Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Second Look at Psychology Experiments Offers Reassurance

    Brian Nosek

    Brian Nosek

    University of Virginia

    Big research collaborations have become common—think Human Genome Project, Mars rovers, the new BRAIN Initiative—but they are almost unknown in psychology. Most psychological experiments are carried out by a single lab group, often just a few researchers. But several collaborations that span dozens of psychology laboratories around the world have recently formed. Their goal is nothing short of testing the reproducibility of psychological science. The first significant result from one of those alliances was released this week, and psychologists are breathing a sigh of relief that their field came through with relatively minor blemishes—10 of 13 experimental results were replicated.

    Reproducibility is a mantra in science. For most types of research, if an experimental result can't be reproduced by another lab, then its credibility is undermined. Fail to reproduce in multiple labs and the original result is dismissed. Testing the reproducibility of experiments is crucial for cleaning out scientific errors, flukes, and fraud. But science doesn't run as efficient a cleaning service as it could. Researchers are given almost no professional incentive to repeat the work of others, let alone report failures to repeat their own experiments.

    Now, motivated by several recent high-profile frauds and an overall concern that many of their field’s results aren’t trustworthy, some experimental psychologists are doing an audit. The one announced this week started with a trio: Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Kate Ratliff at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and Ratliff's Ph.D. student Rick Klein. Nosek has been at the forefront of efforts to clean up his field—he and more than 175 collaborators are repeating a random sample of the hundreds of studies published in 2008 in three major psychology journals—and he and Ratliff are both part of Project Implicit, a long-running collaboration that also provides free software for running behavioral experiments with standardized methods. Nosek wanted to use the software to see just how reproducible classic psychological experiments are. "I asked [Klein and Ratliff] if they would be interested in trying to scale up this idea and recruit other laboratories to get involved." They agreed.

  • European Union and Israel Reach Deal on Funding Program

    Meet and greet. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the European Union's Catherine Ashton earlier this year.

    Meet and greet. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the European Union's Catherine Ashton earlier this year.

    European Union/European External Action Service

    Israeli scientists will be able to take part in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 funding program, which will launch in January, according to an agreement reached late last night. Israel’s government had threatened not to participate in the 7-year, €70 billion program because of a diplomatic flap with the European Union that flared up this summer. The conflict centers on E.U. guidelines, slated to take effect in January, that prohibit any E.U. funds from going to Israeli organizations or activities in the territories occupied after June 1967, including the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

    Israel has participated in E.U. science funding programs since 1996 as an associated country. Being an associated country allows non-E.U. members to take part in funding programs; such countries contribute to the program’s budget based on their gross domestic product. Israeli scientists have been very successful at winning E.U. grants. The country paid €534 million into the Seventh Framework Programme, which spanned 2007 to 2013; in return, almost 1600 Israeli scientists will have received a total of €634 million in funding. (Horizon 2020 is the successor program to Framework 7.) Israeli scientists, as well as technology minister Jacob Perry, had argued that not participating in the program would be a significant blow to Israeli research. Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman had objected to signing an agreement with the guidelines in place.

  • EPA Hires Scientific Integrity Advocate

    Integral player. Francesca Grifo, here testifying before a congressional panel earlier this year, has been named to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to implement policies designed to protect scientific integrity.

    Integral player. Francesca Grifo, here testifying before a congressional panel earlier this year, has been named to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to implement policies designed to protect scientific integrity.

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

    For more than a decade, Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) advocated for improving scientific integrity policies at government agencies. When she commented on a draft of the policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, she wrote: “These are great principles but how will this happen? Who will monitor? Who will detect problems and enforce these strong words?”

    Well, it turns out, she will. EPA announced today that it has hired Grifo to oversee its new policy on scientific integrity. “It’s great news,” says Rena Steinzor of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, who studies environmental regulation and the misuse of science in environmental policy.

    Grifo is charged with overseeing the four main areas of EPA’s policy: creating and maintaining a culture of scientific integrity within the agency; communicating openly to the public; ensuring rigorous peer review; and encouraging the professional development of agency scientists.

    It sounds like a gargantuan task, but Grifo won’t actually be checking the integrity of every committee, scientific document, and peer review. Instead, she will be focusing on improving the process, says Michael Halpern, her former colleague at UCS. Part of the job will be educating staff members. Last week, EPA launched an online training guide for its staff members to make them aware of the policy and its protections. “It’s a cultural change so that [EPA] scientists feel they can participate in public life and the scientific community,” Halpern says, and better prepare them to deal with political pressure.

