Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • At Trump’s EPA, once-public chemical safety reviews go dark

    Industrial chemicals sign

    Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to no longer be releasing preliminary assessments of potentially hazardous new chemicals or new uses of existing chemicals, according to documents reviewed by E&E News.

    The development means the public has no way to know whether the agency has initial concerns or has granted companies preliminary authorization to begin manufacturing new chemicals or using them in novel ways.

    During the Obama administration, EPA would note whether new chemicals or new chemical uses were "not likely to present an unreasonable risk" to human health or the environment.

  • U.S. Interior Department to put academic, nonprofit grants through political review

    A western snowy plover rests on a beach.

    Grants provided by the Department of the Interior, such as one last year that supported efforts to protect the western snowy plover (above), will now get new scrutiny to ensure they align with Trump administration priorities.

    Blake Matheson/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

    The U.S. Interior Department will now funnel certain grants through a political screening intended to ensure the federal dollars "better align" with the administration's "priorities," according to a newly revealed memo.

    The move invests considerable power in a senior Interior Department adviser named Steve Howke, who will be reviewing grants including those above $50,000 for universities, land acquisition purposes and nonprofits that can engage in advocacy.

    The new review process covering discretionary grants, declared in a 28 December memo, also comes with sharp teeth.

  • NASA should create a new $350 million earth science program, National Academies advise

    GRACE rendering in space

    Successors to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, which monitored declining ice sheets and underground water, are a top priority for NASA earth science. 


    NASA’s earth science division should create a new, medium-size $350 million mission line that is open to competition, according to a new report out today from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) that lays out the agency’s earth science priorities in a so-called decadal survey, a consensus wish list for U.S. earth scientists. In addition to the call for the new mission line, the report recommends that five larger flagship missions be launched in the coming decade.

    Over the past decade, thanks to an infusion of climate-focused spending from the administration of former President Barack Obama, NASA’s budget for satellite-based observation of Earth grew to $1.9 billion last year, the largest of NASA’s four science divisions. "We’re not at the bottom of some pit like we were before," says Bill Gail, chief technology officer at the Global Weather Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, titled Thriving on Our Changing Planet.

    But assuming the earth science budget now remains flat—far from a sure bet with the administration of President Donald Trump, which has been leery of climate research—NASA will have tough choices to make on future missions. "The simple fact is there’s not enough money to do what we want to do," says Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at University of Colorado in Boulder, and co-chair of the committee. Abdalati hopes that the new competitive mission line, along with a slim list of five flagship missions, will keep the earth science division within reasonable budgetary bounds. 

  • Trump proposes vast expansion of offshore drilling

    An offshore oil platform in calm seas off California.

    The Trump administration wants to allow offshore drilling in areas long closed to development.

    arbyreed/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    In a huge win for the oil and gas industry, the Trump administration today unveiled a new five-year plan that would allow more drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

    Ending months of speculation and igniting an outcry from critics, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the decision in a 1 p.m. press call.

    "This is a start on looking at American energy dominance," Zinke said, adding that the plan would make the U.S. "the strongest energy superpower."

  • Furor greets request to add citizenship question to 2020 U.S. census

    a smiling man hands someone a stack of papers, presumably census papers

    Critics of a request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census fear it will reduce response rates, harming accuracy and increasing the need for expensive face-to-face follow-up.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) wants the Census Bureau to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census. But that seemingly innocuous request to gather more information about the U.S. population has enraged census and civil rights advocates, who see it as part of a broader campaign by President Donald Trump and his administration to undermine the legitimacy of the decennial head count. And though the official deadline for telling Congress what’s on the census was last spring, the agency has some wriggle room to make changes.

    Here’s what is at stake

    Chronic underfunding for the $16 billion effort has left the Census Bureau in a precarious position as they prepare for Census Day on 1 April 2020. The budget shortfall has already forced the agency to drop two of three locations for a final test this April of dozens of systems and operations, as well as specialized exercises in Puerto Rico and tribal reservations.

  • Seven from 2017: ScienceInsider’s look back at hot stories of the year


    The March for Science drew more than a million demonstrators to Washington, D.C. (above), and some 600 other cities this year.

