Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Analysis of China’s one-child policy sparks uproar

    Chinese children walk in park while playing

    A new controversy has erupted over estimates of how many births China's one-child policy avoided. 


    A new study of China’s one-child policy is roiling demography, sparking calls for the field’s leading journal to withdraw the paper. The controversy has ignited a debate over scholarly values in a discipline that some say often prioritizes reducing population growth above all else.

    Chinese officials have long claimed that the one-child policy—in place from 1980 to 2016—averted some 400 million births, which they say aided global environmental efforts. Scholars, in turn, have contested that number as flawed. But in a paper published in the journal Demography in August, Daniel Goodkind—an analyst at the U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, who published as an independent researcher—argues that the figure may, in fact, have merit.

    By extrapolating from countries that experienced more moderate fertility decline, Goodkind contends that birth-planning policies implemented after 1970 avoided adding between 360 million and 520 million people to China’s population. Because the momentum from that decline will continue into later generations, he suggests, the total avoided population could approach 1 billion by 2060. Some scholars worry such estimates could be used to justify, ex post facto, the policy’s existence, and feel that Goodkind’s criticisms of previous work fall outside the bounds of scholarly decorum.

  • Who’s the most influential biomedical scientist? Computer program guided by artificial intelligence says it knows

    Eric Lander

    Eric Lander in 2012

    Adam Fagen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute and a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is the most influential biomedical researcher of the modern era, according to a computer program. Lander, a geneticist and mathematician, ranks first on a new list of top biomedical researchers produced by the scientific literature search tool Semantic Scholar.

    Semantic Scholar, launched in 2015, is an academic search engine aiming to tackle the problem of information overload. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help users sift through huge numbers of scientific papers and understand (to a limited extent) their content. The free tool was developed by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), a nonprofit based in Seattle, Washington, that was co-founded in 2014 by Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen.

    Semantic Scholar’s archive of searchable literature initially focused on computer science, and last year expanded to include neuroscience. Today, it is expanding again, to include the millions of biomedical research papers indexed by PubMed and other sources; overall, Semantic Scholar’s archive is now approaching 40 million papers. 

  • Trump’s UNESCO exit draws critics, but will have little immediate impact

    UNESCO headquarters

    UNESCO headquarters in Paris


    To the dismay of many researchers, the U.S. government announced last week that it would formally withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) based in Paris. The decision—which is not expected to cause major disruptions in UNESCO’s science programs—comes roughly 6 years after the United States stopped contributing funds to the organization because of its recognition of Palestine, and 4 years after the United States lost its UNESCO voting rights.

    In a statement issued on 12 October, the U.S. Department of State cited three reasons for its decision: UNESCO has an “anti-Israel bias,” needs “fundamental reform,” and the United States has a mounting financial debt to the organization that, under U.S. law, it cannot pay.

    UNESCO expressed “profound regret” at the decision, which will take effect on 31 December 2018. The organization’s director-general, Irina Bokova, highlighted UNESCO’s “interaction with the United States Geological Survey, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with United States professional societies, to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources, agriculture,” as examples of valuable joint work.

  • German researchers resign from Elsevier journals in push for nationwide open access

    a library

    The reading hall at the central library of the Humboldt University in Berlin.

    Andreas Levers/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Five leading German scientists have resigned from their editorial positions at journals published by Elsevier, the latest step in a battle over open-access and subscription policies between the Dutch publishing giant and a consortium of German libraries, universities, and research institutes.

    The researchers want Elsevier to accept a new payment model that would make all papers authored by Germany-based researchers open access. The five are only the first of many ready to step down, warn leaders of the consortium, called Projekt DEAL.

    Instead of having individual libraries pay subscriptions for individual journals, Projekt DEAL wants to set up nationwide “publish and read” agreements with publishers. DEAL would pay publishers a lump sum to cover publication costs of papers authored by researchers in Germany. Then all such papers would be open access, and DEAL members would receive electronic access to all the publisher’s journals. 

  • FDA experts offer a unanimous endorsement for pioneering gene therapy for blindness

    FDA Entrance

    The FDA is reviewing a novel gene therapy approach to treat a form of blindness.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Flickr

    A pioneering AAV gene therapy from Spark Therapeutics took a giant stride toward an FDA approval yesterday as an outside panel of experts offered their support for getting this game-changing treatment into the market after looking over the data and hearing from some of the severely sight-impaired patients whose lives had been transformed by this therapy.

    The vote was 16 to 0 favoring the benefit-risk profile of the drug, backing an OK for voretigene neparvovec by the agency’s Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee and providing a compelling reason for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to follow through with an historic first U.S. approval of a vector-delivered gene therapy.

    “Gene therapy has made my world so much more brighter,” said one young patient, who went on to describe how he could see the moon for the first time, go out at night, watch facial expressions, and basically live his life more normally instead of waiting for blindness to take over. And Christian Guardino talked about how the treatment four years ago saved his sight, a span of time when the darkness might well have closed in.

    This was no panacea. As the agency’s internal review made clear, voretigene neparvovec (or Luxturna) — which uses an adeno-associated viral vector — improved sight using the light levels measured for the primary endpoint, but fell far short of curing retinal dystrophy triggered by genetic RPE65 mutations. Improvement in vision is also limited by the number of viable retinal cells they have left at the time they’re treated, according to investigators.

  • AccuWeather’s Barry Myers nominated to lead NOAA

    Barry Myers

    Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, has been nominated to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Diane Bondareff/AP Images for AccuWeather

    President Donald Trump late yesterday nominated Barry Myers—CEO of AccuWeather, the for-profit forecasting company in State College, Pennsylvania—to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation's premier agency for weather, climate, and ocean research. As a wealthy businessman, Myers fits the mold of other Trump picks.

