Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • There’s a fairer way to allot seats in the European Parliament, mathematicians say—but politicians don’t like it

    several members of the European Parliament, some raising their hands to vote

    Bigger countries have more seats in the European Parliament than smaller ones, but the number isn’t directly proportional to population size.

    Vincent Kressler/Reuters

    Dissatisfaction with the European Union is on the rise, as Sunday’s elections in Italy showed. Now, even some mathematicians are mad at Brussels. In a paper uploaded recently to the arXiv server, Friedrich Pukelsheim of the University of Augsburg in Germany and Geoffrey Grimmett of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom decry the European Parliament’s reallocation of seats from the departing United Kingdom to other EU member states.

    The duo complains that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have ignored their own long-standing aim to assign seats using a clean, transparent formula, instead reverting to a more familiar approach: bargaining behind closed doors. That is bad news for European democracy, the mathematicians say, because it means that midsize countries are overrepresented in the Parliament. In their paper, they bemoan what they see as MEPs’ failure to explain how they converted population figures into seats. The Parliament, the pair writes, has missed an opportunity “to proceed from the dark ages to an era of enlightenment.”

    A formula “pleases us, the academics, because it is a systematic way of responding to inevitable population changes,” Pukelsheim tells Science. “But it is frowned upon by politicians.”

  • Behavioral ‘violations’ cost prominent neuroscientist positions at Columbia, HHMI

    Thomas Jessell

    Prominent neuroscientist Tom Jessell, pictured in 2008 after winning the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, was ousted earlier this month by Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for unspecified behavioral violations.

    Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times/Redux

    Prominent Columbia University neuroscientist Tom Jessell, 66, has been fired for “serious [behavioral] violations” and the university is closing his lab, the New York City institution said in a statement yesterday. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which effectively employed Jessell, a leader in understanding neural development, also terminated him as an investigator last week because he “violated HHMI policy,” according to a statement from the institute.

    Neither institution will reveal Jessell’s transgressions or say what policies he violated. Columbia said only:

    Columbia has ended the administrative positions of Dr. Thomas Jessell and will be winding down the Jessell lab at [Columbia University Medical Center]. These decisions follow an investigation that revealed serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members in an academic environment. The University will fulfill its responsibility to close the lab in a manner that both preserves valuable research and helps those involved to continue to pursue their careers. Dr. Jessell has been out of the lab since the investigation began.

  • Scientists rally to save research laser that Trump has targeted for closure

    Omega laser target

    A laser pulse converges on a target at the heart of the Omega laser facility, as diagnostic instruments look on. 

    Eugene Kowaluk/University of Rochester

    Physicists and politicians are rallying to the defense of the Omega laser at the University of Rochester (U of R) in New York, an iconic facility in the search for fusion energy that President Donald Trump has proposed defunding.

    The move to wind down the lab over 3 years, included in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) fiscal 2019 budget request released last month, came as a bolt from out of the blue. In addition to being a mainstay of efforts to figure out how to use lasers to create fusion energy, the 23-year-old facility also does pioneering work in studying matter at high-energy density. And it has been deeply involved in DOE’s stockpile stewardship program, which aims to ensure the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. “We were not consulted, there was no discussion whatsoever,” about the funding change, says E. Michael Campbell, director of U of R’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE), which runs the laser. “It makes no sense for the long-term vision of how stockpile stewardship works.”

    The budget request calls for a 20% reduction in DOE’s inertial confinement fusion (ICF) program, which supports Omega, to $419 million. The request would initiate the 3-year phaseout of the LLE by cutting its budget from $68 million in 2017 to $45 million in 2019. (Congress has yet to set the 2018 budget.)

  • Scientists win and lose in Texas primary contests

    I Voted sticker
    Bored-now/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Yesterday’s Texas primary was the first test for scientists seeking seats this year in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the results were mixed.

    On the plus side, Mary Wilson, a former Austin Community College mathematics professor turned minister, has advanced to a Democratic runoff in the 21st congressional district after a surprising first-place finish over Joseph Kopser, a scientifically trained entrepreneur. They will run head-to-head in a May runoff. On the minus side, Jason Westin, a clinical oncologist seeking a chance to represent the seventh congressional district in Houston, Texas, was knocked out of the race, running third in a crowded Democratic field. Retired geologist Jon Powell lost badly in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the 36th congressional district in eastern Texas.

    The 2016 election has energized many scientists and engineers to participate for the first time in electoral politics. Almost all Democrats, the scientists say uniformly that they are running against the policies of President Donald Trump and his administration and are seeking to add a scientific element to policy debates. However, as political novices they have been forced to learn on the job about running for national office.

  • Rise of nationalist and populist parties has Italian scientists worried

    Antivaccine protesters in Italy

    Antivaccine protesters outside the lower chamber of the Italian Parliament in Rome in July 2017.

    Giuseppe Lami/ANSA/AP

    The outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Italy was a stunning victory for populist and nationalist parties, and a clear warning to Italy’s political establishment and the European Union. But some in Italy worry that the results may also have a negative impact on science.

