Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Mexican scientists feel the Trump effect

    Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Donald Trump speak on stage

    Bad blood between the presidents of Mexico and the United States could poison science cooperation.

    Bloomberg/Contributor/getty images

    MEXICO CITY—For Andrés Moreno-Estrada, the news was welcome but the timing, terrible. Moreno-Estrada, who hunts for genetic variations linked to disease, recently learned that he had won a 13-million-peso grant from Mexico and the United Kingdom to sequence DNA from blood samples in a public health biobank. But 13 million pesos isn’t what it was before Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency. When the population geneticist at the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity (LANGEBIO) in Irapuato, Mexico, submitted his proposal in November 2015, the exchange rate was 16 pesos to the dollar, and his grant would have been worth $812,500. Now, the rate is 21 pesos to the dollar. “There’s no way I can do what I committed to,” he says, unless he raises more money.

    The fall of the peso, provoked in part by Trump’s insistence on building a border wall and making Mexico pay for it, is one contributor to the waves of angst sweeping through the Mexican science community. “Every time Trump tweets something about Mexico, the peso takes a hit,” says Daniela Robles-Espinoza, a cancer geneticist who is outfitting a new lab at the International Laboratory for Human Genome Research in Juriquilla, Mexico. As the dollar value of grants shrinks, so does buying power: Mexican scientists purchase most of the research materials and equipment they use from the United States. The peso depreciation also strains Mexican scientists hoping to travel to international conferences or publish in journals that require publication fees.

    Trump’s harsh stance toward Mexico has made scientists here nervous about the fate of U.S. funding for cross-border collaborations. “The worry is that [Trump] will limit, or perhaps end, some of the academic exchange we have,” either through new regulations or by cutting off money for collaborations, says Jaime Urrutia-Fucugauchi, a geophysicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) here and president of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. The U.S. National Science Foundation currently supports about 200 projects with Mexican collaborators. Mexico’s National Council for Science Technology (Conacyt) said in a statement that “it is an opportune moment” to expand collaborations with other countries including the European Union and China.

  • Building a wall around Mexican science? The ScienceInsider briefing

    A boy peers through the Mexican side of the border fence near Tijuana.

    A boy peers through the Mexican side of the border fence near Tijuana.

    Michael Dwyer/Alamy Stock Photo

    Day 12 of the new U.S. administration is shaping up to be no less exciting than days one through 11. The White House this afternoon sent out a “stay tuned” memo to announce U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court this evening. Meanwhile, officials at the departments of justice, state, and homeland security are scrambling to make sense of the fallout from Trump’s sweeping executive order on immigration. How are scientists faring in the meantime? Read on!

  • The ScienceInsider briefing: How Trump’s immigration order affects scientists

    A student fills a beaker, while her adviser, a Yemeni-born U.S. citizen, looks on.

    Nasser Zawia, a neuroscientist of Yemeni origin and a naturalized U.S. citizen, oversees recruitment of international graduate students at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

    The University of Rhode Island/Joe Giblin

    It’s been that sort of week, hasn’t it? Just 10 days into the new U.S. presidential administration, and the executive actions are pouring in fast and thick: Build that wall. Abandon the Affordable Care Act. And don’t forget to suspend immigration to the United States from “terror-prone regions.” The immigration orders in particular have filled the global scientific community with uncertainty. No less confusing was a series of policy zigzags last week by U.S. science agencies, from so-called gag orders at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to a climate change meeting that was quietly quashed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before being resurrected—a bit less quietly—by outside groups. Feeling whiplashed yet?

    That’s why we’ve put together the first of what will be ScienceInsider’s periodic roundups on President Donald Trump and other policy makers shaking up science. And we’d love your input! Please let us know what else we should be sharing with our readers through the email address at the bottom of this briefing.

  • Scientists ‘partly to blame’ for skepticism of evidence in policymaking, says AAAS CEO

    South façade of the White House

    The White House

    © Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons

    A U.S. president needs more than access to high-quality technical experts to deal with the inevitable science-related global crisis—a new outbreak of avian flu in Southeast Asia, say, or a tsunami triggered by an earthquake off the Chilean coast—that could occur at any time, says AAAS CEO Rush Holt. The president also must believe that scientific evidence is useful in setting government policy.

    But Holt is worried that the new Trump administration doesn’t subscribe to that second condition. And scientists are partly to blame for what he sees as the growing devaluation of evidence by U.S. policymakers, Holt suggested this past Saturday in remarks at the winter meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C.

    “How did we get to this point?” says Holt, a physicist who served 16 years in Congress before taking the top job at AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) in 2015. “Too often, we scientists have presented the evidence in a way that was condescending and hierarchical. We might say, ‘Let me try to explain this to you. Maybe even you can understand this.’ And that is not very effective. So we are partly to blame.”

  • Los Alamos releases 16 years of GPS solar weather data

    Van Allen belts

    The Van Allen belts, two giant donuts of radiation encircling Earth, play a vital role in the planet’s resilience, and susceptibility, to space weather.

    NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio

    It’s not often that a scientific discipline gains a 23-satellite constellation overnight. But today, space weather scientists are reaping such a windfall, as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has released 16 years of radiation measurements recorded by GPS satellites.

