Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • House sharpens oversight of new NSF facilities

    House sharpens oversight of new NSF facilities

    Problems building the National Ecological Observatory Network spurred new legislation.

    NSF/Neon Inc.

    Aiming to prevent a repeat of what legislators say were management lapses at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Congress yesterday moved a step closer to tightening up the rules the agency must follow in building and operating large research facilities.

    By a vote of 412 to nine, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill (H.R. 5049) that proponents say will prevent the type of problems that have plagued NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under construction at dozens of sites across the country. The overwhelming margin of victory reflects both the popularity of such oversight legislation and a bipartisan political consensus that NSF stumbled in policing the $434 million project, which was downsized last year and then put under new management after it fell behind schedule and threatened to go $80 million over budget.

    The legislation, which covers details only an accountant could love, embraces recommendations from NSF’s inspector general, the agency’s in-house but independent watchdog, as well as from outside bodies such as the National Academy of Public Administration. NSF has already implemented some of them, including staffing up its Large Facilities Office and clarifying how management fees can be used. But agency officials told ScienceInsider they remain concerned about changes the legislation would make in how audits are conducted and the use of management fees for a contractor. (The first NEON contractor has admitted to using a portion of its fee on entertainment, which at the time was an allowable expense.)

  • Panel’s advice on cancer risk from hot drinks is hard to swallow

    Panel’s advice on cancer risk from hot drinks is hard to swallow

    A nice cup of tea, not too hot.

    iris/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    First, the good news: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), headquartered in Lyon, France, is letting coffee off the hook after having classified it as “possibly carcinogenic” in 1991. It is now officially in the category “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity.”

    But here’s the bad news: IARC experts have also concluded that consuming very hot beverages can probably cause cancer of the esophagus. How big a risk that poses, however, is unclear.

    Confused? Join the crowd. The two verdicts, announced today by an expert panel at an agency that is part of the World Health Organization, show the limits of such blanket yes-or-no decisions on whether something causes cancer. Such an announcement is “interesting for science but does not provide the information for making decisions, either policy or individuals,” says David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

  • French funding panel quits in protest

    French funding panel quits in protest

    Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician from the 17th century.

    The entire 20-member panel tasked with evaluating mathematics and theoretical informatics proposals for the French National Research Agency (ANR) in Paris has resigned to protest the low success rate in the discipline. The group has declined to release its verdicts on ANR's mathematics proposals for 2016; unless a solution is found soon, this could mean the agency won't fund any fundamental mathematical research at all this year.

    Before 2014, thanks to the so-called Programme Blanc, an ANR program that tended to reward more theoretical disciplines, the panel had more leeway in selecting proposals, with its success rate typically reaching 30%. But after the government merged most ANR programs into one generic call for proposals, the success rate has been standardized across all disciplines, including mathematics. In a context of funding cuts, this has meant that the success rate has fallen below 10% for the last 2 years.

    The panel, which has the broad support of the mathematics community, contends that the low rate has increasingly discouraged mathematicians from applying and has hurt their field. ANR counters that mathematics had a slight but unfair advantage over the more applied sciences earlier, and says it is balancing the scales.

  • U.K.-E.U. fission could harm fusion research

    U.K.-E.U. fission could harm fusion research

    A U.K. departure from the European Union could halt vital research at the Joint European Torus, a fusion facility in the United Kingdom.


    If the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union on 23 June, the exit will break up cross-border collaborations and cut off E.U. funding for U.K. scientists. For fusion research, the possibility of a Brexit is particularly worry
ing. Europe’s largest fusion facility, the Joint European Torus (JET), is sited just south of Oxford, U.K.; a vote to leave would put it in a legal limbo that could halt vital research supporting the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now under construction in southern France. JET dominates much of the work at its host institution, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. A Brexit “certainly will make us very vulnerable,” says Steve Cowley, the center’s director.

    Polls suggest the referendum’s outcome is too close to call, and a vote for a Brexit would not affect some pan-European research facilities because the European Union does not control them. These include the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland; the Paris-based European Space Agency, which has a technology center at Culham; the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany; and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, which has a bioinformatics institute in Cambridge, U.K.

    Fusion is different. The nuclear arm of the European Union, known as Euratom, pays a consortium of national labs and university groups—dubbed EUROfusion—to carry out fusion research, most of which is aimed at supporting ITER. EUROfusion will receive €424 million for the work over 5 years (2014–18), and another €283 million will go to the Culham Centre for operating JET and hosting ITER-related research.

  • National Aquarium will move its dolphins to sea sanctuary

    National Aquarium will move its dolphins to sea sanctuary

    Two dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland.

    National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

    The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, will move all of its eight dolphins to a sea sanctuary by 2020, PBS NewsHour reports. Two years ago, the facility announced that it was considering the move, citing concerns that it was cruel to keep such intelligent animals in captivity. The aquarium’s CEO, John Racanelli, reiterated those concerns in an op-ed published today in The Baltimore Sun. “Emerging science and consultation with experts have convinced us that dolphins do indeed thrive when they can form social groups, have opportunities to express natural behaviors, and live in a habitat as similar as possible to that for which nature so superbly designed them,” he wrote.

  • Canada launches review of its research enterprise

    David Naylor welcomes Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

    David Naylor welcomes Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to a University of Toronto lab in 2013.

