ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Critics pan EPA plan for evaluating studies of toxic chemicals

    Person in fire-resistant suit

    U.S. regulators are reviewing the safety of asbestos, which is still used to make fire-resistant fabrics.

    ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo

    Academic scientists and advocacy groups are urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw and rewrite proposed guidelines for determining which scientific findings to use when evaluating the safety of toxic chemicals. Critics say that if adopted, the guidance will allow regulators to exclude high-quality health and risk studies for “ridiculous” reasons, favor industry-backed research, and prevent EPA from considering academic studies that rest on innovative methods.

    EPA’s guidance “is less about evaluating the quality of evidence, and more about eliminating it altogether,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of Washington, D.C., wrote this week to EPA in comments blasting the “flawed” proposal, which it says “describes a head-in-sand approach to any evidence that a toxic chemical is toxic.” EPA, however, says the guidelines are likely to evolve and that it is aiming for an “efficient systematic review process that generates high-quality, fit-for-purpose risk evaluations that rely on the best available science.”

    The controversy, which mirrors a debate over a proposal EPA released earlier this year that critics say would allow the agency to ignore certain human health studies, has its roots in a 2016 overhaul of the nation’s premier chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The revised law aims to make it easier for EPA to complete safety reviews of new chemicals before they reach the market and to more quickly restrict the use of existing chemicals if new evidence of risks emerges. It also orders EPA to develop new guidelines for the “systematic review” of the quality of the scientific evidence used in risk assessments.

  • Survey of U.S. government scientists finds range of attitudes toward Trump policies

    diver

    More than one-quarter of the 4211 federal scientists who responded to a recent survey worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also employed this biologist working in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

    NOAA Ocean Service

    It’s widely assumed that many U.S. government scientists disagree with President Donald Trump on several of his controversial science appointments, his proposed deep cuts to research, and a spate of executive actions aimed at overturning current government policies to combat climate change. Some have publicly voiced their concerns. But what do the rank-and-file really think of working for this president?

    The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based advocacy organization that views Trump’s track record on science as “abysmal,” tried to find out. But its survey, released today, suggests their views are hard to pigeonhole and fall short of documenting widespread unhappiness with the Trump administration.

    The 58-question survey went to 61,289 federal workers at 16 agencies and departments, and 4211 responded. Their answers contain plenty of ammunition for those already inclined to wring their hands over how science is faring under Trump. One-third of the nearly 449 respondents who work at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, complained about the “influence” of political appointees or White House officials in “science-based” decisions. Two in five of the respondents from the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS) said senior administrators with financial interests in the outcome are “inappropriately” affecting policymaking at those agencies.

  • Psychologists keep policy on U.S. detainees, but issue remains open wound

    American Psychological Association building in Washington, D.C.

    The headquarters of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

    Oakstreetstudio/Wikimedia commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C., has decided to retain a policy banning military psychologists from working with detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and other national security detention facilities. But the political machinations surrounding a decisive vote this week by APA’s governing body suggest the 115,000-member organization is still far from resolving a decadelong debate over the ethical rules of conduct for psychologists in the U.S. government’s ongoing war against terrorism.

    APA’s current policy is a response to revelations that psychologists were involved in abusive interrogation practices at the Cuban detention facility and elsewhere in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Last year, a group of military psychologists asked APA’s Council of Representatives to ease that blanket prohibition so they could provide mental health services to detainees who requested their help. The measure would have kept the ban on participating in interrogations, an interaction seen as inherently coercive.

    Various APA advisory panels were asked to comment on the proposal and were divided on its merits. Some psychologists began to actively campaign against the idea in the weeks before the 8 August vote, which preceded the official start of APA’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California.

  • She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them

    Tania Singer

    In The ReSource Project, Tania Singer sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring.

    Moritz Hager/WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, is known as one of the world’s foremost experts on empathy. In her research, she has sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring. The title of a profile of Singer written by this reporter in 2013 summed up her public image: Concentrating on Kindness.

    But inside her lab, it was a very different story, eight former and current colleagues say in interviews with Science. The researchers, all but one of whom insisted on remaining anonymous because they feared for their careers, describe a group gripped by fear of their boss. “Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague says.

    Singer, one of the most high-profile female researchers in the Max Planck Society (MPG), sometimes made harsh comments to women who became pregnant, multiple lab members told Science. “People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies,” one former colleague says. “For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team,” says another, who became a mother while working in Singer’s department.

  • Japanese medical university admits to discriminating against female applicants

    two men bowing at a press conference

    Tetsuo Yukioka (left) and Keisuke Miyazawa (right) of Tokyo Medical University apologize for discriminatory practices.

    TORU HANAI/REUTERS/Newscom

    TOKYO—A prominent Japanese medical university said yesterday that school administrators have deliberately manipulated entrance exam scores to limit the number of women admitted. The confession helps explain the lopsided gender ratio of graduates from Tokyo Medical University (TMU) and strengthens suspicions that similar practices have prevailed at other Japanese medical schools.

    At an evening press conference yesterday, an external investigative panel confirmed that TMU administrators routinely lowered the scores of all female applicants. The policy derived from concerns that women would leave their careers after having children, the investigators reported. Officials feared such an exodus would cause staffing problems at TMU’s affiliated hospitals, which rely heavily on the university’s graduates for medical professionals.

