Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Largest ever HIV prevention study delivers sobering message

    women carry HIV testing materials into a neighborhood

    Community health workers with the Population Effects of Antiretroviral Therapy to Reduce HIV Transmission study did door-to-door HIV testing of 1 million people annually for 3 years.

    Kim Cloete

    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—The recipe for ending HIV epidemics seems straightforward. Introduce widespread testing. Immediately put those who test positive on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, which suppress the virus to undetectable levels so those people won’t infect others. The number of new infections will drop, and the epidemic will peter out.

    But massive, costly studies done in the past few years have failed to show this strategy can reliably curb the spread of the virus, to the frustration of researchers. The latest and largest ever study presented here last week at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections did show a modest benefit. But confusingly, there was almost no decline in infections in the study group where it was most expected.

    Ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic may be harder than anticipated, it seems. “ARVs on their own are not the magic bullet,” says Collins Iwuji, an epidemiologist at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom who helped run one of the earlier studies, a South African treatment as prevention (TasP) trial.

  • Renowned Sudanese geneticist behind bars for opposing regime

    Muntaser Ibrahim

    Muntaser Ibrahim

    World Academy of Sciences

    A leading Sudanese geneticist has been imprisoned for speaking out against the country’s repressive regime. Muntaser Ibrahim, who heads the University of Khartoum’s Institute of Endemic Diseases, was arrested on 21 February in Khartoum and has been detained ever since. His friends and family do not know his location. They say Ibrahim suffers from a heart condition that requires specialist care.

    Ibrahim’s colleagues and students issued a statement calling for his release on Friday. “It is deplorable that a scholar such as Professor Ibrahim remains in prison, rather than classroom and research centres,” the text reads.

    Ibrahim took part in peaceful antiregime protests in recent months, according to the statement; he was arrested twice in early January but released shortly after both times. The third and final arrest came as Ibrahim planned to deliver suggestions for national reform drawn up by him and other University of Khartoum lecturers to Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir. “Professor Ibrahim and his colleagues genuinely believed that their initiative could provide a satisfactory way out of the crisis, but the dictatorial authority saw otherwise, hence his repeated incarceration,” reads the statement, which is unsigned.

  • Trump once again requests deep cuts in U.S. science spending

    Donald Trump at a podium

    President Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    For the third year in a row, President Donald Trump’s administration has unveiled a budget request to Congress that calls for deep spending cuts at many federal science agencies, including a 13% cut for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a 12% cut for the National Science Foundation (NSF), while providing hefty increases for the military.

    But the $4.7 trillion request for the 2020 fiscal year that begins 1 October, released today, is already drawing bipartisan pushback from lawmakers in Congress and—as with past Trump administration requests—many of the cuts are unlikely to be enacted into law.

    The president’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, calls the request “an important down payment on America’s future.” A statement from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which he leads, says the president’s budget “promotes responsible spending [by] prioritizing high-impact programs that have been shown to be effective.”

  • Men get larger first NIH grants, but is the news all bad for female scientists?

    illustration of a man and woman pushing wheel barrels of money, and the woman has much less
    Gary Waters/Getty Images

    A headline-grabbing study out this week is adding to concerns about gender bias in science: Women received about $40,000 less than men in their first funding award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or just $127,000 per year. But surprisingly, women’s median award size was larger than men’s for NIH’s standard independent research grant. A close look at the data, which cover more than 200 different kinds of grants awarded by NIH, suggests the story is more nuanced than the overall numbers indicate.

    Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, examined 53,903 grants from 2006 to 2017 that went to first-time principal investigators (PIs). Men and women didn’t differ significantly in some research metrics, such as the number of publications. Yet the median size of a grant for male PIs was $165,721, whereas for women it was just $126,615 or 24% smaller, the authors reported on 5 March in JAMA. The results were even more striking for some types of institutions: At Big Ten public universities, for example, grants to men were more than twice as large as those to women ($148,076 versus $66,365).

    That difference has profound implications for a woman’s scientific career, the study’s authors say. “This shows women are disadvantaged from the very first NIH grant they submit relative to their male counterparts. This represents an early stumbling block” that means women have less money for equipment and hiring graduate students, corresponding author Teresa Woodruff wrote in a press release. NIH, too, “is aware and concerned about differences in funding patterns between women and men in science,” the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency wrote in a statement.

  • Japanese government punts on decision to host the International Linear Collider

    ILC Cryomodule

    A cryomodule, a key component of the proposed International Linear Collider

    © Rey.Hori/KEK

    The government of Japan finally said something about hosting the International Linear Collider (ILC): It still can’t make up its mind, and it may hold off on a decision until the fall, if not longer.

    This morning in Tokyo, an official of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) explained to a meeting of the International Committee for Future Accelerators (ICFA) and the Linear Collider Board that the ministry could “not yet” indicate the intention of “hosting the ILC in Japan,” according to a written executive summary of the presentation obtained by ScienceInsider. “MEXT will continue to discuss the ILC project with other governments while having an interest in the ILC project,” the summary concludes. 

    “There was disappointment” among the scientists at the meeting, ICFA chair Geoffrey Taylor, an experimental physicist at the University of Melbourne in Australia admitted at a briefing this evening in Tokyo. “People were hoping there would be a statement that Japan was willing to host the ILC.”

