Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • E.U. urged to free all scientific papers by 2020

    Open access science

    Like other research funded by the Netherlands’s main science agency, findings from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy starting this year are supposed to appear in open-access publications.


    One of the perks of holding the rotating presidency of the European Union is that it gives a member state a 6-month megaphone to promote its favorite policy ideas. For the Netherlands, which took over the presidency on 1 January, one surprising priority is open access (OA) to the scientific literature. Last week, the Dutch government held a 2-day meeting here in which European policymakers, research funders, librarians, and publishers discussed how to advance OA.

  • U.K. begins world's largest biomedical imaging study

    United Kingdom

    Scans, such as these of body fat, will be part of a massive new imaging study in the United Kingdom.

    Jimmy Bell, University of Westminster and Advanced MR Analytics AB

    The largest ever health imaging study will soon offer researchers a look inside the bodies of Brits. The UK Biobank, a nonprofit biological data repository in Stockport, announced today it plans to scan the organs of 100,000 people over the next 6 to 8 years. The snapshots, taken with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other standard techniques, will be linked to diverse data on health and lifestyle, allowing researchers to improve understanding and diagnoses of diseases such as cancer, dementia, arthritis and osteoporosis, and coronary heart disease.

    Biobank was set up in 2006 by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust. The goal was to create a resource for health researchers by gathering health-relevant data—such as diet, physical activity, lifestyle, and cognitive function—as well as samples of blood and DNA from a half million people in the United Kingdom. To allow analysis of health outcomes, these data are linked to the individuals' health records from hospitals, death registers, and, now, general physicians.

    So far, Biobank has DNA from 150,000 people and anticipates it will have DNA from the other 350,000 by the end of the year. They have physical activity from 100,000, taken from a watchlike monitor for up to 7 days. Blood samples have been analyzed for hormones, glucose, lipid markers, and other aspects.

  • European mental health project targets biological roots of social withdrawal


    Ryan Melaugh (CC BY 2.0)

    Withdrawal from friends, family, and colleagues is of the most painful and debilitating symptoms of major depression. It is also an early sign of diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. Today, a large coalition of European researchers and pharmaceutical companies announced a new €16.5 million research initiative, aimed at determining whether the social withdrawal in such disorders has a common biological cause.

    “Inappropriate social integration is a common, but neglected, facet of the majority of neuropsychiatric disorders,” says neuroscientist Martien Kas of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and coordinator of the new Psychiatric Ratings using Intermediate Stratified Markers (PRISM) project, funded by the European Innovative Medicines Initiative. Using measures such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalograms, and blood tests, as well as smartphone apps to track social behavior, PRISM will compare groups of people with Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder to determine which biological factors correlate with social withdrawal in the different groups and look for common factors.

  • Russian billionaire unveils big plan to build tiny interstellar spacecraft

    Alpha Centauri (bright spot at left) would be the destination for Breakthrough Starshot’s tiny, light-sailed spacecraft.

    Alpha Centauri (bright spot at left) would be the destination for Breakthrough Starshot’s tiny, light-sailed spacecraft.

    Skatebiker/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner today proposed making a genuine journey to the stars: a program to develop a tiny spacecraft, weighing less than a gram, and propel it across nearly 40 trillion kilometers of space to the nearest star to study any planets there. Instead of a futuristic propulsion system, the “nanocraft” will “leave their fuel behind,” Milner told a press conference in New York City this afternoon. The craft will have a solar sail, a few meters across and weighing a few grams. Powerful Earth-based lasers would boost the craft, which would be waiting in Earth's orbit, with an acceleration of 60,000 g for a few minutes to reach 20% of the speed of light—fast enough to reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years. “It’s the first time in human history that we can do more than just stare at the stars,” Milner said.

    Milner, who made a fortune investing in fast-growing internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Groupon, has a track record of funding far-out science. He created the Breakthrough Prizes and last year launched the Breakthrough Initiatives, including a $100 million, 10-year effort to search for extraterrestrial intelligence using optical and radio telescopes.

