Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. energy secretary steps carefully around budgetmakers in Congress

    Bespeckled energy secretary Rick Perry, his hair graying, poses with his hands on his hips in front of the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

    Energy Secretary Rick Perry poses in front of the Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Secretary of Energy Rick Perry once performed the Cha Cha and the Quickstep on the television show Dancing with the Stars. So it’s no surprise that the former Texas governor displayed some careful footwork this week before three congressional panels examining the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). The president has called for deep cuts to science and technology programs at the $30 billion agency, evoking harsh criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum.

    In the face of that opposition, Perry this week repeatedly pirouetted away from defending the spending request. He noted that it was finalized, without his input, before he took office in early March. And he signaled that he recognizes Congress is the lead partner in the annual budgetary dance, because it holds the purse strings. “We have some work to do on this budget, I know that,” he told members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on 21 June, adding that he “looked forward” to working with lawmakers to address their concerns about spending levels. (Perry also met with House of Representatives appropriators on 20 June, and on 22 June with a Senate energy panel that oversees DOE programs.)

    At the same time, Perry struck a defiant pose when Democrats pressed him on his views of climate change. “My perspective is that it is not settled science,” he told the Senate spending panel, arguing that the jury is still out on whether carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are driving global warming. 

  • University of Tokyo scientist hit by anonymous allegations fights back

    The University of Tokyo.

    The University of Tokyo

    Perry Li/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Last September, anonymous allegations of questionable data and images in 22 papers by six prominent groups at the prestigious University of Tokyo prompted the school to set up an investigating committee. Now, even before the panel completes its investigation, one of the accused researchers has mounted a staunch defense of his work, with a point-by-point rebuttal of the allegations and an apology for mistakes confirmed in several of the questioned papers.

    “We believe that none of the errors affect the main conclusions of any of the reports,” Yoshinori Watanabe, who studies chromosome dynamics, writes in a statement posted in a Dropbox on 17 June. He adds that he is discussing with journals whether corrections or retractions to the affected papers would be “most appropriate.” He writes that at least one journal has already accepted a “short corrigendum.”  

    The allegations of falsified and fabricated data were made by an individual or group going by the name Ordinary_researchers in more than 100 pages of documents delivered to the university, funding agencies, and the press and posted online in two batches on 14 and 29 August. Twenty-three of the claims involved seven papers by Watanabe’s group. Watanabe goes through the 23 allegations one-by-one in a document placed in a Dropbox reached by following a link on a personal website. He explains where he believes Ordinary_researchers went wrong or misunderstood the image.

  • Europe backs missions to search for Earth-like planets, deep space cataclysms

    an ESA launcher

    The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), expected to begin operations in 2034, is a follow-on to the LISA Pathfinder mission launched in 2015.

    ESA/Manuel Pedoussaut

    The European Space Agency (ESA) today gave the green light to two missions: one to find places just like home; the other to detect the biggest cataclysms in the history of the universe.

    ESA’s Science Program Committee approved advancing Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) to construction. In 2026, it will begin scouring the skies for alternative Earths, terrestrial planets at a distance from sunlike stars that are comfortable for life.

    At the same time, the committee placed the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) onto ESA’s roster of missions, and planners can now begin its detailed design. In 2034, LISA is scheduled to begin detecting gravitational waves in space; ripples that originate in the universe-shaking explosions produced when galaxies collide and the supermassive black holes at their cores spiral together and merge.

  • EPA axes 38 more science advisers, cancels panel meetings

    Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to lead EPA

    Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

    All board members whose three-year appointments expire in August will not get renewals, Robert Kavlock, acting head of EPA's Office of Research and Development, said in the email, which was obtained by E&E News.

  • Q&A: Why a top mathematician has joined Emmanuel Macron’s revolution

    Cédric Villani talking to Emmanuel Macron

    Emmanuel Macron (left) is “a president who believes science is part of global politics,” Cédric Villani (right) says.

    Frederic Stevens/Getty Images

    French President Emmanuel Macron has promised his country a revolution—and after a comfortable victory in the parliamentary elections, he is well-positioned to deliver. Macron’s brand-new centrist and reformist party, La République En Marche!, won 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly yesterday. Almost half of his delegates are women; most have never been active in politics.

    What the upset will mean for French science is unclear. Macron has promised to raise the country’s research spending from 2.2% of gross domestic product to 3% and give universities more autonomy. He aims to make France a world leader in climate and environmental science and has promised €30 million to help attract foreign scientists using a website named “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Most French scientists were relieved that Macron defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen last month, but reforms in science and higher education are likely to meet resistance from leftist groups.

    Science talked to one of En Marche!’s new National Assembly members, mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani, 43, who won 69% of the vote in a constituency south of Paris. Villani, who heads the Henri Poincaré Institute in the capital, has won a book prize from the American Mathematical Society in 2014 and joined the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences last year. Frequent media appearances over the past decade—and his trademark silk ascot and spider brooch—have made him one of France’s best-known scientists. (He also gave a TED talk explaining what’s so sexy about math.)

