Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • EPA fires members of science advisory board

    Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to lead EPA

    Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fired members of a scientific advisory board yesterday.

    The agency quietly forced out some members of the Board of Scientific Counselors just weeks after leaders told them their tenure would be renewed, said Robert Richardson, an ecological economist at Michigan State University and one of those dismissed.

  • Challenges mount for a successful 2020 U.S. census

    Providence, Rhode Island, in a shot against the river

    The WaterFire installation in downtown Providence, one of three U.S. locations participating in next year’s full dress rehearsal for the 2020 census.

    Liz West/Flickr

    Financial and political storm clouds are gathering over the 2020 census, the nation’s biggest civilian undertaking.

    Yesterday, Census Bureau Director John Thompson told a congressional spending panel about a significant overrun in the cost of a new, billion-dollar tracking system for the next census. It has triggered fears by the panel’s chairman, Representative John Culberson (R–TX), that the agency might blow past a congressional mandate to spend no more in 2020 than the $12.5 billion cost of the 2010 enumeration of every U.S. resident.

    Census officials have said repeatedly they can meet the $12.5 billion cap by modernizing their procedures. They have asserted that such novel steps as encouraging residents to fill out the 10-question survey on the internet or via a call center, having field workers use smartphones to record answers from those who have ignored previous pleas to respond, updating master address lists through aerial imagery, and using existing government records for persistent nonrespondents will save an estimated $5 billion over the cost of continuing with the old approach.

  • In controversial move, Brazil may outsource Amazon deforestation monitoring

    Fires and deforestation in the Amazon

    Fires and deforestation in the Amazon, as seen by a sensor aboard a NASA satellite.

    NASA Earth Observatory

    In a major change, Brazil's Ministry of the Environment is looking for a company to help it monitor deforestation in the Amazon. "This is a surprise for everyone … crazy stuff," says Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System and Observatório do Clima in São Paulo and former head of the Brazilian Forest Service. The controversial proposal led to the firing of one of the ministry's top scientists, who is a vice president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  

    Since 1988, the ministry has relied on the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) to analyze land cover changes in the Amazon, which holds the world’s largest intact swaths of forest. Efforts to combat deforestation there have been the focus of worldwide interest, in large part because of the region’s rich biodiversity and the forest’s role in shaping regional climate.

    The ministry says INPE will continue to monitor the Amazon, but researchers worry that the $25 million annual contract will result in significant duplication of effort, a waste of scarce resources, possible confusion over deforestation rates, and create an apparent conflict of interest for the ministry. 

  • NIH to impose grant cap to free up funds for more investigators

    National Institutes of Health building

    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    In a major policy shift that is reverberating across the biomedical research community, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, says it plans to cap the number of grants an investigator can hold in order to free up funding for early-career scientists and those struggling to keep their labs afloat.

    The new policy, announced yesterday by NIH Director Francis Collins, will limit the amount of support a single investigator can have to the equivalent of three bread-and-butter NIH R01 grants. About 6% of the investigator pool now has more than this level of support, and freeing up the money going to those awards could support 1600 new grants, NIH concludes. This will ensure “that the funds we are given are producing the best results from our remarkable scientific workforce,” Collins wrote.

    The policy follows years of worrying, after NIH’s budget flattened in 2003, about cutthroat competition for funding and the need to stretch NIH’s budget to support more labs. NIH already has a 9-year-old policy that essentially gives extra points to grant proposals from early-career investigators that has helped stabilize the fraction of NIH grantees under age 45. But now, as those grants come up for renewal, midcareer scientists are a shrinking part of the NIH investigator pool. Congress, too, is concerned and in the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act pressed NIH to take steps to help early-career investigators.

  • Angering animal welfare activists, Mauritius invites primate research labs to set up shop

    A photo of two macaques

    Mauritius's breeders established colonies from wild-caught macaques.


    The persistent fight by animal welfare activists to end nonhuman primate research has found its way to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. In the 1700s, Dutch and Portuguese seafarers introduced the long-tailed macaque to the island, where the animals thrived and, in recent decades, formed the basis of an export industry supplying biomedical labs in the developed world. Now, Mauritius has decided to get into the business of nonhuman primate experimentation itself even as such work is becoming increasingly constrained in North America and Europe. Last month the move touched off a heated debate in Mauritius's National Assembly about whether the government could adequately protect the macaques used in research and whether the new industry might endanger a far bigger lifeline for the island—tourism.

    The debate is reverberating overseas. Activists, led by London-based Cruelty Free International, see the influence of Mauritius's five monkey breeding companies behind the government's February step allowing licenses to be issued for local research on island-bred macaques. (The new regulations also allow rabbit and rodent studies.) They contend that the companies are alarmed by a successful, high-pressure campaign to discourage commercial airlines from flying nonhuman primates from source countries such as Mauritius to research centers—and are trying to hedge their bets. The London group also argues that the new regulations, which amend the country's Animal Welfare Act, are invalid because they don't further the purpose of the original legislation.

