a major chunk of the U.S. government’s science funding enterprise—and so far there’s a lot of skepticism.

    A prominent scientific society today also released an analysis that compares funding levels proposed by the Republican bill and a competing proposal from Democrats. The two parties are taking "vastly different" approaches, concludes budget analyst Matthew Hourihan of AAAS in Washington, D.C., which publishes ScienceInsider.

    On Tuesday, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, introduced a bill—the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act (H.R. 4186)—that would shape key research, education, and policy programs at the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is intended to be a follow-on to the COMPETES Act of 2010, which also covered programs at the Energy and Commerce departments. (Smith plans to deal with many of those programs in a separate bill.)

    Under discussion for about a year, FIRST includes a number of provisions that have drawn criticism from research and university groups. Some of those concerns are likely to be aired Thursday, when a subcommittee of the House science panel is scheduled to debate and vote on the measure, which will then move to the full committee.

    In a press release, Smith said FIRST is intended to help the United States remain globally competitive and ensure “that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”

  • German RNA Vaccines Company Bags €2 Million E.U. Vaccine Prize

    The heat is on. CureVac showed that one of its vaccines remained intact after being stored at 40°C for half a year.

    The heat is on. CureVac showed that one of its vaccines remained intact after being stored at 40°C for half a year.

    CureVac

    BRUSSELS—CureVac, a company based in Tübingen, Germany, that develops RNA-based vaccines and therapies, has won a €2 million prize awarded by the European Commission to stimulate new vaccine technologies that might help the developing world. An expert jury says that the company's research could lead to a new generation of vaccines that don't need refrigeration—a massive benefit in many poor countries where power and equipment are in short supply.

    Most of the prize money will go to new research and a company party, but CureVac also plans to use some of it to build an exhibit honoring Friedrich Miescher, a 19th century Swiss scientist whose discovery of nucleic acids isn't widely known.

  • Animal Rights Extremists Increasingly Targeting Individuals

    Students observe animal research as part of Oregon Health & Science University's Camp Monkey.

    Community service. Students observe animal research as part of Oregon Health & Science University's Camp Monkey.

    Larry Hiday

    Animal rights activists have dramatically shifted their tactics over the last decade, targeting individual researchers and the businesses that support them, instead of going after their universities. That’s the biggest revelation to come out of a report released today by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States.

    The purpose of the report—The Threat of Extremism to Medical Research: Best Practices to Mitigate Risk through Preparation and Communication—is to provide guidance to scientists and institutions around the world in dealing with animal rights extremists. That includes individuals and groups that damage laboratories, send threatening e-mails, and even desecrate the graves of researchers’ relatives. In 2004, for example, Animal Liberation Front activists broke into psychology laboratories at the University of Iowa, where they smashed equipment, spray-painted walls, and removed hundreds of animals, causing more than $400,000 in damage. In 2009, extremists set fire to the car of a University of California, Los Angeles, neuroscientist who worked on rats and monkeys. And other researchers say activists have shown up at their homes in the middle of the night, threatening their families and children.

  • NIH to Get Money for Pediatric Research

    Done deal. Representatives Gregg Harper (R-MS), John Boehner (R-OH), and Eric Cantor (R-VA) sign a new pediatric cancer research funding bill in order to send it to the White House for signing.

    Office of Representative Eric Cantor

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is slated to get $126 million over 10 years for pediatrics research after the U.S. Senate yesterday approved legislation that was once seen by many Democrats as a cynical ploy.

  • U.K. to Shower Money on Three Big Science Projects

    Ready to roll. An artist's impression of what the European Spallation Source will look like.

    Ready to roll. An artist's impression of what the European Spallation Source will look like.

    ESS/Henning Larsen Architects

    The U.K. government announced nearly £300 million ($500 million) of new investment in large-scale science projects yesterday. The beneficiaries will be a new European neutron source soon to be built in Sweden, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, and an exoplanet-hunting mission by the European Space Agency (ESA).

    U.K. scientists had thought that their days of participation in large-scale projects were numbered when the current government, in its first spending review in 2010, slashed funds for capital spending in science projects by more than 50%. But since then the government has made a number of one-off spending commitments for research that now amounts to several billion pounds.

    The largest part of the latest slice goes to the €1.8 billion European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, which will produce neutron beams that are an extremely sensitive probe of materials, measuring how atoms are arranged and how they interact. Some neutron sources use a nuclear reactor to produce the beams, but ESS uses a proton beam colliding with a metallic target, a process known as spallation. ESS will be 30 times brighter than today’s top sources.

    The United Kingdom had previously not committed to participation in ESS, although in January ESS began collaborating with ISIS, the current most powerful European spallation source, at the Harwell laboratory near Oxford. "The U.K. contribution to ESS is very important both financially and intellectually," says Jim Yeck, ESS director-general and CEO. "Access to ISIS combined with the experience building and operating a spallation neutron source that the U.K. team brings to ESS adds greatly to the success of the project."

  • NSF Plans Changes in Graduate Fellowships, Traineeships

    A group of graduate students funded by the National Science Foundation at a workshop near Alaska's Mendenhall Lake in 2011.

    In training. A group of graduate students funded by the National Science Foundation at a workshop near Alaska's Mendenhall Lake in 2011.

    NSF IGERT/Natalie Parker

    Within a 2015 budget request that is nearly flat, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has proposed beefing up its signature Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and reworking its approach to graduate traineeships. The twin goals are in line with the Obama administration’s approach to training the next generation of scientists and engineers.