    Amaury Laporte/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    What a busy year for ScienceInsider. Hurricanes, fires, and floods. Researchers misbehaving, politicians squabbling, institutions battling over patents that could be worth billions of dollars. The research community produced plenty of news beyond show-stopping science such as new discoveries about the cosmos and how the slimy hagfish ties itself up in knots. And we tried to keep you up to date, publishing more than 1200 stories this year on policy, politics, personalities, and trends.

    Looking back, many storylines stand out. But in the interest of brevity (and fitting on your phone screen), ScienceInsider offers its seven from 2017: a selection of seven of our most important, interesting, or widely read stories and topics of the year.

  • UPDATED: In an unusual move, organizers postpone India's major annual science conference

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking from behind a podium.

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

    Office of the President of Mexico/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    In an unprecedented move, organizers of the annual Indian Science Congress have postponed the prestigious event just days before it was supposed to begin. The move apparently reflects concerns that students at the university hosting the congress would stage protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was scheduled to open the event.

    More than 10,000 scientists were expected to attend the 105th congress, a 5-day gathering at Osmania University in Hyderabad in southern India. But just 12 days before its 3 January 2018 start, organizers announced they had “indefinitely postponed” the event and that a “further course of action" will be announced. On 28 December, organizers said the meeting would be held at the Manipur University in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, a state that has never hosted the event. The exact new date of the congress has not been determined, but it is likely to be held in March 2018.

    The decision to postpone the Congress was “due to certain issues [on] the campus,” the Indian Science Congress Association in Kolkata said in a statement.The group pushed back, however, on reports that organizers were worried that students opposed to the Modi government’s policies would try to disrupt the proceedings, stating that the “postponement has no relation to the … Prime Minister’s visit to the event.” 

  • Little holiday cheer for U.S. science agencies as Congress extends spending freeze

    US Capitol at night

    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    A last-minute decision by Congress to extend a current freeze on federal spending will keep the U.S. government open for another month. Lawmakers yesterday passed a continuing resolution (CR) that orders agencies to continue spending at 2017 levels through 19 January 2018 while Congress tries to settle on final budget numbers for the 2018 fiscal year, which began on 1 October.

    That’s the big story.

    But the passage of the CR—which allows legislators to scamper home for the holidays—also means that several research agencies must put on hold their hopes for a happier new year.

  • Nobel laureate will step down from leading embattled Salk Institute

    Elizabeth Blackburn in Salk courtyard

    Elizabeth Blackburn will step down as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies next summer.

    Salk Institute

    Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist who took over just 2 years ago as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, today announced her intent to retire next summer. The unexpected news comes as Salk faces gender discrimination lawsuits from three veteran female scientists and Blackburn herself has been challenged for not moving quickly enough to change what one plaintiff’s suit called an “old boys club” at the renowned research institute.

    In a statement released by Salk, Blackburn said: “Being named to lead the Salk Institute unquestionably has been an honor of my life and this decision did not come without a great deal of thought. At this stage in my career and life, I’ve concluded that my energies will be best devoted to wider issues of science policy and ethics—issues in which I have had a deep and longstanding interest—and spent advocating for measures I feel are critical to supporting ongoing scientific research and discovery worldwide.”

    Carol Greider, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Blackburn for their discovery of telomeres and telomerase, commented in an email to Science: “I am encouraged to hear Liz is stepping aside from her position as President of the Salk. Liz had long been a champion of women in science. However, in recent weeks with the lawsuit at the Salk, it has been hard to hear this voice from Liz. … I welcome Liz’s desire to turn her energies to policy in the future.”

  • What were the most discussed studies of 2017?

    keyboard with social media platform logos

    Animated Heaven/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

    Limiting the amount of fat you eat may not, it turns out, reduce your risk of heart disease and death.

    That’s the conclusion of the “most discussed” scientific article last year, according to Altmetric, a London-based company that publishes the top 100 papers of the year. As The Times Higher Education explains, Altmetric ranks the publications based on their online popularity.

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