ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Ecologists protest sudden end of NSF dissertation grants

    beetle on a flower

    NSF grants for doctoral dissertations have helped researchers address a wide range of questions, including how land use affects insects that pollinate economically important cotton plants.

    Credit: Richard January/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    A grants program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that has helped launch the careers of thousands of U.S. biologists and environmental scientists is ending after becoming a victim of its own popularity.

    On 6 June, NSF’s biology directorate shocked the scientific community by announcing it would no longer fund Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs). The small awards help support work, typically field studies or large-scale data analyses, by students pursuing graduate degrees. The agency said managing the program had become too labor intensive and was making it harder for program officers to do other parts of their job.

    Biology’s decision to pull out of the long-running program—the funding mechanism remains in place for students in the social and behavioral sciences—has raised a hue and cry throughout the ecological community. “This program generates one of the greater returns on investment of anything NSF does,” says Casey Dunn, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University. His 2003 DDIG laid the groundwork for research that, 8 years later, helped him win NSF’s top award for young scientists, and he now encourages his students to apply. “They may be small amounts of money, but they can have an extraordinary impact on someone’s career.”

  • Updated: NIH abandons controversial plan to cap grants to big labs, creates new fund for younger scientists

    a researcher in a lab

    A controversial National Institutes of Health plan to cap funding for larger laboratories is aimed at steering more grants to early- and midcareer researchers.

    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is dropping a controversial, 1-month-old plan to cap the amount of support an individual scientist can receive in order to spread funds to more investigators. Instead, the agency will eventually devote $1 billion a year—about 3% of its $34 billion budget—specifically to funding proposals from early- and midcareer investigators.

    The new plan, unveiled today, is a stunning shift from a policy announced on 2 May that aimed to limit how much money a researcher could get from the agency. It was based largely on an NIH study finding that productivity gains per grant slow as labs get bigger, and that NIH could move funds from large labs to small ones without lowering overall productivity.

    NIH planned to tally an individual’s support using a metric called the Grant Support Index (GSI) and set a cap of 21 points, or the equivalent of three standard R01 research grants. Money from grants held by those over the cap would be redirected to early- and midstage investigators, who are a flat or shrinking fraction of the NIH workforce. 

  • Former DOE officials, industry leaders urge Congress to protect agency’s research budget

    Solar panels

    The Department of Energy has been a major backer of solar energy research.

    Wikimedia Commons/Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay

    Originally published by E&E News

    Former Republican officials, oil executives and business leaders are warning Congress and Energy Secretary Rick Perry that proposed budget cuts would have a devastating impact on national security and the economy.

    In a letter today, 14 energy and economic heavy hitters — including U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donahue — urged appropriators to fund the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and research and development programs to ensure that the United States maintains its competitive edge.

  • NSF offers arm’s-length defense of Trump’s 2018 request

    Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX) at a hearing earlier this year.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

    President Donald Trump’s proposal for an 11.3% cut in spending at the National Science Foundation (NSF) may be dead on arrival in Congress. But that doesn’t mean congressional appropriators will be able to avoid any squeeze on NSF’s budget.

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who chairs the House of Representatives spending panel that oversees NSF, opened a hearing yesterday on NSF’s 2018 budget request by saying he will work “to ensure NSF is appropriately funded” in the fiscal year that begins on 1 October. But after the hearing, Culberson declined to say whether that would require preserving its 2017 budget of $7.47 billion.

    “I’ve personally ensured that NASA has received an appropriate level of funding because of the work that they do,” Culberson explained, referring to boosts this year in both the agency’s overall budget and its space science programs. “NSF is also a national treasure.” But when asked whether “appropriate” funding for NSF rules out a cut, Culberson would say only that “I’ve already given you a great answer.”

  • Critics challenge NIH finding that bigger labs aren’t necessarily better

    a researcher in a lab

    A controversial National Institutes of Health plan to cap funding for larger laboratories is aimed at steering more grants to early- and midcareer researchers.

    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A strident debate has erupted among biomedical researchers over a proposed National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy that would shift money from richer to poorer labs. The policy—which would limit investigators to the equivalent of three NIH grants—is based largely on an agency-led analysis of lab productivity. It found that once an NIH-funded lab grows to a certain size, each additional grant produces a smaller productivity boost. But NIH’s study, and one graph in particular, has drawn widespread criticism.

  • How to avoid the stigma of a retracted paper? Don't call it a retraction

    person throwing paper

    creative commons

    AMSTERDAM—In 2012 Richard Mann, a mathematician at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, received some very bad news from a friend and colleague. Because of a coding error, the friend explained, Mann had included only 1/100 of his data in a modeling paper on the collective motion of glass prawns, published earlier that year in PLOS Computational Biology. As a result, the paper was deeply flawed.

    Mann wanted to set the record straight, but as he began researching his options, despair set in. Retractions are strongly associated with research misconduct. "I became worried about public shaming," Mann said last week at the fifth World Conference on Research Integrity here. He went ahead, but only after many sleepless nights.

    His story and others like it have inspired two recent attempts to develop new terms for retractions that would make it easier for researchers, universities, and journals to admit errors. One would retire the dreaded r-word altogether. "You have to change the language," says Nicholas Steneck, who heads the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research in Ann Arbor.

    Stigma is one reason to rethink the retraction system; another is expedience. Universities and journals are often slow to retract a paper, waiting for the outcome of lengthy investigations. Journals sometimes add an "editorial expression of concern" to a paper in the meantime. But such notes can be stigmatizing, too, and if it's clear the data are wrong, some argue it's better to pull a paper and report the causes later.

