Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • One of Indiana’s new congressmen is a Vietnam veteran, a farmer … and a scientist

    Jim Baird

    Jim Baird (R–IN) and other freshmen members of Congress choose their offices through a lottery.

    Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Photo

    The infantrymen whom Jim Baird led in Vietnam fondly called him “pig farmer” because of his passion for breeding pigs. Now, nearly a half-century after he was helicoptered out of a firefight in which he lost his left arm, Baird answers to a new moniker: congressman.

    He’s the only rookie legislator with a science Ph.D. on the newly reformulated science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. And he’s the only Republican among the three members of the 37-person panel holding such a degree.

    Last year, some four dozen candidates touted their scientific training in seeking a seat in Congress. All but a few were Democrats, and most were harsh critics of how science has fared under President Donald Trump.

  • A 25% pay raise? That’s not nearly enough, young Indian scientists say


    Early-career scientists hold a rally at the office of the Ministry of Human Resource Development in New Delhi on 16 January.

    Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—In response to months of protests and marches, the Indian government announced yesterday that it will give early-career scientists raises of up to 25%. But leaders of the protest movement, who had asked for an 80% hike, immediately rejected the offer. “This hike is not acceptable. We will continue the street protests,” says Lal Chandra Vishwakarma, chair of the Society of Young Researchers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here.

    Vishwakarma says research scholars will discuss how to proceed at an AIIMS meeting on Saturday, where “a nationwide shutdown of labs will be considered.”

    The raise benefits more than 60,000 research fellows, a press statement issued by the Department of Science & Technology (DST) here says; all will get raises of at least 24%. (Indian research fellows also receive a housing allowance that varies by city.) And from now on, high performers can be eligible for additional financial incentives, says Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, the government’s principal scientific adviser, although details of the scheme have yet to be announced.

  • Water mismanagement triggered ecological disaster in Australian rivers, panel concludes

    dead fish floating in water

    Dead fish floating in the Darling River near Menindee, Australia, earlier this month.

    Jeremy Buckingham’s Office

    Even before a recent massive fish die-off put Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin in the headlines worldwide, scientists had been warning that mismanagement of the region’s scarce water was setting the stage for an environmental disaster.

    They were right, a report released today by a special government commission concludes. The yearlong inquiry found that too much water is being taken out of the river network for irrigation and household use.

    The Murray-Darling system comprises more than 100 named waterways that drain 1 million square kilometers in the country’s arid southeast. Heavy irrigation has left the lower reaches of the rivers running at about a third of historical levels and sometimes completely dry. Occasionally, as over the past 6 weeks, the flow is too low to flush nutrients from agricultural runoff through the system, leading to algal blooms and subsequent fish kills.

  • Few open-access journals meet requirements of Plan S, study says

    hands working with a stack of paper

    Only a small proportion of open-access scientific journals fully meet the draft requirements of Plan S, the initiative primarily by European funders to make all papers developed with their support free to read, a study has found. Compliance with the rules could cost the remaining journals, especially smaller ones, more than they can afford.

    Plan S, which takes effect next year, stipulates that any published research funded by its members must appear on open-access platforms that meet certain requirements. At most, only 889, or 15%, of 5987 science and medical journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) would fully comply with Plan S, according to data gathered by Jan Erik Frantsvåg of the University of Tromsø–the Arctic University of Norway and Tormod Strømme of the University of Bergen in Norway. They published their findings on the Preprints platform on 16 January. Even fewer journals in the social sciences and humanities complied fully: only 193, or 3%, of 6290 such publications.

    Frantsvåg and Strømme identified 14 criteria in the Plan S draft rules that journals must meet if participating funders are to permit publication in them. Some rules concern editorial policy, such as that journals must allow authors to retain copyright. Others deal with technical matters—journals must provide full text in machine-readable formats, such as XML, to allow for text and data mining. Of the 14 criteria, Frantsvåg and Strømme could assess only nine criteria using available DOAJ data, which means even fewer than 15% of science and biomedical journals might fully comply with Plan S.

  • Is tourism endangering these giant lizards?

    Komodo dragon

    Officials worry that the Komodo dragon population is declining because of tourism.

    Reinhard Dirscherl/Alamy Stock Photo

    Is tourism endangering one of the world’s most iconic lizard species? It seemed that way after the unexpected announcement that Komodo National Park in Indonesia, home of the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) may be partly closed to visitors for a full year.

    But scientists are puzzled. They say the Komodo dragons in the park are doing just fine. Instead of keeping out tourists, Indonesia should do more to protect Komodo dragons outside the park, some argue.

    Komodo National Park consists of a group of islands with a total land area of 407 square kilometers. The two largest ones, Komodo and Rinca, are home to Komodo dragon populations and are open to visits by tourists; some 160,000 people came in 2018, most of them foreigners. Tourism has made the Komodo dragons “tame” and less inclined to hunt, according to Viktor Laiskodat, governor of the East Nusa Tenggara province, where the park is located. In addition, rampant poaching has reduced the number of Timor deer (Cervus timorensis), the dragon’s main prey; as a result, the dragons have become smaller in size, Laiskodat recently claimed. To “manage the Komodo dragon’s habitat,” Komodo Island should be closed to visitors for a year, Laiskodat said on 18 January.

