Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Researcher Posts Protected Mars Papers to Protest Journal Paywalls

    A prominent critic of scientific journals that charge subscriptions to read government-funded research results has launched a high-profile protest by posting five copyrighted Science papers on his personal website.

    “I am taking a stand [on] the accessibility of research carried out by the government,” geneticist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, tells ScienceInsider. “But I’m not interested in breaking the law.”

    Eisen posted the papers without asking permission of the copyright holders, an apparent violation of U.S. law. But it would be up to the authors of the papers, not the journal, to take any legal action against Eisen, copyright lawyers say.

    Yesterday, Eisen caused a stir in social media by downloading and then reposting the papers, which appear in today’s issue of Science and describe discoveries about martian geochemistry by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Eisen says he was “astonished” to discover that the papers were behind Science’s paywall, and that NASA should have pushed to make them freely available because many of the authors were government employees. “The research was funded with $2.5 billion of tax money,” Eisen says. “It's more than just a missed opportunity for NASA. It should be a scandal.”

    Eisen is no stranger to the fight for making scientific research accessible. He helped launch the open-access publishing movement by co-founding the Public Library of Science (PLOS), which publishes several free journals. Open-access journals give free access to readers and pay their bills by charging scientists a publication fee, while traditional journals charge subscribers or libraries.

  • House Science Committee Drafts Controversial Bill on U.S. Research Funding

    Ready to rumble. Republican leaders of the House science committee are preparing to release draft legislation for changes at key U.S. research agencies that could be controversial.

    Amanda Walker/Wikimedia

    A key congressional committee is planning a hearing next month on legislation that could give several U.S. science agencies new marching orders. The details are still a secret, but expect fireworks.

    The legislation has been drafted by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would update the America COMPETES Act, which in 2007 committed the federal government to expanding research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as well as science education across several agencies. It also set government-wide science priorities to be managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    The 2007 law adopted many of the recommendations in a 2005 report from the National Academies on how to keep the country competitive in a global economy. In addition to authorizing large budget increases for those agencies, the bill advocated for a new energy technology effort at DOE, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. It also called for several initiatives to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

  • NIH Swears Off Science Education

    End game. Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s principal deputy director, says the biomedical research agency has decided to close its science education office. Tabak testified last year before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on a

    House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has never been in the business of supporting precollege science education and promoting health literacy to the public, says NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak. And now it’s official NIH policy, too.

    On 1 October, NIH will shutter its nine-person Office of Science Education (OSE) and cease to conduct a range of activities designed to foster health science education among elementary and secondary school students and the general public, Tabak told ScienceInsider yesterday. The announcement is belated confirmation of something the health science community had assumed to be true for several months. However, until this week, NIH officials had said only that the education office and a related Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program were being “paused” while NIH reviewed all options for coping with a 5% cut to its $30.7-billion-a-year budget that was a part of an automatic reduction in federal spending across all agencies.

    “[K-12] education has never been part of our formal mandate,” Tabak says. “And frankly, it has never been a very high priority for NIH. As we’ve discussed before, this unusual year in which we lost $1.5 billion overnight caused us to rethink many of our priorities, and this was one of many things we had to rethink.”

  • Climate Panel: Even Greater Confidence of Looming Warming

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sent a strongly worded message to policymakers around the world early today: The new science of the past 6 years has only reinforced the already-confident conclusions of the 2007 IPCC assessment report. The world is warming, humans are behind most of the warming, and continued spewing of greenhouse gases would warm the world to dangerous levels by as early as midcentury, the report finds.

    Climate contrarians seem to have scored no points with the panel, leaving climate science still squarely behind curbing greenhouse gas emissions if the most serious consequences of global warming are to be avoided. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, a sponsor of the IPCC, put it at this morning’s press conference: “The heat is on; we must act.”

  • Updated: U.S. Senate Ends Helium Saga

    Settled. Senate vote could end uncertainty over the future of helium sales from a U.S. government reserve.


    The U.S. Senate could soon end a protracted pingpong match over the future of the market for helium, a gas coveted by scientists and high-tech companies alike.

    Senators are expected to vote as early as today to approve legislation that would allow the U.S. government to continue selling helium from a national reserve that plays a key role in U.S. and world supplies. The Senate’s approval would clear the way for President Barack Obama to sign the bill, preventing a major disruption in a system that is scheduled to end on 1 October.

    “We have every hope and expectation that the Senate will approve the bill quickly,” says David Isaacs, vice president for government affairs at the Semiconductor Industry Association in Washington, D.C., one of several research and industry groups that have lobbied for its passage.

  • Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story of Sequestration

    Money worries. Researchers rally in Washington, D.C., earlier this year against the budget cuts known as the sequester.

    David Malakoff/Science

    Jonathan Dordick has seen sequestration, the 5% across-the-board spending cut imposed earlier this year on every federal agency, as both a scientist and a university administrator. But the twin vantage points haven’t helped much in clarifying what the cuts have meant to his lab, his institution, and the U.S. research enterprise. (For more, see today’s Science magazine story.)

    Yes, less research is being funded because of the sequester, which went into effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to agree on how to implement a 2011 budget agreement to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade. The 2013 budget of the largest federal research agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is down 5.5%, or $1.7 billion, to $29.15 billion. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) budget shrunk by 2.1%, to $6.88 billion, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science fell by 5%, to $4.63 billion. But those three key agencies, along with universities, national laboratories, and individual scientists, have also proved adept at cushioning the impact of a blow they had long anticipated.

