Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH Report Warns of Looming Shortage of Physician-Scientists

    Going gray. Since 2003, the proportion of NIH-funded physician scientists who are over 60 has surpassed those under 50.

    Going gray. Since 2003, the proportion of NIH-funded physician scientists who are over 60 has surpassed those under 50.

    NIH ACD Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group Report

    Many observers believe that the United States is churning out too many new Ph.D. biomedical researchers, creating a hypercompetitive, unhealthy environment. But a new report from an advisory panel to the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) paints a different picture for physician-scientists: There may not be enough of them to replace those preparing to retire.

    A 2012 study on the U.S. biomedical workforce, requested by NIH and led by Princeton University molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman, found that the output of biomedical Ph.D.s exceeded the supply of academic jobs. However, her committee ran out of time to look at physician-scientists, who make up about 32% of all NIH principal investigators, a total of roughly 9000 individuals. The task was assigned to a new working group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), which delivered its report on 6 June.

  • Germany Bows Out of Radioastronomy Megaproject

    Artist's rendition of SKA's planned 15-meter dishes

    Artist's rendition of SKA's planned 15-meter dishes

    SKA Organisation

    Shocking its partners, Germany has withdrawn from an international collaboration to build the €2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s biggest radio telescope. Germany’s federal science ministry has informed the U.K.-based SKA Organisation that it intends to end its participation at the end of June 2015. “It came out of the blue. We were not expecting Germany to be withdrawing,” says SKA Director General Philip Diamond.

    SKA will create a single huge telescope from thousands of individual dishes and antennas across southern Africa and Australia with the aim of testing relativity, studying galactic evolution, and peering back to the era of the very first stars and galaxies. Construction could begin as early as 2017. Twenty countries are supporting the design effort with more than €120 million; according to a statement from the SKA Organisation, Germany’s contribution so far has been small—just €3.8 million—so its withdrawal will not be a huge blow to the project. But the impact on Germany’s astronomy community will be “catastrophic” if the nation doesn’t reconsider, asserts Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn.

    Although Germany hadn’t ponied up much cash, financial priorities appear to be the reason for its withdrawal. “SKA Organisation regrets this decision, and understands it is driven by difficult national financial circumstances around the funding of large research infrastructures in Germany and Europe,” the SKA statement said. Germany did not spell out the cause of the financial pressure, but the country is in the process of building two large international facilities on its territory: the European XFEL x-ray laser facility and FAIR, an accelerator center for nuclear physics.

  • A $4.5 Billion Price Tag for the BRAIN Initiative?

    The price of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN may have just skyrocketed. Last year, the White House unveiled a bold project to map the human brain in action, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, and commanded several federal agencies to quickly develop plans to make it reality. To kick-start the project, the president allocated about $100 million this year to BRAIN, spread over the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

    Now, after more than a year of meetings and deliberations, an NIH-convened working group has fleshed out some of the goals and aspirations of BRAIN and tried to offer a more realistic appraisal of the funding needed for the agency’s share of the project: $4.5 billion over the course of a decade.

    Neuroscientist Cornelia Bargmann, of Rockefeller University in New York City, who led the working group, sought to put that cost in perspective at a press conference today, saying it amounted to “about one six-pack of beer for each American over the entire 12 years of the program.”

  • Big Battle Over 15 Little Words

    Debate. The U.S. House of Representatives during last week's debate on a spending bill that funds the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

    Debate. The U.S. House of Representatives during last week's debate on a spending bill that funds the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

    U.S. House of Representatives

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last week to amend a 2015 spending bill covering the National Science Foundation (NSF). Smith has long complained about NSF’s “frivolous” grants in the social sciences. And now, as chair of the House science committee, he stood before his colleagues to propose “a small but important step … to assure that NSF-funded research is, in fact, in the national interest.”

    Smith said his 15-word amendment, co-authored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R–VA), would cancel a 6%, $15.3 million increase requested by the Obama administration for NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate and move the money into four other NSF research directorates that Smith feels are more deserving. The reshuffling of funds will “encourage the NSF to apply higher standards when awarding its grants,” Smith argued during a brief debate on 29 May on his amendment. By a narrow margin of 208 to 201, the House agreed with him.

    The fate of the House spending bill—which appropriates $51.2 billion across several agencies—is uncertain. The Senate must pass its own version and then reconcile the differences in a conference that probably won’t happen until after the November elections.

  • Output Drops at World's Largest Open-Access Journal

    PLOS ONE's monthly output of research papers

    PLOS ONE's monthly output of research papers

    Phil Davis based on PLOS ONE searches

    The number of papers published by the world’s largest open-access journal, PLOS ONE, has plummeted over the past few months after rising fairly steadily for years, notes a scholarly publishing blogger. Phil Davis suggests the closely watched PLOS ONE may have become a less attractive option for scientists as its impact factor has fallen and other open-access publishers have come on the scene.

    Founded 14 years ago, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) has been a leader in open access—online journals that are free for anyone to read and cover costs by charging authors a fee. But PLOS has also drawn criticism, because the nonprofit broke even only after starting the multidisciplinary PLOS ONE, which accepts all papers that pass technical scrutiny regardless of their importance. The model has drawn the complaint that PLOS ONE bulk publishes low-quality papers to make its more selective journals sustainable. That high volume made PLOS ONE the largest scientific journal in the world in 2010, with more than 8600 research papers. Last year, the site featured 31,509 papers.

