Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Pedophile drug trial extends crowdfunding effort after falling short

    A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.

    A still from a video introducing the crowdfunding campaign for the trial.


    Swedish researchers hoping to raise funds to conduct a trial of a potential drug to treat pedophilia have fallen short of their initial crowdfunding target. But they are now planning to extend the fundraising effort, and say that the study, which aims to assess whether a prostate cancer drug could help prevent pedophiles from acting on their impulses, will move ahead. They hope to complete the trial in 2 to 3 years, says project leader Christoffer Rahm, a psychiatric researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

    The initial fundraising campaign on the website Walacea draws to a close on 7 May, and so far the research team has collected just 5% of the £38,000 ($55,700) it aimed to raise. Rahm says he was hoping to use some of this money to fund the work of a Ph.D. student, but now plans to do the bulk of the work himself. In the meantime, they will extend their fundraising effort (but have set no new deadline).

    The study, dubbed Priotab (Pedophilia at Risk-Investigations of Treatment or Biomarkers), has been approved by Swedish regulators. It has already enrolled a few participants: men who have sought help to deal with their pedophilic impulses. Instead of treating people who have committed offenses, Priotab wants to assess whether the drug, which lowers testosterone levels in the body, can prevent child abuse from happening in the first place.

  • Scholars describe exodus from Syria

    “Rescuing scholars is like adopting orphan minds,” Amal Alachkar says.

    “Rescuing scholars is like adopting orphan minds,” Amal Alachkar says.

    IIE Scholar Rescue Fund

    After militants burned down his house outside Damascus in late 2013, Moustafa* faced a bitter choice: “Either join the fight or have your silence taken to mean support for the other side,” he says. The intellectual property law researcher at the University of Damascus found neither option palatable, so he fled Syria.

    The 5-year-old Syrian civil war has displaced 4.8 million people, including some 2000 scholars like Moustafa. He and several other exiled researchers gathered to tell their stories and highlight the urgent need for support at a symposium in New York City on 29 April put on by the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE). According to IIE, fewer than 10% of the displaced scholars have resumed their academic careers. Most are still refugees in neighboring countries, where they encounter resentment and bureaucratic obstacles to finding jobs. Moustafa is one of the lucky ones: In August 2015, he landed a position at Rutgers University, Newark, in New Jersey.

    “We need to help rescue scholars when there is a crisis or war, because these professionals will bear the burden of rebuilding their country,” says IIE President Allan Goodman in New York City. IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) has provided fellowships of up to $25,000 to more than 130 Syrian scholars since 2011. Western organizations must step up their efforts, he says, to connect scholars with several dozen European and North American universities that have pledged to host at least one uprooted academic.

  • ExoMars rover launch slips to 2020


    The launch of the ExoMars rover has been delayed to 2020.

    European Space Agency

    Europe and Russia have delayed the launch of a Mars rover to July 2020. The rover, equipped with a drill to search for life in the subsurface, is the second prong in the ExoMars program. The first ExoMars mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter, launched this past March, and will attempt to nail down the existence and source of methane gas, which has mysteriously come and gone over the years.

    But many scientists had looked ahead to the ExoMars rover as the main event, not only as a chance for a country other than the United States to successfully land a rover, but also as a mission that would explicitly be looking for life. The mission was originally intended to be a U.S. collaboration, but NASA backed out in 2012.

  • Italy's troubled geophysics institute gets a new boss

    Carlo Doglioni will head up Italy’s scandal-plagued national geophysics institute

    Carlo Doglioni will head up Italy’s scandal-plagued national geophysics institute

    An outsider was named president of one of Italy's largest and most strategically important research organizations yesterday. Carlo Doglioni, a geologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, takes over the reins at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), which has been at the center of several widely publicized affairs in recent years.

    Doglioni, 59, an expert in plate tectonics, was selected by research and education minister Stefania Giannini from a short list of five, mainly internal, candidates. He says he hopes to restore INGV's focus to its two main functions—basic research and monitoring of natural hazards—following a tumultuous period in the institute's history. Outgoing President Stefano Gresta and other managers have been accused of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and misuse of funds, while two of the organization's scientists, including previous boss Enzo Boschi, were put on trial and convicted to 6 years in prison in 2012 for allegedly giving false reassurances ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. They were acquitted on appeal in 2014, a decision upheld by Italy's highest court last year.

    Gresta was appointed in March 2012 following the resignation of fellow seismologist Domenico Giardini, who reportedly was unhappy with his salary of about €100,000 a year. Gresta's nomination generated controversy among INGV researchers after it emerged that the selection committee had described the geophysicist to then–research minister Francesco Profumo as having had an "average level" university career. Institute researchers became more disgruntled 3 months later following the appointment of a new director-general, Massimo Ghilardi, whom they derided for having a degree in physical education and sociology.

  • Death knell for Japan’s x-ray space observatory

    Both solar panels are believed to have snapped off Japan’s failed Hitomi spacecraft.

    Both solar panels are believed to have snapped off Japan’s failed Hitomi spacecraft.

    Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

    Japan’s stricken x-ray observatory ASTRO-H (renamed Hitomi after launch) cannot be recovered, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced today. The hopes of many astronomers were riding on the mission since there has not been another major x-ray telescope launched since 1999. But following a 17 February launch that appeared to go flawlessly, JAXA lost contact with the craft on 26 March. U.S.-based tracking radars appeared to see multiple objects at the observatory’s orbital position, and ground-based satellite watchers reported seeing the craft in a slow spin.

