Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • House science committee investigating sexual harassment allegations against Boston University geologist

    close shot of Represantatives Johnson and Smith. Johnson is a black woman with short hair, Smith is a white man with glasses and gray hair.

    Representatives Lamar Smith (R–TX, right) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) in 2013

    House Committee on Space, Science and Technology

    The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives today launched a bipartisan investigation into sexual harassment allegations against David Marchant, a prominent Antarctic geologist at Boston University (BU). 

  • New test of electron’s roundness could help explain universe’s matter/antimatter imbalance

    Artist's rendering of electron dipole moment

    Chris Burns/Science

    When it comes to measuring how round the electron is, physicists hate uncertainty. Much depends on the most precise measurement possible, including a potential answer to a major scientific puzzle: why the universe contains any matter at all.

    In a series of ever-more-sensitive experiments over the past 30 years, researchers have established that if the shape of the electron has any distortion at all, the bulge must be smaller than 1 thousand trillion trillionths of a millimeter (10-27 mm). Now, a group at the JILA research institute in Boulder, Colorado, has demonstrated what it describes as a "radically different" approach that probes electrons inside larger charged particles. Ed Hinds of Imperial College London calls the approach "brilliant" for the field, because it promises to help reduce the uncertainty still further—and perhaps reveal an actual distortion.

    The electron's egg shape, if real, would be quantified by what is known as the electric dipole moment (EDM). Whereas scientists usually think of the electron as an exceedingly, if not infinitely, small and uniform sphere of negative charge, a nonzero EDM would mean that charge is distributed unevenly—forming one region fractionally more negative than the particle's average charge and one slightly less negative.

  • Swiss university dissolves astronomy institute after misconduct allegations

    ETH Zurich at night

    The ETH Zurich in Switzerland dissolved its institute for astronomy in August.

    ETH-Bibliothek/Wikimedia Commons

    In August, ETH Zurich in Switzerland quietly dissolved its institute for astronomy. Today it launched an official investigation into allegations that led to its closure: that a leading professor there mistreated graduate students for more than a decade, while the administration ignored complaints against her. The professor’s spouse had been head of the institute.

    The allegations came to light Sunday in a story in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, which did not name the professors involved. The former head of the institute was cosmologist Simon Lilly, and his wife is astrophysicist Marcella Carollo. Both are now on sabbatical.

    The university administration today issued a statement describing how several students brought complaints to the university ombudsperson early this year, charging that “a female professor” had “demonstrated inept management conduct toward many of her graduate students.” The university’s executive board took on the case in February. It decided in March that the affected students would be reassigned to a different supervisor and that the professor would be given “close support” if asked to supervise students in the future.   

  • Key legislator tells Trump officials to back off on proposed overhead spending cap for NIH

    Tom Cole speaks with reporters

    Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), who leads a National Institutes of Health spending panel

    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

    An influential legislator wants President Donald Trump’s administration and fellow Republicans to drop the notion of capping overhead costs on grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And yesterday that lawmaker, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), used his clout as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NIH to administer a dose of what he hopes will be preventive medicine.

    A huge supporter of NIH, Cole has already written language into a 2018 spending bill that would block a proposal by Trump to impose a 10% cap on what NIH pays universities for the so-called indirect costs of conducting federally funded research on their campuses. (Now, NIH spends 28% of its total award money on indirect costs.) A Senate spending bill written by Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), who partnered with Cole to provide $2 billion increases for NIH in 2016 and 2017, contains a similar ban.

    But Cole is worried that policymakers wanting to trim federal spending will see indirect costs—the money spent to maintain research labs and comply with federal regulations—as an irresistible target. To rebuff those efforts, Cole held a hearing that allowed the biomedical research community—and lawmakers from both parties—to defend the 75-year-old practice against perceived attacks.

  • United States should dramatically retool animal research rules, groups say

    A lab mouse in a gloved hand

    The National Institutes of Health oversees studies of mice, along with rats and birds; the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors larger animals. 


    For years, scientists and universities have complained about the patchwork of U.S. regulations governing the welfare of animals used in research. Studies involving rabbits and larger mammals, for example, are overseen chiefly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. Federally funded studies of rats, mice, and birds are subject to different rules and a different overseer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Many privately funded animal studies, meanwhile, get relatively little federal oversight. “It’s a crazy quilt,” says Ross McKinney, chief science officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C.

    Now, AAMC and three allied groups are pushing for sweeping changes to animal research rules. In a report released this week, the groups call for moving all oversight to a single, unnamed agency, conducting less frequent lab inspections, and giving researchers greater say in crafting new rules. The changes would ensure “that we’re protecting the research animals,” McKinney says. “But we want to do so in a way that’s consistent, coherent, and effective.”

    The political climate is ripe for reform, with a new law calling for federal officials to streamline regulation of animal research and a White House that dislikes regulations. But many of the recommendations aren’t sitting well with groups concerned about animal research. “It’s clear this would negatively impact animal welfare,” says Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at The Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. The changes would water down government oversight, the critics charge, and give researchers too much say over how their work is regulated.

