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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • After contentious hearings, agency approves new permit for stalled Hawaiian telescope

    TMT complex

    Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    Courtesy TMT International Observatory

    Update, 28 September, 4:40 p.m.: Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources today voted 5-2 to approve a permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The vote follows retired judge Riki May Amano’s recommendation this past July to approve the permit. Amano’s recommendation came after a lengthy and often contentious hearing forced by opponents of the TMT, who successfully argued that the land board had not followed proper procedures in 2011 in issuing its first permit for the telescope.

    The board placed 43 conditions on the permit, including a previously negotiated plan requiring the University of Hawaii to decommission three existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea, where the TMT is to be built, and barring any future telescopes on the mountain. In a statement, Suzanne Case, chair of the board, said: “This was one of the most difficult decisions this Board has ever made. The members greatly respected and considered the concerns raised by those opposed to the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.”

    TMT opponents tell ScienceInsider that they will appeal the decision. Kealoha Pisciotta, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and a plaintiff in the case against the TMT permit, said she believed the board had rubber-stamped the permit, and the decision seemed like a foregone conclusion. “They did not deliberate. They did not properly consider or take into account the evidence,” she said.

  • Researchers caught in growing rift over Catalan independence

    Students protest in favor of the Referendum of Catalonia Catalan, in Barcelona.

    Students marched in Barcelona, Spain, today to defend their "right to decide" Catalonia's fate, just days before a disputed independence referendum.

    Rex Features via AP Images

    REUS, SPAIN—Scientists in Catalonia are feeling the ripples of a severe crisis as the region’s bid for independence from Spain comes to a head.

    Researchers have much at stake in the independence referendum, scheduled for 1 October in defiance of Madrid’s central government. Nationalists trust that Catalan science would thrive in a nimbler, independent state of 7.5 million people and become a beacon of a new, progressive republic. Others fear that the secession would plunge science into isolating uncertainty, cut access to essential funding streams and networks, and spark a brain drain.

    Like other regions of Spain, Catalonia has a distinct language and a strong sense of cultural difference that were repressed under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which ended in 1975. As an autonomous community of Spain, it has its own Parliament and government, the Generalitat, in Barcelona that manage a range of devolved powers from the region’s cosmopolitan capital. But Catalan nationalists say they want a separate state with complete control over its finances and policies—a sentiment that has soared in recent years.

  • What’s the evidence? Congress struggles to understand new report on evidence-based policy

    Paul Ryan at a podium

    Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (R–WI, at lectern) and Senator Patty Murray (D–WA, second from right) thanked members of the commission on 7 September for their report.

    Michele Freda, Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking

    Every member of Congress probably wants to use evidence to make better policy. But a hearing this week suggests it might be a mistake to press lawmakers for details, or ask what they mean by evidence.

    Four members of the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking gamely came to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to discuss their new report on how researchers could better use government records holding data on millions of Americans without violating privacy. The lawmakers who serve on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee for the U.S. House of Representatives were cordial to the members of the commission, created 18 months ago thanks to the efforts of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R–WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D–WA), for whom evidence-building capacity is a priority.

    But those in attendance seemed to have a tenuous grasp of the commission’s focus—using administrative records to study the effects of hundreds of government programs. As a result, confusion permeated the 2-hour hearing, and commission members were forced to duck several questions that fell outside the purview of the study.

  • Endangered U.S. wolf denied new habitat, as critics charge that politics trumped science

    Mexican wolves on snowy ground

    Just over 100 Mexican wolves roam the remote mountains along the Arizona–New Mexico border. 

    GNAGEL/ISTOCKPHOTO

    On 26 January 1998, federal wildlife officials drove three Mexican wolves to a remote corner of southeastern Arizona, where they soon became the first wild wolves to roam the U.S. Southwest in nearly 30 years. Mike Phillips, a biologist who had helped reintroduce wolves to the southeastern United States and Yellowstone National Park, said that day that reestablishing the Mexican wolf was going to be "the biggest wolf conservation challenge" yet. The captive-bred wolves would have to survive in a landscape grazed heavily by livestock, increasing the potential for deadly conflicts with ranchers.

    Still, Phillips never thought it would be this hard.

    Nineteen years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released those animals, the agency has announced its draft plan for reestablishing a viable population. The recovery plan, released this June, will guide the agency's actions as it tries to boost the Mexican wolf population enough to justify removing it from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection.

