Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Update: Vacationing Turkish scholar arrested after her return

    The flag of Turkey.

    The flag of Turkey.

    alexeyklyukin/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    *Update: Turkish media are reporting today that Meral Camcı was arrested upon returning to Istanbul after a vacation in France. According to reports, she turned herself in willingly. Science's pre-arrest interview with Camcı, published 22 March, appears below. 

    The simmering war between Turkish academics and their increasingly repressive government came to a boil last week with arrests and an escape. It began in January with the firing of dozens of academics, many of them scientists, from Turkey’s universities. All had signed an online petition by a group calling itself Academics for Peace that is critical of the government’s treatment of the Kurdish minority group. The firings sparked protests and statements from scientific organizations, including the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, calling on the government to respect freedom of speech.

    The standoff held until 13 March, when Kurdish separatists set off a car bomb in the capital, killing 37 people. The next day Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that the definition of “terrorism” should be expanded to include all who provide support in the form of “propaganda” and specifically called out academics.

    Within hours of the president’s speech, police arrived at the homes of four Turkish researchers. Three are now imprisoned; Turkish academics fear that many more arrests will follow. But Meral Camcı, a literary scholar who had been dismissed from her faculty position at Yeni Yüzyıl University in Istanbul, had gone to France on vacation just days before.

  • French scientist accused of perjury for allegedly concealing industry payments

    Michel Aubier discussed the risks of air pollution in a talk show on television station France 5 on 1 March.

    Michel Aubier discussed the risks of air pollution in a talk show on television station France 5 on 1 March.

    France 5

    A prominent pneumologist is in the crosshairs of the French Senate because he apparently didn't disclose his paid work for an oil company during a Senate inquiry into the costs of air pollution. Michel Aubier, an asthma specialist at the Hôpital Bichat-Claude Bernard in Paris, could face prison time and a hefty fine if his alleged perjury goes to court.

    Aubier, who is also a member of a research team at France's National Institute of Health and Medical Resrach (INSERM), told a Senate committee of inquiry that the link between air pollution—including diesel particles—and lung cancer is tenuous and controversial. Aubier, who was under oath, also told the committee that he had “no links of interests with economic actors” involved in this issue.

    But earlier this month, newspapers Libération and Le Canard enchaîné revealed that the petrol firm Total pays Aubier as a medical adviser—€50,000 to €60,000 per year since the late 1990s, according to an article by broadsheet Le Monde on 18 March.

  • Ebola no longer a public health emergency


    A man in the Guinean capital Conakry receiving the experimental Ebola vaccine in April 2015.

    Idrissa Soumaré

    The Ebola epidemic that began ravaging three West African countries in December 2013 has come to an end.

    Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, declared today that the epidemic no longer is a “public health emergency of international concern.” Chan made the announcement following advice from an emergency committee that WHO convened to discuss the Ebola epidemic. “As the experts noted during their meeting today, Ebola response capacity in West Africa is strong,” Chan said. “The three countries now have the world’s largest pool of experts in responding to Ebola.”

  • Q&A with Damian Bailey: Studying dementia from atop Mount Everest

    Q&A with Damian Bailey: Studying dementia from atop Mount Everest

    Damian Bailey (left), with mountaineer Richard Parks, who plans to scale Everest by the end of May.

    Richard Parks

    Yesterday, mountaineer Richard Parks set out for Kathmandu to begin some highly unusual data-gathering. As part of Project Everest Cynllun, he will climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and perform—on himself—a series of blood draws, muscle biopsies, and cognitive tests. If he makes it to the summit, these will be the highest-elevation blood and tissue samples ever collected.

    Damian Bailey, a physiologist at the University of South Wales, Pontypridd, in the United Kingdom and the project’s lead scientist, hopes the risky experiment will yield new information about how the human body responds to low-oxygen conditions, and how similar mechanisms might drive cognitive decline with aging. As Parks began the acclimatization process with warm-up climbs on two smaller peaks, Bailey told ScienceInsider about his ambitions for the project. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Japan loses contact with its new x-ray space observatory

    An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

    An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

    Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

    Japan’s space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is desperately trying to re-establish communications with its recently launched Hitomi x-ray observatory (formerly known as ASTRO-H) following a loss of contact on 26 March. Hitomi is a groundbreaking telescope that will be able to image emissions from black holes, the swirl of hot gas in galaxy clusters, and supernova remnants through high-energy photons—including x-rays and gamma rays—with unprecedented accuracy. It was launched 17 February and was still being commissioned, but at the start of operations on Saturday it failed to respond as normal.   

    The U.S.-based Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which tracks orbiting objects with radar, reported on 27 March seeing five separate objects at Hitomi’s location. But JAXA spokesperson Azusa Yabe says that the agency had received short signals from Hitomi after JSpOC reported its possible breakup.

    Ground-based amateur satellite watchers also reported seeing Hitomi in a slow spin. Chisato Ikuta, deputy director of Institute of Space and Astronautical Science/JAXA’s press office in Kanagawa, says “these may help us to understand the status of Hitomi. However, we still do not know the present status of Hitomi, because we have not communicated with the satellite yet.” Yabe adds that as long as the spacecraft’s solar array is getting enough power, Hitomi should be able to communicate with Earth even if spinning. “We are still trying to recover communication with ‘Hitomi,’ and trying to find out the status and causes of this communication failure,” Yabe says.

