Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • ‘Audacious’ science ideas win huge funding boosts after selection by TED group

    Hosts Anna Verghese and Chris Anderson speak at TED2019

    At a meeting last week, Anna Verghese, director of the Audacious Project, and Chris Anderson, head of the TED group, detailed the fundraising success so far for eight ambitious projects, several of them focused on science.

    Dian Lofton/TED (CC BY-NC-ND)

    The TED organization, whose slick online video presentations have helped thousands of scientists and other thinkers reach huge audiences and potential financial backers, has jumped into the funding business itself. Last week, TED’s Audacious Project announced its second cohort of grantees, who will each receive tens of millions of dollars from donors. Among them are teams working to design improved proteins, eradicate parasitic diseases, and develop plants that counter global warming.

    David Johnson, a sociologist who studies trends in scientific funding at the University of Nevada in Reno, compares TED’s funding strategy to stock market investing. “In investment portfolio terms, federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are like [an] index fund with diversified investment in science [whereas] Audacious is taking it to an extreme by making major investments in a few blue-chip scientific stocks.”

    This second funding round began when the organization put out a call for proposals, asking for just a few hundred words describing an idea and its scope. It received about 1500 initial applications. Officials within TED worked with a philanthropic consultancy called the Bridgespan Group in Boston to narrow that batch to a short list.

  • First marsquake detected by NASA’s InSight mission

    NASA's Mars InSight lander

    InSight’s seismometer is protected from wind and heat swings by a dome-shaped shield.


    Mars is shaking. After several months of apprehensive waiting on a quiet surface, NASA’s InSight lander has registered a sweet, small sound: the first marsquake ever recorded. On 6 April, the lander’s seismometer detected its first verifiable quake, NASA and its European partners announced today.

    The quake is tiny, so small that it would never be detected on Earth amid the background thrum of waves and wind. But Mars is dead quiet, allowing the lander’s sensitive seismometer to pick up the signal, which resembles similar surface ripples detected traveling through the moon’s surface after moonquakes. The quake is so small that scientists were unable to detect any waves tied to it that passed through the martian interior, defying efforts to estimate its exact location and strength, says Philippe Lognonné, a planetary seismologist at Paris Diderot University who leads the mission’s seismometer experiment. Still, it was gratifying to observe, he says. “It is the first quake. All the time, we were waiting for this.”

    The detection is a milestone for the $816 million lander, kicking off a new field of “martian seismology,” added Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator and a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in a news release. It proves Mars is seismologically active, and marks NASA’s return to planetary seismology after more than 4 decades. The mission is intended to peer through the planet’s rust-colored shell, gauging the thickness and composition of its crust, mantle, and core. But while on Earth, the lander was plagued by delay and cost overruns; since landing on Mars in a sand-filled hollow, the lander’s second instrument, a heat probe, got stuck soon after it began to burrow into the surface.

  • After ousters, MD Anderson officials try to calm fears of racial profiling

    University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center buildings

    MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas

    Houston Chronicle

    Administrators at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, yesterday tried to reassure alarmed employees that its recent dismissals of faculty members alleged to have broken federal funding rules were not connected to race or ethnicity.

    “I can assure you 100% that this is not based on ethnicity,” Stephen Hahn, chief medical executive at the institution, told a group of MD Anderson employees who attended a town hall meeting Monday morning. “This is something that we abhor and that we would never do,” he said, according to an audio recording obtained by ScienceInsider.

    MD Anderson administrators called the meeting after Science and the Houston Chronicle last week reported that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had asked the cancer center to investigate possible rule violations by at least five of its scientists, including failing to protect the confidentiality of peer review and failing to report foreign funding and business ties. In particular, NIH raised concerns about ties to funding programs and institutions in China.

  • Three in four female physics undergrads report sexual harassment

    ScienceInsider logo

    Fully three in four U.S. undergraduate women majoring in physics reported being sexually harassed over a 2-year period ending in 2017, according to a new paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

    That year, scholars surveyed more than 450 undergraduate women attending conferences sponsored by the American Physical Society. They represented a significant chunk of female physics undergraduates, considering that in 2015—the most recent year for which data are available—1349 women received bachelor’s degrees in physics.

    Questioned about specific forms of harassment, 68% reported experiencing sexist remarks such as “women aren’t as good at physics” or being treated differently, ignored, or put down because of their gender. Fifty-one percent said they endured sexual jokes; were the object of sexual remarks about their bodies, appearance, or clothing; or had their sexual activity discussed. And 24% reported receiving unwanted sexual attention.

  • 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

    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.


    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


    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.

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