Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Firing of veteran NIH scientist prompts protests over publication ban

    Brain activity on a 3D brain surface

    Allen Braun's federal lab spent decades studying brain activity during stuttering, reciting, or listening to poetry (above), and normal language processing but he was fired last year, and the use of his data has been prohibited, sparking protests from Braun's collaborators.

    At least two dozen junior and senior researchers are stuck in scientific limbo after being barred from publishing data collected over a 25-year period at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) lab. The unusual ban follows the firing last summer of veteran neurologist Allen Braun by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) for what many scientists have told Science are relatively minor, if widespread, violations of his lab’s experimental protocol.

    Most of the violations, which were unearthed after Braun himself reported a problem, involve the prescreening or vetting of volunteers for brain imaging scans and other experiments on language processing. The fallout from the case was recently chronicled on a blog by one of Braun’s former postdocs, and it highlights a not-uncommon problem across science: the career harm to innocent junior investigators following lab misconduct or accidental violations on the part of senior scientists. But this case, say those familiar with it, is extreme.

    “We’re truly collateral damage,” says Nan Bernstein Ratner of the University of Maryland in College Park, who researches stuttering. She spent 5 years collaborating with Braun. Now, two of her graduate students have had to shift their master’s theses topics, and an undergraduate she mentored cannot publish a planned paper. “The process has been—you can use this term—surreal.”

  • Online university leads United States in awarding doctorates to blacks

    Kitty and Abdulla Warsame

    Kitty and Abdulla Warsame celebrate the Walden doctorate she earned in 2011.

    Courtesy of Kitty Warsame

    An online, for-profit university is doing something that has long eluded brick-and-mortar institutions in the United States: awarding advanced degrees to significant numbers of black students.

    New data from the latest Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Science Foundation (NSF) document how Walden University, which has its academic headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is far outpacing every other U.S. university in serving this population. At the same time, Walden’s success won’t improve faculty diversity, one of the holy grails of U.S. higher education, until traditional brick-and-mortar institutions become more accepting of online degrees.

    Founded in 1970, Walden ranks first by a wide margin among all U.S. universities in doctoral degrees awarded to black students, NSF reports. Its total of 682 degrees from 2011 through 2015 is nearly twice the number awarded by second-place Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. Every other university lags far behind. Walden’s 5-year total is six times the number awarded by such large state institutions as the University of Illinois in Urbana, and Michigan State University in East Lansing.

  • To avoid risk of misfire, NASA's Juno probe will keep its distance from Jupiter

    Jupiter’s south pole

    The swirling atmosphere over Jupiter’s south pole, captured by Juno on 2 February.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino

    NASA’s Juno spacecraft will remain in 53-day-long orbits around Jupiter, rather than attempting to shift closer to the planet and risk a misfire of its balky engine, the agency announced today. The longer orbits should not jeopardize the spacecraft’s scientific mission, which could now stretch until 2021, as long as its systems stay operational and funding remains.

    Juno arrived at Jupiter this past July, and the original plan for the $1.1 billion spacecraft had it passing through two longer orbits before firing its engine once again to end up in 14-day orbits for the majority of its mission. However, when preparing for the maneuver in October 2016, two helium valves in Juno’s propulsion system did not pressurize properly, prompting NASA to delay the October burn. Ultimately, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, could not find a fix that would not risk Juno’s scientific goals.

    In its current, longer orbit, Juno approaches Jupiter as closely as it would have in the shorter, 14-day traverse, zipping 4100 kilometers above its clouds, allowing similar measurements. Indeed, “The science opportunities are truly better in the longer orbit,” says Scott Bolton, the project’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to its planned measures of Jupiter’s gravity, used to probe its cloud-shrouded interior structure, and gauging the planet’s water on its close approaches, Juno will take its extra time to measure the farther reaches of the planet’s magnetosphere—“bonus science,” the agency said.