    The policy appears to have had the desired effect on admissions and the gender balance of incoming classes. Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading daily newspaper, separately reported that 8.8% of male applicants and only 2.9% of female applicants were admitted this year. Some 1596 men and 1018 women took the exam this year, resulting in 141 men and 30 women gaining entry.

  • Salk Institute settles two of three gender discrimination lawsuits

    Clouds over the Salk Institute campus in California

    The Salk Institute for Biological Studies campus in San Diego, California

    REX BOGGS (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, and two of three female scientists who sued it for gender discrimination last summer announced today they have reached settlements in a lawsuit that was set to go to trial in December.

    Salk President Rusty Gage and the two former plaintiffs, Kathy Jones and Vicki Lundblad, issued a joint statement Tuesday that reads, in part:

    “In recent weeks the Institute’s leadership and Drs. Kathy Jones and Vicki Lundblad commenced discussions in hopes of resolving our disputes. Those productive conversations have led to a resolution of all claims between these parties that will enable us to put our disagreements behind us and move forward together at Salk for the collective good of the Institute and science.”

  • U.S. plans for Mars should include more than sample return, report warns

    rocket launch of Insight spacecraft

    NASA has fallen behind on its launch cadence for Discovery missions such as Insight, which took flight in May.

    JPL-CALTECH/NASA

    NASA needs to prepare for future trips to Mars that go beyond an upcoming mission to collect rock samples and eventually return them to Earth, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reported today. The new report provides a midpoint assessment of how the agency’s planetary science programs have performed since NASEM’s 2011 decadal survey, which recommended priorities for 2013 to 2022.

    The report largely lauds NASA for acting on many science priorities while navigating a budget lower than the worst-case scenario envisioned by the 2011 decadal. Financing for research and technology development has remained high and the agency has made substantial progress on two multibillion-dollar flagship missions: the Mars 2020 rover, set for launch in 2 years; and the Europa Clipper, set to explore Jupiter’s frozen moon and the ocean of liquid water inside it next decade.

    The $2.4 billion Mars rover will inaugurate what has been the long-standing, highest priority of planetary science: returning rock samples from Mars to Earth to hunt for signs of past life. The rover will drill samples and leave them cached on the martian surface for retrieval. Last year, after years of delay, the agency began to lay out a plan for how to get them back, envisioning a “skinny” sample return that would send several additional missions to the planet over the next decade to retrieve the rock cores.

  • Out of the frying pan, into the fire with a new Ebola outbreak in Congo

    Peter Salama having his temperature measured at the Mbandaka airport

    Peter Salama has his temperature taken, a routine measure to stop the spread of Ebola, after arriving at the airport in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in June.

    Eugene Kabambi/WHO

    One week after celebrating the end of a potentially explosive Ebola outbreak in Équateur province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Peter Salama received startling news: It was time to again pack his bags and help mount yet another counterattack against an apparently new outbreak in the same country.

    Salama, an Australian epidemiologist who heads the Health Emergencies Programme of the World Health Organization (WHO) and is based in Geneva, Switzerland, says he is “more concerned” about the new outbreak—in North Kivu province, 2500 kilometers east by road of the previous one—because it appears to be growing rapidly, has already reached a city, and is in a conflict zone with many armed insurgents and refugees.

    On 4 August, 4 days after the official declaration of the new outbreak, a DRC Ministry of Public Health report tallied 13 confirmed Ebola cases, 30 probable cases, 33 suspected cases, 33 related deaths, and 879 contacts. Initial analysis of the virus shows that it’s the Ebola Zaire species, one of four that cause disease in humans. Although that’s the same one that spread in Équateur, there’s no evidence of a link between the two outbreaks.

  • To kill climate rule, Trump’s EPA wants to redefine danger of soot

    Smog covers Los Angeles skyline

    The Environmental Protection Agency is rethinking how to calculate the costs and benefits of regulations, including those aimed at curbing smog, shown here enshrouding Los Angeles, California.

    Bob Travis/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Whether it's in haze-shrouded cities, plumes of car exhaust or even clear skies, fine particle pollution can be found just about everywhere in the United States.

    These pollutants are so small they can slip inside buildings and penetrate deep into lung tissue. On hot summer days, high concentrations of the pollutant help trigger poor air quality alerts, warning the very young, elderly and sick to stay indoors. Exposure to fine particles is linked to premature death and higher risks of asthma and heart attacks.

  • University finds prominent astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss grabbed a woman’s breast

    Lawrence Krauss

    Lawrence Krauss, pictured at a January press conference in Washington, D.C., is on administrative leave from Arizona State University in Tempe.

    LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS/Newscom

    The provost of Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe concluded this week that high-profile astrophysicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss violated the university’s sexual harassment policy by grabbing a woman’s breast at a conference in Australia in late 2016.

    “Responsive action is being taken to prevent any further recurrence of similar conduct,” ASU’s executive vice president and provost, Mark Searle, wrote in a 31 July letter to Melanie Thomson, a microbiologist based in Ocean Grove, Australia, who is an outspoken advocate for women in science. Thomson, who witnessed the breast-grabbing incident, received the provost's written judgment, called a "determination" from Searle and shared it with Science. His conclusion concurred with the findings of investigators from ASU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI).

    In response to an email asking what specific actions the university is taking, an ASU spokesperson wrote: “Professor Lawrence Krauss is no longer director of Arizona State University’s Origins Project, a research unit at ASU. Krauss remains on administrative leave from the university. It is the policy of the university not to comment on ongoing personnel matters.”

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