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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • World’s largest general science society OKs stripping honors from scientists found to be sexual harassers

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science building

    On Saturday, AAAS adopted new rules for removing society fellows found to have committed misconduct.

    AAAS

    On Saturday, the governing council of AAAS (publisher of Science) in Washington, D.C., unanimously adopted a policy on sexual harassment and other misconduct by scientists who have been elected as AAAS fellows. Starting on 15 October, fellows who have been proved to have violated professional ethics—which are defined as including sexual harassment—may be stripped of the prestigious honor.

    “Harassment has no place in science,” says Margaret Hamburg, president of AAAS. But, she adds, “We are not going to make decisions based simply on a newspaper article, a blog, or somebody’s anecdotal report.”

    The new policy will allow any AAAS member to request revocation of a fellow’s title for breaches that range from harassment to fabricating results. AAAS will require proof in the form of investigative reports or announcements by institutions, organizations, or government agencies. AAAS has about 9000 fellows among its 120,000 members.

  • Former head of climate change panel to stand trial for harassment

    Rajendra Pachauri

    Rajendra Pachauri

    Gurinder Osan/AP Photo

    A court in New Delhi on Friday ordered Rajendra Pachauri, former head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to stand trial on criminal charges alleging that he sexually harassed a former colleague.

    The woman filed a police complaint against Pachauri, 78, in February 2015, and he stepped down from IPCC that month. Women’s rights and legal activists have since charged that authorities have been slow to act on that allegation and complaints that Pachauri harassed other women.

    Pachauri, who denies the allegations, faces up to 3 years in prison if convicted.

  • Update: Remote solar observatory reopens after mysterious evacuation

    National Solar Observatory Dunn telescope

    The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope, the centerpiece of Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico, was closed on 6 September.

    Efrain Padro/Alamy Stock Photo

    *Update, 17 September, 3:55 p.m.: The Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico reopened today. In a statement, the operator of the site, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), said it has been cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred on the site. The organization said it evacuated the site because of a concern that a suspect posed a threat to the safety of staff and residents. AURA has not said what the suspected criminal activity is and said it was reluctant to share news during the shutdown because it did not want to alert the suspect and impede the investigation. The original story, published on 14 September, is below. 

    Nobody is quite sure what’s going on at the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico, which was quickly and mysteriously evacuated on 6 September amid reports of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe, and has remained closed. The manager of the mountaintop site, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), today released a statement saying the observatory “will remain closed until further notice due to an ongoing security concern.”

    In the wake of the shutdown, Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News: “The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.” Facility employees are similarly in the dark. “We have absolutely no idea what is going on,” says Alisdair Davey, a data center scientist at the National Solar Observatory (NSO). “As in truly nothing, which in itself is just weird.” Messages left with the FBI field office in Albuquerque were not returned.

  • Momentum builds for joint U.S.-Cuba study of mysterious maladies affecting Havana diplomats

    Mitchell Joseph Valdes Sosa speaks at a news conference

    Speaking at a press conference on 13 September after meeting with U.S. Department of State officials, Cuban neurophysiologist Mitchell Valdés-Sosa said there is no meeting of the minds on a potential explanation for what sickened U.S. diplomats in Havana.

    Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—Breaking a monthslong impasse, scientists and medical doctors from the United States and Cuba huddled here on 13 September to discuss what the U.S. Department of State has characterized as “health attacks” on some two dozen personnel stationed at the U.S. embassy in Havana, alleged to have occurred since the end of 2016. There was no meeting of the minds on a potential explanation for the diplomats’ symptoms, which included headaches, dizziness, and insomnia after hearing strange noises or feeling a sensation of pressure. But momentum is building for a joint study by the Cuban and U.S. science academies.

    Two research teams that have evaluated the diplomats assert that the symptoms are real and may have an underlying physical cause. In a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in February, Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and co-authors described a “constellation” of symptoms consistent with a concussion that they believe constitutes a new neurological syndrome. And Michael Hoffer, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami in Florida, and his colleagues have gathered evidence of what they describe as a unique vestibular and cognitive disorder in the diplomats.

    The cause of the diplomats’ symptoms remains an enigma. In early 2017, when the U.S. embassy in Havana began to investigate the alleged incidents, its working hypothesis was that the victims were targeted by a long-range acoustic device. Hoffer’s team, working with the U.S. Office of Naval Research, is probing whether a directed energy weapon of some sort could have damaged the diplomats’ inner ears. Earlier this month, The New York Times, quoting Smith and others, declared microwaves are a “prime suspect.” Further fueling speculation, communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies implicate Russia in the alleged attacks, NBC News, citing anonymous sources, reported last week. But a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe last year uncovered no proof of an attack; White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS News last week that “no determination has been made and the investigation is still ongoing.”

  • Evidence-based medicine group in turmoil after expulsion of co-founder

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    A bitter dispute with one of its co-founders has plunged Cochrane, an international network of scientists promoting evidence-based medicine, into a crisis on the eve of an international gathering that marks its 25th anniversary. Late last week, a narrow majority of the organization's Governing Board apparently decided to end the Cochrane membership of Peter Gøtzsche, director of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen and a member of the board himself, for causing "disrepute" to the organization. Four other board members then resigned in protest.

    Gøtzsche announced his own expulsion in a three-page statement issued on Friday that said Cochrane was going through a "moral governance crisis."

    In a phone interview with Science, Gøtzsche speculated that some foundations funding the collaboration had pressured it to get rid of him because of his highly critical views about pharma. He says he had become increasingly unhappy with what he describes as a "more commercial and more industry-friendly direction" in the organization. Gøtzsche had also launched a broadside against a favorable Cochrane analysis of vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV), charging it may have overlooked side effects—a position embraced by antivaccine groups.

