ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NASA climate mission Trump tried to kill moves forward

    the ISS with Earth in the background

    Once mounted on the space station, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder will reduce uncertain measures of climate-related phenomena such as clouds.

    NASA

    A new space station sensor that will lay the foundation for future long-term observations of Earth’s climate is moving ahead, despite repeated attempts by President Donald Trump’s administration to kill it. Yesterday, amid a torrent of other news, NASA quietly announced it had awarded a $57 million contract to start building the instrument, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) early next decade.

    Last year, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder was one of several earth science missions targeted by the new administration for cancellation. Although Congress ultimately rejected that request, it prompted NASA to halt work on the project in May 2017. But now, the agency said, it has awarded a contract to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder, to build CLARREO Pathfinder’s primary component, a specialized camera.

    The revived mission joins several other earth science programs in surviving near-death threats. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, which the Trump administration also proposed for cancellation, is now set to launch to the ISS  in February 2019. Congress has drafted, though has not yet passed, language reinstating NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System. And the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has pledged to follow the guidance of the earth science decadal survey, a consensus wish list of NASA missions compiled by earth scientists that has endorsed many of the missions targeted for cancellation or budget cuts.

  • Tired of male-dominated meetings, leading cancer conference makes nearly all of its speakers women

    conference attendees gather at a poster session

    Conference attendees gather at a poster session at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Tobias Schwerdt/DKTK

    Calling out “manels”—all male panels at meetings—has been one way researchers concerned about gender equity have called attention to the frequent imbalance of men and women on scientific conference programs. Now, organizers of a meeting at a leading cancer institute in Germany have gone a step further. At the Frontiers in Cancer Research meeting early next month, 23 of the 28 invited speakers—or 82%—are women.

    “We invited women who are driving the field. … The ratio is the opposite of what it usually is,” says Ursula Klingmüller, a systems biologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg and chair of the center’s Executive Women’s Initiative, which is organizing the meeting, which will run from 9 to 11 October.

    The aim of the meeting, hosted by DKFZ, is to “show that we have really outstanding researchers around the world doing excellent work.” Organizers briefly considered inviting only women as speakers, Klingmüller says, but decided that wasn’t the approach they wanted to take. Instead, the organizers invited a man to speak at each session. “No one is excluded,” she says.

  • Argentina’s economic crisis could trigger scientific ‘collapse,’ researchers warn

    a chemistry teacher in front of an outdoor class

    An outdoor chemistry class held on 28 August in Buenos Aires as part of a rally against the government's alleged “destruction of Argentianian science.”

    Exactas UBA/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

    BUENOS AIRES—Argentine scientists are deeply worried about the effects of the country’s economic crisis on science. The government has proposed cutting research budgets in 2019 as part of an austerity push and it is behind in its financial commitments to institutes for this year, which means many labs lack the funds to pay for day-to-day operations. “The science and technology system of Argentina is collapsing,” warns molecular biologist Alberto Kornblihtt, who heads the Institute of Physiology, Molecular Biology, and Neurosciences of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) here.

    The government has also decided to eliminate eight ministries, including the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation, created in 2007, which has now become part of the education ministry; former Science Minister Lino Barañao, a chemist, has become a government secretary. The demotion is “a major setback that can not be ignored by the community of scientists, engineers, and technologists,” the National Academy of Exact, Physical, and Natural Sciences here wrote in a statement issued this week. “We are deeply convinced the Ministry’s elimination will not be a great contribution to solving” the economic crisis, the nine board members of Conicet wrote in a letter to Argentine President Mauricio Macri.

