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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump would shutter GoreSat—delivering a blow to exoplanet research

    A picture of Earth taken from space.

    DSCOVR has been capturing nearly continuous images of the planet since its “first light” image on 6 July 2015.

    NASA

    Though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of exoplanets, they are just starting to get fuzzy pictures of the orbs themselves. But what can they learn from just a few pixels of light? It turns out that the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a space-weather satellite with a controversial past, is answering those questions right now, says Stephen Kane, an exoplanet scientist at San Francisco State University in California. "We can get a significant advance preview of what those data will look like, because we now have a satellite that is staring directly at Earth."

    Those observations are in jeopardy, however, with news today that the proposed budget of U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to kill Earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR years before the mission ends. It would be a setback for exoplanet research, Kane says. "We're enormously disappointed to hear this news."

    Perched between the gravitational pull of the sun and Earth, DSCOVR, which was launched in 2015, primarily serves as a space-weather buoy, giving advance notice of inbound solar storms. But it also has two instruments that peer back at Earth and capture the entire planet with the aim of detecting long-term trends in the planet's balance of incoming and outgoing energy, along with long-term shifts in its clouds, aerosols, and ozone.

  • A grim budget day for U.S. science: analysis and reaction to Trump's plan

    Portrait of Donald Trump

    President Donald J. Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA)

    President Donald Trump rolled out his first budget request to Congress today. It is for the 2018 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. It calls for deep cuts to some federal science agencies (read our initial coverage to get some of the numbers), and is likely to draw fierce opposition from the scientific community and many lawmakers in Congress.

    ScienceInsider is providing analysis and reaction to the budget all day.

    Come back to see our latest items (most recent at the top).

  • United Kingdom moves forward with controversial embryo technique

    Laboratory petri dish of prenatal research

    Assisted reproduction technique can prevent genetic disease.

    100pk/iStockphoto

    The United Kingdom’s first baby resulting from a controversial assisted reproduction technique could be born by early next year. Regulators there have granted the country’s first license for a technique that would allow some women to avoid passing on a type of inherited disease by combining genes from three "parents."

    The diseases in question affect mitochondria, which are cellular energy producers that carry their own set of genes. Mutations in those genes can cause a range of symptoms, including brain damage, blindness, seizures, and heart problems. Women who carry the mutations can pass them on to their children. (Although sperm have mitochondria, they typically degrade shortly after fertilization.)

    The procedure, called mitochondrial replacement therapy, allows researchers to replace the faulty mitochondria in a woman’s egg cells with those from a healthy donor. Thus, genetic material from two eggs and one sperm is combined to make an embryo. If the baby is a girl, the genetic changes could be inherited. Making heritable genetic changes to eggs and sperm was prohibited in the United Kingdom until Parliament approved a new law allowing the technique in 2015.

  • NIH, DOE Office of Science face deep cuts in Trump's first budget

    Donald J. Trump

    Donald J. Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    President Donald Trump's first budget request to Congress, to be released at 7 a.m. Thursday, will call for cutting the 2018 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $6 billion, or nearly 20%, according to sources familiar with the proposal. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science would lose $900 million, or nearly 20% of its $5 billion budget. The proposal also calls for deep cuts to the research programs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a 5% cut to NASA's earth science budget. And it would eliminate DOE's roughly $300 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

    There appears to be no mention, however, of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a 62-page document outlining the proposal obtained by The Washington Post. NSF's budget request may not become clear until the White House fleshes out the details of its spending plan over the next 2 months.

    The NIH proposal is drawing deep concern from biomedical research advocates. "A $6 billion cut to [NIH] is unacceptable to the scientific community, and should be unacceptable to the American public as well," said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland, in a statement. "President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2018 spending plan erases years' worth of bipartisan support for the NIH, and the American biomedical research enterprise which has long been the global leader for biomedical innovation. Cuts this deep threaten America's ability to remain a leader. It is of grave concern to the research community that President Trump's budget proposal—which would fund the agency at a 15-year low—values investments in defense above all other federal expenditures."

  • Updated: Some 100 groups have now endorsed the March for Science

    A group of demonstrators who support science in Boston in February 2017.

    Demonstrators rally for science near the AAAS annual meeting in Boston in February.

    Lindzi Wessel

    The March for Science, set for 22 April, is creating a buzz in the scientific community. The march arose as a grassroots reaction to concerns about the conduct of science under President Donald Trump. And it has spurred debate over whether it will help boost public support for research, or make scientists look like another special interest group, adding to political polarization.

    Leaders of many scientific societies have been mulling whether to formally endorse or take a role in the event, which will include marches in Washington, D.C. and some 400 other locations. 

    ScienceInsider has been tracking what science groups decide.

