Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • CDC director resigns after report on tobacco stock purchase

    Brenda Fitzgerald speaking at a TEDx event in Atlanta in 2014.

    Brenda Fitzgerald at a TEDx event in Atlanta in 2014.

    TEDx Atlanta/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), resigned abruptly today. She stepped down on the heels of a report from Politico that she had purchased stock in a large tobacco company 1 month into her tenure leading the nation’s top public health agency, which devotes itself to persuading smokers to quit and warning kids not to take up the habit.

    “On August 9, one day after purchasing [between $1000 and $15,000 of] stock in global giant Japan Tobacco, she toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, which researches how the chemicals in tobacco harm human health,” Politico reported.

    The purchase preceded Fitzgerald’s 7 September 2017 signing of an ethics agreement promising to recuse herself from any activity that could pose a financial conflict, Politico reported. Fitzgerald, a former commissioner of public health in Georgia who took the reins at CDC’s Atlanta headquarters last July, did not sell the tobacco stock until 26 October 2017.

  • China moves to protect coastal wetlands used by migratory birds

    A spoonbill sandpiper feeds on a mudflat.

    The spoonbill sandpiper is among the endangered shorebirds that could benefit from China's move to protect coastal wetlands.

    Tengyi Chen

    China has armored its coastline over the past several decades, building sea walls and turning more than half of its marine wetlands into solid ground for development. The impact on the almost 500 species of migratory birds that rely on this habitat has been severe. But the tide is turning in favor of wildlife, conservationists believe, as the government is now moving to tighten regulations and designate new reserves to protect coastal wildlife.

    “The message has reached the central government,” says Jing Li of Saving the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a nonprofit based in Shanghai, China.

    In particular, China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) earlier this month announced it will dramatically curb commercial development of coastal wetlands. “I’ve never heard of anything quite so monumental,” says Nicola Crockford of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based in Sandy, U.K., which has worked to protect habitat of migratory birds in China and elsewhere.

  • Half of U.S. military facilities vulnerable to extreme weather and climate risks

    A jeep drives through deep floodwaters at a military base in Italy in 2005.

    Floods caused power outages at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy in 2005.

    Michael Lavender/U.S. Navy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News.

    About half of the military's infrastructure has been affected by extreme weather and other climate-related risks, according to a Pentagon report obtained by a nonpartisan climate think tank.

    The report — dated January 2018 and published yesterday by the Center for Climate & Security in Washington, D.C. — surveyed more than 3,500 military sites around the world. It found that about 50% of bases reported effects from events like storm surge flooding, wildfire, drought and wind.

  • Computer scientist to lead French research giant; interim head leaves amid misconduct allegations

    Antoine Petit

    "I am absolutely determined to treat scientific integrity issues most seriously and without any complacency," Antoine Petit (above) says.

    ©Inria/Photo C. Morel

    Computer scientist Antoine Petit, 57, is the new head of Europe's largest research organization. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron named Petit as president of CNRS, France's national research agency headquartered in Paris. Petit, who until now headed the French National Institute for Computer Science and Applied Mathematics (Inria), succeeds chemist Alain Fuchs, who left CNRS in October 2017.

    There was an unusual twist to Petit's appointment, however. On 18 January, a week before the official procedure ended, the French government named Petit interim president of CNRS, a position that had been held by cell biologist Anne Peyroche since Fuchs's departure. In a statement, the French research ministry said Peyroche was "currently prevented” from continuing in her role. A ministry spokesperson declined to elaborate, but said the decision was made "to guarantee the continuity of governance at CNRS."

    But many wonder whether Peyroche's premature departure is linked to misconduct allegations. Last November, comments on the website PubPeer raised suspicions of image manipulation in five articles published by Peyroche between 2001 and 2012; she and her co-authors have addressed the comments on two of the papers. Peyroche's main employer, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Gif-sur-Yvette, has launched an internal investigation, a CEA spokesperson says.

  • Retired astronaut picked to lead U.S. Geological Survey

    James Reilly on a space shuttle

    James Reilly flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2001.


    President Donald Trump plans to nominate James Reilly, a former NASA astronaut and exploration geologist, to lead the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the White House announced today. If confirmed, the 63-year-old Reilly would lead a science agency whose researchers monitor for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, among a host of other duties.

    According to an interview from several years ago, Reilly first applied to be an astronaut in the 1980s. Working full-time as an exploration geologist for Enserch Exploration, an oil-and-gas company based in Dallas, Texas, Reilly eventually earned his doctorate in the geosciences in 1995 from the University of Texas in Dallas.

    The degree apparently brought his academic credentials up to NASA’s standards, and the agency selected him to be an astronaut candidate in 1994. Reilly eventually flew on three Space Shuttle missions, logging 856 hours in space, including five spacewalks. Like many of his peers at the time, his work largely focused on assembling the International Space Station. He retired from NASA in 2008 and has since had stints in the private sector, including serving as a senior administrator for the American Public University System, a for-profit online university started in the 1990s. Reilly currently serves as a technical adviser on space operations at the U.S. Air Force’s National Security Space Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

  • Scientists’ Doomsday Clock reaches 2 minutes to midnight, closest ever

    two men and a woman stand in front of a clock

    Scientists Lawrence Krauss (left) and Robert Rosner (middle) and international affairs expert Sharon Squassoni (right) unveiled an updated Doomsday Clock, which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has updated yearly since creating it in 1947.

