Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. shutdown begins: ‘It’s disheartening, ... discouraging, ... deflating’

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night

    BKL/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The U.S. government today began the process of partially shutting down after President Donald Trump and lawmakers in Congress could not agree on a short-term funding deal. At the center of the dispute is Trump’s demand for $5 billion to begin building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, as he promised during his presidential campaign. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress oppose that demand, and the parties are trying to negotiate a resolution.

    The shutdown will not directly affect a number of major science agencies because they are already fully funded under spending bills signed by Trump. Those protected agencies include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the departments of energy and defense.

    But the shutdown will scramble operations at a number of other agencies that fund or conduct research. That list includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Geological Survey, the Agricultural Research Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. Overall, agencies will be forced to furlough about 380,000 employees under shutdown plans they have adopted. (An additional 420,000 “essential” employees involved in critical activities—such as air traffic control and military missions, or keeping spacecraft flying and laboratory animals alive—will be required to work without pay.)

  • U.S. scientists brace, again, for a government shutdown

    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Here we go again. Scientists in the United States are bracing for a partial shutdown of the federal government that is expected to begin at midnight. It would be the third shutdown of the year (although one lasted just 9 hours), and could scramble research projects and meetingsdelay grants, and complicate hiring and training.

    Unlike some past shutdowns, this one will not affect the entire federal government. Congress has already approved, and President Donald Trump has signed, spending bills that fund about three-quarters of federal activities. That means any shutdown will not directly affect a number of major science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the departments of energy and defense.

    But Congress has not finished work on bills that cover nine departments and some other key science agencies. That list includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the interior and agriculture departments. Unless the White House and Congress can reach an agreement today to extend current spending levels for these agencies, they will be forced to furlough an estimated 380,000 employees. (An additional 420,000 “essential” employees involved in critical health and safety activities—such as air traffic control and military missions—will be required to work without pay.)

  • National academy president breaks her silence on ejecting sexual harassers

    Marcia McNutt

    Stephen Voss

    It has been 7 months since the presidents of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington, D.C., announced they had “begun a dialogue” about the standards of professional conduct required for membership in their exclusive ranks. In plainer terms, the three presidents of the prestigious academies—whose members are elected by existing members—were telegraphing their intention to try to find a way to expel proven sexual harassers and those found guilty of other kinds of misconduct. We “take this issue very seriously,” they wrote.

    Membership in the academies is a lifetime honor, and the current bylaws of all three make no provision for ejecting members. But in April, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., was rocked by allegations that cancer scientist Inder Verma, a longtime member, had a long record of sexual harassment. The NASEM presidents’ statement followed in May. But it did not satisfy those pressing for change.

    “It’s staggering that they continue to refuse to make clear if there will be consequences for misconduct, including sexual harassment,” Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an Abington, Massachusetts–based nonprofit that advocates for junior researchers, tweeted on 22 May, the day the presidents’ statement was released. “This statement does not say action will be taken, only that they will ‘re-examine’ their policies.”

  • House Democrats gear up to block planned move of USDA research agencies

    A plan to move two U.S. agencies that fund farm research and track agricultural statistics out of Washington, D.C., has drawn opposition from researchers.

    *Update, 20 December, noon: A group of influential Democratic legislators has signaled their desire to overturn Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate and realign two research agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) once their party takes control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019.

    Today, the legislators introduced a bill (HR 7330) that would keep the National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) in the Washington, D.C., area. USDA has received 136 bids from communities wishing to host the two agencies, and Perdue has said he hopes to select a winner in late January 2019. The bill would also block the secretary’s plan to move ERS from under the head of research, education, and economics to the office of chief economist.

    The legislation has no chance of being passed by the current Congress, which is expected to finish its business this week. But the lineup of sponsors—which include lawmakers in line to lead both the House appropriations committee and its agriculture panel, as well as the next House majority leader—suggests it will be a Democratic priority in 2019.

  • Fetal tissue is ‘gold standard’ for key studies, NIH workshop concludes

    Biological scientists currently have no better alternatives to using fetal tissue to give mice humanlike immune systems, concluded scientists who convened yesterday at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) workshop to discuss the issue. Such humanized mice “remain the ‘gold standard’” for many kinds of studies, the scientists said, and any alternative animal model should be tested against such mice before being widely adopted, according to a report on the closed-door workshop issued tonight by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent department.

    The workshop came amidst a growing storm surrounding humanized mice, which are often created using human fetal tissue from elective abortions that would otherwise be discarded. Antiabortion groups are pushing President Donald Trump’s administration to stop funding research involving human fetal tissue. And they are calling on Trump to fire NIH Director Francis Collins, who last week spoke out on the need for such research.

    In response to pressure from abortion opponents, in September, HHS announced it was launching a review of federally funded fetal tissue research. It canceled one contract that the Food and Drug Administration relied on to generate humanized mice for drug testing. It has also taken steps to stop some NIH laboratories from acquiring new fetal tissue. And earlier this month, NIH announced it would be spending $20 million over the next 2 years to study alternatives to humanized mice and other uses of fetal tissue in research.

  • Q&A: The epic tale of the scientists who unraveled the mystery of the monsoon

    Sunil Amrith

    Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

    This year, India’s monsoon rains—critical to the country’s harvest and water supply—were below average for the 13th time in 18 years. And alarm spreads when those annual rains don’t come between June and September, says Sunil Amrith, a historian at Harvard University who has just released a new book documenting the long quest to understand one of Asia’s most important weather patterns.