    Here's what we know as of 15 March (most recent updates at the top of each section):

  • Artificial chicken grown from cells gets a taste test—but who will regulate it?

    Southern Fried Chicken

    Fried “chicken” from cells grown in culture by Memphis Meats.

    Memphis Meats

    The quest for artificial meat inches forward—the company Memphis Meats announced today it has developed chicken and duck meat from cultured cells of each bird, producing “clean poultry.” The firm provided few details, although participants at a tasting reportedly said the chicken tasted like, well, chicken. Below is a repost of a story originally published 23 August 2016 on some of the regulatory challenges and questions facing Memphis Meats and other companies pursuing artificial meats.

    The first hamburger cooked with labmade meat didn’t get rave reviews for taste. But the test tube burger, rolled out to the press in 2013, has helped put a spotlight on the question of how the U.S. government will regulate the emerging field of cellular agriculture, which uses biotechnology instead of animals to make products such as meat, milk, and egg whites.

    So far, none of these synthetic foods has reached the marketplace. But a handful of startup companies in the United States and elsewhere are trying to scale up production. In the San Francisco Bay area in California, entrepreneurs at Memphis Meats hope to have their cell-cultured meatballs, hot dogs, and sausages on store shelves in about 5 years, and those at Perfect Day are targeting the end of 2017 to distribute cow-free dairy products. It’s not clear, however, which government agencies would oversee this potential new food supply.

  • The sequel: Influential House member plans to rekindle debate over NSF policies

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) leaves the House Republican Conference meeting surrounded by reporters

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) at the U.S. Capitol in 2014.

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

    The last bill that President Barack Obama signed before leaving office ended a 4-year battle over the future of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a way that largely preserved current practices at the $7.5 billion research agency.

    Or so most scientists thought. They had vigorously fought bill language drafted by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the House of Representatives science committee, that would have altered NSF’s well-regarded system of peer review and its commitment to a balanced research portfolio. And Smith had generally acceded to his Senate counterparts in negotiating the final version of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), enacted on 6 January.

    But last week Smith made clear at a hearing of the science committee that he’s gearing up for a new fight. And his comments suggest he’s intent on covering much of the same ground, starting with his view that NSF’s charge to support research “in the national interest” means it should fund less social science and environmental research.

  • Trump’s defense chief cites climate change as national security challenge

    U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks at an event.

    Secretary of Defense James Mattis

    DOD/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith

    Reprinted from ProPublica

    Secretary of Defense James Mattis has asserted that climate change is real, and a threat to American interests abroad and the Pentagon’s assets everywhere, a position that appears at odds with the views of the president who appointed him and many in the administration in which he serves.

    In unpublished written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing in January, Mattis said it was incumbent on the U.S. military to consider how changes like open-water routes in the thawing Arctic and drought in global trouble spots can pose challenges for troops and defense planners. He also stressed this is a real-time issue, not some distant what-if.

  • U.K. scientists prepare for impending break with European Union

    An image of the Joint European Torus

    The future of the Joint European Torus, the world-leading fusion facility near Oxford, U.K., remains uncertain beyond its current contract which ends in 2018.

    EUROfusion

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—For months after the United Kingdom voted last June to leave the European Union, many British scientists clung to hopes of a “soft Brexit,” which would not cut them off from EU funding and collaborators. But Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to trigger the 2-year process of exiting the European Union in coming days, has signaled the break will be sharp. U.K. researchers are now facing up to the prospect that they won’t be able to apply for EU funding or easily recruit students and colleagues from the rest of Europe. “People are bracing themselves for a bumpier and more abrupt landing,” says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

    To lessen the blow to research, scientists and bureaucrats are already brainstorming about new funding structures and international collaborations that could make up for the lost EU money and brainpower. They are also taking some comfort in a major boost to government R&D funding, detailed last week, aimed at building up research areas that could bolster domestic industries. Yet much uncertainty hangs on what are expected to be rancorous negotiations with the European Union, covering issues such as the right of foreign citizens to remain in the United Kingdom and a possible exit bill from Brussels. “We live in a kind of limbo,” says Giorgio Gilestro, an Italian neuroscientist at Imperial College London (ICL). 

  • Q&A: NASA’s science head says investment in earth science is a ‘no-brainer'

    Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen Visits Space Station Processing Facility

    NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen learns about a habitat used to grow plants in space during a tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

    Bill White/NASA

    Thomas Zurbuchen grew up in a tiny Swiss village with more cows than people. The heliophysicist, who in October 2016 left the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to take the reins of NASA's science directorate, was raised in a deeply religious family, where he says he was comfortable asking the hard questions: "Where am I from?" and "What's my purpose?" He could soon face more hard questions from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which is skeptical about the value of climate change research, much of it supported by NASA. ScienceInsider caught up with Zurbuchen last week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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