Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • A final dash across the United States: updates from the 2018 March for Science

    marchers at the U.S. Capitol

    After a rally on the National Mall, science supporters marched to the U.S. Capitol.

    Katie Langin

    The March for Science celebrated its anniversary today. And although the turnout around the world was significantly smaller than last year, supporters haven’t lost any of their energy.

    The global grassroots movement has evolved from having a million people take to the streets in 2017 in more than 450 cities to year-round advocacy for science and for evidence-based policies by government officials. But 14 April is still the big event for many local groups.

    Below are some of the highlights from events around the world, including the flagship rally in Washington, D.C.

  • Trump officials claim they can avoid 2020 census problems caused by controversial citizenship question. Experts are very skeptical

    people in a crowd waving American flags during a citizenship ceremony

    Some 7200 new citizens from more than 100 countries celebrate at a naturalization ceremony last month in Los Angeles, California.

    Mario Tama/Getty Images

    The Trump administration’s plan to deal with a possible significant undercount on the 2020 U.S. census is seriously flawed, according to former agency officials and other experts in survey research.

    Late last month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross endorsed a controversial request from the Department of Justice to add a citizenship question to the decennial census. Justice Department officials said they needed more detailed information on every U.S. resident to prevent discrimination under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

    Civil rights groups and others blasted the decision, predicting that the new question would prompt many immigrants to refuse to fill out the form. The resulting undercount, critics say, could invalidate census data used to apportion congressional seats and distribute three-quarters of a trillion dollars in federal funds.

  • University declines to sanction doctor who referred patient for deadly transplant

    Tómas Guðbjartsson and Eritrean Andemariam Beyene

    Andemariam Beyene (right) and his doctor, Tómas Guðbjartsson (left), after Beyene received an artificial trachea implant.

    Vilhelm Gunnarsson

    The doctor who referred a cancer patient for the first-ever artificial trachea implant will not face disciplinary action from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, where he works. Patient Andemariam Beyene died after the implant, a polymer scaffold seeded with his own stem cells, failed. The surgeon who developed the technique, Paolo Macchiarini, has been the center of a misconduct scandal that led to his firing from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Kazan Federal University in Tatarstan, Russia. Although Macchiarini touted the success of his artificial windpipes in medical papers, all but one of the patients who received them have died. (The survivor was able to have his implant removed.)

    In a 5 April statement, University of Iceland Rector Jón Atli Benediktsson said that Tómas Guðbjartsson, a thoracic surgeon at the Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik and a professor at the university, would not be disciplined for his role in the case, which was examined by an external ethics panel in 2017. The rector concluded that although Guðbjartsson’s conduct “is considered objectionable … the legal requirements for formal disciplinary sanctions … have not been met.” The statement says that the university also “regrets the flaws” in a 2012 symposium celebrating the first anniversary of the implant surgery.

    Beyene, an Eritrean Ph.D. student in geology who was married and had three young sons, developed a tumor on his windpipe in 2009. Guðbjartsson, after concluding he had no other treatment options left, sent him to be seen by Macchiarini in Stockholm. The duo, with several other colleagues, gave Beyene an artificial windpipe in June 2011, in an operation written up in The New York Times. But the polymer trachea collapsed multiple times and caused recurring infections. Beyene died in January 2013. An autopsy found that the implant had almost completely disconnected from Beyene’s airway.

  • Panel calls for a postdoc tax and other measures to help biomedical scientists find jobs

    poster session of 2016 Neuroscience meeting

    A new report examines ways to help more young researchers, such as these displaying posters at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2016, forge careers in biomedical science.

    Society for Neuroscience

    The U.S. Congress, federal funding agencies, universities, and other research institutions must take significant steps, such as a postdoc “tax” and a hard cap on how long postdocs can be funded by a lab head, to better usher young biomedical scientists into viable careers, a committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in a report released today. The biomedical workforce recommendations, which include a congressionally mandated council that would help implement the changes, could require more than $1 billion, according to the panel's chairman, Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. 

    “We owe the young scientists who are coming into the system, from the moment they start in a Ph.D. program until they finally get to the point that they’re in faculty positions … a responsibility to give them clear information and good support in making effective, sound decisions that comport with their abilities and career aspirations,” Daniels said at a briefing on the report.

