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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Rude paper reviews are pervasive and sometimes harmful, study finds

    conceptual illustration of people trapped inside speech bubbles
    ROBERT NEUBECKER

    There’s a running joke in academia about Reviewer 2. That’s the reviewer that doesn’t bother to read the manuscript a journal has sent out for evaluation for possible publication, offers condescending or outright offensive comments, and—of course—urges the irrelevant citation of their own work. Such unprofessional conduct is so pervasive there’s even a whole Facebook group, more than 25,000 members strong, named “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped!” But it is no laughing matter, concludes a new study that finds boorish reviewer comments can have serious negative impacts, especially on authors belonging to marginalized groups.

    Peer reviewers are supposed to ensure that journals publish high-quality science by evaluating manuscripts and offering suggestions for improvement. But often, referee comments stray far from that mission, found the new PeerJ study, which surveyed 1106 scientists from 46 countries and 14 disciplines. More than half of the respondents—who were promised anonymity—reported receiving at least one “unprofessional” review, and a majority of those said they had received multiple problematic comments.

    Those comments tended to personally target a scientist, lack constructive criticism, or were just unnecessarily harsh or cruel, the authors report. For example, one author received a review that stated: “The phrases I have so far avoided using in this review are ‘lipstick on a pig’ and ‘bullshit baffles brains.’” Another reported receiving this missive: “The author’s last name sounds Spanish. I didn’t read the manuscript because I’m sure it’s full of bad English.”

  • Microsatellites will capture GPS reflections to sharpen weather forecasts

    A visible light image of Tropical Storm Harvey moving north over Texas and Louisiana.

    Reflected GPS signals can probe winds deep inside storms like 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, improving forecasts.

    NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Earlier today, after a successful rocket launch from India, the beginnings of a new satellite constellation for Earth observation took place. An existing flotilla of more than 80 microsatellites owned by the startup Spire Global, based here, captures signals that have traversed the atmosphere from GPS satellites to measure key properties such as temperature and humidity. Now, two new microsatellites from the same company will collect GPS signals after they bounce off land or ocean to probe conditions at the surface.

    Unlike the microwaves used by traditional weather satellites, the long wavelengths of GPS can peer through clouds and heavy rain to measure the winds of hurricanes and other storms. The reflected signal can also reveal sea ice cover and, critically, soil moisture, which can indicate drought and guide storm forecasts. “We’re trying to produce data that will be used for the long term,” says Dallas Masters, Spire’s director of Earth observations, who announced the launch this week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union here.

    Over the past few years, a constellation of eight NASA microsatellites, called the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), has proved that harvesting GPS reflections can work from space, providing measures of hurricane wind speed that could measurably improve hurricane forecasts. The mission has also proved adept at gauging soil moisture, to the point that half of its science team now focuses on the topic.

  • Astronomy funder finds that gender diversity takes more than good intentions

    three women sit listening in an audience during a presentation

    Rebecca Jensen-Clem, Marta Bryan, and Clara Sousa-Silva (left to right) have received support from programs at the Heising-Simons Foundation to aid women in astronomy and physics.

    Drew Bird Photography

    Two years ago, the Heising-Simons Foundation launched a grants program designed to attract and retain more women in the male-dominated disciplines of physics and astronomy. It also started a postdoctoral fellowship aimed at developing talent in the emerging field of planetary astronomy.

    Foundation officials assumed the two efforts would be synergistic, in that the fellowship would not only lead to more people studying objects outside the Solar System but would also contribute to the foundation’s goal of erasing the gender imbalance in physics and astronomy. They were wrong: Only two of the 12 awardees in the fellowship’s first two cohorts were women.

    That low ratio sent shock waves through the small family charity, which is based in Los Altos, California. “We realized we needed to self-reflect before we went any further,” says the foundation's Cyndi Atherton. She oversees both the women in physics and astronomy initiative and, together with Camellia Pham, the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship program—named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star. “We wanted to understand some of the biases that go into how people evaluate candidates so we could create a cohort that would be both excellent and diverse. And we recognized that we are not the experts in this area.”

