Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NIH drops special 10% set-aside for AIDS research

    Demonstrators at a 2012 march for AIDS research and treatment in Washington, D.C.

    Demonstrators at a 2012 march for AIDS research and treatment in Washington, D.C.

    Greta Hughson/ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    In a major shakeup for the HIV/AIDS research community, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced it will no longer support setting aside a fixed 10% of its budget—or $3 billion this year—to fund research on the disease. The agency also plans to reprogram $65 million of its AIDS research grant funding this year to focus more sharply on ending the epidemic.

    The changes follow growing pressure in Congress and from some advocacy groups for NIH to reallocate its funding based on the public health burden a disease causes. In recent years, HIV/AIDS has been imposing a lower burden as death rates have dropped and treatments have improved.

    The changes are drawing a mixed reaction from the AIDs community and scientists. Although some scientists’ grants are now at risk, “there is broad support for the idea of oversight and review and a rigorous focus on the highest priority science with our precious research dollars,” says Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Chris Beyrer, president of the International AIDS Society. More worrisome to his group and others is uncertainty about future increases for AIDs research.

  • NSF fires managers of troubled NEON ecology project

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    NEON Inc.

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to look for a new organization to build its National Ecological Observatories Network (NEON) in hopes of saving the troubled project.

    “NSF… has minimal confidence in NEON Inc’s ability to manage the remaining construction and initial operations of the NEON project,” the head of NSF’s biology directorate, James Olds, wrote today to the Boulder, Colorado-based organization that has managed the project since its inception in 2007. In August, NSF decided to shrink the size and scope of the $434-million facility after discovering that it was running $80 million over budget and a year behind schedule. A month later Olds told a congressional science panel that it had asked NEON Inc. to submit a new management plan by 1 December.

    That plan projected additional costs and a further delay of 2 years, according to NSF’s letter. In response, NSF has decided to find someone else to do the job. “Responsible stewardship by NSF requires the immediate pursuit of management options under an expected new award for construction and commissioning,” Olds wrote to James Collins, chairman of NEON Inc.’s board of directors, and Eugene Kelly, its interim CEO. “NSF is dedicated to ensuring that further re-scoping will not occur,” Olds added.

  • In unique deal, Elsevier agrees to make some papers by Dutch authors free

    The publisher Elsevier had a major booth at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.

    The publisher Elsevier had a major booth at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.

    ActualLitte/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    A standoff between Dutch universities and publishing giant Elsevier is finally over. After more than a year of negotiations—and a threat to boycott Elsevier's 2500 journals—a deal has been struck: For no additional charge beyond subscription fees, 30% of research published by Dutch researchers in Elsevier journals will be open access by 2018.

    "It's not the 100% that I hoped for," says Gerard Meijer, the president of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and the lead negotiator on the Dutch side. "But this is the future. No one can stop this anymore."

  • Nature publisher to continue free paper-sharing service

    In December 2014, the publisher of Nature and its 48 sister journals launched a 1-year experiment: an online tool called ReadCube that allowed subscribers to share a read-only version of the subscription journal content with anyone, for free. One year later, the results are in. Although the publisher says use of the new sharing option was only "modest," the free ReadCube option is here to stay.

    One of the motivations of providing free read-only links to articles was to cut down on "dark sharing," in which researchers share PDF versions of journal articles by email or cloud services like Dropbox. Some publishers frown on such sharing. It is impossible to track, injecting more uncertainty into their usage statistics. And it may be cutting into their profits by relieving pressure on readers who do not pay for access.

    The trial had some strings attached. For example, whereas individual subscribers could freely share links to papers, only 100 news sites and bloggers on a whitelist were allowed. And mass-sharing, for example automatically tweeting a link to every Nature article, was not allowed. But otherwise, the system made the entire fleet of 49 Nature journals effectively open access for reading—as long as a link got shared.

  • Effort to prevent ‘coywolf’ hybrids is working, study finds

    April is one of roughly 200 red wolves in a captive breeding program.

    April is one of roughly 200 red wolves in a captive breeding program.

    Bethany Augliere

    Biologists have successfully prevented coyotes from destroying the genetic integrity of red wolves, one of the world’s most endangered canines, a new study concludes. The finding comes as state and federal officials mull whether to phase out the conservation effort, which has involved sterilizing coyotes to prevent the births of wolf-coyote hybrids, as a result of concerns about cost and long-term effectiveness.

    With roughly 50 animals left in the wild, red wolves (Canis rufus) live on just a single peninsula on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. In 1973, the population dwindled to 14 wolves; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) then captured the wolves to establish a captive breeding population. In 1987, biologists rereleased red wolves into the wild in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The fragile population now inhabits some 700,000 hectares of public and private land on the Albemarle Peninsula.

  • From a bully pulpit, Ted Cruz offers his take on climate change

    Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) opens his hearing on climate change, which was webcast.

    Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) opens his hearing on climate change, which was webcast.

    U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

    At the end of the first hearing he’s chaired on climate change, Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) laid out a set of facts intended to disprove the claims of those he calls “global warming alarmists.” But the bits of information that Cruz presented yesterday are either irrelevant to, or at odds with, what is actually happening to Earth’s climate.

