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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Exclusive: Major U.S. cancer center ousts ‘Asian’ researchers after NIH flags their foreign ties

    silhouette of a person walking inside a building at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
    Houston Chronicle

    HOUSTON, TEXAS—The MD Anderson Cancer Center here has ousted three senior researchers after the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, informed it that the scientists had committed potentially “serious” violations of agency rules involving confidentiality of peer review and the disclosure of foreign ties. The researchers are among five MD Anderson scientists that NIH cited in letters to the cancer center, which is part of the University of Texas (UT) system. MD Anderson officials say they invoked termination proceedings against three of the researchers, are still investigating allegations against one, and determined termination was not warranted for the fifth scientist.

    The new developments are linked to a sweeping effort launched last year by NIH to address growing U.S. government fears that foreign nations, particularly China, are taking unfair advantage of federally funded research. NIH says its inquiries about the foreign ties of specific NIH-funded researchers have prompted at least 55 institutions to launch investigations. The cases at MD Anderson, which received $148 million in NIH funding in 2018, are the first publicly known instances where NIH’s inquiries appear to have led an institution to invoke termination proceedings against researchers judged to have violated the rules.

    Cancer center officials have not named any of the five researchers. MD Anderson President Peter Pisters says all are “Asian”; Science has confirmed that three are ethnically Chinese. Several faced NIH inquiries about their ties to China, according to internal cancer center documents and NIH emails provided by MD Anderson to the Houston Chronicle and reviewed by Science. Those documents also show that MD Anderson has been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for several years on undisclosed national security investigations, which included searches of faculty email accounts and in one instance, video surveillance. Those investigations could be linked to the recent departures and to the NIH letters; MD Anderson had put at least one faculty member named by NIH on leave in December 2017, months before NIH sent its letter and 1 week after FBI gained access to several MD Anderson network accounts.

  • Archaeological society tries to stem continuing controversy over #MeToo scandal

    conceptual illustration of women speaking into a microphone in the shape of a microscope
    DARIA KIRPACH/@SALZMANART

    The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) continues to battle fallout for the way it handled a #MeToo scandal at its annual meeting last week. The organization faced a firestorm of criticism on social media for not immediately ejecting an alleged harasser from the meeting after being informed about his presence and a university investigation that found accusations against him credible. Today, as archaeologists continued to vent at their own society, it published an open letter and video from President Joe Watkins personally apologizing for not taking action and laying out actions SAA will take, including updating its sexual harassment policy and providing training to staff on its “effective and compassionate implementation.”

    “Finally, the start of a sincere response from the SAA,” tweeted Stephanie Halmhofer, a cultural resources management archaeologist with In Situ Archaeological Consulting in Roberts Creek, Canada. But it remains to be seen whether the latest apology will be enough to staunch the flow of archaeologists pledging to leave SAA. Meanwhile, other societies have announced plans to revamp their harassment policies to handle similar situations.

    Two days ago, SAA apologized for “the impact, stress, and fear the situation caused to victims of sexual harassment within our field,” as well as for its own delay in issuing an apology. But on 17 April, it published a controversial timeline of events that sparked another social media row.

  • Stanford says its researchers did not help Chinese biologist who gene edited babies

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    Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has exonerated “several” of its researchers who interacted with He Jiankui, the Chinese biologist now infamous for creating the first gene-edited human babies, twins that were born in October 2018. After a “fact-finding review” conducted by an unnamed member of Stanford’s faculty and an outside investigator, the university concluded in a statement released today that its researchers “expressed serious concerns” to He about his work with human embryos intended for implantation and did not participate in it.

    Although Stanford did not name the researchers,  bioethicist William Hurlbut and hematologist Matthew Porteus, both at the university, have previously acknowledged discussing the project with He and said they tried to dissuade him. He was also a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Stanford bioengineer Stephen Quake in 2011–12. Quake’s interactions with He were the subject of a lengthy story in The New York Times on Sunday.

  • Influential senator asks NSF for data on threat from foreign influences

    Chuck Grassley sits at table

    Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) has been concerned about foreign powers poaching U.S.-funded research.

    BILL CLARK/CQ ROLL CALL/AP IMAGE

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has joined the list of federal agencies that Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) has asked for explanations of how they are preventing foreign scientists from ripping off U.S. taxpayers.

    Today’s letter to NSF follows the format of previous letters Grassley has sent to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DOD). Each asks whether the agency has vetted every funded researcher and whether any of those background checks have triggered an investigation into possible misuse or theft of federal funds. He also wants to know what the agency is doing to prevent such illegal practices, the cost of such preventive steps and whether it needs additional resources, and whether it is coordinating its efforts with federal law enforcement officials. Grassley also suggests the results of any investigations should be made public.

    Grassley, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, praises NSF for recent actions that include a proposed outside study of “how foreign entities may influence taxpayer-funded research and a new rule preventing noncitizens from being program managers. “These are positive initial steps,” he writes to NSF Director France Córdova. “However, more must be done.” Although other committees have direct jurisdiction over NSF, NIH, and DOD, every senator has broad powers to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse of government funds.

  • African research projects are failing because funding agencies can’t match donor money

    Dr. Titus Alicai, the head of root crops at the National Crops Resources Research Institute, Namulonge

    Plant scientist Titus Alicai at work at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Namulonge, Uganda, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

    Christopher Bendana

    ENTEBBE, UGANDA—Although African countries appreciate research grants from donor countries, they often chafe at the condition that they bring in their own money in order to be eligible. Some research projects fall by the wayside because African granting agencies simply have no way to provide their share of the money, sometimes called counterfunding, the heads of 15 national science councils in Africa said at a meeting held here on 4 and 5 April.

