Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • New federal rules limit police searches of family tree DNA databases

    Joseph DeAngelo appears in a wheelchair at his arraignment in California Superior Court in Sacramento

    An ancestry database helped police identify Joseph DeAngelo, who faces charges as the Golden State Killer.


    The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released new rules yesterday governing when police can use genetic genealogy to track down suspects in serious crimes—the first-ever policy covering how these databases, popular among amateur genealogists, should be used in law enforcement attempts to balance public safety and privacy concerns.

    The value of these websites for law enforcement was highlighted last year when Joseph DeAngelo was charged with a series of rapes and murders that had occurred decades earlier. Investigators tracked down the suspect, dubbed the Golden State Killer, by uploading a DNA profile from a crime scene to a public ancestry website, identifying distant relatives, then using traditional genealogy and other information to narrow their search. The approach has led to arrests in at least 60 cold cases around the country.

    But these searches also raise privacy concerns. Relatives of those in the database can fall under suspicion even if they have never uploaded their own DNA. (One study found that 60% of white Americans can now be tracked down using such searches.) And even those who have shared their DNA may not have given informed consent to allow their data to be used for law enforcement searches.

  • Scientists clash over paper that questions Syrian government’s role in sarin attack

    A man takes samples from an impact crater in a road in Syria

    The impact crater in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, believed to be the source of the sarin that killed more than 80 people.

    OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

    On 4 April 2017, a chemical attack killed more than 80 people in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun—a crime that shocked the world and led U.S. President Donald Trump to fire 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. U.S. intelligence agencies saw clear evidence the Syrian government had dropped a bomb filled with the nerve gas sarin on the rebel-held town. Six months later, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concurred.

    Now, a manuscript questioning that conclusion has caused a heated dispute among U.S. scientists. Until this week, the paper was scheduled for publication by Science & Global Security (SGS), a prestigious journal based at Princeton University. But as Science went to press, SGS’s editors suspended publication amid fierce criticism and warnings that the paper would help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian government. Both have denied that Syria is responsible.

    The paper’s most prominent author is Theodore Postol, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and a respected expert on missile defense and nuclear weapons. In blog posts and interviews, Postol has argued that the Syrian regime is not responsible for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack and two others he has examined. Gregory Koblentz, a biological and chemical weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says Postol has disregarded overwhelming evidence and has a pro-Assad agenda, which Postol denies. “I’m not trying to take sides,” he says.

  • Privacy concerns could derail unprecedented plan to use Facebook data to study elections

    Wrokers in a Facebook office

    Facebook employees work to reduce the spread of misinformation that could influence elections.

    NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images

    Gary King benefited from perfect timing in selling Facebook on the idea of sharing a treasure trove of its data with academics. But now, the clock is working against efforts by King and others to keep the innovative project—which aims to better understand how information spread on Facebook influences elections and political institutions around the world—from falling apart. The key sticking point: protecting the privacy of Facebook users.

    In March 2018, King, a quantitative social scientist at Harvard University, made a visit to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The media had just broken the news that a U.K. firm, Cambridge Analytica, had been selling voter profiles to candidates based on personal information provided unwittingly by millions of Facebook users. The resulting scandal was a sobering lesson for Facebook on how not to share its data with outsiders.

    King was pitching a better way for Facebook to share data. His plan was designed to meet high ethical and intellectual standards while achieving three important goals: preserving the privacy of Facebook users, protecting the company’s trade secrets on how its data were managed, and imposing no restrictions on what researchers could publish from the data.

  • This U.S. lawmaker wants greater scrutiny of algorithms used in criminal trials

    Chair Mark Takano, D-Calif., walks through the Hall of Columns at the Capitol

    Representative Mark Takano (D–CA) says, “Intellectual property rights should not be able to trump due process.”

    AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

    Since it was introduced in the 1980s, DNA evidence has become a “gold standard” of U.S. courtrooms, leading to the convictions—and exonerations—of thousands of accused criminals. But experts struggle to analyze degraded or contaminated samples, and many have started to use sophisticated probabilistic genotyping software to estimate the likelihood that a suspect’s DNA matches DNA at the crime scene. Such so-called forensic algorithms are far from rare: Increasingly, they’re used to estimate matches for everything from fingerprints to gun barrels to faces in security camera footage.

    Defense attorneys rarely have access to the source code or other information that would explain how such software—which is often proprietary—works. That’s because companies fear providing it would expose trade secrets or other kinds of intellectual property. But the opacity has raised concerns about fairness and transparency.

    Last week, Representative Mark Takano (D–CA) introduced legislation that would make it easier for defendants facing federal criminal charges to gain access to forensic algorithms, and further require the makers of computational forensic software to meet minimum standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

  • NASA to build telescope for detecting asteroids that threaten Earth

    illustration of the NEOCam space telescope

    NASA is proposing to move ahead with a telescope that would spot asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth. It is based on this proposed project, the Near-Earth Object Camera.


    NASA is moving forward with plans to launch an infrared telescope that could detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth. Its launch could come by the middle of the next decade, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C., said today at a meeting of an agency advisory panel.

    The Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, which will cost $500 million to $600 million, grows out of long-gestating plans for the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), first proposed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, nearly 15 years ago. Such a scope is essential for meeting a congressional requirement that NASA detect 90% of all potentially hazardous asteroids and comets of at least 140 meters in diameter by the end of 2020. The telescope will likely end up with a different name, but the mission is the same, says Mark Sykes, CEO of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and a member of NEOCam’s science team. “There is no independent or new spacecraft or operational design here. This mission is NEOCam.”

