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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • U.S. universities battle a security storm in Congress

    the MIT dome at night

    Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, fears government efforts to combat foreign influence have created a “toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion” on many U.S. campuses.

    iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

    The threat from China is real, U.S. academic leaders say. But so, too, is the possibility that federal efforts to combat that threat could inhibit the U.S. research enterprise.

    That’s why university officials are scrambling to shape legislation moving rapidly through Congress. It’s aimed at thwarting attempts by foreign entities, notably the Chinese government and affiliated institutions, to take unfair advantage of the traditionally open U.S. research system.

    The House of Representatives has already adopted language that universities like. And on 12 July it was tucked into a larger piece of legislation almost certain to become law in some form. But this month also saw a bipartisan group of senators introduce a similar bill that added provisions universities find hard to swallow.

  • Deforestation in the Amazon is shooting up, but Brazil’s president calls the data ‘a lie’

    Image of Brazil deforestation

    Development is encroaching on the forest in the state of Para in Brazil. Some 7500 square kilometers of forest were felled nationwide in 2018.

    Gallo Images/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2018/GETTY IMAGES

    Deforestation is shooting up again in the Brazilian Amazon, according to satellite monitoring data. But Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, whom many blame for the uptick, has disputed the trend and attacked the credibility of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which produced the data. Bolsonaro called the numbers “a lie” during a 19 July breakfast talk with journalists, and suggested INPE Director Ricardo Galvão was “at the service of some [nongovernmental organization].” “With all the devastation you accuse us of doing and having done in the past, the Amazon would be extinguished already,” he said.

    His comments triggered a fierce backlash from the scientific community, which feels increasingly under siege from the Bolsonaro administration. “Satellites are not responsible for deforestationthey only objectively record what happens,” says a manifest by the Coalition for Science and Society, a recently formed group of scientists concerned about political developments in Brazil. “Scientific facts will prevail, whether or not people believe in them.” Galvão called Bolsonaro a “coward” for voicing unfounded accusations in public. “I hope he calls me to Brasília to explain the data, and that he has the courage to repeat [what he said] face to face,” Galvão said in an interview with O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.

    Bolsonarowho said Galvão could meet with a Cabinet minister instead—has since toned down his criticism but insists INPE should consult with government officials before releasing deforestation data in the future because it is hurting Brazil’s image abroad. (INPE’s official policy is to make all of its data public.) Many prominent scientists and environmentalists blame the increase in land clearing on Bolsonaro’s aggressive prodevelopment statements and policies, including the promotion of farming and mining on protected land.

  • Trump administration releases details on fetal tissue restrictions

    fetal brain cells in the corpus striatum

    Fetal brain tissue is used in federally funded studies that will be subject to new regulations and extra review beginning in September.

    STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE SOURCE

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today detailed how President Donald Trump’s administration will implement restrictions it announced in June on the use of human fetal tissue in research. For some researchers, the announcement brings relief: The policy doesn’t kick in immediately, meaning grant applications already in the pipeline at NIH won’t be affected. But starting in late September, scientists applying for grants will need to explain in detail why they need to use fetal tissue and how it will be obtained.

    The new paperwork requirements, along with a new, lengthy ethics review, raise worries that many investigators will fail to land grants that rely on fetal tissue—and others won’t even try to win them. “With these rules, it’s not impossible” to do fetal tissue research with NIH support, says Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell neuroscientist at the University of California (UC), San Diego, “but it’s going to be very problematic.”

    “This does a pretty good job of doing what the pro-life people want. It makes grant applications a lot more onerous, substantially and procedurally, while allowing [the Trump administration] to say: ‘We’re not completely banning it,’” says Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

  • Medical journal editors expect authors to disclose conflicts of interest—but don’t disclose their own

    hands working with a stack of paper
    istock.com/smolaw11

    Virtually all top medical journals require authors to disclose potential conflicts of interest, but few—just 12%—apply that same medicine to their own editors by publicly disclosing editors’ financial ties to industry, a study has found.

    Authors of the study, published 23 July in BMJ Open, called that “paradoxical” given that other analyses have shown that about 50% of editors at such journals in the United States have received payments from industry. “Journal editorial teams are a key player that should apply to themselves the transparency they demand from their authors,” wrote Rafael Dal-Ré of the Autonomous University of Madrid and his co-authors.

    They examined 130 journals spanning medical, imaging, and surgery specialties, focusing on the top five most influential ones, as measured by their impact factors, in each of 26 subcategories. In half of the categories, not a single journal publicly disclosed any editor conflicts of interest (COIs), their study found.

  • Boris Johnson’s stance on climate change has flip-flopped

    Boris Johnson wading through a water garden

    Boris Johnson, the new U.K. prime minister, planted water lilies at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London in 2015 while the city’s mayor.

    REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

    Originally published by E&E News

    The United Kingdom's new leader is being labeled an enemy of climate science and an ally of President Trump, but his public record paints a murkier picture.