  • A report about Plan S’s potential effects on journals marks a busy week for the open-access movement

    a stack of papers

    Plan S may significantly affect authors even in countries whose funders don’t sign on, a report says.


    It’s been a busy week for the open-access movement, the effort to make all scientific journal articles immediately free to read. Making that change would require a major shift in most journals’ business models, from one that charges subscribers to read articles to one in which authors pay to publish. Among the developments:

    • Many journals aren’t prepared to meet the requirements of Plan S, the proposal largely by European funders to require grantees to publish articles that are immediately open access, a report from a science publishing analytics company says.
    • Springer Nature, one of the largest publishers of scientific journals, and the networking website ResearchGate began an experiment making some articles open access through authors’ profiles on the website.
  • Q&A: New light pollution tracking tool is a physicist’s bright idea

    hong kong cityscape

    Hong Kong, China, aglow with night light

    Think it’s getting harder to see the stars above your home? Now, you can check whether the night sky is getting brighter on a new website that displays changes in nighttime illumination across Earth since 1992.

    The Radiance Light Trends website, launched today, is the brainchild of physicist Christopher Kyba of the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. For years, Kyba has been analyzing data collected by satellites that peer down at the planet, measuring the glow from street lamps, neon signs, and other forms of night lighting. But traditionally, it has taken up to a day to download, polish, and comb through the numbers.

    On the new site, which is updated constantly, users can select areas of up to 5000 square kilometers anywhere on the globe and, in just seconds, produce a graph of nighttime radiance over any period in the past 25 years. Select parts of Puerto Rico, for instance, and you’ll see how Hurricane Maria knock out the island’s power grid in 2017. Or pick a rapidly growing city in Africa or Asia and witness how urban sprawl is brightening the night sky.

  • U.S. Senate Republicans hold rare climate hearing, and more might be coming

    Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin

    Senators Lisa Murkowski (R–AK, right) and Joe Manchin (D–WV, left), the senior members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, confer during a hearing yesterday on climate change.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

    Originally published by E&E News

    It’s been some time since the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has held a hearing on climate change, so naturally its top two lawmakers felt compelled to get a couple of things out of the way during yesterday’s roughly two-hour meeting.

    Global warming is “directly impacting our way of life,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who leads the panel.

  • Q&A: Why Iranian conservationists are facing ‘ludicrous’ spying charges

    Iranian flag

    The flag of Iran Puster

    With the fates of eight conservationists jailed in Iran on espionage charges hanging in the balance, a campaign to win their freedom is picking up steam. For more than a year, colleagues and family members have been quietly lobbying Iran’s government and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the detainees’ release. But now, with closed trials proceeding in Tehran, institutions and influential individuals are scrambling to train a spotlight on the trials. They argue that convictions would not only be a tragedy for the detainees, but also an international disgrace.

    The imprisoned conservationists are all with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a Tehran-based organization that had been using camera traps to monitor dwindling species such as the Persian leopard, Asiatic cheetah, Asiatic black bear, and Laristan wild sheep. Iran’s hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the Sepah, accused the group of using the cameras to spy on military installations.

    In January and February 2018, the Sepah detained PWHF’s Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Rajabi, and Morad Tahbaz. They also arrested Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian sociologist and PWHF’s co-founder. Seyed-Emami died in detention on 8 February 2018; Iranian officials insist he committed suicide, an explanation his family rejects. In November 2018, Iran’s judiciary upgraded charges against four remaining detainees—Bayani, Ghadirian, Jokar, and Tahbaz—to “sowing corruption on Earth,” which can bring the death penalty. In response, more than 330 conservationists and scholars from 66 countries wrote to Khamenei, saying they “strongly condemn” the possibility that “the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives.”

  • Vaccine opponents attack U.S. science panel

    a woman speaking at a microphone at meeting

    K. J. Moore, a traveling nurse, told a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine panel last week that she is upset by mandates that health care workers receive the flu vaccine.

    John Bazemore/AP Photo

    ATLANTA—The U.S. antivaccine movement has found a new front for its attacks on scientists and their work: gatherings of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which recommends which vaccines Americans should receive. Since last summer, increasing numbers of vaccine opponents have come to ACIP meetings, held three times a year here at the campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to vent their anger at the 15 buttoned-down experts on the panel during the public comments section—and to lambaste vaccination in general.

    “I do not consent to handing over my God-given children to the government of the United States of America,” Sandy Spaetti, who had traveled from Rockport, Indiana, said at ACIP’s meeting on 27 February, to raucous applause from dozens of other activists. “How is a vaccine that caused my son’s intestines to fold in on itself and almost die safe and effective?” asked Nicole Mason, a photographer from Jacksonville, Florida, who said she lost faith in all vaccines when her 4-month-old son developed intussusception, an intestinal obstruction, after receiving the rotavirus vaccine last summer. (The blockage occurs in an estimated one to five of every 100,000 infants vaccinated; it can also be caused by rotavirus infection itself.)

    “This may be the new normal. We don’t know. But it certainly is a lot more than we have seen in the past,” says ACIP’s new chair, José Romero, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock who has served on the panel for 4 years.

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