ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH extramural research chief steps down

    Sally Rockey

    Sally Rockey

    National Institutes of Health

    Sally Rockey, the longtime research administrator who steers the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) Office of Extramural Research, is stepping down after 5 years to head a new agricultural research foundation. Rockey expanded transparency about NIH policies at a time of unprecedented budget pressures on biomedical researchers.

    Rockey, an entomologist by training, left the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for NIH a decade ago and was named deputy director for extramural research in 2010. She helped NIH scramble to spend a windfall from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and later dealt with lows such as the 2013 government shutdown that threw grant reviews into disarray. She has looked for ways to spread NIH’s money further at a time when success rates are at record lows and co-chaired a study of the biomedical workforce that recommended stronger mentoring for young scientists and training for alternative careers.

    Rockey also launched a blog, Rock Talk, that she says “changed the culture of transparency.” The blog drew kudos for sharing NIH grants data—but also drew withering criticism whenever her office proposed anything controversial. Rockey seems unfazed by the beating she sometimes took online: “You have to have a hard outer shell,” she says. 

  • In wake of court defeat, opponents of Obama’s climate rule tee up seven more attacks

    Upcoming clean power rule aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

    Upcoming clean power rule aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

    Li Tsin Sun/Flicker (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    One of President Barack Obama’s major climate initiatives has survived its first major legal test. But the fighting is far from over.

    A federal appeals court yesterday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the Obama administration from issuing landmark regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, saying the challenge was premature because the rules are not yet final. The challengers—an alliance of energy and fossil fuel companies and coal-producing states—wanted the court “to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule,” wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in an opinion unanimously backed by a three-judge panel.

  • Scientists call on Canada to bar new oil sands development

    An oil sands refinery in Fort McMurray, Canada.

    An oil sands refinery in Fort McMurray, Canada.

    © Daniel Barnes/iStockphoto

    More than 100 researchers are calling on Canadian officials to stop new mining of the nation’s oil sands. New projects shouldn’t start “unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights,” the researchers wrote in a statement posted today on www.OilSandsMoratorium.org.

  • Journals investigate climate skeptic author’s ties to fossil fuel firm as new allegations arise

    A half-dozen academic journals are investigating allegations that aerospace engineer Willie Wei-Hock Soon, a prominent skeptic of the idea that humans are contributing to global warming, failed to disclose financial ties to a fossil fuel company in papers they published. And the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is examining fresh allegations—made in a report released today by the advocacy group Climate Investigations Center (CIC)—that Soon failed to follow disclosure rules in submitting a letter to that journal. The group has also raised questions about whether Soon followed disclosure policies in publishing recent papers in several other journals, including Nature Geoscience.

  • Study claims $28 billion a year spent on irreproducible biomedical research

    Study claims $28 billion a year spent on irreproducible biomedical research
    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    An eye-popping $28 billion is spent in the United States each year on preclinical research that can’t be reproduced by other researchers. That’s the conclusion of a provocative analysis published today in part by economists who based it on past studies of error rates in biomedical studies.

    Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today issued new criteria for grant reviews aimed at bolstering the reproducibility of NIH-funded research.

    The lead author of the new price tag for reproducibility says it is meant to stimulate discussion. “We’re pointing to the economic cost, but we’re also trying to promote some solutions. That’s really the message of the paper,” says biologist Leonard Freedman, president of the nonprofit Global Biological Standards Institute (GBSI) in Washington, D.C., of the perspective in PLOS Biology.

  • Record U.S. rains trigger wildfire fears. How’s that work?

    Last month was the wettest May on record since 1895 in some parts of the western United States (dark green). Light green indicates areas with above-average precipitation, while lighter colors are near or below average.

    Last month was the wettest May on record since 1895 in some parts of the western United States (dark green). Light green indicates areas with above-average precipitation, while lighter colors are near or below average.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Last month was the wettest May in more than a century in large chunks of the western United States. While the soggy weather ended lengthy droughts in some regions, the spring showers may have also boosted the chances of ferocious future wildfires. That’s because the rain means more grass and other vegetation that can help catalyze big fires, researchers say.

    “The wet month has brought a reprieve, but not a sigh of relief—it means we’ll have to worry about fire in the future,” says Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder. “The grasses that are growing now can be really flammable when they dry out later—just instantaneous fuel.”

    The paradoxical idea that wet weather can catalyze fire isn’t new. Researchers have learned by studying tree rings, ancient charcoal found in soil, and other evidence that big fire seasons often occur a few years after especially wet periods. “We see this pattern going back hundreds of years,” says landscape ecologist Tania Schoennagel, also at CU Boulder. In many parts of western North America, she notes, it is linked to a much larger Pacific Ocean climate pattern known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, in which generally wet and dry periods alternate.