    Macri’s center-right government on 19 September presented a balanced budget for 2019 that it hopes will please the International Monetary Fund enough to help secure a loan package to address the economic crisis. As part of the measures, Barañao’s budget will go down from 3.7 billion pesos (roughly $96 million) in 2018 to 3.4 billion pesos (about $88 million). With inflation factored in, however, that’s effectively a 35% cut, says Fernando Peirano, a professor at the National University of Quilmes here and a consultant for the Argentine Industrial Union. The National Commission of Space Activities will suffer a 20% funding cut, to 1.9 billion pesos. Conicet, which pays most researchers’ salaries, will see its budget go up by 27%, from 13.3 billion pesos to 16.4 billion pesos, but even that isn’t enough to keep up with the expected inflation rate for this year.

     

  • Trump administration to review human fetal tissue research

    fetal brain cells in the corpus striatum

    Neurons deep in a fetal brain viewed through an electron microscope. Fetal brain tissue is used to study Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, and other conditions.

    Steve Gschmeissner/Science Source

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., which funds much of the nation’s biomedical research, has launched a “comprehensive review” of human fetal tissue research, to ensure that it’s complying with laws and regulations. The move comes on the heels of letters to the chiefs of HHS and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Silver Spring, Maryland, from antiabortion groups and lawmakers decrying a recent FDA contract with a firm that supplies fetal tissue. Fetal tissue research is legal under a 1993 law.

    “HHS has initiated a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research,” and to ensure adequate oversight “in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved,” the department said in a statement issued yesterday.

    The action was accompanied by the abrupt cancellation of a contract under which a company, Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR) of Alameda, California, was supplying fetal tissue to FDA to create so-called humanized mice for drug testing. HHS also said it would now audit all similar government contracts for tissue procurement.

  • Inbred Isle Royale wolves to get company, rebooting the world’s longest running predator-prey experiment

    aerial view of two wolves in the snow

    The two surviving wolves on Isle Royale—pictured here in February—are to be joined this fall by wolves from Michigan and Minnesota.

    Rolf O. Peterson/Michigan Technological University

    In the next 6 weeks, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) will airlift six wolves from the U.S. mainland to nearby Isle Royale in Michigan to help restore the predator-prey system on the island, park superintendent Phyllis Green announced in a press conference today in Houghton, Michigan. The operation is to be completed by 31 October.

    The airlift will drastically change the classic study of the island’s predator-prey dynamics, found in every ecology textbook.

    Just two inbred wolves remain of the Isle Royale population that has been preying on moose and studied for nearly 60 years. The new wolves are to be the first wave of several over the next 3 years, expected to result in a new population of 20 to 30 wolves. With this reboot of the predator-prey system, NPS is also seeking to engage more scientists to study the unique wilderness park. “How do we restart the science?” Green asks. “We know there are many aspects of the island we haven’t researched fully.”

  • Testing and cleaning North Carolina’s water supply post-Florence could prove tricky. A microbiologist explains why

    a man walking down stairs into a flooded area

    Microbes in floodwaters from Hurricane Florence have likely contaminated drinking water.

    David Goldman/AP Photo

    Hurricane Florence dropped record-breaking amounts of rain as it hovered over the Carolinas last week. The resulting floodwaters killed dozens of people and created a lingering crisis for drinking water supplies. Across North Carolina, lagoons full of livestock waste, enclosures full of dead chickens and hogs, raw sewage from wastewater treatment plants, and coal ash ponds are all overflowing. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement on Monday that at least 23 drinking water systems in the state had temporarily halted their operations and that 21 others were operating with boil water advisories.

    Rachel Noble, a microbiologist at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and her team are working to track potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses as they flow through North Carolina’s water system. She told Science about poststorm threats to drinking water and how to cut down on the dangerous lag time in the tests that detect them.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Cornell nutrition scientist resigns after retractions and research misconduct finding

    Brian Wansink

    Brian Wansink

    Wikimedia Commons

    Brian Wansink, the Cornell University nutrition researcher known for probing the psychology behind human eating habits, has resigned after a university misconduct investigation, and following the retraction this week of six of his papers.