  • Frustrated U.S. FDA Issues Warning to 23andMe


    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down on DNA testing company 23andMe for the marketing of its Personal Genome Service (PGS). In a 22 November warning letter addressed to CEO Anne Wojcicki, FDA demanded that the Mountain View, California-based company stop selling its $99 testing kit, which uses a sample of a buyer’s saliva to identify genetic variants linked to more than 240 “health conditions and traits,” until it receives FDA authorization.

    The service claims to identify risks, predict drug response, and inform treatment decisions—uses which require approval under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, FDA holds.

    The agency followed up with an announcement in the Federal Register today, announcing that it is issuing "guidance" to companies that produce in vitro diagnostic products labeled “for research use only” and “for investigational use only.” The moves may signify a new push for regulatory control over the field of direct-to-consumer genomics. (On its website, 23andMe says its services are “for research, informational, and educational use only. We do not provide medical advice.”) 

  • Fred Kavli's Support for Science to Live On

    Fred Kavli

    Fred Kavli

    The Kavli Foundation

    Fred Kavli, the man behind the Kavli Foundation, died last week at the age of 86. He leaves a legacy of supporting the fundamental sciences that will be further strengthened in the future, thanks to additional funds that Kavli bequeathed to the foundation in his will.

    “Fred had always indicated that the foundation would exist in perpetuity,” says Kavli Foundation President Robert Conn. “He endowed it with a generous initial gift. It will be even more generously endowed after his passing.” Conn did not, however, provide details on how much Kavli’s final bequest will add to the foundation’s capital, which totaled $145 million in 2011, according to tax records.

    Kavli grew up in a small village in Norway and moved to the United States in 1956. Two years later, he founded Kavlico Corporation, which became one of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for the aerospace and automobile industries. In 2000, Kavli sold the company and launched the Kavli Foundation to support basic research. 

  • In Canada, a Stern Critique of University-Industry Collaborations

    All together now. Universities that get involved in applied research partnerships with industry, such as companies that extract oil from mines like this one in Alberta, need to make sure agreements protect academic freedom, a new report argues.

    All together now. Universities that get involved in applied research partnerships with industry, such as companies that extract oil from mines like this one in Alberta, need to make sure agreements protect academic freedom, a new report a


    Canadian universities aren’t doing enough to protect academic freedom and safeguard against conflicts of interest in research agreements with industry, argues a new report from an academic association. But the leader of one applied research collaboration says the findings are misguided.

    “In their drive to attract new revenues by collaborating with corporations, donors, and governments, Canadian universities are entering into agreements that … sacrifice fundamental academic principles,” the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) concluded, according to a press release, in the report released last week, which examined a dozen university-industry agreements. Many, it found, failed to protect researchers’ ability to publish freely, while just one spelled out rules for disclosing conflicts of interest.

    CAUT’s conclusion, however, is “complete and utter nonsense,” says Murray Gray, scientific director of the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, one of the partnerships analyzed in the report. “Their premise is that academic freedom [means] that you should be paid as a professor to do work that what you want to do, without any accountability, that you should be given money and just go and have a good time.”

  • Communist Party Takes Aim at Elite Scientists

    Long considered the capstone of a scientific career in China, election to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) confers so much prestige on those anointed that organizations often try to recruit CAS members or reward their own with a guarantee of lifetime employment. But China’s Communist Party has ordered a reform of China’s academy membership system that may be aimed at curtailing privileges for academicians, or yuanshi.

  • Science Museum Declines to Show Climate Change Film

    Science Museum Declines to Show Climate Change Film

    All rights reserved by North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

    A premier science museum in North Carolina has sparked some controversy by refusing to show an hourlong film about climate change and rising sea levels. “The suppression of information is not in in the spirit of what a museum ought to do,” says Charles “Pete” Peterson, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City.

    But museum officials deny any attempt to avoid the topic. “I have a track record of dealing with these issues head on,” says Emlyn Koster, who directs the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

    The museum may be in a bit of a delicate position. It is part of a state agency, the North CarolinaDepartment of Environment and Natural Resources. The state government has been perceived as hostile to action on climate change; last year, the legislature passed a bill forbidding the state coastal commission from defining rates of sea-level rise for regulation before 2016. Although Koster is a state employee who is exempt from some civil service protections and serves at the pleasure of Governor Pat McCrory (R), he stresses his independence. “At no time have I been told what to do or what to think.”

    In October, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an advocacy organization, asked that the Museum of Natural Sciences show the film Shored Up in January as part of its weekly Science Café events. The hourlong movie looks at the impact of sea-level rise in New Jersey and North Carolina, as well as various political responses to dealing with the threat. After debuting at a film festival in New Jersey in May, the documentary has been screened dozens of times around the country.

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