Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Report gives details of sexual harassment allegations that felled a famed geneticist

    Francisco Ayala

    Francisco Ayala resigned from the University of California, Irvine, effective 1 July, in the wake of a sexual harassment report.

    AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

    The investigative report that triggered the ouster of prominent evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala from the University of California (UC), Irvine, found that his behavior included telling a pregnant colleague “you’re so huge” and regularly putting his hands under a female administrator’s jacket and rubbing them up and down her sides. According to the report, he told a female professor that she had been so animated while giving a talk that he thought she would “have an orgasm.” In another instance, he invited a junior professor in a crowded meeting to sit on his lap, saying he would enjoy the presentation more that way.

    The 97-page report, completed in May and obtained by Science, describes a long-standing pattern of behavior by Ayala that continued even after he was warned to stop in 2015. The report detailed off-color remarks and repeated unsolicited compliments on women’s physical appearances—behaviors witnessed by one or more of the 61 people interviewed for the investigation. The investigators said women felt professionally undermined by his conduct and they concluded that Ayala, 84, violated UC Irvine’s sexual harassment and sex discrimination policies in the cases of three of the four women who lodged complaints against him. In response, the university terminated Ayala on 1 July and plans to strip his name from its science library and biology building.

    In responses included in the report, Ayala strenuously denies most of the allegations. He told investigators that the entire complaint of Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) professor and chair Kathleen Treseder, who reported the “you’re so huge” and orgasm comments, “was a lie.” “I saw my compliments as courtesies. And they turned those courtesies into sexual harassment,” Ayala told Science in an interview today.

  • Census Bureau nominee becomes lightning rod for debate over 2020 census

    Richard Fink and Steven Dillingham at a George Mason University event

    Steven Dillingham (right) at a 2016 event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

    Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

    If there’s going to be a fight over President Donald Trump’s choice for the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau, it won’t be over whether Steven Dillingham has sufficient government experience: He’s led two smaller federal statistical agencies and spent several more years at other agencies. Nor will it be over his academic qualifications: He holds a Ph.D. in political science, as well as a law degree, an MBA, and a master’s degree in public administration.

    Instead, the fight will be over whether Dillingham, a 66-year-old native of South Carolina and rock-ribbed Republican, is capable of steering the agency through a sea of controversy as it prepares for the 2020 census. Democrats and civil rights groups worry he will do the bidding of his political bosses and undermine the integrity of the decennial head count. But those who know him, including liberal academics, say he’s a straight shooter with good management skills and someone who doesn’t let his conservative political views interfere with day-to-day operations.

    “He’s a tip-top scholar, a progressive administrator, and a very ethical guy,” says Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia, who worked under Dillingham at the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the early 1990s but no longer stays in touch with the nominee. “I think it’s a wonderful appointment.”

  • Burton Richter, Nobel Prize–winning physicist with influence in Washington, D.C., dies

    Burton Richter

    Burton Richter led the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center from 1984 to 1999.

    Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service (CC BY-NC-SA)

    Burton Richter, a Nobel Prize–winning particle physicist who also exercised significant influence in scientific policy, died on 18 July, the laboratory announced yesterday. He was 87 years old. In 1974, Richter’s key scientific discovery laid a cornerstone for physicists’ standard model of fundamental particles and forces. In later years, he played an important role in U.S. science policy, including a restructuring of the Department of Energy that elevated its scientific efforts.

    “The thing about Burt is that he never went out and said, ‘This is what I did,’” says Michael Lubell, a physicist at City College of New York and a former lobbyist with the American Physical Society (APS) in Washington, D.C. “He was content with the outcome.”

    Richter won nearly instant scientific fame in 1974 when he and his team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (now SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) in Menlo Park, California, smashed together high-energy electrons and positrons to produce a new particle which they dubbed the ψ. The discovery was key because the ψ turned out to be made of a particle called the charm quark and its antimatter partner. At essentially the same time, a team at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered the same particle, which they called the J. The particle is still called the J/ψ.

  • Trump overhaul of Endangered Species Act could shrink protections for many animals

    Woodland caribou

    The woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

    H. Mark Weidman Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    The Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries today unveiled what some bill as the most significant changes to Endangered Species Act regulations in several decades.

    Consultations with other agencies would be streamlined. There would be a tighter definition of "foreseeable future," crucial in ESA decisions. Critical habitats could shrink, and threatened species would no longer automatically receive the same protections as endangered species.

  • Gabriela González’s improbable journey to lead federal STEM panel

    Gabriela González talking with students outside

    Gabriela González with high school girls at a science camp in Peru.

    Gabriela González

    Barely 3 years after arriving in the United States from Mexico at the age of 13, Gabriela González was facing a precarious future. She had moved out of her mother’s house in Bellingham, Washington, and was living on her own while attending high school. Her grades were good and she wanted to continue her education, but college seemed out of reach.

