Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Trump’s budget request for 2020 census raises alarms

    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


    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.

  • National Academy of Sciences will vote on ejecting sexual harassers

    National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt addressed sexual harassment in science on Capitol Hill last month.

    Cable Risdon

    The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., will ask its members this month to change the organization’s bylaws to allow proven sexual harassers and those guilty of other misconduct to be ejected from their ranks. That’s a first for the prestigious organization that advises the U.S. government on scientific issues: Its members, who are voted in by other members, have always been elected for life.

    NAS let its more than 2300 members know of the upcoming vote and directed them to information on the process of ejecting a member in an email sent on 1 April, the required month ahead of a planned vote on 30 April, at NAS’s annual meeting. The vote will ask members to approve a bylaw change to allow NAS to oust proven sexual harassers and others who breach NAS’s Code of Conduct, for example by bullying, discrimination, or plagiarism. Changing the bylaws will require “yes” votes by a simple majority of voting members.

    “This vote is less about cleaning house and more about sending the message that the members of the National Academy of Sciences adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct and are serious about expecting that their colleagues abide by our code,” says Marcia McNutt, NAS president.

  • EPA panel seeks to bring back fired scientists for clean-air review

    Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler dismissed an auxiliary panel of air pollution experts last fall.

    Cliff Owen/AP Photo

    Originally published by E&E News

    A fractured EPA advisory panel is asking for help as its ability to handle a high-stakes review of particulate matter standards is under harsh scrutiny.

    At a public teleconference yesterday, the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee agreed to recommend that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler reconvene an auxiliary panel of experts he abruptly fired last October—or name a new panel made up of members with similar know-how.

  • Last-minute deal grants European money to U.K.-based fusion reactor

    The walls of the Joint European Torus fusion reactor are lined with the same materials as ITER, a much larger fusion reactor under construction.

    ©EUROfusion (CC BY)

    At the eleventh hour, the European Union has agreed to fund Europe’s premier fusion research facility in the United Kingdom—even if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union early next month. The decision to provide €100 million to keep the Joint European Torus (JET) running in 2019 and 2020 will come as a relief both to fusion researchers building the much larger ITER reactor near Cadarache in France and the 500 JET staff working in Culham, near Oxford, U.K.

    “Now we have some certainty over JET,” says Ian Chapman, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE), which hosts the JET. But the agreement does not guarantee the JET’s future beyond the end of next year, nor does it ensure that U.K. scientists will be able to participate in European fusion research programs.

    Until the $25 billion ITER is finished in 2025, the JET is the largest fusion reactor in the world. In 2011, the interior surface of its reactor vessel was relined with the same material ITER will use, tungsten and beryllium, making the JET the best simulator for understanding the behavior of its giant cousin.

  • Could computers provide short-term warnings of the world’s worst floods?

    Thousands in Mozambique have been displaced by Cyclone Idai, one of the biggest ever to hit the flood-prone country.


    Floods have wrought destruction in the United States and Mozambique this month, highlighting the struggle scientists face in predicting where high water will spread. In the United States, above-average rainfall helped swell the Missouri River to record levels, inundating thousands of homes and destroying farms. And forecasters warn that 200 million Americans and 25 states could face further “unprecedented” flooding later this spring.

    Many U.S. residents could be surprised to find water at their doors because of shortcomings in the floodplain maps that U.S. agencies use to identify at-risk areas, says Oliver Wing, a graduate student in flood risk science at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. The maps suggest 13 million Americans could get hit by a once-in-a-century flood—but the real number is likely more than 40 million, if the maps are updated using high-resolution topographic data, Wing and colleagues reported last year in Environmental Research Letters.

    The threat of high water extends globally. By 2030, it’s estimated that 40% of global urban land will be in high-frequency flood zones. In Mozambique, hundreds died this month after a cyclone’s torrential rain flooded more than 2000 square kilometers. The toll might have been lower, researchers say, if government officials had access to better flood models that could help improve short-term warnings and long-term planning.

  • University fights restrictive Indiana law on fetal tissue research

    Scientist Debomoy Lahiri in the lab

    Debomoy Lahiri is among the Indiana University plaintiffs challenging a state law that restricts his Alzheimer’s disease research using fetal tissue.


    A three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month overturned a lower court decision that an Indiana law criminalizing much fetal tissue research is unconstitutionally vague. The ruling moves such work closer to being a felony in the Hoosier State. It’s the most significant court decision yet on laws recently passed in at least seven states that restrict research on tissue from elective abortions.

    Indiana University (IU), which sued to block the 2016 law from taking effect, planned this week to ask the full seventh circuit in Chicago, Illinois, to rehear the case. “We are very disappointed” in the ruling, said Fred Cate, vice president for research at IU in Bloomington. The plaintiffs—Cate, the university’s trustees, and two of its neuroscientists—say the law would derail studies at the university’s Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center in Indianapolis, hamper work on autism and Down syndrome, and threaten collaborations outside the state.

    If the full appeals court declines to hear the case, or hears it and upholds the law, “the consequences for fetal tissue research [in Indiana] are severe,” says Charles Geyh, an expert on the judiciary at IU’s Maurer School of Law.

  • Third court upholds EPA policy barring grantees from its advisory panels

    EPA headquarters

    The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. Former Administrator Scott Pruitt said a policy was intended to ensure the objectivity of advisory panel members.


    Originally published by E&E News

    A federal judge today dismissed a third lawsuit challenging a far-reaching EPA restriction on advisory committee membership, likely dealing a fatal blow to opponents’ hopes of overturning the policy anytime soon.

    In the ruling, U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor said the Union of Concerned Scientists had failed to show that the 2017 directive by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt violated the Administrative Procedure Act. Saylor, based in the District of Massachusetts, also said the Boston-based advocacy group had failed to state a legal claim for which relief could be granted.

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