    The funding agencies usually ask for contributions between 20% and 50% of the project cost, says Peter Ndemere, executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) in Kampala. For donor agencies, it’s a way to raise interest and make sure African partners are committed to the project. “Counterfunding is important since it ensures buy-in by our partners,” Ellie Osir, a Nairobi-based senior program specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), said at the meeting.

    Sepo Hachigonta, director for strategic planning & partnerships at the National Research Foundation of South Africa in Johannesburg, added that coinvestment by African science councils is necessary to make scientific innovation sustainable; countries can’t rely on donor money alone, he said.

  • #MeToo controversy erupts at archaeology meeting

    sign

    A flyer referencing David Yesner’s attendance at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting was displayed in a woman’s bathroom at the Albuquerque Convention Center in New Mexico on Saturday.

    Lizzie Wade

    ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—The annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) here was roiled by a #MeToo scandal this past weekend, when an archaeologist banned from his university’s campus for sexual harassment attended part of the meeting. Some of his accusers were also present: They used the buddy system to avoid running into him alone and missed the conference sessions they most wanted to see, according to one of the accusers, Norma Johnson, an archaeology graduate student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage (UAA).

    Many archaeologists were outraged that the accusers’ meeting was spoiled and that meeting organizers did not immediately eject the alleged harasser. They said the situation exposed blind spots in SAA’s new antiharassment policy, instituted for the first time this year. “We do not have anything in place … to ensure that meeting attendees can be protected from aggressors from previous situations,” SAA President Joe Watkins said in an interview with Science.

    Furious archaeologists took to Twitter denouncing SAA’s inaction, and by Monday morning, more than 1500 had signed an open letter calling for change. “This is the exact dismissive culture that facilitates and even promotes abuse. It’s inexcusable. I will not be renewing my membership … until significant changes are made,” said bioarchaeologist Gwen Robbins Schug of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill posted a letter resigning her position as chair of the SAA media relations committee and also said she would not renew her membership.

  • Baby tyrannosaur’s eBay auction sparks outrage

    T rex bones

    A reconstruction of the bones of baby tyrannosaur Son of Sampson, which is on sale on eBay

    Alan Detrich

    It’s astonishing what you can buy on eBay. An ongoing auction on the site offers buyers the chance to own what is claimed to be “maybe the only” juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered for a whopping $2.95 million. Paleontologists have condemned the sale for boosting the price of scientifically valuable specimens, and also because a scientific institution—the University of Kansas (KU) Natural History Museum in Lawrence—displayed and promoted the specimen for more than a year.

    The museum’s actions, which allegedly include studying the skeleton, may have inadvertently helped raise its commercial value, according to an open letter from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) in Bethesda, Maryland. A high price makes it less likely the fossil will be donated to a public collection, which means it may be effectively lost to science.

    The 68-million-year-old skeleton—nicknamed Son of Sampson—was unearthed in 2013 on private land in Montana. Alan Detrich, who made the discovery with his brother, then approached the KU Natural History Museum with a proposal to loan the specimen.

  • Ebola outbreak in Congo still not an international crisis, WHO decides

    Health workers are seen inside the "red zone" of an Ebola treatment center

    Health workers at an Ebola treatment center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was attacked earlier this year by armed men

    JOHN WESSELS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    No need to sound the world’s loudest public health alarm bell about the lingering Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, decided today. The controversial decision not to declare what is known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) comes as the outbreak has sickened at least 1206 people, killing 63% of them.

    A recent spike in cases had prompted WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to convene the 11-member panel. It considered, for a second time, whether WHO should take the rare step of declaring the outbreak a global emergency, which can impact disease surveillance plans, travel, and trade. WHO adopted the PHEIC concept in 2005, and has invoked it just four times: for pandemic flu in 2009, polio eradication in 2014, the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, and the Zika virus outbreak in 2016.

    Some public health experts believe WHO needed to take the dramatic step in order to draw greater attention—and funding—to fighting the DRC Ebola outbreak, which is centered in two conflict-ridden provinces the country’s northeast. Cases began to surface  in August 2018, and the outbreak is now second in size only to the massive Ebola epidemic that devastated three West African countries between 2014 and 2016. 

  • Boston University fires geologist found to have harassed women in Antarctica

    Boston University's Marsh Plaza

    After a lengthy process, Boston University fired geologist David Marchant in the wake of a prominent sexual harassment case.

    Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Boston University (BU) today fired David Marchant, the geologist whose alleged harassment of women at remote Antarctic field camps Science first described 18 months ago.

    A faculty hearing committee that handled Marchant’s appeal of BU’s November 2017 decision to terminate him had instead recommended that he be suspended for 3 years without pay and prohibited from leading university Antarctic expeditions, according to a letter sent today by BU Provost Jean Morrison to faculty in the Department of Earth & Environment. (Marchant had chaired that department.) However, BU’s president, Robert Brown, overruled the Hearing Committee, deciding that termination was appropriate. In a final, required step under the university’s faculty handbook procedures, BU’s Board of Trustees today accepted Brown’s recommendation. “The decision of the Board of Trustees is final,” Morrison wrote.

  • White House eyes nuclear weapons expert to lead challenge to climate science

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    Originally published by E&E News

    A controversial plan by the White House to review the connections between climate change and national security might be led by a former official with the Department of Energy (DOE) who oversaw talks about nuclear weapons tests with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    Former Ambassador C. Paul Robinson, who served as chief negotiator for the Geneva nuclear testing talks from 1988 to 1990, is favored to lead the review panel, according to two sources involved in the talks. Robinson also directed DOE's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from 1995 to 2005 and was head of the nuclear weapons and national security programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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