    Dordick is a prime example. As a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, and an NIH grantee, he was told in January that he would receive 12.5% less than he had expected in the second year of a 4-year grant to develop a more efficient, high-throughput screening system to measure the impact of thousands of chemicals on adult neural stem cells. NIH routinely makes a 10% cut to ongoing grants when it has to start a new fiscal year without a final budget, but the looming sequestration forced NIH to be even more conservative.

  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory to Trim Staff by as Much as 11%

    Shrinking lab. Director Thom Mason (left) with Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz during a June visit to the Tennessee lab.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee today announced a plan to pare up to 475 positions from its staff of 4500 researchers, technicians, and support personnel. Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) lab hope to meet the target through voluntary buyouts, and there are no immediate plans for layoffs. The staff reduction is the second in 3 years and would leave the lab with nearly 1000 fewer workers than it had in 2010.

    Oak Ridge is one of 10 national labs run by DOE’s Office of Science, which this year took a 5% hit, to $4.632 billion, as part of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The reduction, required by the failure of policymakers to abide by the terms of a 2011 law designed to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade, reduced the lab’s budget this year by $100 million, to $1.5 billion. The voluntary buyouts are intended to prepare the lab for a second round of automatic cuts that will occur in 2014 unless Congress agrees on another approach to reducing federal spending, say Oak Ridge Director Thom Mason.

    Oak Ridge is a multipurpose lab with strengths in materials science, advance scientific computing, biofuels, and nuclear engineering. It hosts the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source and the High-Flux Isotope Reactor, also a neutron source, which are used to study materials. It is home to the Titan supercomputer, which can be used to simulate systems as diverse as the climate and the core of a nuclear reactor. Oak Ridge also serves as the main office for the U.S. team working on the international fusion project ITER, which is under construction in Cadarache, France.

  • Controversial Pentagon DNA Analysis Contest Names Champion

    On top. A team led by bioinformatics researcher Daniel Huson won a $1 million Pentagon prize.

    Mike Steel

    A DNA analysis challenge posed by the U.S. Department of Defense proved more difficult than many contestants expected, but a winner has emerged. The agency announced this week that Team Huson—a latecomer to the competition that became an immediate front-runner—will take the $1 million prize for their speedy DNA analysis computer program. Earlier this year, the design and scoring of the contest drew heavy criticism from some top contenders after just three of 103 entrants made it into the final round.

    One of those finalists, Daniel Huson, a bioinformaticist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, says that he and his teammates “had a pretty good feeling” they might take the top prize. They were thrilled to discover earlier this month that their intuition was sound.

    The contest, officially known as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's (DTRA's) Algorithm Challenge, sought a better way to identify organisms and genes in a DNA sample to identify possible bioterror threats. The challenge was open to anyone, and participants submitted their work using the online contest host InnoCentive. Huson says that he relished the frantic, round-the-clock work needed to win: “The only other time I ever had this much fun was when I was working on the human genome at Celera genomics.”

  • Flu Researcher Ron Fouchier Loses Legal Fight Over H5N1 Studies

    Dismissed. A Dutch court has rejected a challenge to rules that required researchers to get an export permit before sending papers on the H5N1 avian influenza virus (above) to the U.S.-based journal Science.

    National Institutes of Health

    Virologist Ron Fouchier has suffered a loss in a legal battle with the Dutch government over the publication of his controversial H5N1 influenza research. On Friday, a Dutch district court ruled that the government was right to ask Fouchier to obtain an export license before sending two hotly debated papers out for publication. The ruling, published yesterday (Dutch), could provide new roadblocks for Fouchier’s research in the future.

    At issue is Fouchier’s hotly debated paper showing that a few mutations can make H5N1, a virus that normally infects birds, transmissible through the air between ferrets, which was published in Science in June 2012. The fight also involved an accompanying paper published in the same issue in which Fouchier and others tried to gauge the likelihood that such viruses arise spontaneously in nature.

    The Dutch government considered sending the papers to Science a form of “export” and required Fouchier to formally ask official permission first. In doing so, the government correctly interpreted E.U. regulations aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and so-called “dual use” technology that could be used for good or evil, the court in Haarlem said.

    The decision means that future H5N1 transmissibility studies—which Fouchier resumed after a worldwide moratorium ended in January—would require an official stamp of approval as well. The same could be true for similar studies involving H7N9, a strain that emerged in China this spring, because the government could consider any studies that give the virus new capabilities as providing dual use findings.

    Fouchier was unavailable for comment today, but he has said in previous interviews that the Dutch government is infringing on academic freedom and putting him and other scientists in the Netherlands at an unfair disadvantage compared to scientists from other countries.

  • The 2013 MacArthur 'Genius' Awards

    What are the odds? Statistician Susan Murphy of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is among the researchers who won a MacArthur prize this year. She’s helped develop new methods of treating patients.

    John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

    The new class of two dozen MacArthur Fellows announced yesterday includes 13 scientists whose interests span a range of disciplines.

    The 5-year $625,000 prize, up from $500,000, recognizes those “who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage,” said Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the program, which is run by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The 2013 class adds to the roster of 873 individuals recognized since 1981.

    This year’s list includes these researchers:

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