Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Online tool calculates reproducibility scores of PubMed papers

    a pair of blue-gloved hands writing notes on paper with a pen in front of a set of test tubes

    Scientific societies are seeking new tools to measure the reproducibility of published research findings, amid concerns that many cannot be reproduced independently. 

    National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

    A new online tool unveiled 19 January measures the reproducibility of published scientific papers by analyzing data about articles that cite them. 

    The software comes at a time when scientific societies and journals are alarmed by evidence that findings in many published articles are not reproducible and are struggling to find reliable methods to evaluate whether they are.

    The tool, developed by the for-profit firm Verum Analytics in New Haven, Connecticut, generates a metric called the r-factor that indicates the veracity of a journal article based on the number of other studies that confirm or refute its findings. The r-factor metric has drawn much criticism from academics who said its relatively simple approach might not be sufficient to solve the multifaceted problem that measuring reproducibility presents.

  • Climate researchers press Trudeau to renew Canadian Arctic research program

    Eureka Sound

    Eureka Sound off Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

    NASA/Michael Studinger/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The Canadian government should renew funding for a soon-to-end Arctic climate and atmospheric research program, a group of more than 250 international climate scientists is arguing in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

    “There is a crisis looming for Canadian climate and atmospheric research that will be felt far beyond Canada’s borders,” the letter states. Extending funding for the 6-year-old Climate Change and Atmospheric Research (CCAR) program, which is set to end this year, would help maintain the country’s scientific and political leadership in the field, the authors say.

    CCAR, launched in 2012, provides CA$7 million per year for seven research networks studying the physical processes underlying climate and atmospheric behavior. Among other activities, the networks monitor and model tiny particles known as aerosols, biogeochemical trace elements in the Arctic Ocean, and atmospheric temperatures in the high Arctic.

  • India’s education minister assails evolutionary theory, calls for curricula overhaul

    Satyapal Singh being sworn-in

    Higher Education Minister Satyapal Singh on Friday labeled the theory of evolution “scientifically wrong,” provoking a backlash.

    Rex Features/AP Images

    NEW DELHI—A new front has opened in the war on science in India. On Friday, India’s minister for higher education, Satyapal Singh, took aim at the theory of evolution. Calling himself “a responsible man of science,” Singh, a chemist, suggested that Darwin’s theory is “scientifically wrong” and “needs to change” in school and university curricula. In remarks on the sidelines of a conference in Aurangabad, in central India, Singh further noted that “nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man.”

    Top scientists have condemned Singh’s remarks. They “seem to be aimed at politically polarizing science and scientists, and that is the real danger we must guard against,” says Raghavendra Gadagkar, immediate past president of the Indian National Science Academy and an ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. Yesterday, India’s three science academies released a statement endorsed by more than 2000 scientists, declaring that “it would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering nonscientific explanations or myths.”

  • Science groups react to U.S. government shutdown as researchers scramble

    US Capitol at night
    Patrick McKay/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Science groups are reacting with dismay to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government that began today after the U.S. Senate failed last night to advance funding legislation. Many scientists, meanwhile, are scrambling to determine whether they will be able to keep working.

    The shutdown is “just deeply disappointing because Congress has had months to fund the government,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement. “Without a resolution the federal scientific enterprise will come to a screeching halt, potentially adding millions of dollars in costs and months of delay to taxpayer-funded projects.”

    The funding lapse “deals another serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) in Washington, D.C., in a statement. He suggested the shutdown will add to long-term funding strains that have reduced federal spending on research from about 1.25% of the nation’s gross domestic product to 0.82%, “which is a near 40-year low.”

  • Oddball scientists, the rise of Chinese research, and other highlights from NSF’s new tome of essential science statistics

    chinese flag

    Chinas growing strength in science has been a recurring theme in recent editions of the National Science Foundations biennial statistical compendium.

    Max Braun/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

    Scientists discover something new every day. But science policy trends can take decades to reveal themselves. That’s why the bottom line in the newest edition of an indispensible statistical tome from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—that China continues to close the gap with the United States in the international race for scientific supremacy—will sound very familiar to those who follow these trends.

    “The U.S. global share of [science and technology] activities is declining as other nations—especially China—continue to rise,” NSF officials declared yesterday in rolling out the 2018 Science & Engineering Indicators, a massive biennial report that tracks scientific activity around the world. “The U.S. still leads by many measures,” adds Maria Zuber, chair of the National Science Board in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF’s oversight body, “but our lead is decreasing in certain areas that are important to the country.”

    Indicators has been documenting that narrowing over the past decade. In 2010, for example, NSF officials said they saw no end in sight to China’s large, decadelong investments in science. In 2012, agency officials talked about “the beginning of an Asian science zone” with China as the hub. So the new data on China’s scientific prowess—documenting its continued high levels of spending and growing workforce, publications, and commercial high-tech activities—are hardly surprising.