    Although billions of people globally use data from GPS satellites, they remain U.S. military assets. Scientists have long sought the data generated by sensors used to monitor the status of the satellites, which operate in the heavy radiation of medium-Earth orbit and can be vulnerable to solar storms. But few have been allowed to tap this resource. “There’s a general hesitancy to broadcast even fairly innocuous things out to the broad community,” says Marc Kippen, a program manager at Los Alamos, which developed the radiation-measuring instruments.

    That attitude changed in October 2016, when the outgoing Obama administration issued an executive order aimed at preparing the country for extreme space weather. Such bursts in charged particles, originating in a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, could disable the electrical power grid or divert flights away from the Arctic, where radiation exposure is heightened.

  • Scientists’ lives upended by Trump’s immigration order

    Protestors opposing Trump's refugee order greet passengers arriving from international flights at Dulles airport in Virginia.

    Protestors opposing Trump's refugee order greet passengers arriving from international flights at Dulles airport in Virginia.

    Geoff Livingston/Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

    Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.

    The new executive order has sparked chaos at U.S. airports and angst in anyone from the target countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen—with a valid U.S. visa or green card who happened to be outside the United States when the order was signed. It also has stateside scientists from the affected nations grimly contemplating the consequences for their professional and personal lives.

    (On Sunday night, the secretary for homeland security, John Kelly, issued a statement deeming "the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest," essentially allowing the re-entry of green card holders. But U.S. officials have also said green card holders from nations covered by the order could receive extra scrutiny.)

  • Science march planners, here’s some unsolicited advice

    protesters holding signs

    Science advocates are hoping to emulate the successful Women’s March on Washington.

    VeryBusyPeople/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Make it a march for science, not a march by scientists. That’s the advice from a veteran science lobbyist to organizers planning a big public rally in Washington, D.C.

    Michael Lubell is a physics professor at The City College of New York in New York City who, for 22 years until last month, was also head of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society. Over decades, he learned what kinds of messages resonated with lawmakers and the public—and among scientists. (Lubell was removed from his post after members criticized a 9 November 2016 press release from his shop that pledged to work with the newly elected U.S. president, Donald Trump.)

    Scientific societies have so far taken a wait-and-see attitude publicly toward this week’s news of a grassroots effort to organize a march on Washington, D.C. (That includes AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider.)

  • Scientists to Trump: Torture doesn’t work

    A detainee is escorted by guards in Guantanamo Bay

    Guards escort a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, where enhanced interrogation techniques were used in the past. President Donald Trump is in favor of bringing torture back into the interrogation room.

    John Moore/Getty Images

    President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled that it may push to lift a U.S. government ban on “enhanced” interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that most experts describe as “torture.” A draft executive order made public by The New York Times and other outlets this week also instructs the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to consider opening secret overseas detention centers, or “black sites,” that the previous administration outlawed in 2009. The potential moves reopen a question that most scientists considered closed: Does torture work?

    Trump has argued that torture forces detainees to divulge information that professional interrogation techniques fail to elicit. He reiterated that belief in an interview with ABC News that aired yesterday. When asked whether he wants to bring back waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, Trump said: “I [want to] do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.” Most experts who study interrogation, and some individuals who conducted interrogations and later went public, disagree.

    The same debate played out during the administration of former President George W. Bush, after it was revealed that U.S. officials were routinely torturing detainees to extract information relevant to the then-called War on Terror. The justification at the time was that torture extracted vital intelligence. Scientists poured cold water on that idea. In 2009, for instance, Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin, told ScienceInsider that beyond its moral repugnance, the scientific evidence indicated that torture doesn’t work. Since then, “Nothing has changed, of course,” O’Mara says. “If anything, the accumulating body of evidence is even more definitively against the Trump position.” Scientists have found that the extreme stress of torture impairs memory and creates false memories, and can induce psychosis.

  • Q&A: Michael Eisen bids to be first fly biologist in the U.S. Senate

    Noah Berger/AP © HHMI

    Michael Eisen

    Courtesy Michael Eisen

    Michael Eisen—an evolutionary biologist who studies flies at the University of California, Berkeley, a co-founder of the pioneering open-access journal Public Library of Science, and a prolific Tweeter with more than 20,000 followers—is running for the United States Senate. On 25 January, he announced he intends to compete for the California Senate seat that has been held for a quarter-century by Dianne Feinstein (D), who has yet to announce whether she will run for re-election in 2018.

    Eisen tells ScienceInsider that he’s one of a growing number of scientists who, in response to the election of President Donald Trump, have decided that their political activism has to rise above simply lobbying for more funding. “Too much of the scientific establishment looks at the government as a bank—that the primary thing we should worry about is can we get the right amount of money out of Congress,” he says. “Too few people focus on the fact that science needs to be a partnership with the public for it to thrive.”

    Eisen has a long history of speaking out, sometimes colorfully, on scientific issues. In a December 2016 post on his blog, “it is NOT junk” (the title refers to stretches of DNA that regulate genes and once were thought to be worthless), Eisen urged then–President-elect Trump to replace Francis Collins, head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), who he lambasted for favoring “big science.” He has called Eric Lander, head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “an evil genius”; Eisen believes an essay Lander wrote in Cell overemphasized the role that Broad scientists played in inventing the genome-editing tool CRISPR. Eisen’s frequent tweets often sizzle. A new Twitter account, @SenatorPhD, is quickly amassing followers.

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