    In a statement issued yesterday, Cornell’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff, said the investigation had revealed “misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

    Wansink contested the university’s conclusion in a statement shared with Science, saying, “The interpretation of these four acts of misconduct can be debated, and I did so for a year without the success I expected.” He admitted to mistaken reporting, poor documentation, and “some statistical mistakes,” but maintains that there was “no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, or no misappropriation” in his work. “I believe all of my findings will be either supported, extended, or modified by other research groups,” he added.

  • Indian court offers final vindication for innocent space scientist who was arrested and tortured

    Nambi Narayanan

    Sankaralingam Nambi Narayanan’s scientific career was destroyed by spying allegations.

    Lebison Gopi

    Sankaralingam Nambi Narayanan, the former top Indian space scientist who was arrested and tortured in 1994 after allegations he sold space program secrets to Pakistan, has finally had his name cleared and his treatment condemned by the highest court in India.

    On 14 September, the Supreme Court of India announced its conclusion that the original case against Narayanan was concocted and awarded him 5 million rupees (roughly $70,000) in compensation. The entire prosecution initiated by the Kerala state police was malicious and caused tremendous harassment and immeasurable anguish to Narayanan, the court said. It also ordered the creation of a committee headed by a former Supreme Court judge to take action against the police officials whose actions led to the spying imbroglio.

    Narayanan and others accused in the episode were declared innocent by a local court in 1996, but a spate of litigation on the matter followed over the next 2 decades. Narayanan says his life was never the same. “The lives of all the accused got shattered and we all suffered silently,” he says.

  • Trump’s biodefense plan aims to improve coordination across agencies

    Person in biohazard suit

    The White House hopes to bolster the country’s biodefense by better coordinating the activities of many government agencies.

    mediaphotos/iStockPhoto

    In an attempt to bolster the U.S. government’s defenses against biological threats, President Donald Trump’s administration yesterday announced a strategy to better coordinate the often overlapping efforts of 15 departments and agencies and 16 branches of the intelligence community. “Our National Biodefense Strategy will address the full range of biological threats, including those that are naturally occurring, deliberate, and accidental—a first for the United States Government,” Trump said in a statement. He pledged the change would “promote a more efficient, coordinated, and accountable biodefense enterprise.”

    A senior administration official, who would only speak on background without being named, explained in a press briefing that “There wasn’t a clear accountability of who’s in charge.” In the new scheme, spelled out in a presidential memorandum and a 30-page report, the National Security Council in Washington, D.C., will oversee biodefense policy and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), also in Washington, D.C., will take the lead on carrying it out. The HHS secretary will oversee a related Cabinet-level steering committee. There also will be an annual review of the strategy “to move away from the concept we see in too many strategy documents, that they’re written and then that’s the end of the process,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said at a separate press briefing with HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

    The steering committee plans to survey all government departments and agencies involved with biodefense, which will lead to requests for new funding—possibly as early as fiscal year 2020, Azar said. “It is really the first-ever holistic look across the government to see where we are acting, and where might there be any gaps in light of our awareness of threats, our preparedness needs, and our ability to respond,” Azar said.

  • NSF spells out new sexual harassment policy: Talk to us

    France Córdova

    France Córdova

    Anne K. Du Vivier/NSF

    Starting next month, universities must tell the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, if any faculty members with NSF grants have been found guilty of sexual and other forms of harassment, or if they have suspended them for any reason. But NSF won’t pull its funding if institutions can assure the agency that another faculty member can take over the research project.

    Those new requirements are part of changes to NSF’s grantmaking process that will go into effect on 21 October. They are essentially what NSF proposed in March, after Director France Córdova responded to rising concern over sexual harassment in science by promising to provide a “safe, productive research and education environment” at institutions it funds.

    Córdova said then that she hoped the new policy would prevent the agency from being blindsided by media reports of NSF grantees who are harassers. NSF has now clarified how the notification process will work. But the new policy could still leave NSF in the dark for quite a while after someone has first complained about harassment by a researcher.

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