Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Novel NSF initiative seeks nimble scientists to create better tools to tackle societal problems. But act now

     inside a BMW manufacturing plant a worker and robots weld components for vehicles

    The future of work is one topic the National Science Foundation hopes researchers will explore in its new initiative.

    Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Are you a scientist who wants to take a multidisciplinary, team approach to solving an important societal problem? Can you move quickly, think like an entrepreneur, and thrive under a short leash? Then the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, has a new funding program that might be a good fit.

    The novel initiative, which next week has its first deadline for two-page preliminary proposals, goes by the hokey sounding name Convergence Accelerator (C-Accel) pilot. But NSF is dead serious about the funding. By the end of this summer, the agency envisions awarding up to $1 million each to 50 teams for 9-month pilot projects. Those pilots will then compete for a smaller number of $5 million awards extending into 2022.

    NSF Director France Córdova has set aside $60 million this year for C-Accel and has requested an additional $60 million in 2020, with the hope that phase two teams will attract at least $40 million in total from other sources.

  • Research on communication with completely paralyzed patients prompts misconduct investigation

    a woman wearing a fNIRS device on her head

    A device that measures the oxygen levels in different brain regions. Researchers have claimed this technology can allow locked-in patients to communicate.

    Artinis Medical Systems/Brite

    A research group’s claimed ability to communicate with completely paralyzed people has come under fire, prompting research misconduct investigations at a German university and at Germany’s main research agency, the German Research Foundation (DFG). Two years ago, researchers in Germany and Switzerland claimed that by analyzing blood flow in different parts of the brain with an electronic skullcap, they could elucidate answers to yes or no questions from completely paralyzed people. The find, published in PLOS Biology in 2017, raised hopes for patients with degenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that ultimately leave them without any voluntary muscle control—not even the ability to blink or move their eyes—a condition called a “completely locked-in state.” Now, a simmering controversy about the paper has erupted into public view.

    As first reported by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, PLOS Biology yesterday published a critique of the paper that claims the authors’ statistical analysis is incorrect. Martin Spüler, an informatics specialist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany, says his analysis of the data shows no support for the authors’ claim that their system could allow patients to answer questions correctly 70% of the time. His critique, first raised in late 2017, has prompted investigations of possible scientific misconduct at both DFG and the University of Tübingen, where the group studying locked-in patients is also based.

    Spüler says he originally wanted to test whether a different algorithm could make the method even more accurate, but when he analyzed the data he found that the team had averaged its data in a way that ended up always producing a statistically significant result. “With the statistical tests they use, you will always get a positive answer.” He says his attempts to get explanations from the authors were unsuccessful. “It doesn’t add up,” he says.

  • ‘We can’t take another hit like this’: Brazilian scientists lament big budget freeze

    Sirius accelerator,

    Brazil’s synchrotron light source, Sirius, is scheduled to launch later this year, but 80% of the funds it depends on have been frozen.

    Sebastiao Moreira/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

    SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—The latest federal budget news coming out of Brasília has Brazilian scientists fearing the worst. On 29 March, faced with a stagnant economy and falling tax revenues, the government announced it was “freezing” nearly 30 billion reais ($7.5 billion) of the country’s public funds for the year, including a 2.2 billion real slice of the science ministry’s budget. If the freeze isn’t lifted, funds for scholarships and research will be cut by 42%—a blow that would come on top of a series of other cuts in recent years.

    “We were running on a flat tire; now they took out the wheel,” says Ildeu de Castro Moreira, a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science here. If made permanent, the freeze could have “tragic” consequences, Moreira predicts. Many laboratories and research institutions might be pushed into stagnation, including federally funded facilities that provide crucial services such as weather monitoring and public health surveillance.

    A freeze means the money remains in the government’s budget but is locked down as “contingency funds” that can be spent only if the economy improves or new sources of revenue are found. (The idea is to keep the country’s primary debt under control.) For now, Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication (MCTIC) in Brasília is authorized to spend only 2.9 billion reais in support of R&D in all of Brazil this year—about a third of what it had 5 years ago, and less than what NASA typically spends on a single Mars mission. “We knew there might be another contingency measure on the way, but we never expected it to be so extreme,” Moreira says. “When you have so little to begin with, every loss is a major loss.” The only department to see a larger share of its budget frozen was Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.

