Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump’s EPA wants to stamp out ‘secret science.’ Internal emails show it is harder than expected

    Scott Pruitt

    Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Originally published by E&E News

    Update: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) submitted a draft rule on "Strengthening Transparency and Validity in Regulatory Science" to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the White House's Office of Managment and Budget on 19 April, reports E&E News. But the agency released no details about the proposal. OIRA now has at least 90 days to review the proposed plan. Here is E&E's 20 April story on the background of the plan:

    EPA coordinated with Republicans in U.S. House of Representatives about their plans to restrict the science used in crafting regulations, newly released emails show.

    In early January, EPA chief Scott Pruitt met with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, to discuss one of Smith's pet projects—overhauling how EPA uses science. Smith hasn't been able to get legislation to do so through Congress, so he pitched Pruitt to do so internally, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails were obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and shared with E&E News.

  • A new dengue vaccine should only be used in people who were previously infected, WHO says

    woman enclosed in a mosquito net at a hospital

    Nadia Gonzalez recovers from dengue in a hospital in Paraguay in 2016. There is no easy test for previous exposure to dengue, which makes implementing World Health Organization's new recommendations for the vaccine difficult.

    Jorge Saenz/AP Photo

    The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, put the brakes on implementation of the world’s first dengue vaccine today when it recommended it only be used in people who have previously been infected with the disease—a move that will shrink the potential market for the vaccine’s producer, Sanofi Pasteur.

    Dengue is most dangerous when a person is infected a second (or subsequent) time. Studies have shown that giving the vaccine to people who have never been infected before can leave them vulnerable to a severe reaction if they are subsequently infected. (The vaccine doesn’t confer full protection to the virus.)

    The new recommendation, announced today by WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on Immunization, is consistent with a warning that Sanofi Pasteur announced in November 2017. But some observers worry that the recommendation could mean the end of the vaccine. No rapid, reliable test for previous dengue infection is available, so the new guidelines mean that the vaccine can’t be widely used; that could lead the company to stop making the vaccine. So far, however, Sanofi Pasteur has expressed confidence in the vaccine.

  • In dramatic vote, with baby, Senate confirms Bridenstine to lead NASA

    Jim Bridenstine

    Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) testifies before the Senate science committee on his nomination to lead NASA in November 2017.

    NASA/Joel Kowsky

    President Donald Trump’s administration is pointing NASA back toward the moon, and now it has a leader to guide it there. Today, the U.S. Senate narrowly voted 50–49 on partisan lines to confirm Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to serve as NASA’s 13th administrator.

    Bridenstine, facing a self-imposed term limit on his House of Representatives career, had long sought to lead the $20.7 billion agency, crafting legislation he hoped would influence its direction. But Trump’s nomination of Bridenstine, which came last September, had until now lacked the votes to confirm him. In particular, he faced stiff opposition from Senate Democrats, led by Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), and several Republicans against whom Bridenstine had campaigned, including Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and John McCain (AZ).

    The drama-filled vote, which prompted Vice President Mike Pence to attend as a potential tiebreaker and featured the first vote of Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) with her baby at her side, hinged on the vote of Senator Jeff Flake (R–AZ), who has sought leverage in addressing his non-NASA priorities with the Republican leadership. Flake's vote, and Rubio's decision to drop his opposition yesterday allowed confirmation. The pending retirement of the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, forced his hand, Rubio told USA Today. The agency, so vital to his state’s economy, faced a “gaping leadership void,” he said. “I expect him to lead NASA in a nonpolitical way and to treat Florida fairly,” he added.

  • U.S. agencies clash over who should regulate genetically engineered livestock

    A pink piglet resting its head on a black and white piglet.

    A virus that causes illness in pigs could be a target of genetic modification.

    USDA/Scott Bauer

    Originally published by E&E News.

    A disease that kills millions of pigs a year may soon meet its match — if two federal agencies can agree on the idea.

    Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus is one of the latest examples of a condition that scientists believe they can beat with genetic engineering, and one that's caught up in a disagreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over how quickly such methods should be approved, and by whom.

  • Trump administration takes first steps toward drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

    A plain of grasses in front of a rugged mountain range in Alaska's Arctic refuge.

    The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northern coast of Alaska


    Originally published by E&E News

    Department of Interior officials today mapped out their first steps toward allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

    The four-page notice of an environmental review, scheduled for publication in tomorrow's Federal Register, sets the stage for oil and gas leasing within the 19-million-acre refuge.

  • Pioneering autism researcher cooperated with Nazis, new evidence suggests

    Memorial for victims of Spiegelgrund in front of the Otto Wagner Hospital

    This memorial in Vienna remembers Nazi-era victims of the children's psychiatric facility Am Spiegelgrund, where children and adolescents were systematically killed and their brains removed for scientific research. A new book and journal article alleges that Hans Asperger, a pioneer of autism research, referred dozens of children to the clinic.

    Caro/Christoph Eckelt/Newscom

    Originally published on Spectrum

    The Austrian doctor Hans Asperger cooperated extensively with the Nazi regime and may have sent dozens of children to their deaths.

    Horrific details of his involvement were revealed yesterday in the journal Molecular Autism and will be detailed in a forthcoming book called Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

  • Logging in Europe’s primeval forest ruled illegal

    People take part in a protest against large-scale government logging in the Bialowieza Forest, Poland, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017

    Protesters march against logging last August in the Białowieża Forest.

    Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

    Europe’s top court has ruled that controversial logging in Poland’s iconic Białowieża Forest is illegal, but the fight over the forest’s future is far from finished. “The controversy over what to do next is just beginning,” says ornithologist Przemek Chylarecki of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

    Białowieża is the best-preserved remnant of old-growth forest that once spanned lowland Europe. Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the 1500-square-kilometer forest has centuries-old trees, as well a menagerie—including wolves, lynx, dozens of species of birds, beetles and fungi—found nowhere else. Foresters and preservationists have fought over Białowieża for decades. Ecologists would like to see the forest left to its own devices—as is the case with a small national park at its core—while foresters argue that logging and replanting are necessary to protect against pests and to maintain certain habitats.

    The latest battle began after spruce bark beetles began to kill drought-weakened trees in 2012. Foresters started felling trees in a bid to stop the beetle, but biologists said the attempt was doomed to fail and would cause more damage than the beetles. In March 2016, Jan Szyszko, the minister of the environment at the time, tripled the amount of logging permitted in one of three districts managed by the Forest Service, ostensibly to speed up the campaign against the beetle. Environmental groups suspected that the motives were economic, and they pressed the European Commission to take Poland to court. Last summer, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered a temporary halt to the logging, although it allowed an exemption for cutting trees that pose a risk to public safety.

  • House science panel feuds over NASA earth science programs, then finds compromise

    Lamar Smith and Eddie Bernice Johnson

    Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (left) at a 2013 hearing of the science committee

    U.S. House of Representatives science committee

    Congressional Democrats and Republicans have waged repeated battles over funding for earth science research at NASA, with Democrats wanting more and Republicans less. But yesterday, the two sides came to an agreement on how much to spend on the earth sciences that allowed them to advance legislation sketching out a 2-year vision for the space agency.

    The setting was the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), wanted to shape NASA’s plan for human space exploration, research missions, and other activities at the $20 billion agency. The usual approach would have been to confer with the Democratic minority on the committee and negotiate a bill that could win bipartisan support.

    But when it comes to making science policy, Smith and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the panel’s top Democrat and fellow Texan, often appear to be barely on speaking terms. And when Smith shared a draft of his NASA reauthorization bill (H.R. 5503) 3 weeks ago, Johnson and her colleagues raised lots of questions about some provisions. (An authorization bill doesn’t appropriate any money. But it gives policy guidance to an agency.)

  • Kristina Olson is first psychologist to win NSF’s Waterman award

    a child handing a toy to a woman

    Kristina Olson works with a child in the Social Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    University of Washington

    Calling Kristina Olson a path-breaking researcher doesn’t begin to describe all the doors this year’s winner of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) most prestigious prize for young scientists has opened.

    A social and developmental psychologist at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, Olson is the first person from her discipline to win the 42-year-old Alan T. Waterman Award. She’s also the first woman since 2004 to receive the $1 million prize. Although scientists from every field that NSF supports are eligible, only three social scientists—the previous two were men—have ever captured the Waterman, named after NSF’s first director.

    Olson’s research on the social development of transgender youth has expanded the traditional boundaries of academic psychology. And her plans to use a big chunk of the prize money on a new summer internship program for undergraduate minority students also may be unprecedented for Waterman winners.

  • Bigger, better bird tree of life will soon fly into view

    Tauraco corythaix bird

    A better family tree would help researchers better place turacos, such as this Knysna turaco from South Africa, on its branches.

    Daniel J. Field

    Bird lovers—and evolutionary biologists—can look forward to a new and improved avian family tree being finished in 4 years, thanks to The OpenWings Project officially launched this last week at the American Ornithological Meeting in Tucson, Arizona. The $1.42 million effort will be the first to include DNA data from the more than 10,500 known bird species to establish how they are all related. But it will not be the final word—another project seeking to sequence the full genomes of every avian species will follow if enough funding can be raised. OpenWings “will be a huge improvement over what we have now,” says Harvard University evolutionary biologist Scott Edwards. But, “Ultimately, OpenWings will be a stepping stone to the grand tree that the whole genomes [will generate].”  

    In 2014, biologists published an avian tree based on the sequences of whole genomes of about 40 species. Another team published a different tree in 2015 after comparing a subset of the avian genome in hundreds of species. These phylogenies help researchers looking at the evolutionary histories of specific avian traits or the story of birds overall. But some researchers who specialize in building trees were not satisfied. “The current need for large phylogenies and the high priority placed on them by high impact journals can result in shortcuts, wherein large-scale phylogenetic trees are cobbled together from disparate existing sources, even taxonomy, but often without hard data behind the placement of many species,” Harvard evolutionary biologist Gustavo Bravo and his colleagues wrote on 30 January in PeerJ. “The question is how far do you compromise?” Edwards adds.

    So even though some of the leaders of the 2014 avian tree effort launched the Bird 10,000 Genomes (B10K) Project, aiming to eventually sequence the whole genomes of all 10,560 bird species and from there build “the grand tree,” some bird researchers decided not to wait. Led by Brian Smith at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Brant Faircloth at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, they are taking a cheaper, faster route with the OpenWings Project. The U.S. National Science Foundation–funded effort will tap extensive museum collections as much as possible, instead of freshly caught bird samples, and will sequence about 5000 short pieces of the DNA, focusing on regions that are very highly conserved among all birds. The group plans to release data on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting for the project’s publication, so other researchers can make use of it.

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