Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Q&A: Escalating battle over Minnesota mine puts spotlight on studies of potential impacts

    Controversy surrounds a proposal to place a copper mine near the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota.

    Jim Brandenburg/Minden Pictures/National Geographic

    Two Democratic lawmakers poised to rise to powerful positions in the U.S. House of Representatives are demanding that President Donald Trump’s administration explain its decision to abruptly abandon a study of the potential environmental impacts of mining on wildlands and waterways in northern Minnesota. The move marks the latest twist in what is becoming a major political battle over mining on U.S. public lands.

    In a letter sent last week to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, representatives Betty McCollum (D–MN) and Raúl Grijalva (D–AZ) asked the officials to detail why they prematurely ended a 20-month-old environmental assessment aimed at examining the risks that a proposed copper and nickel mine might pose to 95,000 hectares of federal land within the Rainy River watershed. The study began in 2016, after former President Barack Obama’s administration moved to bar mining in the watershed, which sits within the Superior National Forest next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But the Trump administration canceled the study in September, saying it had revealed “no new scientific information” on mining risks. It also announced it would renew mineral leases in the watershed. One company, Twin Metals Minnesota based in St. Paul, has long eyed the area for a large open pit mine.

    The Trump administration should immediately halt those leasing efforts, say the two lawmakers, who will become senior members of the House when Democrats take control of the chamber in January. McCollum is expected to lead a spending panel that oversees public lands, and Grijalva is expected to lead the House natural resources panel. Agency officials violated federal environmental laws by canceling the study, they alleged in a previous letter sent on 5 November. And they “appear to have disregarded scientific information” in many “new scientific reports detailing the risk of sulfide-ore mining.”

  • Taiwanese scientists fight construction of a new port they say would damage a unique reef

    A group of demonstrators gathered on the beach near the proposed project on Saturday.

    Jusmin Peng

    TAIPEI—Taiwanese scientists and environmental groups are fighting to stop the planned construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal off the coast of Datan borough in the city of Taoyuan on Taiwan’s northwestern coast, which they say will damage a unique algal reef ecosystem. About 100 people gathered on the beach on 17 November to call for the project to be moved to another site.

    The proposed terminal will span 9 square kilometers and include a U-shaped port with a bridge connecting it to two LNG storage tanks to be built in an existing industrial park nearby.

    Taiwan’s new energy policy aims to phase out nuclear energy by 2025 and increase the share of natural gas in electricity generation to 50%. (Renewables will make up 20%, and coal the rest.) To meet those goals, a power plant in Datan will be expanded, and the only way to meet its demand schedule, according to the state-owned oil and gas firm CPC, is to build the LNG terminal nearby.

  • In letter, researchers call for ‘fair and just’ treatment of Iranian researchers accused of espionage

    Iranian wildlife scientists using camera traps to study animals including the Asiatic cheetah have been accused of espionage, but some government officials have called the charges baseless.

    Charles Sharp (CC BY 4.0)

    Update: In a letter released today, more than 330 conservationists and scholars from 66 countries assert that the imprisoned Iranian environmentalists “worked and carried themselves with the highest moral integrity” and call for a “fair and just evaluation of the evidence, access to lawyers of their choice, and a transparent trial.” In the letter addressed to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the authors, including primatologist and United Nations Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall, “strongly condemn” the possibility that “the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives,” and they declare that they “are convinced our colleagues had no such part.”

    Here is our earlier coverage from 30 October:

    Prosecutors in Iran have charged four conservationists with “sowing corruption on Earth”—a crime punishable by death.

  • Duke University to settle case alleging researchers used fraudulent data to win millions in grants


    Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is on the verge of settling a case brought by a former employee who claims the university included faked data in applications and reports for federal grants worth nearly $200 million.

    According to court documents filed last week in the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro, former Duke biologist Joseph Thomas, who sued the university in 2015 under a federal law that allows whistleblowers to receive as much as 30% of any payout, is waiting for the U.S. Department of Justice to approve the settlement. Thomas brought his case under the federal False Claims Act (FCA), which could force Duke to return to the government up to three times the amount of any ill-gotten funds.

    The terms of the settlement are not yet known, but are expected to be disclosed at a hearing scheduled for 7 December.

  • Research groups attend HHS ‘listening session’ on fetal tissue research amid funding fears

    Fetal brain cells called astrocytes are used in studies on Alzheimer’s disease.

    Riccardo Cassiani-Ingoni/Science Source

    Science advocates who attended a “listening session” on the use of fetal tissue in medical research held today by senior officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., say they are optimistic that they were listened to and heard. But many researchers remain concerned about reports that President Donald Trump’s administration is considering withdrawing funding for such studies, which are fiercely opposed by antiabortion advocates. 