    Milner has now launched another $100 million effort, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, to prove the principle of sending multiple tiny craft to a star. “With light beams and a light sail and the smallest spacecraft ever created, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri in a generation,” U.K. physicist Stephen Hawking told the press conference. Hawking was joined on the podium by other high profile scientists backing the project, including Princeton University physicist Freeman Dyson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge astrophysicist Avi Loeb, and Pete Worden, former director of NASA Ames Research Center.

  • Q&A: Tech expert and cancer survivor to lead U.S. 1-million-person health study

    Q&A: Tech expert and cancer survivor to lead U.S. 1-million-person health study

    National Institutes of Health

    A technology guru and cancer survivor has been tapped to head President Obama’s ambitious 1-million-person personalized medicine study. Eric Dishman, who now heads the Health and Life Sciences Group at Intel Corporation in Santa Clara, California, will become director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) Cohort Program next month.

    Dishman, 48, served on a working group that produced a plan for the study aimed at untangling links between genes, lifestyle, and disease. He is not an obvious choice to lead the cohort program: He does not have a background in genomics or large, long-term health studies, nor even a Ph.D. (although he did do graduate work in communications).

    But Dishman knows health technologies, which will be a key part of the study. At Intel, he oversaw research on devices to help Alzheimer’s patients and elderly people living independently. Dishman also battled a rare type of kidney cancer for 23 years. Several years ago, he had his tumor DNA sequenced, which pointed to a treatment that he says helped save his life.

  • NASA's planet hunter safe again, for now

    Artist's conception of NASA's Kepler planet hunter. The cross-shaped images indicate the spacecraft's observing field.

    Artist's conception of NASA's Kepler planet hunter. The cross-shaped images indicate the spacecraft's observing field.


    NASA has regained control of its exoplanet discovery satellite Kepler following a fraught few days during which the spacecraft had put itself into a protective “emergency mode.” What went wrong is not yet clear, but on Sunday morning controllers had the spacecraft in a stable state with its communications antenna pointing toward Earth. Data from the spacecraft are being downloaded and analyzed to find out the cause of the problem.

    Kepler had finished its last observing campaign on 23 March and was in a “rest” state waiting for the next one, which was due to begin last week. The emergency mode began some 14 hours before the observations were due to begin. This is the first time Kepler has had to resort to emergency mode in its 7 years in space. Investigations into the event will continue throughout this week, NASA says. 

    NASA launched Kepler in 2009 to search out roughly Earth-sized planets around sunlike stars. It does this by staring at a few select parts of the sky and monitoring the brightness of 150,000 target stars over long periods. If any of those stars dimmed slightly for a while and then brightened again that could be a sign that an orbiting planet has passed in front of it. This “transit method” proved hugely successful: In more than 4 years of operation it detected 4696 candidate exoplanets, of which 1041 have been confirmed by other detection methods or statistical techniques.

  • Funding shift for Zika helps NIH, but more research money requested

    The yellow fever mosquito, <cite>Aedes aegypti</cite>, is Zika's most important vector.

    The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is Zika's most important vector.

    Marcos Teixeira de Freitas, Creative Commons

    The White House’s decision this week to shift $589 million in unspent Ebola response funding to fighting Zika won’t require cutting any Ebola research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But the Obama administration still is requesting more help from Congress to both fund Zika efforts and replenish money shifted away from Ebola, says Anthony Fauci, the head of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland.

    Fauci tells ScienceInsider that $47 million of the shifted funds will go to NIAID to support Zika research. None of that will come from Ebola research at NIAID, which has already spent its roughly $238 million share of Ebola response funding that Congress approved last year, according to Fauci. But he also sounded a cautionary note about the new Zika support. “That’s not enough to last me very long,” Fauci says. “We can start the work, but we can’t finish what we need to do.”

