Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • DOE denies it has policy to remove ‘climate change’ from agency materials

    Sign saying Department of Energy in front of headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    The Department of Energy's headquarters building in Washington, D.C.

    chicabradita/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News.

    The Department of Energy (DOE) denied today that it's banning the use of "climate change" in materials after a public letter alleged scientific censorship and sparked a Twitter storm.

    Jennifer Bowen, an associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston, posted a letter on Facebook showing a DOE official asking her to remove the words "global warming" and "climate change" from her research proposal on nutrient loading in salt marsh carbon sequestration.

  • Basic studies of how our brains work are now clinical trials, NIH says

    woman at computer in a brain study

    Studies of how a normal person’s brain processes images could be labeled clinical trials under a new National Institutes of Health policy. 

    © Vassar College/Karl Rabe

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has confirmed that the agency’s definition of clinical trials now includes imaging studies of normal brain function that do not test new treatments. The change will impose new requirements that many researchers say don’t make sense and could stifle cognitive neuroscience.

    Although NIH revised its definition of clinical trials in 2014, the agency is only now implementing it as part of a new clinical trials policy. Concerns arose this summer when an NIH official said the definition could apply to many basic behavioral research projects, including brain studies—for example, having healthy volunteers perform a computer task while wearing an electrode cap or lying in an MRI machine. Scientists say the new requirements—such as training and registration on—are unnecessary, will impose a huge paperwork burden, and will confuse patients seeking to enroll in trials.

    NIH told ScienceInsider in July that the agency was still deciding exactly which behavioral studies would be covered by the new definition. On 11 August, the agency released a set of case studies that has confirmed many researchers’ fears. Case No. 18 states that a study in which a healthy volunteer undergoes MRI brain imaging while performing a working memory test is now a clinical trial because the effect being evaluated—brain function—is a health-related outcome.

  • Trump’s attack on social cost of carbon could end up hurting his fossil fuel push

    Donald J. Trump

    Donald J. Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by ProPublica.

    President Donald Trump’s efforts to boost fossil fuel extraction face a courtroom hurdle of his own making.

    His March 28 executive order “promoting energy independence and economic growth” rescinded the Obama administration’s calculation of the “social cost of carbon” — a metric that had been central to the process of crafting and justifying government rules addressing human-driven climate change.

  • Endangered right whales are dying in record numbers off Canada, raising alarm

    A photo of a dead North Atlantic right whale

    This North Atlantic right whale, found dead in June, had injuries suggesting it was hit by a ship.


    The highly endangered North Atlantic right whale is having its worst year in decades. At least 13 of the whales—out of a population believed to be about 450—have died this year, most of them during the past 2.5 months in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Canada's eastern coast.

    That is "an unprecedented number of deaths," says whale biologist Moira Brown of the New England Aquarium in Boston. If the deaths continue, she says, "the population can't withstand this."

    Researchers are still working to pin down how the whales died, but at least three appear to have been hit by ships, and one perished after becoming entangled in fishing gear. In a bid to prevent more losses, Canadian officials are scrambling to improve protections for the animals, which can reach 15 meters long and 72 tons. They've started near-daily reconnaissance flights to spot whales snared by ropes or nets, and imposed new restrictions on shipping and fishing until the whales migrate south later this year.

  • In a 'forgotten experiment,' biologists almost launched the preprint revolution—5 decades ago

    James Watson and Francis Crick walking along the banks at Cambridge University.

    Francis Crick (left) was initially skeptical of the National Institutes of Health's 1960s preprint-sharing project, but later joined a preprint exchange group led by James Watson, with whom he discovered the structure of DNA. 

    Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

    As a growing number of biologists formally share their papers in online repositories before any peer review or journal publication, it’s often said that they are catching up with physicists, who have posted preprints in the online arXiv server since 1991. But biomedical scientists were actually first, reveals a researcher who has traced the "forgotten experiment" in which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created a preprint exchange in the 1960s that publishers ultimately forced to close.

    Matthew Cobb, a biologist and science historian at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, was browsing letters exchanged by biologists Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in the archives of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York when he came across a mention of the NIH project. I "pulled on the thread," he tells ScienceInsider, and learned that starting in 1961, a 70-year-old NIH administrator named Errett Albritton formed what he called Information Exchange Groups (IEGs), consisting of interested scientists working in the same subfield.

    Participants sent draft manuscripts or other matters for consideration to NIH, which made copies of the documents and mailed them to the group, according to Cobb's own draft article, posted on 22 August in PeerJ Preprints. As with preprints today, the idea was to improve communication among scientists and relay findings months before they appeared in journals.

  • Leaked documents expose long-standing gender tensions at Salk Institute

    Elizabeth Blackburn speaks at TED2017

    Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn commissioned a "faculty issues" report that addressed women's status at the Salk Institute soon after she took its helm in 2016.

    Bret Hartman/TED

    Senior female faculty at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies raise more than twice as much in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for scientists working in their labs as their male counterparts, according to a 2016 internal report on "faculty issues" requested by leaders of the San Diego, California, institution. Yet Salk leaders favored male scientists by granting them greater access to internal funds and other resources, the report implies, echoing gender discrimination lawsuits filed last month against the research center.

    Salk officials vigorously disputed that suggestion this week. Still, the internal report and other in-house documents obtained by Science provide a glimpse of the issues that have fueled longstanding gender-related tensions within the storied, 57-year-old institution founded by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk.

