As scientists—and science supporters—prepare to march in the United States, Europe, and beyond, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is on board. Some point to the dangers of further politicizing science, and some (including many of our astute readers) say it’s far too early to weigh in on the science-related policies of the new U.S. administration. But the key word there is “science-related.” Science touches politics in a host of areas, from funding for health care research to policies that limit—or enhance—international cooperation. Is there a story you think we’re missing? Contact us at the bottom of this briefing to let us know!
Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy
AMSTERDAM—U.S. cities won’t be the only places where lab coats and science-inspired signs will fill the streets on 22 April. Groups in eight European countries have announced “solidarity marches” in support of the U.S. March for Science, to be held on Earth Day. Some of the rallies will take place on the same day, whereas others don’t yet have a firm date.
Marches are in the planning stages in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Bigger countries may see several; in the United Kingdom, for instance, there are already plans to march in London, Edinburgh, and Manchester. In Norway, researchers plan to take to the streets in Oslo and Trondheim. (There will be marches in New Zealand and Australia as well.)
"We are thrilled," a spokesperson for the U.S. March for Science says in an email to ScienceInsider. "The Women's March really changed the game here. The second this march was announced we began getting emails from cities all over the world with people planning on satellite marches. At this point, the Washington march and rally is a small part of a larger movement, which is exactly as it should be."
In France, 22 April is hardly ideal, because it’s the eve of the first round of voting for the French presidential election. “But we plan to do it that day anyway,” says astrophysicist Olivier Berné of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, a member of the organizing group. The idea for a march coalesced on Twitter, just as it did in the United States, Berné says. French scientists routinely demonstrate against declining budgets and a lack of job opportunities, and some of the organizers of the April protest are experienced, Berné says. Frances’s main march will be in Paris, but there are also plans for marches in Lyon, Toulouse, and Montpellier; Berné says the group is seeking support from scientific organizations and societies.
It will be the most powerful agency in U.K. science, created to give research a stronger voice, and after a 5-month search, it has a director. Today, the government announced the selection of Mark Walport, currently the chief science adviser to the U.K. government, as head of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The umbrella organization for the existing research councils will serve as the strategic command center of government research funding.
UKRI will be created by a controversial higher education reform bill that Parliament is expected to approve this year. The bill calls for UKRI to oversee seven existing research councils, which together hand out £6 billion in research grants and institutional funding each year. Also folded in will be Innovate UK, which funds and supports technology transfer, and parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The government anticipates UKRI will open its doors in April 2018. In the meantime, Walport and Non-Executive Chair John Kingman will start “to shape the new organisation,” according to a statement. Before becoming science adviser in 2013, Walport led the Wellcome Trust for a decade. While at Imperial College London, he conducted research in immunology and rheumatology.
Nominations. Confirmations. Boycotts. Things on Capitol Hill are getting messy. And so are things in the scientific community. Yesterday, more than 150 scientific societies sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump urging him to rescind his recent executive order on visas and immigration. Meanwhile, scientists from affected countries are getting shut out of major conferences in the United States and making alternate plans for research. And of course the big news of the day—so far—is Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.
What does all of this mean for science? Read on!
The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California, now faces extinction, scientists say in a report published today. Only about 30 individuals remain, according to an acoustic survey that counted the animals’ clicking noises last summer. The report dashes hopes that naval patrols and Mexico’s emergency gillnet ban, authorized in May 2015, would halt the vaquita’s precipitous decline. The numbers also add new urgency to a controversial plan to capture some of the remaining animals for a captive breeding program, scientists say.
“The situation is completely out of control,” says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a cetacean expert at the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change in Ensenada, Mexico, and member of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, an international advisory group to the Mexican government. “Of course, there’s a risk in capturing the vaquitas. But it’s clear now that they will be killed [in gillnets] anyway.”
A 2015 survey estimated the vaquitas at about 60 individuals. They’re dying out because they get trapped in illegal gillnets, many set to catch another endangered species, the totoaba fish. The fish’s swim bladder commands extraordinarily high prices (sold for as much as $100,000 on the black market, according to a report last year from the Environment Investigation Agency) in China and some other Asian markets, where it is erroneously thought to help with a range of ailments from liver disease to arthritis. The demand has so far proved impossible to control, says Rojas-Bracho, adding that criminal organizations now control the totoaba fishery.
Shortly after then–President-elect Donald Trump announced on 5 January that he planned to appoint Katy French Talento to his Domestic Policy Council as his health care expert, the backlash began.
Talento, who has a master’s degree from the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston, where she specialized in epidemiology and infectious diseases, was lambasted on several fronts. Some critics derided a column she had written for The Federalist, advising women concerned about the “Zika apocalypse” to have their husbands sleep on top of the covers, “offering himself as human sacrifice to the mosquitos.” She was slammed for her attempts while she worked as a U.S. Senate staffer in 2003 to derail federal HIV/AIDS research grants that focused on sex workers—which she alleged promoted Russian prostitution—and people who injected drugs. But Talento, a former nun who has spoken out for conservative values, took the most heat for her articles warning women that the birth control pill is “seriously risky” and leads to miscarriages and deforms the uterus.
None of the flood of stories (here, here, here, here, and here) criticizing Talento’s pill perspective took her seriously enough to examine the scientific rationales that led her to these conclusions. But articles she wrote for The Federalist—which is published by Ben Domenech, a former speechwriter for former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, who has a checkered journalistic past—offer a window into how she reads the scientific literature.
The grassroots team coordinating the March for Science in Washington, D.C., have now set a date: 22 April. And they are inviting organizers in cities around the world to lead parallel demonstrations.
Organizers have said they want to appeal to anyone who, as its mission statement puts it, “champions publicly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” Organizers have emphasized that the march is not just for practicing scientists, but for “anyone who believes in empirical science.”
The event, at first just an idea bouncing around social media, gained real life last month after a website, Twitter account, and public Facebook page—now with more than 300,000 likes—sprang up over the course of a few days. An affiliated “secret” Facebook group attracted almost 800,000 members in less than a week, and more than 70 Twitter handles have popped up to promote sister marches across the country.
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.
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!
A Senate committee today approved President Trump's nomination of Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana to lead the Interior Department and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to lead the Energy Department, with a few Democrats joining with Republicans in support of the GOP candidates.