Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • How much did your university pay for your journals?

    A new study shows universities pay more or less for academic journal bundles than would be expected based simply on size or number of Ph.D.s granted.

    A new study shows universities pay more or less for academic journal bundles than would be expected based simply on size or number of Ph.D.s granted.

    What is your university paying for academic journal subscriptions? The answer can be surprisingly hard to find. Universities buy access to most of their subscription journals through large bundled packages, much like home cable subscriptions that include hundreds of TV stations. But whereas cable TV providers largely stick to advertised prices, universities negotiate with academic publishing companies behind closed doors, and those deals usually come with nondisclosure agreements that keep the bundled prices secret. After several years of digging, and even legal action, a team of economists has pried out some of those numbers, revealing the bundle prices charged by Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. Some universities are paying nearly twice what universities of seemingly similar size and research output pay for access to the very same journals.

     (2009 payment data for each university or university consortia is available here.)

  • Massive U.S. children's study needs major tweaks, report finds

    Massive U.S. children's study needs major tweaks, report finds

    U.S. Government

    A controversial plan to study the health of 100,000 U.S. babies to age 21 has some strong points—but also a host of weaknesses that could further delay its launch, an outside review has concluded. The critique from an Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) panel raises questions about whether the National Children’s Study (NCS) can sustain the political support needed to assure funding for the ambitious effort, which has already cost $1 billion and could require billions more in coming years.

    NCS “offers enormous potential, but it also presents a large number of … challenges,” states the 16 June IOM/NRC report. To overcome them, IOM/NRC recommends that the study’s leader, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), undertake some major changes, including fine-tuning the study’s guiding hypotheses and bolstering scientific input and oversight. And it should drop an existing plan to enroll nearly half of the children at birth, and instead enroll all of them earlier, during the mother’s pregnancy.

    “It’s not like [NICHD needs] to start at square zero again,” because much of the groundwork for NCS has already been laid, says panel chair Greg Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. But the needed changes would likely delay initial recruitment, now planned for 2015.

  • Kiribati commits to fishery-free reserve

    South Tarawa, a part of Kirabati.

    Wikimedia/Government of Kirabati

    HONOLULU—President Anote Tong of Kiribati pledged today that he would ban all commercial fishing at the end of the year in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a California-sized swath of Central Pacific waters that are among the world’s most biologically rich and intensely fished. The reserve, Tong said today at the televised opening of the Our Ocean conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., is “a major spawning ground for tuna, so its closure will have a major contribution to the conservation and rejuvenation of fish stocks and to global food security.”

    The Central Pacific holds the last great tropical tuna fishery after stocks were depleted in other oceans. The closure will notably give a refuge to bigeye tuna, a species prized for sushi that, according to John Hampton, a fisheries scientist who heads the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia, has been overfished to about 20% to 30% of unexploited levels across the Pacific. The closure will allow the bigeye that live inside the reserve to reconstitute their genetic diversity and thus their resilience to both fishing and climate change, according to Jessica Meeuwig, director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, Crawley. “We’ve got only two big areas of ocean fully closed to fishing, and this one is so rich and productive that the benefits are going to be outstanding,” says Meeuwig, who recently led an expedition to the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, the world’s biggest no-take area. (The third giant no-fishing area, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is located farther north and has fewer fish.)

  • Hubble telescope to look for follow-on target for Pluto-bound probe

    The New Horizons spacecraft approaches Pluto in this artist's conception.

    The New Horizons spacecraft approaches Pluto in this artist's conception.


    New Horizons, NASA’s mission to the outer solar system, has been given a large chunk of time on the Hubble Space Telescope to assist an increasingly desperate search for an icy object the spacecraft can study after it hurtles past Pluto in July 2015, NASA headquarters announced today.

    The mission team has so far been unable to find a suitable Kuiper belt object (KBO) for follow-up study, but needs to as soon as possible so that it can plan orbital adjustments with its limited supply of fuel.

    Beginning this week, the mission team will get 40 orbits of Hubble time from the discretionary budget of the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, which operates the telescope. It takes the telescope 97 minutes to orbit Earth, but because Earth blocks intended targets for much of this time, each orbit is worth about an hour of observation.

  • Evidence mounts against new stem cell method

    Teruhiko Wakayama facing the press on 16 June.

    Teruhiko Wakayama facing the press on 16 June.

    D. Normile

    KOFU, JAPAN—A genetic analysis of what was claimed to be a new type of pluripotent stem cell has cast fresh doubts on the research. The independent analysis shows that the cells, called STAP cells, don't match the mouse strain supposedly used in the experiments—possibly indicating inadvertent or deliberate switching of cellular material.

    "This doesn't definitively show that STAP cells don't exist, but there is no evidence supporting their existence," said Teruhiko Wakayama, a mouse cloning pioneer at University of Yamanashi here, at a press conference today.

    The simple approach, known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, was described in a pair of papers published online in Nature on 29 January by Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe and co-authors in Japan and at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate in Boston. A RIKEN investigative panel documented plagiarism, image falsification, and other problems with the papers and concluded that Obokata had committed research misconduct.

