Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Nearly 100 scientists spent 2 months on Google Docs to redefine the p-value. Here’s what they came up with

    Daniël Lakens

    “It was incredible” to see how the online paper evolved, says Daniël Lakens, who led the effort. “It worked like a charm.”

    Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie

    Psychologist Daniël Lakens of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands is known for speaking his mind, and after he read an article titled “Redefine Statistical Significance” on 22 July 2017, Lakens didn’t pull any punches: “Very disappointed such a large group of smart people would give such horribly bad advice,” he tweeted.

    In the paper, posted on the preprint server PsyArXiv, 70 prominent scientists argued in favor of lowering a widely used threshold for statistical significance in experimental studies: The so-called p-value should be below 0.005 instead of the accepted 0.05, as a way to reduce the rate of false positive findings and improve the reproducibility of science. Lakens, 37, thought it was a disastrous idea. A lower α, or significance level, would require much bigger sample sizes, making many studies impossible. Besides. he says, “Why prescribe a single p-value, when science is so diverse?”

    Lakens and others will soon publish their own paper to propose an alternative; it was accepted on Monday by Nature Human Behaviour, which published the original paper proposing a lower threshold in September 2017. The content won’t come as a big surprise—a preprint has been up on PsyArXiv for 4 months—but the paper is unique for the way it came about: from 100 scientists around the world, from big names to Ph.D. students, and even a few nonacademics writing and editing in a Google document for 2 months. 

  • Broad Institute takes a hit in European CRISPR patent struggle

    European Patent Office headquarters

    European Patent Office in Munich, Germany

    European Patent Office

    A decision from the European Patent Office (EPO) has put the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on shaky ground with its intellectual property claims to the gene-editing tool CRISPR. EPO yesterday revoked a patent granted to the Broad for fundamental aspects of the technology, one of several of its patents facing opposition in Europe.

    In the United States, the Broad has had better fortune. It has so far prevailed in a high-profile patent dispute with the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Last February, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled that although a team led by UC Berkeley structural biologist Jennifer Doudna had first laid claim to the use of CRISPR to cut DNA in a test tube, the use of the method on human cells by molecular biologist Feng Zhang’s team at the Broad was still an advance.

    But in Europe, a dispute that has gotten much less attention could derail several key Broad patents. The patent just revoked was filed in December 2013, but to show that its claims predate competing publications and patent filings from UC and other groups, the Broad cites U.S. patent applications dating back to December 2012.

  • In Trump’s first year, science advice sees a marked decline

    Donald Trump

    Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

    Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, expert panels that provide key federal agencies with science advice have had fewer members and met less often than at any time since 1997, when the government started tracking such numbers, a new analysis concludes.

    At least some of the decline appears to be attributable to a deliberate effort by the Trump administration to exclude scientists from the policymaking process, argues Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’s (UCS’s) Center for Science and Democracy, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which issued today’s report.

    The science panels—there are some 200 across the federal government—advise agencies on a wide range of policy issues, including environmental protection, drug development, and energy innovation, and help set priorities for research programs. Their members, who serve voluntarily, are typically drawn from academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector.

  • Tensions flare over electric fishing in European waters

    fisherman on board a vessel looking at a pulse trawler in the water

    Many Dutch trawlers catch bottom-dwelling fish with bursts of low-voltage electricity, sparking fears from other fishing nations and some environmental groups.

    Ton Koene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    In a surprise outcome, the European Parliament voted today to ban a type of electric fishing that has demonstrated environmental benefits, as part of legislation to reform Europe’s fisheries.

    The proposed end to “pulse trawling”—in which short bursts of electricity get flatfish out of the sediment and into nets—is a major disappointment to Dutch fishing companies, which have invested heavily in the technology; they claim it’s less damaging to marine ecosystems than traditional bottom trawling and saves energy. But some environmental groups applaud the parliament’s decision.

    Many observers had predicted European Parliament would only recommend scaling back pulse trawling. “I’m baffled, to be honest,” says Marloes Kraan, an anthropologist at Wageningen Marine Research in IJmuiden, the Netherlands. “We had prepared ourselves for a bad outcome, but a ban was totally unexpected,” says Pim Visser, director of VisNed, a trawling trade group in Urk, the Netherlands. 

  • Make replication studies ‘a normal and essential part of science,’ Dutch science academy says

    test tubes

    Researchers should more widely share information that allows studies to be replicated, says the new report, and funding agencies should make more money available for replication.

    Trondheim Havn/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Scientists, universities, funding agencies, and journals alike should be doing much more to ensure the reproducibility of scientific research, according to a new report released Monday by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

    The report adds to a growing number of voices calling for fundamental changes in the way science is conducted and published. It comes in the wake of recent failures to replicate published scientific work, also known as the “reproducibility crisis." A panel at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is currently also studying reproducibility and replication, and the British Psychological Society is holding an event on the topic later this month.

    The KNAW panel, chaired by Johan Mackenbach, a public health researcher at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, makes several recommendations to both improve the rigor of original scientific papers and support scientists who conduct replications of previous research. Institutions should put a greater emphasis on training in research design and statistical analysis, the report says, and teach scientists how to conduct replication studies. Journals should require authors to register reports in advance so that the study protocol and analysis plan is locked in place before data collection even begins, and scientists should be encouraged to store methods and data in repositories to help other groups reproduce experiments. 

