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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Faith groups backing march see an ally in science

    starry sky above a church

    Luca Baggio/Creative Commons

    On Saturday, thousands of Chicagoans are expected to hit the pavement on South Columbus Drive in support of one of the hundreds of rallies being held under the auspices of the March for Science. In the crowd will be Brian Sauder, who grew up in a deeply religious Anabaptist community in rural Tazewell County in Illinois, where he passed time fishing and hunting. Now a minister in Chicago, Sauder is just one of many faith leaders who are planning to join the march, and see little conflict between faith and science.

    “Our goal is to get people of faith from across Chicago to march for science,” Sauder told ScienceInsider. “We want to show that people of faith do take science seriously and that this perception that there is a deep divide is indeed not true.”

    Hoping for an outdoors career in fisheries or wildlife management, Sauder studied environmental science at the University of Illinois in Champaign as an undergraduate. But as he began to understand the science of climate change, he noted that people living in developing countries, who make the smallest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, are likely to suffer the most drastic consequences of planetary warming. “I started thinking,” he says, “that if my faith calls me to care for the least of those among me, how does the science that I am learning integrate with my faith?”

  • Two wolves survive in world’s longest running predator-prey study

    the only two wolves remaining on  Isle Royale

    Isle Royale’s two remaining wolves aren’t likely to breed, given their close relatedness and the female’s aggressive display. 

    Rolf O. Peterson

    For 2 years in a row, a pair of wolves has managed to survive on Isle Royale, Michigan, the last of their kind on the wilderness island. Researchers continue to track the wolves and their moose prey, in the last installments of the world’s longest running predator-prey study.  They report today that although the wolves hunt successfully, they are too few to affect the moose population. Aquatic as well as terrestrial vegetation is taking a hit as moose numbers climb, according to the study’s 59th annual report.

    After Canadian wolves colonized the island in 1949, the wolf population peaked at 50 in 1980, and as recently as a decade ago, 30 wolves prowled the island, a U.S. National Park. The island’s now-famous predator-prey study has tracked how wolf and moose numbers have risen and fallen in tandem over the decades, and left their mark on the island’s ecology. 

    In contrast to last year’s winter study, when wolf tracks were the only evidence of the predators, wildlife ecologist Rolf Peterson spotted both wolves sitting on lake ice on the January afternoon he arrived on the island.  Weeks later, Peterson and co-investigator John Vucetich, both of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, found the wolves feeding on a freshly-killed moose calf. “We were very lucky,” Peterson says. “There was no mystery left in terms of the wolf population,” or what they were eating.

  • Q&A: The U.S. Department of Justice scrapped independent forensics panel, but the scientific questions ‘are not going away’

    Close-up of stamping fingerprints

    MAEK123/iStockphoto

    Arturo Casadevall has zero training in forensic science—the techniques used in law enforcement and the courtroom to link individuals to crimes. For most of his career, the microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, paid the discipline little attention, but he did notice the field-shaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which found that many forensic techniques, from fingerprint comparisons to bloodstain pattern analysis, lacked a firm scientific footing. “I remember reading [NAS] about this and I said, ‘Oh my God, I thought fingerprints had been validated,’” he remembers.

    He would soon play a direct role in the field’s reform, as one of a handful of basic researchers invited to serve alongside lawyers, judges, and forensic practitioners on a panel, created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to advise DOJ on how to respond to the NAS report’s concerns. Since its founding in 2013, the panel has published 43 documents and made 20 official recommendations to the attorney general, including a call for the universal accreditation of forensic practitioners and for the phasing out of the meaningless phrase “reasonable scientific certainty” that is common in courtrooms.

    Last week, Casadevall and five other scientific members of the commission wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and acting National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Kent Rochford asking them to renew the group’s charter, set to run out 23 April. Instead, Sessions and DOJ announced on Monday that the charter would be allowed to expire, and he requested proposals for a new advisory committee or an office within DOJ that would advance forensic science—a move many fear will exclude mainstream scientific views from future policy decisions. 

