Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • How a culture clash at NOAA led to a flap over a high-profile warming pause study

    ocean buoy

    Data collected by satellites, land-based sensors, and NOAA ocean buoys like this are at the heart of the dispute.


    A former scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C., made waves this past weekend when he alleged that climate scientist Thomas Karl, the former head of a major NOAA technical center, “failed to disclose critical information” to the agency, journal editors, and Congress about the data used in a controversial study published in Science in June 2015. Karl was the lead author of that paper, which concluded that global surface temperatures continued rising in recent years, contrary to earlier suggestions that there had been a “pause” in global warming.

    John Bates, who retired from NOAA this past November, made the claims in a post on the prominent blog of Judith Curry, a climate researcher who recently retired from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and has walked the line between science and climate contrarians over the past decade. Bates’s complaints were also the centerpiece of a story published Sunday by David Rose of the United Kingdom’s The Mail on Sunday, a tabloid, which claimed that national leaders “were strongly influenced” by the “flawed NOAA study” as they finalized the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

    Rose's story ricocheted around right-wing media outlets, and was publicized by the Republican-led House of Representatives science committee, which has spent months investigating earlier complaints about the Karl study that is says were raised by an NOAA whistleblower. But ScienceInsider found no evidence of misconduct or violation of agency research policies after extensive interviews with Bates, Karl, and other former NOAA and independent scientists, as well as consideration of documents that Bates also provided to Rose and the Mail

  • Chan Zuckerberg Biohub funds first crop of 47 investigators

    Joe DeRisi talking to people

    Joe DeRisi will help oversee dozens of researchers pursuing open-ended ideas.

    Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

    The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub has selected its first cohort of investigators. The nonprofit research institute in San Francisco, California, part of Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s plan to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases, announced today that 47 faculty at three nearby research universities will get no-strings-attached awards to delve into risky new directions.

    Biohub is the first concrete piece of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s foray into science, launched last September with a commitment of $3 billion over 10 years from Zuckerberg and Chan, a pediatrician. The institute brings together the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); UC Berkeley; and Stanford University to focus initially on two projects, a cell atlas and infectious diseases. The launch of Biohub’s investigator program means each scientist and engineer chosen will receive an average of up to $300,000 per year for 5 years for life sciences research.

    Biohub co-president and UCSF infectious disease specialist Joe DeRisi says the goal is not to supplement what researchers are already doing, but to allow them to explore “blue-sky” areas. Although some awards went to already-well-funded faculty, many winners are young scientists striving to get grants, he says. (Biohub awards are roughly equivalent in size to an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health [NIH].) The initiative is also funding technology developers who struggle to obtain NIH funding because they’re not doing hypothesis-driven research, he says.

  • Grad students, postdocs with U.S. visas face uncertainty

    Officer processes a passenger into the United States at an airport.

    More rigorous vetting, as well as a possible overhaul of visa programs for skilled workers, could constrict the flow of science talent into the United States.

    614 Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

    The postdoc faces an excruciating choice. He has 6 months left on a U.S. work permit issued to many foreign graduate students and postdocs: a 1-year Optional Practical Training (OPT) permit. OPTs are routinely extended for two more years for those in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). But the developmental biologist, who works at a major California university, is from Iran, one of seven countries whose citizens are banned from travel to the United States for 90 days as new vetting procedures are put in place. (U.S. courts on 3 and 5 February put an emergency stay on the ban; an appeal by the Trump administration was pending at press time.)

    The postdoc, who did not want to be identified for fear of drawing unwanted attention, must now decide whether to continue with his work on stem cells—gambling that the U.S. government by summer will be inclined to grant him an extension—or spend the next half-year boning up on techniques that will help him secure a position outside the United States. That would be a “drastic change in what I’m doing,” he says—one he would need to make immediately.

    The most visible effect of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration was to halt travelers from the target countries. But the unnamed scientist’s plight highlights another consequence for grad students and postdocs already in the United States from the seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan. For those here on OPT and student visas, who number in the tens of thousands, visa renewal is far from assured in the uncertain legal and political situation. The dilemma “simply ruins their future. It’s a catastrophe,” says a Yemeni biologist who is on a university faculty on an H-1B, a 3-year visa for professionals. Even with his H-1B, on which 2.5 years remain before it needs renewal, the biologist says that he is now mulling a “plan B and C all the time.”

  • Amnesty calls for pressure campaign to help Iranian scientist who could face death penalty

    Ahmadreza Djalali

    Ahmadreza Djalali was arrested in April 2016.

    Courtesy of VUB

    Amnesty International today asked for "urgent action" on behalf of Ahmadreza Djalali, the Iranian-born disaster medicine expert detained in Iran since April 2016. In a statement, Amnesty called on the public to write Iran's top leaders to ask that Djalali be released or "charged with a recognizable criminal offense," and to ensure that he has access to medical care and to his lawyer.

    On 3 February, the Free University of Brussels (VUB), where Djalali is a professor, announced that he had been sentenced to death, and that he was "scheduled to be executed in two weeks."

  • Biotech bosses protest Trump’s travel ban

    U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet with pharma industry representatives at the White House

    Few officials from pharmaceutical companies, who recently met with U.S. President Donald Trump, have protested his immigration policies publicly, but more than 150 biotech company executives have attacked the measures.


