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  • AI conferences use AI to assign papers to reviewers

    2019 NeurIPS conference in Vancouver, Canada

    The Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, held in 2019 in Vancouver, Canada, is the largest in the discipline of artificial intelligence.

    Khari Johnson/VentureBeat

    Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are hoping to use the tools of their discipline to solve a growing problem: how to identify and choose reviewers who can knowledgeably vet the rising flood of papers submitted to large computer science conferences.

    In most scientific fields, journals act as the main venues of peer review and publication, and editors have time to assign papers to appropriate reviewers using professional judgment. But in computer science, finding reviewers is often by necessity a more rushed affair: Most manuscripts are submitted all at once for annual conferences, leaving some organizers only a week or so to assign thousands of papers to a pool of thousands of reviewers.

    This system is under strain: In the past 5 years, submissions to large AI conferences have more than quadrupled, leaving organizers scrambling to keep up. One example of the workload crush: The annual AI Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS)—the discipline’s largest—received more than 9000 submissions for its December 2020 event, 40% more than the previous year. Organizers had to assign 31,000 reviews to about 7000 reviewers. “It is extremely tiring and stressful,” says Marc’Aurelio Ranzato, general chair of this year’s NeurIPS. “A board member called this a herculean effort, and it really is!”

  • Academia is often a family business. That’s a barrier for increasing diversity

    board game pieces in a maze

    When Jessica Flake started her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, she hadn’t yet figured out that published papers were the currency of academia. Flake, who describes herself as growing up in poverty and was the first in her family to attend college, let alone pursue a Ph.D., found herself navigating an increasingly foreign landscape as she pursued her academic career. “You just don’t know how it works,” says Flake, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University, and “it gets worse the higher up you go.”

    A new study quantifies how underrepresented people like Flake are in academia, at least in the United States, finding that tenure-track faculty come from homes wealthier than the average population and are 25 times more likely than the general population to have a parent with a Ph.D. Compared with the wider population of their Ph.D.-holding peers, tenure-track faculty are also nearly twice as likely to have Ph.D.-holding parents. That’s based on a survey of more than 7000 U.S.-based tenure-track faculty across eight STEM, social science, and humanities disciplines, reported last week in a preprint posted to SocArXiv. The findings suggest that academia is still accessible largely to people from privileged—and academic—families, highlighting a barrier that intersects with race to limit the diversity of the academy, says lead author Allison Morgan, a University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, Ph.D. student who researches diversity in science. Because Black and Hispanic scholars, among other groups, are underrepresented among current Ph.D. holders, generational effects could impede efforts to diversify academia for many years to come, Morgan adds.

  • China’s premier astronomy and planetary resources lure foreign collaborators

    people looking at lunar samples

    Visitors gawk at Chang’e-5 lunar samples on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing.


    For a generation, China played scientific catch-up to more advanced nations, but the tables are turning. China has the world’s largest radio telescope and the first Moon rocks in 45 years. Now, it is offering foreign researchers access to those scientific treasures. Many are eager, but others are uneasy about what they see as collaborating with an authoritarian regime.

    In December 2020, the Chang’e-5 mission returned 1.7 kilograms of rock and soil from the Moon—the first lunar samples since 1976, and a chance for researchers to obtain dates that could help unravel Solar System history. On 18 January, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed it would encourage “joint international research” on the samples, and it may begin to review applications this month.

    Also opening up is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope since its completion in 2016. After several years of limited observations by domestically led teams, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s National Astronomical Observatories (NAOC), FAST’s operator, will this month start to accept proposals from foreign principal investigators. FAST Chief Scientist Li Di expects tens of applications for the roughly 400 hours of foreign observing time. “It will be severely oversubscribed, so it will be a competitive process,” Li says.

  • Biden proposes $250 billion investment in research

    President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by a snowstorm in the Midwest and southwest Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House.

    President Joe Biden is calling for substantial investments in research as part of his plan to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Official White House photo/Lawrence Jackson

    President Joe Biden proposes spending $250 billion on the U.S. research enterprise over the next several years as part of a plan to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, create jobs, and outinnovate the rest of the world.

    A fact sheet issued in advance of Biden’s speech today in Pittsburgh names a host of federal research agencies that would receive pieces of that largesse but provides few details. It targets $180 billion specifically for “R&D and the technologies of the future,” along with an additional $70 billion in research-related areas ranging from combating pandemics to bolstering innovation in rural areas. Several of the new programs appear to dovetail with legislation having similar goals that has recently been introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate, often with bipartisan support.

    ScienceInsider will be following this story. Here are highlights of what we know so far about the president’s plan.

  • Software engineer bets on technology to help speed rare disease treatments

    Sanath Ramesh poses for a portrait with his son Raghav

    Open Treatments founder Sanath Ramesh and his son Raghav Ramesh

    Ramya Ramaswamy

    Sanath Ramesh’s life took an unexpected turn 2.5 years ago when his son, Raghav Ramesh, was born unable to move his hands and legs. After he learned the cause was a defect in a gene called GPX4—and that just nine people worldwide have this disease—he scrambled to find experts and a treatment.

    Although Sanath Ramesh is not there yet, the software engineer now hopes to speed the process for other families facing rare genetic diseases by creating a nonprofit organization and a software platform to lead them through the drug development process. Called Open Treatments, the site launching today will “supercharge” patient groups by giving them a road map that allows them to operate like biotech companies, says Ramesh, who works for Amazon in Seattle. “My vision is to have 10,000 [groups] on the platform building treatments for diseases.”

    Others say there’s value in the idea. “It really breaks [drug development] down so the patient organizations are empowered,” says gene therapy researcher Jude Samulski of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, an adviser to Open Treatments. Several rare disease nonprofits, contract research organizations, and software groups are collaborating with the project.

