Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Hey scientists, how much of your publication success is due to dumb luck?

    Career lines illustration

    Among all the papers you publish over the course of your scientific career, which ones will have the highest impact seems to be essentially random.

    Kim Albrecht

    What makes some scientists’ careers take off whereas others’ stagnate? There are personal factors, of course: Some run clever experiments, have good collaborating skills, and are eloquent in communicating their work. But there’s also just dumb luck. Sometimes doing the right experiment at the right time makes all the difference in publishing a paper that wins lots of attention.

    Indeed, randomness appears to play the predominant role in determining which of a scientist’s papers get cited the most, concludes a study out today in Science. But there’s also something else—the authors call it Q—that appears to predict just how much more successful one scientist will be compared with another, at least in terms of citations to their work.

    In 2013, a group led by statistical physicist Albert-László Barabási of Northeastern University in Boston found that they could predict the future citation rate of any given paper by calculating the trajectory of its existing citations. That made them wonder: Could they predict the citation fate of every paper a scientist will ever publish, thus forecasting his or her personal success?

  • Are U.S. schools teaching hands-off science?

    students at a science exhibition

    Massachusetts high school students at a science exhibition.

    Masshighered/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    U.S. high school students who regularly handle rocks or minerals in science class did much worse on a recent national science test than those who never engage in such hands-on activities. Students who never mixed chemicals or peered through microscopes in their classrooms did just as well on the test as those who often participated in those activities. 

    Surprised? Those eye-catching results, from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science released last week, seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that hands-on learning is the best way to teach science. Last week, for example, the Obama administration honored the nation’s best science and math teachers by staging what it called “Active Learning Day” at the White House.

    Government officials refer to the NAEP as the nation’s report card. The science test, which periodically measures what a representative sample of U.S. students in grades four, eight, and 12 know about the life, physical, space, and earth sciences and the scientific process, is part of an ongoing assessment of reading, mathematics, civics, and other subjects. Results for the two younger grades are broken out by state, leading to media coverage that often focuses on why a particular state is ahead of or behind its peers.

  • Backers of embattled Hawaiian telescope select Canary Islands as backup site

    TMT complex

    Courtesy TMT International Observatory

    The location of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) remains in the balance as hearings continue this month in Hawaii over its disputed building permit. But now, at least, astronomers have a backup. The board of the TMT International Observatory announced yesterday that, if Hawaii proves inhospitable, they will build the telescope on the Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

    "The TMT International Observatory Board of Governors has explored a number of alternative sites for TMT. Every site we considered would enable TMT’s core science programs,” board chair Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement. After careful consideration, he said, the board had chosen “Spain as the primary alternative to Hawaii.”

  • How a key number in that new deal to curb refrigerating chemicals was born

    The earth seen from space


    When world leaders reached a deal last month in Kigali to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—planet-warming chemicals widely used in air conditioners and refrig­erators—many boasted the move would prevent nearly 0.5°C in warming by 2100. That is a big number, given that the Paris climate agreement aims to keep total warming to less than 2°C. If the HFC number is correct, it will make it easier for nations to achieve the Paris goal.

    But there’s a bit more scientific uncer­tainty surrounding that half-degree claim than the politicians let on. The figure has its origins in a 2006 dinner held by five scien­tists in a village in the Swiss Alps. The U.S. and European researchers, who work for gov­ernment and industry, were part of a group that advises policymakers on the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 pact that curbed the use of chemicals that harm the ozone layer. The re­searchers found that the protocol also helped reduce global warming, because some of the regulated chemicals were potent greenhouse gases. But they realized the pact had a warm­ing downside, too, says David Fahey, a physi­cist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Lab­oratory in Boulder, Colorado. That’s because some of the newer, ozone-friendlier chemi­cals that the protocol thrust into use, such as HFCs, trap heat thousands of times more effectively than carbon dioxide. Soon, the researchers were trying to figure out what that meant for the planet.

  • Ecologists raise alarm over releases of mosquito-killing guppies

    A guppy

    For decades, health officials have used guppies (Poecilia reticulata) for mosquito control.

    H. Krisp

    The little guppy Poecilia reticulata has developed a big reputation. For decades, the fish has been championed as a mosquito fighter and dumped into ponds and ditches to eat up the insect’s larvae. But among scientists, it has a different reputation—as an invasive species with a remarkable ability to reproduce and spread.

    Now, as health officials in regions facing mosquito-borne viruses like Zika consider expanding use of these predatory fish, ecologists are urging them to think twice. In a paper published online today in Biology Letters, a group of ecologists argues that the guppies—and other nonnative fish used for mosquito control—haven’t actually proven very effective mosquito fighters, but are known to pose ecological risks.   

    “It all sounds like it’s magical—you put the guppies in, they eat the mosquitoes, everything is fine,” says Rana El-Sabaawi, an ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada and lead author on the new paper. “Our concern is that you have a potentially invasive species that is being introduced haphazardly.”

  • Q&A: Priorities of new mental health chief to include brain circuits and suicide

    National Institutes of Mental Health administration building.

    After his move from Columbia University to become director the National Institute of Mental Health, Joshua Gordon oversees researchers working in the John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center (above).