    University of Toronto

    If history is any guide, Canadian Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan may have just set loose the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons by appointing former University of Toronto President David Naylor to lead a study of basic science in Canada.

    The nine-member expert panel named today will examine the impact of a decade of policies under the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, aimed at converting university labs into tools for industrial development and commercialization. Duncan took office in November 2015 as part of the Liberal government headed by Justin Trudeau, who has promised to run a “government that believes in science—and a government that believes that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making.”

    Naylor expects the panel to review “the whole ecosystem, without drawing sharp lines between what is basic and applied.” He thinks that previous calls to focus government funding on a handful of areas or disciplines would be “premature [because] those areas may change over time pretty quickly.” He is more concerned about “the balance between transdisciplinary and primary disciplinary research, or the balance between supporting trainees and new investigators versus our investment in established investigators.”

  • In effort to understand continuing racial disparities, NIH to test for bias in study sections

    Laboratory at the Morehouse School of Medicine

    A core laboratory at the Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically black institution in Atlanta.

    Morehouse School of Medicine

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has decided to find out whether its fabled grantsmaking process discriminates against African-American scientists.

    Armed with new data showing black applicants suffer a 35% lower chance of having a grant proposal funded than their white counterparts, NIH officials are gearing up to test whether reviewers in its study sections give lower scores to proposals from African-American applicants. They say it’s one of several possible explanations for a disparity in success rates first documented in a 2011 report by a team led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas, Lawrence. The so-called Ginther report also noted that black researchers are more likely to have their applications for an R01 grant—the bread-and-butter NIH award that sustains academic labs—thrown out without any discussion by study sections and that black scientists are less likely to resubmit a revised proposal for a second review.

    NIH is also faced with the problem of low participation rates by minority scientists. Only 1.5% of its R01 applications come from African-American scientists. (The average applicant submits three applications, although whites submit at a higher rate than blacks.)

  • Italy investigates explosive letter sent to European food safety agency

    Italy investigates explosive letter sent to European food safety agency

    The headquarters of the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy.


    Italian police are trying to figure out who sent a letter containing an explosive powder to Europe’s food safety agency. A bomb squad earlier this week blew up the letter, which was addressed to a scientist who works on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The incident comes amid an ongoing and acrimonious debate over European regulation of GM crops and foods.

    The suspicious letter arrived at the headquarters of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, on 7 June. It “did not seem to conform to the rest of the items that we usually receive,” an EFSA spokesperson told ScienceInsider. Police say an inspection revealed it contained enough gunpowder inside to injure the hands and face of someone who opened it. Officials declined to identify the addressee, except to say it is a scientist who serves as an external adviser to the agency. No person or group has claimed responsibility for the letter, and it is not clear where it originated.

  • Updated: United States adopts major chemical safety overhaul

    Industrial chemicals sign

    Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The U.S. Senate yesterday unanimously approved a major overhaul of the nation’s primary chemical safety law—marking one of the last steps in a decades-long reform effort. The House of Representatives on 24 May overwhelmingly approved the rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which governs how industrial chemicals are tested and regulated. The legislation now moves to President Barack Obama for signing.

    The measure—H.R. 2576, named for the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ), a long-time TSCA reform champion—is perhaps the most far-reaching and influential environmental statute passed by Congress since the body updated the Clean Air Act in 1990. The measure aims to make chemical safety reviews more science-based, and includes provisions designed to reduce the use of animals in chemical testing and promote the study of so-called cancer clusters.

    “The end result … is a vast improvement over current law,” said Representative John Shimkus (R–IL), who co-sponsored the House bill, on the House floor. The bill, he added, is “a careful compromise that’s good for consumers, good for jobs, and good for the environment.”

  • U.S. Academies gives cautious go-ahead to gene drive

    The ʻAkiapolaʻau is a honeycreeper in Hawaii

    The ʻAkiapolaʻau is a honeycreeper in Hawaii that is threatened by mosquito-borne disease.

    © Photo Resource Hawaii/Alamy Stock Photo

    Although it may take 5 years or more before researchers will be ready to try a controversial technology for eradicating or replacing populations of pests and vectors in the field, today a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee urged researchers, funding organizations, and regulatory agencies to waste no time in coming up with ways to deal with the societal and regulatory issues surrounding this technology, called gene drive. Its report, Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty and Aligning Research with Public Values, stresses that although gene drive offers great promise for agriculture, conservation, and public health, neither the science nor the current regulatory system is adequate to address the risks and requirements of gene drive–altered organisms.

    Gene drive is a natural phenomenon whereby a certain version of a gene is passed on preferentially to the next generation and thus can quickly spread throughout a sexually reproducing population. For decades, researchers dreamed of harnessing gene drive to control pests or disease-carrying organisms. For example, by biasing inheritance toward the production of one sex over another, altered sex ratios might eventually cause a population to peter out. Thus, gene drive could be used to reduce malaria transmission in humans—or in endangered birds (see image, above)—by making the mosquito vectors incapable of spreading the malaria parasite or even eliminating the insects altogether.

    The approach hadn’t seemed within close reach until geneticists last year demonstrated gene drive in fruit flies and yeast by harnessing a gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. The experiments set off a debate about the safest way to do gene drive experiments in the lab and helped prompt the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the academies’s study. It's one of several efforts inspired by the fast progress made possible by CRISPR: Another CRISPR-inspired academy study is looking at genome editing in animals, and last year the academies held a summit on genome editing in human embryos.

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