  • Sydney Brenner, pioneer of molecular biology, dies at 92

    Sydney Brenner

    Sydney​ Brenner

    Andrew Cutraro/Redux

    Sydney Brenner, the Nobel laureate whose studies on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans led to seminal discoveries in genetics and developmental biology, died today in Singapore. He was 92 years old.

    Brenner discovered fundamental steps in how cells use DNA to make the proteins that enable life. He found that sequences of three DNA bases code for the amino acids that form proteins. And he discovered that RNA molecules carry that information to ribosomes, the cellular machines that synthesize proteins.

    Brenner went on to pioneer another major breakthrough in biology: identifying and developing the transparent worm C. elegans as an ideal animal model; the worm is used today in labs worldwide. His early research on C. elegans and studies in the years that followed led to winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 with two colleagues, John Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz. The Nobel Committee wrote that the worm research helped identify “key genes regulating organ development and programmed cell death … and [it] shed new light on the pathogenesis of many diseases.”

  • A Japanese spacecraft may have just blown a crater in a distant asteroid

    An explosion on an asteroid during the Asteroid Explorer "Hayabusa2" mission

    An artist’s impression shows a projectile hitting asteroid Ryugu, with a small satellite carrying two cameras in the foreground.


    Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission continued its unprecedented explorations today by apparently creating an artificial crater in an asteroid, a space exploration first. Officials confirmed that the operation to fire a projectile into asteroid Ryugu went smoothly, though as of early evening Japan time they were still trying to confirm whether a crater had actually been formed. If so, its exact location and size will have to be confirmed later.

    Developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Sagamihara, Hayabusa2 was launched in December 2014 and traveled 3.2 billion kilometers through space before reaching its home position 20 kilometers away from Ryugu, a diamond-shaped asteroid about 1 kilometer by 900 meters in size orbiting between Earth and Mars.

    The mission’s objective is to collect samples both from Ryugu’s surface and its interior and return them to Earth for analyses that should yield information on the materials that existed in the early solar system and give clues about the formation and evolution of planets. The samples might also provide evidence for the theory that asteroids and comets are one source of Earth’s water and its amino acids, the building blocks of life. Scientists are particularly eager to get material from beneath the surface that has not been affected by eons of space weathering.

  • Do chemicals that disperse oil spills make the problem worse? Probably not, new study finds

    aerial photo of a coast guard boats cleaning up oil in the Gulf of Mexico

    A National Academy of Sciences report finds that chemical dispersants used in oil spill cleanups, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill (above), don’t appear to exacerbate toxicity to marine life in most circumstances.

    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    When the Deepwater Horizon oil well spewed at least 518 million liters of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, responders added an additional 7 million liters of chemicals, known as dispersants, to try to control the oil. That move prompted questions about whether the brew of dispersants and oil was more toxic to the environment than the oil itself.

    It appears the answer is largely no, concludes a committee of top oil spill experts in a report examining dispersants issued today by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

    Dispersants, which can break slicks and clumps of oil into smaller droplets that sink, have long been dogged by questions about safety and effectiveness. But today’s report concludes the chemicals can help cope with oil spills, depending on the circumstances. The panel cautioned, however, that questions remain about the health effects on people and the effectiveness of dispersants in some situations.

  • Trump’s budget request for 2020 census raises alarms

    Steven Dillingham speaking during a press conference

    Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham touted the agency’s planning for the 2020 census at a press event this week.

    Michele R. Freda/U.S. Census Bureau

    The U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, Maryland, prides itself on the quality of the data it collects to help paint a statistical portrait of the country. But ask it how much the 2020 census, by far its biggest and most costly responsibility, will cost, and the numbers get very squishy.

    Community advocates say the agency needs at least $2 billion more in the upcoming year than President Donald Trump has requested to assure a successful decennial head count on 1 April 2020. They note that the $5.3 billion request for the 2020 fiscal year that begins on 1 October clashes with a $7.4 billion estimate made in October 2017 by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau. Advocates accuse the Trump administration of lowballing the actual cost as part of its broader goal of reducing overall federal spending on domestic programs.