  • France brings back a phased-out drug after patients rebel against its replacement

    Levothyrox box and pills

    Merck hasn't changed the active compound in its new formulation of Levothyrox and says the drug is fine.

    LAURENT CHAMUSSY/SIPA/Newscom

    In an unprecedented U-turn, the French government has asked drug manufacturer Merck to return to the market a thyroid hormone replacement drug named Levothyrox that the company had phased out and replaced with a new formulation just 6 months ago. The move, which overturns a decision by France's National Agency for Medicines and Health Products Safety (ANSM), comes after thousands of patients complained about side effects from the new drug, creating a media storm and a political problem for the French government.

    The old formulation will once again become available in pharmacies on Monday, under a new name, Euthyrox; the two versions will coexist for an undetermined period of time.

    About 3 million French people, 80% of them women, take Levothyrox, which replaces the hormone thyroxine in patients with hypothyroidism. Among their complaints over the past few months: hair loss, weight gain, extreme fatigue, headaches, diarrhea, and heightened heart rates.

  • Senate panel blocks NIH from revising translational research awards

    a male researcher in a labcoat monitors a man with a breathing device

    Congress has questioned how NIH is managing its Clinical and Translational Science Awards, which support research such as this aging study at the University of Kansas.

    Donna Peck/CC 2.0

    A congressional spending panel has backed scientists running a $516 million network of bench-to-bedside research centers in their fight with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, over how it manages the network. It’s the latest step in a long-running tug-of-war over the direction of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSAs) program.

    The CTSAs were created in 2006 by then–NIH Director Elias Zerhouni as part of his larger push to turn lab findings into treatments. In 2012 they became the lion’s share of the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at NIH. Since then, CTSA investigators have clashed repeatedly with NCATS Director Chris Austin.

    Austin began adding a clinical trials innovation network and other elements to the CTSA program, an expansion that CTSA investigators feared would come at the expense of their centers' budgets. Austin has also begun trimming the length of renewed awards, from 5 to 4 years, for centers that don't do as well in review. Rumors earlier this year that NCATS wanted to eventually cut funding for the CTSA program, from about 90% to 50% of the overall NCATS budget, heightened tensions. (NCATS Deputy Director Pamela McInnes told ScienceInsider that no such plans exist.) 

  • Canada names new chief science adviser

    Biochemist Mona Nemer standing at a podium.

    Mona Nemer in 2008.

    Phillip Jeffrey/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Mona Nemer, a cardiology researcher and vice president of research at the University of Ottawa, has been named Canada's new chief science adviser by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

    “Scientists need to have a voice,” Trudeau said, making the announcement in Ottawa today.

    Nemer's office will have a CA$2 million budget, and she will report to both Trudeau and Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan. Her mandate includes providing scientific advice to government ministers, helping keep government-funded science accessible to the public, and protecting government scientists from being muzzled.She will also deliver an annual report to the prime minister and science minister on the state of federal government science.

    Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto, knows Nemer well and called her an excellent choice for the job. “Mona's fantastic, she has a very good reputation among Canadian researchers and has had a long and productive career,” he says. “She's got all the cred.”

    He added that during her 10 years in university administration, she has picked up political skills as well. “In my interactions with her she has always listened, asked questions and then came to her own decisions, she's not the kind of person who makes rash decisions,” he says.

    But Woodgett cautioned his scientific colleagues not to expect the creation of the new position to lead to a big boost in research funding. A report commissioned by Duncan recommended earlier this year that the government increase funding for fundamental science by CA$1.3 billion over the next four years. “A lot of Canadian scientists have an unrealistic idea of the role. She's not there to advocate for research funding, but to provide advice,” he said.

    Neither the prime minister nor the science minister made any reference to that report, known as the Naylor report, in their remarks today.

    But Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa, was encouraged by Nemer's own words at the announcement. “She talked a lot about making Canadian science the best in the world,” Gibbs said. “I'm hopeful that she will take up the Naylor report as part of her mandate.”

    Gibbs said she was thrilled with the choice, especially because she thinks Nemer's experience as vice president of research gives her an understanding of administration and funding, as well as fundamental research. “She understands the science community and will be a strong voice for us,” Gibbs said.

    The appointment comes almost two years after Trudeau first instructed Duncan to appoint a science adviser, and fulfills a promise made by Trudeau during the 2015 campaign. 

