Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Coronavirus infections keep mounting after cruise ship fiasco in Japan

    The cruise ship Diamond Princess docked at Daikoku Pier in Yokohama, Japan

    So far, eight public servants who visited the Diamond Princess to support a quarantine have contracted the virus that causes COVID-19.


    TOKYO—All but a handful of the passengers of the disease-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship berthed in Yokohama have disembarked. But for Japan, the saga is far from over. Much of the crew remains on board, enduring another 14 days of quarantine—although this time under conditions that Japanese officials hope will prevent any additional infections.

    But there has been another worrisome development: As of today, eight public servants who worked on the ship to support the quarantine have tested positive for COVID-19, and more may follow. Most of the roughly 90 health ministry employees who visited the ship during the first 2-week quarantine that ended on 19 February initially returned to their normal work duties, but in light of the infections, the health ministry yesterday revised its policy and now those potentially exposed to the virus on the Diamond Princess are self-quarantining at home for 14 days, according to a ministry official who asked not to be identified.

    Still, there are fears here that Japan’s handling of the crisis may lead to new chains of infection. There are now 700 confirmed COVID-19 cases linked to the Diamond Princess, not counting infections discovered among passengers after they’ve gone home. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 36 American Diamond Princess passengers who returned on emergency flights have been confirmed as carrying the virus.

  • MeTooSTEM organization reeling after more resignations

    BethAnn McLaughlin

    MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin faces a severe challenge to her leadership.

    Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

    The prominent nonprofit group MeTooSTEM appears to be imploding amid resignations and accusations of bullying by founder BethAnn McLaughlin. Critics, many of whom are antiharassment advocates, say she has sidelined people of color and bullied volunteers, activists, and fellow leaders both at the nonprofit and outside of it. Two of the organization’s leaders resigned last week, 1 week after writing to the group’s board asking it to remove McLaughlin. In 2018, then-neuroscientist McLaughlin founded the group to support survivors of sexual harassment in science.

    “I believe that MeTooSTEM is beyond salvaging as an organization,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University and a former member of the group’s leadership team, wrote to the board in a 21 February resignation letter.

    “We will not support an organization whose leader uses the same tactics as the abusers we are fighting against to promote white supremacy, shame, victim blaming, and dismissal. We urge BethAnn to be publicly accountable for her actions and apologize to those who are hurting badly as a result,” Rasmussen and Teresa Swanson, a science communicator based in Seattle, said in a joint statement provided to Science. Swanson, who was a leadership team member, also resigned on 21 February.

  • Indian scientists decry ‘infuriating’ scheme to study benefits of cow dung, urine, and milk

    A worker arranges pill capsules

    A worker at a factory in India arranges cow urine capsules, believed by many Hindus to have medicinal properties.

    Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    More than 500 scientists have asked the Indian government to withdraw a call for research proposals on the “uniqueness” of indigenous cows and the curative properties of cow urine, dung, and milk, including potential cancer treatments. In an online letter, the researchers say the call is “unscientific” and a misdirection of public money at a time when research in India is already facing a financial crunch.

    Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, and some petitioners see the research program as another effort by the Indian government, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to validate faith-based pseudoscience. The call does not appear to be shaped by “objective scientific inquiry,” but rather “aimed at confirming existing beliefs,” says Aniket Sule, a reader at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education who helped draft the letter. “They should prove that there is some merit in pursuing this research before throwing money at it,” Sule says.

    The call for proposals, issued 14 February, is part of a larger funding program of the Department of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa and Homoeopathy, and other government agencies. It invites projects on five research themes including: “cowpathy,” the use of cow products for medicine and health, including anticancer and diabetes drugs; the use of cow products for agriculture, such as in pesticides; cow-based products like shampoo, hair oil, and floor cleaners; and research on the nutritional value of cow milk. A major aim is the “scientific investigation of uniqueness of pure Indigenous Indian cows.”

  • White House formally invites public comment on open-access policies

    the white house

    Originally published by E&E News

    The White House issued a notice Wednesday seeking comment on its effort to enhance public access to federally funded research. It's an old idea creating new controversy.

    White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Kelvin Droegemeier is pushing back against publishers that in December said the administration was quietly pursuing an executive order to require immediate free distribution of taxpayer funded research (Greenwire, 17 December 2019).

  • NIH hosts nonhuman primate workshop amidst increased scrutiny of monkey research

    A female researcher holding a baby marmoset monkey in her gloved hands

    A scientist holds a baby marmoset, an increasingly in-demand animal in biomedical research.

    Sam Ogden/Science Source

    More than 3 years after it hosted a workshop on the science and ethics of biomedical studies on monkeys, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week convened another workshop on nonhuman primate research. And much like the previous event, the meeting is drawing sharply divergent reactions from biomedical and animal advocacy groups.

    “It was a very good look at the opportunities and challenges of doing this type of research,” says Alice Ra’anan, director of government relations and science policy at the American Physiological Society, a group that represents nearly 10,000 scientists, doctors, and veterinarians. It was “an excellent and robust discussion around fostering rigorous research in nonhuman primates,” adds Matthew Bailey, president of that National Association for Biomedical Research.

    But Emily Trunnell, a research associate at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights group, counters that the event was a wasted opportunity to talk about the ethics of using nonhuman primates in the first place. “It was just a bunch of scientists clamoring for more money and more monkeys.”

  • First deaths of cruise ship passengers fuel debate over Japan’s handling of quarantine

    A bus carrying U.S. citizens from the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship

    A bus carries U.S. citizens who had been aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship to a Tokyo airport on 17 February.

