Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

    Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

    Ilaria Capua says the University of Florida is not at all concerned by her legal troubles at home.

    Italian virologist-turned-politician Ilaria Capua has thrown in the towel. After 3 years in politics, she is leaving Italy and going back to science, frustrated by what she says is an antiscientific attitude among fellow politicians. Capua, an expert on avian influenza, will become director of the One Health Center of Excellence for Research and Training at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville on 20 June.

    In 2013, Capua took a leave of absence as director of the Division of Biomedical Science of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie in Padua, Italy, a government lab for veterinary research, after being elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies for Scelta Civica, a party led by economist and then–Prime Minister Mario Monti. Capua has been under criminal investigation since 2005, resulting in a formal accusation in 2014 that she sold and trafficked in avian flu viruses between 1999 and 2008. She says the charges are baseless but that they have made her a “lame duck” in Parliament.

    Capua entered politics at Monti's invitation; he wanted candidates with technical expertise to join his new reformist party. But her experience since then has been “surreal,” she says. In a book published in January, Capua observed the bombastic behavior of her colleagues and the overly formal procedures in Montecitorio, the seat of the Chamber of Deputies, much like a scientist studying an unknown insect. “Politics is a complicated world, especially if you think in a rational and fact-related fashion. I often feel dismayed,” she says.

  • NIH gets $2 billion boost in Senate spending bill

    Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

    Andrew Magill/Flickr

    A Senate spending panel today approved a $2 billion boost in 2017 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or a 6.2% increase to $34.1 billion. It's the second year in a row that the Senate has slated the agency for a large increase after 12 years of flat budgets. 

    “This is tremendous and we are profoundly grateful to [committee leaders] for taking a critical step toward rebuilding the stability of the NIH budget,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The bill from the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budgets of health, labor, and education agencies disregarded a request from President Obama to cut NIH's budget by $1 billion and then use so-called mandatory funds to restore that money and give the agency an additional $825 million. Many lawmakers are loathe to use mandatory funding, which comes from a dedicated stream such as a special tax or selling off some of the nation’s petroleum reserves. In March, Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), who chairs the health spending subcommittee, and the chair of the corresponding House of Representatives panel, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), said they would reject the Obama proposal. They pledged to use the regular appropriations process to give NIH at least a $1 billion boost in the 2017 fiscal year that begins 1 October as part of steady budget growth. 

  • European research universities form a new lobby organization—but did they need it?

    European research universities form a new lobby organization—but did they need it?

    The University of Groningen in the Netherlands is one of nine founding members of the new organization.

    Eigenberg Fotografie/Creative Commons

    Nine European universities that invest heavily in research have set up a new group to lobby the European Union's institutions. The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, announced on Wednesday, includes the University of Oslo, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and the University of Bologna in Italy. It's seeking new members before its official launch in November.

    But wait, you might ask—didn't Europe's research universities have an organization in Brussels already?

    Yes, they do; that would be the influential League of European Research Universities (LERU), founded in 2002 and made up of 21 prestigious institutions, including the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, that do well in international university rankings. There are several other university organizations as well, such as the mammoth European University Association (EUA), with 850 members in 47 countries, and the Coimbra Group, which unites 38 European universities, including some of the guild's founding members. (There's also IDEA League and the EuroTech Universities Alliance, which are made up of just four and five universities, respectively.)

  • NIH in uproar over report slamming Clinical Center, leadership shakeup

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

    National Institutes of Health

    A decision to overhaul the leadership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center after an outside review group found serious patient safety problems has sparked an uproar at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. In a recent letter, department chiefs at the center wrote that the review, triggered by problems with a drug production facility, unfairly concluded that patient safety has been compromised across the research hospital. They say the working group’s report has demoralized staff, worried patients, and “demonized” the center’s leadership.

    Patient advocates and clinical research leaders across NIH have also written letters taking issue with the review. NIH Director Francis Collins yesterday responded to one of the letters, from Clinical Center department heads. In a statement, Collins said he is “taking the comments … very seriously. They are highly dedicated senior leaders, and I have great respect for all of them.” At the same time, he “stand[s] by” the outside working group’s process and expertise and agrees that the center needs “more central authority and accountability.” Collins was expected to meet with clinical leaders today to discuss their concerns.

  • Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

    Leading science fair expands efforts to attract minority students

    2013 Intel finalist Alexa Dantzler has become an advocate for more diversity in student science competitions.

    Intel STS

    Alexa Dantzler fell in love with science as a freshman at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. And by the time she graduated in 2013, she had been chosen as one of 40 finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition (STS). 

    But Dantzler, whose ethnic background is Slovak, Korean, and African-American, was troubled by how few of the other competitors were from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. So, soon after she arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, Dantzler started a program to attract more students “who look like me” into university research and science competitions. The Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the Washington, D.C.–based organization that runs the STS competition, was thinking along the same lines. And last month it chose Dantzler as one of a handful of “advocates” to draw more underrepresented minorities into research-based competitions.  

  • Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

    Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

    The Human Genome Project–Write would design human chromosomes from the ground up.


    Last year, researchers working to synthesize the genome of a strain of yeast began to eye a much bigger prize: assembling from scratch the 3 billion base pairs of DNA that drive a human cell. The idea caught the attention of other prominent scientists, and inspired a proposal published online in Science today. The so-called Human Genome Project–Write (HGP-write) aims to synthesize entire genomes—of humans and other species—from their chemical components, and get them to function in living cells.

    The initiative generated buzz last month after an invitation-only meeting to discuss the prospect at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Its organizers aimed to keep the details under wraps until this more formal proposal was published—a move that rankled those hoping for a broader public discussion about its ethical, legal, and social implications. Some speculated that scientists would use these engineered cells to create designer humans with no genetic parents.

    The new proposal makes clear that HGP-write has no such aim, the authors say. The main goal instead is to drive down the cost of engineering large stretches of DNA and testing their activity in cells. “HGP-write would push current conceptual and technical limits by orders of magnitude,” the authors write.

  • U.K. government isn’t tracking policy-related research

    U.K. government building

    The U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change

    Wayland Smith/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Government agencies in the United Kingdom do a poor job of keeping tabs on research they fund to set policies, according to a report released today by Sense About Science, a London-based group that advocates for the use of scientific evidence in policymaking. The report also described examples of delays in releasing the results of what it called “politically awkward” studies.

    “I am very concerned by the evidence from this enquiry,” Anne Glover, of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and a former science adviser to the European Commission, said in a statement.

    The analysis was done by Stephen Sedley, a retired judge in the United Kingdom and the European Court of Human Rights who is a trustee for the advocacy group. It focuses on research with immediate relevance to public policy, rather than basic scientific research. 

  • Scientific sleuths hunt for Zika-carrying mosquitoes


    Researchers in Brazil have captured thousands of mosquitoes to test them for Zika and other viruses.

    AP Photo/Felipe Dana

    Zika virus, the once obscure pathogen now widely feared for causing birth defects and other problems, has spread very far very quickly since an outbreak was first noticed in northeast Brazil in early 2015. It has reached more than 
40 countries across the Americas, even making it to the Cape Verde islands, off the western coast of Africa. More than a million people have become infected.

    As public health officials try to contain the epidemic, researchers are racing to answer a key question with important implications for which areas are at risk, and what methods might work to slow its spread: Which mosquitoes are transmitting the virus? Answering the question is no small challenge. Scientists need evidence from both lab-raised and wild-caught mosquitoes to make the case that a given species is guilty.

    Just last week, a team in Rio de Janeiro announced that it had nabbed several 
Aedes aegypti infected with Zika—the first infected mosquitoes found in Brazil. The species, the yellow fever mosquito, has long been the prime suspect, but some scientists believe the Zika virus must have other carriers to have spread so quickly—and they have field and lab studies underway to resolve the issue. Until that evidence is in, “we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” says Duane Gubler, a virologist at Duke-NUS Medical School 
in Singapore.

  • New chair of science board helps make NSF’s case to U.S. Congress

    New chair of science board helps make NSF’s case to U.S. Congress

    Maria Zuber.

    Bryce Vickmark/MIT

    The new chair of the board that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to continue the board’s stepped-up efforts to educate Congress on how NSF does its business.

    This month Maria Zuber, a planetary geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, took over from Dan Arvizu as chair of the National Science Board. The presidentially appointed body has traditionally kept a low profile. But in 2014 Arvizu asked Zuber to design a bigger role for the board in response to criticism from Republican legislators that NSF was funding frivolous research.

    The board’s response has been face-to-face meetings with individual legislators that take place after the end of the board’s regular 2-day sessions at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Over the past 18 months Arvizu and Zuber have helped connect a small contingent of board members with a score of legislators from both parties. Zuber and Arvizu say each side has learned from the other.

  • After meeting Nobel laureates, French president backs off ‘suicidal’ science cuts

    After meeting Nobelists, French president backs off ‘suicidal’ science budget

    French President François Hollande (right) and mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani at yesterday's meeting.

    Présidence de la République

    Some of France's most illustrious scientists were outraged—and yesterday, their president listened. After meeting five Nobel laureates and a winner of the Fields Medal, the world's top honor in mathematics, French President François Hollande has canceled more than half of an unexpected €256 million cut in research and higher education budgets that had caused consternation in the country's scientific community.

    The six laureates and two other Nobelists likened the cuts to "scientific and industrial suicide" in a letter published in Le Monde last week. The presidents of the scientific councils of five national agencies called the measures, introduced to offset unforeseen government expenses, "brutal" and said they would discourage young people from entering science.

    But in a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris at the president's invitation, "it was immediately clear that he was convinced by our arguments," physicist and 2012 Nobel Prize–winner Serge Haroche of the Collège de France in Paris tells ScienceInsider. "He understood that this was giving the wrong signal to the scientific community."

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