Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Data check: NSF sends Congress a garbled message on misconduct numbers

    black and white bottles

    Bill Dickinson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    When a senior National Science Foundation (NSF) official told the House of Representatives science committee this month about a “significant rise in the number of substantive allegations” of research misconduct, her testimony set off alarm bells.

    Legislators from both parties were clearly disturbed by this trend, which had led to three dozen findings of misconduct a year, and asked what the Arlington, Virginia–based NSF was doing about it. Committee Republicans unhappy with NSF’s current system of awarding grants saw her words as further proof that Congress needs to keep a closer eye on the $7.5 billion agency.

    Well, it turns out there is no such trend, and the overall size of the problem had been greatly exaggerated. Within days of her appearance at a 9 March hearing to discuss NSF’s business practices, NSF Inspector General Allison Lerner admitted as much in a two-page memo to committee Democrats. But her flawed testimony could rekindle a long-simmering debate over the government’s approach to research misconduct.

  • Climate doubters gather, call for killing EPA's finding that carbon dioxide endangers public health

    Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.

    Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.


    Originally published by E&E News

    The most important message to send the Trump administration and Capitol Hill right now: The 2009 finding that carbon dioxide endangers public health "must go."

    Advisers to the Trump administration's transition team at U.S. EPA and other long-established climate contrarians repeated that mantra for the past 36 hours at the Heartland Institute's 12th annual International Conference on Climate Change.

  • Lamar Smith, unbound, lays out political strategy at climate doubters’ conference

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) rarely expresses his true feelings in public. But speaking yesterday to a like-minded crowd of climate change doubters and skeptics, the chairman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledged that the committee is now a tool to advance his political agenda rather than a forum to examine important issues facing the U.S. research community.

    “Next week we’re going to have a hearing on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists,” Smith told the Heartland Institute’s 12th annual conference on climate change in Washington, D.C. The audience cheered loudly as Smith read the names of three witnesses—climate scientist Judith Curry, who recently retired from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; policy specialist Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado in Boulder; and John Christy, a professor of earth system science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville—he expects to support his view that climate change is a politically driven fabrication and that taking steps to mitigate its impact will harm the U.S. economy.

    Then boos filled the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., after Smith mentioned the fourth witness—Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Pennsylvania State University in State College and a frequent target of climate change doubters. “That’s why this hearing is going to be so much fun,” Smith said with a huge grin on his normally impassive face.

  • Update: After quick review, medical school says no evidence Monsanto ghostwrote professor's paper


    Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide has been the focus of a long running controversy over whether it poses a cancer risk to humans.

    Mike Mozart/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    After a quick investigation, officials at a medical school in New York State say they have found "no evidence" that a faculty member violated the school's prohibition against authoring a paper ghostwritten by others. The statement came one day after ScienceInsider reported that New York Medical College (NYMC) in Valhalla, New York, would examine a researcher who, according to internal documents released last week by a federal court in California, put his name on a 2000 paper partially ghostwritten by employees at Monsanto, the giant agricultural chemicals company based in St. Louis, Missouri. 

    An NYMC spokesperson declined to provide details of how it conducted its investigation, saying in a statement that NYMC "does not disclose details of its internal investigations, but the college does consider the matter in question to be closed." (The school later amended its statement, adding: "If new information is provided to us, we will evaluate it. If not, we have no further comment.")

    At issue is a 2000 paper published in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.  It concluded that a review of studies of one of Monsanto’s most successful products, the widely-used herbicide Roundup, showed no evidence of harmful effects on people.The lead author on the paper is Gary Williams, a pathologist at NYMC. His last name appears briefly in documents unsealed last week as part of a lawsuit against Monsanto by people alleging they developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from exposure to Roundup and its primary ingredient, glyphosate.

  • Research stays frozen in Canadian budget

    Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau trying on new shoes

    Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau tries on his new shoes—a budget day tradition—while meeting with children at Nelson Mandela Public Park School in Toronto.

    Department of Finance Canada

    OTTAWA—Wind chills here approached -30°C as Finance Minister Bill Morneau unveiled the Liberal government’s second budget on Wednesday. Spring may eventually arrive in Canada’s capital, but the deep freeze for Canada’s research community will continue into fiscal 2017–18 as the granting councils received no significant boosts in funding.

    Overall, Morneau’s budget proposes an $11.3 billion spending increase, to $247.7 billion. But at best, academic researchers can hope to tap modest monies either allocated or reprofiled for a bevy of national programs generally aimed at promoting “innovation,” particularly through partnerships between industry and universities, or from several smaller, boutique initiatives, such as one to develop a national action plan to respond to health risks posed by climate change.

    Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council at $547 million.

  • India neutrino lab dealt a serious blow

    Bodi West Hills where the INO is supposed to be sited

    The Bodi West Hills, where the India-based Neutrino Observatory is supposed to be sited.

    courtesy of MVN MURTHY

    NEW DELHI—India’s plans for a world-class neutrino facility have hit a serious roadblock. Regulators this week directed the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) to seek new environmental permits, pushing the long-delayed facility’s completion further into the future—and further jeopardizing its hopes of making an important discovery.