    Myers leads AccuWeather with his two brothers, both weather forecasters. He has business and law degrees, but will bring no scientific expertise to an agency that traditionally has been led by administrators holding scientific doctorates. Yet Myers is well-acquainted with at least one NOAA division: the National Weather Service (NWS), which provides the free data and models that AccuWeather relies on for its forecasts. His nomination is a sign that the Trump administration could seek to further shake up parts of the country's weather enterprise, says Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “No NOAA administrator has been willing to make the substantial, but necessary, changes,” he says. “Is it possible that an outsider from the private sector might consider a fresh approach?”

    If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Myers will lead an agency under stress. The White House has proposed slashing NOAA's 2018 budget by 17%, with the cuts targeting ocean and climate research, along with the development of a next-generation weather model. Although the 2018 spending bill passed by the House of Representatives did include a double-digit drop in the agency’s overall budget, the Senate has indicated that many of those cuts—such as zeroing out the popular Sea Grant program or reducing investment into a next-generation weather model—won't happen. The agency’s budget is now frozen as part of a government-wide holding pattern that expires in early December.

  • NSF drops preproposals, deadlines for biologists seeking funding

    A student records the GPS coordinates of a Zea mays plant in a field

    The National Science Foundation supports work on mapping the maize genome.


    The National Science Foundation (NSF) will no longer require biologists applying for grants to submit preproposals and to adhere to an annual deadline for submissions. The changes pull the plug on a 5-year pilot project in two NSF divisions—and mark the agency’s latest attempt to reduce the burden of the grant review system on its staff and outside researchers without lowering its standards.

    In 2012 the divisions of Environmental Biology (DEB) and Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) within NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences limited scientists to two proposals a year, submitted annually rather than twice a year, and added a four-page preproposal as the first step in the merit review process. The hope was that in addition to easing workloads for NSF staff, the revamped system would improve the quality of the reviews and boost an applicant’s chance of success.

    Based in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF is constantly tinkering with its grant review system, which varies across the six research directorates and reflects the culture of a particular scientific community. But workload concerns are a constant. Three years ago, for example, NSF’s astronomy division asked scientists to submit only one proposal a year to ease the burden on program managers, and several programs within the geosciences directorate saw the number of applications drop by half after they eliminated twice-a-year deadlines and allowing rolling submissions.

  • Drug-resistant malaria is spreading, but experts clash over its global risk

    Children under a mosquito net

    Children rest under a mosquito net in Pailin in western Cambodia, where a new, multidrug-resistant strain of malaria originated.


    In what scientists call a “sinister development,” a malaria parasite resistant to a widely used drug combination is on the march in Southeast Asia. It has rapidly made its way in an arc from western Cambodia, through northeastern Thailand, to southern Laos; now it has landed in southern Vietnam, where it is causing alarming rates of treatment failure.

    What’s more, the team from the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok writes in the October issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, this strain, resistant to an artemisinin combination therapy (ACT), is outcompeting others and becoming dominant in parts of what is known as the Greater Mekong subregion. That's not only bad news for the region, the researchers say; should this bug spread to Africa, where more than 90% of malaria deaths occur, the consequences could be disastrous. The outspoken head of the Mahidol group, Nicholas White, has urged the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a designation reserved for the most serious outbreaks that pose a global threat.

    But the letter—which triggered media stories warning of a "superbug" on the loose—and White’s warning irked many in the famously contentious malaria research community, where personal animosities and longstanding grudges run deep. WHO experts dismissed the report as “nothing new” and decried what they see as overblown claims from a group that they say has cried wolf before. "Parasite resistance to antimalarial medicines is a serious problem. But we must not create unnecessary alarm," the head of WHO's Global Malaria Programme, Pedro Alonso, said in a 29 September statement.

  • Bruno Latour, a veteran of the ‘science wars,’ has a new mission

    Bruno Latour

    "There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style," Latour says. 


    PARIS—French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, 70, has long been a thorn in the side of science. But in the age of “alternative facts,” he’s coming to its defense.

    Latour, who retired last month from his official duties at Sciences Po, a university for the social sciences here, shot to fame with the 1979 book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, written with U.K. sociologist Steve Woolgar. To research it, Latour spent 2 years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, acting as an anthropologist observing scientists at work. In 1987, Latour elaborated on his thinking in the textbook Science in Action.

    Central to Latour’s work is the notion that facts are constructed by communities of scientists, and that there is no distinction between the social and technical elements of science. Latour received praise for his approach and insights, but his relativist and “social-constructivist” views triggered a backlash as well. In their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt accused Latour and other sociologists of discrediting their profession and jeopardizing trust in science.

  • Deadly plague epidemic rages in Madagascar

    Crowded street market in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where there is a bubonic plague outbreak.

    A  pneumonic plague outbreak has hit Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city, shown here in 2010.

    Rafael Medina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    An epidemic of the deadliest form of plague, pneumonic, has hit major cities and towns in Madagascar and is spreading fast. As of 7 October, the Madagascar Health Ministry reported that 343 people had been infected and 42 died, and numbers are rising rapidly.

    A massive response is underway, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is on high alert. This poor island nation is regularly hit by plague outbreaks, but they are typically the relatively less dangerous bubonic form, transmitted from rats to humans by fleas, and occur largely in remote areas. Bubonic plague killed an estimated 60% of Europe’s population during the Black Death in the 14th century.

    What’s particularly alarming now is that pneumonic plague is easily transmitted person to person by coughing, and the outbreak has reached relatively densely populated urban areas, including the capital, Antananarivo, commonly known as Tana. Left untreated with antibiotics, pneumonic plague is 100% fatal. (Both forms are caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis; pneumonic plague develops when a person with bubonic plague is not treated, and the infection spreads to the lungs.)  

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