Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Bipartisan bill would create forum for discussing how to counter U.S. academic espionage

    Mikie Sherrill

    Representative Mikie Sherrill (D–NJ) on Capitol Hill earlier this month

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

    Those who complain that the U.S. government prefers to talk about the nation’s problems rather than solve them may think creating two forums to discuss science and national security is not a very constructive idea. But academic leaders say more dialogue is urgently needed on one issue now bedeviling the U.S. research community: how to best protect the country against its economic and military competitors without choking off international scientific collaborations and the free flow of people and ideas.

    Responding to that concern, a bipartisan group of legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives today introduced a bill designed to promote talk that will spur action. The Securing American Science and Technology Act (SASTA) of 2019 would create a roundtable at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington, D.C., for stakeholders to discuss the tensions between science and security, as well as an interagency working group within the White House that would tackle the same issue. Backers hope the forums will help identify practical steps universities and research funders can take to protect valuable intellectual property without stifling global cooperation.

    The SASTA proposal comes as universities and researchers, particularly scientists of Asian origin working in the United States, have become increasingly alarmed by recent government actions aimed at preventing foreign governments, especially China, from unfairly reaping the fruits of federal research investments. Recently, those efforts have led two U.S. universities to oust at least five biomedical researchers who they allege failed to properly disclose ties to Chinese institutions or committed other violations. All are Asian.

  • MD Anderson clears researcher flagged by NIH for not disclosing foreign ties

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    MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, says it has concluded an investigation of the last of five researchers flagged by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) for potential violations of agency rules. The investigation “confirmed non-compliance with NIH and MD Anderson rules and policies, but such violations were not in our view serious or indicative of willful malfeasance,” the center said yesterday in a statement.

    The institution did not recommend any “disciplinary or corrective action” because the researcher retired voluntarily before the investigation concluded, according to the center.

    Last month, Science and the Houston Chronicle reported that NIH had sent letters to MD Anderson identifying five cancer center researchers, all described by the center as Asian, who NIH said might have violated agency rules on maintaining the confidentiality of peer review or disclosing foreign ties. Three of the researchers subsequently left MD Anderson. The center said it had begun termination proceedings against a fourth. The results of the fifth investigation were released yesterday and first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

  • NASA scientist unexpectedly released after almost 3 years in Turkish prison

    Serkan Golge speaking after his recent release from prison

    Serkan Golge, seen here speaking to reporters today, was released hours after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to his Turkish colleague Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

    Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    A former NASA scientist jailed in Turkey was unexpectedly allowed to walk free on Wednesday evening, after spending almost 3 years behind bars. The release came just hours after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

    Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen who studied the effects of radiation on astronauts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, was arrested on terrorism charges while visiting family in Turkey’s southern province of Hatay in the summer of 2016. Swept up in a crackdown that followed a failed military coup, Golge was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in February 2018. The sentence was later reduced to 5 years by an appeals court.

    “I’m very happy. I do not know what to say,” Kubra Golge, his wife, tells Science from northwest Turkey, where she is recovering from a recent surgery. She says she was able to speak by phone to her husband, who she says is also in shock after he being released in Hatay. “It was a surprise,” she says. But her husband is banned from travel, Kubra Golge adds, and can’t leave Turkey yet.

  • A wave of graduate programs drops the GRE application requirement

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    For decades, one standardized test has been key to admission to U.S. science graduate programs: the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, a nearly 4-hour marathon of multiple-choice and written questions that test quantitative, verbal, and writing skills. But the long reign of the GRE may be drawing to a close. In response to recent studies showing little correlation between GRE scores and success in graduate school and concern that the test puts underrepresented groups at a disadvantage, a growing number of programs are dropping the GRE as an application requirement.

    Science examined Ph.D. application requirements for eight disciplines at 50 top-ranked U.S. research universities. The life sciences have led the so-called GRExit push: In 2018, 44% of molecular biology Ph.D. programs stopped requiring GRE scores. That number will rise to at least 50% for the 2019-2020 application cycle. In neuroscience and ecology, roughly one-third of programs dropped the GRE requirement between 2016 and 2018, and more plan to do so this year. The movement has yet to take hold in some disciplines—more than 90% of the chemistry, physics, geology, computer science, and psychology Ph.D. programs that were surveyed by Science required general GRE scores in 2018. But a few programs in those fields have also joined the exodus.

  • Without a champion, Europa lander falls to NASA’s back burner

    Artist's concept of a proposed Europa lander spacecraft

    An artist’s concept of the Europa lander, which is meant to probe the icy moon for signs of life.


    After years of being pushed by the U.S. Congress to follow the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft that will survey Jupiter’s frozen moon, with a lander, NASA has begun to push back. The agency disclosed today that the lander mission, if it happens, will now come no earlier than 2030, 5 years later than Congress mandated. And the agency will be challenged to meet the 2023 launch date set for the Clipper.

    Thanks to the watery ocean beneath its icy crust, Europa has loomed for several decades as a prime target in the search for life outside Earth. But unlike the $3 billion Europa Clipper, a flagship NASA mission under development that will conduct periodic flybys of the moon, the Europa lander has not been rated as a high-priority mission by planetary scientists. Instead, support for the lander was largely marshaled by former Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who, until his election defeat in 2018, led the U.S. House of Representatives spending panel that oversees NASA.

