ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • A year after Hurricane Maria, mainland scientists have helped Puerto Rican colleagues recover

    a woman in a lab coat

    Displaced graduate student Ana Milena Reyes Ramos has been working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

    Elizabeth Gamillo

    It’s a cliché to say it takes a village to educate a scientist. But Yoana Guzman Salgado and Ana Milena Reyes Ramos are proof that such a global village exists, and that it was able to swing into action within days of Hurricane Maria’s punishing blow to Puerto Rico last fall.

    Salgado had just begun to write her master’s thesis in microbiology and Ramos was in the midst of her doctoral dissertation in bioengineering at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayagüez when Maria struck on 16 September 2017. It was 40 days before students and faculty were allowed to return to the campus, which also houses a medical school. But the extensive damage from the water, wind, and loss of power meant that things were still a long way from getting back to normal.

    Anticipating how long the recovery would take, evolution geneticist Marta Wayne of the University of Florida in Gainesville immediately contacted her program manager at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and won approval for a supplemental grant to help up to five students in need. On 28 September 2017, Wayne posted a Facebook notice inviting students on the island to apply.

  • Japan’s science ministry seeks large budget increase, prioritizing massive neutrino detector

    Illustration of Hyper-Kamiokande design

    Japan's new science budget proposal includes a feasibility study for Hyper-Kamiokande, which would use massive amounts of ultapure water to detect neutrionos.

    © Hyper-Kamiokande Collaboration

    Japan’s government is facing serious fiscal challenges, but its main science ministry appears hopeful that the nation is ready to once again back basic research in a big way. The Ministry of Education (MEXT) on 31 August announced an ambitious budget request that would allow Japan to compete for the world’s fastest supercomputer, build a replacement x-ray space observatory, and push ahead with a massive new particle detector.

    MEXT’s proposal represents a 21% increase for its fiscal 2019 budget, to 1.17 trillion yen ($10.54 billion). That target, however, is certain to be scaled back during reviews by the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, the country’s top science advisory panel, and negotiations with the Cabinet office and finance ministry. The talks may be particularly tough as the Cabinet set in July a target of reducing discretionary spending by 10%.

    That austerity push comes as Japan’s population shrinks and ages, leading to declining tax revenues even while spending on social programs increases. Overall, Japan’s economic growth has been lackluster since the early 1990s. Yet the government has maintained spending on science and technology in the belief that the investment would benefit the economy. And even after being essentially flat for a decade, spending on R&D turned up this year—but not as much as MEXT is shooting for in next year’s budget.

  • ‘It was a foretold tragedy’—fire destroys Brazil’s National Museum and its prized science collections

    Flames envelop musuem

    Fire rips through Brazil’s National Museum on Sunday.

    AP Photo/Leo Correa

    A fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro has destroyed one of the country’s most important scientific collections. No one was injured in the fire, which broke out after the museum had closed on Sunday evening. But the blaze ravaged its massive archives and collections, numbering about 20 million items by some estimates. The museum had no sprinkler system, and limited water was available from fire hydrants when firefighters arrived.

    Founded 200 years ago, before Brazil’s independence from Portugal, the museum housed ancient Egypt, Greek, and Roman artifacts and important paleontology and natural history collections, including one of Latin America’s oldest human fossils: the 11,500-year-old skull called Luzia. In recent years, budget woes had plagued the museum, and scientists had warned as early as 2004 of dangerous wiring and a lack of fire protection.

    “It’s an irreparable loss, not only for Brazilian science but for the world. The building can be reconstructed, restored, and everything else, but the collections can never be replaced. Two centuries of science and culture are lost forever,” said Sergio Alex Kugland de Azevedo, a paleozoologist and former director of the museum.

  • They’re fun. But can STEM camps for girls really make a difference?

    a hand placing a robot on the floor of a classroom

    Middle school girls at the miniGEMS camp in San Antonio, Texas, write the code to operate their EV3 Lego robots.

    Zhifeng Han, UIW miniGEMS 2018

    This summer, 55 middle school girls in the Washington, D.C., area trained on a flight simulator, launched a high-altitude weather balloon, and went skydiving in an indoor wind tunnel. The camp was funded by two billionaires—one of whom is the president of the United States, who donated a quarter of his $400,000 annual salary.