    Some journals want more options for a troubled paper than either a correction for minor errors or a wholesale retraction. The EMBO Journal, headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, has introduced the "partial retraction" for cases when, say, one figure is erroneous but the conclusions of a paper stand. "With a full retraction, you take a down a whole chunk from the scientific literature," says Editor-in-Chief Bernd Pulverer. JAMA Psychiatry in 2015 introduced the concept of "retracting and replacing," for a paper about a clinical trial that had pervasive errors but, once corrected, was still worth publishing. Editors at The Lancet and The Lancet Respiratory Medicine have instituted "retraction and republication."

    But with a sharp rise in retractions over the past 15 years—to 664 in fiscal year 2016, according to the database MEDLINE—some feel a more comprehensive approach is in order. At a workshop at Stanford University's Meta-Research Innovation Center (METRICS) in Palo Alto, California, last December, a group of journal editors and other experts devised a more granular system for both corrections and retractions that has 14 solutions for different situations. Retractions would remain for misconduct, says Pulverer, who attended the workshop. But five other terms would cover papers withdrawn for other reasons, METRICS researcher Daniele Fanelli told the meeting last week (see list, below). For example, honest mistakes like Mann's would now come under the moniker "self-retraction." (An article describing the taxonomy is under review, and Fanelli stresses that it's likely to change.)

  • Trump retains Collins as NIH director

    Francis Collins

    Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

    Mark F.Jones/cjvisions.com

    President Donald Trump announced this afternoon that he is keeping Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009, was asked to stay on temporarily after the election. But today’s announcement gives him a bit more job security.

    The decision comes despite a recent call from some conservative members of Congress to fire Collins because he supports embryonic stem cell research. Collins has said he would return to full-time research if Trump asked him to step down.

    In a statement released today, Collins said "I am honored to continue as the Director of the National Institutes of Health and consider it a great privilege to serve at a time of unprecedented opportunity to advance health and relieve suffering through biomedical research. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues at NIH, HHS, the Administration, the Congress, and the broader research and patient community. I am grateful for the President's vote of confidence in my ability to continue to lead this great agency."

  • Romanian scientists rebel against a power grab by their government

    Aerial view of protesters in front of the government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania

    Sweeping changes to Romanian science were announced at the same time as controversial corruption decrees that sparked massive protests in February.

    Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

    BUCHAREST—Romanian scientists are engaged in a battle with their government about an alleged power grab that they say will lead to the diversion of research money to government cronies and will isolate Romania’s small scientific community just as it was beginning to nurture connections to the rest of the world.

    Research minister Șerban Valeca, an engineer appointed by the new social-democratic government in January, has dismissed almost the entire membership of four councils that provide advice on funding policy, research strategy, ethics, and innovation. Valeca rid the councils of all Romanian scientists working abroad and appointed replacements including a surgeon under investigation for embezzlement, union members known for their loyalty to the government, little-known city council members, and members of obscure academic institutions that appear to exist mostly on paper. He also virtually eliminated the role of foreign scientists in grant evaluations.

    The changes, announced late January and formalized in April, were initially overshadowed by massive anticorruption protests. But the academic community is now fighting back. In late April, the heads of Romania’s five biggest universities asked for Valeca’s dismissal. On 30 May, Ad Astra, a grassroots organization for scientists, urged the scientific community to boycott the evaluation process for national grant competitions. The same day, the European University Association said it was "worried" about Valeca's decisions.

  • NIH plan to reduce overhead payments draws fire

    a researcher in a lab

    Federal indirect cost payments help keep the lights on in academic research laboratories.

    THOMAS BARWICK/GETTY IMAGES

    President Donald Trump's administration has brought a long-simmering debate over how the U.S. government supports university research back to a boil. In its 2018 budget proposal released last week, the White House proposes cutting so-called indirect cost payments that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) makes to universities, hospitals, and research institutes by about two-thirds, to 10% of each grant.

    The administration says the change would allow it to redirect about $4.6 billion now spent each year on overhead—including maintaining labs and complying with regulations—to research. The shift would also enable it to cut NIH's budget by 22% without greatly reducing the agency's direct spending on science. Congress is unlikely to support the overall NIH cut, but policy experts say the administration might be able to trim overhead payments unilaterally.

    The proposal has raised wide alarm. It would “literally turn out the lights in labs where universities have no other funding to pay for essential research infrastructure and operating expenses,” says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., which represents 60 major U.S. universities. Some schools would tell their faculty to stop applying for NIH grants, observers predict, because the grants wouldn't come close to covering the full cost of the work.

  • Trump dumps Paris climate deal: reaction

    Donald Trump at a lectern, pointing.

    Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    As expected, President Donald Trump today announced he is withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord. In a speech from the White House Rose Garden, Trump made a largely economic case for withdrawing from the agreement, arguing the nonbinding accord was unfair to American workers and U.S. competitiveness (points many economists fiercely dispute). At the same time, Trump said he was open to beginning “negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or an—really entirely new transaction—on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.” He provided no detail, however, on what that new agreement might look like.

    Trump’s decision represents a new obstacle to the Paris agreement’s goal of keeping planetary warming by 2100 below the 2°C ceiling that many consider safe. You can learn more from a special package of stories that Science published in November 2015, as nations were finalizing the Paris deal.

    Here is a sampling of reactions to today’s announcement from members of the scientific community and others:

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