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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Caltech suspends professor for harassment

    Christian Ott and other Caltech astronomers are housed in the Cahill Center on campus.

    Christian Ott and other Caltech astronomers are housed in the Cahill Center on campus.

    Lance Hayashida/Caltech Strategic Communications

    For what is believed to be the first time in its history, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena has suspended a faculty member for gender-based harassment. The researcher has been stripped of his university salary and barred from campus for 1 year, is undergoing personalized coaching to become a better mentor, and will need to prove that he has been rehabilitated before he can resume advising students without supervision. Caltech has not curtailed his research activities.

    The university has not disclosed the name of the faculty member, but Science has learned that it is Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics who studies gravitational waves and other signals from some of the most violent events in the cosmos. Born and educated in Germany, Ott joined the Caltech faculty in 2009 and was awarded tenure in early 2014.

  • Biosecurity board grapples with how to rein in risky flu studies

    A worker in a biosafety level 3 lab.

    A worker in a biosafety level 3 lab.

    Maggie Bartlett/NHGRI

    BETHESDA, MARYLAND—Fuzzy definitions, deep disagreement about risks and benefits, and an unfortunate acronym: All bedeviled an expert panel as it met here last week to examine whether the United States should fund certain risky pathogen experiments. Researchers largely praised a massive, recently released risk assessment of so-called gain-of-function (GOF) research, and a draft plan for reviewing the riskiest studies. Many had concerns about the details, however, and the meeting provided little clarity on one key issue: if and when the U.S. government will decide whether to lift a now 15-month-old moratorium on a handful of U.S.-funded virology experiments.

    To some, the deepest flaw in a draft proposal on GOF studies from a working group of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was its imprecise effort to define those studies that are so dangerous that they should not be allowed. Wording such as “potentially” risky and “a pathogen that is highly transmissible, significantly virulent, and likely to be resistant” to public health controls leaves too much to interpretation, many said. “The real question is: What are those studies?” said Stanford University in Palo Alto, California’s David Relman, a critic of GOF studies.

  • Singapore lavishes big money on its scientists

    Singapore lavishes big money on its scientists

    JeCCo/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

    SINGAPORE—Even as China’s economic woes cast a shadow on Asia, Singapore’s scientists are hoping for smooth sailing over the next 5 years. On 8 January, the government announced that it will spend 19 billion Singapore dollars ($13.2 billion) on R&D from 2016 to 2020. The Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 Plan, or RIE2020, is an 18% increase over the previous 5-year cycle.   

    “The impact of RIE2020 overall will be very positive,” says Chorh Chuan Tan, president of the National University of Singapore and deputy chairman of the government-backed Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). “This is an assurance of sustained support for research in Singapore.”

  • Indian scientists denounce presentations at annual congress

    Hindu god Shiva with the Ganges flowing from his head.

    Hindu god Shiva with the Ganges flowing from his head.

    The Wellcome Library

    For the second year running, the Indian Science Congress has drawn condemnation and scorn from prominent scientists.

    The annual confab, held this year in Mysuru, India, featured plenty of legitimate science. But a few talks were simply beyond the pale, some researchers say. For example, on 5 January, some of the 12,500 attendees heard a lecture extolling the supposed health benefits of blowing a conch shell. Rajeev Sharma, a civil servant with a master’s degree in botany, delivered a deafening 2-minute conch blast to kick off his talk for a session on indigenous approaches to psychology. Sharma claimed that the conch—an article of religious and ritual importance in Hinduism—could cure psychosomatic ills. Blowing a conch daily, he elaborated, provides “excellent exercise” for the rectum, prostate, and diaphragm. The audience gasped when he claimed that the consequent surge in blood flow would turn “white hair to black.”

  • ‘Personhood’ chimpanzees returned to owners, ending animal rights litigation

    Susan Larson with Hercules at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

    Susan Larson with Hercules at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

    Courtesy Susan Larson

    Two New York research chimpanzees have been returned to the organization that owns them, effectively ending a 2-year legal battle to have the animals declared legal persons. The State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook) transferred the animals—Hercules and Leo—back to the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana (NIRC) in early December, but the animal rights group behind the legal effort has vowed to keep fighting to release them from captivity.

    “We’re shifting from a legal to a political campaign,” says Steven Wise, the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) in Coral Springs, Florida. “We’re going to ramp up pressure on the governor of Louisiana and the University of Louisiana system to free these chimpanzees.”

  • Cashing in on transparency in science

    Members of the Center for Open Science discuss how to reward scientists for transparent research.

    Members of the Center for Open Science discuss how to reward scientists for transparent research.

    BILLY HUNT/CENTER FOR OPEN SCIENCE

    Psychologist Brian Nosek believes that reproducibility is a core principle of science. To promote the idea, he co-founded a nonprofit organization in 2013 that allows scientists to publish a description of their experiments before they conduct them. This week Nosek’s Center for Open Science (COS) went a step further, offering $1000 to every scientist who preregisters their protocol with COS.