    How much the agency needs in 2020 for the decennial census, which fuels thousands of research studies, is also enmeshed in the bitter legal battle over Ross’s decision last year to add a citizenship question to it. Civil rights groups and a half-dozen former Census directors say the question will suppress participation and that Census officials have greatly underestimated the additional costs required to track down people who do not self-respond to an initial prompting. The agency will deploy more than half-a-million enumerators to conduct such a follow-up, making it the most expensive component of any decennial census. 

  • Report urges massive digitization of museum collections

    Larry Page shows the tools for making digital images of specimens

    Fish expert Larry Page of the Florida Museum in Gainesville shows off a standard setup for making digital images of specimens.

    Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

    The United States should launch an effort to create an all-encompassing database of the millions of stuffed, dried, and otherwise preserved plants, animals, and fossils in museums and other collections, a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)–sponsored white paper released today urges. The report, titled Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education, also calls for new approaches to cataloging digitized specimens and linking them to a range of other data about each organism and where it was collected. If the plan is carried out, “There will be [a] huge potential impact for the research community to do new types of research,” says NSF biology Program Director Reed Beaman in Alexandria, Virginia.

    The effort could take decades and cost as much as half a billion dollars, however, and some researchers are worried the white paper will not win over policymakers. “I just wish that the report focused more on the potential benefits for noncollections communities,” says James Hanken, director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    For the past 8 years, NSF has sponsored the $100 million, 10-year Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program, which has paid for nearly 62 million plant and animal specimens to be digitally photographed from multiple angles for specific research studies. New technology has greatly sped up the process. Already, researchers studying natural history and how species are related are reaping the benefits of easy access to a wealth of information previous locked in museums.

  • U.S. judge rules deceptive publisher should pay $50 million in damages

    gavel on document

    A U.S. federal judge has ordered the OMICS International publishing group to pay $50.1 million in damages for deceiving thousands of authors who published in its journals and attended its conferences. It’s one of the first rulings of its kind against one of the largest publishers accused of so-called predatory tactics.

    But because it’s a U.S. judgment and OMICS is based in Hyderabad, India, it’s not clear that any money will be collected or shared with researchers who claim OMICS deceived them.

    Judge Gloria Navarro of the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada, granted summary judgment without a trial, accepting as uncontroverted a set of allegations made in 2016 by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington, D.C., in its capacity as a consumer watchdog. The ruling also bars OMICS from similar future conduct.

  • First opioid settlement to fund ambitious addiction research center

    Mike Hunter, Burns Hargis and Dr. Shrum speaking during a press conference

    Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter (left) joins Oklahoma State University medical school President Kayse Shrum (right) to announce the settlement.

    Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences

    A fledgling, small-scale approach to dealing with the state’s opioid crisis paid off big last week for Oklahoma State University (OSU) when it became the surprise beneficiary of a $270 million legal settlement with Purdue Pharma. It’s the first agreement in some 1700 pending cases around the United States against Purdue, which makes the painkiller OxyContin, and other manufacturers of prescription opioids.

    On 26 March, the state of Oklahoma agreed to drop its suit alleging deceptive marketing practices by Purdue in exchange for a National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at OSU’s medical complex in Tulsa. Purdue and the Sackler family, which owns the Stamford, Connecticut–based company, will provide a $177 million endowment for the national center, along with $20 million over 5 years for naloxone and other drugs to treat opioid addiction. The state is continuing its suit against several other companies, with opening arguments set for 28 May.

    The windfall for the new entity, which aspires “to become the premier addiction research center in the nation,” rewards OSU’s ambition. In October 2017, it opened a modest Center for Wellness and Recovery within its medical school to train future addiction medicine physicians, study the underlying causes of addiction and pain, provide treatment to those suffering from opioid use disorder, and educate the public about the burgeoning epidemic, which claims 130 lives a day in the United States and in 2017 killed nearly 800 Oklahomans. The center now has a staff of eight and a $2.4 million budget.

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