Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Report sketches vision for U.K. research after Brexit

    Palace of Westminster

    An independent report offers a strategy for U.K. researchers after Brexit.

    Mdbeckwith/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

    When it comes to Brexit, many U.K. researchers are hoping the whole thing will eventually be canceled—or that they will at least still be able to tap into EU funding through some sort of deal. Today, an eagerly awaited external report, commissioned by the government, lays out research priorities and options if those relationships with Europe are severed. It calls for increased spending on R&D nationwide, a new research fellowship program, and larger chunks of money for universities to quickly target research opportunities.

    In March, the U.K. science minister, Chris Skidmore, asked for independent advice about how the government should bolster the nation’s R&D after its departure from the European Union, now scheduled for 31 January 2020. The key question: what to do if the United Kingdom decides not to participate, or “associate,” in the European Union’s main funding program, called Horizon 2020. It provides about £1.5 billion to U.K. researchers each year, and the grants make up about 11% of research funding for top U.K. research universities. They also attract talent from Europe and create vital international collaborations.

    The new report, by Adrian Smith, director of the Alan Turing Institute in London, and Graeme Reid, a science policy expert at University College London, sketches out a strategy. (Scientists have urged the government to keep close ties to Horizon 2020, and its successor, Horizon Europe, and ministers have said they will consider participation, if it offers value for money.)

  • Alzheimer’s experts greet China’s surprise approval of a drug for brain disease with hope and caution

    a visitor sits with an Alzheimer’s patient in a hospital room

    A new drug from an alga compound might help the growing number of Alzheimer’s disease patients that are taxing the medical systems of many countries.

    Jankurnelius/Alamy Stock Photo

    A Chinese biotech startup has startled neuroscientists and drug developers with a new plant-based compound it claims improves cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients by altering their gut microbiomes. In mouse studies published earlier this year, this approach reduced inflammation in the brains of rodents engineered to develop Alzheimer’s-like pathology. The drug’s backers also claim a phase III clinical trial of about 800 people “demonstrated solid and consistent cognition improvement” among those treated versus a control group. Though not yet published, the results convinced China’s drug regulator last week to approve the marketing of the drug, known as GV-971, with the condition that additional data be gathered to demonstrate safety and efficacy.

    “This is very exciting and important; GV-971 is the first drug approved anywhere in the world for Alzheimer’s disease since 2003,” says Jeffrey Cummings, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who is advising the drug’s developer, Shanghai, China–based Green Valley Pharmaceutical Co.

    The news has elicited both hope and skepticism from researchers not connected to the company. “I think it’s fascinating, and if it’s true that [the effects are happening] through the microbiome, that’s fantastic,” says Sangram Sisodia, a neurobiologist at University of Chicago in Illinois who has studied the impact of the microbiome on Alzheimer’s disease in mice but is not associated with the research. But just like China’s regulators, he and others want to see more evidence. Some aren’t yet convinced that the subtle improvement among Alzheimer’s patients measured by a cognitive test is clinically meaningful.

  • Mysterious oil spill threatens marine biodiversity haven in Brazil

    A volunteer cleans oil at a beach

    A Brazilian volunteer cleans oil at a beach in Lauro de Freitas in Bahia state on 2 November. Small blobs have now reached Abrolhos Bank, home to some of Brazil’s most iconic marine species.

    ANTONELLO VENERI/AFP via Getty Images

    Marine scientists in Brazil are closely monitoring the incursion of a mysterious oil spill into the largest biodiversity hot spot in the South Atlantic Ocean. The region, known as the Abrolhos Bank, shelters almost 9000 square kilometers of reefs in shallow, warm waters along the central part of the Brazilian coastline.

    More than 4000 tons of crude oil residue from an unknown source have landed on the country’s northeast seaboard since late August, contaminating hundreds of beaches, estuaries, reefs, and mangroves along a 2500-kilometer stretch of shoreline.

    Concerns escalated earlier last week as the wave of sticky oil patches began to encroach on the Abrolhos Bank’s northern border, on the southern coast of Bahia state. By Saturday morning, the first small blobs of petroleum had landed on the rocky shores of the Abrolhos Marine National Park archipelago, 60 kilometers offshore—home to some of Brazil’s most iconic marine species, such as the endemic Brazilian brain coral (Mussismilia braziliensis) and the endangered blue parrotfish (Scarus trispinosus).

  • U.S. moves closer to withdrawing from Paris climate pact

    Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump is moving forward with his plan to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate pact.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    The United States will start the process of formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement this afternoon, walking away from a deal that took more than two decades to make and that virtually every other nation on Earth still supports.

    The withdrawal letter will travel from the State Department to the United Nations. That will start the clock ticking on a one-year waiting period that ends with the United States exiting the deal on 4 November 2020—1 day after Americans head to the polls to choose a president.

  • Radiation oncologist tapped for top FDA post

    Stephen Hahn

    Stephen Hahn

    MD Anderson Cancer Center

    President Donald Trump today announced his intent to nominate oncologist and cancer center executive Stephen Hahn to head the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Hahn has spent the past 4 years at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and in 2018 was named the institution’s chief medical executive. His research has focused on radiation therapy and the treatment of carcinoma and lung cancer.

    Hahn has navigated controversy in his tenures at both MD Anderson and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he ascended the ranks to become chair of radiation oncology. In testimony before Congress in 2009, Hahn apologized to patients and their families after it was revealed that the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center had administered radioactive implants for prostate cancer at the wrong dose and even to the wrong organ. This spring, after ethnically Chinese scientists were dismissed from MD Anderson for allegedly breaking federal funding rules, Hahn tried to assure the center’s staff and the media that the dismissals were not racially motivated.