    The $100,000 gift from President Donald Trump, plus $125,000 from Steuart Walton, scion of the Walmart family fortune, enabled the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum to offer a high-end version of a growing phenomenon: summer camps that give young girls a chance to explore technology-dependent careers in which women are heavily underrepresented. Some, like this one focusing on commercial aviation, are restricted to girls and also target those from low-income families.

    The premise for the camps is that hands-on activities led by women already working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields will get girls excited about science and broaden their professional horizons. Educators say having role models and building self-confidence—the Smithsonian camp was called She Can—are essential precursors for girls to pursue a STEM career.

  • New paper ignites storm over whether teens experience ‘rapid onset’ of transgender identity

    Brown University campus

    Officials at Brown University took down a press release promoting a controversial paper about transgender identity in youth, prompting a Twitterstorm and an online petition.

    Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo

    Controversy is exploding around a paper published earlier this month in PLOS ONE by a public health expert at Brown University describing reports by parents that their children suddenly experienced unease with the gender they were assigned at birth; the paper calls the condition “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD). The paper, by physician-scientist Lisa Littman, is drawing fierce criticism from transgender advocates, who call it antitransgender because it suggests that some cases of gender dysphoria may be “socially contagious.” They say the paper has serious methodological flaws, noting that Littman interviewed only parents, not the young people themselves, and recruited from websites frequented by parents who were concerned about their children’s apparently sudden gender transitions. Meanwhile, the reactions of Brown and the journal are being assailed by critics who accuse them of caving to political pressure.

    On Monday, PLOS ONE announced it is conducting a postpublication investigation of the study’s methodology and analysis. “This is not about suppressing academic freedom or scientific research. This is about the scientific content itself—whether there is anything that needs to be looked into or corrected,” PLOS ONE Editor-in-Chief Joerg Heber in San Francisco, California, told ScienceInsider in an interview yesterday.

    Also on Monday, Brown officials removed the university’s press release highlighting the paper from its website. On Tuesday, Bess Marcus, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, wrote in an open statement that the university acted “in light of questions raised about research design and data collection related to the study.” She added that people in the Brown community have raised concerns that the study’s conclusions “could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”

  • NASA’s long-serving climate chief to retire next year

    Michael Freilich in front of the white house

    Michael Freilich

    Bill Ingalls/NASA

    Earth is calling Michael Freilich. After more than 12 years leading NASA’s work in earth science and climate change, Freilich yesterday announced that he will be retiring from the agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., early next year. He will leave behind a $1.9 billion division that he has shepherded through several early failed launches and turbulent political times.

    Although many associate NASA with exploring of the rest of the solar system, the agency has long supported a bevy of satellite-based missions focused on Earth. But when Freilich took the reins in 2006, the division was lurching along thanks to budget cuts during the administration of then-President George W. Bush. Freilich gave it a stable course, says Ricky Rood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who previously worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “There is no doubt that NASA’s Earth-observing satellite system is in better shape [now] than when Freilich came on board,” he says. “There is more innovation and more diligent attention to balancing budget, mission, and scientific outcomes.”

    Freilich guided the agency’s response to the first decadal review from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in 2007, creating a funding program for lower-budget “venture class” satellite missions awarded through competition. He led the way toward repurposing several planned stand-alone missions to instead be mounted on the International Space Station, turning it into a viable tool for Earth observation. He launched NASA’s first constellation of Earth-observing CubeSats (small modular craft) and embraced plans to mount instruments on commercial platforms, such as communication satellites. And he has started a pilot program to purchase data from commercial satellite providers. “NASA made tough decisions, and that is what you want in a leader,” Rood says.

  • A new way to engage kids? Science museum teams with local school district to educate preschoolers

    little boy looking through binoculars

    This youngster seems eager to explore his new surroundings.

    Pittsburgh Public Schools

    The 20 3- and 4-year-olds who came to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last week weren’t simply on a field trip. Instead, they were the first participants in a yearround preschool program run in conjunction with the Pittsburgh public schools.

