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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Exclusive: The would-be U.S. census director assails critics of citizenship question

    Tom Brunell

    Tom Brunell

    University of Texas in Dallas

    President Donald Trump’s first choice to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau strongly endorses the administration’s controversial decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

    Speaking publicly for the first time, Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Dallas, tells ScienceInsider that critics—including the six previous Census Bureau directors—have exaggerated the potential problems that could arise from including the question. Brunell, who earlier this year withdrew from consideration for the deputy director’s post at the Census Bureau, also believes that the nation’s largest statistical agency has a duty to carry out the political agenda of its White House bosses.

    “I’m agnostic on whether [the citizenship question] is needed,” Brunell says. “I think the critical point is that the administration wants to put it on there. They have made a political decision. And they have every right to do that, because they won the election.” In March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved a request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for such a question; the department says it needs the data to enforce voting rights laws.

  • In Germany, controversial law gives Bavarian police new power to use DNA

    crowd protesting in Bavaria, Germany

    An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Munich, Germany, last week to protest a new Bavarian law giving police new powers.

    Michael Dalder/REUTERS

    Police in the German state of Bavaria will have new powers to use forensic DNA profiling after a controversial law passed today in the Landtag, the state parliament in Munich. The law is the first in Germany that allows authorities to use DNA to help determine the physical characteristics, such as eye color, of an unknown culprit.

    The new DNA rules are part of a broader law which has drawn criticism of the wide surveillance powers it gives the state’s police to investigate people they deem an “imminent danger,” people who haven’t necessarily committed any crimes but might be planning to do so.

    Today’s move was prompted, in part, by the rape and murder of a medical student in Freiburg, Germany, in late 2016. An asylum seeker, originally from Afghanistan, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. But some authorities complained that they could have narrowed their search more quickly if they had been able to use trace DNA to predict what the suspect would look like. Existing federal and state laws allow investigators to use DNA only to look for an exact match between crime scene evidence and a potential culprit, either in a database of known criminals or from a suspect.

  • More money, more worries: 2020 census plans continue to generate controversy

    Wilbur Ross testifies before a House Committee

    Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testifies before a House of Representatives appropriations panel earlier this year.

    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

    A trio of events last week on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., left advocates for the 2020 U.S. census both heartened and concerned. Its supporters—including social scientists who are heavy users of the data—hailed prospects of a healthy budget increase for the constitutionally mandated exercise. But they continue to wring their hands over recent actions by President Donald Trump’s administration that they say will undermine the accuracy of the upcoming head count.

    Advocates cheered as a spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a 2019 budget for the Census Bureau that adds $1 billion to what Trump has requested. It exceeds what even stakeholders say is needed next year to get ready for Census Day on 1 April 2020, and reflects unusual bipartisan support.

    But they also anguished over testimony from Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census. Testifying before a Senate panel, Ross defended his recent decision to add a controversial citizenship question to the census at the last minute despite acknowledging that its presence could reduce participation. His repeated assertions that the question has been adequately vetted infuriated Democrats, who also think his reasons for adding the question don’t pass the smell test. Even Republicans were miffed when, at a House hearing the day before, an invited Department of Justice (DOJ) official failed to even show up to explain why his department felt it needed the data from such a question.

  • NIH’s plum award for young scientists skews male, agency’s data show

    National Institutes of Health building 1

    The National Institutes of Health’s Building 1 houses the office that administers the Early Independence Awards.

    National Institutes of Health

    Two days from now, a council at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, is set to approve recipients of the agency’s coveted Early Independence Awards (EIAs). These prestigious grants aim to vault the most promising new Ph.D.s to independence by allowing them to bypass postdoctoral fellowships and start their own labs immediately, providing up to $250,000 annually for 5 years. But since the awards were launched by NIH Director Francis Collins in 2010, men have consistently won them in numbers exceeding their representation in the applicant pool (see chart below).