  • HHMI to fund expansion of Meyerhoff program to boost minorities in science

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    Six U.S. universities will get up to $2.5 million each over 5 years from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to prepare minority students for careers in academic research.

    The new competition, first reported by Science in July and officially announced today, aims to tap into lessons learned by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in running its acclaimed Meyerhoff Scholars Program. In 2014, HHMI gave 5-year grants to the University of North Carolina and Pennsylvania State University to follow in the footsteps of the 30-year-old Meyerhoff program, which it calls “a powerful example of an effective, student-centered approach.” The new Driving Change initiative extends HHMI’ commitment to changing the culture of higher education to improve the diversity of the scientific workforce.

  • In decision certain to draw fire, journal will publish heavily criticized paper on gender differences in physics

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    In a move likely to attract criticism, a peer-reviewed journal has agreed to publish an Italian physicist’s highly contested analysis of publications, which concludes that female physicists don’t face more career obstacles than their male colleagues. The journal says it will also simultaneously publish critiques of the paper, which one member of the journal’s editorial board says is “flawed” and contains “unsubstantiated claims.”

    Last year, physicist Alessandro Strumia received widespread criticism after presenting a talk at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, where he was a guest professor. During the presentation, he asserted that physics was built and invented by men, and stated on a slide that “Physics is not sexist against women.” Thousands of physicists signed a letter voicing concerns about Strumia’s views and some researchers published detailed critiques of his findings and methods, which focused on published papers in the field of “fundamental physics” that includes theoretical and experimental studies of fundamental particles, cosmology, and astrophysics. Some of Strumia’s critics have argued that such literature analyses are not sufficient to support his claims. Both CERN and Strumia’s employer, the University of Pisa in Italy, launched investigations. Earlier this year, CERN cut all ties with Strumia and the university released a statement condemning his comments.

    The upcoming paper, which Strumia has posted on his website, has been accepted for publication by Quantitative Science Studies (QSS), which publishes “theoretical and empirical research on science and the scientific workforce.” Strumia’s study examines 1.3 million fundamental physics papers, published from 1970 to this year, which are indexed by CERN’s INSPIRE database. After identifying authors as men or women based on their names, the study confirms what Strumia calls a “well known” gender skew in fundamental physics: For every four new male Ph.D.s who publish, there is just one new female Ph.D. Strumia also concludes that male and female physicists have similar opinions about which papers deserve to be cited, and that authors of both genders cite their own studies at similar rates. (That finding diverges from a 2016 analysis, which Strumia cites, that concluded male authors cite their own work on average 56% more than female authors.) Strumia also finds that the publication records, which show institutional affiliations, reveal no statistically significant difference in how quickly men and women are hired after receiving their Ph.D.s, or the rate at which they stop publishing in the field, which Strumia uses as an indicator for when a researcher has left academic research. Strumia notes this finding contradicts other studies that have found that a higher proportion of women drop out of academia than men.

  • What one member of Trump’s new science advisory council wants it to tackle

    Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research, standing in front of IBM Q System One

    Dario Gil with IBM’s System One quantum computer

    Misha Friedman/Getty Images

    The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has yet to hold its first meeting, and the White House hasn’t even announced its full 16-person roster. But one newly appointed member, Director of IBM Research Dario Gil in Yorktown Heights, New York, already has a wish list of issues he’d like it to tackle.

    His list includes promoting scientific inquiry and its value to policymakers, ensuring that researchers have the computational tools they need in an era of big data, retraining the U.S. workforce to be more technically literate, and updating a partnership between the federal government, academia, and industry spelled out by Vannevar Bush at the end of World War II. Gil also thinks the government must strike the right balance between protecting national security and fostering international scientific collaboration with the rest of the world, using “a scalpel” instead of “a blanket policy” to monitor and prevent undue foreign influences on U.S. research.

    “I am passionate about the need for continued investment in science,” says Gil, 43, who joined IBM immediately after earning his Ph.D. in 2003 and has been rising quickly through its management ranks. “I want to be an advocate of its critical importance.”

  • USDA decides to move two research agencies to Missouri, but many employees won’t go

    Sonny Perdue speaking at a farm

    Sonny Perdue

    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) yesterday announced the final location—in downtown Kansas City, Missouri—for its two research agencies being moved out of the nation’s capital.

    Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue yesterday signed a lease for office space at 805 Pennsylvania Avenue in Kansas City, ending speculation about where the department was planning to put the agencies and whether it would be in Missouri or Kansas.

  • U.S. telescopes get a new overseer

    Kitt Peak

    The Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona is one of the facilities that will be managed by a new organization created by the National Science Foundation.

    Steve (CC BY 2.0)

    A new player has joined the leadership of publicly funded astronomy in the United States. Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, henceforth to be known as OIR Lab. The new structure, which will be managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in Washington, D.C., is intended to bring more cohesion to NSF’s rather fractured astronomical facilities and create a technical powerhouse akin to the European Southern Observatory, headquartered in Garching, Germany.

    OIR Lab will manage four existing observatories: Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, Gemini Observatory with instruments in Hawaii and Chile, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is now under construction in Chile. The quartet represents essentially all of NSF’s observatories that operate in the optical and infrared wavelengths, but does not include telescopes that observe the Sun. OIR Lab will also incorporate the Community Science and Data Center in Tucson, Arizona.

    OIR Lab will be led by Patrick McCarthy, who was previously vice president of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) project, an effort to build a 25-meter telescope in Chile, and an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. ScienceInsider recently chatted with McCarthy about his new charge. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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