ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump wants 2018 NIH cut to come from overhead payments

    Secretary Tom Price testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing

    Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at today’s House of Representatives hearing.

    MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA/Newscom

    The Trump administration could slash $5.8 billion from the 2018 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), yet still fund as least as much research by eliminating overhead payments to universities and research institutions, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price told lawmakers today.

    The hearing, before the appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives that oversees the HHS budget, included several questions about the 18% cut to NIH’s $31.7 billion budget that President Donald Trump has proposed. (An addendum to that request also included a proposed cut of $1.2 billion in the current fiscal year.)

    Cuts of that size have outraged biomedical research groups and drawn opposition from both Democrats and many Republicans in Congress. The chairman of the subcommittee, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), said today that “this committee, and certainly me personally, will be very hesitant about” the proposed cut to NIH and other parts of HHS.

  • Global biodiversity group confronts cash crunch

    A photo of a South American coati

    When it escapes from pet owners, the South American coati (Nasua nasua) can wipe out bird colonies. A U.N. assessment of the threat posed by this invasive species and others has been delayed by budget cuts.

    Ariadne Van Zandbergen/Alamy Stock Photo

    A major effort to size up and preserve biodiversity is under threat, like so many of the species it surveys. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) had an auspicious start in 2012, signing up 126 member nations and publishing its first assessment, a 556-page tome on pollinators and food production, to much fanfare a year ago. But governmental donations to the effort, which is overseen by the United Nations, have not kept pace with its ambitious 7-year agenda. 

    “The honeymoon is over,” says Carsten Rahbek, director of the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, who is not involved in the effort. “There’s a huge challenge here.” To make ends meet, IPBES approved contentious budget cuts at its annual meeting in Bonn, Germany, earlier this month, including a cut of almost one-third for 2018. It also postponed three major reports, sparking acrimony among its members.

    IPBES was created with the hope that it would mirror the success of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a 3-decade-old body that has issued influential reports. The remit of IPBES is broader. In addition to documenting biodiversity trends, it also identifies practical policy tools for protecting species and helps build the capacity of governments and others to use those tools. IPBES has recruited more than 1300 experts to assist with its work, including two assessments released last year—the pollinators report and another on methods used to build biodiversity models. It is now working on one global and four regional assessments of biodiversity, plus a look at land degradation.

  • European Commission considering leap into open-access publishing

    A photo of crops

    Gates Foundation–funded studies like this effort to boost crop photosynthesis may soon be published on a new platform.

    HALEY AHLERS/RIPE PROJECT

    One of Europe’s biggest science spenders could soon branch out into publishing. The European Commission, which spends more than €10 billion annually on research, may follow two other big league funders, the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and set up a “publishing platform” for the scientists it funds, in an attempt to accelerate the transition to open-access publishing in Europe.

    A commission spokesperson says the two charities, which opted for a system in which papers are reviewed after publication, are “models,” but that the commission is only “considering” the idea. But last week in Berlin, at a closed meeting of the Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP), European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas suggested a “decision” to create the platform had already been made, says Michael Mabe, CEO of the London-based International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM). OSPP member Sabina Leonelli of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who tweeted from the meeting, confirms Mabe’s assessment.

    “This could be the start of something,” says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Library Office of Scholarly Communication. “This idea has now occurred to two or three big, important funders. It might influence others.”

  • Automated telescope to help identify fast radio bursts

    MeerLICHT

    MeerLICHT will automatically point in the same direction as the MeerKAT radio array.

    Raymond Rutting

    A new Dutch telescope is set to help solve a nagging astrophysical mystery, by automatically scanning the southern skies alongside a giant array of radio dishes. MeerLICHT, a 65-centimeter optical telescope, is expected to help identify the sources of fast radio bursts (FRBs)—extremely brief, energetic flashes of radio waves from remote galaxies. In early April, after finishing tests at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, the telescope will be put in crates and shipped via cargo plane to the South African Astronomical Observatory near Sutherland. “We expect to be fully operational in July or August,” says MeerLICHT Project Manager Steven Bloemen.

    Astronomers estimate that every day, thousands of FRBs occur around the universe. They last for a fraction of a second and contain as much energy as the daily output of the sun. Yet only a few dozen have been detected so far, by chance, when large radio dishes happened to be pointing in the right direction. In one case, the FRB repeated, which meant other telescopes could make follow-up observations. One favored explanation is that FRBs come from dense, highly magnetized neutron stars in remote galaxies, but their true nature remains pretty much unknown.

    MeerLICHT (Dutch for “more light”) may uncover their identity by looking for optical counterparts—transient flashes of light that could help astronomers determine the location and energy of FRBs. MeerLICHT will automatically and continuously scan the same region of sky as the South African radio observatory MeerKAT, which is an array of dozens of 13-meter dishes some 250 kilometers north of Sutherland. “No one has tried this approach before,” Bloemen says.

