Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. government shutdown starts to take a bite out of science

    Congress has refused to give President Donald Trump the funding he wants for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    *Update, 9 January, 1:30 p.m.: Shenandoah National Park today informed ecologist Jeff Atkins, featured below, that he will be allowed to enter the park for stream sampling despite the shutdown.

    Rattlesnakes, bears, hurricanes, and freezing weather haven’t stopped ecologist Jeff Atkins from taking weekly hikes into Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park for the past 8 years to collect water samples from remote streams. But Atkins is now facing an insurmountable obstacle: the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, in its third week.

    Park managers have barred Atkins from entering since 22 December 2018, when Congress and President Donald Trump failed to agree on a deal to fund about one-quarter of the federal government, including the National Park Service. That has shut down the sampling, part of a 40-year-old effort to monitor how the streams are recovering from the acid rain that poisoned them in past decades.

  • How much do graduate students benefit from studying abroad?

    Crystal Grant is spending a year in the Netherlands as part of her graduate program at Emory University in Atlanta.

    Bryan Meltz/Emory photo video

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is rethinking how to provide U.S. graduate students with a chance to do science in another country. It also wants to know whether its current foreign travel programs are working.

    “We want graduate students to go where they need to go for the science,” says Rebecca Keiser, head of NSF’s international office, which is conducting a multipronged review of the agency’s investments in such programs. “But we need to figure out how to provide the right opportunities for them.”

    The issue is also the subject of a NSF-funded workshop this week. And NSF has resumed accepting applications from students in its flagship Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) program to carry out research in one of 18 countries. Last fall, GRF fellows seeking a Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) supplement were surprised to find out that NSF wasn’t accepting proposals.

  • Can a set of equations keep U.S. census data private?


    The U.S. Census Bureau is making waves among social scientists with what it calls a “sea change” in how it plans to safeguard the confidentiality of data it releases from the decennial census.

    The agency announced in September 2018 that it will apply a mathematical concept called differential privacy to its release of 2020 census data after conducting experiments that suggest current approaches can’t assure confidentiality. But critics of the new policy believe the Census Bureau is moving too quickly to fix a system that isn’t broken. They also fear the changes will degrade the quality of the information used by thousands of researchers, businesses, and government agencies.

    The move has implications that extend far beyond the research community. Proponents of differential privacy say a fierce, ongoing legal battle over plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census has only underscored the need to assure people that the government will protect their privacy.

  • U.S. Senate confirms Kelvin Droegemeier to lead White House science office

    Kelvin Droegemeier

    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The U.S. Senate confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) last night. But this morning, the meteorologist remains at home in Norman, Oklahoma, weathering a winter storm and hoping to learn more about his status from his political bosses.

    An emeritus professor and former vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, Droegemeier was nominated by President Donald Trump on 31 July 2018 to lead OSTP, which coordinates science policy across the federal government. A Senate panel approved Droegemeier over the summer, and his nomination was one of several that the full Senate took up in the waning hours of the 115th Congress. His appointment was approved by voice vote.

  • Chinese spacecraft successfully lands on moon’s far side and sends pictures back home

    A picture of the far side of the moon taken by Chang’e 4 this morning

    China National Space Administration

    China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft successfully landed on the far side of the moon this morning Beijing time, accomplishing a worldwide first in lunar exploration. China’s state media confirmed that touchdown occurred at 10:26 a.m. local time; later in the day, the China National Space Administration released the first close-ups of the surface of the far side, taken by Chang’e-4 after it landed.

    “It’s a milestone for China’s lunar exploration project,” Yang Yuguang, of the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation in Beijing, told China Global Television Network, a state-operated English TV channel.

    The lander carries a rover that should be deployed sometime Friday.

  • Struggling to make ends meet, India’s early-career scientists take to the streets

    Scientists protested at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru on 21 December 2018.

    Atul Pradhan

    The new year is likely to see more protests by young Indian researchers struggling to make ends meet—which could include hunger strikes. Their leaders will meet on Thursday in New Delhi to chart a new course of action for their movement, which has taken to the streets several times the past few months. During the last protest, on 21 December 2018, thousands of researchers demonstrated at research institutions and universities around the country and at the federal science ministry in New Delhi.

    The scientists say their fellowship stipends are far too low to get by and often arrive 6 or even 12 months late. Prakash Javdekar, India’s minister of human resource development, acknowledged on 26 December 2018 that there had been backlogs, but said those have been addressed and cleared. The researchers called his statement a bluff; moreover, if the government wants to retain young talent, they say, it needs to increase the fellowships by 80% and provide for annual increases to make up for the rising cost of living.