  • Biologists ask NSF to reconsider plan to pause collections funding program

    Coquerel's sifakas at the Duke Lemur Center are cared for in part by the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which was just suspended by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

    Coquerel's sifakas at the Duke Lemur Center are cared for in part by the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which was just suspended by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

    David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

    Leaders of U.S. natural history collections yesterday asked the National Science Foundation (NSF) to reconsider a recent decision to suspend a key funding program for a year, warning that a “vital resource is at risk.”

    Agency officials, however, say the move is part of the agency’s periodic efforts to assess the effectiveness of its spending, and they played down worries that NSF will abandon its support for maintaining collections of both dead and living organisms that are important to biologists and ecologists. "It's premature to assume that this particular program will disappear, given that the collection program has gone through this process in the past and reappeared as a very vital and important part of our research resource activities," says Muriel Poston, director of NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) in Arlington, Virginia.

    Last week, DBI officials alarmed some researchers when they announced that NSF would suspend and reevaluate the program, called Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). Created in 2011, CSBR has awarded about $3 million to $5 million per year in recent years to projects such as upgrading freezers for tissue samples, tending stock colonies of fruit flies, and providing new cabinets for plant specimens. One role of the program is to rescue “orphaned” collections, moving them to new institutions when their former homes can no longer care for them.

  • House budget plan would rearrange and restrict federal research portfolio

    U.S. House tees up controversial bill on NSF research

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    If an influential congressional budget committee has its way, the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) could be eliminated, and many research programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) would be sharply curtailed.

    Those startling changes in federal research policy are part of a blueprint for spending that was released yesterday by the budget committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. A faction of House Republicans has blocked approval of the so-called annual budget resolution—which does not have the force of law but is symbolically potent—because they think it calls for too much spending. Specifically, they have objected to a $1.07 trillion ceiling for discretionary spending in 2017, part of a December 2015 budget agreement between Congress and the White House.

    So it’s not clear whether Republican leaders in the House will be able to gain enough support to pass any budget resolution. In addition, the Republican-controlled Senate has put an indefinite hold on its work on a budget resolution.

  • Karolinska Institute fires fallen star surgeon Paolo Macchiarini

    Allegations raised by a Swedish television documentary may prompt the Karolinska Institute to reopen a misconduct investigation involving surgeon and tissue engineering pioneer Paolo Macchiarini.

    Allegations raised by a Swedish television documentary may prompt the Karolinska Institute to reopen a misconduct investigation involving surgeon and tissue engineering pioneer Paolo Macchiarini.

    Conan Fitzpatrick/SVT

    The curtain has finally fallen for trachea surgeon Paolo Macchiarini at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm. Today, the renowned university announced that Macchiarini will be dismissed effective immediately after its disciplinary board found that he "engaged in conduct and research that is incompatible with a position of employment at KI."

    But Macchiarini, who has shaken off misconduct allegations several times before, vows to fight on. "I do not accept any of the findings of the Disciplinary Board," he wrote in an email to Science this afternoon. "I have instructed lawyers and will be taking immediate steps to restore my reputation."

    Once hailed as a surgical pioneer for attempts to replace damaged tracheae with artificial ones that combined stem cells with polymer scaffolds—or decellularized donor tracheae—Macchiarini survived a misconduct investigation at KI last year. But a troubling three-part documentary aired on Swedish television in January ripped the scandal wide open again and triggered serious questions about the way KI had handled its investigation.

  • Microsoft pioneer invests big, again, in bioscience

    Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

    Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

    Kevin Cruff

    Paul G. Allen, who built a fortune as co-founder of Microsoft, is showering science once more with his money. The philanthropist behind the 13-year-old Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, and several other science efforts today announced the creation of a new bioscience research initiative funded with an initial investment of $100 million over the next 10 years.

    The newly created Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group has selected four initial researchers—Jennifer Doudna of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Ethan Bier of UC San Diego, James Collins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Bassem Hassan of the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris—to receive $1.5 million each to study topics ranging from novel techniques for gene editing, how shapes and forms arise over the course of evolution, and how synthetic biology can create microbes that trap and kill dangerous bacteria. Allen will also fund two new $30 million research centers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Tufts University in Boston; Stanford researchers will model how bacteria interact with immune cells, whereas the Tufts group will seek to crack the biological code that determines how tissues are created. To determine which investigators would receive the Frontier Group’s first grants, “we asked everyone the same question: What is the dark matter of bioscience?” says its executive director, biomedical engineer Tom Skalak in Seattle. That includes fundamental questions about organisms’ growth, development, and regeneration, such as how the epigenetic code works to control tissue function, he says.

    It’s a bet on a proven artist [to fund] their next masterpiece.

    Tom Skalak
  • This time, it’s North Dakota that sinks an experiment related to burying nuclear waste

    Borehole advocates say tubes of cesium and strontium waste stored in a pool at the Hanford site in Washington State could go deep underground.

    Borehole advocates say tubes of cesium and strontium waste stored in a pool at the Hanford site in Washington could go deep underground.

    U.S. Department of Energy

    The history of failed attempts to deal with U.S. nuclear waste gained another chapter this month, when local opposition prompted scientists to abandon tests of a new disposal technique in eastern North Dakota.

    In early March, Battelle Memorial Institute, a large research nonprofit based in Columbus, quietly withdrew plans to drill two holes up to 5 kilometers deep into the granite bedrock beneath the rolling prairie there. Those were supposed to be the centerpiece of an $80 million, federally funded project to see whether the government could get rid of some highly radioactive waste by sticking it deep underground.

    The retreat followed objections from residents of rural Pierce County, who feared the drilling would open the door to nuclear waste. It underscores the treacherous path facing any major effort tied to nuclear waste, even when federal officials insist the project was a test that would never involve radioactive material.

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