    Motivating the new report is the growing mismatch between many biomedical scientists’ aspirations and the career prospects available to them. Despite efforts to promote research careers in industry, government, and the nonprofit sector, an independent academic research career remains the top goal for many budding biologists. Yet only about 18% of people trained in the United States with a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences is employed in a tenured or tenure-track position 6 to 10 years after completing their degree, according to data newly released in the report.

  • NIH will examine whether director of alcoholism institute improperly stopped funding policy studies

     Dr. Francis Collins behind desk speaking at a hearing on Capitol Hill

    Francis Collins testifying before Congress in 2017

    Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press (Sipa via AP Images)

    An investigation into whether staff at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) alcoholism institute broke ethics rules by wooing beverage industry funding will also examine new allegations that Director George Koob later improperly declined to fund certain studies critical of industry advertising, NIH Director Francis Collins revealed after a congressional hearing today.

    “We are looking into this in a very aggressive way,” Collins said in response to questions raised about the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) at a hearing before the House of Representatives spending panel that oversees NIH’s budget. Collins later told ScienceInsider that the scope of these reviews will go beyond what had previously been announced: “We’re looking at the whole spectrum, going back to before Dr. Koob came when there were questions about how this interaction with the beverage industry happened, going right up to the present.”

    Since last year, NIAAA in Bethesda, Maryland, has been embroiled in controversy over a study funded largely with $70 million from the beverage industry. It will enroll 7800 volunteers and follow their health for years to determine whether one drink a day has health benefits. Last month, The New York Times reported that two NIAAA officials met with beverage industry officials in late 2013 and early 2014 to urge them to support such a study by directing funding through a nonprofit called the Foundation for the NIH. That is an apparent violation of a policy that bars NIH staff from soliciting contributions to NIH.

  • European Union debates controversial plans to limit cadmium in fertilizer

    Full dump truck drives between several large mounds of dirt

    Phosphate deposits in Khouribga, Morocco, are high in cadmium; sales from the site would suffer if the European Union introduces new cadmium limits.

    francesco zizola/NOOR/Redux

    High-stakes talks on European plans to cut levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, in phosphate fertilizer are on the agenda in Brussels tomorrow. The European Commission is seeking to curtail citizens’ exposure to the compound, which has been linked to kidney and bone disease. Companies and countries that produce low-cadmium fertilizer applaud the new limits, which threaten to upend a €25 billion industry—but others are fiercely opposed. And science has been lost in the fray: Each side claims research that supports their arguments, but the studies reach similar conclusions.

    “Industry is cherry-picking the science to make their case,” says Erik Smolders, a soil scientist the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium who wrote a white paper that examined the science underpinning the proposed limits.

    Fertilizers made from phosphate rock naturally contain cadmium that can accumulate in the soil; they are to blame for more than half of the heavy metal present in some agricultural soils. On average across Europe today, fertilizer contains about 32 milligrams of cadmium per kilogram (mg Cd/kg) of phosphorus, but the level can be as high as 200 mg Cd/kg, depending on where the phosphate rock is mined. Sedimentary phosphate rock found in northern Africa has naturally high cadmium levels, whereas so-called igneous rock found in Russian phosphate mines has much lower levels.

  • Spanish research gets a nice budget boost—but scientists say it will be of little help

    inside a soundproof, clean room at the National Aerospace Technology Institute

    Scientists test a satellite named Deimos-2 at the National Aerospace Technology Institute in Madrid in 2013. The institute gets a 34% increase in the government’s 2018 budget.

    Javier Lizon/EFE/Newscom

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has announced plans to raise the country’s overall public R&D budget by 8.3% in 2018, from €6.5 billion to €7 billion—the biggest hike since the economic crisis hit Spain in 2008. But science advocates aren’t exactly overjoyed. The raise sounds far better than it is because more than half of the government’s budget is reserved for R&D loans to companies, and more and more of the money for public research centers and scientists can’t be used because of byzantine accounting rules.

    The proposed budget, presented in a bill on 3 April, represents “a small increase [for researchers], and this is good,” says Luis Serrano, director of the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) here. But “the big problem … is a whole series of things that hamper our ability to do our work with what we have.” Part of the Spanish scientific community will present an online petition signed by more than 277,000 people about the problems in science to parliament tomorrow.