  • What NSF’s new diversity grants say about attempts to help minority students

    students testing their telescope outside

    Students design, construct, and test radio telescopes at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia under a National Science Foundation grant.

    Nima ShahabShahmir/Green Bank Observatory

    Ted Hodapp has spent the past 5 years helping boost the number of minority students pursuing U.S. graduate degrees in physics. But Hodapp, who works on education and diversity issues at the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, knows the society’s Bridge Program will at best make only a small dent in the nationwide dearth of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans working in all science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. He wanted an opportunity to show that Bridge’s approach—which starts by encouraging graduate schools to de-emphasize scores on the standardized GRE entrance exam in the student selection process—could work in other STEM disciplines and, in doing so, promote the value of diversity in U.S. higher education.

    Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, gave Hodapp $10 million to make that happen. The grant was one of six 5-year awards that the agency announced on 6 September under its new Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) initiative, which NSF Director France Córdova rolled out in 2016 as one of her priorities. The $57 million outlay marks NSF’s first major investment in INCLUDES. 

    The five Alliances, as NSF calls them, will allow STEM educators to scale up existing diversity efforts by partnering with like-minded businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, and local and state governments. The goal is to tear down disciplinary, geographic, and cultural barriers that hinder efforts to promote broader participation in STEM. (NSF also made a $10 million award to SRI International in Menlo Park, California, to coordinate activities and carry out research across all the alliances.)

  • NIH gets $2 billion boost in final 2019 spending bill

    NIH building 1
    Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

    Congress has approved a $2 billion raise, to $39.1 billion, for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a 2019 spending bill approved by House of Representatives and Senate negotiators last night.

    As expected, the 5% boost matches the Senate’s proposed spending level and surpasses a $1.25 billion increase in a draft bill passed by the House. President Donald Trump’s administration had requested $34.8 billion for the fiscal year that begins 1 October. This is the fourth year in a row that NIH has received a substantial increase, after more than a decade of flat budgets.

    The final bill funding the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, also matches the amounts the Senate measure had tagged for NIH research in specific areas. It includes $425 million more for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (bringing the total to $2.34 billion); a $100 million increase for the cancer moonshot, or $400 million total; and an $86 million raise for the All of Us precision medicine study, for a total of $376 million.

  • Congress sends Trump energy spending bill that includes healthy boost for science

    the US capitol
    iStock.com/uschools

    The U.S. Congress today sent President Donald Trump a 2019 spending bill that boosts funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research efforts—and rejects deep cuts to the department’s applied research programs that the White House had proposed.

    If Trump signs the bill into law—as many observers expect—DOE’s Office of Science would get a 5.2% spending boost, to $6.585 billion, in fiscal year 2019, which begins 1 October. In contrast, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the Office of Science budget by 13.9% to $5.39 billion.

    The White House had called for an even bigger cut to applied energy research supported through DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), a 70% whack to $696 million. Instead, the bill—which the House of Representatives approved today and the Senate passed yesterday—gives EERE a 2.5% increase to $2.379 billion. Similarly, the White House had sought to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which seeks to quickly translate the best ideas from DOE-funded basic research into budding technologies that can be developed further by private industry. The bill gives ARPA-E a healthy 3.7% boost to $366 million.

  • Researchers reboot ambitious effort to sequence all vertebrate genomes, but challenges loom

    Lynx canadensis crouching toward the camera
    Joel Sartore/Getty Images

    In a bid to garner more visibility and support, researchers eager to sequence the genomes of all vertebrates today officially launched the Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP), releasing 15 very high quality genomes of 14 species. But the group remains far short of raising the funds it will need to document the genomes of the estimated 66,000 vertebrates living on Earth.

    The project, which has been underway for 3 years, is a revamp and renaming of an effort begun in 2009 called the Genome 10K Project (G10K), which aimed to decipher the genomes of 10,000 vertebrates. G10K produced about 100 genomes, but they were not very detailed, in part because of the cost of sequencing. Now, however, the cost of high-quality sequencing has dropped to less than $15,000 per billion DNA bases, putting detailed vertebrate genomes within the research community’s reach, says G10K co-founder David Haussler, a computational biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “What we thought was a ‘genome’ back then really wasn’t suitable for in-depth studies,” he explains. “I think we’ve reached a turning point.”

    Error-free genomes from a broad sampling of vertebrates will enable researchers “to address questions not possible to [answer] before,” adds neuroscientist Erich Jarvis of The Rockefeller University in New York City, who leads G10K.

  • Universities are worse than drug companies at reporting clinical trial results

    gloved hands holding a sample vial and taking notes

    A study finds that 89% of clinical trials run by universities and registered in an EU database do not have their results reported as quickly as is mandated.

    iStock.com/PeopleImages

    Drug companies have taken a lot of heat over the years for not promptly reporting results from clinical trials, but a new study suggests academics may be even worse. Nearly nine in 10 university clinical studies fail to report results in the European Union Clinical Trials Register (EUCTR) within the required 1-year time frame, a team from the Evidence-Based Medicine DataLab at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom reports today in The BMJ.

    Sharing the methods and results of all trials is “an ethical and scientific imperative,” the authors say. EU guidelines require that results be published in the EUCTR 12 months after a registered trial ends, but there is no legal basis for the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which runs the register, to impose penalties on laggards.

    Compliance is low across the board and particularly poor at universities. In January, the Oxford team downloaded records for all 31,821 trials registered in the EUCTR since 2004. Overall, about half of the 7274 trials that were due to report results at the time of the study complied, the researchers found. Only 11% of university-led trials in the study complied with the 1-year mandate, compared with 68% of ones run by companies.

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