Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NASA picks missions to Titan and a comet as finalists for billion-dollar mission

    Dragonfly dual-quadcopter lander

    The Dragonfly quad-copter would explore riverlike channels on Saturn’s moon Titan, thought to be carved by methane.


    NASA has selected two missions to further explore past targets—Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—as the final candidates for its next billion-dollar robotic spacecraft, the agency announced today. The candidates for the next New Frontiers mission, chosen from a field of 12, will now have until January 2019 to refine their pitches to the agency, with a launch planned by 2025.

    The first, Dragonfly, would send a semiautonomous quad-copter to fly between sites on the surface of Titan, which features an Earth-like landscape of rivers and lakes filled with liquid methane. The second candidate, Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR), would capture and return to Earth a sample from the nucleus of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—a comet previously explored by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft.

    Rather than selecting three final candidates, as it has in the past, NASA opted for a head-to-head competition. "I selected these mission concepts based on their outstanding and visionary science," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a teleconference announcing the finalists. "I didn't start with a number in mind."

  • NIH plans big shake-up of minority mentoring network

    NRMN PIs

    The principal investigators for the National Research Mentoring Network are pondering its future.

    Jeffrey Mervis

    Three years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, funded a novel project that offers online mentoring of students, mentorship training for senior faculty, and grantsmanship skills for early-career scientists. The National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) was part of a much bigger NIH initiative to increase the diversity of the biomedical research workforce.

    But this month, NIH announced it would be taking a different approach in the second phase of NRMN, putting more emphasis on understanding the factors affecting the status of minorities. This decision could mean the demise of the current version of NRMN, which was designed to provide direct services to those in the field. It could also delay progress toward one of the primary goals of the larger initiative: Reducing the racial disparity among similarly qualified applicants for NIH grants.

    “Initially, it wasn’t clear if the focus of NRMN was to be on research, service, or both,” says Alison Gammie, director of training, workforce development, and diversity at NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. “So we want to make it very clear that we want a strong research component.”

  • Extending red snapper season might have broken U.S. law

    A fisherman holding two large Red Snappers

     A fisherman unloads red snapper during a competition in Alabama.

    David McLain/Aurora Photos

    Originally published by E&E News

    Commerce Department officials may have knowingly violated federal fisheries law in June when they extended the Gulf of Mexico's red snapper season, memos show.

    The Trump administration scored last week when a House panel voted to give Gulf of Mexico states more power in managing the popular red snapper, but court records suggest it may be a tainted victory.

  • NIH lifts 3-year ban on funding risky virus studies

    A microbiologist in the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    A researcher works on a study of the H5N1 avian influenza virus.

    CDC/Greg Knobloch/Science Source

    More than 3 years after imposing a moratorium on U.S. funding for certain studies with dangerous viruses, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, today lifted this so-called "pause" and announced a new plan for reviewing such research. But federal officials haven’t yet decided the fate of a handful of studies on influenza and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that were put on hold in October 2014.

    Two investigators whose controversial studies on deadly avian influenza viruses are among 11 on hold welcomed the end of the pause. “This NIH decision allows us to move forward,” virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison wrote in an email.

    NIH officials believe the pending studies are probably outdated and scientists will want to submit new proposals. The new process, NIH Director Francis Collins says, “will help to facilitate the safe, secure, and responsible conduct of this type of research.” Critics of the studies, meanwhile, are withholding judgment until they see how the review process plays out.

  • Qatar’s science suffers under Arab blockade

    students walk on campus in Doha, at the Qatar University

    Qatar University’s collaborations with universities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have ended.

    Giuseppe Masci/Alamy Stock Photo

    For the third year running, Qatar last week put on a major conference in Doha showcasing the Middle East’s growing efforts in genomics and precision medicine. But unlike in previous years, star speakers from Saudi Arabia were absent from the event.

    That nation and three others—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt—abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June, citing the Qatari government’s purported support for terrorism. They also imposed sanctions on the gulf state, hampering its decadelong effort to build a world-class scientific infrastructure and catalyze research in the region. “Everyone is losing when it comes to science,” says Hilal Lashuel, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Lausanne and a former executive director of the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute.

    Qatar’s scientific community is tiny: It has about 2000 research staff, including several hundred scientists, many of whom are expats. But to wean itself off income from natural gas and develop a knowledge economy, the government has sunk billions of dollars into R&D. Qatar increasingly punches above its weight in science, having more than doubled its output of scientific papers tracked by Web of Science since 2013. 

