Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Craig Venter’s synthetic biology company hit with gender discrimination suit

    Portrait of Craig Venter

    J. Craig Venter

    K. C. Alfred/ZUMA Press/Newscom

    A former employee of a company co-founded by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter has filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination against the firm’s female employees—and alleging harassment by Venter himself.

    The complaint, filed on 7 September in San Diego Superior Court in California against Synthetic Genomics, which is located in San Diego, was first reported on 19 September by The San Diego Union Tribune. Attorney Teresa Spehar, former vice president of intellectual property for the company, alleges that women were paid less than men, promoted less often, left out of meetings, and discriminated against “with gender-based stereotypes.” Spehar says she was fired in June, after more than 8 years with the company.

  • Russia wants to protect itself from climate change—without reducing carbon emissions

    People wear face masks to protect themselves from the forest fire smog near St. Basil's cathedral on Red Square, Moscow

    Illnesses and deaths linked to heat and wildfire pollution in the Moscow region in 2010 are now seen as a harbinger of the future toll of climate change.

    NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/ Staff/Getty Images

    When a squall tore through Moscow at the end of May, the toll was unusually high: The fierce gales killed 18 people and injured scores more, officials say, and inflicted about $3.5 billion in damages in Russia's capital region.

    Now, there's another casualty. Earlier this month, Russia's government fired the head of its weather forecasting agency, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, or Roshydromet. Alexander Frolov, 65, had surpassed the mandatory retirement age for civil servants, but the real reason he was forced out, observers say, was Roshydromet's failure to anticipate the late-May storm's intensity and warn Muscovites accordingly. His ousting also sent a message to the environment ministry, Roshydromet's overseer. The state prosecutor's office, according to the newspaper Kommersant, demanded that the ministry take steps to increase the accuracy of forecasts in light of a changing climate.

    The new charge to the environment ministry reflects a sea change in Russia's views about climate change and how the nation must respond. Politicians have acknowledged that extreme weather events have doubled over the past 25 years, to 590 in 2016, and that average temperatures are rising, particularly in the Arctic. Yet until recently, tackling climate change was a low priority for the federal government. One reason is complacence, because Russia's greenhouse gas emissions have already plummeted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another is political: Russia's economy depends heavily on pumping oil and gas out of the ground. Many influential voices here routinely debunked climate change, and some Russian newspapers in recent years chalked up climate variability to a mythical U.S. weapon aimed at Russia, or as a foreign plot aimed at Russia's energy exports.

  • HHMI’s own brand of diversity in the life sciences

    illustration of a hand holding a beaker

    fitie/iStock Photo

    “Zero is a real problem.”

    Erin O’Shea is talking about the number of minority professors in life science departments at many of the top U.S. research universities. O’Shea, a systems biologist, trained and taught in that rarified environment for 2 decades before joining the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2013 and becoming its president last September. But the 51-year-old systems biologist says that the lack of diversity at those schools weakens the U.S. scientific enterprise by shrinking the pool of minds equipped to make discoveries.

    One of O’Shea’s first moves as HHMI president was committing $25 million a year to support postdocs from underrepresented groups. Her hope was that they would eventually change the color—and culture—of their departments as they moved into leadership positions, in addition to serving as role models for the next generation of scientists.

  • U.K. science seeks ‘a new and special relationship with the EU’

    Jo Johnson and Mark Walport

    Left to right: Jo Johnson, U.K. minister of state for universities, science, research, and innovation, and Mark Walport, chief executive designate of United Kingdom research and innovation.

    (Left to right): Chris Radburn/Associated Press; BIS Digital Image Library/Wikimedia Commons

    Two of the most influential figures in U.K. science were in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among others. But their top priority was signing an agreement to support the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which will be built in South Dakota and Illinois. It's the kind of international collaboration that the U.K. government is keen to nurture, as its impending exit from the European Union has injected many existing relationships with uncertainty.   

    Earlier this month, the U.K. government's Department for Exiting the European Union released a position paper on its goals for access to European research programs post-Brexit, but the aspirational document was criticized for its fuzziness.

    Taking a break from their hectic schedules in the U.S. capital, Jo Johnson, minister of state for universities, science, research, and innovation; and Mark Walport, chief executive designate of United Kingdom research and innovation (UKRI), the new organization of research funding councils that will launch next April, spoke with ScienceInsider about the difficulties in being concrete about post-Brexit science relations with Europe. Johnson promised "more detail shortly."

  • U.K. pledges $88 million to gigantic U.S. particle physics experiment

    illustration of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment

    The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment detector features four massive modules, each containing 17,000 metric tons of liquid argon.


    The United Kingdom has agreed to help build the next great particle physics experiment in the United States.

    In a signing ceremony today at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., U.K. officials pledged to spend ₤65 million—roughly $88 million—on key components for the proposed Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), a particle detector located in a defunct gold mine in Lead, South Dakota. Last month, researchers began digging the four massive caverns that will house the gargantuan modular detector.