    The Spanish community has learned there is usually a catch when it comes to the budget. A preliminary analysis published yesterday by the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE) here shows that out of the overall €7 billion announced, only €2.8 billion—up from last year’s €2.6 billion—will feed the public research system with funding for research centers, competitive calls for research projects and scholarships, and support to infrastructure. The remaining 60% will essentially be loans for industrial R&D, even though few companies ever apply for them. (Many scientists have decried the loans as a political maneuver aimed at inflating the budget.) In 2017, more than €3.2 billion in promised science funding, most of it loans, was left unspent, COSCE says.

  • Update: After Congress complains, USDA restores animal welfare reports

    rabbit receiving medical care

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects research facilities that use animals, such as this rabbit.

    *Update, 9 April, 5:20 p.m.: Following Congress’s request for greater transparency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has apparently restored detail in its most recent animal welfare inspection reports. Reports published on the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website since last August have omitted inventories that list the number and species of animals housed at facilities within companies and research institutions. But newly posted reports seem to reflect lawmakers’ concerns that such redactions make it hard to track the agency’s findings and activities. Newly posted inspection reports, dated March, are apparently the first since last August to show animal inventories. USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether it plans to include such information in all future reports. Below is our original story from 22 March.

    There was an outcry from both animal welfare groups and animal research defenders 13 months ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) blacked out a public database containing thousands of animal welfare inspection reports, as well as records of enforcement actions that USDA took against violators of the Animal Welfare Act, including research facilities.

    Months later, the agency began posting the inspection reports again, but in a redacted form that critics said made the records much harder to analyze. And USDA did not continue to post enforcement actions, forcing outsiders who wanted those records to file a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA process typically takes many months to yield a response and often produces heavily redacted documents.

  • India creates unique tiered system to punish plagiarism

    computer keyboard
    James Royal-Lawson/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    NEW DELHI—The Indian government has adopted its first regulations on academic plagiarism—rules that some researchers say are too lenient and others fear go too far and will be difficult to implement.

    The rules take a unique approach to a problem that Indian authorities say has become widespread. They declare that a small amount of plagiarism—10% of a thesis, article, book, research paper, or other document—is acceptable, but that more extensive copying will result in increasingly severe punishments. The rules were accepted last month by the University Grants Commission of India (UGC India), which oversees higher education, and are binding for all universities.

    The new policy creates four tiers for addressing plagiarism, which is defined by UGC India as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them as one’s own.” The first tier, for what it calls “similarities up to 10%,” would carry no penalty. The second tier, in which 10% to 40% of a document is plagiarized, would require students to submit a revised manuscript and force faculty members to withdraw the plagiarized paper. In cases where 40% to 60% of the document is plagiarized, a student would be suspended for a year and the faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for 2 years. Students who plagiarize more than 60% of their thesis would be kicked out of the program, while the penalties for faculty members would be extended to a loss of 2 years of pay increases and a 3-year ban on supervising students. 

  • Got data? Survey of 2017 March for Science doesn’t make the grade

    Marchers huddle under umbrellas in Washington, D.C., in 2017

    Tens of thousands braved the rain last year in Washington, D.C., for a March for Science that will be repeated this weekend.

    B. Douthitt/Science

    A group of researchers has released the first results of a large survey of those who participated in and supported last year’s March for Science. Some social scientists say the analysis is fundamentally flawed and reflects poorly on an organization that champions scientific rigor. March organizers acknowledge the survey’s limitations but say it has provided them with important insights into what motivates their supporters.

    The volunteer organizers of the 22 April 2017 march, an ambitious experiment in global science advocacy, were eager to learn all they could about the more than 1 million people who had participated. So, 6 weeks after the event, they notified their more than 200,000 supporters that a survey developed by researchers at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, was available online. The 72-question survey asked for demographic information, as well as why respondents had marched and what they thought about government policies and public attitudes toward science.

    Last week, days before the second annual march on 14 April, the GMU researchers posted the results. A solid majority of the 20,000 respondents said they thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, a situation almost all blamed on the policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress. Their biggest fears were that those government officials would disregard scientific evidence and cut research funding, although only about half thought the march would forestall either action.

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