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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • Report: Prominent neuroscientist worked for months after university found he violated sexual relationship policies

    Thomas Jessell

    Thomas Jessell, pictured in 2008 after winning the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, was ousted by Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for behavioral violations.

    Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times/Redux

    The student newspaper at Columbia University published a three-part series today documenting how strict procedural protections for tenured professors have compromised the university’s ability to eject from campus tenured faculty, including prominent neuroscientist Thomas Jessell, who have been found guilty by the university of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault—or who have lost or settled  lawsuits alleging the same. Columbia announced 13 months ago that it was dissolving Jessell’s lab and removing him from “all administrative posts” after a university investigation revealed “serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members.” At the same time, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, dropped its support for Jessell’s work. (The student newspaper, Columbia Spectator, later reported that Jessell violated rules on consensual sexual and romantic relationships.)  But Columbia Spectator reports today that “at least eight months later … Jessell remained on campus working with students and using research facilities, according to multiple … researchers” at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.

  • Universities will soon announce action against scientists who broke NIH rules, agency head says

    Francis Collins

    Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at today’s hearing of a Senate panel that oversees NIH’s budget.

    Senate Appropriations Committee

    Some U.S. universities will announce in the next week or two actions they have taken to prevent foreign governments from taking unfair advantage of research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, NIH Director Francis Collins said today. Some researchers could be fired, Collins suggested.

    “There are multiple instances of faculty members who will not be faculty members anymore,” he told reporters after testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that oversees NIH’s budget.

    During the hearing, Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), the panel’s chair, asked Collins about NIH’s ongoing efforts to ensure that grantees are complying with agency rules on disclosing foreign ties, protecting the confidentiality of peer review, and handling intellectual property. “Something that the research community needs to take more seriously,” Blunt said in his opening remarks, is “that foreign governments are initiating systematic ways to influence our research and frankly to take advantage of our research by stealing it.” Blunt mentioned China in particular, which he said has a “government program to recruit NIH-funded researchers” to set up shadow labs in China and steal U.S. intellectual property and confidential grant information. “I think NIH has to be sure that the research community is fully aware of the threats and more importantly, how to combat those threats,” Blunt said.

  • Update: Legislator asks Pentagon to restore contract for storied Jason science advisory group

    Trident II D5 missile

    Examining the capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a perennial topic for the Jason.

    U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge

    *Update, 11 April, 3:30 p.m.: The legislator who revealed the Pentagon’s decision to terminate the Jason contract during a congressional hearing earlier this week today urged acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to reverse that decision. Here’s a statement from Representative Jim Cooper (D–TN), who chairs the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

    The abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew the long-standing JASON contract damages our national security by depriving not only the Pentagon, but also other national security agencies, of sober and sound advice in confronting some of the nation's most complex threats.  Acting Secretary Shanahan should reconsider his decision.

    For more than half a century, the Nation's elite scientists and technologists, through JASON studies, have provided the executive branch and Congress with sound, independent expert advice on the most important and consequential technical issues facing our nation. Members of Congress have long counted on their nonpartisan, science-based advice to inform our decisions on a range of national security issues facing our nation, such as nuclear weapons, space, and emerging technologies.

  • Drought is not just about water. It affects air pollution, too

    Dead trees stand in a field

    A lengthy California drought left trees and plants parched and influenced their contributions to smog.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    The severe drought that struck California from 2011 to 2015 had an obvious impact on rivers, forests, and wildlife. Now, a new study shows it also had some surprising effects on the state’s notorious air pollution, adding new wrinkles to the state’s efforts to clear the skies.

    Researchers have long known that plants can both help create and cleanse one dangerous air pollutant: ground-level ozone, which causes breathing problems and exacerbates lung damage. Plants can scrub ozone from the air by absorbing the pollutant through their stomata, or pores. But certain plants also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that react with other atmospheric chemicals to create ozone.

    Understanding how drought influences these two processes can be tricky. Dry conditions could cause ozone levels to rise, because plants shrink their stomata to prevent water loss, reducing their ability to remove pollution. But drought might also reduce ozone levels, because the stress could cause plants to produce fewer ozone-forming VOCs.

