Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • NASA must rework planetary protection plans, panel advises

    One of the Viking landers in dry oven

    In the 1970s, the Mars Viking landers were sterilized in purpose-built ovens.


    NASA rules that govern the potential spread of earthly microbes to other planets—and the potential return of alien life back to Earth—are often anachronistic and require broad rethinking, according to a report released today by an independent agency advisory panel.

    Planetary protection, as such efforts are known, remains a worthy goal, the report emphasizes. But many of the ways it is implemented, which date back to rules conceived at the beginning of the space age, have driven costly and sometimes questionable efforts, and do not make sense given current scientific knowledge, says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who led the 12-member panel reviewing NASA’s efforts. “We want to move from this 1960s–70s point of view that all of Mars was treated one way.” Planetary surfaces are more nuanced than that, he says.

    Concerns over planetary protection have often seen NASA make great efforts to prevent microbes from going to space. Its martian robots are assembled in cleanrooms, with many components baked in ovens or doused in chemicals. Famously, its Viking landers for Mars in the 1970s were baked in purpose-built ovens. But these protections have often been costly and, in the view of some scientists, overly burdensome.

  • Scientific integrity bill advances in U.S. House with bipartisan support

     Frank Lucas and Eddie Bernice Johnson

    The Democratic chairwoman and top Republican on the House of Representatives science committee, Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX, right) and Frank Lucas (OK), brokered a compromise on science integrity.

    E. Petersen/Science

    Despite their failure to attract a single Republican co-sponsor, Democrats in Congress have long insisted that a bill to strengthen scientific integrity across U.S. government agencies takes a bipartisan stance and is not a veiled attack on the Trump administration’s attitude toward science. That claim of bipartisanship took a big step forward today as the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives tweaked the bill to satisfy key Republicans on the panel.

    By a vote of 25 to six, the committee voted to advance the legislation (H.R. 1709), which would require some two dozen federal research agencies to develop and follow clear principles designed to protect scientists and the research they carry out from political influence. Several agencies have adopted such policies following a 2010 executive order from then-President Barack Obama. The bill, if enacted, would transform that presidential directive into a law that would also require training on the topic and direct agencies on how to monitor any alleged violations.

    Nobody opposes the idea of allowing federal scientists to pursue important research, publish the results, and discuss their findings at scientific conferences and with the public. But politics enters into the equation when defending scientific integrity is seen as interfering with the legitimate right of any administration to carry out its policies.

  • Now retired, top U.S. environmental scientist feels free to speak her mind

    Linda Birnbaum

    Linda Birnbaum in 2011

    Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

    As director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Durham, North Carolina, toxicologist Linda Birnbaum had to navigate numerous controversies about pollution and human health. That’s because the $775 million institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), often funds or conducts studies that address hot regulatory issues, including where to set air pollution or chemical exposure limits.

    But Birnbaum’s life is a bit more relaxed these days. On 3 October, after 40 years as a government scientist, including 10 heading NIEHS, the 72-year-old retired, though retirement is a relative term. She will be pursuing research at the institute as a volunteer and serve on a host of scientific panels.

    She recently discussed her career, and what’s next, with ScienceInsider. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Indian government tightens rules on academic collaboration with China

    Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at Arjuna's Penance in Mamallapuram, India.

    India announced new restrictions on the eve of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping (left), who shook hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Arjuna’s Penance, a monument in Mamallapuram, India.

    Indian Prime Minister’s Office/AP

    NEW DELHI—India is tightening the rules for academic collaborations with its neighbor and main rival, China. Under a new policy, universities and research institutes must seek permission from the ministries of Home Affairs and External Affairs before signing a collaboration agreement or memorandum of understanding with a Chinese institution. The announcement from the University Grants Commission (UCG), which regulates the country’s more than 900 universities and research institutes, came on the eve of a visit last week by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India.

    What impact the new policy will have is unclear because collaboration between the two countries is already limited. But some scientists are angry. “It’s a negative move and is antiscience in spirit,” says Indian paleontologist Ashok Sahni, an professor emeritus at Panjab University in Chandigarh. “Science knows no boundaries and people who make such laws have not practiced science.”

    Indo-Chinese scientific cooperation was tight in the 1950s but came to a standstill after the 1962 war between the two countries that led to several unresolved border disputes and occasional skirmishes. Contacts resumed in the 1980s, when the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) set up an exchange program for scientists. Only 88 Indian scientists have visited China as part of the program since 1995, and 72 Chinese researchers have come to India, though none in the past 2 years. INSA did not take CAS up on an offer to host 20 young Indian scientists for a week in September.

  • Statistically speaking, 2019 Nobel Prize lineup of 11 men and one woman was bound to happen

    Donna Strickland and Frances Arnold

    Donna Strickland (left) and Frances Arnold receive their Nobel Prizes in 2018, making them two of just 22 women ever to do so

    Henrik Montgomery/Pool Photo via AP

    This year, only one woman won a Nobel Prize in a science field—and that makes it a pretty ordinary year. Since the awards were first given in 1901, only three women have ever won the physics prize, five the chemistry award, and 12 the medicine or physiology prize. Economics is the new kid on the block: It began to give prizes in 1969. Its laureates count only two women among them: Elinor Ostrom, who won in 2009, and Esther Duflo, this year.