    Perhaps the most expensive basic science project India has ever contemplated, the $220 million INO would be installed deep under a mountain in southern India. It aims to solve the neutrino mass hierarchy: to determine, that is, which of the three types of neutrinos is heaviest and which is lightest. That arcane knowledge would allow physicists to probe long-standing mysteries such as how neutrinos acquire mass and why the universe has so much more matter than antimatter.

    Indian physicists originally hoped to have the INO up and running by 2012. That target evaporated in 2009, when India’s environment ministry denied permission to construct the INO on the edge of prime elephant habitat in Tamil Nadu state. The project team then found an alternative site in the Bodi West Hills, also in Tamil Nadu. Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the INO in January 2015, and a new completion date was set for 2020.

  • Research is an afterthought in first Trump budget

    workers installing PV modules

    ARPA-E, set up to fund high-risk research on solar and other energy technologies, could face elimination.

    Dennis Schroeder/NREL

    The 2018 budget proposal that President Donald Trump unveiled last week confirms two things that U.S. scientists have long suspected: The new president is no fan of research, and his administration has no overarching strategy for funding science.

    Deep proposed cuts to research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offer evidence that Trump doesn’t see science—of any kind—as a spending priority. And along with neglect there’s indifference. The budget blueprint says nothing about spending at the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example. It’s also silent on the research portfolios of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although science advocates are not sanguine about their prospects.

    Trump’s vision for the 2018 fiscal year that begins on 1 October is outlined in a 62-page “skinny budget” that will be fleshed out in May. But it may never come to pass. Senior members of both the Senate and House of Representatives appropriations committees have already voiced grave doubts about the NIH cuts, for instance, and Democrats have unanimously decried the proposed assaults on environmental research. Even so, Trump’s plan demonstrates that selling the White House on the value of research to the country could be a formidable challenge.

  • Advocates say bump-up for Census Bureau won’t keep it on track for 2020

    map showing income by county across the United States

    (GRAPHIC) G. Grullón/Science; (DATA) U.S. Census Bureau

    The Census Bureau was labeled as one of the few “winners” in the 2018 budget blueprint from President Donald Trump because a proposed 10% hike contrasted with the deep cuts at most civilian agencies. But advocates for the government’s largest statistical agency say that view is very misleading, and that Trump’s request for an additional $130 million actually jeopardizes the upcoming decennial census and other important surveys.

    “It’s troubling and irresponsible,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer and veteran census watcher. “If the president's $1.5 billion proposed budget for the Census Bureau were to stand, not only would the success of the 2020 census be threatened, but other irreplaceable surveys likely would be on the chopping block.”

    Her criticism is based on the agency’s unusual 10-year budget cycle. It balloons as the bureau gears up for the next census, and then plummets once the head count is completed. The agency is now in ramp-up mode, as acknowledged by the 20% increase for 2017 requested by the outgoing Obama administration, to $1.63 billion. And that boost assumed planned savings of $5 billion from a heavier reliance on electronic data collection and greater use of existing records. Those changes are aimed at satisfying a congressional mandate that the price tag for the 2020 census should not exceed the $13 billion spent on the 2010 exercise, the first such ceiling in the bureau’s history.

  • Trump’s NIH budget may include reducing overhead payments to universities

    Lab mice

    Federal funding for the indirect costs of research, such as caring for these mice at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, could be reduced under President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

    Purdue Agricultural Communications Service photo/Tom Campbell

    The Trump administration may be planning to help pay for a massive 18% cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by slashing payments to universities and research institutes for overhead costs, ScienceInsider has learned.

    The proposed budget released by the White House yesterday, for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October, contains a brief paragraph describing a $5.8 billion cut to NIH’s current $31.7 billion budget, as well as plans to reorganize the agency. The paragraph ends with this sentence: “The Budget also reduces administrative costs and rebalances Federal contributions to research funding.”

    According to a source close to the Trump administration, the sentence refers to plans to attack so-called indirect costs. That is money universities receive from NIH and other agencies to cover the expenses associated with conducting federally funded research. Indirect costs include everything from paying the utility bills for a faculty member’s lab to the salaries of the staff needed to comply with federal rules on using animals in research. 

  • San people of Africa draft code of ethics for researchers

    A family of San Bushmen walking through a grassland at dawn

    Researchers have eagerly studied Africa’s San people, some of whom are shown here foraging in a grassland. Now, the San have drawn up a code of ethics to govern scientists’ interactions with them.

    JASON EDWARDS/National Geographic Creative

    CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—Scientists have studied the San people of Southern Africa for decades, intrigued by their age-old rituals and ancient genetic fingerprints. Now, after more than a century of being scrutinized by science, the San are demanding something back. Earlier this month the group unveiled a code of ethics for researchers wishing to study their culture, genes, or heritage.

    The code, published here on 3 March, asks researchers to treat the San respectfully and refrain from publishing information that could be viewed as insulting. Because such sensitivities may not be clear to researchers, the code asks that scientists let communities read and comment on findings before they are published. It also asks that researchers keep their promises and give something back to the community in return for its cooperation.

     “We’re not saying that everybody is bad. But you get those few individuals who don’t respect the San,” says Leana Snyders, head of the South African San Council in Upington, which helped create the code.

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