    The payment is meant to be a carrot leading to greater transparency and accountability in research, says Nosek, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Preregistration increases the credibility of hypothesis testing by confirming in advance what will be analyzed and reported,” says the center’s website in describing the rationale behind the prize challenge. Advocates of preregistration say it could also reduce the number of “file-drawer studies,” in which scientists decide not to publish anything because of negative results.

  • Female engineers publish in better journals, but receive fewer citations

    Study of engineering papers points to collaborations as a key factor in reducing gender disparities in scientific publishing. Above, nuclear engineer Melissa Teague works at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2013.

    Study of engineering papers points to collaborations as a key factor in reducing gender disparities in scientific publishing. Above, nuclear engineer Melissa Teague works at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2013.

    IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY/FLICKR (CC BY 2.0)

    Nearly everyone agrees that science has a gender problem. But the size of the gap depends on the area of science. Now, a study of nearly 1 million engineering paper co-authorships puts hard numbers on the problem in this male-dominated scientific field, and finds a paradoxical trend: Female engineers are publishing in slightly more prestigious journals on average than their male colleagues, but their work is getting less attention.

    Across the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematicsthere are gender disparities in tenured faculty positions, publication rates, and patents awarded. What's unclear is exactly how these differences arise. The new study makes use of bibliometrics, or the statistical analysis of publication patterns in data culled from vast numbers of scientific articles, authors, and citations. Its lead author, Gita Ghiasi, is wrapping up an engineering Ph.D. at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

  • Japan hopes to staff up to host the International Linear Collider

    Japan will grow its scientific workforce to handle the International Linear Collider, to be built in a tunnel through these mountains in northeastern Japan.

    Japan will grow its scientific workforce to handle the International Linear Collider, to be built in a tunnel through these mountains in northeastern Japan.

    WIKIMEDIA

    The International Linear Collider (ILC) took another small step forward yesterday when Japan's High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) released a plan for getting the country ready to host the $10 billion project by tripling its relevant science and engineering workforce over the next 4 years.

    As currently envisioned, the collider will occupy a 31-kilometer-long tunnel in Iwate Prefecture north of Tokyo. The education ministry needs to be convinced the country has the human resources required to execute the project before it will approve the project, says Yasuhiro Okada, a theorist at KEK, which has led Japan's preliminary planning and design work. The "Action Plan," released yesterday, "is a small but critical point to show [the ministry] we will have the necessary manpower," says Okada, who chaired the working group charged with drafting the plan. Japan also needs to demonstrate to potential international partners that the country will shoulder its share of the final design effort, he adds.

  • Journals to solve ‘John Smith’ common name problem by requiring author IDs

    Which of the Alexander Smiths above is the author of a paper on hyperkähler geometry? The ORCID naming tagging system aims to solve mysteries like these. (It’s the Smith in the middle.)

    Which of the Alexander Smiths above is the author of a paper on hyperkähler geometry? The ORCID naming tagging system aims to solve mysteries like these. (It’s the Smith in the middle.)

    (LEFT-RIGHT): COURTESY OF ALEXANDER K. SMITH/UCSF; COURTESY OF ALEXANDER J. SMITH/UWEC; CHARLIE RIEDEL/AP IMAGES

    Name ambiguity. It's one of those problems that you're born with. If you're a Williams, Johnson, or Smith—the most common surnames in the United States—it can be tricky for people to find you on the Internet, especially if you also have a common first name, such as Michael, Mary, James, or Jennifer. For academic researchers, whose careers are measured largely by authorship on papers, name ambiguity is a killer. Wouldn't it be great if all scientists had a unique identifier that mapped to all of their papers, projects, and grants?

    Wait no longer. The scientific community seems to be coalescing at last around a single researcher identification standard. In an open letter released online today, some of the largest academic publishers and scientific societies are announcing that they will not just encourage, but ultimately require, researchers to sign up with ORCID, a nonprofit organization that uniquely identifies people with a 16-digit number.

  • Does North Korea really have an H-bomb?

    The United States conducted the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb test in 1952.

    The United States conducted the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb test in 1952.

    CTBTO/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    North Korea claims to have detonated its first hydrogen bomb yesterday. But experts are skeptical that the pariah state detonated—not an ordinary atomic device—but a much more powerful “H-bomb of justice,” as state media is now calling it. So what kind of device did the reclusive regime test? And how can nuclear jockeys make such a determination from afar?

    There’s no doubt that North Korea detonated something near where it conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Seismic stations yesterday recorded a magnitude-5.1 earthquake with a waveform nearly identical to those registered after North Korea’s earlier tests, supporting its claim. The waveform confirms that an explosion triggered yesterday’s earthquake, says Brian Stump, a seismologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “It could be a chemical or nuclear explosion, but because of the magnitude it is likely a nuclear explosion,” he says. Researchers are now “chewing through the waveforms” registered by seismometers in the region “to see what’s different from 2013,” says Andy Frassetto, a seismologist with the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology consortium in Washington, D.C.

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