    Some scientists see it differently. Tipu Aziz, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who says he was obliged by stringent U.K. animal welfare regulations to abandon studies of Parkinson's disease in long-tailed macaques, commends Mauritius's effort as a "forward-thinking" attempt to build up its biotech sector. But, he says, "They've got a lot of work ahead of them" to attract drug studies and basic research, noting that China has already established sophisticated nonhuman primate research centers that are attractive to Western customers.

  • How science fares in the U.S. budget deal

    Senate wing of the United States Capitol building


    Congress has finally reached a deal on spending bills for the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. House of Representatives and Senate leaders announced last night that they expect lawmakers to vote this week on an agreement that wraps together all 12 appropriations bills that fund federal operations. For the past 7 months, the government has been operating under a continuing resolution that froze 2017 spending at most agencies at 2016 levels and generally prevented them from starting new programs. The new deal allows agencies to operate normally within the constraints of the spending plans, assuming that President Donald Trump signs the legislation (as is expected). It also averts a shutdown of the government that would have occurred next weekend if Congress failed to act in time.

    Overall, the deal staves off major cuts for federal science agencies that Trump had requested last month. A few, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA science programs, actually receive substantial increases.

    Below, the Science News staff provides some details:

  • Paper about how microplastics harm fish should be retracted, report says

    perch larva

    A perch larva’s stomach is filled with microplastics.

    Oona Lönnstedt

    It took more than 10 months, but today the scientists who blew the whistle on a paper in Science about the dangers of microplastics for fish have been vindicated. An expert group at Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) has concluded that the paper’s authors, Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University (UU), committed “scientific dishonesty” and says that Science should retract the paper, which appeared in June 2016.

    Science published an editorial expression of concern—which signals that a paper has come under suspicion—on 3 December 2016, and deputy editor Andrew Sugden says a retraction statement is now in preparation. (Science’s news department, which works independently of the journal’s editorial side, published a feature about the case in March.)

    The report comes as a “huge relief,” says UU’s Josefin Sundin, one of seven researchers in five countries who claimed the paper contained fabricated data shortly after it came out.

  • DOE freezes millions in high-tech energy grants and gags staff

    Molly Hanlon with advisor Kathleen Brown in lab

    Pennsylvania State University graduate student Molly Hanlon, right, had hoped Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy funds would fuel the next phase of her career. 

    Patrick Mansell/Penn State

    The Department of Energy (DOE) has stopped processing the paperwork on tens of millions of dollars in research that its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has agreed to fund.

    DOE officials aren't saying why they have taken this unusual step, dubbed a “no-contract action.” It went into effect earlier this month and affects more than a dozen projects across four new ARPA-E programs. The move, first reported by Politico Pro, includes a gag order on ARPA-E program managers, leaving investigators in the dark about the status of their grants. The resulting uncertainty is having a devastating impact on research teams, scientists say, and even threatens the viability of small companies for whom these major awards are so important.

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, is concerned that the apparent contracting freeze might violate federal laws requiring agencies to spend appropriations from Congress—in this case, the $291 million that ARPA-E received for the 2016 fiscal year that ended last September. On Wednesday she wrote to DOE Secretary Rick Perry reminding him that “diversion or impoundment of this money would be contrary to law” and asking him whether the agency “is currently subject to a ‘no-contract action’ or similar action and, if so what the parameters are.”

  • Human vaccine data release jump-starts biotech’s bid for RNA drugs

    messenger RNA

    The biotech Moderna delivers messenger RNA (blue) into cells to be translated into proteins by ribosomes.

    V. Altounian/Science

    Originally published by Endpoints News.

    The executive team at Moderna raised a cheer today after publishing their first early snapshot of human efficacy data that demonstrate their messenger RNA tech works — at least on the first try.

    The biotech tested their H10N8 flu vaccine on a small group of 31 subjects, looking at their response in two different measures. All demonstrated a sufficient immune response to fight off the virus in the first measure, and all but 3 in the second, for a total of 23 who received the vaccine.  None of the 8 subjects who received a placebo responded.

  • Marine Le Pen is a ‘terrible danger,’ French research leaders say

    Marine Le Pen celebrates after early results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election

    Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, celebrating results from the first election round on 23 April.

    Charles Platiau/REUTERS

    The French science and higher education community appears virtually united in its opposition against Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who could become France’s next president during the second round of elections on 7 May. In an unprecedented letter issued yesterday, the directors of nine major public research institutes describe Le Pen’s candidacy as a “terrible danger” and call on voters not to support her.

    “The program of Ms Le Pen promises recession and decline on all fronts: economic, social, and of course scientific,” the nine say in the statement, which was sent to French news agency AFP yesterday. Among the signatories are the directors of the national research agency CNRS, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and the National Institute for Agricultural Research.

    Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, won 21.3% of the vote in the first round on 23 April, slightly less than political newcomer and pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron, who got 24%. (France’s traditional parties all did worse, as did a far-left candidate.) Macron and Le Pen have sketchy programs on science, but their world views could not be farther apart. Le Pen’s proposals to curtail immigration and take France out of European treaties are very unpopular in academic circles.

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