    “Have you ever thought about engineering?” the youth minister at her church asked her.

    “Will it pay for college?” she answered.

  • A top Chinese brain scientist wonders how he ended up on the U.S. visa blacklist

    Rao Yi working in a laboratory

    “The U.S. embassy is not afraid of offending people and making enemies,” says Rao Yi of Peking University in Beijing.

    Rao Yi

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—Frustrated with a string of unexplained U.S. visa denials, a top Chinese brain scientist has decided to go public, copying numerous journalists on a 17 July email to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing pleading his case.

    "Most embassies try to make more friends for their countries; the U.S. embassy is not afraid of offending people and making enemies," says Rao Yi, a high-profile neuroscientist at Peking University in Beijing who studied and worked in the United States for 22 years. His difficulty obtaining a visa is particularly ironic, given that he has been invited to attend a workshop by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), a government agency based in Alexandria, Virginia.

    Rao, 56, earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1991 from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and did a postdoc at Harvard University. He was on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for 10 years and later joined Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, where he rose to be a full professor. Along the way, he acquired U.S. citizenship. He returned to China in 2007 to become dean of Peking University's School of Life Sciences. He later gave up his U.S. citizenship.

  • Trump picks entomologist to lead U.S. farm research programs

    Yellow, orange and green slices of oranges and other citrus fruits.

    If confirmed by Senate, Scott Hutchins would lead a sprawling U.S. Department of Agriculture research program that includes efforts to improve citrus crops.

    Scott Bauer/USDA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    An entomologist with a corporate background is President Donald Trump's pick to head research programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

    Trump intends to nominate Scott Hutchins, global leader of integrated field sciences for Corteva Agriscience, for undersecretary of Agriculture for research, education and economics, the White House said yesterday.

  • Hungarian academy president vows to keep fighting for independence as government takes control

    László Lovász

    “I can’t understand why they couldn’t take the prestige of the academy into account when they decided on these changes,” says László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

    Today, Hungary’s parliament approved an amendment that makes it legally possible to transfer a large part of the budget of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) in Budapest to the country’s newly established Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM). The vote is the first step in a process that may bring almost €88 million of MTA’s €124 million annual budget under direct control of ITM; the next step is a parliamentary vote on the science budget itself on Friday. The government’s proposal is widely expected to pass.

    Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics has said the transfer will unite Hungary’s innovation and science policy and end fragmentation of research budgets. But many scientists see the move as a power grab by an increasingly authoritarian regime that would extend political influence over science spending and research agendas.

    Last week, ScienceInsider talked to MTA President László Lovász, who has negotiated at length with Palkovics in search of a last-minute compromise. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Studies downplay threat that dams pose to primates in Guinea and Indonesia, critics say

    chimp in Bossou, Guinea

    One dam threatens 1500 endangered western chimpanzees in Guinea, like this one in Bossou.

    Kalyanee Mam

    A pair of proposed hydroelectric dams that will encroach on the habitats of critically endangered primates—in Guinea and Indonesia—are receiving fierce criticism from conservation groups, who fault what they call inadequate scientific review of the harmful effects of these big infrastructure projects.

    The government of Guinea was finalizing plans last week for the construction of a 294-megawatt hydroelectric dam in the country’s Moyen Bafing National Park, which wildlife experts say could lead to the loss of up to 1500 critically endangered western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus), a subspecies whose population has fallen by more than 80% over the past 20 years. Guinea created the national park only this year as a refuge for an estimated 4000 chimpanzees.

    A dam planned for Sumatra in Indonesia faces similar criticism; constructing the roads, tunnels, and power lines necessary to service the dam would deforest the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan subspecies (Pongo tapanuliensis), discovered only last year, which has a remaining population of just 800 apes.

  • Does ‘supportive housing’ help the homeless with medical needs? Not clear, study says

    homeless man sleeping in a doorway

    A new report questions the impact of support services that go beyond providing stable, safe shelter for the homeless.

    Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

    A new report finds no evidence that efforts to provide support for the chronically homeless improve their health or reduce the cost of their care. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. government should stop funding programs that offer permanent supportive housing (PSH), say the authors of the study, conducted by a panel convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Instead, the report calls for more analyses of what types of interventions work best for which populations.

    “As a former clinician and public health official it would seem logical, if not obvious, that if you can keep people safe with housing they should have better health outcomes,” says the report’s chair, Kenneth Kizer, who leads the Institute for Population Health Improvement at the University of California, Davis. “Indeed, one of our recommendations is that we need to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing.”

    The chronically homeless represent less than 20% of the 550,000 homeless people in the United States. But that group tends to require more social and medical services than those with even occasional access to safe and stable housing environments do.

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