ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • House panel adopts new rules for large NSF projects

    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Chile, is one of the NSF-funded facilities that could be affected by new proposed legislation.

    The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Chile, is one of the NSF-funded facilities that could be affected by new proposed legislation.

    LSST

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) suffered the first political fallout yesterday from its oversight of the troubled National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) under construction.

    The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved by voice vote a measure that would set new rules on how NSF builds and operates large new scientific facilities like NEON. Republican legislators who are championing the bill (HR 5049) say it’s needed to curb abuses in a system that led to an $80 million projected cost overrun for NEON and forced NSF to fire the contractor on the $433 million project.

    “The committee seeks to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted on mismanagement and questionable costs,” said the committee’s chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), in his opening statement yesterday. “This bill will achieve that goal. It addresses gaps in project oversight and management through solutions identified by the NSF inspector general, auditors, an outside review panel, and the committee’s own work.”

  • Congressman Fattah’s defeat in primary is loss for science community

    Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) in 2012.

    Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) in 2012.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The research community lost a key supporter yesterday with the defeat of Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) in a Democratic primary race in his Philadelphia, Pennsylvania–area district. Fattah, who faces a federal trial next month for ethics transgressions, had a keen interest in neuroscience and helped catalyze the high-profile Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project, a multiagency effort to study the brain.

    Fattah, 59, has represented a west Philadelphia district for the past 22 years. He will go on trial in May on bribery and fraud charges involving misuse of a $1 million campaign loan when he ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007. Fattah has denied any wrongdoing, but his indictment contributed to his loss to state Representative Dwight Evans.

    His departure will end a long record of support for science. As the chief Democrat on a House of Representatives spending panel that oversees the National Science Foundation and several other science agencies, Fattah backed funding for basic research and science education. He also pushed for the creation of a White House interagency neuroscience working group. One result was the $300 million BRAIN project, which President Barack Obama championed.

  • Harvard epidemiologist to lead revamped NIH children’s study

    Matthew Gillman

    Matthew Gillman

    Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute

    A seasoned pediatric researcher and epidemiologist has been tapped to head the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) revamped children’s study. Harvard Medical School in Boston’s Matthew Gillman had ties to the National Children’s Study (NCS), which NIH scrapped in late 2014. But Gillman says the new long-term study, which retains some of the original goals, is “set up in a way that will breed success.”

    NIH spent $1.3 billion on planning and pilot studies before ending the NCS, which aimed to explore how everything from toxic chemicals to social factors shape the health of 100,000 U.S. children from birth to age 21. On orders from Congress, which called for the original NCS in 2000, NIH replaced it last year with a program called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO).

    One former NCS investigator who blamed its downfall in part on weak scientific leadership says the choice of Gillman, who will start work in July, is good news. “Dr. Gillman is an accomplished child health epidemiologist with extensive experience in pregnancy and birth cohort research. He is ideally positioned to make ECHO a success,” says pediatrician and epidemiologist Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University in East Lansing. In announcing the appointment, NIH Director Francis Collins in Bethesda, Maryland, said Gillman has “deep experience in the fields of epidemiology, pediatrics, and internal medicine.”

  • Australia’s national labs learn details of staff cuts

    Australia will set up a new Climate Science Center at this CSIRO facility in Hobart.

    Australia will set up a new Climate Science Center at this CSIRO facility in Hobart.

    Simon Torok/CSIRO

    After months of uncertainty, scientists at Australia’s premier research agency today learned their fate. More than 275 jobs will be cut, with climate science taking the biggest hit. Up to 75 jobs will be lopped from the Oceans and Atmosphere division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Technological Organization (CSIRO) as part of a restructuring first announced in February by CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall.

    In what is widely viewed as a fig leaf, Marshall told staff that 40 climate research positions would be retained "for the next decade" at a new Climate Science Center to be established in Hobart, Australia. In an email sent this morning outlining the “changes underway,” Marshall said those surviving climate researchers would “focus on climate modeling.” Researchers not currently based in Hobart would move to the new center.

    “Operating within CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, the center will be responsible for engaging across all entities that conduct climate science,” Marshall said in the email. According to a statement released by CSIRO, the center will work closely with the National Bureau of Meteorology. CSIRO is also planning to deepen its existing partnership with the Met Office in Devon, U.K.

  • Same bottom line hides sharp disagreement in Congress over energy research

    The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both want to boost spending on the proposed Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in Lead, South Dakota, which would study particles shot from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.

    The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both want to boost spending on the proposed Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in Lead, South Dakota, which would study particles shot from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.

    Fermilab

    Legislators in both houses of Congress agree that science at the Department of Energy (DOE) should get a slight boost—0.9%—next year. But how they get to that number is quite another story.

    This week the full Senate is expected to approve a $5.4 billion budget for DOE’s Office of Science that would eliminate support for an international fusion project in France and trim domestic fusion research. The cuts allow legislators to give relatively healthy boosts to the office's five other research programs within an overall tight budget. To reach the same total, the spending panel in the House of Representatives has proposed continuing to fund ITER and fusion but cutting biological and environmental research and holding the other programs to tiny increases.

    For years, observers have been warning that the U.S. commitment to ITER, the gargantuan fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, has been squeezing other DOE basic research programs. That tension shows through clearly in the House and Senate versions of the budget for DOE for fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October.

  • Europe to bet up to €1 billion on quantum technology

    Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for digital economy, and Henk Kamp, the Dutch minister for economic affairs, visit the QuTech lab, a quantum technology laboratory in Delft, the Netherlands.

    Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for digital economy, and Henk Kamp, the Dutch minister for economic affairs, visit the QuTech lab, a quantum technology laboratory in Delft, the Netherlands.

    Quantum Manifesto

    The European Commission has picked a third research area where it hopes to have a major impact by spending a massive amount of cash. Research groups across the continent will receive up to €1 billion over the next 10 years to develop quantum technologies, which might be used to develop anything from faster computers and very secure communication systems to ultrasensitive sensors and more precise atomic clocks.

    The project "should place Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution, bringing transformative advances to science, industry and society within the decade to come," a spokesperson for the European Commission wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. “This is an exciting and ambitious effort to focus the extraordinary scientific accomplishments from Europe to develop fundamentally new technologies based on the quantum state of matter,” says David Awschalom, a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who is not involved in the project.

    Two similarly ambitious schemes showering money on a single topic, called Flagship projects, have been underway in the European Union since 2014. One focuses on the study of graphene, the other on a computer model of the entire human brain. They were selected after an exhaustive high-profile beauty contest and announced with a series of media events. This time, there was no formal competition, and the project’s announcement was hidden in a short sentence in a long document this week describing plans to “digitize European industry.”

  • New Stanford center offers insight into the evolution of scientific cartography

    Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

    Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

    Wayne Vanderkuil, Stanford Libraries

    The new David Rumsey Map Center, which opened last week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, showcases what was once one of the world’s great private map collections—more than 150,000 maps, globes, and cartographic artifacts. The collection is especially rich with 18th and 19th century maps that illustrate the birth of scientific cartography.

  • Tired of short-term contracts, Spanish postdocs sue their employer

    The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

    The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

    Luis García/Wikimedia Commons

    The past few years, many postdocs at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have obtained a permanent position in an unusual way: by suing their employer. The researchers, along with many technicians and administrative staff, have successfully asked the courts to make CSIC comply with Spanish labor law and turn their short-term contracts into indefinite employment.

    But now, CSIC is pushing back with a series of controversial measures that many say punish the institutes and research groups where such cases have occurred. The new measures, detailed in an internal memo that was recently leaked to national newspaper El País, have drawn criticism from the scientific community and angered trade unions. One union, the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), accuses CSIC of a “witch hunt” against those who exercise their employment rights and the centers and research groups that host them.

    CSIC employs some 10,000 research and administrative staff in more than 120 institutes that span every discipline from mathematics to biology and the humanities. Like other research institutions in Europe, CSIC is doing away with its tradition of lifetime civil servant employment and introducing more and more short-term contracts funded by research grants and industry contracts.

  • Possible causes of Prince's death: Separating the plausible from the crazy

    Prince

    Rock singer Prince performs at the Forum in Inglewood, California, during his opening show, 18 February 1985.

    AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing

    Whenever a celebrity dies under murky circumstances, speculations run wild. The bulk of news reports about the rock star Prince’s death yesterday suggested influenza may have claimed his life. “Could Flu Have Caused Prince's Death? Yes. Here's Why,” read a Forbes headline. Other media outlets used his surprising demise at 57 to remind readers of the risk flu presents and how it kills. TMZ, the celeb gossip e-zine, has “multiple sources” that say Prince, despite being a Jehovah’s Witness, received a “save shot” for a drug overdose 6 days before his death. The conspiracy-minded also came out of the woodwork and suggested it was the flu vaccine, the way his plane made an emergency landing, or yes, that he actually isn’t dead at all. 

    Of course it’s possible that Prince died from influenza, and one of his representatives last week told reporters that a bad bout with the disease explained his emergency landing in Illinois and a visit to a hospital. Maybe, as some news stories have ventured, there was a link between his epilepsy and flu that ended his life. (A PubMed search of “influenza, epilepsy, mortality” has a meager 23 hits.) But in the absence of new data, the evidence suggests that flu is an unlikely explanation unless he had an underlying health problem, like a heart condition, that is known to increase the risk of death from flu. And of course the surest way to find a probable rather than a possible answer to his cause of death is to conduct an autopsy, which reportedly is underway.

    According to the most authoritative study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed flu deaths in the United States from 1976 to 2007, the over-65 age bracket suffers the highest mortality by far, accounting for 87.9% of the deceased. (The study looks at both influenza and the often-related pneumonia deaths.) The 19- to 64-year-old age bracket was next at 10.6%.

  • Space agencies eye global Earth observatory

    Mount Rainier

    This image of Mt. Rainier depicts the main kinds of observations that the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission will make: glaciers (ice), volcanoes (crustal deformation), and forests (ecosystems).

    NASA/JPL

    Major space agencies are edging toward agreement on a capability that climate watchers have long desired: an international satellite system for uniformly measuring greenhouse gas emissions and their capture in carbon sinks.

    Next week, the heads of 11 space agencies are expected to issue a joint communique from a meeting in New Delhi calling for cooperation to calibrate instruments and validate measurements “to achieve an international, independent system for estimating the global emissions based on internationally accepted data.” “We need a global space observation system to be in place sooner than later,” says Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of CNES, France’s space agency in Paris. “Cooperation among the space agencies is a must if planet Earth is to be saved.”

    Currently, space-faring nations have a combined total of 130 Earth-observing satellites in orbit. But these platforms use varying standards, making it virtually impossible, experts say, to compare and verify data sets.

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