    Cruz believes that carbon dioxide (CO2) “is good for plant life,” that the planet “is greener right now” than in the past, and that “for significant periods in history, prior to the industrial revolution, there has been markedly more CO2 in our atmosphere that could not have come from the burning of fossil fuels.” He also believes that “for the past 18 years … there has been no significant warming whatsoever” and that the current computer models used to understand global climate trends “are profoundly wrong … and inconsistent with the evidence and the data.”

    At the same time, Cruz did not acknowledge that carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning have more than quadrupled since the 1950s and that the amount of C02 in the atmosphere has climbed by one-third, to nearly 400 parts per million, over that period. Asked by ScienceInsider whether he agrees that such data are correct, Cruz declined to comment.

  • Ireland envisions 70% spending boost for research

    The Irish government today released an ambitious 5-year vision for stimulating innovation. Developed by several agencies, the plan calls for increasing total investment in R&D by about a third to 2.0% of gross domestic product. In cash terms, that would mean a rise in public and private spending from last year’s €2.9 billion to about €5 billion per year in 2020.

    “It is fantastic to see the Irish government’s commitment to increasing the overall spending on research,” neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell of Trinity College in Dublin told ScienceInsider. “After many years of crisis management, it is great to see a longer-term strategy and vision take shape.” 

  • TB community borrowing a page from HIV/AIDS

    Delegates at the Lung Meeting donned masks to fight TB stigma.

    Delegates at the Lung Meeting donned masks to fight TB stigma.

    Marcus Rose/The Union

    CAPE TOWN—The international “Lung Meeting” held here last week was not your grandparents’ tuberculosis (TB) conference.

    The traditionally staid 46th Union World Conference on Lung Health featured hundreds of delegates donning face masks during one session to show their solidarity against the rampant stigma that people with TB must endure. Civil society groups had their own space in the conference hall where they held public workshops, mural painting, and an indoor soccer game to “kick” TB. About 1000 TB patients, researchers, and policymakers marched through city streets demanding lower price for new TB drugs. People living with the disease and those who had recovered from it asked pointed questions and made impassioned speeches during the scientific sessions. Prominent attendees included the South African minister of health and the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

    The Lung Meeting has morphed into the type of gathering that international HIV/AIDS meetings pioneered, where advocacy and community building are as much a part of the agenda as scientific presentations. “The conference used to be nothing like this,” said Lucica Ditiu, who heads the Stop TB Partnership, a nongovernmental organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. “Being in South Africa, where there’s leadership and a community movement, it’s positioning TB for the first time in the same conversation as HIV.”

  • New vaccination strategy stirs controversy in Italy

    New vaccination strategy stirs controversy in Italy

    Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    A government plan to boost vaccination rates and introduce a series of new vaccines in Italy has triggered protests from doctors and some public health experts. The National Vaccination Plan for 2016–18 (PNPV) would instantly make Italy a European frontrunner in vaccination, but experts have questioned the need for several of the vaccines, and some suspect the hand of industry behind the government's new enthusiasm. Meanwhile, physicians worry about provisions in the PNPV that might punish them if they don't fully cooperate.

    The controversy reached a climax on 27 November when the Italian Medicines Agency (AIFA) suspended Sergio Pecorelli, the president of its board and one of the authors of the new plan, because of alleged conflicts of interest. According to the Italian daily La Stampa, which first reported the suspension, Pecorelli never told AIFA that he is an adviser for a venture capital firm that invests in drug companies. Pecorelli also authored booklets, sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur and published by a health foundation on whose board Pecorelli serves, about the benefits of vaccination and healthy lifestyles. (Pecorelli did not respond to ScienceInsider's request for commnent.)

    The Italian government has defended the PNPV as an adequate answer to the nation’s dropping vaccination rates. Less than 86% of Italian children now receive the measles shot, for instance. The new plan “is a matter of national security and public health,” Italian health minister Beatrice Lorenzin told Italy's Chamber of Deputies in October.

  • Japanese probe succeeds in second try at Venus orbit

    Akatsuki's attitude control thrusters substituted for a  disabled main engine in steering the craft into a venusian orbit.

    Akatsuki's attitude control thrusters substituted for a disabled main engine in steering the craft into a venusian orbit.

    Go Miyazaki

    A spacecraft designed to study Venus's atmosphere that missed its target 5 years ago has apparently succeeded in entering an orbit around the planet, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Mission controllers will confirm the trajectory in the coming days.

    The probe, named Akatsuki, was designed by JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) to peel away some of the mystery of Venus's dense, cloudy atmosphere. But an engine malfunction during the craft's first rendezvous with Venus on 7 December 2010 sent it on a 5-year, 10-orbit trip around the sun. Engineers used the time to develop a scheme to insert the craft into orbit using four small attitude-control thrusters. JAXA reported that the thruster firing went as planned starting at 8:51 a.m. Japan time and that Akatsuki "is now in good health" and apparently circling Venus. Further tracking will be required to confirm its exact orbit.

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