    Thom Wolf/Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

    The world is closer to nuclear annihilation than at any point since the first hydrogen bombs were tested in the early 1950s, says a group of scientists who monitor global tensions.

    The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced today that it has moved its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes before midnight, citing North Korea’s recent tests of missiles and nuclear weapons and the world’s lack of progress in confronting climate change.

    “In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and relearned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies,” said Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin’s president and CEO in Chicago, Illinois. Last year the clock moved half a tick, from 3 minutes to 2.5 minutes before midnight; it has been in single digits since India and Pakistan staged back-to-back nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

  • A new Merkel-led government could be good news for German science

    Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz will soon start formal talks to form new coalition government.

    REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

    BERLIN—Forming a new German government has proved more difficult than it has been in decades, but the deadlock may well end with some good news for science. A blueprint for talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) contains an ambitious pledge to spend 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) on research, up from the current 2.9%. The paper also promises a 3% yearly increase in federal funding for research organizations such as the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Association. The new round of coalition talks may start as early as Friday.

    A so-called grand coalition government of the CDU, its smaller Bavarian sister party named CSU, and the SPD have been in power since 2013, but all three parties lost significant numbers of seats in last September’s elections, and none is eager to enter into another grand coalition. But initial talks between the CDU, the Green party, and the Free Democratic Party fell apart in November 2017, and the remaining options—a minority government or new elections—are even less appealing. On Sunday, delegates at an SPD party conference voted to start formal talks, based on a preliminary agreement drawn up by party leaders earlier this month.

    The blueprint says that investing 3.5% of GDP in research—including funding from government and industry sources—is necessary for Germany to keep its edge in innovation. The increase would put Germany among the world leaders in scientific investment, on par with Japan and behind only South Korea and Israel. The document also pledges to continue federal funding for universities, which was prohibited until 2015, when a constitutional amendment brokered by the current coalition went into effect. (German public universities are run by the 16 Laender, or states.) 

  • Republicans on House science panel suggest top environmental health scientist broke antilobbying law

    Lamar Smith

    Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

    NASA/Joel Kowsky/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The chief of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Durham, North Carolina, has gotten into hot water with Republicans on the House of Representatives science committee for writing an editorial urging citizens to advocate for environmental protection laws. NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum says she violated no ethics laws, however, and some legal experts agree.

    In the editorial, published on 18 December 2017 in PLOS Biology, Birnbaum and a PLOS Biology editor summarize the articles appearing in a special issue on U.S. policies regulating chemicals. They end with the sentence: “Closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence.”

    That statement is a problem, argue Representatives Lamar Smith (R–TX) and Andy Biggs (R–AZ) in 17 January letters to the acting director of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIEHS’s parent agency, and the HHS inspector general. Smith, chair of House science committee, and Biggs, chair of its environmental subcommittee, write that “the Committee suspects” that Birnbaum may have violated the Anti-Lobbying Act, which bars federal employees from lobbying Congress on specific issues, along with related HHS ethics laws. “She is prohibited to pressure citizens to contact their government representatives to favor or oppose any policy, even before the introduction of an actual piece of legislation,” they write.

  • NIH’s new clinical trial policy kicks in despite concerns from basic behavioral researchers

    MRI showing activity in frontal cortex

    The basic research study that produced this brain scan of a child looking in a mirror could now be considered a clinical trial by the National Institutes of Health. 

    Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/Science Source

    Scientists who conduct basic behavioral research are bracing for a policy kicking in this week that will impose new rules on their federally funded studies, many of which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, will now consider clinical trials. Although many researchers maintain that the policy makes no sense and will hinder their work, recent revisions by NIH officials have eased some fears.

    “There’s still a problem, but the problem is less dire than the original set of concerns that we had,” says cognitive psychologist Jeremy Wolfe of the Harvard University–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who is also the immediate past president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) in Washington, D.C.

    The changes, which take effect for proposals with due dates of 25 January or later, are part of a new clinical trials definition that NIH released in 2014 but only began implementing last year. That was when scientists who use tools such as MRI scans to explore how the normal brain works realized that their studies, which they never thought of as clinical trials because they don’t test drugs or other treatments, fell under the new definition. The change imposed several new requirements on researchers, such as submitting proposals in response to a formal funding opportunity for clinical trials and registering the studies in, the federal trials database.

  • Nobel laureate suggests he could resign from leadership post over colleague’s bogus paper

    Shinya Yamanaka during a press conference

    Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka (left) suggested at a press conference that Kyoto University in Japan could ask him to resign over fraud committed by one of his center’s scientists.

    The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images

    Shinya Yamanaka, who won a share of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, has suggested he could resign as director of Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) in Japan over a fraudulent paper published by center researchers. But observers in Japan say Yamanaka, who was not an author of the paper, was simply emphasizing how seriously he takes scientific misconduct. 

    The paper in question appeared in the journal Stem Cell Reports in March 2017. According to a report signed by Yamanaka posted on CiRA’s website, after receiving allegations of possibly fraudulent images, CiRA and Kyoto University started a preliminary inquiry in July 2017 and then launched a full investigative committee in September. The committee found that all six main figures in the paper were fraudulent. It also concluded that the lead author, Kohei Yamamizu, an assistant professor at CiRA, had carried out the fabrications on his own. The images are central to the paper’s conclusions, and the authors have asked the journal to retract the paper. Kyoto University “is now deliberating its punishment toward [Yamamizu], the professor who supervised the researcher, and myself,” Yamanaka wrote.

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