    Originally published by Endpoints News

    The reaction against President Trump’s decision to ban travel from 7 predominantly Muslim nations drew an instant reaction from the biotech world, gaining a quick thumbs-down from a large majority of the hundreds of industry executives we’ve been in touch with.

    Now the biotech opposition is getting organized.

  • Updated: USDA responds to outcry over removal of animal welfare documents, lawsuit threats

    Grey rabbit undergoing treatment at a laboratory

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects research laboratories that use mammals, including this rabbit.


    *Update, 7 February, 12:15 p.m.: The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a statement this morning regarding the removal of animal welfare reports from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website: “The review of APHIS’ website has been ongoing, and the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy. In 2016, well before the change of Administration, APHIS decided to make adjustments to the posting of regulatory records. In addition, APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning, among other issues, information posted on the agency’s website. While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy. These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting.”

    This morning, Speaking of Research, an international organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs, also weighed in on the issue. In a blog post, the organization says it has “considerable concerns about the wealth of information that has been removed from the USDA website in the last week.” The post continues, “When information is hidden … the public wonders what is being hidden and why, and researchers must devote even more resources to combatting the public perception that they are not transparent.” The group has uploaded some of USDA’s past reports on its website. 

  • Study retraction reignites concern over China’s possible use of prisoner organs

    protest of illegal organ harvesting

    A protest in Hong Kong of illegal organ trafficking in mainland China.


    A journal has decided to retract a 2016 study because of concerns that its data on the safety of liver transplantation involved organs sourced from executed prisoners in China. The action, taken despite a denial by the study’s authors that such organs were used, comes after clinical ethicist Wendy Rogers of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues authored a letter to the editor of Liver International on 30 January, calling for the paper’s retraction in the “absence of credible evidence of ethical sourcing of organs.”

    For years, Chinese officials have come under fire for allegedly allowing the use of organs from executed prisoners for transplants, including for foreigners coming to the country for so-called medical tourism. In January 2015, it explicitly banned the practice and set up a volunteer donation system, but doubts persist that much has changed.

    The disputed study—published online in October 2016—analyzed 563 consecutive liver transplantations performed before the ban (from April 2010 to October 2014) at a medical center in China. Suspicious, Rogers organized the protest letter to the journal. “Publication of data from prisoners is ethically inappropriate given that it [is] not possible to ensure that the prisoners freely agreed either to donate their organs, or to be included [in] a research program,” she tells ScienceInsider.

  • Venezuela is running short on HIV meds—and places to turn for help

    A woman rests in a chair in a pharmacy with mostly empty shelves.

    A pharmacy employee waits for customers at a drugstore in Caracas.


    On top of its currency being in free fall for 3 years running, empty shelves at supermarkets, and electricity rationing, Venezuela has a serious shortage of medicines, including life-saving anti-HIV drugs. This led a network of Venezuelans living with HIV to seek “urgent humanitarian aid” in June 2016 from the Geneva, Switzerland–based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But because the World Bank classifies Venezuela as a high-income nation, the Global Fund on 18 January denied the request. “As an agency relying itself on donations from multiple stakeholders, the Global Fund is not in a position to grant any exceptions from its rules,” wrote Executive Director Mark Dybul and chair of the board Norbert Hauser.

    An estimated 110,000 people in 2015 were living with HIV in Venezuela, and at least 63,000 of them have started antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, says Feliciano Reyna Ganteaume, whose Caracas-based nonprofit Acción Solidaria supplies HIV-infected people with ARVs. “[The situation] is much worse than one can describe,” he says. When the government does take action, drug orders are placed late and not paid for on time, causing interruptions that have lasted more than 3 months. “There is not even 1 month without our receiving complaints of lack of one or more ARVs from one or more Venezuelan states,” he says. Reagents for the tests needed to monitor people on treatment also are in short supply.

  • USDA blacks out animal welfare information

    Dogs at a Class B dealer facility await transport to research labs.

    Dogs at a Class B dealer facility await transport to research labs.

    Animal Welfare Institute

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today removed public access to tens of thousands of reports that document the numbers of animals kept by research labs, companies, zoos, circuses, and animal transporters—and whether those animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act. Henceforth, those wanting access to the information will need to file a Freedom of Information Act request. The same goes for inspection reports under the Horse Protection Act, which prohibits injuring horses’ hooves or legs for show.

    The agency said in a statement that it revoked public access to the reports “based on our commitment to being transparent … and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.”

    The reports apply to 7813 facilities that keep animals covered by the law. Roughly 1200 of these are research labs, which are often housed at major academic centers or run by government agencies themselves, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the act covers animals like dogs and chimpanzees, it does not cover rodents like laboratory mice.

  • U.S. science conferences brace for boycotts: The ScienceInsider briefing

    opening ceremony of the International Year of Astronomy for the International Astronomical Union

    The opening ceremony of the International Year of Astronomy for the International Astronomical Union in 2009.

    IAU/José Francisco Salgado

    As an intense week winds into what may very well be an intense weekend, scientists around the world are starting to make their voices heard on U.S. science-related policy, in particular on President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. But will they be shouting into a void? That’s what some researchers think, as boycotts of science conferences based in the United States begin to blossom. Already, 5800 researchers around the world have signed one boycott petition, and some astronomers are asking their society not to hold meetings in the United States. Meanwhile, a scientist from one of the affected countries—Iran—has just been sentenced to death in his home country for unknown reasons. 

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