ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Interested in responsible gene editing? Join the (new) club

    illustration of a man building dna

    The new Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing isn’t just for scientists, but also for patient advocates, environmental groups, industry, and funders.

    iStock.com

    A group of European scientists has founded an international association to discuss and provide guidance on the ethical use of genome editing, a technique with the potential to transform everything from food production and human health to science itself. Organizers launched the new Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing (ARRIGE) at a kick-off meeting in Paris this past Friday.

    The high hopes and fears around gene editing—which has the potential to lead to new crops and the elimination of diseases, but also to “designer babies” or insects running amok—have been the topic of dozens of meetings and reports, including a high-profile “summit” in Washington, D.C., in 2015. National science academies and councils, the Council of Europe, and several professional societies have weighed in.

    But some researchers worry that the debate isn’t broad enough, or lacks the kind of dialogue needed to reach a societal consensus on the introduction of such a pathbreaking new technology. At the Washington, D.C., summit, for instance, “discussion split into two camps: scientific experts explored technical issues, whereas scholars who study science and society addressed questions about the possible disruption to social norms,” Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Benjamin Hurlbut of Arizona State University in Tempe wrote last week in a commentary in Nature. “The two camps did not inform each other.”

  • NASA announces more delays for giant space telescope

    James Webb Space Telescope's mirror being tested

    The main mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being tested at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2017.

    NASA/Desiree Stover/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Delays in the testing and integration of NASA’s next space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will push its launch back to May 2020, the agency announced today. NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, also admitted in a press briefing that the project’s cost may exceed the ceiling of $8 billion imposed by Congress in 2011. The agency expects to provide a confirmed schedule and cost estimate this summer. Congress will have to give its approval for extra spending if the cost cap has been breached.  

    The two parts of the spacecraft—the telescope and instrument package and the spacecraft bus with sunshield—are waiting to be melded together at the facility of prime contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. The JWST was originally planned to launch in October, but last September NASA pushed back the launch to the second quarter of 2019.

    Delays in testing the sunshield and problems with the in-space propulsion system have slowed work. NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen said during the briefing that, during testing, the cables that tension the craft’s tennis court–size sunshield became unexpectedly slack during deployment and risked tangling. He also said the deployment tests had produced some tears in the superthin fabric of the sunshield that are now repaired and some changes had to be made to stem leaks in the propulsion system. “Webb is a really complex machine and rigorous testing is required to have a high confidence of success,” Zurbuchen said. “We have one shot to get this into space. Failure is not an option.”

  • 2020 census gets huge budget boost, but addition of citizenship question worries critics

    a smiling man hands someone a stack of papers, presumably census papers

    Critics of a request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census fear it will reduce response rates, harming accuracy and increasing the need for expensive face-to-face follow-up.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    Money matters. But for supporters of the 2020 U.S. census, money isn’t everything. Even as advocates praise the generosity Congress showed the Census Bureau in the final 2018 spending bill it passed last week, they worry that a decision made yesterday by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to add a question about citizenship to the upcoming decennial head count could undermine its accuracy.

    First the good news.

    The spending bill gives the Census Bureau $2.814 billion in the current fiscal year that ends on 30 September. That’s nearly double the president’s 2018 request for the agency and almost $1 billion more than what advocates said it needed in the eighth year of the 10-year cycle to prepare for and conduct the decennial census in April 2020. Of that total, $2.544 billion goes into the account that funds the 2020 headcount and the American Community Survey, a rolling poll of 3.5 million residents using what had been the long form of the decennial census. And the 2020 census will get the lion’s share of that total. (The exact amount has yet to be determined.) 

  • Want to crowdfund your science? New study hints at who is successful

    Woman working in lab, pouring chemicals

    Maria Zatko used this mass spectrometer in her crowdfunded research project when she was a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    Lauren Easley

    Atmospheric scientist Maria Zatko was close to completing her thesis on ground-level ozone in 2014 when she learned of a perfect opportunity to fill a gap in her research on this air pollutant.

    Zatko and her adviser at the University of Washington in Seattle realized she could join an ongoing research project in Utah that was studying causes of the area’s unusually high ozone levels during winter. Zatko wanted to measure the release of nitrogen oxides from snow. But collecting the snow samples would require a month of fieldwork, and Zatko had no funding to cover the costs.

    So Zatko decided to try an emerging source for research funding—online crowdfunding. Through a campaign on a website, Experiment.com, she raised $12,000. The cash was “critical” to completing her Ph.D., she says. “Even more important is how it has played out postgraduation,” she adds, because presenting the data at a conference led to her current job with an environmental consulting firm. “I’m just eternally grateful” to the 155 people who responded to her funding plea, she says.

  • Duke’s mishandling of misconduct prompts new U.S. government grant oversight

    Old Chemistry Building at Duke University

    The old chemistry building on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, which is under scrutiny for how it has handled research misconduct cases.

    iStock.com/BSPollard

    Last week, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) imposed unusual new requirements on researchers based at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who receive federal funds. The changes are a response to concerns over how the institution handled recent cases involving research misconduct and grant management.

    According to a Duke spokesperson, NIH now requires Duke researchers to obtain prior approval for any modifications to new and existing grants. And any Duke researcher submitting a so-called “modular application” for a grant worth less than $250,000 per year must include “detailed budgets” justifying the costs.

    Duke faculty learned of the changes on 21 March, in a letter from university administrators. “NIH reports that these new requirements are a result of its concerns about Duke’s management of several research misconduct cases and grant management issues that date back to 2010, some of which have been widely reported like the Anil Potti case,” according to the letter.

