Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

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  • No more cuddly selfies with our ape cousins, top conservation body warns scientists

    A zookeeper stands across a small waterway from chimpanzees

    The International Union for Conservation of Nature recommends photographs, like this, show a clear barrier and safe distance between primates and people.

    GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images

    The global authority on wildlife protection wants scientists to quit cuddling monkeys on Instagram, holding hands with orangutans in films, and palling around with chimpanzees in publicity photos. In a new set of guidelines released last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called on scientists, students, conservationists, and caretakers to stop publishing images that depict themselves in close contact with nonhuman primates.

    For years, conservationists have campaigned against movies, ads, and social media posts that portray primates as appealing pets. “There is a causal link between how primates are depicted and whether they survive as wild animals, or [whether] people do terrible things and try to make them pets,” says Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare, who did not work on the guidelines, but called them welcome and “needed.”

    Primatologist Siân Waters of Durham University and others grew frustrated by colleagues posing with their study subjects on book jackets, in research talks, and on social media. About 2 years ago, they founded a group within IUCN, the Primate Specialist Group Section for Human-Primate Interactions. Among their first agenda items: establishing best practice guidelines for photographs or videos featuring nonhuman primates.

  • Statisticians hail early departure of U.S. Census director

    Steven Dillingham speaks outside the Oklahoma state capitol

    Census Director Steven Dillingham last year in South Carolina

    AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

    The director of the U.S. Census Bureau has resigned, almost 1 year before the end of his term and less than 1 week after an internal agency watchdog questioned his ability to maintain the quality of data released from the just-completed 2020 census. Leaders of the U.S. statistical community are glad to see Steven Dillingham go, saying his actions had undermined the integrity of an agency that produces some of the nation’s most important social science data.

    Dillingham spent a tumultuous 2 years fending off assaults on the decennial head count by President Donald Trump and his appointees, including a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and a presidential order to exclude undocumented residents from the final tally used to decide how many seats each state gets in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives. Researchers had initially hoped Dillingham, a lawyer who has a doctorate in political science and had overseen statistical operations in three previous administrations, would be able to withstand those attacks.

    But his handling of a last-ditch push to release data on undocumented residents before Trump left office drew heated criticism from demographers, civil rights organizations, and influential Democrats in Congress. And census specialists are skeptical of explanations that Dillingham offered for his actions in a lengthy exit statement he issued yesterday. (It also announces his retirement, effective tomorrow.)

  • Biden proposes a science-led New Deal to end pandemic suffering

    President-elect Joe Biden

    President-elect Joe Biden wants to hire many thousands of new public health workers to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

    AP Photo/Matt Slocum

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    After announcing a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” yesterday to “change the course of the pandemic,” President-elect Joe Biden today provided more details on how his administration will address what he called the “dismal failure” of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, safely reopen schools by March, and ramp up surveillance to track where SARS-CoV-2 is moving and how it’s mutating.

    “The more people we vaccinate and the faster we do it, the sooner we can put this pandemic behind us,” said Biden in an afternoon speech. Almost simultaneously, the president-elect revealed key members of his administration’s science team, many of whom will be central to the plan.

  • New coronavirus variants could cause more reinfections, require updated vaccines

    Relatives attend a COVID-19 victim's burial in Manaus, Brazil

    Relatives attend a COVID-19 victim’s burial in Manaus, Brazil, on 13 January.

    MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    When the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise again in Manaus, Brazil, in December 2020, Nuno Faria was stunned. The virologist at Imperial College London and associate professor at the University of Oxford had just co-authored a paper in Science estimating that three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants had already been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic coronavirus—more than enough, it seemed, for herd immunity to develop. The virus should be done with Manaus. Yet hospitals were filling up again. “It was hard to reconcile these two things,” Faria says. He started to hunt for samples he could sequence to find out whether changes in the virus could explain the resurgence.

    On 12 January, Faria and his colleagues posted their initial conclusions on the website Thirteen of 31 samples collected in mid-December in Manaus turned out to be part of a new viral lineage they called P.1. Much more research is needed, but they say one possibility is that in some people, P.1 eludes the human immune response triggered by the lineage that ravaged the city earlier in 2020.

  • School risk calculations scrambled by fast-spreading virus strains

    A girl from the Lansingerland municipality is being tested for the coronavirus

    A girl gets tested for the pandemic coronavirus in Lansingerland, Netherlands, this week, as part of an effort to track spread of a variant that caused an outbreak at a local school.

    KOEN VAN WEEL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    A new, more transmissible coronavirus variant has upended efforts to balance the known harm that closed schools cause against the risk that the pandemic virus might spread in classrooms. Studies done before it emerged seemed to point in a hopeful direction: School outbreaks are rare, even when community spread is relatively high, providing schools limit class sizes and require safety measures including masks. And if community spread is low, those safety measures may not be essential, especially among children under the age of 10.

    An outbreak of the new variant at a primary school in the Netherlands has undermined that confidence. Tests of 818 teachers, students, and families revealed 123 people—nearly 15%—were infected, just 1 month after the first case was identified at the school, which did not require teachers or children to wear masks. The new variant was responsible for a large fraction of those cases. This week, health officials asked the more than 60,000 residents of the school’s region, north of Rotterdam, to get tested for the virus in an effort to learn how widely it has spread in the community. 

