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Elsewhere in Science, 25 September 2015

Christopher Pyne
Credit: Policy Exchange/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Every Friday, Science Careers points to articles in the Science family of publications that are relevant to careers in science and other technical fields. Some of them are accessible to anyone, but access to articles appearing in Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, and Science may require AAAS membership (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers) or a site license.

► The National Science Foundation (NSF) has warned the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Inc., “the Boulder, Colorado–based group overseeing the multisite [NEON] project aimed at monitoring long-term environmental change across the United States,” that it has until 1 December to finish the project, Jeffrey Mervis reported Monday at ScienceInsider. “If it is determined that NEON Inc. is not capable of completing construction, NSF will take the necessary actions to pursue alternative management options,” said James Olds, assistant director of NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences, at a hearing for two subpanels of the U.S. House of Representatives’s science committee.

► “Australia has a new science minister. Christopher Pyne, a lawyer and veteran politician who has been serving as the conservative government’s education minister, was sworn in to his new post [Monday] as part of a reshuffle by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull,” Leigh Dayton reported at ScienceInsider that day. “Many Australian researchers say they hope Pyne’s appointment will mark a turn in policy under Turnbull, who ousted former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 15 September after an internal party uprising. The hard-charging Abbott had drawn fierce criticism from many in Australia’s scientific community as a result of his moves to make deep cuts in nonbiomedical research budgets, and to weaken climate and environmental protection policies.” Among others, “Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist, is ... expressing guarded optimism.”

► “The best way to ease the regulatory burden on U.S. academic researchers is to create another layer of bureaucracy. That surprising conclusion is the top recommendation in a report out [Tuesday] by a National Academies committee that Congress asked to examine the current regulatory jungle confronting universities that receive federal research dollars,” Mervis wrote that day at ScienceInsider. “The committee, chaired by former University of Texas President Larry Faulkner, believes that the government’s ‘ever-growing requirements are diminishing the effectiveness of the nation’s research investment.’ It asks Congress to set up a quasi-governmental entity, which it calls the Research Policy Board (RPB), as a mechanism to come up with better ways of overseeing the U.S. research enterprise. Managed by a new associate director within the White House science office, the board would work closely with the Office of Management and Budget, which must vet all proposed regulations from federal agencies. But the board’s funding would come from research institutions, giving it a degree of independence not enjoyed by a government agency.” As for whether action will be taken in response to the report, Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN) said in a statement that “we intend to include many of the recommendations in legislation we will introduce this year to speed innovation in health care. We will also work with the administration on the steps it can take without any need for legislation.”

► You may remember “last year’s sensational claims surrounding stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells, the supposedly powerful stem cells derived using a remarkably simple recipe,” as Gretchen Vogel described it in a piece published Wednesday. It led to two retractions, followed by a resignation and a suicide. Now, we may know what could have been at the root of the issue, thanks to work by researchers who attempted to reproduce the results of “observations that may have misled the researchers who made the original claims[, which include] cells that glow, faintly, under key wavelengths of light,” Vogel wrote.

“Their findings don’t exculpate the team that reported the STAP claim, however. More cautious researchers would have realized they were on the wrong track, says Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem cell researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge whose lab spent 2 months trying to make STAP cells and contributed data to the new paper. ‘If you know what you’re doing, it’s not that difficult,’ he says. And other investigations have found evidence suggesting deliberate wrongdoing.” The results highlight the importance of careful observation and controls, as well as the potential benefits of replication studies.

► Later that day, at ScienceInsider, Kelly Servick reported that the Coca-Cola Company released information revealing that it has given “more than $118 million in funding to various health-related projects and organizations since 2010, including nearly $22 million dedicated to research.” This news has caused a few raised eyebrows because the company continues to face “accusations that [it] has enlisted prominent health researchers to help downplay the role of sugary drinks in the obesity crisis. Public health advocates have long questioned whether support from food and beverage companies might bias the results of nutrition research.” And “last month … The New York Times reported that a $1.5 million gift from Coke had helped create a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), led by researchers at multiple universities.” GEBN, however, holds that the funding does not affect its work. According to a statement on its website, “Coca Cola has no input into the activities of GEBN. GEBN is not about minimizing diet or even the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in development of obesity.”

► In a letter in this week’s issue of Science, Enrique Guerra-Pujol, an instructor of accounting at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, argued that research reformers should consider the “possibility of legal liability for research fraud. ... [W]e propose extending the well-established tort of fraudulent misrepresentation to fraudulent research published in journals based in the United States. … By making scientific researchers who publish in U.S. journals liable in tort for their acts of fraud, we would expect to deter the incidence of fraud before it occurs. If we wish to promote integrity in science, let's not forget to use sticks as well as carrots.”

► Also in this week's issue, Mervis wrote three features about the NEON project. In “Ecology's tough climb,” he outlined the “self-inflicted and external wounds” that NEON has dealt with “since construction began in 2011, resulting in project delays, a large projected cost overrun, and several changes in senior leadership.” In “Tragic end for Puerto Rico site,” he reported on a NEON site in Puerto Rico that “was undone by a human tragedy [but also] represented a loss of capacity for the project.” And in “NEON jobs plentiful but problematic,” he noted that NEON's problems have “led to high turnover and taken a toll on promising careers. The turnover has also robbed NEON of talent that could help it overcome future challenges.”  

► In this week's Science Careers-produced Working Life article, Rachel Yoho describes how participating in school science fairs helped her find her path into a research career. You can find out more about her love of science fairs at Science.