    Amrith became fascinated by the history of monsoon science while studying migration among coastal communities in South Asia. Now, he unfolds that history in Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, And Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History. He also explores how the quest to control water—whether to fend off floods or avoid the ravages of drought—has shaped the history of India and other Asian nations. Kirkus Reviews calls the book, published last week by Basic Books, a “lively history” that highlights the “obscure heroes” who developed modern meteorology and built irrigation projects, canals, and dams.

    ScienceInsider recently spoke with Amrith about his research, concerns about how climate change and human activities are affecting India’s water supply, and his own experiences with the monsoon. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Under fire for GM crops article, an iconic Indian scientist clarifies his views

    M. S. Swaminathan

    Pallava Bagla/Corbis/Getty Images

    An iconic Indian agricultural scientist is distancing himself from a recent editorial he co-authored that is critical of genetically modified (GM) crops, and has sparked furious debate among the nation’s researchers.

    Geneticist Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, 93, has been dubbed the father of India’s Green Revolution, which in the 1960s and 1970s delivered new, high-yield crop varieties to the nation’s farmers. He has also held an array of high-profile leadership positions in national and international organizations.

    Researchers took notice when, last month, Swaminathan published an editorial in Current Science with Parthasarathy Chenna Kesavan, a researcher at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, which Swaminathan leads. The article questions the sustainability, safety, and regulation of GM crops. It suggests GM cotton, the only GM crop approved for cultivation in India, has failed to help Indian farmers increase yields and incomes, and reduce pesticide use. It questions the safety GM eggplant and mustard varieties, which have been caught in regulatory limbo in India for a decade. And it presents data from an array of studies to back those arguments.

  • NIH chief defends use of human fetal tissue as opponents decry it before Congress

    Francis Collins

    Stephen Voss

    A long-simmering debate about the ethics of using fetal tissue from elective abortions in biomedical research heated up today in Washington, D.C. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins this morning defended human fetal tissue research as scientifically and ethically justified at a meeting of an agency advisory panel. At about the same time, the scientific community and opponents of fetal tissue studies faced off at a congressional hearing looking into alternatives. The two developments came as President Donald Trump’s administration is scrutinizing the use of fetal tissue in federally funded research.

    At today's meeting today of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) in Bethesda, Maryland, Collins noted that NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is auditing federal purchases of fetal tissue and that NIH has just announced it will spend up to $20 million on research on alternatives. He called that effort “scientifically, highly justified.” At the same time, fetal tissue “will continue to be the mainstay,” he said, adding: “There is strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research, [which] can be done with [an] ethical framework.”

    In September, HHS canceled a U.S. Food and Drug Administration contract to purchase fetal tissue for drug testing and announced it was launching a review of all federally funded research that uses fetal tissue obtained after elective abortions. Last week, the department told researchers on an NIH contract at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), that it was allowing only a 90-day renewal of an annual contract that funds the use of fetal tissue to produce mice with humanlike immune systems, pending the outcome of the review. And as Science first reported, NIH acknowledged last week that a lab within the NIH intramural research program had to suspend an HIV research project this past September because NIH has halted procurement of fetal tissue by its own scientists.

  • United States should prepare to build a prototype fusion power plant, panel says

    A new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report calls for a complete rejuvenation of the U.S. fusion program, which hasn’t built a tokamak like the National Spherical Torus Experiment at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory since the 1990s.

    Elle Starkman/PPPL Communications (CC BY-NC)

    Just in time for the holidays, a panel of leading scientists has presented a plan for nuclear fusion research in the United States that reads like a wish list. The United States should stick with the controversial ITER project, a hugely expensive fusion reactor now under construction near Cadarache in France, says a report released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But even if the United States quits ITER, it should prepare to build its own fusion power plant as a follow-up, the report says. To do all that, the United States should boost spending on fusion research by $200 million per year, or 35%, it concludes.

    The report reflects the will of the broader fusion community, say the co-chairs of the 19-member report committee, Michael Mauel, a fusion physicist at Columbia University, and Melvyn Shochet, a particle physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “We listened very carefully to the community, especially some of the younger scientists who are very active in the field, and what we heard from the scientists is a desire to get on with fusion energy,” Mauel says. “We’re not just studying this thing, we’re trying to see if it really does work.”

    In nuclear fusion, light nuclei fuse to form heavier nuclei and release energy. The process powers the sun, and for decades physicists have worked to turn fusion into a practical source of power on Earth. Their main approach has been to use magnetic fields to confine and squeeze ionized gases, or plasmas, of deuterium and tritium in doughnut-shaped devices called tokamaks, so that the deuterium and tritium fuse to make helium. ITER aims to be the first tokamak to obtain a “burning plasma” that produces more energy through fusion than is pumped into the device to maintain the plasma, a key milestone toward developing fusion power.

  • Despite scathing harassment report, UNAIDS board gives agency head a reprieve for now

    Michel Sidibé


    A board that oversees the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland, the global command center in the fight against the infectious disease, has resisted calls to immediately recommend the firing of the agency’s executive director in the wake of a report that found UNAIDS rife with harassment, bullying, and abuses of power. The Programme Coordinating Board, which finished a meeting today that included discussions of the report, instead established a working group to further consider the allegations and criticisms. (The board itself cannot fire the UNAIDS head, but it can recommend the action to the United Nations.)

    UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, who initiated the review that ultimately called for his ouster, spoke at the board’s meeting and asked to stay on through June 2019 to oversee an “agenda for change” that his management team has drafted in response to the report. “We don’t have a moment to lose in moving forward our management response,” Sidibé said in a statement. “I look forward to an inclusive, transparent, and open dialogue and collaboration with staff in shaping a new UNAIDS.”

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