Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Q&A: The odd—and sometimes tense—intersection of cops, soldiers, and public health

    A policeman in Karachi, Pakistan, protects a health worker as she administers a polio vaccine.

    ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

    In 2003, epidemiologist Nicholas Thomson was doing HIV prevention work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when the country’s president, Thaksin Shinawatra, launched an aggressive war on drugs. “Thaksin gave permission to extra-judiciously take out what were meant to be drug traffickers, and we lost a couple hundred people out of our prevention trials who weren’t drug traffickers,” says Thomson, who was working with a team from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “We were decimated.”

    Thomson, who today has a joint appointment with Hopkins and the University of Melbourne in Australia, realized that part of the problem was that the Hopkins and Chiang Mai University research collaboration had not forged strong enough connections with the nation’s police, Ministry of the Interior, and prisons. “I thought this can’t happen again, and I spent the next 10 years trying to go as deeply as I could into the ministries responsible for public security across Southeast Asia to see what the levers were that could be adjusted to get a better public health outcome—without mentioning public health or human rights,” Thomson says. He soon realized that the intersection of public health and security, which involves both the police and the military, reached far beyond HIV/AIDS, and today affects responses to polio, Ebola, Zika, malaria, mental health, bioterrorism, and disasters.

    That rarely acknowledged intersection is the topic of a special series of three papers that Thomson coordinated and were published online today in The Lancet. ScienceInsider spoke with Thomson about the topic and the changes he’s advocating. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • The contiguous United States just lost its last wild caribou

    A caribou that was part of the Southern Selkirks herd, which once traversed the U.S.-Canada border. Biologists captured the last member of the herd this week.

    David Moskowitz

    The last caribou known to inhabit the contiguous United States has been removed from the wild. This week, a team of biologists working for the Canadian province of British Columbia captured the caribou—a female—in the Selkirk Mountains just north of the U.S.-Canada border. They then moved it to a captive rearing pen near Revelstoke as part of a controversial, last-ditch effort to preserve highly endangered herds. The female caribou is believed to be the last member of the last herd to regularly cross into the lower 48 states from Canada.

    The 14 January capture of the caribou was “like losing a piece of the tribe in some way,” says Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel tribe in Usk, Washington. It is one of two indigenous nations in the United States that have been pushing governments to maintain the cross-border caribou herd and protect its habitat.

    In about a month, the British Columbia biologists plan to release the caribou—along with two other animals from another endangered herd—back into the wild, into a larger and more stable Canadian herd. The ultimate fate of these animals, however, is unclear. They are mountain caribou, a distinct ecotype of caribou found only in a forested swath of northwestern North America, which have become endangered because of habitat loss and other factors. Conservation efforts have failed to reverse population declines or prevent the complete extirpation of some herds at the southern end of the mountain caribou’s range, where they inhabit inland temperate rainforests. And biologists can’t say whether any caribou will again inhabit the contiguous United States. (There are herds of other types of caribou in Alaska.)

  • How Commerce Secretary Ross got the science behind the census so wrong—and why it matters

    A U.S. judge agrees with research showing households with noncitizens are much less likely to respond to the 2020 census than other demographic groups.

    A decision this week by a federal court to block the U.S. government’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census is more than a political setback for Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and President Donald Trump. It also represents a strong vote of confidence in the U.S. statistical community and the value of research.

    On 15 January, U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York declared that Ross had been “arbitrary and capricious” in deciding last year to add the citizenship question. He also ruled that the question would most likely result in leaving millions of noncitizens and Hispanic residents out of the decennial head count.

    The plaintiffs in the case, some 33 state and local officials as well as numerous civil rights organizations, argued successfully that Ross had violated a federal law governing how to make changes in the census. They also convinced the judge that their jurisdictions would likely suffer politically and economically from an undercount.

  • After outcry, Battelle reinstates science panel at ecological observatory

    A collection tower at one of the 81 National Ecological Observatory Network sites that will be gathering environmental data for decades.

    Trevor Frost

    The contractor running a major U.S. ecological research facility has reversed its decision to disband a scientific advisory panel. The move had drawn fierce criticism from researchers.

    Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus-based nonprofit that manages the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for the National Science Foundation (NSF), said today it will reinstate the project’s Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC). Batelle had dissolved the panel last week, hours after NEON’s chief scientist, Sharon Collinge, resigned. Collinge acted after Battelle fired two senior NEON managers without her knowledge and consent.

    A Battelle official apologized today to STEAC’s 20 members and invited them to meet with the project’s acting chief scientist, Eugene Kelly. “My decision to dissolve the STEAC was based on my erroneous assumption that such advisory bodies were routinely reconstituted at the change of leadership of NSF large facilities,” Michael Kuhlman, Battelle’s chief scientist, explained in an email to the researchers, several of whom had threatened to resign in support of Collinge. “That was incorrect, and I accept full responsibility for my error.”

  • Crash-out Brexit looms larger for scientists after deal rejected

    U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise Brexit deal was rejected by Parliament.

    Frank Augstein/AP Photo

    A historic defeat for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has raised the odds that the United Kingdom will crash out of the European Union in March, a prospect that scientists dread for its potential for disruption to research collaborations and the economy. On 15 January, Parliament roundly rejected May’s deal with the European Union, which lays out the terms for an orderly withdrawal. What happens next is unknown.

    “Yesterday’s unprecedented vote makes the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal even more likely,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London, in a statement. “A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for British science and innovation and I urge our elected representatives to put the interests of the country first and get a new plan to prevent this catastrophic outcome.”

    After a 2016 referendum, in which a majority of 51.9% voted to leave Europe, May invoked Article 50 of the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon. This action set 29 March as the date of departure. In November 2018, May’s negotiators reached an agreement with the European Union over the terms of the departure, spelling out the United Kingdom’s remaining financial obligations to the European Union and specifying a 2-year period to smooth the transition.

