Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump administration takes first steps toward drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

    A plain of grasses in front of a rugged mountain range in Alaska's Arctic refuge.

    The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northern coast of Alaska


    Originally published by E&E News

    Department of Interior officials today mapped out their first steps toward allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

    The four-page notice of an environmental review, scheduled for publication in tomorrow's Federal Register, sets the stage for oil and gas leasing within the 19-million-acre refuge.

  • Pioneering autism researcher cooperated with Nazis, new evidence suggests

    Memorial for victims of Spiegelgrund in front of the Otto Wagner Hospital

    This memorial in Vienna remembers Nazi-era victims of the children's psychiatric facility Am Spiegelgrund, where children and adolescents were systematically killed and their brains removed for scientific research. A new book and journal article alleges that Hans Asperger, a pioneer of autism research, referred dozens of children to the clinic.

    Caro/Christoph Eckelt/Newscom

    Originally published on Spectrum

    The Austrian doctor Hans Asperger cooperated extensively with the Nazi regime and may have sent dozens of children to their deaths.

    Horrific details of his involvement were revealed yesterday in the journal Molecular Autism and will be detailed in a forthcoming book called Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

  • Logging in Europe’s primeval forest ruled illegal

    People take part in a protest against large-scale government logging in the Bialowieza Forest, Poland, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017

    Protesters march against logging last August in the Białowieża Forest.

    Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

    Europe’s top court has ruled that controversial logging in Poland’s iconic Białowieża Forest is illegal, but the fight over the forest’s future is far from finished. “The controversy over what to do next is just beginning,” says ornithologist Przemek Chylarecki of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

    Białowieża is the best-preserved remnant of old-growth forest that once spanned lowland Europe. Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the 1500-square-kilometer forest has centuries-old trees, as well a menagerie—including wolves, lynx, dozens of species of birds, beetles and fungi—found nowhere else. Foresters and preservationists have fought over Białowieża for decades. Ecologists would like to see the forest left to its own devices—as is the case with a small national park at its core—while foresters argue that logging and replanting are necessary to protect against pests and to maintain certain habitats.

    The latest battle began after spruce bark beetles began to kill drought-weakened trees in 2012. Foresters started felling trees in a bid to stop the beetle, but biologists said the attempt was doomed to fail and would cause more damage than the beetles. In March 2016, Jan Szyszko, the minister of the environment at the time, tripled the amount of logging permitted in one of three districts managed by the Forest Service, ostensibly to speed up the campaign against the beetle. Environmental groups suspected that the motives were economic, and they pressed the European Commission to take Poland to court. Last summer, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered a temporary halt to the logging, although it allowed an exemption for cutting trees that pose a risk to public safety.

  • House science panel feuds over NASA earth science programs, then finds compromise

    Lamar Smith and Eddie Bernice Johnson

    Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (left) at a 2013 hearing of the science committee

    U.S. House of Representatives science committee

    Congressional Democrats and Republicans have waged repeated battles over funding for earth science research at NASA, with Democrats wanting more and Republicans less. But yesterday, the two sides came to an agreement on how much to spend on the earth sciences that allowed them to advance legislation sketching out a 2-year vision for the space agency.

    The setting was the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), wanted to shape NASA’s plan for human space exploration, research missions, and other activities at the $20 billion agency. The usual approach would have been to confer with the Democratic minority on the committee and negotiate a bill that could win bipartisan support.

    But when it comes to making science policy, Smith and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the panel’s top Democrat and fellow Texan, often appear to be barely on speaking terms. And when Smith shared a draft of his NASA reauthorization bill (H.R. 5503) 3 weeks ago, Johnson and her colleagues raised lots of questions about some provisions. (An authorization bill doesn’t appropriate any money. But it gives policy guidance to an agency.)

  • Kristina Olson is first psychologist to win NSF’s Waterman award

    a child handing a toy to a woman

    Kristina Olson works with a child in the Social Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    University of Washington

    Calling Kristina Olson a path-breaking researcher doesn’t begin to describe all the doors this year’s winner of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) most prestigious prize for young scientists has opened.

    A social and developmental psychologist at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, Olson is the first person from her discipline to win the 42-year-old Alan T. Waterman Award. She’s also the first woman since 2004 to receive the $1 million prize. Although scientists from every field that NSF supports are eligible, only three social scientists—the previous two were men—have ever captured the Waterman, named after NSF’s first director.

    Olson’s research on the social development of transgender youth has expanded the traditional boundaries of academic psychology. And her plans to use a big chunk of the prize money on a new summer internship program for undergraduate minority students also may be unprecedented for Waterman winners.

  • Bigger, better bird tree of life will soon fly into view

    Tauraco corythaix bird

    A better family tree would help researchers better place turacos, such as this Knysna turaco from South Africa, on its branches.

    Daniel J. Field

    Bird lovers—and evolutionary biologists—can look forward to a new and improved avian family tree being finished in 4 years, thanks to The OpenWings Project officially launched this last week at the American Ornithological Meeting in Tucson, Arizona. The $1.42 million effort will be the first to include DNA data from the more than 10,500 known bird species to establish how they are all related. But it will not be the final word—another project seeking to sequence the full genomes of every avian species will follow if enough funding can be raised. OpenWings “will be a huge improvement over what we have now,” says Harvard University evolutionary biologist Scott Edwards. But, “Ultimately, OpenWings will be a stepping stone to the grand tree that the whole genomes [will generate].”  