    Although NASA will not meet Congress’s deadline—which wasn’t attached to any funding—a combination of an infrared telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a ground-based facility being built in Chile, will eventually make it a reality, the National Academies of of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., said this summer in a report. A telescope operating in the infrared spectrum is essential, researchers say, as the past decade has shown that dark asteroids, which are nearly invisible in visible light but stand out in infrared, are more abundant than once thought. “There are a lot of really dark asteroids out there,” says Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and an author of the report. “That pushes the need for the infrared system.”

  • Grad student unions dealt blow as proposed new rule says students aren’t ‘employees’

    Science Careers logo

    Graduate students are not “employees” with a right to unionize, according to a rule proposed today by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an agency that’s tasked with enforcing U.S. labor laws. If implemented, the rule would undercut a recent wave of grad student unionization efforts at private U.S. universities. The NLRB will be accepting public comment on the announcement for 60 days.

    The NLRB has traditionally made these kinds of decisions on a case-by-case basis—not through rulemaking—notes Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University and general counsel for the American Association of University Professors. “But this current NLRB has a strong majority of very conservative board members; … [it’s] shown itself to be extremely political and quite focused on overruling precedent that had expanded employee rights to unionize.”

    In 2016, the NLRB decided that students at Columbia University who receive compensation for teaching and research could be considered employees with a right to unionize. Prior to that though, in 2004, the board ruled that students at Brown University did not have the right to unionize—overturning a 2000 ruling that grad students at New York University (NYU) could unionize. The back and forth is because NLRB members are appointed by the presidential administration. Pro-union decisions were made under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; the antiunion Brown decision was made under Republican President George W. Bush.

  • What kind of researcher did sex offender Jeffrey Epstein like to fund? He told Science before he died

    Jeffrey Epstein and Marvin Minsky

    Jeffrey Epstein (left) and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky (right), whom Epstein viewed as a trusted scientific adviser

    Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

    In August 2017, I received an email from publicist Masha Drokova asking whether I wanted to interview her client, Jeffrey Epstein.

    “I saw your piece on [President Donald] Trump’s science budget,” she wrote, referring to a story on the president’s proposed massive cuts to research in his 2018 budget request to Congress. “Jeffrey has an interesting perspective on what it will take to fill the gaps. … Would you like to speak with him next week?”

    Why would Science talk to a shadowy financier and convicted sex offender? I queried my editors. “How strange,” one said. “Wonder why he is seeking press now?” another asked.

  • EPA signals retreat from controversial ‘secret science’ rule

    Andrew Wheeler, the acting chief of the EPA, speaks at a press conference.

    Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

    Cliff Owen/AP photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is dropping plans to issue a final version this year of its divisive plan to limit the agency’s use of scientific studies in crafting major new regulations, Administrator Andrew Wheeler indicated at a congressional hearing this morning.

    Instead, the agency will issue a supplemental proposal early next year, Wheeler told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, adding that it will apply only to future rulemakings.

  • Kashmir’s communication blackout is a ‘devastating blow’ for academics, researchers say

    Military guard in Kashmir

    An Indian paramilitary trooper stands guard in the city of Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir.

    Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

    Six professors from India’s top science institutions have appealed to the government to lift the blockade of academic and research institutions in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The blockade has been a “devastating blow,” the six write in an open letter published yesterday.

    Like the rest of India’s only majority-Muslim state, Kashmir’s academic community has been cut off almost entirely from the rest of the world since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abolished the state’s special status on 5 August. “We call upon the government to lift the blackout at these institutions right away and take all steps possible to help members of the Kashmiri academic community to make up for these lost weeks,” the researchers write.

    Kashmir has been a source of tension for decades. India and Pakistan have fought four wars over the region and India accuses Pakistan of fomenting secessionism in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the part administered by India. After unilaterally ending the state’s special status, which included limited autonomy, the Indian government has split the region into three administrative territories, Jammu (which has a Hindu majority), Kashmir (predominantly Muslim), and Ladakh (where Buddhists and Shia Muslims are in the majority).

  • Senate bill would give NIH $3 billion in 2020, or 7.7% boost

    the US capitol

    A Senate spending panel today released a draft 2020 spending bill containing a hefty $3 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that would bring the agency’s total budget to $42.1 billion. That 7.7% boost is $1 billion more than a House of Representatives committee approved in its version of the bill in April, and would complete a 40% increase in NIH’s budget over the past 5 years.

    The Senate Committee on Appropriations measure includes a $350 million increase for Alzheimer’s disease research at NIH, bringing the total to $2.82 billion, as well as $50 million for a new Childhood Cancer Data Initiative as part of President Donald Trump’s proposed 10-year, $500 million pediatric cancer research effort. The bill also includes $492 million for the 21st Century Cures Act, which supports the Cancer Moonshot, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative (which would receive $500 million overall, a $71 million increase), and the All of Us precision medicine study (funded at $500 million, an increase of $161 million). Funding for these programs includes $219 million to make up for a mandatory drop in fiscal year (FY) 2020 in 21st Century Cures funding, which comes from sources that are separate from NIH’s regular budget appropriation.

    Like the House bill, the Senate measure rejects Trump’s proposal to move the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality into NIH. But the Senate legislation does not contain $25 million in new NIH funding for firearm injury prevention research that the Democrat-led House Committee on Appropriations added to its version of the bill. Nor does the Senate bill include House language blocking part of a new Trump administration policy that restricts NIH funding for research that uses human fetal tissue donated after elective abortions.

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