  • CDC word ban? The fight over seven health-related words in the president’s next budget

    protesters in front of CDC building

    Protesters from several health advocacy groups gathered this morning in front of the Washington, D.C., offices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Alex Morash/The National LGBTQ Task Force

    Presidential budget requests are political documents, and the wrong word can send a confusing message—and trigger controversy. President Donald Trump’s administration appears to have kicked up its own tumult by instructing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to avoid certain words in its 2019 budget request.

    On Friday, The Washington Post reported that CDC officials last week flagged seven words and phrases—diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender, and vulnerable—that should not be used in connection with the budget document, due out in early February 2018. An analysis by ScienceInsider of the past four CDC budget requests finds that such a policy may have already gone into effect: Those words, in toto, appeared two-thirds less frequently in Trump’s 2018 budget request to Congress than in former President Barack Obama’s final budget submission for 2017.

    Critics slammed the purported ban. “Here’s a word that’s still allowed: ridiculous,” Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS (Science’s publisher), told the Post. Other science advocates decried the alleged dictate as “an Orwellian attack on scientific integrity,” “absurd,” “irrational,” and “censorship.” This morning, representatives from several science and justice advocacy groups held a small protest in front of CDC’s Washington, D.C., office.

  • Researchers win some, lose some in final U.S. tax bill

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.

    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The U.S. research community experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in lobbying congressional Republicans as they wrapped up a major overhaul of the nation’s tax code.

    Research advocates persuaded lawmakers to drop changes that would have eliminated a valuable tax break for companies that invest in research, forced graduate students to pay taxes on tuition assistance, and reduced incentives for investing in renewable energy technologies. But scientific, academic, and other groups failed to kill several other provisions, notably, a reduction in a tax break designed to encourage companies to develop drugs for rare diseases, the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, and a new tax on the largest university endowments.

    The release yesterday of the final version of the Republican-backed bill marks the end of a fierce but remarkably brief battle over the biggest rewrite of the U.S. tax code in decades. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed versions of the tax bill in the past month that had been drafted largely out of public view. No Democrats or Independent lawmakers voted for either bill. The campaign by science advocates included plenty of backroom maneuvering and some very public drama, including the Capitol Hill arrests of science graduate students who demonstrated against a plan to tax tuition waivers.

  • NIH tweaks plan to award more grants to younger researchers

    senior and junior scientist working with mixing vessels

    The National Institutes of Health is worried that middle-aged investigators are being crowded out of the research workforce.

    Cultura Creative (RF)/Alamy Stock Photo

    U.S. biomedical research leaders are pulling back from a plan to fund 400 additional grants each year from a narrowly defined set of young and midcareer researchers. The agency is tweaking the plan after hearing concerns that the policy was too arbitrary and could shut down productive labs.

    Instead of focusing on midcareer scientists who are no more than a decade into their independent careers, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, will instead seek to steer funds to any researcher whose lab is at risk of folding, NIH officials said. “Age should not matter,” NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak said at a meeting today.

    The move is the second time this year that NIH has revised its strategy for halting the aging of its workforce. This May, the agency announced that it would free up funds for early and midcareer researchers by capping the number of grants a principal investigator could have. But a month later, the agency dropped the so-called Grant Support Index after senior scientists with big research programs vigorously objected.

  • Trump team puts controversial ‘red team’ challenge to climate science ‘on hold’

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    Editor’s note: A nice scoop today from E&E News’ Robin Bravender on the status of a proposal to have a “red team” composed of climate science critics challenge a “blue team” of mainstream researchers.

    Originally published by E&E News

    The effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publicly debate mainstream climate science is on ice. The idea of a "red team, blue team" debate to critique climate science — championed by EPA boss Scott Pruitt — has created divisions within the Trump administration, spurring high-level staff discussions at the White House about how to proceed. Earlier this week, EPA air chief Bill Wehrum attended a White House meeting with Trump energy aide Mike Catanzaro, deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn and others to discuss the future of the debate, according to an administration official.

  • Would you advise Trump on science? Survey examines attitudes of U.S. researchers

    Donald Trump

    Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Arizona in 2016, prior to being elected president.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The policies of President Donald Trump have soured U.S. scientists on working with the federal government and his administration. At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

    However, an informal survey by Science of 66 prominent scientists and engineers suggests a more nuanced reaction to Trump’s first year in office. Half say they would seriously weigh an offer to serve in the administration as an appointed or Senate-confirmed official, and 80% say they would consider serving on a high-level panel advising the president or a federal agency. Almost 10% are current members of such panels.

    “You need to be at the table, otherwise you are on the table,” says Charles Rice, a soil scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who labels himself a moderate Republican. “Just ignoring [the administration] would not help the scientific community,” says Rice, who is chair of the agriculture board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), an independent body that conducts government-funded studies.

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