    Canada's first chief science adviser was appointed in 2004 by Prime Minister Paul Martin of the Liberal Party; the position was eliminated in 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party.

    Here is the government's official statement:

  • Hurricane damage threatens Arecibo Observatory’s future

    A photo of the 54-year-old Arecibo Observatory, seen before the hurricane

    The 54-year-old Arecibo Observatory, seen before the hurricane, is facing possible closure. 

    BLOOMBERG/CONTRIBUTOR/GETTY IMAGES

    As Hurricane Maria hammered the Caribbean last week, a handful of researchers hunkered down in concrete buildings at the Arecibo Observatory with food, well water, and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel for generators. They had done their best to secure the observatory, a 305-meter-wide radio dish nestled in the karst hills of northwestern Puerto Rico. They stowed removable antennas and waveguides, locked movable instrument packages in place, and installed storm shutters on control room windows. Now, they have emerged to find only moderate damage to the observatory, on an island that has been devastated elsewhere. “It’s a thing to be thankful for,” says Arecibo Deputy Director Joan Schmelz.

    But many are worried that the damage, likely on the scale of millions of dollars and apt to keep the observatory closed for weeks or months, will further threaten the existence of Arecibo, which is already on a short list of facilities facing possible closure or downsizing by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia. “I fear that if there is significant damage, that will provide the decision point to decommission the observatory,” says space scientist John Mathews of Pennsylvania State University in State College. 

    The surface of the dish was largely unscathed, and the observatory’s most vulnerable component, the instrument platform suspended high above the dish by cables strung from three towers, each more than 80 meters tall, was still in place and seemed undamaged, says Schmelz. She is based at the Columbia, Maryland, headquarters of one of Arecibo’s operators, the Universities Space Research Association, and spoke with staff in Puerto Rico who first used a ham radio and then a single working satellite phone. But the roofs on some observatory buildings were blown off, the sinkhole under the dish was flooded, and other equipment was damaged by rain and fallen trees. Most significantly, a large portion of a 29-meter-long antenna—the 430-megahertz line feed used for studying the upper atmosphere—appears to have broken off and fallen from the platform into the dish. Mathews estimates a bill of several million dollars to replace the line feed alone. 

  • Few authors choose anonymous peer review, massive study of Nature journals shows

    A stack of Nature journals

    Scientists from India and China far more often ask Nature's journals for double-blind peer review than those from Western countries.

    Emily Petersen

    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Once you’ve submitted your paper to a journal, how important is it that the reviewers know who wrote it?

    Surveys have suggested that many researchers would prefer anonymity because they think it would result in a more impartial assessment of their manuscript. But a new study by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) in London shows that only one in eight authors actually chose to have their reviewers blinded when given the option. The study, presented here at the Eighth International Congress on Peer Review, also found that papers submitted for double-blind review are far less likely to be accepted.

    Most papers are reviewed in single-blind fashion—that is, the reviewers know who the authors are, but not vice versa. In theory, that knowledge allows them to exercise a conscious or unconscious bias against researchers from certain countries, ethnic minorities, or women, and be kinder to people who are already well-known in their field. Double-blind reviews, the argument goes, would remove those prejudices. A 2007 study of Behavioral Ecology found that the journal published more articles by female authors when using double-blind reviews—although that conclusion was challenged by other researchers a year later. In a survey of more than 4000 researchers published in 2013, three-quarters said they thought double-blind review is “the most effective method.” 

  • Scientists grow bullish on pig-to-human transplants

    three genetically modified pigs

    Genetically engineered pigs produced in Munich, Germany, were recently used in a record-breaking baboon heart transplant.

    Jan-Michael Abicht

    BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Add your name to a waitlist for a kidney transplant in the United States today, and you’ll join around 100,000 people, many of whom have already been waiting years. The scarcity of life-saving organs for transplants has raised hopes for substitute organs from pigs, which have a similar anatomy to humans. But decades of scientific setbacks have kept clinical trials of that approach, called xenotransplantation, on the horizon.

    Now, a few teams are chomping at the bit. Exhilarated by recent results in monkey experiments, some researchers here at a meeting of the International Xenotransplantation Association are eyeing human testing.

    “What we thought was very far away seems to be coming to the near future,” says Muhammad Mohiuddin, a cardiac transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine here. He moderated a premeeting session where scientists discussed advances with officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which would review any application for a clinical trial.

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