  • Meet the scientist painter who turns deadly viruses into beautiful works of art

    three illustrations: HIV, Ebola, and Zika viruses

    David Goodsell packs his watercolors of HIV, Ebola, and Zika viruses with realistic details.

    David Goodsell (CC-BY-4.0)

    HIV, Ebola, and Zika are ugly, nasty viruses. David Goodsell makes them look beautiful, even alluring. And the unusual precision of his depictions is driven by science—some of it his own research.

    Goodsell is a structural biologist at Scripps Research in San Diego, California, and he paints watercolors of viruses and cells with exacting scientific specifications. Many scientists do artwork on the side, but Goodsell’s paintings are tightly linked to his own studies of the molecules that form cells and pathogens. His images have appeared on the covers of many journals, including Science and Cell. He’s also produced four books that feature his paintings (The Machinery of Life, Our Molecular Nature: The Body’s Motors, Machines and Messages, Bionanotechnology: Lessons from Nature, and Atomic Evidence: Seeing the Molecular Basis of Life), educational posters (Tour of a Human Cell, Flu Fight: Immunity and Infection), and a program that the public can access to create their own HIV illustrations (CellPAINT). The Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections this year featured his HIV image as its logo.

    In addition to studying pictures of cells from high-powered microscopes, Goodsell relies on molecular structures from electron microscopy (EM), x-ray crystallography, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to make his paintings, which show the often crowded and complex world of cells and the microbes that infect them. He even uses the known weights of molecules if that’s all he has so that he can at least draw, say, a correctly sized circle. “I’m a scientist first,” he says. “I’m not making editorial images that are meant to sell magazines. I want to somehow inform the scientists and armchair scientists what the state of knowledge is now and hopefully give them an intuitive sense of how these things really look—or may look,” he says.

  • Scientists decry USDA’s decision to end cat parasite research

    A cat on a table

    A closed laboratory relied on cats to sustain its research program.

    WHITE COAT WASTE PROJECT VIA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

    For the past 37 years, a small research lab in Beltsville, Maryland, has been the world’s leading hub for scientists working on Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects more than 1 billion people globally, causing death, blindness, and birth defects. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the facility is a source of expertise and rare, sought-after materials for researchers working to stop the parasite, which can be transmitted by food and has no human vaccine and no cure.

    But last week, the lab fell victim to pressure from animal welfare activists and members of Congress concerned about its use of cats, the only animal in which T. gondii completes the sexual stages of its life cycle. USDA abruptly announced it was shutting down the lab’s work, saying the program, which cost $625,000 annually to operate, had “reached its maturity” and “achieved” its agricultural research goals.

    The 2 April decision, which lab chief Jitender Dubey learned about from media reports, has left researchers scrambling for alternatives. “I’m really angry about this,” says Laura Knoll, a parasitologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who relies on samples from the laboratory. During a December 2018 external review of the lab she took part in, she says, “The validity and necessity of the research never seemed to be in question.” (USDA declined to answer a list of questions from Science and denied a request to interview Dubey.)

  • Novel NSF initiative seeks nimble scientists to create better tools to tackle societal problems. But act now

     inside a BMW manufacturing plant a worker and robots weld components for vehicles

    The future of work is one topic the National Science Foundation hopes researchers will explore in its new initiative.

    Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Are you a scientist who wants to take a multidisciplinary, team approach to solving an important societal problem? Can you move quickly, think like an entrepreneur, and thrive under a short leash? Then the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, has a new funding program that might be a good fit.

    The novel initiative, which next week has its first deadline for two-page preliminary proposals, goes by the hokey sounding name Convergence Accelerator (C-Accel) pilot. But NSF is dead serious about the funding. By the end of this summer, the agency envisions awarding up to $1 million each to 50 teams for 9-month pilot projects. Those pilots will then compete for a smaller number of $5 million awards extending into 2022.

    NSF Director France Córdova has set aside $60 million this year for C-Accel and has requested an additional $60 million in 2020, with the hope that phase two teams will attract at least $40 million in total from other sources.

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