  • Q&A: Moniz looks to get U.S. nuclear scientists more engaged with China and Russia

    Dr. Ernest Moniz

    Ernest Moniz

    Bryce Vickmark/NTI

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) announced that former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, 72, will lead the Washington, D.C.–based think tank starting on 1 June. The longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge physicist earned accolades for his diplomatic efforts in hammering out the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Science caught up with Moniz earlier today to discuss how he will address nuclear threats in his new role. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: NTI has sought to galvanize global support for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons—a vision embraced by U.S. administrations since World War II. At the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy conference last week, National Security Council Senior Director Christopher Ford indicated that the Trump administration is reviewing whether it will continue to support such a vision. Will you help NTI make a better case for it?

    A: I am among those who support the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and that was part of the Prague set of proposals that President Obama set forward [in 2009]. Certainly that vision is decades away [from], hopefully, being realized. What I think is really critical, what NTI has done as a do tank as opposed to a think tank, is advocating for and facilitating practical steps that can be taken in the near and medium term to reducing nuclear threats. Things like the Nuclear Security Index, catalyzing the establishment of a nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan, and more recently, initiating a dialogue with hospitals about reducing dirty bomb threats by replacing radioactive sources with x-ray sources.

  • U.S. National Academies panel endorses controversial human air pollution tests

    Los Angeles shrouded in smog in 1995.

    Los Angeles, California, shrouded in smog in 1995.

    Metro library and archive/Flickr

    Originally published by E&E News

    A panel of outside experts has broadly endorsed U.S. Enivronmetnal Protection Agency’s (EPA's) use of voluntary human testing in air pollution studies, saying in a new report that the controversial practice yields valuable data not obtainable through other means.

    Although health risks to participants can't be ruled out, the odds of long-term harm from the laboratory tests are "unlikely to be large enough to be of concern," according to the report, released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. 

  • Europe says University of California deserves broad patent for CRISPR

    European Patent Office headquarters

    The European Patent Office (above) has granted the University of California a key patent.

    European Patent Office

    The European Patent Office (EPO) announced on 23 March its “intention to grant a patent” to the University of California (UC) for its broad-based claims about the genome-editing tool popularly known as CRISPR. UC, on behalf of several parties, has been in a pitched battle with the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts, over CRISPR patents, and the new decision marks a sharp departure from the position of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

    The UC team first reported how to use CRISPR in pieces of circular DNA called plasmids that can invade bacteria, but the Broad won a race to apply the method to human cells, which represents a potential billion-dollar marketplace for medicines. The Broad won the first U.S. patents on CRISPR by paying to have USPTO give them a fast review, but UC’s application is still under review and it filed a so-called “interference” claim against the Broad last year. After a prolonged legal battle, USPTO in February ruled that it wasn’t obvious that UC’s discovery would work in human and other eukaryotic cells, giving the Broad a distinct patent advantage.

    But now EPO apparently favors the UC argument that its discovery covers CRISPR use in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic systems. The Scientist first reported this news on 24 March.

  • Playing no Trump at AAAS policy forum

    France Córdova

    France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation.

    Mark F.Jones/cjvisions.com

    The relationship between U.S. scientists and the Trump administration hit a new low today after organizers of a major annual science policy conference were unable to find anyone willing to discuss the president’s priorities.

    For weeks, the 42nd annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy put on by AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) listed a 50-minute talk on “science and technology priorities of the new administration” in its online program. Past administrations have always made someone available to discuss its approach to research or innovation. But over the weekend that slot was quietly removed and the schedule reshuffled.

    The show went on. But there was nary a word spoken today in defense of the president’s recently released budget blueprint that would slash research spending both this year and in 2018. Instead, AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey, reminded the assembled policy wonks that it is Congress, not the president, that has the final word on annual spending. And National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, a temporary holdover from the Obama administration, spoke optimistically of a pending appropriations bill that could give NIH as much as a $2 billion boost this year.

  • Trump recruits controversial Bush-era global health official

    Bill Steiger speaking at event

    Bill Steiger in January spoke at an event that offered the Trump administration advice about how to prepare for the next pandemic.

    Georgetown University

    William “Bill” Steiger, a global health official under former President George W. Bush who crossed swords with many scientists, is now advising President Donald Trump.

    Steiger is working at the U.S. Department of State on a so-called “beachhead team,” which helps agencies transition from the Obama to the Trump administration. Several sources tell ScienceInsider that Steiger attended the executive board meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, in January. Steiger did not respond to an email request for an interview.

    Steiger, who has a doctorate in Latin American history, directed the Office of Global Health Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during both terms of the Bush administration. During his tenure, he served as the U.S. representative to both the WHO executive board and the board of directors of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Both WHO and the Global Fund are now in the process of selecting new leaders.

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