    The report was among several commissioned early in 2016 by Nobel prize-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who had just become the institute's president. It was prepared by a group of faculty members chaired by Beverly Emerson, a molecular biologist who is one of three plaintiffs in last month's lawsuits. Citing the pending litigation, Salk has declined to release the report and a similar gender-based analysis from 2003; both are cited in Emerson's lawsuit.

    Salk said in a statement that the report, and a second similar document prepared by Katherine Jones, another plaintiff, are "draft documents containing opinions and self-titled ‘findings,’ many of which are misguided or we disagree with or dispute."

  • A bold open-access push in Germany could change the future of academic publishing

    A photo of the library at Berlin's Humboldt University

    The library at Berlin's Humboldt University is one of many that won't renew its Elsevier subscriptions.


    BERLIN—In a third-floor conference room here overlooking the famous Potsdamer Platz, once bisected by the Berlin Wall, the future of academic publishing is being negotiated. The backdrop is fitting, because if the librarians and academic leaders at the table get their way, another major divide will soon fall: the paywall that surrounds most research papers.

    Over the past 2 years, more than 150 German libraries, universities, and research institutes have formed a united front trying to force academic publishers into a new way of doing business. Instead of buying subscriptions to specific journals, consortium members want to pay publishers an annual lump sum that covers publication costs of all papers whose first authors are at German institutions. Those papers would be freely available around the world; meanwhile, German institutions would receive access to all the publishers' online content.

    Consortia of libraries and universities in the Netherlands, Finland, Austria, and the United Kingdom have all pushed for similar agreements, but have had to settle for less than they wanted. In the Netherlands, for example, Elsevier—the world's biggest academic publisher—has agreed to make only 30% of Dutch-authored papers freely available by 2018, and only after a significant increase in the annual sum libraries pay.

  • U.S. marine seismologists fear loss of research ship

    R/V Marcus Langseth in front of the Manhattan skyline

    Because of a $3.5 million budget shortfall, NSF may sell off the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, which explores marine geology.

    Bob Vergaras, A.P.S. for Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

    The R/V Marcus G. Langseth is a remarkable research ship. The 70-meter vessel, owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in Palisades, New York, can tow long chains of floating acoustic receivers, which catch seismic reflections off the ocean floor and the layers of marine sediments below it when an array of airguns are set off in the water. Using these reflections, researchers can build 3D pictures of structures like subduction zones, the regions where one tectonic plate dives below another, setting off large earthquakes and tsunamis in the process. Yet these days, thanks to tight NSF budgets, the Langseth typically has another view: a New York dockyard. Last year, it spent only 128 days at sea.

    And much to their chagrin, marine seismologists may lose the services of the Langseth altogether. NSF is reviewing proposals, due on 21 August, that would deal with a $3.5 million gap between the $13.5 million cost of operating the ship and the $10 million that NSF is willing to pay. The Langseth has been in the crosshairs ever since 2015, when an influential “Sea Change” report—the ocean sciences decadal survey sponsored by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine—recommended that NSF trim its ocean infrastructure in favor of more research support. If an academic institution or consortium is willing to take over the ship and provide NSF with just $10 million worth of time—or if an institution can bring $3.5 million to the table to balance out the budget—then great, the agency says. If not, the ship will be sold off to the highest bidder, and the money will be used to procure ship time for marine seismology with third-party contractors. “It's just not working with this current financial and ownership model,” says Richard Murray, NSF's director of ocean sciences in Arlington, Virginia. “We end up in a situation where the ship is tied up at the dock and not being used in different ways.”

    Combined with the agency's planned cuts to its pool of ocean-bottom seismometers, the U.S. capacity for imaging the ocean crust is on the cusp of taking a severe step back, says Douglas Wiens, a marine seismologist at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri. “It has created a lot of anxiety for scientists who depend on this. There isn't another way to do their research in most cases.” 

  • Trump team nears decision on national monuments

    A school of pink fish swim next to coral in waters off Hawaii.

    Waters off Hawaii host one of the world's largest marine monuments.

    Originally published by E&E News

    As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approaches the 24 August deadline for his recommendations to President Donald Trump on whether to alter dozens of national monuments, conservation proponents say it remains all but impossible to predict which sites the administration could target for reductions or even wholesale elimination.

    In recent months, Zinke has traveled from coast to coast as he conducted the review, which included 27 national monuments created since 1996, the majority of which are larger than 100,000 acres.

    But even as he visited states from Maine to Oregon and Utah to New Mexico, Zinke managed to touch down in only eight of those monuments over the 3.5-month review.

  • NSF reiterates policy on teaching good research habits despite its limitations


    iT@c/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, has decided to double down on its implementation of a congressionally mandated policy aimed at reducing research misconduct among NSF-funded scientists, despite a new report that notes problems with the agency’s approach.

    In 2007, Congress approved a measure, the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, that requires every university applying for NSF funding to certify that its students are receiving “appropriate” training in the responsible conduct of research (RCR). Although NSF gave universities great leeway to decide how to provide that training, its 2010 directive also suggested that schools conduct a “risk assessment” to determine who should be trained and what training they should receive.

    In 2013 NSF’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), an internal independent watchdog, decided to see how well universities were complying with the requirement. And its new report, based on a survey of 53 institutions, identifies several areas of concern.

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