    Joshua Gordon was a first year M.D.- Ph.D. student at the University of California in San Francisco bent on a career in cancer biology when he heard a talk describing how electrically stimulating cells in a key area of the brains of monkeys could alter the animals’ perception of which direction dots were moving on a computer screen. The power of that manipulation—and the vast possibilities for probing the brain that it suggested—captivated Gordon. He was hooked. He switched his Ph.D. focus to neuroscience.

    A quarter-century later, Gordon, 49, has just become director of the $1.55 billion National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He assumed the post last month after 19 years at Columbia University, where he completed a psychiatry residency and later joined the faculty.

    For much of that time, he explored neural circuits in mice with mutations relevant to schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and depression, trying to get at how particular mutations lead to corresponding, abnormal behaviors. In recent years, Gordon also oversaw the research projects of Columbia’s psychiatrists-in-training. And beginning in 2001, he maintained a private psychiatry practice 1 night a week, treating patients with depression, anxiety, and, occasionally, bipolar disorder. They saw him for months or years. Closing that practice to move to the NIMH last month was, he says, “very painful.”

    Just weeks into his new job, Gordon was challenged by two former colleagues in a pair of prominent op-eds. The clinical psychiatrists charged that under Gordon’s predecessor, Thomas Insel, NIMH—the largest mental health research funder in the world—has swung too far toward basic neuroscience, neglecting research on the issues that touch patients every day. Gordon needs to change that, they asserted.

    Science sat down with Gordon last week in his NIMH office to discuss his reaction and other matters. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Pasteur Institutes acknowledge unauthorized import of MERS samples on a flight from Seoul to Paris

    An artist's conception of the MERS virus.


    A researcher from the Pasteur Institute Korea (IPK) in Seoul brought samples taken during the country's outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) on an intercontinental flight last year without the appropriate paperwork, hoping to get them studied at the Pasteur Institute (IP) in Paris. Both institutes have acknowledged the incident, which IP says was a breach in French biosafety protocol. But both say the trip never put anyone in danger, because the samples had undergone a treatment that would have killed any living virus.

    The story was first reported earlier this month by English-speaking newspaper The Korea Times, which wrote that a researcher from IPK had transported samples containing the MERS virus on a Korean Air flight from Seoul to Paris on 11 October 2015—a few months after a MERS epidemic outbreak that sickened 186 people and killed 38 in South Korea. IPK “committed serious biosecurity breaches, which could have resulted in the loss of many lives, and tried to cover it up,” the newspaper alleged.

    In a statement issued today, IPK sought to downplay the issue. A review conducted with IPK’s safety committee has shown that the samples were treated with glutaraldehyde fixative, a standard virus inactivation protocol, the statement says; as a result, they were noninfectious and did not need any special approval from the airline to be taken onto the flight. (The samples traveled in the aircraft's baggage hold, the institute also says, not in the researcher’s cabin luggage, as The Korea Times claimed.)

  • To save money, NSF requires university cost-sharing for rotators



    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided that universities should pay 10% of the salaries of faculty members working temporarily at the agency. NSF hopes the new policy will demonstrate its commitment to saving taxpayer dollars without alienating the academic community that it relies upon to stay on the cutting edge of basic science. But the changes, which also curb travel and eliminate subsidies for lost consulting opportunities, could make it more difficult for the agency to attract talented academic help.

    The rules, announced on Friday, apply to academic researchers who come to NSF for up to 4 years to help the agency manage its research portfolio. These rotators comprise 28% of the agency’s scientific workforce, and about 12% of its overall workforce (see graph, below).

    NSF officials have long argued that rotators are important to the agency’s success, because they bring up-to-the-minute knowledge of their fields. And the agency has been willing to pay a premium for that know-how: The average rotator earns $36,500 more than a federal employee in the same position would receive.

  • Update: R.I.P. Schiaparelli: Crash site spotted for European Mars lander

    Imagery from a Mars orbiter

    Imagery from a Mars orbiter shows a bright parachute and a dark smudge 1 kilometer north of it.


    Update: Poor Schiaparelliyour life was so short. Imagery released on 21 October from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows the bright, reflective surface of a parachute, and 1 kilometer north of it, a dark patch on the ground where before there had been nothing. In a statement, the European Space Agency (ESA) said this could be a small crater from the lander’s impact at more than 300 kilometers per hour, having fallen from an altitude of between 2 and 4 kilometers after its thrusters cut out too early. “It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely full,” ESA said in its statement. Better imagery of the crash site could come in subsequent days from a higher resolution camera on MRO. Meanwhile, ESA reports that the Trace Gas Orbiterthe main scientific rationale for the ExoMars 2016 missionis in good health, and is set to begin slowly lowering the altitude of its orbit so that it can begin looking for methane and other gases that could signal life on Mars.

    DARMSTADT, GERMANY—The morning after, we know little more about the fate of Europe’s Mars lander Schiaparelli than we did last night: It ceased communicating 50 seconds before its predicted landing time and all efforts to contact it again have been met with a stony silence. As the hours pass, it seems increasingly likely that the lander crashed onto the Red Planet instead of making a gentle touchdown.

    But mission managers here at the European Space Agency's mission control center are putting a positive spin on the situation. With the data received during the descent, they say they will still learn important lessons for the much larger rover that ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos will dispatch to the Red Planet in 2020.

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