  • Bird flu strain taking a toll on humans

    A quarantine researcher checks on a chicken at a poultry farm

    A quarantine researcher checks on a chicken at a poultry farm in Hubei province in China earlier this month.


    SHANGHAI, CHINA—An avian influenza virus that emerged in 2013 is suddenly spreading widely in China, causing a sharp spike in human infections and deaths. Last month alone it sickened 192 people, killing 79, according to an announcement this week by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission in Beijing.

    The surge in human cases is cause for alarm, says Guan Yi, an expert in emerging viral diseases at the University of Hong Kong in China. "We are facing the largest pandemic threat in the last 100 years," he says.

    As of 16 January, the cumulative toll from H7N9 was 918 laboratory-confirmed human infections and 359 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite its high mortality rate, H7N9 had gotten less attention of late than two other new strains—H5N8 and H5N6—that have spread swiftly, killing or forcing authorities to cull millions of poultry. But so far, H5N8 has apparently not infected people; H5N6 has caused 14 human infections and six deaths.

  • India eyes a return to Mars and a first run at Venus

    daybreak on mars

    India’s government has given the green light to a second mission to Mars.


    NEW DELHI—The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) may put a lander on Mars in 2021 or 2022 and send an orbiter to Venus shortly thereafter. “The government has given us a go ahead for the planning of the missions,” ISRO Chairman A. S. Kiran Kumar in Bengaluru told ScienceInsider.

    India was the first nation to successfully reach the Red Planet on its first attempt when the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan, entered orbit in 2014. The spacecraft continues to beam data back to mission control in Bengaluru; one of its stunning images of Mars graced the cover of last November’s issue of National Geographic. But the “technology demonstrator,” as ISRO calls MOM, has delivered only minimally on science expectations, critics say. For example, its methane sensor apparently has failed to detect methane plumes in the martian atmosphere. “Mangalyaan was a marvel in engineering, but no exciting science came out of [it] since the experiments and instruments themselves were mediocre,” says U. R. Rao, chairman of ISRO’s science advisory committee and a former ISRO chief. “Small instruments give small science,” he says.

    The Indian government gave the Mars reprise a green light in its 2017 budget proposal released this month. ISRO is promising a major science upgrade for its second mission, which it plans to undertake with France. "The next step has to be a lander. A lander on Mars is not easy, but it will be interesting to undertake," says Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), France’s space agency, in Paris.

  • Top U.S. universities host 10,000 students and researchers from nations covered by Trump travel ban

    A handwritten placard saying immigrants are welcome here.

    The Trump administration's immigration policies have sparked public debate and protest.

    @iamsdawson/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Sixty top U.S. research universities have roughly 10,000 students and researchers on campus from the seven countries covered in the travel ban announced last month by President Donald Trump.

    The new data are included in an amicus brief filed yesterday by the Association of American Universities (AAU) in a suit pending before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Darweesh v.Trump). Several tables included in the brief detail the number of students, faculty members, postdocs, and other researchers from the seven Muslim-majority nations at 23 universities that are members of AAU (see graph, below). Last week a federal appellate court in San Francisco, California, blocked implementation of the 27 January executive order, which the Trump administration says it will reissue next week in a way that it hopes will pass legal muster.

    The AAU brief argues that one big reason U.S. higher education is the envy of the world is its “ability to attract the very best students and faculty from the United States and other countries.” That ability, in turn, “depends on ensuring predictable travel to and from the United States.” Any obstacle to the free flow of people and ideas, the brief asserts, could jeopardize U.S. global leadership in higher education and research.

  • France should do more to help scientists become entrepreneurs, report says

    A scientist at work at the Laboratory for Irradiated Solids at the École Polytechnique near Paris.

    A scientist at work at the Laboratory for Irradiated Solids at the École Polytechnique near Paris.

    École Polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    France isn't the hotbed of innovation it would like to be, and one reason is that scientific research has traditionally been done by public servants, who rarely start a company to turn their discoveries into new products or services. A 1999 law that aimed to change that by stimulating entrepreneurship has not had the intended effects, according to a report released on Tuesday.