  • NSF research program for 'have-not' states faces growing criticism

    Jurisdictions that are part of NSF’s EPSCoR program (gray states not eligible). Other colors indicate year of entry. Orange, 1980; navy blue, 1985; red, 1987; yellow, 1992; cream, 2000; pink, 2001; dark green, 2002; dark blue, 2003; bright green, 2004; li

    Jurisdictions that are part of NSF’s EPSCoR program (gray states not eligible). Other colors indicate year of entry. Orange, 1980; navy blue, 1985; red, 1987; yellow, 1992; cream, 2000; pink, 2001; dark green, 2002; dark blue, 2003; bright green, 2004; li

    National Science Foundation

    Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) surprised some of his colleagues last week when he proposed killing a long-running program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) intended to lift up states at the bottom of the research funding heap. Although his amendment was defeated 232 to 195, the large number of “yeas” is the latest indication that the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) may need to do some serious soul-searching to remain viable.

    Foster, the only Ph.D. physicist in the U.S. House of Representatives, is normally a staunch supporter of NSF and federally funded research. But Foster says he’s fed up with less-populated states getting far more dollars back from the U.S. government than what they pay in taxes. NSF’s EPSCoR is a small but egregious example of that phenomenon, he says. It allows smaller states that get relatively little NSF research funding to tap a $160 million pot that is off-limits to researchers in states, including Illinois, that get a bigger share of NSF research dollars.

    “From a scientific point of view, it’s hard for me to understand why someone in the Texas panhandle should not have access to the same research funds that someone in the Oklahoma panhandle can have,” Foster told ScienceInsider the day after the vote, noting that Oklahoma is an EPSCoR state but Texas is not. “And why should scientists at Brown University (in Providence, Rhode Island)—and I’m not saying anything against them, it’s a great school—be eligible for benefits that are not available to researchers in states like New Jersey and New York and Massachusetts? … It’s simply because Oklahoma and Rhode Island happen to have fewer people” getting NSF grants because their population is so small, an outcome that makes them eligible to participate in EPSCoR.

  • Russian researchers protest government reforms

    About 3000 Russian scientists rallied in Moscow on Saturday to protest against government reforms of the research system and the imposition of competitive funding, which is not commonly used in the country. The main demand of the researchers was to revise the current reform of the Russian academic system, which has been going on since mid-2013.

    A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Education and Science and together with the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations issued a reform road map, which, in the opinion of many researchers, brings the process to a new and very dangerous stage. If the road map is approved by the government, academician Vladimir Zakharov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ (RAS’) Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow told the rally, science in Russia will be depleted, if not totally ruined.

    Researchers’ main criticism of the road map is that it will increase the proportion of the science budget that is devoted to competitive funding. In the 1990s, the majority of researchers backed a move for competitive funding while RAS authorities vigorously resisted it. Now, researchers say, the medicine prescribed to save Russian science has turned into deadly poison, because researchers who are unsuccessful at winning funds in the government-sponsored competitions have few other options to continue their research.

  • Contamination scare at NIH leaves clinical trial subjects with tough choice

    Some patients at the NIH Clinical Center (above) are continuing treatment, even after the agency shut down its experimental drugmaking facility in the wake of a fungal contamination.

    Some patients at the NIH Clinical Center (above) are continuing treatment, even after the agency shut down its experimental drugmaking facility in the wake of a fungal contamination.

    National Institutes of Health

    Some people enrolled in clinical trials with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) are continuing the use of experimental drugs despite the possibility the compounds have fungal contaminations.

    NIH suspended operations yesterday at a facility that makes experimental drugs for the agency’s Clinical Center in the wake of an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that revealed multiple problems that could expose sterile drugs to contamination. Forty-six trials currently underway receive materials from the facility, and NIH is searching for alternate sources of products for about 250 patients involved in the studies. In some instances, however, finding those other sources won’t be possible, and some trials will have to be delayed, says Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of NIH.

    In addition, a few trial subjects, after being informed of the risks, have requested to continue with their experimental treatments made by the now-closed facility. NIH Director Francis Collins has granted exceptions to those whose conditions could be severely compromised if they failed to receive their next scheduled dose. They will be monitored for signs of infection. “Many of them have been taking the products for a while with no untoward effects. The likelihood of infection is small, but we still want to be cautious,” Tabak says.

  • Chinese-American physicist pleads not guilty to technology theft

    A Temple University physicist charged with scheming to help Chinese organizations obtain technology from a U.S. company pleaded not guilty in a federal court in Philadelphia yesterday.

    Xiaoxing Xi, 57 years old and a former chair of Temple’s physics department, is well known for his contributions to the development of thin-film materials and in 2007 was elected as a fellow of the American Physical Society for “his extensive and seminal contributions” to the field. In an indictment unsealed on 21 May, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania charged Xi with four counts of wire fraud with the intent to assist unnamed entities in China to become leaders in superconducting thin-film technology.

    In an e-mail to Science, Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm Arent Fox, wrote, “Professor Xi is innocent of these charges.” No trial date has been set yet.

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