    The agreement “involves us in one of the most exciting new physics experiments in the world,” Jo Johnson, U.K. minister for universities, science, research, and innovation, told ScienceInsider. “We’re delighted to be a part of it.”

  • Publishers go after networking site for illicit sharing of journal papers

    conceptual image of sharing ideas through computers

    Social networking sites where researchers swap papers have been accused of infringing  on journals' copyright.


    A major scientific publishing group is taking aim at a social networking site for allowing researchers to illegally post copies of their journal papers. The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) in Oxford, U.K., and The Hague, the Netherlands, has written to ResearchGate, a networking website for researchers, to express concerns over its article-sharing practices.

    ResearchGate, the world’s largest academic social network site with more than 13 million members, has been criticized before for facilitating the upload of paywalled papers. These studies are posted by authors themselves—even though the site’s intellectual property policy states that its users should investigate whether they have the rights to share content before doing so.

    ResearchGate, operated out of Berlin, has reportedly raised more than $87 million in funding from the likes of the research charity the Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates since launching in 2008.

  • China’s atomic clock passes space test

    Tiangong-2 space lab

    China’s cold atom clock is working on board the Tiangong-2 space laboratory. 

    Imaginechina via AP Images

    Clocks that use cold atoms form the backbone of the international time system here on Earth. Now, scientists in China have successfully demonstrated a cold atom clock in space, an achievement that could lead to more accurate terrestrial timekeeping and better tests of fundamental physics.

    Most atomic clocks rely on a very steady tick: the frequency of fluorescent light emitted by cesium atoms after being excited by a microwave field. The frequency is steadier when the atoms move slowly, and so scientists first trap the atoms using intersecting laser beams and cool them down to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero.

    Because the laser beams would impair the frequency measurement, the atoms must be released from the trap before they are excited by the microwaves. Typically, they are nudged upward by another laser and zapped with microwaves as they rise and then fall back down to Earth. But the briefness of this free fall limits how long the atoms can be probed and, hence, the clock’s accuracy and stability. In orbit, however, the atoms are in continuous free fall and can in principle be probed over longer periods of time.

  • Scientific society defines sexual harassment as scientific misconduct

    Poster hall of AGU 2015 Fall General Meeting

    The new policy would apply to participants at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting.

    Ebbi Roe Yovino/

    Sexual harassment is a form of scientific misconduct under a new policy adopted last week by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C.

    “We’ve seen and heard of too many instances, stories, and studies that show harassment in the sciences is happening and that the problem is significant,” AGU leaders wrote in a 15 September post announcing the change, part of an update of the society’s ethics code. “Research has shown the destructive effects harassment, discrimination, and bullying can have on not only the people directly involved but on the research, institutions, students, faculty, or colleagues surrounding the misconduct.”

    The new policy applies not only to the society’s members and staff, but also to nonmembers participating in the society’s activities. AGU President Eric Davidson calls it “a major step forward” in addressing the issue.

  • Cybersecurity and technology transfer seen as top priorities for NIST director nominee

    Headshot of smiling Walter Copan

    Courtesy of Walter Copan

    President Donald Trump has nominated Walter Copan, an expert in technology transfer, to be the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which supports physical sciences research and operates labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado.

    The 63-year-old Copan is a Ph.D. chemist and president and CEO of the Colorado-based Intellectual Property Engineering Group. He says his top priority for the agency is to implement the Cybersecurity Framework, a NIST-led effort to improve network security across federal agencies as well as industry.

    “I think we all see cybersecurity as national security and economic security,” Copan says. He also wants to make sure security improvements benefit not just federal agencies and large corporations, but also smaller companies that can’t afford teams of information technology professionals. “Small- and medium-sized businesses are drivers of the economy. Statistics show that when [these businesses] are the victim of a cyberattack they go out of business in less than a year,” Copan says.

  • Top astronomer on the challenges of building the world’s largest telescope, and what’s next

    Portrait of Spanish researcher and professor Xavier Barcons

    New ESO chief Xavier Barcons (above) takes over from Tim de Zeeuw after a 10-year term.


    Spanish astronomer Xavier Barcons took over the reins this month of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the world’s foremost international astronomy organization. It is currently building the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), destined to be the world’s largest when completed in 2024.

    In the 1980s Barcons set up the first x-ray astronomy group in Spain at the University of Cantabria. He is a specialist on active galactic nuclei, superbright galactic cores thought to be caused by giant black holes sucking in and heating up quantities of gas and dust. To study them, he’s been heavily involved in European x-ray space telescopes such as XMM-Newton and the forthcoming Athena, due for launch in 2028. Barcons has also worked at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Spain’s Council for Scientific Research, and served as chair of ESO’s council from 2012 to 2014.

    He joins ESO in a period of high activity as the organization embarks on the E-ELT, its biggest project so far. But a shadow hangs over the €1.1 billion facility: Because of a shortfall in funding, the ESO council has only approved a first phase of construction, which will produce a working telescope but with certain desired components delayed until extra funding can be found. Those components include 210 of the 798 segments that make up the 39-meter main mirror, back-up mirror segments, some lasers for the adaptive optics system, and a few instrument components. 

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