  • End of U.S. shutdown won’t mean return to business as usual for research agencies

    Protestor holds paper plate with words "End the shutdown" written on it

    Furloughed federal workers who protested the shutdown earlier this month in Washington, D.C., will be going back to work, for at least 3 weeks.

    AFGE/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    The longest U.S. government shutdown in history may soon be over, at least temporarily. But researchers shouldn’t expect their favorite federal research agency to be back to normal anytime soon.

    “Scientists will need to be patient,” warns Sarah Nusser, vice president for research at Iowa State University in Ames. “You’re not going to get all your questions answered immediately.”

    President Donald Trump’s announcement this afternoon that he would accept a 3-week extension of current funding levels for several departments and agencies will allow them to reopen on Monday, and Congress appears ready to act at once. The agencies that conduct or fund research that have been mostly closed since 22 December 2018 include NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

  • The ocean is full of drifting DNA. The United States needs to collect it, researchers say

    Ramón Gallego collecting a water sample

    Researcher Rámon Gallego of the University of Washington in Seattle collects a water sample for environmental DNA analysis in Hood Canal, Washington.

    Ryan Kelly

    U.S. government agencies monitoring fisheries, endangered species, and environmental impacts ought to leverage the DNA present in every drop of seawater, say the organizers of a conference on marine environmental DNA (eDNA), held at Rockefeller University in New York City in November 2018. Biological surveys based on eDNA are reliable and poised to cut costs and save time, they argue in a report released last week.

    The report calls for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other government agencies that survey marine life to add the technology to their standard palette of assessment techniques.

    “We are exploring all pathways to get the critical information of what animals are where and how many there are,” says conference attendee Michael Weise, who manages the Office of Naval Research’s Marine Mammals and Biology program in Arlington, Virginia. “We are already developing our capabilities using eDNA and we will continue to push that forward. There are gaps and challenges, but I think they are surmountable in the near term.”

  • Scientist behind CRISPR twins sharply criticized in government probe, loses job

    He Jiankui, center, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, China, 28 November 2018.

    He Jiankui (center) during a Q&A after his presentation at a meeting in Hong Kong, China, on 28 November 2018.

    Imaginechina via AP Images

    He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who claimed to have edited the genomes of twin baby girls in a heritable way—and earned widespread condemnation for conducting a risky procedure with little potential benefit—deliberately sidestepped regulations, dodged oversight, and used fake ethical review documents in hopes of gaining “personal fame” for a worldwide first, according to preliminary results from a Chinese governmental investigation reported today.

    In response to the news, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, announced it was rescinding He’s contract as an associate professor and terminating his teaching and research activities, effective immediately.

    In November 2018, He claimed to have engineered the genomes of early embryos to give the girls and their descendants resistance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The dubious achievement, which He described at a scientific meeting and in YouTube videos in the wake of media reports, relied on CRISPR, a genome-editing technique that has never before been used on human embryos that were then implanted. He’s experiment was swiftly condemned by researchers and ethicists within China and around the world who insisted that safe, effective ways already exist to prevent HIV infection. What’s more, many questions still remain about the CRISPR technology and the potential for it to accidentally cause unwanted, dangerous changes.

  • Surprise! Shutdown also disrupting U.S. science agencies that aren’t closed

    A pair of hands holding a blue sign saying stop the shutdown

    Hundreds of furloughed workers and others rallied in Washington, D.C., on 10 January to call for an end to the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

    AFGE/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Many U.S. government scientists and federally funded researchers breathed a sigh of relief last month, after the partial shutdown of the U.S. government began. That’s because the budget impasse between Congress and President Donald Trump didn’t affect some of the largest federal research agencies, including the $39 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the $35.6 billion Department of Energy (DOE). Their spending had already been approved.

    This week, however, it became clear that the shutdown is hampering even agencies that are open—sometimes in unexpected ways.

    At NIH, for example, officials have been scrambling to comply with a rule that requires them to publish notice of upcoming proposal review meetings in the Federal Register, the public notice publication for federal agencies. But the agency that publishes the Federal Register is closed, threatening NIH’s grantmaking process.

  • Shutdown imperils NASA’s decadelong ice-measuring campaign

    worker fueling an airplane at sunrise

    Delayed maintenance work means NASA’s P-3 Orion will miss at least half of its IceBridge campaign to measure Arctic sea ice.

    Christy Hansen/NASA (CC BY)

    The spreading effects of the partial U.S. government shutdown have reached Earth’s melting poles. IceBridge, a decadelong NASA aerial campaign meant to secure a seamless record of ice loss, has had to sacrifice at least half of what was supposed to be its final spring deployment, its scientists say. The shortened mission threatens a crucial plan to collect overlapping data with a new ice-monitoring satellite called the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2).

    The nearly monthlong spending impasse between Congress and President Donald Trump, “throws a giant wrench into that long-developed plan,” says John Sonntag, an IceBridge mission scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

    NASA, among the many research agencies mostly closed by the shutdown, launched IceBridge in 2009 after the failure of ICESat-1, the agency’s first laser-based ice-monitoring satellite. To fill the gap until ICESat-2 was launched, the agency funded annual aircraft flights over the Arctic and Antarctica. IceBridge scientists sought to match the satellite data by flying similar paths over glaciers and sea ice, using the reflected light of a laser altimeter to measure ice and snow height.

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