This year’s mandatory across-the-board budget cuts to U.S. research agencies have translated into less money for academic scientists and delays in their research projects.
Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy
Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful tropical cyclone ever to hit land and perhaps the most powerful in recorded history. But what lessons can scientists draw from an awesome storm with winds of just over 300 kilometers an hour? Not as much as they might wish.
Why was Typhoon Haiyan so strong?
A new report from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget fills in a few more details on how last month’s 16-day U.S. government shutdown affected research. The 27-page tally of the shutdown’s costs, released yesterday, concludes that that disruption cost the government at least $2 billion in lost productivity and helped nudge up the nation’s unemployment rate.
A few science-related excerpts (bold, italics, and underlining from the report):
“During the 16-day shutdown, Federal government employees were furloughed for a combined total of 6.6 million days,” including 16,000 days at the National Science Foundation and 192,000 days at NASA.
A bill unveiled this week that would reshape how the U.S. government manages key research and education programs has rekindled tensions between the scientific community and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the head of the science committee in the House of Representatives. The conflict, which began shortly after Smith became chairman in January, is being waged not just over the words in the legislation but also its overall tone.
The 96-page bill, which the House science committee will discuss at a hearing next Wednesday, is intended to replace the expired 2010 America COMPETES Act. The 2010 law set overall policy and suggested funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, along with authorizing federal efforts to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. The original COMPETES Act, adopted in 2007, grew out of a high-profile 2005 National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that called for doubling federal investment in the physical sciences and improving the quality of the nation’s STEM teacher workforce.
Now, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are beginning to consider how to pass legislation that would extend COMPETES. Late last month, Democrats on the House science panel unveiled a proposal that retains the spirit of the original bill. And yesterday, a Senate panel started discussing the issue. But the debate has begun in earnest with Smith’s informal release of a House Republican draft bill called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act.
A project to “green” desert areas with an innovative mix of technologies—producing food, biofuel, clean water, energy, and salt—reached a milestone this week in the Gulf state of Qatar. A pilot plant built by the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) produced 75 kilograms of vegetables per square meter in three crops annually, comparable to commercial farms in Europe, while consuming only sunlight and seawater. The heart of the SFP concept is a specially designed greenhouse. At one end, salt water is trickled over a gridlike curtain so that the prevailing wind blows the resulting cool, moist air over the plants inside. This cooling effect allowed the Qatar facility to grow three crops per year, even in the scorching summer. At the other end of the greenhouse is a network of pipes with cold seawater running through them. Some of the moisture in the air condenses on the pipes and is collected, providing a source of fresh water.
One of the surprising side effects of such a seawater greenhouse, seen during early experiments, is that cool moist air leaking out of it encourages other plants to grow spontaneously outside. The Qatar plant took advantage of that effect to grow crops around the greenhouse, including barley and salad rocket (arugula), as well as useful desert plants. The pilot plant accentuated this exterior cooling with more “evaporative hedges” that reduced air temperatures by up to 10°C. “It was surprising how little encouragement the external crops needed,” says SFP chief Joakim Hauge.
BRUSSELS—In 2001, the agriculture giant now called DuPont Pioneer asked for approval to grow a new genetically modified (GM) maize variety in the European Union's fields. Twelve years later, the company still doesn't have an answer. Sharp divisions within the European Union, leading to a paralyzing indecisiveness, have kept the crop in limbo.
Now, the European Commission has finally made a choice. Yesterday, it proposed to allow cultivation of maize 1507, as the variety is known. It would be only the third GM crop allowed for cultivation in the European Union, where consumers and many national governments have strong reservations about genetically engineered food.
The commission also pressed member states to avoid these lengthy deadlocks in the future by reconsidering a 3-year-old proposal to reform the union's GM authorization procedures. As far as the commission is concerned, individual member states could decide to restrict a given crop on their territory in the future—even if the European Union's food safety watchdog says there is no reason to block them.
The line to get into the hearing room yesterday afternoon snaked down two flights of stairs in the U.S. Senate’s Russell Office Building in Washington, D.C. Its length reflected a desire by science lobbyists to witness an increasingly rare phenomenon in Washington—bipartisan support for research from a congressional science committee.
The hearing was the opening move by the Senate commerce and science committee to reauthorize the 2010 America COMPETES Act, which governs research and education programs at several agencies. There are several reasons that doing so will be an uphill battle—not least because the Republican leaders of the equivalent panel in the U.S. House of Representatives have a far different vision of the government’s role in research. But yesterday’s hearing was an old-fashioned lovefest, a warm embrace of the principles that the academic research community holds dear.
The opening witness was a Republican, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He urged the Democratic-led panel to “finish the job” of doubling the budgets of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a major goal of the original 2007 COMPETES Act that Congress has never come close to achieving.
“Where will the money come from?” Alexander asked, before answering the question himself. “There are plenty of things we do that are less important” than research, he asserted. He also urged the panel to fulfill its role in the larger legislative process—“authorize what our goals should be, and then it’s up to the appropriations committee to decide how much to spend.”
Efforts to put individual genome sequences and accompanying personal health information online in a freely accessible database just got a boost in the United Kingdom. On 6 November, Stephan Beck from University College London and his colleagues announced the establishment of a British Personal Genome Project (PGP-UK), which will recruit volunteers to provide DNA and health data with no restrictions on their use.
PGP-UK plans to sequence 50 British residents, age 18 or older, in its first year and ultimately hopes to enroll 100,000, Beck says. Some 450 people have already expressed interest, and the group has secured a year’s worth of funding and in-kind sequencing services.
Britain’s PGP is an outgrowth of a project begun in 2005 by genome scientist George Church of Harvard University. At the time, genome data were often freely available, but health information was not because of privacy concerns. That made it difficult for researchers to link gene variants to specific conditions.
Church, however, argued that privacy could not be guaranteed, despite precautions, because of the power of modern computing and analysis methods—a prediction that has been borne out. As an alternative, he and others argued for a more transparent approach, in which individuals volunteer to have their genetic and personal health data posted online, with no promise of anonymity.
Voters in Washington state appear to be rejecting an initiative that would require companies to label food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to early results.
For climate researcher Michael Mann, yesterday’s elections marked the end of what has been an unusual—and perhaps unique—adventure in electoral politics for an academic scientist. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, professor was recruited to spend days on the campaign trail with Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D), and he was even asked to introduce former President Bill Clinton at a major rally. And he was featured in millions of dollars’ worth of television ads attacking McAuliffe’s opponent, Ken Cuccinelli (R), the Virginia attorney general who launched a controversial investigation into research that Mann conducted when he worked at the University of Virginia (UVA).
“Scientists by our nature try to avoid getting entangled in partisan politics, but in this case … I didn’t come to politics, politics came to me,” Mann told ScienceInsider today from his home in Pennsylvania, where he was working after a late night of watching election returns and celebrating McAuliffe’s narrow victory. But the “difficult decision” to get involved in the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli duel came down to one thing, he says: “I wanted to make sure that the forces of antiscience did not gain a stronger foothold in our politics, and that’s what a Cuccinelli victory would have meant. … Here you had a candidate who not only rejected what science has to say about climate change, but felt it necessary to attack scientists.”