  • A paper showing how to make a smallpox cousin just got published. Critics wonder why

    Painting of doctor giving a boy a vaccination

    One of the paper’s authors, Tonix CEO Seth Lederman, says he is “obsessed” with Edward Jenner, who invented the smallpox vaccine in 1796


    Today, a highly controversial study in which researchers synthesized a smallpox relative from scratch is finally seeing the light of day. The paper, in PLOS ONE, spells out how virologist David Evans at the University of Alberta in Canada, and his research associate Ryan Noyce ordered bits of horsepox DNA from the internet, painstakingly assembled them, then showed that the resulting virus was able to infect cells and reproduce.

    The study stirred alarm when Science first reported it in July 2017 because it might give would-be terrorists a recipe to construct smallpox virus, a major human scourge vanquished in 1980. And now that it's out, many scientists say the paper doesn’t answer the most pressing question: Why did they do it?

    The team claims its work, funded by Tonix, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in New York City, could lead to a safer, more effective vaccine against smallpox. But safe smallpox vaccines already exist, and there appears to be no market for a horsepox-based replacement, says virologist Stephan Becker of the University of Marburg in Germany. “It simply does not add up,” Becker says. Given the apparent lack of benefits, publishing the paper was “a serious mistake,” says Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “The world is now more vulnerable to smallpox.” 

  • U.S. scientists on edge as government shutdown looms

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.
    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Scientists in the United States are bracing for a partial federal government shutdown tonight that could scramble research projects and meetings, delay grants, and complicate hiring and training.

    Unless the White House and lawmakers in Congress can reach an agreement by midnight to extend current spending levels, many agencies will be forced to furlough workers, halt routine activities, and shutter public facilities. A shutdown could make idle as many as 800,000 federal workers, including researchers working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other science agencies. At the same time, employees involved in critical health and safety activities—such as air traffic control and military missions—would remain on the job.

    For better or worse, many researchers are familiar with the drill. In October 2013, the U.S. government partially shut down for 16 days after Republicans in Congress blocked spending legislation in an effort to repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act. This time, the Democrats (and a few Republicans) have taken the initiative by pledging to vote against further extensions of a current spending freeze until Congress protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants and agrees to lift caps on current spending.

  • After safety breaches, new Los Alamos director pushes for accountability at nuclear weapons lab

    Terry Wallace, director of Los Alamos

    Terry Wallace is the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

    Los Alamos National Laboratory

    LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO—The new director of Los Alamos National Laboratory here, Terry Wallace, took the helm earlier this month at a particularly challenging time in the U.S. nuclear weapons lab’s storied 75-year history. Repeated safety violations necessitated a temporary shutdown of much of the lab’s plutonium facility from 2013 to 2015, and prompted the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos’s overseer, to put the lab’s management contract out for bid. The most recent incidents, in August 2017, included improper storage of plutonium metal.

  • Nearly 100 scientists spent 2 months on Google Docs to redefine the p-value. Here’s what they came up with

    Daniël Lakens

    “It was incredible” to see how the online paper evolved, says Daniël Lakens, who led the effort. “It worked like a charm.”

    Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie

    Psychologist Daniël Lakens of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands is known for speaking his mind, and after he read an article titled “Redefine Statistical Significance” on 22 July 2017, Lakens didn’t pull any punches: “Very disappointed such a large group of smart people would give such horribly bad advice,” he tweeted.

    In the paper, posted on the preprint server PsyArXiv, 70 prominent scientists argued in favor of lowering a widely used threshold for statistical significance in experimental studies: The so-called p-value should be below 0.005 instead of the accepted 0.05, as a way to reduce the rate of false positive findings and improve the reproducibility of science. Lakens, 37, thought it was a disastrous idea. A lower α, or significance level, would require much bigger sample sizes, making many studies impossible. Besides. he says, “Why prescribe a single p-value, when science is so diverse?”

    Lakens and others will soon publish their own paper to propose an alternative; it was accepted on Monday by Nature Human Behaviour, which published the original paper proposing a lower threshold in September 2017. The content won’t come as a big surprise—a preprint has been up on PsyArXiv for 4 months—but the paper is unique for the way it came about: from 100 scientists around the world, from big names to Ph.D. students, and even a few nonacademics writing and editing in a Google document for 2 months. 

  • Broad Institute takes a hit in European CRISPR patent struggle

    European Patent Office headquarters

    European Patent Office in Munich, Germany

    European Patent Office

    A decision from the European Patent Office (EPO) has put the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on shaky ground with its intellectual property claims to the gene-editing tool CRISPR. EPO yesterday revoked a patent granted to the Broad for fundamental aspects of the technology, one of several of its patents facing opposition in Europe.

    In the United States, the Broad has had better fortune. It has so far prevailed in a high-profile patent dispute with the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Last February, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled that although a team led by UC Berkeley structural biologist Jennifer Doudna had first laid claim to the use of CRISPR to cut DNA in a test tube, the use of the method on human cells by molecular biologist Feng Zhang’s team at the Broad was still an advance.

    But in Europe, a dispute that has gotten much less attention could derail several key Broad patents. The patent just revoked was filed in December 2013, but to show that its claims predate competing publications and patent filings from UC and other groups, the Broad cites U.S. patent applications dating back to December 2012.

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