    There were two big winners: the populist, web-based Five Star Movement (M5S) and the hard-right, anti-immigrant League, which ran in a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and other right-wing parties. Both have come under fire for taking antiscientific positions on issues such as vaccination and animal testing. Together, these parties obtained more than three-quarters of the seats in the two legislative chambers.

    Whether the outcome will trigger major science policy shifts is still unclear; negotiations to form a new government, led by President Sergio Mattarella, will be complex and protracted, and their outcome is hard to predict. But Italy’s scientific community “will not allow an antiscience government,” says Maria Chiara Carrozza, a professor in industrial bioengineering at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, and a former education and research minister. “We will make our voices heard,” she says.

  • USGS nominee vows to insulate science from political pressure

    James Reilly on a space shuttle

    James Reilly flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2001.


    Former astronaut James Reilly II pledged today to prevent undue political interference in U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientific research if he's confirmed as the agency's 17th director.

    In an easygoing confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Reilly repeatedly reassured lawmakers that he would protect the integrity of what one senator termed the Interior Department's "premier science agency."

    "If someone were to come to me and say, 'I want you to change this because it's the politically right thing to do,' I would politely decline," Reilly said, adding, "I'm fully committed to scientific integrity."

  • New NSF rules on sexual harassment leave many questions unanswered

    The National Science Foundation Headquarters

    Headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia

    National Science Foundation

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, hopes that its new policy on sexual harassment will spur universities to deal more aggressively with the pervasive problem. But the additional reporting requirements, which will be officially published Monday in the Federal Register, are far from a definitive statement about how NSF plans to deal with this complex and sensitive subject.

    The carefully worded notice, for example, doesn’t address whether a scientist found guilty of sexual harassment should automatically be removed from a grant. And it would not require universities to tell NSF when they launch investigations into allegations of harassment.

    The eight-page notice in the Federal Register is designed to flesh out and seek public comment on an “important notice” that NSF issued on 8 February. It proposes adding two new components to the “terms and conditions” that universities and other institutions agree to follow when they accept an NSF award. (Grants are awarded to institutions, not individuals, although scientists invariably refer to “my grant.”)

  • Flagship U.S. space telescope facing further delays

    James Webb Space Telescope's mirror being tested

    The main mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being tested at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2017.

    NASA/Desiree Stover/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    NASA’s troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is heading for more choppy water, says a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released yesterday. Problems in testing the orbiting telescope’s components and integrating them together means further launch delays are likely, GAO found. And the slips could mean the project will breach the $8 billion cost ceiling imposed by Congress in 2011.

    The JWST is a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but with a mirror more than three times as wide and focusing on slightly longer, infrared wavelengths. It is expected to revolutionize our knowledge of the early universe, planets around other stars, and much else in between.

    It is also the most complex and costly science mission NASA (and its European and Canadian partners) have ever built. Its early development was plagued by cost overruns and schedule slips, but after a crisis in 2011 that nearly saw it canceled, Congress set its budget in stone. Since then, building and testing the spacecraft have mostly stayed on track, but last September NASA did push back the JWST’s planned launch from October 2018 to a date between March and June 2019.

  • European agency concludes controversial ‘neonic’ pesticides threaten bees

    U.S. agencies need better data to protect bees, watchdog says
    Marisa Lubeck, USGS

    Controversial insecticides known as neonicotinoids pose a danger to wild bees and managed honey bees, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, said in a report released today. Bayer, a maker of so-called neonics, disputed EFSA's findings. But the report is likely to give a boost to those pushing for tighter European regulation of the chemicals. 

    “This report certainly strengthens the case for further restrictions on neonicotinoid use,” entomologist Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., said in a statement. The European Commission last year proposed—but has not yet adopted—extending a partial ban on neonics to all field crops.

    Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides. Often, they are used to coat seeds to protect them when they are planted in the ground. After the seed germinates, the pesticide spreads throughout the growing plant and guards it against nibbling insects. But the insecticide is also present in the nectar and pollen, meaning pollinators get dosed, too. Many studies have shown that the chemicals can affect the ability of honey bees to learn and forage, although industry scientists have disputed whether the experiments are realistic enough.

  • Boston University rejects geologist David Marchant’s appeal of termination

    Boston University's Marsh Plaza

    Marsh Plaza on the Boston University campus

    Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Boston University (BU) has denied geologist David Marchant’s appeal of its decision to terminate him, the Massachusetts-based institution announced yesterday. Late last year, the university moved to fire Marchant after an investigation concluded that he sexually harassed a graduate student during fieldwork in Antarctica nearly 2 decades ago.

    Marchant has not yet exhausted all options in attempting to save his job. Marchant “has the right to have a faculty committee determine whether termination is the appropriate sanction, and the timing of the initiation of that committee’s work is being determined,” BU spokesperson Colin Riley wrote in a 27 February email.

    Riley said that Marchant remains on paid administrative leave. He declined to identify who at the university denied the appeal, or when and on what grounds the decision was made.

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