    Take an October 2011 report in which Boris Johnson, then London's mayor, touted his green credentials and policies to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Scientists doing basic studies of human brain win longer reprieve from clinical trials reporting rule

    a woman wearing a EEG cap

    Researchers have pushed back against including basic brain studies, such as those that monitor neuronal activity, in a federal database of clinical trials.

    wunkley/Alamy Stock Photo

    U.S. scientists who challenged a new rule that would require them to register their basic studies of the human brain and behavior in a federal database of clinical trials have won another reprieve. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, says it now understands why some of that kind of research won’t easily fit the format of ClinicalTrials.gov, and the agency has delayed the reporting requirements for another 2 years.

    The controversy dates back to 2017, when behavioral and cognitive researchers realized that new requirements for registering and reporting results from NIH-funded clinical studies would also cover even basic studies of human subjects, experiments that did not test drugs or other potential treatments. The scientists protested that including such studies would confuse the public and create burdensome, unnecessary paperwork. A year ago, NIH announced it would delay the requirement until September and seek further input.

    The responses prompted NIH staff to examine published papers from scientists conducting basic research. They agreed it would be hard to include some of these studies into the rigid informational format used by ClinicalTrials.gov—for example, because the authors didn’t specify the outcome they expected before the study began, or they reported results for individuals and not the whole group. In other cases, the authors did several preliminary studies to help them design their experiment.

  • World Bank dedicates $300 million to Ebola response

    Workers prepare to bury an Ebola victim

    Workers prepare to bury a victim of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

    The World Bank in Washington, D.C., said today it will contribute $300 million to responding to an ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The outbreak has killed more than 1700 people and last week it was declared an international emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).

    “Together, we must take urgent action to stop the deadly Ebola epidemic that is destroying lives and livelihoods in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement. The bank’s newly committed money will be provided as grants and credits to intensify the frontline health response in Ebola-affected areas of the DRC. The cash infusion adds to $100 million the organization has provided since the outbreak surfaced in August 2018.

  • A vaunted program for boosting the diversity of U.S. academic scientists is starting to spread

    Alumni spanning 30 years gathered in Baltimore

    Meyerhoff scholars from as far back as the start of the program in 1989 gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, this spring to celebrate the program's 30th anniversary.

    Jim Burger/University of Maryland, Baltimore County

    The audience applauded when Crystal Watkins Johansson revealed she was being promoted to associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and head of the new Sheppard Pratt Memory Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland. And there were cheers for Lola Eniola-Adefeso, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when she described “standing at the top of the academic ladder, working to pull up others like me.”

    In May, the two women had returned to their undergraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its Meyerhoff Scholars Program and honor its namesake, Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff. The 95-year-old civil engineer, who made his fortune in commercial real estate, is lionized for his $500,000 donation to UMBC that launched what is now widely considered to be the most successful program in the United States for preparing minority students for careers in academic research.

    The data tell an impressive story. Johansson and Eniola-Adefeso, who are both black, are two of 1150 alumni, of whom 71% are black or Hispanic. To date, 312 Meyerhoff scholars have earned Ph.D.s, 59 have joint M.D./Ph.D.s, 141 have been awarded M.D.s, and some 40 now hold tenured or tenure-track positions. An additional 265 have received a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field, and 258 more are now enrolled in graduate or professional school. These scholars represent the “new face of science,” says Michael Summers, a UMBC biology professor and longtime adviser to the program.

  • Q&A: How Ecuador, the world’s largest banana exporter, is defending against a devastating fungus

    Xavier Lazo Guerrero

    Xavier Lazo Guerrero, Ecuador’s agriculture minister, is leading efforts to prevent a deadly fungus from reaching the nation’s banana plantations.

    Fernando Lagla/Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Earlier this month, banana growers in Latin America got some worrying news. Officials in Colombia said four plantations had been quarantined after the possible appearance of a banana fungus that has already caused devastating losses in Asia. Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) kills the plants by clogging their vascular system.

    The discovery, which hasn’t yet been confirmed, has put countries in the region on high alert. Neighboring Ecuador, for example, is the largest banana exporter in the world, and preventing TR4 from entering the country has become “my No. 1 priority,” says Ecuador’s minister of agriculture and livestock, Xavier Lazo Guerrero, who is based in Quito.

    ScienceInsider recently spoke with Lazo about how Ecuador is responding to the potential threat to one of its most important crops. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Budget deal raises hopes for U.S. research agencies

    US capitol building
    lucky-photographer/iStockPhoto

    A new budget deal between the White House and congressional leaders means U.S. research agencies could receive increases on the order of the 4% to 5% that Democrats have already proposed for next year.

    Yesterday’s agreement, which must be approved by both chambers of Congress, governs spending for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Under the existing law aimed at reducing the federal deficit, Congress would have had to reduce total discretionary spending in 2020 by $125 billion, or roughly 10%. But the agreement removes that requirement and thus avoids dreaded mandatory across-the-board cuts, called sequestration, that would have been imposed if no such reductions were made.

    “A budget framework for the next 2 years that moves us past the threat of future sequestration is a win for American science,” the Science Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based lobbying group representing dozens of U.S. research universities, wrote in a statement. “We urge Congress to appropriate the necessary funding to demonstrate America’s commitment to this endeavor.”

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