    In all, women have taken home just 22 Nobels, about 3% of the total. And half of the prizes that have gone to women, 11, were awarded since 2000. (Men have won many more over the same period: 185.)

    Liselotte Jauffred, a physicist at the University of Copenhagen, wondered about the factors that might be influencing the gender representation in Nobel awards. For example, Nobels famously honor work done years or decades earlier. So, were women simply underrepresented in research fields during the long-ago years now being honored?

  • Prestigious journal pulls paper about chemical attack in Syria after backlash

    A chemical gas attack survivor

    Hassan Dallal, 9, receives medical treatment at a hospital the day after a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, in April 2017.

    Mohammed Karkas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    In an about-face, a prestigious journal has decided not to publish a controversial paper that casts doubt on the Syrian government’s responsibility for a 2017 chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. Science & Global Security (SGS) had originally accepted the paper, but reversed itself after a backlash from scientists who accused one of the authors, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge professor emeritus Ted Postol, of pushing conspiracy theories.

    “The Editors have decided to return this manuscript to the authors without prejudice and not proceed further with considering it for publication,” an update posted on the journal’s website on Saturday says.

    Postol, one of 17 members of SGS’s editorial board, calls the decision “totally wrong and untenable” and says he has resigned from the board. (He has not been involved in deliberations about the paper, he says.)

  • Economics Nobel honors trio taking an experimental approach to fighting poverty

    Nobel prize medal

    Economists may not build gigantic atom smashers or gene-sequencing facilities, but they can still perform rigorous experiments. This years Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences honors three researchers who pioneered the use of randomized controlled trials to determine how best to ameliorate global poverty. Michael Kremer of Harvard University and Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, will split the roughly $900,000 prize. The three have often worked together and form an intellectual team, other economists say.

    “We all knew that they would win, just not so early in their careers,” says Sandra Sequeira, a development economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Kremer is 54 years old, Banerjee is 58, and Duflo is 46. Whereas many Nobel Prizes honor discoveries made long ago, this year’s economics prize goes to work still gaining momentum at foundations and development agencies around the world, says Sylvie Lambert, a development economist at the Paris School of Economics. “It’s an ongoing project,” she says. “This is the frontier.”

    Globally, more than 700 million people live in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, which defines poverty as living on less than $1.90 per day. One in three children is malnourished, according to figures provided by the Nobel Foundation, and most children leave school without basic skills in reading, writing, and math. The new Nobel laureates have strived to explain empirically which interventions work to alleviate poverty and why. “The goal of our work is to make sure that the fight against poverty is based on scientific evidence,” Duflo said on the phone at the press conference announcing the prize. “It starts from the idea that often the poor are reduced to caricatures, and often even people who are trying to help them do not understand the deep roots of the problems.”

  • An ambitious effort to map the human body’s individual cells gets backing from NIH

    cell map of a liver

    This map of a developing liver shows single cells as dots, color coded by cell type.

    Newcastle University

    The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) latest foray into turning emerging technologies into useful data sets is focusing on how the body’s trillions of cells interconnect and interact. The Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP) aims to describe the biochemical milieu and the locations of individual cells in the body’s major organs, researchers write this week in Nature. It uses technology heralded by Science as the 2018 Breakthrough of the Year.

    The goal is to “establish a baseline of what constitutes a healthy system,” says HuBMAP grantee Julia Laskin, an analytical chemist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. That way, she says, researchers will be able to see what goes awry in disease.

    Until recently, biomedical scientists had just a broad-brush view of how organs functioned. In particular, they had succeeded in getting only a sense of gene activity—when genes turn on and off—in specific tissues. Gene activity defines what a cell does. But organs consist of many kinds of cells, each with their own molecular profiles.

  • In bid to boost transparency, bioRxiv begins posting peer reviews next to preprints

    a stack of papers

    BioRxiv, the server for life sciences preprints, has begun an experiment that allows select journals and independent peer-review services to publicly post evaluations of its papers should the authors make the request.

    The idea is to make the peer-review process more transparent, and help authors more easily strengthen their manuscripts before they are submitted to journals. But some authors might balk at making critical reviews of their work available for anyone to read.

    The experiment, called Transparent Review in Preprints, launched last week. To run it, bioRxiv has teamed with two publishers and two independent services that are providing peer reviews. In addition to increasing the transparency and usefulness of bioRxiv’s preprints, the initiative is also a platform to test models of “portable” peer reviews, or independent reviews that authors can share with any journal considering their work. (Traditionally, reviews are arranged and reviewed only by the journal considering a particular submission, not a third party.)

  • Dismissed EPA science advisers gather in ‘unprecedented’ challenge to Trump administration

    ScienceInsider logo

    Originally published by E&E News

    What was billed as an extraordinary event launched this morning in the most mundane of surroundings: a neutral-toned conference room that featured scientific researchers seated around a makeshift table.

    "We are here to talk about air quality," Chris Frey, chairman of the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel, said at the outset of a two-day meeting that is effectively a rebuke to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) handling of a high-stakes review of the standards for a common, but dangerous, pollutant.

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