  • No pay. No retirement. No stink bugs by mail. The shutdown pain is spreading

    Furloughed from his work on rocket tests, NASA contractor Jack Lyons spends time in his workshop making props for marching bands.

    David Goldman/AP Photo

    No paychecks. No experiments. No reviews of grant applications. And no stink bugs by mail.

    The financial, empirical, and entomological consequences of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government for science multiplied this week, as it became the longest such closure in history. More than a half-dozen agencies that fund or conduct research, including NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have been partly paralyzed since 22 December 2018. And the fight between Congress and President Donald Trump over spending $5.7 billion on a border wall, which has shuttered about one-quarter of the federal government, shows no signs of being resolved.

    The impasse has already meant a lost paycheck for some 800,000 federal employees, as well as missed payments for thousands more contractors and academic researchers. Agencies have canceled dozens of meetings to review thousands of funding proposals, at one of the busiest times for federal grantmaking. Researchers inside and outside of government have postponed, restructured, or just given up entirely on planned studies.

  • European physicists unveil plans for a particle collider that would be longer than the Panama Canal

    An artist’s impression of a particle collision in CERN’s future collider


    European particle physicists today released a conceptual design for a successor to the world’s biggest atom smasher, the 27-kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which straddles the border between Switzerland and France. The report calls for an even bigger accelerator, that would be 100 kilometers in circumference, to study in detail the Higgs boson, the weird new particle that the LHC discovered to great fanfare in 2012. The new machine, known for the moment as the Future Circular Collider (FCC), would cost €9 billion. It would begin operations around 2040, after the LHC is scheduled to shut down, according to a statement issued by CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

    The LHC smashes protons into protons to generate the most energetic collisions currently possible. In contrast, the proposed FCC would smash electrons into their antimatter counterparts, positrons at energies 35 times lower than the LHC (but higher than any previous electron-positron collider). The electron-positron collisions would still be energetic enough to create Higgs bosons, but they would also be far cleaner and easier to analyze than the LHC’s collisions. That’s because protons are messy objects made of other particles called quarks and gluons. In contrast, electrons and positrons are, as far as physicists know, indivisible fundamental particles.

    The electron-positron collider would look for hints of physics beyond scientists’ prevailing standard model by searching for discrepancies between how the Higgs decays and standard model predictions. The FCC would also serve as a stepping stone to another future proton collider that could reach an energy seven times higher than the LHC, which might blast into existence new particles whose existence the electron-positron could only infer. The machine would cost an additional €15 billion and would fit into the FCC’s tunnel in the mid-2050s or later. The FCC would help make that ultimate machine more affordable by covering the €5 billion cost of the tunnel.

  • Groundbreaking deal makes large number of German studies free to public

    Davide Bonazzi/@SalzmanArt

    BERLIN—Three years ago, a group of German libraries, universities, and research institutes teamed up to force the three largest scientific publishers to offer an entirely new type of contract. In exchange for an annual lump sum, they wanted a nationwide agreement making papers by German authors free to read around the world, while giving researchers in Germany access to all of the publishers’ online content.

    Today, after almost 3 years of negotiations, the consortium, named Project DEAL, can finally claim a success: This morning, it signed a deal with Wiley, an academic publisher headquartered in Hoboken, New Jersey.

    Under the 3-year contract, scientists at more than 700 academic institutions will be able to access all of Wiley’s academic journals back to 1997 and to publish open access in all of Wiley’s journals. The annual fee will be based on the number of papers they publish in Wiley journals—about 10,000 in previous years, says one of the negotiators, physicist Gerard Meijer of the Fritz Haber Institute, a Max Planck Society institute here.

  • NEON ecological observatory in crisis again: Top scientist quits, Battelle fires advisory board and senior managers

    A NEON scientist outfits a tower in Virginia in 2015.

    Trevor Frost

    A half-billion-dollar ecological observatory being built by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is once again in turmoil, just as it moves from construction to operations.

    Sharon Collinge, chief scientist and principal investigator for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), resigned yesterday after the project’s contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute, fired two senior managers without her knowledge or consent. Within hours, Battelle had dissolved the 20-member committee of outside scientists advising the project, heading off what some advisory committee members say might have been a mass resignation in support of Collinge.

    Based in Boulder, Colorado, NEON is nearing completion as an 81-site facility designed to lead ecology into the era of big data. But it has had a troubled history. It was proposed nearly 20 years ago by then–NSF Director Rita Colwell, and many ecologists have long questioned its value. Construction finally began in 2012, but in 2015, NSF removed the contractor after ongoing management problems put the project well behind schedule and significantly overbudget.

  • Bipartisan bill on sexual harassment signals strong interest by Congress

    Robert Neubecker

    The new chairperson of and top Republican on the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives have teamed up to introduce legislation that would require federal research agencies to adopt a common policy on sexual harassment. The bipartisan bill signals that Congress may be ready to address an issue that has roiled the scientific community and generated calls to punish federally funded researchers found guilty of harassment.

    The legislation (H.R. 36) was introduced last week by Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the top Democrat on the science panel, and Frank Lucas (OK), the panel’s ranking Republican. It is identical to a bill that Johnson introduced in the fall of 2018. But that proposal was embraced only by Democrats, then in the minority, and it died when the 115th Congress ended.

    Democrats are now in charge of the House. And although Johnson can set the agenda for her committee, obtaining Lucas’s support suggests she hopes to do more than simply score political points. A bill backed by the panel’s two senior leaders stands a much better chance of moving through the House with the overwhelming support needed to win over the Republican-led Senate and, ultimately, President Donald Trump.

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