  • U.S. scientists who hide foreign ties should face research misconduct sanctions, panel says

    conceptual illustration of researchers holding balloons with different countries on them
    Davide Bonazzi/Salzman Art

    U.S. scientists who violate government rules on disclosing foreign research ties should be investigated for research misconduct, says an independent group of prominent scientists asked to examine the threat of foreign influences on the U.S. research enterprise. Although the report concludes that the threat is real, it says the government should not impose new restrictions on the pursuit of basic research in the name of protecting national security.

    These and other recommendations come from Jason, a free-standing group based in McLean, Virginia, that has advised the government on national security issues since the early days of the Cold War. The National Science Foundation (NSF) hired Jason to tackle the politically sensitive issue of foreign influence on U.S.-funded research amid calls from Congress and the White House to crack down on the open exchange of scientific information.

    Those calls are largely a response to China’s no-holds-barred approach to acquiring the latest technology and intellectual property on its way to becoming a global scientific superpower. Its decade-old Thousand Talents Program of recruiting prominent scientists—including ethnic Chinese who are now U.S. citizens—has come under special scrutiny. Among federal agencies, the National Institutes of Health has been especially aggressive, flagging nearly 200 scientists it believes have failed to disclose their ties to foreign entities or improperly shared confidential information with overseas researchers.

  • Congress creates two new bodies to tackle foreign influence on U.S. research

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.
    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Congress is set to approve a major defense bill that would establish two new high-level bodies aimed at preventing foreign governments from unfairly exploiting the U.S. research enterprise. University and science groups are breathing a quiet sigh of relief after persuading lawmakers to drop related provisions that they considered problematic.

    One, based in the White House, would work to coordinate action by more than a dozen government agencies to protect federally funded research projects from cyberattacks, theft, and other foreign threats. The other group, a round table run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), will bring together officials from academia, government, and industry to advise the government on ways to achieve national security without undermining valuable international collaborations.

    The legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also includes a provision requiring the director of national intelligence to produce an annual report that identifies “sensitive research … that could affect national security” that is being conducted at U.S. universities and that could be of interest to foreign entities.

  • Political tensions unravel plan to convert Iranian nuclear site to civilian uses

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    A complicated effort to convert an Iranian military site into a civilian research center has hit a major snag. On 5 December, Russia’s TVEL nuclear fuel company announced it has suspended work to produce stable isotopes for medicine and research at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, a once-clandestine nuclear site near Iran’s holy city of Qom.

    The project’s suspension is the latest casualty of the gradual unraveling of the nuclear deal that world powers struck with Iran in 2015 to deter it from pursuing nuclear weapons. After the United States pulled out of the agreement in May 2018, the other parties sought to preserve the accord, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But discussions foundered, prompting Iran to resume some nuclear activities the agreement had curtailed.

    The JCPOA had prohibited using equipment at Fordow to enrich uranium for 15 years. The deal called for developing one wing of the two-wing, bunkerlike facility, which sits under a mountain, as an international physics center. But that concept that gained little traction as signatories puzzled over what might be installed in the cramped space. Ultimately, Iran moved on its own to install instrumentation for an analytical laboratory dubbed the Material Engineering Development and National Research Center.

  • Skepticism persists about revived Alzheimer’s drug after conference presentation

    Biogen headquarters

    Biogen says its experimental drug can slow cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but the claim has divided researchers.

    Paul Marotta/Sipa USA/AP

    When Samantha Budd Haeberlein, Biogen’s head of clinical development, took the stage in San Diego, California, before a room full of Alzheimer’s disease researchers and physicians this morning, she knew she had some explaining to do. In October, the pharmaceutical company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, unexpectedly revived an experimental Alzheimer’s drug that it had declared a failure 7 months earlier. Ever since, scientists and industry analysts have been hungry for more detail about two large clinical trials meant to prove that Biogen’s drug, an antibody called aducanumab, slows down cognitive decline in the early stages of disease.