    In a 2-day meeting that begins on 17 May, NIH’s Council of Councils will review the scored applications—“to ensure fairness in the review process,” according to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page of NIH’s website. However, their recommendations rarely, if ever, diverge from those of a scientific panel that rates applicants.

    Men appear to be favored throughout the selection process. Applicants are nominated by their institutions, which tend to put forward more men; and men disproportionately are chosen as winners. This year, another factor is unsettling women: The panel was chaired by cancer scientist Inder Verma, who was suspended from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, last month while the institute investigates allegations of sexual harassment against him. (Verma denies the allegations.) Verma had already been placed on leave as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in December 2017, after gender discrimination lawsuits filed last July by female colleagues at the Salk Institute accused Verma of blocking their career advancement and disparaging their science. He resigned the PNAS editorship on 1 May.

  • House spending bill could brighten prospects for two giant telescopes

    TMT complex

    Artist's impression of the Thirty Meter Telescope

    TMT International Observatory

    Two planned giant telescopes may soon get a boost from Congress.

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who chairs a U.S. House of Representatives spending panel that sets funding levels for the National Science Foundation (NSF), is hinting that he wants NSF to get behind both the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a $1.4 billion facility proposed for Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a 25-meter telescope already under construction in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

    The first step could come Thursday, when the full House appropriations committee is expected to take up Culberson’s $62 billion spending bill covering NSF and several other federal science agencies.

  • Journal retracts paper claiming neurological damage from HPV vaccine

    women at a press conference

    Women claiming a vaccine against human papillomavirus harmed them hold a press conference in Tokyo in 2016. Despite little evidence that the vaccine is dangerous, its use has dropped in Japan.

    The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images

    Scientific Reports this morning retracted a controversial paper claiming to show that mice given a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine showed signs of neurological damage. The paper was assailed by critics as being "pseudoscience" that could have "devastating" health consequences by undermining public confidence in a vaccine given to girls to prevent cervical cancer. 

    "I'm pleased that finally they did manage to retract it, but it was a very long process," says Alex Vorsters, a molecular biologist at University of Antwerp in Belgium. However, the controversy seems likely to continue. "The Authors do not agree with the retraction," the retraction notice states.

    The paper, by a group led by Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, was published online 11 November 2016. It describes impaired mobility and brain damage in mice given an enormous dose of HPV vaccine along with a toxin that makes the blood-brain barrier leaky. Shortly after the paper appeared, two groups separately wrote to Scientific Reports and its publisher, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), pointing out problems with the experimental setup, the use of a dose proportionally far larger than what is normally given, the use of the toxin, and inconsistencies between the data presented and the descriptions of results, among other issues.

  • Should ‘superspawners’ stir up fisheries management?

    big fish

    Large fish can have an outsize impact on the health of stocks, a new study concludes.

    Gerald Carter/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    There is no fertility clock for fish. Unlike in mammals, the reproductive ability of most female fish just keeps increasing as they age and grow—bigger fish produce more and more eggs. In many species, the fecundity gains can be especially impressive, creating what might be called “superspawners” that produce disproportionately large numbers of offspring, a new study finds. But these reproductive giants aren’t getting enough protection under fishing regulations, the authors suggest.

    Some fisheries scientists disagree with that conclusion. But the finding is “a perfect reminder that in order to rebuild fish stocks and prepare them for global change, we have to increase the proportion of large fish,” says Rainer Froese, a marine ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, who was not involved in the study.

    It’s been known for decades that fish fertility generally increases with size. A cod that is 70 centimeters long, for example, can produce eight times as many eggs as a younger fish half its size can. But it’s been hotly debated whether larger females are especially important for keeping fish stocks healthy. Most of the models used to manage fisheries assume, because of a lack of comprehensive evidence to the contrary, that the most important factor in sustaining a healthy stock is the total amount of spawning fish, regardless of whether it’s a lot of small fish or the same tonnage of big ones.

