Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NASA weighs trimming WFIRST to hold down costs

    artist's conception of the WFIRST web telescope

    The proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope


    NASA will have to scale back its next big orbiting observatory to avoid busting its budget and affecting other missions, an independent panel says. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is due for launch in the mid-2020s. But 1 year after NASA gave the greenlight its projected cost is $3.6 billion, roughly 12% overbudget.

    “I believe reductions in scope and complexity are needed,” Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., wrote in a memo that NASA released last Thursday.

    Designed to investigate the nature of dark energy and study exoplanets, WFIRST was chosen by the astronomy community as its top space-based mission priority in the 2010 decadal survey entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. But the start of the project was initially delayed by the huge overspend on its predecessor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2019. Then last year, a midterm review of the 2010 decadal survey warned that WFIRST could go the same way and advised NASA to form a panel of independent experts to review the project. 

  • In Brazil, researchers struggle to fend off deepening budget cuts

    painting of the Brazilian flag

    A painting of the Brazilian flag

    AK Rockefeller/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    With time and money running out, Brazilian scientists are turning up the pressure on the federal government to avoid a total collapse of the national science and technology funding system before the end of the year.

    Researchers last week delivered a petition with more than 82,000 signatures to congressional leaders in Brasília, demanding the reversal of deep budget cuts that have left research institutions struggling to pay even basic water and electricity bills. The petition delivery was part of a series of meetings and protests held across Brazil.

    As a result of Brazil’s mounting economic woes, federal funding for science and technology is now at its lowest level in modern history, dropping by more than half over the past 5 years. The science ministry kicked off this year with a slim $1.8 billion budget, but President Michel Temer’s administration later reduced that by 44%, imposing a spending cap of just over $1 billion.

  • Census Bureau puts new team in charge of 2020 U.S. count

    Wilbur Ross

    Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau.

    U.S. Embassy Bangkok/Flickr

    The head of the 2020 U.S. census has been removed, a step that may signal an end to the aggressive attempt by former Census Bureau Director John Thompson to follow a congressional directive to both save money and modernize the decennial U.S. headcount.

    Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided Congress with a new cost estimate for the 2020 census that was $3.3 billion higher than Thompson’s 2015 estimate. Ross said Thompson had been “overly optimistic” in calculating the savings from new technologies and had misjudged the difficulty of having them ready by Census Day on 1 April 2020.

    Congress had told Thompson to carry out the next census without exceeding the $12.1 billion spent in 2010. In response, Thompson drew up a plan to achieve $5.2 billion in savings from various upgrades, including the first-ever use of the internet to answer the 10 questions on the census. But Congress has repeatedly given the agency less money than it needed to test and implement the improvements.

  • Rand Paul takes a poke at U.S. peer-review panels

    Portrait of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)

    Senator Rand Paul (R–KY)

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Senate Republicans have launched a new attack on peer review by proposing changes to how the U.S. government funds basic research.

    New legislation introduced this week by Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) would fundamentally alter how grant proposals are reviewed at every federal agency by adding public members with no expertise in the research being vetted. The bill (S.1973) would eliminate the current in-house watchdog office within the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, and replace it with an entity that would randomly examine proposals chosen for funding to make sure the research will “deliver value to the taxpayer.” The legislation also calls for all federal grant applications to be made public.

    Paul made his case for the bill yesterday as chairperson of a Senate panel with oversight over federal spending. The hearing, titled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research,” was a platform for Paul’s claim that there’s a lot of “silly research” the government has no business funding. Paul poked fun at several grants funded by NSF—a time-honored practice going back at least 40 years, to Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) and his “Golden Fleece” awards—and complained that the problem is not “how does this happen, but why does it continue to happen?”

  • Analysis of China’s one-child policy sparks uproar

    Chinese children walk in park while playing

    A new controversy has erupted over estimates of how many births China's one-child policy avoided. 


    A new study of China’s one-child policy is roiling demography, sparking calls for the field’s leading journal to withdraw the paper. The controversy has ignited a debate over scholarly values in a discipline that some say often prioritizes reducing population growth above all else.

    Chinese officials have long claimed that the one-child policy—in place from 1980 to 2016—averted some 400 million births, which they say aided global environmental efforts. Scholars, in turn, have contested that number as flawed. But in a paper published in the journal Demography in August, Daniel Goodkind—an analyst at the U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, who published as an independent researcher—argues that the figure may, in fact, have merit.

    By extrapolating from countries that experienced more moderate fertility decline, Goodkind contends that birth-planning policies implemented after 1970 avoided adding between 360 million and 520 million people to China’s population. Because the momentum from that decline will continue into later generations, he suggests, the total avoided population could approach 1 billion by 2060. Some scholars worry such estimates could be used to justify, ex post facto, the policy’s existence, and feel that Goodkind’s criticisms of previous work fall outside the bounds of scholarly decorum.

  • Who’s the most influential biomedical scientist? Computer program guided by artificial intelligence says it knows

    Eric Lander

    Eric Lander in 2012

    Adam Fagen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute and a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is the most influential biomedical researcher of the modern era, according to a computer program. Lander, a geneticist and mathematician, ranks first on a new list of top biomedical researchers produced by the scientific literature search tool Semantic Scholar.

