Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • A romance gone bad: Valentine’s Day program examines biomedical researcher’s ignoble lies

    Benita Alexander and Paolo Macchiarini in Venice

    Benita Alexander and Paolo Macchiarini on a trip to Venice, Italy, in 2013. “He had that sexy George Clooney thing going on,” Alexander says.

    Benita Alexander/Investigation Discovery

    The misconduct case of Paolo Macchiarini, a surgeon and researcher who fooled the biomedical community about the failure of his pioneering work on trachea implants, had a bizarre and tragic side story. The discredited surgeon, formerly of the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm, also spun an elaborate web of lies for Benita Alexander, a former NBC investigative producer who fell in love with him while on an assignment to cover his work. In an ironic take on Valentine’s Day, a new documentary on their doomed whirlwind romance is airing tonight in the United States.

    Among the falsehoods Macchiarini told Alexander, who at the time worked for NBC in New York City, are claims that he belonged to a secret cadre of doctors who treat heads of state and other VIPs, and that he and Alexander would marry at a Rome ceremony in July 2015 officiated by Pope Francis and with the Obamas, the Clintons, the Putins, and Elton John in attendance.

    None of it was true, as Alexander found out 2 months before the supposed wedding, a revelation documented 2 years ago in a riveting Vanity Fair article by another journalist. Now, Alexander retells the story herself in an 85-minute documentary, He Lied About Everything, that will premiere at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the Investigation Discovery television channel.

  • ‘Still working’: Astronomers explain why they don’t publish

    The four Unit Telescopes at the Paranal platform

    The European Southern Observatory found that a surprising number of teams using its Very Large Telescope (pictured) didn’t publish any results.

    European Southern Observatory/H. H. Heyer

    “The dog ate my homework.” Schoolchildren are famously creative when it comes to offering up excuses. But according to a new survey, astronomers are also good at explaining why they don’t publish, even after being given time on some of the world’s best telescopes.

    The European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated telescopes. They cost a lot of money to build and maintain. So Ferdinando Patat, an astronomer at ESO headquarters in Garching, Germany, says he was “quite astonished” when an earlier study on the scientific return of ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile showed that up to 50% of teams awarded time never published a peer-reviewed report based on their observations.

    Patat wanted to understand why. He and a few ESO scientists scoured publication databases and identified 1278 projects that were awarded time on any of ESO’s telescopes between 2006 and 2013, but which had not published anything by April 2016. They sent the project teams a questionnaire offering them a number of options to explain their lack of output; respondents could give multiple reasons.

  • Budget increase for 2020 census falls short, advocates say

    a smiling man hands someone a stack of papers, presumably census papers

    Critics of a request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census fear it will reduce response rates, harming accuracy and increasing the need for expensive face-to-face follow-up.

    U.S. Census Bureau

    President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request gives the U.S. Census Bureau a $2 billion increase to help plan the 2020 census. But advocates say that is still not enough to ensure that there is a fair and accurate head count.

    The 10-year cycle for the census requires steady annual investments in new approaches and technologies, followed by a huge spending ramp up in the final few years to implement everything needed for census day and the extensive follow-up of those who haven’t answered out the 10-question survey. For the past few years, Congress has appropriated less than the agency had requested, forcing officials to eliminate some exercises and skimp on preparations.

    Last fall, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked legislators to add $187 million to his boss’s 2018 request. Ross promised that the additional money would be sufficient to deal with cost overruns and some external factors that were running up the tab. However, Congress has yet to finish work on the 2018 budget.

  • NIH stays flat, absorbs three institutes in president’s 2019 budget proposal

    the NIH building
    Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

    Biomedical research funding was one of the budget lines saved from cuts by last-minute adjustments to President Donald Trump’s administration’s 2019 budget proposal released today. Still, advocates say they had hoped for more.

    Funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), initially slated to be slashed by 27%, instead would total $34.7 billion, roughly unchanged from 2017. That level could end up being a cut, however, after Congress completes work on a bill to fund federal agencies through 2018. The House of Representatives has proposed a $1.1 billion increase and the Senate $2 billion; a budget agreement approved last week promises at least $2 billion for NIH over the next 2 years, adding support for a substantial increase this year.

    In the 2019 proposal, NIH’s budget would go up slightly by $538 million over 2017. But that is because it would absorb three Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies that fund research on health care quality, occupational health, and disabilities. They would be separate institutes at first, but their activities could later be integrated into NIH’s existing 27 institutes and centers.

  • Trump rescinds planned 30% budget cut at NSF

    An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

    The White House budget request for the National Science Foundation would fund two new research vessels, but some members of Congress want three.

    The Glosten Associates/OSU

    It took last week’s budget agreement to rescue the National Science Foundation (NSF) from being an unimportant piece of the nation’s research enterprise in the eyes of the White House.

    That’s the key message gleaned from today’s rollout of the president’s 2019 budget request. The request came in two pieces. The first called for NSF’s budget to be slashed by 30%, to $5.27 billion. The second, based on a 26-page footnote to the massive original document that followed minutes later, restores the entire $2.2 billion cut and would leave NSF’s 2019 budget at its current, 2017 level. (Congress has yet to finalize NSF’s 2018 budget.)