  • DOE head says carbon dioxide not primary cause of climate change

    Rick Perry speaking at a conference

    Rick Perry

    Gage Skidmore

    Originally published by E&E News

    Energy Secretary Rick Perry this morning said carbon dioxide is not the primary driver of climate change, stirring the global warming debate ahead of his appearance on Capitol Hill this week.

    On CNBC's "Squawk Box," Perry was asked if he believes CO2 is the main factor driving fluctuating Earth and climate temperatures. He said "no," adding that he thinks "most likely" the ocean waters and the environment are the main drivers.

  • Indian research labs face financial crisis

    CSIR Central Building Research Institute main building in Roorkee, India

    Because of rising salaries, research funding is pinched at 38 Council of Scientific & Industrial Research labs, such as the Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee, India.

    Sanyam Bahga/Wikimedia Commons

    India’s 38 premier scientific laboratories are in a budgetary pinch. A jump in expenditures on salaries, pensions, and perks for government employees, recommended by an advisory commission, is leaving little money for new research in the budget of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), based in New Delhi, which oversees the labs and their 4600 scientists. The increase in personnel expenses comes on top of a 2015 call by the government for CSIR to raise 30% to 50% of its total budget itself by commercializing its technologies.

    The stark reality is that “we will be left with no funds to support new research projects,” CSIR Director General Girish Sahni wrote in an email to CSIR lab directors obtained by Science.

    The budget constraints are grim. Sahni wrote in his email that after covering the roughly 15% increase in salaries, unspecified boosts to pensions, plus capital expenditures and other previous commitments, out of CSIR’s total $683 million budget for the 2017 fiscal year only $31 million will be left to support new research at the 38 labs.

  • Great paper? Swipe right on the new ‘Tinder for preprints’ app

    a finger swiping on an iPhone screen

    Papr lets you decide whether an abstract is “exciting,” “boring,” “probable,” or “questionable.”


    If you’re tired of swiping left and right to approve or reject the faces of other people, try something else: rating scientific papers. A web application inspired by the dating app Tinder lets you make snap judgments about preprints—papers published online before peer review—simply by swiping left, right, up, or down.

    Papr brands itself as “Tinder for preprints” and is almost as superficial as the matchmaker: For now, you only get to see abstracts, not the full papers, and you have to rate them in one of four categories: “exciting and probable,” “exciting and questionable,” “boring and probable,” or “boring and questionable.” (On desktop computers, you don’t swipe but drag the abstract.) The endless stream of abstracts comes from the preprint server bioRxiv.

    Papr co-creater Jeff Leek, a biostatistician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, released an earlier version of Papr late last year but only started publicizing the app on social media earlier this month after his colleagues added a few more features, including a recommendation engine that suggests studies based on your preferences, an option to download your ratings along with links to the full preprints on bioRxiv, and suggestions for Twitter users with similar tastes as yours.

  • Despite Trump executive order, social cost of carbon still studied by federal agency

    A coal miner worker shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump

    Coal miners, such as this one shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, have embraced the pro-coal rhetoric of the new administration, but parts of the government are still assessing the costs of using coal and other carbon sources.

    Carlos Barria/REUTERS

    Originally published by E&E News

    Not far from the White House, some of the federal government's most influential number crunchers are still working on the social cost of carbon.

    President Trump's executive order on energy independence effectively signaled "pencils down" on federal work to estimate the monetary damage of greenhouse gas emissions, disbanding the interagency working group that calculated the dollar value on the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet and society.

  • Texas has sanctioned unapproved stem cell therapies. Will it change anything?

    Greg Abbott

    Texas Governor Greg Abbott just signed a law making it easier for unproven stem cell therapies to be given to patients in his state.

    Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Bob Daemmrich Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

    Texas Governor Greg Abbott yesterday signed a bill allowing clinics and companies in the state to offer people unproven stem cell interventions without the testing and approval required under federal law. Like the “right to try” laws that have sprung up in more than 30 states, the measure is meant to give desperately ill patients access to experimental treatments without oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    In a state where unproven stem cell therapies are already offered widely with little legal backlash, bioethicists and patient advocates wonder whether the state’s official blessing will maintain the status quo, tighten certain protections for patients, or simply embolden clinics already profiting from potentially risky therapies.

    “You could make the argument that—if [the new law] was vigorously enforced—it’s going to put some constraints in place,” says Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who last year co-authored a study documenting U.S. stem cell clinics marketing directly to consumers online, 71 of which were based in Texas. But “it would really be surprising if anybody in Texas is going to wander around the state making sure that businesses are complying with these standards,” he adds. Either way, Turner says there’s “powerful symbolic value” in “setting up this conflict between state law and federal law.”

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