    But this year, the trend has been downward, notes Davis, a publishing consultant. PLOS ONE’s output peaked in December 2013 at 3039 papers and by May had fallen 25% to 2276 papers (see graph). Davis suggests that a drop in PLOS ONE’s impact factor last June could be one explanation: Researchers tend to prefer journals with higher impact factors, a measure of how widely a journal is cited that is often used—mistakenly, many argue—to assess a scientist’s performance.

  • NSF Counsel Lashes Out at Scientists Asking About Protections for Rotators



    The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) top lawyer has rebuked a group of U.S. scientists who asked for an explanation of its policies governing temporary workers. The response appears to have widened a rift between that community and NSF over a program designed to keep the agency on the cutting edge of research.

    Roughly one-third of NSF program officers are rotators, scientists who come to the agency for a few years from another institution to manage programs in their area of expertise. But unlike regular federal employees who are protected by civil service rules, rotators are “at will” workers who can be sent packing at the discretion of NSF or their home institution.

    Last fall, the executive committee of the 4000-member Space Physics and Aeronomy (SPA) section of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) met during the annual AGU meeting to discuss NSF’s treatment of rotators. The discussion was triggered by a case involving Anja Strømme, a colleague whose stint at NSF had ended abruptly. (Strømme’s case was described in detail in ScienceInsider.)

  • Key Researcher Agrees to Retract Both Disputed Stem Cell Papers

    Haruko Obokata

    Haruko Obokata

    The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

    TOKYO—After several months of fiercely defending her discovery of a new, simple way to create pluripotent stem cells, Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, has agreed to retract the two Nature papers that reported her work.

    Satoru Kagaya, head of public relations for RIKEN, headquartered in Wako near Tokyo, confirmed press reports today that Obokata had finally agreed to retract both papers. He said the institute would be notifying Nature and that the decision to formally retract the papers would be up to the journal.

    Apparently all of the Japanese authors have now agreed to retract the two papers, which appeared as an article and a letter online in Nature on 29 January. But the position of co-authors based in the United States is unclear. And even if the papers are retracted, questions about the flawed technique and the way it ended on the pages of Nature remain to be answered.

  • Supreme Court Raises Bar for Patent Infringement

    Supreme Court Raises Bar for Patent Infringement

    U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

    U.S. biotech companies are worried that a patent decision yesterday involving two Internet technology companies could undermine patents on methods to diagnose and treat illnesses.

    The case before the Supreme Court, Limelight Networks, Inc. v. Akamai Technologies, Inc., dealt with a claim on a process to store and retrieve Web content. Akamai patented a process that involves storing and retrieving content on its servers to be loaded to a webpage. Limelight Networks offered a similar service, but it didn’t perform every step of that process itself. Instead, it instructed its customers to perform one important step—“tagging” the information designated to be stored on the servers.

    Akamai sued for infringement, and in 2012 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Limelight was not liable for direct infringement because it hadn’t performed every step in the process. But the court said Limelight was still liable for “inducing” infringement, meaning that it advised or encouraged others to perform steps that led to infringement.  

  • U.K. Report Says Proposed IVF Technique Is Likely Safe

    Under scrutiny. A human oocyte during a mitochondrial replacement procedure.

    Under scrutiny. A human oocyte during a mitochondrial replacement procedure.

    OHSU Photos

    A proposed new fertility treatment that could prevent certain types of genetic diseases is likely to be safe, according to the latest scientific assessment of the procedure by a scientific review panel in the United Kingdom. But the panel, which issued its report today, says more research in a few areas is necessary before the technique, called mitochondrial DNA replacement therapy, is used in patients.

    Mitochondria are organelles that provide the cell with energy. They carry their own DNA, called mtDNA, and mutations in those genes cause mitochondrial disease. The symptoms are variable, but organs that use lots of energy such as the brain, muscles, and heart are often affected. Because mitochondria are passed on through the egg cell, the diseases are inherited from the mother. The technique could potentially allow women who carry disease-causing mutations in their mitochondrial DNA to have healthy biological children.

    Researchers have developed ways to transfer the genetic material from an egg cell that carries faulty mitochondria into a donor egg cell that has healthy mitochondria. The resulting embryo carries nuclear DNA from the mother and father and mitochondrial DNA from an egg donor.

  • U.S. House Wants Limits on Climate, Marine Policy Programs

    At sea. House lawmakers voted to block Obama Administration efforts to advance its National Ocean Policy, which includes efforts to coordinate marine research. Here, the U.S. research vessel Okeanos Explorer conducts operations in the northern Gulf of Mex

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Some ocean and climate researchers are suffering a bit of heartburn from amendments that lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives last week added to a major spending bill.

    In a 321 to 87 vote, the Republican-controlled House on 30 May approved a $51 billion spending bill that would fund the departments of Commerce and Justice, and an array of other agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), in the 2015 fiscal year that begins 1 October. During 2 days of debate on the bill, House members offered scores of amendments, many proposing to shift funding between programs or cut spending. NSF survived the free-for-all largely unscathed.

    But lawmakers adopted several amendments that targeted marine research and climate science programs. The U.S. Senate, which this week begins work on its version of the spending bill, would have to agree to the amendments in order for them to become law (and in the past has stripped similar provisions from the legislation). For now, however, these amendments remain in the mix:

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