  • With this new system, scientists never have to write a grant application again

    Johan Bollen and Marten Scheffer in front of a chalkboard

    Johan Bollen (left) and Marten Scheffer (right) say scientists should give each other money instead of writing and reviewing grants.

    Ingrid van de Leemput

    AMSTERDAM—Almost every scientist agrees: Applying for research funding is a drag. Writing a good proposal can take months, and the chances of getting funded are often slim. Funding agencies, meanwhile, spend more and more time and money reviewing growing stacks of applications.

    That’s why two researchers are proposing a radically different system that would do away with applications and reviews; instead scientists would just give each other money. “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA), as it’s called, was developed by computer scientist Johan Bollen at Indiana University in Bloomington. When he first published about the idea in 2014, many people were skeptical. But interest appears to be growing, and thanks to the work of an enthusiastic advocate, ecologist Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the Dutch parliament adopted a motion last year asking the country’s main funding agency, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), to set up a SOFA pilot project.

    Competition for funding has become too intense, especially for young scientists, Scheffer and Bollen say, and the current peer-review system is inefficient. It’s also unfair, they argue, because a few scientists get lots of grants—Scheffer is one of them—whereas many others get few or nothing. But when Scheffer explained his idea at an NWO workshop about “application pressure” here last week, the agency didn’t appear sold yet.

  • Marchers around the world tell us why they're taking to the streets for science

    Crowd of marchers holding signs

    Jose Gil/iStockphoto

    What started out as a march on Washington, D.C., has grown into well over 400 marches in more than 35 countries on 22 April. Some international participants are worried about science under the Trump administration; others have local concerns; many feel that science and reason are under threat. Science's correspondents talked to marchers from 17 countries; click on the flags to jump straight to their stories.

  • Europe’s paradox: Why increased scientific mobility has not led to more international collaborations

    The Science Academy at night

    The Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. After Poland joined the European Union, its scientists published fewer papers with co-authors in other countries.

    Charlie/flickr

    A new analysis suggests that lowering barriers to scientific migration can, paradoxically, decrease international collaborations. When top researchers in Eastern Europe started joining high-power institutions in the West, the research suggests, their colleagues and students back home ended up with fewer cross-border connections. "I'm quite surprised how big the effect is," says Paul Nightingale, a science policy expert at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the study. "These are worrying findings."

    The analysis is based on a natural experiment. In 2004, the European Union expanded by adding 10 member states, including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This made it much easier for people in these countries to find work and live in Western Europe. By tapping a government database on intra-European job moves, Alexander Petersen, a computational social scientist at the University of California, Merced, and his colleagues were able to infer the impact of the union's expansion on scientific mobility. The database records the international transfers of highly skilled workers, such as doctors and civil engineers, who need a professional certification in a new host country.

    It was easy to see the brain drain. Although most professionals hopped between neighboring countries, the percentage that left Eastern for Western Europe rose from 5% to 29% after 2005. Scientists aren't in the database, because they don't need government accreditation, but Petersen thinks the trend is likely the same. Other experts agree: "There is a lot of migration because of the high-quality infrastructure in universities in the West," says Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of EuroScience, a membership association of European researchers, based in Strasbourg, France. "Scientists gravitate to the places where they can do the best science." He says there is a similar pattern with European Research Council grants, which researchers can take along when they head to a new institution.

  • Examine thyself: Researchers set to study the March for Science

    Katherine Ruehrdanz surveying on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

    The recent Women’s March on Washington gave Katherine Ruehrdanz of the University of Michigan a chance to collect data for her honors thesis.

    Michael T. Heaney

    For most participants, next week’s March for Science (M4S) will be a chance to step away from the lab and join a public outpouring of support for evidence-based science. For sociologist Dana Fisher and a handful of other scientists who do survey research, however, the event will be another day at the office, as they plan to query those attending the demonstrations.

    Fisher studies protests and climate politics. And on 22 April she will be leading a team of 16 faculty members and students from the University of Maryland in College Park who will commute to downtown Washington, D.C., to gather data from the crowd assembled on the National Mall for the flagship U.S. march. Fisher hopes that more than 500 people will complete a two-page survey asking what brought them to the event, their level of political activism, and the nature of their work.