    Why did the president suddenly reverse course? On Friday, Congress passed a continuation of the current budget freeze that avoided a government shutdown. In addition to funding all government activities for another 6 weeks, the budget agreement raised by nearly a half-trillion dollars the amount of money that Congress could spend. The money applies both to the 2018 fiscal year, which began 5 months ago, and the 2019 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. And Congress will devote the next month to allocating the additional cash.

  • First take: Trump’s 2019 budget not as disastrous for science as it first appears

    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

    NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope is on the list of projects that the White House wants to kill in its 2019 budget request.


    It’s a familiar tune, but with a surprise twist.

    President Donald Trump today unveiled a 2019 budget request that—once again—calls for eliminating numerous federal research programs, including a fleet of NASA satellites, energy research efforts, and climate and environmental science programs.

    But in a confusing supplemental document, the administration rescinded its original plan for deep cuts at many major research agencies. Instead, it is asking Congress to use a newfound pot of cash to maintain level funding for some of those agencies.

  • Researchers debate whether journals should publish signed peer reviews

    man presenting to audience

    Attendees gathered at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to discuss the pros and cons of greater transparency in the peer-review system. Here, Ron Vale of the University of California, San Francisco, addresses the group. 

    Caitlin Schrein/HHMI

    CHEVY CHASE, MARYLAND—Scientific journals should start routinely publishing the text of peer reviews for each paper they accept, said attendees at a meeting last week of scientists, academic publishers, and funding organizations. But there was little consensus on whether reviewers should have to publicly sign their critiques, which traditionally are accessible only to editors and authors.

    The meeting—hosted by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) here, and sponsored by HHMI; ASAPbio, a group that promotes the use of life sciences preprints; and the London-based Wellcome Trust—drew more than 100 participants interested in catalyzing efforts to improve the vetting of manuscripts and exploring ways to open up what many called an excessively opaque and slow system of peer review.

    The crowd heard presentations and held small group discussions on an array of issues. One hot topic: whether journals should publish the analyses of submitted papers written by peer reviewers. 

  • Turkish-American NASA scientist sentenced to 7.5 years in prison

    Kubra Golge and son

    Kubra Golge, holding one of her sons, has fought for the release of her husband, Serkan Golge, a U.S. citizen and NASA scientist held by Turkey on terrorism charges. He was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison yesterday.

    The New York Times/Redux

    ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American research scientist at NASA in Houston, Texas, was sentenced to 7.5 years in a Turkish prison Thursday on terrorism charges. The verdict, which has been condemned by the U.S. government, has put his career on hold and left his family and friends reeling. “I feel like this cannot be real,” his wife Kubra Golge, who was inside the courtroom when her husband’s verdict was read, tells Science.

    At a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State said the United States is “deeply concerned” by Golge’s conviction, which came “without credible evidence.” The spokesperson said the U.S. government would continue to follow his case closely. A spokesperson for Turkey’s foreign ministry dismissed the criticism in a statement posted to its website and said the court’s decision must be respected.

    Golge, a dual citizen who had been studying the effects of radiation on astronauts, was swept up in a crackdown that followed Turkey’s 2016 failed military coup. While visiting family in southern Turkey weeks after the putsch attempt, police showed up to his parents’ home and arrested him in front of his wife and children. According to Golge’s wife, a distant relative who was angered over an inheritance dispute told police Golge was a spy and supporter of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup.

  • Canada’s new environmental review plan gets a lukewarm reception

    A tar sands mine in Alberta province in Canada

    A new plan would change how Canada evaluates proposed development, such as this tar sands mine in the province of Alberta.

    NSFblogs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Scientists, industry officials, and environmentalists are giving mixed reception to a new plan to revamp how the Canadian government assesses the environmental impacts of development projects.

    The plan, released yesterday after 14 months of deliberation, delivers on an election promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party to revisit controversial changes made to Canada’s environmental policies by the previous Conservative Party government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Critics charged that Harper dramatically reduced the number of dams, mines, pipelines and other projects receiving reviews, and weakened the use of scientific evidence in evaluations. Trudeau promised to “restore confidence” in the reviews and “ensure that decisions on major projects are based on science, facts, and evidence.”

    In a bid to realize that goal, the Trudeau government yesterday unveiled an Impact Assessment Act that would establish a new government agency to oversee environmental reviews of proposed projects and set new timetables and rules for carrying out assessments. Among other things, the proposal—which will have to be approved by Parliament—calls for increased consultation with Canada’s indigenous groups, expanding reviews to include social, economic and climate impacts, and making greater efforts to explain the kinds of information regulators are using in evaluations. The bill would also shorten timelines for project reviews and potentially alter the number of projects that would receive full reviews.

  • New U.S. budget deal includes more funding for 2020 census

    Wilbur Ross

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

    U.S. Embassy Bangkok/Flickr

    The latest short-term budget agreement that keeps the U.S. government running for another 6 weeks gives a much-needed boost to planning for the 2020 census.

    The continuing resolution (CR) passed early this morning by Congress contains an additional $182 million for the Census Bureau to stay on track for the decennial headcount in April 2020. Census officials have had to reduce or eliminate several components of the massive undertaking—its estimated price tag is $15.6 billion—because Congress has failed to provide the funding needed to ramp up activities in the past few years of each 10-year cycle.

    Last May, for example, President Donald Trump requested only $51 million more for the account that includes the decennial census. In October 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress that the agency would need an additional $187 million in 2018 to stay on schedule for 2020, part of a review that bumped up the cost of the 2020 census by $3.3 billion.

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