  • Massive cyberhack by Iran allegedly stole research from 320 universities, governments, and companies

    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

    U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at a press conference this morning that announced the indictment of nine Iranians who allegedly stole data from researchers around the world.

    Yuri Gripas/REUTERS

    Nine Iranians working on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hacked the computers of 7998 professors at 320 universities around the world over the past 5 years, an indictment filed by a federal grand jury alleges. The hackers stole 31.5 terabytes of documents and data, including scientific research, journals, and dissertations, the indictment alleges. Their targets also included the United Nations, 30 U.S. companies, and five U.S. government agencies.

    The “massive and brazen cyber assault” is “one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, where the indictment was filed, said at a press conference this morning. The hacks came to light through investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and reports from victims. “The hackers targeted innovations and intellectual property from our country’s greatest minds,” Berman said, adding that they went after data and research from many fields.

    According to the indictment, 3768 of the hacked professors were at 144 U.S. universities, and the attackers stole data that cost these institutions about $3.4 billion to “procure and access.” The accused allegedly set up an institute in Iran called Mabna that coordinated and paid for the hacks. The defendants then sold the stolen data through two websites, Gigapaper and Megapaper. The institute, the indictment says, aimed to “assist Iranian universities, as well as scientific and research organizations, to obtain access to non-Iranian scientific resources.”

  • Advocates celebrate funding bump for USDA-funded research

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    Wheat in Oklahoma.

    George Thomas/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Farm science advocates had some success this year in boosting federal funding for the discipline.

    The 2018 spending bill approved by Congress this week gives a slight but meaningful boost to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) research accounts—including its competitive grants program for universities and other institutions.

    The bill gives a $25 million, 6.7% increase, to $400 million, to USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Advocates have been pushing Congress to increase AFRI’s budget for years, and they welcomed this year’s number—while noting it still falls short of a $700 million goal for AFRI once set by Congress. The increase is “a good move” given “the context of the very scarce resources,” says Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Overall, AFRI funding has climbed by nearly 25% in the past 3 years, he notes.

  • Final 2018 budget deal should help the National Science Foundation in 2019, too

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    Oregon State University

    The 4% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill hammered out by congressional leaders this week may be modest next to what its peer science agencies received. But it does offer NSF officials more breathing room to fund some major initiatives starting next year.

    Under the 2019 budget request that President Donald Trump unveiled last month, NSF would have been forced to find money for those new initiatives within a budget that had been flat for the previous 2 years. But the new agreement, which could become law by tonight, gives NSF a $295 million raise over 2017 with only 6 months remaining in the current 2018 fiscal year.

    Within the agency total of $7.767 billion, NSF’s research directorate would get a $301 million increase, to $6.33 billion. That new money comes with only one string attached: a $10 million bump, to $171 million, for NSF’s long-running program to help scientists in 28 have-not states and U.S. territories do better in competing for NSF funding. The agency can decide how to allocate the rest of the money.

  • Science at Department of Energy gets a hefty raise in final 2018 budget

    Advanced Photon Source in Argonne, Illinois

    The Advanced Photon Source in Argonne, Illinois, will get an upgrade under spending bill recently passed by Congress.

    Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    For researchers supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., a 6-month wait for a federal budget may have been worth it. DOE’s basic research wing, the Office of Science, gets a 16% boost, to $6.26 billion, in a 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this week. In contrast, last May President Donald Trump’s administration had proposed a 17% cut in its budget for the fiscal year that ends on 30 September.

    "It's amazingly good news," says Thom Mason, vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle in Columbus and a former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "This is beyond anything I expected." Battelle helps run six of the 10 DOE national labs run by the Office of Science, including Oak Ridge.

    The Office of Science comprises six distinct research programs, and all would see their funding grow by double-digit percentages. The biggest winners would be advanced scientific computing research, which supports DOE's supercomputing efforts, and fusion energy sciences, which supports effort to harness nuclear fusion as a source of energy. The computing budget would soar 25%, to $810 million, and fusion would receive a 24% increase, to $410 million. DOE's nuclear physics program would climb by 10%, to $684 million. The biological and environmental research program, which funds work on, among other things, biofuels and climate simulation, would receive a 10% boost to $673 million. High energy physics would rise by 10%, to $908 million, and basic energy sciences, by far the biggest program, would grow by 12%, to $2.090 billion. BES supports basic research in chemistry, materials science, condensed matter physics, and related fields, as well as funding DOE's x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources.

  • Planetary science wins big in NASA’s new spending plan

    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

    President Donald Trumps administration has proposed killing NASAs Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. But Congress seems intent on funding it.

    NASA

    NASA’s science programs get a big boost in the 2018 spending bill approved by Congress this week, allowing researchers to continue developing an orbiter and lander to study Jupiter’s moon Europa and robot probes to return soil samples from Mars.

    Scientists were giddy over the 7.9% boost, to $6.2 billion, given to NASA’s science account. Within that total, the agency’s planetary science coffers get an even bigger raise, a 20.7% increase to $2.2 billion, the highest level ever after adjusting for inflation and programmatic changes over the years.

    The agency’s earth science programs will receive flat funding at $1.9 billion, while heliophysics gets an increase of 1.5%, to $688 million. Astrophysics is a big winner, with a surge of 13.3%, to $850 million. Lawmakers also saved NASA’s education programs, which the White House sought to begin closing down. 

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