    Shaun Donovan, head of the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C., revealed on 6 April that his group had “identified” more than half-a-billion dollars in government funding that could be “redirected” to Zika, calling the step necessary after the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t act on a White House emergency funding request earlier this year. The White House had sought nearly $2 billion to combat Zika virus, which mosquitoes have spread rapidly through Latin America and the Caribbean.

  • Q&A: Mathematical ecologist to be new chief scientist of Nature Conservancy

    Hugh Possingham

    Hugh Possingham

    Andrew Benison

    The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a major conservation organization based in Arlington, Virginia, has recruited a chief scientist from the other side of the world. Hugh Possingham, an Australian mathematical ecologist at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, in Brisbane will take over the role in November. Possingham, 53, led a group that developed conservation planning software, called Marxan, that has been used in more than 150 countries for designing nature reserves, zoning plans, and other purposes. The Australian government relied on the software when it rezoned the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004, greatly expanding and diversifying the protected areas. Possingham also has advised the Australian government on other conservation issues, such as reducing the amount of forest converted to pasture, which has several negative effects including destroying koala habitat and emitting greenhouse gases.

    TNC has about 3500 staff, including more than 600 with Ph.D.s, although the number of active researchers is much smaller. Although most well-known for its work purchasing land in the United States, the organization is active in many other countries. Possingham takes over from Peter Kareiva, who now heads the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kareiva has been an iconoclast in the conservation community, emphasizing the resiliency of nature, arguing for the role of business and economic development in conservation.

  • Embattled Australian agency head defends climate research cuts

    Climate change

    Larry Marshall


    The simmering controversy over the scientific direction and staffing of Australia’s premier research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO), heated up this week with the release of internal documents suggesting that CSIRO’s management disdains “public good” research. Separately, an employee association claimed that up to 450 jobs at the agency could be lost—100 more than announced previously. Today, CSIRO’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, sought to allay fears of job losses while defending the agency’s new priorities.

    Speaking at a Senate budget hearing, Marshall said he was surprised by the “extremely negative” response to his February announcement of plans to “realign and restore our business growth” and cut jobs. He said he did not “anticipate the magnitude and level of misrepresentation” of the plans by news media, which he blamed for distressing staff and triggering an avalanche of criticism. More than 3000 climate scientists from around the world condemned the change in direction in an open letter to the federal government.

    Earlier this week, the Senate panel released 700 pages of internal CSIRO documents related to the new strategy. Particularly revealing were those discussing the oceans and atmosphere division, which employs most CSIRO climate scientists. Although acknowledging that the agency’s climate scientists are internationally respected, “Nature papers alone don’t cut it,” division deputy director Andreas Schiller wrote in a 21 November 2015 email to agency leaders. “Public good is not good enough, [it] needs to be linked to jobs and growth,” he added. In a later email he suggested CSIRO make a “clean cut” and eliminate 120 staff engaged in “public good/government-funded climate research.”

  • Drug for pedophiles to be tested in Swedish trial

    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 have started a clinical trial to assess whether a prostate cancer drug could help prevent pedophilic behavior—and they're counting on online donations to help finish it.

    The team is reaching out to the public to collect £38,000 ($53,000) through a campaign launched today on Walacea, a U.K. crowdfunding website for scientific research. They hope to show that the drug, which lowers testosterone levels in the body, will reduce the pedophilic impulses that might cause people to abuse a child. So far, the researchers have recruited “four or five” participants, but they ultimately aim to enroll 60 men, the trial's principal investigator, Christoffer Rahm, said at a press briefing to announce the campaign in London on Wednesday.

    The trial will not enroll sex offenders, said Rahm, a psychiatric researcher at the Karolinska Institute (KI) near Stockholm; on the contrary, the project “wants to shift the focus [to] preventing child sexual abuse from happening in the first place” by targeting men who have sought help to deal with their pedophilic impulses.

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