    Kyodo via AP Images

    ­­Two Japanese passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess have died from their COVID-19 infections, officials reported today, as the debate continued over a video alleging “chaotic conditions” on the ship. The infectious disease expert who posted the video, Kentaro Iwata of Kobe University, took it down early Thursday morning Japan time, saying it had served its purpose, including the release of additional epidemiological data about the ship.

    Iwata had posted his alarming video on Tuesday night after spending a few hours on the cruise liner, which is docked in the port in Yokohama, Japan. He alleged there was “no professional infection control person” aboard the ship and said, “Bureaucrats were in charge of everything.”

    During a press conference this morning from the Yokohama hotel room where he has quarantined himself, Iwata said he stands by his observations. But, he said, a trusted source told him significant improvements have been made to the separation of infection-free and potentially contaminated zones aboard the ship. In addition, Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) has posted epidemiological details on 531 passengers and crew confirmed positive for the COVID-19 virus, which Iwata thinks happened in response to the video. (Although he did not mention the lack of data in his video, Iwata said he urged the health ministry to release data 1 week ago.) “I thought the role of the YouTube post was over,” Iwata said. An NIID spokesperson directed questions about the data to Japan’s health ministry, where an official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

  • ‘A door of hell.’ War stories from past NSF leaders help agency mark 70th birthday

    former National Science Foundation directors gather for a panel at NSF’s 70th anniversary symposium

    National Science Foundation Director France Córdova (far left) hosted a 70th anniversary symposium that featured six former directors: (left to right) Subra Suresh, Arden Bement, Rita Colwell, Neal Lane, Walter Massey, and Richard Atkinson.

    National Science Foundation/Bill Petros Photography

    Anybody who has spent time in the upper echelons of the U.S. science bureaucracy has some war stories to tell. And that was certainly true of the six former directors of the National Science Foundation who gathered at the agency’s new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this month to celebrate NSF’s 70th anniversary.

    At a 6 February roundtable during the 2-day symposium, each of the six offered a historical tidbit that spoke to the political intrigue that can surround even a low-profile agency like NSF, as well as the sometimes strained relationship the agency can have with its overseers in the White House and Congress.

    The storytelling session was moderated by NSF Director France Córdova, who is leaving NSF next month at the end of her 6-year term. It featured her predecessors, in chronological order: Richard Atkinson, Walter Massey, Neal Lane, Rita Colwell, Arden Bement, and Subra Suresh.

  • Scientist decries ‘completely chaotic’ conditions on cruise ship Japan quarantined after viral outbreak

    A port security officer closes a gate near the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship

    A port security officer at the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan’s port. Passengers who tested negative for the coronavirus began to leave the cruise ship today.

    Eugene Hoshiko/AP

    A Japanese infectious disease specialist has harshly criticized the way Japan’s government has handled the COVID-19 crisis aboard a luxury cruise ship docked in Yokohama. Conditions on board the Diamond Princess were “violating all infection control principles” and “completely chaotic,” the scientist, Kentaro Iwata of Kobe University, said in a YouTube video posted on Tuesday evening.

    His claims are inflaming an already intense debate over Japan’s handling of the crisis. Scientists have also faulted the slow release of epidemiological data about the ship that could help control efforts elsewhere.

    Iwata released the 12-minute video (below), along with a version in Japanese, just hours before the official end to a quarantine that has kept some 3700 passengers and crew confined on the ship since 5 February in an effort to limit the entry of the virus into Japan.

  • Europe plans to strictly regulate high-risk AI technology blue Lincoln MKZ

    Self-driving cars are one of the high-risk artificial intelligence applications the European Union wants to regulate.

    The European Commission today unveiled its plan to strictly regulate artificial intelligence (AI), distinguishing itself from more freewheeling approaches to the technology in the United States and China.

    The commission will draft new laws—including a ban on “black box” AI systems that humans can’t interpret—to govern high-risk uses of the technology, such as in medical devices and self-driving cars. Although the regulations would be broader and stricter than any previous EU rules, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference today announcing the plan that the goal is to promote “trust, not fear.” The plan also includes measures to update the European Union’s 2018 AI strategy and pump billions into R&D over the next decade.

    The proposals are not final: Over the next 12 weeks, experts, lobby groups, and the public can weigh in on the plan before the work of drafting concrete laws begins in earnest. Any final regulation will need to be approved by the European Parliament and national governments, which is unlikely to happen this year.

  • Scientists ‘strongly condemn’ rumors and conspiracy theories about origin of coronavirus outbreak

    scanning electron microscope image showing SARS-CoV-2

    Posts on social media and even a scientific paper have suggested the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—seen here in orange, emerging from a cell—originated in a virology lab in Wuhan, China.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

    A group of 27 prominent public health scientists from outside China is pushing back against a steady stream of stories and even a scientific paper suggesting a laboratory in Wuhan, China, may be the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins,” the scientists, from nine countries, write in a statement published online by The Lancet yesterday.

    The letter does not criticize any specific assertions about the origin of the outbreak, but many posts on social media have singled out the Wuhan Institute of Virology for intense scrutiny because it has a laboratory at the highest security level—biosafety level 4—and its researchers study coronaviruses from bats, including the one that is closest to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Speculations have included the possibility that the virus was bioengineered in the lab or that a lab worker was infected while handling a bat and then transmitted the disease to others outside the lab. Researchers from the institute have insisted there is no link between the outbreak and their laboratory.

    “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” says The Lancet statement, which praises the work of Chinese health professionals as “remarkable” and encourages others to sign on as well.

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