    Carnegie's decision to host a public preschool classroom reflects a growing interest by museums to extend their reach to a cohort of previously underserved prekindergarten children. “We had the space available, and it seemed like a natural next step in our partnership,” says Jason Brown, the museum’s senior director of science and education. A similar partnership has been operating between the Science Center of Iowa and Des Moines Public Schools for several years. 

    Some of the children in the class are part of Head Start, a U.S. government–funded program that annually provides educational, health, and social services to nearly 1 million young children from low-income families and those with disabilities. Its classrooms and those for other preschool programs are typically located in schools, community centers, and religious buildings.

  • Pentagon fires a warning shot against EPA’s ‘secret science’ rule

    aerial view of the pentagon
    Rudi Riet/Flickr (CC BY-SA)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Add the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to the ranks of those expressing concern about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) plans to restrict the use of scientific research in writing new regulations.

    "While we agree that public access to information is very important, we do not believe that failure of the agency to obtain a publication's underlying data from an author external to the agency should negate its use," Patricia Underwood, a senior Pentagon official in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment, wrote in recent comments on the EPA proposal.

  • Celebrated environmental activist who became France’s ‘ecology minister’ calls it quits

    Nicolas Hulot

    “I do not want to lie to myself anymore,” Nicolas Hulot said this morning.

    Yann Bohac/SIPA/Newscom

    Militant environmentalist Nicolas Hulot resigned from his position as France’s minister of ecological and solidarity-based transition this morning during a live breakfast show on national radio. Hulot, who is known for his strong convictions and for speaking his mind, had not warned French President Emmanuel Macron about his decision, but he had publicly given himself 1 year starting from October 2017 to find out whether he could be useful in the government. Today, he concluded that the answer is no.

    “I do not want to lie to myself anymore. I do not want to give the illusion that my presence in the government means that we are facing up to [environmental] challenges,” a visibly affected Hulot said on France Inter this morning. “France is doing more than many countries,” he added, but “every day, I am surprised at myself for putting up with small steps … at a time when the planet is becoming a furnace.”

    The nomination of the hugely popular green activist as ecology minister in May 2017 raised high hopes that France would drastically ramp up action to protect its environment and counter climate change. Macron’s plan last summer to “make our planet great again,” announced hours after the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord, certainly seemed to go in that direction.

  • NIH investigating whether U.S. scientists are sharing ideas with foreign governments

    Illustration of a person holding a lightbulb with a large hand pointing at it
    erhui1979/GETTY IMAGES, ADAPTED BY C. AYCOCK/SCIENCE

    Fears that foreign governments are tapping U.S.-funded research for valuable information have reached the nation’s largest research funder, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Last week it sent a letter to more than 10,000 research institutions, urging them to ensure that NIH grantees are properly reporting their foreign ties. The agency also said it is investigating about a half-dozen cases in which NIH-funded investigators may have broken reporting rules, and it reminded researchers who review grant applications that they should not share proposal information with outsiders.

    At a Senate committee hearing on NIH oversight last week, NIH Director Francis Collins said “the robustness of the biomedical research enterprise is under constant threat” and “the magnitude of these risks is increasing,” although he did not mention specific incidents. He added that in addition to sending the 20 August letter asking institutions to help curb “unacceptable breaches of trust and confidentiality,” NIH has established a new advisory group to help the agency tighten procedures.

    NIH is feeling pressure from Congress. At the hearing of the Senate health committee that oversees NIH, chair Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) lauded the contributions of foreign-born scientists to the United States but worried about “bad actors.” His comments reflect a resurgence of concern about foreign competitors to the United States—especially China, Russia, and Iran—attempting to harvest the fruits of federal investments in academic science. This past March, federal prosecutors indicted nine Iranians on charges of hacking into the accounts of nearly 4000 professors at 144 U.S. universities and stealing data that cost $3.4 billion to develop. In another case, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has alleged that a Chinese doctoral student working in his laboratory on materials for “cloaking” objects from electromagnetic waves returned to China with sensitive, government-funded findings that he used to start a billion-dollar tech company. Such incidents have prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin to meet with university officials to brief them on information security issues.

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