    A different team, led by political sociologist Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also wants to explore the political identities of the marchers. Their approach will require a six-page survey, and Heaney says he’ll be ecstatic if 250 people wade through it.

  • On eve of science march, planners look ahead

    Courtnie Weber, Caroline Weinberg, and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

    Nguyên Khôi Nguyễn

    This past January, just days after millions of people marched on behalf of women—and in reaction to the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump—Caroline Weinberg, a health writer and educator in New York City, began dreaming of a similar march on behalf of science. “Seems like it would be pretty easy” to organize, she texted a friend. “Just reach out to academics at local universities.”

    Now, on the eve of the 22 April March for Science in Washington, D.C., and some 400 sister marches around the world, Weinberg concedes that organizing the sprawling event has been anything but easy. Soon after that text, Weinberg and two other march enthusiasts she met online found themselves leading a global movement that has attracted millions of followers, with goals that include dramatizing concerns that political leaders are ignoring scientific evidence and demonstrating broad support for science. To turn that vision into reality, the trio has recruited scores of volunteer coordinators, negotiated partnerships with dozens of science groups, and raised some $1 million to pay for everything from security to portable toilets.

    “Every step of the way has been completely terrifying,” Weinberg says. “‘Seems like it would be pretty easy’ will be on my tombstone,” she jokes.

  • EMBL opens new lab for tissue biology and disease modeling in Barcelona

    internal structure of a mouse pancreas, imaged with a SPIM microscope

    A mouse pancreas imaged with selective plane illumination microscopy, a technique that will be used at EMBL Barcelona.

    © Ahlgren, Mayer & Swoger/CRG

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—You'd have to go back to the years before the economic crisis to feel so much optimism in the Spanish scientific community. In a lecture hall buzzing with excitement, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Spanish government yesterday presented a plan to open a new lab here for the study of tissues and organs. The center, EMBL's first new outpost in 18 years, will host six to eight research groups; a director has yet to be named but recruitment has begun.

    The announcement is welcome news to the Spanish scientific community, which has suffered from years of budget cuts and political neglect. The agreement also strengthens Barcelona's profile as one of southern Europe's premier science hubs, adds Joan Guinovart, director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine here. “Barcelona is already one of the hottest spots in biomedicine in Europe," he says.

    Headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, EMBL is an international organization supported by 22 member states; it's not affiliated with the European Union. Over the decades, EMBL has established specialized franchises for structural biology in Hamburg, Germany, and Grenoble, France; for bioinformatics in Hinxton, U.K.; and finally, in 1999, for mouse biology in Monterotondo, Italy. The new branch, housed at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB), will study how cells organize and interact at the tissue level. “For a long time, tissue was not possible to study with molecular biology; now it is becoming possible, thanks to the development of new imaging techniques,” Jan Ellenberg, the head of EMBL's Cell Biology & Biophysics Unit, said during yesterday's ceremony.

  • U.S. report calls for research integrity board

    A photograph of the headquarters building of the National Academy of Sciences, located in Washington, D.C.

    Headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

    Elvert Barnes Photography

    The U.S. research community needs to do a better job of both investigating misconduct allegations and promoting ethical conduct—or the government might act unilaterally in ways that scientists won’t like.

    That’s the implicit message sent by a new report out today from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine entitled Fostering Integrity in Research. The report’s key recommendation is that universities and scientific societies create, operate, and fund a new, independent, nongovernmental Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB). The board would serve as a clearinghouse to raise awareness of the issues, as an honest broker to mediate disagreements, and as a beacon to help institutions that lack the knowledge or resources to root out bad behavior and foster good behavior.

    Other entities are already doing these things, but none has research integrity as its sole focus nor covers so much territory. Federal funding agencies investigate and punish miscreants who misuse taxpayer dollars, universities train scientists as part of their mission to advance knowledge, and scientific societies and journals have adopted ethical standards for their authors and members. After reviewing that landscape, the committee concluded that all of those organizations need to step up their game.

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