    In budget documents unveiled Monday at a media briefing, NSF officials describe their plan to raise the annual GRFP stipend to $34,000 in 2015. That would be an increase of $2000 over the current level. NSF gave students a similar $2000 boost in 2013 after holding the size of the stipends steady at $30,000 for a decade.

    Those two increases would require an 11% hike in NSF spending on the GRFP, to $333 million. That growth points to the high status of GRFP within NSF’s education directorate, which is seeking an increase of 5%. It also dwarfs the 1.2% increase for the agency as a whole.

    And that’s not all. The 2015 boost, if endorsed by Congress, would follow a 23% jump in the program this year, to $300 million. That large increase was needed to accommodate both the previous bump in stipends and the final year of a 5-year program expansion. Students are allowed to use the 3-year fellowships over a 5-year period, and 2014 marked the first year every class was at NSF’s target size of 2000.

  • Scientists Puzzled by NSF's Mixed Signals on Nano Network

    Crystal clear? Researchers are uncertain about the National Science Foundation’s intentions to extend a network dedicated to nanoscience and technology, such as efforts to grow nanocrystals like these.

    Crystal clear? Researchers are uncertain about the National Science Foundation's intentions to extend a network dedicated to nanoscience and technology, such as efforts to grow nanocrystals like these.

    Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

    As an academic researcher, Roger Howe knows what it’s like to lose out to a worthy competitor in the never-ending scramble for federal funding. But as director of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) at Stanford University in California, Howe is scratching his head over what he and others say is a recent nondecision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support what was to be the agency’s next big step in providing support for the burgeoning field.

    However, NSF says it’s all a big misunderstanding and that it remains foursquare behind such collaborations.

    NSF began funding NNIN in 2003 under a 10-year cooperative agreement, and this year NNIN is winding down its efforts to coordinate nanotech user facilities at 14 sites around the country. So in December 2012 NSF put out a solicitation describing its plans for a “next-generation” NNIN (NG-NNIN) that would broaden the collaboration to encompass researchers and educators in related fields.

    The competition came down to Howe and a rival proposal from a team led by James Sturm of Princeton University. After pitching their visions last summer to a 12-member panel of outside experts assembled by NSF, each team went home and awaited word on who would claim the prize, expected to be $16 million a year for the next decade.

  • FIRST at Last: Controversial Bill Introduced to Guide U.S. Science Policies

    It’s been nearly 1 year since Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, first circulated his ideas on replacing a 2010 law that touches on key aspects of federal policy toward research and science education. Its draft provisions to alter the National Science Foundation’s (NSF's) peer-review process and restrict funding for social science research elicited howls of protests from the community (also here), and Smith has said repeatedly that he welcomes constructive criticism. Last fall, he held a hearing to solicit outside comment.

    Today that bill was formally introduced, and on Thursday the committee’s research panel is expected to debate and then vote on the measure. Here are some of the provisions of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (H.R. 4186) that seem certain to trigger angry reaction among Democrats on the panel.

  • Cardiologist and University President to Lead U.S. Smithsonian

    Cornell President David Skorton will take over as Smithsonian secretary in July 2015.

    Washington, D.C.-bound. Cornell President David Skorton will take over as Smithsonian secretary in July 2015.

    Cornell University

    For the first time, a physician will take the helm at the Smithsonian Institution, a partially U.S. government-funded organization consisting of 19 museums, a zoo, and nine research centers. David Skorton, president of Cornell University since July 2006, will become the 13th secretary of the 168-year-old Smithsonian, the institution's Board of Regents announced today. In July 2015, he will replace the retiring G. Wayne Clough, an engineer who previously was the president of Georgia Institute of Technology.

    Trained as a cardiologist, Skorton specialized in treating children and adults with congenital heart disorders and helped develop computer-assisted 3D imaging of the heart and its arteries. He also spent more than 20 years as a university president, first from 2003 to 2006 at the University of Iowa, where he was a professor for 26 years, and now at Cornell.

  • Retraction Request Made as More Questions Swirl Around Simple Stem Cell Method

    Real or not? These cells, glowing green due to a fluorescent marker indicating their stem cell nature, were reportedly made through a new method that has been called into question.

    Real or not? These cells, glowing green due to a fluorescent marker indicating their stem cell nature, were reportedly made through a new method that has been called into question.

    Haruko Obokata

    A claim of an astoundingly easy way to make pluripotent stem cells reported online in two papers in Nature on 29 January continues to unravel as one of the co-authors called for a temporary retraction of the papers while their data and images are verified. 

    The research coming under fire reported the discovery of a potentially revolutionary process called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), in which exposing adult cells to a stress such as acid or pressure prompts them to behave like cells in early embryos, which can become any cell type in the body. But within days of the work being published, critics on the PubPeer website and other blogs pointed out problems with some of the images in the papers, including some that were very similar to those in earlier papers by first author Haruko Obokata, a unit leader at the Kobe, Japan-based RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology.

    RIKEN launched an investigation into the matter on 13 February. Over the weekend, the story took another turn when critics noted that other images in the paper are very similar to those published in Obokata’s doctoral thesis in 2011.

    And as both The Wall Street Journal and NHK, Japan's national public broadcaster, reported today, Teruhiko Wakayama of the University of Yamanashi, Kofu, a cloning researcher and co-author of both papers, now says he has lost confidence in the papers. But he is not yet entirely dismissing them.

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