  • Social science research makes surprise appearance in rollout of Melania Trump’s children’s initiative

    Melania Trump speaking in the rose garden at the White House

    First Lady Melania Trump at the 7 May White House rollout of her Be Best children’s health initiative.

    PETE MAROVICH/UPI/Newscom

    Social science research got a shoutout this week when U.S. first lady Melania Trump unveiled Be Best, her signature initiative on children’s health. Coming from an administration that has often denigrated the value of such research, that’s good news. And although the scientists welcome the high-level attention, they note that the study the White House cited doesn’t really address a major thrust of the initiative. They also are in the dark about how they appeared on the White House radar.

    Be Best “will champion the many successful programs that teach children tools and skills for emotional, social, and physical well-being,” explains a press release that accompanied the 7 May rollout at the White House. One such skill, it notes, is learning “positive ways” to use social media to combat cyberbullying and foster a greater sense of community.

    To emphasize the challenge that children and parents face in dealing with now ubiquitous social media technologies, the release cites a 2017 paper that found a teenager’s mental health deteriorates with prolonged use of cellphones, social media, and computer games. Although it measured the frequency of social media usage, the paper does not actually address how adolescents can use social media as a force for good, says its lead author, social psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University (SDSU) in California.

  • As lab-grown meat advances, U.S. lawmakers call for regulation

    Fried chicken on plate.

    Fried “chicken” from cells grown in culture by Memphis Meats.

    Memphis Meats

    Lab-grown chicken, beef, and duck products are edging toward the U.S. market—despite enduring confusion about how they’ll be regulated. But language buried in a draft spending bill released by a U.S. House of Representatives appropriations panel this week suggests some lawmakers are eager to get rules in place. A one-sentence proposal in the bill would put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of regulating products made from the cells of livestock or poultry, and instructs the agency to issue rules about how it will oversee their manufacture and labeling.

    Unlike plant-based meat imitations already on the market, lab-grown meat—sometimes called clean meat—starts with an animal. Though production methods vary by company, these futuristic foods start with cells extracted from an animal and cultured to develop into strands of muscle tissue fit for frying in a nugget or pressing into a burger patty.

    Since the theatrical unveiling of the first lab-grown beef patty in 2013, several companies have waded into the field of “cellular agriculture,” crafting their own meaty prototypes. San Francisco, California–based Memphis Meats has beef, duck, and chicken under development—with investment from (conventional) meat giant Tyson Foods. JUST, also based in San Francisco, has a chicken product based on cells originally isolated from the feather of a chicken (named Ian). Its CEO has announced hopes of having some of its meat products restaurant-ready later this year.

  • Australian scientists welcome boosts in new federal budget

    Turquoise Waters at Hardy Reef

    The new budget provides $399 million to protect the Great Barrier Reef, an amount scientists call “a small step” toward what is needed.

    Ingo Oeland/Alamy Stock Photo

    Scientific infrastructure and health research in Australia will both gain in the new federal budget, unveiled yesterday evening in Canberra. “This is a good budget for science,” says Andrew Holmes, president of the Australian Academy of Science and a chemist at the University of Melbourne.

    Holmes particularly points to a 12-year, AU$1.9 billion (US$1.4 billion) National Research Infrastructure Investment Plan. Details are yet to be worked out, but priorities were outlined in a road map produced by an expert group last year. The road map recommended supporting the development of advanced microscopes, new types of instrumentation, and device fabrication techniques to support research in materials science, biology, medicine, and the environment. For astronomy, the investment plan will likely cover continuing support for Australian institutions to participate in international consortia operating large optical and radio telescopes.

    The road map pointed to the need to modernize the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong for its research supporting the livestock industry and for studies of emerging diseases that affect humans. Following a road map recommendation to upgrade computing facilities, the budget announcement specifically provides AU$140 million for upgrades to two existing national high-performance computing centers.

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