    Semantic Scholar, launched in 2015, is an academic search engine aiming to tackle the problem of information overload. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help users sift through huge numbers of scientific papers and understand (to a limited extent) their content. The free tool was developed by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), a nonprofit based in Seattle, Washington, that was co-founded in 2014 by Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen.

    Semantic Scholar’s archive of searchable literature initially focused on computer science, and last year expanded to include neuroscience. Today, it is expanding again, to include the millions of biomedical research papers indexed by PubMed and other sources; overall, Semantic Scholar’s archive is now approaching 40 million papers. 

  • Trump’s UNESCO exit draws critics, but will have little immediate impact

    UNESCO headquarters

    UNESCO headquarters in Paris


    To the dismay of many researchers, the U.S. government announced last week that it would formally withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) based in Paris. The decision—which is not expected to cause major disruptions in UNESCO’s science programs—comes roughly 6 years after the United States stopped contributing funds to the organization because of its recognition of Palestine, and 4 years after the United States lost its UNESCO voting rights.

    In a statement issued on 12 October, the U.S. Department of State cited three reasons for its decision: UNESCO has an “anti-Israel bias,” needs “fundamental reform,” and the United States has a mounting financial debt to the organization that, under U.S. law, it cannot pay.

    UNESCO expressed “profound regret” at the decision, which will take effect on 31 December 2018. The organization’s director-general, Irina Bokova, highlighted UNESCO’s “interaction with the United States Geological Survey, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with United States professional societies, to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources, agriculture,” as examples of valuable joint work.

  • German researchers resign from Elsevier journals in push for nationwide open access

    a library

    The reading hall at the central library of the Humboldt University in Berlin.

    Andreas Levers/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Five leading German scientists have resigned from their editorial positions at journals published by Elsevier, the latest step in a battle over open-access and subscription policies between the Dutch publishing giant and a consortium of German libraries, universities, and research institutes.

    The researchers want Elsevier to accept a new payment model that would make all papers authored by Germany-based researchers open access. The five are only the first of many ready to step down, warn leaders of the consortium, called Projekt DEAL.

    Instead of having individual libraries pay subscriptions for individual journals, Projekt DEAL wants to set up nationwide “publish and read” agreements with publishers. DEAL would pay publishers a lump sum to cover publication costs of papers authored by researchers in Germany. Then all such papers would be open access, and DEAL members would receive electronic access to all the publisher’s journals. 

  • FDA experts offer a unanimous endorsement for pioneering gene therapy for blindness

    FDA Entrance

    The FDA is reviewing a novel gene therapy approach to treat a form of blindness.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Flickr

    A pioneering AAV gene therapy from Spark Therapeutics took a giant stride toward an FDA approval yesterday as an outside panel of experts offered their support for getting this game-changing treatment into the market after looking over the data and hearing from some of the severely sight-impaired patients whose lives had been transformed by this therapy.

    The vote was 16 to 0 favoring the benefit-risk profile of the drug, backing an OK for voretigene neparvovec by the agency’s Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee and providing a compelling reason for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to follow through with an historic first U.S. approval of a vector-delivered gene therapy.

    “Gene therapy has made my world so much more brighter,” said one young patient, who went on to describe how he could see the moon for the first time, go out at night, watch facial expressions, and basically live his life more normally instead of waiting for blindness to take over. And Christian Guardino talked about how the treatment four years ago saved his sight, a span of time when the darkness might well have closed in.

    This was no panacea. As the agency’s internal review made clear, voretigene neparvovec (or Luxturna) — which uses an adeno-associated viral vector — improved sight using the light levels measured for the primary endpoint, but fell far short of curing retinal dystrophy triggered by genetic RPE65 mutations. Improvement in vision is also limited by the number of viable retinal cells they have left at the time they’re treated, according to investigators.

  • AccuWeather’s Barry Myers nominated to lead NOAA

    Barry Myers

    Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, has been nominated to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Diane Bondareff/AP Images for AccuWeather

    President Donald Trump late yesterday nominated Barry Myers—CEO of AccuWeather, the for-profit forecasting company in State College, Pennsylvania—to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation's premier agency for weather, climate, and ocean research. As a wealthy businessman, Myers fits the mold of other Trump picks.

    Myers leads AccuWeather with his two brothers, both weather forecasters. He has business and law degrees, but will bring no scientific expertise to an agency that traditionally has been led by administrators holding scientific doctorates. Yet Myers is well-acquainted with at least one NOAA division: the National Weather Service (NWS), which provides the free data and models that AccuWeather relies on for its forecasts. His nomination is a sign that the Trump administration could seek to further shake up parts of the country's weather enterprise, says Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “No NOAA administrator has been willing to make the substantial, but necessary, changes,” he says. “Is it possible that an outsider from the private sector might consider a fresh approach?”

    If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Myers will lead an agency under stress. The White House has proposed slashing NOAA's 2018 budget by 17%, with the cuts targeting ocean and climate research, along with the development of a next-generation weather model. Although the 2018 spending bill passed by the House of Representatives did include a double-digit drop in the agency’s overall budget, the Senate has indicated that many of those cuts—such as zeroing out the popular Sea Grant program or reducing investment into a next-generation weather model—won't happen. The agency’s budget is now frozen as part of a government-wide holding pattern that expires in early December.

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