Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Will the March for Science wither away like the Women’s March?

    Margaret Breslau protesting

    Activist Margaret Breslau protests at a minimum wage rally in Richmond.

    Margaret Breslau

    Margaret Breslau is no stranger to political action—and she knows that sustaining momentum is vital. The organizer of the Blacksburg, Virginia, March for Science has campaigned for minimum wage earners, Black Lives Matter, the Occupy movement, and even a group that successfully banned Wal-Mart from setting up shop in her city in 2009. She’s already worried that the window for action opened by the past weekend’s global science rally has begun to close.

  • At a political boot camp for scientists, enthusiasm and anxiety

    protester holding sign that reads “Dear Scientists please run for congress"

    One marcher at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., shows his support for scientists running for Congress.

    Ryan Cross

    Self-promotion, pithy sound bites, and political advocacy aren’t always the traits of researchers. But those are the skills a group of 60 scientifically trained attendees were encouraged to embrace last week at an event in Washington, D.C., that was part boot camp and part pep rally for scientists and those employed in technical fields who are considering running for local, state, or national offices. Judging by the reactions of those in attendance, however, it may be some time before the nation sees a large number of science-savvy candidates out on the stump.

    The 20 April gathering, organized by a group called 314 Action that aims to encourage more scientists and engineers to run for office, was one of a number of events held in advance of the 22 April March for Science. The group’s recruitments have been amply covered by the media, and a few of the wanna-be candidates in attendance—who came from all over the nation—seemed at ease hopping amongst the reporters and camera crews, eager to share their stories and ambitions.

    But many others appeared downright anxious and unsure, and hesitated when asked about their political views, hometowns and workplaces by ScienceInsider. A few even asked to remain anonymous, concerned about potential repercussions back home if they were associated with political activity. For these wary potential politicos, the event was mostly a way to test the waters and see whether public campaigning might be within their comfort zone.

  • BioRxiv preprint server gets funding from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

    bioRxiv papers

    BioRxiv, the free online archive of draft biology papers, is getting a major funding boost. Today, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) announced that it is putting an undisclosed amount of money into expanding the preprint server and adding more software tools through a collaboration with bioRxiv’s founder, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York.

    “Expanded access to these drafts can dramatically accelerate the pace of discovery, and, in turn, our understanding of health and disease,” wrote neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, president of Science for CZI in Palo Alto, California, in a Facebook post. The news may generate some confusion among researchers and other proponents of preprints, however, because it comes as a nonprofit group is soliciting bids to create a central life sciences preprint server with similar objectives.

    Preprints are scientific manuscripts that haven’t yet gone through peer review and been published in a journal. Unlike physical scientists, who have posted preprints at a site called arXiv for 25 years, biologists have been slow to share their unreviewed papers. But the idea has gained momentum since bioRxiv was launched 3 years ago by CSHL. It is now the fastest-growing biology preprint server, adding 800 papers each month to its current total of about 10,000 papers.

  • Q&A: First U.S. state-by-state analysis of hepatitis C cases

    Map of the United States showing the number of persons living with Hepatitis C Antibodies, 2010

    Per capita number of people, by state, who had hepatitis C antibodies in the United States in 2010.

    In the infectious disease world, the liver-damaging hepatitis C virus (HCV) long has lived in the shadows of killers such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. But curative—and expensive—HCV drugs that have come to market over the past 5 years have focused new attention on the deadly disease.

    Now, for the first time, researchers have mapped its U.S. prevalence state-by-state. They hope their model ultimately will help improve targeting of efforts to screen for the virus and treat the more than 3 million people in the country who are living with the infection.

    The new study finds that the highest levels of HCV infection in 2010 were in the western United States. At the same time, eight states—California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Ohio, and Washington—account for more than half the cases. HCV is spread primarily when people who inject drugs share their needles and syringes.

  • NSF’s uphill road to making prestigious early career award more diverse

    July 29, 1955. Announcement of plans for the building and launching of the world's first humanmade satellite, with Dr. Alan T. Waterman (front left)

    Diversity wasn’t on the agenda in 1955 when NSF’s first director, Alan T. Waterman (front left), joined other scientific leaders to announce plans to build the country’s first satellite.


    Increasing diversity within academic science has been a priority for France Córdova since she became director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2014. Within a year she had launched an initiative, called INCLUDES, that challenges universities to do a better job of attracting women and minorities into the field. Now, Córdova has turned her attention inward in hopes of improving the dismal track record of NSF’s most prestigious award for young scientists.

    Only five women have won NSF’s annual Alan T. Waterman Award in its 41-year history, and no woman of color has ever been selected. The 2017 winners announced this month mark the 13th year in a row that the $1 million research prize has gone to a man (two, actually, including the second black scientist ever chosen.)

    For decades, NSF rules required candidates to be either 35 or younger, or within 7 years of having received their doctoral degree. Those ceilings made sense when the typical academic scientist was someone who “went straight through school with no debt and no family commitments, and who could focus on research in their late 20s and early 30s without distractions,” says Karan Watson, provost of Texas A&M University in College Station and chair of the Waterman selection committee.

  • Clean energy patent slump in U.S. stirs concern

    Wind turbines

    Even without environmental regulation, wind power is now one of the cheapest options for new power generation in many parts of the United States.