    At the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease congress today, Budd Haeberlein tried to clarify what has emboldened the company to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for market approval for aducanumab early next year. After analyzing more patient data than were available at the time of a discouraging preliminary analysis, she explained, the company found evidence that the higher of two tested doses led to 22% less cognitive decline after 78 weeks than a placebo in one trial. However, the other trial failed to show any benefit, leaving some researchers with a grim outlook on the drug.

    “I surely don’t think that it should be given market approval on the basis of these data,” says Robert Howard, a psychiatrist at University College London who has run clinical trials of potential Alzheimer’s treatments. More positive results from a subset of patients that weren’t preselected at the trial’s launch are not convincing, he says. “[Biogen has] broken all the rules, really, about how you analyze data and report it.”

  • Can Italy’s new science funding agency overcome a thin budget and worries over political meddling?

    Italian ministry building

    A new Italian funding agency would be supervised by the Ministry of Education, University, and Research in Rome.

    VITO ARCOMANO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

    Scientists in Italy are about to receive a long-sought gift—but some are disappointed. This month, Italy is expected to set up its first national science funding agency, with an annual budget that would rise to €300 million. Italian scientists are welcoming the boost to a thin basic research budget and the prospect of an independent body that could allocate the money transparently. But some complain that the sum is too small and worry that the new National Research Agency (ANR) will be vulnerable to political interference.

    Originally announced in September by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who leads a coalition government of the populist Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party, the ANR proposal is now a part of the country's 2020 budget bill, which the Parliament must approve by 31 December. The Senate is set to vote on the bill this week, after which it will move to the lower house. The agency could be up and running in a matter of months—with many questions hanging over it.

    "There is the willingness to set up a national science funding agency, but there is not much clarity on how it should be done," says Maria Cristina Messa, a clinical diagnostics researcher at the University of Milan-Bicocca. Messa adds that €300 million might be adequate to fund basic research projects. "But for applied research, it's definitely not enough," she says.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions to set new record this year, but rate of growth shrinks

    smoke emitting from the chimneys at a coal power plant

    Declines in emissions from coal power plants like this one have been offset by increases from power stations that burn natural gas.

    incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    Global carbon emissions are expected to hit an all-time high in 2019, scientists say, smashing a previous record set in 2018.

    By the end of the year, emissions from industrial activities and the burning of fossil fuels will pump an estimated 36.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And total carbon emissions from all human activities, including agriculture and land use, will likely cap off at about 43.1 billion tons.

  • Archaeology society votes to let board ban sexual harassers from meetings

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

    Seven months ago, an archaeologist banned from his university for sexual harassment attended the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the society’s halting response to his accusers’ concerns rocked the organization. Now, SAA members have voted to change the society’s bylaws to prevent similar events. Starting on 20 November, the SAA board may bar people found to have committed sexual harassment or other misconduct from society events, as well as revoke their membership. But a bylaws amendment some felt represented a stronger stand against sexual harassment did not pass.

    Sexual harassment came to fore at this year’s SAA annual meeting, held in April in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when David Yesner, an archaeologist who had recently been found guilty of harassment by the University of Alaska in Anchorage and banned from campus, registered onsite for the meeting and was allowed to attend. Some of Yesner’s accusers were also at the meeting and his presence made them feel unsafe. They reported the situation to SAA, but the organization was caught off guard, unsure how to respond to harassment that had occurred before the meeting at a different institution. SAA was slow to remove Yesner and protect his accusers, leading to widespread outrage among members. At the time, Sherry Marts, a consultant in Washington, D.C., who advises nonprofits on how to address sexual harassment at meetings, called the society’s response “a worst-case scenario.”

    A group of SAA members, dubbed the Awesome Small Working Group, quickly organized a petition to change the society’s bylaws to clarify that people sanctioned for sexual harassment by a court or a university would be barred from SAA events, including annual meetings. The group based its amendment on a policy adopted by the American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Virginia, just days after the SAA scandal broke. More than 10% of SAA members signed the petition, triggering an election on whether to change the society’s bylaws.

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