    “It was a very good conversation. It was not a ‘check the box’ meeting,” says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy and media relations for the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

    “It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about the science,” adds Jennifer Zeitzer, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), also in Bethesda. Zeitzer was accompanied by FASEB board member Patricia Morris, a reproductive biologist at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

  • A U.S. biochemistry professor takes his political shot—and misses by a lot

    Randy Wadkins on election night

    Sam DeLuca

    His bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress had just gone down in flames. But instead of rehashing his election night defeat, Randy Wadkins says he spent the next morning describing “oxidative phosphorylation electron transport in mitochondria” to a class of chemistry majors at The University of Mississippi in Oxford.

    Wadkins’s lecture on the molecular cycle creating adenosine triphosphate highlighted his unique status among the 49 candidates with training in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or medical field who ran this year for the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only was Wadkins the only academic researcher in the bunch, but he also kept working as a tenured professor of biochemistry during his 18-month campaign.

    Wadkins, a progressive Democrat, lost to the conservative Republican incumbent, Representative Trent Kelly, by more than a two-to-one margin. (Only seven of the STEM candidates won seats.) A heavy underdog from the start, Wadkins couldn’t raise nearly enough money to get his message out to the conservative voters that dominate his rural district in northeastern Mississippi. But having to wear two hats certainly didn’t help.

  • In reversal, NSF lifts proposal limits on biologists

    Scientists investigate deep-sea comb jellies with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program.

    Steve Haddock/NSF

    In a reversal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will no longer restrict researchers to only one proposal submission per year to the biology directorate’s three core tracks in which they are listed as a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI.

    The change, announced yesterday in a statement by the biology directorate’s acting head, Joanne Tornow, will be in place for at least the 2019 fiscal year that began 1 October. It rescinds a policy implemented this past August that was immediately met with strong opposition from the research community. Tornow cited the community response and the relatively low number of proposals submitted to the directorate since August as the motivation behind lifting the restriction.

    “NSF understood the community’s concerns about the new submission process because we care about the same things,” Tornow said in statement to ScienceInsider. “To ensure we remain good stewards of the merit review process, we will continue to monitor the effects of these changes and adjust as necessary.”

  • A ‘rediscovered’ drug against sleeping sickness gets the green light

    Health workers screen for human African trypanosomiasis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Neil Brandvold/DNDi

    A powerful new treatment for human African trypanosomiasis, better known as sleeping sickness, received a stamp of approval today from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London, clearing the way for countries affected by the disease to approve its use. That could soon improve the lives of thousands of patients in West and Central Africa where sleeping sickness, caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the tsetse fly, not only causes severe disruption in sleep patterns but also aggression, psychosis, and, ultimately, death.

    “It’s a great victory for people in Africa with sleeping sickness, but it is also a victory for” the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), the nonprofit organization that rediscovered the drug and is shepherding it to approval, says Peter Hotez, a tropical disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “It’s a great validation of DNDi’s approach.”

    Health officials reported 1447 cases of human African trypanosomiasis to the World Health Organization (WHO) last year, but the true number of cases is widely believed to be much higher. As recently as 10 years ago, the main treatment for human African trypanosomiasis was the arsenic-based drug melarsoprol, which killed 5% of those treated with it. Current treatments with drugs named eflornithine and nifurtimox aren’t deadly, but they involve a complicated series of infusions and pills that have to be administered in a hospital; they also require patients to undergo painful lumbar punctures in order to check whether the parasite is present in the spinal fluid. All of that puts the treatments out of reach for many patients in the countries where most of the cases occur: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Guinea, and Chad.

  • STEM candidates elected to U.S. House prepare for their new jobs

    Representative-elect Joe Cunningham (D–SC) arrives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and infant son for an orientation for newly elected members.

    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

    They’ve won their elections and are headed to Washington, D.C. Their next challenge is using their expertise to make Congress work better.

    Among the more than 100 newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives are six who touted their backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and medicine on the campaign trail. All Democrats, they helped their party seize control of the 435-seat House for the first time since 2010. At the same time, they promised constituents they would reach across the aisle to get things done—something they will have many chances to do with Republicans maintaining their grip on the Senate and Republican President Donald Trump in the White House.

    Fresh off their electoral victories, the new STEM members talked with Science last week about national issues that also affect the scientific community. Topics included whether scientific facilities should be part of any upgrading of the country’s infrastructure, how to provide accessible and affordable health care, and how the billions spent on political campaigns limit who can run for office. They also described their preferences for committee assignments, which are determined by party leaders, and their thoughts on being part of the largest Democratic gain in the House since the 1974 post-Watergate class.

  • Is ride-sharing killing people? Yes, study suggests, but critics are doubtful

    Ride-sharing services have boomed in many urban areas. Researchers are debating their costs and benefits.

    Alberto Grosescu/Alamy Stock Photo

    Has the boom in ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft led to an increase in traffic deaths in U.S. cities?

    That is the provocative question a trio of economists tackles in a recent study. It concludes that the arrival of ride-sharing was associated with a 2% to 3% increase in the number of car occupants and pedestrians killed in accidents between 2011 and 2016.

    Some researchers are skeptical of the finding, however, and say other factors might be involved. And ride-sharing companies are bashing the study, calling it flawed.

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