  • Biden appoints geneticist Eric Lander as science adviser

    Eric Lander speaks on stage

    Eric Lander

    AP Photo/Claudio Cruz

    President-elect Joe Biden has chosen a research policy maven—and familiar face—to be both his science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

    Eric Lander, 63, is president and founding director of the Broad Institute, which is jointly run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A mathematician turned molecular biologist, Lander was also co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for 8 years under former President Barack Obama, where he worked closely with Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, and interacted with Biden.

    “Eric is a fabulous choice, and he will make a terrific science adviser,” predicts Holdren, who calls Lander “a science polymath” for his breadth of knowledge across many disciplines. That’s also true for policy, Holdren says. “Eric’s fingerprints were on every one of PCAST’s 39 reports” issued under Obama, Holdren adds, noting that six of them covered previous pandemics and public health crises.

  • COVID-19 cases are soaring in Indonesia. Can a new health minister turn things around?

    Budi Gunadi Sadikin

    Indonesian Minister of Health Budi Gunadi Sadikin is “still in firefighting mode,” trying to bring down a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

    Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    A new face at the helm of Indonesia’s Ministry of Health has raised scientists’ hopes that the country may take a more scientific approach to its increasingly desperate struggle with COVID-19. In a 22 December 2020 cabinet reshuffle, Indonesian President Joko Widodo named Budi Gunadi Sadikin, who has a degree in nuclear physics, as health minister. He took over from Terawan Agus Putranto, a military doctor known for pushing a controversial, unproven stroke therapy he had developed himself. His sluggish, secretive management of the pandemic was widely seen as a failure.

    Sadikin, who has worked on the pandemic since March 2020 at the Ministry of State Owned Enterprises, “seems to understand the issue very well,” Zubairi Djoerban, head of the Indonesian Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force, wrote on Twitter after meeting Sadikin on 11 January. Indonesia lags in testing and data collection, and faces the gargantuan task of vaccinating its far-flung population of 270 million people. “Hopefully, a science-based approach will illuminate our way,” tweeted Ines Atmosukarto, an Indonesian molecular biologist who directs Lipotek, a biotech startup in Canberra, Australia.

  • Science journals to offer select authors open-access publishing for free

    A collage of Science magazine covers

    AAAS, which publishes the Science family of journals, announced today it will offer its authors a free way to comply with a mandate issued by some funders that publications resulting from research they fund be immediately free to read. Under the new open-access policy, authors may deposit near-final, peer-reviewed versions of papers accepted by paywalled Science titles in publicly accessible online repositories.

    For now, Science’s approach, known as green open access, will only apply to authors of papers funded by Coalition S, a group of mostly European funders and foundations behind an open-access mandate that takes effect this month. The funders say immediate access will accelerate scientific discovery by disseminating new findings faster. Up to 31% of research papers in the flagship journal Science and four other Science titles have cited funding from Coalition S, said Bill Moran, the journals’ publisher. Until now, these papers had been available immediately only to journal subscribers, although the paywalled Science journals do make all papers free 12 months after publication.

    Articles made public under the new policy will carry an open-access license, and authors will retain copyright, another of Coalition S’s conditions.

  • ‘Compelled by stories.’ A marketing expert’s tips for promoting COVID-19 vaccination

    an individual shows off a sticker on their upper arm. The sticker reads “I chose the COVID-19 vaccine.”

    Research suggests giving people visible indicators that they have received a COVID-19 vaccine, such as stickers or bracelets, could help persuade others to get the shots.

    Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    As an expert in marketing, Stacy Wood has studied how people respond to everything from online shopping to reality TV. Now, the professor at North Carolina State University’s business school has turned to COVID-19, co-authoring a paper on 6 January in The New England Journal of Medicine that uses marketing theory to explain how to persuade people to get vaccinated.

    Wood recently spoke to ScienceInsider about her work. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Cell’s publisher invites statements in papers about studies’ diversity and inclusion efforts

    a person writes notes at a table with a laptop

    Voluntary declarations in submitted manuscripts can describe gender balance in study samples, for example.


    After reading a paper about Amazonian frogs in May 2020, behavioral ecologist Daniela Roessler of Harvard University was astonished. The study named 27 authors, all male. The publication sparked an outcry on Twitter for more diversity in science. Roessler and colleagues then wrote a letter to journal publishers suggesting a way for authors to help advance that goal: publicly declare in their submitted manuscripts whether they had considered diversity, equity, and inclusion in the study.

    Last week, Cell Press, publisher of more than 50 journals, became one of the first publlshers to invite authors to do so. The publisher—whose titles include the prestigious Cell, as well as Neuron and Current Biology—said the declarations can highlight authors’ personal characteristics or elements of a study’s design. These can include, for example, researchers’ use of ethnically diverse cell lines and genomic data sets and efforts to ensure gender balance in study samples and on lists of citations and authors.

    Submitting such a declaration is not mandatory and will not affect whether submitted manuscripts are accepted for publication, Cell Press said.

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