    Many Indian agencies, including the University Grants Commission, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, and the Department of Science & Technology, provide stipends to early-career scientists who have passed an eligibility test. Ph.D. students receive just 25,000 rupees ($356) monthly the first 2 years and 28,000 rupees the following 3 years; research associates make 36,000 rupees to 40,000 rupees per month. Those not provided with a hostel room also get a modest rent allowance.

  • NASA spacecraft readies for New Year’s rendezvous with primordial object far beyond Pluto

    An artist’s depiction of MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, a solar system body about to be visited by the New Horizons spacecraft

    NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

    LAUREL, MARYLAND—NASA’s New Horizons probe has racked up a list of accomplishments since its launch in 2006, traveling billions of kilometers and, in 2015, unveiling the atmosphere and surface of the dwarf planet Pluto during a rapid flyby. But in a few days, as Earth moves into a new year, New Horizons will attempt its trickiest feat of all: traveling back in time.

    Just a tick after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve here at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which operates the spacecraft for NASA, New Horizons will race past MU69, a 35-kilometer-wide object some 6.6 billion kilometers away, in a far-off region of the solar system called the Kuiper belt. Unlike every other object previously visited by NASA spacecraft, MU69—or “Ultima Thule,” as it’s nicknamed, a classical term used for land beyond the known world—is expected to be unchanged since it formed billions of years ago, granting a window to the solar system’s earliest days. “No one’s ever been to this kind of object,” says Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute’s (SwRI’s) Boulder, Colorado, office. “No one’s ever been to anything that has been so pristine and primordial.”

    Until the early 1990s, scientists did not have evidence that this band of rocky bodies existed; it had only been theorized by researchers, including its namesake Gerard Kuiper. Since then, astronomers have discovered thousands of Kuiper belt objects past Neptune, with many more likely still unseen. Researchers have also discovered that this menagerie has a complicated structure, reflecting the solar system’s turbulent history. “I call it the solar system’s attic,” Stern says. Some of the belt’s objects, including Pluto, likely formed closer to the sun and were flung outward by gyrations of the giant planets. But others, like the relatively tiny MU69, likely formed where they are today, in languid circular orbits some 45 times farther than Earth is from the sun.

  • Japan quits global whaling body, will resume commercial hunt

    For years, Japan has said its continued whaling was for scientific research only.

    Jiji Press/Newscom

    Originally published by E&E News

    Japan announced its withdrawal today from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), with plans to resume commercial whaling next year.

    With its withdrawal from the regulatory body, Japan ends its controversial scientific whaling program, which had occurred annually under commission oversight.

    Japan's fleet is currently hunting minke whales, but Tokyo indicated that it would be that nation's final Antarctic whale hunt.

  • U.S. shutdown begins: ‘It’s disheartening, ... discouraging, ... deflating’

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol at night

    BKL/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The U.S. government today began the process of partially shutting down after President Donald Trump and lawmakers in Congress could not agree on a short-term funding deal. At the center of the dispute is Trump’s demand for $5 billion to begin building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, as he promised during his presidential campaign. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress oppose that demand, and the parties are trying to negotiate a resolution.

    The shutdown will not directly affect a number of major science agencies because they are already fully funded under spending bills signed by Trump. Those protected agencies include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the departments of energy and defense.

    But the shutdown will scramble operations at a number of other agencies that fund or conduct research. That list includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Geological Survey, the Agricultural Research Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. Overall, agencies will be forced to furlough about 380,000 employees under shutdown plans they have adopted. (An additional 420,000 “essential” employees involved in critical activities—such as air traffic control and military missions, or keeping spacecraft flying and laboratory animals alive—will be required to work without pay.)

  • U.S. scientists brace, again, for a government shutdown

    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Here we go again. Scientists in the United States are bracing for a partial shutdown of the federal government that is expected to begin at midnight. It would be the third shutdown of the year (although one lasted just 9 hours), and could scramble research projects and meetingsdelay grants, and complicate hiring and training.

    Unlike some past shutdowns, this one will not affect the entire federal government. Congress has already approved, and President Donald Trump has signed, spending bills that fund about three-quarters of federal activities. That means any shutdown will not directly affect a number of major science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the departments of energy and defense.

    But Congress has not finished work on bills that cover nine departments and some other key science agencies. That list includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the interior and agriculture departments. Unless the White House and Congress can reach an agreement today to extend current spending levels for these agencies, they will be forced to furlough an estimated 380,000 employees. (An additional 420,000 “essential” employees involved in critical health and safety activities—such as air traffic control and military missions—will be required to work without pay.)

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