ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Global climate science group ponders effort to recruit more female authors

    Several speakers with microphones before the logo of the IPCC.

    A meeting of the International Panel on Climate Change in Denmark in 2014.

    IPCC

    The world’s leading climate science body is expected to decide this week on whether to establish a new task force on promoting gender equity within the male-dominated group. The move comes on the heels of a study finding that although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has increased the proportion of women involved in writing its authoritative reports, barriers to participation remain.

    IPCC, an international organization founded in 1988 by the United Nations, is best known for its lengthy, periodic reports assessing climate science and policy options for curbing global warming. The hundreds of authors that produce the reports are nominated by member governments and others. But just 2% of the authors of IPCC’s first report in 1990 were women, reported a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). That share had increased to 23% by 2013, when its fifth report was being written, the survey found.

    In 2015, the United Nations put a spotlight on improving gender equity within its programs, and IPCC moved to sponsor discussions of the issue. At one meeting held last September in Montreal, Canada, geographer Diana Liverman of The University of Arizona (UA) in Tuscon, an IPCC participant for 2 decades, presented the results of the PNAS survey. She and lead author Miriam Gay-Antaki, a geography doctoral student at UA, had sent the questionnaire to 223 women who had served as IPCC authors from 1990 to 2013.

  • Scientists beware: The price is high, the payoff uncertain at glossy publications aimed at Europe’s decision-makers

    Covers of SciTech Europa Quarterly, Health Europa Quarterly, Government Europa Quarterly

    Covers of publications produced by Pan European Networks, which some EU officials worry look too much like official publications.

    Pan European Networks

    Last July, Marcel van der Heyden, a molecular biologist at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, got a cold call with an intriguing offer. Would Van der Heyden be interested in writing up some of his laboratory’s work, the caller asked, to be included in a glossy publication aimed at some of Europe’s most senior science decision-makers?

    Intrigued, Van der Heyden began asking questions. But when he learned he would have to pay about ₤9000 ($12,400) to publish the two-page profile, “I immediately hit the brake,” he says. He said he would have to think it over, but the caller persisted. “I was told I had to decide rapidly, because their board meeting was about to start. He offered me a large discount if I would decide immediately.”

    Van der Heyden isn’t the only European researcher to get such a hard sell from Pan European Networks (PEN), a 6-year-old publishing company with offices in Congleton, U.K., and Brussels that promises to provide opportunities for “leading figures from across Europe” to get attention for their work or ideas. Many other scientists had similar experiences, Van der Heyden discovered when he started poking around on blogs and Twitter, including the promise of attention from decision-makers and the warning about the imminent board meeting. Some also said that PEN suggested it is directly affiliated with EU agencies. (PEN declined to answer questions from Science.)

  • Stephen Hawking, who shined a light on black holes, dies at age 76

    Stephen Hawking

    Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous scientist since Albert Einstein, was an inspiration to people around the world.

    Tom Pilston /eyevine/Redux

    Stephen Hawking, the prodigious British theoretical cosmologist who became an international celebrity, died at his home in Cambridge, U.K., early today, at the age of 76. Hawking, who spent his entire career at the University of Cambridge, suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease with which he was diagnosed in his 20s. The disease confined Hawking to a wheelchair for most of his adult life and eventually rendered him capable of speaking only through a computer-controlled voice synthesizer. Nevertheless, Hawking made seminal contributions to astrophysics, particularly in the study of black holes, veritable holes in the fabric of the universe.

    “Stephen was far from being the archetype unworldly or nerdish scientist—his personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps,” Martin Rees, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge, and the United Kingdom’s astronomer royal, said in a statement. “He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions.”

    Scientifically, Hawking’s name will forever be tied to black holes, the ultraintense gravitational fields left behind when massive stars collapse under their own gravity into infinitesimal points. Within a certain distance of the point, which defines the black hole’s event horizon, gravity grows so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. That fact suggested that the bizarre objects would be completely black.

  • Science ‘champion’ Dan Lipinski faces tough race in Illinois primary

    Dan Lipinski

    Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL)

    Brian Kersey/AP Photo

    (Update, 21 March: Lipinski narrowly defeated Marie Newman, who had hoped her pro-choice, progressive agenda would resonate in this solidly Democrat district. The 7-term incumbent, a former political science professor and staunch supporter of academic research, now has clear sailing in November.)

    Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL)—an antiabortion Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act and who only recently has embraced a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—knows that he’s out of step with progressives on many social issues. Next week, Lipinski will find out whether voters in Illinois’s third congressional district on Chicago’s southwest side feel there’s still room for him in the Democratic Party. If the seven-term legislator loses his primary race to the more liberal Marie Newman, his defeat would also silence one of the most vocal and persistent advocates for research in Congress.

    Newman, a business consultant and former advertising executive, represents Lipinski’s stiffest challenge since he succeeded his father, Bill, who retired in 2004 after serving 11 terms in Congress. Newman is backed by former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I–VT), as well as by abortion rights organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the National Organization of Women, and EMILY’s List.

  • China’s government shake-up could have big payoffs for public health, environment

    Chinese man smoking

    Under a reshuffle, China’s health ministry would take charge of antismoking efforts.

    iStockPhoto/pidjoe

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—China today unveiled a sweeping revamp of its bureaucracy that is expected to reap benefits for public health, the environment, and combatting climate change—while raising questions about the management of basic research.