  • NIH-funded network struggles to use mentoring to foster diversity

    A photo of the NRMN PIs

    The principal investigators (PIs) for the National Research Mentoring Network, from left: J. K. Vishwanatha, Rafael Luna, Elizabeth Ofili, Christine Pfund, Keith Norris (PI for the Coordination and Evaluation Center), and Kola Okuyemi.

    Jeffrey Mervis

    Rachel Ezieme expected to become a physician when she entered the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 2011. But by her junior year she had dropped plans to go to medical school and was looking for a way to meld her interests in biology, public health, and community activism. That’s when one of her professors suggested she check out the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). “I’d always been interested in science, but I wasn’t sure what that might lead to,” Ezieme says.

    NRMN is part of an unprecedented, $250 million diversity initiative launched in October 2014 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The effort is designed to increased participation in biomedical research from groups historically underrepresented in the field, including blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Fueled by a 5-year, $22 million grant, NRMN offers evidence-based, culturally aware mentoring to the entire scientific community, from undergraduates to senior faculty members, as well as training in grantsmanship and other areas of professional development. To Ezieme, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, signing up for NRMN’s virtual mentoring site in the fall of 2015 seemed like a good first step in sorting out her career options.

    And she was right. “My mentor introduced me to her colleagues in public health, and that was really helpful,” Ezieme says about Karen Winkfield, a radiation oncologist then at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who works on reducing health disparities in minority communities. “She also kept me focused, asking me questions and pushing me on what I really wanted to do.”

  • NASA weighs trimming WFIRST to hold down costs

    artist's conception of the WFIRST web telescope

    The proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope


    NASA will have to scale back its next big orbiting observatory to avoid busting its budget and affecting other missions, an independent panel says. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is due for launch in the mid-2020s. But 1 year after NASA gave the greenlight its projected cost is $3.6 billion, roughly 12% overbudget.

    “I believe reductions in scope and complexity are needed,” Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., wrote in a memo that NASA released last Thursday.

    Designed to investigate the nature of dark energy and study exoplanets, WFIRST was chosen by the astronomy community as its top space-based mission priority in the 2010 decadal survey entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. But the start of the project was initially delayed by the huge overspend on its predecessor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2019. Then last year, a midterm review of the 2010 decadal survey warned that WFIRST could go the same way and advised NASA to form a panel of independent experts to review the project. 

  • In Brazil, researchers struggle to fend off deepening budget cuts

    painting of the Brazilian flag

    A painting of the Brazilian flag

    AK Rockefeller/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    With time and money running out, Brazilian scientists are turning up the pressure on the federal government to avoid a total collapse of the national science and technology funding system before the end of the year.

    Researchers last week delivered a petition with more than 82,000 signatures to congressional leaders in Brasília, demanding the reversal of deep budget cuts that have left research institutions struggling to pay even basic water and electricity bills. The petition delivery was part of a series of meetings and protests held across Brazil.

    As a result of Brazil’s mounting economic woes, federal funding for science and technology is now at its lowest level in modern history, dropping by more than half over the past 5 years. The science ministry kicked off this year with a slim $1.8 billion budget, but President Michel Temer’s administration later reduced that by 44%, imposing a spending cap of just over $1 billion.

  • Census Bureau puts new team in charge of 2020 U.S. count

    Wilbur Ross

    Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau.

    U.S. Embassy Bangkok/Flickr

    The head of the 2020 U.S. census has been removed, a step that may signal an end to the aggressive attempt by former Census Bureau Director John Thompson to follow a congressional directive to both save money and modernize the decennial U.S. headcount.

    Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provided Congress with a new cost estimate for the 2020 census that was $3.3 billion higher than Thompson’s 2015 estimate. Ross said Thompson had been “overly optimistic” in calculating the savings from new technologies and had misjudged the difficulty of having them ready by Census Day on 1 April 2020.

    Congress had told Thompson to carry out the next census without exceeding the $12.1 billion spent in 2010. In response, Thompson drew up a plan to achieve $5.2 billion in savings from various upgrades, including the first-ever use of the internet to answer the 10 questions on the census. But Congress has repeatedly given the agency less money than it needed to test and implement the improvements.

  • Rand Paul takes a poke at U.S. peer-review panels

    Portrait of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)

    Senator Rand Paul (R–KY)

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Senate Republicans have launched a new attack on peer review by proposing changes to how the U.S. government funds basic research.

    New legislation introduced this week by Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) would fundamentally alter how grant proposals are reviewed at every federal agency by adding public members with no expertise in the research being vetted. The bill (S.1973) would eliminate the current in-house watchdog office within the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, and replace it with an entity that would randomly examine proposals chosen for funding to make sure the research will “deliver value to the taxpayer.” The legislation also calls for all federal grant applications to be made public.

    Paul made his case for the bill yesterday as chairperson of a Senate panel with oversight over federal spending. The hearing, titled “Broken Beakers: Federal Support for Research,” was a platform for Paul’s claim that there’s a lot of “silly research” the government has no business funding. Paul poked fun at several grants funded by NSF—a time-honored practice going back at least 40 years, to Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) and his “Golden Fleece” awards—and complained that the problem is not “how does this happen, but why does it continue to happen?”

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