  • ‘Compromise’ WHO report resolves little on pandemic’s origins, but details probe’s next steps

    People in a car drive toward the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology

    In January, international members of a pandemic origins probe visited a Chinese laboratory that studies coronaviruses.

    REUTERS/Thomas Peter

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Where SARS-CoV-2 came from before it began its 15-month rampage around the globe is the biggest pandemic puzzle of all. But an eagerly awaited report on the question released today may satisfy few readers, especially given unrealistic expectations about how quickly the source of the coronavirus could be pinpointed. Produced by an international team of scientists after a carefully negotiated visit to China, where COVID-19 was first recognized, the report concludes that the likeliest start of the pandemic was a bat coronavirus that infected another, unidentified animal and then moved on to humans.

    That’s long been the favored hypothesis of many virologists, but the team convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) reports little fresh evidence to support it, and members acknowledge several other scenarios, including an accidental release from a lab, remain possible. The report does, however, lay out plenty of next steps. “We still don’t know where the virus came from, but there’s a clear plan to continue investigating,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University, who was not on the WHO team.

  • Amid criticism of its conservation policies, Brazil joins global biotrade pact

    a mother and baby Golden Lion tamarin

    With the ratification of the Nagoya Protocol, Brazil could realize more economic benefit from endangered native species, like the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia).

    Edwin Giesbers/Minden Pictures

    Brazil, a global hot spot for biodiversity, has become the 130th country to ratify the Nagoya Protocol, an amendment to a major global conservation pact that lays out specific rules for protecting a country’s claims to its biodiversity.

    The move, announced last week by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), comes as Brazil’s current government, under President Jair Bolsonaro, has drawn substantial criticism for weakening environmental protections. But observers say the decision reflects Brazil’s long-standing interest in reaping the potential economic benefits of exerting greater control over its biological resources. Scientists, meanwhile, worry new rules will make it even harder to do biodiversity research in Brazil.

    Countries such as Brazil have long worried that outside researchers and companies are reaping the benefits of discoveries related to biodiversity without giving back to people living in the nations where those discoveries were made. In 2010, nations agreed to add the Nagoya Protocol to the CBD, an international agreement originally negotiated in 1992. The protocol calls for better benefit sharing; signees agree to not remove biological material from a country without permission and to share profits from any drugs or other commercial products developed from that material.

  • Experimental gene therapy for hemophilia probably did not cause patient’s liver tumor

    Red blood cells trapped in a fibrin blood clot

    A gene therapy for hemophilia aims to restore a protein called factor that stabilizes fibrin (yellow), a component of blood clots.


    The company uniQure has concluded that a virus used widely in gene therapy was very unlikely to have caused liver cancer in a hemophilia patient in a clinical trial.

    The tumor, detected in December 2020, raised concerns that the adeno-associated virus (AAV) used to carry a loop of DNA into the patient’s liver cells had inadvertently switched on a cancer gene. But uniQure’s tests of the patient’s tumor cells showed the AAV inserted into the genome in only a tiny fraction (0.027%) of the cells, and when it did, it landed in randomly scattered spots. If the AAV had triggered a single cell to grow out of control, the viral DNA would have shown up in the same spots in lots of the tumor cells.

    The patient also had several known cancer mutations in his tumor cells, as well as risk factors for liver cancer including long-term hepatitis B and C infections.

  • ‘I’m empty.’ Pandemic scientists are burning out—and don’t see an end in sight

    a woman being blocked by coronavirus nodes
    Robert Neubecker

    When not caring for COVID-19 patients—her latest was a man with bacterial lung and blood infections superimposed on SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia—Krutika Kuppalli has been helping oversee the rollout of pandemic vaccines at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), where she’s an infectious disease physician. She has also been meeting with vaccine-hesitant hospital staff, sitting on a committee that reviews all planned COVID-19 clinical trials at MUSC, applying for funding to study patients with Long COVID, and handling online harassment that has followed her numerous media appearances and two rounds of congressional testimony last summer.

    Asked recently during a Zoom interview how she is doing, she paused for nearly 20 seconds, struggling to regain her composure. “We have been busting our butts for 12, 14 months,” she says. “I just feel I’m empty.”

    From academic research centers to intensive care units (ICUs) to scientific journals to government agencies, scientists fighting the pandemic say they are hitting a wall, 16 months after the first report of a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, introduced the virus that would upend their lives. “The pace that led to the incredible generation of knowledge on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 has put enormous demands on the people who are expected to generate that knowledge,” says David O’Connor, a viral sequencing expert at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has been tracking the spread of the virus, doing Zoom Q&A sessions with the vaccine hesitant, and helping neighborhood schools set up diagnostic testing. “This is a terrible time and we should all do what we can to help. But is it going to be sustainable?”

  • A rare clotting disorder may cloud the world’s hopes for AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine

    a man being vaccinated

    A man receives a dose of AstraZenecas COVID-19 vaccine at a conference center in Rome on 24 March. Italy halted use of the vaccine on 15 March, but resumed immunizations 4 days later.

    Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    In the tumultuous rollout of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, all eyes this week were on the United States, where the company had a highly public communication breakdown over the vaccine’s efficacy with an expert panel overseeing a large study in the Americas. But on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the vaccine faces new concerns about safety as an explanation gains ground for the unusual strokes and clotting disorders recorded in at least 30 recipients.

    Many European countries suspended use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine earlier this month following initial reports of the symptoms, which have led to at least 15 deaths. Most resumed vaccinations after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended doing so on 18 March, saying the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any risks. EMA is continuing to investigate the matter and will convene a wide-ranging committee of experts on 29 March.

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