    The draft plan, which is expected to be adopted in the next few days by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, would resolve one long-standing conflict of interest that has undermined efforts to discourage smoking. Tobacco control has long been under the purview of the industry ministry, which also manages China’s hugely profitable tobacco monopoly. As part of the overhaul, the health ministry would assume responsibility for cutting smoking. “It’s potentially a real breakthrough moment,” says Angela Pratt, a World Health Organization official in Manila who previously headed the organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative in China. Putting the health ministry in charge “removes one block to progress” toward achieving taxation and smoking restriction policies that were strangled by the tobacco industry, she says.

    China would also take a fresh approach to environmental issues. The plan would create a Ministry of Ecological Environment: a “positive development” that would put a single entity in charge of policies related to climate change, water resource management, and pollution, says Dabo Guan, a climate change economist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.

  • NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot to retire

    Acting NASA administrator Robert Lighfoot

    Robert Lighfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, testifies before Congress earlier this year.

    NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, who has led the agency since January 2017, announced today that he will be retiring effective 30 April. The move places pressure on President Donald Trump’s administration and the Senate to secure long-term leadership for the agency.

    Last September, the White House nominated Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to lead NASA. Bridenstine's nomination has been advanced by the committee overseeing the agency, but it has stalled in the Senate because of opposition from Democrats and, especially, two senators from Florida, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R). Both have expressed their preference that a “space professional” lead the agency.

    Rubio also has personal reasons to oppose the nomination: Bridenstine actively opposed his 2016 presidential bid in campaign ads for Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX). This is the real reason for Rubio's blockade, according to Senator Jim Inhofe (R–OK), who spoke to The Oklahoman for an article published today. “He doesn't like Jim Bridenstine,” Inhofe said while recounting a recent conversation he had with Rubio. “I said, ‘What do I have to do or what do we have to do to get you to stand back and let him into this job?' [Rubio] said, ‘Not a chance. I'm not going to do it.' Those are his words.”

    Rubio’s opposition, and the absence of Senator John McCain (R–AZ), who is undergoing cancer treatment, means the Senate lacks the necessary 50 votes to confirm Bridenstine. Senate Democrats have flatly opposed his nomination, citing remarks he has made in the past expressing skepticism about human contributions to climate change.

  • A survey on scientific integrity in the U.S. government was marked as spam. It wasn’t

    The headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., a limestone building with columns.

    The headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

    Ken Lund/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News.

    A periodic survey of U.S. federal scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month.

    For the ninth time since 2005, the science advocacy group sent out a survey to more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 agencies to gather information about what's happening inside the federal government in relation to scientific integrity.

  • Oncologist Jason Westin looks back—and ahead—after defeat in Texas primary

    Portrait of Jason Westin

    Jason Westin

    Jason Westin for Congress

    As election day neared, Jason Westin thought he had a good shot at keeping his bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress alive.

    Informal polling showed that Westin, a clinical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, was running second to attorney Lizzie Fletcher in a crowded race to choose a Democratic standard bearer for the seventh congressional district in Texas. Assuming the winner didn’t capture a majority of the vote, second place would have been good enough to get Westin into a May runoff for the chance to unseat Representative John Culberson, a nine-term Republican who chairs a spending panel that shapes the budgets of several federal research agencies.

    But Westin, a first-time candidate, was about to learn a hard lesson, namely, that a candidate’s fate can be determined by events beyond his or her control. Twelve days before the 6 March primary, national Democratic Party leaders attacked one of his opponents, Laura Moser, saying she was too liberal to beat Culberson in the November general election.

  • There’s a fairer way to allot seats in the European Parliament, mathematicians say—but politicians don’t like it

    several members of the European Parliament, some raising their hands to vote

    Bigger countries have more seats in the European Parliament than smaller ones, but the number isn’t directly proportional to population size.

    Vincent Kressler/Reuters

    Dissatisfaction with the European Union is on the rise, as Sunday’s elections in Italy showed. Now, even some mathematicians are mad at Brussels. In a paper uploaded recently to the arXiv server, Friedrich Pukelsheim of the University of Augsburg in Germany and Geoffrey Grimmett of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom decry the European Parliament’s reallocation of seats from the departing United Kingdom to other EU member states.

    The duo complains that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have ignored their own long-standing aim to assign seats using a clean, transparent formula, instead reverting to a more familiar approach: bargaining behind closed doors. That is bad news for European democracy, the mathematicians say, because it means that midsize countries are overrepresented in the Parliament. In their paper, they bemoan what they see as MEPs’ failure to explain how they converted population figures into seats. The Parliament, the pair writes, has missed an opportunity “to proceed from the dark ages to an era of enlightenment.”

    A formula “pleases us, the academics, because it is a systematic way of responding to inevitable population changes,” Pukelsheim tells Science. “But it is frowned upon by politicians.”

  • Behavioral ‘violations’ cost prominent neuroscientist positions at Columbia, HHMI

    Thomas Jessell

    Prominent neuroscientist Tom Jessell, pictured in 2008 after winning the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, was ousted earlier this month by Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for unspecified behavioral violations.

    Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times/Redux

    Prominent Columbia University neuroscientist Tom Jessell, 66, has been fired for “serious [behavioral] violations” and the university is closing his lab, the New York City institution said in a statement yesterday. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which effectively employed Jessell, a leader in understanding neural development, also terminated him as an investigator last week because he “violated HHMI policy,” according to a statement from the institute.

    Neither institution will reveal Jessell’s transgressions or say what policies he violated. Columbia said only:

    Columbia has ended the administrative positions of Dr. Thomas Jessell and will be winding down the Jessell lab at [Columbia University Medical Center]. These decisions follow an investigation that revealed serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members in an academic environment. The University will fulfill its responsibility to close the lab in a manner that both preserves valuable research and helps those involved to continue to pursue their careers. Dr. Jessell has been out of the lab since the investigation began.

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