    Portland General Electric/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    A surge in innovation tied to low-carbon energy technologies is showing signs of tapering off in the United States, at a time when the Trump administration is targeting the field for cuts in government research spending.

    The number of patents issued in fields related to cutting carbon emissions climbed from 15,970 in 2009 to approximately 35,000 in 2014 and 2015, before slipping back slightly to about 32,000 in 2016, according to a new report issued today by the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution.

    It’s too soon to know whether this short-term drop is part of a bigger trend, says Devashree Saha, the study’s lead author and an associate fellow at Brookings. But it could be compounded by a push from the new president to pare back spending on renewable energy research, she says. “That, I think, raises a lot of concerns as to what is going to be the future of cleantech innovation in the next few years."

  • Rain doesn’t stop researchers from doing science at the march

    man wearing rain poncho fills out form on muddy grass during March for Science

    A rain-soaked participant in the March for Science fills out a paper survey on the National Mall.

    Jeffrey Mervis

    It was half past noon when sociologist Dana Fisher of the University of Maryland in College Park pulled her survey team from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A light but steady morning shower had turned into a downpour, and Fisher was worried that the 17 tablet computers her volunteers had used all morning to survey the crowd at Saturday’s March for Science would soon freeze up. The 200 responses they had collected so far were only two-thirds of her goal, but she decided the risk was too great to push on.

    “If they break, we lose all the data,” Fisher said. “So I told them to pack up. It’s not ideal, but I’ve used data sets that were even smaller.”

    Fisher was leading one of four research teams who battled the chilly, driving rain to sample participants at the biggest-ever rally for science. The scientists had lots of questions—Who are you? Why did you come? What are your politics? What do you hope to accomplish?—among others. And their pursuit of answers inadvertently highlighted one of the central messages of the march: Government policies should be based on data, not opinion, and science has evolved an exquisitely tuned approach to collecting and analyzing those data.

  • ‘Boffins and their VERY academic chants’: How the media covered the March for Science

    reporter and cameraman covering the March for Science in Washington, DC

    A reporter at work during the March for Science in Washington, D.C.

    Emily Petersen

    “What do we want? Evidence-based policy. When do we want it? After peer review.” That slogan, heard in many cities on Saturday, was a source of amusement for the U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail. “Boffins’ VERY academic chant as Doctor Who joins thousands protesting against Brexit during global March for Science,” the paper headlined its story about the march.

    But U.K. march organizers had little reason to complain: The Daily Mail, not known for its interest in science, reported extensively on the marchers’ motivations and interspersed its 1500-word story with 27 big photos. It helpfully explained the sign “No Taxation Without Taxonomy” to its readers: “Taxonomy is the science of classifying animals, plants and other organisms.”

    Largely unknown until a few weeks ago, the March for Science suddenly became a global news story the past weekend. Coverage was most extensive in the United States, which also had the most marchers. Major news outlets including ABC, CNN, The New York Times (NYT), and The Washington Post covered marches in Washington, D.C., and other cities with an abundance of op-eds and news pieces throughout the weekend.

  • Cancer institute reinstates director after uproar from staff and funder

    Jon Huntsman, Joe Biden, Mary Beckerle, and Orrin Hatch

    Mary Beckerle (second from right) during former Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in February 2016 as part of the cancer moonshot initiative.

    Adam Finkle/Huntsman Cancer Institute

    Eight days after learning via email that she was no longer the head of the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) in Salt Lake City, cell biologist Mary Beckerle has been invited to reassume her position. Today’s announcement from University of Utah President David Pershing seeks to smooth a tense relationship between the semiautonomous center, its main philanthropic funder and the university that houses it.

    The largely unexplained firing, announced to staff last week in an email from Pershing and Vivian Lee, senior vice president for health sciences, mobilized HCI staff and other high-profile researchers, some of whom marched in support of Beckerle’s reinstatement and signed an online petition that now has more than 3700 signatures. Several faculty members described the move as an effort by Lee to take control of HCI and roll the revenue from its cancer hospital into the university’s health system.

  • Lots of scientists marched yesterday. Five explain why they didn't

    Hank Ratrie exploring a cave, with hard hat on.

    Hank Ratrie's creaky knees kept him from the Washington, D.C., march, but he was planning to take his students caving.

    Hank Ratrie

    Saturday’s march coverage focused, naturally enough, on those who turned out in the streets. But Science’s Dorie Chevlen spent some time talking with those who didn’t march, for one reason or another.

    Turns out not marching can be a sensitive topic: When Dorie posted a note looking for nonmarchers on a march-related website, several commenters called for her post to be removed, accused her of being a troll, and even suggested she was a Russian operative trying to wreak havoc. Even simple questioning about the march, it appears, can to some people feel like an assault on science itself.

    Here’s what some nonmarchers told Dorie:

    Hank Ratrie, a biology professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, agreed with the march’s aims, but trekking to D.C. to walk around the Mall for several hours wasn’t easy at his age. “I’m getting old,” the 71-year-old Ratrie explains, “and I’m not a big fan of crowds, either.” So he was planning “to make my science gesture by taking my students caving instead” – giving them some first-hand exposure to field observation.

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