    The lack of consensus scientific support, and the fact that a 2025 launch would require the lander to be designed before the Clipper observed the moon’s surface, have been driven by the “unattainable” timeline imposed by Congress, NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded in a report today. Instead of moving ahead with the lander, the report suggests, NASA should delay the project until it can be considered during the next decadal assessment of NASA’s planetary science, led by the National Academy of Sciences and scheduled for 2022.

  • U.S. think tank shuts down prominent center that challenged climate science

    CATO Institute building

    The Cato Institute headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    B. Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    The Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., quietly shut down a program that for years sought to raise uncertainty about climate science, leaving the libertarian think tank co-founded by Charles Koch without an office dedicated to global warming.

    The move came after Pat Michaels, a climate scientist who rejects mainstream researchers’ concerns about rising temperatures, left Cato earlier this year amid disagreements with officials in the organization.

  • Former Los Alamos physicist denies federal charges he lied about China ties

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    A physicist who spent 2 decades at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico today pleaded not guilty to federal charges of lying about his involvement in a research funding program run by the Chinese government. Prosecutors allege that Turab Lookman, who worked at LANL from 1999 until recently, repeatedly denied involvement with China’s Thousand Talents Program, despite having agreed to join it “for personal compensation.”

    “We look forward to presenting a vigorous defense,” Lookman’s attorney, Paul Linnenburger of Rothstein Donatelli LLP in Santa Fe, tells ScienceInsider. Lookman, who has a doctorate in theoretical physics and was awarded a prestigious LANL fellowship in 2017, presented his plea to a federal magistrate judge in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    A federal grand jury on 22 May indicted Lookman on three charges of making false statements about his contacts with the Thousand Talents Program, which since 2008 has used offers of salaries and other support to establish ties with scientists working outside of China. Prosecutors allege that Lookman lied about his interactions with the program on a computerized employment form in 2017, as well as during conversations last year with a LANL counterintelligence officer and an investigator from a federal agency that conducts background checks. Specifically, prosecutors allege that “a foreign national had … asked [Lookman] to apply for” the Thousand Talents Program sometime before November 2017, and that he had “applied for, and been accepted to participate in” the program before June 2018. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison.

  • White House sends mixed messages on 2020 research spending bills

    rendering of the WFIRST Telescope

    President Donald Trump hasn’t objected to a congressional rescue of NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which he has proposed killing.

    NASA WFIRST Project/Dominic Benford from Michael Lentz/Brooke Hsu

    President Donald Trump doesn’t want Congress to boost the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF). But he has no objection to giving more research dollars to parts of the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA.

    A series of letters this month from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the Democratic chairwoman of the spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives paints that seemingly contradictory picture of the Trump administration’s views of federal support for basic research. It confirms the suspicions of critics who say Trump doesn’t recognize the value of research and lacks any overarching philosophy on federal investments in the sector. That ambiguity, they say, could also complicate efforts to protect science in negotiations with congressional Democrats in the coming months over a budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which starts on 1 October.

    In March, for the third year in a row, Trump asked Congress to make massive cuts to the budget of almost every federal research agency. That request was part of his broader attempt to shrink spending on civilian programs while increasing support for the military and homeland security.

  • Here’s why the outcomes of this week’s European elections are good news for science

    The European Parliament's debating chamber

    The European Parliament’s debating chamber in Strasbourg, France


    Although populist and euroskeptic parties grew in last week’s elections for the European Parliament, the tsunami that EU supporters feared didn’t happen. That comes as a relief to many scientists, because several of the populist movements now on the rise in Europe appear to have little interest in science, flirt with antiscientific ideas, or have tried to curtail academic freedom.

    Observers in Brussels expect the new Parliament to continue its policy of defending generous research budgets. But the rise of pro-European Union green and liberal groups—at the expense of the Parliament’s traditionally two dominant parties—could lead to small shifts in science and technology priorities, some say, such as greener policies.

    The elections’ direct influence on EU science policy is limited because most of the details of Horizon Europe, its next 7-year research funding program, have already been agreed to by the outgoing Parliament and member states. But the new members of Parliament (MEPs) still have to negotiate two big items: the program’s budget from 2021 to 2027, which could be about €100 billion, and rules for the participation of countries outside of the European Union. Next year, Parliament will also examine rules for big public-private partnerships on research and innovation.

  • Terminated Emory researcher disputes university’s allegations about China ties

    Xiao-Jiang Li and Shihua Li

    Li Xiao-Jiang (left) and Li Shihua (right)

    Li Xiao-Jiang

    A researcher terminated by Emory University in Atlanta for allegedly not disclosing funding and ties to institutions in China is forcefully disputing the charges. And neuroscientist Li Xiao-Jiang says the university dismissed him and neuroscientist Li Shihua, his wife and lab co-leader, “simultaneously without any notice or opportunity for us to respond to unverified accusations.”

    The two researchers, known for their studies of Huntington disease in mouse and pig models, are both U.S. citizens and have worked at Emory for 23 years. Li Xiao-Jiang says he was traveling in China on 16 May when both researchers were informed they had been terminated. The university has also closed their joint laboratory, which is part of the medical school, and their websites are no longer accessible. Four postdoctoral students working in the lab, who are Chinese nationals, have been told to leave the United States within 30 days, he told ScienceInsider today. None, he says, was given reasons for their terminations.

    “I was shocked that Emory University would terminate a tenured professor in such an unusual and abrupt fashion and close our combined lab consisting of a number of graduates and postdoctoral trainees without giving me specific details for the reasons behind my termination,” he said in a statement.

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