  • E.U. medicines agency relaxes data-sharing rules

    E.U. medicines agency relaxes data-sharing rules


    Academics breathed a cautious sigh of relief when the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced yesterday that it would soften controversial draft rules to open clinical trial data to public scrutiny. In particular, the agency says it will let researchers “download, save and print the trial data for academic and non-commercial research purposes.” A previous plan would have allowed them only to view data on their computer screens.

    Last month, researchers and the European ombudsman had slammed the agency's draft policy for data sharing as too restrictive and impractical. Today, they welcomed the announced changes but sounded a note of caution, as other controversial elements are likely to remain in the final text.

    “This is a good move. It will mean researchers will be able to scrutinise, compare and share clinical trial information. Allowing researchers access to clinical trial information on-screen-only would have made their job impossible,” said Síle Lane, director of campaigns at the U.K. pressure group Sense about Science, in a statement today.

  • European nations back new rules for snubbing GM crops

    Luxembourg Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg voiced concerns with the draft cultivation proposal.

    Luxembourg Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg voiced concerns with the draft cultivation proposal.

    The Council of the European Union

    Angering both sides of a fractious debate, the European Union's member states agreed today on a plan allowing individual countries to refuse to plant E.U.-sanctioned genetically modified (GM) crops. 

    Many European consumers and national governments have voiced strong concerns about GM foods, with sharp divisions across the bloc hampering regulatory decisions. “The current system for approving GM crops doesn't work, either for those who wish to cultivate GM crops or for those who don't,” said Rupert Ponsonby, U.K. parliamentary undersecretary of state for natural environment and science, at a meeting of the Council of the European Union environment ministers in Luxembourg today.

  • Japanese stem cell debacle could bring down center

    Teruo Kishi, chair of a RIKEN reform committee, listening to questions at a press conference on 12 June.

    Teruo Kishi, chair of a RIKEN reform committee, listening to questions at a press conference on 12 June.

    D. Normile/Science

    TOKYO—Shutting down the research center at the heart of an unfolding scientific scandal may be necessary to prevent a recurrence of research misconduct, according to a report released at a press conference here today. A committee reviewing conduct at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, found lax oversight and a failure on the part of senior authors of two papers in Nature outlining a surprisingly simple way of reprogramming mature cells into stem cells. The committee surmised that a drive to produce groundbreaking results led to publishing results prematurely.

    RIKEN, which oversees a network of nationally funded research institutes from its headquarters in Wako near Tokyo, set up the reform committee in April after an investigative committee found that the two stem cell papers, from a team based primarily at CDB, were riddled with image and data manipulation and plagiarism. The investigative committee later concluded that two problems with the papers constituted research misconduct. So far, no one has reported being able to replicate the reprogramming method—called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP—which involves exposing cells to various kinds of stress.

  • Partisan battling derails vote on disputed bill to reshape U.S. energy science programs

    Representatives Eric Swalwell (D–CA) and Cynthia Lummis (R–WY) at a hearing earlier this year.

    Representatives Eric Swalwell (D–CA) and Cynthia Lummis (R–WY) at a hearing earlier this year.

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

    Comity on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reached a new low today.

    Twenty-two minutes after the committee’s energy panel convened to start the process of debating and approving a bill to reauthorize the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) research and development programs, Representative Cynthia Lummis (R–WY) gaveled the session to a close without taking any votes on the proposed legislation. It was the latest—and most graphic—illustration of how partisan distrust has crippled the committee’s ability to do its job.

    The subject at hand was the DOE Research and Development Act of 2014 to provide guidance to DOE’s sprawling research programs, which are the major source of funding for the U.S. physical sciences and energy studies. Its controversial provisions include sharp cuts to climate change research and restrictions on how findings from that research can be used to shape federal environmental policies. At the same time, it proposes a 5.1% spending increase next year for DOE’s Office of Science, well above the administration’s 0.8% request for 2015.

  • A college president speaks up for the FIRST Act

    The Flame of the Millennium sculpture at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

    The Flame of the Millennium sculpture at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

    Yipdw via Wikimedia Commons

    James Conwell says he’s not interested in “swimming against the tide.” But the president of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, finds himself in select company: He appears to be the only U.S. academic leader who has offered unequivocal, public support for a controversial bill affecting operations at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    In a 17 April letter to a member of Congress from Indiana, Conwell endorsed H.R. 4186, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act. Conwell’s letter was one of three introduced by Representative Larry Bucshon (R–IN) when the House of Representatives science committee last month took up the bill to reauthorize NSF programs for next year. The committee passed the bill 28 May on a straight party-line vote of 20 to 16, but it is unclear when the full House will take up the measure.

    Bucshon chairs the committee’s research panel, and all three letters of support came from Indiana institutions. But only Conwell’s letter explicitly endorses the entire measure, which has been a bone of contention for the scientific community ever since a preliminary draft appeared in April 2013. The other letters, from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame, thank Bucshon for his interest in research and science education before mentioning particular programs that they support and other sections of the bill that disturb them.

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