    JAXA began a thorough technical investigation and reported today that it was likely that both the craft’s solar arrays had broken off at their bases where they are vulnerable to rotation. Brief radio signals from ASTRO-H that JAXA had reported receiving after the problems developed turned out to be from some other source since JAXA says they were at slightly the wrong frequency. “Accordingly, JAXA will cease the efforts to restore ASTRO-H and will focus on the investigation of anomaly causes,” the agency’s statement says.

  • UPDATED: Panel backs ITER fusion project’s new schedule, but balks at cost

    While ITER’s governing council mulls a revised schedule and cost, construction continues at its site in Cadarache, France.

    While ITER’s governing council mulls a revised schedule and cost, construction continues at its site in Cadarache, France.

    © ITER Organization

    At one of the most critical time in its history, leaders of the ITER fusion project  are struggling to find a way to keep the project on track as schedules slip, costs rise, and budgets tighten. The project’s management last year put forward a revised schedule and cost, and the council of representatives from its member states asked a panel of independent experts to review them. Yesterday, the council met in special session to hear a report of the panel’s conclusions. The report—which has been seen by Science—concludes that, while the new schedule is feasible (powering up the reactor in 2025 for the first time), the extra funding needed to achieve it (€4.6 billion) is too much to hope for.

    The council has now tasked the ITER management with finding a way to keep to the schedule while remaining within the financial constraints and differing budget cycles of the seven partners in the project--China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. “There is now a credible estimate of the schedule and cost envelope with respect to the financial capabilities of all the members,” says ITER director general Bernard Bigot. “All the pieces are in place to make a decision.” That decision will come at the council’s next meeting in June.

  • House panel adopts new rules for large NSF projects

    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Chile, is one of the NSF-funded facilities that could be affected by new proposed legislation.

    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Chile, is one of the NSF-funded facilities that could be affected by new proposed legislation.


    The National Science Foundation (NSF) suffered the first political fallout yesterday from its oversight of the troubled National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under construction.

    The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved by voice vote a measure that would set new rules on how NSF builds and operates large new scientific facilities like NEON. Republican legislators who are championing the bill (HR 5049) say it’s needed to curb abuses in a system that led to an $80 million projected cost overrun for NEON and forced NSF to fire the contractor on the $433 million project.

    “The committee seeks to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted on mismanagement and questionable costs,” said the committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), in his opening statement yesterday. “This bill will achieve that goal. It addresses gaps in project oversight and management through solutions identified by the NSF inspector general, auditors, an outside review panel, and the committee’s own work.”

  • Congressman Fattah’s defeat in primary is loss for science community

    Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) in 2012.

    Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) in 2012.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The research community lost a key supporter yesterday with the defeat of Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) in a Democratic primary race in his Philadelphia, Pennsylvania–area district. Fattah, who faces a federal trial next month for ethics transgressions, had a keen interest in neuroscience and helped catalyze the high-profile Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project, a multiagency effort to study the brain.

    Fattah, 59, has represented a west Philadelphia district for the past 22 years. He will go on trial in May on bribery and fraud charges involving misuse of a $1 million campaign loan when he ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007. Fattah has denied any wrongdoing, but his indictment contributed to his loss to state Representative Dwight Evans.

    His departure will end a long record of support for science. As the chief Democrat on a House of Representatives spending panel that oversees the National Science Foundation and several other science agencies, Fattah backed funding for basic research and science education. He also pushed for the creation of a White House interagency neuroscience working group. One result was the $300 million BRAIN project, which President Barack Obama championed.

  • Harvard epidemiologist to lead revamped NIH children’s study

    Matthew Gillman

    Matthew Gillman

    Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute

    A seasoned pediatric researcher and epidemiologist has been tapped to head the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) revamped children’s study. Harvard Medical School in Boston’s Matthew Gillman had ties to the National Children’s Study (NCS), which NIH scrapped in late 2014. But Gillman says the new long-term study, which retains some of the original goals, is “set up in a way that will breed success.”

    NIH spent $1.3 billion on planning and pilot studies before ending the NCS, which aimed to explore how everything from toxic chemicals to social factors shape the health of 100,000 U.S. children from birth to age 21. On orders from Congress, which called for the original NCS in 2000, NIH replaced it last year with a program called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO).

    One former NCS investigator who blamed its downfall in part on weak scientific leadership says the choice of Gillman, who will start work in July, is good news. “Dr. Gillman is an accomplished child health epidemiologist with extensive experience in pregnancy and birth cohort research. He is ideally positioned to make ECHO a success,” says pediatrician and epidemiologist Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University in East Lansing. In announcing the appointment, NIH Director Francis Collins in Bethesda, Maryland, said Gillman has “deep experience in the fields of epidemiology, pediatrics, and internal medicine.”

  • Australia’s national labs learn details of staff cuts

    Australia will set up a new Climate Science Center at this CSIRO facility in Hobart.

    Australia will set up a new Climate Science Center at this CSIRO facility in Hobart.

    Simon Torok/CSIRO

    After months of uncertainty, scientists at Australia’s premier research agency today learned their fate. More than 275 jobs will be cut, with climate science taking the biggest hit. Up to 75 jobs will be lopped from the Oceans and Atmosphere division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Technological Organization (CSIRO) as part of a restructuring first announced in February by CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall.

    In what is widely viewed as a fig leaf, Marshall told staff that 40 climate research positions would be retained "for the next decade" at a new Climate Science Center to be established in Hobart, Australia. In an email sent this morning outlining the “changes underway,” Marshall said those surviving climate researchers would “focus on climate modeling.” Researchers not currently based in Hobart would move to the new center.

    “Operating within CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, the center will be responsible for engaging across all entities that conduct climate science,” Marshall said in the email. According to a statement released by CSIRO, the center will work closely with the National Bureau of Meteorology. CSIRO is also planning to deepen its existing partnership with the Met Office in Devon, U.K.

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