    The report recommends relaxing the rules for academics who want to embark on a commercial adventure, rewarding those who file patents, and giving entrepreneurial scientists more recognition.

    Judged solely by the number of patent filings, France may seem quite an entrepreneurial country; it ranks sixth globally, according to the latest figures from the World Intellectual Property Organization. But public researchers are often loath to become entrepreneurs. The French government asked Jean-Luc Beylat, president of Nokia Bell Labs France in Paris, and Pierre Tambourin, general director of the biocluster Genopole in Evry, to review the so-called Allègre Law of 1999, which sought to make it easier for scientists to engage in entrepreneurship, as well as similar initiatives.

  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says a ‘vaccine safety’ commission is still in the works

    Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The vocal vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is still talking with President Donald Trump’s administration about establishing a commission to look into vaccine safety, Kennedy said today at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

    “I have been contacted three times by the administration since [10 January] and they tell me that they are still going forward with a commission,” Kennedy said. Kennedy did not specify who in the administration had contacted him.

    Kennedy was summoned on 10 January to meet with the then–president elect and emerged from Trump Tower in New York City to tell the press that Trump had asked him to head a “vaccine safety and scientific integrity" commission. Within hours a Trump spokesperson qualified Kennedy’s statements, saying the president “is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism … however no decisions have been made.” The spokesperson added that Trump was discussing “all aspects of autism with many groups and individuals.”

  • Gates Foundation strikes deal to allow its researchers to publish in Science journals

    Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters

    The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

    Marc Smith/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    An unusual and perhaps precedent-setting deal will enable researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to comply with a foundation requirement that they publish their papers only in free, open-access (OA) journals, but still publish in the Science family of subscription journals, which typically keep content behind a paywall for a year.

    Under the deal, announced yesterday, the foundation will award $100,000 to AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) to enable the publisher to make any paper by a Gates Foundation–funded researcher published in 2017 immediately available for free online. The deal covers Science and four sister subscription journals: Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, Science Immunology, and Science Robotics. (AAAS also publishes Science Advances, an OA journal.) The arrangement is provisional and will be revisited in 2018.

    The deal is likely to affect only a handful of papers. The five journals published just 12 papers by Gates Foundation–funded researchers in 2015, and seven in 2016, according to an AAAS spokesperson. But it could spur a greater number of submissions and publications from researchers funded by Gates, the spokesperson added. 

  • Round one of CRISPR patent legal battle goes to the Broad Institute

    Sketch of court hearing regarding CRISPR

    University of California attorney Todd Walters addresses the three judges presiding over the CRISPR patent hearing.

    Dana Verkouteren

    The U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled today in favor of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the initial legal step of a high stakes battle over who will control the valuable intellectual property linked to CRISPR, the powerful genome-editing tool. The decision may be appealed by the University of California (UC), however, which last year requested the “interference” from the patent board because it contends that a team of scientists it represented invented the technology and that the Broad researchers piggybacked on their discovery.

    The patent board decision declared “Broad has persuaded us that the parties claim patentably distinct subject matter, rebutting the presumption created by declaration of this interference." Jacob Sherkow, an intellectual property attorney at the New York Law School in New York City, says the decision could be “a decisive knock out for the Broad.” He says he now expects UC to take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

    Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley structural biologist, also still has a patent pending for the CRISPR invention. UC in May 2012 filed a patent for Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier (then of Umeå University in Sweden), and their colleagues for their discovery that CRISPR, an immune system used by bacteria, could serve as a genome-editing tool in any type of cell. But the Doudna/Charpentier team, as they reported in a landmark paper published online by Science on 28 June 2012, at that point had only used CRISPR to cut DNA in test tube studies. In contrast, a team led by the Broad’s Feng Zhang reported in the 3 January 2013 online edition of Science that it had used CRISPR to cut DNA in human cells, opening the door for the tool to be used in medicine.

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