  • South Korean universities reach agreement with Elsevier after long standoff

    Sogang University in Seoul

    Sogang University joined hundreds of other schools refusing to renew database access contracts with Elsevier.

    Portland Seminary/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    After a monthslong standoff, a consortium of hundreds of South Korean universities has reached a new deal with scientific publisher Elsevier for access to ScienceDirect, a database containing content from 3500 academic journals and thousands of electronic books. The agreement, which includes price hikes between 3.5% and 3.9%, was concluded shortly before 12 January, the day Elsevier had threatened to cut access to ScienceDirect. The publisher had pushed for a 4.5% increase.

    The universities believe Elsevier, headquartered in Amsterdam, is abusing its market leverage and balked at the compulsory inclusion of many little-read journals in ScienceDirect's package deal. And they will be seeking more concessions in future negotiations. "We want Elsevier to abolish the minimum flat rate system, in which our universities have to pay for digital content that nobody reads," says Lee Chang Won, secretary general of the Korea University & College Library Association, which, together with the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE), both based in Seoul, leads the consortium. 

    Elsevier has typically renewed its contracts with individual South Korean universities in December. In previous years, “we accepted whatever [rate increase] request Elsevier made," says Hwang In Sung, research analysis team director at KCUE. But with library budgets being continually squeezed, “we can no longer afford [its] excessive demands,” Hwang says.

  • From band director to chief data cruncher: Trump’s choice to lead U.S. education statistics agency raises eyebrows

    the department of education building, with a sign which reads: LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION BUILDING"

    Headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Department of State (IIP Bureau)

    The people appointed to lead the flagship U.S. agency that collects and vets education statistics typically have spent many years working for the federal government or a university and have managed large organizations before taking the job. But James “Lynn” Woodworth, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), doesn’t fit that mold. And researchers are divided over what his unusual background could mean for an agency responsible for analyzing education data both domestically and around the world.

    Woodworth, whose appointment the White House announced last week, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after college and spent 6 years as an intelligence officer monitoring communications in Arabic. He then spent a decade as a high school music teacher and band director in rural Arkansas before returning to school for a Ph.D. in education reform from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (UAF). For the past 5 years he’s been a research analyst at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

    Some researchers are worried that those jobs aren’t sufficient training to run the agency, a part of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the U.S. Department of Education. “We have long sought the appointment [to NCES] of a highly experienced leader and expert in this field,” says Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association based in Washington. D.C. “Dr. James Woodworth is relatively new to and not well known in the research, statistics, and data community,” she notes.

  • Common pesticides threaten salmon, U.S. fisheries agency concludes

    A bright red male coho salmon spawning in the Salmon River in northwest Oregon.

    A coho salmon spawning in the Salmon River in northwest Oregon.

    U.S. Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Three common and widely used farm pesticides can harm endangered salmon and jeopardize their survival, according to a new report by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries).

    The pesticides—chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon—also threaten orcas, because they eat salmon, the agency said.

    The findings are included in a biological opinion that NOAA's fisheries experts wrote for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  • University of Rochester president resigns as outside attorney issues report on sexual harassment case

    statue of Athena in the Rush Rhees Library lobby at the University of Rochester

    A report issued today addresses the sexual harassment allegations roiling the University of Rochester in New York.

    Michael Doolittle/Alamy Stock Photo

    Shortly before it became public today that the president of the University of Rochester (U of R) in New York will resign next month, an outside investigator hired by the school to examine its handling of sexual harassment allegations against linguistic researcher T. Florian Jaeger announced her conclusion that Jaeger did not violate university policies or sexually harass students and that accounts by his accusers are “exaggerated and misleading in many respects.”

    “We … do not believe that any potential claimant or plaintiff would be able to sustain a legal claim for sexual harassment in violation of [federal law],” read the report by investigators, led by Mary Jo White, a partner at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City who is a former U.S. attorney and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Despite being labeled as a ‘sexual predator’ by his accusers, there have never been allegations of sexual assault, unwanted groping, any use of force, or exhibitionism outside of consensual relationships, and we have found no evidence of such behavior ever occurring,” the report continues.

    In a statement, Jaeger apologized to his students and colleagues for the “distress and disruption” that his behavior and the resulting investigations caused, adding: “This report does not exonerate me, but neither does it give merit to many of the worst accusations made against me. … It would have been vastly easier for the University to find against me, quelling the controversy this issue has caused, than it has been for it to repeatedly test the validity of these allegations. I appreciate their commitment to seeking out the truth.”

    Yet many of the complainants and their lawyer, Ann Olivarius, a senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius in Maidenhead, U.K., challenged the new report vigorously at a late-afternoon press conference in Rochester. They noted, among other things, that the report repeatedly describes Jaeger’s actions as “inappropriate” and “offensive” and that it conceded that because of this, some women “actively avoided pursuing academic opportunities with Jaeger.”

  • At Trump’s EPA, once-public chemical safety reviews go dark

    Industrial chemicals sign

    Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to no longer be releasing preliminary assessments of potentially hazardous new chemicals or new uses of existing chemicals, according to documents reviewed by E&E News.

    The development means the public has no way to know whether the agency has initial concerns or has granted companies preliminary authorization to begin manufacturing new chemicals or using them in novel ways.

    During the Obama administration, EPA would note whether new chemicals or new chemical uses were "not likely to present an unreasonable risk" to human health or the environment.

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