    In 2014, biologists published an avian tree based on the sequences of whole genomes of about 40 species. Another team published a different tree in 2015 after comparing a subset of the avian genome in hundreds of species. These phylogenies help researchers looking at the evolutionary histories of specific avian traits or the story of birds overall. But some researchers who specialize in building trees were not satisfied. “The current need for large phylogenies and the high priority placed on them by high impact journals can result in shortcuts, wherein large-scale phylogenetic trees are cobbled together from disparate existing sources, even taxonomy, but often without hard data behind the placement of many species,” Harvard evolutionary biologist Gustavo Bravo and his colleagues wrote on 30 January in PeerJ. “The question is how far do you compromise?” Edwards adds.

    So even though some of the leaders of the 2014 avian tree effort launched the Bird 10,000 Genomes (B10K) Project, aiming to eventually sequence the whole genomes of all 10,560 bird species and from there build “the grand tree,” some bird researchers decided not to wait. Led by Brian Smith at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Brant Faircloth at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, they are taking a cheaper, faster route with the OpenWings Project. The U.S. National Science Foundation–funded effort will tap extensive museum collections as much as possible, instead of freshly caught bird samples, and will sequence about 5000 short pieces of the DNA, focusing on regions that are very highly conserved among all birds. The group plans to release data on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting for the project’s publication, so other researchers can make use of it.

  • A final dash across the United States: updates from the 2018 March for Science

    marchers at the U.S. Capitol

    After a rally on the National Mall, science supporters marched to the U.S. Capitol.

    Katie Langin

    The March for Science celebrated its anniversary today. And although the turnout around the world was significantly smaller than last year, supporters haven’t lost any of their energy.

    The global grassroots movement has evolved from having a million people take to the streets in 2017 in more than 450 cities to year-round advocacy for science and for evidence-based policies by government officials. But 14 April is still the big event for many local groups.

    Below are some of the highlights from events around the world, including the flagship rally in Washington, D.C.

  • Trump officials claim they can avoid 2020 census problems caused by controversial citizenship question. Experts are very skeptical

    people in a crowd waving American flags during a citizenship ceremony

    Some 7200 new citizens from more than 100 countries celebrate at a naturalization ceremony last month in Los Angeles, California.

    Mario Tama/Getty Images

    The Trump administration’s plan to deal with a possible significant undercount on the 2020 U.S. census is seriously flawed, according to former agency officials and other experts in survey research.

    Late last month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross endorsed a controversial request from the Department of Justice to add a citizenship question to the decennial census. Justice Department officials said they needed more detailed information on every U.S. resident to prevent discrimination under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

    Civil rights groups and others blasted the decision, predicting that the new question would prompt many immigrants to refuse to fill out the form. The resulting undercount, critics say, could invalidate census data used to apportion congressional seats and distribute three-quarters of a trillion dollars in federal funds.

  • University declines to sanction doctor who referred patient for deadly transplant

    Tómas Guðbjartsson and Eritrean Andemariam Beyene

    Andemariam Beyene (right) and his doctor, Tómas Guðbjartsson (left), after Beyene received an artificial trachea implant.

    Vilhelm Gunnarsson

    The doctor who referred a cancer patient for the first-ever artificial trachea implant will not face disciplinary action from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, where he works. Patient Andemariam Beyene died after the implant, a polymer scaffold seeded with his own stem cells, failed. The surgeon who developed the technique, Paolo Macchiarini, has been the center of a misconduct scandal that led to his firing from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Kazan Federal University in Tatarstan, Russia. Although Macchiarini touted the success of his artificial windpipes in medical papers, all but one of the patients who received them have died. (The survivor was able to have his implant removed.)

    In a 5 April statement, University of Iceland Rector Jón Atli Benediktsson said that Tómas Guðbjartsson, a thoracic surgeon at the Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik and a professor at the university, would not be disciplined for his role in the case, which was examined by an external ethics panel in 2017. The rector concluded that although Guðbjartsson’s conduct “is considered objectionable … the legal requirements for formal disciplinary sanctions … have not been met.” The statement says that the university also “regrets the flaws” in a 2012 symposium celebrating the first anniversary of the implant surgery.

    Beyene, an Eritrean Ph.D. student in geology who was married and had three young sons, developed a tumor on his windpipe in 2009. Guðbjartsson, after concluding he had no other treatment options left, sent him to be seen by Macchiarini in Stockholm. The duo, with several other colleagues, gave Beyene an artificial windpipe in June 2011, in an operation written up in The New York Times. But the polymer trachea collapsed multiple times and caused recurring infections. Beyene died in January 2013. An autopsy found that the implant had almost completely disconnected from Beyene’s airway.

  • Panel calls for a postdoc tax and other measures to help biomedical scientists find jobs

    poster session of 2016 Neuroscience meeting

    A new report examines ways to help more young researchers, such as these displaying posters at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2016, forge careers in biomedical science.

    Society for Neuroscience

    The U.S. Congress, federal funding agencies, universities, and other research institutions must take significant steps, such as a postdoc “tax” and a hard cap on how long postdocs can be funded by a lab head, to better usher young biomedical scientists into viable careers, a committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in a report released today. The biomedical workforce recommendations, which include a congressionally mandated council that would help implement the changes, could require more than $1 billion, according to the panel's chairman, Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. 

    “We owe the young scientists who are coming into the system, from the moment they start in a Ph.D. program until they finally get to the point that they’re in faculty positions … a responsibility to give them clear information and good support in making effective, sound decisions that comport with their abilities and career aspirations,” Daniels said at a briefing on the report.

    Motivating the new report is the growing mismatch between many biomedical scientists’ aspirations and the career prospects available to them. Despite efforts to promote research careers in industry, government, and the nonprofit sector, an independent academic research career remains the top goal for many budding biologists. Yet only about 18% of people trained in the United States with a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences is employed in a tenured or tenure-track position 6 to 10 years after completing their degree, according to data newly released in the report.

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